Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Monday, December 8, 2008

I am back. It was a long journey but well worth the effort. This trip was in the metaphysical sense though real none the less. Vikram's dense novel leads the reader through the underworld of Mumbai, weaving an intricate tale of gang lords and detectives. I was introduced to this novel by Rampini's account of modern India that I had read over the summer. Sadly, this fictional work took on a whole new meaning as half way through reading it, the tragic real life terrorist attacks occurred.

Rampini described how Chandra lived among Mumbai's gangsters for several months to put together the material for this book. It shows. The depth of the story and the characters is wonderful. This book further confirmed to me the important role fiction plays in our learning. A well-written tale is able to provide a certain type of shading on a certain subject that non-fiction is not capable of doing. I thoroughly recommend this novel to anyone interested in crime, mob bosses, India or all three. It will entertain you while opening the door into many cultural nuances of the Indian culture.


Everything is Connected by Daniel Barenboim

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Daniel Barenboim is a music director, conductor, and pianist. He performed his first live concert at the old age of seven. Since then he has been traveling the world as a musician of the highest level. He was music director of the Chicago Symphony from 1991 until 2006 after which he become director of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin.

His life story is equally impressive having been born to Russian Jews in Buenos Aires. in 1952 his family immigrated to Israel. The title of this books represents his beliefs as a person and a citizen of the world. The argument, reflected in this title, is that the means in which music is studied, performed and listened to can be applied to all aspects of human interaction. He succeeds in making strong associations between music and world events, namely the conflict in Israel and Palestine. If political leaders applied the same set of skills required by musicians in a symphony, great advancements could me made. Most impressive, is how Barenboim has acted on his theory by bringing together young, aspiring musicians from Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Israel into one symphony. This group of young adults travel the world together in demonstration of their ability to overcome religious and geographic conflict through cooperation in music. If music could be described in words, it would serve no purpose. For this reason, the cooperation that is required, which does not depend on words but actions, has accomplished more than politicians were able over the last ten years.

Barenboim certainly has a deep understanding of modern culture, philosophy and language in addition to his profound music skills. He introduces certain philosophers in this book. I would have liked to see a stronger connection made between philosophy and music in what ended up being a rather short book. What Barenboim confirmed, though, is how true "maestri" almost always have deep knowledge and passion for certain fields outside their own area of expertise.


Barbarians at the Gate by Burrough & Helyar

Sunday, October 19, 2008

I had to interrupt the book I was reading because the events occurring in the global financial markets dutifully called for such action. Instead of reading the daily news and agonizing over what was unfolding, I decided to turn back in time, not long ago, when new, creative financial instruments were allowing private equity firms to takeover companies by running up enormous debt. This process is known as a Leveraged Buyout (LBO) and it was rife on Wall Street in the Geckoesque period of the mid 1980's.

The creativity of our modern day financiers is amazing. Without launching into the populist calls for their heads that one could read in the newspapers these days (not me though), the fundamental truth remains that out capitalist system, with its constant evolution, require such magical tools of finance. They are required in order to maintain the same growth levels that investors of all types have become accustomed to. However, the Western world is no longer in a post-war boom phase. The conditions are much more mature in nature and we need to start considering how our societies should be shaped in the "post-modern economy". There are only so many financial spells to cast; cheap-labor arbitraging opportunities to exploit, and wars to start. However, lets not get to far ahead of ourselves.

"Barbarians" tells the story, over a six month period, of the takeover of RJR Nabisco, the maker of Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies and Doral cigarettes by KKR, a major private equity firm. We do not need to look as far back as the 1930's to draw similarities to today's dilemmas. Just as barely- employed recent graduates were snapping up two bedroom condos over the last year with ridiculous amount of leverage, i.e. no money down on a $300,000 condo, private equity firms, with the help of Wall Street investment bankers, were purchasing Main Street companies, either private or publicly held, using enormous leverage ratios (little cash and lots of junk bonds). In both situations, the problems began when repayment on the loan amounts was brought into question.

I can only imagine what is being said in the newspapers and online over the last month. Why were the bankers so greedy? Didn't they see it coming? Are profits never enough? The answers - yes, yes, no. My favorite metaphor in the book was told by one investment banker. If you have 11 beauty pageant contestants in a room and in walks a $100 prostitute, you still have 11 beauty pageant contestants and a hooker. But if a prostitute walks in and tells them she earns $1m, the room is immediately made up of 12 hookers. The investment banks, just like the friends of our condo-buying recent graduate, have a hard time resisting when others around them are making money. Equally, once you are making lots of money, you are not going to stop out of goodwill for mankind. Oil companies know their resources will one day finish and drilling next to the house of a cute polar bear is the wrong thing to do just as a guy slinging mortgages out of his guestroom making $25,000 a month knew that he was probably selling a mortgage or two too many to people who would have been better off renting. Finally, the rampant growth opportunities are simply going to be harder and harder to come by.

Every cloud has a silver lining. The true tragedy would be if we live through the difficult upcoming years without giving thought to the direction we are going. It is this "pioneering capitalism" which needs to be reevaluated. There need to be checks in place along the way. Government does not have to be the enemy of economic growth. In truth, it can and will need to be an enabler by improving infrastructure that allow for smoother business and by educating its people to be the most competitive in changing times. And, yes, it needs to remember that it is often the last line of defense for untethered economic pursuits whose long term costs for society often dwarf the short term profits of a few.


The Arabs by David Lamb

Thursday, September 18, 2008

In this case, the accompanying photo helps set the feeling for this book. The question I propose my enormous reader-base: would you feel comfortable breaking out this book on the bus or subway? David Lamb wrote "The Arabs" in 1987. The title reflects this on several levels. I never really like people to know what I am reading when I am on the train, per se. When ARABS is written in huge, red, capital letters, even less so. Why does it feel strange to me?

Regardless, I enjoyed this light read on the Arabs, a definition Lamb gives to include the area from Morocco moving east until Oman. The edition I read included a post 9/11 update, which was essentially a chance for Lamb to cash in on the tragedy by adding a new introduction and a handful of sentences about the connections to the event. Right move in my eyes, mainly because no one in the States cared about this part of the world until they were forced to.

The account is based on his writings and recollections during his time as the L.A. Times Bureau chief in Cairo. Yes, another one! It reads like the travel book that it is. What I found to be most interesting is how the writing has not been skewed by the 9/11, which offers a pre-event perspective.

As I enjoy following threads in both thought and reading, it is important to make the connection between my study of modern German history and the Middle East. Obviously, much of the shaping of this part of the world are a direct consequence of World War II, which led to the creation of the State of Israel. What Lamb argues is that even without Israel the Arab countries, due to how they are governed, would still be rife with problems though perhaps to a lesser degree. The Palestine - Israel conflict, often seen to be the number one factor causing tension in the Middle East and beyond, continues to trudge on because it is not in the interest of other Muslim that it is resolved.

I do not want to delve too deep into this argument because it is complex and I know next to nothing about it. The next post will be a review on a book written by an Argentine-Palestinian music conductor residing in Berlin. The title of the book is Everything is Connected. Let's see if this is really the case. Until then...


The Catholic Church by Hans Küng

Sunday, September 7, 2008

This book, by the professor of Theology at Tübingen University in southern Germany, is a short history explaining the developments of the Church through time. The Church in this definition refers to the Roman Catholic one, who, as this short history explains, has seen its power and influence in the world wither away over the 1500 year mainly as a result of its own doing.

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the finest representations of rigid hierarchy present today. Decisions come from the top down with little significance given to the input and opinions of its large following at the bottom. The Church created numerous layers of organization from priest to bishop, cardinal and beyond. The effects of this were that Catholics always had a local messenger of God, the priest, who was available and willing to pardon people for their sins. The rise of Luther in the early 16th century called for a direct connection between believers and God. Too many mid-level managers. The repurcussions of this split between the Catholic and what would become the Protestant Church had enormous cultural effects and still today greatly define the differences between Northern and Southern Europe.

The frustrating aspect of the Church is that there were several key points in history in which the setting was ideal for a new direction to be taken. However, each time the conservative option that would preserve the hierarchical power structure was always taken.

In all this it is easy to forget about one important figure - Jesus! The Church and the pope, who is suppose to be the voice of Jesus on Earth, constantly distant themselves from this humble and peaceful figure by refusing to ask one simple question: Is this what Jesus would have wanted for his Church? One of the few positive trends in the current Catholic religion is that there is a very strong grassroots, community-oriented, church at the local level. The members of this church (non-capital "C") are much closer to the embodiment of what Jesus was and what he would have wanted. These people are running soup kitchens in parish basements, gathering clothing during the winter months for the poor, and teaching immigrants the local language for better integration. It sure seems a far cry away from a Pope who dresses himself in silk, gold and jewels at every public event he is present at.


A Confederacy of Dunces by John K. Toole

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I do not have to much to add about this wonderful book that has not already been said by Mr. Abrams here.

Except I now know where the name of my dear friend's cat comes from. I was not convinced that he was capable of naming his cat, Ignatius, after the founder of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church.

This book was very refreshing after slugging through the very intense non-fiction work by Stern. Actually, I reached for this book about half way through the other like a lost wanderer in the Gobi desert would do for a bottle of water. A Confederacy of Dunces is funny and written in such a tight manner that not one word seems superfluous.


The Five Germanys I have Known by Fritz Stern

Friday, August 8, 2008

There is the wonderful scene in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" when he is at a party with what could be a "cast from a Fellini film". He is talking about how Nazis are planning to march in New Jersey and recommends that he and others gang up with bricks and bats to go teach them a lesson. One of the other party guests responds that he read a devastating satire piece in the Op-Ed section of the NY Times on the issue. Allen's response is that satire is one thing "but bricks and baseball bats really get to the point."

When I read Fritz Sterns epic memoir I couldn't help but chuckling every now thinking back to this scene. Stern is one of the top German historians in America. His life began in a part of Germany that now belongs to Poland. In the lead up to WWII Stern, age 12, and his entire family immigrated to the USA therefore escaping persecuting at the hand of Hitler. Stern's career as a professor at Columbia University allowed him to become a leading expert in the country and people who he justifiably despised for having forced to leave his country of birth. Stern's quest throughout the post World War II period is to explain "the German question" through rigerous historical study. A second compenent of his work was explaining his discoveries while also applying socialogical theories to current events shaping that period in time. He does so very effectively and does not at all come across with rancor towards the Germans.

The most amazing thing about reading this book, which combines history within the context of a memoir, is how for fifteen dollars I was able to read over the past few weeks an accumulation of knowledge and experience amassed over a period of 70 years - condensed into 500 pages. This is the power of reading! Overall, I enjoyed the book and learned so much about our modern history. Stern has lived an incredibly rich life having met and befriended numerous top figures in politics, academics and science. Truly impressive.

However, I do have a few rants regarding Fritz's book. The first is in regards to the Woody Allen scene mentioned above. I remember one point in the book where Fritz Sterns became enraged by some occurrence of current events, I believe regarding the Vietnam war. His furious outrage drove him sit down and write an op-ed letter to the Times. With all that rage I sure feel sorry for the poor stamp which certainly had to pay a dear price. At times Sterns belief in the effects of the written word seemed too overblown.

The second objection I had to his memoir - did Stern ever make a mistake in his remarkable life? I would have liked to have seen reference to an instant or two when the choice he made was the wrong one or a direction he took he reflects back on with a certain regret. It would have added a level of humbleness and humility that was lacking throughout.

Finally, I was bothered (jealous?) of how he described the countless number of brilliant people he met. I never knew there were so many synonyms for the word "intelligent" but Stern managed to use all of them when talking about his family, friends and acquaintances. It seemed like everyone he knew was smart beyond all belief. Fritz, hang out with some stupid people every now and then. It may do you some good.


La Speranza Indiana (The Indian Hope) by Federico Rampini

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I have become good friends with several Indian student colleagues while in Rotterdam. Their most remarkable attribute is the curiosity they have in "Western culture". They are generally very eager to learn about our traditions, history and way of doing things in society and in business. My experiences with other Americans and Europeans is rather different. The boom in tourism and the easier access to foreign information has led a lot of Westerns I have met to think they are experts on a country/region basing their knowledge on little experience. I attribute the main cause to be a lack of listening skills. I constantly have the feeling that people I meet in international environments are always ready to tell me how it is. They are much less eager to listen to how it could be. My friends from India possess the dying ability to listen to what others have to say. Perhaps this eagerness to learn is a contributing factor to the growth and optimism in their country. This book, along with the next one I will be reviewing, demonstrate such a profound knowledge and understanding of the countries the authors are writing about, that the reader cannot help but feel the dwarfing effects in respect to our superficial travel culture made of Lonely planet, wikipidia and a digital camera.

It was my friends' curiosity in my culture that drove me to read this book on their own. It is the least I could. Rampini is a successful Italian journalist specifically focusing on Asia. His book is very similar in structure to The Good Rain which I reviewed a month back. Both books move along a current journey through the land, weaving in contemporary issues with historical events. This style makes for entertaining reading as new subjects and historical anecdotes come and go with a certain freshness. On the other hand, it does make it hard to follow a chronological unfolding of events. This book opens the door to a country dripping with intrigue. The writer also provides an Italian perspective that I found to be fascinating.

I have been thinking a lot about perspective in writing lately. Coming from the Anglo-American world with its dominant language provides numerous benefits as well as negative aspects. The fact we have access to so many books, journals, magazines, and blogs (!) gives us the possibility to immerse ourselves in the smallest of niche subjects. However, the perspective an American or English writer brings to their field has been conditioned heavily by the society in which they were raised. A certain historical bias is always alive in writing.

This leads me to ask, what is the need for an Italian journalist to write about India when the subject has certainly been amply documented by hundreds (thousands?) of Anglo writers? Because the Italian reader interested in India views the country differently than the way an American reader would. Rampini explores the intrigue the West has always possessed for India mainly by discussing the works on the subject written by Schopenhauer and Hesse. In addition, Italians themselves, from the early explorers to Passolini in the 70's, have documented their journeys. Remember that Venice was the largest port in Europe during the 16th century thus acting as the hub for the imports (mainly silk and spices) arriving from India. These occurrences are not nearly as relevant to an American because 1) philosophy is a subject that is not integrated into the school curriculum in America while a large part of Italian high school students are forced to study it. It may be seen as a form of punishment at the time but something certainly remains in the academic formation. 2) America was founded after the fall of Venetian dominance so our perspective of history naturally has a much shorter time frame.

So, I was introduced to the complexity India reading a book in Italian that introduced me to German thinkers I knew little about. Actually, my own understanding of India is largely "Italian influenced", first by Tiziano Terziani (a future post will introduce him to those unfamiliar) and now Federico Rampini. It is all very least to me.


Philosophy and the Real World, An Intro to Karl Popper by Bryan Magee

Sunday, June 29, 2008

There are two ways of interpreting this title: 1) Idiots guide to Karl Popper or 2) Short book for someone too lazy to actually read Karl Popper's works. Both are valid in this case. Karl Popper is an Austrian philosopher who spent the majority of his adult life in the UK. He is a philosopher on science whose main theories carry over into modern society as well. He was introduced to me (not physically) through the two books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. Fooled by... is a book I highly recommend reading, Black Swan less so. Taleb is certainly a disciple of Popper. To learn more on Popper I decided to seek out a book introducing him to a layman like myself. I have read very little philosophy in my life for the simple reason that it puts me to sleep - and not in the metaphorical sense. I always held the belief that when the time was right philosophy would come to me because I was ready. I don't know if that time has come, but I did make it through this book without falling asleep (too much).

Popper's central argument revolves around the following example. It is not possible to make the observation statement "all swans are white" even if you have observed one thousand, ten thousand or one million white swans without seeing any other colored swans. However, it takes just seeing one black swan to derive the statement "not all swans are white". What I took from Popper was that in science you must look for problems, i.e. black swans instead of searching for occurrences that confirm your hypothesis. In this quest to falsify your findings is when true discovery happens. However, this is difficult for scientists and humans because being "right" just feels so damn good.

By seeking out the problems with your argument is the manner in which you strengthen it. Popper is a true believer in critical feedback stating that people should be eager to receive feedback on their work because it gives them the opportunity to truly improve upon it.

Being right feels good. Taleb in his two books takes this idea to the financial world and points out the problems this can cause. However, it also holds true in politics as well. There is growing concern of tribalism in America according to The Economist. As Norman Mailer said in an interview before the 2004 elections. "How is Bush going to win? I don't know one person voting for him." There is more and more tendency to surround ourselves with people who are more willing to confirm what you have to say instead of opposing it. This certainly may make for more peaceful dinner parties but it is not going to really spur interesting political debate.

Remaining on the subject of society and politics, it was Popper's argument that it is the government's role to minimize avoidable suffering. This falls in line with his overarching belief in addressing problems in order to arrive at improvements. It seems very practical to me. Seek out the low hanging fruit of societal suffering and make it better. He feels this to be the proper direction because it is impossible to determine what defines happiness but it is quite easy to know what makes people unhappy such as sleeping under a bridge or not having food to eat. It is interesting to think of the USA's protection of the endless pursuit of happiness.

I recommend this book. The ideas that are touched upon can be applied to business, society and science. So each person can take something from this introduction to Popper.


Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

I have never been very interested in science and more specifically medicine and have read few books on the subject. It is my impression that disease and medicine are fields that people seek knowledge about when they personally become effected by the subject matter. Fortunately, I have not been confronted with such at this point in my life. On a friends recommendation, I read Dr. Sacks' book. It is excellent.

Dr Sack's spent seven years working with patients effected with severe cases of Parkinson's disease. Over this time period he was responsible for administering the "miracle drug" LDOPA to the patients. He kept a journal on how each of these patients reacted to drug. The responses were incredible. Parkinson's is a terrible disease that left many of those affected in this book without the possibility to move or speak. Many were considered "living dead" for how severe they were afflicted. LDOPA immediately increased levels of mobility and speech. However, this is just one part of it and the amazing aspects of its effects are best left for the reader to discover. One interesting aspect was that LDOPA has a coming down phase I can only imagine is very similar to what illicit drug-users would experience as well.

The story of LDOPA is told through the individual journal entries of each of the patients. Yet this is only one component which makes this book so impressive. Sacks' writing style is exceptional when compared to any writer - even more so the case when recognizing that he is a medical doctor by trade. His ability to examine modern Western medicine as a whole adds an additional level of intrigue as does the way he intertwines the subject with philosophy.

His biggest concern with the direction we are taking in modern medicine is how doctors approach diagnosing a disease. What is lacking is a holistic approach in the process. Doctors must recognize that past experiences contributed in some way to the development of the disease. These experiances go back way before the patients "first symptom". A disease cannot be boxed and packaged and is never the same because we, as people, are not the same. The true answer to the cure may be in understanding the person before checking boxes to determine what type of disease they have. Sacks recognizes the important role Freud played in his psychoanalytical study of human nature. Past history, be it a result of genetics or events, both have their effects on the present. This point, as well as the reference to Freud, lead nicely into the next review on Karl Popper.


The Good Rain by Timothy Egan

Monday, June 16, 2008

I would recommend this anyone raised in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) who is currently living away from home and is a bit nostalgic. I will be curious to know the thoughts of non-PNWers or PNWers still living in the area if they have read or decide to read this book.

Timothy Egan is the Seattle correspondent for the New York Times. I came across his writing in a very particular way. One morning while purusing the NY times online, I read an editorial written by a Stanford undergraduate student studying in Italy. She was writing about the impressions she had of being an American in Bologna while another student from Seattle (Amanda Knox) was being held in an Italian prison as a murder suspect after her British roommate was found fatally stabbed in their apartment in Perugia. Anyone from Seattle, Italy or the UK will know of this story.

I was very impressed with the article written by the Stanford student. Only later, while reading an Italian paper, was it mentioned that the writer's father wrote for the NY Times. This same article inferred that this was the reason her article was published. Regardless, the father is Timothy Egan, author of The Good Rain.

The Pacific Northwest is truly a region without borders. It stretches into British Columbia and moves down through Western Oregon. There is certainly something that links people from this area. The terrain plays a role as people from the area are comfortable both with the ocean and in the mountains. The long gray and drizzly winters become normal for those adapted but standout for the new arrivals.

Egan certainly loves the PNW and represents it very well in this book and in his Times articles and blog . Even when he writes about the Iraq war you can tell he is not doing it from the 42nd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper.

This book is about the history of the region. He travels from one area to the next tying in current events with historical ones. He justifiably declares the importance of the geography giving particular focus to the Columbia river and Cascade Mountains. He also drives home the message (perhaps too often) that the Army Corp of Engineers mutilated a lot of rivers in the area with dam construction thus drastically reducing the salmon runs. As a result, the way of life of the Indians in the area was altered forever because they were no longer able to fish the rivers they had depended on for 10,000 years. European Americans push west certainly did not help the situation either as Indian land was snatched up with support from the federal government and was only relinquished after drawn out court rulings, which were often too late.

This book was written in 1990 which in Seattle terms is a lifetime ago. The city has changed so much since then. This book demonstrates how European Americans moving west wanted to take as much from the land as possible in the shortest amount of time. They also felt that the power of man could conquer the massiveness of the terrain mainly though engineering. Land protection, zoning laws, pollution, were not terms that were digested well by the new arrivals. My fear is that these same issues are still not given enough consideration as the population in the Seattle region is estimated to reach four million over the next two decades. Many things I am seeing, hearing, and reading are convincing me that a book such as Egan's holds vital messages that are still relevant today.


Impuniti by Antonello Caporale

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The title of this book translates to "Unpunished: Story of a incapable, wasteful, and happy system ". Caporale is writing about the political system in Italy. This book has not been translated into English and I doubt that it will be. I have spent a large part of my mental efforts over the last seven years in attempting to understand modern Italian history. If I had wisely dedicated my intellectual resources to the forces of good instead, who knows what I may have accomplished - perhaps there would now be nuclear fusion test station in my basement.

When writing about Italy the most difficult task is being able to do so in under 3000 words. I am greatly fascinated by the post WWII history of Italy and will certainly (attempt to) write about it more in the future. To briefly summarize the political and economic situation in Italy right now, it is a near disaster. You can forget about the rolling Tuscan hills and barolo wines if you attempt to unravel this political ball of yarn.

Caporale is a journalist for La Reppublica, a left-leaning major newspaper in the country. In this book he travels the peninsula exposing how numerous politicians have managed to waste billions of Euros mainly on large-scale infrastructure projects that were never realized. However, more important than these countless examples of politicians abusing their power at the expense of the Italian taxpayer, is the fact that these same politicians are rarely held accountable in court; are never forced to look into a camera and say "I made a mistake"; and are not turned on by their peers.

This lack of accountability is the theme that runs through this book and which represents the missing element in the modern political system. Italy can no longer hide in the shadows of the rest of Europe because they now are part of Europe. This means that the country will be held to the same standards as other European Union members. The vast majority of national and local governments are more than capable of improperly managing vast sums of money. I have no problem there. But heads have to roll every now and then to at least strike a little fear into the heart of the politicians. And this happens in modern democracies, not including Il bel paese.

The fact that a member of parliament in Italy is the highest paid in all of Europe while the average Italian wages are among the lowest speaks for itself. Politicians are concerned about preserving their caste. It does not matter if they are from the left or right. This "caste" has become the talk of the country over the last year since a book with the same title was written by Gian Antonio Stella. Caporale's book is an offspring of Stella's. The question is for how long can you talk without action? And here is the core of the problem, these politicians are capable of outlasting the talk because the action, mainly judicial, simply takes too long. They know that they will not have to face the fire because the average Italian can only be appalled by the amount of inefficiency and waste a certain number of times before they simply tune it out. I know because I am quickly reaching that level and I am not even Italian - nor do I live in the country!


The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This book is a work of historical fiction. In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for his first and last time. He returned to Vienna thereafter declaring it a land of savages. We really proved him wrong nearly 100 years later. American Gladiators is coming back.

This book is about Freud and his psychoanalytical friends working together to solve a murder that has taken place during their visit. Rubenfeld does tie in a few of basic principles of Freud's contribution to psychology which may benefit some. This way you can have this pseudo sense of intellectual stimulation while you are reading what really is the simplest of murder mysteries. I would not not recommend this book. Instead I would highly recommend reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes instead. It is hard not be satisfied after having read one of Arthur Conan Doyle's timeless tales. To me it seems like the better option.


The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In April 2008 I visited Berlin for the first time in my life. The city intrigued me on numerous levels. I knew very little about the city and its history upon arrival. Nor did it improve much in the whirlwind three-day tour, between late evenings in the bars and long lunches with the Italian parent-in-laws. However, I did not have any regrets. In all honesty, I actually chose not to do too much research on the city before my arrival because I wanted to be a blank slate upon seeing the city for the first time. Then once having left I could properly select areas of interest which I felt drawn to for further study.

The case remained that I knew little about the modern history of Berlin, the Cold War and the Wall. Therefore, a general introduction was needed. For me, history is a giant bucket with an endless amount of holes in it, like swiss cheese. Water is filled in the bucket and is therefore coming out of all the holes. By studying one certain part of history over time you may cork one of those holes but this does not stop the water from coming out the other holes. I feel like I am constantly running around this bucket not even with cork, but with scotch tape, merely trying to patch up those points in history I embarrassingly know so little about. The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor acted as a piece of scotch tape for the fifty year period since World War II. The hole is now covered but something at the more in-depth level is still missing.

Taylor is a British professor who has studied and wrote about Germany since his undergraduate years. As an academic, I can only imagine that he was torn with what type of work to create. The unfortunate trend in modern writing is that non-fiction has really been divided into two camps. The first is the academic camp, with its over-specialization, concentration on details, endless citing, and overall low readability. The second is for the "masses" camp, which more or less, runs exactly opposite to the academic camp. I believe that a truly successful book on history is somehow able to blend the positive aspects of both of these camps. Unfortunetly, it is a near impossible task.

Taylor clearly selected writing a book for the masses. It is a book that would sit well at newspaper kiosk at Berlin Tegel airport ideal for a rather ignorant tourist leaving Berlin to purchase before his Sunday evening flight. These are more or less the conditions in which I purchased the book. Taylor assumes the task of creating "readable historic non-fiction". Berlin provides an excellent backdrop to succeed in doing so with stories of espionage, fearless escapes, and Cold War political drama.

After World War II Berlin was divided into four segments granted to the Ally victors - and France. As the divergence between Communist Russia and Capitalist America grew, the city of Berlin was forced to live out this division on an extremely concentrated level. Germany's communist leaders, many of whom fled to Moscow during the war, were able to return to Germany to enact that which had been taught to them during their time in Moscow. While East Germany represented the socialist state, Berlin - an island in the sea of East Germany, continued to exist in its divided nature due to the agreements made by the Allies post WWII.

The creation of the wall was a response of East Berliners/Germans seeking refuge in West Berlin where from they were able to fly out of Berlin altogether into West Germany. This exodus of citizens of the East did not bode well with its leaders who were dedicating a lot of time and energy in convincing its citizens that socialism was a superior form of government. The wall was erected on 13 August 1961 to prevent further migration to the West. It remained in place for 30 years.

It was my belief that there were so many exciting occurrences on the Cold War world stage to write about as well as the fascinating personal stories of people living between East and West Berlin. Taylor does a fine job of discussing both. The weakness of the book was his need to emphasize the drama of the events and readability of his writing. I feel that the events in their own right speak for themselves. Instead Taylor adds certain phrases that would be more suited for the low brow fiction section of that kiosk at the Tegel Airport. Without quoting the book specifically, I recall on numerous occasions that certain people did one thing or another "with devastating consequences". Or some political leader who "made a decision, a decision with grave repurcussions". In instances like these I felt Taylor was trying just a little too hard. I would have preferred to have read about these "decisions" on my own and decide for myself if a "choice - a choice he would come to regret" was truly such. Instead he was deciding for me and in a manner better suited for poorly written spy novel.

Overall, the book acts a decent introduction to Berlin history. It will now be up to me, or anyone else interested in this period, to seek out more specific works that dive more in-depth into the countless subjects that this book touches on but does fully address. Areas that perked my interest which I will begin investigating further are: 1) the role Moscow played during WWII, specifically in how it taught and trained future communist leaders; 2) more personal stories about those living in Berlin.


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