I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
Not all books can make us cry and those that do are often so shamefully sentimental that we can’t easily admit to reading them, let alone crying with them. This, however, is not the case with Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, a novella-length text in three chapters, which produces in its reader tears of the most literary kind. The book’s first two chapters concern the adventures of a set of nineteenth century figures from England and France: the most popular actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (popularly known as Nadar), and Fred Burnaby, a colonel in the Royal Horse Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army. All of those characters are devoted aeronauts and are fascinated by balloons and their machinations. Levels of Life begins in a cheerful mood, with the ascent of the trio from the ground in separate balloons. Some of them are accompanied by bottles of champagne, others by copies of the London Times and all with high hopes of witnessing great landscapes. Burnaby and his French friends seem to have the best time, clinking their glasses and discussing whether the monarchy or the republic is the better system. Barnes does an excellent job in describing the differences between the aeronautical cultures on two sides of the English Channel. In England the Aeronautical Society’s members include a number of lords and dukes while in France the Societe des aeronautes, founded by Nadar, is more of an artistic society, listing Alexandre Dumas, père et fils, and George Sand among its members. There are descriptions of the first balloon and the pleasure it brought to aeronauts in the eighteenth century. There are snapshots of accidents and violence, too. A young man dies in Newcastle, falling to earth from “a height of several hundred feet,” his internal organs bursting out on to the ground. Then there are references to ballooning’s cultural significance (according to Nadar the three supreme emblems of modernity are “photography, electricity and aeronautics”) as well as the political hopes it had inspired. Victor Hugo and progressives in France believed that balloons could bring democracy to the world. Barnes doesn’t seem to share their enthusiasm. Aeronautics did not lead to democracy, he jokes, “unless budget airlines count.” There is an enjoyable portrait of Nadar, “a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur and inventor, a keen registerer of patents and founder of companies.” His fascinating life story floats above Victorian history, drifting from one project to another, very much like a balloon. He arises as a man more interested in the vertical than the horizontal. Nadar’s fascination with height and Paris sewers are accompanied by Barnes’s own memories in Paris as a young man. After “The Sin of Height” and “On The Level,” a rather flat chapter in which Barnes dramatizes the relationship between Burnaby and Bernhardt, we reach “The Loss of Depth.” Here, the cheerful historical figures of the book leave the stage to a couple (Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died in 2007) who play the tragic last days of their relationship before our eyes. Kavanagh is a co-author of Levels of Life in the sense that it is above all her memory that defines and gives meaning to this text. Barnes and Kavanagh have loved each other intensely for many decades: We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart. And though she hated the idea of growing old — in her twenties, she thought she would never live past forty — I happily looked forward to our continuing life together: to things becoming slower and calmer, to collaborative recollection. Reading this chapter one feels as if the balloon in which they began traveling together all those years ago is now occupied only by the reader and Barnes whose job it is to look at the distance they traveled as a couple. The thirty seven days between the diagnosis of Kavanagh’s illness and her death form the emotional core here, as do Barnes’s experiences of desperation and grief. It is the abrupt and sudden severing of a relationship that makes Barnes’s prose so unbearably intense. “You put together two people who have not been put together before,” he muses, “then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.” What was taken from him with Kavanagh’s death had been alluded to in different texts, but in a decisively covert manner. A quick look at some of the titles of Barnes’s most recent books gives a good idea about his experience: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, The Sense of an Ending. Although both of these books have death as their central theme Levels of Life is the first text in which Barnes tries to come to terms with the experience of losing Kavanagh. In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Edgar Allan Poe argued that the death of a beautiful woman is "unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." That Kavanagh is dead and Barnes, a master of the English language and certainly one of the more significant innovators of the English novel, is here to tell the tale of her death, is sufficient to make these recollections poetical. For Barnes, the death of a loved one had become a source of inspiration, however painful that experience might have been. Completed four years after Kavanagh’s death, his recollections reflect not only his ongoing feeling of desperation but also his fascination with the idea of death. It is as if Barnes, who had loved words and his wife more than anything else in the world, had to endure the pain of losing one of his beloved things. This leaves him alone with the other thing: literature. Levels of Life ends, surprisingly I think, in a light and cheerful note, with the image of France. His devoted readers will know that French culture is one of Barnes’s intellectual passions which, one by one, continue to receive the delicate attention of this unique writer.
Like a dragonfly hovering above the surface of a pond, Dyer's criticism skims across a subject rather than diving in. Yet not every critic can incite so many ripples with such a light touch, and not every critic can show such tremendous intelligence while leaving things slighted.
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1. Being a nerd used to mean something, Patton Oswalt proclaims in the opening sentence of his lauded Wired essay, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” Being a nerd used to take patience and sacrifice. Patience because issues of Watchmen were few and far between, and the time between a science fiction movie’s theater run and its release on video was completely void of illegal viewing options. Sacrifice because, firstly, true nerds were collectors, which is expensive, and secondly, you probably weren’t popular. These days, if you’re into Watchmen, searching for “Alan Moore interview” on YouTube brings up 379 results. You don’t have to memorize the names and call signs of all the pilots on Battlestar Galactica, you can Google it. I just did. Oswalt deems this new era of nerd culture Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. Nothing is collectible or hard to find, there are no personal obsessions that someone else isn’t already blogging about. The nerds of the 80s and 90s aren’t even nerds anymore. Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow are household names. Patton Oswalt has 243,000 followers on Twitter. In his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt looks at life as a nerd, before and after Dungeons & Dragons came out of the basement. The result is both and elegy for an underground world, and an examination of how, as an exile of that world, he functions in the modern day. 2. Falling into the Patton Oswalt Didn’t Fit In In The Past category, (Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In The Present will follow shortly), the book’s first essay is about the underground movie theater where Oswalt worked as a teenager in northern Virginia. In this instance, underground merely means below street level. As he describes it, “you descended three flights of stairs into a murky, fluorescent-lit lobby…Then, once you bought snacks and drinks, you descended another flight of stairs to an even dimmer, grimmer lobby where you’d choose one of three theaters. It was a theater designed like an artless logic problem—which door leads to freedom, which to death, and which to Adventures in Babysitting.” Oswalt and his coworkers were a truly bizarre band of cinema personnel. The assistant manager lived in one of the theater’s closets, where he hid weaponry. The manager wanted to be a cowboy. When not reading Orson Scott Card at the ticket booth, Oswalt would engage with his coworkers in casual harassment of each other and after-hours drinking. As he points out, while he was doing so the hardcore punk scene was exploding a few miles away in Washington, D.C. That, the implication goes, would have been a cooler place to be. But no one chooses their own origin story, and if he’d been in a club getting sweat on by Fugazi, he never would have spent all those nights listening to R.E.M. and reading William Gibson, which gave him the sense of pride that comes from finding something you love and keeping it to yourself. When being a nerd meant something, Patton Oswalt was a nerd. Which is why it’s not surprising that, once his hobbies went mainstream – as he writes in Wired, “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s.” – he darted back into the shadows. The basically chronological essays move from his pudgy, sexless youth to his years as a stand-up comic on the road. Stand-up comedy is a thankless profession for those who aspire to be good at it, Oswalt explains, because comics who are bad at it are so frequently popular. He cites Louis C.K. and Bill Hicks as role models, but was forced to open for three types of comedians whom he calls Blazer, “Wild” Willy, and Topical Tommy, whose names I hardly need expound upon. But great comedians were out there, he says, “And knowing they were hidden in strip malls made me feel like I was a member of one of the last mystery cults on Earth.” It’s nice to hear this - that he found another hidden fraternity. Which brings us to the Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In the Present portion of the book. What this portion lacks in poignancy, it makes up for in being outrageously funny. It lacks the hazy poignancy of the first half of the book because, yes, while those years on the road were excruciating, they eventually landed him on The King of Queens and Ratatouille, and got him an invitation to an MTV gifting suite where the free Adidas made him feel shallow (the poor guy!). At this point in the book, though, you’re happy for how well he’s doing, because his writing shows him to be such an endearing, brilliant, funny guy. All essay collections are hit or miss. Oswalt hits well and misses infrequently. His skewering of 90s comedy is spot on and, like a true stand-up, he can make almost anything funny. He lovingly describes his former Dungeons & Dragons avatar, then writes him an epic poem. There is a comic strip in which two vampires bicker over who has more vamp cred. His description of hotel amenities, in particular, got me: “I make a pot of coffee with the little coffeemaker that’s in the room. Now the room smells like a hot, wet hat. The coffee tastes like pants.” 3. The title essay is a classification of the three main elements of science fiction, and therefore the three kinds of science fiction fans. Zombies simplify, Spaceships leave, Wastelands destroy. Oswalt counts himself as a Wasteland. “What is stand-up comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs? Or, in a broader sense, pointing out how so much of what we perceive as culture and society is disposable waste?” I agree to an extent, but I’d color him a Spaceship. Pop culture’s embrace of old school nerds has obviously been good to him – with the Comedy Central specials and working next to Jerry Stiller – but I get the feeling every once in a while he’d like to fly back to visit rural Virginia in the 80s and re-read Ender’s Game.
Charlie Wilson's War, the movie, is set to open nationwide on Friday. A recent screening in Manhattan was about two-thirds full, and the response when the lights came up was tepid applause. It's not a bad movie, basically Tom Hanks wearing suspenders, grab-assing with Julia Roberts, and drinking a lot of scotch. It also features trademark Aaron Sorkin screenwriting: dense, snappy dialogue a la "West Wing" and A Few Good Men (Sorkin also has a new Broadway offering, The Farnsworth Invention), and direction by Mike Nichols (Primary Colors). Philip Seymour Hoffman rounds out the cast, and he does his usual fine turn as Gust Avrokotos, a CIA agent with a chip on his shoulder. It is a film based on actual events, events chronicled in George Crile's book, subtitled "The Extraordinary Story of how the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times." Charlie Wilson's War, the book, takes a lot longer than the movie to absorb, but it is worth the time. It's an amazing story that just about does justice to that rambling subtitle. In addition to being a sensational tale of political maneuvering, high-power high jinks, and clandestine operations, Crile's reporting provokes deep thoughts about how the Cold War was ended and how legislative government really functions in America. Crile hints that Wilson, the Democratic Congressman from Texas, hard drinker, notorious philanderer, "Good Time Charlie," as he was called, may have had a hand in saving the world from the Soviets. As a member of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, Wilson wrangled millions of Federal dollars for the CIA to support the Islamic tribal guerrilla factions within Afghanistan that battled the Red Army, which occupied Kabul in late 1979, throughout the 1980s. Guns, mortars, mines, rocket launchers: things that jihadists need to kill Commies."Afghanistan was the largest and most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA," writes Crile. The partnership between Wilson, the congressman, and Avrakotos, head of the CIA's South Asian Operations Bureau, made it happen. The degree to which the Red Army's defeat in Afghanistan, culminating in complete withdrawal in 1989, influenced the subsequent raising of the iron curtain, collapse of the U.S.S.R., and end of the Cold War, is a matter for debate. Wilson recognized that there was one place in the world, Afghanistan, where the U.S. had an opportunity to have a hand in the killing of Soviet soldiers. After seeing the refugee camps in Pakistan, and meeting with numerous mujahideen, Wilson came to view them as freedom fighters, and he championed their cause.But inspiring as Charlie Wilson's story is, let's face it: it's frightening to think that an obscure congressman could have such awesome power to dictate American foreign policy. Did Wilson and Avrakotos break laws in the course of directing the most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA? Crile writes the following:At a time when [Nicaraguan] Contras could not get a dime from Congress, Charlie Wilson had managed to turn the CIA's cautious bleeding campaign in Afghanistan into a half-billion-dollars-a-year operation that dwarfed any prior agency effort. For all practical purposes Wilson had hijacked U.S. foreign policy and was busy transforming it into the first direct winner-take-all contest with the Soviet Union... He was now engaged in the kind of sensitive diplomacy that is technically illegal for anyone other than the White House to conduct: Cutting arms deals with the defense minister of Egypt; commissioning Israel to design weapons for the CIA; negotiating all manner of extraordinarily controversial matters with the all important U.S. ally general Zia [ul-Haq, president of Pakistan].Whether or not his actions were legal, it would seem that Wilson was motivated by patriotic ideals, to aid victims of tyrannical aggression and hurt the U.S.'s great Red enemy. But part of what makes this such a jaw dropping story is that Wilson was able to accomplish what he did - and get away with it.Honest though his motives were, Wilson's actions had unforeseen consequences, a fact that was brought home to him on September 11, 2001. All of the hijackers who hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon had spent time training in Afghanistan. I shuddered when I read this sentence:For anyone trying to make sense of this new enemy, it would seem relevant that for over a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. government sponsored the largest and most successful jihad in modern history; that the CIA secretly armed and trained several hundred thousand fundamentalist warriors to fight against our common Soviet enemy; and that many of those who now targeted America were veterans of that earlier CIA sponsored jihad.Especially when considered in light of the intelligence failures that predicated the 9/11 attacks, the CIA emerges from the Charlie Wilson saga with their usual black eye, despite the Afghan war with Soviets being supposedly the Agency's finest moment. It is a perverse glory that comes with winning a "proxy" war. It would seem a rather ignoble pursuit.
About a year ago, The Millions readers recommended that I read Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita after I wrote about Crime and Punishment - which was not so much a commentary on Dostoevsky's fantastic writing, but a plea for more excellent Russian literature. As happens with a lot of books I end up reading, I stumbled upon the novel per chance: a friend visiting me in DC had a copy he intended to read, but gave it to me as a travel companion.Enter the devil - or Messire, as his servants respectfully call him. Set in Moscow, ostensibly sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, and in Yershalayim right before and after the Crucifixion, Bulgakov's eccentric satire brings the ruler of the shadows into the lives of unassuming citizens.As a heavily censored author in communist Russia, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colorful scene of chaos.It all begins when Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz urges the poet Ivan Homeless to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus - namely by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestion that the devil does not exist, begins prophesizing about Berlioz's fast-approaching death. When the chubby publisher succumbs to his fate as foretold, Ivan loses it. And soon, many people in Moscow do too.Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire - or Woland as others call the devil - rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.But the devil's show is not inherently evil, rather it is a collection of minor acts that play on the actors' vices: bribery, free-goods and personal favors go a long way for the citizens of a cash-strapped USSR. And while Bulgakov amuses his reader with Woland's deeds and his victims, he introduces the Master and his lover, Margarita. And, he solemnly tells the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.The Master, who is banished to an insane asylum after his novel about the Crucifixion is deemed unfit for publishing and subjected to scathing reviews by literary authorities, might just symbolize the author. For The Master and Margarita shared the same fate as the Master's piece on Pilate - it was published in 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died.But the similarities do not stop there. Like the Master who burns his manuscripts, Bulgakov, in an effort to convince Soviet authorities to let him emigrate, destroyed his "book about the devil," and later rewrote the novel from memory. At the time of his death, the work was still not in its final form.Bulgakov dictated revisions and additions to his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, even from his death bed, and it was she who brought the work to light. Much like Margarita in the novel, who relentlessly pursues her Master and his writings, aiming to both satisfy her desire to know how the story in Yershalayim unfolds and share the masterpiece with the world.The Master is not the sole teller of this story, however. As time winds back and forth between certain parts of the book, the reader hears the story from Woland, the Master and a narrator from ancient times. One is, all of a sudden, observing the painful contemplations of Pilate, his disgust for the post in the Middle East and the brewing tensions in Yershalayim. I'm not much for Christian history, but from what I can tell Bulgakov sheds a different light on to the whole situation. This becomes manifest later on as the reader sees the symbiotic tie between the devil and Jesus as they decide certain characters' fate.The Master and Margarita shows the folly of Soviet repression, but it does not stop at mere cynicism and irony. Bulgakov also illustrates that the devil might watch out for Jesus, and vice versa, i.e., there are more gray areas even in the scripture than one might ordinarily perceive.The gripping plot surely helps with the read, but Bulgakov's genius is in the subtle theories and observations he advances throughout this page-turner, forcing a reader to think about what it all means as a grin maliciously spreads across his face.PS: I was reading the book on the bus in DC one evening. A kid, probably about five, saw the cover and remarked, "The cat has a snake's tongue. That's stupid." Clearly the subtlety was lost on the child, but I still find the comment very amusing. This brings me to a stylistic note: The version I have has the black tom in a suit looking over his left shoulder and slithering his split tongue; similarly, The Heart of a Dog - also by the same author - features a dog in a suit, with his tongue out, and looking over his right shoulder. Just a random note...
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