Monday, February 23, 2009

The Weight of A Mustard Seed: An Iraqi General's Moral Journey During the Time of Saddam by Wendell Steavenson - 288 pgs

Book CoverThe Weight of A Mustard Seed attempts to chronicle the illustrious and often perilous military career of General Kamel Sachet, a man who was not only a decorated and respected Iraqi military leader, but was also a favorite of Saddam Hussien. In a series of informal interviews with his friends and colleagues, author Steavenson ventures to create a picture of a man torn between his morals and his duty, who struggled constantly to keep his integrity while still following his orders. What emerges from these interviews are not only snapshots of Sachet's life and service, but the hidden insights of men and women brutalized by their country's regime and their frightening egomaniacal leader. Amidst confusing shifts of loyalty, torture and imprisonment, the story reflects the horror that Kamel and others faced. With only their resiliency and determination to cling to in the storm of the extremism of Saddam's policies, they began to commit frightening and horrible crimes. In addition, the book explores the ramifications and repercussions of the Iran/Iraq war on the Iraqi people, examines the disastrous invasion of Kuwait, and explains the people's hostility to the military occupation of Iraq by American forces. In her investigation, the author repeatedly tries to understand how a man can resist while still colluding, how he and others like him can justify their complicity in the barbarous destruction of Iraq and it's people, and how each can live with the realities of their collaboration.

To be quite honest, I found this book to be quite contentious. While I appreciated what the author was trying to accomplish with her investigation into the life of Sachet, I felt that the actual book began to take a different turn very quickly. It ultimately became the author's quest to figure out why and how all these atrocities had taken place, and to question her subjects about their roles in the fiendishness of the regime. While investigating these questions, it began to seem that the author in some ways tacitly absolved these conspirators. Everywhere I looked, these men were trying to exonerate themselves of their responsibility. Many of the men said that that if they were just following their orders, and that they entertained no thoughts of resistance, that it was kill or be killed, that it was human nature, what could they do? Some of them committed truly awful crimes against their countrymen, from kidnapping, rape and extortion, to mass execution and torture. In fact, at times this book was nauseating to read. The description of these men's crimes were awful and soul searing, but the author seems to give them the easy out and agrees to let them downplay their roles in these crimes. She asks the tough questions but never requires the tough answers, and in the end it seems that she seems to acquit them of their crimes, allowing them to blame their leader and his policy instead of themselves as a group for following his orders. In fact, most of the men don't seem too shaken up about what they have done. Most of their concern centers on their own survival and their ability to emigrate out of Iraq, some even leaving their wives and children behind. Over and over again, these men refuse to take responsibility for their part in this horrible mess, hiding behind their orders and their fear and ignoring the fact that they perpetrated heinous crimes. They seemed to use every excuse in the book to justify their actions, never really convincing me that they were remorseful or penitent for what they had done.

The focus on Sachet's life was brief and scattered. I never really got a whole picture of the man as an officer, father or husband because it seemed that the author was so busy pursuing other areas that little actual information about the General was gleaned from her subjects. What I did find out about him was speculative, for the author acknowledges that most of her conversations were in the realm of hearsay or rumor. In the beginning of the book, she admits that she had to basically take one account and corroborate it with others, matching stories for accuracy and relevance. I believe this is because there is little to no documentation on the military service of Sachet and there were few people of authority willing to stick their necks our to talk to a foreign reporter. I found the sections regarding the General too scant to form a real opinion of him, other than the fact that he was very loyal to Saddam and eventually began having doubts about his loyalty and his complicity. In fact, he seemed a bit less heinous than the others interviewed, and that is what makes this story a bit frustrating because I felt I would have liked a more focused study on his ideas, behaviors and actions.

As far as the organization of the book and the writing thereof is concerned, I was extremely disappointed. The book was just plain messy. There were dizzying shifts in timeline and perspective. I often came across chaotic and confusing aspects of chronology that took me out of the flow of the story while I was attempting to understand just when all these events were taking place. The writing too was chaotic, filled with long pointless run-on sentences, improperly conjugated verbs and disjointed phrases. This writing style was perhaps the biggest negative about this book, as it was so hard to concentrate on what the author was trying to say that I became by turns frustrated and angry. A few times I had made up my mind to stop reading this book and throw it against the wall, but I felt that if I could persevere, the writing may even itself out and become more clear. Unfortunately it did not. I am really surprised that this book is being published in this form, as it appears to have never have been under an editor's eye. The whole structure came off as a rambling and ill thought out venture, a confusion of subject, ideas and conclusions. Once in awhile, a flash of brilliant prose would shine through, but that never lasted long. The effectiveness of the book, I feel, was hampered by the actual mechanics of the writing, which I felt was sloppy, unfocused and hurried.

I had great hopes for this book, and it failed to live up to even one. I don't think it is too harsh to say that with the timeliness of it's subject matter, this book could have been great, but it didn't make the cut. I spent most of my time in reading this book trying to follow the author's logic, trying to understand her sentiments, and trying to read and comprehend her words. In the end the most truthful thing I can say about this book is that it was trying. Unless you are very curious, and ready to deal with some frustrating ideas and writing, this book is one best avoided.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - 544 pages

Book CoverPip is a young orphan living with his austere sister and her gentle blacksmith husband, Joe. Though his sister badgers and throttles him mercilessly, Pip finds affection, acceptance and a measure of happiness in the love of Joe and in the routine of his life. Pip lives an ordinary and simple life, believing that he will spend his days both in the forge with Joe, and outrunning his sister's stick. His story truly begins when he has two unusual and life-altering experiences. First, he encounters and aides a convict in his escape from prison, and secondly, he is employed as a companion to the wealthy and disturbed Miss Havisham. When Miss Havisham introduces him to the young Estella, he quickly becomes consumed with her. As Pip grows to understand that he is far from Estella's equal in terms of social class, he becomes distressed and forlorn in realizing that in order to win Estella, he must become a gentleman, a task that seems impossible without an influx of funds and opportunity. Deep in the throes of his disappointment, Pip is suddenly beset by the wonderful and unexpected news that he is to be financed in his cultivation of gentility by a mysterious anonymous benefactor. The one condition on this gift is Pip's agreement to never mention or question the identity of this secret benefactor. Believing that Miss Havisham has done him this great favor in order to level the playing field between him and Estella, Pip begins to nurse the hope that one day he will one day win Estella's hand, and he sets about in his new life with hope and vigor. As Pip begins his new life as a gentleman, he makes a few new friends and a handful of enemies and hangers-on, and begins to spend his way through his great fortune, procuring both his much needed education and his foppish fancies. But Pip will soon be faced with certain revelations about his new fortune and will be beset by the adversity and heartbreak that he thought he left behind. Are Pip's great expectations truly a sham, or, against the odds, can he find his way to become the gentleman the he so wishes to be?

The story of Pip's rise and fall is one that is both extremely moving and perfectly constructed. In this work, Dickens uses some great symbolism and delves deeply into the themes of gratitude, suffering, and shame. Masterful as he is in portraying his themes, they never feel coercive or oppressive. Rather they seem natural consequences of the character's folly. The extensions of these themes carry them throughout the story in interesting and astonishing ways, turning what was once fortune and prosperity into hopelessness and humility. Dickens also shows his great regard for sentiment in this novel. His characters truly embody their love and hate; they are not quiet about their feelings, often losing themselves in their exquisite expressiveness. Pip was especially articulate and expressive in his perceptive discourses, and although at times his feelings were not pleasant, they rang with a truthfulness of spirit and with an unrestrained emotion that is rarely found in a character.

In addition, the character creation in this novel was dazzling. The way Dickens embellished even the most minor players with unique habits, singular qualities and exceptional descriptiveness was something that impressed me on many levels. He found the perfect balance between the stimulating and the unusual, which gave the story individuality and authenticity. Of all the characters in this book, I believe it was Miss Havisham that left the deepest and most lasting impression on me. The tenacity of her animosity towards others and her crafty manipulation of all the other characters in the book left me dumbfounded. In the beginning of the story it was easy to sympathize with her and feel as though she was a woman much wronged, but much to my amazement, she slowly revealed herself to be a truly monstrous woman capable of great injustices and antagonism. And yet, in what I believe to be the beauty of Dickens, at her worst, there existed within me a pity for the woman that was truly undeserved. I knew I should hate her, but she filled me with such sadness that I could not.

My feelings for Miss Havisham were not the only ones that surprised me. Pip, so normally a loving and kind boy, also evinced strong feelings from me. His shame and apathy towards those he left behind in their meagerness astounded and embarrassed me. At times I felt ashamed to be on his side, reading his story with relish, for at times he was so undeserving of the merits placed upon him. That is not to say that I was pleased when he fell from grace or thought that he deserved his fate, for I believe that he did not. It is only to say that these characters had a curious way of entangling me with their circumstances and pitting my emotions against each other. It was interesting to find myself reading and reflecting about characters who were so florid and unbecoming, but were still able to win me to their sides despite my mental protestations.

One of the great things I found out about Dickens was his brilliant use of comedic flair. His pithy asides and colorful imagery had me smiling and laughing at even the most unexpected of moments, and I am hard pressed to think of another author who has had the same effect on me in the manner he did. His comedy was perfect in tone and scope, oftentimes relieving the pressure that had built up in the narrative with a thought-provoking quip. The plot management was brilliant as well, with not a sour note struck. Many of the twists and turns of the narrative were so unforeseen and shocking that I was completely bound to this book, forever shirking my responsibilities in order to get in just one more page.

Reading this book was a fabulous journey, filled with action, intrigue, romance and humor, and it was so much more than what I was expecting when I picked this book up from the shelf. If you have never read Dickens, this is a great place to start. There are so many interesting aspects of this story that I feel it can be recommended to a wide audience, especially those who love wordplay. I am so glad to have discovered this gem of a book. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan - 208 pgs

Book CoverWhen the electrifying Molly Lane dies of a swift and terrible illness, two of her former lovers, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, meet at her funeral. Both men fear for the uncertainty of the future and their mortality, which leads them to make a pact with each other that will have vast and far-reaching consequences. Meanwhile, Clive, a modern genius of a composer, is charged with writing the score of the millennial concert, while Vernon is the editor-in-chief of a floundering newspaper that would do anything to increase its circulation. When Vernon receives stunning information about another of Molly's lovers, the foreign secretary Juilian Garmony, he believes that his newspaper can be saved from its torpor with news of this sensational story, but Clive strongly disagrees. In his opinion, Vernon is being traitorous to Molly's memory and more than a little unkind to Garmony. This argument seriously undermines the friends' relationship and pits each against the other. As Vernon rushes to get his story to print and Clive puts the finishing touches on his symphony, both men find that life has other plans for them. Both Clive and Vernon, driven by their desire for success and renown, will make a terrible choice that will lead them towards the paths of their destruction, and toward the agreement that binds them together.

Frankly, I would read a telephone book if it was penned my McEwan. His perfect eye for prose and the significant weight of his dialogue has impressed me on many occasions. He has a way of capturing the visceral traits in human behavior that people so desperately try to hide. I believe very few authors can compare to McEwan's brilliance. That said, this book was disappointing. I felt that the characters had too much egotism and callousness to make them sympathetic. Vernon and Clive, although cut from different cloths, were much like two sides of the same coin. Clive was entirely too self-absorbed and shallow. He always seemed to be only half-aware of his social actions and their repercussions and he held firm to outdated beliefs and mindsets. Vernon was unlikeable as well. He was also self-absorbed, and there was a cruelty in him that made him slightly repugnant. I found myself growing very tired of his fits of righteous indignation and his issues of entitlement. I was ill at ease with both of these men and their behavior, and it made it very hard to connect and sympathize with their plights. I didn't feel sorry for either of them when things began to turn sour; in fact it seemed as though they were getting what they deserved. I felt rather impersonally towards these characters because neither of the men seemed to have any redeeming or humanizing qualities, nothing to give them the spark of life I was looking for. They seemed almost too stereotypical. I also didn't like the way in which their supposedly great friendship devolved into petty and inconsequential cat fighting. They carried their grudges like heavy weights across their backs, obsessing constantly over perceived slights. This got tiresome very quickly and made the story seem uninteresting and flat.

The conclusion of the story had an ironic twist, but it was so absurdly concocted that it almost became comical. It was at once both overblown and operatic, and although I saw it coming, I couldn't believe it would actually play out in the way that it did. It seemed something so oddly out of character for this writer to conceive of a finale like this, and it ultimately strained the credulity of the book to the breaking point for me. Yes, this book was intended to be satirical, but I think it overreached and instead became ludicrous.

After all the issues I had with this book, there were some very redeeming qualities about it. McEwan's writing was both clever and beautiful, elegant and cultured in a way that entrances. In certain parts of the book he writes so fluidly about the composition of music, I had to wonder if he ever studied classical music. The pages describing Clive at work on his symphony were lush, inviting and thrilling. In my opinion, they were the best scenes in the book. In addition, McEwan has a style of writing that is both acerbic and astute. He has great wit on the page and seems to have a way of unlocking a multi-layered strata of meaning in his narratives. My final impression was that though the language was both satisfying and rich, I felt that this book was reaching and could not find purchase, as there was too little to savor and far too much discordance in the story.

For those who are McEwan fans, this book certainly deserves a perusal but I wouldn't recommend it to for a first time read of this author. If you are the type of person who is in love with language and appreciates the turn of a phrase above all, then this book will not disappoint, but if you are looking for something with a satirical bent there are better books out there. The fact that this book won the Booker Award is somewhat surprising to me. I think McEwan is a fabulous writer but this is not his finest work, and at times it felt like he was not giving it his all. If you really want to get a taste of McEwan's brilliance, I recommend Atonement.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fatal Light by Richard Currey - 170 pgs

Book CoverFatal Light is one man's story of his experiences in the Vietnam War and his struggles to acclimate to a routine life after his return home. This sometimes surreal and dream-like story is told in the form of short vignettes that follow an unnamed soldier as he is drafted and assigned duty as a combat medic. Leaving behind the commonplace world of high school and camaraderie, he embarks on a journey half a world away and forges his way into unknown terrors. Sprinkled throughout the portrait of the meaningless brutality that is war, the soldier reflects on memories of home, family and the love he left behind. As his tour continues, the young man is enveloped by the chaos of his rescue missions, the unpredictability of warfare, and atrocities that each side perpetrates upon the other. Very soon, the foundations of his personality begin to shift, turning him from a typical man into a complex and brooding soldier who has many difficulties in digesting and understanding just what it is he is doing there in the jungle. As his service slowly creeps forward, he is put in many diametrical and puzzling situations, and even the accolades he receives cannot erase the pain of his compatriots' deaths and the moral shift he must accomplish to kill the enemy. Upon returning home, he finds that his actions in battle are hard to forgive and even harder to comprehend. He has returned a virtual shell of the man who left home three years earlier. This meditation and reflection on war dramatically shows the way in which combat and adversity can forever change the spirit of those who are called to perform the noble action of protecting their country.

While I appreciated the subdued art of this book, at times I found the prose to be mildly unfocused and at other times too figurative. It was occasionally bothersome to lose the narrative to the lyricism and poetic language that the author chose to place amidst the story. The shift in language was sometimes abrupt, and followed no discernible pattern. And while I thought the plot of the story was handled very well, illustrating the changes that force their way into the psyche during adversity, I thought that the book would have been slightly more compelling had the author chose to focus more on the external aspects of the war rather than his intense focus on the inner struggle of the soldier's foray into apathy and disillusionment. There was much page space devoted to reminiscence, which I think undermined the power and flow of the story. In fact, only a few of the scenes contained descriptions of battle and its aftermath. I take it that this was meant to be more of a myopic story focused mostly on the reactions and emotions of its narrator, rather than an account of specific actions of war. I also found it a bit hard to relate to the soldier, as even in the opening scenes he seemed subdued and distant, a situation that only became more pronounced as time moved forward. I never really saw him evince strong emotion or react with the characteristic trepidation that a soldier naturally feels in the uncertainty of war.

On the other hand, I liked the structure of the story and felt that the episodic way of arranging the chapters and narrative were extremely well done. This technique gave the feel of smoothness and flow to the story, and the short chapters encompassed all the activity of the plot brilliantly. Despite the problems that I had with the shift of language style and the slight character portrayal, I found the book to be tremendously moving and thought provoking. In essence it was like poetry, albeit a poetry of the savage and dark
variety. I actually think I will be re-reading this book as a way to glean more understanding of it, and also to experience the language in a different mindset. As a short work of fiction on the life-altering aspects of war, this book was both edifying and illuminating, and as time passes, its message has began to take a deeper root in my consciousness. This story is one of gravity and importance, and despite the problems I had with the book, I found it to be a work of an intelligent and sympathetic author.

Regardless of my opinion, I believe that this book should be read by anyone attempting to understand the impact of war on man's fragile spirit. The book is not only timely in regards to the current political situation, but in the way that it captures the ambiguities and fragility of mans existence. This is also a must read for those who are interested in war literature. Although it was not what I was expecting, I did ultimately find this an interesting book. A short and cerebral read.
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