Loving Graham Greene, Gloria Emerson

An initially-slight tale, which grows and grows right up to its end, as slight lives desperately try to grow themselves into something important without completely relinquishing the comforts to which they have accustomed themselves.

Emerson writes with an almost nineteenth-century reserve which aptly suits her characters and relates as well to Greene’s place in the literature of espionage and political machinations.  Her purposes in writing are manifold but gratefully, they materialize gradually out of the mist of incident, rather than being trumpeted or italicized in authorial asides or straw-man puppetry. 

The ultimate impression is that one has been given a glimpse of one corner of human existence (or two perhaps, the one being Molly & Bertie’s well-meaning Princeton idle-class existence, the other the deadly-intrigue filled politics of Algeria on the edge of civil war) with the curtain pulled aside to expose what would more-typically be left hidden and thus deniable.

This debut novel by a former N Y Times correspondent is a winner, and one to re-read again someday. 

And No Birds Sang, Farley Mowat

Plucked this one off a second-hand store shelf after recognizing the author’s name.  Canadian Mowat had come to my attention for his naturalist-memoir, Never Cry Wolf, first encountered as a successful feature film in the early 1980’s, and read sometime thereafter.

Regarding this present slender volume, I find it somewhat uncomfortable that ‘charming’ is the first word which comes to mind in summarizing a book whose main intent – and emotional effect – is to honestly portray the utter brutality of war.  It is a testament to the author’s personality, his innate positivity against all odds (a characteristic evident in …Wolf, as well) and his ability to view whatever is before him with innocence and wonder despite its negative aspects, that reading his memoir is not a depressing experience.

The book chronicles a brief period in Mowat’s life in which he transitions from eager and idealistic youth to terrified veteran of a selection of humanity’s habitual horrors, as evidenced during the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. In the process he displaces conventional notions of glory and heroism with harsher truths of luck, desperation, endurance and the sometimes-terrible adaptations of which the human heart and mind are capable when required to cope with – and, if fortunate, survive – extreme situations.

Right after reading the book, I wrote that “In its own way, this belongs on the shelf with Wiesel’s Night, Krakauer’s Where Men Find Glory, Shehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and Moore and Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.  It’s that Good.” 

Looking up Mowat’s bio just now though, to check my memory of his bibliography, I come across a very serious criticism that places that judgement in a different light.

Mowat, it seems, was dogged during his career by allegations that his environmentally-themed works were actually more fiction than non-.  Wolf researchers hotly contradicted the supposed observations and experimentation in Never Cry Wolf, and even the simple timing and circumstances of his visits to wolf-country were not borne out by available records.  Experts on indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic were equally damning on his supposed adventures among those tribes, as were better-credentialed historians on his conjectures about pre-Norse explorations by a people he called ‘The Albans,’ for whom no other record exists.   What there apparently are records of, on the other hand, are a quote of Mowat saying that he “never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” and something of a personal motto, found among the author’s papers, that “…when the facts have particularly infuriated me, Fuck the Facts!”

Attending a different author’s reading some years ago, I was dismayed to hear her make a similar admission regarding a magazine piece about travel adventures (the genre in which she had made her name).  Her excuse was that people go to travel magazines seeking a certain sort of release from mundanity, it was her job to provide that, and since the reader would never know which parts were truth and which fabrication, there was no harm done.

To me, labelling any work as non-fiction (which includes presenting it in a publication not identified as fiction) is to make a claim of authority and factuality; it creates a certain covenant between writer and reader.  Encountering in fiction an event or insight which is not familiar to them, the reader evaluates it speculatively, and forms an opinion of whether or not it represents actuality, doing so largely in light of whether it conforms or not to the reader’s own experience.  Encountering the very same piece of information in a work presented as non-fiction, we are explicitly being directed to take that information as superseding any counter experience or belief we may have – ‘this is the truth, accept it.’  Such a claim of authority must properly be earned by a certain amount of rigor, and self-discipline which includes, as its lowest bar, not simply ‘making shit up’.

I’m just sayin’…

In the end then, And No Birds Sang gives a reader cause to ponder not just one but two weighty, and yet very different, themes: the experience of fighting in a war, and the experience of reading about any other person’s experiences.  Pretty good payoff for fewer than 200 pages.  

Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

This third-novel, released ten years before the modern-day drama Room brought the author to a wider audience, is an historical romance written from a modern feminist understanding.  Donoghue allows the reader to believe for a time that young Mary Saunders may find a way out of the bindings of class, gender and culture, but then, as surely as forces of nature, those strictures of man close in, allowing her fewer and fewer options as time marches on.  A modern reader may imagine she could have chosen differently, but the character is so well and fully drawn, so grounded in her time and place, that the ending ultimately feels inevitable, regardless how much we may wish it otherwise.

Scenes of Mary’s early days on the streets have a liberated joy to them; it is unclear how fully  the author believes such joy and value could truly exist there, or is only reporting her character’s illusions, but either way, they offer a powerful contrast to the sense of grinding obligation which rules the rest of the story.

An alternate-reality Jane Austen perhaps; more true to the lives of a wider sampling of 18th century women than are the troubles of Austen’s well-to-do stratum.  That it becomes, toward the end, a tragic exercise is only another way of saying it feels true to its times.

With over a dozen novels published to date, plus five story collections and numerous other stories, plays, screenplays and non-fiction, Donoghue is an impressive force in offering alternatives to the limited ways in which women have been allowed to appear throughout too much of fiction and history.  One whose other works this reader will definitely be seeking out in future.

Carol (aka: The Price of Salt), Patricia Highsmith

The journey of this novel is well known but worth recounting: after penning her successful first novel, Stangers on a Train (which became the basis for the Hitchcock film of the same name), the twenty-something Highsmith rejected her publisher’s advice to immediately follow it with another in the same genre. When she presented instead this literate and self-revelatory tale of a romance between two women, the publisher returned the favor, rejecting the manuscript. (This was, after all the early 1950s.)  Highsmith ended up publishing it through another house as The Price of Salt, using the pen name Claire Morgan to avoid damaging the marketability of her real name. To the surprise of many, it was quite successful, eventually selling nearly a million copies under that title before being re-released in 1990 as Carol.  By either name, it is considered one of the most successful ‘lesbian-novels’, and possibly the first widely-known one which did not end in tragedy or despair thanks to the proclivities of its lovers.

Reading Carol today, one is struck by the pace; slow, atmospheric and introspective. While appropriate to the characters’ journey, such style would only survive in today’s marketplace if the author were already an established literary figure or a bullet-proof best-seller.  The social constraints of the time also come through crystal clear; Carol’s husband Hargess’s assumptions of entitlement, authority and moral rectitude seem drawn from a different century (oh, yeah, I guess now they are!).  Therese’s aspiring fiance Richard runs a close second, and several other males here fare little better. 

For women, Highsmith has an abundance of sympathy, her portrait of Therese’s co-worker Mrs. Robichek is heartbreaking, as it is meant to; a foil to the hint of happiness Therese may, just possibly, find if she has the courage to be true to herself.  Carol, her friend Abby and several of the landladies Therese encounters are also warmly drawn, though there are also exceptions, particularly among the women who supervise Therese’s brief department store employment (drawn from the author’s own life, and evocative of a wildly-different workplace culture than exists today).

As that suggests, the story takes place at a curious economic moment – early enough after WWII that materialism and television culture have not yet completely transformed people’s day to day lives, yet among a crowd who seem borne by the post-war economy.  Carol’s wealth – attained, in an interesting counter to the ‘empowerment’ implications of her sexual frankness, through her marriage to Harge – enables the two women to live a life of leisure, flitting from restaurant to shop to restaurant, and that’s even before their month-plus round of hotel-tripping across the US.  Even Therese, who is described as a virtual orphan with no resources, manages to maintain an apartment of her own in lower Manhattan, cash in her purse, and has an incredibly (literally) easy time making contacts and getting paid for her work as a scenic designer, despite having taken only two short courses on the subject and putting rather little effort or diligence into it. This may be reflective of Highsmith’s own journey, for though not raised to wealth or status, she seems to have found early success as a writer with little obstacle (a pivotal recommendation from Truman Capote is mentioned in one source, suggesting that even in the ‘50’s there was already a support network among New York’s gay community).

Another aspect of reading Carol today is power-politics, as seen in the seduction of a young innocent by an elder equipped with wealth, secret knowledge and the promise of instant belonging.  Therese is significantly older than Dolores Haze in Nabakov’s Lolita (19 versus 12), but she is still far from an equal to Carol.  Highsmith does address acknowledge this, through the doubts of Carol’s confidant Abby, and also seems to express as the novel winds to a conclusion that it is Therese’s very maturation over the course of their relationship that leads both women to decide they belong together.  Still, a touchy politics, which would be savaged in the current environment had Carol been cast instead as Carl (which was apparently the intent in a proposed 1950’s film adaptation).

Thankfully, that bastardization was never completed, but the 2015 film adaptation was, receiving six Academy Award nominations and nine British Academy Awards nominations.  With strong performances by Cate Blanchet and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, it is stylish and suspenseful, the romance completely convincing and appealing beyond idle curiosity or voyeurism, thus extending, 20 years after her death, Highsmith’s early progress in bringing non-hetero relationships out of the backwaters and into the mainstream of literature and entertainment.

In an added afterword, dated 1989, Highsmith notes with evident pride the number of letters she has received over the years thanking her for telling such a story and, especially, for ending it on a positive and hopeful note.  One wonders if this, of all her 22 novels, may have been the most precious to its author, for just that reason.  (Though the Ripley series arguably gained her more renown, and likely far more lucre.)

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

Having started as a writer of fiction, then achieved enormous success with her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert took her time returning to fiction; this work did not appear until 2013, but whatever portion of the intervening years was spent on it was very well spent.  The Signature of All Things is epic, despite being structured with utter simplicity, telling the stories of one poor-born English boy, Henry Whittaker (who grows himself into a wealthy merchant of plants and their derivatives over roughly the first third of the text) and of his Pennsylvania-born daughter, Alma, who devotes her life to botany or, more specifically, bryolgy – the study of mosses.

That structure ends up revealed as a metaphor for the novel’s real subject – wonder at a universe in which one can study even a tiny slice (the mosses growing on a particular cluster of rocks in one corner of one estate in nineteenth-century Philadelphia) and discover there an all-encompassing truth, a principle which drives and energizes the entire physical world.  In the same way Alma employs her microscope to understand the characteristics of individual specimens, then compares them to discover why they are so different, Gilbert examines those two lives, along with at most a dozen others who touch upon them, and so exposes uses universal experiences of human yearning for love, desire for a greater power, struggle for a personal place and meaningful occupation, importance of family, and more.  (One is reminded of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which was similarly simple in concept – the story of a single human life – but equally moving in exposing the complexity to which that formula actually equates).

This is a placid work, though never plodding. Early on one wonders at the author’s intent – there is no singular quest or mystery serving as through-line, no culminating dramatic conflict, no grail being sought, except the generalized pursuit of profit (Henry) and of knowledge (Alma). Even in that though, one can read a message: scarcity of nourishment breeds a desire for material sustenance and security, abundance allows the mind to search for other sorts of sustenance – the intellectual, the romantic and the spiritual. In that sense, Henry and Alma’s tale may be seen as an expansion upon Gilbert’s memoir – her characters must first eat, before they can worry about praying and loving. 

In that regard, it is interesting to note the other work Gilbert produced during the 7 years between Eat, Pray Love and this one: Committed, a memoir on the institution of marriage.  Of the several marriages portrayed here, Henry’s is one of utility and function, Alma’s a shattered dream of romance and connection, her sister Prudence’s one of sacrifice and duty… One wonders to what degree the aspiration which characterized the memoirs shaped the novel, then wonders again whether the bleak view of marriage portrayed here had anything to do with the forces which would end Gilbert’s own marriage a couple of years later – it just seems a stretch that the optimist of those two memoirs would portray the institution as she does here. None of which is to say this is a pessimistic story, or bitter or any such negative, but rather that it is one which leads away from romance as solution to life’s longings, and toward the search for something more encompassing and self-supporting.

This is a sizeable book (500 pages or so in print) and contains much detail which might be off-putting to some readers (and must have taken substantial effort to compile and incorporate).  For those who share a love of the physical world, though, or simply enjoy learning new things, that is an attraction rather than an obstacle.  It is also an integral factor in bringing us along on Alma’s journey from microcosm to macrocosm. 

Well researched, well written, exceedingly well-intentioned, this is a marvel and well-worthy of some grand prize. Tis pity it did not make a greater splash in the literary world.

The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad

Social anthropology which reads as well as good fiction, Seierstad’s book provides a valuable glimpse into lives which could be centuries removed from contemporary US culture.  Despite Sultan Khan’s love of books and hope for a freer Afghan culture, his idea of gender roles – and that of nearly everyone else we meet here – is medieval at best.  Women are seen as chattel, servants and baby-makers with no rights, no autonomy; virtually no ‘selves’.  This is the most heartbreaking aspect of the Khan family’s story, but far from the only one.

Poverty is another focus of Seierstad’s, as illustrated in the sub-story of a carpenter, trying to support his extended family on small wages.  That he turns to theft is condemnable but not difficult to understand or sympathize with.  One ends up taking small relief that he is at least not mutilated under Sharia law, but is the destitution of his family really any less-cruel a punishment? An apt reminder that economic opportunity is a bedrock freedom somewhere down there with freedom of speech and thought.

Literature often shines a light on our own lives, asking us to question them, and reading this book is such a case.  Are the poor and disadvantaged of our own time and place any less confined than those of early-aughts Kabul?  Are the women of that Texas religious compound, that Utah plural-marriage household, that Bronx tenement or Brooklyn Hassidic neighborhood any less limited? Well, yes, actually; though industrialized western societies have far to go, these Afghans have farther.  One can only hope that exposure to some good points of a more ‘modern’ culture will gradually erode the stultifying lid which encloses their lives.

Those thoughts were put down in 2008, when it was still marginally-possible to hope that a new US administration could salvage something out of the chaos wrought by our invasion of this battleground nation.  Transcribing them now, one is struck by the continuing tragedy that whatever progress any segments of Afghan society may have made in the ensuing dozen years of Western politico-military involvement there is as precarious as ever, what with the Taliban resurgent, a Faustian bargain for peace in the offing and pluralistic, liberal societies battling for survival around the world, even to the halls of the US Capitol bldg.   “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance,” runs a line widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson (though the historians at Monticello deny it).  The line is true enough, but worth remembering is that the operative word there is ‘vigilance,’ not ‘war.’  And that the sentiment might even be improved by replacing that with some other intellectual posture, such as ‘objectivity’, ‘questioning’ or ‘critical thought,’ even if that would cost some of its bold, heroic ring.

(That the real-life bookseller – whose name Seierstad had obscured in hopes of protecting his family’s privacy – later rejected her portrayal and very-publicly fought the author in Norwegian court, only to lose, lends yet another layer of complexity and sadness to the entire business)

And the beat goes on.

City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Most famous perhaps for her new age-y self-help memoir Eat, Pray Love, Gilbert is also and initially a novelist and this, her latest, is no slouch.  Substantial at 465 pages, it covers the mid-Twentieth Century through the life of upstate New York ingenue Vivian Morris, who receives an education and much more once she relocates to the city of the same name.  Sex and alcohol fuel much of the raucous early going, till the story abruptly shifts locale and tone around page 300. Disconcerting, that; and a serious disappointment to this reader, until a few chapters later when the narrative returns to its previous location and regains some (but only some) of its attitude.  From there the tale matures along with its protagonist, moving from girlish dalliances to womanly relationships and thoughts.

Which may be the author’s point.  While the title seems for a time to refer to the young women of the early chapters, and later to a play of the same name which becomes prominent for a while, it becomes ultimately a shorthand for all the different relationships between women which sustain these characters and the few social arrangements which care for and value them – the men in Gilbert’s telling being almost universally disappointing to the women, and often just as much so to themselves.  Her one male exception is introduced very near the end, a terribly-damaged creature with a heart of gold, who is, tellingly, an even greater disappointment to himself than any of those who preceded. 

Another indication: the two wronged women who get tossed out of Vivian’s life are both sorely missed and the reader spends the rest of the novel hoping they will be brought back for some dramatic rapprochement.  On the other hand, the one male who drops out is not missed in the least, despite being her close relative and a tragic victim of greater events.

Overall, and thanks almost exclusively to the quirky women Vivian meets in the big city, one comes away with the impression of a life lived off the beaten track and outside the generally accepted definitions of success and happiness, yet more successful and more satisfying at its end than many which better fit the traditional definitions.  A theme well in keeping with Gilbert’s other writings and a quite satisfying ending to a charming journey.

(BTW, the above description of Eat Pray Love is not meant to put it down. In addition to being on-trend, it is also deeply felt, thoroughly entertaining and insightful.  I read it some 13 years ago with under-liner in hand and closed the book feeling more optimistic about my own life than I had in ages.  Which is one reason I picked up City of Girls, though a reading of Gilbert’s 2000 first-novel, Stern Men, during the intervening years was also instrumental.  Either way, I am glad I did, and ready to read more of this author any time.)

(Illustration by Eleanor Davis for N. Y. Times review)

Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld

This fictionalized memoir of ‘what-if Hillary had never married Bill?’ (suggested subtitle – ‘The Road Not Taken’) delivers a solid story plush with insights into relationship dynamics, period mores and gender roles, definitions of success and failure and the perilous choices every life entails.

Sittenfeld’s Hillary (HR, as opposed to the real-world’s HRC) is certainly based on what is known about the real one; her Bill upon some of what we know and a lot of what is widely suspected or believed but not so firmly-fixed.  As to the surrounding politics, she builds both on what has actually happened and on her speculations about what would have happened if the butterfly had beat her wings a little differently.  Less solid ground there, of course, but plenty credible enough to make for an engaging journey.

Most potent to this reader, is how the novel explains by counterexample, holding up a mirror to reality.  Her portrayal of a woman refusing to yield to and protect a philanderer, despite their tremendous attraction and suitability to one another, stands in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom that HRC stayed with Clinton out of faith in his potential to do good as a leader.  In so doing, she did protect his image enough to make his Presidency possible (along with a lot of other events, some not so savory) but also diminished her own potential.  In that sense, even though the tale ends with the fictional HR succeeding, the novel carries the weight of tragedy.

That the real Hillary’s choice was a direct consequence of traditional gender roles which – though we may hope them quaint and outdated today, totally permeated the atmosphere she grew up breathing – is the warp and woof of this fabrication.  It is the context for perhaps the most potent theme and conclusion Sittenfeld offers us: that if, in fact, HR had renounced BC and gone on to become POTUS herself instead of him, so much more might have changed in the hopes and futures of so many women in the years since.  Not to mention avoiding the entire Lewinski affair, and the lasting stain it inflicted upon the entire ‘liberal’ or progressive culture. 

‘What if,’ indeed.

Or better yet, ‘if only….’

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – a Tragedy in Three Acts, Scott Anderson

Not sure who thought such a convoluted title was a good idea, but writing and publishing this book certainly is one – a good idea, that is.  In telling the story of how the CIA evolved out of WWII’s OSS, Anderson actually shows us how the Cold War began and how it was – if his account is as valid as it feels – prolonged and its damages increased geometrically by the infighting and maneuvering of a smattering of egotistical self-believers.  Who are not, in fact, the four operatives upon whom Anderson hangs his narrative, but the more famous political operatives – Roosevelt, Stalin, Truman, Hoover (J. Edgar, not Herbert), Eisenhower, Kennedy and perhaps most of all, the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, titular heads of the Agency and the State Department, respectively.

One begins reading in anticipation of spy-craft and derring-do, and while there is some of that, it is far outweighed by the bureaucratic maneuvering – who is put in what job at what moment, by whom, with what instructions and accountability, or lack thereof.  Even more so, who in Washington is using the entire intelligence effort for what purpose of their own – to justify a policy or a budget, to settle a score, to win election (or re-election), to demonstrate the gospel truth of their own worldview and ambition.

John LeCarre’s George Smiley and Karla must be looking on from above with bittersweet satisfaction at having their cynicisms confirmed by Anderson’s skewering of post-war intrigue in Berlin and Eastern Europe as pointless and heartless missions with no hope of success except in justifying the ambitions of higher-ups who neither understand nor care about their human cost.  And all those who protested the Viet Nam War would be similarly reassured by his evisceration of its genesis in pre-war colonialism and failed schemes to prop it up after the war, followed in failure by anti-communism-at-any-cost.  Just as the protesters claimed at the time, what happened in Southeast Asia in the fifties and sixties had little to do with the needs of the Vietnamese people and everything to do with the fortunes of politicians tens of thousands of miles away.

The volume’s Epilogue opens by recounting John Foster Dulles’ admission in 1958 that his rabidly anti-communist reading of so many self-determination movements around the world was utterly mistaken.  And yet that vaunted ‘Domino Theory’ continued to guide US policy in Vietnam for over ten years more, and in other places still seeks to drive it today. 

Thus, where first we expected the ‘Tragedy’ of the title to refer to how its four protagonist’s lives played out, we eventually see that that is only partly the case.  Yes, the good and dedicated Frank Wisner was broken by all the deception and waste of lives, eventually taking his own.  But Ed Lansdale managed a more or less successful life to the age of 79, Michael Burke an almost James Bond-ian series of re-inventions to pass away in the quiet Irish countryside, and Peter Sichel lived till at least 97, becoming the wise and wry elder who apparently provided much of the material for this book.  No, it is to the greater geopolitical tragedy, whose cost is measured not in single digits but in the millions of lives, that is really the subject here.  A cautionary tale for those who seek to understand current events – and one can only hope – for those who seek to guide them.

(There are, for what it’s worth, several other books available about Ed Lansdale; Peter Sichel and Michael Burke have written their own memoirs; and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie bears mention as well, among so many others, for further reading on the themes plumbed here.)

Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker

Thick with statistics, charts and graphs, this is nonetheless a smooth and enjoyable read, not least because it tells such a palatable story: that humankind has made great progress over the past centuries, especially those since the start of The Enlightenment (roughly 1730 to 1800, give or take a few lifetimes).

Attacking first our flawed habits of perception and thought, then some of the pessimistic myths those have spawned, Pinker makes a convincing case that life for the vast majority of humans is considerably better today than in any earlier era.  And further, that these positive changes have resulted from identifiable strategies employed by humans over time, in light of which he suggests – though not without caution – there is strong possibility of continued progress if only we, as a species and a community, will continue to employ those strategies, which he identifies as Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

(A single example from personal experience: during my childhood Polio was, even in privileged middle class USA, a serious threat.  I sat next to children in class who’d been stricken seemingly at random, suffering permanent disability, disfigurement and limitation of their potential and well-being.  In less than a single lifetime, that terrible disease has been very nearly eradicated – to the extent that many people living today don’t even know what it is – and therefore the miracle of its eradication (literally scores of millions of crippling cases avoided) has no emotional impact, is totally lost in concern over other, often lesser, ailments (dry eyes syndrome anyone? Or hair loss?  Any  condition that is solved by Botox…) which still remain.  This is the sort of mental bias – focusing on the problems left to solve and ignoring all the ones which have already been solved – that Pinker rightly identifies as shaping our pessimism and fears.  And worst, leading some voices to claim there is no point in even trying to progress.)

Pinker wisely avoids any direct reference to Trump and Trumpism until late in his thesis, but it must be clear to any earnest reader long before the name arises that the phenomenon is in direct opposition to all the book espouses.  Fortunately, the breadth of the case made is sufficient to suggest we will eventually self-correct – barring some catastrophic accident or act of impulse.

An immensely valuable book. So good that, after reading it on a library loan (in late 2019), I purchased a hard copy to have on the table and refer to in future.  Now Jennifer is reading that copy and equally impressed.

In a time of such upheaval and so much fear, I can think of few books more worth reading, sharing and keeping close at hand.