I set up a reading summer list. Since we’re now officially into summer, I figured it was time to check back in and talk about how it’s going.
Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging by Sebastian Junger
The first book on my list was Tribe, and it was profound in a way that simple ideas often are. Junger is a veteran war correspondent, and Tribe is the book in which he tries to make sense of his experiences. It’s a short read that talks quite a lot about the human reaction to combat and other life-threatening situations as well as the ingrained societal instincts that make people adapt in the ways that they do.
The book is a kind of Rorschach test. What you see in it is based largely on your experiences. I say this because my buddy Chris and I both read it and then talked about it at length over the phone one night, and we took totally different things away from it. This was kind of amazing.
To me, Tribe was a call for community in a society that’s lost its way. It’s an acknowledgement that modern society’s veneration of the individual is a mistake; that we all need to belong, and that this belonging comes from our giving to our community in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. However, in a society where life is so easy, simply being of service has become surprisingly difficult. This is not least because of the ways in which we incentivise bad behavior. Many of the people we venerate today would in another era have been stoned publicly for hoarding food. The basic cognitive dissonance inherent in this, of celebrating greed, ultimately hurts everyone.
It is particularly toxic to combat veterans, who have trouble re-assimilating into what passes for modern society for obvious reasons. One does not simply rise above one’s baser instincts in service to the common good and then turn that off in favor of meaningless TPS reports in an economy that rewards greed and other antisocial behaviors. Though many Americans successfully socialize themselves into acting like greedy, heartless motherfuckers, this is not humanity’s natural state. Having once broken through this unnatural socialization, it’s tough to go back to an empty life of bureaucracy, regardless of its financial perks. Humans need to feel needed. A comfortable life is a poor substitute for feeling legitimately important within one’s community.
That’s what I took from the book, anyway.
As I said, though, my buddy Chris--combat aviator, all-around amazing guy, about to be promoted to full Colonel in the U.S. Army, and still somehow one of my best friends--read this much, much differently. I don’t think I can do his words justice here, but he gave me a long discussion about how the Army is making a mistake to venerate combat, that just being in the war zone doesn’t prove anything, that guys (and gals) still have responsibilities when they come back to find ways to stay socially relevant. There was more--you show me an Army Colonel, and I’ll show you a guy with at least the outline of a treatise on modern military leadership stowed somewhere in his rucksack--but that was, I think, the jist of it.
Regardless, Tribe is a must-read. It’s definitely the think-piece of the summer, and it’s short, so you won’t get bogged down.
The Devil and the White City by Justin Cronin
I thought this was a novel when I picked it up from the local library, but it turned out to be a popular history of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893--and the serial killer who haunted it. Interesting book, but probably not the right work to follow Tribe. I think I maybe needed something a little lighter, and this was not exactlylight.
Chicago was a tough, violent, thriving metropolis at the close of the 19th century. In its bid to be recognized as America’s Second City, Chicagoans put forth a proposal to hold a World’s Fair, which wound up becoming one of the nation’s singular triumphs. Seminal works of architecture and landscape architecture were born in Chicago, ideas--like the layout of the Washington Mall and the Smithsonian buildings--that would eventually become national cultural touchstones. The pace of construction itself was also a singular achievement, the kind of thing that could only happen in America, and only in an America at the height of her powers.
This was the part of the book that I enjoyed.
There was another half, though, about a serial killer whom the technology and forensic techniques of the day had not quite the capacity to catch until it was far too late. Coming off of Tribe, this struck me as the nascent social malaise, the uncaring worst in American culture, that would one day be the bane of Western existence. In truth, it was tough read.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
I tried. I really did. I only made it through one chapter, though. There just wasn’t anything for me to latch onto. I couldn’t see myself in any of the characters, and frankly, I still don’t know why I was supposed to care about the tourist trade in some backwater fishing hamlet of southern Italy circa 1960. The book opens with a scene of a guy trying to build a beach on a rocky outcropping, and it struck me as one of the dumbest, most idiotic pursuits I’d ever considered. Who does that?
I couldn’t finish. In truth, I barely even began.
I’m sorry. I know you’re disappointed.
The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimmons
From the title, I expected this to be about some kind of financial shenanigans, but it turned out to be something of a techno-thriller. Our hero is Gibson Vaughn, ex-Marine computer hacker, who gets recruited by a private security firm to go in search of his long-missing childhood friend Suzanne. Suzanne was the daughter of the man who has since become the sitting Vice President, now embroiled in a hot primary campaign to replace his boss, and whatever happens with his daughter’s cold-case might very well impact the race for the White House.
As one expects in these things, wackiness ensues.
So. I liked this book quite a bit. It was fun, and I really liked that the hero was not some special forces badass superhero. He was instead a certified nerd, albeit one who’d done a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. Pretty much everyone else in the book is hardboiled badass, but Vaughn himself stays on task. His superpower is his skill with computers, and he never breaks character to pretend to be something that he isn’t. Considering the kinds of characters involved in the rest of the book and some of the book’s plotting, that commitment to character really stood out to me. It was truly impressive.
While we’re talking, though, can someone explain to me the use-case for computer hackers in the Marine Corps? It bothered me throughout the book. If the Army’s job is to fight and win our nation’s wars, then the Navy’s is to project power forward and guarantee the freedom of the seas. At least in theory, then, the Marines are the guys who hit the beach as part of force projection, which is why the Marines are organized as “expeditionary” forces. They don’t “take and hold territory” so much as they break down the door, establish a presence, and project force forward. Okay, so I get that the Department of the Navy needs some cyber-warfare guys. But wouldn’t those guy be in the Navy? And working in support of an entire naval task force (i.e. a bunch of ships)?
Marines hit the beach. Every Marine is a rifleman, so Marine hackers would presumably be prepared to hit the beach along with the rest. But why? What is the use-case for hackers who can go with the landing party as part of an expeditionary, force-projection mission?
I very much wish that my father was still alive, so that I could pose this question to him directly. He would, I’m sure, tie this into vertical envelopment doctrine somehow. He would also, without doubt, have at least five use-cases for Marine hackers. But I don’t have any, which is why this issue drove me crazy on a continuing basis.
Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover
This one was not on my reading list. I picked it up at Stratford Library’s annual books sale for $2, mostly because it’s by Matthew Stover, author of the novelization of Revenge of the Sith. RotS is easily the best novelization of a movie in the history of the English language. Seriously. The novel version of Revenge of the Sith is so much better than the movie that it’s actually kind of amazing.
Shadows of Mindor has a really interesting premise. Stover sets out to write about the end of Luke Skywalker’s military career, the events that made him decide to break formally with the New Republic’s fleet and governmental structures. In a sense, Stover is revisiting some of the issues that came up during the Clone Wars cartoon series and Revenge of the Sith the movie, that Jedi are really not meant to be generals fighting wars.
As the book opens, Luke has a sense that he is not on the right path somehow, but despite his rather considerable power, he has almost no formal training. In the same way that Yoda and company didn’t know how to approach the Clone Wars, Skywalker doesn’t know how to approach the ongoing conflicts against the remnants of the Empire. Added to this is the knowledge that his father and Obi Wan Kenobi both served as generals during the Clone Wars, setting a precedent of success that Luke is in no way prepared to follow. Moreover, no one really understands the ways in which the Jedi erred during the Clone Wars or what ultimately brought them down. Shadows of Mindor, then, sees Luke once again at risk of walking a little too closely in his father’s footsteps.
Interesting premise aside, though, this book hasn’t quite lived up to the hype yet. Stover has a good sense for the characters--particularly Han, Leia, and Lando Calrissian--but if you’ve spent any time watching the Clone Wars cartoon series, Luke is annoyingly whiny and indecisive compared to Anakin. Where Anakin is brash, talented, heroic, and yes, overconfident, Luke is cautious, indecisive, haunted by the past--and still somehow overconfident.
So far we’ve seen Luke’s emotional struggles and some badass Sith sorcery, but that’s about all. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Anybody else? What are you reading?