The Empathy of David Mitchell

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I am about three quarters of the way through the new David Mitchell book, The Bone Clocks.  Although there is always the possibility that Mitchell won’t land the ending, and the ending of anything matters, so far I can’t help but feel this book is a masterpiece.  At different times throughout the journey I was highly engrossed in an extremely realistic description of a journalist in the Iraq War, the life of a serf in Tsarist Russian, a dark comedy featuring a modern writer, and science fiction action scenes that seemed as if they came out of a blockbuster movie.  Those are just a few of the different styles and perspectives that Mitchell weaves seamlessly in this book.

Although I can’t claim to know exactly what goes on in Mitchell’s head, I feel that after reading all of his books, except for the small amount of this one to go, that there is a purpose to all of these different styles and characters.  I think Mitchell understands that the only tribe that matters is the human race.  Most of the time when human beings treat each other poorly, it is because they put their tribe first.  That tribe can be a political, religious, or ethnic tribe.  It is seeing themselves as being more important than someone else.  It is the ability to not be able to imagine oneself in another’s shoes, to feel enough empathy.  Mitchell takes us inside the head of many different kinds of people and he does so using many literary techniques.

Again, I want to hold off final judgment until I finish the book, but Mitchell might have just painted a masterpiece.  Mitchell uses many of the the same techniques that brought him such acclaim in Cloud Atlas, but if anything this book might actually might be more entertaining from story one.  I can’t put it down, and haven’t been able to since I started.  Stay tuned for more about this book in the future, but you might want to check it out yourself in the meantime.

David Mitchell Interview

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/a-hot-tip-to-win-the-booker-prize-david-mitchells-new-book-the-bone-clocks-is-a-tour-de-force-of-genreskipping-9714364.html

The above link is a fascinating interview with author David Mitchell.  Mitchell is one of the great writers of our time.  Right now I am thoroughly enjoying his new novel The Bone Clocks.

David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami

 

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Two of the best living novelists have new books out.  David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami are both novelists that are able to entertain and deal in serious themes of the human condition.  

Here is an excellent review of Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks in The Atlantic:  

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/09/review-david-mitchells-bone-clocks-the-cloud-atlas-authors-meta-masterpiece/379445/

Here is a review of Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by rock n roll legend Patti Smith:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/books/review/haruki-murakamis-colorless-tsukuru-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage.html?_r=0

I intend to read both of these novels.  I highly recommend Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, please god don’t see the movie, although all of his works are worth checking out.  My favorite Murakami books are The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On the Shore, although again almost all of his work is excellent.  

Code of Hammurabi and Sledgehammer

I was reading a Kurt Vonnegut book today called If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?  Here are a few snippets from an address to Agnes Scott College, which is a women’s college.  The piece is entitled Advice to Graduating Women (That All Men Should Know). 

I am so smart I know what is wrong with our world.  Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?”

What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi,  a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago.  And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too.  Are you ready for this?

“And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi,  which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury,  real or imagined, shall be avenged.  Somebody’s going to be real sorry. 

Bombs away – or whatever.

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, ” Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.”  What kind of a man was that?  Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi,  would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all of their friends and relatives, and make their deaths painful.”

And later…

Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge – forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago. 

We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully,  violently,  to every insult or injury.  In this, the Age of Television,  they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers,  to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on.

Fires, explosions.  Come look.  Oh my gosh – hey wow.

To quote the late Irving Berlin: “There’s no business like show business.”

It seems that not only in our response to slights, not only do we not take the high road,  but our responses create the unbroken chain of violence that Mr. Vonnegut speaks of.  One only has to look at the Iraq War and now the emergence of ISIS.   It also seems as if our response is always disproportionate to the original slight. 

I was reminded today, while reading this, of a show I used to watch as a kid.  It was called Sledgehammer,  and it was a spoof of the kind of over the top Dirty Harry character that always uses excessive force.  I think the link to the video is a good metaphor for our foreign policy.  In the clip the police are being shot at by a sniper.  Rather than simply take the bad guy out, Sledgehammer pulls out a bazooka and blows up the entire building in which the sniper has his nest. 

Oh my gosh – hey wow.

Mr. X

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Today I finished L. Fletcher Prouty’s JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.  There are some of you that will read the title of this book and discount it entirely.  However, I think Prouty has something to offer, if not on the JFK assassination itself, then about what went so horribly wrong in Vietnam.  

I picked up the book months ago as Oliver Stone recommended it.  Prouty was the basis for the Mr. X character in the film JFK played by Donal Sutherland.  Prouty was a controversial character in real life as he not only believed JFK assassination was a coup d’etat, but made other controversial claims as well.  However, with his military experience and his close connections with high ranking military officials, you can’t discount everything that he says either.  

I think it is important when reading any book that deals in some way with history to read with a grain of salt. A book like Prouty’s one has to read with even more of a critical eye than usual.  Surprisingly, the actual assassination of JFK only takes up maybe the last 15% of the book.  Most of the book is telling the history of the Vietnam War, what went wrong there, what our involvement really was there, and why there was a hostile climate surrounding Kennedy due to the decisions he was making about that war prior to his death.  

I have seen some of the claims Prouty makes about Vietnam made in other places.  We entered the war with a Cold War mentality, we didn’t understand the local culture, we made many mistakes that turned the local population against us, etc.  

The book also goes into such details as how much money there was to be made in the military industrial complex due to things like helicopters.  Not only did the war create a giant market for helicopters and other weapons, but the helicopters themselves were a very inefficient way of fighting the war because of the amount of support staff that was needed and the fact that they weren’t very dependable given the kind of terrain and conflict that took place in that war.  

Up until JFK’s death we only spent between 2 and 3 billion dollars in Vietnam.  Afterwards we spent around 220 billion dollars.  

The book also goes into detail about the culture of Vietnam and how we either didn’t understand it or were at times willfully ignorant.  Much of the conflict was the result of things that we and the Diem government did that uprooted the traditional life of the Vietnamese peasants who had been living like they did before the war for hundreds of years.  We tended to view everything through the communist/capitalist lens of the Cold War while many of the enemy combatants didn’t fall neatly into that prism.  We did a lot to create our own enemies.  

The sections dealing with the Vietnam War are very thought provoking and well detailed.  It is in his claims about the assassination where I feel that Prouty overreaches and makes bold claims without a lot of detail to back it up.  However, he does provide a pretty convincing thesis on at least why JFK was despised by many members of the US power structure.  

This was a fascinating read.  Even if you don’t buy into Prouty’s theory of the assassination, or even skip that part of the book entirely, I think the rest of the book justifies itself.  It is especially thought provoking when it takes an inside look at the mindset of those carrying out the Cold War.  

 

In the Kingdom of Ice

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The writer Hampton Sides has a new book out called In the Kingdom of Ice.  I have only just started reading it, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but if it is anything like Sides’s other books it will be worth every penny.  Sides is one of my favorite history writers.  Following in the footsteps of Shelby Foote, Sides knows how to write accurate history with a the eye of a cinematographer and the gift of natural storyteller.  Every single one of his books has opened a new world up to me.  I can’t even imagine the insane amount of research and work that goes into these books.  His other three books, all worth reading, are as follows:

Blood and Thunder:  This is the story of Kit Carson and the Indian Wars that take place largely in New Mexico.  Along with the equally fascinating Empire of the Summer Moon, written by S.C. Gwynne about the Indian Wars in Texas, this book book is at the top of my list for my favorite history book.  If you read both of these books you will have a great idea of what actually happened during our westward expansion.  Both of these books are fascinating, intelligent, and page turners.  

Ghost Soldiers:  This is Sides’s book on the Bantam Death March and the operation that took place to rescue the survivors.  It is at times both haunting and exciting.  Also, many of the little details that Sides includes are fascinating.  It makes you understand why the Japanese Empire was doomed to failure for the way that they treated those that they conquered.  Another interesting fact is that the American government introduced speed to our soldiers during World War II.  They gave it to the soldiers performing the rescue operation so that they could stay up for several days to complete the operation in the time needed.  

Hellhound On HIs Trail:  This is a book about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray.  The subtitle of this book is The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History.  It does deliver all of the details on the manhunt of James Earl Ray, and it is fascinating.  I did not know, for instance, that James Earl Ray had actually escaped from prison.  But what makes the book really fascinating is the juxtaposition between Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray.  King believed in nonviolence to the point that he refused to travel with armed body guards.  And although Sides does not shy away from King’s adultery or other human failings, you understand after reading the book about why he was such an inspiring figure.  His vision for humanity was one of decency and dignity.  Meanwhile Ray is one of life’s losers, a man without any clear goal or passion.  He is a hollow man whose small-mindedness brought him to violence.  They are figures at the complete opposite ends of the human spectrum.  

I was a History Major and eventually an American Studies Major in college.  There is no reason that history shouldn’t be fascinating.  Occasionally you should challenge yourself with a large sprawling work like William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as these kinds of books can present the big picture in ways that other books can’t.  But usually if history is hard to read, and Shirer’s book is not, it just tells a very complex history, it is the fault of the writer.  Sides’s work is no less valid for being readable.  He is simply a great writer as well as a great historian.  If you are interested in our country, all of these books are worth looking into.  You will learn a great deal while being entertained.  

How Complex Should Your Argument Be?

I have written songs, blog posts, and a chapter in a book.  Many political issues are complex shades of gray,  although many want to reduce them to black and white.  In order to sway people to your favor should your writing be closer to a well formed argument that takes in different ideas and acknowledges that complexity, or should aim for propaganda that elicits attention to your cause?  Of course some of that depends on your aims, but I also think the form matters. 

If you are writing a book or a long form magazine article, you have the space to measure and weigh all the nuances of an issue.  While proving your point you can take the time to acknowledge the complexity of the situation you are dealing with. 

In a blog, which you want people to be able to read at any point in their busy day to day lives, I used to read blogs between calls at work, I feel that you have less space.  I feel as though you may want to acknowledge the complexity of a certain issue, it is better to provoke people to become interested in a topic, and then get them to think and follow up on their own.

In a pop song, which is usually no more than a few minutes, with some of those precious minutes giving time for the music itself, you should write as close to propaganda as possible.  Say something bold and immediate that cannot be overlooked.  You want something that jumps out of the speakers and grabs people by the throat.  Music is meant to be emotional and you should aim to create strong emotions whatever they may be.  Although clearly modern radio would disagree, I still believe it is important to ask of an artist the question, “What do you have to say?”  If someone is interested enough in an artist’s possibly nuanced position, they can spend the time to find out.  In music I love those artists that piss lightning and crap thunder.  Did I just quote Mick from Rocky?