Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Fritz Kreisler, "Four Weeks in the Trenches" (1915)

Kreisler, a famous violinist, served for a short time on Austria-Hungary's Eastern front at the beginning of the First World War. This very short memoir of that experience does not describe a fundamentally unique perspective on war, or offer a soldier's perspective in a particularly novel fashion. The text, however, is intriguingly compelling in that it retains - although tempered by clear description of some of the early horrors of the war - some of the optimism, sense of élan, and bravado that so marked the entry of so many men into the fighting.

For instance, Kreisler writes:

"The very massing together of so many individuals, with every will merged into one that strives with gigantic effort toward a common end, and the consequent simplicity and directness of all purpose, seem to release and unhinge all the primitive, aboriginal forces stored in the human soul, and tend to create the indescribable atmosphere of exultation which envelopes everything and everybody as with a magic cloak."

While I know little about why this book was published, it strikes me that it would have found an eager audience in any country involved in the war in 1915. That it was published in the United States is more than a little curious. That it was acceptable to publish may in part be Kreisler's complete avoidance of talking about politics or attempting to justify, or even explain, the reasons for the war. In this book the war merely happens, and soldiers are expected to fight. Kreisler does, and never once seems to question why, challenge the sacrifices he sees, or is required to make.

The full text of this book is available through Project Gutenberg.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins, "Tribulation Force" (1996)

Subtitle: "The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind."

Building on the success of the initial volume of Left Behind, LaHaye and Jenkins develop the story of a small band of people 'left behind' after a significant portion of the world's population disappears. The group, who develop confidence in their interpretation that the disappearance represents a collecting of persons by the Christian God, devote themselves anew to their faith, to interpreting scriptural prophecy and advice, praying for guidance, and trying to monitor the activities of the man they presume to be the Anti-Christ, a world leader named Nicolae Carpathia.

Clearly, by the time LaHaye and Jenkins were writing this second volume, they were intent on creating a fairly lengthy series of books. Tribulation Force reads like an episode in a low-quality television soap opera. It depends on knowledge of the preceding volume, but resolves few questions from that book. Sub-plots are introduced and left (seemingly?) abandoned. Few, if any of the core plot questions are resolved or even really significantly moved ahead. In the last few pages, however, the narrative jumps inexplicably ahead eighteen months (after tediously playing out time like grains of sand). The leap is disconcerting at best. While dialogue was a weak aspect of the first volume, in this book it is stilted at best.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Tribulation Force is how LaHaye and Jenkins represent Judaism and Jews. For evangelical Christians, Jews and their faith represent a complex problem. They are God's chosen people, but have denied Christ as the Messiah promised in the Talmud. LaHaye and Jenkins combine tawdry stereotypes of Jewish religious scholars with strange, hard to rationalize conversions of Jews to faith in Jesus, and incorporate two prophets hailing the holiness of Jesus at the Wailing Wall as a central aspect of the second Left Behind book. While reading Tribulation Force, I couldn't help but wonder how American evangelicals would respond if Islamic fiction writers tried the same approach with Christianity.

The utter fantasy of many of the events in the first story are avoided in this volume, but have already 'tainted the pool' of believability. While perhaps inspiring for those who might already have issues with letting their faith slide, the story is highly unlikely to convert non-believers.

For those who have read the story, I am left with several core questions:
1) Why is the group's response to the perceived threat posed by Carpathia to draw closer to him? Wouldn't the logical response be to trust in God's plan, and to concentrate on proselytizing and conversion over surveillance of the Anti-Christ? Does the group believe that they will be the tools of God's will with regard to Carpathia? If so, on what prophecy is their idea based? It seems that their actions are based in egotism rather than faith.

2) Why is the story of the mysterious flower delivery referred to so frequently in this volume, but left hanging? It feels more like a plot thread that was too difficult to resolve, or upon reflection LaHaye concluded he'd have rather left it out and hoped it might just go away.

3) LaHaye's portrayal of the world as simply passively accepting the conversion of the world to one government, one religion, and one unit of money is not believable. If it was intended to showcase Carpathia's ability to win over audiences, then it raises the question of why the Anti-Christ waited so long to do this. If it is a sign of total belief in the values of peace that Carpathia is claimed to represent, LaHaye has not provided solid enough consideration of the multitude of groups whose beliefs would require them to reject - violently - the very kind of peace LaHaye describes as being adopted with nary a whimper.

4) An additional problematic aspect, at least from a theological point of view, is the question of polygamy. At the beginning of Left Behind, the wife of one of the central characters of the first two books Rayford Steele, is presumably taken up to heaven in the Rapture. About two years later, at the end of Tribulation Force, he remarries. I am curious how LaHaye and Jenkins rationalized this remarriage theologically, particularly when they have Steele and his daughter talking about rejoining their wife/mother in heaven. Will they bring along his second wife with them? Will she bring along her first husband, who was also raptured? Does this remarriage not break God's laws? (Matthew 19: 4-6 ESV - "...“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”).

Bottom line: This book is far less interesting than the first volume, and is not really worth the time it takes to read it unless you plan on reading at least a few more volumes in the series.

If you insist on investigating for yourself, you can read an excerpt from the first chapter of the book at the Left Behind website.

You can also read my review of Left Behind, the first book in the sixteen-volume series of the same name by LaHaye and Jenkins.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

H. D. Thoreau, "Walden" (1854)

Before choosing to read Walden, I had heard references to it for years. I have to admit that I had avoided the book, assuming - based on the majority of references I had heard (or perhaps the referees) - that it would be a nineteenth-century equivalent of either '60s back to the land/environmental treatises (the best of which is perhaps represented by Small is Beautiful) or the (even worse) 1980s prescriptions for how to find and connect with one's inner 'wild man', such as contained in Iron John. I was sorely wrong.

Walden combines the simple charm of 'backwoods' narratives by the likes of Susannah Moodie and Laura Ingalls Wilder, with the humble storytelling and archival desires of the Farmer's Almanac, and the philosophical clarity of Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I cannot count the number of "quotable quotes" the circulate in popular communication that stem from this book. It is, in short, a landmark of American literature that deserves to be read by everyone.

From his analysis of the purpose of education, to the effects of industrialization on the development of the rural northeastern American seaboard, Thoreau's book is an important record of a particular time in American history. His reflections on natural phenomena, such as the melting of spring ice, behaviour of fish and birds and squirrels, growth of flora and fauna, as well as his analysis of the manners of his peers, along with his own thoughts of 'supernatural' questions, help to keep the book timely, topical, and rewarding for the most contemporary of readers.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

David Wallechinsky, "Tyrants" (2006)

Subtitle: "The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators"

I have to admit that I was a little cynical about this book when I first picked it up. It was the kind of thing that I decided to read as a bit of a palate-cleanser, or when I didn't feel I could give my full attention to more meaningful reading.

Essentially, Wallechinsky has written short profiles of twenty dictators, organized as a series of discrete profiles of varying length and detail. In many ways, his approach reminds me of the CIA nation summaries. He usually tries to give a sense of the long-term trajectory of a state and people's development, he never loses sight of the fact that these set-ups are primarily backdrops for the 'real' story he is trying to tell. Most of his profiles try to give some sort of insights into the personal development of authoritarian leaders, such as their family background (where the information is available, and in many cases it is sketchy. He narrates their political ascent to power, where such information is available, with an eye to casting the figure as perpetually bloodthirsty and aggressive, or in a few cases as well-meaning politicians who were somehow spoiled by power.

Tyrants could very easily have gone the route of merely pandering to the often shocking habits of dictators: the excesses of their personal lives, the inconsistencies between their public pronouncements and private lives, and the arcane cults of personality that they work to develop. Wallechinsky does not shy from discussing these things, but also turns his attention to political initiatives, international policies, relations with dissident political bodies within their countries, and domestic issues such as poverty, oppression, and electoral malfeasance.

Generally speaking, the book serves as a good, though reductive overview of the tyrants in question, and the countries they lead. Although, of course, information for some of the countries has already gotten out of date, for other countries, such as Syria, for instance, it provides a handy, quick reference source to familiarize yourself with the key players, groups, and issues.

Brian Topp, "How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot" (2010)

Subtitle: "The Inside Story Behind the Coalition".

This is a short, pithy narrative that follows very closely the negotiations behind the late 2008 agreement between the federal Liberals and New Democrats to form a coalition government, and between these two parties and the Bloc Quebecois that would allow the coalition to govern to at least the middle of 2010.

Of course, the plans fell apart at every step - countered as they were by Conservative fear-mongering regarding involvement of separatists, a floundering and confused Liberal party that was mid-step in replacing their leader, and an NDP that was too willing to let the Liberals take the "driver's seat" in directing the media campaign to influence public opinion about the coalition's legitimacy and worth.

One of the moments I found most intriguing from these events, and that I remember very clearly, is the televised message provided from Stephane Dion, on behalf of the Liberal Party. It was a debacle. Technological issues (apparently), and a difficult communicating smoothly and compellingly in English came together to rob the coalition of momentum, to further chill public opinion, and to give power to the Ignatieff camp that was cool on the coalition idea.

If the entire episode holds any consolation, one must be the fate of the Liberals after these events. Ignatieff's camp intended to ride the Liberal steed back into the electorate's good graces by backing away from a "separatist-tainted" coalition, and "an undemocratic attempt to steal power", but to slowly rebuild the Liberal Party's coffers, develop a new policy platform, and allow their leader to get some experience at campaigning (!!). They failed miserably. The NDP, on the other hand, which at the time some felt had sold out by cooperating with the centrists, rode an unprecedented wave of electoral support in 2012, and now sit in the House of Commons as the Official Opposition.

There is a very good review of the book provided at "Postcards of the Hanging."