Book Review: Jackson: The Iron Willed Commander

Jackson-The Iron-Willed Commander by Paul Vickery was just published this week by Thomas Nelson Publishing. Vickery opens with Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. The scene he portrays is a tumultuous one, with the rough and tumble Jackson and his like-minded followers “invading” Washington’s elite society. It is an appropriate opening to this short biographical sketch of a man best know for his bold, everyman approach to life. The rest of the book proceeds as flashback to his childhood and military career.

Paul Vickery, Professor of History at Oral Roberts University, has written what can best be termed a short primer on Andrew Jackson’s military career, with the greatest emphasis placed on his defining battle in New Orleans at the close of the War of 1812. The 19 short chapters can be grouped together roughly as follows. 1-4 deal with his childhood as an orphan and his growth into turbulent manhood. He is presented as  likable troublemaker who is quick to defend his honor with a duel. In chapters 5-11 we see his development into a leader of men and a competent military man. 12-17 deal with the build up, conflict, and aftermath of The Battle New Orleans, which took place on January 8, 1815. Finally, the last two chapters discuss his elevation to the presidency and his legacy.

In Jackson, Vickery strives to present his subject as a tough as nails, bold and decisive leader. Scarred permanently as a child by the sword of a British soldier, Jackson grew into an unwavering leader, a general whose charisma and sheer force of personality called to mind those of George Washington a generation earlier.” The author wants to extend the aura of greatness that enshrouds the Founding Fathers over this next generation leader. 

Vickery is clearly enamored with his subject, repeatedly using a variety of epithets such as “iron willed”, Old Hickory”, “inspiring” and “indomitable” . His Homerian tendencies make clear his wish that the reader recognize Jackson’s toughness and independence. He seems to equate this strength of character to America herself, as if Jackson was a metaphor for the maturing country. The general is not shown not so much as a tactical genius, but as someone whose own force of personality willed his armies to victory. The author regularly eschews details battle plans for anecdotes of Jackson’s individual acts of bravery and inspiration.
The current tendency in some quarters of American society to look at elders, the elite, or intellectual class with suspicion, and to celebrate both the young and the rough-and-ready everyman, has apparently influenced this author as well. Jackson seems a cipher for that mythological, self-sufficient American ideal. One can almost read this as the Founding Father’s giving birth to a nation and Jackson as the embodiment of it’s adolescent character. As such there are times when we wince at Jackson’s stubbornness, and rush to action; yet Vickery tends to downplay these occurrences as a parent might overlook the indiscretions of youth. 
The author’s proclivity to minimize Jackson’s flaws may be appropriate when your teenager breaks curfew; it is less so when the subject in question is the head of the entire southern military of the United States. Because of this, the book reads less like an objective history and more like a well meaning propaganda piece. The reader understands that Jackson was a famously successful military leader. But one also knows he was a man, with flaws and faults. If the author chose to make his subject a bit more human, he would have become more sympathetic. Additionally, his writing style lacks subtlety. He continuously hits the reader over the head with his main thesis to the point where this reads more like a young adult history textbook from the early 20th century than a modern biography of an admittedly complex historical figure. 
In the end, I found this book to be informative in terms of the history of the early United states, and I actually learned quite a bit about The Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812. However, I don’t feel I know who Andrew Jackson was any more than I did before reading this book.

Book Review: The Swerve

History, written well, can be just as thrilling as a fast-plotted action novel. I have read many books that treat history like a detective novel and that are able to hold the reader’s attention all while educating him. Books like,Guns, Germs & Steel, First Family: Abigail & John Adams, The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way and Tyndale all manage the balance between page turner and academic work. While many books can master one of the two, most cannot combine both.
My most recent historical read is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The book chronicles the story behind the 15th century discovery of an ancient text. In 1417 a papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, made an amazing discovery in a German monastery. What he found was a manuscript of a long-lost classical poem, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”). Greenblatt tells this tale as a way of supporting his primary thesis: that Lucretius’s poem is the origin of the Renaissance and, in effect, our modern world.

This connection has some merit. Lucretius was a student of the Epicurean philosophy which famously intuited the existence of atoms and believed in a very scientific view of the world. I remember reading Lucretius in college where we used his poem as translation material, and his talent as a writer is clear. His poetry can be ranked among the other classical giants, Homer, Virgil & later, Dante. However, unlike his celebrated compatriots, the Epicurean influenced Lucretius was often shunned rather than honored. In fact, Epicureans were often persecuted because their beliefs essentially made them atheists in very religious society. 

Greenblatt is an excellent writer and he clearly knows his material. The Swerve is a short and fairly quick read for the everyday reader. He seems to have the page turning aspect of historical writing down pat. The discovery of Lucretius reads like part Indiana Jones and part Dan Brown novel. While this book was an easy enough read, and parts of it were genuinely interesting, some things kept getting in the way of my giving it a completely positive review.
The Swerve commits two fatal errors in this reviewer’s opinion. First, he delivers an essentially “pop” version of history. By this I mean it acts as a brief survey course rather than provide any real new insights. Second, Greenblatt lets his obvious biases color his interpretation to the point where one has to question some of his thesis. His veneration of Classical Greece and Rome and clear disdain for Christianity becomes an overarching meme of the book. (Full disclosure- I was a classics major in college and grew up Catholic, so I can sympathize with both sides here. What I find most egregious is Greenblatt’s utter one sided argument.)
First,  I kept getting the feeling that what he had was a really strong essay dressed up as a book. He uses the basic framework of the discovery to go off on a few different didactic tangents, such as how ancient libraries work, how codexes were created and how the Vatican did business during the Great Schism. All these topics are interesting in and of themselves, but Greenblatt uses his time here to give the most cursory of glances. It is a meandering paraphrase of others’ research. For instance, if you are interested in the development of the ancient library, the birth of codexes or how books were saved you’d be better off reading Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson. Greenblatt does no more than provide Cliff Notes summaries of vaguely connected histories to fill out his text.
All of his side bar history clouds the fact that his premise- that Lucretius’s poem brought with it the modern secular world view- has some significant holes in it. The Epicurean worldview held that there was no soul, no afterlife, and that the best life one could live was essentially one that revolved around the study of philosophy and the striving for pleasure over pain. We can certainly see how modernity is influenced by this way of thought, but the Renaissance that followed fast upon the discovery of On the Nature of Things, was one of striving and progress, not one of gentle and refined pursuits.
The author subscribes to the oversimplified view that the Dark Ages lost all that was perfect and beautiful from the classical world and once the classics were rediscovered the world was once again on the path to perfection. Reality is rarely as simple as that. 
The other issue I had with the book was the author’s clear bias against the Catholic Church and his blind adoration of the classical world. He often went out of his way to describe a kind of infamous “greatest hits” of all of the abuses which lead to The Reformation. Greenblatt is a professional and his facts are certainly accurate, but his continuing diatribe against the evils of the church get in the way of his main objective, and to be honest get a bit heavy handed. 
He goes on at length about a Christian revolt that lead to the eventual destruction of the famous Alexandria Library, complete with graphic details of violence done to the pagans. All of this is true and clearly disturbing, but no more disturbing than the horrors perpetrated against the early Christians by Greenblatt’s revered Roman aristocracy. He enjoys romanticizing how the ancient philosophers lived, enjoying a simple and refined life behind their garden walls, but never once mentions the enormous issue of slavery that buttressed and made possible this lifestyle. History is not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but flawed humans on all sides striving to understand how to live best.
The author’s clear contempt for religion clouds his theme. It causes him to overlook important aspects of history in order to make the Lucretian discovery the pivot point to modernity, when in fact history is far less linear. Hundreds of years before the rediscovery of Lucretius many Christian writers like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante incorporated philosophical rationals for pleasure and love from classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.  One can easily imagine these trains of thought leading to the Renaissance just as easily as Lucretius, since they were certainly better know to scholars at the time. Yet Greenblatt makes no mention of this.
Overall, The Swerve is an OK read as far as pop history goes. I think if he narrowed his focus a bit it would have been better. With this in mind I am actually looking forward to reading his earlier book on Shakespeare as I think his style and persuasive powers will be better suited to that singular focus. However, The Swerve, as a serious study of the birth of modernity is just falls short. 

On Literature, Reading & Stephen King

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes, by Dwight Allen. As a fan of King since adolescence I started reading the article with an admittedly biased viewpoint against the writer’s premise, but a I continued I had to give credence to some of his points. King can be formulaic; some of his characters are stereo-typed and yes there is a fair amount of “popcorn film” schlock in many of his works. But when one has written as much as King I would venture to guess these occurrences are bound to pop up. Allen doesn’t begrudge King his success, but he does have a problem with the recent trend of critics claiming that King’s work can be seen as literary.
For Allen, literary fiction takes on a decidedly elitist persona and he just can’t see how a genre writer can also be literary. First, let’s establish what exactly literary fiction is. To be considered literary, a work must be critically acclaimed, or serious; it is often a complex, multi-layered work that deals with universal dilemmas. 

If this is our accepted definition of literary fiction, then I fail to see how some of King’s better works do not fit. The Shining is a multi-layered novel that deals with the universal implications of alcoholism; that it does this through the prism of a horror story should not negate it’s seriousness. However, I think the problem Allen really has with King has more to do with his own post modernism than it does with the fact that King is a genre writer.

Postmodern literature is commonly filled with internal irony and word play, it tends not to conclude with the neatly tied-up ending, but often parodies it. Postmodern writers like to emphasize chance over craft, and use metafiction to undermine the writer’s authority. Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are often held up as examples of this style. Reading Allen’s article it seems for him that all literary fiction must be post modern fiction. While I have nothing against post modernism as a style, to claim it as the sole heir of the title literary is simply inaccurate.
Ursula Le Guin, who has written on the topic of literary fiction and genre fiction extensively, has this to say-which seems to me most sensible:
The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.
Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure
Allen, however much he protests to the contrary, is simply inserting his personal tastes for his own definition of what is good writing. While he enjoys the ironic twists and multiple shades of grey that a post modernist novel provides, others prefer the more black and white quality of a good genre novel. As the world gets more and more complex, with the ground ever shifting beneath us, many readers want the assurances of a clear winner and loser. Irony falls flat when real ambiguity is an everyday occurrence.
I find the self admitted elitist, liberal critic’s views on art to be akin to his compatriot’s political and cultural views as well. Just as a insular cabal of leftist political commentators simply cannot understand where a conservative comes from on a given issue, just as a militant atheist cannot comprehend a believer’s faith, a post modern literary critic does not get quality genre fiction. It is all one of a piece. 
The larger issue in all of this is that of exposure. Too often we all live in our own echo chamber, and all this does is inoculate us against any viewpoint that may deviate from our internal scripts. The internet offers a real chance at breaking down these walls, be they intellectual, societal or simply ones of taste. But that potential will remain dormant if we only read and watch those who are in agreement with us. 

Book Review: The Scorpio Illusion

I remember vividly the first time I read one of Robert Ludlum’s novels. I was in high school and had stumbled upon The Bourne Identity. The book oscillated between a plot moving at a frenetic pace and a series of flashbacks allowing you to slow down and get a deeper sense of who Bourne was, and why he did what he did. I came to appreciate the flashbacks almost more than the forward plot. The Bourne Identity wasn’t the only one of Ludlum’s novel to employ this technique. It was something that kept me coming back to him throughout my teenage years.

So it was with a sense of nostalgia and optimism that I recently started one of his later works, The Scorpio Illusion. At first, the plot is pure Ludlum. Our hero, Tyrell Hawthorne, is a former intelligence officer whose wife was murdered, a victim of “the games spies play.” Now he has been called out of retirement as supposedly the only man alive who can track down a deadly terrorist. Amaya Bajaratt is beautiful (of course) and deadly; worse still she has set in motion a horrifying conspiracy that no one can seem to stop. The life of the U.S. president and various world leaders hang in the balance as Hawthorne follows Amaya’s trail to uncover the secret group, The Scorpios, that exists to help her.

Sounds like a great spy-thriller-beach-read, right? Unfortunately, Ludlum seems to have rushed through this book. Gone are all of the character building flashbacks and carefully revealed details that allow the reader to lose himself in the world of espionage. He fell victim to one a genre writer’s worst enemies. He expected his readers to fill in the blanks themselves.

One of the joys of reading genre fiction is allowing yourself to fall into the world the author creates. Yes, it is usually a very familiar place, especially if you have read much of a particular author. But an escape into that well crafted world is exactly what the reader is looking for.

The Scorpio Illusion is simply not one of Ludlum’s best. While the plot moved along at his usual breakneck speed, the characters were so utterly flat I had a hard time getting invested in any of it. Most of the dialogue sounded like it was taken from a 1970’s cop show, complete with all the requisite stereotypes these shows made famous.

While I still think most of Ludlam’s work sets the standard for the spy/thriller genre, I would not recommend reading this book if you are new to Ludlam. His earlier work was much better.