The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe

Charles Darwin was not much of a scientist.  According to Tom Wolfe, Darwin was a story-teller with an interesting story that wasn’t even his own:  He filched the story in substance from naturalist Alfred Wallace.  Wallace had mailed his paper on the theory of evolution to a friend who was connected to London’s esteemed Linnean Society.  Unfortunately for Wallace, the friend was Charles Darwin.  Darwin had mused on similar evolutionary ideas for some time but had never published anything on the subject.  He had just enough time, however, to produce an abstract of an unwritten paper so that his “findings” could be submitted alongside Wallace’s.  And because Darwin was a friend of the Society in London, and Wallace was sitting in a bungalow in the Malay Archipelago fighting malaria, Darwin’s submission was read first.

Darwin proposed no scientific hypothesis, testable and falsifiable, but a cosmogony—a “Just So Story” of the creation of man, distinguished from Kipling’s “Just So Stories” only by its scientific pretensions.  In Darwin’s follow-up publication, The Descent of Man, he researches the evolution of man’s instincts from more basic animal instincts by—observing his pet dog.  “My dog did this or that which is reminiscent of man’s own behavior but not as sophisticated, and, therefore….”

The Kingdom of Speech is a small and pithy book which upset Darwinists, especially, principally, because Wolfe has a sense of humor and makes fun of them.  Critics manfully choked back their tears of rage to explain that Wolfe doesn’t have a degree in the field and has no authority to speak.  Steven Poole wrote in The Guardian (bastion of scientific rigor) that evolution had been observed in species, and in the laboratory no less.  Poole apparently failed to grasp that Wolfe was not referring to evolution within a species, but evolution of a species—that is, the emergence of a fundamentally new species by means of gradual changes over time.  This has not been observed in a laboratory or anywhere else.  We have plenty of “simpler” species, numerous prehistoric creatures preserved in stone, but no fossils showing the bridging steps or gradual evolution from one species to the next.  This is frustrating to Darwin’s theory.  Maybe the missing transition fossils will turn up.  So far, they have not.  (Stephen Meyer goes into this subject exhaustively in Darwin’s Doubt.)

Darwin struggled harder and failed harder to come up with an acceptable explanation of human speech.  But his views remained essentially state-of-the-art until Noam Chomsky showed up with another cosmogonic pronouncement:  that humans have an innate “language acquisition device” or “language organ” somewhere in the brain (it’s anybody’s guess where).   Chomsky proposed that this organ allows humans to learn language intuitively, and that it works because all languages have a basically identical recursive structure.  Meaning that a sentence in any language can contain linguistically complete sub-sentences, and sub-sub-sentences, and so on.  Chomsky wasn’t pleased when a naturalist-linguist named Daniel Everett published in 2008 about an untouched South American culture whose language lacked the supposedly universal “recursion” feature.  But Chomsky’s theories haven’t changed, and his credibility in his largely romantical-fictional field hasn’t changed either.

So how, in reality, did man learn to speak?  We don’t know.

Pith: 8.5/10

Vim: 8/10

Vigor: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.5/10

The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe.  Hachette, 2016, 185 pages.

Read More

Valley of the Gods, by Alexandra Wolfe

Not long ago I visited a friend who’d moved to Silicon Valley to work in the startup industry. He had undergone a baffling change: The formerly sports-jacketed East Coaster had become a gluten-free, paleo-dieting, T-shirt-wearing Burning Man.

Burning Man, for the uninitiated, is an annual week-long gathering in the Nevada desert attended by thousands—around 70,000, at last count. There are no hard and fast rules, but among the 10 guiding principles are “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and, of course, “gifting.” That last principle means you should always do your best to give something to everyone you meet, even if the only thing you have on hand is an interpretive dance performed from your bicycle. This admirably nonmaterialistic lifestyle obviously presupposes that you don’t have a family at home waiting for your next paycheck.

To a cynical New Yorker—or possibly to anyone beyond San Francisco’s cultural blast-radius—Burning Man appears to be a gaggle of grownups imitating their children in a giant box of dirt.

Attendees can reject civilization (Western, Eastern, whatever) as a whole and try to build something new and better from scratch. Religion is important, but only in the form of yoga and other self-exploratory immediacy-driven experiences. And youth is emphasized, above all and forever. If we’re too old to be kids, we can at least act like them. And while Alexandra Wolfe does not put it in so many words, we could call it a new paganism.


Read the rest of this review here, on the Weekly Standard.

Read More

With God in Hell, by Eliezer Berkovits


My Jewish elementary school so bombarded me with stories of the Holocaust that it looked to me—by the time I’d reached the fifth or sixth grade—as though it were all a plot to drive me towards utter indifference.  It was difficult to endure the hurricane of heart-wrench whizzing around my head:  Every paragraph beat the concept of helpless victimization into my young skull.  Helpless victimization.  It didn’t do much for a child’s sense of cultural self-worth.

The popular version of Holocaust history regards the Jewish persecution as a racial one, with no substantial distinction between Jews and all the other people the Nazis hated and murdered.  No substantial distinction, except perhaps in number and thoroughness.  As the especial target of Germany’s motiveless malignity, the Jew appears in retrospect to be nothing but the unluckiest, the most hapless, and in a sense the most pitiable and pathetic creature of the 20th century.

It is a disgraceful view which leaves young children with the taste of vomit at the back of their mouths.  But it is championed both by Holocaust apologist-minimizers, as well as a large numbers of Jews—typically, those Jews for whom God is a toxic concept best forgotten completely.

Of course the Jews are a race:  a great international race, by necessity a cancer in Hitler’s nation-as-a-fighting-unit.  But Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was not exactly like his racial hatred of Slavs or Gypsies.  It was also a spiritual hatred.  And that spiritual, religious aspect is something which my school deliberately ignored.

“Conscience,” Hitler said, “is a Jewish invention.”  An invention of sick minds—as he called Christianity, for which he also blamed the Jews.  A life based on responsibility towards God, the ten commandments, love for one’s fellow man:  all this was to Hitler an incomprehensible crime against what men ought to be.

The religious aspect of Judaism, how it survived in the camps, and how it could possibly survive in the aftermath, is the subject of Eliezer Berkovits’s small but sublime book.  With God in Hell is far, far out of print:  it’s hard to find a second-hand copy for much less than a hundred dollars.  But it may be the greatest book ever written on the Holocaust.  It is certainly one of the greatest books ever written on Judaism:  a product of extraordinary depth of feeling, with insight as finely tuned as a snowflake.

Instead of the sickening and often condescending waves of pity that emanate from so many books on the subject (goopy fingers seeping out towards the reader from murky existentialist protoplasma), Berkovits impresses us with the courage of belief in Judaism and of the nobility of the Jewish soul.  It makes us not simply sorry for those Jews who were murdered—it makes us proud to understand what they represent on this earth.  We understand why, as Hitler knew, the survival of even one, single Jew was a mortal threat to Nazism.

Depth: 10/10

Breadth: 10/10

Importance: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 10/10

With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, by Eliezer Berkovits.  Hebrew Publishing Co, 1979.  166 pages.

Read More

Ardennes 1944, by Antony Beevor

Reprinted from The Weekly Standard

The last German offensive of World War II began at 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944.  The rank-and-file German soldier thought he was giving Paris back to the Führer for a “Christmas present.”  The more experienced Wehrmacht commanders knew that, even should they reach the Meuse or—more fantastically—capture Antwerp, they were fighting but to delay Allied victory.

Caught off-guard much as Germans had been at Normandy, the Allies were the victims of a massive intelligence failure and a degree of holiday-season complacency.  They had failed to notice the buildup of 400 thousand enemy infantry, 1200 tanks, and over 4 thousand artillery pieces.  Many men and senior officers were on Christmas leave.

The 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, to whom the pivotal defense of Bastogne was shortly to fall, were scheduled for leave in Paris and both their commanding officer and their deputy commander had already left.  Thus the 101st were led into their greatest fight by the division artillery commander, General Anthony C. McAuliffe.  When Bastogne was surrounded and the American field hospital captured, when our artillery was down to ten rounds per gun per day and one in four men had been wounded or killed, General McAuliffe had the honor of rejecting the German surrender demand with a single word: “Nuts.”  This colloquialism had to be explained to the Germans and has thrilled military historians, filmmakers, and fighting Americans ever since.

But not everything was nearly so inspiring, particularly in the early days of the offensive, which discovered serious flaws in the Allied command: Bradley was caught completely by surprise with his headquarters in the wrong place.  The stubborn and chronically unimaginative General Hodges, who had already ground down his First Army in the previous months’ fighting in the Hürtgen Forrest, was again unable to adapt to a changing situation.  But the worst offender was the famous British field marshal Montgomery, despised by every commander with whom he came into contact and whose personality was so corrosive that Antony Beevor speculates he might have suffered from “what today would be called high-functioning Asperger syndrome.”  Montgomery spent most of the offensive jockeying for overall command of the Allied ground forces—a task to which he was unsuited both militarily and politically.  Thanks to Montgomery, the American military victory in the Ardennes was also a British political defeat and the end of serious British influence in the conduct of the ground war.

Anthony Beevor’s book is a generally excellent balance between localized anecdotes and the more broadly historical account which they flavor.  The research is meticulous and the pacing is excellent.  In the event, the dramatic German defeat in the Ardennes crushed the German army to a degree that left it totally unprepared to fend off Russia’s Vistula-Oder offensive in January.  The German command had failed to consider the terrible road conditions which bogged down their tanks and were unaccountably stingy with fuel and strategic reserves.  But, principally, they had underestimated the speed with which Eisenhower would react, and the tenacity, skill and courage with which the American soldier would fight.

Research: 9/10

Storytelling: 8/10

Vitality: 8.5/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.8/10

Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Antony Beevor.  Viking Press, 2015.  480 pages.

Read More

Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen

British East Africa was a fanciful collision. Colonial farm manors, relaxed and dignified but with a touch of humor (rocking chairs, veranda, tea things, and perhaps a semi-domesticated gazelle wandering around inside) commanded giant tracts of land and attempted to impose a semblance of good order on an unruly continent.  The itinerant inhabitants—Kikuyu farmers, Luhya and Luo, Masai warriors, the poor Wanderobo and a smattering of contemptuously regal Somali—for the most part accepted the colonizers as the act of a garden-variety pagan God:  neither good nor bad, the British were just a fact like any other and not worth worrying about.

The Kikuyu, the largest tribe in what would eventually become Kenya, were the most in contact with the colonial farms, squatting on the land and employed as hands.  Their attitude was fascinating and frustrating to the British, and seemed to represent the intransigence of the land itself, combining a basically good-natured fatalism, childish delight in trivial mishaps, a disdain for any large-scale plans or operations, and a deep commitment to a code of justice which had nothing to do with Western ideas of intent.  (There was no distinction between manslaughter and murder for the Kikuyu;  a death was a death the responsible party had to pay just the same.)

In 1914, Karen Blixen married Hemingway’s second-favorite hunter, Baron Bror von Blixen, and moved out to a six-thousand acre farm to grow coffee.  Her coffee never prospered;  the farmland was too far above sea level to be agreeably fecund.  After a series of droughts, blights and natural disasters (including a genuine plague of grasshoppers) she was finally forced to sell the land in 1931 and return to her native Denmark.  But Africa and the African Native—to her a single, unified, majestic, cosmic concept—remained a great love and preoccupied her for the rest of her life.  She often marveled how her compatriots back in civilization could be so indifferent to the phases of the moon or the importance of a good rain.

She published Out of Africa under the penname Isak Dinesen in 1937 and made her reputation as a writer.  She describes the life and office of a colonial farmer:  doctor to the surrounding countryside (since first-aid turned out to be considerably better than no-aid), judge of important disputes (typically settled by the redistribution of goats or cows), mother, charity-giver, benefactor, comic fool, chauffer, an object of pity rather than sympathy.

The Western attempt to mold the land was a partial success—it introduced medicine, sanitation, roads and light bulbs and other things Africa didn’t necessarily want.  The attempt to mold the African mind was a failure, a handprint in water.  As for Africa’s impress on the Western mind, the success was complete: no European could come back from Africa without being permanently changed.  The coexistence in colonial Africa was something of a miracle of precarious balance and curious humanity.  In contrast with today’s common, officially endorsed view of this important patch of history, you might find a larger and more sensitive rendering in Karen Blixen’s beautiful book.

Prose: 8/10

Narrativity: 6/10

Beauty: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen.  Random House, 1937. 389 pages.

Read More

A Giacometti Portrait, by James Lord

When Paris was liberated in 1944, James Lord followed in the rear of the American Army in the capacity of an intelligence officer (he spoke French perfectly).  With precocious audacity he went around introducing himself to the artists and writers he admired most.  Picasso was intrigued by Lord’s unmarked G2 uniform, and amused when the young soldier fell asleep on his couch.  Lord notes that he was only pretending to be asleep, with the object of endearing himself to Picasso—it seems to have worked:  Picasso made several drawings of Lord and Lord later described the relationship in a fascinating book, Picasso and Dora.

Lord also bumped into Jean Cocteau, Balthus, Jean Genet and others.  But there was no fascination like Giacometti.  He remained friends with Giacometti for years, and, on a return trip to Paris in the 1960s, Giacometti agreed to do his portrait.

Lord himself wanted to be a novelist, but wasn’t. He was, however, a fine writer, with a sharp eye and good ear.  His 1985 Giacometti biography, which he spent fifteen years researching and writing, may be the best art biography of all time.  Yet it isn’t even Lord’s best Giacometti book—this diminutive volume has that distinction.

The portrait was supposed to be a sketch in oil on canvas, done in one or two days.  But inevitably Giacometti became fascinated.  He was endlessly frustrated in his attempt to make a person exist on canvas, and, after eighteen days—during which Lord postponed his return to America several times—the portrait finally hit the deadline of an approaching exhibition.  Giacometti had made progress, he declared, had gone further than ever before.  But he was also dissatisfied, as always (he claimed never to have “finished” a painting in his life).  The portrait, a gift to Lord in exchange for his posing, was shipped to the gallery exhibition still wet.

While Giacometti painted, Lord paid furious attention to everything Giacometti did, and scribbled notes during brief breaks or after the session was over.  (Giacometti usually got up at one in the afternoon and worked until the early hours of the morning, with a few intermissions at a nearby café.)  Lord also had the foresight to bring a small camera with him and photograph the painting’s daily progress.  The series of photographs alone, though they are slightly out-of-focus and imperfectly exposed, are a unique and extraordinary portrait in themselves.

What the pictures show, and what Lord reveals in his description, is not the gradual march of a painting from beginning to completion, but of a continual and unending cycle of creation and destruction.  Giacometti worked quickly, starting in black and grey, always concentrating on the head.  He eventually added the highlights in lighter greys and white. The use of white increased as he worked on the points that displeased him and the image began to disappear.   Finally, reduced almost to nothing, Giacometti would begin again.  The final portrait contains a hundred of these cycles, images painted one over the other.  The art that emerged and the intensity it contains distinguishes Giacometti as the noblest artist of the 20th century.  The little book that emerged, a masterpiece in 117 pages, remains the greatest book on art I’ve ever read.

Prose: 9/10

Interestingness: 10/10

Insipirationality: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating: 10/10

A Giacometti Portrait, by James Lord.  1965, McGraw-Hill.  117 pages.

Read More

Ernest Hemingway: To Have and Have Not

Readers who have seen the great 1944 Humphrey Bogart film of To Have and Have Not will be a little surprised by the book:  the only thing the movie draws from the novel is the name of the main character, fishing boat captain Harry Morgan. This is just as well, since a good novel does not make a good movie.

This is a good novel.  It is Hemingway mid-journey, solid as a great big mediaeval oak round table.  His youthful grit and zing have translated into the less gregarious and more quietly assured confidence of a man who knows himself.

James Lord wrote, in the introduction to his great biography of Giacometti, that Giacometti didn’t think he deserved a biography—he thought that the life of any random passerby would be as interesting as his own.  Of course he was wrong, but the underlying point was this:  If great art tries to capture what is essentially human, the success of the effort is more important than the subject.  If a painted portrait can give me even an inkling of the impression that I am standing in front of a real person—a person who thinks and with whom I might speak—it is a great painting no matter who the person is.

In the same way, a great writer makes his story worthwhile by the the truth of the telling.  The art only becomes more impressive when the subject has nothing unusual to recommend it.  A book about a CIA agent or a contract-killer has plenty of intrigue to begin with and that partly lets the author off the hook.  But a book about a poor boat captain who never gets anywhere had better be damned brilliant.

I was impressed with this novel until Chapter 24, at which point I went from impressed to staggered.  Up through Chapter 23 (and to a certain extent from Chapter 25 to the end) we have uniformly solid Hemingway.  But Chapter 24 is an anomaly.  The eleven pages have no direct relation to the story and could be excised without the reader’s losing a granule of plot, but they are by far the best pages in the book.  For a moment, Hemingway stops reasoning things out and instead just follows his art at breakneck speed (transcribing rather than contriving).  In Chapter 24, he describes a marina where Morgan’s boat is shortly to dock.  And Hemingway has no other purpose in this chapter except to show us that he knows exactly what is happening in every single boat tied up at the pier.  He sees not just the world of his characters but the world that surrounds them.  He sees the whole thing at tremendous resolution and that is what makes his stories so good and his characters so convincing and so human.

But you can’t read the chapter by itself and be suitably impressed.  The book exists to support and launch those eleven pages and they make all 174 pages worth reading.  In its proper place, this particular chapter in this particular book reads like an explanation of what writers are for.

Prose: 9/10

Solidity: 9/10

Punch: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway.  1st ed. Scribners, 1937, from a 1934 serial by Hearst Magazines, Inc. 174 pages.

Read More

William Kennedy: Ironweed, and Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes


Good writing should be a miracle:  The English language, with no hidden strings, springs or trapdoors, puts you inside another man’s brain and gives you his emotions to feel for yourself.

Ironweed is good writing. Some of it is great writing. It deserves the Pulitzer it received.  But it also left me a little confused because it is so much more powerful than the other volume I’ve read by the same author:

Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is a short novel with an infuriatingly long title.  The story is cut into a series of episodes.  Each, imaginatively but unfortunately, is separated by the passing of several years:  we encounter the protagonist briefly as a child in Albany, then as a young man in Cuba, then as an older one back in Albany.  Albany is not an exciting town—with due respect to Mr Kennedy, for whom it obviously has appeal—but its excitingness or lack thereof doesn’t really matter:  The same town features to much better effect in Ironweed, without any more excitement of plot, because of the extraordinary visual and lyrical power of the writing.  (Ironweed is a few days in the life of an ex-ballplayer Albany bum:  a story of no special interest which Kennedy tells with exceptional power.)

Kennedy is an unusual author—he has eyes and ears.  Usually an author gets along with one or the other;  only the best can match absolute visual clarity with the boxing-ring beauty of good rhythm.  Some of the paragraphs in Ironweed hit you like a one-two punch.  In Chango, there were plenty of passages that almost got there, but none that did.  Despite the obvious similarities in visual imagination, similarities in setting, and characters who cross between the two novels, it is not easy to think of them as the work of the same author.

Chango follows a story just long enough to get you interested (not fascinated, but plenty curious) and then hits fast-forward and picks up a new story in a later decade.  The stories are part of a continuous narrative about one man and one woman, but there is too much missing in between.  Either Kennedy should have given us the whole lifelong accounting, which would have taken several thousand pages and been intolerable, or he should have chosen one of his focal points (and they are excellent ones) and stuck with that.  His dialogue is superb and, when he introduces Hemingway as a character in Chango, the initially skeptical reader is quickly won over.  I wish Kennedy had gone farther with Hemingway and told us more.  Instead I ended up with 30% of three different novels and a low level of consumer satisfaction.

Ironweed is beautiful and I’ve already read most of the book a second time.  But it is so much freer and fiercer than Chango that it remains unclear who William Kennedy actually is.  I intend reading more of his work and, once I find out, I’ll let you know.

Ironweed‘s Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.65/10

Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes’s Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 6.9/10

Ironweed.  Penguin Books, 1988. 240 pages.

Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.  Penguin Books, 2011.  336 pages.

Read More

Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway wrote Green Hills of Africa as an experiment.  The story of his 1933 hunt in Tanganyika is true, and he wondered if a true story, well-told, could compete with a work of fiction.

His experiment was nearly successful.  Green Hills is a bracing and sometimes beautiful book.  It is as good as a novel, but not as good as a great novel.  I read two different editions—the original Scribner’s and an excellent Scribner reprint which includes as appendices some wonderful Hemingway letters as well as the diary kept by his wife of the moment, Pauline.  The diary confirms that Hemingway’s narrative followed faithfully the true course of events.  Hemingway did change names—Pauline appears as “P.O.M.”, or “Poor Old Mama”—and he also omitted almost completely, much for the better, the first month of the expedition, which he spent deathly ill with a combination of dysentery and piles.

Hemingway bagged more than seventy animals on the trip, including lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, cheetah, and on and on.  But his ultimate passion was for the helically horned kudu, and his difficult pursuit makes the main thrust of the story.  Hemingway’s guide was the great white hunter Philip Percival, who had been on Teddy Roosevelt’s 1909 expedition and was by the 30’s one of the two most famous hunters in the world.  (The other, Baron von Blixen, was both second-cousin and husband to Karen Blixen, one of Africa’s finest chroniclers.)  Percival appears in Green Hills as “Pop,” not to be confused with “Papa,” or “Poor Old Papa,” who is, of course, Hemingway himself.  Fascinating campfire conversations give Hemingway a chance to expound on writing and writers.  (Largely and unfortunately expurgated from the final draft, at his publisher’s request, was an amusing and obscene attack on Gertrude Stein.)

Great fiction makes a reader feel what the author feels:  In this case, we should feel Hemingway’s love of hunting and Africa.  It is a difficult task, depending on the predilections of the reader, and Hemingway has not been entirely successful.  There are moments when we approach a revelation and imagine ourselves sitting in a blind next to Hemingway with a Springfield over our knees, binoculars round our necks and ants crawling into our socks.  But these moments remain promised rather than delivered—a sun trying repeatedly to break through cloud-cover and never quite making it.  The story is fascinating, but we are left with the question:  “What makes a man want to hunt?”

Hemingway answers this question with total success in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a story that overpowered, at least temporarily, my own aversion to hunting.  The feel of the country, the pursuit and the kill, its relation to courage and the concept of a man and manliness are exactly what Hemingway wanted to achieve in this longer, less fictional work.  A little more fabrication in Green Hills might have put us closer to the truth—but it would also have robbed us of a remarkable achievement in a genre that defies traditional classification.

Prose: 9/10

Feel: 8/10

Fascination: 8/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway.  First ed, Scribner’s, 1935.  This ed, Scriber 2015, 281 pages.

Read More

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

hem short stories crop

Fitzgerald was right when he said authors were bound to repeat a limited number of stories in various guises.  This Hemingway collection, for example, contains fragments of what eventually became A Farewell to Arms—especially in “A Very Short Story” and “In Another Country” (and the latter title was one he considered for the novel itself).  There are also pieces of what would become Green Hills of Africa, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea.  But there is none of the tedium of Fitzgerald’s repetition here—each variant in Hemingway is a different revelation, a new discovery of both literary and archeological fascination.  It’s like walking in Jackson Pollock’s studio and recognizing the edges of great paintings on the floor.

Hemingway has more stories to tell because he looked for them obsessively and couldn’t sit still.  Though Fitzgerald spent years during the 1920s in Paris and Southern France, his world remained basically divided into America and Not America, and he knew much more about the former than he ever cared to learn about the latter.  (Not necessarily a bad thing; Fitzgerald had the pulse of New York, whereas Hemingway couldn’t write about it all.)

Hemingway in Paris

By the time Hemingway wrote the latest story in this collection, in 1938, he had lived in, loved and come to know Paris, Milan, Madrid, Montreux (in Switzerland), Havana, Toronto and other places.  He spoke French, Italian and Spanish;  his German was decent.  He learned enough Swahili to communicate with his guides and trackers when he hunted in Africa.  Each of his experiences became a novel, but, before they did, they were stories.  And many of the stories are as good or better.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” is the first story in the collection and also the best and finest short story I’ve ever read.  Hemingway’s psychological acuity is on par with Fitzgerald’s, but manifests itself in the opposite way:  In Fitzgerald, the woman always wins.  In Hemingway, the man always wins—even if he has to die to do it.  “Macomber” is precisely that:  The triumph of the man, even in death, is what gives the story its remarkable charge.

Fitzgerald was liable to be sentimental, if he wasn’t on his guard.  Hemingway hated sentimentality—he wanted to scorch, shoot, punch, stab and blast sentimentality to smithereens.  His characters are less likely to feel sorry for themselves, and more likely to get down to business, no matter how ill-prepared they are:  They pull things together, or they go down, but they don’t give up.  “Fifty Grand,” a boxing story, is another exceptional masterpiece and a particular example.

Plenty has been written attacking Hemingway’s macho philosophy.  Hemingway may not have been as good as his heroes, but it’s silly to think that he would be.  He sometimes overdoes it.  (And he uses far too many conjunctions and not enough commas.)  More often than not, he’s exactly on the mark and wastes no time getting there.  In an age where our high school English teachers tell their young men that it’s actually ok for them to cry, Hemingway helpfully reminds us that, no, it isn’t.

Prose: 8/10

Power: 10/10

Variety: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  Scribners, 1953. 499 pages.

Read More

The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

The anthologist of this collection begins his otherwise plodding preface with an interesting quotation from Fitzgerald: “We authors repeat ourselves….We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives…and we tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—as long as people will listen.”

This is evident in many of the short stories collections I’ve read.  But where Hemingway can keep a story ever-fresh by giving us different episodes told from different angles, it is more Fitzgerald’s fashion to give his characters new clothes and identities and set them off on a familiar course.

In such cases, an anthologist can make or break a collection by his discrimination in choosing stories.  And here, Matthew Bruccoli has been over-eager:  This 800-page, forty-three-story collection does disservice to Fitzgerald by including weaker variants of his recurring themes.  If it instead contained just the fifteen best stories, any reader would conclude—correctly—that Fitzgerald was a surpassingly great writer.

In rare cases, a theme is so good and the execution so brilliant that it can support multiple expositions—Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations are both masterpieces.  But, for the most part, variant renderings should be treated as an historical or academic curiosity, rather than something of artistic significance.  And academics themselves are famously unable to tell the difference.

Fitzgerald’s earliest stories demonstrate a tremendously acute grasp of psychology—especially of a particular female psychology that must have pained Fitzgerald severely and which reappears throughout his writing career.  But it wasn’t until Fitzgerald tried ex-patriotism in Paris and endured the tragic torment of a wife, famed for her beauty, who was also clinically insane, that he gained the necessary spiritual depth for his talent to have full scope.  Fitzgerald finally sheds the self-pitying tendency that characterizes his early heroes and learns how to rescue something of dignity in a man whose natural tendency is to be preyed on by women.

Though the stories are uneven from one to the next, the best are extraordinary (and funny—Fitzgerald had great wit).  The late pieces approach capturing, within tight confines, everything Fitzgerald had seen and absorbed, and make the return to early themes beautiful—“More Than Just a House” is the best such example.  At the end of a short life (he died aged forty-four) the vigor which Fitzgerald maintained against all odds in Europe appears finally swamped by the cynicism of Hollywood, where he went to replace the income from failing book sales and declining story prices by taking a contract with MGM, working on scripts which went largely unused.  He hated this job and he chronicles his spiritual dissipation in two successful stories—“Afternoon of an Author” and “Financing Finnegan.”  The Fitzgerald that emerges in the closing pages—cut short while working on his great unfinished novel The Last Tycoon—has a sublime, quiet acceptance:  he has given up his youthful habit of asking why, and devotes himself instead to simply explaining how it is.

Prose: 8/10

Aphoristic pith: 9/10

Acuity: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 6.5/10.  9.5/10 for the best stories.

The Short Stories of F Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J Bruccoli, Scribner, 1989, 775 pages.

Read More

L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti, by Jean Genet

This inviting little volume includes thirty-three excellent photographs by Ernest Scheidegger and a famous, short text (around 45 pages’ worth) by Jean Genet.  I don’t know the exact length, since the publishers, with typical French artistic pomposity, decided it would be beneath them to actually number the pages.

Jean Genet was a writer, a poet, a contemptible liar and a thief.  He was a friend of Giacometti’s, an astute observer of his art, was portrayed by him several times, and stole Giacometti’s best drawing of Matisse.  (The drawing was never returned, but a stranger sold it back to Diego Giacometti sometime after his brother’s death.)  James Lord, the great art writer and Giacometti biographer, recounts the story of the theft in his wonderful book Some Remarkable Men, and describes Genet as “vain, mendacious, imperiously unprincipled…and an eloquent champion of ideals which he did not believe.”  But he adds that Giacometti was extremely fond of this little book and that Picasso considered it one of the finest ever written about an artist.

The text is an artful attempt to transpose Giacometti from painting to writing, rather than a documentary account of Giacometti’s studio and his working-process.  There are several fascinating fragments of conversations with Giacometti and some passages that convey the feel of the studio.  Most of all, Genet tries to express the feel of the art itself, occasionally with brilliant success.  The text is free-flowing prose-poetry that sounds like a conversation he might have had at a late-night Parisian café with some stranger who sat down and said, “Now, tell me all about Giacometti.”  (The text is complete with interjections—“Dare I say it?” or “I certainly put that badly; let me try it this way….”)

Genet observes that the space around Giacometti’s sculptures “vibrates” and that they leave nothing at rest.  In one of his best passages, he describes the sensation of touching the sculpture (which you can still do at the Centre Pompidou if you bring an attractive friend to distract the guards):  “Joy, well known and unceasingly fresh, of my fingers, when I ‘walk’ them – my eyes closed – over a statue….At the home of some friends who have two small statues, exact copies of Donatello, I want to repeat the experience with them: the bronze is unresponsive, mute, dead.”

In Giacometti’s studio, “a man is dying slowly, consuming himself, and before our eyes, transforms himself into goddesses.”  The goddesses are Giacometti’s sculptures of women—or more properly, the women themselves, since Giacometti’s whole life was a struggle to compress into painting and sculpture the same force of existence, the same impression of “thingness” he found in life itself.  Watching him work, Genet writes, “I have the moving spectacle of a man who never makes a mistake and yet constantly loses.”  Giacometti would have been the first to admit—in fact, admitted all the time—that he was doomed to fail.  His relentless struggle made him one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Interestingness: 9/10

Pretentiousness: 10/10

Insight: 7-10/10, variable

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti, by Jean Genet. L’Arbalète, 1963.  Who knows how many pages.

Note: This book is in French; any awkwardness or inaccuracy in the translations is my fault.

Read More

Michael Crichton: Rising Sun and Airframe


Rising Sun was my first encounter with Michael Crichton, and, since I wasn’t terribly impressed, I thought it would be only fair to read a second novel of his so I’d have something to compare it to:  Airframe was superb.

The problem with Rising Sun is that Crichton is so busy pushing the plot forward on every single page that he has no room at all for character:  even his central characters are flat;  the surrounding ones are irritatingly, incredibly empty.  It may well be that, when this novel was published, our covert business-war with Japan was all the rage, but I still can’t imagine that every single person who opened his mouth in 1992 would have had Japan at the tip of his brain.  Each spoken exchange sounds only like the next segment in the author’s continuous monologue.

Crichton choses his subjects with exceptional care and goes into them almost with the view of delivering an education – so there is plenty of fascinating material here.  But the essential problem is exactly as the NY Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it: “as a serious discourse…the book is far too entertaining. And as an entertainment, it is far too didactic.”  It’s an exciting story – near the end, very exciting – but much too contrived to be rewarding and I would not read it again.

Airframe, however, is one of the most engaging novels I’ve ever read.  It has much more, and much better character, though clearly this is not Crichton’s strongest suit:  You get the impression that he builds supporting characters by reaching into a grab-bag of personality traits and sprinkling around random handfuls – this guy is fiery and irritable, that guy is depressed and quiet, etc.  You could switch any of them around without fundamentally changing the story. But Crichton redeems that fault by writing about an unusual subject with an extraordinary depth of knowledge and an impeccable flair for tension, excitement and timing.  The story has genuine intrigue.  It has fascination.  I can’t think of any book I’ve read that was harder to put down.  You don’t have to be interested in airliners to be swept up by the story – but if you’re squeamish about air travel I wouldn’t recommend it as your in-flight reading.

And I wouldn’t read Airframe a second time either. Like a great joke or a magic trick or an Alfa Romeo, it only works once.

Nelson DeMille, like Michael Crichton, writes thrillers.  But, though DeMille has Crichtonian plot-drive, he also has a powerful feel for character that doesn’t stop at engaging the reader with an ambient situation.  DeMille pulls his readers into a sympathetic understanding with the protagonist.  With Airframe, the excitement is in not knowing what will happen next.  And Crichton beats the pants off anyone delivering that excitement. But with that gone, the reread value is zilch.  With a good DeMille novel, though, there is something left over even after the mystery is solved:  You return to his stories not because you want to find out, all over again, what happens, but because you’d like to say hello to an old friend.

Rising Sun, by Michael Crichton. Knopf, 1992, 385 pages.

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 6/10

Airframe, by Michael Crichton, Knopf, 1996, 352 pages.

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

Read More

Dealers, by Peter Madsen

Madsen is a roving reporter of the streets of New York;  he wrote a good piece in Gothamist on panhandlers, of which his extensive knowledge is the result of almost three-hundred interviews:  when someone asks him for a buck, he offers ten in exchange for a short chat.  It’s a serious-reporter approach to learning the city.  Joseph Mitchell would have approved.  These panhandler interviews are collected on a website called “Word on the Street, New York,” and I would gladly pay for a carefully selected volume of the best.  (Some of them are tedious, but others are brilliant nuggets of language and life at the bottom end.)  That book has yet to be published, so I found this one instead, tangential but related: a series of Madsen’s interviews with low-level drug peddlers, messengers and connects.

This is another part of New York I don’t know anything about, but the interviews suggest the traffic in the city is much higher than I would have thought:  the first conversation is with a doorman in a luxury high-rise who doesn’t deal drugs, but is often asked by his tenants for a connection.  He estimates that 30% of the tenants in his building use something, which would be an astonishingly high figure, if we could validate it.

I know some people who smoke weed, but, outside this book, my only experience with drugs in New York was an East Village encounter with a nice Dominican who nearly slipped off an icy corner into a big puddle of sludgy, freezing water:  having saved his balance at the last moment (and it was an impressive feat) he stood up with his arms in the air like a circus performer and came over to strike up a conversation with me, the only nearby pedestrian, which he inaugurated by saying, with a huge smile, “Did you see that? Any other nigger woulda fallen right in that shit!”  After thanking God at some length for the myriad glories of our world and discussing his girlfriend and his impending trip to Florida to visit his grandfather, he decided to smoke a celebratory joint, which he rolled and then stuffed in his pocket just long enough to curse merrily at an NYPD van which happened to roll by.  I’ll say he was a lot more relaxed than most New Yorkers I know. He reminded me of a panda bear.

Most of Madsen’s interviews are with bicycle couriers who work for a “serve” – they peddle around all day delivering drugs (mostly weed) to “custies,” who place orders by calling a central dispatch.  It really is a miracle of efficient free-enterprise.  A courier who works five days a week might expect to earn $40-50k a year, provided he remembers to dress in an appropriately preppy fashion (button-down shirt, nice shoes) so he doesn’t look suspicious heading into the fancy buildings where most of his customers live.  If Madsen had more discipline, he would have converted these interviews into a real book on the subject.  But the raw material is fascinating anyway and Madsen did a fine job getting it.

Interestingness: 9/10

Effort on interviews: 10/10

On turning them into a book: 4/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

Dealers, by Peter Madsen. PowerHouse Books, 2013, 152 pages.

Read More

The Lucky Bastard Club, by Eugene Fletcher

lucky bastard club cover

This memoir is a fascinating companion to Truman Smith’s The Wrong Stuff, which I reviewed last month.  Lt Eugene Fletcher was a B-17 pilot assigned to the 95th Heavy Bombardment Group;  Lt Truman Smith was with the 385th.  The two men never met, though their bases were only thirteen miles apart and they flew on several of the same missions.  Their descriptions of the same events flown from different viewpoints make a fascinating comparison.

The deeper you dive into the fabric of WWII recollections, the more familiar encounters you can expect – for example, Fletcher flew the October 12th 1944 mission to Bremen, during which one of the escorting fighter pilots famously became an “ace in a day”:  the pilot was Chuck Yeager, who almost exactly three years later became the first man to break the sound barrier.

Fletcher’s and Smith’s combat tours overlapped by slightly less than a month: Smith arrived in England at the beginning of April, 1944.  When Fletcher arrived in July, fresh out of training, Smith had already flown twenty-eight missions and had the most experienced crew in his group.  The air war changed dramatically in that short window, and the two men had very different experiences completing their thirty-five missions:  Enemy fighters were a constant terror to Smith’s crew, but the Luftwaffe was largely destroyed or dispersed by D-Day and Fletcher’s gunners only rarely got a chance to shoot at a Nazi plane.  Near the end of Fletcher’s tour, it was judged that a single waist-gunner was sufficient and crews were reduced from ten men to nine.  The greatest threat by then was radar-guided flak, which was balanced by new allied counter-developments:  “Mickey” radar that allowed bombing through cloud-cover, bundles of radar-confusing aluminum strips called “Window”, plus, near the end of Fletcher’s tour, a radar-jamming device codenamed “Carpet”.

Flak shell bursts — each puff sent hundreds of steel shards scything through the air and aircraft.

The Lucky Bastard Club is actually two books, which were originally published separately.  The first book, Mister, is the story of Fletcher’s learning to fly and is a wonderful account.  The Army Air Corps took training extremely seriously:  through pre-flight, primary, basic, advanced, transition training and crew formation, it was eighteen months before Fletcher was ready for his five-month tour of duty.

The second book, Fletcher’s Gang, is the story of his time in combat.  Whereas Mister is a straightforward narrative, here Fletcher uses the letters he wrote to his wife, supplemented by the short but pithy accounts of his Navigator, Robert C Work, and his Bombardier, Frank S Dimit.  If the story thus told has less continuous flow, it gains tremendously from the immediacy of these primary sources.  When you take the hazards of this most dangerous theater of the air war, and stack them against the courage, the initiative and the maturity it took for a twenty-two-year-old to lead his crew on a nine-hour flight to knock out a Nazi oil refinery and save the free world, the impression is almost too profound to be recorded.  You’re astonished by the achievement, thrilled by the excitement, and proud to be an American.

Importance: 9/10

Style: 8/10

Americanosity: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.5/10

The Lucky Bastard Club, by Eugene Fletcher. Washington University Press, 1998, 505 pages.

Read More