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Wandering

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A Harlequin Romance, with Zoology Thrown In

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-08-25

As most reviewers note, the story takes place in a marsh on the North Carolina coast, in the mid-20th century.
The descriptions of the marsh and the many creatures that live in it are beautifully and lovingly rendered. And the story, about small girl who lives alone in the marsh from about nine years of age, begins with great promise. But all too soon the book becomes a Harlequin Romance, with random zoology lectures thrown in (and one brief physics lecture also). The female hero is hauntingly beautiful and absurdly well accomplished. At ten years old, after her family have abandoned her one by one, she learns to earn a living digging mussels and smoking fish. Thereafter, this ten year old grows up by literally by herself in the marsh. Despite having exactly one day of schooling in her life, her first boyfried teaches her to read over a few weeks one spring when she is 14. By the end of the summer she is reading whole biology textbooks. At 22 she publishes not one, but two zoology books (shell fish; birds) that she has illustrated with her own water colours and oils. Not bad for a girl who has lived essentially in isolation, with no schooling, all her life.

But the worst part is her two romances. This self-confident and supremely accomplished great beauty has romances with two very handsome men, one a scholar and the other just rich. By the time the girl reaches her teens she has developed a healthy interest in clothing and makeup, and she manages to have a beautiful wardrobe (albeit a somewhat used one) and even some lipstick which, ten years after her mother left home, can still be used. In the Harlequin vein, the relationships have a lot of promise of sex, but much more chastity. People cuss a lot, but only very rarely do we hear the actual words. Of course, her affairs with the two man-boys intersect, and she has to choose the right one. You will have to listen yourself to see if she makes the right choice.

I can't believe this book would have received the attention it has received had it not been recommended by famous people.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

A Prosecutor's Address to the Jury

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
2 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-03-16

The stumbling steps that Japan took between 1931 and 1941, and then throughout the Pacific War, has been the subject of many books. The record of decisions taken or not taken is well known. Herbert P. Bix’s methodical review of the record is as complete as you will find anywhere. From the point of view of tracing that chronology this book is important.

But Bix is not content to lay out the facts. His mission is to indict Hirohito personally as being one of the persons principally responsible for Japan’s entry first into the war in China, and later with the US, the UK, and the Netherlands. His method is that of a prosecutor interpreting all the facts to suit his argument, rather than that of a judge following the evidence to see where it will go. Readers will have to decide whether they find his argument persuasive. I did not.

The foundation of Bix’s argument is the number of national policy documents that bore Hirohito’s seal. This tells us nothing. In the UK, enactments bear the Queen’s signature, yet they do not represent her personal choices. Bix relies on a mountain of military orders that also bear Hirohito’s seal. Again, that tells us nothing. The question to be answered is whether the militarists in government, and in the army and navy, led Hirohito or vice versa. The fact that Hirohito signed military orders could serve both interpretations. Were they his own orders, or orders placed before him for his signature?

Therefore, while I was interested in the bare facts of the chronology, I had to grit my teeth for many hours because of Bix’s interpretations. When army officers go rogue, or are insubordinate, or are unwise, and Hirohito fails to punish or chastise, Bix interprets this as tacit approval. Another observer might conclude that the frequency and magnitude of insubordination is evidence that no one took Hirohito’s approval as important – certainly not necessary. When Hirohito does criticize (“scold” in Bix’s term), but does nothing more, Bix interprets this as hypocrisy. Hirohito really approves the action he is criticizing, and could have reversed it if he wanted to. Another observer might conclude that criticism and scolding marked the limit of Hirohito’s authority. Bix refers time and again to the Meiji constitution that named the emperor as the supreme commander of the armed forces. But for six hundred years at least, the Japanese state was controlled by men who were nominally subordinate to an emperor or Shogun, but actually exercised supreme command. The Meiji emperor, who Hirohito supposedly emanated, was one such. No one can say today how much, if any, real power Meiji exercised. Indeed, Meiji was put into power not because anyone wanted him to exercise power, but because it was expected he would be easily manipulated.

Bix’s focus on Hirohito is odd, because he often notes that the real fault with Japan’s political system was that too many independent actors – the navy and army (two institutions, not one), elder statesmen, the cabinet, the palace functionaries – all scheming and manipulating, many with the ability to nudge or shove events in one direction or another, independent of the others, and independent of any ultimate central authority. Bix’s mission is to paint Hirohito as the central authority with actual power to decide and correct, but at many points he observes that in fact there was no central authority. This too was the real way the Meiji constitution worked. Meiji himself was a nominal emperor, but controlled by loose and undefined networks of oligarchs. What does Bix say changed that to put Hirohito in actual command and control?

I see Hirohito as being one among many people with input into policy decisions, and by no means the most important or authoritative. When one considers his enforced isolation from ordinary social interaction from the moment of his birth (very well told by Bix), it is hard to hold him accountable as one might a person who had an ordinary upbringing and adult relationships. However, as I have said, listeners and readers will have to decide for themselves.

The narrator was not really suitable. His ordinary reading voice sounds like someone from the Beverly Hillbillies (if anyone remembers that show). When reading quotations, he adopts a mild and irritating falsetto. I know many narrators think they have to use funny voices for reading quotations, but with the better narrators it is clear when they are reading the main text, and when they are reading quotations.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

An Important Book, Entirely Inappropriate Narrator

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-12-01

This is an extremely important book, not only for those interested in the founding of America, but also for those who wish to understand the origins of the problems of race we face today. Unfortunately, the narrator was wholly unsuited for this book. Most sentences begin with a syllable or two in a falsetto before returning to a normal register. Perhaps this is intended to be interesting, but it comes across as chirpy and jolly. Quite jarring considering the serious and grim subject matter of much of the book. I can't finish it. I will read the book instead.

Truly Poetic

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-10-17

Not all biography can be poetic. A history of an Alexander or a Genghis Khan or a Stalin may be well-written, but the subject matter requires a certain restraint by the author lest it appear that the deplorable is being dignified. In other cases, like the stories of great philosophers or scientists, the bare facts of the subject's life are pretty mundane, so there may appear little material for poetry no matter how truly great the subject. Consider Kant or Fermi.

In other hands, the life of Newton could have fallen into the second category. The outward facts of his daily life were often dull and, in later life, too often tawdry. But the life of his mind was truly glorious. What makes this biography so remarkable is the author's ability to express the majesty and profundity of Newton's great achievements in mathematics and "philosophy" (physics) in language that conveys the beauty of his ideas but without sacrificing scientific rigour and precision.

The narration is masterly. Most often not noticed (as is proper), until one is struck with the felicity of some turn of phrase.

I loved the audiobook and have bought the Kindle as well.

Deutsch does not rhyme with Pooch

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-10-17

The "author", the Charles River Editors, sounds like a sophomore study group at one of the better Boston universities. This book does not prove otherwise. The history is quite creditable, well structured with judicious selections of individuals and incidents that merit attention. One is left with a strong sense of the broad themes, and clear direction where to go for more information.

Unfortunately, the authors' language sometimes gets away from them. For example, I doubt that knowledge of the Brothers Grimm was ever "omnipotent" in 19h century Germany. (Omnipresent? Ubiquitous?)

The narrator's voice and delivery are pleasant enough, although sometimes one has the impression that the narrator fears his studio time is about to run out. What is unforgivable is his mangling of German pronunciation. Ok, not everyone knows that the "v's" in German sound like "f's" in English, German w's sound like English v's, and not everyone knows how to pronounce "Moltke" (hint: not moult-key) But surely everyone knows that "deutsch" does not rhyme with "pooch". Especially if such a person is being paid to narrate a book about German history.

Often Well Written, but Shallow, Cranky and Old

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-02-09

These essays are often well written, but they are shallow in substance, cranky (in both senses, odd and peevish) and regurgitative.

Cranky-odd: He thinks there is a grand conspiracy between university professors and the dark government. There are certainly instances of that (Kissinger), but not grand conspiracy. He thinks Roosevelt conspired with English spies to dupe American into joining WWII. Yes, Roosevelt was deceptive and, yes, the British did try to influence US public opinion, but it was not the grand conspiracy that Vidal paints. And anyway, WWII was not WWI: American should have been against Hitler from 1939, not wait until Hitler declared war on the US. Vidal thinks Charles Lindbergh (a Vidal family friend) was a victim of this conspiracy. No, Lindbergh was a victim of being on the wrong side of a epochal question, and an anti-Semite to boot. Vidal sees a great grand conspiracy that links agro-business and farm foreclosures the Ruby Ridge killings, bully-cop drug busts and, of course, the IRS. I can't even begin to comment on that.

Vidal's general political views are no the left, where I am also. But ordinary when ordinary left-wing views are tainted by cranky-odd conspiracy theories, the author becomes cranky-peevish. As is Vidal.

The oddest and most disappointing part of this collection is that you think it will deal with the American Empire at the end of the 20th Century. There is some of that, but it is mostly about America in mid-century, material he has already covered -- more than once --in earlier books. Indeed, his most tedious essay is a rebuttal to a review of one of his earlier books. As a general matter, a writer should never rebut reviews of his own books. It is never pretty, and it is not pretty here.