Sunday, June 02, 2013

He was a warmongering Nobel Peace Prize winner before warmongering Nobel Peace Prize winners were cool

recently finished: Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This book, the third in Edmund Morris' fine trilogy depicting the life of Theodore Roosevelt, gives a reader the chance to ponder many important life questions, such as: Who have been the best among the 43 (yes, you read that right, 43) U.S. presidents? What makes a man or woman truly great?  and Why ever do we pronounce a word spelled co-lo-nel as "ker-nel"?

Well, like it or not, he is "the Colonel" through much of this third book, after the second volume about his presidency and the first about his pre-presidency life. Volume 1 won the Pulitzer and may be the best of the three in the eyes of many, but I think in the end I enjoyed Volume 3 as much if not more. Volume 2, oddly, was less interesting in a way. The actual stuff that went on during Theodore's (not Teddy!) presidency was fascinating, obviously, but it was as if Edmund had way too much source material to work with. He is at his best, I think, covering the less already documented portions of TR's life, because Edmund is a master of pulling together tidbits from the deepest archives and combining that with incredible feats of personal travel research to complete the portrait of his bio subject.

In Colonel Roosevelt, Theodore is out of the White House, where he has cajoled and coerced and manipulated my boy William H Taft into taking his place, although he ends up abandoning Taft in a totally rude and in my opinion avoidable falling out. Taft did not want to be there, and Theodore was an unnecessary jerk about it, and Taft even asked for TR's help, but Theodore was all high and mighty and hanging out with every king in Europe and, I daresay, realizing that he himself could in fact be president again in 1912, perhaps, and therefore he became unwilling to help Taft. So rude. Well, the plan failed. But it's a fascinating chapter in TR's life (and several chapters in the book).

The other highlights of Colonel Roosevelt are travel and war. Naturally, those are "highlights" in totally different ways, and only one because it happened. The other, clearly, is interesting to read about but in real life avoidable, although no one will ever learn, particularly not when they are giving the Nobel Peace Prize to warmongering presidents. This book starts with TR's amazing African safari hunt (the man is nothing if not bloodthirsty, despite his mid-life epiphany that he maybe shouldn't kill off all of the animals he would like to keep around for future generations) and I actually could have used a couple more of Edmund Morris' fabulously cute little maps that he (the author himself!) draws to show us TR's life journeys throughout the three volumes. Then, later in the book, we get yet another epic journey, again bringing his son along, this time to Brazil and uncharted areas of the Amazon rainforest to map a new river. (Not precisely "new" seeing as one of the animals in their party is felled by the arrows of Indians who may have never seen the white man before, but you know, new-to-the-Brazilian-English-Spanish-Portugese-United States-ian-etc.-maps kind of new. Unsurveyed.)  That there was one trip full of hardships, up to and including death, and also some of the most powerful bonding of human friendship to be found.

World War I is something I and many others should probably know more about. It was good to review the events leading up to it and the ways in which all of the parties (except Belgium! as TR rightly points out) were both partly justified and partly at fault in starting the giant, menacing debacle. There were some sane voices trying to solve problems in a better way, but there were also lots of voices like Theodore's, positively salivating to go to war (despite his being BFFs with the Kaiser and other Germans). Presidents Taft and  Woodrow Wilson both were interested in peace, and took major steps to try to have peace, but boy do I understand what a hard struggle that is in this violence-lusting world of ours. Quite honestly, Wilson might not have really taken the best approach, what with his whole kept-us-out-of-war being so U.S.-centered and all that it really doesn't help bring about world peace. I do wish Taft would have been able to get his world peace body of nations together, but alas, the world started slaughtering in new, ever more advanced technological ways, and TR packed off all of his sons to Europe to join the "fun." Or should I say doom?

As usual, a feeling of sadness came over me as I pushed through to the final chapters. All of my presidential bios end the same way! as I like to joke. I could see the end of TR's life approaching, so I poured a glass of wine to settle in for the demise. After three months and three books, I do know him well, and I commend Edmund for this remarkable achievement, although I still can't believe TR's sister got married in an endnote in volume 1 after her personal life, its intertwining with TR's, and her lack of marriage were major plot points for hundreds of pages before that. The endnotes are definitely something to grapple with in this bio series, almost at the Infinite Jest level. (OK, well, not quite.)  At any rate, if you're one of those who has often wondered just why the heck Theodore is carved on Mount Rushmore with those three other biggies, plunge into Edmund Morris' magnificent life's work about a life.  Overall: A -
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: A -  Theodore Rex: B+  Colonel Roosevelt:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tramplin' out that there vintage

now finished: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Fun Fact: John Steinbeck insisted that "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" be printed in the first published edition of The Grapes of Wrath. Upon receiving some galleys/proofs/something, he wrote his publisher or editor (I forget which) saying No, the whole thing! Print the whole song! It's relevant!

The Grapes of Wrath. An evocative phrase that says so much while being admirably just out of reach of those who don't want to think too much ever in figuring out what something means. Another Fun Fact: Steinbeck was slaving away on the novel and really trying to get its essence right and his dutiful wife (who typed his freaking manuscript - ugh! - but also made corrections and suggestions, so there's that) suggested the title! And then he rejoiced and was thankful and told his editor that Wife had come up with the genius title. Who knew?

OK, maybe some people knew. Just like maybe some people -- by which I of course mean "thousands upon thousands" -- knew all about how totally, incredibly awesome The Grapes of Wrath is. This is one of my finally-finally-dreadfully-late-to-the-party-finally books that defies all finally books.  Earlier this year, while the particular blog you are now reading was still taking its Great Firewall break, I posted elsewhere my list of Seriously-I-Have-Meant-to-Read-These-Forever books, which inspired me to get off my reading a** and go out and acquire one of them, and so I finally got The Grapes of Wrath, thus enabling me to check off a book on many a list: the Pulitzers, the Modern Library's Top 100, the Nobel winners, etc., and most importantly the oh-my-god-why-haven't-I-ever-read-this?! list.

One of the astonishingly good things about Grapes is that every time Ma or not-preacher Casy or Al or the couple they meet by the side of the highway or just about anyone in the book opens his or her mouth, you just get to ooze with delight at the wonderful things they say. How anyone's heart can not be warmed is beyond me.

Tragedy. Americana. One heck of a  road trip. Observations. Disaster. Avoidable disaster. Greed. Selflessness. Poverty. Compassion. Mistakes. Togetherness. The desire to be productive, which must be tempered by the equally important desire to not be wasteful. It's all in there.

Should I get spoilery on here?  The ending is something to behold, undoubtedly. I think for the moment I won't spoil, but I'll just say that it stunned me as it has stunned many a reader over the years. And I do mean the ending-ending, as in, the last paragraph. Perhaps I'll do a future, spoilery post about the ending.

Basically, I revamped my approach to life while reading this book. I now want to ask everyone I know to read it. If they haven't read it, I want to give them my copy that they might do so immediately if not sooner. If they have read it, I want to rejoice over it with them (and also maybe ask them why they never checked to make sure that I, too, had read it).

I think that if you have read it and don't like it, maybe you're kind of a jerk. I'm just sayin' ... It's just really, really enjoyable, while simultaneously being soul-crushingly devastating and heartwarming. How does he do that?!

And of course, the obligatory early 2000s comments: my, how history repeats itself! The more things change...! When will we ever learn?  And so forth.

Stop reading my blog and go read The Grapes of Wrath.  (But then come back here and we'll talk about it.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Where Are We On This?

Ahhhh, corporate-speak. As someone pointed out, Orwell's dire predictions of government doublespeak weren't wrong, and they have manifested not just in the military but also in the corporate jargon to which we all so willingly bow down... (Then again, the military is one giant corporation, profiting from violence and death, so there's that.)  Anyway, a favorite corporate line delivered by bosses and managers and "leaders" everywhere is "Where are we on that?"  What a great way to ask someone what the hell is going on, and to blame them without overtly blaming them, which is what corporate-speak is made for.

Well, where we are -- the royal we of this blog -- is a certain country that had me absent without blog behind a certain Gr**t F*r*w*ll for the last few months. Now the issue of access has been mended, we hope for the long haul, and once again I can crank out the bloggage on both Linda Without Borders and on this, its Literary Supplement blog.

But I'm not going to drag you people through tedious posts about each and every book I've read since I last posted -- when was it? -- last October! Um, gulp. Yikes. That can't even all be blamed on a certain country with whom Donald Trump would like to start a war whenever it is most convenient and profitable for him.

Just a rundown, then!

  • The End of 2012
After finally reading The Brothers Karamazov down yonder in Mexico (seriously, finally -- I even have a "Finally" shelf on Goodreads now, inspired by that and Cloud Atlas), I spent the remaining time in Mexico reading John Updike's Rabbit, Run (my "U" pick for my Top Half of my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project), Jorge Luis Borges' El Aleph (one of my reading-five-essential-books-and/or-authors-to-familiarize-myself-with-more-literature-in-Spanish project), and Benjamin Harrison  by Charles Calhoun (#23 in my Presidents: Where Did We Go Wrong? project). I spend a lot of time in the projects. No thanks to the Mexican post office/customs/federales that stole my B. Harrison and McKinley books shipment the first time around, forcing me to re-order them. I still like picturing some cartel king somewhere learning all about these random Midwestern presidents of the late 19th century. Rabbit, Run was OK; I wanted something more from Updike but should appreciate it more for its time, perhaps. (Yes, I just called you old if you are an Updike contemporary - sorry about that.) It also has officially eclipsed The Shining for Most Memorable Bathtub Scene. Borges, on the other hand, is an unequivocal genius. Benjamin Harrison is significant mainly for being the point at which we depart from the chronology of presidents matching the chronology of presidencies, and from here on out when you say so-and-so is the twenty- or thirty-whatever-eth president you annoy me because really it's that they are the twenty- or thirty-whatever-eth presidency and you are counting Grover Cleveland as two people.

I then returned to the U.S. on a bit of a Pulitzer tear. I had just finished listening to the audio book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, which was all kinds of fascinating and one of my favorite things I've listened to because I just learned so much (the purpose of my listening to audio books at all -- I still hate being read to, but I pretend I'm listening to, like, really in depth public radio features). Back in Arizona, I launched into my next audio Pulitzer winner, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, which I really kind of hated. It's pretty terrible, and the combination of Pulitzer and learning just a few things barely kept me hanging on.  As for actual book-books, I returned to the U.S. reading Gone With the Wind, which seems appropriate, and I of course have to wonder why I never read this before, it being so Atlanta-y as well as famous and Pulitzery, and I just adored it. It's remarkable and misunderstood. Next up were The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (good!) and the Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (also good, and even inspiring on the eve of my departure).

  • It's 2013!  Let's go read in Asia. 

Continuing the Pulitzer and the Prez Project themes, I spent January reading In the Days of McKinley  by Margaret Leech, a really well done bio and one that made me feel lots of warm fuzzy things for its subject. McKinley just genuinely tried to be nice to people, almost all of the time. Couldn't we all use a bit more of that?! I commenced my new audio book with the advent of my new job's commute: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, whom you may know as the author of The Devil in the White City. Good stuff. I like German things, and I like learning about what the hell is going on behind the scenes when people are violent warmongers. There's never any excuse for it, of course, but we must try to understand.

  • February: Lunar New Year and reading on the beach in the Philippines!

Not the whole month, unfortunately, but we did have a nice vacay and on the trip I was pretty excited to go to Manila and see Taft Avenue and McKinley Drive after just having read all about the beginnings of their unfortunate involvement there. Before the holiday I completed William Styron's Set This House on Fire, my "S" pick for the A-to-Z Top Half, and it was a fun Italian lesson and good for the whole self-indulgent-writer-thing, but kind of a sophomore effort compared to Lie Down in Darkness. I spent my beach time reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, volume one of the magnificent (as pretty much everyone says) trilogy bio of TR (don't call him Teddy!)

  • In Like a "Finally!", Out Like an A-to-Z Top Half Project
In March I completed two novels, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I came to rather enjoy and which reminded me with so many strong sentimental feelings of Amanda and everyone else at Cambridgeside as well as some other books I have also meant to read since that time (but none more meant to read since Cambridge days than Cloud Atlas), and Creation by Gore Vidal, my "V" pick for the A-to-Z project top half, which was pretty long and rambly but interesting, too, it can't be denied. Then it was back to Theodore...

  • April Was Actually Not the Cruelest Month This Year. Go Figure.

...and to be honest, Theodore Rex, volume two, was not quite as good as Edmund's first TR, but it was still really, really interesting and better than a lot of bios. A bad day in the TR trilogy is like a good day in some other books. Including, through no fault of the author but unfortunately in my experience, the audio book I was listening to during April, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1850 by Daniel Walker Howe. The book itself (another Pulitzer winner) is informative and fascinating, and I knew I would enjoy listening about that era, which I have been saying as I read all my prez bios from that era is a massively interesting and under-appreciated time in U.S. history. The narration and splicing together of apparently two different narrators were horrible and nearly drove me batty. Why do I persist with Audible? Sigh. Sometimes it really is great, though, to listen and learn. Anyway, after Theodore Rex I read The Dialogues of Plato because I have another project this year (yes, really) in which I am reading a bit about/by one philosopher per month. I'm actually pretty far behind on this project, which I meant to start in January and then February but didn't until Thales in March (just online reading about him) and then Socrates in April. Notice I said Socrates, as the Dialogues were really about him. In May I am moving on to actual Plato-Plato.

  • Which Brings Us to the Merry Merry Month of May

And I squeezed in a novel while we traveled to Vietnam, appropriately (I figured) my annual Nelson DeMille. This year was The Gold Coast. Oh, how hilarious to revisit Long Island and its totally out of touch rich assholes! Worth it for that alone, but of course we all know how much I love me some Nelson DeMille biting wit and sarcasm.

And, there! We are caught up! I am now in the middle of a bunch of books at once, due to a series of unfortunate coinciding factors, but a couple of them are just about China and Chinese learning and whatnot. I am actually read-reading the third Edmund Morris volume, Colonel Roosevelt, as well as The Grapes of Wrath, whose praises I will sing next time I post.

Be sure to check in here with the Literary Supplement blog, posted every Sunday, as we are now back with a vengeance! Or at least with lots of bookmarks!