‘The First World War,’ Twice

The First World WarThe First World War by John Keegan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The First World WarThe First World War by Hew Strachan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Sort of accidentally, I read these books at the same time.

Each one has 10 chapters, so there was a natural rhythm to it. That is not to say it was a well-thought-out plan. I started Mr. Keegan’s book in the fall, having always wanted to read it. I had read his “Face of Battle” and “The Great War and Modern Memory,” which (I know) gets to be a lot of the shooting and the groaning, but they are both quite good. “Modern Memory,” especially, is a great introduction to the poetry and novels that came out of the war.

Mr. Keegan is, above whatever his credentials are in the military sciences, a gifted and elegant writer.

After reading Mr. Keegan’s introduction and first chapter, I realized that Hew Strachan was expanding his popular one-volume history into a three-volume doorstop. After thumbing through the shorter book, I recognized a few points of differing opinions when compared with Mr. Keegan’s book.

So, I sat in my overstuffed armchair and began to read more and, like Robert Frost would say, way led on to way. I finished Mr. Strachan’s book on a snowy Saturday, just a day after wrapping up Mr. Keegan’s.

It was an interesting exercise, though not exactly recommended. Here again, the shooting and the groaning gets to be a lot after a while. But it was interesting to go back and forth between two top-notch historians. And it really was a back-and-forth. The books don’t exactly cover the same material in the same order, and so a reader comes away with a singular, zigzagging understanding.

Each book, in and of themselves, though, is recommended. Mr. Keegan is the better writer, and for me that made all the difference. He digresses occasionally from a conventional narrative to write essays on leadership, morale, what-have-you — pageslong stretches submerged in the writing at what seem like just the right moments.

These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great.

via The Millions : A Review of The First World War by John Keegan.

Mr. Keegan is lyrical and mournful, beginning and ending his book with a description of English garden-cemeteries in a scarred French countryside. Speedbumps of military box scores (i.e, so much artillery vs. this much artillery) occur regularly. But most of the book is written movingly, and while he is probably qualified to dissect tactical problems, he dismisses such efforts as a waste of time.

It is elegantly written, clear, detailed and omniscient.

via The End of the World.

Mr. Strachan’s book, if you ask me, probably commands more information. It is said to be a boiled-down version of the to-be-written doorstop.

His perspective is that the war was a truly global one, and that it defies the efforts of traditional historians to understand it. While this aspect is not exactly ignored by Mr. Keegan, Mr. Strachan devotes whole chapters to the fighting in Africa, and the Middle and Far East.

He also remarks that the standard histories forget the “war’s other participants,” apart from the soldiers: namely, “diplomats and sailors, politicians and laborers, women and children.”

via THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Hew Strachan | Kirkus.

I am not sure it’s worth saying which point of view seems better.

Mr. Strachan does not have the elegance of Mr. Keegan, but he is probably more comprehensive. There probably is more raw information squeezed into the pages of his book, and an attentive reader may profit more. But in this well-ordered assembly of data, there emerges little of the pathos and poetic style of Mr. Keegan.

Neither book, if you ask me, will bring the reader any closer to understanding why it all happened. Mr. Keegan applies the historian’s judgment that comes with time; Mr. Strachan says the historian needs to try to go back in time. Both views seem sensible; neither leads to digestible conclusion.


‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power’

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of PowerThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Light and breezy; e.g., the Declaration of Independence flits past like a plastic sack on a Brooklyn sidewalk.

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Mr. Meachem’s book is pretty good, I’d say.

Though, for me, the prevailing feeling is one of his sketching out the broad strokes of an idea without ever filling in the details.

Mr. Meachem marshals an impressive, and occasionally oppressive, array of facts and has a gossip’s eye for interesting excerpts from myriad letters and pamphlets. All these make for good, if monotonous, reading, and through this march of information Mr. Meachem ably impresses upon the reader his theme, namely that Jefferson was an adroit manipulator of the levers of power.

But at times Meacham simply hands the book over to Jefferson, allowing the narrative to devolve into a pastiche of quotations…

via Henry Wiencek Reviews Jon Meachams “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” | New Republic.

Other qualities shine through more brightly, if you ask me. For one, Jefferson was charismatic and quick to make people feel at ease. He seemed to know exactly what to say to strangers. The book fairly overflows from glowing recollections of a first meeting with Jefferson, and even his enemies, Alexander Hamilton for one, allow that Jefferson, at least, “has character.”

Jefferson, too, was loyal to his friends. This combined with his charisma to make him a gifted politician, or at least one of the first American ones. It is not for nothing that the Democratic party mythologizes its origins in Jefferson’s handshakes.

Another quality was his vigor. Mr. Meachem describes Jefferson as a strapping outdoorsman who was romping in the countryside on his horse into his 80s. Apparently the folks who cast “Jefferson in Paris” didn’t agree (Nick Nolte?!), but the evidence seems to be on Mr. Meachem’s side.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect, certainly the most titillating, is that Jefferson was possessed with an overactive libido. (Those long horse rides probably were necessary.) Mr. Meachem records an interesting quote from a letter in which Jefferson early in life seems to be expressing gratitude for prostitutes, female slaves or both. Jefferson also aggressively pursued the wife of at least one good friend, for years, and without any reciprocation whatsoever.

His wife was basically pregnant the whole time they were married, about 10 years, and you can say without too much controversy that it was pregnancy that killed her. Jefferson never married again, but did have a yearslong relationship with at least one slave, notably Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of wife. That shiver-inducing fact is both disgusting and descriptive of a persistent, pernicious evil of slavery.

Which, by the way, was one thing Jefferson never managed to exert his supposedly masterly influence over.

A young Jefferson, like seemingly every other figure from the Revolution and early antebellum period, toyed with abolition. But after his first effort was roundly defeated in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson seemed to shrug and say, To heck with it. An odd sentiment considering that, for the rest of his life, he would fret almost daily about the contradiction of a government founded on liberty with an economy rooted in bondage, “a wolf by the ears” as he would famously write.

…the book fails to engage Jefferson as a nuts-and-bolts powerbroker.

via Jon Meacham: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power – Books – Baltimore City Paper.

So my lasting impression is a charming pragmatist, loyal to his friends, handsome and vigorous — and unable to control his urges. And, really, that’s my dog.

The problem with Mr. Meachem, or perhaps it is his strength, is that he never drills deep enough into the details to make the connections he airily tells you are there. The writing of the Declaration really does blow right past in just a few pages.

One wishes Meacham offered more concrete details about Jefferson’s highest political achievements…

via ‘Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power,’ by Jon Meacham – NYTimes.com.

Thumb through and stop, and chances are the words wend together like an introduction. Look closely for the meat of the proposition, and it eludes you. Press further for a conclusion and you run butt up against another introduction.

The effect might have been pleasing had the book been half the length. As it is, I was compelled to move “Empire of Liberty,” by Gordon S. Wood, up my list of books to read.

‘Former People’


Former People: The Final Days of the Russian AristocracyFormer People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Recommended, mostly.

The thing you learn/are reminded of is that Russia was regularly convulsed by violence and insurrection in the decades before, you know, John Reed goes plotz with proletarian delight. This cycle of destruction and death is both backdrop and thread in “Former People,” giving gruesome context to the Bolshevik takeover and propelling countless landlords on midnight flights for their lives.

Particularly compelling are the galleries of photographs that rib the book; these flip past as a kind of tragic stop-motion animation, depicting the steep falls of lordly families in ways that words can’t describe. The despair in the faces is not unlike those mug shots of meth users that can be found on the Internet.

The Times saw in the “evocative photographs of counts and princesses” an eerie echo of Russia’s new, gilded wealth. The Telegraph found “admiration at the victims’ courage,” trudging to poverty or worse in deep snow. I was struck by a different, slightly sour note.

By concentrating on them Smith perhaps gives the unintended impression that the quality of their suffering was unique.

via Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith – review | Books | The Observer.

(Wow. For once, a reviewer and I see eye to eye.)

Books, of course, have their focus, but because “Former People” is possessed with a pop-history quality — lots of breezy anecdotes, plenty of fudging about dates — its focus at times rang melodramatic. The Russian nobility never merely fled their stately homes, they did so with stoic determination, often with a well-bred blend of cleverness and elan. Which perhaps they did. But there are lots of excerpts from personal letters, and consequently lots of wistfulness for the good old days — which, it is worth remembering, were pretty terrible for nearly everyone else.

What the author does is perform a creditable job in illuminating the related outrages against the aristocracy, which have been relegated to sideshow status in the intervening years. “Former People” makes a readable companion to a history on the Russian revolution, and unlike most history books written today, neatly caps a glaring hole in the record. Just don’t be surprised if you roll your eyes now and then.

‘Father Goriot,‘ (or Balzac, Part II)

Père GoriotPère Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Forgive me if I think first of Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, and not his novels. In the first place, I had not, until this week, ever read one. And in the second, I defy anyone to stumble unawares on this sculpture and resist its searing itself onto your memory. I walk into the Brooklyn Museum, where Rodin’s Merchants of Calais are the first thing you see and I think of Balzac.

Monument_to_BalzacThe sculpture, seen here, apparently depicts a slightly monstrous Honore de Balzac concealing an erection under a long cloak.

I was prepared to write in this space something of my feelings, having seen what I took to be the original at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (also recommended). Then I consulted the Internet, which disabused me of this notion: there are an unnerving number of copies of this work. In Antwerp, in D.C., at the Met in New York, in Venezuela, Australia, and so on. Myself, I saw a small study of it (so I am saying) at the tiny Rodin museum in Philadelphia (also recommended). I shudder to think of where else this icon is standing, apart from, you know, my haunted mind.

In any case, the statue was not well-received. The novel is much better.

It fits in that category (of mine) of novels that are peppered with platitudes. Mr. Balzac is, if anything, a man with something to say. To wit,

  • Paris is an ocean that no line can plumb.
  • …She lacked the two things which create woman a second time — pretty dresses and love-letters.
  • I am a great poet; I do not write my poems, I feel them and act them.
  • Happiness, old man, depends on what lies between the sole of your foot and the crown of your head.
  • [Man] is not a machine covered with a skin, but a theatre in which the greatest sentiments are displayed — great thoughts and feelings — and for these, and these only, I live.
  • …no greatness is so great that it can rise above the laws of human affection, or live beyond the jurisdiction of pain.
  • “What does he go on living for?” said Sylvie. “To suffer,” answered Rastignac.

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‘The Last Stand’

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little BighornThe Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mr. Philbrick’s run-up to the last stand is perhaps as dizzying and exhausting as the real-life travails of Major Reno and Capt. Benteen. But the narrative gradually finds its feet, and the description of the final day, June 25, is well-executed and quite readable. The conclusions are insightful, meaningful without overreaching. Recommended.

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— — — — — Forwarded message — — — — —
From: Me
Date: Tuesday
Subject: Custer
To: Them
I wanted to mention that I finished the book about Custer.

What went wrong? Generally, the author suggests that there simply were too many Indians for Custer or anyone else to have had much success.

The author tells some interesting stories, though, and includes a lot of native accounts, including Black Elk’s touching memory of shooting a soldier through the forehead, and broadly speaking produces what feels like a comprehensive treatment. In the end, it made me curious to know what a scholar of the period would say about the work over all.

…history has become legend.

via The Last Stand, By Nathaniel Philbrick – Reviews – Books – The Independent.

One interesting bit is that the author says Custer had left his troops and was close to the Little Bighorn River at about the time Maj. Marcus Reno attacked the Sioux village from the south. Custer was apparently with just a scout and no one else. The anecdote comes from one of his soldiers, who had gotten lost when his horse went lame. He relates this long memory of meeting Custer, and how Custer could see Reno’s attack being repulsed. It has the feel of a revelation, though it may not be true.

What was going through Custer’s head in the hours before that last bullet cannot be known. Probably Custer shouldn’t have divided his forces. But to be fair to Custer, I don’t think he realized how many Indians there were until Reno had already attacked, (i.e. when it was too late).

Neither is it clear that the Indians knew what they were doing; it didn’t turn out to be much of a victory in the end.

“It was the last stand for the Lakotas, too.”

via Historian Nathaniel Philbrick takes a stand on Custer – USATODAY.com.

Possibly, Custer should have ridden south to help Reno, but I think he believed his own attack across the river to the village would have a similar effect. In any case, he probably believed such an attack had the more immediate prospects for glorious success.

In the end, the writer doesn’t dwell on Custer’s peculiar personality, his mindless eccentricities or his reputation for reckless behavior, though these were serious handicaps. Indeed, he makes room for Custer’s charisma and Indian-fighting experience.

Vain and tempestuous, yes; but not incurious or stupid.

via Kirk Davis Swinehart Reviews Nathaniel Philbricks “The Last Stand” | New Republic.

As for the other principals, the writer hints tantalizingly at Sitting Bull’s desire to avoid a battle altogether. He also concludes that Reno was probably drunk and seriously bungled his part of the attack. Likewise, Capt. Frederick Benteen comes off as petulant, and he also made serious initial bungles. But both men would play an important role in avoiding what could have been — should have been — a much larger rout.

Perhaps it was the infighting among the American officers that really led to disaster. Benteen hated Custer; neither man trusted Reno. These feelings were vented anonymously in the press. Just as none of them seemed able to comprehend the developing disaster, they also seemed unable to work in concert without rancor or jealousy.

Once divided, both in space and in spirit, the Seventh was doomed, and it was something of a triumph that only 200-some died and not all 700.

‘The 9th Directive’

The 9th DirectiveThe 9th Directive by Adam Hall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Have you ever noticed that most of the famous, fictional spies are terrible at their job?

Not all parts of it, of course. There is something to be said, I suppose, for a man who can get into all kinds of trouble and still keep his wits about him (i.e. shoot a gun while skiing, bring a disabled airplane under control, etc.). But there’s the rub, isn’t it? The getting into all kinds of trouble. It seems to me that the effective spy, the reliable spy, the spy who does his job properly is the one who never, for instance, finds himself strapped to a table with a laser pointed at his jubblies. (Speaking of James Bond, I cannot believe he wasn’t fired after the debacle at the end of “Skyfall.”)

“The 9th Directive,” which is recommended to fans of the pulp/spy genre, by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall) is a classic case. The protagonist, who goes by Quiller, perhaps a pseudonym, as well, is characterized — the most I could find online about him was on Wikipedia — as a “solitary, highly capable operative,” and “a highly skilled driver, pilot, diver, linguist and martial artist.”

To this list, after having read “Directive,” I would add arrogant, clumsy, reckless, shortsighted and pain in the ass. The plot unwinds in steamy Bangkok, propelled primarily by a series of mistakes made by the supposedly proficient protagonist. (Is it possible to spoil a novel written in 1966?) I won’t belabor the point. But suffice it to say, at no point does Mr. Quiller guess that his adversary, a martial-arts-obsessed marksman/assassin named Kuo, may have anticipated his actions. Never mind that Mr. Kuo repeatedly does.

Tellingly, most Internet descriptions of Mr. Quiller mention that he prefers to work alone. This is probably for dramatic effect, but his handlers never seem to recognize this as the red flag that it is. The fact is, all grownups, in addition to shining their shoes and tipping their waitresses, tolerate supervision with grace.

I suppose it is hard cheese to point out as much. The novel about the superefficient secret agent would probably run 12 dry pages.

Certainly, none of this takes away from a rollicking good book. Mr. Trevor effortlessly creates cinematic scenes, including a blindingly gilded stupa and warehouse rafters lined with colorful fighting kites. The action compels page-turning. The ending nicely balances the cynical and the plausible.

Recommended, if you can find a copy.

‘The Road to Oxiana’

The Road to OxianaThe Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended, if you are 1) an anglophobe and 2) keen on descriptions of architecture.

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Which is to say, this book is not for everyone. His intended audience, I am sure, was more erudite than me. I needed a dictionary to understand much of how he described the lonely ruins he visited — in part because he employs more than a few archaic spellings. And there were plenty of British 1930s-isms that were over my head. Still, I am a sucker for these sorts of things. I sometimes entertain the desire to have lived in that time, knowing some of those people. These thoughts, warmly persistent like nostalgia, quickly dissipate when I reflect on the relatively dismal state of medical science and public hygiene in the 1930s. And the probable fact that this literate generation of snaggle-toothed Brits, Robert Byron, Patrick Fermor, Cyril Connolly, Norman Douglas and so on, were lecherous fiends.

At least there is no shortage of such books. In the introduction, the writer Paul Fussell writes that it sometimes seemed “that in the twenties and thirties virtually no one stayed home.” My favorite remains Mr. Fermor, whose “A Time for Gifts” is perhaps the best of the lot.

Toward the end of “Road,” Mr. Byron makes a comment that allows me to flatter myself that he and I would have got along, as we picked nits out of our flea bags and cracked jokes about Horace’s dirtier poems under the Central Asian night sky. In a paragraph where he mocks any advice for travelers that doesn’t allow for what books to take on a trip, he imagines endowing a prize for the “sensible traveler.”

£10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another £10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well.

Present circumstances perhaps make that particular route untenable. But the idea is one worth exploring. May I recommend a tiny plaza off the Carrer de l’Argenteria in Barcelona?

Ask for a bottle of the house red, a cutting board of cheeses and a plate of pimientos de padron.

Ask for a bottle of the house red, a cutting board of cheeses and a plate of pimientos de padron.

‘Kill Anything That Moves’

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in VietnamKill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Uncomfortable. Seemingly well-researched, if not comprehensive.

Basically, the author Nick Turse stumbled across a rich vein of government documents that described a series of incidents during the Vietnam War, many of which can be fairly called atrocities. (All of them are horrible.)

Way led onto way, of course, and after the opening of many file cabinets, Mr. Turse has constructed over the course of 200-some pages a broad and readable sketch of such incidents underscored by a well-reasoned analysis of possible explanations.

He anchors some of his reporting to the well-known My Lai massacre of 1968 — in which 347 people were killed, according to the Army — pointing out the probably-not-surprising fact that similar, smaller-scale events were widespread, if not widely reported by the news media, before (and after) that time.

What he doesn’t do is try to list them all. Probably, there are too many. But meaningful records exist for only a small fraction of the incidents.

…this book is almost guaranteed to reveal something that will drop your jaw…

via A Nation Unhinged: The Grim Realities of “The Real American War” |.

I was not surprised by anything I read in the book — even though, I am led to understand, it breaks considerable new ground.

And I am not a historian, or even that world weary. Still, my collective, limited experience of the war — taken mostly from movies of probably dubious authenticity, like “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill,” but also countless television shows and the fictional recollections of a friend of mine, who claimed for years to have been in the Green Berets — jibes neatly with the extraordinary stories recounted by Mr. Turse.

I had no trouble picturing some of it in my head; many of the quotes came to life in imaginary drawls. I am not sure if that is more about pop culture or my own cynicism. And I am not sure what it says about the potential reception of this book. I am guessing it will be well-regarded by a few commentators, but ignored by the public.

In any case, it is not exactly the kind of ready-for-the-History-Channel title that can be seen on The Times’s hardcover nonfiction best-seller list.

Mr. Turse reckons more than seven million civilian casualties in Vietnam, from the end of World War II to the withdrawal of the United States’ military. That includes more than two million dead in a country of not-quite 20 million.

It says here, that’s a lot.

That is so many that a person has to wonder how many more unreported incidents like My Lai there still are. In one part of the book, Mr. Turse is recalling a trip he made to Vietnam to find the site of a particular incident. He is told the village is just up the road. When he gets there, he finds a memorial to a massacre by American troops — but realizes after talking to the locals that he has the wrong place. The village he wants is up the road, the locals tell him. When he gets there, after finding another memorial, he realizes, again, that he has the wrong place. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If the number is even close to being true, it is the only evidence Mr. Turse needs to back up his assertion that the war was a keenly-managed slaughter. That many dead people is one of those Facts in Plain Sight that can’t be explained away by a government’s propaganda machine.

Not that anyone is really trying, anymore. In all the digging that Mr. Turse did, he never reports any obstinence from the authorities. He finds evidence of it, in missing and presumably destroyed files, and in some uncooperative former G.I.’s. But by now, most of the principal figures are too old to fight.

Mr. Turse contemplates military training in an early chapter. This is one part of the book that particularly interested me, though not because of his thesis that American troops were being “brainwashed” as killers.

“That bastard stood right in front of me,” said Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, his voice rising as he gestured toward Sergeant Bales. “I wanted to ask him: ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?’ ”

via Villagers Tell of Slaughter by a Soldier in Kandahar – NYTimes.com.

I get it. But what else would you expect?

I was more interested in Mr. Turse’s seeming alarm over those methods, and how it served as a broader indictment of war making. I mean, if it is distressing that some men are transformed by basic military training, then isn’t their existence as an organization in peace time appalling? On some level, the idea of a war crime is an absurdity.

With his training chapter, Mr. Turse is filling in the blanks for a bigger theme of his book, that is that a combination of the training techniques, the overwhelming firepower of American forces and a systematic dehumanizing of the Vietnamese people by government and military authorities added vastly to the body count. In other words, My Lai wasn’t the exception, it was part of a well-planned rule.

The natural thing is to reflect now on how these corrosive elements could have been ameliorated, how the massacres could have been mitigated. Is it possible to train soldiers to be cerebral and discriminating in the flash and grind of combat? And what does it say about the American way when so much of our national production is devoted to conducting exactly such an enterprise?

Somewhere out there is a courageous historian who is building, file folder by file folder, a similar book focusing on the so-called Allies in the Second World War.

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In the Waiting Room for the Ear Hole of God (James Turrell)

10:06 PM Samantha
They had that bamboo exhibit there, last year, maybe? Did you get to that?
10:07 PM John
10:07 PM Samantha
It was cool to be under the bamboo and then look out at the skyline.
10:08 PM John
You always did love bamboo. You are like a panda bear. Love the bamboo.
10:08 PM Samantha
What’s not to love about the bamboo.
10:08 PM John
I know, right? You love it. …You ought to know. Panda Sam, we say.
10:08 PM Samantha
Also, as I found out [deleted], makes a great walking stick on a hike!
…Um, we are not calling me that, dear.
10:08 PM John
Yup. So useful. We say, There goes Panda Sam. Maybe she will spear some of that trash with her bamboo walking stick.
10:10 PM Samantha
Come on.
10:11 PM John
Panda Sam, Panda Sam, walking along as best she can.
10:11 PM Samantha
Proud of yourself for that one, aren’t you, dear?

I was at the Met the other day. For what, people usually ask. For lots of things, I would have said this time. There was an exhibit of Civil War photography; a small show of paintings by the Swiss checkerboard expressionist Paul Klee; a noxious cage of catwalks adorned with punk fashion and a mockup of the bathroom (see below) at CBGB; the European galleries are all new, of course; and there was lots else besides.


The highlight, though — excluding the new sunlighted maze of European paintings — was a haunting ancient bronze of a boxer that is crouched in Gallery 153 of the Greek and Roman Art department. (Left and down the hall as you come in the front door.) I did not even know it was there. The figure is expressive and haunting. The face is fantastic, with wounded eyes, and cuts and scars inlaid with copper.

It is called something like Boxer at Rest, or Boxer Wondering Who Said That, or Boxer Who Is, All, What Do You Want?! Or something. And it was found in Rome in 1885. The shovelers guess that it was buried on purpose in the fifth century, probably at the behest of some toga-wearing alarmist who was worried the barbarians were (again) just over the hill. (To be fair, they were.) The thinking is, it could maybe be a monument to an actual boxer, but it might just be a tribute to boxers in general. Or, you know, some whole other thing.

Who can say with art?

I say “who can say with art?” because moments after leaving this centuries-old marvel I went into the Guggenheim, the interior of which is now plugged by “an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color,” to quote the fairly breathless Roberta Smith of The Times. I might have said, “an immense, multicolored eustachian tube,” but, you know, who can say with art?

Ms. Smith led her review with a remark that was misquoted to me as her representing the Guggenheim’s show as being the “art hit of the summer.” In fact, Ms. Smith had qualified her praise, saying that it was “the bliss-out environmental art hit of the summer.”

I suppose the distinction is important; certainly, it is worth making.

The Guggenheim show features the art of James Turrell, one of the great unwashed, far-out hippies of our time. Now 70, Mr. Turrell was the chief explicator of bemusement and first-chair bongo-drum thumper for something that art majors like to call the Light and Space movement. The large aural canal now taking up the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda is known as “Aten Reign,” and according to The Times it is the “largest temporary installation” “the museum has ever undertaken.” What it is is a tiered vertical tunnel of light, suspended over the viewer’s head, that changes color steadily in one-hour cycles. It definitely is big, and definitely is something to see. Though perhaps not at the higher-than-it-used-to-be Guggenheim admission price of $22.

…you may or may not see God, but you will probably come away with both an enhanced sense of your visual powers and also a new humbleness concerning the world’s visual complexities.

via James Turrell Plays With Color at the Guggenheim – NYTimes.com.

I don’t read many art reviews outside The Times, but I am guessing it is safe to say that most art critics do not casually toss around the phrase “you may or may not see God.” Never mind the obvious and nettlesome theological problems, you may want to swing by the Gugg if only to see what drove Ms. Smith to such heavenly heights of hyperbole.

Of course, the giant centerpiece is only the first stop on a “spare, unhurried tour of his art,” as Ms. Smith helpfully notes. Upstairs — the great Guggenheim ramp is for this show unadorned by other art — there are three smaller displays of Turrell’s work. The first you come to in your sensory-thrill-seeking tramp is literally a slice taken out of the wall. Ms. Smith calls this “a shaft of astoundingly mysterious white light.” I literally thought it was a window.


The CBGB toilet; I was not supposed to take this picture.

Second are three related rooms. In the first  are illuminated sketches of illuminated rectangles. Next door are life-size examples: dark rooms with a shaft of intense white light in one corner.

And for the finale, which was reached only after a half-hour wait in a long, unevenly managed line, was something called “Iltar.” This is a rectangular hole in the wall, which is dimly illuminated from the sides. Ms. Smith was captivated. She called it “a surprise ending.” She saw mystery, simplicity and “granular textures that almost start to teem.” In that dark room, at the end of a tedious queue of jangled tourists, Ms. Smith found “a quiet renunciation of Mr. Turrell’s centerpiece.

“You may not care,” she writes, “but it is there.”

I didn’t care when I got “there.” Following me into the room were the blue cellphone spotlights of several blundering museum-goers, who had apparently spent the balance of their visit in blissful ignorance of what “light” does to “space.” I stood in front of the cutout and quietly began a renunciation of my own.

The sour feeling did not fully dissipate until I had a bowl of vanilla frozen yogurt (with blueberries) once I got outside the museum.

Orient Express, by Graham Greene

Orient ExpressOrient Express by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Doesn’t show its age well, but you probably expected that.

Really, what I meant to say was it has within its covers a full dose of anti-semitism, which you did not need me to tell you, I am sure. One of the central characters on Mr. Greene’s express train, which is itself stocked with giddy caricatures and stereotypes, is a Jewish businessman named Carleton Myatt. When Mr. Myatt’s swarthy features aren’t being contemplated by Mr. Greene, his business acumen is.

The edition I read has an introduction by Christopher Hitchens, who spends about two pages and a bit wrestling with whether to apologize for Mr. Greene (on behalf of wig-wearing, tea-suckers everywhere), or just wash his hands of the whole affair. In the end, he trusts “the reader to decide,” but then juts his wine-soaked backside into something like an apology. He explains away one bemusing, paragraph-long passage — “Forty years in the wilderness…” — by shrugging his shoulders: “Whatever this is, it is not anti-Jewish.”

But in fact one needs only read a few pages in either direction to get the “anti-Jewish” all over oneself, for instance the conjuring of the “ancestral marketplace” (Page 141) as Mr. Myatt bargains with a fiddle player.

This is no laughing matter, I know. But what can you do? Orient Express was published in 1932, and Mr. Greene wasn’t exactly known as a closet Jewophile. Read enough and you find Mr. Greene’s ignorant kindred spirits on lots of shelves. Maybe a reader can learn something, be a better person? Perhaps seeing the caricatures brings the reality into sharper focus?

At the least, this served as an ample reminder that Mr. Hitchens could be an ass once in a while.

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