American Literature

Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.

 

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Book Review – White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum presented a fictitious account of the most heinous war crime ever committed. The book detailed one character’s ordeal with the use of rape as a weapon during the largest scale use of it in history. The story also explored the effect of this inhumane practice on those not personally victimized by it. An engrossing read that sears into one’s consciousness resulted.

The book’s title derived from the white chrysanthemum representing a symbol of mourning. It established the tone prior to reading the story.

Mary Lynn Bracht crafted a heartrending tale involving two sisters affected by Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War. The scenes set in the 1940s described Hana’s ordeal after the Japanese military abducted her. In order to protect her younger sister, she gave herself up to a group of soldiers who wandered onto her home island. They transported her into distant Manchuria to serve as a “comfort woman”; the Empire’s choice euphemism for “forced prostitution.”

The scenes that transpired during the modern era (2011) described how Hana’s sister Emi struggled to achieve peace with her past. The historical events plaguing the nascent state of South Korea impacted her on a personal level. A larger part of her emotional battle emanated from her guilt over her sister’s selfless sacrifice.

I liked the author’s choice of structure. The chapters alternated between one that depicted Hana’s suffering in the 1940s with one that told Emi’s journey in the 2010s. Ms. Bracht deftly crafted endings to each story line that kept me interested in learning more. Her suspenseful writing style made it very difficult for me to stop reading.

I also applaud the way the author returned to each character’s tale after just one chapter. Ms. Bracht built tension and engaged the reader without dragging out the story. She executed this balance exceptionally.

The author made a great decision to write in the present tense. It gave me a sense that the events occurred while I read. The story possessed a sense of immediacy that enhanced the tension. Hana’s torment took on much more impact; as did Emi’s suffering.

I found sections of this book extraordinarily well written. Here’s an excerpt from one of the best:

The doorknob squeaks as it turns, and Hana feigns sleep. The door swings open and a stream of light shines on her shut eyelids. She relaxes the muscles in her face and mimics the deep breaths of slumber, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm. The flashlight flicks off. The room falls back into darkness. Footsteps pad inside. The door clicks shut. Hana stops breathing.

A ghostly wind howls through the rafters above their heads. The brothel seems to gasp, and the wind rushes through the window. Hana opens her eyes and stares into the darkness. A black shape stands by the door. For a long time, it doesn’t move. The crickets have stopped chirping, and the mice seem to have frozen midstep. The intruder’s shallow breaths fill the void left by their silence.

He takes a step toward her, and she clutches the blanket tighter. He takes another step and before she can stop herself, she sits up and backs away from him, cowering in the corner.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispers. “It’s me.” (Location 1885)

I could stop writing this review at this point. After reading that passage I’m sure some have clicked off of this blog and are buying the book.

For those still reading, the author included some other exceptional usage of language.

His face hovers above her, cloaked in shadow, and she fills in the black void with the man in her memory. The one who raped her first and called it a kindness, before condemning her to this unimaginable life. Not life, but purgatory in the underworld. (Location 1903)

Sometimes old wounds need to be reopened to let them properly heal…(Location 1344)

People these days seem content to search for happiness in life. That is something her generation never fathomed, that happiness is a basic human right, but now it seems like a possibility. (Location 2817)

While an exceptional story and a difficult book to put down, I did disagree with the author’s approach from the denouement through the ending. While Ms. Bracht crafted a conclusion that fit with the narrative thread, I found it unbelievable. Part of that may stem from the other portions being so realistic by comparison. At any rate, I do acknowledge it as a legitimate artistic choice on the author’s part.

Ms. Bracht brought out the plight of the “comfort women” through White Chrysanthemum. Someone once observed that Japanese war criminals benefited from there being no Simon Wiesenthals in the country following the war. Let’s hope there are more Mary Lynn Brachts to continue illuminating this dark chapter of human history.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.

 

Book Review – Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow achieved a remarkable feat for a writer. He managed to craft an engaging tale centered on a pathetic protagonist. Just how pathetic was the main character in Seize the Day? Compared to Tommy Wilhelm, Willy Loman would be in the same category as Tom Brady. That’s quite a feat.

I prefer to avoid the use of negative pejoratives when describing even fictional people. Still, it’s difficult to avoid the term failure when describing Mr. Wilhelm. Unfortunately, that would be the kindest way to do so. As the author explained:

This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life. He had decided it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went. He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married. He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then had given him a check. (Page 19)

Wilhem’s father even told him:

“I don’t know how many times you have to be burned in order to learn something. The same mistakes, over and over.” (Page 105)

Aside from giving Mr. Wilhelm the trait of consistency, Mr. Bellow balanced out the character very well. The protagonist made a point to take his sons to Brooklyn Dodgers games on weekends. (Seize the Day was published in 1956.) On one weekend when team travelled, he visited his mother’s grave.

I liked the author’s method of introducing the character. The book opened with the line:

When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was certainly a lot of evidence to back it up. (Page 1)

Once more I have to extend kudos to Mr. Bellow. He spent the book’s full 133 pages explaining those sentences in detail.

Like many of Mr. Bellow’s works, I found Seize the Day a very difficult read. That made its ‘brief’ length deceptive. I thought the con-man’s, Dr. Tamkin’s, philosophizing very erudite and challenging. The doctor recited an esoteric poem called “Mechanism vs Functionalism Ism vs Hism.” Fortunately, he explicated to Wilhelm which helped me follow its meaning.

As much as the book challenged me, I found it worth the effort. Throughout the story, I kept hoping that Wilhelm would get that one break that would allow him to maneuver his life into a positive direction. I attribute that to great writing on the author’s part.

I did find the book very well written. Mr. Bellow included the following memorable lines:

Mr. Perls put in, “He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.” (Page 37)

Everyone was like the faces on a playing card, upside down either way. (Page 59)

I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on my back, and I thought I was on his. He made me carry him, too, besides Margaret. Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones. (Page 102)

The following description of an old man demonstrated sublime attention to detail.

How old—old this Mr. Rappaport was! Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose, and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart. Beyond remedy by glasses, his eyes were smoky and faded. (Page 82)

So did Wilhelm eventually “seize the day” or did the day seize and strangle him? I’ll allow future readers to experience either that joy or sorrow compliments of Mr. Bellow’s prose. So seize the day and read it.

Book Review – It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis crafted the most dystopian vision of America’s future in the form of It Can’t Happen Here . It illustrated what can happen when a discontented citizenry determined that conventional leaders lacked the capability to cope with an uncertain world. A chilling image of a country rejecting its own political traditions and a culture of freedom resulted.

This 1935 masterpiece included Lewis’ signature writing techniques. The choice of distinct character names made this book one of the author’s best. My personal favorites included President Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, Senator (later Attorney General) Porkwood and Bishop Paul Peter Prang. The protagonist’s appellation, Doremus Jessup, earned an honorable mention; as did his attorney, Mungo Kitterick.

Lewis possessed a unique genius for the clever use of sarcasm. It Can’t Happen Here contained its share of memorable passages.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he said. (Page 73)

For three nights he was questioned and lashed—once late at night, by guards who complained of the inhumane callousness of their officers in making them work so late. (Page 268)

The D. A. R. (reflected the cynic Doremus Jessup, that evening) is a somewhat confusing organization—as confusing as Theosophy, Relativity, or the Hindu Vanishing Boy Trick, all three of which it resembles. It is composed of females who spend one half their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely those principles for which these ancestors struggled. (Page 18)

The story presented a rather eerie situation for the nation. Ardent populist, Senator Buzz Windrip managed to secure the Democratic nomination for President over incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With the aid of his “satanic” secretary, Lee Sarason’s, proficiency for public relations, he won the White House.

With what’s going on in the US right now, I’m sure some readers think I’m making this up. Here’s a direct quote from the book. In it, the new President spoke to the “Minute Men” who made up his de facto secret police force.

“I am addressing my own boys, the Minute Men, everywhere in America! To you and only you I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs. They told you to sneak off like bums and get relief. They ordered you into lousy C.C.C. camps. I tell you that you are ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land—the makers of the new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me—help me to help you! Stand fast! Anybody tries to block you—give the swine the point of your bayonet!” (Page 127)

And there’s more.

Lewis selected an interesting structure for this book. In the chapters leading up to Windrip’s election, the author prefaced them with a paragraph from the candidate’s book, Zero Hour. The latter allegedly written by Lee Sarason. Here’s a paragraph describing the media that reads like something more contemporary.

I know the press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pockets by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (Page 43)

With an antagonist consumed by such animosity for reporters, it didn’t surprise that Lewis selected a newspaper editor (Doremus Jessup) as his hero. As disturbing as I found America’s decent into a fascist state, the true tragedy for me concerned Jessup’s internal struggle with his own disillusionment. He expressed the following thoughts on idealism.

“Is it just possible,” he sighed, “that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?” (Page 111)

Later in the book, Jessup experienced another sullen realization.

The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest. (Page 169)

While written over 80 years ago, Sinclair Lewis crafted a timeless book that’s relevance never seems to wane. In a preface to George Orwell’s 1984, Walter Cronkite commented something to the effect that: “while 1984 might not arrive on time, there’s always 1985.” In It Can’t Happen Here, Doremus Jessup observed that “it can’t happen here” even while it happened here.

 

Book Review – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

There’s an old maxim declaring, “Napoleon is the limit of a madman”; meaning that no person could reach a level of insanity greater than the Emperor’s. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 classic, it seems that Elmer Gantry established the limit of human ambition. While earning the nickname “Hell Cat” in his youth, he changed his ways upon reaching adulthood; or so it seemed. Following his ordination as a Baptist minister he attempted a series of careers before finding his true calling. Despite myriad ethical failings, the Reverend Dr. Gantry aspired to be the morality emperor of the world. His quest towards that goal made for one of the finest fictional studies of hypocrisy ever written.

One has to credit Sinclair Lewis. He came up with the greatest opening line in the history of American literature. It’s the one beginning I’ve read that really hooked me. The sentence that followed interested me even further. They read: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. (Location 52) At that point, I knew then that the book would make for one fascinating read.

Sinclair Lewis’ writing style made me enjoy the story much more. The author utilized a writing technique more common to comedy and horror than literary fiction. He expressed many of his ideas by using a set-up and then a twist at the end. Throughout this novel he applied this method to illustrate the protagonist’s insincerity. Some memorable examples included:

His kiss promised it. His heart almost promised it. (Location 4629)

But the diversions—He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness. (Location 1325)

He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation—yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd. (Location 1009)

The best line in the book came from another preacher named Frank Shallard. He delivered an intriguing take on his profession. He observed, What a lying, compromising job this being a minister. (Location 7524)

Mr. Lewis used another unorthodox method to liven the narrative. He included a bit of self-deprecating humor. When one of the characters mentioned a series of contemporary authors he expressed the following thoughts on his own author.

Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – and that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! (Location 7560)

In The Art of Fiction Ayn Rand cited another one of Lewis’ works, Arrowsmith, for examples of a story that didn’t seem believable. Elmer Gantry contained several instances of this shortcoming, as well. When he decided to attack vice, Elmer became a de facto police lieutenant who led raids. I found his decision to marry too fast. His subsequent boredom with his new bride occurred much too quickly, as well.

I had to admit that while I didn’t find the story credible I still enjoyed reading it. What it lacked in realism it compensated for with entertainment value.

In the book’s beginning, the author wrote: Elmer assumed he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure. (Loc 167) I’m not sure that “getting religion” dissuaded the Reverend Dr. Gantry from that view. He would’ve disagreed, however. As he eloquently preached:

“–and I want to tell you that the fellow eaten by ambition is putting the glories of this world before the glories of Heaven! Oh, if I could only help you understand that it is humility, that it is simple loving kindness, that it is tender loyalty, which alone make the heart glad! Now, if you’ll let me tell a story: It reminds me of two Irishmen named Mike and Pat—“ (Loc 8135)

 

The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat

The Farming of Bones presented in human terms the most violent act of genocide that occurred in the Western Hemisphere. The author chose the 1937 Parsley Massacre as the backdrop of this masterful work of historical fiction. A moving and disturbing work resulted.

The book told the tale of Amabelle Desir, a Haitian servant girl living in the Dominican Republic. The author chose to present the story from her protagonist’s point-of-view. Knowing her thoughts and feelings gave the narrative much more impact. My favorite passage included a unique combination of beauty and sorrow:

Playing with my shadow made me, an only child, feel less alone. Whenever I had playmates, they were never quite real or present for me. I considered them only replacements for my shadow. There were many shadows, too, in the life I had beyond childhood. At times Sebastian Onus (Amabelle’s love interest) guarded me from the shadows. At other times he was one of them. (Location 111)

Ms. Danticat included the most gripping death passage I’ve encountered. The following dialog occurred between Amabelle and Sebastian. The imagery made the section difficult to read. It did so while concretizing the scene very effectively.

“How did the hurricane find your father?” I end up saying. It is not the gentlest or most deft way to ask, but I believe it will help him speak.

He opens his mouth a few more times and moans.

“If you let yourself,” he says finally, “you can see it before your eyes, a boy carrying his dead father from the road, wobbling, swaying, stumbling under the weight. The boy with the wind in his ears and pieces of the tin roofs that opened the father’s throat blowing around him. The boy trying not to drop the father, not crying or screaming like you’d think, but praying that more of the father’s blood will stay in the father’s throat and not go into the muddy flood, going no one knows where. If you let yourself, you can see it before your eyes.” (Location 550)

More exceptional imagery animated another unpleasant event. It also showed great attention to historical detail.

…On the wall was pasted a seven-year-old calendar, from the year of the great hurricane that had plundered the whole island, a time when so many houses were flattened and so many people were killed that the Generalissimo himself had marched through the windswept streets of the Dominican capital and ordered that the corpses he encountered during his inspection be brought to the Plaza Columbina and torched in public bonfires that burned for days, filling the air with so much ash that everyone walked with their eyes streaming, their handkerchiefs pressed against their noses, and their parasols held close to their heads. (Location 704)

In addition to a gift for imagery, Ms. Danticat crafted a brilliant use of foreshadowing. Knowing what occurred later in the story made it even more impactful. After serving as a midwife at the birth of her employer’s daughter, Amabelle’s boss asked her a very troubling question.

“Amabelle do you think my daughter will always be the color she is now? Senora Valencia asked. “My poor love, what if she’s mistaken for one of your people?” (Location 238)

The Farming of Bones presented a difficult story to read. I applaud the author for drawing attention to an event unfamiliar to many people. I appreciated her articulate means of doing so. For works like this one, Ms. Danticat earned the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Book Review – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer selected an extraordinary topic for his “true life novel.” In The Executioner’s Song, he provided a detailed take on the life and subsequent death of Gary Gilmore. The latter’s cold-blooded killings of two innocent men led to the State of Utah sentencing him to death in 1976. To add a twist to this saga, Gilmore didn’t contest the court’s decision. He actually wanted to be killed by a firing squad. At one point he even asked his attorneys: “Now don’t I have the right to die?…Can’t I accept my punishment?” (Page 510) Mr. Mailer took readers along the condemned man’s journey.

This set-up drew me into the story. I found myself anxiously flicking through the e-book version’s screens to discover the next event. While reading the opening sections that described Gilmore’s life following his parole, the author made me sympathetic for his protagonist. One passage reflected my own views rather well.

Court had seen some of his artistic work. Before he met him, Brenda had shown Mont Court a couple of Gary’s drawings and paintings. The prison information he was receiving from Oregon made it clear that Gilmore was a violent person, yet in these paintings Court was able to see a part of the man simply not reflected in the prison record. Mont Court saw tenderness. He thought, Gilmore can’t be all evil, all bad. There’s something that’s salvageable. (Page 55)

The author even added an element of sensitivity to Gilmore. He did so by detailing his relationship with Nicole; the true love of his life. In fact, while awaiting his execution on Utah’s Death Row, his one wish was for the opportunity to see her once more.

Mr. Mailer crafted his prose in an unorthodox way. I interpreted the novel’s structure as a series of brief vignettes held together through the overall narrative’s scope. Each paragraph read like a newspaper blurb. It helped make the 1,109 pages read faster than I expected.

In spite of both the unpleasant subject matter and unusual presentation, Mr. Mailer worked in extraordinary uses of language. Some of them read more like verse than prose.

Overhead was the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West. That had not changed. (Page 20)

“Brenda, I am not insensitive,” said Gary, “to being called insensitive.” (Page 61)

It was as if somebody had hidden sparklers inside her heart in that place where she had expected to find nothing. (Page 172)

It was like waking up from a dream to answer a knock on the door but the knock came from the person you had just kissed in the dream. (Page 349)

Certain kinds of bad news were like mysterious lumps that went away if you paid no attention. (Page 475)

Whole fields of the soul could be defoliated and never leave a trace. (Page 419)

We are only stronger than the things we overcome. (Page 494)

My main criticism related to the book’s length. The beginning section that covered the period prior to Gilmore’s killings engaged me. I nervously read as quickly as I could. The author did an outstanding job piquing my interest in discovering the next event. After the killings, the story became rather cumbersome and even dull. I thought the sections on the individuals battling for the rights to Gilmore’s story too overdrawn. They also lacked the intensity of the book’s beginning. So did the parts on the efforts of various organizations to stay the execution. (By this time, is there anybody living in the United States who doesn’t know how this story ended?)

About a third of the way through the book I completely lost all empathy I had for the main characters. I’ll avoid spoilers for those interested in reading. I will note that depraved would be the best word I could use to describe these people’s behavior. Add to that the vicious nature of Gilmore’s crimes and the last 800 pages became a tortuous slog.

For Mr. Mailer’s efforts The Executioner’s Song received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  That’s quite an achievement for a story that’s source material included myriad interviews surrounding true events. It’s also a fitting encomium for a work that took such an unconventional approach to an unorthodox subject. Still, I’m glad the author never wrote a sequel to it.

Book Review – War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

But these Germans are different. Orders do not seem merely to guide their actions; orders, as it were, fill their souls, leaving no room for a human flicker in their faces or eyes. They are herdsmen, and we are cattle; or they are soldier ants, and we are aphids. The orders cut ties between them and us. All. It is eerie. (Loc 11365)

This chilling paragraph serves as a good summation of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. While the sequel to The Winds of War took readers along the Henry family’s continuing journey, the ‘remembrance’ portion focused on the Holocaust. That made reading this novel much more uncomfortable than perusing its predecessor.

As in the book’s precursor the war’s impact on the Henry family played a key role in the overall narrative. I enjoyed reading about Victor Henry’s ascent to two-star admiral. Aside from the Second World War’s effect on his career, Mr. Wouk described how the conflict generated much disturbance in his private life.

The tales of his son Byron’s development into a proficient submariner made for engaging reading, as well. I liked the character’s continuing transition from a carefree, directionless kid into a mature leader of men. The author enhanced this portion of the drama by adding a personal conflict for him to battle, as well. His wife Natalie—a Jewish woman, no less—and newborn son found themselves stranded in Fascist Italy at the war’s outbreak.

The author crafted extraordinary secondary characters for this novel. I’ll refrain from giving away spoilers. I will note that both Leslie Slote and Aaron Jastrow would have made for great protagonists in a shorter tale.

As in The Winds of War, the author inserted the German perspective on the war. This gave the story more balance than I’m used to reading in historical fiction. Mr. Wouk utilized the histories of fictional General Armin von Roon as one source. To allow readers a sense of how trustworthy this member of the German General Staff, one comment in his book read, “From Adolf Hitler alone proceeded the policy regarding the Jews.” (Loc 2876)

In War and Remembrance, the author took the German point-of-view even further. He added a priest’s thoughts on the German mindset.

 You must understand Germans, Herr Slote.” The tone was calmer. “It is another world. We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above. That is a product of our history, a protracted feudalism.” (Loc 2730)

The author also included actual historical figures in the book. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, appeared as a character. Mr. Wouk used his point-of-view in expressing this figure’s thoughts regarding efficient means of execution.

No, the poison gas in rooms of large capacity has always been an idea worth trying; but which gas? Today’s experiment shows Zyklon B, the powerful insecticide they have been using right along at the camp to fumigate the barracks, may be the surprisingly simple solution. Seeing is believing. In a confined airtight space, with a powerful dose of the blue-green crystals, those three hundred fellows didn’t last long! (Loc 2310)

To provide even sharper insight into the character’s mind, the very next paragraph opened with the words: “Well, time for Christmas dinner.” (Loc 2323)

Mr. Wouk added some exceptional use of language throughout the narrative. Some notable examples included, “Laughing into each other’s eyes” (Loc 4598), “…Things happen once then roll away into the past, leaving one marked and changed forever.” (Loc 3412) “Forbidden fruit has its brown spots, but these are not seen in the dusky glow of appetite.” (Loc 6953) “A look like a long conversation passed between them.” (Loc 9807)

My favorite occurred in these poetic thoughts regarding the British Empire’s dissolution.

When an empire dies, it dies like a cloudy day, without a visible moment of sunset. The demise is not announced on the radio, nor does one read of it in the morning paper. The British Empire had fatally depleted itself in the great if laggard repulse of Hitler, and the British people had long since willed the end of the Empire, by electing pacifist leaders to gut the military budgets. (Loc 1936)

Mr. Wouk performed exceptional research on the time period. I found many of his descriptions very realistic; at times, frighteningly so. At one point the author crafted a passage that depicted the scene from inside a gas chamber as the poison filled the air. He wrote it in such detail that I felt like I was in the room suffocating. It bothered me so, I can’t bring myself to quote it here.

I had two criticisms of War and Remembrance. One involved its scope. I read the digital version of its nearly 1400 pages. The inclusion of so many characters involved in so many events of the Second World War necessitated the book’s size. This segues into my other issue.

To hook readers, the author used an exceptional technique; perhaps too well. Mr. Wouk often concluded chapters by placing his characters in horrible situations. Of course, I wanted to know the outcomes. He would follow such scenes with several chapters concerning the other characters’ stories. Those would also leave off at their own harrowing endings.

I understand that a writer must keep his/her readers engaged. Because of the nature of the character’s peril, this became annoying at times. I don’t mind the “cliff hangers.” I do have a problem when I have to wait several hours to discover their resolutions.

Mr. Wouk did something extraordinary in War and Remembrance. In it, he crafted both a great sequel and a fantastic work of historical fiction. It’s difficult to do either of those things. This author did them in the same book. That’s why some have referred to him as “an American Tolstoy.” That’s quite an encomium for a Jewish kid from the Bronx who simply wanted to be a writer.

Book Review – The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk woke me up to the concept of the epic American novel. The Winds of War traced a naval family’s experiences from the summer of 1939 through the Pearl Harbor attack. A magisterial work of historical fiction resulted.

In the process, Mr. Wouk created the most unique literary character I’ve ever encountered in Captain Victor Henry. In a way, he reminded me of Forrest Gump. The captain always seemed to find himself in the middle of many major historical events; at least the ones leading up to the Second World War. While he longed to command a battleship, the brewing “winds of war” swept him up into a fascinating series of positions. At the book’s beginning he received the post of US Naval Attaché in Berlin. Later he travelled to the UK where he “observed” a bombing raid on Berlin. Following that he received reassignment to Moscow during the German invasion. While serving in these varied locales, he met the war’s most influential figures including Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Interestingly, of all the people he encountered, he only experienced nervousness prior to meeting Churchill.

Of course, Captain Henry’s interactions with FDR served as the sine qua non of the book. In fact, he first met this iconic historical figure during one of his first naval assignments. Here are the captain’s recollections of that encounter prior to meeting Roosevelt the President.

He was wondering whether the President would remember him, and hoped he wouldn’t. In 1918, as a very cocky Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt had crossed to Europe on a destroyer. The wardroom officers, including Ensign Henry, had snickered at the enormously tall, very handsome young man with the famous family name, who made a great show of using nautical terms and bounding up ladders like a seadog, while dressed in outlandish costumes that he kept changing. He was a charmer, the officers agreed, but a lightweight, almost a phony, spoiled by a rich man’s easy life. He wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous. (Page 148)

The descriptions in this passage showed that the author performed significant research while writing this book. This attention to detail continued in the scenes describing the German invasion of Poland, the discussions over America’s support of the British prior to Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Russia.

In an acknowledgement to the time period, Mr. Wouk referenced the plight of Europe’s Jews. In the most disturbing quote in the book, a Jewish historian presented his thoughts on why Christians persecuted Jews.

“He’s a Jew’s Jesus,” said Jastrow. “That was my point.”

“Then tell me one thing,” said Rabinovitz. “These Europeans worship a poor murdered Jew, the young Talmud scholar you wrote about so well—to them he’s the Lord God—and yet they go right on murdering Jews. How does a historian explain that?”

In a comfortable, ironic, classroom tone, most incongruous in the circumstances, Jastrow replied, “Well, you must remember they’re still mostly Norse and Latin pagans at heart. They’ve always chafed under their Jewish Lord’s Talmudic morals, and possibly take out their irritation on his coreligionists.” (Page 818 – 819)

            The author related most of the story through the exploits of various Americans. He still cleverly fit the German perspective into the novel. Mr. Wouk created a fictitious book titled World Empire Lost written by a German general of his creation, Armin von Roon. He wove it into the narrative through Captain Henry’s postwar translation. He entered the German frame of mind through comments such as, “the one war crime is to lose” (Page 859) and “Churchill was a Hitler restrained by democracy.” (Page 247) He contrasted this with lines such as the following that Captain Henry delivered to FDR, “Mr. President, the quality of mercy is mightiest in the mightiest.” (Page 149)

The Winds of War ended following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Wouk resumed the Henry family saga in the sequel, War and Remembrance. With that acknowledgement, while I enjoyed the reading, I didn’t find the book strong enough to stand on its own. I’d classify it as more of an adventure story since I didn’t get a sense of the characters changing during the course of the story. I detected shades of submariner Byron Henry maturing at the end of the book, however, but not to the point it would justify concluding it.

I applaud the author for crafting a novel this complex and making it reasonably realistic. All of the major characters possessed involved story lines. These multifarious elements help explain why The Winds of War came in at close to 900 pages. While lengthy, I enjoyed the book so much it inspired me to read War and Remembrance. That tome contains close to 1500 pages. If that one’s as good as the first volume, I hope I still remember The Winds of War when I finish.