Saturday, August 4, 2018

2018 Reading Part I

Wrapping up my tour in Afghanistan I found this 6 month period to be extremely prolific and fruitful for reading. And I feel like the books I read amounted to an embarrassment of riches. The biggest change was switching to literature and, from the perspective of a father of three daughters, I tried to engage with the work of some of the most famous female authors. Knausgaard continues to be brilliant. Ferrante was an incredible find. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre kept me thinking for weeks and months.  


Graham Greene's The Quiet American is a great critique of British colonialism and America's boundless well of self-confidence in world affairs. Set in Vietnam, the novel swiftly moves through the story of American Alden Pyle and Brit Thomas Fowler as Pyle attempts to change the course of the French-Vietnamese conflict. This novel and Smedley Butler's War Is A Racket seemed to pair well and capture something essential about our involvement in Afghanistan. A good read for budding Department of State Foreign Service Officers and military Foreign Affairs Officers. 

The God Of Small Things was my first attempt to branch outside the American-British canon of works in English. I realized that I'm completely uneducated about literature originating from other former British colonies; Kenya, Nigeria, India, Jamaica, Australia, etc. What are the great works from authors writing in those countries? I'm curious to know how styles, vocabulary, narratives, chronology are used differently. Reading translated works is useful for cross-cultural understanding but the native work has to pass through a translator and hence gets altered through the process. It can't be helped.  

The novel was excellent and recounts the tragic event leading to the dissolution of an Indian family during the late 1960s. Set in the time of massive social upheaval it shows how the Indian caste system affects all levels of social and political life. I'm not sure how to recommend this novel or what to read next.

Have you ever known someone who knows better but cannot break out of their habits of error anyway? Herzog is a story about a man who has made mistakes and been betrayed but cannot find the inner fortitude to make some hard choices and face reality. The main character, Moses Herzog, a brilliant professor, is famous for penning real and imaginary letters to address the concerns of his life. They are the impotent actions of an academic who cannot seem to assert himself in the world. I definitely recommend this novel. 

Italian writer, Elena Ferrante (pseudonym), brings us to Naples, Italy in the 1950-1960s to follow the intimate childhood and adolescent friendship of Elena and Lila. Their lives are deeply affected and shaped by the mores and culture of their underclass neighborhood. I though that everything worth reading was already written. I was wrong. My Brilliant Friend is exceptionally good and I'm very much looking forward to reading Books Two through Four of the quartet. A must read.  

Wuthering Heights was haunting and intense. It was not a fun read but I can appreciate why it has come to be in the pantheon of great Western literature. The bitter and betraying love between Heathcliff and Cathy tortures them and causes Heathcliff to seek revenge on everyone involved including eventually Cathy's daughter. For a taste of the insanity; 

"I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. And this is one- I’m going to tell it - but take care not to smile at any part of it” -Cathy

“'May she wake in torment’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a lair to the end! Where is she? Not there - not in heaven - not perished - where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer - I repeat it until my tongue stiffens - Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you - haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe - I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’” - Heathcliff  

I see why Pride and Prejudice is a favorite among many women but it seemed to lack depth compared to reading the Bronte sisters. It's a novel that challenges notions about a woman's place in the world and Mr Darcy finds his equal in Miss Elizabeth Bennett. But I thought the plot was too long and awkward to really enjoy the novel.  

To find a character with an inner strength and indomitable spirit equal to that of Jane Eyre would be nearly impossible. This may be one of my all-time favorite novels. Jane, an orphan, seeks her place in the world and faces all manners of struggles, rejections and hardships with unwavering integrity. On the cusp of finding love and happiness in marriage Jane refuses to compromise herself and chooses the lonely path instead. This is a timeless novel that I universally recommend.  

Book 3 of My Struggle centers of Karl Ove's life as a child and young teenager in Southern Norway. The novel focuses on the rich social world of his friends and classmates and their quotidian lives. It captures children's sense of endless time when a week, a month and a year were nearly indistinguishable. Living in constant fear and growing resentment of his father Karl Ove begins to develop an inner life. This is still an incredible work and retains the same energy and rich detail as the first two. 

There's a lot of goodness in Skin In The Game but it also devolves often into distracting naming calling. If you're a Taleb fan and have already read his previous works then it's a must-read to finish off his epistemological trilogy to understand when and how aspects of life are not distributed normally. Otherwise, I recommend starting with Fooled By Randomness.

Waging Insurgent Warfare is a how-to book on conducting insurgencies. I'm not kidding. It's a great primer for military and security professionals to understand the circumstances and strategies that are most effective for insurgencies. Seth Jones provides lots of data on how outcomes are correlated with different insurgent actions, organizational structures and resourcing. While most books on this subject take the perspective of the counter-insurgent I found this ground-breaking by flipping the question around. It's especially helpful to understand the challenges and pressures insurgent groups face when one is trying to defeat them.

Where Men Win Glory is the story of former NFL football player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Tillman who famously gave up his professional football career to enlist in the military after 9/11 tragically died in a friendly fire incident in southern Afghanistan. Krakauer pushes hard on the narrative that forces of darkness inside the Army ineptly covered up what really happened and tried to sell Tillman death as heroic. However, Tillman's selfless actions are inspiring and a great example to others contemplating sacrificing their own gain for the greater good. 

Former FBI director, James Comey's side of the story after being fired by President Trump shortly after taking office, A Higher Loyalty, gives a decent amount of background before giving an account of the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton during the election and the chaos that ensued after Trump was elected president. One learns quite a bit about the decisions Comey had to make regarding what information to make public and when all the while aware that his actions or non-actions could affect the election's outcome. The only idea one can hold firmly to as truth is that Anthony Weiner probably cost Hillary Clinton the election. 

In the introduction David Bell promises Napoleon to be brief and on point. He delivers a great short history of the famous general. What I learned is that Napoleon is not necessarily a revered or reviled figure in France as a military leader. However, his greatest impact on France may be the changes he made to its institutions which continue in effect today.  

Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front was a random read but I'm thankful I found it. It captures the horror, fear, boredom, and otherworldliness of war as well as anything I've read. The foreign perspective of a soldier in a horrific war makes this all the more interesting. The main character's pained interactions with his hometown residents during leave seemed to resonate with me. 

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