Book Review (2 of 2): Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Even though I found Blood Meridian tedious, I had already reserved All the Pretty Horses from the library plus, my wife had read it, so I figured I’d give it a go. It is better than Meridian. McCarthy lays off the heavy use of run-ons, got rid of his thesaurus (see my review of Blood Meridian for his obnoxious thesaurus-itis in that book) and the plot has enough elements to it (most of the time) that it kept my interest. There are several extended scenes that kept me reading later than I would have, wherein the fate of the protagonist is in doubt. Again, the descriptions are the forte, and in this case, the focus is not all on horror, but the beauty of a Southwest and Mexico which no longer exist.

TL;DR: A kid (again…) that loves horses goes off to Mexico (Cormac pattern here…). Hooks up w/buddy and one bad ‘un. Gets in some trouble. Gets work, falls in love with rich girl (of course) who (of course) loves him back (why we never know…no romantic development). Lovely descriptions, not so bad run-ons (see Blood Meridian if you want horrific use of run-ons). Kid gets in serious trouble, almost dies, gets paid off to leave girl alone. Goes after his horses, which nearly gets him killed. Deus Ex machina several instances. At the end, he rides off into sunset. Really. It’s a lot of reading to set an atmosphere and I think that’s what McCarthy is after (as his plotting is minimal and characterizations unchanging): setting a longing for a time that never was (for most of us).

Some notable quotes (CM likes to go deep): “it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.” Cheery, as is his wont. He gets a bit less depressing with this gem: “That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily.” Still, he has a talent for taking a positive characteristic, in this case courage, and viewing it from the negative.

And sometimes he’s surprisingly mundane: “In history there are no control groups.

Also, he is REALLY into horses: “The horse had a good natural gait and as he rode he talked to it and told it things about the world that were true in his experience and he told it things he thought could be true to see how they would sound if they were said. He told the horse why he liked it and why he’d chosen it to be his horse and he said that he would allow no harm to come to it.” CM could have called this the Horse Whisperer.

All in all, it kept me interested, though at times frustrated at dearth of character development. His style does not delve extensively into their self-reflection. Their motivations speak through their actions and in the dialogue (which is minimal, in truth). In this book, McCarthy does lay foundations, such as the protagonist’s relationship with his father, his family’s ranch (which he loses), his way of life and even the ranch hands he grew up with. But I really do not see him tie them together into a coherent whole that motivate the character. Sometimes the protagonist seems to do things because the plot requires them and I don’t buy it.As I said above, Deus Ex Machina raises it’s head several times. And there is some Mary Sue here as well. I really do not see how a sixteen year old would have amassed the life wisdom to pull himself out of all those scrapes. These issues keep this book out of my 5-star camp. Still, it’s a good book and worth reading.

Book review (1 of 2): Cormac McCarthy,Blood Meridian

McCarthy is duly famous and you hear his work bandied around by serious readers which I suppose I was once, though I don’t have the patience to plough through heavy philosophy any more. That’s where McCarthy is going, but philosophy steeped in Western ethos and smells – and especially horse-thought. Yes, I said horse-thought. He gets really into horses. I’ve read two of his works in quick succession.

Blood Meridian. I started with as this is McCarthy’s first ‘notable’ work according to Wikipedia. This is a bit tongue in cheek, but really…Blood Meridian can be summarized as tedious and pretentious, if sometimes gorgeous. I usually do not recount plots in my book reviews but this one really begs me to for its ridiculousness. Also, the plot hews to the essence of this review, as it is tedious: A guy (‘kid’ – yes, really, you never get to know his name) hooks up w/ bad people, rides into Mexico. They see Apache slaughter people, so they slaughter people. The gang gets to a town, promise to kill bad guys, go out and kill the people they are meant to protect. Rinse and repeat. At the end the kid runs into someone he rode with who was odd, is still odd, who kills him in an outhouse. Nice. No discernible character development. Super detailed descriptions of the Southwest but brutal run-on sentences for days. Pretentious in concept as well as vocabulary. The author fell into a thesaurus. Should have been a short story! Would have been great.

Some really obscure word choices: pyrolatrous, spanceled, preterite, holothurians. Amazing. He really had me running for the dictionary, and for no really good reason.

I noted that though descriptions are his high point, McCarthy’s descriptions are mostly horrible: “The mummied corpse hung from the crosstree with its mouth gaped in a raw hole, a thing of leather and bone scoured by the pumice winds off the lake and the pale tree of the ribs showing through the scraps of hide that hung from the breast.

Example Run-on: “They saw the governor himself erect and formal within his silkmullioned sulky clatter forth from the double doors of the palace courtyard and they saw one day a pack of vicious looking humans mounted on unshod indian ponies riding half drunk through the streets, bearded, barbarous, clad in the skins of animals stitched up with thews and armed with weapons of every description, revolvers of enormous weight and bowieknives the size of claymores and short twobarreled rifles with bores you could stick your thumbs in and the trappings of their horses fashioned out of human skin and their bridles woven up from human hair and decorated with human teeth and the riders wearing scapulars or necklaces of dried and blackened human ears and the horses raw looking and wild in the eye and their teeth bared like feral dogs and riding also in the company a number of halfnaked savages reeling in the saddle, dangerous, filthy, brutal, the whole like a visitation from some heathen land where they and others like them fed on human flesh.” There were lots of these monstrosities.

Bottom line: Read for the horror and gore. Makes his later works seem more approachable.

Book review: Dhalgren

Note: This review covers adult subjects and I use some frank words.

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delaney. A million copies have been sold, accounting for many more than a million reads as I assume many get this book from the library or secondhand.

I have read it, twice. The first time I read Dhalgren was when I was in high school. I had a high tolerance for long books. Even obscure books; I must have, because I read Dhalgren. And I remembered it as a foundational work, a standout. Amazing. Now, some forty years later, I re-read this book (after recommending it to one of my kids, oops) and I think, what the hell was I thinking?

TL;DR: This is an otherworldly, often entrancing work by a very talented artist. Pros: very detailed characters with an accurate ear for verbal styles (though some are dated or stereotypical). Some passages are cogent, gripping, intensely visual. Eerily realistic presentation of mental illness as presented from the inside. Delaney delivers compelling scene descriptions, though this is often overdone, wordy, and heavy-handed. Cons: the book explores dissociative reality by foisting very turgid syntax on the reader and repeatedly scrambling the narrative, throwing the reader into different parts of the timeline or obscuring it. There is no plot beyond a passage of the protagonist through reality in a post-apocalyptic city (Bellona), where every experience is questioned–by the protagonist, his associates, eventually by the narrator/author. Meanwhile, the reader must patch together violently fragmented chunks of text in search of the narrative. The book is interspersed with extremely detailed and intimate scenes of sex in multiple flavors/styles/body count that drag on way too long; pages, in fact. Many of the themes that do come through crisply are dated.

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Book review: Hitler, Ascent by Volker Ullrich

I admit, I bought this book in part to help me understand how close to authoritarianism we (in the U.S.) are lurching under Trump. I may write more about that aspect in another post. But this entry is about the book. It is a long entry, as it’s a long book: 758 pages of content with a stunning 187 pages of notes. I only read some of the notes, mea culpa.

So, why undertake such a behemoth? I always wondered, when reading about the rise of Hitler in general history texts, when they said “he seized power” — how did he do that, exactly? Well, Ullrich tells us how, with a very detailed forensic investigation, using personal diaries and other primary sources which unearth precisely both the motivations and means of the Nazis. And in doing so, he does an excellent job of unearthing the methods and frailties of a man who still remains an enigma. We know very little of Hitler’s personal thoughts, as he had papers about his early life confiscated (p.17) and all his personal papers were burned at his death. Very few examples of his personal writing remain, and his outward facing persona was just that — a persona. As for that, he put all of his outward-facing concepts into Mein Kampf. So while Hitler’s thoughts may remain obscured, the man’s actions are not. Ullrich applies a magnifying glass to Hitler from his very beginnings. It turns out to be a very consistent view. Hitler did not vacillate, at least not strategically.

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Book review: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples

Single volume abridgment

I am reading history lately. This is so I can better foresee if my country is heading towards political dissolution. That’s all I’ll say about my motivations.

TL;DR: The book succeeds due to Churchill’s strong narrative, accessible style and intense focus on political development.

This is not a new book, of course. Originally written in the mid-1950s, after Churchill’s time in politics, his four volumes represented a well-researched, comprehensive review of history from pre-Christian Roman times to the eve of the First World War. This version is a single-volume abridgment by Christopher Lee, originally released in 1958.

Given this history was written by a man who was a Anlgo chauvinist and full-throttle behind Britain’s ambition on the world stage, the tale stops short of any self-criticism regarding Britain’s colonial ambitions. Thus, this book’s narrative needs to be taken in context with other works. For instance, there is no reflection on the rightness of what Great Britain’s leaders did to grasp control in South Africa and India, for instance. He includes brief histories of Canada and Australia as well, and his glossing over the treatment of both lands’ original inhabitants is callous to the extreme. He does say, on page 556, that of the Tazmanian aborigines: “Their defeat was inevitable; their end was tragic.” He never addresses, why was their end inevitable? They are assumed to have had no rights. “The Black Drive of 1830 was a failure.” It was an attempt at genocide. His complicit tone cannot be ignored.

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Book review: Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

This was one of those books the library had on display. It is newly out and popular, so I was lucky to get a copy to check out. Being a student of history, I’ve been familiar with the general activities that led up to the British evacuation at Dunkirk, but I’ve always been starved for details. How did the British manage to get all those men out? How many made it? What about the French? Why wasn’t the German army able to stop them? Did the small boats really help all that much? This book is well-researched and does a great job of answering those questions. It also, importantly, introduces the politics–domestic and military–that maneuvered Britain into the situation in the first place. Along the way, Michael Korda weaves a compelling narrative with a information-rich but eminently readable style.

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Book Review: Charlotte Shane’s N.B.

This is certainly the most challenging review I’ve undertaken. Charlotte Shane’s book is not like any other I’ve read. This was a kickstarter project to publish the collection of her blog of the same name. She says of this effort: “I was lonely and isolated, so I wrote a lot.” But that is not what makes it difficult to review. There are two issues that make this a challenge for this reviewer (after the TL;DR).

TL:DR

In the first two thirds of the book, Shane presents her early and middle years doing sex work and it is a harrowing tale that would give any father nightmares. She depicts extreme sexual positions, pain, discomfort, and sexual torture with an air of sometimes wounded but defiant bravado. In the last third, she is in more control, yet still occasionally takes johns she shouldn’t – just to prove she can control them. Control is a big theme in this work; for example, she doesn’t like pain, but takes on as a sub in order to test herself.

The writing is episodic and, early on, often very disjointed with few clues as to setting and participants. Later, it is still episodic, but more context is given and becomes more reflective, though there is no overall theme to pull the book together. It does, however, depict in brutal honesty the trade of high-priced escort. Money, sex, saps who fall for her, the clients she falls for, kindness, degradation, glamour and adventure. Other themes are big cocks, sex, shared intimacy, pain, pride in her job, loneliness, depression (never explicit, but implicit in some entries), men who think she’s beautiful, but no, she isn’t. It gets a bit repetitious with certain themes (such as that last one) yet there is no closure; the sturm und drang is open-ended, a memoir-in-progress. The last bit (Volume II) is a series of vignettes, with more attention to construction, presentation and setting,  yet not related in time or theme.

If the Boltons were real, Shane would be their huckleberry

Paper books, paper notes, no search...annoying!
Paper books, paper notes, no search…annoying!

The first difficulty in review is that this book is so raw. Shane is sometimes compared to Anaïs Nin, but I wouldn’t put this work in the same category. Yes, Nin brought us as close as her hand-mirror; she shared vast ranges of emotion (often contradicting) and deep thinking on art and psychology. She even shared the physical pain of her miscarriage. But Nin heavily edited her Diaries and even applied editorial awareness in the Journal of Love. She knew that at some point, even the unexpurgated diaries would be read, and Nin’s motivation was literary. Although there are some explicit love scenes, they aren’t the focus.  Nin conveyed that her sex was pursued in the context of love and intellectual curiosity, and in that curiosity and investigation, she weaves an overarching story.

Shane is a different animal, and she presents a problem for the reviewer, in that the content is unrelentingly revealing. I have hundreds of quotes I’d love to use (see photo) but it would be patently voyeuristic to use most of them. I feel many are statements that are Shane’s and only Shane’s to share, so I’ll quote the barest few to convey what this book is like.

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