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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Chabon, MOONGLOW

Chabon's writing is always adroit, economical, ambitious, inventive. But this book about his grandfather, drawn from conversations with his grandfather during his last six weeks of life, feels like the book he was always meant to write. Stunning, wide-ranging, poignant. The fact that Chabon and I both have a favorite Salinger short story--"For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--and that we have the SAME version of *Nine Stories* with the colored tiles on the cover made me smile.

There's plenty of praise and commentary on this novel already; so I will just mention just a few of my many favorite lines (even though plucking them out of context doesn't do them justice).

When the time came to leave for the synagogue, the only card my grandfather still held was to make himself disagreeable. Pick a fight and hope to be uninvited.

My grandparents forgave each other with the pragmatism of lovers in a plummeting airplane.

... a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams

"That lighter," [Sally said, about a silver cigarette lighter that had belonged to his grandfather's friend in WWII, and which his grandfather had passed on to Michael].
"There was as a story behind it," [Michael replied].
"I'm sure. All of his stories were stuck behind something."

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Adam Hochschild, KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST

I was utterly impressed and moved by this brilliant book. I was one of those students Hochschild mentions briefly, who read Heart of Darkness in high school, where it was taught as a parable, a cautionary tale akin to Lord of the Flies, about what can happen when one man holds absolute power with no oversight. But Joseph Conrad based his account on several men he had met in Africa--station managers for King Leopold II (of Belgium)'s vicious, brutal extortion of ivory from the Congo. And the forced labor, kidnappings, and brutal treatment of Congolese only grew worse during the subsequent mad scramble for rubber (for tires for bicycles and automobiles). I am appalled and not a little ashamed that until I found this book, I knew next to nothing about any of this. The second half of the book offers a slightly less dismal conclusion to the story--the account of the first great human rights movement of the 20thC, spearheaded by E. D. Morel, Roger Casement and others, that helped put an end to some of the abuses. 

I appreciated how painstaking his research was, and how adroitly the author organized the material into a narrative that was as compelling as a novel. And his afterword, with its cautionary notes about "pretend[ing] to acknowledge something [such as a history of brutality] without really doing so," the need to look at causes, and "the cultural tolerance and even hero-worship" of men such as Mobutu, who, like Leopold II, exploited the Congo to enrich his own coffers, is still a relevant message and points to the need for ongoing dialog about the long shadows that are cast by brutality and the flagrant abuse of power.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Elizabeth McCracken, THE GIANT'S HOUSE: A ROMANCE

I've seen these words in several other reviews of this 1996 novel: strange and lovely. The premise, on the surface, sounds a bit creepy: a spinsterish librarian falling in love with an 11-year-old boy, who happens to be six feet tall already and still growing. But I like an author who takes up a challenge--to make a story like this not just accessible but meaningful and heartbreaking. Some of the sentences gave me serious writer envy; many verge on poetic. Though the trajectory of the book is poignant and even painful, I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins because the narrator's voice (Peggy, the librarian) is by turns wry, self-deprecating, shrewd and honest. McCracken gives her a clever turn of phrase, interesting ways of representing things. On their journey by train to NYC: "Hours later, we hit the tunnel that led to Grand Central. A shame, I thought, that trains couldn't just ride straight into the city, proud and unhidden. Trains had to senak up on Manhattan, underground, in the dark." "New York beckoned ... Not the way Cape Cod is always beckoning, its curled finger saying to the whole rest of the country, come a little closer, till on the Fourth of July weekend the rest of the country is unaccountably standing on a beach in Provincetown, wondering: How did I get here?" Worth the read.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Donna Tartt, THE GOLDFINCH

For the past five days, I've felt a dark shadow around the edge of my thoughts because of this book. I felt for Theo, the 13-year-old whose mother dies in a terrorist bombing at the Met. In the aftermath, Theo's life devolves step by wretched step ... with the dysfunctional Park Avenue family that takes him in; his stay in Las Vegas with his addiction-riddled father, who has men coming to the house with baseball bats, and his trashy girlfriend Xandra; his friendship with Boris who seems hell bent on self-destruction. At this point in the book, I had to jump forward fifty pages or so just to make sure Theo gets out of Vegas. But even after Theo's return to New York, to the home of someone trustworthy and kind, he lies and cheats and swindles his way into a position where I wondered, how on EARTH can he dig his way out of this? 

I was struck by how, even with a decent family, a teen is in danger; and without one, he is on the verge of destruction; after Theo's mother dies, all the counselors and teachers are well-meaning but seem unable to empathize authentically and incapable of helping him. The safety net feels very fragile, if it even exists. That's what felt so terrifying and painful; it's like watching the proverbial runaway train. 

And yet the book is so beautifully written, I couldn't stop reading. I did enjoy all the references that were like a series of winks to anyone who ever lived in NYC: the Temple of Dendur, Gristedes, the Paris Theater, the bicycle messengers, Barneys; and more broadly to the cultural referents of our time: to *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe*; "Potter," which is Boris's nickname for Theo; the bus ride from Vegas ("They tried to sell this whole family-friendly package a few years ago, but it didn't wash"), through "Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse"; and "that man who landed the plane in the river a few years back and saved everyone, remember him?" (recently turned into the movie SULLY). It gives this book a feeling of being a story that is, to some extent, about Every(wo)man. In the end, there is some redemption, even a sense of something learned at great cost (deep sigh of relief). And the book feels unforgettable to me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

J.D. Vance, HILLBILLY ELEGY: A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY AND CULTURE IN CRISIS

This book straddles the two genres of memoir and social commentary; and it's insightful in both directions. In a voice that is forthright, authentic, and true to his roots (i.e. at times downright profane), Vance surveys his life thus far, from early childhood to his graduation from Yale Law. His childhood was divided between his hillbilly grandparents' home and his mother's increasingly dysfunctional series of homes, complete with addiction, violence, and a rotating door for men. This is an unflinching look at what it feels like to be a child with undependable people around, people who scream and throw things, who lose their temper and fight fiercely for "honor"; but it also points to the ways that high schools and government agencies (such as Child Protective Services) fail poor children in Appalachia because they don't understand the nature of the extended family systems and people's deep-seated distrust and failure of faith that any effort or hard work will improve their situation. It's about how hopelessness is sewn into the fabric of a culture. But it's also a memoir about Vance finding his way out: he graduated high school; joined the Marines for four years during which he developed his own sense of adult agency; went to Ohio State U; and then graduated Yale Law. One of my favorite chapters comes at the end where he shares how he has had to learn a new way of handling conflict, with the help of his fabulous wife Usha (also a grad of Yale Law). He explains that his sister Linsday told him that "When I fought with Kevin [her husband] I'd insult him and tell him to do what I knew he wanted to do anyway--leave. He'd always ask me, 'What's wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I'm your enemy?'" Like his sister, Vance has to learn better ways of working through conflict, and he admits humbly that he still struggles with it. He also asks the messy questions about sympathy and accountability: "How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin? ... At some point, Lindsay says, you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility. ... No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card. ... but can people like us ever really change?" It's a message of hope that he provides at the end, that people can grow and change and see that "the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult. I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle. This makes little sense in my current relationships, but without that iattitude, my childhood homes would have consumed me." He's clear about the difference between the two worlds he knows; and without being preachy or judgmental, he shares what he's learned from both.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney, THE DEVIL'S DIARY: ALFRED ROSENBERG AND THE STOLEN SECRETS OF THE THIRD REICH

I found this to be a rather odd book. Much like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it has two distinct plot lines. One is the story of the rise of Hitler and Rosenberg's role in developing and disseminating toxic and vicious anti-Semitism for the Nazis; the second is the discovery of Rosenberg's diary and how it was smuggled out of Germany by Kempner (a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials), concealed, misplaced multiple times, chased down across the Atlantic, and finally preserved in the Holocaust Museum.

I find I have to read books about Nazi Germany in small doses; the horrifying events and the descriptions of the viciousness of the individual Nazis are just too much to take in and too disturbing to read in long swaths. But this book provides one of the best overviews I've seen with respect to the rise of the Nazis, the terror they instilled, the wishful thinking by so many, the overwrought pretexts and lies the Nazis used to justify their actions, and the "logic" that underpinned everything from the looting to the killing. A well-researched, careful book.

Harper Lee, GO SET A WATCHMAN

My bookclub is reading this, together with To Kill a Mockingbird, this month. To say I felt conflicted about reading it is an understatement. I'd heard so much about how reading Watchman ruins Mockingbird, how Watchman reads like a rough draft, how it makes you hate Atticus because he's become a racist, how Harper Lee was exploited in order to obtain the manuscript, how it raises the question of whether Lee even wrote Mockingbird. (There is a rumor that her friend Truman Capote might have written, or edited, or ghost-written Mockingbird, a rumor that has largely been disproven.) So while I bought the book five months ago, I only began it five days ago, procrastination being one way of avoiding a wince-worthy experience!

If I consider Watchman on its own merits, I didn't find it nearly as shabby a book as I'd heard it to be. Granted, the characters are less appealing. Where Scout is consistently and wonderfully vulnerable and spunky, 26-year-old Jean Louise, coming home from NYC, vacillates between brittle and mouthy and self-absorbed. And Atticus is not the hero he is in Mockingbird; in this book, his willingness to stand up for Tom Robinson is attributed not from a sense that everyone, even a black man accused, deserves the best legal representation he can provide--that is, from a devotion to a humane ideal. It is the less personal devotion to the law. But these aren't real people, after all, and I didn't mind that so much.

What I found a bit surprising were some elements that felt incomplete, or inept. For example, I didn't like how Henry/Hank (why the switching between names?), Jean Louise's love interest seems to exist mostly to provide a thin "should I marry him or not" plot for Jean Louise; and as a character, he is flat, serving largely as a way to illuminate aspects of Jean Louise's character. (He often hints to the reader how we should interpret JL's speeches.) 

The stakes in Watchman are not nearly what they are in Mockingbird, and this has to do with the plot. Certainly both books have to do with race and the south. But in Watchman, the plot is more about Jean Louise letting go of her father as a perfect model conscience, and figuring out that Henry isn't the one she should marry, than about race. In fact, much of what Jean Louise learns about race in the South is through a lecture that her uncle provides in the last 1/8th of the book. Thus, Watchman is a novel about an individual character more than a cultural concern, if that makes sense. A plot about a girl discovering her identity isn't as effective a way of introducing the problem of race as the trial of Tom Robinson (front and center in Mockingbird).

But I did like that Watchman ends in a way that doesn't put Atticus and Jean Louise (or anyone) neatly into the camp of Good or Bad. In some ways, it is a more "mature" ending, though perhaps not as satisfying as Mockingbird, in which Atticus transcends Maycombe's racism and Boo thwarts Bob Ewell's viciousness so completely. And if Jean Louise is a little too disparaging of Maycomb (in some wry scenes with the Maycomb ladies), that also feels "real" for a 26-year-old coming home from NYC. All in all, I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5.