Sunday, June 07, 2015

Scott Johnson: The Wolf and the Watchman

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The Wolf and the Watchman is a devastatingly bad book. I kept reading it because it's not unreadable, it's just bad. Scott Johnson's dad was in the CIA. He was a spy. And in case you didn't understand that the first two times I said it, Scott Johnson grew up with a dad who was a spy. Got that?

Basically Scott Johnson and his dad had/have a codependent relationship. (I kept waiting to hear that his dad was dead and he waited to publish this kind of punishing book after the death of his father, but it appears that his dad was still alive at the time of the publishing in 2013. I guess since his dad was a contractor at that time, Johnson wasn't disclosing any state secrets or anything? He also doesn't explain how, when his dad ran for state office and was outed as a former spy, it was no big deal. Isn't it like a big deal to have people know that CIA officers are CIA officers? I guess not, in this case. ) Scott and dad love each other so much and are so tied up in each other's lives that it is an interesting topic or a book. Scott seems not really to question very deeply the work his dad does except once or twice, and he does talk about that, but ultimately, he calls his dad a patriot and seems to come down on the side of CIA as doing important, patriotic work. Scott ends up as a war journalist working in many of the places that he had grown up living in when his dad was there on postings, and then his dad decides to go back to work for the CIA as a contractor and follows Scott around. Both Scott and his dad draw connections between their jobs- trying to get information from people. And Scott seems hell bent on getting information from his dad, to the point of meanness. But it's not really clear what he wants- a confession that he was an asshole? A bad guy? Complicit in something more than getting certain spies to defect (the only thing we ever really hear that he was involved in)?

There are moments when you want to like both of them- Scott is involved in an IED explosion when he is in Iraq and suffers greatly after he gets back. As a kid, Scott lived on the CIA training ground and had no idea what it was, and the story is pretty amazing. But then back to him as an adult, and this weird- we went on a trip, stayed in the woods, my dad wouldn't tell me what I wanted to hear, I went away, he followed me, I was doing the same thing as he was, over and over and over. Maybe I missed the point, or maybe this book just sucked.

Joseph Laycock: The Seer of Bayside

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This is the kind of book that I love and know that most people have no interest in reading. I kept checking to see if they had it at the Oakland Public Library with no success- not just not at not at my tiny adorable branch but not in the whole system. But recently I got a Berkeley library card because I work around the corner and the very first trip I made there there it was- prominently featured in the "New Books" section! I feel like this is a perfect example of "it's the little things." (You were expecting me to say how amazing libraries are, right? No.)

The eponymous Seer at Bayside was a Catholic lady in Bayside, Queens, who had visions, primarily discussions with Mary. Her local church didn't like this, partially because Bayside was a suburb with notions of propriety and the spirituality of the seer just didn't fit. She wanted to worship in her parish church, they said no. She wanted to worship outside, at the statue of Mary and at first that worked out okay, but as her popularity grew and people started to show up to see her visions, the neighbors got annoyed and a war started between the religious and the neighbors. Eventually the Baysiders, as they're known, moved out to Flushing Meadows where they still worship.

The Baysiders are traditionalists. Luekens, the seer, was distraught over the post-Vatican II changes. She didn't like mass being said in the vernacular and she couldn't believe that the Eucharist was being served in the hand instead of the mouth. Her visions from Mary and others helped traditionalist Catholics come together around these beliefs. What Joseph Laycock does is use this community as an example of how religions are "continuously imagined and reimagined." The official Catholic church isn't the only doing the imagining and reimagining through events like Vatican II or the sudden changing of tradition of having Popes resign while they're still alive- individual lay Catholics are also involved in changing the religion (and of course Catholicism is just one example). He writes "while the imagined boundaries of Catholicism frequently seem natural and undisputed, historical circumstances can call them into question." The Baysiders changed the local (and international) version of Catholicism and the official Catholic church changed what it meant to be a Baysider- where they worshiped, their hierarchy, etc.

Laycock also posits that the "Baysiders do not represent a deviant sect or a localized variation of Catholicism, but rather an ongoing and asymmetrical debate about what Catholicism is." Luekens didn't want to leave her church and the church never formally disavowed her or her followers. It is fascinating to think about what one can easily call a "sect" as part of Catholicism. Laycock does a great job of this- in his words- "render[ing] the strange familiar and the familiar strange." Luekens believed in an impostor pope who had taken over Paul VI- how else could he have thought up such crazy things as Vatican II? But the Baysiders don't seem so wacky in this book. The strange lights that they see in polaroid pictures don't seem like chemical aberrations but possibly real visions, or at least credible enough to be believed by true believers. If you like anthropology or sociology or religion books, this is really a great one.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Books I'm never going to get around to reviewing

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I am so far behind with these book reviews that I literally bought and read this book while I was in Portland- a vacation and a job ago (no post about that, apparently). I don't remember much about Straight: 'The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality' except that I liked the first part immensely and thought the rest was a little bit long. The book was remaindered, and that doesn't really surprise me- this is exactly the kind of dense sociology-type text about esoteric subjects that I like to read. Hanne Blank's main point is that heterosexuality is a common sense concept- what it means is something that "everyone knows." It wasn't always that way, and won't always be that way, as our understandings of gender and sexuality continue to evolve and hopefully mature. She calls this "stuff everyone knows" "doxa," from the Greek "common knowledge," and this term frames her discussion of heterosexuality: it's the "stuff that 'goes without saying.'" Essentially, heterosexuality is like whiteness: it's a concept we don't have to say because it's assumed. Men aren't mentioned as casualties of war, we're shocked about the women and children. Heterosexuality became a thing, and its becoming was important: not only is it an abstract concept, doxa concepts also have "daily influence on how people think, speak, and act." This is what makes Blank's book great: it's about heterosexuality, surely, but also about how we are part of this creation of knowledge and society. Worth a read for those of us who thrive on this kind of nerdiness, not so much for others who tend towards the feeling that all of this is a little bit overwrought.

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Finkel's 'The Good Soldiers' is up there with one of the saddest books in recent memory, except perhaps 'Thank You for Your Service,' which I read last year. 'Thank You for Your Service' followed the torn up lives of soldiers who had returned from Iraq. It turns out that Finkel embedded himself in their lives at home after he had embedded with the same unit in Iraq. To get a picture of the story behind the newspaper is going on there, and to see how the fictional 'The Kills' is actually true (Americans really are building behemoths to nothing), 'The Good Soldiers' is your book. It's also awful, and hard to read and hard to put down. Finkel has genius headings to each chapter: real quotes from George Bush that match the week/month he is depicting. The blatant lies juxtaposed with the real lives of the soldiers doing Bush's dirty work are made just that much more horrific.

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While I was reading 'The Good Soldiers, I was slogging through 'The Insurgents,' which I never did quite finish.  Fred Kaplan tells the story of David Petraeus and the shift in military thinking and policy from that of overwhelming force to the concept of modern warfare: counterinsurgents. The title is a play on words: Petraeus, et. al were insurgents in a stodgy, slow moving bureaucracy. The thing is that the book read like an elegy to the guy: he modernized warfare! He fought the bad guys at the top of the military brass! He is amazing! But you can tell that's not quite what Kaplan was trying to say- it's just how it came across. And read in tandem with Finkel- Petraeus makes an appearance in 'The Good Soldiers' and his strategy is clearly what the troops are trying to do with no training and no resources in a useless war- the guy does not come across as a good guy. Maybe the second half was better, but I couldn't get past the sense that I was supposed to love an unloveable guy.

Talking about unlovable guys, David Carr was a major asshole. I feel terrible writing that about someone recently deceased, but I feel like he knew that when he wrote 'The Night of the Gun.' The strange part is wondering why Carr wrote this memoir: he knows he was an asshole and had more or less recovered (sorry, bad addiction/recovery pun) from his asshole ways. He repeatedly mentions that addiction memoirs are full of this asshole/redemption theme, and yet does it himself. Strangely, this is not a knock on the book which is almost impossible to put down. I'm guessing it is now selling very well, since every mention of Carr at his death talks about the amazing portrait of Carr as an asshole, and I was something like 10th in line when I went to put the book on hold at the library. When I finally got my copy, it was a brand new paperback, indicating that they had to order new copies to keep up with the demand (the book was published in 2008).

Carr's memoir is also about memory and how memory works, especially in the context of writing a memoir, which adds an extra layer of fascination to the book. For example (and I'm not spoiling anything- this is literally the first chapter), the book opens with an explanation of the eponymous night of the gun. Carr describes an oh-shit moment during his addiction when he remembers his friend in the early drug years pointing a gun at him and telling him to get the fuck out of his apartment. The thing is that Carr actually wrote his memoir as a reporter: he went back and fact checked his memory (can you imagine doing that for your own life? Especially if you were/are a hideous person and/or honest with yourself?). Turns out, he had the gun, even though he thought of himself as the kind of guy who would never own a gun. The book is not fundamentally about memory, but the way that Carr tells his story, it's hard not to think about yourself and your own memoir: we know we're the stars in our own movie, but do we really know how many times we were holding the gun? When we tell stories about ourselves, how many of them are actually anything close to what really happened? What really DID happen, and how much does it matter? This is maybe the best part of this already great book.

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Somehow Edna Ferber's 'So Big' got on my list of books to read and I'm glad it did. A fast read, this is one of those fiction books that makes me like fiction. It was written in 1924 and has that feel to it: it just couldn't have been written today, which is fine. There's a lovely review of it here which talks about Ferber's early and incomplete feminism. I feel like it's a little unfair to judge 'So Big' as a feminist novel: sure, the protagonist is a woman who does things differently and successfully while seeming to cave to tradition by living vicariously (and ultimately being disappointed by this) through her son. The book was written in 1924. I'm not looking to have Ferber change my worldview, or to be shocked into rethinking my views of the gendered world. (I'm not sure exactly WHAT I was looking to do when I added this book to my list, but whatever it was, I was satisfied since I read this book in about 2 days.) Ferber wrote a lovely book, and if it was forward for its day, I think that's fab. If it was conforming for its day, well, that's okay, too, but I don't think it was so bad. Selina, the main character, is pretty enough to appeal to the average reader and bold enough to be a protagonist without being odd enough to say "look, I'm a character in a feminist novel- who's gonna read this in 1924?" Anyway, worth a read.