**spoiler alert** I told a couple of people that I just read a great book about World War I. When asked, "What was so great about it?" I answered, "Be...more**spoiler alert** I told a couple of people that I just read a great book about World War I. When asked, "What was so great about it?" I answered, "Because it ends with this amazing passage from Mein Kampf."
Both people's reaction: "That's horrible. Why, exactly, is that good?"
People who don't have a great bead on the political significance of World War I do not automatically equate it with the beginning of what Robert McNamara called the wholesale slaughter of the twentieth century. The Beauty and the Sorrow is not the best book for someone lacking familiarity with the subject.
But for those who have read a little about World War I (or the political developments of 1914-1919), Peter Englund has delivered a treasure.
A social history, The Beauty and the Sorrow follows a handful of unrelated lives from start to end of the war. The lives do not intersect. The lives are a broad sample, but not just from a sociological standpoint. Psychologically, Englund discovered the tangible differences between a British citizen's way of looking at things from that of, say, a Russian's. Or an Italian's... or a Hungarian's... or a Latin American's... and so on.
There's not a single trace of gimmick in the approach. "Uncanny" would be the wrong word, but "canny" would not be the right one. I lack the skill to describe exactly what Englund accomplished. It's hard to imagine anyone doing this good of a job with a subject as well-covered as World War I. Amazing. (less)
I finished a book last night (not Chronic City; I read that last month). Upon putting the finished book on the nightstand, I started talking. It was l...moreI finished a book last night (not Chronic City; I read that last month). Upon putting the finished book on the nightstand, I started talking. It was like a levee had broken. I probably hadn't said anything for several hours. For all I know, I probably hadn't said a whole lot in a couple of days. Obviously, reading is a solitary activity, one that sequesters the reader inside his or her own head. I didn't realize that it also constituted a communications fast, if taken too far.
Once I started talking, my wife told me she was glad I was through with the book I had just read. She said I have read several books recently that rendered me emotionally inaccessible. She cited An American Tragedy and Native Son and Chronic City as examples.
American Tragedy and Native Son are decidedly downbeat experiences. Pathos isn't the purpose, but it is the author's stock-in-trade for those particular books. But Chronic City is decidedly different. It seems to be meant to initiate a chain reaction of questioning from the reader. If any book breaks the sequestration of introspection, this should be it. Lethem calls us all out as being sleepwalkers, hypnotized by our own notions of reality and mores, and challenges us to wake up and realize how artificial our worlds are.
Maybe this isn't the height of encouragement, but it didn't make me feel sad. I wasn't aware that, as I was being guided by Lethem's reasoning, I was moving about as on a spaceship. I thought I was awakened to sensuality, that I was more (not less) engaged for the thrill I was having reading Chronic City.
(I should pause here to say what a lot of people have said about Chronic City. The play on the allegory of the cave or The Matrix or any variation in between that suggests our view of life is laughably incomplete isn't new. Nor is it ingenious to contemporary man. The suggestion that reality could be a terrarium or a genius' dream didn't blow my mind. The subject is so common place, that a novel dealing with the scenario is as ubiquitous harlequin romance or sexy vampires.)
But Jonathan Lethem is an uncommonly provocative author. Despite his preference for working with scenarios possibly designed to deter readers, he can do more with the written word than much more highly acclaimed writers. Reading Jonathan Lethem produces a palpable, electric excitement. Particularly when he starts riffing on counter culture, he makes you want to consume as much cultural product as possible - hell, even more than possible; he makes you want to cut new openings into your body to pour music and film and art into.
I recall one particular morning following an apocalyptic night of binge drinking. Something had snapped in my brain. It wasn't good or bad (unfortunately, it was temporary). I stood staring at my record collection and wished I could hear all of it at one time, one solid intravenous infusion of sound. Driving to work, I listened to a few seconds of every song on the CD in the stereo; the windows were down and I enjoyed everything about the world from the shock of the cold air to the glare of the sun to the quake in my stomach and ache behind my eyes. I understood consciousness and the sun to be evil at that moment, but loved them both for reasons I felt rather than understood. When I got to work, I was insufferable - launching from esoteric topic to esoteric topic like I was under the influence of something harder than a spontaneous epiphany.
I felt the same experience reading Chronic City. I imagined myself as animated - even manic - as that weird hangover morning. I thought the hysterics in which I tried to explain basic sensations would drive my wife crazy. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was the opposite. All the fireworks were taking place in my head. My sudden joie de vivre was as invisible to others as Perkus Tooth's hallucinations were to anyone outside his apartment.
I suppose both I and my wife are wrong in our own way about my behavior those few days. Like Rashomon, memory is only as perfect as the person remembering. Another way of putting it is that of Escher's stair climbers. In our ambulations, people tend to inhabit the same physical space. A simple shift, however, can tilt any given person onto a subtle - but different - axis. The stair climbers - for all we know - flip back and forth among available axes. At times, even, all may find themselves on the same plane. But at other times they are on different ones altogether, possibly without knowing it.
I should point out that there were a lot of external stressors happening at the same time I was engrossed in Chronic City. As far as I can tell, it momentarily flipped my axis. This is the only way of explaining why I thought I was giddy with enthusiasm and my wife thought I was morose in a cess pool.
Who can say whether the unnamed external stressors or Jonathan Lethem flipped the axes? Who can say whether the phenomenon can be repeated? Who's to say whether I actually perceive something real or if my melodrama has gotten away from me? Finally, if this extraordinary book did, in fact, carve out some unique psychic space for me, is it advisable to invite others to explore it for themselves?
As Perkus Tooth warned:
"...Don't rupture another's illusion unless you're positive the alternative you offer is more worthwhile than that from which you're wrenching them. Interrogate your solipsism: Does it offer a better home than the delusions you're reaching to shatter?"
In hindsight, this is probably the worst "review" of anything I have ever written. I fear the person who can even follow my wobbly stream of consciousness on this.(less)
Karl Marlantes hopes to speak to a broad audience. He did so effectively in Matterhorn, his novel set in Vietnam. Matterhorn was literary. It challen...moreKarl Marlantes hopes to speak to a broad audience. He did so effectively in Matterhorn, his novel set in Vietnam. Matterhorn was literary. It challened the reader on ideas about war, morality, race, rank, and the schism that occurs between soldiers and civilians. Matterhorn can be analyzed as literature or enjoyed as entertainment, not unlike the movies Full Metal Jacket or Platoon. That gave it unusually wide appeal.
What It is Like to Go to War is very much an appendix of Matterhorn. The reader's suspicion that Second Lieutenant Mellas is an autobiographical avatar for Karl Marlantes is confirmed. Many of the former's most powerful scenes are revealed to be true. They are so well delivered because the author is the same protagonist who drove the source action. Not to pepper this with spoilers, but many of the squad deaths in Matterhorn actually happened - were real people (names sometimes not changed) - in the actual, horrifying space of 1968-9.
While Marlantes wrote to a literary audience in Matterhorn he is writing specifically to an educated reader interested in understanding What It is Like to Go to War. One of the first points he makes is that the modern world no longer has standardized iniation rites. Gone are the hunter-gatherer rites-of-passage that require all males and females to submit to the same initiation, depending on sex. Going to war is a prominent initiation rite with a direct link back to prehistory, but other, equally crucial initiations have since appeared. Whether one chose to go to school, become a missionary, or do dangerous work, that choice represents as much of an initiation as going to war, provided the initiation moves boys and girls into men and women. By establishing that the "club" of combat is not an exclusive club with proprietary philosophy, Marlantes invites a wide slate of potential readers.
I read What It is Like to Go to War for empathy. I want to understand my dad, whose unpredictable emotions and flight to anger has strained or broken every relationship he's ever had (with the exception of his own parents). Only within the past few years has the VA taken an interest in Dad's psychological issues. He is now diagnosed with PTSD and sumbits to medication and therapy. A transformation is starting to take place. He is - at this point in time - completely frank about PTSD and candid about his irrational reactions to minor stimuli - normally anger and fear of the other, politics, change. There are even signs that he is starting to see things in terms other than black or white. He may even be beginning to understand how his actions make others feel.
I think my dad is probably more messed up than the average Vietnam combat veteran, but he never got dangerously close to the red line that marks the most desperate cases. The sheer enormity of his problem - which runs the gamut from avoiding personal responsibility (by outsourcing opinions to political entertainers and placing unrealistic faith in financial bubbles and ponzi schemes) to misogyny to mild sadism (recreational hunting that borders on obsession, possessing many more weapons than necessary to hunt the local deer, turkeys, and game fowl - also a preference for low-tech weapons like bows and arrows and low velocity, muzzle loading rifles designed to make the act of hunting a greater challenge but also significantly increases the target's pain).
Someone in my position will come across the random article or paper (or even book) about the causes and treatment of PTSD. Often the tone is clinical, or sympathetic from above (a physician's sympathy can come across as condescending, depending on the attitude of the reader), confined to a small facet of the aggregated problem, or tricked into the dual belief in a magic cure for PTSD and that the way to "cure" PTSD is to revise forensic feelings about violence long since committed. Marlantes writes from a completely different place. He writes as a peer (albeit a highly educated and erudite one) to the combat veteran and as a husband/father responsible for confusing the spouses and children of combat vets.
The mixed messages, mercurial mood swings, and occasional physical scariness is due to a failure to understand the way in which combat's violent element can be a positve force. Institutionally and informally, aggression is driven under the surface during the process of reacclimating to society. It is perceived to have no use in the civilian world. In fact, physical aggression has a place. The warrior impulse even has a place and is healthy. It is dangerous when not controlled - that's important. But it isn't dangerous because it merely exists - that's a misconception.
Ostensibly, the author is speaking to everyone. But - and it's probably inescapable - he's speaking primarily to other vets. This means he's not speaking to me, but to my dad (if my dad will listen), and by reading it myself I'm allowed into the room to listen in and observe. People are greedy. I would have preferred someone to tell me what should be done to help Dad in his retirement years, but even if I was given the answer, I would never be able to act as an agent implementing change in him. In order for him to get better, he's the one who has to interface.
Marlantes is speaking directly to the veteran. I wonder if his ivy leage fluency in the classics will connect with the defiantly folksy identity Vietnam vets like my dad cultivate.* I'm hopeful the ideas are so relevant and profound that provenance will not get in the way. My next step after reading What It is Like to Go to War is to pass it on to my father-in-law (who served on a Coast Guard ice breaker in the Bering Sea during the cold war) before giving it to my own dad next week. Then I sit it out and see what takes and what doesn't. It's going to be a great experiment.
One of the reasons I have this confidence is the way I reacted to Marlantes's wisdom. I found myself in complete agreement more than 80% of the time, but no more. This means I was in only conditional agreement - or disagreement - for the remainder. We completely agree on the liability of groupthink. It was a small point for Marlantes, but something that means a lot to me. There are two ways to learn, but the two ways do not produce the same quality results. One way is to be formally taught, like the memorization of schoolchildren or algebra practice of high school students. The practial method is to observe impromptu disagreements, understand both sides of the argument, and evaluate the true path.
Disagreeing with something can be more valuable than total agreement. Disagreement is active. The process forces one to constantly think and evaluate. At the end, one's opinion is either unchanged but stronger for the exercise or it has been expanded to include new ideas. Though this is not one of Marlantes's points, I can't help but think the author would be totally okay with the reader not going along with his suggestions 100%.
*Marlantes is also decidedly liberal in his definition of "spirituality." He assumes the feeling shared by worshipers of stone age pagan gods were the same feelings felt in the temples on the Acropolis and in the cathedrals and mosques of Europe and the Middle East. In a time when Americas warriors are active participants in the holification of culture war against the world's non-Christian people, I wonder how his tone comes across.(less)
If the following excerpt has any meaning for you, you should read Gore Vidal:
[Henry Adams speaking] "(Henry Cabot Lodge) is one of nature's Iagos, alw...moreIf the following excerpt has any meaning for you, you should read Gore Vidal:
[Henry Adams speaking] "(Henry Cabot Lodge) is one of nature's Iagos, always in the shadows, preferring evil to nothing..."
"And nothing to good." (John) Hay made his addition to the indictment. "So if Cabot's Iago, McKinley must be his Othello."
"No, no." Adams was firm. "After all, Othello trusted Iago. I think it most unlikely that our Ohioan Augustus trusts - or even notices - Cabot. No, I see Theodore (Roosevelt) in the part of Othello. They complement each other. Theodore all action and bluster, Cabot all devious calculation. Cabot is the rock on which Theodore will sink."
It's been nearly ten years since I took a class in ethics/morality. I probably won't ever take another. So it's important to read a book on the subjec...moreIt's been nearly ten years since I took a class in ethics/morality. I probably won't ever take another. So it's important to read a book on the subject every once in a while to prevent the old moral compass from breaking down.
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat supports the subject of ethics regarding animals from a scientific angle. The science is very light, however, taking a backseat to philosophy. In it, the author scrolls through the standard curriculum of topics like: Is animal research unetheical? Is it okay to eat meat? Cockfights are wrong, right? Standard animal rights fare. I was pleased to find the author also included questions about whether pet ownership makes you a better person or improves your health. What does participating in animal interests (from ASPCA to animal liberation cells) say about its devotees?
The question on my mind going in was whether Some We Love would be preachy or not.
It's not. At all.
While parts of the book will make the reader lie awake in bed for a while (and turn the reader off chicken - possibly for a long time), Some We Love spares the reader from the grisly pictures and lurid details of the activist wing animal rights lobby. Keeping in mind that most of us are not scientists, Hal Herzog avoids scientific jargon and stays on philosophy - keeping the topic in the big frame. If we don't need to comprehend issues at the neurological or genetic level to follow the argument, the author doesn't go there. Graciously, if our visceral reaction to a fine point is at risk of distracting the reader, it is skipped. Example:
"According to the [South Korean] Ministry of Agriculture, South Koreans ate about 12,000 tons of dogmeat in 1997. In 2002, the National Dog Meat Restaurant Association was organized to promote the consumption of dogmeat and related products. These include dogmeat bread, dogmeat cookies, dogmeat mayonaise, dogmeat ketchup, dogmeat vinegar, and dogmeat hamburger. You can also buy packs of 'digested dogmeat.' (I am not sure what this is.) A medicinal tonic called gaesoju that is said to be good for rheumatism is also produced from dogs. You don't want to know how it's made." (186)
The bold type is the author's words, emphasis mine. The point is to illustrate the humor present throughout the book. Another quote reads, "[The philospher Rob Bass] believes that if you correctly apply formal deductive logic to premises that are true, you will always end up with a correct conclusion. In theory, he may be right." Is it just me, or was that a joke?
What makes Some We Love really good – as opposed to just sort of good – is its synthesis of the generic and clichéd arguments adults picked up as younger people – as college students or Propagandhi fans. A little living dulls the reactionary element. I don’t know the statistics, but I presume I’m less likely to go vegan at 35 than I was at 19. This temperance clears the space for a lucid consideration of the issues. Furthermore, living contributes a lot to the process.
Do I think animals should be harvested for human medicine? Yes. Following surgery, my newborn son received a blood thinner derived from the intestinal mucous of farmed pigs. Do the intestines of pigs presumably raised and slaughtered for a variety of uses (primarily meat) have a greater need to exist than my child? What about right? My answer is probably different than the one I would have given at 19. If not, it is certainly more automatic.
I may be projecting, but I really believe this book was written with people like me in mind – people with prior exposure to the radical sides of the arguments and some life experience going in. Perhaps those without such prerequisites may find less to enjoy in Some We Love, but I thought it was great. It stimulated my thought, gave me the fantods, and reminded me that the unconsidered life is a waste. (less)
Ostensibly, the book is supposed to be a compendium of oral accounts - a sort of Story Corps, if you will. The accounts, however, don't quite read the way people actually talk. Even at the upper eschelon of power and education, human beings don't speak in perfect paragraphs or stay perfectly on topic. When you factor in the notion that some of the author's "subjects" have different levels of intelligence and are either translated from a non-English language or are speaking English as a second language, the syntax and vocabularies of actual human beings would be far more varied than those presented. The workaround is simple: A note about style and the editorial process. Much like a book using many colloquial sources, the author may include a simple preface to indicate quotes are edited to reflect standard English - except where doing so would misrepresent the source's intentions or otherwise impair the narrative.
The successes, on the other hand are nearly innumerable. I lack the background to assess Max Brooks's psychological plausibility, but it passes the sniff test of a lay person. The psychology of trauma and battle seem at least as likely as any well-written action story. It is in the response that the author's credibility is purchased. Unlike a standard-issue action story, the response (military and popular) stumbles, lurches, and is generally bound by experimentation. Unlike the asteroid in a hollywood movie, disaster is not averted by the power of love or Aerosmith or a nuclear bomb, but by hardscrabble determination. Instead of a climax, victory takes the form of a marathon. Not having an actual zombie plague to use as a control, one can only speculate at the realism of the hypothesis. But it seems about right to me.
If I lack the background to assess Brooks's psychology, I feel comfortable analyzing his geopolitical plausibility. I found the disappearance of the North Korean state fascinating - surreal, but in proportion to the only politically surreal state in the industrial world. Likewise, the unique position for Cuba to flourish (its economic isolation and authoritarian state created a natural quarantine zone - to say nothing about the natural oportunism of former President Castro). Russia's recivivism into religious-patrician empirialism may sound cynical, but is probably within the range of possible behaviors in the mother of all pinches - consider their Patriotic War, for precedent. Israel's model for preparedness is not inconsistent with the world's preeminent security state. But what reveals the author's command of political science is the presumed nuclear conflict between Pakistan and Iran. The latter is an unexpected twist, but one that is completely plausible, given Brooks's explanation. Fascinating ideas to consider, all.
Finally, the zombie dynamics are the perfect sample of Romero-ian physics and the best films from the genre (the Italian movie with the zombie on the coral reef...). Best of all, Brooks's zombies don't run. I am excited by the purism. As a member of Generation Y, I am amenable to the idea that zombies run (28 Days Later, I Am Legend,Zombieland). Nevertheless, my zombie comfort zone (if such a thing can exist) is the default scenario where zombies overpower with force rather than overtake and tackle. The author's constant comparison to marauding ants is a beautiful analogy. (less)