Monday, January 14, 2019

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

All through my life I never did believe in human measurement.  Numbers, time, inches, feet.  All are just ploys for cutting nature down to size.  I know the grand scheme of the world is beyond our brains to fathom, so I don't try, just let it in.  I don't believe in numbering God's creatures.  I never let the United States census in my door, even though they say it's good for Indians.  Well, quote me.  I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of.

One of my favorite stories to teach is Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible."  It's about Lyman Lamartine, a Chippewa in North Dakota, and his brother Henry who goes to the Vietnam War.  Before the war, Lyman and Henry co-own a beautiful red convertible that they take on a road trip to Alaska.  After the war, Henry is different, violent, darkened.  Lyman tries to bring Henry back to life by banging up the convertible, pretending he's neglected it, and letting Henry fix it.  For a while, it works.  But then Henry admits that he knew all along it was a ruse, and like all ruses it falls apart once named, and the car follows Henry into the river after he drowns.

It's a beautiful story and good for students.  It has a strong voice and a clear central image worth unpacking.  It has a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I like to use it to talk about narrative economy: no sooner does the hitchhiker they pick up tell Lyman and Henry she's from Chicken, Alaska, than they're up there: "We got up there and never wanted to leave."  2,500 miles compressed into three words--here's an author who knows what matters.  The story is as efficient as the convertible itself, and as familiar to me as the car is to Lyman.

I enjoyed seeing it with new eyes, then, in the context of Erdrich's debut collection, Love Medicine.  The back of the book calls it a novel, and you could make that argument, since the handful of stories here end up dwelling on a few events from different angles.  But maybe because I knew "The Red Convertible" first, I was unable to see it as anything but a collection of loosely connected stories.  It begins with "The World's Greatest Fisherman," in which June Morrissey--Lyman's cousin, if I'm reading the Byzantine family tree correctly--dies in a snowbank.  June's death brings together her large extended family, the Kashpaws and Lamartines all recognizable from Erdrich's other novels.  I found the cast of characters as difficult to keep straight here as in all those sequels--is Gerry the charismatic criminal who keeps escaping from the pen, or is that Gordie?--but I'm amazed how completely developed the whole set was from the very beginning.

If there's something like a central narrative to these stories, it's the love triangle between Nector Kashpaw, his wife Marie, nee Lazarre, and Lulu Lamartine.  As a teen, Nector is in love with Lulu, but a chance encounter with Marie, a white girl and ward of the local nunnery, hooks him for life.  Yet he returns to Lulu, even as an old man, and at one point sets her house on fire by accidentally dropping a cigarette ash into a love letter he's brought around.  It's the fire, not the snowbank, that the book really revolves around: we get to see it from the perspective of each of the three characters.  The title story, narrated by Lipsha Morrissey, the lucky and magical narrator of The Bingo Palace, is a masterpiece of high farce in which Lipsha's attempts to return the attentions of Nector, his now senile grandfather, to Marie from Lulu.  (Nector ends up choking to death on the turkey heart meant to snare him--I guess you'll have to trust me that that's funny.)  I liked Lipsha's canny observation about love among the elderly:

I saw that tears were in her eyes.  And that's when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him.  And it gave me a real shock to the system.  You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good.  I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it.  I thought it curled up and died, I guess.  Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash.

I really like Lipsha's voice--casual, a little undereducated, but humble and wise.  It's part of what makes The Bingo Palace my favorite of the Erdrich novels I've read.  And it really sells "Love Medicine," as well as the final story, in which Lipsha is a third party to a tense standoff between his half-brother King and Gerry the escaped criminal (not Gordie) who is angry at King for snitching on him--and by the way is Lipsha's real father.  (See what I mean about the family tree?)  The image of the car comes back, this time a sportscar purchased with June's life insurance.  Lipsha wins the car in a card game, and drives Gerry to safety across the border, in a car suffused with the spirit of June, his mother.  It all feels a little bit like one of those vaudeville routines where ten minutes of setup is required for the punchline, but it's so elegant and effective you can't help but marvel at it.  And it works because Erdrich isn't hasty to get there; each story has its own cohesion and independence, but they build on each other in effect--would that final story be as effective if we hadn't the lovely character sketch of the three-hundred pound Gerry, who can disappear like a ghost when the cops come around, in the story "Scales?"

In the end the book's friability, the ease with which it can be separated into parts, ends up making it seem a little less than a novel.  The multiplicity of perspectives in Tracks and The Bingo Palace seems a little bit more to a purpose.  But perhaps it's more accurate to think of those novels as all part of a greater piece, like the stories here are also.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Billy's top 5 of 2018

What my 2018 year in books lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality.  At first I thought of only doing a top 3 so as not to include nearly a third of the books I read in my year end list, but there were just too many good ones to leave out.

5. The Nix by Nathan Hill
Sometimes you just need a big old novel that you just fly through.  I still read a lot these days, but it's mostly news (and twitter).  As a result, I'm reluctant to delve into anything longer than 500 pages because I worry I'll get sidetracked and never finish.  I took The Nix to the beach, though, and devoured it in about three days.  The story of a writer/professor trying to exorcise the ghost of his mother's abandonment of him when he was a child, The Nix sometimes goes a little off course, but the writing is so transporting that you forgive him.  For example, the paragraphs about the protagonist's gamer friend spending hours trying to level up his secondary characters in an online role playing game weren't really necessary, but the character was so well developed that I didn't mind.

4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
There's nothing else that I can really add about The Hate U Give that someone else (probably on this blog) hasn't said before, but I'll just say that just because a book is about young people shouldn't make it YA (and there shouldn't be as much stigma attached), and that when I read the list of people who had been killed by police at the end of the book, I sobbed.

3. Evicted by Matthew Desmond
I used to think that education was the number one most important social issue facing the country, but after reading Evicted, I'm convinced that housing is.  Desmond tells the stories of landlords and tenants and exposes the realities of housing insecurity in America.  It's clear that without a stable, dependable, habitable place to live, it's almost impossible to achieve anything.  How can you get a job if you don't have an address?  How can you get an education if you're sleeping in the third dilapidated shack you've been in that year?  How can you have a healthy diet if your refrigerator is broken and your landlord won't fix it because you're behind on your rent?  How can you pay your rent if you're sick and can't keep a job?  There are villains, but mostly everyone is just trying to struggle by, and it's tragic.  Just give everyone somewhere to live and so many other social ills will disappear.

2. Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide by Cass Sunstein
Hopefully this will be even more relevant in 2019!

1. Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBride
Speaking of books that made me openly cry (including three days in a row in the cafeteria at work).  Sarah McBride is an activist who came out as trans in her senior year at American University (as she was finishing her terms as student body president).  Since then she has fought for trans rights, spoken at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (the first openly trans person to do so), and endured the death of her husband.  She's younger than me, but already has lived enough life to have a memoir, and it is as inspiring at parts as it is heartbreaking at others.  She is a great writer and I expect wonderful things from her in the future.  Highly recommend.

John's Best of 2018

Sing Unburied Sing. Jesmyn Ward
Lincoln in the Bardo. George Saunders
The Beautiful Struggle. Ta-nehisi Coates
Revolutionary Song. Russell Shorto
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Kevin Wilson
The Vegetarian. Han Kang
Lonely Avenue. Alex Halberstadt
Gay New York.  George Chauncey
My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Otessa Moshfegh
Brown. Kevin Young

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Thank you, dear Commandant, for the notes that you and the commissar have given me on my confession.  You have asked me what I mean when I say "we" or "us," as in those moments when I identify with the southern soldiers and evacuees on whom I was sent to spy.  Should I not refer to those people, my enemies, as "them"?  I confess that after having spent almost my whole life in their company I cannot help but sympathize with them, as I do with many others.  My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as a bastard, which is not to say that being a bastard naturally predisposes one to sympathy.  Many bastards behave like bastards, and I credit my gentle mother with teaching me the idea that blurring the lines between us and them can be a worthy behavior.  After all, if she had not blurred the lines between maid and priest, or allowed them to be blurred, I would not exist.

I wanted to read Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer as a complement to Tree of SmokeDenis Johnson's novel is about the bewildered American in Vietnam, and Nguyen's is about the bewildered Vietnamese in America: specifically, an unnamed narrator working for an exiled South Vietnamese general in Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon.  The narrator has a secret, though: he's really a committed communist, sending reports back to his North Vietnamese handlers.  His unique position allows him to sympathize with both sides of the conflict, his northern colleagues and his southern friends.  The dominant imagery in the novel all points to a split identity: Northern vs. Southern Vietnam, the East and the West, his French father and his Vietnamese mother.

Like Tree of Smoke, The Sympathizer makes explicit references to Graham Greene.  The highly educated narrator, we learn, wrote his masters' thesis on the novelist's depiction of Vietnam; he's an expert in the way that the Western eye looks at his home country.  It mimics Greene in its reliance on intrigue and spy stuff, as well as its interest in the psyche of a double agent.  Its moral questions are very Greene-like: How can the murder of a communist by a communist be considered the right thing?  If it helps the narrator keep his cover, is that enough?

But The Sympathizer is at its best when it's in high satire mode, like when the narrator reminisces about how he learned to masturbate with his mother's fresh squid as a child, or when a pompous Orientalist professor encourages him to write down and compare his "Oriental" and "Occidental" qualities.  (There's a lot of satisfying tension in the way Nguyen mocks the reductive nature of binaries, while acknowledging that they have a real impact on the narrator's psyche.)  A big chunk of the book is taken up the narrator's experience advising a movie production about the Vietnam War in the Philippines that is a clear analogue of Apocalypse Now.  He wants to chip away at such propaganda from the inside, making a space for Vietnamese actors and tinkering with the script.  He advises the director, called only the Auteur, that Vietnamese people don't go AIIIEEEE!!! when they scream, but AIEY-AAHHH!!!  His efforts amount to very little; the Vietnamese Potemkin village mocks the absence of his home, and he ends up, in characteristic fashion, becoming part of the very machine he wants to work against.

It's not The Sympathizer's fault, but I found myself missing Johnson's anarchic prose style.  The language in The Sympathizer is very staid and prim.  It's a way for the narrator to exert control over the warring factions of his mind, and to assert an essential dignity in the face of Americans who would reduce him to ethnic stereotypes.  Sometimes it works toward satirical ends, as when he tells us, "Perhaps I went too far when I invited him to perform fellatio on me," or when he calls sex the "oldest dialectic," but at other times it feels stilted or forced.

Ultimately, The Sympathizer is a book I respected more than enjoyed.  I liked it most when it was at its silliest, and less when it was in its more serious mode.  I thought that the end, which details the narrator's capture and torture by his own northern colleagues and is clearly inspired by the end of 1984, to be unfortunately muddled when the narrative needed clarity most.  But the larger tragedy of the book is inescapable: the narrator has been exactly what his colleagues wanted, a convincing spy, but his strength becomes his weakness.  His sympathy must be cleansed out of him; there is no room in the world for someone who can see both sides.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

I hated this book, partly because it took me about two third of the way in to realize I hated it, and by then I had passed the point of no return.  I'm not the kind of person who HAS to finish a book once started, but at that point I had gotten so far into it that I felt compelled to hate read it to the end.

The Book of Speculation tells the twin tales of Simon, an unemployed librarian who is randomly gifted a book that contains the business journal of a travelling circus from the late 1700s, and the people who make up that circus, some of whom have a mysterious connection to Simon and his family.  It also turns out that they're all cursed, which Simon must defeat before it's too late.

The problem is that most of the drama in the book feels unearned.  No spoilers, but every time something tragic befalls the characters, it's hard not to wonder why they didn't take a totally obvious and easy different course of action.  In order for any of the second half of the book to make sense, we also have to believe in curses.  Not mystical curses, this isn't a fantasy or anything, but more like bad vibes.  Deus ex tarot deck, basically.  As a side note, the relationships are shallow.  Why does Alice put up with any of Simon's nonsense?  What is the point of Doyle other than to tell Simon and Enola that they're worried about each other?  Why is Churchwarry so blase about the revelations at the end of the book?  It doesn't make any sense.  Don't read this book.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Folktales of Okinawa

When Agaripatoruma opened his eyes, he found himself inside his castle. The woman on the horse was now a dead mosquito, He carefully put the mosquito in his hand and went to the room where his wife's body lay. He placed the mosquito under her nose and soon her cheeks were pink and she began to breathe like she was sleeping. He waited and finally Fumukaji opened here eyes and looked upon him.

About four years ago I became motivated to read more about Okinawa. I bought a collection of modern fiction, a history of written in English, and this collection of folktales. I finished the fiction three years ago. I never finished the history, and I mostly ignore it on my nightstand. The folktales, however, I've been picking up on and off whenever the mood strikes me. A couple days ago, I finially finished them off.

The collection is remarkable. Professor Shoji Endo, of the Okinawa International University, moved to Okinawa in the early 1970s and began conducting a field survey of these stories. At the time that the book was published in 1995, he had 55,000 collected. (This collection includes a mere twenty-eight.).

And then, apparently, the Bank of the Ryukyus International Foundation thought it'd be a good idea to publish the book, with alternating English and Japanese translations. I remembered seeing this book because my mother borrowed a copy from her friend and showed it to me when I was home from college, maybe fifteen years ago. I always wanted to read it, so I found a used copy online.

I'm glad I did. I'm not going to say the folktales here are better or worse than other folktales; I don't feel comfortable having an opinion in that regard. They were, however, fun to read. The greedy characters always got their comeuppance; the good characters always suffered some tragedy, but were ultimately rewarded for their steadfast reliance on whichever virtue the folktale happened to be extolling.

As an example, in Agaripatoruma and Fumukaji, excerpted above: Agaripatoruma and Fumukaji are happily married, but Agaripatoruma must go off to war; to comfort his worried wife, he leaves a dish of water, instructing her that as long as the water remains clear, he is safe and healthy. But then he gets injured and the water turns red; Fumukaji, fearing the worst and knowing that she can't live on without him, commits suicide.

This leads Agaripatoruma on a quest to bring his wife back from the dead. After consulting a shrine maiden, licking pus from a leper (this sounds gross, but it was cool, trust me), riding between two bulls, kidnapping a woman from the godly realm, transforming the kidnappee into a mosquito, and then, finally, using that mosquito to resuscitate his wife.

A fun read, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a low-key way to learn about Okinawan culture.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Not All Dead White Men by Donna Zuckerberg

The men of the Red Pill use and abuse classical antiquity in a variety of ways.  They have found ample material from ancient Greece and Rome to support their ideology, from Stoic self-help manuals to Ovidian seduction advice to ancient models of patriarchal marriage.  Although their analyses of ancient sources rarely display much understanding of context and nuance, Red Pill writers nevertheless are adept at manipulating ancient sources to make them speak meaningfully to contemporary concerns.  They have appropriate the tests and history of ancient Greece and Rome to bolster their most abhorrent ideas: that all women are deceitful and degenerate; that white men are by nature more rational than (and therefore superior to) everyone else; that women's sexual boundaries exist to be manipulated and crossed; and finally, that society as a whole would benefit if men were given the responsibility for making all decisions for women, particularly over their sexual and reproductive choices.

Why are right-wing nutjobs obsessed with the classical world?  In the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot explains that Greek and Roman statuary were painted, not white, but that the myth of their whiteness is seized on by the extreme right so they might project their ideas of race and racial threat onto them.  What Talbot does (it's a fascinating article, go read it) for race, Donna Zuckerberg does for gender in her book Not All Dead White Men: she traces the way that the alt-right (what she calls the "Red Pill community") uses ancient literature to support their ideas about gender politics.

The book comprises three brief essays.  The first describes how men use the philosophy of Stoicism to bolster claims of male intellectual superiority.  While Zuckerberg claims not to be interested in "debunking" the right's readings of classical literature, she does suggest that they misread, or at least selectively read, Stoic philosophers, ignoring their assertion that women are as capable of virtue as men.  She even suggests that Stoicism, used correctly, could be a valuable philosophical outlook for men who feel dispossessed and estranged.  But in practice, she explains, Stoicism is a way for the right to indulge in anger-based rhetoric while denying that they are angry, claim emotionlessness while projecting heated emotions onto their opponents.

The second essay is about the pick-up community.  (Does anyone remember when Mystery, one of the original pick-up artists, had his own reality show where he taught men how to pick up women?  That certainly seems misbegotten now.)  For pick-up artists, the classic text is Ovid's Ars Amatoria, a mock didactic poem about how to seduce women.  Zuckerberg concedes that Ovid's notion of women's sexual boundaries is pretty permeable, and often Ovid advocates what we would consider rape, even if it's tongue-in-cheek.  But whether pick-up artists read Ovid rightly or wrongly, their use of Ovid is meant to suggest a continuity between the past and the present that validates their own ideas and actions: because Ovid sees women as little more than machines of conditioning, universally receptive to the right stimuli, pick-up artists can claim that all women are "that way" and have always been, to the chagrin of modern feminism.

Zuckerberg emphasizes this point in the final essay, in which she reads modern rape culture through the lens of the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra.  Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of rape when she spurns his advances, leading to disaster for them both.  While Zuckerberg doesn't find this myth discussed much by Red Pillers, she claims that it illustrates the kind of world in which they want to live: one in which women's sexual boundaries are controlled and mediated by fathers and husbands, like Phaedra's are by Theseus.  Again, the rhetorical claim is one of continuity: Red Pill activists want to return to a system of male coverture like the Roman paterfamilias or Greek kyrios, because its ancientness gives it, and them, legitimacy.  Red Pillers want to position themselves as the inheritors of an old tradition from which modern mores have deviated, rather than the reactionaries they are.

Reading this book meant wading through a lot of really disgusting horseshit.  I imagine it was tough for Zuckerberg, having to read through all the "rape is good" blogs and the "women aren't intelligent enough to make decisions" blogs and distill all of that.  It makes you long for the pre-Elliot Rodger, pre-incel, pre-2016 feeling that all of these folks were fringe crazies with no real purchase in the world.  Zuckerberg's style is pretty academic and dry, and I wish there were a little more righteous fire in it, as there is in the conclusion when she talks about the way that her work in this area has made her the target of sexualized and anti-Semitic threats.  She also spares a last minute zing toward reformers on the left who want to reject and replace classical literature in the university canon for their tacit agreement with Red Pill folks who think that Ovid and Marcus Aurelius and Euripides belong to them.  That'd be a book I'd like to read, the one that shows, in love and detail, how that cultural inheritance is for everybody, not just the fedora-topped rape apologists of the modern internet.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Chloe's Top 6.4 of 2018

Welp. As stated earlier, this was not my most successful year of reading; I had a kid, got a new job, started biking to work (and lost my subway commute/primary reading time), and generally destroyed any spare time/brain hormones/energy I had left. I made it to 32 right at the buzzer, and, despite that being the fewest books I've read in years (and probably one of my least intellectual line-ups), I'm pretty impressed that I made it that far. I'm hoping 2019 leaves me with a little more time (haha) or at least a little more ability to read in bed for more than a page at a time, but I'm not hugely optimistic. I may just pad my stats with kid books and start flooding this blog à la Chris with reviews of Sandra Boynton masterpieces. I definitely read more than 75 Sandra Boynton books this year. Watch out, buddy. I'm coming for you.

As is the fashion these days, I tried to read more women writers (I briefly tried for exclusively women, but I succeeded in well over half) and more writers of color (I did less well on that), and also tried to borrow as many as possible from the library (which somewhat dictated what I read when, but was also a surprisingly pleasant experience). I will say that, despite how much more difficult it was to find time to write these reviews, I appreciate them even more than I used to because I genuinely don't think I would have remembered reading any of this if I hadn't taken the time to jot down my ramblings. (Although I accidentally also reviewed the same book twice, so who knows how much I actually remember of anything at this point...)

Top 10/32 is hardly an endorsement, so I give you my top 6.4 in chronological order:

1. The Power by Naomi Alderman-This has stuck with me all year and floats back through my mind constantly. It was haunting and creepy and totally badass.
2. The Idiot by Elif Batuman-I love everything Elif Batuman does, and am glad I got this one in before the baby came and destroyed my brain and ability to process literature.
3. The Gardner and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik-I've been enjoying Gopnik's takes on parenting and child development as Nathan gets bigger and seems more and more susceptible to being totally destroyed by my poor parenting choices. I may read this again next year just to remind myself that Science says I'm doing okay.
4. Angels in America by Tony Kushner-This made me want to read more plays (which, come to think of it, happens with most plays I read), and was sad and funny and immeasurably complex. I loved it.
5. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver-Kingsolver might be my sweet spot of plot-driven and thought provoking big picture thematic right now. Her stuff is usually pretty divorced from current events, but this was topical in interesting and scary ways.
6. Becoming by Michelle Obama- This was a total guilty pleasure, but I just loved immersing myself in Obama nostalgia. This was way better written than I expected and gave me all the feels.
.4. Fifteen Animals by Sandra Boynton- Great counting practice, relatable content, and strong, unexpected twist at the end. 10/10 will probably read again tomorrow.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Brent's Top 10 of 2018

Another year, another 50+ books, another embarassing review shortage--but what a great year of reading! I think 2018 might be the most exciting set of books I've tackled yet, and I attribute a lot of that to my decision at the end of last year to read at least half books by women. I also made a concious effort to read less mainstream "classics", and branched a little--into biography, economics, politics, history. But, as usual, the most illuminating works were fiction. So without further ado, the 10 best books I read this year, in no particular order.

Middlemarch - George Eliot
I've read a lot of the classic  doorstops, but Middlemarch sits right at the top of the list  alongside The Brothers Karamazov and Don Quixote. A wonderfully written pastoral with plenty of drama, humor, and fantastic characters, Middlemarch is really in this spot because it was the warmest, most human book I read this year. In spite of its scope, the action takes place on the ground, in kitchens, libraries, chilly estates, taverns, and the people--Dorothea, Casuabon, Lydgate, Rosamund--whose lives revolve around these seemingly mundane things.

The Man Who Loved Children - Christina Stead
If Middlemarch was the warmest book I read this year, The Man Who Loved Children was probably the second chilliest (Anna Kavan's excellent but inscrutable Ice was the first). In addition to the incredibly dysfunctional family at its center, Stead's dialog is both prevalent and cryptic--the book teaches you how to read it but it never goes down smooth. I don't even know if I entirely liked it. But it's so singular and so true somehow, so cruel and unsettling, it deserves to read.

The Death of Ivan Illych and Other Stories - Leo Tolstoy, trans. Pevear/Volkhonsky
My wife Liz read Anna Karenina this year, and it inspired me to pick up this collection fo Tolstoy's short stories and novellas. And boy, were they (mostly) bleak. This collection was laregly composed in the twilight of Tolstoy's life, and, having read War and Peace (an optimistic, early work) and Anna Karenina (a later, mixed bag on the optimism front), I felt I could see Tolstoy's faith in humanity dying. But almost every story ends with a burst of something ineffable, and those bursts--and Tolstoy's unfailing sense of how people act--make everything he wrote worthwhile.

Lives of Girls and Women - Alice Munro
This is, I believe, the fourth collection I've read of Munro's, and it might be the best overall. It's certainly the most consistent. It's basically a novel where every chapter can be read as a standalone. The average Munro story already feels like a novel waiting to happen--it was nice to read a collection where it did.

The Odyssey - Homer, trans. Emily Wilson
This was a bucket list book for me, and I'm so glad I read it first in Wilson's incredibly readable (but still very elegant) translation. It's much less of a pure hero story than I expected--Odysseus might be the first antihero. But the journey's fantastical and encompasses SO MUCH Greek mythology. It's really a lot of fun. Even if you've read The Odyssey before, it's worth picking up Wilson's translation for her great introduction, where she discusses the challenges of translating such a well-known work.

Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather
I don't love reading about landscapes but I DO love reading about priests. And I actually did love reading Cather's landscapes which, like McCarthy's, capture the feeling of the western US like most can't. The most impressive thing about this slim novel though is the way its loose structure comes together at the end to present a beautiful picture of a life well-lived and a death that feels like bliss instead of terror.

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders
And speaking of death, George Saunders' fictionalization of the death of Abraham Lincoln's son was probably the most moving thing I read this year. I lost an aunt I was very close to unexpectedly in a car accident and the chapter near the end where Willie finally finds peace for himself and the other wandering souls in the Bardo graveyard has come to mind many times. And of course, Saunders is in contention for greatest livign American writer so the prose is inventive and wonderful.

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
This book is everywhere and they just made an HBO series about it. But it's still good, a brilliant (see what I did there?) realistic novel about two girls in Italy and their complicated relationship in a time of political and social turmoil in Italy. Really looking forward to reading the other 3 volumes, and Ferrante's other work.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X - Malcom X and Alex Haley
What can I say about this? Certainly one of the most influential autobiographies of the 20th century, Malcolm's rags-to-riches story is given extra dramatic weight due to Haley's decision not to allow Malcolm to rewrite the earlier sections of the book after his acrimonious break from his spiritual mentor Elijah Muhammad, and the result is an autobiography with the dramatic structure of a novel. Malcolm touches on everything--religion, race, class, civil rights, Muhammad Ali--and the final chapter, which Haley wrote after Malcom's death, hits like a brick.

Warlock - Oakley Hall
I love a good western. And Warlock is a very good western. I actually reviewed this one so I won't say much about it here, except that it's really a joy to read about cowboys, outlaws, blood feuds, and all the rest, and still find space to be surprised.

And that's a wrap. I could include almost every other book I read this year in my honorable mentions, but instead, I want to mention Current Affairs, the great online magazine that I spent about half my time this year reading on my journey out of American Capitalism. So on that note, please join us for 2019! It's going to be a good year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

...Kathy reflected, certainly not for the first time, that the war hadn't been only and exclusively terrible.  It had delivered a sense, at first dreadful, eventually intoxicating, that something wild, magical, stunning might come from the next moment, death itself might erupt from the fabric of this very breath, unmasked as a friend...

Why did the U.S. bother itself in Vietnam?  Tens of thousands of Americans dead, ten times as many Vietnamese, the great waste of life and money and time, for what?  To say that it was to stem the tide of Communism sounds right in a high school history sort of way, and the protagonist of Tree of Smoke, CIA op William "Skip" Sands, sure seems keen on beating Communism.  But the line between the ideology and the great material fact of war seems to have a gap in it somewhere, not at all like the great war of the previous generation.  Tree of Smoke is a novel that presents the Vietnam War as a kind of immense fever dream, not just in the confusion of the jungle, but in the bungled ethos of the war itself.

At first, Tree of Smoke seems like a loving homage to Graham Greene.  Kathy Jones, a Canadian missionary, makes the allusion explicit by comparing Skip, masquerading in the Philippines as a corporate stooge for Del Monte, to the Quiet American.  Skip bristles at the comparison, his motives are not so rigid and his methods, he'd like to think, not so brash.  Skip is part of CIA's Psy Ops--psychological operations, that is--under the tutelage of his uncle, Colonel F. X. Sands.

The Colonel is a living legend, a former POW and war hero who has developed unconventional ideas about how to wage war.  "War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn't it?" he says.  "In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don't we, and we constantly invoke our God.  It's got to be about something bigger than dying, or we'd all turn deserter."  The Colonel advocates complete immersion into local culture and turning myth, "the other fellow's gods," into a psychological tool.  He also advocates a philosophical separation from the CIA chain of command, with predictably problematic results.  For the Colonel, myth and mystery, enemies of clarity, are the only way to wage war:

He woke from an hour's nap and went to the veranda to drink hot, strong coffee less reviving than his thrilling vertigo before the vista of his mistakes, all the wrongness he'd wandered into on the tails of his uncle, the aboriginal Man of Action.  Neanderthal, had been Rick Voss's term.  Mr. Tho came out with a burning mosquito coil in a dish and set it on the arm of the opposite chair, and there you are, simplicity itself, the ember of the foul-smelling incense bead, orange bead tunneling along its spiral path toward extinction and nonentity.  He felt surrounded, assailed, inhabited by such serpentine imagery--the tunnels, Project Labyrinth, the curling catacombs of the human ear... But over all loomed the central and quite different image: the Tree of Smoke.  Yes, his uncle meant to unfold himself like a dark wraith and take on the whole Intelligence service, the very way of it, subvert its unturnable tides.  Or assault it on the handball court.

The Greene pastiche halts early on; the whiskey priest-figure, a Catholic gun-runner for the Communists, is murdered by a blowgun.  If Skip is assigned to keep tabs on the priest, who kills him and why?  Another faction of the CIA?  The Filipinos?  Like Greene, Johnson's warriors are self-defeating, but it's not at all clear that what happens is a mistake rather than a grand mystery.  Johnson's language, with its touches of Beatnik mysticism and high prophecy, are far from Greene's deflating realism.

All of that is prologue.  When the action moves to Vietnam, things get worse and worse.  The project that the Colonel has Sands working on--cultivating a double agent to infiltrate the North Vietnamese--never really gets off the ground, which is impressive in a book that stretches to 700 pages.  It blows up, the Colonel dies under mysterious circumstances, but becomes a kind of myth himself, rumored to have let himself be captured in order to promulgate false info to the Viet Cong.  What info?  Does it matter?  As one character says, "I'd venture the truth is in the legend."  In a different book, that would be a platitude.

Tree of Smoke fills out its considerable bulk with several minor characters.  Besides the Colonel, Skip, and Kathy Jones, there's Bill and James Houston, a pair of down-and-out Arizona brothers who bring the desolation of their lives to the jungle and then bring the madness of the jungle back to Arizona.  Both are petty criminals, frightened children, irresponsible addicts, and while Tree of Smoke doesn't argue that Vietnam ruined them--they were pretty fucked up in the first place--it does want us to see that the war provides no better way.  Johnson, with his loving attention toward junkies and lowlifes, refuses to give us a Vietnam novel without the grunts.  Their connection to the main narrative is tenuous, but they remind us that the Colonel's spooky mythologizing engenders true violence.  But neither does Johnson ignore the Vietnamese: several locals, all of whom are mixed up with the Colonel's double agent scheme, get their turn in the narrative.  And while not all of these are worthwhile (I didn't need to linger so long with the mysterious German assassin, who returns to muse about his Nazi father), the scope of the novel mimics the way the war grows and spins out of control.

I can't tell you what I'd give to be able to write like Johnson.  He's one of those rare writers whose every word seems perfectly considered.  Every now and then, out of the morass of war, a perfect phrase emerges: A bowling ball "traveling away like a son, beyond hope of influence."  James' fear that a man caught by an exploding grenade would "splash around him like paint."  A corpse is described--horribly, but memorably--with its "rag of brain."  And the dialogue zips, right at the edge of sense, as really good dialogue often does.  It's hard to find a book of this immensity where the writing seems so precise and sharp, especially one whose big theme is confusion and mystery.