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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"We All Went to Paris: Americans in the City of Lights" by Stephen Longstreet

There are only a few bad reviews on this blog.  These are books I couldn't find a single positive thing to write about.  Some people say it is dishonest to try and "force" yourself to say something "good" about a "bad" book.  I'm not quite sure I agree with that.  While I was teaching, I used to give at least some partial credit (very low at that) to dismally written papers--an "effort grade" as opposed to a "real" grade.  Despite the fact that I have been out of academia for four years, I believe the tradition has continued unto this blog.  Of course, there will always be "those" books that break the mold, and authors who defy and challenge the most basic idea of literary decency.

I don't want to dwell too much on this book because since I have nothing (literally nothing) good to say about it, I will make it as brief as possible.  I didn't know who Stephen Longstreet was before I picked up this book years ago.  It has been on my list for a while, but I neglected over the course of a year or two to pick it up.  The volume is part of a "re-print" series by Barnes & Noble books titled "Barnes & Nobles Rediscoveries."  I am always open to suggestions, even the commercially driven ones by mega-bookstores, but this book in particular makes me wonder about that single person in that perhaps "under-populated" committee that went about selecting titles for this series.  At any rate, "We All Went to Paris" suffers from a distinct lack of coherence, both narrative and chronological.  Stephen Longstreet strikes the reader as Nick Carraway's self-description during the opening chapter of "The Great Gatsby" when in an effort to justify his activities and his move to the "big city" he calls himself "that most limited of all specimens: the well-rounded man."  Longstreet is just that--he changed his names numerous times (he was born with Chauncey as his last name, later changed to Weiner, Wiener, plus others) landing on Longstreet finally.  He had success as a screenwriter, an artist and a writer.  The Broadway musical "High Button Shoes" is based loosely on his autobiography.  Being multi-talented is not the issue here; the problem stems specifically from the way "We All Went to Paris" was written.  First, the book is not listed or credited to him on the various bio pages found during a quick Google search.  There's another volume titled "The Young Men of Paris" and I suspect that "We All Went to Paris" was a late "rehashing" of this original title.  If someone out there would like to put me in my place about this, please leave a comment and I'll correct the entry.

Americans have been traveling and enjoying the city of Paris since long before 1776.  I think the cut-off date of 1776 was a way to declare the title "American" as distinctly political--a tactic that allows Longstreet to begin with clarity and with a strong premise about who exactly he is writing about.  The book's chronology is lineal enough during the first 2/3rds of the book, but right around the period of World War I, the narrative begins a hopscotch labyrinth that is confusing and distracting.  The close reader can see through the confusion, but I must wonder about the "untrained eye."  The segments regarding aerial combat by Americans flyers during World War I doesn't seem to belong in this book (since most of the action does not take place in Paris) and one has to wonder whether it was pasted here from another volume.  Stephen Longstreet writes about his friendship with William Faulkner, and I wonder if this part of the book is not included here in order to cater to that connection (more on this later).  The disjointed chronology continues for most of the 1920s and 1930s, a period which has been written about extensively.  It appears Longstreet tried some type of experimental chronology, a classic case of "remember-this-because-it-is-going-to-show-up-later-and-without-the-reference-you-will-be-lost."  The problems is that he does not allow for enough cultural references to indicate to the reader where the narrative is going next.  Again, the segment on World War I aerial combat is the most clear example of this.

Stephen Longstreet preaches quite a bit on this book, and this preaching takes away from both the credibility and the enjoyment of the narrative.  Early on in the book, he writes about the horrors of war (during the Revolutionary War), injecting some quick Vietnam era "anti-war" lines that are unnecessary and misleading (the book was published in 1972).  He writes about the torment of napalm, of the massacre at My Lai, of how humanity continually fails to learn, etc., etc.  It immediately discloses to the reader that the bulk of the writing of this book was conducted during the late 1960s (all the while he's writing about Benjamin Franklin in Paris).  I am certain this kind and good message has a place in both our history and our literature; I am uncertain that it is here.

One cannot write about Paris without writing about sex.  In fact, one cannot write about anything in particular nowadays without writing about sex.  Longstreet varies between the very explicit and the very censored, and in those passages where his explicitness gives way to pseudo-pornography, one has to wonder whether this particular act or that particular escapade being so clearly detailed is not part of the author's own sexual preferences.  This is not troubling, really, but the fact that the reader can read through it as clearly as that (and I confess NOT to be such a close reader, really) is like opening the drawers of Longstreet's dark cabinet.  I don't want to go there, and I suspect neither does the general reader.  He writes a great deal about lesbianism in Paris in the 1920s but does so from the perspective of someone intrigued by it in a "laboratory rat" way--sort of as in "I wonder why Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein never went to be together, or while Alice and Sylvia and their partners didn't do a foursome."  He doesn't detail it that way in the book, but the suggestions and darkness of his assessments regarding lesbians are down-right eerie.

"The Lost Generation" of American expatriates what went to Paris in the 1920s should provide enough material here to yield a good account.  Longstreet manages to foul this part of the book as well.  First, it is during this part of the book that the chronology becomes confusing.  Secondly, Longstreet lashes out against the previous biographers of this era as overly-romanticizing it.  When not romanticizing it, he writes, then academics in their tall ivory towers ruin it by their pedantic, unwarranted ownership of the era and their characters.  This sounds a little too self-serving to me, personally.  Longstreet's long stretch of criticism of other biographers of "The Lost Generation" is childish and irrelevant.  He proceeds, without much caution or dissimulation, to do exactly the same thing in his writing that he blames others are doing in theirs.  The writing about Gertrude Stein is full of holes and misrepresentations taken from books and sources he previously criticized as unreliable.  He surrenders his objectivity to the "academic criticism du jour" of bashing Ernest Hemingway as too macho, too much a liar, too mean and ugly and drunk and (imagine that) not as big a talent as everyone claims he was.  I tried very hard to overlook this childish, schoolyard recess attack because I did want to continue reading the book.  Ernest Hemingway to me is a writer, just that... I am not a fan, or a cult follower, but this type of criticism is not based on objective reading or characterization.  I heard and was expose to a lot of it while in college and especially graduate school.  Longstreet really sounds like the bitter competitor who didn't grow as famous or known as his competition.  Again, this is very childish and down-right idiotic.  He also dedicates a chapter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which he writes very little about Fitzgerald.  His bitterness shines through in such a poor way it is nearly impossible to tolerate.  Also, the mention of Ezra Pound is so little that if the reader blinks at the wrong moment, he/she might miss it.

The art/sketches that are spread throughout the book are his, I am sure, and just like the epigrams at the start of each chapter they don't seem to belong where they are placed.  The epigrams (often one-liners) have absolutely nothing to do with the chapter that follow it.  Again, if this was Longstreet's way of being experimental, then I'll have to say that it sadly does not work.

Finally, there's a long epilogue where Longstreet quotes extensively from William Faulkner.  The epilogue aims to answer the question, well, "why did we all go to Paris?"  If this is constructed from simple notes on the conversation, then I am (being sarcastically mean here) impressed by Longstreet's ability to reconstruct a conversation at such length.  The impression one gets is that either 1) there was a voice recorder on during the meeting which Longstreet later transcribed, or 2) he made up most of it (a tactic he blasts all of "The Lost Generation" expatriates for engaging in).  I wonder if Faulker (a failed World War I flyer) wasn't the source behind Longstreet's inclusion of the misplaced historical chapters.

"We All Went to Paris" simply fails to deliver, and, as entertaining as many parts of it are, I cannot recommend it as worthwhile.  Sorry.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre is not a beginner's introduction to the philosophy.  I think it is at times confused by many as an "easy read" because its slim appearance.  Nothing is ever easy with Sartre.  The book is divided into six parts (seven if you count "The Desire to be God" for two since it is divided into segments), and offers a view into Existentialism directly from the horse's mouth.

The book might be misleading as to its readability (to the uninitiated) because Sartre begins with an explanation of what Existentialism is and is not.  He tackles three major misconceptions/criticisms by both the religious and the secular, and delineates clearly that Existentialism as he advocates it drives at the core of the philosophy itself.  That is to say, as he postulates it, Existentialism is the reality of man, a reality based of an incorruptible drive to be free.  The corruption is done by others, of course, because at the core of this drive, things are exactly what they are and behind them is absolutely nothing.  It all becomes muddled and infested when elements of the artistic or the religious infect human existence.  Man is driven to definitions, Sartre explains, without realizing the answers are in front of him if only he would accept them as they are and not flock to the meaningless.  As a result, we see Existentialism differently from what the general public makes of it even today.  The religious in particular, charges Sartre, have given Existentialism a negative connotation.  He dismisses the additional charge or claim that since one has to accept what is in front of us, that Existentialism is then a philosophy of inaction.  On the contrary, Sartre illustrates that the drive for definition is a drive to become free, and that our own personal freedom accentuates the freedom of others.

The rest of the book is more complicated and takes a greater amount of background information to know and make the connections necessary to understand fully.  Sartre challenges the religious principle because it denies the freedom for man to actively pursue his reality.  This seems contradictory to the common eye, but there's more to the idea than just a counter-argument against religion.  He illustrates the principle that it is actually religion that leaves man to inaction, since the acceptance of fate in the religious what leads to that inaction.  The charge that "if there is no God, then everything is permissible" is a flawed argument, since Existentialism does not advocates the rights on one individual over the rights of another.  This is, I believe, comparable to the culture wars in the United States today.  To not agree with a specific view of the world today seems to automatically categorize certain people to being hate-filled or intolerant.  Sartre presents Existentialism here as a model of tolerance; he is an atheist who challenges the idea of religion without wanting to ban religion.  The core of the argument is not, however, as simplistic as that.  The nature of religion and how it clashes against the secular philosophy and its principles is incompatible with Existentialism.  Sartre sounds conciliatory, but the truth behind these principles is that man cannot be free as long as he is exposed to the "mythologies" of religion, since they adhere to diametrically opposing premises.

There is much complication in "Existentialist Psychoanalysis," but this is not because Sartre obfuscates the matter.  Psychoanalysis is complicated to begin with, and Sartre proposes that Existentialism can break psychoanalysis' dependence on "deconstruction" and rather espouses the capacity for the individual to rationally see what's in front of him, assess it, and choose his own path of action.  On the surface, this part of the book seems unreadable, but a caution-driven reading concentrating on the definition of the terms used and Sartre's own didactic sermonizing can offer clarity.  Sartre is not so much dismissive or critical of Freudian principles as he is like a surgeon, cutting deep in order to make these premises palpable.  "The Hole" is connected to the principles of psychoanalysis, and much sexual-driven counter-arguments are made here.

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" has much to offer today.  In fact, I wanted to title this post "Understanding the Mess We're In: An Existential Approach."  Recently, it seems like every aspect of American life has reached critical mass at the same time.  In other times, issues of race, gender, religion, economic inequality, education and identity moved in and out of the center spot with regularity.  The pendulum always seemed to follow its left-right, liberal-conservative swing driven by the consciousness of the population.  It doesn't seem that way anymore.  Americans need to reassess what it means to seek an individual freedom.  As per Sartre, the freedom we seek for ourselves adds to the freedom of others.  For as much as Americans speak of freedom and liberty, they presently seem to be missing the point entirely.  We must see things exactly as they appear before us and accept our own part in the world.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War" by Evan Wright

I just recently posted a review on my re-reading of "Dispatches" by Michael Herr, far considered as the best book about war by a correspondent.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will make the following confessions.  My coming to "Generation Kill" with an open mind and a "detached" reader attitude was down-right impossible.  One of the negative/positive attributes about having been a U.S. Marine is that one never really stops being one.  Because of this, one is simply incapable of offering objective criticism; the love of Corps far outweighs objectivity or logic and any criticism offered by an "outsider" is like the criticism a teacher might offer you about your first born... one really wants to listen and take it to heart but ultimately it comes down to the proverbial "thanks, but no thanks... we're just fine the way we are."  Having said that, I commend Evan Wright for his portrayal of the United States Marine Corps.  There are many positives to this book, and the narrative is one that gives an honest and compelling look into the life of the "Grunt."  There are many painful truths here that should be required reading to both newscast "experts" and political pundits alike.  The story is told in one big continuous sweep (seamless even between chapters).  In terms of style, this not only adds to the readability, but it also embodies the furious charge the Marines and Wright were engaged in during the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The book is written with brutal tone that brings the conflict to life with every passing page.  Wright also captures the idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of individual Marines both while in action and during down time, although I think some of the dynamics are overplayed and non-constructive from a critical point of view.   The humor, of course, is another thing altogether.  It is impossible for outsiders to know with certainty what exactly Marines mean with their vicious language and over-the-top brutality.  Boiling it down to the mere action of men engaged in a job seems to take the whole meaning of Spirit de Corps out of focus.  There's much passion in a job that requires risking one's life, looking out for the lives of those around you, all the while dodging bullets, rocket propelled grenades, etc., and this is where I think books by war correspondents lack the "juice" that would make an active duty Marine (or a retired one) nod his head in approval.  This is very difficult to explain.  The best example of what I mean here is what most D-Day veterans of World War II felt when "Saving Private Ryan" came out to the theaters.  I remember watching an interview with a group of veterans regarding the opening scenes at Utah and Omaha beaches, and how all of them agreed someone had finally gotten it right down to the sounds and all of the sensory elements.  "Short of being there," one of them said, "this is the close you'd ever get to that abattoir."

I think over all Evan Wright achieves a level of credibility that digs deep and scratches the authenticity of the experience.  The voices are all there, the sounds and the visuals are outstanding in their descriptive weight.  The effort to bring life to the personalities concentrates a bit too much on the bickering between trustworthy/non-trustworthy officers and distrusting/trusting non-commissioned/enlisted men.  While that has been a part of the war narrative since the beginning of armed conflict, "Generation Kill" is fueled too much from the chemistry of these clashes and ultimately dooms the objective point of view.  Writing about this book has been a challenge for me.  I didn't want to come across as the bitter veteran who dislikes and mistrusts journalists and scream "bullshit" when anyone outside the Marine Corps tries to write about the experience of grunts at war.  I had the same experience with Anthony Swafford's book "Jarhead," even though it was written by a brother Marine because it was preachy and pushy in a way books about war need not be.

I enjoyed "Generation Kill" tremendously.  Some things were there, some others were missing.... some things remain incommunicable no matter what.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Evelyn Waugh: The Genius of Style in "Brideshead Revisited"

"Brideshead Revisited" is one of those classics that seems to slip through the cracks of our literary attention.  The novel is one of those perpetual books on our reading lists; the book that for some reason one avoids because (even as book lovers) it is easy to evade books in general.  I was determined to tackle this gem.  Even after a few false starts, it was hard for me to pin-point the reasons why I had abandoned the venture after only a few pages of the prologue.  I was surprised at my own inability to forge on, to persevere.  The narrative is delivered from a first person perspective so it wasn't the matter of grappling with a third person angle hard for the reader to identify.  Suddenly it was clear to me: this was a matter of style, a beautifully designed and masterfully crafted style that combines the power of description, poetry, lyricism and cadence in a fashion that only a Brit can pull off.  Even at his very best, F. Scott Fitzgerald (America's best stylist of the 20th Century) is a close second to Evelyn Waugh.

The thematic forces of the novel encapsulate everything from social awareness and criticism, to consciousness of self, to religious pragmatism and hypocrisy, to the ultimate revelation of deep psychological wounds.  These hold together some of the most "human" fictional characters ever conceived on paper.  The novel is distinctively British and there are numerous references to the Oxfordian ordinary, yet the balance of characters and setting makes for ease of reading.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, is an Oxford student seeking the stability of a orchestrated life.  Sebastian, an eccentric contemporary works as a pothole to Ryder's well-paved life of inquiry.  Sebastian is not, however, a negative influence (despite the excessive drinking and poor decision making by both).  The relationship between the men develops and soon Charles Ryder is intricately involved with Sebastian's family members.  Therein lies the substance of the novel.

Sebastian's family is not the typical British "estate family."  For one, they're "devout" Catholics.  Yet, the devoutness of this Catholicism is put into question from the start.  Sebastian is "devout" in a way that strikes one as agnostic.  He is attached to the orthodoxy inasmuch as it remains the proverbial mythical.  Charles Ryder describes himself as a non-believer but he is quickly categorized as agnostic by Sebastian's family.  The family is under the close direction of the matriarch Lady Marchmain (Lord Marchmain long exiled to Venice and living with a mistress).  Sebastian's other family members include a much younger sister called Cordelia, a young sister closer to his age named Julia, and an older brother referred to as "the Earl of Brideshead" or "Brid" throughout the novel.  It is Brid that eludes definition/characterization the most.  Even at the end of the novel, it is hard to put Brid in place; he is far more than the simpleton Charles appears to make him, but that is for the reader to decide.  Julia, on the other hand, is quickly "dismissed" by Charles as a potential object of love interest and this makes for the masterful plot twist later on.  Other "minor" characters such as Lord Marchmain, Mr Samgrass, Rex Mottram, Celia and Boy Mulcaster, and others come across quite fleshed out and purely convincing.  They all offer a great deal to the narrative and leave the reader with a more compelling picture of the complexity of British upper class.

Then there's the issue of style in the literary sense.  Recently, I read "The Spooky Art" by Norman Mailer and he went on to great lengths to describe what makes a great style, a unique and exclusive sense of individuality in writing.  I thought about it the same way I think about cellists in general.  There was a time in my life when my ear was so very in-tuned to the cello repertoire and recordings/performances to the point I could (with a high degree of accuracy) identify certain cellists like Pablo Casals, Mitslav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Pierre Fournier and even Yo-Yo Ma by simply listening to a recording.  In the case of style as Mailer describes it, the feeling is much the same.  Evelyn Waugh created a voice in Charles Ryder that exemplifies the individual writer, the artistry behind the plot, message and voice of the characters.  There are numerous elements to this and some authors are better at one element or the other to some extent or measure.  Bringing ALL elements together in a consistent manner strikes me much as a level of perfection purely god-like.  Yet, some authors are able to do it.  I mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald earlier and he strikes me as good an example as any of this level of genius.  Who among us hasn't read "The Great Gatsby" and pondered how in the world Fitzgerald was able to put it all together so perfectly?  Gatsby is economically written, and that for all of its intricate plot and elements, the novel is just short of 50,000 words.  Consider description, dialogue, point of view, and then add poetic lyricism, symbolism, philosophical insight with the credibility of amazing major and minor characters--characters who become living right before the readers' eyes.  That is style.  Similarly, Evelyn Waugh is just a genius.  He compresses things into a neat package where both language and meaning meet without leaving the reader believing there has been wordy abstractions or unnecessary descriptive banter.  Some of my favorite passages follow:

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

“The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what's been taught and what's been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't know existed.”

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”

“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

The philosophical angle of the novel seems to be in accordance with the corruption of idealism in the mid-20th Century.  While the novel takes places during the better part of the 1920s (when the world still felt the disillusion of World War I), the prologue serves as an introduction to the "retrospective" tale.  British officer Charles Ryder is telling the reader the story from the distance of memory and this establishes a world engaged in the absolute wastefulness of war once more... this time World War II.  The principles of Catholicism are offered in two very distinct plates.  One, there is the mysticism of the so-called "mysteries of the Church," the highly ritualistic discipline and the acceptance of that regiment of symbolism.  This Waugh displays in very economical language and injecting the presence of priests that reinforce the element of faith (blind or otherwise) in a top-to-bottom fashion.  Then there's Charles Ryder's take on the whole system of belief.  The fact that Ryder declares himself agnostic doesn't distract from the objective criticism--perhaps it even adds to it.  As Lady Marchmain dies, and as Lord Marchmain comes home to die later in the novel, the basic structure of regimental Catholicism wavers and shakes under the scrutiny and inquiry of our narrator.  The painful consequences, however, are exercised in the narrative when the narrator and the "Brideshead gang" seem to dissolve their unity in part because of the comforting/positive system of belief, and partly because of the fundamental incompatibility it serves in the reality of their lives (and the world in general).  This is more than just an analytical critique.  Evelyn Waugh was a Catholic convert and the thematic impulse of "Brideshead Revisited" proves that an author can be personally immersed into a narrative without ruining its content (or context) by poisoning the well with his or her personal beliefs.  Add to that a narrative that is artistically near-perfect and you have the makings of a novel that instructs and entertains and enlightens, with a style that should be the template for all literature.  I am not exaggerating when I say this is as near-perfect as it gets.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami's new novel, "Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage," suffers from a long title, one hard to remember and difficult to convey to bookstore attendants (unless they are familiar with Murakami's work).  The novel, however, proves to be as good as any of Murakami's great ones and, in addition, explores new themes of complex issues and does so with a mixture of the real and the metaphysical.

The novel follows the protagonist, Tsukuri Tazaki, sixteen years after being ostracized from a group of friends from high school.  There were five friends, two women and three men but in his narrative Tsukuri insists that the relationships were based on keeping the balance of the unit as a whole.  Sexual tension, he explains, or any other type of female/male relationship was out of the question.  As a master craftsman, Murakami shapes a story that leads the reader in interpretative directions that are not obvious but rather unconventional.  He doesn't mislead.  He's the professional provocateur offering the reader the opportunity to discover what is real or implied or both.  That tension, after all, is precisely what destroys the friendship circle and the source of Tsukuri's emotional turmoil.

There are some typical Murakami "tricks" in the novelistic bag, but for the most part, the novel is fresh and with a twist of psycho-analysis.  That is not to say Murakami hasn't employed these tools before, but here he does so in new ways.  For example, the protagonist develops a friendship with a college student just a couple of years younger than himself.  The homoerotic overtones are there, subtle but clear.  Nevertheless, Murakami disimisses the conventional, and the homosexual relationship occurs in a place where neither the reader or the protagonist can determine for sure.  That's the genius of Murakami's mastery of the metaphysical world, a world where disembodied yet real events occur, where the blend of time and space is mesh so perfectly it becomes an additional puzzle to the narrative structure.  Another example is the use of "color" in the names of the characters, and the symbolic/meaning behind the protagonist's own name.  This is on the more conventional level of experimentation, but still works as a whole and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.

In the end, the story works as a "hero-gone-on-travels-to-discover-truth.  The experienced Murakami reader will delight on the new twists and turns, but the inexperienced Murakami, the reader bent on conventional structures or neatly packaged resolutions will no doubt have problems with the novel.  As I have described his work before, Murakami is best understood if looked at as if you were stepping into a Salvador Dali painting and fell right into an Alice in Wonderland practical joke of sorts.  If the psychoanalytical or travels into the metaphysical do not interest you, this novel (as much of Murakami's other work) is not for you.  For me, however, it is always a pleasure to read new works by my favorite authors (Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami) in those rare occasions when they both publish books only months apart from the other.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

I have read every book by Michael Dirda.  While living in Washington, DC between 1996 and 2000, the Washington Post's "Book World" reviews were my Sunday morning treat.  "Bound to Please" was a Christmas gift from my students, and it was a book like no other; I felt my belief in literature renewed, as Dirda delved deep into the meaning of literature and how it nourishes (or should nourish) humanity.  The problem, of course, is the pace of humanity today, and our willingness to ignore the great themes of living for less time consuming tasks geared at total escapism.  I would admit that all literature can be escapism, but classics (as Dirda presents them) highlight the deeper emotions of the human condition.  That in itself should be enough for campaigns to encourage people to read the classics.  Instead, schools and even colleges have--over the course of the last thirty years--escalated an attack to all that which the "enlightened" ones deem archaic or out-dated or (heaven forbid) politically incorrect.

Classics for Pleasure is divided into eleven sections that cover varied themes dealing with imagination, heroes and their lives, magic, lives of consequence and the darkness of gothic regions.  Dirda is open about these not being "your father's or mother's" list of classics, although many of the titles are widely know, most are obscure enough to elicit a world-wide search if you choose to pursue them and read them--that is to say, a great deal of them are out of print.  However, the titles are not chosen for their mere eccentricity.  There are titles as well-known as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," while authors such as Prosper Merimee and Anna Akhmatova seem drawn from a very selective group known to specialized academics.

The books and authors are covered in short little essays, including anecdotal and biographical details that are, well, a pleasure to read.  Dirda shows command with authors rich in bibliographical content, while at the same time being able to write with worth on authors where myth overshadows fact.  Perhaps that is where the book strengths really are... Dirda is such an excellent writer!  His writing flows with such ease that it works marvels for inviting the reader to continue on the journey.  Let that sink for a moment... writing about literary analysis/criticism (and about not the typical/popular titles we commonly know) and doing so in a way that is readable and enjoyable at the same time.

Of particular interest to me was the entry on Ernst Junger and his memoir from World War I.  I've been reading a great deal about the "Great War" this year due to the 100th anniversary of the conflict, and I was unaware of this book and how revered it is among World War I scholars.  I've tried finding a copy without success at local used bookstores.  I am yet to look online.

I not only recommend "Classics for Pleasure," but I recommend everything Michael Dirda has written without reserve.  He is without a doubt one of America's literary treasures.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

"An Illustrated History of World War One" by A.J.P. Taylor

This year marks the 100th anniversary of World War One.  A few years ago, when the last of the American "dough boys" (Frank Buckles) died, the event went fairly unnoticed.  This year, the publicity surrounding the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy (June 6th) stole the limelight from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia (June 28th) in Sarajevo and how that would send the world into its first wholesale slaughter of humanity.  Perhaps those 30 years make a difference, or perhaps the fact that only a handful of people from that era are still around (and even then back in 1914 they were newborns or toddlers at best) but the world really seems to look at World War I with a dry detachment that seems to border on the idea that the event must have happened somewhere else, in a parallel universe where Europe and American involvement was carried out by "other people," people not like us.

A.J.P. Taylor's "An Illustrated History of World War One" is not the best volume on the subject, but it is an instructive book nonetheless.  Lacking vastly in what academic circles call "historiography," the book reads like a history for the layman book along the same lines as Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" and "The Story of Philosophy."  I can only provide the link for the "illustrated" version of Taylor's book, but I actually read the Berkley Medallion paperback edition which originally sold for 75 cents.  I bought it for a dollar.

The narrative is rich in detail when it comes to the interpersonal relationships of the leaders sending the young men to die, most of the time senselessly and over matters of personal pride, prestige and arrogance.  I am not quite sure how well researched these details are, but it does make for an interesting read.  If we look at the contemporary political scene with its vast numbers of personalities and drama queens, it is easy to accept Taylor's expansive revelations about the inner workings of the war leadership.  Some of the most devastating loss of life, the greatest blunders of the war that went over the four years of field action came as a result of personal animosities and child-like bickering among personages such as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Sir John French, Britain's Secretary of War Herbert Kitchener, among many others (and that's just on the British side).  These people stabbed each other in the back, reduced the necessities of the men on the field to chess moves on a play table and enrich themselves not only monetarily (and their many industrial friends) but also in terms of their political careers.  It was more of the same on the French and German side.  The struggle between Foch and Joffre (on the French side) and that of Schlieffen and Kluck (on the German side) shows how the generalship of both sides preferred a war of words, alliances and betrayals among themselves in lush boardrooms to the necessity of victory in the fields.  Much has been written about the consensus that, at the time, most people believed the conflict would be over in a matter of months.  When those short months became years, no one really knew (insert sarcasm here) why it had taken the turn it did.  This child-like bickering by political and military leaders cost humanity millions of lives.  Most of these people were the same idiots who did it all over again some 20 years later.  We never learn.

Taylor's writing delves into that "personal level" technique, especially when it comes to those inner relationships among the leadership.  Passage after passage show the lack of common sense and the idiocy of some of the decisions: "In Great Britain the doubts started higher up.  From the first, some members of the Cabinet questioned the ability of the generals to win the war.  The deadlock in France strengthened these doubts.  It was no unreasoning prophecy to say that the war on the Western Front would not be won by bodies of infantry, however large, battering against each other.  The events of the following years proved that this prophecy was correct.  The critics went further, particularly the two pre-war Radicals, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  They questioned not only the method of fighting in France, in which they were right.  They questioned the wisdom of fighting in France at all.  This was more speculative.  They wanted to turn the German flank, to find a way around, a back-door into Germany.  The hard fact, not made in plain on the maps, was that there was no such back-door except Russia; and Russia could not be reached easily.  North-eastern Italy, Salonika, the Dardanelles led nowhere, or were, at best, doors firmly bolted by nature in Germany's favour.  The debate between Westerners and Easterners wan on, one way and another, throughout the war.  The critics said to the generals with truth: 'You will not win the war in France with these methods.'  The generals answered with equal truth: 'You will not win the war anywhere else.'....  All the projected 'side shows' of the First World War had this character.  They were 'dodges' in a double sense.  They were ingenious; and they were designed to evade the basic problem--that the German army could be beaten only by an antagonist of its own size.  Of course the side shows operated under unfavorable circumstances.  They were amateur in execution as well as in conception.  Since the heretical politicians could not directly overrule the generals, their projects had to be additional to the main offensive in France, not instead of it--at a time when there were adequate supplies for neither.  Nor could the politicians call on professional advice.  Everything was settled hugger-mugger.  There was no calculation, for instance, of the shipping needed to move men to the Mediterranean; no estimation of the equipment needed for an expedition to, say, Salonika or the Dardanelles.  None of the politicians looked at a detailed map before advocating their 'side shows.'  They were clearly ignorant that Gallipoli has steep cliffs, and Salonika a background of mountains.  All the side shows were 'cigar butt' strategy.  Someone, Churchill or another, looked at a map of Europe; pointed to a spot with the end of his cigar; and said, 'Let us go there.'"  And on and on... this is simply how wars are fought, historians say.  In contrast, Taylor offers an alternative: condemn the leadership even if it cost (and rightfully so it should) their place in history.

These so-called "side shows" were aimed at buying time, particularly in the Western front.  They also served another general purpose.  Great Britain was still in the midst of its imperial grandeur, and, by George, if they could use the war as an excuse or an advantage to expand that imperial sense of self, they were going to do so.  Hence, the tragic mistakes of Gallipoli and the Turkish front, Romania and other parts south, where so much devastation and pain was simply unnecessary and senselessly costly.

Another factor to add to the childish behavior of politicians and generals were the aristocracy's habit of giving themselves military titles and conducting war affairs instead of leaving it to the generals to do.  One particular idiotic case was the Czar Nicholas insistence in becoming Supreme Commander at a time when Russia needed experienced military leadership.  The results were far too obvious for even Taylor to bring up.  He sums it up to inflated perspectives of self and down-right idiocy.

As the war churns and turns, both sides continue their senseless planning both on and off the field of action.  Taylor describes the machinations one of the Allies offensive.  The main protagonists on the British side, George, Haig and Kitchener are positioning for career advancement or the retention of power--sadly enough, it simply comes down to that.  After the massive blow up at Ypres, "Haig could claim that he had improved his position decisively.  Now the Germans could not watch is preparations so clearly.  He was inclined to hint also that every offensive would be on the Messines pattern, short and sharp.  In mid-June 1917 the War Cabinet held prolonged sessions.  Haig came from France and was repeatedly cross-examined by Lloyd George.  Why should the offensive succeed when all others have failed?  Would the French support it?  What evidence was there that the Germans were, as Haig claimed, 'demoralized?'  Would it not be better to wait for the Americans or to switch Allied resources to Italy?  This last proposal, Lloyd George's old favorite, was in itself enough to drive Haig on.  He preferred an unsuccessful offensive under his own command to a successful one elsewhere under someone else's.  At each question, Haig grew more confident.  There was, he thought, 'a reasonable chance' of reaching Ostend; a little later, 'a very good chance' of complete victory before the end of the year.  The War Cabinet were arguing in the dark.  The vital facts were concealed from them.  They were never told that the Ypres offensive was opposed by the French and that all the British generals except Haig had doubts.  They were not told that Haig's own Intelligence Staff had advised against it, and Intelligence in London still more so.  They were not told about German strength, nor about the inevitable rain and mud.  Moreover, the War Cabinet had many other things to do.  Economic activity to plan; factory workers to conciliate; convoys to organize; politicians and newspapers had to be satisfied."  

This is true of every conflict, but what adds to the tragedy is the fact that once Woodrow Wilson got involved, the sheen of ideology doubled or even tripled.  American idealism in this war ran high; that is not to say that Americans bought into it blindly.  No one really cared about "unrestricted U-boat warfare" out in North Dakota.  The war in America had to be sold on grander ideological terms.  Wilson's statement that this was was "a war to end all wars" might have done the trick, but it did little to cover up the main reasons why this war (or today's wars for that matter) was fought.  To be realistic one has to create a balance between the ideological aspects of conflict and the objective truth behind the not-so-clearly-seen economic variables.  To fight strictly on ideological terms ("To make the world safe for democracy," another Woodrow Wilson doozie that even George W. Bush evoked after September 11th) is to set yourself up for disappointment.  Wars are not fought for ideological reasons, at least not since the establishment of dynasties and political organizations.  Even going back to the "modern" European annals of history (roughly after 1500 and the "expansion" of the known world, conquest and the economic benefits of said conquests) wars were fought to settle economic/political accounts.  King Henry V invaded and conquered the crown of France under the advice of a wickedly shrewd Bishop of Canterbury which held nothing more than a flawed theory of why Henry should make that claim.  George H.W. Bush "liberated" Kuwait in 1991 and "returned a country to its rightful owners" only to claim a year later while running for reelection that if Saddam Hussein hadn't been stopped and evicted from Kuwait, Americans would be paying $5 a gallon for gas.  But I digress.

Taylor misses the mark when it comes to American involvement in the field of battle.  Practically nothing is written about the tactics at places like Saint Michel or even the Argonne, or Belleau Woods, where the U.S. Marine Corps distinguished itself beyond anything else achieved by the U.S. military on the world stage.  Rather, Taylor takes the reader through a sketchy last few battles and rushes into the peace negotiations and ultimately the Versailles debacle.  The book seems very rushed after the summer of 1918, and I can only assess that perhaps it suffers from an issue of abridgment (although that is not specified on the cover or anywhere else in the book).  All in all, this is a "comfortable" read, not the best but insightful and intelligently written.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Literary Detours: Ernest Hebert's "A Little More than Kin" (Re-Read)

"A Little More than Kin" by Ernest Hebert is one of those novels that stays with you.  I first read this novel back in 1993 after I found it on a discount rack for $1.00.  It was (and it remains to this day) one of the greatest literary buys of my life.  I devoured the novel over Spring Break of that year and even went as far as trying to contact Ernest Hebert to express my gratitude for his work.  I savored this book like it was ripe fruit and enjoyed every angle of it.  I even took the book with me to Japan the summer of 1994 and re-read it a little over a year the first read (I hadn't touched it again since).

What is still clear to me now as it was then was how little I knew (and still know) about the Darby Series and about Ernest Hebert's work overall.  "A Little More than Kin" is the second in a series called the Darby Series, which include "The Dogs of March" (Hebert's debut) and "The Passions of Estelle Jordan."  I read the series out of order, and surprisingly felt no ill-effects for it.  Not only do the books stand on their own, but even in the case of chapters the reader can appreciate how any of them can actually be published as stand-alone short stories.  I believe that is the masterful genius of Ernest Hebert.  He gives us the pieces to put together and doesn't go cheap on detail and connectivity.  It is truly a work of art to see how characters and events flow from one book or chapter to another.  Technically speaking, that is one of the greatest talents of a master storyteller.  Ernest Hebert is such a master, a true American master writer and probably the best known kept secret in American letters.  I say this not because he's not widely known, but just like many other literary fiction writers he's not a household name that rolls off the tongue of housewives book clubs.  He's in good company, I might add, since many of my other favorites (like Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami) fall in the same category.

The story centers around the Jordan clan, a family of social misfits that claim roots to the New Hampshire backwoods.  Ollie Jordan and his idiot son, Willow are the protagonists of "A Little More than Kin," and they share the stage with the town's dramatis personae in a way that is charming, entertaining and "addictively" readable.  Ollie has been evicted from the land he occupied, his shacks bulldozed to the ground.  While the Jordan family is not known as setting permanent roots anywhere, Ollie suffers as his world is rocked and his stability shattered.  His wife, Helen, had (according to Ollie) been seduced by the Welfare Department, and his fear is that the government agency was now after Willow.  He fears they might try to "teach" Willow and "destroy" him by doing so.  Ollie Jordan believes his son just needs time, that in due time Willow would blossom out of a cocoon and exercise his genius.  As a result, Ollie takes to the woods with Willow.  Spread across the narrative are characters as alive as the reader himself.  The people of Keene, New Hampshire are picturesque without being typical, honest, not stereotyped and given a natural opportunity to come about in the story and find their own way into it.  This is the masterful stroke of technique in fiction.  Very few writers know how to allow characters to ebb and flow into a narrative like Ernest Hebert does.  It is truly magnificent how the pieces simply link and flow together.

The only negative criticism is that of Ollie Jordan's many philosophical meanderings.  I am not saying that a character that is uneducated, prone to emotional impulse and dependent on instinct more than brains cannot have his or her philosophical moments, but Ollie's epiphanies are kilometric in length, and, as a result, they take away credibility from Ollie's nature.  There are far too many of these, long renderings of Ollie's thoughts that turn into pedantic ramblings of existential inquiry.  In this scene, Ollie is inside a Catholic church, and while I can see the function behind having the character ask questions about his surroundings, it is the lengthy philosophical tertulia that does the damage:  "He touched the Christ carefully, discovering something unusual on his head.  At first it seemed like some simple hat such as cousin Toby Constant had worn before they sent him to Pleasant Street in Concord.  But after testing the hat with the tips of his fingers, Ollie determined that it was made of something like barbed wire strung tightly around the skull, an instrument of torture.  He pondered this evil.  These Romans, they like to hurt the head.  So did the Welfare Department.  However, there was a difference.  The Romans only wanted to dish out some pain, probably just for the drooly fun of it.  The Welfare Department wanted you as stove wood to keep stoked the fire in their own private corner of hell.  They made hats so pretty you would want to put them on, and they put things in those hats--devices--which removed information from the mind, planted ideas and clouded memories.  He figured that Christ had pulled a fast one on the Romans, getting himself killed all spectacularlike, knowing his death would serve as a kick in the ass for his followers, that for him to die was to live forever through them."  It goes on for a while, and Ollie's perceptions are not too off track with the real story of Christianity.  A few paragraphs down, Ollie's meandering continues: "Another question that popped into Ollie's head was whether the Romans finished the crosses with anything, some kind of varnish or stain, or whether they left the wood raw.  Certainly, they would have to season the crosses because a green cross of any wood would be too heavy to carry.  That raised some interesting questions.  Was a cross used only once, perhaps buried with the man who had been hung on it?  Or was a cross used over and over again until it just wore out?  The latter idea excited Ollie.  He could imagine nothing grander to look at than a cross that had been up and down countless of hills, laid across the backs of countless Christs, the wood aged by the sun, stained with blood, sweat, tears and dirt.  If such a cross could know, it would know everything.  No wonder these Christians hung their imitation crosses everywhere.  The cross was a story of a human pain revealed in the beauty of wood.  The Romans must have put fellows in charge of the crosses--crosskeepers--men who picked the wood right from the tree, cut it down, shaped it, dried the wood so it did not split or check, and then fashioned two pieces in a cross with wooden dowels and glue.  Course now and then a fellow would cheat, as workmen will out of anger or boredom or laziness, and join the pieces with mahaunchous bolt.  The crosskeepers would store his crosses in barns when not in use, keeping them away from moisture so the rot wouldn't get to them.  Later, when the crosses were retired from active duty, the crosskeeper would buy his old crosses at auction from the state, or maybe steal them if he could, cut them up and make them into coffee tables, selling them to the rich who lived down-country, or whatever they called down-country in those days.  He bet those crosses lived long lives, longer than the poor bastards who were hung upon them."  

Inasmuch as the seemingly countless passages like this one represents the meanderings of a "simple-minded" character then much of the narrative works; nevertheless, I am inclined to point out (not without a little pain) that passages like this one are far too many in the novel.  They are correctly constructed behind the idea that Ollie simply lets his mind wanders (bold for emphasis in the quoted passage) but the reveries of the mind are far too many within the novel.  I am reminded of the television detective from the 1970s series "Columbo" whose constant line was "And one more thing..."

"A Little More than Kin" is simply a classic of American literature, unknown but crafted like the widely accepted classics of the canon.  It is truly a shame that this novel (along its Darby companions) do not list right up there with Mark Twain's work as illustrative of "the other America."

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Monday, July 07, 2014

Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

"Washington's Crossing," one in the series "Pivotal Moments in American History," by David Hackett Fischer is a book I've had in my possession for a long, long time.  I've included this title on my reading list for the year several times, but I never got around it.  As always, I have deep regrets for putting it off so long.  

My relationship to this "pivotal moment in American history" is a passionate one.  While teaching high school American history and literature, I used George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and his attack on Trenton as the launching pad to what I hoped was a year-long study into what it means to be an American from a more traditional angle.  I recognize that in the age of political correctness and historical revisionism such an approach doesn't meet with the approval of academic higher-ups, but my students were very appreciative (as opposed to my colleagues who were prone to dismiss every single thing the Founding Fathers did because, after all, "they were white males of privilege and slaveholders and land-owners and how terrible it is that we hold these people up in admiration").  It is worrisome to see how some positions of liberalism seem naturally prone to dismiss everything that does not meet their approval, and even more worrisome the fact that they do so with a wave of their liberal wand and not with solidly constructed arguments; often all they have to do is throw out an ad hominem which they use as a "cure all."  If you disagree, you must be a racist as well.  But that's an argument for another day.

David Hackett Fischer dismisses a great deal of those myths present in many American history books.  What's most impressive about Fischer's research for this book is the abundance of "Appendices" detailing all sorts of relevant statistical proof.  He creates a nice balance between straight historical fact and hero worship.  I confess being a fanatic about George Washington history and anything related to the man to the point of reading 12 different biographies on this central figure.  The great difficulty among these biographies is two-fold: 1) the hero worshipping can become a false caricature however likable or loved by the reader, and 2) historical facts can become obsessed with details that offer little to the narrative, pedantic and dry.  Fischer's strength is in portraying Washington (and the rest of the Founding Fathers) as deeply committed men.  In reading this volume, it became apparent to me that it is not difficult to render these men in narrative accurately--if one sticks to the facts, the facts and their actions speak decisively for themselves.  For example, Fischer explains:

"Much of this creed was about honor: not 'primal honor,' not the honor of a duel, not a hair-trigger revenge against insult, or a pride of aggressive masculinity.  This was honor as an emblem of virtue.  These gentlemen of the Northern Neck lived for honor in that sense.  The only fear that George Washington ever acknowledged in his life was a fear that his actions would 'reflect eternal dishonour upon me.'  A major part of this code of honor was an idea of courage.  The men around young George Washington assumed that a gentleman would act with physical courage in the face of danger, pain, suffering, and death.  They gave equal weight to moral courage in adversity, prosperity, trial, and temptation.  For them, a vital part of leadership was the ability to persist in what one believed to be the right way.  This form of courage was an idea of moral stamina, which Washington held all his life.  Stamina in turn was about the strength and endurance as both a moral and a physical idea."  

I don't see how anything negative could be constructed out of ideas like these.  I suspect that the current trend is to throw away these values for the "sophistication" offered by the textbook ideas and utopian values of today's intellectuals.  It is difficult for someone who has never risked their lives for their beliefs to understand that, to comprehend the amount of character strength it requires to give it all up for a principle.  This is something we learned early in the U.S. Marines, to live and be part of a cause greater than one's self.  My previous criticism of the liberal tendency to dismiss all of American history as nonsense, as fueled by racial/social and gender-based injustice is based primarily on my experience in both camps--first in combat and then in the ivory towers of academia, where I was "scratched off" as well-intended but not "visionary" enough.  Yes, I'm a bit bitter.  Academia today is nothing but an echo chamber where only the sound of one hand clapping is heard.

"Washington's Crossing" offers something new about the historical narrative format.  Alongside the appendices and copious notes, Fischer's detail accounts of troop movements, maps and general illustrations completes the book quite nicely.  The "enemy" is not portrayed with excessive negativity but rather shows both Hessians and British as facing many of the same hardships as the Americans.  The "myth" presented by the A&E television movie "The Crossing" (you can watch the entire movie at that link) is cleared up by Fischer.  It is true that the American army was in dismal condition.  It is also true that without crossing the river, the Cause would have been lost completely.  What Fischer does instead of over-romanticizing is present the facts and let them speak for themselves; that is to say, all of those things were true enough, but offering the other-side of the proverbial coin (in an accurate depiction of the Hessians at Trenton) serves up a more complete picture.  For example, the Hessians were in a much better position, but they were also suffering from a great number of hardships.  The American militia had been relentless.  They attacked and attacked in touch-and-go tactics and kept the Hessians on their toes to the point of exhaustion.  As the winter descended and the season turned sour, both Hessians and British made a number of tactical blunders that allowed American militia to operate at will.  American militia gets its due recognition in the annals of American history, but not as entirely as Fischer offers in his book.  Most of these American irregulars were under the command of self-sufficient men who were in constant contact with General Washington while at the same time allowed to act when they saw the opportunity.  The British and Germans suffered from the opposite.  Colonel Rall, the Hessian commander at Trenton arrogantly dismissed Washington as defeated and unable to mount an attack of any circumstance.  The peppering of the American militia made the Hessian commander think that anything stirring across the river was nothing more than militia badgering his foraging parties.

The details of the actual crossing of the Delaware River, and the excruciating details of the time-table is a very engaging reading, but Fischer does one better.  If the writer's main responsibility is to present the facts as clearly as possible, the by-product of this should be keeping the reader engaged.  How does a writer keep his "line" on track, the proverbial "zone" steady enough to keep the reader engaged without sacrificing objectivity?  I suppose that is a great mystery, but a mystery that Fischer manages with witchy ability.

What is even less known is the second battle for Trenton.  Perhaps the romantic mythologizing over the many accounts have blurred the line between the "highlighted" facts and the "forgotten" facts.  The second battle for Trenton occurred when the British decide to send General Cornwallis to take back the town.  In his arrogance, Cornwallis decides on a frontal attack, full force, and play right into Washington's tactic of making the British pay dearly while at the same time retreating.  There was no particular reason for Washington to hold the town (or any town) because that would have made him a sitting duck to superior forces.  When the devastating results of the second battle for Trenton reached the British high command, it was clear that the so-called superior military force (and its leadership) has been "out-generalled" by a fumbling Virginia farmer-gentleman.  A week or so later, when all was said and done at Princeton, and another American victory took hold of the public's imagination, the fate of the British and Hessians in the colonies was sealed.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I wish I could reveal more of its magic but I am fearful to "give it all away."  The vast amount of statistical information, correspondence, maps and other visual plates help the reader immerse himself into a story that shaped the course of human events.  David Hackett Fischer presents this story as a comprehensive archive of not just American history but also a portfolio into the psyche of men (men on both sides) willing to give their lives for their ideals, willing to sacrifice their lives and fortunes and uphold their sacred honor.  To classify "Washington's Crossing" as a triumph is no hyperbole, but certainly an understatement.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Norman Mailer: The Spooky Art -- Thoughts on Writing

Norman Mailer was a controversial figure in American letters from the moment he burst into the scene with "The Naked and the Dead."  The rollercoaster ride of instant fame and the literary scene almost did him in as soon as he had arrived at the pinnacle of the New York literary olympus.  One has to let that sink in... this is the same man who survived island hopping in the South Pacific during World War II and saw ferocious action as an infantryman.  Biographically speaking, Mailer grew up middle class, went to Harvard and "put in his time" as a craftsman learning the arduous path of the writer's life.  Fast-forward to 2003, and the cantankerous, loud and outspoken Mailer has become a quick-witted elder statesman of letters, a mellowed grandfatherly figure intent on looking back with an objective eye and speaking from the heart.

"The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing" is not the typical book aimed at the promising writer (or even the writer wannabe who speaks of the craft but does little writing), it is rather an open and objective few at Mailer's work and the struggles to define the highly elusive elements of writing such as "style" and "narrative voice."  The book reads with many previously published interviews and written pieces by Mailer with the author's own running commentary.  Divided into sections, the section on "Craft" appears as the most instructive, with the chapter on "Style" finally opening the door into a concrete definition of the writing process and finding one's own voice.  What the writer does is over-romanticized ad nauseum, so coming to writing that is so clear and void of the usual cliches is refreshing as it is instructive.  One of the best passages from "Craft" draws from the introspective power to clarify the obscure:   "Someone who has never tried fiction will hardly be quick to understand that in the study, a writer often does feel God-like.  There one sits, ensconced in judgment on other people' lives.  Yet contemplate the person on the chair: He or she could be hungover and full of the small shames of what was done yesterday or ten years ago.  Those flashes of old fiascos wait like ghosts even appear and ask to be laid to rest.  Consciously or unconsciously, writers must fashion a new peace with the past every day they attempt to write.  They must rise above despising themselves.  If they cannot, they will probably lose the sanction to render judgment of others.... then later in "Real Life versus Plot Life, Mailer appears like a prophet.  In speaking about the limitations of seeing your characters as victims, he seems to be predicting why today's literature is filled with victimhood, a social phenomenon today in the United States that seems to dictate "if you haven't been victimized, you haven't arrived:"  "I'd say try not to think of your characters as victims.  That sort of classification narrows them.  In reality, very few victims ever see themselves exclusively as victims, and when they do, their spirit turns stale.  There is a certain sort of self-pitying victim one wishes to walk away from, and they can be even worse in a book.  Unless one is Dickens."  I wonder what Mailer would say today about the abundance of these types of novels, and how it might be a reflection of the changing moods in America... or is it just a marketing ploy researched and supported by data in many of the publishing houses of today?

Mailer examines the transmission of real life events into literature taking as an example the tragic events of 9/11.  He explains with detail the amount of care a writer must take in filtering what happened into what happened with a vague twist, the effort of not letting all of the proverbial cats out of the bag.  "Certain events, if they are dramatic or fundamental to us, remain afterward like crystals in our psyche.  Those experiences should be preserved rather than written down.  They are too special, too intense, too concentrated to be used head-on.  Whereas if you project your imagination through the crystal, you can end up with an imaginative extrapolation of the original events.  Later, coming from another angle, you may obtain another scenario equally good and altogether different from the same crystal.  It is there to serve as a continuing source so long as you don't use it up by a direct account of what you felt....  Interestingly, I believe Mailer (who lived hard just like his literary idol a generation before him) is the only writer who has really gotten into the real Hemingway psyche.  What I mean by the real Hemingway psyche is the examination of Hemingway's life and work with an objective eye, not with political or academic hog-washing blurs.  Like all of the writers from his generation, Mailer learned a great deal from Hemingway, but he also suffered from a love-hate relationship with the Nobel laureate and did not lean one way or too much the other when being critical of the master.  "I think Hemingway got into trouble because he had to feel equal to his heroes.  It became an enormous demand.  He could not allow a character in his books to be braver then he was in his private life.  It's a beautiful demand, and there's honor in forcing oneself to adhere to such a code, but it does cut down on the work you can get out.  While it's legitimate to write about a man who's braver than yourself, it is better to recognize him quickly as such.  I believe I could put a heavyweight champion of the world into a novel and make him convincing, even enter his mind without having to be the best old fighter-writer around.  I would look to use one of another of the few crystals I possess that are related to extraordinary effort....  Hemingway's death was a cautionary to me.  His suicide as wounding as if one's own parent had taken his life.... Hemingway was a great cautioning influence on all of us.  One learned not to live on one's airs, and to do one's best to avoid many nights when--thanks to Scott Fitzgerald's work--one know it was three o'clock in the morning.... Hemingway committed suicide working on airs.  He took the literary world much too seriously.  His death is there now as a lesson to the rest of us: Don't get involved at too deep a level or it will kill you and--pure Hemingway--it will kill you for the silliest reasons: for vanity, or because feuds are beginning to etch your liver with the acids of frustration."  Writing a little later, Mailer seems to evoke many of his experiences in combat with a thin-veiled allegoric sense of image:  "Well, few of us dare death.  Most of us voyage out a part of the way into our jungle and come back filled with pride at what we dared and shame at what we avoided, and because we are men of the middle and shame is an emotion no man of the middle can bear for too long, we act like novelists, which is to say that we are full of spleen, small gossip, hatred for the success of our enemies, envy at the fortunes of our friends, ideologues of a style of fiction which is uniquely the best (and is invariably our own style), and so there is a tendency for us to approach the books of our contemporaries like a defense attorney walking up to a key witness for the prosecution.  At worst, the average good novelist reads the work of his fellow racketeers with one underlying tension--find the flaw, find where the other guy cheated."

A few years ago, I read and reviewed "The Deer Park" on this blog.  The book was a painful experience, difficult to believe much less read and interpret.  Back then (as today) my fear was always that I had missed something important about the book.  A small amount of research yielded a sea of bad reviews which, at first glance, seem to have confirmed my view.  Reading "The Spooky Art," and most particularly the chapter on the re-write of the draft of "The Deer Park," I came away with a sense of having been unfair to Mailer.  But how is one to know, as a reader, the backstage difficulties of the writing process?  We cannot do anything other than try to be impartial.  The writer/reader relationship remains the mystery it will always be.

Mailer is insightful in his criticism of "The Last Tango in Paris," and offers a view of how the written is translated into the visual, and the complexities of mixing the written, the improvised and the actor/writer/improviser.  I have never watch this film, but I know enough about the controversy it caused.  Mailer is the perfect judge of seeing without eyes the factor of improvisation and how it doomed the film while augmenting Marlon Brando's genius.  He argues that the box office success of the film in America was a consequence of its sordid, vulgar and perverse elements.  He judges this without being a prude, but rather putting it on the public/consumer.  Why go watch a film in which Marlon Brando the actor plays the part of a character through which he is improvising the line if the only purpose of going to see the film is to try and discern which part of the perversity is Brando playing the character being perverse?  Does it reflect on the thousands upon thousands of suburban women who rushed to the theater to watch Brando engage in anal sex with a much younger actress (or was it Brando playing the part of a character who possesses those sexual preferences, or was it just simply "Brando being Brando?").  See the difficulty of improvisation, the written and the art?

Mailer comments on the limitations of art in general.  He writes extensively about graffiti  and avant garde art and the ability of visual artists to go beyond what writers achieve on the page.  He concludes, "But we are at the possible end of civilization, and tribal impulses start up across the world.  The descending line of the isolated artist goes down from Michelangelo all the way to Chris Burden, who is finally more comfortable to us than the writers of graffiti.  For Burden is the last insult from the hippie children of the middle class to the bourgeois art-patron who is their spiritual parent, but graffiti speaks of a new civilization where barbarism is stirring at the roots."  

I think Norman Mailer had gone full-circle by the time he died in 2007.  Shortly after his death, I found "On God: An Uncommon Conversation" and found it to be a sensible book, not a dogmatic or archaic discourse on the metaphysical.  Just like in "The Spooky Art," Mailer doesn't theorize... he doesn't need to.  I am planning now on tackling his longer works (The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost).  Before I do this, I have to write on my perverse habit of taking "literary detours."  With this I mean the habit of drawing up a reading list for the year and then injecting books in-between those listed.  I know some people who detest reading lists because they come to see it as dictating a task, reading as a duty to finish or complete a check out list.  I find this comparable to what Mailer writes about in "The Spooky Art" because one must never find the process too dictating.  I draw my own list and I am the impartial manager who injects a player into the line-up and keeps his opponent guessing.  It's all art, and I suspect Mailer would approve.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Overloading the Senses: "The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason

I have only written one negative critical review since I started this blog in 2006.  The other one is about Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park," and it is about to get a "re-review" based on the insight I have gained from the book I am presently reading, "The Spooky Art."  In it, Mailer explains difficulties about the work I was completely unaware of when I read and wrote the review.  The difficulties dealt with the publishing world and its demands (plus Mailer's own problems with editing and addiction), and I am sure that Mason's book probably encountered some of the same obstacles.  I'm not saying Mailer's book wasn't bad, but "The Deer Park" really does deserve a reevaluation based on what I've read.  Unless I come across some details about "The Piano Tuner" that will help me change my mind about the book, I suspect this review will stand as is.  I will keep it as short as possible.

What strikes the reader first about the style of the book is the obvious and overwhelming overuse of language designed to stimulate the senses.  When done correctly, this can be a treat to the reader, but in the case of this book, it began to wear down the senses almost as soon as it began.  The bold is mine for emphasis.

"In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman's parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain--the Salween's coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground turmeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.  Or at times simply passing, blurred freight wagons in a traveling circus, each one a story that challenged credibility; not for any fault of plot, but because Nature could not permit such a condensation of color without theft and vacuum in the remaining parts of the world.
     Yet above these visions, the sun rises searing, pouring over them like a gleaming white paint.  The Bedin-saya, who interpret dreams in shaded, scented corners of the markets, told him a tale that the sun that rose in Burma was different from the sun that rose in the rest of the world.  He only needed to look at the sky to know this.  To see how it washed the roads, filling the cracks and shadows, destroying perspective and texture.  To see how it burned, flickered, flamed, the edge of the horizon like a daguerreotype on fire, overexposed and edges curving.  How it turned liquid the sky; the banyan trees, the thick air, his breath, throat, and his blood.  How the mirages invaded from distant roads to twist his hands.  How his skin peeled and cracked."

The plot consists of a piano tuner contracted by the British Army to travel to Burma and tune the piano of an eccentric British army surgeon.  The time period is 1886, but the observations and reactions of the protagonist ring false based on his political and personal opinions.   He is well fleshed out, but his overly-liberal views on politics and culture make him flat and unrealistic.  He belongs to the middle class in Victorian England, a man of modest means with a wife and a small piano tuning practice.  His outrage and indignation at the imperial ambitions of England at that time ring false.  I am sure there were exceptions to the rule, but historically one would tie this type of worldview to the intelligentsia (ironically the same class that depended the most on England's conquests), and not to the proud "common" man in service of Her Majesty the Queen.

The journey to Burma is far too long in terms of narrative length.  During the journey, the reader is introduced to "The Man with One Story," a story-within-the story that falls victim to being overly eccentric.  A man stands on the deck of the ship for many, many trips.  He is blind and supposedly, once approached by the other passengers for a common greeting (good evening, good morning, or anything of the sort), he launches into a story that he tells exactly the same way (word by word) again and again.  The use of ultra-sensory language and mirage-visions, etc. appears pointless and overdone.  I suspect that the mesmerizing, blurry, dream-like narrative of "The Man with One Story" has something to do with the ending of the novel and how the protagonist "sees" his own demise, but I lack as a reader when it comes to this type of "do-it-yourself" connections.

It was difficult to understand the perspective about the "mission" the protagonist had been assigned because most of the "mission" was cryptic even to himself.  I suspect this was another element of the style that was designed to make the reader turn the page.  The army surgeon becomes an enigma from the very start, and, because of this, he turns into a "pest" throughout the narrative.  The mystery factor about the doctor, and the protagonist's inquiry and curiosity only leads to disappointment once the good doctor is introduced.  The build up did not satisfactorily reach the climax and the protagonist's mix of frustration and admiration about the enigmatic doctor doesn't make up for it.  The reader never really fully understands the motivation of the plot until... wait, the doctor was a spy, a traitor, his concubine nothing more than a seducer working for the Russians, and don't you know... the book ends in a dream-like stupor of exhaustion and sensory overload.

It's not hard to criticize a book, really, but if one has a heart and knows of the difficulties behind this type of work (fiction writing) the criticism most likely will leave a bad taste in one's critical mouth.  Like I said before, the "ins and outs" of the publishing world can be demanding to the point of absolute frustration.  Part of me wants to believe the integrity of the creative process, but this book also shines a light on the market demands of the literary business.  It feels as if an editor might have recognized the overuse of the sensory in the style of the book, but went ahead with it because "how could something so exotic as a sensory tour de force Victorian era trip to Burma not sell" to a particular demographic deeply embedded in the book club world?  It's hard not to be a cynic when so much money is involved in this process.  But still, I always feel like the onus is on me... I missed something... I failed to see the connection, the artistry and the real meaning of it all.

"The Piano Tuner" was disappointing in many ways.  My main criticism for this book was the endless waves of literary sensory overload.  I think the book has many merits in terms of plot, if you can overlook the constant inclination to compare the narrative to "Heart of Darkness" and the film "The Piano."

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Literary Detours: "Dispatches" by Michael Herr (re-read)

The first time I came to know this book I was still serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.  I was at the main library in Camp LeJuene reading Colonel David Hackworth's "About Face" when a young 2nd lieutenant came over and asked me what I was reading.  He was friendly and motioned me to remain seated (my propensity to follow military courtesy bordered on the ridiculous), a welcome gesture to me as I'm not very fond of being interrupted when I am reading.  To make a short conversation even shorter, the 2nd lieutenant complimented me in the choice of title yet recommended various titles but was insistent in asking me to write down the title "Dispatches" by Michael Herr.  I folded the piece of paper I used to write the title down and slipped it into Colonel Hackworth's book.  In 1994, while in the process of researching a paper as a college student, and a year after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps, I found the piece of paper and decided to finally pick up Herr's classic.  It was a decision I regretted because then I couldn't put down the book despite being in the middle of the semester and short on time for just about everything, let alone non-required reading.

What struck me early on about "Dispatches" is the fact that for as brutal as the book reads, it is actually written by a war correspondent.  The book details in part the attack on the walled city of Hue, otherwise known as the citadel.  The writing is honest and carries with it the right amount of detachment for objective thought, reasoning and judgment that fails in most combat writing by the actual participants.  For example, the narrator depicts the voice of men from their own perspective, and even when he is rephasing it, the honesty comes out clear and truthful.  For example, “Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed... Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess of you.”  I remember underlining this passage and knowing it made an impact on me back then.  Re-reading it now, and after 13 years of a war that has not been my experience directly, I can see it reflected on the young veterans I share time with today.  Theirs is a war for younger Marines, not like the conflicts I fought in which a large number of top senior NCOs were men who had seen heavy action in Vietnam; men who were coming to the end of their tenure as active military and still had to put one more experience under their belts before calling it quits.  From the "outside," I see the young veterans of today taking about being under fire and see the universality of what Michael Herr put down on paper so eloquently... that war in its many incarnations will have a similar effect on the men who fight it.  It's nearly impossible to describe the rush of combat and its many emotions, but Herr's description comes to a near-perfect account.

The book is filled with criticism of the "high command" and its decisions.  Of particular interest is Herr's account of the siege of the fire-base at Khe Sanh.  Herr's accounts of being under fire while waiting for a ferry out, laying down so close to the ground hoping the airplane or helicopter coming in didn't get shot down as it made its approach, and the wounded and dead laid out at the edge of the runway really make a mental image of the insanity of it all.  Then, almost as fast as it began, the four North Vietnamese Army division surrounding the base disappeared into the jungle and Khe Sanh disappeared from the headlines with a quick "high-command" briefing to the correspondents.

There are accounts about Michael Herr's colleagues, most interesting the story of Sean Flynn, photojournalist and son of the famous actor Errol Flynn.  Flynn is featured in the book at length, depicted as a jovial and intense photojournalist with a sensitive touch to both his work and his relationships with others.  The tragedy remains painful to Herr and he writes consolingly about the memories he shared with his friend.  Of all the people covered in the book, Flynn was the one that most attracted my attention--not simply because of his famous father but because of the circumstances behind his disappearance.  He was reported missing in Cambodia and was never found.  In 1984, he was officially declared dead.

I enjoyed taking a literary detour from this year's reading list to read "Dispatches."  It is a book that intoxicates with its accounts of brutality while at the same time reigniting the desire to come to terms with all that has been seen and done in combat.  It is books like "Dispatches" that fill the great void between those who experience and those who yearn to appropriate the experience through the great vehicle that is literature.

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