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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Conquistadors, 10 May 2014
There have been five major extinction events in the geologic record, which obliterated most of life, up to 95 percent in one case. Some took a long while; at least one, about 65 million years ago, was quicker, the result of a massive meteor slamming into Earth, sending up clouds of dust that darkened the sky for years. That took care of the dinosaurs, and much else besides.

Now, according to the scientists who Elizabeth Kolbert talks to in her book, The Sixth Extinction, we’re at another end-of-life epoch, called the Anthropocene. The cause? The name hints at it: a hyper-successful invasive species that has spread to every continent, the weed’s weed—human beings, the primate that uses symbols and thus effective communication to take over all it sees.

How is it that we are killing off plant and animal species with such dexterity and speed? Like everything that we do, we do it in myriad ways. We take over other species’ habitats for our homes, farms, and factories, forcing them to migrate to less hospitable locales to which they are ill-adapted. We load the atmosphere with carbon, playing havoc with the weather and speeding acidification of the ocean, while simultaneously decimating fish stocks to the point of extinction. And we’re effectively bringing together continents that had been separate for millions of years, allowing other invasive species to thrive and push out native species of plants and animals. For instance, amphibians are succumbing worldwide to a fungus—chytrid—that has been transported around the world by humans; all those cute, exotic frog and toad species are going extinct now at an alarmingly rapid clip.

That last is one of Kolbert’s main points. Species have always gone extinct; death happens. But it used to be the rate of extinction was slow; change simply did not happen all that fast, except for those five previous major extinction events. But now the rate of extinction is accelerating almost exponentially. What will be left after we’re done? Some hardy species, like us and the Norway rat. In fact, Kolbert gives the rats even better odds than us, which might be good for the rats but not for much else.

To make her points, Kolbert travels to the ends of the Earth, and learns that wherever humans have gone, not much good has come of it, at least for anything besides us. She’s not optimistic—how could she be?—though she does recount heroic efforts to save some down-to-only-a-few-members species. Still, it’s clear that we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event in the last 500 million years of Earth, with only one cause: us.

Kolbert notes that this extinction epoch did not just start in the last 150 years or so, though it’s clearly accelerated in that time. No, we have left a trail of destruction starting way back. We apparently killed off the likes of mastodons, woolly mammoths and other large fauna more than 10,000 years ago.

We also likely precipitated the demise of our near cousins, the Neanderthals. As she notes near the end of this exceptionally well-written and researched book, “The Neanderthals. lives in Europe for more than 100,000 years and during that period, they had no more impact on their surroundings that any other large vertebrate. There is every reason to believe that if humans had not arrived on the scene, the Neanderthals would still be there, along with the wild horses and woolly rhinos. With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it.”


Archangel: Fiction
Archangel: Fiction
by Andrea Barrett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.77

5.0 out of 5 stars The Discoverers, 16 Sep 2013
This review is from: Archangel: Fiction (Hardcover)
The trepidation and eagerness of coming on a discovery is at the heart of Archangel, an immaculate collection of stories by Andrea Barrett. Each of the main characters lives at the cusp of a new era of knowledge: the Darwinian revolution, the birth of manned flight, an understanding of genetics, the nature of space and time, and, just as complex, a conception of one's own fragmented world. Barrett recreates the scientific worlds of earlier eras with clarity and sensitivity, and brings her characters vividly to life in a completely unforced way. She entwines the people and the science seamlessly, keeping us deeply engaged in both.

These five long stories--they range from 30 to almost 60 pages each--are linked to one another, though sometimes so subtly that it's only after finishing them that we fully realize the connections. Constantine Boyd, the boy who lodges with his mother's brother in the summer of 1908, is enthralled by the curiosity of scientific investigation, and sees one of the first manned flights. We see him later, using that knowledge in a wholly different way.

Phoebe Cornelius tries to puzzle out the materiality of the ether that some straggling scientists still were claiming in 1920 lay at the heart of the universe. Her son, Sam, later takes his own sometimes faltering steps beyond conventional scientific thinking, and suffers for his pains. And the title story, set amid the Allied Intervention in northern Russia in 1919--Barrett resurrects a long-forgotten, and hopeless, war against the Bolsheviks with poignant and brutal clarity--isn't so much about science as learning to live with uncertainty. And this just scratches the surface of these luminous stories, whose complexities are enriching and engrossing.

Knowing some science history will deepen the connection to the characters and their stories. I had recently read Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, which helped me appreciate the story "The Particles" that much more. But it's not necessary. In the end, the stories are about people intersecting with new knowledge and how they assimilate it into their lives. This is the best fiction I've reading ages, a reminder of the rich possibilities of the genre in the hands of a master writer.


Hammarskjold: A Life
Hammarskjold: A Life
by Roger Lipsey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard-Earned Wisdom, 27 Jun 2013
This review is from: Hammarskjold: A Life (Hardcover)
Is there anything that we can learn today from the life of Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961? More than 50 years after Hammarskjöld's death, Roger Lipsey most definitely thinks there is. He plumbs Hammarskjöld's life as diligent UN peacemaker and spiritual seeker for meaning and direction. In this biography, Lipsey tells the tale in elegant prose, wise and compelling, very much in keeping with his subject.

Hammarskjöld, whose father was a Swedish prime minister, joined the government not long after college, working his way up the bureaucratic ladder with solid efficiency, a cabinet minister in the making. His modest experience in foreign affairs belied a gift in that direction, and when he was tapped as a compromise candidate for secretary-general of the fledgling UN, those who chose him expected him to serve quietly and dully.

Soon he proved them wrong; he became a strong proponent of the UN and all its postwar ideals, and took an active personal role in the crises that are the province of international relations in any era. He was, ultimately, the man in the middle, the inventor of shuttle diplomacy, willing to take the heat to get wars, or incipient wars, diffused. The Suez crisis of 1956-57--as Britain and France joined with Israel to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt--proved that Hammarskjöld was no pushover; the UN for the first time sent peacekeeping troops to keep combatants apart. It was only one of many battles he peacefully fought.

While all these crises consumed Hammarskjöld, he had another life, hidden from most everyone: a deep spiritual yearning for meaning. That became evident several years after his death, with the publication of Markings, his journal of self-discovery. Consumed by private loneliness and doubt, he persisted in his search, comforted and challenged by mystic Christian seekers such as Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471). It's this dual life that fascinates Lipsey: much like that old Sufi saying, to be in the world, but not of it.

How do we live our own lives, busy with importance, and maintain this ground of being? Hammarskjöld was asked by a reporter what qualities an international official should possess. His reply hinted at his own search. "First off, I would say that a heightened awareness combined with inner quiet are among these qualities. Also, a certain humility, which helps you to see things through the other person's eyes, to reconstruct his case, without losing yourself, without being a chameleon."

His hard-earned wisdom wasn't a complete secret. As Lipsey puts it, "Few had the slightest notion of Hammarskjöld's inner life, but many sensed something unusual and unusually reliable in him."

Late in his term, Hammarskjöld came under fierce personal attack from the Soviet Union and its allies. For them, it was merely tactical venom; he was in their way. But it was bitter and painful, Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a UN podium, repeatedly calling for Hammarskjöld's resignation. A Swedish friend who visited him afterwards reported on the toll it took. "I asked as I used to do on meeting him again, `Do you still have faith in man?' Meaning the individual on his own, not in mobs or masses or political parties. Dag had always up to then answered positively, but this time he looked sad and pensive and he said, `No, I never thought it possible, but lately I have come to understand that there are really evil persons--evil right through--only evil."

He tasted more of that soon enough, in what was then called the Congo Crisis. Largely forgotten today, though its sad lessons live on piteously in that same country, it revolved around Congo's tortured move toward independence from Belgium. Lipsey tells the story in detail, from the historical backdrop to the day-to-day details as the UN stepped in to try to avert bloody civil war. It's a bitter tale, as the Cold War players took to their roles and rival Congolese leaders brutally vied for power. Hammarskjöld intervened personally, and received little but grief for his efforts. In September 1961, flying for a meeting with a rebel Congolese leader in neighboring northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Hammarskjöld's small plane crashed, very likely shot down, and he and his party all died. Who assassinated him? It's unclear, but this man of peace ironically had many enemies.

What drives men to kill? It's mostly fear, Hammarskjöld believed. Fear "motivates so much of human action, the fear that is our worst enemy but which, somehow, seems to taint at least some corner of the heart of every man," he once said. But it's possible to counteract it, to grow beyond that fear. His wisdom speaks to us to this day: "Our work for peace must begin with the private world of each one of us. To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we are not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice if we are not ready to do so?"

That's merely a sampling of Hammarskjöld's wisdom that Lipsey delights in sharing, the diplomat's enduring lesson for us all. Whether we listen or not is another question. But at least his example is available to us in this magnificent book.


A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard)
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Days of His Life, 27 April 2013
Novels are often autobiographical, and memoirs usually have as much fiction as fact. So what is Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle? It's clearly his personal story, told in a hyper-realistic manner. When I saw him in conversation with James Wood in September 2012 at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, he said yes, of course this is a novel, not a memoir: he uses the techniques of a novelist. But it's something simpler than that: it's an extremely effective piece of storytelling, the elemental kind that is how we make sense of our lives.

Why should readers care about the story of Karl Ove's life? It's not that it's in any way remarkable, though it certainly has its personal dramas. No, it's the almost guileless realism that drew me in--all the small details that make up our everyday lives that rarely get acknowledged in books, but which completely resonates at some deep inner level. And while there are passages where the writing is plain--no other word for it--often Knausgaard is employing the careful wordcraft of a skilled writer more concerned with telling his story than showing off his chops. In doing so, he gets to the heart of being in all its everyday ordinariness.

Knausgaard spares no one in his family in this portrayal, least of all himself. We see family scenes from his childhood, a long section from his teenage years that's blissfully free of moralizing or wallowing in self pity: it's simply life itself.

But ultimately the book is about death, and what that means for the living. My Struggle opens with a meditation on life's end, and the heart of the book recounts Karl Ove's week after learning of his father's death, most of it spent at his grandmother's fetid home in Kristiansand, a town on the southern coast of Norway. It was here that his father spent the last years of his life, slowly drinking himself to death. Karl Ove and his brother Yngve slowly clean out the stinking house, tossing reeking clothes and furniture, scrubbing for hours on end, and trying to understand their grandmother, who found their dead father, her dead son.

It doesn't sound like promising material, and should by rights be downright depressing, but it's not. Every detail is described with care; the story is more like a painting of an old Dutch master, rich in intricate and mundane detail, sparing nothing, engrossing us, leaving us wanting more.

Why does this book work so well? Why did I look forward to reading another 20 pages every evening? I think somehow Knausgaard has managed to make his struggle universal through all the small details that accumulate into the larger whole. That includes his own follies and failures, his self doubt and fears, and yet also a confidence that he will make it through to the next day, the ultimate struggle for all of us.

Each little moment he describes is a moment of awareness of the present. Perhaps that's why it captivated me: all too often, we go through our days unaware of the moments that make up our lives, lost in thought, focused on the future or the past. Knausgaard describes a relentless present, something that we mostly forget in our own daily struggles.

This definitely isn't a book for everyone; if you want plot development and action, look elsewhere. But for me it was rich, rewarding, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 10, 2014 10:19 PM BST


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 4
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 4
by Robert A Caro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £26.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What the Hell's the Presidency For?, 10 Feb 2013
Lyndon Baines Johnson was ruthless, compassionate, cunning, brilliant, insecure, arrogant, and just about any other set of extremes you could come up with. He was, in other words, a bundle of contradictions, which makes it so hard to say: he was a good man who accomplished much good, or a mean SOB who treated people horribly. In fact, he was both. But without him, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have made it to the law books until many years later--America would have been more divided and frankly poor than it was.

In Robert Caro's fourth installment of his monumental biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage to Power, all this is brought home with incisive clarity, thanks in large part not just to the deep research but also terrific storytelling. Covering the years 1959 to early 1964, we first witness Johnson crave the 1960 presidential nomination, yet constantly hold back from running, in fear of the humiliation of losing. That, according to Caro, is what haunted LBJ: the fear of public humiliation, like he saw his father suffer so much when he lost his Texas state house seat and his livelihood. So while LBJ was wavering in 1959 and well into 1960, declaring he wasn't running, even though he desperately wanted to, the Kennedy machine marched right in, and locked up the nomination. Johnson finally declared, but it was too late; he underestimated Jack Kennedy's resolve, and emerging popularity.

Why then take the vice presidency? Sheer political calculation; he wanted the presidency, and knew he'd likely never get it if he stayed in the Senate, even as a powerful majority leader. He had his people run the numbers: how many presidents died in office, what the historical odds were. Did he take into account JFK's long record of poor health? Maybe. At any rate, he grabbed at the offer of the vice presidency, and no doubt helped JFK win Texas and other southern states for the Democrats.

His years as vice president were years in the wilderness. From being one of the most powerful men--and they were all men--in Washington, he became an also-ran, a has-been, sent on foreign junkets, a ceremonial office boy. But he never complained, he never publicly said anything negative about the Kennedys, though he despised Bobby Kennedy (and the feeling was mutual). The Harvard types in the White House called him "Rufus Cornpone" behind his back at chic parties he wasn't invited to. He must have known, but kept biting his lip, an exercise in monumental self-restraint for a man often given to self-indulgent tirades.

As the years went on, Johnson was becoming increasingly useless for Jack Kennedy in the one area he should have been useful: getting the Texas--and southern--vote. By mid 1963, it seemed possible that JFK might drop him from the ticket in '64. But then came Dallas, and in an instant a depressed, hangdog Johnson was transformed into a decisive leader.

Caro slows down the narration at the moment to an almost minute-by-minute recounting of that day in Dallas, and the five or six days following it, when Johnson became, well, a man again. He took charge in a time fraught with anxiety: Was there a conspiracy afoot? Would the Soviets try to pull something? Could the stock market and the economy withstand the shock? Mostly working in the background, as the nation reeled from the shock of the assassination, Johnson decisively kept the government smoothly running, reassured leaders from across the country, and became the president.

Caro does a masterful job bringing these moments to life, the bigger picture and the really small details. And throughout, we see Johnson's contradictions: the savvy political leader who bent men to his will; the compassionate man who desegregated a popular Texas nightspot by bringing his black secretary with him, on his arm; the insecure man who had a loyal staffer sit in his bedroom at night, the lights out, until he finally fell asleep.

But above all, Johnson got things done. He knew he had to get the Civil Rights bill passed soon after becoming president, that it would be proof of his strength as president, and because it was the right thing to do. He also knew he had to overcome the decades of successful opposition of southern senators; and only he knew how to do it--to get all the other bills he needed passed first, even if it meant kowtowing to the likes of the powerful Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia. But he did, and Caro details the machinations in vivid detail; this is hardball politics in action, phone call by phone call, meeting by meeting.

In Caro's hands, this is more gripping than any novel, and all the more so for being true. As a writer, Caro has a distinct style, filled with minor repetitions, like poetry. But it works, and we feel the characters as the real people they were, flesh and blood, arrogant and ruthless, capable of great feeling and great pain.

In the end, a footnoted observation from Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy man to the core, sums up LBJ: "For all his towering ego, his devastating instinct for the weakness of others, his unlimited capacity for self-pity, he was at the same time a man of brilliant intelligence, authentic social passion, and deep seriousness."

His first nine months in office were his glory days; we know that Vietnam is hovering in the wings, ready to destroy his presidency, and tear apart the country. But his work for the poor and downtrodden in America--his war on poverty and discrimination was his crowning achievement. When challenged about the difficulty of passing those crucial bills, he said, "What the hell's the presidency for?" but to take on those challenges. It was for that, and he was the man to realize it.


Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
by Ken Perenyi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buyer Beware, 12 Oct 2012
Well into his career as an art forger, Ken Perenyi meets a reclusive, eccentric art collector living in Piermont, New York, in the Hudson Valley. Perenyi quotes Jimmy, the collector, as saying that art dealers "are a bunch of prostitutes. And their primary appreciation of a picture is its price tag." That serves as a leitmotif for Caveat Emptor, and indeed, the buyer should beware. Perenyi found his calling as an artist making fake paintings, first in the style of 17th century Dutch portraits, then moving into 19th century American and British art. In this entertaining book, he details his methods--and tells how he fell into the trade, mostly thanks to the greed of dealers--and buyers.

Caveat Emptor reads like a novel, starring a cast of characters that Donald E. Westlake would have loved: wise guy New Yorkers, crooked auction house dealers, leather clad enforcers, and even the legendary--or notorious, depending on your point of view--Roy Cohn. A longtime pal makes a habit of boosting not fancy cars but station wagons: they make hauling late-night loot easier. And then there's the artsy-fartsy Soho crowd: Perenyi glides smoothly between them all. There is as much life in the fast lane as art forgery here, but that's part of the charm, at least once the rather tiresome sixties are over with.

But it's the art forgery that were really here for, and Perenyi is happy to divulge his secrets: the statute of limitations has run out, and the FBI never got the goods on him. He started producing fakes just to see if he could, and then it became his living. He spills all the details: finding old canvases or boards to repaint, and appropriately aged wood panels (drawer bottoms from antique furniture are a good source), intently studying the styles of the original painters.

He is inadvertently helped along the way by many experts, such as an old world framer maker who clues him in on the past masters' preferred way to make gesso, the primer for a canvas, using rabbit skin glue. The hot Florida sun bakes his paintings dry, rubber balls bounced on the canvas create the right pattern of cracks; he even mimics the pattern of microscopic fly droppings that accumulate over the decades on old paintings.

The art galleries and auction houses are only too glad to sell his paintings, pretty much no questions asked. Perenyi repeatedly portrays their greed, and in one amusing scene, after unwittingly getting stiffed by Sotheby's in London, gets his revenge by engineering a situation where some Sotheby's workers could lose their jobs. "Let them go out an earn a honest living for once!" he says, seemingly unaware of the irony of his statement.

Perenyi never had formal art training of any sort, but obviously is a master of the craft. Now his fakes are collected as such--perhaps someone will come along and fake his fakes! In the end, despite plenty of money stashed away and a life of leisure in the offing, Perenyi keeps at it. "Painting pictures had totally consumed my life," he writes. "The more pictures I turned out, the better they became, and that just inspired me to paint more. I lived in a perpetual pursuit of another subject." After reading Caveat Emptor, we're glad he did.


Midnight Rising
Midnight Rising
by Tony Horwitz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.85

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Righteous Fanatic, 10 Oct 2012
This review is from: Midnight Rising (Paperback)
We like our moral dilemmas in black and white: it's easier to pass judgment that way. John Brown, who led a small band of men taking over the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859 in a remarkably unsuccessful effort to start a slave insurrection in the South, certainly felt that way. For him, a thing was unequivocally good or evil, and strict Calvinist that he was, he made no bones about it. Slavery was an evil, and he was dedicated to its end, by whatever means. For us, looking back, it's not quite as easy to judge Brown in such black-and-white terms, though his contemporaries did: slave owners viewed him as an abomination; Thoreau and Emerson, among other Northerners, came to think of him as a martyred saint.

In Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz tells Brown's life story, and does a masterful job. Always good with the light touch in his other nonfiction, he's dead serious here about finding the truth about Brown. He tells the story with customary ease, though it's no easy task. Brown is a complicated figure, and despite leaving a thick trail of written evidence, in the end is still something of an enigma. What drove him was a very deep-seated abhorrence of slavery, and unlike most at the time, he carried his beliefs to what he thought was their logical conclusion. But he was no high-horse Northerner: he treated black people with the same unselfconscious dignity he treated any white, sometimes to the discomfort of his fellow Northern abolitionists.

Brown was, as Horwitz shows, as failure as a businessman, moving around the newly expanded territories from the 1830s to 1850s, racking up debts and lawsuits, and fathering more than a dozen children by two wives. But he kept going, thinking he was bound for greater things. In Kansas, before it was declared either a free or slave state, Brown led raids, killing a few slave owners, freeing handfuls of slaves. He wasn't alone, of course: he attracted a tiny group of men, including several of his sons, to the cause. He also had rich supporters in New England, and made frequent fundraising trips in the late 1850s, to undertake his big strike: taking the fight to "Africa," as he called the slave-holding South.

Finally, he gathers his men and arms, and under cover strikes off on what seems like an utterly reckless and ill-planned takeover of the armory in tiny Harper's Ferry, on the border of Maryland and Virginia. Disaster predictably ensues: he's no astute guerrilla strategist. Most of his men are shot and killed--including two sons-- and Brown is captured, wounded but alive. He's rushed through a kangaroo court trial and sentenced to hang. It's as if his whole life led to this point: to make himself a martyr fighting slavery. His attack, the taking of hostages, and threats to free slaves does in fact help spark Southern secessionist efforts, and embolden previously pacifist abolitionists to take up the sword. The bloody civil war is just around the corner.

As Horwitz paints him, Brown is hard to wholly like or even admire. He was, even if on the side of right, a fanatic: his famous portrait with blazing eyes and Old Testament prophet beard is telling. How many died in the Civil War? Three-quarters of a million people, by the latest estimate--and the slaves were set free. Brown helped spark that war, like a prophet of old. He neglected his family, led several of his sons to their deaths and others to mental impairment, and made a name for himself that he so wanted--all for a cause larger than himself. His legacy was freedom--and destruction. For Brown, the moral dilemma was, in fact, no dilemma, but Horwitz shows in this detailed and engrossing book that in history, the truth comes more often in shades of gray.


The Way of the World
The Way of the World
by Nicolas Bouvier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

5.0 out of 5 stars The Past in the Present, 9 Oct 2012
This review is from: The Way of the World (Paperback)
In The Way of the World, Nicolas Bouvier recounts his youthful wanderjahr--actually a year and a half--with a painter pal, driving a finicky two-seater from his hometown of Geneva all the way to Afghanistan from 1953 to 1954. He's young then--in his mid-20s--but wrote the book later, self-publishing it first in 1963. It's a lovely book, full of youthful hope, sharply observed people from all walks of life, and colorful anecdotes. It's a world long since gone: Communist Yugoslavia before civil war rent it apart; Turkey still feeling its way in the world; Iran in the early days of the Shah, mere months after the overthrow of Mossadegh.

Bouvier and Thierry Vernet, his traveling companion, search for work periodically to refresh their meager funds: freelance writing for Bouvier, art exhibitions for Vernet. It's interactions with the people they meet in these efforts that gives the book its special appeal--Bouvier has a knack for telling anecdotes that come alive in all their ordinariness.

By late 1953, the pair have landed in Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, their little car unable to make it through the snow-covered passes that lead to Tehran and points farther east. They find a cheap apartment in Armenistan, the Christian Armenian quarter, and settle in, Bouvier teaching French to quietly desperate students. The delay in Tabriz is priceless for us: Bouvier paints a picture of daily life so real, and now so long gone, that it's aching in its poignancy. One tiny sample: he tells the story of a neighbor's daughter, an Armenian girl in love with a Muslim boy, and the impossibility of their lives. She kills herself along with her lover rather than be forced to live apart.

With the spring thaw, the two travelers straggle into Tehran, then across eastern Iran to newly born Pakistan, and end up in Afghanistan, cast back in time before the modern world intruded.

The Way of the World contains many passages worth slowing down to ponder. Take one moment, when they are just east of Erzurum in eastern Turkey (which I remember well, the bright blue September sky streaked with swirls of clouds, the tiled towers from the 1100s dazzlingly azure):

"Time passed in brewing tea, the odd remark, cigarettes, then dawn came up. The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges ... and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory like a sheet anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word `happiness' seems to thin and limited to describe what has happened.

"In the end, the bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say or think of you, but of moments like this, when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more." (p. 94-95)

And mostly what strikes me reading Bouvier is how much we lose in not seeing the past as part of the fabric of the present. In Iran, one student of Bouvier's laments the rise of fanatics in Islam. He tells Bouvier in early 1954:

" 'Islam here? True Islam? It's absolutely finished--even more so now that fanaticism has reemerged with its hysteria and suffering. They come along behind their black banners, smashing up shops here and there, or they go into sacred trances on the anniversary of the Imans' deaths, and mutilate themselves.... Not much that's ethical there, and as for doctrine...! I knew some genuine Muslims here, really remarkable people, but they're all dead or have left. And now... Fanaticism, you see,' he continued, `is the last revolt of the poor, the only one they can't be denied. It makes them noisy on Sundays but quiet the rest of the week--there are people here who see to that. A lot of things would be better if there were fewer empty stomachs.' " (p. 105)

He's spot on, too, describing Americans he meets in Iran, their optimism, their naïveté, their unconsciousness to the true sources of power, and the fact that American ideals simply are out of place in Iran; things just don't work that way there.

The Way of the World could be compared, in a way, to Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts: travels by a young man, written up in retrospect, with more wisdom than someone of such youth might be expected to have earned. The world Bouvier describes is almost as much dead and buried as Leigh Fermor's pre-war Europe, too, yet is very alive in his telling. This is nourishing book is well worth reading--and re-reading.


China in Ten Words
China in Ten Words
by Hua Yu
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The People and the Bamboozle, 12 Feb 2012
This review is from: China in Ten Words (Hardcover)
China is a paradox: hard-charging capitalist country and communist stronghold. There's a Wild West mentality now, with every man, woman, and child for him or herself, and at the same time still tied closely to the one-party state, a political system that brooks no dissent. Yu Hua, a best-selling novelist in China, dissects his country through the prism of his own life in China in Ten Words, and sees the contradictions as having more in common with the country's past than the average outside observer would see. It's obviously an uncomfortable truth: his book cannot be published in China, even though he lives in Beijing and continues to be popular as a novelist.

Hua centers his argument around ten themes, his ten words. They range from, at the beginning of the book, "people" and "leader" to the two final words, "copycat" and "bamboozle." "People" is a signal word in modern China: after all, it's officially the People's Republic of China. But "the people," when Yu Hua was growing up (he was born in 1960, during the disastrous Great Leap Forward) had a very different meaning than it does now. He dwells on what he considers the major turning point for China: the role of the Chinese people in the Tiananmen Square in 1989, and how, once that movement for political freedom was crushed, economic freedom was the only freedom available.

What Hua shows again and again, often through personal anecdotes from his childhood and news accounts of contemporary times, are the startling parallels between the Maoist past and the capitalist present. Many of his stories revolve around the Cultural Revolution, which started when he was six, and only petered out in his later teenage years. It was a time of denigration of past values ("to rebel is justified," Mao told them repeatedly): teachers were scorned; tradition was viewed with deep suspicion; everyone, even family members, were suspect. We've read many accounts of communities turning on themselves during this period, of scores being settled brutally.

What's revealing is how the same themes repeat now, as the profit motive makes people treat their fellow Chinese without compunction (think of the horrific working conditions for the former peasants making our iPhones). Corruption is endemic; cynicism is the rule. And just as in the Cultural Revolution, those who rise quickly to the top of the heap are often quickly swept away, and lose everything.

"Why, when discussing China today, do I always return to the Cultural Revolution? That's because these two eras are so interrelated: even though the state of society now is very different from then, some psychological elements remain strikingly similar. After participating in one mass movement during the Cultural Revolution, for example, we are now engaged in another: economic development," he writes.

That's made very clear in the final chapters. It's open season now for copycats: nothing is sacred, from the products people buy to quotes in the newspaper--often completely made up, shamelessly. Even Mao: the Great Helmsman inspires an impersonation contest held on national TV: the winner is a woman. Hua wonders, upon seeing one of his pirated books for sale on the sidewalk near his home, when someone else will start publishing as Hua.

It's all part of the big bamboozle, or huyou. Hua details one corrupt practice after another, often citing very recent examples that he's heard of or read about. It's not just businessmen on the make; the bamboozle permeates society. And, Hua says, all this bamboozling leads to no good end: we are heir to our actions. His is a warning to China, but the fact that his book won't be read there--at least, not officially--is not a good sign that the country will come to terms with the structural weakness in its foundation.

China in Ten Words is a very personal book, and eminently readable. As a novelist, Hua knows how to tell stories, and it is those stories that pack much more of a punch than a merely political or historical tome might have. Hua tells us how he got started as a writer: being part of the writers' union seemed a lot cushier than his job as a 21-year-old high-school educated dentist, yanking teeth eight hours a day in a small, nowheresville town.

With persistence and determination he makes the leap to the better life, and at the same time, he's telling us about how China has changed: it used to be you were told where you'd work, and that would be that. In other words, some of the changes China has undergone are certainly positive (millions no longer in dire poverty, for starters). The question is, can the country resolve its inherent contradictions without the upheaval it's historically put itself through? Hua doesn't have the answer, but he's not optimistic.
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Feathers
Feathers
by Thor Hanson
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birds of a Feather, 13 Dec 2011
This review is from: Feathers (Hardcover)
When I think of dinosaurs, I think of T. Rex, a gigantic creature stomping its way to domination. But dinosaurs came in all sizes, and, as Thor Hansen shows in Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, it's not too hard to picture them as progenitors of our featured friends the birds. Take a look at a turkey: strip it of its feathers and you've got the basic dino shape.

It was never easy for evolutionists to prove this point--what's needed are fossils, and delicate feathers are hardly the material to etch their history in stone. Still, in Germany in 1861, the fossil remains of Archaeopteryx lithographica came to light, and seemed to be the missing link between dinosaurs--technically theropods--and birds. What made the link? Feathers. How and why feathers evolved, though, is still a matter of much debate and conjecture.

Hansen lets the opposing camps in the long-running scientific battle state their cases--this kind of feather first, or that one; learning to fly by running and jumping, or by hopping down from branches--and brings the protagonists to life. He's good with history and personality, and even better explaining the science, directly and by analogy.

Hansen feels a need to canvas feathers from all angles, which occasionally feels forced. He takes us on junkets--to Vegas, where the showgirls wear elaborate dyed feathers, for instance--but he's usually not wasting our time.

We end up learning how birds can survive and thrive in bitter cold temperatures: it's those feathers again. They have amazing powers of insulation, trapping air in multiple, minute ways to keep their owners toasty. (Just like campers in their goose down sleeping bags.) Likewise, birds like cormorants that dive into cold water for fish always keep bone dry: feathers again, repelling the water so effectively that researchers at Gore-Tex are trying to plumb their secrets. And still other species lack feathers for evolutionary reasons. Eagle, condors, vultures, and other raptors have bald heads: plucking dinner from road kill would be intolerably messy otherwise.

Hansen is a talented writer who keeps the chapters moving, one right into the next. He injects himself into the story in the right way: to move the narrative forward. By the end of the book, which helpfully includes an illustrated guide to feathers, I had a completely new appreciation for feathers, and the creatures sporting them. Next time you see a feather on the ground, pick it up and marvel: millions of years of evolutionary perfectionism went into making it.


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