Saturday, April 28, 2012

Selection from "A Soldier of the Great War"

Finished Mark Helprin's epic novel today, A Soldier of the Great War.  It's a remarkable portrait of the insanity of war and the beauty of everyday life that war destroys.

The book is well worth reading, both for its themes and for Helprin's powers of prose.

Regarding the latter, consider this passage:
In one of his essays on painting, Alessandro had expressed the opinion that a face cannot adequately be described in words, or even in sculpture, that it was a province exclusively of the painters, that the recognition of a face was wholly dependent upon the ineffably expressed variations of light and color for which language had few words and sculpture no shapes.  Of the infinite variety of angles and intersections that make a smile, language has no inkling:  not only no words, but not even numbers.  Alessandro had speculated for ten printed pages on the helplessness of photographs and many paintings, the terrible inadequacy of statuary and death masks, even the inadequacy in death, of a face itself.  Only the great visual artists could describe a face, he had said, and poets would be wise not to try.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin

Books generally fit into categories, whether by genre or popularity.  When asked, public figures will generally cite several titles as their favorites or most influential.  I was surprised, then, watching a C-SPAN event, when I heard the head of a major publishing house answer, without hesitation, that her favorite book was A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin.  I figured I would have to read it.

From the back-cover blurbs, you get an idea of how the book was received in 1991. 
"Fit to stand alongside the works of ... Remarque and ... Hemingway..."  (Washington Post)
"Tolstoy ... Steven Crane ... Stendhal ... Now Mark Helprin stakes his claim to membership..."  (Chicago Tribune)
"Soldier" is an epic novel set in Italy during World War I.  Eight-hundred sixty pages in length, it begins near the end, with the old man Alessandro Giuliani boarding a bus in Rome for a trip northward to visit his grandchildren.  He is clearly a man of perception and stature, and his rectitude becomes evident when he makes the driver stop to take on a young man chasing the bus down a country road on foot. When the driver throws both of them off the bus, they begin the seventy-kilometer walk to their destination.  This journey then becomes the vehicle for telling the story of Alessandro's remarkable life.

The young Alessandro is the only son of the attorney Giuliani, a Roman of means and reputation.  The family lives in a charming villa, and Alessandro revels in the glory of his city.  His story progresses through youthful love, university life, horsemanship, mountain climbing, until he is inexorably caught up in the war that envelops Europe.

Since I'm just halfway through the book, I can only say that, as captivating as the story itself is, Helprin's prose would keep me reading for its own sake.  He has the genius of description, of painting in infinite detail whatever scene he chooses.  Romance, city and pastoral scenes, grimly macabre events of war, and nuanced dialogue all come under his mastery.

He also shows remarkable insight into human nature, family life, and the conflicting impulses that drive us to our destinations.

Helprin reminds me that reality is often best portrayed by fiction, and that the great novelists contribute mightily to our understanding of life itself

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"What It Takes", by Richard Ben Cramer

Anyone who has read the Making of the President series by Theodore White, especially the initial classic from the 1960 election, could expect that White's work might not be equaled in our lifetime.  The narrative drama, the inside detail, the momentousness of the outcomes, are woven together by White to create epic stories that created a new genre of political literature.

It turns out, however, that a worthy successor to White's work is What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer.  Subtitled "The Way to the White House", Cramer's is the story of the 1988 presidential election, published in 1992 by Random House.  The intervening twenty years have not made the subject or the characters grow stale.  To the contrary, we now have a better vantage point from which to observe the main actors and the political process itself.

In the first three hundred pages, along with early scenes from each campaign, Cramer develops the family histories of George H. W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart for two and three generations back.  By doing so, he compiles a useful amateur's psychological profile of each candidate, revealing what eventually drove each of them to think he could, and should, be president. 

There is Bush's patrician home, left behind when he decides he wants to make it on his own in the oil fields of West Texas; Dukakis' brainy youth, grandson of Greek immigrants, looking up at the Capitol dome in Boston as a teenager, remarking that's where he intended to be one day; Dole's plain Kansas upbringing, and then all too quickly his devastating war injuries, far more horrible than his limp arm would later reveal; Biden's scrappy childhood in a hard-luck family, but with a loving mother who took no excuses from her kids, helping Joe to overcome a severe case of stuttering; Gephardt's squeaky-clean adolescence which belied his ability to pursue any goal he set until he reached it; and Hart's rather ordinary homelife, from which somehow he emerged as a deeply thoughtful young man who would parlay a degree from a small religious college into acceptance at Yale Divinity School.

All this in the first third of the book, which is enough to stamp it as a classic story of American politics and also to make it clear once again that those who climb to or even get one rung from the White House are highly exceptional persons in their capacity to visualize great success at an early age and spend a lifetime striving for it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Quotes from Paul Johnson's book on Socrates

If you are interested in reading an introductory book about Socrates, check out Paul Johnson's recent primer:  Socrates - A Man for Our Times .

These quotes are from the concluding chapter:
  • In terms of his influence, Socrates was the most important of all philosophers.  He supplied some of the basic apparatus of the human mind, especially in the way men and women approach moral choices and make them. 
  • What he did was to concentrate on making more substantial the presence of an overriding divine force, a God who permeated all things and ordained the universe. 
  • Socrates became not only the archetypal philosopher and source of ethical wisdom, but the living paradigm of a good man and a perfect example of how the body-soul relationship ought to operate. 
  • The second key way in which Socrates furnished or refurnished the mind permanently was in insisting that morality was absolute, not relative. 
  • He was at home in the city, a stranger on campus.  He knew that as soon as philosophy separated itself from the life of the people, it began to lose its vitality and was heading in the wrong direction. 
  • It is worth repeating ... Cicero's summary of Socrates' work:  'He was the first to call philosophy down from the sky and establish her in the towns, and bring her into homes, and force her to investigate the life of men and women, ethical conduct, good and evil.'

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pros and Cons of E-Books on Kindle

After a year with e-books and Amazon's Kindle, this is how it sorts out for me:

Pro
  1. I think it's important to experiment with e-books.  Otherwise you might be wondering what the experience would be like and if you are being left behind.
  2. The reading experience on Kindle is an excellent replication of ink on paper.  No glare or other distractions.
  3. Instant gratification when you decide you want to read something.  Sixty seconds later, you have it.
  4. Good prices, although they keep creeping up.
  5. Free samples.  Usually the first chapter or so.
  6. Owning a Kindle has increased the number of books I've purchased and most likely caused me to read several excellent volumes I might have missed through procrastination. 
  7. Dictionary feature.  Click on any word to get meaning and background.
  8. Size of Kindle is perfect.  Large enough to give a good-size page view, but slim and easily stored.
  9. Highlighting made easy.  Also saves your highlights and lets you view popular selections by other readers.
  10. Excellent for keeping documents from Google Docs or other sources.  I just email my docs to my Kindle.