Friday, February 25, 2011

Snowflower & The Secret Fan - L. See

(Definitely not a book club selection.)

Daughter Trisha gave me this book saying that she really liked it and thought I would too. I read the fly leaf and was pretty sure I wouldn't. I started to read it anyway and was trapped to the end. Ms. See is a very good writer and the story line is quite unusual. I couldn't put it down.  It's a tale about two very young Chinese girls, similar in many ways, who become "sames" (best friends). They are each selected to have their feet bound to change their shape and limit their growth.

The process is described in detail and it is truly horrific. The feet are tightly bound each day in a manner that the toes turn under the arch. At some point as the girls try to walk the bones in the foot break and allow even tighter binding. The object is for the girl to have "golden lilies" which are very small specially formed feet that fit into hand made shoes with a beautiful gently pointed front. The feet become nearly useless. The girls (eventually women) can painfully walk a few or even several steps, but are otherwise carried on someones back or transported by "palanquins" carried  by paid bearers.

A palanquin is two long poles with a flat platform between the poles. A  small chair is placed on the platform and then surrounded by a kind of decorated box with a roof and partly open sides. It serves as a taxi for whoever can pay.

As they grow from children to girls, Snowflower and Lily, refer to themselves as "old sames" and believe they will be special best friends forever. 

The daily life of these "worthless" girls, each with severely bound feet and semi-confined to an  upstairs room (chamber) in their family's home. Their relationship to each other is describe in detail, as well as their family relationships and how they fit into the society of the times. 

The story follows the girls as the each is married and moves from their "natal" homes to the family home of their husband's. Each of the "sames" has babies.  Baby boys are highly valued, desireable and favored. Girl babies are considered just another mouth to feed, worthless and not wanted. 
to be continued

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winner Take All Politics - Hacker & Pierson

I've become very critical of American politics. There are too many news articles pointing out the confusion, dishonesty, lack of ethics, and downright corruption. What is happening to the America I grew up with? It's changed, and not for the better. Our society has also changed.  Is the government changing to keep up with the evolution of society? The answer seems to be yes and no. Over 200 years ago our founding fathers designed a constitutional government they expected to last for centuries. It was unique in many respects, one of which was it's intention to have principles, priorities and plans that would stretch far out into the future.  Today, there is a persistent concern. Is our government  straying from the path set out for us? 

This book is a carefully drawn explanation of how and why our government is changing. It does a fairly good job describing why our country is gradually moving from the responsibility of individuals to the collective responsibility of all.  In other words from Democracy to Social Democracy.

We've settled in to a two party government, Democrat and Republican, and there is room in each for both left and right wings. The old distinctions have changed with changes of each party's constituency, and new elements have been added to our government structures.

1.    The idea of a temporary citizen politician is gone.
2.    The main job of an elected official is to insure his or her re-election.
3.    Lobbyists and Special Interests are now very powerful and influential.
4.    The election of public representatives is largely determined by
      television advertising and emotional appeal, rather than character,
      qualification, and ability. 
5.  Citizen's vote for individuals and expect them to represent their
     interests, but the representatives face several important obstacles:
           * party line pressure,
           * special interests,
           * the size of the impact of a decision,
           * politicians often disregard right and wrong to gain re-election.
           * the misdirection of biased media, excessive advertising, and
                     tilted opinion polls.  

This book is a good primer describing the way government works, how our elected representatives are influenced, and why the government is not working very well. The book appears to have been triggered by: 

The ever increasing gap between rich and poor. 

As explained by the book, runaway inequality is the cause of most citizen discontent.

1.   Plutarch said that the imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.

2.   New Dealers tried to construct a new economic order built on the conviction that the federal government had a responsibility to stabilize the economy, provide economic security, and ensure a more reasonable redistribution from rich to poor.

3.   From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, average real expenditures by incumbents in the White House roughly TRIPLED!

4.   It was Nixon, not Johnson, who presided over the most rapid increase in domestic spending  since the New Deal. Each of these programs were started or significantly expanded: (Social Security, national food stamps, Old Age Assistance, Supplementary Security Income, Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Traffic Safety Commission, Mine Safety and Health Commission, Consumer Product Safety Commission)

5.   The federal tax code is still progressive but the key feature of the code - it's steep progressivity at the very top income levels - has simply disappeared.

6.  Equity and hedge fund managers legally treat their extraordinary incomes as capital gains and therefore subject to only a 15% tax rate.

7.   The most recent financial recession of 2010 to the present caused the federal government to draw massive loans from the future (the deficit) to save the nation's financial sector.

8.   The government purchased privately held companies thought to be too big to fail.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes

Just finished this outstanding book. It is certainly the best book I've read on the down, dirty and senseless war in Viet Nam. It's narrative describes the bloody and endless on-the-ground futility experienced at the company to grunt level. Of all the wars America has endured, this war was arguably the most bitter and grungy of them all, and this very believable book is the most disturbing of them all.

World War II may have been the last war with a clear purpose.

The Korean War  was a nasty and brutal "police action" that never actually ended. It's purpose was vague or nonexistent. Korea was no threat to the United States. We stepped into a civil war in order to protect the non-Communist South Koreans from Communist Northern Korea. This was a dubious purpose from the beginning.   

Viet Nam was another war we should never have entered. Viet Nam posed  no threat to the United States. We let our nation get sucked into Viet Nam in an effort to stop the spread of Communism in the Far East. From our first tentative military action in Viet Nam preventing the "domino theory" of Communist take overs - it was a false purpose.  Communism was already dieing of it's own failures.  

But this book is not about the politics of war or the way the war was directed at the top. Matterhorn is about filthy, bloody, wounded, thirsty, hungry, dispirited, prejudiced, Marine foot soldiers dieing in muddy tall grass and in the bleak and desolate hills.

In the end it is a powerful indictment of modern warfare waged against impoverished farmers and innocent victims. An anti-war novel that really makes a point. Read it.