A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
What to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t been said? One approach, I suppose, taking a page from the New York Times, would be to cover the coverage. I, for example, was delighted by the Times’ hypocrisy in covering as news the New York Post’s and New York Daily News’ early publication of movie reviews of Harry Potter 5 (these tabloids sent their reviewers to the Japanese premier, which took place before the American and European premiers), and then publishing their own early review of an illicitly purchased copy of The Deathly Hallows. It was not a “spoiler” – no major plot details given away – but there was, in the very fact of a review published on July 19th, inevitably and implicitly, a nanny-nanny-boo-boo quality to the piece.I have been rather under-whelmed by the reviews of the book (my own efforts included). One particularly aggravating feature is the gushing – and totally unexplained – lists of high literature to which Rowling alludes. I have seen Kafka and Milton on these lists. I would be beyond delighted to know where Rowling alludes to Kafka or Milton. Please post a comment if you know. The larger problem here is that the business (nay, the responsibility?) of a critic is to show and not tell – or, at the very least, to do both. That’s the business of good writing in general. (Even an editorial has a responsibility to tether the opinions it offers to substantial, justifying fact or theory of some kind.) I have been frustrated at the love-fest quality of Potter reviews generally: substantial observation falls aside for adulatory effusion.The following are a few (I hope) more substantial critical sallies at The Deathly Hallows and the series in general. I also forewarn those who have not finished the book that they read on at their own peril. Substantial details of the final book are discussed.Rowling’s gift as author is her masterful skill as an architect of plot. As she has said, she imagined Harry’s story as a seven-book series from the beginning and each book has been carefully seeded with clues and pre-history that become newly significant in subsequent installments. The Deathly Hallows, more than any of the other books (because it has all of the other books to draw on) achieves a higher degree of plot complexity. It is in this (alone), I would say, that she resembles Dickens: the complex interweaving of individual personal stories into a larger, coherent plot. Though I think that in basic concept, the Penseive (the ability to experience other people’s memories as an unseen observer), consciously or no on Rowling’s part, owes something to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, wherein Ebeneizer Scrooge’s moral and spiritual re-awakening is facilitated by ghosts who squire him, also unseen, through his own past and future and other people’s presents.The Penseive is also Dumbledore’s means, particularly in The Half-Blood Prince, of teaching Harry to read meaning and significance in personal history, a task Harry must undertake alone in the seventh book, with Dumbledore gone. And Harry’s task in the seventh does not just involve “reading” Voldemort to figure out where the Horcruxes are, but making sense of Dumbledore’s own past, and his character and trustworthiness, in light of it. The question of whose version – whose reading – of events you take, and the troubling multiplicity of accounts about a single event, has been dramatized throughout the series by The Daily Prophet and particularly by the antics of the muck-raking Rita Skeeter (who pens a tell-all biography of Dumbledore in the Hallows). Rowling also dramatizes the difficulty and the importance of reading, and reading well, in Dumbledore’s mysterious bequest to Hermione of a copy of the wizarding fairy-tales of Beedle the Bard. When Harry is (rather fantastically) reunited with Dumbledore, Dumbledore again emphasizes the importance of what and how you read: “And his knowledge remains woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.”While Harry and Dumbledore have taken the time to read Voldemort’s past – to “know thy enemy,” He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has failed to do his homework, which would have involved, very cleverly on Rowling’s part, the reading and comprehension of not only Beedle’s tale, but, in essence, Harry Potter – not the books themselves, perhaps, but some version of Harry’s life history. And one last observation on the limbo scene between Harry and Dumbledore: It reminded me of the final scene in Vanilla Sky, where a similar choice is made in a similarly surreal/psychic landscape. I also felt that the model for Harry’s particular strain of self-sacrifice resembles, in certain structural aspects, the story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein the absolute willingness to make a sacrifice of life, is the thing that frees you from actually having to make it.I applaud Rowling’s clever double-ending. That you think it’s over – are really and truly convinced that it’s over – and then have an even greater joy in finding that it’s not. But I also take issue with those who use the term “adult” too freely in their descriptions of The Deathly Hallows. In the best sense of the word, Harry Potter finishes as it began: as children’s literature. Consider, for example, the dead. Rowling does not kill off a single central character (Harry, Ron, Hermione); nor any from the slightly lower tier including Hagrid, Neville, Ginny, and Luna. The only Weasley she kills off is the one with a identical twin – and we get Percy back, so in total the Weasley numbers remain constant. The deaths of Tonks and Lupin (who appear very infrequently in this volume – so there’s less to miss) allow for the somewhat satisfying emergence of a Harry- and Neville-esque war orphan (their son, Teddy) for the next generation. And it also seems fitting that Lupin – and even Wormtail – join Sirius and James in the Great Beyond. Colin Creevy and Dobby – also possibly Hedwig – are innocents but they were never crucial players so far as character went (and, truth be told, Colin Creevy and Dobby had an irritating spaniel-esque quality that is often the mark of a dispensable minor character). My favorite Death Eater death was that of Bellatrix Lestrange: uber-anti-mother destroyed by ur-mother Molly Weasley. Snape dies, of course, but it’s a kindness given the tragically loveless life he leaves behind. And Dumbledore, who actually is dead, is functionally revived in this final volume by the limbo scene, Snape’s memories in the pensive, the crucial role of his pre-history, and the appearance of his doppelganger-ish brother. You lose no one you can’t live without, is what I mean, and even get a few back through redemption and other means.This is pure children’s lit – though Rowling’s Aeschylus epigraph may have led you to expect otherwise. Good triumphs over evil (if that’s not the crux of a child’s plot, what is?) and this triumph justifies and then eclipses the losses that made it possible. The world is made right and the survivors are not psychically broken by their efforts – they enjoy life again, they thrive. Especially for grown readers, one of the chief pleasures offered by Harry Potter and books like it, is their allowing us to experience – to believe in, however fleetingly or wistfully – the kind of idealism and heroism that most of us lose faith in, willingly or no, in adulthood.My parting thought concerns what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s fantasy genre as Rowling practices it: Its striking correspondence to the ancient epic tradition, in all of its un-ironic hero- and nation-making high seriousness. I find it particularly suggestive that epic, a genre that emerged and defined early human civilization, is now relegated to literature for humans in the early stages of life (from infancy to infancy, one might say), though I have no substantial thoughts on what it means about us as a culture. Harry Potter borrows much from the ancient literary traditions of Homer and Virgil – visits to and from the dead, prophecies, fantastic beasts to be slain, enchantresses to be escaped, magical objects, tragic flaws, heroic friends lost in combat, battles, and choices of world-determining import. The difference is that heroism and glory in war are not ends in and of themselves in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, as they are in the Illiad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. All of the sublime feats of daring and self-sacrifice that this last volume offers are done to keep the mundane yet magical manifestations of human love going: friendship, family, marriage, children, education. As the epilogue, with its glimpse of a new generation of Hogwarts students, parents, and teachers, demonstrates unquestionably, the purpose of heroism is not becoming a hero, but preserving the people, places, traditions, and values that gave you the strength to confront death and pain in the first place.As to the lasting power of this literary phenomenon – whether it is one for the ages – I think that cultural studies, at the very least, will see to it that future generations look back at Harry Potter. How and why did it (somewhat like, though far-surpassing, best-sellers of yore Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) become such a prodigy? As to literary merit, I think, as I said earlier, that Rowling’s skill as a plotter is tremendous: She has a gift for pacing and suspense, for the deft orchestration of clues and of characters’ plot-functions. She is not a stylist – the best that can be said about her literary style is that is transparent and unobtrusive. Of characterization, I would say that Rowling’s characters have an archetypal appeal (the arch, wise, and serene mentor; the affable and fiercely loyal but intellectually diminished sidekick/best friend; the brainy, bossy, dorky-yet-attractive-in-her-braininess female), but that character development is a bit thin – nowhere near so well done as the plotting.Ultimately, though, I think this will be enough to secure Rowling and Harry literary immortality. We shall see.
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that, in its early years, Twitter suffered from a lot of internal turmoil. After all, the company has cycled through three different CEOs in four years. But the power struggle depicted in Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is likely far greater than anyone could have imagined. Culling from some 65 hours of interviews with current and former Twitter employees, in addition to employee emails, IMs, and confidential legal notices, Bilton has used all his access to write a compelling exposé of Twitter’s cofounders — a startup soap opera for the Valleywag age.
From the ruins of the stalled podcasting startup Odeo, Twitter emerged in 2006 as an idea then-nobody programmer Jack Dorsey had about “status updates.” Later that year, he, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone would dismantle Odeo to work on Twitter full time, which is more or less where the good times ended. The company would struggle under Dorsey’s “incompetent” leadership as CEO, Williams would take over, and later be replaced himself by current CEO Dick Costolo, with Dorsey also being brought back onboard. Costolo and Stone are mentioned throughout the book, but remain largely background characters. Bilton centers Hatching Twitter around the relationship between Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams because that’s where all the melodrama is.
The book seems to generally come down harder on Dorsey than it does on Williams, but Bilton discovers an interesting divide in what each cofounder believes Twitter should be. Dorsey sees Twitter as an outlet to express oneself outward, while Williams’s vision is based around telling stories about people. These philosophical differences influence the site’s technical development as well. (Dorsey, for example, believes in focusing on mobile while Williams believes more time should be put toward the website.) In one of the book’s best moments, Dorsey and Williams are arguing about whether the pre-populated question in the status update box should ask the user “what are you doing?” or “what’s happening?” Bilton writes:
To many this might sound like semantics. Yet these were two completely different ways of using Twitter. Was it about me, or was it about you? Was it about ego, or was it about others? In reality, it was about both. One never would have worked without the other.
Here, Bilton is accomplishing several things at once: he’s remarking on the thoughtful subtleties that made Twitter so powerful, illustrating the conceptual divide between Jack and Ev, and developing their irreconcilable relationship to the reader.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more of this throughout the book. Later, it becomes clear Bilton is interested in painting Dorsey as a tragic figure, a 28 year old who came to Odeo to work with industry role models and friends, whose creation of Twitter would ironically sever those ties he sought so desperately to make. It feels like a stretch, especially at the end when, in a moment of loneliness, Dorsey dramatically checks Twitter.
In fact, the entire theme of loneliness throughout Hatching Twitter comes across as particularly facile. Bilton attributes a shared sense of isolation as the genesis for Twitter:
It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens. An emotion that Noah and Jack and Biz and Ev had grown up feeling, finding solace in a monitor. An emotion that Noah [Glass] felt night after night as his marriage and company fell apart: loneliness.
In a book where Bilton touts the accuracy of what he details in an author’s note, Hatching Twitter still feels like it’s constantly making leaps when it comes to its subjects’ motives and emotions. Many of these sections are notably light on quotations in a book that is otherwise so abundant with them.
It’s disappointing to watch Bilton commit to such an obvious trope: the despair of the lonely computer nerd. Dorsey is drawn as a caricature of a developer, a man-child whose desires have the maturity of an early high schooler. There’s a moment, too, when Dorsey’s relationship with Odeo founder Noah Glass is sullied when he becomes jealous of Glass’s friendship with another coworker named Crystal Taylor. Dorsey’s infatuation is solidified early on when Taylor teaches him what “texting” is — making a crush literally the inspiration for Twitter.
The moment reminded me of something Mark Zuckerberg said after seeing The Social Network. According to Zuckerberg, the most inaccurate part of the movie is the way it’s framed. Aaron Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is motivated by getting back at an ex-girlfriend; in real life, Zuckerberg had been dating the same girl since Facebook’s inception.
“It’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley — building stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
Similar comments were echoed by Dorsey’s boss at Odeo, Tony Stubblebine, in a Quora post about the accuracy of Bilton’s adapted excerpt of Hatching Twitter from The New York Times Magazine. Is the notion that Dorsey just wants to be in control of a product he’s created so unbelievable or so unconvincing that his motives need to be supplemented by adolescent jealousy?
And yet while the characters featured in Hatching Twitter feel more like archetypes than actual humans, it’s hard not to eat this stuff up. Aspects of Dorsey’s behavior are hilariously juvenile. After being ousted from the company, he continued to take any and all interviews about Twitter, feigning authority when answering questions he did not know the answer to. Dorsey would also set up meetings with his @twitter.com email address as a bait-and-switch to talk about his new startup Square (he would have his email address revoked).
Bilton has an excellent sense of pace, and there are several scenes — in particular, the chapter where Dorsey gets fired — that are exciting enough to be lifted word-for-word into a film adaptation. Of course, this all depends how exciting you can find a chapter cliffhanger that ends with someone calling Mark Zuckerberg. In the final pages of Hatching Twitter, I questioned whether the book really had anything meaningful to say about Twitter, its founders, or even any of the tumultuous things that transpired between them. Bilton is less concerned about what Twitter is and more interested in the human drama between its founders. The company itself is just the battleground for an ego-driven power struggle, and as gripping as it is to see some of the smartest minds in tech tell each other to go fuck themselves, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just read nearly 300 pages of privileged white men yelling at each other.
I’ve expressed my admiration for Rick Atkinson’s books in the past. His Pulitzer-winning An Army at Dawn is a history of the Allied liberation of Northern Africa, told in a style that glides easily from the the humblest infantryman to the strategies of generals and presidents. He offers the reader a glimpse of what it was like on the ground, while also providing the big picture and dwelling on episodes and campaigns that are merely touched upon in broader histories and television documentaries. (Dawn also inspired me to enlist our readers’ help in compiling lists of World War II fiction and nonfiction.)As the second book in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, The Day of Battle picks up where Dawn left off as the triumphant Allied troops consolidate their hold on Northern Africa and look to Europe for their next move, which after much strategic horse trading between the Americans and British turns out to be an amphibious invasion of Sicily followed by an advance up the “boot” of Italy, with further amphibious landings along the way.As it turns out, the Italian campaign was brutal and bloody, a halting effort with many stalemates along the way as the Germans dug in and the Allies time and again failed to take advantage of opportunities presented to them. In fact, among the may intriguing side plots that Atkinson covers was whether Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s obsession with seeing that American soldiers – and those under his command in particular – were credited for victories undermined the mission at hand. Clark’s penchant for victory parade photo ops is unnerving, though he was undoubtedly a talented general. Similarly, the complicated picture painted of Lieutenant General George S. Patton is riveting. “Few acts of corporal punishment would be more scrutinized, analyzed, and condemned than the two slapping incidents on Sicily in August 1943,” Atkinson writes of the actions that would derail Patton’s legacy, at least for a time, after he struck a pair of soldiers suffering from what we would now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, who he saw as impugning the valor of more visibly wounded men. It is Atkinson’s rich telling of these episodes that make his work so entertaining and instructive. Other highlights – though they were horrors for the men involved – include landing by water at Salerno as well as the grueling back and forth struggle at Cassino and the destruction of the monastery that loomed above it.But readers with an interest in history will likely most value Atkinson’s frequent use of the soldiers’ own words. “‘Someday I hope we shall be able to fight downhill for a change,’ a captain in the 16th Infantry wrote his family.” “‘I’m a little tired,’ an Irish Guards sergeant confessed after emerging from the hellish Moletta gullies. ‘But then, I’m an old man now.'” “Another befuddled guide also led company A into a minefield. ‘We walked as men do in a cow pasture,’ said one man, ‘placing each foot carefully on a pre-selected spot.'”Immersed in the details of the war, it comes to seem incredibly remote from life in the present. Even when Atkinson describes what happened to various notable generals after the war, it is difficult to comprehend that they ever had lives outside of it, so total and suffocating was their experience. The same can be said of the enlisted men and the soldiers all the way up the chain of command. Perhaps Atkinson’s greatest accomplishment is to induce readers now, generations removed from World War II, to marvel at the realities of the fighting and suffering that went on in many now barely remembered corners of the world.
When I was a kid, I read People magazine. I mean read it. As in every week. A couple of years into my subscription, I could name the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, the number of cars owned by Jay Leno, the blood-type of every member of the house of Windsor. Weirdly, People also taught me a lot about serial killers.This was during the era of Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, and in between its celebrity puff pieces and heartwarming tales of uplift, People lingered voyeuristically over every lurid detail of every serial killing, real or imaginary, from Florida to Alaska. Even now the names are coming back to me. Ted Bundy. Aileen Wuornos. You know: People. Especially compelling, for a ten-year-old (and, apparently, for everyone else who read People) was any whiff of weird sex. Of course, from a ten-year-old’s point of view, all sex is weird sex. As all violence and loneliness and pathology seem obscurely familiar. But anyway, I gobbled this serial-killer stuff up like Halloween candy, though I knew I shouldn’t. And, as with the candy I’d stashed throughout my room, my People binges would leave me feeling sick to my stomach and rotten inside.I was doing a pretty good job repressing this, my brief and shameful fascination with serial killers, until last week, when I read Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac Unmasked. I had just seen David Fincher’s scrupulous movie about the Zodiac killer who terrorized Northern California in the early 70s. My engagement with this movie was (I thought) deep, thoughtful, moral… not at all voyeuristic or creepy or weird. Then on the way home I had to go and buy Graysmith’s book, one of the sources for the movie. I read 450 pages in just over 24 hours.I cannot with any confidence say that this is not the worst book I’ve ever read. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Robert Graysmith’s sequel to his bestselling Zodiac is itself a crime-scene: missing transitions, felony-grade solecisms, metaphors even more overwrought than this one, interspersed with anxious self-congratulation. It is the anti-In Cold Blood. Which makes it all the more mysterious that I couldn’t put it down.One explanation is that Graysmith essentially turns the killings into a dime detective novel, gaming the material for suspense.Another possible explanation lies in all the ways the Zodiac killings do not resemble detective novels. The clues do not line up to point in a single direction (despite Graysmith’s best efforts). Every pattern is broken. The puzzle-solving part of the mind, frustrated, cannot let go of the crime, even if the moral sense longs to. Thus we run over the facts again and again, hoping that this time, they will yield some proof and we can relax again.The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it dramatizes this compulsion onscreen. Jake Gyllenhaal, as cartoonist-cum-gumshoe Graysmith, offers an objective portrait of our corrosive fascination with violence. In the grip of his obsession, he resembles a ten-year old (which may explain why Graysmith writes like one). In the book, by contrast, the real Graysmith effaces himself; we are left to feel the sickly fascination ourselves. Maybe this is the more honest approach. Still, I prefer the clinical lens to the pornographic one. Fincher himself, in a couple of early scenes (as in much of his earlier work), stoops to aestheticism. But if a distressingly well-crafted murder scene lowers a veil between the audience and the victim, what can we say about a sentence like “Only the most extreme adversity could prevent this prophet of death from gloating over the proliferation of his obscene word?”Ultimately, the movie Zodiac felt more like an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song than of Graysmith’s Zodiac writings. Like Mailer, Fincher is interested in murder as a window into human nature. And like Mailer, Fincher is as interested in the traumatized bystanders as he is in his killer. It may not be easy, watching Zodiac or reading The Executioner’s Song, to get over the creepy feeling of being compelled by the suffering of others. But at least these made me think about that feeling. Zodiac Unmasked just let me feel it.