november 2012 books.

I feel like I am not very good at talking about books. I'm not even sure I'm particularly good at reading, to be honest. I know that I frequently miss things that other people pick up on. But then again, maybe I am picking up things they miss. I have noticed that attempting to talk about a book does help me be more mindful in my reading. So maybe the trouble has been that I haven't been thinking enough about what I read.

Ugh, that whole paragraph seems to indicate that I can't write very well either. Anyway, I don't know what to do about this lack of other than practice. So here's what I read this month.
  • Come To Think of It, Daniel Schorr
    Dan Schorr was a journalist for 70 years or so. This book is a collection of short essays he did for NPR between 1991 and 2008. I was alive during those times, but I was not paying attention to current events (in fact, I think 2008 was the exact year I started paying attention). It's interesting not only to learn about the things I missed, but to read about them as they happened, as opposed to reading an account written with the benefit of hindsight.

    Schorr led an amazing life. In between ruminations on the Lewinsky affair or 9/11, there were stories about being slipped a mickey by the KGB and testifying in front of Congress. His perspective is tempered by a long view of history, which I like. It's very easy for us to get caught up in what is happening right now, as if the whole of human history hasn't been played out over and over again. We're like teenagers who think they're the first ones to ever fall in love.
  • Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm
    Man alive, this book was wonderful. It's an old old book, possibly in danger of falling off the edge of the earth. I am a sucker for picking these books up. Nothing delights me more than the possibility of rediscovering an old classic. Zuleika Dobson is about a beautiful woman who comes to Oxford, where all the undergraduates fall in love with her upon first sight. And then they all kill themselves by throwing themselves in the river during a boat race.

    That's pretty much the plot, because it's not a plot-driven book. It's satire! There are a lot of unkind things said about rich boys at Oxford. The prose is eccentric and ornate, and that's really the reason to read the book. Also, Beerbohm just knows a lot of words. I had to look so many up that I started writing them down. For example, did you know that "legerdemain" means "skillful use of one's hands while performing tricks?" Me neither!

    The thing I liked most about this book was how the world of the book progressively opened up the more I read. You start with some people at Oxford, but soon the list of characters and actors grows to include a set of statues, a few ghosts, some gods of fate, a muse. In the middle of the book, right smack in the middle of nothing really happening, there is a chapter about the narrator, who turns out to be some kind of ghost. At the end, all of these actors in their various spheres of influence come together. It's a very cool trick.
  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
    This book was this month's book club selection. It's a magic in this world kind of book. The story takes place amongst people who can do actual magic ("manipulation," one of them calls it), but these people exist in our regular world. Us non-magical folk just don't realize it.

    The ladies at book club complained about weak characters, and once they did, I noticed they were right. Character development is not something I notice, I've discovered. I just thought it was fun. There was magic and weird carnival people and love. The author majored in set design, and each scene is rich with vivid description. Someone pointed out that she hit all the senses in describing each tent in the circus.
  • The Assassins' Gate, George Packer
    I felt like a smart type person carrying this book around. It was only 450 pages or so, but it looked and felt much bigger. Also, it was about the Iraq War (the second one), which is an Important Topic. Thus, I must be a person who Knows and Cares about Important Things.

    All that pretension aside, this is a very thorough and nuanced book. Someone who saw me reading it asked whether it just blamed everything on George W. Bush. While the former president is not spared, the author really finds lots of blame to go around.

    The main point seems to be the disparity between the reality in Iraq and the reality that Washington wanted to believe. What started out as deceiving the American public (WMDs, connections to terrorist, the estimated cost of a war, our mission) turned into self-deception. And since Washington was not looking at what was really going on, they did a pretty crappy job of dealing with it. We expected to go over there, get rid of the bad guy, and then be done with it, because FREEDOM. There was little to no planning for what to do after the bad guy was gone, as if we felt no responsibility for the situation we had created.

    Packer says that the administration saw freedom as "absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free."

    We did not want to be seen as occupiers, and so we didn't assert any authority. There was rampant looting, leading to most of Iraq's existing infrastructure (power grid, water services, libraries and museums) being destroyed.

    "Confused, frustrated Iraqis, who had never before been allowed to take any initiative, turned to the Americans, who seemed to have all the power and money; the Americans, who didn't see themselves as occupiers, tried to force the Iraqis to work within their own institutions, but the institutions had been largely dismantled."

    Besides the lack of public services, a lot of the population was suddenly out of work, partly because we fired all of the local leaders as part of an effort to get rid of any vestiges of Saddam's ruling party, the Baathists. Of course, since everyone was required to be in the party, that took out the good people along with the corrupt. We also disbanded the army. Mass unemployment means the people have no money to live on and nothing to do with their time. And then there was an insurgency and, oh yeah, civil war.

    Then, once we were in the mess, no one could talk about it. Republicans refused to look at it, just saying mission accomplished. Democrats could only talk about the fact that we had been lied to in the first place. Basically, no one thought about the Iraqis, at any point. And it's not even over.

    I admit that before reading the book, I was pretty hung up on the idea that the President lied to the public so that he could start a war. And that is still completely inexcusable. However, the lie obscured the other reasons for going to war and led to a general flippancy on what the undertaking required. There was never a discussion about whether democracy is something that can be imposed on a society or what that would take. Saddam was terrible. He used chemical weapons on his own people. There was no question whether or not he should be gotten rid of. But whether we have any place doing such a thing is a different question, one that was not really asked.

    Anyway. Amazing book.
  • The Giant's House, Elizabeth McCracken
    This book is about a boy (later a man) who suffers from an overactive pituitary gland. He never stops growing. It's told from the perspective of the lonely town librarian, who falls in love with him. The story is doomed from the start, because people who don't stop ever growing die young. Gosh, I sure do give away a lot of spoilers when I talk about books.

    See now, I'm struggling to talk about this book. And I think that it's because its main thrust is the characters. The story of the book is the development of the characters and their relationships. I read it, and I liked it okay, but now it's over and I don't know what to say.

    Which is odd, because there were a lot of things about the lonely librarian that I related to. She keeps herself separate from other people, even as she craves interaction. There is a scene where another character accuses her of being "reserved." She makes a bunch of jokes about the different meanings of reserved, like a reserved table or seat. But the other character says that it's all the same meaning - something is reserved for someone. But who are reserved people reserved for? If they remain reserved their whole lives, then it's all a waste.

    I thought that was a great point, neatly made. The book had lots of bits like that, and yet I am left underwhelmed. I will finish with a quote that I wrote down, just because I liked it.

    "She had parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can ever recover from."

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