To tell the truth, I was not prepared to enjoy this book as much as I did. I knew it was about Julia Ward Howe, who had written “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and I had read she did not get along with her husband, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I also presumed that this would be the story of a creative woman oppressed by a male-dominated world, and that women would therefore be shown to be the “good guys” and men the “bad guys.”
A central pillar of American foreign policy since the end of World War II has been a sometimes underappreciated and overlooked system of alliances. Our membership in NATO is the most prominent example of this, but Jakub Grygiel and A. Weiss Mitchell focus this insightful new study on those smaller and “geographically vulnerable” nations in three strategically important areas, the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.
One comes to Annie Dillard’s The Abundance: Narrative Essays New and Old as to a trove of prehistoric flint knives: “Each of these delicate, absurd objects takes hundreds of separate blows to make. At each stroke and at each pressure flake, the brittle chert might—and, by the record, very often did—snap. … To any human on earth, the sight of one of them means: Someone thought of making, and made, this difficult, impossible, beautiful thing.” Dillard’s essays are uncanny objects, incisive as the flint knife a modern surgeon found “smoother… than his best steel scalpels,” yet due to their perfection, unsuitable for the day-to-day work of living.
In Woody Allen’s film Zelig the title character, an ineffectual also-ran with no visible personality, shows up as a photo-bomb extra at all the big events of 20th century history without influencing any of them. The profundity underneath the running joke is somehow that even nebbishes have lives, or as Milton put it, “they also serve, who only stand and wait.” I think of this movie reading the obituaries in major newspapers (is reading obituaries a sign of increasing age?). These always rely on a hook to the most common way the history of our times is told. There aren’t enough really famous people from the A list dying on a daily basis, so the B and C lists are mined to make readable copy, yet always linked to the same Master Narrative of history that runs (for Americans of my generation) through Elvis, JFK, the Beatles, Vietnam, and Watergate.
In Pumpkin Flowers, Matti Friedman provides a brief, finely written account of an army outpost in Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon in the 1990s and the men who served there. ‘Pumpkin’ was the outpost’s name, while ‘flowers’ was the Israeli army’s code word for wounded soldiers. The term, writes Friedman, reflects “a floral preoccupation in our military intended to bestow beauty on ugliness and to allow soldiers distance from the things they might have to describe.” The Pumpkin itself was far from poetic, a “rectangle of earthen embankments the size of a basketball court” where there was “nothing unnecessary to the purposes of allowing you to kill, preventing you from being killed, and keeping you from losing your mind in the meantime.”
Down in the depths of e-book publishing—the sub-basements, the lower dungeons—a new genre of novel is clawing its way toward birth. Or, at least, a new subgenre of light fiction is drawing itself together in the shadows. LitRPG, this new fiction is called, its stories set inside computerized role-playing games. The result is a little hard to describe. It’s like a cross between science fiction and fantasy, with a good dose of layered realities, à la The Matrix, as the characters transition in and out of computer simulations. As of this summer, Amazon lists well over a thousand of the things—with around 90 percent of them existing only as e-books, and 90 percent of those self-published.