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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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Monday, May 05, 2014

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" and Pre-World War II Existentialism

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" is full of those tiny stylistic nuances, so much so that if the reader "blinks" too fast, he might miss them. On the other hand, "The Wall" manifests characters that are alive to more than just emerging literary traits of the "not quite" mid-20th Century. Published in 1939 just about the same time Europe was about to explode to the fury of a new war, "The Wall" pre-dates much of the experiences that later led to Sartre's all-encompassing philosophy. The existentialism is certainly there, but in a "younger" form distinct from his post-World War II literary endeavors.

The title story builds upon the painful experience of prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. While a lot has been made of the allegorical "wall," the absurdity of these prisoners' condition and their suffering certainly points to the existential question, but it is the outcome of the story that reveals the truly over-the-top ridiculousness of "being." The protagonist seems to have sworn allegiance to the cause or to one of its leaders or to God knows what, and to that allegiance he is determined to be truthful to the very end. As he is interrogated, he is asked about the whereabouts of the leader and he responds with an absurd suggestion he anticipates the interrogators would never take serious. Nevertheless, when the suggestion is followed through and investigated, it turns out satisfactory to the powers in charge. This is not revealed to the protagonist after his companions have been executed, including among them a very young man who is emblematic of the existential idea of waste.

 The story "The Room" explores the capacity of loyalty but in much different fashion. A woman is married to a man who has become "questionably" insane. Her parents are caught in the whirlwind of decisions and options, as they do not want to see her "waste" her life away. In its own way, the story explores questions of self-sacrifice, loyalty and discipline to one's beliefs. This is a brief story (compared with the others) and, on the surface, seems to reveal less about the characters than the other stories in the collection. The question of insanity transfers from one character to the other, primarily displaying how each is committed to their own ideals of truth. The father, for example, is quite disgusted when he learns from the mother that their daughter is still being intimate with her husband. The premise reminded me of a quote from a novel by Ernest Hebert which I read in 1993 or thereabouts and made a great impact on me: "Men are loyal to their own ideas as dogs are loyal to undeserving owners," or something to that effect. In the end, the young woman is unable to leave her husband illustrating the despair of choices and the absurdity of attachments.

"Erostratus" follows a character in a desperate path to commit an act of violence for which he has no reason or explanation. By killing six people he hopes to "write" some history for himself, an existential mold that draws quite a bit from Kirilov, the nihilist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Demons." "If I am to prove powerful to some extent," observed Kirilov, "then I must kill myself." He intends to leave a mark on history, however insignificant by simply exercising the power of the act in itself. The judgment of how useless and wasteful those deaths happen to be is beyond his act; a judgment to be formulated by others, as if to say, by second hand. The failure of his act paints a portrait of existential ready-made art--that is to say, Sartre does not judge right or wrong despite the psychological and philosophical tendencies of the story. Sartre simply states the events as they happen and the reader is left to judge. This echoes the stream of consciousness of the protagonist and the close reader is rewarded with this epiphany at the end. We are led to judge, again, in second hand.

Lulu has a friend named Rirette and a lover named Pierre. She also has a husband who exemplifies the archetypal domineering male who emotionally abuses his wife. But the seemingly clearly cut characters of "Intimacy" reveal more than stereotypical traits. Lulu is a complex female character not just struggling with issues of repression, guilt and loyalty, but also with existential conundrums revealing society's pressures of role and decorum. She intends to leave her husband, and goes as far as to plan her eloping with Pierre but fails in dramatic fashion leaving Rirette to piece together the irrational behavior of her dear friend.

"The Childhood of Leader" is the story of the making of a fascist. The main character Lucien Fleurier is depicted from early childhood into young adulthood in a series of psychologically linked scenes. From simple angst about not belonging to being sexually abused by a child predator, Lucien (who is the son of an industrialist) gravitates from ideas about self to growing connections about the world around him. The fascist element is connected by Sartre to the impending explosion of violence that is both relevant to the story and relevant to the historic events taking place at the time. Lucien is aimless in the sense that he looks into the future with a clear idea of what he does not want, yet he is powerful to transform his life away in a way that would direct him away from what he sees as doom. Therefore, he falls easy prey of those around him. Here Sartre uses a different technique--he does not so much inject existentialism into the story as he allows it to grow with the character, often simply displayed as anger, frustration and angst. The revelatory factor of the story is Lucien's acknowledgment of the absurd, with the disturbing vagueness of his acceptance as an added bonus to the reader.

I am surprised at how much I enjoyed deciphering these short stories and connecting the dots about Sartre's intentional use or outright avoidance) of existentialism. I have to look to more of Sartre's pre-war works.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Report from the Interior: Paul Auster's Grand Voice Becomes Our Own

Paul Auster's "Report from the Interior" is the continuation of his biographical chronology (or non-chronology) and it covers the very early years of his life.  Certainly, I am not objective in my review of this volume due to my absolute fanaticism about his work.  Yet, I found the book so personally and tenderly rendered that I will suspend my lack of objectivity and surrender to a new level of love for Auster's words.  While being a companion to "Winter Journal," this book holds its own very much the same way that Auster's stories hold their own orbit in "The New York Trilogy."

The book is written in the second person, as Auster offers the reader the opportunity to participate in the investigation of extremely early age.  It is, however, a literary device that can be misused or poorly applied.  In Auster's case, his experience as a writer and thinker reconciles the line between the narrative technique and the metaphysical levels of "who's writing/narrating this."  There are so many universals about the narrative that it touches everyone who reads it.  One doesn't have to be a Jewish kid growing up in New Jersey, or a teenager hopelessly full of angst trying to find his way or even an early college student full of ambition and confusion to fall in line with the "you" of the narrative.  One tends to appropriate a narrative voice regardless of the grammatical construct, but Auster's masterpiece technique is one that does more than simply drawing the reader into the narrative.  The "you" in this book allows the reader to breach the lines between author and reader, narrator and listener.  The universality of life in full development can be a daunting, giant border to overcome.  How can a writer "hook" the reader (a description of this technique that I despise), keep her interested in the narrative, making her wanting to forgo all other things vying for her attention, and how can that writer assume the reins of direction without intruding in the "you" that constantly appear on the page?  And, in addition, how can he do that without falling into literary trickery?  The answer to this comes as an omnipresent voice at the start of the book, “In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers. The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents’ car was a grinning mouth with many teeth. Pens were airships. Coins were flying saucers. The branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.”  This passage sets the tone that illustrates the mind of the very young, the Kantian apriori, or, say, for example, the opening passage of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."  This does the "trick" rather well without losing the effect of the second person voice which appropriates the narrative shortly thereafter.


The only lapse of temporary confusion I had with the book were the two lengthy retelling of two films that were instrumental in shaping Auster's identity.  One of these, "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is told in amazing detail, so much so that I had to go find the film and watch it.  Naturally, it felt like cinematic deja vu.  I gave this some thought.  Why would Auster spend so many pages retelling the story of two films?  Why not list the titles and allow the reader to pursue them if they chose to?  The reason was not obvious to me, but later I found a couple of podcasts where Auster explains his indulgence.  The truth presented itself in the retelling of the film; that is to say, the impact of shaping Auster's young mind can only be apparent to the reader if he retells the plot illustrating the pressing importance of specific details.  Simply listing the title would have lost the meaning of what these two films meant to Auster.  "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" illustrates Auster's early concern with issues of justice and history--the chronicle of unfairness and tough-breaks any individual can fall pray to.  The second film is "The Incredible Shrinking Man" which shows Auster's early concerns with identity, self and the ephemera of the physical existence.  The influence of this film compared to the issues of social justices carried in the previous one is less clear, but the amount of metaphysical inquiry it proposes is thrilling to the reader.  A man begins to shrink physically, what measurable (no pun intended) consequences can this have to the psyche of man--in the case of Auster, a very young man figuring out the world as it appears before his eyes.

The book is marvelously and tenderly rendered.  Auster designs the narrative like a museum gallery of the ages we travel.  The colors, light, shadings, shadows and composition of paintings hanging on the walls go from the elementary literary stick figures to complex avant garde depictions of the human condition.  Paul Auster remains, without a single doubt, my favorite writer and THE leading literary voice of his age.  Everything Auster writes shines with absolute perfection.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Literature of the Discontent

I was standing behind a young couple while waiting to order coffee at the local cafe.  It was hard not to eavesdrop since the young man was a loud-talker, but the rationale behind the premise of what he was saying intrigued me (I can only assume it was a well thought-out argument but only caught pieces of it).  He was explaining to his companion that he only stored "classics" in his e-reader and not popular fiction.  "It's not," I was able to catch a full sentence that stuck with me, "like I would keep Harry Potter or vampire series in it."  If anything, his impassioned declaration stayed with me, and I started to look back some years (when I was still teaching) and to remember the argument of some of my colleagues regarding popular versus classical fiction.  I was continually "attacked" over my insistence that classics taught universal themes just as well as, say, Harry Potter or the many genre vampire series of the mid-to-late 2000s.  With regards to Harry Potter, especially, the department was even considering a "Harry Potter Symposium," and the idea of "Potterian Studies" was thrown around with great enthusiasm.  I was the man out in left field, waiting for the "ball" to be hit in my direction so I could drop it as I perpetually have all of my academic life.

It wasn't so much that I was opposed to books like Harry Potter as I was to the idea of jumping on a fad out of sheer popularity.  "Fads," argued Max Shulman in "Love is a Fallacy," "are the very negation of reason."  Now, you may call me an elitist, or a stuck up classicist or worse, a discontented son of a bitch.  Nevertheless, my argument for classics (which, incidentally, I never gave up) was that the universal ideas included in Harry Potter and some of the "friendly" vampire series (that is to say, friendship, loyalty, struggle, suffering, exaltation, love, rancor, reconciliation, etc.) were originally offered in books like "The Scarlet Letter," or "For Whom the Bell Tolls," or "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or "The Grapes of Wrath," or "Moby Dick," or "Sister Carrie," or "The Great Gatsby," or "The Awakening," or "Crime and Punishment" or "The Way of All Flesh," or "The Possessed," or "The Brothers Karamazov" or... you get the point... And what a better way to prepare students for a life of continual learning than the classics.  There's always time, I argued, for "those other books."  It was not to be... students always turned to "Potterian Studies" with unquenchable devotion.  The populist argument is, "well, at least the kids are reading."  That may or may not be a sound premise--what if, for example, the "kids" were in absolute rave about "Mein Kampf"?  Well, "at least the kids are reading," right?

I have great love for contemporary writers, among my top of all time there's always elbow room for Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth but my love always gravitates toward classic illustrations of timeless themes.  Discontented or not, at least I am still reading, no?

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