Monday, May 4, 2015

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz

Schultz' review of H is for Hawk in the New Yorker magazine this spring really made me take notice not only of Macdonald's book but also of the art of reviewing. Schultz's review was as gorgeous and thoughtful as Macdonald's book. I set out to see what else Schultz wrote.

I really like Schultz' premise on this one: we feel badly when we make mistakes, but everyone does it. As Schultz points out, before Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") was St. Augustine ("I err, therefore I am" or "To err is human"). The thing is, while some errors are small ones, or funny ones (and Schultz gives examples)some folks make big ones (like Bush and his weapons of mass destruction or putting the wrong man in jail for life).

What is clear from our own experience is that being wrong is so painful that we often just carry on as though we were right after all. We stick to our guns, as they say, and harden our position. Schultz points out that only with long experience in living do we come to the "wisdom" phase..."no one can be right all the time," so we should embrace error as the path to perfectibility.

This discursive work is filled with anecdotes and case studies, experiments and examples. I think it is for this reason that I leapfrogged through it. Wrong of me, no doubt. I had to go back now and again to pick out useful pieces that encapsulated her thoughts. And this is where I found the problem, at least for me: I like examples pointing to conclusions, but the conclusions were less finely drawn than I would like and the examples perhaps too many and divergent. But we do get conclusions at the end, and it brings to mind Shambhala studies and democracy.
"Here, then, are some ways we can try to prevent mistakes. We can foster the ability to listen to one another and the freedom to speak our minds. We can create open and transparent environments instead of cultures of secrecy and concealment. And we can permit and encourage everyone, not just a powerful inner circle, to speak up when they see the potential for error."

Kathryn Schultz gave two TED talks to great acclaim after the book was published. Of the two of these, I vastly prefer the one on Regrets. That hit a chord, or played me a symphony, more like.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Capital Punishment: Charles Boxer #1 by Robert Wilson

This is an interesting novel, if not always for the reasons Wilson hoped. It had me thinking back to my experience reading the new Richard Price novel, The Whites. Price admitted that he wrote that novel under the pen name Harry Brandt because, strapped for cash, he needed to write a pot-boiler that would sell fast and well. He wanted to keep his legacy as a literary writer under the name Price intact, but was finding it costing him audience.

Fortunately or not, Price’s Harry Brandt novel is a deeply plotted, psychologically dense, character-driven novel not unlike earlier Price novels. He missed his mark. The Whites is emphatically not a pot-boiler. Wilson may be feeling some of the same pressures. He seems to be trying something completely different in this first novel of a new series. He calls this work a “thriller” as opposed to characterizations of his earlier work as “crime” or “mystery.” I note that thrillers have evolved with the times: plots must be as sophisticated as the world is now, and readers must be willing to put up with what was previously thought to be unreasonable complexity. Life is complicated.

Charlie Boxer is a private security consultant based in London. He is hired to deal with the kidnapping of the adult daughter of an Indian billionaire business magnate in London just before the Olympic Games. Once word gets out, every far-flung contact of the billionaire is suspected and suspicious: they find themselves looking for their own advantage while looking at allies and enemies within and without their own organizations for perpetrators. The only thing we know for sure is that Charlie Boxer seems out of his depth with both the billionaire and the billionaire’s ex-wife.

This thriller actually has very little action and a whole lot of revenge plotting going on. The complexity becomes amusing. Wilson knew very well what he was doing by layering one set of potential kidnappers on the others, along with their attendant informants, security personnel, and hangers-on. The violence is fierce and gratuitous. As the body count mounts, readers might find themselves placing bets on which set of thugs will kill the others and would the overseas set arrive in time to participate in the melee? The whole circus became a murderous joke, all centered about a smart, beautiful 25-year old woman who made mincemeat of the men she encountered. It’s a riot, in all senses of the word.

That having been said, there were times when I wondered if I were the only one in on the joke. The first false note—Boxer falling into bed with his client, the wife of the kidnapped girl--had me curious what Wilson was thinking. As the number of investigators and their targets multiplied, I began to think of the whole construction as tongue-in-cheek. Wilson didn’t try to obscure the seams. It was a nightmare of connections and hitmen. I began to enjoy the ride to see how it would all unravel.

One character I wanted to survive the damage was Dan, alias for a nurse with an addiction that sent him to jail for a couple years, wrecking his legitimate career but placing him on the payroll of a thug lord. His restraint, sincerity, gullibility, skills, and skepticism made a complex character. A very good series could be made out of his adventures in the underworld. I note we did not get a sufficient description of his death.

In what becomes a large piece of the action, an Afghan terror group sidesteps the Indian Mafia (both Hindi and Muslim factions), the Pakistani Military Intelligence, and London’s drug lords and lowlifes to mix it up with MI5, MI6, the anti-terror units of the military, and the police. When Wilson tells us in his Acknowledgements that writing is the most "exquisite torture" but that sometimes one hits a gusher, our smile of recognition hides a wince. Yes, we agree, but perhaps we don’t need the whole nightmare.

Another thread, if one were needed, is the backstory of Charlie Boxer. He still works with his ex-wife and his daughter is an opinionated teenaged terror at seventeen. Apparently it is this thread that continues in the second novel in this series, You Will Never Find Me, due out next month.

Robert Wilson is an author I have followed from Africa to Seville to London. I have enormous respect for his talents. Wilson places the following in the mouth of one of his characters in this novel:
"The sad thing about goodness is that is it’s bland. Evil has the power to provoke extraordinary emotions. And we’re drawn to the excitement of the extreme, rather than the dullness of the everyday."
Wilson writes thrillers now. His earlier mysteries were more literary, but time marches on. He must feel the pull, like Richard Price, of financial considerations, eyeballs on the page, a larger audience. Unless Wilson meant to be humorous, I think he missed the mark on this thriller. It was complex--perhaps too much so. It was difficult to suspend disbelief.

Wilson has the talent and experience now to write whatever he decides he wants to write. If he has fun and satisfaction and lack of angst from writing novels like this, I totally understand. I don’t want to put the kibosh on a successful literary franchise. But Wilson is one who could go deep, if he wanted, on a literary thriller. I’ll probably check in regardless.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

"The archeology of grief is not ordered."
Helen Macdonald’s book-length nonfiction is so many things at once: a eulogy, an elegy, a biography, a memoir, a training manual, a journey. It is a conversation about death, and community. It is so filled with passion and pain that one reads, breath bated, to see which will crush the other. This book is only partly about a hawk, despite the title. It records the author’s journey of a few years, starting with the unexpected death of her father, through the purchase and training of a hawk, to a new place of understanding about what and who humans are and what we need to live well.

The author looks closely at the life and writings of another vulnerable person, T.H. White, to express sorrow and a kind of sympathy with his derangements. She learns the origins of his extraordinary flights of fancy in literature, tracing over the sores of his upbringing until we see clearly the agonies of his confused psychopathy. White was a hawker, but a hawker one might quote to show how not to train a hawk. Macdonald loathed his book The Goshawk as a child. When she gets her own hawk after the death of her father, she reads it again. This time she discovers White’s pain--seeing, feeling, tracing it until it is as clear as her own.

Macdonald shares one of the best descriptions of bereavement that I have ever encountered (italics are hers):
"Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning 'to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.' Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. 'Imagine,' I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, 'imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them, All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it’s like.' I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy…

...I’d dreamed of hawks again. I started dreaming of hawks all the time. Here’s another word: raptor, meaning 'bird of prey'. From the Latin raptor, meaning 'robber,' from rapere, meaning 'seize.' Rob. Seize."
Hawks apparently have a shamanic tradition of being able to cross borders that humans cannot and "were seen as messengers between this world and the next."

The author trains a bird of prey, a hawk called Mabel. Mabel is a predator; she is all about death, violent death. The wildness of the bird seeps into the author’s consciousness, and her perceptions become acute. Macdonald is recovering from a loss, and her bond with the reptilian raptor Mabel underscores her warm-blooded need for love and her bond with the human community. This book is the author working through grief and terror and want and coming out naked and vulnerable on the other side.

The language Macdonald employs in this memoir is as extraordinary and ingenious as her laying out such diverse topics as death, hawking, T.H. White, and history as interlocking pieces. She holds us rapt as she defines her grief. The words she chooses make us hypersensitive to differences in shade, angle, meaning: "Goshawks in the air are a complicated grey colour. Not slate grey, nor pigeon grey. But a kind of raincloud grey…" Or this: "I was…grey, loose-spun wool on an aching set of bones." Or this: "I felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle." Her meanings are exquisitely clear.

Macdonald was born a hawker. We are all born with something innate but dormant until awakened by opportunity. Fortunately Macdonald was able to find and exercise her passion because she liked to read. It reminds me of teachers we may have had that spark an interest in something that feels as natural to us as breathing, and as necessary. Macdonald discusses six books that formed her consciousness about nature, makes us realize once again that a seed spilled on tilled ground can yield the most amazing things. It breaks my heart a little to think that every child probably has some thing in them that would burst into flame with the right tinder. Not all of us find it, early or ever.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The actor Mark Rylance brought Thomas Cromwell to life for me but it was Hilary Mantel that gave Rylance Cromwell’s head: his context, his history, and his words. Without Mantel’s fantastic and detailed imaginings of the Tudor reign of King Henry VIII, the BBC film could not have been the success it is. The book focuses on Thomas Cromwell, lawyer, statesman, Henry’s right-hand man. Little is known about Cromwell’s early life. He was born to a blacksmith around 1485-6 but it is only when he begins to work with Cardinal Wolsey around 1516 that details of him begin to appear outside of town records.

Mantel told Mona Simpson at the Paris Review that she wanted to be a historian, but when she'd read all the histories and novels about a place and time, she wasn't satisfied. So she began to invent and embellish. I had tried both reading and listening to Mantel’s novel of Cromwell years ago when the awards started flooding in; despite my admiration for Mantel’s work, I simply could not keep my mind on this man and his rise to power. I didn’t like her Cromwell, I lacked knowledge about the Tudors and their dynasty, and I just didn’t see why it mattered. Rylance’s performance in the BBC drama changed all that. The filmmakers followed the books closely, catapulting over huge swathes of text but somehow including all relevant detail and context provided by Mantel. In the BBC drama Cromwell is scrappy but dignified, mentally adroit, and enormously capable in the art of living. Cromwell lives.

I’d read somewhere that Mantel wrote her novel as a kind of drama. In a recent interview she reminds us,
“We believe our happiness depends on the choices we make, but sometimes fate takes over. If you strip away hindsight, and try to imagine the Tudors living their lives as we live, without knowledge of how their stories will end, then in a heartbeat they leap out of the history books: you find them next to you, in the street….they take us to the centre of ourselves, our own needs and secret wishes, our own pleasures and torments.”

She really did make Cromwell live again, and reimagined an Anne Boleyn that vastly changes my earlier view of her as victim. It is a vivid rewriting of what we call history. The real Wulfhall, family seat of the Seymour family and of Jane, Henry VIII’s third wife, is no more, torn down in 1665.

Wolf Hall Manor
Wulf Hall

Nearby Wolf Hall Manor was built on the original family estate and stands now (pictured above), dilapidated but still somehow grand, carrying the name if not the history of that fated moment when King Henry decides to rid himself of Queen Anne Boleyn. Anne becomes the instrument by which Cromwell loses his position and his life. The full article showing more pictures of Wolf Hall Manor is here.

I love that Mantel showed the arc of Cromwell’s rise and fall in her title, Wolf Hall. The name of the manor house holds such portent, knowing what we know now. Her follow-on Bringing up the Bodies elaborates the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn, and the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light will highlight the fall of Cromwell himself. Mantel talks candidly about her work and her direction in this interview with the Australian radio host Gillian O’Shaughnessey. It is astonishing and thrilling to me that Mantel only just discovered that her talent might be best suited to plays. Of course! It is a revelation that gives her a new lease on life and us the hope of great and meaningful work yet to come.

And here is a fascinating radio interview with the great Mark Rylance.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7) by Ian Hamilton

Hamilton continues to thrill us with his unique angle on business dealings in Asia, this time in China. While there is always something to learn in Hamilton’s take on international business, this time we are treated to very well-financed business women negotiating new ventures in and around Shanghai. Ava Lee finds herself involved with Uncle’s old contacts in the Triads and takes some time away from her own concerns to straighten out the tangle of Triad relations in the region leading up to the vote for a new Chairman of Triads across Asia.

Particularly realistic is the description of the Shanghai Triad’s business plan: making, distributing, and selling around China knock-offs of Western products. The PRC government like the Taiwanese government before them currently turn a blind eye to copyright infringements, looking after their own self-interest in keeping employment and disposable incomes high. Ava undergoes a complicated calculus deciding whether or not to cooperate with Xu, leader of Shanghai’s Triad, given the illegal nature of his business. After an early morning visitation from the ghost of Uncle, she decides to ride that beast. Very quickly she becomes embroiled in their internecine warfare.

What I loved about this particular addition to the series is how Hamilton manages to once again to keep the series fresh by remaking the wheel on which Ava Lee, financier and businesswoman, is forged. Her close colleague, Uncle, is dead and when Ava has finished grieving (one month in Toronto essentially alone and unbothered by anyone else’s demands), she gets on a flight to Shanghai eager to turn the page from the financial fraud investigations she’d done previously. She’s now keen to invest in businesses of her own choice and although she flies to Shanghai with clear boundaries and standards defined, she quickly jettisons those safeguards in favor of more risk once on the ground.

Hamilton always surprises me with the direction of his narrative and the development of character. He gives some thought to how this careful, clever woman might experience the ordinary humiliations of daily life in Hong Kong and places her, dripping with sweat after a run in Victoria Park, crushed among fellow passengers in a crowded rush-hour bus for three agonizing stops, during which time she suffers the imprecations and haughty looks of her fellow passengers. This completely believable and ordinary scenario brings the controlled Ava back to earth and sisterhood.

An interesting feather of a sideline with which Hamilton teases us is the introduction of Richard Bowlby of the law firm Burgess and Bowlby in Hong Kong. Bowlby, a gweilo knowledgeable about Asia, sounds self-deprecating and funny on the telephone when speaking with Ava, making her laugh! Hamilton has her canceling several appointments with him, seeming to provoke Bowlby's ire. This standard thread in romance novels feels like a come-on by Hamilton and he manages it skillfully. Perhaps we’ll see another side to Ava in the future.

As the day-to-day work involved in managing a large investment fund begins to dawn on Ava, she clearly is dreaming of ways “to get her life back.” Near the end of this novel we see her doodling her way to a new reporting structure, hoping to find ways to jettison some of the hands-on responsibility of management. Ah, yes, how to keep the income and lose the responsibility is something top managers have been struggling with since time immemorial. I look forward to seeing how she manages it.

Hamilton clearly seems to enjoy writing this series and I admit to continued admiration for what he has been able to do. I love reading these novels because of the realistic descriptions of business scenarios, locations, and for the element of surprise in character development. Hamilton doesn’t detail Ava’s backstory in this seventh in the series, but moves directly into her new life as a venture capitalist. While there is less discussion of what Ava eats for dinner, something I admit to a healthy interest in, we learn that she quite likes white burgundy and pinot grigio to unwind. Unwind? Perhaps even Ava finds her constant effort to stay poised a strain.

Now that I know this book series is being planned as a TV miniseries, I can’t help but imagine ways this dialogue-heavy addition to the series could play out on film. Can it be shot on location in Asia or will green screens have to do? It makes for fascinating mental exercise. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Now that Hamilton has created insatiable demand, he has to manage supply, something he and the Triads have in common. So far he's managed wonderfully.

The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)

The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)

The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard

In one of his many interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard praised the work of Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer (1931-1989) of whom I had never heard. His work was placed in the canon of great 20th Century literature. He wrote in German. Scrolling through the list of titles translated into English I chose Woodcutters to get an idea of his work. First published in 1984, it was translated and published in English by Knopf in 1987. It references the atmosphere of the 1950s or perhaps the early 1960s.

A middle-aged man taking his daily constitutional along a popular avenue in Vienna sees old acquaintances who, in passing, invite him to a dinner soirée that evening. The man accepts before he remembers that he doesn’t even like these people. As the couple is walking on they mention the death that morning of a dear friend of the man. The soirée would honor her memory.

What follows is a harrowing descent into the twisted confines of one man’s mind as he “sits in the wing chair” in the well-appointed flat of the couple he does not like and passes judgment on all who circulate around him. His thinking is circular, observant, riven occasionally by memories. His thoughts are “morose, vulgar, repellant and self-indulgent,” attributes he assigns to the other guests. He does not participate, but sits in the corner “in the wing chair,” radiating disdain and waiting with the others for an actor the couple has invited to appear.

When the actor (how the man hates actors!) finally arrives, late, the man, “sitting in the wing chair” proceeds to dine with the group, exhibiting the same lack of control he displayed by accepting the invitation in the first place. Only when the actor openly attacks one of the guests does our man’s attitude begin to modify. Suddenly he finds himself admiring the actor, “enthralled” with his cruelty, who had “suddenly became a thinking human being, even a philosopher of sorts, transforming himself from a gargoyle into a philosophical human being, from repellent stage character into a real person.”

The man finds himself now enjoying the soirée, reveling in the atmosphere, loving the actor and the phrase he speaks as he stands to leave: ”The forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter—that has always been my ideal.”

The man, as he takes his leave, murmurs to his hosts “Perhaps it was best that [his good friend Joanna] had killed herself, it was probably the best time for her to go.”

This small novel has the whiff of a classic in that it takes the human condition and holds it boldly up for us to examine.
“To get ourselves out of a tight spot, it seems to me, we are ourselves just as mendacious as those we are always accusing of mendacity, those whom we despise and drag in the dirt for their mendacity; we are not one jot better than the people we constantly find objectionable and insufferable, those repellant people with whom we want to have as few dealings as possible, though, if we are honest, we do have dealings with them and are no different from them…I told [my hosts] I was glad to have renewed my ties…and as I said this I thought what a vile hypocrite I was, recoiling at nothing, not even the basest lie.”
Ah, self-loathing—such a good topic for a novel. This is a difficult read in many ways, but it does highlight some important truths. And yes, I see the connection with Knausgaard.

For a brief look at each of Bernhard's novels, check out this book blog review by Blake Butler at Vice.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Whites by Harry Brandt

Richard Price is something of a wonder. Word on the avenue is that he wrote this under the pseudonym Harry Brandt hoping a popular pot-boiler would bring in some fast cash while he could keep his street cred as a literatteur. It is kind of laughable when you see what he did with the form. His characters have motivations so deep we can cut loose our therapists, the plotting is so intense and detailed I needed a name map, and his language is so fly I had to learn on the job. Nah, this is like no pot-boiler that I can think of. Brandt overshot the mark by a mile, coming in way high on this one.

At a time in our nation’s history when we are steeped in talk of race, cops and black men, and justifiable shootings, a book called The Whites grabs our attention. But the treatment of race in this novel is the healthiest, most irrelevant subject in this novel. In this book race is a descriptor, not a definition.

The Whites instead refers to the white whales, suspects who got away: “those who had committed criminal obscenities…and then walked away untouched by justice…” Every cop has his or her own personal “white,” and Price is democratic in this, too. One of the five hard-core detectives who started as cops in one of the worst precincts in the East Bronx and were then promoted and dispersed as detectives across the boroughs is a woman. As a group, they are called the “Wild Geese.”

All of the WG were obsessed with their Whites,
“heading into retirement with pilfered case files to pore over in their office and basements at night, still making the odd unsanctioned follow-up call: to the overlooked counterman in the deli where the killer had had a coffee in the morning of the murder, to the cousin upstate who had never been properly interviewed about the last phone conversation he had with the victim, to the elderly next-door neighbor who left on a Greyhound to live with her grandchildren down in Virginia two days after the bloodbath on the other side of the shared living room wall—and always, always, calling on the spouses, children, and parents of the murdered: on the anniversary of the crime on the victims’ birthdays, at Christmas, just to keep in touch, to remind those left behind that they had promised an arrest that bloody night so many years ago and were still on it.”
Only Billy Graves, the youngest of the WG, is still on the job. “His flatline personality and bland solidness” is the rock in his marriage to a damaged ER nurse, and to the group of WG who find they fear his uncompromising relationship to the truth and duty.

There was also another detective, not a WG, who had his own personal White. This novel is about finding Whites and bringing them to justice, legally or not. Price makes us see the struggles, hear the backstory, recall the misery, and gives each man and woman a reason for murder.

This novel recalls “mean streets” narratives of the past, either in film or fiction, either in Europe or the United States. The idea of Whites is not new. But Price makes it as American as Melville, as classic as Moby Dick. The laconic questioning, the deadness behind the eyes, the sense of justice, the quality of the brutality, the mean streets—these are all ours.

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