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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.