Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I received this book as a gift, and I have looked forward to reading it. I saved it on purpose to read in the new year.

This is only the seocnd book by Ishiguro that I have read, the first being Never Let me Go. There is a quality in both books that is the same--a sort of unreliable narrator who tells the story of both past and present at the same time, switching back and forth and drawing the two threads closer and closer, until...

Well, until you realize that the narrator IS unreliable, and there are enormous pieces of the story that do not fit neatly together. In fact, the threads of the narrative in this story are left dangling. I am not sure exactly whether it is the story of one woman, or three, or if all three of the woman in the story are the same woman. Or if, perhaps, there were two women.

A Pale View of Hills is narrated by the central character, Etsuko, a Japanese woman who lives in England. In the present, she is enjoying a visit from one daughter, while mourning the recent suicide of her other, troubled daughter. At the same time, she is recalling and reliving events from her life in post-war Japan. This is a quiet sort of story, with what I think of as a Japanese quality of keeping the emotions carefully controlled on the surface, no matter what is going on inside.

As the narrative draws to the end, we are left completely baffled about what parts of the story are true. I would have to read the whole book over again to see if there are any clues that I missed, that might give a hint toward the answer. However, I cannot read the book over again and receive the same impact that the sudden realization that I have been led astray gave me the first time. That sudden jolt seems to be the point of the entire book.

So, I plan to leave it for now. I continue to be intrigued by Ishiguro as an author, and I will certainly read more of his work as the opportunity arises.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Economics in One Lesson, part 2

Well, I have to admit I am rather proud of myself for hanging in there and being on schedule with this book for two weeks in a row. Henry Hazlitt is delving into the sort of territory that makes economics a fairly daunting topic--employment, tariffs, imports and exports.

While he does continue to offer examples that are as simple as possible (maybe if this were a modern book, it would be "Economics for Dummies," I did find myself having to read very slowly to follow some of his logic. He moves so quickly from one "logical" point to the next that I didn't feel I was always able to make the connections myself.

However, I was further impressed by the idea that I wrote about last week--that part of being able to understand the bigger picture of economics is having enough imagination to picture "what might have been." Every economic policy (presumably) benefits some groups for at least some period of time. What happens can be seen, observed, and (more importantly) calculated to produce statistics. The benefits that didn't happen because of any given economic policy are much harder to evaluate, and they defy calculation, so that it is difficult to make a comparison between the good that happened and the good that didn't happen to see which one would actually have been better. Hazlitt uses the term "optical illusion" in reference to a short-sighted or one-sided evaluation of economics. I think it is a good word, because optical illusions do deceive--the "evidence" of our eyes is so convincing, and it is always much harder to see, with the eyes of imagination, what is not there to be seen.

I think I understood the relationship between employment and production fairly well. Hazlitt calls production the end--because production is real wealth--and employment only the means toward that end. If we make employment the end rather than production, it seems we end up hurting both in the long run. However...long-term policies that may be good and sensible from an economic standpoint can still cause short-term, or even permanent hardship to some segments of society. Hazlitt admits that, but doesn't really offer solutions, as that is not the point of his book. He is merely trying to remind us that successful economics cannot occur if we only look at short-term results, or the results on one group of people.

I'm not really sure it's in the best interests of politicians (and they seem to be the economic policy-makers) to follow plans that would give the greatest prosperity in the long run. In the long run, they won't be around, and if they cause some of that short-term economic pain, they won't make it past the next election.

Curiously, I actually live in a place where some of those hard decisions were made. Poland, as a communist country, enjoyed "full employment," and industry was owned by the government, and wages were paid by them. In the early 1990's, Poland emerged from communism at the same time as many of its neighbors. However, while many eastern European countries adopted long-term plans for changing their economic systems, the Polish government divested itself of industry in favor of the private sector just as fast as it possibly could. Private owners took one look at inefficient, unproductive industries, and put thousands of people out of work.

I invite anyone to visit Poland today and compare its economic prosperity to that of its slower-changing neighbors. Poland has an illegal immigration problem not unlike that of the US, as Ukrainian and Russian workers come here to work for much better wages than they can in their own countries. Goods and services available here in Poland so closely resemble those in the west that there is virtually no difference, and that still cannot be said of countries further east. So I have an excellent illustration before me that Hazlitt is probably right. However, there were those many families who suffered and are still suffering because of the change. If you are under 30 in Poland today, you will probably have no trouble finding a job. If you are over is much, much harder. There is a generation, or maybe a generation and a half that are not going to benefit from the economic prosperity in Poland. They have suffered a permanent injury because of the changes. Those who were already retired have found their pensions woefully inadequate in the face of rising prices. Those older workers without the education and background to take advantage of the new economy can hardly earn a living wage.

And yet...the streets are full of new cars, the stores are full of every electronic gadget, everyone carries a cell phone, and there are no long lines of passive, patient people waiting to buy bread or eggs. Poland is as a whole much better off than before, in spite of the injury to some of its people.

Hazlitt doesn't really have answers about what to do for them, and from an economic standpoint, neither do I. The government who made the hard decisions is long since out of power as well. Hazlitt calls it an error not to look at the long-term effects of a policy on everyone, and I'm sure he is right, but for some people, the short-term effects are the only ones they are going to see, as they will not live long enough to enjoy the long-term benefits of sounder economic policy.


Be sure to read what others have to say in the discussion over at Dominion Family.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

Jean Webster is best-known as the author of Daddy Long-Legs, an epistolary novel about a girl from an orphanage who is given the opportunity to attend college. I've always had a vague idea that it was a girls' book--that if it were contemporary, it would have a "YA" label attached to it, and I think that would be relatively appropriate.

I listened to the lesser-known sequel, Dear Enemy at my much -loved Librivox recently, and I would have to say that I would not classify this book as a book for children in any way. I'm sure Jean Webster did not intend it as such. Dear Enemy is also an epistolary novel, being made up of the letters that Sally McBride (Judy's college friend from Daddy Long-Legs) writes to Judy and to others. Sally has taken on the directorship of the orphanage where Jean, now happily married to a well-to-do philanthropist, grew up. Charged with the task of making over the orphanage into a healthy, supportive environment for over 100 children, she tackles head-on any number of societal problems, from basic hygiene for babies to hereditary alcoholism to divorce.

For some reason, I wasn't expecting a book so full of opinions about society, politics, social responsibility, and reform. Most of it was pretty interesting (although I was positively horrified to come across the topic of eugenics), but it wasn't what I was expecting. I didn't really know anything at all about the author, but a little research on Jean Webster revealed that she was very much interested in various social reforms, including women's suffrage. All of her books (and most of them are long out of print) reflect her interest in the reforms that she wanted to see. It was rather sad to discover that someone who had worked to see better hygiene practiced in institutions died as the result of poor hygiene in the hospital where she gave birth to her first child.

I do think that the conclusions about children in Dear Enemy are fairly accurate. Ultimately, Sally comes to believe that "heredity" (a buzz-word of the time) means far less to a child's future than loving, careful rearing in a real home.

It's a shame that the book is so dated, and its purpose not at all relevant, because it relegates to obscurity an author whose prose really is excellent. Jean Webster has a very light touch. She combines humor and horror so well that it leaves the reader energized to tackle some hard thing rather than depressed and grieved about problems too big to solve. When I really think about it, I suspect that is not easy to do, and few authors manage it. The modern tendency is to emphasize just how dreadful something is, without offering the least hopefulness that things might be made better, except perhaps by some huge world-wide governmental solution.

The whole thing reminds me of the analytic way we have been taught to approach the world. We think in terms of "world poverty" instead of the working single mother two doors down who would be grateful for a grocery-store gift card or a homemade stew. Statistics do not awaken in anyone a desire for personal action. None of us can really have an impact on a statistic. We can, however, buy a warm coat for child whose father is in prison or fill up the gas tank for the pastor. Cheers for any book that could stir up your will to do something about the opportunities for service that are on your doorstep.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

As I perused a lot of the year-end posts about various bloggers' favorites for 2007, I noticed that The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini came up on a lot of lists. Almost universally, it received very high recommendations and reviews. In fact, I still want to read it, although I have not.

Quite by accident, rather, a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini's second novel, came my way, and I looked forward to reading it with greater expectations than I probably should have had. I started slowly, giving myself plenty of time to read and digest, because I was sure this was going to be an exceptional book, and I wanted to get the most out of it. When I reached the halfway mark, I finally had to confess myself disappointed. There was potential and promise in the story, but I felt the writing was not at all compelling, and the story was positively mediocre.

Last year, I read a wonderful book of essays on literature by John Erskine (The Literary Discipline). In the preface to that book, he says:
I write here of literature as an art. Since I mean to exclude, as not art, many books of undoubted importance and of wide appeal, I must attempt at least to defend a distinction that to certain readers will seem arbitrary. A book may tell us of a life we already know about, or of a life we as yet do not know; the pleasure it gives us will be of recognition or of curiosity satisfied. Of course no books fall absolutely into one or the other of such extremes, but it is fairly accurate to say that every successful book does give us information, a new experience, or brings back an old experience to recognize. Though both kinds of books may be equally well written, we are inclined to ask only instruction from the one kind, but permanent enjoyment from the other. One is a document in history or sociology, in ethics or psychology; the other, as I understand it, is a work of art. (Emphasis mine)

I am going to be arbitrary, too, and contend that this book is "not art," although it is worth reading as a document, so to speak, of culture and history.

If you removed the basic story in A Thousand Splendid Suns from Afghanistan, which has a contemporary relevance and is a subject of curiosity to most of us, it would be unexceptionable.

I must be entirely just, and say that the second half of the book was better than the first. The story grew more compelling because the characters (some of them) finally became more than wooden puppets. There were a few plot revelations that were truly stunning. I enjoyed the second part enough to feel that my judgment of "mediocre" at the halfway point was not entirely justified.

And yet. I have no real interest in rereading this book, ever. The characters did not live and breath for me, except in flashes, here and there. I think Khaled Hosseini's writing is uneven--mostly unremarkable, with a few pages here and there rising out of the morass to stand out as very well done. And yet, I do believe this book would be classified by Erskine as a document that tells us something about life in Afghanistan, rather than about something the common experience of mankind.

And I realize that I have said nothing about the story at all! A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women, married to the same brutish man, in modern Afghanistan. One of the most brutal realities in the book is the dates as they appear--the 1970's, the 1980's, the 1990's--this is very recent history, and yet so remote, so medieval, so primitive. Could there be a country in this modern age that makes laws forbidding women from showing their faces on the streets, or even walking there without a male relative to escort them? Apparently, there could.

I don't want to give the story away, but the only bright spot in the story is the friendship that develops between two women trapped in a hopeless situation.

In spite of what I've written here, I would still read with interest, but perhaps not such high expectations, Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner if the opportunity arises. While it may not be in the halls of fame for centuries to come, there is a place for books like this, and I'm not sorry I read it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Economics in One Lesson, part 1

While this book, Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson has been on my "want to read" list (the vague one that exists only in the foggy corners of my brain) for a long time, I was motivated by Cindy's schedule at DominionFamily to move the book from the foggy list to the concrete schedule, and it does fit nicely into my plan of reading two non-fiction books per month.

It's nice of Cindy to admit that economics is a weak area for her, since it certainly is for me as well. I have a much more difficult time comprehending economics on a large scale than I do comprehending economics on the small scale of home and family, although I have occasionally made observations comparing the two.

Hazlitt has really done a wonderful job of making large economic principles very comprehensible, and I am finding this book very readable. I already wrote one long post about what I've learned, Soviet-era refrigerators, and the economics of destruction, but that post got itself lost forever when my internet browser crashed.

So, I'll spare you the rants contained in that post, and focus on the one idea that impressed me the most so far. Hazlitt is basically saying that you need a really good imagination to see the big picture of economics, because part of evaluating the effectiveness of an economic policy is being able to see what is not there--that is, to see 'what might have been.'

For example, if you spend $50 to replace a broken window, the glazier is benefited by your expenditure, and you have a nice, new window. What no one can see is who would have benefited if your window hadn't been broken, and what you might have had (in addition to an intact window) if you had been able to spend your $50 elsewhere. No economic policy can be adequately evaluated only by looking at who was benefited, because some group will be benefited by any given policy. You have to use your imagination and see who was not-benefited (and perhaps even harmed) by the same policy.

As the scale gets bigger, I suspect it demands even more imagination. If tax-payer money is poured into a depressed region, and make-work jobs are created just for the sake of employing some people, then that region will be prosperous, and anyone may point to it as a success story (most likely for the sake of doing the same thing somewhere else, thus demanding more tax-payer funds). What no one can see is the way other regions were affected by having that money diverted elsewhere. Individuals in those regions, deprived of their spending power because of the taxes, didn't buy cars, build houses, invest in business, and didn't do other things they might have done if they had been able to keep their own money. It reminds me of a bridge project I recall--to build a bridge to an island off Alaska, where only 50 people resided (and they already had an adequate ferry system). Those 50 people would certainly have benefited from the multi-million dollar bridge construction, but those millions of dollars would not have been used somewhere else, and so thousands of people would have non-benefited from its construction

I have a hard time believing that makers of economic policy do not know this, but perhaps they are merely lacking in imagination.

I am a big-picture kind of person, and so I'm liking the way Hazlitt thinks so far. I'm looking forward to what the other participants have to say about these chapters, and I expect them to contribute greatly to my own understanding.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Talking books

I have just started reading The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye, and I can tell already that I am going to like this book a great deal.

The first chapter, entitled "The Motive for Metaphor" has already led me down familiar paths. I'm a huge fan of metaphor and analogy, and Frye is already very good at using word pictures to make abstract ideas clear. He sets the scenario of an individual shipwrecked on an uninhabited island to articulate the relationships that exists between the individual and the world around him. He divides the reactions toward the situation into intellectual ("There are some some banana trees! I wonder where the source of that stream is?") and emotional ("This is a beautiful place! How terrible that I've been shipwrecked all alone!") Both kinds of thinking, are, of course, valid, and Frye makes the further interesting observation that if your ship was a Western ship, you would have more faith in your intellectual observations, but if your ship (and consequently, you) were from the East, you would be more likely to trust your emotional perceptions of the world.

At the level of mere observation, emotions and intellect may alternate, but they are not combined. At this level, Science begins by accepting the facts, and, without trying to alter them, attempts to measure and describe what is observable. At the same level, Art begins by introducing the factor of "I want" or "I like" and does not entirely accept what is, but begins to imagine something more desirable.

At this point, action enters the scene, and you begin to build a shelter or plant a garden, and intellect and emotion are working together. What is important about life is no longer observer and subject, but what you do and what you want to do--necessity and freedom.

And this is where the conversation begins in my head, between Northrop Frye, David Hicks, Charlotte Mason, James Taylor, James Sire, Jacques Barzun, James Erskine and many others. I haven't even quite finished the first chapter, but I am already delighted that my reading has once again stepped into the circle of what Mortimer Adler called The Great Conversation. I am reminded of why it is a mistake to limit reading and study to current books on any given topic. It's like walking into a room where a conversation has been going on for several hours. No matter how much you think you understand, you are missing so much of what has gone before.

And THAT metaphor came from Jacques Barzun's Dawn to Decadance.

The books are talking...and I'm taking notes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

How can I resist?

All over the internet, from one corner of the blogsphere to the other, I keep bumping into posts about plans, projects, resolutions, lists, and expectations for 2008. A new year is such a large slate that it seems to have a lot of room on it for big, sprawling projects--the sort of things you wouldn't put into your daily or weekly planner, nor even perhaps on a monthly one.

"Lose weight" A worthy (and for some of us, so necessary) resolution, but hardly the sort of thing one puts on the "to do this week" list.

"Learn to Play the Piano" A very good idea that, and I wish I could, but you can't see writing it down for Thursday, can you?

It's only when you have a whole, big, fresh year in front of you that big goals have room to fit into the plan.

And then, if you want them to happen, you'd better break them down into little pieces and get the little pieces into those weekly and daily plans, or the whole thing will be squeezed out by the things you didn't plan that happened anyway. My goodness, that happens just in one day. I have very definite plans this week. In fact, I am working very diligently on school schedules for my three home-schooled children (a 12th grader, a 9th grader, and a 5th grader, so you can see this is serious business). Nevertheless, some unexpected guests, several phone calls, and an almost-but-not-quite-100%-potty-trained three-year-old happened. Therefore, by the time dinner-time arrived, I had accomplished less than half of what I needed to do (assuming I want to be finished by Friday, and I do).

So, one of the things I want to do this year is read more non-fiction. I am entirely unimpressed with my record of ten non-fiction books for 2007, especially when I have books that have been on my shelves since 2005 that I want to read. And when I make my high-school children's school schedules, my want-to-read list increases dramatically, as I feel guilty assigning books to them that I have not read myself. (But I do it anyway--I'd be so much better off if someone had made me read those books while I was in high school.)

So, with a big, clean new year in front of me, I make the resolution (and it's not the only one) to read more non-fiction. That's the big goal that needs a whole empty calendar to make. Now I'm going to chop it up into smaller pieces so it will fit in my every-day life. I think that I can read two non-fiction books each month. I'm not entirely certain I can finish two non-fiction books each month, but I hope that if I have two going, I will finish the year with no less than 24 non-fiction books read.

I further resolve to post, at the beginning of each month, the two books I plan to work on for the month. Then, when I post my reading logs for each month, I can slap myself on the wrist if I haven't held to my promise; if, in short, I have allowed dilatory reading according to whim to edge the planned reading off the edge of the "to do" list.

So, with that general framework in mind, I am ready to share my two books for January. I'm going to be reading Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt and The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye.

I am also going to pick up Dawn to Decadance again and give Jacques Barzun the time it takes to get through this book. I want to read it so very much, but the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak, and the good that I would do, I do it not.

Except that I am going to do it this year.

Honestly, how can I resist a book like this:
What good is the study of literature? Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, or live a better life than we could without it?...The kind of problem that literature raises is not the kind that you ever "solve."

That's Northrop Frye...I'm really going to enjoy his book. From Henry Hazlitt, I don't expect enjoyment, but I do expect to learn something, and if I do, I shall certainly share it here.

But I think it would be somewhat misleading to post all these lofty intentions without admitting, at the same time, that I have been comfortably rereading genre fiction by Orson Scott Card and Agatha Christie. And enjoying every minute of it.

Happy reading in 2008.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

I have nothing especially profound to say about the new year, but I know people who do. Visit here and here for reflections and encouragement to keep on keeping on.

I'm just making use of this first day of 2008, a brand-new, virtually unblemished year, to do something I've read about 'round the internet, and always wanted to try. It's called "pay it forward," and is simply a way to pass on the blessing of receiving a hand-made gift. I signed up for Pay it Forward here . The rules are thus:

"I will send a handmade gift to the first 3 people who leave a comment on my blog requesting to join this PIF exchange. I don’t know what that gift will be yet and you may not receive it tomorrow or next week, but you will receive it within 365 days, that is my promise! The only thing you have to do in return is pay it forward by making the same promise on your blog.”

Actually, I can pretty much assure you that I will send a doily to those who sign up here (not the one pictured!), and that it will not be white. The rest of it is pretty accurate, although I shall try to be as prompt as possible!

I have many plans and thoughts swirling about in my head, but not everything is ready for prime time and the glare of the blogosphere. The most recent thing I planned on this blog was to post every day in December, and I think we all know that didn't exactly happen, although I did break the non-posting cycle, and I hope to post regularly (not necessarily daily) in 2008.

So, Happy New Year!