The Afterlife: And Other Stories, by John Updike

Updike is getting old.  Actually, he’s dead.  But when this collection of stories was published, in 1994, he was just getting old.  He reflects on childhood, growing children and grandchildren, marriages running out of energy, people running out of energy, and death itself – the terminus of the ultimately ausgespielt.  This does not make a very cheerful collection, but it has brilliant moments and a deeper, or at least more thoughtful and careful, approach than he took in his early years, when all he had was astonishing natural facility and the obsession with women that inspires and sustains nearly all art.

Without knowing anything about Updike personally, there are so many recurring themes and transposed characters in these stories that I guessed the following:  the author was 60 years old, he grew up in Pennsylvania and moved from a town to a farm at the age of thirteen.  He hated the farm, which aggravated his poor health and removed him from his friends, and he blamed his mother for the move.  He attended Harvard and met his first wife there.  They had (three?) children, then divorced.  He later remarried.

In fact, Updike was 62.  His relationship with his mother is speculation on my part, but everything else is correct.  His mother (who had recently died when he wrote this series) was obviously his greatest preoccupation.  But it is not easy for the reader to work up an equal enthusiasm.  The strongest stories are those which have the least of mother in them:  “George and Vivian” (a two-chapter story), “Farrell’s Caddie”, “The Rumor”, “Baby’s First Step”.  These are brilliant pieces.  The best of all, “The Rumor”, is also the farthest outside Updikean autobiography:  an unfounded rumor about an art-dealer gradually becomes true, as the subject begins to wonder how a rumor about him could be so widely believed unless it had an element of truth.

At least in these stories, Updike lacks a touch for strong endings, and, in particular, strong closing lines.  But this doesn’t come across as a fault – it suggests the stories continue in Updike’s mind.  It increases their verisimilitude.  The stories are not neatly capped on the end with a moral or a summary observation.  They are segments of real lives – the author observes one life for a while, then moves on to the next.  You could say it’s the best part of what an author ought to do.

I will always admire Updike for a metaphor:  “outside the sunshine is skating around on the pavement.”  That is exactly what sunshine does on a hot summer day.  He wrote that in 1961, in a story called “A&P”.  By some miraculous happenstance, “A&P” escaped my high school English department’s dystopian quality control and was the only good story we read in four years.  There is some of that in The Afterlife, but not enough.  The best stories are worth picking out of the collection, but the overwhelming desire I’m left with is to return to Updike’s early work and remind myself how well he wrote when he knew less.

Prose: 9/10

Introspection: 9/10 (too much)

Imagination: 7/10

Terminal ballistics: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 7/10

The Afterlife: And Other Stories, by John Updike.  1994, Fawcett Columbine, 316 pages.

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A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful little Hemingway show just closed at the Morgan Library.  Hemingway’s manuscripts, typescripts and galleys, all marked up and extensively rewritten, remind us how hard he worked to make his writing straightforward.  On display were the final paragraphs of A Farewell to Arms, which he rewrote twenty-nine times.  And the draft of Up in Michigan, the story Gertrude Stein called inaccrochable and which Hemingway tucked away in his desk.  It was one of the only stories to survive the catastrophic theft at the Gare de Lyon, when his wife Hadley lost the suitcase containing his complete work up to that point.  Hemingway describes the incident in A Moveable Feast – he couldn’t get mad at his wife, who was so choked by tears she could barely explain what had happened.  He ultimately concluded that it was better that his early stuff – including his first novel, never recovered – was lost and that he’d been forced to begin again.

He worked in his loft, which overlooked the rooftops of Paris, bringing up with him some wood for the stove and a bag of tangerines for the hunger (the tangerines would freeze if they were left overnight).  With all his walking and working and wife and baby and the general penury of a yet-unknown, he was hungry all the time.  But he wouldn’t let himself stop until he’d written something good.  And he wouldn’t stop unless he knew what was about to happen, so he’d be able to pick up writing the next day.  When he had trouble, he remembered that all he had to do was write one true sentence – the truest he knew – and the rest would come.  His advice is to write on the one thing you know more about than anyone.  He decided in a disciplined manner to write one story about each thing he knew about.

When he was done with a story he’d allow himself a drink of kirsch and then climb down to look for his friends.  His gossipy, sometimes moving and always funny stories of these friends make up most of A Moveable Feast.  He writes sympathetically of some, scathingly of others, always with the force of truth that he got in exchange for not caring how the named personalities would react.  Many of them were dead by the time this book about the 1920s was published in 1964 – and so was Hemingway.

Ezra Pound once left him a jar of pure opium that was to be given to the poet Ralph Cheever Dunning in the event of an emergency.  Hemingway knew the emergency had arrived when a concierge showed up and announced, “Monsieur Dunning est monté sur le toit et refuse catégoriquement de descendre.”  Dunning had come down from the roof by the time Hemingway got there, but he wasn’t in a particularly good mood:  he threw the jar at Hemingway, followed by a salvo of whatever objects came to hand.  Hemingway concluded, “For a poet, he threw a very accurate milk bottle.”

See also: A Farewell to Arms

Prose: 8/10 (needs more commas, fewer “ands”)

Entertainingness: 9/10

Hemingwayness: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway.  Scribners, 1964, 211 pages.

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The Moronic Inferno, by Martin Amis

Amis says in his introduction that he had often been asked to write a book about America.  Then he looked at the essays he’d done over the last fifteen years and realized he already had.  And this is it.

Wrong.  This is a book of brilliant literary criticism – profiles of Bellow, Roth, Mailer – into which essays about Reagan, evangelism and AIDS fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle squished in the wrong way around.  Amis has nothing to tell us about America except what he picked up from reading the writers he writes about.  Such smug phrases as, “the suspicion and contempt that America traditionally accords to its poor,” are the sort of thing you’d expect Gore Vidal to spout at a swanky cocktail party safely removed from the nether classes.

But Amis can write.  To get an idea of the seductive power of Amis’s style all you have to do is look at the endorsement blurbs on the back of any book he’s published:  they all try to write like him.  And they all fail.  The reviewers are mesmerized by a visual imagination which seems (to use the descriptor Amis applied to Updike) suspiciously frictionless.  So they reach into their own brains for the most pithy, surprising and energetic similes they can find, like little kids trying to copy a magician’s card trick (ha!), and they come up with such gems as “laser-keen eye” or “efficient as a flick-knife.”  I think they’re hoping that Amis will see their reviews, be impressed with how well they write, and decide not to kill them.

Amis’s attitude towards America is – or was when this collection was published, in 1986 – the sort of snide condescension that American intellectuals have relished since the 60s.  They like to talk about America with dainty disdain and an implied personal separation, as though they themselves are not Americans.  They would much rather be taken for Europeans.  But Amis, I suspect, is a secret American.  His obsession with America, and with everything that is wrong with it, reminds me of the highly entertaining ex-Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson:  You get the feeling he wants to persuade himself more than anyone else that America is worse than Britain, so he won’t have to regret where he was born.  I suspect he regrets it anyway.  Amis reminds us twice, with amusement, subtle snobbery and a hint of something else, that success for an American writer is superstardom, compared with the English version of literary success:  “an English writer might warily give up his job as a schoolmaster, or buy of couple of filing cabinets.”  Amis is, of course, an American-style success now, much as he may feel the need to continue being British.  He married an American and moved to Brooklyn.  You can’t get more American than that.

This is a valuable book but it needs threshing – the literary profiles are worth rereading;  the political essays aren’t worth reading at all.

Prose: 9/10

Literary Profiles: 9/10

Essays on America: 4/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 7/10

The Moronic Inferno, by Martin Amis.  First published UK by Jonathan Cape, 1986.  US by Viking, 1987.  This edition, Penguin Books, 1987.  208 pages.

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The Wrong Stuff, by Truman Smith

At 2AM, Sergeant Gatt entered his billet to wake the officers selected for the day’s mission:  he would light four cigarettes at a time, and put a cigarette between the lips of each chosen man. The enlisted men had been woken up a half hour earlier to check and arm their guns. But they could catch up on sleep while the formation assembled in the sky.

Four officers and six enlisted men made the crew of a B-17. Nine bombers made a Squadron, three Squadrons made a Group – each Group had its own airfield.

Four Groups was a Wing, four Wings a Division, and three Divisions made the United States 8th Bomber Command. A single bombing mission could involve more than a thousand planes – not counting fighter support or the enemy fighters that came to meet them. A thousand bombers flew in a formation more than a mile long: four thousand engines, ten thousand men, two million gallons of fuel, five million horsepower, six million pounds of high explosives. Per day. Every day, until the war was won. The world had never seen anything like it before, and will never see anything like it again.

B-17s over Germany. The straight contrails at the left were made by bombers; the curving contrails are fighter planes.

There was no more dangerous theater of the air war. When Lieutenant Truman Smith graduated pilot school in late 1943, age twenty, his graduating class of 300 men was told to expect that three percent of them would survive the war. In just under three years of fighting, the 8th Air Force lost more than 4000 bombers and 26,000 men – their entire fighting strength more than twice over. It took Smith’s crew four months to complete their combat tour of 35 missions (upped from 25 after the Normandy invasion, when it was judged the odds had improved as the Luftwaffe collapsed). On the way, Smith lost his radioman, grounded from frostbite, and his left waist gunner, who died of anoxia when his oxygen equipment malfunctioned. His bombardier had two purple hearts from flak. Smith came close to being killed on nearly every mission – he once looked down to see a basketball-sized hole blasted in the fuselage right next to his foot. He recalls seeing a B-17 explode in a fireball in front of them: seeing engines, doors, bodies and pieces of wing shoot by their windows – and a huge cartwheeling propelling scything towards them through the air. But he escaped unharmed, and went on to write one of the best war memoirs I’ve read.

In a brilliant 2004 piece in the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter wrote that if we actually believed “the greatest generation” was “the greatest generation” we’d listen to their stories. Instead we’ve mostly ignored them. Truman’s book shows signs of this. He is a superb storyteller and a first-rate writer;  he could have used an equally good editor to catch the rare typo and tighten things up here and there. But nobody bothered.

Read it anyway. The story is thrilling, brilliantly told, and extremely important.

Style: 9/10

Importance: 10/10

Fascinating-detailiness: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

The Wrong Stuff, by Truman Smith.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. 358 pages.

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If on a winter’s night a traveller, by Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler is a problem-novel. Like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, it has an internal and an external story, which circle around one another like a DNA double-helix. The reader has to work to figure it out. Calvino alternates chapters about a reader with chapters of the novels he reads. The first chapter-pair is declamatory, turgid, preachy, verbose and infuriatingly self-indulgent. So I was utterly shocked to discover that Calvino had pulled his act together by the second pair of chapters and produced an extraordinary novel that, at its best, is beyond first-rate. The book risks being too clever at times – it is a daring experiment, but ultimately a success.

In the first chapters, the only hint of the better work to come is a remarkable feel for imagery, to which Calvino grants ever-increasing freedom. Calvino’s absolutely brilliant visual imagination is reminiscent of Nabokov, and especially Kafka. Calvino confirmed in a published interview that he admired Kafka above all; many of his passages are extremely like Kafka and the overall structure is even more so. At the end of the first chapter, the protagonist’s abrupt expulsion recalls Amerika; later he pays a visit to the bureaucratic maze of a publishing office run by an elusive high official which unmistakably suggests The Castle.

Kafka is a dream-like environment in which the protagonist can never settle down: a group of strangers befriends the protagonist for no reason; he gets used to it. But as soon as he becomes comfortable, he is ripped away and whisked off to another new strange place. Calvino performs this operation on two separate tracks, in parallel: every time his unnamed protagonist settles into a novel he likes, the story breaks off suddenly for one reason or another. The protagonist tries to find the next chapter, only to discover he has begun a new, different novel, and must be drawn into a new story all over again. Accompanying this first track, the protagonist’s journey from one novel to the next begins in an ordinary, realistic environment, and gradually unravels itself in a progression of increasingly strange events. We start on a beach and wade deeper into Kafka’s ocean until we’re all under water. Only the narrator does not find his predicament as strange as he should – this too, is a staple of Kafkan writing.

Calvino explains clearly, through the mouth of a fictitious novelist character, what he wanted to achieve by ripping the reader out of the start of a story again and again: “The romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story….I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning.”

Once you move beyond the initial failure of the opening chapter, the stories that follow are so intense, vivid, enticing and so resplendent with imagery that you’re put in mind of a painting by Klimt. I will return to this book again, for fresh discoveries.

Imagination: 10/10

Imagery: 10/10

Technical originality: 10/10

Technical execution: 8/10

Self-restraint: 6-7/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino.  1979, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Torino.  This edition, 1981, Harcourt, damn fine translation by William Weaver. 260 pages.

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A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s draft endings for A Farewell to Arms show a dozen attempts to work in some sentimental reflection, but he couldn’t make himself sentimentalize, and the published version ends with a simple line of narration. Among the thirty or so titles Hemingway considered was The Sentimental Education – this too was discarded. Hemingway is unsentimental and straightforward. He speaks plain and to the purpose, like the soldier he wanted to be but never quite became. Hemingway would never have written, for example, that the rain sounded “like skeletons copulating on a tin roof” (a simile applied by Sir Thomas Beecham, less appropriately, to the sound of the harpsichord). If it was raining hard, Hemingway would say: “it was raining hard.”

He builds remarkable pictures from simple material – when his narrator’s dugout is hit by a mortar shell, for example: it was “a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind.”

Hemingway himself, like his narrator, was an ambulance driver on the Italian front during the First World War. He too was wounded in the legs by mortar fire and received the Italian Silver Medal. He was with the Red Cross; his narrator was an American in the Italian Army. Most of the novel’s characters are based on Hemingway’s real-life acquaintances.

The Italian government hated this novel, which was originally published in 1929 but wasn’t allowed in Italy until 1948. Hemingway loved Italy, and he liked the Italians – but he writes like an honest reporter-novelist and his Italian characters have a stench of spiritual decay and helpless resignation. It is not only that they did not understand why they were fighting – that goes without saying. But they had largely concluded that it would be easier and better to be defeated immediately than to fight indefinitely for uncertain victory: It doesn’t matter who runs the country, thought the Italian soldier, so long as I can go back to my farm. It is this lack of spirit that allowed Fascism – which Churchill called “the shadow or ugly child of Communism” – to leech across Europe after the First World War and lay the groundwork for the Second.

Hemingway notes ironically that courage came to Italian soldiers as they got farther away from the front and less likely to be shot at. With adequate distance, some became so brave they began executing Italian officers retreating with their troops after the Austrian breakthrough in the Battle of Caporetto. When Hemingway’s narrator is nearly shot by these self-appointed “Battle Police,” he decides he’s had enough and escapes to Switzerland – where he stays, with his English nurse, rather than returning to America or Britain.

As a wandering interwar American, this character is particularly in harmony with the greatest war correspondent of the following war: William L. Shirer, an American who lived in Spain and France and married an Austrian who was living in Switzerland. He spent most of the 30s in Germany reporting on the emergence of Hitler and finally returned to America in 1940.

Every European convulsion needs an American voice to describe it. For the First World War, the voice was Hemingway’s.

Prose: 8.5/10

Energy: 9/10

Lost Generationality: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.  Scribner’s, 1929.  284 pages.

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Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

Red Cavalary is a collection of short stories based on Babel’s experience as a journalist attached to the First Cavalry during the Polish-Soviet War of the 1920s. Babel spared neither the Russians nor the Poles in his stories: the casual brutality they inflicted on each other and, above all, on the Jews (“guilty in everyone’s eyes”) makes somber reading. Semyon Budyonny, commander of the First Cavalry Army, hated Babel for his honest reporting and tried for some time to have him executed. But, before Stalin’s ascendancy, Babel enjoyed relative literary freedom and became one of the most celebrated stars of the Soviet Union.

“My First Goose,” is the best known story of the book; this is a shame because, while a fine story, it is not nearly the best nor is it representative of Babel’s style. Babel is, in most of his stories, a silent observer, in some cases recounting a story told to him by one of the men in his unit, and marking his own presence only at the very end by saying “This story was told to me on this occasion by so-and-so.”

The imagery is extraordinary, beautiful and original – the moon in the sky, “stuck up there like an insolent splinter”; the tall man who “cleaved the hot lustre of the air with the gallows of his long bones.” Babel dozed in a hut by candlelight, “dreams prancing around me like kittens.” This new translation by Boris Dralyuk is exceptional: The prose-poetry has somehow survived its metamorphosis. There are passages in this volume as extraordinary as any you will encounter in modern literature.

Babel liked short stories: no doubt he would have produced a novel had he lived long enough, but the short format suits him. He likes to convey a total picture to the reader – down to the finest, subtlest emotional nuances – and then, having laid the table with a scene both extraordinarily exotic and painfully true, he discards it and moves on to the next one.

The Stalin regime made it impossible for Babel to continue writing – he published another collection of short stories, the Odessa Tales, in 1931, then a play, Maria, and then nothing. The play was cancelled by the secret police during rehearsals and would not be performed in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Unlike most of the popular Soviet writers of the time, he refused to pander to the regime, preferring to say nothing if he could not say it honestly: In 1934 Babel remarked ironically to his colleagues that he was becoming a master of “the genre of silence.”

His wife had left the Soviet Union to settle in Paris. After years of petitioning, he was granted the right to visit her there. She pleaded with him to remain in Paris; he pleaded with her to return to Russia. In the end, he went back alone, where his eloquent silence and his Jewishness were becoming obnoxious to the regime. He was arrested by the NKVD in late 1939, accused spying, and in January 1940, after a trial that lasted twenty minutes, he was sentenced to death and shot.

Thus communism made short work of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Prose: 10/10

Imagery: 10/10

Tragedy: 8/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel. First published 1926.  This edition, Pushkin Press, 2014.  Trans. Boris Dralyuk. 219 pages.

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Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Every American boy should read Two Years Before the Mast. It’s exactly the sort of story that dominates a youthful imagination and sparks our careless sense of adventure.

In 1834, after a year at Harvard, Richard Dana Jr’s eyesight was getting bad and he decided the proper remedy was to do something that wouldn’t involve too much reading. So he signed for a voyage to California on a merchantman – a dangerous trip around Cape Horn that came near killing him on several occasions. But, as he notes in his diary, if you fall off the yardarm and are lucky enough to get caught in the belly of a sail instead of breaking your bones on the deck, you’d better laugh it off. Far from the carefree sailors’ existence that the sea stories of the imaginative but uninitiated desk-bound author picture, Dana’s accounts of climbing up the mast to spend an hour reefing topsails in an ice storm without even a jacket to wear make it clear that a sailor’s life was arduous and miserable and required a toughness of body and spirit that is strongly reminiscent of our modern military special forces.

Hard as this life was – and even intermixed as it was with months of monotonous though dangerous routine – it is so far outside our normal experience and the experience of the time that it has romance. Our imagination is fired at every turn – his description of life onboard ship, the meals, the language, the means of handling the sails (which involves an incredible amount of wonderfully obscure terminology) are fascinating. As is his beguiling opening description of a sailor’s outfit and his manner (“with a sun-burnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, [he] swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwart-ships, half open, as though just ready to grasp a rope.”)

Added to this are fascinating historical observations, in particular of the essentially undeveloped west coast. Californians were not yet Americans – they were largely Spanish Americans – and, in Dana’s view, the laziest people on earth (“there are no people to whom the newly-invented Yankee word of ‘loafer’ is more applicable.”) You might find them literally standing around waiting for their houses’ roofs to blow off. In contrast, the Sandwich Islanders (whom we today would call Hawaiians) were energetic and skillful sailors, and the most generous people Dana had ever met. The land around the “little harbor” of San Diego had a “naked, level appearance.” San Francisco was “surrounded by a fertile and finely wooded country” with a lonely presidio built on the highest point.

His description of the sight of Massachusetts Bay after a two-years’ absence is beautiful. The sailors’ insights he records are striking (“a good song is worth ten men”). But nothing beats his admonition that “we must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths.” I don’t think I could do it myself, but I can admire a man who did.

Prose: 8/10

Pace: 7.5/10

Healthy outdoorsiness: 10/10

Vigor and vim: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.  First published 1840.  This Library of American edition, 2005. 395 pages.

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The Battle of Midway: Books by Morison, Lord and Prange

“In all its long history, the Japanese Navy had never known defeat….”

– Samuel Eliot Morison


Most of my friends don’t know what the Battle of Midway was. When I found a friend who did, he confidently explained that the American victory was nothing but luck. He might have been referring to Admiral Spruance’s self-effacing comment that “we were shot through with luck,” but I doubt it. These depressing conversations remind me that we no longer bother teaching history in elementary school or high school or college.

Midway is one of the most important and decisive battles in history. It was where the small American Fleet, still reeling from Pearl Harbor, stopped the gangrenous spread of Japanese Imperialism. The men who fought there deserve a permanent place in the American mind and the lasting gratitude of the free world.

The standard works are Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory and Gordon Prange’s Miracle at Midway. Both admit a heavy debt of gratitude to Samuel Eliot Morison’s three chapters on the battle in his epic History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Morison is certainly one of the most thrilling of all military historians, with a gift for lyric lines that burn themselves into our memory – the even pithier account of Midway in his summary work, The Two-Ocean War, is worth learning by heart. But Morison was writing very close to the events themselves (he served on shipboard during the war – a fighting history professor).

Thus he writes somewhat vaguely that American Intelligence produced a “fairly accurate” picture of Japanese intentions “deduced from various bits of information. ” In fact the extraordinary story of the Intelligence operation at Station Hypo – one the great achievements of the war – was still classified. Both Lord and Prange, writing later, explain in absorbing detail how a small group of mathematical and linguistic geniuses led by Joseph Rochefort, working underground for days and even weeks at a stretch, were able to decode enough of Japan’s naval cipher to predict where and when we would find the enemy fleet. Their prediction proved accurate within five minutes, five miles, and five degrees’ bearing, an unpredecented and unrepeated feat.

Even with our advance warning, we were almost catastrophically outnumbered: 162 Japanese warships and auxiliaries to our 76. But, in one crucial area, we were nearly even – three American carriers (Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet) to their four (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu). We were lucky in some respects, unlucky in others. We took advantage of Japanese mistakes. But ultimately the battle was won by the tactical brilliance, the fighting skill and the physical courage of individual Americans, whose names we ought to know:

Admiral Raymond Spruance was in command of Hornet and Enterprise. He seized the initiative to attack with everything he had as soon as Midway-based search planes found the Japanese fleet.

Captain Miles Browning, Spruance’s Chief of Staff, was “one of the most irascible officers ever to earn a fourth stripe, but he was a man with a slide-rule brain.” He calculated the correct time to launch a strike that would catch the Japanese carriers with their planes refueling and rearming on deck.

Lieutenant Commander John C Waldron led Hornets Torpedo planes. He was the brilliant aerial navigator who succeeded in finding the Japanese carriers despite their last-minute change in course. He attacked without fighter cover and lost his life, as did 28 of the 29 men under his command. The Torpedo planes from Enterprise and Yorktown followed him in, suffering losses nearly as horrendous and scoring not a single hit. But the Japanese fighters were drawn low to the water by the torpedo attack, leaving the skies wide open at exactly the right moment.

LtCmdr John C Waldron, the valiant skipper of Torpedo Squadron 6.

Lieutenant Commander Clarence Wade McClusky, air group commander of Enterprise, appeared 19,000 feet above the Japanese fleet with our SBD Dauntless dive bombers: Bombing Squadron 6, led by Lieutenant Commander Richard H Best and Scouting Squadron 6, led by Lieutenant W Earl Gallaher. At 1026 on June 4, they came screaming down on Akagi and Kaga. At exactly the same moment, Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Leslie and his Yorktown dive bombers hurtled towards Soryu. In six minutes – six minutes as important as any in modern history – they had reduced all three carriers to a flaming shambles.

An SBD Dauntless — “the most successful and beloved by aviators of all our carrier types during the war.”

The fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu, survived long enough to launch a counterattack which crippled Yorktown, but Yorktown was avenged by a second American raid “led by the redoubtable Gallaher” – and by 1700 on June 4, Hiryu too was a burning wreck.

By nine o’clock next morning, all four Japanese carriers were on the bottom. With them, their entire complement 250 Japanese fighters and bombers, and some 2200 officers and men.  Admiral Yamamoto took sick to his cabin for the return voyage to Japan, and word was passed from Imperial Headquarters that the name “Midway” was never to be mentioned.

Lord and Prange have produced worthy accounts – Lord’s is far more readable, with a real human touch in his anecdotes. Prange’s work was published posthumously, co-authored by Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon. Perhaps because of the co-authoring it lacks a strong narrative voice and is much drier. But it is more recently published and had the most information to draw on. In closing, however, we must return to Morison, who commends to us “the threescore young aviators who met flaming death that day in reversing the verdict of battle.

“Think of them, reader, every Fourth of June. They and their comrades who survived changed the whole course of the Pacific War.”


Overall Goodness Rating: Complex (see below):

In sixteen pages, see Morison’s Two Ocean War, pp 147-163. OGR 10/10

In three chapters, Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 4, chapters 6-8 OGR 10/10

In an entire book, Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord, 1967.  Harper & Row, 331 pages. OGR 9/10

In another entire book, Miracle at Midway, by Gordon Prange et al, 1982.  McGraw-Hill, 469 pages. OGR 8/10

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Anton Chekhov: The Complete Short Novels

Everyman’s Library specializes in scholarly and attractive little editions of non-American fiction (see Library of America for the Americans). The Complete Short Novels contains the five Chekhov works of fiction which are just a little too long to be short stories. They were written between 1888 and 1896. The Steppe, which is the earliest and least sophisticated, is a masterpiece; the others are even more masterpieceful – as extraordinary as any fiction I’ve read. The psychological acuity and the vividness of imagination are like Tolstoy (who could have imagined a field and told you the position of each individual blade of grass).

The plots are simple; Chekhov is in his characters – particularly in the more unusual points of view. It’s hard for a man to write women well (one of the best successes in contemporary fiction is Take a Girl Like You, by Kingsley Amis). The bathhouse scene in The Duel in which Chekhov narrates from a feminine point of view is remarkable. More remarkable still is one of the final scenes in My Life, when the husband (protagonist and narrator, and in many respects Chekhov) realizes his wife is falling out of love with him – he praises a dress she likes in a magazine, trying to draw her out, and a tear from her eye drops on the picture.

Narrating successfully and unsentimentally from a child’s point of view is nearly impossible, unless you’re Wordsworth, and that puts Chekhov’s first story in a special category: The Steppe induces the same vaguely uncomfortable, wandering sensation of Kafka’s Amerika, where whenever the protagonist begins to settle into a rhythm and a particular group, he is whisked away to something else and is a stranger again. And though there is no element of what we’d conventionally consider surreal, the story is remarkable for its dreamlike quality. A similar sense of lack of control (which the reader experiences along with the narrator) is in Story of an Unknown Man, which is dated some years after The Steppe but which Chekhov began at the same time. The narrator is a nobleman posing as a servant who carts his boss’s castoff ex-mistress to Italy, where she has the ex-boss’s child and then dies. It sounds ridiculous in summary and distressingly true when you read the story.

Three Years is distinguished especially for being the only story without a sad ending. (The others are not tragic – just sad; the reader is always left thinking what might have been, or what can never be.) Three Years takes the reverse course, though cautiously. Chekhov liked women when they behaved reliably, which in his view they never did, and so he puts a question mark at the end of the story: his wife may finally be falling in love with him. Or with someone else… (See John Donne’s poem “Goe and catche a falling starre”.)

These stories leave nothing to be desired.

Imagination: 10/10

Characterial veracity: 10/10

Imagery: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR) : 10/10

The Complete Short Novels, by Anton Chekhov.  Everyman’s Library, 2004, 600 pages.

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Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris

I have now journeyed with Theodore Roosevelt through two thousand, four hundred and eight pages in three volumes of Edmund Morris’ great masterpiece. The third volume is no less extraordinary than the first two, and in some respects deals with the most complex and difficult part of Roosevelt’s career. He did not adjust well to loosing a job he liked exceedingly well, and very quickly came to regret having followed the two-term tradition and so given up a third term which would have been his for the asking.

After briefly enjoying respite from the cares of office on an African safari with his son Kermit, he found himself increasingly frustrated over what he perceived to be the presidential ineptitude of the man he had handpicked for his successor, William Howard Taft. And when the GOP under Taft’s leadership lost the midterm elections of 1910, Roosevelt’s emberous desire to return to power was stoked to furnace-flame.

He would never have expressed the idea, in as many words, that he was the one and only man who could lead the nation, but it is clear that that is what he had come to think. And this is a very dangerous conceit for any man, even – or especially – for the greatest and most naturally gifted leaders. By 1911 he had become openly hostile to Taft and actively campaigned against him for the nomination. The 1912 Convention was rancorous even by today’s standards (barbed wire was strung over bunting to keep insurgent Republicans from rushing the stage).  The final count was for Taft. Roosevelt believed the nomination had been stolen from him. In fact, while there was plenty of thievery and horsetrading among the various delegations, it was practiced by both sides fairly evenly. There is no doubt that Roosevelt had antagonized too many former supporters with his radical rhetoric to overcome the additional impediment of unseating a current President.

Roosevelt’s subsequent acceptance of a third-party nomination (officially the “Progressive Party,” popularly the “Bull-Moose Party”) did incalculable damage, giving the presidency to the academic Woodrow Wilson, who otherwise would have stood no chance of election. (Wilson was similar in temperament, outlook and effect to the eventual Neville Chamberlain. I recently heard George Will describe Wilson as the man who “ruined the twentieth century” and Roosevelt’s opinion of him was no higher.)

It is a shame that Roosevelt’s health and life did not hold out for the campaign of 1920, by which time, with the coming of war and the death of his beloved youngest son Quentin in air combat in France, his megalomaniacal tendencies were subsided. The end of his life was infused with a new maturity which would likely have made him a great president again. When I reached the end of the last chapter, I felt as though I were saying goodbye to a friend; this is certainly presumptuous on my part, but it is a testament to Morris’ achievement in biography, and to a man who, with his faults, was a great American, a great president, and one of the most remarkable personalities of modern history.

History: 9/10

Pace: 7/10

Character: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. Random House, New York, 2010. 766 pages.

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Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Nemesis is both an important novel and an unpleasant one. Unpleasantness is a hallmark of Phillip Roth: The vague but fascinating insecurities, dark passions and tragedies that froth beneath the surface of Irwin Shaw are unremitting in Roth, who likes to drop his readers into a world where nobody smiles (or not for long, at any rate). The beautiful and masterful reality of the world he constructs – a reality which we can feel in every line of dialogue, of description and of character action – makes the whole thing more depressing. Roth, it seems, only plays in minor keys.

But this is strong, vigorous tragedy, without a trace of sentimentality, full of movement.

Every year before 1954 – the first year the Salk vaccine was widely tested – polio made summertime a terror for children (who were most susceptible) and even more of a terror for parents, who fully understood the implications of potentially lifelong paralysis – which, in the case of pulmonary paralysis, would put the victim in an iron lung or could send him, in less than 24 hours, to the morgue. It is a tribute to Doctor Jonas Salk’s immeasurable contribution to mankind that Roth must begin his novel (published in 2010) by telling his readers what polio was.

The story is set in the wartime summer of 1944, in Newark, New Jersey – Roth’s own hometown (for Roth is more a master-observer than an essentially creative novelist). The playground director, Bucky Cantor, is a refreshingly straightforward hero, fighting his helplessness both against the polio virus and against the poor eyesight which kept him out of the army, but determined to protect his kids.

Like Shaw, but even to a stronger extent, the thing Roth struggles with on every page he writes is his Judaism. (It’s a Jacob-against-the-angel sort of struggle.) Roth wants to reject Judaism, he constantly tries to fling it away, but he can’t escape and is just as constantly, magnetically and irresistibly pulled back to it. His awareness is too finely tuned, too delicately thoughtful to be anything but Jewish. But he refuses to resign himself to his inescapable orbit. This finally erupts in an extraordinary epilogue where the hitherto passive narrator – a child on the playground who, it seemed up to this point, might just as well have been an inert, observing ghost – runs into Bucky Cantor twenty years later, and we are treated to a battle between two different Philip Roths: the one that rejects God as non-existent, and the one that believes in God as an all-powerful and essentially mean-spirited destroyer of happiness. The really remarkable thing is that the theme, or moral, that emerges from this showdown couldn’t be more Jewish or more deeply, spiritually religious: Choose Life! This, astonishingly, is the argument of the Roth who rejects God.

I have set before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse: Therefore choose Life, that you and your children may live.

Prose: 7/10

Accuracy and ear: 9/10

Sturdiness: 9/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10

Nemesis, by Philip Roth.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 304 pages.

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To Hell and Back, by Audie Murphy

The great war memoirs such as Eugene B Sledge’s With the Old Breed and James Fahey’s Pacific War Diary are about the environment of war and the conditions under which it was fought. The greatest war memoirs – at the pinnacle is George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here – are about the characters, the individual personalities of the men that made up a fighting unit. The key to a man’s character is the way he talks: the dialogue that Fraser captured with so unerring an ear is what makes his book a remarkable achievement. Murphy’s book achieves this same greatness in the same way. To Hell and Back is as good as Quartered Safe Out Here, and that’s as good as it gets.

Audie Murphy was a slight 112 pounds and stood five foot five. In 1942 he joined the Army by lying about his age – he was seventeen. He was inducted as a private and promoted to corporal, sergeant, and, eventually, Lieutenant – and it is exceptionally rare for an enlisted man to make the jump to officer. At nineteen, he won the medal of honor for beating back a German tank and infantry attack: he held a line literally alone, calling in artillery as the Germans advanced and returning their fire from the machine gun on top of a stranded tank destroyer. The vehicle was hit twice by German 88s and he was wounded in the leg, but he continued to man the furiously burning TD for over an hour. Eventually the Germans were so close that he called in artillery fire on top of his own position. The Germans retreated. Murphy then went to find his own men. Instead of digging in or getting medical attention, he organized a counter-attack.

Murphy became the most decorated American soldier of the war. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the French Fourragere, French Legion of Honor, French Croix de Guerre, the Belgian Croix de Geurre, and three Purple Hearts. (He could easily have claimed more Purple Hearts, but he was busy.) He hated to be away from his unit and would simply ignore a command that kept him from the front lines. On one occasion he actually walked right out of a replacements depot and across country to his men after returning from the hospital – exactly like the hero in Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions.

Incidentally, I had to look up his decorations (and my list, though extensive, is not complete) because you’ll find no mention of them in his memoirs – not of the Medal of Honor or any of the others.

There has long been a tendency to ascribe heroism to luck and circumstance. Originally this was to promote the idea that the ordinary soldier need not doubt his own courage (there’s an example of this in the great 1955 John Ford movie Mister Roberts). Later it became a way to cheapen heroism and allow anti-war protestors and draft-dodgers to claim that there was nothing noble or courageous about the men who were doing the fighting. (The claim, echoed by former presidential candidate John Kerry, was that these soldiers had just been unlucky and not smart enough to avoid the service.)

Luck is surely part of it – Murphy was less than inches away from death on numerous occasions. But the fundamental truth is that he was an extraordinary soldier: tenacious, imaginative, indomitable, courageous, quick on his feet, a born leader. If you think, for a moment, of what it means to be a real man, you’ll be thinking of Audie Murphy.

Writing: 9/10

Storytelling: 10/10

Heroism: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9.5/10

To Hell and Back, by Audie Murphy. Hammond, Hammond & Co, London. 1950.

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Elephant Bill, by Lt. Col. JH Williams, OBE

Lieutenant Colonel James Howard Williams, OBE, is Elephant Bill. He served in the British Camel Corps during the First World War and, after his discharge, got a job in Burma. He spent the next twenty years supervising the elephant teams that haul giant teak trees down to river’s edge.  The logs are lashed into rafts and floated down to sawmills in Rangoon or Mandalay. It takes a teak raft one year to make the thousand-mile downriver trip to Rangoon – if the elephants and their oozies (riders) have done a good job, placing the logs so that the river takes them when monsoon spate arrives.

When the Second World War came, Elephant Bill stayed in Burma to organize an Elephant Corps, which built bridges by the hundreds sturdy enough to take trucks and tanks. (Trucks did not fare well in Burma, especially during the monsoon season; the key to getting any stuck truck out of the mud was a helpful elephant.)

The best part of this superb book is the opening chapters where Bill describes his first encounters with elephants and the Bombay Burma Trading Company. The man assigned to train him, a snarly and mistrustful Englishman called Willie, immediately awarded four elephants to his care and told him to push off into the jungle for a few months: “You can do what you damned well like – including suicide if you’re lonely – but I won’t have you back here until you can speak some Burmese.”

Elephant Bill learned Burmese fluently and eventually had seventy elephants to supervise, scattered among a dozen different logging camps. He would constantly make the rounds, spending a week or two in each camp, until he got to know all the riders and all the animals – each elephant had a name, of course, usually suggestive of some physical feature or personality quirk: “Ma Pin Wa” (Miss Fat Bottom), “Ma Hla” (Miss Pretty), “Po Sein” (Firefly), etc. The noblest elephant of them all was Bandoola, named after a famous Burmese general: he was a gigantic tusker who led an entire train of elephants and Burmese refugees up a treacherous mountain path, eventually into India and out of the reach of the Japanese.

Elephants have roughly human lifespans and often keep one rider for life. By the time an elephant is twenty-five, he can usually respond to as many verbal commands – as well as numerous physical gestures which the oozie makes with his foot behind the elephant’s left ear. In a typical but impressive instance, a spear had been left standing next to an elephant and his oozie, perhaps not trusting the elephant to leave it alone, said “Pass me the spear.” The elephant picked up the spear with his trunk and offered it to his oozie, point first, at which point the oozie yelled, “Don’t be a bloody fool – pass it right way round!” As Elephant Bill writes, “With perfect calm and a rather dandified movement, the elephant revolved the spear in mid-air and, still holding it by the point of balance, passed it to his oozie, this time ferrule first.”

Writing: 6/10

Interestingness: 9/10

Charm: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10

Elephant Bill, by Lt. Col. JH Williams, OBE. Doubleday & Co, 1950, 250 pages.

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The Two-Ocean War, by Samuel Eliot Morison

After Pearl Harbor America found herself suddenly at war with Japan and Germany; Samuel Eliot Morison, a fifty-five year-old history professor at Harvard, immediately wrote President Roosevelt suggesting that the war must be documented, and volunteering to take care of the naval part himself. The President agreed to this extraordinary proposal, and Morison was commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander and sent to sea. During the war he served on eleven different ships, earned seven battle stars and rose to the rank of Captain. His resultant fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II was published between 1947 and 1962. In 1963 there followed his concise summation, Two-Ocean War.

Morison knew the sights, sounds and smells of naval warfare. He knew naval bombardments, nightfire slugfests, air raids and kamikaze crashes. This helps explain the immutable perfection of his book – history flavored with first-hand experience. Ever since my father first read to me the section on Midway, this book has exercised a unique fasciation on my mind. There are numerous more detailed descriptions of that battle – entire books have been written on the subject. But there is nothing comparable in any history I have read on any subject to the brilliance, the excitement, the concision, the ringing clarity and poised beauty of Morison’s sixteen pages on Midway.

He does great honor to the men of the United States Navy, which is no more than they deserve but rarely as much as they get. He does not bat around the word “hero” until it plops to the ground like a stale tennis ball. Here he quotes an after-action report by the captain of Destroyer Escort Samuel B Roberts: “To witness the conduct of the average enlisted man…with an average of less than one year’s service, would make any man proud to be an average American.”

The action in question is the Battle off Samar, fought on 25 October 1944 as part of the campaign for the Philippines. Early in the morning, a lonely group of seven American destroyers and destroyer escorts and six escort carriers – “baby flattops” about half the size of fleet carriers – was surprised by a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. The Japanese group included Yamato, the most heavily-armed battleship in the world.

There was nothing for the American destroyers to do but attack – to give the little carriers (designed for supporting amphibious operations, not naval battles) a chance to escape. Commander Ernest E Evans of Destroyer Johnston signaled “Prepare to attack a major portion of Japanese Fleet,” and lead the charge, firing torpedoes and five-inch guns.  Johnston was hit by multiple sixteen-inch shells, her engine room, rear gun turrets and fire control knocked out, but she kept shooting, using manually-controlled gunfire against battleship Kondo. It took three cruisers and more destroyers to sink the Johnston. Destroyer Hoel, hit over 40 times, was also sunk – but Heermann, at one point simultaneously engaging four Japanese battleships – escaped miraculously. The Japanese force was so harried by the American destroyers and by air attacks (after our pilots ran out of bombs and ammunition, they made dry runs through the maelstrom of Japanese anti-aircraft fire) that they turned around and retired.

An American signalman on Fanshaw Bay, seeing the Japanese break off their attack, yelled, “Goddammit, boys, they’re getting away!”

Writing: 10/10

Importance: 10/10

Insight: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 10/10

The Two-Ocean War, by Samuel Eliot Morison.  Little, Brown & Co, 1963, 611 pages.

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