Thursday, October 19, 2017

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Hardcover, 355 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Grove Press ISBN13: 9780802126450 Literary Awards: National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2017); Man Booker Prize Long List (2017)

This deeply impactful novel, contrary to what the title might suggest, is not merely beautifully written and proportioned; it is weighted with historical, cultural, philosophical, and political insights from an area of the world well hidden from the sight and understanding of the majority of Americans. The novel is so dense with authentic-seeming detail that it demands the kind of close attention few novels warrant.

In a L.A. Times interview, Charmaine Craig tells us this novel is based on her mother Louisa’s story. Craig could not have done a better job of memorializing her mother’s memory, and it was heartbreaking to hear her recount meeting the popular Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi a few years ago and being recognized as her mother’s child.

Craig spent nearly a decade writing this novel, using some of the time researching and reading declassified CIA documents to see how her mother’s first husband was murdered in the process of peace talks with the Burmese leadership, apparently with the help of some double-dealing by the CIA. Her mother, a one-time beauty queen, became a leader of Karen rebels in the mountainous eastern region of Burma. While at first Craig did not want the book to be political, it is clearly a political document, and extremely informative for that. It puts the political wrangling in Burma, particularly now in this time of Burma’s opening to the West and the Rohingya persecution, in historical and global perspective.

Books of such regional particularity are rare things in English; that Craig attempts to share with us the tumultuous experience of her parents and grandparents growing up in such a consequential time and in such a distant clime is a rare gift. What makes this spectacular novel well worthy of its place on the 2017 Man Booker Prize long list is not the accuracy of its history, but how Craig’s characters navigate and philosophize their roles in their own fictional histories. Deeply meaningful statements on the human condition are sprinkled throughout the book, observations and philosophies articulated by one or another character facing a great challenge.

The predominant religion of Burma is Buddhist, though many Karens are animist or Christian. Craig spent some time explaining the following phrase:
“It is better to be in a position of having to ask for charity than to be in the position of never having to ask.”
This sounds very close to a lesson I’d once heard from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who said that having less than one needed offered an opportunity for developing and expressing compassion. Craig explains that having to ask for something develops one’s spiritual muscle.

In another circumstance, Craig draws a lesson from a Jewish rabbi when one of her characters is appealing for advice:
“One of man’s injunctions is to strive to live joyously. In the face of these terrible wars abroad, when our very peace is threatened, we must find a way to rejoice in our circumstances. We must find a way to do more than endure.”
What a remarkable and completely freeing and true thing to say. At the end of the novel, several characters look upon their lives and recognize this necessity to strive…to find greatness in the midst of failure. The lessons are applied, and it is grace-giving and forgiving and loving, despite all.

Individuals engaged in a civil war lasting generations are concerned with the state of their souls:
"I’ve been trying to figure out all these years—in defending our rights with this revolution—is whether or not we have the right to kill…It seems clear enough that violence, murder even of the murderous, is a surrender of a kind. But do we have the right to stand by and watch people be made slaves…"
I love that Craig asks these big, earthshaking questions because the answers are the things that may save us. The questions show us we are worthy to be saved. We will all come across these questions in the course of a life and to have a story big enough, consequential enough, to introduce them without pedantry is a tremendous gift.

Craig mentioned in her interview that she worked as an actress for a time until the stereotyping in Hollywood became too much of an obstacle to great work. I can tell her from this side of the screen the failures of imagination by casting directors and producers are agonizingly apparent. But I wish I could encourage her to “be the change you seek” and to write for the screen if she can. I would tell her the country is hungry for diversity of color and experience and she is likely to be very successful, if that is where her heart lies.

I feel so grateful for this big dense book of history and imagination. Craig is enormously talented and I wish her every success. The book is also available in audio, read by the author, produced by Blackstone Audio. The author has a disconcertingly American voice when one might expect something accented, even British. However, were Craig to publish the book she says in the interview that she wrote first--the one about her mother and herself growing up--that American accent would make all kinds of sense. Sounds like a good sequel, doesn't it?

However one consumes this book, I highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Hardcover, 457 pages, Pub June 13th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company ISBN13: 9780316270755 Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

I'd never read Sherman Alexie's first great breakout book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I'm not sure why. I was interested; perhaps I was saving it. Instead I chose to read at this time his new memoir which could also be read as a eulogy for his mother.

His upbringing sounds like it was a rough time all round. His parents were alcoholics. Sherman didn't come out unscathed, but he has been reaching out--he is fearless in revealing himself and his family. Perhaps he has found this makes him more likable, relatable.

The end papers of this hardcover memoir are printed with a quilt pattern. Alexie tells us his mother quilted all the time, even through the night. He himself has at least ten quilts of hers and he uses all of them. But when his mother died, he wanted to collect all the quilts she'd left behind and burn them all. I didn't get the impression he did so. For whatever reason.

Lillian, that was her name. Lillian was one of the last speakers of his ancestor's native language. In a chapter entitled "Eulogy," Alexie repeats the phrase My mother was a dictionary over and over, every couple lines, but she never taught me the tribal language. The poem ends,
She always said to me, 'English will be your best weapon.'
She was right, she was right, she was right.
Perhaps my favorite poem is one of his shortest, called "Communion" in which sentiment pairs with form:
we worship
the salmon

because we
eat salmon
The chapter entitled "Missionary Position" will stay with me a very long time. While in high school, one of Alexie's friends said something deeply racist in his company, having momentarily forgotten he was Indian. He ended up dating her for a few years, and once gave her a pawnshop ring that was worth $20. When they broke up, she gave the ring back. He sold it back to the pawnshop for $10.

In the beginning of the book, in a chapter called "Scatalogical," Alexie explains there is something called a grief poop. After everyone had left the funeral home, two days after the death of his mother, Alexie stayed behind to use the restroom. A sign hung on the wall behind the toilet: Please be gentle with our toilet. The pipes are old. Be judicious in your use of toilet paper. He tells us "I took the largest shit of my life. I expelled everything." He ended up breaking up the poop into pieces and had to hold the pieces in his hand so he could flush them in four tries. "Thing was as big as a walrus." I'd never known about grief poops, but it makes sense.

Alexie's work has become indispensable for the well-read American. One cannot claim any credibility as a reader without having dipped a foot into his world and walked awhile in his boots. Reading Alexie is a kind of responsibility.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Hardcover, 784 pages, Pub Jan 12th 2016 by Princeton Univ Press ISBN13: 9780691147727, Language: English, Series: Princeton Economic History of the Western World, Awards: Cundill Prize in Historical Literature Nominee (2016)

The most remarkable thing about this look at economic development in the United States since 1870 are two things: the size of the book, and the fact that it is readable. While size and subject are intimidating, the writing style is friendly and accessible, even to non-economists, and one comes to see the advantages of having all this information in one book rather than in several. Published in 2016 by Princeton University Press, this work must be a source of pride among those who worked on it. It is has real weight.

Since I concentrated my efforts on conclusions rather than proofs, I only skimmed this Hummer-of-a-tome, but I found that each chapter had something useful, surprising, and remarkable about it. What Gordon is saying can have startling implications for how we look at the next forty years economically-speaking. His forecasts will matter to how we construct public policy, e.g., growth will continue to decline, wealth inequalities will continue to increase. Even if he is only showing us the outcomes of what we have wrought, intentionally or not, he helps us to envision what comes next.

As his title foretells, Gordon tries to explain the extraordinary rise in productivity from 1928-1950 and its decline from the 1950-2014 by saying that big innovations along with education and WWII spurred a growth we haven’t seen since, and that even the technological revolution in the early 1990s did not produce as large a change in productivity as earlier innovations like railroads, cars, immigration, financial instruments, women in the marketplace, etc.

What I like about Gordon’s writing is that he proposes we use basic economic theory to explain certain observable phenomenon, like the upsurge in labor productivity in the 1920-1950 interval.
"In a competitive market, the marginal product of labor equals the real wage, and economists have shown that labor’s marginal product under specified conditions is the share of labor in total incomes times output per hour. If the income share of labor remains constant, then the growth rate of the real wage should be equal to that of labor's average product, the same thing as labor productivity. Could an increase in real wages have caused, directly or indirectly, the upsurge in labor productivity that occurred between the 1920s and 1950s?"
We should really be looking at the need to increase real wages now, to solve issues of productivity and growth, taxes and national income, income inequalities and budget deficits. I believe even Republican small-government adherents will be shocked at what increased wages will unleash in the cash-starved labor economy. A corporation's profitability will be affected, but there is plenty of fat in the wage system that can be cut. We can’t force corporations to flatten their pay scales to increase payments at the lower end of wage scale and decrease payments at the top, but we can, and have, used tax policy and other inducements to curb the worst tendencies.

Gordon explanation for the American Great Leap Forward in economic terms was the Great Depression and World War II. The New Deal was the result of the Great Depression, raising real wages and a shrinkage in weekly work hours. Substitution from labor to capital as a result of real wage increase is evident in the data on private equipment investment. Additionally, the reorganization of business after the drop in profits and output increased efficiencies not realized to that time. The effects of a war economy on top of these changes is clear.

What really struck me about Gordon’s charts and graphs is how closely productivity and growth aligned with the entry of women into the marketplace in significant numbers, and how, when they retreated to fuel the baby boom, growth subsided. Know it is only a factor, but just sayin’…maybe we should let women run the country and the economy for awhile 👧🏽 and see what happens. There is no question there would be changes in how we do business.

Ultimately Gordon is not prescriptive except to say that we should be putting much more money into preschool education than we are currently doing, given its proven benefits. We could also basically ‘brain drain’ the rest of the world through immigration policy, if we wanted. That idea makes me uncomfortable, but so does the irrational immigration policy we have been pursuing for the past two administrations. The immigration policies of the current administration do not bear discussion.

Paul Krugman reviews Robert Gordon.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, Edited by Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman

Paperback, 448 pages, Pub May 30th 2017 by Harper Perennial ISBN13: 9780062431783

These collected essays about the writers’ separate experiences in the occupied territories of Israel/Palestine have a kind of cumulative bludgeoning effect. The reader passes through stages of rage and resistance to the kind of stupefaction one encounters in a bombing war. Why on earth would anyone do such things? They’ve been led to it slowly, gradually, until the ‘enemy’ is ‘other’ and normal human rights rules do not apply.

In a very short introduction, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman admit they’d not paid attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years because it was such a dispiriting subject. But in 2014 Waldman attended a conference organized by Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit organization composed of former Israeli soldiers who had worked in the occupied territories and who opposed Israel policies there as a result.

When Waldman related to Chabon what she had learned and seen during and after the conference in 2014,
“…we both began to realize that storytelling itself—bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered—has the power to engage the attention of people who, like us, have long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up.”
The stories are absorbing and diverse and really give us an idea what life has been like, and is like now, for Palestinians. An international cast of writers, Geraldine Brooks, Colm Tóibín, Madeleine Thien, Dave Eggers, Anita Desai, among many others, have each looked, thought, and written their experience. It is exhilarating, infuriating, surprising, and meaningful. We learn new things. We see what they have seen. Injustices are recognized, spoken, acknowledged. And the writing, well, it is everything we anticipated.

Reading this book all at once puts pressure on one’s peace of mind. Read it in pieces if you like, one or two by authors you admire, or by authors you’d never heard of. Just read a couple to get a sense of the crisis again, to see how it has evolved. Just bear witness a little while. This is something happening right now, as we sit down to a plentiful dinner in a comfortable chair. Just a moment to recognize that this is something we can actually do something about. This isn’t a natural disaster. It is policy grown gnarly and twisted over years.

Mario Vargas Llosa has an essay in the collection and his view is long, and wide. “…I feel that the ever more colonialist bias of recent governments—I am referring to the governments of Sharon and Netanyahu—may be terribly prejudicial to Israeli democracy and the future of their country.” He, like most of us in the U.S., love Israelis for being irrepressible, but we do not love what they have done in this case. They are losing their national identity, not enhancing it.

My two three favorite essays in the bunch are written by Michael Chabon, Rachel Kushner, and Helon Habila. In “Giant in a Cage,” Chabon visits with a Palestinian businessman who set up some mini-malls anchored by a grocery store in Ramallah. There is something Chabon did that made me feel like I was sitting in that car that was forced to go the long way around an arbitrary checkpoint: he left the uncomfortable silences in his story. His host stopped speaking for a time after encountering the soldiers manning the checkpoint.
“The soldier roused himself from his torpor long enough to shrug one shoulder elaborately and give Sam Bahour a look in which were mingled contempt, incredulity, and suspicion about the state of San’s sanity. It appeared to have been the stupidest, most pointless, least answerable question anyone had ever asked the soldier…[he] had no idea why he had been ordered to come stand with his gun and his somnolent young comrade at this particular fork in the road on this particular afternoon, and if he did, the last person with whom he would have shared this explanation was Sam…”
Encountering the young soldiers completely derailed Sam Bahour and Chabon’s plans, apparently so common an occurrence that another incident of it just added to the indignities and humiliations suffered daily by Palestinians, even Palestinians who have gained some stature in the community. But look also what the circumstance has done to the Israeli soldiers. They are stupid with boredom at their post, and have learned to treat Palestinians as lesser beings. They are likewise suppressing their natural human dignity and are trashing the social contract humans have with one another. This isn't war, remember, or so they've told us.

Occasionally when reading these pieces, one gets a glimpse of what the policies surrounding the illegal occupation are doing to the children, our future. Rachel Kushner’s story, “Mr. Nice Guy,” centered on her visit to the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem. Her description of the high-rise buildings there evoke an involuntary embarrassed laugh, they sound so…unsound. The young boy following her around as she looks up at the structure says, “This building is stupidly built. It’s junk.” He and his family live there. See what I mean about infuriating?

And Habila's "The Separation Wall" gives us a honest man's incredulity. Just read it.

Each story gives a different aspect of living in the occupied territories that you’d never thought of. Read one or two three just to get a sense. A brief Interview with the editors Chabon and Waldman gives a sense of what they intended by writing this book.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki, translated by Erico Sugita

Hardcover, 288 pages, Pub April 11th 2017 by W. W. Norton Company (first pub June 12th 2015) Orig Title ぼくたちに、もうモノは必要ない。 断捨離からミニマリストへ ISBN13: 9780393609035

Sasaki’s photographs in the beginning of this book jolt one awake to what he means by minimalism. Some people are so radical that it makes the rest of us look like hoarders. But by the end of this very simply-written and superbly-argued short book, most of the arguments we have for cluttering our space and complicating our lives are defeated.

One must recognize at some point that whatever dreams are mixed up in purchases we have made, the potential of the ideas quickly fade when not acted on immediately, as in when the objects are “saved” for something we vaguely anticipate in the future. In the minimalist outlook, objects should do some kind of worthwhile duty, even if that duty is to make us happy, or please our senses.

When objects become a burden, or chastise us by their silent immobility, collecting dust, literally taking up the space we need to breathe, we can give them away, throw them out, auction them off, or otherwise get them out of our lives so that some potential can grow back into our ideas. That means even books we bought with the intention to read but which make us sad every time we look at them.

But don’t take my word for it. Sasaki really does have an answer for every possible objection you may have. For instance, #37. Discarding memorabilia is not the same as discarding memories. Sasaki quotes Tatsuya Nakazaki: “Even if we were to throw away photos and records that are filled with memorable moments, the past continues to exist in our memories…All the important memories that we have inside us will naturally remain.” I am not convinced this is so at every stage of life, but think there is a natural life to what we need in terms of archival items. If your children don’t want it, you don’t need to keep all of it. Keep the ones that matter only.

Note that Sasaki recommends scanning documents like old letters that are important to you because you can’t go out and buy another if you find you were too radical in your culling. However, even the archival record becomes a burden when it becomes too large unless well-marked with dates, etc. He admits that letting go of those stored memories is a further step in true minimalist living.

The freedom one experiences when one owns fewer things is undeniable. Sasaki expresses the joy the experiences when he visits a hotel or a friend who uses big bath towels. He’d limited himself to a microfiber quick-drying hand towel for all his household needs, and enjoyed the lack of big loads of washing at home and using big thick towels while he was out: a twofer of happiness.

We are encouraged to find our own minimalism. Everyone has their own limits and definition. The author explains that #15. Minimalism is a method and a beginning. The concept is like a prologue and the act of minimizing is a story that each practitioner needs to create individually. We definitely don’t need all we have, and the things we own aren’t who we are. We are still us, underneath all the stuff. Some people will find this reassuring; others may find it disconcerting.

At the end of this small book, Sasaki reminds us the clarity that comes with minimalism. Concentration is easier. Waste is minimized. Social relationships are enhanced. You don’t need forty seconds in a disaster to decide what to take. You live in the now.

The translation of this book is fantastic, by Eriko Sugita. It does not read like a translation, but as an intimate sharing by someone who has been through the hard work of paring down one’s possessions so that his own personality shines through. It is a kind of gift. Even if one doesn’t throw a thing away (I heartily doubt that will be the case) after (or during) the reading of this book, the notions are seeds. Gratitude grows in the absence of things.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Hardcover, 288 pages, Pub February 21st 2017 by Viking (first published August 18th 2016) Orig Title: The Schooldays of Jesus ISBN13: 9780735222663 Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2016)

Coetzee’s quiet skill shows us how an old bible story parallels events that happen today in every country—the dislocation of migration for instance—making us scour the landscape for examples of God working through us. By telling the old story in a new way, we think anew about Christian values—charity, kindness, and love for instance—and what they really mean in practice.

The city Estrella to which Davíd, Inés and Simón escape sounds remarkably like Australia when spoken. Davíd attends a school without regular classes, called the Dance Academy, which teaches numbers through dance by calling the numerals down from the stars. His teacher, Ana Magdalena, is a beautiful woman. After she is horribly attacked by a man who claims to love her, Davíd discovers her body.

The cast of characters is more transparent than the earlier book, though were I to go back to that earlier piece now, having read this one, I’m sure I would find more in it that fits into the myth. What we find ourselves contemplating is the lack of stability in the world, and our need for the society of others. We learn the difference between passion and love between people (passion is selfish while love is unselfish), but also the perhaps contradictory need for passion when choosing a field of study.

We learn that there is evil, that sometimes people do evil things. There is something…something along the lines of “pay attention” that makes the point that we must not be careless with our actions, but should have reasons for what we do. Until the heart of a bear can be put into a human being, Simón tells Davíd, people will have to take responsibility for their actions. “I don’t know why” is no kind of an excuse for bad behavior. We’ll find out in the next installment what happens to those who knowingly do things that will harm others.

Coetzee is such a master. His descriptions of children’s speech and actions are so perceptive—like the dog Bolívar’s swagger—that we trust his descriptions of the sisters on the farm, and Señor Arroyo’s sister Mercedes, who finally teaches Simón to dance, to remember, and maybe to get his passion back.

I like everything about this series. Coetzee gives it to us in installments rather than trying to make one big book of it. As a result, the stories are slim things, which allows us to read with attention. After all, the underlying story is going to be familiar to most of the world. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim believers have all learned the life of Jesus.

The book is available in audio, produced by HighBridge and read by James Cameron Stewart. It is listening to Stewart’s very British accent that I discovered that Estrella sounds so much like Australia. We know Simón and family learned Spanish when they left Novilla, but I'm going to guess the accent you have in your head for this family is not British. No matter. Stewart does a magnificent job. Read or listen, this layered novel is a real treat.

I’d been pronouncing Coetzee’s name wrong for years, so I copy the wiki for you: John Maxwell "J. M." Coetzee ([kutˈseː], kuut-SEE. It occurred to me that I would not be afraid to meet Coetzee, though I am rather timid when I consider meeting other authors I admire. Somehow I imagine he would be kind, and neither he nor I would need to perform.

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Leona - The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby

Paperback, 464 pages, Pub August 1st 2017 by Other Press (NY) (first published January 1st 2014) Orig Title: Leona Tärningen är kastad ISBN13: 9781590518823

This debut fiction has so many divergences from a standard police procedural that we are held in thrall to the last page, not believing our eyes. During the process of investigating a series of bank robberies, Investigator Leona Lindberg reveals certain unsavory truths about her police department and the people in it. Someone abused as a child apparently turned around as an adult and inflicted the same kind of suffering on another child. For money.

In fact, there is so much going on that is different in this novel that it begs to be discussed in a book group. One of the first things that captured my attention is that the author is a woman of color, born in Ethiopia, adopted and schooled in Sweden. She became a criminal investigator in Stockholm after graduation from Stockholm University, gleaning enough information to create the character Leona Lindberg and the circumstances under which Leona does her job.

It is not clear that Leona is a woman of color. It is never mentioned in this first novel. Leona is desirable—several men on the workforce make plays for her attention at different points—and her hair is described as “brown, curly and fluffy.” When I realized that Rogneby wrote this novel without pointing to race, I realized how unusual that would be in America.

The writer Chris Abani, born in Nigeria and now an American citizen, says America has a unique relationship with race: “Slavery in America is not really over.” Blacks from countries with black majorities naturally think of themselves differently than do black Americans. Jenny Rogneby, though growing up in a white majority country like Sweden, is also different than American blacks, who probably wouldn’t consider writing a book where race is not mentioned simply because it is so much a part of their daily calculations. Even now I am here having a big discussion about race when it is not even mentioned in this book. What does this say about us? What does it say about Jenny Rogneby?

Of course, Leona has more important things to worry about than skin color. She registers on the autism spectrum, and has a son with Crohn’s disease who requires expensive repeat surgeries to fix a long-term life-or-death ailment. Her daughter is of an age to require parental oversight, and her husband gets insufficient attention. Leona herself stays up many nights to gamble online. Meanwhile, she is heading up one of the most perplexing series of robberies in modern Swedish crime history. It’s a lot to juggle.

The novel itself at several points strains credulity. But Rogneby manages to pull us back from the brink, partly because she is coming at this from such a strange angle that we are dying to see how she is going to manage it. Knowing what we do about large bureaucracies where everyone is very busy, we sometimes can buy her explanations for how things are overlooked. If we remember we have information that the police department in general does not, in contrast to most novels of this sort, we could be convinced.

It is worth hanging on to the end because Rogneby manages to pull off something so devilishly clever and so disturbingly depraved that we really feel as though the term “crime novel” has just been invented.

The multi-talented Jenny Rogneby worked as a pop singer in Sweden before going to university for criminology and working for some years with Stockholm City Police Department. In that authors reveal a great deal about themselves in what they write, I will admit I looked for clues to Rogneby’s experiences in her work. According to her website, Rogneby
“took a year's leave from work, sold her apartment and all her furniture in Stockholm, moved abroad and wrote LEONA - The Die is Cast. She submitted her manuscript to Swedish publishers and 10 publishing houses were interested in publishing her debut. Now the book series is sold to 13 countries and the film rights are sold to Hollywood.”
You must admit, her life as been interesting so far. Might as well see where it goes from here.

A short interview is attached below:

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists & Writers by Janet Malcolm

Hardcover, 320 pages, Pub May 7th 2013 by FSG ISBN13: 9780374157692 Literary Awards: PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay Nominee for Shortlist (2014), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Criticism (2013)

Now this is a different kettle of fish. I just wrote a non-review for Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings in which I said I didn’t understand a word of her dense essays, all psychoanalysis and people I’d never heard of. This collection of Malcolm’s work, by contrast, has some kind of entrée. For one thing, she writes about famously reclusive artists like Salinger (“Salinger’s Cigarettes”) and Arbus (“Good Pictures”), and although she may go on a bit long (IMHO), her unique point of view and piercing intelligence makes us see something anew.

Even the Introduction by fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier has insights that tweak our imaginations: when discussing her interview and subsequent piece about Thomas Struth [photographer of the Queen], Frazier tells us Ms. Malcolm stood by her decision to include a minor exchange which made Struth look slightly ridiculous and seemed unfair because “at the level of fabulousness where Struth operates there’s a risk of everything becoming so wonderful and nice that meaninglessness sets in.”

This, perhaps, is where I did not give her enough credit in her earlier book. There is something to be said for people who can operate at the level of “the best we have” and retain their balance. Perhaps psychoanalysis is an absolute prerequisite at that level. When I proclaimed archly that her then-audience “aren’t educated that way anymore,” I meant “the best we have” now have to run the gantlet of not-particularly-well-educated public opinion rather than the considered opinion of an educated few. In the end, perhaps “the best we have” is now judged by different criterion, overlapping only partially with that category circa 1990 and earlier.

That having been said, were one conversant with some of the figures she speaks of, this would be a delicious, gossipy, and yes, insightful read. “Girl of the Zeitgeist” outlines Rosalind Krauss, formerly (at the time this piece came out in 1986) of the Artforum board.
“Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use for decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room…No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked…Similarly, Rosalind Krauss’s personality—she is quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable—makes one’s own ‘niceness’ seem somehow dreary and anachronistic.”
It is possible to endlessly quote Janet Malcolm’s incisive views of her subjects. So, yes, okay, I get Janet Malcolm’s special skill. At her peak production, it must have been something…to know her and/or to enjoy her pieces.

But I think the world has changed now. No point in being sad about that. And Helen Garner has nothing to be embarrassed about in her own writing. She is as clear as fast-flowing ice melt, and is bridging this changing world.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Lightning Men (Darktown #2) by Thomas Mullen

Hardcover, 384 pages Pub Sept 12th 2017 by Atria/37 INK ISBN13: 9781501138799 Series Darktown #2

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown series, about the first black policemen in Atlanta’s police force, is about race but it is also about the institution of policing. We are seeing how corruption and discrimination can take hold, and we ask ourselves what is the best way to combat the ever-widening spiral of deceit. We interrogate our own moral grounding and question whether we would be able to withstand the social and economic pressure put to bear to get us to go along on controversial arrests or worse.

It is that evaluative distance and internal interrogation that Mullen creates in us that may be the most remarkable thing about his books. We are thinking critically and watching the narrative unfold from a protective distance even though his stories are gripping—after all, this is life and death in neighborhoods just like ours—and we really never know where he is going to steer us next. But these novels aren’t really mysteries, and they aren’t police procedurals in the typical sense. Do we need a new genre category for the historical and sociological recreation he manages?

Mullen places us in the moment by citing newspaper headlines mentioning what is happening in the country and around the world in 1950:
“Late morning the house is quiet with Cassie and the kids out at a park. Rake read the paper and enjoyed the solitude. An American minesweeper had become the first U.S. ship sunk in the Korean conflict; Joe McCarthy was insisting on a more thorough investigation into the Communist infiltration of the top echelons in the American government; and officials announced that the mysterious explosions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, initially feared to be a Red attack, had in fact been caused by a gas leak…”
These headlines do more than situate us in 1950, they also remind us that prejudice and crazy theories about racial or political superiority have been around before and have passed, though not without a fight. One of the very next scenes is a meeting between a cop seeking information on an old case and an FBI agent who’d been involved at the time. The FBI man suggests they meet in a coffee shop to discuss the matter, and the moment Lucien Boggs, a black policeman, begins to walk into the coffee shop attached to a department store, we wonder…Mullen doesn’t let us down. He shows us the disdain and harsh attitude of the woman behind the counter, and the surprise and shutting down of the FBI agent who told Boggs to wait outside until he finished his coffee.

Earlier, a white cop came across a flyer posted to a stop sign in a suburb of Atlanta: “Zoned as a White Community” and emblazoned with a lightning bolt, “just like the ones sewn onto the sleeves of SS troopers he’d seen in Europe.” Mullen takes time to discuss the group he calls the Columbians, a group distinct from the KKK, indeed disdainful of it. This group supported Nazi ideas including the concept of a master race, and apparently believed America fought the Nazis in World War II only because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, making ‘sides’ more clearly defined. Otherwise, America had been more concerned about the red menace from the Soviets.

The rivalry between the Columbians and the KKK, who are derided by practically everyone for the bedsheets disguise, is central to this story and instructive in that it clarifies motives and actors in the messy phenomenon that is racism today. Mullen also spends some time answering the notion that blacks bring misfortune upon themselves. He opens the story with the release of Jeremiah Tanner from prison. Tanner had paid his debt, and readers are inclined to be sympathetic. Throughout the story, our impressions of Jeremiah will change several times, from believing him the most evil of all to believing him the most generous of all. This is Mullen’s skill.

The black lives in this latest novel are so much more difficult and complicated than we imagine at first. Their choices all appear to be bad ones. No surprise, then, that they find themselves in the middle of illegal or compromising situations again and again, and yet when we hear their explanations, they sound rational, making choices we might make in the same place. When you have bad choices, your decisions may look poor also.

The white men’s lives are less appealing altogether. There are a couple of white policemen wrestling with the morality of discrimination and the exclusion of black folk, but most make no effort to push back against the few bad apples that extract fealty or promise retribution within the force. They would revolt against the bad guys on the force, we sense, but they aren’t impacted enough. They need stronger incentives to do right. They aren’t heroes after all, just working men.

Mullen also manages to pack in an excellent example and discussion of the lack of reasonable housing in Atlanta at the time for blacks who did not want to live in substandard apartments in dangerous neighborhoods. The real estate industry wouldn’t certify black realtors so called them “realtists,” a word I found laughably close to “realists.” The phenomenon of “white flight” from neighborhoods into which black residents have moved is discussed in some detail.

When Mullen’s first book in this series, Darktown, came out last year, I asked him how he could write the black man's point of view. His answer shows his authorship of these characters:
“As far as the black point of view in the book, roughly half of the book is from black characters' perspective and about half is from white characters' perspective. But what's important here is that each character has his or her own, unique perspective--no character should be a mere stand-in for their race, or gender, or religion, or anything. I always want my characters to feel as 3-D and authentic and real as possible, in my other books and in DARKTOWN.”
But are his characters authentic? Authentic enough for the series to be acquired prior to publication by Jamie Foxx for TV production. Let’s just say the outline of the characters are there, and our imaginations (or actors) fill in the missing bits that make the piece real. So this is interactive fiction, in a sense. It needs our imagination, experience, and constant attention to understand what precisely is happening here, and to whom. This is an impressive series.

NPR's Scott Simon interviews Thomas Mullen about Lightning Men:

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Paperback, 272 pages Pub March 29th 2016 by Text Publishing Company ISBN13: 9781925355369

There is something old fashioned about Helen Garner’s essays. We are therefore surprised to see a reference to Amy Winehouse makeup, Obama, or the brutality of Russell Crowe films. It could be her work seems old fashioned because it is so exquisitely shaped: who would have picked out that particular incident or phrase out of all the incidents and phrases one experiences in a lifetime and held it up, gemlike, for us to admire? This restraint, clarity, exactitude is so rare in a world where everyone writes for a world audience every day.

Helen Garner may be a household name in her native Australia. I’d never heard of her until I came across a reference to her on Goodreads recently. She is an Australian novelist, essayist, journalist…let’s call her master wordsmith. Her essays jump into your life with two feet and settle in forever, never to be forgotten. Her voice is woman writ large. I adore her sense of entitlement to her own opinions, now she is in her seventies. If only Australia didn't keep its best to itself.

This collection of essays was published last year by Text Publishing of Melbourne, Australia. I wonder how that works nowadays, that a book published in Australia is sold in the United States. In any case, I am very grateful it is possible to have read these brave, crazy, funny, deeply interesting and beautifully written pieces on growing up in fifties and sixties Australia, writing for a living, marrying badly, being a grandmother to a boy who can calm down and relax when he can slip into his cowboy outfit after the stress of a vacation away.

These essays were all written in the last twenty years or so, but some look back: “In the late 1970’s I lived in Paris for awhile…” and “When I was in my forties I went on holiday to Vanuatu…” It is certain that we get the best of all possible worlds because these stories are the ones that float to the surface after a lifetime of writing, and because of that lifetime of writing the words are crafted with economy for clarity and meaning. Each idea is distilled so dramatically that we are mainlining experience—a short sharp shock of memory and what it meant in the context of a life.

Her curiosity inflames us. Garner has harbored a fascination with crime, not with psychopaths, but with ordinary folk under extraordinary pressure. Her essays and stories can be dark, but she is so intimate with her thinking, we get distracted into self-examination. She captures something that we, had we been careful, thoughtful, and honest, might recognize as the lesser side of being human: a kind of despair, confusion, uncertainty, and a search for quiet, clarity, stability, and love. She looks at our crisis moments and wonders, what caused this?

Garner looks for telling moments in her own life, and listens to what those moments tell her about herself, which she then conveys to us, making us laugh, sign, commiserate. She is tough on herself, and sometimes on others: one of her early essays tells of her long friendship with the Australian author Tim Winton. The younger man got more attention with his writing than she did, so she could sometimes rough him up a little for payback.

And Garner herself admits to being “scorched” by the journalist Janet Malcolm who apparently reviewed The First Stone: Some Questions of Sex and Power in The New Yorker (I can’t find that review, alas!). Malcolm was always Garner’s role model, the one “who has influenced and taught me more than any other.” Garner tells us of Malcolm’s phrase, “the rapture of firsthand encounters with another’s lived experience,” which describes perfectly what I feel when I read Garner’s essays.

New Yorker staff writer James Wood reviewed this collection of essays last year. If I had seen it then, I would have known of Garner a year earlier. Somehow that seems important. This collection I would love to have on my shelf to dip into again and again to see how she did that sense of immediacy and intimacy and personality.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by Laurie Penny

Hardcover, 288 pages Pub August 1st 2017 by Bloomsbury USA ISBN13: 9781632867537

British journalist and opinion writer Laurie Penny is eminently quotable. She has enormous facility with a phrase, but also goes for big ideas. She is therefore doubly dangerous. If words are power, watch out for this keg of dynamite. It is only difficult to see where her experience and confidence comes from. She is thirty years old but sounds like a scarred and ancient sage in some kind of time warp.

This book is a collection of essays reworked as themed chapters in a discussion of gender, economic, and social equality. Both she and I are amazed we are back at this place, talking about gender discrimination in the workplace.
“Women make up over 50 per cent of graduates, and tend to match or outperform men in any test where intellect and aptitude are the only measures of success—school examinations, for example. But whenever large numbers of men are involved in the hiring or selection process, women fall behind.”
I actually have no idea whether this is objective fact, especially in math and the sciences, but close enough. You get the point. It would be laughable, and used to be, behind closed doors, or behind hands if men were present. But now we don’t feel like laughing anymore and are tired of this argument about “objective merit.” I like Penny’s phrase, “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice.” Welcome to the melting pot, white men.

Penny is hilarious on 'The Tragedy of James Bond:'
“The experience was like having your forebrain slowly and laboriously beaten to death by a wilting erection wrapped in a copy of the Patriot Act: savage and silly and just a little bit pathetic.”
But before you roar your displeasure over her attack, she freely admits watching the films are a guilty pleasure. And she adores Daniel Craig, “who appears to be about as unsexist as anyone who has worked in Hollywood for twenty years can be.”

She talks of how Lena Dunham in “Girls” never was and never could be the voice for all women, and how men’s experiences and performances are not expected to speak for all men. She speaks of trigger warnings, which even friends of mine have decried as excessive:
“Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalized people, to be spoken frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.”
I could quote this woman all day long. She writes extremely cogently, answering ideas that have been floating about your head and your world and have never been adequately articulated. Even if you don’t agree, her point of view has an inexorable logic that in her snarky tone has a bell-like clarity.

Penny had her struggles with gender identity, and comes out on the side of a spectrum of sexuality: “I consider ‘woman’ to be a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth….Gender is something I perform.” She’s way ahead of me here. I have not faced her struggles and had not considered her dilemmas, but I have heard of them now and I must consider that for a certain portion of the human race, gender is not as clear cut as it seems.

She speaks of violence, and the rape culture, and the Liberal Limit—the exhaustion of liberals with the speed and constant drumbeat of change. A ten-point 5-page discussion of Free Speech—what it is and what it isn’t—doesn’t really address hate speech. If she considers it at all it is under point 5: “Freedom of speech does not mean that all views are of equal worth.” This almost casual dismissal of one of the hardest things to reconcile about when free speech works for all of us and when it doesn’t weakens her argument and makes her seem the young upstart she appears to be, rather than the old soul she will become. Not completely finished cooking yet, then. We have more to look forward to.

Laurie Penny is a very impressive writer and likable. When she added an Introduction published after the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, she speaks of her impressions:
“..the lacquered, lying sack of personality disorders...made no attempt to hide his vision of the entire damn world as the next acquisition in his dodgy property portfolio.”
We need this woman. She amuses us, commiserates with us, and leads us. Her work is on a level of language virtuosity with Matt Taibbi, much-vaunted American political journalist whose snark reaches the level of art.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea by Melissa Fleming

Hardcover, 288 pages Pub January 24th 2017 by Flatiron Books Orig Title A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee's Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival ISBN13: 9781250105998

Doaa Al Zamel’s story of her rescue with two small children in her care after a ship rammed her boat filled with migrants fleeing Egypt fills us with horror and disbelief. Of a boat holding 500 people, eleven survived.

Even before the cruelty of rival smugglers (I only assume that’s who they were), Doaa’s life was filled with harsh treatment and a constant threat of kidnapping or physical abuse at the hands of strangers. Forced to leave Syria as a seventeen-year-old when government forces started targeting rebellious youth in her hometown of Daraa and outright killing townspeople and dumping their bodies, Doaa was sympathetic to the rebellion. The rebellion, however, was diffuse and never allowed to develop widely before government forces came down hard.

The Al Zamel family fled through Jordan to Egypt, where they were welcomed at first by the the local populace and by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were distributing food and blankets under the protection of the Morsi government. This Egypt piece of Doaa’s journey I didn’t want to skim over: I had so many questions about why young men were constantly asking for the girls hands in marriage, unless this was meant as a jibe, a joke, or a kind of harassment. Did Egyptians perceive Syrians as wealthier, more educated, or more sophisticated? If so, why? Why did I get the impression that Doaa looked down on the Egyptian locals? Was it just a cultural distance?

When a another young Syrian expatriate, Bessem, decided upon seeing Doaa that he wanted to marry her, I started feeling that distance one does when viewing another country’s cultural norms. This is so far from acceptable in the United States, despite Bessem’s friendliness and gift-giving to the family, that I was uncomfortable with the inevitability of it all. I understand the family was under duress. That is really the only condition under which such a decision to marry that man could be acceptable. Sure enough, shortly after agitating constantly and finally getting his way, Bessem, then insisted the two of them depart Egypt for either Syria or Europe.

Doaa was emotionally coerced into accepting the decision to move, and I resent this, even from my distance of several years and many miles. That she later recalled this man as the great love of her life shows us how circumstances change perceptions. I resent that change in her emotional landscape, and can’t help but see it as a kind of dishonesty. However, placed next to all the other things in her experience, a kind of fake love is surely least awful. She had a horrific experience getting to Europe, and deserves all the support she can get. Or handle, really. When many countries combine their attention, it can be another kind of overwhelming horror.

Doaa’s story reminds us how fragile is our careful calm construction of a life, and how easily it can be disrupted through no fault of our own. I recognize Doaa’s insistence that her destination be Sweden, despite Greece offering her a stipend and citizenship. Sweden was the original goal, and the confusion she, all alone, must have felt when all her constraints suddenly fell away must have been monumental. Now that she has many choices, instead of one uncertain one, which should she choose? Fleming’s retelling of Doaa’s options allows us to feel those uncertainties along with her.

During all Doaa went through, she must have asked herself repeatedly if in fact she and Bessem really had “no choice” but to attempt a migrant illegal crossing. As sorry as I am for what their situation was in Egypt, I would have to conclude that in fact, it was their hope for a better, more prosperous existence with more opportunity that led them to attempt the crossing, not once but three times.

They had a choice. After all, their parents and family stayed in Egypt. I understand conditions were bad in Egypt. I understand they had limited understanding of what went on outside their circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. But I am not sure they have the right to attempt to move to another country just because they want what that country offers its citizens.

What reasonable people must ask themselves is how they can help communities torn apart by war or natural disaster. This kind of migration is humanity’s problem. It doesn’t have to be as deadly as it is at the moment. There may be solutions that address the root issues and do not require the kind of dangerous, deadly journey that Doaa passed through. In some ways her story tells of a kind of grim lottery. If one makes it through the gantlet of death, all kinds of benefits are bestowed upon one.

That viewpoint, however, doesn’t take into account Doaa’s personal bravery to engage the world in this critical conversation about the best way to pursue one’s dreams. I’m quite sure she would rather have not gone through that horror, but sometimes we have…no choice.

Doaa's story was translated twice, from Arabic to Greek and from Greek to English, before it became this book. This fact lends a little distance to the narrative that one must overcome to get at the real experience of this woman and millions like her. The really difficult task of organizing the material fell to Melissa Fleming, and of asking questions that readers like us wanted to know.

I was especially grateful for her including things someone speaking of their own experience may not have included, e.g., what was the composition of the migrants on the boat, their ages and country of origin, who were the ones who rammed the boat (we never learned who they were, but their manner and words were included), the manner the ship went down, and all her time in Egypt, information which was supplemented by interviews with Doaa's mother and sisters. Doaa probably couldn't have done that on her own so soon after her ordeal.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Paperback, 128 pgs Pub March 28th 2017 by Tim Duggan Books Orig TitleOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century ISBN13: 9780804190114

Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, has written a pamphlet reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense written in 1776, at America’s beginning. Snyder’s pamphlet contains twenty admonitions for us to consider as we pay attention to the political environment we see right now in the United States. The first sentence of Snyder’s Prologue brings us right back to our founding fathers, the Constitution, and the democratic republic they envisioned.

It’s a small book, the quarter-page size running slightly more than one hundred pages. A word about the publisher, Tim Duggan Books of Crown Publishing: Duggan's list is fascinating and diverse, and heavily international. This is the kind of work I crave, and gravitate towards. In any case, the relative brevity of this particular book may leave a few notions unclear that Snyder fully intended to illuminate for us. We need to be careful in reading, combing it over until our questions are clarified, calling them out and talking with others about them if not.

There is no reason for me to deny I agree with Snyder’s take on the present administration and the henchmen that carry out the damaging policies dreamed up by our thoughtless, fearless leader. For that reason I was all set to clap through a review, stamping it with my approval. Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself slowing down and viewing what Snyder has decided to spotlight with a critical eye.

The very first point Snyder makes caused me to back up, circle around, scratch my head until it finally dawned on me that we probably agree. What Snyder says is 1. Do Not Obey in Advance which in my parlance would be, “Do not anticipate your leader’s orders.” The example he gives is
“In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the SS took the initiative to devise the methods of mass killing without orders to do so. They guessed what their superiors wanted and demonstrated what was possible. It was far more than Hitler had thought.”
Snyder goes on to say that “anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflection.” Yes, I agree that the eagerness to be agreeable can make fools of us. Even if we are in the uniformed services, Snyder argues, we have the responsibility to 7. Be Reflective if You Must Be Armed. “Be ready to say no” and stand up for our values.

19. Be a Patriot. The word patriot has been so bandied about we are no longer sure what it means any more. Snyder tries to help us think critically about this concept. In addition, he exhorts us to remain skeptical and 11. Investigate and still 10. Believe in Truth. The world is changing rapidly and dangers are all around us. We must 17. Listen for Dangerous Words and do not allow words to be hijacked and used against us. We can reclaim our vocabulary and the language of reason, but it requires speech, action, dissent.

To give us feel a measure of stability and solidarity in a political world in which we no longer have faith, Snyder suggests we 2. Defend Institutions: we created institutions to protect citizens from changes in attitudes and government. We must defend them now, when they come under attack, so that they continue to be able to protect us when needed.

And when Snyder exhorts us to 3. Beware the One-Party State, he means
“We believe we have checks and balances [in government], but have rarely faced a situation like the present: when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of statehouses. The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular—and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.”
We must be strong, 18. Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives, and 20. Be As Courageous As You Can. "If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny." When I read these words I thought of the bravery of the man during the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 who was wearing a white shirt and holding grocery bags in each hand as he stood in front of rolling tanks. It wasn’t just that man who showed extraordinary bravery, but the soldier in the tank whose orders were to reach the square. He stopped, disobeying orders, and for all he knew, would bear the wrath of his superiors. That’s when we know the values hold.

This book is also available on audio, produced by Random House Audio and read by the author. A sample is given below. #Resist

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander

Hardcover, 272 pages Expected publication: Sept 5th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9781524732738

Modern day Israel can sometimes feel like a recent bruise. It can hurt to brush up against it. Occasionally someone with experience in the region writes a new melody that is both beautiful and plaintive, and perhaps the saddest sound ever heard, a sound from the other side of a wall.

Englander’s new novel might be that new music, filled with regret for the wasted time and wasted lives, for what could have been, and what has not come to be. He points out that the time to settle the state issues have come many times, and each time something more dangerous, deadly, and self-defeating was chosen. What is there to lose now? How can “even-ing the score” help in any way? Haven’t we been here before all the deaths?

The novel describes a twelve year period beginning in 2002, a year of enormous instability and fear throughout the Middle East, on every side a battle. Spies were everywhere, and some were looking not just for weaknesses but for opportunities. What Englander reminds us again and again in this novel is how close the Palestinians and Israelis are, how well they have studied each other. Their hate is more like love.

During eight years of that twelve year-period 2002-2014, ‘the General’ Ariel Sharon lie in his bed, in a waking coma, able to hear, apparently, though perhaps unable to make sense of what he heard. While the General remained alive, hope for peace remained among his supporters because Sharon alone was willing to withdraw from Gaza. Though Sharon led some of the most decisive attacks against Palestinian aggression anywhere, he understood that he was responsible for Israel’s future, which meant peace. Military ends had not brought the stability he’d sought. Every year he lay in bed, the hope dimmed further.

The story’s other individuals are connected in some way with few degrees of separation. Most appear to have been spies at some time or other, so the tension starts strong and never really abates. One is continually aware when a conversation is intended to communicate far more than casual niceties about work, weather, or sports. In Berlin, a Palestinian operative gathers the money and resources he will need to make a difference. Approached by an American Jew working for Mossad, a connection is made.

In counterpoint to Sharon’s story and that of the American spy, is another story told some years later of a man, Prisoner Z, being held in an Israeli dark site in the desert, a disappeared man we initially assume to be Palestinian. But no, he is one of their own, which means a crime of treason. He's held twelve years already, by the same jailor. They have become friends, these two lonely disappeared men, and more perhaps. Brothers.

Englander’s characters are believable—they are not better nor more evil than anyone else in the world. That is his point, after all. It may be illegal, treasonous, monstrous to suggest that Israelis would be safer if they had less protection, less surety, but that may be what it will take to get where they claim they want to go. The Palestinians are going to want parity, so if parity is not what one is willing to give, then one will always be looking over one’s shoulder at what could have been.

A beautiful small novel that feels European, filled with hope and despair, possibility and its opposite. And love.

I listened to the Penguin Random House audio production of his novel read by Mark Bramhall. Bramhall does an Oscar-worthy Jewish mother talking on the telephone to her son, the spy. It can’t be beat, his impersonation. Listening is a fine way to enjoy this novel (7 hours). Below please find an NPR Scott Simon interview with Nathan Englander about this latest novel:

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Hardcover, 259 pages Pub Jan 24th 2017 by Viking (first pub October 20th 2016) ISBN13: 9780525427360 Literary Awards Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), Costa Book Award for Novel (2016), Walter Scott Prize (2017), Costa Book of the Year (2016)

Has an Irishman written the Great American Novel? The question is not theoretical; Sebastian Barry’s latest novel is the fourth time he has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is his seventh, but it doesn't have the density of a novel. It is Barry’s long experience writing for the theatre—thirteen plays already—that lends excitement to this work. After the years of excellent effort, suddenly Thomas McNulty springs full-grown from Barry’s well-tilled field. The success of this gem of a novel set in 1850’s America is all about preparedness and inspiration.

The novel is not long but is fluent and unstrained; it makes big statements about human existence, war, love, about what we want, and what we get. It is remarkable how squarely Barry lands in the middle of the American debate so clamorous around us now, about race, diversity, sexuality, what we fight for and who fights for us—questions we’ve never satisfactorily answered.

Barry gives us humor in a horribly violent world, surprising and delighting us with his deadpan delivery. His diverse cast of characters are reliant on one another, all viewed through the eyes of an Irishman who’d suffered such terrible deprivations as a child that man’s cruelty nevermore surprised him. What did surprise him was that we could find a way to love, to happiness, despite our sorrows.

In the early pages Thomas McNulty meets John Cole under a hedge in a rainstorm. John Cole is a few years older, but both the orphaned boys are wild things, having ‘growed' in the school of hard knocks. Uncanny judges of character, they almost instantly decide they stand a better chance together in the rough-and-tumble than alone and set off on a series of adventures. The pace of the novel is swift. When I go back to find a memorable passage, I am shocked at how quickly events unfolded, and how quickly I am deeply involved.

The language is one of the novel's wonders. Barry doesn’t try to hide his brogue, but uses it: a stranger in a strange land. That distance and perspective allows Thomas to make comment upon what is commonly observed
"Everything bad gets shot in America, says John Cole, and everything good too."
"I know I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don’t try to rob me will feed me. That how it is in America."
The novel constantly surprises: when the boys answer the ad hung awry on a saloon door in a broken-down Kansas town, “Clean Boys Wanted,” we prepare for the worst. Within pages we are jolly and laughing, then agonized and pained, then back again, our emotions rocketing despite the tamped-down telling of the historical backward gaze. Our initial sense of extreme danger never really leaves us, but serves to prepare us for the Indian wars, those pitiful, personal slaughters, and the Civil War, which comes soon enough.

The most remarkable bits of this novel, the sense of a shared humanity within a wide diversity, seemed so natural and obvious and wonderful we wanted to crawl under that umbrella and shelter there. These fierce fighting men fought for each other rather than for an ideal. Their early lives were so precarious they’d formed alliances across race, religion, national origin when they were treated fair. “Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity…you‘re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman.”

And then there is the notion of time, if it is perceived at all by youth: “Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending…” By the end of the novel, the characters do indeed perceive time: “I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.” We have been changed, too, because we also perceive time, and sorrow and pain and those things that constitute joy. We have lived his life, and ours, too.

Barry gets so much right about the America he describes: the sun coming up earlier and earlier as one travels east, the desert-but-not-desert plains land, the generosity and occasional cooperation between the Indian tribes and the army come to dispatch them, the crazy deep thoughtless racism. But what made me catch my breath with wonder was the naturalness of the union between Thomas Thomasina McNulty and John Cole and the fierceness of the love these two army men had for an orphaned, laughing, high-spirited, bright star of an Indian girl they called Winona.

Barry understands absolutely that our diversity makes us stronger, better men. Leave the pinched and hateful exclusion of differentness to sectarian tribes, fighting for the old days. We know what the old days were like. We can do better. I haven’t read all the Man Booker longlist yet but most, and this is at the top of my list. It is a treasure.

I had access to the Viking Penguin hardcopy of this novel--I'm still surprised at how small it is, given the expansive nature of the story--but I also had the audio from Hoopla. I needed both: the pace of the novel is swift, and may cause us to read faster than we ought. Barry writes poetically, which by rights should slow us down. The Blackstone Audio production, though read quickly by Aidan Kelly, allows us to catch things we will have missed in print and vice versa. At several stages in this novel, crises impel us forward. As we rush to see what happens, we may miss the beauty. Don't miss the beauty. Books like these are so very rare.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub April 18th 2017 by Pantheon Books (first published 2014) Orig Title Kissani Jugoslavia ISBN13: 9781101871829 Literary AwardsHelsingin Sanomien kirjallisuuspalkinto (2014)

Years ago I remember wishing I could experience a bit of what immigrants experience, or that some could communicate their experiences in ways I could understand. They’d started out somewhere I’d never been, and they’d arrived somewhere they’d never imagined. Like Finland. Cold, white, communal, with few racial or religious tensions. I was eager to hear it all, but such stories, if they existed, were rarely published in the U.S. All that has changed now and I couldn't be happier.

This remarkable debut by the 27-year-old Statovci gives us that strangeness, familiarity, differentness, and similarity in a wild ride from Kosovo to Finland, from traditional society to an open society, from cultural acceptance to social ostracism. See how the arrows in that sentence seem to point in opposite directions? Therein lies the tension.

Two seemingly unrelated stories, one featuring a talking cat, twine and twist through the first part of the novel, both stories engrossing: a woman describes the lead-up to her traditional marriage…the clothes, the gold, the mother-to-daughter secrets, the preparations. The other thread features the cat and a snake, neither of which we want to take out eyes off for very long. They are both dangerous.

As readers we don’t object to the fact of the cat, though by rights we should. He is thoroughly obnoxious, insulting his host and then being falsely obsequious. He comes for a tryst and stays for meal, which he then refuses on the grounds such food would never cross his lips. He insists on eating meat in a vegetarian’s house, and he takes long, splashy showers…he is your worst nightmare, the height of self-regard.

The snake—I’d like to hear your take on the snake. A boa constrictor. He’s a wily one, seems to have formed a kind of attachment to his owner, in that he doesn’t threaten him, but he does threaten a guest…Throw a dangerous animal into a story and see if your attention flags. It’s a old trick that works every time. We don’t take our eyes from him whenever he appears from behind the couch.

But it is the story of the wedding that grabs us by the balls, as the expression goes. We are shocked, distressed, angry. We try to imagine how we would handle what comes up, both as a young person, and as an adult. We think over decisions we make so quickly, painlessly in adulthood that are so tortuous and fraught in youth.

All this is overlaid with the portrait of a family of seven living in one room provided by the Finnish government to refugees. The bunk-beds squeak so cannot be used. Mattresses cover the floor. Four or more families share a kitchen, a bathroom. It is nearly intolerable until they remember what they left, native Albanians in a Kosovo run amok. The Bosnian War was brutal beyond all imagining. There is that.

The stories twist and twine through one another like the loops of a snake, another of which, a poisonous viper, makes an appearance later in the book. The viper is only a meter long, and is captured in a plastic bag. It doesn’t provoke as much anxiety as it should. When a plastic bag reappears later in the story, holding not a snake but a book, The White King by György Dragomán, we wonder…can the snake represent his father, the bully whose influence stays around, silently inhabiting the places we live? Deadly, but sometimes ineffective, who might be deflected or exorcised with understanding and effort.

And the cat? There is more than one cat. The first cat talks. The second cat was abandoned, uncared for, unloved in the native country until rescued and restored to health. And finally, there is the black cat in a litter, “just normal, mongrel kittens,” in the author’s words, to distinguish them from the black and white cat who speaks, and the orange cat who doesn’t. The talking cat so full of himself could be the author himself, and the follow-on cats could be those who’d suffered during the war, coming finally to the children, those ‘normal’ integrated ‘mongrels’ who’d adjusted to their new environment in their adopted country and married with locals.

The disturbing shifting sexuality throughout this novel, in a person from a traditional culture with unresolved parent issues, has a touch of intimidation and coercion about it, in the beginning at least. By the end I am much more comfortable that our narrator’s sexual choices are healthy ones, and begin to wonder…is this one of the things that caused the rift between his father and himself?

Statovci succeeds in capturing our attention with this debut, recounting an agonizing childhood and an adulthood filled with sudden emotional traps. His use of a female point of view is extraordinarily effective in making us inhabit her choices. He shows us the distance an émigré may feel from his host country, no matter how conflicted these feelings are with gratefulness and surprise and ordinary, daily joy at being alive. He shows us the pointed, hateful bullying in town—a step up from ordinary schoolyard bullying—that may provoke withdrawal rather than a healthy resistance and reliance on home-grown values.

This is a thrilling debut. Bravo!

Below is a clip from the Penguin Random House audio production:

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Monday, August 21, 2017

City on a Hilltop by Sara Yael Hirschhorn

Hardcover, 340 pages Pub May 22nd 2017 by Harvard Univ Press ISBN13: 9780674975057

For the past couple of years a Goodreads friend, David, and I have had a running commentary on liberal and conservative views on issues at home and abroad. One of these issues concerned the rightness or fairness of Israeli settlements on disputed land, now called the Occupied Territories. The settlements have been pronounced illegal by the United Nations, but settlers continue to develop that seized land, claiming some religious right to it that legally they do not possess.

This title just published by Harvard University Press describes how a disproportionately large number the original settlers in these disputed areas were in fact American Jews, middle-class, educated, left-leaning Democrats. This was startling information to me. Although my perception of the liberality or conservatism of America Jews has been shifting with the times, I never expected that essentially left-leaning liberals from the 1960s U.S. would become the symbol of what appears to be now essentially oppressive, entrenched right-wing privilege.

Hirschhorn is clearly seeking answers to that very conundrum herself, and very carefully unpicks the origins of several settlements with an academic’s detailed forensics. What she finds is a kind of pioneering energy and fighting spirit, but also a kind of selective deafness and willful delusion. Each settlement came at a different time for a different reason, but those who chose to live on undeveloped “empty” land had their own impetus and intention, mixing up their defense of Judaism with a distinctly American notion of manifest destiny.

Citing a 1984 empirical study of American Israelis in Judea and Samaria by Chaim Waxman, Hirschhorn tells us that though many emigrating settlers in the 1960s considered themselves left liberals, the majority felt “Blacks in America have gone too far in their demands.” So maybe these individuals were not as liberal as they considered themselves, but under the surface were deeply conservative. The pioneering aspect of making settlements was so reminiscent of America’s founding that individuals felt some connection to debates about values that occurred at that time. It is worth noting that native Israelis felt American settlers were racist, even fascist.

Hirschhorn highlights Sandy Susan at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and Miriam Levinger at Hebron to illustrate the intensity with which they struggled through the early days of deprivation and camaraderie. The Levingers were so sure they were entitled to the land “We see ourselves in a link in the chain of return…this site is biblical…we are sovereign…[in the Middle East] there’s no such thing as compromise.” Settlers often opposed the Oslo peace process which would return disputed territories to the Palestinians and as a result were often at the center of a cycle of violence.

The Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Brooklyn played an important role recruiting for a new camp at Efrat, which today is a high-middle class municipality composed of families whose adults often work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Riskin had trouble finding a job in Israel, despite great success in growing his synagogue in New York, and when approached about establishing a new settlement in Israel, he did not hesitate. He believed the whole land of Israel belongs to the Jews, but that “It’s very important, very, very important” that the land be unclaimed. While in later interviews Riskin says the land of Efrat was “completely empty,” contention and resentment dogs the gated settlement which has seen terrible violence.

The point is that thirty years ago there were dirt roads and pioneers who thought they were doing something difficult but worthwhile. Now the municipality is no longer temporary and is instead considered prosperous and even a little luxurious. It is normalized, and no longer something that one can be imagine giving up. Hirschhorn suggests Riskin paid lip service to “talking to everyone” and “every nation requires independence,” as he gradually crept rightward in his politics and religious teachings. In her conclusions, Hirschhorn suggests we can view American Jews in Israel within the larger category "Americans abroad:" liberal at home, illiberal abroad. The reality on the ground, they claim, changed them.

Efrat was a center of opposition to the Oslo peace accords because, in the words of native Israel settlers
“Efrat has a large number of Anglo-Saxons…who understand democracy. They understand civil disobedience. They understand that the citizen has certain rights that can’t be trampled on…[they had] the fury of moderates who feel that they are betrayed [and the land taken away].”
So, here is that basic contradiction that Hirschhorn set out to unravel. “Rights” and “freedom” are two words that have different meanings depending on the context. Though Americans used to think those words applied to all within its borders, the camp settlers had narrowed that meaning to exclude Palestinians, just as today in America certain far-right groups believe their “rights” cannot be abridged but they are not so sure about the rights of brown-skinned citizens.

“Americans…we just ran life in Tekoa,” a settler said of the settlement in the West Bank. “Living here reminds me of what America was like two hundred years ago. Here you have the spirit of just starting, of being a pioneer.” Except that one isn’t just starting. There is history to contend with, land rights, and Palestinians, who are growing increasingly agitated.
“It was clear from the origins of Tekoa that its Jewish-American founders and Palestinians rights did not have coinciding interests when it came to the land. Tekoa’s leaders did not—and do not—recognize Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, nor do they honor local territorial claims to their settlement or its surroundings. However, evoking their U.S. heritage, many American-Israelis in the settlements do envision a hierarchy of citizenship rights [emphasis my own], especially if Israeli sovereignty is extended to the West Bank…[West Bank] Arabs must have personal rights—due process, even voting and representation if this comes with duties like some form of [nonmilitary] national service.”
Hirschhorn shows us what led individuals and groups to cross the Atlantic and shows us how, despite their claims to democracy, freedom, and fairness, they have exhibited something less than those ideals, sometimes far less.

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