The Month in Books - January 2010

At the start of 2010, I set a goal to read 15,000 pages by year's end, including twelve books of greater than 650 pages. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid any bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in January:

  1. Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann (review)
  2. Young Stalin - Simon Sebag Montefiore (review)
  3. Number9Dream - David Mitchell
  4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

Pages Read: 1,450
Year-to-Date: 1,450
Books > 650 pages: 0

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

montefiore_young.jpgI had only lukewarm things to say about Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography, Stalin, which I felt took a far too gossipy approach to the regime of one of the world's most malevolent mass murderers. Rather than explore and analyze the mechanics of the Great Terror or Stalin's plans for collectivization, Montefiore gave detailed accounts of dinner parties and vacations. So it may come as a surprise that I even picked up his second book on the dictator, Young Stalin, but I was handed a copy by my father, who enjoyed it, and figured I would give it a try. It is a superior book to its predecessor, even though it self-consciously takes the same approach, for which Montefiore has clearly heard criticism:

I make no apology that my two books are tightly focused on the intimate and secret, political and personal lives of Stalin and the small circle that ultimately came to create and rule the Soviet Union until the 1960s. Ideology must be our foundation as it was for the Bolsheviks, but the new archives show that the personalities and patronage of a miniscule oligarchy were the essence of politics under Lenin and Stalin...

I suspect that what Montefiore really decided was to exalt any previously unrelated details, trivial as they may be, at the expense of a thorough analysis of his subject. Fair enough, that's his choice, but in a 700 page book like Stalin, he should have been able to capture both. The problem is exacerbated by the gap between the two books; Stalin essentially opens with the suicide of Stalin's second wife in 1932, and yet Young Stalin ends with the October Revolution of 1917. Thus one can read both of Montefiore's volumes on Stalin, well over a thousand pages, and have not the slightest knowledge of his role in the Russian Civil War, the creation of the Soviet Union, or the power struggle after Lenin's demise. This boggles my mind.

That said, I will say that his approach works better when focused solely on Stalin's early years, in a book that runs half the length of the previous one. This is a timeframe in which the personal is the natural focus, and even the political side of Stalin's life at this point is largely a function of the people with whom he associates. His youthful acquaintances read like a list of mid-century Soviet heavies: Ordzhonikidze, Kalinin, Molotov, Voroshilov.

Perhaps most remarkable is the revelation that in many ways, the young Stalin was no more than a mafioso with ideological motivations. Sure, the money was going to Lenin, and Stalin seemed to be a true believer in the Bolshevik cause, but much of he did to further that cause amounted to no more than a series of violent felonies:

"On the initiative and orders of Stalin," said one of his top gangsters, Bachua Kupriashvili, a permanent gang of brigands was now assembled. "Our tasks were procuring arms, organizing prison escapes, holding up banks and arsenals, and kill traitors." Stalin commissioned Tsintsadze to set up "the Technical Group or the Bolshevik Expropriators Club, it was soon known by another nickname--Duzhina, the Group, or just Outfit."

Soso [Stalin's childhood nickname] strained his ingenuity to raise cash for Lenin, travelling widely to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea, and Vladikavkaz, in Ossetia. In Tiflis, he ordered schools and the seminary to deliver cash from their teachers while he discreetly prepated the Outfit for his gangster rackets.

The story of young Stalin is the story of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but also the teetering last years of the Romanov empire. It is a sign of the preposterous short-sighted weakness of the Tsarist regime that despite numerous arrests and exiles, Stalin was inevitably able to raise enough funds to bribe his way back. Only his final Siberian banishment, to the edges of the North Pole, is sufficiently secluded to ensure he completed his term:

If Stalin called Kostino "an ill-fated place," Kureika was a freezing hellhole, the sort of place where a man could believe himself utterly forgotten and even lose his sanity: its desolate solitude and obligatory self-containment were to remain with Stalin throughout his life.

I still think that those interested in Stalin are best served starting with what Montefiore terms "an exhaustive narrative history;" the two he recommends are by Robert Conquest and Robert Service. It seems unlikely that many readers would be more interested in Stalin's love life or taste in movies than in his role as Soviet dictator. But for those who have such tastes, or have already read a more traditional biography and are looking for some added spice, Montefiore's account of Stalin's early years should be just the ticket.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

mccann_let.jpgThere's a certain amount of temptation to apply to Hunter College's Creative Writing MFA, not because I have any pretensions of writing fiction myself, but just to have classes led by authors like Peter Carey, Nathan Englander, and Colum McCann. McCann is big news these days, having recently won both the National Book Award, and perhaps more lucratively, the spot at the top of Amazon's Best of 2009, for his fifth novel, Let the Great World Spin. In this extraordinary book, McCann tells a series of tales about disparate inhabitants of New York City, a city of loners that was connected for one day in August 1974 by Philippe Petit's famous Twin Towers tightrope walk:

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some though at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke--stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were starting upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

Throughout the book there are interludes describing Petit's advance onto the wire, and even an extended flashback to his training for the event. But Let the Great World Spin is not just about this event, it is about this moment in time, about the city and the people thirteen-hundred feet below, who turned, transfixed, en masse, toward the Twin Towers for not the last time. Of these many millions, McCann has crafted a group portrait of a dozen or so whose lives are intertwined by more than just Petit's walk: an Irish street priest and his brother; a pair of prostitutes, mother and daughter, whom the priest was ministering to (in his fashion); an artist couple that survive a fateful car accident; a group of mothers who meet in each other's homes to discuss the sons they've lost in Vietnam; and the judge husband of one these women.

The novel opens with narration by an Irishman who has come to New York to see Corrigan, his wandering priest brother. He reminisces about their childhood, in which Corrigan always stood out as a bit unusual:

Nothing else was mentioned, until two years later he gave that blanket away too, to another homeless drunk, on another freezing night, up by the canal on one of his late-night walks, when he tiptoed down the stairs and went out into the dark. It was a simple equation to him--others needed the blankets more than he, and he was prepared to take the punishment if it came his way. It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother would become, and what I'd later see among the cast-offs of New York--the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless--all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.

In New York, Corrigan has chosen to live amongst a group of prostitutes working an expressway underpass in the Bronx, much to his brother's astonishment and regret. His nearby apartment is left unlocked so that the women can come and use the bathroom at their leisure, Corrigan's "little gesture" that already cost him a beating from one of the local pimps. Amongst the girls are a mother and daughter, Tillie and Jazzlyn, and when they get arrested on an outstanding robbery warrant, it is Corrigan who tracks them down. And it is Corrigan who dies in a car crash with Jazzlyn on the way back from her arraignment:

We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don't attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it's chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.

Yet the plain fact of the matter is that is happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it...

From here the story pivots, seemingly without any connection (for now), to a fancy Park Avenue apartment where Claire Soderberg awaits a visit from a group of women with whom she shares the misfortune of having lost a son to the war in Vietnam. That is just about all it would seem Claire has in common with these women, none of whom live anywhere close to Park Avenue:

She has been to four houses over the past eight months. All of them simple, clean, ordinary, lovely. Staten Island, the Bronx, two on the Lower East Side. Never any fuss. Just a gathering of mothers. That's all. But they were drop-jawed at her address when she finally told them. She had managed to avoid it for a while, but then they went to Gloria's apartment in the Bronx. A row of projects. She had never seen anything like it before. Scorch marks on the doorways. The smell of boric acid in the hall. Needles in the elevator. She was terrified.

And yet it is Gloria whom she feels the closest bond with, despite the distance that their lives have put between them. It is in these unexpected intersections that McCann's novel thrives, illuminating the ways in which disparate lives can converge, if even for a moment, with tremendous consequences for better or worse. This is not a wholly original premise, the repeated criss-crossing of a small cast of characters, but it usually relies on such banal flukes as to drown the suspension of disbelief; see, e.g. Crash. Either because of the strength of his characters, his prose, or both, McCann's narrative rises above this peril.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

brooks_people.jpgOn Tuesday, I reviewed Geraldine Brooks' debut novel, Year of Wonders, a deft portrayal of life in a plague-infested English village in the seventeenth-century. I was inspired to read it based on my enjoyment of Brooks second novel, March, which offered a revisionist account of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women from the absent father's perspective, and for which Brooks was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. Despite their vastly disparate subject matter, both novels displayed Brooks' knack for writing beautiful prose and crafting a story that fully employs her talent for historical research.

Brooks continued her successful streak in 2008 with her third and most recent novel, People of the Book. Just as the first two novels were inspired by historical models (the village of Eyam and Bronson Alcott, respectively), so this latest story finds its origin in one of the world's most valuable books, the Sarajevo Haggadah:

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million

The protagonist of People of the Book, Hannah Heath, is a renowned Australian book conservator who, as the book opens in 1996, has been hired by the United Nations to work her magic on the famous Haggadah, which has miraculously survived the abundant violence and bombing that had recently shattered so much in Sarajevo. The first chapter finds Hanna making her first acquaintance with the precious volume, and her reverent exploration reveals both her passion for her work and the mysteries of the manuscript she is handling:

Slowly, deliberately, I examined and made notes on the condition of each page. Each time I turned a parchment, I checked and adjusted the position of the supporting forms. Never stress the book--the conservator's chief commandment. But ht people who had owned this book had known unbearable stress: pogrom, Inquisition, exile, genocide, war.

Each of the unusual characteristics that Hanna notes will play a key role in the book's development, from the insect wings to the wine stain to the trace of saltwater, as each element sparks a flashback into the manuscript's history. The plot thus proceeds on two tracks: the first follows Hanna as her investigation of the Haggadah leads her to various contacts and subject matter experts around the globe; the second proceeds regressively, each flashback leaping further into the book's past. A similar plot device was used in one of my favorite movies, The Red Violin, in which a violin appraiser's analysis of the title instrument is the frame for a series of flashbacks to pivotal events in 300 years since the violin was crafted.

The novel's title is a clever double entendre; the novel's characters are all, of course, people in whose lives the Haggadah has played a pivotal role, thus they are people of that book. But the more common meaning of the phrase comes from the Muslim Qu'ran, in which "People of the Book" is used to designate non-Muslims adherents of the older Abrahamic religions, e.g. Jews and Christians. And this sense of multiculturalism plays an important role in Brooks' novel. This is most explicit in the fact that it was Muslims who saved this Jewish manuscript at two key moments when it was threatened, during World War II and the Bosnian War. Brooks expands on this theme throughout the book, with flashbacks taking the narrative into the seventeenth-century Venetian Ghetto and the Spanish Inquisition on the eve of the Jewish expulsion. The story of the book is intertwined with the persecution of Jews down through the ages, this persecution being a prime motivator for the Mediterranean journeys the Sarajevo Haggadah took from its origins in Spain. Like the Jews, the book found a way to survive:

All over Aragon that night, Jews were being forced to the baptismal font, driven to to conversion by fear of exile. Ruti, exultant, defiant, had made a Gentile into a Jew. Because his mother was not Jewish, a ritual immersion had been necessary. And now it was done. Even as the emotion of the moment brimmed within her, Ruti was counting the days. She did not have very long. By the eighth day, she would need to find someone to perform his brit. If all went well, this would be in their new land. And on that day, she would give the child his name.

She turned back toward the beach, hugging the baby tightly to her breast. She remembered she had the book, wrapped in hide, slung in a shoulder sack. She pulled on the straps to raise it out of the reach of the waves. But a few drops of saltwater found their way inside her careful wrappings. When the water dried on the page, there would be a stain, and a residue of crystals, that would last five hundred years.

Once again, Brooks' flair for historical fiction shines through in this book. Each retrospective interlude is utterly believable, the characters thinking, speaking, and behaving in form true to the circumstances of their existence, be they a Muslim museum curator working under the thumb of Nazi overlords or a Venetian priest performing the church's censorship at the height of the Counter-Reformation:

In 1589, when Pope Sixtus V proclaimed a ban on any books by Jews or Saracens that contained anything against the Catholic faith, the young priest Vistorini had been a natural choice to work as censor of the Inquisitor. For seventeen years, almost his entire life in Holy Orders, Domenico had read and passed judgment on the works of alien faiths.

As a scholar, he had an innate reverence for books. this he had been required to subdue when his mission was to destroy them. Sometimes, the beauty of the Saracens' fluid calligraphy moved him. Other times, it was the elegant argument of a learned Jew that gave him pause. He would take his time considering such manuscripts. If, in the end, he determined that hey had to go to the flames, he would avert his gaze as the parchments blackened. His job was easier when the heresy was patent. At those time, he could watch the flames, rejoicing in them as a cleansing thing, ridding human thought of error.

In fact, Brooks is so good in these historical vignettes that, just as in The Red Violin, the weakest part of the narrative is the modern thread that ties the episodes together. Hanna's relationships, in particular her romance with the Bosnian curator and her lifelong clashes with her famous surgeon mother (sadly evocative of Grey's Anatomy), which are deemed so motivating in the choices she makes, ring particularly hollow in comparison to the kinship and liaisons portrayed in the stories about that precious manuscript.

Interestingly, though People of the Book was the third novel Brooks finished, this excellent feature on the author reveals that she stopped work on the book to write March, only returning to the story of the Haggadah after finishing the Pulitzer Prize winner. All in all, it is a marvelous work, continuing the streak of excellence Brooks has shown in all three of her novels, and leaving one imbued with anticipation for her next work.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

smith_child.jpgDespite my passion for reading, there are some genres that have largely escaped my interest or attention; romance, Christian fiction, and self-help are aisles of the book store that I have failed to peruse. And normally, the mystery/thriller genre falls in there as well; aside from some John Grisham and Michael Crichton read as a teenager, that's just not where my enthusiasm has taken me. Probably the only reason I even heard of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 was that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize back in 2008, a noteworthy event because genre fiction so rarely gets any attention from the literary prize panels. Still, even that was not enough to get me to buy the book. But when I saw a paperback copy sitting in the laundry room of my barracks in Kuwait, I grabbed it, with plans to read it on the plane back. Well, I mostly slept on the plane ride back, so it was until near the end of December that I finally got around to reading it.

Smith's is a detective story with a twist: the protagonist detective, Leo Demidov, is an officer of the Soviet secret police, a true believer doing the dirty work that kept Stalin's totalitarian regime running in the years following World War II:

His only ambition was a general one: to serve his country, a country that had defeated fascism, a country that provided free education and health care, that trumpeted the rights of the workers around the world, that paid his father--a munitions workers on an assembly line--a salary comparable to that of a fully qualified doctor. Although his own employment in the State Security force was frequently unpleasant he understood its necessity, the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic, from those who sought to undermine it and those determined to see it fail. To this end Leo would lay down his life. To this end he'd lay down the lives of others.

As the novel opens, Demidov has been asked by his boss to handle a rather delicate situation. A junior member of the state security agency has recently lost a child, and he and his family are making noise with accusations of murder, despite the official determination that the boy was accidentally hit by a train. Murder being a supposed impossibility in the perfection of the Stalinist society, such accusations are wholly unwelcome to the government. Demidov's job is to make the family understand this:

Leo's mission was to quash any unfounded speculation, to guide them back from the brink. Talk of murder had a natural drama which no doubt appealed to certain types of fanciful people. If it came to it he'd be harsh: the boy had made a mistake for which he'd paid with his life. No one else need suffer for his carelessness. Maybe that was too much. He needn't go so far. This could be resolved tactfully. They were upset--that was all. Be patient with them. They weren't thinking straight. Present the facts. He wasn't here to threaten them, at least not immediately: he was here to help them. He was here to restore faith.

Yet in the endless depths of paranoiac conspiracy that infested the Soviet system, even as powerful a man as Demidov feels perpetually in danger. That danger becomes a reality as Demidov realizes that a workplace rival may be plotting against him:

Leo glanced across at his deputy, a man both handsome and repulsive in equal measure--as if his good looks were plastered over a rotten center, a hero's face with a henchman's heart. There were just the tiniest visible fractures in his attractive facade, appearing at the corners of his mouth, a slight sneer that, if you knew how to interpret it, hinted at the dark thoughts lying beneath his good looks. Perhaps sensing that he was the subject of attention, Vasili turned and smiled a thin, ambiguous smile. Something pleased him. Leo knew immediately that something must be wrong.

In a further example of the twisted web of deceit and betrayal that was fundamental to Stalin's regime, even Demidov's apparent victory over his rival is short-lived, and before long his own family is dragged into the matter, either to test Demidov's loyalty or to punish him, or perhaps both. At a certain point this all begins to raise questions in Demidov's mind about the slavish obedience he has paid to the state and its maxims, including in particular the notion that crimes like murder have been purged from the worker's paradise.

It is not hard to see why Smith's thriller got as much attention as it did. His prose avoids cliche, his characters are not cut from cardboard, and his plot has its share of twists and turns without resorting to illogical coincidence (though there are some convenient intersections). And considering that the main thrust of his narrative has to be the progress of the crime investigation, he does an excellent job infusing the story with the societal distortions inevitable to life in a police state, offering a literary element apparently uncommon to most such books. For those looking for a worthy point of entry for exploring the mystery/thriller genre, there are assuredly much worse places to start than with Child 44.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

brooks_year.jpgOne of my favorite reads of 2008 was Geraldine Brooks' Pultizer Prize-winning novel, March, which portrayed the Civil War experiences of the absent patriarch of the March family from Louisa May Alcott's beloved Little Women. It was masterful work on two fronts. March was an example of the best kind of historical fiction, using thorough research and stellar writing to place a compelling story in an equally fascinating setting. It was also a brilliant revisionist work; many are the mediocre derivative works that seek to leech off a treasured masterpiece (Gregory Maguire has somehow made an entire literary career out of it). Not so with March, which adds a dark dimension to Alcott's classic while remaining true to the original narrative.

March was not Brooks' first novel (nor by the time I read it was it her most recent), so when I discovered that her debut novel was also a work of historical fiction, it seemed worth a browse. In Year of Wonders, Brooks tackled a rather more distant subject: an isolated English village which quarantines itself during the Great Plague of 1665-6. Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, Brooks frames her narrative through the memories of protagonist Anna Frith, a young widow who has survived the plague and continues her work as housekeeper of the local rectory despite the self-imposed seclusion of the rector:

At day's end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we've been through together, it's just not possible to pass with a polite, "Good night t'ye." And yet I haven't the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now.

The first flashback returns to the early months of Anna's widowhood, which preceded the plague. Indeed, her husband was killed not by disease, but by a collapse in the mine which he owned and worked, an occupation even more treacherous in the seventeenth-century than today. Left to fend for herself and her two young sons with greatly decreased economic means, Anna decides to take a boarder, George Viccars. A skilled tailor, Viccars has come to the village to make use of his trade, which he had most recently plied in several of England's larger towns. Before long, Viccars is a trusted member of the home, gaining the affection of Anna's sons and increasingly, Anna herself. But just as she begins to seriously entertain the possibility of a romantic relationship, tragedy strikes: Viccars falls deathly ill with the symptoms of bubonic plague:

I almost dropped the pitcher in my shock. The fair young face of the evening before was gone from the pallet in front of me. George Viccars lay with his head pushed to the side by a lump the size of a newborn piglet, a great, shiny, yellow-purple knob of pulsing flesh. His face, half turned away from me because of the excrescence, was flushed scarlet, or rather, blotched, with shapes like rings of rose petals blooming under his skin. His blond hair was a dark, wet mess upon his head, and his pillow was drenched with sweat. There was a sweet, pungent smell in the garret. A smell like rotting apples.

Despite Viccars' urgent request, with the rector's affirmation, that Anna burn his belongings after his death, many of his clients demand the return of the garments he was assembling for them. Thus goes out into the village the seeds of its own destruction. Unfortunately, some of the first blows strike too close to home:

I crooned to him as I climbed the stairs and laid him down upon our pallet. He lay just as I placed him, his arms splayed limply. I lay down beside him and drew him close. I pretended to myself that he would wake in the wee hours with his usual lusty cry for milk. For a time his little pulse beat fast, his tiny heart pounding. But toward midnight the rhythms became broken and weak and finally fluttered and faded away. I told him I loved him and would never forget him, and then I folded my body around my dead baby and wept until finally, for the last time, I fell asleep with him in my arms.

Understandably, these events put Anna into a shocked depression from which she could hardly have been blamed if she never recovered. Certainly these were deadly times, particularly for young children, as reflected in the advice of Anna's stepmother not to name or love a child before they could walk. Nevertheless, the trauma for a woman just eighteen years of age to lose her husband and then watch her two young sons deteriorate and die before her very eyes, in her own arms, must approach the limits of human capacity. Indeed, Anna seeks comfort in the local herbalist's hidden stash of opiate poppies. And yet slowly, Anna regains her humanity, with the help of the rector's wife, Elinor Mompellion, who reveals her own sorrows to Anna and joins her in an effort to understand the disease that is plaguing their village and seek any remedy or defense against it:

And so for the rest of that day, we pored through the books that Elinor had carried from the rectory, looking first for the names of plants said to be strengthening for any of the many body parts the Plague seemed to attack. It was tedious going, for the rectory's books were in Latin or Greek, which Elinor had to translate for me... When we had the names of the plants, we went through the herb bunches, trying, sometimes with great difficulty, to match the descriptions in the books with the drying leaves and roots before us.

If there is a flaw to Brooks' book, it is the underdevelopment of the characters other than Anna, and perhaps Elinor. Partly this is explicable by the novel's high mortality rate; most of the villagers die, either of plague, accident, or murder, before all that much can be said about them. But it does mildly blunt the impact of their fates, as well as the plausibility of some of the twists of the novel's plot. Characterization is one of the novelist's greatest challenges, however, so it is no great insult to suggest Brooks was still perfecting it in this first novel, particularly as I already know how well she does it in her sophomore effort.

Where Year of Wonders most splendidly forecasts the success of March is the shared beauty of Brooks' ability to evoke all aspects of her historical setting. If her characters are sometimes a bit flat, they never lack credibility as creatures of 17th-century England. Brooks faithfully renders the people and events of the novel in the times in which they lived, never stooping to portraying them as inferior or barbaric, from the villagers' fateful suspicion of the herbalist widow Mem Gowdie and her niece, to Anna and Elinor's quest to understand the basics of disease vectors:

There it was, our Plague-scoured village, the names of all its three hundred and three score sorry souls pinned to the map like insect specimens on a board. Under the names of near fifty, Elinor had drawn a black line. I had not conceived that the sickness already had undone so many. The map showed it clearly: the way the contagion had spread out from my cottage, a starburst of death.

Even the most barbaric acts in the novel are inspired by feelings of fear or desires for vengeance, which hardly separate those times from our own. Despite their superstitions and their scientific ignorance, these were fully-formed homo sapiens with the range of human emotions, and Brooks admirably presents them as such. It seems Brooks has a real knack for this historical fiction stuff, which she proved yet again in her third and most recent novel, People of the Book, which I will review on Friday.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

roth_american.jpgIn a sense, 2009 was the year of the Pulitzer Prize for me. I read seven novels that won the award: William Kennedy's Ironweed (review here), Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (review here), Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons (review here), Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (review here), Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (review here), Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries (review here) and, finally, Philip Roth's American Pastoral. There were no truly bad novels in the bunch, with Smiley's book just on the border, but only Eugenides and McMurtry really impressed me.

Roth is capable of doing so; The Plot Against America was one of my favorite reads of 2006, and I was mostly impressed by The Human Stain when I read it earlier this year. Like the latter, the narration in American Pastoralis provided by Roth's oft-used fictional alter-ego, famous novelist Nathan Zuckerman. The occasion of the 45th reunion of his high school Class of 1950 finds Zuckerman reminiscing, in particular about a student/athlete who had been the king of the town during Zuckerman's New Jersey youth:

The elevation of Swede Levov into the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews can best be explained, I think, by the war against the Germans and the Japanese and the fears that it fostered. With the Swede indomitable on the playing field, the meaningless surface of life provided a bizarre, delusionary kind of sustenance, the happy release into a Swedian innocence, for those who lived in dread of never seeing their sons or their brothers or their husbands again.

But for Zuckerman, the Swede was not just a mythical legend; he was the older brother of one of his friends and thus the first god to deign to acknowledge young Zuckerman's existence:

And then one day I shared in that glory. I was ten, never before touched by greatness, and would have been as beneath the Swede's attention as anyone else along the sidelines had it not been for Jerry Levov. Jerry had recently taken me on board as a friend; though I was hard put to believe it, the Swede must have noticed me around their house. And so late on a fall afternoon in 1943, when he got slammed to the ground by the whole of the JV team after catching a short Leventhal bullet and the coach abruptly blew the whistle signaling that was it for the day, the Swede, tentatively flexing an elbow while half running and half limping off the field, spotted me among the other kids and called over, "Basketball was never like this, Skip."

The reminiscence about Zuckerman's youth and the Swede's place in it is really a long introduction to two later encounters that Zuckerman had with the Swede. In a brief 1985 encounter, they run into each other at a Mets game, and Zuckerman is introduced to the Swede's son. More enigmatically, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede ten years later, asking to meet with Zuckerman to discuss the possibility of writing a memoir of the Swede's father. Though this is ordinarily the sort of request Zuckerman turns down cold, he can't possible refuse the Swede, and so they meet for dinner. In a very strange meal, the Swede talks about his health, his brother, his wife and sons, but never really gets around to the subject that had seemed to inspire the letter. Zuckerman leaves the meal concluding that the Swede, pleasant and sociable as he was, was nothing more, a man wholly lacking in drama or complexity. Later that year, at his reunion, he runs into Jerry Levov and finds out that the Swede has just died, and that it turns out Zuckerman had known very little about the Swede's life:

"The incessant questioning of a conscious adulthood was never something that obstructed my brother. He got the meaning for his life some other way. I don't mean he was simple. Some people thought he was simple because all his life he was so kind. But Seymour was never that simple. Simple is never that simple. Still, the self-questioning did take some time to reach him. And if there's anything worse than self-questioning coming too early in life, it's self-questioning coming too late. His life was blown up by that bomb, The real victim of that bombing was him."

"What bomb?"

It turns out that the Swede's daughter, Merry, his daughter from his first marriage, had blown up the local post office in a 1968 protest against... well, against the world, against Vietnam, against her father. A man was killed in the blast, but the repercussions certainly did not stop there. This revelation, shocking to Zuckerman who cannot quite figure out how he had remained ignorant about such an event, inspires him to reconstruct the Swede's life in the years leading up to and following the explosion that had torn his world apart. Thus the majority of American Pastoral is a novel within a novel, an imagining by Nathan Zuckerman of what life was like for Swede Levov as he married Miss New Jersey, took over his father's successful glove-manufacturing company, and raised a daughter who would eventually rebel against everything he stood for in the most violent way possible.

The early part of the book, in which Zuckerman discusses his childhood and own experiences with the Swede, is the novel's strongest section. Too much of what Zuckerman imagines about the Swede's struggles with his daughter, and his struggles with his daughter's crime, struck me as trite and cliched, from Merry's juvenile rantings about Vietnam to the machinations of Rita Cohen, the woman who shows up at the Swede's office demanding Merry's prized possessions on behalf of the fugitive girl before trying to seduce the Swede in a hotel room. Even worse, the book's frame story structure obfuscates responsibility for the banality: is this Roth who can't resist the urge to present the culture wars through platitudes, or it Zuckerman who is stuck believing in this hackneyed dichotomy.

The novel has its strengths: Roth's prose is always compelling. if nothing else, and American Pastoral does evoke many of the hotly debated issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s with verve and vigor. The novel is probably best enjoyed, and its social commentary most coherent, if read in conjunction with Roth's subsequent (and superior) two novels, I Married a Communist (set during the McCarthy era) and The Human Stain (set amidst the impeachment of President Clinton), which loosely form Roth's so-called "American Trilogy," each using its narrative to tackle the cultural divides that plagued a particular decade of post-WWII American public life.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

shields_stone.jpgIt is the unusual and extraordinary men and women who make it into the history books, mostly those who took some part in public life, be it politics, war, art, or science. As most of these fields were fully or largely closed to women for most of human history, the ordinary female life has been particularly under-examined. In her 1993 novel, The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields surveys just such a life, that of Daisy Goodwill. It is the only book ever to win the highest literary awards in both Canada (the Governor General) and the United States (the Pulitzer), with Shields being uniquely eligible for both as a naturalized Canadian citizen of American birth. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As its title suggests, the story is presented in the form of autobiographical diary entries by Daisy, whose mother's maiden name was Stone. The novel opens with an account of Daisy's birth, which necessarily entails an account of her parents, Cuyler Goodwill and Mercy Stone, and their life in a small town in Manitoba. Cuyler is a quarry worker (get it, stone?) who worships stone, routine, and coming home to his wife. Mercy is a woman so obsessed with food that her obesity hid from her the fact of her pregnancy until the day in 1905 when she went into labor:

All spring she's been troubled with indigestion. Often in the morning, and then again after her young husband has gone to sleep, she's risen form her bed and dosed herself with Bishop's Citrate of Magnesia. When she drinks ordinary milk or sweetened tea or sugary lemonade she swallows it down greedily, but Bishop's cool chalky potion she pours into a china cup and sips with deep, slow concentration, with dignity. She doesn't know what to think.

Unfortunately for Cuyler, Daisy's entrance into the world is also Mercy's exit, with her death in childbirth leaving Cuyler with the mystery of why his wife never told him of her pregnancy:

He admits to himself that his love for his dead wife has been altered by the fact of her silence. More and more her lapse seems not just a withholding, but a punishment, a means of humbling him before others who see him now, he imagines, as an ignorant or else careless man. What manner of husband does not know his wife is to bear a child?

He decides to build a stone tower in her memory, which will soon begin attracting tourists from all corners, while care of Daisy is taken over by the erstwhile neighbor, Clementine Flett, who seizes the chance to leave her unhappy marriage and start anew. She takes young Daisy to Winnipeg, where she moves in with her bachelor son who teaches biology at a local college. This domestic situation, portrayed through the inclusion of a series of letters written by Clementine and her son, Barker, lasts until 1916, when Clementine's death forces another life change upon Cuyler Goodwill, who has finished his tower:

A letter has come from Professor Barker Flett in Winnipegg concerning the breakdown of guardianship arrangements and the problem of what is to be done for Daisy's future care.

Another letter has come, only yesterday, from the president of the Indiana Limestone Company of Bloomington, Indiana, in the United States. Expert stone carvers are urgently needed. An extravagant wage has been named. A comfortable apartment on Cross Street in Vinegar Hill (whatever that may be) is available for his occupancy. Transportation will be arranged for himself, his family, and his household effects. Does Mr. Goodwill have a family?

And so begins what from the outside would appear a rather pedestrian domestic life (aside from the death of her first husband from falling out a window on their honeymoon). The chapters of the book reflect the traditional landmarks, from marriage to motherhood, work to retirement, illness to death, with but a single venture into the outside world, marking Daisy's first real personal satisfaction: the publishing of a gardening column in the local newspaper, a decade of her life presented in epistolary format as she receives encouraging letters from her editor, then her readers, before the whole endeavor is abruptly snatched away:

Ottawa, January 25, 1964
Dear Dee,
I'm so sorry about this misunderstanding. I realize now, of course, that telling you on the phone was a mistake. I knew you'd be disappointed, but I had no idea you would take it this hard. You've been talking about wanting more time to yourself, more time to travel, maybe a trip to England to see your daughter. Hope we can get together as usual on Tuesday and talk this over like two sensible people.

There is much to wonder, in this book, about how the first-person writer of this 'diary' is able to discern so much about the private lives and thoughts of those around her. This is particularly so of those who died during her childhood, such as mother and Clementine Flett. Is there is an element of omniscience that defies the ordinary? Or is Daisy simply using artistic license in portraying the inner voices of her friends and family? The closest she comes to acknowledging this enigma is in the opening chapter:

The recounting of a life is a cheat, of course; I admit the truth of this; evne our own stories are obscenely distorted; it is a wonder really that we keep faith with the simple container of our existence.

That is the struggle that Shields aptly portrays, the struggle to define ourselves, to find happiness or solace in the everyday. In the concluding chapter, Daisy's death is conveyed in scraps and pieces of her life: a recitation of organizations she had joined in her lifetime, a recipe she concocted, her illnesses, her grocery list, and the addresses of every home she lived in. All the ways of summing up a life without saying anything about it at all.

Blueberry Crumb Bars


Since the birth of my daughter and the end of my military service, I've been home so much that one would think I would have done a great deal of baking. And I did make (and quickly consume) a few dishes in the first couple weeks I was home. But the truth is that despite, or because of, my robust sweet tooth, baking has always been more of a social endeavor for me. I bake, and then take the baked goods to my office or send them with my wife to hers. Not only does this curry favor with our co-workers, it prevents us from gorging ourselves on sugary goodness.

Still, sometimes I can't resist the urge. This is never more true than when the grocery store runs a special on blueberries, which are dear to my heart but not my wallet. So when Whole Foods had cartons at 2 for $5, I bought them first and figured out what to make after. There's a coffee cake recipe that I've made a dozen times, and muffins are the obvious choice. But I wanted to try something different, and these Blueberry Crumb Bars were just the ticket. A few adjustments based on the All Recipes reviews and we were in business:

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
3 cups flour
1 cup shortening
1 egg
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1 pinch cinnamon
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. lemon juice
4 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup white sugar
3 tsp. cornstarch

Preheat your oven to 375F. Grease and flour 9x13 inch pan. Stir together the white and brown sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Blend in the shortening, egg, and vanilla extract. Divide the dough in half and set aside one half for later. Add the water and lemon juice to the remaining dough and stir until just moist. Spread the wet dough evenly in the pan, and bake for 5 minutes.

In another bowl, stir together the sugar and cornstarch, then add the blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberry mixture evenly over the crust, and crumble the dough previously set aside over the berries. Bake for 45 minutes, then cool completely before cutting.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

tolkien_lord.jpgIt is hard to know what to say about a book like The Lord of the Rings. It is a bit like reviewing the Bible, really. Anyone with an interest is virtually certain to have read it, and those lacking such interest are unlikely to care much. Though I cannot disclaim a decently geeky childhood, my genre reading tended more toward science fiction than fantasy, and though I read The Hobbit as a child, I never picked up Tolkien's vaunted epic until much later in life. Indeed, it was not until the first of the recent motion picture adaptations was released that I picked it up. Actually, it was even later than that, as I did not see The Fellowship of the Ring in the theaters at the end of 2001, but sort of haphazardly added it to my Netflix queue and watched it during my first year of law school in the fall of 2002.

I was transfixed by the film, and simply had to know what happened next. The second film was not due to premiere until December of that year, so I made it my goal to traverse the 1000-plus pages by then. The book completely blew me away. I loved it, just loved it. Within months I was in full-on nerd mode, with copies of The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth and The Atlas of Middle-Earth gracing my bookshelf. I even made it through The Silmarillion, Tolkien's esoteric origin story of the Elves in Middle-Earth, and what do you know, I liked it even better. Suffice it to say, during law school I was a big Tolkien buff. When the "Extended Edition" DVDs of the film trilogy were released, I was all over them. I watched the movies, listened to the commentaries, watched all the documentaries. It was a great way to spend law school.

In the years since, the fascination has worn off a bit. I certainly no longer have the free time to sit and watch hours of DVD special features. But the book still retains its magic. This most recent reading was my third (I had read it again after the release of the last movie in December 2003), and it only gets better with increased familiarity. Reading The Lord of the Rings now is like visiting with an old friend. It is sad when it ends, but there is always next time.

The Third Reich at War by Richard Evans

evans_war.jpgOver the past week I have been reviewing the recently-completed three volume history of the Third Reich written by British historian Richard Evans. In The Coming of the Third Reich (review here), Evans traced the developments leading to Hitler's appointment as chancellor and the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933. In The Third Reich in Power (review here), he explored the years of Nazi governance which were inexorably oriented toward the conquest of Europe. And in the third and final volume, The Third Reich at War, Evans analyzes the years of armed conflict which opened with the invasion of Poland and ended with the total destruction of the Nazi regime. In his preface, Evans acknowledges the challenges of this effort; after all, there are entire volumes dedicated solely to the war, entire volumes dedicated solely to the Holocaust, and yet Evans must cover both these topics while telling the story of domestic Germany itself and the people who led it:

The central focus of this book is on Germany and the Germans; it is not a history of the Second World War, not even of the Second World War in Europe. Nevertheless, of course, it its necessary to narrate the progress of the war, and to deal with the Germans' administration of the parts of Europe they conquered... At the heart of German history in the war years lies the mass murder of millions of Jews in what the Nazis called 'the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe'... Nevertheless, it is important to reiterate that this book is a history of Nazi Germany in all its aspects; it is not in the first place a history of the extermination of the Jews, any more than it is a history of the Second World War, though both play an essential role in it.

Like the previous volumes, Evans' narrative follows a blended thematic/chronological arc, in which he focuses on particular areas such as racial policy or economics while simultaneously moving progressively forward in time. The book opens with the invasion of Poland, an invasion which set the stage not just for the extension of German military might, but the application of Nazi ideologies about racial purification:

In Poland the Nazis' policies of racial suppression and extermination were applied in full for the first time, in a gigantic experiment that would later be repeated on an even large scale in other parts of Eastern Europe. German rule in Poland was ruthlessly and exclusively designed to further what the Nazis perceived as Germany's interests, including Germany's racial interests. The deliberate reduction of Poland to a state of nature, the boundless exploitation of its resources, the radical degradation of everyday life, the arbitrary exercise of unfettered power, the violent expulsion of Poles from their homes - all of this opened the way to the application of unbridled terror against Poland's Jews.

Of course the early years of the war go rather well for the Germans, with quick success in Poland followed by the conquest of the Benelux countries and then the shockingly rapid defeat of France. But what goes up must inevitably come down:

The conquest of France marked the highest point of Hitler's popularity in Germany between 1933 and 1945. People confidently expected that Britain would now sue for peace, and that the war would be over by the end of the summer. Yet the problem of what to do next was not a simple one. Moreover, Hitler's attitude to the British was fundamentally ambivalent. On the one hand, he admired the British Empire, which in the 9130s and 1940s was the world's largest, still covering an enormous area of the globe; and he regarded the English as 'Anglo-Saxon' cousins of the Germans, who in the end would be impelled by the logic of racial destiny to make common cause with them. On the other hand, he realized there were powerful forces in British politics that regarded Germany under his leadership as a profound threat to the Empire that had to be stopped at all costs.

Of course the planned invasion never comes to fruition, the Luftwaffe having failed to gain air superiority in the Battle of Britain. Hitler's next move was to launch a massive offensive against the Soviet Union, opening up an Eastern Front which changed the face of the war. "[A]t least two-thirds of the German armed forces were always engaged on the Eastern Front. More people fought and died on and behind the Eastern Front than in all the other theatres of war in 1939-45 put together, including the Far East."

With the war afoot, and massive numbers of foreign Jews coming under German control, the Nazis began to implement what was deemed "The Final Solution" to Europe's Jewish population, with the 1942 Wannsee Conference initiating the main phase of wholesale deportation, resettlement, and slaughter. Evans goes into exhaustive, sometimes horrific detail about the Nazi genocide machine:

[T]he extermination programme was directed and pushed on repeatedly from the center, above lal by Hitler's continual rhetorical attacks on the Jews in the second half of 1931, repeated on other occasions as the Jews loomed in his mind as a threat once more. There was no single decision, implemented in a rationalistic, bureaucratic way; rather, the extermination programme emerged in a process lasting several months, in which Nazi propaganda created a genocidal mentality that spurred Himmler and other leading Nazis to push forward with the killing of Jews on an ever-wider scale.

Evans devotes further chapters to the German wartime economy, which ironically became more and more dependent on imported foreign labor as able-bodied German men were chewed up by the war effort. The Germans also were not shy about appropriating the resources of the conquered countries, both in large-scale confiscations of bulk supplies and raw materials and daily small-scale looting by individual soldiers. But despite the best efforts of Nazi leaders like Albert Speer and the limitless ruthlessness of Nazi exploitation, it was a doomed effort:

When taken together with the looting and forced requisitioning of vast amounts of foodstuffs, raw materials, arms and equipment, and industrial produce from occupied countries, with the expropriation of Europe's Jews, with the unequal tax, tariff and exchange relations between the Reich and the nations under its sway, and with the continual purchase by ordinary German soldiers of goods of all kinds at an advantageous rate, the mobilization of foreign labour made an enormous contribution to the German war economy. Probably as much as a quarter of the revenues of the Reich was generated by conquest in one way or another.

Yet even this was insufficient to boost the German war economy enough to enable it to compete with the overwhelming economic strength of the USA, the Soviet Union and the British Empire combined. No amount of rationalization, efficiency drives and labour mobilization would have worked in the long run. The German military successes of the first two years of the war depended to a large extent on the element of surprise, on speed and swiftness and the use of unfamiliar tactics against an unprepared enemy. Once this element was lost, so too were the chances of victory.

Despite its many strengths, this final volume of Evans' masterful trilogy is somewhat the lesser of its two predecessors. Part of this is due simply to the less original nature of the work, as the war years in Germany have received significantly more historical coverage than those that came before. Further, while Evans makes clear in his preface that he does not intend to offer a general military history, there are many times when the text suffers for insufficient explication of the international wartime context. Most of what happened in Germany's domestic sphere from 1939-1945 was inevitably driven by what was happening in the military sphere. This is an easy enough issue to address by coming to Evans' trilogy with a background in World War II history, or by reading a military history alongside Evans' books. Nevertheless, the result is a somewhat diminished comprehensiveness from that achieved in the first two volumes.

Men's Style by Russell Smith

smith_mens.jpgAs fascinating and splendid a book as Bernhard Roetzel's Gentleman is (review here), it was in many ways a better history of men's fashion than a practical guide. Nothing wrong with that, but someone starting at square one like me needs a bit more basic, a compendium of the elementary rights and wrongs in menswear. There are a number of competitive entries in this niche, and I can recommend both The Handbook of Style from the editors of Esquire and the Men's Style Manual from the editor of Details.

Another entry in the growing field comes from Canadian journalist Russell Smith, who wrote a fashion column for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. With his 2005 publication of Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress, Smith compiled his years of fashion knowledge and observation in a slim hardcover volume, opening with an essay on why men's fashion matters:

Outside those dark twenty-odd years in the middle of the last century, sophistication was always masculine. Even in the 1950s, it was considered manly to be well-groomed. Consider Cary Grant, the romantic hero of 1950s Hollywood. He was clean-shaven and wore elegant suits; he knew about what wine to drink with fish and how to mix a martini. Nor is there anything new about pampering: the ritual of the hot shave in a barbershop was a deeply masculine convention right into the 19880s.

More importantly, the privileging of the natural over the artificial is philosophically unjustified. It leads to repressive thinking. For there is nothing inherently morally impure about the artificial. Art and artifice come from the same root - ars, artis; skill, practice. Skill is a particularly human value. Art is a uniquely human activity. All art is artificial.

Smith's coverage is comprehensive, with chapters devoted to shoes, suits, jackets, shirts, ties, hardware, formal wear, casual, underwear, outerwear, scent, and hair. This is advice oriented to the practical. The chapter on shoes covers such questions as "Which with What," "Colours," "Shoes with Formal Wear," and "How Many Do I Need?"

Nowhere is your taste and social background so neatly summarized as in your choice of shoe. It is the single most important part of your image, the root from which your projected self grows. Large numbers of single women judge prospective male partners rapidly and solely by looking at their feet.

Shoes are the only item of clothing on which you really must spend a great deal of money. It is not really important for the rest of your ensemble. An inexpensive but modishly cut suit can fool TV cameras and fashion journalists alike; an H&M shirt is perfectly hip during its six-month lifespan; a twenty-dollar tie from Wal-Mart is still pure silk. But cheap shoes always look bad. Cheap shoes will also wear out. Good shoes can be resoled almost infinitely and will obviate shoe-buying for ten years. From a purely financial standpoint, you cannot afford cheap shoes.

And if nothing else, I can credit Smith with guiding me to my new scent:

For those who want the dad association without the flimsiness, a more sophisticated manly-spicy-leathery scent - an upscale Old Spice - Hermes's Rocabar, a deep and heavy aroma that connotes men's clubs and cigars. This too has a remarkable effect on women, who - in my informal survey - unfailingly call it "manly."

A few things keep this book merely in the realm of the good rather than the great. First of all, unlike virtually all other men's fashion guides, this one is wholly lacking in photographs, color or otherwise. There are nice sketches here and there to illustrate particular passages, but with a topic as visually oriented as fashion, the lack of photographs is a significant impediment.

More problematic is that much of what Smith offers, for better or worse, is just his opinion. That is certainly his right, he is clearly an accomplished fellow with a great deal of experience in fashion... but there are many passages that struck me as rather too single-minded. The preface on why fashion matters is almost absurdly defensive, and there is some advice that I simply can't classify as even arguably correct (e.g. his one "flamboyant" recommendation is a pair of traditional Dutch clogs, which he advises must be purchased in Europe). Still, there is much here that is simply beneath the likes of Roetzel and Flusser, and thus worthwhile for those of starting from scratch.

The Third Reich in Power by Richard Evans

evans_power.jpgOn Wednesday I discussed the first volume in Richard Evans' trilogy on the Third Reich, which traced the coming of the Nazi regime from the post-1848 German confederation to the consolidation of Nazi control after Hitler's accession to the chancellorship in 1933. In the second volume, titled The Third Reich in Power, Evans covered the years of Nazi governance prior to the outbreak of war, from 1933 until 1939. The book is divided into thematic sections, covering topics such as "policing and repression, culture and propaganda, religion and education, the economy, society and everyday life, racial policy and antisemitism, and foreign policy." Within these areas, each in some way reflecting the Nazi expectation and preparation for international armed conflict, Evans seeks to reach a basic understanding of how and why the Nazi regime functioned as it did:

In one area after another, the contradictions and inner irrationalities of the regime emerge; the Nazis' headlong rush to war contained the seeds of the Third Reich's eventual destruction. How and why this should be so is one of the major questions that runs through this book and binds its separate parts together. So too do many further questions: about the extent to which the Third Reich won over the German people; the degree to which Hitler, rather than broader systematic factors inherent in the structure of the Third Reich as a whole, drove policy onwards; the possibilities of opposition, resistance, dissent or even non-conformity to the dictates of National Socialism under a dictatorship that claimed the total allegiance of all its citizens; the nature of the Third Reich's relationship with modernity; the way in which its policies in different areas resembled, or differed from, those pursued elsewhere in Europe and beyond during the 1930s; and much more besides.

Evans opens the book with a section titled "The Police State," and in particular the bloody episode that has come to be known as the "Night of the Long Knives." In a tactic not unlike Michael Corleone's murder of the heads of the Five Families, Hitler decided to purge the leaders of the Brownshirt SA, to eliminate potential rivals and consolidate his control over all forces of violence in the country. Hitler's lieutenants also took the opportunity to eliminate many of the conservative politicians who had survived previous actions against Social Democrats and Communists:

Striding up and down the room in a white tunic, white boots, and grey-blue trousers, Goring ordered the storming of the Vice-Chancellery. Entering with an armed SS unit, Gestapo agents gunned down Papen's secretary Herbert von Bose on the spot. The Vice-Chancellors' ideological guru Edgar Jung, arrested on 25 June, was also shot; his body was dumped unceremoniously in a ditch. Papen himself escaped death; he was too prominent a figure to be shot down in cold blood. The assassination of two of his closest associates had to be warning enough. Papen was confined to his home for the time being, under guar, while Hitler pondered what to do with him.

Other pillars of the conservative establishment did not fare so well.

This is, of course, just the beginning of Nazi repression, which would soon seek to ferret out anyone with the slightest connection to so-called enemies of the people. This included members of any party of the left, with hundreds of Communists tried and executed at virtual show trials. This period also sees the beginning of what Evans terms the "instruments of terror," most notably the growing sophistication of the Nazi system of camps for political prisoners:

By February 1936, Hitler had approved a reorientation of the whole system, in which Himmler's SS and Gestapo were charged not only with preventing any resurgence of resistance from former Communists and Social Democrats, but also - now that the workers' resistance had been effectively crushed - with purging the German race of undesirable elements. These consisted above all of habitual criminals, asocials and more generally deviants from the idea and practice of the normal healthy member of the German racial community. Jews, so far, did not form a separate category: the aim was to purge the German race, as Hitler and Himmler understood it, of undesirable and degenerate elements. Thus the composition of the camp population now began to change, and the numbers of inmates began to increase again.

This meant that when the time came to focus on Jews, Himmler's SS was well-practiced at the art of systematic elimination. Physical isolation of obvious undesirables was only one piece of Hitler's effort to purify the German people. But in order to accomplish many of his aims, Hitler recognized that he needed to harness the power of the masses, to build real, or seemingly real, public support for his actions. Here entered Joseph Goebbels:

On 25 March [1933], Goebbels defined the Ministry's task as the 'spiritual mobilization' of the German people in a permanent re-creation of the spirit of popular enthusiasm that had, so the Nazis claimed, galvanized the German people on the outbreak of war in 1914... Goebbels' Ministry, staffed by young, committed ideologues, sought not just to present the regime and its policies in a positive light, but to generate the impression that the entire German people enthusiastically endorsed everything it did. Of all the things that made the Third Reich a modern dictatorship, its incessant demand for popular legitimation was one of the most striking. The regime put itself almost from the very start in a state of permanent plebiscitary consultation of the masses. It went to immense trouble to ensure that every aspect of this consultation delivered a resounding and virtually unanimous endorsement of its actions, its policies, and above all, its Leader. Even if it knew, as it must have done, that this endorsement was in reality far from genuine, the mere appearance of constantly renewed mass enthusiasm for the Third Reich and hysterical mass adulation of its Leader would surely have an effect in persuading many otherwise skeptical or neutral Germans to swim with the tide of popular opinion. It would also intimidate opponents of the regime into silence and inaction by persuading them that their aim of gaining the support of their fellow citizens was a hopelessly unrealistic one.

As Evans relates, the Nazi knack for manipulation knew no bounds, reaching into the visual arts, music, even religion. Above all else, the Nazis sought a unified, purified Germany, and that left no room for freedom of expression or freedom of faith. As Hitler became more confident in the strength of his position, he was able to expand his attacks into areas previously thought untouchable. Thus the origins of the famous poem "First they came...," in which Pastor Martin Niemoller reflects upon the fact that after the Nazis had targeted the Communists and the trade unionists and the Jews, they came after the church as well, seeking to Nazify religion itself and create a unified German church.

The Nazi reach extended deep into the economy as well, from the construction of the Autobahn to suppression of the employment of women outside the home to the ambitious goal of German economic self-sufficiency without the need for foreign imports, the Nazis even went so far as to set a "Four Year Plan" for coordinating the country's economic revitalization. Hitler himself got personally involved, encouraging and coordinating the creation of a small-car that could be owned with pride by every German family:

Although no production models came off the assembly-line during the Third Reich, the car stood the test of time: renamed the Volkswagen, or People's Car, after the war, and popularly known as the 'beetle' from the rounded shape Hitler gave it in his original design, it became one of the world's most popular passenger vehicles in the second half of the twentieth century.

Not content to plan just the German economy, the Nazis sought to develop a common German community, which would wipe away the various hostilities that had fractured the country during the Weimar years. While much was accomplished by the forced removal of so-called undesirable elements, a positive effort at building a shared German identity was also vigorously proclaimed. Yet Evans finds that for the most part, this was just more empty Nazi rhetoric. Aside from a few successes such as Strength Through Joy, which was effectively a state-run tourist bureau and travel agency for the masses, the reality was that very little had changed in the German social order:

Nazism did not try to turn the clock back, for all its talk of reinstating the hierarchies and values of a mythical Germanic past. As we have seen, the groups who hoped for a restoration of old social barriers and hierarchies were as disappointed as were those who looked to the Third Reich to carry out a radical redistribution of land and wealth.

In the final two sections, Evans tackles the two topics most dear to the Fuhrer's heart and intricately linked therein: racial purification and war. In his discussion of the Nazi racial agenda, Evans lays out the horrific progression that led from the sterilization of the mentally ill (or those so-classified, whether ill or not) and physically handicapped to the outright murder of these groups, the encouragement of marriage and reproduction by the appropriately pure German couples, the targeting of Gypsies and homosexuals for imprisonment and death, and finally the systematic evolution of the persecution of the Nazis' most reviled enemy:

One minority in German society, however, appeared to the Nazis as something entirely different: not a tiresome burden, but a vast threat, not merely idle, or inferior, or degenerate - although Nazi ideology held them to be all these things too - but actively subversive, engaged in a massive conspiracy to undermine and destroy everything German, a conspiracy moreover that was not just organized from within the country, but operated on a worldwide basis. This minority, no more than 1 per cent of the population, was the Jewish community in Germany.

What is perhaps most striking about Evans account of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, in the pre-years before it became purely a matter of wholesale murder, is what a gradual, organized and concerted effort was made. It was not merely a matter of the Nazis taking power and throwing the Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. It was two years before the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated, followed by several years in which the primary method of abuse was economic, as Jewish businesses were the subject of Aryanization. The slow, methodical nature of this pre-war oppression was such that by March 1938, just a few years before Jews would be shot en masse or shipped off to camps and gassed, " a new law on Jewish cultural associations deprived them of their previous status as public corporations with effect from the previous first of January, thus removing an important legal protection and opening them up to increased taxation." At the same time, the Nazi leadership commenced a series of "speeches, laws, decrees and police raids [that] signalled clearly to the Nazi Party rank and file that it was time to take violent action on the streets once more," culminating in the Kristallnacht in November 1938.

In the final chapters, Evans charts the march to war that has been looming behind every other policy and program pursued by the Nazi regime. Hitler and his lieutenants had to pursue a dual strategy, combining just the right about of aggression to achieve their ambitious ends without triggering war before sufficient rearmament had occurred. The Nazis were methodical as usual, gradually walking back various restrictions placed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles, allying themselves with Mussiolini and then Franco to break out of diplomatic and military isolation, and finally pursuing the now-familiar path through Austria, Czechoslovakia, and, as the book ends, Poland. Less familiar than the disappointments of international appeasement are the apprehensions felt by the German masses that war was looming, a war that many feared after the destruction of the First World War:

Social Democratic agents reported widespread anxiety about the consequences of the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, not least because it could not be justified as the rescue of a German minority from oppression despite the fact that Goebbel's propaganda claimed that the Czechs had been abusing the German minority in their midst... Among the middle classes, there was a widespread feeling that it did not really matter so long as war was avoided.

As it happens, Hitler's popularity was just further strengthened by the continual appeasement, giving the German people confidence that they had a leader who could do no wrong, a trust that was seemingly well-placed in the early months after war broke out. But as would soon be apparent, even Hitler had his limits, and the German people would suffer for it. Evans explores the war years in the third and final volume of his trilogy, which I will turn to on Tuesday.

Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel

roetzel_gentleman.jpgAs it finally began to dawn on me that I would shortly be leaving the military life for a civilian job at a big law firm, I had the startling realization that I would actually have to think about what I was going to wear to work every day. Now I have worked, briefly, in a law firm before, and during my time as a summer associate and six months as an associate between law school and my start on active duty, I wore the basic dress shirt with slacks combo that has come to be classed as "business casual" in most cities. But after four years of wearing camouflage pajamas, I have started to get excited about the concept of men's fashion, of actually getting dressed up for work every day.

To aid in my beginner's fashion education, I sought guidance from a pair of excellent online message boards: Ask Andy About Clothes and Style Forum. Sure the folks who post can be a bit snooty, but these are people who spend their free time discussing men's fashion; it is to be expected. From my lurking on these forums, I noticed repeated references to two particular books: Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser and Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel. A quick search of the Borders website suggested there was a copy of Gentleman at my local bookstore, so I raced over to get my hands on it.

The first thing I noticed is what a large, beautiful book this is. In his foreword, Roetzel states that the book "seeks to kindle a sense of enthusiasm for quality, elegance, and traditional craftsmanship." And assuredly it does; it kindled my sense of enthusiasm for quality, elegant, well-crafted books! Measuring a full ten inches tall and almost eight and a half wide, Gentleman nearly falls into the coffee table category. Every page features large color photos well-matched to the text and the layout is impeccable. It is simply a lovely book to behold.

But what of the contents? Gentleman is at once both a guide to men's fashion and a history of it. Roetzel clearly believes it important for his readers not simply to memorize a set of rules, but to understand how men's clothing has come to where it is today. This means understanding the historical origins as well as the methods and locations of manufacture. Thus in the chapter on "The Shirt," Roetzel examines collar shapes and how to fold a shirt, but also has a fourteen-image pictorial on how a custom-made shirt is created, and a two-page spread on the hand-sewn shirt manufacturers of Naples. The chapter on "The Suirt" has a guide to patterns & fabrics, but also a three-page pictorial on a custom-made suit from Gieves and Hawkes, and two-pages dedicated to Beckenstein Men's Fabrics in New York:

When the pants of a suit were worn out, Beckenstein fashioned a new pair from the same or at least very similar material - in other words, pants and jacket were matched. The life of a suit could be considerably extended in this way since the pants, which were subject to far more wear and tear than the jacket, could simply be replaced. This service was only possible thanks to Beckenstein's vast stock of fabrics, which meant that the right match could usually be found even for very old suits.

In his 300-plus pages, Roetzel covers everything from facial hair to waxed jackets to walking canes, so there is surely something here for everyone. It will not all be to one's taste; much of what is discussed would irreparably stretch most of our wallets, and there is some advice that seems rather dubious (e.g. the section on how cigarettes are cool), but all in all this is a wonderful read (or gift) for anyone interested in classic men's fashion.

The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans

evans_coming.jpgNo country better symbolizes the mysteries and intrigues of the twentieth-century, the ebbs and flow of science and faith, despotism and democracy, peace and war, than Germany. This is a nation that was ruled by a hereditary king at the start of the century, followed by a stillborn democracy, then a vicious dictatorship, and then split for nearly half-a-century between a western industrial democracy and a Soviet-puppet police state before emerging in the 1990s as a mature member of the international community and a leader in European unity. A country that was at the center of the century's two world wars, an unprecedented genocide, and yet produced some of the century's greatest artistic and technological achievements.

Of all these governmental iterations, the most horrendously exceptional must surely be the Nazi regime that ruled from 1933 until 1945. That such a violent, reductionist party could come to power in one of the most economically, culturally and scientifically advanced nations in the world continues to boggle the mind. For several decades, the standard popular work on the subject has been William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer was an American reporter working in Germany in the years leading up to World War II, and published his history in 1960 to great success in America. His thesis, that Nazism was a natural result of the German character for obedience and servitude, was not as widely accepted, particularly in academic circles.

Nevertheless, it has taken more than four decades for a worthy contender to emerge to rival Shirer's achievement. The chair of the history department at Cambridge University, Richard Evans, had been a scholar of modern Germany since the early years of a career that reaches back into the 1960s; but his focus on the Nazi era in particular did not emerge until much later, and his decision to publish a general history on the subject was sparked in part by his employment as an expert witness for the defense in the widely publicized libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving:

[O]ne of the major surprises of the work we did on the case was the discovery that many aspects of the subjects we were dealing with were still surprisingly ill-documented. Another, just as important, was that there was no wide-ranging, detailed overall account of the broader historical context of Nazi policies towards the Jews in the general history of the Third Reich itself, despite the existence of many excellent accounts of those policies in a narrower framework.

Thus while Evans complements Shirer's "journalist's eye for the telling detail and the illuminating incident," he notes that it was "universally panned by professional historians" and simply failed to grasp with the scholarship on the Nazi regime that was available in 1960, let alone that which has emerged in the half-century since. Evans is similarly critical of scholarship in the decades since which have attempted to reduce the Nazi era to a Marxist analysis of class warfare, or to whitewash the responsibility of the German people by exalting their "unpolitical" nature, or to categorize the Nazis as just one example of a totalitarian phenomenon which occurred in countries across the globe.

Thus Evans decided to embark on what was to become a comprehensive trilogy on the German Third Reich: one volume focused on German history leading up to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933; another volume exploring the Nazi state as it consolidated its might before the outbreak of war; and the final volume devoted to the regime from the World War II. In the first and best volume, titled The Coming of the Third Reich, Evans sought to explore the basic questions which have puzzled scholars and citizens alike for several generations:

How was it that an advanced and highly cultured nation such as Germany could give in to the brutal force of National Socialism so quickly and so easily? Why was there such little serious resistance to the Nazi takeover? How could an insignificant party of the radical right rise to power with such dramatic suddenness? Why did so many Germans fail to perceive the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring the violent, racist and murderous nature of the Nazi movement?

Evans opens his history with an excursion through German history beginning with the failed Revolution of 1848, in which a variety of liberal advances were eventually largely suppressed or reversed by a conservative backlash. This leads to the era of Bismarck, and in Evans' portrayal Bismarck emerges as an ambitious yet ambiguous figure, who felt "contempt for liberalism, socialism, parliamentarism, egalitarianism and many other aspects of the modern world," whose "domination over German politics in the second half of the nineteenth century was brutal, arrogant, complete," and yet whose "technique was to calculate the way events were going, then take advantage of them for his own purposes." In other words, Bismarck was to take advantage of existing trends, to "navigat[e] the ship of state along the stream of time," rather to simply direct it from above. As such, it is important for Evans to look at the underlying direction of German society, from the consolidation into the German Empire (e.g. the Second Reich) in 1871 to the rise of the Prussian military aristocracy, to the growing assaults on Catholicism, socialism, and other perceived enemies of the German state, and the resulting fragmentation of German society:

Thus Germany before 1914 had not two mainstream political parties but six - the Social Democrats, the two liberal parties, the two groups of Conservatives, and the Centre Party, reflecting among other things the multiple divisions of German society, by region, religion, and social class.

If the nineteenth-century laid the foundations of later events in German society, it was the shocking defeat in World War I and its troubling aftermath that laid the battle lines most clearly. It is commonly understood that German humiliation and resentment toward the peace terms demanded at Versailles were a key ingredient in the Nazi's eventual rise, but this a rather abstract conception that fails to grapple with the intervening decade and a half that connects the two events. Evans does not argue that the terms of peace treaty were necessarily harsh or unfair; instead he focuses on the virtually unhinged German reaction:

Given the extent of what Germans had expected to gain in the event of victory, it might have been expected that they would have realized what they stood to lose in the event of defeat. But no one was prepared for the peace terms to which Germany was forced to agree in the Armistice of 11 November 1918... These provisions were almost universally felt in Germany as an unjustified national humiliation. Resentment was hugely increased by the actions taken, above all by the French, to enforce them. The harshness of the Armistice terms was thrown into sharp relief by the fact that many Germans refused to believe that their armed forces had actually been defeated. Very quickly, aided and abetted by senior army officers themselves, a fateful myth gained currency among large sections of public opinion in the centre and on the right of the political spectrum... many people began to believe that the army had only been defeated because... it had been stabbed in the back by its enemies at home.

The "stab in the back" theory would eventually become the Nazi's favorite basis for violent oppression of any group or individual they deemed potentially dangerous to the German state, particularly as the prospect of another war approached in the late 1930s. Evans spends several subsequent chapters exploring the "failure of democracy" we now call the Weimar Republic, which was disliked by many on both ends of the political spectrum, never gaining the popular legitimacy it would have needed to survive that turbulent economic and political era:

The conflicts that rent Weimar were more than merely political or economic. Their visceral quality derived much from the fact that they were not just fought in parliaments and elections, but permeated every aspect of life... People arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. One indication of this could be found in the extremely high turnout rates at elections - no less than 80 per cent of the electorate in most contests. Elections met with none of the indifference that is allegedly the sign of a mature democracy. On the contrary, during election campaigns in many parts of Germany every spare inch of outside walls and advertising columns seemed to be covered with posters, every window hung with banners, every building festooned with the colours of one political party or another.

With temperatures running so high, it is no surprise that these years saw a particularly robust and nasty proliferation of partisan press, attacks on the arts and any movement associated with modernity (feminism, socialism, etc), the rise of various youth movements aimed at indoctrinating future members of particular ideologies at the earliest possible age, and other signs that Germany society was fragmenting into virtual domestic warfare. In these chapters, Evans excels at demonstrating how various events in these pivotal years laid the groundwork for Nazi power without any of the key power brokers ever having such an intention. The rising violence on the streets, the curbs on civil liberties, the flouting of the rule of law, many of these trends were provoked or promoted by those who had little self-interest in the rise of a group like the Nazis, or little conception of the possibility of just such an outcome:

The slide away from parliamentary democracy into an authoritarian state ruling without the full and equal participation of the parties or the legislatures had already begun under Bruning. It had been massively and deliberately accelerated by Papen. After Papen, there was no going back. A power vacuum had been created in Germany which the Reichstag and the parties had no chance of filling.... In such a situation, only force was likely to succeed.

The growing popularity of the Nazis, reflected most disturbingly at the polls, is portrayed as largely a protest vote rather than any widespread commitment to the Nazi platform. After all, the Nazi platform was virtually non-existent. It was a movement birthed in hate and racism, burgeoned by anger and resentment and trafficking in rhetorical excess:

In the increasingly desperate situation of 1930, the Nazis managed to project an image of strong, decisive action, dynamism, energy and youth that wholly eluded the propaganda efforts by other parties to project their leaders as the Bismarcks of the future. All this was achieved through powerful, simple slogans and images, frenetic, manic activity, marches, rallies, demonstration, speeches, posters, placards and the like, which underlined the Nazis' claim to be far more than a political party: they were a movement, sweeping up the German people and carrying them unstoppably to a better future. What the Nazis did not offer, however, were concrete solutions to German's problems, least of all in the area where they were most needed, in economy and society.... Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic... Many middle-class voters coped with Nazi violence and thuggery on the streets by writing it off as the product of excessive youthful ardour and energy. But it was far more than that, as they were soon to discover for themselves.

In the end, Evans points to several major factors for explaining the Nazi rise: the Depression, which doomed the nascent Weimar Republic; the crude appeal of the dynamic Nazi movement and its charismatic leader; and the significant overlap between Nazi rhetoric and the political ideologies of the other major German political parties, which had increasingly shifted to the right. Evans also takes care to distinguish two distinct phases of the Nazi rise to power: the political rise which resulted in Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933, and the seizure of power marked by the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Enabling Act, the abolition of elections, and a variety of other measures wholly flouting any sense of obligation to a rule of law. Of course the Nazi revolution was not confined to the political realms, with dramatic measures taken in the academic, artistic, religious, and economic spheres as well:

Now the Nazis would set about constructing a racial utopia, in which a pure-bred nation of heroes would prepare as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible for the ultimate test of Germany racial superiority: a war in which they would crush and destroy their enemies, and establish a new European order that would eventually come to dominate the world. By the summer of 1933 the ground had been cleared for the construction of a dictatorship the like of which had never yet been seen. The Third Reich was born: in the next phase of its existence, it was to rush headlong into a dynamic and increasingly intolerant maturity.

Evans explores that phase in the second volume of his trilogy, which I will discuss on Friday.

Native Son by Richard Wright

wright_native.jpgThere are some novels which are shocking at the time and place of their publication, but are tamed by the passage and progress of time. Richard Wright's 1940 novel, Native Son, is not one of those books. One of the earliest novels to squarely confront the racial divide in America, Wright did not approach the issue tentatively, instead offering a raw depiction of the physical and spiritual poverty and oppression suffered by the black masses in America, and the violent desperation that results. A controversial bestseller at the time of its publication, Native Son has survived the test of history, and placed 20th and 27th, respectively, on the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists of the 20th century's best English-language novels.

In Native Son, Wright offers a young African-American protagonist who is living with his mother and siblings in bare poverty in a single room ghetto apartment on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. Though a mere twenty years of age, Bigger Thomas is already filled with the anger and discontent of a much older man, living a life of petty crime and violence, directed as much as possible at the white people whom Bigger holds responsible for his despair:

"They don't Let us do nothing."
"The white folks."
"You talk like you just now finding that out," Gus said.
"Naw. But I just can't get used to it," Bigger said. "I swear to God I can't. I know I oughn't think about it, but I can't help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do thing we can't. It's just like living in hail. Half the time I feel like I'm on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence..."

Wright does not blanch at the inevitable direction of Bigger's tragic life; by the end of the novel's first act, he has smothered to death the attractive young daughter of the wealthy white man who had just given him a job. And yet the death was an accident, caused by his fear at being caught in the young woman's room after having carried the intoxicated girl up from the car. And his subsequent grisly cover-up is similarly motivated by knowledge that no matter what story he told, a murder rap was the guaranteed result:

The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here. Mrs. Dalton had been in the room while he was there, but she had not known it. But, had she? No! Yes! Maybe she had gone for help? No. If she had known she would have screamed. She didn't know. He had to slip out of the house. Yes. He could go home to bed tomorrow and tomorrow he could tlel them that he had driven Mary home and had left her at the side door.

In the darkness his fear made live in him an element which he reckoned with as "them." He had to construct a case for "them."

I had several weeks to think about this first act, because the paperback copy of the book which I brought with me to Qatar went missing the time I arrived in country, and it was not until my return to the States that I was able to retrieve my hardcover copy and finish the text. Not only was the book sufficiently compelling that I was rather eager to finish it, but it was also so raw and shocking in its depiction of black life before the dawn of the civil rights movement. I certainly do not believe the racial divide has been wholly, or even largely bridged; but the time that Wright is depicting, the time in which he was writing, was an era that lacked not simply justice, but hope itself.

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers

powers_gold.jpgIn a literary career spanning more than two dozen years, Richard Powers has carved a niche for himself exploring various scientific and medical themes in his novels, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. In 2006, he was awarded the National Book Award for The Echo Maker, in which he used a brain injury to his protagonist as an avenue for exploring cognitive neurology. In his third novel, The Gold Bug Variations, published in 1991, Powers explored the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, the intricacies of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, and the consequences of love and loss on a lifetime:

I never said anything I wanted to say to anyone. I've misinterpreted the whole set from the start. That table of data in the nucleotides isn't about reading at all. It's about saying, out loud, everything there is, while it's still sayable. The whole, impossibly complex goldberg invention of speech, wasted on someone who from the first listened only to that string of molecules governing cowardice. Obvious, out in the open: every measure, every vertical instant infused with that absurd little theme insisting "Live, live," and me objecting, "But what if it should be real? What if it all means something? What if someone should hold me to my words?"

The novel contains two interwoven storylines, one set on the cusp of scientific breakthrough in the 1950s and another twenty-five years later in the early days of the computer revolution. The narratives are connected through the enigmatic figure of Stuart Ressler. In the early storyline, Ressler is on the cutting edge of scientific academia, exploring the frontiers of DNA and genetics. By the mid-1980s, Ressler is working the night shift at a firm conducting overnight computer processing. There he would have toiled in utter anonymity if not for the intervention of his coworker Frank Todd, who becomes curious about Ressler's past. He seeks assistance at the local branch library, where he finds eccentric research librarian Jan O'Deigh, who provides the bulk of the novel's narration. At the start of the novel, O'Deigh has received word of Ressler's death, inspiring a reminiscence of the day she met the inscrutable old man:

He wore a forgettable light suit, a narrow maroon tie not seen since the fifties, and an immaculate oxford button-down, carefully ironed but pilled to exhaustion around the collar. He emitted the aura--accurate, it turned out--that he found buying clothes too embarrassing. He was over the median age by twenty years. As I started, wondering if this was an assault, the figure said, in a voice rattling like a cracked distributor, "Excuse me, Miss. There's been a mistake." I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. Worse--the ultimate terror for my profession--I had no source to appeal to.

The strength of Powers' literature lies in his ability to explore intricate or advanced intellectual concept with grace and ease. The very concept of the common nature of the genetic code and the structure of Bach's composition is a thing of beauty, as is the parallel between Ressler's search to understand these mysteries and Todd and O'Deigh's quest to uncover Ressler's past:

For all that we finally discovered about him, Dr. Ressler still came from and returned to nowhere. His life was a cipher, his needs one of those latent anthologies, safe deposit boxes filled with tickets to urgent, forgotten banquets. Our sustained misreading of the man was my fault. Todd put me on his trail, and I went after him as an abstraction, a chemistry unknown that, mixed with the right reagent, reveals itself by going rose or precipitating. I looked fora postulate, completely missing the empiricist's point. Now, when it no longer helps, I see the person he stood for is the one who is gone.

Powers is oft-criticized, with a good degree of justification, for making plotting and characterization secondary to his ambitious intellectual themes and his lush word play. This certainly applies to Gold Bug; the pacing lags badly at several points, coming to a virtual halt for extended discussions of genetics or musical composition. The dialogue is often stilted, the character development either non-existent or subservient to the themes. But that is one gets when one reads Powers. As the original New York Times review put it, "the purpose of this plot setup is less to tell a story than to explore structural possibilities, codes, metaphors, ingenuity in language." At such exploration, there are few authors who can match Richard Powers.

2010 Reading Goals

bookstack.jpgSince I embarked on my Great Books Project seven years ago, my life has been enhanced in immeasurable ways by a renewed devotion to reading. Well, not entirely immeasurable, since I have kept track of every book I have read since 2003 (508 so far).

In 2008, my goal of reading 100 books was a great success, and the quantifiable nature of the endeavor made it easier to motivate myself and to track progress. However, it resulted in a notable preference for reading slimmer books. In an attempt to correct for that, last year's goal was to read 30,000 pages, a goal I was able to meet. Though I read fewer titles, the average length was upwards of 500 pages per book.

Things are going to have to be different this year. My first child was born about a month ago. I am studying for the one-day Attorney's Exam in February to enter the Georgia Bar. And I start a new job on the 1st of March. I will not have any three-month stretches in Kuwait with little to do after work but read. So the 30,000 pages per year pace I have set the past two years will surely not survive. On the other hand, I want to remain ambitious about reading, and I believe if I can keep it a significant part of my life during a year like this, it will remain so forever. So here's my goal for the new year:

I will read 15,000 pages in 2010, including twelve books of greater then 650 pages.

Obviously this cuts the overall numerical goal in half. The purpose of the second clause is to again encourage myself to tackle the thicker volumes. In 2009, I rated eight books at 5 or more stars (out of 6), and the average length of those eight was just over 650 pages. I'm hoping for a similar rate of success on the door-stoppers this year.

My other goal is to catch up on my reviews. I really let that part of my project slide after my most recent return from overseas, what with getting ready for a newborn baby and all. But writing the reviews has been an important part of grappling with and coming to an understanding of what I am reading, and over the next several weeks I hope to make determined progress through the backlog.

Here's to a wonderful year of reading! Happy New Year!

The Year in Books - 2009

At the start of last year, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I measured progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid the previous year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in 2009:

  1. Bush's Law - Eric Lichtblau
  2. Standard Operating Procedure - Philip Gourevitch
  3. Ironweed - William Kennedy
  4. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  5. Stalin - Simon Sebag Montefiore
  6. The People's Act of Love - James Meek
  7. The Peloponnesian War - Donald Kagan
  8. FDR - Jean Edward Smith
  9. John Marshall - Jean Edward Smith
  10. The Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan
  11. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
  12. A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley
  13. Breathing Lessons - Anne Tyler
  14. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
  15. Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood
  16. Truman - David McCullough
  17. Eisenhower - Carlo D'Este
  18. Battle Cry of Freedom - James McPherson
  19. Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin
  20. Andrew Carnegie - David Nasaw
  21. The Weather Makers - Tim Flannery
  22. Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry
  23. Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Adichie
  24. All the Names - Jose Saramago
  25. Going After Cacciato - Tim O'Brien
  26. Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  27. India - John Keay
  28. Barbarians at the Gate - Bryan Burrough
  29. The Smartest Guys in the Room - Bethany McLean
  30. The Glorious Cause - Robert Middlekauff
  31. Home - Marilynne Robinson
  32. Seeing - Jose Saramago
  33. The Palace of Dreams - Ismail Kadare
  34. Death with Interruptions - Jose Saramago
  35. Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres
  36. Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow
  37. The Korean War - Max Hastings
  38. Possession - A.S. Byatt
  39. The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
  40. Song of Solomon - Toni Morrison
  41. The Search for Modern China - Jonathan Spence
  42. Cloudsplitter - Russell Banks
  43. Khrushchev - William Taubman
  44. Arthur & George - Julian Barnes
  45. The Lazarus Project - Aleksandar Hemon
  46. The Great War for Civilisation - Robert Fisk
  47. A Savage War of Peace - Alistair Horne
  48. Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond
  49. The Rise of American Democracy - Sean Wilentz
  50. The Human Stain - Philip Roth
  51. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
  52. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
  53. The House of the Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne
  54. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  55. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music - Jan Swafford
  56. Empire Express - David Haward Bain
  57. The Gold Bug Variations - Richard Powers
  58. Native Son - Richard Wright
  59. The Coming of the Third Reich - Richard Evans
  60. Gentleman - Bernhard Roetzel
  61. The Third Reich in Power - Richard Evans
  62. Men's Style - Russell Smith
  63. The Third Reich at War - Richard Evans
  64. The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
  65. The Stone Diaries - Carol Shields
  66. American Pastoral - Philip Roth
  67. Year of Wonders - Geraldine Brooks
  68. Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith
  69. People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

Having read 33,933 pages in those 69 books, my basic goal was met. But as I said, the real purpose of measuring progress in pages was to motivate myself to read longer book than I had in 2008, when the goal of reading 100 books was met at the expense of a strong bias toward slimmer texts. I am happy to say that between the new page-based goal and several long, boring months in Kuwait in which I could focus attention on lengthier volumes, more than 90% of the books I read in 2009 contained more than 300 pages, with more than two dozen weighing it above the 500 page mark.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the two longest books I read were also two of my favorites. Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation (review here) gave me a new perspective on the various conflicts in the Middle East over the past several decades. The best book I read in 2009 was David McCullough's Truman (review here), which succeeded brilliantly in portraying one of the unlikeliest paths to the presidency our country has seen, the man who took that path, and the times in which he traveled it. Other favorites on the nonfiction side included Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China (review here), Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace (review here), and Richard Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich (review here).

Two novels stood out amongst the three dozen or so I read in 2009: Jeffrey Eugenides' majestic Middlesex (review here), which added intriguing twists and nuances while perfecting the art of the multi-generational American immigrant saga, and Louis de Bernieres' Corelli's Mandolin (review here), a powerful meditation on love in wartime that unfortunately has been blemished by the awful film that carries its name.

Yet another wonderful year in reading. Later today I will set my goals for the new year.