Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Probably the most positively reviewed book so far this year is Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. Typical of most reviews is Mark Bowden's for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Similar to others he calls it "starkly realistic", claims it's "about disillusionment and betrayal" and doesn't stint on the praise ("a rich, fine, powerful story told with excruciating precision"). Like nearly all other reviewers he references The Naked and the Dead and The Thin Red Line but Bowden at least has a broader range by mentioning Going After Cacciato and A Farewell to Arms. He does have one odd statement by saying it's not until four pages in that the reader knows the book is set in Vietnam. Of course that means the reader didn't notice the cover ("A novel of the Vietnam war"), the title page with the same notice, the unit organization, the map of Vietnam and then decided that the note about a glossary in the back isn't worthy of immediate attention. Well let's just assume Bowden had an ARC without all that but still the first page is combat Marines in the jungle which narrows down the possible wars and then a reference (right at start of second page) to a fire base would probably pin it down to Vietnam even without a specific name.

Still, all in all, Matterhorn is an almost stereotypical first novel: quasi-autobiographical, somtimes clumsy, too often devoted to Big Statements and far far too long. At almost 600 pages this is a book that's nearly twice the size necessary for what Marlantes actually does.

And what is he doing? His main points are that war is a violent and messy business and that people in command often make bad decisions for bad reasons. Nothing new here and in fact these are what people of our time expect from war stories. Just look at the claims that Saving Private Ryan is anti-war purely on the basis of the explicit violence when in fact that is often exactly what draws people to war (what The Hurt Locker intends to explore, and sometimes does). Other ages were just as aware of war's violence and probably more often at first hand than most of us today but that wasn't the focus. With works like Matterhorn it's almost like reading a cookbook that tells us almost nothing but how messy cooking is. (As a stubborn pacifist I'm not saying go back to glorifications of war, only that displaying the violence is not of itself particularly interesting or political.)

Matterhorn's story follows a newly arrived college boy who takes command of a unit as it holds a hill of uncertain value, then leaves, then heads back. The novel follows him from a somewhat fuzzy idea of what combat actually is (he mainly wants this to help a future political career) while he learns to take command and handle nearly crushing pressure. The catch is that this officer is a fairly bland person, all too clearly intended to be a bit of an Everyman to avoid alienating readers. The people surrounding him tend towards stock as well: a commander who doesn't like that this war is different from Korea, the lifer sergeant, the farm boy newbie, a Black Power organizer, and so forth. Marlantes does skip to different viewpoints but often he really is just skipping over - in this sense comparisons to The Thin Red Line only serve to show how timid Matterhorn is.

The other marks of a first novel can be found in numerous tiny issues. Marlantes uses a steady, somewhat plodding style that works without being particularly efficient or allusive. At one point he gives a full flashback to a secondary character which is an odd intrusion. Dialogue tends to be rough and sometimes a bit awkward. There's a longish scene where a black soldier explains to the college officer how all Americans are racist but not all are prejudiced and what that might mean politically. For all I know Marlantes is quoting verbatim actual conversation from his tour but in the book it comes off as implausible and something that limits characters rather than expanding them. (And whether it's actual conversation or whether anything in the book really happened doesn't matter - it's labelled a novel instead of a memoir and must be approached as such.) Considering the brevity of the actual story, the thinness of the characters and the unremarkable prose there's absolutely no reason for Matterhorn to run as long as it does - it really should have been about half its length.

If this post comes across as somewhat harsh that's mostly a reaction to the extravagant claims being made for Matterhorn. It is a reasonably interesting book whose real strength is the detailed descriptions of how a Marine unit actually worked - the procedures, the policies, the routines, the traditions, the jargon. Of course saying this is a manual to run a 1969 Marine unit isn't going to sell books but hey Moby-Dick is nearly a whaling instruction manual at times. (Though come to think of it that was a legendary poor seller.) Marlantes does also know how to keep the story going with only a few times that it flags and then mostly because he's muddling characters or actions. What he's done with Matterhorn is write a moderately effective adventure story that's getting a rep for literary value because there's not much "adventure" in it and because he's added just enough Meaning.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


For such a popular and acclaimed book I expected something more substantial though a cynic might argue why did I think it appealed to so many people? This really isn't any primer on economics or statistics but is instead illustrations on question solving. For instance, why do so many crack dealers still live with their parents? Answer is that they're so low in the orgnization that they actually make little money but the authors Levitt and Dubner actually go through the data to explain this and show how it works that way.

Towards the end they criticize experts who come up with definite answers just to get publicity but I can't tell if Levitt and Dubner expect us to understand that they're doing exactly the same thing or if in fact they really are unaware. Look at their discussion of why crime rates have been falling for a couple of decades. They talk about the "diverse army of experts" who came up with a "phalanx of hypotheses to explain the drop in crime". They then list the most common, state that only three have any evidence and then that "one of the greatest measurable causes" isn't on the list and was never mentioned in any newspapers. That unmentioned reason is the legalization of abortion which resulted in fewer unwanted children and therefore fewer adults inclined towards crime.

Now the thing is that Levitt and Dubner are no different than any of these other experts. They criticize what they see as wrong, they have a main cause that they propose and they have their own data/evidence to support it. I'm not saying they're wrong because their reason does make sense but making sense and being true are not the same thing. If legalized abortion as a cause is measurable and so obvious then doesn't it raise a red flag that nobody has discussed this before? Is Levitt (the actual economist of the duo) really so insightful that he found something everybody missed? (And let's just assume that the no mentions in newspapers does actually mean experts weren't discussing this - there is a large gap between mass media and academics/policy experts.) Doesn't it make more sense that Levitt found something that's already been discussed and dismissed? Or that he has the wrong data? Again, I don't know. Freakonomics seems plausible but like so many social issues this is very complex and it's impossible to completely separate all the causes - in fact I would think it's possible that there is no actual cause at all, at least in the sense that they mean.

They also sometimes use the wrong data which doesn't quite create more confidence. They discuss (p149) the parents of an eight-year-old who they allow to go to a house with a swimming pool but not to one with a gun. Levitt & Dubner claim that this is both wrong and irrational because the statistics show that the liklihood of dying at a pool is greater than that of dying from guns. Now I'm just going to assume that their statistics are true - the source in the footnotes is one of Levitt's own articles in the Sun-Times. But what their statistics are measuring are numbers across the entire country and in aggregate - 1 death under age 10 per 11K pools, 1 similar death per 1 million guns (which he translates to a total 550 pool deaths and 175 gun deaths per year). What really is needed are statistics concerning deaths in households that actually have guns. In other words, how many children actually die from playing in a household with guns rather than a number based on total deaths and total guns. Also it could only help his case but Levitt doesn't distinguish between intentional and unintentional gun deaths.

But when you expand this the parents decision seems more reasonable. Most "near-misses" at a swimming pool create mainly a frightening event (one statistic I found is permanent damage happens to less than 20% of children hospitalized but of course most wouldn't need hospitalization) but with guns there is a wide variety of permanent injuries that could result. So instead of focusing on just deaths Levitt needs to pull in statistics on injuries, disfigurements and other permanent damage.

This example is actually a fairly small one in the book and to some degree doesn't entirely matter. What they're really doing is raising a question and then exploring possible ways that data might be utilized and examined to help provide answers. That process is the real core of the book even though I suppose most people are actually just taking away that real estate agents sell their own houses for more than they get for customers, probably remembering a reason or two why this should be so and likely forgetting how Levitt figured it out. Maybe this is one reason I found the short newspaper articles included in the paperback edition more interesting than most of the original book.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Glee seems intended, if not destined, for guilty pleasure status - that uneasy category where you either recognize something you like is more or less objectively bad, or you just don't feel up to explaining why you like it. For pop culture critics this almost seems like an irrelevant category: If it sounds good it is good, or in less succinct words the pleasure is the message and it can't be bad if you like it.

So I suppose this is the point where I explain that Glee overcomes its limitations and frequent lack of imagination but in fact it really is simply a bad show and if I like it then that's only in sections and scenes, at times enough to convince myself that there just might be something there though increasingly less so. (If "increasingly less" even makes sense.) Simply look at the characters: a stardom-aiming Jewish showbiz kid, a jock who really just wants to sing, a chubby black diva who thinks wailing is singing, a scheming cheerleader, a ditzy blonde and then the effeminate gay guy who is given almost every stereotype trait you can imagine. They are all stereotypes which isn't a problem -- nearly all narrative art relys on stereotypes to some degree -- but that stereotypes is all they are. And to judge by the progress so far, all they will be. It's as if the writers completed the pilot and decided "Whew, we are finished with that. Who said characters are hard? Now on to some improbably convoluted story about a fake preganancy...."

Maybe this rudimentary, even defective, sense of drama is why there are so many messages and often the weakest part of the series. The episode about handicapped kids was particularly dim. How many high schools would let large numbers of its students into wheelchairs just to prove a point that they all already know? Making a musical number out of this borders on insensitivity if not outright offensiveness - "Rolling on the River"? Why not just have them do ZZ Top's "Legs"? The decision to give Sue a sister with Down's syndrome was apparently a tactic to make her more human (or "well-rounded" as creative writing teachers might have it) but was such an utter misjudgement that the sister was immediately dropped.

And though I didn't expect performances of Cole Porter or Bob Dylan, the music choices have been particularly bland, on purpose you'd have to think. Songs from Wicked? Lionel Richie? Celine Dion? That horrible Beyonce song?

So then why am I even bothering to write about this or to have watched all of Glee so far? Because when it worked you could see the potential for something more substantial. Admittedly my ideal version of Glee would be closer to Moulin Rouge directed by Frederick Wiseman but even within its current confines the show sometimes struggles to life Herbert-Wise-style. The two rap numbers were amusing (though I have to wonder why even bother doing "Gold Digger" if you're going to censor the lyrics), there really should be more than the one Bacharach song, the bit from Cabaret was effective and an almost vicious version of "You Keep Me Hanging On" was one of the highlights. In fact what gave me some hope that Glee might turn out different is that it was slowly making the evil, manipulative cheerleader into the moral core of the show (minus, of course, the evil and the manipulation).

But the two episodes since returning from a long break seem like whatever the creators were doing they used up all their ideas. Already. The cheerleader was completely sidelined along with nearly all the stories from the earlier episodes (the whole Will-Emma thing put on hold, the Will-wife story nearly forgotten, Sue right back as if nothing happened before, etc). Which made the first episode back a series of song performances that mostly had no connection to the story, might as well make a concert film instead of musical.

But there was worse to come. An episode of all Madonna songs sounded like an iffy idea at best - in practice it was about as hellishly tedious as anything could possibly be. Sure some people claim, usually with more enthusiasm than sense, Madonna is a feminist icon but to hear everybody in the show chant this mantra makes you feel like it can't possibly be true. Again there's little connection of the songs to any story but the greatest failing is that the performances are more pastiches rather than anything original. A recreation of the "Vogue" video was probably a blast to do in real-life but is completely pointless otherwise. Only a marching band number showed that there might have been any potential in Madonna at all. Too many more episodes like that and -- well I can't resist this-- and I will gleefully abandon Glee.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker

The cover has a blurb from Mike Mignola: "If Jules Verne and George Romero got together to rewrite American history, it might go something like this." Of course that sounds like something I'd love but as you've certainly guessed I didn't. Priest set out to make an explicitly steampunk novel (in fact "steampunk" is the final word in the entire book) but it reads not just like a first novel but like it was written by somebody who had really only even read a few novels. In fact Priest has published a handful before so either she's just that bad or simply had a dip. A good editor might have salvaged a little more but those are an increasingly rare breed (though the more scary alternative is that the original manuscript was worse and the editor did indeed work on it).

Just look at this way of providing background. The book opens with several pages from a (fictional) non-fiction book that explains the history of this alternative-history. Then the first part of the actual narrative has a biographer show up to interview the main character Briar about the person he's writing about so now we get more backstory. A bunch of exposition, explanation of characters and then the biographer vanishes until a pointless epilogue. That's a lot to slog through to get the actual story started and it could have all been easily cut out with bits and pieces reinserted elsewhere if needed.

Once the story is going, Priest proves to be a lackluster stylist. She favors a clean, almost blunt approach as so many current writers do but she also can't help but push readers. "Without the coat, her body had a lean look to it--as if she worked too long, and ate too little or too poorly." Priest has already told us Briar works too long and is about to get to the eating so this is just heavy underlining. Characters talk while raising eyebrows, under the breath, mumbling, agreeing, etc - not to the point that it's obtrusive but more than necessary. Considering her steampunk intentions a more Dickensian approach wouldn't have been out of place or failing that some good old-fashioned pulp excess. Admittedly both are fairly out of fashion except for parodies or deliberate pastiches but this would have been the place.

The story itself isn't completely hopeless but is a bit more straightforward and predictable than needed. Priest even makes the three most powerful characters women and then has one of them point it out - fair enough but readers already noticed and if they hadn't then this only jostles the story. Too much is a character having to get from A to B and then the main suspense is "will they get from A to B?" Sure, that is more or less true of The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy or Lord of the Rings but the difference is whether A-to-B is all that's going on. And too much for Boneshaker it is.