Sunday, May 27, 2018

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Hardcover, 452 pgs, Pub Feb 6th 2018 by Penguin Press, ISBN13: 9781594206252

The essays in this book have been published before, mostly in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, but it is quite something to see and read them all together. One has the impression of a very talkative, precocious teenager who notices ceaselessly, has opinions on everything, and is curious what you think but wants to get her view out there first, in case you change her mind. The flexibility of her mind and her fluency is the remarkable thing.

Reviewers and other novelists will find this collection important for how Smith structures her arguments, what she chooses to focus on, what she says about point of view and novelistic structure. When one desires particularly bright conversation but doesn’t have it to hand on an ordinary day, this collection is just the thing to provide food for thought. I listened to the audio, produced by Penguin Audio and read oh-so-brilliantly by Nikki Amuka-Bird. This is a wonderful way to digest Smith’s ideas, the essay form particularly good for a commute.

It took long time to finish the collection, so some of my favorites come from the end simply because I remember them better. But I do remember one near the front called “Dance Lessons for Writers,” which had particularly beautiful descriptions of the dance moves of Michael Jackson and Prince, Baryshnikov & Nureyev. Here’s Baryshnikov on Fred Astaire:
“I was very star-struck, I hardly spoke. But I watched his hands all the time, they were like a lesson in themselves,—so elegant.”
Smith discusses the comedy marriage of Key & Peele in “Brother from Another Mother,” the comedy duo who grew their audience during the Obama presidency. “…Subject to all the normal pressures of a marriage,” their routine has reached its natural end, but while it was going on it poked fun at attitudes of whites while raising issues faced by blacks. It led us into a more mature understanding and way of interacting by highlighting the ways “blacks” are often not black at all, but mixed and even mostly white. Time to drag one’s consciousness into the 21st Century, America.

There is a whole section called “In The Gallery,” in which Smith discusses art, including the first time she noticed art at her mother’s apartment and later, going to museums or to other parts of Europe in search of art. Her father, she points out, was always a natural viewer of art, not intimidated by the notion that an ordinary working man should not be able to comprehend art. He stood in front of a painting or sculpture and could say what he saw or how it affected him. He taught his daughter with her fancy education something about naturalness. She attributes some of that naturalness to her father’s love of John Berger and his 1972 TV show Ways of Seeing.

In “Love in the Gardens” Smith’s tells of inviting her father to Italy with money from her first book. He’d wanted to spend more time in France, she found out later, but she was young and insistent on Italy. They visited gardens and cities positively overrun with tourists. He hardly took a picture, and he was an amateur photographer. Later, after her father had died, Smith went to live in Rome and found a place he would have loved. Why hadn’t we spent more time in Rome she wondered, as she took in the beauty of the statutes and the women. He would have loved it here.

One of the best reasons to pick up the hardcopy of this book are the photographs reproduced. When Smith is discussing a particular piece of art, she may include a reproduction, or perhaps a photograph both she and her brother picked out of her father’s collection independently of one another, a photograph of a newspaper-carrying father kissing his toddler upon his return home from work, while the mother, wearing a skirt and pumps and a chignon, watches television expressionlessly. It is titled "The Family is a Violent Event."

One of the last essays is about Justin Bieber, the pop music star, and Martin Buber, long-dead Jewish philosopher. Smith imagines a meeting between the two and discusses both in the context of Buber’s 1923 I-Thou and I-It essay. Not being familiar with Buber’s essay, I listened kind of clueless and the very next day came across another reference to Buber’s essay, of which I could say quite a little bit, gratis Smith’s introduction.

And a real meeting of minds when, in “Getting In and Out,” Smith talks about how "black is now cool," and how "white people want to get inside & walk around in black skin." But she elegantly demolishes the notion of how one might “appropriate” experience by noticing it, by speaking of it, by writing about it. I had withheld my judgment on arguments about appropriation, all the time wondering how one can possibly NOT want people to understand, empathize, and yes, write about another’s experience as though it were their own. Smith makes the logical argument that a mixed person then cannot speak about the experience of someone with darker skin, though both have been labelled black, and what about someone who looks white but is, in fact, mixed? Will they have to pull out their credentials for all to make a decision whether or not she will have the right to speak of or even imagine the black experience?

I loved this book of essays and think England has got themselves a national treasure who can both write and think.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

An Appeal to the World by The Dalai Lama w/ Franz Alt

Hardcover, 128 pgs, Pub Nov 7th 2017 by William Morrow, ISBN13: 9780062835536

Every year about this time I look for a commencement speech or short comment about what we face and how to approach thinking about the world. This year I chose the Dalai Lama’s Appeal to the World because I saw he had remarks concerning the current President of the United States, DJT, in response to questions posed by German television journalist and author Franz Alt.

Can religion help us to overcome the divisions between Americans & foreigners, Democrats & Republicans, rich & poor that are exacerbated by DJT & his policies? The Dalai remarks
“Now the time has come to understand that we are the same human being on this planet..Humanity is all one big family.”
It is pure misplaced confidence, even ignorance, to think America can be ‘first,’ or any other such thing. "The future of individual nations always depends on the well-being of their neighbors." We live and die together.

“Religion alone is no longer sufficient,” the Dalai tells us. We need global secular ethics that can accept atheists and people of every religion. “We are not members of a particular religion at birth. But ethics are innate.” I have wondered about that in the past, and would require a fuller explanation, but generally speaking I go along with the first part: religion is learned and insufficient for ethical behavior, we already know from experience. Ethics, learned or innate, does tend to answer best those questions that might lead us away from god-like behaviors.

The Dalai believes we have a wellspring of ethics within us that must be nurtured, in schools if possible. "Human development relies on cooperation and not competition." We focus too much on our differences rather than our commonalities. We all are born and die in the same way.
"I look forward with joy to the day when children will learn the principles of nonviolence and peaceful conflict resolution--in other words secular ethics--at school."
This sounds so completely radical, doesn't it?
“Mindfulness, education, respect, tolerance, and nonviolence.”
Somewhere along the line we lost our connection to ethics, inner values and personal integrity. We need to relearn these things we have bred out of ourselves. In the two visions of humankind, 1) that man is violent, inconsiderate, and aggressive, and 2) that man tends towards benevolence, harmony, and a peaceful life, the Dalai comes down in camp #2. So do I. Given the choice between the two lives, most of us will choose #2. How do we know? Suffering bothers us.
“The real meaning of our life, whether with or without religion, is to be happy.”
I have questioned this assertion of the Dalai’s for years, and I think he might be right after all. Unlike Christian religions which have a kind of strictness (a kind of Yankee meanness here in the USA) about them that doesn’t seem quite right somehow, the Dalai urges us to seek happiness. If that seems indulgent, remember that no one is happy alone. “Happiness is one hundred percent relational.”

One thing the Dalai said that will stick with me a long time is that our enemies are our best teachers. We have the most to learn from them. Of course this is so. And patience is the most potent antidote to anger, satisfaction for greed, bravery for fear, and understanding for doubt. He has six principles that are fundamental to secular ethics:
1. Nonviolence
2. Tolerance
3. Accept every religion in its uniqueness
4. A religious person collaborates in preserving the earth
5. Patience
6. Death and rebirth
The essence of all religions is love. Therefore, we must presume, if we come across religious people who are not loving, something is wrong in the teaching or in the learning. This seems clear.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. by Samantha Irby

Paperback, 288 pgs, Pub May 30th 2017 by Vintage, ISBN13: 9781101912195, Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Humor (2017)

She's funny, there's no doubt about it. know how some comedians appear to have no 'off' button, or in some cases, no understanding of 'too much'? Yeah. This book makes you ask yourself if Irby is just too much. Open to ANY page and begin reading. You're absorbed immediately. It's a book with only dirty bits left in, none of the boring or predictable bits. Who can live like this?

It's exhausting. But in small doses, it can be just the ticket.

To say Irby has potty mouth is understating, but her instincts for what is funny are undeniable. I tried to find out if she was writing for the stage comedians--she'd be a goldmine considering she comes out with a non-stop new book every year lately--but it looks like she was discovered writing a blog, called "bitchesgottaeat".

We get inklings of what she was like as a youngster: I dare say she was an innocent once...she just wised up faster than all of us. She can write like a dream, and shines a bright light on serious topics. She pokes fun at herself, so you can bet she's not gonna spare you. Weight, race, sexual orientation, class, part of the country...all come under her gaze, and she catches us out.


I just want to register the notion that Irby has my permission to actually relax a little, not fake-relax as in writing jokes. She doesn't have to be 'on' all the time, though it looks from these popular books that she feels an obligation to keep it up. Nah. Unnecessary. Look, no one else in the world is doing it. Because they can't. Because it may not be that healthy. I'd like to see under the mask ... now, I SAY that, but maybe I don't... really...NO!


P.S. I am tired of adding 'race' to every book written by a person of color even if they touch on race in their commentary. Like Zadie Smith says in her book of essays, Feel Free: Essays, there was a moment in the history of American literature when the work of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were so spectacular and spoke to so many of us that Great Jewish-American Writer was turned into Great American Writer. I want that for us again. I acknowledge race, but it's not all there is, as this woman shows us. We're all Americans. Are we ready for that? I feel ready, but I am usually in advance of the pack. (That's not always usually a good thing.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

Hardcover, 128 pgs, Pub Jan 2nd 2018 by Scribner (first published October 6th 2017), Orig TitleDöstädning. Ingen sorglig historia, ISBN13: 9781501173240

I read about this in the New York Times awhile ago and it sounded like it might be the right thing for members of my family. Margareta is a friendly guide but she can be refreshingly tart. She’s completed death cleaning three times in her life, twice for other people. She is matter-of-fact about the most predictable thing about our life--our own death. She allows us to see how this death cleaning can concentrate the experience of life, and can often increase our pleasure by its recognition that all is fleeting.

Margareta acknowledges how difficult it can be to downsize for oneself. In the example she shares with us, her husband of many years passed after a long illness. The house in which they’d lived so long together was bringing her down, and it had many things she no longer needed, could no longer use. Her husband had a meticulous collection of tools which he kept in pristine condition. He would never have been able to get rid of them, but Margareta herself had no personal connection to the items, so could save a hammer, screw driver and a few hooks and give the rest to grateful kids and their friends.

Most of us haven’t moved as many times as Margareta has—seventeen times in all— throughout her husband’s career and raising five children. She is somewhere between eighty and a hundred years old and can no longer take care of her garden, or care for a houseful of things. She talks naturally about what is important, and how take joy in the things that will work well in smaller living accommodations. She even suggests a way to estimate what will work in a smaller apartment.

I’ve read a few of these books, and all of them have been helpful. One useful idea makes the entire experience less fraught, and one really does grow more accustomed to the idea as one proceeds. We also develop questions, which this book helps to answer. We can commiserate. This is a new stage! We're developing insights, and wisdom...though we may forget it all tomorrow. All the more reason to start today to pare down and simplify. One retains some control if one does it oneself, and also because one gets to remember while looking ahead. Margareta recommends doing it young, age sixty-five or so, when one is still fit enough to do the work and resilient enough to enjoy the freedom that comes.

Don’t start with photos and letters, or you’ll never get done. Margareta is so Scandinavian, and very appealing for that. She has wonderful memories and stories of her family and her pets. She shares a couple of the recipes she found that she didn't want to lose in the shuffle. I really enjoyed reading this book.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub May 1st 2018 by Scribner, ISBN13: 9781476756554

Rachel Kushner’s novels defy categorization. Her work reads easily but has a complexity that resists summation. She breaks rules and changes minds. This novel is both heavy and light at the same time, like a women’s prison in the Central Valley of California is both tragic and absurd. However, only for the untethered is it the joke it sometimes appears.

Kushner is for adults. She talks about sex and violence in a way that only adults will understand. Deviance is something else. Criminality is different again. But where sex and intimacy intersect in the Venn circle of our lives, we understand there is a corona of otherness around each of us. Consent is required. Absent that consent, all kinds of wrongdoing can occur.

This novel is about incarceration. It does not take sides; that is done by the courts. It tells us who people are before we know what they’ve done. That fits in exactly with the theme in Bryan Stevenson’s nonfiction Just Mercy, that "each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”

Romy Leslie Hall was an exotic dancer. She’d called herself Vanessa at work. She was in maximum now, a lifer with no possibility of parole. There were others in there with her who were likewise unwilling to be screwed with, but otherwise were perfectly ordinary human beings, with needs, wants, and aspirations.

The pace is slow. We are reading, however long it takes, because of the obvious intelligence behind the words, the insights, the news from inside. Romy’s not going anywhere. This story could take forever, as long as she wants to drag it out. Romy is a mother. She left her four-year-old, a son, with her own mother, not by choice. She’d been hauled away in cuffs in front of her son.

What Kushner does particularly well here is hold up one-way glass for readers to see themselves and at other times we look into the prison. I could see myself, hear myself, when Kushner mentioned the guards admonishments
“Ms. Hall, I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took. If you’d wanted to be a responsible parent, you would have made different choices.”
In the course of this story we see how, in fact, choices were made long before Romy had any say in the matter. The rest just plays out predictably, according to some formula that hasn’t changed for millennia. Romy’s choices all look bad, and the consequences all poor, too.

The one bright light in her life is her son, Jackson. Jackson came out of the womb optimistic, a happy baby. If you’ve ever seen a happy baby, you’ll know right away why it was so important for Romy to protect him, and why he was her lifesaver.

We learn about the personnel in a prison environment: guards, GED teachers, intake counselors. “Counselor doesn’t mean someone who counsels.” Counselors determine the security classification of the prisoners. Romy found herself “pleading with [the counselor] sadist in a little girl voice” in order to find out what happened to her son. The pressures of the place screwed with Romy, changing outcomes.

At first Romy’s chapters are interspersed with lists of prison rules, just to give us a sense of how restrictive the environment is. We run our eyes down the list, immediately thinking of ways to get around the regulations. We grow resentful, cynical, testy. “No arguments,” the sign says. “No loud laughing or boisterousness.” “No crying.”

Eventually, after the rules have done their job, we are occasionally treated to a short chapter lifted from mad loner Ted Kaczynski’s diary. The GED teacher, Gordon Hauser, the Thoreau specialist living in a one-room mountain shack while he worked at the prison, was gifted the diary by a fellow Berkeley grad because of the coincidences. At first, truth be told, Kaczynski doesn’t sound mad at all. It is only when people insist upon screwing with him, with nature, with the environment in which he lives, that he loses control.

There aren’t just a few of us who might have some sympathy for Kaczynski’s point of view, though not condoning his means of pressing his point. If we lived on the earth alone, we wouldn’t need to consider the requirement we get along with others. Persuasion as a tool is a crude thing, though it did work once for Romy, with Gordon Hauser, the GED teacher.

Hauser was not a guard, not like the others. We never learn whether or not Romy was able to free her son from the system by giving Hauser the best photo she had of Jackson. Something about Hauser was still free, not foreordained, and giving him the photo meant a little piece of Jackson lived free, too. Hauser was not staying; he was leaving his job and had plans…plans to go back to school.

We can lose ourselves when we are screwed with. Both Kaczynski and Romy made clear: Do Not Screw With Me. Hauser had been screwed with, in his life, in his work, but he bore his humiliation like a flower in a rainstorm, bending to it, until the weather changed and he took charge. Doc, a former policeman-turned-inmate whose story is likewise told here, was one of those “don’t screw with me” types, until he wasn’t. He left prison, too, but not in the same way as Hauser.

The title, The Mars Room, refers to the Frisco club where Romy worked, but we also might take it to recall the isolation of Kaczynski or prison, both places distant from the world where the rest of us live, places where it is difficult to get word in or out, where people are changed by the isolation, and from which they may never get home.

The cover is a Nan Goldin photograph entitled Amanda in the Mirror, Berlin, 1992. There is a scene towards the end of this novel that has all the terror and propulsion of the escape scene in Iceberg Slim's iconic autobiography, Pimp. You are not going to want to miss either one.

This is another extraordinary fiction from someone who appears to have taken on the role of flamethrower. As Romy says,
“You learn when you’re young that evil exists. You absorb the knowledge of it. When this happens for the first time, it does not go down easy. It goes down like a horse pill.”
Romy tells us women in prison like to read about women in prison. Well, this one’s for them.


My review of The Flamethrowers

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opioid Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Hardcover, 384 pgs, Pub Apr 21st 2015 by Bloomsbury Press (first published April 15th 2015), ISBN13: 9781620402504, Lit Awards: PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Nominee for Shortlist (2017), Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Current Interest (2015), National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction (2015)

The spectacular public service reporting Sam Quinones does in this nonfiction is so detailed and many-faceted that it left me feeling a little voyeuristic, not having been visited by the scourge of opioid addiction myself. Good lord, I kept thinking, so this is what we are dealing with. I knew something was different, I just didn’t have any conception of the size, scope, method, and means of this problem.

Quinones starts his story in the early 1980s when the first ranchero Xalisco marketers came up from Mexico with an innovative method for just-in-time drive-by selling of drugs to rich white kids in the suburbs. They explicitly avoided cities and black people because they admitted they were afraid of them, their violence and their gang activity. Besides, the thinking went, blacks never had any money. They’d just as soon steal from a dealer as pay him. The white kids had money and wanted convenience above all.

At almost the same time, and a cultural habitat away from small-time drug dealers of black tar heroin from Mexico, a drug company owned by the Sackler medical empire released an opiate derivative in pill form meant to alleviate pain. Early on, it is possible that creators, marketers, and prescribers of this plague did not know what they had unleashed. But within a couple of years, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that great numbers of people within and without the company sold the product in full knowledge of its wicked potency and addictive properties.

Quinones has been researching and reporting on this topic for a couple of decades, and lived in Mexico for ten years, observing the supply-side. Before having a comprehensive understanding of the subject, Quinones thought the heroin problem began with U.S. demand for drugs. After researching the situation in the heartland United States, he has decided that our problem now with heroin and fentanyl overdoses was paradoxically caused by a huge supply of opioid pills, prescribed by doctors in legal clinics, and condoned at every level of society and government in our country.

The story Quinones shares is un-put-down-able and truly remarkable, particularly his discussion of the marketing techniques for black tar heroin used by the small farmer-seller systems first set up by residents of Xalisco. Their method of growing-packaging-selling expansion into the heartland of America should make us sit up and pay attention. Ground zero for the meltdown of middle America is identified by Quinones as Portsmouth, Ohio, a middle class town at the center of a web of major cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh. The first known vector of the opioid infection was an unscrupulous doctor who overprescribed pills, knowing they were addicting his patients. Aided by ordinary well-meaning doctors who listened to marketing spiels by the drug makers, and who believed the pills to be non-addictive, the infection spread rapidly. Quinones tells the tale as it unfolded, involving Medicaid scams and cross-state purchases and sales.

What Quinones tells us gives us lessons for many other supply-side problems (marijuana? guns?) we may face in our society, now or in the future. When asked in an interview why restrictions on Class A prescription pills or opiates of any sort would produce the better outcomes, Quinones points out that when prohibited liquor was once again allowed to be sold openly, it was classified as to strength and sold differently. He warns that we are rushing to sales of marijuana with potency levels unknown fifty years ago and may wish we’d instituted some restrictions or controls before it becomes socially acceptable.

This nonfiction is dispassionate enough to allow us time to adjust our thinking around the problem of young people—entire families, really—losing their place in a productive society, with almost no way out. Now, with the recognition of the problem being forced upon our politicians, teachers, medical personnel, and law-enforcement officers, some changes are being instituted which may help after the fact of addiction, never a good time to try and solve a problem. With discussion and buy-in by ordinary citizens it may be possible to attack this problem before it begins.

There are at least seven interviews with Quinones free on Soundcloud, ranging in length from 15 minutes or so to an hour and a half. You have to hear some of these stories. It's mind-blowing. I listened to audio version, very ably read by Neil Hellegers, and produced by Bloomsbury. It is a must-read, must-listen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers

Hardcover, 272 pgs, Pub May 15th 2018 by Little, Brown & Company, ISBN13: 9780316556477

At a time when our country is again in the midst of a noisy national conversation about race, Kevin Powers creates a powerful fiction to illuminate the not-so-distant terrors and strains of our Civil War. Powers touches our sensitive places and his sentences carry knowledge from which none of us can hide.

The work is a feast of imagination, packed full with exemplars of character definition, narrative structure, tone, style, language choice. Language is the first thing one notices. Each sentence conveys both a history and a future, though we won’t know that until later. Rounding back on the novel’s beginning after a time we realize how much we have already been told, by given- and place names, though we couldn’t have understood it. We grow watchful, anticipating these signposts, and read carefully.

The economy and poetry of the language gives our read a languor; we won’t rush to some conclusion because the journey is the point. We breathe in the foggy sea air, and the stench of rotting limbs. We note what the narrator chooses to notice: “Emily had been to Richmond only twice in her life. She found the endless stone and brick suffocating.” But of course. Only northerners or outsiders wouldn’t crave the breezy clapboards on tree-lined drives outside the city center in the heat of the summer.

Characters have real depth. We are introduced to the slave Rawls; at no time does this feel like appropriation of the black man’s experience. Rawls has a quiet unquenchable fury “inscrutable and vast,” but he determines to find something within himself his owners can’t touch. Levallois is Rawls’ white landowner near Richmond, Virginia in the mid-1860’s. The pathology of his character is sharp as a shard of untempered glass. He is calculating and exploitative, transactional only, sly in exploiting the human nature of others less damaged than himself.

The novel’s dreadful propulsion is because of this character Levallois: what horror he will perpetrate next, and will he get his comeuppance? How many will he infect with hatred or kill before he is stopped? The path to that answer winds through a later century that hints to some of what happened. We are introduced to a man called George Seldom, believed to be a Negro of ninety some-odd years in 1955, who carries a sharp, thin-bladed knife with a handle of elk antler with which we are already familiar. In 1863, Levallois used it to kill noiselessly, needlessly a ferry owner named Spanish Jim.

We read for voices like Rawls and his wife Nurse, strong and resistant yet vulnerable. They arouse in us a sense of justice, and give us strength in light of very poor odds, shades of the heroic classic Les Misérables. We know enough of Levallois to know his sociopathy and hollowness, his wife Emily not much better. Near the end of this small corner of Civil War history Emily begins to grasp responsibility for her role, but we can’t forgive her. She’ll have to carry her burdens alone in the many years she has to contemplate them in backward glances.

The timeline in the novel is ever-shifting, but that merely adds intrigue and mystery—the kind of the puzzlement books of history often leave us with. When George Seldom admits a kind of suspicion towards history, this reader is inclined to agree that fiction, done well, may capture more truth than some histories. We read to know why, not just how, and history doesn’t often give us that.
“The truth has not mattered for a long time…the only thing that matters here…is what people are willing to believe.”
Of the several lives recorded in this novel, there are two that don’t fit easily the genealogies revealed here. One is a woman artist and part-time mail carrier who marries a reformed alcoholic and auto mechanic. The two live well together, deeply in love. Her heritage is mixed race including Croatan, black, and white and her maiden name is Bride. He appears to be white, his surname Rivers, perhaps descended from Sheriff Patrick Rivers, a “wholly unremarkable” and dull man who appears in this history after the war in Virginia near Beauvais Plantation.

There, it happened. This fiction has become a kind of history, or this history has become a fiction. We’re not exactly sure except that the time is not that long ago—only a generation or two—and we should be able to grasp motivation if we had a few more connections. What we do know is that plenty people died before their time for reasons their children and their children’s children no longer recognize. When does memory become fiction and does what happens now matter more than what happened then?

This is a deeply involving read; the author spans one hundred years but he left out the boring bits. The work is a kind of model for how to keep the reader understanding complicated knots in intertwined personal histories that last more than one lifetime. The language is peerless, and the capture of human nature cannot be denied. It feels a long time since I have been as enraptured by a fiction. Beautiful work.
Postscript There is an Australian author who has Powers' similarly expansive sense of literature and the writing chops to pull it off. Rohan Wilson places his fiction in earlier-century histories of Tasmania and manages to make the work as big and heroic as those he implicitly references. My reviews here cannot capture his overwhelming talent and the skill he demonstrates in The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost.
Links to my reviews for Powers' earlier work:
The Yellow Birds
Letter Composed During A Lull in the Fighting

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub Apr 17th 2018 by Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525520108

This is a fast and fabulous, smart and funny read…the kind that reads so effortlessly because the author has a lifetime of writing experience. There is a big-hearted generosity in Wright’s view of Texas, though he doesn’t hesitate to point out personalities or policies that diminish what he believes the state could be. Wright lived many years in Austin, the big blue liberal heart of Texas, a city that attracted so many people to what the city once was that it no longer resembles that attractive mixed-race, mixed-income diversity so rich with possibility.

Having read Wright’s big books on Carter’s peace talks at Camp David, and his exhaustive study of Christian Science, I was unprepared for the deep vein of “will you look at that” humor that richly marbles this piece. It is an utter delight to have Wright use his insider status as a resident to call out especially egregious instances of Texas bullshit.

The book is a memoir, really—the memoir of a natural raconteur from a state where cracking jokes about serious issues is an art form. But before page ten Wright makes clear his assessment of the state:
"Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has some terrible damage to the state and to the nation. Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America—the South, the West. the Plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, Kansas and Louisiana more dysfunctional, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future."
Wright is so skilled now at writing big books that he manages to give us lots of detail and information even in this more relaxed telling, all the while being really funny. He is clear-eyed about why Texas can be a big fail and yet he clearly loves the place.
"To strike it rich is still the Texas dream...Texans are always talking about how much they loved the state, but I wondered where was the evidence of that love."
Wright admits he considered leaving during the oil boom/bust in the 1980s when the state never seemed to live up to its obligations. He dreamed sometimes of decamping to liberal California, where he could flog his screenwriting skills...and make more money. He thinks that a country that can hold together two such immensely powerful and opposing forces as California and Texas has got to be something worthwhile and important. I used to think so, too, but feel less confident now. Sometimes I want to saw off those pieces of the country that claim to want so much freedom, and seal the borders. No trade. We’ll see then who comes out on top.

Music and art are sprinkled throughout this biography, obviously an important part of Wright’s attraction to the state. Each chapter sports woodcuts by David Dantz describing the chapter’s subject and Dantz’s endpapers illustrate the arc of the book. The art, like the prose, is rich with humor and attitude. Music is a part of Wright’s own biography and so he writes particularly well about the scene and historical influences. It’s rounded, this book, and interesting and fun and full of reasons to like Texas, despite its particularly awful politicians.

Texas was a reliably blue state until the 1990s. Houston is the only major city in America without zoning laws. AM Texas radio hosts Alex Jones. Ted Cruz makes jokes about Machine Gun Bacon on Youtube but as usual when Cruz is trying to be funny, it’s an epic fail. Dallas had been a city fostering extremism until Kennedy died there. After that humiliation, Dallas became more open and tolerant, more progressive…and developed more churches per capita than any city in the nation. Wright thinks Dallas has the ability to transform suffering into social change. I say we shouldn’t be blamed for being a little suspicious of all that supposed holiness. Evangelicals have shown what they are thinking where they are standing.

In the last chapters, Wright is open about searching for his final resting place. He is only seventy years old, but he is calling it for Texas. I really like that about him. He can conceive of life and death, Democrat and Republican, north and south in one sentence. He can love Texas and laugh at it, too. He has written a truly wonderful, un-put-down-able book about the biggest second-biggest state in the union.

I'm from Texas.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Death & Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Paperback, 384 pgs, Pub Apr 10th 2018 by W. W. Norton Company (first pub Mar 7th 2017), ISBN13: 9780393355550, Lit Awards: Helen Bernstein Book Award Nominee for Excellence in Journalism (2018), Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for History (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science & Technology (2017), J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award (2015)

Egan separates a couple of salient facts by the length of a book, but I here eclipse the space between them:
※ The Great Lakes are the largest expanse of freshwater in the world.
※ The Great Lakes are in the midst of a slow-motion ecological catastrophe begun by opening to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic.
※ Freshwater is the world's most precious natural resource.
※“The intuition is that a very large lake like this would be slow to respond somehow to climate change. But in fact we’re finding that its particularly sensitive.”
After the last election I became laser-focused on Wisconsin. I watched as a traditionally blue state voted red, and kept Governor Scott Walker and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in office through severe gerrymandering that could not be reversed even by mandate from federal judges. The Wisconsin gerrymandering case was forced to our country’s highest court, and SCOTUS's decision on the fairness of such twisted districts should be heard before the November 2018 election. But decisions made by the severely gerrymandered Republican legislature has been allowed to impact and will continue to impact Lake Michigan’s watershed at a time when it needs urgent attention.

A proposed $10 billion investment in Paul Ryan's District #1 by Taiwan's Foxconn, maker of touch screens for the iPad, was inked in 2017. Foxconn will use 7 billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan per day, five billion of which will be used outside and not returned to the lake's watershed area. By the end of Egan's book, contracts like this and that made with Waukesha city, a suburb of Milwaukee also outside the watershed area, take on far greater meaning.

Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes have been under pressure from invasive species through the Seaway to the north and from the south through the Sanitary & Ship Canal to the Mississippi. Just when scientists managed to tackle the problems caused by one devastating species, they would encounter another, even more overwhelming, until we arrived where we are now, with toxic algae blooms regularly threatening the water supplies of major cities that use lake water for drinking water.

Besides that, we discover the increases in the lake’s winter temperatures means increases in the lake’s summer temperatures, encouraging evaporation and shrinkage of water area. This, along with pollution of existing supplies and inevitable demands from rapidly drying areas of the country who have gone through their aquifers is increasing the pressures on scientists to refresh and preserve this enormously important natural resource. It requires attention and political support, and one fears what would happen should business-influenced politicians force through compromises that have short-term gains for the few and long term consequences for the many.

Dan Egan is a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has been researching and reporting on the Great Lakes for at least a decade. He has done something we rarely encounter: he has made science and history come alive. As I did my own research into the political conditions in Wisconsin, I thought it would be important to learn more about Lake Michigan which plays such an important role in the life and economy of the state but I expected Egan’s book would be struggle to read. Instead I found it completely riveting and hard to put down. When was the last time you said that about a science/geography/history book?

A few years ago I read another nonfiction title, Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown that was similarly involving. Although the history of the Washington crew team competing in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany is long over, Brown made the book completely propulsive and un-put-down-able. That is the way I feel about Egan's book.

One threat to the lakes follows another, and our hearts squeeze as we hear of dangers and disasters in the last couple of years. It feels absolutely critical that we pay attention to the resource--fresh water--scientists have been telling us for half a century is in limited supply and which has everything to do with life on earth.

I can’t recommend this title more highly. Egan should definitely be on award lists for this title, and indeed has already scooped a couple. The W.W. Norton paperback came out last month (April 2018) and the Random House Audio production is likewise terrific, narrated by Jason Culp. Below please find a clip.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Million Drops by Víctor del Árbol

Paperback, 672 pgs, Expected publication: May 15th 2018 by Other Press (NY), ISBN13: 9781590518458

America’s literary scene is so robust and successful that it tends to influence and eclipse exciting work appearing around the world. Other Press of New York has a terrific record of finding and translating for us the best of European fiction and this month we are treated to a historical thriller from Spain, first published in 2014 in Barcelona. The author Víctor del Árbol was a seminarian and historian before embarking on a successful literary career, so his thrillers have recognizable historical underpinnings and a rich and brutal context of war and conflict.

Árbol’s name has begun to show up in lists for literary prizes at home and in Europe. With this second novel to be translated into English, we experience the emotional and historical depths of a Spain struggling with its political past. The richness of the novel stems from Árbol’s contextual complexity and recognized divergence from old societal norms, e.g., the centrality of strong but flawed female characters, acknowledged homosexuality, police misconduct, and in a predominantly Christian country, an important Jewish character who suffered Stalin-era torture at the hands of leftists, leading to lifelong psychological affliction.

Russia and Spain have long been intertwined, and the twentieth century brought enthusiastic support for communist ideals in Spain. Students from all over Europe travelled to offer their services to a Russian government trying to consolidate power under Stalin, but they found “being a non-Soviet Communist is seen as suspicious even in the USSR.” When a purge of dissident elements was undertaken, the Spanish engineering student Elías along with his cohort of fellow Europeans were caught up in the melee and deported to the now-infamous Nazino Island.

Nazino Island was home to a little-known real-life atrocity perpetrated by the Head of the Secret Police Genrikh Yagoda and the Head of Labor Camps Matvei Berman and approved by Stalin in May 1933 in which 6,000 deportees made up of petty criminals and political prisoners were forcibly relocated to a small island in western Siberia. The group was meant to construct a camp designed to bring unproductive land under cultivation during a time of nationwide famine. Few provisions accompanied the prisoners and within thirteen weeks 4,000 had died of starvation, sickness, or at the hands of others. Árbol allows his imagination to construct the camp, describing the depraved behaviors the survivors are thought to have witnessed. Elías’s hope for escape from Nazino looks extremely unlikely, lending a thriller-like air to the telling.

Elías’s 20th-century story is interspersed with the 21st-century stories of his children and the children of people Elías knew from his time in Nazino. His daughter Laura is a journalist-turned-policewoman, and his son Gonzalo is a lawyer with leftist sympathies. In fact, the novel opens with a shockingly brutal incident that leaves us gasping for air, and we are propelled to explain that event by looking for clues in the past.

The structure of the novel is deceptively simple, jumping from one century to the next through chapter headings, but not always immediately addressing the questions we have formulated—another source of tension in the novel. References to important historical moments in Spanish history are intriguing in their own right, generating an enthusiasm in readers to investigate more straightforward accounts that would explain the larger forces at work.

If I had any criticism of the book, it would be that the novel seems indulgent in length. While the situations of Elías and his family are intrinsically interesting and filled with tension, that sense of urgency is difficult to sustain over 600+ pages. Sometimes less really is more, especially in a mystery/thriller. Were the novel shorter, the author wouldn’t need to explain so much, as the reader would be following step-by-step.

The character list takes a toll, and begins to put a strain on our ability to remember an unfamiliar history along with strikingly similar-sounding names, e.g., Gonzalo-Gonzalez, Luis-Luisa, Lola-Laura. And finally, after the complicated relationships carried throughout the novel, the Epilogue seemed too easy, once again usurping the reader’s role to imagine.

While I wouldn’t call this international crime fiction, it has some elements common to that genre. It is closer to historical literary fiction in the way that books about WWII bring that era back to life. This mentions WWII, particularly Stalingrad, but for the Jewish character Elías that horror show just brought back memories of worse. Perhaps not enough was made of Elías’s Jewishness, unless the author meant for that to layer lightly over other elements without being explicit about what it means. In my own country, I’d know what that means. In Spain, I’m not too sure.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel for me was Barcelona living and the mindset of current residents there. Descriptions of tourists blowing in for a week of sun rang as true as the description of a popular Spanish architect living in London coming to introduce his latest commission to the public. I am not entirely sure I got my fill of the authentic experience un-moderated by American TV scenarios (like Miami Vice, mentioned in the final pages) but I very much look forward to more.