Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

All The Shah's Men

Sarah is taking a student-run course at Berkeley on the modern history of Iran, which led to some discussions in the living room, which led the Matthew bringing out All the Shaw's Men - An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer, 2003.

Long story short:
During the late 1800s, Iran had the misfortune to get a string of crappy kings who sold the wealth, rights, and resources of Iran to various buyers in England and Russia in order to fund their own opulant lifestyles. Notably in 1901, Muzzaffar al-Din Shah sold to William D'Arcy the exclusive right for sixty years to Iran's natural gas and petroleum. Oil had not at that point actually been found in Iran, but lots of it was found in 1908, which prompted the formation of the Anglo-Persion Oil Company. (Later named the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later named British Petroleum.) In 1919, the British imposed the Anglo-Persian Agreement, under which "the British assumed control over Iran's army, treasury, transport system, and communications network." Let's read that again shall we. In 1919, the British imposed the Anglo-Persian Agreement, under which "the British assumed control over Iran's army, treasury, transport system, and communications network."
Fast forward past a series of puppet prime ministers and de facto puppet shahs to 1951, when Mohammad Mossadegh was unexpectedly elected prime minister of Iran and soon thereafter nationalized the oil industry. Not without reason. The Brits were taking all the oil, only kicking back like 10% of the cash, not letting Iranians see the books, running a deplorable shanty town, and generally being pricks. Obviously the Brtis were upset by the nationalization of their free oil, and a world crisis ensued.
The Truman administration seems to have legitimately done everything in its power to negotiate a solution to the crisis. The Brits mostly wanted to invade, but the USA wasn't having it. However Truman didn't run again, and Eisenhower came in. Meanwhile, this is the Cold War and there's lots of worry that since it can't run the refineries w/o British skill, Iran will be forced to seek support from the Soviet Union, which recall also purchased large portions of Iran's other resources back in the early 1900s, and the Soviets will then take over Iran and get all the oil and another communist satelite to boot. Whether the USSR actually had any schemes along these lines is still an open question, but they certainly could have. So. England and Churchill put the fear of the Reds into Eisenhower and basically convince the CIA (nee Office of Stategic Services) to stage a coup and overthrow Mossadegh. England can't do it itself because all British diplomats and therefore agents have been expelled.
America implements the coup by using a well-established (by the Brits) network of paid ruffians to stage protests against Mossadegh, which Mossadegh refused to crack down on until it was too late, and of course by bribing a coalition of politicians.
The coup was a near-failure, being actually discovered and thwarted the night it was happening, but thanks to the perseverence of the CIA operatives, they tried again the next day and succeeded. The Shah officially approved the coup, altho he fled the country as soon as it seemed to fail, but he was restored to Shah-dome afterwards. Naturally, Britain and the US were given substantial interest in Iranian oil.

The book's title is a misnomer, becuase the Shah is portrayed as having almost nothing to do with the action, and least of all with instigating the coup. The Brits and the CIA nearly had to threaten him to approve it, in fact.

By and large an extremely fascinating book, and pretty well written too.

Up Next!

Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, aka "A Report on the Banality of Evil", which covers the 1961/1962 trial of the high-ranking Nazi official Adolph Eichmann.

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a graphic novel about growing up as girl in Iran during the perdiod just following that covered by All The Shah's Men, specifically w/r/t the Islamic revolution which overthrew the Shah in 1979.

This is My Best, an anthology of short stories by selected authors, chosen by the authors themselves as "their best" work.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Beautiful and the Damned, In Our Time

I was just getting started in a Mark Helprin book when i realized that i might die tomorrow and would have been reading Helprin while there was still Fitzgerald i hadn't read. So i swapped up for The Beautiful and the Damned. Like most of Fitzgerald, it deals with the trials, vanities, sins, etc, of the very rich, who can sometimes be difficult to work up much empathy for. Fortunately, also like most of Fitzgerald, the writing is excellent.

Basically it's the story of a rich young man and the gorgeous young woman he marries, neither of whom ever bother to develop a career, or even a job or even a skill for that matter, choosing instead to lead a life of wild dissipation under the expectance of an avuncular inheritance of railway baron proportions. Our heros's initial wad of cash dwindles rapidly, the young man becomes an alchoholic, the dissipation grows ever wilder, and finally the uncle dies but has taken a turn for the philanthropic and religious in his sunset years, and punitively leaves them not a cent. Our heros contest the will and get more desperate, more alchoholic, more dysfunctional, and older. Finally things are truly awful. Like they're craping together five dollars for milk but of course the young man spends it on rye, and finally we have a scene where the hero is reduced to a state of literally infantile misery, sitting on the floor bawling, when we learn that after like four years the appeal of the initial contesting of the will has been upheld, the will is broken, and our bawling babe owns a gazillion dollars. But! It's too late. He's never right in the head again. We presume his wife has lots of affairs.

So it's a tale of downfall and squalor, and along the way it occured to me that altho Hemingway's characters also suffer greatly and fall down and do shitty things and have shitty things done to them, somehow the big H. always gives the characters a sense of dignity. I always feel that H. cradles each of his characters in his hands, holding them close to his chest, even tho terrible things are happening to them. But there's a distance between Fitzgerald and his characters, and sometimes a sense of cruelty. For example, here is a passage in which the young wife has decided that one of them *has* to get a job, and she's applied as a movie actress with a man who years ago doted on her and begged her to be in film, but whom she has more or less jilted in favour of the hero. Some days after her tryout, the 29-year old Gloria gets this letter from the man who once sought her hand:
My Dear Gloria:
We had the test [film] run off yesterday afternoon, and Mr. Debris seemed to think that for the part he had in mind he needed a younger woman. He said that the acting was not bad, and that there was a small character part supposed to be a very haughty rich widow that he thought you might --

Desolately Gloria raised her glance until it fell out across the areaway. But she found she could not see the opposite wall, for her gray eyes were full of tears.

Hemingway is likely to have the exact same thing happen to Gloria, but he wouldn't drag her pain thru the streets like that. Don't get me wrong, i love Fitzgerald, and i know this is a book intending to stab at the rich, it's just interesting. Especially as they were buddies.

.. Which led me to re-read Hemingway's In Our Time, a short collection of short stories. Actually i'm not sure i've read it before, but i've definitely read the stories before. They cover a bunch of the Nick Adams stories, My Old Man, which is a portrait of a crooked jockey from his loving son's point of view, various other gems, all of which are punctuated by single-paragraph stories generally illustrating humanity at its worst. It's a wonderful book, see my impression above of H. cradling his characters in his hands.
I need to re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls soon.

Words in The Beautiful and the Damned
soupçonp.92 (this word is awesome)
rillp.358 (rivulet)
caravan seriesp.365
continuityp.399 "he produced a typewritten continuity"
"yeast" fortunep.415
gin rickeyp.421
Words in In Our Time
none, really


I think i finally have Mark helprin out of my system. Jeeze. I've debated a lot with Sarah why i keep reading him when i always just complain about it. I think the reason is that i'm looking for dirt. As i wrote earlier, there's something fishy about all this cheese. So. I gave up quickly on rereading Winter's Tale. I condend that it's a perfidious ode to plutocracy disguised as a lovely fairy tale for gutter punks. Note that i was in New York recently and Rob and i went to Grand Central Station to verify that there are constellations and light-up stars on the roof, and indeed: . It's a gorgeous building an Peter Lake's hiding place is plausible. Janina and Sarah recommended i try A Soldier of the Great War instead, which i did, and i have to admit that it seemed pithier than W's Tale. In fact it seemed fine. It made nice reading by the banks of the Russian River. However, around an eighth of the way in i realized that if i died tomorrow, i would have spent my last days reading Mark Helprin while there were still books by Fitzgerald which i hadn't read yet, and dropped it like a hot potato. A month or so later i picked up Ellis Island & Other Stories, shorts by Helprin, which thanks to their brevity were pretty consumable, altho i still tended to skip the last 15% or so. I think Helprin fans and foes alike can take Ellis Island or leave it. The best moment in the book is a Salingeresque scene between a young boy and an adult, when the boy describes a fantastical circus he saw before he was born and asks the adult if she's ever seen a circus like that and for once she takes him on an equal footing and confesses "'Yes,' said Mrs. Friebourg, 'I have seen a circus like that,' and, for a moment, the room was silent." - I'm a sucker for that stuff.

Words in Ellis Island:
abseiling, p.26
plutocrat, p.139
springe, p.145
davening, p.160
motility, p.196

The Professor and the Madman, fin.

The Professor and the Madman is the story of the main editor of the OED and his relationship with a civil war veteran quite rightly ensconced in a British insane asylum. Specifically Bethlehem Asylum, from which we have "bedlam".
It's a good book, but i think i didn't quite finish it. I stopped somewhere around page 200 of 240. The parts which most interested me were the descriptions of the process of compiling the OED, which took like eighty years and loads of work. Basically the OED put out the call to the public for submissions of exemplary citations of words, any words, big words, small words, but particularly exemplary. From the thousands and thousands and thousands of submissions, the editors traced the histories of each meaning of each word. - Except for the editors it was pretty much like Wiktionary. One of the best contributors also happened to be criminally insane man. That's pretty much the story.

Quantum Physics

Just a quick note on Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality by Alastair Rae, 1986 (first edition, not pictured). Jonathan gave this to because it helped him understand some aspects of quantum entanglement. I wasn't quite so lucky however, and still fail to be convinced of "spooky action at a distance". Yes, yes, i hear it's been actually observed. I guess what i don't understand is the explanation. I begin to suspect it's one of these genuinely complex and technical topics which simply can't be boiled down to layperson's language and still carry the weight of the argument.

.. which segues nicely into A Life of Erwin Schrödinger by Waler Moore, 2003 !
I think due to the previous book i got to wondering about the history of the Schrödinger's Cat puzzle, and ordered the biography. And now from email:

so for once i sort of followed thru on a thing
and have what i think is the answer here,
and it's Einstein.

according to "A Life of Erwin Schrödinger" by Walter Moore,
in 1935 Schrödinger was a professor at Oxford
and was further developing/exploring his somewhat
wildly successful Wave Equation, which as i understand it
was very good at describing particles as superpositions of waves. (!)
this description was (i think) integrated over time;
that is, it described not only the particle's present,
but it's past & future as well.
- i'm sure i'm mangling this.

Einstein was a fan of the Schrödinger Equation,
but felt that it was an incomplete model of actual reality.
In a letter to Schrödinger, Al wrote something along the lines of
Consider the situation of a pile of gunpowder which *may*
explode in the course of a year: the equation would describe
a superposition of both exploded and unexploded gunpowder, and
"There is no interpretation by which such an [equation] can be
considered an adequate description of reality."

- clearly the genesis of the Cat,
and indeed Schrödinger soon published a paper which included:
"One can even construct quite burlesque cases. A cat is shut up
in a steel chamber, together with the following diaboloical
apparatus, etc ... This inhibits us from accepting in
a naive way a 'blurred model' as an image of reality ...
There is a difference between a shaky or not sharply focused
photograph and a photograph of clouds and fogbanks."

.. which actually leaves me more confused than before
about whether Schrödinger actually wanted to assert that
the cat is both alive and dead.
It certainly sounds like he *didn't*.

Like most biographies i've read, A Life Of Erwin Schrödinger is good but not particularly valuable for its own sake, unless you happen to be yenning (?) for information about you-know-whom.

Basically Erwin's arc can be summarized:
Academically brilliant yet frustrated by underachievement until he's about 42, circa 1926, and formulates the Theory of Wave Mechanics, which see above. Thereafter quantum physics fell into two camps: the Copenhageners, led by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg which insisted on all this spooky action at a distance and the determining power of the observer etc, and the non-Copenhageners, led by Albert Einstein and Erwin. Frankly, the substance of their disagreement entirely eludes me, but i'm sure it was there.

Other interesting things about Erwin: he kept two wives, even when living in America or Britain, and had frequent additional mistresses. He was an avid bicyclist, commuting by bicycle even in torrential rain.

The Lore of the Unicorn

I usually avoid unicorn "lore" because it tends to be soft and pappy. Most fiction involving unicorns also leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn excepted, of course.) Odell Shepard's The Lore of the Unicorn, 1930, however, is literally the most scholarly book i've ever read. Words like "research" or "academia" just don't fit the bill. It's undiluted scholarship going on here. Did you know that the King James Bible contains seven references to unicorns ? Or that just about every culture on earth has a mythical one-horned beast much like the unicorn ? Or that alicorn (unicorn horn) was commonly sold for ten times its weight in gold for several centuries during the middle ages ? Or how formally the classical story of the unicorn hunt (where a maiden lures the unicorn and then the huntsmen leap out and kill it) parallels the Christ myth ? - Shepard delves *exhaustively* into these topics and about a zillion others. However, be prepared for passages in French, Greek or Hebrew which carry actual substantive content and which are not translated. He assumes an education in letters, but even without one i thorougly enjoyed the book.


i'm not sure why i haven't been posting.
i've certainly been reading.
i've moved once or twice,
with new living styles each time.
but i doubt that's it.
it's probably the old orion-killer, unnovelty.
the glamour of a reading diary wore off, i imagine.
but! i'm giving it another shot.