Sunday Bookchat

April 12, 2008

The many readers who mourned the death of Kurt Vonnegut last year now have an unexpected gift: a new collection of 12 previously unpublished pieces called Armageddon in Retrospect. Reviewer Deidre Wengen has this to say:

The success of Vonnegut’s previously published material relies heavily on fantastical elements as a means of showcasing the absurdity and tragedy of military combat. These pieces, however, with the exception of the title story, generally lack the science fiction ingredients that readers have come to know and expect from Vonnegut. Almost no one is endowed with the ability to become “unstuck in time” or travel to other galaxies. Machines don’t rule the universe, and the featured soldiers don’t take off their combat boots to rub feet in the rapturous religious ritual of bokomaru. Instead, the characters in this book appear to be flesh and blood human beings—their traits are tangible, their experiences relatable. This collection is a rare look at Vonnegut during an early stage in his career, desperately wanting to relay a message but lacking the form and know-how to deliver it properly.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

In the story “Guns Before Butter” a group of soldiers trade mouth-watering recipes and cherish them as if they were photographs of their beloved girlfriends or perpetually concerned mothers (“Food was the only thing on the P.W.’s pale level of existence that could have any effect on their spirits). In the title story, an obsessive scientist studies demonology attempting to prove that Beelzebub himself is the cause of mental illness. Like Vonnegut’s other short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House,” this book is a mixture of stories that stand out and stories that fall flat—but only a little bit flat.

Read more about the book here.

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How disappointing to see that Douglas Feith’s new pud-pulling book about Iraq — War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism — doesn’t take advantage of the sure-fire cover blurb Gen. Tommy Franks provided in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, where Franks called Feith “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth.”

The omission is all the worse because Feith’s self-serving take on the Iraq disaster appears to more than live up to Franks’ assessment. As Tim F notes:

The underlying message of Feith’s two interviews with NPR is that if America had followed his “liberation not occupation” strategy, this whole mess would have turned out just fine. I suppose that’s true in the sense that 4000 Americans would be alive right now, but how exactly did Feith envision Saddam’s removal helping us? There were four chief power centers in Iraq after we invaded: The Sadrists, the Iranian-allied Shiites such as Dawa and SCIRI (now ISCI), the Sunnis and the Kurds. Sistani doesn’t count because his religious perspective rules out taking an active political role. The Kurds don’t want anything to do with south-central Iraq. Handing over power to one of Saddam’s nephews seems silly and empowering SCIRI is literally the same thing as passing the keys to Tehran. The Sadrists weren’t even on our radar until they took a fast lead in the occupation body count.

Remember that next time your favorite blowhard starts talking about how the Iraq invasion was a noble effort that made Iraq a better place simply because it toppled an evil dictator. There has never been any doubt about Saddam’s evil. The question was: what could replace him that would be, if not good, then at least somewhat less evil? There was no such choice in Iraq. That’s why there is no hoice in Iraq but to leave, right now.

* * * * *

Since lies about the nature and cause of the Civil War seem almost as important to wingers as tax cuts, here is a review of a book about the Civil War that won’t please your idiot neighbor with the Confederate flag decal on his SUV, but should win the approval of anyone with a decent respect for history. Here’s Hendrik Hertzberg on Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over:

The book is terrific. Taking her title from “When This Cruel War Is Over,” a mournful song that (with very slightly different words) was sung more than any other in both North and South, Manning argues, and pretty much proves, that the war was over slavery and nothing but slavery. The soldiers on both sides understood this very well and, for the most part, understood it earlier than the folks back home did. For the Union troops, slavery was the war’s cause; for the Confederates, slavery was the Cause. The existence of slavery shaped the patriotisms of each side. The North’s was universalistic and millennial, and in the end stronger, because it was rooted in a belief that the stakes involved the future of all humanity; the South’s was individualistic and materialistic, based on a patriarchal (white) family and social structure in which the dignity of (white) men was embedded in a God-ordained authoritarian hierarchy that made abolition unthinkable even for the majority of (white) rebel soldiers who did not own slaves.

As the war progressed, and sacrifice was piled upon sacrifice to a degree unimagined at the start, the views of (white) Union troops changed. Few were abolitionists at first, but firsthand contact with slavery and the un-Christian moral degradation it imposed on both slaves and masters gradually changed their minds. Thrifty, pious farm boys from the North were disgusted by the vice, idleness, and lack of productivity endemic to slave-based agriculture. They were horrified by slavery’s effect on families—the black families routinely sundered when husbands were torn from wives and children snatched from their mothers and fathers at the auctioneer’s block, and the white families in which fathers sexually exploited female slaves and then sold their own coffee-colored children as if they were cattle. Once freed slaves began serving in the Union army, their courage in battle had an effect on their white comrades, who began to see slavery less as a Southern problem than as an American sin that would have to be extirpated if the American experiment in republican liberty were to survive.

What This Cruel War Was Over belongs on the history shelf alongside Nicholas Lehmann’s Redemption and Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt as a recent book written to counteract lies about the great American cataclysm.

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Lose your bets on Bringing Down the House. Lose your lunch over the poetry of Lyndon LaRouche. Lose your mind over literature. Lose your standards over Ayn Rand. Tour the globalized environment of organized crime in McMafia.


2 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. Have you looked at the Vonnegut book yet? I’m fairly convinced that the letter from France included in there is not genuine.


  2. LuvLife Says:

    Look forward to the read! Great blog. I love deep thinkers. As a note, check out this blog: (not my blog)! Thought that you or readers may like to read it???? What is the WORLD is this blog all about? End of the World type stuff (Armageddon), WAR, Religion, Time Travel?! Or someone is driking too much!! (LOL) Again good content!

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