" /> I write: July 2010
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July 25, 2010

A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity

Bill O'Reilly - ISBN - 9780767928830

Just out in paper, O'Reilly's memoir is as anticipated: effusive, informative and helpful, on point and with the expected attempt to mask his hubris. He refers repeatedly and almost reverentially to his attempt not to appear, shall we say (to be nice), "self-indulgent." But he is. Will Rogers once commented that "if you're as good as you say you are it ain't braggin'." So, maybe it's O.K. for Bill to just belly-up to the truth, but he always offers the caveat that at heart he's really a humble person. Balderdash.

But the book is good. The man came from nowhere, and has achieved more than the vast majority of people ever do. He has done it honestly, with hard work and little grousing. He is amongst cable TV's most prominent figures, counsels wisely, contributes mightily to honest reportage along with the rectification of human error and evil, and he donates heavily to charity.

In this tome he relates how he did it, how he does it, and what he recommends to aspirants, but admirably shies away from virtually anything to do with his personal life. It is not a how-to manual. Rather, as in his book for kids, he uses himself as an example of what, and what not to do: his personal manifesto, chockablock full of relevant personal experiences, what he learned from them, what he might have done it differently, what he avoided and why.

Raised Catholic, he still adheres to the dogma of the church and does not apologize. He apologizes for little, and appears to have little need, in any event. He recommends a life of sobriety, hard work, felicity to one's origins and maintenance of contact with old friends this to keep you sane, humble and honest. And he seems to have achieved this . . . or at least two out of three, which ain't bad.

It's a worthwhile read for the interested, and maybe even for those who think they're uninterested; ya might actually learn sumthin'. His fans have no doubt read it in hardback. I waited for the issuance of the paperback . . . "cheeeap!"

Posted by Curmudgeon at 10:18 AM

July 17, 2010

Interview with History

Oriana Fallaci - ISBN - 0395252237

Fallaci was, without doubt, the greatest political interviewer of modern times, and thought of as one of the most gifted, determined interviewers of all time.

She came of age working in the Italian resistance during WWII, an organization in which her parents were active. Thereafter she became a journalist. During her long career she is said to have interviewed anyone and everyone "who mattered." Because of her fame and uncanny abilities, she could--and did--approach the powerful and gain access to them. She was intrepid.

She was a fully emancipated and successful woman in the man's world of political journalism, and antagonized many feminists (my kind of woman) by her championship of motherhood and her idolization of heroic manhood. She was a believer in historic European civilization, and deeply moral, though a-religious (she referred to herself as an "Atheist Christian".)

Her critics felt that she outraged the conventions of interviewing and reporting; she didn't care. From her experiences she concluded: "Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon. I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born." She trusted no authority. She was most adept at influencing prominent people to say things during her interviews which they wished ever after they had not said. Many would plead with her to edit their statements, or forgo publication of them. She always refused. Hence she leaves a record of incredible interviews with the most important people in the world from the 60's into the 90's. So famous is she, that her writings have been translated into 21 languages.

She is particularly well known for an interview with Henry Kissinger in which he agreed that the Vietnam War was a "useless war" and compared himself to "the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse." He later grumbled that it was "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press."

The book, Interview with History, is an anthology of her best and most important interviews, led off with the infamous Kissinger tract. It is sensational both in style and content. She brings to the table, from preparatory research, a formidable knowledge of history, and demonstrates in classic fashion why the world is a mess, painting word portraits of famous people who have made it so. While no longer in print it is available, used, from $2-100. (Try ABE books)

The Islamic attack on the U.S. so enraged her that she emerged from retirement to write three books viciously critical of Islam and, most explicitly, Islamic extremists. The first--The Rage and The Pride--was written in 4 days, beginning on Sept. 11th, without a break; no sleep, just coffee and cigarettes. It is a masterpiece of both rage over wanton destruction by a barbaric culture, and pride in western civilization from the time of the Greeks to the 20th century. Not long after that, she completed The Force of Reason. Both became mega-best sellers and have been translated into many languages, including English. I'm still hoping for the third. The first two are indeed superb, and I have reviewed them on this site long ago.

I recommended, and still do, that those two books be read critically by all westerners who value civilization, and especially by those who cannot--or refuse to--discriminate between good and evil. I also recommend "Interview" for the sheer pleasure of reading an heroic journalist in her prime, insisting upon answers from the powerful, to critical questions most journalists would not have the cajones to ask . . . then or now.

She died several years ago from breast cancer. RIP !!

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:56 PM

July 10, 2010

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

How the Past Can Improve Our Future
Neil Postman - ISBN - 9780375701276

Neil Postman was a humanist, professor, media theorist, cultural critic and dynamic author for over forty years, and most famous for Amusing Ourselves to Death--a critique of television. But he also wrote numerous other tracts, my favorite of which is here introduced. He adamantly observed in Technopoly, that "new technology can never substitute for human values." His most dynamic reinforcement of this belief, however, is in his study of how and why the 18th century was the pinnacle of achievement, and how it might guide us in the 21st century if we would but explore, understand and implement the wisdom of those who made it so.

He is certainly one of the most astute and knowledgeable social commentators of this or any era. I submit the following quotations from this man as evidence, and an entrée into this informative little tome:

• "We live in a world of too much information, confusing specialized knowledge and far too little wisdom."
• "Knowledge is organized information. Wisdom is the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems."
• "Any fool can have an opinion; to know what one needs to know to have an opinion is wisdom."
• "The problem to be solved in the 21st century is how to transform information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom."

This is an example of my re-exploration of a book which I devoured a decade ago. I read it again recently, and recommend it highly. Brilliant and incisive, he is a critic in the best sense, and not one to grouse so much as to describe what he sees and convince the reader that it is so. I believe that his writings--all of them--should be required reading for everyone at the college level, and certainly by everyone who feels compelled to pursue any activity within the public sphere. I often treat myself to such a volume from the past which I remember as fulsome, if not why; to re-explore how my attitudes have been molded in ways which I cannot specifically recall. If you have read this tome in the past I encourage you to do so again. If you haven't, I'd like to introduce you to one of the most important people of the 20th century . . . in my never-to-be-humble opinion.

His opening quote is subtly savage: "Soon we will know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us." We will, he emphasizes, overwhelm 18th century knowledge with new information about which we shall crow in insolent delight as we overlook the proverbial forest because the damned trees are in our way. On nearly every page is an observation, theorem, quote or statement sufficient to produce a gasp from the reader. One is often thunderstruck into silence and reflection.

History's purpose is "to remind us about our better dreams." It was in the 18th century we discovered a humane course into the future; "ideas [to be carried] with confidence and dignity across the bridge to the 21st century." Enlightenment: the provocateur of ideas of how to approach reality and to rediscover truth--even that there is such a thing as truth. He suggests not that we return to that century, but that we study and use it for "what it is worth and for all that it is worth." Adopt its principles, not its details.

To be sure, during the period known as the enlightenment--the age of reason--we were (especially early on) still burning witches, using torture, embracing slavery, oppressing women and benefiting from child labor . . . BUT the very idea that these things were wrong emerged during this period as well.

Contrary to received modern wisdom the rationalists of the era were not God haters; rather, they rightfully mistrusted organized religion because of what the churches had become. They stripped the world of superstition and were unafraid of the articles taught to be alien and dangerous. Christianity, they believed, offered valuable lessons, raised serious moral questions and delivered most of the answers! In this they represented nothing less than "radical reorientation" in the way we thought about the world. Still, they maintained their humanity. Shelley commented that "reason, unaided and untempered by poetic insight and humane feeling, turns ugly and dangerous."

We have become a people without Gods to serve . . . hollow, empty and anxious. We distrust language, are uncertain about the most obvious features of reality, and lack conviction as we doubt the existence of truth. We are so utterly lost that we lack even the suspicion that we might have gone astray. His attack on 20th century hacks who dissemble is scholarly but unrelenting and almost vicious as he quotes some humorous and wonderfully imbecilic paragraphs to make his point. He is not one to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. In exposing modern deconstructionism for what it really is, Postman opines that, "Derrida, in defending deMan, is saying that telling the truth should be avoided because it is time consuming."

It is a thought provoking read; especially so in this current period of radical change . . . without much apparent hope, in my opinion. I encourage you to do so ASAP.

You're welcome !!

Posted by Curmudgeon at 3:46 PM

July 4, 2010


Yiyun Li - ISBN 9780812973341

My reaction to this book was peculiar. It is wonderfully descript, extraordinarily if very plainly written, full of fascinating and enlightening information and psychological insight, and yet I had difficulty staying with it.

I've commented before that if, after 50 pages, I "cannot get into it" I just reshelve the book. But with this one I kept picking it up and reading another 20-30 pages. It continued to interest, but was not a compelling read. Nonetheless I recommend it for its subject, well explored.

Li writes of China during the period in the late 70s--shortly after the disruptively vicious Cultural Revolution and Mao's death--exploring the choices required to survive, the individual and community tragedies, and the brutal, humiliating nature of the communist society of this (or any) era. She does so with a variety of intriguing, well drawn characters whom she fashions to fulfill the encompassing issues she explores.

These widely varietal characters are caused to interact with one another in disorderly fashion, yet importantly for her narrative. They include a spectrum from the well educated to the illiterate, those in and out of favor by the regime, and from the (relatively) comfortable to the homeless. Each has strengths, weaknesses and individual peculiarities, which Li exploits as she paints the milieu into which they have been forced: a new community named Muddy River. This town of 20,000 was created by government to accommodate, employ, educate and "manage" myriad souls from rural areas thus compressed in the "leap forward" to communist prosperity; the vaunted proletariat, coerced by their Maoist masters. The wide ranging story explores the compelling lies of the dictatorial communist pretensions.

Raised in China during the period, Li speaks authoritatively about it, helping the reader to understand truths which no one in the west can easily accommodate. Their reality is oppressive, their lives all but totally managed by repression and fear. No one is free, even--or especially--those important within the hierarchical structure of the town; community is overstepping as a description, as would be society. There are unavoidable interactions, and individual acts of compassion and concern, but terror is a daily experience and presents itself in varietal ways, some subtle and some not so. Being human seems sufficient reason for humiliation, yet by the meekest thru the most powerful the attempt is made to carve out some sort of endurable existence; the perpetual question is what compromises are necessary to avoid being crushed by reality. The town is crowded, dirty, ugly and oppressive; the people are bland, at least overtly, and the choices are few and dictated for the most part. Still, boys and girls are portrayed with many characteristics recognizable in the west as humanly predictable; similarly so with adult actions and interactions; marital and neighborhood exchanges likewise. Beneath it all is a human drama, despite the awfulness of survival.

One particularly poignant, underplayed episode deals with a young boy who has lost his dog (a fact of no concern whatever to anyone else), only to discover that "there were endless duplicates or substitutes for anything, a jacket, a dog, or a boy." Yet the school hierarchy demands of students on a daily basis, submission to the collectively imposed mindset: "You've all been born under the red flag of revolution and grown up in the honeypot the party has provided. . . . Now answer me, children, who has given you this happy life?"

How does one avoid risk? "If you stay in line you'll never be in the wrong place. And if you do nothing wrong, you will never fear anything, even when the ghosts come to knock on your door at midnight." It is not actually so, but it's a demonstrative remark nonetheless. After all, where is "the line" one is supposed to stay within? And how is "wrong" officially defined?

The elderly, especially those of the mandarin class still recall the beauties of their culture before WWII and Mao; the younger groups actively strive for something resembling a normalcy they've never experienced. Most, however, simply exist; take up space, endeavor to survive; to breathe. Beneath it all is a scattering of "pre-Tiananmen" desire for democracy, but it is largely and effectively suppressed.

The book opens with the public humiliation, torture and execution of a "counterrevolutionary." It culminates 335 pages later when an organized "push back" over that incident is viciously suppressed, and its organizers humiliated, tortured and executed. No freedom of expression is allowed . . . ever.

It is a particularly cogent book today as we move, however subtly in that direction here in America. Government insists upon its responsibility to "take care of us" (read: manage); news is more manipulated than ever before as a White House agency presents it as it insists we see it, all the while making noises about more control. We have yet to see people arrested as a result of accusations from persons unknown, but it has not escaped some of us that it is possible.

It all seems unlikely for so long as we are armed, but worthwhile remembering that the second amendment assures the continued relevance of the others.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 11:37 AM