HITHER AND YON (Book Report: January, 2019)

I promised myself I would read a minimum of five books a month in 2019. I made the grade in January at least, and that’s longer than most of my New Year’s resolutions ever last!

This month, a real grab-bag: a pulp thriller that kept me guessing about something that had nothing to do with the plot; an Evelyn Waugh-style satire aimed at the UN and other feckless do-gooders;  a history of world exploration in the age of sail and steam; a study of the Republican party in the secession crisis; and a wide-ranging history of Vietnam.

The Eighth Day of the Week (1994)
Alfred Coppel

I picked this one up cheap in a local antique store that is rechanneling a big haul from an estate sale. Nothing special about its doomsday scenario, cardboard characterizations or tick tock plot. But, about two chapters in,  I started wondering whether Coppel might have been one of those writers the CIA recruited to churn out pulp novels during the Cold War (he was known mostly for science fiction it seems, though he wrote in a number of genres) and then just kept going–either on his own or at someone’s behest–when the show was over. I never came to a conclusion, but that seemed a more plausible reason for an intelligent man to have written this than any other.

By the way, the world is saved…and from the Russians no less! I mean, who but the CIA was pushing that line in 1994?

The Missionaries (2016)
Owen Stanley

Stanley’s scant author-bio describes him as a man of adventure but this, his first novel, is no action thriller.

It’s an Evelyn Waugh-style satire which, most of the time, reads more like a documentary. It’s a little too on-the-nose to catch the nuances of our post-modern, post-colonial absurdity. The point that post-colonials, dripping with concern for humanity,  are a dread race, is one that can’t be made too often or emphasized too much. But the people who might benefit from the insights Stanley offers into their character here are beyond reach. Since the book was meant for skeptics like me, I had hoped for a little less telling and a little more showing, for more than a few wry smiles and, near the end, a single belly laugh.

Then again, it isn’t Stanley’s fault that we’ve created a world beyond satire. His second book is out now, and this has just enough going for it that I can’t rule out giving it a look. A near-miss is hardly as good as a mile in this dreary day and age. He already deserves at least enough success for an author picture to appear online somewhere, though I wouldn’t blame him if my inability to find one was somply a matter of his unwillingness to provide one.

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration (2007)
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

An overview–given the size of the subject it could be no more, nearly every explorer discussed here has been worthy of several books himself and some a library–but a satisfying one. Fernandez-Armesto is authoritative, opinionated and a smooth stylist, all the things you want in a guide to a massive, important subject.

His takes on individual explorers are more sketches than portraits–again a matter of big topic, limited space. But they give a flavor of the kind of men who once circled the globe, and explored the continents, unaware of what lay beyond the next wave or over the next hill. They did it for money and fame, of course, and later on for causes (the missionary Christian one being first and foremost). But Fernandez-Armesto does not give short shrift to the addictive qualities of simply meeting the challenge. For many, it really was an adventure, first and foremost. That they succeeded in mapping the globe and setting Europe on a five-hundred-year winning streak which is just now coming to a close, the author does not lose sight of (often, in fact, tsk-tsking his disapproval). But he can’t help conceding their merits and that gives the book a sweep that compares favorably to a volume I would suggest as a companion, John Noble Wilford’s The Mapmakers. Read both books and you’ll have a good idea of just how much the explorers and the cartographers reinforced each others’ interests and, in some cases, very existence. I promise that no one with any curiosity about where man has been and how he came to his present plight, will be bored.

Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942)
David M. Potter

For once, an account that is true to its title and more about Lincoln’s party than Lincoln. Not that Lincoln is ever less than fascinating, but he does tend to take over any Narrative that includes hime. This effort, scholarly but pungent, keeps him in his real place in the months between his election in November 1860, and his inauguration in March 1861.

It was a moment when almost no one, certainly not Lincoln, believed the United States was really on the brink of Civil War. Moderates on both sides thought the idea ridiculous. The fire-eaters, Abolitionist in the North, Secessionist in the South, were convinced that their far more numerous moderate brethren didn’t have the stomach for a fight and that their side would be the loser in any attempt at peaceful “reconstruction.”

And yet, inexorably, the war came. Potter is an excellent guide to both the political logistics and the emotional tenor of the times–and of how one aspect continually eroded the authority or common sense of the other. He never loses sight of the fact that the real issue, as it had been for most of the nineteenth century to that point, was not the eradication of slavery where it existed (almost no one with any political power, again, certainly not Lincoln, was suggesting even a modest move in that direction), but whether it would be expanded to U.S. territories and eventually become the law of new states.

Around this, there might have been a way, but, as Potter presents the case, the failure to find one was complete on all sides. Lincoln’s genius would emerge only in conflict. Here he is only a crafty politician, holding his cards close to his vest (perhaps too close as it turned out if the avoidance of war really was his main goal, as Potter convincingly argues), while Wiliam Seward and others pursue every alternative under the sun, including war with Spain, France and/or Great Britain, in the firm belief that, in such event, South Carolina would rally to the defense of New York in a heartbeat!

We escaped the consequences of such folly once. It’s not especially comforting to be reminded of how near a run it was when men of actual goodwill and no small degree of common sense were in charge, and a man of Lincoln’s caliber stood ready to put things straight again if worst came to worst.

We won’t be able to count on any of that next time around.

Understanding Vietnam (1993)
Neil Jamieson

Despite being dominated by a dry, academic tone, only occasionally leavened by the author’s personal experiences and a wry turn of phrase, this is the best book I’ve read about either the country called Vietnam or the centuries of conflict that had shaped it long before we arrived.

Our political and military ignorance of that history provided the real architecture of our defeat, a defeat that came despite inflicting many more casualties than we received. The absurdity and shallowness of our attempt at bringing the country to heel, following a millennium of Chinese and a century of French failure to do the same, doesn’t come clear until the very end. Jamieson, concentrating far more on cultural forces than military hardware, builds a wall of convincing evidence, brick-by-brick, that leaves no doubt of his narrative’s consummate irony.

The North Vietnamese Communists, supported here by those they would have jailed, tortured and executed without mercy if they caught them objecting to torture and execution in their own land (or simply getting high), won by adhering to the old-fashioned family and village-centered values they intended to eradicate once victory was secure.

Meanwhile, the extent to which freewheeling “American” (or just “Western”) values began to dominate in the South, acted like termites on glue. Once the glue was gone, we were too. South Vietnam collapsed with tragic and terrifying speed.

Jamieson does not moralize. He doesn’t say whether it was or was not a good or bad idea for us to intervene in Vietnam at all, or to intervene in the manner which we did.

He doesn’t have to.

We all know how it turned out.

Boy this reading bit is fun. I hope I can keep it up!


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