Archive | May 2015

Book Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I’ve watched the BBC production of Brideshead a number of times but until recently I’d never read the book. Generally when I find myself in this position I end up with the feeling that the movie missed much of the story, which seems unavoidable given how short movies are.

The most interesting thing about reading Brideshead after seeing the movie is that I felt I’d already read it. The movie reproduced the plot exactly. Most or all of the narration and dialogue in the came right from the text. In fact, the first thing that struck me when I bought the book was how short it was. The book is about 300 pages and the miniseries is 11 episodes, which is one part of the explanation for how they are so alike. (There appears to have been a movie made of the novel in 2008, but I haven’t seen it.)

If you don’t know the story, it follows Charles Ryder from 1923, when he is a student at Oxford, to the Second World War, when he is in the Army, and his relationship with the Flyte family. The Flytes are a very rich, Catholic family, with a lot of problems. Charles first meets Sebastian Flyte at Oxford. The first part of the story is about their relationship, and about how Sebastian slowly slips away into alcoholism. That takes place over two or three years, during which Charles starts his career as a painter of English manor houses. About ten years elapse, during which Charles wanders relatively unhappily through life and marriage. He runs into Sebastian’s sister Julia on a ship from the US to England. Most of the rest of the book is about their affair and how it ultimately unravels over religion.

Waugh was a converted Catholic and I think that the story is primarily about the strength of the hold the church has on its followers. In that sense it’s supposed to be pro Catholic, but I have to admit it didn’t strike me as a great advertisement for Catholicism. The Flytes are about as screwed up a family as you could want to meet in fiction or in real life, and a lot of it seems to be driven by how wrapped around the axle they are about religion.In any event, in my opinion it’s a great story. Charles’s father is one of my favorite characters in fiction. When Charles tells him that he’s getting a divorce, his father asks him why when they so happy. Charles tells him they weren’t happy, and his father says, “Weren’t you? Were you not? I distinctly remember last Christmas seeing you together and thinking how happy you looked, and wondering why.” Charles’s father is played in the miniseries by John Gielgud, who captures the character exactly.

So read the book and see the miniseries. I highly recommend both.

Stephen Douglas, Hezbullah, and the Tyranny of the Majority

When was the last time you saw Stephen Douglas used in the same sentence with Hezbullah? I’d be willing to bet it’s been a while. The connection occurred to me recently while reading a biography of Ulysses Grant that went into the origins of the Civil War.

As a refresher, Stephen Douglas was the other half of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates and could possibly have been the sixteenth President instead of Lincoln. Hezbullah, The Party of God, is a terrorist/political organization in Lebanon. So what can they possibly have in common? Something interesting. Or at least something I find interesting.

Let’s first step back and ask a hypothetical question. Do you believe in democracy? Who doesn’t? Even the people who don’t claim they do. So when can believing in democracy be problematic?

Prior to the 1860 presidential election, Stephen Douglas stood foursquare in the camp of a belief in democracy. The complication was that he believed that territories should be able to choose for themselves whether they should enter the union as slave or free states. It wasn’t accurate to say that Douglas was pro-slavery, but he felt the voters should decide. I think it’s safe to say that most of us today would at least feel uncomfortable with that position. But at the time, under the laws of the union, the voters would have been white males and more than a few would have voted for the continuance of slavery. So what was preferable, being anti-democracy or pro-slavery? Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

To be fair, I’m not a historian but I suspect that Douglas was anti-slavery but believed that the best path to achieving this was to get himself elected. Maybe he could have done it without a civil war. Who knows? But Douglas’s motivations beg the question of what to do when democracy comes up with the wrong answer.

Hezbullah provides a surprisingly similar paradox. Is US foreign policy pro-democracy? I think so, in general if not in every instance. And I think most people, at least most Americans, would agree. So when might that not be the case? In the 2009 Lebanese general elections Hezbullah won a commanding share of the seats in the Lebanese parliament. I won’t go into the reasons except to say that in addition to being a terrorist organization, Hezbullah was an effective social organization helping the victims of the various wars and attacks that occurred in Lebanon during that period and built up a fair amount of popular support. Needless to say, The US wasn’t happy with the result and put a fair amount of effort into undoing its effects. So a similar question arises? Are you anti-democracy or pro-terror?

So what’s the point? Hard to say exactly, except that it’s not a simple world, in spite of what much of the news people and politicians today would have you believe. Sometimes principles, positive principles, clash, and it takes some thought to come to a decision on how to feel about those things. These two cases are pretty black and white, but there are a lot of others where it isn’t as clear that John Stuart Mill’s concern about the tyranny of the majority is valid. At what point do we decide it’s a problem? And in a government that is set up to be run by the majority, how do you deal with this kind of issue? Who gets to decide?

I know these are all questions and no answers, but the reality is that there are no simple answers. One thing is sure though, a few minutes in front of a television with people screaming out self-selected facts is no way to prepare to make them.

Book Review: “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford

This is an interesting book. It is about two couples, John and Florence Dowell, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Edward is the good soldier from the title. It is written in hindsight from the point of view of Edward, who is describing what happened to him and the others. It was written in 1915, so is about a very different world than the modern day.

I hesitate to give any detail on the story because as it unfolds you discover more and more about the people involved and it ends up in quite a different place than where you thought it was going to go at the beginning. Edward is an intentionally unreliable narrator. He throws out lines that you think that you must have read wrong until they are explained later. The narration is, again intentionally, not chronological. John explains what is happening to one character and then has to backtrack and tell you what happens to the others.

This is something that John claims he is doing unconsciously and it is very effective at making the story unfold in a series of unexpected jolts. The overall effect is one that I think must have been very difficult to accomplish. I was continually surprised during the course of the novel. At the beginning I never had any idea of where it was going to lead.

I have never read anything by Ford Madox Ford before but evidently he pioneered this sort of literary impressionism. I am generally leery of literary techniques like this. In my experience they serve to obfuscate rather than contribute to the story. In this case though, I thought they were remarkably effective. Ford also wrote the “Parade’s End” tetralogy, which is about the first world war, which I’ve already bought and intend to read. The novel is not easy reading, but I think it repays the effort.

Book Review: “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane

I should have really liked this book. It is set in Boston and Oklahoma during the interwar period. It has a lot about baseball and the end of the dead ball era. It covers the flu pandemic of that era, race relations in Oklahoma, and the police strike and riot in Boston, and anti-terrorism activity of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation. I’d read two Dennis Lehane books before this, one of which I really liked, Mystic River. I didn’t read a description of The Given Day before I picked it up, but if I had I would have been very excited.

So why did it leave me lukewarm? I’m not really sure. I know it comes down to the characters, none of whom I was able to identify with or develop any sympathy for. In particular, I was pretty indifferent about what happened to the family that the story revolved around, in particular the worldly police captain father and idealistic patrolman son. It’s hard to maintain interest in a novel when you don’t care much what happens to the characters.

I’ve stayed away from writing historical fiction myself because I think it is hard to pull off. I think that may have been part of the problem here. Somehow the way the characters spoke or acted didn’t seem consistent with the time period when they lived. I can’t put my finger on any one thing, but I had that feeling.

Another hard thing to do is to include historical characters in a work of fiction. The Given Day had two, Babe Ruth and J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t know how much research Mr. Lehane did on what these two were really like so I don’t know whether he captures them adequately, but somehow I didn’t really enjoy reading about either of them very much.

This is the first in a trilogy following the same family. The next two books are Live by Night and World Gone By. I might pick up the next two if I can find a deal on them, but am not interested in paying full price. The Given Day is set in a very interesting time and place and covers more interesting topics than any other novel I can remember reading, but somehow it turned out mediocre for me.