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review 2016-12-21 13:01
Wait... what? Uh oh.
Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

I read this when I was about 12 or 13, and now I'm re-reading it, for nostalgia, I guess, and because I was reminded of it a few weeks back, when I saw an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which kind of riffs on Flowers for Algernon.


But there's something weird going on here, because I don't remember it being as PG-13 or even R rated as it is. There's a whole mess of scenes in here involving sex (nothing too explicit, but still...), which is a problem, because I sent this book to my 13 year old nephew for Christmas, and now I'm beginning to re-think how appropriate that may have been. I guess I need to get ahold of my sister and tell her she might want to check it out first. 




Anyhow, if you haven't read it, I recommend this book. Superficially it's about a mildly mentally retarded man (is there a more PC way I'm supposed to say it? I feel like there is, but nothing comes to mind...)  who is the subject of an experimental treatment which gives him superhuman intelligence.


His expanded brain power is wonderful, exciting and illuminating, but also alienating... none of his old friends understand him any more. He suddenly sees that the authority figures he had placed so much trust in don't really have all the anwers, ect... exactly the sort of stuff you like to think about when you're 12 or 13 and starting to catch on to things.


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review 2016-12-14 15:37
Made my All-Time Top Five History Books list~ !
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty - James A. Robinson,Daron Acemoğlu

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I would place it in my all-time top five history books, along with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Will and Ariel Durant's Rousseau and Revolution, Carroll Quigley's Tragedy & Hope, and Norodom Sihanouk's My War with the CIA.

What it is, is a very simple thesis about what it is that nations require to materially prosper. I'm not sure why the title dwells on nations which fail, as the title could just as easily be "Why Nations Succeed." Simply stated, Robinson expounds that the winning formula for prosperity is merely this: (1) a government sufficiently powerful to enforce private contracts and adjudicate private disputes; (2) a process of political and economic decision making sufficiently inclusive that the productive class (as opposed to the ruling or landowning classes) believe it is in within their power (by means of some combination of hard work, ingenuity, and judicious investment) to improve their lives; (3) institutional respect for the ownership and accumulation of private property. In the terminology of the book, systems which fulfill the above criteria are called Inclusive, and those which do not are called Extractive. You may or may not agree, but the heart of the book isn't much more than this.

What is fantastic is how the authors view selected histories through the lens of this very basic premise. I still haven't bothered to learn the authors' backgrounds, but they are well versed in a wide range of interesting world history. It turns out that contrasting the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Sierra Leone supports the thesis perfectly. Likewise, contrasting a history of the Spanish colonies in South America with the British and French colonies in North America. The history of the Republic of South Africa (Extractive) and Botswana (Inclusive). India, North Korea vs. South Korea, etc... there are ample examples provided.

Are these examples cherry-picked? They may be, but I have not been able to come up with anything to refute the general principles. Delving beyond the simple demonstration of examples, the mid portion of the book examines situation which superficially appear to contradict the thesis, but then shows how in fact they support it. The rapid economic growth of the Soviet Union between 1926-1960, for example. The USSR stands firmly in the camp of Extractive systems, but enjoyed robust growth, and even some innovation (the Soviet space program and Sputnick, for example) during this time. It was a limited run, and an aberration, it turns out... driven by borrowed technologies (efficiencies) from external sources, cannibalization of wealth created from the preceding Extractive-but-slightly-less-Extractive-than-the-USSR political and economic institutions of the Czars, and limited growth which can sometimes be engineered by converting from one Extractive system (feudal agriculture) to another (Soviet collective farming) which enjoys slight benefits of efficiency-of-scale.

The same analysis is applied to the apparent belle epoque of Argentina from 1870-1910, when Argentine economic growth was the envy of the rest of the world, and the phrase "Rich as an Argentine" was used in American and British circles. The growth was self-limited, because it was mostly a reflection of the entrenched dominant landowning families developing previously-undeveloped land, not the sort of "creative destruction" one sees from true innovation and wealth creation in an evolving and progressing economy. This idea of creative destruction comes up again and again.

More relevant to modern day: the author argues convincingly that the impressive economic growth we now see in China is doomed to sputter out, if Chinese political and economic institutions remain Extractive.

The final third deals with case histories of those rare systems which have broken out of the Extractive natures and transcended to Inclusive: England's Glorious Revolution of 1688; the French Revolution (which led to a conversion of many other European systems from Extractive to Inclusive), and the slow evolution of the American (US) South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act.

It's a wonderful book, and I'm not doing it justice here, but please read it.

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review 2016-11-01 11:00
When a Woman Loves a Man: The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer
The Jib Door - Marlen Haushofer
Die Tapetentür - Marlen Haushofer

It’s a well-known truth that love has the potential to make blind for anything unpleasant involved and at all times writers gladly took up the theme to dwell on the tangle and the suffering that results from it. In the history of literature there are scores of novels – all-time classics and probably many more forgotten ones – surrounding ill-matched couples whose relationships are doomed from the start however much they try to bridge the factual, emotional, social or psychological divide. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer is an impressive, though often overlooked example of an Austrian novel dealing with passionate love leading into a marriage that is based on the desperate longing to escape loneliness in a “normal” life with a husband and self-denial. First published in 1957, the primarily male critics of the time showed all but enthusiasm for the book because they had neither an interest in nor an understanding for what might be called the female condition in a patriarchal society.


The Jib Door is a short novel set in Vienna of the late 1950s that covers a period of only twelve months in the life of thirty-year-old Annette. To tell her story the author skilfully alternates third-person narrative focussing on the protagonist and diary entries that allow a more personal look into her soul. Above all the latter show Annette as a very intelligent and well-read young woman (she likes Kant and Schopenhauer) who despite all contents herself with an unchallenging job as a librarian. From the beginning the novel’s tone is melancholic which corresponds perfectly with her sad past and dull present. Of her family there’s nobody left but her much adored uncle Eugen who raised her together with his rather rigid late wife Johanna. Her mother died when she was two years old and her father, who couldn’t cope with the situation, fled to South America some time later. For years she has been living on her own in her little Viennese apartment enjoying her independence and even being alone. She has many friends with whom she meets regularly and in her adult life she already had several love affairs, but they all ended in boredom and disappointment. Her current relationship is no exception and when her lover leaves her for a job in Paris, she feels relief rather than regret. Then one day she receives a letter from the solicitor Gregor Xanthner because her father has died and she needs to sign papers. To her he seems the paragon of health and happiness, and yet, she doesn’t feel attracted to him at first. However, the more Annette sees of him, the more she falls for him although her friends can’t stand him and she knows that he’ll inevitably hurt her. Annette becomes Gregor’s lover and when she gets pregnant, she gives up her job, her apartment, her independence to marry him and share his life. But he isn’t interested in her as a person and Annette feels increasingly lonely. Moreover, she knows that he betrays her with others when he doesn’t come home for dinner at night. She still clings to him hiding her knowledge and all the while her belly is growing rounder and rounder…


In this second novel of hers – that like her other works gives the impression of being at least partly autobiographical – the author paints a very sensitive, psychologically deep and impressive portrait of a young woman in post-war Vienna who longs for love and slides eyes wide open into a relationship that brings her despair and pain instead. Consequently, the protagonist’s pointed reflections on men and love turn out to be rather resigned and gloomy. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer definitely isn’t a cheerful book, but thanks to its simple and unpretentious language it was despite all a mere treat to read. And it deserves a much wider audience.


The Jib Door - Marlen Haushofer 


This Austrian writer’s best remembered and most acclaimed work to this day is a rather impressive dystopian novel that she wrote in the early 1960s. It’s titled The Wall and in June 2014 I reviewed it here on Edith’s Miscellany .

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-09-07 12:30
Made my All-Time Top Ten list~!
Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

I didn't think anybody could do historical fiction better than James Michener, but Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is just a little more complex, with characters a little more nuanced than any of the Michener I've read. Superficially, it flips back and forth between two stories:  Susan and Oliver Ward, who move out West to work in mining towns of Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and California- spanning the period 1870-1891; and their grandson Lyman Ward, a history professor researching their lives in 1970.  


Stegner riddles the narrative with all sorts of juxtapositions, counterpoints, and comparisons between the ages. The elder generation is young and energetic, bold and enthusiastic, diving into the Western territory to forge an extension of the American empire in the wilderness. It is the Wild West in some ways, but a more tempered, historic Wild West, where the daily grind is not gunfights and Indians, but more mundane, bureaucratic fights, like conflicting land claims, crooked lawyers who misfile paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management, and constant pressure to convince the far-off and unseen vested Eastern interests financing their new civilization that it will be profitable. 


I'm not an historian, but it all feels very realistic- maybe because it is less glamorous than the Hollywood Western. Every small victory is hard-fought. For every successful venture, there are multiple failures. Even a bountiful silver mine may not be profitable, depending on the cost of labor, or the transport of equipment into the undeveloped interior, or the vicissitudes of the commodity markets. Nobody gets scalped by Indians, or burned at the stake. Bandits never rob any stagecoaches. No fights break out over card games in a saloon, as a player piano hammers out some tune. Yet, everything about the story seems to attest that this is how the West was really won.  


Still more satisfying, the historical backdrop is populated by authentic characters. The Wards are adventurers, but also filled with longing for the more civilized world they left behind, and the people they had to leave there, to build this new life. Temptations, frustrations, frailties, uncertainty, fear of failure, actual failure and the imperative to move on from it... all the stuff missing from Frontierland at Disney World; these are the best parts.


Then there's Lyman Ward... professor emeritus. Much older in 1970 than the grandparents he's reaching back across ninety years to write about. He's living in the grand beautiful New West that Susan and Oliver held out as an ideal they would likely never see for themselves, but which they dreamed about hopefully for their progeny. But of course it isn't utopia; Professor Lyman is recently retired from U.C. Berkeley; the Vietnam War is going on, and the once-quiet semi-rural town he's moved out to is filled with free-loving, dope-smoking hippies... an unwashed generation that wants to shake the Establishment to its foundations and start again from zero; heirs to the best efforts of forty thousand Susan and Oliver Wards, but with no sense of history, and no appreciation for the sacrifices that built this "land of milk and honey" which they resent so deeply.  


As Susan and Oliver face bankruptcy and infant mortality, Lyman Ward conspires to resist the inevitability of his children committing him involuntarily to a retirement home. Before this happens, he is determined to discover the one glaring, unanswered question about his grandparents' lives: what caused them to abandon their property in the Idaho Territories?


It is truly one of the ten most satisfying books (fiction) I have ever read.  

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review 2016-06-05 16:21
Jamaica Inn
Jamaica Inn - Sarah Dunant,Daphne du Maurier

I have to admit that DuMaurier really knows how to create a dark, gothic atmosphere. But other than that I have been disappointed in this novel. The slow moving plot is predictable and the final conclusion and the motives of certain characters rather ridiculous. Most of the characters are one-dimensional and without any depth to them ( oh, how I don't like Aunt Patience).

The biggest nuisance of this novel is the main character Mary, who just can´t decide if she want´s to be a spunky heroine ("I´m not afraid to cross the moors alone at night") or a damsell in distress ("I can´t go back in the house. Bad things has happened there" ... Buuhuuh). And to top it off there´s a horribly lovestory, which takes the last shred of credibility from our heroine.

Definitely not DuMauriers best work, but I´m still happy to have read it. Her descriptions of Cornwall are second to none.


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