august 2014 books.

Maybe you've noticed that I've been really slack about updating lately. So slack that I haven't even posted the books I've been reading, which probably bore everybody but at least provide me with something to talk about. I have an excuse that you will find acceptable, but mostly it's laziness. Anyway. I read things in August. I'll let you know about September, oh, sometime in 2016.

Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout
I'm not sure if you'd call this a novel. It's a set of stories set in small town Maine about various townsfolk, but each vignette involves the titular character to some extent (from just a passing reference to her being the central figure). Olive is not a nice lady. She's shrewd, but very moody, often cruel, and seemingly unable to turn her perceptive powers inward.

It's overall a pretty sad book, in the way that ordinary lives are disappointing and poignant. Or maybe it's just Olive that sets that tone, and if the book had been centered around her husband, who was just the warmest, most genuine guy around, it would have been about the sweet and simple joys of an ordinary life.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
C.S. Forester
I had heard of Horatio Hornblower, but I honestly had no idea who he was or whether he was real or fictional. In case you don't know either, he's fictional. In this book, he is a mere midshipman in the British Navy who works his way up to lieutenant, but I think in later books, he eventually makes it to Admiral. He's wiry and can't sing a lick, but also resourceful, intelligent, and courageous. Apparently, the character of Captain Kirk was based on him.

This book was also a series of stories, or rather, thrilling episodes that are part of a larger story but work well on their own. At this point, the Brits are at war with the French. The latter have thrown out their king, and the British are blockading France and also trying to assist in putting the monarchy back in place (they were afraid of that revolution thing catching on).

The stories are thrilling, though I really found myself bored after a couple of them. For one thing, there were a lot of boat words that I didn't know and didn't care enough to look up. So there would be a dire situation, and then Horatio would slip the freck over the dunermast, climb the throckmeal on the port side and save the day! I made up those words, but that was about as meaningful as some of the passages were for me. I did enjoy one story in particular, where they capture a French ship with a load of rice, but there's leak develops after the battle for the ship, and the water in the hold causes the rice to swell up and basically explode the boat.

This volume was marked as Book 1 in the Hornblower series, but it was not the first to come out. In the edition I had, they were re-issued in chronological order. After the first book proved to be such a success, Forester wrote ten more books about our tone-deaf hero, including this one where he first gets his sea legs. It's possible I would have enjoyed a different book more, but I get the impression that my complaints about this one would probably apply to the others. Anyway, fine writing, but just not for me. But hey, I know who Horatio Hornblower is now.

The Days of the King
Bruno Frank
This novel was focused on Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was a big deal. The book didn't really talk about why he was a big deal, except as a military commander who unified big chunks of land into one chunk of land called Prussia. Instead, it talked about him at the end of his career, when he was old and alone and terribly grumpy. As a result, I learned very little about Prussian history.

The book is fairly sympathetic to Frederick. He is not shown as a particularly friendly character, and in fact the first chapter spends pages describing how he is hygienically disgusting. However, it mostly portrays him as well-meaning but warped by his long career of war and a lifetime of being alone. One of the chapters talks about how he is rumored to be homosexual, but he reveals that he allowed that rumor to spread to protect the real truth - he was castrated by a accident early in life.

At the time of the book's publication in 1924, he was still considered a great national hero in Germany. However, after the Nazis strongly associated themselves with him and his militarism, his reputation took a bit of a hit.

In Hazard
Richard Hughes
I got about a paragraph into this one before I realized it was another boat book. The action of this one takes place entirely on a steamer ship in the Carribean. And there were plenty of boat words, but intimate knowledge of shipworks was not required to understand this one. It was less about the boat then about the people on board.

So, this steamer ship, with its cargo of rice (ha!) and tobacco, is headed for the Panama Canal in mid-November. They run into some bad weather. The captain takes a cautious course around it, but no one is too fussed, because it's way too late in the season for a hurricane, their ship is big and strong and sturdy, plus no one on the radio is talking about the storm at all. Of course, it turns out to be a ferocious hurricane, and they end up stuck in the storm for four days. Because one of the hatches blows off (I know what a hatch is!), water gets into the hold and prevents them from getting to the food stores, so they are all surviving for those four days on basically a nap, a biscuit, and a swig of water.

The story is based on the true story of a ship caught in the 1932 Cuba hurricane, which has the distinction of still being the only Category 5 hurricane ever recorded in the month of November. Being a steamer ship, it had a big ole funnel in the middle, which the first chapter spends talking about how this here funnel is the best, strongest funnel in all the land. At one point in the storm, the captain notices that there is just a big gaping hole where the funnel used to be. Not only do no one see or hear it go, but they had no idea how long it had been gone. That's what 200 mph winds can do.

The whole experience affects different characters in various ways. A couple of them essentially shut down - they cower somewhere relatively safe, paralyzed by fear. The captain in particular is noted as being a man who is generally mediocre, but excellent in a crisis. There is a group of Chinese shipmates, most of whom end up hiding, a couple of which work on trying to repair things and help stay afloat, and one who plans a mutiny. A couple of sailors keep on from pure delirium.

Everybody survives miraculously, and the ship, though crippled, listing heavily, and floating dangerously low due to the water-soaked rice (ha!) is finally towed into port. One sailor ponders if he will be able to appreciate the sensitive pleasures in life, now that he has experienced extended near-death.

Not a bad book. A tolerable amount of boat stuff.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
G.B. Edwards
Ebenezer Le Page lives on the island of Guernsey, which is part of England but actually pretty close to France, smack in the English Channel. This book is a telling of his life, starting with his childhood in the late 1800s, all the way through the 1960s. He's writing his book as a way of passing something on. Like Frederick, he is also lonely and grumpy. He is searching for an heir of sorts, someone to give his property and his hoarded riches, but also his book and memories.

I grew to like old Ebenezer, though he is surely crotchety about the things that old people get upset about: the changing world, mostly. Guernsey is occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then later is commercialized as tourists come to see the abandoned battlements. There is some gentle humor and some really well-written characters that would be familiar to anyone who ever lived in a small community. But mostly, the book is sad, just because the person "writing" it outlives everyone.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta
Mario Vargas Llosa
No boat stuff whatsoever in this one. Lots of socialism, though.

A few months back, Josh and his dad got into a discussion about the merits of postmodernism in literature. I was trying hard to follow the conversation but was not exactly sure what postmodernism was. I'm pretty sure I have read some postmodern books, but I wasn't clear on what traits marked them. But I must be getting it, because I feel confident saying that this book is postmodern. I'll tell you why, and you may very well agree with Josh's dad that postmodernism is stupid and should be abandoned immediately.

So, the narrator is a dude in Peru who is writing a novel about an old school friend of his who grew up to become a failed socialist revolutionary, Alejandro Mayta. He is going around doing research for his book, interviewing family members and friends and comrades. Interwoven with these interviews are third-person retellings of the events they describe. So the narrator is talking to Mayta's Godmother, who is telling about a party where he met another revolutionary. It is a little confusing to follow, because the writing switches back and forth between the interview and the party itself, sometimes in the same paragraph. I finally picked up that you can tell which part is which based on the perspective - the narrator uses "I" to describe what's going on in his parts, while the retelling of the past is in third person.

Got that? Kind of a neat trick once you get used to it, alright, dude, I'm with you.

Mayta's story is about a intellectual revolutionary who discovers action. He's been involved in various leftist groups, which keep splitting and having feuds over seemingly minor aspects of Marxism. Mayta is a part of the Revolutionary Worker's Party (Trotskyist), which is only seven members strong because they split from the Stalinists over ideological purity. They publish pamphlets and have meetings and talk about how they are totally better socialists than those Stalinists losers and all will be revealed when the revolution comes.

Mayta meets another revolutionary at a party, one who lives in the mountains. This guy does not know all the ins and outs of Marx, but he is organizing an actual revolution, with, you know, plans and guns and workers who aren't going to take it anymore. And Mayta just catches fire, realizing that he and all his comrades have been sitting around arguing about minutia while the people of Peru continue to be oppressed. He tries to get his buddies in the RWP(T) involved, but they don't trust his new friend, nor are they willing to stake anything on something they say won't work. They are all concerned about being discovered and persecuted for being socialists, though there doesn't seem to be much persecution going on. Meanwhile, in the narrator's time, the revolution is seriously happening, there are guerillas in the mountains, nobody has enough food, and people are being disappeared for any suspicion of leftist activity.

At some point while I was reading this back and forth between the past and the present, I realized that the parts that were in the past were the narrator's book (the one he was conducting interviews to be able to write). I think I got this when the narrator is interviewing someone and the retelling of the past does not match what the narrator is being told happened. The narrator explains to his interviewees that he won't use their names and that the story will be fictionalized. They ask why he's bothering talking to those who were there if he's just going to make stuff up anyway. He replies that he wants to know the truth so he can decide how to lie.

Maybe I've been with a creative type for too long, but this made total sense to me. It's like learning how to play by the rules so you can figure out the best way to break them.

Of course, by the end, everything is all mixed up. Mayta goes to the mountains to start the revolution, and suddenly there are parts where the past is in first person, as the narrator sort of becomes this version of Mayta he has created. Later, the narrator finally tracks down the real Mayta, now a clerk in an ice cream shop after several stints in prison and living in a slum outside Lima. He is surprised to find him so diminished from the Mayta in his book. In the interview, he reveals that he totally made up the thing about being old school friends with Mayta and there being war in the streets. The narrator, as he has been represented as a character throughout the book, is just as unreliable as the stories from the past.

Apparently, that is being postmodern. I can see how you might get to the end of the book, find out that it's all lies, and wonder what the point was. The genre is associated with two things: breaking down the form (thus the mixed perspectives and narrations) and the questioning of what is true. And it doesn't really bother me, because, well, it's freaking fiction. It says on the front that it's a novel, so to find out that it was made up is not really heartbreaking. And I think it does say something about art, about how who is telling the story and even who is hearing/reading the story creates their own interpretation, neither of which may have much to do with "what really happened."

Also, don't trust artists.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Joseph Ellis
The author selects a few incidents from our country's founding to try and paint a picture of the characters of the men and women involved. Ellis talks about how we tend to see the events of the Revolutionary era as having been pre-ordained in some way. Of course it had to happen that way, because America is awesome, right? But to those at the time, it was most certainly a crazy experiment that might fall apart at any time.

He also stresses that the political battles we fight today are not new. He says that the country was not founded on certain principles (right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness), but on a discussion of how to interpret those principles. We all agree that we should have the right life, liberty, and POH, but our disagreements are about how to achieve those rights.

As for the historical stuff, I found myself very sympathetic to John Adams. He's painted as a ferocious idealist who ultimately lost to Jefferson, a politician. We talk now about politicians having a narrative, and whichever side controls the narrative, wins. Jefferson started this, as well as what we would call partisanship. He was paying to have writers spread lies about Adams, while blithely looking gentlemanly and above it all. Meanwhile, Adams sputters, focused on pushing forward the best ideas, rather than a particular party. It's depressing to consider that the guys who are really committed to the good of the people rather than party affiliation are doomed to lose.

There was a lot of other stuff about Burr and Hamilton and Monroe, but the Adams/Jefferson stuff is what really stuck with me. Also, George Washington: still as awesome as we were taught, thank goodness.

1 comment:

Doug said...

I really enjoyed Founding Brothers. If you took a liking to John Adams, you should read his biography by David McCullough, it is outstanding. Also watch the HBO series based on the book. I have both if you want to borrow them, just shoot me an email and I can bring them at Thanksgiving.