Revelations

Watership Down

I don’t know whether Richard Adams wrote any other novels, or books of any other sort, for that matter, but this one is a masterpiece. If all you know is that it’s about rabbits, or even (as I’d vaguely assumed) something to do with the English countryside, the pathos of the storytelling will come as a surprise. These are particularly heroic rabbits!

The most curious thing about the novel is Adams’ careful attention to keeping his plot very nearly to the strictly plausible. There are of course fantastic elements – this is a “talking animals book” after all – but the critters are much less humanized than I’d have expected.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories

Along with the opening story that give the volume its name, this collection of Roger Zelazny short stories features the other stunners “The Keys to December” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – along with other quite good material that still comes off, by comparison, as so much filler.

This collection also served to crystallize an understanding of Zelazny’s work as a whole: he was simply fascinated by genius, supermen in a practically Nietzschean sense. Virtually all of his work that’s not purely comic – and some of that – features one or more. It’s taken a while for this to sink in, simply because of the range of variations he plays on the theme.

It’s an interesting – or amusing – contrast to his own workmanlike and carefully planned-out writing career. It did make me wonder what we might have gotten had Zelazny gotten a chance to write some actual Superman stories.

Rebecca

There are apparently a lot of books with this title. The one I read is the one by Daphne du Maurier. I don’t know that I can quite do it justice. I’ve not read another book that manages to quite capture the socially petrifying imagination – of scenes gone wrong; of scenes gone right but obviously impossible, and baffling even if possible – that characterizes her protagonist narrator’s self-image particularly in the first part of the book.

Weirdly – at least without spoilers – the best impression I can give of its tone is by comparison. It owes quite a deal to Jane Eyre; in fact, one can almost interpret it as Jane Eyre for a later generation. Which later generation I refer to can best be explained by saying that everybody being force to read The Great Gatsby ought to read this instead. (Except that du Maurier was not American, a qualification without which nobody would ever have to assign The Great Gatsby in the first place, but which also prevents Rebecca‘s entry into that lists.)

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

After about 70 pages, I almost didn’t finish this one. The middle half is better, and probably made it worth reading, once, but I’m not even quite sure about that. The story owes something to Chaucer, and something to Milton, references various European legends, and possibly authors I didn’t pick up on. The plot is fine; it’s the style that breaks down.

The end paper informs me that Rev. Walter Wangerin, Jr. mostly wrote children’s books, and that this was his first novel. The problem with the first part of the book is that he can’t decide whether he’s writing tongue-in-cheek or not. The effect is rather like a story-teller who keeps winking at the audience but never gets to a punchline; possibly never actually meant to tell a joke at all.

The language – throughout, but especially in the first part – has the angularity I associate with Lutheran hymn tunes: where other denominations tend to subtly alter rhythms to suit English better, the Lutherans have, as best I can tell, kept the original German rhythms despite translating the words. The effect is a bit odd when you grew up with the other, and this book produces the same effect – as if English, at least in its most common American incarnation, isn’t quite the author’s native dialect. Of course Wangerin was actually a Lutheran, but I didn’t know that when I started reading or came up with the comparison – I don’t ever read the end papers first.

The final problem is that the story just isn’t consistent. The characters – talking animals all – don’t develop, they just change as necessary. The rules that seem clearly laid out – Wangerin spends whole chapters on them – are subverted without sufficient explanation. And there’s a sort of Book of Judges problem in that the characters are, for the most part, not actually likeable. I think Wangerin meant the book to be deadly serious; but he keeps slipping into – or never quite gets out of – a narrative tone that leads the reader to expect something much lighter. On the other hand, he keeps giving hints that the story is supposed to be, if not allegorical, at least some way religious in meaning; but the moral is never spelled out, and if it’s just a parable about the Providence of God I would rather go re-read Job. Or “The Wanderer”.

Review: Black Sun

I picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun looking for something by an author I hadn’t read before, and something that wasn’t a series. Apparently I didn’t manage the latter: the cover may just say “a novel” but inside you will find “Between Earth and Sky: Book One”, which I hadn’t bothered to look for until I’d bought it.

Anyway.

It is a fairly good fantasy novel, in a setting recognizably based on Mesoamerican civilizations. This is mainly cosmetic: the author’s interests and morality are as anachronistic as in most fantasy. However, the character Serapio is a startlingly unique creation – how much is due to American myths and how much to the author’s imagination I can’t say, but for his arc the book was worth reading if nothing else.

Roanhorse exhibits a gift for portraying character types in very short descriptions: this has the unfortunate effect in places of making minor characters seem more intriguing than some of the major ones who are portrayed in details but whose own motivations and actions end up rather flat. The action runs as tightly to a time-table as any mystery novel, which has the unfortunate effect of inducing one howling plot hole where an impossible timing is forced through without comment – oh, I can think of two or three different ways to at least hint at a justification within the story, but I can’t tell from the book as actually written whether Roanhorse missed the problem or intentionally elected to leave it to the reader’s imagination.

As Roanhorse explains in her afterword, she deliberately set out to write “epic” in a setting not based on Europe, and this extends to defying social conventions as well. Actually by the standards of much fantasy characters’ personal sexual habits, as far as explored, are rather restrained and have unsurprising consequences, even if it’s clear the author thinks those might be unfair. One city’s clans are ruled by matriarchs – although this hardly relevant to the story, and thus what I referred to as a “cosmetic” detail earlier. The ruling priesthood is – this being modern fantasy – egalitarian, and the potential weaknesses there barely hinted at.

Most unconventionally, Roanhorse includes characters who refuse to call themselves men or women – only she does it, I have to say, in such a way as seems calculated to irritate the most possible readers. I have seen it alleged that this is an attribute assigned to certain priests or shamans in some cultures; however, Roanhorse makes no use of or reference to that here: the behavior portrayed is the modern one of defying one’s physical sex as a personal choice.

On the one hand, she treats this behavior as legitimate, and the pronominal bastardizations insisted on today read like a slap in the face. On the other hand, to carry this off at all she is forced to avoid descriptions that would be given to any other character – one of the few awkwardnesses in the writing – and she quietly implies such behavior is a choice, not an essence, in that the dead body of one is described according to its sex.

This is evidently the only sensible way to regard the phenomenon, whether one condones or condemns it – but it runs counter to the “orthodoxy” insisted on by those who allow or encourage it today. Thus my comment that Roanhorse is likely to have irritated as many people as possible this way: traditionalists by including such characters at all; and today’s progressives by implicitly refusing the putative dominance of self-identification over reality.

Roanhorse – at least in retrospect – does at least use this effectively within her plot. The actual effect is hidden in a first read, and dampened overall, by her inclination to push egalitarian themes rather than trying to really get into the head of characters living in what is, by many indications, fairly traditionally divided. The themes Roanhorse still manages to hint at could have been handled with much more regard to mythic significance if she weren’t, as you might say, at war with the conceptions of the majorities within her created world.

I allow that it’s possible that many of these themes hinted at in this first volume may be worked out in greater detail or power in the remainder of the books still to be written. Only, even having read the book, I’m inclined to think it should have been left to stand alone. The ending would have to be handled differently – two or three ways come to mind – to wrap up the loose ends of the plot (or in other words, to avoid sequel hooks). The difficulty I see is that any future plot must – it seems to me inevitably – succumb again to more conventional elements, leaving the setting merely cosmetic once again. While this book was worth a read, I don’t know that I’ll re-read it, and certainly not often; as for whatever comes next, I’m likely only to look up the plot some day.

Review: The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian masterpiece is the sort of book that gets burned or banned by critics unable to refute and too timid either to try or to call in greater masters to do so, and unwilling to take the care that it find its way only into prepared hands. The unwary reader, if not repulsed, will certainly be drawn under its spell and left troubled; even the careful reader will have to careful sort through thoughts jarred loose.

What is this book? It has layers. From the title, anyone can deduce that it is a modern retelling of the Arthurian saga. The work, though, tells the story with the women around Arthur as the main characters; and for the most part devotees of – at least a literary version of – the Druidic religion, which is pointedly pagan and licentious.

And this is where the danger comes in: it seems to me that to a reader unfamiliar with other tales of Arthur, or without strong moral convications of his own, Bradley’s characters are so strongly drawn as to color the reader’s imagination ever after. The narrator’s opinion is that all religion is potentially a legitimate yearning for the supernatural Mysteries; the Druidic God and Goddess shade into pantheism; Christianity is not refuted and indeed triumphs – but the priests, mostly nameless, are the only persons routinely belittled, and for narrow-mindedness and ignorance even of their own faith. However, I suspect Bradley is most true to herself in the characters who are – openly or quietly – agnostic: they seem to me to be about the only likeable ones.

This is also an openly feminist work: the principle put forth by the Druidic priestesses is that men may be needed to fight and die for the land – and father children – but women should rule and guide, though perhaps never stated so succinctly. The wiser kings are made to consult with their wives; Morgause rules comfortably as Queen in her own right after King Lot dies; King Arthur in war is indispensible but in peace Gwenhwyfar comes more to the fore.

Yet this is not a perfectionist feminism: this is still a tragedy. I call it feminist because these women – mainly of Avalon – are made to bear the responsibility, while the warriors and courtiers do as they will. But this is still a tragedy: hubris is the name of the day and if at any point our various leading ladies had simply stopped meddling and let things go, a happy ending for all concerned would have been hard to avoid. But as a story-telling device, I must admit that providing motivations for the actions of all concerned is more satisfying, to my modern taste at least, than the older tales where a barge or boat or arm holding a sword or whatever shows up with no explanation or any reason beyond the necessity of the plot. On the other hand, Bradley does assume that the basic plot is known to the reader – however compelling the story she tells, some of her effect depends on the reader being expected to notice how the story is changed this time.

There are, I think, two faults with the book as a work of art. First, the main narrative is periodically interrupted with reflections by Morgaine in the first person, and I struggle to find anything that they add. They suggest Bradley could have told the story quite well in the first person, but the perspective is not in any significant way different from the main narration, so that the shift mostly seems to me to disrupt the flow of the story.

Second, the conclusion is handled awfully hamfistedly. Since this is an Arthurian retelling, the events are not really in doubt, and any number of the intricate schemes set up through the book could have gone awry and prompted them. Instead we have Morgause – whom any number of people have considered ambitious, but without real cause – suddenly dabbling in blood magic; Mordred claiming – without any previous narrative justification, but with no need or plausible case for lying – that Morgause put him up to proving Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity; and no real reason – every other war we get more, and again enough provocations are suggested that even a hint could easily be given – why Mordred and Arthur should fight. Of course, the story is well-enough known that the prepared reader can be assumed to interpolate from other accounts: but this is the one place the book really fails if taken purely on its own terms.

Despite these few faults and the great number of cautions, I have no doubt that as a literary work this is a worthy addition to the collection of the tales of King Arthur.

Notes on Le Morte d’Arthur

Having made my way through two volumes containing one William Caxton’s 1485 edition – apparently the first published – of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, I am left with rather mixed impressions.

As to structure, in Caxton’s hands it has very little; according to John Lawler’s modern introduction, Malory devised a scheme of eight books reminiscent of ancient epic; how Caxton’s twenty “books” correspond is not easy to tell. One can make out a structure of roughly three parts: Arthur’s birth and establishment in the kingdom, with various wars including his invasion of France to fight with the Romans, following the British story found in Nennius, Geoffrey, etc.; then the story of Tristram; and finally the quest for the Holy Grail and the subsequent events leading to Mordred’s betrayal and Arthur’s death.

Interspersed through the first two parts – and bleeding into the last – are accounts of various quests and tournaments; the tournaments particular get a little repetitive and whatever their literary value I suspect they have more as a reflection of Lancastrian courtly expectations – or earlier French ones, depending how close Malory stayed to his sources. Some of the passages are quite well done – and the bit where several knights all end up on each other’s horses amused me – but the eyes glaze over a bit after the third or fourth virtually identical scene within thirty pages. Actual tournament ethics are baffling – at times our champions will avoid another knight doing well in order to help him to the prize, but at other times the best knight on the other side is the one to fight. It seems to have something to do with friendship or feud beforehand, but I can’t come up with a consistent rule.

When Malory is actually getting on with the story, he’s quite interesting. The individual quests are mostly well-done little vignettes; and the longer narratives – King Uther, Arthur’s discovery and early wars, the war with Rome, and the story of Sir Tristram (setting aside most of the interruptions for side-quests) all capture the imagination. (Apart from the odd decision – whether Malory’s or Caxton’s – not to actually finish the story of Tristram, whose sorry end is merely mentioned in passing later.) And the Grail and King Arthur’s death crown the book effectively.

The language does not require translation, and only a few words even require the glossary found in modern printings. A few things stood out. “W” is used instead of “g” in certain words, most commonly “wallop” for “gallop” and “wood” for “good”. “Wood” requires careful treatment, however. It is found as, of course, a noun meaning a collection of trees; as an alternate (in some passages more common) form for “good”; as an adjective with persons or behavior, glossed as “wild” (as in “mad” or even “berserk”, from context; it is tempting to suppose a derivation from “woad” and its martial connotations); it is, especially in the later tales, used adverbially, though “wildly” doesn’t always fit, and it seems to serve as an intensifier; and in certain places the only coherent reading is to take it as a contraction of “wounded”.

“Big” has its modern meaning sometimes but is primarily a synonym for “strong” although it’s used so loosely in places I’m almost inclined to suspect it of being fifteenth century slang. And finally, the verb “yede” (past tense “yode”) appears to mean “go quickly” or “hurried” but, since it seems to be used mostly of person given a specific message or mission, certain sentences result in which the very recent internet neologism “yeet” (meaning most closely, to throw or get rid of something in a hurry) would not be out of place instead at least as an analogy. As far as I know, there’s no actual derivation here, although it’s tempting to imagine one!

Malory’s combination of British and French sources results in some oddities. In the first parts, the causes and results of quarrels are often more reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas, while the later French stories are mostly issues of manners or love. In the British sources, the story knows nothing of knights as such and the story is more direct: Arthur’s war with Rome is interrupted by Morded’s treachery. Malory incorporates this but has him defeat Rome itself, and thus when he crosses to France a second time to fight Sir Launcelot after his adultery is discovered, this is only because Arthur was made to have installed various of his supporters as kings and lords over conquered Gaul.

Characterization of the knights – most notably Sir Kay – also seems to change with the source. In the British sources, Sir Kay and Sir Lucan are Arthur’s primary companions and among his most notable champions; in the quest stories, Sir Kay is full of himself and either a troublemaker or the butt of the story’s jokes, depending. Sir Gawaine’s position is ambiguous throughout. Once we get to the courtly narratives, Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram are acknowledged near-equally as the best knights – along with Sir Lamorak, who seems to have dropped out of popular remembrance entirely. Sir Gawaine and Sir Palomides are sometimes considered their equals and sometimes not.

The story’s sexual morality is more or less non-existent. “Courtly love” in its decadence is in full effect, save for the Quest of the Grail, whose original author seems to have been trying to make a point. Otherwise the narrator is on the side of the knights in their affairs: even King Arthur remains more impressed by Sir Launcelot’s skill at arms than distressed by his betrayal, which is barely noted as such; and King Mark, whose maintainance of a long-running, often patched-up feud with Sir Tristram is about the only understandable reaction, is portrayed as a villain when not (variably) a coward.

More startling yet is King Pellinor’s rape of a woman (resulting, naturally for the genre, in a son who himself will be a knight) which is made to be practically excused by her husband, on the grounds that at least the child’s father was a king. In comparison, Arthur’s own affairs (two recorded – before his marriage, but one (unknowingly) with his sister – barely register. On the other hand – or perhaps as a result – bastardy is barely a concept: a knight’s own deeds define his worth.

There is, strangely, an element of monogamy retained: knights having declared one love are considered to be guilty, at least of bad manners, should they be caught in another affair or – by necessity or trickery – wind up married to some other lady. One suspects mediveal marriage for advantage at court – and possibly suspicion of marriage arising from over-valuing virginity – bears some blame for diminishing to honor of the wedded estate and allowing – demanding? – another code governing passions.

Overall Malory succeeds in combining his sources into a mostly coherent whole. If Caxton chose to call the work Le Morte d’Arthur – Malory’s intended title is uncertain – we can easily understand why, because the final third of the book contains the best writing.

Review: Uncompromising Honor

I’ve left spoilers out of this post. I’m debating another one with spoilers, but it would mostly just be listing all the things that annoyed me. The linked post from last year does have spoilers from War of Honor.

As series finales go, Uncompromising Honor is already the second one in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which by itself neatly sums up the difficulty of trying to judge the book fairly. It is not in any sense a stand-alone novel, and while I’m incapable of thinking myself into approaching in in that frame of mind at this point, I suspect the flaws would loom larger than the successes.

The successes, from a plot and series perspective, are considerable. Weber has neatly gathered up the loose ends due to his own foibles as a writer, together with the frayed ones where Eric Flint got a bit carried away with his spin-off series (technically co-authored with Weber, but as best I can tell this amounted to making sure the timeline didn’t get too impossible to sync with the main series), and tied them off neatly enough. Flint’s next book will – whatever the plot overlap – be, I suspect, essentially launching a new storyline, while I’m not sure what, if anything, Weber still intends to do with the Honorverse.

The failures are individually smaller, and in line with the same authorial bad habits I detailed a year ago when I called War of Honor “The Worst Honor Harrington Book”: Weber attempts to maintain realism and present all sides, but the coincidences work out too well, the good guys don’t make enough mistakes to make the bad guys’ howlers believeable while readying, and when it comes to political characters shades of gray are distinctly missing. In addition, this one shows up Weber’s tendency to utopian thinking a bit too strongly to be plausible at the climax.

Still, if as a book At All Costs – the first attempt at a series finale – was better, by then the side stories were spiraling out of control: this one actually manages to put a cap on things. It does leave plenty of questions unanswered – let’s call them plot hooks – and I suspect the forthcoming volume will have plenty of cans of worms to open up, but the main set of problems has been dealt with.

If you’ve read the series but not this one, you’ll probably want to. (If you haven’t read the series yet, but want to, it’s quite long, not to say outsize, at this point. The first three books – On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, and The Short Victorious War are probably the best. The first two actually can be read as stand-alone novels, but the third invokes long-term plot arcs so if you get that far and you’re a completionist on these things… well, you can probably imagine.)

Vacation Reading

While on vacation, I tend to read other people’s books, rather than (or in addition to) the ones I actually brought with me. Some quick notes:

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – Hans Rookmaker, 1970
Rookmaker examines the explicit messages and implicit worldviews conveyed by painting in different styles. He also explores connections between artists’ expressed philosophy and their work. The latter is the most successful theme in the work, although I suspect that by focusing on artists he overstates the degree to which modernist etc. ideas were minority and even “hidden” opinions before mass media. The power of his thesis is hampered by two things: first, although he recognizes the focuses created by iconography and devotional art his defense of them as a Protestant is at best half-hearted; and second, he seems to me to have little love for his own Dutch tradition, suspecting it of already transitioning towards the modernity he distrusts. As a result he does not quite appear to have a role to give to beauty.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – Charles Haskins, 1927
Haskins’ work gives an overview of learning in the twelfth century. He details works made newly available in Europe through contact with the Byzantines, Arabs, and Moors, as well as outlining developments in education from monastery and cathedral schools and court establishments to the initial stages of the recognizeable university. Appears to be one of the earlier attempts to correct perceptions of the “backward” Middle Ages and extended “Dark Ages”.

Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought – David Fischer, 1970
Fisher theorizes that good arguments about history follow a logical structure, albeit one not (fully) captured by formal logics as developed for strictly verbal or mathematical proofs. This work attempts to discover those rules by illustrating failures of argument, organized around several themes. When it comes to stating theses, finding and analyzing data, and organizing formal arguments (as appropriate), it’s a very useful resourse. Fischer is a little hindered by his rejection of relativism while refusing to set a firm standard himself. He insists in introducing the work that he is interested in “fallacy” primarily in form and that the primary responsibility of a historian is to make his working premises clear – but later rejects several common and plausible sets of premises, mostly having to do with relating history to moral judgment, as themselves fallacious.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard, 1885
Probably the best known of Haggard’s books, at least in part due to the number of film adaptations. Also looks to me like an inspiration for significant parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A decent thriller marred for current reading by subservience to the racial theories of the day, it seems to me that its actual literary value will be difficult to judge without significantly more cultural distance from those particular errors. It’s worth noting that Haggard clearly felt something was wrong with the scheme, but also wasn’t going to challenge it: he uses “Negro” only a few times and explicitly rejects ruder forms, prefering descriptions of individuals to stereotypes (though ironically one suspects the success of this work set a few); and includes an African love interest for an English gentleman – though ultimately kills her (not him) off complete with a monologue about how it wouldn’t work out.

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Earlier this year I undertook to re-read Dostoyevkey’s rather long novel. In theory I had gotten through it before, although it took a few tries, so I knew what I was getting into and I took precautions: I made sure I would in fact read it within a month or so, and made sure to get from the library the newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, rather than attempt the slog through the older one again. As a matter of fact I had virtually no recollection of the text after the first hundred pages or so.

The book remains a puzzle. The beginning is a terrible bore; the end is a terrible muddle; and the events in the middle are simply terrible. The story is – as the introduction suggests – clearly unfinished at the end of this one volume, which makes it hard to judge where the plot might have gone next, but this is then the only judgment to pass on the novel: incomplete.

The opening third of the book seems to set up a philosophical contrast. The elder Zosima with his advice of love and humility, to – in the more Biblical phrase – carry other people’s burdens, to consider oneself a sinner, the sinner, is contrasted with Ivan’s proud supposal in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that in organizing society a class of overlords could carry sin, could take away guilt, from the masses. As a protest against God, Ivan’s description of the suffering of children is much more effective; placing his Inquisitor knowingly in the presence of Christ the claims of saving society amount to blasphemy, a claim that men could do what the Christian faith says Jesus has done already.

But it is hard to see how this in any way relates to the actual plot, such as it is; and in contrast to either philosophy’s grand intentions, Zosima’s disciple Alyosha accomplishes nothing of note, while Ivan for all his posturing can only be said to flee impending unpleasantness. One could perhaps wonder from the ending whether Dostoyevsky was preparing or implying something like the parable of the two brothers – the one who claimed obedience and did nothing, while the other who refused his duty actually carried it out.

On this point is rather obscured in the actual plot – by “plot” I mean the things that happen, as opposed to merely being talked about: jealousy, murder, flight, guilt, arrest, trial. Dostoyesky tells it rather well, only this is where things are left unfinished. Alyosha’s side-quests – well, one doesn’t expect all parts of a real life to fit together neatly, but other than the fact that Dostoyevsky’s narrator has decided to tell about a whole family it’s rather unclear what they have to do with anything, and if two brothers get such detailed treatment of their activities why not the third? It’s all rather tangled to contemplate.

In tone, half the book one gets details of thought and conversation but nothing happens – even things that do “happen” are buried under the tide of philosophic reflections; while in the other half – the half, or not quite, in the middle – lots of things happen with virtually no comment at all. The book is not quite the one thing or the other, and leaves the reader confused. None of the main characters are admirable, but their vices are too petty to themselves to pitiable to be really villainous. The philosophy is unclear and in any case lies dead on the page. Other than an account of what we’d mostly like life to really not be like – despite a creeping suspicion it often is – it’s not clear to me what exactly one is supposed to get out of this book.

Review: Whistling Vivaldi

Whistling Vivaldi, by Dr. Claude Steele, currently provost of Columbia University, is mainly a summary of studies performed to investigate “stereotype threat”, a term coined to refer to decreased performance as a result of perceived negative expectations.

Steele opens by discussing what he calls “identity contingencies” – the fact that some things in life that we have to deal with will depend on who we are or who we are seen as being.  Stereotype threats are presented as instances of this, and the majority of the book is dedicated to examples of various experiments done to demonstrate that they actually exist – and perhaps most disturbingly, can be easily created artificially but intentionally simply by imposing divisions on a group and attaching expectations.

The remainder is spent discussing ways to address the problem.  The method Steele mentions more often focuses on creating positive expectations or otherwise offsetting the negative ones, by using vocabulary meant to be less threatening, by specifically addressing a negative stereotype fear with reassurances, or other techniques to create positive expectations among a population that would typically be stereotyped with negative ones.  He also briefly mentions addressing these problems by making sure that students learn to work in the ways that do work already for groups with high performance.

The circumstances under which the book was recommended to me – to say nothing of the title – suggested to me that Steele’s work would be reliant on anecdotes of mainly emotional value, an impression which proved quite misleading.  In fact I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit and would recommend it.  I found it disjointed in places: the “disjoints” come when he mentions various experiments or discoveries related to his main topic, and then reverts to the main point.  In a way the book is far too short – another way of looking at these rough connections would be to emphasize one of the book’s chief values, that Steele sticks to his point and doesn’t try to do too much.

Review: The Rising Sun

It is a bit of an odd coincidence that I would get around to writing about John Toland’s history of World War II as perceived by Japan on December 7th.  I even considered putting it off another day, but I think there is a certain fitness to it as well.  Titled in full The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945, Toland’s work focuses in some detail on Japanese politics leading up to war with the United States and on the internal negotiations required before the Japanese surrender.  The military campaigns between are sketched, with a curious amount of detailed attention paid to Guadalcanal (perhaps as a sort of icon of Japanese difficulties throughout the war) but otherwise as much said about the infighting, misperceptions, and socially driven problems of the Japanese campaign.

It is an interesting book as much as for what is left out as for what is put in.  Japan’s campaigns in Asia proper are mentioned briefly, but despite contending that the drain on resources was significant – an entirely plausible claim – little detail is given to them.  Similarly, Japanese atrocities in the Philippines are examined fairly closely, but those in China or Korea barely mentioned.  This is – unfortunately – hardly unique in writing on World War II, but curious given Toland’s clear intention to at least outline the entire scope of Japanese planning and action.  Intention outrunning performance is of course also less than uncommon.

The most interesting aspect, especially in comparison with more standard histories (especially from the period relatively soon after the war; The Rising Sun was published in 1970), is Toland’s examination of Japanese ideals and actions – contrasted with Allied ideals and actions.  For a brief summary: what do we make of Japan’s conception of itself as a Pan-Asian leader, contrasted with its colonialist brutality in its campaigns; but then set against American proclamations of democratic idealism, as against actual connivance with continued French or (save for a popular revolt) Dutch colonialism?

Toland I would guess began with a thesis, which in the course of his research faded to something more like the desire to convey an impression.  The most distinct impression created is the tragedy of the war: the Japanese pre-war judgment (which led, Japanese military theories being what they were, directly to the Pearl Harbor attack) that as they stood the Japanese ambitions were incompatible with American interests seems incontrovertible, but Japanese and American misunderstandings of each other’s politics and culture contributed to the way the war came, and the way it ended, both far more dramatic and destructive than it seems they might have been.  That the narrative ends more or less with the Japanese surrender was perhaps the only plausible option; however,  a continuation or another work considering both the continuation and transformation of Japanese politics and culture would be necessary, I think, for any kind of real conclusion to the story Toland begins.  Though 1936 is rather a middle of things place to begin the tale, as well.