Monday, August 28, 2017

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Hardcover, 259 pages Pub Jan 24th 2017 by Viking (first pub October 20th 2016) ISBN13: 9780525427360 Literary Awards Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), Costa Book Award for Novel (2016), Walter Scott Prize (2017), Costa Book of the Year (2016)

Has an Irishman written the Great American Novel? The question is not theoretical; Sebastian Barry’s latest novel is the fourth time he has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is his seventh, but it doesn't have the density of a novel. It is Barry’s long experience writing for the theatre—thirteen plays already—that lends excitement to this work. After the years of excellent effort, suddenly Thomas McNulty springs full-grown from Barry’s well-tilled field. The success of this gem of a novel set in 1850’s America is all about preparedness and inspiration.

The novel is not long but is fluent and unstrained; it makes big statements about human existence, war, love, about what we want, and what we get. It is remarkable how squarely Barry lands in the middle of the American debate so clamorous around us now, about race, diversity, sexuality, what we fight for and who fights for us—questions we’ve never satisfactorily answered.

Barry gives us humor in a horribly violent world, surprising and delighting us with his deadpan delivery. His diverse cast of characters are reliant on one another, all viewed through the eyes of an Irishman who’d suffered such terrible deprivations as a child that man’s cruelty nevermore surprised him. What did surprise him was that we could find a way to love, to happiness, despite our sorrows.

In the early pages Thomas McNulty meets John Cole under a hedge in a rainstorm. John Cole is a few years older, but both the orphaned boys are wild things, having ‘growed' in the school of hard knocks. Uncanny judges of character, they almost instantly decide they stand a better chance together in the rough-and-tumble than alone and set off on a series of adventures. The pace of the novel is swift. When I go back to find a memorable passage, I am shocked at how quickly events unfolded, and how quickly I am deeply involved.

The language is one of the novel's wonders. Barry doesn’t try to hide his brogue, but uses it: a stranger in a strange land. That distance and perspective allows Thomas to make comment upon what is commonly observed
"Everything bad gets shot in America, says John Cole, and everything good too."
"I know I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don’t try to rob me will feed me. That how it is in America."
The novel constantly surprises: when the boys answer the ad hung awry on a saloon door in a broken-down Kansas town, “Clean Boys Wanted,” we prepare for the worst. Within pages we are jolly and laughing, then agonized and pained, then back again, our emotions rocketing despite the tamped-down telling of the historical backward gaze. Our initial sense of extreme danger never really leaves us, but serves to prepare us for the Indian wars, those pitiful, personal slaughters, and the Civil War, which comes soon enough.

The most remarkable bits of this novel, the sense of a shared humanity within a wide diversity, seemed so natural and obvious and wonderful we wanted to crawl under that umbrella and shelter there. These fierce fighting men fought for each other rather than for an ideal. Their early lives were so precarious they’d formed alliances across race, religion, national origin when they were treated fair. “Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity…you‘re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman.”

And then there is the notion of time, if it is perceived at all by youth: “Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending…” By the end of the novel, the characters do indeed perceive time: “I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.” We have been changed, too, because we also perceive time, and sorrow and pain and those things that constitute joy. We have lived his life, and ours, too.

Barry gets so much right about the America he describes: the sun coming up earlier and earlier as one travels east, the desert-but-not-desert plains land, the generosity and occasional cooperation between the Indian tribes and the army come to dispatch them, the crazy deep thoughtless racism. But what made me catch my breath with wonder was the naturalness of the union between Thomas Thomasina McNulty and John Cole and the fierceness of the love these two army men had for an orphaned, laughing, high-spirited, bright star of an Indian girl they called Winona.

Barry understands absolutely that our diversity makes us stronger, better men. Leave the pinched and hateful exclusion of differentness to sectarian tribes, fighting for the old days. We know what the old days were like. We can do better. I haven’t read all the Man Booker longlist yet but most, and this is at the top of my list. It is a treasure.

I had access to the Viking Penguin hardcopy of this novel--I'm still surprised at how small it is, given the expansive nature of the story--but I also had the audio from Hoopla. I needed both: the pace of the novel is swift, and may cause us to read faster than we ought. Barry writes poetically, which by rights should slow us down. The Blackstone Audio production, though read quickly by Aidan Kelly, allows us to catch things we will have missed in print and vice versa. At several stages in this novel, crises impel us forward. As we rush to see what happens, we may miss the beauty. Don't miss the beauty. Books like these are so very rare.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub April 18th 2017 by Pantheon Books (first published 2014) Orig Title Kissani Jugoslavia ISBN13: 9781101871829 Literary AwardsHelsingin Sanomien kirjallisuuspalkinto (2014)

Years ago I remember wishing I could experience a bit of what immigrants experience, or that some could communicate their experiences in ways I could understand. They’d started out somewhere I’d never been, and they’d arrived somewhere they’d never imagined. Like Finland. Cold, white, communal, with few racial or religious tensions. I was eager to hear it all, but such stories, if they existed, were rarely published in the U.S. All that has changed now and I couldn't be happier.

This remarkable debut by the 27-year-old Statovci gives us that strangeness, familiarity, differentness, and similarity in a wild ride from Kosovo to Finland, from traditional society to an open society, from cultural acceptance to social ostracism. See how the arrows in that sentence seem to point in opposite directions? Therein lies the tension.

Two seemingly unrelated stories, one featuring a talking cat, twine and twist through the first part of the novel, both stories engrossing: a woman describes the lead-up to her traditional marriage…the clothes, the gold, the mother-to-daughter secrets, the preparations. The other thread features the cat and a snake, neither of which we want to take out eyes off for very long. They are both dangerous.

As readers we don’t object to the fact of the cat, though by rights we should. He is thoroughly obnoxious, insulting his host and then being falsely obsequious. He comes for a tryst and stays for meal, which he then refuses on the grounds such food would never cross his lips. He insists on eating meat in a vegetarian’s house, and he takes long, splashy showers…he is your worst nightmare, the height of self-regard.

The snake—I’d like to hear your take on the snake. A boa constrictor. He’s a wily one, seems to have formed a kind of attachment to his owner, in that he doesn’t threaten him, but he does threaten a guest…Throw a dangerous animal into a story and see if your attention flags. It’s a old trick that works every time. We don’t take our eyes from him whenever he appears from behind the couch.

But it is the story of the wedding that grabs us by the balls, as the expression goes. We are shocked, distressed, angry. We try to imagine how we would handle what comes up, both as a young person, and as an adult. We think over decisions we make so quickly, painlessly in adulthood that are so tortuous and fraught in youth.

All this is overlaid with the portrait of a family of seven living in one room provided by the Finnish government to refugees. The bunk-beds squeak so cannot be used. Mattresses cover the floor. Four or more families share a kitchen, a bathroom. It is nearly intolerable until they remember what they left, native Albanians in a Kosovo run amok. The Bosnian War was brutal beyond all imagining. There is that.

The stories twist and twine through one another like the loops of a snake, another of which, a poisonous viper, makes an appearance later in the book. The viper is only a meter long, and is captured in a plastic bag. It doesn’t provoke as much anxiety as it should. When a plastic bag reappears later in the story, holding not a snake but a book, The White King by György Dragomán, we wonder…can the snake represent his father, the bully whose influence stays around, silently inhabiting the places we live? Deadly, but sometimes ineffective, who might be deflected or exorcised with understanding and effort.

And the cat? There is more than one cat. The first cat talks. The second cat was abandoned, uncared for, unloved in the native country until rescued and restored to health. And finally, there is the black cat in a litter, “just normal, mongrel kittens,” in the author’s words, to distinguish them from the black and white cat who speaks, and the orange cat who doesn’t. The talking cat so full of himself could be the author himself, and the follow-on cats could be those who’d suffered during the war, coming finally to the children, those ‘normal’ integrated ‘mongrels’ who’d adjusted to their new environment in their adopted country and married with locals.

The disturbing shifting sexuality throughout this novel, in a person from a traditional culture with unresolved parent issues, has a touch of intimidation and coercion about it, in the beginning at least. By the end I am much more comfortable that our narrator’s sexual choices are healthy ones, and begin to wonder…is this one of the things that caused the rift between his father and himself?

Statovci succeeds in capturing our attention with this debut, recounting an agonizing childhood and an adulthood filled with sudden emotional traps. His use of a female point of view is extraordinarily effective in making us inhabit her choices. He shows us the distance an émigré may feel from his host country, no matter how conflicted these feelings are with gratefulness and surprise and ordinary, daily joy at being alive. He shows us the pointed, hateful bullying in town—a step up from ordinary schoolyard bullying—that may provoke withdrawal rather than a healthy resistance and reliance on home-grown values.

This is a thrilling debut. Bravo!

Below is a clip from the Penguin Random House audio production:

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Monday, August 21, 2017

City on a Hilltop by Sara Yael Hirschhorn

Hardcover, 340 pages Pub May 22nd 2017 by Harvard Univ Press ISBN13: 9780674975057

For the past couple of years a Goodreads friend, David, and I have had a running commentary on liberal and conservative views on issues at home and abroad. One of these issues concerned the rightness or fairness of Israeli settlements on disputed land, now called the Occupied Territories. The settlements have been pronounced illegal by the United Nations, but settlers continue to develop that seized land, claiming some religious right to it that legally they do not possess.

This title just published by Harvard University Press describes how a disproportionately large number the original settlers in these disputed areas were in fact American Jews, middle-class, educated, left-leaning Democrats. This was startling information to me. Although my perception of the liberality or conservatism of America Jews has been shifting with the times, I never expected that essentially left-leaning liberals from the 1960s U.S. would become the symbol of what appears to be now essentially oppressive, entrenched right-wing privilege.

Hirschhorn is clearly seeking answers to that very conundrum herself, and very carefully unpicks the origins of several settlements with an academic’s detailed forensics. What she finds is a kind of pioneering energy and fighting spirit, but also a kind of selective deafness and willful delusion. Each settlement came at a different time for a different reason, but those who chose to live on undeveloped “empty” land had their own impetus and intention, mixing up their defense of Judaism with a distinctly American notion of manifest destiny.

Citing a 1984 empirical study of American Israelis in Judea and Samaria by Chaim Waxman, Hirschhorn tells us that though many emigrating settlers in the 1960s considered themselves left liberals, the majority felt “Blacks in America have gone too far in their demands.” So maybe these individuals were not as liberal as they considered themselves, but under the surface were deeply conservative. The pioneering aspect of making settlements was so reminiscent of America’s founding that individuals felt some connection to debates about values that occurred at that time. It is worth noting that native Israelis felt American settlers were racist, even fascist.

Hirschhorn highlights Sandy Susan at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and Miriam Levinger at Hebron to illustrate the intensity with which they struggled through the early days of deprivation and camaraderie. The Levingers were so sure they were entitled to the land “We see ourselves in a link in the chain of return…this site is biblical…we are sovereign…[in the Middle East] there’s no such thing as compromise.” Settlers often opposed the Oslo peace process which would return disputed territories to the Palestinians and as a result were often at the center of a cycle of violence.

The Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Brooklyn played an important role recruiting for a new camp at Efrat, which today is a high-middle class municipality composed of families whose adults often work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Riskin had trouble finding a job in Israel, despite great success in growing his synagogue in New York, and when approached about establishing a new settlement in Israel, he did not hesitate. He believed the whole land of Israel belongs to the Jews, but that “It’s very important, very, very important” that the land be unclaimed. While in later interviews Riskin says the land of Efrat was “completely empty,” contention and resentment dogs the gated settlement which has seen terrible violence.

The point is that thirty years ago there were dirt roads and pioneers who thought they were doing something difficult but worthwhile. Now the municipality is no longer temporary and is instead considered prosperous and even a little luxurious. It is normalized, and no longer something that one can be imagine giving up. Hirschhorn suggests Riskin paid lip service to “talking to everyone” and “every nation requires independence,” as he gradually crept rightward in his politics and religious teachings. In her conclusions, Hirschhorn suggests we can view American Jews in Israel within the larger category "Americans abroad:" liberal at home, illiberal abroad. The reality on the ground, they claim, changed them.

Efrat was a center of opposition to the Oslo peace accords because, in the words of native Israel settlers
“Efrat has a large number of Anglo-Saxons…who understand democracy. They understand civil disobedience. They understand that the citizen has certain rights that can’t be trampled on…[they had] the fury of moderates who feel that they are betrayed [and the land taken away].”
So, here is that basic contradiction that Hirschhorn set out to unravel. “Rights” and “freedom” are two words that have different meanings depending on the context. Though Americans used to think those words applied to all within its borders, the camp settlers had narrowed that meaning to exclude Palestinians, just as today in America certain far-right groups believe their “rights” cannot be abridged but they are not so sure about the rights of brown-skinned citizens.

“Americans…we just ran life in Tekoa,” a settler said of the settlement in the West Bank. “Living here reminds me of what America was like two hundred years ago. Here you have the spirit of just starting, of being a pioneer.” Except that one isn’t just starting. There is history to contend with, land rights, and Palestinians, who are growing increasingly agitated.
“It was clear from the origins of Tekoa that its Jewish-American founders and Palestinians rights did not have coinciding interests when it came to the land. Tekoa’s leaders did not—and do not—recognize Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, nor do they honor local territorial claims to their settlement or its surroundings. However, evoking their U.S. heritage, many American-Israelis in the settlements do envision a hierarchy of citizenship rights [emphasis my own], especially if Israeli sovereignty is extended to the West Bank…[West Bank] Arabs must have personal rights—due process, even voting and representation if this comes with duties like some form of [nonmilitary] national service.”
Hirschhorn shows us what led individuals and groups to cross the Atlantic and shows us how, despite their claims to democracy, freedom, and fairness, they have exhibited something less than those ideals, sometimes far less.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

Hardcover, 320 pgs Pub March 2016 by Pantheon (first pub May 2015) ISBN13: 9781101870693 Edition Language English URL Literary Awards Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction (2016), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia, Best Publication Design, and Best Writer/Artist (for Sonny Liew) AND nominated for Best Graphic Album—New, Best Coloring (for Sonny Liew), and Best Lettering (for Sonny Liew) (2017), Singapore Book Award for Book of the Year and Best Book Cover Design (2016)

For graphic artists, there are must-reads of the genre that direct the eye to advances in the art, and Sonny Liew’s contribution may well be one of those. Liew shows us many types of comic book art, discusses their genesis and early creators, but also seamlessly melds the story of an artist, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, with the story of the political and economic development of Singapore. It is a masterful work of enormous depth and sensitivity that answers questions I’d had when contemplating the entwined histories of Singapore and Malaya.

I really went down the rabbit hole with this work because it has so many layers and levels of reality and history that I immediately wanted to talk to someone about it or hear an interview. I had been constantly walking way from the piece, trying to realign my thinking about who was telling the story. Sometimes it seemed like it was written from the point of view of this artist and comic-book writer, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, born in Singapore in 1939, and all his life aspiring to be Singapore’s own greatest graphic artist and political commentator.

Sonny Liew was merely republishing, or publishing for the first time, Charlie’s work, including a graphic autobiography begun late in his fifth decade of life and left unfinished until his seventh decade. But occasionally Liew would pop in and add commentary since he was showing us only representative pieces and scraps of Charlie’s body of work. Charlie took the writing of episodic and serialized comic novels to the pinnacle of political commentary, making such astute analysis that he was having trouble getting his work published in the conservative political environment of a colonial city-state and its aftermath.

A high point for me was the RoachMan comic series which imagined a man in 1950s Singapore whose back-breaking job it was to collect honey pots of night soil from houses in traditional neighborhoods. One day on his rounds he is daydreaming about the resilience of cockroaches when—suddenly— he is bitten! Over the next days and nights he feels delirious and tingling sensations only to discover when he is nearly mowed down by a car at night that he has acquired new physical abilities…

Of course, it did occur to me to wonder about the choice of a cockroach as a hero, but Liew tells us that Charlie’s idea was picked up and changed slightly for the Spiderman comics that were popularized in the English-speaking western world the following decade. What looks like formerly scotch-taped examples of his pages are reproduced for us to judge, the artwork changing and so amazingly similar to famous Marvel works that we wonder which came first.

All the while, we are experiencing Charlie’s day-to-day reality finding a publisher, and creating characters that reflect the city’s struggle for political leadership. This is no ordinary comic. It is dense with history, drama, commentary, humor, and art. When Liew pops up again to provide commentary—we can tell it is Liew who sometimes writes captions—we need to slow down and ask ourselves which person is talking because it matters to the interpretation—one is concurrent with events and one is long afterward.

Spoilers won’t ruin this piece for you, but I just want to say that the ending is terribly poignant and meaningful; we feel as though Liew has given us a great gift to have introduced us to this unknown cartoonist, who finally finished his autobiography. He’d travelled to Comic Con in San Diego in 1988 after an entire career in comics, bringing with him representative samples of his work. That episode is included in the final pages. I won’t tell you how it turned out—what Charlie saw or who saw him—but suffice it to say it provided grist for mill.

Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s story feels like it has burst onto the scene with the power of a neutron bomb, laying all other artists flat because of its virtuosity and depth. We are intensely curious about how Charlie could escape attention for so long, but also wonder about the connection between Sonny Liew and Charlie. The book won three 2017 Eisner Awards at this year’s Comic Con, for Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material—Asia, and Best Publication Design Winner.

Read the book first, and then get a taste of how it has been received in the U.S. by checking out the Comics Syllabus 008 podcast produced by Paul Lai who interviews Sonny Liew about the book. Also, below I have posted a short Epigram Books clip of Liew talking about the book’s conception and execution. But read the book first. Get the whole experience.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Don't Be A Jerk by Brad Warner

Paperback, 328 pgs Pub March 15th 2016 by New World Library ISBN13: 9781608683888

Those of us who have looked at the precepts of religions from around the world are often intrigued at how similar they can be across religions. There is something ultimately freeing in realizing that the roots of goodness, happiness, and wealth are not based, as is imagined by some unenlightened and unlucky sods, in what we can accumulate but in what we can utilize.

Some things about Buddhism are so attractive in their attention to simplicity that one cannot help but be drawn to understanding a little more. Warner does a wonderful job of sharing his realizations with us, in several steps. He paraphrases the first twenty-one chapters of Shōbōgenzō: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, written by the Japanese monk Eihei Dōgen, who explains the philosophical basis for one of the largest and influential sects of Zen Buddhism. Warner tells us it’s a classic of philosophical literature, revered the world over, but that few have actually read it due to density, complexity of concepts, language and length.

Warner does not translate the work, but speaks in language common to modern Americans about how he comes to understand the work. In each chapter he gives us a sense of what the chapter header means, then paraphrases generally those pieces of the work that will aid our understanding of the precepts. Finally he gives us once again a few lines in colloquial English which aid absorption of the notions into our daily life.

I skimmed this work, and feel richer for it. Warmer tells us that one of the things about Dōgen’s writing that stumps modern readers is his use of contradictions. He’ll say one thing and a short while later will say an opposite thing. This is explained by Nishijima Roshi, a recognized acolyte of Dōgen, by understanding that Dōgen adopted four points of view when considering any particular subject: Idealism/subjectivism, materialism/objectivism, action, and realism. Depending on the lens one uses to look at something, the object will have a different appearance. Westerners generally are confined to two lenses: idealism/spiritualism and materialism.

One of the first chapters is entitled “How to Sit Down and Shut Up” which tries to explain the concept of zazen. One of the most important takeaways from this chapter is that the practice is as physical as it is mental, a process Dōgen calls “getting the body out.” Warner compares it to one yoga position held for a very long time. Zazen is not meditation or concentration but instead is ‘thinking not-thinking’ with your eyes and mind open, goal-less. Anyone can do this, “it doesn’t matter if you are smart or dumb.” Warner writes: “Since the entire book is ultimately about practicing zazen, you really need to know what he is talking about right from the outset or you’ll be lost later on.”

One of my favorite chapters is “Note to Self: There is No Self.” Warner talks about how we might have a notion of self kind of like a house with things in it. All the things in the house are what we believe, what we've learned and kept. One well-respected Buddhist practitioner, Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said you should have a general house cleaning of your mind when you study Buddhism. Warner tells us this tradition is like that of osoji, a once-a-year house cleaning during which everything is taken out of the house, cleaned, and considered. If it is not necessary, it does not go back into the house. The notion is terrifying, but if you allow yourself to contemplate it, completely freeing.

There is more. Much more. I like the chapter called “List of Rules.” In it Warner paraphrases the Dōgen
“People who have a will to the truth and who throw away fame and profit may enter the zazen hall. Don’t let insincere people in. If you let somebody in by mistake then, after consideration, kick them out. Nicely.”
The rest of the list of rules teach consideration and concern for one’s cohort. “Work on your behavior as if you were a fish in a stream that was drying out.” That sentence will require some contemplation.

In the chapter “Don’t be A Jerk,” we get the feel of the Netflix series Sense8 and perhaps even an explanation of it. Don’t-be-a-jerk is comparable to do-the-right-thing, which Warner tells us is the universe itself.
“When you yourself are in balance, you know right from wrong absolutely. The state of enlightenment is immense and includes everything…

When jerk-type actions are not done by someone, jerk-type actions do not exist. Even if you live in a place where you could act like a jerk, even if you face circumstances in which you could be a jerk, even if you hang out with nothing but a bunch of jerks, the power of not doing jerk-type things conquers all…

At every moment, no matter what we’re doing, we need to understand that not being a jerk is how someone becomes enlightened. This state has always belonged to us. Cause and effect make us act. By not being a jerk now, you create the cause of not being a jerk in the future. Our action is not predestined, nor does it spontaneously occur…

Doing the right thing isn’t something you can understand intellectually. It’s beyond that. Doing the right thing is beyond existence and nonexistence, beyond form and emptiness. It’s nothing other than doing-the-right-thing being done…

Wherever and whenever doing the right thing happens, it is, without exception, doing the right thing. The actual doing of the right thing is the universe itself. It doesn’t arise or cease. All individual examples of doing the right thing are like this.

When we are actually doing the right thing, the entire universe is involved in doing the right thing. The cause and effect of this right thing is the universe as the realization of doing the right thing.”
And so forth and so on. You just have to go with him on that one.

If you want to know more about the author, David Guy's review here is beautifully written and explains why Brad Warner is such an unusual interpreter of Dōgen.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Hardcover, 790 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Penguin Press ISBN13: 9781594205071

Whatever your discipline of study, this book has some degree of relevance, considering as it does human biology. I wish to convey that this book is aspirational for everyone, even the author himself. He readily admits to gaps in his/our knowledge about human biology, but he tries to give us, in this mighty interdisciplinary work synthesizing a lifetime of observation and thought, the current state of knowledge and points to areas for further study.

Don’t be intimidated by its size or erudition. The author is amazing but he has always been approachable. Just flip through, stopping where something catches your eye. You will find yourself absorbed, amazed, provoked. Notice the chapter headings: the last several chapters are about humans doing the right thing…or not. The first several chapters reference those later chapters, showing how what he is telling us is related.

What we do and how we act is related to our biology..all of it…like neurobiology, endocrinology, genetics, the relevance of which he attempts to be very careful and specific about explaining. He goes back in time, bringing in examples from our ancient history to show how things have changed and how culturally conditioned our reactions and responses are to stimuli. Each chapter ends with a summary, and the book ends with insights he has developed over years of study.

Skim these to see if there is something more you wish to pursue. The studies he discusses in each section are referenced by authors focusing on different aspects of human knowledge and you may already be familiar with them. The concepts explored underpin much of what we understand about human behavior and morality. The work of Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and currently professor of psychology at Harvard, is described by Sapolsky as “monumental” and is given its own critique late in this book.

Sapolsky is not arrogant. He writes this book not to show off his knowledge, but to share his knowledge, which is why he tries to make it as readable as possible without dumbing it down. It is a work to be grateful for. One of the more moving moments in the work comes near the end, after over 600 pages of science and Sapolsky is talking about doing the right thing. He introduces us to Anglican cleric John Newton, born in 1725.

Newton composed the hymn “Amazing Grace” but that is not what Sapolsky wants to tell us. Newton is remembered as an abolitionist, mentor to William Wilberforce who worked through parliament to outlaw slavery in the British Isles. But he didn’t start out that way. Read the story for yourself--plan to read the whole back-end of the book because you won’t be able to stop with Newton—about individuals, ordinary individuals making a difference and doing the right thing.

Sapolsky may be a great scientist, but he is great writer and a great teacher. He makes us think and challenge our own assumptions. He tries to answer questions as they arise and he does not intentionally obfuscate. He does not dodge and only occasionally dismisses, and only then when an argument falls of its own weight.

If you wish you had the background to soak up everything he says but do not, go for one of his earlier books which he wrote as a younger man, less burdened by all he has studied. They display his trademark intelligence and humor and are as much fun as a barrel of monkeys book on baboons.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

The Chickenshit Club by Jesse Eisinger

Hardcover, 400 pgs Pub July 11th 2017 by Simon Schuster ISBN13: 9781501121364

Eisinger explores “Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives” in this book that introduces us to the heyday of criminal prosecutions for white collar crime to its nadir today.
“The Department of Justice is a loose federation of ninety-four offices around the country, each a realm unto itself, run by a U.S. attorney who is almost untouchable by headquarters in faraway Washington, D.C…The [SEC] has civil powers and must team up with various offices of the Department of Justice when a securities law violation turns into a criminal investigation….Of all of these offices, the Southern District of New York, located at the bottom tip of Manhattan, has the smartest and ablest prosecutors in the land. Any alum of the office will be happy to verify that.”
Eisinger’s detailed introduction to the men and women of the Southern District of New York begins with the Enron investigation, and later he tantalizes us with early peeks at the careers of Comey, Chertoff, Holder, Ruemeller, Weissmann, Breuer. There were plenty of folks who tried going after the big guns, Paul Pelletier, Jim Kidney, and Jed Rakoff for a few. There is a reason these last three men’s names are not as well known as the others. It’s not because they were less able. It’s because they dared to challenge powerful forces in business and government. They didn’t lose so much as get sidelined and discredited. They weren’t part of the cabal using the revolving door from government to business and back.

The title of this book comes from a statement James Comey made in an early speech to lawyers in the Southern District when he was appointed head by George W. Bush in 2002. He exhorted the prosecutors to bring cases whether or not they felt they could win. “If it’s a good case and the evidence supports it, you must bring it,” he said, otherwise you would be a member of the chickenshit club, cowering before powerful forces arrayed to stop your investigations.

What Eisinger tells us later is that many prosecutors working during the financial crisis of 2007-08 never even looked for evidence of wrong-doing. Lips and teeth, I think to myself. The chief financiers responsible for the toxic asset meltdown and the chief prosecutors responsible for bringing them to justice are like lips and teeth.

Seeing early glimpses of now-famous actors in our government drama is informative for what we didn’t know when we were reading laudatory newspaper articles about what they accomplished in the past. Eisinger has long shed his rose-colored glasses and is critical of how the Department of Justice leadership evolved into a group who was reluctant to bring cases, cases that had merit and enough evidence to expose and shame these organizations in public, even if the U.S. government never got a cent of ill-begotten gains back. The public might be able to handle some portion of the payback--witness the difficulties Bank of America experienced for years after its thievery, lies, and overextension became daily news.

Much is made of the headliners like Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney of the Southern District until fired by D.J. Trump this year, but Eisinger deconstructs his cases and finds him wanting as well, eager to go after the “easy” cases involving insider trading. Eisinger goes further, showing us how difficult and unsure major fraud cases against, say, the head of Goldman Sachs, but how necessary if the public is to have any faith in the fairness of the system.
“The Southern District [under Preet Bharara] did not bring criminal charges against big investment and commercial banks. The office did not take on the power structure of American finance. Bharara did not charge top executives at the biggest companies. After the biggest bubble and financial crisis in generations, bankers at the biggest institutions sold defective products, misrepresented them, played games with their own finances, and almost crashed the global financial system, save for a multitrillion-dollar taxpayer bailout, the most important prosecutorial office in the country took on hedge funds. It was a prosecutorial non sequitur.”
The Obama administration “engineered preventive measures to stave off similar future crises” or, in the words of Brooklyn Law School scholar K. Sabeel Raman, ‘prioritizes “good” government over “democratic" government.’ There would be no feeding the populist thirst for blood, but neither did we see justice.

In 2005 the Supreme Court took up mandatory sentencing in United States v. Booker, giving judges more latitude in sentencing, the result of which executives are more inclined to take their chances than to plead guilty or plea bargain. This appears to be a corollary to the notion that corporations can police themselves. What has become glaringly obvious in the past twenty years is that corporations serve themselves.

Eisinger, whether or not you agree with him, is a terrific read. He gives a level of granularity that many will not have heard in alcohol-fueled late-night back-slapping sessions. It is useful for proponents of his tough-on-crime stance to see how we got to this point where it can appear corrupt business has government regulators over a barrel. And it can be useful for opponents of this view to see what is getting the public mad as hell.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Straight White Men: A Play by Young Jean Lee

Paperback, 96 pages Pub May 16th 2017 by Theatre Communications Group ISBN 155936503X (ISBN13: 9781559365031)

This comedy by Young Jean Lee has been making the rounds for the past couple years in theatres in major cities, and I believe it has come up for a major award(s) recently, which is how it came to my attention.

Lee looks into the heart of a family of white men at Christmas--their strange rituals, their familiar cruelties, their tendency to coordinate attacks, their blind support for one another. A father and three college-educated sons meet to share the holiday, eating take-out Chinese in new flannel pajamas, sitting side-by-side on a too-small couch, and teasing one another mercilessly. They are so white.

Young Jean Lee examines how aware these men are of their whiteness, privilege, and opportunity in their own society by having one of the brothers, Matt, not fulfill what the others think is his role, but also, we discover, his birthright.

Having someone look closely at white ritual in America could be a harsh experience but Lee makes it silly, funny, and mostly non-threatening while raising important questions around what constitutes privilege and how far each of us as individuals should go to erase, ignore, eliminate those special rights enjoyed by the majority class.

Matt is smarter than the others, has the best education and had the most promise. He is the one doing the least 'moving and shaking' amongst the brothers. We are a little surprised to find they resent that pulling back, and insist he carve a productive role for himself in society. But Matt feels he is being productive, live-in companion to his father, and is troubled by all that he sees and knows and tries everyday to find his way in a society that doesn't make much moral or ethical sense.

As a theatre piece, the play runs about an hour and a half. Most of that is taken up with the weird behaviors of white American men display in exclusive and close proximity to their families. But there is some discussion of larger issues. We know there is something we are meant to see because of the starkness of the title and because one of the men begins to cry less than halfway through the play. This can't be right, we think. Not all is well here.

The ending and the final pages come as a shock after the foolishness, they are so profound. "There is nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence," the youngest and brightest among them claims their mother would have said. "Do not despair, and keep searching for answers" is the advice from one who has loved them. It seems like very good advice indeed.

If this production comes through your city, it may be worth finding the time to attend. Like I say, the ending came at me with enough force to make me gasp and left me feeling something important had been said.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by John Haidt

Hardcover, 318 pgs Pub Mar 13th 2012 by Pantheon Orig Title The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion ISBN13: 9780307377906

Ordinary people like myself occasionally glimpse pieces of truths we believe are important to explain how we live and understand the world but we never seem to get enough distance, or time, or examples to really state definitively what it is that makes us happy, or contentious, or willing to put ourselves out for another. Jonathan Haidt, fortunately, knows how to excavate the origins of our value systems, and has worked with colleagues to theorize and test what we believe and why and to discover the origins of those beliefs. I am thrilled this information is ready for us to use, allowing us to leapfrog decades of daily lived experience.

Best of all, Haidt writes in a clear but casual and unstudied way so that the information is easier to absorb. He does not compress all the studies he is telling us about to the least number of syllables or conclusions, but writes as though he were speaking in a spirit of open enquiry. This is particularly important because he is examining the roots of our belief systems, those things that may lead us to diametrically opposed political points of view. At the very end he answers a question I’ve had for quite some time—about the differences and similarities between the liberal and libertarian points of view—that I have never been able to grasp.

This book came out in 2012, so anyone who hasn’t had a chance to look at it is placing themselves at a disadvantage in today’s world of political discourse. Haidt freely admits that he is a liberal, and that before he published this book he wanted to put his learning as a social psychologist to use giving liberals insights into their political opponents, so that they might structure liberal arguments to appeal more broadly. He discovered something he didn't expect. He discovered that liberals can be handicapped in their presentation politically because they do not place much emphasis in their thinking on certain foundations of moral thought more commonly used by conservatives.

Perhaps more importantly from my point of view, is that in his explanations Haidt shows us the way liberals can move closer to conservative viewpoints without sacrificing the essential contribution progressive thinking makes to a well-balanced society. I firmly believe that neither side on their own has all the correct answers and we need some diversity of thought to innovate at the rate we need to succeed in the future. But we will also need a level of social cohesion or hive mentality which is not available to us at the moment with all the political disagreement.

In his concluding chapter, Haidt reminds us that his work shows us that “there is more to morality than harm and fairness….the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” Because not all of us use them all the time doesn’t mean they are not there. Those receptors can be used to construct a moral matrix which will differ with political viewpoint. Conservatives use more moral foundations than do liberals (or libertarians), including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. Both sides of the political spectrum use Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, but to different degrees.

That is to say, liberals define their morality mostly using Care/harm and Liberty/oppression rather than the other dimensions of morality, while conservatives use all six dimensions. Libertarians mostly use Liberty/oppression and Fairness/cheating and only a little of the other four dimensions. Therefore, liberals and libertarians, as you may have noticed, have many overlaps in political goals and tactics that conservatives do not share.

Haidt praises early conservative thinkers (Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell among them) for expressing the importance of social capital as opposed to financial capital, physical capital, or human capital. “Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: The social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors…”

This just sounds right, and has been backed up by a number of observations and studies by folks looking at the issue, not from the morality standpoint, but from the competitiveness standpoint. It meshes with something that has been niggling in my mind, around notions of diversity, inclusion and exclusion, nationhood, immigration, bilingual schools.

Diversity is fine, good, and necessary for a healthy and inventive society but in the end we have to come together around some basic principles and if we don’t, we have very little indeed upon which to build a nation. Language helps. Social agreement around common tasks is also necessary. I make a distinction between morality as taught in churches by organized religions and moral man, but there is some overlap. Personally I question whether indoctrination by religious groups can get us to social cohesion, but it did work for hundreds of years. The leadership of some churches has been shown to be corrupt; I think religion can work to create social capital, but on a case-by-case basis.

Haidt says:
“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”
Apparently conservatives are more clued into this than are liberals, so liberals among us best take some of Haidt’s lessons to heart. We can’t all do whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want without sharing some responsibility for/to our social group. The good news is that this connectedness is one of the richest experiences we will probably have in our lifetimes.

Get this book. It is packed with insights. So many I could write for weeks and not touch all it raises. But it is extraordinarily helpful in sorting through things one may have observed in one’s lifetime, but were unable to substantiate, or formulate into conclusions. Haidt and his group have created the studies, looked at the data, and come to surprising and useful conclusions about our political differences and moral man.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

The Fall Guy by James Lasdun

Hardcover, 256 pgs Pub Oct 18th 2016 W. W. Norton & Company ISBN13: 9780393292329

Ever since I read It’s Beginning to Hurt, a collection of stories by James Lasdun, I have eagerly picked up any writing of his I could find. He comes from a long line of self-aware male novelists who point to themselves, the human condition with its male inadequacies, and laugh with us, e.g., Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and further back, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse. That Lasdun is not as broad as these last two, matters not at all for what it is he perceives and is able to convey.

Lasdun may be one of the most underrated novelists of whom I am aware. A new novel of his should be an event, and widely heralded. Instead I came upon this novel published last year in a library display. All my other reading had to wait until I had a chance to see what he was doing in this extraordinarily chilling horror novel in which the unspooling of mystery is embedded in the comfort the characters enjoy.

There is a threesome: a wealthy banker, his beautiful wife, and a talented cousin. There are some stressors: the banker has been laid off, the wife has an artist’s eye but not an artist’s income, and the talented cousin lost his last investment in a restaurant of which he was chef. However, it is summer, and the three escape city heat to enjoy the cool of the summer house in the Catskills, time to refuel one’s energies for the stretch ahead.

The vacation idyll has a butterfly garden, a pool house, privacy hedges, large airy rooms, and a fully stocked kitchen. The chef shops for local produce using the banker’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of funds to prepare gorgeous meals of diverse and exciting courses, accompanied by wines from an extensive cellar that the banker enjoys replenishing in his free time. Everything is lovely until, suddenly, one character in the piece appears in town outside of the role assigned them…

On one foray to the tiny shops in town servicing the vacationers, the chef sees the wife driving to an apparently secret assignation. Lasdun cleverly constructs this novel so that whatever happens after, our sympathies are at war with our understanding. Tiny, shocking revelations mentioned almost as afterthought set alarm bells clanging, turning around hours of conclusions we have already made from the details Lasdun gives us.

This is a deeply disturbing novel, perhaps the more so because we are lulled into believing that none of these likable and ordinary-seeming characters can harbor dark secrets. But, we discover, one of the three is indeed twisted, and even when we get an inkling of the truth, we are not willing to completely believe the evidence of our eyes. After all, Lasdun did leave out something crucial when we were first constructing our own narrative.

Tell me the following passage, which comes late in the story, isn’t calculated to give you chills. Can we even trust the author?
“It was still raining when he went to bed. The pines stood dripping behind the guesthouse, dark and immense. Glittering strings ran from the unguttered octagonal eaves. He opened the door and slid the suitcase out from under the bed, half expecting, as he always did, the things inside to have rearranged themselves, so bristlingly volatile had they become in his imagination. They lay exactly as he had left them.”
Loved it. To me this is a perfect summer read—drifting in and out of consciousness by the water—one instinctively feels something is wrong, but a stray sentence jolts us awake, sending heart rate pounding. Terrific little psychological thriller.

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