08 January 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Washington: A Life", "Overqualified", "Bartleby the Scrivener", "Waiting for Godot", and "Casino Royale"

Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow

I had been looking for a decent biography of George Washington for a long time, and so I was pleased as punch last October to hear that Ron Chernow had written a book on Washington, following on the heels of his biographies of Rockefeller and Hamilton. My Aunt Kathy was nice enough to get it for me for Christmas.

In my experience, you have to be extremely careful with biographies. Any non-fiction book can give a false picture of things, and history in particular can succumb to the biases (conscious or not) of the author. But biographies above all are in danger from prejudice. I learned this lesson sharply some years ago, when I consumed a half-dozen biographies of Hemingway. They ranged from invaluable and balanced (if dated) Ernest Hemingway by Carlos Baker, to the sarcastic and bitter Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, to the pure worship of A.E. Hotchner's Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, among others. They're all good in their different ways (although perhaps the best is Mellow's Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences) but they drove home the fact that male biographers writing about male hero-figures can easily become lost in their refutations or adulations. It's understandably hard to keep your head when you write about titans.

Admittedly, I have high standards for biographies. They should be clear-eyed, with no dissembling or apologetics. They should depict real people, not caricatures - while not being afraid to be up front about ridiculousness or legendary happenings. And they should be meticulously sourced and carefully comprehensive.

I am happy to say that this biography by Chernow is all for which I could have hoped. The book takes in the whole sweep of Washington's life, never losing sight of its reality or mistakes, while still presenting with warm prose the lusty life of a man whose abilities sometimes pass belief. Chernow never loses sight of the truth, and that's a hard thing to do with Washington. Because, truly, the man was one of the greatest leaders of memory.

Starting out with hubris and poor judgment (which he would later overcome) and a too-healthy avarice (which he never lost), Washington was harrowed in the fires of frontier combat during the French and Indian War. Losing badly and struggling through the aftermath, he improved his military skills and polished his reputation. Chernow combs through the thousands of letters Washington carefully preserved for posterity, giving us a picture of a born patrician who was whetted to sharpness just as the knife was needed. His genteel upbringing sent a proud elitist to the head of the Continental Army, and over eight years of a desperate war discovered the steel at the heart of a great man. Despite mediocre tactical skills, Washington found his gift in leading men, and single-handedly held together an army of threadbare and itinerant militia. He didn't win the war alone. He had able generals and invaluable help from the French. But if not for him, it could not have been fought. For years, it was his example and deft hand alone that kept the flame alive.

It must have been difficult to avoid making his life into a parable - the elitist finds humility and is forged into a leader, yada yada happy ending - but Chernow manages to avoid that pablum admirably. And he gives us the astonishing facts of the end of the war, and relates how Washington, undisputed master of a victorious army, gives over power to the civilians of the Congress.

It's good to have heroes, but I had been expecting that my idea of Washington would be tarnished by a serious knowledge of the facts of his life. I was happy to discover otherwise. Washington could have made himself king, but turned aside the crown not just once, but twice. He ran for only two terms when he could have been President for life (indeed, almost everyone expected that). He was a leader and patriot for everyone to emulate.

Forgive my gushing. My faith and love for the founder of my country was confirmed by this detailed and intimate biography. It's a hearty thousand pages in length, but it's well-worth the effort.

Overqualified, Joey Comeau

After the potent depth of the biography, I wanted something light. I heard that Joey Comeau, author of the webcomic A Softer World had written a funny book. I read a few sample bits online, and it seemed decent, and my mother got it for me as a gift. Hurrah!

The book is written as a series of cover letters accompanying résumés to various companies, like Bell Canada or a manufacturer's. The cover letters put up some brief facade of stating qualifications for open jobs, then quickly devolve into amusing discussions of bizarre proposals. As the book goes on, though, more and more frequently the applicant begins to refer to his dead brother and the ruin of his life. Soon we get a look at his jagged hopes.

This isn't a tight book; it's a little sloppy and has its flaws. It was clearly written in a manner matching its makeup - brief letters composed at different times. The problem, though, isn't that the letters are unrelated but rather than they're too related; Comeau hammers home his few themes with great zeal. It's a tactic well-suited to a blog spun out over the weeks, but not for a compact sequence of chapters read in succession.

That said, there are some very funny moments as the protagonist first dissembles in his attempts at cover letters and then eventually just lets himself go. It's a shame these moments are scattered amongst the false maudlin notes about his lost brother, written so bluntly that one would suspect there was an even deeper meaning if it weren't for the surface-skipping nature of the book.

I could take or leave this one - it might serve well as a commuter's book, picked up at intervals. There's no need to worry about a lost plot.

Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

This bewildering story about a broken man - a law-copyist who presents a complete puzzle to his employer - is an amazing classic that I was happy to reread. Serving as a good starter to Melville but without the formidable challenge of Moby-Dick, it's one of those stories that is inaccurately called "Kafkaesque" by weekend reviewers. But unlike the hopeless twists of a cruel Kafkaesque fate, Melville's story is one of quiet avoidance and pity - and it's a story with a cause, unlike the spontaneous madness of Kafka's bureaucracies. You read a sad story about a sad man, and at the end you find out the why of it.

One interesting thing about the story, I believe, is that it is a sort of Platonic ideal of a story. There's a distinct form to it (narrative), there's a beginning with a light-hearted set-up, there's the introduction of the central character and theme, and then there's an extended and perfectly linear elaboration that climaxes with finality, and is followed by an explanatory epilogue. Throughout, Melville is interesting and engaging. And while Melville's characters often represent a single trait above all, they're never flat. They're the very idea of "character," executed perfectly.

Read it.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Moving on to another of my Christmas gifts, this one from my brother Patrick, I read Waiting for Godot. I had briefly glanced at this play a long time ago, but I thought it was time for a dedicated and close read.

The edition I chose turned out to be a strange one. The publishers scanned the book pages in picture form, cropped each paragraph into its own image, and then assembled the book from these images arranged in order. It's a queer way to do things, but it certainly looked pretty. Here's a screencap of the Godot; note the distinctive font and careful formatting:

Compare with a page from Washington: A Life. It's much more simply presented:

I think this is a reflection of the difficulty in properly formatting plays for ebooks. A play has to be paginated and broken in specific ways, and italics are sometimes vital to their passage. A book, on the other hand, can often flow freely without much danger to the work. It's an interesting problem that will eventually have to be addressed by the committee that writes up EPUB (the dominant ebook format) standards. The danger, of course, is that instead each publishing platform (Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble) will try to fix the problem in their own specific way that doesn't work for anyone else - so a Kindle user wouldn't be able to read an Apple version of a book.

Returning to the topic at hand, I thought Waiting for Godot was quite good. Famous for being a play where the characters wait for a man who never arrives, it's been very influential in world stagecraft and is so popular it's probably being performed right now, as you read this.

The whole play conspires to vagueness. Very little can be established with certainty. For example, halfway through the play a tree suddenly has leaves when it had none the day before, making us suspect (in combination with the nondescript location otherwise) that the characters have shifted setting without even knowing it. They acknowledge this possibility, but do not seem disturbed by it. Nothing much seems to disturb Beckett's Estragon and Vladimir, two characters who fail to become upset not because they are calm, but rather because they put forth a constant and gloomy air of doom. Godot, they admit, might not even be coming.

So a play where nothing happens in an uncertain place, enacted by characters who are comical in their fatalistic disinterest in their own fate. Unable even to come up with a piece of rope with which to hang themselves, they resign themselves to waiting. And waiting.

I'm a dilettante when it comes to plays, having only the necessary big ones under my belt. But even I could see the influence this play had on Harold Pinter, as well as the (perhaps more palatable) Christopher Guest film Waiting for Guffman. But be warned: this is a play you might want to pick up on a sunny day, when you have some optimism to spare as casualty.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

I grew up with the Bond films, as did everyone my age - and most other people, since Dr. No was released way back in 1962. And so of course I've long been familiar with all the different takes on James Bond, and I've had that familiar debate: "Who's the best Bond?"

But I had also been aware for some time of the Ian Fleming novels that created the character, who was quite distinct from the brash Don Juan of the movies. And so when I had the opportunity to grab Casino Royale, the first (and some say best) book about Bond, I jumped at the chance.

The book is great. I won't say that the literary Bond is better, but he is wholly his own creature. He's cold, misogynistic, and methodical. One of the defining traits of the cinematic Bond is his willingness to leap first and think second; the literary Bond is the opposite. No fancy gadgets, of course; Fleming had experience in real intelligence work, and his literary Bond reflects the scrupulous care that a successful spy must cultivate.

If you enjoy Bond, and especially if you enjoyed the movie of the same name that is surprisingly close to this book, you should definitely check out this book.

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