There's a part about two-thirds of the way through this book, when Robert Caro is describing the history of a dam that Lyndon Johnson would eventually...moreThere's a part about two-thirds of the way through this book, when Robert Caro is describing the history of a dam that Lyndon Johnson would eventually help to its completion, where he muses, "Detailing Wirtz's maneuvers to persuade the Legislature to... complete its construction would require a book in itself (no such work exists)." That's Robert Caro as best as I can describe him. He expects the rest of the world to produce books like the ones he writes, books that reflect his love of minutiae. This book is an obsessive, massive work that's only part one of an even larger work that only hints at a larger obsession with power. Robert Caro is a uniquely focused author, spending half of his life on one multi-part biography of an unpopular American president, but you get the feeling reading The Path to Power that books like this come out every day. It's long enough to drag us in and spoil us.
There's a lot to be said about the character of Lyndon Johnson in these books, but you can cover most of that with the most popular review for the book on this site, where someone says it's like watching Breaking Bad. Johnson has a way of never giving up that's not as much heroic as it is a selfish obsession with growing larger and more powerful than everyone else,* but enough about that, I want to talk about the prose! The Path to Power has a thousand pages to fill with thirty two years of Johnson's life, and as you might expect, Caro has a tendency to go off on tangents. The first chapter takes place fifty years before Johnson is born and goes into great detail about the soil conditions of west Texas. It's a bit of a slog at first, as is the opening section of any biography, where you have to learn about people who came before the star attraction, but with Caro it pays off. By spending so much time on the soil, Caro threads in themes of promise, potential, disappointment, and poverty that all pay off over the course of the rest of the book. The soil and its effect on Johnson's family has a profound psychological on Lyndon that lasts through his entire life. There are similar diversions, long tangents about Sam Rayburn, Lady Bird Johnson, debate clubs, farmhouses before and after electricity, and many more that I can't remember, but Caro is never self-indulgent in showing off his research. His prose works like a crucible. Anything that at first looks not directly related to Johnson is burned away and bubbles back at his feet.
*This is complicated by the fact that while being selfish he did a lot of good, but you can read the book for that, ya joik!
I feel like I've been slacking off with reading fiction, lately--just some short stories and chapters of old favorites, though I took a break for Lonesome Dove--but I've been reading this on and off since the end of January and it feels more like a great novel than it does a biography. Caro is a dramatic storyteller with definite tics, but once he gets going it scarcely matters if you believe what he's telling you or not. He's good enough to tell you the result at the beginning of a chapter about an election and still have you nervous at the end. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction in the reading experience is entirely unimportant here.** It's a good story, well-told, and everyone on planet Earth could learn from Caro's ability to have a distinct voice while staying out of our way.
**The back quarter of the book is an extensive annotated bibliography, though, so don't go thinking this is some postmodern "but what IS fiction" kick, because it isn't.(less)
I'd never read anything by Dave Eggers before (besides his introduction to Infinite Jest) so I didn't really know what to expect from this. If I'm bei...moreI'd never read anything by Dave Eggers before (besides his introduction to Infinite Jest) so I didn't really know what to expect from this. If I'm being honest what I really expected was something twee and annoying, a little too cute. I'm not proud of that but it's out there now! Blah! I'd put this dude off for a long time. I'd seen this book around for a while and I'd always assumed it was Dave Eggers on the cover, somehow flown in from SoCal to canoe around and tut-tut at all the terrible things happening in post-Katrina New Orleans. I was wrong, I was wrong! If anyone is reading this review and agreed with me up to this sentence, turn back, read this book! I was wrong! To put this in my best pitch terms (because I'm sleepy), I'd call this a cross between In Cold Blood (super in-depth nonfiction reporting with no mention of the author's hand) and the last quarter of Catch-22, when the jokes fall away and people start dying. It's the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy, and the terrible things that happened to them in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I'm not going to give a word of the plot away because that's stupid. Eggers moves through the chain of events day by day, incorporating flashbacks and exposition in a logical way. You learn about Zeitoun's childhood in Syria because that's what was on his mind during the flood. You don't learn about Kathy's family and their problems with her conversion to Islam until she goes up and meets them--it's nothing she dwelt on until she had to be confronted with it. The book starts off with a bit of showy prose, compared to everything that comes next, but after that point it's beat-for-beat reporting, no funny stuff. It's all straightforward except for one formal trick that's both devastating and totally earned. Anyway the moral of the story is sometimes you have terrible dumb biases against authors you've never read and they form for no reason (or maybe a mouthy review of A Heartbreaking Work that lodged in the back of your mind in your formative years) and you should get over them, read everything. I'm avoiding the content of this book because there's nothing I can add to it right now. Just go read it, we'll grab a drink later and talk about how awful the world is.
And whatever you do, don't google "Zeitoun aftermath" unless you want to ruin your whole damn day.(less)
I got a kindle recently (go to hell!) and I downloaded a lot of public domain american lit I'd never read before but thought I should own. Lots of Mar...moreI got a kindle recently (go to hell!) and I downloaded a lot of public domain american lit I'd never read before but thought I should own. Lots of Mark Twain and Moby Dick. I never thought I would actually read the damn thing, but here I am a week later. I just flipped through the opening pages and before I knew it it was over.
Most of my enjoyment early on came from the voice of Ishmael, the narrator. I've never much liked Melville in the past--Bartleby the Scrivener was sort of fun, but I saw the plot twist in Benito Cereno coming a mile away, and unfortunately that's a story that's a twist and little else--but here was something different. Ishmael was a guy I could relate to. At first his language seems impenetrable. I jumped from paragraph to paragraph looking for bits I could understand before I realized that ten pages in he was still talking about how some people like the ocean. He hadn't introduced any other characters or locations yet, just his mind and his wants. Once I figured out the pacing of the novel Moby Dick became something I looked forward to reading, not a chore. I'd get on the train to work early before it left the station so I could have more time to read.
At the beginning I wanted to say that Moby Dick isn't a long story, it's just a story that takes place over a long time, but by the end I realized I was being a big old jerk. There's nothing holding this book back from being an epic because that's exactly what it is. It's a long story told slowly, and you know it's a good one when you catch yourself walking down the sidewalk and thinking, "Man, how many whales are there in the ocean, anyway...?"
Everyone knows the broad strokes--dude goes to see, prophet tells him not to go, crazy captain, whale kills everyone, dude lives--so those were the parts of the book I enjoyed the least. When I finished reading last night it felt like a marathon to get to that famous line--"From Hell's heart I stab at thee!"--but somehow the scenes where Moby Dick showed up were among the ones I enjoyed the least. I loved (most of) the old descriptions of whaling and the heavy layers of symbolism that hang over just about everything that happens. Their compass gets struck by lightning and starts pointing backwards! Legless Ahab meets a British captain who lost an arm to Moby Dick and doesn't desire revenge! A white man clinging to a dead black man's empty coffin for survival--there's no way I can pack the whole of reading this book into this review. I'm hungry and I'm going to go make dinner. If I had a hundred days with no meals or distractions, though, I still couldn't say everything I liked about this book. Dinner's my excuse--on the level of analyzing serious literature, I am a coward, and I'm going to go eat a grilled cheese sandwich now.(less)
rating: 4.5, but I'm gonna go ahead and mark this a five because people are being jerks to this book. Come on, you guys!
When I was searching for this...morerating: 4.5, but I'm gonna go ahead and mark this a five because people are being jerks to this book. Come on, you guys!
When I was searching for this book online I found an ebook for a dollar that was called something like "Serial Killers: Jeffrey MacDonald." I didn't realize while I was reading Errol Morris' new book about the case how much popular prejudice there was against Jeffrey MacDonald--a famous convicted murderer whose case has been highly-contested for over forty years--I just read this because Errol Morris was writing another book, and he's one of those guys I flock to sight unseen.
A Wilderness of Error is a book written against other books, specifically Joe McGinnis' Fatal Vision and to a lesser extent Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer. What all of these books have in common is that they are to some extent examinations of the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, which took place in early 1970. Jeffrey MacDonald, a surgeon with the Green Berets, was found wounded in his home early in the morning near the bloody bodies of his pregnant wife and two young children. He claimed that his home had been invaded by a gang of murderous hippies, and despite early evidence that seemed to be in his favor, eventually he was convicted for murder and is currently serving three consecutive life sentences in jail. This is the version of the story popularized by Fatal Vision, the bestselling true crime novel published in 1983, which went on to become a wildly popular miniseries on NBC. A Wilderness of Error, published almost thirty years later, is a reexamination of the case springing from the assumption that MacDonald did not receive a fair trial.
Errol Morris is a documentary filmmaker first and foremost, and A Wilderness of Error often reads like one of his movies put to paper.* He focuses intensely on minutiae (a scrap of unattributed black wool found at the crime scene that was never shown to the defense, an unattributed hair under the fingernail of the murdered woman, 1/5 an inch in length), conducts interviews where his subjects monologue in long uninterrupted shots, and he even manages to "bookify" his love of inserting stock footage to clarify a story by giving full pages over to abstract black and white illustrations of objects from the case with no caption. It's a dense book, and it's long, too, but it's a clear read, rarely confusing. Morris' skill at using facts to create a gripping story while resisting obvious embellishment is on full display here.
* He had originally intended to make it as a film in the 1980s, but no one would produce it, because everyone he tried to sell the movie to cut him off mid-sentence, telling him MacDonald was a killer. The original idea he had for the movie was to take the cast of the miniseries, which led the audience to the conclusion that MacDonald was guilty, and direct a Rashoman-style alternate take using the same actors in the same roles to tell the story of MacDonald's innocence.
My first expectation was to read A Wilderness of Error as a postmodernist attack on narrative journalism, and to an extent that's what I got. Morris writes early on about the danger of becoming "imprisoned in a narrative" and he spends a lot of time picking apart McGinnis' examination of the MacDonald case, putting it on display as a case of sloppy (and often immoral) journalism. I came to an easy conclusion early on: narrative journalism is not capable of remaining objective in reporting a story. Morris was attacking McGinnis' book by creating a work just as convincing as Fatal Vision, but biased in the opposite way. His true point wasn't to prove MacDonald wrong, but to prove narrative journalism wrong as a concept by putting its weaknesses on full display. I patted myself on the back like a true liberal arts student, and then I spent some time thinking that I was just sooooo smart.
The only problem with that, though, is someone already had that idea and turned it into another bestselling book in 1990, Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm's book is a through-and-through attack on narrative journalism using Fatal Vision as a case study, beginning with the famous sentence, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." An attack on journalism in the form of journalism, daaaaaaaaaaaang! So postmodern! But when Morris comes to Malcolm's book late in A Wilderness of Error, he presents her as someone too concerned with theory to bother with the actual facts of the case. Like McGinnis and Morris, Malcolm also kept a correspondence with Jeffrey MacDonald, but she admits to after a while no longer reading the evidence he sent her in his favor, out of a conviction that looking for evidence of innocence from the mouth of a convicted man "is like looking for proof of God in a flower."
It's late in the game, but this is where Morris' book starts to shine. He's a heady postmodern guy, more academic than not, but his chief interest in much of his work has always been in how people jump to easy conclusions without taking the time to other viewpoints. His most famous documentary, The Thin Blue Line, not only got a convicted cop-killer off death row, it also got a confession from the guy who actually did it. He can't stand this sentiment from Malcolm. The evidence MacDonald is giving for his innocence is still evidence, still worthy of being considered. The big twist for me in Morris' book is that it isn't postmodern bullshit and that I never should have expected it to be. He cares deeply about the MacDonald case, and he's not trying to prove anything about his own intelligence or theory along the way. He just wants this guy out of jail.
After reading Morris' book I feel I can say there is reasonable doubt that MacDonald is a killer. I'm convinced. I've never read Fatal Vision and I don't plan to--I doubt it would change my mind. I've already got a solid narrative built up, now I have my own presumptions and prejudices. Since its publication, A Wilderness of Error has attracted a lot of angry reviews. I doubt anyone who's read Fatal Vision will be convinced by Morris' counter-narrative. He laid it out at the beginning and I'm fully aware of it, but I feel like I'm trapped in a prison of narrative that I can't think my way out of.(less)