My favorite thing about Wolf Hall is how it turns previous conception of a much discussed period of history on its head, while maintaining complete plausibility. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I always thought of Thomas More as a great man of learning and advocate of free speech, while Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless, unprincipled yes-man. Mantel effectively exploits facts to make you completely reverse your feelings about the two characters. In truth, More was a religious fundamentalist, the man tortured and executed people who strayed from the Church's dogmatic beliefs, hardly a free speech advocate. Cromwell's rise to power would be inspiring if it occurred today, all the more so that he did it almost 500 years ago. Mantel almost does too good of a job of making Cromwell likable, but you are completely ready to buy it. I didn't realize this until I watched the film A Man For All Seasons and found myself becoming upset with its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. I think this is Mantel's greatest accomplishment, she reverses 500 years of preconceived notions.
The book isn't a necessarily easy read. Mantel throws you into the world and she doesn't give you a ton of exposition or remind you who characters are and how they relate to each other. I frequently had to consult the character list and the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book for a reminder. One night, I stayed up until 4 reading the wikipedia entry on the War of the Roses to refresh myself on that subject. (I actually highly recommend potential readers doing this. Mantel frequently references the events and it also gives you good context of why the production of a legitimate male heir was deemed such an immediate necessity.)
The title Wolf Hall is taken from the estate of the Seymour family, minor characters in the novel. But the title accentuates what I would consider the theme of the novel, which Cromwell repeats to himself several times over the course. Homono homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Mantel's Cromwell is presented as a precursor to the modern politician. This is a hazardous occupation in a time where political missteps had much graver consequences than potential resignation accompanied by a lobbying gig as a fall back plan. In this way Wolf Hall could be labelled a political thriller. One of the thrills in the novel is how Cromwell manges to, excuse the bad joke, keep his head on his shoulders. Watch Cromwell survive the political crushing of his patron and political mentor. See him hazard the stormy rapids that was the Boleyn family. Marvel as he clashes wits with the great Thomas More.
What makes this even more effective is the novel is very well written. Mantel does a great job inhabiting familiar characters and making them come to life. Unlike other fictional works that have dealt with the same period, none of the characters are cliched or one dimensional. Her Henry VIII is my favorite depiction of the much depicted monarch since Robert Shaw's. Here, he is temperamental and often child-like, but also as intelligent and goodhearted. And as a rule, any confrontation with the Boleyn sisters will likely be very entertaining. As it was for Henry, though in a rather different way.
The plot tends to revolve heavily around such such confrontations. There will be plot movement, but most of the time it sets the scene for another meeting between Thomas and Anne, or Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas More, or the Earl of Norfolk. Nevertheless, my favorite chapter of the book was one of the first, "An Occult History of England." This chapter is mostly exposition, but it works brilliantly as a kind of "how we got here."Combining politics, history, and legend, it reads like something Rushdie could have written.
I enjoyed Wolf Hall much more than I expected to. Although I know how the story ends for all the characters, the novel kept me entertained until the end. Now that I think about it, the novel really reminds me of Robert Caro's first two LBJ biographies which detailed Johnson's rise to power. While they don't retell the traditional hero's journey, a non-mythical path to power can be more worthwhile and just as entertaining epic. ...more
Let's start here. The Finkler Question is about three friends. Two are middle aged, one is elderly. Two are Jewish, one is a gentile who is obsessed with Jewishness / convinced of his Jewishness / attempting to transcend Jewishness and become some sort of uber-Jew. Two are recently widowed, the other aspires to widowerhood. All three are Londoners. I was aware of most of this going in, as I am similarly aware that some of this might not absolutely resonate with me, a 20-something, single, American, Irish-Catholic agnostic. Although, like Treslove (the gentile) I sometimes feel like certain tastes, beliefs and idiosyncrasies could be better explained if there were some trace Semitic branches in my family tree. Nobody wants to just interact with fictional characters exactly like themselves. But you do want some relatable sentiment. For me, through no fault of Howard Jacobson, there was a lack of this. And there are certainly parts of the novel that I throughly enjoyed. But a lot of it left me feeling like a witness to an engaging debate whose interference would be unwelcome. The best way I can put it is this: the table next to you at a restaurant is having a intriguing but non-obtrusive family argument. Even if you want to put your two-cents in, it would be wildly inappropriate, and it's likely they could give a shit about your two cents. While this argument of strangers may be engaging, you still can't really relate to it.
As of now, there aren't a ton of reviews on this site, so let me go into greater details gist-wise, if anybody's interested.
- There isn't really a plot to speak of, and the elements of plot present don't matter.
- The novel is mainly concerned with the relationship its characters have with Judaism and "Jewishness."The novel explores what it means to belong to a group, what obligations you have to this group, and what obligations this group has to you. A lot of this can be implied to anything, such as country, religion, family ect.
- Jacobson is very talented, and often funny. He deals with serious issues but never loses grasp of his sense of humor.
- I'm from the South, where all forms of bigotry and prejudice haven't exactly been eradicated. However, I was somewhat shocked at this novel's depiction of London's contemporary anti-Semitism. I mean, I know it's not extinct or even close to it, but I had no idea it was as prevalent as Jacobson depicts it.
- Israel is almost the MacGuffin of the novel. Jacobson gives an interesting cross-section of how the policies of Israel both unite and divide the Jewish community.
I'm not wildly enthused, with this review, it's not particularly well-thought out, and I've feel like I've spent too much time worrying about, to steal a joke from Always Sunny. dropping the "hard J." but I've spent too much time on the damn thing to scrap it. Let me try to somehow tidily sum up what I'm basically saying. It's not that you have to be Jewish & English & middle aged & widowed to enjoy this novel. I'm none of those things, and I did enjoy it on many levels. However, this book actively seeks a certain intellectual engagement that can only come through fully with a sense of relation. Therefore, any lack of relatable feelings might compromise your enjoyment of this book.
Ugh, look don't take my word for it. I don't regret spending time on this and it has giving me a good share of things to ponder on. Maybe you guys should figure this one out for yourself.
At some point, I realized that I no longer trusted the credibility of Isenberg's version of the facts. This started when she described the Jay Treaty. The Jay Treaty was widely criticized at the time but the majority of recent scholars have recognized the pragmatism behind it. The young republic had to make certain tough concessions to Great Britain but it was worth it in the end. Eventually, a large segment of the contemporary American populace recognized the benefits of the treaty, and the Jeffersonians were actually hurt by their continued denunciation of it. Isenberg does not attempt to delve into any sort of nuance whatsoever. Instead, she accepts Jeffersonian propoganda for what it is, using it to highlight Burr as a hero of the masses, and his opponents as craven elites. This type of sloppy history persists throughout the book. Isenberg's Federalists are villains, except when they are supporting Burr. Whenever Burr dirties his hands he is being a rational, whenever his opponents do they are playing dirty politics.
Fallen Founder seems at times to be more devoted to restoring Burr's reputation than being solid history. For example, Burr went from being a consensus Republican vice presidential candidate in 1800 to being blacklisted completely and humiliated in the New York Governor's race in 1804. There must be more to this than Isenberg's attribution of scheming of Dewitt Clinton and Thomas Jefferson. She also whitewashes Burr's activities in the western frontier that led to his treason trial. While his actions may not have justified the government's prosecution, he was definitely up to something not completely legal and legitimate. Isenberg paints Burr as a great progressive, years ahead of his time in woman's rights, but she only glosses over the fact that he was a slave-owner for the majority of his life. Sure, many of the founders owned slaves but their modern biographers don't attempt to make them out to be modern defenders of liberty.
Isenberg also never really proved that Burr belongs with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and others in any supposed pantheon. Burr served with decent distinction in the Revolutionary War but played no part in the debate over the Constitution. Burr seems to be no more or less principled than any other politician in that era. Like most politicians, he seemed to let his principles fluctuate with the times. His greatest accomplishments, other than his treason acquittal and his duel with Hamilton, seem to be his coalition building efforts, which invite comparisons with Martin Van Buren. The argument could be made that, if anything, Burr was a politician ahead of his time and a less successful Van Buren.
There are some joys in the book. If condition yourself to look past some of Isenberg's apparent biases, there is some interesting stuff, particularly about 1790s New York politics. But Isenberg lets her affinity for her subject get in the way of solid history. It really is a shame, because Burr's story at least deserves a balanced, objective telling.
However, Perlstein persuasively makes the case that the '64 election meant a lot more than voting results would suggest. 1964 is arguably the birth of the modern GOP. This election is where the Southern and Western conservatives finally were able to choose a candidate of their own as opposed to one imposed on them by Northeastern businessmen. This is where the GOP transitioned from the Eisenhower/Taft/Dewey Era to something resembling the modern party. For the first time since Reconstruction the Republican party won the Cotton Belt. This election set pieces in moving that would dominate the party for the next generation. As well as featuring the political resurrection of Richard M. Nixon the election of '64 witnessed the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a national figure on the right.
The election is intriguing for more reasons than as an augur of the future. Barry Goldwater was a new kind of candidate. He was not the establishment's man. Indeed, the Republican establishment desperately sought a possible anti-Goldwater. What enable Goldwater to prevail* was a strong, structured, and well-funded organization. This backing extended beyond traditional power brokers into something akin to grass root support. At the heart of this grass root support was the John Birch Society. This is were similarities with contemporary events really jumps out at you. If you're not familiar with the Birchers, they were a group of rabid anti-Communists who were convinced that the mainstream media and establishment were card carrying Pinkos. They weren't satisfied calling Kennedy, Marshall, and Truman commies, they were convinced Eisenhower was red. Perlstein's writing on the Birchers is perhaps the most entertaining and insightful writing in this book.
*In addition to other potential candidate's hesitation to run and Nelson Rockefeller's public divorce.
Before the Storm is a well titled book. In more ways than one, 1964 is a transition point in American history. The major mid-century cultural and historical trajectories all had some sort of turning point in '64. The year witnessed the passage of the CIvil Rights Act, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and much more. Perlstein is a talented historian, and he is just as natural describing political gamesmanship as he is describing the cultural impact of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
Perlstein subtitles this book "this unmaking of the American Consensus." Of course partisanship has been a part of the American political tradition since before there was a United States. But the storm that, according to Perlstein, was on the horizon after November 1964 was a growing sense that the other half of the political spectrum were out to destroy everything that was truly remarkable about America. The other side became transformed from an adversary to an enemy.**
** This trend wasn't unprecedented, just that the last time it was so prevalent we ended up in a civil war.
Nixonland, Perlstein's most recent book, is another fantastic book. In it, Perlstein gives an account of the cultural wars of the latter half of the sixties and early seventies, and makes the argument that much of the acrimony surrounding these battles was the personal creation of Richard M. Nixon. Perlstein argues, and presents a convincing case, that we are still living in Richard Nixon's America. However, I think Before the Storm might be the more relevant work. Nixonland explains the past fifty years, but through some twist of history, Before the Storm seems to often explain the present.
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this Wow....
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this book, I'm saying something equivalent to "Michael Jordan was a good basketball player" or "Richard Nixon had a decent amount of issues." This book is not only on the short list of best novels ever, it was there a century before my birth. But, hey, this thing is a beast, and it feels like a real accomplishment finishing it, so I'm going safely deposit my thoughts here rather than pestering my friends and family.
First a quick note. I never fully realized the value of a well-done translation before reading this book. So I need to add my endorsement to the cacophony of praise I've seen for Pevear and Volokhonsky. I happened to have a Barnes and Noble Edition that I purchased years ago for comparison purposes. The difference is striking. The public domain translation often appears to be a summary of Tolstoy's writing, while this edition is a translation in the truest sense. It not only translates the text, it translates the writing. Also, the old edition was abridged. Maybe this specific abridgment was particularly chopped up, but it really mangled the thing. With a lot of work that was originally serialized, you can tell that some of the material there is to provide filler for current issue. Here, even the chapters that may not be essential to the narrative or the overall thesis of the novel are essential to the feel of the work. Any abridgment of War and Peace is, nevertheless, going to leave the prospective reader with a tall stack of papers. When it comes down to it, if your going to attempt to tackle this beast, you might as well try to get your arms around this whole thing. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Tolstoy goes on tangents and diversions, but holy shit, he's Leo Fucking Tolstoy, he should have been encouraged write whatever he wants, and there isn't a thing that is not worthwhile. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation also includes the original French (with English translations in footnotes) where Tolstoy used it. While this may appear to be an unnecessary inconvenience, it serves a definite character and storytelling purpose. Again, it's Count Leo Tolstoy, his choices are somewhat credible. Finally, this edition includes extremely helpful citations to endnotes mostly dealing with historical background and also a historical index that is pretty useful.*
I've been aware of War and Peace for a long time. Maybe it's because it serves as the stereotypical overlong book. Maybe I heard a joke about reading War and Peace cover to cover three times while waiting at the DMV, but the novel has been in my conscience for a long time. And ever since I was a kid, trying to read Grisham books because I wanted to be "grownup," I knew a reckoning with this monster was bound to happen sooner or later.
Now that it's over, I think it's a real shame that War and Peace is best known for its length. The novel is a daunting, but not a difficult read. With perhaps the exception of the Second part of the Epilogue, the read is actually easy. The characters are relatable, the prose is easily enjoyable, and the pace of the plot is engaging.** Tolstoy does go on digressions, he often drops the narrative and goes into ruminations on the true nature of history, but he is able to do this in a seamless manner. It all fits together at the end, but it's not particularly jarring as you go along.
For me, the best single word modifier of War and Peace isn't long, it's full. For example, the television show The Wire***, a show that has been described as Tolstoy-ish, is nominally about the efforts of a Baltimore police unit to counter the drug trade in West Baltimore. But if you watched this show you know that this doesn't begin to adequately label what the show is about. The show was about modern American life, race relations, the failings of democracy, the incompetence of bureaucracy, the burdens of family, and more. Put simply, it's about America. Similarly, the narrative of War and Peace concerns the travails of two upper class Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. If the novel was solely limited to this, it would be a fantastic historical novel. But Tolstoy uses this narrative to do so much more. He criticizes established theories of history and ruminates on the true force that causes events to happen. And in the midst of both of these strands, Tolstoy, through his characters and his narrative voice, ruminates on man's search for purpose, both on the individual and collective level.
The narrative thread of the book considered by itself is a supreme achievement. For all the criticisms he gives them, Tolstoy himself is an excellent historian. He's fantastic at capturing the feel of what it how the times felt. The cultural gap between an early 21st century American reader and the early 18th century Russian nobility is needless to say jarring. But Tolstoy never lets things get too uncomfortable. There are very few anecdotes or passages that are overwhelmingly foreign to the modern reader. Like I said above, the narrative is rarely, if ever, difficult or dull.
Isaak Babel spoke the truth, in his reaction to War and Peace. "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Although little aspects of Tolstoy pop up every now and then, his narrative is impressive for his omnipresence. Much has been made of Tolstoy's realism, but those considerations behind the novel is the most humane piece of art I've encountered. Don't let the historical novel label or the publication date scare you off. Sure, the book was first published in the first year of the Grant administration and was about events that took place generations before publication. Notwithstanding these facts, the book is stunningly relatable. I guarantee you that there will be at least one passage that will leave you convinced that Tolstoy somehow traveled through time to plagiarize your dream journal. All the character, no matter how drastically times and customs have changed, remain at a certain level easily recognizable, familiar, and always viscerally real. Tolstoy, like no other author I've encountered, explores the parameters and comes close to nailing the essence of this state of being that we call being alive. Multiple lifetimes of wisdom and experience seep out of the pages. I know this is getting hokey, but I feel that strongly. Infinite Jest is still my favorite novel, but War and Peace has taken its place as the best novel I've ever read. It's one of those rare books that work as a (extremely long) mantra. As you contemplate and consider the novel you experience a transcendental feeling of deeper awareness. War and Peacereads like it should have been brought down from a mountaintop chiseled on stone plates****. Read it today... or whenever you have a good bit of time on your hands.
* This book is maybe the prime example of why nearly one year into my Kindle experience I'm conflicted. For fiction, I prefer the actual experience of holding a bound group of pages and miss the ability to easily flip back to prior passages. Also, I kinda regret that I won't be able to display on my bookshelf. I feel like the electronic edition should come with some plaque or certificate you can display. Also, sometimes it was a hassle to navigate considering the ubiquitous French translations and endnotes which are numbered separately. On the one hand, it was extremely nice not having to lug around a 1200+ page book and having the option of reading this book on the go. If I had to choose again, I'm not sure which one I'd go with.
** Again, please do yourself a favor and avoid public domain translations. I love raiding Project Gutenberg for free books, but this was totally worth the extra cash.
***AKA the best television show ever, and, perhaps, the best example of narrative storytelling of the best decade. I am an unrepentant whore for The Wire.
**** Except this would require a small army of stone haulers and quarry workers, and may severely reduce the world's supply of rock. ...more
Michael Jordan was the transcendent athlete, if not public figure, of my childhood. There are a generation of kids who still drink Gatorade, buy Nikes, and wear Hanes solely because at some point in their childhood they wanted to be like Mike. Whenever I play a pickup game, or even just shoot around I find my tongue subconsciously hanging out of my mouth when I drive to the basket. What separates Jordan from similar figures is he actually justified this adulation. Watching Jordan was watching a real life folk hero. I remember my Dad, who isn't an NBA fan, during the MLB strike of 1994 ranting about how all professional athletes are overpaid, then pausing and adding "with the exception of Michael Jordan. This is a guy who averaged a couple grand a minute during the late '90s. The Flu Game, The Shrug Game, The Blindfolded Dunk, The final shot of the 1998 Finals. No other athlete since Babe Ruth has been able to summon similar myth-making moments.
Yet as soon as he retired (for the second time) the media and basketball fans have become obsessed with finding the "Next Jordan." Around a dozen guys have been nominated as candidates, and while these guys are all extremely talented, it's doing them a disservice to compare them to Jordan. Jordan is Gretzky, Young Sandy Koufax, Mohammed Ali before the draft, and The Beatles combined, a truly once in a lifetime talent.
I've started to notice a similar thing going on in literature concerning David Foster Wallace. More and more it seems the DFW comparisons are used talking about contemporary authors. For Christmas, I received two books explicitly name checked Wallace on the back cover. This really doesn't bother me, and I don't think it causes the reader or the publishing industry any harm. When I think about it, there's nothing like a good DFW comparison to get me interested in a newly published book. But at the same time, I worry a little bit about it. The problem with the next Jordan controversy is that while Vince Carter has (or more aptly once had) the capacity for in-air improvisation that Jordan had, Dwyane Wade has the ability to put a team on his shoulders and almost single-handedly win playoff series, and Kobe has the clutch instincts and competitive intensity Jordan had, none of these guys are on MJ's level. While these guys, and others I haven't mentioned are very good to extraordinarily good at individual faucets of the game of basketball, Jordan was the best at everything you can ask a shooting guard to be good at.I wouldn't go so far as to completely equate the respective greatness of MJ and DFW, but there is an analogy here. Because, let's face it, anybody who reads an author expecting a David Foster Wallace doppelgänger is probably going to be disappointed as those who expected Harold Miner to be the next Michael Jordan.
Now that that's said, while this argument came to me while I was reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I'm not sure this review is the best place to expound upon it. For starters, George Saunders writing style and story telling are both fundamentally different from DFW's. If you were to make a Venn Diagram of George Saunders and DFW, the overlapping segments of the circles would be a mere sliver, at least based on this book. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if Saunders never read any Wallace before he wrote any of these stories. There are certain traits that Saunders and Wallace share. Both are able to write about a world that is fundamentally different from ours in very profound ways, but, at the same, make the reader feel some sense of almost eerie familiarity. Be it descriptions of wheelchair bound Quebecois assassins who were disabled in a bizarre rail-jumping ritual, or an account of an employee at a Civil War Era theme park seeking advice from the ghosts of an actual Civil War era family, both writers have an uncanny ability to treat the other-worldly in a causal manner. They both have incredible imaginations, but are able to resist what must be an overwhelming urge to let the "otherness" of their narratives overly dominate the storytelling.
I feel like I'm doing people a disservice when I tell them what the plot of Infinite Jest is about. While the world Wallace constructs is unbelievably intriguing, that's not what the book is "about." If you go into the book expecting to learn about The Entertainment and find out what's wrong with Hal, you're going to be somewhat disappointed. I feel similarly about the stories here. While the settings might suggest genre fiction, Saunders' writing reminded me more of Raymond Carver than Philip K. Dick or DFW. My one quibble may be is that while Saunders is definitely a unique storyteller, and I enjoyed all of the stories, there is nothing that really resonated with me or kept me up thinking at night. Beyond the polish of the background, I'm not sure exactly how much is new there.
I haven't come close to reading the complete DFW bibliography (or Saunders'), but it still pisses me off to no end that one day that wells going to run prematurely dry. Because, just as there was nothing like watching Jordan in his prime, there is nothing out there quite like reading David Foster Wallace. What makes experiencing greatness so extraordinary is the uniqueness inherent in it's nature. Like I said, I'm not sure how far anybody has ever gone with the Wallace comparisons to Saunders, so I'm not sure if any of this applies. And there's nothing wrong with comparing recent experiences with fondly recalled past experiences. But I worry that holding something to the level of past greatness, be it MJ, DFW, The Beatles, Brando, Scorsese, etc., does a diservices to both the new experience by holding it up to a standard that is impossible to reach without some glimmer of nostalgia, and the old experience by causing us to forget how unique the first was. ...more
Difficult my ass, I know who Werner Van Braun is.......... What a fantastic name... Selections From My Mental Commentary Upon Reading Gravity's Rainbow
Difficult my ass, I know who Werner Van Braun is.......... What a fantastic name........ Errrrr...............Maybe I need to reed that again......... Third time's a charm!.......... Shit........... Okay, who/what/when/where/why/how the fuck is going on?............... Okay, I think I get what's going on here........... Never mind.............. This whole thing is absolute rubbish............... Did Dane Cook's boner write that paragraph?................. That was awesome, I have no fucking clue what Pynchon's talking about, but he baffles me in a really elegant way....................... Alright, this is out of Dane Cooke's league, I think Lou Reed's boner wrote that section.................. Obama should appoint Pynchon the "naming things and people czar"............... This whole thing is absolutely fucking awesome................. I never want to read this part ever again............. I'm going to have to immediately reread this part........... That's not even supposed to mean anything............ Finished, onto Section 2!................ u.s.w.
Over the past few years, I've tackled several supposedly difficult novels with relative ease. As soon as I encountered the Erededy waits for pot section, I devoured Infinite Jest like a bored housewife reading Sweedish torture porn. Blood Meridian may have been a struggle to get through, but only because McCarthy's prose is so dense with a kind of a savage beauty that I was fatigued after reading three pages. War and Peace didn't justify it's difficulty to me at all, unless you measure difficulty by page length. I don't want to come off as narcissistic about my cognition, but if you think I'm guilty, I would understand you. (Get it?)
And then I encountered Gravity's Rainbow* There are some websites out there who belittle the difficulty of this book. They do this to speaking directly to first time readers. I guess that's admirable, I can certainly understand the proclivity to hype up and push something you love, but it's also inaccurate. For a GR virgin, a good portion of the novel is destined to be simply befuddling. I mean, for fucks sake, a major portion of the book is about rocket science. GR is a perfect storm of difficulty: Pynchon doesn't help his reader out with the plot; the narrative weaves between time, place, central character, and/or voice with little or no warning; Pynchon throws out a plethora of references to science, history, pop culture, scatological jokes, Norse mythology, etc that you would need several PHDs in a multitude of different areas of concentration to fully grasp; the prose, while often heartbreaking or hilarious or mind-blowing is not exactly accessible and often frustrating.
Out of any other novel I've read, GR most demands a second read. I actually bought the companion book, but I found that it was not particularly helpful. It provided minutia when I would have been fine if they had just explained what it meant relating to what was happening with the narrative and it neglected some things I had question about. Also, it made for an extremely clunky and disjointed reading experience. Eventually, I found a website that had quick summaries for each episode with particular emphasis on callbacks to previous events. I read these after the corresponding episode and found it to be of great use. But I tossed the Instapaper link, so good luck with Google.
My final rating reflects a compromise of some sort. A couple hundred pages into the book I wasn't enjoying myself. The only thing that kept me from quitting was the hours put in and the understanding that if I didn't finish it then, I probably would never come back to it. I soon started getting in the flow of things, and started seeing what all the fuss is about. That's the thing about Pynchon. You'll read one section and think that people sanctify this book as a form of intellectual swagger. And then the next section will completely connect with you and leave you thinking that this is the best book of the 20th century. I certainly noticed that my reaction to the reading experience was subject to my mental state. That's true of all books, but with GR it's almost like before you start reading you should do transcendental meditation, or go to a yoga class, or snort several lines of cocaine to truly prepare yourself. You have to surrender yourself over to the text, or you're going to realize that you've been reading for the past thirty minutes and you have not understood a single thing.
The four star rating is far from conclusive. Even during the last 100 pages I wavered somewhere between 3 and 5 stars. The goodreads star system completely fails the first encounter with Gravity's Rainbow. I give it a @.^ out of 10.0. Maybe a Ω-. I just know I'm really glad it's finally out of my to read soon pile. Now the problem is I kinda can't wait to read it again.
* I bought GR years ago, and had picked it up a few times since then only to shelve it. Over the past couple years, since I've started reading serious fiction again, I've had GR on my 'to read soon pile,' and I've had a few false starts, only to put the book aside after a dozen pages with a resolution to read when I had spare time. ...more
So, I guess the three star rating is an average. The novel itself probably deserves at least four stars, but I'm giving myself two stars as a reader of Hopscotch. I've talked before about the notion of a "difficult" novel. I'm not sure how the difficulty Cortázar presents compares to other things I've read, but I can say that Hopscotch is the most aggressively non-reader friendly novel I've ever read. By that, I'm not saying that the novel sneers at you with contempt or calls your mother ugly names. What I mean is that it's very hard to "get lost in a book" with Hopscotch. You're forcibly reminded throughout almost the whole experience that you're reading a book, it's a real struggle to get into that zen-like trance where you can read for an hour and not notice the time go bye.
There are several reasons for this. Perhaps most notably, Cortázar structures his novel in an innovative way. The 'proper narrative,' which is around 350 pages long, is followed by another 200 pages of additional material. Before the narrative begins, Cortázar explains that the novel was designed to be read in one of two ways. Either straight through, stopping at the end of the 'proper' narrative, or 'hopscotching' around the book, alternating between the 'proper' chapters and the 'additional' chapters. Seems fun, right? Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book for big kids! Except, not really. There are three things that make this less fun than it would first appear. First, Cortázar's prose, while at times brilliant, is incredibly dense. Dense on multiple levels actually: long clause-stuffed sentences, use of archaic or specialized terms, paragraphs that go on for pages without much happening (plus the font is really small). For me, Cortázar's writing both evokes Pynchon and Kerouac, with both the good things and the bad things that those comparisons entail. Secondly,, the vast majority of the chapters are very short, often no more than a paragraph long. While this may seem welcome on some level, it can lend to a disruptive reading experience, when you have to flip through the book to another short chapter soon after. Finally, there really isn't any plot to speak of, and to the extent that there is one, it doesn't matter. While there is a beginning, middle, and end in Hopscotch if you need some kind of traditional narrative, you'd be best to avoid this book. Each of the se elements, taken on their own may aren't really deal-breakers. But their combination creates a perfect storm of unreadability, at least to readers like me who might not have the longest attention spans unless they are completely engaged in something.
That being said, there are parts of Hopscotch that are really, really great. Like, highlighting every word on two pages in a row great. Like, some of the greatest set pieces I ever read great. I couldn't help but notice that I enjoyed the book a lot more at night, when I had nothing to distract me. I've read five-star reviews that cited specific scenes that I completely agree with. I'm willing to admit that I may have missed on the intrinsic worth of some parts that I hated merely because I wasn't in the right frame of mind. The novel is like certain difficult family members, you really love them, but you just can't stomach being in the same room as them. That being said, I'm really glad that I have read Hopscotch while I never want to read it again. Well, maybe in some circumstances, I'd be willing to give it another go. In fact perhaps the truest thing I can say is that Hopscotch would be a great book to be have on a shelf if you were trapped alone in a nuclear bunker with nothing but, a supply of mate, and gallons of amphetamine. ...more
The novel is centered around the War of Canudos, an extremely violent, yet incredibly localized, insurrection that took place in the early years of the Brazilian Republic, shortly before the beginning of the 20th century.** In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery the previous decade, the town of Canudos had swelled from a small baronial outpost to a semi-squalid metropolis of roughly 30,000 people. The reason for this expansion, was the personal magnetism of Antonio Conselheiro, known in the novel as The Counsellor. Conselheiro was a wandering mystic who spent years travelling the region and attracting a group of disciples around him. Eventually, he identified the Republican government as the personification of the antichrist, and led his band of followers to the small village of Canudos, to separate themselves from the atheist government, establish a new Jerusalem and to await the apocalypse. Officials in the state and local government never fully understood Conselheiro's movement, and the resulting attempts to restore order to the region led to a utterly destructive and devastating war, with somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths resulting. In attempting to create a sanctuary from the coming apocalypse, Conselheiro and his followers created an apocalypse all of his own.
Now that that's explained I need to make two quick qualifications. First, The War of the End of the World isn't a book about the War of Canudos. The narrative is centered on the war, but the war itself is more of a backup to the human drama that Vargas Llosa is concerned with. For instance, there are very few scenes depicting actual battle, most of these centered on non-participating bystanders trying to survive. The ongoing war is treated as an inevitability. The followers of the Counsellor, have no illusions about prevailing over the government, they are merely awaiting their promised salvation. This is, after all, the promised apocalypse.
Remember all that stuff I just said about The Counsellor? Good, because my second qualification is that he is a very minor character in the novel. Let me clarify that, he is a huge, overwhelming presence in the story, especially when the narrative shifts to one of his followers in Canudos. However, the narrative is never told from his perspective and he makes very little appearances in the course of the novel. This is somewhat strange because he is the direct cause of almost all of the events in the entire narrative. However, it is ultimately probably appropriate. The detached treatment Vargas Llosa gives the war would be diluted if the character was given access to it's central figure's inner thoughts and motivations. By not granting the reader access to the Counsellor Vargas Llosa creates a character that is unique in his illusiveness. Vargas Llosa allows the Counsellor to be defined solely through the lenses of his characters. Therefore, in the end, the reader has to decide himself whether the man was an apocalyptic cult leader who lead thousands of his followers to a certain and cruel death or a Messiah.
Before I go further, I must warn that the novel is a bit of an uphill battle to get through. You know how sometimes spend a long time establishing the world of the novel, before getting to the point where the plot starts to flow organically? Well, The War of the End of the World takes a long time getting to the point where it can take a long time establishing the world of the novel, before getting to the point where the plot starts to flow organically. What I mean by that is the novel's first 100+ pages (which read like 200+ pages) isn't exactly reader friendly. The novel begins with a short section that introduces readers to the Counsellor and his activities around the time he started attracting diciples. Then it shifts to a scene in a newspaper office in Santiago where an eccentric Scott named Galileo Gall is attempting to publish an advertisement calling for a rally in support of the rebels in Canudos.
Gall is extremely important to this section of the book. A self-proclaimed professional freedom fighter and phrenologist, Gall identifies the Canudos uprising through the prism of his own ideological views and begins to idolize the Counsellor's rebellion. However, despite his intentions, he is just as much a colonialist as the mercantilist exploiters of the recent past. He imposes aspirations that has struggled for in France and Spain on the rising in Canudos, therefore misunderstanding the uprising even more egregiously than the aristocratic local governmental authorities. For instance, Gall is informed that civil marriage ceremonies in Canudos have been banned. Hearing this, Gall is convinced that the rebels have unceremoniously tossed aside the antiquated institution of marriage and are practicing free love. In reality, the Counsellor and his followers are reacting to the rumors that the Republican government has begun to recognize civil marriages performed outside the Church.
The first section alternates between second-hand accounts of the ongoing Canudos uprising, often through the device of Gall writing correspondence to an anarchistic newspaper back in Europe, and short stories detailing the backgrounds of various followers of the Counsellor. These stories are extremely effective and well-written, many of them would work quite well as short stories, but they can be a bit stifling in terms of the overall narrative. If you watched the show Lost, imagine if the show-runners had started the first season by showing episodes entirely composed of each characters flashback scenes. Only after the characters had been introduced in their pre-Oceanic 515 life do we see the first episode where Jack wakes up after the plane crash. Each of these origin stories ends with it's subject leaving beside his or her old life and following the Counsellor. This extended prologue allows Vargas Llosa to avoid having a conventional beginning. I emphasize this because it's somewhat genius. By the end of the first section of the novel the reader feels that the actual events of the plot are within the grasp of his fingers, but still elusive. We know the kind of people involved in the uprising and how they became so devoted followers of the Counselor. We also have some idea of the events and motivations behind the uprising through the not incredibly reliable filter of Galileo Gall, who in turn is learning the sources from other first and second-hand sources with biases of their owns. Therefore, in the next sections, when the reader actually encounters the characters introduced in the first section, their fates are effectively sealed. They have all chosen which line in the sand they are going to stand on.
This novel could have easily been obnoxious by trying to score points. Vargas Llosa remains remarkably detached. The back of the novel depicts the plot as a standard little man gets crushed by those with power, but the story is much more complex than that. Vargas Llosa doesn't depict Canudos as the idyllic commune described in the teaser (which actually resembles Gall's warped understanding of the uprising). He does nothing to romanticize the uprising and he depicts the inhabitants of Canudos committing atrocities on opposing soldiers. My subjective interpretation of Vargas Llosa's interpretation of the events was that the Counsellor led an apocalyptic cult whose actions could result in no other result than the defeat of his followers. He and his followers may not have had malevolent intentions, but they are equally, if not mostly, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents. However, that interpretation is based entirely on my own reading.
While I can recommend The War of the End of the World as a great novel to have read, I am more hesitant about praising the actual reading experience. A book can be a difficult reading experience for a variety of reasons, but I have divided the concept of a difficult or tough read into three distinct classes:
1. Sometimes, a read require excessive mental effort in order to fully comprehend the book. The author's stylistic decisions might not be readily comprehensible, there might be a large number of characters with unfamiliar names, or the writing and/or pacing may require patience exceeding your present capabilities. There are other examples, but whenever a book asks for a little more effort than you wish to put in the book may be a grind.
2. Other times, a reader may be actively enjoying a read, but slowly, bit by bit, a sense of lingering impatience starts building up. The reader may find himself thinking about which book he plans on reading next and then realizes that he's not even to the halfway point of this one. The reader starts counting how many pages remain until the finish, but feels no closer to the end by the days reading. Soon the reader counts how many pages remain in each chapter, sometimes even before they begin the chapter. Soon, the reader discovers that he is unable or unwilling to read as many pages in a sitting as he once was. He/She is more easily distracted, and days pass with the book at the bedside giving you a guilty look. Yet the reader can't force himself to pick up something else, for after all, it's not like he/she wasn't enjoying the previous book. Soon there are nightmares where, like Sissyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity, the reader is cursed to never finish this never-ending fucking book that he/she thinks is pretty good! Chances are, our reader is stuck in a slog.
3. Sometimes, there are books that could be easily comprehended and picked up by anybody with access to a grocery magazine section that are the hardest books to read. This isn't because they require mental aerobics or zealous commitments, but because they are awful, steaming piles of quasi-literary shit, that was a complete waste of paper, ink, staples, and however many hours you have put into them already, but you can't toss it aside and move on, because some completely irrational obligation to finish anything you put up, and worries that your 1 star screed of a goodreads review might be insufficiently sincere if you didn't suffer through the whole thing. Or, you just weren't digging it too much. Either way, for lack of a better word, it sounds like a suck.
Anyways, The War of the of the World is the sloggiest of slogs. I cannot think of another novel with a more deceptive page count. This is partly due to the fact that the edition I read set a new standard for words to page efficiency. Vargas Llosa writes long paragraphs and while his prose is certainly satisfactory, the actual reading experience is rarely thrilling and mostly unremarkable. The novel ends on the 568th page, but it reads like a 1200 page epic. There are sections that take 30 minutes to read that you finish and realize that you can summarize the action contained within in five sentences. You would be sacrificing something by this, but some sections will leave you wishing Vargas Llosa had more eager editors. I'm not saying the book should have been shorter now for two reasons. First, I just finished the marathon, I still have the runners high. Secondly, the fact that this book isn't a breezy read at all, that it's a relentless, somewhat repetitive, slog somehow makes the reading experience more visceral.
One reason for the perceived long-windedness of the novel is it's structure. The novel is divided into four parts, three lengthy and one short that serves as an interregnum between the first two. The three long parts read more as three self-contained novels forming a trilogy than as three sections of one novel. Each section has it's own defined beginning, rise to action, climax and end. At least for me, by the final part I grew somewhat weary of this by now repetitive cycle. Characters that dominate the first part disappear by the third, and characters that are briefly mentioned in the early parts come to prominence near the end. Therefore, I might advise readers to consider taking a break between the lengthy books.
I didn't take a break between sections. Instead, I took a one day sabbatical from reading the book, that ended up lasting over two weeks. I've read over one hundred books this year, but this one alone took me well over a month. Some of that may have been due to circumstances beyond the book itself, but my sabbatical from this book has coincided with a sabbatical from this site. Visiting this site made me feel guilty about not finishing this book. (Thank's Catholic Guilt!) Anyways, I've compensated for a month's absence by writing this absurdly lengthy review, which probably turned into a slog itself a long time ago. Therefore, allow me to wrap up. Just know what you may be getting yourself into.
Toward the end of the novel, Vargas Llosa has a character recount a discussion between two individuals discussing the events in Canudos. The character realizes that the meeting "had been not so much a dialogue as two monologues running side by side without ever meeting." Without realizing it, the character has identified the base tragedy of the novel and of politics in general. The 30,000 deaths in Canudos wasn't tragic because they were avoidable. While the suffering described throughout the book was meaningless, and resulting from misunderstanding, it is hard to envision realistically a different outcome. What makes Canudos, and much of the suffering in history, truly tragic is that because humanity has opted for competing monologues instead of true dialogue, such suffering is inevitable.
*Which would have made his presidency, had he been elected in Peru, unbelievably intriguing.
**Here's where I would usually comment on the book's historical accuracy, but my 19th century Brazilian history is a bit rusty, and I only have this novel and a short wikapedia page to go by. I feel comfortable saying that the novel reads like an extremely well researched book. In the absence of independent study, I'll take the novel's depictions of events on face value. ...more
The Missionary Position, by the sake of its cover alone, is arguably one of the most bold polemics in recent memory. The title itself forces you to pi
The Missionary Position, by the sake of its cover alone, is arguably one of the most bold polemics in recent memory. The title itself forces you to picture the wrinkled, ancient, and now deceased, woman on the cover.... well, let's just say engaging in an activity that we have good reason to believe she abstained from for the entirety of her life. Let me pause while I shudder quickly. Despite the pure shock power of the title, Hitchens' originally preferred title may have been more appropriate, The Sacred Cow. Because if you were unaware of Hitchens' argument, Mother Theresa of Calcutta seems to be one of the least appropriate target for such harsh criticism, even when the bile is produced by such a virulent contrarian and secularist as Hitchens.
However, Hitchens makes clear that his ire is not directed at Mother Theresa herself, or devout Catholics who consider her a saint. This book is for the secular or casually religious who consider the late nun as the exemplar of charity, compassion, humility, and devoutness. Hitchens argument is that all the modifiers but the latter are inappropriate.
Hitchens main point is that the good Mother Theresa did for the world were means to the end of promoting a specific and retrograde worldview, "to propagandize one highly subjective view of human nature and need, so that she may one day be counted as a beatific founder of a new order and discipline within the Church itself." Hitchens also points out that when the welfare of the poor conflicted with any of her religious beliefs it was the former that were sacrificed. This is not only relating to her frequent pronunciations on the evils of birth control. The Catholic Church, and Theresa as one of the most outspoken mouthpieces of the organization on this subject, is liable for the millions of deaths and and an untold amount of suffering worldwide by its unbelievably outdated position on the subject. But wait there's more. Hitchens cites testimonials that make it appear that people under the care of the Missionaries of Charity suffered needlessly not because of a lack of funds, but because Mother Theresa sought to maintain conditions of poverty. Better care for patients under their care was not provided, not because Mother Theresa was unable to provide, but because she was unwilling to provide it.
Hitchens also ridicules Mother Theresa's supposed refusal to engage in politics. Of course this was only the case where politics didn't involve moral issues, and she didn't hesitate to give her blessings to demagogues who shilled her line. Also, her supposed non-engagement freed her up to be used as a pawn by thugs, dictators, and crooks who were eager for a photo-op. One such engagement was when she wrote a letter to Judge Lance Ito, appealing for leniency in the sentencing of Charles Keating, the perpetrator of the Savings and Loan scandal. She had the gall to cite how Keating donated money to her charities as proof of his better nature, while never addressing the fact that this money was stolen by Keating through fraud. When faced with calls to return these stolen funds she answered with complete silence.
Hitchens has several more bones to pick that I won't get into. Hitch's screed is more of a pamphlet than a book, coming in at just under 100 pages scarcely filled pages that will take at most a couple of hours to read. Because it's so brief, I'm going with three stars instead of four. Hitchens is the kind of guy you would never want to get into an argument you want to win with. Here, he takes aim at the previously unassailable and manages to but a few dents in her secular halo....more
I need to qualify my upcoming bold statement with two disclaimers. First off, I'm already on record as being underwhelmed by the hallowed novel I'm ab
I need to qualify my upcoming bold statement with two disclaimers. First off, I'm already on record as being underwhelmed by the hallowed novel I'm about to mention in my forthcoming bold statement. Second, The 42nd Parallel is only the first part of a three volume trilogy that should probably be considered as a whole, and I have only read this volume. But what's the point of writing these reviews if your not going to bring strong opinions. So despite the aforesaid reservations, here it goes: whatever Jack Keroauc was trying to do with On the Road was done twenty years earlier in a more elegant, interesting, engaging and just over-all better fashion by John Dos Passos with his U.S.A. Trilogy.
The U.S.A. Trilogy is a work of historical fiction that takes place from the beginning of the 20th century to around 1930. I know what your thinking, how can I compare Keroauc's "great American road novel" with a piece of historical fiction. Well, Dos Passos didn't write a typical example of historical fiction. He isn't interested in fictionalizing historical figures and/or events. You might feel tempted to draw comparisons with Doctorow's Ragtime. Dos Passos must have been a large influence on Doctorow, the two books share a similar time frame and themes. However, U.S.A., written over fifty years before Ragtime, is more unique and, strangely enough, more modern.
Like Doctorow, Dos Passos isn't concerned with telling the stories of specific individuals, but in using individual examples to give a sense of an overall whole. Doctorow does this by refusing to personalize his characters, they remain "Mother," "The Boy," "Mother's Brother," etc. While Dos Passos gives his characters Christian names, The 42nd Parallel is even less significantly "about" its characters than Ragtime.None of Dos Passos characters meet Emma Goldman or Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There are no moments where a character exclaims something like, "We've booked passage back on the White Star Line. They say their new vessel is unsinkable." While the stuff of history plays a prominent part in The 42nd Parallel it is encountered in a way most of us encounter the historic events of our own time, as something that has already happened to others. The characters don't really affect the course of events, and the course of event's don't really have a great effect on the characters. Dos Passos isn't trying to give the reader an idea of how the times were experienced on an individual level, he is more interested in the collective experience. As cheesy as this may sound, U.S.A. is mainly concerned about its title character.
To fully convey this argument, I need to talk a little about the trilogy's overall structure. Dos Passos uses four different "devices" to tell his story. The most conventional of these, are chapters telling the story of one of four characters. Overall, we follow twelve characters, six men and six women, through the trilogy. These characters provide a compelling and reasonably diverse sampling of early 20th century Americans.*I should note, while these chapters take up the great majority of the novel they are really no more than character sketches. It's compelling, but not necessarily ground breaking or momentous material considered by itself. However, the strength of the novel lies in how Dos Passos supplements these narratives using other techniques. The conventional chapters are followed by what Dos Passos calls "Newsreels." Here, actual news headlines and portions of articles, as well as popular songs contemporary to the narrative are kind of spliced together to create avant-garde(ish) prose passages. Let me just give a randomly picked example:
lights go out as Home Sweet Home is played to patrons low wages cause unrest, woman saysThere's a girl in the heart of Maryland
With a heart that belongs to me
WANT BIG WAR OR NONE
the mannequin who is such a feature of the Paris racecourse surpasses herself in the launching of novelties. She will put on the most amazing costume and carry it with perfect sangfroid. Inconsistency is her watchword
Three German staff officers who passed nearby were nearly mobbed by enthusiastic people who insisted on shaking their hands
Girl Steps on Match; Dress Ignited; Dies
When she said that mine she'd be
This might not be the best example, but it provides you with a good idea of what these passages are. Some other reviewers have complained about this, saying that when they were interested in a headline Dos Passos would jump away and it wouldn't be mentioned again. I can sympathize with this feeling, but it's asking for something fundamentally different from what the authors trying to do. You don't have recognize any of the news items to appreciate the novel. They are there, as Dos Passos himself said, "to give an inkling of the common mind of the epoch.
Dos Passos inserts himself in the novel through "The Camera Eye," 27 short, autobiographical, stream of conscience, passages. This device, heavily influenced by Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can also be a little disorienting because no context is provided.** Again though, complete comprehension of how it all fits isn't necessary or even what the author is expecting. Finally, interlaced in the text are several somewhat poetic, somewhat gonzo, biographical sketches of prominent figures in the era. Dos Passos includes these because "their lives seem to embody so well the quality of the soil in which Americans of these generations grew."
So remember how way back in the first paragraph I mentioned Keroauc. Well here's where the comparison comes in. I believe Dos Passos and Keroauc shared a identical idea, and U.S.A. and On the Road are both fundamentally expressions of this common idea. In the revised prologue to The 42nd Parallel written after the publication of the final volume of the trilogy, Dos Passos describes a nameless man who is completely solitary but not alone. Allow me to quote a long passage, because it's pretty fucking amazing:
Only the ears busy to catch the speech are not alone; the ears are caught tight, linked tight by the tendrils of phrased words, the turn of a joke, the singsong fade of a story, the gruff fall of a sentence; liking tendrils of speech twine through the city blocks, spread over pavements, grow out along parked avenues, speed with the trucks leaving on their long night runs over roaring highways, whisper down sandy byroads past wornout farms, joining up cities and fillingstations, roundhouses, steamboats, planes groping along airways; words call out on mountain pastures, drift slow down rivers widening to the sa and the hushed beaches.
It was not in the long walks through jostling crowds at night that he was less alone, or in the training camp at Allentown, or in the day on the docks at Seattle, or in the empty reek of Washington City hot boyhood summer nights, or in the meal on Market Street, or in the swim off the red rocks at San Diego, or in the bed full of fleas in New Orleans, or in the cold razor wind off the lake, or in the gray faces trembling in the grind of the gears in the street under Michigan Avenue, or in the smokers of limited expresstrains, or walking across country, or riding up the dry mountain canyons, or the night without a sleeping bag among frozen beartracks in the Yellowstone, or canoeing Sundays int the Quinnipiac;
but in his mother words about longago, in his father's telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, in the lies the kids told at school, the hired man's yarns, the tall tales of the doughboys told after taps;
it was speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U.S.A.
U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving pictures theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out written in by a Western Union Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world's greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniform in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
Whew, sorry about the extended block quote, but isn't that friggin' amazing? Am I wrong or do we learn the same thing from Sal Paradise?I think Keroauc and Dos Passos had similar ideas and goals. Let me be clear that I'm not completely dismissing On the Road If you were to make a Venn Diagram of the two novels there would be similarities but each would have its own well-defined circle. However, one of the reasons On the Road is considered by some to be the great American novel is because it so ably distills one particular pie slice of U.S.A. Personally, I think Dos Passos, in addition to being a better writer, gives you a bigger more satisfying piece. Dos Passos' U.S.A. is a better illustration of "the link that tingled in the the blood."
*The glaring exception to my diversity claim is that all of the characters are white. At least in the first volume of the trilogy, Dos Passos does not seem particularly concerned with race issues. Class relations is the great contentious issue in this volume.
**Just wanted to note here that the chronology of Dos Passos' life provided in my Library of America Edition helped here. Moreover, it was worth reading on its own. JDP lived a hell of an interesting life. I'm not sure what his wikipedia page is like but it might be worth checking out.
The Drive-By Trucker's album Souther Rock Operais organized around the concept of what Patterson Hood calls the duality of this southern thing. Like Hood, I was raised in Alabama, and have had a ambiguous relationship with my home state and the whole concept of "The South." Down here, things are particularly Janus faced. For instance, a in the classroom I'm sitting in, not paying attention to Products Liability, is the composite of Alabama Law School's most infamous alumnus, George Corley Wallace*. However, Wallace is a more complex individual than you might suspect on first glance. The day the ex-governor died, Patterson Hood wrote the song "Wallace," which is written from the point of view of the Devil welcoming George to hell. As Hood points out, Wallace started his career as a progressive, New Deal inspired, judge. In his first run for governor, he spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and was endorsed by the NAACP. However, after losing in the primary to a candidate who didn't hesitate to play the race card Wallace vowed never to be "outniggered" again. The rest is history. However, another thing the general public doesn't know is that Wallace had a late-career conversion. In the late '70s he admitted the error of his ways and asked forgiveness from civil rights leaders. Under his latter terms as governor, Alabama was better than most minority states at minority hirings. Wallace won his last term as governor with over 80% of the black vote. I'm not by any means a Wallace apologist. His actions during the Civil Rights movement were inexcusable, and the fact that he may have been more progressive than many men of his time just makes him more unprincipled. As Hood points out, racism is a national problem, but because of Wallace, it's convenient to associate race issues with an Alabama drawl. Yet, however much Wallace's dark side overshadowed his better angels, it would be a mistake to ignore the latter completely.
Wallace is just one example of the Janus face nature of Southern culture. After the same environment that produced Wallace, David Duke, and Lester Maddox produced William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and Mark Twain. History here is difficult, filled with subtle distinctions based on perspective. Therefore, the subject is particularly susceptible to the uses and abuses of demagogues.
Which brings us to the present controversy. Like many, my initial reaction to the new edition of Huck Finn was disgust. But the more you think about this issue, the more nuanced the controversy becomes. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is arguably the most important American novel ever written. As Hemingway said in an oft-repeated quote, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. This sentiment leads one to two conclusions: 1) the novel should be taught as a part of any course dealing with American literature and 2) it takes a lot of gall to edit the author of such a work. However, I also cannot reconcile the issues that these two conclusions lead to. No teacher in my southern high school assigned Mark Twain, so this wasn't an issue. However, this book presents great difficulties to anyone who wishes to teach it at a modern high school.
This all boils down to Twain's over two hundred uses of a specific word, which happens to be the most enigmatic word in the American lexicon. We would probably be better off if the word could find its way to extinction, but any hopes of the word's imminent disappearance are delusional, it's most likely here to stay. I'm keep bringing this allusion up, but the n word is the epitome of Janus-faced. I can't think of another word where so much depends on pronunciation. Anybody who has heard the word in a certain way can tell you there's a huge gap between ending the word with a -guh and ending it with a -ger. I also don't buy any arguments where one group of people are "allowed" to use the word and others aren't. Language isn't exclusive. My generation is the first generations who grew up with hip-hop in the cultural mainstream. Yet there is still the paradoxical situation involved here. A white kid may be thinking he is reciting one of his favorite rap lyrics, but to someone else he is doing something that is horribly offensive.
So the problem presented by Huck Finn is a uniquely American one. The n word is something every kid has heard by the age of high school. Depending on your circumstances, you have probably have heard uttered with racism behind it by a friend, or a friend's parent, or even a relative. So this isn't your usual school censorship issue. But at the same time, I can't think of any way of rationalizing certain aspects of Twain's book that isn't in some way condescending. However, I still think that the sanitizing of the book is pure whitewashing. I also don't like the idea that this book should only be taught in college. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is exactly the type of book that needs to be taught in American literature courses, and one of the reasons for this is specifically because the language Twain uses. In most cases involving school censorship, the censorship is motivated by ignorance, or naiveté, or wishing to foist religious values on the community as a whole. Here, censorship is motivated by something more akin to cowardice.
The aspects of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that cause problems are the same aspects that make the novel more than a children's story. I think there would be less of an issue if Twain made the story more melodramatic. The problem is that Twain ignores the melodramatic for the sake of a sense of realness.Huck Finn has been criticized for not exploring the nihilism of the plantation system. I'm sympathetic to a lot of arguments surrounding this book, but this criticism is patently ridiculous. Don't get me wrong, slavery and 19th century racism was undoubtedly both brutal and real, the stuff that justifies the melodramatic. However, Huck Finn was written twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it's not an abolitionist polemic. Instead, it's more concerned with the fallacy of racism.
Most encounters with racism don't involve the inherently evil backwoods hick who lives in the double wide. What makes racism so sinister is that it is far more sneaky than that. Far more frequently, you see racism in the sweet little old lady who, quite suddenly, utters something that leaves you thinking, "shit, that was really racist." Racism isn't a learned doctrine. You don't wake up one day and decide that you're going to start hating black people. Racism is a kind of indoctrination. There are no evil, sadistic slave owners in the novel. The shocking thing about the book is the people who own slaves and throw out the n word without a thought are otherwise completely decent, even friendly, people. The assumption that all racist people are somehow malevolent is a cousin of the assumption that all people of a different skin color or ethnicity are of a better value than an other for precisely those reasons. Both conclusions are assumptions made in the absence of nuance.
The main narrative thread of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnis Huck's rejection of a bias that had been he had been subconsciously indoctrinated in by the circumstances of his native culture. Although the slavery and racism Huck is exposed to is mostly benign, this should be treated as a denial by Twain of the inherent inhumanity of either. Having Huck's redemption caused by expose to cruelty would be the easy way out. What Twain does is far more complex and interesting. The action's of white people have nothing to do with Huck's conversion, instead it is achieved through his recognition of the humanity of his friend Jim. After all, it's not Mark Twain who uses the n word, it's Huck Finn. That Jim starts the novel as nothing more than "Nigger Jim" is a crucial aspect of the story. The n word signifies a prejudice beyond the status of "slave." By sanitizing any offensive racial terms, the redemptive power of the conclusion is weakened.
There's a reason nobody reads Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin anymore. The evilness of slavery is a settled issue. What makes Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still relevant is that it is one of the first works of American art to go beyond this to the next step towards racial equality. Changing the term "nigger" to "slave" might offend less people and it might make it easier for teachers to teach to high schoolers. But who said it was supposed to be easy? Problems associated with race have the most difficult problems America has faced since the first shipment of African slaves arrived in Jamestown. Confronting these issues should be uncomfortable. Great literature should be filled with nuance and subtlety. The place for good versus evil, black or white, you're either with us or against us is in fairy tales and children's stories. If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has to conform itself to comfort modern readers, we might as well permanently assign it to the children's section.
* Fun fact: Back in those days, they ordered pictures on the composite by class rank (Thank God they stopped doing this in the '60s). Wallace's picture is the last on the penultimate row. I'm not sure if George displayed a similar lack of effort and/or apathy, but this is a comfort to me.
Swamplandia! begs George Saunders references. Karen Russell shares Saunders fascination with the peculiar Americana of the tourist trap. The titular a
Swamplandia! begs George Saunders references. Karen Russell shares Saunders fascination with the peculiar Americana of the tourist trap. The titular attraction here is the island home of the Bigtree Tribe, a family of eratz Indian alligator wrestlers. However, whereas the attractions become characters of Saunders' stories, Russell's characters are themselves the attractions of Swamplandia. Their faces appear on the billboards and promotional material and one of the attractions is a museum devoted to the families history that features baby pictures and wedding dresses. So when Hilola Bigtree succumbs to cancer, the clan not only loses its matriarch, but also its chief attraction.
The narrator of much of the novel is Ava, the youngest of the Bigtree children. Russell does a pretty deft trick with this voice. Ava's narrative hints at magical realism but actually depicts an adolescent's disenchantment with the magical world of childhood and confrontation with the harsh and often terrifying world of the adult. However, once this realization is made, this part of the novel loses much of its force and becomes somewhat monotonous. After a certain point, Russell runs out of things to say but the narrative contineus.
The other portion of the novel is devoted to Ava's brother, Kiwi, who runs away to the mainland in an effort to save the family but finds himself working at a competing amusement park, the Biblically inspired World of Darkness. I found these sections to be ultimately more interesting than Ava's story. However, Russel's narrative structure is somewhat disjointed. Almost the first hundred pages are told from Ava's first person perspective. However, after Kiwi runs away, the chapters alternate between the continued story of Ava and a third-person narrative of Kiwi's struggles on the mainland. The alternating narratives never really coincided in either temporal location or theme and I found this to really disjointed and somewhat clumsy.
Although I was unimpressed by her first novel I still think Karen Russell is a writer to keep an eye on. The novel suggests that Russell is a great short-story writer, and at times this novel really betrays its roots as an expanded short story. Maybe Russell is one of those writers who are never able to transform their ideas into a cohesive narrative for a full-length novel. Maybe I'm a sucker for a writer for my home town, but I still believe that this is Russell's A.M. (the Wilco debut) a derivative and somewhat disappointing debut that shows promises of future greatness. In the end, Swamplandia! exhibits the fact that Russell has a lot of creative ideas and interesting things to say. Unfortunately the combination of these elements creates a disjointed, muddled, and monotonous disappointment....more
Maybe it's just a function of my age, I was three at the time, but the 1988 election has never really seemed that notable to me. I may be a child of Reagan, but George H.W. Bush was president when I first grasped a notion of what a president was, so I may have seen the '88 election through an aura of inevitability. Politics and opinions aside, George Bush will always be the bedrock for my conception of president. '88 seems the Young Americans of presidential elections, a not particularly noteworthy event wedged between two groundbreaking eras (Reagan Revolution/"Ziggy" and Clinton Administration/"Berlin Trilogy.")* Does such a seemingly foregone conclusion as Bush beating Mike Dukakis deserve such a massive tome? Because Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes is certainly foreboding. 1,047 pages filled with tightly packed text in a small font. That 1,047 pages is earned too, there's not stat padding commonly found in history books. Because the book is based off of original reporting there is no bibliography, end notes section, or even an index.** I'm a political junkie, as soon as I read about this book I knew I would end up devouring it. But this amount of work devoted to a not particularly interesting election which resulted in a one-term presidency may seem indulgent to those with a less fervent fascination.
First off, all indications otherwise, it's not entirely accurate to say What It Takes is about the '88 election. In fact, judged as a history of the '88 election this book is a disappointment. I'll get into what exactly this book is shortly, but to give you an idea of what we're dealing with, the results of the Iowa caucus, the first actually meaningful raw data of '88 campaign, are first discussed on page 867. That leaves 180 pages for, well... 1988. Cramer's main narrative closes before the national conventions, and his 30 page epilogue opens up on Election Day.
Obviously this would be a problem if the book solely aspired to be a blow by blow account of a political campaign. So, if the book isn't a piece of conventional history or straight-up journalism, what is it? Cramer's goal in writing this book were to examine what type of human willingly puts himself through the process and the effect of process on the human. To do this Cramer, starting in 1986, spent a baffling amount of time with six potential candidates, four democrats and two republicans. Those candidates were Bush, Bob Dole, Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Biden. The access that the text hints at is extraordinary in itself. The behind the scenes account Crammer was able to get almost demands a behind the scenes account itself.
The book is basically a close third person narrative of each of the six candidates. Cramer isn't trying to be objective, instead he gives the reader something like a 'candidates eye view' of the events. He effectively inserts the reader inside the heads of one of the candidates. Because of this, the book is extremely sympathetic to each of the six main figures.*** In many ways the book is an exercise in empathy, and readers are more likely to empathize with a book's characters when they, at some level, like the characters. Politics aside, Cramer mostly succeeds in this. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of What It Takes is that it not only convinces the reader to like six politicians, but that the reader likes six politicians who are adversaries. He does this by interspersing biographic episodes into the narrative. The reader gets to know each of the candidates. These episodes are much more focused on the upbringing and family life of the candidates than their political history. For instance, more space is dedicated to the Congressional career of Prescott Bush than George Bush. What It Takes is concerned more about where each of the candidates are coming from than the specifics of the their political career. The book is concerned with the broad process rather than the details, so Cramer is able to avoid getting into specific issues which would detract from a reader's sympathy. Cramer doesn't interrupt the narrative to interject any editorializing or different perspectives. Cramer may use the events of the narrative and the candidate's biography to subtly hint at specific character flaws. But these flaws are human flaws, not the frivolous and general sound-bite associated gaffes and misteps obsessed over by the media in modern elections. The only way one of the candidates will be directly criticized is through another candidate. Through this narrative technique, a specific criticism will seem unfair in one chapter and then justified in the next.
What It Takes is mainly concerned with depicting the personal struggle with the process of a presidential race. As such, the actual events leading up to the '88 election are mere background to the more personal drama Cramer is interested in. The actual 'history' of the campaign weaves in and out of Cramer's narrative as it suits the story. Some stuff is dealt with in detail, some stuff is ignored altogether. The '88 election is to What It Takes as to the Napoleonic Wars were to War and Peace. That being said, it's worth noting that the quality of the work is lessened during the last few hundred pages. Again, considering the parameters of the book, this isn't surprising. The book is entirely based on original journalism, so the quality of the work inevitably depended on the access Cramer was able to achieve. Once votes started being cast, Cramer's access to the remaining candidates must have been severely curtailed. Another thing worth considering is that this book was published in 1992. I think it's fair to criticize Cramer for inadequately anticipating future readers. For a book that sets out to be about something timeless in the way America selects its leader, it can often be weighted in the time it was written. Throughout the book there are dated pop culture references and sly allusions to events that would take place later that modern readers may not catch. Also, I know I have been stressing that the book is about the process more than the specific events of 1988, but Cramer's almost complete neglect of the general election**** make a 1,000+ page book seem incomplete. I'm not asking for a couple hundred pages, but when we leave the main narrative Dukakis is up by double percentage points before the conventions and then we cut to Bush giving his acceptance speech. I'm not sure if he was facing publishing deadlines or what, but even 20 pages of summary would have been nice. Wolfe's The Right Stuff, for instance, is about much more than the history of the Mercury Program, but all the same, still manages to be somewhat comprehensive about the subject it is using as a simulacrum of larger trends. The absence of this here is the reason I'm docking a star.
I was going to go into the specifics of the 1988 election, but I've gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, whether it's Cramer's writing or the candidates themselves, the six main figures are written in a vibrant and compelling manner. The book works as a character study of six compellingly different, but somewhat similar, figures who had the courage or the egomania or the delusional capability to think that they should be Commander in Chief, and the willingness to serve, or, at least the egomania, to put themselves and their family through the process. I gained much more respect and insight on George H.W. Bush, my bedrock president.***** Bob Dole figures simultaneously fully justifies the Norm McDonald SNL sketches and becomes so much more.****** What It Takes presents real questions about how American democracy works. The most surprising thing about the book is how Cramer treats the political media, which comes off as a sort of demented Greek chorus, insisting on snooty comments on a candidate's sex life and focused exclusively on perceived character issues while Athens burns. Cramer depicts the media as obsessed with chasing the hot story or the daily soundbite at the expense of substance. George Bush was able to get elected by producing quality b-reel and spouting drivel because his team figured out the game. Gary Hart, who comes off as a less sleazy Bill Clinton, was hounded from the race by faux-Puritanical press whose real motive was moving copy. Dukakis, an effective bureaucrat but a lousy politician, was able to coast to the nomination and never forced to get his head out of his ass until Bush started hammering him with Willie Horton.
Cramer begins the book asking who would want to be President knowing what they would have to submit themselves to. Since '88 the process has only gotten noticeably worse. With few exceptions, Warren Beatty's prophecy, made after his friend Gary Hart had to bow out of the race after the Donna Rice scandal have come true: "When forced to show all, people become all show." What It Takes shows that there is a healthy portion of egomania that drives someone to office, but there is also, or at least there was a generation ago, healthy portions of decency and commitments to serve. Whether that's always going to be the case, or is the case even now, remains to be seen.
* To extend this completely ridiculous analogy of Bowie albums to U.S. presidential elections: '72 =The Man Who Sold the World(probably just because of the song), '76=Hunky Dory, '80=Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, '84=Diamond Dogs (and not just because of the song), '88=Young Americans, '92=Station to Station, '96=Low, '00=Let's Dance. This makes sense to me, but to explain it I would need 5,000 words and hours of spare time.
** Which given the wide cast of characters, around a dozen important campaign officials in each of the six different campaigns, would have been useful.
*** Fair warning: What It Takes is much more indebted to Tom Wolfe than Theodore White. The text is full of gonzoisms that can be well-placed or irritating or both. For instance, Cramer uses a variety of techniques, keywords, and phrases to distinguish each of the candidate's perspective (Examples: use of the third person, the preamble Argh, and phonetic Midwestern drawl for Dole; brash, cockiness for Biden; repeated use of the word neat for Gephardt). Cramer also uses a healthy portion of italics and elipsis to simulate stream of consciousness. Generally, this didn't bother me but I found myself sometimes wishing he would tone it down just a little bit.
****About 10 pages of the 30 page epilogue deal with Bush and Dukakis immediately after the election, and involves some reference to the general campaign.
******If George W. Bush was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, H.W. was walked on favorable calls, earned a hard earned steal of second, and reached third on a sacrifice fly.
****** If it was on Youtube I would have linked to the Bob Dole on Real World sketch. ...more
For those who aren't aware, the novel is comprised of six stories, five interrupted one's mirrored by a sixth 'mirror.' The stories are seemingly unrelated, but share common themes and traces of a single over-arching narrative. Taken by themselves, each of the narratives represent a well-crafted, if not particularly mind-blowing, example of genre fiction. But what makes Cloud Atlas unlike anything I've ever read is how the stories are simultaneously both distinct and analogous. Mitchell doesn't merely hop between characters, or location, or time periods. A mid 18th century voyage narrative bookends pulp mystery, corporate dystopia, and more. Mitchell isn't the first person who has used such a framework, but I haven't read any other examples.* Therefore, I can't really say whether it was my inexperience or the work itself that knocked my socks off, but Cloud Atlas really floored me.
Greg's review, which really influenced my reading experience, brings up the interesting question of a book's difficulty and the work expected of the reader. Cloud Atlas isn't a slow or tough read at all. The stories themselves are relatively straightforward. You're not scurrying to a dictionary or Wikipedia to pick up on unmentioned context. But Mitchell doesn't hold your hand, in fact he blindfolds you, spins you around several times, then tells you to go whack the fucking piñata. Greg puts it better by relating how the structure "creates a Escher-like narrative that one can't successfully orientate him or herself into the story. The hole's an author normally leaves open for a reader to peer into the fictional world shift as the stories continue to unfold." It's this disorientation that makes the novel 'difficult.'
This literary Tilt-A-Whirl wouldn’t be effective if Mitchell wasn’t such a talented mimic. I don’t mean that to be derogatory at all. Each story is amazingly unique. Their not unique in terms of work in the same genre As I mentioned above, the individual stories are all enjoyable and well-written, but not particularly mind-blowing or genre defining. What I mean is their uniqueness to the author. For example, if Charles Dickens decided to write a sci-fi novel, I bet it would read like a dystopian novel written by Charles Dickens. Likewise, if Philip K. Dick wrote a Victorian novel about an orphan, I bet it would read like a Victorian novel about an orphan. This goes beyond stylistic calling cards. Even if they write in a new voice and avoid stylistic and thematic giveaways, people tend to write like they write. If I read more of his stuff I may pick up more cues, but David Mitchell is a literary chameleon. The stories are so effective in their imitations of different genres they read like they give the impression that they could be written by six different authors. In fact, I feel like I need to read something else by Mitchell to get an adequate grasp on what I think of him as a writer.
Mitchell consciously creates a sense of disorientation, and still demands two types of reader participation. The first, more conventional type, relates to the structure binding the stories together. Each of the six narratives have a direct relationship to the preceding one. I'll spare spoiling how this is done, but it is definitely thought provoking. Moreover, there are subtle hints allusions to other stories sprinkled throughout the novel. Now that I think of it, it really reminds of the first season of Lost, when it was a cross between Twins Peak and Hitchcock, before it got too metaphysical and sci-fi.**. If you watched back then, remember how the show kept slipping clues into the episodes. For instance, the cursed numbers kept on popping up, or one of the castaways would pop up in the background of another's flashback. In my recollection, this was done very subtly, a viewer may not catch it on the first viewing. These devices create the impression that there was some sort of connection behind the characters and encouraged viewers to thoroughly analyze each episode. Thousands and thousands of words were written examining the smallest details and theorizing on the implications of it all. Mitchell uses the same devices, but even in a more subtle way. I caught several hints and I'm sure I missed many more.
Trying to figure out how the narratives relate to each other in terms of the overall plot is good old-fashioned fun. Mitchell never promises, a precise flow chart detailing what's going on, but that's what makes Cloud Atlas more intellectually engaging than your standard supermarket mystery. You're left to think about answers to "what happened" on your own. This is definitely a book that you want to discuss with someone as soon as you finish.
This leaves the question of why I found the final passage so effective. When you are taught how to give a persuasive speech or write a paper you are taught to use a basic structure:
1. I’m going to tell you that my thesis is true because of supporting arguments A, B, and C.
2. supporting arguments, A, B, and C.
3. I just told you that because of supporting arguments A, B, and C , my thesis is true.
An argument is made more effective by having a wide array of examples. For a crude example, if my thesis is “Bob Dylan is the best songwriter of all time,” my argument would be weakened if all of my supporting arguments were about how great Highway 61 Revisited is. If I mentioned the early protest folk of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the country throwbacks of Nashville Skylines and the mature introspection of Blood on the Tracks, my argument would be strengthened.
This structure is akin to what Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas, except, he doesn’t give you the opening paragraph. He just launches you into the supporting arguments and leaves the reader to figure out exactly what he’s trying to prove. This is the second aspect of reader participation required. A lot of the pleasure in the read is trying to figure out exactly what Mitchell is trying to say. And while you really don't get a flow chart for the interconnections between the plot, the final two pages provide a powerful closing of the thematic interconnections between the stories.
It would be a mistake to consider Cloud Atlas a collection of stories. Like I said before, the stories are very good, but the total is worth more than the sum of the individual parts. It's this that makes Cloud Atlas a cohesive and powerful novel.
*Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is on my wish list.
**For the record, I like some science fiction and stuff that touches on metaphysical questions. But, much how the second Matrix movie was a flawed, but enjoyable movie that was done-in by the terrible third film, my opinion of the last several seasons of Lost fell after the final season, which I view as a failure.
The Iron Heel is structured as a manuscript written by a soon to be martyred heroine about her recently martyred husband. The 'manuscript' describes events taking place between 1912 and 1932 and is annotated by an editor writing several hundred years in the future. This whole premise is laid out in an introduction by the 'editor,' introducing the reader to a brutal oligarchy which came to power during the events of the book and had been only recently overthrown by a Socialist Brotherhood. I give London credit for creating an innovative and intriguing structure that gives the book a sense of momentum from the start. Unfortunately, London proceeds to squander this momentum by boring the bejesus out of the reader with several polemics. The first one serves to introduce the reader to London's hero, his views, the issues of the day, etc. But then London has his character deliver another one, and another one, and another one. It would be one thing if these speeches and dialogues were compelling or well-crafted. They are not. Instead, they are tedious, unvaried and repetitive. Interspersed with this are 'annotations' provided by the editor of the future, which manage to be both obnoxious and cringe-worthy.
Now, I must be honest. I did not finish this book. I was intrigued by the introduction, but was beginning to be wary by the first chapters. I read several more chapters and quickly found myself ringing the one star alarm. I decided to give it another try the next day, but today my reaction was no better. I read around half of this thing and I was dreading the second half. Looking at the wikipedia summary, apparently London becomes less devoted to speechifying and starts to describe the onset of the oligarchy, the "Iron Heel." The wiki page provides a timeline, and there appears to be quite a bit of actions. But I read half of this thing, and there was absolutely no plot movement. The half I read convinced me that I wasn't missing much by skipping the second half and reading a wikipedia summary. London is hardly a great writer of prose, and I hardly trust him to instill a sense of nuance into his plot. What I expect follows is a dry, heavy handed, and dull recitation of events. I should be clear that I don't hate this book for London's politics.This is the first book since Atlas Shrugged that I've abandoned permanently before completing, but I feel no shame in doing so. The Iron Heel may be an influential work, but it is better remembered for being influential than for its own merits. On it's own merits, it can only be considered a poorly-written piece of polemical propaganda. ...more
Yet, at the same time, most Americans weren't expecting an imminent conflict in April 1860. There may have been problems, but these things had a history of working themselves out. Lost in many accounts of the origins of the Civil War is how quickly things escalated. The onset of the Civil War in 1861 may seem inevitable on a macro level, but not necessarily on a micro level. The propulsive momentum of events left most Americans, from Lincoln and Davis to ordinary citizens, struggling to accomodate with new realities.
Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the story of the country's realization that this is happening. The book is a portrait of how Americans came to terms with and preparing themselves for the coming conflict.
Before I go further, allow me to quickly justify this book's existence. You would be justified see this book was published this year and ask yourself if we really need another general chronology of the Civil War. How much more is out there that hasn't been amply covered many times before? I'll answer by saying that this is not a traditional or 'been-there' Civil War book. 1861 is a somewhat misleading title, Goodheart does not aim to write a broad historical survey of a particular year. The book's chapters are each an in-depth portrait of how Americans reacted to the onset of the war on the micro-level. In fact, the subtitle, The Civil War Awakeninggives a far-better sense of what the book is. This format allows Goodheart to give a unique and refreshing perspective on familiar events.
The book opens conventionally in Charleston Harbor, but somewhat ironically in the last days of 1860. Although the importance of the actual 'battle' at Fort Sumter has been exaggerated, the effect of these events were extremely influential. Non-Civil War buffs may not be aware that Charleston Harbor had been at the center of national attention for months before the first shot was fired. In fact the first aggressive action of the Civil War occurred as early as December, when Anderson ordered the quiet evacuation of the impossible to defend Fort Moultrie and the consolidation of his garrison at the recently (kinda) completed Fort Sumter. This action did not come lightly. Anderson, a Kentucky native and Southern sympathizer, justified this by an artful interpretation of an order. Anderson himself probably knew his interpretation was not only erroneous, but directly contrary to the intention of his superior, the Secretary of War John Floyd, a Virginian who was not so discreetly using his position to secure arms for the soon-to-be Confederate states. Anderson's dilemma is an appropriate one to open the book with. 1861 was a year of conflicted or ambiguous loyalties and the difficult choices that ensued.
Following this introduction, Goodheart leaves Charleston for several chapters. If the national mood wasn't hell-bent on war in the early months of 1861, it wasn't exactly the epitome of brotherhood. By electing Abraham Lincoln president in November, forty percent of the country had to know they were casting votes for a man whom the vast majority of Southerners would find utterly unacceptable. Goodheart relates how there was a good deal of belligerence behind the 1860 election and the effect of a younger generation on the American politic. Republican voters went beyond exercising their democratic rights, and in many ways courted conflict with the slaveholding states. Meanwhile, Washington still a very Southern town where the consensus was on some sort of compromise, and Goodheart provides an intriguing portrait of the final, mostly pathetic, months of the Buchanan administration.
Everything changed after Sumter. The material is familiar, but Goodheart does an admirable job retelling how Lincoln exploited an impossible situation in a way that let the new president craft the narrative of the conflict. The surrender of Fort Sumter electrified and unified much of the remaining country. For the Confederacy, the handling of the Sumter crisis resulted in a mostly meaningless victory, but was certainly a tremendous strategic misstep. The argument could be made that the Confederacy would have won the war if they had let Sumter be. Goodheart then relates how loyalty to the Union was ensured in California and Missouri; albeit two different kinds of loyalty achieved in two different manners. Also, Goodheart portrays how the public began to come to initial terms with the sacrifices the war would demand, with the account of the life and death of Elmer Ellsworth.
Probably the high point of the book is the chapter devoted to General Benjamin Butler's decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband. Goodheart makes the case that Butler's decision, made at the location where the first African slaves arrived over two hundred years earlier, was the first real harbinger of the extinction of slavery in America. An abridged version of this chapter appeared in The New York Times a few weeks back, and is worth seeking out if you're not interested in the entire book. Goodheart expertly shows how Butler's decision not only changed the situation in Virginia, but irretrievably changed the national consensus. Finally, the book closes with Lincoln crafting his message to the special session of Congress which opened on July 4, the first time the body met since April. No matter how much some people focus on the societal aspect of the history, certain individual presences play a irreplaceable part. The fact remains that Lincoln knew that the direct cause of the Civil War was his election. Contrary to his address at Gettysburg two years later, Lincoln spent months on this message to Congress. Because he did the hard work two years earlier, Lincoln was able to repeat himself in a much shorter and much more poetic manner. Lincoln was able to distill his solution of the 'why are we fighting' question in the general population. It wasn't so much that he was able to move the population to him, as he was able to understand the irrepressible moment of events. Lincoln's understanding of the meaning behind the impersonal force of history was the rock on which eventual victory was built. Because of this, Lincoln's July 4th message to Congress is the perfect place for Goodheart's book to end.
1861 isn't concerned with generals, battles, etc. In fact, the last chapter takes place in July, a month before the first major conflict of the War. Actually, the books isn't really concerned with the Confederate side of the issue. That's not an issue because what the book is concerned about is the shaping of the Union resolve, and it would be this resolve that would be the main dynamic force behind the war. For all the talk of revolution, the Confederate Rebellion was a retrograde and traditional. The dynamism that influenced the country at large almost totally emerged from the Union side. Goodheart's book gives the reader some understanding of the initial sparks that fueled this dynamism that we are still coming to terms with 150 years later.
Of course, as I continued to read his weekly article, I would eventually learn the whole story**. But let me stop there to point out what was (and is) so remarkable about Hitchens writing. I loathed every sentiment he expressed in my initial encounter, but I felt compelled to come back each Monday for my weekly appointment. When he wrote about Iraq, I felt like I was doing spar work with a great boxer. My thoughts and opinions became more precise and well-worked, and eventually, much more nuanced. And there was always at least one wicked putdown or a witty aside that never failed to produce a snicker, if not a full belly laugh. I was hooked.
Depending on what I'm doing and what state of mind I'm in, my inner monologue can probably be described as a pale imitation of some varying combination of the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and Christopher Hitchens. In the past ten years, I've probably read more words written by Hitchens than any other writer. I believe one of the reasons Hitchens attracted so many devotees was his writing at its best simulates the kind of conversations we would like to have more often. He seemed to know more than a little about every topic under the sun, and he would always have an appropriate anecdote or personal remembrance to add to the discussion. The effect, after years of reading, allowed fans to feel as if Hitchens was an old friend. I think that feeling was behind a lot of the reaction to his death last month. It seemed more than just the usual 15 seconds of requiem for a public figure these days. It seemed like there were more than a few people who were genuinely affected. Speaking for myself, the last "celebrity" death that left me in such a state of melancholy was in 2001 when George Harrison died.
I was somewhat reluctant Hitchens' memoirs so soon after his death. Sure, I had bought a copy the day it came out (I had pre-ordered it, then forgot about it) and was planning on reading it in the very near future. But doing so then somewhat reeked of a kind of gross sentimentality that I find a little silly and that Hitchens would have probably loathed. Nevertheless, I took the risk of being made to look like one of those MJ fans who still tear up when the "She's Out of My Life" comes on, and plunged in and I'm glad I did.
I very much enjoyed god Is Not Great, but this book is probably the quintessential work expressing Hitchens' work and beliefs. First, a quick aside. I think some people may be turned off by Hitchens' reputation as the militant atheist who never passed up a chance to ridicule organized religion and went on Hannity and Colmes to say he was glad Jerry Falwell is dead. While this was definitely an important part of Hitchens work, it was far from his only trick. Hitch-22 truly exhibits that Hitchens was a multi-tool writer. My personal favorite Hitchens writings are when he writes about authors and literature.
I don't have a lot to say about the book itself. It starts as a fairly conventional memoir, giving an account of his boyhood up to his Oxford years. After that, it becomes more episodic, which each chapter being devoted to a particular topic or range of topics. Of course with Hitchens you never stay focused on one topic for too long. The man could pull off an aside written in another aside written in a book recommendation*** written in an amusing anecdote featuring Martin Amis. Hitchens seems to have read everything, travelled everywhere, pissed all the wrong (or right) people off, and been friends with exclusively fascinating people. Hitch-22 is, without a doubt, the best tribute to his life, and maybe more importantly, the body of work he leaves behind.
*Hitchens is one of those writers where knowing a little bit of context greatly enhances the reading experience. It would almost be worthwhile preambling each essay with a short italicized blurb, something like "Previously in Hitchen..." Of course this context is absolutely nonessential to enjoying the original material, but one of the great things about this memoir is that it makes me look forward to revisiting past favorite articles with somewhat fresh eyes.
**His chapter here on his late rightward turn is one of the highlights of the book, as well as one of the more thoughtful pieces on the decision to invade Iraq I have encountered.
*** You might want to keep a tap opened to Amazon while reading this. My non-fiction wish list grew by a few pages over the last week.
That's how I felt while I read this book.
For one thing, a peaceful transition of the executive may have been important on a symbolic level, but does this justify the term Revolution? There had already been one peaceful transition after a disputed election. Granted, Adams succeeded Washington after the latter's retirement, not electoral defeat, and Adams was seen as Washington's sucessor while Jefferson was Adams replacement. But there had been peaceful transitions between two opposed groups vying for control of the House of Representatives. Additionally, the transition itself didn't occur until March of 1801. In fact, due to the tie between Jefferson and his vice presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, Jefferson wasn't officially certified as the president-elect until February. So if the term only concerns the peaceful transition, why isn't it known as the Revolution of 1801? So, if you go by our textbook's definition, the Revolution of 1800 becomes more like the Important Symbolic Gesture of 1801.
However, if you broaden the meaning of the definition both parts of our bold term work a lot better. There are plenty of elections that at first glance seem vastly more important. The results election of 1860 was the direct cause of the attempted secession of eleven states*, and thus the Civil War. The election 1932 led to an remarkable growth in the authority of the federal government. A few years ago, liberals like myself used to daydream about an alternate timeline where President Gore had fixed global warming, invented flying cars, and legalized cannabis while Commissioner Bush was doing his best to deal with the steroid scandal in baseball. What's more, you can endlessly play the what-if game with other elections, if X would have won in Y then A would have happened instead of B. Meanwhile, the changes signified and subsequent effects of the 1800 election were probably inevitable. Despite this, the 1800 election is probably the most important presidential election in American history. That's because it didn't just involve a change in theory, or politics, but a change in the conception of what government was and how popular sovereignty was supposed to function.
* I say attempted secession, because the United States never recognized the right of the eleven states to secede, and since we won the war, our terminology wins. I said United States and we although I have lived most of my life in the South and ancestors who fought on both sides, I live in the United States, not some made-up confederacy that nobody recognized. As you might guess, some people don't love these views down here.
Elkins and McKitrick's The Age of Federalism is probably the most comprehensive account of the dozen years of constitutional government before this change that will be written in my lifetime. Every major political situation that occurred during the Washington and Adams administration is dissected to its base elements and examined from every angle. The authors display a exemplary command of the major figures of the era and are able to offer remarkable insight on their actions and belief, even when the authors believe they were clearly wrong, showing a real sense of empathy not usually seen in works of history done by academics. The book itself is just over 750 pages not, including notes. This may seem long enough, but it reads as a much longer book. It took me twice as long to read as I thought it would. This isn't because it's hard to read, or non-engaging, but because it is literally crammed dense with information. If you're looking for full biographies, an account of how people lived in the 1790s, or non-essential anecdotes that provide texture, look elsewhere. This is pure, uncut history of high-politics.
The main theme in The Age of Federalism, is the emergence of primeval political parties. At the end of the era, these were firmly established and accepted conceptions, although they were still a very far thing from our modern conception of political parties, which didn't really start emerging until the 1820s. Regardless of how far these early parties were from modern ones, they still symbolized a vast difference from what existed a dozen years before. One of the primary goals of the authors of the U.S. Constitution was to establish a form of government that would, by balancing power between different branches, and impose several removes between individual voters and government, work as a check against the formation of political parties. This is somewhat remarkable, so I'll repeat myself: Not only was the Federal Government not designed to operate under a partisan system, it was designed for the express purpose of preventing a partisan system from emerging. That's right, the U.S. Constitution in a real and significant way had failed a a little over a decade after it was ratified.
Repugnance at the idea of political parties was a sentiment that can be traced back to 17th century England, and was a belief all but universally held by the Revolutionary generation at the time of the signing of the Constitution.** I put a qualifier in the last sentence, but the truth is, as late as the middle of the last decade of the 18th century, someone who came out in favor of political parties would be controverting not just a widely held position, but a longstanding and universal tradition.
**Madison discussed the acceptability of factions in a large republic in Federalist No. 10, but two things need to be noted. First, he's far from saying factions are a positive thing, he's saying they're inevitable, and a large republic will have a diluting effect on faction. Also, the idea of political parties are quite different from factions. Factions are concerned with the acquiring the ends, while political parties are concerned with the means.
So if everyone agreed that political parties were an unqualified bad thing, how did they nonetheless come about. What are Federalists? What are Democrat-Republicans? The story starts at the time of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, Federalists supported ratification; while Antifederalists opposed it, at least without some alterations. Over the next twelve years, the details of Federalism may have changed, but the basic summary remained; they were the proponents of the Federal government. As you can see the Federalists were more a group of men of a common persuasion than proponents an organized ideology. The Anti-Federalists didn't just disappear, nor did they seamlessly transition into Jeffersonians. Some were elected to Congress and were instrumental in the passage of the Bill of Rights.
After the ratification of the Constitution there wasn't anything resembling political parties. A good deal of this had to due to the figure primary figure in the Federal Government, the universally respected George Washington***. The spark that led to their formation came in the early 1790s. This was provided by Hamilton's plans to finance the debt and establish a national bank. The lines in this argument were drawn were largely determined by an individual's home-state. If you were from South Carolina you were likely in favor, if you were from Virginia you were likely against it. The opponents of the measures never really had a great chance, but the argument is notable for Madison's arguments that the Constitutions only granted the Federal government limited powers expressly written in the Constitution. In all likelihood, Madison didn't really believe this, but was grasping at straws. It explicitly contradicted things that he had written just a few years earlier, and he didn't really press this line.**** Funny that we're still dealing with the ramifications of this desperate lunge.
***Elkins and McKitrick do a particularly good job of fostering an appreciation for George Washington as a President. Not only was he faced with monumental decisions, he had to determine the way in which those decisions would be decided and then put into effect. That his instincts were so consistently right on a wide array of issues, from commerce to etiquette, is frankly remarkable. The esteem he was held in by his own contemporaries is somewhat remarkable as well. It's somewhat well-known that Washington was unanimously elected president in 1788-89 (as well as in 1792). What's less known is that there was no organized resolution or movement behind this. It was just inconceivable that the job could go to anyone else rather than him. Jefferson, who could be unsparing of his enemies, even after they died, and never really saw eye to eye on Washington privately remarked that Washington's "character was, in mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in a few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great."
****Elkins and McKitrick do the best job I've witnessed of reconciling the James Madison of 1789 and the James Madison of 1791. Previously, other books almost make it appear that he cowed to Jefferson after the latter returned from France, but his real motivations are more nuanced, and perhaps more craven than that.
What was really behind these issues was another question: who do you like better, England or France? This question was somewhat simpler, but tended to provoke a much more emotional response than assumption of state debt might do on its own. Of course the 1790s were not a particularly good time for a country to be divided on this issue. The Jeffersonians, particularly the Virginians, were motivated by a visceral hatred of England, and English culture. Jefferson in particular was seemingly unable to think of any issue concerning the English in a rational way. (Much like he was unable to look at any issue concerning the French in any sort of negative way. Elkins and McKitrick demonstrate ably how these two tendencies made him a pretty terrible Secretary of State.) From the start, any attempt to increase relations with Britain, or to improve commercial relations between the two countries, could only be the work of liberty-hating pseudo-aristocrats, bent on subverting the popular sovereignty and establishing a monarchy and nobility in the United States. At first this bias was somewhat one-sided, but with the increasing radicalism of the French Revolution, Hamiltonians began to cast the Jeffersonians as radical Jacobins who wished to install Jefferson as dictator.
This animosity was crucial to the development of political parties. It took a long time for the Jeffersonians to grow comfortable with the concept of acting as an opposition party. Partisan behavior was antithetical to the mores of society and how government was supposed to work. Democratic Societies which were forming across the country around this time were widely rejected across the spectrum, not because of what they did, but because of the fact that they existed at all. The mere act of forming a group of politcally like-minded people was a subversion of popular sovereignty. If these men were going to take up any activity that was described as partisan, it couldn't be just because the other side took different positions on the issues. It had to be because the others were actively working to crush liberty. Or the others were looking to install a dictatorship of the majority. The rhetoric in newspapers didn't get poisonous in order to win elections, it got poisonous because that was the only way it could justify itself.
Therefore, by Washington's retirement, there were two clearly developed opposing ideologies. The Federalists were still the party of the government.*****, and their candidate was Washington's logical successor, Vice President Adams. Meanwhile, the opposition party united behind Jefferson. That's about as partisan as things got. There was no real partisan electioneering in 1796.
*****History textbooks like to refer to Washington as not a member of a political party. But being that the Federalists were the party of the government, to which there was a clear opposition party to for the entirety of his second term, I believe it's just as accurate to call Washington a Federalist as it is to call Jefferson a Democratic-Republican.
Pretty soon into the Adams administration, the internal logic of Federalism began to fall apart. As I have said, the Federalists are best understood as the supporters of the government, but if you had to identify an intellectual leader of Federalism it would be Alexander Hamilton. Up to this point, Hamilton had a pretty remarkable record of brilliance, and at the very least being on the right side of history. Indeed, I have read plenty of books that attempt to justify Madison and Jefferson's opposition to Hamilton's policies, but I have never read an adequate defense of whether they were right.****** But around this time Hamilton began a series of what can only be described as baffling missteps. First, he appeared to have attempted to influence the vote in South Carolina in an effort to have Thomas Pickney, the Federalist Vice Presidential candidate, elevated to the Presidency above Adams. Hamilton always denied this was his goal, but he wasn't convincing, least of all to Adams who developed an implacable hatred of Hamilton that would be passed down in his family for generations. Adams was a bit irrational in this hatred, he would refuse to entertain advice from Hamilton, even where they matched his own convictions of what should be done.
******One could say that The Age of Federalism favors Hamilton, but I think the analysis is completely even-handed and fair. Jefferson, Madison and others might come off as biased, naive, parochial, and/or shortsighted, but that may be because they were.
Compounding this situation was the fact that Adams had retained Washington's last cabinet, made up mostly of allies and close friends of Alexander Hamilton. These cabinet members became convinced, which were strengthened due to Adams' prolonged and inconvenient absences from the capitol, that they didn't serve at the pleasure of the President, but that the President was an obstacle to their effective administration of the government. This eventually led to a breaking point where Adams dismissed the cabinet in a huff, thereby alienating a large wing of his supporters. The party of the government no longer supported the head of the government.
Adams can appear to be a weak-willed and equivocating president. One who claimed to act in a rational search for balance but who often acted in a vindictive and spiteful manner. This can be argued the other way though. What is clear is that he was the worse person to be in the leadership of the Federalist party in 1800. He repeatedly claimed that he was not interested in being a leader of a political party, but his refusal to take the smallest babysteps to repair the breach among those who would be his supporters, or to ensure some sort of organized effort behind his candidacy was a political death-wish. Therefore the Federalists faced an unprecedentedly organized and resolute opposition with an extremely weak candidate. With a few more votes at the right time in the right place, Adams would have won the election. But that it was that close is pretty remarkable.
But, even if Adams had been a stronger candidate, even if he was reelected, it's still an open question of what purpose it would serve. The eventual triumph of the Democrats over the Federalists was basically inevitable. This is because of something more inevitable than quality of candidates or party unity. The Federalists were the party of the Revolutionary generation. They believed in diluting out the elements of faction, in a type of natural aristocracy, virtue in the old sense of the word, "that quality under which he fulfills the totality of his nature in service of the republic." That conception was with the advent of the first generation of American born shortly before, during, and after the Revolution. This new generation had a different conception of how democracy was supposed to work, and what the meaning of virtue is. We're still living with these new conceptions today. And it's not surprise that within another dozen years of 1800, Federalism would be all but completely irrelevant.
The Age of Federalism covers much more than the rise of political parties, but I've gone on long enough. I can't help but mention a long chapter on the unmitigated disaster that was the initial development of the District of Columbia. The authors persuasively argue that choosing to build a capitol on sparsely populated swampland retarded the country's political, social, and cultural development for over a century. On the matter of accessibility, I don't think the book requires an expertise on the era. The authors don't dwell on introducing each issue, but they provide adequate summaries. Really, if you have enough curiosity to even pick this thing up you should be fine. There's a lot in the book that deals with the finer details of commerce and banking, which many people might find dull. It's not exactly my cup of tea either, but I thought it was presented in an engaging manner.
The twelve years encompassing the Washington and Adams administrations are perhaps the most unique in the annals of American government. The Age of Federalism provides a meticulous account and illuminating analysis of this era. ...more
I started reading it and got hooked in. I knew that Ayn Rand was pushing philosophy but what got me was the story. Say what you will about Rand, and I probably will agree, but she display a lot of creativity. I was flying through the book, and this is during my prolonged fiction drought. While I tended to not be swept up by her worldview, that didn't keep me from devouring the fist couple hundred pages fairly quickly.
Then I started to get bogged down. More and more things started annoying me. Rand's prose isn't really built for a long novel. Also I just got sick of the philosophy. I'm all for allegorical fiction but Rand really forces it down your throat. At certain points I felt like screaming, "I get the point, now get back to the plot."
Granted, I am not what you call an objectivist. But just because you disagree with an author's thesis doesn't always mean you can't enjoy the work. For instance, although I didn't accept many of the conclusions of Nicholson Baker in Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII, the End of Civilization I was able to learn things from the book and enjoy it. This wasn't the case with Atlas Shrugged. In the world of the novel, there are two types of people: glorious, brilliant, (usually rugged or sexy) individuals who are the modern Prometheuses of society and the sickly, lazy, leech-like masses. I tend to find things that don't have a shade of grey bland and uninspired. The good vs. evil dichotomy in the novel weakens not only the plot, but also Rand's philosophical argument.
At a certain point, unless you're vigorously nodding your head with Rand's objectivist discourse, Atlas Shrugged loses any appeal. The plot slows and slows and then will stop for pages to allow Rand to pontificate. Rand doesn't exactly write beautiful prose, which is fine at first because the plot is so engaging. However, its remarkable that someone who conjured such a compelling initial plot writes with an incredibly dull style. There are only two voices in the novel: the "good" voice and the "ugly" voice. As the novel goes on and the plot slows Rand begins repeating herself, concentrating on the same themes again and again. Even if I agreed with Rand's worldview there are enough flaws in the novel to keep it from being considered truly great.
Around the time that Dagney, the female protagonist, arrives at Galt's city in the mountains I was ready to shelve the novel. I know the plot exits mainly as a vehicle for Rand's philosophy, but the "heroic" actions that many of the protagonists in the characters took really pissed me off. I was no longer enjoying the reading experience, I kept on wanting to jump into the novel and ask the characters "well what about this?" I hate not finishing books, even if I am reading I book that I begin to actively dislike I will push on to the end, or at least take a break and come back to it later. I decided to put it aside and read something else for awhile, but when I came back I had the same issues.
I really want to click on the first star and give my rating and hopefully drag the rating down a couple points. However, it bugs me when people pass judgment on a book without reading the whole thing. It doesn't happen often, but the last 20 pages of a novel have changed my opinion before. However, a couple of months ago, I gave my copy away to a friend who read it a couple of years ago, mostly because I was sick of seeing it on my bookshelf. Atlas Shrugged's last pages are never going to get the chance to change my mind. (From what I gather its a 70 page speech which would have driven me bat shit, but the principle of the matter still applies.) I've heard that people read the book in their late teens and love it and come back to it a decade later and find it unreadable. I read it when I was 22, so maybe I came to late, maybe I would have been able to stomach the philosophy and Rand's unimpressive style a bit more when I was 16.
A little off the point, but everything that I hated about Rand's style was hilariously parodied in a McSweeney's piece from a couple of years ago. Even if you disagree with my opinions the piece is worth checking out.
Having finished Peter Wilson's massive study, I consider myself adequately informed. Within the first few chapters, Wilson argues convincingly against several widely held misconceptions about the conflict. Wilson then effectively introduces the framework of the conflict. Wilson is at his best as a writer when he refrains from the details and gives a broad overview. With this subject, providing such a broad overview is no small task. Wilson's argument is that the War was much less a religious Crusade of any kind than a conflict over the exact workings of government in the Holy Roman Empire. In order to convince the reader of this fact, he has to introduce the enormously complicated structure of the Empire, as well as incorporate about a hundred years of buildup before he can begin to touch upon the subject of his book. Topics that simply must be discussed in this long introduction include the effects of the Reformation (which started in the Empire), the opposing Counter-Reformation, the complex mechanisms of the Hapsburg family (the family of the Holy Roman Emperors since the 13th century, since the 1530's once branch ruled the Empire while another held the throne of Spain), and the Dutch War of Independence. Perhaps most difficultly, he has to describe the complexities of the German constitution. To give you a hint of how difficult this task could be, keep in mind that although a German constitution was almost universally accepted as existing, there was neither a written constitution or a political entity known as Germany.
Wilson accomplishes this pretty skillfully. Unfortunately, Wilson is not nearly as adept at describing the actual war as he is at laying the groundwork for it. Let me make clear, it is obvious that Wilson is extremely well acquainted with his subject and that he has done a lifetime of research. However, the book completely fails to transfer it's author's expertise to the reader in an engaging or stimulating manner. There is a complete lack of narrative flow in Wilson's account of the fighting. Wilson doesn't delve into any of the personalizing details. Major figures are given at best a minimal introduction. There is no awareness of the human scale of the events. Generals and armies blur with each other. Accounts of battles are extremely dry and almost exclusively explanatory. Compounding the issue is a lack of maps. The map provided is less than mediocre, and fails completely when Wilson is describing conflicts in more localized areas.
It would be one thing if Wilson was attempting a scholarly work. But he constructs the book as a general survey, and there isn't a whole lot here to that would give more understanding of the subject to someone more familiar with the conflict than I was. After admirably setting the stage, Europe's Tragedy becomes a dry and dull textbook at onset the main event. I did learn a lot from the over 800 pages. However, the combination of the inadequacies of information with Wilson's weaknesses as a writer make the majority of the book excruciatingly dull and a chore to get through. Europe's Tragedy succeeds as a comprehensive reference, but fails as a enjoyable reading experience. ...more
A guilty disappointment, while perhaps equally artificial, is more sinister. That's because not only are you feeling guilty, you are actually deriving no o r little enjoyment from the activity that is causing you guilt. Now this is the more familiar and crushing sense of Irish Catholic guilt I'm used to! Guilty disappointments have you constantly thinking "Maybe I'm missing something, maybe I lack the patience, maybe I'm not smart enough, Oh Christ! I'm just a dull speck of oblivion who will never accomplish anything, attain any sort of happiness, and when I die, I'll either vanish into nothingness or burn in hell for the rest of eternity because I masturbated." Uh, sorry, bit of a tangent there.
Under the Volcano might now be my quintessential guilty disappointment. Yet, I still can't give any less than three stars. This isn't out of reverence for one of the sacred cows of 20th century literature.* Reading Under the Volcano was a similar experience to reading On the Road, and I didn't hesitate to slap one star on the latter. What separates Lowry from Keroauc is that, and this is going to sound ridiculously arrogant but bear with me, Under the Volcano is actually quite good. I don't mean to denigrate Keroauc fans by saying that. While I personally didn't get anything out of On the Road**, I wouldn't dare quibble with it's place on whatever hypothetical pantheon you want to put it on. Sure, it's not my cup of tea, but I also don't think Jefferson wasn't that great of a president but that doesn't mean we should take a chisel to Mount Rushmore.*** Now, Under the Volcano was a somewhat tortuous reading experience for me. I moved along this book at a glacial pace. Not once did I feel any sense of anticipation in picking up the book. Not once did I get swept up in the story, or the prose, and knock off 50 pages in a sitting. Even when the going was good, and I was in a sort of flow, I had to continuously fight off urges to play with my iPad.**** This lack of engagement didn't keep me from appreciating the novels brilliance. It bored the tears out of me, but the whole time I was thinking this is really good. The best analogy I can think of is that it's like listening to Terry Riley's In C on loop for several hours; while it's great, and would dismiss it, at some point could really go for a little Watch the Throne.
So, if you're wondering, you absolutely should read Under the Volcano. It's one of the acknowledged great books of the 20th century for a reason, it doesn't read like a relic of past ages, and Lowry's prose can put you in revelries of aesthetic bliss. I feel no hesitation in making any of the previous claims, but I can't really recommend the book, and kinda hated reading it.
* Well, maybe it is, a little.
** Outside of a better understanding of the historical development of the form. Kind of like how listening to Daydream Nation gives you a better understanding of In Utero
*** However, Reagan National Airport is absolute horseshit. It was already named after a perfectly good president.
**** An example of the distractions I faced was an inclination to picture the Consul as the Cookie Monster, beer as gingerbread men, tequila as sugar cookies, mescal as chocolate chips ect. ...more
The great historical tragedy surrounding the legacy of Che Guevara is that man who was nothing but completely and utterly sincere has become a symbol
The great historical tragedy surrounding the legacy of Che Guevara is that man who was nothing but completely and utterly sincere has become a symbol of insincerity. I'm not sure if this was always the case, but at least when I see people of my generation wearing a Che shirt or displaying a Che poster, I no longer see the famous Korda photograph of Guevara, I see the words "I am a giant poser" tattooed in bold relief on that persons face. There may be people who are sincere in their admiration, but usually a Che shirt symbolizes that the wearer listens to Rage Against the Machine in their car stereos on the way to the mall to spend their parents money at the most convenient Hot Topic. As others have noted, the person who would be most revolted by this misappropriation of identity would be Che himself.
The cult of Che continues to make some sense, even after the end of the Cold War. Guevara was brilliant, curious, compassioniate, and utterly committed to his principal beliefs. Among the communist leaders of the 20th century, Guevara emerges as the one most faithfully committed to his principles. It's hard to imagine Che compromising Marxist principles for the sake of economic expediency, like Lenin, or for the accumulation of personal power, like Stalin. Che was willing to die for his beliefs, indeed he arguably actively sought his own eventual martyrdom.
Additionally, Che's legacy, like Kurt Cobain's or Jim Morrison's, greatly benefited from the relative brevity of his life. Che died soon enough that his entire life in still basked in the warm glow of revolution. Perhaps one of the reasons he appears so steadfast is that he didn't live long enough to compromise his legacy. There's the added benefit that Che was a pretty handsome guy, so we remember him as a dashing guerilla type. There is no footage of Che as a doddering 80 year old man still wearing army fatigues, rambling incoherencies.
In many ways, Che was an archetype for the baby boomer generation. Born into a middle class Argentinian family, Che spent his early years searching for a sense of meaning. He eventually found it in a sympathy with the poor and exploited peasants of Latin America. This further exacerbated an already present sense of anti-Americanism, that lasted throughout his lifetime. Contrary to U.S. Cold Warrior theory, it was antipathy to Americans that eventually led him to Marxism. To be fair, such feelings weren't exactly unjustified. Wherever there was a South or Central American corrupt dictator exploiting his people there was usually the government of the United States standing behind them. Communism was initially just the bugaboo used to justify intervention. The real reason the United States intervened in South America during the Eisenhower years was to protect the interests of United Fruit, Coca-Cola and other American companies. Guevara's sympathies for the downtrodden of Latin America eventually drove him to armed resistance. In Guatemala, he fought against the U.S. backed coup against a democratically elected president. The failure of this struggle taught Guevara many lessons, and was probably the last push that led to him becoming a full-fledged Communist.
After the coup in Guatemala, Che continued to Mexico City, which was at the time the exile capital of Americas. Here he connected with a group of Cuban exiles through whom he eventually met a young lawyer who had recently been let out of prison for a failed attack on a barracks, Fidel Castro. Here Guevara finally found the purpose that would consume the rest of his life. The rest, as they say, is history.
Che's life is a story of a young man's search for fulfillment, eventual satisfaction, and an attempt to, for lack of better words, "chase that feeling." The success of Castro's revolution is truly a remarkable story. A group of several dozen rebels led by Castro landed in Cuba in December, 1956. WIthin weeks their numbers had been reduced to less than twenty. Yet just a little two years after their disastrous landing, Batista's dictatorship had collapsed and the rebels were marching into Havana. I'm not sure what sure of this ultimate success can be apportioned to the leadership of Castro, Guevara, and others, but obviously a tremendous deal of luck was involved.
Che spent the remainder of his life with the ambition to duplicate the Cuban revolution in his birthplace. Here's where Che's many faults came into play. Guevara had all of the arrogance and hardheadedness that came with being a steadfast ideologue. Just because something had been done once, Che believed that it could be duplicated in different situations by following a set of principles. This belief led to nothing but disasters of an increasingly hubristic nature. Che failed that his earlier success in Cuba made a repeat of that success near impossible. Now, Latin American governments and their U.S. supporters would not tolerate small bands of guerillas operating in the mountains, allowing them to build up their resources. Instead, they would be smashed quickly and brutally.
After seeing several of his sponsored guerilla groups destroyed, as a result of what he perceived as a failure to follow his instructions, Che decided to reenter the field himself. Ironically, these expeditions on a smaller scale resembled the situation the United States was concurrently experiencing in Vietnam. Che went into the Congo convinced that his leadership and Cuban support could inspire the disparate rebel groups there. Instead, the rebellion had been smashed within months and the path was set the stage for the 30 year Mobutu dictatorship.
Che's final venture in Bolivia was a complete and utter fiasco. The farce didn't even deserve the term revolution, it was more of a Cuban intervention in a sovereign country. Castro and Guevara decided that Bolivia was the appropriate launching spot for what they hoped would be a continent-wide uprising and they strong armed elements in Bolivia to provide the reluctant and feeble native backing. The struggle was essentially Cuban led, and mostly Cuban fought with an element of Bolivian support. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster from the start, and Che didn't follow his own rule book. Events culminated in Guevara's eventual surrender and execution.
Like I mentioned, Che had all of the strengths and weaknesses of an intellectual who lives in sole service of an idea. He was a moral man without hypocrisy, who could be charismatic, funny, and brilliant. But he served his idea to a faul. As much as he railed against the untoward influence of the U.S. over Latin America, his beliefs put Cuba into a much more subservient position toward the U.S.S.R. Even before his death, he left his children fatherless to serve the revolution. He was also uncompromising to a fault. He was willing to look favorably upon nuclear armageddon as long as it served his cause. In the romantic accounts of Guevara's life and death, it is not mentioned that he died in an attempt to spark World War III. His aspirations were that his uprising in Bolivia would lead to a continent wide uprising that would create a second Vietnam in the Americas. He hoped this would inspire China and the Soviet Union to set aside their sectarian differences to unite in a general struggle against the United States. He foresaw a more socialistic humanity emerging from the ashes of a nuclear conflict. He was willing to see the death of millions as long as it served his ideological beliefs. No matter his good qualities, this lessens the sense of tragedy surrounding his execution, for me at least.
Whatever the case may be, the life and death of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is an epic tale, and Jon Lee Anderson does an admirable job in relating it. The investigative journalistic work that Anderson did oozes out of the work. Anderson spent years on this project, and lived for years in Cuba. In addition to reading almost everything written about or by Che, Anderson has interviewed scores of Guevara's contemporaries, in Cuba and Argentina, including childhood friends, Cuban officials, and fellow guerillas. What emerges is a balanced biography that is rare for such a polarizing subject. My review perhaps does not exhibit this quality, but this is more of a result of the conclusions I drew from the book and not a reflection on any inherent biases Anderson might have. Anderson does not seek to beatify or demonize, he seeks to report. Doing so, he actually was able to break news. It was his research in the course of writing this book that led to the discovery of Guevara's long lost remains near a airstrip in Bolivia in 1997. Anderson chips off the tarnish of mythology to prevent an evenhanded and reliable account of life of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century....more
However, when I hover my mouse over the second star, the message notifies me that the book "was ok." This doesn't fit my feelings about the book. This is the first book I've read in a long time where I felt I wasted my time and my money after I was finished. When it's over the first star, I am told "I didn't like it," which is about as close a description of this book that the rating system offers.
Maybe it's the fact that I spent a decent chunk of change on it has something to do with it. I bought it last fall for a road trip, listened for a couple of hours, lost interest, and switched to music. I didn't put it on again for a couple of months, but then started getting into the start of the primary mystery. I was invested, however, my iPod crashed shortly afterwords, and I didn't have it backed up for some reason. So I bought the book on my Kindle and picked up from where I left off.
The book is divided into two mysteries, one which I found dull and the other which I found interesting. I don't really love the mystery genre, so I have to be engaged to keep interest. Once the Vanger family mystery picked up, I thought Larsson might be on to something. However, after a couple of obvious red herrings, the Vanger plot peters out into an unsurprising resolution. The antagonist in the "sheeps clothing" is absolutely no surprise to anyone who has read any "who done it" mystery. If the novel was solely focused on the Vanger section, I might have given the second star.
However, after the main resolution, there is still 20% of the book left. For this, Larsson switches back to the first mystery that he has all but abandoned for the heart, and best parts, of the book. I found this part unbearably dull.
There just wasn't a lot for me in the book. The prose was unremarkable, there were no passages that sent me scrambling for my highlighter. As the novel went on, I found myself increasingly disliking and annoyed with both of the main protagonists. I've never been a fan of the "torture porn" seen in modern horror movies, but it seems that Larsson was, and some of his most descriptive passages are dedicated to depictions of incest and rape.
My final impression of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is that it is a page turner with a disappointing resolution and no literary value. Dan Brown without the research, James Patterson without the suspense. Maybe one star isn't low enough. ...more
Napoleon's Wars prevents a interestingly contrasting viewpoint to the last book I read that involved the Napoleonic Wars, War and Peace. For Tolstoy,
Napoleon's Wars prevents a interestingly contrasting viewpoint to the last book I read that involved the Napoleonic Wars, War and Peace. For Tolstoy, history is a impersonal and indifferent force that selfishly dominates the determination of fate, leaving little room for the individual, even where the individual is a great leaders, leaving them to ride the wave of events with the ordinary mass of humanity. Esdaile's history doesn't directly refute this viewpoint. He doesn't believe that since one man willed something, thus it was so. He also rejects the notion that one figure completely dominated the making of history in the early 19th century. However, he does argue that many events of the Napoleonic Wars played out the way they did due almost entirely to the whims and caprices of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Esdaile's main argument that however modern or revolutionary the Napoleonic Wars were, they should be viewed through the lens of the almost full-century of European War the preceded it. Napoleon wasn't so much trying to spread revolutionary zeal throughout the continent or create in himself a new Alexander as he was trying to accomplish the foreign policy goals of Louis XIV. Additionally, the allied powers weren't old regime autocrats who relentlessly struggled to crush revolutionary France and restore the Bourbons. Instead, their motives in fighting the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars coincided with their foreign policy objectives in the 18th century. Indeed, kingdom's concerns about Napoleon often were overshadowed by their concerns in respect to other states, including other Allied powers. Esdaile argues that the European states were incapable of resisting France until they resolved to put other concerns aside and act resolutely in a unified manner. According to Esdaile, this wasn't because Napoleon was a particular genius but because of the inherent demographic advantages of France itself. Similar resolution was required to defeat Louis XIV in the Wars of Spanish Sucession. However, getting several 19th century monarchs to agree to put their immediate interests aside to sacrifice for the good of the whole is not as easy as you might think.
So much of what this book is about is how this resolution to act for 'the greater good' was finally made. This is where the particular personality of Napoleon Bonaparte comes into play. Esdaile's Napoleon is a vainglorious warlord with a crippling addiction to glory. Several times Napoleon could have settled, but his own ambition made this impossible. Whether this was the case or not we'll never know. The facts of history tends to support the notion that Napoleon could not be satisfied with a general peace, but there is room for contrary arguments. We'll never know how Napoleon would have operated under a lasting peace with Britain.
Esdaile's argument is that Napoleon was almost wholly responsible for the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens and the start of the War of the Third Coalition in 1803. While it's true that Napoleon didn't act like a man dedicated to upholding the peace, neither did Britain, and a fair share of the blame should be given to their belligerency, which Esdaile is reluctant to do. This led to an interesting situation because while Britain controlled the seas, especially after Trafalger, France was by far the most powerful state on the continent of Europe, and all British intervention on the continent was limited and mostly ineffective until around 1812. Therefore, Britain had to rely on proxies to fight France on the continent while all of Napoleon's act of agressions in Europe for the rest of his career can be justified as means to support France in this war. Unfortunately for Britain, the other powers of Europe, Austria, Prussia and Russia, could not put aside grievances with each other and their own separate foreign policy goals to focus on Napoleon.
The result of this is that by the end of the first decade of the 19th century Napoleon completely dominated almost all of Continental Europe. Austria and Prussia had been repeatedly humiliated, Russia was an ally, steps were taken toward a unified Germany and Italy, and Napoleon's brothers were sovereigns of Holland, Naples, Westphalia and Spain. Not bad for a man whose chief goal a mere twenty years before had been to lead his native home of Corsica to independence from France.
Napoleon's rise to power is breathtaking when you think about it, but might be overshadowed by how quickly he fell. Napoleon simply overextended himself. He was stuck in a mire in Spain and then he made the fateful decision to invade Russia. The Russian invasion is a tragedy arising directly from Napoleon's hubris. The Russian's refusal to engage the French in battle turned Napoleon into his own nemesis. His thirst for one more decisive act of glory forced him to push his army well beyond what he knew was prudent. This, rather than a traditional defeat, is what caused the eventual collapse of Napolon's Grande Armée.
Once Russia made the determination to push beyond their own borders Napoleon was transformed into a bleeding swimmer in shark infested waters. Napoleon was excessive in his punishments and territorial acquisitions in his last years in power. His enemies were determined to restore the balance of power. However, it didn't have to end in invasion of France, abdication and Bourbon restoration. But Napoleon's vainglorious nature rejected the notion that terms should be dictated to him. He continued to seek one last glory that would allow him to be master of his own fate. While he fought an often masterful struggle against much larger armies France was weary of war, and in the end he was forced to abdicate.
It should be noted, and Esdaile makes this clear within the first few pages, what the goals of this book are. Like the tile suggests, the book is an account of the foreign policies of the European states during the Napoleonic Wars. There are a plethora of books out there about the more conventional subjects, and Esdaile keeps this in mind. For instance, he isn't really concerned in giving the reader a military history of the Wars. He will spend pages on the lead-up to an event like the Battle of Austerlitz, and then a paragraph to the event itself, followed by more pages dealing with the effects of the event.
The book isn't a biography of Napoleon. While necessary biographic details are provided Esdaile isn't trying to give the reader a better understanding of Napoleon the man. In a way, as Esdaile argues this would be an impossible tact. While Napoleon has many devoted admirers, he was able to inspire even more fervent enemies. The man himself spent a large portion of his post-Waterloo exile marshaling his forces for the inevitable battle of how he would be remembered by history. Many contemporary sources read like the source is screaming "I have an agenda" between every sentence. In fact, the text makes it apparent that Esdaile is not a huge fan of Napoleon, and heaps a lot of scorn on so-called "apologists." I'm not an expert in this area, or even particularly well-read in it, so Esdaile might be accurate in his assessments, and of his course he is entitled to his in-fact expert opinion. However, I think he lets his prejudices and viewpoint creep into the text. This usually drives me crazy, I like my historical prose to be neutral in tone and somewhat omnipotent seeming. But this doesn't really derail the book.
I've seen some reviews that have said that this book is dry, too dense, or not for the casual reader of history. I have to somewhat disagree. Esdaile assumes some prior knowledge, but not much. Any gaps in knowledge can easily be fulfilled by a few quick trips to wikapedia. The prose is not fantastic, but it's not unreadable either. Esdaile writes in long, information dense paragraphs but there's nothing there beyond the grasp of a general reader. While the book is not popular fiction, anybody who thinks this is too academic has not read much scholarly work. Of course this isn't meant to be a beginners course on the Napoleonic Era. But it is what its title says it is.
Esdaile and Tolstoy theories aren't completely incompatible. While much of history is on a root level impersonal and inexplicable the actions of specific individuals can cause tiny ripples in the great wave. While Napoleon was far from the single engine of history in the years of his reign, his personal characteristics played a substantial part in the determination of events. While it is inappropriate to give Napoleon sole liability for the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Empire, it is equally inappropriate to excuse him from any blame or credit as an agent of a faceless greater force. I think Tolstoy and Esdaile would agree that the answer lies somewhere in the spaces between....more
The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and that time the end is for real.
The song that may be the antithesis of pause songs in another Hendrix song, "Little Wing." I've always thought that song was is truly infinite, that it could just go on and on and on, but we're given just a preview of it. I once read someone compare listening to "Little Wing" it to being visited by a long deceased relative in a dream, which is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking, because the visit is illusory and only temporarily. My favorite album of all time is the Beatles' Abby Road, but I'm not sure if it's for purely aesthetic reasons. Abbey Road is the most self-consciously transitory album in pop music. Listening to that album is an emotional experience because it signifies something I love ending.
Anyways, this is a fantastic, life-affirming book. I liked it so much that I was able to get over the fact that there were no references to the Elvis Costello song "Goon Squad," which I had been anticipating since I heard of the book. Things end, people change, dreams die. That doesn't prevent us from embracing the moment. It doesn't matter whether it's permanently encasing in your memory a specific moment spent with your friends or the quick "whoo" at the end of the second verse of Marvin Gaye's "What's Happening Brother." Just so long as nobody makes a lampshade out of me.*
* Redemption for Elvis! ...more
There is a curious attitude among a certain sect of basketball fans that frequently is voiced around this time of year. Many passionate basketball fan
There is a curious attitude among a certain sect of basketball fans that frequently is voiced around this time of year. Many passionate basketball fans actively disdain the college variety. Since I am guilty of this prejudice, I feel like I can lay out the thoughts behind it. I don't think it's a reaction to the product of college hoop itself, but a reaction to others' reaction. Call it The King's Speech effect. College basketball represents a perfectly entertaining display of hoops, but when others over value the merely good at the expense of the great, somehow, in the eyes of the connoisseur, the once good becomes mediocre or less. The following sentence, for me, is not opinion but incontrovertible fact. In terms of basketball viewing experience, the NBA is a far superior product to college hoops. Expressing a dissenting opinion to a NBA fanatic produces a reaction that isn't like anything else in sports. For a similar paralel I have to go back to my jam-band phase. NBA fans feel about college fans the same way Phish fans feel about Widespread Panic fans. There's a feeling that they are so close to understanding something, but they settle for this shit.
Since these are pretty strong opinions, let me try to anticipate any dissenting points:
NBA players don't try hard until the playoffs: This argument drives NBA fans, including myself, bonkers, but there is a small degree of in it. The NBA season is an 82 game season followed by up to 28 postseason games. If every guy went 100% throughout the regular season they would be exhausted by the time the playoffs started. The NBA is much more of a marathon than the NCAA. But here's the thing, even if they're not going 100%, they're going 80-95%. People who make this argument are basically penalizing NBA players for making the remarkable look effortless. I contend that what makes college players look like they're trying harder is that they are nowhere near as good. So what's actually looks like hard work is actually sloppy work.
They don't play defense in the NBA:This makes sense because once a player leaves college he forgets how to play defense. I would argue the opposite of the above statement. It looks like there's less defense, but maybe it has something to do with NBA players being able to hit jump shots. People are misled because good defense gets beat by great offense.
The college game is more exiting and has a better atmosphere: There's not a lot to be said to the latter claim. However, I think the atmosphere at college games is marred by a lot of tacky party enthusiasm, or TPE. TPE is a term that my 12th grade Government teacher came up with to describe a situation where the anticipation of the subsidiary aspects of an event overwhelm and eventually detract from the actual event. For example, the girls who went to Beatles concerts in the '60s solely to scream so loud that you couldn't here the band were displaying tacky party enthusiasm. Their sense of obligation to engage in supplemental activity detracted from the actual experience of going to a rock concert. The degree may not as bad in college hoops, but tacky party enthusiasm is still prevalent. Jumping around, being loud, yelling at the refs, and other activities detracts from the actual experience of watching a basketball game. The bands, dance teams, and student spirit make for an entertaining event, but are aspects that is supplementary to the supposed purpose of the actual event, a basketball game. Of course the NBA does not offer a pristine, virginal, viewing experience. In fact, the subsidiary aspects of NBA games such as obnoxious announcers, t-shirt cannons, jumbotrons telling the crowd to cheer, blaring in-game music, are much worse than what is offered at the average college game. But for the purpose of this argument, that doesn't matter. I'll grant that college hoops may offer the better spectacle, but the NBA offers by far a more entertaining basketball-watching experience, whether in person or on television.
There is another argument used by those who don't habitually watch basketball on tv that can be applied to both varieties: Why watch the whole game when you can watch the last five minutes? While I don't see why this is usually applied to basketball it can be answered easily. Because I get an aesthetic pleasure from watching the game. Basketball is much more than 10 tall men trying to put a ball into a hoop. Instead, it's a combination of thousands of other hidden aspects. While this is true of all sports, in basketball it's easier to not appreciate the small things.
The Art of a Beautiful Game is the best exploration of such small things I've ever read. From the strange psychology of free throws to lost art of shot blocking, Chris Ballard gives a tour of the professional basketball game. The book is structured as a series of articles focused on different aspects of the game, that often focus on a specific player. Ballard isn't content with simply saying that Kobe Bryant is dominant because he is relentlessly dedicated. Instead he tries to figure out why and how he is so relentlessly dedicated. Reading the book gives the reader a greater appreciation of the easy to miss aspects of the game. You notice the particular movements a player makes when they are attempting to contest a jump shot, the approach a big man selects when attempting to snare a rebound, the exact form a shooter follows when taking a three.
Basketball is arguably the sport that provides the best exhibition for athleticism. The NBA features the world's best athletes at the peak of their skills. Ballard's book can give either the casual or die hard fan a better understanding and appreciation of the sport most able to provide moments of visual transcendence....more