These Truths, Jill Lepore

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate book for this time (summer 2020 – the lead-up to The Trump Election) and place (anywhere, USA). Lepore employs her awesome knowledge of US history to remind us who we are and enlighten us as to who, what and where we come from. 

This she does with all the drama and detail of an excellent novel, using individuals and their words to illustrate each minute point of disagreement, argument and compromise.  And it is that last which sticks in this reader’s mind; how our constitution and form of government, rather than being the immaculate perfection suggested by those who laud them in defense of their own (usually reactionary) purposes, are and always have been the flawed result of a process that not only pressured, but actually required persons of principle to accept results which complied only partly to their principles.

Another eye -opener is the limited role which rigid principles have played in our history.  Had all the persons alive during the founding refused to compromise on their principles, there would quite simply be no USA.  Perhaps a miscellany of separate states (with some still slave-owning up to the present?), perhaps some component of a prolonged British Empire, or perhaps something even more strange to us – a continent divided horizontally somewhere near the Mason Dixon line into an  enormous Mexico and equally expansive Canada.  This thread illuminates also the role of fundamentalism in elevating disagreements to become fights and, not in- frequently, wars.  Lepore cites many different sorts of fundamentalism – religious, capitalist, democratic, constitutional, etc., considering how they often interrelate and how our current state of technical evolution has enhanced them and so lead us into the legislative paralysis we are currently experiencing.

Another oh-so timely note: without overtly linking herself to the BLM movement or 1619 project, the author’s contention on race is unmissable: that distinctions on the fallacious basis of skin color and the dominance of wealthy property owners over a more-populous slaving/working  class are as intrinsic to our background as is the love of democracy and equality, if not even more so.

No brief description can do this effort justice, just as any less-expansive book would fail to do its subject justice.  Fascinating and depressing, These Truths can also remind us that turmoil such as we are living through today is no stranger to the USA, any more than it is a stranger to all the nations, cultures and civilizations humans have spawned and discarded over the millennia.

All of which places These Truths is very high on the list of most valuable volumes I’ve read in years.

Deacon King Kong, James McBride

The author of The Good Lord Bird and other works takes us on an expedition into Walter Mosley territory – and a rewarding expedition it is. Set in 1969 Brooklyn under the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, it is also a picture of a neighborhood in transition, from the stickball, ring-a-levio and neighborly numbers-games of its elderly characters’ remembered childhoods, to the heroin-fueled entrepreneurialism of insatiably-greedy young drug-lords and mafia wanna-bes.

As in The Good Lord Bird, McBride revels in dialect and anecdote.  The language is casual and unlearned, full of nicknames, asides, put-downs and epithets that would be verboten in contemporary conversation. The characters too, emphasize what a different world it was back then – the oldsters on whom the action centers being uniformly quirky, folksy and stout of heart.  The young and rising who bedevil them are nearly as uniform in their vulgarity, thoughtlessness and despicability. It is telling too, that the one young man who redeems himself does so though the unlikely route of minor league baseball, a throwback ambition if ever there was one.  (Having grown up not too far away from this place and time, though infinitely far from its hardships, I can recall the reverence with which the ‘national pastime’ was held in those days and parts, and the phantom hope it offered, of escape from all that is unholy).

Race is, of course, a (the?) major theme here, how the ‘coloreds’ moved in after the docks died and the Italians moved on to more fertile ground; how blacks and whites existed in separate virtual civilizations veneered upon the same streets.  How Irish cops had been part of the glue holding it all together, till the stakes grew too high (thank you, drug money) and forced everyone to choose a side and hold it with their life.  How irrelevant most of the white man’s world and morality is to those kept down by them, and how, in this telling, a few resilient souls can even manage to bridge the divides and find a better life on their own terms.  (An aging cop, for example, finds happiness with the daughter of an Italian mobster, whose wife years ago ensured the family’s future by purchasing a Bronx bagel shop with the imprisoned goombah’s cash stash, allowing McBride to opine that you don’t need to be Jewish to make a kosher killing in New York.)

Deacon King Kong’s crime-scene of a plot aims for a sort of urban picaresque, with an old drunk named Sportcoat as through-line, humankind’s earliest art object (the Venus of Willendorf) as its MacGuffin and several oddball romances to give it color and warmth.  Despite frequent descents into over-long conversational riffs, there is enough mystery and eventfulness to carry it along, and the eventual resolution is plenty satisfying so long as one does not look to closely.  Goodness triumphs to a far greater degree than the undercurrents have suggested it should, and the characters for whom one has been taught to root end up – for the most part – intact and even improved in their circumstances.

All in all, a joyful love song for a lost culture (if it is to be believed; I am certainly not one who would know) and for the importance of community over easy assumptions, easy money and taking the easy way out. 

(and no, that did not start out as a reference to Mosely’s Easy Rawlins character, but may as well end there…)

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson

A splendid telling of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Britain, 1940 to 1941, as the vile German war began its malignant blooming.  Drawing from the absurd wealth of diaries, letters and official records which exist from that time, Larson shows us the British Bulldog’s personality, character and lifestyle, as well as those of his family and closest confidants, while epic episodes of politics, drama and suffering provide the footlights’ glare.

Whatever else one may think of WSC, he was certainly an individual; his willingness to exhibit personal idiosyncrasies – and even his unclothed person – suggest someone who had been raised under the gaze of servants and caretakers, grown up in the glare of the media and by old age must simply have assumed everything about him was already public, so why hide it.

On a less salutary note, it is impossible to dismiss the luxury of British upper class existence, even in the midst of The Blitz.  Debs debut and the posh pose in clubs, gardens and elegant dining rooms even as soldiers die in far off places and civilians around the block.  Churchill has his preferred vintage of bubbly and brandy, his cigars and twice-daily baths and weekends at a country house to entertain family and friends – along with those officials whose cooperation he ensures by such bonding.  Most creepy of all, are the civilians in their gardens, lying back on the grass to follow aerial battles between friend and foe.  Forebears of us all, perhaps, watching disaster footage on the TV or internet from an even greater remove.

The greatest impression for this reader, given the date and place of reading (August, 2020, USA) is the contrast between one larger than life character and another. Where Trump demeans everything he touches, Churchill raised Britain from nation to ideal, elevated Beaverbrook (for just one example) from greedy industrialist to miracle worker, and uplifted each casualty of the war from cipher to symbol of heroic sacrifice in a just cause.  His speeches raised not only the ‘rabble’ but thinking minds as well and were driven not by hatred of the enemy but by love of its victims.  A subtle difference, perhaps, to some, but a crucial one. Would that all leaders had such character.

How splendid and fortuitous that the Eurocentric world had a leader like Churchill ready to step up when the future turned so very dark and cloudy.  And how splendid that later generations have authors like Larson to show us yet another angle from which to appreciate their value and their stature. 

The Three Body Problem

Geek fiction of the sci/poli sort. Set within the landscape of China’s autocratic-socialist movements and brigades, this first of a three volume series considers the possibility of ‘First Contact’ with alien life as a matter of existential fear and conviction. Fear, on the one hand, that an advanced civilization will take over and obliterate us,  and conviction, on the other, that we ourselves have devolved so much we’ve become a malignancy on the earth and the universe – or, to quote a current political figure about an invasion of a different sort – “what have you got to lose?”

Liu is a citizen and resident of the PRC, not an ethnic Chinese educated or residing in the west, which may explain why the events and rhythm of the book feel so plodding and academic; one suspects they reflect expectations and tastes shaped by decades of bureaucratic media and arts.   His detailed and historicist attention to the physics behind the story is informative, but similarly derails a central tenet of what one normally expects in a popular novel – drama. Add to that characters whose individuality is expressed only in the very narrow and internalized manner allowed by their society’s emphasis on conformity, obedience and reticence, and you end up with something rather challenging to get through, despite what seems a fluid translation from the original Mandarin.

Still, Liu is intelligent, knowledgeable and original, so one is very curious to see where it all will go (as well as whether the pace will pick up in future volumes). Maybe worth the time…

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke

 First in the ‘Highway 59’ series of crime procedurals set in East Texas near the border of Louisiana, this volume also moves the genre into African American rural life, a niche I’m not aware of being plumbed before. And plumbed is appropriate, as Locke’s goal is clearly to illuminate the hidden depths and conduits of life at the very edge of subsistence. Geneva Sweet’s one-room restaurant/barber shop is hand built and about as ramshackle as it gets, yet it is the only economic support of several lives, and the only social connector for black folks in the small community of Lark, Texas, just as the roadhouse bar down the road is the only one for whites. (Note that church is barely present in this tale, contrary to the image so often projected, of church going and church connections being the glue that holds rural life together. Appears to be an intentional choice by the author, not an oversight – these people are driven far more by family and race than any other gospels, far more by appetites and expedience than any high-flown morals or principals, which seem to reside only within the conflicted minds of well-off outsiders.)  

 Insiders and outsiders is also a strong theme here, in particular, the ways in which those who were born and raised in a place quickly become outsiders once they leave, yet retain the place and connection in ways that surface forcefully under duress. Both Darren Mathews, the Texas Ranger protagonist, and Michael Wright, one of two murder victims, and even Joe Sweet, whose history predates the action, have struggled with that, and eventually paid great prices for the disconnect. The degree to which those who have never left can become stunted by their limited exposure and consumption is equally well-expressed, particularly in a passage regarding murderer Keith Dale who “had never been north of Oklahoma, thought the world outside Texas was a cesspool of race mixing and confusion about who built this country, spics and nigs with their hands out begging for this that and the other, never doing a decent day’s work in their lives, but even still they were coming for our jobs, coming for our wives and daughters…”

I’m not rushing out to try a ‘fried pie’ just now, and still amazed that a dinner party for nine people justifies picking up ‘seven pounds of brisket’ and ‘a couple of chickens’, but that just shows how far my background is from this setting. The references to Texas blues and the musician’s lifestyle, on the other hand, were effective means to connect with what is certainly new ground for plenty of other readers as well.  (Any novel which features 1955 Les Paul as its Rosebud has got my instant attention….). 

A captivating read and clearly intended to establish a character and setting for a series (after this 2018 release, a second installment titled Heaven My Home came out in 2019.). Whether or not I’ll follow that up is still in doubt, but I can well imagine there’s an audience for it. Whether that audience is primarily African American, or not will be worth noting.

P. S.:  To read Blue bird, Bluebird right after Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective is to be impressed with the many ways in which contemporary novelists are broadening the settings, preoccupations and appeal of the crime genre, while clearly working off its traditions of darkness, corruption, the reticence of hard men and the redemptive power of drink, memory and an attractive woman. Plu ca change…

The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem

 A contemporary noir, loosely-framed by the protagonist’s despair at the election of the ‘orange monster’ and the economic and cultural divides it reflects, but also deeply embedded in broader 21 st century dislocation and despair.

Intriguingly, Lethem tells the tale thru the voice of Phoebe Siegler, a refugee from the urban entertainment/media complex, rather than Charles Heist (what a surname choice that is!), his idiosyncratic detective. This allows for more thoughtfully-analytic observations by the character, and a more literate tone than would the latter. It also makes for some brave writing, as Lethem voices Phoebe’s sexual longings and encounters with Charles. One would love to know what female readers feel about his level of success, but to me it rang true, if perhaps a bit enhanced by what a man hopes a woman is seeing. Lethem also finds something new in the L A area by choosing for his locations the little-known towns of Upland and Clarement; the resort hermitage of Mt. Baldy (a personal touchstone, having driven, hiked and skied there) and the Mohave Desert just over the mountains from the big city. The tenuous economics of these locales, and the multitudinous opportunity for misfits to isolate themselves resemble the same raw ingredients which Southern writers have long mined from their home turf, but being still part of LA makes for a freshness and perhaps a more accessible connection to readers not of the sub-Mason Dixon world. Interesting and engaging, but I’m not hungry to read another installment, if indeed this is the start of a series (a possibility suggested by the ending, but inconsistent with Lethem’s intellectual adventurousness, nor his career path and to date).

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

A back-cover quite, credited to The Observer newspaper, notes that this “will surely become a vital crib for generations of students to come,” and this reader agrees entirely. Ackroyd’s lucid and fluid contemporary-language version is certainly the only way I would have gotten through this artifact; deciphering even just the chapter titles in the original Old-English is enough to tell me I’d never have made it.

As with many other ‘classics,’ one of the main values derived from reading Chaucer’s tales has been to glimpse inside the minds and thoughts of that earlier time.   What preoccupied the literate Londoner in the fourteenth century? Marriage, power, religion and the appetites for sex, food and drink, it seems, and in approximately that order.

Another obvious value of this volume is for its role in the early evolution of literature, acting as bridge between millennia of oral legends, folk tales, fables and religious parables, allegories and sermons and the later arrival of personal stories, those concerned with particular individuals who may be neither hero nor villain, maiden nor slut, but unique and messily-realistic combinations and contrasts of opposites. We see here a transitional stage between the archetypes within the tales (nearly every knight is appallingly-brave and virtuous, nearly every young woman is the most beautiful, chaste and compliant in her land) and the beginnings of dramatic characterization in the diverse and earthy travelers who tell them.

Even with Ackroyd as intermediary though, Chaucer is not an easy read. Many of the tales feel pointless, several redundant, and a couple seem to have been just cut off in mid-telling – leaving one to wonder whether some pages have been lost to history, or is that perhaps evidence of just how new and unself-conscious the infant art of fiction-writing was at the time (and prior to invention of that indispensable tool, the Editor). The religious paeans are also off-putting; tedious paragraphs and pages of dedication to the Holy Mother, or protestations of one’s faith, all the way down to Chaucer’s own ‘Retractions,’ which is not, as modern minds expect, a rescinding of what he has written earlier, but a ‘retraction’ in the sense of pulling away; taking his leave while beseeching the reader, ‘for the mercy of God, to pray for me…’ and so on. Pronouncing all that he has written, to be sinful and without merit, the author protests that despite having taken the pains to record and clearly enjoy these sinful tails, he is actually the most pious of men.

A remarkable piece of cultural history, presented in a generous and helpful manner by this modern retelling; truly the “crib” this reader need to ever become familiar with this oft-cited relic.

Two Guys Walked Into a Movie Theater

One day in the spring of 2020, two men paid their money and stepped into a darkened movie theater, just as the trailers were rolling. TC sat in right-about the same spot where he always sat when he went to the movies, because it was familiar, and easy, and comforting to always know where he was going to sit without having to think too much about it. SB, after looking around carefully to see which seats were available, picked the one where he thought he’d get the best view of the screen, and the best-balanced sound…

That scene came to mind as I thought back on two recent reads. Ship of Fools, is by Tucker Carlson, who worked for CNN and MSNBC before joining the Fox network in 2009, where he is now far more opinion-entertainer than newsman, and is said to be one of the three or four most listened-to Trump whisperers. Tailspin – the People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-year Fall, is by Stephen Brill, whom Wikipedia describes as a lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur, founder of The American Lawyer magazine and cable channel Court TV. Seeing the two volumes on the local library’s New Arrivals shelf I was struck by how similar their pitches were, both claiming to illuminate the reasons behind the present economic stagnation of middle and lower-middle class incomes, the persistence of poverty, decline of manufacturing, slow death of rural communities, tragic rates of incarceration (particularly among minorities) and frighteningly-high unemployment among high-school-educated men of all races, etc., etc. Despite the superficial similarity of focus, the books could hardly be more different, thanks to their authors’ individual approaches.

Where Brill’s writing is thoughtful, Carlson’s shouts. Where Brill cites data and quotes specific articles and documents, Carlson cites anecdotes. Where Brill criticizes both sides of the political aisle, Carlson exclusively blames ‘liberals,’ on the basis that they are no longer ‘liberal enough’ to counteract unnamed other forces (he cannot bring himself to admit those forces may claim to be ‘conservatives’) against whom they should be more effective. Nor is Carlson willing or wise enough to point out the role of corporations’ single-minded pursuit of short term profits in all this.

Both authors do note the role of ‘elites’ in all this decline, but again with differing critiques. Carlson wags the scolidng finger and derides the lack of success which so-called experts and academics have had in making things better, without offering any credible alternative.  Brill drills deeper and highlights how well-intentioned efforts to end discrimination and hereditary advantage have allowed – even driven – the brightest and most self-centered among us to work the systems and levers of commerce and government to their own advantage, thus empowering the 1% (or thereabouts, the blame is not nearly so centralized) to entrench their own wealth and power to the detriment of all other forces and factions.

Most tellingly, after each section addressing one of these maladies, and after thoroughly analyzing the problem and its origins, Brill cites at least one specific example of individuals or programs who are working with at least some degree of effectiveness, to address the issue. None of these efforts are big enough to make a ton of difference, but each of them is a signpost, suggesting what might work if applied at a larger scale. As an entrepreneur, he is well aware of the power of markets, when they are properly motivated (when there is profit to be had, that is). As an observer though, he is also wise enough to recognize that some problems (availability of health care to the poor or elderly, for example, or useful job-training for inner city and deeply-rural residents) will never motivate a pure free-market. Some issues will not be improved without communal action driven by other motives, which historically has only been mobilized at large scale through government action, or at least leadership.

Carlson makes little or no effort to suggest solutions except to demonize liberals, experts, academics and, it seems, just about everyone but bloviators, reality TV figures, radio talk show hosts and avid fans of the above.

As the current period of self-isolation tapers down, Americans (and those in other countries too) need to decide how to address its impacts. In so doing, we can treat the immediate symptoms and in the process perpetuate the problems that predate Covid 19, or we can see solutions that address both the short and the long term. It is that challenge which sent me back to thinking about these two very different ways to illuminate the same issues.

Halfway through the movie, TC and SB both smelled smoke, and watched in horror as a thick dark cloud quickly rose up to block out the screen image. Before they could react, the film stopped running and the house lights came up for just a moment, then immediately went black, revealing that, for some reason, the exit signs were not working either. In the darkness the audience started to panic.

Sitting in his familiar spot, TC began talking excitedly to those around him, reminding them that back in the good old days theaters used to have ushers who carried flashlights with lovely little red shields over the lenses. “If this theater still had ushers like that,” he emphasized, voice rising with indignation, “we could follow them out.” Standing full height in the choking darkness, he shouted to the entire theater, presumably out there listening for his leadership. “I want to talk to the manger,” he screamed several times, before falling into a fit of coughing and wheezing.

Meanwhile, SB, seeing the darkness around him, had whipped out his cell phone and powered up its flashlight app.  Crawling to stay below the worst of the smoke, he used his light to find others and encourage them to follow his example as he made his way to one of the exits. Others who had lit up their own phones made paths to the other exits, and out through the lobby to daylight and safety.

“Where the hell is the manager?” TC screamed, between coughing fits loud enough to be heard throughout the unseen, and now nearly empty, theater.  “I’m gonna rip him a new one,” cough, cough, “to make sure he brings back those ushers. If… “ cough, cough, “we ever,” cough, cough, “get out of here, that is,” cough, cough, cough.

And the rest, as they paraphrase, is silence.

The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra

We Americans tend to see the war in Afghanistan through the lens of our own involvement – how many U.S. troops lost, how many U. S. billions spent, how much progress toward making that nation over in our own image. This brief and poetic novel, the author’s fifth to be published in the English language, sets the history in a different light, showing on the one hand that the disorder in Afghanistan verifiably predates US involvement (original copyright is 2002, and the action is clearly pre 9-11) and on the other that the damage and suffering of the Afghan people goes far deeper and wider than anything we have paid for our involvement (speaking of course of the USA as a whole; not those particular few individuals who have given so much, and sometimes all).

This is a tight narrative, the comings and goings of two married couples in a few narrow streets and run-down buildings of Kabul over the course of a few days, maybe a week. In that time though, lives are ruined and lost, hopes dashed, resurrected and swamped by the reality of a nation that has been at war for decades and is now at the mercy of fanaticism and men’s worst impulses claiming to serve their best. As with much middle-eastern fiction I’ve read, the language can be rather florid and some of the characters’ internal reflections feel over-dramatized, more performances of the author than real human thought. At other times though, Khadra’s characters speak honestly of emotions real people strain to conceal, if they even admit to themselves. (A prime example is one man’s participation in the public execution-by-stoning of a prostitute – which even he cannot explain or defend.) The portrait of how one lives when nearly everything has been taken away or coopted for the oppressors’ purposes is eye-opening. Reading it during the Covid 19 shutdown is yet another reminder that I’ve still got it very, very easy, even in what we think of as a period of distress.

Building slowly, the story reaches its climax in the thoughts and action not of the husbands – as one might expect for a tale set under the patriarchy of Islamic culture and Sharia law – but of their wives. Zunaira, the educated and worldly beauty whose life has devolved into an exile inside her own shabby home, gives way to a moment’s impulse, with tragic consequences. Then, Musarrat, the miserable and terminally-ill wife of a part-time jailer and Taliban collaborator has a contrasting moment of transcendent insight, compassion and love; forces which are so out of place in this environment they strain credulity. Regardless, her vision propels the climactic act of selflessness which is, unfortunately, doomed by circumstance and habituation, as is all hope in the universe of this novel.

That the story itself can be conceived, written and published is the only thread of optimism one brings away from the reading but then, sometimes it only takes a single thread to unravel an entire knitting.

(Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a male former-Algerian army officer, who the liner notes say adopted that name to avoid government scrutiny of his writings.  If is unclear just how much the choice of the feminine reflects his convictions, but this novel sincerely presents women’s lives with much more importance and sympathy than conservative Islamic culture grants them.)

 

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier

As a ‘surplus’ woman in an England still reeling fourteen years after the 1918 end of The Great War in which two-million young men of her generation were wiped away, Violet Speedwell struggles to find any trace of meaning or purpose in her life. Brother, fiancé and father all dead, mother an intolerably-abusive emotional wreck and her opportunities deeply constrained by gender, custom and the dearth of even marginally-desirable suitors, her only sense of achievement comes from having moved-out to a boarding house room in the next city and managing to live on her own, though that living is marginal at best. Desperate nostalgia for the warmth of child-time church visits (one possible interpretation of the novel’s title) leads her to discover ‘the Broderers,’ a group of women engaged in embroidering new soft goods for Winchester Cathedral. It is that encounter which allows her to forge some tenuous personal connections and so drives this totally-engaging and moving tale.

This is necessarily a narrow tale, as Violet’s life is limited by circumstance and prejudices, yet the author uncovers sensuality in a hungry woman’s reactions to food and drink, entrepreneurialism in others’ efforts to survive when their jobs are lost to bigotry, and even a range of sexuality. The illicit love of two women is treated with empathy and honor, making clear that it is love for its own sake (‘their own sakes’?) not just a make-do for the lack of eligible men, as some of their compatriots rationalize it. Violet’s own romance, a sparse affair with a married man devoted to caring for a wife tormented by the wartime death of their only son, is doomed in most senses, yet still nurtures them both in important respects, even before it produces the slender thread of permanent connection that restores meaning to each of them and to the novel’s title.

Along the way we learn about embroidery bell-ringing and church customs, and are reminded of how material our modern lives have become as we see Violet live with barely more than a suitcase-full of possessions. We also discover real artistic ambition and achievement in women (the actual historical figure of  Miss Louisa Pesel, in particular) whom we might otherwise dismiss as slaves to convention, decoration and rote following of recipe.

More than any of Chevalier’s earlier novels, this one opened my eyes to what she is really doing, correcting the lack of female figures in familiar moments of cultural history by novelizing them through a female point of view. From the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, to the paintings of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the writings of Wm. Blake in Burning Bright and the discoveries of Darwin and early fossil hunters in Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier illustrates that women were present and integral to the work for which men have been so lauded. Not only that, but those women’s contributions were made under duress and restrictions far greater than the men ever faced.

Each volume entertains and enlightens at the same time they serve, both singly and as a body, that very worthwhile social purpose. Brava, Ms. Chevalier, brava.