The OF Blog: Non-fiction
Showing posts with label Non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Non-fiction. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

National Book Awards longlist for Non-Fiction

The longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards for Non-Fiction was just announced this morning.  Yet I find myself somewhat disappointed in the selections, despite not having read any of them so far.  Maybe I'll be able to find some compelling tales and excellent histories here, but it seems less diverse and representative of what's being produced this year compared to the Young People's Literature and Poetry longlists.  Am going to read one at least, the Roz Chast, and maybe the John Demos, but uncertain how many of the others I'll read.  Maybe something from the shortlist, but this might be the category I don't really cover this year.  Anyways, here's the longlist:

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (also a graphic novel)

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Ronald C. Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944

Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn't behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that "this 'liking' business has two components:  moral approval and affection."  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. ("Not Here to Make Friends," p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues "in real time" before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay's wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories ("Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me"), Bad Feminist's essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema ("Surviving Django" and "Beyond the Struggle Narrative").  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in "What We Hunger For."  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of "darkness" in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren't grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of "What We Hunger For" discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow "safer" for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label "Trigger Warning."  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don't know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don't feel safe.  I don't feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay's essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough "space" for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay's essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a "bad feminist."  If Montaigne's Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year

For a moment, I paused in front of the wall of Salinger books and looked at the titles, the familiar spines.  My parents owned most of these:  paperbacks of The Catcher in the Rye and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – an Introduction; a pristine hardback of Franny and Zooey.  But I had read around them.  Why?  Why had I skipped Salinger?  Partly due to happenstance.  My high school English teacher never assigned Catcher.  No older sibling put a copy in my fourteen-year-old hands and said, " You have to read this."  And then my Salinger moment – the window between twelve and twenty, when everyone in the literate universe seems to go crazy over The Catcher in the Rye – had passed.  Now I was interested in difficult, gritty fictions, in large, expansive novels, in social realism.  I was interested in Pynchon, Amis, Dos Passos.  I was interested in Faulkner and Didion and Bowles, writers whose bleak, relentless styles stood in stark opposition to what I imagined Salinger to be:  insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.  I had no interest in Salinger's fairy tales of Old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world.  I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey.  I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita.  Even the names of the stories seemed juvenile and too clever-clever:  "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."  "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut."

I didn't want to be entertained.  I wanted to be provoked. (pp. 51-52 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Memoirs are tricky beasts to tame enough in order to review them.  Trying to lasso a writer's experiences and perspectives in, to place them within the context of your own assessments is more difficult than merely assessing plot, prose, characterization, and theme.  A memoir can be filled with beautifully-flowing sentences and gorgeous images and be as full of life as a vomit-covered toilet after a night of vapid partying.  Some stories just need more than technical brilliance in order to justify their raison d'être.  Perhaps it is as little as a fleeting encounter with another human being, a little yet profound twist in one's life narrative direction, but something is needed to help the reader to latch onto something, anything while reading about the minutiae of another's life.

Joanna Rakoff's memoir of her 1996 experience working at a New York literary agency (which she refers to throughout as simply, "the Agency"), however, has several things about it that make it an interesting and entertaining memoir.  Her descriptions of life working for one of the oldest literary agencies and their rather antiquated office procedures provides a fascinating look into New York publishing just as it was changing higgledy-piggledy into the digital age.  It is also an examination of the casual sexism that many young professional class women experienced in the era in which the debate raged over what type of suit/dress to wear.  Yet these are only part and parcel of her overall experiences during this defining, transformational year.  It was the year that she became acquainted with J.D. ("Jerry") Salinger.

Salinger only directly appears in a few scenes of My Salinger Year, mostly in the context of the numerous fan mails that Joanna, as literary assistant/secretary, has to answer with a form letter informing them that Salinger does not read nor reply to his fan mail.  Yet it is in these letters, from adolescents in North Carolina to World War II veterans in Nebraska, that reveal Salinger the writer's influence much more than anything the man himself says in the course of his periodic and brief phone conversations with the Agency's workers.  Reading these scenes reminded me of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran in its discussion of how literature can impact readers' social perspectives and be an agent for change.

And yes, Salinger (or the combination of his endearingly awkward phone conversations, the fan mail, and Rakoff's eventual reading of his œvre) acts as a catalyst on Rakoff.  Her relationships with two men, her former fiancée and the failed novelist live-in boyfriend she had that year, changes as she reads Salinger's stories and sees elements of his characters in them, particularly Franny in relation to Lane.  These revelations are organic, never appearing to be forced or stretched.  By memoir's end, Rakoff has changed from the nervous and determined to be proper young professional described in the opening Winter section to the resolute, independent-minded young woman who resigns her position in order to continue her personal and professional development elsewhere.  My Salinger Year is the story of Rakoff's development, due in part to her belatedly encounter with Salinger's writing, and it is a fascinating one for how adroitly she mixes the literary and the personal to create a breezy yet at times profound read.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The Assassination of the Archduke

Originally posted on World War I Literature, Art, and Cinema.
Today it is easy to look back upon the years before 1914 with a kind of gauzy, romantic nostalgia.  It seems a simpler time, when innovation enthralled and peace predominated.  The truth, though, was somewhat different.  All major powers had fought in at least one war since 1860, usually several, and the modern arms race had begun in earnest; incursion, revolution, revolt, and repression were rife.  The fifty years preceding that golden summer of 1914 witnessed constant violence.  Assassination was common:  The sultan of Turkey was killed in 1876; American President Garfield and Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881; President Sadi Carnot of France in 1894; the shah of Persia in 1896; the prime minister of Spain in 1897; the empress of Austria in 1898; King Umberto of Italy in 1900; American President William McKinley in 1901; King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia in 1903; Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia in 1905; King Carlos of Portugal and his son Crown Prince Luis Felipe in 1908; Russian prime minister Peter Stolypin in 1911; and King George of Greece in 1913.  Royalty and politicians alike fell in precipitous numbers to bombs, bullets, and knives in these “golden” years of peace. (Introduction, p. 21, iPad iBooks e-edition)

June 28, 2014 marks the centenary of the fateful assassination of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  This event, long considered to be the flash point that triggered the horrific violence of World War I, did not actually generate as much initial attention as the events that followed in July 1914.  After all, tragic as the event was, it was for some at the time yet another assassination, one that removed a troublesome heir and this removal could potentially reap benefits for the Austrian crown.  For others, with their deaths, the hope for a federalization of the Habsburg-Lorraine realms crashed with the report of Gavrilo Princip’s bullets.  For most of the past century, historians have focused more on the events surrounding the assassination and on the social and political pressures present on the eve of the assassination than on the actual killing of the Archduke and his wife.  In the wake of tens of millions dead, wounded, or displaced, those two initial deaths meant little more than just the beginning of this massive wave of deaths.  But what is the story behind their arrival in Sarajevo?  Is there something to be gleaned from their lives that would make their deaths worth considering in a context other than the beginning of a deluge of war-caused deaths?

In their 2013 book, The Assassination of the Archduke:  Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World, Greg King and Sue Woolmans take a close look at the doomed couple, seeing in their controversial romance and marriage, as well as their deaths and its aftermath, the clash of an old and new Europe, a conflict destined to engulf millions.  Theirs was a marriage of unequals, at least in the eyes of the Austrian court.  The future heir to the Habsburg-Lorraine possessions, consorting with a minor Bohemian countess?  Even though there had been some liberalization of attitudes during the 19th century, the marriage of a royal heir to a member of the lower nobility was considered to be scandalous.  The aged Emperor Franz Joseph refused to recognize Countess Sophie as equal to his nephew and despite his and the court’s every attempt to split the couple, the court finally agreed to allow the two to marry, but only through what is known as a morganatic marriage, in which Sophie could not receive the traditional title’s of the royal Archduke’s consort and any children of hers would be barred from the line of succession.  The litany of petty snubs and insults is strange to contemplate a century later:
This set the tone for the rules Montenuovo laid down governing Sophie’s life.  As a morganatic spouse, she was excluded from nearly every privilege enjoyed by other Habsburg wives; on the rare occasions when concessions were made, they were done in such a way as to ensure that her unequal position was reinforced.  Sophie was not allowed to appear with her husband in public.  If he attended a race, opened a museum, toured a factory, or dedicated a school, she had to remain at home or linger in the distant shadows, unacknowledged.  If an honor guard saluted Franz Ferdinand, she had to leave, for as a morganatic wife she was not entitled to receive the salutes meant for a Habsburg.  If the national anthem greeted the archduke, she had to withdraw, as she was not a member of the imperial family.  If officials made a formal welcoming address or presentation, she was not allowed to stand near her husband and give the impression that she in any way warranted official recognition.  Franz Ferdinand was forbidden from ever mentioning his wife in any official speech.  Sophie could not even accompany Franz Ferdinand to the races, for she was deemed unfit to share his place in the imperial box. (pp. 82-83, Ch. 5)
In several chapters, King and Woolmans juxtapose this ill-treatment with the Archduke’s fondness for his wife and young children.  The Franz Ferdinand that they depict is a person of contrasts, a stern, aloof figure in public who was a loving husband and father in private.  Utilizing several letters that the couple’s descendents lent to them, King and Woolmans make the case for the Archduke being, if not quite a liberal, someone who considered a federal model, based on that of the United States (which the Archduke had toured in the 1890s), as a possible solution for the growing radical nationalist organizations in various parts of the Dual Monarchy.  He particularly saw the fissioning of Hungary into Magyar, Ruthenian, and South Slav constituencies as a way of lessening the power of the landed Hungarian nobility. (p. 130, Ch. 10)

Unfortunately, King and Woolmans do not devote much space to exploring the possibilities that these proposed policies could have had on future imperial politics, as this could have illustrated more strongly their thesis that the Archduke could have been a good ruler who might have staved off some of the nationalistic excesses that took place in 1918 and afterward.  In addition, the relative lack of opposing sources to contest their portrayal of Franz Ferdinand makes it hard at times to contrast their rosy image of the assassinated heir with contemporary accounts of his demeanor and actions.  Their use of the Archduke’s preserved communications with his wife and others is valuable, but at times it appears that they rely too much on them, risking a distorted image of Franz Ferdinand in their attempt to show him and his wife as tragic figures in the conflagration to come.

The events in Sarajevo in June 1914 are perhaps the most arresting of the book.  The efforts the authors make in establishing the characters of the Archduke and his wife pay off in how the Archduke’s conflicts with his military staff and his taking advantage of a situation to have his wife travel openly with him in a public, official position led directly to their deaths on June 28, 1914.  King and Woolmans also utilize recently-released records to show that there seem to be very strong connections between the Serbian nationalist group the Black Hand, Serbia, and through Serbia to Russia.  The conspirators’ origins and planning are laid out in clear, concise fashion, with enough detail to make the reader curious to know more.  This paragraph in particular is intriguing:
If Austria attacked Serbia, Artamanov assured Dimitrijević, “you are not going to be alone.”  This is what Dimitrijević said he was told.  Was this Russian sanction for the assassination?  Or was it merely some vague diplomatic assurance that the Tsarist empire would stand by its Balkan ally?  The answer depends on what Artamanov told St. Petersburg.  A veil of plausible deniability cloaked everyone involved.  Official Russian documents concerning the buildup to World War I were later falsified before publication or disappeared altogether.  On balance, it is not unlikely that Dimitrijević told Artamanov of the plot.  Nor is it unlikely that Artamanov shared this information with others.  However, the murky connections and destruction of official papers makes it impossible to offer any definitive evidence on this critical question. (p. 165, Ch. 14)
King and Woolmans’ discussion of the immediate aftermath makes quite clear that the assassination was not necessarily viewed then as a casus belli:
Then suddenly the music ceased as word of the assassination spread.  Many people, believing the worst about Franz Ferdinand, reacted with relief.  “There was,” recalled Stefan Zweig, “no special shock or dismay to be seen on the faces of the crowd, for the Heir to the Throne had not by any means been popular.”  Theatrical performances were canceled and shops closed to maintain the mood of mourning, but many Austrians almost welcomed the news.  “The town takes it all very quietly,” noted Sir Maurice de Bunsen.  “There is not a sign of emotion anywhere.  They must be a very apathetic people.”  In the Prater, one man saw “no mood of mourning” as the round of festivities continued.  “God meant to be kind to Austria,” recorded famed diarist Josef Redlich, “by saving it from this Emperor.”  In many political and official court circles, Eisenmenger said, word of the assassination “was received with ill-concealed satisfaction.  They were relieved to be rid of so powerful and dangerous an opponent.”  One courtier greeted the news with the simple “The ogre is dead.” (p. 188, Ch. 17)
The authors immediately contrast this seeming apathy in Vienna with violent street fights in Sarajevo, as Turks and Croatians carried black-ribboned mourning pictures of the Emperor and began looting the houses of Serbs, treating them all as complicit in the assassination. (p. 190)  The investigation into the murders led to the arrests of most of the conspirators.  Mounting evidence indicted that the Serbian government in some fashion either knew beforehand of the assassination attempt or they may have actively aided and abetted the conspirators.  Although King and Woolmans make a compelling case for this, the paucity of discussion prior to the final few chapters serves more here to create an intruding discussion into the main narrative regarding the warm relationship between the Archduke and his wife.  It is not an unwelcome intrusion, but nonetheless, it does feel foreign to the narrative they had established for the previous four-fifths of the book.

The Assassination of the Archduke is one of those historical books that contains a wealth of sources and footnotes, yet is more accessible for the general layperson who might not be familiar with current research.  Certainly King and Woolmans do a good job in presenting a different side to the long-reviled Archduke, but there are times that they come across more as advocates for his defense than as historians writing a historical biography.  Leaving this aside, this book is valuable not just for its portrayals of the doomed couple, but also for its cogent presentation in the concluding chapters of possible factors that led to the Austrian government using an ultimatum to Serbia, an ultimatum that was not met and one that led to the catastrophe of World War I.  It may not be the best-argued and presented book on the Sarajevo assassination, but it certainly is one that adds to our collective understanding of the people who died there a century ago.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

"A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of Communism."  With this line, one of the most famous and enduring political pamphlets, the 1848 The Communist Manifesto, co-written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, begins. So much is associated with Marx and Engel's names, ranging from wars to authoritarian regimes to revolutionary zeal.  Leaving aside what was (and still is) inspired by their political writings, The Communist Manifesto may be the most important literary work of the 19th century in terms of its impact on socio-political thinking.

I want to begin with a few quotes from Section I of the Manifesto:

"Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?  Where the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?" (p. 8)

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." (p. 9)

"The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers." (p. 11)

"The 'dangerous class,' the social scum (Lumpenproletariat), that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue." (p. 20)
With just a few twists in phrasing, each of these statements can find their mirror images in current political discourse.  From accusations tossed about by conservative Anglo-American political parties to their opponents who seek to establish/maintain national health care to the 2011 Occupy movements to the plight of teachers (and their occasional demonization by certain elements of society) to the xenophobic rhetoric that rises in times of economic hardship, each of these find a faint echo in Marx and Engel's Manifesto.  Although Marx and Engels were influenced by Hegel's thoughts on thesis/antithesis=synthesis, they altered this dialectic approach to fit in with the materialistic age in which they lived.  While The Communist Manifesto is more of a précis than a substantive thesis (for that, see the various volumes of Marx's Capital), its concise, energetically-written summary of the plight of worker (proletariat) in the early Industrial Age introduced several concepts, especially that of class struggle, that have been influential ever since.

When I was studying history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, it was impossible to avoid using Hegelian/Marxist dialetics in explaining what was transpiring in a particular age/country/village.  From the struggle to establish an official "language" to the use of riot as a symbolic and material expression of class discontent to evolving gender roles to the erosion of belief in the divine right of rulers, Marx's marriage of change to material matters has proven to be enduring because it is the simplest and most effective means of describing what had transpired.  Even the weakest parts of the Manifesto, Sections II and III, are valuable in outlining the historical divisions of those who sought to change the emerging bourgeois model of power/production.  Although these sections were not as germane to my studies, they too were important in outlining the modes of opposition that Marx and Engels experienced in their lifetimes.

Should readers read The Communist Manifesto today?  It depends on how open-minded they are.  If they are able to divorce Marxism from the Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist warpings of Marx and Engel's thoughts on how class struggle would proceed to proletariat revolution, then within their concise yet elegant arguments those readers might find elements of comparison to what is transpiring today on the streets and boardrooms of every major city (and most minor ones) in the world.  One does not have to agree wholeheartedly (or at all) with their prescriptions to see that their diagnosis of industrial society's ills has had a profound influence on how we view those issues nearly two centuries later.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Robert Caro, The Passage of Power

The 1960 bill, Rauh says, was "a pile of rubbish and garbage" disguised as a statute.  It "was a joke," he says.  "Everybody knew it was a joke.  Nobody who was really for civil rights then could have supported it," much less have pushed it through the Senate.  And Johnson was not really for civil rights, Rauh felt.  Not that he was against civil rights; he was simply for anything – on either side – that would help him become President.  "It wasn't that he was a conservative or a radical or anything else; it was simply that he was trying to be all things to all people."  The revered liberal senator Paul Douglas of Illinois went further.  Johnson had remained at least ostensibly neutral in the cloture fight only because he had known the South would win, Douglas said; had the result been in doubt, Johnson would have thrown his full weight behind the fillibuster. (p. 176 e-book, Ch. 3)

Nearly 50 years after the tragic events of 11/22/1963, much of the American populace is still entranced by the "Kennedy mystique."  The glamor, the smiles, the speeches, the sense of hope and optimism.  All of these are associated with a Presidency that lasted roughly 1000 days.  Yet perhaps what is most enduring about 1960s governmental policy (itself a far less "sexy beast"), even despite the arguments presented during the 1996 and 2012 Presidential elections that its programs should be reduced, is the Great Society program of President Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ.  For over 40 years, the mere initials "LBJ" have sparked fierce reactions from Americans old enough to remember his Presidency (or his earlier stint as Senate Majority Leader).  Some have lauded him for passing the most sweeping social policy reforms since the 1930s New Deal programs.  Others have lambasted him for his increasing militarism and the Vietnam War escalation of 1965-1968.  A few have mocked his thirst for power, claiming that he had no vision other than what would garner him power; for those, Senator Douglas's comments doubtlessly would reinforce their opinions of LBJ.

In his fourth volume of his critically acclaimed biography series on Johnson, Robert Caro explores a critical time in Johnson's life.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Passage of Power focused on the period between 1958 and 1964, when Johnson transforms from a powerful Senate Majority Leader (perhaps one of the most powerful in the Senate's history) whose dedication to civil rights was at best viewed as dodgy by the Northern liberals in Congress and at worst seen as a blind meant to obscure his solid history of supporting Southern causes (not just those directly related to segregation) to a President who managed to get the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, cloture rules governing filibusters changed, and whose adept maneuvering of congressional leaders assured the passage of several important programs (minimum wage expansion, WIC, school lunch program, to name just a few).  This period has long fascinated Americans and historians of the period alike.  What motivated a man often disparaged by Kennedy staffers as "Rufus Cornpone" to get Congress to pass legislation that he himself rarely supported when he was in the Senate?  Was it simply political opportunism, the chance to put "his mark" on the Presidency?  Or was there something deeper, more sincere, about his sweeping policy proposals?  And what led to these noble programs being subsumed by the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam?

The Passage of Power originally was meant to cover all of these issues, but due to the amount of space needed to cover just Johnson's actions from his failed bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960 to the seven weeks following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 leading up to his historic declaration of a "war on poverty" in his January 1964 State of the Union address, Caro found it prudent to just focus on this period in which Johnson's behavior was at odd with his earlier (and later) public stances.  In exploring LBJ's motivations, Caro presents a complex, conflicted soul, a person who remembered his family's descent into "genteel" poverty in the 1920s and who favored the underdog, while also possessing a meanness of character that would lead him to humiliate those who worked for him and whose desire for acceptance would often lead to such fawning over those who could give him what he needed politically that his ability to "brown nose" is still remarkable even in a career where ingratiation is a necessity.

Caro's biography is divided into five parts:  the lead up to the 1960 Democratic Convention and Kennedy's surprise choice of him as Vice President; Johnson's humbling (and humiliating) time as Vice President; the assassination; the immediate aftermath of the assassination; and the transition period from the initial shock fading in early December 1963 to the historic January 1964 State of the Union address.  In each of these sections, Caro exhaustively explores Johnson's actions and interactions with people he had known for years, both in Texas and in Congress, and those he now had to deal with as an increasingly marginal player in the Kennedy administration.  Caro's sources include an impressive amount of primary sources, particularly interviews he or others had conducted with those involved with the events of the day (there were a few who refused to be interviewed by Caro, but for the most part the key players' reminisces were cited).  Yet a biography could contain a plethora of excellent primary sources and be weak if the biographer does not shape a compelling narrative from them.

Caro, however, is just that sort of biographer that can take these excellent sources and construct an even superior narrative from them.  Caro's LBJ is presented in all of his facets, with each sparkling in turn as the situation demands.  Caro does an outstanding job speculating as to what might have motivated Johnson to break with his past political record and to display personality traits during the crisis following Kennedy's assassination that very few who had known him for decades could have ever suspected that he possessed.  LBJ's faults are not neglected; they are present within even his greatest triumphs and Caro's willingness to take Johnson as he was rather than what he wished others to view him as being makes The Passage of Power a gripping political biography.

For those (such as myself) who have not read Caro's three previous LBJ volumes (each of which won prestigious American awards for non-fiction/biography), The Passage of Power contains enough references to events Caro discussed in those volumes that there is little sense that the reader is picking up Johnson's life in media res.  As a biography, it is one of the best that I have ever read of a political leader.  As noted above, Caro's sources are impressive and he presents conclusions that are cogent and which offer possibilities for historians to consider for years, especially when there likely will be a flood of new Kennedy/Johnson-related books released in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 unsealing of the final classified documents related to the assassination.  The National Book Award shortlist in Non-Fiction is a very strong list of finalists, but The Passage of Power perhaps is the best of a very stacked field of strong biographies and very good to excellent histories.

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain

Eastern Europe, along with Ukraine and the Baltic States, was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe.  "Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow," writes Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, the definitive history of the mass killing of this period, "but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between."  Stalin and Hitler shared contempt for the very notion of national sovereignty for any of the nations of Eastern Europe, and they jointly stove to eliminate their enemies.

Above all, Eastern Europe is where Nazism and Soviet communism clashed. Although they began the war as allies, Hitler had always wanted to fight a war of destruction against the USSR, and Hitler's invasion Stalin promised the same.  The battles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were therefore fiercer and bloodier in the east than those that took place further west. (e-book pp. 54, 55-56, Ch. 1)

Each generation seeks to redefine its own past, or rather to understand through their own concerns what transpired to motivate the previous generation.  In Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, there was a lag of roughly 25 years between the end of World War II and (leaving aside early yet influential works by Alan Bullock and Hugh Trevor-Roper) the first substantive volumes on Adolf Hitler and National Socialism that did not reduce the subject to mere quasi-demonic status.  Even today, the arguments are fierce in support or detraction of the Intentionalist or Functionalist schools of thought regarding the implementation of the Holocaust.  These seemingly (and likely) eternal debates over the past is what makes history a valuable field of study, as frequently new light is shed on past events with each passing generation.

It has been 23 years since the 1989 Revolutions broke out in Eastern Europe (and China's failed uprising; the Soviet Union's dissolution followed two years later) and the time is ripe for more reflective studies regarding the formation of "the satellite nations" of post-World War II Eastern Europe.  There have been a relative dearth of histories on the formation of the communist regimes of the 1945-1948 period, which is a shame, considering how important this era is for understanding not just the successful 1989-1991 revolutions, but also the unsuccessful ones of 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1981.  Journalist Anne Applebaum's National Book Award-nominated Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-1956 provides an extra primer for those who want to learn of the haphazard and often self-conflicting fashion in which communists rose to power in parts of Eastern Europe.

Although communist regimes sprung up over the 1945-1948 period all across Eastern Europe (with the notable exceptions of Greece – which managed to stave off a communist-led civil war after the end of World War II – and Turkey), Applebaum has chosen, minus asides, to limit the focus of her history to three countries:  East Germany, Poland, and Hungary.  In her introduction, she notes that she chose these three not because of their similarities, but because of their very different histories leading up to their communist takeovers and the subsequent approach that the governments there took toward internal and external protest, as well as their divergent leadership styles.  Certainly there are questions regarding this approach.  Are these three nations emblematic of the different politburos that controlled the other communist regimes?  Or could it be argued that each of the eight "satellites" differed too significantly for only three of the eight to be considered at length in a single history?

Applebaum does not come out and say it, but I suspect part of the reason why she focuses on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary is that she is more familiar with the three (and had more available sources, including interview subjects) than she is with the other nations.  It is a shame, because it would have been interesting to read more on her take of Tito's early break with the Soviet Union, which she discusses briefly at a few points in regards to the actions of the leadership in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary (another view of this split is presented within John Lewis Gaddis's 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning biography of Cold War American diplomat George F. Kennan, George F. Kennan:  An American Life).  This 1948 split, predicated on a more "national" form of communism in Yugoslavia (cruelly ironic, considering the events of the past 21 years), could be viewed as a precursor to the later events that Applebaum covers, particularly the 1956 Hungarian uprising.  Yet this noticeable lack of coverage is perhaps the weakest element in a book that otherwise provides a good blueprint for other histories of the time/region to consider.

Iron Curtain is divided into thematic chapters, with the responses of the East German, Polish, and Hungarian governments covered within.  There are two roughly chronological parts, "False Dawn" and "High Stalinism," within are found chapters with labels such as "Victors," "Violence," Ethnic Cleansing," "Youth," "Reactionary Enemies," "Internal Enemies," and so forth.  A key early chapter would be the one on Violence, which argues that from the very beginning of the Soviet occupation of the former Nazi territories, that the communists' goals originated in their use of violence.  While the indiscriminate decimation that was a hallmark of the Red Army's push westward in 1944-1945 was abandoned after the war in favor of highly-targeted forms of political violence (police crackdowns on demonstrations, arrests at night, show trials, prison camps, and the occasional execution announced to the public), much of Applebaum's subsequent arguments about the problems that the communist regimes perceived centered around elements of violence, whether it be the ways that others sought to protest against them and their responses to them.  While a theorist might have attempted to tie this into Marxist notions of power relationships, Applebaum concentrates more on the personal reactions to communism, including the collaborationist and passive resistance models that archbishops in Poland and Hungary used to blunt or oppose government power.

This focus on selected individuals, both the communist leaders as well as the opposition leaders, makes for an excellent political mass biography.  However, as a history it feels somewhat incomplete in regards to structures.  Of course, this complaint is more the expression of desire that Applebaum had gone further and deeper into exploring the relationships of the regimes with each other, the Soviet Union, and ultimately how the peoples in these three countries (and the other satellite countries) than an argument that her survey of the responses that the East German, Polish, and Hungarian governments had during the crucial 1945-1956 era of political transformation is poorly-written or presented.  Iron Curtain is a solid, occasionally excellent historical survey of how the communist takeovers of 1945-1948 affected the peoples of three Central/Eastern European countries.  Compared to the other National Book Award nominees in Non-Fiction, it is very good, but the few omissions and lack of further development that I noted above make it just slightly less than the best in that category.

Friday, November 09, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Anthony Shadid, House of Stone

The village market is an old tradition in the countryside, a legacy of Bedouin culture, and many towns around Marjayoun had them.  Qlayaa's was on Sunday.  Monday was Nabatiyeh's.  The most famous was Suq al-Khan, on Tuesday, near Kawkaba.  They were really no more than amalgamations of hastily erected tents and rickety stalls, where everything from scarves and screwdrivers to corkscrews and pirated CDs were hawked.  "Beautiful prices!" vendors shouted, to no one in particular.  However pronounced the tension, and even in times of war, Shiite butchers hung out their meat, willing to cut a slice and grill it, and Druze famers, in their white knit caps and baggy pants, kept coming to sell pickled wild cucumbers and cauliflower.

Shibil sometimes called himself Oklahoman, but he was really, inexorably, a son of this town, a belief confirmed as I watched him cringe when a black goat crossed our path.  Like the evil eye, it was an omen, and omens mattered.  In winter, he would never walk outside without splashing cold water on his face.  His superstitions continually announced themselves.  "Beware of split teeth and blue eyes," he warned me as he scanned the market crowd, deadly serious.  "Small foreheads, too." (p. 54)

I recall once hearing (or did I read it or is it all a dream?) that family histories are like ripples in a pond caused by a stone's throw, each wave reaching the far side before returning, diminished yet still maintaining its shape.  So many of us are products of our forebears.  We may not look exactly like them nor always act in precisely the same fashion, but there is that sense of an inheritance that leads us to look back to our ancestors in order to understand ourselves.  In his memoir, House of Stone:  A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East (published posthumously weeks after the author's tragic death from allergy-induced asthma), acclaimed journalist Anthony Shadid recounts a pivotal point in his life, in the summer of 2006, when he returned to the Lebanese village of Marjayoun, the place where centuries of Shadids and Samaras had lived and practiced their Christian faith before the early 20th century exodus of Arab Christians (as well as Muslims and Druze, to a lesser extent) began.  It is a memoir of a family as well as of the bayt, which constitutes many things, the least of which is the physical "house."  Or perhaps "home" would be more suitable, as that contains hints of emotional and familial interactions within a physical boundary.  Regardless, House of Stone is a very touching story of Shadid's family and of Lebanon's recent history.

House of Stone operates on two levels:  that of Shadid's experiences in Marjayoula rebuilding an ancestral home and (in italics) reflections on his family's experiences ever since the first Shadids immigrated to the US, particularly Oklahoma City.  In chapters that are as much thematic as they are chronological in order, Shadid explores not just what drove his grandparents (and grand-uncle) to emigrate, but what Lebanon's history has been as the sort of crossroads between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam.  Through all of this, the bayt that he is reconstructing, to the bemusement of some, to the amazement of others, looms as a central metaphor for these intertwined histories.

Shadid was a famous war correspondent in the Middle East, covering not just the 2006 Hezbollah/Israel border conflict, but also the 2011 Libyan Civil War and the 2011-2012 Syrian Civil War before his tragic death.  He possessed a keen eye for personal detail, noting local beliefs and customs, not with a wry smile and a small, sad shake of the head but instead with compassion and understanding.  Take for instance the passage quoted above.  Shadid's friend Shibil, who had lived some time in the US before returning to Lebanon, is shown to be of two worlds:  convinced that he is outside local superstitions, yet reinforcing them all of the same subconsciously.  Shadid does not mock his friend for those beliefs, but instead refers to them as a symbol of the confluence of the old and new, with the old possessing more strength than what might be expected.

The people that Shadid meet are fascinating because their concerns are at once familiar (how can we afford to pay for the things we need each day?) and foreign to affluent westerners (will the war resume?  Will the Israelis take over again?).  Shadid touches upon this in discussing the reasons why his grandparents and others from the last years of the Ottoman Empire until the present have left Lebanon (and by extension, other parts of the Middle East) in a great Arab diaspora.  At the heart of it is the duality of family and culture (including religion; a large number of the Arabs that emigrated were Christians of all of the regional sects).  Shadid touches upon these issues in his recollections of his experiences rebuilding the family bayt, noting the tragedy of the former collegiality of the local Muslims, Christians, and Druze before the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon set the powder keg of religious conflict before lighting the fuse of political/social control that finally blew up spectacularly in the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990.  There is a sense of wistfulness in his writing of the issue, a sense of loss of what was treasured in the days of his ancestors.

The "flashback" scenes where Shadid discussed his family's reasons for emigrating and their subsequent adventures in the American Southwest are integrated nicely into the memoir.  The pressure to "become American" (which involved the adoption of American nicknames, such as Abdullah/Albert and Miqbal/Mack) is contrasted with the desire to remain true to their Lebanese roots.  If anything could be pointed out as a shortcoming in House of Stones, it is that perhaps there could have been even more of these scenes added to flesh out Shadid's reasons for coming back to Lebanon to reside for a spell before resuming his correspondent duties.

House of Stones is a very good memoir.  It captures well the internal and external conflicts of the Lebanese and Lebanese-Americans when it comes to matters of home, family, and faith.  It touches upon several tragedies of the past century and it shines a light upon the myriad and sometimes conflicting attitudes that the Lebanese have in regards to the tumultuous events of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  It compares favorably with the other National Book Award finalists for Non-fiction and it certainly is a book that deserves a wide readership.  It is unfortunate that Shadid died so soon after writing this book; there is the sense that there are stories left untold.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers

July 17, 2008 – Mumbai

Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father.  In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul's parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words.  The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided.  He'd go quietly when arrested.  Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.

Abdul's opinion of this plan had not been solicited, typically.  Already he was mule-brained with panic.  He was sixteen years old, or maybe nineteen – his parents were hopeless with dates.  Allah, in His impenetrable wisdom, had cut him small and jumpy.  A coward:  Abdul said it of himself.  He knew nothing about eluding policemen.  What he knew about, mainly, was trash.  For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he'd been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away. (Beginning to the Prologue, p. 10 e-book)

I was wary when I saw that Katherine Boo's National Book Award-nominated non-fiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers:  Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, would be tackling the issue of dire poverty in one of India's largest cities.  Too often, there's this sort of "poverty porn" that I have seen crop up in relation to places like India, even though India today has one of the world's fastest-growing economies and the middle class there has expanded substantially in the past two decades.  "Feed the Children" may be OK for those who want to feel sorrow at the plight of the impoverished and give "just pennies a day," but the realities involved in these slums is much more complex than what one can gather from a single viewing of Slumdog Millionaire.

Yet it turns out that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a very different sort of tale.  Yes, there is crushing poverty, but the poorness of material possessions is not emphasized here.  Instead, in the Annawadia slum, Boo, herself a regular reporter on urban poverty in the United States for several years before spending years in Mumbai, concentrates on telling a few family histories to illustrate the various survival mechanisms and adaptations that take place.  Normally, I would not recommend the method in which readers choose to read the text, but Boo's story is most effective if one purchases the enhanced e-book edition that contains several short clips filmed by her or the slum locals, each of which complements the text.

It is clear even within the first chapters that Boo has spent an extensive amount of time among the villagers, although she herself has never quite mastered Hindi.  She talks of Annawadians like the Muslim Abdul and his family and their precarious position in the slum.  Much of the focus of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is on the trash recycling/selling business that Abdul and his father operate and the competition that they have.  There is the tragic case of a one-legged (actually, one healthy and one stunted leg) woman who suffers third-degree burns over most of her body; Abdul and his father are blamed and several chapters toward the end are devoted to the Mumbai police system.

But there are more positive stories, like Manju, a young woman who has managed despite her family's desperate straits to be able to attend college.  In the evening hours, she runs Annawadia's quasi-school system for the elementary school-age students, before returning late at night to do her chores and get perhaps four hours of sleep before she has to rise early to begin her day again.  Boo balances the optimistic and pessimistic views of the villagers nicely, giving them a greater voice than her own commentary.  She does not judge (she never quite reveals the amount of guilt, if any, Abdul and his father had in the burning), but she observes as impartially as she is able.

Of course, there are several moments where Boo's status as an outsider precludes her from understanding the full import of what is transpiring.  She is very aware of this and in her conclusion, points out that this was a recurring issue during her time with the slum residents.  Yet on the whole, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a fascinating look at a Mumbai shantytown, one that tries (even if it occasionally fails) to let Annawadia's residents speak with their own voices as to what is transpiring within.  There is pride and hope among the residents, coupled with the occasional bitter resignation to their fate among the indigent poor, but there is never the sense that Boo is trying to recast their lives to suit the prejudices of western audiences.  Compared to the other National Book Award finalists in Non-Fiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is in the middle of a very tight pack.  It is a poignant story, yet there are just enough questions as to what Boo has failed to see/refuses to discuss to make it lesser than some of the other finalists.  However, it is still a book well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas

This fight had been city versus farm, and the city had repeatedly conned its way out of a sound beating at the hands of the farm.

Dennis's mother had called Dad, had explained what happened, and Dad said he would be right over.  Since both Dan and I have been the victims of Dad's explosive and illogical temper, we both expect and dread the further punishment headed our way, when he gets there.  I think he'll have a fit over Dan losing the contact lenses, for not winning decisively, for the potential trouble from the school, the cops, anything that would occur to Dad, but it doesn't happen.

Dad is uncharacteristically understanding, comforting even, and he and Richard had dropped all they were doing that afternoon and drove to Dennis's to pick Dan up and take him to the emergency room.

They x-ray his nose (no fracture) and his wrist (hairline fracture) and his thumb (clearly fractured).  They they take Dan to dinner and buy him a beer.

Dan had fought, and survived, like a man.  He was in the club.  The club that Dad and Richard had never been able to enter.  Maybe make deliveries there, through the tradesman's entrance, but certainly never enter through the front door. (p. 178)

Machismo.  This untranslatable word contains stories within it.  Stories of pride, sure, but also stories of deep, raw hurt that threatens to burst its dams and spill over into the lives surrounding it.  It is a code, a way of life, yet so little of it could be defined precisely.  One either had machismo or not; there was no middle ground.  One bound by it could find himself doing the illogical for reasons of honor...and other things.  There is a sense of tragedy in the word, ma-chis-mo, that can make a grown man cry or stiffen up and become like stone.

Domingo Martinez's debut book, the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas is as poignant as the rancheros and corrídos of singers such as José Alfredo Jiménez, whose "El Rey" ("The King") Martinez views as a key to unlocking the machismo code and from which he derived the inspiration for his memoir of his time growing up in Brownsville, Texas during the 1970s and 1980s and what led him and his older brother Dan to flee to Seattle by the early 1990s.  The Boy Kings of Texas is a complicated, complex affair, reading as a love/hate letter to a family bound by machismo.

The Boy Kings of Texas is roughly in chronological order, although key events are sometimes narrated years or even decades after other events narrated in prior chapters.  Martinez sets out to describe the fractious lives that he, his older brother, their three younger sisters, and occasionally his youngest brother live in a barrio on the outskirts of Brownsville with their parents, paternal grandmother, and their stepuncle, Richard.  Told more in a looping, thematic fashion, similar to what a patient might relate to his therapist, the events in The Boy Kings of Texas revolve around the ways that the Martinez family members cope with their situations.

Race certainly plays a role in the book.  The Martinezes are descended from a largely criollo background and their fairish skin allows members of the family, particular the three sisters (the three Mimis, as they were nicknamed) to pass as white, especially after they refused to wear anything but the most fashionable clothes possible and after they dyed their hair blonde.  The older brother, Dan, who is 18 months older than Domingo (the fifth out of six), is a complex soul and Domingo's recollections show this through his recounting of the fights Dan would get into, often for Domingo's sake (even if Domingo rarely asked for help and usually felt ashamed when family members would intervene), usually over matters of race or ethnic slurs thrown at the more bookish Domingo.  In passages such as the one quoted above, Martinez reveals a lot of the family dynamics and how machismo governs them:  the fight itself, the way in which it ended (with a tragic end a few months later for the other participant), the lyrical description of how their dad, Domingo Sr. (Domingo was called "Yunior" or "June" by the family) , and their step-uncle, Richard, long for the sort of acceptance that comes to Dan in the aftermath of this brutal fight.

Violence looms large in The Boy Kings of Texas.  Domingo finds it both abhorrent and fascinating.  He is not the fighter his brother is, he sometimes tries to shrink back from the violent demands that machismo puts on the boys of his barrio, but he is again and again entrapped within its web.  Casual descriptions of his father beating on his mother, brother, and self are not meant to downplay the significance of his father's actions, but instead are part and parcel of what drives this lonely "loser" of a man (as much in how he sees himself as how his family views him) to infidelities, inappropriate sexual talk with Domingo (the scene where he worries that his wife might have AIDS due to his screwing around and yet he is not the one who wants to know the result) is pitifully funny.  There's such a sadness in Domingo's prose whenever he writes about his father that it is obvious that there is much more to him than he is ready to admit; after all, openness about familial feelings don't usually mesh well with machismo.

There is also a lot of humor within these scenes, from the beer sharing, the pot smuggling, Domingo's first sexual experience, awkward dates, etc.  These humorous anecdotes leaven the narrative, relieving the depressing sense of fatality that sometimes threatened to overwhelm the narrative.  Martinez has excellent comedic timing, with the humor never feeling forced nor does it ever detract from the weightier issues being described.  But even more impressive than his melding of comedic scenes with the more brutal ones is his honesty.  There is never the sense that he covers up his feelings or reactions to events.  He does not see himself as a hero, but rather as a survivor.  This veracious portrayal makes for a fascinating read of not just a typical family, but of a Latino family caught between the dual worlds of Mexico and the United States, of white and brown, of aspiring to advance and trying to remain true to one's roots.  And through it all, machismo threads its way, coloring everything.

The Boy Kings of Texas is an outstanding memoir.  It is one that I likely will re-read in years to come.  Compared to the other National Book Award finalists in Non-Fiction, it ranks very highly, as the story told is moving, with excellent character descriptions.  If there were any quibbles that I would have with it, perhaps it could have been divided into two books, pre-move to Seattle and post-move, but that is more because I would like to have more of his story to read than any real flaw with the memoir's narrative.  The Boy Kings of Texas is simply one of the best books on a very strong shortlist.

Monday, November 05, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: Steve Sheinkin, Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

HARRY GOLD WAS RIGHT:  This is a big story.  It's the story of the creation – and theft – of the deadliest weapon ever invented.  The scenes speed around the world, form secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings.  But like most big stories, this one starts small.  Let's pick up the action sixteen years before FBI agents cornered Harry Gold in Philadelphia.  Let's start 3,000 miles to the west, in Berkeley, California, on a chilly night in February 1934.

On a hill high above town, a man and woman sat in a parked car.  In the driver's seat was a very thin young physics professor named Robert Oppenheimer.  Beside him sat his date, a graduate student named Melba Philipps.  The two looked out at the view of San Francisco Bay. (Beginning to Ch. 1)

Steve Sheinkin's Bomb:  The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's Most Dangerous Weapon is the only non-fiction that appears on the 2012 National Book Award shortlist for Young People's Literature.  It is difficult for me to review because as a trained historian, things that I might typically see as shortcomings in research methodology, epistemology, etc.  just are not applicable when it comes to writing an exciting narrative history that would appeal to middle school students.  So perhaps with just a caveat that I question the strength of some of his sources, I will try to focus on how this would read as a narrative for pre-teen and early teen students.

Bomb tells the story of the attempts by German, American, and British physicists in the 1930s and 1940s to construct a fission bomb, and the attempts by the Soviets to steal the plans for this bomb.  The story surrounding the construction of the world's first atomic bomb is an espionage lover's fantasy:  clandestine meetings, operatives being sent in to attack remote facilities nestled on a sea cliff, moles within the most secretive councils.  Volumes have been written about the personalities involved, people including Robert Oppenheimer, who spearheaded the Manhattan Project, and Harry Gold, who betrayed the Americans and shared what he had gathered with the Soviets.  Yet it takes more than just a recounting of what this agent or that scientist did or failed to do in order to craft a compelling tale.  It takes the twisting of this strand and a looping of this thread in order to weave a memorable tapestry and for the most part, Sheinkin does achieve this with Bomb.

The stories within Bomb unfold in a rapid, almost breathless narrative style.  Little emphasis is placed on detailing the motives of the players involved; instead, a premium is placed on creating tension between the actors and their situations.  For example, the traitor Harry Gold is introduced early:  how will his already known fate of FBI interrogation unfold?  What pitfalls will Oppenheimer and his associates face?  Will there be false accusations in light of Gold and Alger Hiss?

These questions make the reading go very swiftly, as the reader races to find out just what happened next.  Sheinkin's vocabulary, which by necessity of theme and historical material involves the usage of several technical terms, may be a bit challenging for late primary and early middle school students, but the vocabulary should be little challenge (most of the truly technical terms, like fission itself, are explained cogently in the body of the text itself) to those in the last year or two of middle school or the beginning of high school (12-14 is probably the "target audience" here, although advanced readers from 9-11 might be able to handle the material and grasp its implications).  The narrative focus is on the people involved, scientists, politicians, and spies alike and this devotion to the personal aspect of the race to acquire "the bomb" makes it easier for even younger or "slower" readers to grasp the gist of what is transpiring without feeling overwhelmed by technical jargon.

Bomb is best viewed as an "intro" level survey of the period.  Due to its intended audience and its focus on the human side of the race to "the bomb," there is a lot of background material that is either mentioned only in passing (such as the motives of the German scientists, including Heisenberg, in their haltering approach toward research into "heavy water") or neglected at all (Einstein's theories on energy/mass conversion and how that theorem and others developed from it led to postulations about the ability to create a controlled fission of uranium or plutonium atoms to create a massive energy release in the form of a devastating bomb).  Those stories too are essential to this tale and at times, Sheinkin's narrative relied too heavily on the espionage angle, leaving holes in the narrative that were barely papered over with his vivid depictions of the actors involved.

Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists in Young People's Literature, Bomb is a weaker story.  Although the actual events and the people involved make for a thrilling account, the book relies too heavily on this aspect, leaving the sense that it is a shallow history that only hints at the other memorable stories that co-occurred with the espionage and scientific brainstorming sessions.  So while Bomb likely would appeal to a broad spectrum of middle grades readers, its flaws are magnified when compared to several of the other finalists, several of which are equally gripping in terms of narrative tension, yet which also possess greater depth and breadth of personages and themes.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leatherbound Classics: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I

He would have perished in this supine security had not two women, his eldest sister Fadilla, and Marcia the most favoured of his concubines, ventured to break into his presence.  Bathed in tears, and with dishevelled hair they threw themselves at his feet, and, with all the pressing eloquence of fear, discovered to the affrighted emperor the crimes of the minister, the rage of the people, and the impending ruin which in a few minutes would burst over his palace and person.  Commodus started from his dream of pleasure, and commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people.  The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult; and the son of Marcus might even yet have regained the affection and confidence of his subjects.

But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus.  Whilst he thus abandoned the reins of empire to these unworthy favourites, he valued nothing in sovereign power except the unbounded licence of indulging his sensual appetites.  His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys, of every rank and of every province; and, whereever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence.  The ancient historians have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty; but it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of modern language. (p. 72)
For the first of a planned irregular series of reviews of certain classics I deem worthy enough of me spending a premium to acquire in leatherbound editions, I decided that I would start with Edward Gibbon's classic 18th century history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Published in six parts over a nearly twenty-year span, Gibbon's work is perhaps the most influential and enduring modern history ever published.  My thoughts in this brief review will deal solely with the first volume; other volumes will be read and reviewed in the next few weeks.

Before I ever really thought about the Internet and certainly well before I had any aspirations of being an online book reviewer, I was a historian in training.  Despite dropping out of graduate school after earning my Master of Arts degree in Modern European Cultural History, I still have maintained some interest in the origins and development of my original profession.  Too often I hear people speak of "History" (as opposed to "history") as being this sort of monolithic, judgmental entity that proclaims its sentences on past events, peoples, and actions.  Influenced as much by postmodernists as I am by neo-Marxists, I do find myself skeptical of such viewpoints.  History, for me, is a narrative of events whose retellings reflect as much the concerns of those recounting these stories as they do with matters of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist

Edward Gibbon's monumental narrative of the possible causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, from the days of the first Emperors to the fall of Trebizond in 1461, rightly is held up as a seminal work.  Even despite the advancements in methodology and epistemological approaches toward the study and interpretation of histories over the past two centuries, there are several qualities found in Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that make it worthy of being read and re-read by generations of readers to come.

Look at the passage I quote above in regards to the Emperor Commodus (180-192 CE/AD), the first of a string of bad emperors whose cyclical rise and swift descent plagued the Roman Empire until 284.  Rather than just dryly commenting on the atrocities committed by Commodus, as what a Historicist might have done a century later, Gibbon instead turns this recounting of this horrid emperor's twelve-year reign into a masterfully-written narrative that gives the reader much more to consider than just whether or not Commodus deserved the epithets that he received both during his reign and after his assassination at the hands of a common wrestler.  This is an erudite narrative, replete with numerous footnotes, but both the main narrative and the footnotes contain a wit about them that unfortunately still is rather uncommon in most histories today.

Gibbon does not follow a straight linear approach in this volume.  Instead, he has broken his chapters (and later, his six volumes) into thematic groupings that allow him to explore better issues of character, leadership, social mores, and (later, but not in this volume for the most part) religion.  An emperor such as Philip the Arab (reigned in the second half of the 240s) might be explored in terms of his character, temperament, and leadership skills in one chapter, while his religious policies might not be discussed until a succeeding volume, with a dozen more third century emperors being introduced in the interim.  While this might be frustrating to some modern readers, for those willing to approach The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a historical narrative that treats with themes more than with straightforward explorations of events, this study will make for an instructive and entertaining read.

Gibbon is far from a neutral observer, as the quoted passage reveals.  He takes sides, provides interpretations (often in the form of asides on the mores of the subjects treated), and sometimes he relies upon unreliable sources.  For those who are influenced strongly by the Rankean Historicist position on the use of sources and the desire to eliminate biases whenever possible, Gibbon's work is fraught with errors in approach.  While I am somewhat sympathetic with that attitude (my graduate adviser trained under descendants of Ranke's original school and I imbibed some of those methodological approaches early on in my studies), I also believe that it would be a mistake to ignore Gibbon's crowning graces just because he fails to follow historical approaches developed decades later.

Gibbon's prose is beautiful to read.  Frequently, I am finding myself, nearly one hundred pages into the second volume, reading slowly and then re-reading several passages, just so I can soak in the intricate beauties of his writing, as well as Gibbon's sometimes sarcastic asides.  For those readers who are not intimidated from reading the Latinisms that dominated 18th century English writing, Gibbon's prose will offer so much to them that just is not found in later histories.  There is a definite sense of historia found within this history and when this brilliantly-constructed story is mated with interpretative schema that largely survive the vicissitudes of the last two centuries, a truly classic read awaits those intrepid readers willing to read about the calamities of the third century CE/AD.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Down in the Flood: Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis's Some New Kind of Slaughter, Dave Egger's Zeitoun

If it keeps on rainin, levees goin to break,
If it keeps on rainin, levees goin to break,

When the levee breaks Ill have no place to stay.

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Lord, mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home,
Oh, well, oh, well, oh, well.

Don't it make you feel bad

When youre tryin to find your way home,

You dont know which way to go?

- Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks"
Water is the source of life. Yet despite our bodies being mostly composed by water, there is something terrible about drownings, especially in the violence of a flood. The rapid, threatening torrents of water bursting through levees, dams, and other natural and manmade structures, swamping all in its path. Death by the inhalation of what sustains us. There is something more terrible about that irony when the nature of mass death is that of death by water. It is not surprising therefore that so many global myths revolve around the notion of a huge flood that threatens the annihilation of all life.

In Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis's Some New Kind of Slaughter~or~ Lost in the Flood (And How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World, the author/illustrators concentrate on the mythic, purifying qualities of the diluvian myths from the ancient Middle East, the Americas, Australia, Greece, Africa, China, as well as elsewhere. Utilizing a rapid-fire switch of narrators, from that of Noah's son Khem to the Aboriginal priests capable of entering Dreamtime, Mann and Lewis break their graphic novel into four parts, focusing on origins, preparation, the downpour, and the aftermath. The reader is confronted with certain uncomfortable truths, namely that human societies have seen themselves as being not just products of a god(s)'s thought, but that humans often suffer from divine caprice; that floods serve to wipe out the wicked...and those not quick enough to separate themselves from the wicked; that sometimes the "true believers" may be worse than those abandoned to their fates; and that faith is not always enough when faced with sudden natural disaster.

Mann and Lewis's illustrations fit the storylines well. Seeing the looks of anguish, despair, forlorn hope, and determined resistance in the characters from the world diluvian myths made me pay closer to the themes the authors had woven into the images and text. Have we ever managed to overcome ourselves? Or do our vanities, fears, and prejudices still affect us, with the Flood ever looming over us?

In Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, the answer to those questions unfortunately is a resounding no. Eggers in this book tells the moving story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun and their experiences before, during, and just after Hurricane Katrina broke the Lake Ponchartrain levees and flooded much of New Orleans. Eggers continues here his mastery of taking another's story (witness the power of the novelized memoir of 2006's What is the What) and making it feel both like a novel and like the slice of an everyman's life.

The Zeitouns are sympathetic characters, as Abdulrahman has, after growing up in Syria, established a successful house painting/building business while his American wife Kathy struggles with raising her children in a society that has become increasingly xenophobic after the 9/11 attacks. But Abdulrahman refuses to heed the evacuation orders even as his wife and their children flee to the home of an old friend of Kathy's in Phoenix.

Eggers describes the flood sparsely. Although written in the third-person limited point of view informed by the Zeitouns' discussions with Eggers, the main action of the novel takes on the cast that Abdulrahman gave it. He does not despair of the devastation wrought as much as he dwells upon how he can help reconstruct the city. In this, his attitudes are similar to those of the survivors of the global diluvian myths touched upon the Mann and Lewis book. But what makes the Zeitouns' story gripping is what happens when a good deed fails to go unpunished.

The heart of the book concerns Abdulrahman's abrupt, scary, and ultimately humiliating treatment after he and his friends' good neighbor work is misinterpreted and they are arrested. In roughly one hundred pages, Eggers recounts Abdulrahman's confrontations with the fears and hatred of those who purportedly were there to "help" and to "restore order." Although both Abdulrahman or Eggers might have been tempted to expound upon the mistreatment and humiliations that Abdulrahman has to endure for close to a month while his family never gets to hear of his fate because of FEMA and Department of Homeland Security concerns that he might be a terrorist, the fact that these scenes are told in brief, matter-of-fact passages serves to underscore just how terrifying the scene could be in its hypothetical universal application to us as human beings.

Reading both the Mann/Lewis and Eggers book back-to-back added to my enjoyment of both. Each story is, on the surface, told simply, but the real power is in how these "simple" stories reveal so much about ourselves as people and how we confront not just disasters like floods, but even more how we assign guilt, blame, or conversely, take responsibility for providing care for the destitute. Stories like these tend to stick with me for a long time and I am certain that both books will be deserving of slots in my year-end Best of 2009 reviews.
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