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.
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.