Monday, December 18, 2017

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Hardcover, 512 pgs, Pub Mar 7th 2017 by Other Press (first published 2016) Orig Title: Störst av allt ISBN 1590518578 (ISBN13: 9781590518571) Awards: Glass Key Award (2017), Best Swedish Crime Novel

There is a reason this Swedish novel rocketed to the top of Europe’s bestseller lists. It has everything—enormous wealth, inequality, immigration, teenage angst, drugs, sex, and death—but it also has whip-smart writing, the constraints of law, the quiet and unbreakable bonds of family. Entirely suitable for teens, this is a YA title worthy of the designation.

Told from the point of view of a young woman just out of high school, this story recounts how Maja awaited her trial on school shooting and multiple murder charges. Maja herself is silent. We only hear the voice inside her head. It is a legal thriller easily as good as America’s Scott Turow, John Grisham, Marcia Clark at the height of their powers.

Headlines scream
We are inside the jail, inside Maja’s confused thoughts as she contemplates her imprisonment, and remembers moments in her past which illuminate her present. Readers are skeptical of any reason which seeks absolution for such a heinous crime. Maja’s lawyer is one of the most famous in Sweden, taking unpopular, unwinnable cases. Our emotions seesaw between a kind of sympathy for an ordinary teen and the extraordinary circumstances of her imprisonment.

We wrestle with big issues like the statement that “the truth is whatever we choose to believe,” and “innocence until prove guilty.” And the voice of Maja is piquant and high-school observant:
“…not a single person has ever believed that Mom is the person she pretends to be. But she keeps pretending anyway. And for the most part, people are polite about it and leave her alone…Dad’s money is hardly even fifteen minutes old. And he doesn’t have enough of it to compensate…he thinks boarding school taught him what it takes to fit in, what he has to do for high-class people to think he's one of them. He’s wrong, of course.”
We are talking about the rich and the ultra rich. That in itself is an interesting perspective on high school life in Sweden: yacht trips in the Mediterranean, weekend jaunts to southern islands, parties that bring in musicians and YouTube specialists from America, multiple homes, corporate planes…you get the picture. But there is also an immigrant community in the town and the wealth discrepancy is radical. We have so many dichotomies examined in this novel between parents & youth, wealth & the lack of it, white & dark skins to name a few.

But what is best about this drama are the legal arguments. First we hear the prosecutor do her best to lay out the case against the defendant. That, and the newspapers give the court of public opinion plenty to work with until the defense can present a few counter-arguments in the weeks that follow. In the defense, we get a careful step-by-step unpicking of the prosecutor’s almost airtight case for murder. It is masterful.

Maja is uniquely well-off and privileged, but is she uniquely evil? Statistically, one could argue it is unlikely. But so much more is uncovered in the course of the trial that we cannot break away. What would cause a well-educated woman of privilege to behave in this way?

Giolito places an articulate corporate American PhD and editor-in-chief of a prestigious business publication in the position of giving a talk before the high school Maja attends, and she explicates the argument America is undergoing right now, played out by our political parties wrangling over tax policy.
“We must be cautious about the social contract. Both parties must uphold their side of the agreement. We must have comprehensible equity. It is not fair if the welfare system is bankrolled by low- and middle-income earners. If large corporations pay less in taxes than their small- and medium-size colleagues, that is not what the social contract looks like…”
I don’t want to take the fun out of this spectacular book for you. Academics, teachers, high school students, lawyers, ordinary citizens will all find this beautifully-written and -translated novel a page-turner.

This is Malin Persson Giolito’s English language debut. Let’s show her American gratitude and support so we can get all her novels published here. Giolito has worked as a lawyer and for the European Commission in Brussels, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She has entered the ranks of the best legal thriller writers working today. The translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles is exceptional. Published by Other Press.

An excellent interview explains the backstory behind this book.

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Something for Christmas by Palmer Brown

Hardcover, 40 pgs, Pub Sept 20th 2011 by NYR Children's Collection (first pub 1958) ISBN13: 9781590174623

The New York Review of Books has republished the Palmer Brown books that many people say they have never forgotten, having read them in childhood, 45 long years ago. The reprints are child-sized, about 4" x 6" and have lovely reproductions of the artwork that makes this collection so special.

In this story, a baby mouse wonders aloud over what she should get for Christmas for someone special (her mother) who seems to have everything. All kinds of things are considered until the mother helps her decide that to give one's love is the most precious gift of all.

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We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Hardcover, 272 pgs, Pub Oct 17th 2017 by Dey Street Books, ISBN13: 9780062693983

Celebrity memoirs are a special breed of animal. Considering how much speculation goes on around celebrity lives in the tabloids, it must be nice to be able to steer the conversation, and admit or deny things of which they have been accused. Gabriela Union keeps it lively; to my sensibility she appears fearless. Forty-five years old now, I suppose it is not too early for her to tell all. She is happily married, her work is widely admired and keeps her in demand, and she has figured out there is little time for regret.

But I probably wouldn’t have been so explicit about the sex. I don’t really care who she decides to sleep with, but it makes me wonder what she was getting from multiple partners that I’m not understanding. That part didn’t ring true to my mind. Union writes about growing up in a white culture in California, and it may be the California part, or the celebrity part, or the movie part that feels distant to me. I’ll take her word for it what she describes is white California culture. It could be another universe from a strict white New England Yankee upbringing. White can’t be the operative word here. It’s something else.

The movie industry in California is all about appearances so it shouldn’t surprise me to find someone in the industry concerned with appearances. The discussion about hair is just interesting. As high school students we all obsessed about hair, but because Union is in the movies, she needs to continue to think about this stuff.

I’m just gonna state for the record that I would not put all that effort into hair, acting a role aside. I like black hair. I like the hair of NYTimes analyst and reporter Yamiche Alcindor. She wears it natural. It is interesting and it changes day to day, depending on humidity, I guess. It’s sculptural, and is a relief among Washington people who primp to excess. And yeah, it looks touchable. Isn’t that what guys always said they liked?

What Union does really well in this memoir is show us how minority actors are treated in majority white culture, how overlooked their talents often are, and how so few film companies are interested in minority stories or leading roles. This seems such a big mistake to me…is it really true the great films featuring black or other minority actors in major roles don't recoup their investments? I find that difficult to believe, frankly.

The other thing Union does really well is demonstrate that no matter how famous a black person is, they are treated differently by the public and by law enforcement. She explains that buying a house in a fancy neighborhood may invite more scrutiny and suspicion, and even going for a walk in one’s own neighborhood is not as straightforward as it should be. The American dream is nothing without the presumption of innocence.

I haven’t seen enough films with black leads. I remember Union’s performance in Bring It On as being exceptional, considering…everything about that film. I’d like to see her in more things. I’d also like to see again a female lead I saw in a Turkish soap opera once. I want to see the great actors no matter what color they are or what language they speak. It is pitiful that they don't have the same opportunity to develop their talent as do the least talented white actors.

There are some harrowing experiences in this book that Union is willing to share. I suppose when one’s life is under a microscope all the time with fans, one becomes accustomed to sharing with the world. She is generous.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Beneath the Bonfire: Stories by Nickolas Butler

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub May 5th 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books (first pub Oct 9th 2014, ISBN13: 9781250039835

Why do writers write? Is it to tell the world what they’re thinking or is it to try to experience the world through someone else’s eyes?

Butler has facility with a phrase; he is a literary writer. In “Sven & Lily,” one of my favorite stories that comes early in the collection, Butler writes
“Sven entered the bar first, ducking under the low doorway, me following behind him like an early-afternoon shadow smaller than its maker.”
That story tells of a deep and wide generosity between two men that resulted in them beating each other to a pulp, all in the name of friendship. Alcohol was involved.

In the title story, a returned soldier terrifies his girlfriend when he tries to jumpstart his own sense of giving-a-shit. In “Morels,” three men who attended high school together have a deep connection that for them turns wrong into right. All these stories feature the mysterious inner feelings of men unaccustomed to speaking what they feel, a phenomenon common to the bars and dives of midwestern states. It’s not limited to the masculine, though this book is.

In “Sweet Light Crude,” an oil executive is kidnapped and told he must drink his own drilled oil before he will be let go. Butler manages to make both men sympathetic, defiant, and brave.

Another favorite story, “In Western Counties,” has a woman in it: a woman with agency. She is a cop with long red hair and she is close to retirement. She knows a thing or two from her time on the force, but she feels her skills slipping away, every week a new indignity of forgetting. But she still knows how to shoot and she knows how to be kind. Those things she did not forget.

Truth be told, by the last two stories of this collection, I was reading long past lunchtime, the space I had allotted myself in the middle of the day to read. I understood the attraction of long-legged black-haired Sunny in “Train People Drive Slow” in a visceral way. She was dangerous--sexy and lethal--with a radioactive aura. Some men prefer to die of radiation.

Wisconsin. That’s where they were when he caught the fifty-pound common carp in the river filled with gravel, junked cars, and “old I beams laying around like pickup sticks from some other, more brutal time.” But he survived, nicked & scarred.

Yes, this is a collection that one reads on and on, much longer and later than one intended. But the last story, “Apples,” tells us what we needed to know. What on earth do we do with all the apples?

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub Mar 9th 2010 by Free Press (first pub March 9th 2009) ISBN13: 9781439153024 Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Nonfiction, Debut Author (2010)

It could be the thing I like best about Boyle’s stories are the changes made to one word of common phrases so that the meanings come up again, fresh and clear and relatable, like “wash your iniquities,” or “I hear your cancer’s in intermission.”

The other thing I enjoy Father Boyle’s work for is to hear how he takes the thoughts and work of others to meditate on. In this book he quotes the poet Mary Oliver many times, Rumi, Mother Teresa, Pema Chödrön, among others. There is always something interesting in what those leaders of thought say, and also in how Father Boyle chooses to apply their lessons to his daily life and ministry.

And let’s put this in perspective. I am not a religious person, having become inured to such teachings in Catholic schools—how did they manage to strip the joy and beauty out of love, for cripes’ sake? And then, of course, the scandal that enveloped the Catholic Church, revealing even ordained ministers to be hypocrites…

Since then I just try to pay attention. When goodness appears in our daily life, what happens? When evil appears, what happens? How to deal with evil? How to consider the bad things people do? How to love the people who do these bad things? Father Boyle gives us his answers to these questions. He’s interesting, and he seems to be able to transform bad attitudes into good ones.

He has written only two books, both of which are wonderful to read, but are also good texts for meditation, since his writing style are short…parables, really. Boyle has a M.A. in English, and his ability to write may reflect his interest in reading. But take for example, his paraphrase of Mother Teresa:
“We’ve just forgotten that we belong to each other.”
You can put that at the beginning of a tale or at the end. It says it all.

This book was written some years ago and I am reviewing it in 2017, when I discovered it. It turns out Sarah Silverman interviewed Father Greg Boyle in Nov 2017 shortly after his second book, Barking to the Choir was published. Her questions ask this important religious leader how we are supposed to deal with someone who does wrong, but on a spectacularly large scale...not a homeboy, but a Trump? Father Boyle has been ill some time, suffering from leukemia, so all of us who know of his work are eager to hear how he would respond.

Sarah Silverman's interview with Father Boyle comes at the end of her piece (start 15:33).

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Friday, December 8, 2017

George & Lizzie by Nancy Pearl

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub September 5th 2017 by Touchstone, ISBN13: 9781501162893

Nancy Pearl may just be a natural-born writer, though she is best known for her role as bookseller, librarian, interviewer, reviewer, and motivational speaker on the pleasure and importance of reading. In a DIY MFA podcast interview with Gabriela Pereira in September 2017, she tells us that she was merely an instrument for the characters she channels in her debut novel. Her characters feel real to us as well.

Pearl reminds us that reading outside our comfort zone can be a fruitful experience, and her debut novel challenged me—hard—in its first pages. She introduces a self-destructive character so hard to love that we draw back, judging that character without understanding. I had to put the book aside, perplexed, wondering why Pearl would risk her hard-won reputation with such an unsavory character. Months later, I was still curious when I picked up the book again. I read it through nonstop and loved what she was able to do.

In the interview linked to above, Pearl discusses the importance of mood when reading. My second look at this novel is testament to her notion that mood matters with our acceptance of certain ideas. After I had already internalized the behaviors of her difficult character, I allowed Pearl’s writing to guide me. Her writing is so skilled it is almost invisible, though there were several times during this reading when I pulled out of the novel and shook my head in awe at her fluency and execution.

This novel is character-driven. Lizzie does something truly objectionable her last year in high school, designed to hurt herself, her parents, her friends, her ‘victims,’ indeed, everyone who learns of her behavior. Her need for love is so desperate that she denies it, derides it, disguises it. Her parents were difficult academics, and were probably completely to blame for their daughter’s alienation, but blame is not a worthwhile game to play. One still has to grow up, whatever hand one is dealt, and Lizzie had a hard time of it.

Later, her husband George would tell her in exasperation that she “had the emotional maturity of a three-year-old.” This story, then, is Lizzie's emotional journey, through school, boyfriends, and marriage, all the while holding onto her rage and disappointment from childhood. Many of us do this; we never really mature. Lizzie was blessed that the man she married was an even-tempered adult who loved her, and she had close friends who loved her as well. When one is loved, one generally tries not to disappoint those people, lest they turn their love away. We watch as Lizzie learns what that means—what it means to grow up.

I ended up putting everything else aside while I read this in a huge gulp, over two days, riveted to the unfolding story. I really appreciate what Pearl did with the character of George, who would be a grace note in anyone’s life, including readers’, because he seems to understand the really big lesson all of us must learn to get any measure of happiness and satisfaction from life. One can’t have all one wants in terms of love, jobs, recognition, or pay, so how can one be happy? The way one deals with failure will determine one’s future. It’s not the failure that’s important. It’s what comes after that. His lessons feel like gifts.

Poetry plays a key role in this novel, to describe a person’s conclusion, or to underline an observation. The poem at the beginning of this novel by Terence Winch, “The Bells are Ringing for Me and Chagall,” in retrospect gives the reader a very good idea of the direction of this novel, though one cannot see that at the start. The poem at the end is a paean to a long-lasting well-maintained relationship which may sustain one in times of terrible crushing sorrow. We may think we want fast and flashy cars, but reliability may save us.

There is a lot of lived experience in this novel. Pearl is in her seventies now, having done it all when it comes to literature, and now she has written a novel herself. What a brave act. Writing a novel is difficult when one is unknown. It must be terrifying to put something out there when one is well known. All that reading stood her in good stead, however. Her writing is gorgeous, clear and propulsive, and the tricks she uses to ensnare our interest—lots of conversation, poetry, lists, word games, memories—work beautifully.

I especially liked the unique structure of this novel. There are no chapters per se, but short sections that suit a remembered story. The sections have titles, in which she tells us what comes next. And what comes next, I hope, is another novel in which lifetime lessons are revealed. Thank you Nancy Pearl.

NPR's Nancy Pearl discusses her debut:

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men & Women in the 21st C by Stephen Marche

Hardcover, 241 pgs, Pub April 1st 2017 by Simon & Schuster, ISBN13: 9781476780153

The cavalcade of sexual harassment accusations beginning with the Weinstein revelations brought the writing of Stephen Marche to my attention. In an op-ed piece published in the NYT (Nov 25, 2017), Marche asks us to confront “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.” “The men I know,” he writes, “don’t actively discuss changing sexual norms…Men just aren’t interested. They don’t know where to start.”

If anything were designed to intrigue me, it would be this conundrum: that men cannot or will not or are not interested in fruitfully engaging on anything about gender roles except where to stick it. Marche makes reference to the fact that of all the people who interviewed him about his new book this year, The Unmade Bed, only a minuscule number were men.

“A healthy sexual existence requires a continuing education,” he writes. I am remiss here, only discovering upon reading his work recent studies which determine that gender can only really be defined on a spectrum. I hadn’t realized this was accepted thought, or becoming so (though GR friends have told me before). I haven’t kept up with my continuing ed in this field, including the apparently widely quoted study result
“that men who do housework have less sex than men who don’t, and men who do more traditional ‘work around the house,’ like yard work, have more sex than men who don’t.”
That’s me not keeping up, though the results don’t particularly surprise me. Why it is so is what makes Marche’s work interesting.

Marche began his fascinating perspective on our changing gender relations with a chapter on mansplaining, a term inspired by an essay of Rebecca Solnit to describe someone who insists upon detailing a concept his listener knows more about. In “How Much Should a Man Speak?” Marche suggests that the mansplainer bore at a party or at work is probably the end result of years of cultural training to make men more willing to express their thoughts—a weird perversion of intimacy.

Maybe. I think we might have more examples of mansplaining as just straight-on sexist thought, though like he says, men also experience mansplaining. We’ll just have to agree that such behavior in conversation describes a deeply insecure personality and view each on a case-by-case basis.

This book came about when Marche left his teaching position in NYC to move to Toronto when his wife landed a high-powered, high-paying job as editor of a national magazine. His role as house husband became far more family-centric once his son and eventually his daughter were born. Never strong on the role of housekeeping (“my gonads shrink into my body a bit”), Marche describes how he came to think about his marriage, fatherhood, and sexuality.

There are many moments I would describe as deeply insightful, perfectly thoughtful continuing ed which actually includes notes from his wife, the editor, giving her perspective of his comments. But what if men are not interested in reading about what he has learned about changing gender roles?

Maybe now is the time to point out he has a chapter on pornography, including a description of the image that first electrified him. But there is also the notion that
“Masculine maturity is inherently a lonely thing to possess. That’s why maturity and despair go together for men. The splendid isolation of masculinity has emerged from so much iconography—the cowboy, the astronaut, the gangster—that almost every hero in the past fifty years has been a figure of loneliness. Current pop culture is even more extreme: it doesn’t merely celebrate the lonely man; it despises men in groups. That contempt runs counter to male biology. Men, every iota as much as women, are social creatures who live in a permanent state of interdependence and require connection for basic happiness. In periods of vulnerability the male suicide rates spike.”
The cover blurb on Stephen Marche describes him as a cultural commentator. He is that, every bit as much as the feminist writers he critiques. In his NYT piece, Marche suggests that some people think “men need to be better feminists,” but in this book he tells us “the world doesn’t need male feminists…It needs decent guys.” That sounds right by me.

Finally, I leave you with one of Marche’s paragraphs I know you will enjoy, given the exposure men like Louis C.K. have chosen as their contribution to the gender conversation.
“Diogenes the Cynic masturbated in the marketplace and called it philosophy. Of all the wisdom available in ancient Athens, his was the earthiest, the most practical. He refused to condemn the body out of social propriety. If he was built to ejaculate, he should ejaculate, and therefore he ejaculated where everyone could see him. The Athenians loved him for his frankness, which provoked laughter as much as disgust. When asked why he masturbated in public, he answered, “Would that by rubbing my belly I could get rid of hunger.” Diogenes offered the pagan view of masturbation: Why be ashamed of the easiest expression of masculine desire? Why fear the erasure of male sexual appetite by the lightest, the most harmless of gestures?”

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Augustown by Kei Miller

Pub May 1st 2017 by Pantheon Books (first pub Aug 11th 2016) ISBN13: 9781101871621 Awards: Nominated 2016 Green Carnation Prize, Nominated 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal, Nominated 2017 Shortlist RSL Ondaatje Prize, Nominated 2017 Shortlist HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown

An inverted gold crown on a jet background graces my cover of Kei Miller’s 2016 novel Augustown and the fiction points to the couple of days in the 20th C when the power structure inverted in a small town in Jamaica. A flying preacher, Alexander Bedward, is instrumental in inspiring the beginnings of the Rastafarian movement in 1920’s Jamaica. That story is wrapped around a more current parallel story of Gina, the clever girl some thought would also fly. Power and powerlessness entwine in this novel.

A town is populated with memorable figures like blind Ma Taffy, gun- and drug-runner Marlon, the dread-headed part-white child Kaia born out of wedlock, the childless spinster Sister Gilzene who could sing an operatic soprano, Rastafarian fruit peddler Clarky, the uptight upright teacher Mr. Saint-Josephs whom we suspect is insane, and a white family: a corporate father with ugly values, his wife learning to ignore him, and a boy who was selfish in the way white people are when they ‘do not see color.’

A bit of a thriller, this novel, because we scent blood early on, with the guns Marlon stashes under Ma Taffy’s house, Clarky dying, and crazy old Bedward rising up like some kind of lunatic second coming going. Oppression surrounds and weighs on us like humidity.
“The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be the bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?”
—from Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
Only after I looked for interviews with Miller did I realize he is considered a poet first, though in descriptions of his education he says he started with prose stories. He is lavishly talented, and writes with an enlightened sexual awareness. This novel has a strong set of female characters and in his 2010 collection of poems called A Light Song of Light, we also get that sense of even ground, and more:
Every bed was made illegal by the brush
of chest against chest, and by our sweat.
--from A Short History of Beds We Have Slept in Together
Miller saves his challenges for colonialists and by his words we recognize Miller understands rage and sorrow.
" they have forced us to live in a world lacking in mermaids--mermaids who understood that they simply were, and did not need permission to exist or to be beautiful. The law concerning mermaids only caused mermaids to pass a law concerning man: that they would never again cross our boundaries of sand; never lift their torsos up from the surf; never again wave at sailors, salt dripping from their curls; would never again enter our dry and stifling world."
--from The Law Concerning Mermaids
Historical figures feature in this poetry collection, including Alexander Bedward again, Singerman (Marley?), Nathaniel Morgan, Coolie Duppy, etc. and there is a strong scent of homesickness. Miller has lived in Great Britain for some years now and perhaps is telling the same story over and over, in a new way each time, pruning and training the branches until they remind him of home.

In the poetry collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion published in 2014, Miller’s language is English but there appear so many words we have never seen that we are unsteady, unsure, very nearly undone.

So consider an unsettled island
Inside—the unflattened and unsugared

fields; inside—a tegareg
sprawl of roots and canopies,

inside—the tall sentries of blondwood
and yoke-wood and sweet-wood,

of dog-wood, of bullet trees so hard
they will one day splinter cutlasses,

will one day swing low the carcasses
of slaves; inside—a crawling

brawl of vines, unseemly
flowers that blossom from their spines;

inside—the leh-guh orchids and labrishing
hibiscuses that throw raucous

syllables at crows whose heads are red as annattos; inside—malarial mosquitoes

that rise from stagnant ponds;
inside—a green humidity thick as mud;

inside—the stinging spurge, the nightshades,
the Madame Fates;

inside—spiders, gnats and bees,
wasps and lice and fleas; inside—

the dengue, the hookworm, the heat
and botheration; unchecked macka

sharp as crucifixion. This is no paradise—
not yet—not this unfriendly, untamed island—

this unsanitised, unstructured island—
this unmannered, unmeasured island;

this island: unwritten, unsettled, unmapped.
—from Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
The unsettlement one feels when reading the poem is curiously the way Miller makes us feel in his novel, though he does not use such words. We retain a kind of distance. Just as well. There is danger everywhere. The only other place that ever gave me this sense of familiarity and menace was another island with a bloody colonial history, Tasmania.

This is a new cultural sphere; it takes some time to accustom to this point-of-view. The language which is at once foreign and familiar, continental and island, melodic and profane, knowing and naive. Hope is not an obvious choice when one is the underclass. Rastafarians have a mighty sense of their closeness to god and ghost. White folk don’t offer the same opportunities. This truth is such a relief after centuries of colonial cant.

We can feel the tide, the sun, the heat; we smell the flowers, the sea, the mangoes. Miller’s language in Augustown is easily poetic, not caught in it but casual and natural. The story, Gina’s growing up and standing up, is where we’re focused. And yet…and yet the bleaching light on the sunbaked road and the overhanging flowers thrust their way into the story, embellishing it, making us a little homesick, too.

The chapter on autoclaps squeezed the heart and was almost pure poetry. This chapter made the book Kei Miller’s. Any other author may have left that chapter out, and they would have been utterly wrong.

We, humans in the world, for centuries in every country, have put men in charge of…everything…our well-being, our safety, our protection. Since barely cognizant, I have always thought that was a lot to lay on one half of the human race. Kei Miller seems to understand this.

And finally, the place, Jamaica, is clearly what Miller is about. He is centered on this and staking out this territory as his own.

The extraordinary talent is evident in Miller’s Youtube video, him talking about his new book of poetry

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle

Hardcover, 224 pgs, Pub Nov 14th 2017 by Simon Schuster, ISBN13: 9781476726151

This book radiates such loving-kindness, one wishes everyone could share in the bounty. I had not heard of Boyle’s 2009 No. 1 bestseller, called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, before I heard Krista Tippett interview Father Boyle for her podcast On Being. This second book is a series of true stories about the gang members, former convicts, drug dealers and addicts Father Boyle knows from his ministry, Homeboy Industries, in Los Angeles. Each anecdote carries with it a reminder of the burdens people carry, a prod to do better in our lives, and something small (or big) to meditate on.

A highlight of this book are Boyle’s pointing to and holding up some of the homies’ mangling of common phrases—phrases so ordinary to many of us that we rush by them, never stopping to think them through carefully. By misunderstanding phrases only heard and never read, the homies sometimes hit upon a better, deeper meaning that speaks to their experiences, e.g., “I’m at a pitchfork in my life.”

Father Boyle is following the teaching of the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, and every other effective practitioner of faith and loving-kindness on earth by going with the exhortation to “Stay Close to the Poor.” He discusses this in his usual discursive style near the end of this book, asking
“Is God inclusive or exclusive?…In the end, though, the measure of our compassion with what Martin Luther King calls ‘the last, the least, and the lost’ lies less in our service to those on the margins, and more in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
Radical kinship. If you’ve ever experienced a blast of radical kinship—an openhearted, limitless generosity—you will know it is transformative. And that is where Father Boyle is going.

There are no bad people, only bad actions. We’re all in a stage of becoming. We all are equally able to find grace and create the kind of environment we seek, if given a place to rest and to experience love without expectation of return.
“We are charged not with obliterating our diversity and difference but instead with heightening our connection to each other.”
This is his answer to reconciling diversity and connectedness. It is often thought that the more diverse we are, the less we have in common, the less we can come together over shared goals. This book tells a different story.

Father Boyle’s book about gang members in L.A. finding a place of peace to gather their thoughts together is the antidote to a political world in which power and money are operative goals. We’d all like a little more power, to live as we like without anybody else’s say so, but sometimes the lack of power is the key to humility, and thus to a wide and deep world of loving-kindness. But as Boyle tells Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview: “Prayer is not going to fix our healthcare system. Stop it. Don’t think that. You actually have to do something about guns, you can’t just pray.”

This is powerful stuff, folks, and will be my gift to family and friends at this year-end. When you get your own copy, look carefully at the author photo on the inside back jacket. Have you ever seen a group of people more radiant in your lives?

The Nov 13, 2017 Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross speaking with Father Greg Boyle (36 minutes):

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hardcover, 367 pgs, Pub Oct 3rd 2017 by One World, ISBN13: 9780399590566, Awards: Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

Coates intersperses notes of his experience each of the eight years of Obama’s presidency along with some of his carefully-researched larger essays previously published in The Atlantic. It is especially worthwhile to read again his earlier pieces in their context with the hindsight a few years bring, and not having to search around several places for his ideas makes this book especially valuable. Most of us were not prepared for Ta-Nehisi Coates when his work first appeared in the monthly magazine. It was his explosive Between the World and Me that shook us awake.

The centerpiece of this collection, “The Case for Reparations,” talks about a
“national reckoning…more than hush money or a reluctant bribe…What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”
The banishment of white guilt. That is something I would not have gone for. If that is required, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. I’m on board with “an airing of family secrets, a settling of old ghosts—[a recognition] that American prosperity was ill gotten and selective in its distribution.” But if it comes to making white people, mostly Christians, banish their guilt, I don’t think it will happen. These folks wear guilt like a fur coat.

Whenever he is asked about hope for the future, Coates says he is not responsible for bringing good news. He merely reports the news. He looks at what we have and says what he thinks. But I think “…Reparations” is his most hopeful essay, though filled as it is of horrible instances of degrading racism and exclusion. In it Coates sees a possible way out…if only.
"I believe wrestling publicly with [issues around reparations] matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced…More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders."
It seems we have been hearing Coates everywhere these days—back-to-back interviews on the Radio Atlantic podcast, another podcast of a conversation in Chicago for Krista Tippett’s On Being, etc. But Coates is not overexposed. He still has a way of saying things in a way that allows us to hear him. He’s not asking for anything. He’s just laying it out there, giving us the opportunity to step up.

Right after his ground-breaking essay on reparations, the first paragraph of his notes for year seven of the Obama presidency takes away any hope he might have given us about the possibility for change.
“To be black in America was to be plundered. To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder. No national conversation, no invocations to love, no moral appeals, no pleas for ‘sensitivity’ and ‘diversity,’ no lamenting of ‘race relations’ could make this right.”
Boom. “Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to America, it was essential to it.” How lucky we have been that this man escaped everything that conspired to hold him silent: “black people in America do not generally have the luxury of recording their ‘feelings…’”

Born to a black household secure in their determination to be black and proud of it, and having been educated in the heart of black learning at Howard University, Coates did not unlearn or give away his heritage to fit in with white culture. He is talented, but he is also unusual in that he didn't have to give away large parts of himself to get where he is. We are the beneficiaries of such a voice, for there aren’t enough who can express with such clarity and singularity of purpose arguments we need to consider. Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, is another.

One of Coates’ last essays in this collection, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” begins with the themes Daniel Moynihan wrote about in a report written for Department of Labor during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” i.e., the disintegration of black American families under the pressure of centuries of oppression and neglect. From the poisonous atmosphere in a government where Moynihan’s ideas circulated freely without policy recommendations, arose a means to solve that problem: incarcerate wrong-doers, something Moynihan had not recommended.

Coates’ exegesis of the Moynihan argument is thorough, and non-ideological. He is not quick to praise because there is plenty to dislike, but he recognizes where Moynihan was correct in his analysis. By the end he is pointing out something that many of us can now identify:
“[Moynihan’s] 'The Negro Family' is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing black men should be empowered at the expense of black women.”
In Coates’ final essay, his Epilogue, talks about “The First White President,” the man who won the presidency only because he was a white male. What an insight! But I want to highlight what Coates says in “My President was Black,” about President Obama.
“…I found it interesting that [Obama’s] optimism does not extend to the possibility of the public’s accepting …the moral logic of reparations…that the president, by his own account, has accepted for himself and is willing to teach his children...The notion that a president would attempt to achieve change within the boundaries of the accepted consensus is appropriate But Obama is almost constitutionally skeptical of those who seek to achieve change outside that consensus.
Not that we expect it to be easy, but sometimes people are more ready than we imagine.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age by Andrew O'Hagan

Hardcover, Pub Oct 10th 2017 by Farrar Straus and Giroux ISBN13: 9780374277918, Lit Awards: Longlisted for 2017 Gordon Burn Prize

Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan is a difficult man to dismiss. Here he tells three stories based around computers and two strange Australians and makes something weird and wild and kind of spectacular. The first story, "Ghosting," regards the time he was asked to interview for the opportunity to possibly ghostwrite Julian Assange's biography. O'Hagan is distant, observant, and precise, early on telling us
"It was interesting to see how he parried with some notion of himself as a public figure, as a rock star, really, when all the activists I've ever known tend to see themselves as marginal and possibly eccentric figures. Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn't see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted."
Assange comes across as a paranoid narcissist, deeply confused about his role and his life, about what he does and how he wants to be remembered. O'Hagan put the time in, listening and writing, and comes away burned.

The second story, "The Invention of Ronald Pinn," feels dangerous. O'Hagan takes on the identity of a young lad who'd died young, Ronnie Pinn, so that he, O'Hagan, could enter the Deep Web and see how it operated. O'Hagan's invented Pinn
"tended toward certain enterprises of his own volition...[including] with secretive experts about drugs and false documents and guns...The 'people' now moderating the Dark Web don't care about the old codes of citizenship and they don't recognize the laws of society. They don't believe that governments or currencies or historical narratives are automatically legitimate, or event that the personalities who appear to run the world are who they say they are. The average hacker believes most executives to be functionaries of a machine they can't understand."
When O'Hagan finally gives up the online ruse, he finds Pinn lingers longer in cyberspace, and in his psyche, than he'd anticipated.

The final essay, "The Satoshi Affair," was originally published in LRB a year or so ago. It is a very long, totally immersive essay about the possible originators of Bitcoin, and what the currency will mean for revolutionizing business and banking. If you haven't read much about the subject, this is a good place to start. Don't worry if some of it slips by without your understanding. I have a feeling we're all going feel that way for quite awhile.

O'Hagan is special. You won't be wasting your time, reading about his fascinating digital interface with the world.

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You Can't Spell America Without Me by Alec Baldwin & Kurt Andersen

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Nov 7th 2017 by Penguin Press, ISBN13: 9780525521990

I have a hard time listening to DJT at the best of times, and listening to him at all now is a drain, nearly a year into the most bizarre presidency ever. Therefore I almost didn’t bother with Alex Baldwin’s parody which would have been a pity. I later learned (via NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul interviews Kurt Andersen) this book was written in collaboration with novelist Kurt Andersen, who knew Trump back in the day. Andersen and Baldwin manage to channel DJT to an extraordinary extent, using DJT's actual words, sentence constructions, and speech idiosyncrasies for reconstructions and deep dives into his psyche.

This is deeply funny and unsettling stuff. Racist, sexist, religionist attitudes leach into his writing ("talking is the new writing"), surely not intentionally—he seems so completely ignorant of it. He makes juvenile jokes about Japanese names and the extent of Japanese disquiet over the cancellation of T.P.P., and expresses a kind of shocked surprise at how much the African American security people earn to protect him, especially after that discrimination suit they won…He blissfully mispronounces Philippine proverbs throughout the work, rendering them in his version of Tagalog, and mangling the translations.

Actual DJT tweets and quotes run into plausible extensions which elaborate his thinking gut feelings. Constantly finding ways to plug his golf courses and properties, branded steaks, wine, and ties, Trump finds his new job is awash in business opportunities: one could use military jets, perhaps, to bring same-day Nebraska grass-fed beef direct to the tables of his hotels. Andersen and Baldwin pick out current themes in American masculinity, politics, art, and critical thought and introduce the rogue element that is DJT.
“The chapter you just read was written personally by me, Donald Trump…this entire book, the words and sentences and the larger sections…the paragraphs, the chapters, all mine…and it's the best...”
By the end of the book, DJT is willing to ship Melania back to Yugoslavia ("I didn’t realize she’d come in illegally…" and "she's 50 years old this year") and he poses himself in front of a camera waving at the departing plane carrying his third wife while, written into the script, a single tear falls silently in the closeup. Sad.
"The president has unlimited Presidential Pardon Power (PPP), which means I could even pardon myself…PPP…"
DJT seems only to love his now 11-year-old son, Barron. He’s "so smart,""he’s like an adult now." One of the riffs I enjoyed most was about Paul Ryan, who looks
"like a smiling vampire…always glances at himself in windows and mirrors…it’s kinda gay…that afternoon Paul Ryan definitely looked untrustworthy. When I have strong instincts, they always mean something."
When you get to the part on North Korea, you will understand the depth of his delusions.
"I’ve never been to North Korea, I never took a course…but discussing it strongly for ten minutes, not with some CIA analyst or some State Department know-it-all, I now totally, completely, absolutely understand…that’s how CEO’s do it."
And his conflation of vote tallies:
"I won sixty percent of the electoral vote which is the same as Reagan and FDR…won of the popular vote."

These two men take the time to make us see the absurdity in DJT’s utterances…they go through all of it…right through his hiring family for jobs hardened professionals have trouble handling, to our foreign relations, the collusion, the shallowness of businessmen’s understanding of cultural relations, the voting…”It Finally Felt Real Like a Movie” is a chapter title, but it does tend to put the whole thing in perspective.

I suggest we take every opportunity to laugh while we can, all the while building up energy to take this clown down. Even if you think you are tired of all things Trump, these men have done a brilliant job of it, so have a listen, or a peruse. Laugh with friends at enemies. The audio is produced by Penguin Audio, and this book has a Whispersync option, a good choice for this title. Published by Penguin Random House.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, & The Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century by Richard McGregor

Hardcover, 416 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Viking, ISBN13: 9780399562679

This deeply researched look at the China, Japan, U.S. triangle of strategic alliances is thickly studded with anecdote and new material uncovered in Freedom of Information requests, document declassifications, on-the-ground observation, and high-level meeting transcripts. Even the Introduction and Afterword are packed with unique material when these areas are more commonly places for overview and summing up. Altogether it is an achievement that will be the backbone for Asia-gazing for years to come.

McGregor looks at the trilateral relationships from the post-WWII period through the election of 2016 when Japan was the first to greet the month-old American president in New York City, not even waiting until Trump reached the White House. “The U.S. withdrawal from T.P.P. was the biggest shock to the alliance since Nixon went to China,” McGregor quotes Japan’s premier foreign policy commentator Yoichi Funabashi. After Abe had time to sit down with Trump in February 2017 and a joint statement drafted by Abe’s team to be delivered from the White House was proffered, Trump only insisted upon one change. “In place of ‘Donald Trump,’ the president said it should read ‘Donald J. Trump.’” So much for substance. “By the way, I love China. I love Japan.” Trump protests too much.

The book is arranged by decade until the “The Twenty-First Century,” a mammoth section encompassing fifteen years of toxic rivalry between the two Asian giants. McGregor has been on the ground in Asia for nearly thirty years and he shares the hopes, dreams, and personalities of leaders in China, Japan and America with the distance and caution good journalists cultivate. Compared with the rest of the world, Asia has been an explosion of good news, economic powerhouses doing what they do best, not waking up each morning, as Obama notes, “thinking about how to kill Americans.” (North Korea aside.)

But American economic and military presence in Asia paradoxically may have kept the Sino-Japan rivalry from resolving, despite their economic bilateral relationship that is among the most valuable in the world. If America packs up and goes home now, forces in Asia could amplify disputes and aggressions unacceptably. In answer to the question posed by Harvard professor Graham Allison whether China and America can avoid Thucydides’ trap, the conflict that arises when an established power (U.S.) is challenged by a rising rival (China), McGregor makes the point that Thucydides also said that as dangerous as it is to build an empire, it is even more dangerous to let it go. It is this second point that I worry about more when looking over the region.

McGregor’s special skill in this terrifically interesting and detailed reference work is humanizing the figures of government leadership and staff. We learn about the mostly men and few women involved in setting policy, their positions in their own governments, the official face of discussions and the more free-flowing and often contradictory attitudes in prep sessions and afterwards. We learn about specific American negotiators and their preparation [or lack of] for their Asia talks, their likes and dislikes, their knowledge and ignorance, and how these came to influence their official attitudes.

Thirty-seven black-and-white photographs punctuate this history, and illustrate the number of leaders each country has churned through in the past half-century of diplomacy. Both Xi Jinping of China and Shinzō Abe of Japan are long-running formative leaders who will leave deep imprints on their nation’s psyches. DJT’s presidency is a kind of lacuna in American foreign policy, a gap that will be filled with these two Asian powerhouses.

We all lived through the past eight years when Obama was forming relationships with allies in Asia. McGregor makes us feel as though we missed a lot. While I’d thought Obama was warmly received in Asia generally, we learn here that Obama “did not do chemistry… but he learned to do face.” Obama left the stage having made few friends, but he had reassured Japan, negotiated the T.P.P. which would eventually accrue benefit to the U.S., if not necessarily in strictly economic terms.

I hadn’t been aware that Abe had floated the idea that Japan would be willing to form a loose alliance among the Asian democracies (India, Australia, the U.S., and Japan) to promote democracy. None of the other countries was enthusiastic, Australia being resistant to being drawn into the possibility of Sino-Japanese conflict down the line.

McGregor reminds us that “forging, building, managing, and sustaining alliances and other partnerships had been one of America’s greatest skills in the postwar era.” That compliment comes as McGregor recounts the final overseas trip of Ash Carter, Obama’s fourth and last secretary of defense.

Asia had lately been touted as the most important region of the world for the United States, but which had gotten the least amount of attention. Obama had been willing to accommodate China’s regional expectation of dominance to some extent, for which he got unceasing criticism in Japan. Trump’s attitude is that Japan “used to routinely beat China.” Therefore, he is said to reason, why defend Japan at all?

The U.S. willingness to accommodate China’s ascendency, and to encourage Japan’s increase in defensive weaponry and capability, is part and parcel of “letting go” of America’s strong, some might say stabilizing, role in Asia. We’re about to find out which is the more dangerous route, and for whom.

This book is available as a Penguin Random House audiobook, beautifully read by Steve West. The audiobook is a wonderful choice to make progress on the book when other obligations are pressing. However, I still liked having the hardcopy to refer to: there is a lot of information here, much of it new. You may need access to both vehicles to get the most out of this. It's worth it.

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Destined for War: Can America & China Escape Thucydides' Trap by Graham Allison

Hardcover, 384 pgs, Pub May 30th 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN13: 9780544935273

Present foreign policy in the United States is examined in the context of one of the earliest consequential wars ever written about
“While others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides went to the heart of the matter. When he turned the spotlight on ‘the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta,’ he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history’s most catastrophic and puzzling wars.”
Fear. Allison has the advantage of recent discoveries in behavioral science which show that “at the basic psychological level…people’s fears of loss (or intimations of ‘decline’) trump our hopes of gain—driving us to take unreasonable risks to protect what is ours.” Applied to the present day, America shouldn’t allow fear of China’s stupendous rise to make policy makers forget what is their strategic interest: preserving the free nature of their democracy and fundamental institutions and keeping its people strong and resilient rather than preserving a heretofore unchallenged primacy over the western Pacific. Allison asks why we think we need to preserve that primacy at any cost.

China has finally turned its face to the world and intends to engage. History shows us they have a core belief in the superiority of the Middle Kingdom, so we can expect a fierce nationalism. Allison suggests we need to dial back actions and policies that strengthen an unreasonable hard-line nationalism in China that brooks no opposition. We should be expecting to live with this new rising power and chill with rhetoric that clouds an understanding of what our goals actually are in a changing world.

JFK faced a threat that could have led to war and he persistently dialed down the rhetoric, ignoring advisors, saying the enduring lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis
“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avoid confrontations that force an adversary to choose between a humiliating retreat and nuclear war.”
An example of the US not heeding this lesson came nearly twenty years prior to JFK’s lonely decision-making. Less than a week before the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Tokyo had been complaining that they could not operate under the economic sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. and that they would prefer to fight, but the US ignored the ambassador’s message…

Allison teaches a class at Harvard which discusses instances of Thucydides’ trap—that is, when a rising power confronts a current power the result is war—playing out through history, so he’s had plenty of opportunity to hone his argument. It shows in the smoothness of the argument and clarity of the history he tells to bolster his thesis. We get examples of an established power feeling threatened by a rising power and the conditions under which this resulted in war and when it did not. Two recent examples would include England and Germany before WWI (1860-1913), and also the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII. One might argue relations between the two did precipitate an outbreak of hostilities: the Cold War. However, Allison argues the "cold" nature of the relationship during this period is an example that war is not inevitable.

America since the second world war took on alliances with Europeans mainly, but also Japan and Taiwan, which entailed an American guarantee of lethal force in the case of an invasion or attack. This guarantee of protection came with spoken and unspoken obligations that extended and enhanced America’s influence abroad. In a town hall meeting in 2016, Hillary Clinton explained that countries around the world were often eager and asking for US protection. Allison tells us that, in Thucydides’ time, the Greeks also had an empire
“That empire was acquired not by violence,” they later claimed to the Spartans, but instead “because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command.”
President Trump has made clear that the US will no longer, while he is president, take a leading role as protector without a kind of tributary role being played by smaller states. China is pleased to take on the role of protector that the U.S. appears no longer to want. In the end, the present American administration may simply move aside to accommodate China without a clear foreign policy strategy.

This book was surprisingly readable and a very good one for clarifying the failures of strategic foreign policy by recent administrations. Allison was able to cut away much obfuscating bluster by spokespeople to have us look at Xi Jinping and Donald Trump with history’s eyeglasses: we see them as leading actors who each personify his country’s “deep aspiration for national greatness.” In his last chapter Allison anticipated Trump’s speech in China this past month, suggesting that each country should pay attention to their own strategic interests. Allison’s words are
“China and the US would be better served not by passive-aggressive ‘should diplomacy’ (calling on the other to exhibit better behavior) or by noble-sounding rhetoric about geopolitical norms, but by unapologetically pursuing their national interests. In high-stakes relationships, predictability and stability—not friendship—matter most. The US should stop playing ‘let’s pretend.’”
However, American president Donald Trump is anything but predictable and stable. And, Allison reminds us, when states repeatedly fail to act in what appears to be their true national interest, it is often because their policies reflect necessary compromises among parties within their government rather than a single coherent vision. This is true right now in the U.S.; the thing that brings us down may be ourselves rather than China.

Thucydides himself believed fear was at the primary driver at the root of the Peloponnesian War, when a rising Athens threatened Sparta. Donald Trump went out of his way, during the 2016 presidential campaign at least, to hype a type of fear in America about China’s rising militancy and wealth. He almost seemed to open his arms to conflict. The destructiveness of such a contest between the East and the West would be so catastrophic as to be almost unimaginable. Of course Thucydides’ trap is not inevitable, but we must find leaders with great understanding.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion & Lasting Change by Eileen Pao

Hardcover, 274 pgs, Pub Sept 19th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau, ISBN13: 9780399591013 Lit Awards: Shortlisted 2017 Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of Year Nominee

I venture to guess that anyone reading Ellen Pao's personal experience about the discrimination she alleges at the hands of partners in the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins will find something in it with which to identify. I don’t expect anyone disbelieves her account. The cliquish melodrama of board meetings or the exclusionary after-hours drinking and strip clubs will be familiar to many, not all of them women. The truth is, the watch-your-back lifestyle of partners out for themselves in a corporate environment can get pretty ugly, particularly when large amounts of money are thrown about.

Pao is just one of the first women to document how such exclusionary behaviors affects so-called attempts to diversify management away from white men who probably [should] feel a little uncertain about sitting atop a corporation that is supposed to have its hand wrapped around the zeitgeist. But any uncertainty these white men feel about their position is no excuse for discrimination based on sex, color, sexual orientation.

Let’s face it: Ellen Pao is one very special individual, but she’s not going to change American corporate culture all on her own. She merely points out how childish corporate culture can become when adults with family responsibilities and an obligation to think outside the box and be challenged in their thinking try to find ways around those obligations.

Ellen goes through whole sordid, tiresome saga of being given seats in the back of the room, not being invited to business dinners (or even some business meetings!), of being asked to get the coffee or pass the cookies, chapter and verse, yada yada, but here it is, bluntly:
”As my time in venture wore on, more and more I began to notice my colleagues’ desperate unwillingness to depart from what they knew. The fear seemed, to me, to come from social anxiety. Almost all these men—and they were nearly all men—were awkward with each other and filled the awkwardness with clunky, inappropriate conversations. They might spend a full hour discussing porn stars and debating their favorite type of sex worker…Some would check out and flirt with the much younger administrative assistants—half to a third their age—and some would make racist jokes that weren’t funny…Or sexist jokes…week after week after week, and sometimes more than once in the same day.”
I will take a stab at suggesting that we’ve all been there…in high school. Ellen Pao grew up Asian American in a white world. She knows all about different. She knows about Asia and she knows about America. Not exclusionary. Not arrogant. Not, in fact, entirely sure of herself, despite three IV-league degrees in engineering, law and business. But she’s had enough of the chortling adolescents with sexual hand gestures—in school and at work.

Pao’s loss against Kleiner Perkins may define her, but not in the way the partners thought. Ellen Pao is not only a star, but a thought leader. At the end of this book detailing her discrimination case against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, she writes of work done as CEO of reddit. They were one of the first internet firms to take down user content that was anti-social, hate speech, pornographic, or harassing. Those are difficult decisions to make. No other company was able to make that decision until she had. After reddit she set up a venture, Project Include, to help early- to mid-stage tech firms diversify their leadership and management teams. She acknowledges change is hard, that it won’t happen on its own, and that lessons her team has learned can be useful for firms wanting to start but who are overwhelmed with choices.

This book is not merely Pao’s side of the Kleiner Perkins lawsuit. It is Pao’s take-aways from that soul-crushing experience. This book is how you know this woman is going to power up and over any obstacle in her way. The thing she seems to understand is that diversity is, well, diverse. Not everyone thinks alike. That can divide a group, but Pao is betting that making people feel comfortable speaking out, contributing, and showcasing their special talents will bring a cohesiveness that will make the group succeed. Let’s hope so. Be prepared for something radical. And watch this woman. My money’s on her.

Some extremely nasty commentary took place in the media before, during and after the Kleiner Perkins lawsuit, including this somewhat absurd piece in Fortune by Fox News contributor and now Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky and Katie Benner. The authors point out a real logical inconsistency: that Ellen Pao’s “jaw-dropping” and “bold” lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins “flew in the face of past criticisms levied against her by Kleiner partners — that she was passive, that she waited for orders, and that she was risk-averse.” Pao answers all the questions raised in this article fully and adequately, even eloquently, in this book. As I contend, I’ve seen these behaviors before. Theirs don’t make sense. Hers do. I’m with her.

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The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel

Hardcover, 336 pages, Pub October 10th 2017 by Harper ISBN13: 9780062322586

Apparently eighty percent of the population has some experience with infidelity, whether through a parent, spouse, friend, or family member. Considering how hurtful and destructive such urges are, it is amazing most of us are still standing. Esther Perel has distilled her years of marriage counseling and study of infidelity to reveal fascinating insights that make enormous sense to me. She tells us that
“In a surprising number of these cases, a direct line can be traced from an extramarital adventure back to our most basic human fear—the confrontation with mortality.”
I would add a corollary that if the infidel (?) one who commits infidelity didn’t fear death before they became involved in an extramarital affair, they should after, for sure.

I love the way Perel thinks. She is such an adult. When one is in the midst of handling an exposed infidelity, it is common to experience sadness, rage, jealousy, and diminished self-worth. Perel says we can feel these things if we want, it is normal, but it is probably more worthwhile to look at why one strayed, if one has the stamina for it.

In this way, one may find one prefers one’s spouse to other possibilities, and can renew their vows in a fuller knowledge of one another, and a fuller knowledge of what it takes to make a marriage succeed. One of the things I notice about marriage is that sometimes the people involved forget that the spouse is a mystery and basically unknowable; that the spouse is an independent sexual being; that affairs often allow us to discover a new self, rather than merely a new sexual partner. Oftentimes it is that new sexual self that is so entrancing, not the new partner after all, e.g., “I feel alive.”.

A couple of other things Perel points to are that we keep many secrets in a marriage, and perhaps infidelity is not the most damaging of these. She thinks that sometimes admitting to an infidelity may cause more damage than not, and one has to ask oneself what one’s motives are in revealing such a thing if it is not already discovered and is unlikely to be.

While we often hear that revenge is sweet, in fact it is frequently the opposite. There is an important lesson to know about long-lasting feelings of vengeance: “If in the process of getting even you end up hurting yourself more than you punish the other, you gain nothing.” Feelings of stress and anger can make you miserable.

Studies of romantic love discover that it is a physical addiction, similar in effect to cocaine or nicotine on the brain. Quoting Anthropologist Helen Fisher who has done fMRI studies on the brain in love: “weaning oneself off of obsessive thinking about a lost love…is akin to breaking a dependency on drugs.”

Perel defines infidelity as including one or more of three components: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement. Towards the end of the book she explains that although women are used to being in touch with their emotional side and the multidimensionality of their sexuality (its subjectivity, its relational character, its contextual nature, and its reliance on a delicate balance of conditions), men rarely give themselves that freedom.

There are so many myths surrounding the definition of male sexuality as being biologically imperative, uncomplicated, ever ready, and always in search of novelty but actually men and women are in fact more similar than they are different. Men may find themselves emotionally disengaging in direct proportion to the demands of their relational entanglements and the conflicting messages they are receiving about who they are and who they should be. “You don’t pay the hooker to come—you pay her to leave”—highlighting the pleasures of less emotionally complicated forms of sex.

In the end, Perel says, it is usually a lack of real sexual communication in the midst of a loud and proud declaration of emotional transparency in modern intimacy that is most at fault for a drawing away from real intimacy. A successful marriage, I’m guessing, allows some of the mystery to remain. Two individuals agree to share lives; that they can leave at any time deepens the mystery. One needn’t do it, so when we do, there must be meaning. Communication is critical. And weathering a storm can unlock a few mysteries we tend to keep hidden, even from ourselves.
“Every act of betrayal shares common features, but every experience of betrayal is unique.”
Perel has Youtube videos of her most popular talks, and she is particularly good at cutting to the heart of relationships and fingering the sore spots. Most of us can find our own situations well-represented. Her examples of couples in treatment are diverse and distinct, and very interesting. I’d say listening to her is worthwhile even if it has never entered your mind to stray.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub Oct 24th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau ISBN13: 9780812988840

The detailed nature of this book about the life and death of Eric Garner allows us to see, in horrible living color, exactly where we’re at in terms of race relations in the United States. Eric Garner died July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, victimized on this day by police who put him in a chokehold and ignored his pleas that he could not breathe. What Taibbi does exceptionally well in this difficult book is allow us to see Eric Garner for the man he was—a well-liked and respected member of his community.

The entire story told here is a long and winding one, going back to pick up relevant cases along the way, including that of Carnell Russ of Alabama, whose death in 1971 by pistol shot at close range in a police station was challenged in court a number of times until finally we learn a monetary award was never paid to Carnell’s widow. Forty-five years later the original prosecutor in the Eric Garner trial, Dan Donovan, was elected to Congress, proud of his role in protecting the white people, in his eyes, unjustly under attack for upholding the law.

So carefully has Taibbi prepared his case in the writing of this book that when we read the words “disrespect for the law, contempt for society, a refusal to abide by the responsibilities of a civilized people,” we briefly imagine the words were chosen to describe the men and women of the NYC police force who refused to give credence to citizen complaints about uncalled for police harassment and reckless endangerment. But no, this language was used by Joseph Concannon, retired NYPD captain and staunch defender of whatever the police did in the course of their duties, illegal or not.

City politicians elected before, during, and after the prosecution of the Eric Garner case come off looking weak and ineffectual at best, deliberately obfuscating at worst. The case of the killing of Eric Garner came amidst a rash of police killings around the country that were well publicized, mostly due to actual video of the crimes. It is absolutely horrifying to imagine for a moment how these cases would have been treated in the absence of a video record. Even in these cases, obstruction into the behaviors of repeat offender police is rampant, common, and from the point of view of the citizenry, indefensible.

The black lives examined in this work are extremely stressful. Putting ourselves in their place, we might even say these lives and conditions of life are hopeless. But Eric Garner did not see things that way, and certainly on the day he died, he was the happiest he’d been in a very long time, his son having just been awarded a sports scholarship for advanced education. Taibbi is able to make us feel the heat that day in July, and the satisfaction the big man would have felt. We’re plenty pleased, too.

I have wondered, in thinking of Taibbi’s past work, what it would be like to to be on the other side of one of his scathing investigations. Now we know, because he co-authored a book during his expat days in Moscow, in which he targeted everyone in the outsized-profits-fueled economy, from foreigners gaming the system to Russian oligarchs and their deadly, beautiful hookers. Adolescent, ridiculous, and forgettable, excerpts I read from that earlier work should have meant a far longer, more circuitous path to legitimate journalism. The argument in the link above charges Taibbi with sexism and misogyny, a shadow of which, it could be argued, appeared in his description here of Assistant DA Anne Grady.

It is my contention that Taibbi’s work uncovering the hows and whys of the life surrounding Eric Garner is a far weightier thing on the scales of right and wrong-doing than that earlier work. It is important we all scour our own past for sexism—doling it out or letting it pass—before nailing the coffin shut on the talent and real heart shown here. With this book, Taibbi blows past any criticisms that could be leveled for those earlier errors in judgment and gives us something terribly important: a honest, raw look at where we stand in our race relations right now. Perhaps only bad boys could understand, empathize with, and give us the nuance of all the imperfect characters Taibbi details for us here, and get to the depth in this story that explains Eric Garner’s life and untimely death.

Several of the Irish-sounding names in this history are exactly those of loved ones within my own family, though I don’t believe I am related to any of them. My grandfather was a Boston cop. What I take from this is that whatever place these white policemen go to in their heads when it comes to fairness and justice, it is not inevitable, and it doesn’t come from the color of their skin. I recall the recently-discovered 19th-C diary of African American boy convict Austin Reed,
“Yes, me brave Irish boys, me loves you till the day that I am laid cold under the sod, and I would let the last drop of this dark blood run and drain from these black veins of mine to rescue you from the hands of a full blooded Yankee…Reader, if you are on the right side of an Irishman, you have the best friend in the world.”
A lot has happened from then to now, but nothing that can’t be undone.

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Hardcover, 320 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Basic Books, ISBN13: 9780465096244

Berns uses what he’s learned about human cognition and emotion in the title of this book, which promises insights into the understanding of the dog brain. To be fair, the book does discuss experiments and findings involving what happens in a dog’s brain while commands are given and associations are made. But the book goes far beyond the dog to discuss cognition and sentience in animals of many kinds, principally by using evidence from MRI and fMRI brain scans. It is a fascinating look at the study of neuroscience on animals.

Despite the density of terms required to study neuroscience, Berns guides us easily through the basics, allowing us to understand the principal goal of their studies on dogs: to determine how dogs process information. I will admit to a degree of awe to think they could manage to get a dog to voluntarily crouch within a noisy MRI machine and stay immoveable long enough to be scanned while the scientists perform tests. Georgia dog trainer Mark Spivak was given a shout-out at the end of this book for his insights and indefatigable efforts to this end.

The decades-long work of Peter Cook of the pinniped labs in Santa Cruz, CA is highlighted for several chapters beginning with “Seizing Sea Lions.” Berns and Cook worked together to determine the effects of domoic acid toxicity on normal patterns of connectivity in the brains of dead sea lions. Domoic toxicity caused by agricultural runoff was determined to be the cause of a wave of malnourished sea lion strandings during El Niño years.

After the sea lions come dolphins, a discussion of how echolocation manifests in the brain, and some indication how dolphin brains resemble and differ from other mammals. Then back to dogs, where studies have shown a real possibility that rats and dogs may experience regret: regret for choices that do not turn out as desirable as anticipated. Berns acknowledges it is difficult to imagine regret in a rat, but he suggests that our word for it does not limit the experience of the emotion to those who understand the word. From here he moves from “what do words mean to animals”?

The detail in his discussion of dog training with words and visual cues may lead other scientists to suggest tweaks that may lead to even greater understanding of the emotional responses of animals. Enough work has been done now on a variety of mammals (and even crows!) to show emotions are a part of their brain activity and daily life. But what appeared to be almost a failure of dogs to recognize words led to a new insight:
“It may be that in a dog’s semantic space, actions and things are very close, which would explain why it was so difficult to teach the dogs the names of things. The semantic representation for ‘squirrel’ might be to ‘chase and kill,’ while ‘ball’ becomes ‘chase and retrieve.’…Human represent the world with nouns…it might require a shift in perspective—in this case, from a noun-based worldview to one based in action…In an action-based worldview, everything would be transactional.”
In one of the final chapters, called “A Death in Tasmania,” Berns tries something completely different. He writes of his experience traveling to Australia to view the habitat and scan the brain of an Tasmanian Tiger, a marsupial mammal species thought to be extinct. As an experience and as a piece of research, it is as different from his earlier work as studying the brains of placental mammals and marsupial mammals, two animals who evolved differently over millennia. Berns uses narrative nonfiction techniques to situate us visually, historically, physically in “one of the last great wildernesses on Earth…utterly unique and worthy of protection.”

The chapter on Tasmania really highlighted Berns’ special skills as a scientist—his ability to look beyond the lab to the wider meanings of neuroscience “for the rest of us,” as he emphasized in his final chapter on the “Dog Lab.” Working for so long on understanding the extent of animal cognition, consciousness, sentience, or self-awareness has led him to animal advocacy, if only for our own selfish reasons. “We, Homo sapiens, might soon be an animal in the eyes of our successors…” given our tinkering and experimentation with the human genome. One day unmodified humans may be considered undesirable, inferior.

Berns has skill in involving us, allowing us to follow his work. He would like to map the brains of the Earth’s megafauna with the best science and equipment available today.
“The WWF estimates that two-thirds of many species’ populations maybe gone by 2020. Apart from the ecological catastrophe, scientific opportunities may be lost forever. It is imperative that we begin the archival process for all species, and especially for megafauna…”
Is 2020 a misprint? I surely hope so.

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