Thursday, December 30, 2010

Colonel Roosevelt a splendid conclusion to Morris's trilogy

Book 110: Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey

I never know what I will find when I open a Peter Carey novel. It may be something fine, on the order of True History of the Kelly Gang. Or something I find inexplicable such as The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

Carey is at peak form in Parrot & Olivier in America, which was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It is a sprawling, comic, picaresque novel loosely inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville.

De Tocqueville, the Olivier of the novel, comes to America to write about its prison system for a French audience. Ultimately, he expands his book into a comprehensive study of America and Americans of the early 19th Century. Olivier is accompanied to America by an English servant, Parrot.

Sent to report on Olivier's actions in America, Parrot becomes his friend and confidant.

Carey alternates points of view, first a chapter told by Olivier and then by Parrot. And, it is here, that the book's central weakness is most apparent. Parrot, who journeys from England to Australia as a child, and later finds his way to France, is the novel's most interesting character than Olivier and those passages in his voice are more compelling than the story told by Olivier.

All in all, a worthy read. Not Carey's best, perhaps, but approaching it. If for no other reason, Parrot & Olivier in America is worth reading because it is a so-called comic novel that produces genuine laughs.

Book 111: Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Colonel Roosevelt is the final book in Edmund Morris's trilogy on the life of Teddy Roosevelt. It is a fine and fitting conclusion to a body of work that has absorbed much of Morris's working life.

I think of few individuals who have led such a fascinating life -- cradle to grave -- as Roosevelt and Morris has done a splendid job in drawing a rich portrait of this complex and driven man.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
is the story of Teddy's pre-presidential life from his efforts to throw off debilitating childhood illnesses to become a hunter, cowboy, soldier, vice president and, unexpectedly, president. Theodore Rex, the second book in the trilogy, is the account of his presidency.

Colonel Roosevelt opens with Teddy and his son, Kermit, on an ambitious hunting expedition in Africa. There's also a lengthy passage on Roosevelt's journey to South America to explore an unknown tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt. Roosevelt almost died in South America and, by all reports, never fully recovered from the rigors of that expedition. (Anyone wanting to read more about that trip should investigate the gripping The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.)

In between those two expeditions, of course, Roosevelt was the Progressive Party candidate for President. Unhappy with the Taft Administration, Roosevelt led a bolt from the Republican Party. He finished second to the Democrat candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, once a Roosevelt confidant and member of the Roosevelt Administration, finished a distant third.

As World War I began, Roosevelt was a critic of Wilson's refusal to lead America in to war. Roosevelt, always the warrior, was less attuned to the will of the America people who were adamantly isolationist. Nor was there great clarity around who the U.S. should support -- Germany or the Allies -- until Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare left America's political leaders with no choice but to enter the war on the side of England, France and Russia.

All four of Roosevelt's sons enlisted. All were injured in the fighting and, Quentin, a pilot was shot down and killed in a fierce aerial battle. Roosevelt did not recover from that grievious loss and died soon after the war's end.

Roosevelt was a complex man, whose opinions and actions may not have always been correct, but were always certain. Colonel Roosevelt is required reading as are the first two books in this fine series.

Book 112: I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

There are flashes of brilliance in Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a sprawling story of the Asian American civil rights movement of the late '60s and '70s, but it takes a patient reader to find them.

There are two signficiant problems with this novel that was shortlisted for the National Book Award. The first is that it encompasses ten years of stories sprawled across 600 pages. There is very little continuity from story to story, challenging the reader to remain engaged with the story line.

The second pitfall is that this is largely an experimental work. Mostly prose, but dipping into poetry, drama and the graphic novel, I Hotel tests the limits of a reader's good will.

I Hotel is like an extended jazz solo in which the performer goes on too long.

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