Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Pregnant Widow

The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis

There is a right way and a wrong way to introduce yourself to an author with a long and illustrious career. When I read John Updike's Rabbit, Run a few weeks back, that was an example of how to do it. Start somewhere near the beginning of their career and work your way forward. The Pregnant Widow is a perfect example of how not to do it. Finding the most recent novel by said writer and hope to catch up by the end of that book. It's just not fair to the writer or yourself.

It is difficult to express the range of emotions that Martin Amis' most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow, evoked in me. I am not a member of Amis's generation. I wasn't even alive during the 1960s and AIDS closed the door on the hedonism of the 1970s when I was just starting elementary school. The fact that I grew up in a suburban town in Canada only increases the disconnect. It was hard for me to fully empathize with the characters in this novel, though the themes within are timeless and the autobiographical nature of this novel is heartbreaking I finished the book feeling like I missed something. I would suspect it would be the first 30 years of Martin Amis's career, but I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Like Amis's career, The Pregnant Widow is a novel that spans four decades. Much of the action in the novel centers on the summer of 1970 at the height of the sexual revolution. Keith Nearing (aka Martin Amis in literary disguise) is spending the summer cloistering himself in a castle in Italy with his girlfriend, the ever dependable Lily, and a host of other young, nubile people, including Scheherazade, an impossibly statuesque beauty that Keith falls hopelessly and madly in love with.

The story progresses in classic comedy of errors style (with elements of Philip Roth-esque depravity and discomfort with a touch of Three's Company style humor). The story is rife with sexual tension as Keith stumbles and bumbles in his attempts to bed the recently "liberated" Scheherazade who, like the other women summering at the castle, is known to prance around the pool topless (and often bottomless). But Keith's litany of neuroses and hang-ups are his undoing. Upon "striking out" with Scheherazade the story flies wildly off the rails in search of a meaningful ending (and if there is one fault with this book it is the last third, much of which I questioned the need for). It was at this point that I felt I was lacking some of Amis's prior work as color for this particular novel.

Along the way, Amis introduces us to a parade of interesting characters including a 4 foot 10 inch accident prone Italian, a gold digging socialite and, my favorite, Jorquil, a foppishly hilarious count who (I imagined) walks around the pool with neck-straining medallions and a hairy chest that would make Tom Selleck blush.

At its heart The Pregnant Widow is a novel about narcissism. The narrator of the novel is none other than Keith (and, by extension, Martin Amis's) superego. What could be more narcissistic than a novel narrated by one's superego? This is my first Martin Amis novel but from what I understand, Amis has explored the narcissist on several occasions in previous works, so I think he's got a good handle on the subject matter. There's a reason Amis's generation is called the Me Generation and it is unapologetically on display in this novel, not that there's anything wrong with that. Keith represents Amis who, through this story seems to be self-examining and re-evaluating his past from the perspective of a man with a lifetime's worth of regret.

This novel may not do much in helping the reader decide who they are in the present tense but it does do a good job of examining who we were (and when I say we, I mean those of my mother's generation mores than my own). There is a sense within this novel that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was a panacea our ailing, stiff collared society. Sexual liberation was to be the "end of history" in a sense and everything thereafter would be different. Of course, almost half a century we know this is categorically not the case. In fact, the latter third of the novel explores the notion that not only did sexual liberation not herald Arcadia, it also served a soupçon of its own problems in return.

One such sexual casualty is examined the pulsing subplot involving Keith's sister Violet. While only hinted at during the first half of the novel, Violet returns over and over in the latter half of the novel as a (perhaps) anti-thesis to the notion of narcissism.  In 1970, Violet is an psychologically under-developed young girl with the beginnings of very real problems with alcohol and promiscuity. As the novel progresses, Violet fleshes out into a full blown tragedy. Along with Keith's parade of failed relationships and marriages, Violet is the very essence of how the 1960s went all wrong.

(Tangentially, Violet is a thinly-veiled (one might say not veiled at all) depiction of Martin Amis's real life sister, Sally Amis, a woman and tragic case who has been characterized in many of Amis's novels. In this sense, Violet is a perfect example of a victim of the sexual revolution).

This novel was at point blazingly brilliant, at others a meandering slog, but perhaps this was my fault. As an introduction to the work of Martin Amis, I'm not sure this was the best choice. When tackling an author with a canon as large as Mr. Amis one is perhaps not advised to read his most recent offering. I continuously thought I was missing out on parts of this novel that I couldn't possibly understand without having read his previous novels. Having done a little research I confirmed that The Pregnant Widow is an extension of a lifetime of work. It's an excellent book, no doubt and it should have been short-listed for the Booker Prize, but if you haven't read any of his previous work, I would suspect that you, like me, will come away from this book slightly unfulfilled.


Shout Out

Since I am completely dedicated to the continuity of this blog (I really like that all my blog posts coincide with a book finished) I am forced to put this little idea of mine down at the bottom of my posts (to paraphrase Jesus: Nobody fucks with the continuity). I want to start adding a link at the end of my blogs to other bloggers who are currently peaking my interest. A glance into what I'm surfing. If you've read this far, I strongly urge you to visit these blogs.

First up, the sublimely eclectic Books & Bowel Movements. I honestly think this is one of the most ingeniously written blogs out there. Check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World
By Kazuo Ishiguro

What I enjoy most about Kazuo Ishiguro novels is the manner in which he compels the reader to continue reading without much notion of what, exactly, they are reading. Last year, when I finally got around to reading Never Let Me Go, I was fascinated by the way in which he maintained interest without ever telling the reader what was going on. The first person narrative style assumes the reader is familiar with the world Ishiguro has created and thus it is up to the reader to piece much of the story together over the course of the novel. Certainly Ishiguro is not the first nor, by any means, the only author that maintains an element of mystery via exclusivity in his narrative, but he does it with such skill and grace I have been excited to read another of his novels ever since.

Ishiguro's 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World (short-listed for the Booker Prize) is very similar to Never Let Me Go in structure and style, if not story. Set during the immediate post-war years in an unidentified city in Japan, the narrative focuses on an aging artist by the name of Ono who is struggling with his role as an artist during the war while trying to arrange a suitable marriage for his aging (she's... GASP! 26!) daughter. He worries that his past may have contributed to the failure of a past arranged marriage whose negotiations fell through for unknown reasons.

Much like Never Let Me Go, the entire novel is a joy to read on both a narrative and stylistic level. Ishiguro is a well-honed wordsmith. His sentences are pregnant with poignancy and wonderfully crafted works of art unto themselves. He writes sentences as silky smooth as the refined Japanese world of his story. I forget who said this, but an author once noted that a great work of fiction can be measured by opening a book to any page and reading that page (out of context) as a stand-alone piece of poetry. By such standards, Ishiguro is a genius.

But, in this novel at least, it is his dialogue that takes center stage. Ishiguro writes all the dialogue in a sort of refined, highly polished Japanese that leaves the reader wondering not what has been said, but rather what has been said while not being said. Young people let elders dictate the direction of the conversation, never contradict what his said and always downplay or deflect any praise given. The dialogue is worth the price of admission itself. Each dialogue is two, often three conversations at once and it's a joy to read between the lines and try to cut through to the core of what is being said.

Ono seems rather unsure of his ability to recall his past. He is often muddled about the order of events or the exact phrasing of something an old colleague might have said. This unreliability adds to the uncertainty of the narrative in that we cannot fully trust our protagonist, not because he may be lying but rather because he is simply fallible. It is therefore difficult for us to believe much of what he says and thinks about his own career. In this respect, Ono reminded me a lot of Barney Panofsky in Mordecai Richler's classic, Barney's Version... though with less lechery and more grace.

Ishiguro also explores the nature of art in society. He questions its importance (very important) and compares that to the importance of art through the eyes for the artist (inflated). As the story progresses we discover that Ono, despite what he has told us, is not the influential artist he seems to believe he is. While most certainly talented and well respected within a segment of the art world, he comes to realize that unlike politicians and businessmen, artists were never and would never be held accountable for the atrocities committed during the war, and for good reason. While artists did attempt to capture the over-arching emotions and ideas of a time, there is never a sense that the artist's neck is threading a noose via their work. Ono's sense of self-importance had lead him to believe that his art was something to be ashamed of and a serious detriment to his family's future when in fact very few people remember him at all. In time, Ono comes to terms with his marginality, an indication of his acceptance of the shift away from Imperial decadence that was occurring in post-war Japan.

In this respect, Ono represents the older Imperial generation while his daughters and grandson represent the newer, democratic generation unimpressed with the lavishness of their fathers. Throughout the novel Ono refers to something called the "floating world," a scene of opulence and self-aggrandizement throughout the 1920s and 30s that occupied the artistic world of Imperial Japan. In the wake of the war, there began a shift away from such a lifestyle toward simplicity. Due to this shift, there exists a latent tension (but in true Japanese style, no overt conflict) between generations as Ono cannot understand how Japan can change itself wholesale overnight from what it was to what it is. He insightfully muses that perhaps we are discarding the good with the bad and Japan shouldn't be so hasty to sidle up to the Americans.

This juxtaposition is best exemplified in the wonderful scenes between Ono and his eight-year-old grandson Ichiro. A fan of Popeye Sailorman (sic) and the Lone Ranger, the precocious (and mildly disrespectful) Ichiro is the very personification of the post-war Japanese infatuation with American life. He doesn't seem intimidated by his elders while Ono laments the fact that he is so very much out of touch with his grandson's world.

An Artist on the Floating World isn't covering new literary ground, but it is treading old ground with a fresh pair of geta. Kazuo Ishiguro, Japanese by descent but raised in England, has attested to the fact that he knows very little about Japan and cannot be considered a Japanese writer,. Nevertheless, this novel is an interesting insight into a very interesting period in Japanese history and Ishiguro has done well to characterize the period and its uncertainties and insecurities. Whether or not the novel is historically accurate (I cannot say whether it is or not) he captures the emotions of the time in a bubble and packaged them with a deft hand for our consideration.

And, after all, isn't that what art is for?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run
By John Updike

How have I managed to spend almost 37 years on this planet, living, breathing, ingesting pop culture and literature without reading John Updike? What's more, when I broke the spine on Rabbit, Run earlier this week, aside from the title, I knew absolutely nothing about the plot of this novel. I recently listened to an old interview with Updike and that spurred me to read it but other than that, he has never been on my literary radar. Somehow, John Updike's entire literary career (which was well and truly established when I was born) has remained obscured... until now.

For the few of you that have never read Updike's seminal 1960s American novel, Rabbit, Run, it chronicles several months in the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former high school basketball standout in a small town in Pennsylvania. In his, albeit brief, adult life, Rabbit has not met with the same degree of success and adulation. His job, demonstrating a new kitchen gadget for housewives, is demoralizing and his pregnant wife struggles with alcohol problems. This aren't turning out as Rabbit has planned. Well, that's not entirely true. Rabbit never had a plan to begin with, but things are not turning out as he had imagined they would (and why would they without a plan?).

His wife, Janice, returns home one day in an alcoholic haze having left their car at her parents and their son at his, Rabbit sets out to pick up both. When gets to the car, instead of driving over to his parent's place, he sets out for, of all places, Georgia.  Over the course of a long night of rather aimless driving (as far as West Virginia!), Rabbit ultimately returns to to his hometown, but not to his wife. Instead, he seeks out his former high school basketball coach, Mr. Tothero, because he always knew what to do. What follows is the mother of all existential crises.

But before I get into that, I wanted to draw a few comparisons. Over the course of this exquisitely written novel I found myself comparing Rabbit to other characters in other novels from (roughly) the same era in American literature. Rabbit seems to encapsulate (in my mind) three other classic protagonists:

1. Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye: This comparison was obvious within the first ten pages of the novel. I couldn't help think that Rabbit was a small-town version of Caulfield had Holden somehow finished school and started a family before completely unravelling. Like Caulfield, Rabbit seems to lack a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a responsible adult. He's stuck in the past, trying desperately to relive his high school glory without any thought for the very real consequences of his actions in the present tense. Like Holden, there's a sense that Rabbit seems to think he has his affairs in order when it is vividly apparent that he does not. I wanted to reach into the novel and shake Rabbit by the shoulders and tell him to grow up. I had the same inclination the last time I re-read Catcher in the Rye.

2. Peter Keating from The Fountainhead: Peter Keating is the very definition of a mommy's boy. Keating is the artist turned architect (at the behest of his overbearing mother)who obsesses over material wealth at the expense of artistic integrity. Keating depends on the ideas and talent of Howard Roark to further his own career and never acknowledges his contribution. In fact, Keating goes out of his way to discredit Roark. It takes a decline of epic proportions for Keating to learn any sort of lesson from his egoism and even then, one wonders if he truly understand what it is he's done wrong.

While Rabbit is by no means a successful professional, he reminded me of Keating in the way he allows others dictate and control his life (willingly), even when he thinks he is in control. When Rabbit returns home after his aborted drive south, he finds his former high school coach, Mr. Tothero, because he was an authority figure in his life that can tell him what to do. Rabbit is constantly manipulated by his mother, mother-in-law, Eccles, Tothero and, to a lesser extent, Ruth and Janice but rarely thinking for himself. When he does think for himself, he treats those around him with a gross disrespect, giving little thought to the consequences of what he says and what he does. When the inevitable damage is inflicted, he looks to others to clean up his messes.

3. Sal Paradiso in On The Road: I admit, I nicked this comparison from an interview I heard with Updike a few weeks prior to reading this, but it stuck and I noticed it. Kerouac and Updike wrote Rabbit, Run and On the Road at roughly the same time. Kerouac writes about Sal Paradiso, a man completely unhinged from the mainstream society. A man living his life minute to minute without much thought for responsibility or consequence. Paradiso takes off and simply wanders aimlessly across the country without much care for money, family or, well anything, really... except for kicks.

Rabbit is the Anti-Paradiso. His short foray into the world of Kerouac is comical, at best. At the beginning of the novel Rabbit drives off in the hopes of reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the farther Rabbit gets from his hometown, the more anxious he becomes. He is hopelessly lost and confused. His small-town mind has trouble digesting the larger world around him. I liked what Updike said in interview about this comparison when he noted that if everyone up and unhinged themselves from society as Sal Paradiso did, there would be nobody left behind to get things done. I'm not sure whether Rabbit was the best person to leave behind for getting things done, but not everyone is cut out for the road, least of all, Rabbit.

Another thing that troubled me about this book (in a good way, I assure you) is the time immediately prior to the first page of this novel. The disintegration of Rabbit happens so quickly and completely that one has to wonder what exactly was holding Rabbit together for the first two years of his marriage. Certainly the troubles that lead to him leaving his wife existed the day before he left her and probably the month before and the year before. Why then and how come he seems to unravel further as the novel progresses. What sort of wall was holding that angst within him for so long?

Like Holden Caulfield, I managed to muster very little sympathy for Rabbit throughout this book. but I reserved my greatest disgust for the character of Eccles, the minister who feels it is his duty to repair the broken marriage between Rabbit and Janice. I abhor people who find it their business to mess with other people's business. I suppose in a deeply religious small-town this might be more commonplace, but the idea of unsolicited involvement in the affairs of others is disgusting and borders on voyeurism. In the process of meddling into the familial affairs of people in the community (not even one of his parishioners!!!), Eccles sets up the pins for the novel's great tragedy. Ironically, while others in the novel give and take their blame for said tragedy (I'm not playing spoilers here) nobody gets off easier than Eccles. He simply walks away, unscathed. That's organized religion for you.

Oddly enough, the character with which I identified most was Mrs. Eccles. She seems to see through not only her husband's litany of bullshit but also Rabbit's. This ability to cut through their personalities and understand them at a more primal level (Updike sets her up as the voice of rationality as a dichotomy against her husband's faith) sets her apart as one of the only characters in the book that can honestly wash her hands of the affair and consider herself blameless. She has her husband pegged as a gossip hound from the start and fundamentally understands the train wreck that is Rabbit at first glance. One has to respect that sort of foreknowledge.

Rabbit, Run is the sort of novel that merits a lot more than a simple blogpost and I'll be mulling this novel over in my brain for years to come. It raises all sorts of issues concerning the nature of small-town America, it's struggle between tradition and modernity, religion and reason, and the nature of right and wrong. Above are just a few of the notes I made about this book while reading and certainly not an exhaustive interpretation of the novel (I am not equipped to do such a thing in the space provided by Blogger). I shudder to think what I might write if I waited another two or three days to organize my thoughts further.

If you haven't yet read Rabbit, Run, do so. Whether you like it or hate it, it's the sort of novel that must be read. It's a benchmark literary work that has influenced so much American literature since its publication. I will be revisiting this novel more than once in the years ahead.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
By John Le Carré

In case you are wondering, John Le Carré is not going to hold your hand. Not even for one page.

You'd be well served to do your homework before attempting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carré's classic Cold War spy novel featuring the enigmatic George Smiley and the first novel in his Karla Trilogy. You are going to need all your knowledge about Cold War era espionage to decipher this narrative, but I'll come back to that in a bit, but first a little background. Unlike Le Carré, I will hold your hand (and take you out for a nice steak dinner, if you are inclined).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy progresses via a series of flashbacks and tracks the history of the Circus (the in-house name of M16, the Secret Intelligence Service). After an agent engages in a love affair with the wife of a Soviet intelligence officer in Hong Kong, it becomes apparent that the British office has been infiltrated by a mole. Smiley has the unenviable task of ferreting out the mole, spying on the spies as it were. The title of the novel are the code names given to the potential spies in the British intelligence service. A trap is set, the culprit is apprehended and there's a neat little twist ending that... oh who am I kidding? I have no idea how this book ended. I finished it, but I'm not entirely sure what happened.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is considered a classic in the spy genre and was recently made into a film starring my favorite actor of all time, Gary Oldman, as George Smiley. the film garnered several Academy Award nominations including a Best Actor nod for Oldman (good for him!). I can't vouch for the film, though because I haven't seen it and after reading the novel, I have no plans to do so (even if it does have Gary Oldman... I'm not a fanboy). That's how much this novel frustrated me.

I's not no idjit, ya hear? But I couldn't make heads nor tails of this book. It was borderline nonsense to me. Entire chapters would go by and I had no idea what had just happened. At times I felt like I was reading a foreign language. I'm not the sort to be intimidated by a novel and I'm more than comfortable diving into classic novels that others find weird, verbose or abstract (I've read and enjoyed Naked Lunch, Vurt and Pussy, Queen of the Pirates, I'll have you know!). But even with the Wikipedia page and other sorts of cliff notes, I had trouble understanding this book. I realized there were flashbacks and I could follow the storyline at times. but there seemed to be a never-ending chorus line of minor characters and pointless tangents. It was an overload of information!

And the jargon, my GOD! I was constantly going back to find out that the hell a lamplighter or shoemaker or a janitor was. It was infuriating. I found myself drifting off for pages at a time and not really caring about what I had missed. Not a good sign when reading.

Now, I know that John Le Carré is a well respected spy novelist and I'm not going to go so far as to disrespect the man on this blog like I did to Cathy Lamb. Salman Rushdie is not everyone's cup of tea, but his reputation affords him some wiggle room from people who don't like his work (even from Ayatollahs). I think I owe Le Carré the same courtesy. So, instead of rambling on about why I didn't like this book, I'd like to hear from anyone out there that did like this book and why? Given its stature as a classic, there must be more than a few people out there that love this book. I'm addressing you! What did I miss here? How could I have read this book differently and enjoyed it? Really! I hate it when I don't get it but....

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? I don't get it.

(It does have a cool cover, though).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Archer's Tale

The Archer's Tale: Grail Quest #1
By Bernard Cornwell

Before I get to the book, I have something to announce:

Turns out I won an award. First a jar of jam at a bake sale when I was 11, now this!

The good people over at Bibliomania (if you haven't been over that way, you really should. Fantastic book blog) have given me something called the Leibster Award. Liebster is a German word for beloved. The award is given to beloved blogs with under 200 followers. These blogs are meant to be "the best kept secrets" out there. 

I am sincerely flattered that someone dropped by and thought to bestow anything on this here little blog. Can't say I much like the little heart on the Award Badge, but the sentiment is wonderful.

From here I am supposed to pass the award on, so to speak. I am asked to present this award to up to five other blogs with less than 200 followers. Unfortunately, the good people over at Bibliomania bestowed this award on many of the blogs I would have otherwise honored. All except one, so I have the great honor of presenting a Leibster Award to:

Literati Reflections

OK, back to our regularly scheduled program.

I like Bernard Cornwell because I like historical fiction. I have read a two of his novels over the past two years (Azincourt and The Last Kingdom) and while I have not fallen head over heels into his numerous series, I really appreciate the historical accuracy and detail that he crams into his work, especially his ability to make Medieval Europe come to life. Medieval Europe is one of the most misunderstood eras in Western history and Cornwell goes a long way toward clearing up a lot of misconceptions.

The Archer's Tale (or Harlequin as my copy is called, because it's from England) is the first novel in Cornwell's Grail Quest series. The series centers around the, well, you can figure that out. This particular novel centers on Thomas, the son of a (suspiciously randy) priest in a tiny village on the south coast of England. When the French sack and raze the village and take off with the church's vaunted holy relic (The Lance of St. George), Thomas is inconsolable and trundles off in pursuit.

Along the way, he becomes an archer in King Edward's invading army (these are the early days of the Hundred Year's War and England is laying waste to Brittany, Gascony, Normandy and Flanders). He runs afoul of the English gentry, beds a French noblewoman, gets hanged, learns his true ancestry from a mystical Jewish physician and a dark secret about the stole lance and its association with the holiest of holy relics: The Holy Grail. It all seems like a little much for a small town archer, but you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit, right? 

A little. But not too much. For me, Grail lore can be tricky. It makes for great adventure stories (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and classic comedy (Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail) but when it is discussed with a certain degree of seriousness, writers tend to lose me. It's gone, people. Gone. Disintegrated. It is no more! (That is, if it even existed in the first place). Besides, virtually every single relic on the planet could simply be (and most likely is) a random tooth or hair or splinter of wood some Crusader picked off a battlefield in the Holy Land, brought back to Shit-In-The-Woods, France and declared that it was the molar, follicle or shield of St. Paul or St. Thomas or Christ himself. It's a ridiculous industry based in fakery and inanity that could only have existed in a the religious vice grip that was Medeival Europe. And don't even get me started on Dan Brown's nonsense from The Da Vinci Code.

So I was a little apprehensive with Cornwell incorporating Grail lore in what was otherwise a fairly accurate account of the High Middle Ages. I enjoyed reading about the fear and carnage that the longbow inflicted on the French army, a military innovation every bit as game-changing as the atomic bomb would be almost 700 years later (and the ineptitude of Genoese "guns,"among the first ever used in European battles. Lots of noise, zero effect). I enjoyed the discussion on the insanity surrounding of holy relics and was vindicated to learn that many people, including people within the church understood how absurd these morbid trinkets were. I reveled in  the talk of heresies and was enthralled in the way Cornwell kept Thomas in the thick of major historical events such as The Battle of Caen, the Battle of Blanchetaque and the famously decisive Battle of Crecy. That's the sort of stuff I sign up for when I read Cornwell.

But the Grail stuff bores me. It's all a bunch of fanciful nonsense and how an archer gets mixed up in it all seems contrived and silly. Perhaps the later books in the series tie it up a little neater, but I found that this novel held up well without all the grail crap. It just seemed to get more absurd as the book went on. Every time it came up I half expected a dwarf or an albino to go on a rant about the Templars or the Rosicrucians and invoke the power of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (I'm only half joking).

Mercifully, these episodes are short and far between. For the most part, Cornwell sticks to the narrative build-up to the Battle of Crecy. It is interesting to hear the personalities of the two Kings. Edward from England is a staunch, battle-hardened and stoic warrior bent on the expansion of his kingdom while King Philip of France, leader of the Europe's largest army, is shackled by nerves, indecision and superstition. The way these leaders take to the filed and command their forces is fascinating. In the hands of a lessen novelist, it could have been a disappointing climax, but Cornwell handles it adeptly. 

Much like another of Cornwell's novels, Azincourt, his account of the actual battle is so spectacular I can almost smell the blood and agony of dying soldiers and horses. He is able to pinpoint exact moves, almost down to the man, as to why the battle swung in one direction or another. I'm not usually a big fan of battle scenes in books. Most writers can't do it (they move too fast to keep straight). But Cornwell is a master of the craft. The way he describes the fog of war is sublime.  There isn't another writer out there that does it as well as Cornwell and if you haven't read one of his battle scenes, you are truly missing a great literary experience. In fact, if he isn't already, he should be given an award for Battle Writing.

Perhaps the Schlacht Award?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Faceless Killers

Faceless Killers
By Hennig Mankell

I have no idea where this book came from. It was on my shelf and looked short enough and interesting enough to wash my head clear of all the non-fiction I have been reading over the past couple of weeks. There's nothing like settling into a novel after a non-fiction binge. It's like coming home.

When I started the book I had absolutely no idea that it was yet another Swedish crime novel (these things are like bed bugs lately... just what you think you've seen the last one, out pops another from the seams of your coverlet). All I read on the back of the book were the words: "It was a senselessly violent crime," and I said: "SOLD!" I'm not a discerning customer. Anyway, I should have guessed it was Swedish.

As it turns out, Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell pre-dates the current fetish (um.. that's two blog posts in a row that I've used that term) with Scandinavian crime drama, but it does not pre-date the conventions. It is also the first in a series (dammit!). I don't know enough about Scandinavian crime dramas but based on the fact that this novel was an international best seller in 1991 and that it seems to have all the requisite insanity of The Millennium Trilogy (and others), I'm curious as to whether or not this is the grandfather of a genre (much like The New York Dolls were the grandfather of punk rock). Of course, it is set in a quiet provincial town. There is the unnecessarily gruesome murder, the overworked and under-appreciated cops, the over-arching distrust of foreigners, the ubiquitous dislike for women and the ever-impending snowstorms. It's all there. In 1991. I'm beginning to think that, much like Canadian fiction, there should be a checklist that should be created to decide exactly how Swedish a particular book is.

Faceless Killers starts with the (what else?) gruesome murder of an elderly couple on a farm outside a quiet, provincial town. Naturally, the wife suffers a fair amount more than her husband. The rest of the novel follows Kurt Wallander, an over-worked and under-appreciated cop leads the investigation of the killings. The first two thirds of the novel follow Wallander's life in a minute by minute account of the first two weeks of the investigation when it becomes apparent that the killers just might be refugees from Eastern Europe (which naturally sparks all sorts of reactionary hate crimes... this is Sweden after all, the land of Church burnings and Neo-Nazis). He attempts to move the investigation along while his personal life seems to be unravelling all around him. Only his calm and cool Ystad demeanor and the lack of snow seems to carry him through what to virtually everyone else living on the Skane would be a stress level of coronary proportions. Given that he is recently divorced (what cop isn't?) and eating nothing but hamburgers and pizza, I'm surprised that he lives through this episode, but what do I know about the Swedish constitution?

The last third of the novel seems to send the story into overdrive. Months pass in the span of a few pages as the case seems to go as cold as March in Hällesjö, before Wallander resolves the mystery in the final few pages. Given the detailed narrative of the first third, I found this shift in the momentum jarring. I had become accustom the minute by minute narrative style. When it started to spin out of control, Mankell lost me a bit. I started to care a lot less about the resolution due to the pace transition. It felt a little like Mankell was trying to wrap up his novel in time to catch the last train to Sävsjö or something. It all just seemed to lose traction.

But I could live with that. It was a minor nuisance in an otherwise enjoyable crime novel. What really irked me was the translation. I kept checking back to see whether Ernest Hemingway had returned from the grave to abbreviate an entirely new generation. Turns out it's a guy named Steven T. Murray. I'm assuming he really likes Hemingway, or Dick and Jane novels, either/or. It got to a point where I began talking to my wife in short, rapid-fire sentences over lunch. She asked whether or not I had suffered a stroke.

This is a typical (though written by me, not Henning Mankell) paragraph from the book:

Wallander wondered whether he should call Kalle in Väderstad. He felt sick. Ryberg still hadn't arrived. The winter wind blew outside his window. He remembered he hadn't eaten since yesterday. He walked out of the station. He entered the restaurant across the street. He ordered a pizza. He would call Kalle as soon as he got back to the office. The pizza had pineapple. It was 11:46pm.

See what I mean? It's as unnerving as a staring contest.

The other uncomfortable thing about Faceless Killers was its focus on Sweden's (apparent) liberal policy toward immigrants and refugees. While I wouldn't class this novel as being racist or anti-immigration, it did seem to imply a lot of negativity toward non-Swedish residents. While it could be that Mankell's intention was to raise the issue, I'm not sure he was overly clear about it. I got the impression that most of the characters in the book would have been perfectly happy with mass expulsion, but they were all too Nordically polite to say so. I might be wrong, but that was the impression this book left me.

But I'm not going to slag on Faceless Killers too much. As a whole it had me from page one through the pace change and while I lost some of the interest Mankell generated in his build-up I didn't lose so much as to throw the book down in disgust or anything. It's not the world's greatest crime novel  but it certainly isn't the worst book on the market and who am I to get all huffy about Swedish immigration policy? Besides, I could think of worse things to read if you happen to be caught on the overnight train from Stockholm to Rättviks.

If you dig sado-masochistic novels from Scandinavia, check it out. If you were ambivalent about the Millennium Trilogy, give this one a pass.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
By John J. Mearsheimer

Administrator's Note: I'm going to bet that this will be my least popular post, ever. Not because of what I say, so much, but because this book will look so insanely dry to virtually everyone who visits this blog. It's not, but it is decidedly academic, which makes it a book of limited interest by nature. I've tried to make this entry as fun as possible. Apologies if you don't think so. So, anyway... whiteout further ado.... International relations!


According to John J. Mearsheimer, the controversial international relations theorist and preeminent proponent of offensive realism, anarchy is the most misappropriated word in the English language. Aside from the abjectly idiotic manner in which the Sex Pistols bandied the term about during the first wave of punk rock and the manner in which anarchy has somehow become a catchall slogan for clueless punks (and I say this lovingly, as I am a huge fan of punk rock), anarchy does not, as most of us assume, mean a state of chaos and disorder but rather a system in which there exists no system above in which to appeal for justice.

Such is the international system.

Within nations there exists a system of laws and rules. It is a social contract in which the citizens of said nation agree upon (or, more likely, are born into and therefore have no choice but to abide). These laws and rules function as a means of controlling and tempering or relations with each other and our government. But what of the international system. What laws exist among nations? the answer, of course, is none. Anarchy. Nations exist in a state of anarchy and therefore act in a self-serving manner in order to gain as much wealth, security and power they can achieve at the expense of their rivals. This is a simple matter of survival. Kill or be killed.

This is a central theme of Mearsheimer's theory of offensive realism. Offensive realism is the theory of international relations that outlines how and why nations act the way they do. The theory was first presented, in painstaking detail I might add, in Mearsheimer's classic 2001 book on international relations, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. While it did take the world of international relations by storm, offensive realism is actually an extension of Hans Morgenthau's older theory known as classical realism, but I digress. I don't want to get to theoretical around here. Offensive realism asserts that:

A) The international system functions in a state of anarchy. (Not just the U.K)
B) All states are rational. (Yes, Even North Korea)
C) All states are concerned with survival (All states want to continue being states... especially Poland).
D) All states have some military capability. (There is some debate about the Canadian navy, but we'll let that go)
E) All states can never be 100% certain of the intentions of other states. (of course)

The end result is that all states attempt to maximize their power and influence while trying to minimize their regional rivals, thus establishing a balance of power or, in the case of America, regional hegemony. Really, when you think about it, offensive realism is simply a massive dose of common sense mixed with a heaping spoonful of duh. But kudos to Mearsheimer. Nobody thought of it prior to this book (or if they did, they certainly didn't think to write it down anywhere) and therefore Mearsheimer wins the Common sense Award for International Relations.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that great power politics is not the sexiest section of the non-fiction aisle but it does have a certain fetish appeal (much like furries), especially to a former history student and an avid fan of European diplomatic history (I didn't have a lot of girlfriends when I was younger, I'll give you a few guesses as to why). While the trend in historical study has shifted over the past fifty to sixty years from the purely political to the purely social (and I do love me some Howard Zinn), there is still need for understanding how and why states act the way they do, not only in order to understand the past, but also in attempts to predict the future course of events. Offensive realism provides that need. And it rings especially true when one thinks about the growing security concerns facing Asia.

Mearsheimer goes on to outlines why, even in the era of vast naval and air forces, land power remains the preeminent indicator of military clout and how large bodies of water deter national power projection. Therefore, even in the modern era with massive navies air forces and nuclear weapons, all power conflicts will be settled by land forces, which makes overseas assaults a virtual impossibility (and would explain why despite their status as a great power, why Great Britain never bothered to amass a formidable army. With the English Channel as a natural barrier and the U.K.'s policy of staying out of continental affair whenever possible, there simply wasn't any reason to build one). Therefore, while America may be a regional hegemon (the only Great Power in the Western Hemisphere and the world's only regional hegemon) they can never fully actualize their power in other regions and can only act as offshore balancers (in other words, America will never be a global hegemon... so all you conspiracy theorists can wipe your brows and go back to discussing the Illuminati), a role they have accepted and maintained since 1945 due to the bipolar nature of great power politics during the Cold War and beyond.

Once the totality of offensive realism is established, Mearsheimer spends the vast majority of this book defending his theory via historical evidence, specifically Great Power politics between 1792 and 1990 (From Revolutionary Era France through to the fall opt the Soviet Union). Throughout, Mearsheimer discusses the nature and fluctuation of great power politics in Europe, Northeast Asia and the Americas. He spends a great deal of time demonstrating how all the great powers during that time (France, Austria-Hungary, The United Kingdom, Prussia/Germany, Russia/The Soviet Union, America, Italy and Japan) have acted in accordance with offensive realism. Anyone that is interested in the decision making processes of the great powers throughout this era will not be disappointed. Why some conflicts remained regional (The Crimean War, The Franco-Prussian War) while other conflicts became total wars (The Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, The Cold War). It is a fascinating look into the rational minds that governed these states and how they strategized.

I don't want to ruin the ending, but the latter half of the book deals with using the theory to make predictions about the future of great power politics and spends a good amount of time hypothesizing about the latent potential of China as an emerging great power and possible Asian hegemon (spoiler: as of 2001, Mearsheimer doesn't see any potential instability in the Northeast Asian theater where there currently exists three great powers: China, Russia and America but in more recent publications he has asserted that China's rise will be not be peaceful and China will make a play for regional hegemony). Mearsheimer even spills a considerable amount of ink discussing the potential destabilizing issue of Taiwan as it relates to China and america, though it is a cursory examination and he doesn't cover any new ground, really.

Anyone who is a nerd for international politics and international relations has probably already read this book. It is regarded as a classic in its field of study (along with the work of Hans Morgenthau, A.J.P. Taylor and the like). If you are a fan and haven't yet read this book, do so at your earliest possible convenience. Whether you agree with him or not, Mearsheimer is the current golden boy of his field, though not without his detractors. In recent years he has come under fire for his assertion that Israelis are the world's new Afrikaners, a statement that has shackled him with the label of Anti-Semite, so bear that in mind before you go throwing his name around at cocktail parties, would you? But that really doesn't come into play in this book and shouldn't cloud your judgment of offensive realism.

As far as books about international relations go, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is at the top of its field. If they gave Booker Prizes for books about international relations, Mearsheimer would have won. As it stands, they don't and he'll have to content himself with simply being the most outspoken individual in his field.

Good read. I feel smarter.