05/2011

Too Big To Fail
Andrew Ross Sorkin
2009 / 352  pages
rating 8

Full title :  Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves

Interesting inside take on the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers,  how it was triggered,  what and who else was involved,  what happened next.  This is a blow-by-blow account so it’s pretty suspenseful.   But I basically knew much of the important “big” story so it was also kind of boring.

Sorkin names names and takes roll.   It’s great if you’re interested.

****

Even Deadlier
Anthology by the Great Books Foundation)
short stories
2009 / 295  pages
rating 7

This is a sequel to the first “Deadly Sins” anthology of short stories.  The stories are selected and organized by the themes of the deadly sins – 2 per sin.    I chose to read this book because I really like some of the authors,  Balzac,  Nadine Gordimer,  John Cheever,   F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Somerset Maugham,  Rose Tremin, Italo Calvino, and Aldous Huxley.   Others were new to me – and one of them stands out –  Pam Houston – the author of “Cowboys Are My Weakness.”

Some of the stories are really,  really sad,  one his drop-dead hilarious,  some are puzzling,  all are well written and intriguing – could stand at least one more reading.

****

In a Strange Room
by Damon Galgut
2010 / 256 pages
rating 8

Galgut, a South African,  writes strange post-apartheid  stories.   I don’t think this is one of his best but it’s pretty good.  In a Strange Room has three separate sections  but all concerning the same first person narrator who often refers to himself as “he.”

The narrator travels a lot,  from South Africa to Greece to  India.   He’s always looking for love and acceptance even in these anonymous chance-meeting situations.  All the stories end rather tragically.

It’s a haunting book – there’s something slightly defamiliarizing about it –  like we’re traveling in the “strange room” with him.   I’m sure my appreciation of this book will benefit from discussion.

****
31 Hours
Masha Hamilton
2009 / 240 pages
rating 7.5

How does a sensitive American boy turn into a terrorist?   What is it like for him and his family in the last few hours before he knows what he’s going to do but they have no idea?

The suspense in this book is very, very well done.   The characters are nicely drawn.   I still wasn’t all that hot on it.   The Reluctant Terrorist by Mohsin Hamid.was much, much better.

http://www.mashahamilton.com/31_hours/photos.php

****
The Marx Family Saga
Juan Goytisolo
1999 – 184 pages
rating 8.5

Whew !   Just getting into this book is a chore.   Karl Marx is dead and gone to heaven where,  along with his wife and daughters,  he is watching history unfold – later he and others join.   They watch the collapse of the Berlin Wall,  the dictatorial take-over of Red China,  the end of communism in Russia.  They watch Albanians on vacation in Italy.  They get interviewed by the 1st person (you) narrator.

Then you get to Part 2 and realize that the first part was a novel being written by some totally impersonalized  first person who goes by the pronoun of “you.”

In Part 2 the narrator suffers his publisher’s harsh criticism and tries to edit the book by inserting “facts” and standardized punctuation (in the written clips).    So the lives of the Marx family members are explored and written up –  plagiarized from letters and other material.   A huge theme is the idea of subversive and creative fiction vs strangled and plagiarized “facts.”  .   And Goytisolo plays with the “facts” his publisher wants.   Anselmo Lorenzo visits and tells him some stories.  Then the narrator interviews Marx.

The rest of the novel follows the narrator as he tries to write a decent biography of Marx and family.  Sometimes Marx and company are there,  sometimes not.   This reminds me of Coetzee’s last 3 or 4 works where he really sets himself in the book interacting with the characters,  fictional and otherwise.

Marx is sometimes referred to as Moor and Lenchen, the family maid, is always, up to a point,  “the faithful Lenchen.”

There is very little punctuation.  Only exclamation points and commas are occasionally used.   The first letters of names and sometimes paragraphs are capitalized.   Pronouns are sometimes a mishmash and with an unnamed first person narrator and  so many nicknames it’s a bit difficult to make sense of it all.

Some background (from Wiki but I added in parentheses):

Marx (middle class and known as “Moor”) married Jenny von Westphalen (from a well-to-do family) in 1843. Together had seven children, but partly due to the (extremely) poor living conditions they were forced to live in whilst in London,  only three survived to adulthood. The children were: Jenny Caroline – m. Longuet; 1844–83-  (also known as Jennychen) ; Jenny Laura -m. Lafargue; 1845–1911- (also known as Hottentot, etc.) ;  Edgar -1847–1855- (died young – I can’t remember his nickname – it starts with M.);  Henry Edward Guy (“Guido”; 1849–1850;  Jenny Eveline Frances  Jenny Julia Eleanor  -1855–98- and one more who died before being named – July 1857-.  There are allegations that Marx also fathered a son (Freddy) out of wedlock by his housekeeper, Helene Demuth (Lenchen) .

The word “I” is used as a narrator-type pronoun on page 72.  Otherwise the standard pronoun for the narrator is “you.”

In a later part  he has to add action so he sets up a film set.  The last Part is at Marx’ grave site.

Reviews:

http://www.netsaber.com.br/resumos/ver_resumo_c_57793.html

****

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)
by Bart D. Ehrman
2009 / 304 pages
rating – 8

Ehrman is a noted Bible scholar who was raised in a fundamentalist environment.  Getting his seminary education at Princeton was an eye-opener for him and he has since taught Bible scholarship for 25 years at Chapel Hill and Rutgers.

Jesus, Interrupted focuses on the New Testament,  especially the Gospels and letters of Paul.  Ehrman encourages a horizontal reading of these to understand what he is exploring for us.  A horizontal reading means that we read one incident in one Gospel and then read the other Gospels about that incident to find the similarities and differences.  This is where most of the inconsistencies and  contradictions lie.

The book is not an eye-opener for me.  I was raised quite with a fairly liberal Lutheran theology and have since read even more liberal studies ideas as well as developing my own.   So in ways the first three chapters were pretty boring.   I don’t care if there are contradictions – actually,  as an historian,  I was glad to read that –  it increased my “faith” in the Bible as history.   Then I got to why the contradictions are there.   (oh dear)

Also of interest in the first 3 chapters was the idea that each book should be taken independently,  each author in the Gospels and the letters of Paul has his own pov, his own outlook on the meaning and theology of Jesus.   So to try to read them as being interconnected,  is to miss a chunk of the point of each individual Gospel.   Furthermore,  there are people who read the Bible for a connection with God – a divine reading.  And there are people who read the Bible for more specific material knowledge.   Jesus Interrupted is only about reading the Bible as history,  for knowledge about what happened when and who said what.   I suppose I’d known that but never articulated it.

There’s quite a lot of padding and repetition in this book.   Ehrman goes over his own life and some things a bit too much for my tastes but that might only be because I was familiar with much of the content.

In Chapter 4 we get to the question of who wrote the Bible.  That it wasn’t disciples is not new to me but who the authors might have been is new.   Chapter 5 is about finding the historical Jesus (this is fascinating to me and I’ve read this sort of thing since an Atlantic article many, many years ago.)   Chapter 6 develops the history of the Bible as it stands today.   Then there’s a chapter on the “invention” of Christianity (Christianity is a religion ABOUT Jesus – not the religion OF Jesus).    And finally, the closing chapter,  Is Faith Possible?  exploring what all this means to readers of the Bible.

*

New thought of my own (but maybe Ehrman will go into this).

Perhaps Jesus was not supposed to die.  Perhaps his work was interrupted and the idea of crucifixion and eternal life,   the idea of Jesus as divine,  the idea of the Christian church today is all the work of early Christians trying to make meaning of the death of Christ.  The reality is that his life and work was “interrupted.”

*

The name Papius was new to me.  He was apparently instrumental in propounding the idea that there was something written by a certain Matthew.  Later Matthew’s name was attached to the Gospel.  Forgeries and other inaccurate attributions are discussed.

I always figured that the Church put the titles on there – not the authors so this idea is not new – only the specifics.   I knew Paul didn’t write it all.  (I did a research paper in a college class on the history of women in European history  – odd – it was called,  “He Didn’t Say That: a paper on the writings of  St. Paul.” )   I knew the church was unorganized at first and that’s when Paul wrote –  I didn’t really know about the later necessarily organized church.

There seems to be a lot of repetition here.

Chapter 5 –  I’m familiar with the info in the first part of this chapter but reading it was kind of exciting because it’s so close to what I believe.   Jesus only calls himself divine in the Gospel of John.   Elsewhere,  Matthew, Mark and Luke,  he doesn’t say that.

Then Ehrman goes into the historical Jesus and other documents like Q, M and L.   What did the authentic Jesus say?   How can we know?   Ehrman is very much the historian here.

The apocalyptic Jesus  thought the “son of man” was coming to change the world very soon and so folks better be good.   Other prophets of the times said that.

So he was arrested –  probably at Judas’ information about being the Messiah, king of the Jews.  This is probably what Jesus told his close followers.

Miracles?  There were others –

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanina_Ben_Dosa

More chapters very interesting – sometimes I was familiar with the material but Ehrman added to my base.   Other times I was pretty ignorant or hadn’t put things I knew together.

****
In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
by Steven Levy
2011 / 432 pages
rating  8.5

Fascinating  overview of Google from its inception to GoogleBooks and the problems of bigness.   The concept of “evil”  in relation to the internet is explored.   Larry Page and Sergey Brin,  who got together at Stanford are portrayed as brilliant visionaries with a high moral vision,  enormous creativity and determination but with a huge rebel streak.

Some of the most interesting parts are the actual development of a business made up of “Googley” people,   the evolution of the company from a small innovative business to a corporate giant,  the difficulties with China,  GoogleBooks and disputes.

****
According To Queeney
by Beryl Bainbridge
2001 / 216 pages
rating  8

This book was a total puzzle to me until I looked up some info on Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson.    It’s still a puzzle but I have a feeling you don’t just “get” this book on a single reading.    I’m going again –  more later.

I did finish via a library book and after I’d researched a bit on Johnson and Thrale I really enjoyed this one.

****

The Oracle of Stamboul
by Michael David Lucaks
2011 / 304 pages
rating  6

I should have liked this book – it has all the markings of something I’d enjoy.   It’s set in 19th century Constanta (Romania) and switches to  Istanbul when the profoundly gifted Eleanora Cohen, age 8,  stows away in order to stay with her father who has business there.   She reads all the classics,  plays backgammon and ends up in the Sultan’s court.   There is some mysticism about her and she seems to find things out or know things in advance.

But this book is no My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk) or  The Janissary Tree (Jason Goodwin) both of which I really enjoyed (10 and 8 ratings).  What story there is in The Oracle is weighed down with wonderfully descriptive writing

****
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
by Michael Lewis
2007 / 266 pages
read by Jesse Boggs 9h 27m
rating  8.5

On January 31, 2007  Wall Street realized it might be sick.   It was sick – Wall Street was very, very sick and it really had been for a long, long time.  The culprit was greed by lots of people involved with investment mortgages.  And we’re still affected today.

Michael Lewis has written a marvelous book explaining how all this came to pass (if it’s passed).   He includes the mechanics of default mortgage investment, those who used  it to get very rich,  and those who ended up paying.

There’s the notoriously rude and obnoxious Steve Eisman,  Michael Burry, the one-eyed doctor with Asperger’s Syndrome,  Greg Lippman, the overly aggressive bond trader who looks like Mr. Cool, and  Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai, the total amateurs who faked it on a shoe-string.

The book is fast paced and reads like a novel – the writing is nice and the suspense engrossing.  There’s  even a bit of humor along the way.

****
Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age
by Kevin Boyle
2004 / 432 pages
read by Lizan Mitchell 17h 33 m
rating  8

As one of the thousands who moved north in the Great Migration,  Ossian Sweet moved north from his home in South Florida to go to school when he was just 13.   He did well and became a well-respected doctor with some education in Europe.  He married a very nice girl and they bought a house in Detroit.   Then came trouble.

The neighborhood was white and Sweet was black.  The whites in Detroit were almost as racist as what he’d left in Florida.  The neighborhood had a group which “protected” the community by keeping undesirables out.    Blacks were most definitely “undesirables” no matter what kind of career or education.  The KKK was also involved in a “discrete” sort of way.   The neighbors with their police friends and powerful backers organized.   Sweet knew this was happening.  He gathered his own family and friends and weapons and  on that September night in 1925 there was an armed confrontation which ended with one dead and Sweet,  his family and a couple friends in jail for murder.

Arc of Justice includes the background,  the events and the several trials which followed.  The NAACP was just a new idea with a limited budget but there were people who put their money where their mouths were,  financial supporters.  Clarence Darrow was a major player in the defense

****

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
by Jennifer Homans
1982 / 643  pages
rating  9.5

The hype has been that Homans says ballet is dead (or in a deep sleep)  but that’s totally beside the point – it’s not the story she tells.

Not only is Apollo’s Angels authoritative and definitive,  it’s also the first written history of ballet as a whole.   Homans is in a good position to write it,  she’s dance critic for the National Review.  She was a professional dancer who danced with a number of first class US ballet companies and with a wide range in her repertoire.  She is also a PhD in Modern European history from New York  University where she teaches the history of dance.   She knows her stuff.

The book starts with the statement that ballet has come to an end.  She ends the book with the statement that ballet has come to an end.   What falls between is everything that happened from the marriage of Henry II to Catherine de Medici in 1533 when the history of ballet begins,  to the death of Balanchine in 1983.

Homans moves from the origins in Renaissance France to the developments of the Enlightenment,  the storm of the French Revolution,  the acrobatics of Italy,  the preservation in Denmark,  Russia before, during and after their Revolution,  the English revival, Balanchine’s America and finally,  an Epilogue – the end of ballet as we’ve known it she says – and she backs this claim.

The book is incredibly well researched and documented.  It’s  easy to read if you’re interested and have some small background.  The wonder is that it’s Homans’ first book –  but maybe the book she was meant to write.

I don’t know if I agree with Homans about the state of ballet today or not.  Ballet has changed so much in the last 500 years that I really think a dry spell of 25 or so years makes it a bit too early to tell.

NOTES:

Just reading this on my own – no groups involved.   I haven’t got far – maybe to chapter 3.  This may take me awhile but that’s okay – I’ve loved the history of ballet since college.

Chap 1 –  The Kings of Dance –  according to Homans,  the history of ballet begins in 1533 at the French court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici when French and Italian traditions blended and what had been entertainments and jousting matches were formalized and elevated in status to court functions.

Other French Kings followed with Louis XIV dancing,  writing and founding the Royal Academy.   Ballet developed with fancified street shoes,  classic movements and elaborate costumes.  Slowly the dance went on stage.

Chapter 2  The Enlightenment and the Story Ballet – shows how good stories made great ballet.   Ballet makes the scene all over Europe including England.  French ballet is considered classic but it’s modified to tell stories and appeal to the locals aristocracy.  A few ballerinas became famous,  Salle, Camargo,  Heinel and Petit (some scandal was often involved) and composers and teachers like Novarre,  tried to reform the dance through criticism.  Enormous and elaborate sets were designed.  Rousseau wanted a story-line and pantomime was introduced –  so many changes during this era – it almost brought the ballet into an art form but not quite –  ballet was still the province of the nobility and aristocracy.   Notation was problematical and necessary but not permanently achieved.

Chapter 3 – The French Revolution in Ballet –  the ballet found ways to appeal to the streets –  pantomime and politics were brought in by some creative teachers / balletomines.  Ballet mirrored both the aristocracy and the Revolution with strict rules of performance but somehow crumbling in efficacy. Eventually the ballet was seen as an arm of the Court and outlawed by the Terror.  The Royal Opera was the scene of choreographed restaging of the Storming of the Bastille,  etc.   Later ballet was revived and there were 6 dance halls during the time of the Directory.   The waltz was introduced and Napoleon pronounced himself hereditary emperor – keeping very close tabs on the arts.  But the arts are easier to control than the artists so foment continued.  Women changed the strenuous athleticism of dance to a softer routine but which included a very rigorous training. With the “state” in ruins,  women broke through the ranks to save ballet.

Chapter 4 – Romantic Allusions and the Rise of the Ballerina

Marie Taglioni of course, and en pointe.  But there was more  -she refined the idea of the ballerina to one of sweetness and romance.  Her style was very simple yet incredibly strenuous.  She did this from a small and imperfect body but her father pushed and pushed along the lines of the more gymnastic Italian ballet.  SHe came to symbolize both Robespierre and the ‘ancien regime.‘   And La Sylphide was written almost FOR her.   And then came Giselle by Gautier with the dancer Grisi.

The ballet as we know it,  about love and magic and the ballerina in front stage rather than about the gods,  male heroes and/or aristocratic manners.   But that time was short lived and the street attractions seemed to take over with the pull of music hall dancing and Folies Bergere.  We have Degas.

Chapter 5. Scandinavian Orthodoxy

But if the ballet was languishing in Paris it was thriving elsewhere.  Bourbonville, the son of a French dancer who moved to Denmark during the revolutions,  trained in Paris.   He returned to Denmark in 1830 and brought the romantic ballet with him.  Over time he added a unique style of Danishness to the classic French art form creating the ballet as the US knows it.  Notation was stressed but it didn’t last.

Chapter 6 –  Italian Heresy – Pantomime,  Virtuosity, and Italian Ballet

Meanwhile in Italy dance was a more acrobatic affair.  It was looked down on by Parisians and other Europeans.  But Vigano pushed the French ways on them and then Napoleon entered the picture.  He used Beethoven,  Hayden and Mozart and Rossini for music and the dancers used much more pantomime and gesture.   Italian dance goes back to the Greek influence where pantomime was used as a form.

Blasis created the Italian school of ballet.  He used the ideas of antiquity (rather than the Parisian revolutionary or Scandinavian orthodox) and added more French style dance to the increasingly strenuous physicality of his work.  The result was almost mechanical.

The Wars of Unification ruined Italian ballet. First, due to the incredible instability the great houses like La Scala were closed.  Second the great maestro Taglioni was shot.  Third the economics of the South were in horrid disarray.  And fourth,  Opera had taken hold.

But when things settled down a bit,  Manzoni stepped in with some more revolutionary ballets which were well received.  He then went very elaborate with huge productions and casts of hundreds including animals.  It became a national celebration of the unification and was produced in many countries including the US.  But it was horribly expensive to produce – his downfall.

And so Italy came to have a hold on Opera – probably due to the highly talented Verdi and Puccini,  but also due to the fact that there was still no regular notation available to preserve the great ballets.   The upshot is that Italian ballet was brought to Russia.

Chapter 7 – Tsars of Dance – Imperial Russian Classicism

Covers Russian dance from the pre-French days of nothing but peasant dances,  through their infatuation with French classical ballet,  to Napoleon’s defeat and the anti-French (pro-Russian) response.

Peter the Great brought French ballet to his court and to St. Petersburg.  Catherine the Great expanded it.  It came as a kind of aristocratic etiquette and was meant for the court with masks,  not for the stage,  not for expressing stories or feelings.  Ballet was foreign,  French.   But there were the serf-ballets,  produced for rich landowners by French teachers and using serf dancers.  These were very popular.
Enter Charles Didelot who gave Russia some Russian ballet stars (they were afraid of a revolution like in France)  and Marius Papita,  a French dancer and teacher who never really left France but brought their dance to the Russian stage with some Russian influence.  And then came Napoleon and the heavy French influence was erased as much as possible.   Russian dances to Russian tales like Firebird were introduced and Diderot often sought the advice of French ballet masters.

Then the Decembrists had their day and Nicholas was appointed Tsar.  Nicholas clamped down on all things foreign.  Dostoevsky,  Tolstoy, and Pushkin were in vogue. The next dance director however,  was a Frenchman but he brought with him the Aristocratic feel of the early French ballet along with some Danish elements.


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