friday, may 09, 2008
Death in the Andes - Mario Vargas LlosaSometimes, when the enormity of reality is simply too great a burden for the mind to comprehend, literature can serve as a midwife to understanding. It certainly is the case with Mario Vargas Llosa's novel Death in the Andes.
The Peruvian writer's effort to distill the sense of helplessness and horror that gripped his country for the better part of two decades due to a bloody and violent Maoist insurgency is an astonishing accomplishment. It's also essential reading for those who did not experience that terrible period firsthand (such as myself) to have any hope of understanding what transpired in the Andean nation in those years.
Beginning in 1980, the Shining Path guerrillas began a civil war in Peru from the highlands. Ardent and hard-line Maoists, their intent was nothing less than to destroy the government of Peru and begin a worldwide people's revolution. read more
monday, april 28, 2008
Persuasion - Jane AustenA good friend of mine whose taste in books I respect and who also happens to be British can be made to actually cringe if you utter the name "Jane Austen." A lifetime of odiously sentimental BBC serials can do that but the author herself went out of her way to make the situation deplorable on her own.
Her passion nears the degree of Mark Twain's who once insisted that reading Pride and Prejudice made him "want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone." Still, I admire him for making it through the book, which is more than I could ever do.
Still, when pressed, my friend will admit Northanger Abby has some merit and, when pressed further (and offered a beer or two), will also allow for Persuasion as well. (An interesting pair since the two were published together after Austen's death.) And, I find that I not only agree with her general sentiment toward the writer's work as a whole, in the case of the latter I am enthusiastically in accord as well. read more
monday, april 14, 2008
The Shark Net - Robert DreweLooking back on one’s childhood in prose can be an exercise fraught with peril. The extremes of emotion untempered by experience can color one’s recollections fatally making the result either a maudlin nostalgia piece or an overly cynical dissection.
This is why Robert Drewe’s unapologetic memoir of his youth in Perth, Australia, The Shark Net, is such a refreshing effort. It’s a cavalcade of experiences loosely looped together and charged with that sense of expectation one is immersed in until their teens.
Only the best writers can avoid this particular Scylla and that’s without even contending with an accompanying Charybdis. In this case, it’s the location in question, Perth, Australia. The remote city on the west coast of the continent – a place as far away from everywhere as you can get down under. read more
monday, march 31, 2008
Between Meals - A.J. Liebling"I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." – A.J. Liebling
Despite his tempered boast concerning his skill as writer, the one thing that always set A.J. Liebling's work apart from everyone else was style. Moreover, it was a style whetted by insight. Reading his work was rarely something you felt obligated to do but rather you welcomed as a delightful journey that would take you somewhere worth going.
Liebling was at his best when writing about his passions and rarely did he give them such full attention as in his 1959 tome, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. As an unrepentant Francophile and gastronome Liebling had few peers and this book revels in those passions without apology. In the hands of a lesser writer it’s a recipe for disaster, but Liebling was never a lesser writer, no matter what speed he was working at. read more
friday, march 07, 2008
Krakatoa - Simon Winchester“Post literate man’s electronic media contract the world to a village or tribe where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone know about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the minute it happens. Television gives this quality of simultaneity to events in the global village.”
- Marshall McLuhan, foreword to “Explorations in Communication,” 1960
The volcanic explosion that destroyed the island of Krakatoa in 1883 is much more than simply a phenomenally powerful natural disaster – it’s an event that has wormed its way into the collective consciousness.
It’s difficult to put the size of the eruption into proper scale simply because it was so incredibly enormous. The explosion was 13,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Almost the entire 15-square-mile island was simply removed from the face of the earth – almost 900,000 cubic feet of material. read more
friday, february 22, 2008
Duel in the Sun - John BrantIf you run marathons you are really headed to one single destination – Boston, Massachusetts.
Founded in 1897, the year after the event was introduced at the first modern international Olympic Games, the Boston Marathon is the world's oldest and most prestigious annual marathon. The standing of the race is further bolstered by the fact it is the only major American marathon that requires a qualifying time.
Simply put, for the hundreds of thousands of runners who undertake the burden of running 26.2 miles as fast as they possibly can, running in Boston is the summit of their possible achievements.
Most who choose to take on the challenge of running a marathon do so knowing they have no hope of ever competing in the Olympic Games or even glimpsing the front of the pack where the elites reside. But if they can reach Boston, they will not only accomplish a major physical achievement but will also become part of an event whose history goes back more than a century and, in some very small way, be joined with all the runners who have gone before them. read more
monday, february 18, 2008
True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter CareyIn the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia hangs a massive suit of iron armor. Immense, imposing and silent, it grips the imagination even if one has no inking of the strange story behind it.
In some ways this suit – fashioned from stolen plowshares – has become inseparable with the legend of the man who once wore it, Ned Kelly, and both have become intimately interwoven with Australia itself. That's a tempting target for a novelist but filled with a legion of dangers, which makes Peter Carey's True Story of the Kelly Gang all the more masterful for it's success in conveying the tale.
Kelly was a bushranger which is roughly equivalent to the mountain men of the American west. They lived off the wilderness partly as a means to hide from the authorities since they commonly robbed coaches on the highways as well as small town banks. read more
wednesday, january 30, 2008
The Classical World - Robin Lane FoxYears ago, during my first ill-fated attempt at attending an institution of higher learning, I took a class in Ancient Roman History for no better reason than it was unusual and nobody else seemed interested in taking it.
I still recall the befuddled enthusiasm of the professor, who wore the same tattered pinstripe suit covered in chalk dust each and every day… well, each and every day I found time to attend his class.
Or any class for that matter. Not surprisingly, I was not invited to return to that institution the following year. After that, my education became much more scattershot yet continued apace and I eventually even was able to manage to garner a degree but my studies on the world of the Ancients was never realized.
It was an oversight I always regretted. So much about the fascinating events in the Mediterranean basin between about 800 BC and 200 or so AD is simply assumed as part of the culture we live in. Yet, our – my – understanding of this era was erratic at best; a compendium of names and places that had little bearing on each other or organization, chronological or otherwise, in my mind. read more
thursday, january 10, 2008
Watchmen - Alan Moore & David GibbonsWhen Watchmen was first published in the mid-1980s it was in the middle of what turned out to be a great renaissance in comic books. A number of artists and writers were in the process of transforming the medium and everywhere you turned there was another book you just had to read.
Watchmen, though, was something else entirely. Even in a time of giants it stood above the rest. It took the medium and did things with it never attempted before and never matched since. It begat a legion of deplorable copycats but it also fueled a new look at a long maligned artform.
In that respect it probably has more in common with the French New Wave cinema of the 60s which reached back into the 'low brow' films of a generation prior to create a new highbrow way of moviemaking. Author Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons are keenly aware of all the trashy superhero books that preceded them and Watchmen is as much a homage to them as a final nail in the coffin. read more
sunday, may 27, 2007
1491 - Charles C. MannIn terms of the general understanding of history there is a huge gap that pretty much starts when the Mr. Columbus stumbled into that uncertain Caribbean island in October of 1492 and extends back a good 20,000 years.
Two years ago, author Charles C. Mann took a big step toward rectifying that situation in the mind of the public with the publication of his best-selling tome, 1491. The problem isn’t that we don’t know about who lived in the Americas prior to the European arrival, it’s that the public preconceptions of these people is often flat wrong.
There is, Mann asserts, a prevailing assumption of the peoples that inhabited the Americas as existing in an Edenic native state; ecologically pure nomads scattered across the two continents living off the abundance of nature. Over the past half-century or so, scholars and scientists have instead discovered that the Americas were filled with civilizations every bit as urbane, populous and advanced as what Europe could offer. read more
monday, april 16, 2007
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 - Dr. Hunter S. ThompsonThe wail of the banshee was loud and long and glorious but it ended with a pathetic bang in front of a typewriter one winter’s afternoon in Woody Creek, Colorado. It is saddening that the excesses of Hunter S. Thompson will probably overshadow the subtle and sharp skills he could bring to bear when he wished, but we have to print the legend, do we not?
Much as with All the President’s Men, I was lucky to find Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 after I had been clasped in the sweaty embrace of journalism. Having been weaned intellectually in the harsh intellectualism of Wittgenstein and Hegel so I was little tempted to follow the book's frantic flights of fancy.
But the ability to pull the curtain away to reveal the great and powerful whatsis? Now that I was very keen to imitate. read more
monday, april 02, 2007
All the President's Men - Carl Bernstein and Bob WoodwardI had the good fortune (or prescience) to not read All the President’s Men until after I became a working journalist. As a result I was less swayed by the drama of sticking it to the man than the book’s vivid depiction of real journalists at work.
It’s my firm belief that every journalist can be classified by their favorite episode in the book (or scene in the movie). Most of the go-getting investigative types I've ever met were inspired by the idea of Bernstein jotting down the notes from the reluctant source on napkins, matchbooks, whatever.
That one always bothered me. It seemed somewhat… unethical. The source clearly is concerned about how they will be affected by giving out the information and the reporter is bending over backwards not to break that spell. Of course when the story is in the paper it’s not going to matter much is it? read more
wednesday, march 28, 2007
The Civil War: A Narrative - Shelby FooteWilliam Faulkner once famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Although the quote is often used to depict the weight of southern traditionalism on the lives of those who live there today, that is not how it serves in the book Requiem for a Nun. Instead, Faulkner is simply stating how past acts resonate in, and ultimately shape, the present.
This is also the dividing line where fellow southern writer Shelby Foote finds greatness in his study of the most traditional southern topic – the Civil War.
The Civil War: A Narrative is a ponderous 1,655,000-word account of the four-year conflict that claimed more than 620,000 lives and decided the fate of our nation – for better or for worse.
Instead of an overview of the vast conflict or a down-to-the-last-man expository tome, Foot decided to use his strength as a writer to tell the tale in a manner of a great story. read more
wednesday, november 22, 2006
Our Band Could Be Your Life - Michael AzerradMy youth died one afternoon in late 2000 standing in the hallway of an office building in Riverside, California.
I was talking with a friend of mine and suddenly I realized that I recognized the song being played on the Muzak being piped through the speakers in the ceiling – The Replacement’s “Skyway.”
Yeah, by then a lot of the bands I grew up listening to at tinnitus levels during my teenage years had been entering the commercial lexicon. I didn’t jump much anymore when a song I knew from then popped up on a car commercial.
But for something by The Replacements to be transmogrified so horribly… well, that was beyond what one man can be expected to endure.
Luckily, less than a year later, music writer Michael Azerrad came out with Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. While this book may not be the final word on the unique music scene I was lucky enough to grow up with and be a part of, but it’s a welcome record of what happened in that strange wonderful time. read more
monday, august 28, 2006
Hatun WillakuyI once met a man who had been shot through the eye trying to save his son.
In 1992, Peruvian soldiers came to take the teenaged Epifenio Cruz from his home in a rural area of the department of Ayacucho. When his father, Eulogio, struggled to stop them he was shot.
Miraculously, the bullet passed through his head and he survived. His son was never seen again. About the only thing Eulogio has left to remember his only child by is a blown up copy of his identification card.
It is a story is frighteningly common for thousands who live in the mountains of Southern Peru. Starting in 1980, a war raged between a hard line group of communist terrorists and the military for two decades. Almost 70,000 people perished in the conflict and the vast majority of these deaths were innocent residents who got caught in the middle of the struggle. read more
tuesday, may 16, 2006
A Dance to the Music of Time - Anthony PowellThere is a tragic finality to the fact that, as we make our way through our lives, our days grow steadily smaller in number while our memories are growing ever more prodigious. This can taint our personal histories with a painful nostalgic sadness and pour discontent into the time we have remaining. It is a fertile field for the novelist but fraught with dangers for the unprepared artist.
A Dance to the Music of Time was the late British author Anthony Powell’s 12-volume magnum opus that took almost a quarter century to complete. The first book, A "Question of Upbringing," was published in 1951 and the last, "Hearing Secret Harmonies," reached bookshelves in 1975. (The work is now collected into four volumes, or movements, that each includes three of the books) read more
tuesday, april 25, 2006
The Three Pillars of Zen - Philip KapleauI picked this book up a few years ago on the advice of a friend who has studied Buddhism and Zen in particular. I have read books examining the religion that make efforts of varying success explaining it but I was looking for something a bit different this time.
I wanted something that explained the process of Zen. With many religions, an explanation that describes their ontology tends to suffice for a general understanding. But that fails with Buddhism because the entire point is to abandon the ontology and pursue the epiphany.
It is a concept I recognized from my days studying philosophy, particularly the works of Wittgenstein. It is also a perspective I find echoed in the works of the Catholic mystics such as St. John of the Cross who I have also been intrigued by (as was John Paul II, but I digress). read more
wednesday, march 22, 2006
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Moore and Kevin O'NeillLets get a couple of things out of the way to begin with. This is a look at Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill's landmark comic series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It has nothing to do with the odious movie of the same title. Second, if you like your comic books to feature heroes in bright colored spandex who beat each other up and make nice by the end, you are not going to like this book. Lastly, this is not a review of a single comic book series; this is actually an examination of an incredible fictional universe that is as vibrant and full of possibility as our own. No Shit.
Alright, now that is done lets get down to the nitty gritty.
This is one of the best comic books ever made. It is well written, beautifully illustrated and constucted with intricate care and detail. It stretches the boundaries of what comics can do as a medium and how you as a reader approach it. It is the rare work that pushes you to other works outside of itself as much excitement as you would have looking forward to its next installment. This book will eventually prove to be the key for curing cancer. read more
wednesday, march 15, 2006
The United States and Venezula - Jane Kelly and Carlos A. RomeroHugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, is a charismatic but perplexing figure. He certainly has captured the imagination of his country as well as the nervous attention of the U.S. with his quasi-socialist hurangs and anti-imperialist chest beating.
But how much of it has substance? Earlier this month, he announced he was selling all U.S. refinery contracts but then said they were only under review. Last month he sent troops to confiscate a 32,000-acre ranch held by a British company then said it was only until the property could be assessed.
These moves, although still unresolved, have masterfully kept his foreign foils confused and his internal popularity at a remarkable high. His domestic political currency is strong and his foreign policy is clearly savvy.
I recently completed reading The United States and Venezuela, one of the excellent series on Contemporary Inter-American Relations. Published in 2002, the book only has a brief view of the very beginning of Chavez’s administration, but it's the co-authors' ability to put the situation in a politically historic perspective which is astonishingly illuminating. read more
tuesday, february 28, 2006
The United States And Brazil - Monica Hirst with Andrew HurrellI was looking forward to reading this latest entry of the Contemporary Inter-American Relations series after being highly impressed with its previous entries. While it is a wealth of specific data and touches on the primary issues that have shaped the Brazilian-U.S. relationship, the book seems to fall short of its predecessors.
Brazil is the 800-pound gorilla of South America. In just about every category - geographical size, political weight, economic pull, you name it - it simply dwarfs its Latin America neighbors. To completely understand what is going on in any given country here, you gotta understand what is going on in Brazil.
Similarly, the United States is the single biggest element that shapes its actions in the world. So a book dedicated to this subject comes with a lot of expectations for those of use looking for sharp analysis of the issue. What you get, instead, is an almost superficial brief on the subject. It touches all the requisite bases but never seems to dig beneath to understand the motivations and possible subtleties involved the way the other books in the series did. read more
monday, february 20, 2006
Age of Bronze - Eric ShanowerThere is hardly a more durable tale in western civilization than that of the Trojan War. While many other stories have been immortalized in various forms it is almost impossible to think of another that has inspired such a wide array of great literature. And here is another.
Several years ago, San Diego-based artist Eric Shanower began a daunting task - a ten-year, seven-volume work, Age of Bronze, that will recount this legendary conflict in the medium of comic books (to use the tawdry phrase). The effort netted him 2001 and 2003 Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist – the most prestigious award in the medium. The trade paperback "A Thousand Ships" is the first volume of the work and compiles issues 1 through 9 of the series. The follow-up "Sacrifice" covers issues 10 up to 19. read more
monday, february 06, 2006
The Deep Blue Goodbye - John D. McDonaldOne of the most beloved and revered characters in American fiction is Travis McGee. There is something ineffably compelling about this unique detective whose residence was a houseboat he won in a poker game. But McGee, that “tattered knight on a spavined steed,” certainly wasn’t sui generis. He was very much the product of the author that created him, John D. McDonald.
McDonald was a business school graduate who served in the OSS during World War II. He started writing after the war and after a meager beginning he blossomed into a prodigious and prolific talent and it was his forty-fourth novel that sealed his literary fame. The Deep Blue Goodbye was published originally in 1964 and was the first of 21 books that followed the character across two-and-a-half decades. read more
monday, january 16, 2006
Squandered Victory - Larry DiamondLarry Diamond is one of the leading experts on developing democracies and I picked up this book looking for his take on the mechanics of creating a viable representative government in post-war Iraq.
Diamond's book provides on-the-ground details for the incisive general outline James Fallows provided in Atlantic Monthly, "Blind into Baghdad."
Basically, as awe-inspiring as the Iraqi offensive was and its spectacular success in military terms it is more than offset by the colossal failure of the administration to properly prepare for the requirements of postwar Iraq. The situation has required a great deal of effort, thought and resources and, despite our progress, we have clearly fallen short in all these categories. read more
thursday, january 05, 2006
The Great Game - Peter HopkirkWe look east today and see the miasma of blood and smoke left in the wake of yet another a violent conflict on that vast and seemingly untameable piece of real estate we call the middle east. Given the huge human and financial cost we are only now beginning to recognize, it is probably wise to look back a bit further and over a slightly wider geographical field to understand what the hell is happening and where it might all eventually end up.
To describe the possibilities as sobering would be a gross overuse of the British tendency of understatement. In 1994, a former reporter for The Times of London, Peter Hopkirk, gave us and excellent volume that undertook this heady task, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. read more
sunday, september 04, 2005
Rising Tide - Jason M. BerryIn a few weeks, the world will forget Hurricane Katrina. The cameras will leave, the news coverage will become an addendum after dutiful reports of suicide bombings somewhere suitably arid and Louisiana and Mississippi will be left to rebuild as best they can alone.
For decades this region of the country has been entirely forgotten except as the butt of jokes and patronizing interest in the more salubrious elements of our rich culture.
Those of us who come from this area know very well that the fact the rest of the country has lost interest, the effect of what has just happened will continue to roll onward. This hurricane will likely transform America as we know it and, likely, in ways more profound than even 9/11.
In 1998, Jason M. Berry published a fascinating book titled “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.” It would do the country good to revisit this tome as we watch the carnage on CNN. read more
saturday, may 14, 2005
Almost precisely halfway down the brick-paved street is a little-noticed memorial. A harsh steel obelisk with a jagged lightening-like design. It stands in sharp contrast to the casual walking area where young children ride their bikes, tourists amble by and restaurant proprietors invite you in to try their food.
This is Tarata.
On July 16, 1992 a car bomb exploded at this site killing 25 people and injuring hundreds more. It was the single most bloody day in the most bloody of conflicts. read more