Monday, December 15, 2014

Stage Business by Gerry Fostaty

Stage BusinessCanadian writer Gerry Fostaty’s first novel is a delight from start to finish. Fostaty takes up the eminently reasonable but hitherto underused concept that the acting profession is excellent training for undercover police work. An acting troupe improvises their way through street theatre of the life-and-death variety, using their acting experience, stage props, and street smarts to outwit a drug gang that has kidnapped the son of a friend.

What makes the novel especially engaging is its essentially amateur nature and its proximity to the lives we lead now. The details of searching for teens through internet web links are intriguing: Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles and the tendency to geotag locations could ultimately unravel our most ambitious plans. Easily available online data is something the police, ramped up as they are for bigger fry, are unlikely to use. They would go at the problem with more force, but less cunning.

The “bad boy” nature of the kidnapped teen is all too familiar. Son of a Parliament member on the verge of reelection, he acts out his resentment at his lack of parental attention by involving himself in illegal drugs, which means the police are not welcome participants in the search. Our leading man, Michael, begins a half-hearted and desultory web search for information about the kidnapped boy to ingratiate himself with an attractive actress in his troupe. That initial foray actually yields clues which eventually turn the hunt for the missing boy into a major production.

The willing suspension of disbelief is critical in stage productions, and likewise with this wonderful series. This is street theatre of the best sort. Set during the Fall election and theatre season in Toronto, this art is close to home in all ways. Check out this very cool and arty trailer for the book below. Highly recommended for a completely refreshing change of pace.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will Dip into this lovely small atlas anywhere and enjoy the fruits of Schalansky’s many years’ labor cataloging, mapping, labeling “Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will.” The drawings have a timeline and scale; they are labelled with longitude and latitude and are pinpointed on a globe. Each drawn island has contour with shading showing mountains, water, and plains. Each location sports a short introductory essay often including reports related by the earliest discoverers, or seafaring men who came upon these remote locations and told of what they found. The flyleaves show the islands pinpointed all together. A masterpiece of careful description, this wallet of dreams is something special for the sailor in all of us.

Consider this short essay about Pagan, a Pacific island 2,670 km from Manila and 840 km from Iwo Jima, discovered in 1669 by Diego Luis de Sanvitores:
The tallest mountain range in the world is underwater – where the Pacific plate converges with the Philippine plate in the Marianas Trench, several kilometres deep – and its smoking volcano cones rise out of the ocean.
Pagan is a double island of two of these volcanoes held together by a land mass. At its narrowest point, it is only a few hundred metres wide.

The village of Shomushon lies at the foot of Mount Pagan in the north. Its people want to be evacuated because smoke has been rising from the summit for some time, and there have been earthquakes. But no one takes any notice. They say the volcano is not dangerous.

On 15 May 1981, it erupts, spewing fire, hurling rocks and shooting fountains of lava into the air. The sky turns black; it rains ash and smells of sulphur and burning earth. The raised huts in Shomushon shake, and a flood of lava spread though the palm trees. Soon the first crackle of fire in the village is heard. The mayor sends a message by short-wave radio - This is it! Come get us! – before the sixty villagers flee, crossing the narrow neck of land to the south. They take refuge behind a mountain ridge and pray to be spared from the glowing river.

When they are evacuated by air shortly after, only the rooftops of Shomushon can be seen above the layer of brown ash. On Pagan, there are now 20 million tonnes of tuff stone, the material of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Baths of Caracalla.
I am offering a giveaway of this paperback to a reader of this blog. Sign up below and I will use to choose a respondent December 15, 2014. Happy holidays!

A winner has been chosen! Thank you everyone!

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

Finally we have a journalistic nonfiction big and detailed enough to show the humanity behind the war in Afghanistan. I knew it could be done, had been done in fact, beginning with Rory Stewart’s chronicle of his walk though Afghanistan in 2002 just as the Taliban government fell. That book, The Places in Between, stands as the clearest, most in-depth view of the people and places with whom America has been involved for a decade. This book by Anand Gopal goes in that class. I am eternally grateful to both men for finally exposing for us the beating heart of Afghanistan.

Gopal’s exceptional journalism didn’t take hold of me at first. At first I was cringing at what I know to be true: that our military, acting on orders from above, landed in Afghanistan like creatures from outer space. They were good people, all, but their mission was undoable. They had no idea what was going on, who to trust, and how best to fulfill their mission, i.e., to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The people shifted. The mission shifted. Our soldiers struggled, and we got reports of raids gone wrong. No wonder. Gopal tells us now how any American mission could never have worked in an Afghanistan as torn and bloodied as it was in 2001.

This is the absolutely indispensable companion book to other books recounting American involvement in Afghanistan. The confusion on the ground was experienced by everyone, not just soldiers: no one knew whom to trust, who to follow, who to support. If you ever wondered who, in fact, is in Guantanamo, you have to read Gopal’s chapter “Black Holes.” By the time you have finished this chapter, you must see the absurdity and madness in the fog of war. “You survived one way and one way only: through the ruthless exploitation of everyone around you.” Men under fire just act like men after all.
"Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed would up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo. No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda."

The most affecting portrait Gopal shares is that of Heela, the Kabul University-educated wife of a UN worker in a farming village in Uruzgan. Her story illustrates the confusion and prejudice suffered by provincial residents though the period of the first election in 2004. A changing series of governors, and officials, each murdered by the one before, left in place one of the most ill-tempered and combative.
“this whole land is filled with thieves and liars…”--Hajji Zaman.

It takes one to know one.

Gopal gives us in-depth views from a Taliban leader, warlords, militiamen, fathers, husbands, wives, collaborators, militants, prisoners, and tribal leaders, but three portraits in particular: "Akbar Gul, a Taliban commander who quit after 2001, only to rejoin the movement and become an insurgent commander fighting against the U.S.; Jan Muhammad, who rose from humble origins to become a major warlord who worked closely with American forces; and Heela, a housewife from Kabul who fled to the countryside to escape the civil war."

These people we understand. Gopal allows us to see their motivations, their striving, their joys, their defeats. The dangers involved in the reporting is only mentioned in passing, but in a country where seismic shifts in alliances is everyday, it is a gift to have a journalist curious and capable enough to have done this work. An interview of Gopal with TurkeyAgenda gives his thinking about the book.

This book was a Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

”The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.”

I wonder if Gawande doesn't have that a little bit wrong. It is life that is meaningless and a misery without a larger connection, not death. Death may be a balm to those with no one to tether them, to tend to them.

My great aunt lived to be 102 years old. She would often say, looking at the younger generations, “It’s wonderful to get old.” Gawande touches on this in his memoir chronicling the death of his father and in his discussion of dying well. Older folks have more moments they classify as happy than do younger folks. Oldsters generally experience less anxiety, too, perhaps from having “seen it all before,” but perhaps also because they know bad times do pass. Usually.

I still think my great aunt was being just a little facetious, since the rest of Gawande’s book tells us pretty explicitly that old age is not for wimps. In fact, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggested in her novel The Signature of All Things, we do better when we turn towards “the great changes that life brings” rather than turn our wills away. Gawande tells us how it is possible in some cases to choose less treatment rather than more when faced with life-threatening illness and experience a better quality of life in our final days.

This is pretty grim stuff but Gawande is graceful, as graceful as he can be when the choices are so limited and so frankly horrible. When a loved one (or we ourselves) must make choices, it is wise, he counsels, to ask ourselves a few questions: What do we fear most? What do we want most to be able to do? What can/can’t we live without? What will we sacrifice so that we can accomplish what it is we want? Our choices may change as circumstances change, so one has to revisit occasionally, to make sure we (and our family and our doctors) are proceeding along the path we have chosen for ourselves.

It is almost, but perhaps not quite, enough to make one wish for a sudden, early death. We all must go through it, so we’re not alone. It’s just that medical knowledge, technology, and skill can do only so much, and after that we still have to face the inevitable. Gawande gives lots of examples of patients and of people he has known who have these choices thrust upon them. On balance, he concludes, those who accept, rather than thoughtlessly fight, a terminal prognosis have a better death.

This book is worth reading, maybe more so before you need it. Filling out the hospital’s required “health care directive” is actually difficult unless you have someone like this to explain what it actually means. No intervention may mean weeks instead of months; it may also mean calm instead of recovering from radical surgery. It may just be unbearably depressing. I get that.

One interesting study Gawande talks about is one in which people who know their time horizons are short, or who experience life-threatening conditions (e.g., living in a war zone, 9/11, surviving a tsunami) change their view of what they want out of life, their "hierarchy of needs" as defined by Maslow. People with unlimited horizons put a high premium on growth and meeting people who are interesting and influential. Those with foreshortened horizons look to their closest friends and family for sustenance and comfort. War zones may not grant you friends or family, but certainly intense, highly-charged, and memorable relationships result from them. Little is expected, much is granted. And I guess that is key. There is more generosity to go around when one is in the final days and it may be best not to occlude that blessing with a confusion of treatments that do not mean a better life.

Gawande addresses some of the most difficult questions we have to decide in a lifetime. It is not easy to read. But it helps, I think, to know what choices we can make when the time comes for someone we love or for ourselves.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter
"The way death is both near and infinitely remote, the way it freezes and somehow kindles the heat of something grotesque and maybe irresistible and sexy, which is life at its most desperate….this dark yearning is what happens when we idealize anything: the form of a woman, a landscape, a spiritual impulse. We move it closer to the realm of the dead, if not outright kill it."
Well. It’s a word Heller uses almost as punctuation throughout the novel, ending a thought, a conversation, a statement. The word has all the resonance of a bell, signaling the moment we must think for ourselves, decide its inflection, trust our narrator or not. Because we have here an artist who sees the world uniquely and reacts quickly, almost instinctively, to what he sees, to what he senses. He’s dangerous…until he is allowed to express and release his guilt and sadness over the death of his child, until he realizes he has a choice.

A couple of years ago I decided Heller’s debut The Dog Stars was one the best fiction books I’d read that year. After reading this novel I conclude that I am simply susceptible to his writing. His characters’ responses have a physicality so completely "other" from my own that I read his work with a deep curiosity. In this novel Heller addresses the nature of celebrity, the essence of evil, the knowledge of guilt, the awareness of choice, the balm of redemption.

A painter who likes to fish comes upon a man beating a tied horse. Meeting that man again in the dark while fishing a river, the painter kills the man.

I began by listening to this book on audio. I knew from the moment he began talking about fly fishing that I would read it, so I could go slow. Hot sun on cold water, a rushing river, a swirling pool, a limb casting shade…these things I must savor. When he mentioned cadmium yellow, I went out and got the paper copy.

Reading made this more accessible to me. When I saw the way the sections were divided, with gallery descriptions of paintings on display, and noted the spacing of paragraphs, everything slowed to the proper pace and got much more manageable. I sunk into this book like a lead weight through clear water. Heller hooked and played me, only to let me go at the end. It was fun; there is a little regret in being released.

Heller raises important questions about art, and the celebrity of art: does great art require emotional upheaval? He gives us his influences: Stegner, Hemingway, McCarthy, Beam (as in Jim Beam), Homer, Picasso, Delvaux. He answers the question he raises this way: Great art evokes emotion and the artist must be brave. Why brave? Because bravery is breathtaking, inspiring. Was Jim Stegner brave? Perhaps: not in the violence of his killings, but in his resistance to the characterization of criminal, of wrong-doing.
"Paintings [and novels] can take on a life of their own. It’s like stuff happens in them when you’re not looking. The crow and the horse started out as adversaries—I mean the crow would like to eat the horse, if he ever, say, jumped off the cliff and became a carcass. But instead they began to talk. I think maybe the crow cursed the horse. I told you that I thought the crow was telling the horse that he had a choice, that he didn’t have to jump after all. Well, I think that’s sort of like Eve biting the apple. You were talking about Genesis. I think it’s like that, the crow is like the serpent. He is giving the horse the awareness of choice. And with a full knowledge of choice comes a foreknowledge of death."
I can't let this review go without saying that Stegner's walk up to Ten Thousand Waves, the first sex scene with Sophia, and his description of a death-defying chase over mountains and through rivers felt positively lived. But the main argument--the grief-stricken father, the violence (thrice!), the celebrity--lacked some kind of convincing soul. I liked reading it anyway, but it struck me as a blue coyote.

Heller has the goods to write about nature, art, and us ordinary folk...what we feel when we feel deeply. We don't have to murder to screw everything up.

The audio is a Random House Audio production, read by Mark Deakins. The book in hardcover by Knopf is a lovely thing, printed as it is with the paintings’ description as section dividers. One may linger over those descriptions, getting a feel for size, for color, for sense.

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State Snowden and Greenwald were afraid the information they’d risked everything to expose would be ignored or shrugged off by the public, so inured are we to the pervasiveness of “threats” and its counterbalance “surveillance.” In one of the later chapters, Greenwald addresses the idea of privacy, and why we need it:
“Only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free—safe—to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves…it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.”
This statement contains both the reasons for and reasons against the massive state surveillance program executed under the aegis of the National Security Agency.
“We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We wouldn’t want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.”

The last two chapters of this book are extraordinarily thought-provoking: Greenwald shares his thinking on privacy and the purpose of journalism, or "the fourth estate." He is clearly angry, but his anger serves a purpose. Greenwald won several awards for his reporting on Snowden, including being named one of 2013's Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine (along with Snowden). The last two chapters of this book tell us why.

Elsewhere in the book Greenwald discusses meeting Snowden and introducing him to the world and he shares some actual screenshots of the material provided to him by Snowden. Undoubtedly some of this material and the accompanying discussion of it will help bad actors realize the extent of U.S. oversight of their activities, and allow them to think of ways to evade detection. In that sense, this has undone some of what our security agencies have put in place.

But neither Greenwald nor Snowden are traitors in the absolute sense. Mass surveillance itself makes detecting and stopping terror more difficult. There is too much information. These two shined a light on that important caveat. Greenwald and Snowden also reveal how the machinery of protection can and is being used alternatively…to obtain economic, financial, and political advantages, e.g., trade data, negotiation talking points, private correspondences between a foreign leader and her advisors…and how it can be used to monitor us, should the need arise.

We may not feel the danger now, said the frog in the warming pot. But the danger is clear, all completely beside the fact that individuals within the surveilling organizations have access to the data, anytime, anywhere. “People are willing to dismiss fear of government overreach when they believe that those who happen to be in control are benevolent and trustworthy.” How many of us can say this for successive political administrations that change party affiliation?

But what is monstrously clear to me is large numbers of people involved in instituting and executing the series of programs revealed by Greenwald and Snowden believe they are “protecting the state,” when in fact they may be doing the opposite. In the past I recall wondering how mass delusion was possible. Isn’t this another case of the phenomenon? The convincing arguments about fixing security failures have given way to clever folks believing “collect it all” is in the public interest. How they can believe it day after day, year in year out must be that their education and their economic livelihood are tied up in it: all high tech entities are involved. The system becomes inescapable. And they can’t talk to anyone about it.

I think Greenwald makes an eminently reasonable argument when he says that we have made the threat of terrorism an argument for dismantling the very protections that make our system of government so unique and so exceptional and so universally admired. We go to the dark side on that path. We have other examples of countries that have made such choices, some still operating today. I do not think that should be our goal.

Greenwald defines the concept of the “fourth estate” thusly: “those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistence on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable.”

Regarding journalistic objectivity, Greenwald is blunt: “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none.” I admit that has been an issue that has bothered me for years, having discovered a remarkable lack of objectivity in newspapers even in choosing which stories to run and which to withhold.

The final chapter in this book is a mighty indictment of the powerfully connected U.S. media establishment and celebrity reporters and finally tells me why Snowden went to Greenwald with his information, as opposed to any other news organization. It also relaxes to a certain extent the tension I experienced at the beginning of the book upon learning of Greenwald’s adversarial and aggressive stance, though I can’t help but worry that I am now being managed by Greenwald.

I think everyone can agree that Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald are brave folks. Whatever else folks have been calling them, that, at least, is the truth.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act In calm, clear, patient English McEwan presents a particularly agonizing example of the stunning success and haunting failure of a juridical system, indeed, of a well-tempered, well-disciplined judicial mind. A transcendently wise decision over a matter of life and death cannot save a vital, loving, innocent teenaged boy without concomitant fulfilment of the obligation to prepare him for the world. McEwan’s prose is precise, alluring, devilish, revealing in a paragraph a history, in a pause an acceptance. It is magisterial.

McEwan’s quietly devastating intellectual and legal thriller has the requisite two plot threads, but both occur within the confines of one character, Fiona. One thread traces the crumbling of a long-time marriage between two successful adults on the cusp of old age, and the other is defined by a case Fiona is handling in court. McEwan’s choice to make his central character a judge and a woman brings an undeniable tension to our reading. We are not accustomed to imagining the home lives of judges.

The dissolution, by silence and sighs, of a long-term marriage is distressing enough, but when neither party wants it, it is a kind of willful “suicide” and we are undone. The case that delivers the coup de grâce features a religious young man undergoing medical treatment for leukemia. His faith does not allow a life-saving blood transfusion and Fiona must decide whether he is to live with treatment or certainly die.

It is ungainly to pair the word “children” with “jurisprudence” by any stretch of the imagination, and yet that is something McEwan does here. It is something many family lawyers do every day, day in and day out, for their working lives. The tension created by the cool, educated rationality and judicial restraint exhibited in a hotly debated and divisive case of life-giving treatment versus religious scruple is stomach-churning and mind-roiling. Fiona makes a wise decision hailed by all litigants (view spoiler).

McEwan skillfully manages us by cranking up the tension and releasing it in unexpected ways. On the day Fiona visits the boy in her case to see if he is aware of the consequences of his decisions, she inappropriately experiences a thrill of excitement in contemplation of the hospital visit. Fiona "likes hospitals." She has good memories of her own hospital stay as a child. As she enters, the décor of the hospital parodies the ambiance of an international airport promising different destinations, PEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY, NUCLEAR MEDICINE, PHLEBOTOMY, in signs with motorway lettering. The absurdity of these observations helps us through our approach to the too-terrible-to-contemplate interview. The hospital scene is unexpected, surprising, life-giving--filled with tension and its not-quite release.

Another gorgeous set-piece comes months later. Nowhere had McKwen even hinted at anything so crass as sexism in the high courts. But in one slyly telling scene he has Fiona on assignment in Newcastle, staying overnight without her husband in a drafty mansion with four other judges
“in dark suits and ties, each holding a gin and tonic, [who] ceased talking and rose from their armchairs as she entered.” At dinner, “after a hiatus of polite dithering, it was agreed that, for the sake of symmetry, Fiona should sit at the head. So far she had barely spoken.” During the dinner conversation about ongoing cases under adjudication, one diner solicitously interrupts Fiona’s closest dinner companion with “I hope you realize just how distinguished a judge this is that you’re talking to.”
Just in case you missed her significance.

Even when Fiona is away from court and home there is tension. She has set herself up to open Christmas Revels in the Great Hall, playing Berlioz, Mahler, Schubert on piano in front of colleagues where “standards were punitively high for an amateur affair…It was said they knew a bad note before it was played.” Her schedule permits little time for practice, but when she finally is able to schedule a practice with the barrister with whom she is to perform, he spends acres of precious time ranting about a case he is working on, while we listen and grow anxious.

The lawyerly rants seeded throughout the novel serve many purposes. The first crushes any notion of pure Justice. Any system of justice made by imperfect persons will be imperfect. We also can see the eminent reasonableness of the barristers in their struggle to serve justice. The rants increase the readers’ tension not only because they may be long and complicated but because we know any ruling will be fraught with dissent and division. These things place a judge in an intolerable position. Fiona recognizes in law concerning children “kindness…[is] the essential human ingredient.”

One cannot help but imagine a terrific movie being made from this carefully crafted short novel. Sections of it read like stage directions, so much do we learn from a glance, a setting, a situation. So much of the tension in the relationship between Fiona and her husband is manifestly visual and unspoken, so polite and yet so hurtful. And the boy. We want to see the boy.

McEwan writes with such economy, clarity, humor, and insight that it is always a joy to discover what he will to focus on next. The 2014 hardcover edition published by Doubleday is beautifully printed, and a pleasure to hold, to read. I even like the cover. The novel is a stunning success. Kudos all round on this one.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

World Order by Henry Kissinger

World Order This is a book that begs to be studied, not just read. Kissinger has spent his career thinking about world order and in this book he looks both forward and back, eliminating much of the static in the view we have of historical events. The result is a clear outline of national interests, power, and its balance through recent history, centered especially on the U.S. perspective, its intents and its perceived responsibilities.

The discussion is helpful, and useful. However, in eliminating the “noise” from the systems and structures he presents, Kissinger may lead us to think within the framework he has created. In looking forward, a new world order must be something outside any previous framework: “wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage…” The cyber world developing around us changes everything.
A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship of our time.

Beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia after the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 in which nearly a quarter of Central Europe’s population was decimated, we see the structure of world order based on national sovereignty:
The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religions vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrain from challenging their existence. With a balance of power now perceived as natural and desirable, the ambitions of rulers would be set in counterpose against each other, at least in theory curtailing the scope of conflicts. Division and multiplicity, an accident of Europe’s history, became the hallmarks of a new system of international order with this own distinct philosophical outlook. In this sense the European effort to end its conflagration shaped and prefigured the modern sensibility: it reserved judgment on the absolute in favor of the practical and ecumenical; it sought to distill order from multiplicity and restraint.

Although China had little involvement with the world and no interest in the Westphalian system of order for centuries, it adheres to and calls on its principles now, when that system of beliefs is being eroded and perhaps even abandoned by the West. Kissinger points out that the Westphalian system of world order based on precepts of national sovereignty and non-interference in other nations’ affairs, is not working in the way it had been for centuries. Kissinger suggests that while in Asia states still adhere to the Westphalian model, the system is breaking down in Europe where economic and military interests are grouped while political power is based on the nation. Business interests of global corporations exceed national interests and boundaries. In the Middle East, a radical Islamic group seeks to operate regionally, ignoring state boundaries. Since 2001 the United Nations has adopted new responsibilities that directly challenge Westphalian principles: asserting the “the responsibility to protect and intervention as a duty of care” even within the boundaries sovereign states. The cyber world features asymmetric power imbalances in which one laptop outside the boundaries of a nation can disable powerful national and international systems.

Regarding technological changes that have changed our notion of speed, and information, Kissinger says
Cyberspace has become strategically indispensable…The history of warfare shows that every technological offensive capability will eventually be matched and offset by defensive measures, although not every country will be equally able to afford them, Does this mean that technologically less advanced countries must shelter under the protection of high-tech societies?...Nor is it possible to base deterrence in cyberspace on symmetrical retaliation, as in the case with nuclear weapons…In the end, a framework for organizing the global cyber environment will be imperative…
The dilemma of such technologies is that it is impossible to establish rules of conduct unless a common understanding of at least some of the key capabilities exists. But these are precisely the capabilities the major actors will be reluctant to disclose…In this manner, asymmetry and a kind of congenital world disorder are built into relations between cyber powers both in diplomacy and strategy. The emphasis of many strategic rivalries is shifting from the physical to the information realm, in the collection and processing of data, the penetration of networks, and the manipulation of psychology. Absent articulation of some rules of international conduct, a crisis will arise from the inner dynamics of the system.
I guess we have Snowden to thank for revealing that “all is known.” Warfare can now move to the psychological: What is it you think you know? There is perhaps no better time to think about the imperative for establishment of a new world order. Kissinger suggests that America must retain her moral compass but not abandon her sense of realism.
Society needs to adapt its education policy ultimate imperatives in the long-term direction of the country and in the cultivation of its values. The inventors of the devices that have so revolutionized the collection and sharing of information can make an equal if not greater contribution by devising means to deepen its conceptual foundation. On the way to the first truly global world order, the great human achievements of technology must be fused with enhanced powers of humane, transcendent, and moral judgment.
The suggestion that the technologists that bring us our systems for connection be involved in “deepening its conceptual foundations” is an interesting one. But perhaps more importantly, we need to move as the people of one nation to make that understanding of the internet's uses and abuses a part of our moral and ethical decision-making. These things can be taught.

The task ahead seems insurmountable, and the tasks addressed without knowing the outcomes of our choices. Kissinger reminds us that
the Westphalian system was drafted by some two hundred delegates, none of whom has entered the annals of history as a major figure, who met in two provincial German towns forty miles apart (a significant distance in the seventeenth century) in two separate groups. They overcame their obstacles because they shared the devastating experience of the Thirty Years’ War, and they were determined to prevent its recurrence. Our time, facing even graver prospects, needs to act on its necessities before it is engulfed by them.
Kissinger leaves us with a series of questions we need to ask ourselves in order to frame an outline to begin discussing this issue in earnest. It is a gift. Elder statesmen are rare beings, and whatever else he may have been called, Kissinger can claim that title. He is now an old man, an old man with long vision. He helps us by reminding us to get a grip, look within, take stock of our urgent responsibilities to our children, to be brave and take the steps needed to preserve and protect our country and our liberty.

To this point, I have addressed and quoted only the first and final pages of this book. In the rest of it, Kissinger gives us distilled observations, opinions, and insights from a lifetime of looking at historical underpinnings and the foreign affairs of nations, and of our own. There is no flab in these pages. It is enlightening. Kissinger was at his influence apogee in the Nixon administration and he speaks longingly of Nixon’s willingness and ability to think in strategic terms:
Nixon treated foreign policy as an endeavor with no end, as a set of rhythms to be managed. He dealt with its intricacies and contradictions like school assignments by an especially demanding teacher.
We have that teacher in this book, challenging us to lead.

I listened to the Penguin Random House Audio of this title, read with appropriate pacing and gravitas by Nicholas Hormann. Listening helped to bring some elements of the discussion into clarity. I supplemented listening with the text, published by Penguin.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

For the Dead by Timothy Hallinan

The trinity at the center of this series, Poke, Rose, and Miaow, has our allegiance. I prefer to think of them as a triumvirate because of their power. Poke has soul, Rose is sexy, and Miaow has knowledge of the streets that no child should ever have.

The Rafferty’s use their powers together in this latest installment of the Poke Rafferty series to bring down a corrupt power broker hiding in the police force. They had a little help (well, okay, a lot of help) from Andrew, Miaow’s best mate and school chum, and his contacts in the Vietnamese embassy. Hallinan keeps us riveted as Miaow escapes the nets laid for her and Andrew demonstrates his computer wizardry. They are teens, with all the confusion, angst, and drama of teens, and we ache for them…and their parents.

Hallinan may be unsurpassed in character creation. Miaow, Poke’s adopted daughter from the streets, is brought into clear focus when we listen to her confidence when confronting the hitmen who chase her. She learned too early how to escape the traps of bad men. The personality quirks of Rose and Poke, and their patter together, have the comforting tension of two distinct, discerning individuals who nonetheless respect and love one another. It is a pleasure to see what Hallinan will choose to highlight in his novels, because there is always a ring of truth.

A powerful cop is setting up kills that benefit him financially and “solving” the cases with the help of coerced police lower in the hierarchy. Things start to unravel when Miaow and Andrew buy an iPhone 5 on the black market. In pursuing the aggressor, Poke is mainly impotent except for his rage…but he has intelligent friends with mythic powers, and as a team, they each use their special skills to resolve the issue satisfactorily. Moments of finely-calibrated tension are seeded throughout the novel impelling the reader to the nail-biting finish.

Hallinan introduces us to two unforgettable characters. One is a cop in a backwater precinct who is brought to Bangkok to work on this case because of her extraordinary computer skills. Her name is Kwai Clemente, part Filipino, and she has eyes that people cannot help but comment upon. Though she barely says a word except “yes, sir” in this story, but one cannot help but want to see her again. Writers, take a look at how Hallinan did this. Hallinan creates characters that actually think, breathe, and bleed so that we feel some kind of connection with them.

The second person we cannot forget is the Western bank manager who refers to Thais as “these people” and who, after ordering only for himself at a luncheon, strongly suggests to his dining companions what they should order. “Pink-faced and closely shaven,” James Kalmenson is “a finger-snapper and finger-pointer,” “indulges in…imperious post-colonial behavior,” and “has no obvious shortage of self-regard.” We don’t long to see Kalmenson again because his type is easy to find, alas.

One reviewer calls this series a literary thriller, and I agree with that characterization, though I would put the emphasis on literary. I admit to a short attention span for thrillers as a genre because the characters often seem like cut-outs whose purpose is to propel the action. Hallinan’s thrillers are the opposite. There is riveting action, but it is the characters we come to see.

Poke is a hapless sort. The one time he could have done some damage to a bad guy he didn’t have his gun. (view spoiler) But we’re riveted anyway because—and this is another of Hallinan’s tone-perfect choices--women and children might be victims, and that we couldn’t bear.

If you haven’t read Hallinan yet, you do not have to start at the beginning, though you may wish to go back later to sop up every delicious drop of this mystery series. The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5), for instance, won all kinds of praise among taste-makers for its white-knuckled swerve into international espionage. Hallinan does it all.

You can start reading the series here. What you need to know is that Poke Rafferty is a writer who occasionally sidelines as a private investigator, Rose is a former Bangkok prostitute who has happily retired, and Miaow is a now-teenaged former street kid the two have adopted. This odd threesome has the love and joy and anguish of all the world within their encircling arms.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Women by Jill Lepore

Hardcover, 410 pgs, Pub Oct 28th 2014 by Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780385354042, Lit Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2015), New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize (2015)

Jill Lepore is a bit of a wonder woman herself, certainly a wonder of a historian. She uncovers, unclothes, and satisfactorily binds with ropes and chains (the better to dispose of it) the myth that Wonder Woman was a feature of woman’s liberation rather than one of male dominance. Sadly, the scantily clad Wonder Woman was modeled on the real-life live-in girlfriend of the psychologist who created her, and who himself exhibited the dominant male model all too well.

Lepore not only gives us the background of William Moulton Marston, Harvard-trained psychologist and developer of the systolic blood-pressure polygraph, but also of his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, herself an almost-PhD (All But Dissertation) who studied psychology and law. Olive Richard Byrne is the younger woman, a former student of Marston’s, who shares their homes, their children, and their beds. Marston and his smart and admiring women lovers lived unconventional family lives in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in New England, with Marston fathering the children of at least two women in their large and ramshackle house to which they moved near the coast in Rye, New York.

Although Marston had lots of experience with strong women and claimed to like, admire, even love them, he (and the women themselves) never really progressed beyond the idea of equality between the sexes to the thing itself. Feminists in name only, I’d have to say, but one might argue that Marston was simply a failure as a wage-earner rather than a dependent louche. His wife Elizabeth earned wages for family upkeep, Olive took care of the children, and Marston…must have…hopefully…kept them happy sexually, though they probably could have done without him there, also.

Lepore probably knows more about W.M.M. (in my mind I call him Willie) than any single person alive and she was frank about his delusions. He began his comic Wonder Woman as an answer to male superheroes and debuted Wonder Woman in hot pants and a tiara in December 1941. Maybe he wasn’t such a talented guy, though his women were pretty admirable and talented. No wonder Wonder Woman. But there was not to be a straight line from 1920s feminism and the right to vote to Wonder Women and equality for women. Marston died in 1947, someone else took over the writing of the comic, and all advances made with a woman forging a new path during the war years were rolled back.

Somehow Wonder Woman never really made the leap from helping out to helping herself. Marston may have been enlightened for his time (god bless his little willie) but he would have been sacrificed at the altar of equality long before this at the hand of Amazons living today in America. Lepore does a good job of reminding us of our past, present, and future --if we don’t manage to prove her wrong. She would like that. Wonder Women Live!

I listened to the Random House Audio production of this title, read by Lepore herself. Lepore has an energetic style and a young-sounding squeaky voice: I appreciate having her add the emphases where she intended, as well as wringing the humor from her writing. I can’t say I found the history of the self-important Marston and his often bound-and-chained Wonder Woman as interesting as Lepore did, but she fortunately puts Marston’s self-promotion in the perspective of the times, and he and his ladies tried for something different with their educations and their lives.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Snowden Files by Luke Harding

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man Radio and TV coverage of the Snowden leaks were spotty. This book helped to fill in the details, background, and what happened since Snowden showed up in Moscow. Snowden himself, and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, are fleshed out a little more, and I learned why an American would go to British journalists, the Guardian, with the information he had purloined. It turns out the British, specifically their top-secret telecommunications monitoring arm, GCHQ, collaborated with the NSA: “We have the brains: they have the money. It’s a collaboration that’s worked very well.” [Sir David Omand, Former GCHQ Director] No shortage of egoism and despotism to go around, then.

Snowden was a right-wing libertarian in early writings on the web as a user he called ‘TheTrueHOOHA’. It was frankly unsettling for me to read/listen to his thinking as a teen, and see his progression to action. To use his words, he would like to be viewed as a patriot who believes in the right to privacy enshrined in the U.S. constitution. When I’d first learned of his leaks, I was startled. Listening to his first interview on TV, I was admiring. After reading this book, I am unsettled.

Luke Harding, a Guardian reporter, outlines the Snowden action for us with a minimum of sensationalism but with some incredulity at the scope of the revelations. And the news is pretty sensational. Harding gives a little background into Snowden’s early development, and his foray into working as a U.S. government contractor specializing in the protection of U.S. government communications. Snowden’s amazed and amazing reach into the lives of others via their private data transfers must vindicate the paranoid. While I have my doubts that any world leader or business executive thought their telecommunications were truly secret, Snowden’s revelations are startling in the scope of the data collection and in the holes in the system, e.g., a relatively low-level contractor had access to the material.

I should probably state from the get-go that I do not fear my government. I grew up in an age where inaction was much more to be expected than action; incompetence and bureaucratic bungling was much more common than overreach. I was not subject to the kind of totalitarian control experienced in Eastern Bloc countries, the Soviet Union, or China, but we have those examples to know it can happen. I believe the president and his minions who claim that the government is not listening to the communications of private citizens. They simply do not have the capacity, nor the interest, to do that. However, they now apparently have the means, and individuals within governments can have a deleterious effect upon the stated objectives of government. Snowden has shown us a place where an individual might have an outsized effect to his purported role.

Knowing just what I know now, if I had to make a judgment on Snowden’s fate, I might say he should go to court congruently with the leadership of the NSA and the GCHQ. I don’t think it would have been possible for him to “go up the chain of command” to protest this data collection. It is ridiculous to contemplate that anyone would have listened to him, given the reaction from our fearless leaders upon learning of his revelations. But I wish things had gone differently…for him and for us.

I listened to the Random House Audio version of this title, very ably read by Nicholas Guy Smith. I had a look at the paper copy as well, and found it concise enough that the momentum never lagged. Since Guardian reporters were the ones that initially broke this story, it is reasonable that they are the ones to write the details of what happened and the follow-up. I can’t imagine there is a person out there who wouldn’t be interested in this topic. Inform yourselves. This is going to be a political topic for some years to come.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher Mantel, eerily observant and wickedly funny, is a strange combination of self-conscious fear and lashing wit. Faced with her precision, I am reduced to the inarticulate: a laugh, a sigh, a whispered outbreath, G’ol. Sometimes she uses just a word, an adjective or a verb, that brings a smile, a wince, a world to life: “At six, the steeple-headed Saleem had lost his baby fat, and his movements were tentative, as if his limbs were snappable.”

The story “How Shall I Know You?” speaks directly to my fears. An author is persuaded to speak to a book group outside of London and it is a loathsome destination: her lodging “was not precisely as the photograph had suggested. Set back from the road, it seemed to grow out of a parking lot, a jumble of vehicles double-parked and crowding to the edge of the sidewalk.” The place had a “travelers’ stench…tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand saving cuts” recalling her struggle with a biography about a man who accidentally cut his throat while shaving. The author recalls an earlier, presumably more luxurious accommodation:
”In Madrid, by contrast, my publishers had put me in a hotel suite that consisted of four small dark paneled rooms. They had sent me an opulent, unwieldy, scented bouquet, great wheels of flowers with woody stems. The concierge brought me heavy vases of a grayish glass, slippery in my hands, and I edged them freighted with blooms onto every polished surface; I stumbled from room to room, coffinned against the brown paneling, forlorn, strange, under a pall of pollen, like a person trying to break out of her own funeral.”
The story speaks to my fears because I am struck with terror when someone suggests actually meeting an author, or asking them a question. What on earth could I possibly ask? Haven't they already told us what they wanted to say? Good lord, and what, have those x-ray eyes turn in my direction, to withstand that funny, devastating, vampiric wit?

This is a slim collection, beautifully printed with vast spacing and acres of white. There is room for your mind to wander to what she might have said but did not. Mantel uses words in a way that have no precedent. Her vision is unique. Mantel doesn’t need as many words as others often do to convey her devilish vision. You would have thought, if you’d tried to read her award-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, that she could not write only a little, but you’d be wrong. She can, and she does, here. These are perfect little gems that speak to her (and our) deepest fears, the deepest held secrets of the heart.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell

We probably should have known better. When something is too good to be true… I can't help it; I feel like we need to take some of the blame for the failures of Lance Armstrong. We wanted to believe in this level of sports competence…every year…for seven years…by a man who would be considered old in any other sport…and by a cancer survivor.

What surprised me about the information I learned here is Lance’s early home life. His mother never finished high school and was pregnant with Lance at sixteen when her father threw her out. Lance was an exceptional and driven athlete as an early teen, but when he wanted to compete in triathlons with strict age requirements that precluded his participation, his mother modified his birth certificate. So he learned early that the rules did not really apply to him. And that grasping behavior? When enough is never enough? I guess we know where that came from.

I didn't like reading this book one little bit, not only because the writing is more breathless and sensational than it needed to be. The documents collected tell the story of a man who is immensely unappealing and manipulative and the worst sort of role model. We also learn something about the other folks involved in the sport: the teammates, the spouses, the officials, the medical staffs, the press. It was big business, and their business was to sell a product. I may have been a dupe, but I don’t believe for a second all those other folks were.

Even when a former teammate came out with allegations, dates, remembrances of drug doping during races, it was still tricky to prove. One cannot help but feel just a little betrayed by all the folks that agreed to go along with this. They did it because “everyone else did.” Yes, the Tour de France is a hard race. And the world can be a tough place. At least they got to wear spandex in their work rather than body armor.

O’Connell and Albergotti corral a huge amount of material for this exposé. A few less details and a little more reflection would have gone down better with this reader. Journalists don't have a responsibility to tell us what to think, I suppose, but biographers can help us place Lance’s megalomania in perspective. A character of this dimension is unusual and we the public could use a little help in dealing with the details of someone else's life choices, given his great talents. Is the lesson to strive, but not that much? Is celebrity addicting? Armstrong was not just an ordinary guy with a dirty little secret. This misses the size of his delusion, and ours. Forget Lance for a moment. In a sense, his future has already been written. What are our lessons? Did we do this?

I listened to the Penguin Audio of this book, read by Santino Fontana. Fontana read well, though he is perhaps too gleeful in sections of heart-rending discovery. I supplemented listening with the text by Gotham Books, an appropriately-named publisher for a manuscript depicting characters with such outsized lives.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Truth and Lies in Literature by Stephen Vizinczey

I don't usually review older books in this space, but I decided to make an exception for this classic book of reviews and essays by Stephen Vizinczey. Vizinczey is so vital in his expression that one forgets this book was compiled from his work in the 1970's and 80's and that many of his literary heroes wrote a century before him. This is classic, and is about classics, for those who care for such things.

Truth And Lies In Literature: Essays And Reviews This is the way to write book reviews: funny, clever, opinionated, knowledgeable, and often more interesting than the books he writes about. Stephen Vizinczey is a novelist who also taught the art of writing. His essays and reviews are arguably his best work. Selected and introduced by his editor, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson at the Atlantic Monthly Press, these essays include "A Writer’s Ten Commandments" as well as essays on Vizinczey’s literary heroes ("at least once a year I reread almost everything by Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Balzac. To my mind [Heinrich von] Kleist and these 19th-century French and Russian novelists were the greatest masters of prose, a constellation of unsurpassed geniuses such as we find in music from Bach to Beethoven…").

A section of the book is devoted to Russian writers: Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Vizinczey's beloved Gogol. Every essay brings to light something unique about their writing and something in the authors’ lives which brought this uniqueness to fruition, or how the raw material becomes the art.

Reviewing the book Gogol: The Biography Of A Divided Soul by Henri Troyat and translated by Nanci Amphoux, Vizinczey starts out:
There is hardly a page of this book on which there isn’t something that I find deeply offensive. Henri Troyat’s subject is Gogol, but what this biography is really about is that warm, cosy sense of superiority that mediocre people feel when confronted by genius.
Vizinczey then goes on to discuss Gogol for a page or two, pointing out moments of great comic genius, only to return to M. Troyat and point out ways he missed his mark completely.

In his titular essay commissioned by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s, Vizinczey produced two versions, the one not published in the magazine beginning:
I read Billy Budd, Sailor some fifteen years ago but the passage of time has not softened its impact: I am still overcome by nausea whenever some admiring reference reminds me of it. Melville’s story fleshes out the grossest, meanest lie in all literature, the lie that a man can love his executioner…In Melville’s last book Authority does not ill-treat its subjects out of indifference, venality, incompetence, callousness, but for the common good. However arbitrary and cruel it may seem in its actions, it is always benign at heart… What disabling misconceptions about human nature, and society are inspired by such lies!
Later in the same essay, Vizinczey turns to speak how readers influence the idea of literature:
There are two basic kinds of literature. One helps you to understand, the other helps you to forget; the first helps you to be a free persona and a free citizen, the other helps people to manipulate you. One is like astronomy, the other is like astrology…Orwell said that most people cannot see artistic merit in novels which contradict their views, and this is the beginning of all aesthetics…Reading is a creative act, a continuous exercise of the imagination which gives flesh, feeling, colour, to the dead words on the page; we have to draw on the experience of all our senses to create a world in our mind, and we cannot do this without involving our subconscious and baring our ego. In short, we are extremely vulnerable when we read and are only happy with authors who share our inclinations, concerns, prejudices, illusions, pretentions, dreams, and who have the same values, the same attitudes to sex, politics, death, etc.
Vizinczey goes on to speak of Dickens, Stendhal, Proust, Balzac, but in a way that is so full of life and argument, full of recognition and the thrill of discovery, that one can see what Vizinczey is saying about truth and lies by his pairing of these writers.

Vizinczey is piquant, daring, vociferous on the subject of his literary heroes. In the section on German writers is reprinted his essay on the German writer Heinrich von Kleist commissioned by The Times. Vizinczey compares Kleist favorably with Shakespeare and tells us a time is due in which Kleist will get the approbation he yearned for. Vizinczey is so passionate and persuasive that we forget that Kleist wrote in the early 19th century. “If Stendhal tells us how people become lovers, Kleist tells us how people become murderers. It is hardly ever for a good reason.” He is describing Kleist’s very first play "The Schroffenstein Family" (1802) which
has one of the most potent love scenes ever conceived…Kleist’s Romeo undresses his Juliet and exchanges clothes with her while describing how he will undress her on their wedding night….the boy, knowing that his father is coming to kill the girl, talks her into exchanging clothes with him to save her life…they are murdered by their fathers—each killing his own child, thinking it’s the other. It’s hatred that kills, not love….We cannot understand anything profoundly unless it moves or shocks us so deeply that it touches our subconscious; great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire, but those who make our fingers burn.
Kleist committed suicide at the age of 34. Impecunious and starved of critical attention, he despaired of being able to earn enough money to live. When a young woman of his acquaintance recently diagnosed with uterine cancer mentioned she would like to die but not alone, Kleist agreed that such a thing was better in company and obliged. Vizinczey uses letters, essays, and Kleist’s body of work to compile his history:
No writer can create a single character or a single scene beyond his emotional range. Kleist, whose works are charged with suddenly swelling passions, had an abnormal capacity for extreme emotions—for extreme joy as well extreme despair, extreme love as well as extreme hate. He lived, in the words an army friend, ‘exposed to the storms of his inner self’…Happiness, he now saw, was to ‘till a field, to plant a tree, to father a child’. He soon renounced these simple ambitions, but he felt them so deeply that they survive everywhere in his work, and all the ‘fiendish business’ of his stories and plays is set against the soundest longings of the heart for love, a home and family.

Vizinczy, born in Hungary in 1933, did not begin to learn English until the age of twenty-four. He writes in English, having learned his craft while working with The National Film Board of Canada. His editor compares his nuance in English to Conrad and Nabokov before him. He is a remarkable writer of enormous personality and skill as this book of essays, and his own classic novel, In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda, attests. Writers will thrill to read his enabling and energizing “Ten Commandments,” and reviewers would gain much from his own loosely-styled criticism so distant and so distinct from what we often read by professional reviewers. These are reviews for the ages.

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Law of the Jungle by Paul M. Barrett

Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win It is difficult to comprehend how the relatively straightforward attempt by Ecuadorian plaintiffs to extract damages from oil companies for pollution caused in the course of their work became the perfect definition of a clusterf**k. Everybody got screwed.

Barrett goes through the history of the decades-long lawsuit on behalf of Ecuadorian peasants and tribespeople against Texaco, now part of Chevron, and highlights the bad judgment, culpable wrongdoing, bribery, fraud, and coercion committed by and on behalf of the plaintiffs and the defense.

Petroecuador, the national oil company of Ecuador, should have been named as co-defendant in the case to clean up pollution from seeping pits of oil byproduct left by the oil extractors because they partly owned the oil wells and pits and derived revenue from it but also because they already received some compensation from Texaco toward alleviating the environmental damage. They were not named as co-defendants, however, and did nothing to ameliorate the damage or the plaintiffs’ suffering. The plaintiffs were represented in Ecuadorian court by American lawyer Steven R. Donziger, who began as part of a legal team in 1993 and emerged as lead counsel in 2003.

In February of 2011 the Ecuadorian court ruled against Chevron, ordering them to pay damages for clean-up of USD$18.1 billion. The award was later reduced to USD9.5 billion. Chevron filed countersuit in New York District Court, alleging misconduct by the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Donziger, and after several iterations of decisions, managed to obtain an injunction against collection of the damages anywhere in the United States. It is not over yet. Chevron may be named in a lawsuit in another South American country which may seek to recover that big payoff from Chevron.

What struck me about this fiasco is that everyone played to their worst selves. In wanting so badly to avoid being victimized, each group managed to create an environment of social toxicity to go with the demonstrated environmental toxicity. The Ecuadorian state did nothing to demand and enforce clean-up from its own state enterprise which was shoveling profits to them, and once the peasants were offered incentives to claim damages, some appeared to develop illnesses attributed to the illegal oil runoff. Everyone was implicated, everyone was venal, everyone failed.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Donziger, spent so much time and money on the case he had to bring in a series of investors to keep the case going. Donziger promised percentages of the take to investors once the case was settled (read: won)—so much in fact that had investors all been paid back for their capital infusions, nothing would be left for clean-up!

Donziger, just out of Harvard Law School when he entered the case for the plaintiffs, stated early in the proceedings that he wanted this case to be a “business” model for future attempts to secure damages from large corporations operating without sufficient environmental controls overseas. Even a blatant cynic might blanch at the thought of such stupendous arrogance and this surely went some way to alienating and hardening the positions of Chevron executives, who could have easily fixed the environmental damages with some arm-twisting of Petroecuador, because they came to the case knowing Texaco’s legacy in the country.

But one might say the Americans were the dupes in this fight. They were stupid and arrogant and stubborn, but it was the corruption in Ecuador that really brought both sides to their knees and exposed their idiocy. In a state where the legal system is so little developed that politicians, judges, and lawyers are free to line their pockets at the expense of the people they are sworn to protect, all attempt to recoup losses by legal means are chimerical.

The author, Paul Barrett, is also a Harvard Law grad, and now works as an investigating journalist for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He has written several other nonfiction books, one of which is called Glock. He manages to bring the mass of information produced by this case into manageable form so that we can understand the progress of the case quite well. He does not appear to take sides, though it is clear he found Donziger’s behavior an affront to his profession.

I came away thinking that this should be read by every law student dreaming of working in international or corporate law for the lessons and warnings it contains. A corporation cannot carry on in this manner and escape unscathed. Needless to say, one would want no law student to imagine they could emulate the hubris of Donziger; failure, in this world or the next, must surely be their fate. This history is positively Dante-esque in the venality of the actors.

I listened to the audio presentation of this book, published by Random House Audio and read by Joe Ochman. Ochman does a good job, threading the legal morass and making it comprehensible. The writing, and therefore the reading, was not completely dispassionate: there was some level of editorial disdain for the parties (who could help it?). There were times I wished I had the hard copy while I was listening, so if you have the opportunity to buy or borrow one or the other, you might like to get both. The hard copy is published by Crown.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Third Plate by Dan Barber

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food The grace and fluency with which James Beard Award-winning Chef Barber relates his experiences in his Blue Hill restaurant in New York City, walking the fields of his Stone Barns organic farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and in his travels to Europe and throughout the United States left me wide-eyed with wonder. This extraordinary memoir and travel account is engrossing in a way that few writers achieve. Barber is gentle in his instruction, but he is telling us what he has learned about the inadequacy of the current concept of food sustainability, and it is a lesson we really need to assimilate and organize around.

Happily, his lessons are filled with well-cogitated thought, possibilities, solutions, humor, and beautiful images. I’d heard Corby Kummer interview the New York restaurateur on the New York Times book podcast back in the spring of ‘14, and thought it sounded like something I’d like to look at. I felt no urgency. Only when I obtained a copy for someone else and began to browse through it did I discover the can’t-put-it-down page-turning clarity, and the irresistible humor in Barber’s writing. I am trying now to figure out how many copies of the book I can give away for Christmas without repeating myself.

This book is divided into four sections, called Soil, Land, Sea, and Seeds. You won’t have heard these stories in quite this way before, and if they seem familiar, you will find it enlightening to see what Barber has chosen to highlight. Barber moves gradually through his dawning realization that the way we have been eating, in restaurants and at home, is not actually going to be able to sustain the land, the ocean, nor the planet, no matter that we gradually move from pesticide-grown vegetables to organics. There has to be a greater understanding of the web of interconnections between the soil and our eating habits. We have to be willing to increase the diversity of our diet and think about eating foods that replenish the balance in the soil along with ones we use more commonly.

It may be obvious to those who have paid attention to the concept of sustainability that we haven’t yet come around to actually managing the task ahead of us. Barber suggests it is more than simply changing our diets from meat-centric to vegetable-centric. He concludes that we “cherry-pick” our vegetables and therefore limit the amount a farm can sustainably produce for a given community. A farm has to grow cover crops on at least some of the land, and that is part of the cost of crops we actually eat. He urges us to think about how this works in fact, and what this reality means for pricing, output, and consumption.

But I may be making it sound boring. In Barber’s hands, it is anything but that. His work is filled with enlightening vignettes about the places, the people, the restaurants that led him to learn so much about sustainability and its opportunities. Barber awakened me to certain understandings about plant pairings that I’d sort of heard about, but never really believed possible: like having four different crops growing in the same space at the same time to preserve and replenish soil vitality. Especially, or perhaps only, in small scale operations where crops are harvested by hand might this be possible…but it is possible, in fact desirable!

Vignettes about the fish farmers and restaurants featuring fish were particularly interesting. I hadn’t followed the latest developments in that field and am astonished, pleased, and heartened to know that there are some doing things which enhance wildlife rather than diminish it. He tells of a fish farm in Spain which hosts vastly increased numbers of migrating birds as well as produces exceptional-tasting fish for market. It gives me hope that the work on the west coast of the USA to preserve and restore the tidal salt marshes near San Francisco might be successful for life of all kinds, including our own.

Barber outlines his own learning curve, his oversights and humiliations, and he is very funny in places, showing the reactions of people with different world views meeting (at Barber’s behest) face to face and trying to be civil, or in speaking of finely tuned chefs at their most passionate or most perplexed:
’Dan,’ [Ángel] said, turning to me, ‘have you ever cooked naked in your kitchen?’
Ángel features in another very funny bit:
”[Santiago] goes to different ponds in Veta la Palma [Spain] at different times of the year. Always at the full moon,” Ángel said.

Thinking of Steiner and his lunar planting schedule, I guessed, “Because the fish have better flavor when the moon is full.”

“No,” [Ángel] said, looking puzzled. “So he can see what he’s catching.”

The section on wheat farming was completely new and fascinating to me. In the very beginning of the book Barber reproduces a photograph of the perennial Midwest native prairie wheat (with root system) alongside higher-yielding grain varieties planted to replace it. I was truly shocked by the difference in the profiles of the two plants, and thought it indicative of what modern agriculture has done, in every aspect of our food profile, to the concept of sustainability. The good news is that there are folks around the country thinking about our food future. Barber managed to create an international community of thoughtful practitioners striving to figure out how we can best produce what we will need to live on earth.

This completely fascinating book happens to be very easy to read. Someone in your family, not just the foodies, will love reading of Barber’s researches and spending time with this thoroughly decent guy who is willing to share his successes and failures in the field.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent ViceWhy Inherent Vice and why now? ‘Inherent’ is used as it is in legal documents, and Pynchon is making the point that powerful or wealthy actors in our society have an inherent advantage which they may use to good or ill, i.e., police, FBI, property developers, ARPAnet operators all have outsized power that needs monitoring, formally and/or informally. And perhaps, in the tendency within each of us to look after our own interests and feather our own beds, we all harbor the "inherent vice" Pynchon speaks of.

The New York Times recently announced that Paul Thomas Anderson has a film adaptation of the novel being released in December 2014. The IMDB website has already listed it as 8.6 in a scale of 10. Knowing Pynchon's particular fascination with film, you can bet this was raked over carefully.

It's 1969. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, private eye, is navigating a world of cops and zombies in L.A. Nixon is President. Reagan is Governor. Doc is stoned much of the time. He buys into nothing, and the paranoia that comes with being blitzed actually serves him well: we can allow ourselves to operate with half a brain and get on with the joy as long as we retain a healthy skepticism about who is managing our lives around us and offering us goodies. Sportello keeps reminding us to “focus in and pay attention” to weird “inexpressible imbalances in the laws of karma.”

Though I began this crime genre novel smirking over Pynchon’s descriptions of sex, drugs, and rock&roll (!) in L.A. (!) in the sexy sixties (!), gradually I became aware (like awakening from a pot-induced lethargy) that Pynchon actually has a point here. “like…far out, man, you’re actually making sense to me.” But mostly, it was just groovy hanging out with this cool dude.

He drops his truths into paragraphs thick with love beads and leis: “Over the years business had obliged him to visit a stately L.A. home or two, and he soon noticed how little sense of what was hip the very well fixed were able to exhibit, and that, roughly proportional to wealth accumulated, the condition only grew worse.” We all know there is a unfettered beauty to having nothing--no matter the storm has taken my roof, the better to see the stars—so we begin to trust this dopehead with more important observations…like what to eat. Check out the “Shoot the Pier, basically avocados, sprouts, jalapenos, pickled artichoke hearts, Monterey jack cheese, and Green Goddess dressing on a sourdough loaf that had first been sliced lengthwise, spread with garlic butter and toasted.”

Doc is in his late twenties, and has ample experience already with the way cops operate. He doesn’t like them because in his experience they lie and find ways around doing the right thing for the folks they were hired “to serve and protect.” They have powerful inducements to serve and protect their own ass, which they often do. But even the folks out to neutralize our dopehead protagonist seem to like him as he pursues for his former “old lady” Shasta the people that threaten her new bf, a millionaire real estate tycoon who has seen the errors of his ways. Several people turn up dead, and others warn “You don’t want to be fucking with this, Doc.”

The names will send one back: Bambi, Jade, Spotted Dick, Golden Fang, and Coy. We get lyrics, too, entire soundtracks that play in our heads as we squint against the smoke in the air. My favorite is “one of the few known attempts at black surf music”:

”Who’s that strollin down the street,
Hi-heel flip-flops on her feet,
Always got a great big smile,
Never gets popped by Juv-en-ile—
Who is it? [Minor-seventh guitar fill]
Soul Gidget!

Who never worries about her karma?
Who be that signifyin on your mama?
Out there looking so bad and big,
Like Sandra Dee in some Afro wig—
Who is it?
Soul Gidget!

And what about this jewel of a set-piece:
”Back at his place, Doc found Scott and Denis in the kitchen investigating the icebox, having just climbed in the alley window after Denis, a bit earlier, down at his own place, had fallen asleep as he often did with a lit joint in his mouth, only this time the joint, instead of dropping onto this chest and burning him and waking him up at least partway, had rolled someplace else among the bedsheets, where soon it began to smolder. After a while Denis woke, got up, and wandered into the bathroom, thought he would take a shower, sort of got into doing that. At some point the bed burst into flame, burning eventually up through the ceiling, directly above which was his neighbor Chico’s water bed, luckily for Chico without him on it, which being plastic melted from the heat, releasing nearly a ton of water through the hole that had by now burned in the ceiling, putting out the fire in Denis’ bedroom while turning the floor into a sort of wading pool. Denis came drifting back from the bathroom, and not able right away to account for what he found, plus getting the fire department, who had now arrived, confused with the police, went running down the alley to Scott Oof’s beach place, where he tried to describe what he thought had happened, basically deliberate sabotage by the Boards, who had never stopped plotting against him.”

The plot, such as it is, is studded with dazzling gems that threaten to distract one from Doc’s inexorable forward slide towards finding out who is actually screwing who: “…the patriots running [Coy] were being run themselves by another level of power altogether, which seemed to feel entitled to fuck with the lives of all who weren’t as good or bright as they were, which meant everybody.” Doc, to his everlasting credit, began to worry who he was helping and who he was hurting in the course of his meandering investigations. Even his buddy Sparky helping him out by following the action on the ARPAnet led to soul-searching. Too much information. About everybody. There must be a reason Pynchon decides to make dentists the money-grubbing felonious brains behind the importation of heroin, but I guess we’ll never know for sure.

And now for one of my favorite passages: Pynchon describes a phenomenon we may not have experienced before, but one which we will recognize forever after with a burst of delight and wonder.
”In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.”

As I sought the source of the Nixon quote (which sounds as tone-deaf as the man actually was) “There are always the whiners and complainers who’ll say, this is fascism. Well, fellow Americans, if it’s Fascism for Freedom? I…can…dig it!” I came across a review which places this novel in the context of Pynchon’s other works. I said in an earlier review (of Bleeding Edge) that Pynchon is remarkably consistent, and the above reviewer tends to agree. Trust, but verify. Stay vigilant. Watch yourself. “ …stay focused and stay active and [do] not take what those powerful around you say at face value.”[The Closed Circuit Game: A Hippie Noir, by Salvatore Ruggiero]

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger

Windigo Island (Cork O'Connor, #14) When I first read William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, Iron Lake, I was struck by the coldness between whites and Indian populations in Minnesota and admit to finding it off-putting. Krueger’s latest novel is fourteenth in the Cork O’Connor series, and the coldness between the races is still there, but I have a completely different perception of it. Now I feel so grateful to Krueger for pointing out such a failing in our management of race relations that the treatment of Indians on reservations and off is still a hideous blemish we have to confront every day in parts of our country. Indian attitudes should be cold. It would be a miracle if they weren’t.

Krueger gives us a window into a world many of us will never experience firsthand, shares words, customs, traditions, and details of Indian life that can be mined for the underpinning of Indian heritage and culture. But he also shares his clear-eyed view of what our country looks like—both physically and psychically—from the waterfront in Duluth and waves breaking on the shores of Lake Superior’s rock-strewn islands to the inside of a home for runaways and a dinner table laid for guests in an Indian home.

In this installment, Krueger brings us to North Dakota where some Indians are working to preserve a landscape that is threatened by oil companies dedicated to oil retrieval in the Bakken Formation through the process of fracking. As it turns out, the worthless land the government gave to the Indians way back when happens to be right on top of the Bakken formation which has emerged as one of the most important oil formations in the United States. This must be God’s little joke on the white folk, though I’ll bet the reservation Indians see precious little that will benefit them and a whole lot more that won’t.

Besides this important piece of information, Krueger also shares the history of child prostitution on the Great Lakes near and around Duluth, or what is sometimes called the human trafficking of young girls, many from differing Indian tribes and reservations that were all shoved together at some point, and which now experience gang or tribe-on-tribe violence similar to an inner city history of interracial gang warfare.

Krueger peoples this modern history with realistic characters including the loving and generous children of lawman-turned-private investigator Cork O’Connor. Though O’Connor himself has a tendency towards hard justice, his children exhibit the gentling influence of their tribal blood and the Indian tradition exemplified by the close family friend “Uncle” Henry Meloux.
"In every human being, there are two wolves constantly fighting. One is fear, and the other is love. The one which will win is the one you feed."

Uncle Henry is closing on 100 years old, though no one knows for sure. He is of the Anishinaabeg Tribe, or what is sometimes called the Iron Lake Ojibwe. He lives alone in a cabin in the woods by a lake and is considered by his tribe members and many others to be an elder of enormous moral understanding and weight. His thinking is elliptical and his pronouncements often indirect, carrying a hard-won wisdom that puts one in mind of great Buddhist leaders, signaling an inclusiveness in the circle of life that is not typical of "the white man."

Krueger introduces a rich cast of characters that seem to have their basis in real life. Sometimes Cork’s twenty-something daughter Jenny seemed not to grasp the menace of the situation in which her crew found themselves while journeying to find men responsible for holding captive some young girls, but she was wily and careful and was forced into action by the end. I tend toward Cork’s end of the spectrum of justice dispensation, but we always need someone questioning those choices.

Krueger’s series gives us a very interesting look at the modern Midwest, in all its glorious dishabille.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores