November 24, 2006

Book 48: The Birth of the Republic

The Birth of the Republic
Edmund S. Morgan

While this book was entirely disappointing, I was at least expecting a nice refreshing break from the heavily academic books often faced by the history major. This, however, does not excuse poorly written (and often ungrammatical) literature. Morgan writes with confidence if nothing else, and with an eye for the common man's understanding. Unfortunately, Morgan confuses simplicity with condescension and his book often dips towards the latter in its oscillation between assumption and unnecessary clarification.

The book itself is a simplified look at the years 1763-1790 (though the cover says it only goes up to 1789, but don't get me started), in which America moved from the idea of reconciliation with Britain through war (one entire chapter of the book) and up to the ratification of the Constitution. That that sentence was mitigated by the parenthetical remarks says something about the book's composition, which is often somewhat schizophrenic. Morgan will speak to readers as though they have a working knowledge of the events, going in depth and exploring events previously unknown to the great bulk of Americans, but he will turn around a paragraph later and explain something incredibly fundamental. If the progression was gradual throughout each chapter, perhaps this approach could work. Morgan, however, comes off as unorganized and inconsiderate of his readers. He gets awfully preachy at times, reminding us that as the academic he knows best.

The passage that I believe illustrates all of the faults of this book perfectly occurs right at the end. Morgan, in order to show his intellectual prowess and knowledgability about his subject matter, brings up Charles Beard's famous interpretation of the Constitution (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, if you're interested). While I was initially pleased that Morgan was paying attention to the Marxist point of view, I was only disappointed. He played it up well and appeared to be agreeing with Beard, only to attempt feebly to smash him to pieces a couple of pages later. If this book is meant for the ordinary reader, which its simplistic style suggests, why bring up this argument, only to treat it as a bastard interpretation? Morgan cannot decide what to do with Beard or, for that matter, any historical disagreement about the intentions of his founders.

If Morgan's intention at the beginning of the book is to paint a picture in the mind of the reader, it is forgotten after the first chapter, which doesn't even manage the feat. The last sentence of the book is pointless and only invites more dispute and, in my case, scorn. Morgan does such a good job of remaining neutral until the bitter end of the book, when he feels the unfortunate compulsion to distance himself from any radical thought whatsoever and needlessly fly the flag of politically correct, Bush-friendly patriotism. It is this compulsion that prevents him from exploring any of the really interesting debates surrounding the Constitution in any sort of depth, which is unfortunate because the debate about slavery is much more important than the cursory glance it gets.

As a very general introduction to the time period, perhaps the casual reader can ingest Morgan's book and make some sense of it. Anyone with a reasonable education, however, is likely to be offended when reading it at all in depth. Morgan's portrayal of events is accurate and informative enough until matters begin getting serious and he realizes it is time to inject some patriotism into the mix. I had high hopes for this book, but (as most history books do), in terms of literary quality it is so horrible as to detract from the extraction of meaning. How unfortunate for the field.

Grade: C

November 23, 2006

Book 47: The Magic Barrel

The Magic Barrel
Bernard Malamud

This book of short stories is so profoundly affecting that it ranks up there with many novels I've read. I can only imagine what Malamud's novels are like. It's an odd way to start a review, perhaps, but Malamud's skill in handling human emotion makes this collection stand out from other literature I've read. I haven't read a lot of short stories and I don't claim to be an authority on them by any means, but I think it would be hard for any writer to match Malamud's immense talent in the short form. Instead of finding himself limited by the small page counts (some stories are only eight pages long), Malamud uses exactly the amount of space he needs, often providing stark endings that leave the reader in somehow satisfying suspension.

The only shortcoming I could sense in this collection is that it is, in a way, too coherent. Malamud's stories have a basic form to them, in that there is often a conflict between two characters, one of whom needs to learn something from the other. While I found myself asking, "Okay, who is going to get in the fight here?" as I neared the end of the collection, Malamud's variety of stories and ability to mix things up within his form managed to keep me interested. His characters are easily distinguishable, and while their experiences fit a frame, they are by no means similar. We have Jews and Gentiles, immigrants and natives, dead and alive but all with a spectacular spark of life to them. I can imagine these characters, whose flaws make them interesting and surprisingly real.

Malamud tackles some big issues in this collection but doesn't preach about them. He raises questions while subtly posing answers, which come in the form of thinking about the questions in the first place. His most interesting stories are the ones that deal with the legacy of the Holocaust for American Jews, particularly "The Last Mohican" and "The Lady of the Lake". Both of these stories take on different angles of American Jewry's attitude towards the Holocaust, and it is a shockingly searing condemnation. Malamud manages to be provoking without being bitter and asks as much of the reader as he appears to be asking himself in writing these stories.

I would highly recommend this collection to anyone who wants to read to feel deep empathy, for anyone who doubts the power of words and the limited length of the short story. Malamud has mastered the form. His endings are stark like Hemingway but, as I found in A Farewell to Arms, still profoundly affecting. We don't know what his characters are to do next, but neither do they. They remain suspended in time and the questions remain looming, yet strangely fulfilling.

Grade: A

November 21, 2006

Book 46: The Prose Edda

The Prose Edda
Snorri Sturluson

Now this is an interesting book. It might as well be called "An Introduction to Norse Mythology". The translation I have is split up into two sections, though I didn't sense as much variance between them as the introduction to the book might have indicated. Nevertheless, I'm not complaining, as both sections were of interest to me, if a little confusing and overwhelming at times. Taken as a whole, however, the stories present a view of the gods so utterly different from typical Chrsitian sensibilities that I could not help but be astounded. I read this for class today, but it was so intriguing that I actually thought about the questions presented outside of that context.

The story is basic enough. This dude goes out hunting and stumbles across a hall, wherein sit three gods. Gylfi, the adventurer, proceeds to attempt to outwit them by posing various questions about the gods. In the process, the reader is treated to a very long and confusing list of who begat whom, which frost giant's body became the world, and so on and so forth. What's especially interesting about this whole interaction is the information presented in the stories, which provide a concrete history of the world from beginning to end, with selected stories about the adventures of the gods thrown in here and there for good measure.

What's most interesting about the gods is their susceptibility. The gods didn't create the world but instead arise from it. Indeed, they are from the mythical land of Troy, which becomes their heaven. Being human, or merely a tad bit super-human, makes the gods relatable and far more interesting than gods who can just do as they wish. The Norse gods have to be clever and have to outwit their foes in order to triumph. When challenged to empty the sea in a single drink, Thor fails miserably but still manages to create the tides. This attitude towards the gods propels the narratives and prevents them from becoming boring. Each tale is a separate story of a challenge and its solution.

Of course, we have explanations for things such as earthquakes, but the Norse conceptions of heaven and the afterlife are arguably the most interesting nuggets in the work. Up in heaven, the gods spend their nights feasting and their days fighting epic battles, only to be resurrected. The gods will even die at the end of the world, ushering in a new era in which water is non-existent and there is plenty of corn to go around. The gods are vulnerable, are more human constructions than hard core deities, and as such the tales are stripped of any moral pretension. The stories are merely there to be enjoyed and to explain rituals already in place. This is why things are they way they are, and boy are they interesting.

I struggled a bit through the very heavy beginning of the book, which was mostly a list of names, but about halfway through the Deluding of Gylfi I was completely hooked. As an introduction to Norse mythology and a bonus look at Icelandic sensibility regarding gods and certain aspects of life, The Prose Edda excels.

Grade: A-

November 19, 2006

Book 45: The Mabinogi

The Mabinogi
Translated by Patrick K. Ford

This book is an odd collection of old Welsh tales that deal with everything from the origins and early history of everyone's favorite game (Badger-in-the-Bag) to the great mystery bull of haircutting tools. Though they may be slightly off-key, the tales do serve to entertain the reader and can paint a picture of the importance of certain customs in early Welsh society.

Speech, for example, plays a huge role in every story in the collection. The worst fate a man of noble birth can suffer is to be satirized, the mere threat of which holds many strong men at bay throughout the tales. Also, the stories can be read as a kind of cautionary tale, urging readers to choose their words wisely. Pwyll, eponymous leading man of the first tale, is a moron and relies on his woman to get him out of trouble when he promises an admirer anything the latter wishes. Later, a man is saved from a fate by ensuring that every possible contingency is dealt with in his verbal agreement with a bishop regarding the release of a wife. The bishop congratulates him on taking every possibility into account.

We also have at hand an appearance of the famed King Arthur and, in a seperate tale, we learn of the early exploits of his mentor Merlin. King Arthur manages to secure an active role quite different from his deferent manuevers in later tales of his round table; here he's simply a kindly uncle bailing out his kin (and delivering quite the haircut). I think that these last tales were most interesting for me, given my demonstrated interest in the Arthurian legends, but all of the stories captivate the reader and, with the exception of Llud and Lleuelys, all manage to dive into their characters with strange depth for their short length and focus on events. I was surprised by the gusto with which Rhiannon was introduced, whipping her boy into shape and all, but she (of course) is later subdued into typical feminine gentility. Her brief foray, however, is shocking and delightful.

Sadly, these tales aren't exemplary examples of high literary art. The translation is good and very readable, but the stories themselves have major structural issues. People come and go without any real explanation, and plots just kind of...end somehow. The story of Math is particularly strange, with most of the story concentrating on his posterity rather than him, confusing this poor reader greatly. A few passages require double reading and going back over the text to figure things out, but the stories within the framework are always entertaining of their own right, even if their relation with the whole is a little sketchy.

The medieval Welsh mythology presented in this book is a nice distraction, an nice foray into the world of old. It presents enough surprises and deviations from standards we apply to this kind of literature to be constantly entertaining. And really, who can resist a work that references Badger-in-the-Bag in two tales?

Grade: B+

November 16, 2006

Book 44: Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories

Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories
Abraham Cahan

This is a wonderful and vibrant collection of stories of Yiddish New York at the turn of the century, as Jewish immigrants were flooding the Lower East Side and striving to make the best of both of their worlds. Cahan's work reflects this struggle at every turn and in many respects, with positive and negative results, which make the collection coherent in setting and general theme but widely variant (and therefore always interesting) at the same time. In short, it is what I'd expect a coherent collection to look like.

The stories themselves are mostly driven by context. The characters are not quite stock characters, but I don't feel as if they are ever the main focus of the story; its as if the characters in any story could be found in any other. What is strange is that this doesn't detract from the reading; though they are easily defined and pigeonholed, Cahan's characters are not flat, and are instead brilliant portraits of the range of Jewish immigrants to New York in the period. We have the secular Russians, the Americanized Jew, the Orthodox Talmud scholar, the freshly minted wife, sweatshop workers galore, and even intellectuals. The stern Jewish father makes his due appearance, but each of these characters is used in their proper context and brings his or her story to life.

These tales are mostly driven by context, after all, by the circumstances these immigrants find themselves in. Cahan is fascinated by the question of the translation of culture across the Atlantic- is it indeed possible for European Jews to get along in the New World, and how can they do it? This question is the central question in all of these stories, and we fittingly find the characters adapting to a situation as foreign to them as it is to us. New York and its people come alive, and Cahan never misses the opportunity to throw in a bit of minced English (which you have to pronounce in your head to understand, but which adds remarkable flavor). Background characters are never overbearing but always blend in seamlessly with their surroundings to create a living world for the reader.

This collection can be a read as an intimate portrait of Jewish life in the New York ghetto at the time when it was most distinct and when its conflicts with Old Europe were being most deeply felt and experienced on a day-to-day basis. Cahan brilliantly draws the reader into a foreign world and makes sense of the immigrant struggle by drawing on familiar themes and stories that apply to a broader demographic than simply American Jews. His stories are flavored with culture and religion but manage to transcend into general consciousness about the immigrant experience as gritty New York comes quite alive.

Grade: A

November 13, 2006

Book 43: The Saga of the Volsungs

The Saga of the Volsungs
Translated by Jesse L. Byock

This Nordic story is really the precursor to the aforementioned Nibelungenlied. The names and events are changed somewhat, but the characters are cut from the same stock. It's interesting to read these back to back and compare them in light of their cultures. Whereas The Nibelungenlied is most definitely a courtly work, fixing itself unnaturally on the clothing of the participants, the Icelandic saga version of the story is much grittier and to the point. Unlike in the former book, I could actually figure out what exactly was going on without unnecessary adornment while enjoying enough details to make the story real (enough).

The story is essentially the legacy of a family (the Volsungs) descended directly from the Norse god Odin, and the saga functions as a chronicle of them and their descendants. Though the entire work doesn't adequately knit itself together into a fully coherent story, the common thread of familial ties and the passing of the torch from father to son propels the action. The limited focus also allows the author to be blunt and remain steady on his point- if a supporting character needs to be written out, he is simply "out of the saga," an absolutely candid remark by the author that cracked me up.

Being an absolutely quick read, I'd recommend the book to those looking for a quick and lively read of an old tale of Scandinavia. Though the tale gets a little complicated at times, throwing out names left and right, the plot is easily followed to the end, full of twists and turns only given away by the chapter names. But perhaps those, too, are meant to fit in with the general theme of the great epic- you are your fate.

Grade: A-

November 7, 2006

Book 42: The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Translated by A.T. Hatto

What an odd story. This old German tale is quite the adventure, though it never quite settles on one narrative. I suppose its name is really a misnomer, for if there is a common thread woven throughout the story, it is the life and times of the beautiful Kriemhild. The story first pretends it is that of the mighty (and magical) Siegfried, but he drops out of the picture about a third of the way into the book, leaving us with the story of King Gunther of Burgundy, interspersed with the stories of RĂ¼diger and Dietrich. Notice that none of these are the Nibelungs, the mythical force that belonged to Siegfried and somehow morphs to become the Burgundians as they battle King Etzel (didn't I mention him?) and his Huns.

The main problem of this book, which I hope to have illustrated, is its confusion. It seems that the reader would have to read the book several times, making an outline along the way, to fully appreciate the twists and turns of the book that make it somewhat confusing. The book is secure in its morality and is always quick to blame women for all the wrongs of the world, but on other issues it wavers. The definition of honor seems tied to physical prowess and nothing else; the immoral Hagan is redeemed by his enemy after being slain by, you guessed it, a woman. Though his deeds have been anything but honorable, and include stabbing a man in the back after lying to discover his weakness, he is still honorable enough to be owed avoidance of a dishonorable death.

The base story is compelling enough, but I get lost in the details. It's very easy to get lost in the sea of names and the never-ending turns of the plot. The writing is fine and the adjectives are nice, but I have an issue with the translation, which contained far too many idioms for comfort. Every time a modern idiom is encountered, the reader is harshly jarred from the main narrative, which is often archaic. This inconsistent style of translation only adds to the confusion inherent in the book. Perhaps the appendix makes sense of the mess, but a pure read-through breeds only confusion and feelings of vast inadequacy.

Grade: C

November 5, 2006

Book 41: The River of No Return

The River of No Return
Cleveland Sellers

Sometimes events are best recounted by those who lived through them, by those who shaped them and who are intricately connected to history through direct participation and effect. Autobiographies can be especially useful in cases where the official story has been obviously distorted and changed by the existing power structure. I believe that the black civil rights struggle is one of these situations where the story may be best told by the actual organizers of the movement, lest it become distorted in the hands of whites eager to preserve their innocence and the necessity of reactionary police measures. However, it's also vital that the other side of the story doesn't become distorted, and unfortunately Seller's autobiography is full of questionable qualifications and hostile rhetoric that often clouds the story in off-putting offense.

The story of Sellers intersects perfectly with the life of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe, in which the autobiography draws its focus and crosses the difficult line between personal and general history. The reader gets a good grasp on the history of the organization, including an interesting look into the inside politics that eventually helped tear the organization apart. The major frustration I had, however, is the author's inability to try to see both sides of any situation, particularly when it comes to SNCC's expelling all whites from the organization. The reader is firmly on his side as he denounces obviously racist police actions against him and other black leaders, but his enthusiasm clouds the narrative and is excessively partisan, to the point of alienating the reader.

The narrative also suffers from that fundamental vice of autobiography: it is often disorganized, with some letdowns (Sellers introduces an event as almost getting him killed but the actual narration is anticlimactic in this regard) or it is over-dramatic and sweeping in its generalizations. The format is best when it is limited to the perspective of the author, and an occasional tie-in with the greater scope of events is certainly warranted and interesting, but this account refuses to take a side and instead oscillates between the two extremes, becoming either too personal and uninteresting or too broad to lead to sympathy or a deep understanding.

Sellers manages to paint a good, if disorganized, portrait of the life and times of SNCC. His literary technique could use a bit of work, but the volume remains educational and entertaining enough for a day or two of reading. For an in-depth, on the ground report of the black civil rights movement of the sixties, Sellers isn't a horrible place to turn.

Grade: B