Mesa, AZ, United States
Left-brain/Right-brain; Up/Down; Awake/Asleep; Self/Shadow; Life/Death -- this novel is a twisted carnival mirror of the mind. So it is fitting that I both loved and hated it. I loved it for its absurd brilliance and hated it for its brilliant absurdity. Murakami's novels are always risking absurdity and death. He is adventurous, clever, silly and serious and he manages to pull it all off at once. The closest analogy I can make is the novel seems constructed to both produce the literary equivalence of consonance AND dissonance at the same time; two stories but three harmonics that seem to play with the arrival, rest, and resolution of my consciousness.
I've been circling this book, 'The Feynman Lectures on Physics', and Gleck's 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman' for awhile. This one seemed the most fun and easiest place to start. I was driving from Taos/Santa Fe back to Phoenix last week and as I drove past Los Alamos, it was just the particle collision in my brain I needed to start on Feynman.
Often, memoirs are hard to read because you know a bunch of it is façade. A person is showing you a part of them for a purpose. They want to be viewed as smart, important, funny, etc. They carefully guide you through a Potemkin village of their life. Richard Feynman's memoir is different. Not that I don't think Feynman had an ego. He might have even had an agenda with the book. But, for the most part, he seemed much more interested in the stories he wanted to tell, rather than on how they would make him look. He wasn't all that worried about how he looked so much. His entire life was built around doing what he wanted, exploring what he found interesting, violating taboos, beating his own drums and cutting his own path.
He was a Nobel-prize winning polymath physicist whose other talents included playing drums, teaching, drawing naked girls, picking locks, making atomic bombs, practical jokes, and telling stories. He wasn't interested in the usual trappings of success. Many of those things annoyed him. He was curious. He was a risk-taker. He was a genius.
I've had this book for nearly twenty years on my shelf. Before a couple weeks ago I never quite found myself in the "right" mood for a French post-structural look at power, prisons, and punishment. It is interesting reading this and thinking about how influential Foucault was in the modern criticisms of the penal system, and various areas of control (schools, hospitals, psychiatric facilities, the military and prisons).
I didn't realize until I read the prologue that the "Disciple" part of the title was originally Surveiller (Watch) et punir (Punish). It made sense back in the day to use discipline, but given the giant NSA observation issues, I kinda hope they consider changing the title at some point back to some variant of watch. That was a surprise part of the book that isn't communicated by discipline, and a part that is VERY relevant to the world we exist in.
Anyway, I could probably come up with some high-falutin reason to like or not like this book, but honestly, I kinda liked it, just not enough to put forward HUGE efforts of defense or evangelism. There were some of the obvious issues with a lot of postmodern historical books (big ideas, radical ways to look at things), but the damn flag is pretty high and pretty big and the pole is thin and isn't buried very deep. But God love Foucault and his big poles.
So, I still want to read his sexy books, his book on madness, and his book on the clinic, so I guess that makes this a four-star book. I don't want to read all of his stuff tomorrow, but I want to read more... but later, when nobody's watching.
This was a slow read. In terms of pages and words it was a small book, but the river was deep and fierce. Baldwin is throwing out big themes on family, religion, race, sex. This isn't a beach read, it is a hard pew read in an unconditioned, hellfire and damnation church. I would read 40 pages and have to take a day to recover emotionally.
THIS book is why I read fiction. Look. I am white on white, again and again. Seriously, I took the Twenty-Three&Me DNA spit test and I am pretty deep into the white gene hole. How else, besides brilliant narrative fiction, am I going to understand anything about being black or being a black pentecostal WITHOUT reading Baldwin?
Baldwin's use of repetition was amazing. I haven't read recently (other than Moby-Dick) a novel that appears to be made, brick-by-brick, with more King James Bible pieces than Go Tell It on the Mountain. There are some novels where writer ties off every narrative thread. Baldwin wasn't satisfied with that. Each sad string in this novel seemed to end up threaded through some part of my heart and knotted around some raw edge of my soul.
Fundamentally, the thing I love about criticism is the ability to read a damn fine book about a damn speech and recognize the author of the book wrote a little more than a page for every word (292) in the Gettysburg Address. If you count appendixes and notes (why wouldn't you when the appendix and notes matter?).
I once teased my wife, during my early wooing stage, that I wanted to write an ode to every hair on her head (a load of odes). Garry Wills did. This book is both academic criticism (one chapter is infused with new historicism, one is textual criticism, one is formalist, one is mythological) and an ode to Lincoln, Language, and this damn fine speech. I could see Garry Wills publishing each chapter in some well-funded Civil War journal and eventually weaving each paper together. I'm not sure how it really happened. Wills might just have used the chapters and forms of literary criticism as an organizational framework. I am not going to do an exegesis on the book to find out. That would be far too meta.
Anyway, it was a quick and fascinating read and significantly deepened my understanding of Lincoln's motives for the speech while also acting as an Entmythologisierung* of the text. No. Lincoln did not write the text on the back of a napkin while on a train TO Gettysburg. Anyway, a must read for those who love history, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, or Transcendentalism.
* I'm using the German here as a joke, since there were several instances when Wills referenced Everett bringing back the seeds of Transcendentalism and higher criticism from their studies there. I'm also using it because it is 1.5x as fun as just saying demystification.
My basic take on 'The Mission Song' is similar to Alvy's old joke in Annie Hall:
"um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions."
Well, that's essentially how I feel about this book. Actually, wait no, I don't think 'The Mission Song' was terrible. I thought parts of it were actually brilliant and the potential for brilliance was huge. I loved the idea of Bruno Salvador, the interpreter, caught between two worlds. There JUST wasn't enough of THAT part. The plot was fairly simple and straightforward. Not bad, but again, only a tease, a taunt of le Carré's brilliance wrapped in an average le Carré just makes me sad.
It also suffers from being proximately sat next to (or nearly next to) The Constant Gardener; yes, two le Carré's African twin sisters: one brilliant (The Constant Gardner), and one that only has the hint of brilliance (The Mission Song). One just pales in comparison to the other, and will perpetually be overshadowed by her better looking, more talented colonial twin.
Speaking of Colonialism, le Carré just wasn't pissed enough in this novel. I kind of like it when his anger is turned up to 11. The anger was here, but it was diffuse and subtle and romantic and sometimes a bit misdirected (to me). He merely twirled the narrative knife instead of shiving and shanking.
The amazing thing about James is he can write with precision and humility about something so completely intrinsic and fraught with pit falls. Most writers run at the subject with some large bias of the mystical, the . You have thousand of books written every year proclaiming their strain of Christianity, Judaism, Vegetarianism, Atheism, Mormonism, Buddhism, as being the only true and living way to view the divine AND the only mirror to view and judge ourselves. James is different. He artfully and carefully presents a measured approach to religion. He picks it apart with affection. He looks at it normatively and then he tries to look at each speck and piece through a value lens.
I believe the magic of this book is James isn't selling a belief. He isn't pimping a lifestyle. He is just curious and very very smart. And it isn't a clinical curiosity either (although his precision could be called clinical). It is a joyful curiosity. A drive to discover how we work and what really makes us tick. He wants to know and explain his hypothesis. God **ahem** bless William James. He wasn't just describing the transcendental condition of mankind, he was establishing and building a framework for others to follow for over 100 years.
John D MacDonald presents a combination of James Dickey's prose with Ian Fleming's narrative flourish. With John D. MacDonald, however, you are also likely to find weird paragraphs sprinkled into the novel that deal with economics, politics, love, lust, the John Birch Society, and the ethics of hunting. Reading MacDonald is like having a surprisingly lucid conversation with a drunk economics professor who you recently discovered just killed a man with his golf club. You can't pull away from the conversation and aren't quite sure if the story is going to continue, or if he is going to explore a tangent more appropriate for an economics class or his therapist. HIs brain is amazing and his stories definitely titillate on several levels at once.
John D. MacDonald's pulp novels are a perfect beach read. They are unassuming, consistently over-deliver, produce better one-liners than a George Carlin set AND seem to have captured perfectly a very American, libertarian ethos of the mid-60s to late 70s. Travis McGee is consistently drawn into scrapes that he would rather avoid, beds girls he would prefer to ignore, and kills men he without relish. He perfectly fits Morrell's reluctant hero archetype:
"a tarnished or ordinary man with several faults or a troubled past, and he is pulled reluctantly into the story, or into heroic acts. During the story, he rises to the occasion, sometimes even vanquishing a mighty foe, sometimes avenging a wrong. But he questions whether he's cut out for the hero business. His doubts, misgivings, and mistakes add a satisfying layer of tension to a story"
MacDonald has perfected using the reluctant hero's questions, doubts, misgivings, and mistakes to add heft to his novels. McGee isn't a dime-store hero. He doesn't want the job, but doesn't mind the money, and it seems no one else is qualified to fix the huge mess that has fallen into his lap and seems destined to take him away from the bikinis, boats and beaches for a season.
First a disclosure. I'm a Steinhauer completist. I love Olen Steinhauer. For many reasons. First, he is one of the few, modern spy novelists that seems interested in writing quality espionage fiction, during a period when spy fiction is evolving as the business of espionage shifts. Second, Steinhauer is pushing, incrementally, towards the long shadow of le Carré. With some novels Steinhauer seems almost a breath away from le Carré. He isn't there yet, but he is close with 'All the Old Knives', and he is far closer than most of his peers.
Spy fiction if it is unserious deals with violence, mystery, sex and an almost pornographic, hyper-nationalism. Great spy fiction deals with history, memory, loss, ambiguity, mistakes, regret, and deception. Steinhauer has written what can best be explained as a locked room spy mystery. It is at heart an interrogation that is highlighted with various forms of flashback. It is the intersection of two lives, two loves, and one dark, shared past, finally unlocked in a Carmel-by-the-Sea restaurant.
This is a short book, but one that moves with a measured precision. This isn't a beach read. It is a book to read while you are waiting in a hospital to see if the lump is benign. A book to read while you wait for your spouse to return from a dangerous drive. It is a book that makes no easy heroes and leaves the final curtain cracked just a bit.
"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee."
I've been wanting to read this book for years. Patiently it sat, right behind me, waiting. I enjoyed Philbrick's 'Mayflower' and 'Sea of Glory'. Given how much I love Moby-Dick, I'm kinda surprised it took me so long (15 years) to read this history of the Essex.
Philbrick paces this narrative well. He patches together all the major perspectives. When the story leaves gaps, he dead reckons and is able to fill the story in with similar types of accidents, aggressive whale experiences, sailors, oil, blood, starvation, and -- well -- other episodes of cannibalism. He is able to humanize the captain, the first-mate, and the people of Nantucket (while also giving serious consideration for all the other sailors; those from Nantucket, outlanders, and black sailors too). It was a quick read, and compelling.
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