Brimmings: up from the well

Reflections on sundry topics

Recent Reads


Burgin. Islands of the Damned.
Dutton. Split Second Persuasion.
Gawande. Complications.
Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love.
Kessler. Goat Song.
Macdonald. H is for Hawk.
Parenti. Tropic of Cancer.
Soseki. The Gate.
Soseki. Kokoro
Tolstoy. Boyhood

Goat Song by Brad Kessler

I read this book as a time-out from life’s daily stresses and wasn’t disappointed. Got to know a lot about goats, too, and how cheese gets made. Lyrical writing embedded with sensitivity, interspersed with laughter.

“The nature of empathy bewilders me, how we can feel one way about certain animals and the opposite about others; how we can inflict pain and death on some and shower love on others and feel more deeply for an animal than a fellow human. Do we reserve pity as Aristotle says, only for those who suffer undeserved misfortune? Is that why it’s easy to feel for a sick animal or an injured child, those who couldn’t possibly have “deserved:” their misfortune? Or is all empathy cultural…”? (p. 144).

Split Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Mindsby Kevin Dutton (pub. 2011).

It took a long time for me to get this book read, primarily because it reads more like an academic text than something written for the everyday Joe. But I stayed with it, because I knew it had important things to say about what it takes for people to be successful at persuasion. Some of the many case studies are quite revealing. I found Ch.7 on the best persuader of all–the psychopath–especially riveting. I hadn’t known that you can actually determine a psychopath via a brain MRI.

“Cases are won and lost not just on the strength of facts, but on impressions. A lot is achieved through the power of suggestion . . . . It’s not just about presenting the evidence. It’s about how you present it,” p. 250.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (pub. 2006)

This is the widely successful book become movie.  If you read the reviews of lay readers at Amazon, you’ll find the commentary decidedly negative.  Myself, I’ve mixed feelings.  Essentially a journal, it narrates Gilbert’s year long quest to exit pain and find balance.  First traveling to Italy, she learns Italian and picks-up its cuisine; then India, where she pursues her spiritual quest to bring mind and body together; lastly, Indonesia, where she finds love.  Along the way, she is forthright about her troubled relationships and failed marriage.  While the book can be delightfully humorous, it often masquerades a deeper pain.  A garrulous writer, Gilbert sometimes takes us to places we don’t need to go.  Do we really need to  know of her fondness for masturbating to fantasies of Bill Clinton?  The book’s central weakness is that her spiritual quest often seems thrown to the curb.  Nonetheless, Gilbert can be spell-binding in her honesty, wit, and superlative skills in rendering life’s sensuous feast.

“As the minutes pass, it feels to me like we are collectively pulling the year 2004 toward us. Like we have roped it with our music, and now we are hauling it across the night sky like it’s a massive fishing net, brimming with all of our unknown destinies,” p. 130.

Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific by R. V. Burgin (pub. 2010)

I bought the HBO series, The Pacific, last Christmas and wasn’t disappointed. That’s why I went on to read Burgin’s account.  Burgin is one of the marines featured in the ministries, the guy who falls in love with the Australian gal..  If you want a rip-roaring read, a you-are-there experience, then you can’t go wrong with this book.  Sadly, in war we often lose our sense of fellow-humanity.  I sense that here about Burgin, whose hate for the “Japs” is manifest on nearly every page.  His narrative, however,  explains its inevitability in is depiction of close combat, loss of friends, and endless savagery on the part of a determined enemy across the terrains of New Britain, Peleliu, and Okinawa.  It’s war in all is hellishness.  Ironically, Peleliu and Iwo Jima (the latter not featured) may have been unnecessary to achieving victory over Japan.

“Beyond our ridge lay a shallow valley, then another ridge. whenever our men started to move forward, there was one particular Jap machine gun that would open up. Other enemy machine guns were firing that morning, but this one had us pinned down. He’d been waiting for us all night to cross the ridge and start down the other side,” pp.  232-33.

Tropic of Cancer: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti (pub. 2011)

The title of the book got my attention. Having now read the book I confess to being disappointed. I’m a student of global warming and feel it represents the most formidable challenge ever to confront humanity. Parenti, however, has hijacked the issue to set up a Leftist platform for social change. Though the key concepts of mitigation (causes) and adaptation are sound, Parenti trenchantly argues that cold war strategy with its counterinsurgency efforts in Third World Countries has led to destabilization. Additionally, unbridled capitalism in concert with IMF and World Bank policy and NAFTA neoliberalism (i.e., advocacy of free trade and deregulation) have converged with climate change to create and exacerbate an incipient spectacle of poverty, starvation, and mass flight. To adapt, Northern Hemisphere nations need not only to abandon carbon based fuels, but redistribute their wealth, deescalate their violence, and avoid “climate fascism” with its politics “based on exclusion, segregation, and repression.” To his credit, Parenti does provide a mind-bending depiction of South Hemisphere Nations and their dismal future. Like most environmentalist, however, he leaves a gaping hole in excluding the exponential population growth that plays a central role in environmental degradation.

“The political economy of the world is unfair, and immigration is an increasingly challenging social issue that requires new policy—that is to say, climate adaptation based on social justice” (p. 215) “[and]. . .a formal agenda of economic redistribution on an international scale” (p. 226).

Complications: A surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Alui Gawande (pub. 2002)

This has to be one of the very best medical reads I’ve come across, if nothing else, because it’s so honest, and thus sobering, in its appraisal of the current state of surgery, impressively done by an insider. Be aware that after reading this book you’ll likely think twice before glibly opting for surgery of any kind, at best, an imperfect approach fraught with misdiagnosis and human error. At times, diagnosis becomes simply going with the best hunch. Divided into three sections, the first, “Fallibility,” focuses on the fallibility of doctors, how even good doctors make mistakes, the nature of their training, and the trademarks of a good doctor; the second, “Mystery,” with the abundant ambiguities intrinsic to medicine; the third, “Uncertainty,” on the frequent ethical dilemmas involved in medicine. Throughout the book in layman’s language, Dr. Gawande escorts us into the professional lives of surgeons: research, conventions, hardware, case scenarios and even autopsies. Complications is an utterly compelling book you won’t put down.

“With all the recent advances in imaging and diagnostics, it’s hard to accept that we not only get the diagnosis wrong in two out of five of our patients, who die but that we have also failed to improve over time” (p. 407).

Boyhood by Leo Tolstoy

I downloaded this work for free from  I’ve always liked and admired the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, though aware of his many contradictions, capacity for domestic tyranny, and moral scruples.  No one excels him in keenness of observation, riveting metaphor, and sensory detail, yet plain, virtually symbol free narrative.  We read him still because he tells life frankly.

His first work, written shortly after his return from war in the Crimea, it exhibits flashes of brilliance that in observation and detail portend his future greatness, offset, however, by the petulant character at its center who is not above behavioral tirades to secure the attention his trenchant ego demands.

The work also lumbers its way along with an absence of suspense to inspire continued reading in this weary narrative confined to a character’s reflections.

Throughout, I sensed a chronological incongruity as well:  can a child of ten, or even fifteen, fashion his thoughts with such finished sophistication?  We may be dealing with a developing child, but we’re always in the mind of an adult.  Behaviorally, I see no meaningful progress to maturation.

At times, the character comes across as unfeeling towards others in his persistent self-absorption, especially manifest in his harsh reflections on his father’s perceived imperfections and when his grandmother’s dies.

Partly autobiographical, Boyhood begins with the early death of his mother and the family’s move to Moscow.  Several chapters focus on family siblings, and his father and grandmother.  I hadn’t realized that this novel  also includes two other sections, “Childhood” and “Youth, that may be available as separate downloads.  (I’m told the final section features his failure at the university.)

What stands out for me is the early chapter, “Storm,” from which my sample quotation comes.  Tolstoy captures here Man’s fragility when nature confronts with its arbitrary violence.  As a Tolstoy first work it merits our curiosity as a stepping-stone in an evolving artistry.

“On one side of the road boundless outfields, intersected in places by small ravines which now sowed bright with their moist earth and greenery, stretched to the far horizon like a checkered carpet, while on the other side of us an aspen wood, intermingled with hazel bushes, and parquetted with wild thyme in joyous profusion, no longer rustled and trembled, but slowly dropped rich, sparkling diamonds from its newly-bathed branches on to the withered leaves of last year.”

The Gate by Natsume Soseki.  Published 2013 (New York Review of Books Classics)

Soseki is one of Japan’s most revered modern writers, writing in the first two decades of the last century in a time of considerable Westernization. This is reflected in his novels, with characters finding difficulty in coping.  The present novel, and not unlike several others by Soseki, is confined to ruminations within the primary character, Sosuke, whose past pursues him, not because of fate, but from inertia, whether in righting the matter of his inheritance by confronting his uncle, whom he had foolishly entrusted with its administration, and providing a settlement from any residue for his younger brother’s university expenses.

A great deal of Sosuke’s anxiety results from anticipating scenarios that never happen and a legacy of moral guilt from his inability to address familial and societal obligations adequately.  Like some Hardy novel, fate may seem conspirator even against his beloved wife, Oyone,  who interprets her three miscarriages as recompense for their sexual liaison, resulting in Sosuke’s leaving his university studies and exacerbating his financial future.

The Gate is highly literary in its methodology, with a simple but extensive symbolism such as Fall, Winter, and a raw Spring; New Year; a house locale at a the bottom of a cliff-like embankment that nearly impinges on the dwelling, blocking out the sun.  Collectively, they establish an ambience of oppression reinforcing the bleakness of Sosuke’s mood.  

The final symbolic imprint occurs in the gate of the title, initially seeming to symbolize entrance at novel end when the protagonist seeks  spiritual renewal at a Zen monastery, but turns out to be just one more barrier to psychical peace.  

Not every reader will appreciate this novel’s unrelenting theme of futility. It’s hard finding sympathy for this fellow who wallows in nostalgia, self-pity, and envy, callowing before life, preferring inertia. Aesthetically, however, it’s a masterpiece, onion-layered and with surprising suspense.

“It appeared to Sosuke that from the moment of his birth it was his fate to remain standing indefinitely outside the gate…He was someone destined neither to pass through the gate nor to be satisfied with never having passed through it.  He was one of those unfortunate souls fated to stand in the gate’s shadow, frozen in his racks, until the day was done.”

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki. Tr. Meredith McKinney.<name Penquin Books. 2010.

I have just finished Soseki’s Kokoro, surely one of the most compelling, yet insistently tragic novels I’ve read over a lifetime. Without giving a way the plot, it features three primary males, their youthful hearts filled with romantic love, and is told in retrospect by two of them in the course of three distinct sections. In the first, we have the unnamed narrator, naive inheritor of a changing Japan, depicting his relationship with Sensei (“teacher”), whom he idealizes but finds puzzling.

He continues his narration in the short middle section, which offers readers a contrast between his rural father governed by convention, and the evasive Sensei, learned, sophisticated, and economically self-sufficient. Ultimately, its themes of betrayal and loss of moral resolve connect him with Sensei.

The third section with its central conflict features Sensei’s lengthy letter to the unnamed narrator revealing his betrayal of his close friend and fellow university student, Kokoro, in their rivalry for Ojosan, daughter of their landlady. His ensuing sense of guilt precludes any subsequent happiness.

Kokoro, whose name is usually translated as “heart,” mirrors the traditional mores of pre-Meiji Japan, subsequently anachronistic in the new era and Soseki’s own dissonance.

But Koroko is, even more, an exploration into the universal human condition when we morally fail ourselves and each other, ruled by our egos and passions.

Written just two years before Soseki’s death at age 48, it is his greatest work, revered by all Japanese.

“And then, at the height of the summer, emperor Meiji passed away. I felt then that as the spirit of the Meiji era had begun with him, soit had ended with his death. I was struck with n overwhelming sense that my generation, we who had felt Meiji’s influence most deeply, were doomed olinger on simply as anachronisms as long as we remained alive/”

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Grove Press, 2014.

I was attracted to this book because of its high critical esteem and best seller status. It’s a book of vivid prose and immediately into just a few pages, I knew I was keeping company with a masterpiece. It tells the story of Macdonald’s depression following her father’s death, an avid photographer, journalist and bird watcher.

Macdonald’s taking up falconry and, ultimately, training a goshawk provided a means of continuity with her father in her grief. Her memoir is marvelous for its details of landscape and labors in training Mabel, her goshawk.

Her memoir is also interlaced with T. H. White’s works, renowned for their Arthurian themes; but he had likewise attempted to train a goshawk, only to fail. Although MacDonald identifies with White in many respects, she ultimately finds her way past White’s psychological morass.

Some have described her book as going nearly feral. And it’s true: Macdonald in her withdrawal at the time from humanity identifies with Mabel who, as a bird, can elude the troubled world below.

On escape:

“Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world, and shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.”

“The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

On grief:

“The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.”

MacDonald continues to write on nature themes and is involved in writing and research at Cambridge University.

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