Kazuo Ishiguro’s “When We Were Orphans” – a Disappointment

It happens every now and then.  You start a book, and it draws you right in.  You are intrigued by the characters, the setting, the plot line(s), and the writing.  You sit back, relax, and enjoy, and you look forward to the remainder of the book.

And then it happens, in this case over 2/3 through the book.  It falls apart.  The characters become caricatures, the plot lines lose all credibility, the rhythm of the writing dissipates.  You don’t know if you should finish it, or just put it back on the shelf.  What a disappointment.

Christopher (a/k/a Puffin) Banks is born in the International Settlement of Shanghai around the turn of the century, the son of an employee of a company which made a lot of money importing opium into China and a mother who is an anti-opium activist.  His best friend is Akira, a young Japanese boy who lives next door.  Sadly, he is “orphaned” when his parents, one by one, disappear, and he is sent to his aunt in England.

He grows up, goes to the university and fulfills his lifelong ambition to become a private investigator, and a successful and well known one at that.  He is personally a little awkward socially, but his fame overcomes this and he develops a strange, extended but not deep relationship with an interesting woman who is portrayed as a social climber, who “wants it all”.  She marries a man much her senior and they resettle in Shanghai, where her husband embarks on some unsuccessful mission to preserve the peace, as the city withstands the beginnings of the Japanese invasion of the early 1940s.  She convinces Christopher to come to Shanghai as well, and he does for the first time since he left.  He meets old friends, gets the lay of the land, and then decides that his parents have been kidnapped so many years before and have been hidden since then in house he is determined to locate and visit.

What?  How could he believe his parents have been held prisoner for over 20 years in the same house?  And when you follow the steps he takes on this fantasy-like journey, you keep asking yourself: “What?”  It sure lost me – how he located the house, how he by chance found Akira whom he hadn’t seen since childhood, how they got caught on the Japanese-Chinese battle front….none of this made any sense to me.  And the credibility of the first 200 pages, when I was intrigued by the characters, simply vanished.

Too bad.

Chimerica at the Studio – Just a Few Thoughts

With all of the hoopla surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United States, the unexpected resignation of John Boehner, and the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the visit to Seattle and Washington of President Xi Jinping of China (otherwise a major, major event) has been lost in the shuffle.

In fact, I was reminded of it only because last night we went to see “Chimerica” at the Studio Theatre.  “Chimerica”, which takes place both in Beijing and New York (back and forth, forth and back), is a play about the confluence of Chinese and Americans and their respective countries.  Written by Lucy Kirkwood, a young British playwright, “Chimerica” is an award winning play which opened in 2013 in London to sellout audiences, and is being premiered in America at the Studio.

The term “Chimerica” is the creation of Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson and is meant to show the two countries as now dependent upon each other, in a symbiotic relationship.  And, I guess, that is one of the goals of the play, as well.

It’s a long play, running over three hours, not counting a 15 minute intermission.  It is a complicated play in that it is composed of dozens of small scenes, some in New York, some in Beijing, with no set changes – often just with the drop of an oriental screen, and its lifting with new characters standing in place of the old.  Many of the actors play multiple roles.

It is 1989, and Tiananmen Square, Beijing.  A young American photographer is in his hotel across from the square photographing the demonstration and the violent army reaction.  Amazed, he watches a lone man carrying two shopping bags walk in front of a battery of tanks, as if daring them to strike him down.  Facing down the Red Army.  He is the tank man.

There really was a tank man.  Photos of his stance were shown world wide.  No one knows his fate, or his identity.

Decades later, the American returns to China.  He visits an old friend, a Chinese man, a teacher of English.  He knows that his friend was a Tiananmen protester and wants him to help him locate the tank man.  His friend thinks it a foolish thing to do.  But he pursues.

Of course there are complications.  The English teacher has problems with the Chinese government and especially their cover-up of air pollution activities, and in return the Chinese government has problems with him. His brother works in a factory and thinks you have to go along with the system.  The English teacher continues to mourn his young wife, who was killed in the 1989 massacre. His brother’s son attends Harvard. The photographer wants his boss at the newspaper in New York to support his search for the tank man and publish the results.  The newspaper depends upon financing from a Chinese institution and cannot afford to offend the powers that run the country.  The photographer’s girl friend (so to speak) is an expert on Chinese demographics and earns her living explaining Chinese consumer preferences to American companies seeing entree. Until she is fired. The photographer gets a lead on his prey – pursuit of the lead gets him arrested. And then he is fired. You can see the complications – and begin to see how the double nation of Chimerica operates.

How does it turn out?  I won’t tell you.  You need to invest the three plus hours to find out.

Is the investment worth it?  That’s the $1.8 trillion question.  The structure of the play is very interesting.  The acting is excellent, without exception.  The basic story line is intriguing.  The plot details are too numerous and too dependent upon happenstance and coincidence.  Is the investment worth it?  That’s the $1.8 trillion question.  The London reviewers generally liked the play; the Washington Post not so much.  The audience was enthusiastic; myself, closer (but not as close as possible) to the Post. I did not find the play profound.  I don’t think it gave me much insight.  But then again, insight is a funny thing, and sometimes it hides deep inside you, popping out when you least expect it.

Why I Think the Pope’s Speech to Congress was Brilliant

I was fascinated as I watched the live telecast of the Pope’s talk before the Joint Session of Congress for a number of reasons.

I was surprised, for example, that the Pope’s speech was not religious in a sectarian sense, not only not Catholic but not Christian – for example, I don’t recall that there was a single mention of Jesus.  To me, the talk was not a sectarian talk but a humanistic talk (humanistic talk being, to me, more religious in nature than a sectarian talk would be).

I was also surprised that the Pope, who clearly has some beliefs that are very different from mine, didn’t say anything (that I can recall) that I disagree with.  Even when he touched upon those doctrinal positions of the Church, such as the sanctity of life (i.e., prohibition of abortion) and the importance of the family (being against homosexuality and gay marriage), he did it in such a sensitive way that he was able to respect the position of others, while not turning against important teaching of his Church.

Take abortion.  He segued into the importance of respecting life in all of its stages.  Of course, to today’s Catholicism, life in all of its stages would include conception. But, no, he didn’t go there.  I don’t think the word “abortion” was mentioned (much less “contraception”, another Church holding that I, and most Catholics, disagree with in its entirety).  Instead, the talk immediately went not to life pre-birth, but rather to the end of life.  The Pope came out for a universal position against the death penalty, forcing some of those clapping conservatives in the chamber to keep their hands apart and sit back down.  He had talked about the death penalty before, but the reference here was not expected.

Similarly, when he spoke about his upcoming Philadelphia stop for a conference of the importance of families, he did not mention gay marriage or homosexuality in general.  He simply spoke about the importance of strong families, without defining the word “family”, something that almost everyone would agree with, as they would with his emphasis on families struggling financially.

At our synagogue this Yom Kippur, the rabbi gave a sermon on the evils of polarity – speaking in a Jewish framework, talking about how the opinions of Jews on various issues have become so polarized that people are not only no longer talking to each other, but are talking insultingly about each other.  Pope Francis did the same thing, but on a larger scale, putting the member of Congress in their place, instructing them that the goal of a political leader was to reach “pragmatic” answers to the problems they are facing.  His attack on polarity and the rabbi’s attack were totally parallel.  Perhaps the Pope was listening to the rabbi through our synagogue’s telephone call-in facility.

The Pope came out for environmental protection, citing our mutual responsibilities for protection of the planet, and clearly insinuating that mankind’s activities were implicated in the current climatic changes we are experiencing and fearing.  He talked about the responsibility of governments in helping their citizens who are poor and homeless, on the basis of human being to human being (this paralleled another sermon at our synagogue on Rosh Hashana, given by another of our rabbis – teaching us that the person on the street you want to avoid is a person, just like you or me).

And of course he talked about immigration, about seeing the immigrants and the refugees as individuals.  He pointed out not only that he is the son of immigrants (from Italy to Argentina), but he guessed that many in the chamber were also the children of immigrants, again making the human connection.

Capitalism?  He did not attack it, but he made it clear that income “distribution” should be a matter of government policy, that business was important, but only when used for the overall good – he said particularly when it creates a significant number of jobs, not only when it increases wealth for a few.

And religious fundamentalism?  It’s bad, he said, and (just like President Obama said at that infamous prayer breakfast –  I think that the national prayer breakfast should be abolished, by the way) every religion has or has had its dangerous, violent fundamentalists.

So, it was a highly humanistic speech, with references to the Golden Rule abounding, with controversial issues softened. It was a call for collaboration and cooperation, something sorely lacking (as the Pope pointed out) in the world today.  And it was reaching for the best of mankind’s instincts – for this reason, to me it was brilliant.

Even at the very end, standing on the west balcony of the Capitol, he brought his message to all.  “Pray for me” he said, and – if you aren’t a believer or can’t pray, please at least send me your good wishes.  Here they come……..

Last Weekend’s Foundation for Jewish Studies Retreat with Professor David Ruderman – My Recap

The four lectures given by Professor David Ruderman at the Foundation of Jewish Studies’ Labor Day weekend retreat were each, in its own way, very interesting.  The title of the overall program was “Four Moments in the History of Jewish-Christian Interactions and their Meaning for Contemporary Jews”, and each session dealt with a period of history where the Jewish-Christian relations aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.

Ruderman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and has previously taught at Yale and the University of Maryland.  His delivery is both clear and engaging, and his expertise and knowledge apparent.  He is accessible and down to earth.

A short description of his four presentations follows:

Session 1.  “Jews, Christians and the Kabbalah in Renaissance Italy” (Sixteenth century).  His main subjects were Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, Renaissance humanists who were interested not only in recovering old Greek and Roman knowledge, but also ancient Hebrew knowledge, something you don’t think of when you think of the Renaissance.  A lot of this interest, he said, came from the concept of “Ancient Theology”, or the thought that all religions are exponents of a series of general truths, and if you look back at the wisdom literature of one religion, you will find truths that you can use to help you understand your own religion, even if it is a different one.  They also thought that the Jews were too parochial and if you could bring Jewish scholars into contact with Christian scholars, you could bring Jews closer to Christianity.  But to retrieve this Ancient Theology, you could not read the old material literally, but rather poetically or metaphorically.  For this reason, the Renaissance scholars turned to Jewish mysticism, largely found in the study of Kabbalah.  One problem is that the bedrock text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, was not an ancient text, as they then thought, but a product of the Middle Ages.  But, with this misinterpretation, Pico thought that, to understand Christianity, you needed to understand Kabbalah, so he turned to Raimondo da Moncada (one of his many names), a Sicilian rabbi and convert to Christianity who translated works from Hebrew into Latin for Pico (but who, according to Ruderman, manipulated his translations so that they said what Pico wanted to hear) and Jochanan Alemanno, another rabbi.

Things then worked backwards.  With the study of Kabbalah becoming common in some Christian circles, Jews of the time began to began to study Kabbalah as well (with some dissenting from this path, such as Leon Modena), and some of the ideas of Pico and Ficino began to creep into Jewish thinking, particularly with the respect to bringing some Platonic thinking into Jewish thought.  One of the exponents of this was Leon Ebreo (born Yehuda Abravanel, son of Isaac), who wrote a book “Dialogues of Love”, clearly a Jewish book but with an Ancient Theology flavor – a universal book, and one found later in the library of Spinoza.  Meanwhile Pico did such things as to take a Hebrew word, find all the other words you can make of this word (the word was B’reshit) and put these words in such an order that you would start with the concept of God and work down to man, passing through the stage of Son of God.  Although based on a Hebrew word, and a kabbalistic methodology, it had no meaning for Jews.  But in the meantime, a Jew, Abraham Yagel, wrote a book about God, which was set Dante-like where he ascended to heaven in a dream.  This was a Jewish book – but not written with Jewish parochialism, but rather as an exemplar of Ancient Theology, open to all people.

The second session was titled:  “Islam, Christianity and the Bizarre Jewish Messiah, Shabbtai Zvi” (17th century).  Although he did not concentrate on the general situation in the mid-17th century, it was an unusual time.  Messianic fervor existed throughout the Jewish world (and with regard to a second coming of Jesus, the Christian).  Rumor had it that the Messiah was going to appear in the year 1666.  And the decade before, the Chemitski Cossack uprising murdered at least 100,000 Jews in Poland and the Ukraine.  The Jews were ready for something.

And that something turned out to be a Turkish Jew, born in Smyrna (now Izmir), named Shabbtai Zvi, who proclaimed himself the Messiah (with a little help from his media-savvy friends), but eventually converted to Islam and soon died.  For many, the question of how Shabbtai could have converted has always been a mystery.  But apparently not to Ruderman, who talked a lot in this session about what he termed “mixed identities”, people who claimed affiliation with more than one group, much like the Jews for Jesus do today, although for many this is the ultimate sin and the ultimate form of heresy.  In fact, he said, there were some who thought that the Messiah had to join another group, such as Islam, to proceed down to the utmost depths, before he could fulfill his mission.  Thus, for some, apparently Shabbtai’s conversion was proof of his being the Messiah, not the opposite.  And perhaps, like some of the Conversos in Spain, Shabbtai, although he converted to Islam, may have also thought of himself as remaining Jewish.

Shabbtai left Turkey for Egypt and then Gaza, where he met Nathan of Gaza, his publicist, who took advantage of advances in printing to publish all sorts of pamphlets that were spread through out Europe.  Even after Shabbtai’s death, many of his followers remained his followers, some moving to Palestine, some also converting to Islam but maintaining a mixed Islamo-Jewish identity to this day (the Dolmeh in Turkey) and some falling under the spell of still different pseudo-messianic figures, the best known of whom is Jacob Frank (Frank maintaining he was the new embodiment of Shabbtai, and who converted to Christianity, but was excommunicated by the Church).

The foremost historian of the Shabbtai movement was the famous Gershom Scholem.  His analysis starts with Isaac Luria and his kabbalistic followers in Palestine, in Safed, and the Lurianic theory that the world was God’s creation but that the creation was shattered, with divine sparks hidden everywhere, it being man’s responsibility to reassemble them to redeem the world from its present state.  He claimed that Shabbtai was influenced by Lurianic ideas, and that by converting to Islam, Shabbtai believed he was going to the realm of evil to find and reclaim the broken shards.

The response to the breadth of the Shabbtai movement, said Ruderman, was to help bring about what we now know as the rigid orthodoxy of some Jewish movements.  The rabbinical response was to create distinct boundaries which Jews could not traverse, and to set forth increasingly restrictive laws to make sure that the boundaries were respected.

But Ruderman talked a lot about mixed identities and what led to the mingling of religious traditions.  He talked about the Converso phenomenon in Spain, where up to 1/3 of the Jews had converted to Christianity by the mid-1400s under a great deal of church and social pressure, and that it was this conversion rate which, in part, led to the decision to expel the non-converted Jews in 1492.  Clearly, a large number of the converted Jews were converted to Christianity in name only, and others who may have thought themselves fully converted at one time found themselves at a later time adopting, or re-adopting, some of their former rituals and habits.  If you remove the non-converted Jews, the thinking went, the converts would no longer be in contact with living Jews, and would have no one encouraging or assisting them in their backsliding.

Over the next century, many converted Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal (combined into one empire in 1580) decided to leave and regain their Jewish identities.  They went to France, to Amsterdam, to the Ottoman Empire and to the New World.  But most of these Jews did not fully adopt the customs of traditional Judaism, or have the ability or desire to be the strict followers of rabbinic Judaism.  They, on the other hand, had mixed identities, proclaiming themselves Jewish and adopting those customs with which they were knowledgeable and comfortable.  They were the first “Jews by Choice”, in effect, and perhaps the first Modern Jews.  In spite of the well known attempts of the official Jewish community of Amsterdam to foster a boundaried orthodoxy (most famous incident of course being the excommunication of Spinoza), for the most part they did not succeed in stamping out an increasing variety of observances and incidents of obvious individualism.

This does not meant that there weren’t further organized struggles to change important aspects of traditional Jewish thought.  One 18th century rabbi (named Hayom?) posited a God with three aspects, building from kabbalistic teaching.  He became very controversial, the Christians loved him, and many Jews called him a Shabbtian, although he never mentioned Shabbtai Zvi.  Then there was Marco Luzzatto, an 18th century Italian kabbalist, who said that he could speak directly to God, and he downplayed the rabbis as authorities, gaining him also accusations of heresy.  And finally there was the major dispute between Rabbis Emden and Eibeshitz, both important rabbis.  But Emden accused Eibeshitz of being a Shabbtian.  While history for a long time blamed Emden for casting unfair aspersions at his rabbinic rival, but now it has turned out that Eibeshitz was in fact a Shabbtian, and his son converted to Christianity.

Finally, it is interesting that the year of Shabbtai’s appearance as messiah was 1666, and that this is the same year that Spinoza was excommunicated.  Their similarities?  Both separated from Judaism, dismissed rabbinics, but had a mixed identity, holding onto some facets of their Jewish backgrounds, irrespective of what else they were doing or going through.

I did ask one question, that being – what was the role of the messiah in the eyes of Shabbtai’s followers?  What did they expect would happen, especially after the conversion or after his death?  Ruderman’s answer is that the messiah was anticipated to effect major changes.  Exactly what those changes would be……….was not known.

Ruderman’s third lecture was on a different topic – the study of the Talmud, and especially the Mishnah, by Christian theologians in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  Its title was “A Christian Must Study Mishnah – Christian Rabbinism in 18th century England”. He started with William Wotton, who made the first English translation of the Mishnah .  He spoke of Moses Marcus (grandson of Gluckel of Hameln, early female Jewish writer), raised in England and sen to English boarding schools, a convert to Christianity who apparently made his living teaching the Hebrew bible to Christians.

But apparently studying the Bible was not enough for the English – they wanted instruction in rabbinical writings and in Jewish law, so the Christians became interested in the Mishnah.  (Ruderman pointed out that, at the same time, Mishnah studying was also expanding among Jews across Europe, including the Maharal in Prague and among the Hasidim in Sfat (where the Mishnah was memorized and recited aloud for mystical purposes), and that this overall trend was helped immensely by the spread of printing, with the Mishnah having been printed in 1492 in Naples, 1549 in Venice and 1614 in Prague.  (These versions did not include the Gamara, the other part of the Talmud.)

This brought us to Manassah ben Israel, the Dutch rabbi, who was so influential in persuading Oliver Cromwell to let Jews back into England.  He was a teacher and many of his students were Christian.  He published a version of the Mishnah in Hebrew, but with vowel markings, thus enabling him to more easily use it as a teaching tool for Christians.  The book was financed by Christians and apparently organized somewhat differently than a traditional Mishnah, into a format based on canon law.  Other versions were published at about the same time.  One was translated into Latin.  Another, published in Amsterdam, had commentary both from Jewish and from Christian sources.

The rationale was that Christianity could only be understood if you understood its Jewish base.  And the Jewish base was viewed, of course, as leading to the coming of Jesus.  So, if you look at items in the Jewish writing that you can interpret to support Christian dogma, that’s what you do.  And if you have quotes that don’t take you where you want to go, you assume that there was a mistake in the language of the Bible, that at some time in the past the original language had been corrupted.  (There is no basis for this belief.)

These Christian students also looked closely at the writing of Josephus, at Islamic texts, and even at the Samaritan version of the Bible.  They were quite learned, had extensive libraries.  They discounted some church rituals as being based on erroneous information and they were very much against Christian anti-Semitism.

By the late 18th century, this intensive study seemed to lessen and, for the first time in a while, and particularly in France with Voltaire and Diderot, simple uneducated antisemitism took over.

The fourth and final lecture was titled “A Missionary, a Meshumad (Apostate) and a Maskil (Enlightener): the Revival of the Jewish Christian Debate in the 19th Century”.  This talk was based on Ruderman’s current research and was admittedly not as well organized as the other other three.  It was a work in process.

He spoke of missionaries as being the first colonialists, the first imperialists, and he discussed the London Society Promoting Christianity to the Jews.  He spoke of the first Christian Zionists.  He talked about the first London Reform synagogue, established in 1846 (the first traditional synagogue was opened in 1702, Bevis Marks in London).

He told the story of one Alexander McCaul, a London Christian missionary who studies Judaism, became a Judeophile, spoke Hebrew and Yiddish at home, lived in Warsaw for a number of years, studied Talmud.  Following his time in Warsaw, he went back to England and became a professor of religion at Kings College.  While there he had Jewish students, started a publishing company for Jewish did convert some Jews to Christianity (including a rather odd case, one Schwartzberg who never changed his Jewish dress, and another one, Stanislas Hoga, who converted to Christianity but continued to faithfully observe Jewish law.)

This Time “Lord Jim”

So, I made my way through “Lord Jim” a second time, as I promised myself that I would do after reading “Victory”.

It’s an interesting character study.  “Jim” (no last name, like he came from nowhere) is a crew member on the Patna, a ship buffeted by bad weather, springing a major leak, and making it clear it would sink with 800 Muslim pilgrims on board.  The captain and certain other crew members decide to abandon the ship and its passengers in a life boat.  Jim is not among them, but is tending to a fatally injured crew member who was one of the absconders.  The men in the lifeboat don’t know that their friend is dead and keep yelling “jump”.  Jim does not intend to jump, but rather to go down with the ship, as sailors are to do, but something happens (he is not sure what) and he jumps.  He is saved.

The boat does not sink and everyone is rescued.  Jim and others are arrested for abandoning the ship.  The others, again, abscond, but Jim refuses to.  He jumped one time; he is racked by guilt.  He will not do it again.

By chance, Jim meets Marlow, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness” and of most of this book.  After his trial, it is clear that no one will hire Jim to serve on a ship, and his only job possibilities that Marlow can help him with are undesirable shore jobs.  Jim is willing to take the jobs, but not willing to disclose his past, so whenever his past looks like it might come out, he disappears.  Finally, Marlow connects Jim with Stein, who runs a major trading company and needs a man to try to resurrect his post on the island of Patusan.

Patusan is a dangerous place, home to competing tribes, no friend of the white man or trader.  But Jim accepts with relish and again is determined to do everything right – trade, relations with all the natives, everything.  He even finds a beautiful young woman, the daughter of his crazed predecessor.  He vows not to leave Patusan (he has nowhere to go, anyway), and not to leave his beautiful girlfriend.

Things on Patusan tense up, especially after another white bounty hunter and his men show up on the island, and he knows that his life is in danger from many sides.  But perhaps things will work out, and if they don’t……..

So the book has some similarities to “Victory”.  The East Indies, white traders, ships, native tribes, a ‘lost’ hero fleeing to an island with no whites, a beautiful young girl friend.  You see the connections.  (Even one character shows up in both – Schomberg, the German innkeeper, here with only a cameo appearance, and 15 years later in “Victory” as a major protagonist.)

But the books are very different.  “Victory” reads like a normal 19th century novel.  It follows a story line with short paragraphs, a mixture of dialogue and narrative, and few diversions.  “Lord Jim” is completely different – lengthy sentences that can run lines and lines, lengthy paragraphs that can run pages and pages, the majority of the books in quotation marks, because we are listening to Marlow’s story as he tells it.  The chronology is non-linear.  You see Jim awaiting trial well before you know why, to give an example. Somewhat stream of consciousness, filled with diversions, long descriptions filled with adjectives, many words that neither you nor anyone else have seen before.  It’s considered one of the first “modern” novels, and clearly it would be a literary shocker in the early 19th century.

But I didn’t enjoy or appreciate it now any more than I did when I first read it, decades ago.  And although there are many rave reviews on Goodreads, I am not sure that I understand why it is considered such a classic.

The Quickest of Reviews – Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory”

One day I would like to read a biography of Joseph Conrad.  Polish born, raised in French, an English speaker only as an adult, a member of the French merchant marine, a British citizen, and an author of unbelievable talent.  His words, his sentences, his paragraphs – all unique, and all in a way musical.  I had never read “Victory”, one of his later novels (written when he was in his late 50s), until last week.  Enjoyed it immensely and recommend it.  Takes place largely on various islands of Indonesia, the main character, the British raised Swede Axel Heyst, escaped from his intellectual father to the South Seas, where he gets involved in an ambitious coal mining operation, which proposed mining coal in the Indies to serve the scattered islands of the Indies.  The company goes bankrupt, but Heyst, its local manager, stays on, leading an isolated, independent, vagabond life.  Following the death of Heyst’s partner in the coal mining business, a certain Morrison, local hotel keeper, the disliked German Schomberg, spreads a false rumor that Heyst murdered Morrison and stole all of his money.  The hotel engages an all-girl band to play during the evenings.  The members of the orchestra are all tough cookies, with the exception of young English Lena, whom Heyst helps escape from her bondage and goes off with her to his isolated island home.  Unfortunately, Schomberg also had eyes on Lena (to escape from his wife) and sets three ruffians off to retrieve her and kill Heyst, assuring them that Heyst has, at his home, sufficient treasure to take care of them the rest of their lives.  And the rest, as they say, is history……or in this case fiction.  A good traveler’s description of the Indies during the 19th century, and a good psychological description of the people who populated it.

I have read a number of Conrad’s book, and have only been disappointed in one of them “Lord Jim”.  I am not sure this is the fault of the book, which I read for the first time in high school.  The problem is mine, I think.  Like some of the Faulkner books I have tried to read, it seems to have been written in a style that I just can’t comprehend.  I can’t follow the story line, I don’t know what I am reading – it’s like it was in another language.  But, OK, I am going to try again.

Four Saxophones at Epiphany Church – The Zzyzx Quartet

First, it’s pronounced Zeizix.  Second, there is actually a Zzyzx, California.  Who knew?  (You all knew?)

Second, they were terrific, and I have to admit I didn’t know what I was expecting.

There are four saxophones in the quartet – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.  Their play together was seamless.

They started with a transcribed version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of  Sheba” from the oratorio, “Solomon”.  Now, Handel never heard of saxophones, which weren’t invented for another 150 years, and if he hadn’t, clearly neither Solomon or the Queen of Sheba (she must have had a name, although I don’t think anyone knows what it was – in fact, they don’t even know where Sheba was) had ever heard the sound of a saxophone.  But I can tell you this.  The queen would have been ecstatic to have been welcomed by Zzyzx and four trombones.

Next came Jean-Baptiste Singelee’s Premier Quatuor.  I had never heard of the composer or, obviously, the piece.  It turns out, though, that Singelee was a close friend of inventor Adolphe Sax, and that this was the first quarter ever written for saxophones and for their inventor.  And, if the Queen of Sheba would have been happy, I assume that Adolphe Sax was also happy.  A piece with contrasting movements – elegiac, and then quick.  And interesting historically.  (Sax, by the way, got his patent for the saxophone in the 1840s, and he apparently built a number of saxophones – perhaps as many as seven – at different pitches, so this quartet was possible at this early date.)

Three more pieces – John Mackey’s “Unquiet Spirits” II and III, which Zzyzx commissioned and which, although I can’t say that I particularly liked the piece, did sound like (very) unquiet spirits.  Then Jean Francaix’s “Petit Quartuor”, a brisk, light twentieth century piece which ends with a “serenade comique”.  And finally Marc-Andre Hamelin’s “Etude IV”, which has a history that I didn’t quite follow from the introductory explanation – it was adapted from another composer’s work, where two etudes were combined into one, and then it was transcribed for four saxophones.  This one, by the way, you can listen to on YouTube, played by Zzyzx.

Hope they come back soon.

“The Premier” by Georges Simenon

I had never read anything by Simenon, a man who wrote an extraordinary number of books (approaching 200), largely mysteries featuring Inspector Maigret.  I felt I should give him a try, and there was one of his short works (about 150 pages) on the 50 cent rack, so I picked it up.  And read it in two sittings yesterday.

But “The Premier”, written in 1957,  is not a mystery in the normal sense, and is not about Maigret.  It is about a former French prime minister, now in his 80s, in rural retirement, who leaves his favorite chair only for his meals, his bed and his short daily walk, and whose contact with the world is by and large limited to the 5 p.m. news.  But he has a secret – in his library, hidden in various books, are documents that contain embarrassing things about younger French politicians.  Including the 60 year old politician who has been asked by the President to form a government and who was the protege of his older mentor.  The younger man knows that The Premier can ruin his chances to form a government if he releases this document, which he knows he has in his possession.  Does this mean, as the former premier thinks, that the younger man will contact him to get his “advice” on his new government?

Well, it doesn’t turn out that way.  Because as it turns out the secrets were not secret.  And the old premier’s staff were working not only for him.

And interesting book to read (in translation), but not one I would particularly recommend.

The Interesting Approach of Bob Woodward

I just finished reading Bob Woodward’s fourth book on the Bush years, “The War Within: a Secret White House History 2006-2008”.  It’s the second of the four books that I have read.

The story is interesting. Everyone knew that the war in Iraq was being lost.  Some thought it never should have been waged.  Some thought it was worthwhile and well waged, but that the United States did not think hard enough about what would happen after military victory.  Some thought that the United States could have succeeded even after not enough post-war planning if we had assigned a more competent class of people to handle what was clearly at least a short term occupation.  Whichever is most accurate, no one in 2006 thought things were trending the right way.

But what to do?  Should we get out as soon as possible?  That was the Rumsfled/Cheney and the Condoleezza Rice jview – turn things over to the Iraqis as soon as possible.  Or should we settle in until the country is much more stable?  This was the view of others.  And there were many voices being heard – the State Departments (whose influence was minimal, perhaps), Defense Department, the Military and Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council, and of course Congress.

The President?  His goal seemed to be to avoid defeat.  How to do this, he wasn’t clear.  Cheney?  His voice was, according to Woodward, less influential than supposed.  The military leaders?  Members of all policy camps.  The Congressional inquiry committee?  Sided with those who wanted out.

But the decision is eventually made to have a “surge” – increase the number of troops, stretch out the terms of those already in the country.  Concentrate them in Baghdad to stabilize the city, realizing that the Iraqi government under Maliki could not be relied upon.  And this did help stem violence in the city.  For a while.

But what was going to happen later.  Would the surge have to continue indefinitely? What would happen with the draw down that everyone supported one way or another?  What was the future of the country?  What would define victory?  These were the unanswered questions.

Woodward’s approach interests me.  He ;is obviously prolific – putting out a book every two years or so.  He writes not like a historian, but like a journalist.  Nothing is deep, there is no strong historical analysis, it’s a day by day reportage of what goes on.  His footnotes are much less extensive than are most authors’.  He relies tremendously on personal interviews.

And he writes like a fly on the wall.  Sometimes, he is reporting what we was told in interviews:  I asked him, and he answered this…..  But most of the time, you are in rooms that he was never in – where he has interviewed one or more participant, or perhaps has seen notes that someone present has made.  And then you are in the meeting – you are reading a conversation – a tremendous amount of dialogue, all within quotations.  Quotes that you know, for the most part, cannot be actual or verbatim.  But very readable and, perhaps unfortunately, believable, so you think you are actually hearing the voices of the participants.  (And of course, sometimes, where there has been a recording for example, you are.).

An interesting style.

Tim Weiner’s new book “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon”

I had read a few reviews of Tim Weiner’s new book about Richard Nixon, “One Man Against the World: the Tragedy of Richard NIxon”, and concluded it wasn’t for me.  Weiner’s book, said the reviewers, was too harsh on Nixon, hard as that may be to imagine.  It lacked balance.  The reviewers compared Weiner’s book with another new book about Nixon, by Evan Thomas, “Being Nixon”, which was clearly more sympathetic to the former president.

But when I saw that Weiner was speaking at Politics and Prose, I decided to go and much to my surprise I was very intrigued.  Weiner, a former National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, read a chapter of his book, and answered a lot of questions.  Every time that someone asked a “shouldn’t Nixon get credit for doing this good thing?” question, Weiner seemed to have a “he did it, but not of his own accord” type of answer that sounded right to me.  In particular, he said that a number of Nixon’s progressive domestic accomplishments were really Congressional accomplishments that Nixon knew would survive a veto.

The book itself is fascinating.  It is not a full biography, but Weiner calls it a biography of the Nixon presidency.  In fact, it is not really even that – it is the story of Nixon and Vietnam, and the story of Nixon and Watergate.  And a tawdry story it is.

It starts with the dirtiest of tricks, when Nixon, during the 1968 presidential election, convinced the South Vietnamese that they should pull back from Johnson’s Paris peace conference, because they would get a better deal under a Nixon presidency.  Apparently, Johnson learned of this during the campaign, but was afraid to say anything public, because Nixon’s action would most likely have been viewed as criminal and perhaps treasonous, and that the country could not withstand this during a presidential campaign.

Weiner shows a new president, now determined to end the war and create his legacy.  But he couldn’t stop the war without ceding the South to the North, and this he wouldn’t do, so he had to increase and increase and increase the pressure on Hanoi.  But he didn’t want to be a war president, so he couldn’t really say what he was doing, so he turned to secrecy.  And not only secrecy, but spreading the war outside of Vietnam, to Laos and to Cambodia, something he kept denying until it was impossible to do so any longer.  And he did this with the aid of his loyal assistants, like Haldeman and Erlichman, as well as his experts, such as Henry Kissinger, who comes out of this book at least as bad as Nixon.

The leaking of the Pentagon Papers (the official, but secret, story of the Vietnam War written by the Defense Department) by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times, enraged Nixon and his team and, used to secrecy, Nixon authorized a group to perform dirty tricks, including authorizing them to burglarize Ellsberg’s office.  All of this increased Nixon’s paranoia and led to the creation of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (or CREEP), which was organized to do dirty tricks to help Nixon win a second term.  Included in these dirty tricks was the unauthorized entry into the Democrats’ office at the Watergate, an incident that it does not appear Nixon specifically authorized in advance.  But when he learned of it, Nixon participated in and directed the cover up, which included the payment of large sums of money for silence, and the promise of employment, telling everyone to lie on a regular basis.

And then there were the tapes that no one knew about until a direct question was asked by Congressional investigators to Alexander Butterfield.  They asked him whether there were any recording devices in the White House.  Butterfield did not lie, and even the investigators must have been surprised at the breadth of the answer.  And then another fight started – the investigators wanted the tapes.  Nixon claimed executive privilege.

There are many other things you might remember from the Nixon years.  The firing of the special prosecutor by Robert Bork.  The imminence of impeachment proceedings. The criminal case against Vice President Agnew. The resignation from the presidency.

At Politics and Prose, Weiner was asked if he could name 5 things that did Nixon did that were good.  He thought for a few minutes and said.  First, he raised two wonderful daughters (following that he said – can that count for 2?).  And another thing he did was resign the presidency, avoiding the impeachment trial. I don’t remember the fourth item, and there really wasn’t a fifth.

I finished this book a few days ago and recommend it highly.  I picked up yesterday a copy of Bob Woodward’s “The War Within”, his story of the final two years of the Bush administration (2006-2008) and the war in Iraq………..Nixon redux.  Nothing changes.