In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…
Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.
And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.
He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.
The Story of Motown (1979)
A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.
It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.
Camino Island (2017)
Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.
It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.
It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.
The Dud Avocado (1958)
Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.
This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.
Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.
Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.
The Heat of the Day (1948)
I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.
But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.
This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.
Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.
Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.
The One From the Other (2006)
Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.
As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.
As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.
Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.
It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.
The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.
But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.
That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is). By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…
Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.
I feel them beckoning.
The Plot Against America (2004)
Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.
Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.
The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.
It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.
Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.
Not just what if, then, but merely what if.
Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.
Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.
What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)
Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).
Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.
The Last Battle (1966)
The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.
The books are all classics of the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.
I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.
…And now I must go start working on next month!