UPDATE 7/10: Welcome to readers finding this post through my Sunday Spotlight column.
The intro: I envision this occasional series as kind of a “virtual” club of people bound together not so much by common titles but simply a love of reading; I tell you what I’m reading, and you tell me, and we get a sense of satisfaction by knowing there are other people out there who love text in an image-based world. If you share your thoughts with me by Thursday morning, I might be able to work them into my upcoming Sunday Spotlight column.
In the past few months I’ve been soaking up mostly fiction. Some of it was because of sequel obligation (I finished up the final two books in “The Hunger Games” series) and some because of the pleasurable scenario of getting a crush on a writer and wanting more (in this case Paul Auster, whose “Sunset Park” I first got hooked on). But two non-fiction titles were really the ones that rocked my world: Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks,” which has been a keen reminder never to read a story about medicine in the popular press without activating my Incredulity Meter; and Sebastian Junger’s “WAR,” a fascinating look at modern combat through the lens of Afghanistan.
Along with Christopher Hedges’ “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” Junger’s “WAR” is destined to become a classic examination of warfare and the human psyche. Junger brings a cleft-jawed, man’s-man sensibility to the task, and he doesn’t shy from his major message: War is hell, but it’s also the thrill of a lifetime, and it offers a purer form of bonding and brotherhood than most of us will ever experience. But while the book could have bristled with unmitigated bravado, its smart and sensitive side adds the extra jolt.
Junger was embedded with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley along with filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who made the film “Restrepo” (and who was later killed in Libya). For five months, he basically lived as a soldier: ate their rations, bunked in their quarters, went on their patrols.
But while the book is set in a particular time and place, Junger does not try for a linear depiction of events. He uses events he observed — from fierce fighting to dusty boredom — as entry points for a more impressionistic approach. One of his biggest fascinations is the group dynamics that emerge from armed combat. Warfare has never been a solitary affair — perhaps excepting the lonely anarchist — and you have to look at its tribal nature. Take the whole idea of combat, for example. Junger notes that the choreography of battle “always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence is combat.”
Is there an evolutionary basis for this groupthink? At first it would seem hard to find. Why would a man give up his life for the good of the group, allowing others in the gene pool to live? It’s an interesting question, much debated, and it shows how complicated evolutionary biology can be. Humans are social animals and have evolved that way, and the survival of the pack and the tribe seems hard-wired.
Junger titles one of his sections “Love,” but it’s not the garden-variety romantic variety. What mostly placid peacetime relationship could compare to the “romance” of a relationship forged in the fire of the battlefield where towering acts of selflessness and bravery have transpired? Junger writes: “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.” He notes that in all the studies made of combat, sociologists slowly began to realize that courage was love.
At the micro level, then, it doesn’t matter so much what people are fighting for as the fighting itself. We like to think of warfare as having an inherent big-picture motivation: fighting for “freedom,” or revenge, or religion. But this idea of fighting for a good cause has always been hard to carry through when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of warfare. How to explain the commitment with which soldiers on “the wrong side” in history have fought — for dictators, for “false” religions, for lost causes? (Why did German soldiers fight so hard at the end of World War II when the end was near?) At the micro level, Junger witnessed almost no discussion or interest in the larger issues of Afghanistan, whether on a political or moral level. The pontificating and debate was left to the chattering classes back home, which are mostly made up of those lucky enough to escape combat completely. He writes: “A soldier needs to have his basic physical needs met and needs to be valued and loved by others. If those things are provided by the group, a soldier requires no rationale other than the defense of that group to continue fighting.”
What we don’t like to recognize is that war is a thrill so much more potent than the anemic entertainments those in civilian life use as its substitutes — sports, movies, video games — that some soldiers who experience it firsthand flat-out miss it. That’s because war truly is a force that gives meaning. And it’s so deeply embedded in human nature it’s hard to imagine otherwise.
Some of the other books I’ve recently read or listened to on CD:
“Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre. This rousing, funny, eye-opening read paid off immediately for me: Days after finishing this piercing attack on medical studies and the gullible journalists that report on them, I saw a blaring headline online about the power of salt. A study “suggests that low salt intake can actually increase the risk of dying from cardiovascular causes.”
The good news: the New York Times, and many other major news organizations, were quick to point out the limitations of the study. That was what I was looking for: skepticism. I don’t think Goldacre is advocating the mistrust of all medical studies. On the contrary, he cites them extensively when devoting a chapter to the immunization-autism spectacle. Instead, he wants to inoculate folks, if you will, with a little bit of scientific toughness. Don’t fall for the snake-oil routine rampant today with expensive cosmetics (why would you want to put salmon-roe DNA on your face?), homeopathic superstitions (the counseling that comes from a homeopath might be beneficial, but the actual medicinal value of the treatments is practically nil, the author says) and, most of all, valuing anecdotal accounts over data (such as in the autism debate). Always ask yourself: Who benefits from this “science”?
“Sunset Park” by Paul Auster. Miles pushed his stepbrother years ago in a fit of anger, and the result was a tragic accident. He’s never been the same. In this somber, nearly melancholy work, Auster positions Miles as the major character in a novel about four disaffected young people who squat in an abandoned home in the rough Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park.
Auster is an intense storyteller, and I found myself almost hypnotized by the first few chapters, which recount the latest mess that Miles — who hasn’t talked to his upper-crust parents in years after “running away” to a life of menial jobs — finds himself in Florida, where he hooks up with an underage girlfriend named Pilar. When Pilar’s sister tries to blackmail him for the relationship, he flees to New York, where a school friend of his talks him into joining his “family” of squatters.
Auster is defiantly non-traditional in terms of his prose. There’s very little action in the book; we rely instead on exposition, with each character’s inner thoughts thoroughly aired. It comes across as a kind of heightened passivity; things unfold rather than combust. It’s an approach that works quite well with Miles’ story and its accompanying complications (his mother is a famous actress who sort of abandoned him as a child, and his father a struggling book publisher). It left me wanting more Auster.
“Brooklyn Follies” by Paul Auster. The author gives us a memorable narrator: a life-insurance named Nathan Glass, a retired life-insurance salesman with a dead marriage and a desire to live out his remaining days in relative peace. Instead, a chance reunion with his long-lost nephew, Tom, sparks a renaissance in Nathan’s life that unfolds in a haphazard but appealing array of unlikely twists and interesting characters, from the gorgeous waitress he lusts over at the neighborhood coffee shop to his 9-year-old great niece, Lucy, who shows up on his doorstep one day and sparks a boisterous plot arc involving her mother’s involvement in a wacko church.
Auster’s style is defiantly laidback and his tone a careful blend of cheeriness and omniscient pessimism. What strikes me so much about his prose is his deliberate manner of laying out things for the reader rather than propelling us forward – which seems to go against the conventional wisdom that readers seek an active engagement with what they’re reading. I like, too, how the narrator builds up events far more than they deserve. An example: at one point Nathan’s niece pours cans of Coke in his gas tank in a deliberate attempt to stall a road trip, and the way that Nathan builds up the story — in tones suggesting a premonition of great disaster or life events of tremendous consequence — is almost over-the-top. Yet isn’t the way people are when they’re in the middle of life. You don’t know at the time, necessarily, exactly when you’re navigating the most profound moments of your life. More than anything, this is a book about a rather ordinary life that’s written as if that life is a blockbuster – which gives it a relaxed, endearing charm.
“The Terrorist” by John Updike. A young, pious Muslim high school student living in New Jersey is recruited to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel. In this thriller-meets-rumination-on-faith story, Updike seems to relish using a ripped-from-the-headlines tone as a device to burrow into the all-consuming question: What could be possibly going through the head of a suicide bomber?
It’s an eloquently written work, but I’m not sure Updike really accomplishes his goal. Ahmad is a deep thinker, for one thing, and — this could be a big blind spot on my part — I’m not all that sure suicide bombers spend that much time thinking. Early on, Updike suggests that Ahmad has doubts, even about the existence of God, much less one who encourages jihad. But as the action in the novel picks up, he becomes less of a philosopher and more of a caricature of a religious fanatic. My feeling is that an author you can’t have it both ways: Either Ahmad truly believes, or he’s a poseur (or, of course, a hybrid of the two), but Updike just seems content to keep him at a slight distance, never really truly burrowing into what makes him tick.
Along with Ahmad, the other major character in the novel is the tired, deflated Mr. Levy, his guidance counselor, who embarks on a merry summer fling with Ahmad’s mother and finds himself strangely connected to this unapproachable young man. Updike slathers on the symbolism when it comes to the Levy character: He’s secular, a lapsed Jew, someone for whom fervency could have coursed through his veins, but who instead has been smoothed out and blanched by the American way. I found Levy’s bitter, sad-sack ruminations even less believable than Ahmad’s. And the climactic scene, with Levy hopping in Ahmad’s truck just as the fateful morning ride to the Lincoln Tunnel gets under way, is gruff and unsatisfying.
“Catching Fire” by Susan Collins. Back for more in this second part of the “Hunger Games” trilogy. The stalwart Katniss barely has time to relish her improbable victory in the games — a victory that allowed both her and Peeta, her fellow District 12 competitor, to live — before the evil President Snow pulls another rule change and throws her (and all previous winners of the games) back into the arena. It turns out that Katniss has become a potent symbol of rebellion to an insurgency that is far greater in scope than she or any of her in-the-dark countrymen could imagine.
Though Collins takes an interesting turn in this book, out of necessity this second part in the trilogy is likely a low point, serving as it does as the bridge between parts one and three. With the elevation of Katniss to national hero (and menace), some of the claustrophobic, page-turning potency of the first book is lost in favor of larger themes and a bigger canvas. And, frankly, I was just a little bored with her fight-to-the-death travails in the arena this time around.
“Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins. The war concludes in this third part of the trilogy. Those hoping for a touchy-feelie romantic conclusion might be disappointed. “Mockingjay” is a good deal bleaker than I expected it to be, imbuing the trilogy with a darker edge.
The big twist as the book progresses is that the Resistance — for which Katniss has been giving her all — could be as bad as the Capitol. We know that President Snow is evil incarnate, but the glimpses we get of President Coin, the leader of the Resistance, are ominous. Coin sees in Katniss a potential rival, and while she isn’t blatant in her disdain, you can see the pressure building.
As far as the love triangle is concerned, Collins is a bit awkward, as if she doesn’t know how to keep it in the book (a requirement to satisfy her teeny-bopper fans) but is also unsure how to resolve it. Her solution: Brainwash Peeta and turn him into a Katniss-hater.
Through this book Katniss is depressed, perhaps even shell-shocked. And she’s grappling with the slow realization that all the people who have given their lives for her might be doing so in vain — because it’s human nature for power to corrupt.
As for the page-turning brilliance of the first book, it’s never regained, of course. But there is a pretty nice twist at the end. I do admire that Collins made an effort to give us something more than an action ending.
“Psmith, Journalist” by P.G. Wodehouse. In this brisk novel I met for the first time the recurring character of Psmith (the P is silent, of course), the slightly snooty, amiably erudite, never bumbling but not-quite-superman protagonist who gets into lots of scrapes but always walks away a winner. In this case, Psmith is on an extended stay in New York City, where he bumps into an unsatisfied assistant editor named Billy Windsor of a relentlessly cheery weekly paper called Cosy Moments.
When the editor of Cosy Moments is forced to take an extended medical leave, Psmith helps hatch a plot in which Billy radically shifts the editorial content of the newspaper from sentimental schlock-fest to feisty street tabloid. Along the way Billy and Psmith bump up against one of the big crime gangs in the city in a plot thread involving a scandalous tenement.
On one hand, this is Wodehouse being his usual jolly self, and there’s no real sense of menace in the book even as the major characters are threatened with murder. On the other, it’s interesting that the author does flirt with the world of crime. Even a bit disconcerting.
“Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie. Never again, Mr. Rushdie. Never again. I’m convinced he’s one of the most overrated novelists of the decade. From his contrived characterizations, florid prose, self-important voice and occasional nauseating foray into magical realism, this big book about an illegitimate daughter born to an American diplomat and Kashmir-native mother is overwrought in most every way.
The storyline in brief: Max Ophuls, World War II hero, man of impeccable breeding and voracious appetites, becomes the U.S. ambassador to India. There he has an affair with a dancer named Boonyi, who sees Max as a ticket out of her small town in Kashmir, an epicenter of the clash between Hindus and Muslims (i.e., India and Pakistan). Max and Boonyi have a daughter, who is named India. To produce this illegitimate child, Boonyi leaves her husband, Shalimar The Clown (referred to unerringly by Rushdie in that manner throughout the book, another annoying affectation), who swears revenge, becomes a professional assassin, and pursues Max and India across the years.
Rushdie’s prose is readable in the sections he devotes to Kashmir, and he eloquently illustrates the combustibility of religion. He’s weakest trying to capture Los Angeles, which is home to India. He’s most annoying in the contrived ending, which includes an escape from San Quentin. I know that other Rushdie novels have received more acclaim than this one, but I can’t help but think that he is celebrated for taking a stand as a writer rather than being a good one.
“Caribou Island” by David Vann. In a little Alaska town, a marriage festers, a grown daughter grasps at a lukewarm relationship, a grown son soaks himself in pot and distances himself from his lackluster parents. No more dysfunction, it would seem, than in any average screwed-up American family — but then there’s the wide-open, chilly, menacing wildness of Alaska to smother the whole mess in. Vann’s bleak, crisp novel isn’t exactly light-hearted reading. And he relishes wielding a metaphor hammer in the form of Alaska, long a favorite of Outside writers fascinated with the state’s gritty frontier trope. But, ah, the writing. So precise and lyrical, so beautifully spare — and so intense.
Irene is married to Gary, and as the book opens she is reluctantly helping him in the latest of his half-baked schemes: building a cabin on an isolated island near the town of Soldotna. She fights him every step of the way, but she still soldiers on, half a martyr and half a malcontent. Her relationship with Gary is built on a thousand sore details built up over the years. After they get caught in a storm, she gets a nasty head cold and headache that won’t go away. Vann describes the pain with such eloquence that my own head almost seemed to throb in sympathy. Is it just a headache? Or something more, like a brain tumor? (Irene even goes to a specialist in Anchorage, who can’t find anything wrong with her.) The pain is a potent symbol of her pent-up frustrations at a life that didn’t turn out as planned.
The other two major characters are Rhoda, their daughter, and Jim, her boyfriend. She desperately wants to get married. He doesn’t. She dreams of a posh wedding in Hawaii; he has his eye on a slutty, bored (and thoroughly unlikable) rich tart passing through town. Jim and Rhoda both long for more fuller, successful, fantastical lives. (And don’t we all?)
Vann has created a work of roiling inner lives. It’s sad. In that opening scene, Irene is chilled to the bone. As a reader, I often felt the same way.