In Pharoah’s Army -4/5
The second memoir by Tobias Wolff (known for A Boy’s Life too) but covering his time in Vietnam. This memoir reads a lot like a Vietnam novel — faint with memories, covering topics, and episodic. It’s hard not to compare it to Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried (a “novel”) and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship me Home (a memoir). In those two books Tim O’Brien likes to hide. There’s a few moments where his character comes out of hiding, but it’s his narrative voice that creates his character more than anything else.
Here Tobias Wolff is front and center throughout. The biggest element that permeates this book is that like Vietnam itself, Wolff has no real clue what he’s doing there. He got drafted and couldn’t avoid it, but he also seemed to want to go (he’s older and went fairly early, so narratives shifted) and he even goes to officer training school. His father left him when he was a boy, and that gap and his attempts to be a man get the best of him here. When he arrives, one of the prevailing themes is just how not a good officer he is. How many novels and memoirs present us with common soldiers gaping at the stupidity of the officer class? Countless. How many gives us an officer admitting as much? This is the one that primarily comes to mind for me.
Wolff is such a strong and tender writer, hilarious at times, and devastating throughout.
Bullet Train – 2/5
This is a novel where several assassins on a train in Japan slowly become aware of each other and learn the ways in which their various missions seems inextricably tied together. I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy this book very much. I couldn’t parse out the difference between all the characters and some of the characters’ quirks were annoying and silly to me. It’s also oddly long for a book that is meant to be fast-paced (which it’s not really).
The new movie that will star Brad Pitt and I have to imagine the main discussion will be the whitewashing that happens here. It’s especially odd because the movie will take place on a bullet train in Japan, just like the novel, but the movie will star several (non Japanese-) American actors playing characters written as Japanese in the novel. The irony of course is that the by adding American actors the movie becomes more “diverse” but at the cost of Japanese roles, and what reads as a Japanese story. It will seem like a very avoidable mistake, which of course it is. But I bet I will like the movie more than the book.
A Good Man is Hard to Find – 5/5
I reread Everything that Rises Must Converge recently and I had forgotten how many of those stories are just absolute bangers. This is also a near perfect story collection, but the famous ones here are relatively limited compared to the other collection. This is a first collection so two of the stories are slight retreads of each other, and many of the stories are more subtle and almost hidden than they need to be.
The famous ones here are “A Good Man is Hard to Find” “The Life you Save May Be Your Own” “Good Country People” and if you know it “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” — all of which I have read multiple times in anthologies.
My coming to this collection again (and it’s a book I will likely keep rereading throughout my life) is to look at which stories I might read with students. Sometimes O’Connor, because of her subject manner and his context dives into race questions in very interesting ways, but also in ways that make her hard to teach in high school. The same goes with disabilities too.
The most curious thing for me is that I do not believe she every wrote a story or novel in the first person, which is also something I was looking for. Ultimately, the hardest part about reading her in high school classes is that a lot of her stories are quite long.
The Missing of the Somme – 5/5
This is a kind of companion piece to Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, in which Fussell, an American, covers the literary, historical, personal, and pictorial, and other forms of representation of WWI in literary criticism. It’s a truly great book and probably one of the most accessible and satisfying books you could read. Dyer’s book is a little different, but similar enough. This book is very short (and not that Fussell’s is terribly long). And the beginning incident into his own personal investigation into the idea of the war begins when he relates a story about his grandfather being told he’s too young for the war, lying about his age, and joining at a different post. This is an oft-told story, but it also turns out not to be true as his grandfather would have been about 20 in 1914. So this begins the investigation in to a war complete defined by its undefinable qualities.
For Dyer, the book that absolutely nails the war is All Quiet on the Western Front, and part of this is because it’s not a British work, but German. All others are chasing it. So while there’s some description of the war, so much of it is about waiting, not doing things, thinking, spending time, suffering etc. Think about how many other war books cover that same kind of ground. That’s the reading experience of Vietnam too, so far as I am concerned.
Anyway, this book then jumps around from topic to topic, not in the way that Fussell’s covers different topic critically, but in more of a reactionary and reflective way of living in the topic for a little bit, and then moving on.
Shadow of the Torturer – 4/5
My re-read of the series is based on the audiobooks, which I found cheaply and wanted to give a listen to because of how sludgy I sometimes found my first read.
One of the things that really comes through in this reread is that a lot more time passes in the novel than I really reckoned with initially. There’s about 10 years of training that is represented early in the novel as he’s in the guild.
The other thing that stands out here is that there’s a lot more people in the world than I realized. The town he goes to, which I would have put at like 100 people when I first read it, is described in tens of thousands.
“The necropolis has never seemed a city of death to me; I know its purple roses (which other people think so hideous) shelter hundreds of small animals and birds. The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human beings who are for the most part less innocent and less valuable than cattle. When I think of my own death, or the death of someone who has been kind to me, or even of the death of the sun, the image that comes to my mind is that of the nenuphar, with its glossy, pale leaves and azure flower. Under flower and leaves are black roots as fine and strong as hair, reaching down into the dark waters.”
The Crystal Cave – 3/5
The first book in the Mary Stewart Merlin books. My experiences reading King Arthur stories comes primarily from TH White’s amazing books – The Once and Future King. For Merlin, (while White does have a Merlin book, it’s a little ancillary and extra to the main story), I think about the movies, and even CS Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength, in which Merlin plays a mythopoeic role. I guess the same is true with the Mark Twain version of Merlin in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
So this book is more of Merlin by way of Hilary Mantel. This is the story of Merlin as a bastard son of a probable lord, but whose origins are just hazy enough to keep him from having status. He becomes connected to Uther late in the book and is involved in the intrigues of kingship, politics, and warfare, but always as adviser and consultant. An idea man, cementing his lifetime role. I am curious where the later books go with this story. It’s a lot of a book, written in that very British, very fantasy 1960s/1970s style.
“A robin lighted on a blackthorn at my elbow, and began to sing. The sound came high and sweet and uncaring through all the noise of battle. To this day, whenever I think of the battle for Kaerconan, it brings to mind a robin’s song, mingled with the croaking of the ravens.”
“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”
Candide – 5/5
You kind of expect this novel to not be a jaunty, flowing hilarious work, but it is. There’s an extraordinary amount of shocking cruelty that inhabits the novel, but our main character is such a moral “innocent” about everything that he cannot quite conceive of truly how wretched everything is. Candide is raised in court and taught about the world by the philosopher Pangloss, who repeats ad nauseum that this is the “best of all worlds” —- hmmm, who else said that? Anyway, this plagues and haunts Candide because the tension in that philosophy is whether or not the “best” is actually any good at all, or only is this the best we can hope for. But Candide keeps persevering, kind of, and looks for ways to confirm the worldview his teacher showed him. He can’t quite seem to figure out that if this is the best of all worlds, why was Pangloss tortured and executed, but no bother.
Candide then goes on adventures. The novel, by the way, is a kind of Don Quixote story, replete with sidekick for bouncing ideas off of. Candide falls in love with a noble woman and promises to marry her. He persists in this promise even after she is brutalized and “made ugly” and even after he accidentally kills her brother, an act of murder that ends up saving his life. He travels to the New World in search of treasure, and finds it, but also finds that he doesn’t really want to live out in the world so much after all. Despite the cruelty and oppression he helps to support in the world, all he wants is a quiet little garden all his own to cultivate.
Breece Pancake Stores – 5/5
Still a brilliant collection of stories that is both preceded and followed by a collection of introductions, forewords, and afterwords by more famous writers: James Alan McPherson, John Casey, and Andre Dubus III. The Andre Dubus narrowly avoids the irony of saying this inspired him to write, given that his father is one of the most lauded American short story writers of the 20th century. But instead of seeing it as inspiration, there’s the kind of earnest frustration that someone about your same age did it better than you and how empty this makes your own work look. John Casey and James Alan McPherson write from the perspective of teachers seeing promise in a student turn into the transformation into peership.
The stories themselves are mostly very good. He’s at his very best when he seems less like he’s trying to do something and more like he’s showing us something, rendering something. There’s very little by way of gimmick in these stories and when one does pop up in the middle of the collection it’s forgivable by way of its singularity.
Child of God – 4/5
Every line of this book is delivered with a mouth full of mud. Or at least it feels that way. If you haven’t read the early few novels of Cormac Mccarthy, you can really feel the difference from the later western novels like All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian, and even the two late novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. The difference mostly is space. The characters have the space to move around and it usually ends up being too much space, as those wide open spaces are wild in their own right. But in the early novels we are trapped in small narratives, and the characters are trapped in small towns (or mountain hollers) and trapped within small, ugly lives.
Lester Ballard is a man of pure id. He’s violent, he’s petty, and he’s brutal. This novel makes you ask the question about what exact kind of violation is it, when the body is already dead. Desecration at the very least, but it feels worse. Lester is on a tear. He’s only 27, but things have begun to ramp up in recent weeks and the more he encounters the cruelty and brutality of the world, the more it seems to energize him. We’re all lucky and the valley in Tennessee where he lives is lucky that he’s so limited in his capacity to commit the large evils that inhabit him.
On Animals – 3/5
If you’ve read enough Susan Orlean, and obviously especially Rin Tin Tin, you know that she’s obsesed with animals. She’s written about it many times, but here is the first real deep look into how it plays into her life. This book is not a memoir, but a combination of collected animal journalism, the kinds of Susan Orlean profile pieces you’d expect, and then memoir pieces with it. Most of the writing says as much about the people involved as the animals, but the focus is at least balanced, or more often tilted toward the animal.
The memoir pieces are the glue here. Learning about Susan Orlean’s getting tricked into getting guinea fowl, having been told that they would rid her yard of ticks (they didn’t), and then having them take over the enclosure built for turkeys who wouldn’t take to it is fun and charming. It’s not so fun when a predator finds its way into the pen. This is the vicissitudes animal owning, being aware of how fragile they are.
The journalism pieces run the gamut from breeding dogs to performing orcas to the history (recent history) of mules in the army and beyond as well as a pre-Tiger King, Tiger Queen (it’s a type apparently) give plenty of other joy as well.
The book lacks connective tissue and an overall idea, but the parts are greater than the whole.
A Shropshire Lad – 4/5
This early collection of Housman poems marks the division in a lot of ways between 19th and 20th century English poetry. In the US we might say the say of something like Edwin Eugene Arlington’s poetry or Spoon River. Anyway, the poems are of a different class, both lyrical, and like lyrics and melodic. They’re also so clearly pre-WWI.
Here’s the most typical and best:
To an Athlete Dying Young
BY A. E. HOUSMAN
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
The Facts – 3/5
A series of longish memoir essays that cover a few topics broadly in the biography of Philip Roth. This book begins with a long story about his father working for Met Life, finding limits within the company because he lacked college education and because he was Jewish, and then almost destroying the family with a failed business adventure. The collection of essays here also include a long essay about Philip Roth going to college, joining a mostly gentile fraternity, being a man of letters in a college of would be lawyers and doctors, and then leaving to try out a PhD. There’s an essay about meeting the woman of his dreams (at the time, obviously). There’s an essay about the betrayal members of his family and community felt from the publication of two of his early stories “Defender of the Faith” and “The Conversion of the Jews” and if you’ve read those stories, you can understand why a local rabbi might be upset. Lastly, there’s a long letter written to Roth by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth literary alter ego, about the manuscript. This last section is a little silly, but fitting given how much of Zuckerman is Roth, Roth Zuckerman. It’s also interesting because if you’ve read the first four Zuckerman novels that came before this memoir, Zuckerman Unbound, The Counterlife, The Prague Orgy, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Ghost Writer, you already know a lot of these stories, or versions of them, and especially you know the emotions that are on display here, even if their content is shifted. Those books are better though.