Wednesday, November 29, 2017

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hardcover, 367 pgs, Pub Oct 3rd 2017 by One World, ISBN13: 9780399590566, Awards: Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

Coates intersperses notes of his experience each of the eight years of Obama’s presidency along with some of his carefully-researched larger essays previously published in The Atlantic. It is especially worthwhile to read again his earlier pieces in their context with the hindsight a few years bring, and not having to search around several places for his ideas makes this book especially valuable. Most of us were not prepared for Ta-Nehisi Coates when his work first appeared in the monthly magazine. It was his explosive Between the World and Me that shook us awake.

The centerpiece of this collection, “The Case for Reparations,” talks about a
“national reckoning…more than hush money or a reluctant bribe…What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”
The banishment of white guilt. That is something I would not have gone for. If that is required, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. I’m on board with “an airing of family secrets, a settling of old ghosts—[a recognition] that American prosperity was ill gotten and selective in its distribution.” But if it comes to making white people, mostly Christians, banish their guilt, I don’t think it will happen. These folks wear guilt like a fur coat.

Whenever he is asked about hope for the future, Coates says he is not responsible for bringing good news. He merely reports the news. He looks at what we have and says what he thinks. But I think “…Reparations” is his most hopeful essay, though filled as it is of horrible instances of degrading racism and exclusion. In it Coates sees a possible way out…if only.
"I believe wrestling publicly with [issues around reparations] matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced…More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders."
It seems we have been hearing Coates everywhere these days—back-to-back interviews on the Radio Atlantic podcast, another podcast of a conversation in Chicago for Krista Tippett’s On Being, etc. But Coates is not overexposed. He still has a way of saying things in a way that allows us to hear him. He’s not asking for anything. He’s just laying it out there, giving us the opportunity to step up.

Right after his ground-breaking essay on reparations, the first paragraph of his notes for year seven of the Obama presidency takes away any hope he might have given us about the possibility for change.
“To be black in America was to be plundered. To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder. No national conversation, no invocations to love, no moral appeals, no pleas for ‘sensitivity’ and ‘diversity,’ no lamenting of ‘race relations’ could make this right.”
Boom. “Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to America, it was essential to it.” How lucky we have been that this man escaped everything that conspired to hold him silent: “black people in America do not generally have the luxury of recording their ‘feelings…’”

Born to a black household secure in their determination to be black and proud of it, and having been educated in the heart of black learning at Howard University, Coates did not unlearn or give away his heritage to fit in with white culture. He is talented, but he is also unusual in that he didn't have to give away large parts of himself to get where he is. We are the beneficiaries of such a voice, for there aren’t enough who can express with such clarity and singularity of purpose arguments we need to consider. Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, is another.

One of Coates’ last essays in this collection, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” begins with the themes Daniel Moynihan wrote about in a report written for Department of Labor during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” i.e., the disintegration of black American families under the pressure of centuries of oppression and neglect. From the poisonous atmosphere in a government where Moynihan’s ideas circulated freely without policy recommendations, arose a means to solve that problem: incarcerate wrong-doers, something Moynihan had not recommended.

Coates’ exegesis of the Moynihan argument is thorough, and non-ideological. He is not quick to praise because there is plenty to dislike, but he recognizes where Moynihan was correct in his analysis. By the end he is pointing out something that many of us can now identify:
“[Moynihan’s] 'The Negro Family' is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing black men should be empowered at the expense of black women.”
In Coates’ final essay, his Epilogue, talks about “The First White President,” the man who won the presidency only because he was a white male. What an insight! But I want to highlight what Coates says in “My President was Black,” about President Obama.
“…I found it interesting that [Obama’s] optimism does not extend to the possibility of the public’s accepting …the moral logic of reparations…that the president, by his own account, has accepted for himself and is willing to teach his children...The notion that a president would attempt to achieve change within the boundaries of the accepted consensus is appropriate But Obama is almost constitutionally skeptical of those who seek to achieve change outside that consensus.
Not that we expect it to be easy, but sometimes people are more ready than we imagine.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age by Andrew O'Hagan

Hardcover, Pub Oct 10th 2017 by Farrar Straus and Giroux ISBN13: 9780374277918, Lit Awards: Longlisted for 2017 Gordon Burn Prize

Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan is a difficult man to dismiss. Here he tells three stories based around computers and two strange Australians and makes something weird and wild and kind of spectacular. The first story, "Ghosting," regards the time he was asked to interview for the opportunity to possibly ghostwrite Julian Assange's biography. O'Hagan is distant, observant, and precise, early on telling us
"It was interesting to see how he parried with some notion of himself as a public figure, as a rock star, really, when all the activists I've ever known tend to see themselves as marginal and possibly eccentric figures. Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn't see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted."
Assange comes across as a paranoid narcissist, deeply confused about his role and his life, about what he does and how he wants to be remembered. O'Hagan put the time in, listening and writing, and comes away burned.

The second story, "The Invention of Ronald Pinn," feels dangerous. O'Hagan takes on the identity of a young lad who'd died young, Ronnie Pinn, so that he, O'Hagan, could enter the Deep Web and see how it operated. O'Hagan's invented Pinn
"tended toward certain enterprises of his own volition...[including] with secretive experts about drugs and false documents and guns...The 'people' now moderating the Dark Web don't care about the old codes of citizenship and they don't recognize the laws of society. They don't believe that governments or currencies or historical narratives are automatically legitimate, or event that the personalities who appear to run the world are who they say they are. The average hacker believes most executives to be functionaries of a machine they can't understand."
When O'Hagan finally gives up the online ruse, he finds Pinn lingers longer in cyberspace, and in his psyche, than he'd anticipated.

The final essay, "The Satoshi Affair," was originally published in LRB a year or so ago. It is a very long, totally immersive essay about the possible originators of Bitcoin, and what the currency will mean for revolutionizing business and banking. If you haven't read much about the subject, this is a good place to start. Don't worry if some of it slips by without your understanding. I have a feeling we're all going feel that way for quite awhile.

O'Hagan is special. You won't be wasting your time, reading about his fascinating digital interface with the world.

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You Can't Spell America Without Me by Alec Baldwin & Kurt Andersen

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Nov 7th 2017 by Penguin Press, ISBN13: 9780525521990

I have a hard time listening to DJT at the best of times, and listening to him at all now is a drain, nearly a year into the most bizarre presidency ever. Therefore I almost didn’t bother with Alex Baldwin’s parody which would have been a pity. I later learned (via NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul interviews Kurt Andersen) this book was written in collaboration with novelist Kurt Andersen, who knew Trump back in the day. Andersen and Baldwin manage to channel DJT to an extraordinary extent, using DJT's actual words, sentence constructions, and speech idiosyncrasies for reconstructions and deep dives into his psyche.

This is deeply funny and unsettling stuff. Racist, sexist, religionist attitudes leach into his writing ("talking is the new writing"), surely not intentionally—he seems so completely ignorant of it. He makes juvenile jokes about Japanese names and the extent of Japanese disquiet over the cancellation of T.P.P., and expresses a kind of shocked surprise at how much the African American security people earn to protect him, especially after that discrimination suit they won…He blissfully mispronounces Philippine proverbs throughout the work, rendering them in his version of Tagalog, and mangling the translations.

Actual DJT tweets and quotes run into plausible extensions which elaborate his thinking gut feelings. Constantly finding ways to plug his golf courses and properties, branded steaks, wine, and ties, Trump finds his new job is awash in business opportunities: one could use military jets, perhaps, to bring same-day Nebraska grass-fed beef direct to the tables of his hotels. Andersen and Baldwin pick out current themes in American masculinity, politics, art, and critical thought and introduce the rogue element that is DJT.
“The chapter you just read was written personally by me, Donald Trump…this entire book, the words and sentences and the larger sections…the paragraphs, the chapters, all mine…and it's the best...”
By the end of the book, DJT is willing to ship Melania back to Yugoslavia ("I didn’t realize she’d come in illegally…" and "she's 50 years old this year") and he poses himself in front of a camera waving at the departing plane carrying his third wife while, written into the script, a single tear falls silently in the closeup. Sad.
"The president has unlimited Presidential Pardon Power (PPP), which means I could even pardon myself…PPP…"
DJT seems only to love his now 11-year-old son, Barron. He’s "so smart,""he’s like an adult now." One of the riffs I enjoyed most was about Paul Ryan, who looks
"like a smiling vampire…always glances at himself in windows and mirrors…it’s kinda gay…that afternoon Paul Ryan definitely looked untrustworthy. When I have strong instincts, they always mean something."
When you get to the part on North Korea, you will understand the depth of his delusions.
"I’ve never been to North Korea, I never took a course…but discussing it strongly for ten minutes, not with some CIA analyst or some State Department know-it-all, I now totally, completely, absolutely understand…that’s how CEO’s do it."
And his conflation of vote tallies:
"I won sixty percent of the electoral vote which is the same as Reagan and FDR…won of the popular vote."

These two men take the time to make us see the absurdity in DJT’s utterances…they go through all of it…right through his hiring family for jobs hardened professionals have trouble handling, to our foreign relations, the collusion, the shallowness of businessmen’s understanding of cultural relations, the voting…”It Finally Felt Real Like a Movie” is a chapter title, but it does tend to put the whole thing in perspective.

I suggest we take every opportunity to laugh while we can, all the while building up energy to take this clown down. Even if you think you are tired of all things Trump, these men have done a brilliant job of it, so have a listen, or a peruse. Laugh with friends at enemies. The audio is produced by Penguin Audio, and this book has a Whispersync option, a good choice for this title. Published by Penguin Random House.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, & The Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century by Richard McGregor

Hardcover, 416 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Viking, ISBN13: 9780399562679

This deeply researched look at the China, Japan, U.S. triangle of strategic alliances is thickly studded with anecdote and new material uncovered in Freedom of Information requests, document declassifications, on-the-ground observation, and high-level meeting transcripts. Even the Introduction and Afterword are packed with unique material when these areas are more commonly places for overview and summing up. Altogether it is an achievement that will be the backbone for Asia-gazing for years to come.

McGregor looks at the trilateral relationships from the post-WWII period through the election of 2016 when Japan was the first to greet the month-old American president in New York City, not even waiting until Trump reached the White House. “The U.S. withdrawal from T.P.P. was the biggest shock to the alliance since Nixon went to China,” McGregor quotes Japan’s premier foreign policy commentator Yoichi Funabashi. After Abe had time to sit down with Trump in February 2017 and a joint statement drafted by Abe’s team to be delivered from the White House was proffered, Trump only insisted upon one change. “In place of ‘Donald Trump,’ the president said it should read ‘Donald J. Trump.’” So much for substance. “By the way, I love China. I love Japan.” Trump protests too much.

The book is arranged by decade until the “The Twenty-First Century,” a mammoth section encompassing fifteen years of toxic rivalry between the two Asian giants. McGregor has been on the ground in Asia for nearly thirty years and he shares the hopes, dreams, and personalities of leaders in China, Japan and America with the distance and caution good journalists cultivate. Compared with the rest of the world, Asia has been an explosion of good news, economic powerhouses doing what they do best, not waking up each morning, as Obama notes, “thinking about how to kill Americans.” (North Korea aside.)

But American economic and military presence in Asia paradoxically may have kept the Sino-Japan rivalry from resolving, despite their economic bilateral relationship that is among the most valuable in the world. If America packs up and goes home now, forces in Asia could amplify disputes and aggressions unacceptably. In answer to the question posed by Harvard professor Graham Allison whether China and America can avoid Thucydides’ trap, the conflict that arises when an established power (U.S.) is challenged by a rising rival (China), McGregor makes the point that Thucydides also said that as dangerous as it is to build an empire, it is even more dangerous to let it go. It is this second point that I worry about more when looking over the region.

McGregor’s special skill in this terrifically interesting and detailed reference work is humanizing the figures of government leadership and staff. We learn about the mostly men and few women involved in setting policy, their positions in their own governments, the official face of discussions and the more free-flowing and often contradictory attitudes in prep sessions and afterwards. We learn about specific American negotiators and their preparation [or lack of] for their Asia talks, their likes and dislikes, their knowledge and ignorance, and how these came to influence their official attitudes.

Thirty-seven black-and-white photographs punctuate this history, and illustrate the number of leaders each country has churned through in the past half-century of diplomacy. Both Xi Jinping of China and Shinzō Abe of Japan are long-running formative leaders who will leave deep imprints on their nation’s psyches. DJT’s presidency is a kind of lacuna in American foreign policy, a gap that will be filled with these two Asian powerhouses.

We all lived through the past eight years when Obama was forming relationships with allies in Asia. McGregor makes us feel as though we missed a lot. While I’d thought Obama was warmly received in Asia generally, we learn here that Obama “did not do chemistry… but he learned to do face.” Obama left the stage having made few friends, but he had reassured Japan, negotiated the T.P.P. which would eventually accrue benefit to the U.S., if not necessarily in strictly economic terms.

I hadn’t been aware that Abe had floated the idea that Japan would be willing to form a loose alliance among the Asian democracies (India, Australia, the U.S., and Japan) to promote democracy. None of the other countries was enthusiastic, Australia being resistant to being drawn into the possibility of Sino-Japanese conflict down the line.

McGregor reminds us that “forging, building, managing, and sustaining alliances and other partnerships had been one of America’s greatest skills in the postwar era.” That compliment comes as McGregor recounts the final overseas trip of Ash Carter, Obama’s fourth and last secretary of defense.

Asia had lately been touted as the most important region of the world for the United States, but which had gotten the least amount of attention. Obama had been willing to accommodate China’s regional expectation of dominance to some extent, for which he got unceasing criticism in Japan. Trump’s attitude is that Japan “used to routinely beat China.” Therefore, he is said to reason, why defend Japan at all?

The U.S. willingness to accommodate China’s ascendency, and to encourage Japan’s increase in defensive weaponry and capability, is part and parcel of “letting go” of America’s strong, some might say stabilizing, role in Asia. We’re about to find out which is the more dangerous route, and for whom.

This book is available as a Penguin Random House audiobook, beautifully read by Steve West. The audiobook is a wonderful choice to make progress on the book when other obligations are pressing. However, I still liked having the hardcopy to refer to: there is a lot of information here, much of it new. You may need access to both vehicles to get the most out of this. It's worth it.

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Destined for War: Can America & China Escape Thucydides' Trap by Graham Allison

Hardcover, 384 pgs, Pub May 30th 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN13: 9780544935273

Present foreign policy in the United States is examined in the context of one of the earliest consequential wars ever written about
“While others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides went to the heart of the matter. When he turned the spotlight on ‘the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta,’ he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history’s most catastrophic and puzzling wars.”
Fear. Allison has the advantage of recent discoveries in behavioral science which show that “at the basic psychological level…people’s fears of loss (or intimations of ‘decline’) trump our hopes of gain—driving us to take unreasonable risks to protect what is ours.” Applied to the present day, America shouldn’t allow fear of China’s stupendous rise to make policy makers forget what is their strategic interest: preserving the free nature of their democracy and fundamental institutions and keeping its people strong and resilient rather than preserving a heretofore unchallenged primacy over the western Pacific. Allison asks why we think we need to preserve that primacy at any cost.

China has finally turned its face to the world and intends to engage. History shows us they have a core belief in the superiority of the Middle Kingdom, so we can expect a fierce nationalism. Allison suggests we need to dial back actions and policies that strengthen an unreasonable hard-line nationalism in China that brooks no opposition. We should be expecting to live with this new rising power and chill with rhetoric that clouds an understanding of what our goals actually are in a changing world.

JFK faced a threat that could have led to war and he persistently dialed down the rhetoric, ignoring advisors, saying the enduring lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis
“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avoid confrontations that force an adversary to choose between a humiliating retreat and nuclear war.”
An example of the US not heeding this lesson came nearly twenty years prior to JFK’s lonely decision-making. Less than a week before the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Tokyo had been complaining that they could not operate under the economic sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. and that they would prefer to fight, but the US ignored the ambassador’s message…

Allison teaches a class at Harvard which discusses instances of Thucydides’ trap—that is, when a rising power confronts a current power the result is war—playing out through history, so he’s had plenty of opportunity to hone his argument. It shows in the smoothness of the argument and clarity of the history he tells to bolster his thesis. We get examples of an established power feeling threatened by a rising power and the conditions under which this resulted in war and when it did not. Two recent examples would include England and Germany before WWI (1860-1913), and also the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII. One might argue relations between the two did precipitate an outbreak of hostilities: the Cold War. However, Allison argues the "cold" nature of the relationship during this period is an example that war is not inevitable.

America since the second world war took on alliances with Europeans mainly, but also Japan and Taiwan, which entailed an American guarantee of lethal force in the case of an invasion or attack. This guarantee of protection came with spoken and unspoken obligations that extended and enhanced America’s influence abroad. In a town hall meeting in 2016, Hillary Clinton explained that countries around the world were often eager and asking for US protection. Allison tells us that, in Thucydides’ time, the Greeks also had an empire
“That empire was acquired not by violence,” they later claimed to the Spartans, but instead “because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command.”
President Trump has made clear that the US will no longer, while he is president, take a leading role as protector without a kind of tributary role being played by smaller states. China is pleased to take on the role of protector that the U.S. appears no longer to want. In the end, the present American administration may simply move aside to accommodate China without a clear foreign policy strategy.

This book was surprisingly readable and a very good one for clarifying the failures of strategic foreign policy by recent administrations. Allison was able to cut away much obfuscating bluster by spokespeople to have us look at Xi Jinping and Donald Trump with history’s eyeglasses: we see them as leading actors who each personify his country’s “deep aspiration for national greatness.” In his last chapter Allison anticipated Trump’s speech in China this past month, suggesting that each country should pay attention to their own strategic interests. Allison’s words are
“China and the US would be better served not by passive-aggressive ‘should diplomacy’ (calling on the other to exhibit better behavior) or by noble-sounding rhetoric about geopolitical norms, but by unapologetically pursuing their national interests. In high-stakes relationships, predictability and stability—not friendship—matter most. The US should stop playing ‘let’s pretend.’”
However, American president Donald Trump is anything but predictable and stable. And, Allison reminds us, when states repeatedly fail to act in what appears to be their true national interest, it is often because their policies reflect necessary compromises among parties within their government rather than a single coherent vision. This is true right now in the U.S.; the thing that brings us down may be ourselves rather than China.

Thucydides himself believed fear was at the primary driver at the root of the Peloponnesian War, when a rising Athens threatened Sparta. Donald Trump went out of his way, during the 2016 presidential campaign at least, to hype a type of fear in America about China’s rising militancy and wealth. He almost seemed to open his arms to conflict. The destructiveness of such a contest between the East and the West would be so catastrophic as to be almost unimaginable. Of course Thucydides’ trap is not inevitable, but we must find leaders with great understanding.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion & Lasting Change by Eileen Pao

Hardcover, 274 pgs, Pub Sept 19th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau, ISBN13: 9780399591013 Lit Awards: Shortlisted 2017 Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of Year Nominee

I venture to guess that anyone reading Ellen Pao's personal experience about the discrimination she alleges at the hands of partners in the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins will find something in it with which to identify. I don’t expect anyone disbelieves her account. The cliquish melodrama of board meetings or the exclusionary after-hours drinking and strip clubs will be familiar to many, not all of them women. The truth is, the watch-your-back lifestyle of partners out for themselves in a corporate environment can get pretty ugly, particularly when large amounts of money are thrown about.

Pao is just one of the first women to document how such exclusionary behaviors affects so-called attempts to diversify management away from white men who probably [should] feel a little uncertain about sitting atop a corporation that is supposed to have its hand wrapped around the zeitgeist. But any uncertainty these white men feel about their position is no excuse for discrimination based on sex, color, sexual orientation.

Let’s face it: Ellen Pao is one very special individual, but she’s not going to change American corporate culture all on her own. She merely points out how childish corporate culture can become when adults with family responsibilities and an obligation to think outside the box and be challenged in their thinking try to find ways around those obligations.

Ellen goes through whole sordid, tiresome saga of being given seats in the back of the room, not being invited to business dinners (or even some business meetings!), of being asked to get the coffee or pass the cookies, chapter and verse, yada yada, but here it is, bluntly:
”As my time in venture wore on, more and more I began to notice my colleagues’ desperate unwillingness to depart from what they knew. The fear seemed, to me, to come from social anxiety. Almost all these men—and they were nearly all men—were awkward with each other and filled the awkwardness with clunky, inappropriate conversations. They might spend a full hour discussing porn stars and debating their favorite type of sex worker…Some would check out and flirt with the much younger administrative assistants—half to a third their age—and some would make racist jokes that weren’t funny…Or sexist jokes…week after week after week, and sometimes more than once in the same day.”
I will take a stab at suggesting that we’ve all been there…in high school. Ellen Pao grew up Asian American in a white world. She knows all about different. She knows about Asia and she knows about America. Not exclusionary. Not arrogant. Not, in fact, entirely sure of herself, despite three IV-league degrees in engineering, law and business. But she’s had enough of the chortling adolescents with sexual hand gestures—in school and at work.

Pao’s loss against Kleiner Perkins may define her, but not in the way the partners thought. Ellen Pao is not only a star, but a thought leader. At the end of this book detailing her discrimination case against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, she writes of work done as CEO of reddit. They were one of the first internet firms to take down user content that was anti-social, hate speech, pornographic, or harassing. Those are difficult decisions to make. No other company was able to make that decision until she had. After reddit she set up a venture, Project Include, to help early- to mid-stage tech firms diversify their leadership and management teams. She acknowledges change is hard, that it won’t happen on its own, and that lessons her team has learned can be useful for firms wanting to start but who are overwhelmed with choices.

This book is not merely Pao’s side of the Kleiner Perkins lawsuit. It is Pao’s take-aways from that soul-crushing experience. This book is how you know this woman is going to power up and over any obstacle in her way. The thing she seems to understand is that diversity is, well, diverse. Not everyone thinks alike. That can divide a group, but Pao is betting that making people feel comfortable speaking out, contributing, and showcasing their special talents will bring a cohesiveness that will make the group succeed. Let’s hope so. Be prepared for something radical. And watch this woman. My money’s on her.

Some extremely nasty commentary took place in the media before, during and after the Kleiner Perkins lawsuit, including this somewhat absurd piece in Fortune by Fox News contributor and now Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky and Katie Benner. The authors point out a real logical inconsistency: that Ellen Pao’s “jaw-dropping” and “bold” lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins “flew in the face of past criticisms levied against her by Kleiner partners — that she was passive, that she waited for orders, and that she was risk-averse.” Pao answers all the questions raised in this article fully and adequately, even eloquently, in this book. As I contend, I’ve seen these behaviors before. Theirs don’t make sense. Hers do. I’m with her.

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The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel

Hardcover, 336 pages, Pub October 10th 2017 by Harper ISBN13: 9780062322586

Apparently eighty percent of the population has some experience with infidelity, whether through a parent, spouse, friend, or family member. Considering how hurtful and destructive such urges are, it is amazing most of us are still standing. Esther Perel has distilled her years of marriage counseling and study of infidelity to reveal fascinating insights that make enormous sense to me. She tells us that
“In a surprising number of these cases, a direct line can be traced from an extramarital adventure back to our most basic human fear—the confrontation with mortality.”
I would add a corollary that if the infidel (?) one who commits infidelity didn’t fear death before they became involved in an extramarital affair, they should after, for sure.

I love the way Perel thinks. She is such an adult. When one is in the midst of handling an exposed infidelity, it is common to experience sadness, rage, jealousy, and diminished self-worth. Perel says we can feel these things if we want, it is normal, but it is probably more worthwhile to look at why one strayed, if one has the stamina for it.

In this way, one may find one prefers one’s spouse to other possibilities, and can renew their vows in a fuller knowledge of one another, and a fuller knowledge of what it takes to make a marriage succeed. One of the things I notice about marriage is that sometimes the people involved forget that the spouse is a mystery and basically unknowable; that the spouse is an independent sexual being; that affairs often allow us to discover a new self, rather than merely a new sexual partner. Oftentimes it is that new sexual self that is so entrancing, not the new partner after all, e.g., “I feel alive.”.

A couple of other things Perel points to are that we keep many secrets in a marriage, and perhaps infidelity is not the most damaging of these. She thinks that sometimes admitting to an infidelity may cause more damage than not, and one has to ask oneself what one’s motives are in revealing such a thing if it is not already discovered and is unlikely to be.

While we often hear that revenge is sweet, in fact it is frequently the opposite. There is an important lesson to know about long-lasting feelings of vengeance: “If in the process of getting even you end up hurting yourself more than you punish the other, you gain nothing.” Feelings of stress and anger can make you miserable.

Studies of romantic love discover that it is a physical addiction, similar in effect to cocaine or nicotine on the brain. Quoting Anthropologist Helen Fisher who has done fMRI studies on the brain in love: “weaning oneself off of obsessive thinking about a lost love…is akin to breaking a dependency on drugs.”

Perel defines infidelity as including one or more of three components: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement. Towards the end of the book she explains that although women are used to being in touch with their emotional side and the multidimensionality of their sexuality (its subjectivity, its relational character, its contextual nature, and its reliance on a delicate balance of conditions), men rarely give themselves that freedom.

There are so many myths surrounding the definition of male sexuality as being biologically imperative, uncomplicated, ever ready, and always in search of novelty but actually men and women are in fact more similar than they are different. Men may find themselves emotionally disengaging in direct proportion to the demands of their relational entanglements and the conflicting messages they are receiving about who they are and who they should be. “You don’t pay the hooker to come—you pay her to leave”—highlighting the pleasures of less emotionally complicated forms of sex.

In the end, Perel says, it is usually a lack of real sexual communication in the midst of a loud and proud declaration of emotional transparency in modern intimacy that is most at fault for a drawing away from real intimacy. A successful marriage, I’m guessing, allows some of the mystery to remain. Two individuals agree to share lives; that they can leave at any time deepens the mystery. One needn’t do it, so when we do, there must be meaning. Communication is critical. And weathering a storm can unlock a few mysteries we tend to keep hidden, even from ourselves.
“Every act of betrayal shares common features, but every experience of betrayal is unique.”
Perel has Youtube videos of her most popular talks, and she is particularly good at cutting to the heart of relationships and fingering the sore spots. Most of us can find our own situations well-represented. Her examples of couples in treatment are diverse and distinct, and very interesting. I’d say listening to her is worthwhile even if it has never entered your mind to stray.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub Oct 24th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau ISBN13: 9780812988840

The detailed nature of this book about the life and death of Eric Garner allows us to see, in horrible living color, exactly where we’re at in terms of race relations in the United States. Eric Garner died July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, victimized on this day by police who put him in a chokehold and ignored his pleas that he could not breathe. What Taibbi does exceptionally well in this difficult book is allow us to see Eric Garner for the man he was—a well-liked and respected member of his community.

The entire story told here is a long and winding one, going back to pick up relevant cases along the way, including that of Carnell Russ of Alabama, whose death in 1971 by pistol shot at close range in a police station was challenged in court a number of times until finally we learn a monetary award was never paid to Carnell’s widow. Forty-five years later the original prosecutor in the Eric Garner trial, Dan Donovan, was elected to Congress, proud of his role in protecting the white people, in his eyes, unjustly under attack for upholding the law.

So carefully has Taibbi prepared his case in the writing of this book that when we read the words “disrespect for the law, contempt for society, a refusal to abide by the responsibilities of a civilized people,” we briefly imagine the words were chosen to describe the men and women of the NYC police force who refused to give credence to citizen complaints about uncalled for police harassment and reckless endangerment. But no, this language was used by Joseph Concannon, retired NYPD captain and staunch defender of whatever the police did in the course of their duties, illegal or not.

City politicians elected before, during, and after the prosecution of the Eric Garner case come off looking weak and ineffectual at best, deliberately obfuscating at worst. The case of the killing of Eric Garner came amidst a rash of police killings around the country that were well publicized, mostly due to actual video of the crimes. It is absolutely horrifying to imagine for a moment how these cases would have been treated in the absence of a video record. Even in these cases, obstruction into the behaviors of repeat offender police is rampant, common, and from the point of view of the citizenry, indefensible.

The black lives examined in this work are extremely stressful. Putting ourselves in their place, we might even say these lives and conditions of life are hopeless. But Eric Garner did not see things that way, and certainly on the day he died, he was the happiest he’d been in a very long time, his son having just been awarded a sports scholarship for advanced education. Taibbi is able to make us feel the heat that day in July, and the satisfaction the big man would have felt. We’re plenty pleased, too.

I have wondered, in thinking of Taibbi’s past work, what it would be like to to be on the other side of one of his scathing investigations. Now we know, because he co-authored a book during his expat days in Moscow, in which he targeted everyone in the outsized-profits-fueled economy, from foreigners gaming the system to Russian oligarchs and their deadly, beautiful hookers. Adolescent, ridiculous, and forgettable, excerpts I read from that earlier work should have meant a far longer, more circuitous path to legitimate journalism. The argument in the link above charges Taibbi with sexism and misogyny, a shadow of which, it could be argued, appeared in his description here of Assistant DA Anne Grady.

It is my contention that Taibbi’s work uncovering the hows and whys of the life surrounding Eric Garner is a far weightier thing on the scales of right and wrong-doing than that earlier work. It is important we all scour our own past for sexism—doling it out or letting it pass—before nailing the coffin shut on the talent and real heart shown here. With this book, Taibbi blows past any criticisms that could be leveled for those earlier errors in judgment and gives us something terribly important: a honest, raw look at where we stand in our race relations right now. Perhaps only bad boys could understand, empathize with, and give us the nuance of all the imperfect characters Taibbi details for us here, and get to the depth in this story that explains Eric Garner’s life and untimely death.

Several of the Irish-sounding names in this history are exactly those of loved ones within my own family, though I don’t believe I am related to any of them. My grandfather was a Boston cop. What I take from this is that whatever place these white policemen go to in their heads when it comes to fairness and justice, it is not inevitable, and it doesn’t come from the color of their skin. I recall the recently-discovered 19th-C diary of African American boy convict Austin Reed,
“Yes, me brave Irish boys, me loves you till the day that I am laid cold under the sod, and I would let the last drop of this dark blood run and drain from these black veins of mine to rescue you from the hands of a full blooded Yankee…Reader, if you are on the right side of an Irishman, you have the best friend in the world.”
A lot has happened from then to now, but nothing that can’t be undone.

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Hardcover, 320 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Basic Books, ISBN13: 9780465096244

Berns uses what he’s learned about human cognition and emotion in the title of this book, which promises insights into the understanding of the dog brain. To be fair, the book does discuss experiments and findings involving what happens in a dog’s brain while commands are given and associations are made. But the book goes far beyond the dog to discuss cognition and sentience in animals of many kinds, principally by using evidence from MRI and fMRI brain scans. It is a fascinating look at the study of neuroscience on animals.

Despite the density of terms required to study neuroscience, Berns guides us easily through the basics, allowing us to understand the principal goal of their studies on dogs: to determine how dogs process information. I will admit to a degree of awe to think they could manage to get a dog to voluntarily crouch within a noisy MRI machine and stay immoveable long enough to be scanned while the scientists perform tests. Georgia dog trainer Mark Spivak was given a shout-out at the end of this book for his insights and indefatigable efforts to this end.

The decades-long work of Peter Cook of the pinniped labs in Santa Cruz, CA is highlighted for several chapters beginning with “Seizing Sea Lions.” Berns and Cook worked together to determine the effects of domoic acid toxicity on normal patterns of connectivity in the brains of dead sea lions. Domoic toxicity caused by agricultural runoff was determined to be the cause of a wave of malnourished sea lion strandings during El Niño years.

After the sea lions come dolphins, a discussion of how echolocation manifests in the brain, and some indication how dolphin brains resemble and differ from other mammals. Then back to dogs, where studies have shown a real possibility that rats and dogs may experience regret: regret for choices that do not turn out as desirable as anticipated. Berns acknowledges it is difficult to imagine regret in a rat, but he suggests that our word for it does not limit the experience of the emotion to those who understand the word. From here he moves from “what do words mean to animals”?

The detail in his discussion of dog training with words and visual cues may lead other scientists to suggest tweaks that may lead to even greater understanding of the emotional responses of animals. Enough work has been done now on a variety of mammals (and even crows!) to show emotions are a part of their brain activity and daily life. But what appeared to be almost a failure of dogs to recognize words led to a new insight:
“It may be that in a dog’s semantic space, actions and things are very close, which would explain why it was so difficult to teach the dogs the names of things. The semantic representation for ‘squirrel’ might be to ‘chase and kill,’ while ‘ball’ becomes ‘chase and retrieve.’…Human represent the world with nouns…it might require a shift in perspective—in this case, from a noun-based worldview to one based in action…In an action-based worldview, everything would be transactional.”
In one of the final chapters, called “A Death in Tasmania,” Berns tries something completely different. He writes of his experience traveling to Australia to view the habitat and scan the brain of an Tasmanian Tiger, a marsupial mammal species thought to be extinct. As an experience and as a piece of research, it is as different from his earlier work as studying the brains of placental mammals and marsupial mammals, two animals who evolved differently over millennia. Berns uses narrative nonfiction techniques to situate us visually, historically, physically in “one of the last great wildernesses on Earth…utterly unique and worthy of protection.”

The chapter on Tasmania really highlighted Berns’ special skills as a scientist—his ability to look beyond the lab to the wider meanings of neuroscience “for the rest of us,” as he emphasized in his final chapter on the “Dog Lab.” Working for so long on understanding the extent of animal cognition, consciousness, sentience, or self-awareness has led him to animal advocacy, if only for our own selfish reasons. “We, Homo sapiens, might soon be an animal in the eyes of our successors…” given our tinkering and experimentation with the human genome. One day unmodified humans may be considered undesirable, inferior.

Berns has skill in involving us, allowing us to follow his work. He would like to map the brains of the Earth’s megafauna with the best science and equipment available today.
“The WWF estimates that two-thirds of many species’ populations maybe gone by 2020. Apart from the ecological catastrophe, scientific opportunities may be lost forever. It is imperative that we begin the archival process for all species, and especially for megafauna…”
Is 2020 a misprint? I surely hope so.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Hardcover, 338 pgs, Pub May 9th 2017 by Dey Street Books, ISBN13: 9780062390851

Maybe everyone does lie. But they don’t lie all the time. Stephens-Davidowitz makes the good point that asking people directly doesn’t always, in fact may not often, yield true answers. People have their own reasons for answering pollsters untruthfully, but it is clear that this is a documented fact. People sometimes lie to pollsters.

Stephens-Davidowitz was told by mentors and advisors not to consider Google searches worthwhile data, but the more he looked at it, the more he was convinced that Google searches contained the best data for determining what people are concerned about. He has uncovered some interesting trends that are not apparent through direct questioning because people are sometimes ashamed of their fears, feelings, prejudices, and predilections.

This book was better read rather than listened to, though the production by HarperAudio and the narrator, Tim Andres Pabon, were excellent. Stephens-Davidowitz gives charts, graphs, data points that obviously cannot be represented in the audio version. These usually help me to grasp things easily and maybe bypass pages of material that is not as interesting to me. It wasn’t that his material was hard, it was that I oftentimes did not like what he was talking about. He had a tendency to focus on deviant behavior, e.g., sexual predators, abuse, porn, etc. One might make the argument that these behaviors are important to understand and therefore worth looking at. Possibly. However, if ‘everybody lies,’ one might make the argument that we do not have to look at deviance to find untruthfulness.

What we discover is that to test Stephens-Davidowitz’s thesis that ‘everybody lies,’ we have to spend quite a lot of time with statistics and creating studies, which is fine. Stephens-Davidowitz argues that 'big data' is the source of the insights, not the insights themselves. This is kind of important and may overlooked. The true point he makes about lying is that big data probably irons out discrepancies in the reasons for our Google searches, e.g., that it is not me that is interested in the herpes virus, it is my brother, because in the end it doesn’t matter why we did the search; what matters is that we did the search. Besides, maybe I’m lying about my brother having the virus, but my interest in the topic is not a lie.

Stephens-Davidowitz has made a career so far out of the study of big data, showing us ways to slice and dice it so that it is useful to our view of the world. Only thing is, I am not as interested in what big data tells us as he is. He’d trained as an economist, and towards the end of the book he hit a couple of areas I did find more interesting, like the notion of regression discontinuity, a term used to describe a statistical tool created to measure the outcomes of people very close to some arbitrary cut-off.** S-D talks about using this tool on federal inmates, discovering criminals treated more harshly committed more crimes upon their release. But S-D also studied students on either side of the admissions cut-off for the prestigious Stuyvesant High School: those who attended Stuyvesant did not have a significant performance difference in later life than students who did not.

Apparently Stephens-Davidowitz went into data science because of Freakonomics, the bestselling book by Steven D. Levitt. He believes that many of the next generation of scientists in every field will be data scientists. I did finish the audiobook, another study he took note of in the last pages. Apparently few readers finish ‘treatises’ by economists. He believes this is his big contribution to our knowledge base, and there is no doubt his contrariness did highlight ways big data can be used effectively.

If I may be so bold, I might be able to suggest a reason why many female readers may not be as interested in the material presented, or in Stephens-Davidowitz himself (he was/is apparently looking for a girlfriend). Stay away from the deviant sex stuff, Seth. It may interest you but I can guarantee that fewer women are going to find that appealing or reassuring conversation material.

An interesting corollary to this economists’ data view is the question of whether the truth matters, which is how I came to pick up this book. Recently on PBS’ The Third Rail with Ozy, Carlos Watson asked whether the truth matters. At first blush the answer seems obvious, and two sides debated this question. One side said of course truth matters…but most of us know one man’s truth to be another man’s lie. The other side said ‘everybody lies.’ It got me to thinking…I do think the two ways of coming to the notion of lying dovetail at some point, and one has to conclude that truth may not matter as much as we think. What matters is what we believe to be true.

Finally, it appears Stephens-Davidson agrees to some degree with Cathy O'Neill, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, in that he agrees you best not let algorithms run without human tweaking and interference. The best outcomes are delivered when humans apply their particular observations and knowledge and expertise along with big data.

** S-D describes it this way:
“Any time there is precise number that divides people into two different groups, a discontinuity, economists can compare, or regress, the outcomes of people very very close to the cut off.”

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Paperback, 291 pgs, Pub November 14th 2017 by Catapult (first published April 6th 2017), ISBN13: 9781936787708, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee Longlist (2017), Goldsmiths Prize Nominee (2017)

McGregor's remarkable achievement in this novel long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize is the flammable combination of his intimacy and his distance. He is daring in never mentioning Reservoir 13 again after naming his novel after it and insinuating, merely by its prominence, that it had something to do with the disappearance of Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex, the 13-year-old girl who disappeared one year and was never accounted for, though she’d been looked for and not forgotten for the thirteen years of this novel.

The book is a slow burn, like fire in peat, smoke hinting at fire somewhere, though pinpointing the source is difficult. McGregor is an impassive observer with no dog in any fight, recognizing the churn of seasons and families and friends, and recording how lovers grew apart and found new lovers, or did not, or how difficult it is to keep an allotment well-weeded and producing. Except that the story was his to create and so he must have had some reason for choosing the threads as they crossed, their color and texture and placement. In the end, this diet of village life recorded in the most entrancing language fills one with surprise, curiosity, delight, and despair.

Wondering, once finished, how this book was received by critics, I came upon a review by Maureen Corrigan in The Washington Post in which she says
“Those bland details of everyday life fill McGregor’s mammoth paragraphs like foam insulation being sprayed into walls.”
That made me laugh. She was the one to point out that the girl was thirteen when she went missing, and the time recorded in this novel is thirteen years. I would have thought it was much longer. It felt longer. I started noticing the time I spent reading, and treated myself to an occasional skim, just to see if I could uncover his mystery before I succumbed to numbing despair.

I admire McGregor's prose immensely and like his idea. It was a risky thing, this novel. I am pleased his daring and initiative was recognized by the Man Booker Prize committee.

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Grant by Ron Chernow

Hardcover, 1104 pages, Pub October 17th 2017 by Penguin Press ISBN13: 9781594204876, Lit Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

This book requires a serious time commitment. Grant lived 132 years ago, not so long in the course of things. Much had been written about him at the time, and much after. He himself wrote memoirs that are highly regarded and that showed his intelligence and shrewdness. His mother-in-law Dent, defender of southern slave holdings, noticed that although he had failings (alcohol) and could sometimes get off-track career-wise (an inability to make money as an independent entrepreneur), he had a fine political mind. That his mother-in-law had such good things to say about his instincts speaks to his political successes.

The cover copy says Grant was unappreciated for much of his career. This should give succor to individuals who struggle through various jobs, unable to find something in which they can excel. Grant went to West Point almost by accident, disliking the jobs assigned him by his father, a tanner. He apparently hated the smell of the tannery and warm blood, and found himself unable to eat meat unless it was charred beyond recognition. His horsemanship was legendary, even from a young age, and the skill served him well throughout his military career. His career stalled after a stint in the Mexican War, and revived during the Civil War when he could showcase his particular skills in strategy and logistics.

The book cannot adequately be recapitulated in short form, so I resort to impressions hammered home by Chernow in a thousand examples: that Grant decided to trust certain people whether they were knaves or not. He tended to hold onto his initial impressions even when he had reason to abandon support for individuals who’d done him wrong. It strikes me that this failing of his, a failing of accuracy in judgment, could be a reason he as so well liked as a leader. He was loyal, generous, kind, and willing to forgive as well as extraordinarily skilled himself in being able to read a battlefield, the condition of his men, and the heart of the opposition.

Grant was not as skilled at the diplomacy he would later be asked to perform in his role as president, though he gave more positions to people of color than any previous government, and he was instrumental in reforming the civil service. I would like to read more about a diplomat that Chernow seems to praise above all others, Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State for the entire of Grant’s presidency.

More than anything, Chernow makes clear that Grant’s life, despite the lofty heights of public regard during certain periods, was a real struggle all the way through. Never has a presidency seemed like such a bum job: after having fought a terrible, bloody war on one’s own soil for so many years, Grant had to face the unrepentant vanquished again as leader of a divided nation. The racism and bitterness we see and hear now is a mere echo of what was going on during Reconstruction, when every attempt to raise the quality of life of black people was fought every step of the way. Makes one want to force those who refuse to accept their defeat to their knees now—no more talk, no more accommodation. I wish it were as simple as bringing out the big guns (the law) and ending this. But we see now how deep the sense of entitlement still is.

Any portion of this book is worthwhile to read even if you can’t get to the whole thing. It's so important to recall the details of the Civil War and its aftermath now, in this time of division in our own country. If I had my druthers, this book would be shorter. My brain’s ROM has been gummed up with this work for months now and it nearly crashed my hard drive. I feel I am cheating in some way by not being able to express more moments of revelation, but there were so many. I’m sure there is something to be said for putting in every detail of a man and his country, and perhaps it is reasonable to repeat oneself occasionally. Readers may select portions of the whole, or spread out the reading over a long period. However, it is difficult to digest a book of this size.

I listened to the audio of this book and looked over the hard copy. The audio was very well read by veteran actor Mark Bramhall, produced by Penguin Audio. Below please find an excerpt of the reading of Chernow’s work by Bramhall.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

Hardcover, 263 pages Pub February 7th 2017 by Pantheon Books (first published October 20th 2016) ISBN13: 9781101870730 Series Seasonal #1, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2017), Gordon Burn Prize Nominee Longlist (2017)

It is November and outside my front door roses are still blooming. Their color is a deep rich clear pink. They look better than they did in the dry heat of summer.

Smith’s first novel in her proposed quartet of volumes is an utter delight. I’d never encountered her voice before but when I got to the end, I looked again at the beginning. Just as well, because I had forgotten that Daniel speaks, briefly, before the story gets picked up by “his granddaughter,” Elisabeth, with an “s.”

What I find queer, now having finished the novel, is why people talk about this as a Brexit novel. It is a novel of our times, told by a smart and savvy observer, but I would have put the emphasis squarely on the exploitation and disregard of women, their work, their point of view. Especially at this moment of lurid sexual scandal with roots supposedly in the 1960’s, “when the ethos was different,” we hear a voice that pierces that veil of ignorance and disregard and looks squarely at the mystery of history. Smith has caught our moment perfectly.

The real beauty of this novel is the heart of the novelist. She sees the hard truths we negotiate every day and does not deny them but looks instead at our vulnerabilities, and how we need one another to perfect our world. The work is something reminiscent of pop art, jazzy and clever but with echoes…instead of a piece of pink lace stuck variously under paint on the canvas, a memory…of children washing up on a beach, or women being pushed and herded onto buses…so slight a mention they are mere shadows.

But then Daniel asks explicitly, the first time they play Bagatelle, “Sure you want war?” before patiently instructing Elisabeth in the importance of diversity of thought: how the idea of ‘threatening’ is not unidirectional and can all be in one’s own mind. Daniel becomes companion, teacher, friend to adolescent Elisabeth, dismissed by Elisabeth’s mother as ‘that old queen.’

What to make of Elisabeth’s mother?

Smith marks time in this novel by describing the physical environment, the state of the roses, the chill in the air, the gossamer filaments of spider webs bearing beads, the color and position of leaves (on the trees, fallen to the ground). It positions us in a shifting timescape, though Daniel’s lifetime, and encapsulating the art of the first (and only?) female pop artist in Britain. Pauline Boty was…dismissed is too intentional a word…ignored during her career as an artist because she was beautiful and female. It makes one want to pair those two descriptors forever, in solidarity.
“And whoever makes up the story makes up the world…So always try to welcome people into the home of your story…”
I felt welcomed into the kindnesses Smith creates in this novel. There is wickedness in the world, and tragedy, but it doesn’t have to define us. We can create a world that turns inexorably, like the seasons, to longer days and more clement weather. And we can find people to love in the most unlikely places. Love may be the [only?] thing that makes life worthwhile.

This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

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