All posts filed under “Heimkehrer


The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer (1994)

Dyer’s book is about trench warfare, World War I, artistic responses to war (especially in literature), the conventions of war memorial sculptures, his personal journeys around WWI battlefields and cemeteries in France, and other things, but his main concern is the nature of cultural memory. How do societies construct and revise the past? “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory but the way memory has determined — and continues to determine — the meaning of the war.”

While this is a book very much focused on WWI, a period which of course had massive (and, he shows, lasting) import for Dyer’s native Britain, many of the book’s insights about history and memory are easily transferrable to other events. He writes persuasively, for example, about the ways in which the realities of historical events and their representations in language interact and determine each other, and his observations seem to me applicable to any such events, from the fall of Rome to 9/11.

One thing that feels kind of weird  here is the personal parts, which I think maybe — speaking of how our perception of the past changes over time —  may have seemed innovative and edgy in 1994 but now after 25 years of rapid evolution in the genre of CNF seems no longer very edgy and in this case kind of just annoying. When we get the accounts of Dyer driving around from monument to monument, village to village with his buddies, cracking jokes and eating sandwiches in their rental car, I think we’re meant to understand something about how memory is always cultural but also always personal? But the jokes are dumb and I could have done without them.

I don’t want to end on a sour note because this is a very sharp book and I enjoyed it. There are plenty of passages worth underlining. The one I’ll probably remember best: “Theodor Adorno said famously that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Instead, he failed to add, there would be photography.” Smart. Not entirely accurate, but smart.



600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a  dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.

Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good.  Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?

Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.




Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)

18143785I stumbled across this and it sounded in theory like something I’d be very interested in: a novel about a soldier coming back from Iraq with undiagnosed PTSD (a subject I’ve been researching and reading about for years now as I struggle with my own work on a similar subject), and even better, the solider is a woman (as is the author, obviously), and that’s a demographic that’s badly underrepresented in literature. In my “Uses of History” class, during the unit on war’s continuing effects on returned soldiers, I always teach Sigrid Nunez’s great For Rouenna; it’s one of the very few novels I know of that takes up the lingering effects of war on  women who’ve served. Even more, reviews of Hoffman’s novel promised that she also incorporated the realities of class in Be Safe I Love You; the returned soldier, Lauren Clay, enlisted out of a sense of economic responsibility to her family. This too is an aspect too often missing from contemporary war literature and film. I’ve looked at a lot of novels, stories, plays, journalism, documentary films, and fictional films about soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; not many focus on veterans’ economic realities.

So this was ticking a lot of boxes for me before I even started it, and I was anxious I’d be disappointed because I tend toward disappointment. The novel begins slowly, and drags a bit as Hoffman somewhat methodically gets all her characters and settings into position for the first 150 pages or so, but the second half of the book really pays off. Lauren Clay is the most reliable and self-sufficient person in town, and everyone — her family and friends — has come to rely on her and take her steadiness for granted. When the damage done to her in war begins to seep through her facade of competency, it’s terrifying for those who love her, and you feel it too.

Deceptively simple book. Hoffmans wears her politics and knowledge very lightly. The Joan of Arc oilfield. The ghost dog Sebastian. Lots of small touches.

I find the marketing for this book interesting. The intertwined hands on the cover, and the treacly title . . . what’s that about?



KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”


Redeployment, Phil Klay (2014)


This collection got a good review in the New Yorker earlier this year, and since it’s subject is one I’ve been interested in, I got hold of it and read it this summer. I’ve kept up pretty well with the journalism from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The literature of a war takes longer to emerge.

It’s a strong and admirable collection, but it’s not a great one. The stories are straightforward, sometimes even programmatic enactments of the awful conflicts our returning soldiers face, without much aesthetic ado. That’s fine, and honest, and valuable, and I was very pleased to learn that Klay’s just taken home the National Book Award for 2014, since the attendant rise in sales will likely bring this subject matter into the lives of a lot of people who haven’t yet come to understand the challenges veterans face today.

But if you’ve been tracking those challenges through the myriad nonfictional sources (e.g., Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel; Lethal Warriors, David Philipps; Homefront, Richard Hankin; and so many excellent public television documentaries), Klay’s book will likely feel pretty flat in comparison.

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The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig (193?/1982/2008)


Strange set of dates, right? This novel was unpublished at the time of Zweig’s death in 1942, didn’t appear in the original German until 1982, and was only translated into English in 2008. It continues to boggle my mind, how thoroughly this writer was forgotten. I know plenty of writers are forgotten, but Zweig was literally world-renowned before his death, and almost completely forgotten after. I think it has to do with the fact that his was a world, and a readership, which had largely disappeared by the time he died, either by violence or disillusionment. Of course that’s true of many others, too, but others had the chance to make a second act — like Brecht (though only briefly), or Fritz Lang. Zweig foreclosed that possibility with barbiturates.

This is the first of Zweig’s fiction I’ve read. I come to it very well disposed to like it, since I’ve become so fascinated with him through his memoir. It’s not a great novel. The story is quite simple and actually moves a lot like a screenplay. (Perhaps unsurprisingly; my very first (and entirely unconscious) point of contact with Zweig, as may be the case with you too, was Max Ophüls wonderful Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on a story by Zweig.)

The titular post office girl is a victim of postwar Austria’s grinding poverty, has the chance to spend a week at a glamorous resort in Switzerland with her aunt who’s married a rich Dutchman and lives in New York. That’s act one. In act two, she has her mind blown by opulence, but things go sour, and she winds up right where she started in her crummy garrett. In act three, she meets a man, a fully disillusioned and nihilistic veteran and former POW, and together they determine that because society has failed them so completely and unfairly, they will have their revenge through crime. It’s not joyful vital American crime like Bonnie and Clyde, though; it’s more of the existential killing an Arab variety. The end.

Pretty pedantic, but perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist, and I was surprised and somewhat (though not entirely) charmed by Zweig’s prose, which, contra its subjects and concerns, is full of froth and elan. He describes the hell out of everything in paragraphical gusts, and offers tasty little observations and figures on almost every page.


Nebraska, Alexander Payne (2013)

Some stilted acting from the support staff, some over-baked moments of sentiment, and a consistent willingness to come pretty close to mockery when pointing the camera at non-coastal Americans (NCA’s! we ought to apply to the feds for protected-class status), but all the good things buoying this movie won’t let its problems sink it. The MacGuffin is simple as a stick: An old grump on the verge of dementia gets a dopey sweepstakes flyer in the mail and thinks he’s actually won a million dollars, so he determines to get to Omaha from Billings to collect his prize. His wife and sons can’t talk him out of it, so off they go. Simple, but brilliant too. The dream of quick riches, the road trip quest, the mad solitaire, the yearning to make meaning of a life on the edge of its end — all sorts of archetypes are in play, especially American ones. The movie’s super smart about aging and raging against the dying of the light, and pairs that theme elegantly with subtle but devastating demonstrations of America’s once vital “heartland” in tatters. The main street in the small town where the family washes up makes the main street in The Last Picture Show look like the Miracle Mile. The young men are out of work and fat; the old men are lean, Lutheran-silent, and obsessed with how great their old Buicks were. The women — not a well-represented or much considered constituency here, which is too bad; more could have been done — appear to do not much but make sandwiches, until now and then we realize that they’re the ones contriving to keep their families together and solvent. It is perhaps unkind and unnecessary to say so, but I found June Squibb hammy and Will Forte annoying. Bruce Dern is absolutely fantastic; he makes one of the roundest characters I’ve seen on the screen in a long time.


Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel (2013)

This is literary journalism at its utter finest. Finkel’s first book, The Good Soldiers (2009), is the best book I’ve read about what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq; this new book is the best I’ve read about what it is like to have been a soldier in Iraq. I am not kidding when I say that it seems to me, after having read both books, that the emotional and physical traumas of having fought seem comparably dangerous and debilitating to the traumas of fighting. Fighting, everything happens at once, you’re with your friends, your environment is complex and alien and ever-shifting, there’s little time to think. Coming home after having fought, you have nothing but time to think. Instants of experience in Iraq become unending operas of nightmare when you’re back in your cul-de-sac in Kansas. It takes half a second to get both your legs blown off, and then the rest of your life to try to feel like a whole person again.

You should read this book, whoever you are, so I won’t say too much more about it except two things. One: Finkel’s a masterful journalist and if no one’s yet called him the Michael Herr of Iraq allow me to be the first. Two: I particularly appreciated here the way that Finkel draws our attention to the traumas endured by the families of soldiers returned from war. If veterans are forgotten, and veterans whose war wounds are invisible rather than visible (mental health problems, traumatic brain injury) are doubly forgotten, then triply forgotten are the wives and children and mothers and fathers who have to try to pay the mortgages and put food on the table while also trying to cope with the presence of a beloved but shattered person in their lives. These veterans’ families are fighting a war too, and their patrol will never end.

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The Marriage of Maria Braun, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979)

The-Marriage-of-Maria-Braun-DIFassbinder used to intimidate me, or maybe confuse me — the idea of his oeuvre I have in my head is of a jumble of contradictory bits and pieces. It’s probably something to with his making 40 movies in fifteen years; that’s a body of work, one assumes on some instinctual level, that can’t possibly be coherent.

But my stars, look at this, an absolutely amazing film, fully-realized, resonant, challenging, timeless. He’d still have been thought a genius if he’d made only this one.

Maria Braun’s marriage is an unusual one. She marries Hermann Braun in 1943 when he’s home on leave for two days. He goes back to the front and at the end of the war is missing and presumed dead. Maria remains stubbornly faithful to him, always expecting his return. “Faithful” starts to become complicated when she’s driven by poverty to become a bar girl, and then even more complicated when she takes up with an American serviceman. So far the story could be a Hollywood melodrama; here’s where Fassbinder swerves. Maria’s relationship with Bill, the American soldier, follows neither of the two predictable formulae: She’s neither callously using him for nylons and chocolates nor falling madly in love with him. Instead, the both of them seem simply to enjoy each other, assuming nothing and expecting nothing. He’s middle-aged, a little overweight, and very sweet; she’s playful and frank; they eat and drink and sleep together and don’t make a big fuss about it. I’d like to say that what they have is an adult relationship. And it gets me thinking about how completely rare it is to see one of those represented on the screen. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul features a similar relationship. It might be my favorite thing about Fassbinder, this capacity, which shouldn’t be as unusual as it is, to show how human beings actually conduct themselves in real life. But at the same time the situation here is entirely unreal — this is postwar Germany and the world is completely upside-down for all these characters. The only thing that remains constant, the only compass point, is Maria’s commitment to Hermann, though that commitment does take increasingly strange forms as the story progresses.

I’m not going to say much more about the movements of the plot, which are both surprising and steeped in inevitability as in all the great tragedies. I think it’s just a miraculous movie, the way it does such good work probing the general terrified, voracious, survivalist atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder while also telling a very human stories of these characters. People will compare Maria Braun with Mother Courage (another strong woman who keeps her family’s integrity by inventing new definitions of integrity) and Fassbinder with Brecht. It’s true that Fassbinder uses some Brechtian techniques to alienate us from the emotional lives of the characters (famously, during emotionally volatile scenes in this movie (and in others of Fassbinder’s), the radio loudly and relentlessly broadcasts a football match in the sonic foreground of the scene), but Fassbinder’s characters do not seem like types to me. Maria, the men she loves, the men who love her, all seem whole and real, and the sociological commentary, though always incisive and fascinating, always seems secondary to me. I don’t think Fassbinder would have been pleased to hear that, but to me it’s a mark of his genius.

Next up: The second and third parts of what’s often called the BRD Trilogy. I think I’ll need to wait a few days before I watch Veronika Voss, though — I want to think about Maria a little longer.


The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson got earth’s most intense actor into the role of a megalomaniac and essentially just let the camera watch Daniel Day Lewis volcano all over everything. Here he does the same with another great slow-burner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though the results here are even more diffuse in terms of plotting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Master’s acolyte and foil, and does terrific but often overcooked work; you get the sense that Hoffman is not the only three-named intensity-monger that Phoenix is bending over backwards to impress. It’s an engaging movie to look at, but as with There Will Be Blood, I wind up feeling there’s a certain emptiness to the endeavor. So many of the scenes feel like exercises in a Strasberg seminar; there’s a great deal of emoting, but not a lot of emotion. Part of the trouble is that the movie is so fearful of being about anything specific that it winds up not being about anything in particular. The wish to belong, the lure of alcohol, rationalism vs spirituality, male friendship, PTSD, American vacuity . . . they’re all toyed with as themes, but Anderson puts down no significant bets on any of them. So you’ll remember people laughing, crying, shouting, fighting, and kissing, but not why.