I've been working my way through the Roth canon and expected to like this a lot.
But Plot Against America just fell flat with me. It's well written, ofI've been working my way through the Roth canon and expected to like this a lot.
But Plot Against America just fell flat with me. It's well written, of course, with a sometimes compelling Roth narrative (though as usual with more detail than I would care for regarding life in Newark, N.J.). But Roth's elaborate rewriting of American history in the end left me asking the question "Why bother?" I confess I don't think much of historical fiction or alternative history in general. Obviously all fiction explores possibilities, not hard realities, but with infinite possibilities to draw upon, I see no point in rewriting fairly recent history, and this particular concoction of a Berlin-launched American pogrom in which an array of figures from American history are set in intricate interlocking motion was for me a very uncomfortable, overly contrived and non-compelling reworking of history. And the abrupt ending of the book was for me totally unedifying and unsatisfying.
I am not a Jew, and I recognize that Jewish readers, especially those with personal experience of Hitler's Germany, or of religious hatred, and with deep-seated fear of future atrocities, will likely view the book differently. Certainly a strong point of the work is Roth's exposition of the Christian prejudices and Jewish fears of the 1940's, neither of which seems likely ever to disappear. But exploring these issues in the form of elaborate alternate history seems to me an ineffective way to do so. ...more
I truly admire (though I do not at all understand) the omnivorous reader. For myself, an old man, it's hard to find even a scrap of sustaining literarI truly admire (though I do not at all understand) the omnivorous reader. For myself, an old man, it's hard to find even a scrap of sustaining literary food. I want to read literature that speaks to the true human condition, so I find most everything that is popular today to be unreadable.
Recently I lamented to a young writer that after John Updike's death I could find no literary voice to which I could listen. He suggested that I might turn to Philip Roth. I was very doubtful about the soundness of this advice, since the first and last Roth that I had read was Portnoy's Complaint. Now I like liver (properly cooked) and perversion of most sorts (raw or cooked), but raw liver-cum-member was not to my taste. And so, as is often the case with a curmudgeon, I wrote Roth off my reading list decades ago. I could not think of him without thinking of smirky-smiley Richard Benjamin.
Nonetheless, I tried to mend my ways and took a (literary) whack at Roth, starting with The Human Stain; I enjoyed it enough to start attacking more of the Roth canon. And in doing so I have found a welcome voice. This review addresses American Pastoral.
American Pastoral is the story of many things. It is the story of Swede Levov, a blonde Newark NJ Jew who to his old friend Nathan Zuckerman had been a childhood sports hero and who Zuckerman thought had been leading a perfect if vapid, non-examined life with his beautiful wife (a former Miss New Jersey). residing in a beautiful Revolutionary War era stone house, on a farm where his wife bred cattle. But at a High School reunion, Zuckerman learns of Swede's death, and with it of the greatly imperfect and tumultuous life he had come to lead years before, a life marred by the insanity and murderous violence of his stuttering daughter Merry.
Roth powerfully tells the tale of the decline and fall of an American pastoral dream during the 1960s. The Swede has done all the right things, following in the footsteps of ancestors who had by sweat and ingenuity created a glove-making empire in Newark when it was not, well, Newark but an American City. But in the end Swede finds that living a life of decency and moderationleaves him with nothing. His teenage daughter reviles his values and, to protest the Vietnam War blows up a small post office, and goes into hiding, eventually living in squalor and abnegation. His wife is driven off her moorings and comes to hate her early American house and farm, symbolically wanting to exchange it for a modern construction filled with light (and a new husband). The Swede himself, a thoroughly decent man, eventually has an affair with a woman friend who, he will come to learn, had betrayed him. At a dinner party that concludes the book, it seems that no one is quite who they seemed to be, that all harbor secrets. The bright American dream of the early post-war years has gone very dark.
Of course American Pastoral is in the end not just of the Levovs but of Amerika, whether you loved it or left it, in the 1960s. It speaks of the industrial dream vanished, of lost moderation and constraint, of generational distrust and upheaval, of societal craziness and violence that persists to the present. It is a sad but honest and powerful parable that should speak to anyone old enough to have lived through the Sixties and to wish that it had been possible for the American Pastoral to continue.
Somehow I never got around to reading BNW until very recently. Because the author's name was "Aldous Huxley" and the work was futuristic-dystopian, ISomehow I never got around to reading BNW until very recently. Because the author's name was "Aldous Huxley" and the work was futuristic-dystopian, I managed the misconception that the text would be dry and erudite, filled with esoteric insight, beyond the ken of my youth. So I put it off and off and off.
Well, I was wrong. I start with the confession that I'm not a reader of science fiction. Depictions of creatures and civilizations that don't actually exist just do not resonate with me. So a book that begins with an introduction to the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre five hundred years in the future did not begin auspiciously, especially as it slogged tediously through the cloning process. Eventually this tale of a stable future society gained some sluggish momentum as it introduced the character of Bernard Marx, who yearned to be an individual in a society which exalted identity, conformity, infantile satisfaction of desires, free love and distraction through the drug soma, as well as such terrific distractions as Electromagnetic Golf and Obstacle Golf. But then when Bernard saved himself from exile to Iceland by bringing back Shakespeare-spouting John the Savage -- a true "savage" born not by cloning but through old-fashioned human reproduction -- the story grows increasingly tedious and melodramatic. For my money, the prose is consistently subpar (I wonder what is par on an Obstacle Golf course), sometimes just plain badly written, and the story line marginal at best. Many times, I wanted to exclaim "Oh, Ford!" and run over the book with a Chevrolet. The work is redeemed only by some late musings on the benefits of the values of the Brave New World, which by eliminating pain, and sexual longing, and any form of dissatisfaction, bring about society stability. These could have been set forth in much more compact form, without the melodrama of a savage who preferred flogging himself to having a relationship with the girl to whom he was attracted. However, interesting thoughts are worth something, no matter how they are packaged.
Throughout the book I was forced to reflect on our own world in 2016 and whether we have underperformed the Dystopias of BNW, 1984, Fahrenheit 451. Sure, we don't have the cloning apparatus of BNW, but we've solved the problem of looking alike with designer label and sports apparel. Our society thrives on distractions from reality provided by a variety of pap spigots: "reality" TV, endless televised sports, Wii sports, SUVs equipped with media outlets for all. Emersonian self-reliance has been replaced by dependence on electronic gadgetry, library research with Google searches. Wikipedia provides all answers. Snopes tells us what is true or not. Our collective eyes are mostly glued to devices, our ears are connected to Bluetooth or stuffed with earpods lest we experience the silence in which human thought or religious experience might be bred. Our books have not been burned by the state, but look at what sells, often electronically rather than in bookly form. (I won't insult any particular tastes, but where is anything resembling a Moby Dick, a Crime and Punishment, a Scarlet Letter, while authors both young and middle-aged churn out endless series of page turners which are just a step above routine YA twaddle?) And how many through mood-altering medications and legal drugs stay blissful and lobotomized through each culturally dreary day? We do not worship the great God Henry Ford, but consider the place of such cultural spigoteers as Jobs, Gates, Disney and Spielberg in America 2016. (And then there is Cramerica, which may someday contain a Muskland.) And with it all, as Clara Peller might say, "Where's the stability?"
England in A.F. 632 wasn't such a bad place, all in all. Its inhabitants were bred to fill their positions in society and could not imagine a better place; only a "savage" conceived through childbirth could not cope. America 2016 is a greater dystopia, because its inhabitants are human.
Ah, self-help books. Long ago I read some N.V. Peale and Dale Carnegie about thinking positively, making friends, influencing people, stopping worryinAh, self-help books. Long ago I read some N.V. Peale and Dale Carnegie about thinking positively, making friends, influencing people, stopping worrying, starting living. So here I am, negative, solitary, uninfluential, worrisome, nearing extinction. And a dubious endorsement for all those books!!
Actually the old books were all right, inspirational enough in grim times, but almost always plodding and predictable. "Just when he was about to leap from a window in despair, William K. Bloop of Keokuk, Ioway, saw a light in a chapel. There he saw a man with no arms, no legs, one eye, no nose. But a vision came to Bloop: the man had a shining bald scalp. The next day Bloop cashed in his life insurance policy and started manufacturing toupees and is now President of a billion dollar rug company!"
I can't remember the Seventies (too much feverish Disco) , but I recall that the self-help genre headed downward, as if that were possible. Touchier, feelier, full of mumbo-jumbo. Even worse prose, extolling yoga postures, abdominal breathing, chopping water, carrying wood (or was that the other way)? And when the stuff that sold books started to get promoted on PBS channels as if it were Holy Writ, well, I exited, growling.
With that preface, Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism was not a bad read. Dr. Seligman promotes the proposition that optimism is generally (but not always) better than pessimism, which can lead to depression. He says that he does not espouse Dr. Peale's simplistic solution of positive thinking or repeating mantras. Rather, he suggests that when humans can reduce their sense of helplessness and pessimism by examining the negative events in their lives, explaining to themselves that bad results are not personal, pervasive, or persistent. That is to say, humans should avoid concluding that such results come because of innate flaws in themselves that will never change and that will cause adverse results to keep recurring. Explaining adverse results to oneself differently will make one happier, healthier and more successful! Yay!! (Some might call this positive thinking.) And excessive ruminating on adverse events in our lives, needless to say, can only bring unhappiness. Though isn't that what psychiatric practice is built upon?
Dr. Seligman, writing in 1990, did recognize that sometimes things are our fault, and that pessimists often have a better handle on reality than blithe optimists. And, while I agree that it's sometimes too easy for some of us to take the blame for problems that are not really of our own making but the result of transient circumstances, I wonder in this year of 2016 how many folks are really blamin' themselves for much of anything. (Witness the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Blame problems on anyone but yourself!! Occupy Wall Street! Build a Wall!!)
I was quite impressed by the opening chapters (and the concluding one, in which the author discussed the self-centered society and some possible means to better living). For all my cynicism, Dr. Seligman is at times an excellent writer and a thoughtful thinker. However, the book suffered through a tedious middle in which some of the writer's principles are rather tediously applied to many aspects of life. Seems to me that the thesis of this book was pretty simply stated and easily understood yet was pounded into the ground. But that's being too pessimistic! So forget that. Remember this: if you feel you're being crippled by pessimism, give this book a good skim. Or, look on the bright side, think positive thoughts, eat an apple every day and stay regular. One way or another you'll be a happier clam.
I undertook the Bascombe novels after a friend suggested reading Richard Ford to bridge the literary abyss left by the death of John Updike. I was encI undertook the Bascombe novels after a friend suggested reading Richard Ford to bridge the literary abyss left by the death of John Updike. I was encouraged to believe that Frank Bascombe was a worthy successor to Rabbit Angstrom. I started with the novella Let Me Be Frank, and not entirely liking it or understanding the appeal many attribute to his character Frank Bascombe, bought the above volume and read The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land (1322 pages in toto) in the course of a grueling week.
I can understand why many might turn to Ford for a literary voice worth reading. After all, we can't all exist on the thin gushing gruel that passes for literature 15 years into the Twenty-First Century. And Frank Bascombe, writer-turned-sportswriter-turned-real estate salesman-turned-retiree, has a unique male voice. He thinks, he reconsiders, he lusts, he lusts some more, he acquires and sheds wives and homes, he tries to do good peddling, acquiring and leasing real estate, he at times tries to be a good family man, he worries about his prostate cancer and its consequences for his manliness and the dampness of his trousers, and he spends a lot of time doing bashing the Bushes and Republicans. The musings are consistently interesting, intelligent, funny. The events around which the three novels are constructed -- an Easter weekend in the 80's, a Fourth of July later in that decade, Thanksgiving in the time of the New Millennium -- are entertaining (if a little tedious). Like Updike, Ford captures bits of the American scene contemporary with the novels, albeit in that curious state called of unreality named New Jersey.
I'm not going to try to recount any of the complex interconnected events of these novels and the following novella. Reading the them in quick succession was like riding on an endlessly intricate highway. Fiction of course allows authors license to indulge implausibility for the sake of artistic effect. In a world where a substantial public exists to read silly fantasies about warriors and vampires and witches and princesses and shape-shifters, and all the other whippy-creamy stuff that crams chain "bookstores" (somewhere next to toys, greeting cards, DVDs and lattes grandes), who can possibly fault a highly literate author for cramming a few days with a totally unnatural concatenation of unlikely events? Each of the novels makes for a pretty good read and together I must say they make for a very good read (really 3. 5 stars). Bascombe's prose is highly literate, and highly readable, except when occasionally it gets a little over-convoluted or goes on just too long, as the novels seemed to want to stretch to infinity and beyond. But at the same time I never could care much about old Frank or what happened to him in any of the novels, and a few months later neither remember many of the events nor care that I don't. I won't reread them.
Besides the lack of something touching my (admittedly crusty) soul, I am very much bugged by what I consider to be an inauthentic narrative voice. Now, Ford's Frank Bascombe did publish a book of stories, but he quickly gave up academia and a literary life to become a sportswriter, then began to hawk real estate in pseudo-Princeton and then pseudo Point Pleasant, in pointlessly unpleasant New Jersey, with only some incidental collegiate instructing. In Frank's idealized New jersey he with some regularity engaged in fairly stupid acts, including careless oversight of his son, drunken exhibitions, bar fights, philandering. At virtually all points he shows himself to be a true member of the not-so-great-generation: despite his best efforts he is a very flawed family man, focused on that which all of us Baby Boomers love most: the person in the mirror. But as the narrator of the bulging, on-flowing Bascombe novels, he speaks with an overly elegant voice, redolent of the most refined ivory tower, ever studded with fifty-dollar words that sent this pedantic reader scurrying to the dictionary with alarming frequency. In many of his discourses on the meaning of things, or in his dialogues with loved ones in which he sought to get to the heart of matters interpersonal, I found nothing speaking of real human thought, just fluttering thoughts the real meaning of which I could not grasp. His language seemed pointlessly discordant with his lower-brow essence. Perhaps as a result I found Frank neither plausible or even very interesting. Maybe my bad; maybe not. Maybe no Baby Boomer in the end is either interesting or lovable.
And so, as Lloyd Bentsen might say, I have read Harry Angstrom, I feel that I have known and loved Harry Angstrom, and you, Frank Bascombe, are no Harry Angstrom. Updike's prose was more poetic than Ford's, and God knows there may never have been a popular writer with more academic knowledge of every kind than John Updike. And yet good old Rabbit's voice always rang true to his middle-class character, and could frequently astonish a reader with perception that for all his flaws Rabbit shared thoughts and feelings that the reader had thought unique to himself.
So (as it now is obligatory to say at the beginning of a postmodern sentence), my "takeaway" is that individually or collectively the Bascombe novels are above-average literary fodder, but certainly not the "unbestimmte Nahrung" with which Updike routinely fed his hungry readers.
Ooh that Amory Blaine! He's blonde! He's handsome like Rupert Brooke! He's brilliant like GBS! He's rich (until he's poor and then he's quite poor)! HOoh that Amory Blaine! He's blonde! He's handsome like Rupert Brooke! He's brilliant like GBS! He's rich (until he's poor and then he's quite poor)! He goes to Princeton, writes for the Princetonian and dances the Tiger Rag! (Not actually the latter.) He exchanges lofty and mostly unintelligible letters with a Monsignor who says he isn't, but just might be, Amory's fawther! Amory falls in love a lot, quickly, but oh, so deeply. For awhile! Then he fails conic sections! And so he goes to war! And he is oh so disillusioned! Then he writes advertising copy and, being no Don Draper, does not hear a ding and is so so disillusioned with that! But then he starts spouting ill-formed Socialist ideas. And in the end, he is not a personality but a personage (a distinction which Fitzgerald thinks is important). And this is the story of his generation!!
Me oh my. This was Fitzgerald's debut novel, and it shows. There is some good writing along the way but IMHO a lot of silly twaddle. One could excuse the sophomoric thoughts and actions of Amory as ironic, but I don't know. At the end I think Fitzgerald wants us to think Amory has grown, while it seems to me he has remained as fatuous as ever, just in new ways.
The book is sometimes praised as evoking the lives and times of a lost generation, but I don't know about that. There certainly is the flavor of the day, especially in the day in ivied Lawrenceville, New Jersey (if anyone can bear to think of New Jersey). But F. Scott Key Fitzgerald focuses too much of the narrative on the many loves of Dobie (I mean Amory) Blaine, and on the days at Princeton with his young and egotistical cohorts. He skips too lightly over how Amory got to War and what he did in War, and why (except for anti-Democratic underpay) the life as an ad man was so unendurable. After all, Fitzgerald ended up in Hollywood, and what could be worse than that? (Except, possibly, living in New Jersey.) The stories of Amory's love encounters are almost unendurable to read. How quickly everyone falls in love with him, because he is sooo handsome and brilliant, how quickly he falls in love with them, then changes his mind! (Though to the end Amory cherishes the thought of the girl who threw him over for someone with money, thereby demonstrating that in another age she could have matured into one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey or some other desolate spot.)
But most unendurable is some of the experimental writing: all the captioning of short sections of text, the insertions of bad (but oh so earnest) poetry, the changes in style from narrative form to play-scripting.
For me it's two-and-a-half stars tops. But for all its faults, it covered an interesting period and cast some light upon it. And believe it or not there was no fantasy world, no dragons, no vampires! This in itself accounts for a star and one half.
I can't however see how it launched F. Scott's career. The Great Gatsby seems light years away, not a natural progression.
I had never gotten around to actually reading Dame Agatha, but this winter read a pleasing collection of Poirot mysteries. I then happened upon a papeI had never gotten around to actually reading Dame Agatha, but this winter read a pleasing collection of Poirot mysteries. I then happened upon a paperback version of Passenger to Frankfurt in a corner of the attic, and, with no preconceived ideas about the book, I settled in for a mid-winter's read.
Clearly it was NOT a good read, but a disappointing one. I got past the page where Lobstergirl abandoned ship only because of my stubborn unwillingness not to finish what I start.
In truth, the beginnings of P to F were acceptable if on the lame side. The primary characters, Sir Stafford Nye and his mysterious airport acquaintance, seemed potentially intriguing. But the plot went terribly wrong as Ms. Christie introduced a nebulous conspiracy by which worldwide youth were being led to introduce anarchy to the world. It got worse and worse as more and more characters were introduced, and it ended bizarrely if benevolently.
My experience reading Christie is too limited to generalize confidently. But I think that the charm of her mysteries has been to draw the events of a crime into sharper focus as the book moves towards its denouement. Here, in her "thriller" mode, the book moved from focus to a blur, as if the "bubbles" which supposedly underlay the world plot were soapy and were exploding.
I wonder how something like this came to see print. Then again, the late 60's and early 70's were a very turbulent time that did strange things to ordinary people. I won't accuse Christie of having used mind- or ink-altering drugs, but perhaps she committed the greatest crime of the times and watched "Casino Royale," which even as a spoof spun wildly out of control. All Passenger to Frankfurt lacked was a Woody Allen's "James Bond, Jr."
As bad as it was, some of the images in the book-- the hideously fat Old Woman of the Mountain and the all-knowing Aunt Matilda, are slightly redemptive. But no one need ever feel they have missed anything by missing this one.
The Passage of Power is a superb telling of the years from 1958-early 1964, from the time Lyndon Johnson began consideration of seeking the PresidencyThe Passage of Power is a superb telling of the years from 1958-early 1964, from the time Lyndon Johnson began consideration of seeking the Presidency to the time by which LBJ had not merely succeeded JFK in office but had placed his own imprint on that office. It is scholarly, even-handed, crammed to the brim with fascinating historical facts. For those who lived through the Kennedy-Johnson years but had no idea what was happening behind the scenes, it offers many priceless insights. We learn of Johnson's fear of failure, a fear which caused him to start too late to seek the Democratic nomination, and which may have accounted for his loss of the nomination. The extent to which the Kennedy brothers humiliated Johnson and divested him of all meaningful power during his Vice-Presidency is richly detailed. Caro then explains precisely how, following JFK's assassination, Johnson was able to exploit his knowledge of Senators and Senate procedures to secure the passage of legislation (tax cut, Civil Rights laws) that seemed doomed to long delay or failure in JFK's lifetime, and to regain the power that he had lost during his Vice-Presidency. The mutual hatred between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy is explored in full and fascinating detail. The portraits of all the major actors (LBJ, JFK. RFK) seem truly fair and balanced: no one is deified, no one is villainized. Johnson gets credit where credit is due, but his methods and warts are also exposed.
Measured as a book of history, Caro's work deserves no less than a 5-star rating. But the writing is occasionally something else. Caro is a very fine writer, most of the time. The problem is that there seems to be no date, name or other fact, no matter how inconsequential, that Caro is willing to jettison in the interest of clear exposition. So many separate intricately detailed facts are crammed into long, meandering sentences, composed of multiple clauses, sometimes containing multiple separate thoughts, that many sentences lost their clarity and required very close rereading (this in a book of 605 pages of text). Many dense or confusing sentences could easily have been simplified with no loss of content. It would seem that the editor must have gone to sleep, relying on the reputation of his writer.
As it was, the book was slightly less pleasurable than it should have been. However, when Caro was on the top of his game, it was a terrific read.
This is a book not of 1963 but of the current day: a time in which a well-spun story is more important than a fair or accurate one.
Dallas 1963 is marThis is a book not of 1963 but of the current day: a time in which a well-spun story is more important than a fair or accurate one.
Dallas 1963 is marginally interesting insofar as it provides new details into the backgrounds of some of the colorful personalities that were prominent in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination. But is it good or accurate history?
The book is written in the present tense, presumably to give it a sense of immediacy. That may have worked for John Updike in the fictional Rabbit Run, but is a very cheesy way of telling history. But I forget myself. This is not a book about history, it is about cheap exaggerations and stereotypes.
Two historical "incidents" are central to the premise that Dallas was a boiling cesspool of hatred in 1963. One is a demonstration, arranged by a local Congressman, in which a "mob" of rich conservative women accosted Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird en route to lunch at the Adolphus Hotel. The authors make this demonstration by hissing, spitting blue-haired women appear an incident of high drama and high danger, if not high treason. Contrast Robert Caro's treatment of the incident in The Passage of Power: Caro makes it clear that LBJ exploited the gathering of women "protestors" for political advantage, turning a relatively trivial incident into a headline event that would help him gain sympathies throughout the rest of Texas.
Another incident central to the authors' thesis occurred when Adlai Stevenson was confronted by anti-UN protestors weeks before JFK's fatal visit. According to the authors, Cora Stevenson managed to "slam" a protest sign into Stevenson's face. Watch the incident on Youtube -- it was recorded -- and the incident is more laughable than criminal. Not defensible, but not a serious attack.
I hold no torch for the City of Dallas or for Southern conservatives, now or in the past. But I do expect history to be accurate and even-handed. The authors turn all of JFK's opponents into cardboard cut out crazies. Anyone with more than a touch of liberalism is turned into a plaster saint. The ultra-wealthy Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus seems to be lionized because he dines at French restaurants and exploits "internationalism" to sell expensive consumer goods. Every Civil Rights worker is a paragon of virtue. In contrast, every conservative opponent of the UN, Civil Rights or JFK is totally demonized. The authors to a large degree disregard the times in which the historical actors were operating, the cultural values and international fears of the period in which they formed their values, the laws that actually existed in 1963 (before much Civil Rights legislation had been passed). The southern opponents of "progress" may have been indefensibly misguided, and on the wrong side of history, but it is hard to believe that they were the one-dimensional zealots that the authors would have us believe. And certainly they would have had reason to distrust and dislike the young and inexperienced JFK.
As for the hotbed of hatred created by the "crazies," it turns out that upon JFK's arrival on the morning of November 22, 1963, Dallas gave the Kennedys an extraordinarily warm welcome, showing that the currents of hatred that were swirling in Dallas were not mainstream. And, of course, the authors swallow the proposition that JFK was killed not by any conservative but by a left-wing communist, accepting the simplistic fairy-tale version of the Warren Report. Certainly no evidence is presented that anything in the "climate" of Dallas accounted for JFK's assassination.
So what is this book really about? Not much of anything. If I could give it 1-1/2 stars I would. Unlike a real history book, this volume inspires no trust in the truth of the information or the authors' analysis of it. It will of course be adored by young readers who will hear what they want to hear: good is great and bad is awful. Was it underwritten by MSNBC?...more