Archive for August, 2010

Review: The Unlikely Disciple

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University has a great hook: Brown Student spends a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and lives to tell.  It was certainly good enough to get me to pick it up.  The danger with a hook book is that it never becomes more than its gimmick. Disciple is so good that by the middle I’d forgotten that there was a hook at all.

Roose has many great qualities as a writer.  He’s inquisitive, intelligent, fair, and he writes clearly and with a sharp eye for the details that bring scenes alive.  Better than all of those things, though, he is fearlessly honest.  He puts himself into a situation where he keenly feels the prejudices of himself, his friends, and his family and works his way through it with us.

That sounds like Disciple is some Hallmark Channel journey of self discovery, but it’s more like a Bill Bryson travelogue.  There are interesting things to see, new people to meet, and moments that change one’s life.  Roose greets the points of interest with enthusiasm and wonder, sketches the people with lively economy, and earns the deep moments with great pacing and structured writing.  He hides all that structure behind an adventurous tone and brisk narrative.

Those kind of skills will serve a journalist well in any environment, but Roose has bitten off a big hunk of  discomfort and portent.  Liberty is uncomfortable to him because he, like many of his readers, believes that he’s heading into a world of hidebound intolerance. It is important because the group represented at Liberty is a significant segment of our society.  And the preconceptions matter because any time we demonize a group – and those preconceptions are demonization – we forget that these people are people.  Many excellent writers and good journalists would not be able to keep their integrity when confronting their own prejudices.  Roose acquits himself exceptionally.

He conveys the dogmatic blinders in place at Liberty that lead to real world intolerance and violence, and he describes the unexpected openness and fellowship that draws the students there together just as clearly.  It is here that his skills as a writer and fairness as a journalist shine.  The transcendent surprising beauty of this world and its insular biases both come out as the natural constructions of human beings and human communities.  Through his prose we feel the tug of a community on his heart that he disagrees with in his soul.  Everything in his experience at Liberty is personal and human – the very antithesis of demonized.  One may still come away believing that the Liberty teachings are wrong, but not that the people are inhuman.

It is a remarkable book.

A must.

Review: Eating The Dinosaur

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

A week or two ago, I sat down on an LAX to IAD flight with a copy of Chuck Klosterman’s Eating The Dinosaur, and I left the plane in DC as a Klosterman fan, having devoured the book in the intervening couple hours.  I’d certainly heard interesting things about Klosterman as a thinking man’s commenter on popular culture, but I wasn’t prepared for how fast I’d take the hook or how deep it would sink.

Dinosaur is a collection of essays on a fairly broad range of topics running from the usefulness of time travel to the dichotomy of NFL football as the most conservative and liberal sport in America.  From the first few pages of the first essay, about what it means that people say anything at all in interviews, I was gripped by Klosterman’s serious approach to playful topics.  “Why would you ever talk to (say) Michael Moore?” is a question everyone’s asked.  Few people have interviewed Errol Morris and Ira Glass on the topic, and interwoven their own well reasoned thoughts into those interviews to form a compelling essay.

Klosterman is a man who takes ephemeral and sometimes frivolous things seriously, and then subjects them to a meticulous dissection under the light of a strong intellect.  Then he composes those thoughts in a way that is compelling and diverting.  He is, in short, a man after my own heart; more honestly, he is a man I would like to be.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Farewell, My Lovely

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Another Philip Marlowe novel – Raymond Chandler, of course.  Like The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, this is a mystery with Marlowe trying to get to the bottom of it.  As with the other novels, Chandler’s style creates a high contrast world of lush language and minimal, beautiful scene-setting.  Unlike those books, we get a version of Marlowe who is much more vulnerable.

In Farewell, Marlowe is much more in the world he’s exploring.  In the other books I often had the feeling that Marlowe was above the proceedings, even when he was emotionally invested.  There were moments of physical peril, but I never felt it.  More to the point Marlowe never seems to feel it.  That’s not the case in Farewell.

Marlowe’s always been human enough to make some mistakes – and he makes some doozies in Farewell – but he generally is the smartest and highest minded guy in the room.  In Farewell, I came away feeling Marlowe was letting his demons have their way with him more than usual.  And he suffers for it more than usual.

The suffering is never just a plot point; it is the natural consequence of sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.  It’s Marlowe’s reactions to it that are interesting.  There’s the plot stuff, of course, but more interesting is how it changes him and how he shows it.  Viewing these changes through the stylized idioms of another time makes the workings a little harder to make out, but invests them with more iconic power as well.

As always, if you want a whodunnit, Chandler delivers.  He does so with so much style and literary power – and drive to say new things with a comfortable character – that I’m happy to read it if the case is unsolved.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Grapes of Wrath, which means that what I think of it doesn’t matter very much.  I have not come away from my recent brushes with Steinbeck particularly impressed, though I have enjoyed some of his work.  I confess that those brushes left me somewhat reluctant to read more of him, but after The Forgotten Man, I was kind of primed for the time period.

Grapes is extremely impressive.  It is well structured, well written, factual, and sympathetic.  It manages to capture the migration of poor farmers from the dust bowl to California and migrant farming during the depression at levels from the strain on individual families to the larger economic forces behind the change.  In fact, though I mentioned the dust bowl, Steinbeck doesn’t; to him, the economic forces were going to cause people to lose farms and migrate even without the drought and erosion of the dust bowl.

Capturing all this is a difficult balancing act.  Structurally, Steinbeck alternates chapters between the large trends and the plight of a specific family, the Joads.  The wide lens shows that the Joads are not alone in their plight and the close chapters show us the specifics troubles of a family in crisis.  He also moves the group successfully through the most informative points in the migration.  They aren’t placed at specific historic events like some early-thirties Forrest Gump, but Steinbeck brings his family into contact with realistic examples of the best and worst of the depression in California.  All the situations the family encounters follow from the real situations; everyone is motivated by real emotions and economics.  There are no mustache-twirling villains here, nor white-hatted heroes, just people dealing with real events as human beings.

Steinbeck’s grasp of the specific situations and the larger forces would make this a textbook if he didn’t populate the world with believeable characters.  There are certainly characters here who act as symbols as well as people, but with the possible exception of Casey the ex-preacher, everyone reacts like a person to the situations around them. The reality of the characters’ reactions helps make his large scale descriptions comprehensible, even as it humanizes their effects.

Despite craft that makes it appear as though Steinbeck is relaying truth to readers, he certainly has a point of view.  I believe he plays fair, explaining comprehensible and even sympathetic motivations for even the least likeable characters.  Still, he is on the side of government help for people in trouble and for those people banding together to help themselves at the expense of farm owners and financiers.

Personally, I am sympathetic to that position, but even if you aren’t Grapes is a vivid, thoughtful description of a trying time in America.  Themes and situations in here apply today as well as they did in the 30s.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Long Goodbye

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

The Long Goodbye is the Raymond Chandler novel that most people have heard of that isn’t The Big Sleep. After reading Sleep I was pretty sure that I’d like anything Chandler wrote, and Goodbye didn’t change that impression.

There are many similarities between the two.  Chandler’s voice is the same voice, and Marlowe’s the same character.  There’s a mystery and dames and lots of stylized tough guy talk.  The Los Angeles  setting conveys a sense of place to the point that LA is nearly a character.  In short, all Chandler’s strengths as a writer are here.

The differences are in tone and theme.  The Long Goodbye really couldn’t be titled anything else.  The pacing and tone make the reader feel the passage of time; the plot proceeds episodically over weeks, not the frantic rush of many mysteries.  The revelation is slow and lurching, as one finds out secrets about ones friends and relations in life.

The titular farewell also echoes through the text.  This is a book about absent friends, and not idealized ones.  The friend in question wasn’t Marlowe’s blood brother, nor did they see eye-to-eye. Their connection was made by chance, and develops awkwardly in fits. Yet friendship and decency impose obligations and attachments on men like Marlowe even when the relationship is rough hewn and haphazard.

The two themes play off one another as Marlowe discharges his debts and pays his respects in the fits and starts by which our lives all progress.  Chandler’s exploration of these uses a a clever traditional mystery plot in his unique style.  I never try to figure out whodunnit, but I was pleasantly surprised by the big reveal.  The trip is more interesting than the destination.

Strongly recommended.