Archives for posts with tag: National Book Award

The+SwerveThe Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, written by Shakespeare and Renaissance expert Stephen Greenblatt, is an account of how ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius’ ancient philosophical (funnily enough) epic poem On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) was rediscovered in the early 1400s by a Florentine man named Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio was an apostolic secretary, collector of ancient manuscripts, and great friends with wealthy and renowned collector of antiquities and manuscripts Niccolò Niccoli. On the Nature of Things contains many ideas that fuelled the Renaissance, inspiring artists and scientists alike.

Greenblatt weaves the tale of Lucretius’ poem’s journey from ancient times, to falling into Poggio’s hands, to its spread throughout Italy giving strength to the Renaissance. The Swerve is also a portrait of Italy on the cusp of the Renaissance – the political dealings, papal scandals and social climbing. Poggio, being an apostolic secretary and moving among the Florentine elite, was well placed as an observer of the times, the perfect starting point from which to map the course of the Renaissance.

Greenblatt includes a handy chapter that breaks down the basic ideas featured in Lucretius’ poem –

  • Everything is made of invisible particles
  • The universe has no creator or designer
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival
  • The soul dies
  • There is no afterlife
  • All organised religions are superstitious delusions
  • Religions are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion

The ideas of Epicurus (Lucretius’ poem introduced Epicurean philosophy to Roman readers) and Lucretius aren’t revolutionary to most people anymore but to think of ancient Romans and Greeks thinking about them seemed amazing to me. To have figured out so many truths only to have them be lost is mind-boggling. And even today their ideas on religion are furiously contested, ‘often by those who gladly avail themselves of the scientific advances [those ideas] helped to spawn’, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it.

I loved how Greenblatt paints pictures of what life was like, creates context and tells stories. He tells us what Poggio would likely have felt (though Poggio did write things down as well) among other details that, given the passage of time, are unknowable, but Greenblatt’s vastly educated conjecture is very welcome. He does the same with his recreation of ancient times. Greenblatt’s setting is the Herculaneum villa known as the Villa of the Papyri where during an archaeological excavation a copy of De rerum natura was discovered. Greenblatt uses these clues to show us the lives and social circles of the people that would have originally read Lucretius and Epicurus. Historical sleuthing, as it were.

I was hugely impressed by The Swerve. To a Renaissance history or philosophy buff perhaps there won’t be much that’s new. Maybe it won’t be a revelation that people in ancient societies hypothesised that the world is made of atoms. But Greenblatt still has a singular ability to demonstrate the awe and wonder and danger of scientific endeavour. It’s a rather intimate slice of history – the life of one man, the impact of one manuscript, but it shows the wide-reaching nature of intellectual exploration and the possibility of changing the course of history with a single discovery. Greenblatt writes with great clarity. The Swerve is ambitious in its vision to tell us ‘How the Renaissance Began’ yet remains crystalline in its real, more modest purpose – to tell the story of Poggio Bracciolini and the inspiring De rerum natura.


BillyBilly Lynn is a young American soldier, a member of Bravo Company. They’ve been on a victory tour of the United States after being declared heroes for their part in the war in Iraq. The tour culminates in the glorious spectacle of the Thanksgiving Day football game and its famed halftime show, where the eight members of Bravo will be the guests of honour. Accompanying them is movie producer Albert Ratner, who is trying to secure a deal to make a movie out of the team’s heroic firefight.

All the guys of Bravo really want to do is realise their dream of meeting the lovely Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders and maybe even Destiny’s Child, the halftime show’s star performers, before they get sent back to Iraq for their next tour of duty.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an irreverent, satirical look at warfare and America. Ben Fountain’s sentences are incisive, cutting through the bullshit like a razor. Personally, I like my war stories satirical (Catch-22 is a favourite). Satire shouldn’t mean soulless though. And that’s where Fountain shines; he never lets his linguistic ingenuity or a political message get in the way of the experiences of Billy and the rest of Bravo.

Fountain doesn’t make sport of the blood brother bond of soldiers. There’s no dogmatic declaration that the war in Iraq is wrong. It’s the overall bloated spectacle of the United States of America that is pilloried – the rabid fans fawning all over Bravo Company, congratulating them for what they did in Iraq, for ‘paying them back for nina leven’. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is also an astute satire of Hollywood and high finance. As Albert tries to ink a movie deal for Bravo it becomes apparent that no studio will commit until a star commits, no star until a studio – ‘The paradox is so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way, that everyone can identify’, lovingly referencing Catch-22, Billy Lynn’s’ spiritual forebear.

Part of what’s great about Billy is he didn’t choose to become a soldier. He isn’t your average troubled youth turning to the army when there’s nothing else or an unquestioning patriot. Billy is philosophical; he’s concerned by ideas about fate, albeit in a fittingly slangy voice,

The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of to the right. Random.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk flits between Iraq, earlier stops on the victory tour, the events that led to Billy becoming a soldier, and Billy visiting his family, all swirling around the climax of Bravo’s participation in the halftime show. Incidentally, when Destiny’s Child sing in the halftime show Fountain prints the ridiculously daft lyrics in black and white on the page, ‘Big man can’t you handle this good love I’m offerin’ you?’, ‘You get yours and leave me hangin’ like a prepubescent’. It’s brilliant social commentary. The halftime show is discussed as if it is the apex of America’s cultural and social expression, then is revealed to be completely ludicrous. And while it is a sad state of affairs, in Fountain’s hands it remains funny. His keen critical eye also means he gets away with the largely plotless meandering, repetition of themes, philosophical exploration and a fascination with paradox, while remaining constantly interesting and relevant. It may seem strange to compare the two but it leapt into my head, it’s a much more successful attempt than Charles Yu’s science fiction take on similar structural ideas.

Fountain’s novel is often sad, biting and savage. Do the soldiers know they’re being used? ‘Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ It’s ultimately an indictment of war yet, for the most part, it’s balanced, and the more powerful for it. ‘All that ever got talked about was how war was supposed to fuck you up, true enough but maybe not the whole truth.’

the round houseIn 1988 thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts learns that his mother, Geraldine, has been brutally raped near the old round house on their North Dakota reservation. Geraldine tries to carry on but plunges into a deep depression. She knows who is responsible for her attack but for some reason refuses to talk about it. Despite Geraldine’s fears, Joe and his father, Bazil, try to find the culprit. But crimes committed near Indian reservations have their own unique set of difficulties. Is it a case for tribal police, state troopers, or local officers? Where a crime is committed can make all the difference to how justice is sought. Geraldine knows her attack took place near the round house but she was blindfolded, she never saw exactly where she was. This ambiguity allows countless criminals to get away on technicalities, and sometimes the only justice anyone can get is vengeance.

The Round House calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – small town life, a bygone era, a search for justice and truth, and the painful process of being inducted into the adult world. That’s not to say The Round House is derivative, it just evokes a timeless feeling. I guess ‘coming-of-age’ would be the trite way to put it.

The Indian reservation setting and Louise Erdrich’s potent prose make The Round House unique. Erdrich, herself, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her embrace of her Indian ancestry has given her the insight to produce a rich, fully realised portrait of reservation life – jokes about rez steak sandwiches (baloney on white bread), pow wows, traditional Indian costumes, old Indian stories about the wiindogoo (if a human resorts to cannibalism to stay alive they will be possessed by the spirit of a wiindigoo, forever craving human flesh). Erdrich writes powerfully about the injustices as well – rape, racism, Native Americans being forced off their land and dying of smallpox.

I felt Joe’s pain, frustration and confusion after his mother’s rape. He just wants his mother to come back to him, for life to be how it was. Joe is convinced that his family will never have peace until her attacker is caught. Both of Joe’s parents are responsible for upholding law and order within their community – Joe’s father is a tribal judge, his mother works for the tribal council, collecting information needed to register people as Native American. Yet, in Joe’s mind, neither are doing what’s needed to find Geraldine’s rapist. So Joe takes the responsibility on himself. Bazil is a moral, wise man, doing what he can as a judge to uphold the law, despite finding the way to justice barricaded at every turn. Now, Joe’s father has transformed from his hero to a joke, dispensing justice to hotdog thieves and violators of parking restrictions. The vividness of the emotion Erdrich conjures up is formidable, and all in keeping with the feelings of a thirteen-year-old boy facing extraordinary circumstances.

Erdrich writes from Joe’s perspective. He’s writing down his memories of that time, as a grown man. Joe slips in references to his future wife and his career as a lawyer, so you know he doesn’t let his experiences ruin his future. And I’m glad. I don’t know that I could’ve read The Round House not knowing whether his mother’s tragic assault would cause him to unravel as well.

The Round House comes out strong, the horror of Geraldine’s attack commands your attention but there are slow parts. Some of my favourite books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) have unrelated asides and contemplative portions – slow parts, for those that aren’t fans – that I either loved for their languorous pace or barely noticed because I was enjoying myself so much. The Round House wasn’t up to that level for me, I noticed it drag sometimes. But at its best it’s excellent.

Erdrich’s writing subtly claws at you, tearing you up inside. It’s so restrained in its devastation. Right alongside Joe’s bleak pursuit of vengeance is a portrait of ordinary boyhood – getting drunk, riding bikes, running from irate adults, falling in love. I barely realised how dark it was or how much I worried for Joe. Then it hit me, Joe’s life was never going to be the same again.