Monday, September 5, 2016

Personal Mysteries Drive Forward a Story of International Law (Books - East West Street by Philippe Sands)

Once known as "little Paris of the Ukraine," the city of Lemberg (also called Lwów, Lvov and Lviv, depending on the moment in history and who was doing the calling) figures prominently in Philippe Sands's East West Street (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).  Invited to deliver a lecture on international law at the University, he uses the opportunity to do a little research into family history, as it is the place of his maternal grandfather's birth.  In seeking answers to questions about his grandparents' immigration to Paris in 1938, he learns that three other men crossed paths in the city of Lviv. One was Hans Frank, a lawyer appointed by the Nazi's to run the Jewish ghetto, where he condemned its entire Jewish population to death.  The other two men both figured prominently in Sands's own profession, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, Both studied law in Lviv, they event studied under the same professor, and both invented key mechanisms of international law used today.

Lauterpacht conceived of crimes against humanity, which he saw as an internationally applied mechanism that uses principles of national law to protect the well-being of individuals against acts by the country in which they reside, such as enslavement, deportation, torture, or murder.  Until this point the state was seen as an entity whose power was inviolate (some countries still see it this way) but Lauterpacht felt that the right of individuals to liberty and the pursuit of their pleasure was sacrosanct, and superceded a nation's sovereignty.  Lemkin invented the concept of genocide.  In fact, the word did not exist before he coined it.  It was as a law student that Lemkin first felt a sense of outrage towards the Turkish mass slaughter of Armenians.  "So it's a crime for  Tehlirian to strike down one man, but not a crime for that man to have struck down one million men," Lemkin is said to have asked?  Lemkin described the process via which the German state stripped Jews and others first of their nationality - severing them from the state, then dehumanizing them - removing their legal rights (since, being stateless, they no longer could claim the protection of the law), and finally by killing them spiritually, culturally, and eventually literally. Lemkin's concept was focused as a legal solution to this process, and so on crimes committed against groups rather than individuals.  During the Nuremberg trials following World War II, both he and Lauterpacht vied for the use of their mechanism in prosecuting Nazis.  The trial set the precedent for the trying and punishing of such offenses that were excused under the laws of their own countries, but seen as an outrage by broader humanitarian standards.  Mechanisms to carry out international justice have taken a long time to put into practice.  It was the late 1990s before international law had the teeth to punish individuals such as Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and August Pinochet, former president of Chile, for their crimes.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

What is left when what we loved is gone? (Books - What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

In the New York art world of the 1970s, art historian, Leo Hertzberg, experiences a powerful painting.  He buys it, beginning a friendship with the artist Bill Wechsler that is the center of What I Loved (Sceptre, 2016) Siri Hustvedt's deep, serious, and multifarious novel, first published in 2003 and recently released in a beautiful new softcover edition from Sceptre.

What I Loved is about many things: art, love between friends, between lovers, spouses, parents and children, and it is also very much about loss - as the title presages.  It is Hustvedt's accomplishment that though this novel occurs over a span of thirty years, interrelating the psychology of hysteria and eating disorders, page-long descriptions of visual art, details of quotidian domestic existence and passionate infidelity, and moments of profound grief, and though it is told from the first-person perspective of a somewhat fusty art academic, you don't look at the brushwork.  The ins, outs, and intersections of theme, of characters and of what they make - because everyone is painting, drawing, writing essays, a dissertation, cooking a meal, staging a rave (these characters are nothing if not generative) - this welter of detail gives rise to a single complexity - a work of rich substance and of emotional heft.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A harpist for whom someone else pulls the strings (Books - The Extra by A. B. Yehoshua)

A. B. Yehoshua is one of just a few Israeli writers, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman, whose novels are regularly translated and make their way to the U.S. I especially enjoyed his Mr. Mani, a sweeping tale of six generations of a Sephardic family.  His latest The Extra trans. Stuart Schoffman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) concerns Noga, an Israeli-born harpist, living in Holland.  Following her father's death, her brother wishes their mother to leave her Jerusalem apartment and move to an assisted living facility near his home. His mother resists, so a compromise is reached - she will try out the facility for three months.  Through a quirk of the law, she risks losing her Jerusalem apartment if it is not occupied by a member of the family, so Noga is asked to take a leave from her job with a Dutch orchestra and stay in Jerusalem for that period.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Consequences of Betrayal (Books - Exposure by Helen Dunmore)

Helen Dunmore's Exposure (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) is a gently genre-defying novel - a deep and satisfying story of relationships posing as a cold war spy novel.  It  is as if someone were filming an espionage thriller and this is the story from the backstage perspective.  The actor makes his entrance into the office to be challenged on the missing pages from the dossier, but you, the reader, are watching him as he prepares off-set, smooth back his hair prior to his entrance, and when he enters to play the scene, instead of focusing on the written dialogue, you hear a voice-over of what he is thinking while playing the scene.

Since this is the obverse of an espionage novel, the plot as such is not the point, but... it is the 1960s. Lily's husband, Simon, who works a mid-level job for British Intelligence, is asked by his superior, Giles, to return a sensitive file when Giles unexpectedly lands in the hospital.  Lily unwittingly discovers it and buries it to protect her husband.  Simon is just unimportant enough in the power hierarchy, and the file just important enough, that he becomes a scapegoat when its disappearance must be covered up. He home is searched. He is carted off, awaiting a courtroom trial in a jail cell and Lily and her children gradually become ostracized.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Flat storytelling dulls new YA series (Book - Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel)

Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants (Del Rey, 2016) is the first volume of a planned YA fantasy series.  A young girl happens upon a giant hand at the bottom of a hole dug into the earth.  It is composed of an unidentifiable metal, is several thousand years old, and sits in a square shaft whose walls are painted with symbols. Fast forward 20 years and this girl has become a scientist who joins a team of quirky experts - military and scientific - who are charged to understand the origin and purpose of the hand. Has it been placed here for good or evil?  Who by, since humans were not known to be technologically advanced enough to build such an object 3,000 years ago?  Unfortunately, this potentially compelling story is told as a series of diary entries or interview transcripts, the result being chapters that explain what has already happened. The narrative is fast-moving, but dull because we are at a remove from the action of the story. It is full of pseudo-profundities about the power of ultimate destruction and international relations.  Even reading this during the Brexit vote while traveling in the UK did not conspire to ignite the kindling under these timely ideas.  Neuvel's attempt to create suspense by having the main interviewer of each of the characters stories be an invisible but powerful presence (think Charlie in Charlie's Angels) is his best idea, but falls flat due to a prose style that manages to feel too cute and show-offy.  Where Neuvel is most effective is in capturing the feeling of scientists at work on a problem.  The lab sequences ring true but aren't enough to drive me to read further in this series.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Birth of a Narrative (Books - The Sky Over Lima by Juan Gómez Bárcena)

The debut novel of Spaniard Juan Gómez Bárcena - The Sky Over Lima (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) - is a mischievous, Escher-like paean to the power of the written word.  His protagonists are 20-year-old Carlos and José, the first the scion of an aristocratic family, the second of a nouveau-riche manufacturer.  Both are rich enough to rent a Parisian-like garret in their home city of Lima, and, although they live with their parents, go there to live out a fantasy of being great writers. They have a passionate crush on literature, playing a game in which every person they encounter is turned into a character in a great novel. Their law professor become's Tolsoy's Ivan Ilyich.  A woman of their acquaintance, Madam Bovary having lived into old age.  When they learn that Ramón Jiminéz, the Nobel-winning Spanish bard that they idolize, has published a volume not available in Peru, they struggle to write a letter that will convince him to send them a copy, unsatisfied with draft upon draft, until they realize:
They must embellish reality, because in the end that is what poets do, and they are poets, or at least they've dreamed of being poets on many late nights like this one.  And that is exactly what they are about to do now: write the most difficult poem of all, one that has no verses but can touch the heart of a true artist. 

It starts out as a joke, but then it turns out it's not a joke.  One of the two say, almost idly, It would be easier if we were a beautiful woman, then Don Juan Ramón would put his entire soul into answering us, that violet soul of his - and then suddenly he stops, the two young men look at each other a moment, and almost unintentionally the mischief has already been made. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

One Immigrant Who Made America Great (Books - Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow)

I'm not sure that Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Books, 2004) the bestselling biography and basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical phenom needs any more hype, but here it goes. Chernow's book is a monument to one of America's most personally complex and influential founding figures.  It is lengthy not because Chernow, as is often the case in modern biographers, can't manage to make choices about which bits of his research to share -- a toenails-and-all approach -- but because he integrates his subject's story with necessary personal and historical context.  One cannot understand either the sheer amount of Hamilton's contribution to modern America: its constitution, party system, how voters are represented, how the state and federal governments relate, the system of checks and balances - nor the weight of these contributions, without understanding his role in the Revolutionary war, his relationship to George Washington (and by extension, who our first general and president was), and the opposition Hamilton faced from Thomas Jefferson (and who he was), James Madison (ditto), John Adams (ditto), and Aaron Burr (ditto), and having an overview of his most influential work The Federalist Papers.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Small bombs, large impacts, no simple explanations (Books - The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan)

In Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016), three boys set out on an errand one afternoon in Delhi. Only one of them returns.  Tushar and Nakul, brothers, are hindu. They are killed by a terrorist's bomb. Their friend, Mansoor, is muslim. He survives, but with physical and emotional scars.  Mahajan writes of the origins and the consequences of such "small" acts of devastation.  They are perpetuated by just one or two individuals. The bombs are built with easily found materials and fit neatly in backpacks. The political perspective of the perpetrator and the pain of the survivors are similar in their intense myopia, but, as Mahajan writes:
The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later.  A good bombing begins everywhere at once.

A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult.  A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling cars and sloping beggars...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

People are more than objects in space (Books - A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin)

Ethan Canin was already one of my favorite authors for having written For Kings and Planets, and I have frequently recommended his The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air.  With A Doubter's Almanac (Random House, 2016) Canin has written a "great" book, in the sense of giving expression to profound experiences, and also, I believe, in creating something whose meaning extends beyond its exemplars - the concerns of these specific characters, the obsessions of the period in which it was written - and has the potential to be enduring. Time will tell on that second point.

In some ways, Canin is writing about the same things he has always written - fathers and sons, success and failure, gut-smarts and brains - all within the scopes of the grandest of considerations: time and space.  Time as it is experienced on a human scale, through one generation of a family experiencing another.  Three generations of the Andret family are the focus of this novel.  Space as it is described by a branch of mathematics called topology, which studies the interrelation of things, though not on the level they are visible in nature, on a hypothetical level of multiple dimensions. This is the focus of the work of Canin's protagonist, Milo Andret, who may be a genius in using math to describe such relationships but is profoundly disabled in forming a typical human bonds and severely limited even in insight into himself.  In one scene, Canin describes Milo as having to touch his own face to understand that he was smiling.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The hyperfocus of life during illness, and the book as immersive technology (Books - Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher)

Scarred Hearts (Old Street Publishing) by Max Blecher was first published in Romanian in 1937, but did not reach English readers until 2008. The novel is set in a sanatorium in France, describing life there for tuberculosis patients.  Although written in the third-person, Emanuel is clearly a stand-in for Blecher himself, who was diagnosed with Pott's Disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, at age 19.  Treatment for this condition at that time immobilized patients in body-casts.  They lay on their backs in special carriages which could be wheeled around in by people or horses, adding infantilization to their list of indignities.  What is striking in this novel is that, in the face of death on a daily basis, most of Blecher's vividly drawn characters are still focused squarely on the banalities of daily living.  Blecher writes in an adolescently effusive tone of Emanuel's lust, jealousy, urge to relieve the itching under his body cast, or his embarrassment at the smell of his body, given his limited ability to wash. That is not to say that he ignored pain, loss of function, or mortality, but the narrative style focuses less on the moment-to-moment shame of it than it does on the absurdity.  When 19-year-old Emanuel learns of his diagnosis he writes:
So many horrific things had occurred, so sententiously and so calmly, during the last hour; so much catastrophe had taken place, that, exhausted as he was by the day's excitement, for a delirious, irrational moment Emanuel felt like laughing. 
As he rides the train with his father to Berck Sanatorium, Emanuel meets an old lady whose son is a long-time patient.  She asks if he has an abscess? 
'Yes, I do,' Emanuel replied with a certain brusqueness. 'What's it to you?'

This time the old lady said nothing. In the calligraphy of  wrinkles on her face there was a clear sign of some great sadness.  In a half-voice she ventured to ask if the abscess had been fistulised...

'It's a good thing the abscess is not fistulised,' muttered the old lady.

'And if it were?' replied Emanuel absently.

'Ah well, then it's another matter...' and leaning into his ear she whispered breathlessly: 'The word at Berck is that an open abscess is an open gateway to death.'
Blecher's narrative pulls us inside the hyperfocus of a life commanded by illness.  Today we celebrate technologies like virtual reality that are supposedly unique for immersing viewers in a full sensory experience of, say, sitting in the cockpit of a plane or walking across a battlefield, but Blecher's writing reminds one that books can be equally effective at enveloping the reader in the sensations of an experience that are not actually occurring to them.

In this book, context is all. Blecher immerses us first in the immediate urgency of a young man's crippling illness, once that is achieved, the impact of this brief novel succeeds because we know two things, only one of which was known to Blecher.  One is the tragedy that the author would die at 29 years-of-age, something we are aware of as his character worries about his appearance before meeting a girl he is infatuated with.  Don't waste time, I wanted to scream as I read, but he struggles any young lover would, despite being tied to a carriage and immobilized in a body cast.  The second is the absurdity, that, given the year of Blecher's death (1938), he would never see the war which would focus the entire world myopically on an infection of its own and that, if he hadn't died of tuberculosis, as a Romanian jew, he would likely not have lived but a few more years.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Innocence rescued in a modern literary fantasy (Books - The Children's Home by Charles Lambert)

I am a great admirer of Charles Lambert's books, having enjoyed his thriller-like works Any Human Face and The View from the Tower, his debut novel Little Monsters, and With a Zero at its Heart, a recent volume of brief poem-like episodes of memory, surprising to me for how they departed in style from his other published work. Never short on surprises, Lambert's latest is again a departure - I'd call The Children's Home (Scribner, 2016) equal parts dystopian fantasy, gothic tale, and parable. Reading across Lambert's work, I have observed a theme of betrayed innocence, which has been expressed in a story of disenfranchised children. Unlucky orphans have made their way into stories from Dickens to J. K. Rowling.  I think that perhaps one appeal in tales like these is that, as a reader, I take on the perspective of that child.  I can project my own not-knowing, my isolation, and sense of danger onto theirs - feel the risk, but safely, as this is art - and then later can defeat the adversity, feeling accomplished, knowledgeable, and secure. 

In The Children's Home, though, Lambert has turned the form on its ear (not surprisingly).  Here the protagonist, Morgan Fletcher, is a grown man - but perhaps not fully grown - and this is part of the point.  He has been the victim of his mother's cruelty and has quite literally lost his face (read his sense of self).  In the course of this story, it is a child, or band of children really, who help him grow up. The tale makes nods to literary predecessors - Orwell and Kafka - with a nameless Ministry that sates itself by devouring children - H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison - with a protagonist whose interior and exterior faces are very much at odds. I think that I detect an homage to Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, perhaps?  As a thriller writer, Lambert knows how to create narrative tension by not answering all the reader's questions.  As a poet, he holds back from explaining everything the reader wants to know, so that we insert our imaginations into the text.  In Lambert's fantasy writing, the world is familiar and yet never quite what one expects (the sun rises in the West, for example) and the clues are subtle.  It feels a very Lambertian reading experience that in paying close attention, this reader felt that he had teased out special details hidden just for him, felt rewarded, even accomplished, at the conclusion of The Children's Home.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Alexander Humboldt's broadreaching influence on modern science (Books - The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf)

Andrea Wulf's biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) shares the irrepresable energy of her subject. Wulf convincingly contends that the German-born explorer, adventurer, scientist, and author (1769 - 1859) was the creator of our modern understanding of the natural world. His interests extended from volcanoes to plant-life, to climate, to the cosmos and his influence can be seen in the way we comprehend nature as something not to be ruled, but as something that human beings exist within - something complex and "alive." Humboldt is an ideal subject for reconsideration in a modern scientific biography.  Wulf paints a picture of Humboldt as a contemporary outsider, offering strong support that he was gay.  He warned in the 19th century of the impact humans could exert on climate. Finally, his expertise of the natural world was preserved in dozens of volumes that were appreciated as much as repositories of factual information as they were for their poetry. This passion helped father the contemporary environmental movement, influencing naturalists Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir.  It can arguably be appreciated in our own era's melding of the arts and sciences in an effort to broaden understanding of our small place but potentially devastating impact in a very large and complex system.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bloomsbury myth-busting of the highest order (Books - Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Viviane Forrester)

Viviane Forrester's Virginia Woolf: A Portrait (Columbia University Press, 2013), in 2013  is less strictly a biography than it is a literary myth-buster.  If you are a fan of all things Bloomsbury, and I am an enthusiastic one, you are likely to be fascinated by new primary source material about Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Duckworths.  She uses this, a close reading of long-published letters, diaries and fiction, and a fresh frame-of-reference to reinterpret the famous relationships of Virginia Woolf to her father, husband, sister, and her own psyche. Her writing style is familiar and conversational, like a good literature professor leading a high-level seminar to share an original understanding of work she has reconsidered deeply.  I don't know what it would be like to read this work without having a thorough grounding in Woolf's work, Leonard Woolf's diaries, and the famous Quentin Bell biography of  Virginia Woolf, but I imagine it would be pointless. However, if you are an aficionado, the literary archeology is excellent, the writing accessible and clean, and the conclusions startling.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The science of autism is a story of real people (Books - In a Different Key by John Donvan & Caren Zucker)

Ruth had stopped doubting herself the morning she saw Joe do a jigsaw puzzle upside down.  For some time, she had been nagged by a feeling that he was not like her other children in some crucial way.  Six months earlier, Joe had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally...

And then there were these puzzles.  He was working on one just then, a map of the United States whose parts were sprawled, like him, all over the kitchen floor and through the doorway into the living room.  He was getting it done: New Hampshire met Maine, and New Mexico snapped in next to Arizona.  But he was getting it done fast, almost too fast, Ruth felt, for a two-year-old.  On a hunch, she knelt down to Joe's level and pulled the map apart, scattering the pieces. She also, deliberately, turned each piece upside down, so that only the gray-brown backing was showing.  Then she watched what Joe did with them

He seemed not even to notice.  Pausing only for a moment, Joe peered into the pile of pieces, then reached for two of them.  They were a match.  He immediately snapped them together, backside-up, between his knees on the floor.  It was his new starting point.  From there he kept going, building, in lifeless monochrome, out of fifty pieces, a picture of nothing. 

What John Donvan's and Caren Zucker's In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (Crown Publishers, 2016) is especially good at, is conveying a picture of autism historically, scientifically, and socially, by telling the stories of the people involved.  One in 68 children have a diagnosis, so it's hard to live in today's America without hearing about autism.  Understood as a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder, it is diagnosed based on impairments in communication, especially social relatedness, and a restricted repertoire of activity and interests. The dysfunctions it results in manifest themselves in different persons as impaired eye contact, failure to develop peer relationships, an absence of or delay in developing communicative speech, an inability to conceive of other people's mental states or emotions, lack of spontaneous imaginative play, inflexible adherence to routines which are disruptive to daily functioning, and persistent preoccupation with part of objects rather than their conventional uses, symptoms which must be present prior to three years-of-age to be diagnostically relevant and which often are noticed suddenly, after a period of apparently typical development.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Unexpected World of Cage Fighting and What It has to Do With Us (Books - Beast by Doug Merlino)

I am as guilty of it as the next person - reading for comfort.  Either we read about worlds with which we are familiar or, and I think worse, to confirm what we believe we already know. I say 'what we believe we know' because that's the risk - isn't it? That we might learn something new, or that we might change our minds, and sometimes that comes in unexpected packages. I read Doug Merlin's Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) because Doug is a friend and, frankly, would never have read it if left to my own reading habits. I'm glad that I did.
Jeff Monson was, as usual, running late.  He was trying to get his two-year-old daughter, Willow, to eat.

"Here comes the plane, Willow," he said in a singsong voice, holding out a spoon to the girl, who was sitting in her high chair. "Are you ready for the plane?"

Willow threw back her head, covered in red curly hair, laughed, and refused.

Monson wore shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt that stretched to cover his muscled frame.  His head, which rose out of a triangular based of trapezius muscle, was bald.  FIGHT was tattooed on the left side of his neck, directly above an exhortation to DESTROY AUTHORITY.