Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

I know what you are thinking.  What is Kevin doing reviewing a dark, and some would say anti-American, Paul Auster novel heading into the Fourth of July weekend?

I am not sure, but after another decision to dedicate myself to catching up in posting reviews of books I have read, I came across Man In the Dark on the list and figured I would just plow on through. So here goes.

I listened to the audiobook in the car during my daily commute and enjoyed it. I really liked the sections dealing with Owen Brick and the other world of civil war America.

The energy seemed to drain out of it towards the end however as August Brill and his daughter have a long talk about his past. The conclusion attempts to tie it together but I am not sure it quite worked.

In light of further vague and distant recollections from me, let’s take a gander at some reviews.

Publisher’s Weekly:

As he gives voice to ailing retired book critic August Brill, Auster milks the story-within-a-story structure to full effect. Impatient listeners may wonder exactly where this disparate tale of revisionist history, war, marital disappointments and grief might be headed. But with the nuanced—yet palpable—use of inflection, Auster compels his audience to await the twists and turns. As an invalid with an active imagination and time on his hands, Brill makes his frailties tangible and emotionally compelling without descending into full-blown pathos.

The New Yorker:

The narrative juxtapositions and the riddling starkness of Auster’s prose create an absorbing if mildly scattershot effect, breathing life into a meditation on the difference between the stories we want to tell and the stories we end up telling.

Some critics had a much more negative take. See this NYT review for example:

After, say, 10 books, maybe novelists should be retested, like accident-prone senior citizens renewing their driver’s licenses. Veterans of literary wars would anonymously submit a new manuscript to agents. Of “Man in the Dark,” I think they’d say, “third-rate imitation of Paul Auster.” Then the author might decide to rev up a first-rate imitation of his first-rate early work. Or he might write a fourth-rate attack on literary agents.

Or the Guardian:

Politics is also shoehorned in. The new American civil war is an alternative to the present reality: the Twin Towers are still standing and therefore America is only at war with itself, not with Iraq. How much 9/11 was responsible for the Iraq War rather than being a handy excuse for it is a matter of debate, but as worlds go, Brill’s invented one is remarkably small. North America seems to be alone on the planet. Political change has no implications beyond the personal. This other America is a very sketchy proposition that exists merely to offer comfort to Brill; he doesn’t have to think about Titus’s end if there is no Iraq War. Solipsism is the only game in town in this novel. Narcissism is piled on narcissism. It is, you might say, the very essence of Roxy Music.

Let’s wrap up this quote train with one from Alan Rafferty:

Auster is often – rightly – characterised as a postmodern author, and the story-based approach to character development he employs here owes much to Jacques Lacan. Auster is also a witty writer, prepared to play with his literary heritage. Having Brill imagine his own would-be killer into existence is, of course, a droll reference to Roland Barthes‘s writings on the death of the author: a suicide in Brill’s case. Auster’s fiddling with characters and entangling of storylines is playful and entertaining, as well as ostentatiously clever.

That Paul Auster is again nimbly dropping his characters into and out of stories and deftly digressing on a wide range of topics shows that, in Man in the Dark, he has regained his poise. The book is in part a response to the Iraq war, and Auster deals with current affairs better here than he did in The Brooklyn Follies (set on the eve of 9/11), although his politics remain uncomplicatedly monochrome. What’s more, in the war he has found something important to say about the bad things that happen to us in life, and why we should keep going anyway.

One interesting theory I have is that listening to it via audiobook improved the experience for me.  The oral perspective added to the success of the story telling and lessened the focus on the prose.  I enjoy the character and narrative interplay of the first half more because I was listening to it rather than reading it.

Just a theory.  Perhaps I will pull Travels in a Scriptorium off the shelf and read it.  The comparison might shed some light on my enjoyment of Auster novels with a political approach that is quite different from my own.

Pacific Air by David Sears

Pacific Air: How Fearless Flyboys, Peerless Aircraft, and Fast Flattops Conquered the Skies in the War with Japan by David Sears is popular history at its best.  Sears does an excellent job of writing about the American effort to defeat Japan during World War II in an easy-to-read format.

In explaining why the Americans won the war, Sears writes about the American pilots who became aces and developed the air tactics that helped defeat the vaunted Zero.  These pilots include John “Jimmie” Thach who invented the fighter and wingman tactics still used today and Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the Navy’s first combat ace.  Although the stories about these pilots are somewhat disjointed, they are very engaging.

Not only does Sears write about American pilots, but he also includes the perspective of Japanese pilots via Imperial Japanese Navy pilot Saburo Sakai – a highly decorated pilot who survived the war with the loss of vision in one eye.  Sears describes, through the words of Sakai,  the Japanese pilots’ elation in dominating the Allies at the beginning of the war and, conversely, their total dismay when the tables were turned at the end of the war.

In addition to the pilots, Sears touches on the development of a few Navy fighters, especially the F4F Wildcat.  The writing on the development of the F2F, F3F, and F4F is very interesting.  Sears writes how Grumman (a small start-up company in the 1930s) was able to beat Boeing for the Navy’s first solely designed carrier-based aircraft.

As with many popular histories, accuracy is somewhat sacrificed.  There is more than one inaccurate statement in the book.  For example, Sears writes about the armored decking of U.S. aircraft carriers when in actuality the decks were made of wood planking (pine).  Many of the misstatements are minor, but they add up to be an annoyance.

Overall, this book is very entertaining.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions expressed herein are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with Federal Trade Commision regulations.

Quick Takes: American Grace

Over the past year or so I have read a number of non-fiction books but failed to review them here. For some reason I have a hard time reviewing non-fiction – I always want to offer a more detailed and intelligent engagement with the book but never seem to have the time or focus to do so. Quick Takes is an attempt to offer quick assesments of these type of books without feeling the pressure to offer a full fledged review (whatever that is).

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
by Robert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell
688 pages
October 2010
Simon & Schuster


I found this to be a fascinating and informative look at religious life in America. If you are a stats/data geek this is heaven – charts galore – but they have weaved the data into a compelling narrative. And church vignette chapters break it up and provide some more personalized examples.

There are some interpretations that are arguable, and the authors pretty clearly come from a liberal perspective, but it is still a remarkably interesting read for anyone interested in the history of religion and the debates over politics and the culture wars.

Here is the core narrative or argument of the book:

America has experienced three seismic shocks, say Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In the 1960s, religious observance plummeted. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion. The result has been a growing polarization—the ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between. At the same time, personal interfaith ties are strengthening. Interfaith marriage has increased while religious identities have become more fluid. Putnam and Campbell show how this denser web of personal ties brings surprising interfaith tolerance, notwithstanding the so-called culture wars.

I know there is a lot of disagreement about the components of this argument or story arc (both the conclusions and the data) but I don’t have the depth of knowledge needed to offer much of a conclusion either way.

Here is an example from the Books & Culture review by James L. Guth and Lyman A. Kellstedt:

This dovetails with a more pervasive concern: Putnam and Campbell’s persistent dismissal of the content of religious faith. Although their own survey includes a solid battery of belief items, the authors repeatedly deny that what people believe has any major relevance to social or political values, whether partisanship, charitable activities, or civic engagement. We are unconvinced. An old adage among students of religion and politics is that “behavior begets behavior, and belief begets belief.” Religious practices like church attendance should foster voting or working in campaigns, while religious beliefs should influence choices on issues, parties, and candidates. Thus, findings in American Grace that churchgoers excel in civic participation are not surprising. But reliance on religiosity may be misleading when explaining political choices. True, abortion and gay rights opinions may be structured by religiosity more strongly than other issues, but the authors ignore the possibility that they might be influenced even more by religious beliefs.

What is so helpful about the book is that you don’t have to agree with the authors to enjoy and learn from it. They present the data and the argument and you can engage it at whatever detail is appropriate for you – get into the data or just read it absorbing as much as you can along the way.

With this in mind, I wholeheartedly echo the above review’s conclusion:

These caveats should not deter anyone interested in American religion from reading this challenging volume. For scholars hoping to fathom the connections between religion and public life, for clergy wanting to understand better the people in the pews (and those not there), and for grass-roots believers desiring a broader picture of faith in America, this volume is required reading.



Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern by John Gray

Cover of "Al Qaeda and What it Means to b...
Cover of Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern

Let’s face it, I can be a lazy and discursive blogger/reviewer at times. I frequently start my reviews with some multiple paragraph explanation of how I came to read the book in question or some point only tangentially related to the review. And I often steal the plot summary or review from some other source.

I am afraid this is one of those times.

The reason I often steal book summaries is that I am jealous of their ability to capture something about a book in so few words.  A prime example is the Kirkus review of Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern:

A smart, learned, lucid, and alarming argument, occasionally overstated for rhetorical purposes.

A one sentence review that manages to capture my thoughts just about exactly. Yes, I am jealous. Continue reading

Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life by Marshall Frady

I have long been a fan of the Penguin Lives series. I love history, and enjoy reading about fascinating and impactful people, but simply dont’t have the kind of time I used to have available.  Short interesting biographies allow me to dip into this genre without struggling through large tomes in short bursts over long periods of time.
I have  a number of the volumes in this series and I have often wanted to use the volumes I have as topical blog content for holidays, anniversaries, historical dates, etc.  But for the most part I have failed to get the timing right.
This year I once again determined to change that. So with the approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and February being Black History Month I decided to read the Penguin Lives volume Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life by Michael Frady.
It turned out different than I might have imagined – fascinating and surprisingly balanced but with a writing style that made it slow going at times.
Overall, I found it to be a nice introduction to the life of this towering figure and one that eschews hagiography and acknowledges both the strength and moral courage and the moral weaknesses of Dr. King.
For more keep reading.

In the Mail: Where Does the Money Go?

Where Does the Money Go? Rev Ed: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis


Revised and Updated to Include the Probable Effects of the Great Recession, the Government Stimulus, and President Obama’s Health Care Overhaul

Federal debt will affect your savings, your retirement, your mortgage, your health care, and your children. How well do you understand the government decisions that will end up coming out of your pocket?

Here is essential information that every American citizen needs—and has the right—to know. This guide to deciphering the jargon of the country’s budget problem breaks down into plain English exactly what the fat cats in Washington are arguing about. Where Does the Money Go? covers everything from the country’s exploding federal debt to the fact that, for thirty-one out of the last thirty-five years, the country has spent more on government programs and services than it has collected in taxes. It also explores why elected leaders on both sides of the fence have so far failed to address this issue effectively and explains what you can do to protect your future.

In the Mail: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism (Politically Incorrect Guides) by Kevin Williamson

From the Publisher

What’s the central characteristic of socialism? That’s easy—it’s failure.

From North Korea to the American public education system, from Venezuelan oil companies to ObamaCare, the reports of socialism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Although the Soviet Union collapsed in ignominy, the central planning impulse that guided it endures in countless industries and government policies throughout the world. As Kevin Williamson explains in this myth–busting book, socialism never works because it can’t work. It assumes the authorities have all–knowing planning abilities that human beings don’t possess—and can’t possess. This central flaw has resulted in crushing poverty, devastating famine, and even mass murder. And yet the socialist “dream” is spreading—including here in America.

In the Mail: Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt

Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry That Divided America by James Duffy


Was aviation pioneer and popular American hero Charles A. Lindbergh a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite? Or was he the target of a vicious personal vendetta by President Roosevelt? In Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt, author James Duffy tackles these questions head-on, by examining the conflicting personalities, aspirations, and actions of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles A. Lindbergh. Painting a politically incorrect portrait of both men, Duffy shows how the hostility between these two American giants divided the nation on both domestic and international affairs. From canceling U.S. air mail contracts to intervening in World War II, Lindberg and Roosevelt’s clash of ideas and opinions shaped the nation’s policies here and abroad. Insightful, and engaging, Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt reveals the untold story about two of history’s most controversial men, and how the White House waged a smear campaign against Lindbergh that blighted his reputation forever.