Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, this novel comes after a long history of successful poetry, novels, and screenplays by Levy, so we are primed to find it praiseworthy. And it is, but she very nearly tips us into the deep, endlessly cycling the trauma of caring for someone apparently suffering a psychosomatic illness. To make it thrilling, Levy throws in parallels to Europe’s debt crisis and America’s pushy Big Pharma colonization. If you take the cover story as what Levy was trying to convey, you miss the beauty of her satire and the humor in her (wo)man-made disaster.

Sofia Irina is a half-British half-Greek anthropologist, trained to look for cultural memory which links the past to our present attitudes and actions. She quit working on her Ph.D. ostensibly to care for her mother, who is unable to walk. No explanation can be found for the mother’s malady so mother and daughter travel to Spain in hopes a specialist there may be able to elicit a cure.

The Doctor they have contracted with in Spain is a traditionalist who eschews Big Pharma, represented by a handsome gnat of a young man who seeks to discredit the Doctor’s carefully staged proofs that the illness Sophia’s mother suffers are in her head. The Doctor has a sexy Sunny vodka-swilling daughter who works with him and represents Spain’s youthful disdain for the old ways. It goes on like this, each character representing something larger than themselves, culminating in Levy's masterpiece: a luscious blond German autocrat attractive to both sexes who manages to import old fabrics from China and export them again at a markup after she adds her skillful embroidery.

An early scene which derailed a fine reviewer was the one where Sophia, delighted to find herself by the beach in sunny Spain, swims far out only to be stung by the swarms of medusa jelly-fish that have become a menace due to overfishing. (The birthplace of Medusa is Greece.) She runs back to shore to be treated for the painful stings, only to realize late that her bikini halter has broken and she is topless, jiggling insanely as she stomps about with the pain.

Besides the enormous fun we have with Levy’s impersonation of financial crises, there are other themes Levy raises about an adult daughter caring for her mother in illness. Again and again in the course of the novel, we are pointed to the notion that some people would never consider doing things that are not to their own advantage. This notion is first explicitly stated when Sophia visits her estranged and happily remarried father to ask for financial assistance or, at the very least, moral support for her efforts to care for his first wife. What some might consider his debt or obligation, he refuses to honor. His new young wife snorts with derision that he would consider doing anything not to his advantage.

Women—wives, mothers, daughters, sisters—often do things not strictly in their best interests. They do it out of love, usually, or say they do. But when one is the head of one’s own household, one is responsible for oneself—to oneself—to manage, to persist, to succeed. How one succeeds is not always by putting oneself first. [I might point out that people who put themselves first in every instance are the most unbearable and uncivilized bores, to say nothing of the possibility of culpability in a large societal context.]

There is more in this novel: forbidden love and lustful sex, fabulous deep white cotton sheets from Berlin, blue embroidery thread that spells out a mistaken and potentially lethal message, a pregnant white cat and a chained dog who howls whether or not he is leashed. I don’t want to take all the fun out of this novel by speculating on possible meanings of these for readers. Keep your eyes and mind open for the delights this novel offers and try not to be frustrated with the air of post-adolescent confusion. The claustrophobia of a strictly line-by-line reading might lead one to underestimate what Levy was attempting. If the stage is set for a close (re)reading, I think you will find yourself instead enjoying Levy's facility with keeping many balls in the air at one time, once again earning our respect.

I was helped in understanding this novel by many reviewers at the online site Goodreads, including one in particular, whose great insights pushed me to examine my initial lackluster evaluation more closely.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

It is always interesting to see what books inflame the European imagination. This novel by the Austrian writer Robert Seethaler took Germany by storm, and was released in translation last year in the United States and Canada. It really is the story of Andreas Egger’s whole life, though it runs less than one hundred and fifty pages.

The orphan Andreas Egger was given to a mean old relative, Hubert Kranzstocker, who crippled him in youth. Egger hardly ever spoke, but when he was eighteen he refused to be beaten by the old man, “If you hit me, I’ll kill you,” he said in the time-honored way of abused youth everywhere.

There is more, much more, but Andreas died in that village where he grew up. One February night the Cold Lady came for him. He did not resist. She looked like his wife, who was killed years before in an avalanche that also destroyed his house, his future child, and his dreams.

Perhaps the metronome quality of the writing is what draws readers to this work. It is patient, unheroic, daily. Moments of grief and joy are told with the same tone of ordinariness that describe winning a job, losing a job, working a job. The step-by-step inevitability of the end calms us. Egger still had plans—greatly diminished plans—when the Cold Lady came for him:
“…buy a couple of candles, seal the draughty crack in the window frame, dig a ditch in front of the hut, knee-deep and at least thirty centimeters wide, to divert meltwater…He was overcome by a feeling of warmth at the thought of his leg, that piece of rotten wood that had carried him through the world for so long.”
He did not suffer.

A life does not have to be loud to be meaningful. Egger was a strong and useful member of his society, and though he lived alone, he was not particularly lonely. “He had all he needed, and that was enough.” He talked to himself when he wanted to share a thought, and it gave him pleasure. Sometimes he laughed to himself…laughed until his eyes filled with tears.

This novel has a very European feel to it, so unlike the kind of large and spectacular and verbose novels we have tended to lionize in America. And the language is so European, capitalizing at least partially on the setting: "Sometimes he would pass his old plot of land. Over the years scree had accumulated on the spot where once his house had stood, forming a sort of embankment. In summer white poppies glowed between the lumps of stone, and in winter the children jumped over it on their skis."

I’ve looked everywhere I can think of to find interviews with Seethaler, and found one in German on youTube, which didn’t help me much. Picador promises us one on their website, but I couldn't find one. Seethaler is fifty years old, has written four previous novels, and occasionally works as an actor. The translation by Charlotte Collins seems particularly excellent to me.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Drowned Detective by Neil Jordan

The first fifty pages of this mystery were perfectly composed to trap the reader with its sense of menace and uncertainty. The tight construction and lack of explanation forces the reader to contemplate coincidence, involving us completely in the drama unfolding. A private investigator living in an unnamed Eastern European country is trained to look for inconsistencies and clues wherever he looks, and when he discovers a man’s cufflink in his wife’s handbag, the lives in his circle of family and colleagues are thrown into disarray.

There is far more to the story, including a parents’ search for a girl gone missing years ago and who, in an old photograph, is the same age as the detective’s daughter. Petra. That is her name. The daughter. Whose daughter?

Jordan draws us deep into the complex turnings of a mind under duress, circling back time and again to images and memories that haunt the subconscious. It is a fabulous examination of how the mind rids itself of a terror that it cannot examine directly. Supernatural elements are introduced, but somehow they seem perfectly at home with what is happening on the streets and in the opera houses of this European city on the edge of civil implosion and external invasion.

Neil Jordan’s work has been memorable since his first collection of stories, Night in Tunisia, won the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize. Most everyone will remember his film, The Crying Game, which won an Academy Award and a BAFTA. His other work has been likewise critically acclaimed. Published this year by Bloomsbury, Jordan’s latest detective novel puts the genre to shame by the intensity of its writing and the closely written examination of a marriage under pressure. The language makes it cinematic, atmospheric, and painfully realistic.

This is a short novel, though the language makes one want to pause. Writers anxious to see a master at work could do worse than read this for what it shows about brevity. One doesn’t need more words to get one’s point across. One needs what this man has.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Yellow Wind by David Grossman

David Grossman was a novelist when he was commissioned in 1987 to write a series of articles describing his perceptions of conditions in the occupied West Bank at the time of the twentieth anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War. What he wrote became a sensation in Israel. A book of the articles was published. Portions of that book were published in The New Yorker, and translations offered access throughout the world.

My initial reaction upon reading this thirty years since it was written was that it seemed dated. Those of us since who have been willing to grapple with the scene there have encountered stories like these before. The point, I guess, is that the problem has never been resolved and instead has festered, infected, and inflamed an entire region.

Grossman was remarkably naive in his writing—by that I mean he registered his reactions without much apparent editing. When he was horrified and distressed recognizing that Arab children were being taught to hate and kill Jews, he said so. When he discovered he lacked remorse when an Arab’s family home was torn down and the family banished because the son had committed murder, he said so. “They had raised the son and were therefore responsible” was his logic.

Towards the end of the book, however, his insights came hard and fast and terribly prescient. What strikes me now is how none of his insights were acted upon. All the markers I have in this book are in the last 75 pages. The paragraphs are too long to quote, so you will just have to go to the source. If you have been following the Israel Palestine saga, skim the beginning, and start reading at Chapter 12, “Sumud.” Or just read the last chapter, “The First Twenty Years.”
"The occupation is a continuing and stubborn test for both sides trapped in it…demanding that we…take a stand and make a decision. Or at least relate…Years passed…[and] I found myself developing the same voluntary suspension of questions about ethics and occupation…I have a bad feeling: I am afraid that the current situation will continue exactly as it is for another ten or twenty years. There is one excellent guarantee of that—human idiocy and the desire not to see the approaching danger. But I am sure that the moment will come when we will be forced to do something and it may well be that our position then will be much less favorable than it is now."
No one country has the corner on stupidity and reluctance to see danger. America, Europe, China...every country...has been reluctant to acknowledge climate change when it would have been so much easier to address it than now. None of us can claim to be better. There will always be those among us whose moral anguish or need to respond exceeds that of others. But I begin to think the situation in Israel/Palestine has crushed the souls of most people living there until now there is precious little left to save. Please prove to me is isn't so. Make me proud to know you.

The last paragraph of the book quotes Albert Camus. The passage from speech to moral action has a name: “To become human.”

I was led to this reading by a GR friend whose review made me want to see.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays by Michael Paterniti

Mike Paterniti is slyly profound. It is hard to pick a favorite among these essays, and it gets harder the more distance one gets from reading them. They stay around like a seed planted. They grow. It is easy to underestimate Paterniti because his writing voice is self-deprecating and meant to be goofily funny. But a couple of essays in this nonfiction collection prove his bonafides as someone who knows what seeing is, what wonder is. These essays range the world, and though early on I’d picked one or two I thought showcased his talent, two near the end of the collection spoke to me most directly. Ask me again in a week and I will choose a different set.

A GR friend pointed to this title, and his enthusiastic review made me want to see what he saw. The two essays David points to in his review, “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow” and “Driving Mr. Albert,” are two I wish all the pundits and newscasters had read before the presidential campaign started in the U.S. Paterniti tells of warring motels along an ignored stretch of road in Kansas, one motel owned by the whites, and two on either side of that owned by the yellows. It is a transcendent piece of writing because both sides are understandable in their resentments and there seems no solution in sight unless they get to know one another to see what suffering is.

In his review David points to that bit in “Driving Mr. Albert,” a horrible and ghastly story about driving across country with Einstein’s brain in the car trunk, where Paterniti points out “Frankly, out in America, you get the feeling that America is dying.” There is a stench of formaldehyde in his words throughout which makes one want to wretch, and nothing he writes along the way makes it better. It is a kind of grotesquerie but we cannot pull away. This man went and witnessed and we can just say, “how about that?”

One essay—I want to say story because it reads so much like fiction—that stood out for me was “The Suicide Catcher,” set in Nanjing, China. A man takes it upon himself to try and keep people from jumping to their deaths along a stretch of bridge over the Yangtze River. Paterniti flew to Nanjing to meet Mr. Chen:
"He had a paunch, blackened teeth, and the raspy cough of an avid smoker—and he never stopped watching, even when he allowed himself a cigarette, smoking a cheap brand named after the city itself. He wore a baseball cap with a brim that poked out like an oversized duck’s bill, like the Cyrano of duck bills, the crown of which read They spy on you."
The piece is mesmerizing. Paterniti caught that “China feel” precisely, down to the eight-table local restaurant near the bridge, the walls of which held side-by-side posters of Buddha and liquor ads, and the cloudy glasses of which held beer or grain alcohol that Mr. Chen slammed down with a greedy satisfaction and pride. Paterniti caught the feel of suicide-catching, too, as he stood without Mr. Chen on the bridge later. A man, boozed to the gills, decided he could no longer take the pressure of caring for a sick relative and his family as well. He very nearly succeeded in rolling himself over the balustrade…

“Never Forget” made me shake with fear and brought me to tears. For the first time since our presidential campaign started this time I realized that we human beings have many documented cases—here is another one—of mass delusion and slaughter of fellow humans. It can happen again. It makes no sense, but no matter how remote it seems, we must be vigilant. In this essay the author is in Cambodia with his wife and child. He walks in the park with his son who clutched him “like a snake-spooked chimpanzee,” while everyone smiles and points at them. Everyone smiles so consistently he starts to get paranoid. “Why is everyone smiling?” he wonders. “Was the joke on me?…Or are they smiling because they can?” Chum Mey, a survivor of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, smiles too, though we may never understand how.
"In the first spasm of violence, everyone wearing glasses was killed. Everyone who spoke a foreign language was killed. Everyone with a university education was killed. Word was sent to expats living abroad to come home and join the new Cambodia; when a thousand or so arrived on special flights from Beijing, they were killed. Monks, so revered in Cambodian society and long the voice of conscience there, were killed. Lawyers, doctors, and diplomats were killed. Bureaucrats, soldiers, and policemen, even factory workers (Who in the minds of the Khmer Rouge were equivalent to industrialization itself), were killed."
I am not equating what is happening here with what has happened elsewhere. I am merely pointing out that people can be led to madness. Dystopia has its roots in that fear. In fiction it can be thrilling. In real life it is unqualified horror. Paterniti ended up returning to Cambodia for the trials which had dragged on so very long that everyone on both sides of the case were dying before sentencing. Chum Mey was there, smiling. Paterniti was strong to witness this episode in history, and brave.

It may be worth pointing out that this type of nonfiction storytelling is kind of an unusual genre. Or is it? I mean, it is not journalism exactly. Where does a quirky, interested, interesting voice writing nonfiction fit in the canon unless one is telling news? He writes magazine pieces for GQ. But this is still an unusual category: not travel writing or memoir-writing or straight journalism. The author barely appears in these pieces except for playing straight man or adding an occasional editorial comment or two. It is more like the pieces published in The New Yorker, I guess. Anyway, if someone else were as quirky and observant as Paterniti and could write as well, they might find an audience. My guess is that Paterniti would say, “No, don’t. It ain’t that easy…” But he’d say it with a smile.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels #2) by Elena Ferrante

When we get to the end of the second book in Ferrante’s quartet of novels, we think we see the genesis of that quartet: a twenty-day writing exercise that took the angst out of university graduation for Elena Greco, also called Lenù. Although I struggled through this volume, listening to the voices of teens talking about their confusion and noting their lack of confidence while they strode boldly ahead, all was forgiven in the last one hundred pages.

The girls are now women, having earned a few hard-won truths they will use to the end of their days. The first lessons last longest. Lina and Lenù, the names barely distinguishable when heard, have discovered that in early 1960’s Italy, it is still a man’s world. Lina is unafraid and almost preternaturally resistant to control. She is curious, and furious. She is still the one we look to when we want to know what comes next. Her refusal to take what’s coming to her makes everyone, paradoxically, jealous of her.

Lenù is soft and bosomy and tries very hard to rustle up indignation about world peace, about Lina taking a lover (Lenù's lover), about her prospects after university. She wants to feel things as deeply and as ardently as Lina. When she sees Lina again at the end of this novel, we can tell she knows she will never reach those depths. And perhaps it is just as well. One must have the whole package if one is to survive those depths: a fierce, innovative intelligence and an unrelenting determination to survive on one’s own terms.

Put in the context of world literature, this series is developing into something remarkable. The voices of women in a man’s world are so seldom heard without interference or distortion. While that may not be true today, it was certainly true in 1960’s Italy, and to have even a glimpse behind the veil is something precious. But this is fiction, you protest. Ah, nobody could make a world so complete, so filled with recognizable motivations, were it not at least close to a kind of universal truth.

Besides that, there is the style of the work: it is so accessible, so female, so filled with things men would never say, never contemplate saying. We all grew up reading the writing of men, so we can consider ourselves experts. This work is different. It dwells on minutiae. The aspects of characters are raked over, head to foot, for what they reveal about that character’s state of mind and intention. The story slows while we contemplate their dilemmas, and like women everywhere, put ourselves in their place. It is a kind of soap opera, but the very best kind. It is the kind that teaches us something about how the world works and how other have dealt with circumstances we might encounter.

But it may be the language that is the most remarkable thing of all. Throughout the novel we hear Lenù talking about dialect versus Italian, implying that there are things that can be said in Italian that can not be conveyed in dialect. Well, it seems that there is also a kind of alchemy here that relates to the language Ferrante uses that gives us direct access to the hearts and minds of two women on the cusp of adulthood. Other people have tried to do this, but Ferrante has succeeded beyond the borders of her own country, beyond her generation, beyond her sex. When Elena says she went to Lina at the end of the novel to "show her what she had lost and what I had won," we wait for it…wait for the penny to drop…
"[Lina] was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was as full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other very so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other."
Ferrante deserves the attention she has had from this series of novels. It is world-class literature that deserves a place in the pantheon. I am looking forward to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

For those following this series, or those put off by the covers, please note there is a debate raging in literary circles about just this topic: The Atlantic magazine contributor Emily Harnett wrote a piece explaining the publisher's point in deciding on the covers as they are.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Thistle and the Drone by Akbar Ahmed

Ahmed starts out reframing the way the West views the Muslim world. Instead of looking at interactions in the world as a “clash of civilizations,” he posits that we should be looking at the Muslim diaspora as a set of tribal communities in conflict with their central governments. While some may think this is accepted thought already, it certainly was not when we went into Iraq in 1990, nor in 2003. Ahmed makes a compelling case with examples extending from Albania and Turkey to China and Indonesia, highlighting different models of organization and center-periphery relationships that apply throughout this huge area.

Once the framing is stated, it almost seems obvious, which is perhaps the strongest argument for reading this book. Ahmed goes further to explain how the West has exacerbated regional tensions by inserting themselves into this conflict under the aegis of “the war on terror,” and turned the fight into a global affair against westernization and globalization as defined by Tom Friedman. The unintentional “bug splat” of drone strikes, or the civilian deaths coincident with targeted killings of terrorists, means tribal leaders have a moral responsibility to fight back, aligning with whomever has the strength and willingness to see that fight through. As long as the drone strikes and collateral damage continues, the fight will continue.

The author uses the metaphor of the drone to represent Western technology and power and points out that the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies. The thistle is prickly, hardy, and very hard to uproot. It has an unusual beauty, and it roots in poor soil. Long after all is destroyed, the thistle will abound. Ahmed tells us that the West was used in some cases by “central governments who cynically and ruthlessly exploited the war on terror to pursue their own agenda against the periphery.” We know it is true.
”It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, the leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures, and the role Islam plays in their lives, These issues are, in face, the subject matter of anthropology…Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict."

Ahmed has met Presidents Bush and Obama in his role as academic and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Bush’s administration, I felt, was spectacularly wrong because it was imposing a prefabricated frame of different cultures and societies…Obama’s administration was spectacularly unsure…Both administrations were driven by issues almost wholly on a political level, neglecting the moral and social dimensions and their implications.” Ahmed’s insights may be one of the reasons President Obama did not bomb Syria when the conflict began there. But much damage had been and continues to be done to the relationship tribal groups have with the United States. When the U.S. government put human and civil rights to the service of security, any admiration the U.S. had garnered began to erode.

Ahmed is a huge fan of America’s founding fathers, and the U.S. Constitution. He points out that America itself has wrestled with the center-periphery issue itself in dealing with Native American Indians. Benjamin Franklin wrote that Europeans could learn a great deal from tribal societies: when a Native American elder was offered the opportunity to have several of his tribe educated at a local Virginia college, the elder thanked the government and replied:
"Our Ideas of this Kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours…Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors; they were totally good for nothing… however…if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them."
The rise of “instant terror experts” that arose in and around the think tanks sprinkling Washington after 9/11 fueled a distorted view of Islam and seeded Islamophobia throughout the U.S., mistakenly defining Islam as the enemy in the global war on terror. Ahmed gives the U.S. Army credit for gaining a greater understanding of the importance of tribal culture as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, but the strategy of working with tribes as a partner came too late: “The United States did not have the time, the resources, or the temperament to create an effective and neutral tribal administration…”

The solution, according to Ahmed, is using the tribal structure and code to repair “mutations into violence:”
"If the tribal code promotes the notion of revenge, then it just as surely advocates the resolution of conflict through a council of elders based on justice and tradition…While the state must express its ideas of nationhood by providing education and other benefits to its peoples, the leaders of the periphery need to encourage their followers to participate in the processes of change and take advantage of them. The state must understand that its components have different customs and traditions, and it needs to acknowledge them, granting communities on the periphery the full rights and privileges enjoyed by its other citizens…however good the intentions on both sides, there is still the matter of how the each sees the other…each side must appreciate the perception the other side has of it.
"...People on periphery have been traumatized beyond imagination in recent years…They face widespread famine and disease and are voiceless and friendless in a hostile world…They have been robbed of their dignity and honor…Yet the world seems indifferent to their suffering and is barely aware of its scale…The test is to see a common humanity in the suffering of others.”
Ahmed is an academic and he writes fulsomely, with many examples and vignettes. The argument is strong and logical enough to be stated simply in a few pages, though, and we quickly recognize the value of this recast of the conflict in which we are embroiled. I really appreciate his taking the time to write his thesis and I come away with a fresh perspective and appreciation of conflict and amity in our world.

This book is Part III of a trilogy examining relations between America and the Muslim world. It is self-contained, however, individuals may find it worthwhile to look at Ahmed's previous work, Journey into Islam and Journey into America. Colonel David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla blurbs praise on the back: "...required reading..."

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Darktown by Thomas Mullen & Interview with the Author

Hardcover, 384 pages Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Atria / 37 INK ISBN13: 9781501133862

The experience of two black police officers forms the kernel of Thomas Mullen's explosive new novel set in a 1948 Atlanta that was “two parts Confederate racist to two parts Negro to one part something-that-doesn’t-quite-have-a-name-for-it-yet.” Black policemen are as discriminated against in their own headquarters as are black civilians, so these beat cops must have strong moral grounding and resilient natures to put up with the task at hand. Their poorly equipped office is in the basement of the YMCA, run by a man who’d had his door kicked down twelve times for imagined crimes. That man was happy to find a place in his building for the new Darktown police force.

The Wiki for Darktown reports that the Negro neighborhood of Atlanta
stretched from Peachtree Street and Collins Street (now Courtland Street), past Butler Ave. (now Jesse Hill Jr. Ave.) to Jackson Street. It referred to the blocks above Auburn Avenue in what is now Downtown Atlanta and the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Darktown was characterized in the 1930s as a "hell-hole of squalor, degradation, sickness, crime and misery”.
Because white police officers did not often want to respond to citizens living in Darktown, the neighborhood was unconstrained and plagued by bad behaviors. In 1948 the Atlanta Police Department trained and hired eight black men, some WWII veterans, to patrol Darktown and keep the peace.

One enters a fiction about race relations written by a white man with a certain amount of trepidation. At the start of the novel we are treated to descriptions of truly despicable behaviors, epithets, taunts, and conditions to which Atlanta's first black officers were exposed, and while we suspect it is all too true, we are not comfortable. No one likes to be reminded how bad it must have been. Not long into the narrative, however, we almost imperceptibly begin to relax into the telling of a crime story that involves shadowy power well beyond the reach of a Negro beat cop a few months into the job. A young pretty black woman is found dead in a garbage heap and the last known person to have been with her was a white ex-cop, fired for corruption some time ago along with some mates on the force.

This is not a novel just about race. This is a novel about policing. One of the things that Mullen reveals to us in this book is the true nature of “the job”: the thorny ethical conundrums and moral relativism that haunts those mean streets. We suspect that police officers have to deal with these difficulties every day of their working lives, and we begin to question whether any man or woman is up to the task. After all, some difficult choices are often made quickly, on the spur of a moment when the police themselves may be facing physical danger.

What is moral relativism? It is the notion that there is no universal concept of right or wrong, good or bad, and that truth and goodness must be examined from the place at which the individual stands. It’s why justice is so hard to nail down, and why judges and juries are so important. But this concept can be stretched to unsupportable lengths, and we are presented with examples of that in this book. It makes for thoughtful reading.

Mullen challenges us with this novel, and if I said "we relax into the reading," I certainly didn't mean for the last half of the story, which ramps up the tension to terror. The film rights for this novel were optioned in a competitive bidding war long before its publication date. The film contract was eventually won by Sony TV with Jaime Foxx as executive producer, Rachel O’Connor producing. It does have a cinematic feel: dark, hot, buggy nights loaded with sweat, blood, and moral conundrum.

Mullen could easily make this first in a series, he was so competent in involving readers with his characters and their edgy situation in the context of crime within and without the Atlanta police force. It feels all kinds of relevant today, as the white population is waking up to race in America and how "discriminatory behavior" manifests. The Epigraph at the beginning of the novel is a quote from one of the first black officers to be inducted into the Atlanta Police Department, Officer Willard Strickland:
”I must tell you, it was not easy for me to raise my right hand and say, ‘I, Willard Strickland, a Negro, do solemnly swear to perform the duties of a Negro Policeman.’”
Many thanks to Thomas Mullen for bringing us this absorbing and difficult story, and to Netgalley and Atria Books for sharing the e-galley with me in advance of publication on September 13, 2016. Below, Thomas Mullen answers some questions about Darktown.


Ques: Your novel is a soul-crushing look at conditions for the first black police officers in Atlanta and I note you have a quote from Officer Willard Strickland for your Epigraph. Can you tell us how much of the book is imagined and how much parallels the actual, related experiences of these men?

  MULLEN: The specifics of the book's plot and the characters are invented, but the context is based on historical fact: the rules the black officers had to operate under (not being able to arrest whites, not being able to use headquarters, or drive squad cars, or even walk the beat in white neighborhoods) and the hostile response they received from white officers (the death threats, the repeated use of epithets in their presence, the attempt to frame them for crimes). Those details I didn't invent but found in my research.

  Ques:  I am not going to deny that reading racial epithets, taunts, and threats towards the black policemen from their white colleagues made me extremely uneasy and uncomfortable, no matter that it could have been factually true. Did you, as a white novelist, have second thoughts about writing a history from the point of view of black men discriminated against for their color?

MULLEN: I needed to be accurate to the times. If I had, say, not had any instances in which whites used the n-word, or had made the white cops seem friendlier to the black officers than they really were, then I would have been whitewashing history. That would only play into the hands of revisionists who like to claim, "hey, it was better in the good ol' days." I take no pleasure in showing instances of racism and cruelty, but to pretend they didn't happen would be dishonest. And I think it's important to remember what these men had to go through, every day.

As far as the black point of view in the book, roughly half of the book is from black characters' perspective and about half is from white characters' perspective. But what's important here is that each character has his or her own, unique perspective--no character should be a mere stand-in for their race, or gender, or religion, or anything. I always want my characters to feel as 3-D and authentic and real as possible, in my other books and in DARKTOWN.

  Ques: Many writers would steer clear of a subject so rife with conflict. Do you consciously seek the most explosive subject you can find, confident in your ability to navigate criticisms and the shoals of accusation?

  MULLEN: I wouldn't say that I consciously go toward explosive subjects, but I do think that my work has always grappled with what it means to be an American. My first novel, THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH explored the eternal conflicts of society vs. individualism and security vs. liberty through the lens of the 1918 flu epidemic; my second, THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS, explored the American Dream and financial insecurity through a tale of Great Depression bank robbers; my third, THE REVISIONISTS, tackled terrorism, espionage, and political idealism. It seemed to me, when I started writing this book four years ago (two years before Ferguson and Black Lives Matter), that race has always been a vital and ongoing component of the American story; it was influencing people's response to President Obama, the rise of Tea Party movement, terrorism, the economy, so much else. I don't think writers should steer clear of important subjects.

  Ques: Officer Denny Rakestraw goes some way towards assuaging the conscience of white readers of this novel and acting according to his conscience, and yet he and Officer Lucien Boggs wrestle with moral relativism. Is this something policemen must face every day of their working lives?

  MULLEN: I'm drawn to moral dilemmas and complex issues, and yes, it seems to me that policing is rife with them, whether in 2016 or 1948. All the major characters in DARKTOWN are wrestling with what's the best--or the smartest, or the safest, or the most moral, or the most opportunistic--way to remedy their problems, and the way they come to these often-conflicting decisions is what moves the book forward.

  Ques: Can you give us some idea of how long this novel took between conception and execution? Is this an idea you have been wishing to write or did you literally “meet” the idea in the form of Officer Strickland?

  MULLEN: I got the idea for the book when I read a 4-page passage about the 1948 hiring of Atlanta's black officers in Gary Pomerantz's excellent history of Atlanta, "Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn." I spent two years researching (which is where I found Strickland's speech, at Atlanta's Auburn Avenue Research Library) and writing the first draft, then another year or so on edits with my agent.

  Ques: I note your novel has been optioned for TV. Congratulations! I’m sure it has occurred to you and to others who have read your novel that your characters could conceivably live a long life as a crime series. Have you considered that?  

MULLEN: Yes, long before I got the TV deal I had envisioned this as a book series. One of the many things that intrigued me about setting a book in 1948 is that so much is going to happen in the next 20 years--from Brown v. Board of Education and the white backlash to school desegregation, to Martin Luther King Jr. returning to Atlanta in 1960, and so much more--that will greatly impact these characters. There are so many stories to tell, and I'm looking forward to taking readers along for a fascinating ride.

  Thank you so much!


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Monday, August 8, 2016

A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

George’s massive, character-rich mysteries are unique in the annals of British mystery writing. George’s conclusion to the nineteenth in this series leaves us as anxious to hear the future for her characters as we ever were in the beginning. She throws in everything her characters encounter in a day, making the book dauntingly long, but as I pointed out in an earlier review, look how much story one gets for the investment of a few quid.

Inspector Lynley may indeed be the spine of these novels, but to my mind, Barbara Havers is the beating heart. Her incorrigible refusal to bend to societal expectations both frustrates and endears her to us. She and Lynley are perfectly paired: they accentuate one another’s strengths and weakness. They are more together than they ever would be apart.

In this novel we are treated to a new poison, one easily obtainable on the internet, apparently. It leaves no immediate trace and causes fibrillation of the heart, which can lead to heart failure. For someone to use this against an employer or a family member, one has to be extraordinarily careful since its effects are immediate and deadly to those who come in contact with it.

This novel is about sex. “Goodness, it’s what everyone else is always thinking about, Detective Inspector,” Dorothea, the administrative assistant to Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, said to Detective Inspector Lynley on the subject of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers’ apparent lack of interest in the subject. In other words, sex is “just the ticket” for getting Havers’ mind off her possible transfer to the outer reaches of prisondom for being too inventive, too edgy in the execution of her duties.

Britain’s foremost feminist author is collecting research for a new book about anonymous casual sexual encounters with married men. She’d troll internet dating sites and when the married men responded, she’d show up at the agreed-upon site and attempt to interview them about their thinking and rationale. George doesn’t crucify these blokes: when we finally meet a few they have quite rational and legitimate reasons for what they do, and one might even come to the conclusion that their marriages, and certainly their sexual satisfactions, are enhanced by their infidelities. However, the sudden death of the feminist author is initially thought by investigators to have been suicide or murder predicated on the fact that the author apparently found the wandering husbands more interesting than just for a chat.

To my mind, partaking of the purported infidelities seems perfectly within the feminist scope. No one has ever succeeded in proving that feminists are uninterested in men, or in sex. What feminists do successfully argue about are unequal constraints within the institution of marriage or that women don’t have the same sexual freedoms as men. Presumably George knew this seemed an insufficient motive for murder because she throws many more compelling motives into the investigation until we suspect practically everyone. In the end, George concludes the episode with the coppers putting away “the obvious suspect” but not the correct one. Divine justice being what it is, however, means even we are not going to agitate for a better solution.

At this point it is worth reminding readers that Elizabeth George is American. While she previously wrote from Huntington Beach, California she now writes from Whitby Island, Washington State, right up near the Canadian border. She claims she can write anywhere, but it is true she does extensive research in the British Isles to complete the set for her mysteries. The language of her characters are even written so that we can tell who is speaking without name identifiers, a skill to which screenwriters aspire.

George had just completed all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels before beginning this nineteenth novel in the series of Lynley and Havers. What struck her was that one of Ferrante’s central characters was an unlikable character and yet we couldn’t get enough of her. That character invigorated readers because her reactions, her thinking defied our expectations. George’s creation was surprising, too, and more than a little disagreeable. She had Borderline Personality Disorder, her frantic, manic behaviors characterized by “a tendency towards unstable and inappropriately intense relationships that can be characterized by an inundation of the object necessary for need fulfillment and the sharing of intimate details early in a relationship.”

A short interview with Elizabeth George shares her thinking about the difficulties of writing a long-running series. “The themes of the individual characters’ stories have to mirror the themes of the novel, and that gets very tricky.” So, in this case, there is the discussion of sex, sexual love, and love. Many kinds of love are pointed to in this novel: the love of marriage partners, or of colleagues, or love for children, or love of self. Add to that the complicating need for sex, and you have George’s cornucopia of motives for murder.

My favorite scene in this novel may be the meal that Havers made for Winston Nkata while they worked together in the village of Shaftesbury in Dorset. Sergeant Nkata takes pride in keeping fit, running daily, and not indulging in any vices like drinking or smoking. When his work kept him from their shared accommodation until early evening, Barbara felt she “owed him a meal. He, after all, had been doing the honors with breakfast and lunch.” The starter she offered him was “savoury biscuits with orange marmalade accompanied by tuna-and-mayo paste…” I’m not going to tell you the rest, but it goes downhill rapidly from there.

When Nkata returned, he was carrying a shopping bag with fixings for homemade beef, mushroom, and lager pie with a side of sprouts with bacon, shallots, and hazelnuts.

““Shallots, eh?” Barbara wondered what the hell they were.”

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Friday, August 5, 2016

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

I am not sure where I first heard the name Ted Gup. It could have been a Goodreads friend, or it could have been an article by that author written more recently. When I investigated his name more closely, I discovered he’d written a book, this book, in 2010 about discovering a suitcase of letters in his grandmother’s attic. I’d recently had that experience, finding a huge trove of WWI memorabilia behind a wall in my great aunt’s attic: notes and photos from the front and letters back describing a 1918 adherence to government rationing on meat consumption which led families to resort to eating woodchuck.

Gup’s experience was different. The letters he found were in response to an ad placed in a newspaper in the height of the Depression in Canton, Ohio close on Christmas 1933. The ad invited readers to send a letter to a Mr. B. Virdot describing their hardships. Mr. Virdot promised to send a gift to 50-75 individuals whose identities “would always remain secret.” “There is a question in my mind whether I would accept charity directly offered by welfare organizations,” he wrote. “I know there are hundreds of men faced with economic problems who think, feel and act the same way.”

Mr. B. Virdot was Ted Gup’s grandfather, who lied for years about his origins and his name. This book is the story of uncovering that history, and of finding and fleshing out histories of the families whom Mr. Virdot helped that Christmas in 1933. How many letters were delivered to the paper in response to the advert is not recorded. Initially Mr. Virdot had intended to respond to 50-75 letters but the numbers and the needs were so great that Virdot halved the amount to each family and doubled the number of recipients to exhaust the $750 dollars he had deposited in an account at Canton’s George D. Harter Bank. Some of the 150 letters are reprinted in this account along with a backstory of the individual asking for aid.
"...it was the smallness of B. Virdot's gift--a mere five dollars--that was its magic, not an act of governmental grandiosity but a gesture of human compassion."
I am reluctant to reveal the history of Sam Stone, as Mr. B. Virdot was known in real life, because his history is so tied in with American history at the turn of the last century and is the reason behind my fascination with this book. Sam Stone’s history began for his grandson only when he appeared in Ohio, at age thirty. The years before were shrouded in mystery and this book reveals how that happened. It took years of research to uncover that history, crisscrossing the east coast searching for clues. The truth lies in a dark period in America when xenophobia, anti-immigration policies, discrimination, and suspicion were aimed at immigrants suspected of carrying the contagion of radicalism. The period described here would be a terrific setting for a novel. Writers, take note!

Sam Stone, writing in the newspaper ad as Mr. B. Virdot, had experienced hardship. Because of that, he opened his heart and his wallet to try and ease the lives of those he saw suffering around him. How did B. Virdot have $750 in cash to hand out at that time? Well, the truth of it was that he didn’t have much. His business as a clothing store salesman had suffered enormous setbacks, e.g., fire, theft, and collapse in 1929. But Sam Stone was grateful that his business had a good year in 1933, and he wanted to share the wealth. His grandson tells us that for the rest of his life “nothing, in his view, beat the hot dogs at Woolworth’s lunch counter.”

This story is significant for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly it allows one to wander years not so far distant in our nation’s history when people saw widespread deprivation first hand and suffered the indignities of poverty. “There is no romanticizing the wreckage it wrought,” Gup writes. “But it also rid us of our sense of entitlement and made us take inventory of our intangible wealth. The Depression was like a great anvil upon which our national character was beaten into shape. It forged an indomitable spirit we later recognized as ‘The Greatest Generation.’”

In one of the photos included in the book, and in one of the last family histories, Gup recounts his conversation with the youngest of the letter-writers to Mr. B. Virdot. Helen Palm was fourteen when she answered the ad placed by B. Virdot.
"My father does not want to ask for charity. But us children would like to have some clothing for Christmas…If you should send me Ten Dollars I would buy clothing and buy the Christmas dinner and supper. I thank you. Helen Palm"
Gup found Helen Palm, now Helen Kintz Grant, in a nursing home just outside of Canton. Upon receiving the five dollars, she said in 2010, “I went right down and bought a pair of shoes.” She’d been cutting out the shape of her sole from an empty shredded-wheat cereal box and inserting into her shoes. The rest of the money went to taking her family out to eat.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The New Threat: The Past, Present, & Future of Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke

If I had one book to give someone interested in understanding ISIS and the threats we now face from Islamic militancy, it would be this one. Published in August 2015, this book includes material through the summer of that year, but also digests and explains some of the earlier reports coming out of Syria, the Middle East, and South Asia. Burke also addresses the threat of home-grown terrorism that is most real to Western communities and governments.

Burke began reporting on events relating to the change in the Islamic character of the Middle East and South Asia as a journalist in the 1990s and he has refined his understanding of the changes in those regions ever since. His grasp is both deep and wide—he wishes he could have included more about the movement in South and Southeast Asia because, in his conclusions at the end, he believes that could be the next area to source individuals committed to jihad.

Burke reiterates over the course of his narrative that terrorism is meant to force leaders to act quickly, make mistakes, and take action they ordinarily would not do, destabilizing their governments. Terror is meant to make individuals disrupt their daily routines, causing follow-on economic repercussions. And terror is meant to cause the populace to polarize: people to question their relationships, fear their neighbors, challenge their government, and consider violence. One might argue terror has already caused irremediable changes in the fabric of world society. Burke replies that we must become resilient, savvy, and knowledgeable. Terrorism in the Middle East may have already run its course, but the seeds are everywhere.

The book is not long, and those of you already well-schooled in the history of ISIS may not feel you need to reread the beginning, though I found Burke’s finesse added a depth to my own understanding of the region, besides being the tightest, clearest history I’ve yet seen. Burke adds to the work done previously by making cogent comment on others’ conclusions. For years I’d been wondering about the families of suicide bombers, their apparent acquiescence causing me to question my own understanding of family ties. Burke addresses this directly:
"Suicide bombing is neither a cheap weapon, as often said, nor the spontaneous, organic expression of the inchoate rage of a people. It is a tactic, adopted for specific strategic reasons by terrorists, and which involves the commitment of significant resources if it is going to be successful. The extremist organizations that pioneered the use of the tactic—such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers—rapidly learned that few communities naturally accept the voluntary death of their teenagers. The individual who becomes a human bomb may cost an organization less than a missile but any militant hoping to reply suicide attackers needs to invest heavily and systematically in propaganda designed to build and then maintain a ‘cult of the martyr’ if they are avoid a backlash from relatives, friends and their wider circle. It is not natural for a mother or a father to celebrate the death of a child, and the idea that young men, or increasingly women, should kill themselves in order to kill others, often civilians, has to be normalized…in practical terms, meanwhile, the families of ‘martyrs’ need to be looked after; funerals organized and paid for, valedictory films produced and broadcast; a dedicated infrastructure to find, isolate and condition ‘martyrs’ set up and run. This effort must be constant and places a considerable strain on a groups’ resources. Many Islamic extremist organizations, including IS, make disproportionate use of foreign volunteers as suicide attackers. One reason may well be to make a powerful statement about the extent of their support around the globe. But another may simply be that foreigners are cheaper."
Burke briefly traces the history and methods of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, their differences and similarities, and their current state of play, including their affiliates around the world. He then discusses the threat to the West, drawing on the most important conclusions of Western analysts regarding what has been called home-grown terror or “lone wolves.” He first focuses on terror incidents in Britain and Europe, which I found particularly enlightening. With regards to America, Burke focuses most intensely on the Marathon Bombers in Boston.

He takes issue with the notion of ‘lone wolf,’ arguing that the similarities of the public statements of those with wearing this label use many of the same words and concepts, implying an underlying global community that extends far beyond their individual actions. “These men were formed, conditioned and prepared for their ultimate acts over years, if not decades, by an entire culture of extremist activism.”

An interesting outcome of the Arab Spring, Burke notes, is that several relatively Westernized pro-democracy activists turned to Islamic militancy when they were disillusioned during the fifty months from 2011 to 2015 when regimes collapsed, governments failed, and the international community did little to stave off deprivation for citizens facing war or displacement. He speaks of the gangland ethos among converts to Islamic militancy, the ‘jihadi cool,’ and 'jihad meets The Sweeney meets the gangsta.’ There is exploitable weakness there, for both the converts and for the main terror group.

In the final chapter on the future of terror, Burke discusses several completely fascinating long-term surveys or polls done in huge swathes of Islamic territory. The U.S.-based Pew Center published one in 2013 which revealed that support for suicide bombing remains limited, concerns about extremism are high, and levels of support for Al Qaeda remain low, but that perceptions of Western society are are increasingly negative, including views of Christians and Jews. On the Western side, we don't need to go further than our newspapers and TV reports to know that perceptions of Muslims are tanking.

Burke’s final chapter is one readers will not want to miss. In it Burke describes the outcomes of this history of terror—the divisions we see in our societies, the retrenchments in rights, the fear, the polarity—despite the relative lack of physical impact of terror on Western communities. “The real impact of Islamic militancy…is in the Islamic world where the monthly death toll frequently exceeds the total in the West over the past decade.” But the West has had costs: by focusing on terror we did not focus on climate change, the relationships between the West and Arab or Islamic populations have become poisonous, and our own communities have divisions that are destroying us from within. How we deal with the threats we face will define us long into the future.

This book has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2016.

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