Monday, December 16, 2013

Kill Anything That Moves - Nick Turse

When I finished "Kill Anything That Moves," I wanted to stand up and give it a round of applause. Rarely does a book come around that is so thoroughly researched, so compellingly and humanely told as this. Like a talented composer, Nick Turse draws from a dizzying din (millions of military documents, oral recollections, old news stories, etc.) and forges it into a singular unrelenting vision: "The Vietnam War," the book declares,"was not a war but an 18 year massacre." 

War journalism is a difficult art. Emotions run high, experiences vary, time warps memory, and cover-ups abound. It is easy to give into nostalgia or whitewash what American soldiers did. After all, this is a book written by an American for an American audience. That given, I was extremely impressed with Turse's integrity. Although explaining the circumstances that were conducive to sadistic and shockingly brutal behavior (soldiers were young, sleep-deprived, stressed, traumatized, and trained to disregard Vietnamese life) he does not explain away or absolve individual soldiers of their crimes.

In one fascinating passage, Turse recounts the same massacre from two point of views: a soldier and a woman who barely escaped being murdered by him. I was really impressed by how often Turse let Vietnamese civilians and war crime survivors speak for themselves.

"Kill Everything that Moves" contains page after page of real crimes acted out by individual soldiers. Turse also spends time discussing how higher ups encouraged war crimes by covering them up and providing benefits to units with higher body counts.

Main Bullet Point: Read It. It will change the way you view Vietnam (and American foreign policy as a whole) forever. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

I Am A Cat - Natsume Soseki

Ah, two classic novels that lampoon society in a row. Natsume Soseki's classic "I Am A Cat" is told (believe it or not) from the point of view of a cat. The unnamed feline has an intense sense of self importance. It goes about doing normal cat things (stealing bits of fish, meowing) with the gravest sense of duty. The cat's favorite hobby is passing judgement on humans. It lives with Mr. Sneaze (a trivial man) and his unpleasant family.

I picked up this book because it is considered an essential classic of Japanese literature. I was skeptical about if I would actually enjoy it. I'm not that familiar with Meiji Era society and I figured most of the jokes would either 1. Go over my head or 2. Not be funny. 

Happily, I was wrong. Thanks in no small part to an excellent translation, the prose flies by. It was amusing and clever. No matter what society, cats are still adorable assholes and humans are still petty and silly. The cat's treatise on how weird haircuts and hair styling is should not be missed. 

The Meiji Era was a time of transition in Japanese society, when Western influences were starting to have a profound effect both culturally and economically. It is interesting to see characters talk about Western culture from an outsider's perspective. Soseki was highly educated in Western literature, and loves lampooning people who pretend they know about the West but don't. (See a funny exchange in which a man demands "moatballs" and refuses to accept "meatballs.

Clocking in at over 600 pages, this book did drag at time. Yet, over it is a great introduction to Japanese literature.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vile Bodies - Evelyn Waugh

When I open my misanthropy-themed bookstore, “Vile Bodies” is sure to be one of my bestsellers. 

“Vile Bodies” is what I like to call a “society book,” a novel which concerns itself with the ugly reality of the upper class. In this case the “Bright Young Things,” the young British socialites of the interwar period are lampooned. While there are (easily) hundreds of books that paint damning portraits of high society, this one stands out because it is incredibly funny. 

Waugh has an excellent sense of comedic timing and a great wit. While most society books feel like wading through waist-high sludge, “Vile Bodies” is excellently paced. It is a pleasurable and amusing read.
First published in 1930, the book follows would-be writer and insolvent aristocrat Adam Fenwick-Symes. Trapped in an incredibly unfavorable book deal, Adam tries to earn enough money writing a gossip column to wed his beloved Nina Blount. Adam’s quest is made all the more difficult by the fact he is a complete idiot. 

Nina is described as “lovely,” but only in a vague way. Her main trait seems to be wishy-washiness. Why Adam is so determined to marry her is a mystery to all, even the couple. After the couple has sex (an ostentatious move given the time period) Nina dryly reports: “All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.” 
My favorite character is Nina’s father, Colonel Blount. The blustering, out-of-touch military man gave me a great laugh with this exchange wherein Adam is trying to get the Colonel to give him £1,000 while Adam writes the 12 books he needs to terminate his book deal:

Colonel Blount: “And how long will it take you to write twelve books?”
Adam: “About a year.”

Blount: “How long would it take most people?”

Adam: “About twenty years. Of course, put like that I do see that it sounds rather hopeless…but, you see, Nina and I hoped that you, that is, that perhaps for the next year until I get my twelve book written, that you might help us…”

Blount: “How could I help you? I've never written a book in my life.” 

As in all society books you have your requisite frightful gossips and eccentric Grande Dames. There are parties on dirigibles and derby races with lost cars. No matter what, every party is dull, every person is out of touch with reality, every personality is dreadful, and everyone hates each other. They all roll through life aimlessly, picking up children, war medals, and going to parties they don’t enjoy. By the end of the book you’ll be thankful to be poor. 

If you are looking for a book to make you hate the world more and still throw you some laughs, this is it. 

Side Note: This book was dedicated “With Love to Bryan and Diana Guinness.” Diana Guinness was also known as Diana Mitford. Mitford was a British socialite who famously became a great supporter of the Third Reich. A bit ironic considering Vile Bodies ends with a catastrophic war. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Poemland - Chelsy Minnis

When I first read through this short collection of poems I didn't like it at all. Yet I couldn't quell my compulsion to immediately read through it again. The second time around I loved every word. 

Minnis is a radically new category of poet. This category might only ever contain one poet. They at least appear to be semi-autobiographical, but rely heavily on absurd (and often disturbing) images. She uses similes where convention screams metaphor. She shows and doesn't tell. The poems regularly rely on the word "thing" which I have been berated for using since middle school. It all works beautifully.

In Minnis's world everything is off-kilter or blatantly inane. Damaged people hop through terrible circumstance. Without question her greatest skill is imagery. I also enjoy the blunt way she makes statements: "You should cry-hustle because it is good to cry-hustle" and "You are never going to be dead enough!" Although my favorite line, and the current background on my phone, is "But it is sad to be your own misogynist."

Poetry has for quite a while been boring with annoying illusions of grandeur. If I have to read one more poem about how beautiful and difficult raising children can be (with lots of images of trees and flowers) I'm going to explode. With poets like Minnis poetry is getting interesting again. Literature is going in an interesting direction.

We Were the Mulvaneys - Joyce Carol Oates

This is the kind of book I try so desperately to like.

 I enjoy Joyce Carol Oates. Her famous short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" is easily in my top three. So I cracked open this copy with complete optimism. The first chapter had me hooked, revealing an interesting character who confesses to being involved in a murder. By half way in turning each page was a chore. I simply wasn't interested.

It isn't that I hate slow things. I love “Moby Dick” if that tells you anything. I just can't stand this kind of book. You know the kind. There's a perfect family in a perfect small town. Everyone is so quirky and likable. Then dark family secrets come out and the perfect town becomes intolerant and mean. The family members are sad and tortured. And wow doesn't that show how America is falling apart and the family isn't family anymore? I think if you were an author born in the mid-20th century you are legally required to write this type of book. I get it, there's not idyllic small town America anymore! 

Even that could be forgiven, but combined with the awful character development I just couldn't stomach it. In true "isn't America horrible and isn't this family a perfect metaphor for it" fashion, nobody in the book is worth liking.

The sole daughter is described as beautiful and popular to an almost comical degree. Yes, she is kind, Christian, blonde, blue eyed. She is a cheerleader but is still nice to the retarded and awkward at school. Someone grab this girl a halo.

Then she is raped at prom. It is a terrible tragedy. A real loving family would support their daughter, but guess what: her parents whisk her away into exile for the next ten years because the father "doesn't want to look at her." Everyone (with the exception of one character) is only mildly off put by this. It’s as if the father’s evil and sexist reaction is an unfortunate event but there's nothing anyone can do. The good Christian mother is fine abandoning her teenage daughter, the eldest son ignores it, and the little brother never resents the decision at all, though he bemoans that he never got to enjoy the family before it fell apart. The daughter patiently waits for her father's forgiveness without a bit of bitterness. Give me a break. Of course, the father dies young and asks for Marianne on his deathbed. Boom all is fixed. Right after that the daughter marries and has a baby after years of struggling with her sexuality. Ms. Oates, I expected a bit more feminism from you. Also, the family does this to their daughter and no one even tells them off?

Except someone, the sole light in the book, does tell them off. The second son Patrick is a cold, science-minded boy who wants to get the hell away from his family as soon as possible, even when they are still the Waltons-lite. I'm pretty sure Oates wants the audience to dislike Patrick, but I rooted for him. Good for you kid! Get the hell away from these idiots! He quits this small town crap and goes to Cornell to fill his dreams. Also, Patrick is the only one who keeps in contact with his sister Marianne, doing his best to be a good brother. He cuts off his parents and refuses to see them because of their treatment of Marianne. He's also the one who tries to get justice for her (albeit in a twisted way). Again, you go kid. 

But the real reason I like Patrick is the biggest grief other characters have with him. He "abandons the family." Unlike other characters, he realizes his personality problems and does something about it, becoming dedicated to a life of travel, service, and environmentalism. During this time he completely stops talking to his family. The book sees this as bad. Sorry, but I'm not biting. You can throw as many "good hearted quirky" moms at me as you want Oates. I’m still going to say not talking to a bunch of people who think abandoning your daughter because she got raped is the right choice. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

George R.R. Martin – A Feast For Crows

How disappointing.

After the thrilling third installment of “A Song of Ice and Fire” I was excited to jump back into Martin’s exciting and expansive world. Part of the fun of the series is how it jumps from wildly different point of views. You come to know and love characters whose goals are completely opposed to each other. As soon as one story gets to a harrowing or crucial point you are thrown into another and by the time you get back to the first story you are desperate to get back to the one you left it for. It makes reading a thrilling roller coaster of high and lows.
Unfortunately, as Martin explains in an apologetic post-script, there is no such fun to be had in this book. The book was apparently too long in its original form (it already clocks in at a healthy 700 pages). The story had to be split. Martin decided to split it by putting half the characters in one and half in the other. It was a fatal mistake.
I am not sure if the mistake lies in the choice to split the point of views or in how the points of view were distributed. When last we left John Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Tully, Tyrion Lannister, and Sansa Stark were all at crucial points. In “A Feast For Crows” we see Sansa a couple of times and that is all. The vast majority of the story is from Cersei’s point of view. Either Cersei is scheming, complaining, and torturing the innocent or we are hearing Jamie complain about how she is doing it. The book also devotes time to female knight Brienne’s futile quest to find Sansa Stark.
I’ll be honest, everyone hates Cersei the Queen Regent of Westeros. She is a terrible human being. In other books I couldn’t wait to get through her part just to get away from how incredibly evil she is. It was completely dreadful to have to drag myself through 300 pages of her moping, hating everyone, and being downright evil towards everyone including her own children. And then as an added bonus I got to hear more about her from Jamie! When it comes to Brienne, I don’t mind her but she isn’t one of my favorite characters. I certainly did not want to sit through her attempt to solve a mystery the audience already knows the answer to. Although I did enjoy how through Brienne the audience gets to see the plight of the “small folk” or peasants.
The occasional visits from Samwell and Arya were welcome respites and were brief moments of light in this dismal book. I did enjoy the increasing presence of Iron Islands’ royal family and was disappointed that they dropped off for most of the book. Littlefinger was brilliant as always and the drama surrounding the Eyrie was the standout of this book.
Overall I found this book frustrating. The bits of light were surrounded by a dull sea of “who cares.” Martin’s attempt to radically restructure his novel did not go well and readers will suffer for it. I am hoping this series will pick up in the next book and it has built up enough of a rapport that I will keep going. If you liked the first three books I recommend continuing the series, but brace yourself because as Martin says in his introduction “this one’s a bitch.” 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

David Wojnarowicz – Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

David Wojnarowicz’s book is a classic of LGBT literature and rightfully so. It is a scathing indictment of a society that alternates between happily sitting by while a generation dies of AIDS and gleefully acting to ensure further deaths. Pure hatred, desperation, and pain pour out sharply and beautifully from each page. Probably the most heartbreaking part for me was the recollection of the final days of the famous photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s friend and lover. Wojnarowicz died soon after the book’s publication of AIDS-related complications. What he left behind him was a startling body of work in multiple mediums (notably photography) including “Close to the Knives.”
Wojnarowicz’s book captures a multi-faceted experience of what it was like to be a gay man surviving, fighting for change, and creating at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The book’s primary focus is, in my opinion, the genocide of LGBT people by mainstream America who continually slowed AIDS research and denied the resources and information necessary to combat the disease. Its subtitle “A Memoir of Disintegration” is painfully accurate. While reading the book it really does feel that everything is falling down around the author.
Yet make no mistake, there is more than just anger in this book. The book is also highly-erotic and full of sexually-charged and beautifully rendered scenes. Wojnarowicz also goes on adventures around the country, musing as he sees the seedier sides of Our Great Nation. Wherever the book takes you, it does it well. W.’s technical ability and the control of his writing cannot be overstated. Only a book this beautiful could tell a tale so ugly and cruel.
This was one of the first books I’ve read in a while that really emotionally affected me. In reading this book I was constantly rethinking about a moment in my 8th grade health class. My teacher made us watch a speech by a “sex educator” on television. I now realize that what she really told us was some body-shaming abstinence-only bullshit but at that age I lacked the ability to understand such things though I felt really put off by it. However, there was one part that I will never forget. The “educator” told the story of how a young high school student who had just found out she had HIV came up to this “educator” after a conference. She was obviously looking for comfort and advice from someone who supposedly had knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Instead the educator brushed her off, essentially saying “oh well, that’s what happens when you have premarital sex, you deserved it.” Even at 13 I knew this was an incredibly wrong way of thinking. I explained this to my health teacher, saying this young girl was going to die, had her whole life and dreams shattered at once and we should have empathy. My health teacher snickered, trying to tell me you get AIDS because you slut around or do drugs and therefore deserve it.
I was filled with such an incredibly amount of hurt and rage by this. That night I went home and cried in my bedroom because I couldn’t believe so many people around me felt like this. I feel that that attitude is still highly prevalent in our society and it has never stopped pissing me off. I wish that “Close to the Knives” was required reading in high schools so kids could get an actual healthy look at eroticism, sexuality, and AIDS. I wish everyone could see that AIDS is not something you get because you “deserve” punishment for your “amoral” behavior and it is that kind of attitude that causes the disease to spread.