Archive for April 2012

Moby Dick   Leave a comment

At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. 

Herman Melville is not an easy author. He is capable of great beauty in language, as per the above, but he is far more fond of terrible droning about his esoteric interests… which, in the case of Moby Dick, is whales, whales, and more whales.

I get it. Melville was a whaler, and he obviously fell in love with the pursuit and the prey of whaling. There are several instances in the book where you can hear Ishmael speaking in Melville’s voice: at one point, he chides captains not to put meditative people on the lookout post, because it’s the ideal place for introspective day-dreaming, and whales could be fluttering all over the horizon and these dreamers would be none the wiser. I get it. He loved whales and whaling, and Moby Dick is his gift to the world to put whaling on the pedestal it deserves.

Unfortunately, this gift is blubber-wrapped shit.

“But this is an American Classic!” So it is, and it’s classics like these that make children curse their literacy. Melville did do something amazing with Moby Dick, but it’s nothing he intended; he managed to make the story of one man’s obsessive quest for revenge, playing out over the seven seas, where no man, beast, or God could stand in his way into something boring! One would be fair in assuming, that, with this style of work, you could expect lots of action, or, at the very least, deep delving into the nature of obsession and vengeance. Instead, Melville offers us a personal encyclopedia entry for the types of whales he’s encountered, and how he thinks they should be classified among species and each other. Instead of exploring the politics of the ship’s crew, where men from all walks of life will be living together (conceivably) for several years, we get superficial character sketches and far more pages of text devoted to rope purposes and locations on small, row-able, whaling craft.

We should be thankful for one aspect of Moby Dick. In Melville’s constant talk of rope, he reminds his readers that there is still a way out, and that, were he with you, he would have no problem tying the knot to get your job done. 

I have a good eye for language. I have no problem reading past the words on the page into the realm of the symbolism and metaphor. Speaking objectively, I admit it’s possible that my sheer boredom with the book blinded me to it’s greater symbolism. But I don’t think so. The book I read had a little over 600 pages. I swear to you, you could safely cut at least 200 pages right out of the book, and while you may be sacrificing the occasional motif set-ups, you would sacrifice little story and enhance the meaning of what remains. It’s very tedious to hear someone speak about sperm-whale this, sperm-whale that… and then repeat almost verbatim the same shit but involving multiple other kinds of whales. Again, I get it. Melville wanted to bring whaling home to the greater audience of the American public, but instead of making me want to harpoon a whale, I want to harpoon Melville and break his writing hand.

Now, I think I’ve established that I didn’t, on the whole, enjoy this book. However, it wouldn’t be fair to say I hated the whole thing… it’s probably the most frustrating aspect of the book, but it can be brisk and entertaining. Ismael and Queequeg meet as complete aliens to each other, socially and culturally. However, in a very short time they become very affectionate and close to one another, and that entire turnaround is handled deftly and succinctly. In addition, the Sermon of Father Mapples (youtube the scene from the Gregory Peck movie, Father Mapples is played amazingly by Orson Welles), is a fantastic confluence of religious and oceanic imagery (come to think of it, the part of the book that occurs on land might be the most efficient part of the book). Also, the other bookend of the book, Ahab finally getting close to Moby Dick, plays straight and readily enough. It’s that horrible middle, where eyes glaze, and words roll off the page like so much blubber from the skin of a sperm-whale, that the story flounders like the sails of a ship in windless seas.

I’ll give Moby Dick three stars. If you can stomach the tedium, there are some excellent passages that can move you. In addition, you do have to give props to the guys who actually did this shit for a living, as it seems like anything but an easy job. But at the end of the day, there are just too many problems with the book to move it any closer to “masterpiece” level.

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Posted April 19, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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Reviews: Guns of August and Clarence Darrow   Leave a comment

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman 

The Guns of August is an entertaining chronicle of the preparation and opening battles of World War One. In its pages, Tuchman describes the politics and the personalities of the principle people driving “The Great War.” In England, we have Edward VII, whose life seemed to be one of mending fences with charm and diligence — he started the detente between the classic enemies of France and England, and helped bring Russia into their good graces. In Germany, we have Kaiser Wilhelm, who is growing increasingly paranoid about the British alliances encircling his country. In Russia we have the hapless Romanovs, who are somewhat worried about crushing anti-monarch sentiments in the country, but don’t seem too concerned about actually rooting out the country’s rampant corruption or modernizing its deplorable military. In France, we have a civilian government so humbled by the nation’s defeat in the last German war that they’ve abdicated military responsibility almost entirely to the nation’s military elite.

The Guns of August, perhaps more than any other work I’ve seen, proves the wisdom of Eisenhower’s brilliant observation:

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” 

From the early 1900’s until war’s eventual outbreak in 1914, both France and Germany heard the sabers rattling and began to plan accordingly. The Germans had a richly detailed plan for invading France by marching through Belgium and encircling the French army’s flank, hoping to perform the deathblow inside of a month. The French believed that their enemy would very well attempt such a maneuver, but in doing so would stretch their own lines so thin that the French could break through the German lines and hit their supply lines.

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” 

Churchill said the above decades later when referring to WW2, but I’m sure he learned the lesson the hard way during the days of WW1. Both the French and Germans had made these elaborate plans, but almost from the get-go their plans went to immediate shit. The Germans had expected to railroad through Belgium, meeting only token resistance along the way… only to discover a surprisingly energetic defense. Likewise, the French expected to be able to break through German lines in multiple conflicts, but instead find themselves constantly being pushed back closer to France. In addition, they practically begged Russia to open a second front in the war as soon as possible — which the Russians did, only to have their armies more or less completely defeated in the conflict’s opening days.

The Guns of August does wonders to show the human elements involved in the complex machinations of nations at war. The German commander, Moltke, has a chief order countermanded by the Kaiser, only to be reinstated a few hours later. During the interim, Moltke has something approaching a nervous breakdown which completely saps him of offensive vigor for the remainder of the conflict. The French commander, Joffre, thinks that any general under his command who isn’t advancing must be guilty of unmanly cowardice, so routinely pulls men out of their commands to replace them with someone else. All the while, both men are still formulating their attacks and battle plans based on their original plans — which are now so utterly compromised that following them amounts to nothing short of insanity. Meanwhile, the soldiers on the ground are being thrown into the death mill of machine guns and heavy artillery, while civilians are being round up and summarily shot.

The Guns of August earns a four star rating from me, though it was easily capable of getting the coveted fifth star. While its scholarship is top-notch, it does several things which annoy me: first, it throws down foreign phrases without any translation. The context provides hints as to what that translation may have been, but the lack of actual translation renders the quotes meaningless. Also, the book doesn’t contain enough maps of what’s going on, and what maps it does include are typically ruined by drowning vital information in the binding of the book. As I am not from Europe, I have no idea what rivers lead where, and as a result some of the battles become harder to conceptualize. 

One stray observation before moving on… British arrogance seems to be running rampant at this point in time. The Ottomans had commissioned the British (and paid them!) to build two modern battleships. These boats are basically finished when the war breaks out, and the British decide to steal them for their own use, with barely any regard or consideration to the Turk’s reaction. It’s probably the single biggest factor in the Turks joining the German side.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney of the Damned by John Farrell 

I started reading this book with only the faintest of knowledge about Clarence Darrow, and having finished it, I feel as if I’ve only added a few scraps of meat to the skeleton. 

Darrow follows the classic American advice and, “Goes West, Young Man.” He came from an overflowing family, and was raised to be someone who questions authority. He enters the city of Chicago and becomes a protege of J.P. Altgeld, a Chicago politician who can navigate the Underworld and get things done. Darrow quickly falls into the leftist crowd of Chicago, though constantly throws them into a loop because they can’t reconcile his leftist leanings with his going to bat for big business.

Fortunately, Darrow doesn’t bat exclusively for the established interests, and does so increasingly less as his career continues. He begins to be an influential Labor lawyer, and he represents workers in countless cases — the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 probably being the one closest to my heart.

To condense most of the biography, Darrow represents plenty of villains. He represents bombers, rioters, terrorists, murderers, and other despicable people. In general, he takes any case where the death penalty is on the table, and in the worst cases considers himself victorious is he saves his client’s life. However, in many cases where his client is a Union man, Darrow works magic on the jury by humanizing the Labor struggle, so that it’s essential humanity shines through to the jury and that they put themselves into the shoes of these poor workers. His oratory, and his keen sense of people’s personalities during the jury selection process, often allows him to get many of his clients freed.

However, it would seem his legacy is tarnished by allegations of jury bribing. They tried him twice for it, and he got off both times, but his friend’s diaries and personal knowledge of the man seem to suggest he was guilty as sin. As one of his mistresses put it, “…pay a man to save another man’s life? He’d do it every time!”

The best parts of the book come when it reviews some of the tricks that various lawyers would use to help illustrate their points or sway the jury. Perhaps the most dramatic example was furnished by the lawyer defending Darrow during his jury bribing trials. In another case, his client was accused of killing a man at a poker game. The witnesses described his client as pulling a loaded and cocked gun at the table, and then playing several hands until his victim finally provoked him into shooting him. During his closing statement, the lawyer pulled a .38 on the prosecuting attorney, who immediately dove under the table. Darrow’s lawyer then argued that that, running as soon as the gun is pulled, is the only sensible reaction, and as a result the other witnesses must be lying! The jury found his client not guilty.

Darrow himself had two favorite tricks he used, and I thought them both funny and elegant in their subtlety. For his first, he would wait until a witness was about to come to the stand whose testimony he thought would be particularly damaging. He would insert a thin wire into a cigar, and light it. He would puff along on it, and by the time the damaging witness would start testifying, he’d have a mile of ash hanging on to his cigar. The effect was that members of the jury would be paying far more attention to the cigar, watching the ash get longer, getting more interested in watching it fall, that the testimony of the witness often went by them without anyone paying much attention to it at all. His other trick was to keep a broken pocket watch on hand, and under similar circumstances, wind it during the entire testimony of a witness to drown out the words under the incessant rhythm of the winding. 

The tricks of American justice…

The biography often veers course into Darrow’s personal life of mistresses and free-love ideology. I found these digressions to be more distracting than insightful, as he invariably describes circumstances and not ramifications of the affairs. We’re left with a collection of tawdry tales of impropriety, but nothing that plugs into Darrow’s greater worldviews or personal growth.

Overall, I give this book two stars. It had some interesting anecdotes, but for so influential a man as Darrow, I have to assume there are far more compelling biographies out there. Too much of the book read as simple laundry lists of who-what-where-when-why on a case by case basis.