We never learn the real name of the narrator in Joseph O’Neill’s new novel, but we do learn that his professional name begins with the letter X. He woWe never learn the real name of the narrator in Joseph O’Neill’s new novel, but we do learn that his professional name begins with the letter X. He won’t reveal his given name under pain of humiliation. X. thinks of himself, with a little help from his former lover, as “the dog,” as in “it appears I’m in the doghouse.” He thinks fairly rationally (probably due to his legal training) but with long trailing parenthetical asides, sometimes requiring up to five (or six!) parentheses together to finally close the ellipses of his ruminations and bring him back to the point.
And the point is…our man, just an ordinary man by the sounds of him, has got himself out on a very thin limb and…he really has no friends. Or rather, he does have friends, but only the kind that helpfully change the subject when it looks as though someone might actually say something revealing or personal. You know—the kind of friends that might offer you a job but might not be the kind you actually want to work for. Which he did. Take the job. In Dubai.
That is to say, he quit the job he had in the law firm he shared with his nine-year not-quite-wife, abandoned his rent-controlled one-bedroom in Gramercy Park, escaping initially to a luxury rental in New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel, and then he moved to Dubai. As X. himself writes,
“a person usually needs a special incentive to be here—or, perhaps more accurately, not to be elsewhere—and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis. Either way, fortune will play its expected role. I suppose I say all this from experience….One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life, a phase I’m afraid is ongoing, would be to call it the phase of insights.”
There is something vaguely embarrassing yet deliciously sexy to witness this man’s emotional strip-tease. He is not a hard-edged corporate lawyer, the “I can handle anything” type of man, but one who is perplexed and bewildered to find himself living a life he doesn’t actually like nor want. He is clearly still a little in love with his longtime former lover, Jenn, and recognizes that he bears some blame for being emotionally blank and linguistically blocked when it came to expressing 1) his lack of interest in moving away from his rent-controlled one-bedroom to a larger apartment and 2) his lack of interest in starting a family at 36 years old.
Once he begins to see that, in fact, he is not enjoying himself at all despite living in an expensive apartment in an expensive city and outwardly living the life of Riley, lets down his normal reserve, and starts telling us about it…well…it is frankly hysterically funny. Because, yes, if one looks at it from a simply voyeuristic point of view, he simply has nothing at all despite the aforementioned apartment in the gleaming city by the sea…and the desert. (”It’s almost nauseating to see the sand wherever the efforts to cover it has not yet succeeded.”) When he begins to think aloud how liberating it is that he could actually hang himself at any time because he has no kids nor spouse to worry about in terms of timing, we can’t help but chuckle. Not a good reaction to have, but this guy is already eviscerated. We’d just witness the burial.
X.’s apartment in Dubai looks out on a city constantly under construction. The buildings are tall and spectacular, and one construction site catches X.’s imagination. He calls it Project X. After one day sending his “man”, Ali, out to find out what it will be, Ali comes back with the news that the building is a mock-up, a “scale representation” of another building. “Project X isn’t a project at all. It’s a dummy run…The action has moved somewhere else.” Sadly, our minds flit to X. himself, imagining his now-empty 36 years as a mock-up for a life of promise and fulfilment and honor. Later, when he faces legal action himself, his shocked outburst, “this is my good name we’re talking about!” prompts his employer to respond, “Your name? What name?”
If one ever wondered what, exactly, it would be like to live in Dubai, here you will have one answer. X. calmly and pointedly gives us Dubai’s “crimes of nature against man” and the “Dubaian counterattack on the natural,” as well as his increasingly distressed and alienated view of the expat scene. But when he returns to New York on a business trip and expresses horror at the lumpy streets and soot-blackened store fronts, with some regret we note his former home is home no more. Alas.
Modern man, as we wish we never saw him. O’Neill, our Scheherazade, unravelling his gossamer veils one by one. I wish it didn’t end.
The Random House Audio production is brilliantly, and dolefully, read by Erik Davies. I found myself wanting to quote large sections of this in my review...but there was too much. Gorgeous language. ...more
I am not sure why this book did not get more attention when it came out in 2010, but I might have an idea. I tried to read it several times after seeiI am not sure why this book did not get more attention when it came out in 2010, but I might have an idea. I tried to read it several times after seeing Greg Myre on a news program in which the book was mentioned. I could not get far before the details of atrocity overwhelmed me time and again. The subtitle of this book is “Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and was billed as a considered look at how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has worsened over the years since 2000.
I could see no analysis in the first one hundred pages, just very detailed stories of people viewing or being caught in the conflict. If one were planning to move to Israel or the West Bank one might be interested in how the two reporters adjusted their language, their housing, their lives to accommodate the sickening and cultured hatred between the two sides, but it is difficult to stomach as an outsider.
I must admit I prefer sanitized news copy with someone trying to explain how this will change rather than focusing on the exchange of bullets and insult between the two camps. If the two sides only knew how the rest of the world lives, and how we perceive their bloody interchange, they might take a step back. This book makes them seem quite delusional for their constancy. I don’t like leaving a scene of conflict without any lessons having been learned by myself or others, but I will have to in this case. ...more
The first time I sunk into one of Mark Helprin’s huge, atmospheric novels I wondered how it was this man was not better known. But he is well known asThe first time I sunk into one of Mark Helprin’s huge, atmospheric novels I wondered how it was this man was not better known. But he is well known as a maker of epics, I just didn’t know it then. That first brush with Helprin was A Soldier of the Great War which so enraptured me I thought I’d never read another that was as good. Later, a professor friend of mine told me he “couldn’t get through it.” Older now, I wonder if it isn’t the fantastical quality of the romance, or the steel thread of Ayn Rand-like self-reliance that runs through his work that put my friend off.
Helprin, having attended Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, has had access to the lives of the monied classes and unashamedly uses that access to create lavish sets for his novels. His insights into this exotic world waltz us off into dreaming how it would be if…which might actually be more fun than actually living in that constrained and rule-bound world. To be reassuringly safe from the vicissitudes of having enough to eat or clothes to wear, this is the stuff of romance. I am less susceptible to those fictions now, but I can see its attraction for many.
This is another impossibly romantic tale centered on a great love between a New York Brahmin and a New York Jew. We are treated to the lush scenery of a minutely-observed post-War New York City, and to the problems encountered by small businessmen trying to keep their businesses viable while paying out protection monies on a weekly basis. The outlines of Helprin’s characters are carefully and completely drawn, and are then filled in with great swathes of color and fabric and angled light—that sunshine and shadow comes at us from every direction.
What I noticed and celebrate again is Helprin’s unequalled ability to observe and then relate the way the water in the wake of a ship, for instance, curls and moves and vaporizes, indicating current, direction, wind speed, tide levels…so much is caught in his web of words we can taste the salt spray. It leaves me gasping.
Helprin takes his time over this novel, moving back and forth in time, as expansive on the state of play in the garment district of New York as on the honeyed beaches of Long Island. There is a brilliant set-piece in which the aspirant for the hand of the heiress meets her parents for the first time. They eat dinner at the beach house on Long Island and the conversation is so elliptical and constantly shifting that one feels the danger in the meanings behind the words like hidden shoals upon which one might be wrecked.
The cast of characters is large, but completely manageable in Helprin’s hands. We get Manhattan: the theatre district, the garment and financial districts, the shops, the bustle, the 1950’s coffee shops with menus and waitresses. It is a brilliant reconstruction that must tempt more than one filmmaker to try it on. But it is too large a thing for a film; others have already tried to make films of Helprin’s novels (A Winter’s Tale), and they must realize it is too…hopelessly romantic for our hard-bitten and seen-it-all audiences today.
I listened to the audio of this novel, and it went on for days while I worked on endless tasks. The inflectionless voice of the narrator, Sean Runnette, was not appealing at first, but this is a long story, and perhaps his style is what was needed. It was a little like being read to by one’s parent at bedtime instead of by a professional reader. Not what one would have chosen, but it becomes familiar. Helprin is still writing epics and he has a unique viewpoint that gives us romance like no one else....more
This is a book that begs to be studied, not just read. Kissinger has spent his career thinking about world order and in this book he looks both forwarThis is a book that begs to be studied, not just read. Kissinger has spent his career thinking about world order and in this book he looks both forward and back, eliminating much of the static in the view we have of historical events. The result is a clear outline of national interests, power, and its balance through recent history, centered especially on the U.S. perspective, its intents and its perceived responsibilities. The discussion is helpful, and useful. However, in eliminating the “noise” from the systems and structures he presents, Kissinger may lead us to think within the framework he has created. In looking forward, a new world order must be something outside any previous framework: “wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage…” The cyber world developing around us changes everything.
A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship of our time.
Beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia after the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 in which nearly a quarter of Central Europe’s population was decimated, we see the structure of world order based on national sovereignty:
The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religions vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrain from challenging their existence. With a balance of power now perceived as natural and desirable, the ambitions of rulers would be set in counterpose against each other, at least in theory curtailing the scope of conflicts. Division and multiplicity, an accident of Europe’s history, became the hallmarks of a new system of international order with this own distinct philosophical outlook. In this sense the European effort to end its conflagration shaped and prefigured the modern sensibility: it reserved judgment on the absolute in favor of the practical and ecumenical; it sought to distill order from multiplicity and restraint.
Although China had little involvement with the world and no interest in the Westphalian system of order for centuries, it adheres to and calls on its principles now, when that system of beliefs is being eroded and perhaps even abandoned by the West. Kissinger points out that the Westphalian system of world order based on precepts of national sovereignty and non-interference in other nations’ affairs, is not working in the way it had been for centuries. Kissinger suggests that while in Asia states still adhere to the Westphalian model, the system is breaking down in Europe where economic and military interests are grouped while political power is based on the nation. In the Middle East, a radical Islamic group seeks to operate regionally, ignoring state boundaries. Since 2001 the United Nations has adopted new responsibilities that directly challenge Westphalian principles: asserting the “the responsibility to protect and intervention as a duty of care” even within the boundaries sovereign states. The cyber world features asymmetric power imbalances in which one laptop outside the boundaries of a nation can disable powerful national and international systems.
Regarding technological changes that have changed our notion of speed, and information, Kissinger says
Cyberspace has become strategically indispensable…The history of warfare shows that every technological offensive capability will eventually be matched and offset by defensive measures, although not every country will be equally able to afford them, Does this mean that technologically less advanced countries must shelter under the protection of high-tech societies?...Nor is it possible to base deterrence in cyberspace on symmetrical retaliation, as in the case with nuclear weapons…In the end, a framework for organizing the global cyber environment will be imperative… The dilemma of such technologies is that it is impossible to establish rules of conduct unless a common understanding of at least some of the key capabilities exists. But these are precisely the capabilities the major actors will be reluctant to disclose…In this manner, asymmetry and a kind of congenital world disorder are built into relations between cyber powers both in diplomacy and strategy. The emphasis of many strategic rivalries is shifting from the physical to the information realm, in the collection and processing of data, the penetration of networks, and the manipulation of psychology. Absent articulation of some rules of international conduct, a crisis will arise from the inner dynamics of the system.
I guess we have Snowden to thank for revealing that “all is known.” Warfare can now move to the psychological: What is it you think you know? There is perhaps no better time to think about the imperative for establishment of a new world order. Kissinger suggests that America must retain her moral compass but not abandon her sense of realism.
Society needs to adapt its education policy ultimate imperatives in the long-term direction of the country and in the cultivation of its values. The inventors of the devices that have so revolutionized the collection and sharing of information can make an equal if not greater contribution by devising means to deepen its conceptual foundation. On the way to the first truly global world order, the great human achievements of technology must be fused with enhanced powers of humane, transcendent, and moral judgment.
The suggestion that the technologists that bring us our systems for connection be involved in “deepening its conceptual foundations” is an interesting one. But perhaps more importantly, we need to move as the people of one nation to make that understanding of the internet's uses and abuses a part of our moral and ethical decision-making. These things can be taught.
The task ahead seems insurmountable, and the tasks addressed without knowing the outcomes of our choices. Kissinger reminds us that
the Westphalian system was drafted by some two hundred delegates, none of whom has entered the annals of history as a major figure, who met in two provincial German towns forty miles apart (a significant distance in the seventeenth century) in two separate groups. They overcame their obstacles because they shared the devastating experience of the Thirty Years’ War, and they were determined to prevent its recurrence. Our time, facing even graver prospects, needs to act on its necessities before it is engulfed by them.
Kissinger leaves us with a series of questions we need to ask ourselves in order to frame an outline to begin discussing this issue in earnest. It is a gift. Elder statesmen are rare beings, and whatever else he may have been called, Kissinger can claim that title. He is now an old man, an old man with long vision. He helps us by reminding us to get a grip, look within, take stock of our urgent responsibilities to our children, to be brave and take the steps needed to preserve and protect our country and our liberty.
To this point, I have addressed and quoted only the first and final pages of this book. In the rest of it, Kissinger gives us distilled observations, opinions, and insights from a lifetime of looking at historical underpinnings and the foreign affairs of nations, and of our own. There is no flab in these pages. It is enlightening. Kissinger was at his influence apogee in the Nixon administration and he speaks longingly of Nixon’s willingness and ability to think in strategic terms:
Nixon treated foreign policy as an endeavor with no end, as a set of rhythms to be managed. He dealt with its intricacies and contradictions like school assignments by an especially demanding teacher.
We have that teacher in this book, challenging us to lead.
I listened to the Penguin Random House Audio of this title, read with appropriate pacing and gravitas by Nicholas Hormann. Listening helped to bring some elements of the discussion into clarity. I supplemented listening with the text, published by Penguin. ...more
I hardly know where to begin reviewing this massive opus. But I know I am not alone because most of the people who have read the thing just rate it wiI hardly know where to begin reviewing this massive opus. But I know I am not alone because most of the people who have read the thing just rate it with stars to indicate how well they liked it and leave it at that. I don’t even think the star rating system works well when considering this novel.
2666 might almost be thought of as fictional nonfiction in that it reads like remembered thought, something like a memoir, though it is broken into “books” and many people are central rather than a single narrator. It crosses several continents, and takes in pieces of people’s lives that we later discover intersect. Or, more precisely perhaps, their paths cross paths, like meteors leaving trace. This is ‘Life’ writ large: the work is so bulky one can barely see from one end of it to another, one loses one’s way. One makes connections but too late or too slowly sometimes and even then what does it matter? What control did we really have? Could we have made a difference, a difference to us or to everyone else? Ach!
The work is comprised of five Books which Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, tells us were meant to be published separately. Echevarría decided, however, that the parts were better off coming together because of their linked quality, which is not apparent until Book Five. Bolaño was first a poet but he thought he’d make more money in novels (publishers and writers will no doubt laugh at this, though this author was probably right in his own case) and there were many times during this opus that I thought he’d have done better to stick to poetry. I was not being facetious. He throws in the kitchen sink, gathering like a vacuum factoids and sidelines from people’s lives that don’t really seem to fit or be at all relevant.
However, in the end, if you can get to the end (and again, I am not being facetious—this takes stamina and stomach) there is something here which is difficult to articulate. It is sorrow, it is appetite, it is fullness, it is all, including the bad bits. At the end we can say we’ve seen it all, experienced it all. If you cling to life in old age or sickness with the idea that somehow tomorrow will be better, put that aside for Life is not especially kind. It has good bits but there is plenty of bad, too, and you can’t have one without the other.
Book One begins with academics following the work of an obscure German writer. They admire his style and tout it successfully enough that the man is mentioned in the same breath as The Nobel Prize. They are curious about his life and where he lives and how he writes. The second book, “The Part about Amalfitano” is about a Chilean transplant to Mexico and appears to be Bolaño’s musings about life, death, love, art, sexuality, and reality. He ranges from “this shithole has no future” to “ Poetry is the only thing that isn’t contaminated…only poetry…isn’t shit.” This section may well contain explanations to the rest of the novel—why Bolaño wrote it, how he felt when he began, and what he intended.
Book Three, The Book about Fate, is a linking book, connecting forgotten and overlooked people whose lives, like threads, nevertheless intersect and overlap others in the ball of string that is life, and move us unfathomably in a direction that appears to be no direction at all. We, each of us, could write a section like this about our lives when we stepped off into the unknowingness of the wider world and played an infinitesimal part in events that occur in the future without our knowledge or consent. This book links directly to Book Four, though we don’t understand the link until Book Five.
Book Four, The Part about the Crimes, is one of the most horrific litanies of rape, murder and torture that I have ever heard, for I listened on audio and the narrator’s deadpan voice did not inflect no matter the nature of the material he recited. A spate (how trivial a word to describe a tidal wave of such proportions) of murders of women was taking place across a section of Mexico. By the end I had concluded that one man couldn’t possibly have done this if he worked full-time at killing, so it was a crime that spawned crime, and crime done with similar hatred and method. I looked in the paper copy of the book to see if the deaths were listed, like they sounded on audio (1,2,3…). But no, Bolaño writes in paragraphs: one’s eyes skim the size and shape of the words on the page and the horror is not revealed until it is spoken or read aloud in an endless, truly agonizing Reading of the Names.
In Book Five, we learn of one killer at least. And we see that elusive author from Book One, Archimboldi, again. It finishes with Bolaño writing to his publishers, friends and readers: “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you goodbye.” Bolaño died a matter of months after he finished the book. One senses he knew what he was leaving behind, both in terms of life and in terms of legacy. It is a very difficult work, and one doesn’t need it to live. One cannot help but be awed, though, by the workings of one man’s mind, and enriched by his big, binocular vision of this world and its inhabitants.
----------------------------- April 10, 2014
David Foster Wallace, giant literary figure that he was, was quoted in The New Yorker magazine as saying “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” It seems to me this is what defines Bolaño's writing. ...more
I don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biographI don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biography to his other work, but the subject--the life of Sir Roger Casement--is one which interests me deeply. Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book of the Congo, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, introduced me to the unforgettable figure of Roger Casement and I see Vargas Llosa was similarly captured. Casement was a man who harbored within him enormous contradictions and who struggled to live a life of meaning. Despite being hung for a traitor, he was a man of honor who stood up for his convictions, and who died for them.
Roger Casement (1864-1916) was born just outside of Dublin, Ireland, in a seaside location given variously as Sandycove or Kingstown. Though baptized as a child, Casement considered himself Protestant most of his life and embraced his Catholicism only shortly before his death. Much of what we know about him comes from his own journals in which he recorded his work, thoughts, travels, and sexual encounters. Vargas Llosa’s first section detailing Casement’s life and work in the Congo tracked so closely with Hochschild’s account that I realized both must have used the same source materials.
It is the second section, called Amazonia, which held my attention most closely. After Casement works with Protestant missionaries and the journalist and human rights activist E.D. Morel in the Congo disclosing the atrocities committed in the push to harvest rubber, he is dispatched by the British government to Peru to do the same there. He was not a well man by this time, for a white man in the tropics often developed debilitating illnesses that recurred with alarming frequency. Returning to the hot, humid environment of the Amazonian jungle caused his health to further fray. A photograph of Casement in Peru takes one aback; in it Casement looks positively skeletal.
Casement (on left) w/ Representative of Peruvian Amazon Company
Vargas Llosa describes Casement’s life in Peru with a verisimilitude and authenticity that makes those passages come alive. Casement had a nasty assignment, travelling to remote and dangerous outposts to conduct interviews and write detailed reports on atrocities. He couldn’t wait to be shot of it. But he persevered until he had enough damning evidence, only to find that the business interests trumped human rights in the Amazon, as they often did in colonial possessions.
Gradually Casement came to realize that freedom is something one must seize for oneself:
"I have reached the absolute conviction that the only way the indigenous people of Putumayo can emerge from the miserable condition to which they have been reduced is by rising up in arms against their masters. It is an illusion devoid of all reality to believe…that this state will change when…there are authorities, judges, police to enforce the laws that have prohibited servitude and slavery in Peru since 1854…In this society the state is an inseparable part of the machinery of exploitation and extermination…If they want to be free they have to conquer their freedom with their arms and their courage…We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom. They will never give it to us. Why would the Empire that colonized us do that unless it felt an irresistible pressure that obliged it to do so? That pressure can only come from weapons."
Vargas Llosa also captures the beauty and pathos of Casement’s homosexual encounters, for Casement was a gay man in a world constrained by its own harsh and corrupted morality. By the time he lived in Peru, Casement was increasingly indiscreet in his encounters and his recording of them in his journals. Vargas Llosa makes the point that Casement must have keenly felt his solitary, unmarried life. When Casement leaves the Amazon and returns to Europe via New York, he encounters a handsome young Slav, Eivind, for whom he falls heavily, thinking he is finally enjoying a mutual and adult relationship. Eivind will be his undoing, for he sells Casement’s secrets, including his determination to work for Irish independence, to the British.
Casement had been knighted after his work in Africa. When, in a roiled and pre-WWI Europe, he made the decision to go to a militarizing Germany to get aid for Irish rebels, the British felt sufficiently betrayed to try him for treason. While in Germany, Casement apparently considered every possible means to weaken the hold of the British on her colonies wherever they might be, strengthening the case by the prosecution and ensuring he would never be granted clemency. He was hung in 1916, a mere three months after his dawn capture April 21 at McKenna’s Fort in Ireland.
The last section of Vargas Llosa’s novel details the confusion of Casement’s botched return to Ireland and the support for his case, or lack of it, by longtime friends and admirers. Many old friends, including E.D. Morel, considered Casement seriously off base in his collaboration with the German machine against England, and so never responded to his letters. Though his hangman called him "the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute," even his Irish compatriots could not hail him wholeheartedly as a nationalist because rumors of his homosexuality offended their sense of moral right.
In the Epilogue, Vargas Llosa celebrates the return of Casement to the popular imagination:
"With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path to being accepted for what he was: one of the greatest anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland. Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, ‘is many men,’ which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality."
In 1965, Casement’s bones were repatriated and rest now in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.
To tell the truth, polar exploring never held much fascination for me. The only thing that makes me think it might be magical is that so many explorerTo tell the truth, polar exploring never held much fascination for me. The only thing that makes me think it might be magical is that so many explorers have mentioned the quality of the light. But the idea that one would risk one’s life and spend more than two years to “get through the ice pack” really seems like a dumb idea to me.
Given that, I probably was not the ideal reader for this book, but I took on this story because I thought maybe all would become clear. Sides tries to make it sound exciting, but he spends a lot of time going over the lives of the financial backers (James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of The New York Herald), and detailing the previous failed attempts to reach the North Pole. By the time the men leave San Francisco bay July 8, 1879, it already feels too late.
The U.S.S. Jeannette was first burdened with the task of trying to locate Adolf Nordenskiold's Scandinavian expedition to find a "Northeast Passage" which was seriously past its return date. The detour to Siberia meant the Jeannette's crew was late in getting off on the real purpose of their journey and indeed, once through the Bering Strait, they became stuck in pack ice. “Wintering in the pack may be a thrilling thing to read about,” DeLong wrote. Well, not so much, really.
Anyway, for two years these folks tried to free themselves and their ship from the relentless cold and shifting ice. The ice pack would move them northwest, only to circle back later. Eventually all choice was taken from them when their ship was crushed by the enormous forces of the ice. It is a frustrating story of hardship and heartbreak, though some of the men made it out alive to tell the tale and pass on locations of the ship’s log, which had to be abandoned.
What they learned was practically all negative: the maps and theories of the polar regions being floated at the time, notably those of the German cartographer August Petermann, were dead wrong. But they did discover a couple of islands (Jeannette, Henrietta, and Bennett seen below) and they learned that arctic ice is constantly in motion. In 1884, some years after Jeannette was wrecked in 1881, some of Jeannette’s wreckage (one of DeLong’s sealskin boots), washed up in Greenland, proving the ice movement absolutely.
Sketches of Islands Discovered by U.S.S. Jeannette
Sides does a remarkable job of research, and for those interested in polar exploration, this book must be a wondrous cache of riches. Sides collected the mass of information in a complete and rounded way, stretching long before and long after the two-and-a half years of the expedition. I, however, came away wondering at the choices of some folks. They prepared the best way they could at the time, and did amazingly well finding folks they thought might be able to take the isolation and challenges they were to face. I note that the innovative Mr.-Fixit-Melville was the man who ended up writing the stories of the others who died. He had both heart and brains and survived to tell the tale. There were other exceptional men among their number, Neidermann among them, who could take any amount of cold and physical toil. Tales of their exploits still thrill us. But the cost? These are the trade-offs men make. ...more
This book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing toThis book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing to grant King Leopold’s side another instant of attention after realizing that the facts had been obscured for a century or more by repression of documents relating to the case in Belgian state archives. Better that we finally uncover the ugly truth and take its lesson: unbridled greed may be the ugliest, most unforgivable, most unnecessary sin of all.
How can we not have known this horrible history? It happened only a hundred years ago. Though I am embarrassed I did not know the anguished history and perpetuation of evil in the Congo, I stand in good company. Hochschild tells us of a Belgian diplomat serving in the 1970’s Congo who learned of the atrocities by a chance remark from a chieftain recalling “the first time” of rubber collection. This diplomat-turned-historian, Jules Marchal, spent decades after his retirement from civil service investigating and documenting King Leopold’s personal fiefdom in the Congo and its long list of crimes there at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
What does become amply clear from Hochschild’s account is how it is possible to mount a resistance to a great evil. Resistance requires exceptional people willing to bear witness, but also organization and persistence. Edmund Dene Morel, the shipping clerk who recognized in the 1890’s what was happening in the Congo, immediately called out the injustices he saw there and never hesitated in his mission to publicize it in the years that followed. Fortunately, he was an articulate man with a convincing speaking style and he had enormous drive. He managed to gather like-minded folk to himself to voice a larger protest.
The life of Irishman Roger Casement, the gay man knighted by the Queen for his work as a diplomat and later hanged by Britain as a traitor to the crown for his work as an Irish patriot, stands as an example of the strange dissociation countries in power display when someone challenges their economic and political interests. I fell in love with him a little, Sir Roger Casement, as a man of great courage and vision: he saw what men are and did not despair, though one might say that, in the end, he died of it.
Black Americans who spent their adult lives speaking out against the horror happening in Africa, the Reverend William Henry Sheppard and George Washington Williams, have finally found their way back into history. Many Christian missionaries, though notably, not Catholic missionaries, did their part in publicizing crimes in pursuit of endless demand for rubber.
What I liked most about the book was the way Hochschild brought us past the period of the Congo revelations to the present day, telling us how we could have been ignorant of the time and the period. He followed the lives of Morel and Chapman to their ends, and introduced us to Ambassador Marchal of Belgium. He follows the Congo after Leopold through its Belgian colony status to the demand for self-rule and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first legally-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tells us of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Congolese President who continued crimes against his country that Leopold had begun, this time with American support.
I began to realize that some of the surviving chiefs of Leopold’s crimes were sometimes collaborators. Their behaviors have been perpetuated over the generations until there is nothing but misery left in that place. Now I understand better how a country so rich in natural resources could be so socially impoverished. The crimes continue to the present. What can be the solution to this kind of moral destitution?
I listened to the Random House Audio of this title, read by Geoffrey Howard. ...more
Ulinich does something extraordinary here by combining her storytelling and drawing skills to create an absorbing graphic novel featuring the drama ofUlinich does something extraordinary here by combining her storytelling and drawing skills to create an absorbing graphic novel featuring the drama of an adult woman searching for love. This is not ordinary entertainment, but instead a realistic and riveting examination of the vicissitudes of finding love and keeping it.
Lena Finkle is the twice-divorced mother of two who is about to get herself involved in an inter-continental relationship with a married man. When a friend wisely suggests Lena get more experience with men before she jumps into another unsuitable relationship, Lena forays into the world of online dating. Lena’s trenchant observations about her stumbling first steps in this direction are cringe-worthy best friend talk, admitting confusion, bad choices, and failure. To top it off, Lena has a homunculus on her shoulder making snide asides and expressing the observations Lena’s less rational side needs to hear.
There is an energy in this novel that derives from the combination of cartoonish drawings and the wrenching real-life agony of misplaced and unrequited love. References to the online dating site OkCupid lower the tone; comparisons of Lena’s work as a novelist with Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Anton Chekov heighten the tension. It is an absurdist romp with heartbreaking consequences, and yes, this is indeed a sort of classic literature filled with naked vulnerability and deep intelligence. There is movement, introspection, growth, and understanding.
The central character, a Russian, a Jew, and a mother, has all the strengths and weaknesses of those categories we use for shorthand. Lena denies her Jewish background (“I fail the faith test in God”) at the same time she pulls out her angst for us to contemplate. “Oh my God, I’m turning into a Russian wife!” she exclaims when she instinctively over-cares for her sick lover. In the next line she denies being slotted into that category: “I will never, ever be a Russian wife!” She is practical and loving as a mother, and also claims to be “impersonating a mother” when her love affair goes sideways. She tosses her homunculus into the gutter: “Your knee-jerk skepticism, your materialist rationality, and your stupid irony—what use are they to me now?”
Buying a pair of shoes might set off a flood of introspection, self-criticism, and a peering into the larger society: “buying a pair of red shoes wouldn’t constitute a punishable offense, but would certainly invite questions…which would load the shoes with too much significance to ever actually wear…which is why married people in Brooklyn are stuck in horrible moccasins and fleece sweaters they buy online…” The Scottish philosopher-lawyer-author Alexander McCall Smith couldn’t have said it better.
The man she chose to learn from was not the perfect man: he was a device for making her more self-aware and accepting. Lena wanted to ignore her homunculus and friend Yvonne who told her not to close her eyes to the bright yellow caution tape in his conversation. Lena needed to be able to see, to listen to her homunculus even when she didn’t want to. Finally, understanding dawns.
“No one ever really arrives. We just nudge each other along muddy ruts of suffering, occasionally peeking over the edges of our ruts in search of a better way.”
The name of Ulinich’s central character, Lena Finkle, is derived from two references that situate the character in the absurdist canon. Lena Dunham’s droll movie, Tiny Furniture, about a college graduate moving back into her mother’s apartment in the City, has an unforgettable scene about the struggle for intimacy—in a street-side construction pipe. This same hilarious and breathtakingly painful description of the nakedness of one’s need is keenly described in drawings and thought bubbles by Ulinich.
The second reference is derived from Bernard Malamud’s story, “Magic Barrel,” in which a man, Leo Finkle, asks for help from a matchmaker in finding a mate. Leo Finkle is a rabbinical student doing what was expected of him until one day he realized he had no faith! This set off a depression which led him to a “panicked grasping” of a young woman which he called “love.”
I can’t recommend this novel more highly. Its dark humor and anguished understanding ties into some of the great literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but in a format that is finally coming into its own in the 21st century. The graphic novel format is uniquely suited to Ulinich’s skills. As always when an author manages a breathtaking high-wire act, I wonder if it can be replicated. But no matter, enjoy this one for what it is—an astonishing and absorbing example of high-intensity literature for our time. Many kudos to Ulinich for reminding us of Malamud's delicious little story once again....more
Zhao Ziyang, former Chairman of the Communist Party in China, was politically sidelined in May 1989 and went into house arrest as a result of his oppoZhao Ziyang, former Chairman of the Communist Party in China, was politically sidelined in May 1989 and went into house arrest as a result of his opposition to the government response to students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This fascinating personal and secret memoir recorded in the years after his arrest was published only after Zhao’s death in 2005. Bao Pu, son of Zhao’s trusted advisor, secretary, and speech writer, Bao Tong, transcribed, translated, and published the documents in his publishing house in Hong Kong in 2009. Simon & Schuster published an edition with a Foreword by Roderick MacFarquhar, noted China scholar.
In that Foreword, MacFarquhar notes that Zhao was an economic reformer but a political conservative in the 1980’s, but during his house arrest he became increasingly convinced that political change was both necessary and advantageous, i.e., economic development must be accompanied by development of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. MacFarquhar asks readers to consider that it took some years of house arrest for Zhao to come to these conclusions and wonders how much more difficult it would be for those involved in the day-to-day management of state and skirmishes within the Politburo to come to similar conclusions.
Though Zhao Ziyang has been erased from public discourse in China today, he did have some notion that the demands of the students in Tiananmen were not essentially undermining the state, but all about modifying the state to better represent the will of the people. Reading the full narrative makes clear that Zhao’s position as Party Chairman in the spring of 1989 was already tenuous. He still had Deng’s support, but that was all. After his refusal to carry out Deng’s wishes in handling the student demonstration, his political career was finished.
Hu Yaobang, in the chapter about his ouster, sounds politically tone deaf. When faced with conflict Hu ignored it or went out of the country. Hu was Party Chairman when Zhao was Premier. Hu was forced to resign in January 1987, and Zhao was asked to take his place, though he’d made clear that he did not want the role of Communist Party Chairman. He would have preferred to stay focused on economic issues as Premier.
Zhao speculates that Hu was forced out because he suggested in interviews and by “loose talk” that Deng Xiaoping would (should) retire from making decisions. Zhao did the exact opposite with Gorbachev in 1989, suggesting that Deng was really in control of everything, and that Gorbachev, if he wanted the “final word” on anything, should meet with Deng. A little later we understand the reasons for this more fully.
Corporate types who have lived/worked with a group of people who disagree but who never openly voice their disagreements and instead jockey for position by leaks or by willfully excluding someone from discussions will recognize immediately the stomach-churning turmoil of the 1980’s government of the most populous country on earth. Each individual was a planetary power shifting his weight yet no one was precisely sure what the actual sticking points were since no one voiced their opposition openly.
It appears that the shift of Zhao to position of General Secretary of the Party from Premier in 1987 was the beginning of his downfall. Though Deng Xiaoping created a Central Economic and Financial Leading Group with the intention that Zhao would keep his hold over the management of the economy while at the same time handling Party affairs, Zhao was sidelined and attacked by more conservative ideologues Li Xiannian, Wang Zhen, Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun.
The real writing on Zhao’s headstone was Zhao’s failure to push through price reforms in the fall of 1988. He’d made preparation, proposed and supported the idea but when it came to implementation, he choked. Zhao’s chapter on official corruption gives a clear explanation of how vast sums can be channeled and manipulated through government enterprises unless there is price reform. Deng Xiaoping had made clear that he wanted this work done because all the economic reform efforts in the world couldn’t work properly without price reform. Deng said repeatedly that Zhao should be strong and if it all went sideways, that Deng would take the blame. But Zhao couldn’t pull the trigger, and the conservatives then had the ammunition they needed to refuse his suggestions as bank runs, inflation, and lack of available money slowed the economy. Reforms were retrenched.
Zhao later said that this was the thing he most regretted. Indeed, we learn something about the nature of leadership with his failure in this instance: a leader doesn’t necessarily have to be fearless, but he must be bold. A leader may be afraid, but he sometimes must make a bold move despite that fear (think Shackleton). I think Deng understood this. Deng himself was vulnerable to ultraconservatives who sought to sideline his influence, and he tried to preempt their attempts by resigning from all posts and suggesting other elderly statesmen do the same.
What happens next is just the burying of the body. By 1989 Zhao must have known his position was extremely tenuous, and therefore convinced Deng not to resign his posts, knowing he would lose his powerful mentor and his one friend in the upper reaches of power. Zhao finally split with Deng over the student demonstrations, which Deng felt should be dealt with harshly, by forcing the students from the Square. If Western observers thought the political center in China was in turmoil during Tiananmen, they had missed the fact that power was being consolidated, in fact. Deng stepped down from his position as Chairman of Central Military Commission in 1989, despite promising Zhao that he would wait a year. Deng was still consulted on official matters until 1992.
Zhao never was released from house arrest, and very rarely left his home. He died in 2005. His memoir of his final years was discovered at his home in plain sight, recorded over his grandchildren’s music tapes and tapes of Chinese opera.
This memoir was both heartbreaking and heart stirring. It has the feel of truth—Zhao Ziyang’s truth—which is all we ask of a memoirist. Bao Pu did a great job condensing the material, providing explanatory text, and making a worthwhile testament to Zhao Ziyang’s life. ...more
This Danish mystery series featuring Red Cross nurse Nina Borg in modern-day Copenhagen follows a long line of deliciously cosmopolitan and yet delighThis Danish mystery series featuring Red Cross nurse Nina Borg in modern-day Copenhagen follows a long line of deliciously cosmopolitan and yet delightfully local novels translated and published by Soho Crime. Reading a few of the mysteries by these illustrious authors will give the reader an indication of the quality associated with Soho Crime: James Benn, Cara Black, Jassy Mackenzie, Leighton Gage, Timothy Hallinan, Martin Limon, Peter Lovesay, Qiu Xiaolong, Helene Tursten, Akimitsu Takagi, Matt Benyon Rees. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis are in good company. Crime and intrigue is all the more complicated in a Danish society famously known for its liberality.
Invisible Murder is the story of a young gypsy Hungarian boy seeking to gain some control over the fates of his family by looting an old hospital left to rot by departing Russian occupiers. He intends to sell leftover X-ray equipment to the highest bidders in Europe, leaving himself and his family exposed to the most rabid and calculating bottom-dwellers in the criminal syndicate.
We meet Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse volunteering outside work with illegal immigrants to Denmark, and members of the Danish Counterterrorism Units who are chasing whomever accessed known terrorist sites on the internet while in their jurisdiction. We get a fascinating peek at the concerns of Danish society today, and the impetus for crime from the most underserved and exploited communities in the EU.
This novel is the second in a series, and as such the authors may have missed an opportunity to present Nina Borg in the depth first-time readers need to accept her leading role. The book was long and complicated—perhaps more complicated than it needed to be. Some judicious editing or more time spend reducing the work to its essentials would have aided our understanding and interest starting out, but the action picked up in the last third and it stands as a solid entry in this crime series. ...more
"It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it."
Were I a resident of Discworld, I am not entirely sure I wouldn’t be classified a
"It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it."
Were I a resident of Discworld, I am not entirely sure I wouldn’t be classified a goblin, a troll, or a dwarf. Terry Pratchett has created a satire so rich that we see our lives, successes, failures, and intentions reflected back at us. Pratchett can be biting, but he is never cruel. He retains an equanimity about human failure that inspires us to greater acts of idiocy and splendor.
Now the fortieth entry in the cycle of Discworld brings us the Rail Way by little tinkers who carried on tinkering. It changes everything! "…nothing…hurried to become something even faster."
I am sorry now I did not join Pratchett’s league of admirers earlier. He has a vast body of work on Discworld already that follows along with humankind’s stumbling activities and manages to illuminate our deepest held secrets and most agonizing social issues. Allusions to previous great works of literature and moments in history abound. Was there ever a more wise and humorous critic of our best and our worst tendencies?
A reader does not have to begin at the beginning with this series, though you may find yourself wishing to go back and delve into the riches of Pratchett's vision and humor. While these books can be read as delightful interludes 'twixt more serious fare, you may find yourself wishing there were more folks with Pratchett's understanding guiding our multiverse.
I was given the opportunity to listen to the Random House Audio version of this title narrated by the incomparable Stephen Briggs. He has narrated over thirty of Terry Pratchett’s books and has won numerous awards for his work. There is perhaps no better way to gain entry into the world of Ank-Morpork than listening to Stephen Briggs share his range of voices and interpretations of Terry Pratchett’s memorable saga. This is classic literature for our times. ...more
This is far and away the best and most accessible translation I have read and I looked at several since 2010. But best of all is that it can now be liThis is far and away the best and most accessible translation I have read and I looked at several since 2010. But best of all is that it can now be listened to, as it is read with great cognition by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney, Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner Louise Glück, and Bolligen Prize Winner Frank Bidart, in a new production cosponsored by Penguin Audio and FSG Audio. It doesn't take long to listen to (5 hours), and it packs a punch, just like the original should have.
Dante's The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in three parts and was written in the 14th Century, at a time when oral traditions in storytelling were still prevalent. One benefits from hearing the work spoken aloud, as in all poetry. But in this audio presentation we get only Part I, The Inferno and not Purgatorio and Paradiso. How I yearn to learn that the latter parts will also be translated by Pinsky. I have read Part I many times, Part II once, and never Part III. I'd like to see what Dante has to say about heaven. The whole work was originally entitled Commedia, and in later centuries other artists added the "Divine." The meaning is the same: our God plays with us humans...setting us difficulties and seeing how we manage. Many of us fail.
I came away wondering if this is the version of hell that the Catholic Church promulgated and has adhered to for centuries. Wikipedia says it is, and that in fact, Dante drew on St. Thomas Acquinas' Summa Theologica from medieval Christian theology. It is grim. It is horrible. It is hell in every definition. It is so similar to what I was taught that I wonder now how it is possible that so little has changed in Church teachings and at the imaginations of our religious leaders that no one has come up with a more hellish (or even a different) scenario. How little ignorance is excuse for wrongdoing in Dante's eyes. We have only ourselves to blame, he says. How clear our human moral conundrums seem from this fiery pit.
Remind yourselves of moral wisdom, and listen, just listen to our greatest living poets read Dante....more