Pop Picks

Books and a film

Posted on July 26, 2009

A couple of recent reads:

I just finished Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, reports from the New York Times’ war correspondent that span pre-911 Taliban controlled Afghanistan through the events in New York and then the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.  You might recognize some of the accounts if you are a Times reader.

Filkins is undeniably brave and some of the accounts are hauntingly brutal.  The book joins a long line of searing war memoirs and, as others before it, robs war of any notions regarding bigger glory or idealism.  However one feels about the invasion of Iraq and the larger foreign policy implications, for those in the midst of it — American soldiers, insurgents, Iraqi families, aid workers — the war is brutal and inhumane and terrifyingly random. 

Filkin’s tone can sound self-valorizing and there is something egotistical in his accounts of running along the Tigris, his self-deprecation notwithstanding.  But his genuine empathy for the soldiers he accompanies and his heartfelt pain at their deaths, one in particular, is restrained and more painful for it.

The Forever War is a sobering read.  It reminds one that humans are capable of the darkest acts and war remains the greatest of evils.  I’m not sure I any longer believe it is ever justifiable.  Filkins only strengthens that growing pacificism.

It was almost an antidote to open the cover of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, a fun and fascinating true life account of two key figures involved in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.  I know, I know — it hardly sounds fascinating or fun, but it really is.  Professor James Murray led the team that created the OED, one of the towering intellectual accomplishments of the Victorian era, and one of the most prolific contributors was Dr. W. C. Minor, an American surgeon and Civil War veteran living in England.  What Murray and his committee came to discover was that Minor was insane and confined to an asylum.  It is a story of madness, obsession, and the fragile line that sometimes seperates genuis and insanity.  If you love language, you’ll love this great summer read.

Turning to film, we saw the new Harry Potter movie.  I read all of the novels and thoroughly enjoyed them (when a new volue was released we had to buy more than one copy since we all stayed up late immersed in the latest adventure of Harry and the gang and were largely unwilling to share until done).  The movies are a mixed bag and this was the most disappointing one yet.  It is workmanlike at best, setting up the impending climatic showdown between Harry and Voldemort — it exists only as a set up rerally.  The heavy gray/sepia tones reflect the largely joyless quality of the film, relieved only by the occasional carrying-ons of the now hormonal adolescents.  Read Anthony Lane’s wicked and witty take down of the film in the latest New Yorker.  That said, the world of Hogworts is still a welcome escape from the world for a couple of hours, even when its magic is muted in the hands of a poor director and writer.

We later this week leave for our vacation.  The very definition of luxury for me is to read as long into the night as I like with no regard to the next morning.  It is an indulgence that only a vacation can afford and I’m carefully assembling my books.  Can’t wait!

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