Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon

My Venice and Other Essays Leon reminds us what we, the masses, like about the internet and TV criticism today: it is not always politically correct. Leon makes no attempt to please everyone. She is just telling us what she thinks about, and she doesn’t mince words. The woman who writes thoughtful police procedurals that dramatize critical issues of our time is intelligent and opinionated. Her personality is out there for us to “take it or leave it.” I like people with considered opinions.

Because Leon is able to articulate her positions, we are convinced we must take her standpoint into consideration when formulating or modifying our own view of the world. And finally, she is amusing, something that is too little valued in polite society these days. One gets the feeling she relishes matching wits: contrary viewpoints will not necessarily be shunned by her, but welcomed by a sardonic smile, a tilt of dark brows which contrast so sharply with her white bob, and the gleaming sword of wit raised as if to kiss. Be prepared to do battle all ye who enter here.

Mostly Leon’s essays are short opinions about this and that, essays that get longer as the book moves along. Her sections are intriguing: “On Venice,” “On America,” “On Music,” “On Mankind and Animals.” In “On Men” we learn what is essential to the Italian male character. We glean details of Leon’s background as an American living abroad. The essays are an excellent counterpoint to the ever longer series featuring police chief Commissario Brunetti of Venice. Brunetti is a nice man, a good father, loving husband, and a thoughtful, effective police chief in an Italian context. That is, criminals are not always brought to justice and official corruption is a way of life. Leon’s essays put these characterizations in context.

The most interesting section of essays might be the last, which Leon entitles “On Books.” One essay in this section has Leon giving her considered (and valuable) opinion on what it takes to be a successful mystery/crime writer, which decisions must be made before beginning a novel, and what level skill is required. Then she adds an essay on “the expert eye” and how critical that is to the success of a crime writer.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR radio commentator based in Italy, interviewed Leon in 2007. I was surprised to learn that Leon’s books are not translated into Italian, and will not be in her lifetime. She had been writing the Venetian Brunetti series for some time before her books were available in the United States. I’d always assumed her work was for European audiences rather than for American ones…so I was surprised to learn the country where she lives is not privy to her talent.

Donna Leon’s own blog features further links and discussions.

I want to go back and reread, or read further in the series, knowing what I do now after these essays. Delightfully piquant.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo: A Novel

“What is it you wanted from…[music, fiction, art?]”

“Awe. Surprise. Suspense. Refreshment. A sense of the infinite. Beauty.”
--from Orpheo

Orpheus could make the stones weep, animate the inanimate. The love of his life is taken to the underworld. He wants to steal her back and creates music to tame the underworld, but he dies at the hands of those that cannot hear his divine music.

I always receive news of a new Powers novel with excitement. I think to enjoy his novels you must just allow yourself to be led, just for a little while. He is telling you a story that requires you to make connections. Powers has the heart of a musician and the soul of a scientist but his mode of communication is language.

This novel is about art, and what it means for our lives today, and what the boundaries are. Peter Els is a seventy-something musician who gave up everything, including his wife and daughter, for his music. He created music that people often didn’t like, and couldn’t follow. When he did finally create music that was meaningful to people, he refused to have it performed because it felt exploitative.

There are two threads in this novel. One is El’s regret for having missed the central meaning of life—to be with people you love. Els began to see that one can hear music everywhere, in ordinary outside noises, and that losing his family was the big regret of his life. The second thread is that Els, now in old age and at the end of his time on earth, wants to create music that transcends the time in which we live and changes as our lives change. This, he feels, will be a more permanent legacy than any music he could create for now which bridges past and future. He wants to connect that past with the present and the future. He conceives of the idea to implant a musical phrase into living bacteria so that it will evolve with the times. This is perceived by government regulators as subversive and he is pursued.

Ideas about art, how it is created, how it is perceived, what constitutes art are all central to this novel. In addition, Powers muses about plentitude, and solitude, and how we can manage either, or both, and what they mean for our perception of art. When you have ALL music to listen to at any time in any place, can you hear anything? Attention is harder to get, harder to keep. Powers says, paraphrasing from his interview with Nancy Pearl, “The challenge of today’s human is in meeting the increase in capacity of what we are able to do.”

Orfeo almost seems like it is written in another language. Just like music is a language, this book has pauses, codas, interwoven threads for different voices, all adding up to a larger piece…

Powers shares stories, partially made up but based in history, of composers and the act of creation and how certain pieces come into being, notably Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps or Quartet for The End of Time. The emotions and feelings of the composer are in the music that we hear and that our bodies feel. In an interview with Nancy Pearl, Powers asks the question, “There is something about a pattern of sounds that compels our bodies. Is it in the physics of creation or is it learned?”

These stories about creation and the meaning behind the music are riveting and meaningful and add immeasurably to our understanding of, and appreciation of, the pieces. On his website, Powers shares a link to the music mentioned in Orfeo, a list of the more important pieces and suggested renderings of that music. Listening to the music then enhances one's reading of the novel. This is big art--art to be savored.

In a series of interviews conducted after the publication of this book, Powers tells that his “alternate career” would have been music. He tells Nancy Pearl that he began studies as a physicist:
paraphrased: ‘As a young man, I always wanted to be a scientist, but I discovered as I grew older that to be successful as a physicist, one has to specialize narrowly. At the same time I fell under the spell of [a great teacher of literature] and I realized that there is one field that encompasses all fields, and that is writing.’

Salon interviews Richard Powers

Washington Independent Review of Books Beth Kingsley writes a review of Orfeo

Nancy Pearl talks with Richard Powers

Richard Powers introduces his novel

I want to tell you in advance that these referrals to articles and interviews may not help you understand or appreciate the novel. What they do is enhance your experience of the novel. If you didn’t enjoy the mind of Powers by reading his novel, you may be even more confused by the man in person. He goes deep and one has to listen with both ears and full mind, not with divided attention. I am not criticizing divided attention. We all have that. But one must sink into this novel and into his interviews with a willing resignation. A second read, a second listen may yield greater understanding. Don't be frustrated. Be intrigued. If you do take the time, you may find something very special, unique, and powerful. This is a man who could, perhaps, have been anything, but he chose to tell stories. Following him is a remarkable journey.

“If no one is listening, your art is set free.”

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Duty by Robert M. Gates

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War “War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”

This memoir is subtitled Memoirs of a Secretary at War and Gates brings home the fact that it was not only the American public who did not seem to think or act as though we were engaged in war (two wars!) in the years since 2003, but it was also the Pentagon, which went about its "business as usual." This should not be as shocking to me as it is, since I lived also during this time and knew well that we felt no impact unless we had someone in the fight. Gates reminds us to think about our hand-jerk reaction to use military force in place of other, more measured responses and reminds us that there "the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms" because the military leaders have seen the cost of war.

Gates organizes this memoir of his life in the G.W. Bush and Obama White Houses by big sections: by country (e.g. Russia, Iraq, Iran) and by his tasks (e.g., War with the Pentagon, War with Congress). He is frank about what he thought at the time he was asked to work on budgets and troop allocations in the two lengthy wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, but despite his personal dislike for the opinions of several of the folks he had to work with often, he did not often let his feelings get in the way of the business of the American people. He worked closely with Tom Donilon after Donilon became National Security Advisor to President Obama in 2010, but Donilon and Gates often disagreed on issues when Donilon was Deputy National Security Advisor to NSA chief Jim Jones early in the Obama Administration.

“That’s an order.”
“Obama’s order [about the troop levels in Afghanistan] at Biden’s urging demonstrated in my view the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture. That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership…The President announced the troop surge at West Point on December first [2009]… In the end I felt this national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience…I thought Obama did the right things on national security, but everything came across as politically calculated...I was frustrated with a valuable process that had gone on way too long. To be fair, though, national interest had trumped politics as the President made a tough decision that was contrary to the advice of all his political advisors and almost certainly the least popular of the options before him in terms of his political constituents. On reflection, I believe that all of us at the senior-most level did not serve the President well in this process. Our team of rivals let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations. Contending teams presented alternatives to the President that were considerably more black and white than warranted. A more collegial process one that tried to identify points of agreement rather than sharpen differences would have had a more harmonious conclusion and done less damage to the relationship between the military and the Commander in Chief…”

Gates is straightforward in what he supported throughout his time as Secretary of Defense for two presidents, and talks candidly about his assessment of people and the things they did that he liked or did not like. Biden, who Gates claimed was on the wrong side of every major policy initiative throughout his time in office, was personally likeable, but Gates felt he was too often focused on political outcomes. One could of course argue that Biden felt this was his “job,” to be the one voice among many that did not focus on the needs of one department, but instead focused on the political ramifications. Gates gives Obama credit for looking at all ramifications and making some difficult calls despite the political fallout.

I had an epiphany halfway through this memoir. The poisonous political climate in Washington defeated Obama in a way that elections did not. He may have been elected as a result of the decline of both political parties, both in terms of their efficacy and in terms of popular perceptions of the parties. Gates talks about the endless leaks from his department and from the White House, and how they poisoned the atmosphere even further, forcing spokespeople to line up politically palatable positions in advance of meetings outlining possible consequences of these positions. Gates states he thought the Obama White House and Obama personally were suspicious of the armed services and the men that lead them. Perhaps Obama grew more and more suspicious as his Administration suffered through leaks and the vitriol spewing from Congress. Obama may simply have felt the sands shifting beneath him. Gates recognizes that Obama faced the most difficult opening years of any President he can remember, being involved in two wars, a financial crisis at home, and constant threats and crises overseas.

Gates survived long in the changing political climate in Washington because he had common sense and political savvy. When it comes right down to it, what is the Secretary of Defense? He is not a general, who commands troop movements. In some cases, the Secretary does not even have military experience, beyond a short stint in one of the services. He is not elected, but appointed. He distills and conveys information from the defense arm to the political, executive arm. He is a conduit.

Perhaps the President should always choose a person for Secretary of Defense who does not want the job, as Gates claimed he did not. Objectively, it is difficult to argue that Gates was not successful in the position. He was first appointed by a Republican and asked to stay by a Democrat. A person who does not want the job may not have a particular axe to grind or a personal agenda. Gates looked at Pentagon and Veteran’s Administration intransigence with the same scalded eye he cast upon the bitter infighting and jockeying for power he saw in the Congress and the “micromanaging” he saw among the National Security Staff (NSS). One has to ask oneself why anyone would want the job if not for personal aggrandizement. Gates says it was his “Duty.”
“Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of…The argument against military action is almost never about capabilities but whether it is wise. As Petraeus said early on in Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” Too often the question is not even asked…American presidents… are too quick to reach for a gun…Too many American ideologues call for the use of military action as the first option rather than a last resort…Obama’s pivot to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic or political priorities. And so the rest of the world sees America above all else as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. I strongly believe American must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities: we are the indispensable nation and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership. But, we also need to better appreciate that there are limits to what the United States…can do in an often cruel and challenging world…not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response. We are enamored of technology…but war has become for too many, among them defense experts, members of Congress, executive branch officials, and the American public as well, a kind of arcade video game: bloodless, painless, and odorless…War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”

If this book interests you but seems like an impossible dream to read because of its size, I urge you to read the last chapter. In this, Gates talks directly to us about his understanding of and experience in office, sharing insights and realities about the use of military force. Additionally, an interview added at the end summarizes several points he makes at greater length in his book. This is a remarkable document that is as open and candid as the man. It is impossible not to like and respect him, and thank him for handling a very difficult job in a very difficult time. We were lucky he was there to save us from ourselves. He reminds us to thank the military men and women who, because of their sacrifice, allow us to live our lives with the abundance that we do. I wish we, as citizens, would strive to remember our own duty when it comes to our country and our community.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Killing Pilgrim by Alen Mattich

Words are Mattich’s business…I mean in real life. He is a journalist and columnist based in London, writing for financial concerns like The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. He makes dry and convoluted financial, political, and historical matters comprehensible and interesting. He makes a second incursion into fiction with this comedic spy novel set on the Balkan Peninsula, in the region of the former Yugoslavia. His first novel, Zagreb Cowboy, was the most fun, thought-provoking, and informative crime novel I read last year. At the moment, Mattich is not published in the United States, but I expect that is merely an oversight that will be corrected soon.

Zagreb, 1991. Marko della Torre alias the Gringo, works for a Croatian state security less than two months old. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the Yugoslav republic in June 1991, and the new Croatian government “nationalized” former federal buildings. Marko had been a member of the regional headquarters of the Yugoslavian Department of Internal Security (UDBA) in Zagreb, Department IV, which was responsible for investigating extra-judicial killings.
“[Della Torre watched] the watchers everyone feared…No other secret police force in the world was as successful at killing people beyond its borders—not the KGB, not the Stasi, not the Securitate, not Savak, not even Mossad. The CIA didn’t even register as competition. Della Torre’s job was to find and prosecute any UDBA operations done outside the scope of Yugoslav laws. Killing done for the personal motives of people in power.”
With independence, della Torre’s office was to be absorbed into ‘military intelligence,’ in a Croatian military in its infancy. Armed forces in every state of the former Yugoslavia would like to see the UDBA, its personnel and its files, disappear.

One thread in this novel is about the assassin called the Montenegrin, and his killing of “Pilgrim,” code name for Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, whose death in February 1986 was never solved.
--from the Acknowledgements: ”Olof Palme’s assassination on that cold February night in 1986 remains one of Europe’s great unsolved crimes of the postwar era…There are numerous theories about who might have been behind the killing and why. One is that the Yugoslav government was somehow involved. This isn’t particularly far-fetched. The UDBA may not be in the popular imagination like the KGB or the Stasi, but of all the organs of state security operating from Europe’s Communist bloc, the Yugoslav secret police was perhaps the most murderous beyond its borders—even if its known targets were Yugoslav dissidents or some related or associated with them.”
Mattich brings us to Vukovar in August 1991, just months before the infamous Vukovar Massacre at a hospital in November of that year. This undoubtedly foreshadows a future novel in the series since it is only touched upon, putting our nerves on edge and placing della Torre’s wife squarely in the center of the action, while the storyline brings us down the Dalmatian coast to the walled city of Dubrovnik where the Montenegrin has a hideout. The CIA shows up and wants him neutralized.

Along the way Mattich shares the beauty of the Adriatic: “The waters of Croatia’s Adriatic are crystalline blue and turquoise to a depth of ten metres and more, so that the coral fans and black round balls of spiny sea urchins on distant bare rocks appear to be no more than an arm’s length below the surface. This clarity engenders a sense of vertigo.” His descriptions of the coastline and mountains makes one yearn to visit. And he tells us the myth of the American West thrives and the whole country grew up reciting the stories of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, the famous cowboy and Indian pair created by German novelist, Karl May:
“Everybody had heard of Winnetou. Even if they hadn’t read the books, they’d seen the films. They were famous. ‘German movies made with Yugoslavs…based on the books by Karl May. May was a German wrote a bunch of adventures about exotic places...Most of what he wrote was from a debtor’s prison. Anyway, he’s famous in Germany and Yugoslavia…[everybody here] loves cowboys and Indians, mostly because of him…He was Hitler’s favorite writer.’”

This series is just too interesting to miss. Mattich strikes just the right tone as he introduces us to a region with which we may not be familiar, reminding us of recent earth-shattering events there and inviting us to imagine what life must have been like when Yugoslavia broke into its component states: “any sense of brotherhood was riven by two alphabets, three religions, innumerable dialects, and a history of mutual loathing.”

Mattich’s characters are richly developed and ambiguously framed by their questionable behaviors, and yet we admire and respect even the hitmen for their devotion to duty and family....all except for the Americans. The CIA operatives introduced in this novel are admired for their equipment, money, and dental work, but little else. And Mattich is funny. He catches the absurd and delivers it in such a way the one begins to imagine how nice it would be to be sitting late into the night around a small wooden table with a bottle of slivovitz and a bunch of rough-looking middle-aged policemen, shooting the bull.

This book is available in a deliciously high-quality paperback edition or for download from The House of Anansi Press in Canada. I have a paper copy I can giveaway to one interested reader of my blog. Giveaway completed February 20, 2014.

A word about the eBook: for some reason, those cute little accent marks above the alphabet letters for Serbo-Croat place and people names (e.g., Poreč, Anzulović, and Strumbić) are not manifest in the eBook but are replaced by an annoying question mark instead. It takes a little getting used to, but the book is understandable even without having the proper alphabet. I don’t really understand why it is not possible to rectify this (how hard is this?) but urge the eBook publisher to rethink this for the future. This series is worth any effort or expense in getting it right.

A third book in the series, The Heart of Hell, is scheduled for publication in February 2015.

An interview with Alen Mattich.

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Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild Anthony and Spence do a magnificent job of sharing Anthony's story of settling a herd of seven wild elephants on his 5,000 acres of bush in Zululand, South Africa. I respect his decision to try to extend the reserve to include the neighboring tribal land so that a greater number of wild animals might live comfortably without interference. The elephants get the credit they deserve for being remarkably intelligent and resilient, despite extremely harsh treatment and bad memories early on. It is a source of great happiness that there are such people working tirelessly to create an environment of inclusion in a world that increasingly seems focused on self-aggrandizement.

Nana becomes the troubled herd’s defacto matriarch after the herd’s real matriarch is shot and killed just prior to the herd’s transfer to Thula Thula, Anthony’s game reserve, in 1999. Nana had learned many tricks about escaping from electrified enclosures from her earlier mentor and the herd often worked in concert to outwit their captors. Happily, Anthony seemed to understand that a calming presence and personal connection with the lead elephant could make a difference to the herd’s peace of mind. Slowly, over a period of weeks, he managed to make Nana understand that their new home could be a place of comfort and peace. They stayed and thrived, becoming important members of the reserve’s wildlife bounty.

Anthony shares his experiences in words and photos, and tells of difficulties with poachers, local tribal courts, unruly bushrangers, and with the wild elephants themselves. When money gets tight, he is forced to open a tourist lodge to host foreign guests, but does it with customary goodwill and bonhomie.

Late in the book, Anthony tells us he and one of his rangers went to Baghdad during the early part of the Iraq War to help save the zoo animals, and wrote a book about the experience called Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. His ranger then went on to Kabul, Afghanistan, to do the same thing there. The experience of living in the bush with these resourceful folks and animals over the period of time it takes to read the book is wonderfully energizing and one hates to leave their company at the end. One feels quite as though one is losing a friend. Anthony is not simply an elephant whisperer, but fortunately a man who spoke to us, too.

Lawrence Anthony died March 2, 2012 at the age of sixty-one. His obituary in The Telegraph of Britain is here. Graham Spence is a journalist and native Zimbabwean who co-wrote three books with Lawrence Anthony. He also writes fiction. A short bio is here.

Paperback, 384 pages, Published May 22nd 2012 by St. Martin's Griffin first published June 11th 2009); ISBN 125000781X (ISBN13: 9781250007810)

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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley

Cold Storage, Alaska Winter sets in long, cold, and lonely in Cold Storage, Alaska, but Straley sets us up with a comic narrative that takes most of the vinegar out of the population of “drunks and depressives” and sweetens it with romance. He introduces us to a fiercely independent and strangely cohesive group of folks who laugh (and make us laugh) in the face of adversity and who create the conditions for generosity of spirit. But not all is feasting on “King Salmon Every Day.” It continually astonishes me that characters in a fiction can make one feel actual sorrow and sadness, but we do in this one. Everything is going swimmingly and then something truly dreadful happens.

It is the year 2000 and Clive is thirty-five years old. He is being released from a seven-year prison stint in Seattle. After a brief detour to eat a fresh lettuce salad, Clive goes to collect his share of criminal proceeds from his pre-incarceration drug sales days. He is aiming for a small coastal town in Alaska where his brother, Miles, and his mother still reside.

Cold Storage is a failing fishing village of 150 residents on the outer coast of southeastern Alaska, originally settled by Norwegian fisherman who felt at home in the steep-sided fjord-like bay: “She’s hell for snug except when it’s coming straight down.” Some of my favorite passages in this novel come when Straley is describing the surrounding countryside, the changing quality of the water, the luminescent sky, the ragged rim of trees.

This novel is a little hard to characterize. It is not mystery, but it could be romance, though it is an unusual example of the genre. Falling in love is no more remarkable in Cold Storage than falling out of love. Both provide important entertainment to residents even when they themselves are not directly involved, except perhaps through the placing of bets on the timing of who is falling in or out of bed with whom...

No, this is a crime novel, though law enforcement is rarely in sight, and is the butt of jokes when it does come calling. This story is all about the ‘crims’ and their extended family of friends and partners in crime. We empathize with these oddball characters, many of whom act much as we have done (though we don’t wish to admit or recall), and all of whom change in the year or so since we meet them.

Straley claims in interviews “…I do not recognize revenge as the lifeblood of a great plot,” but he introduces a little revenge in this novel that upends his screwball comedy and changes lives forever. Straley then tells us his secret: “I still believe that love and compassion are what move through the hearts of all great characters.” And that’s exactly what we like about them.

This book was offered to me by Soho Crime in exchange for an honest review. You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores