At the very end of his long and thorough work, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam comments that "the trap was set long before anyone realize...moreAt the very end of his long and thorough work, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam comments that "the trap was set long before anyone realized it was a trap." This phrase adequately summarizes the main theme of the work. This book isn't designed to give you an understanding of the war in Vietnam. Instead, its an account of extremely decent, brilliant, and well-qualified men slipped into a trap, and how their struggles to break free of this trap only got them more firmly stuck.
My only other experience with Halberstam is with his sports writing, specifically his masterful Breaks of the Game, an account of a season Halberstam spent with the Portland Trailblazers in the late 1970s. Breaks of the Game, and other books that focus on a sports individuals, tend to follow a similar structure: the author uses the built-in narrative of a season to profile specific individuals. This allows a talented writer to expand his range of topics. For example, although Breaks is ostensibly about the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazer's season, it also works as a thought-provoking analysis of the NBA in the '70s.
Halberstam uses a similar structure in The Best and the Brightest. As the reader follows the decision making concerning Southeast Asia throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administration Halberstam parses out in depth profiles of the major players. However, Halberstam is truly a master of digression, and he doesn't limit himself to profiles.
The book isn't so much about the men who made the decisions, as its about the thinking behind the decisions itself. The trap Halberstam describes is not the situation in Vietnam, but a system of thought, influenced by World War II and the early years of the Cold War. Vietnam was merely the locale where the inherent fallacy of American policy was exposed. According to Halberstam, we didn't get stuck in Vietnam when we sent in combat troops, or we started bombing North Vietnam, or when we deposed Diem. Instead, as Halberstram illustrates, the seeds of tragedy were planted when China went Communist in 1949. Truman was blamed with losing China, as if it was ever ours. The outrage gave ammunition to Joe McCarthy and helped launch his career. Asian experts in the state department, who were generally only guilty of being accurate, were forced from their career. France's troubles in Indochina, which were previously viewed as a revolutionary struggle against colonialism, were cast as part of the free world's struggles against the red threat. Halberstam details how the consequences of this system of thought all contributed to, and in a certain way led inevitably toward the eventual tragedy.
A conclusion one could draw from the book is that it didn't necessarily matter who made the decisions, what dictated the outcome was the conventional thought of the period. However, the book's other theme is the effect of the political establishment on the decision-making process. By giving rich and illuminating profiles of the individuals behind the decisions Halberstam paints a portrait of the American political establishment. The reader is given a real sense of the characters of the men in power and their motives. If the The Best and the Brightest works best as a tragedy, it is not lacking in tragic characters.*
Halberstam is a really great writer, probably one of the best writers of nonfiction I've ever read. His prose can be lyrical, or straight forward when he needs it to be. His has a firm grasp on the players and the events and acts as a excellent guide. I never got bogged down in details and the book remained a joy to read throughout.
I first picked up The Best and the Brightest looking for a better understanding of the war in Vietnam and I really didn't get that. However, I did get an account of how the United States' found itself committed the biggest policy blunder in its history. Men who should have known better, the best and the brightest we had to offer, patently refused to consider unconventional thought, and displayed a startling ignorance of history.**
*I really admired the way Halberstam wrote of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara.
**Good thing we learned our lesson. Oh, wait.(less)
The first time I read this book it was for a class called the Novel that I took when I was a Junior in high school. It blew my mind, I had never read...moreThe first time I read this book it was for a class called the Novel that I took when I was a Junior in high school. It blew my mind, I had never read a novel that was so consistently funny and Heller's commentary on the incompetence of authority fit into my burgeoning political awakening and my experience with authority, meaning public school administrators, up to that point. I flew through the first couple hundred pages. I remember getting a little tired of the tone toward the end, but it immediately became one of my favorite novels of all time. There were others in the class, people whose opinions I respected, people who signed up for a class called the Novel, who hated it and couldn't get past 100 pages. This befuddled me, I could not see how people could dislike the book.
My overall opinion hasn't changed much but some details did. I can now understand why some people hate the book. The first 200 pages of the book is much more a series of interconnected short stories than the latter 250 pages. Some of these kind of tested my limits. Maybe it was my state of mind, but I especially hated the Major Major chapter and the first chapter dealing with the chaplain's assistant. The whole Washington Irving / Irving Washington subplot didn't do a ton for me. Also some of the dialogue sections started to resemble another too close for my liking. However, there was still parts that I loved. I don't have the book in front of me right now, but off the top of my head, the Clevinger interrogation was a particular highlight. After the first 200 pages, things start coming together. Heller's main themes start to coalesce, and you start actually feeling for the minor characters. The sense of the absurd is never lost, but Heller crafts some set pieces that are heartbreaking and beautiful. The narrative jumps around in time at the beginning, and there are references to things that are not explained. However, this structure pays off.
When I think back to my first read, the main things I remembered was the tone and the themes of the novel. This reading gave me a new appreciation for the structure of the story. Yossarian remains is a cynic at the beginning of the novel, but there is character development. And the ending, I completely forgot about the ending which might be one of my favorite endings in literature.
Catch-22 has earned its place in the American cannon, and deserves a read just for its profound influence, not only on American lit, but on American humor. Yeah, sometimes it's monotonous or exacerbating, but it rewards the reader. Heller puts the reader into his character's mind where you begin to think like Yossarian thinks. Although the novels are very different, the reading experience reminded me of Crime and Punishment.
After the reread, Catch-22 remains in my pantheon. This book blew my mind when I was 17, and I realized how much it influenced me. No matter how many details you forget, this novel sticks in your psyche. Yossarain Lives!(less)
From my fall 2001 to roughly sometime late last summer, this was the best book ever. Then a specific reading experience starting convincing that every...moreFrom my fall 2001 to roughly sometime late last summer, this was the best book ever. Then a specific reading experience starting convincing that everything I knew about reading fiction was wrong.* Aside from the sincerity of the before mentioned belief, the way people interpret things changes with where the persons life is at that particular moment.** I mean, my 25 year old self would undoubtedly have a different reaction than my 16 year old self. And here's the thing, even when I went on my half-decade semi-hiatus from reading fiction, All the Kings Men was one of the ones that I told myself I needed to get around to rereading. I kept it wherever I happened to be living, planning on getting to it sooner or later. So I figured why not give it another go.
After doing so, I gotta say,All the Kings Men is fucking awesome. The plot's engaging, the characters are (for the most part) life-like, and the writing is exceptionally beautiful.*** What surprised me was how little I really remembered. I remembered the broad plot outlines, and a few of the themes, but the reread was remarkably fresh.
I'm trying to remember what initially sucked me into the book as a high-schooler. I read it around the time of my political awakening, so I think it was the plot surrounding Willy Stark. Stark is a very interesting character, one who is unlike the stereotypes found in political novels. It would have been easy for Warren to write of the stereotypical small town idealistic dreamer who slowly gets corrupted by power, but this isn't an accurate description of Stark. Warren's Stark was either never corrupt or never poor. He's a pragmatist who is aware, and comfortable with, the underbelly of governing. The forward of my edition points out the novel's influnece on Primary Colors, which was semi-based on the 1992 Clinton campaign for the Democratic nomination. Upon reflection, one could not be blamed by finding as many similarites between the two Willy's, Stark and Clinton, as between Stark and Warren's actual inspiration, Huey Long. Clinton might be the most effective modern politician since Roosevelt, for the same reasons that made Stark a success.
Anyways, I loved the book in high school for the tragedy of Willie Stark. This was the part that I was most familiar with upon revisiting the novel. I remember being annoyed with the a lot of the sections that left Stark completely, What I was missing is the heart of the novel, the story of the narrator, Jack Burden. This is where the novel is elevated over political pulp, like Primary Colors. This is why the novel still is one of my favorite of all time.
In truth, All the Kings Men is hardly a political novel at all. If the novel was reduced to the bare structure of the tragedy of Willie Stark it would be about half as long. What the novel is, is an exploration of sin, guilt, and the burden of the past. There are chapters of brilliance, page after page of exquisite prose, breathtaking examinations of the human condition. I can't adequately describe how good some parts of this novel are. Over the past couple of days, I've picked the book up and reread highlighted passages, and my heart grows ten sizes.
I find my initial plot-based admiration somewhat misplaced. Toward the end of the novel some elements turn somewhat soap-opera-ish. The climax of the novel is weakened by a gaping plot hole.**** But the novel isn't a political thriller, its a meditation on sin and guilt, its a parable about the past's effect on the present, its a a contemplation of ends vs. means, and it's reaffirmed its place as one of my favorite novels of all time.
* Bleh. I hate the idea of single transformative, quasi-religious, reading experiences. I guess I believe in them, but I'm kinda embarrassed by them. Call me an ashamed disciple of the power of a single work of literature. Strangely, I don't feel the same way about music, even though a) I can't pinpoint a single instant of a song changing the way I thought about music, and b) Natalie Portman almost sorta ruined the concept in Garden State.
** No shit Sherlock.
*** Robert Penn Warren was the first American Poet-Laurette. I mention this because my sister used the book for AP English the year after I did. She was struggling with some of the terms introduced, so she would bracket passages and scrawl "lyrical" or "syntax" in the margins. She could have really bracketed the entire book.
**** MAJOR SPOILER ahead. If you don't want to be spoiled do not read the next paragraph. I would say that this would not ruin the reading experience, because this novel is better than it's basic plot, but if you care consider yourself warned. What follows is a MAJOR SPOILER.
I call bullshit on Adam Stanton's motivations for shooting Stark. I realize the guy's worldview had been recently rocked, and he would have been upset about his sister's affair. And I know these were different times. But look, I have a little sister too, but Stark's discretions called for, at most, a punch in the face. It would be different if Adam was maladjusted, or violent. But throughout the novel he's shone to be an admirable, benevolent character.And even if I can accept that the truth about Anne and Stark sent Adam off the deep end, I can't buy that the people who leaked the information to him knew that it would make him kill Stark. Yet this is how it is portrayed in the novel. The conspirators accept that this information would have the same effect on Adam as Frankie Goes to Hollywood has on Zoolander. Like I said, the book is more than its plot, and Adam's actions and motivations were necessary for Warren's ending, which is satisfying, but this bugged the shit out of me.
In 2003, I asked for Pet Sounds for Christmas. That was the year Rolling Stone issued there list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and Pet Sound...moreIn 2003, I asked for Pet Sounds for Christmas. That was the year Rolling Stone issued there list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and Pet Sounds was ranked second behind Sgt. Peppers. At that point I was aware that the Beach Boys were more than a pop band who sang about cars, surfing, and girls. I'd heard "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B" before. I'm pretty sure "God Only Knows" was already on my pantheon of favorite pop songs.Anyways, I remember listening it to the first time and being somewhat underwhelmed. I expected every song to be "God Only Knows" which is entirely ridiculous. Although, I was underwhelmed, I can't say that I was disappointed. Because even on the first listen the album moved me in a way that art doesn't often do. My reaction to the album, to borrow from Bolaño, was viscerally real. I've listened to the album dozens and dozens of times (always in whole, in one sitting), and I've come to greatly appreciate the beauty of each song, but where I can adequately explain why I love Abbey Road or OK Computer any attempt to explain my love for Pet Sounds will undoubtedly fall short of sufficient. There are other examples. I will never be able to completely explain why I get chills every time I watch Prince's guitar solo on this video. Nor will I be able to fully fathom why the La Marseilles scene from Casablanca gets me choked up every time I see it. I think this is because there's something more than my rational judgment that is involved in each encounter. It's like something, call it my gut, or heart, or soul, or left big toe, is alerting my conscience that whatever this is, it's special.
There's something mythical about the way Rushdie writes. His writing is very modern, but there's still a sense of age to it. Throughout the novel I so...moreThere's something mythical about the way Rushdie writes. His writing is very modern, but there's still a sense of age to it. Throughout the novel I somewhat unprecedented sensation. I can't adequately put this sensation into words. There's something in the way he tells his story that reminded me of the stories of Greek mythology, or the tales of King Arthur. Perhaps it's in the way he tells his story. Rushdie simply owns the story he is telling. Rushdie writes Midnight's Children like he is retelling a story that has always existed, which in a way he is. I may be off base, let me just say that the experience of reading this book is viscerally unique.
Novels, as with any kind of art, can generate different methods of appreciation. There are books that you don't fully appreciate until the closing pages where the author brings everything together. There are albums that don't reveal themselves until you listen to it several times. There are films that don't fully crystalize until you spend some time thinking about them. For me, Midnight's Children is one of those rare works where you are engrossed and amazed from the beginning. The reader is conscious that they are encountering something special throughout the course of the novel.
One of the that makes Midnight's Children special is that it doesn't work solely as a work of literature, it could be read as a work of history.*. Rushdie writes history in a way that people haven't written history in quite some time. Midnight's Children works as a history in the way that the Old Testament, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and epic poems work as history. I've read that Biblical era societies had different historical traditions than we do today. They didn't necessarily aim for complete accuracy when writing history. They felt that the overall "moral" that they were trying to impart was more important than sticking to the events exactly as they occurred. The broad course of events usually weren't tampered with, but the details of specific incidents and conversations weren't necessarily preserved untampered.** This was mainly referring to works that were preserved by a storytelling tradition for a while before they were written down. I believe Rushdie created a modern recreation of these storytelling traditions. So, unlike in other works of historical fiction, it really doesn't matter when Saleem Sinai, narrator and protagonist, mixes up dates and events. This is history, but history told in a story telling tradition.
Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's narrator and protagonist, warns us repeatedly, "to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world." I would say this is accomplished. I can't think of another novel that gives a better sense of a place. South Asia isn't just a setting, it's a main character. He accomplishes this intellectually through his prose and descriptions, but also, I repeat myself, viscerally. Again, I may be missing my mark, but it seems where other authors write a novel that is about a country, Rushdie aims to write a novel that is India.***
However bountiful I've been in my praise, Midnight's Children isn't perfect, and it probably isn't for everybody. However, I would say that it's definitely one of those novels you should at least give a shot at if you're interested in literature. There are many things to praise in the novel. Rushdie writes beautifully, he brings locations, especially Bombay, to life, and most readers will learn a great deal about South Asian culture and history. The storytelling is what stays with me most. Rushdie writes a distinctly modern book that feels at the same time harkens back to our earliest storytelling traditions. Midnight's Children is about a specific place in a certain time, but is simultaneously timeless.
*This seems like a good place for my daily benediction to Wikipedia. It was really helpful to read articles on Indian history before the appropriate sections of the novel. It isn't necessarily essential to, Rushdie does a decent job of filling ignorant readers in on the events, but an idea of modern Indian-Pakistani history, however rudimentary, helps you better appreciate the life of Saleem. Also, there are several little jokes and asides throughout the novel that you may not catch if you don't have some understanding of specific events.
** The general rule, according to people who know more than I do argue, is the greater the separation between the time of the actual event and it's reduction to written, the less reliable it is as a record of actual events. This makes sense in a society with a respect for perserving history as it happened, so where there is inclination to embellish you have to be particularly on your toes.
***I am not claiming to be an expert, or even adequately knowledgeable, about South Asia. Rushdie's world might seem utterly alien to those who know more than me. (less)
One of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as...moreOne of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as a villain of history. Yet I think all of us fall into the trap of thinking of the past in moralistic terms sometimes. This is a function of generations of storytelling and cultural indoctrination. There are facts that we don't ever necessarily learn, or at least can remember learning, that we don't pause to consider.
My favorite thing about Wolf Hall is how it turns previous conception of a much discussed period of history on its head, while maintaining complete plausibility. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I always thought of Thomas More as a great man of learning and advocate of free speech, while Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless, unprincipled yes-man. Mantel effectively exploits facts to make you completely reverse your feelings about the two characters. In truth, More was a religious fundamentalist, the man tortured and executed people who strayed from the Church's dogmatic beliefs, hardly a free speech advocate. Cromwell's rise to power would be inspiring if it occurred today, all the more so that he did it almost 500 years ago. Mantel almost does too good of a job of making Cromwell likable, but you are completely ready to buy it. I didn't realize this until I watched the film A Man For All Seasons and found myself becoming upset with its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. I think this is Mantel's greatest accomplishment, she reverses 500 years of preconceived notions.
The book isn't a necessarily easy read. Mantel throws you into the world and she doesn't give you a ton of exposition or remind you who characters are and how they relate to each other. I frequently had to consult the character list and the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book for a reminder. One night, I stayed up until 4 reading the wikipedia entry on the War of the Roses to refresh myself on that subject. (I actually highly recommend potential readers doing this. Mantel frequently references the events and it also gives you good context of why the production of a legitimate male heir was deemed such an immediate necessity.)
The title Wolf Hall is taken from the estate of the Seymour family, minor characters in the novel. But the title accentuates what I would consider the theme of the novel, which Cromwell repeats to himself several times over the course. Homono homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Mantel's Cromwell is presented as a precursor to the modern politician. This is a hazardous occupation in a time where political missteps had much graver consequences than potential resignation accompanied by a lobbying gig as a fall back plan. In this way Wolf Hall could be labelled a political thriller. One of the thrills in the novel is how Cromwell manges to, excuse the bad joke, keep his head on his shoulders. Watch Cromwell survive the political crushing of his patron and political mentor. See him hazard the stormy rapids that was the Boleyn family. Marvel as he clashes wits with the great Thomas More.
What makes this even more effective is the novel is very well written. Mantel does a great job inhabiting familiar characters and making them come to life. Unlike other fictional works that have dealt with the same period, none of the characters are cliched or one dimensional. Her Henry VIII is my favorite depiction of the much depicted monarch since Robert Shaw's. Here, he is temperamental and often child-like, but also as intelligent and goodhearted. And as a rule, any confrontation with the Boleyn sisters will likely be very entertaining. As it was for Henry, though in a rather different way.
The plot tends to revolve heavily around such such confrontations. There will be plot movement, but most of the time it sets the scene for another meeting between Thomas and Anne, or Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas More, or the Earl of Norfolk. Nevertheless, my favorite chapter of the book was one of the first, "An Occult History of England." This chapter is mostly exposition, but it works brilliantly as a kind of "how we got here."Combining politics, history, and legend, it reads like something Rushdie could have written.
I enjoyed Wolf Hall much more than I expected to. Although I know how the story ends for all the characters, the novel kept me entertained until the end. Now that I think about it, the novel really reminds me of Robert Caro's first two LBJ biographies which detailed Johnson's rise to power. While they don't retell the traditional hero's journey, a non-mythical path to power can be more worthwhile and just as entertaining epic.(less)
My first experience with Mr. Dick, besides seeing adaptations of his movies of course, was one that made me want to come back for more. Nothing earth...moreMy first experience with Mr. Dick, besides seeing adaptations of his movies of course, was one that made me want to come back for more. Nothing earth shattering stylistic-wise, but his concepts are so ingenious that five stars is justified. For example, the way he treats time travel as a form of regression, or unique perspective of a form of life after death. I read a couple of short plot previews before I read the book, and they all failed. Perhaps this is because previewing the plot in a couple of paragraphs isn't possible or even desirable. As you read the book you feel like you figure out what the book is about but then the plot veers. The novel could be justifiably labeled as science fiction, dystopian, mystery, corporate-espionage, horror story that ruminates on the nature of death, the truth of reality, and dangers of capitalism. The novel is suspenseful, imaginative, and very funny. I never considered myself a huge fan of literary science fiction. For instance, I was very underwhelmed by Dune and was never able to get past the first The Lord of the Rings. However, I may have to reevaluate my tastes because in the recent months I've really enjoyed this novel as well as Snow Crash. Ubik is not going to change the way anybody thinks about the world. Dick's prose isn't as memorable as say Vonnegut's, but at the same time he is not a sloppy writer. I would say his style is very efficient, he touches on a wide array of topics and tells a multilayered story in 200 pages where other writers would waste space. I found Ubik highly entertaining and suspenseful story that makes you think. (less)
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...moreWow....
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. (less)
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 re...moreA 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. (less)
First off, let me say I saw the film first. I can't really recommend doing so or not doing so because some of the times I was glad I did and some of...more First off, let me say I saw the film first. I can't really recommend doing so or not doing so because some of the times I was glad I did and some of the times I wish I had not. The movie adaptation is very true to the source, and while there are new scenes and minor differences, I was fully aware of all the turns McEwan takes. However, it was still a tremendous read that I flew through in a couple of days. Knowing the plot twists, and the ultimate trick McEwan plays on the reader freed me to fully realize the small things, like the beautiful prose and McEwan's skill at taking the perspective of a multitude of characters. There are also subtle hints that McEwan drops throughout the text that might not have been caught until a second reading. So, I recommend you read the book, regardless of if you've seen the movie. However, the story is best experienced as a book. While it's not rare to see several different stories in a novel, McEwan combines several different novels into a single story. I am hardly the first to point this out, but the four different parts of the novel could function as four different novellas or short stories. However, the voice is consistent. McEwan's characters grow and undergo life altering events, but McEwan's viewpoints remain consistent. You can still hear the 13 year old girl in the voice of the 77 year old novelist. For me, the best part of the novel (and the film) was the Dunkirk section. The evacuation of Dunkirk is always taught as the Allied Forces' triumph, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was. However, the tragedy of the event is rarely focused on. A scant twenty years after the War to End All Wars, the war that wiped out a generation of young Europeans, Europe was going to war again. A year later, the Allied forces were being steamrolled by the German Blitz, and it seemed like all that sacrifice had gone to waste. Atonement more than any other work, fiction or non, describes the disaster, and the sense of inevitable doom in the retreat. It's also some of the best description of the mind at war that I've read. I finished reading Roth's American Pastoral about a week ago and and I find the works oddly similar. Atonement and American Pastora are meditations on perception, memory, misunderstanding, grief, and history, both personal and in the long run. They deal with the loss of the idea, the cruelty of history, and the destruction of the family. Both feature protagonists who are haunted with regret and grow old trying to deal with previous tragedy. Both works show that the past cannot be tamed or denied.(less)
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 added...moreCloud 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. (less)
"By no means the least of the consolations now available to the unbeliever, and to those who live outside the lines of conventional virtue, is the tho...more"By no means the least of the consolations now available to the unbeliever, and to those who live outside the lines of conventional virtue, is the thought that if we turn out to be mistaken in our Cartesian wagers, and find ourselves in the long, long chute to a smoke-and-brimstone filled afterlife, Christopher will be there at the bottom to welcome us with a drink and, why not, a cigarette."
In honor of Michelle Bachman accidentally comparing herself to John Wayne Gacy I thought I'd post a quick review. I read this last January and since t...moreIn honor of Michelle Bachman accidentally comparing herself to John Wayne Gacy I thought I'd post a quick review. I read this last January and since then I can't count how many times I've seen the news or heard snippets of conversation and thought to myself, "Jesus Christ, this reminds me of the Perlstein book." The 1964 election seems somewhat non-consequential in retrospect. History buffs might be able to think of the Daisy ad and Goldwater's "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue " line at the GOP convention. But in the end, Johnson crushed Goldwater. Johnson won over 61% of the vote, the highest since 1820 and one that has yet to be matched.
However, Perlstein persuasively makes the case that the '64 election meant a lot more than voting results would suggest. 1964 is arguably the birth of the modern GOP. This election is where the Southern and Western conservatives finally were able to choose a candidate of their own as opposed to one imposed on them by Northeastern businessmen. This is where the GOP transitioned from the Eisenhower/Taft/Dewey Era to something resembling the modern party. For the first time since Reconstruction the Republican party won the Cotton Belt. This election set pieces in moving that would dominate the party for the next generation. As well as featuring the political resurrection of Richard M. Nixon the election of '64 witnessed the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a national figure on the right.
The election is intriguing for more reasons than as an augur of the future. Barry Goldwater was a new kind of candidate. He was not the establishment's man. Indeed, the Republican establishment desperately sought a possible anti-Goldwater. What enable Goldwater to prevail* was a strong, structured, and well-funded organization. This backing extended beyond traditional power brokers into something akin to grass root support. At the heart of this grass root support was the John Birch Society. This is were similarities with contemporary events really jumps out at you. If you're not familiar with the Birchers, they were a group of rabid anti-Communists who were convinced that the mainstream media and establishment were card carrying Pinkos. They weren't satisfied calling Kennedy, Marshall, and Truman commies, they were convinced Eisenhower was red. Perlstein's writing on the Birchers is perhaps the most entertaining and insightful writing in this book.
*In addition to other potential candidate's hesitation to run and Nelson Rockefeller's public divorce.
Before the Storm is a well titled book. In more ways than one, 1964 is a transition point in American history. The major mid-century cultural and historical trajectories all had some sort of turning point in '64. The year witnessed the passage of the CIvil Rights Act, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and much more. Perlstein is a talented historian, and he is just as natural describing political gamesmanship as he is describing the cultural impact of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
Perlstein subtitles this book "this unmaking of the American Consensus." Of course partisanship has been a part of the American political tradition since before there was a United States. But the storm that, according to Perlstein, was on the horizon after November 1964 was a growing sense that the other half of the political spectrum were out to destroy everything that was truly remarkable about America. The other side became transformed from an adversary to an enemy.**
** This trend wasn't unprecedented, just that the last time it was so prevalent we ended up in a civil war.
Nixonland, Perlstein's most recent book, is another fantastic book. In it, Perlstein gives an account of the cultural wars of the latter half of the sixties and early seventies, and makes the argument that much of the acrimony surrounding these battles was the personal creation of Richard M. Nixon. Perlstein argues, and presents a convincing case, that we are still living in Richard Nixon's America. However, I think Before the Storm might be the more relevant work. Nixonland explains the past fifty years, but through some twist of history, Before the Storm seems to often explain the present.