Capsule reviews of what we’ve been reading.
By Ross Lockridge, Jr.
The challenge: Sum up in 250 words an encyclopedic novel peppered with flashbacks covering nearly 50 years, in which language is as important as the characters, and which, deservedly, was hailed by critics at its publication in 1948 as the Great American Novel.
But Ross Lockridge Jr. accomplished a feat more daunting even than that. In 1,066 pages, he managed to pack Greek mythology, the Civil War, dialogues of determinism vs. free will, burlesque theater, tent revivals, a virile white bull, and nymph-like creatures cavorting in the river.
Set on Independence Day, 1892 in the small town of Waycross, Indiana, the book is ostensibly about Johnny Shawnessy, husband, father, Everyman. The narrative is punctuated with scenes from Johnny’s boyhood, his service at Chickamauga, his disastrous first and happier second marriage, the death of his true love – and a little miscegenation, a wacky professor, and a few snake-oil salesmen thrown in for spice. On another level, it is the hero’s journey, the search for the Tree of Life dropping its golden seed upon the rocks and rivers spelling Johnny’s name across the landscape.
In the end, Raintree County is a paean to America, and for that alone merits the label “Great American Novel.” Lockridge celebrates an America at once an eternal golden myth and a place of real railroads and battles, swamps and dust, poetry and politics – and legends that haunt its past and form its future.
By Jonathan Franzen
For many Americans, their 20s are about experimentation and finding one’s way; their 30s are about settling down and growing more acquisitive and complacent; and their 40s are about blowing the entire contraption to smithereens.
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom offers the most compelling chronicle of this woeful progression I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. The opening pages introduce us to Walter and Patty Berglund, the archetypal liberal couple. Walter bicycles to his job in the Twin Cities; Patty rears the couple’s two children and restores the family’s derelict Victorian. Franzen presents us with this neat tapestry of domestic life at the on the threshold of its unraveling. The Berglunds’ son Joey moves in with the sketchy family next door; Patty rekindles a long-suppressed flirtation with Walter’s best friend; Walter embarks on a quixotic attempt to address the inherently incompatible agendas of environmental activism and corporate self-interest.
Freedom also focuses on the extent to which our lives are defined by the zigs and zags we experience at crucial decision points, and how those choices can lead to perfect happiness, or a perfect storm. Franzen’s characters choose, reconsider, backpedal, and regret. Their lack of resolve not only demonstrates the miseries that stem from basic human frailty: It also reminds us that achieving perfection was never really the point.
As the Hindenburg erupted in flames, a journalist uttered a phrase that encapsulated the horrors of the 20th century: “Oh, the humanity!” Time and again, Franzen’s characters walk blithely into the emotional equivalent of burning buildings, spurred on by lust, naiveté, jealousy, and all the other lower-brain impulses that wreak havoc with our lives. Yet by the novel’s end, we see how those conflagrations can be transformed into fires of redemption. The towering achievement of Freedom lies not in its depiction of what human beings are capable of doing to one another, but in revealing how, nestled within those acts of cruelty and ego, lie seeds that can blossom into grace and forgiveness. Oh, the humanity, indeed.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most-written-about individuals in history. Sharing a birthday with the Great Emancipator, I have read countless books about Lincoln. As a result, it takes a lot to impress me and inform me beyond what I’ve already read and know on the subject; frankly, I didn’t think Doris Kearns Goodwin, for all her fame and TV face-time, would be up to the task. After all, Lincoln is not her forte. Her most notable works cover mid-20th-century figures such as FDR, the Kennedys, and LBJ. However, she succeeds because of the depth of her scholarship and her proven strength in tackling subjects both bound and buttressed by their relationships.
In Team of Rivals, Goodwin explores Lincoln’s surprising 1860 win over much better-known and qualified opponents and his even more surprising move to bring them into his Cabinet. In doing so, she teaches us much about key figures who are typically not that well fleshed out in Lincoln biographies, such as Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. With a combination of Solomonic wisdom, remarkable intuition, and extraordinary magnanimity, Lincoln not only gets these political and ideological rivals to work together, he gets their best thinking out of them and in the process quietly and through example proves to them that he is truly the greatest of them all.
While Goodwin calls this “political genius,” her book is really a treatise on leadership. Lincoln chose his Cabinet members purely for their talents and got them to buy into his vision. He shielded them from external criticism, kept them in line with his gentle humor and humanity, and managed ultimately to keep his house – and the nation – united. While I didn’t always enjoy Goodwin’s literary style, Team of Rivals is an important addition to the enormous Lincoln bookshelf.
Jason M. Rubin
The Elephant Vanishes
By Haruki Murakami
If Murakami’s stories were fine wines, they’d smell familiar, taste peculiar, and linger on the tongue. You’d want a second glass.
Murakami’s characters are certainly not what stay with you. Indeed, most of the characters in this short story collection have no distinguishing features other than their profound humanity; they hang their laundry to dry, make dinner and wash the dishes, lounge around in their gardens and thumb through magazines. In other words, don’t pick up this book expecting action-packed adventure or windows into a protagonist’s inner world.
What can you expect? A complaints department employee responding to an innocuous letter of complaint with a long, rambling love letter. Newlyweds experiencing a hunger so intense that they hold up a McDonald’s. People emerging from a television set at three-quarters the size of “normal” people. And yes, an elephant vanishing without a trace.
Tossing aside the conventions of novel writing, Murakami hurls absurdities at the reader and offers no resolutions. You’re left on your own to ponder the pointlessness of existence, as you sit on your balcony turning the pages.
Thought-provoking? Yes. Confounding? A little. Depressing? Maybe. But there’s a lot more in these stories than echoes of Kafka and Camus: The beautiful writing is half the point, or perhaps three-quarters of it.
©Copyright 2011 Libretto,