Month: September 2015

In Memoriam – William Golding

This past September 19th marked Sir William Golding’s 114th birthday. While Golding is best known for his iconic, 1954 masterpiece Lord of the Flies, he was much more than just a “one-book wonder”. Some people still aren’t aware the Swedish Academy presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983. They cited the following reason for bestowing that honor: “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” While that’s quite a statement to comprehend, it sums up Golding’s contribution to his field accurately.

Like many, Lord of the Flies served as my first introduction to his work. Somehow I managed to escape both high school and college without reading it. In the same way that Eric Clapton “received” Robert Johnson, that’s how I felt when I encountered this novel. The exquisite descriptions and unique characters drew me in. Every time I read it I’m horrified anew at the boys’ journey into barbarism. Its final pages contain the best ending ever written. The only books containing conclusions that rival it are The Paper Men, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin all written by…William Golding.

Upon completing Lord of the Flies, I resolved to read all of Golding’s novels. They served to both inspire and intimidate me. I learned that, as someone once said of Peter Sellers, “The man is so talented you can’t imitate him: you can only admire him.”

In addition to an inimitable skill at crafting endings, Golding excelled at establishing voice. In The Inheritors he wrote in the primitive dialect of Neanderthal man; at the same time, he kept the story engaging and comprehensible. (I’m embarrassed to admit, it took me longer to figure out what he meant by “floating logs” that it should have.)

As if utilizing that style of narration didn’t challenge the author enough, he concluded his career by writing a three-volume sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth. The story centered on a British vessel bound for Australia in 1814. He told most of the story in the form of a journal written by a young aristocrat. It read exactly like one and took me a while to adjust to the archaic language. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to write it. At one point Golding changed the point-of-view to that of a clergyman. He kept the dialog and narration consistent throughout the story. Keep in mind he did so through three books, not just one.

It’s impossible to select a “definitive” William Golding novel. The Spire remains my favorite, though. While a simple story (by Golding standards) of a man’s Quixotic vision of building the world’s tallest cathedral tower, the author worked in complex characters. The engineer of this project suffered from vertigo. While believing himself chosen by God, Dean Jocelyn received his post due to some very secular behavior from a relative. Golding built the conflict between faith and reason brilliantly.

I admire Golding for many things. If I had to select one that I would pass on to others, it would be the man’s commitment to his craft. He wrote in his journal every day. On June 18, 1993, he expressed his intention to revise the first draft of his work-in-progress, The Double Tongue. He passed away the following morning at the age of 81.

Whenever someone who inspired me passes away I’m reminded of Dr. Seuss’ words, “Don’t be sad because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Literature is a much richer field today because of Golding’s myriad contributions.

Thanks, Bill.

Book Review: Magic and Mayhem by Derek Leebaert

The era following the Second World War won’t be remembered as the “golden age of American diplomacy”; Georgetown University professor Derek Leebaert certainly doesn’t view it that way. He made that clear in Magic and Mayhem’s sub-title: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan.

The author presented the book as an analysis of diplomatic foibles rather than as a straight historical narrative. In essence Mr. Leebaert blamed America’s postwar foreign policy failures on what he termed “magical thinking”. The book elucidated the six elements that comprise this phenomenon.

  • A sensation of urgency and of “crisis” that accompanies the belief that most any resolute action is superior to restraint; it’s a demeanor that’s joined by the emergency man’s eagerness to be his country’s revealer of dangers, real and imaginary.
  • The faith that American style business management—as practiced in Silicon Valley startups soon to join NASDAQ or, not long ago, the River Rouge plant in Dearborn or at steel mills along the Monongahela—can fix any global problem given enough time, resources and appropriately “can-do”, businesslike zeal.
  • A distinctively American desire to fall in behind celebrities, stars, and peddlers of some newly distilled experience who, in foreign affairs especially, seem to glow with wizardry—and whom we turn to for guidance while believing, for a fatefully long moment, that they only have to wave their wands for success to fall from the sky.
  • An expectation of wondrous returns on investment, even when this is based on intellectual shortcuts—in fact on lack of seriousness and mental flexibility, as described, for instance, in trenchant analyses of the Iraq War—though the same shortcuts were apparent in Vietnam and North Korea, as well as in many politico-military efforts in between.
  • Conjuring powerful, but simplified, images from the depths of “history” to rationalize huge and amorphously expanding objectives, a technique of foreign policy artistry resorted to by high officials, professors, and field commanders alike.
  • The repeated belief that that America can shape the destiny of other countries overnight and that the hearts and minds of distant people are throbbing to be transformed into something akin to the way we see ourselves. (Pages 7 – 8)

The author utilized examples from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to illustrate his points. He also included anecdotes about various political and military personalities in these exploits to expand on his overall concepts.

I personally enjoyed his take on General Maxwell Taylor. Among his accomplishments, General Taylor led the 101st Airborne Division on D-Day, he commanded the U. S. Eighth Army in Korea, and served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Kennedy named him U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. The author knew General Taylor personally. While he commended the man’s intellect he criticized his analysis of South Vietnam. (It could never turn into a situation as terrible as Korea, he opined. Page 149) I thought that showed respectable balance on the author’s part.

Leebaert understood the provocative nature of his thesis. The obvious question he raised was, “What constitutes a successful military endeavor?” The author wrote,

Americans know what military success looks like: engagements that, for one, don’t end up unrecognizably, disastrously far from the mission declared at the start. (Page 33)

Even General Brent Scowcroft said, “Don’t change your objective because you are doing well.” (Page 194) Unfortunately, Leebaert managed to provide copious examples since 1950 where that wasn’t the case.

While the author researched the subject well, I did locate a mistake in the text. He indicated that the Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1996. It actually happened in 1995. (Page 231) Since Leebaert harshly criticized numerous others for mistakes they made, I thought he should have proofread the manuscript better.

While taking American History classes in college and graduate school, I thought the writing “too liberal” or “anti-anything the United States ever did”. As I mature I find more complexity in America’s approach to international relations. Books like Magic and Mayhem are among the reasons why.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr crafted the best book I’ve read in recent memory. In All the Light We Cannot See he created interesting characters, a lot of tension and—something lacking in modern novels—an outstanding story. I can’t recall reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel this compelling.

The story took place in France during World War II. Doerr presented dual story lines which detailed the lives of a young German radio operator (Werner) and blind French teenager (Marie-Laure). Werner’s skill at assembling radios saved him from a life either working in the mines or worse in Nazi Germany. Marie-Laure became the center of an international search for a jewel known as the “Sea of Flames”; the latter which possessed mystical powers. The author kept me anxious as the plot progressed towards their tales intersecting.

I liked the way Doerr detailed Werner’s indoctrination into the Wermacht. During this period, Werner befriended a young man named Frederick while attending a military school. Their friendship became the most poignant I’ve ever read in a work of fiction. Had it not been for the war, Frederick would’ve studied birds and Werner studied to become an engineer. The former had philosophic tendencies. During one of their conversations, Frederick pointed out, “’Your problem, Werner’, says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.’” (Page 233)

I also found the exchanges between Marie-Laure and her father moving. At times they reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s dialog between father and son in The Road. Here’s an example.

“How much food do we have, Papa?”

“Some. Are you still hungry?”

“I’m not hungry. I want to save the food.”

“Okay. Let’s save the food. Let’s be quiet now and rest.” (Page 89)

The author also showed an excellent use of language throughout the book. He utilized a number of literary techniques. He included alliteration in the phrase, “hand-hewed beams, hauled here.” (Page 14)

Doerr added some great descriptions. Here’s what happened to Werner during an attack.

The bombing seems to have destroyed the hearing in his left ear. His right, as far as he can tell, is gradually coming back. Beyond the ringing, he begins to hear. (Page 204)

Werner termed Marie-Laure’s eyes: “Beautiful ugly.” (Page 469)

            The author even expressed public relations methods in poetic terms. Since the PR in question involved Germany’s propaganda machine, that was an accomplishment.

Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right. (Page 63)

He even utilized synesthesia. I cringe when many authors do. Most times it reads like someone inserting it into the text to sound smart. Because of the protagonist’s blindness, the expression: “She can hear him smiling” worked very well. (Page 45)

I found one weakness in the book. The character of Sergeant Major von Rumpel seemed contrived. His mission was to locate the “Sea of Flames”. Legend had it that whoever possessed the jewel would never die. Wouldn’t you know it, during his quest for this artifact the Sergeant Major’s doctor diagnosed him with terminal cancer. I understand the author wanted to inject an element of tension into the book. After all, the supposed owner of the jewel was a blind teenage girl. While the author did his best in presenting this story line, I thought von Rumpel a caricature. Even the dramatic confrontation scene seemed cliché.

At the end of the book, Werner’s sister lamented, “What the war did to dreamers.” (Page 506) Fortunately for fans of great fiction, it inspired Anthony Doerr to write a masterpiece.