I picked this up at the big garage sale that my work puts on. It caught my eye and I remember being interested in it after reading a review of it when...moreI picked this up at the big garage sale that my work puts on. It caught my eye and I remember being interested in it after reading a review of it when it came out. It's a pretty thick book, over 750 pages, and I didn't plan on reading it for a while. I read the first few chapters when I got home and got very caught up in it. It is one of those books where once you've start reading it, everything else in your life takes a back seat and you can't do anything else but read the book until you're done. Apparently all of Tom Wolfe's books are like that, though I've only read this one. I'll let the New York Times say it better than I can: "Like everything Wolfe writes, 'I Am Charlotte Simmons' grabs your interest at the outset and saps the desire to do anything else until you finish."
The book is basically a critique of the current state of higher education and the university lifestyle. The three main characters are students at a Dupont, a fictional prestigious liberal arts school on the east coast and their lives intersect through various plot threads. The title character, Charlotte, is the fish out of water from a small working-class town in West Virginia. She comes to Dupont full of innocence and ideals and the book is propelled by the story of her inevitable fall from grace and eventual redemption. There is one long extended chapter the book about Charlotte going to the big fraternity formal with her new boyfriend and his friends. Wolfe describes what is happening in real time with great detail (both material and emotional), and the result is an incredible and extremely moving piece of writing. If movies that present prom night as an magical evening where everyone's problems are somehow resolved are a zero on the realism scale, Wolfe's description of Charlotte's experience is an easy 10 .
One of the things that Wolfe does really well is observe the motivations behind people's words and actions, analyzing people in much the same way that a biologist would study the behavior of animals. To Tom Wolfe, every human interaction is a struggle for dominance, and he makes his case convincingly enough particularly when applied to the seemingly simple but incredibly complex social codes of the fraternities and sororities.
Wolfe does stumble occasionally, getting a bit out of his element, particularly when attempting to recreate the dialogue and slang of the black players on the college basketball team. He creates a rapper called Doctor Dis and writes lyrics for his songs in a few cringe-inducing passages. Still, you've got to give an old white guy credit for an attempt. A large part of Wolfe's critique is about class, and the sense of entitlement that well-heeled and well-educated feel. Wolfe lays it on a little too thick in describing Charlotte's humble background, however, and details like Charlotte's family having to use a picnic table inside because they couldn't afford a dining table seemed forced. One final criticism that I'll make is that I though that the end was too neat and sudden. I expected more of a payoff, though I was satisfied enough (if only just to see Charlotte okay again after everything that Wolfe puts her through).
This book got a lot of mixed reviews, and some critics really panned it, seeing it as a one of Wolfe's lesser books. I'm not familiar with his other works and with nothing else to compare it to, I was blown away and completely engrossed. I'd strongly recommend it, though only if you can afford to disappear for a week.
I got this book from the school library, and later bought it for my dad for Christmas. George Packer reports from Iraq from the initial days of the in...moreI got this book from the school library, and later bought it for my dad for Christmas. George Packer reports from Iraq from the initial days of the invasion until about 2005 or so when the book was published. He details how misguided and ill-conceived the entire Iraq operation was from the beginning, not that this will come as a revelation to anyone. The State Department had written up post-invasion plans that were basically ignored because the pentagon assumed that it wouldn't need them. The Coaliton Provisional Authority that was initially in charge of Iraq had essentially no training or resources. If you saw the recent movie "No End in Sight" it covers much of the same ground. Packer is critical of the administration, but not in an overzealous way.
What is surprising about this book is that Packer manages to present a compelling case against withdrawal. Through a series interviews and profiles of Iraqis, Packer gives you a sense of how much is at stake for those working to rebuild their country. Those Iraqis that have cooperated with the Americans in the interest of democracy and civil rights, have risked their own and their families' lives. If we abandon Iraq, a civil war will occur on a much larger scale than at present, and the first casualties will be these Iraqis who have nobly attempted to reconstruct their country despite incredible odds. A withdrawal would de fact condemn them to death at the hands of extremists. An Iranian-American friend of mine once made the case that these people are doomed anyway and that the sooner we withdrawal, the sooner this civil war will run its course and allow the Iraqi people to move on. No one can know the ultimate effect that a withdrawal would have on the country and in my estimation it is too much of an unknown to be a prudent option.
I'd love to read a sequel that covers 2005-2008, with all that has changed in the interim: the Al Askari Mosque bombing, the new government, General Petraeus, the surge, the alignment of Sunnis in some provinces against al Queda in Iraq, etc...
Well, I just looked it up and he apparently has a piece in the New Yorker from 2007, I guess I'll stop typing and read that now.
I enjoyed this book, though in many ways I didn't know what to make of it. I picked it up because I was interested in reading 2666, Roberto Bolano's l...moreI enjoyed this book, though in many ways I didn't know what to make of it. I picked it up because I was interested in reading 2666, Roberto Bolano's last book, that was translated into English this year and ended up on a lot of best-of-the-year lists. 2666 is long, seemingly dense novel, and I figured The Savage Detectives might be a better place to start.
Not knowing much about Latin American literature, I didn't have much context for this book. There are a lot of references to authors that I wasn't familiar with, and I wasn't sure which of the many characters were fictional and which were real. There were discussions about the mechanics poetry that only poet would find interesting, though I think these were intentionally dry and academic. A greater familiarity with these elements might have elevated the book to the stratosphere where many others more knowledgeable than me have placed it.
Having said that I liked much of this book, and I really liked certain parts. It is split into 3 sections, the first taking place within a couple months time in Mexico city, as narrated by Juan Garcia Madero, a young poet who becomes initiated into a social circle that includes Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima, who thanks to the introduction I know are aliases for the author and his real-life best friend, Mario Santiago. This section, as an account of their bohemian lifestyle in Mexico City reminded me a bit of On The Road, though as narrated by a fictional outsider and written by a man near the end of his life, with the benefit of a few decades of experience between him and the events in the book. There are some really enjoyable passages and memorable characters. There’s a lot of sex and a lot of talking about poetry. It all ends on a cliffhanger that doesn't pick up until four hundred pages later.
In the meantime the long middle section covers decades of the life of Arturo and Ulises, as narrated by 52 of their friends, associates, and tangentially related acquaintances. Though this made for an odd reading experience at times (every few pages was narrated by a different character, and you'd have to think whether the character had appeared before and what their relation to the other characters was) the effect was cumulative. It reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s V. (which, like this book, is centered around a quest for an enigmatic historical figure, though this one is easier to follow), and I approached it the same way, reading each segment almost as its own short story, and not worrying to much about putting all of the pieces together. There’s a segment for instance, about a group of European hitchhikers that is completely engrossing and noirish in its steadily accumulating atmosphere of dread. At some point the characters meet a derelict and slightly unhinged night watchmen at a campground they are staying at, who for unknown reasons almost kills himself and another character. It is only later in the book that you find out that Arturo worked for a while as a night watchmen and the story becomes even more disturbing.
Writing an autobiography from the perspective of the world around the author is an interesting approach, and one that would require a lot of an almost preternatural amount of empathy. This, in my opinion, is what saves the book from being too self-indulgent. The subject of the book is really the people that Roberto Belano encountered in his life, rather than Roberto Bolano himself (in a novel where every major character is given pages and pages of expository monologue, his character hardly ever speaks). It reminds me a bit of the end of Fellini's 8 1/2 where everyone in Fellini's life joins hands and dances in a giant spinning circle.
Knowing that this book was more or less autobiographical and after reading the first third of the book where Belano’s character is more discussed by others than is present himself, I suspected that perhaps this book might have been Belano’s attempt to glorify himself and his career. After reading through this middle section, however, where Belano lets everyone have their say about him, a lot of which depicts him as a coward, a fool and a bum (though he does allow himself a few moments of heroism, as in his supernatural rescue of a boy from a well and the act of violence in the book’s climactic scene), these reservations proved unfounded.
The final third of the book is short and is about Arturo and his friends running from a pimp and a crooked cop while simultaneously searching for an old obscure author whose only published poem that is actually more of a drawing. I was happy that a climax is reached that resolves these plot threads in a fairly straightforward way (unlike V., at least for me). There’s an incident in this climax that made me wonder how much of the book was fact and how much was invented (none of the English language reviews seem to address this), but my opinion of the book doesn’t rest on its veracity and I would forgive Belano if he made up this unlikely and dramatic scene in order to create what was, for me, a satisfying end to his novel.