Summer Reading Judd Style

The Brothers Judd Blog has posted a list of “WHAT I COULD HAVE READ DURING MY SUMMER VACATION” Here are the guidlines:

(1) It should be big. Five-hundred-pages-or-better big. You should be able to only take two books from the list and still have enough reading to get you through a week.
(2) It should be readable. No note-taking needed. Not a whole lot of names to remember. You should be able to pick it up and put it down again without having to reorient yourself. Most of all, you should enjoy it.
(3) Ideally it should be a book that you’ve been meaning to read but you’ve put off, probably because of its size. But now, when it’s the only one, or one of the only ones, you have with you, you’ll be “forced” to read it. At the same time, it should be good enough that you won’t regret having brought it. No experiments.

They offer some interesting choices. I’ll post what I plan to read this summer soon.

Napoleon – Paul Johnson

I am an avid reader of Paul Johnson. Having read Modern Times early in my college career, I went on to read The Birth of the Modern, A History of the American People, and Intellectuals. Recently I even picked up his short work on the Renaissance. I enjoy reading Johnson because he brings a unique perspective to his subjects, he is not afraid to make judgments, and he is righting has a certain liveliness to it – a zip if you will. You can tell he enjoys history and enjoys explaining it to you. His books touch on history, art, the military, politics, and religion; whatever is necessary to paint the picture of the people, places, and ideas he is describing. You come away with a deeper appreciation of the subject not just a technical knowledge of the subject. I think this explains his popularity – the joy of reading interesting history. One can certainly find more scholarly and more technically adept historians but it is hard to find one easier to read.

With that in mind, when I saw that Johnson had written the Penguin Lives Series work on Napoleon I scooped it up and put it towards the top of my reading list. Napoleon is a fascinating subject (I had covered it in some detail in a class I TA’d in grad school) and a short book on the subject would be perfect.

Johnson did not disappoint. The book is lively and the writing is crisp. You get a quick romp through Napoleon’s remarkable rise and fall from power without getting bogged down into the minutia. You get a sense of the pattern of the events and their timing without a overly detailed analysis of each and every battle or political change.

Mark Mazower, writing in the NYT, feels that “Hitler stalks the pages of Johnson’s ‘Napoleon.’ Although he does note that it was written with “the author’s characteristic panache” and that the book “lays its cards on the table.” Mazower is correct to note the theme of the drive for power and its implications for history. Johnson sets out from the beginning that the use of power will be a central theme of this short work:

“The totalitarian state of the twentieth century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth. It is right therefore that we should study Bonaparte’s spectacular career unromantically, skeptically, searchingly.”

Mazower asserts, “Johnson’s is not the voice of moderation.” But what Mazower fails to explain is why we must demand moderation of Johnson. Mazower feels that Johnson’s hard headed view fails to account for the mystery surrounding Napoleon. I disagree. Johnson reveals that Napoleon’s thirst for power and his practically unlimited willingness to grab and use it explains much of the attraction and fascination surrounding Napoleon. Napoleon’s energy, power, and charisma, not to mention military prowess and glory drew people to him seeking a way out from under the burden of the corrupt and stagnating “Ancien Regime” yet away for the terror of the revolution that had supplanted it.

But as Johnson shows, Napoleon had neither the instincts nor the skills of a statesman. He new only conquest and battle and in the end it fell to Talleyrand, the master diplomat, to pick up the pieces of Europe that Napoleon had left behind – to return France to her seat with the great nations. Johnson insightfully points out that Napoleon’s drive to rule Europe awakened and strengthened the demons of nationalism that would haunt Europe during the twentieth century. The Congress of Vienna postponed the reckoning during what was for the most part a peaceful nineteenth century but the bill came calling in the twentieth.

It is Johnson’s ability to sketch the ebb and flow of Napoleon’s life, to describe both the events and the impact of his actions that give this short work its pace. Mazower may be right that Johnson leaves out the gray and shady issues surrounding Bonaparte but if he hadn’t the work would lose much of its charm. If you are interested in a quick read on the life of a fascinating historical figure as well as a meditation on power and its uses, pick of this little gem. It is well worth the investment.

Welcome to My Planet – Shannon Olson

I picked up Welcome to My Planet by Shannon Olson while visiting my sister-in-law in Minnesota. I was looking for something light hearted to read and found myself engrossed in this funny book. Now, granted I am not usually pulled into female coming of age stories but the writing was crisp, funny, and rang true. I basically read it in whenever I had a spare moment and finished before the weekend was over.

The book details the travails of a fictional Shannon Olson as she struggles to become an “adult.” To get a career not just a job. To develop mature relationships with men, with her parents, etc. The fictional Shannon deals with credit card debt; moving back home; her mother’s tumor; her boyfriends; graduate school; counseling; and a host of other life issues. It really communicates the boredom and ennui that can develop in middle class, Midwestern, and middle brow communities. You know what you are supposed to do (go to college get a job, get married, etc.) but are unsure of what it all means and whether you really want to take the plunge. Here is Olson discussing the issue with her mother:

Her next inquiry, after scanning the paper: “Name three things you expected to have in life, which you no longer are expecting.”
“Three anythings?” I ask her. “Could it be experiences?”
“It could be anything,” she says, looking at me across her bifocals, taking a sip of her coffee.
“I don’t know if I ever expected anything,” I say. “Then again, I expected everything.” I stop and think for a second. “I expected to have everything, without having to do anything to get it.”
“Did your father and I do this to you?” she asks. “Is it something we didn’t do?”
“Women’s magazines did this to me,” I say. “Watching Love Boat did this. I did this to myself.”
“It’s true,” she says. “You always wanted to be a princess. Maybe letting you live here just encourages that.”
“I have a job,” I say. “Just not a job I ever wanted. And I have a car,” I say. “I just never pictured myself buying a car – but then eventually you need wheels. See?” I say to her, “What good are expectations when life keeps throwing you new expenses? How can you plan?”

The dialogue rings true – you can understand her perspective, picture the conversation. It makes you think of your own life, your own perspective.

Olson does a good job of blending humor with real issues without getting either maudlin or preachy. The characters she creates seem real and meaningful while still being entertaining and interesting. This is no mean feat – making real life seem important and interesting. Some parts are just funny. Here, for example, is her description of a co-worker:

Steve is a member of the sales force and walks quickly, even if he’s just going to the kitchen for coffee. He is forty-five and recently divorced, and sings Def Leppard songs, “Love Bites,” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” as he circles our island of cubicles on his way to meetings, to the bathroom, to the kitchen – sending his loneliness like a flare.

Maybe my own in-securities and issues helped, but I found the book to be engrossing, entertaining, and thought provoking. Olson’s comfortable style, her built in cultural commentary, and her wry humor makes this an rewarding read.

More reviews coming

I am going to try and post some more short book reviews tonight. This should bring me up-to-date and the books I have read recently. After that I will post at least a short review of every book I read. If you want to know what others are reading check the blogs listed to the right. If you have a book related blog let me know and I will link it.

I am working on the author interviews I promise. They will deal with bloggers who are authors.

Now I have to go grocery shopping . . .

Books and Blogs

Jeff Jarvis has some interesting thoughts on books and blogs. Worth noting is this quote:

Now don’t get me wrong: I love books like a mistress; I obsessively wander bookstores to see what’s new, to read random passages, to discover diamonds; I buy more books than I ever could read; I love Amazon so much that I bought the stock (and, more of a testament, never sold it); I stuff my house with books; I love books; I still want to write a dozen.

My sentiments exactly.

BTW, I will be exploring the connection between books and blogs with interviews and comments starting next week.

A Nasty Bit of Rough by David Feherty

A Nasty Bit of Rough is a very silly book. Written by on-course CBS golf commentator David Feherty, it tells the tale of ancient golf rivalries in Northern England and Scotland. The main character is “Uncle Dickie” a retired Major General who owns Scought’s Wood Golf Club – the oldest golf club in the world, or so its members claim. They chief rivals are the McGregors Clan of Scotland, owners of the Tay Club who also lay claim to having invented the game of golf. These too clans face off in a match play golf contest every fifty years to win the petrified middle finger of St. Andrew – a prize known as “The Digit.”

The book is mostly a description of the wild characters that make up these two groups and the ridiculous antics they get up to in the course of their feud. The plot is rather simple but there are a couple of twists here and there. The journey is the point, however, not the plot. The book is also rather ribald with its humor leaning heavily towards the locker room sort. Here is an example:

As Flnagan bent over to put on his underwear, Dwilby hopped silently into the bed, and just as his master lifted his left foot off the ground to search for the leg whole in his Y-fronts, the little dog jammed his cold, wet nose between the cheecks of Flanagan’s backside, and took a good sniff.

“AAAAAARGH!” Flangan screemed as he jerked bolt upright, banging his head on the windowsill and getting tangles up in his shorts. Holding his head with one hand and the shorts in the other, he took two hops sideways and fell into the wardrobe.

Dwilby sneezed violently, and started to scratch at the bed-clothes until he had rucked them into a comfortable heap. Then he turned around twice, lay down, and began to energetically lick his balls.

The book is full of silly stories like this, usually involving alcohol, accidents, and someone’s orrifice. In fact, the climatic finish to the golf match involves a golf ball stuck between one of the McGregor’s butt cheecks. I won’t spoil the ending for you.

All in all, I must say that while the book is funny in parts and interesting at times, it left me a little cold. Perhaps, I was just not in the mood for such an oddball or ribald sense of humor. I enjoy golf and have enjoyed golf fiction before, but this story was a little too thin. It is like those dirty jokes you told in junior high and high school – they were funny but they tend to wear thin. A little more plot and a little less vulgarity might have given the book some substance. However, if you enjoy wacky antics and jokes about dogs having sex with sheep then A Nasty Bit of Rough is for you.

Nuremberg: The Reckoning by William F. Buckley Jr.

I am a big fan of WFB. I own every single one of his books. I own his siblings books, I own his son’s books. I even own a privately published book about his father. WFB was a big part of my introduction to conservatism.

So as you can see it is sometimes hard for me to be objective about Mr. Buckley. Even with my little obsession, however, I can admit that Buckley is not one of the greatest novelists of our time. But what is interesting is to watch as his style and strategy change over time. WFB started writing fiction with a series of spy novels. His blackford Oakes series are a mix of James Bond style espionage, historical fiction, and Buckley’s own unique views. Again, while they are not Tolstoy or Hemingway, they are fun and enjoyable reads. After Blackford Oakes, Buckley begin to work with historical fiction in a more serious way tackling the personalities of Joe McCarthy, James Angleton, and even Elvis Presley. These books were interesting and enjoyable because they provided not just a good story but also insight into the lives of historical figures. At his best (like Redhunter) Buckley brought the characters to life and you felt you understood them better after reading the book.

Which is what brings us to Nuremberg. The book approaches the Nuremburg trial through the eyes of a young German-American GI Sebastian Reinhard. Sebastian leaves turbulent inter-war Germany to live in America, the home of his maternal grandmother. Growing up in Arizona he soon sees America as his home and enlists in the army as WWII winds down. Because of his language skills he is sent to do interpreter-interrogation work at the Nuremberg trial. Sebastian’s complicated lineage and his unique experiences allow Buckley to explore issues of loyalty, patriotism, morality, and anti-Semitism as Sebastian interacts with Nazi war criminals, local German’s and his own relatives. Buckley paints the characters and story line with interconnected vignettes. The story line does not lead in a straight line from one point to another, there are plot twists scattered throughout. Rather Buckley seems concerned with allowing the reader to “feel” the lives of the characters. To walk in their shoes, to think like they think, to wrestle with the issues they must have wrestled with in order to make sense of their lives and times. In this way, it is similar to the way he had led James Angleton. Spytime was not a espionage thriller or a mystery; it was a extended character sketch. Nuremberg is the same type of work. Buckley explores and examines people, places, and ideas through his characters.

I think this is likely what Buckley enjoys about writing these type of books. The skill necessary to describe the characters and events of history – trying to make the people real. Buckley wants us to look back on these events and see that there were real people involved with complex lives, emotions, and questions. In Nuremberg he wants you to wrestle with the difficult ideas and the difficult moral choices. He wants you to ask yourself what would I do?

I enjoyed reading Nuremburg as I enjoy reading all of WFB’s works. If you enjoy interesting characters in a fascinating historical setting I think you will enjoy it as well.

Recommended: YES