Archive for March, 2013

Why The West Rules–For Now : The Paterns Of History And What They Reveal About The Future / Ian Morris

Observing the patterns of human history, Morris goes back to the earliest days to trace civilization’s growth in both the East and West, comparing each against the other.  His purpose is to explain the reasons for the current Western dominance, and to predict if this will continue into the future.  What he illustrates is that the West’s lead is more the result of geography than intellectual superiority.  In fact, as he shows, throughout history the West and East have alternated the top position in terms of better living conditions.  The measurements he uses to compare the two are energy capture, organization, war-making capability, and information technology.  Morris feels that what has driven humans to improve their lot boils down to three factors:  sloth, fear, and greed.  What has impeded progress most often is what he calls the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse: climate change, migration, famine, epidemics and state failure.  The author is a British-born archeologist, and a writer talented enough to impart his history lesson without academic jargon.  He also throws in humor to help lighten the load when the facts he presents threaten to bog down his narrative.  The conclusions he reaches on the future of humankind, both in the East and West, are sobering, but they also suggest a path forward.  I found this book a delight to read and more importantly, highly informative.  It is not an easy read, but well worth the time required to take in the detailed lesson he presents.

Leaving Santa Fe

Driving north, the season’s
slow fade goes unnoticed at first,
but when a colder wind
brings tears back to our eyes,
how blurry it appears,
until finally, approaching dusk,
spring turns transparent
and its ghost leaves us shivering.

There is no gentle pink
that lingers at sunset, just dark
proclaiming dominance.
Without a draping of green lace,
the bare trees simply
seem forlorn milestone sticks.
When dawn does return,
winter’s shade fails to budge.

Mile after mile, as we
drive on, everything regresses,
the landscape reveals
not one sign of a tentative bud.
A gritty crust of snow
now encases yesterday’s scents.
How shrunken we look,
shapeless again in bulky jackets.

The Crossing / Cormac McCarthy

The Crossing is the second book in McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy.  I highly enjoyed All The Pretty Horses, the first book in his trilogy, but this follow-up disappointed me.  It is not a question of McCarthy’s writing ability; his prose remains a delight to read.  But this struck me as a novel in search of a unifying theme.  It keeps leaping from one storyline to the next, lacking a sense of focus or purpose.  Set in the years just before the Second World War and during it, in the opening section sixteen-year old Billy Parham traps a she-wolf and decides to restore it to the mountains of Mexico.  He leaves his family ranch just north of the border without telling anyone about his departure.  This storyline takes him deep into Mexico where ultimately he fails in his quest.  Returning home, he discovers his parents have been murdered and only his younger brother, Boyd, is still alive.  Together they set out again for Mexico, this time trying to recover the horses that were stolen when their parents were killed.  They fail in their quest and this storyline too fizzles out.  While Boyd stays in Mexico, Billy returns to the United States.  After drifting for a number of years, he decides to head back to Mexico yet again in search for his brother.  This time he does succeed, but it is Boyd’s body he finds and brings back home.  A slow moving meditation on the meaning of life, the book examines the difference between destiny and fate. There is much to enjoy here—its colorful Mexican fiestas, circuses, pilgrims, gypsies, and revolutionaries are portrayed in vivid detail.  But since most of the book’s protagonists are people of few words, I never was able to connect the dots between its loosely connected quests.

Tender Is The Night / F. Scott Fitzgerald

This novel did not totally win me over, but I’m glad I persevered to finish it.  Set in the south of France in the decade after World War I, its side story about the American expatriate circle living there held little interest for me.  A cast of idle layabouts, they desperately try to keep boredom at bay with alcohol, sex, and constant movement from one hotspot to another in Europe.  Fortunately, this motley crew is kept mostly in the background, serving as a Greek chorus for the bittersweet romance between Dick Diver and Nicole.  He is a well-known psychiatrist with a magnetic personality.  She is beautiful, bewitching, and wealthy, but also mentally unstable.  Experimenting with narrative conventions of chronology and points of view, Fitzgerald presents the history of their ultimately tragic six-year marriage.  What makes this novel especially interesting is its autobiographical nature, mirroring Fitzgerald’s own relationship with Zelda Sayre.  It vividly portrays the disintegration of a marriage due to mental illness, alcoholism, and idleness.  The story is dark and smoldering, requiring slow, careful reading.  It is a poignant tale that shows behind the dazzle of the “Roaring Twenties,” a lack of purpose led to a sense of emptiness once youth was lost.  This was Fitzgerald’s fourth and final completed novel, and it is clearly the book he worked the hardest to write.  Its themes still resonate today, proving he was indeed an author for the ages.


Spring, the calendar proclaims, has arrived,
although no one’s yet told these snowy woods.

How slender and insubstantial its trees look,
almost transparent in the absence of leaves.

Finding my way back in night’s tightening grip,
I am barely able to retrace my bootprints.

But twilight kindly lingers, rescuing me with
a welcome glimpse of blacktopped terra firma.

Approaching home, a porch light illuminates
brown grass littered with Winter’s debris.

A few hours ago, hosting an inquisitive robin,
bare ground prompted tonight’s expedition.

With Spring’s fragrance not yet airborne,
my nose reluctantly settles for jasmine tea.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist / Mohsin Hamid

A bearded Pakistani approaches an uneasy American sitting at a café table.  The setting is Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan, and the ancient capital of the Punjab.  Striking up a conversation, Changez identifies himself not only as someone who is fluent in English, but as an individual who attended Princeton University and later worked for an elite valuation firm in New York City.  Offering to buy the American a cup of tea, he proceeds to tell of his time in America and the dissatisfaction he began to feel toward his adopted country after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.  The American is clearly nervous, worried that Changez represents a danger to him.  Yet his name is never mentioned anywhere in the book, nor does he directly speak.  The narrative is Changez’s alone.  His tale centers around a budding romance he had with a beautiful young American woman from a wealthy Manhattan family.  Following the September 11 attack, Changez’ attitude toward America begins to change as the allegiances to his home country start to take precedence over money, power, and perhaps even love.  An underlying tension runs like an electric current throughout the book.  Is this merely a chance encounter or something more sinister?  Could Changez’s be a terrorist?  Is the American a CIA agent?  Superbly constructed, the story is a subtle analysis of the current sense of mistrust between East and West.  It is also riveting and delightfully unsettling. Hamid, a Pakistani currently living in London, is a notable new author who should be on serious readers’ radar screens.

Toasting Good Fortune

Tonight, exempt from maladies,
with interest
continuing to accrue
even when asleep,
let the rich toast the gift
of excess as they
delight in a penthouse view.

Fatigued after work well done,
the rest of us will
simply take our place
at a common table,
where the day’s accrual
can be splurged
on this moment’s good grace.

All The Pretty Horses / Cormac McCarthy

The first volume of McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy,” All The Pretty Horses tells the story of seventeen-year-old John Grady Cole.  He is the last of a long line of Texas ranchers, grief stricken that the family ranch is about to be put up for sale.  The year is 1949 and times are changing; the Wild West is no longer quite so wild.  But just a short distance south across the Mexican border, the modern world has yet to make much of an impression.  Its landscape remains desolate, rugged, and requires a weapon for self-protection.  For someone like Cole who loves horses and the unsettled badlands, Mexico is a place he cannot resist.  With a friend, he sets out on what at first seems to be an idyllic adventure.  As the story moves deeper into Mexican territory, however, it leads these two young men to a lawless region where cruelty and violence are common occurrences.  McCarthy captures the beauty and the danger of northern Mexico with lovely prose that brings its flora and fauna vividly alive.  The novel is a western in the sense that it features horses, gunfights, and cowboys.  But it transcends that genre and stands out as a modern classic.  It was a winner of both the National Book Award for Fiction and the National Critics Circle Award for Fiction. While the tone of the book darkens in its second half, McCarthy’s prose throughout reads like the best poetry.  He is a master storyteller and one of America’s best practicing authors.

O Pioneers / Willa Cather

Published in 1913, this was Willa Cather’s second novel and the one that brought her to the attention of the reading public.  Set in the Great Plains of Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century, it tells the story of Alexandra Bergson.  When the reader is first introduced to Alexandra as a teenage girl, she is mature beyond her years, with a passionate belief in the future fertility of Nebraska’s wind blasted prairies.  This is at a time when many of the settlers are calling it quits, and even her dying father has failed to make a profit out of the soil.  But he too has a deep faith in the land and encourages his daughter to continue running the farm after his death.  He also gets his two older sons to agree to follow her advice.  At the end of the book’s first part, Alexandra’s keen business sense has her taking on more debt to acquire additional farmland.   The story then jumps ahead sixteen years to a much different time period.  Communities have now sprung up around large, successful farmsteads.  Alexandra and her family have become wealthy from the land’s increasingly heavy yields.  Yet her family’s success story is also darkened by personal loss.  The novel is imbued with the spirit of democratic utopianism, and is a paean to the Swedish and German pioneers who settled this harsh environment, turning it into America’s breadbasket.  In 1913, few authors were writing about these immigrants.  Cather’s novel captures the spirit of the times and its people.  In small scale, Cather examines the massive social and economic transformations that took place following the settling of the prairies.   But what makes this story special is its strong, independent lead character.  Alexandra is a heroine who is not only the equal of the men portrayed, she stands out as a leader in her community.

Growth Spurts

Every tree in adolescence
Daydreams itself a redwood.

Imagines its tips stretching
To scratch a cloud’s belly.

Flexing branches against
A constant press of gravity.

Immune to lightning bolts
And the creak of old age.

Yet with middle-age spread
Growth spurts sputter.

Drooping back to roots
Each settles into a canopy.