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Archive for the ‘Andrew’s Picks’ Category

veniceIt’s the dream of a lifetime for so many – pick some wonderfully historic city or region and move there for an extended time. Live elbow to elbow with the locals, find the hidden restaurants and best shops and become one with the people who lived there since the city was founded. Learn the byways and hidden jewels and play host to the friends who visit you bearing their not-so-secret envy.

That’s what Polly Coles thought she was headed for when she and her partner packed up their four children and moved from England to Venice. Ahhh, Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, hub of world trade, cosmopolitan, her ancient canals filled with … human and animal waste, garbage, enormous cruise ships, and lollygagging tourists taking all the seats on the vaporetti. A city not designed for moving your household unless you have both Atlas and Charles Atlas to carry your valuables. And when the seasonal high tides (the acqua alta) come in, your wellies had better come over your knees or you’ll be slopping through who knows what.

Perhaps worst of all is the attitude of the Venetians. There is a definite pecking order, starting with the people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, to the newcomers who’ve only been there around a hundred years, to the people who live there but weren’t born there. Bottom of the heap, of course, are those who are only visiting for a few hours.  On the other hand, there is an egalitarianism within the city itself – rich or poor, you have to walk the streets to get anywhere, and the woman in the subdued colors next to you might be a Baroness. (When you go out to the Lido, where all Venetians holiday, it’s another story. A beachfront capanna goes for around $20,000 for the season, or you can go in with your neighbors for around $7000. And the beachgoers know exactly where everyone belongs.)

There are also other currents in the social stream, including the foreign workers who commute from the mainland to the beggars who crouch humbly on the pavement and wait for alms. Coles makes an effort to understand these people, and does a wonderful job portraying the tragedies and small victories of their lives. She also delves into the culture of the common spaces, precious in a place that can’t grow outward or upward, and to the fabulous interiors hidden behind fortress-like walls and doors. And forget Carnival. Real Venetians have a much more varied festival season to mark the long history of the city, including a thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Plague which killed 50,000 people.

There are some shortcomings: Coles frequently talks about the Venetian dialect, which is different enough from “standard” Italian to make it difficult for non-natives, but she never really explains the difference. She also repeats some of the regular complaints about tourists, which can start to grate on the reader. But her strengths shine through, from her description of the obstinate bureaucracies to some beautiful descriptions of the setting and the residents. She also follows the debate about who is a “real” Venetian, and comes to an insightful answer. Still, it makes me rethink wanting to go to a place that has become a caricature of itself, at least until I can worry about where to hang my laundry.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Politics of Washing

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turowIt’s a little known fact, but the vocalist for one of the big-name bands out there also has the greatest chops as a legal novelist. And with Limitations, which the New York Times Magazine graciously published in serial form, he shows that he can even take on the novella as a frame for his characters and settings.

Limitations brings readers back to Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which has been likened to Chicago, but with a smaller-town feel. It also revisits two earlier characters – attorney George Mason (Personal Injuries) and Chief Judge Rusty Sabich (Presumed Innocent, Innocent).  Mason is now a judge on the Court of Appeals and is discovering that wisdom does not come with age and experience.

He’s also discovering that the black robe does not render him immune to the outside world: his wife and valued counselor of more than thirty years is under brutal therapy for cancer, he’s facing a tough re-election, and someone is sending death threats to his office and home computers. Mason wants to be frank with Patrice about his legal and political dilemma, but also wants to withhold from her messages he thinks are from a crank. Can he tell the complete truth about one and deceive her about the other?

The case he and two other appellate judges are facing is also brutal – an African-American teen was viciously raped by four white fellow students. One recorded the whole scene, but none of the people he showed it to reported anything for several years; the girl, who had been unconscious during the attack, didn’t fully understand or acknowledge the rape until the police showed her the tape. Four years after the crime, the rapists are tried and found guilty, but are appealing because the statute of limitations has passed. Or has it?  That’s the question Mason must face.

There’s a more profoundly personal element to his dilemma, something that hearkens back to his own confused and frightened youth, and he believes he must reconcile that memory before he can proceed to make his judgment. But the death threats become increasingly specific, and may be coming from a powerful underground figure with the power to carry them out.

Turow explores the various shades of Limitations through one man’s life and work without drawing a giant arrow to each one. And while the story comes to a resolution, it isn’t limited to a neat wrap-up. It isn’t as involved as some of his longer books, but is a satisfying read nonetheless.

Check the WRL catalog for Limitations

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flandersAugust 2014 marks the centennial of the worldwide convulsion we call World War I. Many of the images we collectively identify with the war came from one region of the line: Flanders.  The mud and shell holes which drowned soldiers, the devastated landscapes, the ancient towns reduced to rubble, the fruitless struggle for advances that could sometimes be measured in meters all characterized the hell which started at the North Sea and ended around the French border with Belgium.

Winston Groom, he of Forrest Gump fame, has been interested in Flanders since finding a automobile touring guide in his grandfather’s attic. In writing a history of the Ypres Salient, as the continuous four year battle was known, he has drawn on contemporary accounts, historical evaluations of the battle, and the biographies of participants from private (including Adolf Hitler) up to general. But everything seems to come back to that map of his grandfather’s.

The topography of the region was perhaps the greatest obstacle that faced both sides, but especially the British. A hill – more accurately a pile of construction rubble 60 meters high – dominated the landscape and provided an observation post for the masses of German artillery. The drainage ditches which made the pre-war farms possible were destroyed, and the heavy rains were channeled into the British trenches. Those farmlands offered little or no cover for assaults which might cover hundreds of meters into well placed German defenses. But the British held the salient as the world dissolved around them. Today, over 200,000 British cemeteries are in Flanders, and a memorial remembers 90,000 more who simply disappeared over the four years.

I became interested in reading an account of the Ypres Salient when the library added The Great War Seen from the Air, an oversized and detailed collection of aerial photographs with analysis and overlays which explain what the reader is seeing. Since I didn’t know the place names and only had a general sense of the war in Flanders, I wanted to know more about what the photographs represented. I don’t know which is worse – seeing the ground-level destruction or the panorama which puts that destruction into a larger context. I am still no closer to understanding how the soldiers and civilians on both sides could allow the futile bloodletting to continue. I do know a little more about the seeds sown by the War to End All Wars, which bloomed into the history of the 20th Century.  Let’s hope that kind of madness never descends on humanity again.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Storm in Flanders

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good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

Check the catalog for Good Book

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SystemLooking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field.  As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.

Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.

Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.

The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions.  T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.

The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.

Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.

Check the WRL catalogue for The System

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disappearedWith a life like Allan Karlsson’s, who wouldn’t want to live to be 100 years old? Befriended by Francisco Franco and Robert Oppenheimer, creator of both the American and Soviet atomic bombs, drinking buddies with Harry S. Truman, consultant to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, and rescuer of Mao Tse-Tung’s wife, smuggled in a Russian submarine, imprisoned in both the Soviet gulag and a North Korean prison, Bali beach bum, translator for an ambassador to France… All this because Allan had that most 20th Century of skills – blowing stuff up.

Now, at the age of 100 (having blown up his home) Allan is in a nursing home. He’s not finished with life, so an hour or so before the local dignitaries are coming to begrudgingly celebrate his centenary, Allan goes AWOL. Not that he has anyplace in particular to go –  although that’s never been a problem – but he doesn’t have any desire to stay.  He first has to get clear of his small town, so he steals an unguarded suitcase, boards a bus, and takes off into the wilderness.

To his surprise, the suitcase is stuffed with cash belonging to a motorcycle gang. The cash greases his way from one haven to the next, usually one step ahead of the bikers, until he winds up with a string of characters, including an elephant, in his wake. One, Detective Chief Inspector Aronsson, begins the case searching for a missing old man; next it appears that the old man has been murdered by bikers, then that the old man may be a murderer himself.  Across the length and breadth of Sweden the ever-increasing cast runs, until they all wind up in the same place.

Interspersed with his modern-day story is Allan’s biography. For no particular reason, at the age of 34 he set off for Spain and was caught up in the Civil War. From there, he was shunted from place to place as wars and rumors of wars made him persona non grata in some places and persona most grata in others.  After all, explosions are the best friends a politician ever had.

But that talent isn’t the only thing that characterizes him. In a world filled with competing -isms, Allan is devoutly apolitical and atheist. He is willing to let others talk endlessly about their beliefs, as long as they don’t try to convert him. He’s scrupulously honest about his indifference, but punctures cant when it conflicts with commonsense objectives, like blowing something up. And he can drink. Whoo, boy, can he drink.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a picaresque novel, a road story in which a relative innocent disrupts the world and creates a satirical take for readers.  Some people compare it to Forrest Gump, but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. After all, Forrest was a kind of blank slate onto which people wrote their own beliefs. Allan Karlsson is his own man, blowing whichever way events take him but always living true to his code. “Never trust a man who won’t drink with you.” As a philosophy, you could do worse.

Check the WRL catalogue for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

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spyIt was a cause celebre in France and much of the liberal Western world, a scandal that exposed cultural divisions thought to have resolved years before.  It discredited a government, tarnished the honor of an entire army, and inflamed relations among already-antagonistic neighbors. It elevated some men and broke others.  It brought infamy on an obscure little island off South America, and led to the creation of a new country.  And it was, and is, a drama suited for a novelist such as Robert Harris.  It was the Dreyfus Affair.

Harris begins his telling of the story with the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was convicted of espionage and treason.  In it’s immediate aftermath, Georges Picquart is elevated to the decidedly sordid world of French counterespionage. Picquart’s new department had just achieved an astounding success, ferreting out Dreyfus’ plot to sell secrets to the hated Germans, and providing the evidence which convicted him. The antisemitism whipped up by leaders in all areas of French life would cool as Dreyfus was shipped off to serve his life sentence on Devil’s Island, and the Army could return to planning their next attack on Germany.

But Picquart begins uncovering inconsistencies and hidden files, and even more frightening, evidence that there is another spy in the French Army – or that the wrong man was convicted. His efforts to investigate are stymied, until it is plain that something more than a botched trial has happened.  When he is disgraced and transferred to a dangerous colonial post, he becomes convinced that corruption at the heart of his beloved institution now threatens the ideals of France, and he embarks on a dangerous course.

Harris uses all of the staples of the spy thriller to unpack this story. The secret codes, forgery, surveillance, plots and counterplots, paranoia, and red herrings could easily have been created out of whole cloth. But Harris does not deviate from historical accuracy; the drama of the story stems from the inner workings of Georges Picquart’s mind and from his growing conviction that justice and balance must be restored by one courageous person. In the background is his knowledge of Alfred Dreyfus’ plight – the lone prisoner on Devil’s Island, with guards forbidden to speak to him, his tiny hut surrounded by a wall, his every letter censored or withheld at whim, the Dreyfus’ family’s unshakeable faith that his innocence will come to light – and the urgency of freeing the wrongly convicted man.

So how did the Dreyfus Affair accomplish all that I claimed in the first paragraph? It was the openly anti-Semitic fervor of the Catholic Church that led to the definitive separation of Church from the French government. The affair caused several parliamentary governments to fall, and the senior officers of the Army were forced to retire. And for one journalist covering the breaking of Alfred Dreyfus, it led to an inescapable conclusion – for Jews to be safe, they had to have their own home. Thus was born Theodor Herzl’s push for a Zionist movement, which led to the creation of Israel.  All this because a few men decided that it was easier to persecute a Jew than take a few simple steps to solve a real crime.

Check the WRL catalogue for An Officer and a Spy

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