Rereading this for the first time since I was a little kid. Made a huge impression on me the first time, and -- for better or worse -- has aged well a...moreRereading this for the first time since I was a little kid. Made a huge impression on me the first time, and -- for better or worse -- has aged well and feels as urgently relevant as ever today.
I glanced at some other reviews on here and found them a bit shocking. Looking forward to addressing some of their points once I'm done with the book...(less)
Man, living in South Africa really sounds like it sucks.
Nabokov insisted that "one cannot read a book: one can only reread it," and while I suspect...moreMan, living in South Africa really sounds like it sucks.
Nabokov insisted that "one cannot read a book: one can only reread it," and while I suspect he was right I almost never read books more than once. There are just too many unread books out there for me to stop and go back in most cases, unless I'm made to do so for a class, which this time I was, just two years after first reading Disgrace.
There are a couple obvious reasons why it's good to reread books, and one has much more to do with the reader than with the book. Put simply, you're just not the same person the second time as you were the first time you read a book; disappointingly, this usually makes me like the book less, now that I'm older and cynical and a more ruthless judge. But I responded much more strongly and positively to Disgrace the second time, probably because of something that happened to me a couple weeks ago.
I live in a neighborhood of Miami with a huge population of feral cats. I'm not much of a cat person, but I like these guys. They twist all over the jungly block I walk down on my way to the train, and sometimes I sit in my backyard and one of them will stand across the grass and we'll sort of just look at each other, and it's nice. There's one -- or maybe twenty -- that's black with some white, that I often saw in my backyard and spent time with in this way: it just kind of hanging out on its end, me over on mine.
So a couple weeks ago I noticed that this cat -- or one of it -- was lying dead on the grassy palm-treed median right in front of my house. I noticed its black and white body while I was crossing on my way to do laundry. It must have been hit by one of the crazed Miami drivers whizzing by on my fairly busy street.
Being strenuously unsentimental, my only response was to try figuring out if there was some city agency charged with going out to collect animal corpses. The closest I ever got was a number for animal control that, whenever I called, played a message stating that there were too many calls and then disconnected the line.
I really didn't know what to do in this situation. I'm not into pets and have never owned a cat, and while there have been a few I've grown to like, I'm just not a cat person; much more into dogs. I've also been historically opposed -- for reasons I might get into below -- to sentimentality about domesticated animals. Plus I'm a real city mouse, used to having this kind of thing swept up by some kind of taxpayer-funded agency... Mayor Bloomberg would not have dead cats littering his city's streets, but Miami is no New York. It is pretty Third World down here, in some ways.
It seemed obvious that the cat's corpse couldn't be allowed to stay there. I could see it across the street, starkly black and white against the green grass, every time that I stepped out of my house. But it was also clear that unless I did something, the dead cat wasn't going anywhere. But I couldn't think of anything to do except for throw it out in the trash, and this seemed profoundly disgusting to me -- having it rot in my trashcan in the heat for a few days, then being dumped into the garbage truck -- and anyway, I didn't own a shovel.
The first thing I did was ask my father (who lives in a rural area) what to do. He asked if I could not just "ignore it and let nature take its course?", noting that if he were around he would deal with it, but that for me it was a question of what was more disgusting at this point: chucking it in the trash, or watching it rot and be eaten by scavengers.
This was not a satisfying answer, and so as my Facebook friends already know, at this point I put the question to The Community. What should I do? I was stumped. Did my virtual friends have suggestions? The first responders were a gallant, practical, and mostly male bunch who advocated either leaving it to return to the earth in due time, or swiftly transporting it to the nearest garbage receptacle wrapped in some kind of plastic or other, post haste.
But then two Facebook friends -- both slightly older, pretty tough punk chicks, both cat owners, who live in different parts of the country and don't know each other at all -- told me that what I had to do, the only right thing, was to bury it.
This option hadn't even occurred to me before. I say this in all sincerity and with emphasis: It hadn't crossed my mind.
Obviously this was the only decent thing to do. More than decent: it was the thing that must be done, and this was incredibly important. It was late at night when I figured this out and I went to bed anxious that before I could get to Home Depot the next morning to buy a shovel, the cat corpse would disappear without being properly laid to rest.
Fortunately, that was not the case. I woke up in time to get to Home Depot when they opened, bought a six-dollar shovel and was out on the median with my blue recycling bin and an old cut-up white Ben Sherman shirt. The cat was already rotting in the heat, crawling with bugs, its eyeballs popping out of its furry little head. It stank. I mean it really did smell extraordinarily bad. It was also surprisingly heavy and difficult to maneuver into the recycling bin with my shovel, but I did, then tossed the shirt over it and carried it back around the side of my house to the backyard, holding my breath against the stink and full of purpose.
I dug a fairly deep hole and then tipped the cat's body into it, its black and white paws sticking out playfully in all directions from underneath the white shirt as I heaped dirt back on top of it.
As soon as I'd filled in the hole I was flooded with a feeling of peace and relief. I did not, as a Facebook friend suggested I should, say Kattish. I place a rock over the grave, awkwardly mumbled, "Rest in peace, cat," then wandered back inside my house. I sprayed the shovel and the blue recycle bin with cleaning fluid, where the decomposing cat had left a smelly smear and a bit of fur. I felt an enormous sense of well being, that a problem I'd been anxious about had been resolved in so obviously the correct and most appropriate way.
When I walked to the train later on, I felt happy when I saw the other feral cats roaming around. I had attended honorably to their fallen comrade; I was a friend of homeless cats everywhere, a true ally. I was decent. I was okay.
Except that I wasn't. What really disturbed me then, and still does, was that it hadn't even crossed my mind to bury the dead cat until other people suggested that that's what I should do. It was so obviously the right thing, the only thing, to do once I'd done it, but I didn't know I should do it until two other people told me to.
I know why this didn't occur to me, kind of. It's because I try really hard not to be sentimental about animals. When I was in the second grade, I stopped eating meat. I don't remember why exactly, but I suspect it was inspired by bumper stickers on the hippie van of the next-door neighbor's boyfriend... and also just by a childlike conviction that animals were cute and that eating them was gross and wrong. And so I didn't eat meat then, starting at a very young age, and as a teenager -- following a drug experience at Washington DC's extremely depressing aquarium -- discovered a real passion for animal rights with a very strong philosophy behind it. I was appalled by the idea of animals as pets; I became vegan, and stopped eating and wearing animal products altogether. But I wasn't a judgmental, obnoxious vegan, I don't think. I respected hunters, people who killed what they ate. The people I looked down on were self-identified "animal lovers": those who cherished dogs and cats with a real self-righteous fire, but who ate hamburgers and pork. I scorned people who were disgusted by raw carcasses, by farm animals' deaths, but who ate them, and then dotingly spoiled their dogs. I didn't see the difference, and their distinctions offended me.
My veganism was very adolescent, but I don't mean that in a derogatory way. I wanted to be morally consistent. I didn't want to participate in eating something I wouldn't take responsibility for having killed. I was a kid, a teenager, first confronting how truly and irreparably fucked up the world was, and I immediately understood that it was too big for me to do anything about that and saw how I was implicated in all of it, and the animal thing seemed like the one area I could take myself out of. Everything with the people was all so so so bad, and this was the only place where I felt I could say, "No. Not this. I won't be part of it." And it made me feel, not okay, but something. Like in this terrible world I was doing one tiny thing that made sense, that was right, that was rooted at least in an effort at ethics and dignity.
Which is, I think, what Disgrace is about. Not in a simplistic or didactic way (unlike, say, Elizabeth Costello, which I haven't read in awhile but don't remember fondly at all), but in an extremely complex and nuanced sense this book is about the question of how to be a good person in this horrendously awful world, and what our relationship to animals has to do with that. Disgrace's post-apartheid South Africa is, in certain ways, not so different from my adolescent welcome to the actual world. We are all, like Coetzee's David Lurie, so flawed. We are terrible, and our world is such a violent and complicated mess that we cannot be good people in any recognizably meaningful sense. It's impossible. And so this is why we turn to the animals: to measure ourselves. To practice humanity, by being humane. But in this book, it's not practical at all, which resonates: David Lurie doesn't save the dogs, any more than I saved the dead cat. His actions have no practical result for the animals, yet what he does is not symbolic, it's not a metaphor for something else. It is just what he does, because that's what there is to do. I can't really say what I mean beyond that, but I think Coetzee says it for me in this book.
I'm still really ashamed that I didn't think to bury that cat. I understand why I didn't, and it has to do with why I stopped being vegan and with everything that's happened since then. I stopped thinking so much about animals because I grew disgusted with that, and turned my attention to the sufferings of and injustices to people. But, as Disgrace dramatizes, people are far more complicated than dogs or cats or sheep or cows. We just are. It's silly to dispute it. And that's what made veganism so appealing to me, as a young person, was that it was so clean cut, black and white, right and wrong. Dealing with people isn't like that, not ever, not really. It's all grey, all the time, and violently, despairingly so.
I tried to get really tough and steel myself against the world when I saw what it was, because that seemed to make the most sense. It seemed hypocritical to care more about animals than about people, but caring about people in a consistent way was so complex and taxing, and whatever I did seemed to drown me in hypocrisy and confusion. As I grew older, I felt I'd been too idealistic. I wanted to be more cynical, or at least tougher, because that's what this world seemed to demand. And that's why it didn't occur to me to bury the cat, even when I knew full well the other options -- toss it in the trash or leave it there -- were both wrong. The world was so bad and complicated that I'd given up trying to be a good person.
That's what this book's about, I think. Trying to be a good person. At least, I thought that the second time that I read it.(less)
So I'm back in school now, and for the first time in ages am being made to read books. Now I don't have any personal experience with desperately tryin...moreSo I'm back in school now, and for the first time in ages am being made to read books. Now I don't have any personal experience with desperately trying to get pregnant, but reading novels for school reminds me of that: there's this activity that I'm used to doing purely for fun when I feel like it, that I'm now grimly pushing through on an inflexibly dictated schedule, whether I'm in the mood or not, with this intense sense of purpose that seems to poison the whole event. The result is that I'm not really enjoying any of the books I read these days -- I feel so oppressed powering through 700 pages in a week under the threat of a syllabus that it's impossible for me to tell whether I'd like the books I'm reading in more organic conditions. So I guess if my star-rating average drops a lot, that'd be why.
This is my first Faulkner, and I didn't hate it or anything, but it may well be my last. I'm glad I read it, because never having read him was always more than a little embarrassing, but now I get the gist of what his deal is, and it's basically more or less what I thought: lovely and often startling language, legions of poetically insane and religiously fanatic and sexually rampant violent southerners, and frequency of n-word drops that'd make a rap star turn green with envy. It was less formally innovative than I imagine his other stuff being, I guess, so maybe I'll try one of those someday to see. There were some great things in this book -- mostly language, and the evocation of mood, power relations and place -- but I thought it was overly long and fell apart at the end into some sloppy-seeming bloatedness and kind of Hollywoodish whatever. I read this for a class the same week that we also did The Power and the Glory, and this made for an interesting comparison with its thoroughly created and self-contained nightmare world of terrorism and fear (though I liked the Graham Greene a whole lot more).
I dunno, it was fine, and it did have its moments, but I really suffered through the last 150 pages. Admittedly this was because I had to finish it by the next day for class, but nonetheless that was my experience, and it was pretty brutal and bad.(less)
Holy hell, Death in Venice is fucking amazing. If, like me, you somehow just never got around to reading it, pull yourself together and do something a...moreHoly hell, Death in Venice is fucking amazing. If, like me, you somehow just never got around to reading it, pull yourself together and do something about that now.(less)
Finally, an argument in favor of being forced to read books! I hated the beginning of this and fell asleep twice during the first chapter, so I never...moreFinally, an argument in favor of being forced to read books! I hated the beginning of this and fell asleep twice during the first chapter, so I never would've kept on going if I hadn't had to for school. But The Periodic Table got progressively better then finally peaked at the end, as is my personal preference for books. I cried for like twenty minutes after I finished this, though I'm not sure if that had to do more with Primo Levi or with my own lady hormones.
In any case, though it took me awhile to get into it, I did really like this book and recommend it, especially if you're interested in chemicals. Levi insists that it's fiction, not autobiography, but it feels very true, whether it all is or not. Each chapter is structured around an element from the periodic table, and tells the life story of an Italian Jewish chemist who grows up under Fascism, survives the Holocaust, and then works -- among other things -- as a varnish manufacturer. I haven't read Levi's Holocaust stuff, but the way that experience is handled here is unexpected and moving -- there is a little bit about it, but basically he's like, "I already wrote that book" and elides most of it, so the story is more about how his life continues on after that. Again, slow start for me but ultimately got into the Big Shit in a strikingly human, profound, and lovely way.(less)
Ceridwen, I'm so sorry, but I did pretty much hate this. I didn't want to -- I've always heard great things and meant to read Ursula Le Guin (she went...moreCeridwen, I'm so sorry, but I did pretty much hate this. I didn't want to -- I've always heard great things and meant to read Ursula Le Guin (she went to my high school!), but what I'd forgotten to factor in was that I just don't "get" fantasy/sci fi... at all.
I mean, actually I don't understand why that is really. Perhaps there is something essential that is dead and withered inside me and that is why I can't read a word like "windsteed" without snorting and rolling my eyes. I mean, what is it about genre fiction, that makes it not fiction-fiction? I like to think that I can get into experimental stuff, and so in theory yeah, why not read about invented worlds? Sounds cool, doesn't it? But -- okay, based on an admittedly miniscule sample size -- I feel like in fact it is not.
To me this felt like, oh I don't know, the difference between shopping for a uniform or specific sports clothing (that'd be reading genre fiction) as opposed to just clothes ("regular" fiction). Or maybe better -- especially for me -- listening to electronic music designed for club dancing, as opposed to normal music made out of instruments and people singing and stuff. And I don't know why that is, exactly. I guess there being certain recognizable conventions I find very unattractive -- spaceships, quests, etc. -- is something that's heightened by my unfamiliarity with them. This stuff's probably somewhat like a language you get used to, and then you stop noticing these things so much and can start distinguishing the good ones from the bad... I was somewhat relieved to see that most Le Guin fans aren't that crazy about this particular early book, so maybe I can still try something else of hers at some point and see if I can stomach it better.
But honestly I don't know if I can handle the whole sci fi "thing," though the fact that I can't bothers me a bit, since I don't quite understand why that is. There were things I liked in here -- e.g., fantastic landscape descriptions -- that were possible because of the genre. But ultimately I had a real problem with suspending my disbelief. Like, if you have this entirely invented world with flying cats and telepathy and all this crazy shit going on, I can't get invested in the stakes of the narrative because I don't know the rules, and so none of it seems real enough to be important. Like, I did like the part where (SPOILER ALERT!) some friendly badger-type people come and save our heroes from the malevolent but good-looking angelic insects, but like, I don't know, if talking badgers can suddenly appear and then you can just wing it out of the metal walled city on your flying cat, then like, how can I get invested in anything that might happen, because anything might happen? It's be like watching a soccer game but knowing some of the players might suddenly turn invisible or fly. Maybe that should make the game way cooler to watch, but it might actually just make the whole thing more boring.
This is probably a problem that goes away once one becomes a seasoned sci fi/fantasy reader, but I have a feeling that's something that won't happen to me. Am I a jerk? Should I try harder? I feel like I could get super into this stuff when I was a kid, but it might be too late in life now. Ceridwen -- or someone -- any thoughts on the value or appeal of this? Worth trying to get into, or does one just have a taste for it or not?(less)
Lawrence Wright is one of those guys who could easily put novelists out of business, and this book made me question why I read fiction at all. The loc...moreLawrence Wright is one of those guys who could easily put novelists out of business, and this book made me question why I read fiction at all. The locations, characters, and events in The Looming Tower are so much more fascinating than anything an author could invent, and the fact that they're real makes them seem important in a way fiction almost never does. I loved this book, and my picayune quibbles -- a few recurring awkward sentence constructions, inexplicably referring to domestic terrorists who bomb clinics and murder doctors as "protesters" -- just need to be dispatched with here so people know I actually read this book, and am not just brainlessly screaming about how good it is because someone's slipped me a Samsonite suitcase stuffed with cash.
I never would've read this, actually, if it hadn't been assigned for school, because I purposely avoid everything written about the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. Having to read this book was good because it made me think a lot more about why I do that, plus most of it wasn't really about 9/11, but about the development during the last century of Islamist terrorism and formation of al-Qaeda, which is infinitely more interesting to read about anyway.
As a very provincial, ignorant person who hasn't traveled a lot, I don't know much about Islam or the Arab world and am thus highly susceptible to a romantic Orientalist-type fascination. And so the descriptions in this book of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and a bunch of other places I can't even vaguely visualize without remedial assistance of the sort provided here) in the mid-to-late twentieth century were instantly riveting to me, as were Wright's patient and highly readable narratives of various key players' actions and lives. Partly because the people and places described were so exotic to me, the book had a quality of the mythic to it, and I'll admit that my ignorance and naivite about the rest of the world contributed to my enjoyment of this. For instance, his description of Saudi Arabia at mid-century, just as oil is being discovered, was at least as thrilling and evocative as some fantasy adventure story. The account of Mohammad bin Laden's construction in 1961 of a road uniting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had all the suspense and narrative power of incredible fiction... and the details of Mohammad's polygamous practices were too lurid and insane to have been made up.
No, Hollywood with all its big budgets and CGI effects can't compete with this book's images of antsy Arab jihadists holed up in Afghanistan, mid-eighties Peshawar filling with the chaos of the Afghan war's overflow, a jihadi/US Army sergeant/al-Qaeda member/would-be CIA agent's adventures stateside, a Sudanese general's selling bin Laden fake uranium that was really cinnabar, the shadowy worlds of international intrigues and terrorism and American intelligence's determined bureaucratic obstructionism of itself... and of course all the violence, which is so pervasive and twisted and sadistic beyond even the most famously filmed gore. YOU JUST CAN'T MAKE THIS SHIT UP! Would that we had to...
Okay, but Lawrence Wright didn't write his book just to entertain but also to inform. This stuff really did happen, and we're supposed to think something about it, I guess. Obviously part of what demands the comparison of this book to fiction is the over-the-top drama of its story: the "clash of civilizations" apparently driving these men to mass murder for reasons that seem so foreign and incomprehensible to me.
I guess the main reason I avoid reading about the 9/11 attacks is that I feel profoundly embarrassed by my nation's reaction to them. Not only by our political and military response, but by our cultural processing, and what we've made of these events. Reasons for my discomfort with the political and military stuff is pretty obvious; throughout The Looming Tower, Wright makes clear that a goal of the terrorists was to provoke a repressive response: to make the United States behave more like, say, Egypt, where dissenters and suspected terrorists were rounded up and tortured without any due process, a practice many point to as a factor in Ayman al-Zawahiri's increasingly bloodthirsty radicalization. Well uh, yeah -- as the old cliche points out, cliches become cliche for a reason, and "the terrorists have won" out in many ways, not least in our country's treatment of suspected terrorists. Score one for the away team!
I mean, I really don't want to get into some boring stupid political rant, but reading this did make my own thoughts and feelings about all this stuff clearer to me. In some ways the book had a sort of cartoonish simplicity in its presentation of the battle between good and evil, but the thing is that you can't argue that al-Qaeda and these other similar groups aren't purely evil. They are evil. Intentional mass slaughter of innocent civilians is objectively evil, and so painting these guys as two-dimensional Saturday-morning animated villains is not wrong. The only part of the equation that's not so simple is the goodness-of-adversary part, and so maybe the battle is more like evil v. at-least-somewhat-less-evil. But whatever your issues with the United States and our tendency to have robots drop bombs on wedding parties halfway around the world and to perform extraordinary renditions to Syria or whatever, there are some very nice things about living here, such as the Taliban not running our zoo.
One thing I remember really clearly about being a kid was watching movies or reading books and always thinking that the bad guys were trying to destroy the good guys based on some misunderstanding -- that if the good guys sat down with the bad guys and they drank some apple juice together, the bad guys would realize that their vendetta was all just a silly mistake. Then I grew up, and came to understand that this was rarely the case. Violent hatred isn't usually based just in miscommunication or a lack of understanding; that's just a comforting myth we tell children because the truth kind of sucks. It's not that al-Qaeda hates me because they don't understand me. If they really knew me and what I'm all about, they'd hate me even more than they already do.
Anyway, my book report is willfully trying to turn itself into a moronic political rant -- sorry. Where I think I was going was that Wright also emphasizes how badly bin Laden wanted to lure the U.S. into war in Afghanistan, which he envisioned -- after the Russians' misadventure there -- as a guaranteed destroyer of empires. Well, it is truly baffling to me why anyone would ever want to fight a war in AFGHANISTAN -- from what I can see this is a country of MUTILATED, DRUG-DEALING TRIBAL WARLORDS WHO ARE PERFECTLY COMFORTABLE BEING SURROUNDED BY LANDMINES, and it seems like you'd have to be crazy go fucking around with people like that -- but there we are. Or rather, there are our troops, dealing with God only knows what, while the rest of us sit around at home getting fatter and updating our Apple products and spouting off uninformed opinions in online book reviews and occasionally still making some kind of pious, wounded noise about the excruciatingly painful national tragedy that was 9/11.
I mean, that's really why I avoid all the 9/11 stuff, and what I find so uncomfortably embarrassing about it. For me, in many ways what this book was about ultimately was violence, and about cultural understandings of violence and how it can be used. A lot of the things in here shocked me because of the nature of the violence described -- far before we actually got to jihad, the accepted levels of violence in a lot of these cultures was astounding. For instance, okay, yes, we still have the death penalty here, which also shocks me, but in Saudi Arabia -- who are our friends over there (well, more or less, as far as these things go) -- capital punishment is effected through beheading. BEHEADING! HOLY SHIT! Maybe you think it's culturally insensitive or something that I consider that more gruesome than lethal injection, but man, I sure do. That's just one example though: the wider culture that suicide bombers grow out of is one that seems to have a great deal more familiarity -- and thus perhaps, to some extent, comfort -- with actual violence than our own.
I say "actual" violence because there is a pretty great scene in here towards the end when -- I hope I'm not getting the details wrong, I can't find it, sorry if this is wrong -- the al-Qaeda guys are sitting around in some caves in Afghanistan watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to get ideas for their hijackings. One unexpected impact this book, though its good v. evil presentation, had was in making me question my own culture in a different way than I usually do. I was raised to be critical of American values, even while being so obliviously embedded within and formed by them that I couldn't even fully identify what they were. By explicating the terrorists' beef with the U.S. in such detail, Wright helped me see better why it is exactly that they "hate our freedoms," and what these freedoms are, and of which ingredients is brewed the American Kool Aid is that I was raised on... and remain ideologically committed to drinking.
Maybe the amount of sentimentalism and exceptionalism that goes along with American discourse about 9/11 bothers me so much because I secretly feel some of it too. There are embarrassing things about being an American in this era, and the 9/11 stuff makes me feel a lot of them strongly. As I said at the outset, I am provincial and sheltered, and in this I am fairly representative of my countrymen. I haven't traveled much, but I lived in New York for several years, and descriptions of mass death there do affect me more than those of even more horrific violence in far-off Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, or Kenya.
Lately -- before reading this book -- I've been troubled a lot by the thought that I'm not at all brave. One thing that got me started thinking about that was talking to men who'd served recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. These guys are very different from most of us Americans in that they have traveled to these places, and have witnessed and participated in violence there. They aren't motivated by religious fundamentalism; they go into dangerous situations hoping very much they won't get hurt or die, and I consider that very brave. But -- and I know this is no news flash, every idiot knows this -- while they were over there shooting people and having their convoys blown up we were all just back here buying shoes on the Internet and complaining about gas being expensive and acting like the events of September 11, 2001 were this completely isolated and exceptionally violent event that was so traumatic for all of us that our country just might never recover its emotional bearings. I mean, we're so removed from violence that the false memory of its rarity frightens us so badly that we can't even bring our shampoo on the plane. This bums me out so much because I don't want these jihadist assholes to be right about anything. I don't want them to be right thinking that we're not brave and that we're not a moral nation, but we haven't done that great a job proving them wrong in the years since this happened.
Okay, this review got away from me and I'm just babbling and it's really really stupid, and I'm sorry, but anyway, bottom line: this is a fantastic book and I couldn't put it down the whole time that I was reading it. Highly recommended, though maybe not for the plane.
* * * *
Okay, I had to chop off this already overly-long non-review, because I heard the screams of my neighbors and realized the Superbowl had started, so not wanting to be "against us" I had to run off to that. But now, having patriotically reaffirmed my faith in the greatness of my powerful nation by watching Cee Lo Green and Madonna lip sync "Like a Prayer," I thought I'd try to wrap up some of my irrelevant and incoherent non-thoughts.
I'm actually not sure what it is that I was trying to say here about violence. Maybe I'm saying that I think we need to be more consistent in our cultural understanding and application of it, but this book could be a warning about the dangers of consistency, which is perhaps not just the hobgoblin of little minds but also the lifeblood of fundamentalism. One thing I think Wright did a really good job of explaining was the lure that these ideas have for men who then blow up themselves and a whole bunch of innocent people. What's the trade-off, what do they get from it, aside from that rumored afterlife stacked with nubile virgins? Yeah I know these people are real different from the people I know, but they are still people, and I just don't think humans are wired for purely delayed gratification.
What they get from fundamentalism -- taken to murderous extremes, sure, but fundamentalism in general -- is the happy comfort of moral clarity, of a simplified world. Me, I just don't know what to make of all this. All the violence, all the pain, all the baffling overwhelming complexity of an insane world. It's hard enough figuring out what to think of any of it, let alone to know how to live every day in a way that doesn't feel like a series of idiotic and self-contradicting mistakes. But if you become one of these jihad guys, such confusion is no longer a problem you face. There's good, and there's bad, and you know what you must do. And what you must do does seem super batshit crazy and horrible to me, but to you it makes so much sense that you'd never even dream of questioning it, and that's gotta feel pretty great... maybe so much that it's a feeling worth killing and dying for.
But I am still disturbed by our culture's relationship to violence, which seems very hypocritical and problematic to me. Obviously there's something distasteful about letting our enemies define us, but if we are going to play that game and say we stand for the opposite of what they do, then what we stand for, what we do and believe should make sense. If they are for repression and we are for freedom, then we need to be free. If we are against violence, let us be against violence; if we are not against violence, then let's be honest about that, and not cry and whine so much when that violence touches our lives.
I don't know, it was easy for the terrorists to be consistent in their actions, because they were fundamentalists: they were willing to die in order to kill (though tellingly, bin Laden expressed in his will that he didn't want his sons to join al-Qaeda: it's understandably a lot easier to send someone else's kids off to die, as we see here at home when powerful people happily start wars that their sons won't have to fight). It is a lot harder for a diverse nation of people with wildly different ideas about morality and violence to agree about how we're going to see things and respond to something like terrorist acts. But it should start at least with our owning the consequences of our actions -- it should have started with much more responsible media coverage of this last decade's wars, for example. I mean that's just an example. I don't really know what else to say about it, except that I thought of some article a few months ago in one of those mainstream weekly news magazines -- Time or Newsweek -- about the United States military and how sealed off in many ways from the rest of the population they've become. I think that's a really important problem that points to a lot more than just itself. In my experience, it seems to me that a lot of us either tend to be lefty doves, who tend to be naive about certain global realities, or righty hawks, who can be cavalier about the effects of violence. It seems to me that Americans who have fought in the military and people who have grown up in really violent neighborhoods not surprisingly tend to be more realistic and less sentimental about violence, but is that what we want? As this book shows, once you get comfortable with violence things can quickly get horrific and disgusting.
Blah blah blah blah. I don't know who I'm talking to or what I'm saying or why, I'm really just babbling -- procrastinating on homework. Sorry.
The final thing that I wanted to say about The Looming Tower was that I learned how all the terrorists would blend in and get legal status -- whether in California or Somalia or wherever -- by simply marrying a native woman. THIS SERIOUSLY FREAKED ME THE HELL OUT! Those who know me are aware that I have a reputation for poor judgment when it comes to affairs of the heart, and a weakness for swarthy men with an air of mystery about them... and so what am I supposed to do now with this piece of information!?? If I turn down dates with foreign guys named Muhammad does that mean the terrorists have won?
Ah, questions, troubling questions of "the post-9/11 world."
Didn't do much for me, but then I really hated On the Road and am not much of a movie person... Also, I have a feeling this might be one that's more f...moreDidn't do much for me, but then I really hated On the Road and am not much of a movie person... Also, I have a feeling this might be one that's more for the boys.(less)
I can't for the life of me figure out what makes this novel so great, but damn it is great. I wish I knew why.
You might protest and cry, "Oh but I hav...moreI can't for the life of me figure out what makes this novel so great, but damn it is great. I wish I knew why.
You might protest and cry, "Oh but I have already read so many novels about repressed twentieth-century housewives!" But that is like being offered a plate of chocolate chip cookies and saying, "No thank you. I've tried those before."
Chocolate chip cookies are delicious and aren't less so for being frequently baked. And anyway, you haven't had a cookie quite like this one before.
Told in a series of 117 titled vignettes, Mrs. Bridge is the story of an affluent woman living in 1930s-ish Kansas City. In a weird way what it reminded me of was Less Than Zero, just in the sense that yes, rich housewives are easy targets in the same way that stoned spoiled LA teenagers are. But both books, for me, really start when you realize that they're not just talking about their subjects, and that what you thought was the floor is actually a flimsy false bottom covering that yawning abyss on the brink of which we all cravenly teeter.
The difference, of course, is that this is an infinitely better book by an immensely gifted writer who possesses heart, nerve, and brains. Really curious to read more by Evan S. Connell; looks like he's written a bunch of crazy looking shit since this came out in the fifties, and still at it! Not sure if I'm as interested in Mr. Bridge as some of his more different stuff. Any thoughts from those who know? The Custer book looks pretty cool...(less)
Just as it's hard to believe that the Rod Stewart who gave us the classic Every Picture Tells a Story is also responsible for "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?",...moreJust as it's hard to believe that the Rod Stewart who gave us the classic Every Picture Tells a Story is also responsible for "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?", it's baffling that Flaubert wrote Salammbô right after his more famous effort.
This is a historical novel about a revolt against Carthage by unpaid mercenaries following the First Punic War. It hasn't aged nearly as gracefully as Madame Bovary, and I consider it to be quite a difficult book. The first two thirds are just endlessly thick description, mostly of exotic settings and people's crazy outfits, punctuated by outrageously violent acts. While slogging through this, one might think, "Well, this would be a lot easier if it had any interesting characters with psychological depth, but maybe they just had not invented those yet in 1862." But then one might recall that in fact they -- specifically, Gustave Flaubert -- in fact had invented just that thing, and one might wish he'd incorporated these innovations into the present work.
But, the thing is that Salammbô is just not that type of book, and while it definitely provides rewards for one's hard work, they're not those of nuanced and realistic psychological portraits. The first big payoff comes on page 38, when the Barbarian mercenaries come across (hahaha) this:
A sickening stench struck their nostrils, and on top of a carob tree they seemed to see something extraordinary: a lion's head rose above the leaves. They ran to it. It was a lion, its limbs fastened to a cross like a criminal. Its huge muzzle drooped on to its chest, and its two forepaws, half concealed under its luxuriant mane, were widely separated like the wings of a bird. Its ribs stuck out, one by one, beneath the taut skin; its hind legs, nailed one on top of the other, rose a little; and black blood, flowing through the hair, had collected in stalactites at the bottom of its tail, which hung straight down along the cross. The soldiers stood round amusing themselves; they called it consul and Roman citizen and threw stones at its eyes to drive away the flies.
A hundred yards further on they saw two more, then there suddenly appeared a whole line of crosses with lions hanging on them. Some had been dead for so long that nothing remained on the wood but the remnants of their skeletons; others half eaten away had their faces contorted in hideous grimaces; some of them were enormous, the trees of the cross bent beneath them and they swayed in the wind, while flocks of crows wheeled ceaselessly above their heads. Such was the vengeance of Carthaginian peasants when they caught a wild beast; they hoped to terrify the others by such examples. The Barbarians stopped laughing and for a long time were seized by amazement. "What sort of people are these," they thought, "who amuse themselves by crucifying lions!"
Yes, what sort of people indeed. The crucified lions are only the first in a series of scenes of horrific sadism and cruelty that I might normally call "indescribable," except that Flaubert describes them all. Torture, maiming, starvation, child sacrifice, elephant tramplings, leper crucifixion, battlefield vampirism, and pretty much every sicko way of killing a person that Flaubert could think of is depicted here, with as much loving detail as he uses to evoke his lush and sensuous exotic world. This is one of the most over-the-top violent books I think I've ever read. Actually, though, the narrative picked up a lot in the last third -- including many thrilling battle scenes and an intense, highly sexy bodice-ripping romance -- and I wound up more or less enjoying this book, despite a slow start. And it's not all brutality and violence -- there's a beautiful naked woman dancing with her pet snake, some incredible food writing, and more dramatic sets and costume changes than any Hollywood studio could ever hope to replicate. I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to -- maybe fans of extreme graphic violence and historical epics, who don't feel Mel Gibson's Jesus movie went nearly far enough? -- but I'm not sorry I read this bizarre piece of dated gross-out Orientalism.(less)
First thing I've read by Cormac McCarthy and it was pretty great. This book takes place in the same space as Grimms' fairy tales: a timeless and perma...moreFirst thing I've read by Cormac McCarthy and it was pretty great. This book takes place in the same space as Grimms' fairy tales: a timeless and permanent dark landscape where the devil lurks casually, that in this age we all strain to forget exists. It's about being human in a way that predated the Internet and television by centuries, that might outlast all this shit and keep going on.
Hopefully though, McCarthy's works will survive whatever happens along with a sturdy Oxford English Dictionary. Otherwise whoever's left will not be able to read him, which is maybe fine; he's kind of a downer.(less)