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Sunday, October 30, 2011

RIN TIN TIN: The Life and the Legend

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Saturday, October 29, 2011


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Friday, October 28, 2011

THE CHRONICLES OF HARRIS BURDICK: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011


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Monday, October 24, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Sep 19: Mister Wonderful: A Love Story

by Daniel Clowes A review by James R. Fleming

In many respects Daniel Clowes's Mister Wonderful cannot be properly described as a graphic novel (Clowes, for the record, refers to the book simply as "a love story"). While the book is certainly what might broadly be defined as an "illustrated narrative" -- or what the less fussy among us still like to call a "comic book" -- it bears none of the standard structural or thematic hallmarks of a novel. The narrative is short and succinct, the perspective is limited to one character and focuses on one extended incident, and the story arrives at a rather definitive conclusion, hence the book can be best conceptualized not as a "novel" per se but as an illustrated short story. This is an important distinction to make, though one that is hardly offered in critical discussions and reviews of graphic narratives. The broad and often misleading term "graphic novel" is usually applied by publishers and reviewers to any sort of illustrated narrative that is published in book form, without consideration given to whether said work is in fact, truly a novel or not.

In terms of plot, Mister Wonderful's themes and ideas are pretty standard, if not downright familiar, especially to regular readers of Clowes's work. Clowes does not break any new thematic or psychological ground here; this is not an in-depth examination into the complexities of the protagonist's psyche or the nature of the world in which he lives. Mister Wonderful is simply about a day (or part of a day) in the life a regular guy named Marshall who falls for an imperfect girl and tries to handle their developing relationship in the best way he can. The story is limited, mostly, to the couple's first date and initial relationship crisis (which occurs in the middle of their first date).

It is in that very simplicity and relative familiarity that the story's originality and brilliance rests. Throughout all of his major works -- Ghost World, David Boring and Wilson, in particular -- Clowes presents us with common eccentrics, temper-cases, and weirdos. He is, at his best, a chronicler of everyday oddballs and pains in the ass, much like the great -- and vastly under-appreciated -- fiction writer Stephen Dixon (Clowes's protagonists, though, tend to lack the acerbic wit, intelligence and intrinsic solipsism of Dixon's protagonists). However, in Mister Wonderful in particular, Clowes offers his protagonists just as they are without celebrating or, for that matter, apologizing or advocating on their behalf. There is a certain humility that shines through this book far more so than in Clowes's other works, a quiet willingness on Clowes's part not to over do it or show off his own intelligence, to let his protagonist speak for himself without direct authorial intervention or judgment.

Clowes's art is as clear, clean, and visceral as ever in Mister Wonderful; not a single panel, line or splash of color is wasted. Instead his drawings work in seamless conjunction with his narrative by informing, supporting and enforcing the story itself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clowes manages to avoid packing his drawings with an overwhelming amount of superfluous details and "Easter eggs" that would serve to distract our attention from the essence of the story itself.

Mister Wonderful might ultimately be understood as a thematic companion piece -- and even counterpoint -- to his previous book, Wilson. Taken together, the books offer two radically different possibilities for two rather miserable and self-doubting people. However, while Wilson serves as a study in misery and borderline sociopathy and concludes on a decidedly stark and pessimistic note, Mister Wonderful is instead a rather hopeful consideration of a man who looks for love and finds it, if in a somewhat imperfect and problematic form. While Wilson is unable and unwilling to find satisfaction in any relationship he engages in or to recognize and attempt to reconcile his own personality deficits and psychoses, Marshall is able to realize his own faults and foibles, to accept both himself and, by extension, the imperfect love he comes to find.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sat, Sep 17: Big Vegan: 400 Recipes: No Meat, No Dairy, All Delicious

by Robin Asbell A review by Jill Owens

I was a vegetarian for many years, and though I'm not any more, I still cook meatless meals most of the time. Robin Asbell's fabulous new cookbook, Big Vegan, is my latest go-to cookbook and hands-down one of the best vegan cookbooks I've ever used. It contains the most comprehensive, varied, and flat-out tasty recipes since Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Veganomicon; if you're a fan of that cookbook, this will be a tie or at least a close second. (It actually boasts over a third more recipes, as well.)

At an initial glance, I thought that Big Vegan might be a little too simplistic -- recipes like Watermelon and Tomato Salad with Basil, Edamame Hummus, or Hot and Sour Broccoli Salad sounded tasty but not terribly exciting -- and then I actually made the broccoli salad. Though it took less than 10 minutes to put together, with a minimum of ingredients, it's absolutely fantastic. Asbell melds flavors in a way that makes them fresh, new, and utterly arresting. I had also overlooked the very first section, entitled "Pantry Staples," which includes much more thorough (though still fairly easy) recipes for things like Mock Duck, Mock Beef, Tempeh Chorizo, and Veggie "Butter" -- which are the true tests of a vegan cookbook. I'm happy to report that Asbell's seitan (which contains chickpea flour, a nice touch) is one of the best seitans, homemade or store-bought, I've tried.

There are a lot of Asian recipes in Big Vegan, but it actually ranges world-wide, from African, Italian, Jamaican, and Middle Eastern recipes to vegan takes on standard American comfort food. Many of the recipes are wonderfully inventive, too, like Chilled Minted Peach and Prosecco Soup, Wild Rice and Blueberry Salad, and Avocado Cupcakes with Avocado-Lime Frosting. Whole sections are devoted to sauces, breads, desserts, and snacks along with the main courses, sides, soups, and salads. Fair warning: there are not that many pictures (though the ones that are included are beautiful). If you want to incorporate more meatless cooking, or more ideas for including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet, you can't go wrong with this cookbook.


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Review-a-Day for Sun, Sep 25: Habibi

by Craig Thompson A review by Glen Weldon

Craig Thompson's 2003 graphic novel Blankets is a book that people like me hand to people like you when we want you to understand that comics are much more than superheroes -- that they are a medium, a singular means of storytelling with its own rich language, idioms and rules. In Thompson's 600-page semi-autobiographical tome, a young man gripped in the often-painful process of discovering his adult self attempts to forge a spiritual and artistic identity even as he falls helplessly in love with a girl who represents everything his life has been missing. Thompson deftly married spare text to often lyrical imagery to create in the reader the same exhilarating tension of first love that seizes his hero.

Now Thompson brings that mastery of the alchemical mixture of word and picture only possible on the comics page to the much-anticipated Habibi, set somewhere in a modern yet resolutely mythical Middle East. The novel's ambitions are larger than those of Blankets, and its subjects many: In just the opening chapters, Thompson gamely tackles nothing less than the roots of religion, the nature of masculinity and femininity, the lasting toll of physical and sexual trauma, our fragile relationship with the environment and, for good measure, why we tell stories to one another.

In another's hands, such weighty abstractions could easily result in a leaden, highly pedantic "novel of ideas," but Habibi never feels top-heavy because it remains, at its center, a love story. Every grand theme that recurs over the course of its nearly 700 pages, every lofty idea Thompson explores, grows out of the love -- the uncomplicated, palpable, eminently relatable yearning -- that his two main characters feel for each other.

As the novel begins, a beautiful young woman and a small boy eke out a meager existence in the shelter provided by a ship stranded in the middle of the desert. Thompson moves fluidly back and forth in time and slowly parcels out their back stories -- the novel will be almost half over before we find out how they arrived at that boat or what causes them to get separated from one another for much of the story -- but we feel the strength of their connection immediately, because he shows it to us. Thompson draws faces and figures in a style reminiscent of the great Will Eisner, combining precise draftsmanship with an eye for the characterizing, cartoonish detail. It's a degree of skill that ensures his characters interact with subtlety and elegance.

The boy and the woman do get separated, and over the course of the novel, which takes them through slums, harems, prisons, poisoned rivers and empty high-rises, the nature of their love for one another will change in unexpected ways. At their loneliest, they will both seek comfort in stories from the Quran, which the author brings to life in passages of intricate design and arresting beauty. In these sections, Thompson employs Arabic calligraphy, magic squares and other elements of Islamic art and architecture to weave patterns and shapes on the page that seem to hold his characters suspended in space. It's as if these stories of prophets and miracles are physically supporting the woman and the boy, just as they provide emotional support. These pages offer the clearest demonstrations of Thompson's ability to blend scholarship, sensitivity and skill in service of the timeless human story he wants to tell.

Habibi is a complex and multifaceted work of fiction that lingers in the memory. Once you finish it, you will be left with the distinct feeling that it hasn't finished with you, that it is a book you could read again in a year or a decade and have it speak to you in a new voice each time, offering up new connections you were not previously able to see.

Of all the books I've read this year, the mysterious, marvelous Habibi is the one I most look forward to meeting again.

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Review-a-Day for Sat, Sep 24: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

by Jon Krakauer A review by Doug Brown

On July 24, 1984, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers brutally murdered their sister-in-law and her baby girl, believing they were fulfilling a revelation that one of the brothers had received from God. Today they reside in federal prisons. The older brother, Ron (who had the revelation), is on death row and following every avenue for appeal. The younger brother, Dan, is serving a life sentence and seems okay with it (Krakauer says he refers to prison as a "monastery"). Krakauer spoke to Dan for the book, but not Ron. Under the Banner of Heaven tells in parallel the story of the Lafferty brothers and their descent into fundamentalism alongside the history of the Mormon Church.

The modern Mormon Church is quick to distance itself from fundamentalists; most are excommunicated from the Latter-Day Saint (LDS) community. The church downplays the history of plural marriage (polygamy) in Mormonism, to the point of maintaining that Brigham Young was monogamous (history says otherwise). Polygamy is a central point of contention with fundamentalists -- they feel the church went astray when it cooperated with U.S. law and renounced the practice in the late 1800s. A practice that is still a part of the church, though, is revelation. Mormons are encouraged to listen for messages from God, and much of the basis of Mormon dogma is a sequence of revelations that Joseph Smith and later church leaders have had. One doctrine of Mormonism that has terrible consequences is "blood atonement"; if acts are committed against Mormons, Brigham Young said this could sometimes only be rectified if the "sinners have their blood spilt upon the ground." Fundamentalists are naturally drawn to blood atonement, and this element of Mormonism became a focus for the Lafferty brothers.

A fundamental point of Ron's trial was whether he was insane. The defense argued he was; the prosecution argued no. As Krakauer details, if Ron Lafferty is insane, it could be argued that so are most religious people. He believed he was receiving revelations from God, but revelation is a tenet of Mormonism. Despite carrying out horrible crimes, he felt he was doing the right thing, and was thus divorced from reality. But so is everyone who goes to war with a cross or a star or a crescent around their neck. Ron did what he did because of his faith. Sure, the motive seems self-serving -- Brenda Lafferty (the victim) had convinced Ron's abused wife to leave him, so naturally Ron said that God wanted her "removed." But there was much discussion between the brothers and their circle about whether the "removal revelation" was legitimately from God; the final decision, for Ron and Dan anyway, was yes. This discussion is a particularly sore point for Brenda's family -- several people knew about the revelation months before it was carried out, and no one warned her. Krakauer maintains one of these people was Allen Lafferty, Brenda's husband. Ron had shown him the revelation and asked what he thought of it. Allen spoke against it, but never felt inclined to say, "Hey, honey, I had the creepiest talk with my brothers..."

Even before Under the Banner of Heaven was on the shelves, the LDS church preemptively attacked it. In a five-page screed that is reprinted in an appendix for the paperback, Krakauer is taken to task for focusing on the negative aspects of the church. It emphasizes that the Lafferty brothers weren't members of the LDS church, having been excommunicated. Krakauer responds to each of the charges. In a few cases, he acknowledges having gotten facts wrong in the initial release (which were subsequently corrected for the paperback edition). But, for the most part, he defends the points made in the book.

Events have happened in the history of Mormonism that the church would rather sweep under the rug, like the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (detailed in the book). And while the Laffertys had been excommunicated from the LDS church, their beliefs were rooted in the church. They believed they were being better Mormons than the LDS church leaders. To me, that was an important take-away lesson of the book -- religious fundamentalists don't necessarily believe something completely different from the mainstream; they just interpret the same texts more inflexibly and believe in their interpretation more deeply. In the hands of fundamentalists, religious belief is by definition intolerant, and often used for brutal ends. Under the Banner of Heaven is a scary book about the dark fringe of extremist religion and believers who are willing to lethally impose their dogma.


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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Sep 26: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human

Review-a-Day for Fri, Sep 23: Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America

by David S. Reynolds A review by Drew Gilpin Faust

As the obsolescence and even the demise of the book are widely foretold, it is all the more important -- and comforting -- to recognize how a book can change the world. It is hard to think of many that have done so more emphatically than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lincoln is famously said to have greeted its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1862 by inquiring, "So this is the little lady who started this great war?" And whether he actually ever made the remark or not, the very fact of her visit to the White House and the emergence of the legend of his respectful, if somewhat patronizing, salutation are sufficient evidence of the remarkable influence that Stowe's words claimed in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was at once a novel and an "event," as Theodore Parker proclaimed soon after it appeared. Today its publication is appropriately included -- along with such occurrences as the Dred Scott decision and John Brown's raid -- on timelines of incidents that propelled the nation towards civil war. In the mounting sectional conflict, words assumed the power of deeds, acts of political as well as social transformation. Originating as a serial, Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in book form in the spring of 1852. By mid-October, 120,000 copies had been sold; by the following spring, 310,000. In England it was even more successful, with sales of a million within a year. Michael Winship has called it "the world's first true blockbuster." It may also have been the first bestseller to produce spin-offs-which came to be known as "Tomitudes": engravings, games, puzzles, songs and sheet music, dramatizations-in Europe as well as the United States. The book was a phenomenon, in its popularity and its influence.

Yet by the early twentieth century it was out of print and would remain so for decades. "Uncle Tom" became an epithet, representing not the admirable saintliness and sacrifice with which Stowe had sought to imbue her protagonist, but -- in the eyes of African Americans such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin -- an embarrassing embodiment of black obsequiousness and self-loathing. In the white segregated South, scorn for Stowe's book claimed different origins: it was seen as part of a long tradition of Northern meddling in Southern racial arrangements. In South Carolina in 1900, a teacher might well make his students raise their right hands and swear never to read Uncle Tom's Cabin -- an unwitting nod to the book's power as well as an affirmation of the white South's racial solidarity. Uncle Tom's Cabin was certainly never taught as literature in the North or the South, because it was seen by critics and scholars as sentimental and overwrought -- less art than propaganda. Hawthorne dismissed Stowe as one of his era's "scribbling women."

But Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin never did disappear entirely. Perhaps the first modern appreciation of her and her masterwork came from Edmund Wilson, not the easiest or the most gentle of critics. His great book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, which appeared in 1962 at the very outset of the conflict's centennial, opens with a lengthy chapter on Stowe. Wilson emerges from his consideration a grudging admirer, acknowledging the prejudices he brought to the text, but demonstrating a thorough conversion. "To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom," he confessed, was "a startling experience." He admitted that "it is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect." Wilson hailed the "vitality" of its characters, the book's "eruptive force," the clear evidence of the author's "critical mind." Comparing her favorably with Dickens and Gogol, he concluded she was "no contemptible novelist." He became a fan in spite of himself.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s drew more attention to Uncle Tom's Cabin as a vehicle of scorn than to either the literary power or the abolitionist sympathies of the novel. It was the emergence of Second Wave feminism and the resultant growth of interest in women's history that ultimately led to a systematic rehabilitation of the book as an essential example of the moral authority and reach of nineteenth-century American women. The cult of domesticity, the centrality of evangelical religion, the influence of social reform, and the impact of the female pen shaped mid-century society and culture in ways that reached well beyond the home. The era's "scribbling women" -- with Stowe the most successful among them -- were both the cause and the result of this transformation.

The past quarter century has witnessed sustained interest in Uncle Tom's Cabin and its author. The book's original popularity derived in no small part from its invocation of so many of the critical concerns of nineteenth-century American culture. As a result it can serve as an almost unsurpassed point of entry into the assumptions of that historical moment. It is a marvelous book to teach -- as I have done with undergraduates, graduate students, and summer seminars of high school teachers. It is a document that captures the sensibilities of people both like and unlike ourselves, and it describes a past world with voices and characters that speak to us across the barriers of space and time -- Tom, Topsy, Eva, Cassy, Mrs. Bird, St. Clare, Ophelia -- even Simon Legree. That Stowe achieved such influence in a period when American feminism was making its first appearances, and that she did so with a text intended to advance the anti-slavery cause, further contributes to its present day relevance, for these two nineteenth-century social movements have had modern manifestations that have shaped our age as fundamentally as they did hers.

Through the work of Jane Tompkins, Mary Kelley, and others, Uncle Tom's Cabin has played a key role in reorienting the study of the American Renaissance to include women alongside its iconic men -- Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville. In 1995, Joan Hedrick won a Pulitzer Prize for the first full-scale biography of Stowe in half a century. And Uncle Tom entered promptly into the digital era as well. In 1852, the book had strained the technological capacities of its time, requiring, according to its publisher, that three paper mills and more than a hundred book binders remain constantly at work to meet the demand of eager readers. Today's technology has extended Tom's reach through a website created at the University of Virginia that has served as a founding model for the digital humanities. "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multi Media Archive" is directed by Stephen Railton and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, offering texts, images, songs, poems, even film that document the book's origins, its later renditions on stage and screen, as well as assessments of its history and impact by a range of distinguished scholars. The website makes twelve editions of the book available on a virtual shelf.

David Reynolds, the author of widely read volumes on the nineteenth century, has not only joined the twenty-first century chorus of appreciation for Stowe and her novel. He has reached well beyond his predecessors in his claims for its influence. His book is true to its excessive title: it represents Uncle Tom's Cabin as not just an influence on American life, but a force nearly unmatched in its social and cultural impact. For Reynolds, Uncle Tom's Cabin was "central to redefining American democracy on a more egalitarian basis"; it made the Bible "relevant to contemporary life," and it "replaced the venal religion of the churches with a new, abolitionist Christianity." It also "established a whole new school of popular antislavery literature," and at the same time gave rise to the pro-slavery argument, which is customarily seen as emerging in force in the 1830s but in Reynolds's portrayal does not substantially appear until prompted by Stowe's novel more than twenty years later.

The book's dramatic versions were equally revolutionary, in Reynolds's account, serving even as a "major step toward making theatergoing respectable" and leading also to the creation of the matinee and the long theatrical run. Uncle Tom's Cabin also influenced James and Howells, and profoundly shaped realist fiction and, later, D.W. Griffiths and the emergence of realist film. By century's end, moreover, Uncle Tom's Cabin had set off a "chain reaction" that led to Birth of a Nation "and the revitalized Ku Klux Klan" and also "the self-assertion and protest on the part of DuBois and other African-Americans," resulting in the establishment of the NAACP. Even more than seventy-five years after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the appearance of Gone With the Wind was, Reynolds finds, "largely in reply to Stowe."

This one book did all that? "Chain reaction" with its invocation of nuclear force, seems a more apt metaphor than the "sword" of Reynolds's title to capture his assessment of the book and its might. Lincoln may have suggested that Stowe caused a war, but Reynolds offers much more: he assigns to Stowe central responsibility for the unfolding history of much of the following century. As we enter into the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe's achievement reminds us that we must remember more than battles and statesmen if we are to understand the causes, the conflict and its aftermath. But swords and statesmen and armies and governments and writers and preachers all played their complex and interdependent parts in what Reynolds calls the "Battle for America." DuBois, Margaret Mitchell, D.W. Griffiths, and Henry James, not to mention Lee, Grant, and Lincoln, would likely be surprised to learn that the twenty-first century could imagine that the battle over race and power, not to mention culture and values, was really all about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University and the author, most recently, of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf).

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review-a-Day for Wed, Sep 28: The Echo Chamber

by Luke Williams A review by Jaya Chatterjee

Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto, The Art of Noises, became a cornerstone of modernist thought for its ingenious taxonomy of the aural. From the sorting hat of sound, Russolo drew six discrete categories: sibilant noises; rumbles and roars; screeches and creaks; percussives made by touching such resonant objects as wood, stone, or clay; portentous sounds such as hisses; and animal and human noises.

A similar conceit underpins Luke Williams's sprawling debut novel, The Echo Chamber. Fifty-four year old Scotswoman Evie Steppman, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with acute sonic acuity, parses and classes noise as she recounts her family history through narratives and interludes that take her to Normandy, Palermo, Nigeria, and home to Gullane, Scotland, where she composes her tale. Entering Evie's reductive sensorium, where the auditory and the haptic have primacy over other senses, the reader as listener hears a lyrical, melismatic story that draws upon her senses, pulling her into a narrative arc reminiscent of Julia Glass's Three Junes, Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, yet absent the emotional tidiness therein. This, coupled with the vivid sketches of material craft and literary history that anchor the narrative and offer stasis when Evie's hearing begins to fade, shape this multivocal, richly evocative novel. Like its analogue, music, The Echo Chamber is a formalist reverie, a traducing of noise, a mapping of sense onto sound, with kinship with written tradition.

Sound, matter (a pocket watch, a mappa mundi, a radio, and pamphlets chronicling the imperial siege of Benin), and story bind Evie to her eccentric family. In the main, the characters peopling her story include Mr. Rafferty, an aging "murderer," who, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, tries to revive his dying wife by creating mechanical parts for her, including a heart; her father, Rex, an imperialist "monster" who believes he has wrought positive change in the municipal development of Nigeria, but whose regression into an illness with schizoid symptoms leaves him cowering in corners of Evie's attic like Bertha, the madwoman in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre; Taiwo and Iffe, her Nigerian caretakers; and Ade, Iffe's son and Evie's lifelong friend.

Like the titular character in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and the narrator in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Evie is a quintessentially postmodern storyteller who struggles repeatedly against the inadequacy and unreliability of language, which, in tandem with her hearing, distorts her experience. Her "memory is a mausoleum of broken sounds": "I feel an almost unbearable sadness when I think of all I have heard, the little I retain and everything that is gone, all those minute, unutterable tones which most faithfully encapsulate my history. I know that one day all the sounds will disappear... they will drift toward me like ghosts and timorously make themselves known... All I will be left with are these words."

Like the eighteenth century French philosophes, who collectively wrote the Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, Evie turns to material craft as a counterpoise to senescence: "whenever the sounds become a meaningless clamor and I cannot concentrate on my past, I turn my attention to the present, to the objects that surround me in the attic, those still, mostly silent companions." Like Michael Ondaatje's characters in The English Patient, both narrative cartography and cartographical narrative become heady lenses for her experience. Evie herself considers the cartographer, El Edrisi, her foil. In literary debt to both Shahrayar and Scheherezade of The Arabian Nights, Edrisi elides mapmaking with femininity, naming the women he seduces after geographical places of resonance, but also learning the intricate art of storytelling to woo the implacable Abila, and finally returning to his birthplace to become a mapmaker. Evie sees a kindred spirit in man and matter alike: "I was like... he who when ignorant of lakes and towns sketched savage beasts and elephants, and in place of contour lines created improbable realms. But where at first she prizes map and story as storehouses of human experience, they begin to refract memory and its loss. Once repositories of travelers' dreams and maps decay, they become equal parts "beauty" and "menace" to Evie.

Landscapes of attrition, loss, and regression proliferate in the novel, echoing the diminution of Evie's hearing. The dream of the white man's burden gone, its concomitant friendships and loyalties, such as Evie's with Iffe, who literally turns her back on Evie at a public rally, the plangent moaning of Babatundi, the mute or "idiot boy" tragically bereft of words, the story of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony in which one by one instruments leave the stage until only two muted violins carry the melody, all are indexical of Evie's growing struggle to discern the notes of her own voice, the filaments of her own story, from the sonic imbrication and narrative polyphony to which she is ever sensitive. From "all the timbres at once, the whole diapason of life," a soundscape directly indebted to the cacophony of Joyce's Ulysses, whose hapless yet acutely percipient Leopold Bloom Evie mirrors almost to the word, the voice recedes into a conversation where Evie and Rafferty echo the "shall we go?/Let's go" badinage of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's Waiting for Godot:

Mr. Rafferty: It's getting dark.

Me: Let's get along.

Mr. Rafferty: Where to?

Me: Back home.

Mr. Rafferty: ...

Me: Sorry?

Mr. Rafferty: ...

The words, like silent raindrops, fall. The ellipses fade to silence. But, in the end, Evie prizes silence more than sound, telling her lover, Damaris, that it bookends all music. Where the terpsichorean play of sound enlivened life, so the hushed spaces she hopes to find after burning all her archival materials, every item competing with her history like those in Jean Baudrillard's episteme, carrying its own sound, offer prelapsarian tranquility. In a poetic hearkening of Auden's line, "silence the pianos and with muffled drum..." early on, Evie revels in the quiet of all postwar fronts. By the novel's end, she finds peace in the Audenian knowledge that "all the rest is silence/on the other side of the wall, / and the silence ripeness, / and the ripeness all."

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Review-a-Day for Fri, Sep 30: Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

by Julie Salamon A review by Adam Kirsch

The great subject for American Jewish literature has always been the family: its imprisoning intimacy, its guilt-inducing demands, and sometimes even its life-giving warmth. From Arthur Miller's Lomans, cursed by their dreams of success, to Henry Roth's David Schearl, depraved by the sexual tensions in his extended clan, the heroes of American Jewish fiction are generally martyrs to their families. If Judaism had saints, these writers' patron saint would be Jephthah's daughter, who was sacrificed by her father in accordance with a thoughtless vow.

Wendy Wasserstein may not belong in the ranks of the greatest American Jewish writers, but like Neil Simon before her, she helped to popularize the Jewish family romance by making it a subject for heartfelt and accessible comedy. And whether the characters in her plays are explicitly Jewish, as in The Sisters Rosensweig, or atmospherically so, like the heroine of The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein left no doubt that it was her personal experience she was dramatizing.

Indeed, as Julie Salamon makes clear in her rather breathless new biography, Wasserstein was her own most popular creation. Fans reacted to her more like a character in a play or TV show than a mere playwright. "When we walked up the street," remembered her friend William Finn, the songwriter best known for Falsettos, "all these sixty-five-year-old Jewish ladies would come up to Wendy, and she would talk to them. They'd talk about their husbands and their daughters, and when they left, I'd ask her who was that, and she'd say, 'I have no idea.' ... People embraced her as if she were going to explain their lives to them."

But the key to Wasserstein's appeal was not that she had all the answers. Her gift was for tormented ambivalence -- about daughterhood and motherhood, feminism, romance, achievement, and not least, body image. It is rare, and illuminating, to read a literary biography in which so much attention is paid to the subject's weight. It would never happen with a male writer, and that very fact helps to explain why Wasserstein's open discussion of weight and food and dieting struck such a chord.

As Salamon shows, Wasserstein was not above using her candor strategically. In 1988, the actress Caroline Aaron, who had played a major part in the out-of-town tryout of The Heidi Chronicles, was replaced for the New York run. Salamon reproduces Wasserstein's apologetic letter to Aaron, which begins, "Oy Gavalt!! I've had a baguette, a Saga Blue Cheese, and a nice bag of Reese pieces before I sat down to write this note." It was a ritual abasement -- a confession of weakness and a plea for sympathy -- and it worked: "After reading Wendy's words, Caroline Aaron had no doubt that she and Wendy would become even better friends."

That is one of the useful and revealing anecdotes in Wendy and the Lost Boys, showing how Wasserstein could use weakness as a form of power. (There are many others that are much less useful -- Salamon often seems to have put in everything her interviewees told her, and there were clearly a lot of people eager to talk about Wendy Wasserstein.) Even the book's cover makes the point: it features a photograph of a ruefully smiling Wasserstein with her eyes closed and her palm planted on her face, as if she had just made some comical blunder. A born theater person, she had a sure instinct for dramatizing her incompetence. It can become squirm-inducing: "Sometimes she forgot to wear a sanitary pad when she had her period and then walked around with stains on her dress," Salamon writes.

Salamon tells us enough about Wasserstein's childhood to make clear that her performance of helplessness was, at bottom, a defense mechanism. It may not be literally true that, when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, her mother Lola went around bragging that her daughter had gotten the Nobel Prize -- this is one of many too-good-to-check stories that Wasserstein told in several versions (like the one about the time Joseph Heller introduced her as "the funniest girl in New York" and she promptly vomited). But Lola does seem to have been a world-class neurosis-inducer, a mother who set the bar for her children so high that even a Pulitzer seemed like a B-plus. She was also largely to blame for her daughter's lifelong weight issues: in a horrifying detail, Salamon writes that Lola would walk down the street with the teenaged Wendy and tell her, "They are all looking at you and thinking, 'Look at that fat girl.'"

From one point of view, this technique worked, since the Wasserstein children grew up to be very high achievers. Sandra became a pioneering female corporate executive, Bruce became a Wall Street billionaire, and Wendy became Wendy. (A third sister, Georgette, led a more normal life as a mother and innkeeper in New England.) Lola went around the house singing "There's no children like my children," to the tune of "There's No Business Like Show Business" -- one of many Mama Rose-like details in Salamon's portrait -- and she might well have felt justified. When Bruce was born on December 25, it was the set-up for a lifelong joke: "Bruce and Jesus Christ -- the Messiahs, holy Jewish sons -- shared a birthday."

But this tiger-mothering (or is a more passive-aggressive animal called for?) exacted a high price. Its most dramatic casualty, Salamon writes, was Abner Wasserstein, who was born in 1940 and began to suffer from seizures and mental retardation at the age of 5. By the time Wendy was born, in 1950, Abner had been sent to a "home," and she grew up unaware of his existence. She was also unaware that her older sister, Sandra, was actually Lola's child by her first husband, George -- the brother of her own father Morris. It is certainly true that parents of that generation believed in keeping secrets more than we do today, but by any standard Wendy Wasserstein grew up in a family with a problematic relationship to the truth. And that's not counting the more innocent, eccentric lies Lola indulged in -- like cutting the line at Radio City Music Hall by telling people she was visiting from out of town.

It was all perfect training for a playwright, and Salamon shows that Wasserstein never stopped writing about, or mythologizing, her parents and siblings. In 1973, her early play Any Woman Can't (already a characteristic title) dissected her brother Bruce's marriage -- so successfully that, after seeing it, his wife filed for divorce. Twenty-seven years later, Old Money was a thinly veiled commentary on Bruce's plutocratic milieu and his relationship with his son. And the three sisters Rosensweig are clearly versions of Sandra, Georgette, and Wendy Wasserstein -- the corporate conquistador, the homemaker, and the commitment-phobe.

The most intimate sections of Wendy and the Lost Boys show how Wasserstein's ambivalence about romantic commitment played out in real life. The title refers, of course, to Peter Pan -- Wasserstein was "one among the many babies [in the Baby Boom years] named for Peter's beloved friend Wendy Darling" -- and the "lost boys" in question are the gay men with whom Wasserstein had her closest relationships. The allusion is in rather poor taste, and sets an unfortunately whimsical tone for a story that is actually quite sad.

Wasserstein repeatedly fell in love with openly gay men whom she met in the theater world, a distinguished list that included Christopher Durang, Andre Bishop, Terrence McNally, and Nicholas Hytner. In each case friendship turned into a quasi-romantic, quasi-sexual bond: "Wendy always tried to say, 'Oh, let's get married, let's have children, and be sort of lovey-dovey,' said Andre [Bishop]. I think she thought, 'At some point he'll marry me and we'll have a strange but happy relationship.' I thought it too. Seriously. I had nothing else in my life." But inevitably, these relationships foundered on the bedrock of sexual incompatibility, and the men found love with other men -- as happens to Pfeni, the Wendy figure in The Sisters Rosensweig.

Salamon doesn't venture a direct psychological explanation for all this, but after reading her portrait of Wasserstein it isn't hard to imagine one. Convinced of her unattractiveness, still under the sway of her parents and siblings, Wasserstein shielded herself from romantic intimacy by falling in love with men she knew would not respond to her sexually. Not until the very last minute, at age forty-eight, did she become a mother through artificial insemination, keeping the identity of her child's father a closely guarded secret. Salamon does not reveal it, but she does show that Wasserstein tried for a long time to have a baby with the costume designer William Ivey Long -- a failed effort that ended in bad feelings. "I don't feel defined by being gay," Long told Salamon. "Michelangelo wasn't a gay artist. I have never felt I am a gay designer. But with Wendy I felt I was part of a big group of gay men, part of the people who had disappointed her. I kept thinking, 'Why didn't you go after straight men if we were going to fail you as a group?'"

It is an unusually candid moment in this usually fulsome biography, and it hints at the deep tensions in Wasserstein's glitzy circle of friends. After reading Wendy and the Lost Boys, it's easy to feel that the best play about her life has yet to be written -- and that it wouldn't be a comedy.

This piece was originally published in Tablet.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Sep 22: Driving Home: An American Journey

by Jonathan Raban A review by Debra Gwartney

Jonathan Raban's new collection of essays, Driving Home: An American Journey, could easily have been titled "The Jonathan Raban Reader," as the brisk, smartly crafted pieces are just that representative of Raban's long and illustrative writing life. He is the author of 12 other books, fiction and nonfiction, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award among other prizes. The 44 (yes, 44) selections in this book, written over a near two-decade stretch, are largely culled from the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, with others published in such revered pages as the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, Esquire, Outside and Playboy. By combining them in one volume, Raban offers a lively stew of topics, themes that most interest the British citizen turned Seattleite, subjects that get him most excited and riled.

Before we enter the territory of excited and riled, though, Raban first introduces himself -- in one of the most enchanting essays in the book and its first -- as a devoted reader from a young age. A reader who becomes a writer, hugely influenced as a young man by author William Empson who, in Raban's words, taught him to "slow down, to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savor, question, ponder, think."

We are invited to do the same with Driving Home: to view aspects of American life past, present and future -- with a particular focus on the West -- from this outsider's vantage. To listen, savor, question, ponder, think. Readers have long been drawn to Raban for the elegance of his language and eloquence of his thought -- as well as a wry sense of humor on par with Susan Orlean's; precise research a la John McPhee -- and can expect to find the same in these essays.

"Nowhere do waves break with more reliable splendor than on the melancholy coast of Oregon, where the great Pacific wave trains come to a spectacular end on beaches of pulverized green sand," he writes in "The Waves." "Everything about the place is somber -- the crumbling basalt cliffs, the dripping conifers, the slanting gray cathedral light."

Along with such rich imagery, Raban dishes up an entertaining cast of characters -- poet Philip Larkin, a Seattle woman who visited heaven and then returned to Earth, delightful Montana homesteader Percy Wollaston, less-than-delightful Sarah Palin, to name a few -- though he's at his best when he's on the sea with the likes of George Vancouver, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Francis Chichester (knighted in the 1960s for his solo circumnavigation of the world). He's also at his best when he's roaming the edges of the Columbia River, trying to make real sense out of "the quintessential American experience to arrive in a wild and inhospitable place, bend raw nature to one's own advantage, and make it home."

Some of these pieces, particularly the title essay, Driving Home, feel a bit stale -- they certainly captured a strong sense of their time at the time, but that time (the tech boom in Seattle, the vibrant air of hope around Obama) has passed. And too often the reader is confronted with yet another redundant statement about the West, the qualities that make Seattle distinct, for instance, or about Vancouver's shift from "dizzy elation to sullen melancholy," the deeper he sailed into narrow Pacific inlets.

Still, Raban's voice rings fresh and clear through great majority of this work, and the 500-page book is well worth picking up if only to read the gems, among them the astonishing "Indian Country," the most timeless and revealing essay here, and the only one of the bunch, apparently, that comes to us new, without having been previously published.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review-a-Day for Wed, Sep 21: Life Itself: A Memoir

by Roger Ebert A review by Gerald Bartell

In the 1950s, long before he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, Roger Ebert spent many a Saturday afternoon sipping root beer and munching jawbreakers, Necco Wafers and licorice at the Princess Theater in his home town of Urbana, Ill. Five cartoons, a newsreel, a Batman, Superman or Rocketman serial and then a double bill -- a Lash LaRue western followed by a Bowery Boys or Abbott and Costello comedy -- flashed before him.

Ebert's memoir, Life Itself, resembles one of those movie marathons. Tales from childhood, interviews with film stars and directors, funny and touching stories about colleagues, and evocative essays about trips unspool before the reader in a series of loosely organized, often beautifully written essays crafted by a witty, clear-eyed yet romantic raconteur.

Ebert begins with his childhood, a time when he did not, as one might think, escape an unhappy home at the movies. His parents sometimes quarreled over money, but mostly Roger's account of the family's life in Urbana suggests the Midwestern comfort of a Booth Tarkington short story.

On summer nights, the Eberts sipped homemade lemonade on the front porch of a two-bedroom white stucco house with green awnings. They talked to neighbors and watched for fireflies as "the sounds of radios, voices, distant laughter would float on the air." Young Roger founded the Roger Ebert Stamp Company, published a neighborhood newspaper and read voraciously, developing a passion for the novels of Thomas Wolfe.

Also emerging was a passion for journalism. At 16, Ebert covered high school sports for the Urbana News-Gazette, and then, as a student at the University of Illinois, became the decidedly liberal editor of the Daily Illini. After graduation he landed a job at the Chicago Sun-Times, where, in 1967, the features editor named Ebert the paper's film critic.

With no formal film education, Ebert headed to the movies, heeding Pauline Kael's approach to film: "I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me."

Over time, Ebert developed guidelines for his work. He likes movies about "Good People," an elastic definition that includes Hannibal Lecter ("the victim of his unspeakable depravities...he tries to do the right thing.") And Ebert hesitates to hurt people: "I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat."

Ebert's take on film critic Gene Siskel, his co-host for the TV series "At the Movies," should quell persistent rumors that the men disliked each other. Yes, they feuded over films so intensely that the studio where they taped often had to be cleared. But underneath the tensions, Ebert says, he cared for Siskel like a brother. Of Disney and CBS execs who dropped plans for a sitcom starring the men as rival critics, Ebert says, "Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love."

Ebert's work as a film critic sent him traveling, and his wonderfully personal essays on places around the world where he seeks solitude are highlights of the book, rich in reflections, imagery and sensory detail. Travelers who return year after year to the same destination will savor Ebert's reflections on these rituals:

I have many places where I sit and think, 'I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.' Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath.... These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.

In 2006 Ebert received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. The surgeries that followed left him unable to eat, drink or speak and looking "like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum." Is he unhappy? Not really, partly because he began pouring his "regrets, desires and memories" into a blog, which led to his doing this book. Because of the writing, Ebert says, he was lucky: "I wrote, therefore I lived."

Ebert's luck is also our luck. We can nibble Twizzlers, Twinkies and Milk Duds and enjoy Ebert's marathon of memories.

Bartell is an arts and travel writer based in Manhattan.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review-a-Day for Tue, Sep 20: Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

by Faye E. Dudden A review by Nina Silber

For a moment amid the ferment after the Civil War, it seemed possible to at least some Americans that women would win the right to vote. The abolition of slavery put broad questions of voting rights and citizenship on the table, and legislators were eager to act. Women suffragists hoped their time had come. Instead, they saw their "fighting chance" evaporate with the ratification in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which outlawed disenfranchisement on the basis of race but not of sex. Women would have to wait half a century before they secured the vote in 1920.

Faye E. Dudden, a professor of history at Colgate College, attempts to shed new light on this episode in Fighting Chance. Hers is a tale of the ideological, political, and often intensely personal disputes that pitted former political allies in the abolitionist cause -- including Wendell Phillips, Lucy Stone, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony -- against one another. As they organized and campaigned for suffrage reforms around the country, these ardent activists eventually divided over the Fifteenth Amendment, which Stanton and Anthony did not support because it failed to give women the vote.

Indeed, the two women ended up espousing a racist agenda that denigrated African-American and immigrant men in order to advance the cause of white womanhood. "Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung," Stanton wrote in her newspaper, The Revolution, as she editorialized in 1868 about the folly of allowing such ignorant men to make laws for educated women. Dudden seems interested in at least partly exonerating Stanton and Anthony, portraying their racist rhetoric as a response to those she believes were most to blame for upending the fighting chance for women's suffrage -- chief among them Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who in 1865 succeeded William Lloyd Garrison as president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Money is a central thread in Dudden's story. In a legal and economic system that limited women's access to property and wage-earning opportunities, women reformers encountered onerous financial obstacles in funding their campaigns. Phillips was the trustee of an important bequest that both women's rights and antislavery activists could potentially draw upon. Believing that "antislavery" work would remain unfinished until blacks were accorded the ballot and full rights, he directed the money toward that goal and froze the women out.

Lack of funding was indeed an important factor in women's failure to secure the vote, but Dudden's focus on it constrains her analysis. Did Stanton really launch racist diatribes because Phillips deprived her cause of money? Surely the pervasive racism of 19th-century America had something to do with Stanton's attitude, as did her position of relative privilege and her distance -- she lived in New York City -- from the turmoil of the postwar South. Dudden insists that Phillips, in making the antislavery cause primary even after chattel slavery was declared dead, upheld a "pretense that 'slavery' was still at issue." But she acknowledges that immediately after the war President Andrew Johnson "warned that emancipation was only an experiment." Can Phillips honestly be accused of upholding a mere "pretense" in the face of what appeared a genuine threat to the cause he and others had worked so hard for?

In her eagerness to play down Stanton's racism, Dudden emphasizes Stanton's lawyerly tendency to argue "in the alternative" -- her penchant for trying out different arguments, even conflicting and racist ones, so long as she could gain some ground. And Dudden recounts other expressions of racial intolerance, including those of Lucy Stone, a supporter of black suffrage, perhaps in an effort to make Stanton and Anthony's bigotry appear less conspicuous.

All this gives readers a vivid sense of the intensely emotional and rancorous political landscape in which reformers worked immediately after the Civil War. Yet too much in this account hinges on highly personal developments that cannot be considered the most telling aspects of the story. Ultimately, the "fighting chance" for winning women's suffrage was lost not because of Wendell Phillips's arrogance or Elizabeth Cady Stanton's lawyerly style of argumentation, but because Americans remained immersed in a climate of intense racial conflict. This volatile atmosphere convinced Phillips and other reformers that a campaign to advance voting rights for women was a liability in the critical work of securing, in the fullest sense, black emancipation.

Nina Silber, a professor of history at Boston University, has written extensively about gender relations in the Civil War era.

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Review-a-Day for Fri, Sep 16: Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent

by John Reader A review by Peter Duffy

There is no more tragic vegetable than the potato. Originating in the Peruvian Andes, it was first domesticated by the Quechua-speaking peoples, who could not help but become reliant on a highly nutritional foodstuff that could be grown in large quantities on small plots in regions inhospitable to grains. John Reader, in his ambling new history of the "propitious esculent," calls the potato the "best all-around bundle of nutrition known." Without any help from other products, it can provide a "filling, wholesome and nourishing meal." But the "innocent" potato, Reader admits, "has facilitated exploitation." It enabled the Quechua to maintain strong bodies while suffering the deprecations of the Incas (and their system of forced labor). The Incas were followed by Spanish colonizers and then by Spanish and Peruvian hacienda owners, whose "feudal stranglehold on agriculture and farm labor" remained in place until just a few decades ago.

When the Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in the sixteenth century, the locals were skeptical. Churchmen denounced the tuber, noting that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible. Potatoes were ugly, coming in red, black, and purple varieties and looking like "the deformed hands and feet of the leper -- the shunned outcast of the Middle Ages." Potatoes could even make you a leper. "I am told that the Burgundians are forbidden to make use of these tubers, because they are assured that the eating of them causes leprosy," wrote the English botanist John Gerard in 1633. But Europe was gearing up for a few centuries of warfare, and the put-upon population, as in the case of the Quechua, would find sustenance in the potato.

As happened everywhere the cultivation of the potato became widespread, their numbers grew -- and just in time to serve as a vast workforce for the Industrial Revolution and its inequitable system of low wages and brutal working conditions. In Das Kapital, Marx cites a pamphlet declaring that "if the labourer can be brought to feed on potatoes instead of bread, it is indisputably true that more can be exacted from his labour." In non-industrial Ireland, the potato was able to maintain a huge army of perpetually near-starving paupers on large estates owned by absentee landlords who had little interest in improving the general welfare. The plant was so ubiquitous that a succession of crop failures in the mid-nineteenth century -- which became the Great Irish Famine, from 1845 to (roughly) 1850 -- reduced the nation's population by a third (half from death) and provoked an outflow of emigrants that would last for a century and a half. Ireland has never come close to matching its pre-famine population of 8.2 million. In 1904, the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt called the "accursed" potato the "enemy of the poorer Irish peasantry."

Reader does not flinch from telling this side of the story, but he is not writing a tragedy. The potato, in his words, was "Peru's gift to the world." He devotes many pages to celebrating important figures in the modern history of the potato, its greatest champions, men who saw the derided vegetable as a force for good. There is Nicolay Ivanovich Vavilov, a Soviet agricultural botanist who was so seared by the loss of life from the Soviet famine of 1921 that he sidled up to Trotsky on a breadline and told him how "his program of research and plant breeding could eliminate food shortages and bread queues for ever." Trotsky passed the word to Lenin, who decided to provide funding for Vavilov's research institute. Despite his scientific acuity (or perhaps because of it), Vavilov eventually ran afoul of a regime that was fixated on grain, and he was thrown in prison, where he died in 1943. (Given the potato's history, this counts as perhaps the only instance of the Soviet Union passing up a valuable instrument of tyranny.)

The greatest hero of the tuber was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a Frenchman who was fed exclusively on potatoes during his time as a prisoner of the Prussians during the Seven Years War. He emerged from captivity determined that "all of France should enjoy the benefits of this hitherto despised crop." He introduced it as a salve against hunger for the poor masses; and he presented it as a curiosity to the aristocracy, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in a private audience in 1785. "Now that the potato was served at court, and had achieved respectability among the aristocracy," Reader remarks, "Parmentier began promoting its virtues with the panache of a modern-day public relations consultant." He hosted dinners that included nothing but potatoes. Benjamin Franklin was said to have attended one of them. The same was said of Thomas Jefferson, who, as president in 1802, served potatoes "in the French manner" at the White House, thus (it is claimed) introducing french fries to America.

Bringing us up to the present, Reader describes the considerable efforts in place to combat "the world's worst agricultural disease" -- the pernicious "late" blight that destroyed Ireland's potato crops so many years ago. The developing world spends upward of $750 million a year on fungicides to combat the disease. Reader also tells -- inevitably -- of how China has utilized the potato during its explosion of growth over the past few decades. China is not only the world's largest producer of potatoes -- they are grown in huge numbers in remote regions of Inner Mongolia -- but it is also a mass consumer of them in the form of french fries. Reader even wonders if the world community could achieve the vaunted Millennium Development Goals with the aid of new disease-resistant strains of potatoes, although he is forced to concede that "while the potato was good at keeping people alive it did not lift many of them out of poverty."

All of which makes you wonder why he begins his book with the triumphant observation that NASA astronauts will be bringing potatoes with them when they eventually reach Mars. Given the history that he subsequently relates, I can only think: God help the Martians.

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review-a-Day for Tue, Sep 27: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

by David Brooks A review by Jag Bhalla

The Social Animal is a book of grand and diverse ambitions, by one of the nation's most intellectually creative journalists, New York Times columnist David Brooks. His aim is to revolutionize our culture's operative beliefs about human nature, using scientific studies that reveal the "building blocks of human flourishing." His book is part fiction, part nonfiction popularization (neuroscience, psychology, sociology), and part grand synthesis (intellectual history, social policy). The genre-blended result delivers some hybrid vitality, but at the expense of coherence and rigor.

Brooks believes Western culture has a lobotomized view of human nature inherited from the French Enlightenment. Rene Descartes and other philosophers described humans as autonomous individuals endowed with powers of reason that are separate from and pitted against the emotions. The ability to flourish depended on an individual's suppression of his unruly passions. British Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith argued that we are fundamentally social beings, that our reasoning faculty is weak, and that our emotions are strong and can be usefully educated. The French rationalist view fit better with the rise of the mechanistic sciences. But old dualisms must now duel with data: Science supports the British view.

In a fictional narrative, Brooks weaves vignettes from the lives of two characters, "Harold" and "Erica," to illustrate the "hidden sources of love, character, and achievement" of his subtitle. He uses their upbringings, educations, courtship, and so on to model what research shows are key influences on a successful life. For instance, Erica pursues a career in business after a successful entrepreneur with whom she identifies visits her school. Brooks explains that studies show that ambitious people "often have met someone like themselves who achieved great success."

The Social Animal is a marathon surface skim of a sea of scientific studies. Brooks claims this isn't a science book, since it doesn't get its feet wet in the details. But the tradeoff of depth for a flood of factoids may satisfy neither fans of science writing nor lay readers. To give but one example: To illustrate the limits of the conscious mind, Brooks notes that at its peak it "has a processing capacity 200,000 times weaker than [that of] the unconscious." It's a tantalizing observation, but he doesn't indicate how this capacity was measured.

As readers of his Times column might expect, Brooks serves up a smorgasbord of seductive sound bites and contagious coinages (e.g., "Emotional Positioning System"). But some fall flat (as in the New Age-y "the swirls that make up our own minds are shared swirls" and his snarky "sanctimommies"). And he struggles with conceptual laxity, missing opportunities to clarify or revolutionize the terms of the debate. He mainly uses the word "unconscious" to describe information processing that is emotional, instinctive, or not explicitly reasoned, though one of his key goals is to de-Freud our worldview and show that the "unconscious" isn't just a collection of dark, nasty urges.

It's in his efforts to "draw out the social, political, and moral implications" of the science that Brooks reveals his true colors: He's a timid revolutionary. Though he makes some practical recommendations for education -- such as providing "structure for disorganized families" through parenting classes or intensive mentoring -- he chooses not to draw broader political conclusions. How should we deal with the fact that our economies and institutions are built on assumptions about human nature that are now demonstrably wrong?

The human flourishing that Brooks describes is precisely what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he quoted Aristotle's phrase "pursuit of happiness." Jefferson thought of the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document grounded in science. Brooks takes us toward a declaration of interdependence, based on scientific, if not yet self-evident, truths. For Jefferson and Aristotle, the individual pursuit of happiness meant a life well lived, which required strong relationships and the fulfillment of community obligations. They knew what science today is rediscovering -- that the flourishing of the individual depends on the flourishing of others.

We aren't as far advanced in this revolution as Brooks would have us believe, but his book, despite its flaws, is a contribution to intellectual history in the making.

Jag Bhalla is a writer and entrepreneur living in Washington, D.C. He is the author of I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears (2009), and is currently at work on a book about old ideas undergirding our discourse that are now demonstrably wrong.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sun, Sep 18: In Red

by Magdalena Tulli A review by Jessa Crispin

This is the story of Stitchings, a small town to be found in the Republic of Poland, although it might not show up on any of your maps. "Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings," Magdalena Tulli writes in In Red's first line. It's a wary introduction to a town that behaves as no town should. Sure, there is the salt mine and the porcelain factory. There are strapping young soldiers and fair maidens. There are businessmen and oligarchs and a lucky star hovering over the town hall. But Tulli's hesitation is soon understandable.

Stitchings' wealthy businessman, who can never seem to pay for his dinner because no one has enough cash to make change for his high-denomination bills, is killed by a bullet that circles the Earth for years until it finds its target in the great man's heart. There's another man who can't sleep, who exists somewhere between unconsciousness and full wakefulness, and he's in love with a girl whose heart has stopped. They would get on with her funeral, but she keeps walking around and complaining that no one will let her go dancing. Another woman, in love with the insomniac, accidentally marks the town's soldiers for death with a fraying red silk thread. These are things that should not happen, in a place populated with people who should not exist.

Magdalena Tulli is one of Poland's most celebrated writers, and with In Red there is much to treasure. She plays with the line between unexpected and quirky very well. Despite the more fantastical elements, there is nothing twee about Tulli. A gritty darkness shadows Stitchings, as the occupying German army marches in, or as the Hussars disappear in the night, or as drunken soldiers freeze to death in the snow banks on the way home from the brothel. There is desperation and poverty and starvation. She creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the dark Polish forests of older fairy tales, the ones with the high body counts.

Yet, through it all, Tulli remains welcoming. "Anyone who makes it to Stitchings appreciates ... the moist warm breeze in which desires flourish so handsomely." And that visitor will feel so at home that he'd be "quite unaware that he'd already been relieved of his wallet." It's a sinister welcome mat she lays down. Still, you can't help but to want to return again and again. Just a friendly word of warning: If you come to Stitchings on a tourist visa, keep your valuables locked safely at home.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Sep 29: Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat

by Jeff Benedict A review by Lynne Terry

A healthy 6-year-old girl dies five days after staying home from school with a stomach ache. Her doctors are mystified, her parents devastated. Soon clusters of kids across the West turn up in emergency rooms with similar symptoms: fever, cramping, bloody diarrhea. In the end, hundreds fall ill and three more die.

Sound like script material for a Hollywood movie? Maybe, but it really happened and is recounted by Jeff Benedict in his book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.

Today, after successive outbreaks involving everything from sprouts in Germany to strawberries in Oregon, E. coli is a household term. But nearly two decades ago, only a few scientists knew much about the virulent strain -- E. coli O157:H7 -- that contaminated the Jack in the Box burgers in 1993.

The outbreak spurred tougher food safety regulations, changed the fast-food industry and thrust a Seattle attorney into the limelight as a food safety specialist. It's important stuff but could make for tedious reading, clogged with medical and legal terms. Instead, Benedict spins the tale as a thriller with a rich cast of characters and one key victim: Brianne Kiner, a 9-year-old who comes within a whisper of death but then miraculously survives, becoming a poster child for the ravages of E. coli poisoning.

Kiner's case is championed by Bill Marler, a bright and bold young lawyer in Seattle with a fire in his belly but also a hearth in his heart. The case of a lifetime, Marler turns it into a career. He gives up a secure position in a well-known law firm to join another that is steeped in debt. The historic Jack in the Box settlements, which Marler wrangles, hoist his firm solidly into the black and allow him to create his own firm specializing in food poisoning cases.

Benedict's fascination with the legal process, which provides the spine of the story, isn't surprising. He's a lawyer-turned-writer. But he's also attuned to subtlety in humanity, casting the would-be villains in a sympathetic light. Jack in the Box's president, Robert Nugent, is horrified when he discovers his burgers are poisoning children. His vice president of quality assurance, Ken Dunkley, dropped the ball on food safety but out of oversight, not greed. Washington state had raised the required cooking temperature for hamburger meat to 155 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria, but Jack in the Box was still following the federal standard of 140 degrees, as were most fast-food outlets.

Although much more is known about food safety now than in 1993, the book speaks to our times. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that six more strains of E. coli will be banned from ground beef. That move follows pressure from Marler and represents a step forward in the fight for safe food, which is what Poisoned is all about.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review-a-Day for Wed, Aug 24: Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial

by Janet Malcolm A review by Michael Washburn

Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, an expansion of a 2010 New Yorker essay, explores Mazoltuv Borukhova's trial for the murder of her husband, Daniel Malatov. Malatov was brazenly assassinated in a Queens playground in 2007. The prosecution, which ultimately won the day, sending Borukhova to jail for life, argues that after losing a custody battle for her four-year-old daughter, Michele, Borukhova arranged to have her estranged husband killed. Malatov arrived at the playground to retrieve his daughter from her mother, and as Malatov and Borukhova swung their daughter playfully back and forth -- Michele's arms in her mother's hands, her father supporting her lower body -- a gunman approached the father and riddled him with bullets. The gunman then turned and walked calmly out of the park. The prosecution linked the triggerman, a family acquaintance named Mikhail Mallayav, to Borukhova through circumstantial evidence, most potently 90 phone calls between the two, some garbled recordings, and Mallayav's receipt of some $40,000 in the period leading up to the murder, although that money was never directly linked to Borukhova.

From this brutal scenario, Malcolm spins a disquieting tale of the workaday criminal trial, where the court sanitizes and defines the chaotic humanness of crime. Courts do not tailor the law to the crime (though justice, like fine suits, surely gets fitted for those with means); they narrate actions, alleged or actual, into patterns that match ready-made legal categories. Certainty and simplicity triumph over ambiguity. Malcolm has written commandingly on such collisions in the past -- most notably in The Journalist and the Murderer -- and her skills seem perfectly suited to the task at hand in Iphigenia in Forest Hills.

But there's a problem. It is unclear whether Borukhova refused to be interviewed or if Malcolm elected to embargo her, but the two never speak directly to one another. This lends Borukhova a strange... well, insalience. The Malcolmian tradition is voyeuristic, placing the reader on her shoulder as she coaxes her subjects into self-revelation, if not self-realization. The pleasure of reading Malcolm stems from her ability to render intimacy and peculiarity -- individuals' self-delusions, unconscious tells, and transparent evasions -- with precision, extrapolating from the person bold, often aggressive cultural insights. But by not engaging directly with its central character, this book lacks a center of gravity.

In the masterful The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcom's book about the writer Joe McGinnis, her subject, like Borukhova, proves elusive: when Malcolm spooks him during an interview McGinnis is lost to her. He realizes during the conversation that she has provoked him to "make such a spectacle of himself." Spectacle is the point of journalism, and the fact that people open up so candidly to writers is exactly what McGinnis was hoping for when he was speaking with his subject, murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald ultimately didn't like what was written and sued McGinnis for defamation. Murderer, in part, explores the ethics of insincerity. How much truth does a writer owe a source? The meeting between McGinnis and Malcolm is a brief, but revelatory, interlude, and the irony of McGinnis's discomfort with participating in the journalism dance furnishes a central tension in the book. Malcolm complements her brief meeting by going through McGinnis's vast, Janus-faced correspondence, which offers an unmediated look into his evasions, deceptions, and thought process.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills boasts such moments of insight as well, yet Borukhova herself appears solely through Malcolm's exposition, her quoted testimony, and the unfavorable impressions of others. The scene in which Malcolm visits the woman's empty cell at Riker's Island is emblematic; Borukhova's absence is an unfortunate, puzzling lacuna in an otherwise potent book. Even in the bare sketch Malcolm provides, Borukhova, a practicing physician and Bukharan Jew, appears a singly compelling, discomfiting, and complicated interlocutor. "The 'good' characters in a piece of journalism," Malcolm wrote in The Journalist and the Murderer, "are no less a product of the writer's unholy power over another person than are the 'bad' ones." Malcolm elects to eschew this power when it comes to the woman who should be her protagonist. It's almost as if Malcolm fell victim to the fallacy of imitative form: Borukhova is a riddle in her life and also during her trial. In telling her tale, Malcolm simply retains the enigma.

Nonetheless, Iphigenia in Forest Hills delves more deeply, subtly, and intelligently into the flawed mechanics of the criminal justice system than most books in recent memory. Malcolm sympathizes with aspects of Borukhova's life -- that she is an unapologetic, professional female, for instance -- and she doesn't argue guilt or innocence. The book isn't so much an "anatomy" of a trial as a morally infused series of associations and questions sparked by the trial. Malcolm's fascination is with the law as a discourse -- the discourse -- that molds our liberty, and does so by applying its normative codes and values through human actors, a demonstrably rickety and subjective delivery system.

"Stay out of the picture and you won't get framed," a student once told me during a discussion about the often-compromised criminal justice system. This student's legal system, like Malcolm's, functions as a terrible syllogism, always resolving in guilt: if you're accused of being here/black/angry/strange, then you're guilty. Once the questions are posed, the answer is always the same. Why are you so angry with your husband? Why are you in handcuffs? Why are you in jail? In court? Because, this system says, you're guilty. Otherwise you wouldn't be here. Awareness isn't cumulative, but the debris of human bias and error is. From arrests and statements, to the attorneys' and witnesses' demeanor, the court formalizes and shapes into a legal narrative this accumulation of bias. Often, a critique of this sort stems from a left-leaning politics, producing criticism as rigid as the thinking it condemns. Malcolm doesn't make her politics explicit, though; humans and their institutions are flawed, she rightly argues, regardless of their politics.

The trial-as-dramatic-performance is a structuring conceit of Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and the book understands everyone's action through the lens of drama. It's occasionally heavy-handed and pretentious (psychologist Igor Davidson is "the Kent of this tragedy") but generally the metaphor is apt. Everyone plays their part, nobody calls in sick, and if anyone breaks character and reveals himself as incompetent, ignorant, or otherwise flawed, the production still proceeds. Even if you haven't endured the puerile voir dire casting call, the Law and Order-style police procedural testifies to the innate dramatic staging of the ordeal. As Malcolm writes early on, "If we understand that a trial is a contest between competing narratives, we can see the importance of the first appearance of the narrators." And institutions err most willingly when enthralled by their own dramatic narratives.

This is something of which we're vaguely aware, right? That guilt or innocence in a criminal trial is the adult moral of adult story time? We live immersed in the narratology of criminal justice, but we often forget how personal failings, ambitions, and prejudices structure the administration of real-world justice. Justice, in Malcolm's telling, fails to be blind while proudly being both deaf and dumb. "If any profession (apart from the novelist's) is in the business of making things up," Malcolm writes, dragging into the light this unpleasantry, "it is the profession of the trial lawyer. The 'evidence' in trials is the thread out of which lawyers spin their tales of guilt or innocence." Iphigenia in Forest Hills advances through such sentences: intuitively agreeable and utterly unassuming in their gravity. During testimony, for instance, the prosecution introduces a recording purporting to reveal Borukhova asking if Mallayav, the gunman, is going to "make her happy." In the prosecution's telling making Borukhova "happy" meant killing her husband. The prosecution sharpens this statement to a gleam, only to have their argument blunted on cross-examination when a more faithful translation of the tape reveals that Borukhova merely asks Mallayav whether or not he wanted to get out of the car she was driving. Correct and convincing are not synonyms, though. Despite the clarified translation, during deliberation the jury relies on the prosecution's sexier tale.

Other failings are far more individual. Judge Robert Hanophy presides over the Borukhova trial. Hanophy is a clown, a petulant blowhard who exhibits the "faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate," and who finds legal precedent in the film In the Name of the Father. If Malcolm sees the law as troublingly subjective, for Hanophy it proves reassuringly mechanical. Malcolm extracts the book's epigraph from one of their exchanges. "You seem to think that this is so extraordinary," Hanophy says. "It's not. Somebody's life was taken, somebody's arrested, they're indicted, they're tried, and they're convicted. That's all this is."

That's all this is. Hanophy's statement crystallizes a great deal about the legal system's self-conception. It's a mechanism that moves with conviction toward conviction. Case closed. Stay out of the picture, again, and you won't get framed. Hanophy mistakes his experience for wisdom, allowing his ego to run the courtroom. He acts brutishly toward the defense, and when her attorney argues that the judge's behavior reflects negatively on Borukhova, Hanophy flatly rejects the argument.

If the judge misunderstands wisdom, Borukhova's lawyer misunderstands honor, capitulating to and excusing the judge's most egregious lapses of judgment. As the trial grinds toward its sixth week, Hanophy grows restless. He fears that the trial will interfere with a long planned trip to the beach. Hanophy rushes the defense, allowing Stephen Scaring, Borukhova's attorney, one night to prepare his summation of the six-week murder trial. The prosecution, on the other hand, enjoyed an entire weekend to compose their rebuttal and closing remarks. Hanophy's argument: "Come on, you've been in this business thirty years. You can do it." Sleep deprived and ill prepared, Scaring bungles his closing. When asked about the circumstances of the summation, Scaring tells Malcolm, "I'm an honorable person. I wouldn't call in sick when I'm not sick. There was no option but to proceed unprepared. So she was denied her constitutionally protected right of effective counsel."

If "effective counsel" is nothing but a convenient fiction, the unbiased jury is the Yorick of this tragedy. "The prosecution does have an overwhelming advantage," as Scaring tells Malcolm. "The jury walks in and figures the defendant wouldn't be there if he wasn't guilty." Malcolm, more forcefully, writes that "rooting is in our blood; we take sides as we take breaths." Malcolm admits to sympathy with Borukhova. At jury selection, the prosecutor asks potential jurors if the fact that Borukhova "holds medical degrees, because she's an educated woman" will have an impact on their judgment. The correct response, should one care to serve on the jury, would be "no," of course, but Malcolm writes of her "sisterly bias" toward Borukhova.

This is where the fist meets the face for Malcolm. Anyone biased in favor of Borukhova will never get selected for a jury. The corollary Malcolm draws from this is that bias against her, institutional and personal, defines the trial. And thus Borukhova suffers relentless, often arbitrary criticism of her "indecencies" from all precincts of her life. She fails to make a toast at a wedding. She wears dark purple lipstick. She wears black bras beneath white shirts. These behaviors are never greeted as quirks or taste; rather, each incident is an infraction demanding harsh judgment. Borukhova's court-appointed child advocate -- an unhinged, paranoid conspiracy theorist whose professional incompetence raises an entirely different set of issues -- rashly accuses her of sociopathy, evidently because he just does not like her. And ultimately, according to jurors Malcolm interviewed, Borukhova's combative yet affectless attitude during her testimony is "kind of what did her in."

Malcolm effectively argues, despite Borukhova's lifelessness on the page, that what "did her in" was less Borukhova's criminal act -- the truth of which coyly and powerfully remains unresolved for Malcolm, and for the reader -- than the fact that people found her unpleasant and strange. "I recognized a tone I had heard in the voices of the therapists, police officers, social workers, lawyers, and relatives who testified against Borukhova," Malcolm writes about a conversation with one witness during which they discussed Borukhova's refusal to violate a religious prohibition and attend court after dark, therefore contributing to Scaring's rushed summation. "[The interview subject's] tone was one of disbelief and disapproval. How can she be this way? She shouldn't be this way. Borukhova's otherness was her defining characteristic." And when likeability informs a verdict, justice becomes a clique.

Information is cumulative, but awareness is not. Awareness erodes like a beach against information's relentlessness. The role of a writer -- or of a certain type of writer -- is to remind us what, individually and culturally, we know but that abundance forces us to forget. These writers enable our conscience by serving as aids to our memory. Janet Malcolm's best work gestures to such cultural recollection. She's authored several precise reminders that human frailty -- venality, sloth, and the like -- lie at the heart of scandal, and that scandal lies at the heart of human experience. Psychoanalysts harbor secrets. Journalists extol their own ethics while relying on a pliable morality. We naturally, intuitively suspect such indiscretions, and their social toxicity, but rarely with Malcolm's penetration.

Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for the Place, Culture, and Politics, CUNY. He can be reached at

This review was originally published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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