October 29, 2006

Book 40: The Generals of Saratoga

The Generals of Saratoga
Max M. Mintz

There are many ways to write a book about history, and all can be effective in the hands of a good author. There's the dry and informative historical account, complete with footnotes on every page. There's the narrative approach, and even historical novels. There are hybrids that intersperse context with their main narrative or thesis, educating their readers without being too smugly academic. While I contend that very few strictly nonfiction books about history are actually well-written, it's rare to find a book that so spectacularly fails as this one does.

From the cover and first couple of chapters, one would assume that the book is a dual biography, a narrative and lively look at one of the decisive battles of the American Revolutionary War through the eyes of its two generals. The chapters alternate between the two featured men, John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, and though the book shows disturbing signs of excessive name-dropping early on, these early pages set up a nice dualistic structure. Even when this begins to be disturbed, the generals are still separated by sections within chapters. Though these divisions had previously divided chapters based solely on one general, the continued interaction of the men's fates provides a reasonable basis for this change in technique.

It's around this point, though, that the book gets confused. Is it a history of Saratoga through the eyes of the men who were in charge? Is it a history of the campaign for New York in general? Is it a biography? Is it even about Gates, who disappears for a good three or four chapters?

Unfortunately, I can't answer these questions; nor can any reader. The book, which had such an interesting premise and an intriguing prologue, descends into a holier-than-thou mess of confusing and irrelevant details, neglecting one of its main characters for the sake of context. I am a firm believer in context, but it does not lay in petty details and in completely discarding one of the main characters in lieu of other American generals. A compelling narrative needs details, but it also needs a general plot and it cannot get lost in irrelevant stories that don't illustrate any points.

The only thing that the book does well, besides allowing me to feel infinitely superior in my own writing abilities (quite the formidable task, I assure you), is in highlighting the confusion in both the British and American commands regarding who was to take charge where. Unfortunately, this is conveyed so well because the reader is right there with the officals, left with no clue what's going on but staring stupidly at a list of names that sound vaguely familiar but are unexplained.

I would like to blame myself for zoning out during large portions of this book, but the portions that had my full attention absolutely failed to reverse any of my perceptions. I think it's safe to say that I learned more about the Revolution through a fact-based fictional account (Jeff Shaara's The Glorious Cause) than through this muddling procession of factual assaults on my intelligence.

Grade: C-

October 27, 2006

Book 39: Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories

Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories
I.B. Singer

I wasn't completely sure what to make of this collection at first, but after reading the whole thing, I'm finding myself strangely moved and in contemplation about the characters. If there's one thing to be said about Singer's work, it's that it is very real, which is particularly strange given the presence of spirits in many of these stories. What's important, though, is that these spirits aren't kitschy, aren't there simply to lurk about and become an easy way to make bad things happen to good people. The spirits function more as elements of challenge, as a means by which the Jews of Singer's shtetls are forced to look at themselves and their faith and come to a conclusion.

Singer's devils even narrate some of the stories, but they are never overbearing, always just themselves. Singer's exploration of these spirits adds life and a sense of unique perspective to these stories, forcing the reader to think while reading without asking too much of the reader. None of these stories can simply be taken at face value, but the characters don't realize that, for they are as elaborately human as their author and the reader. The characters fall and fail, doubt God and return, much as real people do. Singer's Jews give a good sense of the inner workings of Polish Jewry prior to the Second World War, and his fictional towns engulf the reader, who is in turn lost.

The stories are generally short in length, with the longest standing at only thirty pages, but each is just long enough to accomplish its purpose. Singer's prose is so rich, even in translation, that an elaborate physical setting isn't necessary or even desirable in these stories. Each is a glimpse into the world of its main characters, spirit or human, and each follows the spiritual development of its characters with remarkable depth and layers of complexity.

This collection is coherent and is truly an experience of prewar Jewish life. Singer knows his world and his characters inside and out, and through his work we find that even in modern-day America stories of tried and tested faith are relevant and emotionally moving. We are left to question our own actions and our own lives, our own interactions with the spirit world. But perhaps these spirits aren't physical at all. Perhaps the devils are within us. Singer leaves the reader wondering but completely satisfied.

Grade: A

October 24, 2006

Book 38: Where the Girls Are

Where the Girls Are
Susan J. Douglas

So, upon being assigned a feminist book on the media since the fifties, I groaned. I thought this was going to be a horrible rant against men and male-dominated society, yet another angry and mindless woman repeating the familiar lines about sexism without bringing any merit to her claims. This book is all that and more, and I absolutely loved it. Douglas isn't just a raging feminist, she's a hilarious raging feminist, the kind that I've been waiting for, the kind I can agree with. What's most amazing about Douglas, and she admits this herself, is that she's happily married with a child of her own. Her own existence outside the traditional stereotypes of feminism helps her gain credibility as she consistently heaves one deft stroke after another at the male-dominated media.

Douglas uses her personal experience and her humor to the benefit of her argument, making this book not a dry academic treatise but a lively semi-autobiographical look at the media and resulting perceptions about feminism and women in general. Douglas uses familiar examples such as TV shows, movies, music, and even advertising to address the issues currently plaguing the women's movement: most notably, its factionalization and trivialization in the news media today. Because Douglas tracks feminism and female perception through the decades, her own experience remains peripheral and never dominates the discussion at hand, only illuminating the real-world applications of her arguments, and thereby strengthening them.

Douglas manages to tow the line herself while describing that strange middle ground between the acerbic feminist fringes and the passively anorexic images of pure male fantasy where the girls actually find themselves in life. Though the narrative begins with a focus on portrayal of women in general and then moves to the perception of the women's movement as well as general views, this change in analysis accurately reflects the change in focus of the media and the country at large. The narrative is always fresh and always challenging, while avoiding the usual pitfalls of demagoguery and overbearing sloganizing.

What Douglas has managed to do is relate her personal struggle to that of millions of American women through the mass media, passing the torch beautifully through her moving and personal epilogue. And after all, how can you resist an academic book with chapter titles such as "The Rise of the Bionic Bimbo"?

Grade: A

October 18, 2006

Book 37: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated by Neil D. Isaacs

And so my mythology class adds another book to my expanding list of mythology reads. This one is quite interesting. It's written in verse, which makes it read fast, but some sections are set off, indented and shorter than the main body of the story. I'm not quite sure what the significance of this is, or even if they're set off in the same way in the original text, but they appear to occur where there's a description or when God is mentioned somehow.

As with all mythological plots, this one is pretty straightforward. This story is really all about honor and honesty. The tale seems to serve as a guide for chivalrous and knightly behavior. After all, Sir Gawain exlaims, "A curse on cowardice and a curse on greed!" setting these virtues apart from others when it comes to proper action. The story really reads as an extended morality tale, stressing the values of honesty and humility as those most befitting a knight. Gawain and the Green Knight both stand as shining examples.

Grade: A

October 17, 2006

Book 36: Call It Sleep

Call It Sleep
Henry Roth

Wow. What an ambitious novel. This is definitely a work written in the style of James Joyce, that unintelligible master of modernism and bane of advanced literature scholars everywhere. When I heard that the novel was a modernist work a la Ulysses, I was absolutely terrified. After I got into the book, however, I realized that it wasn't so scary after all. Actually, I realized that once I got over my fear of pretention, the novel was actually quite good.

It's hard to actually classify this work. It's kind of a coming-of-age story, but the main character only reaches the tender age of eight (or so). It's kind of a novel about Jewish life in the ghetto of New York, but its Judaism is restrained and incidental, not pivotal. The book is really just the story of a kid experiencing his world, told through his own eyes. It is the story of discovering how to view the world, told from the perspective of one who is living the experience. As such, the reader often doesn't have any idea what is going on, which surprisingly works.

Because the novel doesn't explain things outright, seeing as its main character doesn't know things outright, the reader is forced to be careful and diligent. While this may seem like a haughty burst of self-righteousness from the author, it's actually what makes the novel stand out. The reader is constantly engaged throughout the book, trying to make sense of the world just as its main character David is. There are moments where, after being lost in a swirl of pages and images, the light bulb clicks on and suddenly everything makes sense. The novel is an experience in and of itself, not just a detached retelling of isolated occurences. The novel is a life.

The prose is absolutely brilliant. Lyrical and soaring, its imagery is spot-on, always suited to the situation. The way that Roth plays with light and its absence is more suited to movie direction than writing, but it makes the images in the reader's hand stand out and interact, drawing the reader in even more to the world David is experiencing. The fact that the narrator is third person but witholds information makes the reader feel, along with David, that there is something missing, without knowing quite what. The central mystery of the book is unresolved, but you think you know what's going on, and that's the desired effect. The reader is expected to make the book their own, and Roth excells at provoking this active participation without demanding too much of his reader.

The only point where the book loses its focus is at the very end, where sentences disappear mid-word and show up again a page later. I know the effect that Roth was going for, one of time stopping and utter confusion, a portrait of a moment, but I was so incredibly lost that there was no meaning in the plot, let alone in the experience of the events. When Roth sticks to gentle confusion, to breaking up thoughts after a sentence is completed rather than in the middle, the technique works and illuminates the moment.

The key to this book is subtlety. The usage of Yiddish as the narrative language is almost hidden, but reveals the extent of its use in daily Jewish life of the period. The extended metaphors reappear often enough in the book to make sense, but not so much as to bludgeon the reader. The reader is always expected to be thinking, and is respected as an active participant in the story, a direct witness to these crucial moments in David's childhood. I may have been terrified of this novel, and parts of it did elude me, but all in all I am remarkably impressed at the beauty of this work, the poetry found in the clattering chaos of turn-of-the-century New York City.

Grade: A

October 11, 2006

Book 35: The Romance of Tristan and Isolt

The Romance of Tristan and Isolt
Translated by Norman B. Spector

Here is another selection from my current mythology class. I breezed through this work in about an hour and fifteen minutes, and it was not at all what I expected. Knowing of Sir Tristan from my previous experiences with King Arthur, I expected some grand tale of his exploits as knight of the Round Table, some high-minded show of morality and true love. I'm amazed at the amount of frankly un-chivalrous acts that taint the image of the pure and noble knight.

These people sure knew about deception. Deception is present at every point in the story, which adds complication to an otherwise simple plot. The story is basically the tale of two well-bred people forced to love each other ceaselessly. Unfortunately, their circumstances force them to do many devious acts to remain together, including lying to people who would have otherwise helped them. The story, though, can't decide whether it is about inevitability (Tristan and Isolt must love each other) or about choices (they could have chosen a different, less painful route).

I guess that the overarching theme of the work, should I strain to find one in the somewhat drawling and always confusing narrative, is that true love eventually trumps all. Tristan and Isolt, true to form, end up together in death as they are never able to be in life due to a complex series of familial and marital obligations. The question that must be raised is whether love is worth lying (and ultimately dying) for. The story leaves it up to the reader to decide, passing no judgements on its characters but merely reciting the ill-fated lives of two star-crossed lovers who predate Romeo and Juliet. At least they're still human.

Grade: B

October 9, 2006

Book 34: The Winds of War

The Winds of War
Herman Wouk

I read this book on a recommendation from a random middle-school teacher I met at work, who also gave me his copy. Now, normally this doesn't exactly sound like the soundest of recommendations, but let me tell you, this guy had my taste absolutely nailed. This book was incredible. Clocking in at 1046 pages (in my edition, anyway), it's a beast, but it's definitely worth the time.

For starters, it's entirely engaging. The novel takes on World War II, that behemoth present in everyone's mind in some form or another. Wouk carefully winds together a compelling personal narrative with the greater framework of the tensions in Europe and the United States during the first perdiod of the war (up to December 1941) through the experiences of Victor Henry and his family. Highlighting Wouk's devotion to fact and believability is the enclosed "translation" of a fictional history of the war by a German general, conveniently done by the main character. The book is served in installments preceding coming events in the novel. While in some circumstances this may have led to disruption and ruined surprises, Wouk's choice of the very familiar World War II as a time setting allows this account to actually help the flow of events connected to the ensemble cast.

This cast is delicately and carefully constructed, carefully spread throughout the world to offer the experience of World War II through many eyes. Various members of the Henry family are present at any key event, but only rarely do the movements seem contrived. Though their positioning is obviously deliberate, Wouk's reasoning is sound and believable, with the possible exception of the main character (a minor Navy man who manages to meet every major leader except for Hirohito). Thankfully, though, Victor Henry seems just as bewildered at his fate as his audience is, allowing the reader to relax and go with the flow.

The flow of the novel is phenomenal, but late in the novel its flaws become slightly apparent. Certain characters are entirely neglected until relevant, which is confusing and does serve to interrupt flow a bit. One of the Henry children is developed at length early, only to disappear until the last five pages, and only then in a quick letter to her father. Also, towards the end of the novel Wouk's omniscient narrator feels the need to wax philosophical and address the novel itself, calling attention to the fact that the cast of characters is spread throughout the globe on the eve of, say, Operation Barbarossa (which I repeat almost verbatim from memory). There is another lapse like this very late in the novel, where Wouk seems to forget that the events speak for themselves, which they do when allowed to.

Though the novel is necessarily event-driven, its main characters are not lacking. Victor Henry is no perfect hero; he has his faults and acknowledges them along with the reader, though in real time (and thus slightly behind the reader). His wife is downright annoying, but in an extremely believable way. Wouk's descriptions of people also deserve mention. He always manages the most apt metaphors, ignoring the obvious and painting a clear and entertaining picture of even the most mundane background characters.

This novel is an amazing adventure through the most troubling period of recent European history. Though Wouk may play around the edges of believability at times, those occurences are rare and are lost in the amazingly coherent flow of the novel as a whole. The writing is brilliant, the characters are believable and sympathetic without being quite stereotypical, and fact is duly noted where appropriate. Wouk makes the early European and American experiences of World War II a personal event to his readers, bringing them right into the thick of the action and never letting up. I can't wait to get at the sequel.

Grade: A

October 3, 2006

Book 33: From Resistance to Revolution

From Resistance to Revolution
Pauline Maier

Ah, a historical tome. This should be a bit refreshing given what I've been reading lately, and indeed Maier's account of the buildup to the American Revolution is a well-constructed academic probe into the popular sentiment of the time. The book itself reads like a really good term pape rife with citations and quotations, with analysis neatly tossed in here and there. Really, though, what narrative exists doesn't so much propel the information as explain it. Given all of this, I was pleasantly surprised how easy the book was to read once I got into it.

Granted, I had to get used to the very factual style of the prose, but Maier takes a theme and provides the compelling story of the road to Revolution in the American colonies. There are, of course, a few flaws inherent in this kind of work. Firstly, Maier seems to take her readers' previous knowledge of events for granted. She doesn't go into the basics of events but explicates meaning from them, meaning that a general familiarity with British and American history is necessary when reading this volume. At points where the reader is unfamiliar with the base events, the information becomes quickly overwhelming and essentially useless.

An interesting aspect of this book, for me at least, was the comparison with other countries searching for their own independence at the same time as the American events were coming to a head. Even though I knew little about these, this was one part of the book where prior knowledge doesn't automatically preclude the reader from understanding the text. Maier does an excellent job connecting the events in America to a greater feeling of coming independence and a flight from tryanny throughout the world. I never knew that the American colonists were actually expecting the British proletariat to rise with them against George III.

For the reader acquainted with the various acts of Parliament leading to the Revolution, this reckoning of the movement towards atual revolution against England is enlightening and interesting. For the average, non-academic reader, the book remains accessible after a quick skimming of the "whats" of the American Revolution. All told, this is an example of the well-written academic history that I always hoped existed.

Grade: A-

October 1, 2006

Book 32: The Táin

The Táin
Translated by Thomas Kinsella

I'm not quite sure what I expected upon picking this book up, but this sure wasn't it. The hero is anything but heroic, continuity is simply nonexistent, half of the book consists of long lists of unpronounceable and irrelevant names, the book is filled with gross-out humor, the plot ends entirely unexpectedly and with no actual resolution, and I could go on for quite a while criticizing. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it. This might be the most entertaining book I have ever read in my entire life.

Forget plausibility. Forget heroes. This Irish epic takes everything you thought you knew about literature and throws it to the wind, yet somehow the reader cannot help but float along on every unexpected gust. The story itself is predicated on a seemingly silly premise: basically, the king and queen of [not Ulster] find that their possessions are entirely equal...except for a divine bull owned by the man. What to do? The feisty queen Medb, friendly thighs and all, decides that an expedition is needed to procure the bull's counterpart of Ulster. Yes. This is one big cattle raid.

Ulster, stuck in its birth pangs, seems s.o.l. until the brave hero Cúchulainn comes in, slaying the armies of Ireland left and right without even a hint of realism. This is a man who can throw an apple straight through a man's head while balancing on the tip of a spear. Cúchulainn is a mighty warrior, and it seems that the Irish like to be honest, given the fact that his many infidelities only seem to add to his honor and prestige. No matter that he sleeps around and cheats in battle- here is a strong warrior true to his oaths (and always to his friend Fergus) and consistent, even if he's consistently a stuck-up asshole.

Along with the obvious (and forgivable, seeing as its essentially a mythic epic) problems with realism, the book has serious continuity issues. One main character has an epic death, only to resurface fleetingly in the very last sentence of the book. The hero is flawed, but not even in an Oedipal, lesson-imparting way. Cúchulainn is really like your typical feminist stereotype of a man (what other kind of person would refrain from killing an entire court of friends only upon receiving naked women?), but he is never called out on it.

What's interesting, though, is the glimpses of morality and obligation that we do get in the book. Take, for example, recently defected Fergus. Born an Ulsterman, he now finds himself a disgruntled exile chilling with the Connacht army. Despite his new loyalty to Medb, he always keeps an eye out for his countryman Cúchulainn. Cúchulainn himself may not be the most morally upright of heroes, but he is a man who knows the power of an oath; his fault is that he selectively employs his sense of obligation.

Overall, then, the work is enjoyable amongst (and possibly because of) its flaws. Something, somewhere, was lost in translation over the years, but the general guiding principles of Irish honor are somewhat intact. The Táin is an interesting glimpse into the lives of the early Irish, the composition of their moral compass, and it's quite the entertaining ride.

Grade: A