Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Very Fleming Christmas; 2011

For many years running, a good friend to the blog, Professor Bruce Fleming from the Unites States Naval Academy, has offered up his recommended reading list for this Christmas season. Always a good mix for the other side of a well-rounded naval officer's brain.

Bruce; over to you!

Christmas book list

Tired of versions of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”? Not the type for the books with embossed covers in the supermarket checkout line? Tired of the usual guy-type blow-‘em-up Terrorists Take Over The Capitol thrillers? Tired, in short, of dessert books and hungry for meat and potatoes? Prof. Bruce has some suggestions, all of them set in other times, other places—yet posing problems and questions are firmly and somewhat surprisingly of our own.

Let’s start with the thick one—let’s say you’re stuck for a week at your in-laws and can retreat to the back bedroom. Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is a so-timely-it’s scary novel set in high Victorian London about a Ponzi scheme among the rich and titled that sets high society awhirl and ends by bankrupting the slimy financier behind it, as well as most of his greedy clients. Too modern as well is the way high society flocks to promises of easy wealth and convinces itself to the end that they are beating the system. Based on real-world events that occurred several times in the mid-to-late l800s in England, this novel shows us that there really is nothing new under the sun. Plus it makes us think about timeless values like honor and courage, that in such a flimsy get-rich-quick world go out the window first. What happens when we lose our moral anchor?

Ready for the nautical one? Try Melville’s classic short novel Billy Budd. It’s set just in the good old days of rigging and (literal) midshipmen, not to mention what Churchill is supposed to have said were the traditions of the Royal Navy: rum, buggery, and the lash. Well, none of the middle one—at least not blatant. But plenty of readers have sensed it latent. Just why is this Claggert, so ugly and mean, out to harass the placid baby-faced Billy? Does ugliness hate beauty? Attraction expressing itself as antipathy? In more general terms, why is it that second-rate officers seem so merciless to their locked-on subordinates? What of the fact that the Captain feels he has to hang Billy because that is what the regs say has to happen even though he doesn’t want to: the administratively sanctioned act vs. the moral one? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Now for some movie tie-ins. After all, it’s the holidays. Maybe you’ve seen the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep Kenya-in-the-old-days movie from the early 1980s called Out of Africa. Try the book that was one of its sources, Karen Blixen’s memoir of her disastrous marriage and equally disastrous attempt to farm under the African sun, also called Out of Africa. (In the movie, Streep plays Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen.) It’s episodic and tragic, if rather beautiful, and then just ends—rather like life itself. (The movie also draws from Judith Thurman’s biography of the author, Isak Dinesen; read this next.) Dinesen’s book is bitter-sweet but not as biographical as the movie, which is more explicit about her faithless husband, her syphilis (contracted from him), and her hopeless love for a British expat. Many people “join the Navy to see the world” and come back wondering if they did. Out of Africa suggests we rarely discover a new world, but, in seeking adventure, we at least discover ourselves.

Things haven’t gone so well with our interventions in the Middle East: some people still insist they were worth it; others disagree. It doesn’t seem they wanted to be like us at all! Ever wonder what a world looks like where they do? Joyce Carey’s Mister Johnson, about Nigerians attempting to be like their European masters under British colonial rule, suggests that this isn’t so pretty either. Mister Johnson is a Nigerian clerk who wears full whites and a sun hat—and is proud of behaving like an Englishman. The result is both comic and painful, and makes us reflect on the alternative to not being appreciated enough: being appreciated too well. What’s the direction Western foreign policy should take? Should we police the world? Hug our shores? It’s all been tried. Also a movie of the same name, directed by Bruce Beresford, with a former 007 Pierce Brosnan. But don’t cheat! Read the book first.

Ready for a play that’s just as relevant to our times? Okay, cheat on this: watch the movie first. It’s even literature! George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the play, also wrote the screenplay: Major Barbara (black and white, 1941, with my personal favorite actress Wendy Hiller—Dame Wendy to you, now sadly deceased). Both play and movie play comic riffs on a serious question: is it possible to make war on war? To take wealth in a different direction than that of self-indulgence and destruction? If so, who will do it—the powerful or the weak? The daughter of a munitions manufacturer--Barbara, a major in the hyper-moral Salvation Army, must decide whether to overcome her repugnance for the source of her father’s immense wealth and take on the power they bestow, or whether to remain morally pure. Barbara accepts the power and resolves to use it for good rather than being pure and powerless. Does she, in your view, do the right thing? Discuss, 50 minutes, papers collected promptly. In this age of Occupy Wall Street, and the 99% vs. the 1%, this compulsively readable (or watchable) play makes us ask: should change be effected? If so, how? By whom?

1 comment:

QMC(SW)(ret) said...

I have mixed feelings about Billy Budd...I disliked it when I read it in HS American Lit class, but I scored an A+ on the essay test afterwards, the only A+ I ever got.