I was born in 1979, and the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis occupy a blind spot between the history I learned in school and what I remember happI was born in 1979, and the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis occupy a blind spot between the history I learned in school and what I remember happening. While I can't compare it (yet) to other books on this topic, The Crisis is a clear, easy, and riveting read for morons such as myself who know nothing of these events. The story unfolds like a particularly excruciating and cringe-inducing drama, with its principal actors -- the shah, Khomeini, Carter, and other major political players and negotiators -- vividly represented.
The story of the hostage crisis, as told here, reminded me of those days when everything you try to do is just a total disaster: you've got something important at work first thing in the morning, but there was a power outage overnight and your alarm doesn't go off. So you're already running late, plus out of half and half and then you spill coffee on your shirt... Of course your car won't start, so you take the bus. The bus takes forever to arrive, then breaks down so all the passengers have to file off as it starts to pour down rain. At this point you wish you were into astrology, because you're pretty sure if you'd read your horoscope it would've told you just to stay in bed.
Of course, the Carter administration couldn't stay in bed, and so for 444 days they haplessly lurched along, powerless against Mercury in Retrograde. Or that at least is the interpretation I got from this book. Harris seems to feel that Carter did the best that he could, but was stymied by occasional bad actors, relentless application of Murphy's Law, and an endless string of unpredictable SNAFUs. I mean, it is kind of miraculous to me that they did eventually get all these hostages home in once piece, especially in light of all the chaos and death constantly surrounding them in Iran. There wasn't really a government for a lot of the time they were there, and what government there was summarily rounded up and executed people. There were violent political demonstrations and all kinds of madness in the street, not to mention Iraqi invasion...! Considering how long these hostages were there, I'm surprised there weren't a few deaths even just for medical reasons. I think it's pretty amazing that they all survived -- though I gotta say, being one of these hostages totally sounds like it sucked. I read another account of a hostage held in war-torn Lebanon in a much bloodier incident during which a hostage was killed, and it sounded like less of a drag, though more terrifying -- these Iranian students do not sound like very fun people.
But this book is more about the political situation and less about the experience of the hostages, and Harris's efforts to flesh out the hostages a bit and represent their experience weren't as successful to me as the rest. However, his handling of the political negotiations is for the most part great. There are some questions of presentation that come up -- the abuses of the shah and the CIA's coup against Mossadegh are definitely reviewed early on, but sort of fade later against attention to the shah's exile and terminal illness, making Iranian fury against the shah and the Americans seem maybe slightly crazier than it actually was. At least, that was how I took it, though I do think Harris tried to be fair.
I'm giving this book four stars because I slurped it down like a fat sleazy beach novel. I greatly enjoyed it and found it a thrilling read, so the four stars represent its success there. That said, The Crisis is almost worse than useless as a history book because of Harris's decision NOT TO USE ENDNOTES. The sources list at the end is totally unhelpful because he indicates at no point where he got the information on any given page. COME ON PEOPLE! Why not, seriously, WHY WOULD YOU NOT?? I totally get not putting those subscript numbers in the text of a non-academic book -- and in fact I greatly prefer it -- but don't you HAVE to say at some point how you know someone said something? It's honestly just beyond my powers of comprehension. I guess that he is a journalist and that journalists aren't supposed to have to do that, but I don't understand why they don't in this type of book.
In addition to endnotes, this book would have benefited from more pictures (I LOVE PICTURES!) and, ideally, some kind of timeline. Still, on the whole I did really enjoy it, and Harris told this dramatic story of international frustration and intrigue in a highly engaging way....more
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?",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?", 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....more
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 havI 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......more
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 fDidn'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....more
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 locLawrence 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."
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 wentCeridwen, 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?...more
I'm gonna stick with my summary of the first volume: Proustian Spanish spy novel for the twenty-first century. Ends with a (sort of, relative) cliffhaI'm gonna stick with my summary of the first volume: Proustian Spanish spy novel for the twenty-first century. Ends with a (sort of, relative) cliffhanger, which is just as well, since I regretted letting so much time lapse between I and II and hopefully I'll get the third one without too much screwing around.
Note: I had a disappointing conversation with my father today, in which he expressed total boredom with Fever and Spear, which I'd given him expecting that he'd really like it. He found it so tedious that he put it down and felt moved to return to his old favorite, Tristam Shandy, to restore his palate. So I'm not sure I could recommend this book to anyone with confidence now, since if he didn't like it I don't know who would. I did, though! So there's that. But definitely be warned....more
I am really pissed off, because I spent a long time writing a whole long review of this book but then this fucking website just spontaneously erased iI am really pissed off, because I spent a long time writing a whole long review of this book but then this fucking website just spontaneously erased it.
But whatever. It wasn't a great review by any means. I'll just write another, similarly mediocre one.
Being as I'm a lady boxing enthusiast who likes to read books, for years I've been vaguely embarrassed about not having ever got around to this. Now I finally have, and I'm not sure how to rate it -- there was stuff I really liked in here, but by the end the essays had become so redundant and uninteresting that I felt my patience and good graces had been tried. Also, while I really enjoyed the On Boxing essay (and the Tyson piece, though in some senses it hasn't aged well and has become much more a historical artifact than an essay in its own right... not that there's anything wrong with that), I did feel it was a bit overwrought and repetitive. Joyce Carol Oates is no Joan Didion; she is not cool, she is not measured, and she doesn't care to be, but personally that might be more my preference (not that it's fair to bring up Joan Didion, but boxing kind of seems like something she'd write about, though to my knowledge she hasn't).
In some respects, I think Oates did nail some very crucial aspects of boxing, but in other ways I think she might be too hung up on its bloody core to the detriment of recognizing other aspects of the sport. Part of this I guess is because she's writing purely as a spectator and not as someone who has ever tried to box herself, and so I think the impulse that makes people want to do it remains very alien -- and thus, glamorized, exoticized, and covered in gore -- to her. I myself am training to box, and though I haven't had any fights yet, I hope to at some point. Yet I'm not black, male, or from the inner city, and while I can relate to some of what Oates says about boxing, I think she leaves out a lot of stuff that is there and is part of the allure of the sport for people. Of course, I'm never going to be heavyweight champion of the world, or even anywhere near the professional level, so she's not really talking about me and it doesn't matter if she ignores things that are relevant to my experience... Still, though. I think she just sees certain parts of boxing, and to me those parts started to make the whole thing sound a little histrionic or at least myopic at times.
All this is not to say though that there wasn't some great stuff in here, because there totally was. Early on, she denies that she can conceive of boxing as a metaphor for anything else, though she concedes that other things -- such as life -- might be a metaphor for boxing: "Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing" (p. 4). That's great. I mean, it's great! Also great, the closing lines of her Tyson essay: "This is not all that boxing is, but it is boxing's secret premise: life is hard in the ring, but, there, you only get what you deserve" (p. 180). There is plenty of other great stuff in here, really, and if you like boxing you would like it, though if you don't, you probably wouldn't... Aw man, I don't know... now that I'm flipping through, I gotta say, I did like this book. She has gathered some wonderful quotations and she really writes about her subject with a profound enthusiasm and knowledge that is a lot of fun to read. Plus, it is so rad that she is a chick and a boxing fan!
Still, putting in all these very redundant essays that actually repeat some of the exact same material seemed very lazy, and many of her points were really not strong or interesting enough to withstand that kind of repetition. In short, this guy wrote much better review of this book than I have, and basically I just agree with everything he said.
Still don't know how to rate this, though I'm REALLY PROUD OF MYSELF for writing this whole review without using one SINGLE boxing metaphor! Amazing. Kind of a miracle, really....more
She can't help it if her best isn't very good, but she's done it. She's ploddingly typed out her half-assedly apropos review, then clicked on the starShe can't help it if her best isn't very good, but she's done it. She's ploddingly typed out her half-assedly apropos review, then clicked on the stars -- three of them, yellow and cartoony, her blithe summation of an author's painstakingly wrought offering to twentieth-century literature. He'll probably spend years writing then researching this thing, which she's already rated like it's an eBay-seller transaction, and reviewed with all the thoughtfulness and care of an Adderall-snorting thirteen-year-old's Facebook status update...
In any case, now she'll see what this book's all about. She picks it up, name-scans the Afterword (Aw, Hitch!), and begins. Seems to be a fairly standard-sort bildungsroman kind of thing, young boy into man... oh, no, but wait. It's not really -- some heavy stuff here -- and -- uh oh, what's this? -- an arguably silly postmodern TRICK! She likes it well enough, reads the whole thing through in about a day. This author does seem to have got a certain way with words, some nice little descriptive details: "Mickey Mouse sniggers and Greta Garbo averts her pained gaze from [a young couple's] mortified writhings on the shallow fur of cinema seats" (p. 154). Shallow fur! She likes that... Also some nice, darkly-brooding well-phrased stuff with its own intense, seductive style: "There's probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I'm tired of being human, if human is what I am. I'm tired of being human" (p. 93). Ooh, that's nice!
More good stuff -- time passes from one era to the next with description that transcends mere gimmick... because gimmick is what this is, she sees, as she nears the first page. In this book, she discovers, time runs in reverse, and the life of the main character is being chronicled from the end backwards by a rather hapless, baffled narrator whom we're encouraged to picture as "a sentimentalized fetus, with faithful smile" (p. 42).
Does it work? It works. She more or less does get pretty into the whole thing. But then, she's prone to jokes that go on way too long, and tends to find them more amusing in the endless retelling: an old man wearing bellbottoms in the early eighties is fashion's cutting edge, garbage men scatter trash throughout cities, while highway workers rip up the road. Of course, she knows, this is Literature, so sometimes the joke is very Serious: its protagonist is a doctor, who appalls his Jiminy Cricket-type observing ego by brutalizing patients, as doctors in this backwards world (almost) always necessarily do. The narrator speculates on the demolition of cities, centuries from now, into "the pleasant land -- green, promised," and pauses to assert that he's glad he wasn't around for the city's creation. It's poignant, while also cool, as she finds this novel has generally been throughout.
By the time she's done, she's resolved to seek out more of the writer's work. Although this isn't the greatest book she's ever read, she enjoyed it, and she bets he's done better elsewhere with this evident cleverness and his linguistic gifts. She adds Time's Arrow to her to-read list, and reviews another book by Amis -- book reviews, The War Against Cliche -- which, when she reads it, she feels is vastly superior. Then she goes on to sample more of his fiction, and finds it sort of beguilingly uneven. As with Time's Arrow, each book has, to varying degrees, both its awe-inspiring strengths and unforgivable flaws. None of what she reads is, in her opinion, as good as his reviews... until she finally comes across London Fields, and is lovestruck: THIS is the Martin Amis novel she's been waiting for all her life!
And why is the thing you're looking for always in the last place you look? It seems like she would read more Amis after loving London Fields so much, but she doesn't, and acts surprised later when a close female friend recommends his work. In fact, she seems to forget any real sense of who Amis is, and is overheard sharing a vague negative impression -- acquired who knows where -- that "only pretentious, asshole guys who are way too into coke and themselves read him."
Which is too bad, because Martin Amis is a really good writer, and he's written a lot of books, and she might really enjoy some if she gave them a chance. But it's too late. Wait, is it too late? It might be too late, or, alternatively, it might not be... To be honest, she's not sure how this whole thing works, and trying to figure out the logistics sort of makes her head hurt....more
Man, I really loved this. Memoir might be another one of those things that I think I really hate, but in fact don't. I might just hate the idea of it,Man, I really loved this. Memoir might be another one of those things that I think I really hate, but in fact don't. I might just hate the idea of it, of how rampant it's become and how much memoir embodies this idea that's so pervasive right now about how everyone's individual story is so fascinating and important just because it's true, and how any level of event or emotional pain so significant and unique and worth moaning on about, only because it happened... A lot of the reviews on here took issue with the "emotional purge" quality of this book, which I get because it's the kind of thing that would normally bother me too, but for me it really worked here, not just in spite but because of its endlessly repetitive -- and arguably narcissistic -- exploration of psychic trauma and self.
The Sisters Antipodes passes the My Dark Places memoir test, i.e., it answers with an aggressive "yes" the question "Did anything unique or remarkable happen in your life that is worth exploring in a memoir?" The book is about Alison's family which, while probably not any less happy than your average family is unhappy in a more interesting way. In 1965, when Alison was four, her parents -- an Australian couple in the foreign service -- met another couple -- Americans, also in the foreign service, with two daughters around the same age as Jane and her sister. While the details of what happened next remain a bit unclear, both couples immediately divorced and reconfigured in only slightly altered mirror images of each other, and of what they had just recently been. Jane, her older sister, and their mother moved to the United States with Jane's stepfather, Paul, while her father stayed in Australia with his new wife and her two daughters. None of the four girls saw their biological fathers for the next seven years, acclimating to their new families and countries with the knowledge that on the other side of the globe, there was a shadow family for whom they'd been unceremoniously swapped. The book is about what this experience was like for Alison, and particularly focuses on her relationship with Jenny, her counterpart step-sister down-under, and both girls' serious issues both with each other and with their complex configuration of fathers.
As the child of an infinitely more prosaic divorce myself, I found a lot of this story seriously resonated with me. The concept of the book is successful because the premise -- which is, let's face it, far too schematic and contrived and unbelievable for a novel -- really works as a literary device through which to look at common experiences using an exceptionally poetic situation. In our culture, I'd say, the experience of father absence to some degree is far more common than not (see Chodorow, 1979). While this seems to be changing, a very large percentage of women my age and older can probably relate to a lot of Alison's obsessions with her father's attention and approval. A lot of the things she gets into about jealousy and competition in reconfigured families is also very common and is well-treated here. I mention this because I think part of my prejudice against memoir is that it's solipsistic and inherently navel-gazey, and I didn't find The Sisters Antipodes to be because, like good fiction, it was about a lot more than itself.
That said, there are some things in here that I can see not everyone could get into. For one thing, it must be said that Jane Alison is a good-looking blonde who went to Princeton. This fact isn't incidental to her story: it is a crucial point, and necessarily comes up a lot. Rightly or wrongly, some of us might have a very hard time relating to the problems of a good-looking blonde who has had an interesting, and in some ways privileged life, who's endowed with certain natural advantages and talents. Despite the difficulties she's faced at times, Alison is a winner, and the book is about how she wins, not at all in a celebratory inspirational way, but in a fairly ruthless and Darwinian sense that I found both profoundly honest and fascinating. I think there's a tendency in first-person accounts to play down one's winningness, because most readers can relate best to the aw-shucks underdog schmucky type who's more like us. But The Sisters Antipodes isn't about someone like that; it's about a girl who has a lot going for her, and knows it, who is competitive in ways that are difficult and damaging not just to people in her life, but to her. And that's a story that's maybe harder to relate to for a lot of readers than that of the hapless wallflower Jane-next-door, but it's also a lot more interesting, to me anyway.
Another thing about this book is that I really liked the language. It's very lush and descriptive, which is not always my thing, but it's cut with a certain dry cynicism that I think helped tether it to the ground. The environments and eras are so well evoked -- 1960s Australia, 1970s Washington D.C., a perplexingly unnamed South American country, etc. -- that I felt I'd been in them, in particular the author's childhood house. Due to my prejudice against memoir, I haven't read much of it, so I can't really compare this example against others of the genre. However, I was struck by the lucidity of her memories, and of how they triggered my own thoughts of times in my life I haven't remembered in years.
Finally, I sat down and read this book pretty much straight through, neglecting everything else in my life until I had finished. This hasn't happened to me in awhile, and I am really grateful for the experience. The writing was so vivid and immersive that I feel as if I'd inhabited the author's world and mind during the time I was reading. I do feel bad for Alison's family -- I am surprised that all these memoirs haven't inspired more murders of telling-all authors by their pissed-off siblings and parents -- but as a reader I benefited a lot from her candor, and I'd recommend this book to people (especially women, and men interested in specifically female experiences, who are, as noted here on previous occasions, unfortunately a minority) who might get into this kind of thing....more
My first Simenon but not, barring unforeseen horrific circumstances, my last.
Here's my problem: as it's a well-known fact that Georges Simenon wrote iMy first Simenon but not, barring unforeseen horrific circumstances, my last.
Here's my problem: as it's a well-known fact that Georges Simenon wrote in excess of 7.6 trillion books during his lifetime, I'm a bit overwhelmed trying to figure out which ones to read. I mean, it's impossible that they're all equally good, right? And since I could read a Simenon book every day for the rest of my life and still barely make a small dent his oeuvre, I'd love to have some guidance on which to try out first and which to avoid.... suggestions?...more
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 neverFinally, 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....more
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 tryinSo 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....more