July 27, 2006

Book 24: The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

So, the great Goethe and I meet again. This time, however, I'm tackling him all alone, and I daresay I've emerged the victor. This book is very strange; it's depressing, but at the same time it's a very enjoyable read. I think that I now understand better why Goethe is considered such a genius.

For starters, the man's metaphors are amazing. They always put a clear picture in my head of exactly what is going on in the narrator's mind. The narrator is defined from the very start and stays consistent in personality and style, if not demeanor, throughout the novel. Approaching the character and his circumstances works especially well by using his letters to tell the story. In fact, the weakest part of the story is the jolt at the end where a heretofore unseen narrator jumps in. This disrupts the flow of the story, but as the editor returns to the words of Werther the story is ended properly.

The novel is the story of a young man whose enthusiasm for life and for feeling every moment to its fullest extent, to his eventual demise. The dramatic irony and tension really make the book work as the reader watches Werther plunge himself willingly into a situation from which he knows he will have no corporeal escape. We watch, horrified yet curious as Werther hints at his eventual solution, and the tension within the last few pages, when the reader knows for sure what's coming, is so thick you could cut it with a knife. I believe that the book is a work of brilliance, and though it is a tragedy I enjoyed the art displayed in these pages.

Grade: A

July 18, 2006

Book 23: Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
Graham Allison

Well, the power outage allowed me to finish this morsel this morning after work. I broke up the reading between the book's two parts, reading all of the former and all of the latter in their respective sittings. I think that the book is best dealt with in the same fashion, because the two parts don't combine effectively into a coherent whole.

The first section of the book was fairly impressive, a general primer on the threat of nuclear terrorism. Well-organized and for the most part fair, this section detailed the who, what, and where of potential nuclear terrorism. Threats such as al-Qaeda and rogue states were enumerated and expanded upon, as well as potential sources for nuclear material. The general consensus that the recently deregulated Soviet Union is the most viable threat as a source of nuclear material for terrorists. While the writing is a bit simplistic, the thoughts are coherent and the information seems reliable. Most importantly, it is relevant and interesting, something new and not usually considered in depth by the everyday American.

In the second section of the book, however, the part where Allison describes his step-by-step plan to prevent nuclear terrorism (after carefully outlining before that the former Soviet Union has lost material which may be in terrorists' hands, no less), the book degenerates into a slobby mess of self-righteous partisan attacks. Allison adopts a know-it-all attitude and even attempts to take credit for a policy of George H.W. Bush. While his input may have been useful, I highly doubt that this low-level beaurocrat was solely responsible for the policy. Allison's general contention all throughout the second half of the book follows the same logic, that he knows best and that his plan is feasible and necessary lest America fall prey to an inevitable nuclear attack.

What bothered me most about this triumphant parade of self-aggrandizement was, ironically, the amount and ferocity of irrelevant jabs at George W. Bush. Now, I am no fan of the President's, but Allison owed it to his readers to cut the man a fair break. The drawn-out criticism of the Iraq war was really unnecessary; the point could have been made much more effectively had it been succinct. Allison only succeeds in dredging up old and festering wounds, coming off as immature. To make matters worse, he even repeats some of his quoted material and many of his points, almost verbatim.

He had me in the first part of the book, he really did. I went into the second half expecting an even-handed plan that was fairly realistic and actually somewhat feasible. Despite the blurbs (I'm really learning not to believe blurbs on this nonfiction stuff), the plan offered would require too many resources and too much focus on one scenario. Even where this is acknowledged (apparently, one hour of each day of the President's time would absolutely have to be devoted to the threat of nuclear terrorism), the plan plunges ahead in an idealistic world of unattainable hopes. The plan isn't even that good, were it to be executed. It also depends on mitigating circumstances.

My advice would be to check out the first half of the book for an interesting analysis of a very real potential threat to America, but to skip the plan for redemption. It embodies much that is wrong with modern politics, and for that the book has to ultimately be dismissed and liberal whining. That's really too bad.

Grade: B-

July 15, 2006

Book 22: Germs

Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad

This book was recommended to me by a friend, but I can't say I was very impressed. I expected something like the blurb on the back: a fast-paced and informative narrative concerning a rising threat. What I got was a long and almost incomprehensible list of names and acronyms that was unable to hold a train of thought for over a page and a half. The book has serious consistency issues. In fact, there was one entire paragraph that came out of nowhere, relating to nothing before it or after it. I read it twice just to see if I could get some sort of context, but to no avail.

I think that the reason I didn't like the book too well was because it's inherently a lengthy journalistic account of the history of germ warfare. It is scatterbrained at best, introducing the most minor of characters with elaborate narratives (are birthdates really necessary here?) and then subsequently forgetting about them for a few pages, where they are duly reintroduced, often with the original phrasings. This is shoddy work at best, meant for those with a very limited attention span and almost no memory.

Even if one can move past the glaring inconsistencies, the book never goes anywhere. There is no master outline, no general idea of where the book is headed. The afterword contains the phrase "we conclude" far too many times, but the reasons for these conclusions are hardly to be found in the actual preceding text, if at all. It's like the authors wanted to show off how much research they had done regarding top-ranking officials and the CIA, wrapping it up with an editorial of a quality not usually reached by the lowly Grand Rapids Press.

This book is a flip-flopper of the worst sort, inconsistent and often downright confusing, almost as if it were written just to seem impressive and add to a resume. I fear the American public, which apparently launched the book to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Unfortunately, I don't know how to feel about President Clinton, who is alternately extolled and degraded. I'm not even sure the blurb-writer read the same book I did. Had this book been the book promised on its covers, I'm sure it would have been a good and englightening read. What's contained within these pages, though, is far less, a general waste of time.

Grade: D

July 8, 2006

Book 21: Grimm's Fairy Tales

Grimm's Fairy Tales
Jacob and Whilhelm Grimm

Having taken a class on the Grimms in college, I was excited to revisit this astonishing collection of stories and legends, most of which are quite unfamiliar to the typical American. The stories themselves are a hodgepodge of folk tales, and they run the gamut from Aesopian animal fables to hard-core Disney fantasies to, of course, Faustian tales of Satanic bargains. Among the more interesting morsels, I think are the following: a tale about a boy committing suicide, a story that makes light of torturing an innocent Jew, a story condemning the quality of being clever, and a story in which a man (who is really a hedgehog) tells his wife to stay out of men's affairs. Yikes.

Despite these stories, which may have had a better place in their own time and stand now only as archaic amusements to the ironically-minded, the collection is an excellent crossection of German culture circa 1800. The virtue of honesty always pays off. It's interesting, though, what they do with humility: in theory, this virtue is praised (many a good poor person is described as being humble), but certain stories ("The Valiant Little Tailor") seem to glorify insane ego-padding, so long as it's accompanied by cleverness.

What's most interesting about the collection though, I think, is its translation from oral tradition to written literature. At least one story begins with a guarantee of its truthfulness, seeing as the teller's (author's?) grandfather had assured them of the truth in the first place. Many of the stories have the familiar pronoun scattered liberally throughout, and the teller (author) makes no pretence of omniscence. My favorite instances of familiarity, however, were the final paragraphs, which were almost universally amusing. I have two favorites. The first is a story that ends with the teller (author) recounting how they broke their glass shoe at the wedding of the main characters. The second is the ending that basically says, "Well, I don't know what happened next, but I'm sure they lived happily ever after." Many endings also employed the phrase "as I have not yet heard otherwise."

Simply put, this collection is a delightful display of old German humor and culture, wrapped up neatly into little vignettes that are amusing to people of all ages. They are uniquely recorded as if they are meant to be read aloud as they were in the first place, duly recorded by the Grimm brothers. I think everyone should read a good deal of Grimm stories in their lifetime.

Grade: A

July 1, 2006

Book 20: The Autobiography and Other Writings

The Autobiography and Other Writings
Benjamin Franklin

So I'm a little behind in my reading, having hoped to be halfway through (at 26 books) by this point. It is through no fault of Franklin, however, whose autobiography I began reading at the conclusion of my last book. I will concede, however, that the style of Franklin's writing is somewhat difficult to adjust to, both because of grammar peculiar to the modern eye and because reading Franklin's thoughts about his life is just like sitting there listening to the man. The whole thing is basically an old man rambling on about his life in mostly chronological order.

The thing is, though, that the order of events make sense as each segues into the other very simply as the memories come pouring out of Franklin's pen. There are only a couple instances where the autobiography itself seems disjointed, but this usually occurs after a tangent which has been quite interesting and at least relevant to the material at hand. Throughout the work the author is very conscious that he is painting his legacy for future generations; the entire script is full of helpful maxims and takes on the voice of a teacher eager to pass his infinite wisdom onto his pupils. What makes this tone especially entertaining is Franklin's self-conscious attempts at modesty, which usually fail in the context of his great accomplishments.

Franklin was an everyman of his period: scientist, inventor, public servant, and philosopher for all times. One can excuse his slight pride, especially because he tries so hard to hide it despite himself. His writings, some of which appear as the second half of my copy of the autobiography, are far less awkward in this respect, most often being letters deliberately constructed for the recipients. Franklin cuts right to the chase and gives the reader a good idea of the kind of person he was, and how he felt about the issues at hand. I was surprised to find that Franklin was less consistent than I had imagined, though he acknowledges his fallibilty with grace in most instances. The one exception is the way he treats his wife in her dying days, when he suddenly becomes callous and coarse. This, however, humanizes Franklin and reminds readers that he was not perfect, that he did, indeed, live like any other person.

I would recommend Franklin's autobiography (taken with a grain of salt, of course) to anyone looking for a basic history of the man, as most of his major accomplishments are outlined within. I think that the editor of the volume I read made a good decision in including other writings of the man, and I would highly encourage those seeking a more complete picture of Benjamin Franklin to attempt to read more than just the autobiography.

Grade: A