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.