Recommended by my friend, the Rev. Ned Gammons, a lover of history and good writing, this book lived up to its advance notice. Ellis is an excellent wRecommended by my friend, the Rev. Ned Gammons, a lover of history and good writing, this book lived up to its advance notice. Ellis is an excellent writer, capable of being striking without hyperbole and efficient while maintaining clarity. His study lucidly delineates how Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison squired the U.S. from its "first" revolution (the war) through its equally hard-"fought" second revolution (the making of the nation through the establishment of the Constitution). A great story of intrigue and strategy, teeming with interesting details and told through a sharply analytical, crisply organized narrative. Thank you, Ned!...more
At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, you get a passport of someone who lived in 1930s Europe and start at the top floor, then turn the page eachAt the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, you get a passport of someone who lived in 1930s Europe and start at the top floor, then turn the page each time you climb down to the next lower floor. Every time you turn the page, your heart flutters a bit, in recognition of the fact that your passport self -- a real person, possibly someone quite like you -- may be revealed as dead at the next moment. After all, so many did not make it out. Their stories are often unfathomable, especially to those of us who cherish reason and struggle to grasp the insidious, fiction-like unreality that was real then.
I thought of this many times while reading Colson Whitehead's National Book Award winner. Like the Holocaust, slavery has been depicted in many unflinching (some flinching) ways over the years. No illusions remain. And yet this book was new and gripping in a way I had not felt before.
The story is new in some ways, nontrivial ways, like those that have been described as "science fiction" by some commentators. Each state Cora and her fellow African-Americans "visit" is a state of mind: the eerily progressive and yet ominous South Carolina, the "Festival Friday" purged land of North Carolina, the blackened wasteland of Tennessee, etc. One thing holds true throughout: slavery is a curse, something unimaginable, as much like the Holocaust as anything in history in how both were poison for their nations. Those nations remain both complicit and scarred, scarred mostly because of the odiousness of the almost unimaginable, inhuman complicity.
This novel does not skimp on the inhumanity. It would be knee-bucklingly inappropriate to suggest that the fear it weaves through the reader's mind is reminiscent of the slave's fear, but at moments, it is a marvel how the heart surges -- as it does on those museum stairs -- with the kind of sympathy that good fiction can provide. Cora, Caesar, Sam, Royal, Valentine, all the others: you wish that the story could save them. The history, you know, infrequently did. The scars noted on the poignant runaway-slave notices printed between "states" remind us that even those who got away, for however long, wear marks that identify them...and put them at continued risk.
David Bradley, the African-American scholar and writer who is the eloquent core of PBS's admirable Born to Trouble documentary about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, spoke in that documentary about how America still hasn't solved its race problem, so it's foolish to think that a book could do so or to blame the book for not doing so. Whitehead's novel raises a similar challenge. What do we gain, then, from the fright, the sympathy, the disgust, the guilt, the thrill, the anger? -- depending on who the reader is, and where he or she is in the experience, the emotion might vary. States of mind, indeed.
I respond that this novel deserves to enter and stay in the conversation because of how it suspends us in an imagined, mythic yet all too real America that we are desperate to repair. Isn't that what literature aspires to?
We will be reading this novel for generations....more
Some of the best and worst of postmodern literature: engaging, thought-provoking, fantastical, expectation-inverting, genre-busting, history-testing,Some of the best and worst of postmodern literature: engaging, thought-provoking, fantastical, expectation-inverting, genre-busting, history-testing, radical, unapologetic ... and preachy, self-satisfied, uneven, blandly theoretical (the latter, to the extent that it undermines the story value, which I acknowledge is part of the postmodern experiment). Overall, a surprising and worthwhile novel....more
As summer reading for each of the past several years, my American studies (Viewpoints on Modern America, to be precise) students have chosen between tAs summer reading for each of the past several years, my American studies (Viewpoints on Modern America, to be precise) students have chosen between two memoirs -- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, and This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff -- to go along with a film and a novel. No recent memoir has been more prominent in our national discourse than J.D. Vance's, which inspires me to bring it in to replace one of my traditional memoirs.* There are pluses and minuses to this.
First, the minuses, because they are relatively minimal. Wolff's book is the one that is going to go, after ten years on our stage, despite the fact that it is a superior piece of writing. This is certainly not intended as a slam on Vance; This Boy's Life is one of the best-written memoirs ever. Because Vance is a grown-up and a proponent of personal responsibility I will add that the weakest part of his memoir is the writing, which is at times pedestrian. This is not a great example of a literary memoir, at least on the "literary" side.
But a memoir doesn't enter the syllabus -- let alone the conversation of being at the hub of the national zeitgeist -- simply because it is eloquent. Thus, the pluses: Vance has crafted something clear, forceful, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and, especially, insightful. His book will be an excellent pairing with Walls's (it's unfortunately that few students will choose to read both, but I'll recommend it!) as depictions of an America that suburban high school students don't necessarily know much, if anything, about.
There is a mythic resonance here, a welcome companion to the forthrightness that is the essence of any good memoir. My literature/history course on Modern America touches on many of Vance's themes: how class and poverty impose burdens on people, how the myth of opportunity owns tremendous power, how the complexity of human relationships defies reductionist stereotypes and calls us to new respect for perspectives unlike our own, how culture plays a role in the current political landscape, how the labels "conservative" and "liberal" must be applied carefully and still may be insufficient for identifying real people.
The characters and events are plenty vivid: mother's addictions and irresponsibility, sister's and aunt's struggles and triumphs, father's and step-fathers' intermittent commitments, professor's (Amy Chua, of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother fame!) and girlfriend/wife's aid in helping him be a "cultural emigrant", guiding influences from his crucial time in the Marines, ancestors with pasts full of bloody missteps, and, especially, grandparents' flaws and their starring roles in his eventual success.
Nick Carraway, narrator of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, famously begins his narration with a disclaimer about how his father once told him to reserve judgment and to remember that others have not had the same advantages he has. Nick, despite his respectful distance, doesn't reserve judgment indefinitely, and neither does Vance. Firmly judging without being dismissive, Vance simultaneously (repetitively, but I appreciated it as reinforcement) reveals his own disadvantages and holds himself and others accountable. He epitomizes what was once dubbed "compassionate conservatism"; my students deserve to encounter conservative principles through his eyes.
While I am not overly enamored of Vance as a memoir stylist, I first came to know his work through his essays and punditry, and he is perfectly suited there. His is an essential voice in the fraught modern conversation. I'm looking forward to seeing the students react to his story and his philosophy.
Mary Roach is as entertaining a writer as is working today. I loved Stiff and -- despite one lagging segment mid-book this time -- am equally pleasedMary Roach is as entertaining a writer as is working today. I loved Stiff and -- despite one lagging segment mid-book this time -- am equally pleased with this one, which looks at applications of science and innovation in the U.S. military. If you are not a huge fan of either science or the military, your opinion of it will improve significantly during this read; if you already like both, your pleasure is assured.
Which is not to say that this is entirely pleasant stuff. Roach's talents shine brightest when she gets to write about the disgusting or the bizarre, and there is plenty of each. For example, the chapter (8) on diarrhea or the one (10) on various attempts to weaponize smells. Unsettling for males, in particular, might be the not one but two chapters on soldiers' genital wounds and the attempts to provide effective prosthetics. While few things strike me as more impressive than the military-driven developments in the field of prosthetics, having two chapters on genital injury and replacement -- which I stipulate to being of extraordinary importance -- seemed unnecessary. A quibble, though that two-chapter segment ended up being the slowest segment I've read among all of her books. Two chapters on the world of submarines were among my favorites, especially the latter one (more about that later) which took place under the sea but really focused on sleep science.
Roach's own best weapons are clarity and humor, to go along with her journalistic thoroughness. (With regard to the latter, I enjoyed her Acknowledgements section, in which she thanks all of the generous and helpful military and/or science folks who made her project possible, more than any such segment of any book I think I have ever encountered.) Like other humorous authors, she has a shtick, but it is far more natural, far less grating, than most others'.
Her best, drollest gibes tend to come in the footnotes, so read your footnotes, people. When Roach asks to be a target on a paintball range, "The one who did the deed--from 70 feet, hitting me precisely where he wanted to--can be heard in the background of a researcher's video going, 'That was very satisfying" (62), which is a funny enough way to end a paragraph, before she adds the footnote that simply adds, "'It's almost like he knows you,' said the researcher." Plenty of the footnotes are quite serious, even poignant, but they are also the best source of wry grins for the reader.
Here's another typical passage, from the chapter on sleep, which I--as a teacher and parent in a school district where I'd love to see them enact later start times--found both frighteningly (when I learned how little sleep sustains the sailors on our nuclear submarines) and engagingly convincing:
NSMRL [Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory] has been developing goggles rimmed with battery-powered lights that emit the blue melatonin-suppressing wavelengths, thereby fooling the brain into thinking it's daytime. Depending on which direction you're flying, one or another of these distinctive eyewear options can help you preadjust to a new time zone. Or, in the case of Special Operations types heading to the Middle East to undertake secret 3:00 a.m. missions, not adjust. Lieutenant Kate Couturier, a circadian rhythm researcher at NSMRL, outfitted a planeload of Navy SEALs with blue-light-emitting goggles on a series of flights from Guam to the East Coast of the United States, to see if it were possible to make them unattractive to females, oops, I mean, to keep them on Guam time. It worked.
It is probably fair to say that circadian dysrhythmia affects alertness and performance as much as or more than the amount of sleep a person has been getting. In the late 1990s, a team of sleep researchers and statisticians from Stanford University analyzed twenty-five seasons of Monday Night Football scores. Because the games were played at 9:00 p.m. eastern standard time, West Coast players were essentially competing at 6:00 p.m.--a time chronologically closer to the body's late afternoon peak for physical performance.* As the researchers predicted, West Coast teams were shown to have won more often and by more points per game. The effect was striking enough that teams sometimes travel a few days in advance of a game to give the players' body rhythms a chance to adjust." (259-260)
The asterisk links to a footnote that adds, "It's not just alertness that waxes and wanes. Gut motility also follows a circadian pattern. Healthy humans rarely crap after midnight, unless they've just arrived in a distant time zone."
There's a lot here. Complex technology and science are explained efficiently and clearly. Application outside the world of the military is brought in. Experiments, even when they ended up failing, give a constant sense of the innovation that is going on not only in the world of science but in the military. All of this reinforces faith in both of those subsets of society--two inspiring though often misunderstood ones. And, of course, there's the informality and humor that make it all so readable.
[Upon re-reading that passage, I do notice that I would have asked her to clarify the football example (I assume that means that the teams are more likely to travel a few days early if they're going east to west, not necessarily in the other direction).]
We all can benefit by understanding science and the military better. This fine book helps on both accounts....more
Fuller review to come, but, in brief: The best part of this is the last four chapters. Chabon remains one of my favorite writers -- one of the most imaFuller review to come, but, in brief: The best part of this is the last four chapters. Chabon remains one of my favorite writers -- one of the most imaginative out there -- and the memoirish nature of what is clearly not all memoir is sometimes mesmerizing, sometimes meh. When it reaches novel-like robustness is when it works best....more