Monthly Archives: April 2018

“A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety” by Jimmy Carter

Published 2015 – 238 pages, indexed, with photos, poems and artwork

I grabbed this book (off a give-away table) because I spotted a section on DIPLOMACY. And if there’s anything that might help our troubled world right now, that’s it.

I rapidly realized this book fits one of my favorite categories – accounts of times and events I lived through, but don’t really understand. I’ve investigated the Civil Rights movement, Kent State (does everyone recognize this reference?) and the Cuban missile crisis.

I read one of Carter’s earlier books, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. It would be worth reading even if Carter had not risen to the Presidency.

By way of a refresher… Jimmy Carter was born in Georgia in 1924 and served as the 39thPresident of the United States from 1977 to 1981, losing the campaign for a second term to Ronald Reagan. At 93, he is the longest-retired President in US history. (Wikipedia)

The social/historical thread that runs through A Full Life is race. Carter grew up deep in the segregated South. The US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, was segregated when he entered in 1943. In 1948, the US military and Civil Service were integrated by order of President Harry Truman. By the time he returned to Plains, GA, Carter had little tolerance for racial discrimination. So many years have passed, and our country still struggles with racial issues!

A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety is studded with surprises. I had forgotten that it was Carter who pardoned all the draft resisters from the Vietman war, allowing many who had left the country the option of return.

Carter’s account of the peace talks that led to the Camp David Accords (1978) is fascinating. As Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to favor some of Carter’s suggestions, Sadat’s contingent became so angry that Carter feared for Sadat’s life, worrying so much he lost a night’s sleep, a rare problem for Carter. What would have happened if Sadat had been murdered in the US? (Sadat was assassinated 1981, in Egypt.)

Carter often sent family members overseas to represent him. Rosalynn Carter traveled to Brazil as part of an effort to convince that country not to refine nuclear reactor waste for use in weapons. OMG! The mere thought of nuclear states in South American gives me cold chills! (Yes, I recognize the irony…)

I very much enjoyed seeing Carter’s paintings, ten of which are reproduced in this book. As far as I know, he is a self taught artist. I’m impressed that he painted portraits. That’s much harder than a landscape or a picture of a house. I only skimmed Carter’s poems…poetry is not my strong point.

For anyone interested in the US Presidency,  A Full Life is worth a careful read. Carter is an excellent, incisive writer and an accomplished politician in the best sense of the word. I wish he could have served longer, and I admire his undertakings in retirement.

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“The Dawn Watch – Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff, published 2017

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This book surprised me. I expected it to be “heavy”. The scholarly notes run to 43 pages.

It was totally the opposite – brisk and entertaining. I had no problem at all reading 320 pages, even allowing for the fact that (woe is me) I haven’t actually read much of Conrad. When I dipped into Heart of Darkness and saw a movie version of Lord Jim years ago, I responded more to “atmosphere” than to plot. Jasansoff discusses only a few of Conrad’s many works, and she provides enough comprehensive information that my scanty exposure didn’t matter. I’m now planning to read Nostromo, Conrad’s only novel set in the western hemisphere.

To digest Conrad’s books and short stories, written roughly from 1886 to 1924, you have to ponder various “-isms”, like

  • racism,
  • imperialism,
  • colonialism and
  • militarism

Charges of racism have led some scholars to agitate against using Conrad in the classroom. I lean towards the argument that Conrad helps drag racism out into the open, for conversation and analysis, to everyone’s benefit. It’s good to know the history of the attitudes you want to change.

Conrad’s life was adventurous. Raised in landlocked, Russian-occupied Poland, he decided on a career in the merchant marine and left home at age 16 to pursue that goal. He sailed to Australia, many Asian ports and eventually to Africa, when Congo was first being explored and exploited by Europeans. Some critics consider Heart of Darkness, about Congo, to be his greatest work. He eventually settled in England and wrote in English.

Conrad was a “global thinker” well before that concept emerged. The college where I work has established “global awareness” as one of its four guiding principles. So… I will suggest The Dawn Watch as a common reading. One book is selected each year with the intention that

  • incoming students will read it before arriving on campus and
  • faculty will be encouraged (but not required) to incorporate it into a class in some fashion, especially in courses oriented towards Freshmen.

The author must be accessible for a guest lecture (in other words, not dead). Anyone can nominate a book. I’ve pitched several, with no luck so far. The Dawn Watch is probably too long and (cringe) “too academic”. But I would love to have Maya Jasanoff on campus for a visit!

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

 

This book is a treat. It’s romantic without being sentimental. As England recovers from World War II, a young woman accidentally begins corresponding with a resident of the island of Guernsey, a part of Britain that fell under Nazi control during the War. She travels to meet her pen pal and finds the island beautiful and the people charming.

If you have ever belonged to a book group, you will love this novel! The “literary society” of the title emerges accidentally, when residents are caught out after an occupation curfew. They don’t stop reading and meeting when the War ends.

The island of Guernsey suffered cruelly under wartime conditions. Residents and occupiers alike were on the verge of starvation when the war ended. Winston Churchill refused to send humanitarian aid because he was afraid it would fall into enemy hands. My misgivings about Churchill grow stronger.

Enjoy this book!

“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson, published 1992

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy)

This is the third book by KS Robinson that I’ve reviewed here in my blog. The other entries are dated

  • April 5, 2017 (New York 2140, published in 2017) and
  • June 5, 2017 (Aurora, published in 2015).

I originally dived into Robinson’s work because I wondered what a science fiction writer had to say about climate change.

Robinson does not hesitate to tell a BIG story! Red Mars covers an impressive amount of time and space. There are 100 people in the party dispatched to colonize Mars, and it’s hard to keep track.

After a long, slow build-up, the plot caught me up and I couldn’t stop reading.

Robinson postulates an amazing amount of technology, much of which is extremely (improbably?) sophisticated. He also assumes havoc on earth – overpopulation, takeover by multinationals, etc. The most disruptive technology he posits is a technique for individual rejuvenation, to restore to a person the immune system and ability to heal of a ten year old. This would add an unknown numbers of decades to life. On earth, score one more for Malthus…

As in New York 2140, Red Mars is told in two voices. One is an omniscient narrator and the other a “commentator”. It’s a weak device. Isn’t it an author’s job to construct a coherent narrative? The parallel structure works better in New York 2140, published more than 30 years later. Robinson improved greatly over those decades.

My problem with Red Mars is its length. Robinson includes way too much descriptive cogitation. A good editor might have helped him to tell the tale in half the number of pages.

Making comparisons with The Martian by Andy Weir is impossible to resist. The Martian is short and crisp. The author didn’t really set out to write a novel! His chatty, un-selfconscious prose is refreshing. His main character, Mark Watney, could have been the student next to me in college math or physics. No one in Red Mars was as clearly drawn.

So I won’t move on to Green Mars (the second of the Mars trilogy) any time soon. Too much going on in my life, too many other good books to read. If I become sick or disabled or have to drive to Tucson, I’m sure I will enjoy the rest of the Mars trilogy.