Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Grant" by Ron Chernow

It’s a great book. Some thoughts…

1. Grant’s story is pretty close to a real rags-to-riches story, and watching his climb is such fun. He has a pretty average adolescence. He gets lucky when his father (who had a bit of wealth and a few connections) gets him into West Point. He shows potential in the Mexican-American War, but after the war he begins his fall. Loneliness and alcoholism get to him and he loses his army position. Money runs low, and there he is at his rockbottom, peddling firewood to support his young family. The Civil War begins and we watch him achieve a stunning sequence of victories that vault him to the position of top general. The presidency is right around the corner.

Don’t so many of us long for a turn of events that will supercharge our lives with special meaning and purpose? Grant was fairly useless in normal life. He had no skills for oratory, he was a terrible speculator, and he showed little ambition for business. His years between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War is a period of focuslessness and failure.

It isn’t until the war begins when everything clicks into place for Grant. He finally has an opportunity to activate all of his rare qualities and talents: his horsemanship, his singleminded drive, his confident and fearless demeanor, his military creativity, his high-altitude strategic perspective on a massive multi-front war, his astute political gifts, his clear writing style, and his emotional intelligence. These gifts were useless in his previous life, but they were just what the country needed in its darkest hour.

This is the plot for so many of our favorite characters—Neo from The Matrix, Frodo from Lord of the Rings, basically any coming-of-age superhero movie. This is a story of having some hidden talent and energy that is just waiting to be brought to life. For those of us who find ourselves often discontent with ordinary life, or who think they've been born in the wrong century, it’s a supremely compelling fantasy.

2. Grant is an easy man to love. He makes some mistakes (such as when he called for all Jewish people be removed from his military region), but he always overcomes his prejudices and atones for his sins. (Later, he becomes a great friend to the Jewish community.) He is gentle with Native Americans, a friend to the women’s suffrage movement, and he is deeply, deeply concerned about the welfare of the newly freed slaves. Morally and ethically, he was a great president then, and he would be a great president today.

The book reminded me of the terror that the freed slaves endured immediately after the war. The KKK formed and what followed was a shocking spree of genocide and murders, not to mention voter repression. I had no idea how bad it was.

Grant is remembered as one of the worst presidents, and Chernow doesn’t hide the fact that Grant, as president, made mistakes, namely by unwittingly surrounding himself with the corrupt and the incompetent. But Chernow takes care to remind us just how devoted Grant was to uplifting the freed slaves and controlling the murderous racism that wreaked havoc across the South. If Grant had more support, we may have been able to prevent the hundred years of Jim Crow that followed the Civil War.

3. We’d probably call Grant “emotionally unavailable” these days. Raising a boy to be like Grant would likely be frowned upon. This is a man so stoic he never shows his feelings, even when under gunfire. In his memoir, he never discusses serious family matters, many of his failures, or his alcoholism. Perhaps he was emotionally expressive behind closed doors with his wife and members of his military family, but you get the impression that he was, emotionally, a black box.

But here’s the paradoxical thing about Grant. He, like George Washington, was emotionally astute. When dealing with superiors or subordinates, he wrote to them with great care, avoiding doing any harm to fragile egos. We see this considerate manner in the gentle, conciliatory way he dealt with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Grant’s gentle hand, and his deft conciliatory gestures, helped bridge some major chasms between the North and South after the war. Grant’s example shows that we can both practice a disciplined stoicism and be emotionally thoughtful.

4. Grant was a liberal warrior. I've now read two giant Grant biographies, plus his mammoth memoir. I've read several books on John Brown, plus a couple on Lincoln. I love reading about the Civil War and about these men because, nowadays, to be liberal is to be soft, peaceful, and maybe even a pushover. That's how many liberals see themselves, and it's certainly how the right looks upon the left. Think about how Obama (whom I like and support) dealt with the news that the Russians were meddling in our election. He chose not to publicly say anything because he worried it might make him look biased. This is an honorable, but weak approach. Think about how Republicans gerrymander districts, pass anti-voting laws, prevent the president from making a Supreme Court nomination. Think about how Trump would have reacted to news of foreign meddling that might hurt his party's chances. I'm not saying I want my party to be unethical or unfair, but I want them to be tough.  

Back in the 1860s we see these Union men, driven by a compulsion to do what's right, become liberal warriors. They can be sensitive souls, like Grant and Lincoln. They can believe in snowflake things like justice and equality. But they can be determined, unflinching, and tough. They weren't afraid to assert that they indeed had the moral high ground. They weren't afraid to put an end to crimes of humanity with punishing force. And I suppose there's part of me that wants liberals to re-embrace this toughness, to not be such a bunch of softies. (To be clear, I'm in no way calling for actual violence.) 

5. One of Grant’s savviest political strategies was to place himself in luck's path. He never really sought the presidency, but he (consciously or unconsciously, it's hard to determine) placed himself in the right place at the right time. This way, he got what he wanted without sacrificing his honor or dignity, because back then it was still a bit unseemly to greedily seek higher office.

He did indeed want things. Like anyone, he enjoyed fame. He enjoyed power. He even ran for (and almost won) the nomination for a third term. Grant was a truly great man and as close to truly honorable as a man can get. But his honorable conduct wasn't just for honor's sake. Honor had political value back then, which I wish was the case today.

A deliberate and well-preened honor is, by its nature, artificial. But this well-preened and artificial honor is almost as laudable as real honest-to-goodness honor because it functions almost in the same way as honest-to-goodness honor. A code of honor, to which everyone feels obligated to adhere, forces people to live within tight moral boundaries. This slightly fake honor (which sort of functions as real honor) was actually how people acquired power.

Not all politicians or presidents had such honor, but it was valued enough to help win Grant the wide support he got. 
He was able to climb the military ladder and win the presidency because of the sterling character he so vigorously burnished. Politicians liked him and people voted for him because of this well-burnished character. 

I don't know how and when we lost this. Voters are attracted to Trump not because he's honorable, but because he's the exact opposite. We don't see any problem with people running for the presidency two or three years in advance, always boasting about their accomplishments and promising us the moon and more. I feel nostalgic for the times when leaders like Grant and Washington were compelled to pursue ambitions obliquely, and even remark about their unfitness for the job, as a symbol of their humility.

I do hope I get to see a president like Grant in my lifetime—someone who’s incapable of bombast, who’s humble, and who’s maybe even quiet. Can that feasibly happen in an age when politicians must take to the TV and Twitter to gain bigger and bigger followings? I suppose I wish for such a president less for the president than for the way it would reflect on our (hopefully improved) collective character.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: "The Post"

The story of the Pentagon Papers is important and timely, but, as with many of Spielberg’s films of the last twenty years, I sense that Spielberg has creatively checked out.

My gripes: a cast of overused actors (like everyone, I love Tom Hanks, but he was an uninspired choice here); corny humor (the little girl and the lemonade stand); the artificial banter Spielberg has his characters engage in as they talk over themselves in a chaotic but really choreographed and phony way (Spielberg used to be a real pro at this—see the dinner table scenes in E.T., which seem scarily authentic).

Worst of all were the periodic moments of melodrama when some character steps into the light and makes a grand pronouncement about the nobility of journalism. I don’t disagree with the message, but the delivery is cheesy! You don’t see characters in All the President’s Men or Spotlight embarrassing themselves with such schmaltz—rather, those stories very subtly and very maturely say all they have to about the nobility of journalism.

Lastly, the movie lacks any sense of atmosphere or style. It just seemed hastily and formulaically thrown together, the theme timely enough and the actors prestigious enough to possibly help Spielberg pad his resume with more award nominations. Someone like a David Fincher could have lent a movie like this some seriousness and style.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Stranger in the Woods

This is a fun, delightful read about a hermit who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years. The hermit, Christopher Knight, stole food, clothes, and books from nearby homeowners. According to Knight, Knight said one word ("hi") to one person (a random hiker) during those 27 years. He is eventually caught by a law enforcement official and imprisoned for his crimes. 

Knight is not a guy who we're going to revere or glorify the way we might revere other hermits, such as a Henry David Thoreau or a Chris McCandless. We look to hermits to tell us a bit about ourselves; to deliver a little sage wisdom from a mountaintop or a cabin in the woods.

Knight has his moments of wisdom, but he's neither sage nor lovable hero. Knight stole, drank, and ate a lot of sugar, which rotted his teeth. He's cranky and arrogant. He looks down on the rest of humanity, even though Knight admits that many of his deeds were far from pardonable. He can't be looked up to. But just because we can't look up to him doesn't mean we can't be intrigued by him. 

What made him take off into the woods? Was it something from Knight's past? These are questions that largely go unanswered, despite the author's great efforts to understand and connect with his subject. 

There were times I wanted the author to dissect Knight's brain a bit more: to help Knight articulate why he ventured out into the woods. The book seems to be something of an unsolved mystery. But if this is its weakness, it's also its strength: It gives you, as reader, space to interpret and wonder. And you can't place any blame on the author: he may have been dealing with the most reticent man alive, and the author made more than half a dozen (sometimes fruitless) trips from his home in Montana to Maine to get to the bottom of things.  

I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of Knight's predicament. (Wishing to be sent to solitary confinement when he's in jail, having to move into his mom's house as a middle-age man, brusquely rejecting the author's earnest overtures.) And yet there are moments when I felt deeply for Knight. I rooted for Knight to either find some happy compromise with society, or to just disappear again into the woods, where he belongs. 

Perhaps this book would have benefited from not being published so soon. We might have gotten more satisfying closure if the book was published a few years later. But I don't fault the author for seizing on a grand story in timely fashion. There will likely be a second edition, and maybe by the time the movie comes out (it needs to be adapted!) we'll have such an ending. 

Knight may have been an extremist in his quest for solitude, but he was not crazy. The book is a comedy, tragedy, and mystery, but also a paean to solitude, to the contentment that comes from being alone; to the simple joy of melting into the natural world. One of the underlying messages of the book, which I'm on board with, is that there's nothing crazy or wrong or even weird about wanting to be alone. For many, it's a luxury. For some, a necessity.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Shape of Water is not a good movie

The Shape of Water has earned thirteen Oscar nominations, one short of tying the record. The movie got a 92 percent “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Professional critics, in their widespread acclaim for what is, at best, a mediocre movie, have committed a dereliction of duty. The thirteen award nominations are galling and further evidence that the world has gone mad.

(Spoiler Alert.) This movie is not good because… 

1. The monster character had no depth. A wild beast with a soft soul? How many times has that already been done? (King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2, basically all “bad boy” movies…) Can we not be a bit more imaginative?

2. The characters were too cartoonish (the no-nonsense black housekeeper, the emotionally-unavailable military villain, the self-sacrificing man of science). Plus, it is unimaginative, absurd, and unrealistic for two housekeepers to steal the American government’s most precious military object with little more than a laundry bin. The dialogue, except for Richard Jenkins’s bathroom soliloquy, was inexcusably dumb. All of the above made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief and get emotionally absorbed.

3. Could the writers have drawn up a more cliched villain? Michael Shannon [who I really like as an actor (I like all the actors!)] plays someone who’s overtly racist, a misogynist, and an animal torturer. Why not make him homophobic while you’re at it! Why not have him drown a sack of puppies just to underline the point? Having a character perform a sequence of terrible deeds (so that we may identify him as “the villain”) is disrespectful to an adult’s intelligence. Actual evil  real, scary, compelling evil  must be mixed with charm or mystery or something enigmatic. It must be mixed with a creditable backstory. There have been more layered villains in children’s picture books! You can’t just give a steel-jawed man an electrified club and have him utter a few racist remarks and expect us to wee our knickers when he comes on screen. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking, What does Del Toro think we are, children!?!

4. Including a movie subtheme within your movie shows that you, as storyteller, are out of touch. In this story, we have the Richard Jenkins character watching movie musicals. We have the ridiculous and cringingly-flamboyant woman/monster musical number. And we have most of the movie taking place above a movie theaterthe symbolic value of which escapes me. Hollywood loves these self-congratulatory self-references. In the past six years, three movies about the entertainment industry won Best Picture [Birdman (2014), Argo (2012), The Artist (2011)], and last year La La Land (2016), about an aspiring singer and actor in Los Angeles, took away the most awards with six. Only .000001% of Americans have any real relationship with Hollywood or the entertainment industry, yet so many singers sing about songs, so many writers write about writers, so many movies are about movies. Artists must make a real and deliberate effort to tell stories that are about real people, and that have real relevance to people’s lives. We cannot fall back on telling stories about our elite and tiny bubble.  

5. What was the symbolic value of Michael Shannon’s putrid fingers? A materialization of his moral decay is the best I can come up with, and, for the filmmaker's sake, I hope I'm not right. 

6. What was the thematic value of Michael Shannon’s devotion to consumerist accumulation? His nice home, his beautiful family, and his reoccurring Cadillac? Was the degradation of the Cadillac commentary on the shallowness of American materialism? Was the movie saying we should value love over things? Could the filmmakers have chosen such a hackneyed theme, or am I missing something?

7. The movie had a chance to spice things up with a dramatic heist, but the heist was uninspired, unsuspenseful, and anti-climatic.

8. The monster had random healing powers. Not only is this a knockoff of Wolverine and E.T., but it is a shallow and convenient plot device that let’s the filmmaker kill a character and then bring the character back from the dead. Richard Jenkins’s hair grows back after the monster touches Jenkins’s bald head. Does this mean that baldness is something that needs healing? How would the monster know Jenkins was ailed by his baldnessdoes the monster have insight into America’s standards of male beauty in the early 1960s?   

9. Gratuitous disfigurement is utterly pointless and a lazy way of getting an emotional reaction out of an audience. Del Toro has a thing with facial disfigurement. In Del Toro’s movie Pan’s Labyrinth, the villain (who is almost as character-less as Michael Shannon’s villain) has to stitch up a gruesome cheek wound in front of a mirror after a knife attack. In The Shape of Water, Dimitri gets shot in the face, leaving him with his own gruesome cheek wound. In both movies, the injury serves little-to-no narrative purpose, other than to momentarily make the audience squirm in revulsion. 

From Pan's Labyrinth

10. Please, storytellers, put an end to the Bible allusions! (Unless it’s a religious movie!) The super evil Michael Shannon character gives a Bible lesson to Delilah (the black character) on the story of her namesake’s biblical character. Biblical analogies get under my skin. It’s lazy symbolism. It’s pseudo-intellectualism (“I’m going to give this story a second layer of meaning by giving characters biblical names!”). And it’s a desperate attempt to enhance character depth. We see these Bible allusions all the time in stories. Think of random Biblical recitations (Pulp Fiction), wanton use of Biblical names (There Will Be Blood), heroes sacrificially dying with outstretched arms (Braveheart). Lacking some deeper symbolism? Just impale a palm. Why do writers even feel the need to pay homage to the Bible, which may very well be history’s most overrated piece of literature? Let’s tell our own new story, with symbolism of our own, with non-derivative characters, without feeling the need to legitimize ourselves as writers by referencing nonsensical stories from the ancient past.    

11. The transformation of the monster should have been challenging, but really all it took were a few hard-boiled eggs.

12. I’ve read that Del Toro wanted the movie to serve as an adult modern-day fairy tale. This may explain the cartoonish settings, the archetypal characters, the simplistic dialogue. But you can’t just dismiss all of my above criticisms because “You don’t get it, it’s just a fairy tale!” All that matters is whether or not the story has emotional resonance. It must make you feel. It must sit in your gut. It must make you care about the characters. I went to this movie to have this experience, but I resented the child-like presentation. I refused to be duped by something so half-hearted, so callow, so stylistically-driven. There were a few visually beautiful scenes (the love scene in the water-logged bathroom, for example), but visuals are wasted when they’re not part of a story that works.

Monday, February 12, 2018

My first book review

Ilgunas returns with a heavily researched, passionate argument about the need for America to emulate many other countries and allow its citizens to roam across the land, public as well as private… Earnest, thoughtful, and alarming in places—an optimistic work that urges America toward a profound cultural shift.  Kirkus review of my book, This Land Is Our Land

It's such an odd thing, throwing your book out into the world. You may be content with the book, but there's simply no way of knowing how the rest of the world will receive it.

You probably think it’s at least pretty good. Why else would you take the time to write your book and share it with the world if it’s not at least pretty good? But of course you have doubts, too. You, as writer, can certainly imagine critical responses because you’ve been criticizing your book all along.

So it’s nerve-wracking and exciting publishing a book. You have no idea if you’ve written a runaway bestseller or quite possibly the worst book ever written. That’s why early book reviews are so emotionally potentthey’re either confirmations of your greatest hopes or auguries of your greatest fears.  

Two early book reviewers are Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. They publish reviews months before other book reviewers, and months before your book actually publishes. For my first book, Walden on Wheels, Publisher’s Weekly called my writing as thick as “pancake batter.” Kirkus called it a “middling” memoir.

I hope you don’t mind if I take the liberty of placing yourself in my shoes to show you how traumatizing these early reviews were. Imagine yourself as a first-time 29-year-old author. You’re confident enough to take on such a project, but you’re also insecure enough to be terrified about everything that could possibly go wrong. You’ve just devoted two-and-a-half years of your life to this book. You have no idea if your book is any good. And then you read your first two reviews in which the reviewers savage your book. You wonder if you have any business calling yourself a writer. Should you decide you’ve improperly labeled yourself as a “career writer,”  you will now have to start from scratch if you decide that it’s more responsible to become a teacher or a nurse, due to the fact that you have no other training or useful skills. Meanwhile, all your friends have been in their careers and have been watching their incomes rise for a good many years. Worst of all: You won’t get to read another review for another two months.

This all triggered a rather unpleasant 30-year life crisis, which lasted about three months. The crux of the crisis was this: What am I going to do if I’m not made out to be a writer?

I recognize now how I was wrong to compare my life to my peers' lives, as if life is a race in which I needed to keep up or get ahead. I recognize now how it’s perfectly alright to start a new career at any age. I recognize now that many authors fail early and succeed later. Yet my feelings were very real and human and ordinary: I wanted financial security; I wanted to write only if other people thought my stuff was worth reading; more than anything I wanted directionI wanted to know what I was and what I was supposed to be doing.

Thankfully, the book did quite well. Other critics liked it. Amazon readers gave it mostly positive reviews. It sold (and continues to sell) fairly well. And I got a good deal of press. Taking all of the above into consideration, I now feel confident enough about Walden on Wheels to say that those early book reviewers were wrong, even if my prose can indeed be as thick as pancake batter. The success of the book helped me get past my crisis, and while I’ve wavered over the years on the subject of my career path, I more or less committed to the life of the writer. This realization (let’s also call it a decision)  that I am a career writer  has done more to release me of existential anxiety than any other.

For my second book, Trespassing across America, Kirkus called it “preachy” and I don’t think Publisher’s Weekly even bothered to review it. These reviews didn’t bother me so much. My confidence was stronger and dealing with early criticisms was easier.

The first review of my latest book, This Land Is Our Land (publishing April 10) just came out, and it was one of the nicer reviews I’ve read. Never before has anyone acknowledged my research (the reviewer calls it “heavily researched”), and the reviewer was kind enough to notice the grandness of my ambitions and acknowledge that I was aiming for a “profound cultural shift.” Indeed!

This early review brings me a great deal of comfort. For now at least.