The character of Henderson the Rain King reminds me of two apparently unrelated characters - one also fictional the other real. I find in Captain Hend...moreThe character of Henderson the Rain King reminds me of two apparently unrelated characters - one also fictional the other real. I find in Captain Henderson traces of George Babbitt and Colonel (Theodore) Roosevelt (after 1909). Babbitt and Roosevelt, of course, were contemporaries of one another in time (if not social contemporaries) and Henderson came decades later. But the suggestion that the three men were essentially the same bottled up energy and unfulfillment recommends a continuum in the 20th century, American male character.
I am under no illusion that Saul Bellow sought to remake Babbitt or Roosevelt. His Henderson just happened to strike the same chord with me as the aforementioned did in their ways. Of the three stories, Henderson's is the most hopeful and transcendent. Natural aversion to comparing apples to oranges prevents me from choosing which (real or fictional) character I like best or think did the best job with his life. But in key areas, I'd go with Henderson.
Roosevelt himself said, "There is not one among us in whom a devil does not dwell; at some time, on some point, that devil masters each of us... It is not being in the Dark House, but having left it, that counts." Babbitt comes out that dark house a little groovier, but having committed sin he never attones for* and essentially resuming the old, familiar form. Roosevelt experiences momentary nirvanas but dies bitter - emotionally destroying his sons in the process.** Henderson understands he lives in a dark house and seeks to air it out in the ultimate purge. Going to Africa literally lays bare his person and gives him unique opportunity for making disastrous mistakes and epic personal triumphs.
One could say that celebration of Henderson's epiphanies is the height of chauvinist selfishness. His metamorphosis does, after all, leave a long line of human and animal corpses in its wake. The detritus of Babbitt's sprees is less gory. But Roosevelt's wake is even bloodier, and he doesn't come out better for it. In the balance, Henderson's campaign of self realization is the happy medium - even it did have a huge cost and wasn't fair for all passersby. Taken metaphorically, the dehydrated village and dead king represent progress in the same mode as Bunyan's Pilgrim.
Maybe I'm being melodramatic comparing Henderson to Pilgrim. Pilgrim's goal was absolution of eternal sin and Henderson's was more immediately metaphysical. Nevertheless, the approximate values of the living and eternal souls are even on the scales, in my opinion. An actual person who validates his self at the expense of two East African communities is selfish, but luckily we're talking about literature. The metaphorical Henderson had to air his metaphysical house in a flurry of violence in order to achieve inner peace.
I am so happy for him - and the platonic ideal of modern man - that he found that peace. Henderson the Rain King is an uplifting story of the most unusual, but perfect, stripe.
*Babbitt's wife never learns of his extramarital affair. There is no question she would have been unable to handle it if she did. Henderson's wife, Lily - by contrast - understands Henderson's unusual appetites. While she does not condone extramarital affairs as such, she understands the lusty kiss and the nuzzling of royal bellies. She might even be able to assimilate the idea of King Henderson's enjoyment of the harem that was - by natural rights (according to local custom)- his.
**One son dies in combat, eager to be the first volunteer for suicidal duty. Another son commits suicide in late adulthood. Another pushes his body to the point of collapse. The fourth degenerates into hysterical red baiting and dies in obscurity and embarrasment, despite his colossal family name.
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)
Arthur C. Clarke defines "science fiction" and "fantasy" in remarkably simple terms. "Fantasy" is any story that is physically impossible, as measured...moreArthur C. Clarke defines "science fiction" and "fantasy" in remarkably simple terms. "Fantasy" is any story that is physically impossible, as measured by our understanding of science. "Science fiction" is any story that is at least theoretically possible, given applicable technology.
Both genres are prolific and - I think it's fair to say - often silly. Arthur C. Clarke is sometimes as silly as it gets, but he has an uncanny knack for making the reader momentarily forget that humans have not yet achieved interplanetary, manned spaceflight; colonized the solar system; or discovered extraterrestrial life. I do not believe many people momentarily forget that Hogwarts's magic isn't real and assume they can walk out the door and turn the mailbox into a catfish. Yet it is oddly frequent to put down an Arthur C. Clark book and have to force the mind to accept that one cannot board a commercial flight to Mars.
This sensation is even more acute when Clarke's format is the short story. Keeping certain motifs in common throughout the anthology contributes to the pervasiveness of the effect. The short story - much more than the long-form novel - permits the author to merge his style with other familiar genres and show how far his influences go beyond science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke's mid-century short stories are as similar to Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling as they are to his own later epics (or the work of Asimov and Heinlein). There's a swashbuckling characteristic to the stories that make them feel like stories intended for boys, until you remember that the action is happening aboard spacecraft and not sailing ships - and thus can't be real... at least not at the present.
Also uncanny is how conveniently open Clarke describes future technology. Clarke did not foresee certain aspects of modern computing, but he wrote in such a way that very few of his mistaken predictions get in the way. Clarke understood that technology becomes smaller as it develops. The computers on board his spacecraft do not sprawl like the bridge of the starship Enterprise. But he didn't forsee digital preeminence. His computers still require physical media. Audio communications have to be stored to tape and photographs have to be captured on film. There's a limit to how much data a party can collect and carry. Solid state technology takes a back seat to vacuum tubes.*
But these are small mistakes one can forgive. In fact, they're more forgivable for the brisk and swashbuckling stories he tells here. Verne's mistakes are even more myriad than Clarke's and we remember Nemo through the ages. I think it's fitting that Clarke tells such timeless stories in the context of a yet unrealized future. When we do carry live astronauts from planet to planet and find microbial life elsewhere in the solar system, "Breaking Strain" and "Jupiter X" will be at least as enjoyable reading for boys as Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson was for my grandfathers. "A Meeting With Medusa" is as much like Poe's Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, "Into the Maelstrom," and "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal" as anything else I've come across and will perhaps be as timeless, if not as literary.
Alas, it's the lack of literary polish that keeps Clarke bound by our prejudices concerning science fiction. His adventures are conceptually as compelling as the fiction of Jack London or the real life drama of Ernest Shackleton. But they are stylistically bankrupt when compared against Daniel DeFoe or Herman Melville. This is a fact that all science fiction fans have grudgingly made peace with. Our zeal to proselytize others and covert them to the genre makes us hungry for tales such as these, which have more than an ounce of general interest. Thus, "The Sentinel" is a great jumping-in point for anyone interested in reading Clarke. One simply has to understand that it is - to borrow a phrase coined by someone else on GoodReads - of the "straight to the hips" variety of adventure, genre fiction and not sophisticated literary work.
*I don't have any experience with steam punk. In fact, I have a prejudice against it based on the perceived type of people who get into it. But Arthur C. Clarke reminds me that all science fiction will become steam punk if given enough time. Taking film on board spaceships that think via vacuum tubes is only a few steps beyond the premise of robots running on steam and trenchcoat-clad private detectives in derigibles. The difference is that one is intentionally wrongheaded and the other is naive. Nevertheless the results resemble one another. Interesting.(less)
The President is a Sick Man is the perfect beach read. The subject is a perfect balance of quirk, period, and philosophy (quirky because an obscure 19...moreThe President is a Sick Man is the perfect beach read. The subject is a perfect balance of quirk, period, and philosophy (quirky because an obscure 19th century president had a secret surgery on a boat, a period piece because the gilded age is full of color, and philosophical because questions about the public's right to know what's going on with their president and the White House's relationship with the press have tremendous possible implications beyond the triviality of a single episode). It's been a long time since I read a book in a single day.
The other elusive balance Matthew Algeo managed to strike is the one between general nonfiction and historical scholarship. Algeo breezes over serious, divisive historical issues (bi-metallism, labor issues) without misstating anything in the process. Though the author doesn't explain the full implication of the gold standard versus bimetallism, he also doesn't make any incorrect generalizations. He also manages to comment on the period without apparent partisanship (though it's notoriously hard to definitively say who most resembles the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties in the 1890s). In short, despite a brisk and breezy tempo, there are no casualties in Algeo's narrative.
The reader doesn't walk away from The President is a Sick Man with a changed mind about anything. But it isn't a complete waste of time. Very gently, Matthew Algeo encourages his readers to ask themselves questions about American politics, journalism, and (to a lesser degree) the benefit of living in an era of reliable medicine. That gentleness and tempo make The President is a Sick Man one of the most overwhelmingly enjoyable books I've read in months.(less)
Disclaimer: I'm inconsistent on ratings. I'm not firm on the question of whether to grade something by its real merit or as an example of its genre. W...moreDisclaimer: I'm inconsistent on ratings. I'm not firm on the question of whether to grade something by its real merit or as an example of its genre. Witness: Water for Elephants (which I gave a staggering five stars), which is only a good book because the rest of the genre is so bad. I've gotten into the habit of rating books based on the pleasantness or unpleasantness of surprise if the book turns out to be different from what was expected.
Fortunately for this exercise, my admittedly capricious judgment was not compromised by Simon Pegg's book. It fails as both memoir and literature. I compromise nothing by giving it two stars.
Nerd Do Well is neither funny nor informative. Shaun of the Dead was one of few redemtive moments in the previous decade's comedic/cinematic death rattle (alongside Harold and Kumar and the woefully underrated Let's Go To Prison). Though many things got funnier (television, the internets), the big screen - like pop music - seemed to languish. So why is it that one of the decade's funniest film stars isn't funny on paper? The written word is more expansive than the confines of the camera. Simon Pegg has both vision and formal education. All signs pointed to Nerd Do Well containing at least a handful of laughs. Turns out I can count the number of times I laughed on one hand.
The main reason is Pegg's thesis isn't believable. He professes to have been a "nerd" and heavily into science fiction as a youth. From experience, I can say that actual nerds do not amass the impressive scorecard of sexual conquest that middle-school age Simon Pegg boasts about through a full third of the book. Actual nerds may beat the celibacy curse in their teens but their sexual activity is of the awkward rather than rock star variety. I don't begrudge the young Simon Pegg for his obvious good times, but he cannot be both a sexually active 7th grader and a science fiction geek. Such a combination doesn't exist.
(There is a mild creepiness to the obsession with middle school base running, anyway. Supposing there is a need to discuss one's pubescent sexual experiences, the addition of detail is problematic when the writer is currently a middle-age man describing the nude anatomy of 13 year old girls. It's less than Humbert Humbert's painful soliloquy, but still well beyond the limit of traditional mores.)
The second big problem North American readers will encounter is the incomprehensible construction of the English education. Simon Pegg uses terms like "secondary modern" and "seventh year" that I thought were only affiliated with Elvis Costello songs and Hogwarts. When paired with the dense Enlish slang, a substantial percentage of the book is rendered into a foreign language. Reading Nerd Do Well is a little easier than reading a Spanish language newspaper, but is fundamentally the same. One has to read and reread passages, hoping to understand the unfamiliar words through placing them in context.
The book is not without its bright spots. When Simon Pegg explains the Oedipal subtext of Shaun of the Dead, for example - which is brilliant. The author's sophisticated comparisons of Star Wars to US involvement in Vietnam and the cold war in general is even more interesting. The problem is one doesn't have to consult Simon Pegg to entertain this line of discussion. Ever since Clerks liberated my generation, broad discussions of the ethics and political significance of Star Wars became regular fare for dorm rooms, late nights, and barrooms. Pegg's insights are of exceedingly good quality, but he's hardly the only place to go for such insights.
Walking away from Nerd Do Well, I'm given to remember it as nothing more than a rambling discussion of Star Wars, which doesn't seem to have been the point. But one has to have periodic conversations about Star Wars to stay healthy - and those conversations become much less frequent in the company of a spouse, who in my case is female (females are notoriously apathetic about Star Wars as a bloc). In this respect, Simon Pegg acted as a conduit, giving me important Star Wars news. For example, I did not realize the original version of the trilogy (the one without skinny Jabba the Hutt or Max Rebo Band raps) is available on DVD. I owe Mr. Pegg a great debt for this bit of information that has somehow escaped my attention for who knows how long.
This isn't to say I completely agree with Simon Pegg on Star Wars. I share his basic opinion that the prequels were unnecessary and abominable. But he's too hard on my beloved Episode I. Baby Darth Vader, podracing, Boss Nass, and Jar Jar Binks are dear to my heart because of their absurdity. I projected a little too much, but I imagined George Lucas playing an enormous trick on the world - like Andy Warhol insulting millionaires by selling them paintings of soup cans or Prince tricking macho R&B fans into condoning transvestitism. It turns out George Lucas just made a huge mistake and tried, vainly, to correct it in later installments. If Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (which I remember virtually nothing about, by the way) were as silly as The Phantom Menace I'd love them just as much - out of a sincere devotion to absurdity. I'd have thought Shaun would have latched onto the absurdity for the same reason and at least embrace Episode I's more outrageous moments.
Of course much of my criticism may actually be unkind. Simon Pegg is only human. He started talking about Star Wars and got carried away, at the expense of his work. As I sit here preparing for my own workday, I find I have just spent 30 minutes longer than expected digressing about Star Wars myself. While this definitely lends a human element to Simon Pegg's apparent failure, it isn't enough to change my mind. No matter how great the professionally polite news readers on NPR make Simon Pegg come across in interviews, do not read Nerd Do Well.
Oh, as an aside, I did enjoy my 2 year old's reaction to the book's cover. The first time he saw it, he smiled, pointed, and said, "Daddy!" Though I sort of hated the book, I still like Simon Pegg and am not ashamed of being grouped into his basic physical category (chunky glasses, occasional facial hair, fair Anglo-Saxon features - though I (regrattably) do not own a white suit or drink many cocktails). It is better than my friend, who's 2 year old son proclaims, "Daddy!" when Jack Black comes on the TV.(less)
Trying to penetrate Mañana Forever's heavy reliance on statists and psychobabble is a little daunting. One does not have to have aced his/her college...moreTrying to penetrate Mañana Forever's heavy reliance on statists and psychobabble is a little daunting. One does not have to have aced his/her college economics classes to follow Jorge Castañeda's narrative, but having taken a couple of 100 level courses doesn't hurt. The book's strength lies in its value as an introductory course into contemporary Mexican politics. Unless one is from a community with a prominent Mexican immigrant population, many North Americans may not understand the differences between the Mexican and US societies and governments. Or - more probably - don't correctly identify those differences.
Though I was a little put off by the author's psychobabble concerning the Mexican character, it is necessary to correctly understand how Mexicans differ from their North American neighbors. Castañeda details the way Mexicans change psychologically following emigration to the US. This is an important point. Anyone who's worked with the diaspora community - particularly in "new" areas of immigrant expansion* - instinctively feels the differences among naturalized versus precarious/undocumented immigrants, the old versus young (particularly the American children of latino immigrants and their native-born parents), and mestizo versus indio (even if unaware of the terms) through the course of casual contact. Americans tend to be able to understand the way new immigrants change when that change makes them more like us; if we can do that, we can understand the way they were originally in the country of their birth.
Though the statistics are a bit dense, the fact that Mexico is currently the product of new constitutional amendments is not missed. Americans tend to make assumptions about the world through a certain lens. Other countries tend to fall into one of two categories: (A) Countries with established constitutions that were long ago decided and given form, and (B) brand new countries in the process of drafting constitutional governments expected to be durable for the future. We really lack a concept for dynamic countries in constant constitutional flux. If Americans learned anything about Mexico in school, it was probably the way Mexico was at that point in time - depending on a person's age, this could run the gamut from quasi-socialism to laissez-faire disarray. We are less aware that the country goes through transformations more or less in tandem with continental forces driven here in the north. Just as the US went through a decentralization in the first decade of the new millenium, Mexico changed dramatically under the presidents Fox and Calderon. If the vintage of one's education isn't the factor that decides the quality of Americans' understanding, misunderstanding can be attributed to the fact Mexican trends are not mirror images of US trends. For the most part, Mexican trends are indivisible and original - but they do tend to happen at more or less the same time as big changes in the US.
This change is prompted by multiple influences, but none more influential than the controlling trade partnership between the two countries. As America shifts psychologically into increasingly anti-immigrant attitudes, it is dangerous not to understand the origin of wholesale Mexican immigration. The individual migrant worker is a single atom in a larger chemical process. The migration is a direct result of economic policies in the sending country. Mexico trades almost exclusively with the US. Furthermore, remittances and illegal activity (the drug trade) are quasi-formal features of Mexico's official economic model. On both the formal (remittances from migrant workers) and informal (drug trafficking) ends the relationship is two sided, but the fact is that Mexicans emigrate as much because of Mexican economic policy as perceived opportunity in the US. It has never been particularly important to American voters to understand the reasons behind immigration (both legal and illegal), but those voters are generally clueless as to the actual origin of the phenomenon.
I found Mañana Forever more interesting in the aggregate than as the author's line of thought. I didn't find certain facts that interesting or relevant, partly because of the sociological complexity that is - frankly - a little suspect. How certain can the author actually be that Mexicans' low response to organized sport is directly related to the prominence of dangerous, protectionist property laws? Any reader willing to hack through that sort of jungle may find Mañana Forever a great read. To others less inclined to indulge the author's interpretations its informative value is tied to the diligence of the reader's forraging ability. The latter could certainly do worse. Even if Mañana Forever isn't the definitive text on contemporary Mexico, it is colorful and eclectic.
*Castañeda helps the reader understand that Mexican immigration used to be limited to American border states and tended to be impermanent. Get-tough immigration policy and changes to the US economy have forced new latino immigrants further afield into the American hinterland.(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)
Nothing to Fear is a good anthology of the backgrounds of the first generation New Dealers and a primer for the "alphabet soup" of New Deal agencies....moreNothing to Fear is a good anthology of the backgrounds of the first generation New Dealers and a primer for the "alphabet soup" of New Deal agencies. Unfortunately, it is not very deep.
Think of each chapter as elongated Wikipedia articles on cabinet officials. Adam Cohen gives his subjects' backgrounds an equal (sometimes greater) amount of space as discussion of the New Deal programs themselves. I think this is more than a little imbalanced. An example: Frances Perkins's work for New York state should be referenced to demonstrate the approach she brought to reforming the Labor Department (good). Contrasting the attitude toward unemployment relief as understood under English-styled, punitive "poor codes" with funded unemployment insurance is a valuable exercise (still good). Why stop there? Going on to detail the legal and political challenges could quickly cause a runaway chain reaction, increasing the book's length, but if controlled would have improved the book's coverage of its subject matter.
Stopping at this point is the main reason American history is as widely under-understood as it is. Explaining the background of American history only tells half of the story and produces the impression that history is a "magical" process. America didn't not have unemployment insurance or Social Security before the Roosevelt administration because no one had ever thought of it up to that point. America didn't have social programs before conditions were conducive and someone won in political struggle for progress. That process tells the other half of the story and should not be omitted, even out of concern for space.
My only other gripe is over the author's petulance toward Southerners. Yes, Hugo Black and Cordell Hull talked like Foghorn Leghorn. Pointing out the fact does not constitute an actual rebuttal of their politics - which were perfectly rebuttable without resorting to slandering their accents. (less)
**spoiler alert** I love The Octopus. Norris's prose is the literary equivalent of a drum solo. You almost nead earplugs while reading, because the re...more**spoiler alert** I love The Octopus. Norris's prose is the literary equivalent of a drum solo. You almost nead earplugs while reading, because the repetition of such assertive phrases is like being in a room where a brilliant rock band is rehearsing.
But The Octopus isn't consistent. It loses inertia at the 80% mark. It isn't plausible that Norris's narrative drops away accidentally - the dissection of the book into two unequal parts is a carefully calculated decision. However, it's one that doesn't work as well as Norris must have planned (or at least doesn't work well 110 years later).
What strikes me, though, in browsing other reviews, is how many people fix their impressions upon the latter - less successful - act of the book. I assume their impression is actually their reaction to Norris's social purpose: It is in the second part of the book that the most salacious tragedies unfurl (Mrs. Hooven starves to death with her child in her arms, S. Behrman drowns in his own embodied greed, Magnus Derrick is utterly broken and supplicated, the protagonist's energy unwinds in a gust of pathos). Undoubtedly Norris is at his most melodramatic here. Modern readers of a certain stripe may be forgiven their impulse to roll eyes at the unabashed pinkness on The Octopus's surface.
But this final stanza also reveals Norris's ability to balance and represent contrasting viewpoints. Presley's interview with Shelgrim reveals a clear familiarity with the laissez-faire mantra, circa: turn of the century:
"Believe this, young man," exclaimed Shelgrim, laying a thick powerful forefinger on the table to emphasize his words, "try to believe this - to begin with - that railroads build themselves. Where there is a demand sooner or later there will be a supply. Mr. Derrick, does he grow his wheat? The Wheat grows itself. What does he count for? Does he supply the force? What do I count for? Do I build the Railroad? You are dealing with forces, young man, when you speak of Wheat and the Railroads, not with men. There is the Wheat, the supply. It must be carried to feed the People. There is the demand. The Wheat is one force, the Railroad, another, and there is the law that governs them - supply and demand. Men have only little to do in the whole business. Complications may arise, conditions that bear hard on the individual - crush him maybe - but the Wheat will be carried to feed the people as inevitably as it will grow. If you want to fasten the blame of the affair at Los Muertos on any one person, you will make a mistake. Blame conditions, not men."
Frankly, the more familiar samples of American progressive literature doesn't take time away from its indignation to engage in pluralism. The Octopus is reputed to have inspired Sinclair’s The Jungle. The Rudkuses’s employers and real estate agents are never really polled for their point of view; they just crush anonymously and brutally. Even the lighter satire of Sinclair Lewis portrays capitalism as an unconsidered status quo rather than a debatable philosophy. Don’t mistake me: Norris takes the social progressive side of the argument. But he is to be credited for briefly revealing the other side of the story too.
But, see, I’ve done it too… Focusing on the latter, weaker part of the novel. The first 80%, in which the characters strive and strain and make mistakes – with that percussive cacophony I described in my opening paragraph – is what makes The Octopus less of a muckraking missive than literature. Good writers have their share of admirers and detractors. Though I understand complaints surrounding the repeating refrains (how many times must an author point out that a mythic character’s eyes and lips have an oriental tilt and “Egyptian” fullness?), I sort of admire the boldness. For exactly the same reason Bob Dylan was more interesting when he was little more than a nasal noise salad born aloft by an acoustic guitar and terrible harmonica than when he became a full-blown country rock star. I totally understand why some people prefer singers with good voices and writers with compact styles, but I’m an admirer of a full-throated yell.
Though The Octopus is a venerable 110 years old, it’s got relevance for miles. The scenario is based on a real-life event (the Mussel Slough tragedy), is similar to the later battle for Blair Mountain (though different in nature), and terribly like the dust bowl evictions of Oklahoma in the 1930s. People forget that, when faced with starvation and ruin, Americans will take extreme measures in their defense. We assume the cataclysmic turmoil of the early 20th century is behind us, but Norris’s themes remain salient nonetheless. I can’t help but thinking of Rupert Murdoch as L. Shelgrim. He doesn’t personally care if the product he peddles is good or bad for society. The law isn’t more than a nagging inconvenience. To him, there is only demand. There are forces. If the forces of good were more demanding than those of evil, he would cater to them. Simple as that. The world hasn’t changed much at all and The Octopus is a rollicking sketch of its tumultuous ground zero.
Most of the history dedicated to the American Revolution devotes a great deal of space to the speculative definition of the revolutionary generation....moreMost of the history dedicated to the American Revolution devotes a great deal of space to the speculative definition of the revolutionary generation. Less space is given to defining the loyalists. For the most part, loyalists are described passively as the vague inverse of the patriots* - people Maya Jasanoff calls "republicans" (with a small "r").** In Liberty's Exiles, the author proffers a much more affirmative definition of American loyalists as basically conservative British subjects who, for various reasons, preferred the security of the status quo to the insecurity of economic and political experimentation.
The point that struck me most is how similar the 18th century definitions of freedom are to their 21st century counterparts. One side defined freedom as a state of liberation from any government interference. The other calculated equality and security heavily into the concept. The difference is that in the 18th century those who favored equality and security were the conservatives (whereas today they would be the progressives) and those who favored liberty were the liberals (today they would be the conservatives - a neat reversal in polarity).
According to the author, loyalists fell into one of two basic categories: (A) White middle class subjects doing well under the British economic system or government bureaucracy and (B) non-white minorities who felt British law provided more protection than any nascent American system. Both categories deliver a negative referendum on the state of American society - which is probably why the loyalist cause is not deeply explored in more patriotic histories.
North American colonists had a higher per capita income than their fellow subjects living in the British isles.*** Those who ran a simple risk analysis understood that their cost of living would rise with American independence.**** As if that were not enough, the threat of runaway inflation soured business interests against the dollar. Then there was the imbalance of military and political power among the American colonies and European superpowers. If the prospect for going republican versus staying British were underwritten, the best rates would go to those who stayed loyal. It isn't hard to see why certain people would find the revolutionary cause counter to their personal interests, all ideology aside.
The reasoning of native Americans and Africans is much less complex. In their risk analysis, both groups overwhelmingly perceived the greater benefit under British alliance/protection. The British were already on record as defending native American territorial rights - the restriction on westward expansion was the ultimate catalyst for the tea party, and thus a contributing factor to the war itself - while the colonists were relentless in their demand for Indian land. It's true that most African slaves escaped to British liberators for promises of freedom rather than political ideology (emancipation was an executive war power and not a constitutional concept). But it's also true that free blacks overwhelmingly favored the British as protectors of liberty. Again, the facts return a negative referendum on the integrity of American republicanism. Thomas Jefferson accused his British rulers of infidel crimes against humanity by introducing the institution of slavery to America,**** but it was Americans who totally owned it. By 1775, the original importers of human chattel slaves were perceived as less brutal than the generation who currently managed the institution.
Liberty's Exiles is not an anti-American propaganda piece. Nor does it propose that the loyalists' expectations under the British system proved true. In fact, the bulk of the book laments retracted promises and lack of political will to protect the loyal subjects of the realm. But this doesn't invalidate the motives of the loyalists either. The fact is that life in the 18th century was fucking hard. The idea of a politically fair deal had not fully been developed. Neither the American nor British models delivered the body politic to any promised lands. There were legions of disenchanted on both sides. Jasanoff's thesis is that 18th century North Americans made decisions according to their own sets of motives - which, it turns out, is not that different than our own in that the ultimate division among us is the way we define "freedom."
**I've never liked the word "patriot," both for its ambiguity and propensity for expropriation by special interest groups (see: Tea Party Patriots). "Revolutionary" is much more precise. Even "rebel" - negative connotations and all - is an acceptable label, since the American colonists were in active rebellion against Great Britain.
****There was no reason to believe that Britain would continue to back the American currency, protect American trade, and provide physical security after a forceful, contemptuous schism. Each of these institutions - and more - would have to be replaced, with all costs up front, and rebuilt from the ground up. The cost of empire under the British system distributed the cost across a large pool of subjects. Fewer newly-minted American citizens would be available to shoulder the cost of a radical start up. Thus, the burden per capita was expected to be greater after independence than as British subjects. This proved true immediately.
*****(From Jefferson's original, rejected, draft of the Declaration of Independence): "[King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."(less)
John Dos Passos astutely wrote that Americans are two people: those capable of contextualizing what they read and hear with their republican values an...moreJohn Dos Passos astutely wrote that Americans are two people: those capable of contextualizing what they read and hear with their republican values and those hopelessly distracted by base prejudice at the expense of good citizenship. Dos Passos's quote is repeated two or three times in Sacco and Vanzetti and is the base of the book itself.
I find it interesting that one could also say about Bruce Watson's monograph that Sacco and Vanzetti is two books: one that contextualizes the trial with American values and the times and one that gets bogged down in detail.
The 1920s is a fascinating and under-served period in American history. If for no other reason than we became the people we are today in the 1920s, since...
"Nearly every amusement that would dominate the twentieth century - radio, TV, sporting spectacles, pop psychology, home appliances, youth culture, crazy fads, 'talking pictures,' Madison Avenue, Mickey Mouse - got its start during this frantic decade."
Much more than the 50s or 60s, the 20s gave us the features we identify ourselves by today. While it may have been Fenno's Gazette of the United States (at the earliest) or Hearst's New York Journal (more likely) that started the shrieking, manic, panicky news cycle, it wasn't until the 20s that polemic causes celibrés ignited international markets with the antics of a certain sample of an unusually reactionary American public.
The first part of the book doesn't say as much, but I got a real vibe from Watson that he considers Islamophobia and the right's too cool for brains posture a continuation of the lessons we failed to learn eighty years ago. In the 1920s, some Americans believed that all Italian and Italian-American Catholics were depraved bomb-throwers in a number that approximately corresponds to the number of Americans who believe all Muslims are suicide bombers. Or all African-Americans are lascivious sub-humans with loose morals... Or that all Japanese-Americans are Tojo's spies... Pick your year; it's sort of the same. The pathological defect in the national character believes a small number of loosely related crimes is justification for wholesale racism and bigotry. Not that terrorism is often justified, but America has to re-learn the lesson that further antagonizing the terrorists by abusing the innocent is the wrong way to quell terror. Watson doesn't say it, but the reason Italians, leftists, and the international proletariat stopped planting bombs when Italian-Americans and Catholics were eventually admitted into the American franchise on a more-or-less equal basis with WASPs and the vicious red-baiting of the early 20th century yielded to the Bill of Rights. It didn't stop because our legal and political system really stuck it to the reds.
I digress. Someone else wrote a review complaining that Watson seems to believe in Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence because of a personal, liberal agenda. Not really. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti is routinely taught in American classrooms as an example of government corruption in the age of the Harding and Coolidge heydays. The perception of a "frame-up" and political persecution is the standard academic interpretation. So if Watson is speculating on the context of corruption and prejudice in the 1920s, the reader is not out of line finding parallels in the intervening years. That's all I'm saying. And with that, Watson has a pretty good book, here.
But the author doesn't rest on sound historiography. He goes into detail of the minutes of the trial and rounds of appeals that is, frankly, grueling. While Watson isn't uncommonly long-winded, he doggedly documents each move in a grim dance involving judicial incompetence, judicial indiscretion, and judicial gridlock. Redundant points aren't consolidated together for maximum effect. Instead, they're cited separately, in chronological order. It makes reading a breezy work of non-fiction a little bit like reading actual court transcripts (which I have to do occasionally, and while it may thrill some it definitely isn't for everyone). This approach is thorough, and cannot be fairly called bad scholarship. But it slows down the tempo and makes a good book suddenly, decidedly. much less fun. That's a shame, because I think Watson has written a book that will be the go-to for undergrads, history enthusiasts, and general interest on the subject for years to come. It's a shame that it doesn't hold the reader as rapt as its subject deserves.(less)