Friday, July 28, 2017

The Innocents Abroad - Mark Twain

One of the greatest (the greatest?) American literary humorists takes his traveling bag on a tour of western Europe, the Middle East, and back across Mediterranean Africa. As William Dean Howells noted in a contemporary review of the work, Twain lampoons the "standard shams of travel" which are sometimes forgotten by the tourist. It is somewhat refreshing to know that such standard shams were experienced one hundred and fifty years ago, as they are today. In Twain's expert cynicism such shams sparkle. Tour guides he notes, are all the same - even referring to a never-ending stream of them by a single name: Ferguson. Each city, Venice, Paris, Constantinople has its own Ferguson. Some of the standard discomforts are enjoyable, some intolerable: the French seem to no way grasp the use of soap.Yet, Mr Twain's most withering gaze is turned towards his fellow travelers; all well on their way to becoming professional bores.

In both his compatriots and his destinations it is not the expected, but the unexpected which is so illuminating and invigorating. When stuck under quarantine outside Athens, they quietly slip ashore for a moonlit excursion up to Parthenon and through town. A journey across Sinai is at turns exhausting and a space for mental relaxation. Throughout, Twain's irony and humor shines. The Innocents, protestant Americans with seemingly no history, are alternately lost among, overwhelmed by, and totally incapable of grasping the significance and even occasional absurdity of civilizations tempered by time. The new world and old collide, revealing humor and transcendence in both.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Stillness at Appomattox - Bruce Catton

A masterpiece of narrative history, Bruce Catton's third installment of his Army of the Potomac trilogy covers the final year campaign of US Grant's push to finally defeat Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy itself. Catton's prose sparkles. Whether he is recounting Washington high society, the tangled Battle of the Wilderness, or the horrible farce that was the Battle of the Crater, he brings the reader back, now more than 150 years to what Shelby Foote has called the crucible of the American experience. Sadly, narrative history and rigorous academic history have largely parted ways since Catton's time. While this may have saved readers a good-many insufferable bores, if it has also robbed us of history of this caliber, then we are the worse for it. Under Catton's pen the history of the Civil War sparkles and its immediacy lives on.

The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer

Mailer's magnum opus (one of them, anyway) about Mark Gary Gilmore's life in detention, two murders in Provo, Utah, and choice to die at the hands of the United States government rather than extend his life in prison through indefinite appeal. Mailer's work is exhaustive to say the least. Years of interviews and research led him to write a 1,000-plus page 'true novel' which may provide the closest approximation of a person's complicated personality in a work of reportage. It is only one account, but the reader does feel that he or she knows the man that was Gary Gilmore. What is less certain, and left as a pressing question by Mailer, is how do we measure the effect of one person's life on those surrounding them. Through his acts of violence Gilmore enabled his reach to expand ever outwards, drawing an almost global network of people into his story. Mailer's gift for storytelling is, among his other strengths, that he allows Gilmore and those surrounding him to be complete, fallible, bewildering humans. Mailer's lack of moralizing throughout a distinctly morally-tinged story may itself be a type of moralizing on the violence of individuals and of the state. For drawing what appears to be a complete world, Mailer's work is a triumph.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy

As a person comes of age their own story takes center stage. When we are younger we inhabit the orbit of adults; our parents and elder family members. The world is defined by and in relation to them. As we grow and chart an independent course our actions increasingly become our own. Yet we are never freed entirely from our ties to others. McCarthy's novel is, among many other things, about the tension between ties that bind and independence. Billy Parnham's story becomes about himself, but as time goes by and he remains disconnected, it is increasingly populated by the lives of others. Yet, these are mere episodes. Parnham passes-by and passes-through. Finally, alone on the border plains, Parnham is unable, or unwilling, to let others into his life fully. He seems truly alone.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dark Star Safari - Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux goes overland (mostly), by public transport (mostly), from Cairo to Cape Town  through eastern Africa. A sort-of homecoming, Theroux was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi (before he was banned from the country), who has returned to check in on the region's 'progress' and 'development.' A hard-eyed - some might say cynical - realist (at least of a fashion), Theroux finds little to recommend the current state of the region, particularly its cities. A continent seemingly on its way forward in the 1960s and 70s now* strikes Theroux has stagnant, robbed by cronyism and misguided First World aid. Theroux declares this will be his last trip back to his young adult roots.

Yet between his frustrations and dashed hopes Theroux still finds much to love. It is a traveler's love. When the mindset is right endless delays are simply a part of living. It is notable that Theroux does not perceive himself to have any itinerary - traveling is simply how he chooses to pass the time. The joys are a traveler's joys. Unexpected friendships revealed in power-outages. Frank discussions with prostitutes at a hotel restaurant. The continual puncturing of self-importance. Perhaps these could be found on the road anywhere - but here they take on a distinctly African flavor. For Theroux it is as though he has dropped onto a dark star: that unseen place of gravity that nevertheless pulls at each us. For Theroux, Africa will always be force and thus returning is always a type of home-coming.

*Published in 2002.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Covenant - James A. Michener

An epic of South Africa. From prehistory when the rhythm of the land was counted in moons and migrations, through age of exploration and the coming of the Europeans, to the British conflict, and apartheid, Michener weaves a tale of the land and its people that walks the balance between truth and fiction. It is interesting that a novelization of a nation's past (and present) can feel like it encapsulates more of a country's true spirit than a strictly historical account can. Michener's is clearly a thoroughly researched and painstakingly crafted account. He tries to disentagle relationships between people, animals, and the land, and to even account for the historical motive forces behind the seemingly impenetrable walls of apartheid and the multivalent divisions between whites and blacks, British and Boer, Coloureds, and Xhosa, Zulu, and Khoikhoi. The reader is left wondering at the questions that may have no discernible answer: how does an unfinished nation function as a coherency? Worth the investment to meet the 1,000+ pages.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Politics of Rural Resentment - Katherine J. Cramer

University of Wisconsin - Madison sociologist Cramer takes an extended, unflinching, and sympathetic look at the how state politics is understood and how state policies are experienced by rural residents of Wisconsin. In the wake of the financial crisis and in the run-up to Governor Walker's recall vote, Cramer begins by wondering why it appears that urban and rural residents are engaged in an almost entirely dissimilar political world. What she finds, the disconnection rural residents feel from state services and employees and the antagonism they feel towards a government that does not appear to represent or care about their values is an insightful anecdotal take on America's ongoing political divide. Cramer begins by going in-depth to explain the value of her interview methods - which are crucial to understanding the claims she makes. While the work does not directly or obliquely address the 2016 election, the parallels appear paramount.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

July's People - Nadine Gordimer

A work about pride, power, displacement, and uncertainty. Elegant and complex. July's People tells the story of a white South African couple who flees when uprisings threaten their lives and livelihoods. They go to live with July, their domestic worker, at his home village in the eastern veld. When the world is, seemingly, turned upside-down objects take on different meanings and dependencies realign. A classic of South African literature, Gordimer's work was unclear to me on the first reading and will be worth revisiting.