The fact that A Thousand Splendid Suns was written with Oprah's book club in mind is not necessarily a bad thing. Ms. Winfrey's systematic distributioThe fact that A Thousand Splendid Suns was written with Oprah's book club in mind is not necessarily a bad thing. Ms. Winfrey's systematic distribution of empathetic concepts has an inestimable value, even if many of the actual books are a little contrived. No one needs to be told the Talibans are assholes, but it seems too common to forget that the victims of terror and repression are human beings, regardless of what name they call God or what color their skin is. Because of books like Stones from the River and A Thousand Splendid Suns, North America's middle class women contextualize the social cost of radicalism a little better.
I don't suppose Khaled Hosseini writes exclusively for women. Everyone probably needs the empathetic excercise. I remember how I was affected by Three Cups of Tea. Collating it with little, daily experiences* will change the way one approaches consideration of any news or opinion story pertaining to the Middle East or Central Asia. It will. I suppose the reason A Thousand Splendid Suns was a little tiresome to me is that I've already been there, done that with regard to the empathetic exercise. I don't need conversion. I know the Taliban and its loose affiliates suck and that it isn't every Afghan or Pakistani person's fault. I don't profess to be an expert, but Hosseini is starter/Oprah's book club material and I should be on to 300-400 level ideas by now. Going over previously covered ground isn't altogether very productive.
These thoughts are relevant only for those who've broken the surface of Central Asian sociopolitical issues and seems to presume A Thousand Splendid Suns has no actual literary value beyond an empathetic instrument. I must consider whether it does. Frankly, my conclusion isn't generous. Hosseini follows a made for television theatrical arc and (at the risk of spoiling the plot) has a somewhat Disneyfied resolution. Ordinarily, when my judgement hovers somewhere in the space between ratings, I round up. This time I can't. With a different ending and a little better writing, Suns would get four stars. As presented it is a solid three - utilitarian, but inelegant.
*I'll always remember a two or three year acquaintance with a woman whose family fled Iran in 1979, when she was still a little girl. A Christian and Americanized in every way, she was visibly affected by the effusion of racism following 9/11. It is a testiment to the candor or our acquaintance that she felt comfortable asking me - as a presumably honest source if we (meaning white Americans) "hate" foreigners. It is a much sadder testiment to our culture circa: 2001 that I had no ready answer to the question....more
I've noticed that professional book reviews do not punish low brow books for not being what they were never intended to be. To criticize The StupidestI've noticed that professional book reviews do not punish low brow books for not being what they were never intended to be. To criticize The Stupidest Angel for being... well, stupid would be like criticizing a dog for being smelly or the Insane Clown Posse for being a travesty. After all, the word "stupid" appears right in the title. There's truth in advertising. I'll leave it at that....more
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. ...more
I suppose readers are first divided by whether they think the idea of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is even a good idea, in theory. Personally, I'mI suppose readers are first divided by whether they think the idea of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is even a good idea, in theory. Personally, I'm down. Let's face it: The 19th century English novel is terrible. At best, it is an acquired taste reserved for eccentrics and shut-in spinsters. The only thing more insipid is the 19th century American novel. Therefore, the defiling of Pride and Prejudice, even with something as cliché and du jour as zombies, is potentially satisfying. My problem lies with the author and the way the whole affair was handled.
From the back cover (of the Quirk Classics paperback edition): Jane Austin is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and other masterpieces of English literature. Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature.
Yes. So did I. However, unlike Grahame-Smith I presumed this modest achievement doesn't qualify me to go tampering with the canon - even those emasculated realms of the canon (Jane Austen, the Brontës) hated by anyone born after 1965.
The thing that makes the 19th century novel so dismal is not the intrigue, cattiness, even the melodrama. It is the prose, the dialogue, and the mores they all represent. But therein lies the greatest potential for ridicule. The language itself is so rich and dense that it begs to be appropriated, deconstructed, and reconstructed for the sake of parody. A snarky antiquarian with a vendetta against his/her English lit professors could find very fertile ground. Seth Grahame-Smith - writer of comic books, I believe - lacks the erudition and knowledge of the Georgian era to really exploit his subject. The author over-embraces dick jokes (though, to his credit, does utilize vomit to a surprisingly effective degree) - which fails to elevate PPZ over that of a movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch - A Night at the Roxbury, if you will. I find this extremely disappointing.
Of course, anyone with hope that PPZ would fulfill a shred of its potential probably thought about how (s)he would write the book his/herself. I am no different. I assumed Grahame-Smith would accept Austen's novel as a "universe" with sacrosanct rules and then act like a dungeon master, throwing challenges toward the characters - but requiring they meet them within the confines of the "universe's" local physics. A hypothetical model is one in which the Bennett sisters meet their respective suitors and relations, then engage in hijinks - to be determined by chance and the dungeon master's genius. In this model, the end (including the mortality rate of the cast) could be open ended. Provided Elizabeth and Darcy married, the stuff in between could have been much more dynamic.
Instead, Grahame-Smith preserved Austen's plot arc dutifully. When characters spar, it is because Austen established the tension in her manuscript. True, the part about zombies it total invention, but characters encounter them only when Austin had previously issued characters leave to go out of doors, into the country, or to a ball. Grahame-Smith's tincturing Georgian England with some of the character of Edo Japan should have had implications beyond the shallow non sequitur of locating dojos, Shinto shrines, and ninja attendants in the manoral tableau. Even the tension of rival schools of martial arts serves no purpose beyond easing the transition to motion picture or graphic novel. Indeed, it seems one or both of the latter - and, of course, money and the adulation of the masses - was the author's real motivating factor in adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I get no impression of devotion to Austen, the 19th century English novel, or even the novel itself.
I suppose I should not be surprised by the disappointment. But it is disappointing, nevertheless.
Slavery by Another Name is the rare example of regional history with sufficient appeal to attract a general, national audience. Regional histories oftSlavery by Another Name is the rare example of regional history with sufficient appeal to attract a general, national audience. Regional histories often suffer from tunnel vision. Douglas A. Blackmon is the uncommon historian capable of correlating regional history and its national context. By defining the "era of Neoslavery" (Blackmon's proposed replacement for the term most Americans use: "Jim Crow") as existing between 1877 and 1945, the author expands his work's purpose beyond the confines of the Deep South alone. The beginning - the terminus of Reconstruction - and end - the end of World War II - compel readers to consider the subjugation of southern African Americans a national issue, rather than a regional one. What national factors contributed to their explotation? What national factors produced the solutions?
History students may have encountered President Theodore Roosevelt's appointment of the moderate Democrat Thomas Jones to the US district court in Montgomery, AL. In a widely read book like Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex, the fact is used to explain Roosevelt's political vision - as a leader committed to unifying unsettling polemic divide. Blackmon calls upon offical Washington's political philosophy regarding class and race to support his thesis. Judge Jones's and Attorney General Knox's activities owe less to their devotion to President Roosevelt than the Constitution each man was called on to defend (Roosevelt's significance was that of a focusing lens). These three men did not lay exclusive claim to a commitment to equality before the law. Their actions are used as an example of a nation in transition.
The author's conclusion that Neoslavery ended only when it created a conflict of national security is presumed to be correct, but could have been expanded. Blackmon contends that institutional white supremacy inhibited any true commitment to the African American, which is also presumed to be correct. However the notion that institutional subjugation of African Americans was revealed - and thus influenced - by German and Japanese propaganda is overly simplistic. It presumes the Hitler and Hirohito governments had extraordinary influence over America's geopolitical position through their own state declarations. More likely, the visceral reaction Americans expressed toward ethnic cleansing and the occupation of the Asian mainland forced Americans to confront their own hypocrisy. Though this too is incomplete. The legitimacy of foreign propaganda threatened national security less than the implications of ignoring a significant bloc of the domestic labor force. Just as World War II improved the conditions of women and ethnic and religious minorities - by calling them into military and industrial service - it also improved the conditions of African Americans by no small degree. This opinion does not run counter to Blackmon's thesis, but leads me to think the author did not take in the full view.
Slavery by Another Name leaves the reader considering a tricky question. Do the modern companies who descended from business that used slave labor in the past - or even used slave labor themselves - carry any responsibility today? I presume most people will be inclined to answer quickly. But after careful consideration, only the most strident ideologue will stand firm by an absolute "yes" or "no." (The author does not reveal much about his own view.)
Though Slavery by Another Name is a stirring narrative, with obvious social benefit to enriching the mosaic of American history, it may not be deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. The many case studies Blackmon selected to advance his thesis are too similar to one another. The veracity of institutionalized peonage can be argued without the use of so many redundant anecdotes. Also, the baroque prose is proof of the author's poetic soul, but history does not require the same adjectives one might use to embellish harlequin romance. "The gossamer facade of judicial process took only three days to weave" (p. 185). "Gossamer facade?" Really? The latter is a personal gripe, but one that nagged me throughout the book. Gripes are not necessarily criticism, though, and should not be allowed to discourage would-be readers from exposing themselves to a worthy (and cool-headed) history of one of America's dark chapters. Seldom is a book so relevant to both a regional and national audience. For this, Douglas Blackmon deserves recognition.
Though the talk on the book tour is tantalizing, the author's interviews are basically summaries of HotEdward P. Kohn has a strange little book here.
Though the talk on the book tour is tantalizing, the author's interviews are basically summaries of Hot Time. If you heard Mr. Kohn on Fresh Air, like I did, you've essentially already experienced everything the reader will find within Hot Time's 250 or so pages. Reading the book is little more than formal consummation of an (admittedly) good interview.
But that doesn't speak to what is strange about Hot Time in the Old Town. The subtitle reads: "The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." Neither the heat wave nor its impact on Roosevelt are the focus of the book. Not quite. Instead, Hot Time is an oscillating sweep of three subjects, which I'll enumerate briefly.
1. Hot Time in the Old Town is, at it's best, a reminder of how closely the 19th century American lived with death. Politically, the heat wave of 1896 is a reminder - in the form of a vignette - of why the Progressive era was critical to the country's 20th century narrative. The 1,300 deaths attributed to the week long heat wave may be blamed in greater degree to the squalid conditions of tenement housing, structured to prey on poor immigrant and laboring families than to the heat itself (which, to an Alabamian induces little awe).
2. After a grisly account of hellish tenements and horse carcasses, Hot Time freezes the moment when William Jennings Bryan's 1896 presidential bid lost momentum. After creating an audacious zeitgeist of hope (that would be familiar in the era of Obama) following the "Cross of Gold" speech, candidate Bryan chased gaffe with a dead on arrival, much-hyped speech at Madison Square Garden - where spectators initially crushed one another for seating, only to leave en masse when Bryan came across like Nixon in the televised 1960 debate.
3. Finally, there's the part about (then New York City police commissioner) Theodore Roosevelt's role in both the emergency response to the heat wave and the national presidential election. While it is interesting that the scion Roosevelt had a part in both stories, the two stories are not necessarily related. Circumstantial coincidences suggest a link that is actually more literary than historical/sociological.
None of this is meant to say any of the three subjects are in any way unworthy of scholarship. In fact, each are immensely worthy. Point one is worth including in a book about either the Progressive era or the evolution of American cities between 1820 and 1919. Point two is clearly an important chapter in any ambitious biography of William Jennings Bryan. The same goes with point three, with regard to Theodore Roosevelt. The 1896 election is itself worthy of study; the events in Hot Time would necessarily form a key pivot in any such study.
The problem is that Mr. Kohn's book lacks any of the ambition needed to contextualize any of its three subjects. While Hot Time is promoted as - and probably intended to be - a beach/airport read, it lacks the cadence of the mass market non-fiction epitomized by Simon Winchester or Jon Krakauer. At 250 pages and rife with sensational detail, Hot Time should go down smoothly and easily. Instead, reading the book is a bit of a chore.
All this considered, I still might be inclined to rate Hot Time in the Old Town at a solid - if average - three stars, if the bizarre postscript were not tacked on at the very end of the book (after two successive chapters titled "Conclusion" and "Epilogue"). Kohn's final words suggest his improbable thesis was actually to inspire readers to think more about quality of life issues and emergency planning in a world that is still following a trend of urbanization. If so, that is not what I got from it.
Kohn may also be implying that climate change is the new tenement housing in the continuum of pestilence the urban poor are forced to contend with. Fine. But the sum of all of these parts is not a tidy narrative that details a "heat wave" and "the making of Theodore Roosevelt." And that is the principal problem with Hot Time.
There was a short circuit somewhere in the chain connecting author and publisher. The manuscript should have been sent back. If Hot Time was a plate of food, it never would have left a respectable kitchen.
I'm left with these closing thoughts upon completion of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
1. The book's title is suggestive of places the author didn't really go. A more descriptive title might be Latitude, Food, and Non-Food Specialists: A Hyperbole Free Explanation of Why the Modern Era Looks the Way It Does. Of course, that lacks the oomph of "Guns! Steel!" and would probably stay on bookshelves.
It isn't that Diamond doesn't include guns and steel into his monograph. It's just that, of all the variables he details, guns and steel define the narrowest band of history and then only make nominal modifications to the status quo (well, maybe not to the people displaced by change - but certainly in the long view).
A vanquishing wave of 16th century Spaniards ultimately changed the human condition of the Andes less than agriculture and the political state did before it. The differential between the Inca and the original hunter-gatherers is greater than between the Inca and the Spanish.
Since the interview at Cajamarca is Diamond's centerpiece and all other dynamic clashes (except perhaps the Maori v. Moriori collision) receive only glancing treatment, the reader must note how much more of the book is dedicated to the profound changes brought about by less dramatic developments. I concluded (and I think Diamond believes) ecological and geographic features are ultimately more important than the details of sudden societal interaction.
2. Professor Diamond has developed a deep affinity for New Guinea, through his various biological studies prior to writing Pulitizer Prize winning anthropology. It is safe to say he has "gone bamboo" over New Guinea, the way Gauguin swooned for Tahiti or Brando fell for Fiji. However, the things the average westerner knows about New Guinea may not fill an index card.
New Guinea serves as Guns, Germs, and Steel's hub. Diamond is able to launch most of his theses from New Guinea (i.e. how do languages diffuse in general using New Guinea as an example?, how do geological features insulate some conservative cultures using New Guinea as an example?, etc.). Certainly, I see its utility as an island - especially a big one with a convenient amount of ecological variety. But New Guinea quickly became either a motif or a character of sorts. There were times when I wondered if the elaborate thesis of the book wasn't an excuse for Diamond to write about New Guinea. Or if it wasn't all a trick to get people to read about New Guinea.
Neither of the above are true, of course. But I nevertheless found Diamond's obsession with a place as obscure to his audience as New Guinea occasionally annoying. Not because I don't like New Guinea. I mean, it's cool. I just don't... you know, really care about New Guinea as much as Diamond does. I would have engaged with the material more if he had used more familiar territory as his home base.
By "more familiar territory," I mean pretty much anywhere else. I think westerners have working knowledge about every continent except Australia and its surrounding quadrant (for whatever reason). While subsaharan Africa would be an "exotic" starting locale, western readers ultimately know something about it going in.
3. One of the issues Diamond barely acknowledges is nationalism. This falls outside Guns, Germs, and Steel's scope, but I experienced a puzzling, possible conflict of interest with the way I responded to certain chapters.
Being an American of Western European descent, one would expect me to respond more to descriptions of how Western Europe developed into the ultimate technological society. But I found that I was more interested in the way North American civilization progressed.
It could be that the story of North American civilization is still underserved in our education system. Many American adults still do not know as much about Native American civilization as they could. By contrast, most Americans (including non-whites) are taught some form of European history. Thus, being less familiar with the subject of North America (and feeling bored with the subject of Europe) could have produced the disparate interest. However, I am ultimately somewhat unfamiliar with the histories of Africa and China too. I was interested in these subjects because of that unfamiliarity, but not at the level I was engaged with the North American components.
I've concluded the reason for this disparate interest must be "liberal guilt," empathy for a group who (despite small numbers) still lives in proximity to me, or (most tantalizing) that geography superseded genetics and created a new cultural identity. In other words, because I live in North America - and not England or Switzerland - my identity has been tricked into believing my genetic link is to here, not there. If this is actually the case, it is very interesting....more
Masters of Deceit is a period piece, from the right's most histrionic moment. With admirJ. Edgar Hoover. Very complicated man.
Did not like communism.
Masters of Deceit is a period piece, from the right's most histrionic moment. With admiration for the (already disgraced) Senator Joseph McCarthy and just one year ahead of former President Truman's denunciation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hoover's credibility is suspect. Fifty years later, it is downright surreal.
I presume Hoover anticipated a bumpy ride on the promotion circuit. He comes out of the gate swinging, as if antagonizing the reader to form a hard, crusty defense-bias. Those who make it past the introduction may actually wonder if their bias wasn't misplaced. Despite being heavily edited affairs, Hoover's brief biographies of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin are at least as competent as a Conservapedia(.com) article. His assessment of the Soviet Union may have come right out of Darkness at Noon or Nineteen Eighty-Four (and thus not the product of original scholarship), but they are not overly hyperbolic.
In fact, the first half of Masters of Deceit is so dull, it probably loses a great number of readers to fatigue. This was the plan.
For those who stick it out to the 2/3 mark, the gloves come off! Hoover loses his mind in a delusional word salad. His arguments careen off each other, alternately making zero sense and cancelling each other out. He fails to make the red "menace" at all menacing. Cautionary examples are more vague anecdote than anything (there was this... uh... lady... and she was... uh... communist! And her family was... uh... sad... and had to eat cold sandwiches for dinner!).
His centerpiece - the one incident in which the author moves from the vague into the specific - tells the bonechilling tale of a local party cell's six year campaign to infiltrate a small labor union. After six years, the operatives held offices in the union. Then infighting caused their cabal to implode. From what I can tell, they didn't actually do anything devious. Unless, that is, one counts the unintelligent, bumbling oaf public enemy number one. It seems bringing America to its knees consists entirely of publishing newsletters with circulation numbers in the triple digits.
Since one must rule out the existence of any actual threat to describe, the reader immediately wonders what Hoover's mission was in publishing Masters of Deceit. It is as most already suspect: Hoover was a bigot and the most miserly species of right-wing hawk.
"The Party has operated hundreds of major fronts in practically every field of Party agitation: 'peace,' civil rights, protection of the foreign-born, support for (political) 'victims,' abolition of H-bomb tests, exploitation of nationality and minority groups." (213)
And labor unions. And charity. And... Well, you get the idea.
Translation: Hoover is opposed to "peace," civil rights, constitutional rights, labor/consumer protection, and charity. A group who distributed food assistance to flood victims (in a time when the federal government did not automatically fill the role) was dangerous. The Scottsboro Boys weren't the victims of Jim Crow, they deserved worse than what they got. Hoover is, in short, in contempt of all things contemporary Americans consider decent.
Why? What was significant in 1957 to stimulate publication of Masters of Deceit? As previously stated, Senator McCarthy was already in disgrace. A Republican (Eisenhower) was in the White House; the Senate was nearly perfectly balanced (Democrats had a one seat majority); Duane Eddy had a hit with his instrumental "Rebel Rouser" and The Olympics's baby liked "western movies." Everything seemed pretty groovy. Even if Hoover's fear was of a Democratic takeover, he had already served two Democratic presidents and a host of Democratic-controlled congresses (and would again). Nothing in his manuscript is critical of Roosevelt, Truman. He never mentions New Dealers like Averell Harriman or Rex Tugwell. The highest ranking government official Hoover mentions is former Vice President Wallace - for whom he's sympathetically forgiving for past "pink" transgressions.
My guess is that Hoover didn't criticize the Democratic party out of self-preservation and an acknowledgment that he, himself, is associated with some of its most celebrated years. Nevertheless, Masters of Deceit is an energetic, red-blooded, Republican panic attack for the most stalwart cold warrior. It's manic. It's crazy. It's hilarious at times. What, if anything, do modern readers stand to gain by undertaking it?
Well, Masters of Deceit is instructive into the way fearmongering works as a strategy. It also can be instrumental in evaluating the merit of fearmongering, when it is encountered in situ.
To determine if Hoover's theory of a communist threat is warranted, one may run a diagnostic of sorts: Hoover gives us the blueprint for communist takeover. Go through the steps in your mind and ask yourself if it could work - even in a vacuum. If it cannot (it cannot), the thesis must be false. Thus, the warning is almost certainly propaganda.
In practice, apply the same concept to any manner of conspiracy theory, from the sophomoric perception of President Bush's "oil wars" to Glenn Beck's own red scare. If the blueprint they provide could not work in practice, they are full of shit. Like J. Edgar Hoover.
I have no idea how David Aaronovitch would describe the "role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history." The author spends such an inordinate amI have no idea how David Aaronovitch would describe the "role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history." The author spends such an inordinate amount of time commenting on how stupid various conspiracies actually are that he never quite gets around to his thesis.*
Of course, Aaronovitch isn't wrong. Conspiracy theories - from CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination, British royal family orchestration of Diana's death, President Bush's war mongering desire to stage 9/11, to the "birther" movement that (continues to) insist President Obama isn't a US citizen - are usually pretty stupid. They've become so ubiquitous through film and screen, the political media, and sheer persistence that we sometimes fail to note exactly why they are so stupid, even when they are constant nuisance. I expected the author to eventually comment on something like that.
I also wondered what the first conspiracy theory might be, and if the line between it to the present is continuous. But, nope. No commentary about that either.
Having modified my expectations when I realized that Mr. Aaronovitch had abandoned his thesis, I started to wonder if the author had at least written a good dismissal of his cherry-picked examples. For a while, it was sort of hard to tell. Being that half of his examples are British conspiracies with little play in the American press, I couldn't tell if the many tangents explored contributed to or detracted from the analysis. When he made it to recent American conspiracies (the 9/11 "Truth movement" and the "birther" crusade), it became clear the tangents are signs of disorganization or ineptitude. At the very least, Aaronovitch has a preference for anachronism, constantly beginning with something recent and fresh and ending with something moldering and obscure. One can (and should) demonstrate the constancy of agents provocateur embellishing White Water and the Clinton impeachment hearings through the "I'm just asking" Iagoism of the "birthers." The logical order is to handle Clinton first, then proceed to Obama. Aaronovitch writes history from the perspective of Merlin.
The reader who wants a good laugh at the stupidity of others will enjoy the multifarious rants. The reader interested in understanding why conspiracy theories flourish and what effect they have on culture has a lot of raw data to contend with here. Voodoo Histories is a good compendium of crazy shit. Unfortunately, its discipline is not significantly elevated above its source to capture the moral authority needed to back up its vulgar, if commonsensical conclusions.
*To be fair, Aaronovitch does eventually get the question of "why," dedicating about three pages (or 0.8% of the total manuscript) to the understanding (what he compiles from other scholars is fascinating). He never quite explores the conspiracy theory's "role" in shaping history, though....more
Joe Bageant's conversational screed is full of common sense - scads of it. But it is brutally patronizing. His inspired chapters (on theocracy, gun coJoe Bageant's conversational screed is full of common sense - scads of it. But it is brutally patronizing. His inspired chapters (on theocracy, gun control, and the mid-2000s real estate bubble) are mired in the pedagogue's certainty that he is better than his coarse and mean subjects in every respect.
The author rhapsodizes on the tragedy befallen "his people," meaning the working poor of the American South. Because Mr. Bageant is Southern spawn and can embed into the social fabric with little personal wardrobe alteration, he believes he is an accurate meter of reigning social currents.
The first problem is that the South isn't homogeneous. And even if it were, it would not function as a proxy for the entire American hinterland. The book's thesis is to explain why an increasing number of economically distressed Americans routinely vote against their own interests, almost as though there is a default setting in that frequency. If Mr. Bageant answered this question, he did so only for a small microcosm.
The second problem is that Mr. Bageant is from Northern Virginia and professes to speak for the South. To an Alabamian like myself, Virginia is so far north its lanes should be lined with candy canes and populated with toy making elves. I feel he has no right to equate "his people" to "my people," even though the author clearly considers them one and the same. Even though I, an Alabama Democrat, am as frustrated by "my people" as a Virginia Democrat is about his, I share something even more urgent: The clannish tendency of Southerners to stick up for their own.
Like a family whose black sheep is constantly bringing shame to the family with his carousing and debauchery, woe be to the outsider who throws the first stone of criticism. Cousin Bobby might have wrecked his truck and blown his bond and is now out running around on his old lady all over the county. But we'll be damned if some carpetbagger is gonna walk into town and start tut-tutting about it. Truth is, we don't take care of own very effectively - least of all where politics are concerned - but we will shut out the first yankee who thinks for a minute we're going to listen to his two cents.
I almost wonder if that isn't the heart of the problem. If so, all of Mr. Bageant's homespun paeans to the Redneck Gothic paradigm are in vain. For the whole technicolor redneck diaspora ranging across the hinterland (South included) to sort out its political problems, powerful eurekas are needed from the congregation. As noble as Mr. Bageant's goal is, a charitable liberal Moses is not going to lead the conservative peons from their Republican Egypt. It's going to take one of their own. Since Bageant isn't the One, his work as an embedded reporter should have been impartial observation and analysis. Instead, we got an (enjoyable) narrative of hayseed gonzo and white trash tales from Lake Wobegon. Enjoyable at times, full of common sense, but delivered with a perfectly wrong tone....more
There's very elusive serendipity in a creative work that constantly verges on jumping the shark, but always stops just short.
I expected to hate AbrahaThere's very elusive serendipity in a creative work that constantly verges on jumping the shark, but always stops just short.
I expected to hate Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter because (A) I don't really care about vampires and (B) I care very much about Abraham Lincoln. I care so much about the latter, in fact, that I regularly come to his defense at bars and over the water cooler at work - any time some smart aleck thinks he's an expert because of some trash gleaned from Howard Zinn (may he rest in peace).
Seth Grahame-Smith has taken something absurd and made it work, in a reasonable facsimile of the historians' tradition. It isn't without failure: The author attempts to reproduce the industry standard as set by David McCullough (a promise included in the dust jacket copy) - he didn't. Grahame-Smith needs an editor - he misspells Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles's name in the first mention, to correct it in the second (and last) mention. The author researched Lincoln's and some peripheral figures' lives, but not a thorough study of 19th century America - an anonymous character advises a fleeing John Wilkes Booth that the government will burn every Southern city "from Baltimore to Birmingham" in pursuit - Birmingham wasn't founded until the end of 1870s, nearly 15 years after the manhunt for Booth.
But I'd be a very irrational person if I considered any of the above a deal breaker. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn't expected to be plausible beyond a reasonable effort - and I found the effort (imperfections notwithstanding) actually went above and beyond the mission. Beginning the book is a contract to suspend disbelief, which discredits most of the obvious complaints. Grahame-Smith recreated a believable execution of period speech, speechifying, correspondence, and journalism. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter reads like a strange mix of Mark Twain and Ken Burns. It also reads like a piece of cinema; the manuscript is nearly in readymade condition for screenplay adaptation.
The summer of 2010 is one of deferred beach reads. As oil coats the Gulf coast, the sorts of books we'd read on a beach or in an airport have to be read on our couches, as an imposed staycation by necessity. This is as good a book for this purpose as any other I have come across this year.
I am new to the concept of historical fiction. Not knowing the conventions of the genre may have prevented me from judging Mr. Lincoln's Wars fairly.I am new to the concept of historical fiction. Not knowing the conventions of the genre may have prevented me from judging Mr. Lincoln's Wars fairly. Perhaps I should be writing two reviews and giving two scores for Mr. Braver's idea. It is, after all, two things.
As fiction, Mr. Lincoln's Wars employs beautiful prose. Lincoln is an enticing subject, perhaps as perfect a tragedy as one can find among real human beings. Braver's narrative captures both the personal and national sadness. His principle success is in the fact he does so without crutches. There are no clichés, even vernacular devices work subtly. The zoetrope-like shape/motion of the anthology gives the impression of a moving picture, when the reader is actually viewing a series of static images through slits in a revolving drum. This is one of the wisest, most creative ways to depict the period between 1862-65 I have ever come across.
Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln was a real person. Not only that, but he is one of the best-known American personalities of the 19th century. He is so well known, in fact, that a reader like myself is aware that the president swore only in jest - and then, sparingly. And President Lincoln laughed. A lot. Moreover, he tried whenever possible to uplift others. Braver's president holds court more like a dour, overcast JFK. The language would have been authentic for Kennedy's Oval Office, but not for the house of Lincoln. Also suspect is the author's treatment of the 19th century American female character. For starters, 19th century society women did not swear, especially not in public or to unfamiliar men. Secondly, if they were the least bit candid about their sex lives the details were shrouded in dense euphemism. Again, Braver's women might not be out of place in the 1960s, but do not correspond to 1860s reality.
So, the author is off by a hundred years where his subjects (both specific and in general) are concerned. Is it a problem? Well, since his specific subject is Abraham fucking Lincoln* and his general one is a generation preserved in obsessive detail through period novelists, playwrights, and correspondents, I'd say yes. It's a big problem, actually.
Four stars for prose. Two stars for historical plausibility. Average: Three stars.
*Apologies, but if you can't read my swear words, you won't be pleased with the author's either....more