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Memory and the Mediterranean (Vintage)
Memory and the Mediterranean (Vintage)
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5.0 out of 5 stars The three times of history, March 23, 2014
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Stuck in the winter from hell, I am diving into my Mediterranean shelf as I can't afford to be there.

Braudel is most widely known for expanding how historians practice their craft. He considers three times in his work: geologic, social, individual.

Greece and Rome don't enter the picture until the last two chapters. Most of the text is devoted to the preceding 15,000, or so, years.

He does an excellent job of tying Greece's emergence as a power in the Middle Sea environs to its geography and how that shaped the evolution of its colonizing city states. He does the same for the other groups around the Middle Sea during the eras covered.

His command of social events and trends helps integrate the geologic and individual times. He's able to surmise much of individual life from social events, including the emergence of powerful scribes with introduction of the alphabet technology.

One thing that greatly impresses me is how slowly things developed. Trends that now take years to develop globally, if that, took centuries to unfold.

This was originally published in the late '60s after he'd set the manuscript aside to work on other books. Despite its brevity and innovation, it has proved a slow read for me, probably because of difficulty I have with ancient history.

But, it is well worth the effort and the best volume on ancient history in my limited reading experience in the field.

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
by Peter Baker
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars The gold standard on W's administration, March 23, 2014
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Days of Fire has the deserved reputation for being the gold standard of the Bush/Cheney administration.

One review says the book offers nothing new, yet ties together what we know about W's administration and puts it all in a meaningful context that rings true. That assessment is dead on in the eyes of this one-eyed reader.

I wasn't in the White House at the time (come to think of it, I haven't even done the tour thing), but his treatment of W's relationship with Cheney is nuanced and seems more accurate than the portrayal of the vice president as a mad puppeteer.

Cheney, in Baker's estimate, had considerable influence at the beginning of the administration because Bush leaned on him. But, as Bush gained experience he distanced himself from Cheney as the vp veered farther and farther right.

Bush also comes off as overwhelmed by the tough challenges facing him, many of the problems of his own making. In addition to the 9.11 crisis, there were the two wars Bush launched, an impending economic crisis, and governing an administration that had more than its share of infighting (Cheney/Rumsfeld vs Rice/Powell, with enough supporting warriors on both sides to make a gladiator movie).

There is still much to be explored in W's administration. Baker notes a change from W the cowboy early on, to a more distant and less impulsive executive in the second term, but does not examine why the change. Lots of ground there to be explored.

And, while there are many instances examining in detail how Cheney's influence faded, again there is room for others to examine why that was. Was W just fed up with the infighting, did he think Dick was, well, a dick, or did he begin to see Cheney as as a manifestation of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott's character in Dr. Strangelove).

Baker does a good job in pulling materials from many, if not all, the books written by former administration officials and putting some of they key assertions in a meaningful context that sometimes undermines self-serving, if not delusional, claims made by the former officials.

Killing Mister Watson
Killing Mister Watson
by Peter Matthiessen
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Mr. Watson, a study in ambiguity, March 23, 2014
This review is from: Killing Mister Watson (Paperback)
Edgar J. Watson is in the pantheon of American bad guys, right up there with Cormac McCarthy's Judge Holden.

If your honest, and who among us is not, he is an ambiguous figure, like Holden. Oh, don't get me wrong, I know the jury of readers, feeling compelled to decide one way or the other, would sent Edgar J. and The Judge to the scaffold and then go home to settle down to a nice family dinner on linen table cloth and never have a doubt about the rightness of what they'd done.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be disappointed if my daughter were to marry EJ, or someone like him. There is a vast middle between the poles of good and bad, and like most of us, EJ falls somewhere in the middle, just more so.

More so because, like Holden, his actions occur between poles set a little further apart than most of us. And given that his actions unfold on the moral frontier of the 10,000 island region (not land and not sea) of Florida, that context should have some bearing on those who would judge him.

Call me amoral, but I never felt compelled to judge EJ. After all, he did in Belle Star and one can really get their knickers twisted up trying to decide whether murdering the baddest girl to pursue the outlaw career track is a good thing, or a bad thing. It's EJ's thing is all, a line in his bona fides is all.

And how 'bout the way EJ's neighbors did him him? Whose moral code countenances that?

A Division of Spoils (Repr of 1975 Ed) (Raj Quartet/Paul Scott, 4) (Phoenix Fiction)
A Division of Spoils (Repr of 1975 Ed) (Raj Quartet/Paul Scott, 4) (Phoenix Fiction)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fires of destruction consume the Raj even as fires of creation birth a modern nation, March 23, 2014
Siva's arc, the deity of firey destruction and creation, comes full circle in the fourth volume of the Raj tetralogy.

Through Scott's pantheon of characters we see the Raj crumble, while simultaneously India is born through the rupture of its partition. We see the firey destruction of both the old colonial order, as well as any attempt at unifying a Hindu/Muslim nation; while at the same time India is born in fire.

Any illusions that may have sprung from the metaphor of the painting The Jewel in the Crown with Queen Victoria presiding over a diverse but subservient and orderly Raj, or for that matter springing from Ghandi's idealism, goes up in smoke, a Siva puja (or smoke offering).

In the end, there is a feeling that all of the characters through which we have seen the demise of the Raj and the simultaneous birth of India, are all carried away as smoke on the karmic winds.

Those of the Raj, the middling class of Britain who ruled the subcontinent for more than two centuries through the East India Company and then through the Raj, reap the karma of their administration.

And the people of the subcontinent reap their own karma in the violence between it's two major religious sects whose differences were accentuated by British rule.

All are in a limbo, a bardo. The characters of the Raj, middling English at home, are marginally English at this point because of their experiences in ruling a foreign land. There is a lineage of female characters, the last of which Sarah Layton determines to leave, only to stay at the end because she is no longer English, even if she also obviously is not Indian either. Other characters of the Raj are faced with the same decision.

Muslims who have been elevated by the Raj to ruling positions are faced with their social order going up in flames as a modern nation, and a Hindu one at that, is born. Their sons become sacrificial offerings.

But it is in the character Hari Kumar, wrongly accused of raping an English woman and railroaded by the Raj on sedition charges, who answers the key question posed by Scott here: "what is the difference between dharma and karma?"

Both are tricky sanskrit terms and like many sanskrit words their meaning covers a spectrum of meanings in English, or even when specific their definitions are multilayered and complex.

Dharma is both religious or philosophical teachings, but also it can accurately be translated as any phenomenon. All phenomena are dharma.

Karma on the other hand is easier to define, but harder for the western mind to grasp. Karma can be translated as action. Action has three parts: cause & effect, but also motivation. Karma falls into three categories: good (that which eases discomfort and suffering known as dukha), bad (increases dukha), and neutral. Karma is both individual, but also collective. A group of people generates collective karma.

Without giving too much away, it seems to me that Hari Kumar is the character who masters the answer to the question, to which he did not have an answer when posed to him originally by an English classmate in boarding school.

The answer lies in one's experience. It's not intellectual.

For most of the Raj Quartet, Hari is suspended in that bardo of being neither English, nor Indian. But in the end, through the suffering of being unjustly accused, imprisoned, and mistreated in the Raj's penal system, he stays true to his compassion for Daphne Manners and burdens all the false accusations and abuse (emotional and physical) to protect her. Faced with his accuser's madness, he bests the Raj police official Robert Merrick and the Raj system, which also is neither Indian, nor British.

Through this journey, Hari comes out a teacher, who not only lives dharma, but I think it's fair to see that through his skill in the English language, a detriment early in the quartet, he becomes a bridge between the English and Indian influences in the new nation.

Of all the characters who have made the journey spun by Scott, Hari is the one whose experiences are forged in the potentially destructive crucible (fire again) of persecution into karma that reduces suffering for those around him.

The Raj Quartet, Volume 3: The Towers of Silence (Phoenix Fiction)
The Raj Quartet, Volume 3: The Towers of Silence (Phoenix Fiction)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The individual as the entry point into history, January 26, 2014
A key to unlocking The Towers of Silence, Paul Scott's third installment of the Raj Quartet, is none other than the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who assayed that the individual is the portal to history.

That is unless the reader would rather choose entry through the towers of silence used by the Parsees (a Zoroastrian community that fled Muslim conquering of Persia) during their funeral rights to lay their deceased out for the vultures to feast on.

Either way, the infinite land of Scott's work serves as the silent backdrop from which violent events arise.

So, for the sake of our sanity, let's not enter through the towers of silence. Gruesomeness aside, the individual offers a more accessible portal. But all ends up receding into the same silence from whence it came anyway in the world Scott paints.

As was the case in the second volume Day of the Scorpion, the women continue to dominate center stage, especially the visionary Barbara Batchelor, Barbie to her friends, and to Scott. Barbie is a missionary on the periphery of Raj society. She is taken in by Mabel Muir, herself an outsider who senses well ahead of her fellow Brits the ebb of the Raj's tide.

And, Mabel runs counter to the herd. When unarmed civilians are slaughtered at Amristar by troops led by Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the Raj community rallies around their general and sets up a defense fund. But Mabel makes a sizable contribution to the fund the Indians set up for families of the victims.

It is largely through the individual characters of Barbie and Mabel - both alluded to as towers of silence, by the bye - that Scott examines the Raj during the end of World War II as fundamental shifts shake things up in the emerging Indian nation. But other characters also serve as portals into history.

Barbie and her visions are shaped by Emerson's essays, including: "'There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time.'" Her dreams - some of which accurately anticipate events and understand unexplained occurrences - conjure "the figure of an unknown Indian: dead in one aspect, alive in another. And after a while it occurred to her that the unknown Indian was what her life in India had been about."

The fact is that much of her life has been frittered away on failed attempts to teach children in a missionary school that is adrift in India, neither sanctioned by the Raj, nor embraced by Indians. And this failure runs parallel to much of the Raj's tenure in the subcontinent.

The difference is that Barbie has the courage to explore the failings of the Raj, something that never occurs to mainstream Raj society whose energies are devoted to maintaining the myth of the Raj. In the words of one of the military matrons, "There would be no chain of trust if there were no chain of command." Mabel, on the other hand, already knows.

This review, as any review of the Raj quartet is bound to be, is just a sliver of the pie. The characters are the action as they evolve and mutate, pinging off one another and reacting.

Mildred, Mabel's daughter in law, deserves a brief mention. She is the third of the many triangles signaling a "danger zone" among shifting characters. She herself, like all the characters, has a quality that alienates her from others, yet she is very much a player in the Raj's Pankot society.

The characters also are bestowed a mix of qualities that not only make them difficult to pin down for those who inclined to pass judgment, but also make for interesting exchanges with others. This is especially true for the villain/hero Reginald Merrick, a police official whose qualities simultaneously border on the psychopathic and all that is virtuous about the Raj.

On the one hand, he is accused of torturing Indian suspects brought in for questioning, or suspected of wrongdoing, in his eyes. At the same time, he is lauded for keeping a lid on things in a way that is judged fair, even by those who are in a position to criticize him.

The Raj Quartet, Volume 2: The Day of the Scorpion (Phoenix Fiction) (Vol 2)
The Raj Quartet, Volume 2: The Day of the Scorpion (Phoenix Fiction) (Vol 2)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.50
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5.0 out of 5 stars Scott shifts gears in the second volume of his quartet, January 9, 2014
The second volume of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet shifts focus more exclusively onto the deteriorating British Raj administration in contrast to the opening volume which invested more attention to the insights, perspectives, and myths of Indians during the birthing of their state. And it is the women who take over center stage.

The artistic peaks of The Jewel in the Crown are sacrificed to a tighter focus and more linear narrative in The Day of the Scorpion. But what emerges is a more accessible book and more linear story that doubtlessly has a wider appeal to readers, without sacrificing the overall artistic merit.

Scott does step back in time during the beginning of some narrative in DotS so that the lines sometimes overlap, but the circular space and time of JitC has given way to a more linear progression.

Also, with the compelling exception of an interview of Hari Kumar, imprisoned under false security charges for consorting with the young English woman Daphne Manners, Indians are in the background, here. And, so have men for the most part. Center stage is populated with women.

DotS works on three levels: 1) characters as the action, 2) history of the period August 1942-June 1944, and 3) mythological.

Experiential knowledge that leads to the grace associated with a fulfilled life is the main transcendent action. The transformation for Sarah Layton begins while visiting Lady Ethel Manners, the aunt of Daphne who died while giving birth to the daughter she conceived with Hari Kumar at the end of the first volume.

Lady Manners has become a pariah, an untouchable, within the Raj community for her role in bringing the mixed raced Pavrati into the world. Sarah, left on her own, feels compelled to visit Lady Manners, her neighbor who has been snubbed to this point. "What a lot you know," remarks Sarah Layton to herself about Lady Manners after the visit. It's an epiphany to her of what life can be.

The knowing that Sarah accumulates between the book's covers is distinct from knowledge derived from memory and dependent upon experience resulting in the sense of grace embodied by Lady Manners, who becomes a ghost figure drifting in and out of the narrative, but always a haunting and disrupting presence.

Sarah is twinned with her younger sister Susan, who marries, births a son, and is widowed in these pages. The contrast between the two is yin and yang stuff.

Susan is the beauty, the center of attention who lets the world orbit around her, and she absorbs thoughtlessly without weighing what it is she is absorbing. She is the darling of the Raj's Pankot outpost.

Sarah, while not unattractive, is plainer, open minded, circulates within and without the Raj community, is linked with the deceased Daphne in comparison and spirit. Her independence makes her the object of vicious gossip about her loyalty to the Raj.

Sarah also is linked to her Aunt Mabel, twice widowed, who openly cares not a whit about what the ladies of the Raj think or say. Mabel sees what the Raj has become. She recognizes its demise while the mainstream ladies play bridge and congregate for afternoon drinks, dining, dancing, and other things Raj.

When the Raj community rallies round General Reginald Dyer, who gave the order in 1919 to slaughter unarmed and peaceful civilians without an avenue of escape at Jallianwalla in Amrister, Mabel makes a sizable donation the fund for Indian victims.

The men in DotS are background actors. Mohammed Ali Kasim, a Muslim arrested in the infamous lockup of Congress, is introduced, but plays no major role.

The Nawab Sahib, who lends his guest house to the Laytons in Susan's rushed marriage, is slighted at entrance to the wedding reception, but it is Susan who saves the day by offering the Indian royalty a curtsy, causing gasps among the ladies of the Raj.

Reginald Merrick, described here by Sarah as a man with an intellectually active mind within narrow confines, unveils his theory of situational history. Briefly, it's a theory of what Merrick calls situations that are created by the need for inherent distinctions generated by man's contempt for other men, strengthening his racist credentials first offered in the first volume.

We also see a side of Merrick through the interrogation of Hari Kumar as the Raj reopens his case given suspicions about how Merrick conducted the boy's arrest. The interrogation is as brutal, physically and emotionally, as anything we have learned from recent conflicts between East and West in Asia.

History is much batted around. But my favorite pronouncement is by Lady Manners, who while witnessing Kumar's interrogation offers: "We must remember the worst because the worst is the lives we lead, the best is only our history, and between our history and our lives there is this vast dark plain where the rapt and patient shepherds drive their invisible flocks in expectation of God's forgiveness."

There is much myth in these pages as well, although it is less obvious and woven into the narrative to seem fairly seamless.

Keeping with the framework of Siva, the Indian god of creation and destruction, dancing on the dwarf of ignorance, Sarah contemplates the cycle of creation/destruction, but sees it as a mindless, consuming hunger, the hunger being enough in itself.

Susan also enacts a weird sacrificial scene with her child in the middle of a circle of fire, bringing Siva to mind.

And, yes, I think reading the first volume is required to make sense of much of the rest of the quartet.

The Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion (Everyman's Library)
The Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion (Everyman's Library)
by Paul Scott
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Reading The Jewel in the Crown could leave you agape, January 9, 2014
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If agape is selfless love, a passion committed to the other, then that is how I felt at the end of The Jewel in the Crown.

There are two stories here, one within the other. The inner story is of a young Englishwoman named Daphne who immerses herself in India and the flow of history during the volatile period of 1942. The larger story is of the relationship between the colonizer and its subject, both yearning for India's freedom, yet unable to get it done.

In both cases, they are stories of the Siva cycle of destruction and rejuvenation (or creation), so entwined they not only can't be separated, but sometimes can't be told apart.

A story this complex that treats time as spatial may be best understood graphically. More than anything, this story reminds me of a thangka, those stylized paintings of the East, especially India, that frequently tell a story.

Perhaps Siva should occupy the center, I'm thinking with his second wife Parvati, who not so coincidentally to Scott's story is the daughter of the Englishwoman Daphne (more on her later). Parvati also is the brother of Vishnu, a deity of some significance in The Crown Jewel.

A difficulty is their posture and gestures. All goddesses in Hinduism, or so I'm led to believe, derive from Parvati. So obviously she must be portrayed as powerful.

But, also, in Scott's story, she is quite the accomplished singer of traditional Indian songs, bringing to mind the singer of the 19th century, the consort of MacGregor, moved into the house of women, displaced by the wife (required acquisition to be socially acceptable in the colonizer's social confines).

The anonymous singer, of course, runs off with her dark-skinned lover, a story that repeats itself in the more recent story of Daphne and Hari/Harry.

The problem with Siva's posture in the center of our thangka is that in Scott's story his dancing manifestation is cited. This is fine for our principal concern, the unity of the cyclic destruction and rejuvenation manifested in our larger story of colonizer and colonized, as well as the inner story of Daphne and Hari/Harry.

But it is most difficult to incorporate the union of male and female aspects, or qualities, in that posture. So, I think we should remove Parvati from the center space, and place her in the union posture with Siva below and in front of Siva's placement.

The Ganges River, flowing into the sea, dark in the foreground, completes the bottom-center foreground.

On either side of the river are Daphne and Hari/Harry, thus completing the triangle (triangles are important in Scott's story, see pages 134 & 149, for instance) of Daphne, Hari/Harry, and the union of Siva and Parvati, which aptly describes the relationship between the historical and mythical figures.

Daphne, in a posture of courage in search of wholeness (think Siva's destruction/rejuvenation), will be placed a foot in the waters, ready to give herself over to the flow, whatever may come, as there is no bridge capable of crossing (p.142).

In the upper left corner, with a line connecting it to the central Siva, is MacGregor House "where there is always the promise of a story continuing instead of finishing" (p.461) and a place of trust, compromise, exploratory, noncommittal, learning, not accusatory (p.444). Opposite in the right upper corner is Bibighar Gardens, a place where something had gone horribly wrong, still alive, that can be set right, if only one knew how. By implication it is Indian, and universal (p.398). Bibighar is the former house of women, now in ruins, but nonetheless also an arbor to provide temporary shelter for the union of Daphne and Hari/Harry, but at the same time it is the place of the union between the destructive force and Daphne.

Along either side of Siva's space, in the appropriate postures: Ludmila, who ferries the dead and understands, "For in this life, living, there is no dignity except perhaps laughter" (p.133). And Deputy Commissioner Robin White who understands "the moral drift of history" (p.342), and its matrix of "emotions," "ambitions," and "reactions." And his wife, who understood Daphne's motivations, and her sacrifice.

In the upper center, between MacGregor House and Bibighar Lady Chatterjee, whose chattering reveals far more than idle gossip, and above Siva's center positioning is the sleeping, dreaming Vishnu, brother of Paravati.

Finally, to the right and just below Hari/Harry is Parvati in her singing posture, with two attendants approaching bearing a palanquin. She sings:

Oh, my father's servants, bring my palanquin.
I am going to the land of my husband. All my
Companions are scattered. They have gone to
different homes.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
by Louis Menand
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophies that explain the formation of singular United States of American, December 15, 2013
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The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand, was highly recommended to me when I sought a history of the post Civil War period leading up to World War I, a most under examined period in American history, yet a pivotal one that bears a direct influence on our current events.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is a history of the period that focuses on philosophies, defined as our attempt to understand, explain, and put into a meaningful context past and current actions. In other words, it's an explanation of why we do what we do.

Obviously the period in question dealt with race, given that the institution of slavery was just abolished and that meant redefining the role in the social order for emancipated slaves.

And then there was that whole Darwinism thing and conflicts with religion. But, beyond the obvious, the emergence of Darwinian thinking brought up the question about how "individual" differences from a general type (species, or subspecies) played out in the survival equation.

Probability also began to replace thinking that subordinated the individual to the general type. While probability had emerged in 18th century Europe, it was in the post Civil War period and the emergence of Darwinian thinking that it began to become an influence in America. There's a laugh-out-loud description of how the father/son team of Charles & Benjamin Pierce employed probability analysis to determine that a signature in a civil case was indeed fraudulent, contradicting the consensus of handwriting experts.

The recognition of uncertainty that follows on the randomness of natural selection and the laws of nature crept into a social order that heavily depended on shoring up conventional wisdom derived from the inexplicably mysterious actions of that crazed white guy at the address of G-o-d.

Of course, cause and effect were redefined.

Menand's approach hinges on biographical sketches of key figures of the time, starting with Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose predictive theory of the law holds that the law is what judges say it is and the experience of deciding the law is collective and consensual (someone want to call Scalia, Thomas, and Alito to clue them in?).

Most of the figures were new to me, including: the father/son Henry and William James, the Fraziers, and John Dewey especially.

As dry as this might sound, in Menand's hands it isn't. Western philosophy is not my comfort zone. Eastern philosophizing, especially Buddhism, makes far more sense to me in putting experience into a meaningful context. But Menand's skill in writing and explaining philosophy by relating it to the experiences of the time make for a most meaningful and compelling read. I actually found TMC to be a bit of a page turner.

This is a book that I will reread and I look forward to reading other of Menand's works.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
by George Packer
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Packin' it up, December 14, 2013
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The Unwinding, by George Packer of Assassin's Gate fame, is an impressionistic look at American events starting in 1978 through 2012.

It is well crafted and leaves a strong impression of a country in decline. Packer near the end writes that in the 2012 election Obama thought America was no longer exceptional; Romney thought it still was, when what was needed was a candidate who acknowledged "exceptionalism" was waning, but it is still important to strive to be exceptional.

I'm not sure anyone can get elected dog catcher with that message, but it sounds good to a certain section of the electorate that is most inclined to read Packer's book, I suppose. By the bye, you can count me in.

The book's strong point is its juxtaposition of notable public figures (Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, Sam Walton, and Elizabeth Warren) with tier 2 figures (Jeff Connaughton, Raymond Carver, Alice Waters, and Peter Thiel) and people on the ground, (a woman turned community activist in Youngstown, OH, and an entrepreneur seeking the mother lode in North Carolina).

The effect is illuminating because the structure allows Packard to portray how macro events play out in the lives of those trying to keep their hear above water in the downstream micro.

Wall Street, and those who do and don't regulate it, come in for the harshest treatment. His skewering of former US Treasury secretary and guru Robert Rubin is not to be missed. But Packer also shows how the under-regulated industry ground so many under as the consequences of their greed washed across the real estate market and the abodes people lived in and their businesses.

Packer's book is not a polemic. While Republicans do not come off well for reasons I don't think need explanation, President Clinton, and Obama come in for their share of unflattering light. For instance, Clinton is recognized for signing into law an exemption for the financial sector against prosecution as the last act of his administration.

As someone who has worked in the media for more than 30 years, something one hears rarely these days, especially from managers and editors who play a large role in shaping the news, is the need to dig at "the truth," or something similar. But that is what Packer is doing here. And, it makes an impression.

The Luminaries: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)
The Luminaries: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)
by Eleanor Catton
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Ouroubos of the Mind, November 8, 2013
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Wow, wow, wow! Beyond words.

That was my first impression upon reading The Luminaries. It's a mindful novel, vast in scope, steeped in thought.

At least for this reader, the time taken to read it slowly, with diversions to explore astrology sites to plumb the many allusions and the story's framework, all proved rewarding, not that I claim any great degree of mastery after a single passage through its pages.

But, it is understandable why it took a highly qualified Booker jury no more than two hours to sort through a most competitive field of nominated tomes to arrive at the consensus (no vote was needed) that the most deserving of the lot is The Luminaries. Each of the jury members read it thrice and was rewarded handsomely each time through. This puzzle of a book is well worth a reread.

As might be expected, professional reviewers split in their judgments. The majority, as best I can determine, deemed The Luminaries a wonder; with a minority not nearly so positive. Janet Maslin of the NYTimes even went so far as to trash it: "There are readers who will be fascinated by the structure and ambiguities of 'The Luminaries.' But by and large, it's a critic's nightmare."

I agree that this is no book to be read under deadline pressure, with the goal of arriving at some simplistic judgment on its worthiness.

In addition to a slow hand, it might be more illuminating (ha,ha) to approach Eleanor Catton's book in a way that accommodates the thought and art Eleanor Catton infuses in its pages. It is a book, I think, that most rewards readers who surrender their projections before opening the cover.

Catton employs several structural devices, the most important being the Golden Spiral, a geometric configuration frequently seen in galaxies. The spiral, a cousin to the gyre, expands by a factor of roughly 50% from the preceding spiral as it moves away from its source. Graphically, it's a tunnel effect.

Catton says her original application of the Golden Spiral would have resulted in 300,000 words. So, like many others who start out to employ the Golden Spiral, she modified the formula and came up with a 200,000 word tome.

The effect on the reader is a leisurely spiraling story for the first 360 pages, the essence of which is that a group of 12 residents of the gold town - the luminaries - are gathered in a hotel to shed light on a murder, a disappearance, and the provenance of a fortune in gold discovered in the murdered recluse's hut.

As the story spirals, the sections are reduced by half, and the pace quickens as the story enters the 12th and final section.

The second structure is a circle, which obviously manifests in the inner and outer circles of the astrology charts at the outset of each chapter, but also the ourouboros or snake/dragon figure from antiquity symbolizing a cycle of regeneration.

In one of many fascinating and poetic passages, Cotton examines not only how the houses of the Zodiac each contain qualities that relate them to neighboring houses on either side, but that the whole Zodiac is a story unto itself, which incidentally manifests in the novel's characters as they move through the various characters:

"What was glimpsed in Aquarius - what was envisioned, believed in, prophesied, predicted, doubted, and forewarned - is made, in Pisces, manifest. Those solitary visions that, but a month ago, belonged only to the dreamer, will now acquire the form and substance of the real. We were to our own making, and we shall be our own end."

The passage goes through the houses examining their influences on one another in describing the story of the Zodiac governing the story of The Luminaries, concluding with this:

"But the doubled fish of Pisces, that mirrored womb of self and self-awareness, is an ourobouros of the mind - both the will of fate, and the fated will - and the house of self-undoing is a prison built by prisoners, airless, doorless, and mortared from within."

The reader who takes the time to reflect on this passage gains the key to the story.

The end of The Luminaries is all about beginnings springing from the union of the male and female luminaries, in the convergence and divergence of the sun's direct light and the moon's reflected luminosity:

"Different beginnings? I think we must."
"Will there be more of them?"
"A great many more..."

This is a story set in circular space/time, an eternity without beginning or end. There is no inherent distinction between the three times, past, present, and future.

Enough about the structure that is causing such a buzz, and I think discomfort to those reading The Luminaries under deadline pressure and readers more comfortable with a more linear story.

The more traditional linear action of the book is easily described. It answers these questions: Who killed the recluse? Where did the prodigal son get to? What is the provenance of the gold treasure that so many lay claim to?

The answers are sifted like gold by a cast of approximately 20 characters in the spiraling course of the story with no beginning and no end. (Interesting to note that the movement of panning for gold is at once circular, but also requires tilting of the pan so that the circular motion resembles a spiral to tease out the gold.)

The characters - including the 12 luminaries each aligned with a house in the Zodiac - are deeply drawn psychologically in the first 360 pages. The astuteness of the psychology, based on the story of the Zodiac, itself is otherworldly. The defining qualities of each character as well as the recessive counter qualities all come into play under various conditions (including convergence with others manifesting complementary or opposing qualities).

The discerning reader will come to see that the qualities manifest in these characters mirror people and relations we face in our lives. The play between these qualities and their manifest characters explain how the most hardened and mercenary character can show compassion to someone he has victimized such as when the capitalist Mannering in one instance is threatening the Chinaman digger Ah Quee with a pistol, and soon thereafter shows the same man compassion in saving him from a beating being administered by thugs who have been set in motion by the primary law authority in town.

The characters are drawn with great humanity and compassion, which allows them not to appear as ideas with arms and legs as they might if sketched by a lesser talent than Catton. The cast itself creates a community with all of its functioning parts that itself evolves as a character, with many balances not the least of which is the convergence of goldfield law, and the more established codes of civilization's law.

I've gone on at too great a length. For that I apologize. But like the many professional critics who have taken a run at this wonderful book, I have yet to scratch its surface.

About the author: In addition to doing some research on astrology and the Zodiac, I culled interviews - written and audio - of Eleanor Catton. Normally, I pretty much leave the author out of any book's consideration (how do you factor into Billy Faulkner's works his diddling 17 year old girls...don't answer, please).

But in this exceptional case, it's well worth the time to pore through the interviews. As one might expect, The Luminaries springs from the finest kind of creative mind, and she is guileless enough to field every question asked of her and answer intelligently.

As a former newspaper reporter, I have never seen anyone so accomplished in an interview, and she's doing it without talking points. Her sure-footed answers are offered graciously and without hesitation.

As she matures, you might not be offered such an unobstructed glimpse into that fine mind.
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