Monday, September 15, 2014

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician's Shiva
"…smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize."

This beautifully conceived novel revolves around the death of a world-class mathematician and the resolution of a proof about turbulence, or the chaotic movement of air and water in the atmosphere during a hurricane.
"Actually, it is more than this. The big D in the Navier-Stokes equation is called the material derivative, and it refers to watching velocities of fluids change not from a fixed reference frame but from one in which you are riding with the storm. When I think of Navier-Stokes, sometimes I imagine myself as a Lilliputian in a tiny canoe that has been lifted up and tossed high in a fun-house mirror. I watch as the fluids careen against and flow around me."
Wouldn’t it be great if the turbulence in our lives could be described and defined and nailed down with scientific precision? We could coolly assess a situation and recognize just when things are going to fly out of control, in which direction, and with what force.
"Tornados are a good metaphor for how bad things happen in our lives. They build from small disturbances that usually don’t mean a thing and almost always dissipate. But somehow one particular random bad event attracts others, and all of them together grow and attract more nasty stuff. Once it gets to a critical size, the odds of it growing even larger are no longer remote."

Rachela Karnokovitch was the stuff of legend--a brilliant mathematician immigrant to the United States. Born in Poland and raised in Siberia, she escaped to the United States in advance of her husband and her child and was welcomed with open arms into the IV League academic community. However, she preferred the chill of Wisconsin rather than the warm Princeton climate. She hated and derided any modifier to her genius, e.g., female mathematician, though the rarity of that made her even more precious, at least in the eyes of her husband and son.

Could there be a more unique premise for a novel than the funeral of a genius mathematician rumored to have held off dying in order to solve a major problem? This funeral gathers to itself a constellation of weird but bright individuals all circulating about that star of genius to see if the here-to-fore unannounced solution to the problem is anywhere apparent in Rachela’s papers. They sit shiva in her house for seven days. They search the office, walls, and floorboards of her house. They eat the food offered by neighbors, and drink continually. They generally make themselves a nuisance, though not without mathematician jokes, academician jokes, and a gradual but reluctant acceptance of reality.

In searching for the solution to the math problem, her son comes across Rachela’s diary. Rachela’s remembrances interspersed with shiva-sitting prompt her son to consider the big social questions that face us as humans:
"Our capacity for love isn’t like a gallon jug that you fill up from a rest stop as you take a drive across the country. It can swell, and sadly, it can shrink. Less is not more. Less is less, and more is better, although I can’t say that I fully understood that at the time of my mother’s death. I’m a whiz at science and math. In matters of people, I am indeed a slow learner."

This is a first novel, though it does not read like one. It is a profound meditation on life’s large questions, on math, on academia, on love and marriage. It is told with humor, pathos, honesty, and the understanding that long experience and large intellect can bring. The writing is graceful and mature and the the author instinctively seems to understand the requirements of fiction. We readers can follow anywhere, even to a funeral, as long as it has passages like the mathematician Rachela as a child in Siberia encountering a bear as she scoured the woods for lily bulbs to supplement her inadequate diet.

I was offered a copy of this book by Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam
"It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it."

Were I a resident of Discworld, I am not entirely sure I wouldn’t be classified a goblin, a troll, or a dwarf. Terry Pratchett has created a satire so rich that we see our lives, successes, failures, and intentions reflected back at us. Pratchett can be biting, but he is never cruel. He retains an equanimity about human failure that inspires us to greater acts of idiocy and splendor.

Now the fortieth entry in the cycle of Discworld brings us "tech-nol-ogy" and the Rail Way by little tinkers who carried on tinkering. It changes everything! "…nothing…hurried to become something even faster."

I am sorry now I did not join Pratchett’s league of admirers earlier. He has a vast body of work on Discworld already that follows along with humankind’s stumbling activities and manages to illuminate our deepest held secrets and most agonizing social issues. Allusions to previous great works of literature and moments in history abound. Was there ever a more wise and humorous critic of our best and our worst tendencies?

A reader does not have to begin at the beginning with this series, though you may find yourself wishing to go back and delve into the riches of Pratchett's vision and humor. While these books can be read as delightful interludes 'twixt more serious fare, you may find yourself wishing there were more folks with Pratchett's understanding guiding our multiverse.

I was given the opportunity to listen to the Random House Audio version of this title narrated by the incomparable Stephen Briggs. He has narrated over thirty of Terry Pratchett’s books and has won numerous awards for his work. There is perhaps no better way to gain entry into the world of Ank-Morpork than listening to Stephen Briggs share his range of voices and interpretations of Terry Pratchett’s memorable saga. This is classic literature for our times.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Dream of the Celt I don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biography to his other work, but the subject--the life of Sir Roger Casement--is one which interests me deeply. Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost, introduced me to the unforgettable figure of Roger Casement and I see Vargas Llosa was similarly captured. Casement was a man who harbored within him enormous contradictions and who struggled to live a life of meaning. Despite being hung for a traitor, he was a man of honor who stood up for his convictions, and who died for them.

Roger Casement (1864-1916) was born just outside of Dublin, Ireland, in a seaside location given variously as Sandycove or Kingstown. Though baptized as a child, Casement considered himself Protestant most of his life and embraced his Catholicism only shortly before his death. Much of what we know about him comes from his own journals in which he recorded his work, thoughts, travels, and sexual encounters. Vargas Llosa’s first section detailing Casement’s life and work in the Congo tracked so closely with Hochschild’s account that I realized both must have used the same source materials.

It is the second section, called Amazonia, which held my attention most closely. After Casement works with Protestant missionaries and the journalist and human rights activist E.D. Morel in the Congo disclosing the atrocities committed in the push to harvest rubber, he is dispatched by the British government to Peru to do the same there. He was not a well man by this time, for a white man in the tropics often developed debilitating illnesses that recurred with alarming frequency. Returning to the hot, humid environment of the Amazonian jungle caused his health to further fray. A photograph of Casement in Peru takes one aback; in it Casement looks positively skeletal.

Casement in Peru
Casement (on left) w/ Representative of Peruvian Amazon Company

Vargas Llosa describes Casement’s life in Peru with a verisimilitude and authenticity that makes those passages come alive. Casement had a nasty assignment, travelling to remote and dangerous outposts to conduct interviews and write detailed reports on atrocities. He couldn’t wait to be shot of it. But he persevered until he had enough damning evidence, only to find that the business interests trumped human rights in the Amazon, as they often did in colonial possessions.

Gradually Casement came to realize that freedom is something one must seize for oneself:
"I have reached the absolute conviction that the only way the indigenous people of Putumayo can emerge from the miserable condition to which they have been reduced is by rising up in arms against their masters. It is an illusion devoid of all reality to believe…that this state will change when…there are authorities, judges, police to enforce the laws that have prohibited servitude and slavery in Peru since 1854…In this society the state is an inseparable part of the machinery of exploitation and extermination…If they want to be free they have to conquer their freedom with their arms and their courage…We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom. They will never give it to us. Why would the Empire that colonized us do that unless it felt an irresistible pressure that obliged it to do so? That pressure can only come from weapons."

Vargas Llosa also captures the beauty and pathos of Casement’s homosexual encounters, for Casement was a gay man in a world constrained by its own harsh and corrupted morality. By the time he lived in Peru, Casement was increasingly indiscreet in his encounters and his recording of them in his journals. Vargas Llosa makes the point that Casement must have keenly felt his solitary, unmarried life. When Casement leaves the Amazon and returns to Europe via New York, he encounters a handsome young Slav, Eivind, for whom he falls heavily, thinking he is finally enjoying a mutual and adult relationship. Eivind will be his undoing, for he sells Casement’s secrets, including his determination to work for Irish independence, to the British.

Casement had been knighted after his work in Africa. When, in a roiled and pre-WWI Europe, he made the decision to go to a militarizing Germany to get aid for Irish rebels, the British felt sufficiently betrayed to try him for treason. While in Germany, Casement apparently considered every possible means to weaken the hold of the British on her colonies wherever they might be, strengthening the case by the prosecution and ensuring he would never be granted clemency. He was hung in 1916, a mere three months after his dawn capture April 21 at McKenna’s Fort in Ireland.

The last section of Vargas Llosa’s novel details the confusion of Casement’s botched return to Ireland and the support for his case, or lack of it, by longtime friends and admirers. Many old friends, including E.D. Morel, considered Casement seriously off base in his collaboration with the German machine against England, and so never responded to his letters. Though his hangman called him "the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute," even his Irish compatriots could not hail him wholeheartedly as a nationalist because rumors of his homosexuality offended their sense of moral right.

In the Epilogue, Vargas Llosa celebrates the return of Casement to the popular imagination:
"With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path to being accepted for what he was: one of the greatest anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland. Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, ‘is many men,’ which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality."

In 1965, Casement’s bones were repatriated and rest now in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve NothingMaksik’s debut novel is not a perfect thing, though he does a magnificent job catching the idiom and inflection of high school enrollees in the International School of France (ISF), an American school in a wealthy enclave of Paris. Three voices interweave: Marie, a student learning the power of her sexuality; Will, a thirty-three year-old teaching Sartre, Camus, Faulkner, and Shakespeare in a senior English seminar; Gilad, a student in Will’s class who, with Will, witnesses a man being pushed under a train at the subway.

The tentative and unclear thoughts of high school students is as frustrating to read as it was to experience: the cloudiness of motivations, of adult lives and decisions suddenly being thrust upon them, of the importance of their own place in a universe so small it includes only their friends and their parents. They tell us enough of what is going on in their heads that we believe there is little more there than what we are given.

It is the voice of teacher Will that makes us work: he gives us half-truths, possibilities for actions, and motivations that glance off the truth but that are not the truth. The death of his parents is one such possibility: both gone at once, suddenly. Will had left his wife then. But another reason for his actions might lie closer to watching a man randomly being thrown under a train in a Paris subway. He claims it has no effect upon him. It may be enough to make one think that one has little or no control nor impact on the direction of one’s life, so what does it matter? Will’s student, Gilad, makes the point that we should do just do the best we can and expect nothing in return. That is the human condition. We deserve nothing.

(view spoiler)

This is a man facing the existential crisis and losing himself. Even his girlfriend thinks him a ghost. He claims to be pleased that his students adore him but he is empty, numb, vacant. The teenaged journal entries are trying but they reflect a childish truth. The deadness of Will’s world is terrifying.

Maksik uses whatever material is to hand to demonstrate his novelistic skills. He has the goods. Now, this reader hopes he extends his reach beyond the issues facing a wealthy international school and brings his novelistic and philosophical skill to bear on the larger questions that face us in the world as it is. After all, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” Once that question has been answered, one is either engaged or dead.

Maksik’s second book, A Marker to Measure Drift, faces those larger questions. Bravo!

Two points I must comment upon: one good, one bad. Midway, Maksik gives us one of the hottest sex scenes I can recall. It should go down in the annals. In the final scene, however, is an embarrassingly empty gesture with a gold Cartier pen and a plastic ballpoint. I didn’t like that as well, but we can’t always have it all. Keep your ears cocked for news of this man. He’s not lightweight.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette To tell the truth, polar exploring never held much fascination for me. The only thing that makes me think it might be magical is that so many explorers have mentioned the quality of the light. But the idea that one would risk one’s life and spend more than two years to “get through the ice pack” really seems like a dumb idea to me.

Given that, I probably was not the ideal reader for this book, but I took on this story because I thought maybe all would become clear. Sides tries to make it sound exciting, but he spends a lot of time going over the lives of the financial backers (James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of The New York Herald), and detailing the previous failed attempts to reach the North Pole. By the time the men leave San Francisco bay July 8, 1879, it already feels too late.

The U.S.S. Jeannette was first burdened with the task of trying to locate Adolf Nordenskiold's Scandinavian expedition to find a "Northeast Passage" which was seriously past its return date. The detour to Siberia meant the Jeannette's crew was late in getting off on the real purpose of their journey and indeed, once through the Bering Strait, they became stuck in pack ice. “Wintering in the pack may be a thrilling thing to read about,” DeLong wrote. Well, not so much, really.

Anyway, for two years these folks tried to free themselves and their ship from the relentless cold and shifting ice. The ice pack would move them northwest, only to circle back later. Eventually all choice was taken from them when their ship was crushed by the enormous forces of the ice. It is a frustrating story of hardship and heartbreak, though some of the men made it out alive to tell the tale and pass on locations of the ship’s log, which had to be abandoned.

What they learned was practically all negative: the maps and theories of the polar regions being floated at the time, notably those of the German cartographer August Petermann, were dead wrong. But they did discover a couple of islands (Jeannette, Henrietta, and Bennett seen below) and they learned that arctic ice is constantly in motion. In 1884, some years after Jeannette was wrecked in 1881, some of Jeannette’s wreckage (one of DeLong’s sealskin boots), washed up in Greenland, proving the ice movement absolutely.

Jeannette Island
Henrietta Island

Bennett Island
Sketches of Islands Discovered by U.S.S. Jeannette

Sides does a remarkable job of research, and for those interested in polar exploration, this book must be a wondrous cache of riches. Sides collected the mass of information in a complete and rounded way, stretching long before and long after the two-and-a half years of the expedition. I, however, came away wondering at the choices of some folks. They prepared the best way they could at the time, and did amazingly well finding folks they thought might be able to take the isolation and challenges they were to face. I note that the innovative Mr.-Fixit-Melville was the man who ended up writing the stories of the others who died. He had both heart and brains and survived to tell the tale. There were other exceptional men among their number, Neidermann among them, who could take any amount of cold and physical toil. Tales of their exploits thrill us still. But the cost? These are the trade-offs men make.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

The Colonel This summer the Iranian government issued a postage stamp on the novelist Dowlatabadi’s 74th birthday commemorating his lifetime of work. Despite the regime’s professed respect for the art of the novelist, Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel is still not published in his own country. It was first published in Germany, where it was shortlisted for the 2009 Haus der Kulturen Berlin International Literary Award. After publication in Britain, the novel was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and it won the 2013 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature.

This novel was begun by Dowlatabadi in the 1980’s and periodically added to and amended until the author declared it ready for publication in 2008. It relates the story of a man, military man of discipline and principles, who appears torn asunder by the change sweeping his country and his family in light of the 1979 revolution against the Shah which was the end of a 2,500-year history of monarchies. His wife is dead by his own hand for her adultery, and three of his children have been killed, two for their anti-Islamic tendencies, and one as a martyr for the cause of the new Islamic state under Khomeini. Two children remain, but the eldest son is sunk in an unresponsive nihilism as a result of the failure of the Communist faction he supported, and his daughter Farzaneh is married to an opportunist who shifts his allegiances with the changing political leadership.

One of Dowlatabadi’s great skills as a novelist is reputedly to use language in an earthy yet lyrical way. We cannot enjoy the original Persian, but we can see the straightforward way in which he draws his characters, exposing their weaknesses and failures while at the same time acknowledging that one could not have done differently.
"The colonel had always let his children find their own way in life...But now he could not help but wonder whether the dreadful fate that had overtaken every one of his children was in fact due to his laissez-faire approach. But no, this did not really provide the old man with an easy answer, either. He firmly believed that he had bequeathed to his children only the most natural of rights, namely the right to determine what they wanted to do with their lives...In the end, perhaps the colonel's wish that his children lead independent lives was a reaction on his part against a life which he felt had been imposed upon him. He felt that he had been short-changed by never having had the freedom to live his own life. This made him feel like some sort of cripple...At least one of you should look out for himself. It's not as though you were carrying the weight of all history on your shoulders! I'm not as strong as you think I am. That's what he really wanted to tell his children."

Dowlatabadi describes an interrogation session, torture, and what jail is like. He describes the total confusion and uncertainty among family members and the general populace for years after the revolution when the political winds shifted to and fro. He describes the agony of a parent who is despised by his children and who has to bury his tortured 14-year-old daughter on a rainy night without help from his family. He describes the guilt and desperation of educated and serious patriots who no longer believed in god or goodness as a result of what they have seen and how their understanding of their most basic rights as humans felt violated. Even though I have not had much opportunity to read Persian literature, there can be little doubt about how such an open and painful account of despair would be received by a sitting government.
"The colonel felt guilt, too--guilty for the very existence of his children, or lack of it, as the case may be."

Apparently the present government in Iran would be willing to publish this novel in Persian if the author would make some changes, which he has refused to do. And yet, for his other work which is widely hailed in Iran as unique and masterful, Dowlatabadi is respected and honored by the postage stamp in his honor.
"One would think that boys were born coy, but there lurks within them a dreadful, perverse force that can, in the blink of an eye, turn them into savage beasts, beasts that since the beginning of history have been easily drawn into committing the most appalling of crimes, just to prove themselves. They follow orders to the letter and call what they do acts of heroism. Can we blame them? What about us, the people who send these unformed lumps of soft putty out onto the street, where they fall into the arms of the first merchants of villainy they come across? And we just sit back and wait for them to be turned into rods to beat our own backs..."

This book is an important addition to the literature coming from the Middle East, and one hopes that one will never have read its like again.

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

King Leopold's Ghost This book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I am far less willing to grant King Leopold’s side another instant of attention after realizing that the facts had been obscured for a century or more by repression of documents relating to the case in Belgian state archives. Better that we finally uncover the ugly truth and take its lesson: unbridled greed may be the ugliest, most unforgivable, most unnecessary sin of all.

How can we not have known this horrible history? It happened only a hundred years ago. Though I am embarrassed I did not know the anguished history and perpetuation of evil in the Congo, I stand in good company. Hochschild tells us of a Belgian diplomat serving in the 1970’s Congo who learned of the atrocities by a chance remark from a chieftain recalling “the first time” of rubber collection. This diplomat-turned-historian, Jules Marchal, spent decades after his retirement from civil service investigating and documenting King Leopold’s personal fiefdom in the Congo and its long list of crimes there at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

What does become amply clear from Hochschild’s account is how it is possible to mount a resistance to a great evil. Resistance requires exceptional people willing to bear witness, but also organization and persistence. Edmund Dene Morel, the shipping clerk who recognized in the 1890’s what was happening in the Congo, immediately called out the injustices he saw there and never hesitated in his mission to publicize it in the years that followed. Fortunately, he was an articulate man with a convincing speaking style and he had enormous drive. He managed to gather like-minded folk to himself to voice a larger protest.

The life of Irishman Roger Casement, the gay man knighted by the Queen for his work as a diplomat and later hanged by Britain as a traitor to the crown for his work as an Irish patriot, stands as an example of the strange dissociation countries in power display when someone challenges their economic and political interests. I fell in love with him a little, Sir Roger Casement, as a man of great courage and vision: he saw what men are and did not despair, though one might say that, in the end, he died of it.

Black Americans who spent their adult lives speaking out against the horror happening in Africa, the Reverend William Henry Sheppard and George Washington Williams, have finally found their way back into history. Many Christian missionaries, though notably, not Catholic missionaries, did their part in publicizing crimes in pursuit of endless demand for rubber.

What I liked most about the book was the way Hochschild brought us past the period of the Congo revelations to the present day, telling us how we could have been ignorant of the time and the period. He followed the lives of Morel and Chapman to their ends, and introduced us to Ambassador Marchal of Belgium. He follows the Congo after Leopold through its Belgian colony status to the demand for self-rule and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first legally-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tells us of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Congolese President who continued crimes against his country that Leopold had begun, this time with American support.

I began to realize that some of the surviving chiefs of Leopold’s crimes were sometimes collaborators. Their behaviors have been perpetuated over the generations until there is nothing but misery left in that place. Now I understand better how a country so rich in natural resources could be so socially impoverished. The crimes continue to the present. What can be the solution to this kind of moral destitution?

I listened to the Random House Audio of this title, read by Geoffrey Howard.

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