Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Appeal by John Grisham

Usually Grisham can go either way for me. The only thing that I've read by him that I loved was The Innocent Man, but that was his one non-fiction book. The Street Lawyer is total crap, but some others are pretty good. This one was pretty good; it was overtly uncreative to anyone in the legal world, but it still offered up a few nuggets to think about.

The Appeal is about a toxic tort case involving a company that dumped a bunch of chemicals and gave the surrounding residents cancer (which is virtually identical to the real case that inspired A Civil Action, but with a different result) and the subsequent attempt by the big corporation to buy a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court so that the appeal would go its way (which is exactly what happened in West Virginia within the last few years and was the impetus for the U.S. Supreme Court case that I saw the oral arguments for). So yeah, not very original. Grisham adds a twist of sorts at the end, and even though it isn't very surprising either, it still explores some very topical issues and gets you thinking.

One thing that was kinda weird about this book was that it wasn't very dramatic. There was no harrowing life or death breath taking moment or anything remotely like it that is usually a Grisham staple, but it was still entertaining. It was a very quick read and I enjoyed it, but it wasn't the best book I've ever read.

One other note: judicial elections are such egregious miscarriages of justice that it shocks and appalls me that we still have them. The idea is completely preposterous. It makes me furious. That is all I'll say about that.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Silence by Shusaku Endo

But now there arose up within my heart quite suddenly the sound of the roaring sea as it would ring in my ears when Garrpe and I lay aloen in hiding on the mountain. The sound of those waves that echoed in the dark like a muffled drum; the sound of those waves all night long, as they broke meaninglessly, receded, and then broke again on the shore. This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued.

"In my opinion one of the finest novels of our time," raves Graham Greene on the jacket of Shusako Endo's Silence. No wonder, since Endo has been described as the Japanese Graham Greene, and to be sure, here is a book that seems to originate from the same midnight crises of faith that haunted Greene, and, like Greene's books, comes to conclusions only with great reservations. In fact, Sebastian Rodrigues, the Portuguese missionary of Silence reminds me greatly of the Whiskey Priest from Greene's The Power and the Glory: both are broken men who harbor severe doubts in their power to do the Lord's work on earth; though the Whiskey Priest has been broken long before the novel starts, in Silence we are audience to Rodrigues' ruin.

Rodrigues and his partner, Garrpe, volunteer to travel to Japan in search of another missionary there, Father Ferreira, who has apostatized--officially renounced his faith--and gone into hiding. Ferreira is something of a mentor to Rodrigues, who is followed by the question--What could bring someone as resolute in their faith as Ferreira to apostatize? The answer, Rodrigues supposes, lies in the cruelty of Inoue, the local Japanese governor, who supposedly is fond of hanging Christians upside down in a pit and draining the blood from them slowly until they give up the faith.

Rodrigues steels himself against torture, but the torture he finds is not the torture he expects--instead of being subjected to horrible violence and death himself, it is his fate to watch others experience those trials. When the Japanese authorities hear that the missionaries have arrived, they send soldiers to pillage the Christian towns where Rodrigues and Garrpe seek shelter, taking the leaders of the local church and tying them to stakes out at sea. Rodrigues watches these things happen from his hiding place and is powerless, but the divine intervention that Rodrigues is hoping for never comes, leaving him to lament the titular silence that seems to be God's attitude towards his faithful on earth.

Endo styles Rodrigues' journey self-consciously after Christ's death, including even a Judas-like character named Kochijiro, a weak-willed Christian who will sell Rodrigues to the officials for a bagful of silver (in this way also he is like the Whiskey Priest, who is followed by a Judas figure). This is forever in Rodrigues' mind, and he wonders if he can endure the torture that Christ went through, but challenge never arises. Instead, he is to face the same kind of torture that caused Ferreira to forsake God, the torture of enduring God's silence. Trapped in a Japanese prison one night, Rodrigues remarks to a guard that he cannot sleep because of the snoring coming from the other room--but, the guard tells him, that is not snoring at all, but the moaning of Christians who have been placed in the pit, and who will remain there until you apostatize.

This is an explicitly un-Christlike dilemma. Christ suffered for the glory of God and for the mercy of Man, but what would He have done if the two goals were exclusive of one another? Ferreira, now a Japanese citizen with a Japanese wife and family, advises Rodrigues to apostatize:

"You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do so. It's because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Chruch, like me." Until now Ferreira's words had burst out as a single breath of anger, but now his voice gradually weakened as he said: "Yet I was the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here..."

For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: "Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them."

These tactics are, I believe, historically accurate and testify to why Japan is today a less than one percent Christian country. Inoue tells Rodrigues that Japan is a swamp where the seeds of Christianity cannot grow; it is an affirmation which Endo, a Japanese Christian, leaves appropriately unremarked upon. In the tradition of Greene, Endo provides glimmers of hope here and there, but leaves most of these difficult questions dangling.

Graham-Greene-o-Meter: Nine Greenes out of ten. Very much in Greene's mode, and very good. Also, this is the last book of "Graham Greene Month," which really ought to be called "Four books I read tangentially related to Graham Greene in some way or another," but that didn't really have the same ring to it.

I recommend this book to Brent, for the obvious reasons, but also to Jim, for this reason: This is currently being filmed for theaters by Martin Scorcese with Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro. 2011 Best Picture, anyone?

Active Liberty by Stephen Breyer

After reading The Nine I decided that Breyer is my favorite SCOTUS justice and that pretty much still stands after reading Active Liberty. His premise is based upon two types of liberty: active liberty, which he describes as having everyone in the country engaged and participating in government, and modern liberty, which he describes as individual rights. His thesis is that while both active and modern liberty are important, the Constitution is based on securing active liberty and that judges should use this backdrop when interpreting statutes and the Constitution itself. After he describes his philosophy (in which he quotes other sources way too much for my taste), he uses examples ranging from speech and federalism to privacy and affirmative action to illustrate his principles and contrast them with other approaches. He generally uses cases in which he either disagreed with the outcome or wrote in the dissent and he usually contrasts his approach with a more literalist approach. After he goes through his examples, he explains in detail his objection to the literalist approach, which I found very compelling. After reading it I believe that when Barack says he wants a justice to use empathy he means he wants someone who is not a literalist, who will take the consequences of the decision into account. While that may seem contrary to many people's idea of what a Supreme Court justice should do, as Breyer explains the approach it makes a lot of sense and is not merely an excuse for the dreaded "activist judges legislating from the bench."

While I felt that sometimes he had to stretch a little bit to apply his active liberty theme to some of his examples and I didn't always agree with him necessarily, I thought it was an interesting approach to Constitutional interpretation and probably the one I would subscribe to were I on the Supreme Court (which, by the way, I'm expecting Barack to call me about any day...). I'd say I give it 7.7 learned hands out of ten

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The English Teacher by RK Narayan

"Between thought and fulfilment there is no interval. Thought is fulfilment, motion and everything. That is the main difference between our physical state and yours. In your state a thought to be realized must always be followed by effort directed towards conquering obstructions and inertia--that is the nature of the material world. But in our condition no such obstruction exists. When I think of you or you me I am at your side. Music directly transports us. When I think of a garment, it is on me. In our world there is such a fine response for thought. When I come to you I prepare myself every time as befits the occasion. I come to meet my lord and I dress myself as befits the occasion. I think of the subtlest perfume and it already pervades my being; and I think of the garment that will most please you: the wedding saree, shimmering purple woven with gold, I have it on me at this very moment. You think you saw it in that trunk, how can it be here? What you have seen is its coutnerpart, the real part of the thing is that which is in thought, and it can never be lost or destroyed or put away."

Indian writer RK Narayan once sent the manuscript of his first novel, Swami and Friends, to a friend in England asking that, if he couldn't find a publisher for it, it would be thrown into the Thames, wrapped around a brick. His friend couldn't find one, but he also happened to have a friend in Graham Greene, who read the novel and determined to have it published. That was the 1930's, and Narayan and Greene maintained a long friendship by correspondence that lasted most of their very long lives--Greene died in (wow) 1991.

The eponymous teacher of The English Teacher is Krishna, a college instructor in a town called Malgudi who lives apart from his wife, Susila, and young daughter, Leela. He is not displeased by this, but when Susila decides to bring Leela to Malgudi that they might live as a family, he finds that the small details of marriage and fatherhood are infinitely more pleasing than his bachelor life. This first half of the book, in which Krishna comes to love his family, is unexceptional by design; teasing from the mundane intricacies of normal life a picture of largely untroubled domestic happiness.

And then Susila contracts typhoid, and dies. Supposedly this is based on the death of Narayan's own young wife, who also left a small child behind. Krishna is, of course, heartbroken, and returns quite bitterly to his normal routines as an English teacher until presented with a strange letter from a student, whose father has written to Krishna claiming that he has been contacted by Susila from the spirit world. Krishna visits this man, who conducts a sort of weekly seance between Krishna and Susila, until the time that Krishna learns to communicate with the world of the dead himself. In the passage I have quoted above, Susila tells Krishna how, in the spirit world, to think of a thing means to be with it, and accordingly, Krishna and Susila are never forced apart, even by death. It's simply done but arresting, and all the more touching knowing that such a book must have originated in Narayan's desire to be with his own wife again.

Graham Greene-o-Meter: Seven Greenes out of ten. Not very Greenesque, except maybe in the tightness and economy of the prose. Worth checking out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill

Like a drug, their ties to Buldger and Flemmi had evolved into a dependency that was hardening quickly into an addiction. ... They saw only what they wanted to see. It was a moment built on a shared premise: the future belonged to them. They'd feed the Mafia to the beast that was FBI headquarters, the press, and even the public's imagination. It didn't matter how they did it, or what methods they used, so long as they got there. Glory awaited.

The "unholy alliance" (a phrase which is, i suppose, an adequate way to sensationalize a series of events that do not require sensationalization and which is sadly overused in this book) between the Irish mob in South Boston and Boston's branch of the FBI clearly demonstrates the ways in which the means that the ends justify can sometimes become larger and more significant than the ends that justify them. (by the way, how great a sentence is that?) Basically in the FBI in the 70s the major goal of every fledgling agent was to cultivate an influential informant, which in turn led to status and promotion. When combined with the FBI's obsession with bringing down La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mafia, a remarkable number of law enforcement agents succumbed to the temptation of money and influence and lost sight of what their goals should have been.

The biggest villain of the piece seems to be agent John Connolly, who grew up in South Boston. Connolly paid his dues in other cities before being granted the reward of returning home to Boston, but it never seemed like he was truly an FBI agent; instead, he simply played the part of an FBI agent in his pursuit of prestige. Because of his roots, he was able to turn Whitey Bulger, initially a middling gangster, and his friend Steve Flemmi into informants in an effort to take down the Mafia, which at the time was clearly the bigger fish. Despite the crushing stigma of being a rat (which I feel like the authors didn't fully develop), the deal worked out pretty well for Bulger and Flemmi, because as far as they were concerned they had carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted while they helped the FBI nail their biggest rivals. But, long story short, Connolly went from looking the other way on a few smaller crimes that enabled Bulger and Flemmi to gather information on La Cosa Nostra to breaking FBI rules and the law to protect Bulger and Flemmi even when they murdered people and such. Wonk wonk.

Overall i'd say i give the book a B-: it was pretty interesting, but at times i was thinking, "yeah, yeah, these guys are horrible, get on with it," and sometimes it jumped around chronologically a bit. But still pretty good. By the way, I say Connolly was the villain of the book because even though Bulger and Flemmi were the crazy assed murderers and such, Connolly was an FBI agent who should have known better and who took a number of other law enforcement agents down with him. I thought the rat thing was a little undeveloped as well as the "us vs. them" attitude that those hailing from South Boston have, which the authors brought up a couple of times but never really fleshed out. But overall I'd say it was worth reading.

By the end of 2000, the dark history of the FBI and Bulger had been revealed. ... But none of the historic records contain the answer to the one question a bedevlied city is still dying to know: Where's Whitey?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Outside the rest-house he stopped again. The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn't known, just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?

Graham Greene month continues with a book written by the most Greene-like of writers, Graham Greene.

Greene loathed being called a Catholic writer, and preferred to be thought of as a writer and a Catholic--or a Catholic and a writer. But as the best writers cannot help but let their own souls trickle out onto the page, it really is impossible to separate Greene's Catholicism, conflicted but deeply felt, from his writing. He loved to write about strange and exotic places--so much that they call the locations of his books "Greeneland" collectively--but his heroes always seem to have singularly religious struggles that transcend the peculiarity of location.

The Heart of the Matter is set in Sierra Leone, and based on Greene's own time there with the military. Its protagonist is Henry Scobie, a military policeman who does not love his wife but feels a strong responsibility for her happiness, and enters into a shady loan with a Syrian shopkeeper to be able to send her on holiday to South Africa so that she can escape the country she despises. Before this a civilian named Wilson comes to Sierra Leone, who connects to Scobie's wife Louise over a mutual love of poetry, and mistakes their shared passion for romantic love. His hatred for Scobie, as Louise's unloving husband, is magnified when Scobie strikes up an affair with a young shipwrecked girl named Helen while Louise is in South Africa. Throw in the fact that Wilson is secretly commissioned with reporting on the military police regarding the smuggling of diamonds--a business in which Wilson's loanshark trades heavily--and you have a pretty unstable love-square.

But of course, this is a Greene novel, and so there is always another party unseen, but not un-felt: God makes this a love-pentagon. Scobie, like Greene, is a devout Catholic, but this is Sierra Leone during the Second World War and Scobie must struggle with that ancient dilemma, the question of why a benevolent God would create a world with such capacity for misery. Scobie's response is not to entertain thoughts of doubt, but to carry, Christ-like, the burden of responsibility for the happiness of everyone he knows.

Pity is Scobie's fatal flaw. Scobie feels nothing he could call love for Louise, but he is driven mad by her unhappiness--or even by the prospect of her unhappiness. His affair with Helen is repulsively shallow; she, with her mood swings and stamp collection, seems little more than a lovestruck child, and yet he cannot bear the thought of her suffering either. Too late he realizes, when he receives a letter from Louise announcing her return, that he has put himself into a bind, and must cause suffering to either his wife or his lover by abandoning one of them.

What Greene does here is, I think, incredible. In Scobie, he takes what we would consider a positive human trait--a capacity for pity--and transforms it into a viciously destructive flaw. Only a person with a monstrous amount of pride could look upon those he is meant to love and feel nothing but pity, and Scobie feels pity for not just the world but the universe--"If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets?" Scobie has lost sight of one of Christanity's most inexorable truths, that God has offered to place that burden on Himself. How massive must a man's ego be to put his head in God's yoke.

Here Scobie, oppressed by the decisions he must make, looks into a mirror:

He began his search. Once, pausing by a mirror, he saw poised over his own shoulder a stranger's face, a fat sweating unreliable face. Momentarily he wondered: Who can that be? before he realized that it was only this new unfamiliar look of pity that made it strange to him. He thought: Am I really one of those whom people pity?

He pities the planets, but the thought that he might be pitiable comes as a shock. It is no surprise that Scobie cannot succeed in bringing happiness to everyone, and as a result concludes that everyone would be better off without him. As a result, he makes himself the most pitiable character of all.

As a post-script, here's a bit of dialogue I really liked but couldn't work into the review:

"But do you really, seriously, Major Scobie," Dr. Sykes asked, "believe in hell?"

"Oh, yes, I do."

"In flames and torment?"

"Perhaps not quite that. They tell us it may be a permanent sense of loss."

"That sort of hell wouldn't worry me," Fellowes said.

"Perhaps you've never lost anything of importance," Scobie said.

Graham Greene-o-Meter: Ten Greenes out of ten. Nothing like the real thing.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

"But what is the justification then? What is it? For us it is easy, as I said to you last night. The Abteilung and organizations like it are the natural extension of the Party's arm. They are in the vanguard of the fight for Peace and Progress. They are to the Party what the Party is to socialism: they are the vanguard. Stalin said so--" he smiled drily, "it is not fashionable to quote Stalin--but he once said 'Half a million liquidated is a statistic, and one man killed in a traffic accident is a national tragedy.' He was laughing, you see, at the borgeois sensibilities of the mass. He was a great cynic. But what he meant is still true: a movement which protects itself against counterrevolution can hardly stop at the exploitation--or the elimination, Leamas--of a few individuals. It is all one, we have never pretended to be wholly just in the process of nationalizing society. Some Roman said it, didn't he, in the Christian Bible--it is expedient that one man should die for the benefit of many?"

"I expect so," Leamas replied wearily.

"Then what do you think? What is your philosophy?"

"I just think the whole lot of you are bastards," said Leamas savagely.

I have been away too long. But no matter, I am back with a vengeance, and May is--drum roll--Graham Greene month! In which I will review only books which are inspired by, loved by, or just plain written by, British author Graham Greene. Greene wrote a lot of very serious novels that explored the intricacies of his Catholic faith, but he also wrote a preponderance of what he called "entertainments"--spy novels, like Our Man in Havana, The Third Man, and The Orient Express. He called John LeCarre's Cold War novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, according to the book jacket, "The best spy story I have ever read." To which the New York Time retorts, "It may be the best spy story anybody has ever read." Zing!

It is decidedly not the best spy story I have ever read. Honestly, I see very little of what Greene finds so fantastic about it--it is taut, and cleverly conceived, but in other ways seems very unremarkable to me. The set up is this: Alec Leamas, a surly British field agent in East Germany, is put "out in the cold"--decommissioned, that is--after failing to prevent the murder of his best informant and the dissolution of his network in the country. Leamas takes up work in a library, shacking up with a pretty Jewish librarian--who just happens to be a communist, not that Leamas really cares--and ends up going to jail for assaulting a grocery clerk.

As an impoverished felon, Leamas is a perfect candidate to be approached by East German spies looking to "turn" British agents, and when they do, Leamas agrees to be taken across the Iron Curtain to tell them what he knows. But, in truth, Leamas has committed to undertake one last mission--using his position as a double agent (triple agent?) to plant evidence that his chief opponent in the East German network, Hans-Dieter Mundt, is actually a British double agent himself. What LeCarre does so well is to muddle things up so that Leamas--and the reader--begin to suspect that perhaps Mundt really is a British agent and Leamas has been sent to commit some act of espionage so secret he doesn't even know what it is.

That all sounds quite a bit more suspenseful than it is in practice. Except for a nice pair of bookended shoot-em-up scenes, the book is little more than a series of dull conversations between Leamas and his superiors, his girlfriends, or his various East German contacts. These conversations contain a few choice philosophical moments like the one I've excerpted above, but also a lot of pretty intricate details that Leamas provides about his work as a spy, which unfortunately seem about as dull and complex as I imagine spy work to actually be.

Graham Greene-o-Meter: I give this book five Greenes out of ten. Meh.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Media Control by Noam Chomsky

"Propaganda is to a democracy what a bludgeon is to a totalitarian state".

According to Chomsky, American media control was established by President Wilson in 1916 in order to gain American pacifist's support for WWI. His success influenced a generation of theorists to believe that the majority of people are incapable of deciding matters for themseleves and consequently their consent has to be manufactured by a specialist class who serve the interest of the powerful elite, namely the large corporations. Consequently, except for their participation in a few ceremonial events, the American people are spectators and not participants in the democratic process.

The United States, according to Chomsky, pioneered the public relations industry whose primary function is to tell the population what to believe, with carefully targeted messages, advertisements, and false information. This prevents any kind of collective organization and makes people into spectators instead of participants in democracy.

Chomsky also points out that the current war on terror is simply a re-declaration of a war declared by Ronald Regan in 1980, with the same percevived enemies. The only differance being that terrorists have attacked Americans on US soil. Chomsky states that the official definition of terrorism is unusable because it so closely resembles the of the US government and its allies. For this reason, both the government and the media unofficially define terrorism as any act of terror perpetrated against the US and its allies. Since this generally takes the form of weaker countries or groups that cannot oppose the United States, terrorism is defined as a weapon of the weak.

I was intruigued by Chomsky's Media Control. A mere 100 pages, the book is consise outline of Chomsky's thoughts on mass propagada. Although I didn't agree with all of what he had to say, I do think he has a point and I may read some of his cited works in the future to better understand his view.