I’ve read a stack of books this year. Mostly non-fiction, some novels as well. Here’s the best and worst of them.
The best of books
Adam Zamoyski, Rites of Peace. Excellent history of the diplomatic negotiations between the European powers during the Congress of Vienna. Zamoyski exposes the horse trading and double-dealing, the land grabbing rapaciousness, and the sexual antics and moral depravity that stewed beneath a courtly veneer.
The worst of books
Jack Kerouac, On the Road. Pretentious and self-indulgent swill, and creepy to boot. I’ve been meaning to read this book for 20-odd years. Now I wonder why I bothered. It beats me how some people see this drivel as deep philosophy.
The book I didn’t get to
- Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization. I bought this book in a fire sale about 12 months ago. Still haven’t read it. At 1300 pages it’s far too long. And I’m getting tired of reading about the Middle East and its never-ending woes.
ChicagoBoyz will be hosting a roundtable discussion of Clausewitz’s classic On War, starting in January.
Announcements regarding the roundtable are here.
On War is certainly part of my “quantum library”, and I am enjoying re-reading it, and I expect that our extraordinary group of participants will have much of value to say about the book.
From my inbox this morning–“The President of Argentina received this picture n called it ‘junk mail’, 8 days later his son died. A man received this picture & immediately sent out copies..his surprise was winning the lottery. Alberto Martinez received this picture, gave it to his secretary to make copies but they forgot to distribute: She lost her job & he lost his family. This picture is miraculous & sacred. Forward to 10 people.”
This was forwarded by at least ten people before it got to me. It’s easy to see how this meme could spread–the cost of doing nothing is potentially losing family/job, etc, while the cost of averting this is just a click of the “forward” button on Gmail. So it is seemingly rational behavior. However, the irrationality lies in believing (1) things you read on the Internet without cross-checking Snopes, otherwise you will be taken in by anything and (2) the idea that a serious curse could be alleviated by the simple action of email forwarding. No self-respecting voodoo priest dreaming up a curse would make it THAT easy to get rid of. Fascinating, but incredibly annoying.
Just finished getting through bookpile and finished reading this compilation of essays on biological warfare. This is not a typical technical overview of biowar and arms control issues. The contributors genuinely focus on the political and social contexts surrounding biological weapons and their usage. Of particular interest is the chapter on Imperial Japan’s biological weapons program, which demonstrates the complexity of trying biowar criminals for usage on civilians and POWs. The most valuable chapters focus on false allegations of biological weapon usage, the process by which those charges were constructed, and how the accused responded. Those interested in political ecology and economics will also find an interesting study on the effect of disease and false biological warfare allegations in India.
A while back I promised myself that I would read more novels. I’ve been meaning to read On The Road, by Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, on and off, for 20 years or more. Penguin has released a new edition, so I recently brought a copy and read it.
When I was in my teens and twenties, I hitched about a lot, in New Zealand and overseas. The road trip I remember best was in ’89, when several of us packed into a Valiant station wagon and drove clear across Australia, from Perth to Melbourne, via the Great Southern and the vast Nullarbor plain. I remember driving towards the rock wall of the Stirling Range, rising sheer out of the desert, and seeing the red, brown and yellow strata sparkling in the midday sun after a rainstorm. And shifting down, then jamming the accelerator hard, to pass road trains – giant trucks pulling two or three trailers – on desert road straights across the Nullarbor. Good times.
On The Road reminded me a little of those days – particularly the early part of the book where Sal Paradise sets off from New York to hitch to the west coast in the late 1940s. You get a fresh sense of life on the open road from someone who’s seeing it for the first time. Kerouac’s description of the landscape is poetic, and some of his character sketches are well-drawn.
But On The Road quickly becomes turgid – an empty and verbose account of criss-crossing the United States at breakneck speed, with a detour, towards the end of the novel, into Mexico. Of driving day and night, always drunk or high, or both, rarely stopping anywhere longer than a few hours, and certainly never long enough to get more than shallow impressions of people and places.
Kerouac portrays the two main protagonists – Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – as noble. He would, of course, given that the book is written roman à clef. But really the pair are dead-beats. Paradise is a witless drop-kick; Moriarty is a real loser, and a predator to boot. The book gets really creepy when it condones the abuse of women – emotionally, physically and sexually. The way the protagonists sexually exploit young women – for instance in the Mexican brothel – is repellent.
I don’t know that much about the Beat Generation and its self-indulgent musings. After reading On The Road I have little desire to find out more.
Why do opportunistic, clever young novelists — I won’t name any names — gravitate toward magic-realist depictions of the decidedly unmagical reality of the Shoah? For the same reason that actors shave their heads and starve themselves, or preen and leer in jackboots and epaulets. For the same reason that filmmakers commission concrete barracks and instruct their cinematographers and lab technicians to filter out bright, saturated colors. To win prizes of course.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that even the Holocaust can be commodified. But not in the way a humorless Frankfurt School social critic (looking at you Adorno) might imagine. Every year, as Scott writes, we see an invasion of aggressively middlebrow films that turn the tragedy of World War II into a stage for showcasing the technical skills of actors and directors. None of these films, despite their dramatic pretensions, tell us anything new about Hitler, Auschwitz, or D-Day. They do, however, give Tom Cruise an opportunity to look fetching in a eyepatch.
I much prefer something loud and unapologetically crude such as The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare than an overwrought piece of Oscar bait. At least Where Eagles Dare makes no bones about its purpose–Clint Eastwood being a badass. You could change the setting and bad guys entirely (maybe Eastwood single-handedly supressing a zombie outbreak in New Jersey) and no one would care.
Most of the time, I am somewhat irritated with the New York Times‘ Sunday book reviews. There is an irritatingly smug tone to their reviews, especially when reviewing works of popular science fiction and horror. But George Packer has written a masterful review of a new V.S. Naipul biography. Anyone with an even casual interest in British postwar fiction should check it out.
That being said, my favorite British author of the 20th century is Graham Greene. Even his “entertainments” were masterful reading. His book The Quiet American is still the best fictional work about American foreign policy.