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 first to Jordan and then 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 young Syrian man, 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, which is what illegal migration is.

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 gauntlet 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 of every 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, a 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 bring the stability he’d sought. Every year he lay in bed, the hope dimmed further.

The story’s other individuals are connected in some strung-out 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 and jobs and 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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