Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
I picked up this book after it won the Man Booker Asian Prize. It follows the husband, daughter and son of a woman who disappears in the Seoul subway station. We read of their search, their memories of their mother and their own sense of guilt for not treating her better when she was with them. I very much enjoyed the novel. The translation was lucid, immediate and well paced.
The reviews pointed out that its popularity (millions of sales) in South Korea was, in part, due to its allegorical treatment of modern life as the exigencies of the modern world pull apart family traditions and family life. Read in December 2012. (4)
Bright Skies and Dark Shadows by H.M. Field (1890)
Marian gave this to me for Christmas. Nominally it is one of those gentleman’s travel books where an educated and fairly wealthy traveler publishes his observations and adventures for his friends, family and acquaintances to read. This is a bit of that, detailing the author’s trip to Florida from New York during the winter of 1888-89. He provides some interesting details about St Augustine and several trips further south during that winter. Jupiter Inlet is nothing more than a rescue station and a lighthouse with locals and wealthy northerners stopping by to catch the fish in the Banana River. He takes a cart to the north end of Lake Worth where there is a solitary house whose inhabitants, he discovers, were baptized by him many years ago in St. Louis.
But most of the book is taken up with his discussion of the “dark shadow” of the title, the legacies of slavery. He criticizes the majority culture’s diminution of black Americans in a way that must have seem enlightened at the time but would be seen today as racist. He supported the exile plans of the time: Liberia and Cuba. We should buy Cuba, he thought, and allow those who wish to self-exile themselves to move to Cuba. He worried that black Americans weren’t smart enough for self-governance, however.
He had a bucolic view of slavery, with cruelty the exception rather than the rule, where slave owners treated their chattel well and humanely. He believed the self-serving stories emerging from the post-war South that former slaves returned to their old jobs, secure in the knowledge that their old masters would continue to treat them as beloved employees. He did believe that former slaves should be educated but thought education had its limits in helping those who are, by God’s design, inferior. Hard to believe this was what passed for a liberal argument. But by 1890 whites had clawed back many of the gains blacks had made since the war and had instituted Jim Crow laws to keep black Americans in their “place”.
An interesting look into the attitudes and opinions of the time. Read in December 2012. (3)
The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
This book is part of Zafon’s cycle of novels and is a return to the style he showed in The Shadow of the Wind. A fine novel full of atmosphere, mysterious characters, interesting storyline. Read in December 2012. (2)
The Death of the Physician: How Power and Money have Destroyed Our Medical Care, by John Drewniany, M.D.
A by-product of Marian’s wrist fracture was meeting her quite excellent hand surgeon, John Drewniany. He self-published a book that is part biography and part j’accuse of the American medical industry. His writing style is direct, concise and lucid. He reflects on the values of the medical profession in which he grew up, comparing it to what he sees as the impersonal, assembly line nature of modern medicine. Read in December 2012. (1)
13 Moons, by Charles Frazier
I recently finished 13 Moons by Charles Frazier. You may remember Frazier as the author of Cold Mountain, a fine, fine novel of a journey from the mountains to the Civil War and back again.
13 Moons is set in early to late 19th century America. Written as a sort of memoir the narrator describes the arc of his long life, lived mostly in the uncharted mountain valleys and ridges of western North Carolina.
The narrator, Will Cooper, begins essentially as an indentured servant, works his way into wealth, back to poverty and back again into money. Along the way he becomes a brother to Cherokees, witnesses the rounding of Cherokees for the forced march west to Oklahoma, the casual expropriation of Native American land, and the intrusion of civilization into the southern Appalachians.
But what I found most interesting was the sense of fate Cooper evokes even as he describes his own successes and victories over the witless lowlanders arriving daily to fleece the natives. Running through this book is a sense of men and women carving out only insignificant niches in a hostile world rushing along its own path. Frazier writes,
“History in the making, at least on the personal level, is almost exclusively pathetic. People suffer and die in ignorance and delusion.”
A modernist sensibility, certainly, but a little jarring when placed next to the narrator’s own struggles to protect himself and his adopted peoples.
The New York Times Book Review does an excellent job reviewing Frazier’s latest.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
On 12/27 I finished The God Delusion. Dawkins is an able evolutionary biologist who has chosen to take on the role of public intellectual . Dawkins apparently follows Bertrand Russell’s organization of Why I Am Not a Christian . I like the rigorous discussion on the supernatural basis of religious belief. I understand that Dawkins must be assertive in order to be heard above the din of critics. But Dawkins does ignore the positive aspects of religious belief, ignores the positive contributions of religion in society, and conflates the belief of the religious mainstream with the outrageous claims and behavior of extremists, televangelists, and religious wackos.
The Enchanted Room by Maurya Simon
The Enchanted Room by Maurya Simon is quite lovely. Mostly anchored in the language of people and the earth, her poems are musical and personal; recognizable in the reader’s experience but lovely to read in meter and metaphor. In a single poem she is able to address the past, the present, and the future. Quite a feat for a first book of poetry. Since this book was published in 1986 she has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and has been a Fulbright Fellow in India, among many other honors. Her poems speak directly to me.
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer brings back Rumpole, SWMBO, and the usual cast of characters to explore the diminution of individual rights in Britain. I had not realized that the issues we are concerned about here are precisely the issues England is concerned about as well. Other than the topic readers won’t find anything particularly new here except the topic of terrorism and its impact on democratic practices.
Children of Men by P.D. James
Children of Men by P.D. James is a good read. It is a character study in that she focuses on the decisions they make in a world, from the main character’s point of view, is changing dramatically over the course of the book. But it has the tinge of a romance novel in that the reader knows practically after reading the first dozen pages what Theo’s fate will be. This kind of fatalism is a characteristic of romance. A good book to read concering the shape of story types is Plot Snakes and the Dynamics of Narrative Experience, by Allen Tilley
The book certainly is not much like the movie by the same name. I very much liked the movie but the writer and director added a lot of content and characters to heighten conflict and allow the movie to make some pretty direct comments on American foreign policy. In the book there is no Michael Caine character, no hard-hearted advocates ready to kill to save, no immigrant camps. The sense of a police state is much less overt in the book than in the movie. James focuses on the characters rather than on George Bush. Now, President Bush isn’t in the movie but his policies and policy outcomes heavily weigh on the movie’s details and mood.
The book is typical James: not particularly fast-paced, somewhat lugubrious, with an inner dialogue I did not anticipate in a movie so dependent on external conditions. James concerns herself with the moral choices made by her characters but the situations in which they occur are extreme, rendering them a little less human than I would have liked. It is usually pretty clearcut which choice to make when the alternatives are jumping off a cliff or stepping back from the edge. It is not a particularly subtle book, but her readers don’t buy her books for their subtle mood.
She does a good job, I think, describing a world with no future and no children. Adults baptizing dolls because there are no more children, the last generation of young men and women out of control, violent, murderous. A country becoming a police state as government must carefully conserve resources. After all, there is no succeeding generation to operate the generating stations, the water treatment plants, to generate wealth on which a country runs.
Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster.
This short, brisk, odd little fable (description borrowed from the Philadelphia Inquirer) travels down the fabulist road similar to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, where the reader finds a protagonist worrying over evidence of previous experiences as somehow presaging a future. In this case a Mr. Blank finds himself in a locked room with tables, walls, lamps all labeled with the titles of what they are. He doesn’t know how he got there or why he is there. He is visited by a number of characters from previous Auster novels who all hint at previous associations with Blank which did not turn out well.
Blank suffers from a disembodied sense of guilt but cannot put his finger on the source. He wonders about the world outside this room but never attempts to see it for himself.
The entire book cover a single day of these ruminations, visits, experiences. By the end of the book Blank does not know anything more confidently than he knew when he first sensed he was in the room.
Auster has a fairly bleak view of humankind, reduced to a small room with its objects already labeled for him. Where his only guides are unfinished manuscripts, photos of people he only vaguely recognizes, and resolves itself by placing Blank’s entire experience into another written narrative. Does Blank exist only in the narrative? Or does he actually live in this barren world where everything is already established, already named, but accessible only by the whim of other unnamed and unknown entities.
when gertrude married alice, by Eve Robillard
I read this quite lovely chapbook ( a pocket-sized booklet) recently and liked, especially, the title poem. Robillard reveals art as transport (the chapbook begins and ends with transcontinental journeys to/from cultural centers), a means of lift-off into ecstatic perception where life is brighter, bolder, more energized.
The rarified atmosphere is romantic, the pursuit exciting, the fulfillment disappointingly ambivalent. The artful, after all, may be touched but rarely possessed. Robillard explores these themes in imaginative, full-dimensioned vignettes, peopling her poems with aspiring art lovers and great talents. Her poems are sophisticated and literate, charming and whimsical.
Returning to Earth, by Jim Harrison
I just finished Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison. This book is hardly the stuff of Top Ten lists. It is the telling of Donald’s life as he reaches death, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The narrative is divided into four parts, the first being Donald reciting his life’s memories to his wife. Harrison is interested in characters living authentic lives, wrapped in the geography and culture of Michigan and, in in this book, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The characters are influenced not only by those around them but by the weather, the smell of the soil, Indian lore, the bears and foxes and mice roaming the woods. The New York Times Book Review does a good job summarizing the lessons of Harrison’s books.
1. Eat well, of course, avoiding the ninny diets and mincing cuisines that demonize appetite and make unthinkable a tasty snack of hog jowls.
2. Pursue love…no matter discrepancies of desire and age. Romance is worth the humbling.
3. Welcome animals, especially bears, ravens and wolves, into your waking and dream life.
4. Rather than lighting out for territory, we ought to try living in it.
5. And finally, love the detour.
It is a fine book, weaving remembrance, myth, the burden of family history, life and death, and basic human need into a very readable narrative. Harrison writes in a fine, clear style. I am never confused about Harrison’s intent, a real feat in such a complex book.
Leaving Home, by Anita Brookner
Brookner is a master of the economical description, the perfect sentence, the lightest touch when setting a scene. This book is a variation of her previous 22 novels — a primary character who is female, intelligent, educated and cultured. She is always lonely, living in a world fated to leave her unnoticed, populating a world that generally looks past her. Emma is the protagonist of Leaving Home.
Emma moves constantly between England and France – she stays in various hotel rooms and halls of residence in Paris, and in London she moves from Battersea to Chelsea (a small flat in Jubilee Place). The characteristically modern conclusion of the novel is that once the first home has been left, there is no other. Our adult lives consist only of rests on the flight, points of returning. No foreign country can be one’s own, and one’s own is a foreign country. The French garden is silent and secretive and the Englishwoman can only study it, not possess it. Brookner’s long love affair with France seems to be cooling here, as if that country is too formal finally to be satisfying to an ardent heart.
Brookner is sometimes found both repetitive and limited but, in truth, each succeeding novel presents just enough variation to add to the pattern. Her best books are her first five, but there have been many fine later novels: A Closed Eye, Fraud, Altered States, Falling Slowly. This present work takes its place with those, and its magnificent final sentence is among the most moving and judicious of Brooknerian conclusions:
Time, which was once squandered, must now be given over to the actual, the possible, and perhaps to that evanescent hope of a good outcome which never deserts one, and which should never be abandoned.
Brookner’s novels sometimes falter at the end, but not this one. Her vision is very dark, and she has sometimes seemed almost obliged to soften things with an upbeat conclusion. But now the note of optimism does not jar. Leaving Home feels like a very late-period work, however much we might hope for more additions to this distinguished canon. Yet if it were to end here, those final words would be fitting and elegiac enough.
Jeb: America’s Next Bush, by S.V. Dáte
Dáte is the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post. He has covered former Florida Governor Jeb Bush through his entire administration and during his several gubernatorial campaigns. He has come to know Bush well and has come to dislike him intensely. It is a dislike that informs and organizes this book.
Jeb Bush is going to hate this book.
Yes, hate is a strong word, but I do not use it lightly. Jeb does not kind of dislike things, or not be crazy about them. You’re either with him or against him, and this book clearly is not with him.
I know Jeb. I know how he thinks. And what he thinks is that an independent, unauthorized biography of his Florida tenure written by the guy who had become the biggest journalistic thorn in his side cannot possibly be a good thing, particularly when, sooner or later, he runs for president.
It is important that Jeb hate it, I think. And Dáte is serious about his claim that he “knows Jeb”. He provides such detail about Bush’s life, his life choices, his family, how he feels about issues that you may think they are related. But he provides a clear and accurate picture of Bush. He anticipates Bush’s future and speculates that Jeb will be the president George never could be. And he doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance , by Atul Gawande
Gawande’s meditation on performance is not only an absorbing collection of essays on how some doctors manage to do better but also an exhilarating call for the rest of us to do the same.
Gawande divides the essays into three sections — “Diligence,” “Doing Right” and “Ingenuity” — based on the essential components
for success in medicine or in any endeavor that involves risk and responsibility.
Each essay focuses on a problem — the importance of hand-washing, health care delivery in India, the role of physicians in executions — that Gawande uses to anchor wide-ranging reflections. Weaving clinical narratives and anecdotes from disciplines as diverse as history, economics and baseball, Gawande shows us that hand-washing turns out to be a profoundly complex and intractable quandary, that the moral obligations of physicians to death-row patients are not as clear as life and death, and that providing care to the poorest in the world takes a degree of ingenuity that should be categorized not simply as “better” but as downright heroic.
Heroic indeed. Gawande describes his 3 months in India where he initially thought his own elite medical education might allow him to teach these third-world doctors some new techniques. He was surprised to find out that it was them that could teach him a few new techniques.
Because India suffers from perennial shortages of medical supplies and medicines, Indian doctors create their own techniques to treat patients in the absence of medicines and supplies. Gawande notes a question from one doctor on what he does when he runs across a specific bladder condition. “I call a urologist,” Gawande replied. This Indian doctor has no urologist to turn to and masters urological procedures out of necessity.
Gawande has the ability to deconstruct and explain the most difficult issues while preserving, even celebrating, their complexity. He applies a sly sense of humor to even the most unsettling topics. And his voice is so direct that at times it borders on painful (at least from the perspective of a fellow doctor). For example, after detailing the numerous, unsuccessful attempts to get doctors to wash their hands regularly, Gawande describes one of his own patients, a 62-year-old who developed an overwhelming infection from hospital-acquired, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Gawande writes: “Until that moment … it had not occurred to me that I might have given him that infection. But the truth is I may have. One of us certainly did.”
A wonderful book.
People and the Press: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina, by Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston.
The history of the US in Iraq is matched by the tragedy of the press bowing to the will of an administration taken by its own faith in being able to create reality through the sheer use of power. Ron Suskind famously reported that an official told him:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will— we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (131)
This stance toward the press violates both reason and civility, as noted in the book:
For a nominally conservative administration, the Bush White House embraced a keenly post-modern epistemology. Like so many social constructionists or linguistic relativists, the administration seemed to believe that human engagement with material reality is mediated by social constructs. It is almost as if Karl Rove and George Bush were reading Jean Baudrillard. What is isn’t nearly as important as what is thought to be. Reality is first constructed to fit policy preferences and then reinforced through continuous news management, including pressure and intimidation.(139)
Why did so many news organizations buy it?
It may be that the administration simply played by rules that journalists could not fathom. Or perhaps being disciplined and punished time and again by administration-led truth squads for raising questions about the national course after 9/11 prompted leading news organizations to simply fall in line and duly reported the outlandish stories of nuclear threats and 9/11 connections manufactured to sell the war. Yet isn’t a free and independent press expected to withstand pressures, even in time of crisis?
What may be most disturbing is the recurrence of a breathless insider tone in much of the Iraq story. It was hard to miss the giddiness of reporting and punditry celebrating the Hollywood staging of the Mission Accomplished Moment aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln.
From the beginning, nearly every major news organization helped publicize what they also must have understood to be a campaign to sell the war.
The question of course, it why did so many news organizations buy it? That was the topic of Bill Moyers’ powerfulPBS program Buying the War. By detailing how reporters for Knight-Ridder were able to muster questions that apparently never occurred to most of the rest of the press, Moyers demolished reporters’ claims that they had no alternative but to buy what the White House was selling them. Moyers’ recap certainly helps us understand why the public, bombarded with endless repetition of mushroom clouds and other fear-laden images bought the link between Saddam and al Qaeda. Yet, the mystery remains why so many in the mainstream press were bamboozled.
Moyers participated in an online chat hosted by freepress after Buying the War was aired. He offered a tried-and-true explanation: the media failed to be objective. He also cited the true believers of a loud right wing media, and the insider aspirations of elite news organizations. These are surely reasonable opinions. However, we think that it is precisely what passes for objectivity today that rests at the heart of the problem.
The authorities are anything but objective
The long, untenable and checkered history of this core journalism norm has left American journalism at the doorstep of government for its very legitimacy. Since objectivity—even when dressed up as balance—is difficult to produce, and tougher to defend, the default option is to seek the views of authorities. In politics, however, authorities are generally anything but objective. Despite this nagging detail, journalists quickly learn that they need to be on the inside to advance their careers. In the end, they may aspire to be recognized, or otherwise share the glow of power of the sources they cover.
Only after the press party was over, did journalists wake up to the cries from their readers, and note for the record that the war was badly off script and that they had been spun. Despite rare admissions from editors at the Washington Post and the New York Times that their papers had, in essence missed much of the story on the run-up to war, they also predictably missed much the next big episode of the saga: Abu Ghraib. This was, perhaps, the most significant episode of the whole war in terms of damage to American ideals and credibility.
Despite commendable levels of attention devoted by prominent organizations to the spectacle of Abu Ghraib, most of the press fell quickly in line with the administration line that the episode was a regrettable case of low-level abuse. Yet just outside the mainstream, another side of the story revealed an historic national departure from laws and conventions against inhumane treatment and torture. That side of the story was reported in plain sight of the mainstream press by Mark Danner and Seymour Hersh.
Missing the will or the capacity to change
As a result of the gradual conflation of objectivity with authority, the press is so firmly established inside the process of government that it cannot extricate itself even when it recognizes it has a problem. The continuing public soul-searching and tacit apologizing do not imply the will or the capacity to change.
In the end, despite the momentary recognition that it somehow blew the story, the mainstream press still seems to have missed the larger possibility that it blew the story precisely because of following its own unwritten but binding reporting principles. When challenged on these matters, journalists generally invoke those principles, and point, often in frustration, back to government itself. (30)
When the press turns to government for cueing its big stories, the response to criticism is often that the government failed to police itself. This seems out of step with the ideal of a watchdog press dedicated to protecting the public interest at precisely those moments when government fails. Yet, as we note in the book, there is an implicit expectation that government, itself (often in the form of an opposition party, or whistle-blowers) will help the press do its job:
In one of many public forums about the performance of the media after 9/11, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was asked by one of the authors why the press did not give more play to the doubts expressed by many experts and former government officials about the Bush administration case for the war. Her revealing answer was that a few pieces did appear, but they produced no public reaction from Democrats in Congress, and, thus, the counter story had little to keep it going.At the same forum, New York Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman was asked about Abu Ghraib: Given the chain of evidence and credible sources such as Red Cross reports that all pointed to administration policies skirting laws against torture and “taking the gloves off” in dealing with detainees, why was the story allowed to be driven by administration spin and congressional hearings that ultimately framed it as a case of regrettable but isolated abuse? His reply was simply that without government investigations pointing to a policy of torture, the press simply lacked the “wheel” it needs to sustain or advance another side to the story. In both cases, government failed to feed another side to the story, and so, the press, alone, could not sustain it. (30)
This ingrained dependence of journalists on officials leads to a social coziness. Even when dressed up as access, coziness ends up making the press part of the political process instead of its independent chronicler.
The obsession with insider politics
The combination of dependence on high officials and the insider coziness this produces makes it impossible for most of the press to resist being spun. Consider a case in point that appeared on April 25 of this year as a platoon of New York Times reporters jumped all over the story of how Vice President Dick Cheney attacked congressional Democrats in general and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in particular. The Times surely knew that Cheney was running at full spin, but the press loves a food-fight, no matter how contrived and meaningless. Times reporters even noted in the initial website version of the story that Cheney looked for reporters and cameras on a visit to the Hill, tipping off awareness by the reporters of their role in the charade. The clues were subtle but unmistakable. The Times noted in passing that the GOP spin strategy included singling out Harry Reid, latching onto his comment from the week before that “this war is lost.”
“Republicans have turned their fire on Mr. Reid,” the Times reported. A subtle clue concerning the legendarily taciturn Cheney’s eagerness to unburden his innermost thoughts about Capitol Hill Democrats offers an insider wink to those in the know. Of course, the Democrats were—this time—equally engaged in spinning the press: “Mr. Reid fired back directly at Mr. Cheney on Tuesday, appearing at the same microphones just moments after the vice president.”
Despite the clarity of the insider’s game that was afoot, the Times did its part and put the story all over its website (page one) within minutes of Cheney’s hunt for a camera, and on the front page in the next day’s print edition.
Why do self-aware and sophisticated news organizations routinely fall prey to such blatant manipulation? Part of the answer is the news media’s obsession with insider politics. The media provide the stage for the high drama of personal politics. Covering manufactured drama like the Cheney-Reid sniping allows the press to dodge riskier endeavors, like a substantive and sustained exploration of the consequence of failure in Iraq, and instead stick with inside baseball reporting of manufactured squabbles.
Not unlike an abusive relationship
In this way, the press doesn’t have to get into the messy and complicated business of critiquing policy or appearing to conclude independently that a policy has failed. This is the same pattern we found in press complicity in the attacks on former counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, and of course Ambassador Joe Wilson. When the Press Fails calls this the “tactical management of the news.” But it is rooted in the perverse news norm of running from any hint of independent assessment of many big stories and into the arms of he said-she said reporting. The press facilitates this “reality management” by habitually turning to a narrow range of sources it regards as legitimate and credible.
The strange result of all this is not unlike an abusive relationship between mistrusting and wounded partners. To return to our initial concern: just what makes it so difficult for reporters and their editors to find more independent perspectives from which to address important issues? Spin can only work with willing victims. This problem of a dependent press will not go away until journalists can look squarely at why, despite being aware of their common vulnerability to catastrophic failure, they seem unable to change how they operate.
Perhaps the path to reform is too obvious. Let every organization start each day by deciding whether they are reporting events from the standpoint of the people or from the viewpoint of those in power. Let them take the megaphones that they possess away from officials mouthing the scripts written by media consultants and opposition researchers, and put them in the hands of independent experts, civic groups, and international organizations. Above all, replace the failed norm of objectivity with a simple commitment to look at where the trail of evidence leads in the story. Much of that evidence in the Bush war years was in plain sight. It is just that the judgment of so many news organizations was obscured by their proximity and deference to power.
Divasadero, by Michael Ondaatje.
The title provides only the subtlest of clues: It’s the name of the San Francisco street on which one character, Anna, lives. Within the story, it’s mere trivia; none of the novel’s action takes place there, and Anna herself only mentions her street in passing. But Ondaatje apparently loves what that word connotes — a line between two realms, separating them but also hinging them. And how appropriate, for Divisadero is ultimately a story about two worlds divided by decades and oceans, but connected.
The story begins with Anna living on a Petaluma farm with her widowed father; with Coop, an older orphan boy taken in by her parents when her mother was still alive; and with Claire, another orphan who is born at the same time as Anna and who is raised, more or less, as Anna’s sister. Without the bond of blood to enforce the incest taboo, it’s pretty clear where we’re headed, especially given Coop’s penchant for rugged, shirtless, outdoor work and the teenage girls’ penchant for watching him as he swings a hammer or dives into a water tank to patch a leak. The question isn’t if something will happen but rather when Coop will take “one step beyond the intimacy that was handed to him,” and with which of his almost-sisters.
The inevitable occurs, and when the father learns of it, this family is broken apart. Coop, who is lucky to escape with his life, becomes a professional gambler, a career choice well-suited to his solitary ways and taciturn personality. Claire goes to work as an investigator for a public defender’s office, where she specializes in discovering the presence of mitigating circumstances — another perfect fit for a woman still trying to understand the act of violence that truncated her childhood. Which leaves Anna, who never looked back after running away from home at 16, but who now finds herself encountering, in the life of her biographical subject, the same themes and events that have shaped her own.
Ondaatje spends more than half of this novel following these three, interlacing their stories, expertly shifting into different voices and tenses, disrupting the conventional chronology. And then he does something very unconventional indeed. Two-thirds of the way through Divisadero, he abandons his characters. Or at least he seems to, as he picks up the trail of Lucien Segura, the French writer whose life and work have so intrigued Anna. And just like that, we cross the dividing line from one world into the next, with little understanding — at first — as to how Segura’s tale could possibly mesh with all that has come before it.
Along the way we are treated to a wonderfully precise language. A boy observing the night sky with his mother:
“It was when he felt most clearly that there was no distinction between himself and what was beyond him — a tree’s sigh or his mother’s song, could, it seemed, have been generated by his body. Just as whatever gesture he made was an act performed by the world around him.”
A married man who can’t stop thinking about another woman, also married, who lives in the next farmhouse over:
“He noticed the square of a lit window on the slope of the hill. There was a tightrope between the two farms, and below it an abyss.”
Ondaatje constructs a wonderful book with 4 interwoven stories defying usual story conventions. But he manages to tie them together by the end of this book.
My Battle of Algiers, by Ted Morgan
A gentle breeze off the Mediterranean helped cool Algiers on that sunny late-summer afternoon. It was 1956, and a pale, blond law student strolled along the chic Rue d’Isly. She stopped at the Milk Bar, entered, and ordered a sherbet. A few blocks away, her friend, a pretty brunette, sat in a cafe, chatting with her mother. Around 6:15, the women settled their bills and departed, leaving behind their beach bags. Fifteen minutes later, the bombs exploded. Ten bystanders were crippled, two were killed; the victims ranged in age from 13 to 20. The Battle of Algiers was entered, and the era of modern urban terrorism had begun.
Ted Morgan was in Algeria at the time, and records the war’s unprecedented tactics in this memoir. Born Sanche de Gramont — he adopted an anagram of his surname a few years before he became an American citizen — Morgan descends from a long and distinguished line of French nobility. At the age of 23, one year out of Yale, he received a conscription notice. He was living in Massachusetts, and avoiding military service would have been as easy as staying stateside. But, feeling a debt of honor to the memory of his father, Morgan unenthusiastically reported for duty, a private in the French army.
By the time he arrived in northern Africa, Morgan had been promoted to lieutenant. He had sought an officer’s commission in the hope of avoiding the increasingly unpopular conflict, but instead found himself ordered to the countryside, 50 miles southwest of Algiers, where a savage bush war raged. His unit, the First Regiment of the Colonial Infantry, consisted of misfits and castoffs, thoroughly undistinguished officers, battle-hardened sergeants, and cheerful Senegalese soldiers. On the foothills and in the forests, Morgan and his men battled the merciless guerrillas of the Algerian Front de Libйration Nationale (FLN).
While on leave in Algiers, Morgan called on a family friend at the American consulate. There he was introduced to Gen. Jacques Massu, commander of the elite 10th Paratroop Division. Paris had just granted Massu carte blanche to bring to an end the FLN’s ongoing city-wide terrorist campaign. Propaganda would be a crucial element of Massu’s strategy, and something about the young lieutenant impressed the general. On the spot, Massu reassigned Morgan to a highly sensitive agitprop unit. Morgan would spend the remainder of his service at the army’s secretly run pro-French, Arab-audience newspaper. Morgan was out of uniform but in the know.
The year 1957 saw the French wage a ruthless urban counterinsurgency campaign in Algiers. Massu cordoned off the Casbah — where 80,000 Arabs lived on 45 densely packed acres — and blanketed its streets with regular military patrols. Soldiers set up checkpoints throughout the city, severely curtailing the Algerians’ freedom of movement. Men were routinely picked up without cause and held without trial. Strikes were put down at gunpoint.
The linchpin of Massu’s strategy, however, was the systematic and unapologetic use of torture. The policy was intended neither as a form of retribution nor an exercise in sadism, but rather as a utilitarian measure, limited to interrogations and directed toward gathering intelligence. The paratroopers were clinical and pitiless. It became widely known that detained suspects, including a number of native-born French citizens, would be subjected to beatings, waterboarding, electrocution, and, on occasion, summary execution.
Morgan has a novelist’s touch, and uses it to great effect. He manages to capture the feeling of the place, not just its sights and sounds and smells, but its peculiar susceptibility to absolutism, its hatreds, as pure and undiluted as its impossibly bright sunlight. Morgan gradually draws the reader into his tragic realization that peaceful compromise was rendered impossible by the steady liquidation of men of good will.
Yet Morgan intends the book to be more than a memoir. “The Battle of Algiers,” he writes, offers “a miniature model for the Battle of Baghdad.” The analogy leaves much to be desired, as Morgan admits. Morgan maintains that America can learn invaluable lessons from the French experience in Algeria.
Peace in a war zone is temporary and often illusory. He writes
As I walked up rue d’Islay, I could see, down the cross streets, the ocean and the ships in the harbor, and I could feel a breeze coming off the shore. I saw a woman holding the hands of her two small children ans they crossed he street, and people at the cafe terraces, and it all seemed so normal.And yet I knew that at any moment there might be an explosion, with broken windows, flying limbs, women screaming.
He uses the words of warriors to caution blundering into warfare
Given a population favorable to penetration, a thousand resolute and well-armed men can parlay for an indefinite period the operations of a hundred thousand.
Certainly an observation that rings bells 60 years after they were uttered.
However effective torture may be, recourse to it must be resisted at all costs. The act of torture invariably “dehumanizes the victim and corrupts the tormentor.” Throughout his reflections, Morgan seems more preoccupied with the latter half of that formulation.
Perhaps this results from his feeling that he himself was profoundly morally compromised by the war. Morgan describes how, enraged over the death of a friend, he beat a captured guerrilla to death. Ever since, he admits, he has lived with an “inner disfigurement.” So he must. He observes that “those on the wrong side always suffer” because “history doesn’t have many breathing spaces” for reflection on moral stances. In the final analysis, “[t]he victor’s crimes remain unpunished” and then “spawn[s] inquisitors, who denounce the heretics [those pronouncing immoral acts by the victors] in their midst.”
So he suggests that we find that today in our conduct of the Iraq war.
Apropos of Nothing, by Richard Jones
Jones is a poet with six books under his belt now. The poems in this volume are deceptively simple and very direct. He is concerned with the problems of direct experience in a world mediated by our conscious mind. What do we feel that isn’t a reference to some other unrelated thing or event. His poem The Road (none of the poems have titles longer than 4 words) is a good example
I, too, would ease my old car to a stop
on the side of some country road
and count the stars or admire a sunset
or sit quietly through an afternoon….
I’d open the door and go walking
like James Wright across a meadow,
where I might touch a pony’s ear and
break into blossom; or, like Hayden
Carruth, sustained by the sight
of cows grazing in pastures at night,
I’d stand speechless in the great darkness;
I’d even search on some well-traveled road
like Phil Levine in this week’s New Yorker,
the poet driving his car to an orchard
outside the city where, for five dollars,
he fills a basket with goddamned apples.
Every example of his desire really is someone else’s, his own desire really belonging to another person, his experiences not directly felt but rather mediated through other poets’ experiences. Thus we get to the end and he evokes the pastoral scene of pulling off the road at the orchard to fill a basket with goddamned apples. Damned because they are not his apples. And any pulling off the road for apples will always belong to someone else first.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
Marian has read the other six in the series and we both have seen all five of the movies so far. When our copy arrived from Amazon I decided I would read this last one as my first Harry Potter book. It does not disappoint but I’ll describe nothing of the book in case some reader’s experience is spoiled by anything written here that she or he has not yet gotten to in the book. I shall only say I made it through all 740-odd pages to the end. It was precisely what I expected.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book argues that there are at least two kinds of deceptive statements. The more common and familiar type (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) is made willfully, with the goal of misleading listeners into believing something that the deceiver knows to be untrue. The second sort (“They’re trying to say ‘Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?’ And the answer is ‘Absolutely not.’”) is made when the speaker has persuaded himself that something false is actually true. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) focuses on this latter category, which involves self-deception. The authors make a compelling case that self-justifications of this sort are especially pernicious, because they allow the person making them to feel better while remaining unaware of what is happening. Thus emboldened, he or she will not only fail to take corrective action but will be prone to make additional mistakes, be untruthful about them and so on. Even if this individual is not the leader of the free world, the results can be catastrophic.
The intellectual centerpiece of the book is the theory of cognitive dissonance, first proposed in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance is the tension that can arise from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, as when one engages in behavior that is inconsistent with one’s beliefs. Festinger theorized that perceiving a contradiction between two cognitions (a term that encompasses attitudes, beliefs, emotions and behaviors) induces a drive to acquire new beliefs or modify existing ones to reduce the dissonance.
The central tenet of the authors’ version of this theory is that people’s brains are wired to find consistency between what they do and their positive images of themselves. Presumably this is why people engage in a wide array of mental gymnastics to salvage their self-esteem rather than own up to their mistakes. The typical outcome is that people twist the truth to make it seem kinder or more flattering than it actually is. In extreme cases, they may engage in distortion and denial of objective reality.
The book argues that dissonance theory can explain many laboratory findings and elements of many naturally occurring phenomena. For example, the authors maintain that when ordinary people blithely agreed to administer dangerously strong electric shocks to learners in Stanley Milgram’s classic experiments, the subjects’ penchant for self-justification (“the experimenter told me to continue”) was a key contributor to their complicity. Similarly, in instances in which prosecutors have refused to back down when DNA evidence has revealed that a defendant was wrongfully sentenced for a crime, Tavris and Aronson attribute the prosecutors’ refusal to admit error to pernicious self-justification processes. The authors also maintain that most champions of the repressed-memory movement, when confronted with information suggesting that the “memories” of alleged victims are false, simply dismiss the evidence as being a form of backlash against child victims and incest survivors.
As the book’s title suggests, one of the topics touched on is contemporary politics. Tavris and Aronson mention in the endnotes that many U.S. presidents have used the phrase “mistakes were made,” including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Although Alberto Gonzales’s use of the phrase a few months ago (“I acknowledge that mistakes were made here”) occurred too recently to make it into the book, the authors do discuss some of the self-justifications and self-deceptions of the current administration. For example, they characterize George W. Bush as “the poster boy for ‘tenacious clinging to a discredited belief.’”
Tavris and Aronson do an artful job of illustrating the contribution that social-psychological research on self-justification can make to understanding numerous social phenomena. Moreover, they do so in a manner that is often witty and always engaging. This book will undoubtedly bring important scientific findings to life for readers from all walks of life.
Mistakes Were Made performs the valuable service of demystifying the process of self-justification. In so doing, it provides the reader with a framework for understanding how self-justification works and for recognizing it in other people and themselves.
The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Phillip Zimbardo
This book describes an experiment into the psychology of imprisonment, dividing a group of undergraduate students into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’. Zimbardo witnessed levels of cruelty he’d never have predicted or imagined. Within no time, liberal undergraduates became sadists, tormenting prisoners, even forcing them, in an uncanny premonition of George W Bush’s Iraq 33 years later, to simulate sodomy with one another.
After six days, Zimbardo called a halt to the experiment. Although the ‘guards’ knew the ‘prisoners had done nothing criminally wrong to deserve their lowly status’, he writes, ‘some … were transformed into perpetrators of evil’. The experiment taught him that ‘most of us can undergo significant character transformations when we are caught up in the crucible of social forces’.
He attempts to answer the question of ‘how good people turn evil’ in The Lucifer Effect using the story of Abu Ghraib as the focus of the book. Prisoners regularly attacked guards; on one occasion, a gun was smuggled in and a shoot-out with guards followed.
Such an environment, Zimbardo writes, ‘was as extreme a setting for creating deindividuation as I can imagine’. Zimbardo writes: ‘The seeds for the flowers of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats, citizen fear and vulnerability, and interrogation/torture to win the war on terror.’ But, Zimbardo argues, there is no cause for complacency: all of us, given the right circumstances, are capable of monstrous acts. As Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago: ‘The line between good and evil is in the centre of every human heart.’
Three recent books examine these impacts on identity and self-worth.
The Social Life of Information by John Brown and Paul Duguid
Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Culture of the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett
All three books describe the unexpected prevalence of top-down management systems in the new digital economy. Rather than knowledge workers whose pay should increase in lockstep with increased education and productivity, pay has actually dropped when inflation is included while productivity has soared.
They document how workers are valued less for their unique skills then they are for skills of working in a team and jointly contributing toward corporate goals. These attitudes are operationalized through the use of Enterprise Systems, documented in the Sennett and the Brown/Duguid books. These software systems have given top managers much greater latitude to direct and control corporate workforces, while at the same time making the jobs of everyday workers and professionals more rigid and bleak. The call centers of the “customer service” industry, where up to six million Americans work, provide an egregious example of how these workplace rigidities can make life miserable for employees.
Call center workers must follow rigid scripts, each element timed and matched against other employees. Not a single moment of daily work is free from this overbearing and crushing oversight. At the same time managers can speed up or reconfigure this digital assembly line simply by throwing a switch and reprogramming the software—specifying less time per call and between calls—much as Henry Ford controlled the line at his Detroit plants in the 1920s.
“An organization in which the contents are constantly shifting,” Sennett writes of the new-model corporation,
requires the mobile capacity to solve problems; getting deeply involved in any one problem would be dysfunctional, since projects end as abruptly as they begin…. “I can work with anyone” is the social formula for potential ability. It won’t matter who the other person is; in fast-changing firms it can’t matter. Your skill lies in cooperating, whatever the circumstances….
As we have seen, in the workplace [these changes] produce social deficits of loyalty and informal trust, they erode the value of accumulated experience. To which we should now add the hollowing out of ability.
And workers, at least those who are not consultants, systems specialists, and management experts well-compensated to put such systems into place, become interchangeable, indistinguishable from each other, automatons in the mold of early 20th century efficiency expert visions of ideal workers.
When the victims of “downsizing” and “reengineering” are pushed out of their jobs, they often turn to the “career coaches” of the “transition industry” who are supposed to restore their morale and send them back in good shape to the corporate suite. One of the high points of Bait and Switch is Ehrenreich’s account of her dealings with these coaches. They rely on personality tests to find out what kind of jobs she might be best suited for. In one such test, Ehrenreich’s answers to two hundred multiple-choice questions apparently revealed that she was Original, Effective, Good, and Loving, but also Melancholy, Envious, and Overly Sensitive. The test concluded that she probably didn’t write very well, and should attend intensive journalistic workshops to “polish her writing skills.” After a ten-month search the only work Ehrenreich could find was selling insurance or cosmetics on her own—jobs with no office, no salary, no benefits, and for which income primarily depends on elusive sales commissions.
These coaches teach their out-of-work students how to be “cheerful, enthusiastic, and obedient.” They need to be little else in these new systems where processes rule and individual identity is a barrier to productivity.
Charter Schools: Hope or Hype? by Jack Buckley and Mark Schneider.
It is difficult to find a book or study of charter schools these days that does not take sides in the raging argument over whether charter schools are the salvation or the scourge of our nation’s schools. But Buckley and Schneider have pulled it off. Their book looks just at D.C. charters but is a useful indicator of what is going on with charters nationwide.
They reach some conclusions that sound like they are on the anti-charter side. They find that although parent satisfaction with D.C. charter schools is at first higher than parent satisfaction with regular D.C. public schools, that level of charter satisfaction declines over time to something close to the regular public school level.
But they also point out that their conclusion is the result of complex extrapolation of their data. They concede there is merit on the other side of the argument, and indicate what further research is necessary. They also reveal that charter schools do a better job than regular schools in promoting citizenship and point out some particular charter schools that, they say, are “doing wonderful things.”
Much of this book, I warn you, is written in a style that only social scientists could love. Here, for instance, is a key sentence in their explanation of the method they use to assess the change of parent satisfaction over time: “the fixed-effects vector-decomposition model . . . involves a first stage in which the outcome measure is regressed on the time-varying covariates using a standard fixed-effects model.”
Aware of the thickness of this verbal undergrowth, they do their best to reconcile the average reader to the jargon by titling the chapter “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” And by the end of the book they have made several significant statements about D.C. charter schools based on their data which are, thankfully, as clear as could be.
They say D.C. charter schools are teaching kids whose backgrounds on average are pretty similar to regular school kids. The charter school students are more likely to come from low-income families, while the regular school students are more likely to come from families where English is not the first language. That produces two groups that are more or less equally ready for a good education.
They say parents in search of good charter schools rarely say that race or economic background of the students at a school are very important to them. But the demographic data for each school was the factor parents looked for most in their initial charter school searches on a guide to charters Web site set up by the authors. The second most important factor was the location of the school, which also gives demographic clues.
In an initial check of parent satisfaction, Buckley and Schneider say, “49 percent of charter parents gave their child’s teachers a grade of A, fully 10 percent more than parents whose children were in DCPS. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 3 percent of DCPS parents gave their child’s school an F, while only 1 percent of charter-school parents gave this failing grade.” But those differences largely disappear over time.
No one has done such a careful study of charter and regular school parents in one of our nation’s most charterized cities. The authors and their research team interviewed about 500 charter parents and 500 regular parents in fall of 2001. They went back to as many of those parents as they could find at the end of each of the next three years. Their last sample in 2004 had 297 parents, both charter and regular. They also interviewed students.
Their efforts to get those parent responses year after year went far beyond anything I have ever done, or even thought of doing, in my 40 years as a newspaper reporter. “Up to 35 callback attempts were made to reach respondents,” the authors say, “and up to three attempts were made to convert all initial refusals of parents.”
That is hard work, a mark of Buckley’s and Schneider’s determination to get at the truth. We will be seeing study after study of charter versus regular schools in the coming years, just as we have in the last several years since this became such a lively issue. But I don’t think we will see another study fairer, deeper or more interesting than this one.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. By the middle of the 19th century, London was the largest city in the world with two and half million people. It was also the foulest, with a woefully inadequate sewage system and 200,000 cesspools, many overflowing. The filth from both sources ended up in the Thames, which reeked of human excrement. One heat wave produced a stench so bad that newspapers dubbed it “The Big Stink,” and said “whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it.”
Cholera, unknown in the city until the 19th century, became a recurring and horrifyingly deadly visitor. One outbreak killed 14,000 Londoners. It was no great leap for residents to put the two together. Bad air caused cholera. To eliminate the disease, almost everyone agreed the city must clean up its air.
The government approach, then as now, was to throw money and manpower at the problem. But the true mechanism of cholera transmission was established not by any of the governmental panels and committees set up to solve the problem. In a story line that hardly seems plausible today with our emphasis on huge multiperson science projects, one man working almost entirely alone finally defeated London’s cholera. His name was Dr. John Snow, a medical man, a loner with a knack for statistics and mapmaking.
If the bacteria causing cholera get into your gut, they will reproduce at a prodigious rate. You will quickly develop watery diarrhea and begin vomiting uncontrollably. Your body is reacting to the cholera’s toxin by expelling water, waste and millions of deadly bacteria. Unless you are one of the lucky ones, you will soon be dead. You wake up healthy in the morning and die of cholera before the sun goes down.
John Snow was one of the few Londoners not sold on the noxious-air theory. The men who worked on the city’s sewage lines (known as flushermen) and those who emptied cesspools breathed far more bad air than the ordinary citizen, yet Snow knew they were robust and healthy. Furthermore, if cholera came from nasty things in the air, why didn’t it attack the lungs rather than the gut? After much study, Snow hypothesized that cholera came from water — not air.
At the time, Londoners got their water from either neighborhood pumps or one of the water-supply companies that serviced the city. Snow found that districts using companies that drew water from the tidal reaches of the Thames where sewage was present had far higher death rates from cholera than those drinking water taken farther upstream. Snow was now convinced that bad water was the culprit, but he knew he would need more evidence to persuade bad-air partisans. He found it in 1854 when cholera again hit London.
The first victim was a little girl living at 40 Broad Street. To keep her clean after bouts of diarrhea, her mother regularly rinsed her diapers in a bucket and tossed the foul water into a cesspool. “That is how it began,” declades Johnson.
Up and down Broad Street, men, women and children contracted cholera. Some survived, most did not. Slogging doggedly through the ravaged neighborhood, Snow located the homes of the dead. Their houses clustered around a local water source — the Broad Street pump.
Snow presented his findings at an emergency meeting of the local Board of Governors. The board was skeptical. But lacking any other ideas, they agreed to remove the Broad Street pump’s handle.
The epidemic began to subside immediately. In another week it was over — along with the lives of 700 people. An engineering survey found that the walls of the cesspool at 40 Broad Street leaked directly into the well, confirming that those drinking from the Broad Street pump were inadvertently consuming bits of waste containing millions of invisible, but deadly, bacteria from the diapers of the unfortunate first victim of the epidemic.
Although Snow had stopped the cholera epidemic, government officials stuck stubbornly to the bad-air theory. “We do not find it established that water was contaminated,” one committee reported. To convince doubters, Snow prepared a map of the area, showing every pump and every house. He added a short black line for every person who died in the house. The ghost map showed a cluster of black lines around the Broad Street pump. It demonstrated clearly and graphically what Snow had been saying over and over again: Cholera came from contaminated water. Few listened. Stopping cholera, government officials still believed, depended on cleaning the air by draining cesspools. So, for the wrong reasons, London began a gargantuan project to build a modern sewage system.
Five years later, as the project neared completion, London was on its way to becoming the healthiest city in the world. Then cholera struck again. Most of the deaths occurred in districts served by a water company that took its water from a tidal river ripe with sewage back flow. The link between the deaths and contaminated water was finally clear to everyone. Bad water, not bad air, was the source of cholera.
When London’s sewage lines were completed, the outlets were placed far downstream of the water companies’ inlet lines. Cholera has not visited the city since. And John Snow’s contribution to London’s public health was finally recognized. An 1866 editorial in Britain’s premier medical journal started with “The researches of Dr. Snow are among the most fruitful in modern medicine.” Unfortunately, Dr. Snow was not around to enjoy the accolades. He had died eight years earlier.
I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s series on WWII. The first is An Army at Dawn, describing in great detail (704 pages) the invasion of North Africa. Read this book and you will gain a real understanding of the complexity, chaos, and tragedy of war. We think of WWII as a noble effort supported by a uniformly positively public. A flawless and well-executed war.
Can’t be farther from the truth. Atkinson describes campaigns designed by planners unfamiliar with the units they were deploying using faulty intelligence. Over time the planners and soldiers learned from their mistakes but before they learned tens of thousands of troops died. Atkinson’s analysis is clear-cut and fast-moving.
The second book in the series is The Day of Battle, describing the invasion of Italy. Once again, in fascinating detail (816 pages) Atkinson faithfully follows the Allies across the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Sicily and onto the continent. He is especially good at assessing the decisions made by generals and describing how their personalities affected their confidence or skepticism about battle campaigns.
The Italian campaign’s outcome was never certain; in fact, Roosevelt, Churchill, and their military advisers engaged in heated debate about whether an invasion of the so-called soft underbelly of Europe was even a good idea. But once under way, the commitment to liberate Italy from the Nazis never wavered, despite the agonizingly high price. The battles at Salerno, Anzio, and Monte Cassino were particularly difficult and lethal, yet as the months passed, the Allied forces continued to drive the Germans up the Italian peninsula. Led by General Mark Clark, American officers and soldiers became increasingly determined and proficient. Atkinson tells us how they began the war untested and uncertain but emerged by the Spring of 1944 as battle-hardened and effective commanders