In EMPIRE FALLS, Richard Russo explores the nature of will and power on many levels. Several of the characters in EMPIRE FALLS appear to share what is commonly thought of as the Nietzschean belief that those with the strongest will naturally take and maintain command, even if it means bending or ignoring the rules (legal or moral) that ostensibly apply to everyone else. Other characters play the willing puppets of the powerful, often while wearing the moral cloak of altruism. Russo leans somewhat toward ambivalence in this regard; those with more altruistic leanings are depicted somewhat more sympathetically, but he also makes a compelling statement for the assertion of personal power. Without the will to assert power of one's own life, Russo seems to say, one becomes open to becoming a pawn for those who do have such will; and passivity in the face of such power - even if apparently borne of altruism - can undermine the community as well as one's own personal fulfillment. The novel isn't perfect; characters sometimes have insights into other's minds and motivations that stretch the limits of believability, and portions of the climactic action lean toward cliche (though I think it stops short.) But overall it's a highly enjoyable novel, with interesting array of characters, almost all of whom are multi-dimensional enough to be neither wholly sympathetic nor unsympathetic.
In TALE OF TWO CITIES, Dickens weaves an exciting plotline around the events of the French Revolution to depict how revolutions - even those that are justified responses to horrific repression - can quickly become as or more repressive than the regimes they intend to replace. Dickens likely intended the book to serve as a warning to the British aristocracy. He understood the French Revolution's Reign of Terror was not exceptional, and the London poor were but a small degree of hunger and political repression away from becoming the mobs of Paris. In mid-19th century London the industrial revolution was creating massive urban population growth and squalor, while those who inherited privilege remained aloof and resplendent - conditions similar to pre-revolutionary France. For his brilliant and exciting indictment of greed and injustice one can forgive Dickens's plot contrivances and his failure to allow the characters much growth or complexity: they are archetypes, after all - simple but memorable tools to deliver a political message on a macro level.
An informative, detailed account of some of the key events leading up to 9/11 and some of the personalities behind al-Queada and within the US Intelligence community. The portraits of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri, and various other al-Quaeda principals helps humanize these men and, in the process, makes their actions seem (if possible) even more horrific. One finds oneself asking what went wrong to cause relatively comfortable and educated human beings to plan and carry out mass murder on a global scale. Wright clearly, and correctly, points to absolutist ideology as a primary cause; a conviction that a particular set of beliefs represents universal truth that cannot withstand the presence (anywhere, ultimately) of people who believe differently to any degree. Al-Queada, of course, is only a more recent incarnation of this age-old cause of human suffering.
The book also casts blame on the US Government for emboldening al-Quaeda and failing to correctly interpret intelligence data, focusing primarily on petty infighting within and between various intelligence agencies and blundering misapplications of US military power. Especially in these areas, Wright sometimes appears to suffer from a certain amount of hindsight bias, though this is a minor distraction in an overall noteworthy book.
Perhaps it's because I knew so little about this era, but this is one of the two or three greatest books I've read on American History. I think one can't really understand the United States as it IS today without understanding what occurred during this pivotal, transformative era. Howe does a fantastic job explaining the large, more well-known events that still affect us today as well as providing dozens of smaller subplots and odds and ends that help fill out what life was like during this era. For the most part, he doesn't judge the actors, except when they really deserve judging (E.g., it's hard for Andrew Jackson to avoid the label of actual, or aspiring, autocrat.) Howe also sets forth a compelling case that many of the large events early in the period were facilitated by the lack of communications technology (Jackson's rise, for example, is clearly tied to his reputation gained in the Battle of New Orleans that was unknowingly fought after the war's official end); while the most dramatic transformative movements and counter-movements that arose later (namely around slavery and women's rights) were facilitated by the revolution in communications and transportation technology. I can't recommend this highly enough, and it fits well in the outstanding Oxford History of the US series.
Bold. Funny. Horrific. Ethereal. And Fantastic in all senses of the word. Echoes of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett. There are many, many memorable characters and scenes; but Murakami creates through these only the major pieces of a larger puzzle. He appears to be drawing parallels between two kinds of relationships (a) the interactions (loving, mundane, barbaric, kind, cruel, lustful, comic, duplicitous) humans have with each other and (b) the interactions (same list, pretty much) we have in our minds with our past, present, and future selves. These relationships cross and fade into each other so smoothly that neither we nor the characters are completely sure where one ends and another begins. A really wonderful book that feels like it will provoke thought for quite awhile.
Unrelentingly bleak and beautifully written, in BLOOD MERIDIAN Cormac McCarthy plumbs the unlighted depths of humanity and finds no bottom. It contains, in the Judge, a character as profoundly nihilistic as I've come across in any literature. Joseph Conrad's Kurz, perhaps, would at least recognize the Judge as a kindred spirit; but the Judge would laugh at any notion of horror - or any emotion save amusement - being the proper response to psychopathology. The novel can be read as a metaphor for the consequences of manifest destiny; with the Judge representing the unstoppable, remorseless, and unrepentingly violent force of U.S. expansion, ceaselessly eliminating or absorbing all that stood in its way, even while uttering the soothing words of beneficial intent. Hard to read, harder to put down.
KAFKA ON THE SHORE is the second Murakami novel I've listened to (THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE being the other) and I found it, as with the first, simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. Murakami is a daring writer of what in effect are adult fairy tales. He takes risks with writing conventions and plot ideas with results that are often deeply rewarding and other times simply distracting. (E.g., the graphic sexuality and violence, though not as prominent as in WIND-UP BIRD, here seem somewhat more gratuitous.) But Murakami creates such memorable characters and weird, magical plots that one can easily forgive the shortcomings.
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