Friday, December 26, 2008

From the Writers' Almanac

On this day in 1927, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary:

The tree was illumined — more presents given away. Mother's dinner was efficiently disposed of, without much grace or wit — the Danish spirit prevailing. Stupefied by the labor of digestion, all the family sat around in a circle: Manny, like a wilted flower; Liska, like a tired athlete; Emily, with her hands on her stomach and her knees wide apart; Betsy, with sagging shoulders.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Same Man

I loved this book. It compares and contrasts writers Eric Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh.

In The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and Warthe author Deavid Lebedoff presents the childhood experiences that formed each writers' consciousness. I learned that while Blair's father was a civil servant and thus the family had less income than Waugh's the intricate English social system did confer rather high status on the family. Though he needed a scholarship (and was sneered at for this reason) Blair went to Eton, a prestigeous, if not the most prestigeous boarding school in England. This education, though painful at times, left an indelible mark on Blair. In their respective schools Waugh was the bully and Blair the bullied. Lebedoff mentions that someone once said that if you were the bully in school you become a conservative, if you were bullied, a liberal.

Then even more surprising, I learned that Waugh, whose family was more obsessed with social class, who was so enthralled with aristocracy, could not afford Eton or a boarding school of that ilk. He had to settle for school in his town and eventually got into a rather second class version of Eton.

Both writers were born in 1903 and their lives took radically different paths. They subscribed to different belief systems, and their writing achieved success at different points in their lives. Waugh was recognized early on as a writer of great style and wit, whereas Blair started out as a terrible writer and slowly improved to the greatness of his 1984.

The last chapters describe and interpret these authors' beliefs towards politics, communism, family life, speaking out, and their own writing. It was most engaging. While both men would vote differently, parent differently and pray (or not) differently they shared some common beliefs. They both were skeptical of the modern age and its trust of technology and meritocracy. They believed instinct and character were human's most important attributes and were leary of a society, like ours, where high SAT scores and such determined our leaders. (Though I doubt they'd be thrilled by Bush.) They saw that intellect without character led to great troubles.

I was inspired to learn that Blair wrote while sirens went off during air raids. What excuse to I have to neglect my writing?

Monday, December 22, 2008

American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain my reaction to this book.

Perhaps, it's due in part to reading it immediately after the rather weak 109 East Palace.

Perhaps, it's due simply to how well done it is.

All I know is that I recommend it. Highly.

American Prometheus is a 784 page paperback book that despite its length is never dense. In crafting their biography, the authors wisely made the decision not to get weighed down with the science that played such a central role in the protagonist's life.

The reader is treated to a clearheaded depiction of a compelling man, one which makes no bones about his flaws while at the same time celebrating his triumphs. The book delves into Oppenheimer's life from start to finish and provides the reader with a perceptive perspective on his motivations.

The section on the Gray Board hearings and the concomitant government abuses which culminated with Oppenheimer's loss of his security clearance is eerily reminiscent of the government misdeeds during the Watergate era (in the news recently due to the death of Mark Felt) and the more recent attack on civil liberties which we have suffered through under the current administration.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

At Rachel's insistent and repeated urging, I finally read Twilight. (Of course, it didn't help that I started a 784 page book, instead of starting Twilight. She was basically apoplectic.)

But, I finished the 784 page book in a few weeks and then read Twilight in 24 hours.

As Rachel promised, Bella is not quite as much the victim as she is in the movie. Well, actually, she's probably every bit the victim but because you're privy to the inner dialogue, her victimness isn't as stark.

As usual with books and movies, the book is better. The reader comes away with a much better understanding of the motivations and intentions of the characters than the movie is able to convey.

The romantic teenage girl in me definitely thrilled to the budding romance between Edward and Bella. The cynical adult in me was a bit put off by the ooziness of Meyer's love scenes.

I guess I liked it in spite of myself . . .

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobé explains samurai philosophy to Westerners. Nitobé lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was born and grew up in Japan and later moved to Europe for study. He worked for the League of Nations and retired in Canada. He came to have a deep understanding of both east and west. His knowledge of Western philosophy and cultural anthropology far exceeds mine for depth.

He is the perfect writer to compare and contrast Japanese and Western thinking. He helps readers understand foreign concepts and practices like ritualized suicide, the roles of women, bushido loyalty. In doing so he gets readers to consider their own culture in a new light. His writing is graceful and insightful. I read this on the train to help me develop a warrior-like mind for law school. It didn't exactly do that as it showed that the samurai were more complex and merciful that I previously believed.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Babbit was my book club's November choice, which was quite appropo given the real estate crisis. It's the story of George Babbit, a completely average, middle American business man, a conservative, Republican, who goes to church and the right Booster clubs. He sticks to the middle of the road with a vengence.

Lewis' has some beautiful sentences in this satiric novel. The tone's matter of fact with a zing. For example,
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. p.2
Babbit is quite smug clearly thinking he was the bee's knees. Of course, readers expect this to catch up with him. It does, but it takes quite a while. Lewis' description of Babbit's lukewarm feelings for his wife and later his confused feelings about his lover are powerfully written. The scenes when Babbit and the widow are so tentative and bourgouis, that you feel Lewis is the first writer to get this kind of relationship right. Lewis gets all the characters just right.