Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

By Tom Robbins


“Physical intimacy is only a device for opening the floodgates of what really matters: words.” – Andrei Codrescu

I got into Fierce Invalids because a friend of the family lent it to me last spring. I’m not sure what it is about this strange book that made Cody think I had to read it, but I’m glad he did nonetheless. I think I was too young to “get” Tom Robbins when I first read his work back in high school. It took me a long time to appreciate a simply beautiful phrase… and Fierce Invalids is full of them. I don’t think I’ve ever dog-eared, underlined, or read aloud more sentences in any novel than I did this one. Sorry Cody, I promise I’ll erase all my markings before I return it! I just had to keep track of some of the wonderfully worded witticisms and criticisms so that I could attempt to do them justice in my review.

Fierce Invalids follows a CIA former-operative, Switters, who has a great appreciation for words and speaks many languages. He is an independent, self-proclaimed “angel” who listens to none but his grandmother, Maestra. Our first adventure with Mr. Switters begins when he agrees to accompany Maestra’s pet parrot down to Boquichicos, Peru to be released into the wild. The trip goes awry when he meets a peculiar Shaman who places a taboo on Switters, confining him to a wheelchair.

When he returns to Seattle, his work with the CIA is put on hold, permanently. After several failed attempts to court is 16 year-old stepsister, he grows restless and bored, and 100 pages later ends up in Syria at a convent full of excommunicated French nuns. This is the most interesting part of the story, in my opinion. As a bond is formed between Switters and the “nuns”, there is a complexity revealed in the relationship between religion, sex, belief, and freedom. These nuns are chalk full of contradictions – almost as much so as Switters himself.

While the plot of Fierce Invalids is frivolous and absurd, it is the prose that sets Tom Robbins apart. Every sentence is strung together with such wonderful intention that I could (and did on several occasions) open the book up to any page, give 10 seconds of context and then dive in with a friend, reading out loud and basking together in the beauty of the English language. Each line is poetry, and I recommend reading Robbins for that fact alone. The quote that I chose to begin this post is one that Robbins quotes within the novel, and I think it sums up both the character of Switters and the writing of Robbins nicely. In the end, the action-packed plot is irrelevant when it is but a gateway to what lies underneath: the most beautiful verbiage.

The Invisible Bridge

by Rick Perlstein


This chapter in Rick Perlstein’s chronicle of the modern conservative movement picks up where Nixonland left off, after the infamous Watergate break-in but before the Nixon administration’s crimes were revealed publicly. While Perlstein continues that story, through Congressional investigation and Nixon’s eventual resignation, The Invisible Bridge isn’t really about Nixon. Rather, it’s about the transition in conservative leadership from Nixon to future President Ronald Reagan.

When I read Nixonland a few years ago, I thought it was probably one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’d ever read. Perlstein’s narrative tells the parallel stories of Nixon’s rise to power and the nation’s ever-growing cultural divide in a way that makes his point clear: these two stories are one story. Nixon was adept at using social change for his own purposes, and he contributed in large part to our perception of the 1960’s to this day. (This, pretty much.) Reading Nixonland as a young gun who never lived through that decade, I figure it’s the closest I can get to understanding the feel of the era without having been there. Perlstein’s writing has this visceral quality that can take you back in time without making it seem like you’re travelling to a completely foreign land. His Nixon-era America is striking and familiar at the same time.

Perlstein paints an amazing portrait of Nixon, as well. Even through all the sliminess, Nixon comes across as a great intellect and a strong-willed leader. While he might not exactly be persevering- more than once, he quits politics after losing an election- he’s a man of energy and passion. These attractive qualities helped him to inspire the kind of loyalty that led his underlings to carry out undemocratic and criminal acts, and to subsequently go to jail for them. We tend to remember the Richard Nixon who looked sweaty and unshaven on TV, who seemed out of touch with his era, and who seemed to disdain American democracy, but Perlstein makes Nixon into a very impressive figure.

This leads me to the first difference I noticed between Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge: Perlstein’s utter contempt for Ronald Reagan. Reading Nixonland, you can tell that he has a grudging sort of respect for Richard Nixon, both as a man and as a leader. He respects Reagan as neither. The Invisible BridgeAs a Democrat myself, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Reagan was not the superhero that he’s made out to be in the media, and that his brand of conservatism has darker foundations than we typically like to think about, but even I found myself wondering whether he’s being given a fair shake in this book. Perlstein’s Reagan is a born charlatan, lying to himself and to others because a better story was always more true than the facts could ever be.

I do think that character matters in politics, but it doesn’t seem accurate to try to paint a picture of Reagan, or anyone for that matter, using cherry-picked examples from every stage of his life. I don’t mean to imply that Perlstein uses anything out of context, since he’s generally very careful to provide as much context as possible, but I think he might be conveniently leaving a few things out. For example, I think it’s highly suspect that Perlstein’s Reagan never acts altruistically. Are we expected to believe that  Reagan’s never done anything with pure motives? Do anecdotes from his youth really reveal anything about his character? Does tweaking a story for different audiences make him a pathological liar? According to Perlstein, yes, yes, and yes.

Another thing that bothered me this time around was Perlstein’s use of real events as snapshots or microcosms of the contemporary national mood. Reading Invisible Bridge earlier this summer, I couldn’t help but do try to do this myself, and it turned out something like this:

“Meanwhile, America was tearing itself up over identity issues. A simmering activist movement known as Black Lives Matter, formed to protest violence and police brutality in minority communities, was courting controversy and causing white people to wonder whether their lives were valued in America anymore. A woman named Rachel Dolezal, a Spokane-based leader of the NAACP, was revealed to be a white woman passing as black. Sexuality and gender, too, all of a sudden seemed fluid. Bruce Jenner, celebrated Olympian, reality TV star, head of the infamous Kardashian clan, came out as a woman named Caitlin. And on June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage across the land. Whether you were looking at the New York Times or the New York Post, all you could see was a society that was becoming less recognizable by the day. You were afraid that you might wake up tomorrow and not recognize yourself in the mirror.”

See what I mean? It’s easy to start with some facts, mix in some commentary, and produce an anecdote presenting opinion as absolute truth. Were those things going on this past summer? Well, yea. Are the issues related? Some of them, sure. Does it really represent our time period? Maybe, maybe not. If you’re reading a passage like that fifty years from now, who are you to say? Nothing in that passage is inaccurate.

This writing style a bit sketchy to begin with, but Perlstein goes back to this particular well constantly. And maybe it’s because I wasn’t on board from the start, but these passages just got more and more tedious. Hell, one of his sky-is-falling incidents had to do with bees in a baseball dugout. Another related to Doc Ellis getting ejected from a game after trying to bean every batter he faced. I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t use the MLB as a marker for American political culture. Perlstein’s repeated use of this style seems intended to mask the absence of a real immersive experience.

As a follow-up to Nixonland, I was personally disappointed with The Invisible Bridge. Nixonland portrayed a perfect alignment between a man and his time period, as well as between the author and his subject matter. Not only does Perlstein know his stuff, but his portrayal of America in the 50’s and 60’s feels effortless. Everything seemed so real and tangible, almost as if I was actually watching a documentary, or even living the experience. The Invisible Bridge shattered that illusion for me. Instead of easily immersing readers in the subject matter, Perlstein felt like a museum tour guide who really wanted to convince me that his perspective on the exhibit was all-important. So sure, he knows what he’s talking about, and he’s probably right, but it really detracts from the experience a bit.

Compared with Nixonland, The Invisible Bridge feels like a step backward for Perlstein. The split focus on his two major subjects- Nixon and Reagan- doesn’t help, nor does Perlstein’s obvious contempt for the latter. The half of the book concerned with Reagan seemed like a chore compared to everything that came before it, which was generally fantastic.

A Note


It’s been almost five years. Lots of memories.

(Cut to: black and white montage of me reading; your favorite nostalgia song playing in the background.)

Don’t worry, I’m not shutting down the blog. But I want everyone to know that there’s a lot of other reading I’m doing — reading that will probably get in the way of posting here regularly. Behold, my reading list for this semester:

I would've printed all the articles I've gotta read too, but that's not quite so impressive

I would’ve printed all the articles I’ve gotta read too, but they don’t look quite so impressive

I’m going to try and stay on top of the whole book blog thing, but it’s possible that this place might start to seem more akin to Bored and Illiterate. (Thanks Lisa.) If you’re feeling like you need to see more content, feel free to guest blog. Jake, I’m still looking for Bandz Part 3.

Thank you and goodbye.

From Russia With Love

by Ian Fleming


I wish these didn’t have to start off with an obligatory “Ian Fleming is a racist/sexist/misogynist/imperialist/etc, and that bleeds over into his books,” but I do. He’s all of those things, and each of his books has a different proportion of outdated ideas in them. It’s part of what gives each Bond book its unique flavor. Just this once, I’m going to spare you the details, and move right on to the non-offensive aspects of From Russia With Love.

It’s easy to see why From Russia With Love was Kennedy’s favorite of the series, a preference that no doubt influenced the filmmakers’ decision to adapt it immediately after Dr. NoFrom Russia With LoveThe Bond books very frequently have plot and pacing problems, which weren’t apparent to me when I was a young lad, but have become painfully obvious now. Fleming frequently has difficulties with endings; these either come out of nowhere, or are followed by overly long wrap-ups, or both. Diamonds Are Forever, for example, pretty much unravels towards the end.

Fleming solves this problem in From Russia With Love by completely cutting Bond himself out of the first act. Instead, he uses this part of the book to set up the trap that SMERSH lays for MI6, which involves using Bond’s own proclivities against him. His arrogance and weakness for women will lure him into a situation that he can’t escape, and one that will embarrass his agency and his country while avenging the defeats of earlier SMERSH schemes.

Admittedly, the plan isn’t really all that genius, but the point is that this set-up gets all the important stuff out of the way. The villains are introduced, the book’s structure is laid out, and Tatiana Romanova, the Russian the center of this honeypot, is recruited and activated. By the time Bond himself shows up and embarks on his assignment we already know exactly what’s coming, with the only real question being whether Tania will faithfully play the role demanded of her. We see the entire board, and we know how the game will bear itself out, beat for beat.

What’s most interesting to me about this book is that while Bond and Tatiana make their escape from Turkey, both of them know that their love is a charade. Bond is aware of the Russian plot, and knows that Tania is essentially a trap or him and his agency; Tania, likewise, knows that the British sent Bond to collect her and the encryption machine that she claims to possess. They both know that they’re playing a part, and they know the other is playing a part, but they’re required to finish their respective assignments. This makes for some awkward interactions, especially as they make their escape, when all the lying nears its end.

Other than that, I think the well-defined villains make From Russia With Love superior to, say, Diamonds. Fleming is at his best when he follows Bond and perhaps just a couple other well-defined characters. The charms of the Bond girl and the quirks of the Bond villain should be established early, contrasting with Bond’s peculiarities and setting the novel up for an epic showdown. This particular novel establishes SMERSH assassin Red Grant as Bond’s foil. Grant, a sociopath with little concern for ideology, prefers the Russians to the British only because he believes the USSR will make more use of his murderous tendencies. Bond, a largely amoral English patriot himself, finds a near-equal in Grant. While this juxtaposition lacks subtlety, it’s fun in its own way, and besides, we don’t read James Bond books for the subtlety of Fleming’s writing.

The best James Bond novels have fully fleshed out women, menacing villains, fast-paced narratives, tight plotting, and interesting challenges for our protagonist. From Russia With Love has all of that, easily earning its place as one of the best in the series.

The Lord of the Rings

by J.R.R. Tolkien


Sometimes I’m an impulsive Amazon purchaser. Earlier this year I decided that it was absurd not to own the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, so I invested. I watched them at least twice. Wouldn’t you know it, I was then in an even more Lord of the Rings-y mood, and I had to make another Amazon purchase. Those covers are so classy…

Having not read the books since I was maybe 14, before I’d read a lot of other adult fantasy and when just getting through them was a struggle, I wasn’t sure how I’d like the series at age 25. The Fellowship of the RingTolkien, after all, can be incredibly dense. Anyone who has attempted his books as a middle schooler, who has valiantly fought through the songs and poems and lore of Middle-earth, can attest to that.

But Tolkien can also be fun. This side of him definitely shows up more in The Hobbit, which is more of an adventure story for younger readers. Readers learn about the Shire a little bit, and about hobbits and dwarves, and then Bilbo goes off on an adventure that makes him very rich. He also wins a magic ring in a riddle contest from a certain cave-dweller named Gollum, thereby setting up a much more serious trilogy, though that wasn’t necessarily Tolkien’s intention at the time. The Hobbit is largely a self-contained fantasy world that’s a pleasure to read.

This fun side of Middle-earth shows up in Lord of the Rings as well, though it’s quickly overshadowed by the darkness that’s descending upon the land and its inhabitants. Fellowship starts off in the Shire once more, as Bilbo and Frodo throw themselves a birthday party. I really enjoyed this part of the book; if it’s true that Tolkien based the Shire off of the English countryside, he clearly cherishes his home, and that shines through in his writing. The long-expected party gets everyone in Hobbiton excited, and it got me excited again too, despite my knowledge of the more dramatic events to come. There’s just something about those scenes, something in their flavor, that can make you nostalgic for a life that you never lived.

After the party, though, the adventure gets going. The One Ring, having passed from Bilbo to Frodo, must be kept safe. Gandalf lays out Frodo’s quest, which will soon send him on a journey out of the Shire, to Rivendell, across the Misty Mountains, and finally to the Gates of Mordor and beyond. Each phase of his journey–along with those of his erstwhile companions–is neatly divided into a single chapter, which I like; it gives his fantasy a “serial” feel. Most authors these days seem to use chapters to either a) divide a book arbitrarily so that each chapter isn’t too long, and b) create cliffhangers. Tolkien uses chapters to divide what would otherwise be a nearly interminable journey into a series of related adventures. It’s nice, as a reader, to take in a small part of the story, put the book down, digest what happened, and continue with another section later.

As you probably know, what starts out as a journey not unlike Bilbo’s changes over the course of the series. While we open with the insular worldview of the Shire’s inhabitants, Tolkien soon draws back the curtain on the rest of Middle-earth, introducing us to individuals and entire nations who live under a shadow that hobbits can only conceive of in nightmares. As Frodo journeys closer and closer to Mordor to destroy the Ring, he passes through lands that do not share hobbits’ carefree view of the world. The Two TowersThe power of the Ring increases with proximity to its maker, making Frodo’s path ever more dangerous. The Ring preys on the noble and the selfish alike, forcing Frodo to bear his burden virtually without help. Frodo marches towards his fate, while the rest of his companions face their own doom alongside the rest of Middle-earth.

Frodo crumbles before our eyes as the Ring takes its toll, while Sam can do little but watch him waste away. The Ring-bearer’s transformation reflects a key theme of the story: victory requires sacrifice. Across Middle-earth, everyone must decide for themselves whether fighting a war will be worth it if all of the old world will be destroyed anyway. Even a total victory will not prevent that.

All change isn’t for the worse, though. Merry and Pippin, too, are transformed by their experiences. Instead of turning into shadows of their former selves, though, these two young hobbits come out of the war with experience and maturity, which they promptly put to use in an effort to save their beloved Shire; in a cruel twist of fate, the four hobbits who set out on their quest reluctantly to preserve the innocence of the Shire return home to find that for their countrymen, the suffering has only just begun.

While the scope of Tolkien’s world is huge, his focus on a handful of major characters is the strength of his story. He doesn’t need a huge cast to illustrate the depth of his world; he does it with the members of the Fellowship and perhaps just a handful of others. Because of this, we actually get to see the growth of the characters, especially the hobbits, which I’m afraid would be lost in a more crowded story. See Wheel of Time.

Speaking of which, it’s important to note that Lord of the Rings is pretty much the foundation of fantasy as a literary genre. Myth and adventure have been around forever, but it’s impossible to deny that the world building, the character archetypes, and many of the tropes of modern epic fantasy come from Tolkien. I read somewhere that he’s the reason that fantasy characters speak with British accents; haven’t you ever wondered why American author George R.R. Martin’s characters talk the way they do? So much of what we know as fantasy is clearly built on what Tolkien created, sometimes subtly, sometimes as blatantly as Robert Jordan’s homage, The Eye of the World. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes Tolkien’s story doesn’t hold up to the various sub-genres that it predates. Fans of the nihilistic Game of Thrones series will probably see Lord of the Rings as simplistic and naive, while young Harry Potter fans might not be up to its challenges. Wheel of Time fans might prefer simpler writing in a more epic setting. The immense, diverse, and fractured fantasy/sci-fi landscape partially owes its existence to Tolkien while simultaneously rendering his epics seemingly irrelevant.

As for myself, I don’t think Lord of the Rings is irrelevant. But I do, with great honesty and a tinge of regret, admit that I think the movies improve upon the books. I’m a sucker for film, so I’m sure that plays a part, but I could point to a few specific aspects of the movies that I think are better, while I can only point to a couple stellar moments from the books that were omitted in the film adaptations. The Return of the KingI think it’s hard to argue that with regards to pacing, eliminating the Barrow-downs and Tom Bombadil from the films was a wise choice. Likewise with the Scouring of the Shire; as much as I would’ve loved to see the visions in the Mirror of Galadriel come to fruition on the big screen, faithfully adapting Return of the King was going to result in serious pacing problems, and the movie’s approximately one thousand endings were already pushing the limits. Thematically, I think that the Scouring is a hugely important part of the books, but I just don’t see it working as the ending of a film series. Maybe whoever adapts this series the next time around will figure out a way to do it right.

Of course, the written word will always have a magic that won’t exactly translate to the big screen. I’m a big proponent of the idea that you can like a movie and the book that it’s based on just about equally. Refusing to appreciate a movie because you see the medium as inherently inferior is just as silly as refusing to read the source material of a movie or TV show that you absolutely love. So while I think that Peter Jackson’s adaptations often improve upon the books, there are often things that are lost. Going to the source material is a unique and rich experience, even if you end up agreeing that the films are just a little bit tighter than the books.

It’s Lord of the Rings. You know them. You should read them. That’s all.