Thursday, December 20, 2007


All Quiet on the Western Front is, in many senses, a novelization of author Erich Maria Remarque's experiences in World War I. The story concerns Paul Baumer, a volunteer infantryman, and his and his friends' experiences on the front, in battle, and on leave.

I was immediately leery because the book is written in the continuous present tense. This generally means disaster, but Remarque pulls it off astonishingly well. Indeed, the novel is better in the present tense than it would be in the past.

Depictions of war are graphic, brutal, and visceral. Remarque does an excellent job in drawing the reader into the world of the soldier. A prominent and key theme is how war changes these men, and what it does to them. The novel also underscores the fickleness of war – anyone can die, at any time, and the average soldier has nothing against the average soldier on the other side.

While the story may seem plotless at times, or as though it is moving in circles, as some have complained, the novel is short enough that it does not have a negative impact. And, again, the nature of a soldier in war is often so tedious and circular.

All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war novel, a fact which has received much attention. But how could such a frank and graphic depiction of war be anything but?


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, which was the turning point in the Civil War.

The narrative shifts among numerous commanding officers on both sides, with Longstreet and Chamberlain receiving the bulk of the attention. Shaara does a fantastic job of taking the reader inside the heads of these officers (and clearly differentiating among them personality-wise), and of showing the reader the emotions, the tactics and the chaos involved in war. He also does a solid job of incorporating background facts into the text (although some information is glaringly repetitious) without long and boring expository paragraphs, which occur only rarely.

Particularly early on, Shaara gets bogged down in his officers' rambling internal monologues. He also has the annoying tendency to put "he thought" in the middle of a passage that is already clearly monologue. For example: "Lee signed orders. I do too much myself. He was thinking: retreat is not even an option."

The biggest problem with The Killer Angels is Shaara's writing style, which is incredibly distracting. He piles on the sentence fragments with no regard for human life. Most egregious is the manner in which he puts periods in the middle of sentences. For example: "That hill will be a very strong position. Once it is fortified." Writers are taught that "he said" is preferable to "he shouted", "he whined", etc. But they're all better than Shaara's frequently-used "he gloomed".

Shaara's word choice in his imagery is often questionable, perhaps striving and failing to reach literary heights. He also overuses the word "handsome", particularly when describing characters. Never have there been so many "handsome" and "beautiful" men running around a battlefield.

All told, The Killer Angels is a well-researched, interesting read about one of the pivotal moments in U.S. history. It's not just for war buffs, although they will get more out of it than the average reader. It is unfortunate, though, that Shaara's writing idiosyncrasies are so off-putting.


Monday, December 17, 2007

BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin

Originally published in 1961, Black Like Me is the account of how white journalist John Howard Griffin had his skin medically darkened and traveled through the Deep South as a black man in an attempt to explain the hardships black people in the South faced. It also covers the backlash against the publication of his story.

Black Like Me is a concise, fast and engaging read. The reader is often able to see things through Griffin's eyes, even as Griffin tries to see things through the eyes of others. He does an excellent job communicating the cultures of fear and despair he encountered. The entire account of his travels as a black man is riveting.

If there is any nit-picking to be done, let it be for this: at times, particularly early on, Griffin's descriptions of mundane, everyday objects and details seem forced and do not aid the narrative.

While today's racial tensions are much less overt (and much less publicized), Black Like Me still has quite a bit to say about the universal elements of human nature and the culture of racism.


Sunday, December 16, 2007


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fourteenth century alliterative poem of unknown authorship. English has evolved to such an extent that translation is necessary for anyone other than a dedicated scholar to read and appreciate the work. This review is of the Brian Stone translation. The poem is a combination of Arthurian legend and regional folklore, most notably the Irish tale of Cuchullain, and features a prominently Christian theme.

Gawain is traditionally viewed as the most virtuous of knights (and as the most powerful in some traditions, before that position was usurped by Lancelot), and a great deal of the novel deals with his various temptations, particularly by the lady (shades of Morgan le Fay). The action and the story are good, although the author does get a little carried away in the middle with all the hunting.

Stone does a lovely job of translating, keeping the tone and theme unified while maintaining alliterative lines. I am generally not a fan of poetry, but this held my attention. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an engaging read for fans of medieval or Arthurian literature.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

EREWHON by Samuel Butler

Originally published in 1872 and now billed as the "second great satire of the nineteenth century," Erewhon is a critique of Victorian society. In it, a British man comes across a never-before discovered society (which he is convinced is the lost tribes of Israel).

Erewhon has no plot to speak of. Here is its pattern: Butler gives us a bizarre scenario that seemingly makes no sense, takes us through it, and finally explains its parallel to Victorian life. Then this repeats. This is the whole book, book-ended by forty pages of setup (most of which is unnecessary) and a convenient and tidy ending. As such, the reader may feel like he is reading a work on nonsense philosophy rather than a work of fiction.

This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile here. Occasionally, there are flashes of brilliance, and there are some thought-provoking elements. Erewhonians, for example, treat the sick like criminals and treat criminals like they have diseases. In a modern-day version, perhaps, those who have self-inflicted poor health, like some of the obese and diabetic, would be considered criminal.

On the whole, working through the philosophical meanderings of Butler's scenarios is tedious. It certainly does not help that many aspects of Victorian society are now foreign to us. Erewhon hasn't held up. Stick with Swift.


Saturday, December 8, 2007


Stephen Briggs has compiled a selection of quotes and passages from every Discworld book through Making Money. As Terry Pratchett is known for his clever sentences, puns and jokes, this may seem like a great idea.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work. In the context of the Discworld novels, most of these passages are witty and humorous. Piled together here and ripped kicking and screaming from narrative context, it seems overmuch, and many passages end up giving the reader a "you had to be there" kind of feeling. Timing is everything with humor, but here, it's all out the window.

This is not to say there is no value here. Pratchett's cleverisms are certainly worthwhile and enjoyable. However, fans of Discworld are better off sticking with the novels, and those who are new to Discworld won't get it. Nor should they be expected to.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

MAKING MONEY by Terry Pratchett

Making Money is the second Discworld book featuring Moist von Lipwig, the conman-turned-postmaster general from Going Postal. Here he's put in charge of the mint, and so we get a great many adventures in banking.

I am a huge fan of the Discworld novels; I have read them all, and variously enjoyed each of them, although I have not much gotten into the rapidly growing periphery, which includes books on the science, geography and art of Discworld.

This is a typical Discworld book: the plot moves along leisurely while innumerable supporting characters wander in and out of the story as we approach an ending that is partly random and partly predictable. But that's never been a problem with Discworld novels; the plot is secondary to the characters, and all the fun is getting there.

This isn't the greatest Discworld book (I think most of the Vimes-centered ones tend to be the best), perhaps because Moist has the Midas touch where the plot is concerned – everything he does works out conveniently for his success (although perhaps in unexpected ways). Nevertheless the book is entertaining, because Pratchett's writing is good enough to overcome a deficit of plot.

The series is getting close to forty novels, but the charm is still there. Pratchett's writing is clever and amusing, as always, and one can't help but learn a few new words. And the man can still hit you with the most delightful sentences every now and again. Which is good, because Pratchett keeps cranking them out. Carry on, sir.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

THE STRANGER by Albert Camus

Camus is here proponing his absurdist theory, as something of a counterpoint to existentialism. The amoral main character, Meursault has a short attention span and an utterly lazy approach to life – not that he doesn't work hard, but that it doesn't make any difference to him what happens. His catchphrase is that things and events are "of so little importance." "It's common knowledge that life isn't worth living, anyhow," is what gets him through the day.

The novel begins as Meursault's mother dies, and then takes us through his daily activities, culminating in a rather inexcusable murder. The second half of the novel traces Meursault's trial.

Ultimately, Meursault rejects God repeatedly, although it certainly didn't help that the minister (along with the one other Christian in the novel) is something of a buffoon, and has a very poor approach. Meursault is content to put his fate in the hands of "the benign indifference of the universe."

Considering the implications of some of these philosophies, it remains baffling to me that some people are content to die and then to cease to exist. Put another way, some people have so little regard for their own existence. Certainly both existentialism and absurdism are anti-Christianity in this and many other aspects.

The novel has a little trouble getting out of the blocks, but it picks up nicely and it's a quick read. Ultimately, the degree to which one enjoys this book is dependent on how one feels about its philosophies.