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The Resistance Man

March 3, 2014 Leave a comment

resistanceman

Back at the start of September, 2011, I learned in Marilyn Stasio’s Sunday NYT mystery roundup about Martin Walker’s crime series featuring the delightful police chief Bruno, based in the fictional Périgord town of St. Denis. Stasio gave brief mention to Black Diamond, the third in the series and then newly out in the US. (She also wrote about “Sebastian Rotella’s remarkable first novel,” Triple Crossing, which I read the following December and commented on here. Superb book.)

As I explained at the time, I decided that if I were to read a Bruno book, I should start with the first, Bruno, Chief of Police. I downloaded it to my Kindle while we were in Nantucket the next week and began reading. Within three more weeks, I had moved on to The Dark Vineyard and Black Diamond.

That’s when I went to Amazon to find out when number four was due to appear, only to discover that it had already come out in the UK, with US release the next summer. Why wait? I ordered the hardcover UK version of The Crowded Grave, reading it in November. The pattern was set. Number five, The Devil’s Cave, would come the next August in the UK. I clicked on pre-order at amazon.co.uk, reading it on arrival.

Alas, Bruno fatigue had set in. The books are charming. Bruno is good company. But five of them in eleven months was enough. When the UK version of number six, The Resistance Man, came out nine months ago, I passed it by. I was content to wait for the US release.

That release was last Tuesday. It’s queued up now on my Kindle and iPad, waiting for me to start. All I need is a bottle of Bergerac, so I can drink along with Bruno as I read.

Categories: Books

A Dreadful Deceit

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

dreadfuldeceit

In early December, I learned about Jacqueline Jones’ new book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America from Robert Paul Wolff, who made brief but excited mention of it in a blog post.

I have this moment finished reading the Introduction. It is stunningly brilliant, managing to say with power and precision in nine pages what I tried in my feeble way to suggest in my one book-length effort to address the subject. I look forward with great excitement to reading the book, and I strongly recommend it to all of you.

On finishing two days ago, Wolff added that it’s “a brilliant book that anyone interested in questions of race and class in capitalist America should read.”

Jones is a professor at UT Austin and former recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize for American History. The publisher’s webpage for the book has this description.

From a preeminent social historian, the stories of six African-Americans whose struggles reveal the strange evolution of the concept of race in America from the seventeenth century to the twentieth.

In 1656, a Maryland planter tortured and killed an enslaved man named Antonio, an Angolan who refused to work in the fields. Three hundred years later, Simon P. Owens battled soul-deadening technologies as well as the fiction of “race” that divided him from his co-workers in a Detroit auto-assembly plant. Separated by time and space, Antonio and Owens nevertheless shared a distinct kind of political vulnerability; they lacked rights and opportunities in societies that accorded marked privileges to people labeled “white.”

An American creation myth posits that these two black men were the victims of “racial” discrimination, a primal prejudice that the United States has haltingly but gradually repudiated over the course of many generations. In A Dreadful Deceit, award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of Antonio, Owens, and four other African Americans to illustrate the strange history of “race” in America. In truth, Jones shows, race does not exist, and the very factors that we think of as determining it— a person’s heritage or skin color—are mere pretexts for the brutalization of powerless people by the powerful. Jones shows that for decades, southern planters did not even bother to justify slavery by invoking the concept of race; only in the late eighteenth century did whites begin to rationalize the exploitation and marginalization of blacks through notions of “racial” difference. Indeed, race amounted to a political strategy calculated to defend overt forms of discrimination, as revealed in the stories of Boston King, a fugitive in Revolutionary South Carolina; Elleanor Eldridge, a savvy but ill-starred businesswoman in antebellum Providence, Rhode Island; Richard W. White, a Union veteran and Republican politician in post-Civil War Savannah; and William Holtzclaw, founder of an industrial school for blacks in Mississippi, where many whites opposed black schooling of any kind. These stories expose the fluid, contingent, and contradictory idea of race, and the disastrous effects it has had, both in the past and in our own supposedly post-racial society.

Expansive, visionary, and provocative, A Dreadful Deceit explodes the pernicious fiction that has shaped four centuries of American history.

Just a week ago, the WSJ made A Dreadful Deceit the subject of its daily book review. Thomas Chatterton Williams called the book

a moving and painstakingly researched, at times almost novelistic, group portrait of five black men and one woman from different eras that, taken together, lays bare the ideology buttressing the notion of race and the “peculiar institution” it justified.

I’m adding it to my list.

Categories: Books, History

Tenth of December

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

10th-December

I’ve been starting and stopping a series of books for the last couple of weeks, unable to settle on which one to read. One is Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, which I wrote about in a post last March. This is the book about which Gary Wills concluded, in his review in the New York Review of Books, “Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.”

Another is George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December. When it came out a year ago, Gregory Cowles gave it a strong review in the Sunday NYT. I didn’t pay much attention, but I did when it was selected in December as one of the NYT’s ten best, with this short blurb:

Saunders’s wickedly entertaining stories veer from the deadpan to the flat-out demented: Prisoners are force-fed mood-altering drugs; ordinary saps cling to delusions of grandeur; third-world women, held aloft on surgical wire, become the latest in bourgeois lawn ornaments. Beneath the comedy, though, Saunders writes with profound empathy, and this impressive collection advances his abiding interest in questions of class, power and justice.

Still, I’m just not much of a short story reader.

A week ago, I gave it a try, reading the opening pages of the first story via Amazon, after which I downloaded the book. (The Kindle version is only $9.) And now the current issue of the NY Review has arrived with a review (behind the paywall) by Wyatt Mason that I have barely looked at, so as not to spoil the reading. I did read this bit, which I’m lifting without context:

The potential fluffiness of the sentiment is in part what makes Saunders remarkable as a story writer: he is a dedicated ironist, but one who manages to smuggle what some might dismiss were it emanating from a pulpit or Oprah into narratives that are embraced, not ridiculed, for their frankness of feeling—particularly their frankness surrounding death.

“Rehearse death,” Epicurus tells us, and Saunders’s fiction has been preoccupied with such rehearsals.

Mason includes a quote of Saunders from a year-old NYT Magazine profile. Here’s a larger excerpt:

Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”

And “Tenth of December” is more moving and emotionally accessible than anything that has come before. “I want to be more expansive,” Saunders said. “If there are 10 readers out there, let’s assume I’m never going to reach two of them. They’ll never be interested. And let’s say I’ve already got three of them, maybe four. If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

It appears I’m in for some good reading, if I don’t get distracted by the other books I’ve been dipping into.

Categories: Books

The Skies Belong To Us

January 12, 2014 Leave a comment

skiesbelongtous

I started this post a week ago. Where did the week go? Meanwhile, I was catching up just minutes ago on my blog feeds before turning to this post. The latest was a New Yorker post about this weekend’s NFL playoff games, with a preview of next weekend. The author’s name looked strangely familiar. Not a frequent New Yorker contributor, but I’d seen it somewhere recently. Brendan I. Koerner. Hmm.

Silly me. As you may already have noticed, he’s the author of the book that is the subject of this post, which I realized when I brought up my WordPress window and took a look at what I’d written for this post last week. Geez.

Two Fridays ago, I started Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, inspired by Dwight Garner’s inclusion of it a few weeks ago in his end-of-year list of 10 favorite books of 2013. Garner wrote that

Mr. Koerner’s book, a pure pop masterpiece, returns us to the 1960s and ’70s when commercial flights were hijacked with stunning regularity. He zeros in on one young couple’s criminal midair odyssey. Reading this is like watching a Scorsese movie, or hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio.

I downloaded the opening bit at the time and read through it, but wasn’t convinced I wanted to go further. Then I returned to the book nine days ago, still not convinced I would read far. Before I knew it, I downloaded the full book, finishing it less than two days later.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at the heart of The Skies Belong to Us pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

A shattered Army veteran and a mischievous party girl, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow commandeered Western Airlines Flight 701 as a vague protest against the war. Through a combination of savvy and dumb luck, the couple managed to flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom, a feat that made them notorious around the globe. Over the ensuing years, their madcap adventures on the lam would involve exiled Black Panthers, African despots, and French movie stars.

Yet The Skies Belong to Us is more than just an enthralling yarn about a spectacular heist and its bittersweet aftermath. It is also a psychological portrait of America at its most turbulent, and a testament to the madness that can grip a nation when politics fail.

And here’s more from Garner in his full review last June:

He folds many sad, weird and riveting skyjacking stories into “The Skies Belong to Us,” most of them little known, some more so, like the case of D. B. Cooper, who vanished out of a Boeing 727 in 1971 with more than $200,000.

The author carefully charts the slow movement toward screening baggage with metal detectors at airports, which did not become mandatory until 1973. The airlines and their lobbyists fought screening measures. They thought costs would be prohibitive, and that passengers would rebel. Civil libertarians fought screening, too.

The best move that Mr. Koerner makes in “The Skies Belong to Us” is wrapping all his information around one incredible single story, that of a veteran named Roger Holder and an imposingly beautiful would-be hippie named Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701, on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle, as a vague protest against the Vietnam War.

This event started small. It grew big and shaggy, as if a vision concocted by the director Robert Altman. It became the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. The plane ended up in Algiers.

As promised, the book interweaves an overview of a decade’s worth of hijackings with the details Koerner turned up on the wildest hijacking of them all. (He restricts, as I’m doing, to hijackings that began in the US on domestic flights.) Though never explicitly commenting on the events to come of 9-11, Koerner knows the reader will make the appropriate connection. The airlines were loath to introduce any measures at all for fear that the nuisance would drive customers away. And for years Congress listened. For instance, in 1968, Florida senator George Smathers raised “the possibility of using metal detectors or X-ray machines to screen passengers.”

This modest proposal was something the airlines feared far more than hijackers. For the industry was convinced that enduring periodic skyjackings to Cuba was financially preferable to implementing invasive security at all America’s airports.

In the grand calculus of business, an airline’s bottom line barely suffered when one of its vessels was diverted to Havana. The price to bring a hijacked aircraft and its passengers back to the United States … struck the airlines as chump change compared to the fortunes they imagined losing should electronic screening be made compulsory. …

Having turned a profit of more than $360 million in 1967, the airline industry had ample resources to hire Wasnington, D.C.’s, top lobbyists … . With such influential voices railing against metal detectors and X-ray machines, the FAA’s views on the matter had come to mirror those of the airlines. And so Irving Ripp parried Senator Smathers’s suggestion as certain to have “a bad psychological effect on passengers… . It would scare the pants off people. Plus people would complain about invasion of privacy.”

Three years and many hijackings later,

Eastern Air Lines announced the launch of a groundbreaking experiment at New York’s LaGuardia Airport: passengers on its shuttle flights to Boston and Washington, D.C., would have to pass their carry-on bags through an X-ray machine.

This is where Koerner’s story makes contact with my own life, as I was a frequent flyer of Eastern’s Boston shuttle in those days. What a great service, unimaginable now.

Living in Boston, I would just take the subway to Logan, the shuttle bus to the Eastern terminal and wait for the next flight to load. There was one an hour, with the promise that if it filled up, they’d roll out another. On crowded days, we’d line up along the giant windowed wall and stream on the DC-9. Once we took off, the flight attendants would come down the aisle with not beverage carts but pay carts, taking cash or credit cards as payment for the flight. No need for reservations or tickets. No security. Just get on. Koerner doesn’t need to drive home the point that things have changed.

The best part of the book, the part I initially thought I wasn’t going to find so interesting, is the story of the Holder-Kerkow hijacking and its aftermath. So many twists, and so many surprise appearances, like those of Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m glad I gave it a second try.

Categories: Books, Flying

The Examined Life

December 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Examined_Life

A week ago I wrote two posts, one about Under Tower Peak, the thriller I had begun reading, and one about The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, the report on the route from Central America to the US that I anticipated reading next.

As it turns out, we spent Christmas in San Diego. Or, more precisely, Coronado. (I may say a bit about our trip in a future post or two.) I made some headway on Under Tower Peak on the flight down Monday. At one point, the pilot pointed out Lake Tahoe on the left. Thanks to my seat in row 9 in Alaska’s setup of its 737s, I had no window. I’ll be avoiding row 9 in the future. I could see a bit through the window behind me if I leaned way back, though even then, I had to peek between the wing and the engine if I wanted to see anything not way out to the east. Thus, I never did see Tahoe. But when he pointed out Mono Lake a short time later, I had a perfect view, at which point I realized that I was flying over the very country in which Under Tower Peak takes place—the part of the Sierra Nevada between Reno and Yosemite. That was fun, as was the book, whose main character knows this territory intimately. He is a genuine modern cowboy and an Iraq War vet, at home with guns, horses, and mules, all of which comes in handy.

I finished Under Tower Peak on our flight back to Seattle Thursday night. With time to spare, I turned to The Beast. It is not easy reading. Nor did I expect it to be. I’ll get back to it, but Friday night I began looking around for something else.

In reviewing Michiko Kakutani’s 10 favorite books of 2013, I came upon one I had missed, despite her review last July: Steven Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. In her short blurb, Kakutani writes:

Despite its self-help-like title, this moving book of patient portraits by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz will make the reader think of Freud’s keenly observed and literary-minded case studies. Writing with sympathy and insight, Mr. Grosz distills 25 years of work into a series of slim, piercing chapters that read like a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks. As someone who helps his patients connect the dots in their lives, Mr. Grosz suggests, as Isak Dinesen once wrote, that “all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”

Here is the description from the author website:

We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.

In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviour. The Examined Life distils over 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight, without the jargon.

This extraordinary book is about one ordinary process: talking, listening and understanding. Its aphoristic and elegant stories teach us a new kind of attentiveness. They also unveil a delicate self-portrait of the analyst at work, and show how lessons learned in the consulting room can reveal as much to him as to the patient.

These are stories about our everyday lives: they are about the people we love and the lies that we tell; the changes we bear, and the grief. Ultimately, they show us not only how we lose ourselves but how we might find ourselves too.

I downloaded the free portion Friday night, read the first tale (that’s all one gets, once one gets past the introductory material), then downloaded the full book yesterday morning and finished reading it this afternoon. The stories are short, the book goes by in a flash.

I wouldn’t say the stories show us “how we might find ourselves.” That’s a bit hokey. As Kakutani comments, and despite the book’s sub-title, it really isn’t a self-help book. You will not learn to be your own therapist. Rather, it is a compilation of fascinating tales, many marvelously told, some (different ones, I suppose, for different readers) hitting close to home.

Grosz is careful to say less rather than more. Many tales reach a climax at a moment of awareness, when the pieces come together. Or at least Grosz suggests that they do, whether for him or for the patient. But he never belabors the point. We rarely see what happened next, if the moment of insight changed the patient’s life significantly or not. One may at times feel cheated, but I came to find that this made the book more powerful. No simple tying everything together, like weekly network TV dramas.

I was reminded, in this regard, of a course I took fall semester of my junior year in college. I don’t remember the title, but it was about personality theory, taught by George Goethals, an expert on adolescence. It might just have been the best course I took.

There was an extensive reading list. Harry Stack Sullivan. John Bowlby. Goethals offered enlightening lectures twice weekly, supplemented by weekly section meetings. My superb section leader must have been getting his PhD as a therapist, but he was already working full time as a counselor and associate director at a university counseling center with the odd name Bureau of Study Counsel. And he grew up one town away from me on Long Island. Each student, early in the semester, had to write a report about a relationship in the student’s life. Later in the semester, we had to write a second paper applaying one of the theories we had studied in order to shed light on the relationship.

There was one more component, and this is what Grosz’s book brought to mind. Six times during the course, Goethals stepped aside, bringing in a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School to present cases from his own practice. Each hour, he would tell us about a patient, the case history, the treatment, and the result. We had been reading about theory. He was here to tell us about real life, his underlying message being that real life is messy. He organized the cases in descending order, from complete success to total failure.

I wish I could remember the details. The last one was absolutely devastating. It involved a patient, a gun, a threat to his own life, maybe ending in suicide. Or perhaps I’m conflating the last two cases, one a suicide the other a threatening patient. The lectures left us shaken.

Since Grosz ends his stories in midstream, we don’t know which ones are failures, the revealing moment ultimately less than revealing. But the revelations themselves, some anyway, also have the power to leave us shaken.

Categories: Books

The Beast

December 22, 2013 1 comment

thebeast

I have my next book lined up, once I finish Under Tower Peak. It will be Oscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, which came out in Spanish a few years ago, but is appearing in translation only now. From the book’s webpage:

One day a few years ago, 300 migrants were kidnapped between the remote desert towns of Altar, Mexico, and Sasabe, Arizona. A local priest got 120 released, many with broken ankles and other marks of abuse, but the rest vanished. Óscar Martínez, a young writer from El Salvador, was in Altar soon after the abduction, and his account of the migrant disappearances is only one of the harrowing stories he garnered from two years spent traveling up and down the migrant trail from Central America and across the US border. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this increasingly dangerous journey each year, and each year as many as 20,000 of them are kidnapped.

Martínez writes in powerful, unforgettable prose about clinging to the tops of freight trains; finding respite, work and hardship in shelters and brothels; and riding shotgun with the
border patrol. Illustrated with stunning full-color photographs, The Beast is the first book to shed light on the harsh new reality of the migrant trail in the age of the narcotraficantes.

I learned of The Beast Tuesday night in going through the Financial Times’ list of books of the year. Some ways down (it’s a long list), I came upon this recommendation of Junot Diaz:

The most extraordinary (and harrowing) book I read this year was Oscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. This is a bravura act of frontline reporting that tracks the horror passage that many immigrants must survive (and some don’t) to reach the US from the south. These immigrants are preyed on by everyone and yet they cling to hope like they cling to the trains that will bring some of them to what they pray will be better lives. Beautiful and searing and impossible to put down.

That got my attention. Minutes later, I was looking at the Wednesday NYT online and realized this was the very book whose review I had passed over earlier in the evening. Larry Rohter concludes:

Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death,” Mr. Martínez writes. “The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies, they run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their head.” By capturing that grim reality, and in such gripping prose and detail, Mr. Martínez has both distinguished himself and done us all a vital public service.

Later I discovered that The Beast also shows up on the Economist’s list of books of the year:

Drawing on eight trips accompanying illegal migrants from Central America across the border into the United States. Oscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist, does a beautiful job describing a world that is hellish, violent and depraved.

I’ve downloaded it and will begin reading soon.

Categories: Books

Under Tower Peak

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

undertowerpeak

A week ago, in writing about Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, I mentioned learning of Bart Paul’s Under Tower Peak. The Wall Street Journal’s list of 2013’s ten best mysteries closes with this brief comment:

And “Under Tower Peak,” Bart Paul’s suspenseful debut, accompanies a pack-station guide in California’s Sierra Nevada through a hair-raising adventure starting with the mountaintop discovery of a dead billionaire inside a crashed plane.

The book appears to have been ignored by many of the usual reviewers, but it did get a full WSJ review last April by Tom Nolan. He opens by observing that

Bart Paul’s scenic and suspenseful debut novel, “Under Tower Peak,” a western thriller set in contemporary Sierra Nevada, displays some formidable influences—Hemingway’s, for instance, in the first-chapter opening: “Early in the season we rode up to the forks to fix the trail above the snow cabin. The winter had been good and the aspens had leafed out down in the canyon at the edges of the meadows. . . . The only sounds were the steady scuff of the horses’ hooves.” Shadows of Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison also flutter across the pages of this swift-moving tale, narrated by an Iraq-war veteran returned to the rugged terrain of his youth to work a few seasons as a cowboy and pack-station guide. “I always felt at home up in this country, the wilder the better,” says protagonist Tommy Smith partway into an unexpected adventure that proves as dangerous as anything he encountered in the military. “But now that big mountain half scared me to death.”

Nolan concludes that the

nonstop action in “Under Tower Peak” is well-paced, the plot twists surprising (even shocking) and the occasional humor welcome. In the end, it’s that right-stuff quality known as true grit that may save Tommy Smith’s bacon—and that elevates this fine first novel into a must-read book.

That’s enough for me. I’ve downloaded the book and gotten through the first chapter. No unexpected adventure or shocking plot twists yet. I’m ready.

Categories: Books

Saints of the Shadow Bible

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment

rankinsaints

I explained a week ago, in my post on Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, that I began it a few Thursdays ago when my copy of Ian Rankin’s latest Edinburgh crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, failed to arrive from the UK. I had pre-ordered the Rankin book from UK Amazon so it would ship immediately on publication, unwilling to wait for its US publication in mid-January. But when it didn’t come on that Thursday, I downloaded and began reading the free portion of Shavit’s book. The Rankin book arrived the next day, but too late. I was hooked on Shavit.

Since finishing the Shavit book, I have been slow to turn to Rankin, despite my love of his famous character John Rebus and my eagerness to learn of Rebus’s newest exploits. The new book and last year’s The Impossible Dead are unexpected gifts, what with Rebus’s retirement in Exit Music a few years ago and Rankin’s introduction of a new character, Malcolm Fox, in two subsequent novels. It didn’t appear that Rebus was coming back.

But he has, twice now. Why wasn’t I diving in? I suppose the problem is that I have grown accustomed to reading on my Kindle or iPad. No need to turn on a light when I go to bed or wake up. Thus, I’ve spent the last week avoiding Rebus, instead downloading opening portions of other novels and trying them out. Like, for instance, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I considered reading when it came out earlier this year, and which I saw mentioned by someone last week in an end-of-year list of favorite books. And another book, Bart Paul’s Under Tower Peak, which came to my attention two nights ago when I was reading online yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, with its own best-of-the-year lists. The Paul book makes the list of ten best mysteries as the closing recommendation:

And “Under Tower Peak,” Bart Paul’s suspenseful debut, accompanies a pack-station guide in California’s Sierra Nevada through a hair-raising adventure starting with the mountaintop discovery of a dead billionaire inside a crashed plane.

I hadn’t recalled seeing mention of this book before. On further investigation, I found that the NYT hadn’t reviewed it, but the WSJ did, back in April, with Tom Nolan concluding that “the nonstop action in “Under Tower Peak” is well-paced, the plot twists surprising (even shocking) and the occasional humor welcome. In the end, it’s that right-stuff quality known as true grit that … elevates this fine first novel into a must-read book.”

Wow!

Yesterday morning, I read the free opening portion, at which point the moment of decision had come. Download the rest and keep reading? Or turn to Rankin and Rebus? I chose Rebus, mostly for fear that if I keep delaying, its US publication will occur. I dare not leave the book unread that long. I paid the extra cost of shipping from the UK, after all, in order to receive the physical book. (One can’t download the e-version of a UK book onto a US Kindle if the book hasn’t been published here yet.) I can’t let it sit until the US Kindle version becomes available.

I’m now a fifth of the way through and enjoying it immensely. Too bad I deferred reading it.

What next? Maybe back to Under Tower Peak. Probably not The Interestings. Another possibility is Alice McDermott’s Someone, a novel that is on some book-of-the-year lists and whose free portion I read some weeks ago. Or one of the many history books on my reading list.

Categories: Books

My Promised Land

December 8, 2013 1 comment

mypromisedland

When I finished John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid on Thursday morning two and a half weeks ago, I thought the timing perfect because Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, was due to arrive in the post later that day from the UK. (I had pre-ordered it from the UK Amazon, unwilling to wait for its US publication in mid-January.) But when I got home that evening, it wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Dwight Garner’s review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel had appeared in the NYT the day before, reawakening the interest I had in it after reading Oren Kessler’s WSJ review two weeks before.

Kessler:

In the spring of 1897 a steamer carrying a delegation of 21 British Jews left Port Said, Egypt, for Jaffa—the last leg of its journey to the Holy Land. Leading the pack was Herbert Bentwich, an affluent London lawyer and Zionist leader and the great-grandfather of Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper and one of Israel’s most influential political commentators.

In “My Promised Land,” his first book in English, Mr. Shavit charts Israel’s history partly through the lives of his pioneering forebears: His grandfather, Herbert’s son, was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system, while his father was a chemist at the eye of Israel’s nuclear program. The result is roughly equal parts personal and family memoir, Israeli history, and prophecies for the land’s future. It is one of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years.

And Garner:

“My Promised Land” shifts into higher gear in its middle sections, with the claiming of the Masada fortress in the 1940s as a symbol for Zionism, and with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This book’s middle 200 pages are almost certainly the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year.

It’s not just that Mr. Shavit lays out the story of Israel’s founding with clarity and precision. This is a story we’ve read before, in a stack of books that, laid end to end, would wrap 88 times around the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It’s that he so deliberately scrutinizes the denial he locates at the heart of Israeli consciousness.

This book’s central chapter is probably the one about how the Palestinian citizenry was driven from the Arab city of Lydda in 1948. Many were killed; some were tortured during interrogations. There was looting. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, long columns, were driven from their homes into the desert. In expulsions like this one lie his country’s original sin, the author argues, beyond the settlements of its later expansion.

“Lydda is our black box,” he declares. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.” Mr. Shavit is a powerful writer about denial. The miracle that is Israel, he says, is “based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.”

It’s among Mr. Shavit’s gifts as a writer and thinker that he can see this fact plainly yet condemn “the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what” was done in Lydda “but enjoy the fruits of their deed.”

Garner’s claim that the “book’s middle 200 pages” are “the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year” sure got my attention. I downloaded the free portion that Thursday evening and began reading. Rankin’s book arrived the next day, but it was too late. I was hooked. (I also saw that next day, with the NYT Sunday book review posted online, that it would featured as the subject of the lead review, by Leon Wieseltier.

Until we get to the tedious later pages, each chapter of My Promised Land focuses on a particular time, place, and set of people, with some superb story telling based on historical research and interviews. The first chapter revolves around Shavit’s great-grandfather’s 1897 visit. The second drew me in through its treatment of Jewish settlement in the Harod Valley in the 1920s, with a focus on Kibbutz Ein Harod.

The further I read into this chapter, the more I had a sense of déja vu. Not that I had been there, but my cousin Batia had settled a kibbutz in the 1920s, and I began to suspect that it was in the same valley. Sure enough, later in the chapter, Shavit wrote about a day in April 1926 when the members of Ein Harod and some neighboring kibbutzim, including Beit Alpha, stopped work early to wash up and prepare to attend a concert held in a valley amphitheater. Shavit takes a moment here to explain that none other than Jascha Heifetz had performed in this quarry a few months earlier. As for Beit Alpha, that’s the kibbutz my cousin founded.

Batia was my mother’s (much older) first cousin. Her mother and grandmother—my grandfather’s sister and mother—were active Zionists in Poland. Batia moved to Beit Alpha in the 1920s. Her sister and mother stayed behind to continue their efforts, ultimately perishing in the Holocaust. When I met Batia over forty years later, in the summer of 1970, she was a kind older woman (not so much older perhaps than I am now) living in Tel Aviv with her husband, a chemist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who commuted to Rehovot daily to work on a chemistry curriculum for the nation’s high schools. One son was an engineer with two young children, living in a suburb south of Tel Aviv. The other was an advanced student at the Technion, still serving in the Army. It was a professional urban family, living in a modest apartment where I spent a lot of time.

A year later, on a return trip to Israel, I came to Tel Aviv one weekend to visit Batia and Fritz, as was the norm, and off we went on a Saturday morning on a long drive to a kibbutz where they had friends. It was Beit Alpha. To my surprise, when we arrived Batia and Fritz were treated like honored guests, as pioneer members decades before. This was counter to everything I knew about them. We had the most delightful afternoon. I remember the kibbutz as sitting on the lower slopes of a hill or mountain, with the West Bank border just beyond. On reading Shavit’s account, I realized this was Mount Gilboa.

Anyway, as Garner mentions in his review, the book hits full stride in chapter 4 with Shavit’s treatment of the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda in the 1948 war. From there, for 200 pages or more, the reader is in for a powerful experience. An essential theme for Shavit is that the Jewish settlers lost their way, or their innocence, not with the West Bank settlements in the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars but with the expulsion of Arabs in the 1948 war. This was, as it were, the original sin.

The book lost its way, at least for me, in the closing chapters, which become more a monologue in which Shavit expresses his concerns about Israel’s direction, less a historically focused treatment of key moments in Israel’s history in which a series of fascinating characters is introduced. The penultimate chapter goes on and on about the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapon development, something that evidently was a Shavit cause in his newspaper writing for years. The final chapter, one of the two longest, is an extended essay on the challenges the country faces. I would have been happy if the book ended before them.

Categories: Books, History

Encounters with the Archdruid

December 2, 2013 Leave a comment

archdruid

Despite being a decades-long John McPhee fan, I had never read his 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid. A year or two ago, when I saw that Joel had put it on his Amazon wish list, I bought it for him, this being an indirect way to buy it for myself as well, since we share a Kindle account.

I didn’t touch the book for a while. It was Joel’s after all. But I eventually downloaded it and read a few pages here and there, continuing to wait for Joel to read it first before plunging in. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, plunge in I did.

What a marvelous book. It’s three independent pieces, each featuring an encounter between environmentalist David Brower and someone whose work places him in opposition to Brower’s principles. First we meet a famed geologist at Stanford who advises mining companies. McPhee sets up a trip to Glacier Peak National Forest here in the Cascades, accompanying the two as they hike through the mountains argue over developing a copper mine. Next McPhee brings Brower together with the man who developed Hilton Head Island as they visit Cumberland Island, off the coast where Georgia meets Florida. Cumberland is in private hands and undeveloped, but development is on the way. Or perhaps a takeover by the federal government, which can convert it to national seashore. The third encounter, between Brower and the nation’s great dam builder, fresh off his completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, has the pair ride down the Colorado and debate future dams in the Grand Canyon.

The secret to the book is that each of Brower’s foes is entirely likable, a delightful character whom one finds oneself rooting for. I could quote countless passages to illustrate this, but I’d end up quoting the book as a whole. Here’s one I marked in which Dominy, the dam builder, recounts a trip with Robert Frost.

He and I went to Russia together. I was going to visit Russian dams, and he was on some cultural exchange, and we sat beside each other on the plane all the way to Moscow. He talked and talked, and I smoked cigars. He said eventually, “So you’re the dam man. You’re the creator of the great concrete monoliths—turbines, generators, stored water” And then he started to talk poetically about me, right there in the plane. He said, “Turning, turning, turning … creating, creating … creating energy for the people … for the people … .”

Most of the day, Frost reminisced about his childhood, and he asked about mine, and I told him I’d been born in a town so small that the entrance and exit signs were on the same post. Land as dry and rough as a cob. You’ll never see any land better than that for irrigating. God damn, she lays pretty. And he asked about my own family, and I told him about our farm in Virginia, and how my son and I put up nine hundred and sixty feet of fence in one day. I told my son, “I’ll teach you how to work. You teach yourself how to play.”

A year ago, Adam Hochschild wrote a piece about McPhee that explains the book’s greatness far better than I can. I’ll outsource the rest of the post to Hochschild.

To my mind, McPhee’s engineering masterpiece is his Encounters with the Archdruid, the text of which, like almost all of his books, first appeared in The New Yorker. A portrait of the environmental activist David Brower (1912-2000), it is structured like no other biography or profile you will read. Brower was a militant, not a compromiser or deal-maker, and his passionate, lifelong defense of the American wilderness against any threat dependably left his enemies fuming. And so the book is arranged around three prolonged encounters between the “evangelical” Brower, as McPhee calls him, and people who detest everything he stands for.

The first is a prominent mining geologist named Charles Park, whose entire life has been devoted to targeting deposits of valuable minerals, wherever they are found. He was a man who believed, McPhee says, “that if copper were to be found under the White House, the White House should be moved.” How does McPhee bring him together with Brower? He takes the two of them camping and hiking for a week or so in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington State. The setting is shrewdly chosen: Glacier Peak is a federal wilderness area, “not to receive even the use given a national park, not to be entered by a machine of any kind except in extreme emergency, not to be developed or lumbered – forevermore.” But there’s a key exception: mining claims, including a huge one held by Kennecott Copper, remain valid, and, at the time the men were making this trip, for more than a dozen years into the future new claims could still be made. To display two political enemies in combat, McPhee could not have picked a better battleground. Park chips away at rocks with his geologist’s tools, curious about what metals could be mined here to feed the American economy; Brower praises the beauty of the mountains, still unravaged by men like Park. Almost any writer, doing a story like this, would have elicited these rival points of view by interviewing the two men separately. McPhee, however, brings them together, where, with spectacular scenery in the background, they argue at length, providing him with writer’s gold: dialogue.

The second encounter McPhee sets up, again for what appears to be a week or so, is between Brower and a businessman who wants to build a vast housing development on a wild island off the coast of Georgia, complete with an airport suitable for private jets. Compared to the first encounter, the conversation between the two antagonists is much more polite. However, the businessman, Charles Fraser, has great contempt for environmentalists, calling them “druids.” He tells Brower, “I call anyone a druid who prefers trees to people” – hence the book’s title.

The third encounter is the most dramatic, and threaded through it, providing its narrative backbone, is one of the more spectacular journeys available in the lower 48 states: going down the Grand Canyon by raft. In the 1950s and 1960s some of the most furious American environmental battles were over the building of dams. As McPhee puts it, to environmental types:

The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT. Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline. Within that is a ring of pinheads each covered with a million people – and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam. Conservationists who can hold themselves in reasonable check before new oil spills and fresh megalopolises mysteriously go insane at even the thought of a dam. … possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.

David Brower regarded the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream on the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon, as “the greatest failure of his life,” McPhee says. But after losing that battle, he went on to furiously wage and win several others, stopping Bureau of Reclamation plans to build two more large dams in parts of the Grand Canyon itself. His arch-enemy in this prolonged warfare, the proud builder of the Glen Canyon Dam, defeated for the moment in the later struggles, was Floyd Dominy, longtime commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, in effect chief dam-builder for the U.S. government.

McPhee’s swift brush strokes make Dominy leap off the page: “He appears to have been lifted off a horse with block and tackle. He wears bluejeans, a white-and-black striped shirt, and leather boots with heels two inches high. His belt buckle is silver and could not be covered over with a playing card. He wears a string tie that is secured with a piece of petrified dinosaur bone. On his head is a white Stetson.”

Categories: Books