Friday, March 31, 2017

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

Hardcover, 192 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Riverhead Books (first published 2014) Orig Title Distancia de rescate ISBN13: 9780399184598 Literary Awards Premio Tigre Juan (2015), Man Booker International Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Dream is the right word for what we think we observe in this novel. Something poisonous is going on involving two mothers, their children, and pollutants that have entered the soil and water in a countryside that should nourish farmers, ranchers, and vacationers. The cycle of life has been profoundly disrupted and neither residents nor visitors can or will speak of the horror in the vacation wonderland. It looks as though some kind of paranormal witchery is being considered a kind of cure.

Americans lived through a history of environmental pollution and subsequent corporate denial for years in the 1950s-1960s until regulations put a halt to the most egregious flaunting of public health. The public became savvy, protesting when agriculture, methane, coal, oil, gas or other byproducts left a mark on their communities. But we rarely saw what happened in other parts of the world where the legal infrastructure was not as developed and the public not as well-educated in the ways profits become manifest.

Schweblin has made an extraordinarily intimate small novel speak for a national catastrophe. She has captured the somewhat insular way a mother observes and protects her child—how intimately she is familiar with every gesture and each learned behavior, connected by some psychic string, or in Schweblin’s words, ‘the rescue distance.’

The story is told in a unique way. The action is all past; a woman, Amanda, is in the hospital. She has a young boy speaking to her in imagination if not in actuality. The young boy encourages her to remember…to remember the sequence of events that led to this moment. Amanda and her child are staying in a vacation home in the country; while waiting for her husband to come on the weekends, they invite an interesting-looking local woman, Clara, and her son over to talk, play, and drink maté.

The strangeness comes from the juxtaposition of the hospital setting with green fields waving in a warm breeze, a cool creek, the hot sun sparkling on an outdoor pool, the languid slap of a screen door, a gold bikini, a young daughter chortling and repeating to herself, “we adore this.” There is unspoken menace in everything recalled by the woman now lying in the hospital, and the young boy she speaks to makes it sound almost as though she still had a choice…a choice she could make to prevent her imminent death.

A review from the Los Angeles Times talks about the introduction of genetically modified soybeans into the farming culture of Argentina. In an interview with Bethanne Patrick in LitHub, Schweblin is more explicit:
"This story could be set anywhere. In fact, the first time I heard about pesticides and their terrible consequences was through a documentary about this subject in France. But, mainly because of corruption, Latin America has the worst agrochemical regulations and agreements. And Argentina, in particular, is one of the biggest importers of soya—one of the products more related with pesticides. We spread this soya all over the world; it is the base of a lot of our food. Soya is in everything: cookies, frozen fish, cereal bars, soups, bread, all kinds of flour, even ice cream!"
The pollution already permeates the soil and water, is what Schweblin is telling us. It’s not like stopping now is going to change anything, but the tension in this novel may indicate there may be a way to forestall an inevitable end.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Schweblin apparently now lives and writes from Berlin. Fever Dream is her first novel, originally published in 2015 and winner the Tigre Juan Prize which serves to draw attention to a worthy lesser-known author. She has three story collections besides this book.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub February 7th 2017 by Atria / 37 INK ISBN13: 9781501126390

The story of Ona Maria Judge, slave to President George Washington who escaped his presidential residence in Philadelphia and fled by sea to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in May 1796, may be one of the most intriguing escape narratives ever told. I’d first heard of Oney Judge and Washington’s pursuit of her from a mind-expanding history of black freed men and slaves in New Hampshire called Black Portsmouth, written by Valerie Cunningham and Mark J. Sammons.

In this work, historian E.A. Dunbar examines and interprets details of George Washington’s households in New York, Mount Vernon, and Philadelphia. There are many intriguing holes in the narrative, but Dunbar hews closely to the facts she uncovered and adds her understanding of how a black slave in this period would have viewed the environment and opportunities. Dunbar describes the calculation a nubile slave would make when contemplating being passed to an owner with a history of sexual interest in colored women. The startling insight of the observation was clear the instant it was articulated and certainly was not found in original documents.

The slaves in George Washington’s household came to him through his wife, Martha, widow of Daniel Parke Custis, a rich farmer. Ona Maria Judge was a teen when George Washington became president in 1789, and she was a valued house servant and seamstress. Mrs. Washington made clear that she would gift Judge to her granddaughter Eliza Custis Law, who married Thomas Law in 1796, a British subject who had made his fortune in India. Judge later told a newspaper interviewer that she “was determined never to become her slave.” (Italics preserved from the original.)

Dunbar’s research succeeds in that it does what good nonfiction ought to do—it makes one interested to know more. In this case, Dunbar introduces us to an exceedingly interesting family dynamic—granddaughter Eliza Law ended up separating from Thomas Law eight years later, finally divorcing (!) in 1811—and advances a theory about why Thomas Law later freed Ona’s sister, who took Ona’s place as servant slave in Eliza’s household. I formed a different theory based on the information Dunbar gives us in this book, but mine would require more research before I could field it confidently.

Ona’s sister, whose name was Philadelphia, appeared to have had a much easier life than did Ona. Philadelphia married a free man, William Costin, in Federal City, as the Washington D.C. area was then known. Costin, a mulatto, was illegitimate cousin to Philadelphia's mistress, and a free man. Ona had escaped to her freedom and struggled ever after with trying to balance making a living with preserving her anonymity. She lived as a fugitive eight miles outside of Portsmouth, in Greenland, which at that time must have seemed very remote indeed. The contrast between the lives of the two sisters is exceedingly tragic. I suspect they never knew the fate of the other, or we would have learned of it.

Washington asked friends in New Hampshire several times for help in locating “the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a Servant.” The friends did find Judge but she refused to be returned to the Washingtons, saying that she “would rather suffer death” than return to slavery. She’d “never received the least mental or moral instruction of any kind, while she remained in the Washington family,” a most damning indictment of the Washingtons as slave owners. Judge is described in the newspaper ad to recover her as light Mulatto, freckled, and delicately made, “with many changes of very good clothes.”

Oney Judge Staines gave two published newspaper interviews fifty years or so after her escape. The first time she told her story was to abolitionist Thomas H. Archibald of the Granite Freeman in May 1845, 49 years after her disappearance from Washington’s household. A facsimile of a portion of the interview is reprinted at a chapter head, but is frustratingly short and without sufficient detail. No explanation is given why the rest of the interview is not published in full. We know there is more because Dunbar mentions
"In her 1845 interview, Judge told of her journey to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a vessel that was commanded by Captain John Bowles. Judge remained secretive about her escape almost her whole life, only announcing the name of the captain more than a decade after his death in July of 1937: 'I never told his name till after he died, and a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away.'"
The second interview was published New Year’s Day 1847 in an important national abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The lack of opportunity to view these original documents makes it difficult to consider this history a full-blown success. One critic made the point that this might be considered a “young adult” history. This can be to the good: Dunbar writes clearly and simply, though she may allow some interpretation and stock historical detail to take the place of facts that might be relevant to the case she was seeking to advance.

For instance, it seems strange that we did not learn more about the mysterious “French gentleman” whom George Washington assumed had abducted Ona and had gotten her pregnant. Washington was under this misapprehension for years, understanding what happened only in 1799 when Portsmouth’s head of Maritime Customs reported to back to Washington that Ona had married a free black seaman, Jack Staines, in Portsmouth in 1797 and bore his child in 1798.

The story of Ona Maria Judge is immediately interesting to anyone who hears of it, both at the time and now. We may assume Judge wanted us to know what happened because she granted the newspaper interviews. This history is a good beginning to uncovering a ravishing story which touches on our interpretation of the earliest days of our nation and our first president.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Celine by Peter Heller

Hardcover, 352 pages Pub March 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9780451493897

Peter Heller is completely his own man, his work unlike anyone else’s. Almost everything we love about a Peter Heller novel is here in spades: descriptions so fresh we can smell the creek water, glimpses of people so painterly a photograph would ruin the image, a manly strength and confidence that gives his main character a tiny swagger when confronting mother bears, bad-ass motorcyclists, or CIA operatives with orders where their hearts used to be.

Heller places a woman at the helm of the story this time, and his Celine is exceptional. She is too big a character to describe here; Heller allows her depths to unfurl slowly, each mention of her like fine dining--surprising, unusual, uniquely satisfying. She is too daring a character to be created out of whole cloth, so she must be modeled on someone Heller has bulked up for the occasion. One feels slightly jealous such a character exists outside of our experience.

Celine is a private investigator. She works with her husband, Peter, who hails from Maine and says “ai-yuh” to indicate agreement. “My Watson,” Celine suggests, “or I may be his Watson, but nobody knows because he doesn’t say much.” Celine doesn’t do infidelity or corporate intrigue, the usual PI work. She looks for missing children, missing parents, or helps those who are desperate or destitute. Her focus makes us wonder what got her into the ‘family’ business exclusively.

This felt to me to be the most personal of Heller’s novels. The Penguin Random House website tells us
Born and raised in New York, Heller attended high school in Vermont and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Winner of the Michener fellowship, he received an MFA in both fiction and poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
He is writing what he knows, and we are there, listening to his voice, sense of humor, and perceptions when Celine and Peter sit around a daytime campfire outside the shack of L.B. Chicksaw Chillingsworth, the tracker. It’s maybe not as plausible as Heller makes it seem, but is warming, interesting, and plausible enough.

The detail that 68-yr-old Celine has emphysema from a former four-pack-a-day habit added something to this story. It added realism: we often read stories of talented investigators who are strong, clever, and attractive. We don’t often see the limitations under which most folks labor. This handicapping serves the imagination of readers: Celine is closer to readers’ world and all the more admirable for it. A protagonist with a flaw makes for more interesting pursuits. Besides, her skill set with a pistol is enviable and more than makes up for not being able to run away from bad guys.

The attention Heller lavishes on guns is not so much indulgent as generous. He is able to impart a bit of his fascination to us, his readers, particularly if we know a bit about the pieces he describes. He is entirely correct in observing that, as precision instruments, they are gorgeous pieces of work, and he shares cleaning, oiling, and polishing techniques as though we were sitting beside him, watching him work. Being able to shoot well seems a communicative skill useful in today's world, able to make points that words simply can’t.

My favorite character by far was the rarely-speaking Pete, or Pa, as Celine often called him. Celine and Peter had a fierce bonding going on, so thoughtful are they of one another. Pete’s intensity of care was entirely necessary to someone with Celine’s health history, for she experienced terrible moments of not being able to breathe, and Heller was able to convey to us Pete’s desperation to find help. My least favorite character was Gabriella, a character Heller wasn’t as successful in fleshing out. He almost got there, but I never had a sense of her as an adult woman with a child of her own rather than as a teen who had lost her father.

The standout difference between this book and Heller’s earlier works, each of which have been different from one another in terms of genre-type, is that this book is longer. The length did not improve the experience for this reader. The novel could have been pared further, words rearranged for elegance or streamlining, but Heller's work doesn't strain. There is something to be said for not taking oneself or one's work too seriously. Regardless, I thought this a wonderful mystery/thriller and would gladly enter into conversation with Heller again. His painterly attention to detail, fulsome imagination, and his locales are hard to pass up.

It turns out that the novel is a thinly-disguised memoriam of Heller's mother, who sounds like a very special person. Two articles explain the connection is here and here.

I listened to the audio of this book, read by Kimberly Farr and produced by Penguin Random House Audio. Farr managed some of Maine's language peculiarities, though she added a Katherine Hepburn-like upper class drawl to Pete that became endearing only eventually. He was IV-educated after all, so perhaps he could claim the blue blood accent. Celine came through perfectly, as Heller had intended.

Below find a short excerpt from the audio reading by Kimberly Farr:

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Hardcover, 160 pages Pub March 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9781524732790

Joan Didion’s notebook of her drive across Louisiana and Mississippi with her husband in the summer of 1970 is filled with glimpses and impressions of the blazing heat, canopies of kudzu, a sense of disintegration and insularity. Didion interviewed friends of friends and folks who knew about important local happenings, but she had a hard time gathering the ambition to follow through with attending events in the muggy heat. She made notes, but the aimless drift through a South she knew was important somehow never fanned into flame...until now. Her instincts were right. The South tethers us still, to a past we cannot escape.

Didion’s experience of the South is that of confederate flag beach towels at the motel pool, debutante dresses, and plans for dinner out with local literati, illegal bottles of liquor smuggled in a large leather handbag carried expressly for that purpose. The childhood of a young white boy in the South may be the best childhood in the world, she imagines.

The house of one family had a slave certificate still hanging on the wall and servants that dated back a generation. Everyone seemed sure of where they stood on the race question, and stated it openly. The order to integrate schools immediately (80% black, 20% white) came in February: why didn’t they wait until September when a little more time might have gotten some folks to go along, a local white man with school-aged kids opined. "I can't sacrifice my kids to idealism," he concludes.

Didion and her husband sought the gravesite of William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi but found only a young black man leaning against a two-tone sedan in the heat, waiting for customers, selling marijuana, perhaps. It was too hot to think too much about it. They never found the grave but the graveyard feel of the South pervaded her writing nonetheless. Death is a feature of the South. It feels close, as does rot, and subsidence. And yet, the South holds a history, slavery, which will not die, no matter how we wish it would.

The University of Mississippi is in Oxford with that elusive gravesite of Faulkner’s. The university library carries only textbooks, a few bestsellers, and Faulkner novels. Didion mentions her visit there:"…I saw a black girl on the campus. She was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey and was quite beautiful with a NY/LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ol’ Miss or what she thought about it." One cannot help think that the piece would have been infinitely improved if she had roused herself enough to ask the girl that question. All through this book she never crossed the color barrier once except to be introduced to the maid or gardener of a white homeowner.

Fireflies, heat lightning, heavy vines and soggy ground, fainting heat, water that smells of fish, vacant expressions, algae-covered ditches, fast-melting ice. The South is present everywhere in her words, in the barely-stirring observations she makes from a sitting position. But the 1970s South is evoked as surely as the 1950s and 1960s South. Things change only incrementally, imperceptibly.

The travel by car was onerous, and Didion tells us she had to avoid cities with airports because she would immediately book a ticket out. It was a struggle, this trip, and one evening they stopped late for dinner:
"The sun was still blazing on the pavement outside. The food seemed to have been deep-fried for the lunch business and kept lukewarm on the steam table. Eating is an ordeal, as in an institution, something to be endured in the interests of survival."
The point of view is distant and unconvinced when a dinner host says something about how the blacks would return to the delta if there were jobs anymore because “this is a place with a strong pull.” Didion’s judgment is as clear as a torch in a muggy dark night.

We return to California and it is here that Didion's intimacy with us becomes the story. She tells us of her upbringing and we see where she gets her sense of confidence and superiority. She’d never had anything blocking her way, in the “peculiar vacuum” of her childhood. She’d come from an affluent family and only saw in hindsight her extraordinary luck in a world that offers most people little certainty. She’d “been rewarded out of proportion to her scholarship,” but she remembers only her failures. Looking back, sometimes she does not “feel up to the landscape.” She tries to place herself, place us, in history.

The sentences in this book are a remarkable evocation of place, even if she “never wrote the piece” and her notes on her upbringing at the end are scattershot, gorgeous, real, thoughtful, meaningful, relatable, full of atmosphere and intimacy.

Kimberly Farr narrated this audio collection of notes, and her quiet sophistication is quite up to the task of looking askance at the deep-rooted and culturally-queer habits of the South, and at the naiveté of Didion's upbringing in California. Didion thinks people make too much and too little, both, of their effect on, say, the South, or the West. She takes the long view now, musing that we all seem so inconsequential except when we are not.

A clip of the Penguin Random House audio production is given below:

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Ratf**ked by David Daley

Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 288 pages Pub June 6th 2016 by Liveright Publishing Corporation/W. W. Norton & Company ISBN13: 9781631491627

This book infuriated me but also lowered the decibel level of my political retorts. I can clearly see now the utter cynicism with which Republican strategists set about grabbing as many seats as they could with the intent to hold onto them for a decade or more by controlling the redistricting process. “When you have power you exercise it.” The gerrymander is the reason Blue states can appear to vote Red. What is so pitiful is that we can still hear voters talking about what they believe like it actually makes any difference to the operatives in Congress.

It is difficult to keep the partisanship out of discussions of politics, but I am going to try because the issue discussed in this book, gerrymandering, was/is really practiced by Democrats as well as Republicans. The Republicans, under the leadership of a legendary Republican campaign strategist called Lee Atwater, recognized in the 1980s that controlling the right to draw the lines of voting districts could mean greater Republican representation in local, state, and national races.

They began a strategy which would not see results for thirty years. This decade it has come to fruition. Several states are laboring under gerrymanders so severely skewed to the Republicans that although Democrats win a majority of the votes, their representation actually falls. This book gives some of the background, especially for those states we watch closely in the national elections: Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania.

An international non-profit which specializes in vote monitoring around the world turned its analytic eye on the United States, the “greatest democracy in the world” according to some, and discovered that North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had electoral representation more skewed to favor one party than many third-world countries.

Wisconsin, the state that brings you Speaker Ryan, has greater than 50% Democratic votes but has 60+% Republican seats. Wisconsin’s redistricting is currently handled by their Republican legislature, which allowed the national Republican party, with funds provided by Koch Brothers, to draw their redistricting maps. In closed sessions, deep secrecy, late night and storm days they would gather to prevent transparency of their process and to ensure Republican voters were the largest voting block in most districts. Even in a largely Democratic state, they managed to break, stack, crack, pack the districts with enough Republican voters to grab Congressional and state seats, and the governorship. Wisconsin used to be a Deep Blue state.

In November 2016 a federal court ordered that the voting districts in Wisconsin be redrawn by November 2017. Wisconsin Republicans (including Paul Ryan) refused, and appealed the decision to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Meanwhile, voters in Wisconsin are seriously disenfranchised. This is happening now, folks, and can be watched as it progresses through the courts.

Pennsylvania is the third most voter-obstructed state. Last year a youth pastor, Carol Kuniholm, noticed extraordinary discrepancies between the schools in some city districts and suburban schools and discovered one of the main reasons was underrepresentation due to gerrymandering. Kuniholm began a movement in PA which has taken on enormous momentum within the state and is garnering national recognition. You can watch progress of her attempt to introduce a bill to require an independent nonpartisan committee to decide contiguous, compact districts that do not break communities, cities, or racial blocks at She wants nothing less than the democratic process to work as intended.

Daley shows that state legislature-managed redistricting can be severely partisan and that citizens in some states have managed to pass referendums requiring a nonpartisan independent committee to manage redistricting. The independent committee works well in Iowa but is still subject to vicious partisan wrangling in Arizona. Some academics have taken on the challenge of trying to envision a better, more democratic process and Daley discusses these at the end of his book.

And this is the part of the book that I liked best of all. At the end Daley points out that gerrymandering has been ‘stealing people’s votes’ for centuries and it may have come up against its logical limits this decade. Because of the advances in computer modeling, coupled with voter awareness and rage at the government we have been handed, it may be possible to do something completely different. He points out that if Hillary had won the electoral college vote, she would have faced the same intransigence in Congress that stymied Obama. Instead, we got Trump. Daley quotes a Republican operative, Grover Norquist, talking with utter cynicism to a Conservative Political Action conference in 2012:
”We are not auditioning for a fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We just need a president to sign this stuff. Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”
The GOP will keep Trump around as long as he can sign stuff and listens to what they say. So, okay. This is what we are dealing with. It means we need to pay attention, focus our energy, rely on each other, and tell our legislators we want fairness and representation. This book is a very easy read because it is so eye-opening. It gives you the basics, suggests a fix, and points a direction. What more do we need?

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Monday, March 6, 2017

A Question of Order by Basharat Peer

Paperback, 160 pages Expected pub: March 21st 2017 by Columbia Global Reports ISBN13: 9780997126426

When I first picked up this title I imagined it would pull back from the detail and micro-angle on nationalist movements cropping up around the world and draw some larger conclusions. It doesn't get that far, but it does raise the questions. Peer gives a detailed timeline of events that led to the embrace of the authoritarian leaders in India (Narenda Modi) and Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan).

Author Bashir Peer points out that those two countries are not alone, and names Russia (Vladimir Putin), Egypt (Abdel Fatteh ed-Sisi), Hungary (Viktor Mihály Orbán), Chad (Idriss Déby) Belarus (Alexander Lukashenko), Cambodia (Hun Sen), Singapore (Lee Hsien Loong). Somewhat oddly, I thought, he pairs Aung San Su Kyi (Myanmar) and Rodrigo Duterte (The Philippines) and names them as illiberal, if not outright autocrats along with Paul Kagame’s (Rwanda) regime, all of which have silenced critical voices, and have not stood up against political and religious persecution. When you look at all those names spread out like that one does have to wonder--what's happening?

What Peer does in this book is follow events that led to the rise of Modi in India, showing his aggression in the suppression of Muslim and Dalit rights. Dalits are India’s lowest caste, and many have benefitted from government attention to their plight in society. However, being admitted to university apparently doesn’t mean Dalits actually have professors willing to mentor them or recommend them or promote their work, somewhat reminiscent of oppressed classes in any society attempting to take advantage of their legal rights. Modi began his political career working for a Hindu supremacist organization.

What may seem remarkable about Modi’s rise was his support from the intellectual, overseas-educated, and business elite. Not so strange when you think that “inequality in India is now growing at a faster rate than in other developing countries like China, Brazil, and Russia.” His biggest electoral challenges were traditional opposition of lower and middle castes to his party, which he managed to overcome with a robust twitter and get-out-the-vote campaign. After he won as prime minister in 2014, he talked a good game about putting caste and religious divisions away but was unable to prevent the country’s descent into violence the following year, probably because he was unwilling to act against this party.
“Modi’s victory in 2014 had legitimized hate speech and physical aggression against real and perceived opponents. Words that couldn’t be uttered at the dinner table were blared in the public sphere.”
It might be worth noting some barely-there shadow outlines of a comparison forming between Modi and Trump. It is worth noting what made Modi popular, how he sustained that popularity, and how quickly taboos against hate talk and violence evaporated.

In Turkey, the period of instability Peer describes starts a little earlier, in 2006. Erdogan took over in 2003 and pushed democratic reforms to make Turkey appealing to the European Union, and trying to lessen tensions with its Kurdish minority through negotiations. Healthcare, affordable housing, and infrastructure improved, but it was the loosening of the non-secularist creed, expanding collective bargaining rights, increasing welfare provisions for children, the disabled, and the elderly and allowing Muslims with headscarves into the governing body that had long banned them. Erdogan was loosening the control of the Kemalist military.

The July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey is covered in great detail, and Peer discusses the Muslim preacher Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, the cleric living in Pennsylvania in the U.S. who, once an ally of Erdogan, opposed to his rapprochement with the Kurds. Gülen’s very powerful group with tentacles worldwide--and especially in the Turkish police--was supposedly responsible for the coup attempt, or was blamed for it, in any case. The detail here is rather more than I was expecting, and less at the same time. I could be interested, but somehow connecting threads were missing in this discussion and I got lost in the details. For someone seeking details, however, this is a good view.

This is not a long book but I had a hard time getting a grip on this material and wished it had a greater amount of overview or boldface marking what we are meant to take away. Neither of these countries are my area of expertise, but it was difficult to pick out a few big ideas. It may be a better read for someone that already has a basic understanding of the culture and government in these two countries to take advantage of Peer’s providing the timeline of conflict for the past couple of years.

One country's specific experiences are probably not going to be immediately relevant to a worldwide theory. One would have to pick and choose details and immediately then one's conclusions become suspect. Authoritarian regimes are nothing new. The author needs to remind us why this moment is different.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Hardcover, 464 pgs. Pub February 28th 2017 by Balzer + Bray, isbn13: 9780062498533

What do people talk about when we talk about race? This remarkable debut YA novel reflects the mindset and confusion of a sixteen-year-old African American girl, Starr, who witnesses up-close-and-personal a police shooting one of her childhood friends, Khalil. Starr lives in a black neighborhood, Garden Heights, but attends a private mostly-white high school an hour away from her home. Her relationship with her white schoolmates becomes a feature of the story.

The clever way Thomas sets up her character list allows us to experience Starr’s own disappointment and dislocation when Khalil is described as a drug dealer gang member to make the cop look less guilty in the eyes of the community. Thomas is especially good at describing a case that is not so completely clear that we can do without the officer’s testimony, but it soon emerges that his explanation, that he thought he was in danger, may have been because he saw a[n unarmed] black man and was afraid.

The YA nature of the material is useful to Thomas’ purpose because young people are not as close-lipped and cautious as adults and haven’t completely formed their worldview. Starr is still learning how the world works and she can be a little naïve and verbalize her learning experiences, and talk them over with her family and friends. We hear the things she is thinking, the things that bother her, the things she ultimately believes.

We can hear her discuss in an utterly realistic way one’s first impressions when confronted with her father’s own prison time, Khalil’s drug sales, Devante’s consideration of gang membership. Extenuating circumstances in each of these situations completely change our view of events and make readers realize how important perspective is when considering lifestyle and crime. Starr’s mother wants to leave the neighborhood for the suburbs to escape the drama and death of Garden Heights but Starr’s father refuses. This particular argument I have been waiting years to hear reasonably articulated, and Thomas does it well.

A new film, Get Out , was just released this month, directed by Jason Peele, a comedian who made his name as one of the Comedy Central duo Key & Peele. The work of these two bi-racial comedians focuses on how white folks are perceived by black folks, and black culture. Their work is funny, not mean, and meant to educate through humor. Thomas does something similar, with Starr articulating those micro aggressions she sustained at school, and with the police…but she is also able to articulate the assumptions, jealousy, and misunderstanding of Starr’s black friends about her opportunities outside of the neighborhood. This is all very well done: pointed but inoffensive.

Thomas says “I want to write the way Tupac Shakur raps”, her title coming from one of Tupac’s torso tattoos. She manages to include an enormous amount of nuance and expression into this novel without making it seem overdone. She throws a lot at us in a short time, giving our emotions a workout. She’d give TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes a run for her money. Thomas’ characters are realistic if not completely developed, certainly not mere stereotypes. Thomas is helped in her portrayals by an extremely talented narrator for the audiobook, Bahni Turpin, whose proficiency with voices and accents goes far beyond the ordinary. The audiobook is an excellent choice for this material, produced by HarperAudio. Below find an excerpt.

I am not a fan of the more talky aspects of YA novels, and I was horrified with the school fight Starr was involved in, and Seven’s tendency to think first of throwing his black body physically against the forces that subjugate him, whether they be a gang leader or a white cop. This is definitely not in my experience and I’m not sad about that. Unfortunately I suspect it was an accurate depiction of how things get resolved in Garden Heights, though Starr's fight happened in the private school. This can’t be a useful habit to carry forward, but these incidents were not adequately editorialized in the novel.

I will, however, admit to being completely impressed with the skill with which Thomas composed her story. She packed in a great deal of human experience on both sides of the color divide and helps readers come to terms with a very difficult and important topic: police intimidation, excessive force, and shootings of unarmed black males. At the same time, she invites us to look at her life, the culture in the neighborhood, and the thought processes of folks who make choices different from white folks in the suburbs.

With literature like this, we get clues to how we can get to know each other better, considering the historic segregation of schools and neighborhoods. Racism, conscious or unconscious, is no longer acceptable to the majority of Americans. It should have ended long ago—by law it had, in practice it has not. Everyone who hasn’t studied up on what this means, can use books like these to make inroads into a greater awareness. Study up. Society is moving ahead. Many artists of color are going out of their way to light the road and explain these issues clearly from their point of view.

The book has been optioned for a film, purportedly with “The Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg to star.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Patrushevskaya

Paperback, 181 pages Pub October 28th 2014 by Penguin Books (first published 2002) ISBN13: 9780143121664

Not long ago I reviewed a short memoir published by Petrushevskaya, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia, in which I mused about rumors of her talent, never having read any of her poetry, stories, or novelettes. Petrushevskaya has a savage humor borne of long deprivation. Her work bears signs of torture of the spirit; she recognizes how to cannily exploit human weakness to stay alive. But she also has a huge umbrella of compassion which she holds over those she loves. Reading her work is a breathtaking experience.

This collection is comprised of a novelette, "The Time is Night," and two shorter stories. The work altogether expresses every feeling of love, desperation, hope, and bitter despair that a mother can feel about her children in any country in any time. It is an epic, deeply funny, excoriating look at how the deprivations in Russian social, political, and economic life have worked loose the traditional bonds of family. It is compulsive reading. The work was published in Germany before it could be published in Russia, having been banned there.
"It all seems like yesterday. I look back on my life—men are like roadsigns, children mark chronology. Not very attractive, I know, but what is, if you look closely?"
A proud poet finds herself destitute in late middle age. Her son is in prison for theft (and maybe murder) and her daughter keeps showing up pregnant and wanting more than the poet has to spare. The poet takes her daughter’s first child to care for and continues to suffer ungrateful visits from her children whenever they need something. Anna Summers, translator for this series of stories, tells us in the Introduction that
"…her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies and who see little beyond the question, How to raise a child? How to feed it, clothe it, educate it when there is no strength left and no resources?"
When "The Time is Night" was finally published in Russia, it came out at the same time as the third piece, "Among Friends.” "Time…" is a novelette, its length over one hundred pages; "…Friends" is less than thirty pages, outlining a grotesque collection of viperish friends and former spouses, all calculating how and what they can score from knowing someone but paying no attention to the larger world outside their immediate purview. The incestuous theft and jealousy rife within the group is ghetto poverty: no one can break free of the poisonous atmosphere because they need each other. The story is a short quick shard that cleaves the heart, and leaves the reader gasping: it speaks directly to what some feel they must resort to “protect” their children.

The second story, "Chocolates with Liqueur," is the one written the most recently (2002). Summers tells us it was written as a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe. The story itself is broken into five parts; I thought the story was complete after the first part which contains the most horrendous and coruscating engagement scene I have ever encountered, without us knowing it is just a continuation of the theme of how difficult it is to find a place to live. The atmosphere gets thicker, darker, and heavy with motive as befits a Poe tribute, and finishes pointing to "The Cask of Amontillado," thought to be Poe’s best short story. In that story Poe created a family motto suggesting that the family history is filled with acts of revenge: "Nemo me impune lacessit" (No one attacks me with impunity). Find Petrushevskaya's story somewhere and read it. It feels positively ancient, as though this were a story written at the dawn of time.

The twist in the nature of marriage and family comes from the search for a safe place in a society where food, lodging, dignity are in short supply. Petrushevskaya is controlled She has seen it all and still gives us art. I don’t know which of these stories I like the best. She deserves all the awards and all the adulation. She is extraordinary.

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