Way back when – The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Just finished listening to ‘The Burgess Boys’.  Excellent story of two brother and their sister – I guess calling the book ‘the Burgess brothers and their sister’ was too much hard work.

The book is set in New York and Maine and concerns two brothers living in New York and their sister living in Maine.  The brothers are both lawyers – Jim (the elder)  a successful corporate lawyer, Bob, the other operating at the other end of the scale.  And their sister, Susan (Bob’s twin)  lives with her son Zach in a small town, Shirley Falls,  in Maine, where they all grew up.

Zach gets in trouble and his uncles ‘ride into town’ to sort out the problems.  Well, first Bob arrives and then Jim, as the reinforcement.  In fact Jim seeks to control the process and directs the actions to be taken by both Bob and Susan.

From early on it is apparent that we are going to learn about the siblings background, their early childhoods, their family upbringing, their rivalries and something that happened when they were quite young.  We also see their adult lives, their failed or challenged marriages and how they have managed or struggled to stay in touch as their careers, relocation and their new family lives have separated them.

We have some excellent insights into Jim’s life – married to Helen (who is independently wealthy), a very successful lawyer with many of the trappings of success, but struggling with some of the compromise and required socialising with other partners in the law firm.  The golf trip is nicely juxtapositioned with the breaking crisis for Zach and his mother.  We also see how Jim struggles to readjust when reimmersed in Shirley Falls,.

On the face of it Jim and Helen have an excellent relationship – but there are elements of ‘Gatsby’ about some parts of  their lives.  There appears to be a level of boredom, lack of direction or meaning.  Some of this comes across clearly in descriptions of Helen’s activities – one of the ‘ladies who do lunch’ in New York.

We also see how Bob struggles and we meet his ex-wife and some other friends.  We learn more about Bob in seeing how he inter relates with Jim and Helen, his neighbours, his sister and various other characters.  During the course of the Zach issue Bob meets up with some old friends in Shirley  Falls and generally rebuilds his relationship with his sister.  His relationship with Jim – as the younger, less successful brother, develops as Jim’s world unfolds.

Susan is the mother who is struggling to bring up Zach on her own – and experiences real self-doubt/ guilt when Zach gets in trouble.  She is less worldly-wise – at least on first meeting her – than her brothers and is inclined to imagine the worst and be panicked into action.

The interaction between the two brothers and their sister is intriguing and well-developed throughout the novel by Strout..  And there are a number of surprises for the reader which will hold your attention.  I found the book fascinating as an examination of relationships between siblings – Zach’s issues just provide an opportunity and a reason for more focused interaction between the three of them in later adult life.  In some respects it reminds of situations we all find ourselves in when travelling to a funeral and spending longer together than planned.

As someone with a number of siblings I found the book interesting in that it stimulated some thinking/ reflection re sibling relationships – and how they may develop or be constrained in adult life, as additional people e.g. spouses, become involved in our lives, as people relocate, as careers develop differently, as children arrive.  But Elizabeth Strout, the author, reminds us clearly of the importance of those initial relationships based on childhood and how these can survive many of the challenges over the years.  The underlying message is blood relationships are critical and should last the test of time.

I would have little hesitation in recommending the book to friends.  Good character development and interaction and plenty of material on which to reflect.

 

What do we mean or suggest by a German hegemony in 2013?

Just read two articles from the Irish Times: Derek Scally’s piece: Germany would have much to lose from a Eurozone failure., and Dan O’Brien’s Paying German workers more is a win-win fro Europe.

Both pieces are written from a different angle while both recognising the power and influence now exercised by Germany across Europe.

We are well familiar with the argument that bad bank debt which has been socialised in Ireland (and other peripheral countries) should have been partly written off in Germany/ France – as bad lending.  And doubtless Germany would maintain that the purchase of bonds by ECB and the extension of cheap finance to peripheral countries  – in as much as this is part financed by Germany – is i nfact Germany accepting write offs.

Hegemony is not a word I use in every day life.  I note it’s use recently by our President – in his reference to Europe’s hegemonic economic model.  Adn Derek Scally references the concept in the context of Germany’s current influence.  It has been used many times in the past by those critical of US influence across the globe.  Looking to wikipedia, I read: ‘In the praxis of hegemony, imperial dominance is established by means of cultural imperialism, whereby the leader state (hegemon) dictates the internal politics and the societal character of the subordinate states that constitute the hegemonicsphere of influence, either by an internal, sponsored government or by an external, installed government. The imposition of the hegemon’s way of life — an imperial lingua franca and bureaucracies (social, economic, educational, governing) — transforms the concrete imperialism of direct military domination into the abstract power of the status quo, indirect imperial domination.[1]Under hegemony, rebellion (social, political, economic, armed) is eliminated either by co-optation of the rebels or by suppression (police and military), without direct intervention by the hegemon; examples are the latter-stage Spanish and Britishempires, the 19th- and 20th-century reichs of unified Germany (1871–1945),[7] and currently, the United States of America.[8]

Seems only yesterday we were witnessing the unification of Germany and all of the serious social and economic challenges facing Germany at that time.  Interesting to understand what potentially moved Germany from its then status to it current perceived status as a hegemon?  Has it been the currency, the profligate spending of some nations, sustained conservatism in Germany or was it more subtle?  Or is the case overstated?  Clearly in Ireland there is national feeling that our sovereignty, our independence has been undermined, compromised – at least for the short term, hopefully not permanently.   The decision making of local, nationally elected politicians, is much less relevant.  Hence the talk of a European or German hegemony.  And I think President Higgins was questioning  the motivation of some of the hegemonic influences.

It remains to be seen how these current imbalances across Europe will play out.  Time will tell whether Europeans want such a hegemony – or whether, perhaps, the case is overstated.

Review of @AJKeen #digital vertigo

One of the very few books I have reread.

Andrew Keen’s book is a brilliant critique of social networking as we know it.

Keen did his research – be that it looking back to ancient philosophers, the history of computing, social change in the US and globally – and has managed to explain much of what has happened.

The book is interesting in that he builds it (1) around his interactions at a conference in Oxford, with a number of the  ‘leading lights’ of social networking and (2) the characters of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, ‘Vertigo’.  He  quotes widely from those who promote the benefits of  social networking and those, like himself, who doubt its real value.

He does not mince his words (P118) – ‘you see, social media has been so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society that we’ve all become like Scottie Ferguson, victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control…It’s a postindustrial truth of increasingly weak community and a rampant individualism of super-nodes and super-connectors’.

The references alone could tie you up for weeks.  But I believe he has done all of us a service in highlighting what’s wrong with much of what is being put over as good for society.  Well worth taking the time to read.

Questioning the value of the online experience

Just finished reading Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen.  Excellent book – should be compulsory reading for anyone like me who spends a reasonable amount of time participating in/ contributing to social networks.  Questions the value of much of this – and the gradual elimination of privacy.  More of this anon.

This piece from the Verge provides another perspective.  Paul Miller has recently completed 12 months ‘offline’.  And while he saw/ experienced benefits he missed the online experience and the online community.

The reality is that online communities do not replace traditional communities, facebook friends do not equate with ‘friends’ – but they do provide another communications channel. I think, as more and more data is gathered (e.g. location fro mobile devices) privacy is greatly undermined – if not eliminated.  But here is Miller admitting he missed it.

Swings and round abouts.  I probably stay in contact with some people (primarily in other countries) on a more regular basis because of social networks. But perhaps some of the communication is lesser than were I to phone more often, travel to meet more often write more letters.