I broke a promise to myself this month – that I would read mainly works by women authors. All dudes this time around. And I didn’t mean for it to happen this way, but one of the books involves actual sausage. I shan’t bow to patriarchal pressure to apologize. (You’re not the kielbasa of me.) Brace yourself for some meatiness.
The Winter Soldier – Daniel Mason
This is such a beautiful, devastating book. Lucius is a young Polish medical student in 1914 Vienna, and thinks signing up for military service will get him the actual experience he craves. He ends up stationed at a field hospital (a former church) deep on the Polish eastern front, with a mysterious nun named Margarete as his guide in surgical and all other matters. With Margarete heavily in the lead, the duo go on to treat the gruesome, innumerable wounds of the war raging all around them. When a soldier wanders into the town with intensive internal trauma, Lucius gets an even greater shock than the physical brutality he’s witnessed so far.
Lucius has long been fascinated by neurological cases, and believes he can probe the mind as much as he’s learned about physical ailments. “There was a beautiful clarity in the patterns, the possibility of locating a tumor simply by whether it destroyed language or vision. The opportunity to reduce the complexity of other people to architecture of their cells.” Lucius, in the brutality of war and the incapacity of medicine, learns that unseen pain from combat trauma far eclipses his enthusiasm to find such equations. I don’t think he ever truly recovers from that realization.
Mason is a masterful writer, and also happens to be a physician, so he imbues everything with incredible medical detail along with emotion. Lucius is such a real, complicated man full of feelings and angst. (He is also full of sausage, as at one point he keeps some links in his pocket for days of rounds.) Mason’s deep research brings us a brilliantly realized World War I-era Vienna, and an intriguing reckoning of the early work with patients who would later be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Margarete is as full a character as Lucius, who falls in love with her but can’t quite spin out her whole story. That Mason can pull this off is how stunning a writer he is. He doesn’t fall into the “women are such a mystery, oh well” trap; he sketches out just enough to make her utterly unforgettable and a resilient survivor.
Come for the sausage, stay for the Margarete.
Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times: – Mark Leibovich
This book is like if your football-obsessed uncle were allowed to talk nonstop about his neuroses for hours. As if you let him tell all the jokes his friends long ago stopped humoring, and drop all the names he aches to drop in everyday conversation. You can feel Leibovich’s eagerness to share all the details about his get-togethers with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, each time he got to stand on the field of a stadium, every big-name executive or team owner he hobnobbed with at a Florida billionaires’ retreat. Did you know he emails with Tom Brady himself? On a regular basis? That he got to go to Brady’s mansion in Brookline, but wasn’t offered Uggs to wear around? It’s not so much journalism as yes-manism. Yes, gossipy is fun, but it gets old after more than 300 pages. Settle down, sir. There is only so much about the minutiae of Brady’s life one can stomach.
Leibovich is an excellent political reporter, with untold connections in Washington and many a scoop. This work is him giving in to his football fan boy tendencies to explore the world of NFL executives and owners in the face of political controversy and the rise of Trump. Naturally, he frames the NFL as DC on drugs. Sure, American football and its dysfunctional political system are linked forever. We are on the main floor of the sausage factory here. However, Leibovich drives in the politics-as-football theme a bit too deep, while not engaging long enough with the protest elements within teams, and it goes over like a missed field goal. Which happens to be my favorite sports foible to watch, so I played myself here.
Words Without Music – Philip Glass
Philip Glass is the Forrest Gump of the art world. He has met and/or worked with every major player of the last few decades, and spins a fascinating web of the creative forces he is influenced by, living around, and driving himself.
What a medieval tapestry of a life Glass has. I wish I could draw so I could better depict all the people, places, and things he surrounds himself with, not to mention the ideas that form how he creates music and interacts with the world. Born in Baltimore in 1937, he is drawn to the “life force” in music, and sets about learning all the techniques he deems necessary for becoming a composer. He eventually moves to New York, then to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, then makes a pilgrimage to India to further find what he seeks.
It’s also interesting to learn about how Glass supported himself and his family for years before being able to make a living off of composing alone. He’s an amateur plumber, drives a taxi, does all sorts of jobs so he can keep creating and performing. He does this well into the 1970s.
As he moves through his work, studies and his own composing, Glass never loses sight of what came before him: “For me music has always been about lineage. The past is reinvented and becomes the future. But the lineage is everything.” This is his time with Boulanger. He is assembling the tools to take that life force and shape it with his own ideas. Glass is also clear about what music involves – not only the notes, but what the listener brings. “The transaction of it coming into being happens through the effort you make in the presence of that work. The cognitive activity is the content of the work.” This is the closest I have come to understanding what being able to compose music is like. I like the idea of audience effort and presence as part of someone else’s creation.
Glass can have the last words on his sausage-making: “All I have to do after I have the vision is to find the language of music to describe what I have heard, which can take a certain amount of time. I’ve been working in the language of music all my life, and it’s within that language that I’ve learned how ideas can unfold.”