Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On Ugliness by Umberto Eco

Ugliness, Umberto Eco explains, is not a concept so much as an anti-concept.  While writers and philosophers have been trying to explain, describe, and prescribe beauty for millennia, ugliness has remained beauty's opposite, lacking in a philosophical definition on its own:

Nevertheless, a history of ugliness shares some common characteristics with a history of beauty.  First, we can only assume that the tastes of ordinary people corresponded in some way with the tastes of the artists of their day.  If a visitor from space went into a gallery of contemporary art, and if he saw women's faces painted by Picasso and heard onlookers describing them as "beautiful," he might get the mistaken idea that in everyday life the men of our time find female creatures with faces like those painted by Picasso beautiful and desirable.
On Ugliness is a compendium of examples of ugliness in art, literature, and philosophy, and though it's not very analytical, it is exhaustive--a full third of its bulk is taken up by excerpted writings, and another third by artwork.  Eco's explication of these sources is deceptively minimal.  He does, however, organize the works in such a way that really brings out the fascinating ways our thoughts on ugliness have changed over time.  I had not noticed, for example, the way Classical depictions of ugliness are naturally meant to cause revulsion, while the early Christian world turns ugliness, in the figure of Christ's martyred body, into an icon of power and sympathy.  Nor had I thought about the way this "love" of ugliness is reduplicated in modern movements like the avant-garde, camp, and kitsch.  Other chapters are dedicated to the uglification of women in the Baroque period, the ugliness of the Devil, and the ugliness of the industrial landscape.  To illustrate, he offers images from Dali to Bosch to Man Ray and Frida Kahlo, and excerpts from Dante, Shakespeare, the Marquis de Sade, Kafka, William Gibson...

At times, the thread that ties these things together seems pretty thin.  I think that I ought to have read the predecessor to On Ugliness, called A History of Beauty, first.  Since ugliness, as Eco explains, has no real "history" in the way beauty does, I wonder if that prior book seems less disjointed or more cohesive.  Still, On Ugliness was a lot of fun.  I appreciate the way Eco gets out of the way of his sources, providing only enough to let us really appreciate the gruesomeness of the full-color images and the literature.

As a side note, while this book is beautifully printed (not that you'd call it a coffee-table book, I guess, unless you have weird people over for coffee) it is inexplicably riddled with errors and typos, from misspelled words to incorrect information.  (Canterbury Tales wasn't published in 1532!)  But something about that is appropriate, I guess...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Geneva Option by Adam Lebor

Yael Azoulay is a fixer for the UN Secretary General. She is not the kind of fixer whose primary tool is a gun. She relies on her wits, her intuition, and her ability to negotiate with anyone, whether warlords, genocidal dictators, and unscrupulous businessmen. When she is sent to the eastern Congo to negotiate with a Hutu warlord, something goes wrong, and she realizes that she's in serious danger, a danger with roots that snake there way back to the United Nations Headquarters.

Lebor writes action as well as just about any author I have read, and he sets scene quickly and vividly, sometimes with little more than a sentence or a phrase. One such sentence read, "Yael was drenched in seconds as the wet gusts hit her." This came in the middle of a fist-and-foot-fight between Yael and her captor in a car, shortly after the passenger-side windows shattered. At its core, the sentence is pretty basic, but it provides readers with a vivid setting for this scene in a mere eleven words. Brevity is hard to do.

Lebor includes a near perfect amount of detail in his writing, enough to immerse readers in a city, in a culture, or in an ornate 19th century building, but still well short of the overly-detailed writing of authors like Tom Clancy.

Although the preponderance of characters in The Geneva Option are fictitious, Lebor lends some verisimilitude to his international thriller, by referencing real-life events, situations, and in some instances even political figures. This, no doubt, stems from Lebor's investigative journalism background.

Although I really enjoyed The Geneva Option, I have one slight caveat. While I liked Lebor's Yael Azoulay character, there were a number of instances where it was obvious that this strong female lead was the creation of a male mind.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Maurice by E. M. Forster

The ugliness of the interview overcame him.  It was like being back on the train.  He wept at the hideousness into which he had been forced, he who had meant to tell no one but Clive.  Unable to say the right words, he muttered, "It's about women--"

Dr Barry leapt to a conclusion--indeed he had been there ever since they spoke in the hall.  He had had a touch of trouble himself when young, which made him sympathetic about it.  "We'll soon fix that up," he said.

Maurice stopped his tears before more than a few had issued, and felt the rest piled in an agonizing bar across his brain.  "Oh, fix me for God's sake," he said, and sank into a chair, arms haning.  "I'm close on done for."

Maurice Hall is the quintessential Englishman--wealthy and from good stock, but not ostentatiously so, good-looking, pragmatic, sociable, neither too smart nor too dull, skilled with money.  The quintessential Englishman, except in one way: he is a homosexual.

Maurice (that's pronounced "Morris,"  by the way) discovers this fact at Cambridge, where an intimate friend named Clive Durham confesses his love to him.  Though Maurice has a deeply buried attraction to Clive, his first instinct is utter repulsion, and his response is both funny and horribly sad:

Durham could not wait.  People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue he whispered, "I love you."

Maurice was scandalized, horrified.  He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, "Oh, rot!"  The words, the manner, were out of him before he could recall them.  "Durham, you're an englishman.  I'm another.  Don't talk nonsense.  I'm not offended, because I know you don't mean it, but it's the only subject absolutely beyond the limit as you know, it's the worst crime in the calendar, and you must never mention it again.  Durham! a rotten notion really--"

Later, Maurice will realize that he feels about Clive exactly the way Clive feels about him, and the two begin an illicit, long-lasting affair.  When Clive breaks it off, however--claiming suddenly to have switched to loving women--Maurice, alone, with a secret pain that cannot be mentioned, much less "cured," enters into a long period of agony, seeking but failing to find relief from doctors and hypnotherapists.

Forster famously wrote a note on the manuscript of Maurice that read, "Publishable--but worth it?"  And in fact, the novel, finished in 1914, was not published until 1971.  It's not hard to see why; Maurice remains a remarkable book in its treatment of homosexuality even today.  In 1914 a book merely about homosexuality must have been controversial; in 2013, what feels bold about Maurice is its claim that homosexuality makes its protagonist a better person.  Until he returns Clive's love, Maurice barely knows himself; embracing his sexuality makes him both aware and whole.  Toward the end of the book, Maurice takes up with a servant named Alec; it is his homosexuality, the "unspeakable" nature of it, even, that enables Maurice to connect with another human being outside of the narrowly prescribed social limits in which he resides.  It seems to me that this is a far cry from any narrative about homosexuality in our era, which seems to insist that it is either a deviance or an irrelevance to self-identity.

The relationships Maurice shares with Clive and Alec are depicted with frankness and convincing sentimentality.  I was somewhat surprised to find that, as a heterosexual reader, I felt as invested in these relationships as with, say, Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson.  But the most affecting--and perhaps true to Forster's own life--part of the novel for me was the Maurice's mental torture, which seemed a kind of awful prison.  What would the reading public have thought about that in 1914?  It's tempting to think of Maurice as an artifact of a larger gay rights movement that won't really get started for another 50 years (the Stonewall Riots were two years old when Maurice was published) but it's a story, not a polemic.  It is, in fact, a very old story, about the conflict between the individual and a society that cannot accomodate him.  The novel's strength is in its solitariness, the impression that the book, like its protagonist, asks only for a little space in the world in which to be.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Lost Bank by Kirsten Grind

Killinger, who believed the bank should be the best at any business line it entered, now wanted Washington Mutual to become the biggest mortgage lender nationwide.

The Lost Bank tells the fascinating, almost morbid, story of the rise and fall of Washington Mutual, which was a major factor in the proliferation of subprime mortgages in the 2000s and the recent economic collapse.  In a lot of ways it was somewhat of a prequel to Michael Lewis's The Big Short, which told the story of how investment banks screwed themselves by ravenously gobbling up mortgage backed securities.  In The Lost Bank, we find out how those mortgage backed securities came to exist in the first place.

Washington Mutual barely survived the savings and loan crisis in the 80s, but made it through.  At that point it was a smallish bank, operating only in Washington state, that mostly held people's deposits and made 30 year, fixed rate mortgages.  The book paints a very rosy picture of WaMu during this period, and the bank was moderately successful by focusing on customer service, community involvement, and fostering a friendly, family atmosphere.  CEO Lou Pepper was largely responsible for this success, in part because he put together a good team of executives who were well suited for running a bank of WaMu's size.  (Feminism note: Pepper and WaMu were ahead of their time in the 80s and 90s in terms of hiring and promoting female executives).  However, regulations that restricted banks' ability to operate in several states loosened about the time that Kerry Killinger took over as CEO, and the bank started down its path toward ruin.

As indicated by the quote above, Killinger conflated "biggest" with "best" and instituted a strategy of acquire, acquire, acquire.  WaMu gobbled up bank after bank, including Long Beach Mortgage.  At this point subprime mortgages were becoming to come en vogue, and Long Beach was the biggest purveyor.  After this acquisition, WaMu saw how profitable subprime mortgages could be (because the borrower has worse credit, the bank could charge higher interest rates.  Assuming the borrowers had worse, but not terrible, credit and the loans still got paid off, the bank would make more money).  This trend dovetailed nicely with the rise of mortgage backed securities and allowed WaMu/Long Beach to churn out these subprime mortgages, package them together as securities, and sell them to investment banks.  As long as the loans didn't default en masse, this practice removed the risk of the default of any particular loan from WaMu.  As you can imagine, these factors lead to some unsavory incentives, and WaMu salespeople began lowering their standards or completely ignoring them, offering loans with no documentation of income or other proof of crucial information.  Yet, investment banks continued to buy the increasingly risky portfolios of loans (with an assist from ratings agencies, like Moody's, who were grossly negligent and continued to rate the securities highly) and WaMu (and other companies, like Countrywide Mortgage) continued to churn them out.  From the book: "Long Beach account executives weren't stupid.  Many of them knew they were making loans that borrowers had almost no chance of paying back.  'I wouldn't lend some of these people money to buy a bicycle, nevermind a house,' said one account executive....And out there was this vague notion of Wall Street, and Wall Street wanted to buy these loans.  'I thought they must know something I didn't,' said the account executive. 'The all have MBAs and PhDs, and I just thought there was some variable that I didn't get.'"  Of course, the point of The Big Short was that no, they didn't know something that the account executive didn't.  They had no idea what they were doing.

WaMu also started offering Option ARMs (adjustable rate mortgage), which were a particularly impressive bit of sorcery (or, as one WaMu employee said, were just plain evil).  Option ARMs would start the borrower off with a crazy low interest rate, like 1%, which would recalibrate after three or four years.  The borrower would have three payment options each month: they could pay off part of the interest and part of the principle, which is how most mortgages work, they could pay off just the interest, or they could pay a third, lower, amount.  If they paid the lower amount, the difference between the interest only payment and their payment would be added to the principal of the loan, giving them more to pay off in the long run.  As long as home prices continued to rise, the borrower could refinance their loan before the interest rate recalibrated and avoid a huge increase in monthly payment, which would sometimes be thousands of dollars more.  These mortgages were hard for borrowers to understand, though, and salespeople didn't have a lot of incentive to fully explain them (if they understood them themselves), especially because they got much higher commissions for selling Option ARMs than fixed rate or even subprime mortgages.

Through the magic of accounting, when borrowers paid the low rate and the balance increased their principal, the bank could count the increase as earnings!  WaMu "earned" billions this way; everyone was getting rich, millions of people who had no business doing so "owned" their own homes, and they were all doomed.  For a number of reasons, house prices stopped rising and started falling, which led to defaults and people owing more on their homes than they were worth, which just depressed house prices further.  As a result, tons of WaMu's assets became worthless and they had to buy back a number of the MSBs they sold to investment bankers (thought not enough that a bunch of investment banks, like Lehman and Bear, didn't also go under or get bought for pennies).  In the end the FDIC took over WaMu and sold it to JP Morgan for a fraction of what it had been worth only a few years before, wiping out all of the shareholder value.  Thousands lost oodles of money and thousands lost their jobs.  It was a disaster.

The book spends a lot of time talking about the clusterfuck of the rivalry between the Office of Thrift Supervision, WaMu's primary regulator, and the FDIC, which was also interesting, and the question of whether the FDIC stepped in too soon to close down WaMu.  But in the end, WaMu was doomed anyway, there was no way they were going to be able to recover, so it didn't really matter, and it seems like the FDIC did what it had to do (and didn't end up using any taxpayer money to cover any of WaMu's deposits, which is definitely a victory).

There were a lot of interconnected things going on in this book and, despite how lengthy this post is, there is a bunch I didn't touch on.  Grind did a great job of making the subject matter easy to understand and compelling to read.  I recommend The Lost Bank to anyone who wants to learn more about why the economy collapsed and about how banks make home loans.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

What burdens we lay on the dying, Laurel thought, as she listened now to the accelerated rain on the roof: seeking to provide some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel--something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

Laurel McKelva Hand accompanies her father, Judge McKelva, to New Orleans for an emergency eye procedure with his young new wife.  The operation is not as benign as the "optimist" Judge would have it, and soon afterward, he succumbs to a combination of surgical trauma and sheer age, leaving Laurel and Fay in uncomfortable rivalry over the possession of his property and legacy.

The Optimist's Daughter is a very concise book (I read it in a single sitting), but it manages to reinvent itself at least twice.  At first, it seems almost as if Welty is setting up a broad, Confederacy of Dunces-type comedy.  The character of Fay is comically narcissistic and cruel, incapable of sympathizing with anyone, even her own husband through his illness and operation.  She may even be implicated in his death, which occurs shortly after Laurel discovers Fay trying to "shock him into life" through force, while shouting: "This is my birthday!"

After the Judge's death, the scene shifts to the McKelvas' family home in Mount Salus, Mississippi, where a nearly innumerable parade of mourners comes to call on Laurel.  Fay crabbily refuses anyone's kindness--even her own interloping family, arrived from Texas--and makes unsubtle pronouncements about "whose house this is" now.  And yet it seems like a comedy where the punchline is perpetually deferred, and the cast of characters comes on too thick and too fast to cohere into a recognizable backstory for the Judge, while Laurel remains curiously aloof from the action and from the narrative.  The heartwarming resolution we expect between Laurel and Fay never arrives, because Welty denies us even the prerequisite blow-up.

And then, strangely, the mourners go away--Fay skips off to Texas at a whim--and The Optimist's Daughter becomes a different book entirely.  Wandering around the empty home which will shortly become Fay's, Laurel is drawn into a series of memories that fill in the story of her mother, from her childhood to her marriage to the Judge and final illness and death.  This third of the novel is remarkably through and detailed for being so compact; in fact, I feel as if I didn't read this section closely enough, fooled by the first two parts of the novel into reading quickly and breezily.  In fact, what this section brought to mind for me was Marilynne Robinson, who works through memory in a similar way:

The first time Laurel could remember arriving in West Virginia instead of just fiunding herself there, her mother and she had got down from the train in early morning and stood, after it had gone, by themselves on a steep rock, all of the world that they could see in the mist being their rock and its own iron bell on a apost with its rope hanging down.  Her mother gave the rope a pull and at its sound, almost at the moment of it, large and close to them appeared a gray boat with two of the boys at the oars.  At their very feet had been the river.  The boat came breasting out of the mist, and in they stepped.  All new things in life were meant to come like that.
Such a wonderful little passage, but--and I suppose it's hard to tell from this review--so without context, springing up as if from nowhere, as if from a different story all together.  That's the mode of the last part of the book, which provides a remarkably detailed narrative for being so compact, and yet always seems to be one detail shy of really providing an intimate look at Laurel's interior.  At the end, Fay returns for the blow-up we were expecting, but by that time, the stakes have changed, and Fay--bitter and petty to the end--is the only one who seems not to recognize that stories don't always end the way that they begin.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Doctor Who - Beautiful Chaos by Gary Russell

November 23, 2013 marks the 50th Anniversary of the BBC’s flagship sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Largely unknown to American audiences before its 2005 revival, it’s a weird show that follows the titular Doctor, a Timelord who travels through time and space in a big blue police box, picking up companions along the way for company. Having existed in one way or another for half a century, with eleven different actors playing the Doctor,  it’s not the most consistent property but it’s rarely less than enjoyable, and sometimes much more.
As a promotional push for the big 5-0, the BBC is reissuing a tie-in novel for each doctor. I’m going to be reviewing two of them, and we’re also doing a giveaway, about which, more info is forthcoming. But for now, onto the book itself.

Beautiful Chaos features the tenth doctor, as portrayed by David Tennant, and his final companion, Donna Noble. The storyline follows the Doctor as he attempts to prevent a malevolent alien intelligence from taking over the world with purple lightning and wifi. As expected from the tech-heavy premise, there’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, including this, my favorite:
“I sent out a cancellation signal, via the net, to the M-TEKs everywhere. As soon as they are synced with computers, instead of downloading your orders, they’ll install a virus which will defrag the platform and erase their memories completely.” Dara Morgan tapped the return key one last time. “And, I’ve password protected it.”
Here’s a tech-support pro-tip: if defragging your computer erases its memory(sic?), you’re doing it wrong.

There’s a secondary plot, clearly close to author Gary Russell’s heart, about a secondary character, Nettie, and her gradually worsening Alzheimer’s. The plotline is handled tastefully until the end, when SPOILER the Doctor thwarts the intelligence by tricking it into inhabiting Nettie’s deteriorating brain--a weird, pretty cold-blooded tactic, although the world WAS in the balance, so let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

I never really know how to review these kinds of books. Aside from the Alzheimer’s subplot, there wasn’t a lot of subtext. It was basically an action movie in book form and didn’t take too much longer to read than watching a pair of episodes. It did a respectable job of matching the voices of the characters and it was nice to see some of these people again, since they’re no longer on the show. I guess if you’re familiar with Doctor Who, you pretty much know if you want to read this book or not. I enjoyed it for what it was--a very quick, somewhat silly read, that neither approaches the highs of the show’s best episodes or embarrasses the property. It does what it says on the tin.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone.  I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest.  Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons.  Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed.  That is to say, I pray for you.  And there's an intimacy in it.  That's the truth.

I actually read Gilead a few months ago, but then my roommate stole it before I could post on it.  In his defense, it's a good book to steal; as lyrically accomplished as Robinson's Housekeeping and even more emotionally affecting--affecting, in fact, in a way that few books written in the last half century seem to me.

The narrator of Gilead is John Ames, a minister in Iowa who is, he knows, in the final stages of his life, writing a last series of letters to his young son, the product of a marriage to a much younger woman.  These letters become an exploration of ideas that Ames knows he won't live to share with his son, an exploration of the nature of God as well as of his own history, his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his father and grandfather, tracing his family history all the way back to the Civil War.  Like in Housekeeping, Robinson's prose is really something to marvel at, but writing from Ames' perspective forces Robinson to curtail some of her more baroque tendencies.  Yet somehow, that limitation strengthens the writing by giving it a colloquial groundedness:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.  I know that this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

There is something beautiful and audacious about calling life "the great bright dream of procreating and perishing," yet those words seem as if they come from Ames, and not from Robinson speaking through him, and that's a really difficult tightrope to cross.

Ames' project becomes troubled when Jack Boughton, the black-sheep son of his closest friend, returns home after a long absence.  Robinson cannily keeps the sins which Boughton is guilty of under wraps for most of the novel, instead focusing on the anxiety that overcomes Ames when he sees how close Boughton is becoming with his wife and son.  But Ames needs Boughton; his return allows him to confront his own believes about forgiveness, family, and love:

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or a parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality.  It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.  So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?

I wish that my thoughts on this book were a little bit fresher, because looking through the pages I've dog-eared, I see any number of really striking, heartfelt passages like the one above that I'd like to talk about in relation to the novel as a whole.  But what I recall about it the most is that it resounds with a real sense of humanity--one that Housekeeping, though fantastic, often lacked.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier

Often, later, when he was falling asleep after trying desperately to recall that lovely, vanished face, he would dream that he saw rows of women like her going by, one with a hat like hers, another with her slightly stooping manner; yet another had her candid expression, another her slender waist, and another her blue eyes; but none of these was ever the tall young woman.

When Augustine Meaulnes first arrives at his new school in France's snowy, rustic Sologne region, his classmates nickname him "Le Grand Meaulnes," the epithet referring not only to his height but the size and grandeur of his personality.  In fact, is the title of the work in French, and though Fitzgerald borrowed the double-sense for his own The Great Gatsby, no English word quite approximates it (or so I'm told), which has led many to use a different title.  Here, translator Robin Buss shifts the focus from the Great Meaulnes himself to the object of his great desires: The Lost Estate.

"The Lost Estate" is a place, but it is also a moment, a state of being; the place and time that shines most brightly in your memory that you spend the rest of your life trying to return to.  (Do you have a place like this?  I certainly do.)  Meaulnes' "Lost Estate" is a country house he discovers after he skips school, borrows a horse and carriage, gets irretrievably lost.  It is a beautiful, half-ruined mansion full of strange and friendly characters in historic dress; they have gathered there for a wedding and welcome Meaulnes into the festivities with open arms.  He meets a girl there, Yvonne de Galais, the sister of the groom, and falls deeply in love with her, but when the wedding is abruptly called off and Meaulnes ushered back to his ordinary life, he pledges his life to finding both the house and the girl again.

The story is told from the point of view of Meaulnes' friend, Francois Seurel, but Fournier saves the most haunting and elegiac bits for Meaulnes himself.  Here he is, having tracked Yvonne to Paris, where he sits outside the window where he has been told she lives:

I still go past that window.  I am still waiting, without the slightest hope, out of pure madness.  At the end of these cold autumn Sundays, just as night is falling, I cannot bear to go back home and close the shutters on my windows, without returning there, to that icy street.

I am like the madwoman in Saint-Agathe who would come out of her front door all the time and, shading her eyes, look towards the station to see if her dead son was coming home.

Sitting on the bench, shivering, miserable, I like to imagine that someone will gently take my arm... I should look around and she woulkd be there.  'I'm a bit late,' she would say, simply.  And all the sorrow and the madness fade away.  We go into our house.  Her furs are icy cold and her veil is damp.  She brings in the taste of the mist with her from outside, and while she is going over to the fire, I can see her frosty blonde hair and her fine profile with its sweet lines bending over the flames...
It seems as if Fournier is setting us up for a story about the dangers of obsession and the cynical impossibility of recapturing one's youth, but The Lost Estate moves continuously in directions that defied my expectations.  Though it hinges on a laughably improbable plot, Meaulnes does find--and marry--Yvonne.  Yet shortly after she becomes pregnant, he leaves again, pursuing shadowy obligations that, in the interests of not spoiling the novel, I'll leave unremarked on.  Ultimately, Meaulnes is caught between adolescent romanticism and the pragmatic moralities of adulthood; what is so remarkable about the book is the way it manages to suggest that, while not without some sadness and loss, there is a space in life for each of these.  The fulfillment of Meaulnes' yearning becomes tragic, but not hollow, and The Lost Estate shows us that while the joys of our youth may be altered, fleeting, and strange, yet they are not inaccessible.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

As an institution that could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi.  As office managers, they were no more than adequate, but now, as autumn approached, with the exiles crowded awkwardly into their new sections, they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark.  And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen's one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.

Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices tells the story of  "Broadcasting House," the BBC's Radio arm, during World War II.  Fitzgerald's BBC is a collection of wearied administrators and young, anxious assistants, for the most part committed and noble but deeply flawed.  And yet she also depicts it as an institution, as much as any military or political one, crucial for the preservation of national spirit and resolve in the face of the German blitz.  She focuses on two veterans, Sam Brooks, Director of Recorded Programmes and Jeff Haggard, Director of Programme Planning--usually referred to, with bureaucratic blandness, as "RPD" and "DPP"--the former a needy romantic devoted to his small cadre of female assistants, and the latter a jaded but capable administrator.  Together, they are devoted to preserving the "human voices" of the U.K., a title which, if it's an intentional reference to T. S. Eliot ("til human voices wake us, and we drown") is actually quite foreboding.

Human Voices has very little in the way of plot--like The Blue Flower and Offshore, it seems more like a series of finely-wrought setpieces--but, like those books, many of these are really spectacular.  In one, DPP deftly anticipates that a fleeing French general who has requested airtime from the BBC is about to deliver a speech advocating surrender, drops him mid-speech for dead air.  I also enjoyed the subplots about the lives of the assistants, most of which faithfully record the way that intra-office politics and tawdry love affairs refuse to be interrupted, even by war.  At its best, Fitzgerald's writing has a wonderful, crystalline quality that perfectly captures the intricate detail of small moments.  This is one of my favorite paragraphs:

Mac was reading the Evening Standard by the light of a small fire on the pavement caused by an incendiary bomb.  He wore a tin hat and his blue formal suit with a Press arm-band, and had drunk a certain amount of bourbon.
In the end, the lack of a central character dampened my enjoyment of the book, which didn't succeed for me on the same level as the other Fitzgerald novels I've read.  And perhaps I would have really loved it if the blitz were part of my own national heritage.  As it is, I thought Human Voices was merely very good, and the extent to which I wanted more from it is indicative of how great Fitzgerald's writing is.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Shadows of Minidoka: Paintings and Collections of Roger Shimomura

American Guardian
Four decades later the reasons for this decision were analyzed by the presidential Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians:

The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity . . . The broad historical causes . . . were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.  Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan.  A grave injustice was done to Americans and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry, who without any individual review or probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.

Shadows of Minidoka is an art book, showing Roger Shimomura's works influenced from his time in a Japanese internment camp while he was a child.  It contains a brief artist's statement, an essay on his work, and a historical essay about Japanese internment camps.  Observant readers might note that it sounds like I'm counting a book with very few words as one of my fifty; to such observant readers, I say, "Piss off, I'm doing the best I can here."

As far as civil rights abuses, the internment camps were bad; as far as legal justification, the internment camps are an embarrassing chapter in the U.S. Supreme Court's history.  Perhaps the internment camps should offer a lesson about the tension between national security and personal liberty.

What I see when I look at Shimomura's work is contrasts: contrast between race (Japanese v. Not), contrast between innocence and security.  Classmates depicts a Japanese girl and an American girl.  Their ethnic difference is obvious, but they are doing the same thing and wearing similar clothing.  The only important difference between the two?  One is behind barbed wire; the other is not.

American Alien #4
Another example is American Alien #4, depicting a young Japanese boy in a cowboy outfit.  Again, his Japanese-ness is prominently displayed.  However, again, the important difference between him and any other young American boy is that he is behind barbed wire.

And, of course, my personal favorite, featured at the top of this post: American Guardian, in which we see the shadow of a guard, rifle slung on his back, next to a machine gun.  The guard is overlooking the camp surrounded by barbed wire.  Ominously placed along the same line as the machine gun is a pin-prick of another shadow, the shadow of a boy on a tricycle.

Shimomura's point is that such restrictions come at a price: the loss of innocence.  And, unfortunately, history did not vindicate the Japanese internment camps.

With ongoing debates about Guantanamo, Miranda rights for marathon bombers, and DNA collection for arrestees, I can't help wondering if history vindicated anything in the rights v. liberty debate.  Still, even without answers, it's nice to have some pretty pictures to look at; you know, to pass the time while the drones and phone monitors are working.


Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

A young woman from a small town in rural Tennessee is on her way to an afternoon tryst. Not just unhappy with her marriage but with her current situation in general, this appear to be the quickest way out. As she is traipsing through the woods on the way to the determined meeting place, she is quite literally stopped in her tracks as she crests a hill and sees a valley below her that is blanketed in what appears to be gently undulating flames. Perplexed and somewhat shaken, she takes it as a sign and returns to her home.

This is how Flight Behavior opens, with sex and fire and mystery. The excitement fades a little, as it becomes known that the valley was turned orange not by flames, but by monarch butterflies. As the book finds its pace, the reader is introduced to the young woman. Dellarobia is the mother of two. She and her husband Cub live in a small house in a corner of his parents' farm. She and Cub grew up in Feathertown and although she had dreams to leave, they were never actualized. The monarch wintering in the hills of Tennessee rather than the mountains of Mexico start to attract attention. Meanwhile, Cub's father makes known his intention to sell logging rights to his land--the land that is the winter home to thousands of monarchs. In large part, this is the drama of the book. A slow moving collision of minds that you know is going to happen at any time--with those who are accepting of change and those who want to do things they way they have been done.

I found Flight Behavior to be a very slow read. While I was interesting in the story, and in the characters to varying degrees, the book just crawled along. Not much happens. Conversations span across five and siz pages. It may sound like I am saying that Flight Behavior was boring, but that is not the case. Kingsolver's writing helped hold my interest. She paints a detailed picture of small town at a point where change is necessary but with few residents who recognize this fact.

This is the first book by Barbara Kingsolver that I have read. I bought The Poisonwood Bible years ago, fully intending on reading it. It sits on a bookshelf somewhere. Waiting. I can't say that Flight Behavior has made we want to rush over and pluck The Poisonwood Bible from its shelf, but it did bump it up my mental list of book to read.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Dennis was a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment.  He had lived his twenty-eight years at arm's length from violence, but he came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death.  Never, it so happened, had he seen a human corpse until that morning when, returning tired from night duty, he found his host strung to the rafters.  The spectacle had been rude and momentarily unnerving; but his reason accepted the event as part of the established order.  Others in gentler ages had had their lives changed by such a revelation; to Dennis it was the kind of thing to be expected in the world he knew and, as he drove to Whispering Glades, his conscious mind was pleasantly exhilarated and full of curiosity.

Aimee Thanatogenos is caught between two men: One is Mr. Joyboy, her boss at the Whispering Glades Crematorium.  Though slightly older, Joyboy is an expert mortician, specializing in composing the dead in just the attitude their family and friends desire, and Aimee idolizes him.  The other is Dennis, a louche Brit who works at the Happier Hunting Ground, a crematorium for pets that aspires to Whispering Glades' reputation:

There was a funeral with full honours that morning, the first for a month.  In the presecne of a dozen mourners the coffin of an Alsatian was lowered into the flower-lined tomb.  The Reverend Errol Bartholomew read the service.

'Dog that is born of bitch hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.  He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one way...'

That's the general style of Waugh's satire in The Loved One, wish is crueler and bolder than Brideshead Revisited, the only other book of Waugh's that I've read.  The exaggerated brashness of The Loved One reflects Waugh's ideas about its American setting, and I suspect that, since it's set in mid-century Los Angeles, Waugh is making some comment on a peculiarly Hollywood fixation on appearances and decadence, even to the point of death.

What Aimee ultimately discovers is that the choice she agonizes over is really no choice at all; both men are utter losers.  Dennis takes advantage of her ignorance by sending her classic poems with her name inserted, knowing that she won't recognize them.  Joyboy, so admired for his adroit handling of dead bodies, turns out to be little more than a middle-aged man who lives with his critical, neglectful mother and her ancient parrot.  She is the "loved one" of the title, but that's also what they call the corpses at Whispering Glades--which is pretty ominous.

I thought The Loved One was a collection of interesting satirical ideas that never really came together.  I might have liked it more if it hadn't been so clearly indebted to the books of Nathanael West--Waugh's LA looks a lot like the sunny hellscape of The Day of the Locust, and a plotline where Aimee seeks advice from a local newspaper advice columnist is cribbed straight from Miss LonelyheartsBringing those books to mind only makes The Loved One seem more limp by comparison, and underscores how little we are made to care about the fate of these characters.  Ultimately, The Loved One seems to me like an author trying unsuccessfully to be someone else.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Don't Shoot by David Kennedy

America's orgy of imprisonment is fantastic.... There was no connection to crime rates.  Crime went up, more people in prison.  Crime went down, more people in prison.  The sheer volume is staggering.  Current prison population versus 1970 prison population: an increase of more than 1100%.  More than one in a hundred American adults are locked up.

White men, over 18: one in 106.
Black men, over 18: one in 15.
Black men, 20-34: one in nine.

Randy reviewed this book a couple of months ago and did a great job recapping Kennedy's methods and successes, so I direct you to his post for a more thorough description.  In short, Kennedy (and, I assume, others, though he sort of humble brags his way through the book and aww-shucksingly gives himself a lot of credit) saw that bitter animosity and lack of communication between communities (usually African-American communities) and law enforcement did nothing to prevent violence and only made bad situations worse, so he embarked on numerous projects in various cities (including High Point, NC) to basically get gang members, social workers and law enforcement in a room and get everyone to realize that no one likes the status quo and that everyone will benefit from working together.  Wonderfully, Kennedy found that this strategy was very successful and could quickly and dramatically reduce gun violence, open drug markets, etc., though its sustained success depended on the commitment from government and law enforcement, which often was not forthcoming.

As comes across in Randy's review, the book is fascinating.  Some of the stories are shocking, depressing, and maddening, while others are inspiring, overwhelming and full of hope.  In the end, the work that Kennedy and his colleagues have done is amazing and their model should be used everywhere.  However, I do have some criticisms.  First of all, Kennedy comes across as a caricature of an academic, even as he tries to make himself sound like a grizzled guy who's seen some real shit.  He must have been so obnoxious for the cops, social workers and other veterans of these communities to work with sometimes.  My favorite parts would be when he'd talk about some huge breakthrough the research team had or some amazing discovery they made when a cop would just straight up tell them something that was totally obvious to anyone who had actually lived or worked in these inner-city communities.  It reminded me of European explorers "discovering" lands already inhabited for thousands of years.  Also, he makes all of the people in the book come across as fools several times when he emphasizes how long it takes them to realize the significance of certain facts.  For example, he said it took them 15 years to realize how significant it was that gang members they hadn't identified as the most prominent would want to be involved in their call-ins and programs.  Fifteen years!?  Really, Kennedy?  I wasn't there, but it seemed like he was explaining some relatively obvious concepts (just because you're black and in a gang doesn't mean you're not a rational human being).  Maybe given their prior experience the concepts would take some pondering, but not fifteen years worth.

Another question I had was about the role of race in Kennedy's experiences.  He bends over backward to say that the people in law enforcement who he worked with aren't racist.  While I believe him and don't think that police departments are just full of racists, I do wonder how he explains stats like the one quoted above.  A couple of times he gets into the disparity between arrests/police presence in black neighborhoods and that presence in white neighborhoods, but doesn't really explain where this comes from or how there's not a racist element at work.

Overall it was a very interesting book and its lessons, that preconceived notions and ideologies are useless in the face of practical, successful methods, can be applied to many areas beyond law enforcement.