Recently Reviewed Books…

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Veterans of wars that preceded Vietnam were known as the quiet and silent types who never revealed the private hells they suffered. Vietnam inverted that paradigm and we were given an open window into the drugs, dysfunction and destruction this conflict waged on attacker and defender alike, leading to anti war protests that shook America. This book, a compilation of vignettes of the author’s tour of duty in 1969-70, takes us into the mind and predicament of the American soldier in this hopeless war and hammers home the message from multiple directions.

The title story, sums up most of the book. It focusses on what a soldier carries with him into war, not just equipment, rations, weapons and uniforms, but germs, scars, dreams, letters, photographs and talismans. And also fear – of the night, of the tunnels hiding the enemy, of the booby trap that picks off soldiers at random. The death of a colleague leaves, guilt, loss, second-guessing, and anger.

There are shocking set pieces that create vivid imagery:
– The dancing girl outside her house, inside which lie all her dead relatives, killed by the US military.
– A soldier plays with a hand-grenade mindful not to dislodge the safety pin, only to step on a land mine and be blown up into a tree.
– The platoon camps for the night in a field of excrement beside a flooded river. In the ensuing enemy bombardment, a soldier is drowned in the shit as that is the only cover provided.
– Another soldier wears his girlfriend’s nylons to around his neck to protect himself from death. Even after they break up, the good-luck-charm continues to protect him.

O’Brien obsesses over the Vietcong soldier he kills with a grenade – the image haunts him even twenty years later. When shot in the butt, he plots revenge on the colleague who saved him – why? Wounded pride? And how does one pull pranks to exact revenge on one’s mates without being court martialed for posing as the enemy?

War transforms. Mary-Ann, a 17-year-old girlfriend of one of the soldier’s, is smuggled into the camp and is consumed by Vietnam. She becomes a sniper, a killer more deadly than the Green Berets she defects over to. Other relationships also break up, as war changes not only those in it, but also those left behind.

War makes the return to peacetime easy for some over others. O’Brien is able to integrate back into America and become a writer specializing in war stories. But Norman drives round and round the lake in his small town upon his return, unable to reconnect emotionally, until he is faced with making a fatal choice. The emotional damage wreaked on all of them spills into a whole generation of post-Vietnam America.

O’Brien works on the reader’s emotions with conversational prose, repeating sentences, and by using words to exact maximum impact; he paints vivid scenes and returns to them from different viewpoints to hit the reader several times over. Quite cinematic.

There have been many books written about the Vietnam War, and I guess movies like Apocalypse Now and the Rambo series have coloured our perceptions of this much publicized war. And yet the inside view from one who actually trod the path, who suffered the fears, uncertainties, and who witnessed the wastage is worth a read even so many years after the ending of that conflict. Would it deter us from entering similar conflicts again? I doubt it.

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A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A gem of a book about a man who is considered the luckiest in the Soviet Union, yet who spent 36 years of his life in exile at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a relic of the Russian aristocracy, with worldly knowledge and experience of the finer things in life, returns to his country from Paris during the revolution in 1918 to evacuate his family and decides to stay on during the upheavals of the next four years while Reds fought Whites for supremacy of the nation. When the Reds finally gain control in 1922, he is banished from his palatial suite in the Metropol to an attic room in the same hotel to spend the next 32 years under house arrest.

Although he misses the bees and apples in his hometown of Novny Novgorod, and flower shops close in times of revolution, Rostov makes a life for himself and finds comfort in the little things: a fine brandy at the hotel’s Shalyapin bar, a bouillabaisse made from stolen ingredients, old movies, the essays of Montaigne on Solitude, and the staff and guests who pass through the hotel, bringing the world and Russia to him. There is a wide cast of characters, some with just walk on parts. But the most impactful on his life are: Nina, the nine-year old who gives him a skeleton key to the inner sanctums of the hotel, her daughter Sofia, in later years, who has the key to his heart and his emotions; Anna the actress who keeps his libido alive; seamstress Marina who becomes a surrogate mother to Sofia; and the wily chef and captain of the hotel’s famed Boyarsky restaurant, Emile and Andrey, who run this fine-dining venue where the world comes to meet Russia and where the new power elite flexes its muscles. I must not forget to mention the tragic poet Mindich who, ironically, got the Count into his predicament, and who accurately observes that Russians are good at destroying what they create.

Rostov is of use to the new regime, for he holds knowledge to the outside world that the proletarian leaders lack, he has skills in menus, wines, art, and a host of other western accoutrements the Soviets are clueless about. The Count is soon the head waiter at the Boyarsky, listening-in on conversations and educating his new rulers on etiquette. The upturned old order is personified in the sly waiter, nicknamed The Bishop, who ascends the career ladder, with the help from his party affiliations, to become general manager of the hotel, and then who focusses on cost savings at the expense of quality.

Compared to Nina, who was a math whiz as a child, Sofia is a musical prodigy. And it is only when the Sofia enters his life at the age of six, and Rostov is constantly faced with being separated from her because of her musical talent, that the aging count decides it’s time to defect and effects an elaborate plan for them to leave Russia. This is where the plot sags a bit, for there are too many variables and implausible components that need to fall into place to make that happen. Perhaps the book’s sub title, “the rules of civility,” come into play here, suggesting that everything works well if one plays by those rules. Shades of the movie Casablanca echo in the Count’s final moves, and one wonders whether he used the movie to plan his getaway.

Russia is a the loser for the disappearance of men like Rostov who announced their presence by their bearing, remarks and manners, and not by their coats; while “carefully crafted things of the aristocracy,” like foxhunts, were no great loss to the country, and duels—another aristocratic indulgence—also mercifully vanished. Custom-made buildings designed by architects made way for squat, mass-produced five-storey buildings, in which each unit looked alike. I am not sure why Rostov stayed on in 1918 to face almost certain exile, even death, and why he didn’t see back then that his ilk had no place in the emerging Communist Russia, unless you bought privilege by selling your soul to the Party.

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Uncle Tom's CabinUncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book should become essential reading during these times of racial unrest. I saw the movie many years ago in another country and could not relate to the issues as well as I did when I finally bit the bullet and read the real deal during times of pandemic, MAGA, and Black Lives Matter.

Despite its archaic style that hinges on the sentimental and melodramatic, and the annoying tendency of the author to intrude frequently, directing the reader to the next scene or explaining that she is now going to leave one set of characters and move to the next, Harriet Beecher Stowe is overtly uncompromising in three key messages: slavery is evil, Christianity is redemption, and women would do a better job of running the show given their maternal leanings.

What is so stark is that the slave had no rights whatsoever; he or she could be bought, sold, separated from children and family at the master’s will, could be subject to torture, rape, and murder, and had no legal standing in court as a victim or a witness to a white’s inhuman behaviour. Slaves were whipped to be kept in line (some were even sent to special whipping houses); high performing ones were demoted back to the lowest menial labour if the master through they were getting too smart; they were on call 24/7, and if they wore down, well…they were just sent off to the slave auction and replaced. And heaven help the comfortable slave who suddenly experienced his benevolent master’s death, the world would suddenly be upended for all the master’s chattels, slaves included. The further south one travelled in the United States in the first half of the 19th century the harsher the conditions for slaves became, and the further north one went, they improved. Canada was considered nirvana for liberated slaves.

The book therefore cleaves north and south from the benign centre of Kentucky, the opening setting of the book, where slaves are treated well in the Shelby household. However, as finances get tight, Uncle Tom, the Christ-like figure who has been a loyal servant of his owner, is sold down the river to Louisiana, while Eliza and her family escape and head north to Canada. The story weaves back and forth between these two journeys.

Some great characters emerge, sharply delineated:
Uncle Tom: honest and loyal to a fault, uncompromising in his love of God and his ability to forgive those who trespass against him.
Evangeline (Eva): the young girl in the St. Claire household that Tom is sold to, who loves black and white alike but suffers the pain of the inhuman South’s treatment of its slaves.
Marie St. Claire: Eva’s hypochondriacal and self-obsessed mother who believes that the Bible allows for segregation of the races, and that blacks are a “degraded species.”
Topsy: the black slave girl who lies, steals and begs to be beaten, for she knows nothing else, and doesn’t even know how she was born—“I s’pect I grow’d.”
Sam Legree: the final master that Tom ends up with in the swamps of Louisiana – the epitome of evil. A man who treats his slaves like animals so that they behave like animals.
Cassy: the quadroon and discarded sex-slave of Legree, one who has given up hope that God exists, and would rather kill her offspring to prevent them coming into this world.
Ophelia: the northern pro-abolitionist, who is a paragon of order, propriety, and hard work, but whose sympathies are only intellectual, for she lacks the ability to touch the slaves.
Augustine St. Clare: Eva’s father and Ophelia’s cousin, who is a poet. He understands the problems of the South but is unwilling to take a stand. His lack of faith and resolve is his undoing, just as Tom, possessing both these qualities in abundance, is undone by them too.

This was a controversial book in its time, and just like the America of today that is deeply divided, a host of anti-Tom books emerged in the wake of Beecher-Stowe’s novel being published in 1852, contesting that slavery was needed and that slaves were treated better by their masters than if they had been left to their own devices. The stupidity of those counter claims ring true today when we see blacks exceed in all areas of endeavour if given the opportunity.

The author rings off the book by tying all the loose ends: those who head north live happily ever after, those left behind in the south are in a horrible situation. She also steps onto her political platform and overtly claims that this book was based on real people she knew and that the situations she depicted in the book have occurred, more or less. She then implores the North not to be complicit in slavery by reaping its economic rewards but staying non-involved. She must have touched a nerve, for this novel was the highest selling book next to the Bible during that period. I can understand why President Lincoln, when meeting Harriett Beecher Stowe in 1862 remarked, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

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The Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild by Jack London
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a rather brutal book, and animal activists desiring political correctness would have drawn and quartered Jack London for writing it, if he were alive today. And yet, if literature is supposed to expose humanity in all its imperfections, then I applaud the author for having shown us the harsh north of the Klondike through the eyes of an animal.

Buck, the mixed breed of St. Bernard and Scotch Sheppard, has all the inherent instincts and capability of the hunter-survivor, and yet is domesticated and coddled in a respected judge’s farm in Southern California. However, in another part of the world, dogs are the “other gold,” especially in the Klondike, for they can transport supplies across the ice. Buck is kidnapped and sold by an unscrupulous employee on the farm to settle a gambling debt.

So begins Buck’s travels north, handed from master to master, his fortunes, and tribulations dependent on who owns him, just like the slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He enters the world run by the Law of Club and Fang. The man in the red sweater, a trader in abducted dogs, is his first shock; the man tries to break Buck with a vicious beating, something he had never faced from a human before. Buck learns that he must feign obedience in order to live to fight another day. He not only has to survive his various masters, but he has to survive the pack of huskies he is thrown in with – some who become allies and others who view him as a threat. Attacks come from humans as well his fellow dogs, when least expected. The battles are fierce, and it is indeed a survival of the fittest situation. Buck learns and sheds his domesticity quickly.

Eventually the predator in him rises to the surface, as well as his will to lead the pack in this hostile environment. However, no sooner has his leadership position on the sled team been attained, when he is sold to a trio of amateur prospectors who overload the sleds and starve the dogs, driving them over ridiculous distances. Near to death, Buck is finally rescued by another damaged and injured man called John Thornton. Now begins a symbiotic relationship between man and dog, one saving the other from peril, both fiercely loyal to each other.

As Thornton’s prospects improve, thanks to Buck, the dog is freer to roam the frozen north, becoming more of the predator his ancestors were, even seeing visions of man as an ape from previous incarnations. The dog merging with his ancestor, the wolf, is complete when Buck kills larger prey, including man. Buck transcends life into legend by coming to be known in the North as the Ghost Wolf, and the breed of timber wolves in that area are reputed to have his unique marking.

There are many lessons here: animals need to roam free and should never be domesticated; slavery is a vile industry, and animal slavery is no less odious than human slavery; greed kills; hierarchy is prevalent not only in the human kingdom but also in the animal kingdom; survival of the fittest applies to humans and animals alike.

Having read the comic-book version of this novel years ago and seen sanitized and romanticized movie renditions, this original book is far more compelling and raw. A great read, if the suffering of dogs doesn’t turn your stomach.

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A Burnt-Out CaseA Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first Greene book I read nearly 50 years ago, a book that ignited my desire to become a writer. Reading it again today, this novel, one of the author’s most pivotal, has not lost its power on me.

Greene wrote A Burnt Out Case when he was at the height of his literary powers, albeit burned out by the gruelling routine of generating an average of two books a year amidst his peregrinations to obscure corners of the world as a journalist (and spy?). He was burned out, and like his protagonist Querry (a world famous architect), had lost his desire to write again. However, unlike Querry, Greene was to get a renewed charge of vocation after the publication of this book and go onto produce as many novels, short-story collections, non-fiction, and plays as he had done before the burnout.

Querry retreats from his fame to a leper colony run by Catholic priests and nuns in the Belgian Congo in the mid 1950’s. He has lost his capacity to love and to create. Like Greene, he is a lapsed Catholic, who has seen the churches he built disfigured by the masses with their cheap imagery and ornamentation. Lepers are burnt out cases, like him; yet as Dr. Colin, the colony’s doctor, reminds Querry, “Leprosy can now be cured physically. It is a psychological disease.” In the colony, Querry starts to heal when he helps build a hospital and do other acts of service.

Greene’s archetypal villains, in the form of the self-righteous Catholic and the femme fatale, spring to the fore in Rycker, a former novitiate and now the manager of a palm-oil factory in the Congo, and his young wife, Marie. Ryker can only get sexually aroused when he talks religion, and he is starved for intellectual company – Querry is his solution. Marie is looking to escape a loveless marriage and a dull existence in the middle of nowhere – Querry is her ticket out. The spectre of fake news, a phenomenon endemic today but present back then too, is represented in the form of Parkinson, the syndicated journalist on the hunt for a sensational story where a few lies only help juice up the offering – and Querry is his target. In a cleverly paced plot, Greene leads us to a fulfilling climax where everyone gets what they desire, including Querry, in a fatalistically tragic way.

Querry’s pre-occupations are Greene’s, if you consider that both creator and his subject are at the top of their game, yet disillusioned with the outcome. “Success is a mutilation of the natural man,” says Dr. Colin. Other “Greene-isms” dot the pages, even though Greene is not considered a great moral philosopher:
“A vocation is an act of love, it is not a professional career.”
“Sex and vocation are born and die together.”
“A talent should not be buried, but obsolete coins have often been found in graves.”
“Self-expression is a hard and selfish thing.”
“Suffering puts us in touch with the human condition.”

The one sour note in the book is the constantly repetitious denial by Querry that he has nothing more to live for even though his behaviour proves otherwise– it gets a bit tiresome. His long-night-of-the-soul moment with Marie in which he lapses into a parable—and it is obvious to everyone (including Marie) that it is all about him (tout a toi)—is overdone. Hubris leads to his undoing when he ignores social convention and accompanies a married woman to a hotel while her husband writhes in fever back home, while a journalist is holed up in a nearby room with a camera, angling for his next scoop. “I’m disturbed by a man without fear,” says the Superior of the léproserie; Query is feared, praised, and respected as a saint among mortals. Yet, as Christ was easily ridiculed and crucified when the winds changed, these lesser mortals are not averse to pounce on Querry at the first hint of transgression.

Plot contrivances and soul searches notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. I am glad to have rediscovered it after so many years and enjoyed it for a second time.

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Henry Miller on Writing (New Directions Paperbook)Henry Miller on Writing by Henry Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Saint, Sinner, or Great Writer?

Miller continues to defy the conventions of “literary writer.” He is easier to cast into the slag heap of pornography for his “Tropic” books and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, but in reading this collection of extracts from his various works, including those two vilified collections, one begins to wonder whether a prophet lurks within. His erudition and insights are deep, there is no obscenity in this book, and he calls into question what we take to be traditional literature.

Miller had a late but tortuous start in writing. In his words: “I wrote for seven years in America without once having a manuscript accepted. I thought that a man, to be a writer, must do at least five thousand words a day. I thought he must say everything all at once—in one book—and collapse afterwards. I didn’t know a thing about writing As a foreigner in Paris, without friends, I went through an even worse ordeal. The naive English critics, in their polite, asinine way, talk about the “hero” of my book (Tropic of Cancer) as though he were a character I had invented. I made it as plain as could be that I was talking in that book about myself. I used my own name throughout. I didn’t write a piece of fiction: I wrote an autobiographical document, a human book.”

In fact, he writes only (and best) about himself. He believes in creation over literature. And he believes in living life to the fullest from its happiest to its seamiest, and then recording it. Yet he spent a lot of time procrastinating on the first Tropic book he was going to write, and there are plenty of brilliant stream of consciousness passages in this book written before he actually got down to the act of writing Tropic of Cancer. However, when he was writing Plexus, the second book in the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, he says, “Huge blocks—particularly the dream parts—came to me just as they appear in print and without any effort on my part, except that of equating my own rhythm with that of the mysterious dictator who had me in his thrall.” A Voice would possess him and spew buckets of words at him without a break, he says.

He is drawn to the great teachers: “For me the only true revolutionaries are the inspirers and activators, figures like Jesus, Lao-tse, Gautama the Buddha, Akhnaton, Ramakrishna, Krishnamurti, men who have experienced life to the full and who give life—artists, religious figures, pathfinders, innovators and iconoclasts of all sorts.” His take on literature, on the other hand, is: “A man writes to throw off the poison which he has accumulated because of his false way of life. He is trying to recapture his innocence, yet all he succeeds in doing (by writing) is to inoculate the world with the virus of his disillusionment.” Wasn’t his Tropic books about that? And about transcribing that Voice spewing buckets at him – wasn’t that also writing?

He is a the supreme egotist: “I have absolutely nothing to show for my labors except my genius. . I am a cosmological writer, and when I open my trap I broadcast to the whole world at once.”

Miller holds special opprobrium to those who tried to classify his writing as Obscene, for his work was banned in the USA for many decades, and for some years in Europe as well. “Nothing would be regarded as obscene, I feel, if men were living out their inmost desires. The cattle breeder may write his pamphlets and treatises; the physician may detail his psychopathic case histories; the anthropologist may describe his researches into the sexual habits of primitive peoples—but the writer who is interested purely in creative literature, the writer who would likes to describe the life about him fully and freely, is forbidden to speak.” Obscenity in art is a technical device intended to awaken and usher in a sense of reality, according to Miller.

Miller’s other target is Morality. “This word morality! Whenever it comes up I think of the crimes which have been committed in its name. There exists one morality for peace times and another for war. In times of war everything is permitted, everything condoned. That is to say, everything abominable and infamous committed by the winning side.”

I have quoted extensively from Miller in this review because his profundity is the highlight of this book. I wrote down many of these little gems for reflecting upon later. They are the thoughts of one who loved life and lived it in all its dimensions. And to quote him one last time: “If it isn’t literature, call it what you like. I don’t give a damn.”

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Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.

Book Reviews

I started writing book reviews this year – of every book I read. And I began publishing them on any site that accepted a review, with the author’s permission where necessary. An easy way to commit my impressions of a particular book to written memory in case I was asked a question about it sometime in the future, I thought, and a cheap way of making a name at someone else’s expense (the poor author of that book). Every marketing guru will tell you that you need to put your name and website address next to anything you write online. I’ve realized that my website hit count has gone up since. I no longer have to visit my site each day and hit it a dozen times before the metrics tracking bar rises marginally above the base line.

And then I realized the heavy obligation placed upon, but not often assumed, by the book reviewer. This was not about the reviewer – this was all about the book and its author. A bad review can sink a writer and a good one does not necessarily sell more books. And if reading is all about taste, don’t we all have different tastes? Isn’t one person’s poison, another’s honey? Isn’t the whole book industry all about tastes? Isn’t that why it got segmented into genres with their own unique sub•cultures, so that the literary fiction aficionado would not go ripping up the crime fiction book and saying, “the characters stink and move like cardboard cut•outs,” and the crime fiction buff would not toss out the lit•fic tome, screaming that it put him to sleep every time he opened it?

What right did I have to destroy these writers with my reviews of their work? So I narrowed my area of reviewing to the books I like to read: mainstream and literary fiction. And I tried to focus on the parts that left positive impressions on me, dropping hints of the not•so•nice elements, and hoping like hell that that writer (if he or she is still alive) would do something about it the next time. And when I read a poorly written book (in my opinion only) I send the author, or his agent, my comments separately as sincere developmental feedback; and in this instance, I do not post a review. Not that I am the world’s greatest writer, but as a frequent reader one picks up flat notes pretty damn quick.

Reviewing is a tough business, I have come to appreciate. Why do I do it? Because I have now learned, that more than the cheap fame factor, dissecting another’s work is a great way to hone one’s own craft and learn to write great sentences that resonate, and a way to avoid the black holes that some writers sink into. What we do with the dissected pieces and how we distribute them around is what calls for sensitivity, tact, and plain common sense. And the day I am not able to exercise such a balance is when I will give up writing book reviews.

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