When I was a kid I learned about Lincoln. He freed the slaves. He saved the country. He said a speech at Gettysburg. He got shot and died.
I learned t...moreWhen I was a kid I learned about Lincoln. He freed the slaves. He saved the country. He said a speech at Gettysburg. He got shot and died.
I learned that an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth killed him.
As a Boy Scout I walked the Gettysburg Trail. Heard again all about his speech. I got this badge.
It was my favorite 'optional' badge for about a year, and it had it's place on the right shirt pocket of my uniform. I liked it because it was made up of four separate badges. To earn all four parts you had to goto a museum, goto the cemetery and go on about a fourteen mile hike. Because we were hard-core, and probably because one of our leaders was some civil war buff or Lincoln fanatic, we added on an extra 6 miles to the hike. We did this in the freezing cold. I was just getting over strep throat at the time. It was one of my least favorite Boy Scout trips ever (view spoiler)[(only being beaten out by the awful experience that is riding an inner tube on a river in the pouring rain while the river is almost as placid as a lake for about ten miles, and hiking ten miles through the pouring rain on a brilliantly inconceived idea for a trip where we 'forgo' our normal luxury items like small stoves and tents to really rough it. Who would have guessed that it would be pour all day. Oh yeah, it was in November, too, so it wasn't exactly warm rain either). (hide spoiler)] (Click if you want to find out what the two worse trips were).
As a Boy Scout I also went to Washington DC where I learned about Lincoln again, and I earned this badge for going on another historical trail.
I never cared for this one too much. Lincoln looks sort of deformed on it. (In future reviews maybe I will share more badges I earned for historical trails, there are a bunch more.) On this particular trip (which would be Boy Scout Washington DC trip 2- the first Washington DC trip was sooooo much cooler, we had to set up tents in pitch dark, no flashlights, yo! (seriously someone thought this shit up. We actually practiced pitching tents in the dark for weeks before this (insert your own joke here)), and we spent a lot of time at the National Air and Space Museum, which is just about the coolest place when you're an eleven year old boy (and pre-space shuttle explosion), but more importantly a friends dad got a small group of us on to an air force base and bought us stuff at the PX, again something that was really cool when you're eleven years old) (I promised myself I'd stay on track in this review, and I'm failing! Failing!!!! I'm just trying to make a point though, stay with me). Anyway, this particular trip, we went to Ford's Theatre and then the house across the street where they still had the bed and sheets that Lincoln died in. I saw where he was shot. I saw his blood. I once again heard about John Wilkes Booth. I visited the Lincoln Memorial.
You know what I never learned as kid? That a whole bunch of people got hung for the conspiracy for killing Lincoln. I don't think anyone ever said, Lone-Gun Man, but that was always the way it seemed to me. This is the story I remember of what happened. This crazy actor who is mad because the South lost shots Lincoln in the back of the head. He does a crazy leap from the Presidential Box where he breaks his ankle. He runs off and is chased and is soon caught up with when he's hiding in a barn. They burn the bad man in the barn.
I don't think I was a stupid kid. I liked history class. I was a Boy Scout who went on Historical Trails and learned stuff. And I don't ever remember hearing about these other people.
This book is technically a novel about John Wilkes Booth, but it's also about those other people.
If this weren't a re-issue of a book written in the early 1960's, I'd suspect that the author was trying to pull a fast one, trying to draw a lot of parallels between the war on terror and the Civil War.
You know another thing I don't remember learning in school? That Lincoln trampled on civil rights to wage the war. I'm sure I heard about the suspension of habeas corpus but it didn't really sink in what that meant at the time. I know I never heard that Freedom of the Press was kind of a joke, with it being considered a possible crime to write or publish critical stories of Lincoln and the war effort. I also didn't ever remember hearing that he was the President who started the draft. Of course he freed the slaves. And that was a good thing, but along with giving the start of civil rights to a slaves, he also trampled on personal liberties and rights and pushed aside portions of the Constitution to extend the powers of the Executive Branch in ways that are still problematic today. I'm not looking to argue if what he did was correct or not, history has generally judged that he was correct, but that is because he won the war. According to wikipedia he is consistently ranked as one of the three best Presidents ever. Who am I to argue?
But what if Lincoln hadn't been shot?
The Lincoln in this book wasn't a popular president. The war hadn't been that popular. But once he gets shot, all the resentment and ambivalence disappears and he becomes a hero, a martyr, someone for angry people to rally around and demand vengeance for.
Believe this or not, but that is the state that this novel is set in. Lincoln dies and people want vengeance. The person who seems to have wanted it most was Secretary of War Stanton (this is where all the mentions of civil liberties come in) who used all of the precedents that Lincoln had put in place to create a witch-hunt for the conspiracy he wanted to exist. So many people get arrested. Family members of Booth. His brother-in-law gets arrested because he wrote a letter to his sister that had been left unsealed that he could have read and maybe have helped stop the plot if only he had taken the letter out of the envelope and read it (is this for reals? My guess is yes, I did some research on some of the claims in the book and generally found that the author had done some research). All of the actors in the play Lincoln had been watching were arrested. Anyone that seems to have had any passing dealings with Booth got arrested. Most were let go, but a handful were tried for conspiracy.
It's not that some of those people weren't in fact guilty of conspiracy, but their trial and subsequent execution were a bizarre (travesty?) form of justice. The defendants were kept in solitary confinement with bags over their heads so that they couldn't possibly communicate with other people. They were tried in a military court with a judges hand chosen by Stanton. They had lawyers that they weren't generally able to consult with, and how had no time to prepare for any kind of defense and after they were found guilty (they were all found guilty, even the members of the conspiracy who had no evidence against them weren't acquitted, instead they were given six years of hard labor in a notorious Federal Prison in Florida where inmates routinely died of yellow fever) they were only told of their punishment a day before they were set to hang. Stanton was so afraid of them communicating with the outside world that even getting last rites administered was problematic.
I'm making this sound much more historical / 'revisionist' than the novel really is. It's really a very interesting look at the people involved in the assassination and with John Wilkes Booth. The re-occuring aside that bookends the story and is returned to throughout the main narrative is the effect John Wilkes' action had on his (prior to the assassination) more famous brother Edwin, who at the time was considered one of the greatest actors of Shakespeare. The manner that Edwin is haunted by the deeds of his brother add a nice layer to the story, and give a dimension beyond the assassination and the justice that follows.
I really enjoyed this novel. It is as good as Libra was about the Kennedy Assassination. Both novels succeed in giving some life to a person who we have heard mentioned so many times that they have become a one-dimensional stock characters in our national tragedies, but in giving them life and depth it adds a human aspect to the story, not necessarily a sympathetic side to the villain in the story, but just a reality to the myth or legend that these events have taken on. Yeah, neither one might necessarily be accurate, and they are both fiction so there are going to be liberties probably taken, but they both succeed in creating a person to understand and hold responsible. (ok, this last paragraph made much more sense in my head. I'm tired, and I can't be bothered enough to fix it right now). ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Ironically, for a book that is sort of about the whole being greater than the parts the same isn't true for the novel. Most of the individual parts of...moreIronically, for a book that is sort of about the whole being greater than the parts the same isn't true for the novel. Most of the individual parts of the book, the little stories and narrative strands are fairly interesting and readable. The book moved along for me at a fairly quick clip and if i didn't stop and think about the book as a whole I was quite happy with it.
Actually, it wasn't really until I was telling Karen that I was almost finished with it and then added that this isn't very good, that I realized that I wasn't actually enjoying it as much as I thought that I was (this isn't really a spoiler, but maybe it is, but it's a very minor one if it is(view spoiler)[it's like by telling Karen about the book I was being smacked in the chest with an ice hammer and my heart awoke and decided to tell the non-bullshit truth (hide spoiler)]). But, I don't feel that comfortable saying it's not very good, because at times and for long stretches the book is very good, and if you stay on the detail level, linger around the individual stories and accept that they show up and then they might leave and that there might be no resolution or really any necessity to the over-all story in the stories than the book is enjoyable. When you pull back a bit and look at the overall structure though the book starts to look like a mess, like the result of a lot of small good ideas and an interesting over-arching premise but without the middle level coherence needed to make this a satisfying 'traditional' narrative or disciplined feeling enough to make it a successful big, sprawling, non-linear, non-wrapping up difficult type of book.
It might not sound it, but I actually really did enjoy reading this. Me and disappointment are pretty close friends so i didn't mind that he showed up here, I should have figured he would, the basic premise of the novel is just asking for a level of disappointment or tedium and after a brief foray into tedium towards the end of the first book the author wisely gave up on the tedious and started to engage in the subtly disappointing. If you don't think how everything ties together, or care that a hundred pages of characters seems to just go poof without really effecting the over-all story at all by their presence or absence (which now that I think of it is pretty dead on for life, you are born and then you die and really if your whole 'narrative' thread got edited out of the overall story of 'life' would it make any difference?) than you'll do just fine.
I did like this but I want to make it sound like I liked it less than I really did because I don't want to influence anyone to read this.. It's not a satisfying read, or it wasn't to me, it was fun and enjoyable at times but not coherent enough to fall into the 'fun and enjoyable' category. Sci-Fi / fantasy fans would most likely get really angry at some of the disappointments in this story, and the DFW / Pynchon types who might chuckle at others being annoyed at the lack of resolution won't find much here that will satisfy them either. The book is big but not big enough in scope, in the characters, in the links between characters. Am I making any sense?
So yeah, like not love. Maybe I enjoyed it more than a lot of other three star books, but there are lots of other fine books out there that are begging to be read and they should probably be given a chance before this one.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
There was the written book, and then there was the larger, more ambitious work, which suggested the immensity of all the written book had left out. th...moreThere was the written book, and then there was the larger, more ambitious work, which suggested the immensity of all the written book had left out. this was the book of silence, of silence and the awed resignation before silence
Over in other corners of the goodreads world, a little fight has been going on for the past week or so that boils down to the never-ending mis-understanding between the two dominant traditions of contemporary philosophy, the analytical and continental. From my sage like, post-philosophy vantage point (I just can't be bothered to read it these days, thus I'm post-philosophy) the whole problem could be boiled down to a Wittgenstein language problem, neither side are really speaking the same language, the words might be the same but they don't mean the same thing and unfortunately they both want to call the language game they are involved in Philosophy. To push this thin analogy a little further, one could even say that Hume was the proverbial 'Wittgenstein Ladder' and that once Philosophy climbed up the Humean Ladder the old ladder was kicked out from underneath the whole enterprise and each side continued on after getting off the ladder at different rungs that lead to different places. This is a weak analogy. I've railed against the whole general idea of Wittgenstein's language game theory in some other review, but here I think it is kind apt, weakly, but apt. The two sides split and took on their own interests and created their own traditions and each fall under the same general term that no longer really holds the two comfortably (if you want my take on the whole thing both sides are right, using awful reductionist language one side is scientific and the other literary and well, each have to be read accordingly even if the actual authors have pretensions to be read otherwise, the whole obscurant argument that can be made by each side against the other (but mainly levied against the continental tradition, with good reason) is basically bullshit. I've written quite a few reviews that fall in to the theme of 'in praise of difficult books' and I'd use the same defense I use for DFW or William Gaddis to defend writers like Heideggar, Adorno or Derrida (the jury in my head is out if there is anything of literary value in most of Zizek's writing, in my humble opinion only The Fragile Absolute has a high literary value, most of his other works that I've read are too repetitive and I just don't buy the Lacanian dazzle). The value of reading them isn't for some 'truth' but it's in the experience of reading them, if I wanted to be told a story in simple language I could pick up a Nicholas Sparks book, but it's not going to get the blood flowing like reading Infinite Jest, and I'm sure there are people out there who say they like to read literature and they mainly consume books that I fear would cause my brain to seize from their lack of any redeeming literary qualities (this analogy is getting away from me, I'm not equating Nicholas Sparks with analytical philosophy, if anything I would equate it with good non-fiction, something I also can enjoy but which I don't read when I want to read something like Gaddis)). This has gone on way too long so far, and I've probably irked some people and any criticism I might get I'll take as seriously as I take people who whine that DFW is too difficult because he writes in long sentences using big words that aren't necessarily ones you see everyday.
But now to bring this little aside back to the book at hand, these essential problems are sort of what creates the conflict between Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell in this novel (and probably in real life from what I know of their relationship). Russell had his whole philosophical project deep sixed, first by Godel and then by the young Wittgenstein. Big big big flaws were discovered by these two young men and the foundations of what Russell's 'serious' philosophy were supported on turned out to be unclean fill that couldn't support a doublewide trailer, nevermind the massive edifice Russell dreamed of building. As Russell moved on from the wreckage of his failed grandiose philosophy he began to go the popular, public intellectual route, the kind of smarty pants guy that will write about anything with the air of knowing, and went into social concerns and all the kinds of things that Russell is pretty well known for today. Wittgenstein on the other hand stayed so pure to the 'truth' that it debilitated him and led him away from the safe confines of academia on to the strange course his life took. The way each approached their lifework caused quite a bit of tension in their friendship.
This novel is a fictionalized account of the lives of these two philosophers, along with G.E. Moore, who is a necessary part of the story, but my one criticism of the book might be that he is given a bit too much attention for what his role seems to really be. But, that is also because Moore is just not as interesting as the egomaniacal Russell or the deeply conflicted and strange Wittgenstein.
For a novel about philosophers this is really interesting, I think part of that is because the characters of Russell and Wittgenstein are so interesting in themselves. I'm not positive, but I think there is enough story going on here that even someone who has no real interest in ol'Ludwig would find the book to be fairly gripping (or something like that, I wouldn't call it a page-turner, but it's far from being a slog your way through it).
Besides focusing a bit too much on Moore (and if you are going to focus so much on Moore why not at least give Karl Poppers name during the infamous exchange he and Wittgenstein had? He could have been given a bit more 'page-time'), the only real fault with the book was a quick dip into the sordidness of Wittgenstein cruising for men in a Vienna park. The scene is short and a little on the dirty or vulgar side and it stood out for the, um frankness? of the encounter. It was as if the author was afraid that the subtle way he'd been dealing with Wittgenstein's sexuality might have been missed by some readers so he gives a quick scene of Ludwig getting an anonymous facial. The scene read awkwardly in relation to the rest of the book, and the jarringness of it didn't seem to serve any purpose, except to yell, "Wittgenstein is gay!" to the one reader who didn't pick up on all the hints and allusions in the book (I think that his sexuality should have stayed cloaked in hints and allusions in the novel, now if the novel were about Focault I'd be a little upset if there weren't a scene with baldy lashed to a cross while being fisted by a group of men).
To close up this unstructured mess, I'll give a passage I liked.
It was completely selfish for me to remain here! said Wittgenstein suddenly. Intolerably selfish--Wittgenstein was now pacing, whirling back and forth.
Well, said Russell, perhaps too soothingly. I would not call you selfish. That is only something you have imagined about yourself.
Glaring, Wittgenstein retorted, Then you don't know me! At all! I am selfish. And not only selfish! In fact I am filled with the pettiest, vilest thoughts! All the time! Don't look at me like that-it is true! It is better that I go home. If I cannot do for myself any good, I can at least do for someone else some good.
Russell had no desire to argue with him, but Wittgenstein wouldn't be ignored. In a sudden leap of logic, Wittgenstein demanded, Now, tell me once and for all. Have I any talent as a philosopher?
Russell didn't know what he was saying. Fending him off, he replied, Why do you ask?
Because, groaned Wittgenstein. If I do not have any real talent-then I will become an aeronaut.
Aeronaut? Russell felt the blood draining from his head. But then, with a guilty thrill, Russell took a stab, asking, Why? Because an aeroplane would afford you a better chance to kill yourself?
it was a taunt, but Wittgenstein just stared him down with a long an unsentimental look-chilling, as he quietly replied. If I were whole or healthy, Russell would I not even be a philosopher. Nor you.
Russell did not deny it. And in the oddest way, he felt they had just exchanged the deepest intimacy, each looking the other thinking, So you, too, are this way.(less)
I can imagine reading these stories in a high school setting and having the teacher strangle all of the life out of them. They seem like those kind of...moreI can imagine reading these stories in a high school setting and having the teacher strangle all of the life out of them. They seem like those kind of stories. Luckily I'm not a high school student and I read them on my own and didn't have any of the life taken from them. Many of these stories reminded me of Thomas Hardy in that bleak and doomed way that Hardy's novels have. (less)