Sunday, August 16, 2015

Timbuktu, by Paul Auster

I read most of this novel when travelling up and down Vietnam by train.  Its narrator is a dog, Mr. Bones, and normally I'm leery of this device, but I figured Paul Auster might be able to pull it off. He did, and exceptionally well.  Mr. Bones accompanies his human, Willy G. Christmas, on a trek to Baltimore, where Willy hopes to find his high school English teacher. Willy, brilliant but mentally ill and homeless, hopes the woman will adopt Mr. Bones, as his own days are numbered. Instead of a bleak or maudlin tale of suffering of both man and dog, Timbuktu gave me profound insight into a clinically disordered mind.

When a Santa Claus on the television addresses him personally with a message of "goodness, generosity, and self-sacrifice", William Gurevitch resists him mightily, but after a long, emotional debate, he relents, acknowledging that his new mission in life is to "embody the message of Christmas every day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give only love in return". His sign of this covenant is to change his name to Willy G. Christmas. When his Jewish mother, who has already invested a fortune in her son's mental health, hears this news, she is even less receptive than Willy had initially been to Santa.
Willy was frankly perplexed. He hadn't meant any harm, and in his present blissful state of remorse and conversion, the last thing he wanted was to offend his mother. But talk and explain as he did, she refused to listen. She shrieked at him and called him a Nazi, and when he persisted in trying to make her understand that Santa Claus was an incarnation of the Buddha, a holy being whose message to the world was one of merciful love and compassion, she threatened to send him back to the hospital that very afternoon. This brought to mind a sentence that Willy had heard from a fellow patient at Saint Luke's -- I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy -- and suddenly he knew what was in store for him if he let his mother have her way. So rather than go on beating a dead horse, he climbed into his overcoat and left the apartment, heading in a beeline for God knows where. 

Yes, Willy is mentally ill; he doesn't deny it. Who else but a crazy man would come up with a transparent toaster? As Willy expounds on the idea to Mr. Bones, though, it sounds less like a crackpot idea and more like divine inspiration.
"Whatever else I've been, I've never let myself be that worm. I've jumped, I've galloped, I've soared, and no matter how many times I've crashed back to earth, I've always picked myself up and tried again. Even now, as the darkness closes in on me, my mind holds fast and won't throw in the towel. The transparent toaster, comrade. It came to me in a vision two or three nights ago, and my head's been full of the idea ever since. Why not expose the works, I said to myself, be able to watch the bread turn from white to golden brown, to see the metamorphosis with your own eyes? What good does it do to lock up the bread and hide it behind that ugly stainless steel? I'm talking about clear glass, with the orange coils glowing within. It would be a thing of beauty, a work of art in every kitchen, a luminous sculpture to contemplate even as we go about the humble task of preparing breakfast and fortifying ourselves for the day ahead. Clear, heat-resistant glass. We could tint it blue, tint it green, tint it any color we like, and then, with the orange radiating from within, imagine the combinations, just think of the visual wonders that would be possible. Making toast would be turned into a religious act, an emanation of otherworldliness, a form of prayer. Jesus god. How I wish I had the strength to work on it now, to sit down and draw up some plans, to perfect the thing and see where we got with it. That's all I've ever dreamed of, Mr. Bones. To make the world a better place. To bring some beauty to the drab, humdrum corners of the soul. You can do it with a toaster, you can do it with a poem, you can do it by reaching out your hand to a stranger. It doesn't matter what form it takes. To leave the world a little better than you found it. That's the best a man can ever do."

People who don't live with animals look at those of us who do and shake their heads. We talk to the dog or the cat, and we sometimes express the sincere belief that the world would be a better place if Fido or Fluffy were running it. They call us crazy pet people. Yeah, well, Willy and I happen to agree on this point, 100%.
"But I should have done better by you. I should have given you a chance to reach the stars. It's possible, believe me it is. I just didn't have the courage of my convictions. But the truth is, friend, that dogs can read. Why else would they put those signs on the doors of post offices? NO DOGS ALLOWED EXCEPT FOR SEEING-EYE DOGS. Do you catch my meaning? The man with the dog can't see, so how can he read the sign? And if he can't read it, who else is left? That's what they do in those Seeing-Eye schools. They just don't tell us. They've kept it a secret, and by now it's one of the three or four best-kept secrets in America. For good reason, too. If word got out, just think of what would happen. Dogs as smart as men? A blasphemous assertion. There'd be riots in the streets, they'd burn down the White House, mayhem would rule. In three months, dogs would be pressing for their independence. Delegations would convene, negotiations would begin, and in the end they'd settle the thing by giving up Nebraska, South Dakota, and half of Kansas. They'd kick out the human population and let the dogs move in, and from then on the country would be divided in two. The United States of People and the Independent Republic of Dogs. Good Christ, how I'd love to see that. I'd move there and work for you, Mr. Bones. I'd fetch your slippers and light your pipe. I'd get you elected prime minister. Anything you want, boss, and I'd be your man."

If you're not in favour of receiving wisdom and philosophy from psychotics and dogs, then go ahead and give Timbuktu a miss. Your loss.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

I found this novel, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, a troubling read, perhaps because
its author treated Mary not irreverently, perhaps, but certainly unsentimentally. I've no doubt the book sent the Catholic Church into fits.

After the terror of the crucifixion, Mary and John have fled to Ephesus, and others are coming now, too, wanting her testimony, which she is reluctant to give, and she's certainly not about to embroider the truth.

I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.
Tóibín's Mary is not the Virgin Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Saint. She is a woman in her late middle age, exiled and traumatised, bewildered by the persistence of the would-be evangelists. They're working to found a religion; she's trying to come to terms with her grief. Her own truth is that she had discouraged her son, belittled his followers, pleaded with him to return to a quiet life of carpentry and then watched it all go to hell when her headstrong young son ignored his mother.
I have dreamed this. And there are times when I have let the dream into the day to live with me, when I have sat in that chair and felt that I was holding him, his body all cleansed of pain and myself cleansed too of the pain that I felt, which was part of his pain, the pain we shared. All of this is easy to imagine. It is what really happened that is unimaginable, and it is what really happened that I must face now in these months before I go into my grave or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees. I do not know why it matters that I should tell the truth to myself at night, why it should matter that the truth should be spoken at least once in the world. Because the world is a place of silence, the sky at night when the birds have gone is a vast silent place. No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.
What happened was unimaginable. The question is, did it indeed "become a sweet story that [grew] poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees"?

If the term hagiography refers to writing the lives of saints, The Testament of Mary is its antonym, and neither form strikes me as reliable. Surely there are spiritual (as opposed to religious) truths somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Imagine that some literary patron or publisher had given Jenny Offill the following brief:  "Write a novel about marriage. 200pp max."  Dept. of Speculation is the result. Ms. Offill constructs a vivid stream of images, a series of odd vignettes to illustrate life inside an institution, as lived by someone who's not altogether sure she's cut out for it.

The narrator, an unnamed American woman, avows, "My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him."

Unfortunately for her, marriage and being an art monster appear to be mutually exclusive. Although Véra Nabokov may have licked her husband's stamps for him, there are few women artists whose husbands do the dusting. Never mind producing art, it's hard to find time to even enjoy it.
Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart... it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.
Our narrator has an artistic temperament. Concentration and organisation are not her strong suits. In short, she is ill-suited to life as a traditional housewife and mother, and she is very aware of it. Lest she forget, her husband and daughter are there to remind her.
It's true that I am feebleminded at the grocery store. I write lists that I forget, buy things we don't need or already have. Later, my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix. But for now my daughter and I stand shivering in front of the meat case.
"I'm cold," she says. "Why can't we go? Why do we have to stand here?"
There is some kind of meat I am supposed to buy. A kind of meat to go in a meat recipe. "We can go soon," I say. "Just wait. Let me think for a minute. You're not letting me think."
So lately I've been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, I'll tell you later. Don't pester me.
But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. "We're married, remember? Nobody's breaking up with anybody."
"I love autumn," she says. "Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?" She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. "Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I say autumn now instead of fall."
No marriage is perfect. Right?
There is a husband who requires mileage receipts, another who wants sex at three a.m. One who forbids short haircuts, another who refuses to feed the pets. I would never put up with that, all the other wives think. Never. But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string. So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. "He can't help it."
Being keenly aware of her own flaws, the narrator begins to question, ever so quietly, her husband's fidelity.
In many tribal cultures children are considered self-sufficient at or near the age of six. For all practical purposes, this means if they were lost overnight in the wild they might not perish. Of course, in modern industrial societies, children tend to be protected much longer. But there's evidence that the age six still resonates with men. Researchers say that many men have affairs around the time their oldest child turns six. Chances are their genes will still march on even without direct oversight.
Affairs and marital break-ups are nearly always sordid events, which few survive with dignity unscathed.
Her neighbor's husband fell in love with a girl who served coffee to him every morning. She was twenty-three and wanted to be a dancer or a poet or a physical therapist. When he left his family, his wife said, "Does it matter to you how foolish you look? That all our friends find you ridiculous?"
He stood in the doorway, his coat in his hand. "No," he said.
The wife watched her neighbor get fat over the next year. The Germans have a word for that. Kummerspeck. Literally, grief bacon.
In the end, the narrator and her husband decide that they can save their marriage by moving out of the city and into the bucolic countryside. Will they live happily ever after?
The wife has begun planning a secret life. In it, she is an art monster. She puts on yoga pants and says she is going to yoga, then pulls off onto a country lane and writes in tiny cramped handwriting on a grocery list. She thinks she should go off her meds maybe so as to write more fluidly. Possibly this is not a good idea. But only possibly. Fall comes early here. And it is unnerving to see so many stars. At night, the wife lies awake worrying about bears and chimney fires. About the army of spiders that live within. The husband wants goats. The daughter cries for Brooklyn.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker

22813026I'm familiar with Steven Pinker's work in linguistics and cognition, so when I saw that he'd written a book on writing style, I pounced on it. This book has been savaged by critics, and I took exception with parts of it, as well. It may be self-contradictory in places, and Pinker may indeed have wandered off course here and there, but there is still much that's worthwhile.

Pinker of course dedicates a chapter to the authors of the classic Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White, the beloved author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. White, a renouned essayist, had actually been one of Strunk's students, and in reminiscing about his teacher, he once wrote, "In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself -- a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, 'Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!'"

Pinker goes on to share his own definition of needless words. He doesn't necessarily endorse Mark Twain's advice -- "When you catch an adjective, kill it" -- but he is death on words that weaken prose, water it down, either by fluffery or awkward constructions. Brevity in the name of clarity, in other words. "Very" is one of his bugbears.
That's the basis for the common advice (usually misattributed to Mark Twain) to "substitute damn every time you're inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”, though today the substitution would have to be of a word stronger than damn.
Pinker also dismisses those who say the English language is in decline, thanks to electronic devices, slipping standards, poor teaching, too much TV, or just the impending end of western civilization.
According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.
We're holding steady if not improving, Pinker maintains.
Surveys have shown that college students are writing more than their counterparts in earlier generations did, and that they make no more errors per page of writing.  And contrary to an urban legend, they do not sprinkle their papers with smileys and instant-messaging abbreviations like IMHO and L8TR, any more than previous generations forgot how to use prepositions and articles out of the habit of omitting them from their telegrams. Members of the Internet generation, like all language users, fit their phrasing to the setting and audience, and have a good sense of what is appropriate in formal writing.
I occasionally get the sense (sometimes from my editing clients) that my fastidiousness about correct usage is one manifestation of OCD. Surely I'm one of a small battalion of grammar Nazis who fuss about apostrophes, right?  I don't see it that way, and it's good to know I'm not alone.
Here is how one technology executive explains why he rejects job applications filled with errors of grammar and punctuation: "If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it's, then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with."
Pinker produces some outstanding examples of fine prose, including an obituary that would have thrilled its subject. I know I'd die more happily knowing that an obituary like this one was going to follow.
MAURICE SENDAK, AUTHOR OF SPLENDID NIGHTMARES, DIES AT 83 Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children's book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying, and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. Roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak's books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children.
I don't know that "phonesthetic" words are the best words, but it's an interesting idea, that some words sound like their meanings, short of being onomatopoeic.
The best words not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics, the feeling of sound. It's no coincidence that haunting means "haunting" and tart means "tart", rather than the other way around; just listen to your voice and sense your muscles as you articulate them.
I also love Pinker's advice to those who, with the best of intentions, use a thesaurus to liven up their prose. Good idea, not always executed well.
...write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: "Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool."
Nominalization:  another way to drain the lifeblood out of prose. As this is something I confront every day, I appreciated Pinker's rant against this syndrome.
Together with verbal coffins ... in which writers entomb their actors and actions, the English language provides them with a dangerous weapon called nominalization: making something into a noun. The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like -ance, -ment, -ation, or -ing. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. The writing scholar Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.
He points out that his very own tribe of academics is especially guilty of this sin, as well as creating much more tangled briar patches of language. Politicians also excel at it.
Any interrogatory verbalizations? But it's not just academics who loose these zombies on the world. In response to a hurricane which threatened the Republican National Convention in 2012, Florida governor Rick Scott told the press, "There is not any anticipation there will be a cancellation," that is, he didn't anticipate that he would have to cancel the convention. And in 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry announced, "The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our efforts in order to find a way to facilitate," to wit, the president wanted to help... 
When a grammatical construction is associated with politicians you can be sure that it provides a way to evade responsibility.
Actually, I find a lot of murky prose shows a writer's unwillingness to take full responsibility for his statements, no matter what he does for a living. Muddying it up gives him some wiggle room if anyone dissents.

After ripping apart the 50+ word sentences in one PhD student's thesis (only to find that the sentence lacked a verb, or that the thought could have been stated with perfect clarity in a half dozen words), I began to think that gobbledegook has become the academic lingua franca. Pinker says it's not so.
People often tell me that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one's seriousness. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth.
As I was working on that thesis, I recited the following as a mantra. I probably even added it to my final notes to the student.  I think it's an excellent guideline for all writers on all topics.
The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know. 
Oh, and knowing what you're writing about and why you're writing it is also requisite.
Together with the topic of a text, the reader usually needs to know its point. He needs to know what the author is trying to accomplish as she explores the topic. Human behavior in general is understandable only once you know the actor's goals. When you see someone waving her arms, the first thing you want to know is whether she is trying to attract attention, shoo away flies, or exercise her deltoids. That is also true of writing. The reader needs to know whether a writer is rabbiting on about a topic in order to explain it, convey interesting new facts about it, advance an argument about it, or use it as an example of an important generalization. In other words, a writer has to have both something to talk about (the topic) and something to say (the point). 
Pinker, like many other arbiters of writing style, advocates learning the rules before trying to bend and break them. While preaching the gospel of grammar, he also points out that language is a fluid medium, always changing. Some usage questions will always boil down to subjective judgement calls.
Many people assume that there is such a governing body, namely the makers of dictionaries, but as chair of the Usage Panel of the famously prescriptive American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), I am here to tell you that this assumption is false. When I asked the editor of the dictionary how he and his colleagues decide what goes into it, he replied,"We pay attention to the way people use language." That's right: when it comes to correct English, there's no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts...
I fought the good fight against using "impact" as a verb for many years, but I've finally surrendered. It's become acceptable through wide usage, and that, in the end, has impacted my editing.  (I still hate it, by the way.)

Taking stock

Here I am, nearly halfway through 2015, and from the looks of this blog, it's been a practically
illiterate six months.

That's only a partial truth. As editing work flows in from the internet at a steady pace, I've been spending four to ten hours a day at the computer. Sometimes I'm proofreading -- adjusting punctuation and usage -- and at other times I'm rewriting. When I'm done, though, the last thing I feel like doing is spending another hour or more staring at the screen and tapping away on the keyboard, composing a blog post.

My eyes are often fatigued at the end of a day, but I'm still hungry to read excellent writing that I don't feel obliged to fix. I have been reading these past months, albeit not as much as before. I just haven't been keeping up with the blog posts, which are my reader's journal entries, and that disturbs me. I started Bookface because I had been consuming books like snacks, gobbling them too hastily, getting too little nutritional value from them and retaining even less. Writing about each book helps me to read more thoughtfully, and recording excerpts helps me to remember and appreciate more fully what I've read.

Not only has this gap highlighted the value of the blog, it's also pointed out the value of the Kindle. As I looked over the Table of Contents this afternoon, I could tally the books I've read over the past six months, and the excerpts and notes are tidily stored in one file, just waiting to be blogged about.

The next few entries may be brief, poorly organised and error-prone (horrors!), but better an imperfect record than none.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

As I was wandering through the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly the Presidential
Palace in Saigon) in December, I felt the urge to read something about the war -- the Vietnam War, or the American War, depending which side one was on.

I remembered reading glowing reviews of Matterhorn, and although I'd had non-fiction in mind, I reached for it. When I'd read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was about the best account of war I'd read in some time. We mustn't underestimate the truth of fiction.

Karl Marlantes was a decorated Marine veteran, and his experiences in Vietnam were the fodder for this novel. It took him 35 years to write this book, and his battle to complete it may have been on a par with the challenge of living it.

In his review of Matterhorn for the Guardian, Robert McCrum opens with Marlantes' drive to write the book.
In the summer of 1970, Karl Marlantes, a recently demobilised Vietnam veteran posted to US Marine Corps headquarters after 13 months of highly decorated active service, found himself walking some sensitive military papers across to the Capitol. He was challenged by a group of young anti-war protesters "hollering obscenities", chanting "babykiller" and waving north Vietnamese flags.
"I was stunned and hurt," he recalls, speaking to me during a recent visit to London. "I thought, you have no idea who I am… yes, I wanted to shoot them. Six weeks before, I was killing North Vietnamese guerrillas in combat." As his immediate rage moderated into puzzled anguish, Marlantes found himself wanting "to explain myself to those kids. I just wanted to tell my story."
"...rage moderated into puzzled anguish" -- the challenge of explaining the ferocity, intensity and insanity of his Vietnam experience to Americans who objected to the war on ideological grounds seems insurmountable. But then, Matterhorn (the code name for a mountain in northern Vietnam) also seemed insurmountable when the VNC had captured it and set up a base there.

Damn the war if you will, and damn the politicians who entered into it, Marlantes' account is one of the stunning, infuriating, gut-clenching accounts of combat that most of us will never experience. In his slower moments, he reduces us to tears with the relationships between soldiers.

We've all seen video footage of American troops pressing forward through the dense jungle, knowing that land mines, tiger traps, ambushes, venomous snakes and tripwires abounded. Add powdered Kool-Aid mix to compound the horror.
The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again. They would get tired, let down their guard. Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang — anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens. Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.
Animals that serve in war-time are all in vogue now, and Marlantes gives us Pat, a service dog who accompanies the Marines as they trek through the jungles, sniffing for missing wounded and enemy troops. Pat is sent off for some R&R when he is too exhausted to function, but his handler, Arran, also pays the price of loyalty.
It was well known that Arran had extended his tour twice because the scout dogs couldn’t be transferred to other handlers, and when their tour was over, they were killed. Someone back in the world had declared them too dangerous to bring home.
Waino Mellas is Marlantes' protagonist -- a 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of Yale, struggling to find the balance between his intellect and his instinct. Neither he nor his comrades know where to place him at first. Can he function? Where does he fit within his unit? Can he fight? Mellas has none of the answers; he finds them as he goes.
Mellas was transported outside himself, beyond himself. It was as if his mind watched everything coolly while his body raced wildly with passion and fear. He was frightened beyond any fear he had ever known. But this brilliant and intense fear, this terrible here and now, combined with the crucial significance of every movement of his body, pushed him over a barrier whose existence he had not known about until this moment. He gave himself over completely to the god of war within him.
And then, after the fury and the fear comes the time of reckoning.
Victory in combat is like sex with a prostitute. For a moment you forget everything in the sudden physical rush, but then you have to pay your money to the woman showing you the door. You see the dirt on the walls and your sorry image in the mirror.
Marlantes excels at putting faces and souls behind the uniforms. The black Marines are huddling together, somehow connected to their brothers in the States, and their rage at their white commanding officers sometimes grows muddled during battles with the North Vietnamese. It's almost as if they're fighting a war on two fronts, unsure of who is the more menacing enemy. Goodwin is another lieutenant who refers to everyone, regardless of rank, as 'Jack'. It saves him having to remember names, which is probably a waste of time, especially in these circumstances. Goodwin doesn't have Mellas' academic background, but he has good combat instinct. Sometimes it's easiest not to know the historical details, or the political details.  
 “You’ve got to hand it to them little fuckers,” Goodwin said to Mellas, waiting for the next volley of mortars. “They’re fucking pros. Too bad they ain’t on our side.” 
“Just wait a while,” Mellas said. “They were on our side twenty-five years ago.”
“No shit. Who switched sides, us or them?”
“I think it was us. We used to be against colonialism. Now we’re against communism.” 
“I’ll be goddamned,” Goodwin said matter-of-factly. “Whatever we’re against, Jack, they’re fucking pros.”
And when he's in an untenable situation -- kill or be killed -- Mellas gets down to brass tacks. His commanding officers, at least one of whom is an incorrigible drunk, has sent his team on more than one wild goose chase in nightmarish conditions for self-serving reasons. Mellas is enraged; as his loyalty to his comrades intensifies, his hatred for others scatters like buckshot.
Mellas didn’t hate the NVA. He wanted to kill the enemy because that was the only way the company would get off the hill, and he wanted to live and go home. He also wanted to kill because a burning anger inside him had no place to go. The people he had hated—the colonel, the politicians, the protesters, bullys who’d shamed him in childhood, little friends who’d taken his toys when he was two—weren’t available, but the NVA soldiers were. At a very deep level, Mellas simply wanted to stand on a body that he had laid low. Watching Goodwin with more than a little envy, he had to admit that he wanted to kill because part of him was thrilled by killing.
The troops who were out in the field confronted the same natural environment, regardless of which side they fought on. It's popular myth that the Vietnamese were comfortable with jungle warfare. In fact they were an urban people who were as ill at ease in the jungles as the Americans. Mellas is adept at geography and cartography; he reads his maps almost compulsively, almost as a meditation. He achieves an all-encompassing vision of nature that is timeless. Distinctions vanish -- between us and them, us and the land, us and the sky.  For at least a moment, Mellas understands the utter absurdity and futility of the war.
He watched the mountains subtly change under the shadows of clouds cast by a waning moon as it moved across the sky until the shadows began to fade with the coming of light in the east. He tried to determine if there was meaning in the fact that cloud shadows from moonlight could move across the mountains and yet nothing on the mountain would move or even be affected. He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Resolution 2015

During his sermon last Sunday, Pastor Peter tossed in a suggestion that reading the Bible a bit more
during the coming year wouldn't go astray.

There are many excellent reasons to read the Bible: read it as fine literature, read it as history, as spiritual guidance and inspiration, read it as a cultural icon. I haven't read enough of it, and I'm determined not to go to my grave a Biblical illiterate.

I've discovered many good programmes on-line for reading the whole Bible in one year, but I'm partial to this site:  the Online Parallel Bible, which let's me choose from 21 different translations (it's usually the King James for me, thanks), and for the more diligent scholars, the original Greek and Hebrew are there, too. I also appreciate that they offer numerous links to commentaries, and summaries for each book to put it into context.

Since moving to Cambodia in March 2014, my reading in general has decreased -- partly because I've been spending more time studying spoken and written Khmer, and partly due to sheer lethargy. I need to be more structured with my reading, establishing set times for Bible, Khmer and everything else. When I first moved here, I resolved to clean my floors every morning before having my coffee. I've managed to hold to that resolution, and now it's become habit. If I can't show the same dedication to the Bible as I show to my mop, I'm in trouble.