Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I Live in the Future by Nick Bilton

I Live in the Future: & Here's How It Works

Nick Bilton is extremely upbeat in his assessment of where we're going with information sharing. In fact, one might accuse him of having the tail-wagging enthusiasm of a convert. He does, in fact, call himself a "borderline digital immigrant" rather than a "digital native." He may be aiming this narrative at an audience who does not already spend much of it's time online, and instead is aiming at "digital immigrants" who feel somewhat battered by cyberspace's firehose information portals. He takes a unique angle on information sharing in Chapter One where he investigates the way the porn industry has changed their online presence over time to adjust to the needs and wants of adherents. The chapter was undoubtedly orginial research, but I thought it overlong and after awhile, rather off-putting. Chapter Two tells us about the past (undoubtedly the past informs the future) but the ideas weren't new and though they may have rounded out the piece somewhat, I thought he was lolly-gagging on the way to a point. I gave him to page 90, by which time I'd underlined more stuff than in any previous book. I skipped to the last chapter, at which point he tells me something I'd read years ago: Jeff Gomez in Print is Dead. Gomez left something imprinted in my brain that resonates to this day: [to parphrase] "It's not how you read something, it's the ideas that count."

Bilton tells us that he "no longer feels a shred of information overload, content anxiety, or fear that I might be missing something, online or off" because he relies on his anchoring communities (friends, family, and online associates) to funnel information to him. Research shows that "most people do." Bilton introduces us to the term "homophily," the concept of living within a segregated bubble in any community. He asserts that "we see drastically more opinions and viewpoints than we do in traditional media such as television and newsprint." Could it be that the traditional news media made a (crude, perhaps, but sincere) attempt to be fact rather than opinion? He cites extensively from an article published 2010 Gentzkow & Shapiro University of Chicago which concludes that there is "no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time," and therefore are not being herded into silos of thought and opinion.

I'd like to believe this, but the research of one article does not make the case for me. I feel like I have the evidence of my eyes to tell me that there has been a hardening of position amongst the populace, and a greater incivility and lack of respect for another's opinions. I think people may be shoring themselves up in positions taken for no other reason than their friend (or, god forbid, a celebrity) takes a position, and the way people get information on the web allows them to feel justified in even unreasonable positions because so many people out of their group will support it. A mob mentality, if you will, borne out on a scale the world has never before seen.

The author explains a series of dueling opinion pieces between himself and George Packer (author of Assassin's Gate and a New Yorker staff writer) regarding the value of constant connection. The dueling positions are described in detail and he admits that impassioned responses supporting both sides came down in greater numbers in support of Packer's position. But Bilton seems to be saying that one cannot hold back the tide. Who wants to? When Bilton next tells us that "digital natives do not distinguish between mainstream stories in the mainstream media such as newspapers and television and those created by their peers," I'd say we have more a generational divide here. The digital natives are clever and all, but really, when Bilton says that "online name recognition and trust may be more important than simply affiliating with a trusted institution..." I begin to shut down. I read him only because he was the NY Times correspondent for electronic developments, so you can see I am not a digital native.

I picked up this book because of a one-liner by Jonah Lehrer endorsing it. I get sucked in every time. I don't know Jonah Lehrer. I just read one of his books and admired it. But he's just doing what authors do: endorse other authors books in hopes that his own will be recommended fairly. I admit to feeling something akin to rage the further I read in Bilton's book, but perhaps it was just terror.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer


This delicately-sized debut thriller packs a punch well above its weight. Exquisitely observed, the story focuses on a young boy in a depressed moor town and a serial killer who preys on the same. The language and the sentiments feel real, and one's attachment to the main character grows in direct proportion to our disquiet as the story unfolds. A first-class debut from a talented author.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

Travels in Siberia is BIG, and I thought the vast expanse of white cover particularly appropriate, too--just like the place. It seems peculiar to describe a trip (several trips, actually) across Siberia and say honestly at the end: "nothing much happened," but that about sums it up. For a traveller, nothing (unexpected) happening can be a very good thing, and readers can take heart that we had such a pleasant and wryly funny guide to the biggest country on earth ("too big, really"). I, for one, was very glad Frazier did this trip for me. While I am curious about Siberia post-USSR, I really cannot see myself hiring a van and a translator...Later in the book we read about Dervla Murphy who shows up in Severobaikalsk on a BICYCLE. I made a note to look up that trip report.

By we time we get to the last chapter (Chapter 30) in Travels, we have been steeped in Russian lore for so many pages that the litany of bald facts regarding Russia selling off its enormous resources of natural gas, oil, rare earth minerals, and rare animal parts is sickening and disheartening. We have come to care for Siberia, mistreated and remote as it is, and respect it's plucky population. The exploitation of it's riches seems imprudent, careless, and short-sighted--perhaps even grotesque. We would hope that such an outsized country would have outsized leadership, but this is earth, not heaven. God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Even Silence has an End by Ingrid Betancourt

As an example of its type, the hostage memoir, this book will go down as one of the best. It is a towering achievement to have conceived and written a book like this after one's release, for as fellow captive Clara Rojas wrote in her memoir Captive, "going back isn't easy", even in one's mind, to remember and relive the period of captivity. However, the level of detail about one's daily life in the Amazon jungle is patently fascinating, even to those of us who have no intention of spending any time there. For an explorer, scientist, or government operative, this is required reading.

That a public figure,Ingrid Betancourt, long-shot presidential candidate, could write a book of such power and clarity and filled with personal observations and motivations, reminded me of the only other memoir of similar power in recent memory written by another long-shot presidential candidate, Barak Obama Dreams from my Father. Equally riveting, though entirely of a different character, Even Silence has an End tells us much about the nature of the individual who could observe dispassionately (and sometimes passionately) in the face of complications difficult to imagine: terror, sickness, pain, and boredom.

As I read I became aware of the sometimes poisonous relationships that developed among the hostages and between the hostages and their FARC captors. An earlier memoir I'd tried to read, Out of Captivity became immediately relevant, as each book references the authors of the other. As a result, I subsequently read Rojas' Captive, which reminded me of the mind-numbing boredom of my earlier attempt with Out of Captivity. The fight in Colombia between government forces and FARC rebels has always felt out of my realm, and those two books did not make make our worlds intersect in any significant way. Betancourt's book, however, brought that whole world right up close and personal, and I am there: involved, interested, engaged. Clearly Betancourt arouses strong emotions, both support and opposition, even as she did as a captive. But until the opposition can speak with such a clearly rational and obviously humane and--this is critical--a truly interesting voice, Betancourt's version of events is the one I will choose to remember.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Every Man in This Village is a Liar by Megan Stack

Stack uses language like a paintbrush in this memoir of her time covering the Middle East and South Asia as a reporter for the L.A. Times. In fact, she became a foreign correspondent by accident: being in Europe when the Twin Towers fell, she stumbled into Afghanistan. Throughout the book I have highlighted passages that capture light:
"I left Afghanistan--the light that falls like powder on the poppy fields, the mortars stacked like firewood in broken-down sheds at the abandoned terror compounds, the throaty green of the mineral rivers. In the back of the car, I stared into a scrubbed sky as empty plains slipped past."
And then this:
"And then I was at my mother's house in Connecticut, walking known floorboards, the same naked trees in the windows, blocked by familiar walls. The silence of the house screamed in my ears, and my bones and skin hung like shed snakeskin that wouldn't fall away."
But Stack also captures the sense (or the nonsense) of the Middle East, and in a gut-wrenching final analysis makes the divisions between countrymen in Lebanon sound so much like the deadlock in the current U.S. political situation one wants to wail in sorrow. Instead of transforming the Middle East in our image (George W. Bush's raison d’être), we are becoming more like them.

The final chapter of Stack's mideast tour introduces us to a young man in Baghdad in 2006, and if her description of his wasted life doesn't make you grind your teeth in frustration and fury, you have already passed to the netherworld.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Thousand Cuts by Simon Lelic

A Thousand Cuts

A Thousand Cuts by Simon Lelic is an outstanding piece of work. It is as direct and in-your-face as an edgy Broadway show, and as searing and unforgettable. In the aftermath of a school shooting, we learn about the basic goodness and humanity of the main character through her actions and by hearing townspeople answer questions she must have posed. At times I found myself imagining the staging--the author gave chapters to different voices, leaving out the questions and presenting only the answers. Though we are not explicitly told who is speaking in each chapter, we are drawn in until there is no doubt who the speaker can be. It is the marvelous lack of words, of explanations, that I like best in this novel. It felt like a completely new, fresh take on our favorite mystery series.

This is an especially timely novel, because it raises the problem of bullying--among kids in schools and among adults in their work environment. Life in a corporation was never so baldly drawn, and one can believe life in a public corporation like the police force would reflect some of the insanity it deals with daily. A lone voice speaks truth to power and we want to stand and cheer, nay, scream that we support her. The author increases the tension inexorably, even painfully, and we want to believe we would do the right thing. But the incivility--we know it is there--is all around us. How did we become so mean to one another? Wasn't education meant to lead to understanding?

The author chose a woman detective in an otherwise all-male police department to parallel the incidents being investigated in a school. Familiar elements of a police procedural remain, but they are so stripped down that they feel suggestions alone and we imagine rest, much like a modernistic Broadway stage. The effect is powerful and chilling in this author's hands, leaving us little comfort and much to fear. Echoes of Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre and Columbine by Dave Cullen came to mind as I read, but this book stands on its own as a marvelous achievement.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Sunset Park

In Sunset Park the characters are drawn with the swift, sure strokes of a master and are immediately accessible, and likeable. As it happens, I began reading this shortly after I'd begun Franzen's Freedom, on which I was struggling to concentrate. I was struck by the similarities and differences between the beginning of this book and Franzen's. Franzen's novel seemed an overstuffed suitcase, the contents of which we pick up in wonder and put back, curious how these vignettes will become relevant in the long course of the story. Auster's story is more like a briefcase of a story, each item within it immediately obvious in its usefulness to us, the readers. The writing is spare, elegant, propulsive.

The novels are similar in that they tell us of an American family, and a young person becomes an adult as we read. The descriptors echo, one book with another, but I had trouble grabbing hold of Franzen's, while Auster's grabbed ME and kept me up late into the night. Books on fiction writing often say we should "show" and not "tell," but strangely, I felt Franzen was showing and Auster was telling, which is one reason why Franzen's was longer, and more digressive. There seemed nothing extra in Auster's. Franzen's is simply a different style, and yields similar truths about the human condition.

If I had one regret with Sunset Park, it is that we did not see more of Pilar, who, while the youngest person in the story, in the end was the most adult. She seemed extraordinary, and we wanted to see more of the woman who could make grown men laugh, cry, sigh, and lie.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


A big book, in every sense. The whole of America is wrapped in its pages--a close, funny, irreverent look at "the way we live now." Funny and tragic at the same time, Freedom is a comedy of manners that can enter the literary canon as a marker for America early in the 21st century, just as the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton gave us the motivations and beliefs of Americans in the early 20th. What I understood the author was saying is that we have so much freedom to create our own lives and make our choices, but sometimes that freedom is as much of a burden as not having freedom. And that perhaps with all our freedom, our choices are less than laudable, and feel more like mistakes. Maybe we're not doing such a bang-up job of making good citizens despite our unprecedented learning and wealth. We may have an inkling of what we ought to do, but we never seem to choose that particular option. Franzen has the young ones of the Berglund family, Jessica and Joey, looking with dismay at the choices their parents have made, but it is just a matter of time—they have had less time to make their own choices—and mistakes. No one political party comes off looking attractive after Franzen lays waste to their point of view, showing the absurdity of the rhetoric spewing from all sides. But the author clearly believes we have a responsibility to do the moral thing--a thing we already know but "choose" not to do. It is a human failing, but in this book, it has a particularly American flavor.

The book was frustrating and irritating to begin, for I felt much impatience with the long discussion of Patty's college years. I can attest to the kind of naiveté Patty exhibited in high school with her neighbor boy and in college with her stalker girl, but as an adult, the painful examination of old mistakes and errors in judgment felt like a reliving old wounds. The narrative and my sense of involvement changed, however, when Richard was introduced. The scene where Patty changes her interest from Walter to Richard felt all too real. Which one of us has not experienced the pain and humiliation of a potential lover lusting after our best friend? From whichever angle--the foolish luster, the cool lusted-after, or the poorly-done-by loser, it is an oft-played, excruciatingly painful memory, and when Franzen brought us there, he got my attention. From that point on, we regularly and ruefully see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, our families struggling to gain control of our lives, make decisions, and then overcome the results of poor decisions. With all the freedom we have to choose any direction, we often choose a wrong direction, the author seems to be saying. Judging from the recognition with which I read the novel, I've been there more times than I care to admit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Wave by Susan Casey

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

The Wave is an outrageously good read, alternately thrilling and terrifying us in turns. How many ways can a wave be described? As many ways as there are waves, though one suspects the Hawaiians had more words for the qualities of water than we do. While surfing plays the loudest chords in this book, one of the most resonant notes played was a description of Lituya Bay in Alaska, where epic waves scour the coastline. I went back and forth with the narrative to examine the included photographs again and again. Pictures help, but Casey’s descriptions are harrowing.

Reading (or writing!) about surfing could be a difficult endeavor. After all, unless one is on the wave, it is difficult to get a feel for its power. Even watching from shore doesn’t give one any real feel for what is going on in the water. Casey brings us up close and personal, partly through her access to the men who ride in wild conditions, and partly through her use of language and imagery to describe different conditions: “Among big-wave connoisseurs, Ghost Tree wasn’t especially beloved. It didn’t break that often, and when it did it lunged open in a maniac sneer, spitting foam and tangled rafts of kelp.” For me, I have an indelible picture of this vicious water, as in this different, but equally effective description of Mavericks: “The Aleutian swells thunder three thousand miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay’s harbor. When it hits this shallower depth, the wave energy rears up, shrieking and screaming, forming the clawed hand that is Mavericks.”

As I read, I was reminded of Yvon Chouinard's autobiography Let My People Go Surfing because while the visionary businessman and adventurer lamented climate change and the disappearance of glaciers, he prepared for it by developing a bigger line of surfing products. If there is going to be more water everywhere, Chouinard suggests, that's where the business opportunities are for the outdoorsman. But even now we see that the biggest waves are becoming too much for the surfboards now made. Laird Hamilton, surfer extraordinaire, is trying new hydrofoil boards to take on the larger, more destructive waves being generated in oceans whose currents and temperatures are changing.

This book is the equal of Born To Run, the word-of-mouth bestseller among athletes and couch potatoes alike. One doesn’t have to do more than act like a sponge to enjoy this extraordinary book.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

The Art of Choosing

By the time I finished this book I found I wanted to start it all over again. Sometimes I think I may have missed my calling, by not pursuing the field of investigating choice. I am so bad at it, and yet I recognize that it is the key to navigating the modern world in the West, where the simplest decisions are rendered ridiculously complex by the plethora of choice.

Iyengar covers the waterfront with her examination of choice, from birth to death, and addresses many of the major life choices most of us face in the course of our lives. She recognizes the difficulties each of us face in choosing colleges, spouses, jobs, houses, and discusses the irrationality many of us bring to our own choices. Several times I felt my heart beating a little faster when she began to describe a difficult choice that was facing me now, or one that I had made in the past, but which has left me unhappy.

Iyengar suggests that decision-making can be improved by setting constraints on our options, and sticking with them. She describes conversations with artists and jazz musicians in which they claim great invention can be achieved when one sets limits on type of creation one seeks to achieve, and operating within a framework. It is too easy to flail about in a sea of options, but if we set limits for ourselves, we narrow our range, and can be satisfied and happy with choices we have made. As art is created by using objects at hand, so good, even great decisions that make us happy can be achieved within our own limited circumstances. After all, isn't it all really about being as happy and satisfied as possible, rather than miserable in the midst of plenty?

A good and thoughtful book that moves me forward with hope. The audio was beautifully read by Orlagh Cassidy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

City of Veils by Zoë Ferraris

City of Veils: A Novel (Nayir al-Sharqi, #2)

Complicated. A good mystery in an unusual environment. Ferraris appears to have learned a great deal while in Saudi for several years. I especially liked the description of the sand storm near the Empty Quarter. But Ferraris also threads needles in describing the fine distinctions between deeply religious Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims. Her main male characters are thoughtful, questioning, fair, conflicted, and not always religious, though some are. Ferraris' descriptions of their logic and thinking processes are intelligent and nuanced. It was an interesting and enlightening mystery for me, whose lack of experience in Middle Eastern culture sometimes leaves me frustrated, suspicious, and unclear about people's motives. Considering traditional Muslim culture is just about as far from modern American culture as it is possible to be, bridging some of the misunderstandings that can occur and showing the modesty and sincerity and goodness of intention that Muslim society treasures, Ferraris actually does a service at the same time as she spins the mystery.

The form of the mystery itself appears to be the familiar model of lead investigator (male) and a sidekick (female). Though there were times when it seemed positively ludicrous that a woman could be on a forensic team in Saudi considering the contraints, just the effort of imagining it made it interesting. And then we are forced to speculate how could it be otherwise? I had a look at the earlier book in the series, called Finding Nouf and I must admit I found it as frustrating and annoying as beginning City of Veils. Something about the contraints people operate under in the Middle East seem artificial and absurd. I find myself getting impatient. In the end, however, whatever I didn't like about City of Veils Was outweighed by what I learned and what I liked. As a Western woman, it is so easy to slam conservative Muslim men as neanderthal throwbacks. But understanding aids comprehension and Ferraris makes some attempt to show Muslim men as reasonable, both those that are religious and those that are not. It is no mean feat and she deserves kudos.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Queen of Patpong by Timothy Hallinan

The Queen of Patpong: A Poke Rafferty Thriller

We had a heat wave in the Northeast U.S. this week, but I didn’t mind—I felt completely simpatico with the characters in Timothy Hallinan’s new Poke Rafferty thriller set in Thailand. Hallinan did such a good job getting us inside his characters and their lives, I felt as though I’d just spent a week in Southeast Asia. In this latest offering, Hallinan describes how one comes to live the life of a bar girl in Patpong, Bangkok. While undoubtedly fiction, it sounded plausible enough to describe the experiences of many country girls sold to the meat markets of the city, making their way the best they can.

Hallinan has the good sense to be matter-of-fact about life in Thailand. He is no apologist for a whole country or way of life, but he has a depth of sympathy for the reality of people’s lives and a deep and abiding love for people of honor, wherever he finds them. And he describes Thailand with the splash and fizz it deserves—one can smell the markets and hear the traffic. In The Queen of Patpong, Hallinan succeeds on many levels: Poke Rafferty daughter is acting in a school play, and it is described with such skill, one feels one has just read a particularly good newspaper review. One wants to race right out and book a ticket. The central mystery of the novel circles and mirrors the play ingeniously, and the play itself is central to a final resolution of the mystery. Hallinan deserves very high marks for this wonderful warm and friendly novel, and for sharing his imagination and his life with us.

I asked a friend once what was the draw of the TV serial Sex in the City. She replied that, for her, the strength and depth of the female friendships was the draw. She knew it was fiction, but it presented such a wonderful fiction that she watched it whenever she could. Hallinan has a little of that specialness in his books. There is such friendliness, such sincere human-to-human contact, one wants to be in that place. Kudos, Hallinan.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon by Shannon D. Beebe and Mary Kaldor

The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon: How Human Security Answers the Failure of Force and the Limitations of Pacifism

One mustn’t feel side-swiped by this discussion of a change in focus of the traditional military. In our hearts, we’ve known it for some time, that our military with it’s focus on heavy machinery and fighter-jets we can’t use (the F-22)—that this magnificent fighting force composed of brash young kids listening to i-pods and practicing on video games--wasn’t really “winning” the wars in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. We’ve seen also that our National Guard is increasingly deployed for disaster relief, construction and reconstruction, rather than for fighting. After the Haiti earthquake, we sent in troops—and they had to keep peace. It’s odd, that we spend so much time teaching our fresh-faced young men to kill and then direct them to save instead. It appears to be time to rethink this—rethink the plan we have for our military, the money we spend on it, the demands we expect to be placed on it.

I actually agree with the Kaldor thesis that we should fundamentally rethink our strategic balance of weapons. I believe it is very unlikely state-based government is going to drop a nuclear bomb on anyone, except possibly one as unhinged as the present North Korean government. Even then, it is likely cooler minds in the chain of command would stop that atrocity before it became reality. Kaldor argues that we provoke the deadly venom of mad-states by not having deniability when it comes to nuclear. In the end, I see no reason to preserve the nuclear option. Even in retaliation, it is unlikely a state contemplating using a nuclear weapon could present a reasonable moral argument for doing so.

I agree with the authors Beebe and Kaldor that non-state insurgent groups and weather are going to be the sources of our greatest security challenges in the coming years, and that perhaps we should think about creating a security force, a military, with a fundamentally different focus: defensive rather than offensive, stabilizing rather than destabilizing, sustaining a different kind of troop. Instead of the “militarization of diplomacy” where DOD personnel assume public diplomacy and assistance responsibilities that civilian agencies do not have the trained staff to fill, perhaps we should think about the ‘diplomization’ of the military, where a civilian-led operation has a policing arm separate from a military arm separate from a construction arm. Different roles, different teams, same mission?

Beebe, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, talks about his work looking at what “security” means to people in different countries in Africa, and comes to the conclusion that their concerns are daily-living immediacies, not long-term possibilities. Mary Kaldor is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Finally, the two authors directly address the role of energy in our on-going concerns: “Energy security is a global problem linked to climate change and so, instead of geopolitical competition, there needs to be a global strategy that combines diversification, transparency, and human security.” Both authors recognize they will be criticized for this approach (for being too optimistic), but our children may surprise us with their wisdom, pragmatism, and innovation. This is a short, clear, thoughtful framing of the debate.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart

Paperback, 448 pgs, Pub April 1st 2007 by Mariner Books (first published 2005), Orig Title: The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, ISBN13: 9780156032797, Lit Awards: John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee (2007), Orwell Prize Nominee (2007)

I was unprepared for this book. It surprised me utterly. I didn't know what to expect, given the author's previous book, which was his walk through Afghanistan, called The Places in Between. To say I liked that earlier book does not quite describe my reaction--I was bowled over. I gave the book as a gift to several people and looked to see what else he'd done. I bought this one and put it aside, thinking it would be nice to read someday. When I stumbled upon his participation in some interviews in which he claimed his world view changed after "his experience in Iraq," I decided I had to read this RIGHT NOW. As with The Places In Between, I listened to the audiofile and read the hard copy to clarify and review.

Stewart had been at home in Scotland planting trees after his Afghan trek when the US entered Iraq. He was an ex-infantryman and ex-foreign service officer and was well connected enough to be somewhat known. He was still young: late 20s, early 30s. He wrote to Baghdad and the Powers That Be and offered his services helping to set up the new Iraqi government. He got no response. He took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and offered again. His offer was accepted, and he was sent to a province in the south--ostensibly to work as an assistant and with several others on reconstruction projects. No one else showed up for awhile, so he managed on his own.

He describes situations, individuals, conditions with a poet's eye and a truly sublime sense of the ridiculous. Even the photograghs he included are choice. In describing the clash of cultures that came with the occupation, something emerged that seems as obvious as 2000 years of human history: that only Iraqis can manage their country. We can help if they ask for our help, but the issues are so ancient, if you will, and culturally-specific, that really what we must do is avoid situations where we are fighting and occupying a foreign country with the idea that we can install a government that works.

Some books turn on a light and illuminate dark corners where confusion reigns. This book did that for me, on a human scale and in a humorous way. It is one man's experience in one province, but it enlightens and enlivens all other discussions of these issues because of its particulars. I did manage to find a discussion by Stewart and radio talk show host Christopher Lydon that likewise set me to musing for long hours. In this podcast, Stewart talks of his two books and his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what this means for foreign involvement in Islamic states. It is a terribly important debate for how we move ahead in the world, and it has made me want to see more of this very human, deeply interested and interesting individual.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Far Cry by John Harvey

Far Cry

I truly love John Harvey mysteries. They are among the best of British police procedurals and in each of the series, from Charlie Resnick and Frank Elder to D.I. Will Grayson, the characters are sympathetic and fully drawn. The stories develop in their own time, but with no wasted words and misjudged feints. The fog of the Cornwall coast feels as real as yesterday's weather report and the miserable lives behind the crimes can get a good man down, if he doesn't take good care. In this particularly strong offering, Harvey introduces us to two crusty male detectives who insist on fuller investigations than their colleagues, and bear their emnity for it. A female assistant D.I. is so clearly ready for more challenges that we fear her professionalism may become compromised while she struggles to fill the gaps in her life. Harvey patiently wraps us in strands from several cold and current cases. No need to read this in conjunction with any of Harvey's others, but you'll probably want to, simply because Harvey makes you feel you spent a week away.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Bridge by David Remnick

Hardcover, 672 pgs, Pub April 6th 2010 by Knopf (first published 2010), ISBN13: 9781400043606, Lit Awards: Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2011), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for History and Biography (2010)

This dense and detailed look at a moment in history when Barack Obama began his run for the White House gives the reader the sense of a blind man running his hands over an elephant, or of Galileo gazing at the stars. The detail just makes one jealous to know those things we are not reading about--what was he thinking, not just what he was saying. One wants the man himself, not just the story of him.

In the end, every book about this period is bound to be a disappointment in itself. It cannot capture the utter impossibility of the moment--the day by day disbelief of hearing Obama is still in the race and gaining, rather than losing, adherents. Of Obama facing challenges (Reverend Wright) greater than those that had brought down more conventional candidates (Kerry's Swift boat controversy), and emerging even larger than before. It does not tell us, finally, how this happened, though it attempts to explain fragments of the whole.

But among books of the period, this will rank among the best. Remick's calm amidst the forest of details and clear, thoughtful delivery make him a companionable guide. He is not so casual as to make one doubt his sources, but he does not flaunt his access. This must be one of the most readable tomes on a time when America suprised everyone--even Americans.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's Key

The book is a huge bestseller , so whatever I think will have to be taken in that context. It is immediately accessible, and has two enticing threads: one of a blond Jewish child from Paris during the German occupation of France, and the other of a forty-something American journalist married to a Frenchman and living in Paris. We can empathize with the one while envying the other. I was not suprised to learn the author is French, as the voice is clearly 'other' than American, and very interesting for that. But not even halfway through the story begins to show cracks: a 10-year-old girl proposes to bribe a train conductor with cash, and the journalist shows a naïveté and an insensitivity that makes us less interested in her search. I only skimmed the last half of the book, having lost faith with the narrator. It is possible the book could have been a very tight and taut short story, but it felt much too long for a novel.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel

Yann Martel's puzzling and disturbing new novel vibrates just a little--a frisson for the mind--quite exactly as though someone has walked over one's grave. Martel takes on big issues not because he is unafraid, but perhaps because he is. But gently, o critic, lest you silence a voice in full throat. It is a voice we need to nurture since it mirrors us, not in raging journalistic torrents which belittle us, nor in hypocritical religious diatribe meant to shame us, but in stories meant to reflect, instruct, and sustain us.

Ostensibly the book is about an author in search of a subject. We come across two writers named Henry, and two animals--dead animals--named Beatrice and Virgil. The story is deceptively simple--mostly the reading of a play with few characters. But references abound which make the mind whirl and stop and pick and think and wish and fear see the novel is not really just a novel, the play is not just a play, and the playwright is not a playwright at all. In the end, a howl, or a braying--"frank and tragic as a sob"--would be a very appropriate reaction.

I am left with questions which I will ponder with relish in the days to come. I welcome fellow travellers to unravel the mysteries with me, of the onelongword evilivingroomanerroneously, [sic] dramas, the odd hand gesture somewhat resembling a Nazi salute, a second hand gesture, and very mysteriously, tennis lessons. I have no problem with the ludicrousness of this list, nor do I have a problem with its ambiguity. There is little enough laughter in the full drama of the story--I would feel it too bleak to live otherwise. I believe the author means for us to think things through for ourselves. He's given us the signposts: Dante, Shakespeare, Diderot, Flaubert, Chagall, Mozart, among others. You see, it is not so very hard after all, and what a beautiful way to go. Kudos, Martel. Best wishes always.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich

I hadn't read any of Mezrich's earlier books, though they are extremely popular in Boston, due to the MIT angle for Bringing Down the House. I expect that some of his earlier work was easier to complete, since he had the cooperation of the people he was profiling. In the case of this book, Mezrich could not get Mark Zuckerberg to go on record. Since the book is about Zuckerberg's (and others') accomplishments in establishing Facebook, I'd have to say that must have been a big disappointment to Mezrich, since it gave his story a one-sided feel.

The bulk of the story rested on the testimony, I guess you could call it, of Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's initial financier, sounding board, and moral support while Zuckerberg was at Harvard. Zuckerberg subsequently found ways to ditch people he felt were feeding off his creation, including Saverin. What struck me most was the juvenility of everyone involved in the whole process. They were only college kids after all, but somehow one hopes that those with exquisite gifts also have exquisite sense. Unfortunately, we all know that is not true--witness Tiger Woods. If you ever wondered if sex makes the world go round, look no further than this book.

When I was first exposed to Facebook, I must admit I was awed at its reach. But this story of its founding makes me uneasy. Not that I think Zuckerberg stole anybody's idea. After all, he not only had unique ideas, he could do the programming himself, something many others could not do. But he doesn't sound like the kind of person anyone wants to have as a friend. Zuckerberg's reluctance to speak for himself could be just a desire to let his creation speak for him, a shrug at what readers think of him, a fear that the writer would not give him a fair shake. Whatever it is, he probably doesn't feel like he needs to justify himself. Shrug. He certainly doesn't care what I think, and how lonely can a billionaire be?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Bleedin' great readin'. I guess the big thing about this book is that it doesn't matter if you run or not--it's still fascinating. I mean, especially if you don't run, you probably never hear of the Leadville 100, a 100-mile race through the mountains in Colorado. It's interesting to know about it, but then you add the characters that participate in it. It's a scream. Literally.

I missed my subway stops on Chapter 28, which is about the evolutionary science behind long distance running and why some animals do better than others. Now, you may think, how interesting can this be? Try it and see for yourself. The part about training in the Kalahari with the Bushmen had me enthralled.

I am not a runner, but I wish I was after this. In fact, I may just try it again, especially after knowing I don't have to be able to afford those expensive shoes. I do think there are some among us that are 'built' for running and the rest of us may be built for some other kind of sport, but usually running can be incorporated into the cross training.

The final race is a vision: 100 degrees in the shade, 6000 foot peaks, the Tarahumara with their white, embroidered skirts, the "pretty little witch", big-mouth Ted with his green, toed socks, and a Mexican town dressed to's engrossing.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Hardcover, 287 pages Published March 30th 2010 by Random House (first published March 18th 2010) ISBN13: 9780385533416

Fiction of this caliber is too rare, but is all the more welcome for being so. Solar has a message, great prose, hilarious caricatures, and a laugh-at-aging-old-me sense of humility. The book felt like an amusing conversation with several bright friends where a number of the important discussion topics of our time are (lightly, lightly) raised: the "social construct" of genetic code, cap and trade, solar vs. wind, photosynthetic energy, government responsibility, the tentativeness of financing, the "coldhearted predation" of the media.

In a time when one might plausibly argue the world is falling down around our ears, it is heartening and enervating to have a crusty old scold and storyteller spin a tale of human greed, folly, and out-sized appetites, and how we manage to move ahead despite these things. The inexorability of the human aging process is rendered so ridiculous it makes us laugh while we weep. But what I liked most was McEwan showing us that even the greatest among us is so fatally flawed and so repulsively human, that we are bound to fail--unless...and this is the genius in the equation...we cooperate.

And how could it be otherwise? Even as free light from the sun falls on our heedless heads, we focus blearily on the changing weather through the thick glass bottoms of anesthetizing glasses of scotch. Only when weather threatens to drown or parch us do we half-heartedly sling our heavy buttocks out of our easy chairs to murmur, annoyed, that the government should do something, sue someone, drill somewhere. Folly, all.

Art may after all be an important prod to action, but here I find it a resting place, a way-station on the weary slog to changing things we feel helpless to change, even though we must. It places our finest thinkers right down among us, so we can all claim some superiority, and perhaps even some responsibility. McEwan suggests, perhaps, that even self-interest plays a role in advancing the ball towards the goal, but shows how easily it can all come undone, lest we not be vigilant.

In the following #Vimeo interview & reading by McEwan is his take on his climate change novel, Solar, starting at 18.39 in the film.

A film about Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" from hudson river films on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef

Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices

This book left me terribly conflicted. I was forming an opinion of the author and his actions as I read, but his postscript turned my opinions around at the end. I was left with lots of discussion material, and lots of questions. This is a great reading club book.

This man, born and raised in the Palestinian settlements of the West Bank, is the son of a leading Hamas figure. Jailed by the Israelis at eighteen years old, he becomes an informant for the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service upon his release. His recruitment is detailed in the book, and it is classic. The good-looking, polite, smiling, soft-talking, friendly blond recruiter takes this essentially fatherless youth from an extreme prison situation and explains the delicacy of his position.

One can only imagine the exhaustion of those involved with demands for Palestinian rights--over forty years they have been living in increasingly putrid settlements feasting on hate and resentment. I am not going to judge this man, but I will say that I was aghast and horrified to read of his role as informant. I completely understand how one can see the contradictions in the Qur'an, and reject its literalness. I completely understand how one would want to get away from the misinformation, boredom, sanctity-of-death mirage, and cruel inequities of life on the West Bank as a Palestinian. He sounds like an ordinary young man with extraordinary demands placed upon him.

Yousef is clearly a religious man. His father is a cleric, and taught him the importance of the written word. When Yousef failed to find comfort and peace (and perhaps justification for his chosen path) in the words and teachings of the Qur'an, he found what he sought in the words of Jesus Christ in the Bible's New Testament. I was astonished to read in his early years studying Christianity that he found no violence or vengeance in the Bible. Later we learn he'd never read the Old Testament. Years on now, he has probably found that Christians can be as closed and vehement and intolerant as any Muslim, as full of righteous indignation and fervid vengeance as any Israeli Jew. And none of it matters so much as the constant, plodding insistence on trying to see and speak reason, to live an admirable and courageous life, to give and receive love. I imagine all the religions write about this, but hardly anyone actually lives it. It is not for me to judge Yousef. That is between him and his God.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short

Lawd. This book took my breath away. I remember what I was doing at several critical moments described in the book and to have been so unaware makes me breathless. I learned things and feel oddly vindicated and cheated at the same time. I knew dumb people were making money with my money: vindicated. I thought some people in the government might be smart enough to realize what happened and know what to do: cheated.

Michael Lewis played two roles in writing this book about the subprime loan debacle. One the one hand he did the plebian job of untangling a very messy ball of knotted threads and on the other hand did a herculean job of elevating the discussion above the rock-slinging and shouting to which some angry losers are wont to resort. His characterizations of those involved on both sides of the trades are intimate enough to involve our emotions as well as our interest, but I think what really charmed me was the absurdity of some phrases that matched so perfectly the absurdities he was describing:
Inside Morgan Stanley, the subprime lending boom created a who-put-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment. (p.201)

Osama and his team of bombers couldn't have done what our own Wall Street firms and their rating agencies and regulators did to the U.S. people and to the credibility of the U.S. government:
It was as if bombs of differing sizes had been placed in virtually every major financial institution. The fuses had been lit and could not be extinguished. All that remained was to observe the speed of the spark, and the size of the explosions. (p.225)

It seems ridiculous for me to urge you to read this book. Don't read it. You'll sleep better. But please don't go investing on Wall Street unless you want your nuts torn off.

Rock and Roll Jihad by Salman Ahmad

Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution

The best thing I liked about this book is something that is not in it: the music. As a result of reading of Ahmad's struggle to be a musician in a country that no longer valued new forms of musical expression (Pakistan in its ideologue phase), I downloaded some of his music and found it fascinating and accessible, retaining some essential South Asian characteristics while sharing some of our instruments, rhythms, and feel. But Ahmad does a good job of showing the trajectory of his life, the choices he made, the kismet he enjoyed, the focus he retained. What struck me most was that through his telescope, time in Pakistan became a lens through which we view could changes in the society, and in the government. One can see that the rich cultural underpinnings of the society are squelched by religious fervor for a period of time, like a wave. In that sense, this book reads a little like a history book of modern Pakistan, and is interesting for that.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos

No One Would Listen

This is an outstanding piece of work. Bernie Madoff was investigated by Markopolos and his team over a period of ten years, and yet this book reads with all the urgency and thrills of a case unfolding now and in a short window. Markopolos admits he is not politically correct, and he holds back no punches for agencies that obstructed, obscured, and ignored information that could have led to the detention of Madoff years before his scheme became widely known. And Markopolos is funny. The language in the book reads as though he were speaking--it has an immediacy, and an irreverence that most of us wouldn't dare commit to paper but which gives the book a refreshing and unstudied artlessness. It is so not lawyerspeak.

This is a book we all need to read. I am here to say it is no burden to put this on your reading list. It is another example of how a good democracy can work. Citizens must take notice of fraud, and speak of it, lest it overtake us. Incompetence in the regulatory agencies we hire to protect us is unacceptable. We might even recognize unfettered greed as the social ill it is. Sometimes I think Americans get confused about this--they might even admire it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot does a great job researching the material for this book--one gets the feeling she could make anything interesting. It must have been a difficult book to write because of the yawning time lag since the death of Henrietta Lacks and sketchy family and town histories. But Skloot manages to make the material immediate, fresh, and personal by introducing us to the remains of the Lacks clan, and by sharing with us her route to uncovering the science that makes Henrietta Lacks immortal. The sheer doggedness of her pursuit and the art involved in making the story not only readable, but riveting, parallels the best scientific research, much of which is healthy doses of perspiration with dashes of inspiration. I am pleased to see the book reach the bestseller lists, not simply because this is a story we all need to know, but because Skloot has promised to set up a scholarship fund for the family with some proceeds from the book. That payback must come from this source is regrettable, but somehow payback seems required. Skloot tells us that people often ask if taking cells without permission is illegal either then (in the 1950s) or now (in 2010). It is not. But even asking the question makes it clear that those people have some sense that payback is required. What kind of payback would be fair is something we need to think on.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book

Reading The Children's Book is a little like opening a long-abandoned toy cupboard and finding childhood thoughts and feelings inside, tattered and worn and well-remembered, rather than the playthings one might have expected. We recognize Byatt as masterful even as she begins, for in the first chapter one feels the power of her rich imagination: a young runaway is found sketching designs from originals deep within the bowels of an art museum during turn-of-the-19th-century London. The scurry of the 21st century is nowhere apparent as the author slowly unfolds a complicated set, and peoples it with many characters. This is a book one must slow down to appreciate.

Byatt might liken her novel to the work of a potter--she writes that the air inside a pot is part of the experience of the pot, and the form and glaze on a pot cannot alone capture the pot's essence. Perhaps the thoughts and feelings that a book inspires is what makes a novel art more than simply words alone. Her work is like a jeweler's art--intricate and complicated and filled with symbolism. A novel is like a dramatist's set, where the inclusion of the smallest detail focuses our attention, registers its importance, and sends us thinking in a certain direction.

I had a favorite character, Philip, and at first waited impatiently for him to show again, and when he did, I wanted him to stay. A good book could have been written about just him, the way he thought, his art, and how he made his way in the world. One could have said that of any of the many characters in the book, young and old. Byatt's skill was in revealing believable passions, scalding faults, and the real terrors the world holds for our fragile hopes. We see early 20th century England and its inhabitants in the midst of massive social and political change and realize the power and limitations of human intervention. When we close the book we feel closer in many ways to these paper people than to today's world hurtling past us too fast to comprehend.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A God who Hates by Wafa Sultan

A God Who Hates

First off, let me say that Wafa Sultan, an American psychiatrist born in Syria, is a very brave woman. She clearly believes that the Muslim religion damages believers, and says so openly, and loudly. Judging from her expectation of how such talk will be received among the primary audience for her essays, fellow Muslims, she qualifies as heroic. America is involved in fighting two wars in Muslim countries, and has contemplated another (Iran). What I’d most like to hear is that 9/11 was an aberration, that Muslim countries are filled with reasonable people who, being human, have the same general needs, desires, hopes as the rest of non-Muslims on the planet. Unfortunately, I did not get that reassurance in this book.

In an earlier review for Jean Sasson’s book, Growing Up bin Laden, I mentioned that Osama Bin Laden appears to hate his enemies more than he loves his family, his countrymen, or his country. Wafa Sultan says much the same thing about all Islamic-adherents in this book. She uses references from the Koran to illuminate the sources of the rhetoric coming from mullahs, clerics, and ordinary citizens of Muslim countries. I appreciate someone leading me through the maze of translations of the Koran and pulling out references, but I did have the uneasy feeling one may get when lines of any big, old, religious text (like the Bible) are quoted. She certainly knows more than I do about Islam, so I must defer to her insistence that these quotes are interpreted literally. Not being a big fan of the Bible, I am not sure how many out there take the words literally today. I would guess a small proportion of those that call themselves Christian are literal in their interpretation of the Bible. I have no idea whether or not I could assume the same level of rationality in the Middle East. Wafa Sultan says no.

The author makes many good points which resonate. First, she does not spare herself in her critique, but shows how Islam made her shallow, and narrow-minded in her dealings with Islam’s traditional enemies, Jews, for instance. She also points out that Muslim tend to view themselves as victims, and as such, may have held themselves back from achieving bigger things with their oil wealth and opportunities. Another good point is that the less compelling the idea (Islam), the more virulent the defenders must be to keep it alive (threatening their own people and infidels with destruction). However, the author is somewhat messianic in her message that Muslims cannot be taken at face value, and can never be trusted to interact truthfully with nonbelievers. It is a grim message, and a difficult one for Americans brought up on laissez faire and 'live and let live'. Perhaps hers is a lesson we disregard at our peril.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

The Man from Beijing

Mankell is a master, and those readers who like his writing will see his control and skill amply displayed here. A very grisly murder in northern Sweden has a host of richly drawn characters that we'd like to know better. But to propel the mystery, Mankell introduces far-ranging motives. It could be an interesting prod to inventiveness in a writing class: include China in your next writing assignment. This mystery becomes a little unwieldy and farfetched when it goes back over several continents and several generations in Part 2, but Mankell comes back in Part 3 to something much more interesting: a discussion of the economic and political changes taking place in a rapidly modernizing China, and in a slowly deteriorating Africa. Especially interesting are ruminations on China in Africa. If readers remember the author John le Carre's last couple of books set in Africa, The Mission Song and The Constant Gardner, this a polemic similar, but comes off a little better.

Anyway, this is some comfort reading for those who are going to read Mankell regardless. Scandanavia still seems cold and remote, Beijing fast and flashy, Africa hot and beautiful.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

The Financial Lives of the Poets

This is a pinhole peep at a man whose life is in disarray. First he loses his job as a journalist, and then, gradually, we see him losing all good sense. Windmilling on the edge of disaster, our protagonist struggles in vain to keep up his end of what had been a life with benefits: a big new house, a wife, and two kids in private school. He had me snorting with runaway laughter. Everything is on the skewed side of perfectly has the sense of trying to reason with someone who's smoked too much pot. Their mind rotates, quickly at first, and then in smaller and smaller circles, until they reach some inevitable stupid conclusion, much like the protagonist in this book. Gets his life in a twist and continues to dig and dig until everything is completely buried. Walter is up to his old tricks in ...Poets, after his huge successes with Citizen Vince and The Zero.