My quick reaction to the inevitable comparison with 1984 is that, while Brave New World is the more interesting, challenging (in a good way), and perhMy quick reaction to the inevitable comparison with 1984 is that, while Brave New World is the more interesting, challenging (in a good way), and perhaps relevant book, Orwell's is the much better novel. ...more
The past couple of months, two activities have dominated my leisure time: reading and watching NBA hoops. After reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, IThe past couple of months, two activities have dominated my leisure time: reading and watching NBA hoops. After reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I was reminded of a hoops argument that I think should carry over to modern literature as well. The argument has to deal with the unceasing quest for the so-called next Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan was the transcendent athlete, if not public figure, of my childhood. There are a generation of kids who still drink Gatorade, buy Nikes, and wear Hanes solely because at some point in their childhood they wanted to be like Mike. Whenever I play a pickup game, or even just shoot around I find my tongue subconsciously hanging out of my mouth when I drive to the basket. What separates Jordan from similar figures is he actually justified this adulation. Watching Jordan was watching a real life folk hero. I remember my Dad, who isn't an NBA fan, during the MLB strike of 1994 ranting about how all professional athletes are overpaid, then pausing and adding "with the exception of Michael Jordan. This is a guy who averaged a couple grand a minute during the late '90s. The Flu Game, The Shrug Game, The Blindfolded Dunk, The final shot of the 1998 Finals. No other athlete since Babe Ruth has been able to summon similar myth-making moments.
Yet as soon as he retired (for the second time) the media and basketball fans have become obsessed with finding the "Next Jordan." Around a dozen guys have been nominated as candidates, and while these guys are all extremely talented, it's doing them a disservice to compare them to Jordan. Jordan is Gretzky, Young Sandy Koufax, Mohammed Ali before the draft, and The Beatles combined, a truly once in a lifetime talent.
I've started to notice a similar thing going on in literature concerning David Foster Wallace. More and more it seems the DFW comparisons are used talking about contemporary authors. For Christmas, I received two books explicitly name checked Wallace on the back cover. This really doesn't bother me, and I don't think it causes the reader or the publishing industry any harm. When I think about it, there's nothing like a good DFW comparison to get me interested in a newly published book. But at the same time, I worry a little bit about it. The problem with the next Jordan controversy is that while Vince Carter has (or more aptly once had) the capacity for in-air improvisation that Jordan had, Dwyane Wade has the ability to put a team on his shoulders and almost single-handedly win playoff series, and Kobe has the clutch instincts and competitive intensity Jordan had, none of these guys are on MJ's level. While these guys, and others I haven't mentioned are very good to extraordinarily good at individual faucets of the game of basketball, Jordan was the best at everything you can ask a shooting guard to be good at.I wouldn't go so far as to completely equate the respective greatness of MJ and DFW, but there is an analogy here. Because, let's face it, anybody who reads an author expecting a David Foster Wallace doppelgänger is probably going to be disappointed as those who expected Harold Miner to be the next Michael Jordan.
Now that that's said, while this argument came to me while I was reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I'm not sure this review is the best place to expound upon it. For starters, George Saunders writing style and story telling are both fundamentally different from DFW's. If you were to make a Venn Diagram of George Saunders and DFW, the overlapping segments of the circles would be a mere sliver, at least based on this book. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if Saunders never read any Wallace before he wrote any of these stories. There are certain traits that Saunders and Wallace share. Both are able to write about a world that is fundamentally different from ours in very profound ways, but, at the same, make the reader feel some sense of almost eerie familiarity. Be it descriptions of wheelchair bound Quebecois assassins who were disabled in a bizarre rail-jumping ritual, or an account of an employee at a Civil War Era theme park seeking advice from the ghosts of an actual Civil War era family, both writers have an uncanny ability to treat the other-worldly in a causal manner. They both have incredible imaginations, but are able to resist what must be an overwhelming urge to let the "otherness" of their narratives overly dominate the storytelling.
I feel like I'm doing people a disservice when I tell them what the plot of Infinite Jest is about. While the world Wallace constructs is unbelievably intriguing, that's not what the book is "about." If you go into the book expecting to learn about The Entertainment and find out what's wrong with Hal, you're going to be somewhat disappointed. I feel similarly about the stories here. While the settings might suggest genre fiction, Saunders' writing reminded me more of Raymond Carver than Philip K. Dick or DFW. My one quibble may be is that while Saunders is definitely a unique storyteller, and I enjoyed all of the stories, there is nothing that really resonated with me or kept me up thinking at night. Beyond the polish of the background, I'm not sure exactly how much is new there.
I haven't come close to reading the complete DFW bibliography (or Saunders'), but it still pisses me off to no end that one day that wells going to run prematurely dry. Because, just as there was nothing like watching Jordan in his prime, there is nothing out there quite like reading David Foster Wallace. What makes experiencing greatness so extraordinary is the uniqueness inherent in it's nature. Like I said, I'm not sure how far anybody has ever gone with the Wallace comparisons to Saunders, so I'm not sure if any of this applies. And there's nothing wrong with comparing recent experiences with fondly recalled past experiences. But I worry that holding something to the level of past greatness, be it MJ, DFW, The Beatles, Brando, Scorsese, etc., does a diservices to both the new experience by holding it up to a standard that is impossible to reach without some glimmer of nostalgia, and the old experience by causing us to forget how unique the first was. ...more
I don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you areI don't like the idea that literature is written "for" or "not for" any people. Sure, you might be able to appreciate War and Peace better if you are a member of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia. But you're a fool if you let a smaller share of comparative appreciation get in your way. I mean, I can't let the fact that I'm middle class and white distract me from the fact that I enjoy listening to Public Enemy. I'm not comfortable with the idea that anything is beyond my empathy. What I'm saying here, however inelegantly, is that I don't want my background fucking with the way I react to novels or movies or music. I say all this because, although I enjoyed The Finkler Question, my background totally kept getting in the way and kept me from giving it a higher recommendation.
Let's start here. The Finkler Question is about three friends. Two are middle aged, one is elderly. Two are Jewish, one is a gentile who is obsessed with Jewishness / convinced of his Jewishness / attempting to transcend Jewishness and become some sort of uber-Jew. Two are recently widowed, the other aspires to widowerhood. All three are Londoners. I was aware of most of this going in, as I am similarly aware that some of this might not absolutely resonate with me, a 20-something, single, American, Irish-Catholic agnostic. Although, like Treslove (the gentile) I sometimes feel like certain tastes, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could be better explained if there were some trace Semitic branches in my family tree. Nobody wants to just interact with fictional characters exactly like themselves. But you do want some relatable sentiment. For me, through no fault of Howard Jacobson, there was a lack of this. And there are certainly parts of the novel that I throughly enjoyed. But a lot of it left me feeling like a witness to an engaging debate whose interference would be unwelcome. The best way I can put it is this: the table next to you at a restaurant is having a intriguing but non-obtrusive family argument. Even if you want to put your two-cents in, it would be wildly inappropriate, and it's likely they could give a shit about your two cents. While this argument of strangers may be engaging, you still can't really relate to it.
As of now, there aren't a ton of reviews on this site, so let me go into greater details gist-wise, if anybody's interested. - There isn't really a plot to speak of, and the elements of plot present don't matter. - The novel is mainly concerned with the relationship its characters have with Judaism and "Jewishness."The novel explores what it means to belong to a group, what obligations you have to this group, and what obligations this group has to you. A lot of this can be implied to anything, such as country, religion, family ect. - Jacobson is very talented, and often funny. He deals with serious issues but never loses grasp of his sense of humor. - I'm from the South, where all forms of bigotry and prejudice haven't exactly been eradicated. However, I was somewhat shocked at this novel's depiction of London's contemporary anti-Semitism. I mean, I know it's not extinct or even close to it, but I had no idea it was as prevalent as Jacobson depicts it. - Israel is almost the MacGuffin of the novel. Jacobson gives an interesting cross-section of how the policies of Israel both unite and divide the Jewish community.
I'm not wildly enthused, with this review, it's not particularly well-thought out, and I've feel like I've spent too much time worrying about, to steal a joke from Always Sunny. dropping the "hard J." but I've spent too much time on the damn thing to scrap it. Let me try to somehow tidily sum up what I'm basically saying. It's not that you have to be Jewish & English & middle aged & widowed to enjoy this novel. I'm none of those things, and I did enjoy it on many levels. However, this book actively seeks a certain intellectual engagement that can only come through fully with a sense of relation. Therefore, any lack of relatable feelings might compromise your enjoyment of this book.
Ugh, look don't take my word for it. I don't regret spending time on this and it has giving me a good share of things to ponder on. Maybe you guys should figure this one out for yourself. ...more
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about thisWow....
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this book, I'm saying something equivalent to "Michael Jordan was a good basketball player" or "Richard Nixon had a decent amount of issues." This book is not only on the short list of best novels ever, it was there a century before my birth. But, hey, this thing is a beast, and it feels like a real accomplishment finishing it, so I'm going safely deposit my thoughts here rather than pestering my friends and family.
First a quick note. I never fully realized the value of a well-done translation before reading this book. So I need to add my endorsement to the cacophony of praise I've seen for Pevear and Volokhonsky. I happened to have a Barnes and Noble Edition that I purchased years ago for comparison purposes. The difference is striking. The public domain translation often appears to be a summary of Tolstoy's writing, while this edition is a translation in the truest sense. It not only translates the text, it translates the writing. Also, the old edition was abridged. Maybe this specific abridgment was particularly chopped up, but it really mangled the thing. With a lot of work that was originally serialized, you can tell that some of the material there is to provide filler for current issue. Here, even the chapters that may not be essential to the narrative or the overall thesis of the novel are essential to the feel of the work. Any abridgment of War and Peace is, nevertheless, going to leave the prospective reader with a tall stack of papers. When it comes down to it, if your going to attempt to tackle this beast, you might as well try to get your arms around this whole thing. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Tolstoy goes on tangents and diversions, but holy shit, he's Leo Fucking Tolstoy, he should have been encouraged write whatever he wants, and there isn't a thing that is not worthwhile. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation also includes the original French (with English translations in footnotes) where Tolstoy used it. While this may appear to be an unnecessary inconvenience, it serves a definite character and storytelling purpose. Again, it's Count Leo Tolstoy, his choices are somewhat credible. Finally, this edition includes extremely helpful citations to endnotes mostly dealing with historical background and also a historical index that is pretty useful.*
I've been aware of War and Peace for a long time. Maybe it's because it serves as the stereotypical overlong book. Maybe I heard a joke about reading War and Peace cover to cover three times while waiting at the DMV, but the novel has been in my conscience for a long time. And ever since I was a kid, trying to read Grisham books because I wanted to be "grownup," I knew a reckoning with this monster was bound to happen sooner or later.
Now that it's over, I think it's a real shame that War and Peace is best known for its length. The novel is a daunting, but not a difficult read. With perhaps the exception of the Second part of the Epilogue, the read is actually easy. The characters are relatable, the prose is easily enjoyable, and the pace of the plot is engaging.** Tolstoy does go on digressions, he often drops the narrative and goes into ruminations on the true nature of history, but he is able to do this in a seamless manner. It all fits together at the end, but it's not particularly jarring as you go along.
For me, the best single word modifier of War and Peace isn't long, it's full. For example, the television show The Wire***, a show that has been described as Tolstoy-ish, is nominally about the efforts of a Baltimore police unit to counter the drug trade in West Baltimore. But if you watched this show you know that this doesn't begin to adequately label what the show is about. The show was about modern American life, race relations, the failings of democracy, the incompetence of bureaucracy, the burdens of family, and more. Put simply, it's about America. Similarly, the narrative of War and Peace concerns the travails of two upper class Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. If the novel was solely limited to this, it would be a fantastic historical novel. But Tolstoy uses this narrative to do so much more. He criticizes established theories of history and ruminates on the true force that causes events to happen. And in the midst of both of these strands, Tolstoy, through his characters and his narrative voice, ruminates on man's search for purpose, both on the individual and collective level.
The narrative thread of the book considered by itself is a supreme achievement. For all the criticisms he gives them, Tolstoy himself is an excellent historian. He's fantastic at capturing the feel of what it how the times felt. The cultural gap between an early 21st century American reader and the early 18th century Russian nobility is needless to say jarring. But Tolstoy never lets things get too uncomfortable. There are very few anecdotes or passages that are overwhelmingly foreign to the modern reader. Like I said above, the narrative is rarely, if ever, difficult or dull.
Isaak Babel spoke the truth, in his reaction to War and Peace. "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Although little aspects of Tolstoy pop up every now and then, his narrative is impressive for his omnipresence. Much has been made of Tolstoy's realism, but those considerations behind the novel is the most humane piece of art I've encountered. Don't let the historical novel label or the publication date scare you off. Sure, the book was first published in the first year of the Grant administration and was about events that took place generations before publication. Notwithstanding these facts, the book is stunningly relatable. I guarantee you that there will be at least one passage that will leave you convinced that Tolstoy somehow traveled through time to plagiarize your dream journal. All the character, no matter how drastically times and customs have changed, remain at a certain level easily recognizable, familiar, and always viscerally real. Tolstoy, like no other author I've encountered, explores the parameters and comes close to nailing the essence of this state of being that we call being alive. Multiple lifetimes of wisdom and experience seep out of the pages. I know this is getting hokey, but I feel that strongly. Infinite Jest is still my favorite novel, but War and Peace has taken its place as the best novel I've ever read. It's one of those rare books that work as a (extremely long) mantra. As you contemplate and consider the novel you experience a transcendental feeling of deeper awareness. War and Peacereads like it should have been brought down from a mountaintop chiseled on stone plates****. Read it today... or whenever you have a good bit of time on your hands.
* This book is maybe the prime example of why nearly one year into my Kindle experience I'm conflicted. For fiction, I prefer the actual experience of holding a bound group of pages and miss the ability to easily flip back to prior passages. Also, I kinda regret that I won't be able to display on my bookshelf. I feel like the electronic edition should come with some plaque or certificate you can display. Also, sometimes it was a hassle to navigate considering the ubiquitous French translations and endnotes which are numbered separately. On the one hand, it was extremely nice not having to lug around a 1200+ page book and having the option of reading this book on the go. If I had to choose again, I'm not sure which one I'd go with.
** Again, please do yourself a favor and avoid public domain translations. I love raiding Project Gutenberg for free books, but this was totally worth the extra cash.
***AKA the best television show ever, and, perhaps, the best example of narrative storytelling of the best decade. I am an unrepentant whore for The Wire.
**** Except this would require a small army of stone haulers and quarry workers, and may severely reduce the world's supply of rock. ...more
A lot of times I feel like my preconceived notions of a novel plays a disproportionate role in my eventual reaction to the book. For instance, I'll reA lot of times I feel like my preconceived notions of a novel plays a disproportionate role in my eventual reaction to the book. For instance, I'll read a book like Lolita and I go into it knowing that it's one of the major works of the 20th century, and that Nabokov is a master of English prose. The same is true with novels that I hear criticism of. If reviewers I tend to a agree with disparage a book, I'll find myself prone a somewhat hidden wish to confirm their opinion. I don't think this is is necessarily good or bad, if anything it's natural.But it's something that I find myself thinking about when I read. I could guess a rating before I start most books and there would be a high correlation with my eventual ratings. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy Lolita, or that you can never really appreciate classic works of art once a definite critical group-think has been set. I just sometimes have a hard time sorting any bias that I bring to the reading experience by a semi-conscious wish to see my preconceived notions confirmed from any truly sincere reactions to the novel. Again, I think this is natural, but it still concerns me.
However, every once in a while, I'll read a book that surprises me. When a book that I expect to be great disappoints, me I can get pretty vindictive, as seen here. On the other hand, every once in a while a book will be unexpectedly knock my socks off. Either way, the unexpected reaction gives a certain additional power to my overall feelings about the book. Edwin Mullhouse is an example of the pleasant surprise.
The full title really jumps out at you and is probably what inspired me to pick up a copy. Yes, the book is really the biography of a Edwin Mullhouse, deceased eleven year old novelist. The writer of the biography, Edwin's closest friend and neighbor Jeffery Cartwright, is convinced that Edwin has produced a work of transcendent genius, and fills it his destiny to tell Edwin's life story. However, Cartwright is apparently writing his friends biography in the month's after his untimely demise, when he's not busy being a sixth grader.
This could have been gimmicky piece of po-mo, excessively 'cute,' and/or any of the other hazards that modern writers sometimes succumb to. But Millhauser creates Jeffery's voice in a way that avoids any of these pitfalls. Edwin, and especially Jeffery, are not average children. For instance, Jeffery can recall distinct details of his first meeting with Edwin when he was six months old. However, in their relationship there are hints and glimpses of being a kid that are familiar but are, as Millhauser puts it, 'scrupulously distorted.' Parts of the novel surfaced memories of my childhood that I hadn't thought of in years.* The undeniably alien-Edwin's career as a novelist-is confined to the last quarter of the book. At it heart, Edwin Mullhouse is a artfully told and strangely familiar coming of age story, despite the unique narration concept and any scrupulous distortions.**
The narrative device Millhauser uses allows him to do really cool things with the distinctions between childhood and adulthood. Edwin and Jeffery appear in many ways to be almost unrealistically precocious but there are hints of immaturity. I'm not sure if I'm making sense so let me put it this way. Despite the fact that the narrator has a great hand for prose and would be unusually sophisticated for an adult, once you get into the novel you have no problem accepting the premise that the chronicler of the tale is a 12 year old, an exceptionally bizarre and unique 12 year old, but a 12 year old nonetheless.
Edwin Mullhouse is a really multi-faceted novel, and there are other themes that I could dwell on. For instance the novel is also a portrait of Post-War America and a deconstructive critique and parody of the genre of biographies. Let me just close with a spoiler-free note on the ending. I'm pretty good at picking up narrative clues and hints, but there is a twist in the last quarter of the book that I did not see coming. At first it jarred me, and it still does. But after some reflection, the twist can't be said to be inconsistent with the narrative or themes of the novel. Moreover, it does fit in with my thoughts on the power of the pleasant surprise.
* Let me illustrate by an example. Edwin Mullhouse is without a doubt a novel for adults but for some reasons it reminds me of a book I last read around 15 years ago and haven't thought about in who knows how long: Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Edwin and Jeffery's adventures at Franklin Pierce Elementary for some inconceivable reason made me think of this book. There's a sense of gonzo shadows of the reality of being a pre-teen kid in both Edwin Mullhouse and (at least my hazy recollections of) Sideways Stories.
** I would further explain the term, but the passage that it's featured really a linchpin of the actual read and is one of those things that should be encountered in the way the author meant it to be, so I'll refrain. ...more
I've always felt that I missed the day in class where the basics of money are taught. I've always felt that I'm missing some fundamental facts about eI've always felt that I missed the day in class where the basics of money are taught. I've always felt that I'm missing some fundamental facts about economics and finance ever since I was in high school reading the news or a history book. Maybe it's because of the fact that I don't like thinking about money, as evidenced by my history of fluctuations between black and red in my bank account. I've tried to remedy this in various ways, I'll force myself to read the seemingly non-stimulating business articles in The Economist or the The New York Times. I even took an macro-(or micro, I still get the two confused (see?))economics class in college that I didn't need to take. Also, every once in awhile I'll assign myself a homework assignment. Although I'll get the gist of what these things are about, I'd be hard pressed to identify anything that contributed to my fundamental understanding.
Ron Chernow's The House of Morgan is the latest example of my somewhat Quixotic self-improvement efforts. I should say first that the two-star rating is more of a function of my highly subjective reaction to the book than a reflection of the value of the book itself. Chernow is a talented historian, his Hamilton biography is my favorite of the recent glut of "Founding Fathers" reexaminations. I'll acknowledge that my own ignorance is what kept me from enjoying really The House of Morgan. Chernow, doesn't write in a overly technical manner, but there were too many "wait, what?" moments for me during the read. In other subjects too much exposition of basic concepts annoys me, but damn it, I needed hand-holding here.
For most of the book I could ignore any lack of fundamental understanding and let the narrative propel me. The best parts of The House of Morgan were the biographical sketches of the main figures of the Morgan banks, most notably the elder J.P. Morgan. The book also does a great job of showing how the bank was shaped by the times and vice versa. However, it becomes a different book when it shifts to the Post World War II era. This is mostly because Morgans became a radically different bank. The Morgan family mostly left the scene, it became much less personality-driven, and lost a great deal of its influence on world and U.S. politics. With this, the book became much of a financial history and the concepts discussed became harder to understand. While this may appeal to some, I found it very tedious and a chore to read. I don't like to judge a non-fiction book by it's ending, many history books lose steam, especially the one's that end close to the present. But this last section was close to 250 pages, over a third of the book.
Upon finishing, I'm glad I read this. My grasp of finance has been somewhat strengthened, however elementary it remains. Plus, it had been giving me the stink eye sitting on my bookshelf three years after I bought it. However, I can't really recommend more than the first 500 pages unless you're interested in, and have a decent intellectual grasp on, the subject. ...more
Exile on Main St. might not be the greatest album of all time*, but it is, without a doubt the greatest rock 'n' roll album of all time. Note that IExile on Main St. might not be the greatest album of all time*, but it is, without a doubt the greatest rock 'n' roll album of all time. Note that I don't include any qualifier on the preceding sentence limiting it to my opinion. That's because it's an incontrovertible fact. Exile is the Great American Record**, the inevitable culmination of Berry, Charles, Richard, Lewis, ect. ect. Tom Waits put it best when he said that the album was "a tree of life...the watering hole."
I've read about ten of these 33 1/3 books and generally they're quick and entertaining reads that enhances enjoyment of records. The volume on Exile is no exception. Bill Janovitz, of the band Buffalo Tom, isn't a writer, and this both helps and hurts the book. So much of the making of the album is enshrined in legend to aficionados. Exile is one of those albums, perhaps sterling example, where the recording process is almost inseparable from the album itself. The whole, "hey let's take the band and our closest friends, move to a house, do a lot of drugs, and make some incredible music," has been often imitated but never duplicated. When Janovitz covers this it often sounds book reporty.
Where Janovitz really shines is when he starts examining the record song-by-song. I like to read these books while listening to the album, and Janovitz gives an excellent "listening tour" to Exile. He gives you the details of the recordings, who subbed in for Charlie on this track, which parts were overdubbed in L.A., which tracks Gram Parsons allegedly sung harmonies on, ect. But he's studio experience helps you notice things you might have missed after dozens of close listenings. For instance, Janowitz directing me towards Jimmy Miller's piano part on "Ventilator Blues" has forever changed the track for me. Also, I never noticed that Mick drops the C bomb in "Rocks Off."
It's hard to separate the album and the book in determining a rating. In truth the book, using the goodreads star system, is a three star book, but it makes a six star album a seven star one, so it gets a bonus star.
* But then again, it might be.
** Possible disputants: Highway 61, The Basement Tapes,Songs in the Key of Life? Any ideas?
Three Things I Learned About Evelyn Waugh From the Everyman's Library Edition That Contributed to my Reading of Brideshead Revisited.
1. Waugh sought aThree Things I Learned About Evelyn Waugh From the Everyman's Library Edition That Contributed to my Reading of Brideshead Revisited.
1. Waugh sought a three month's leave of absence in the midst of World War II for the specific purpose of writing this book.
He didn't use another excuse. There was fake family or personal emergency. He requested a three monts leave of absence from the English Army in early 1944 for the explicit purpose of writing a novel. And it was granted! I think this may be the most English fact I've ever heard.
You must have a sense of humor to be able to pull this off, and Brideshead is chock full of exhibitions of Waugh's humor. I knew the book was humorous, but I didn't expect the book to be so funny (If that makes sense). There are several passages that had me giggling to myself, a habit I usually try to avoid. Just to give an example, the account of Rex's attempted catechism lessons was have been the funniest thing I've read in a while.
2. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, and was a strict Catholic until his death.
As a lapsed Catholic, I find it somewhat surprising that the the best examination of Catholic guilt I've ever read was written by someone who was converted! Did he not know what he was getting into? The ending makes the Catholic Church, or religion as a whole, the unblemished protagonist of the story, which is a little uninteresting if you ask me. For example, the protagonist, a life-long agnostic, observes this family sacrificing happiness and healthy familial relationships, while torturing themselves for decades, and by the end of the novel he appears to be willing to sign up for the root cause behind it.
Thinking back on it, I really think Waugh was not completely comfortable with his religious beliefs and it shows in this book. Maybe it's my callous, agnostic heart, but the redemption of the characters at the end of the book seemed unbelievable, and somewhat heartbreaking.
3. Waugh's first wife's name was... you guessed it, Evelyn.
This didn't really help me appreciate Brideshead Revisited any more, but hasn't stopped giving me delight. ...more
Cloud Atlas has one of the most beautiful closing pages that I've encountered. In less than two pages, David Mitchell bring great coherence and addedCloud Atlas has one of the most beautiful closing pages that I've encountered. In less than two pages, David Mitchell bring great coherence and added clarity to the themes of his novel. These final paragraphs both moved and surprised me. Overall I would say it's one of the most effective conclusions to a book I can remember. Let me get back to this in a second.
For those who aren't aware, the novel is comprised of six stories, five interrupted one's mirrored by a sixth 'mirror.' The stories are seemingly unrelated, but share common themes and traces of a single over-arching narrative. Taken by themselves, each of the narratives represent a well-crafted, if not particularly mind-blowing, example of genre fiction. But what makes Cloud Atlas unlike anything I've ever read is how the stories are simultaneously both distinct and analogous. Mitchell doesn't merely hop between characters, or location, or time periods. A mid 18th century voyage narrative bookends pulp mystery, corporate dystopia, and more. Mitchell isn't the first person who has used such a framework, but I haven't read any other examples.* Therefore, I can't really say whether it was my inexperience or the work itself that knocked my socks off, but Cloud Atlas really floored me.
Greg's review, which really influenced my reading experience, brings up the interesting question of a book's difficulty and the work expected of the reader. Cloud Atlas isn't a slow or tough read at all. The stories themselves are relatively straightforward. You're not scurrying to a dictionary or Wikipedia to pick up on unmentioned context. But Mitchell doesn't hold your hand, in fact he blindfolds you, spins you around several times, then tells you to go whack the fucking piñata. Greg puts it better by relating how the structure "creates a Escher-like narrative that one can't successfully orientate him or herself into the story. The hole's an author normally leaves open for a reader to peer into the fictional world shift as the stories continue to unfold." It's this disorientation that makes the novel 'difficult.'
This literary Tilt-A-Whirl wouldn’t be effective if Mitchell wasn’t such a talented mimic. I don’t mean that to be derogatory at all. Each story is amazingly unique. Their not unique in terms of work in the same genre As I mentioned above, the individual stories are all enjoyable and well-written, but not particularly mind-blowing or genre defining. What I mean is their uniqueness to the author. For example, if Charles Dickens decided to write a sci-fi novel, I bet it would read like a dystopian novel written by Charles Dickens. Likewise, if Philip K. Dick wrote a Victorian novel about an orphan, I bet it would read like a Victorian novel about an orphan. This goes beyond stylistic calling cards. Even if they write in a new voice and avoid stylistic and thematic giveaways, people tend to write like they write. If I read more of his stuff I may pick up more cues, but David Mitchell is a literary chameleon. The stories are so effective in their imitations of different genres they read like they give the impression that they could be written by six different authors. In fact, I feel like I need to read something else by Mitchell to get an adequate grasp on what I think of him as a writer.
Mitchell consciously creates a sense of disorientation, and still demands two types of reader participation. The first, more conventional type, relates to the structure binding the stories together. Each of the six narratives have a direct relationship to the preceding one. I'll spare spoiling how this is done, but it is definitely thought provoking. Moreover, there are subtle hints allusions to other stories sprinkled throughout the novel. Now that I think of it, it really reminds of the first season of Lost, when it was a cross between Twins Peak and Hitchcock, before it got too metaphysical and sci-fi.**. If you watched back then, remember how the show kept slipping clues into the episodes. For instance, the cursed numbers kept on popping up, or one of the castaways would pop up in the background of another's flashback. In my recollection, this was done very subtly, a viewer may not catch it on the first viewing. These devices create the impression that there was some sort of connection behind the characters and encouraged viewers to thoroughly analyze each episode. Thousands and thousands of words were written examining the smallest details and theorizing on the implications of it all. Mitchell uses the same devices, but even in a more subtle way. I caught several hints and I'm sure I missed many more.
Trying to figure out how the narratives relate to each other in terms of the overall plot is good old-fashioned fun. Mitchell never promises, a precise flow chart detailing what's going on, but that's what makes Cloud Atlas more intellectually engaging than your standard supermarket mystery. You're left to think about answers to "what happened" on your own. This is definitely a book that you want to discuss with someone as soon as you finish.
This leaves the question of why I found the final passage so effective. When you are taught how to give a persuasive speech or write a paper you are taught to use a basic structure:
1. I’m going to tell you that my thesis is true because of supporting arguments A, B, and C. 2. supporting arguments, A, B, and C. 3. I just told you that because of supporting arguments A, B, and C , my thesis is true.
An argument is made more effective by having a wide array of examples. For a crude example, if my thesis is “Bob Dylan is the best songwriter of all time,” my argument would be weakened if all of my supporting arguments were about how great Highway 61 Revisited is. If I mentioned the early protest folk of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the country throwbacks of Nashville Skylines and the mature introspection of Blood on the Tracks, my argument would be strengthened.
This structure is akin to what Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas, except, he doesn’t give you the opening paragraph. He just launches you into the supporting arguments and leaves the reader to figure out exactly what he’s trying to prove. This is the second aspect of reader participation required. A lot of the pleasure in the read is trying to figure out exactly what Mitchell is trying to say. And while you really don't get a flow chart for the interconnections between the plot, the final two pages provide a powerful closing of the thematic interconnections between the stories.
It would be a mistake to consider Cloud Atlas a collection of stories. Like I said before, the stories are very good, but the total is worth more than the sum of the individual parts. It's this that makes Cloud Atlas a cohesive and powerful novel.
*Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is on my wish list.
**For the record, I like some science fiction and stuff that touches on metaphysical questions. But, much how the second Matrix movie was a flawed, but enjoyable movie that was done-in by the terrible third film, my opinion of the last several seasons of Lost fell after the final season, which I view as a failure. ...more
Legacy of Ashes greatest successes and greatest faults are both attributable to its author, Tim Weiner. Weiner is an incredible journalist. Legacy ofLegacy of Ashes greatest successes and greatest faults are both attributable to its author, Tim Weiner. Weiner is an incredible journalist. Legacy of Ashes is extremely well-researched, you can really tell that Weiner has spent the better part of a lifetime covering the events and the people covered in the book. I would argue that this is the kind of book that requires at least 20 years of familiarity with the subject. Weiner provides an adequate survey of the history of the CIA, covering the major events and how they impacted the agency and the United States as a whole.
However, I can't help felling that the book is also a bit too cursory. Brian really hit the nail on the head by saying that the subject really demands a multi-volume Robert Caro like approach. I mean, it's hard to compare somebody to Caro (I think the LBJ series is probably the best example of historical storytelling I've ever read). But there are writers who provide a certain something that is missing here. It's pretty apparent that Weiner doesn't have that something. And it's kind of hard to fault him for that. I mean, I can only think of a handful of people who do. Like I said, the main is a terrific journalist, but his limitations as a writer probably put something on the Caro or Halberstam level out of his range. Even considering this, sometimes you feel that a certain subject is too briefly skimmed or inadequately introduced.
That being said, I can readily recommend the book for what it is, a entertaining and thought-provoking survey of the CIA. I finished the book with a better understanding of how intelligence works, and our sixty year experiment with it. It could have been much more, but it's easily the best thing out there. A couple quick notes:
1. Reading the book really makes a lot of television and movie depictions of the CIA as this vast, all-powerful monolith look completely absurd. The CIA Weiner depicts is a politicized institution with a long history of incompetence and failure. There is a fundamental misunderstanding between the American people and their intelligence agency. I remember thinking after September 11 that the nation's intelligence was going to be unleashed like the Omega Force in Canadian Bacon. Television, movies, and the agency's own propaganda has convinced a lot of people, including congressmen and presidents, that the agency can be an all-seeing, all-knowing source of information.
2. One of the thing Weiner does do well is expose the CIA's utter inability to think of the future when planning operations. It seems all covert operations, and American foreign policy as a whole, for the past sixty-plus years has been shaped by the "urgency of now," to quote Billy Corgen. Weiner demonstrates how every single problem we have faced has either been exacerbated or directly caused by the failure to think about how our actions would effect the future. I mean, this isn't something like the environment, where we're fucking our children or grandchildren. These guys weren't thinking of, or completely misunderstanding, the possible ramifications of something five or ten years away.
3. In the end, I can't decide if Weiner is being too harsh on the agency or not harsh enough. According to the book, the CIA has failed in pretty much every goal set up for the agency. Most of the foreign agents are volunteers rather than recruits, and the agency usually gets them killed off quickly. It's also failed to anticipate most major world events. This is in addition to repeatedly breaking the laws of the US, lying to Congress and the President, and supporting a pretty much every tyrant, dictator, or all around douche-bag who was willing to say bad things about communism. On the plus side, they saw the Seven Days War coming... and not a whole lot else. Either some other positive achievements are being left out or Weiner is doing a great job of remaining levelheaded and fair, I don't know. ...more
The news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize prompted me to move this book a couple spots up my queue and go ahead and check it out from the lThe news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize prompted me to move this book a couple spots up my queue and go ahead and check it out from the library instead of waiting to when I can afford to buy a copy.
A New York Times article quoted and linked to an essay Vargas Llosa wrote for the NYT review of books in 1984 entitled "Is Fiction the Art of Living?"This piece by itself convinced me that I will love The Feast of the Goat and, in all likelihood, eventually have to read everything that Vargas Llosa has committed to page. The essay, which concerns the nature of truth in fiction, gives the most beautiful and skilled vindication of literature I've ever encountered:
When we read novels, we aren’t only who we are but, in addition, we are the bewitched beings into whose midst the novelist transfers us. The transfer is a metamorphosis – the asphyxiating constriction of our lives opens up and we sally fort to be others, to have vicarious experiences which fiction converts into our own. A wondrous, dream, a fantasy incarnate, fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand. The gap between real life and the desires and fantasies demanding that it be richer and more varied is the realm of fiction.
The entire essay is mind-blowingly good and contains a handful of quotes that deserve to be singled out. I highly recommend giving it a read. ...more
I may be generalizing, but there seem to be two contrasting opinions of Updike's Rabbit Run on this site. I'm not denigrating either, this was one ofI may be generalizing, but there seem to be two contrasting opinions of Updike's Rabbit Run on this site. I'm not denigrating either, this was one of the somewhat rare cases where I enjoyed reading the reviews of both those who loved and those who hated the book. But the general discussion tends to reflect one of these arguments:
1. Rabbit is a dick, thus the book sucks.
2. Rabbit is a dick, thus the book is great.
I probably side with the later argument. It would be easy to criticize those who argue the former by accusing them of not being sophisticated enough to be able to handle a protagonist who isn't the epitome of virtue. However, I don't this this is the case, at least for many of the book's detractors, and that making the case not only underestimates the naysayers, but diminishes the accomplishment of Updike.
Rabbit does not fit any of the traditional archetypes for protagonists. He is not the traditional hero or anti-hero. He is not a stand-in for Updike or a parody of other figures. He is not the sinner on a quest for redemption or the doubter in search of life's meaning. He is a selfish, ignorant, man-child who hasn't accepted that high school ended nearly a decade ago. Yet Updike uses these archetypes to string the reader along. Rabbit is a sympathetic character. Updike takes care to sell Rabbit as a sympathetic character. He shows flashes of insight and sincerity and Updike hints at the possibility of redemption.
The thread of the narrative follows a familiar path and then.... WHAM! If I had to guess, this sentence lowers a lot to two and three star reviews to one star. It's one of the most jarring sentences in literature. And it's what makes the novel great. Rabbit may be one of the most despised characters in literature. I think this is the case because we see so much of us in him. Who hasn't wished that they could flush all of their responsibilities and run? Who doesn't wish that they could better adhere to their impulses? Rabbit's crimes are not flagrant but very base. His actions transgress an essential part of what a man should do.
My favorite parts of the novel are when Updike leaves Rabbit's voice. The section where we spend a day with Janice is brilliant, it would work as a short story. It's been said before, but Updike is a tremendously compassionate writer. He has the skill to ping pong you between different perspectives giving an understanding of motivation. He is also a master of voice. When Updike shifts voice it feels different and almost every character demands a novel of their.
So, yeah, Rabbit's Run is great. So, why 3 stars? I sometimes have a hard time making a distinction between my personal reaction and my critical opinion. For instance, 2001 is a great movie, but not one I really enjoyed watching. On the other hand, Clear and Present Danger is hardly a masterpiece, but every time I stumble on it on USA or A&E my next couple of hours are occupied. But it's 2001 that I find myself thinking about which I can't say about Clear and Present Danger. I recently read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and while it was a really great read, I'm not sure how it works as a successful novel. Rabbit Runs is an important work, a great fucking book, but not the most entertaining or engaging read I've had. Let's simplify it this way: