"I'm Writing a Novel" - Father John Misty
Another great song by the good father with amusing lyrics and a reference to a drug, Ayahuasca, with which I was not familiar.
So I have been trying to hit the old fashioned books for a bit lately in the hopes of improving my mind and attention span. Plus, I've spent a fair amount of times on airplanes lately and it really is the only way to make flying seem less than hellish. Here is what I've been reading -- love to hear what everyone else has found compelling lately.
- Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - The sequel to Wolf Hall is another great book. The first deals with, among other things, the ascent of Ann Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the brilliant, tough and wise commoner who rises from nothing to being the right hand man of Henry VIII. In the second book, Cromwell is instrumental in Boleyn's downfall, taking with him along the way a number of courtiers who had crossed his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel's Cromwell is a great literary character and the world he inhabits a fascinating one. What struck me as most surprising in the book was the depiction of a Europe that was a very cosmopolitan place, with the English world shaped by its interactions with German theologians, Italian bankers, French and Spanish monarchs, and, of course, the Pope. Entertaining, intelligent, and beautifully written.
- The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - The latest novel by the controversial Frenchman is an impressive effort, filled with kind of gracefully written misanthropy that is his hallmark. Its central character is a solitary but successful French artist -- who enlists Houellebecq, who appears as a character in the book, to write a narrative accompaniment to one of his exhibitions. Houellebecq, the book character, is later the victim of a grisly but artistic murder, a conceit that works surprisingly well in the book. Houellebecq is probably not for everyone. He has a bleak world view, particularly with regard to human relationships and sexuality, a consistent aspect of his earlier works, Whatever, The Elementary Particles (also sometimes translated as Atomized, which I prefer), and Platform. Houellebecq has a style that is reminiscent of Camus in The Stranger, although one stripped of all of Camus' morality and humanity. Many will find him to be a somewhat unattractive voice, but I find him a unique and interesting one.
- The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano -- Bolano is a Chilean by birth, who largely came to attention in the literary world for works published after his death, particularly 2666, a mammoth virtuoso work, and The Savage Detectives, a book that I found to be harder to get through. Bolano is starting to remind me of Jimi Hendrix -- a guy who seems to have greater output after his death than he had in life. The Third Reich was written in 1989, but only recently published. The book's title in this case refers to a board game played by Udo Berger, a young German gamer on holiday in Spain. Berger's world back in Germany revolves around playing these kind of war games, a subculture in which he is a big man. In Spain, he is vacationing at a hotel he used to come to with his parents, a decade or so ago. He and his girlfriend mingle with other Germans and some of the locals in a beach town on the Costa Brava, sunbathing, drinking, dining, and dancing, although Udo often retreats to his room to play Third Reich and work on an article for a gamer magazine. Udo is an unreliable narrator, who has the social acuity one might expect from a twenty-something man obsessed with war games. Nevertheless, the book has a gripping, somewhat Kafkaesque quality. It is an easier and shorter read than either 2666 or The Savage Detectives. It is a fairly good introduction to Bolano if you don't want to commit to the 900 plus pages of 2666.
- America's Great Debate by Fergus Bordewich deals with the Compromise of 1850 and the efforts of first Henry Clay and later Stephen Douglas to defuse the fierce debate over the possible expansion of slavery in the wake of the Mexican-American War. It's an extremely well done book, a carefully researched and skillfully written account of an often overlooked time. In the end, if Bordewich's claim to the sigificance of the "great compromise" can be questioned given that within a decade the country would be embroiled in an astonishingly bloody civil war. Bordewich tries to make the case -- and I was persuaded -- that the compromise enabled the development of a far more coherent unionist position, one in which the Republican Party, under the leadership of Lincoln, proved able to withstand subsequent insurrection and the savage warfare that went with it. (Try to imagine Millard Fillmore holding the union together.)
- The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker - Civil War books seem like they are a dime a dozen, but this one, which focuses on the concept of strategy as applied to both sides in the war is not the conventional great man biography or battlefield narrative. It is written from the point of view of assessing the actions of various political and military actors in the war and how they contributed to victory or defeat. Lincoln comes across as a far superior strategist to Jefferson Davis, despite the fact that Davis went to West Point, fought in the Mexican American War and served as Secretary of War in the Buchanan administration, while Lincoln had scant military experience. The only southern general who appears to have any sense of strategy is Robert E. Lee, although his use of offensive tactics in the war is subject to serious question. Several Union generals had a better grasp of an overall strategic concept of the war, from Winfield Scott and his Anaconda Plan to George McClellan (who unfortunately had George McClellan for a field general) to Ulysses Grant. Ultimately, the general with the best sense of strategy on either side of the struggle was William Tecumseh Sherman, who grasped the nature of the southern rebellion and what needed to be done to crush it -- bring maximum violence to bear on southern troops and maximum hardship on the civilian supporters of the rebellion. It was not a pretty vision -- Sherman was contemptuous of the idea of glory on the battlefield and found romantic notions of a great, decisive, Napoleonic battle in the war to be fatuous. This is the sort of book that will liked by those of us who like this sort of thing. And I did.
Alright, enough about me, what about you. What are you reading these days?