Monday, July 3, 2000

The Good War: An Oral History of World War II

edited by Studs Terkel

A collection of reminisces and insights on the war.  It's mostly American, but there are German, Japanese and Russian voices as well.  Even so, the years 1939-41 are almost totally ignored, which is a surprising weakness is what is otherwise an immensely important book.  The tales told here present hundreds of horrifying, bizarre and amazing images that linger on later.  Perhaps the most memorable is the legless ex-GI, deformed from radiation and now become head of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, recounting his warm welcome in Japan and his treatments there, while the US government blocked all treatment at the VA hospital for fear of admitting negligence.  And still he spouts patriotic sentiment.

From the varied accounts – the bombers and the bombed, the journalists and grunts and top brass – four main themes emerge.  The first is how utterly naive, with the exceptions of a few so-called Premature Anti-Fascists, Americans were in 1941.  A war was going on and almost all of them ignored its progress, ignored the likelihood of attack.  The second is the attitudes Americans had after the war: prosperity became a right, and confidence was very high, among women and blacks as well as veterans.  The third is the pervasive and deep racism of the Army and the U.S.  Apparently white GIs told the English that blacks had tails.  Blacks were shot and hanged by white soldiers.  And they were fighting fascism!  The fourth theme is the distrust that Americans came to feel for their government.  Vietnam is mentioned again and again; the Russians as allies-to-enemies is cited.  And, since the book was compiled the '80s, there is a palpable sense of fatalism in many of the stories: a feeling the bomb can drop any moment.  Another WWII legacy. 

four stars

Friday, May 12, 2000

X20: A Novel Of (Not) Smoking

by Richard Beard

Gregory, the narrator, is a smoker trying to quit, writing to distract his mind and occupy his hands. It is told in 20 parts, like a packet of cigs. As the nuances and twists in his tale - of betrayal, lost love, becoming a smoker, asserting one's the right to take chances - become clearer, his paragraphs grow longer, his purpose stronger... perhaps.

This is an astonishing debut, written when Beard was 29. It's masterfully constructed, each new facet of the story coming to light at precisely the right time, to shock, delight and annoy. It is very often hilarious, sometimes sad. And it's also a philosophical study on free will and responsibility. Love, hubris, and the search for truth: vintage stuff.

four stars

Friday, March 24, 2000

The Rebel Angels

by Robertson Davies

The first part of the Cornish Trilogy.  Alternating between two narrators – Maria, a half gypsy graduate student in love with her mentor and a Simon, a priest who teaches at the University and falls for her – the book tells a complex story of love, lust, art, pride, scholarship, academic rivalry and criminal actions.  John Parlabane, a defrocked gay monk and sort of evil genius, stirs up the brew with his sharp eyes and tongue, yet somehow it tuns out right for the characters whom the reader sympathizes with.  At times I felt there may have been a bit too much academic talk, but the book is after all set at a University, and Davies is very, very good at it.  As he is with dialogue, depth of characterization and humor.  A fascinating tale, told in expert fashion, in short.

four stars

Sunday, February 27, 2000

The Monkey Wrench Gang

by Edward Abbey

Four ecologically-minded misfits – a jack Mormon, a surgeon, a nurse and a crazed Vietnam vet Green Beret – form a group dedicated to the destruction of the system that pollutes and destroys their environs, the West. As their attacks on deserted bulldozers and trains continue, the law’s net closes in. Written with erudition, flair and down-home wit, the book’s descriptions ring true (Abbey made the West his home and practiced wilderness survival).

It’s an enjoyable, funny morality tale disguised as high adventure. Interestingly, the Gang in some ways bore little resemblance to what I think of as eco-fanatics – they eat lots of red meat, drink beer and litter the roadside with cans, drive big cars, etc. Also, Abbey’s politics are not “bleeding heart,” as he calls it, attacking Indians as well as whites for their consumerism, taking jibes at the Sierra Club, etc.

four stars

Thursday, January 27, 2000

The Harafish

by Naguib Mahfouz
translated by Catherine Cobham

The sprawling saga of a Cairo family, the al-Nagis, starting with the first and greatest, who rose from a foundling into a benevolent clan chief who fought for the people (the harafish), and continuing for a dozen generations.  After the first, however, the Nagis sink gradually into vice, oppression and madness; lust for power makes them rue the old days, while it precludes them from reconstructing them.

This is a confusing but rich novel.  The number of minor characters overwhelms you, but the major characters are vivid; Mahfouz shows great talent in creating so many discrete personalities.  Parts of the novel are beyond subtle: ideas and plans are barely hinted at, so the reader must interpolate a lot.  The end is rather startling – almost simplistic in its moral, and like a fairy tale in its complete resolution (the monastery doors, which have remained closed throughout the book, open when the final Nagi rouses the harafish to a kind of self-rule).  I’m not sure what to make of that.

 four stars