Archive for September, 2010


I recently finished “Champlain’s Dream” by David Hackett Fischer. I don’t generally read biographies; (1) because they are too big of a time  commitment, and (2) because they can be a bit tiresome. I don’t really want to know EVERYTHING about a person. Of course, I recently read Elizabeth Hardwick’s biography of Melville, but that was very short and rather quirky.  Another exception that stands out for me is Richardson’s “Emerson: The Mind on Fire” which was more of an intellectual biography, that is, it was largely about what Emerson read and how it influenced him.

In any case, I mostly loved this story of Samuel Champlain and his quest to create a new type of society in what he called “New France”, now Canada.  His humanist vision, especially as compared to the attitudes of other colonizers in the new world, was very appealling to me, and in all things, he seemed to be a man that one might call “big-hearted” in his generosity, tolerance and humility.  I also liked the snippets of French history, about which I know much less than I should as a self-proclaimed francophile, and the description of Henri IV, le vert galant, whose statue is on the island by the pont neuf in Paris, was also very well-done.  The geography of southwestern France on the Bay of Biscay where Champlain was born and grew up is described in a way that reinforces my wish to visit that region.  I also liked the descriptions of the coast of Maine, including Bar Harbor, and Nova Scotia.  My only problem with the book was that it seemed to lose its momentum in the last third or quarter so that the many voyages that Champlain took across the Atlantic, something like 27 in all, as well as the political maneuverings back in France, all started to blur together, and even the infectious enthusiasm of Fischer, who really is an engaging writer, seemed to dim a bit. However, I was invested enough in the topic to forge on and was glad I did as the ending is a nice summing up of Champlain’s life and work.  The cover, which is Vermeer’s “The Geographer”, is an apt choice as Champlain was an inveterate illustrator and mapmaker and many reproductions of his meticulous maps are included in the book.


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McEwan strikes again

With surgical precision, Ian McEwan cuts to the bone of human nature,  revealing with exquisite skill the shades of feeling, the conditions of compromise, the flashes of self recognition quickly buried, and the way the inner life makes its way with a kind of inverse refraction to the surface, a wavering reflection and unreliable facsimile of what lies below.  The flawed hero of his latest novel, Solar, gives us a Nobel prize winning phsyicist named Michael Beard, with whom the author has achieved a comic masterpiece.  Beard, with his multiple human weaknesses and unrelenting self-interest yet manages to inspire a horrified recognition and the story is a poignant one as we follow Beard’s seemingly inevitable trajectory over a decade.  That McEwan is funny was first revealed in the chilling novel, Enduring Love, which is about an obsessed stalker.  When the hero, the one being stalked, is unable to interest the police in his plight, he is compelled by desperation into buying a gun from some Nazi skinhead types,  and the scene becomes improbably hilarious. Another great thing about these two books and On Chesil Beach, another small, though not as enjoyable, masterpiece of reporting on the inner life, is that McEwan seems to have avoided his recurring problem with endings.  Atonement, for example, was a brilliant book, especially the first half.  The second part, despite the amazing account of Dunkirk, was simly not as satisfying.  Amsterdam, the first book I read by McEwan, also left one vaguely dissatisfied.  Solar’s ending, by contrast, though somewhat predictable, seems just right.  The afterward, a speech given when Beard won the Nobel Prize, describing his achievement, is fitting as well because it is a reminder of his flash of greatness, and a lesson to remember as we seek for heroes in this world.  A hero is still a human being and subject to the vagaries of his or her own nature. We are all somewhat flawed after all, not machines, not automatons, but creatures who must face each day and try to make something of it.

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Justice, anyone?

I had heard about Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard, now available online to anyone for free.  It looks great, so I’m going to embark on that as an addition to my course in Real Estate Law.  I think the Harvard course could make for some fun discussions, if anyone else is interested. Here is the link:  http://www.justiceharvard.org/ 

The first issue is cannibalism – when, if ever, is it justified?  Having read the horrendous story (In the Heart of the Seaby Nathaniel Philbrick) of the Essex, the ship that was “stove by a whale”, thus inspiring Melville’s Moby Dick, while leaving surviving crew members adrift in small boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the issue of cannibalism returns with force, making this a compelling case.  Also of note, in the reading materials presented with the first episode, the case of The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens from 1884, describes a similar situation of mariners adrift in a lifeboat who resort to cannibalism to survive.  Interestingly, the name of the cannibalized youth in the case referenced is Richard Parker, also the name of the Bengal tiger in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. 

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