Some books I read

I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately, indulging in the luxury of several days off. In no particular order: 

The Face of Battleby John Keegan, was a good read. It’s an in-depth look at three battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme), with a particular focus on trying to understand what a battle was like from a soldier’s perspective. Originally published in 1976, it’s perhaps a little less stark than it was then, now that media is so much more violent (both in portrayals of war like Saving Private Ryan, and in fictitious conflict like Game of Thrones). Two things that stood out to me were his description of leaders, officers, or rulers, forcing men into combat; sometimes violently, sometimes literally shoving them, to make sure that they fought. It’s a sombre thought to imagine men running from the enemy ahead to find a gun barrel or weapon pointed at them from behind. 

The other things that stayed with me were the looting (of the dead, the dying and the still living), and the slaughter of prisoners. It seems strange to think of pecuniary rewards to a life and death struggle, but they were clearly there. Keegan also highlights that our set of expectations about how prisoners of war will be treated are relatively new; and that even in conflicts where both sides are nominally observing the rules, trying to surrender is no guarantee of safety. 

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin, was a fun read. It’s a post-apocalyptic vampire novel, one that’s well written (I think I once read a description of it as the vampire fiction of the lit. fiction genre). It’s been a few years since I read The Passage, which I’d also really enjoyed. So I didn’t remember all the characters, or some of his more convoluted plot points. But Cronin’s writing is good enough that the story carries you through, and is mostly coherent even when you aren’t following all of the intricacies. Oh, and look at that – there are book trailers for The Passage and The Twelve

The final book that I really, really enjoyed was But where is the lamb? I’ve had a fascination with the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac (there are different translations and different sources; here’s the KJV for a starting point) for a long time. I knew that it’d been interpreted repeatedly, time after time – Caravaggio painted it twice, and there’s midrash that imagines some of what different characters might say. But I don’t think I’d realised until I read James Goodman’s piece how enormous that body of work is.

He touches on Jewish, Christian and Islamic interpretations, and goes through a whole range of periods, and thinks about how different stories have looked at different angles. People defending or attacking particular characters, imagining or impugning motives, thoughts and beliefs. There are risks in tackling a subject that enormous; Goodman keeps it at a high level, picking out pieces as examples of different strands he identifies. That avoids the tediousness of cataloguing enormous lists of different variations, and Goodman does a good job of linking it back always to the original story.

The thing that did drive me crazy about the book was the referencing. He uses endnotes, but doesn’t even include the notes on the page! The only way you can know if there’s a reference is by simultaneously checking through the list of endnotes. It makes it easier on the eyes, I suppose, but I much, much prefer a clearer referencing system. 

But that aside, But where is the lamb? is a strong piece of work for what it is. And, for someone as fascinated as I am by the sacrifice of Isaac, it’s the best resource I’ve seen yet (although I’ve yet to go digging through the references Goodman cites).  

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Reading

I’ve had the chance to do a bit of reading the last few days, and it’s been lovely.

Do not disturb: is the media failing Australia?

I actually read this one over the course of several years, having picked it up, put it down, and later picked it up again. This didn’t matter too much – it’s collection of essays that stand alone, although linked thematically. Some of the material feels a little dated where it’s covering recent events (for a 2005 publication, the 2004 election). But it’s also an interesting retrospective, and some of the issues covered are as pertinent as ever.

No country for old men

McCarthy’s prose is beautiful, and the book is both a page turner and exceptionally well written. Once the initial rush had finished, though, I found myself troubled by something. I haven’t gone through the book in detail with a pen picking out passages, but something that I’m still pondering is how the past is remembered.

The first of those reflects the fact that throughout, the narrator is comparing a better, happier, remembered past, to a present where he (a sheriff) feels outgunned by violent people with less regard for the law and morality than criminals have ever had before. Which, possibly, is true. But I think it’s always good to be sceptical of pictures that are too rosy; in this case, was the past that beautiful? Keep in mind he’s invoking an era when violence may not have happened as often against middle class white people, but there were other kinds of (often officially sanctioned) violence against people on the margins of society. I won’t unpack that more here; but for a starting point, TNC’s blog does a lot of work looking at how the past that we remember so rosily (particularly in America) actually looked.

But overall the book is an excellent read; it’s gripping while you’re reading it and memorable while you finish it, like much of what McCarthy writes.

The Marriage Plot

Sometimes in the middle of a book I’m enjoying I’ll find myself slowing down, and taking pauses in the reading. It’s not because it’s bad, it’s because I want to put off the moment when I finish the book, and can’t keep reading it anymore. That was definitely the case with The Marriage Plot. It’s beautiful writing and easy reading.

Something I particularly enjoyed, apart from the obvious strengths, was how well sketched some of the minor characters were. Eugenides covers a lot of ground; and in several cases he draws out characters that are only tangentially involved with the plot. He does a good job there of filling them in; not creating ’round’ characters, but still giving them life beyond the lines they’re there to deliver, so that when they speak it felt as a reader that real people were speaking, and not just convenient props.

Another aspect I found interesting is that throughout, Eugenides is implicitly (and in a few cases, explicitly) referencing Victorian novels that deal with marriage. But it didn’t feel too heavy handed; the structure of the novel doesn’t mirror one of his references, and he doesn’t lay it on too thickly. Which perhaps means that the end is a little — tiny — bit of a stretch, but it still felt much better than something too heavy-handed.

 One world

I picked up One World at a secondhand market because I wanted to read something by Singer. One World probably wasn’t a great choice.

It’s a little dated, in that it deals very much on the policy side of things with things that were current circa 2001. The philosophy, which was what I was reading it for, didn’t feel very groundbreaking at all. Singer’s arguments seemed well argued and reasonable, but not interesting in the sense of giving new information or ideas.

To be fair, though, this probably isn’t the best book as an introduction to Singer. It sets out very much to take a set of basic philosophical ideas, and explore their application in the real world, while arguing clearly (but accessibly). If you don’t find the ideas controversial or the policy aspects interesting, then the reading can be somewhat slow.

Peter Singer, though, comes across as articulate, intelligent and passionate about ethics. I’ll look forward to reading something else by him.

No (the movie)

I’ve just finished watching No, the movie, which came out in 2012 (you can see a trailer on Youtube).

It’s an interesting movie. It shows the contrast between the story that the democratic campaigners want to tell (of the suffering, the violence they’ve experienced during the dictatorship), and the approach of an ad-man who wants happy spots to sell a vote against dictatorship, with sunshine and smiling actors. 

I won’t spoil the ending – but I’ll say that it’s an interesting choice of subject matter (for context, it’s part of a trilogy on the dictatorship; so perhaps there’s a broader treatment in the other movies). But it felt a little sad to see a story that seemed to rest on two assumptions; one, that humans are so shallow that a TV advertisement with colours and bright smiles was the way to go, not a real story about what was wrong with Pinochet’s regime (particularly when they had a 15 minute slot). The second assumption was that given their audience is processing at a shallow level (or time-poor, or however else constrained), that the utilitarian approach is the right one. 

Don’t get me wrong; I think there are pretty plausible arguments for both of those assumptions, and on balance I might have reached those same conclusions. But to me that argument is far more interesting than what No shows, which largely centred on the mechanics of an ad campaign – politically charged, and interesting, but not compelling. 

And at the same time, for a director, the decision to focus on that story means excluding other ones – the stories of what happened under the regime, and what was done to victims (you can read more in some of the post-regime investigations). Again, I know nothing about Chile’s context, and history – and perhaps this is covered in some of the director’s other work.

But a decision to focus on a single story-teller over the period of 27 days in the context of a protest movement that’s lasted for years with years of suffering seems to elide some key issues about what’s involved in a broad social movement, and what brings about systematic and meaningful change. 

Online voting

Given the stuff-ups that lead to the WA Senate by-election (happening right now), I’ve heard a few people say that electronic voting is surely something we should investigate. 

I don’t have enough expertise to evaluate those claims in details (appeal to authority alert), but people who have a bit of experience tell me that it’s a much less bright idea than it looks. It’s great to see someone talk about it in detail – http://corruptednerds.com/pod/c00008/

The Night Train to Lisbon

Seemed like a book with a lot of promise. I started because I saw the trailer for the movie. It still looks pretty good, actually. But I felt like I should read the book first, which was a mistake.

[SPOILER ALERT: They’re further down, so if you’re avoiding, be warned].  

I struggled to care much about the protagonist, Gregorious, who feels grey and translucent; more a point of view the author’s navigating around Lisbon (yes, the train gets there) than a real person. Amadeu, the person whose character fascinates Gregorious and becomes an obsession, feels – a little unreal, a sort of archetypal existentialist who lives deliberately, but whom as a reader I also struggled to care about. 

Aside from the characters, it felt as though there wasn’t much going on in the plot. Yes, Gregorious ups and leaves a life lived as a schoolteacher, and recounts his failed marriage. But partially because I struggled to care about him as a person and partially because none of what was happening was intrinsically interesting, it was a struggle to wade through all of his reminiscing. Amadeu does have an interesting life at points, but much of that is told second-hand, or even implied. Which can have a time and a place, but I think it’s hard to make that an entire novel, and this one certainly didn’t work. 

If a good book is about interesting things happening to interesting people, then this one didn’t tick either box for me. The ideas, too, were mildly interesting, but felt as though they were something the author had written into his journal, rather than ideas he’d thought through fully, or really fleshed out in his characters. 

All up, it took me a while to get through this one, and it was a struggle. But then I picked up No country for old men by Cormac McCarthy and loved it, and I’m almost halfway through already.