Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Book #71 - War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

2020 is finally over and it is a truth universally acknowledged that the past year can be best described by the phrase "shit show". I have spent the year socially distanced in my home, seeing work colleagues and the people I love only through the grace of a company that calls itself "Zoom", and donning protective gear appropriate for cleaning up a Superfund site just to enter my local liquor store. And while I haven't ended up looking like the dude above (that's Leo Tolstoy, by the way) it sometimes feels like it, especially now that barbershops are all on lockdown again. And as further proof of a suck-ass 2020 I did not write a single blog post the entire year! No, it's not because I caught Covid19 (knock on wood) or because I drank myself into an alcoholic stupor on a daily basis (I have been quite responsible and have alternated days); rather it was due to (1) laziness and (2) the desire to read only crappy, distracting books so as not to remember that tens of thousands of my fellow Americans were struggling to breathe on a daily basis. At least, that's how my reading went until the past Autumn, when I decided to use this quarantine time to read a long, long book that maybe I wouldn't have time or motivation to read in normal times. So I read "War and Peace". Turns out this was a good book to read in such a terrible and trying year, since much of the book deals with the ordeals of the Russian people fighting Napoleon and the French army as they moved across Europe, eventually invading Russia and burning down Moscow.

And speaking of French, let's talk about booze! My latest discovery is Chartreuse. Before Covid19 shut down all the bars in town I had a drink called the Last Word at Stookey's Club Moderne here in San Francisco. This spectacularly good cocktail is an old recipe from the pre-Prohibition era, and contains equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, green Chartreuse, and lime juice. It is an amazing blend of sweet, sour, and herbal good! Sometime in the spring, I was feeling down about the goddamn Coronavirus so to cheer myself up I suited up in my protective gear and ventured into my local liquor store to by some Green Chartreuse so I could make my own Last Word. Once in the store I discovered that it was about $50 a bottle, which threw me for a loop, but people were dying and I wanted to do my part to help so I bought a bottle. Green Chartreuse is a fascinating drink. First of all, it's the only liqueur with a completely natural green color. So there's that. And it's flavor I find comparable to nothing else...I can't even think of how to describe it except that I quite enjoy it. Plus it's 55% alcohol, so it will, as they say, "get you there". And apparently The Lord wants us to drink this stuff because it is made by monks living in the Grand Chartreuse monastery in France, where they've been making it since 1737 from a secret recipe that dates from 1605. Anything that sticks around for that long has to have something going for it. And by drinking it I'm helping support monks, which makes me feel good about myself. I'm all for drinking for a cause!

Anyway, France. After the French Revolution, Napoleon decided to spread the revolution throughout Europe in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Plus he wanted to rule the world. And this is the period when "War and Peace" takes place. The novel follows the stories of members of three families, the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs as they live through a time of, you guessed it, war and peace. This is a huge sprawling novel and I don't even know where to begin discussing it, as if I could even add anything new to the discussion. But let me just drive this point home: it's GLORIOUS! God, I loved this book, as I did Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina". This guy was a true genius at capturing the essence of humanity. The characters are so vivid and human, you feel like you know them. Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of the extraordinarily wealthy Count Kirill Bezukhov. Pierre is large and fat and socially awkward, but when his father dies and leaves him his estate suddenly Pierre is belle of the ball in Russian society because everyone loves money. He marries the beautiful but vapid Helene Kuragin through the manipulation of her father who just wants access to all that damn money. Gold diggers, they're a constant throughout history! Pierre keeps searching for meaning in his life, especially after shooting his wife's lover. He tries freemasonry, he tries wandering around a battlefield during a battle between the Russians and the French, and at one point he decides his goal in life is to assassinate Napoleon. But that doesn't happen. His best friend is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, another rich Russian dude, but Prince Andrei is very handsome and intellectual. He too is disillusioned with life and is searching for a greater meaning (aren't we all?). He becomes an officer in the army and goes off to war leaving behind his pregnant wife, gets wounded, meets Napoleon, becomes disillusioned with war and Napoleon, and comes back home just in time to see his wife die in childbirth. So he becomes more disillusioned. He eventually meets Natasha Rostov, who is vivacious and lively and brings a spark to Andrei. But his father disapproves and tells him to travel for a year before marrying her. So he does but in the meantime Natasha, who is not so worldly, falls in love with Anatole Kuragin, Pierre's brother-in-law. But Anatole is a rogue who just wants to fuck everything that moves, and besides he's already secretly married. Natasha is going to elope with Anatole, but is stopped in time. However when Andrei finds out about it all he can't forgive her and calls the engagement off. Tolstoy knows how to keep a story juicy! Eventually they reconcile, but only on Andrei's deathbed. Meanwhile Andrei's sister Marya and Natasha's brother Nikolai eventually get together. Marya is very religious and devout, unlike her brother, and Nikolai is also unlike her brother, being not at all an intellectual and much more warm and emotional. It's a parade of humanity!

One of the themes of the book is how history is not made by great men. Instead it is made by the sum of millions and millions of decisions and actions by "ordinary" people which all add up to great historical events. He drives this point home in some of his battle scenes where the generals, like Napoleon, don't know what the hell is going on on the battlefield because of "the fog of war" and instead the outcome of the battles are driven by a myriad of individual decisions made by regular soldiers on the battlefield. Tolstoy uses the plot to advance his theories but then, in case the reader doesn't get it, he goes all out at the end of the novel and just writes a long philosophical essay on these topics. I confess I glossed over this part because (1) the action of the novel is over and (2) Tolstoy is just ranting on and on about something I don't understand completely and don't care about so whatever. But the plot of the novel and its characters are so strong and so true to life that he didn't really need this coda. And the events of this past year (2020) make the novel all the more poignant to me. 2020 sucked donkey dicks but for one of the first times in my life I felt like I was living through history. Not just watching it on TV, like I did with 9/11 or Chernobyl or the fall of the Soviet Union, but actually living it. I stopped leading a "normal" life and was forced to wear masks and socially distance and give up bars and restaurants and travel, because of the pandemic. This year will go down in history, and I lived through it and participated in it. My parents' generation had that with the Depression and World War II, which were events that affected everyone's lives. And now it's my generation's turn. I'm not sure I changed the course of history with any of the decisions I made, but still it afforded me more sympathy to Tolstoy's characters whose homeland was invaded and who were called to war whether they liked it or not. In 2020 we've been called to war against the fucking Coronavirus, and it's going to take millions of individual decisions to mask up, be careful, and get vaccinated to bring this under control. Hopefully we will do out part in fighting this virus as Tolstoy's characters do fighting the French. I know I will do my part, as I stay inside or stay masked...and have another Last Word.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Book #70 - The Hound of the Baskervilles (A. Conan Doyle)

I am doomed. Across the street from where I work a new liquor store has recently opened up called Total Wine. Total Wine is the be-all and end-all of liquor stores. Total Wine is to the corner liquor store what Walmart is to the corner convenience store. I mean these people have the biggest selection of booze I've ever seen...and it's right across the street from where I work!! I'm thinking of having my paycheck direct deposited there, so I won't need to fiddle with cash the next time. Anyway, on my most recent visit, which was today, I purchased a bottle of Busnel Calvados VSOP. Since Sherlock Holmes is a sophisticated Englishman who can solve any crime, and Calvados seems like a sophisticated pour (although very French, not English, but whatever) I decided this would make a good pairing for writing this blog post. In case you're not familiar with Calvados, it's a brandy made in Normandy from apples or pears. It's basically distilled apple cider. It was first made in the 1500s and has been going strong ever since, and I can tell you why: because it's fucking delicious. Mmm, highly recommended, and at 80 proof it is supplying the ample inspiration I need for this blog post.

While Total Wine may be the superhero of liquor stores, Sherlock Holmes was the English superhero of the 19th century. His superpowers were his uncanny intellect, his ability to notice even the smallest details around him, and his ability to deduce the meaning of these small details, especially when they pertain to a crime. He was also a dick. In the very first scene in the book, he and his buddy Watson, the narrator, are hanging out in their home on Baker Street in London. An unknown visitor has left his cane, and they are trying to figure out who the visitor was. Homes asks Watson to analyze the cane and deduce what he can about the visitor. Watson takes a stab at it and tells Holmes that the inscription on the cane, "To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.," suggests it is owned by an elderly doctor who was awarded the object after years of faithful service. Holmes eggs Watson on, and Watson continues speculating, saying that the well-worn cane implies a country practitioner who walks about quite a bit.Holmes congratulates Watson on his insight, and Watson beams in the glow of his friend's praise. Holmes then totally shoots all of Watson's conclusions down. Holmes says that while the owner is indeed probably a country doctor, that C.C.H. actually means Charing Cross Hospital, which is in London. The cane was probably presented on the occasion of the man's retirement from the hospital, and only a young man would have retired from a successful city practice to move to a rural one. Holmes goes on to suggest that the man must possess a small spaniel, given the bite marks on the bottom of the cane, and at that there's a rap on the front door and the young man and his spaniel stand outside. Of course, Watson is blown away by Holmes's power of observation, but Holmes doesn't tell Watson that he saw the doctor and his dog coming up the walk, and so could describe them accurately. The dude's an arrogant dick. But a very smart arrogant dick. I work in science and I've run into some of those people. You want to dislike them but they're so smart that you have to admire and look up to them at the same time.

The man who owned the walking stick, Dr. James Mortimer, wants to hire Holmes to investigate the death of a friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, who was found dead on the moors near his country manor. He appeared to have died of a heart attack, but near the corpse the footprints of a gigantic hound were found. According to an old legend, a curse has haunted the Baskerville family since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville abducted and murdered a woman, only to be killed in turn by a giant demonic hound, which has supposedly haunted the nearby moors ever since, killing off many of the Baskerville heirs. Dr. Mortimer is worried for the next man in line, the young Sir Henry Baskerville, who has just arrived from Canada to take over the family estate. Holmes, as a man of reason, doesn't believe in the story of the demonic hell-hound, but when someone tries to shoot Sir Henry in the streets of London when he first arrives, Holmes interest is peaked, and he sends Watson out to the country with Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry to see what he can find out about the situation. Here the mysteries ensue. Lots of strange things happen...distant howls are heard across the moors, a butler for the Baskervilles seems to be signalling to someone at night from the upper floor windows, a dangerous escaped convict roams the moors, neighbors appear either too friendly or a little too aloof. Watson tries to piece it all together, and gets some clues but not others. But why on Earth did Holmes send Watson to investigate while he stayed behind on London? Because unbeknownst to everyone he donned a disguise and hid out on the moors and solved the whole damn mystery on his own while Watson dithered around. Kind of a dick move again. But whatever. The mystery, while convoluted, gets totally solved by Holmes's genius, and justice is served. I won't give away any more details because that would spoil the fun in case you decide to read the novel. It's a good page-turner of a read, even if Holmes is an annoying dick sometimes. Will I read more of Sherlock Holmes's adventures? After all, the author wrote a number of stories about him. Probably not, but who knows. The murder mystery genre is not my favorite, but after a few more glasses of the Calvados I might change my mind. That is, if a mysterious hell-hound doesn't get me first.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Book #69 - Persuasion (Jane Austen)

After a long day at work and a rainy commute home I'm drinking a snifter of Hennessy VSOP Privilege Cognac. I know almost nothing about cognac. It's a type of brandy, made in the Congac region of France, and Hennessy, founded by Irish immigrant Richard Hennessy, is the largest cognac producer in the world, with 40% of the market. No, I don't know that off the top of my head...that's why Google exists. Anyway, I don't have much experience with cognac, unlike with bourbon, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, etc. etc. but I have to say this glass is mighty tasty. The Hennessy website says the taste has "notes of apricots, apple, clove and cinnamon". For me I get notes of alcohol with a side of booze. It's good though...Jesus turned water into wine, and then Hennessy turned wine into cognac. Upward and onward. Anyway, my glass is almost empty and now I'm thinking I'll move on to a Tecate, which is pretty much the opposite of cognac, but the taste buds want what they want. Plus Tecate is the only beer I know of that has its own app, which they promote on their website. You know back in my day we didn't need a damn app to enjoy our beer! But that app discussion is a non-sequitur. And now for another non-sequitur: Jane Austen's "Persuasion".

Um. Yep, I said "Um". Let me explain: normally when I blog about a book I try to write my entry within a few days of finishing it. That way it's fresh in my mind, which seems to be less and less able to retain any thoughts that are more than a few days old. So when I say "Um", I'm really saying "WTF was that book about again?" Because dammit, I waited two months after finishing the book before sitting down with my booze to write this, and now I can't remember much about the book. A mind is a terrible thing. Anyway, I do remember the broad outline. Back in merry old England Anne Elliot is in her late 20s, single, and living with dad. Seven years ago she had a romance with Frederick Wentworth, a navy captain. They were briefly engaged, but because he was just a low ranking navy sailor at that time, and she was from the landed gentry, her family persuaded her to break off the engagement because the groom was not worthy. Also, she was just 19. Anyway, after seven years of no contact, they both move into the same neighborhood. During those seven years, her family has been slowly going broke, while Wentworth has become the well-compensated Captain Wentworth. They keep meeting up in humorous ways, and antics ensue, societal and emotional struggles ensue, and finally a reconciliation and new proposal ensue.

The fascinating thing about the Jane Austen novels I've read (this one, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma) is the rigid social structure and manners of 19th century England. It's such a foreign world from the one we live in in the United States today. There were so many times in this novel I thought "Oh come on, just be open and honest about your feelings" and then I remembered that was just not how they did things in those times. Makes me wonder if people 200 years from now will be reading novels of our day and age and thinking "These guys were idiots". Probably. Although I suspect they'll be saying that about what we did to the planet, rather than about David Foster Wallace's books.

Anyway, unfortunately that's all I've got. Well, except for the rest of this bottle of cognac...

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book #68 - Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

I'm a bourbon man from way back.  Back in the days when you could find Van Winkle Bourbon on most liquor store shelves for around $35-50.  Van Winkle is a classic smooth and so delicious, and made in small batches with great care.  It's so good that it became tremendously sought after, so that nowadays you can't find it at all, and if you do it can be over $1000 a bottle.  Ah, the times they have changed, and not for the better.  I still have some Van Winkle stored away, but tonight I'm drinking New Riff Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the rocks.  And it's good....damn good.  New Riff is a new microdistillery based in Newport, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Microdistilleries, like microbreweries, are all the rage these days.  But in my experience microdistilleries that make bourbon for the most part just don't make stuff comparable to the bigger distilleries.  And I think the problem is age.  Bourbon whiskey must be aged in oak barrels...four years is usually the minimum, and even longer is better (well, up to a point), and a new microdistillery usually can't wait that long to sell their products because they need to make a the result is often an underaged, harsh whiskey.  But this New Riff stuff has been aged four years, and in my opinion is quite tasty.  Unlike Van Winkle bourbons it has a high rye content (Van Winkle, like the more famous Maker's Mark, is high in wheat, not rye), which makes it rather spicy.  Good going New Riff!  The classics are nice, but new stuff that upholds the standards of the classics while taking a new riff on things (the pun is theirs) is also nice.  There is pleasure in both the old fashioned and the newfangled.

And speaking of old fashioned, I just finished reading Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women".  This is a book I thought I might have read in my childhood, but clearly I didn't, or perhaps early onset Alzheimer's has erased the memory of it from my rapidly aging brain.  What struck me about the book is how old fashioned it is. The book was published in 1869 and takes place during the Civil War. It follows the story of the four March sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy - as they grow from childhood to adulthood.  Reading this book makes me think about how much times have changed.  It's a very American book, but the attitudes and mores of the March family are quite different from today.  It's been called a feminist book, but I'm not convinced it really is any more.  I think it was at one time, but I think women have moved beyond that now.  The sisters all end up married (except for the one that dies) and living a more or less settled life with their husbands.  Par for the course for the 1800s, I guess.

The novel is considered loosely autobiographical, with Jo March being the Louisa May Alcott character.  The four sisters all have very different personalities.  Meg, the oldest, is the most traditional.  She gets married, has twins, and runs her household like a good 19th century wife should. Jo is a writer, who starts out making money by writing some sort of lurid fiction (one can only imagine).  This sounds really cool, like she's a rebel and proto-feminist, but then she marries an older professor and with him starts a school for boys.  She says she's always wanted to do this, but it seems weird because she's always wanted to write, and why is she suddenly so gung-ho about a school for boys?  Seems like she gave up something to accommodate her husband.  She continues to write, but it's now wholesome, rather than sordid fiction.  Then there's Beth, a gentle soul who likes to play the piano and have a hospital for her injured dolls, and who (spoiler alert) is not long for this world (today we forget what it was like before antibiotics and vaccines...and don't get me started on those fucking anti-vaxxers).  Finally Amy, the youngest sister, is kind of a spoiled bitch, but is also a very talented artist, who eventually marries Laurie, the boy next door, after Jo spurns him.  She keeps doing her art, and along the way (before she marries him) tells Laurie he's wasting his life away (which he is).  Kudos to her.  And kudos to Laurie because he seem to take this message to heart.

I dunno, this was an easy entertaining read, but I was ultimately disappointed in how it turns out.  And that may be totally due to my 21st century mind.  You want these girls to say "Fuck you, grrrl power!" but they don't, because this book was published in 1869. There are stirrings of modern, liberated women there, but they get subsumed in 19th century morals and ways.  It's a good look at 19th century lives, and these women, especially Jo and Amy, are probably more independent and artistically creative than most 19th century American women, but the book ended up for me to feel a little unsatisfying due to the change in expectations of the possibilities women have these days, compared to 150 years ago.  That's no fault of the author (how could she know what the future held?) but it's a mark of the changing times.

I will conclude with one final anecdote. When I was in college, back in the early 1980's, I worked as an orderly in a hospital. I cleaned equipment, wheeled patients around in wheelchairs, helped make beds, helped lift patients, etc. One day I was wheeling an elderly woman down to get some x-rays, and we struck up a conversation.  I told her I was in college, studying biochemistry, and she said that she had been really interested in astronomy, and majored in physics in college, but that back in her day women just didn't become astronomers, or physicists, and so she gave up science, and got married and raised a family. You could hear the sadness in her demeanor as she told this story. I've always carried this with depressing it made me feel that a fellow scientist couldn't pursue her passion because "it just wasn't done".  We are all trapped in our society and in our times, and this is what comes across to me when reading "Little Women". If only we all had total access to all suitable possibilities!  Or at least easy access to Van Winkle bourbon.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Book #67 - Metamorphoses (Ovid)

Wow, it's been nine months since my last post.  It's been so long that I'm not even sure if people still blog anymore.  These kids today, with their Instagrams and Spotifys and Snapchats, do they even know what blogs are?  Or books?  Hell, I'm still reading books printed on paper!  Yes, paper...made from trees!!  Do they even make paper any more, or do they just release books as billions ofd electronic bits on Kindles and similar devices, shoveled through the tubes of the internet?  Fuck, everything is changing except that I'm still drinking gin.  Sweet, sweet reliable gin.  Mmmmm, in fact, I'm drinking an ice cold Gibson made with Sipsmith London Dry Gin.  The drink is ice cold, and smooth, and delicious, and well-deserved after a hard day at work.  Except that now I've reached the age where if I don't take an antacid before I drink a cocktail there will be big, big trouble...and even an antacid is no guarantee that gastro-esophageal horrors will not be visited on me.  Fuck, I'm so fucked, and things are only going to get worse.  I have to wear reading glasses to type this fucking blog now.  I never really thought about reading glasses until a few years back...they were always something old people wore for reasons I didn't ponder.  Then one evening I was in a dark restaurant and I was like "WTF, I can't read the goddamn menu...and I haven't even ordered a martini yet!"  Sigh...I have one foot in the grave and I'm getting deeper and things are only changing for the worse.

Which brings us to my latest read, Ovid's "Metamorphoses", which is pretty much all about change (hence the title).  Ovid was a Roman poet who was born in 43 BC, the year after Julius Caesar's death, and died sometime around 17 AD.  His epic poem, "Metamorphoses", differs from the other epic poem I read from this era, namely Virgil's "Aeneid", because it is not a single long story, but rather a set of about 250 stories, all taken from classical mythology.  In fact, the poem is pretty much an anthology of classical mythological tales, with every story having the theme of change.  People get changed into trees, deer, pigs, iPhones, you-name-it.  And of course the Gods are somehow involved in all of this.  It makes one realize how easier things are these days, with only one God.  Back in Ovid's day, the Gods seemed to play havoc with lots of people's lives, which really made things complicated!  Imagine the difficulty of trying to catch and Uber after you've been turned into a tree.  Yep, you didn't want to fuck with the Gods, or fuck the Gods, that's for sure.  OMG, and all the raping!  Jupiter raped Io, and Callisto, among many others, while Apollo tries to rape Daphne, etc. etc.  So much rape, and attempted rape, and sometimes even consensual sex!  The old Gods sure were horny, like a bunch of randy teenagers.

Ovid's poem goes through many, many famous classical myths, such as Jason and the Argonauts, Odysseus, Achilles, Icarus, Perseus, Aeneas, and such, and he also throws in some historical characters like Pythagoras and Julius Caesar.  Some of the stories in the poem I recognized, while many others I did not.  And some of them I would read and think "Wait a minute, even my rapidly aging and decaying brain remembers that this story was depicted in [insert name of classical work of art here].  For example, a few years back I visited Rom and saw this great sculpture in the Galleria Borghese (a fantastic museum if you ever get to Rome...highly recommended) by Bernini called "Apollo and Daphne".  The statue depicts the God Apollo chasing the nymph Daphne who is turning into a tree as Apollo catches her.  When I saw the statue I thought "That's cool, but there's gotta be a story behind this".  Well, Ovid tells that story.  It seems that Apollo was obsessed by Daphne and totally wanted her bad, whether she wanted him or not (she emphatically did not).  This was all due to Eros, who Apollo had insulted, so Eros took his revvenge by shooting Apollo with an arrow that made him fall in love with Daphne, while shooting Daphne with another arrow that would make her hate Apollo.  So Apollo chased her around like an animal in a frenzied heat, and as he coaught Daphne, she pleaded with her father, a river God, to help her.  So her father turns her into a laurel tree just as Apollo gats his arms around her and that's that.  I've never tried to make love to a tree, because it doesn't seem like it would be very erotic, and apparently Apollo felt the same way.  However, Apollo vows to love her forever, which is why the laurel tree's leaves are ever green.

This illustrates my main recommendation for reading this book: you will forever appreciate all the references to the mythological tales you'll read in this book, which permeate literate Western culture.  The Gods, the Trojan War, the founding of's all here.  This is the West's cultural heritage, and it's good to get a refresher course!  That's the upside.  The downside is that I found this book to be a bit of a slog.  I just couldn't get into it like I would a novel.  I'd read a few pages, then get distracted and put the book down.  In contrast I've also been currently reading a science fiction series called "The Expanse", which, although I wouldn't call it great literature, is fun and fast-paced and hard to put down, like cotton candy, while reading Ovid seems more like work.  Valuable work, to be sure, but work nonetheless.  Am I being lazy, or is that due to my ever-changing, ever-decaying brain?  Time will tell.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Book #66 - The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer)

War is hell. And that's my rationale for sipping on a Plymouth Navy Strength Gin martini while writing this review.  If I didn't steady my nerves with copious quantities of booze, I might freak out from the trauma of writing about a novel that delves into the horrors of war.  And the Plymouth Navy Strength Gin has plenty of booze.  It's just as delicious as "regular" Plymouth Gin but it's 57% alcohol instead of 41.2%.  Sure it's a bit harsher due to the higher proof, but it gets you there quicker and it's apparently appropriate to use when discussing a war novel because it's approved by the navy.  Although I'm not sure which navy.  Probably the British Navy, but I'm just guessing there.  Ahoy mates, down the hatch!

Anyway, yes, war is hell, even after a martini or two. And this book was hell for me to get through.  Not because its descriptions of warfare are so hellish that I freaked out.  But actually because I found it a bit dull, at least the first half of the book.  In fact, this was my second attempt to read the novel...the first attempt was a year or so ago, and petered out after about a hundred pages.  This time I stuck with it, and I'm glad to say that the novel picked up in the second half in a big way, although the first half was slow going.  War may be hell, but reading about it became less hellish as the book went along.  At least for me, not for the characters.

This was Norman Mailer's first book.  He went into the army after graduating from Harvard (personal note: he was a classmate of my father's at Harvard, although my father never knew him), and served in the Pacific during World War II, and his experiences there formed the basis of this novel.  The theme of this novel is not so much "war is hell" (although it is hell, and some of the characters go through hellish experiences), but more "much of war is absurd and pointless".  This novel follows a platoon of soldiers involved in fighting for the capture of the fictitious Pacific island Anopopei from the Japanese. In the first half of the novel, the soldiers land on the island, have a couple of major battles, and then just hang around in camp while the American and Japanese lines hold tight as they lob artillery at one another.  It's basically a stalemate.  The Americans are a hodge-podge of ethnicities (A Mexican!  Two Jews!) and backgrounds (An Ivy League grad! A working class redneck!), who suffered through the Depression and then volunteered for, or got drafted into, the army.  They're bored and/or scared, except for General Cummings who is in charge of the invasion and is a son of a bitch, as generals are want to be, and Croft, a patrol leader who is a sadistic, hard-driving motherfucker (or in the case of this novel, a motherfugger...Mailer notoriously had to change every "fuck" in the novel, and there are lots of them, to "fug" in order to please his publisher).  Frankly, I found the characters hard to tell apart at times.  Mailer goes into their backgrounds in flashbacks, but many of these are a bit forgettable, and many of the characters blurred together for me.  You can tell this is a first novel...some of the dialog is wooden and not very believable, and the book could have used some editing at over 700 pages.

Anyway, the book picks up in the second half, when the general sends a platoon of soldiers out on a reconnaissance mission.  They are to take a boat around to the other side of the island, where they must make their way inland behind the Japanese lines, to scout out the enemy's positions.  This part of the book is much more suspenseful, and Mailer does a great job with making this part more of a page turner.  But ultimately the mission becomes pointless.  One man is shot and seriously injured, and so four soldiers must carry him back through the jungle on a stretcher.  This makes the platoon smaller, and less capable.  Mailer's description of the soldiers carrying the wounded man back is's brutally hot and arduous and completely exhausting, and the wounded man's condition worsens and worsens.  The author really makes you feel the men's pain and exhaustion.  It made me realize, as an old fuck, that war is a young man's domain...old dudes like me never would survive this shit.  In the end, the reconnaissance mission proves pointless...the wounded man dies, and the rest of the men have to turn back when they are savagely attacked by hornets while at the point of complete exhaustion from trying to climb a mountain over to the Japanese positions.  And to cap it all off, while the platoon is on its reconnaissance mission, the Japanese lines collapse due in part to hunger and exhaustion of the enemy, and in part due to a lucky mistake that a junior American officer makes while the general is away, and so the Americans easily take the island without need of the reconnaissance mission.  Mailer is good at making his point that war is absurd and boring and exhausting, and that many people die for pointless and absurd reasons.  But I think Joseph Heller's Catch 22 makes these same points when it came out 13 years later, in what is a much better novel.

And in the end, this novel seems a bit dated.  When it was written, Mailer's journalistic style, his descriptions of not always admirable common soldiers, and the sometimes brutal nihilism must have all come as a shock to Americans in the 1940s.  But today, the world seems to have caught up with Mailer's point of view.  Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket all portray the brutality and dehumanization and absurdity of war in ways beyond what people were exposed to in mid-Twentieth Century America.  And TV shows like Band of Brothers and The Pacific also cast World War II in a more realistic and brutal light (both of which, by the way, are based on real soldiers' stories and are well worth watching, if you haven't seen them).  So yeah, I'm glad I read this book, but it's not one of my favorites that I've read for this blog.  Ah well, so war may be hell, but writing an enduring war novel that remains relevant for centuries may be even more hellish.  Unless you're Homer...his Iliad has certainly stood the test of time.  But then, Homer never got to enjoy a delicious martini.  Poor guy...that in itself is a whole different type of hell.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book #65 (Part 3) - Sugar Street (Naguib Mahfouz)

Motherfuckers!!  They get me every time!!  So I go to the liquor store, which in my case is Beverages and More (who have now taken to calling themselves BevMo!, apparently because Americans can no longer handle stores with more than one word in their names.  And the exclamation mark?  Is that really necessary?  It reminds me of the time back in the 1980s when the town of "Hamilton", Ohio changed their name to "Hamilton!".  With an exclamation mark.  Seriously, they did that.  Over the years they seem to have dropped it, probably because these days the exclamation mark would more appropriately be a used needle.  But I digress.  I mean, I really digressed!) looking to re-up my gin supply.  My favorites, as anyone who's actually read a couple of my blog posts would know (i.e. no one), include Hendrick's, Plymouth, Tanqueray Ten, and a new favorite Sipsmith London Dry Gin. I'm digressing again, but seriously, that Sipsmith gin is really good shit and makes an awesome martini.  It's from a newish (founded 2009) London microdistillery and these guys have it hats off to them, even though I rarely wear a hat.  Anyway, so I'm at Beverages and More (I refuse to fucking use the name "BevMo!", at least in this post) looking at the gins when a new, shiny bottle catches my eye: Uncle Val's Handcrafted Peppered Gin.  Hmmm, my interest is piqued!  I read the bottle, and this gin is infused with red peppers, black peppers, and pimento.  My interest is further piqued!  It's made by a microdistillery in Bend, Oregon.  I've been to Bend, and it's a lovely town...very outdoorsy, in the middle of Oregon.  So I'm like "Fuck it, Uncle Val sounds like a righteous dude, let's give him a chance".  I pass over Plymouth, Sipsmith, and all my other faves and I take a bottle of Uncle Val's home.  Mmmm.  I make myself a Gibson (more on that in a minute), sit down to start typing out this blog entry, take a sip, and...WTF!?!  This stuff tastes like kerosene infused with gasoline, with maybe a splash of WD-40.  Ugh, not good.  So now I'm stuck with a Gibson made from this rather disgusting gin, while a half empty bottle of Plymouth that I bought previously stares at me from the shelf, as if taunting me about how delicious my drink could have been, if only I didn't stray from the fold.  That'll teach me.  But there are starving children in some country somewhere would would love to drink my Gibson, so I will do my humanistic duty and choke it down, while ranting on and on about booze when I should be ranting about the world's great literature.  Ah well.

Anyway, on to the world's great literature.  No, wait, I promised to discuss the Gibson, my new go-to drink!  I first heard of the Gibson when Cary Grant orders one in Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" (a movie, BTW, which if you've never seen you need to go out and rent it ASAP.  One of my favorite movies of all time, and the one I consider Hitchcock's best).  A Gibson is a gin martini that contains a pickled onion or two instead of olives.  Seems like an innocuous change, but the onion really adds a flavor to the gin that, while subtle, is very different from the traditional martini with olives.  According to (and how can you not love a website who's URL is "the Gibson is believed to have been created by San Francisco businessman Walter D.K. Gibson in the late 1800s, who thought that eating onions prevented colds".  Good for you, Walter, your contribution to humanity lives on over a hundred years later!  But seriously, I love this drink, or at least I do when it's made with a decent gin, and not this petroleum by-product I'm drinking now.

Alright, on to the literature!  A few weeks ago I finished Naguib Mahfouz's "Sugar Street", the third and final volume in the Cairo Trilogy.  I'm going to sum up this review right away by saying this: read these fucking books!  They are so great.  As I said in my previous two reviews, the first book of the trilogy was outstanding, while the second one dropped off a little, but this book, the third and final volume in the trilogy, was so outstanding, and so moving.  In this book, the parents in the original novel both meet their ends, of old age and decay (sigh...where I'm headed next...).  The patriarch, Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd, once a stern, strong, commanding, and fearful presence, is now a withered shell, who has lived long enough to see all of his friends die off (side note: they never tell you that about getting old.  People say "Oh look, she lived to 105...that's so awesome, good for her!" when what they don't realize is that a 105 year old has probably seen all of her contemporaries, possibly including her children, put into the ground.  That has to be incredibly dispiriting).  He finally dies one night from stress brought on by a bombing raid (the novel takes place up to and during World War II).  Time is everyone's enemy in this book, as in life.

Meanwhile Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd's son Kamal, who suffered through unrequited love in the last novel, is still a teacher, still writing obscure intellectual tracts, and still a bachelor.  By chance he meets up with Budur Shaddad, the younger sister of the woman he was so very in love with so many years ago, and they have a brief flirtation, rekindling many of the old feelings in Kamal's heart.  But in the end he can't pull the trigger, and he lets her get away.  It's sad and frustrating, because you want those two to get together, and you want to kick Kamal in the ass for being such a dick, but it's just who he is.  It seems pretty clear Kamal will be a bachelor for the rest of his days.  We are who we are.
Then there are Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd's three grandsons, each of whom takes a remarkably different path in life.  The most successful of the three is Yasin's son Ridwan, a really hot-looking kid who turns out to be totally gay.  He starts sleeping with a powerful politician, which allows him to rapidly rise through the ranks of the civil service.  Meanwhile Khadija's two sons, Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad, take completely opposite courses from each other.  One becomes a Muslim fundamentalist, more and more militantly devout.  The other goes into political journalism, and becomes a committed activist and Marxist.  Ironically, despite these divergent paths, they both get arrested for being politically subversive and end up sharing the same jail cell.  Two divergent roads leading to one convergent end.

Years ago I read "Buddenbrooks" by Thomas Mann, a classic novel of a middle class German family through the generations.  The Cairo Trilogy reminded me of that sprawling novel, tracing the story of the changing fortunes of a family through the generations.  These two works share that sense of time and change and yet the continuity of the bloodline.  But for me, a white dude from middle America, the story of a German family, despite the cultural differences, seems much more akin to the milieu I'm used to than the back alleys of early 20th century Cairo.  But the genius of Mahfouz is that he makes his characters so familiar and so human that they transcend the foreignness of the culture and become instantly relate-able.  Whether we speak English or Arabic or German, we all have the same emotions, and we all grow old and have the same frustrations.  I highly recommend these books, they're some of the best I've read for this blog.  And have a Gibson while you're at it.  Trust me.  Just use a good gin.