Friday, March 22, 2019

An Unlikely Journey by Julián Castro

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Oct 16th 2018 by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN13: 9780316252164

Memoirs are de rigueur for anyone aspiring to the presidency. And so they should be, to introduce themselves and to give us an idea from where their sense of duty emanates. Nonetheless, it is disorienting to read the memoir of someone in their forties running for president who never mentions travel abroad.

At least half this book is composed of Julián’s life before he was twenty. For those who argue that “youthful indiscretions don’t matter,” here is someone who clearly thinks one’s sense of self and others grows up with you.

While I might go along with that notion of human development, it is the time after age twenty when we have to make decisions that really show who we are. After graduating from Stanford University and Harvard Law, Castro returned to his home city of San Antonio, took a job with a law firm and promptly ran for San Antonio City Council in his home district and won.

Right out of the gate was a big conflict of interest. Castro’s law firm represented a developer who wanted to build a golf course over the city’s aquifer and get a tax break to do it. Castro quit his paying job with the law firm, ended up voting no on the proposal with the backing of 56% of San Antonio residents.

The initial project failed--not because of his vote--but another came right behind it, this time for two golf courses, but with stronger environmental protections and no tax breaks. Castro voted for the project the second time. He uses the example of this project to show the importance of local government work, but also what people can do when they have principled objections and work together.

The experience fueled Castro’s interest in higher office. He lost at his first attempt to run for mayor of San Antonio, and it looks like it was his first big public failure. He felt humiliated. But like everyone who eventually succeeds, he had to pick himself up and do it again, which he did, winning in 2009. After that, he went back and forth to Washington, as head of HUD under Obama, and then mentioned as vice-presidential pick during the run up to the 2016 election.

It takes a special personality to want the blood sport that is politics. Castro learned the power of the people from his mother, who was known for her organizing work. He has a twin brother who absorbed the same lessons and worked alongside him to set up and win elections while they were in college and after. But what makes one reach for the highest office?

We all have to find the answer to that one, and while I am not impressed with those who want to see their names in lights—or gold letters eight feet high—there are people who are at least as capable as the rest of us but who want the limelight. I’m willing to give it to them if it makes sense for the direction we need to move.

Julián Castro is not ready, to my mind, to run for the presidency. I do not get the reassurance he even knows what it is. I don't mind some learning on the job, but look at what Teresa May just went through. There is a largeness to the job that will always exceed our best attempts to put our arms around it. Do I think he would be worthy some day? Maybe.

What we are doing now in our presidential slates--going as old as we can and as young as we can--is unappealing to me. Precociousness is a real thing, and I don't want to stand in the way of talent. To me, Castro for President is premature, but I have to admit the world belongs to the young now, who are going to have to find a way to live in it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Article 353 by Tanguy Viel, translated by William Rodarmor

Paperback, 160 pgs, Pub March 12th 2019 by Other Press (NY) (first published January 3rd 2017), Orig Title: Article 353 du code pénal, ISBN13: 9781590519332

This mystery novel by prize-winning novelist Tanguy Viel is translated from the French but suffused with French melancholy and spirit. The dark, foggy atmosphere of the northern French coast comes through strongly in the conversation between two men: one asking questions, the other explaining the death of a man everyone thought they knew. Several times we are turned about in our perceptions of what happened.

The whole book would make an excellent play, if the backdrop behind the men in conversation was a large window opening onto the view of the old château on its five acres of maintained lawn sloping down to the sea. The down-on-its-luck coastal town had riches in that view.

We smell the salt air and consider wealth. What is wealth and how do we know when we have it? How does it makes us feel and how much wealth is enough? Everyone in the town worked at a metal fabricators for naval vessels but the factory was closing and severance payments, while large, had to last a lifetime for some of the middle-aged.

Along comes a property developer who wants to build a glittering resort where the château stands. It sounds like a good idea in a town losing its primary industry. Martial Kermeur lives in the château's grounds-man’s cottage for free, though he is responsible for keeping the five acres surrounding the château cut and trimmed. His son, only ten, lives with him after the divorce.

Kermeur’s tale is told after several years; his son is now seventeen. The story is not complicated, “just a run-of-the-mill swindle.” The villain in the piece is in sight the entire time. A classic tale of right and wrong, good and evil, we must consider how far the penal code extends to protecting citizens from wrongdoing.

We don’t often get the opportunity to read current French novels that have captured that nation’s imagination—a nation which supplied some of the greatest philosophers the world has yet known. The tale retains the taste of France. Finishing up at less than one-hundred-and-fifty pages, this novelette makes us look deep inside for how we view right and wrong,

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Doing Justice by Preet Bharara

Audio CD, Expected pub: March 19th 2019 by Random House Audio Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525595762; Hardcover, Pub March 19th 2019 by Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525521129

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) tries cases that originate in New York’s financial centers, but also covers high-profile cases that have national and international resonance. Over two hundred lawyers and equally as many support staff work to administer law enforcement oversight to eight New York counties. Its resources, reach, and independence have earned it the nickname “The Sovereign Court” among members of the legal profession. SDNY attracts capable and driven prosecutors not distracted by limelight.

James Comey was once Chief Prosecutor of the SDNY for two years (2002-03) before he became Deputy Attorney General of the U.S. At the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, Preet Bharara was Chief Prosecutor of SDNY. He had taken on the role in 2009, nominated by then-President Obama, and developed a reputation as hard-charging.

Bharara was asked to resign his role by Jeff Sessions who had been appointed by the new President Donald Trump to head the Justice Department. Bharara refused. He was subsequently fired, leaving SDNY in March 2017, months into the Trump presidency. New York was Trump’s stomping ground, and the Southern District was the court most likely to prosecute crimes DJT committed, if any, before his ascension to the presidency.

Like anyone leading a group of intensely-committed, capable lawyers holding the powerful to account, Bharara had to develop a set of priorities and criterion which could direct his team to choose from among bad behaviors, determining the prosecutable. Every kind of crime has been tried in SDNY, from crimes of treason, terrorism, mob and gang violence to massive fraud and murder. Bharara reflects that “anybody can be guilty of anything.”

Divided into four sections, Bharara’s book examines first how successful prosecutors select their cases and prepare the evidence they will use in court. Certainly one consideration was whether a case was winnable or not but Comey, in his time as Chief Prosecutor for SDNY, argued that wasn’t the most important criterion: “If it’s a good case and the evidence supports it, you must bring it,” he said, even at the expense of possibly losing the case and adversely affecting one’s reputation and the reputation of the court.

Jesse Eisinger, now a reporter for ProPublica, reported extensively on high-profile cases in his book about the SDNY published in 2017 called The Chickenshit Club. He did not give the credit to Preet Bharara, who he saw as going after “easy” cases featuring insider trading rather than the rampant fraud and financial misconduct that nearly caused the world’s economy to melt down in 2007-08.

Bharara doesn’t address Eisinger’s criticisms directly but suggests getting the job done includes building cases that have the best possibility of success, and showing the public the judiciary is working on their behalf. It is hard to argue that Bharara wasn’t tough on crime. While he may not have secured convictions for the worst abuses of the biggest players responsible for the financial crisis, his offices had 85 straight convictions of insider-trading cases before losing one in 2014.

Bharara’s office also presided over a string of successes in prosecuting instances of cyber-crime, organized crime activity, art fraud, and instances of public corruption, among other things. Whether or not one thinks he was tough enough, his book is informative for what it tells us about our own justice system when it is performed in the biggest fishbowl in the land.

After first introducing the role of prosecutors and some of his cases, Bharara then moves to being effective in a court of law: looking at the importance of preparing the case as though you were arguing for the defendant, judging the judges, reading the court, and expecting unpredictable outcomes and verdicts. “Justice is not preordained.” How badly you want to win the case is often the most important ingredient in winning a case, pushing a prosecutor’s risk-aversion to the dangerous range.

Bharara reads the audio of the book himself, allowing him to tell the stories and place emphases where he wishes. The stories highlight what he was working for: providing a measure of justice to the powerless. Bharara’s job in the judiciary is a very important one in our three-legged system of government and he had a very long, uninterrupted run of it. His predecessors’ tenures could be measured in months. His observations are intrinsically interesting.

Bharara mentioned the importance of his family several times in the book, and knowing the all-encompassing nature of his job, one expects he missed many important family moments. He recounts a scene in which he proudly presents a laudatory article about himself and his work to his teenaged daughter to read. He waited impatiently while she carefully read and then slowly reread portions of the piece. Eventually she responded to his “Well?” with “You’re such a drama queen, Daddy.” Which may be the most succinct capture of a personality we are likely to enjoy.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Truth in Our Times by David E. McCraw

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub March 12th 2019 by All Points Books, ISBN13: 9781250184429

This book is written in spirit of an old-time newspaper man regaling cackling, amused, red-nosed patrons in a smoke-filled, dimly-lit bar with personal and singular stories of powerful forces arrayed against a humble man who plays it as though his power is negligible. David E. McCraw may be a down-home guy…as Trump says, he has a soothing, bedroom manner…but his reach is hardly negligible. Don’t be fooled.

Reading this book is every bit as fun as finding oneself under the influence…of a world-class raconteur. We get the inside story on the early days of Trump, when in 2005 Tim O’Brien, then an editor at The New York Times, published TrumpNation and got sued for it. That book is funny and as good a read as this, so get both. In hiring practice, The New York Times must adhere to the No-Asshole Rule (it’s a real thing—look it up).

McCraw goes through the thought and research processes of releasing the couple pages of Trump’s tax returns from 1995, and finding the NYT and Fox News agreeing for what seemed to be the first time in history. He discusses the bizarre beginning to the Trump presidency during which Spicer sought to limit the access of newspapers, certain reporters, and insisted on telling lies about the size of crowds at the inauguration.

When Trump declared the NYT to be “failing,” the senior management couldn’t resist bragging that Trump was doing more for their bottom line than a war. And McCraw doesn’t make any bones about the fact that he stood for press freedom no matter which party The Times was talking to. Hillary Clinton “had a hostility to openness that doesn’t befit a public officeholder…” Truer words were never spoken.

What I admired most about the tone in this book is the big-brain reasonableness of the whole thing. I mean, here we have one of the premier newspapers in the world, with all kinds of talented reporters doing important work, but McCraw recognizes each as individuals and sees the need to tamp down their rage, at times, with the lies and shenanigans happening in the White House and the reporters impotence, in the end, to do anything but report on it.

McCraw tells the story of Stanley Dearman, a newspaper editor in Philadelphia, Mississippi when three civil rights workers went missing in 1964. For 40 years after, Dearborn kept reminding citizens in print of the unsolved case of the mens’ disappearance, ignoring those who told him to “drop it.” McCraw tells us Dearborn’s work was an example of showing the difference between serving the people and catering to them.

When a reporter wrote a story trying to explain the phenomenon of an ordinary-seeming midwest young man expressing adherence to the philosophies of Hitler, the outrage visited upon the paper led to threats against the reporter’s person and livelihood.
“Dealing with threats against journalists had become a sadly routine part of my work life, but each time a new one surfaced a feeling of discouragement about what the country had become would come over me again.”
I hear that. But perhaps the country has always been this way, that even NYT readers are quick to show their [lack of] understanding about enormously important subjects that reach to our makeup as humans.

McCraw also discusses the case of David Sanger writing a book about cyber warfare based on, it was argued in court, leaks of classified documents from high-level government insiders. This is intensely interesting stuff for those who ever wondered how reporters manage to report on closely-held high-level secrets. Probably most of us would agree with McCraw that “the real problem for America was not the unauthorized revelation but an excess of secrecy.” Later he argues "Secrecy breeds absurdity."

The whole book is a feast of huge stories reaching right into the psyche of America’s collective past, nearly twenty years now of stomach-churning days for someone in McCraw’s position. High stakes, for everyone. I will end before McCraw’s account of the Weinstein story, finishing with the decision to publish the 2010 Wikileaks cache and Greenwald & Poitras’ decision to bypass the NYT to have Snowden’s secrets published by The Washington Post and The Guardian instead.

McCraw sounds disappointed that The Times was bypassed on the Snowden story, and I remember well the criticism of them at the time.
“Maybe we should be better at inculcating all citizens—now all potential publishers—with a sense of social responsibility…I continued to believe the risks that came with freedom were worth the price…I also believe The Times had been right, in its North Korea reporting and other sensitive national security stories, to give the government a chance to responds before publication. Many readers saw that process as a surrender…

“…It was important to debate whether The Times had been timid then or at other times, but context was important: our newsroom regularly decided that the government’s objections were too abstract, not believable, insufficiently weighty, or given by officials too far down the food chain to know, and then resolved to move ahead with publishing. But it’s not a science. Editors sometimes get it wrong. National security is intrinsically the hardest of the calls they have to make…If we are ever forced to defend against a criminal charge, I wanted our legal narrative to be one of responsibility, serious deliberation, and a demonstrable concern about the public’s best interests.”
McCraw ’s book raises some thorny ethical questions and answers one newspaper’s take on many more.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Hardcover, 339 pgs, Pub Sept 18th 2018 by Knopf Publishing Group (first pub August 2nd 2018), ISBN13: 9780525521426, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2018), Scotiabank Giller Prize (2018), Governor General's Literary Awards / Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général Nominee for Fiction (2018), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2019)

I finished Edugyan's third novel in a fog, reading the last hundred pages completely engrossed in the strange unreal world and story Edugyan had created, about a former slave, physically damaged from years in captivity but involved in the science of creating an indoor aquarium in London—something never done before.

If at first—and I have seen such criticism—the story seemed derivative of Jules Verne with wondrous and far-flung adventures, Edugyan pulled it off. There were wondrous adventures when naturalists and people of science began to turn their attention outside their own environments to the larger world. Anything they could conceive of was about to be tried…travel to the Arctic, say, or to the bottom of the ocean, or ballooning long distances. The story is an absolute feast of imagination.

Race is an important component of the story in that we have an abolitionist white scientist who chooses a young slave boy to be ballast for his balloon adventure. When the white master discovers his black ballast has exceptional drawing skills, the boy’s role changes. Though the two become close, there is always a power differential in their relationship that keeps the friendship from meaning as much to the white man as it does to the black man.

Edugyan sketches this kind of unconscious racism so clearly, and points to it, that one can hardly walk away from the book with one’s vision unchanged. We can put words to a feeling of distance or alienation we may have seen or felt before but weren’t able to express.

It turns out the history of the world’s first public aquarium is much as is described in this novel, though I was unable to discover whether a very young black man was the first to come up with the idea and design of the tanks for public display of sea creatures in the mid-nineteenth century. It seems perfectly likely, as does the fact that such a man would never be acknowledged, his history expunged as a matter of course.

Edugyan is Canadian, which is not obvious. She sets a portion of the novel in Newfoundland, but otherwise the characters travel far and wide on nearly every continent. She adds an intriguing love interest for George Washington Black, the main character and former slave from Barbados. We presume Black is originally from Dahoumey in west Africa because that place name is buried deep in his subconscious and is resurrected when his life is in danger.

Black’s love interest is a mixed-race island woman of great beauty and intelligence and a rounded sense of her own potential. Her father, also a scientist, did not encourage her to develop her physical charms. One day he allowed her to purchase a few small concessions to beauty that she craved: red lipstick, a diaphanous dress, an emerald clasp. She discovered that people noticed her more but saw her less. This lesson all women must learn and decide whether to exploit or not.

The start of the novel was not particularly convincing and had the feel of a young adult novel, but it began as it meant to go on, and by midway I was involved, suspending belief, rapt, curious. There was something about the way the role of the one-time slave was progressing that held some hope that his potential would be developed. And the history of race is not yet finished being told, since we write it every day.

It's a wonderful novel. Edugyan has written two other critically-acclaimed novels and at least two collections of stories. She has taught creative writing and has won several international awards for her work.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Hardcover, 426 pgs, Pub Nov 13th 2018 by Crown, ISBN13: 978152476313, Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography (2018)

Who would have guessed there would be two such popular and talented writers in one family as there are in the Obamas? I guess we will have to wait to see if their kids, Malia and Sasha, have inherited the gene. Michelle’s book is ravishingly interesting and so smoothly written I was happy sitting there and reading it at the neglect of less pleasurable duties.

The fairy-tale aspect of growing up “with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood” and ascending to the most admired and coveted house in the land is not emphasized until the last pages. Michelle looks back at Barack’s eight years in office, and how he was followed by a con man with a filthy mouth. The contrast between the two men is not subtle, and neither is Michelle’s distress.

Before the disappointing turnover at the end of Barack’s time in office, the story is filled with hope—hope that Americans will see change for the better in their opportunities, schooling, wages, and leadership. Michelle’s emphasis mostly stays squarely on her own hopes rather than those of her husband, and focuses on her plans to institute mentoring for teens of color, and the building of a system for providing good food for kids in schools.

Michelle made no bones about the fact that she was more a homebody than her cerebral husband who, in one anecdote, laid in bed late one night gazing at the ceiling. When asked what he was thinking about, he sheepishly answered, “income inequality.”

Michelle had come from a family that was large and loud and lived close by one another in Chicago. After claiming an undergraduate degree at Princeton, Michelle moved on to Harvard Law, taking advantage of the momentum. the opportunity, and the expectation that she would achieve what her parents did not. She may not have been timid, but she wasn’t exactly expansive in her view of herself or her life. She acknowledges Barack introduced her to a larger world with different but equally important personal and societal goals and expectations that are shared by millions.

I have seen in comments about this book that Michelle dodged important questions about Barack’s time in office that involved decisions the two of them would have made together, e.g., Reverend Wright, etc. and while her opinion may have added something to the narrative, I tend to agree with “write your own darn story” pushback. Michelle’s considered take on what it meant to her and her family when some people seemed to lay in wait to broadcast misinterpretations of her campaign stump speeches makes it clear we are lucky to get anything more. It is easy for us to forget Michelle was an actual surrogate for Barack. She had a heavy speechmaking schedule and drew such crowds that she finally scored a plane and a team of her own.

Probably the thing I am most impressed with—and what Michelle herself is most proud of—is her raising two consequential young girls in the fishbowl that is the White House. The girls survived, even thrived, in that place, and hopefully will have absorbed some of the grace and resilience of their parents. What we don’t know is what Michelle’s next act will be, for she is still a relatively young and IVy- trained lawyer. We know she doesn’t like politics, never has, but would still like to make a contribution.

Just having withstood the pressures of the White House without cracking and having takien the time to write a book that encourages others to see themselves as aspirants to national office is something to be thankful for. I am also grateful she provided the home life and support Barack needed in such a difficult job with such a difficult Congress. It wasn’t easy for either of them and in many ways it did not turn out as they had envisioned.

The Obamas could have had a more placid life without trying to handle affairs of state, so their attempt to share their strong family values was a kind of blessing. The book is a wonderfully smooth read (or audio!), and is hard-to-put-down. The audio is read by Michelle herself and therefore places the emphases where she wanted. Published by Crown and Random House Audio in North America, this book sold more copies in the U.S. than any other book in 2018 and will be published in 24 languages.

A section of color photographs is reason enough to choose the book over the audio, but the audio is interesting because Michelle herself reads it. She has chosen to discuss things we are intrinsically interested in, like choosing a college, a major, a job, and a husband, and while many of us have had similar decisions to make we would not have had Michelle’s set of choices. The book is absolutely worthwhile.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Hardcover, 339 pgs, Pub Sept 4th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812997415

I listened to this novel months ago—just about the time it came out. I haven’t been able to adequately put into words how I felt about it. This was the first time I’ve partaken of a Shteyngart novel, and it is more in every way than I was expecting. There is a shadow of Pynchon’s frank absurdity there, and some bungee-cord despair—the kind that bounces back, irrepressible.

Shteyngart’s novel is overstuffed with funny, sad, true, caustic, simplistic, derogatory observations about life in America that somehow capture us in all our glory. He is not dismissive; I think he likes us. The main character in this novel, Barry Cohen, is nothing if not representative of what we have taught ourselves to be: money-mad and self-pitying, educated enough to capture our own market but too stupid to see the big picture. What introspection we have is wasted on divining the motivations of others rather than our own triggers.

Barry is a man America loves to hate. He is a successful hedge fund manager who emerged from the economic crisis in fine shape—it was only his clients who suffered. And his clients suffered because the government finally caught on to some irregularities in Barry’s operations that allowed him to win so much. While the SEC investigated, Barry left Seema, his wife and an attorney, with his son Shiva to see if he could find an old flame. Last he’d heard she was living in the South.

Right there Barry made a big mistake. One doesn’t leave an attorney for another woman. I mean, how stupid do you have to be? Barry and Seema had been doing okay marriage-wise, though it turns out Shiva is autistic. Unable to speak and often looking as though he does not even comprehend what words and comments are directed to him, Shiva is unknowable.

Barry wants to love him, but maybe wants Shiva to love Barry himself more. Seema handles most of Shiva's care which means she cannot work. More and more absorbed with nurturing her son’s growth, she recognizes and relishes small victories in understanding Shiva's internal world while her husband languishes.

Barry Cohen’s odyssey from New York by bus to various destinations in the south features a man with a skill set that serves him surprisingly well when traveling by bus on limited cash, no credit, and a roller-board of fancy watches. He can’t be shamed because he’s a bigger crook than anyone. Dragging around his collection of fancy watches turns out not to be very lucrative—who recognizes their value? But they do get him food occasionally, and a little tradable currency.

Barry spends relatively little psychic energy pondering the sources of his Wall Street wealth, but somehow recognizes it’s probably not worth as much as he was getting paid to do it. His long-story-short gives us cameos of American ‘types’: street-wise salesmen, long-suffering nannies, practical mothers, and money managers who believe their work confers some kind of godliness on their financial outcomes. Because we win, we are meant to win. Yes, this all takes place in the first year of the Trump administration.

Barry Cohen is hard to take. “See, this is the thing about America,” he tells his former employee in Atlanta, a man named Park that Barry keeps referring to as Chinese, “You can never guess who’s going to turn out to be a nice person.” 

Well. Barry is not a very nice person, really. He simply is not reflective enough. We can feel twinges at his angst, but ultimately we make our own beds, don’t we? Barry is tiresome, that’s the problem. His adventures are quite something, but we grow weary of his blind spots and slow recognition that he does, in fact, love his imperfect family. It’s all he’s got, the silly doofus, and they are worthy of his love. We’d rather spend time with them.

In an enlightening interview with The Guardian, Shteyngart acknowledges the story is about racism:
"I think racism undergirds all of this, no question. It’s a huge part of it. When we were immigrants and couldn’t speak the language, the one thing this country told us was: ‘You’re white, there’s always somebody lower than you.’"
Shteyngart thought he might add a gender dimension to the story, and was going to make his main character a woman, but the few female hedge fund managers he found were rational and didn’t take such big crazy risks that they end up blowing up the world. Right, I think. Exactly right.