Tuesday, December 29, 2015

ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

This report on the state of [Islamic] terror worldwide is essential to our understanding of a new kind of ideological warfare and how it is fought. In addition it raises issues of security far from the physical battlefields in Syria or Iraq, and describes the ways in which bad actors influence surveillance and curbs on free speech. Finally, it contrasts Al Qaeda with ISIS along many threads, and leaves open the possibility that one will eventually absorb the other.
"The West has too often found itself fighting the last war, when the next war is taking shape before its eyes. Faced with the expansionist, populist rise of ISIS, we cannot afford to keep making that mistake."
The authors describe the online presence of ISIS and the methods used to gain followers through media sites. The Twitter Wars fought among splinter ideologues and referred to in newspaper reports are laid out in ravishingly detail, and the analysis is explicit and thoughtful. Especially interesting is the informed discussion on whether attempts to limit ISIS participation on social media sites controlled by U.S. organizations (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, etc.) helps or hurts attempts to reign in ISIS influence.

Stern and Berger define terrorism (“terrorism is psychological warfare”) and remind us “people understandably forget sometimes [that] terrorism is ultimately intended to send a message to the body politic rather than being a pragmatic effort to destroy an enemy…” The particular makeup of our psychologies make us susceptible to fear when the chances of death or maiming by terrorist plot is vanishingly low, even when compared to a car accident while driving to work in the morning. The terrorists are taking advantage of those irrational fears and can be extraordinarily effective in desensitizing large groups of people to empathy. In the most successful attempt yet to explain the extreme violence shown online by ISIS, Stern & Berger posit
"…Empathy can…become attenuated…when a person is too often severely frightened, too often victimized, or too often involved in perpetrating violence. Frequent exposure to savagery is one way to reduce a person’s capacity to feel. When a person is trained, or trains himself, to feel less empathy and its absence becomes a trait, he becomes capable of dehumanizing others, putting him at risk of acts of extreme cruelty. In our view, ISIS is using frequent exposure to violence as a technology to erode empathy among its followers."
This theory helps to explain why ISIS is involved in teaching and training young children—the younger the better—in weapons training and inculcation: “young children are easier to mold into ISIS’s vision of this new man...Leadership decapitation is significantly less likely to be effective against organizations that prepare children to step into their fathers’ shoes.” Regarding desensitization to extreme violence, “residents of Raqqa report…that children are taught how to behead another human being, and are given blond dolls on which to practice.”

In the last sections of the book (before the Appendix in which they give background information and definitions), the authors consider possible outcomes of Western involvement in the attempt to crush ISIS and ask the question: should we be fighting against ISIS or “for” something? The authors suggest that we must be held responsible for U.S. tactics or policies that are actually inciting rage and violence: drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, regime change, torture, and the misguided promotion of electoral democracy around the world.
”We must find better ways to balance our security against common sense and widely accepted ethical principles. That means refusing to rush in to war every time we are invited by someone waving a black flag, but it also means taking a closer look at our strategies and tactics, and asking how they can better reflect our values. In the conflict with ISIS, messaging and image are half the battle, and we do ourselves no favors when we refuse to discuss the negative consequences of our actions.”
Jessica Stern is a policy analyst specializing in terrorism affiliated with Harvard’s School of Public Health and the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. J.M. Berger is a nonresident fellow in the Project for U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. Both appear to have closely monitored the appearance and development of ISIS outreach online, and seem to be defining a new kind of war that has enormous implications for how we live our lives now and in the future, to say nothing of how we fight.

For readers afraid of books with "too many words," this book doesn't sit in that category. It's is remarkably fluent and interesting and easy to read, and the final one hundred pages are notes. This is an important must-read for those interested in looking at an aspect of the conflict that so far has not been well-defined for watchers.

More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, December 28, 2015

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patick Modiano

This novella is Modiano’s first publication since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. Translated into twenty-five languages, it allows readers to become familiar with the haunting style that I predict is Modiano’s signature. In 2016 I plan to read the novel Villa Trieste, and the screenplay Modiano collaborated on with the filmmaker Louis Malle, called Lacombe Lucien.

This is a novel of remembrance, forgetting, and foreboding, aligning the present with the past and the future. Modiano illuminates how the shadows of memory keep us from knowing who we are.
I cannot provide the reality of events,
I can only convey their shadow.
--STENDHAL, Modiano’s epigraph
Monsieur Jean Daragane was dozing in his study on a hot summer day in Paris when the insistent ring of his telephone shatters his isolation.
"Almost nothing. Like an insect bite that initially strikes you as very slight. At least that is what you tell yourself in a low voice so as to reassure yourself."
The caller is unknown to him, but has a “dreary and threatening voice.” Monsieur Daragne has lost his address book, and the caller has his name, address, and phone number. He wants to come over and question Mr. Daragne about a name he discovered in the book—a name possibly associated with a murder.

It was all so long ago. Monsieur Daragne is old now, and he no longer cares about the address book, nor the lives represented within it. The numbers he remembers by heart will ring in places where no one will answer any more. The person the caller asks Daragne about he claims not to remember, though the caller points out that Daragne’s first novel references a man by that name. The caller’s insistence starts a landslide of memories, once long hidden, uncovering a past Daragne had buried.

This is a book short enough to be read in an evening, and when I was browsing in a bookstore on a day before Christmas, I was so struck by the menace in the opening lines that I knew this would be my introduction to the work of Modiano. Cheers!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tamarack County by William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger gifts us a Christmas murder mystery, #13 of his Cork O’Connor series set in the woods of northern Minnesota. This crime novel is strong enough in characterizations to stand alone, and it showcases Krueger’s extraordinary skill with dialogue, character, and plot. It is fast enough to be read in an evening and as smooth and warming as spiked eggnog. When the ribbons and paper have been stripped from holiday gifts and you want to sink into the quiet of a winter’s day, reach for a novel that refreshes your interest in storytelling like this one.

Cork O’Connor, former Sheriff of Tamarack County and now a private investigator, may be unique in the annals of ex-police. He has grown in the years we have known him, and while he has a streak of barely-controlled violence, he doesn’t exhibit post-trauma and stress in the time-honored way of aging avengers: with a bottle. His comfort comes from family, now three adult children who are showing an independence of thought that doesn’t always align with their father’s. O’Connor struggles to allow them the freedom to fail, surprising himself when they do not always, fail.

Krueger excels in his ability to place us in northern Minnesota, situating us near an Indian reservation that features a casino on tribal land. He constructs realistic dialogue and narrative that includes Indian mysticism, love, sex, philosophy, all without a break in the action. Krueger exhibits a generous attitude towards the things that matter to us now: he has O’Connor mull over the use of a noisy snowmobile in the pristine forest, a hunter’s collection of stuffed mammals and fish on his wall, a man’s focus on a woman’s physical charms to the exclusion of her “content” or character. O’Connor struggles with the loneliness of a parent whose children are leaving home, and with the departure of his lover, tending her own child in another state.

This is some of the very best genre fiction being produced in the U.S. today, and this particular novel is a special treat for sheer skillfulness and its ability to interest, excite, and soothe, all at the same time. I marvel at the endless well of criminality displayed in this series, and in Krueger's ability to portray the humanity of his characters. You still have time to order a copy of this before the curtain falls on Christmas, so get a copy for that day when you just want to lie around and be quiet for a change. Merry Christmas!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

”…when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.”
My copy of this novel is spiked with tabs marking something deeply insightful, stabbingly funny, or needing revisiting. There is simply too much to point to: Beatty has been cogitating a long time about race relations in America to cram so much into this relatively short novel. He never tells us why his fictional California town is named Dickens—it can’t be about the author—but I think it has to do with a classic American imprecation “Go to [the] Dickens!” though I am certainly willing to be challenged on this supposition. Dickens is also used as an exclamatory “What the dickens!” standing in for “What the F@*k!” in marginally polite white dialogue, and perhaps even in the L’il Rascals film archives, though I am going to have to check on that.
"They won’t admit it, but every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person."
Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me, is the sellout. He just doesn’t seem to get the “black” thing. He identifies as human first, black second. Beatty doesn’t target black folk alone. Everyone is skewered everyone in this wild ride through a Los Angeles southwest suburb that still has farm zoning, allowing families to live among livestock, chickens, cotton, watermelon, and weed. A proud descendant of the Kentucky family called Mee and one whose forefather subsequently dropped the extraneous “e,” our narrator Bonbon Me has a case before the Supreme Court, a “screw-faced” black Justice, about his ownership of a slave in the present day. That alleged slave, Hominy Jenkins, literally declaimed his status one day to our narrator as a result of Me still having agricultural interests and therefore probably needing a slave. Hominy moved in. What could Me do?

Well, shortly after rapacious real estate developers convinced officials to remove signs demarking the township of Dickens, Me made and put up new signs and drew a white line around the streets and houses comprising Dickens and re-segregated: “No Whites Allowed.” One may be curious why he would do this, since the town was already black, but he felt he was saving something, making a point. They can’t just muscle in and erase a town…a culture…a people. That’s not fairness. People actually do care if you are white, brown, black or yellow. Sellout Bonbon had mused for some that if the black community in Dickens just took “their racial blinders off for one second, they’d realize [Dickens] was no longer black but predominantly Latino.” So he was just making Dickens “equal” by excluding whites. It’s not discrimination exactly. It’s equality.
"The Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s getting a taste of mother’s milk. It’s constitutional pornography in there…and what…about obscenity? I know it when I see it…Me vs. the United States of America demands a more fundamental examination of what we mean by ‘separate,’ by ‘equal,’ by ‘black.’"
Beatty demurs when critics point out his work as a satire. It isn’t, he says. It’s reportage. The material in this book is, in fact, observable in everyday America.
"Black people don’t even talk about race. Nothing’s attributable to color anymore. It’s all ‘mitigating circumstances.’ The only people discussing ‘race’ with any insight and courage are loud middle-aged white men…well-read open-minded white kids…a few freelance journalists in Detroit…"
Author interviews with Beatty are some of the most uncomfortable I have ever read or heard. Beatty stutters and avoids, sometimes flat out refuses to entertain a question. (Examples: Boston NPR WBUR Onpoint, and Ebony.) Beatty clearly doesn’t like talking about “what his book means.” He wants his book to start the conversation. We’re supposed to be telling him what it means…to us…as individuals rather than as a class. He says often in interviews, “I am uncomfortable talking about this.” He does not appear to be uncomfortable writing about what he sees and what he thinks about what he sees, so folks interested in making him a spokesperson for black people will have to turn to his writing. But there aren’t answers there, either, really. It is just raw material for the discussion we are all meant to have.

In a reading Beatty gave at Politics & Prose, the Washington, D.C. bookstore, Beatty told the audience that he teaches a writing course at Columbia University and one of his students said to him, “I feel sorry for you guys” as though the race issue were finished, and is nothing now compared with yesterday. Beatty was shocked. It reminded me of young, upwardly mobile women saying they don’t experience sexism today.

Me, I incline towards Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” Not that money will fix anything. It is the discussion about reparations that might fix something. Nigerian novelist Chris Abani, in a riveting conversation with Walter Mosley, says "America has had a unique relationship with blackness that, say, Europe really hasn’t had. As much as people like to pretend, slavery isn’t really over."

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, December 14, 2015

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Canadian author Richard Wagamese manages to slow our heart rate down with this story of an Ojibwe Indian who lost his bearings, and about an old man and a boy living on a farm carved out of the wilderness. Stories told and listened to form the heart of this novel: one feels sure that if only there were enough stories, things might have turned out differently. But in the end, the larger story—the story of this novel—lets us know that life encompasses both the tragic and the magnificent and to know one, we must know the other.
"When you share stories, you change things."
The land is central to this novel: how it nourishes and refreshes the spirit, how it returns generosity shown it. The old man and the boy live in concert with the land and, having learned its lessons, treat one another with a gentleness and love that approaches the sacred. "Just get it done," is what the old man tells himself and teaches the boy, and throughout their lives together the two of them face difficulties or obstacles with the same quiet fortitude and firmness. They discover the pleasure in bending one’s back to difficult work, and in contemplating the end of a task well done, whether it be straight, square, strong fencing or burying a man, facing east, in stony ground.

The boy’s father, Eldon Starlight, had left his son with the old man because he couldn’t find the strength within him to care for another. When gradually the outlines of Eldon’s life come into focus, we discover his struggles are mostly internal, that despite the gifts of his physical health and strength, he hadn’t enough strength of spirit to see him through the inevitable twists and turns of an unexamined life. His addictions explain, but do not excuse, his inattention to the only things that really matter. Eldon realized, at the end, that he really wanted a connection with his heritage and with the land, and the boy, though he had reason to hate his father, showed just what kind of man he was becoming by honoring him, padding his grave with moss and boughs and sprinkling it over with tobacco. His upbringing and connection with the land developed reserves of generosity within himself that he could share when the world displayed too little. There is terrible pain in the world, but there is also grace.

The section of this novel that deals with Franklin bringing his father to his final resting place, finding his way in the woods, encountering a bear, fishing without line, hunting without a gun, the boy generates love. He is sixteen and a man in all the ways that matter.

The bare simplicity of the narrative, and the clarity of the language both hold a beauty that is rare in novels today and makes this a standout. The harsh reality of someone dying of drink is achingly real and truly described, as is the beauty and bounty of open forest. The relationship between the old man and the boy defines what sustains us in a world that too often feels outside our control. In the end, we are all is nourished, blessed even, by the strength their relationship.
"Feels good to miss things…it makes you know you’re living, that you touched something, that something touched you."
I listened to the audio production of this book, beautifully read by Tom Stechschulte, and published by Recorded Books. I highly recommend this book, this meditation, for centering oneself in a busy world and for reminding us of what is important.

In an interview with CBC Richard Wagamese says that this is his best novel, and that it may lead to another novel or two to flesh out the lives described within. To my thinking, the novel stands on its own, though I would love to see more of this author's work and reprise the feeling I had when I read/listened to it.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

When Steinberg first meets Asad, the Somali man whose life Steinberg has chosen to help explain the extreme black-on-black violence South Africa experienced in 2008, Asad is living in Blikkiesdorp. Blikkiesdorp in English is called Tin Can Town because of its sixteen hundred identical one-room tin living structures laid out in sixteen identical square blocks. It was erected to house families evicted from homes they occupied illegally. Blikkiesdorp is thirty kilometers from Cape Town, separated by an expensive taxi ride.

Asad and his wife and child were placed in Blikkiesdorp in 2010, after living two years in refugee camps to which they fled after the mob violence in 2008. In the process of uncovering Asad’s personal history, Steinberg illuminates for us the roots of Africa’s history of economic migration as well as the means, and its turbulent history of violence and pervasive corruption. We also get flashes of understanding about human nature, mob violence, and the psyche of a Somali man. Steinberg had the instincts to capture this story of one man, the skill to tease out the important strands of his history, and the perseverance to complete this riveting and important work.

At the start of this non-fiction narrative, we see the origins of Asad’s story in Mogadishu, when his mother was shot in the chest as she clutched him, a victim to anti-Daarood violence by Hiwaye meant to unseat the Daarood president, President Mohamed Siad Barre. Asad was eight years old. An aunt and uncle whisked the five children across the city in preparation to fleeing to Kenya—the start of a lifelong journey of displacement. Steinberg thus begins with the history of lineages and clans and by the end of the narrative demonstrates the centrality of clan affiliation in a person’s life.
"That he was an Abdullahi and an AliYusef would disappear from his life for years on end; there are, he would discover, many ways of being Somali other than through one’s clan. And then, without warning, his lineage would burst back into his life and shape his fate. When it did so, he would feel that he had been asleep for years, reeling further and further from himself."
It is distressing, to say the least, to read of Asad’s early years once he is separated from his aunt and uncle in a continuation of the violence. He manages to eke out a living in a parade of cities, gradually becoming a young man on the basis of grit and cunning. He marries, and decides to improve his lot by trying to work in South Africa, where he will discover the hatreds against Somalis is resurgent in the anti-apartheid south. The inequities of life in South Africa among blacks in the new regime led some to strike out at those less numerous and therefore less powerful than themselves. The phenomenon of assigning blame for one’s inability to escape one’s condition is something from which we can all learn.

The mere process of recounting the thought processes of a young, unschooled but hardworking boy in duress tells us something of the conditions in which he operated, as well as how someone makes decisions in an environment of extremely circumscribed horizons: he held a very “now” worldview that held little past and an unknowable future. When he married, at nineteen, Asad's developed his grasp of concept of 'future':
"Something happened when I knew that I was going to have children with Foosiya...For the first time, I saw that my life was a series of decisions. I saw that each decision decided who I was going to be from now on. That is a big realization, brother. I felt dizzy and had to sit down. It is the sort of realization that can make you fall over."
Asad had a strong sense of right and wrong, of decency and fairness, of propriety and one wonders where it came from:
"My first feeling about [South African] blacks was that they have too much sex,” he recalls. "I have now adjusted a little. But back then, what I saw on the streets, to me was illegal, uncultural, a shame to one’s reputation. A man holding a woman who is not his wife, squeezing her bum, putting his hand up her skirt. I could not even look at them, I would look to the side…Even if you consider many different beliefs about the world," he says, "nobody allows that. Christianity, whatever, it is nobody’s culture. It is a democracy here. You say nothing. It is how they are. But I tell you, they do not get this from their religion. It is not in their culture either. But they do it. They have lost what their ancestors once knew. Christian, Jewish, doesn’t allow it. Nobody allows it."
One cannot help but wonder if most people, even those who persecuted Asad, would also exhibit such constraints on behaviors if questioned closely enough. Asad and his fellow entrepreneurial Somalis had contempt for South African blacks:
"We think of [South African] black people as teenagers," Asad tells me bluntly. "Their democracy is so new and precious to them, but it confuses them. When it does not bring them what they want, they get violent."
The blacks had reasons for their anger which eventually manifest in violence: much of the profit earned from small business initiatives owned by Somalis and other economic immigrants was thought to be repatriated and thus exported, sucking their communities dry. The reasons for the poverty of their communities undoubtedly had other larger and more pertinent causes, but the economic immigrants were easier targets than a political system or institutionalized societal inequalities. It is startling to discover, in this winding story set on a distant continent, ourselves. Such is Steinberg’s narrative skill: allowing us to see the general in the personal.

Writing a book about the remembered bits of a man’s life is fraught with difficulty, which Steinberg frankly acknowledges at several stages. His struggle alone is enlightening: the questions he puts to Asad are an attempt to help Asad remember how he felt at different stages of his life. Asad kept a Red Book, a kind of occasional diary in his teen years, which he eventually lost in his border-crossings:
"It was a record of the very best and the very worst. Like the day Foosiya agreed to marry me. I wrote down the date, the time. And on days when I had nothing and saw no future, I would write down the date on which I had that thought."
But often Asad simply did not want to divulge the depth of his feeling on a topic. It was too closely held and perhaps too easily misunderstood, but it formed his character. We have to make do with the man himself.

This narrative nonfiction is being released in paperback today by Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House. PRH currently has a 20% off pre-holiday sale (with free shipping!) until the end of the year, so don’t hold back on the opportunity to have a look at a fascinating, detailed, and unusual portrait of a man living on the second-most populous continent on earth.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son by Lori Duron

I have always been curious about how folks discover and then adapt to some kind of specialness in their children—and admit to a real fascination with a child such as Duron’s CJ. At age 2½, CJ exhibits such delight in Duron’s boxed 25th-anniversary Barbie that she opens it and…it was the toy he’d always wanted.

Duron’s first-born son, Chase, was all boy. CJ, her second-born son, had a strong affinity for girls, and girl things. Duron and her husband were surprised and not entirely thrilled at first, and tried to steer CJ’s inclinations a little, thinking ahead to all the issues her son might encounter in the neighborhood and in the years ahead. But CJ would have none of it. It seems he was fully aware of what he liked “right out of the box,” as it were. He liked dresses, earrings, makeup and high heels rather than Sponge Bob, soccer, and the manly arts. His mother learned to call this “gender nonconforming.”

Duron spent some time struggling with the notion, searching online, talking with specialists, and offering CJ more common options for sports and clothes, and gradually comes to accept that her child is something very special indeed. The year CJ begins pre-kindergarten, she starts writing a blog to address the information deficit online for her experience as a mother of a gender nonconforming child. Through that avenue she makes friends, exchanges information and resources, and eventually becomes a spokesperson for gender-questing individuals. She also receives a lot of hate mail saying she was a bad mother, but fortunately she felt confident that wasn’t true. She was discovering real time that her son was unique. CJ’s proclivities are bred in the bone, and didn’t appear to have anything to do with nurture.

This is a fascinating story, mostly because CJ is one hot ticket. I don’t know how much Duron jazzed up CJ’s language as she reports what he says, but he has real personality in speech, and in choosing styles, colors, and “drape” in his clothing, even as a bitty child. CJ’s brother Chase takes some heat as the result of having a brother with what others perceive as gender confusion, but Duron herself intervenes when it begins to impact Chase’s school work and social interactions.

Duron narrates the audiobook of this title, produced by Audible. In an interview at the end of her reading, Duron tells us that she felt she wanted to read the produced book herself to give the needed emphases. She knows her sons will read it one day and wanted to make it sound the way she heard it in her head—accepting and ferociously protective of them. She did well.

Duron admits to being anxious and confused herself, so if occasionally she was a little rough on folks that seemed surprised about or mentioned CJ’s clothes or attitudes, we can probably cut her a break. Encountering a gender creative child for the first time might be a little surprising for some folks, and they may need a little time to process it cognitively. I have never encountered a child like her CJ. From the sounds of things, he is one easy fellow to like. She might be able to lose some of her attitude now: a quietly instructive voice on Duron’s part might be more helpful. I wouldn’t want to give up Duron’s very careful yet casual and joyous way of celebrating her son’s differences, though. I guess I can take a little attitude if we continue to hear more of CJ’s specialness.

Duron’s book was enlightening on a number of levels, not the least being the suggestion that her son’s gender fluidity may be genetic. In addition, one learns a great deal about legal protections already instituted for gender nonconforming children, hopefully ensuring that they needn’t be bullied in schools or communities. This means lots of folks have been through Duron’s experience before, though she did not find personal narratives online and felt she had to write her own. Her blog got so much attention that she was approached about writing a book, film projects, among other things. She is still posting: check it out.

The story of this family is really pretty special, in no small part to Duron’s own personality. Everyone would get something out of Duron’s experience: even if you don’t have a child who is gender questing, many parents have children who wish they could play with girl toys or boy toys at some time or another. The clothes might be another matter. I was surprised to hear Duron lived in Orange County, CA. Am I stereotyping if I say I would have thought creative folks around Los Angeles would have inoculated the population against surprise about dressing up? Ah, well. We can‘t all be as fabulous as CJ. What a guy!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Cartel by Don Winslow

This is a huge book in every way—for its effects on people’s thinking and actions, in its implications for drug policy worldwide, and in the scope of its historical documentation. It is very up to date. In the remarkable interview at Politics & Prose, the Washington, D.C. bookstore published online by Slate magazine (07.13.15), Winslow describes the genesis of this book and his writing process.

For writers, this downloadable Soundcloud podcast is a must-listen for how one approaches a critically relevant subject with large amounts of historical data. For U.S. residents, this is a must-listen for its implications on recreational drug use, U.S. spending on the drug war, and Winslow's take on U.S. policy on drugs. It is worth noting that no government official contacted Winslow when the book came out, though he got plenty of response from cops--supporting him. Winslow didn’t want to write this book but he gradually came to realize he “felt like a deserter from a war” and that he could no longer turn his face away from, and neglect to speak of the violence against the innocent residents of Mexico.
“If I were south of the border, looking north, I would have questions about corruption.” [Winslow @ Politics & Prose]
Winslow’s fictional account of the drug wars in Mexico and the United States is the longest and most important of his work to date, and it is sensational in every way. Winslow has long been recognized for his ability to catch a fascinating slice of the California community, a subset of surfers relaxing into their ‘fun in the sun’ lifestyles. In this huge, sprawling duo of novels, first The Power of the Dog followed by The Cartel, we have a much more sustained effort of imagination, research, and writerly skill that aligns so closely with headlines, a reader might be forgiven for mistaking Winslow as an intimate of the Mexican drug wars. It is also a song of praise for the journalists who risked everything to cover the story. Winslow used news reports to fictionalize events in a way that gets at the motivations and the darkness and corruption on both sides of the border. This is fiction, but what fiction!
“You do not revenge a murder by killing. You revenge it by living.”
The story itself revolves around the fictional DEA cut-out Art Keller, and the head of the Sonoran [Sinaloan] cartel, Adán Barrera [Joaquin Guzman]. They had been pursuing one another for years and when Barrera escaped jail in the United States to return to his drug kingdom in Mexico, Keller came out of hiding to find him and bring him to justice. Winslow ties in actual years of drug trafficking over the U.S. southern border with a very intimate portrait of both men and their organizations. A reader will be familiar with many of the gruesome violence recounted here—so violent it doesn’t seem believable—and will be grateful to Winslow for making it personal.
“Americans take their strength from victory. Mexican strength derives from their ability to suffer loss.”
Winslow does not fail to highlight the role of women in communities throughout Mexico, demonstrating for protection by the police and army. Women often went on record about attacks against their families in a brazen attempt to shame the leaders and the cartels and to show a kind of solidarity with their community. “I have no way of accounting for that kind of courage, for that kind of moral backbone, for that kind of grace,” says Winslow [Slate]. This is a novel about the extremes of human depravity, corruption…and goodness.
“There is such a thing as evil…[and] the world holds horrors…”
Winslow’s deep immersion in research for America’s border war on drugs has led him to hold an opinion and to become a public spokesperson for a point of view on how we are managing: “things are worse than ever before.” The cartels are now advertising their violence, like ISIS, in order to spur recruitment and in order to intimidate. In the last section of this book, the cartels move from narcotrafficking to narcoterrorism, the two phenomena borrowing from one another.

In an interview in Esquire with Tom Junod, Winslow talks about his thinking on whether or not the legalization of marijuana in the United States will tamp down the cartel’s power in Mexico:
"Look, here's my stance, if that's what you're asking for. I think all drugs should be legal and I wish nobody used any of them. I have no problem with people smoking a little dope. But it always amazes me where people who are so persnickety about buying fair trade coffee, and farm-to-table beef, and about where their chicken was raised, think nothing of buying marijuana, which in all likelihood was raised by murderers, sadists, sociopaths, and in a lot of cases harvested by slave labor. So I don't want to harsh anyone's buzz, but I think that's something that we need to look at because we really are in so many ways responsible for the violence in Mexico through our schizophrenic attitude toward drugs, including marijuana. We spent billions of dollars trying to keep it out and we spend billions of dollars buying it—and it's that conflict that allows the cartels to survive. So as marijuana is legalized, the cartels are getting ready for that in terms of trying to go legit. But on the other hand, you have to understand that the cartel's product is not the drug. The cartel's product is control of the trafficking routes. It doesn't matter what the item is, whether it's marijuana or coke or meth or heroin or blue jeans or bottled water, their product is the plazas, it's the neighborhoods, it's the ability to control those trade routes, okay? So, once marijuana becomes actually legal and starts to grow more in the United States and there's no problem getting it across the border up from Mexico, there will be other products. Because the product doesn't matter."
Winslow points out that the “product” now is, in fact, stronger opiates like cheap heroin. Regarding ‘corruption’ on this side of the border, Winslow cites our incarceration problem and how that relates to racism. Drugs weren’t regulated until black people got in on the action. Then we went after them with a vengeance. Winslow sounds Pynchon-esque in his insistence that we think.

This novel doesn’t seem to be getting the critical attention it deserves. It doesn’t look, feel, or sound like a genre novel, except in its pace. If it is not on the lists of important novels published this year, it should be--should have been--in contention for the major prizes. It is a terrific work of imagination that targets important societal issues, is based on historical events, and it challenges us to do better, in our drug habits and in our spending on drug wars. What more can a reader ask from literature?

I listened to the Blackstone audio production of this book, read by Ray Porter. It is a primo listening experience, but I had a look at the book, and that’s good also. Get either, or both. You can’t go wrong here. Buy yourself and your friends a Christmas present you will never forget. Inform yourselves.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

White Leopard by Laurent Guillaume

Laurent Guillaume is a former police officer and mobile commander in the Val de Marne section of Paris, southeast of the city. When he transferred to the DEA-like section of drug enforcement, he was stationed in Mali, Africa, where most of the drugs headed for Europe are transshipped. Guillaume sets this novel in Bamako, Mali and his main character, Souleymane Camara, is a private investigator formerly of the French police, living on the lam in Mali where he feels at home.

Camara is a light-skinned black man, not completely accepted in his native France, nor in Mali, which his father called home. He has a protector of sorts in the head of police in Bamako, a childhood friend of his father’s, and a background in crime detection, so he waits for trouble to come to him, working for clients needing help.

The opening sequence in this novel is so tightly written we are drawn in before we can spot what lies ahead. A French law student in financial troubles is unwitting courier to drug traffickers, and Camara is called in to extricate her. What we get are cartel-like deaths with chainsaws, a road trip through Mali along the Niger, an overnight in the open sleeping on top of the jeep, satellite phones and long-range camera lenses for finding out who is allowing the drugs into the country.

For readers who hope to travel the world in books, or read a book from every country, this should definitely go on your list. For readers who simply wish to know more about what is happening in Mali now, you will be pleased to have a glimpse behind the curtain with this fast-paced and realistic thriller. France has a long tradition of producing great mystery and thriller writers and this author is definitely on that list.

The smooth and fluent translation by Sophie Weiner makes this an easy recommend.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Backstabbing in Beaujolais by Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen translated by Anne Trager

“Beaujolais is a lighthearted wine that makes people happy.”

We simply cannot ever have too many novels from France here in the U.S. and the publisher Le French Book is trying to bring those novels, translated, to market. Especially popular among the “cozy” mystery set is this series of novels set in the wine regions of France by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. We learn a great deal about wine production in each one, and the stories revolve around the great passions that wine evokes in producers and buyers…

This episode in the long-running mystery series manages to end before the body count exceeds two, and at the end everyone still alive is moving towards a fulfilling career or marriage. It is meant to be as lighthearted and refreshing as the wine it describes, and, for those with an interest in viticulture, it succeeds admirably.
“…moderate consumption [of red wine]—one glass a day for women and two for men—can be good for the health: reducing your risk of depression as well as your risk of developing colon cancer… Wine has anti-aging properties. While consumption of other alcoholic drinks can increase a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer, red wine in moderate amounts can actually lower that risk. One study has even found that a chemical found in wine can improve your sensitivity to insulin. That means you’re not as vulnerable to diabetes…”
While I am not convinced by the one study that suggests red wine might make one less vulnerable to diabetes, I believe the other claims have more solid scientific backing. But I was surprised, I admit, to learn
”You can drink Beaujolais early on, but the wines frequently open up three to five years after being bottled. They are precocious and aromatic, but round enough to have a lingering taste.

The story had the requisite homegrown local who harbored resentments against everyone, the millionaire businessman who wanted to bottle wine but knew nothing of the process, the gorgeously-dressed, slim, blond marketing wizard…you get the picture. One intriguing character, Benjamin, was a French wine expert who I could have sworn was British.

Beaujolais wines have a unique winemaking process call ‘whole-berry fermentation.’ The technique preserves the fruity quality without extracting tannins from the skins. The vintners in this novel considered “drawing out the vatting time and submerging the cap of grape skins during the maceration to enhance flavor and intensity, thinking it would preserve the fruity aromas and flavors while enhancing color and tannins. Who knows if it would have worked? They never got to try it, sadly.
“From time immemorial, [Beaujolais Nouveau] has been celebrated when it’s young, at the start of fermentation. Centuries ago winemakers traded early in the year, and the yeast would complete its job while the barrels were in transit, moving slowly by carriage or boat along the Saône and Rhône rivers or up the Loire.”
Beaujolais Nouveau commonly goes on sale in November and is meant to be enjoyed before May the following year. That goes for this novel, too. Enjoy!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, November 29, 2015

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness by Adina Hoffman

The title of this book comes from a poem by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet with a style so direct and immediate that the reader grasps that they are hearing something new and yet undeniably ancient at the same time: a viewpoint that eclipses the worn, the bombed-out, the broken. We are given fragments of, and context to, Taha’s poetry in this work, all showcased by Adina Hoffman’s careful, patient, gentle, and ferociously intelligent excavation and reconstruction of a meaningful life. It is an extraordinary act of witness.

What can poetry do that bombs, bullets, and knives cannot? Adina Hoffman shows us in this biography of Taha, former resident of Saffuriyya, a Palestinian village with a long history of resistance against authority. Saffuriyya was bombed in 1948 by Israeli aircraft, and ever since the mere mention of the town carries the whiff of resistance.

"Even before he could see the village, he has said, the scent of it was overpowering—the thyme and the mint and the lemon trees, the broom and the wheat and the olives. The thorns themselves seemed to smell sweetly there, and though he couldn’t say which perfume belonged to what plant—or explain how he knew the difference between the fragrance of a Nazareth sage bush and a sage bush with its roots in the soil of Saffuriyya—the boy was convinced that he could tell in his nose when he’d crossed the border, and as he made his way toward home through the basatin, as the orchards and vegetable gardens were known, the scents grew stronger and more complicated, more human. The fruit trees were everywhere, and at the Qasral spring he got a clean, cold whiff of the abundant water that made the village lands so rich (and, according to local lore, its people so strong-headed), then, getting closer, the smoky perfume of the cabbage, parsley, cauliflower, scallion, cucumber, and his favorite, mlukhiyyeh, the dark green mallow that his mother would chop fine or spread out to dry and that they would eat as a stew. Thinking of it would make him hungry and eager for the other scents to come: the way the garlic she fried before adding the leaves would blend and merge with the piercing aroma of the basil planted in clay pots before the nearby houses."
Hoffman’s biography of Taha Muhammad Ali is resistance literature also: the quiet, unsensational accretion of fact and personal testimony, newspaper accounts, and the patient unpicking of tangled threads of disputed reports or repressive memory. What Hoffman has done indirectly is raise serious questions about race, identity, and belongingness, about nationality, statehood, and the nature of resistance. She places the poet Taha squarely in the events that influenced his creative consciousness: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Saffuriyya was always a “turbulent community,” police records filled with mention of locals talking with their fists amongst themselves. Hoffman suggests
"Saffuriyya was, let us say then, a 'village of murderers' in the sense it was a village with murderers in it. Saffuriyya was, however, also a village of tinsmiths—and shoemakers, shepherds, teachers, teething babies, laborers, shopkeepers, new brides, barbers, folk poets, gravediggers, carpenters, landowners, teenaged boys, builders, dyers, musicians, butchers, tailors, traveling salesmen, knife-sharpeners, old women, and a wandering ice-cream vendor who would appear on holidays and sell the children melting half-piaster scoops of their favorite flavor—chocolate, vanilla, or mint. It was a village of brilliant talkers, blubbering idiots, fat grocers, thin imams, of a kind Italian nun named Georgina, a fez-wearing Egyptian male nurse known as Sheikh ‘Umar, and Abu Qasim the peripatetic ritual circumciser, who never went anywhere without his black doctor’s bag and noisy motorcycle."
So you see how Hoffman agrees with the official line and undercuts it in the same breath, how she forces us to acknowledge that we cannot paint a people with a broad brush. When the Israelis came, after they bombed the village in 1948, they found Stone Age olive jugs and oil jars in the ramshackle houses—could this be the same population they believed had no culture? A difference of perception combined with a will of steel might break what bombs cannot, and while many individuals have fallen, the Palestinian consciousness remains. In fact, its art may be a product of the half-century of oppression.

In this week's (Nov 29, 2015) NYT Book Review is a discussion of the complete works of the Jewish writer Primo Levi, who claims he may have never written anything without his experience in Auschwitz, another example of how constraints often inform and beget an insurgent art. But Levi also believed, in the words of reviewer Edward Mendelson, that "the core of Nazi barbarism...was its reduction of human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category--Jews [or Palestinians?] for example--that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value. The core of Levi's [and Hoffman's] science...[is] the refusal of generalizations and theories that transcend the realities of particular things." In her biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, Hoffman often asks us to distinguish between the thoughts and actions and poetry of Taha and his fellow poets from Palestine, between the peasant Taha and his better-heeled, or more radical and lesser-educated compatriots. By the strength of her writing, Hoffman is showing us how to unmask, and nurture an understanding of, the individual within the collective. Hers is a work of extraordinary power.
"That many of the Jewish state’s new and future immigrants had just suffered the torments of the Holocaust at the hands of European Christians did not, to Palestinian minds, explain why they themselves were being asked to forfeit their hold on vast tracts of citrus groves and fields of grain, to give up direct access to the Red Sea and to the port at Jaffa, or to become—as 40 percent of the Palestinians suddenly would—members of a minority in a Jewish state."
Now Saffuriyya is forested and has been designated a National Park in the Israeli state. Displaced Palestinians have never given up agitation to return to those lands, that village. “The most important thing was that there were no leaders, no intellectual leaders to explain what was happening and what we had to do.” This has ever been, to my mind, the “problem of Palestine” but also Israel’s problem. Lack of enlightened leadership is the region’s greatest failing.

Saffuriyya has become a symbol. Hoffman traces the movement of Taha’s family (first to a refugee camp in Lebanon and then back to Nazareth) along with the intellectual development of the boy he was, then the teen, then the adult. Taha’s interest in words that could explain and express his sense of dislocation, dignity, and love of life were what propelled him. “His obscurity won him the freedom to write whatever he pleased.” Hoffman herself is an outsider, something she argues is what makes writers able to see the environment they write about. “I think it might actually make me anxious to feel too much of an insider. That's not good for a writer -- and, I might argue, I don't really think it's so good for the Jews.” (interview with Mya Guarnieri @ Bookslut)

When we finally see Taha's poetry reprinted, the effect of it is amplified by the quiet industriousness and skill with which Hoffman prepared us. Hoffman’s work is so hushed and intimate we have the sense that we are sharing a conversation with a deeply humane independent thinker of enormous gifts and fine discrimination. The exquisite care Adina Hoffman and her husband, the poet and translator Peter Cole, took in both translating and publishing the work of Palestinian peasant and poet Taha Muhammad Ali, and then in picking apart the knotty strands of his life to show the creation of Taha’s particular genius, is everywhere evident in this unique work of biography.

Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don't aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn't worth
the price of the bullet
(you'd waste on it).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn't happiness.
Trust me:
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.

--Taha Muhammed Ali, from Fooling the Killers, (1989)

Taha Muhammad Ali reads "Revenge":

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension by Matt Parker

Matt Parker is a comedian who does stand-up math. Or he is a mathematician doing stand-up comedy…I forget which lifestyle definition attracted me to his routines on YouTube: some are complicated enough to make you forget to laugh…unless, that is, you are already in on the math basics he is sharing. I learned about Parker’s new book from the mathematician Ben Babcock, whose website reviews recently-published science fiction, among other things. I was impressed with his assessment that “this is DIY math at its finest”-- impressed enough, after looking at it myself, to buy copies for my teenaged nephews.

Besides that, in the YouTube clip I saw, Parker is wearing maths paraphernalia like a “smooth geometric t-shirt” sold by DESIGNBYHÜMANS that is über-cool for mathheads.
I like to encourage thinking and innovation of any kind.

Parker doesn’t neglect important relevant applications of mathematics: how to cut a pizza equally with crust or without, how best to keep your headphone wires from tangling, how to tie your shoes (!) the maths way…in other words, ways to learn and test math principles using everyday objects…or your classroom full of students. It actually does sound fun, which I guess is the point. Babcock makes it clear that one really understands maths by doing math, which is perhaps even more to the point.

Below is a clip of one of Parker's routines.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer by Phyllis Bennis

This short handbook can be read in an evening. It really is hand-sized, fitting in the palm. The language in it is so clear, it could be written for a non-English speaker or a school child. It was published in 2007. This subject is so fraught with emotion and intention it is difficult to just get the facts. In fact, this conflict may be the perfect place to begin to understand how "facts" are slippery things. Bennis has an opinion, but she is very good at tamping down the rhetoric and writing quietly.

If you have read any of Bennis’ other works, you will find she tries to answer the most pressing questions people have first. That is, she will try to simply explain why there is fighting, or why suicide bombers appear on only side in the conflict. Her answers will raise more questions, which she tries to answer by going broader in the region and deeper into history. It is an organic method of setting out the issues and has the value of always providing at least a partial answer before we become overloaded with detail. The added benefit is that the questions can be listed, as they are in her handbook, as the Table of Contents.

Bennis’ work is an important addition to the material one will need to read to get some measure of the size and depth and rightness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s almost seventy years since Israel was founded. The generation involved in the creation of Israel is dead now. The generation that came after, that built Israel, is nearly gone. We can make judgments now about what those first generations have left us.

Bennis herself is an American Jew. In her youth she was a Zionist, until she actually began to see what happened, what was happening, in the area of land now called Israel. To her credit, she could tell that what she’d learned, and what she was hearing, did not correspond to what she could see with her eyes. When she investigated, she discovered she could make up her own mind about the conflict. Her discussion on C-Span about the origins of ISIS includes, towards the end, a discussion of how she came to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here is a two-minute clip from that longer piece explaining how she got to her current path.

Some people may not like the facts, and some people may like to put their own gloss on the facts, but if we just look at the facts, and the situation on the ground in Israel and (what as yet is not quite) the promised Palestine, I think everyone would agree there is something seriously amiss here.

What the Israelis are doing is illegal. It is immoral, too, but lots of people do immoral things and we can’t stop them. The International Court of Justice in the Hague, however, ruled in 2003 that the Wall Israel constructed in the West Bank ostensibly for its own protection beginning in 2002 is illegal. It cuts off fifteen percent of West Bank land from the West Bank and puts tens of thousands of Palestinians on the Israeli side of the Wall, among other things. Why hasn’t this been addressed in the 12 years since it was constructed?
"The International Court…stated directly that other countries have their own responsibility to pressure Israel to comply with the court’s opinion…The US government quietly criticized the Wall early in its process of construction, but soon dropped the critique and agreed, in direct violation of the Court’s ruling on the obligation of other states, to pay Israel almost $50 million—taken out of the $200 million the US provided in humanitarian support to Palestinian NGOs—to construct checkpoints and gates in the Wall."

Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center has an online Journalist’s Resource from which I gathered the following information:
Since it was founded in 1948, Israel has become the largest single recipient of US foreign assistance — a total of $121 billion, almost all of which has been in the form of military assistance. - See more at: (“http://journalistsresource.org/studie...”)
Why aren’t we tying assistance to compliance with the law? I can’t figure it out. I know that wealthy Jewish donors in the US skew the political process by pressuring candidates to vote sympathetically to their issues by giving them generous campaign donations, and by buying up media sites that send out constant self-serving messages. Is it really that bald? Money? Power? Influence? Geez. Talk about a morality deficit.

Since the history recounted in this short book, the United Nations has granted non-member observer state status on Palestine, and now allows the Palestinian flag to fly at the U.N. These steps were taken despite the U.S. and U.S. allies voting “no” on the resolutions. This book will tell you why this has happened.

It is difficult for even a well-read American to separate truth from falsehood in the history we learned in school and from our own government these past sixty-odd years. We only hear the Israeli voice; Palestine has been almost erased, her people silenced. It takes real dedication for anyone to understand why, in the modern era, millions of people would be forced from their land with no compensation, and then, gradually, over time, lose rights to even the small amount of land they had left from their own holdings.

I feel quite sure that things could have been handled differently at many turns over the years. I wonder how Israelis think their occupation of Palestinian land will end. Does their government think they are going to protect Israelis from harm by this method? Is this the way to live in the world? Americans can hardly claim the high road by their treatment of minority classes in their own country. I think we are seeing how that’s working out in real time.

I am forming an opinion, and it is not what I learned growing up.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray

When the ship goes down, I want to be in Murray’s skiff. At least there will be laughter, love, generosity, poetry, and with any luck, a gulp of whiskey among us. If you thought the financial meltdown and its aftermath was too complicated to understand, read Murray. His account is a little like that fabled whiskey, warming and clear. At the inevitable end, we wonder where our head was, to think we could carry on like that and not have a hangover.
"[The restaurant called] Life is so loud, it takes a few moments to realize it is almost empty."
Murray gives his reading audience almost everything we want in a modern novel: a little mystery, a little romance, a little grand larceny. He does not neglect important, relevant subjects like the isolation of lives wrapped in technological bubblewrap or the failure of the banking system to protect and build a middle class. His bright gaze reveals the cracks in individual and institutional facades. But it is all done with a lightness of touch that makes it clear we can understand this, that we must, in fact, understand this, if we are going to save ourselves.
"If it’s a choice between a difficult truth and a simple lie, people will take the lie every time. Even if it kills them."
A successful French banker, Claude Martingale, takes a job in Dublin to escape snorts of derision from his father over his choice of career. A blacksmith and former radical, his father was unreasonably proud when his son graduated college with a degree in philosophy. “Philosophy was France’s greatest export,” he would boast to neighbors. How then could his son side with the thieves and quants who knew only how to cut experience into saleable lots, “using the underlying only for what can be derived from it,” rather than understanding the real value of life, of experience itself?
"Technology allows unprecedented quantities of reality to be turned into story. Reality becomes secondary…life becomes raw material for our own narratives."
Claude’s investment bank in Dublin creates financial instruments that fictionalize reality. What better place to set a novel? The problem of trying to make interesting the life of a banker was the central struggle of this work, and the central lesson we are meant to take away. Claude’s life in the bank was soulless, but not without moments of excruciating drama. And there was money…lots and lots of money…for some.
"'What is the most reliable area of growth in the twenty-first century?'
’Inequality,’ I say.
‘Bingo.’ "

Even financial disasters wholly created by the banks could be capitalized upon for their benefit. Murray gives us the example of a small island, Kokomoko, experiencing climate-related tide incursions, transformed to a golf course by a hedge fund. “I’m talking about monetizing failure”:
“Don’t you see the bottom line here? Even when it all goes tits up, you still get paid! Profit is finally liberated from circumstance! It’s the Holy Grail! It’s the singularity!...Seizures in the electricity grid, degradation of ecosystems, the spread of epidemics, the disintegration of the financial system—they’re all part of the same phenomenon. Civilization has become a bubble.”
Murray warns us that members of society have a responsibility to call out the farce and refuse to play...or get them to pay. They need us, after all.

But this insistence that we think comes to us with many examples of the fun part of thinking: madcap imaginings of a literary dinner, complete with a novelist camping up his meeting with his editor who, in his quest to sign the “next big thing,” appears strangely blinkered to the outrageous behaviors and opinions in his stable of authors. The reviewer who panned him (“I’m a little surprised she has flesh. I always pictured her as a sort of floating skull”) appears oblivious to the careers she has skewered. A slip of an editorial assistant captures everyone’s attention with her tremulous defense of art.

Murray invites us to look at the lives of writers: the crazy cash-flow between a novel’s conception and publication, the procrastination, the wacky attempts to jump start the creative process, the whoring (literally, in this case) of life partners, the desperation and despair. And then the reviews: “TL, DR” (Too Long, Didn’t Read), or the cavalier online dismissal of the years of effort because “Wombat Willy” received the book late and got a papercut getting the book out of the box.

Why bother with art at all? Because it reminds us who and what we are, Murray responds. The painting central to the novel could be seen as a type of graffiti whose price has risen, parallel to banks’ mystical valuations, to unheard-of heights. Threaded throughout the novel are constant references to Joyce and then suddenly, there it is, Ullysses II, the Irish folk in all their beautiful blemish:
”And here, on the teeming road, are the Irish: blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived, burnished, beaming, snaggle-toothed, balding, rouged, raddled, beaky, exophthalmic; the Irish, with their demon priests, their cellulite, their bus queues and beer bellies, their foreign football teams, betting slips, smart-phones and online deals, their dyed hair, white jeans, colossal mortgages, miraculous medals, ill-fitting suits, enormous televisions, stoical laughter, wavering camaraderie, their flinty austerity and seeping corruption, their narrow minds and broad hearts, their drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex, their books, saints, tickets to Australia, their building-site countryside, their radioactive sea, their crisps, bars, Lucozade, their tattoos, their overpriced wine and mediocre restaurants, their dreams, their children, their mistakes, their punchbag history, their bankrupt state and their inveterate indifference. Every face is a compendium of singularities, unadulterated by the smoothing toxins of wealth and privilege; to walk among them is to be plunged into a sea of stories, a human comedy so rich it seems on the point of writing itself…”

This is the first book I have read of Paul Murray’s since Skippy Dies, his magnificent second novel about the horrors of Irish Catholic public schools and just about everything else, including quantum physics, climate change, history, and music. I found myself relaxing into this new novel, enjoying the ride while harboring a nagging feeling that this is not Murray’s finest work. His talent, understanding, and deep sense of the absurd are undeniable. If I wish for more discipline, focus, and seriousness, will I have to give up the sheer joy in the unwieldy construction? Writers are who they are and do what they will do and thank goodness for it. I note, however, that Murray was hoping to write a short novel this time, which would imply his interest in a greater adherence to those other qualities of style. Perhaps we will get it one day. Murray has the goods, and lord knows I wouldn’t trade one of his laughs for its reverse, not in this world. Joy.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Felicity by Mary Oliver and Other Poetry

One morning recently I awoke to hear Krista Tippett, host of the radio show On Being, conduct a rare interview with the poet Mary Oliver. Oliver is now eighty years old , and has a new book of poetry called Felicity. The poems in it are shorter, overall, than those in her earlier work, and they have a gladness that seems fulfilled or nearly so. Oliver exhibits a passion for the world and a confidence that only the old and very aware among us can express.

The collection called Felicity has one of the most beautiful covers I have seen in a very long time. It is a close up reproduction of an oil painting in which the brushstrokes and color variations can be seen: a large, seemingly infinite gray sky, a sliver of tan ground and a charcoal smudge in between for trees. We might even take the gray sky for an ocean in the distance, stretching out so far the horizon is not visible. No, wait, a lightening of the gray near the top of the painting--could it be a distant horizon? The depth and the beauty of the color gray stops our breath as we gaze, searching it for variation, for a clue, either of weather, or of substance.

Oliver often writes about the natural world and how that informs her own experience in it. She lived for many years on Cape Cod, observing the seasons, the wild things, life and death.
"To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."
--from In Blackwater Woods, American Primitive(1978)
In the past couple years Oliver has moved from that long-time residence on Cape Cod to the south of Florida. The sea, and outside the house, the birds and animals are still there, though the landscape is changed. "I am trying very hard to love the mangroves." Oliver also spoke with Tippett in her radio interview of the difficulty of her childhood and how she “escaped…barely.” In her work she has written

You are going to grow up
and in order for that to happen
I am going to have to grow old
and then I will die, and the blame
will be yours.


He wanted a body
so he took mine
Some wounds never vanish.
--from Hum, Hum, A Thousand Mornings(2012)
Gradually Oliver's work reflects a kind of peace, and faith. "If I have any secret stash of poems, anywhere, it might be about love, not anger," is a quote from Oliver on the cover of her new collection. She struggled to overcome lasting damage and in that struggle has produced great work and come through the other side. The horrors we face, the constraints under which we labor, could they be the very thing that incubates art? In the struggle to survive, some among us burst forth with great deeds, great literature, great music, or great art. That struggle makes us who we are.
“Without empathy, we are only reporting.” from the Krista Tippett interview

It is difficult to choose a favorite collection from among Oliver's work, but aside from her latest, Felicity, I have the most markers in A Thousand Mornings which often contains the barely concealed knife edge of despair
"What keeps us from falling down, our faces
on the ground; ashamed, ashamed?"
--from The Morning Paper, A Thousand Mornings(2012)
but also includes
"Then a wren in the privet began to sing
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not
…I just listened, my pen in the air."
--from I Happened to be Standing, A Thousand Mornings
Sometimes Oliver gives us despair and its reverse in one poem:
melancholy leaves me breathless.

…Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Two or three times in my life I discovered love.
Each time it seemed to solve everything.
Each time it solved a great many things
but not everything
Yet left me as grateful as if it had indeed, and
thoroughly, solved everything.
--from Sometimes, Red Bird(2008)
Oliver is not afraid to speak of things that matter
”I want to sing a song
for a body I saw
and without a name

but clearly someone young
who had not yet lived his life
and never would.
How shall I do this?

he had a weapon in his hands.
I think
he could have been no more than twenty.

I think, whoever he was
of whatever country,
he might have been my brother,
were the world different.

…if I had known him,
on his birthday,
I would have made for him
a great celebration.”
--from Iraq, Red Bird
Mary Oliver made me cry when I read a poem in her latest book, but whether it was tears of sadness or of joy, I do not know.
”People do it,
some out of desperation,
others out of greed.

They steal.

The very powerful and clever
might steal a whole house,
or a million dollars.
It’s been done.

But what does it matter?
Love is the one thing the heart craves
and love is the one thing
you can’t steal.
--A House, or a Million Dollars, Felicity
And then there is the wonder of this coincidence to see, among the leaves in the forest:
"I once saw two snakes,
northern racers,
hurrying through the woods,
their bodies
like two black whips
lifting and dashing forward;
in perfect concert
they held their heads high
and swam forward
on their sleek bellies;
under the trees,
through wines, branches,
over stones,
through fields of flowers,
they traveled
like a matched team
like a dance
like a love affair."
--The Snakes, American Primitive
To have someone observe, and then speak with equal beauty of such a thing is a gift to us.

Oliver ends Felicity with one of her own poems, a poem about happiness in the world. But just before that she gives us a few lines of a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, which originally appears to have no title. Oliver calls it Felicity:
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I’ll meet you there."
It is cooling, in this time of heat and war and chaos, to hear a voice that transcends time and hatreds. The rest of Rumi's meditation reads:
"When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn’t make any sense."
Here Coleman Barks talks about Rumi’s idea of love, that Mary Oliver so admires and embodies in her work.

I have an aunt, a native New Englander transplanted south, who sounds so close to Mary Oliver's voice, philosophy, lifestyle it could have been my aunt speaking. Both women answer "What is the gift I should bring to the world?" in a way that has made us richer. "What we should be doing is make a moral planet."
"Attention is the beginning of devotion." --M. Oliver, from the Krista Tippett interview

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, November 13, 2015

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

A friend introduced me to the reviews of Adina Hoffman in the The Nation, in which she discusses the work of Olivia Manning. Hoffman has the most exquisite sensibility toward the conflicts in the Levant that one ignores her opinion only at their own loss.

I was interested in whatever else she wrote so I came upon Sacred Trash about the 1896 discovery of the Cairo Geniza, a cache of documents stored in a small room in Cairo that are the original documents of ten centuries of societal interaction:
"one Middle Eastern, mostly middle-class Jewish community’s detritus—its letters and poems, its wills and marriage contracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers, prescriptions, trousseau lists, Bibles, money orders, amulets, court depositions, ship inventories, rabbinic responsa, contracts, leases, magic charms, and receipts.

…For reasons that remain obscure, in the case of the Palestinian Jews of Fustat, of Old Cairo—who worshipped in what would eventually become known as the Ben Ezra synagogue—the tradition of geniza was, it seems, extended to include the preservation of anything written in Hebrew letters, not only religious documents, and not just in the Hebrew language. Perhaps, as one scholar has proposed, 'the very employment of the Hebrew script…sanctified written material.' Another theory holds that the Jews of this community may simply have piled up papers in their homes and periodically delivered whole cartfuls to the Geniza without bothering to separate sacred from secular writing. Or maybe, as another writer has suggested—in an effort to make sense of the hodgepodge of texts that have turned up in the Fustat Geniza—the impulse to guard the written word may have gone beyond piety and evolved into a 'generalized aversion toward casually discarding texts of any kind.' Whatever the explanation, for most of the last millennium, hundreds of thousands of scraps were tossed into the Ben Ezra Geniza, which came to serve as a kind of holy junk heap."

Hoffman and Cole tell the story of how the cache of documents was found and what happened to it after that. They introduce us to the "active imaginations" of several people who could see what riches the cache held, as well as those who wanted to use the documents for their own personal aggrandizement. But mostly it is the chatty story of thrilling discoveries and talented scholars who were able to realize what they held. In 1999 the Toronto currency trader and avid bibliophile Albert Freidberg established a non profit whose aim to to inventory and digitize every Geniza scrap in existence. Eventually full-color photographs of the documents will be available on the Friedberg website.

In the final pages Hoffman and Cole write that rummaging in the Cairo Geniza is not unlike rummaging in the attic of history. They pay tribute to the scholars who take on the work of realizing the value of the documents for us today.
"…We’ve known all along that we’d find things that some would consider rubbish and others treasure. This, though, is what literature does, what writers do—and when it comes to it, what faith is. And as this book makes clear, it is also what the scholars of the Geniza have done, in a quietly heroic way, for more than a century now. If, with Cynthia Ozick, we think of history as ‘what we make from memory,’ then these scholars have quite literally be making history by re-remembering it, by putting it back together syllable by syllable under the intense pressure of powerfully informed and at times visionary imaginations."

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a keenly aware and thoroughly informed policy analyst whose knowledge and anti-war viewpoint adds depth and insight to our understanding of U.S. international relations and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. I was introduced to her work through an interview with her shown on C-Span. Her point of view is an important one to consider when contemplating any kind of intervention overseas. What she does in this wonderfully concise primer on ISIS and the war in Syria is clearly outline the steps that led us to our current position, pointing out opportunities we could have [should have] made different choices in our involvement in the region.

Bennis sheds light on angles of the conflict I had not considered, putting the information together in a way that highlights possible motivations that are at odds with stated government ideals, oil and guns being the most clearly outlined in her spotlight. I had not realized, for instance, that the low price of oil was a motivating factor for Russia and Middle East countries and their involvement in the Syrian crisis, or that Saudi Arabia was trying to pressure Putin to abandon support for the Assad regime by using its own position of dominance in the oil market.

Added to her analysis, however, are scattered digs at U.S. policy that are arguable: the U.S. launched “a few” airstrikes against ISIS around Kobane [Syria] and “eventually” persuaded Turkey to allow a few carefully vetted units of the Peshmerga to cross the border from Iraq to help defend the city. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the time stressed U.S. efforts were focused on bringing a coalition to the table to rebuild the morale and capacity of the Iraqi army…not focusing the plight of Kurdish civilians in Syria. Some folks may think it lamentable that we cannot, like god, manage all things all the time. Bennis’ snide comments about what we were trying to manage rather than what we were not diminishes her argument, especially in the case of using bombs to protect.

Towards the end of the book, Bennis makes her case for nonviolent responses to aggression, using instead diplomatic and economic tools to tame the enemies of peace. This is a direction I have been mulling over for some time, and was disappointed to read such ideas are consistently rejected at the highest levels, perhaps because there appears to be no cadre of people within the government willing to speak against the current ethos. The U.S. can be said to lead in this way at least: countries around the world are distrustful of each other’s motives, especially those whose smaller economies make them pawns in the hands of the behemoths.

Bennis’ method has the advantage of being very clear: no U.S. aid, trade, money, or weapons to those who violate the rights of their citizens and/or the sovereignty of other countries. I quite like the idea, though it would mean that arms dealers and other companies would have to actually work to the benefit of our nation rather than the other way around.

It is no good being cynical since it serves no one. It has taken a great deal of violent death to bring us to the point where we can admit that bombing ISIS seems only to spread the contagion of a medieval world view. One has to think about what might work. Military efforts, no matter what kind of precision weapons we use, are a very crude and wasteful way to solve problems. I am concerned that the U.S. somehow thinks itself blameless in the aggression we are experiencing now. Perhaps it is time to incorporate a new approach.

Bennis makes some important points not found elsewhere:

• The U.S.-instigated Sunni Awakening plan in Iraq was to pay Sunni outliers to fight with, rather than against, the occupation and U.S.-backed government in Iraq. About that time Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). When the U.S. government was being withdrawn, responsibility for payments to Sunni leaders was passed to the Iraqi government, which did not continue the practice. Sunni leaders became restless, often eventually defecting to ISI, renamed ISIS after its emergence in Syria in 2011.

• ISIS is using grotesque murders posted on the internet to outrage and thus lure Western governments into war in the Middle East, thus spurring recruitment for their resistance.

• It is important to recognize the breath of public support and involvement in the Arab Spring uprisings. Media coverage focused on blue jeaned young people posting on Facebook via cellphone, but the bulk of the movement was broadly-based not-entirely-secular workers, rural residents, older people motivated at least partly by faith.

• The Arab Spring movement in Syria began as a nonviolent protest with the recognition that once the movement takes up arms, the moral legitimacy and wide base of mass support would be lost. Bennis reprints statements issued at the time which shows the reluctance of such groups to accept American airstrikes in retaliation for chemical attacks, knowing that civilians would be the most affected once again.

• Bennis credits Graeme Wood writing in the Atlantic for pointing out that ISIS attached great significance to their capture of the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. The Prophet reportedly said the armies of Rome will set up camp in Dabiq and the armies of Islam will meet them there and the crusader armies will burn. ISIS wants to provoke an attack by its enemies on its own turf. Judging by what we are hearing from the Republican candidates for the presidency, it seems to be working.

• The invaluable thing Bennis does for us is remind us what it takes to expand a nonviolent movement: it is a huge undertaking to change people’s minds and show ways it can succeed in making our international relations better. One suggestion made by a group of Syrian women was that, instead of bombs, we bring aid (food, cooking pots, etc) and set up essential services. In addition, we have to negotiate with all parties to the violence, and attempt local, regional and finally, national ceasefires. Clearly not an easy undertaking, and certainly a longish time-frame. (Gad, I can't even picture it. Do aid workers have defensive weapons at least?) Anyway, I would love to see what a difference this strategy would make, if only...

Bennis' book is published by Olive Branch Press under the aegis of Interlink Publishing. More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores