Book Review

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

September 11th, 2018 5 Comments

 

Some events simply defy any and all attempts to understand, explain, or rationalize. The First World War is one of those.

The causes of World War Two are pretty straight forward: it was something that had to be done to stop the greatest evil the world has ever known. The Revolutionary War had a noble purpose, at least from an American point of view. The Civil War had a succinct and comprehensible rationalization behind it, incorrect on one side, but at least the doomed and gallant young men on both sides could have articulated what they were fighting for. Even America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had a rational—incorrect, as it turned out, but coherent and understandable—justification, one proven wrong by history, but understandable in the light of that time and those fears. But World War One’s causes, especially looked at in light of the ultimate cost, are simply incomprehensible.

First, consider that cost.

It is hard to pin down accurate estimates, in part because there were so many ancillary deaths, in part because some of those deaths (those caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu, for instance) would have occurred anyway (though probably in smaller numbers), and in part because people, ordinary people like you and me as opposed to the titled and elite, were considered so dispensable that accurate numbers weren’t kept even in the infrequent places and circumstances where they might have been.

But with all that in mind, somewhere between ten- and eleven-million soldiers were either killed outright or died on the front of war-related diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera, or infection. Approximately seven- or eight-million (what’s a million more or less?) civilians were either killed outright or by disease or by famine. The Spanish Flu may have killed as many as one-hundred-million people world-wide, but how does one calculate how many of those would have died anyway if there had been no war? Roughly one-and-a-half-million Armenians and several hundred-thousand Greeks were killed in Turkey’s genocidal campaign against those people, but who can say if those atrocities might have occurred if there had been no war? Approximately six-million people just went missing and were presumed dead, but no one knows for certain. Somewhere between twenty- and twenty-three-million more were injured.

Let’s be conservative and take an average of the estimates, say somewhere between thirty-seven-million and forty-million dead. Surely such an enormous number, such an enormous amount of incalculable suffering, and the magnitude of such irrevocable loss and heartbreak should have some easily identifiable justification, at the very least a logical and rational explanation, if not some noble cause. Surely such unspeakable horror should not have been for anything as trivial as men’s cupidity and egos. Yet that seems to be the case.

As briefly as possible, the identifiable causes cited by historians are:

  • The Bosnians and the Herzegovinians wanted to be part of Serbia and not under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb, which led to war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia.
  • A web of international military alliances meant:
  1. a) Russia jumped in to help their ally, Serbia;
  2. b) Germany jumped in to help their ally, Austria-Hungary;
  3. c) France, which had an unlikely alliance with Russia, jumped in to help their ally against Germany and Austria-Hungary;
  4. d) Germany responded by attacking France, but they did it by marching through neutral Belgium, which put up a surprisingly stout defense, which in turn annoyed the Germans, who committed some pretty outrageous (for the time; mild by today’s standards) atrocities;
  5. e) Great Britain had a long-standing alliance to defend Belgium’s neutrality and they immediately honored that by jumping into the fray;
  6. f) Great Britain had a more unlikely alliance with Japan, which was eager to flex its military muscles anyway, having earlier whupped Russia in a conflict over which of those two countries deserved to take over Korea and Manchuria (neither of which were consulted as to what their desires—such as being left alone—might be), so Japan rolled up its sleeves;
  7. g) Russia and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire; same difference) had already been at odds over both the Balkans and strategically important Constantinople, so that was a natural addition to the general bloodshed;
  8. h) Italy had just recently been at war with the Ottoman Empire, so they waded in;
  9. i) eventually America and other more unlikely participants (Brazil? Go figure.) all got involved and happily threw those so-expendable young men into early graves.
  • Imperialism was another primary cause for all this useless slaughter. All the major and some of the minor European powers saw the potential for easy wealth in Africa and parts of Asia, and happily devoted themselves to ruthlessly exploiting those countries with no particular concern for the local inhabitants. Germany, in particular, felt left out of the imperialistic looting because they had jumped into the imperialism game later than most, so they had their own greedy reasons for fighting everybody.
  • Nationalism: Apart from stealing, raping and pillaging various African and Asian countries, Germany and Russia, in particular, wanted to expand their borders and sphere of influence closer to home, so that was a handy excuse for war.
  • Germany, in part for the reasons cited in #3 and #4 (above), and in part because Kaiser Wilhelm II was a mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, had been rapidly and massively building up its military, which in turn made other European countries, especially Great Britain, feel a trifle nervous, so the arms race was another logical cause of the war. After all, if you’ve got all those shiny guns and cannons and destroyers and never use them, you might have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy, to your over-taxed citizens.

You can see why most of the books I’ve read about World War One (The Guns of August; The War that Ended Peace) run to five-hundred and almost seven-hundred-pages respectively, and that doesn’t include other, almost as lengthy but more narrowly focused historical accounts. I’ve tried to condense all of it and put it into baby talk. In reality, it was a good deal more complicated, but at least you have the broad strokes, and with those broad strokes in mind, tell me now, please, which of those casus belli was worth all those lives?

Which is, in a graphic, chilling, moving, and much more intimate way, the thrust of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s extraordinary masterpiece.

Erich Maria Remarque was a perfectly typical conscript, a student at the University of Münster, drafted into the war when he turned eighteen, shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost. Remarque’s protagonist, Paul (Remarque’s real middle name; he changed it to Maria in honor of his mother) is a perfectly typical conscript, drafted into the war at eighteen and shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost.

The novel is so autobiographical in so many aspects, and so graphic in its depictions of (to paraphrase a famous line adapted from the writing of Hannah Arendt) the banality of horror and terror, that it came as a shock at the very end to be reminded I had been reading a novel. Remarque captured the insanity of war and the numbness that protects soldiers (at least, those who don’t go mad, which has been known to happen) even as they are witnessing or doing things that in civilian life would be inconceivable:

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it all more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterward? And what shall become of us?”

And against the unrelenting terror and fear and horror, to which they become benumbed; and the routine of killing—with rifles, grenades, spades, knives, and bayonets—other young men just like themselves, to which they also become benumbed; the rats and poison gas to which they also become benumbed; the shells, the bombs, the blood and shattered bones and intestines to all of which they become benumbed; against all that is contrasted the rare and simple joy of a good meal from stolen food even as bombs rain down around them; the pleasure of wearing a pair of good boots, even though they came from the death of a comrade; the satisfaction of picking lice off their bodies; the jokes and black humor; the concern for comrades who begin to lose their protective numbness; the delight of seeing on a wall a poster of a beautiful actress; the pleasure of quiet conversations in the trenches where they argue about the causes of the war, who started it, what they are fighting for, conversations that make it clear they haven’t a clue.

And they talk about the weary knowledge that their substandard uniforms and boots and food are making someone rich at home:

“But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels. The latrine poles are always densely crowded…[we] grin at one another and say: ‘It is not much sense pulling up one’s trousers again.’”

Nothing has changed, nothing will ever change, in any and every army that ever was or will be. It is easy to understand why another mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, Adolph Hitler, had All Quiet on the Western Front banned and burned.

The only other accounts I have read that come close to this for catching the banality of horror in combat are some of Tim O’Brien’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novels about the Vietnam War, The Things they Carried, Going After Cacciato, and—somewhat more obliquely—In the Lake of the Woods.

Read All Quiet on the Western Front and remember Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem, written after his eighteen-year-old son was killed in action at the Battle of Loos:

Common Form

If any question why we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Book Review: The Intimidation Game

September 5th, 2018 1 Comment

 

Joseph Stalin once said: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?”

I don’t have much interest in topical political books churned out to satisfy an immediate curiosity about this issue or that, but a dear friend whom I greatly admire recently gave me a copy of Kimberly Strassel’s The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech, and since I am also a great admirer of Ms. Strassel, I dove in.

In case you are unfamiliar with her work, Kimberly Strassel is a journalist and editorial board member for the Wall Street Journal, where she writes a weekly column called “Potomac Watch.” She also appears regularly on Fox News.

Right-wing pundits, both on television and in print, have been railing against the attempts to stifle free speech, condemning various radical groups’ use of violence (think Antifa, Black Lives Matter, B[oycott]D[ivest]S[anction], a confusing plethora of other far left extremists) whether on college campuses, or on the streets of Washington, DC or Portland or wherever. And like many of President Trump’s tweets, those mindless and violent protests tend to suck up all the attention. As Ms. Strassel eloquently shows in The Intimidation Game, those slack-jawed protesters are just a meaningless nuisance; the real threat is much quieter, much more insidious, much more duplicitous, and far more powerful.

How powerful? How do you feel about Joseph Stalin?

Your right to freedom of speech, as expressed in the First Amendment, doesn’t just mean that you have the individual right to stand on a box and harangue passersby with your views, or write an opinion piece in your local paper. It doesn’t just protect the rights of neo-Nazi wingnuts to strut around espousing hateful and moronic racist beliefs, or the rights of equally hateful Antifa or BDS or BLM types to march with equally hateful racist anti-Semitic or anti-police posters provided by wealthy backers, as long as both sides refrain from violence (and a good rule of thumb to remember is that the moment anyone or any group has to wear masks and resort to violence, it means they have nothing intelligent to say). Your First Amendment right to freedom of speech, as laid out in multiple Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United, NAACP vs Alabama, Bates vs Little Rock, McIntyre vs Ohio Elections Commission, as well as lower court rulings such as Mobley vs Harmon) also protects and guarantees your right to donate money to a cause or candidate or party whose views you agree with, and to be able to do so without fear of retaliation from anyone. Furthermore, as multiple lower and Supreme Court decisions have spelled out, it also protects your right to band together with your neighbors and other like-minded individuals to create a group to try and influence government as you see fit.

And that last is where Kimberley Strassel’s book begins.

Lois Lerner (late of the IRS) was just the arrogant and ugly tip of the iceberg. As anyone knows who watched any of the news at that time (2013-2014) she and others in the putatively non-political and unbiased IRS effectively shut down numerous conservative non-profit groups by denying or delaying applications with tactics like stonewalling, holding in mothballs, demanding endless redundant iterations of forms and questionnaires and itemized lists of everything you can imagine, plus a bunch of stuff you would never dream of.

The IRS and the merry Ms. Lerner had this power because, by law, the moment you form a group and begin to raise money or spend money, you have to account for those sums to the IRS and pay taxes, whether all you are doing is having posters made up for a rally, or buying food for the homeless in your small town, or whatever, and none of the groups that began to spontaneously spring up across the country had that kind of money.

If your group “operates primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” (the IRS’s words) you fall into the non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) category. Simple, right?

Let’s say your state’s public utility company starts a fire that burns down much of the northern part of your state. Let’s say your state legislature decides to bail out the utility company by allowing them to raise their rates, already the highest in the nation, making taxpayers foot the bill for the utility company’s negligence. You form a group dedicated to the belief that it is for the common good not to have your rates raised even higher. The IRS can’t prove fighting taxes or rate hikes isn’t for the common good, so your tax-exempt status should be a shoo-in, right? But with the ever charming and delightful Ms. Lerner at the helm, your application for tax-exemption can be buried indefinitely.

How indefinitely?

Just so you understand how your right to freedom of speech is being denied and your voice silenced, some of the conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status back in 2009 are still waiting for their paperwork to be processed.

And that’s just the beginning. What Kimberley Strassel does is lay out, clearly and simply, with her customary fine writing, the step-by-step process, connecting the dots along the way, showing just how far up the progressive political food chain that corruption goes (because many of those folks are still in power and still devoted to making sure you keep your mouth shut).

Is this a book by and for conservatives? Oh no. Let’s assume you are a far-left progressive socialist who dreams of an America where the government handles all the money and doles it out as the various governmental bureaucracies see fit. You better read Kimberley Strassel’s book, because the dirty tactics that were and are being used against the right might be turned against you someday. The same bureaucracies that were weaponized against conservatives under the Obama administration could equally be weaponized by the current administration. And that is probably the worst condemnation of the progressive left that can possibly be made: a complete absence of forethought. Consider the current Supreme Court hearings that are causing such anguish on the left. Harry Reid and the Democrats were more interested in getting what they wanted in the short term, rather than thinking about what was best for the country in the long term, and they changed the rules for Senate approval of a nominee from a required sixty votes to the current fifty-one. Now they are howling because Republicans are using the rules Harry Reid forced through.

Politicizing and weaponizing the government is an evil right out of Stalin’s playbook, no matter who does it. Just read The Intimidation Game.

Book Review: Fools of Fortune

August 17th, 2018 3 Comments

William Trevor (1928-2016) was one the greatest literary treasures the English-speaking world ever produced. He won or was nominated for just about everything an Irish/English writer can be, and he deserved more. I will probably not live long enough to see his like again.

Revered primarily as a prolific short story writer (I read once that the New Yorker magazine had a standing contract with him to buy anything he wrote, sight unseen) he also wrote fifteen or twenty novels, depending on how you count them, and depending too if you count novellas as short novels or long short stories.

One novel, which I first read many years ago, and now again, but not for the last time, is Fools of Fortune. The title may come from Romeo’s despairing cry after he revenges his friend Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt, the King of Cats: “O I am Fortune’s fool!” And that should tell you much about what to expect from this unforgettable novel.

For reasons that mystify me—I was reading other things and involved in other projects—I recently found myself going back over and over to the bookshelf where it sat, until finally I picked it up and read once again the first, very short chapter and was, once again, hooked.

Many fine and gifted teachers of creative writing will tell you that it is always important to have a first line that will hook the reader:

“It was to have been a quiet evening at home;”

“Last night I dreamed I returned to Mandalay;”

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice;”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

You get the picture. But a certain class of reader, the kind seriously interested in great writing, will usually take the time to at least wade through the first several pages, or more, if the writing is good enough. William Trevor’s first introductory short chapter appears initially to be very low-key and subdued, almost mundane, but the magic of how he puts his sentences together will make you read through to the end, perhaps five- or six-hundred words, total, and then you will come away with a wonderful, haunting desire to know what and why and who. And that quality of haunting will stay with you through the whole novel. You won’t find out the what and why and who quickly, but as the story gradually unfolds in alternating points of view, with glimpses, hints, oblique suggestions, you’ll find yourself hooked, horrified, and above all haunted. You will find yourself unable to forget the characters you have come to know.

Like all great novels, it works on many levels: it is a love story; a dark glimpse into a dark period in Ireland’s long and bloody struggle for independence; a story of murder and revenge and the appalling, lasting results of both of those; a mystery; even perhaps a parable. (Euripides: “The Gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” Horace: “For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.” Shakespeare: “The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” And, of course, there is something in Exodus.) But above all it is incomparably evocative, with even the most briefly limned characters resonating unforgettably, drawing the reader into a doomed and tragic past with a final, brief adumbration of what might have been: “Fingers touch. One hand grasps another, awkwardly in elderliness.”

Oh yes, above all a love story.

Fahrenheit 451 and the Fourth of July

July 3rd, 2018 9 Comments

 

I have been taking some time off for personal reasons, but I recently had one of those strange coincidences that seem, in retrospect, ordained from on high by a supernatural power with a distorted sense of humor.

We were in Costco, my bride and I, a few weeks ago, and I was relegated to pushing a cart that would have wearied the patience and drained the endurance of a Missouri mule, when my bride announced she had forgotten something somewhere other than where we were. She must have seen my reaction because she immediately pointed to the book section and suggested I browse while she went and got… Whatever.

Costco does not sell the kinds of books I have any interest in reading. The books I enjoy reading are primarily sold in the kinds of rare bookstores I can’t afford to even enter, but looking at self-help books and celebrity cookbooks and romance novels and thrillers with famous authors’ names on them—though actually written by unknown assistants—all of that seemed preferable to imitating a mule. And as it happened, Costco was selling a 60th Anniversary edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I am not a science fiction fan. The only science fiction I have ever read was the late, great John D. MacDonald’s Wine of the Dreamers. I do have, somewhere, a very gracious note written to me by the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin in response to a question of mine about something she once said in an interview, but I have never read any of her work, so that’s it. But there was this 60th Anniversary edition, and there was my groaning cart.

Shortly after I finished reading it, I was watching once of those weekend “news” shows that includes a sort of “man-on-the-street” segment, in this case a reporter asking beautiful bronzed young things on a beach somewhere in southern California about the significance of the Fourth of July. I know there is always a disclaimer to the effect that these are real people giving real answers, but I suspect the reporters must go out of their way to recruit the lowest possible IQs to be found anywhere in the continental landmass of the United States. Certainly, in this case, it was hard for me to believe any of the beautiful bronzed bodies they spoke to could possibly be that ignorant. It would hard to believe your average five-year-old could be that ignorant, but gorgeous young thing after muscular young couldn’t answer a question as tricky, intricate, obscure, complex, and intellectually challenging as, “What is the significance of the Fourth of July.”

I kid you not.

“Christopher Columbus?” was one girl’s answer.

Again, I kid you not.

And that brings me to Fahrenheit 451.

Science fiction can be defined as a projection, by the author, of recognizable people and events of today into a future world with previously unimagined circumstances. If you’re not a science fiction fan, think of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. The science fiction writer’s job, essentially, is to take an ordinary man or woman confronting a relatively minor problem or challenge in today’s world, and to project that into the future while simultaneously expanding the scope and danger of the problem. At least, that is what Ray Bradbury did with Fahrenheit 451.

As I understand it, as a child, Ray Bradbury was one of those little boys drugged on books, a voracious reader who spent more time in libraries than anywhere else. When television came along, he was less than impressed, and projected his fantasies of the worst of what he saw into a world that is set roughly one-hundred-years ahead of the time in which he wrote, which would make the setting of the book about 2052.

I’m sure most people have read Fahrenheit 451, but just as a reminder, the premise is a horrible distortion of an America constantly engaged in some kind of never-ending war with some unnamed “other,” and a government that wants to keep its people both anesthetized and complacently happy so that they won’t ask questions or make trouble. Since books, good books with great writing by great minds—the Bible, Marcus Aurelius, Matthew Arnold, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Love Peacock, Plato, Jonathan Swift, Charles Darwin, Schopenhauer, Ortega y Gasset, Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, Aeschylus…all those and many more are mentioned or referenced obliquely—can make people think, and if they think, people may possibly become dissatisfied, and then, oh horror, they may ask questions, therefore books must be destroyed. All books. Whenever books are discovered, any books of any kind, a group of men, so-called Firemen (no irony there), go around and burn not just the books, but the homes of the people who were hiding such contraband.

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super-organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less…” “…Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts. Lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

And, from an earlier draft (the novel was originally written as a short story under another title): “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy because there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon…”

Instead of books, in Fahrenheit 451 people are entertained constantly with a sort of interactive, four-wall, surround-television that can be specifically modified to the whims and desires of each individual viewer whose likes and dislikes are monitored and followed. The actors on the television are called, and become, the “family” of each individual viewer, keeping them so constantly and happily preoccupied they never question anything.

Sound familiar?

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is one of the team that burns books, but he is beginning to have suspicions something is missing, that there must be something more, and he has begun to cautiously steal books before they can be burned. And therein lies the story.

Bradbury writes in (to quote my son) “a dreamy, febrile, style” which, toward the end, I found to be influenced (I’m guessing here) by the New American Bible version of Ecclesiastes; at least it reads that way. And there is a sparseness to his dreamy, febrile style that leaves room for all kinds of questions, but none of that matters. It is the story that matters, and in light of beautiful, pampered, glossy young Americans on an American beach who didn’t have a clue as to the significance of the Fourth of July, one wonders what Ray Bradbury would have made of the ultimate narcissistic, interactive anesthetic: social Media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and countless other ways I don’t know the names of to peddle absolutely meaningless non-information or outright lies, or maintain ersatz friendships with ersatz “familes.” I think of William Faulkner’s famous quote from Intruder in the Dust:

“…thinking, remembering how his uncle had said that all a man had was time, all that stood between him and the death that he feared and abhorred was time, yet he spent half of it inventing ways to get the other half past…”

Ah, but Faulkner himself is dead now, and his books reduced to ashes.

Code Girls Review: Politically Correct Thinking

April 9th, 2018 28 Comments

 

I had an all-time first, Gentle Reader.

I make it a point never to review a book I do not like. For one thing, if I don’t like a book, I almost certainly won’t finish it, so how can I possibly critique it?

Beyond that, serious writing, like any creative endeavor, is extremely difficult, while critiquing is all too often a purely destructive act that is far too easy. There are probably many more moronic reviews than there are moronic books, and that’s saying something.

So, if I review a book on this website, it’s because I thought it worthy of your attention. And for the same reason, I routinely post my reviews on Goodreads and on Amazon.

The review in the post immediately preceding this one, a somewhat personal review of Liza Mundy’s Code Girls (the exceptional historical and feminist look at the unsung heroes—or heroines, if you want to get all John Wayne about it—of World War Two) was as positive as I can get. Nor did I consider it offensive in any way: no full-frontal nudity, no explicit threats of violence or mayhem, no advocating wholesale lynching on Capitol Hill (which might just qualify as common sense these days). So picture my confusion when almost instantaneously, literally within probably less than two minutes, I received an email from Amazon telling me my review had violated their guidelines and would not be posted.

Mystified, I reviewed the guidelines and reviewed my review. Nothing. Nor were there any hints in Amazon’s email that might suggest which guideline(s) I had violated. The company apparently adheres to the old adage, “Never apologize, never explain.” (An adage variously attributed to a nineteenth-century Oxford professor, who supposedly added, “Get it over with and let them howl,” and at the other end of the continuum to the authors of the John Wayne movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, where the Duke adds, “It’s a sign of weakness.”)

I asked my bride to read the post and give me a lead. Darleen suggested that perhaps, because I discuss encryption and cryptanalysis and the teams that did that work during World War Two, I had somehow tripped some algorithm set up by Amazon and, oh, I don’t know, the NSA or something. After all, the notice came far too quickly for a human to have read the review.

This struck me as extremely unlikely. For one thing, if the NSA hasn’t anything better to do than monitoring scruffy little websites like mine, I would suggest we could make a serious reduction in the national budget deficit by getting rid of that agency entirely and firing everyone there for wasting their time and our money. For another, I doubt very much if the NSA and Amazon are in bed together.

But Darleen’s suggestion led me in the wrong direction, and it wasn’t until last night, in the shower, that the truth came to me.

In the review, I quote the title of the John Lennon song, Woman is the Nigger of the World. And I will give you eight-to-five, Gentle Reader, that is why the review was rejected.

If I am correct, it is proof of the idiocy of politically correct group-think algorithms and politically correct thinking of any kind. For one thing, the lyrics of the song are extremely apposite to the theme of Ms. Mundy’s book. Read both. For another, the title phrase of the song, which is also the hook, was coined by Yoko Ono, who gave credit for it to black author Zora Neale Hurston. (It is actually, if I have my facts right, a distillation of two sentences in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.) And finally, if I am right about why Amazon felt my review violated their guidelines, it—Amazon—is supremely hypocritical, given that they sell Lennon’s album, Some Time in New York City, and list Woman Is the Nigger of the World, as the first track, clearly and unapologetically, right there on their own website. They also offer the song for sale as a single. No hypocrisy there, by golly, but I’ll bet that’s the reason.

Eight-to-five? Hell, make it seven-to-one.

Book Review: Code Girls

April 7th, 2018 7 Comments

 

Bonn, Germany, 1960 or ’61, long before unification, long before the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, possibly even before the building of the Berlin Wall, because while that went up in 1961, I don’t remember precisely which year this happened. My father was with the American Embassy, and we were living in an apartment in Bad Godesberg when an English girl came to visit. Her name was Virginia Rhodes, nicknamed Ginny, and my mother introduced her to me with the offhand explanation, “Her father was one of my commanding officers in the Navy during the war.”

I was only twelve or thirteen, drugged on camping and uninterested in girls, especially ancient hags of sixteen or seventeen, so I had little interest in her, but my mother’s comment caught my attention. I knew my father had downed tools and enlisted immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and I was vaguely aware that most of America had volunteered for this or that to help the war effort, but I had no idea my mother had been in the Navy.

“No,” she explained. “I wasn’t. I was just a civilian who volunteered, like so many others, but Colonel Rhodes” [actual first name now gone from my rapid access file, but predictably nicknamed Dusty] “was in charge of the unit where I worked.”

What had she done?

“Oh, just paperwork, typing things.” And with that vague deflection my interest waned. It took almost sixty years and reading Liza Mundy’s Code Girls, to learn the ladies who broke the enemy codes in World War Two were trained to use deflections just like that for security reasons, either implying dusty secretarial work, or implying they were just brainless “playthings” for the men who did the real work of winning the war.

Fast forward eight or ten years. My father had been killed and Mother was living in the house in Vermont my father had bought for a retirement he never lived to see. I was visiting, and she asked me to walk up to the post office and pick up her mail.

It was a combination general store/gas station/post office about a quarter mile away, and as I walked home, I flipped idly through the letters and magazines. What caught my attention was an official envelope, addressed to my mother, from the Department of the Navy. I handed it to her and asked what it was and why the Navy might be contacting her after so many years.

“Well,” she said, glancing at it, “As it happens, I can tell you because this is a declassification notice.”

Declassification? It was not the first time I realized there were unknown depths to my mother—my short-tempered, acid-tongued, opinionated, occasionally wickedly funny, frightfully proper, intensely well-educated and well-read mother—but even so I was surprised. I began to quiz her. It was twenty-five or thirty years after the war, but the habit of official secrecy, coupled with my mother’s natural love privacy, kept her reluctant to expand too much on what she had done, essentially dismissing it as nothing special. Again, it took Mundy’s Code Girls for me to finally understand the critical importance of what my mother and so many other ladies had done during the war.

But on that long-ago day, she showed me some simple cryptograms (I remember only something called a Polybius Square) and told me how the work consisted (putting it in baby talk) of searching for patterns and sequences on large sheets divided into endless rows and columns of letters or numbers. She told me that of the people in her unit, she and a young man who later became a professor of some arcane form of mathematics at MIT were the only two who lasted the entire war, because nervous breakdowns were as common as head colds among code breakers. I can well believe it.

I knew my mother was capable of intense concentration, and I knew she was capable of extreme and painstaking patience (not necessarily with her wild and troublesome son, but with intellectual problems that delighted her), but I was stunned to think she might have been capable of that kind of work. Apparently, like so many of the girls Mundy writes about, so was she.

After Pearl Harbor, like so many other ladies of her generation, she was determined to do what she could for her country. She used her social and professional contacts, her father’s reputation as a newspaperman and historian, and perhaps my father’s almost insignificant position as a freshly-minted lieutenant (on one of the battleships attempting unsuccessfully to protect Allied merchant convoys from Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic, a fact that must have motivated my mother even more to try and help the war effort), to wrangle an interview with Naval Intelligence. She met with an officer in one of the “temporary” buildings hastily erected on the mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, temporary buildings still in use when my family and I left for Germany almost twenty years later. The officer asked if she had any skills, and she told him she was a writer. The Navy didn’t need any writers; did she have any hobbies? No. Had she studied math at Bryn Mawr? No. Did she excel at anything? Well, she was a bad piano player, but a good dancer. The Navy didn’t need piano players, and they didn’t need dancers, good or bad. She was gathering her things to leave when he asked if she ever did crossword puzzles. Yes, by God, she did, and what’s more, it was no particular feat for her to do the New York Times puzzle in ink and get it right every week.

And so, after testing and training, my mother became one of the many women who worked on code-breaking for the military during World War Two; in my mother’s case, working for the Navy, and working specifically on one of the Japanese codes.

It must be difficult for today’s computerized/smartphone/IT generation to imagine that things such as encryption or cryptanalysis might once have been done by humans and, just as remarkable, laboriously undone by humans, or perhaps even that codes can be broken at all, but it was once so. And during World War Two, the vast majority of the people who broke codes for America were women, and how they did it, and the extent to which they did it successfully, is as remarkable an achievement as the bloody taking of countless Pacific islands, one by one, dead soldier by dead soldier. And those two things are closely related.

Liza Mundy’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into a still-obscure corner of World War Two history. She tells the story of the thousands of girls who broke multiple codes, Japanese and German, that were considered unbreakable, and by so doing saved the lives of millions of young Allied men. They were barefoot farm girls, Social Register debutantes, Navy girls, Army girls, civilian girls, high school graduates, college dropouts, PhD’s, victims of the Depression, girls too rich to have noticed the Depression, shy girls, tough girls, single girls, married girls, southern girls, northern girls, literally thousands of girls who had nothing in common, save patriotism and first-class brains. And more: first class brains in an era when a woman’s place was in the oven, and if a woman did have an opinion or an original idea, she should bloody well keep it to herself while manly menfolk solved the problems of the world over their scotch and water, and fetch us some more ice, little lady.

Mundy writes about a girl who had just made a major break-through, one that would prove a critical and time-sensitive key to the successes that followed, standing politely with her papers in her hands, waiting for the officers, the manly men, to finish their conversation before she could tell them what she had done and give them the information they so desperately needed. Women who asserted themselves back then were practically unknown and always unappreciated.

Nor did the war do anything to change attitudes. Toward the end of the book, Mundy writes about how, for many of the code girls, all their work and sacrifice was, for the most part, largely ignored when they attempted to enter the work force after the war. Men who had done and accomplished far less were given preference over better brains wearing dresses, and because they had been sworn to secrecy, there was little the code girls could do to toot their own horns. With very, very few exceptions, all of them, like my mother, took their oath of secrecy far too seriously to help advance themselves.

My mother might have experienced that dismissive attitude from other men (officers and civilians, men she knew casually in civilian life), but I think I can safely say she never experienced any condescension or dismissive arrogance from any of the men my parents counted as friends, and I know damned well she never experienced anything like that from my father. My father would never have treated anyone that way, in part because he was fascinated by people and always eager to learn about them, in part because of his natural courtesy, and in part because he had—and frequently expressed—tremendous admiration for my mother and for her abilities. And any man who knew my parents well enough to be counted as a friend would have known my mother well enough to know she was nobody’s fool. But for many other women of that era, probably most, second-class citizenship was the norm (John Lennon: “Woman is the nigger of the world.”) and the chance to prove themselves, to themselves as well as to the men they worked with or for, must have been intoxicating.

Reading Code Girls was an affirmation of much of what I already knew about my mother: brains, self-discipline, stubborn refusal to be defeated by any problem, infinite determination, and the most unbelievable memory of anyone I’ve ever known.

Mundy quotes a lieutenant as saying, “Each [code breaker] had to depend on what he could remember.” I always knew my mother’s memory was extraordinary, but when she was dying, she gave an example that stunned me. We were in the living room when my stepfather said something that sparked the memory of a poem in my mother. At that moment, the lady she had hired to help her announced dinner was on the table. As she started to rise, my mother quoted a line or two, faltered, repeated them, and then said, “It’s bad enough to be dying, but it’s humiliating to lose one’s memory.” We all walked into the dining room, I pulled her chair out for her, and before my stepfather could say grace, she recited all twelve verses of a poem I know for a fact she hadn’t read in over fifty years. She had pulled it up out of the memory bank in the minute or two it had taken us to walk from one room to another.

After the war, some of the code girls suffered their own variation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that handicapped them as much as it did soldiers. For some, the work had been so stressful and so debilitating that they preferred to forget it. Others lived with the unwelcome knowledge that their work, while it saved an estimated one million American lives, had taken the lives of many young Japanese men who had wives and sweethearts and mothers and sisters who mourned just as much; in the same way, some law enforcement officers can live with killing bad guys; others cannot.

And some of the code girls would not toot their own horns even decades later, after their work had been declassified, because of the ignorance and bias, willful or not, of a younger generation. Mundy writes of a woman who, when she finally told her children what she had done, heard her own daughter say, “Mother, how dreadful! You killed all those Japanese sailors, and you’re pleased about it!”

I have to admit, when I read that, I wanted to reach through the pages and the years and slap that smug, self-righteous, shamefully ignorant daughter. She should take some time to study the photographs of what Japanese soldiers did to Chinese women, particularly in Nanking, and consider if she would have enjoyed sharing their fate, before presuming to pass judgment on her betters for having more courage, more ability, and more moral conviction than she has.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson of Code Girls, that the ladies who were part of what Tom Brokaw so wonderfully described as the Greatest Generation, were forged in the fires of harder times, long before the war: it was a world of greater labor and less leisure, greater ethics and less luxury, greater standards of behavior and less tolerance for misbehavior. And then along came the Depression, and survival demanded far more than any of my generation or any of the current generations will ever know. The code girls knew, or learned, the truth of John Steinbeck’s observation in his sadly unfinished retelling of the Arthurian legends, known as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights:

“Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; tranquility rather than danger is the mother of cowardice; and not need, but plenty, brings apprehension and unease. Finally, he found that the longed-for peace, so bitterly achieved, created more bitterness than ever did the anguish of achieving it.”

It’s something every generation has to learn anew, only to see it forgotten again in turn by the next.

Book Review: A Passage to India

March 21st, 2018 7 Comments

 

One of the advantages of aging is that the brain finally matures enough to understand and appreciate things that eluded us when we were young. Of course, it’s a short period between maturity and senility, but if we make the most of it, we can discover—or rediscover—a world of infinite riches.

I tried to read A Passage to India, when I was in high school, sometime between fourteen and eighteen, but with my hormones running amok and unable to think of anything except Cindy Sheldon or Susan Crampton, I thought it a remarkably dull book about a bunch of remarkably dull deadheads. Half a century later, I read it (as I do all books where the English language is used the way Rembrandt used pigment) slowly, relishing the sheer craftsmanship of it, and with the themes resonating in my head.

Ah. Themes. True to today’s complete absence of empathy (OED: the power of projecting one’s personality into—and so fully comprehending—the object of contemplation) from the same people who condemn Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for racist stereotypes, a lot of people seem to think A Passage to India should have been written with today’s sensibilities and priorities. It wasn’t. It was published in 1924. Get over it. This is considered—by whoever makes out such lists—one of the one-hundred greatest novels of the twentieth century; personally, I would put practically anything Forster ever wrote on that list, in particular, A Room with a View, but A Passage to India both takes and deserves careful reading. Those people who condemn the novel for its use of the “n” word, or because it depicts the ugliness of racism, should understand that back when it was published, it was condemned precisely for depicting the ugliness of racism, of colonial attitudes, and most importantly for its positive depiction of interracial friendship, which was considered a no-no in that place and that time. All of which goes to prove that any fool can criticize anything for any reason.

What is stunning, for those of us who know our history, is the extent to which E. M. Forster sensed the still unseen (by the British) and unacknowledged (by the British) rifts in the Raj. There had been independence movements and attempts to throw off the British yoke for as long as the East India Company had been in India. The appalling Amristar massacre (graphically portrayed in the movie Gandhi) took place only a few years earlier and was largely whitewashed, in some cases even approved, by the British. But for the most part, the 1920s were a time of British complacency (which is largely what allowed them to whitewash the murder of a thousand or more unarmed Sikh and Hindu Indians peacefully celebrating a religious festival). It’s true, Gandhi had started his non-violent protests, but unless I’ve missed the mark badly, he was still not being taken seriously by the British government, which seemed to be bogged down by a combination of complacency and recovery from the devasting losses and upheavals of World War One. Both of those would soon be augmented by an awareness of the evil that was taking root in Germany and Japan, but during the twenties, when Forster was in India, very few people anticipated even the possibility of the breakup of the British Empire, let alone the loss of the jewel in the crown. Evidently, Forster did, at least on some level.

The plot that drives the action revolves around the purported sexual assault of an English lady by a respected Moslem Indian doctor. The lady eventually recants her testimony (it’s always unclear what, if anything, happened, but it appears to have been merely an hallucination) and the doctor is cleared, but it is the reactions of the British, and the ramifications of the accusation, that Forster uses to create an allegory of the presence of Great Britain in a country with a history far more ancient, and a culture just as rich and vibrant.

The subsidiary themes of male dominance and class distinctions run through the book as a sort of echo to the primary theme of irreconcilable differences between white Englishmen and… And whom? That’s one of the dilemmas of India even to this day, if modern novels by Indian authors are any indication. There is no single entity that can be designated “Indian,” and prior to their independence, there were even more differences: Hindu and Moslem, with hints of the violence to come; a dizzying array of multiple caste divisions that were religious as well as social; racial differences; geographical differences; political differences; economic differences, educational differences… It was, and apparently still is, a greatly divided country, and the British Raj, imbued with the conviction of its own superiority—racial, cultural, intellectual, moral—looked down on all Indians impartially:

Mr. McBryde paused. He wanted to keep the proceedings as clean as possible, but Oriental Pathology, his favorite theme, lay around him, and he could not resist it. Taking off his spectacles, as was his habit before enunciating a general truth, he looked at them sadly, and remarked that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa—not a matter for bitterness this, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact that any scientific observer will confirm.

There are other statements later on, far uglier in both tone and conviction, that reveal the anger that comes with fear, and the contempt that came with no justification other than lack of empathy.

This is not the lighthearted E. M. Forster who wrote A Room with a View. Written fourteen years later, A Passage to India is both more serious in its subject matter and far sadder in its conclusions, ending with the conviction that certain differences, certain gulfs, are not—or at least were not at that time—able to be bridged, be it white and “Oriental” (“colored” is used sometimes, sometimes an uglier word), West and East, Christian and Moslem (or Christian and Hindu, or Moslem and Sikh, or Hindu and Moslem, or any other combination of faiths), upper class and middleclass, perhaps even male and female. The book ends with the one Englishman who truly saw the Indians as his equals, riding in the northern hill country with the accused doctor he saw as his friend:

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said [the Englishman] holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

But the horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it; they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

And one is left wondering if ever, and where.

Book Review: Stoner

January 22nd, 2018 10 Comments

 

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn…”

That’s Merlyn (we usually write it “Merlin,” just as we spell it “honor” instead of “honour”) in The Once and Future King, by T. H. White, a man who knew a thing or two about both sadness and learning.

In Stoner, by John Williams, the novel described by author Tim Kreider as, “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of,” that theme of learning as the ultimate restorative, the sole salvation of the human animal, the anodyne for evil or sorrow, is taken to an extreme.

Most of us have multiple passions. T. H. White, for example, channeled much of his unrequited passion for human love into writing, hunting, fishing, falconry, aviation, and probably other activities I know not of. But John Williams has created a character, William Stoner, who has only two passions in his life: human love, and learning. In one, he is thwarted; the other becomes his salvation.

Stoner follows the whole life of its eponymous character. (Thank God the title didn’t refer, as I thought a novel published in 1965 might, to the lugubrious dreams and feckless self-destruction of some long-haired, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed type on Manhattan’s lower east side.) Stoner is, as was the author, a farm boy who discovers literature at the hands of a professor in the college where Stoner is supposed to be studying agriculture. There is a scene where the professor reads Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet and then asks Stoner to say what it means.

“Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?” (When you read this novel—and you must—take note of the seventy-third sonnet; it was not chosen at random.) And Stoner does hear him, hears him deeply; but like the rest of his classmates, like many of us under similar circumstances, he is unable to articulate in his own words what Shakespeare’s words have meant to him. He has, to quote another passage from the book, “experienced the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words.” And in that inarticulate moment, raising his farmer’s hands helplessly into the air, Stoner is transformed from a farm boy into a lover of words and ideas, and he understands that the best literature—books like Stoner—can change the world. He quits the farm, and throws himself into the lifelong pursuit of learning.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time in life he had to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Echoes of A. E. Houseman’s, “Never lad that trod on leather/lived to feast his heart with all.” It is true of every human endeavor, whether that endeavor involves books or machines, plants or animals, world travel or your own hometown, the human spirit or human depravity; the unknown is and always will be far greater than the sum total of puny man’s puny knowledge.

Stoner is not a traditional hero in the popular sense of that word. However, he is very much a hero in the sense of man who doggedly fulfills his obligations and the sole passion allowed him, with patience and dignity, without whining or raging, supporting his wife and daughter, teaching his students, and always learning.

I have a good friend, one of the deplorables in a small town in one of those Midwestern states too many people won’t deign to visit, who was cheated and bankrupted by a relative. Like Stoner, he too never whined or complained. What he did was move to another town and start over. He worked long and hard all year long for many years; he deprived himself of many of the little pleasures he relished as he supported his family and raised two fine young children (middle-aged and parents themselves, now); he earned the trust and respect of everyone who knows him; and he made himself into one of the wealthiest men in his little town. He did it all quietly; I am one of the very few who knows his story. That man is a true hero in the same way Stoner is a true hero. There is nothing big and newsworthy in his life, nothing glamorous or glorious, no accolades, no reporters camped outside his door; just a quiet, dogged, honorable persistence in the face of adversity, a quiet, dogged, honorable meeting of his obligations, loving his family, and being the good and decent man he has always been. Men like that, like Stoner, are the true heroes of this country.

But why is Stoner denied his only other passion, human love?

The only negative review of Stoner that I have stumbled across reviled both hero and author as misogynists, and Professor Stoner as a narrow-minded pedant. The author of the review (in the Washington Post) is a woman who is an ivy-league professor emerita, and feminist writer on social and cultural issues, and I could make a good argument that living a life within the walls of academia, and looking at the world through such a singular prism, can promote a very narrow-minded vision of the world.

Her complaint about misogyny is predicated on John Williams’ unelaborated portrayal of Stoner’s wife, Edith, as a wildly neurotic, possibly bi-polar, shrewish, extraordinarily selfish woman, who denies her husband love, who turns their daughter against him, who devotes her entire life to trying to reduce Stoner to a non-entity in their shared lives and even within his own professional life.

Unlike the angry woman reviewer, I immediately recognized the behavior of Stoner’s wife, based on my experience with a very similar personality type, but don’t trust me. Instead, pay attention to my brother-in-law, a Harvard educated and trained—and practicing for nearly three-score-years-and-ten—psychiatrist who has considerably more knowledge, objectivity, and sensitivity than the angry female reviewer. My brother-in-law also immediately recognized the behavior of Stoner’s wife, and he identified it as the classic acting-out of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It isn’t something that is spelled out in the book, in part because that isn’t the focus of Williams’ story, in part because such things were not discussed back then. The book takes place roughly between 1910 and 1956, and in the time period of Edith’s childhood, the late 1800’s, sexual abuse took place just as frequently as it does today, but it remained, as Tennessee Williams once wrote about a related topic, “something unspoken.” So the causes are not delved into by John Williams, but the results, the symptoms, are described in sometimes painful detail. The description of Edith and William Stoner’s honeymoon, and some of Edith’s subsequent behavior, made me put the book aside for a while. But none of that is due to misogyny by author or protagonist.

The same reviewer criticized Williams for portraying both of Stoner’s antagonists—one a fellow faculty member, the other a student—as physically deformed, dismissing that device as a nasty and outdated symbol of evil. But one of the things a fiction writer tries to do is give the reader clues to the intentions and motivations of his characters, to try and provide a context for their actions. Just as the harrowing and depressing description of Stoner making love to his wife for the first time gives you a pretty good clue as to what her problems are and what the causes of them might be, so too the shared infirmity of a physically deformed professor and his favorite student gives them an understandable bond which turns the professor against Stoner for flunking the student. They are not deformed because they are evil, nor evil because they are deformed; they are deformed because it a writer’s device to give them a shared bond, just as in a more modern novel they might share ethnicity, or country of origin, or a particular religious belief, or anything else that might cause them to bond as a minority in a predominately homogenous world.

Nor is Stoner a narrow-minded pedant. He flunks the student, as Williams writes, because even after being granted an extension on a deadline, the student does not do the work and then tries to bluff his way through a presentation by being argumentatively inimical. If that scene were written exclusively from Stoner’s perspective, it might be open to debate, but this is how Williams sums it up:

“…it was clear even to the most inattentive students in the class that [the student] was engaged in a performance that was entirely impromptu.”

That is not Stoner’s point of view. That is an omniscient point of view, and as such has to be taken as factual. It is also supported by other actions and statements by that student, but the reason I am dwelling on it is because it sets in motion one of those nasty, inter-faculty feuds that occur with dreary regularity in universities where we might expect the men and women teaching our children to know better and behave better. And it is that feud that leads ultimately to Stoner’s final chance at human love being torn away from him.

Stoner falls in love with a young graduate student who is already in love with him, and for a brief time, until the angry professor manages to break it up, he knows what true human love, true human passion is.

This is a sad book. But it is also one of the wisest, and most beautifully written books I have ever read. Consider the following:

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end, but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

Much like the process of learning.

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending

July 6th, 2017

I recently read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (Vintage International, 2012), and when I finished it, I did something I have never done before: I immediately turned back to the first page and started over again. I didn’t do this because I so greatly enjoyed the book, exactly. It’s not exactly an enjoyable book, at least not in the sense that some old favorite is enjoyable, the kind of old favorite you read over and over again like comfort food, escaping reality for a few hours to return to a world as familiar as reality, but a lot more pleasant and comfortable. It’s not that kind of book.

Instead, it is intensely compelling and disturbing, a thought-provoking book that demands you reflect on your own life, your own past, your own memories.

The book is divided into two parts. That’s the kind of meaningless piece of information that normally alerts the reader of a review that the reviewer has nothing meaningful to say, but it is important here because the first part is a more or less straight forward account of a sequence of events in the narrator’s youth as he remembers them. The second part, almost twice as long as the first, is the narrator’s attempt to unravel the skein of memory and to reconcile reality both with memory and with what Faulkner once called “the irrevocable might-have-been.” And therein lies the book’s genius.

Memory is tenuous and all too unreliable, sometimes even recent memory. It is the secular reason why I don’t believe in the death penalty (I also have religious objections): it is all too easy for memory to deceive us, to trick us into believing A when it was really B all along. I was once involved in a criminal police investigation and asked to give certain information. When it came to describing the suspect’s car, I answered with great certainty that it was brand new and bright red. I remember the blank looks on officers’ faces. The suspect’s car was brand new and bright blue. I had seen it, I had seen it clearly. I had even stood looking at it for several minutes, but because it was a new model, magazines were filled with ads, and television commercials ran on every network, showing bright red models and memory had conflated the two in my mind.

In the same way, one of the key points in The Sense of an Ending hinges on a letter which the narrator remembers one way in Part One, but which we—and he—discover in Part Two to have been very different than his memory would have it. (The phrasing of that sentence should give you a clue to what the reality was.)

The letter is pivotal because the narrator believes it to have set off a sequence of events he deeply regrets, and he is forced to reexamine his own story of himself. And that is what Barnes is asking us to do, to determine if the history of our lives is accurate, or if we have made convenient cuts and edits, or perhaps added a few cunning and subtle embellishments over the years, to diminish this painful reality here or that uncomfortable truth over there. We all long to be a little better than we are, and the stories of our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, reflect that longing, consciously or unconsciously.

In Atonement, Ian McEwan’s central character wants desperately to undo something she did as a child, something she too deeply regrets, and that novel ends with recognition of the futility of trying to change the past. We do terrible things, sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, and we must learn to live with the consequences of those mistakes. Julian Barnes is also writing about living with consequences, about living with ourselves as we really are, and his narrator, like the narrator of Atonement, finally accepts that. But unlike the narrator of Atonement, Barnes’ narrator does not deliberately create a lie to satisfy his longing, unless you consider pushing the past aside—storing it in an unused closet of the mind—a kind of lie. Instead, his encounter with the reality of the past is thrust upon him and he must slowly come to grips with what really was, some of which may have been partially his own doing, some of which was not.

As long as I’m comparing the two novels, I find Ian McEwan’s writing to be much more emotionally engaging than Julian Barnes’. I read somewhere once that Barnes’ brother is a philosopher, and I can readily believe it because that kind of detached, cerebral quality permeates everything I have read by Barnes, including The Sense of an Ending. That is not to be construed as praise: I find the absence of emotional engagement and sensory detail off-putting, though I have no way of knowing if that is intentional on the author’s part or not. As my friend Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) likes to say about writing (quoting Herman Melville’s letter to Nathaniel Hawthorn discussing writing): “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head! I had rather be a fool with a heart than Jupiter Olympus with his head.” Atonement is packed with such empathetic characters, including the little girl who ruins the lives around her, that you ache for them all. The Sense of an Ending has characters whose personalities are so reserved as to make them almost unknowable, and whose motivations and emotions we never fully understand, while the narrator, Tony, is completely emotionless in a frightfully British, stiff upper lip sort of way, so that at the end, when a bombshell is set off in what he thinks he understands about his life and actions and the memories of those two things, he simply ruminates on the advantages of thin chips (French fries) over fat ones. That’s not the best way to stir emotions in a reader either.

And yet… I have never before read a book straight through twice in a row, so clearly something in me was engaged, perhaps not by my heartstrings, but engaged nonetheless.

Book Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown

June 5th, 2017 7 Comments

 

Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) recommended I read The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke, speaking of both book and author in the reverential terms he (Dan) reserves for Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. It is no accident that I mention those two names because, based on The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke is right up there in their league. This is one of those books that transcends the hard-boiled-detective-mystery genre to become literature in its own right.

Mr. Burke has written some thirty-eight novels (if I’ve added them up correctly), twenty of which are Dave Robicheaux mysteries, Detective Dave Robicheaux being the central character in The Tin Roof Blowdown. The other characters include: double-tough disgraced former detective Clete Purcel, a man of excessive appetites, for food, for booze, for sex, for violence; the androgynous female police chief who is tougher than just about anyone except Clete; a mobster named Sidney Kovick who may or may not have cut a man into pieces with a chainsaw; a psychopath so spooky he makes the chainsaw gangster look benign; a black drug dealer and rapist who dreams of being something other than what he is; the city of New Orleans (the city Burke calls, “the Great Whore of Babylon”); memories—nightmares—of Viet Nam; and—as an ancillary character, if you can reduce such destruction and tragedy to merely ancillary—Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane ever to hit America, one of the five most destructive, and the second deadliest of all time.

Most mysteries are, by definition, plot-driven, and I usually have little interest in plot-driven books. Yes, there is a complex and multilayered plot where seemingly unrelated incidents swirl around each other and draw the characters together, but it is a sign of Burke’s skill as writer that I forgot entirely I was reading a mystery at all, becoming instead engrossed in the tribulations of the characters whose troubles are largely of their own making. Some of his most despicable villains become victims, victims on many layers: of their own poor choices; of cynical governments (city, state, and federal) that turn their backs on inner cities and then invoke those same inner cities during election campaigns with meaningless cries for change; of the drug culture that has filled the void left by those governments; of the old habits of racism; of the absence of hope or education or opportunity… In other words, Mr. Burke has captured the essence of the dark side of the American dream and done so in a page-turner.

One of the things that brings a book to life is the dialogue of its protagonists. The trick is to capture regional accents while making each character singular and discrete, and to do both of those things without making the book an unreadable phonetic study. Here too Mr. Burke excels. From the computerized automaton of the psychopath (“Hi. My name is Rodney. What’s yours?”) to the gallows humor of a New Orleans cop (Tee Boy was choking on his sandwich bread now, laughing so hard that tears were running down his cheeks. “Hey, kid, if you stole anything from Sidney Kovick, mail it to him COD from Alaska, then buy a gun and shoot yourself. With luck, he won’t find your grave.”) to the subtle inflections of the Ninth Ward (“I brought my brother to the hospital ‘cause somebody shot him t’rou the throat. A kid wit’ us was killed, too. I ain’t tried to run away. I come here for help. I missed my court appearance ‘cause I was sick. That’s all you got on me. You quit hitting me.”) Those things take a good ear and an instinctive feel for how far to go without making the reader give up.

But it is the richness of characterization that makes The Tin Roof Blowdown so memorable. These are all distinct individuals, the kinds of people you might meet—or hope very much you do not meet—in your hometown (especially if your hometown happens to be in Louisiana), but they are all real and, with the exception of the psychopath, understandable, believable, and very human. Psychopaths are neither understandable nor human, and it would be a waste of time for anyone to try and believe or believe in a psychopath.

A mysterious footnote: My copy of The Tin Roof Blowdown has a cover featuring a stylized jazz saxophone player against a background of a French Quarter house, done in the yellows and oranges of flames. It is the only cover I saw, either in the flesh or on the internet when I was ordering the book, and later when I was doing some research on James Lee Burke. That cover has now mysteriously disappeared on the internet, and the only image I could find is the one I have used. It is as if the other has been erased from both the internet and history itself. Clearly this a sign of some vast conspiracy between the NSA, CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, and Simon & Schuster. At least, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Top of Page