Monday, April 28, 2008

Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers

There is nothing shocking in Fred Kaplan's Daydream Believers. Nothing that will make you slap your head and exclaim "Now I understand!" (though I did want to slap my head any number of times and exclaim "You must be kidding me!!").

But it is a lucid, engaging, and to my mind fairly well-balanced review of how we got into the mess we're in.

And by "mess we're in" I do not mean -- nor does Kaplan mean -- just Iraq.

Rather, Kaplan stretches back, back, back to Truman (though only briefly) and works his way up, exploring how various ideas, both grand and not so grand, concerning how the United States could and should approach the world and global security challenges were put into practice through the years. And resulted in an over-stretched and under-resourced military, a foreign policy that has left us more isolated than we need to be, and money pouring into projects that have little bearing on the threats this country does face.

It's a smooth read, avoiding much of the repetition that comes with books born out of stories written for other outlets (which Kaplan notes though is quick to point out that this is not a collection of previously written pieces), filled with lots of detail that I was not aware of (and names of "obscure" figures -- and names that recur and made me thing, "huh?" until I realized that it didn't really matter whether I remembered just exactly what everybody did at every step of the way), and tying together neatly, and not at all as a patchwork, the various players in the current drama.

It is astounding how all of the pieces fit together (and how all of the players owe and are owed by the others); and it is almost laughable, at points, how so many of the folks Kaplan discusses have just sort of stumbled through their work and into positions of greater and greater responsibility (which they were unprepared for and/or sometimes just willfully ignorant of with regard to the impact they could and would have).

Almost laughable, if it weren't so deadly serious.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

JM Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year

JM Coetzee is one of those "can't miss" authors for me. Or has been. Until now. Even books I haven't really known what to make of going into them, or worried I'd be utterly bored -- such as Elizabeth Costello or The Master of Petersburg or The Lives of Animals -- have, in the end, in the reading, gripped, shaped, shaken, excited, or just left me thinking. Deep.

Until Diary of a Bad Year that is.

Maybe it's the gimmicky split level narrative. Maybe... Oh, hell, I don't know. It's gotten plenty of laudatory reviews: from Book Forum, the New York Times and elsewhere (including a rather more thorough reflection in Slate).

So take their word for it. Not mine. Coetzee's always worth reading (and apparently worth discussing, formally, as the Penguin Reading Guide illustrates). Just don't read this one first. You'll miss all the real good stuff.