Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: "Berlin Noir" by Philip Kerr

Berlin Noir (1993)
Philip Kerr (1956- )

836 pages

Is there a more fertile ground for a mystery writer than central Europe in the mid-20th century? The environment of secrecy and violence that existed in Germany in the 1930’s as the Nazi’s gained control of the government and then consolidated their power; the chaos of World War II as fighting raged on multiple fronts across the continent; and the cold war spy games that flourished as the wartime alliances broke down.

At the center of this “huge cauldron in which all historical eras [were] boiling and mingling” (to borrow from Octavio Paz) lay, both literally and figuratively, Berlin. The seat of Nazi power up to and through World War II, it also became a focal point for the machinations of the former allies as they suddenly turned into adversaries fighting to control the future of Europe.

A variety of writers have set their novels in this “cauldron,” and among them is Philip Kerr. In the novel March Violets, Kerr introduced his fictional detective Bernhard (Bernie) Gunther, and Gunther has returned in several subsequent novels by Kerr, the first three of which (in addition to March Violets, these include The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem) have since been collected into a single title, Berlin Noir.

Not content to simply play off the obvious advantages of a mid-20th century, central European setting for his detective novels, Kerr actively and plausibly engages Gunther with several high ranking Nazi political and security officials. Some will be familiar to readers with even a passing knowledge of the history of those times (such as Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler), while others are less well-known (Reinhard Heydrich, Arthur Nebe and the leader of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller). By involving Gunther directly with the events and personalities of the day, Kerr gives the novels several layers of meaning for readers. On one level the stories stand alone as action-packed thrillers that are difficult to put down. But for readers who are interested in the historical background, the novels also provide a fascinating window into the world of that period through the eyes of Gunther as he navigates daily life in 1930’s and 1940’s Berlin and deals with some of the architects and effects of Nazi policy.

Kerr introduces Gunther as having become a private detective after serving for years as a policeman in Berlin. By the beginning of the first novel he has already left the police force, frustrated by the way many of his colleagues had lost their jobs or otherwise been sidelined by the new regime, and angered also by the brutal practices that the Nazi’s propagated through the security services. In these stories Gunther is a man disenfranchised by the events in his city and country, and someone whose unwillingness to hide his opinions often leads him into trouble with dangerous people both inside and outside the government; he knows how to play the game and get along, but struggles to bring himself to do it.

March Violets takes place against the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. An industry tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law have been killed, and he hires Gunther to investigate the deaths. Gunther’s work on the case leads him into a crossfire of conflicting interests among high-level Nazi officials. As Gunther roams Berlin in search of answers to his questions in the case, Kerr highlights the political rivalries within the regime, the criminal behavior linked to government supported labor and cultural groups and the growing struggles of the Jewish population: historical fiction at its best, in the form of a crime drama.

The second novel of the collection, The Pale Criminal, is set in 1938, in the months leading up to Kristallnacht, the night during with a pogrom was carried out against Jews throughout Germany. A series of brutal rapes and ritual murders of fifteen to sixteen year old girls is occurring in Berlin, and Gunther is forced by a high-ranking Nazi official to rejoin the police force and from there lead the investigation into the murders. He soon finds himself on a trail that implicates powerful members of the Nazi regime itself in the crimes. As in the best crime dramas, not everything is as it seems, and even supporters cannot always be trusted to be revealing the whole truth.

The last of the three novels in the book, A German Requiem, takes place in 1947, as post-war relations between the Americans and the Soviets are deteriorating almost daily. The story opens in Berlin, with Gunther being hired by a former police colleague who is in jail in Vienna, accused of killing an American officer. Gunther follows the trail of clues to Vienna, where the balance of the story takes place. Reflecting the reality of the period, Gunter finds himself a pawn in a complexly layered and deadly serious struggle for control being played out by the American and Soviet occupation forces.

Kerr writes the stories very much in the traditional manner of crime and mystery novels. There is an extensive slang for the inhabitants of Gunther’s world --- police officers, petty criminals and gangsters --- which takes some getting used to: lighters are guns, for example, and spanners or chocoladies are prostitutes. Similes also fly fast and free throughout the novel --- one of my favorites: “Pipe-smokers are the grandmasters of fiddling and fidgeting, and as great a blight on our world as a missionary landing on Tahiti with a box full of brassieres.”

And the main character, Bernie Gunther, is a classically styled private eye in these novels, in line with other such literary detectives --- hard-boiled but with a soft-spot for a woman in trouble, self-deprecating but with a biting wit, smart and perceptive but not omniscient. Significantly however, Gunther also represents a foil to the Nazis around him and those who support the Nazis through their silence. He makes his dislike of the regime and its policies clear at every opportunity, even when talking to Nazi officials who must often remind him that despite their need for his services, their tolerance for his opinions has limits. Thus Gunther allows Kerr to, in the context of a detective novel, describe and comment on the tragedy of Nazi Germany.

In these novels are straight-forward detective stories for the reader who loves “noir,” but also a fascinating window into Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and central Europe in the early cold war years.

Other reviews / information:
Before being brought together into the collection titled Berlin Noir, the three novels were published individually as:
  • March Violets (1989)
  • The Pale Criminal (1990)
  • A German Requiem (1991)
There have been several additional novels in the series, including The One from the Other, A Quiet Flame, If the Dead Rise Not and Field Gray.

Rumors about Berlin Noir being turned into an HBO mini-series.

A review of another Philip Kerr novel appeared earlier in this blog: A Philosophical Investigation.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Review: "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna (2009)  

Barbara Kingsolver (1955-)

507 pages

The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.
Around this simple but often forgotten truth turns Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel “The Lacuna”. Through a narrator who we come to know mainly indirectly, by way of his descriptions of the people and events of his life, Kingsolver introduces us to “piece[s we] don’t know” about some of the most colorful personalities and dramatic happenings of the mid-20th century.

The narrator, Harrison Shepherd, is a young teenager in 1929 when the novel opens, living with his mother on a small island off the eastern coast of Mexico. She has separated from her American husband (Shepherd’s father), who remains behind in Washington D.C.. Over two decades Shepherd lives for extended periods in both Mexico and the United States.

Kingsolver constructs the novel mostly through diary entries from Shepherd, in addition to some of his letters and a few newspaper articles. Thus the story is told nearly entirely from Shepherd’s point of view. A watchful, insightful and obsessive diarist, he represents for the reader a trusted documenter of the world he encounters, even if at the same time he remains a largely cryptic character, seldom writing about himself.

In Mexico he finds work as an older teenager with the painter Diego Rivera, eventually joining Rivera’s household staff as a cook. In this way he comes to know and become befriended by Rivera’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo. Rivera and Kahlo were larger-than-life figures in the 1930’s and 40’s, who shocked the art world with their avant-garde painting styles. They also played a highly visible role in world politics by hosting Leon Trotsky, who was on the run from assassins working for Lenin’s secret police, and supporting communist groups agitating in Mexico.

Through Shepherd, Kingsolver reveals the lives and characters of Rivera and particularly Kahlo in ways that a biography could never do. With a few exceptions we don’t learn about where they went when, but rather how they were as people, what they thought about their world and how they lived their daily lives. Imagined details and conversations, certainly, but developed from Kingsolver’s research of documents, pictures and paintings in the historical record, and which bring the pair of artists to life in front of our eyes. When Shepherd documents his conversations and encounters with Frida Kahlo, the rendering is so vivid that as readers we find ourselves backing away from her bluster and empathizing with her vulnerabilities as though she were with us in the room. Kingsolver’s writing and method of telling the story make the intensity of many of the scenes deeply affecting.

Shepherd leaves Mexico for the United States in 1940, and Kingsolver turns her attention to the U.S., and the austerity and sacrifice of the war years, as well as the attacks on people’s humanity that were the Japanese internments and then the post-war witch hunt for communists. As in the earlier part of the novel we experience these events through Shepherd’s eyes, and what in a history book would be dry and distant becomes in Kingsolver’s hands palpable and close. Shepherd’s diaries and letters bring alive the depth of the sacrifices people made to support the war effort during World War II, and the sudden explosion of production and consumption of household goods in the years after the war. More disturbingly, we experience first-hand the insidious spread of the fear that grew out of the search for the perceived communist menace, turning neighbor on neighbor as many hundreds of innocent people saw their lives destroyed by allegations of being un-American.

Enhancing the story throughout is Kingsolver’s beautiful writing. It is almost a shame to give an example, because it robs a new reader of the joy of discovering it without warning and completely in context --- but just one here to convey the power of her writing: Shepherd has arrived at the Washington train station, in the dead of winter, having been sent by his mother from sunny, warm Mexico to attend school near his father; he comes out of the train station with his father, and “outdoors the sun was cold, shining without heat, like an electric bulb. Crowds hurried along, unconcerned their star had no fire.”

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: "American Visa" by Wang Ping

American Visa (1994)  

Wang Ping (1957-)

179 pages

The day after finishing the book American Visa by Wang Ping, I suddenly found myself transported straight back into the stories by an interview I heard on the radio. A psychology professor was discussing the different approaches to education and learning in Eastern versus Western cultures, and he stated that in Eastern cultures the focus is on the importance of struggling and overcoming obstacles as part of the learning process. Deep into the book I had just read the main character, Seaweed, comes to a shocking realization that precisely validates the professor’s observation.

Although the cover of the book describes it as a set of ‘Short Stories,” in reality Ping has written a series of connected vignettes on the life of a girl who grows up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Seaweed is fourteen in the first story, and living with her parents and one of her two sisters. The subsequent stories follow her from her parent’s home to a distant village deep in the Chinese heartland where she goes to learn to work like a peasant --- and hopes to earn the right to go to college. Eventually making it out of the village and into a university, she earns her degree and then moves to New York City, where she struggles both to make a life for herself, and to help her family back in China. (Wang Ping having been born in the same year as Seaweed, and having emigrated from China to the U.S., it is hard not to imagine that there is an autobiographical aspect to the stories.)

The first story sets the pattern for Seaweed’s experiences in these stories: she discovers something forbidden --- in this case a used tube of lipstick that has been lost in a hidden crevice where she hides her books --- and tries to make sense of it in the context of her life. The Cultural Revolution has made the lipstick (and her books) taboo, and she wonders to whom it had belonged and how it had been missed in the round-up of such things that had occurred. When she then rubs the lipstick across her hand to see the color, we feel with her the bright flash of red that contrasts so deeply with the grind of cooking, cleaning and school work that we have learned fill her days.

This vivid scene is characteristic of Ping’s writing throughout the stories. The tension in the family when the mother suffers an insult that Seaweed is expected to avenge makes the pages crackle with energy. The back breaking work and desperate living conditions that Seaweed experiences as an ‘educated youth’ working among the peasants in rural China highlight for the reader the intensity of her desire to attend university. And later, when she has settled in New York, we experience with her the confusing contrasts she finds between the difficulties of her life in the U.S. and those of her family back home.

Ping’s ability through her rich descriptions and pointed dialogue to place us directly into Seaweed’s struggles make these stories wonderful to read, and provide a western reader with a window into life during the Cultural Revolution as well as that of an immigrant trying to make it in a truly foreign land. We experience with Seaweed her sudden insights, staggering disappointments and profound frustrations; in short we experience what we look for when we read a story.

Other reviews / information:
Link to the interview I mentioned above on approaches to learning in Eastern and Western cultures here.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Mule" by Juan Eslava Galan

The Mule (2003)  

Juan Eslava Galán (1948-)

290 pages

Soldiers and civilians caught up in the front lines battles of a war face a violent and horrific experience. In a civil war, and particularly one where the ideology dividing the sides does not lead to a clear geographic split, widespread confusion is added to the mix. The Spanish civil war (1936-39) was just such a brutal and chaotic event for the Spanish people, as the forces supporting the republican-style government in power fought against groups in the army and among the population that wanted to restore a more conservative, catholic, and for some, monarchical form of government. The war quickly split the country into separate areas of control, but these regions were based primarily on the side with which the army leadership in a particular area allied itself, and many supporters (civilian and military) of a particular side found themselves caught on the wrong side of the suddenly evolving dividing lines.

Juan Eslava Galán’s main character in The Mule embodies the confusion of those times. A corporal in the Nationalist (that is anti-republican) army, Juan Castro Pérez is the leader of a group of muleteers --- he and his team of soldiers care for a group of mules that they use to haul supplies to the soldiers at the front lines. Castro is a peasant from the Andalusian countryside, whose family carved out a hardscrabble existence before the war working for the wealthy land-owner in their small town. Despite the extreme poverty his family experienced, and in the face of many of his friends arguments supporting the pre-war republican government to counter what they found to be the oppression of the large peasant population in Spain by the wealthy few, Castro conforms to his family’s conservative views and supports the Nationalists in the war. When the war started, Castro found himself in Republican territory, and was called up into service with the Republican army. He eventually deserted, crossing the lines into Nationalist territory. Once able to prove that his support for the Nationalists was real (few on either side could be completely trusted about the true nature of their hearts), he joined the Nationalist army.

(A short note on names: Spaniards typically don’t have a middle name; thus, Juan Castro Peréz’s last name is Castro Peréz, the Castro coming from the first last-name of his father, and the Peréz from the first last-name of his mother, and he would typically be referred to as Castro by anyone not a close enough friend to call him Juan.)

As the novel opens, Castro discovers a mule wandering, apparently owner-less, near the front lines. He leads it back to his company’s team of mules, and a subplot of the story develops around his efforts to keep the presence of the additional mule off the official army lists, in the hopes that he will be able to take it back with him to his rural home, once the war ends.

Thus, in a war seen by the leaders and supporters of the two sides as a battle for the future political and cultural direction of the country, Castro’s simple hope is to survive the fighting and return home with the mule he has found. More generally, he and his team, all fellow peasants from simple backgrounds, go through the war experiencing extreme hardship and searching for simple pleasures as they struggle to survive not only the fighting itself, but also the day-to-day life on the front lines with poor food and little shelter. They carry on with a kind of stubbornly hopeful resignation that the war is simply their lot in life of the moment, an event they must try to make it through. They feel some basic level of support for the cause for which they are fighting, but feel little direct connection to or fervor for the larger goals.

In this wonderful story that is at some points tragic and others full of almost slapstick comedy, Eslava gives us a glimpse into the absurdity of the Spanish Civil war for many of those caught up in the heart of it.

Other reviews / information: Although I haven’t seen it yet, the book has been made into a movie.

In my review of The Spanish Civil War there is a high-level summary of the history of the war.

I have review some other books related to the war, such as Waiting For Robert Capa, A Manuscript of Ashes and The Mexican Suitcase.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review: "Hypnotizing Maria" by Richard Bach

Hypnotizing Maria (2009) 

Richard Bach (1936-)

154 pages

In Hypnotizing Maria, Richard Bach returns to the themes of several of his earlier books: the joy of flying and the need to overcome our self-imposed limitations. Bach has flown planes all his life, from his time in the air force, to commercial flights and even barn storming, and his central character in this book is a pilot who has a similar background as Bach, and who spends most of the story flying his renovated military trainer on a cross-country trip. During the trip the pilot goes through a process of self-discovery, as Bach describes through him the view that we all box ourselves in with our expectations and assumptions of how the world is, and that actually the world we perceive is, to borrow from one of Bach’s most famous titles, an Illusion of our own creation.

The story opens with the pilot in flight, hearing a radio call from a woman in nearby Cessna; her husband has collapsed. She has never flown a plane and is calling out for help. He manages to calm her down and talk her through to a safe landing at a nearby airport before continuing on his way. The next morning he reads a news report, in which the woman says she was only able to land the plane because her unknown helper ‘hypnotized’ her into believing she could fly it. Her comment recalls for him a dramatic experience he had had when he was younger, of being hypnotized on stage by a traveling showman. The sudden recollection of that event, combined with a chance meeting at his next stop, leads the pilot to consider how apparent coincidences can change the direction of our lives, and how what we tell ourselves --- the suggestions we make to ourselves in everything we think and say --- can often lead us to create a world around ourselves that constrains our lives.

Although I very much enjoyed Illusions when I read it, so many years ago now, and also several other of Bach’s books that I read in the years that followed, I found this one a little too forced in terms of the presentation of his philosophy. In Illusions, the plot involves a pilot who meets a messiah who’s decided to ‘drop out of the messiah business’, and the philosophy that Bach proposes through the story develops slowly, in incremental steps like building blocks, as the ex-messiah talks to the pilot. In Hypnotizing Maria, I found the basic ideas intriguing --- the power of coincidences to change our lives and the limitations we can talk ourselves into --- but the story, for me, makes an abrupt leap to a larger philosophy that says that the entire world around us is in fact just a construct of our minds that we find so convincing that we no longer realize that we can simply step back outside of it any time we wish. We follow the pilot to this discovery through his thoughts and words, but it is not motivated so much as laid out for us on a platter.

Nonetheless, the opening pages of the book, in which the pilot guides the woman to safety, and the subsequent descriptions of flying and handling surprises in the air such as weather and malfunctions are told with a sure hand and make for a good story. And there is at least a kernel, and maybe more, of important truth to realize or remember in the ideas Bach presents here, as in his earlier work.

Other reviews / information: An interview with Richard Bach on KBOO radio.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review: "1491" by Charles C. Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2006)  

Charles C. Mann (1955-)

 541 pages

Our high school and college text books have misled us. Less surprisingly, so too have many of the movies we’ve seen. In the engaging and thought-provoking book 1491, Charles Mann reviews the new discoveries in archeology, biology and other fields that have led many historians and archeologists to re-think their understanding of the Indian civilizations that existed throughout the Americas in the centuries before Columbus’ arrival initiated what can truly be described as a tsunami of change in the hemisphere. And, as Mann points out, most of what we learn in school and see in the movies remains untouched by what has been learned over the last half-century.

In his book, Mann has focused on three subjects for which recent discoveries have generated contentious and still simmering disputes: the number of Indians living in pre-Columbian Americas; the origins of the paleo-Indians in the Americas and the large and varied civilizations they had developed; and the impact the Indians had on the environment. (I include a separate ‘appendix’ below, after my main review, which goes more deeply into some of the details in the book that I found particularly intriguing.)

In the first section of his book, Mann examines the contested debate over the size of the Indian population in the Americas in 1491. He describes why many researchers have now concluded that the Indian population was much larger than previously believed --- which also leads them to the unavoidable conclusion that as a result of the diseases introduced by European explorers and colonists significantly larger numbers of Indians died off in the century after Columbus arrived than previously assumed. Mann reviews the evidence that has led historians to these radically larger population numbers, such as death records and accounts of the earliest Spanish explorers, and he describes the new discoveries in human biology that support it. The death and disintegration due to disease that is now considered to have occurred throughout the western hemisphere staggers the mind. An appreciation for the extent of it is critical to explaining the misunderstandings that have developed around the history of pre-Columbian Indian civilizations; misunderstandings now being overturned by the new revelations that Mann cites, and that are covered in the remainder of the book.

The second section discusses new understandings about the origin of the Indians --- when, from where and how they may have come to the Americas, and the complexity and variety of cultures and civilizations they developed throughout the hemisphere. Mann recounts the earliest origin theories, such as the thought that the Indians were descended from the Lost Tribe of Israel. He then goes into detail describing the Clovis Consensus that we are so familiar with from our history classes and that held sway for much of the 20th century, which stated that paleo-Indians had come across the Bering Straits during the last ice age, when low sea levels created a land passage between Asia and the Americas. In recent years, new evidence has led many historians and archaeologists to doubt the Clovis Consensus, and Mann outlines what has been learned, and the new theories that are being put forward to fill in the vacuum as the Clovis Consensus loses support.

Also in this second part, Mann reviews evidence that counters the familiar image of pre-Columbian Indians as having lived in small groups with little cultural development. He describes the large Indian civilizations that formed in the area of modern-day Peru and that eventually spread throughout western South America, and also those that developed throughout Mesoamerica. These civilizations were characterized by impressive cities, large trading networks, a high degree of specialization among workers, and often significant cultural development. Their destruction plays a prominent role in his story too: Mann turns on its head our school book understanding of how the largest of these civilizations in 1491, the Inca and the Aztec, fell so quickly to the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500’s.

The final third of the book presents recent discoveries that have led to a completely new appreciation for the extent of the impact of Indian civilizations on their environment --- a refutation of the image of the Americas as having been a largely pristine, untouched wilderness when the European colonists arrived. The Indians improved the soil to make it more fertile for crops, domesticated plants and trees, and developed agricultural societies that supported large populations in areas throughout the Americas. The common image of Indians living but lightly on the land has been challenged now by a variety of new evidence.

In a short concluding chapter, Mann makes the argument that the Indians provided the European colonists with the inspiration for the philosophy of individual liberty that would eventually become the centerpiece of the U.S. constitution, and others around the world.

Mann refers throughout the book to the role that outside forces play in the discussions of how to interpret and re-interpret archaeological and historical evidence of the Indians in the years before Europeans first arrived in the Americas. As new evidence challenges established theories of pre-Columbian Indian civilizations, including their origin, development and impact on their environment, and as well our understanding of the effect of disease on their population in the first century after Columbus’ arrival, Mann describes how groups far outside history and archaeology engage in what become heated debates. Environmentalists, Indian rights activists and political groups all have an interest in how the history of the Indians is described, and are not shy about trying to highlight the evidence and interpretations that support their causes and ignore what doesn’t.

To add to the complexity of the debates, a particular group can push different and opposing aspects from the various histories of the Indian world. As an example, Mann notes that the image described by some historians of the Indians as having practiced a caring stewardship of the land will be cited by some environmentalists as a golden age that we should learn from to protect our natural world, while other environmentalists will refer to the supposed die-off of large mammals in the Americas attributed by some historians to the Indians hunting them to extinction as a cautionary tale for how we need to deal more carefully with our limited resources. Throw into the mix jealously guarded academic reputations, and what would seem from the outside to be a sedate search for ‘the facts’ becomes in Mann’s telling a full-scale battle to establish and own ‘the truth.’

On a more melancholy note, Mann also mourns the knowledge and more importantly the different way of thinking about the world and our place in it that we lost with the destruction of the Indian civilizations, first weakened by disease and death and then overrun by conquistadors and colonists. As an example, he describes the development of poetry and philosophy by the Mexica peoples (in modern terms referred to as the Aztecs), which had just begun to flower in the century or so before Cortés and his army arrived, and of which only bits and pieces are left. Mann asks, what might have been?
Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!

Throughout the book, Mann takes care with the words he uses; he even includes an appendix Loaded Words that directly address the difficulty of picking one word over another to describe an aspect of Indian history. (Even the word ‘Indian’ itself comes up for consideration.) One example of his explicit consideration of the words historians use revolves around the recent discoveries in human biology and genetics that have been used to back up new theories of Indian susceptibility to European diseases. (I go more into detail on these findings below.) Mann takes care to point out that “Indians’ relative genetic homogeneity does not imply genetic inferiority.” But, however sympathetic one might be to his intent, it seems at times like a question of semantics: Mann cites historians who now believe that as much as 95% of the Indian population may have died due principally to diseases brought over by the Europeans, and a substantial support for that large number in the absence of direct evidence is based on the genetic differences that existed between the Indians and Europeans. I would argue that one may be convinced that Indians were the equals of Europeans as human beings, but still consider that in the area of resistance to one another’s diseases the Europeans were superior, genetically speaking.

But, this nitpicking aside (which I suppose only supports the theme of his appendix Loaded Words), Charles Mann has written an engrossing review of the current thinking about the history of Indians in the Americas and the on-going debates that recent revelations have initiated. He animates what might otherwise have been a dry recounting of facts with quotes from historians he has interviewed directly and archeologists he has accompanied on expeditions throughout the Americas. With similar success he uses the histories and understandings that have been assembled about the pre-Columbian and early colonial periods in the Americas to paint colorful narratives that help put us inside the heads of key historical figures at critical moments, as well as of inhabitants of ancient cities going about their lives. He transmits to the reader on every page the excitement he himself clearly felt as he went on the adventure of discovery that led to this work.


Pre-Columbian Indian Population

Significant new evidence, and the understanding of old evidence in a new light, suggests that the New World was home to many, many more people when Columbus first made land-fall on Hispaniola than previously thought --- and, in the corollary to that view, that the number of Indians who died in the first century after Columbus arrived was much, much higher than previously assumed. According to Mann, several researchers since the early 1900’s have argued this point but their claims fell mostly on deaf ears. Then, in 1966, the anthropologist Henry Dobyns published a paper summarizing his years of research in South and Central America, in which he concluded that the evidence indicates that Indian populations were reduced by as much as 95% within the first 130 years after 1492 through diseases such as small pox, and that much of this death was invisible to the colonists as they spread throughout the Americas:
When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, [Dobyns] argued, they must have swept from the coastlines first visited by Europeans to inland areas populated by Indians who had never seen a white person. Colonial writers knew that disease tilled the virgin soil of the Americas countless times in the sixteenth century. But what they did not, could not, know is that the epidemics shot out like ghastly arrows from the limited areas they saw to every corner of the hemisphere, wreaking destruction in place that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.

As Mann recounts, these claims generated significant controversy among historians and anthropologists, a debate that he says continues unabated. In this first section of his book, however, he presents persuasive evidence from a variety of researchers that support the idea that waves of death hit the native peoples of the Americas in the years after 1492, leaving weakened and sometimes completely destroyed Indian nations in its path. Reports from early explorers that spoke of stretches of rivers such as the Mississippi as thick with Indian towns --- stories largely discounted when later explorers found only wilderness --- are being examined again in a new light by researchers.

Mann also describes new discoveries in biology and genetics that could help to explain how the death rate could have been so high in the Americas, when the worst plagues that swept through Europe had ‘only’ on the order of a 35% mortality rate. The more commonly understood vulnerability of the Indians lies with their lack of previous exposure to smallpox and other diseases brought over by the Europeans. However, Mann cites recent research that also reveals a genetic aspect to the Indian’s vulnerability, associated with what are called human leukocyte antigens (HLAs).

HLAs play a kind of housekeeping role inside our cells, moving bits of debris and viruses to the surface of the cell, to be then ejected through the cell wall; once outside the cell, the viruses are discovered by our white blood cells and destroyed. Critical to Mann’s telling is that “HLAs carry their burdens to the surface by fitting them into a kind of slot. If the snippet doesn’t fit into the slot, the HLA can’t transport it, and the rest of the immune system won’t be able to “see” it.” We all have different types of HLAs in our bodies, and so when a particular virus moves through a population, some people will not get sick because they happen to have HLAs with the appropriate slots for that virus. New research, however, has discovered that Indians have a very limited variety of HLAs, possibly because they are mostly ancestors of a few, relatively small, original populations which migrated to the Americas. Thus they were extremely susceptible to viruses which as a population their bodies were not prepared to fight off. As an example of the impact, a plot the Mann includes in the book shows the results of two researcher’s investigations in Central America showing a series of eleven epidemics (of half-a-dozen different diseases) that reduced the population from just over 25 million in 1518 to fewer than 1 million by 1623.

Mann notes that compounding these two types of biological vulnerabilities would be the effect of such massive waves of epidemics on the societies impacted. With so many deaths in such short periods of time, the infrastructure of towns and nations would collapse, and groups and families would break apart, leading to further deaths from starvation and spasms of war. Indian nations would either be left significantly weakened, or dissolve completely, leaving people struggling for existence, either in settlements that no longer had the critical mass of people and skills to effectively survive or as nomads following the seasonal availability of food. The conquests of Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, in which a few soldiers defeated large entrenched civilizations, can be understood in a new light in such a context. Mann recounts both the traditional explanations for the success of these two Spanish conquistadors, and how they are now being reevaluated based on recent discoveries and new interpretations of old information.

Paleo-Indian Origins

In the second section of his book, Mann opens with a review of early explanations, from colonialist times up through the 19th century, of the origins of the Indians in the western hemisphere. (One such theory was that the Indians were the descendents of the Lost Tribes of Israel, which according to the Bible traveled to a distant, uninhabited land.) He then describes how historians and archaeologists settled on what is called the ‘Clovis consensus’, which for much of the 20th century became the indisputable theory of the Indians origin. This theory, Mann reports, is still taught in schools today, despite the fact that by the end of the century it was coming under increasing fire as conflicting evidence challenged its fundamental tenets

The Clovis consensus gets its name from a site near Clovis, New Mexico, where tools and animal bones were found that were for a long time the oldest known man-made objects in the hemisphere. The dating of these and similar objects at many other sites to a time, roughly 13,000 years ago, just after the last ice age would have provided a land-bridge between Asia and North America across the Bering Straits, led historians and archaeologists to argue that Clovis people were the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. When later evidence seemed to indicate that there would have been a land corridor between the retreating glaciers from what is now northern Canada down into the center of the continent, and a huge die-off of many larger species also was found to have occurred over the same time period, the Clovis theory became a nearly iron-clad consensus: groups of people had crossed over the Bering Straits from Asia, had traveled on a land corridor between the retreating glaciers down into the heart of the North American continent, and had killed all the large mammals along the way in an orgy of hunting, continuing southwards as the animal populations around them were hunted to extinction.

Mann reports, however, that more recent evidence has cast doubt on the Clovis consensus. The land corridor between the retreating glaciers is now believed to have still been relatively inhospitable during the time the Indians would have moved through it, and at any rate no evidence of either Indian populations or big game animals has been found in that corridor. Also, at the same time that the large mammals disappeared, so did many other smaller mammals and shellfish, suggesting there may have been another cause for the overall die-off besides human hunting. And, many Clovis sites also show little evidence of big-game hunting, with those that do containing remains from only a couple of different species. Finally, there has been more recently discovered archaeological evidence of human habitation in the Americas significantly before 13,000 years ago; this evidence supports studies in the area of molecular biology that have used mutation rates in mitochondrial DNA to suggest that Indians arrived in the Americas in several separate groups, with one as early as 33,000 to 43,000 years ago.

Although no new consensus has formed to replace Clovis, Mann notes that some researchers are suggesting possibilities such as Indians having traveled by boat down the Pacific coast of North America, hopping between small ice-free areas on the shore that are now believed to have existed during the ice age. Others have suggested that aborigines may have traveled by boat from Australia. All that is clear at this point is that the Clovis Consensus no longer has a lock on the debate into the origins of Indians in the Americas.

Pre-Columbian Indian Civilizations

Moving on from the debate over the Indian’s origins, Mann describes two areas in the Americas in which major civilizations developed independently, one in the Peruvian littoral and the second in Mesoamerica.

Between the Pacific Ocean and the mountain ranges of the Andes in what is modern day Peru, archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation going back about 10,000 B.C. Due to climate patterns driven by the Pacific trade winds and a rain shadow formed by the mountains, the land is extremely dry and lifeless, except along the fifty or so rivers that flow down from the mountains to the sea. Mann reports evidence of communities growing up along the river banks, moving up into the highlands in the summer and down to the coast in the winter. By 8,000 B.C. human settlements had appeared throughout western South America.

Mann focuses on an area known as Norte Chico, north of present day Lima, where evidence has been found of a civilization that had formed by at least 3,200 B.C. that included large complex sites with temples, and that appears to have been formed around a trading centers on the coasts (fishing) and in the highlands (cotton, fruit and vegetables), each needing the other group's products to survive. The sites are not strategically located, and have no defensive fortifications, and there has been no evidence of warfare found. There remains debate as to how the society was structured, because there is not sufficient agriculture to support the population size that appears to have existed, and so this may have been the only known civilization to have a maritime foundation; others argue that the society still had an agricultural basis, in the cotton that was needed for the nets to fish.

Referred to by Mann as the ‘children’ of the Norte Chico civilization, the Wari and the Taiwanaku developed to the east and south of present day Lima. The Wari first appear on the archaeological scene around 500 A.D., and seem to have ruled through commercial and technological supremacy, with little evidence of warfare. The Taiwanaku first show up around 900 B.C., developing into an important center by around 300 B.C., and expanding outwards from their main city starting around 100 B.C., again seemingly not based on warfare, but rather on the apparent power of its state religion and imperial ideology; the Taiwanaku’s main city appears to have been a constant changing mix of large, impressive public structures, with little evidence of markets or other private works. The two societies met and overlapped around 750 A.D. in modern day southern Peru, and appear to have lived peacefully, but largely independently, side-by-side. There is little evidence of exchange of goods or cultural traditions, though they lived in neighboring communities in an overlapping line of contact between the nations. By 800 A.D., for reasons that are not known, the two societies began pulling back toward their centers. Into the vacuum came the Chimar Empire which borrowed characteristics from both the Wari and the Taiwandaku, and eventually encompassed 700 miles of the Pacific coast, before being defeated, in 1450, by the expanding empire of the Inkas.

Turning to Mesoamerica, Mann begins with the development of maize as a crop. The earliest evidence shows that around 11,500 years ago, in what is now Mexico, paleo-Indians lived in caves and hunted deer, horse, antelope and jackrabbit. By 9,500 years ago, except for deer, these animals had disappeared due to hunting and a gradually drying climate, and people had turned to forging and gathering; they were also on the path to creating maize.

Mann goes into significant detail reviewing the history of maize, a critical crop around which much of the agriculture of the Americas came to be based, and for which there are more than 50 genetically distinguishable types. Despite all that is known about maize its development path from a wild ancestor has not been established, though it is clearly a domesticated crop: with its thick husk, it is incapable of propagating itself. Its closest known wild ancestor is Teosinte, which, unlike other wild ancestors of now domesticated crops, is not a practical food source. Teosinte also differs from other wild grasses in another key way: most wild grasses require only a single gene mutation to grow in a manner that holds the grain to the shaft long enough to easily harvest it, while Teosinte has 16 genes that control this feature and would have to mutate. Mann reviews some of the modern theories for the origin of corn, saying that the debate continues, though all agree that the development of maize some 6000 years ago was “a bold act of conscious biological manipulation.”

In addition to maize itself, Mann describes an agricultural technique that grew up around maize farming, known as MILPA. It consists of planting as many as a dozen crops in a single field, including maize, avocados, squash, beans, melon, tomatoes, chilies, sweet potato and other crops. The beans are able to use the maize as a ladder, while providing through their roots important nutrients to the maize, and the various crops are nutritional complements of one another.

Pre-Columbian Indian Impact on their Environment

In the final third of his book, Mann presents evidence that Indian civilizations of the Americas had significantly greater impact on their environment than was previously thought, and that they in fact managed their environment to a significant degree. The examples he gives showing the extent of this active working of the landscape are difficult to square with our modern day image of the pre-Columbian Indians as having been homeless nomads who passed lightly over the land taking only a the bit they needed to survive. These views still have detractors according to Mann, but recent discoveries have swung the debate in favor of this new viewpoint.

In the Amazon basin it is now thought that the Indians applied specific techniques over many years to enhance otherwise extremely poor soil to allow crops to be grown. Scoured by intense rain and heat over many millennia, the natural surface of the Amazon basin is left nearly devoid of nutrients, “a wet desert.” The nutrients that remain are stored in the vegetation, which rapidly and efficiently absorb any decomposing matter through their root systems.

The modern slash and burn agricultural techniques allow a few years of crops to be grown, from the sudden burst of nutrients provided by the burning of the trees, but after those few years the nutrients are used up. Normally the forest gradually retakes the open land, but, if left barren too long, the soil turns into a permanent, brick-hard wasteland. And, the effort required to carry out this agricultural approach means that in past times (before steel and machines), it could not have supported a large-scale civilization.

In recent years, archaeologists have discovered significant areas of land along the Amazon river that appear to have been intentionally transformed into cultivatable soil. The land has huge amounts of broken pottery worked into the soil, and a significant amount of charcoal, which ‘holds’ organic material. The thinking is the Indians used a slash and char technique, still seen in a few areas of the Amazon today, in which the trees are cut, but are converted into charcoal in low intensity smoking fires, and the charcoal then turned into the soil. The charcoal, once added, remains for long periods of time in the soil, different from the very short term nutrient boost provided by hot fires of the slash and burn technique.

The Indians of the Amazon also purposefully transformed the forests of the Amazon river basin in many areas from a wide variety of trees to a more limited set of fruit bearing trees --- essentially creating huge, natural orchards. These orchards are not readily visible when passing over or through the rain forest, because the orchards differed from the modern conception of an orchard as row upon row of the same fruit tree. In the Amazon, the orchards were still forest-like, only that the trees propagated were the ones providing desired fruit. Recent research in the Amazon has shown unnatural concentrations of particular fruit trees in certain areas, relative to their average presence throughout the rest of the forest.

In North America, Indian cultures are now thought to have cultivated large areas of land, while hunting for meat but also to control animals that competed for their crops, such as deer, bison, raccoons and turkeys. Once the diseases that came after Columbus’ arrival reduced the Indian population to levels that transformed their agricultural lifestyle into a nomadic one, the populations of these animals exploded in the absence of their main predator. Then, when the Europeans spread out over the continent, they found only small populations of Indians where previously large communities had been reported, and an abundance of game animals.

Examples of animals that are now thought to have had their population explode in the post-Columbus Americas are the passenger pigeon and the bison. The colonists experienced the passenger pigeons as
‘travel[ing] in massive assemblies, billions strong, that rained enough excrement to force people indoors. As a boy [the conservationist John] Muir saw a mob of birds sweep “thousands of acres perfectly clean of acorns in a few minutes.” … the artist and naturalist John J. Audubon saw a flock passing overhead in a single cloud for three whole days.

The birds were easy to hunt and prized for their meat, and colonists and Indians alike hunted and ate them. However, archaeologists have recently noted that in pre-Columbian sites, the bones of pigeons are seldom found, leading to the conclusion that the pigeons were seldom a part of the Indians earlier diet. Plenty of other bird bones were found at the sites, and sites were investigated near what were in the colonist’s time huge roosting locations for pigeons. The conclusion is that the pigeons were relatively rare in pre-Columbian times, having been hunted to a relatively small population. Only after their original hunters --- the Indians --- were eliminated from the scene by disease and death, did the pigeon population suddenly explode into the numbers observed years later by the early colonists. Similar conclusions are being drawn for other animal species, such as bison, deer and elk; many archaeologists are now rethinking and reducing their estimates of the pre-Columbian populations of these animals. Mann concludes: "The Americans seen by the first colonists were teeming with game …. But the continents had not been that way for long. Indeed, this Edenic world was largely an inadvertent European creation."

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: "Phantoms on the Bookshelves" by Jacques Bonnet

Phantoms on the Bookshelves (2008)  

Jacques Bonnet 

133 pages
… that magical moment when one learns to read, and the infinite horizon that opens up when you decipher something written down. I spent my childhood reading everything that came to hand --- books, yes, but also posters, advertisements, notices, newspaper cuttings, and during meals I would read cereal packets or bottle labels
I paused after reading these words from Jacques Bonnet in his wonderful little book Phantoms of the Bookshelves. His description of his earliest memories on the path that has led him to fill his home with a personal library containing tens of thousands of books hit close to home for me, as I remembered my own childhood when I would sit at the breakfast table reading --- studying really --- every word on the cereal box and milk carton in front of me.

Bonnet has written an homage to his large personal library, but also a short treatise on how one can suddenly find oneself surrounded by so many books, what traits lead one to become a “bibliomaniac.” He distinguishes between to types of bibliophiles: ‘collectors’, who accumulate certain genres or types of books and for whom acquiring books represents the goal, and ‘manic readers’ (such as himself), who acquire a book seeking the content, the knowledge or the connection to a memory that the text of the book contains.

He answers the first questions that bibliophiles with large personal libraries always hear --- that I have heard even if my personal library is over an order of magnitude smaller than his. The first of those questions: Have you read all these books? The easy answer, ‘of course not,’ isn’t the whole answer, and Bonnet makes clear that even the books that haven’t been read have still been at least considered and shelved, and wait there on the bookshelf for their moment to be consulted or finally read. He points out that sometimes a book is acquired to be directly added to the shelf, but with the knowledge that it is there if it is one day needed.

The second question that anyone with a sufficiently large library hears is: How do you find the book you are looking for? Here Bonnet lays out the various ways that books could be organized, and the very personal choice that such an organization represents. Through a description of his personal approach to organizing his books, he also notes the difficulty of holding strictly to any particular method of ordering the books, and the exceptions and odd combinations that cannot help but creep into whatever arrangement one settles on.

Beyond these questions, Bonnet also discusses the challenges of having a library of books in a home environment, from the pests that can attack them to the significant problem having to move them to a new place represents. In an entertaining chapter he compares the knowledge we readers can have about the characters in novels, versus what we can know about the authors of those same books; in another he contemplates the end of a personal library, either of the books themselves or their owner.

Throughout the text Bonnet references books from his collection, using them as support for his points. Although he states at one point that it is not an attempt on his part to list out his favorite books, the books he references nonetheless represent an intriguing cross-section of potential next books for any lover of literature and reading. All the books he mentions in the text are captured in a bibliography as an easy reference. I found more than a few titles for which his descriptions have me curious to search them out.

Anyone who loves to read, and especially a reader who finds themselves the owner of a wide-ranging personal library of books, will find in Bonnet’s Phantoms of the Bookshelves an enjoyable and engaging defense of their addiction.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review: "Store of the Worlds" by Robert Sheckley

Store of the Worlds: 
The Stories of Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley (1928-2005)

266 pages

Robert Sheckley explores mankind’s weaknesses and inconsistencies, and imagines the dark potential extremes of our political and social behaviors, in this engaging collection of short stories. Written mostly in the 1950’s, many of these stories appeared in the popular science fiction magazines of the day, though the science fiction aspect is actually secondary of the stories; Sheckley uses it as a form within which to reveal human idiosyncrasies.

Sheckley builds each story around a particular personal or cultural characteristic, which he then extends to humans on a future earth, or traveling to distant planets. Often his stories come with a surprise ending, a twist to spice up his plot. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), despite having been written over fifty years ago the stories do not seem dated; if anything many of the topics could be pulled from today’s news.

An example of this topicality is the story Morning After. In it the main character, like most of his fellow citizens of the near future, is ‘a fully accredited voter, respectably unemployed, moderately well off.’ The earth’s population stabilized, war and poverty eliminated, life on earth had become comfortable and easy. Those with ambition enter politics --- and vie for votes by providing free food, goods and entertainment to any ‘fully accredited voter’ in their district; the politicians who offer the most free services have the most success in the elections. But the loss of ambition worries the leaders of earth, and they search for ways to counter-act it, as the main character discovers to his surprise.

Only a day after reading this story, I read a newspaper commentary which, if it had appeared 55 years ago could easily have served as the trigger for Sheckley’s plot (A Congress for the Many, or the Few? by Fred A. Bernstein, New York Times, 9 September 2012).

In Shall We Have a Little Talk? the government of a future earth sends out space travelers who have an aptitude for learning alien languages. Each traveler goes out alone to seek inhabitable planets, and when they come across one, they befriend the natives and learn their language. But they do not come in peace; once having learned the alien language, they try to buy property on the newfound planet, and, when they are refused for some reason, or have purchased the property and then are disadvantaged in some way, laws passed on earth are used to justify the invasion of earth’s armed forces to right the wrong. Thus the fig leaf of legal rectitude is provided for the take-over of new planets. To simply invade with no justification would be morally suspect: ‘[the majority back on earth] were idealists, and they believed fervently in concepts such as truth, justice, mercy, and the like … and they also let these noble concepts guide their actions --- except when it would be inconvenient or unprofitable.’

Sheckley takes a light tone with the stories; most are only ten to fifteen pages long, and he follows a similar approach in each one, combining the personal, cultural or political trait he wants to dramatize with a bits science fiction color and comedic spice.

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: "The Blue Flower" by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower (1995) 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000)

228 pages

Centered on a love story involving the German Romantic poet Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, Penelope Fitzgerald has written an historical novel that provides a fascinating window into life in Germany in the late 1700’s.

As the story opens, Friedrich has graduated from university and returned to his family home in what is now the east-central German state of Saxony-Anhalt. His father, despite being a land owner of noble birth, struggles to make ends meet and cannot support another mouth to feed at home, so he arranges for Friedrich an apprenticeship in a nearby town with a magistrate who also functions as the tax collection supervisor for the larger area; the apprenticeship comes with room and board and a small stipend. Friedrich obeys his father and heads off to take up his new work, though his thoughts remain consumed with the romantic and philosophical musings that are his true interest and calling, and that he would eventually publish and become famous for under the pseudonym Novalis.

A principal part of Friedrich’s apprenticeship involves traveling with the tax collection supervisor through the various local communities to review the records of businesses and land owners. Stopping at the estate of a friend of the supervisor’s, Friedrich falls deeply in love with a young daughter of estate owner, a girl of twelve whose dreamy manner he ascribes to the depth of a romantic soul, as opposed to the shallowness of a simple mind that his friends and family see in her. The balance of the plot of the story evolves around his blind love for the girl, his courting of her, and the reactions of his friends and especially family to this sudden but unshakable infatuation for someone who everyone feels is far his inferior. The conflict between the mental world of a German Romantic poet and the real world he had to live in come clear (at times painfully) on every page.

The love story also serves a deeper purpose for Fitzgerald however: she uses it as a framework within which to describe the daily customs of the families in the story, the internal relationships within families and households, and the interactions between families and friends. Thus she provides the reader an historical view into life at this time, in the form of a novel. Two examples from the book will serve to demonstrate how Fitzgerald’s beautifully crafted writing conveys clearly the world the characters inhabit, without her having to simply state dry facts.

The first example is the opening paragraph of the novel:
Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows in the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. There underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.
In one short paragraph Fitzgerald not only introduces the family at the heart of the novel, and its noble but no longer rich status, but also provides insight into how people lived at that time, how something as ‘simple’ as washing the laundry was handled two hundred some years ago. And she does it not simply by telling us, but rather by showing us, in a colorful description so vivid we almost feel like we are standing in the middle of the “great dingy snowfalls” of laundry.

A second example is much shorter, but if possible even more wonderfully done. In a scene that takes place mid-way through the story, Friedrich has gone home to speak with his mother about his new love, and how to break the news to his father. He asks her to meet him alone, at night, in the garden of the estate, “without reflecting what an extraordinary thing it would be for her to do,” going out alone. As they sit together, she reflects on her now adult son:
When Friedrich had been born, sickly and stupid, she had been given the blame, and had accepted it. When after months of low fever he had become tall and thin and, as they all said, a genius, she had not been given any credit, and had not expected any.
Like a picture being worth a thousand words, these few lines tell us so much, not only about Friedrich’s life, but even more about his mother’s: her place in the family and society, her acceptance of that place, and how that acceptance has become so deeply ingrained in her understanding of the world around her that her opinions reflect what she has been told, “as they all said, a genius.”

Fitzgerald’s writing in the novel has a different feel to it from most other historical novels I have read. She plays the role of the narrator, which at times gives the writing a bit of the detached feel of a history book; she will step outside the story and comment on what a character has not realized about the effects of their own actions or words on others, or their lack of awareness of societal norms. But, she also presents extended sections of dialogue, which allows the reader the kind of intimacy with and knowledge of the characters available in a novel. Through this combination of techniques she provides us with a refreshing style in the genre of historical novels that I enjoyed immensely.

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban

Riddley Walker (1980) 
Russell Hoban (1925-2011)

238 pages

I dont think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self. You myt know the place and day and time of day when you ben beartht. You myt even know the place and day and time when you ben got. That dont mean nothing tho. You stil dont know where you begun.
Riddley Walker, the 12 year old title character and narrator of Russell Hoban’s novel, writes these lines early in his story, and they serve as a foreshadowing of the confusion and uncertainty that he faces throughout the novel --- and that we the readers encounter deciphering the strange language and tales of Riddley Walker and his countrymen.

As Riddley narrates his story it soon becomes clear that he lives in the far future, in a world struggling in the long aftermath of a catastrophic war and subsequent natural disasters that set civilization back to a kind of Stone Age from which it is only slowly re-emerging. Riddley’s people occupy farming and forging settlements in what had been south-eastern England, a place they call “Inland” --- the rest of England lumped together as “Outland,” a non-man’s land from which raiders occasionally come to attack and pillage. Of the world beyond the island nothing seems known.

Myths and legends play a critical role in the communities of Inland, providing explanations for the silent rubble that remains from what they know was a glorious past, and for the events and occurrences of their daily lives --- at least in this area of the post-apocalyptic world the organized religions of the pre-war world have not survived the long dark aftermath that followed the war’s destruction. With few among the people of Inland literate, the stories are past down orally, and the various communities of Inland have a “tel woman” who explains events based on the traditional stories.

The most important legend of the Inland community tells of the “time back way back” and the “Bad Times,” when man had “boats in the air” and “pictures on the wind,” but also pursued and discovered deadly secrets to the “1 Big 1” and eventually a power that was used to destroy the world. This legend forms a critical part of what holds the communities of Inland together, and is presented in a traveling puppet show sponsored by a government authority that has developed in Inland (complete with a “Pry Mincer” and a “Wes Mincer”). The show provides a cautionary tale of the misuse of knowledge and power, but the government showmen also subtly adapt its meaning to propagate their preferred policies.

In part a coming of age story, the novel takes place over the span of about a week, during which events in Riddley’s life awaken in him questions about his people’s past and future, and lead him into the middle of a high stakes power game in which it becomes difficult to tell friends from enemies. Even with the burned-out cities and the occasional human deformities serving as constant reminders of the destructive past, as farming communities have again developed and a level of stability has returned to at least their small part of the world, some among the inhabitants of Inland long for the power of their ancestors, and Riddley gets caught in their struggles, as he wrestles with the question of whether it is the pursuit of power that is evil, or only the improper use of that power.

Hoban’s novel has parallels with A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, reviewed here earlier. Unlike the majority of apocalyptic novels, it does not tell directly of the apocalyptic event but rather starts far in the future, long after that event has occurred. It also deals with the tightly entwined human desires for more knowledge and more power; for both Hoban and Miller it seems clear that these desires will repeatedly lead human civilization down the same path.  (My other reviews of post-apocalyptic fiction can be linked to from here.)

Although it takes a little time to settle into the strange language that Hoban imagines the many years of chaos and disorder have created out of modern day English, it becomes mostly clear with practice and sounding out the occasional word or phrase. What makes it a bit more complicated is that along with showing the decay of the language, Hoban intentionally altered some words and phrases to end up with double meanings that produce a comic twist. The Expanded Edition of the novel contains a short glossary at the end, with a few of the more complex words translated and explained, but I still found several that I could not make heads or tails of; fortunately the book has inspired a following that has led to web sites with annotations and other information --- one example I used frequently is titled Riddley Walker Annotations. The obtuse language pays off for the reader, however, by enhancing the story in several ways: the distance between the world these characters inhabit and our own remains palpable, and the myths and superstitions that have developed are much more effective in conveying the uncertain world in which Riddley lives.

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: "Waiting for Robert Capa" by Susana Fortes

Waiting For Robert Capa (2011) 

Susana Fortes (1959-)

201 pages

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (a non-fiction book from 2002 by the journalist Chris Hedges) could have served as an appropriate title for this wonderful novel from Susan Fortes about Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two photographers who travel to Spain in 1936 to cover the Spanish Civil War, and in so doing discover a passion for photojournalism that galvanizes their lives. Although Fortes presents her book as a work of fiction, real people and true events provide its framework, and finally the book feels at once like a biography, an historical novel and a celebration of its two main characters and the lives they made for themselves.

The story opens as two refugees, a German Jew with a Polish passport, Gerta Pohorylle, and a Hungarian Jew, André Friedman, meet in Paris in 1935. They are a part of a large and growing group of refugees who are settling in Paris as Fascism and anti-Semitism cast long shadows over much of Europe in the mid-1930’s. Within a year of meeting the two are traveling together to Spain as photographers to report back on the Spanish Civil War, which represents for them the latest and bloodiest front in the fight against fascism. In an attempt to become more commercially acceptable, the pair have adopted pseudonyms that effectively hide their nationalities and so free them from the prejudice they have experienced as refugees; their new identities are so effective that the world at large comes to know them only by their new names, few even realizing that they are pseudonyms: Gerta becoming Gerda Taro, and André the famous Robert Capa. (Capa is best known for having taken the iconic, though now controversial, photo of the Spanish Civil War, of a republican soldier at the moment he is hit and killed by a nationalist rebel’s bullet; the photo and an essay on the debate by Robert Whelan at the PBS website. More information on the Spanish Civil War can be found at the review of a history of the conflict by Hugh Thomas.)

Many of the photographs Capa, Taro, and fellow photojournalist and friend David Seymour, better known as Chim, took during the Spanish Civil War were actually long thought to be lost, and were only recently recovered in Mexico, in what has come to be known collectively as The Mexican Suitcase. (The name relates to the history of the travels of the set of negatives over the 60 years they were thought lost; more information can be found at The Mexican Suitcase.) In her Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Fortes states that it was seeing a photograph found in this collection that Capa took of a sleeping Gerda Taro that sparked her interest in Taro’s life, and eventually led her to write this book.

The novel takes real events --- that the two met in Paris, fell in love, and traveled to Spain as photojournalists --- and weaves a story out of these simple facts, filling in imagined thoughts, feelings and intimate events. The pair took hundreds of photographs during their time together (though few of each other), and for parts of the novel Fortes seems to construct scenes around a particular photograph one of them took, conceiving a sequence of events that could have led up to the moment the photograph was taken, or that may have played out after the image was captured.

Perhaps because of the important role that photography in general and specific photographs in particular played in Fortes’ creation of this novel, the story develops as a series of vignettes: short, colorful snapshots of Taro and Capa’s lives, like free form poems. The result felt to me a bit like observing a series of related photographs or paintings of a historical event, and imaging a back-story for each one in a way that results in a coherent story for the whole.

Fortes’ beautiful writing wonderfully captures the sudden and explosive transition in Taro and Capa’s lives, from struggling refugees who took pictures they could sell to magazines to earn money for their daily food and rent in a foreign city, to bold photojournalists who took pictures they could sell to magazines to report out the struggle of a people fighting to survive a fascist rebellion in a foreign country.

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The novel is reportedly being made into a movie by director Michael Mann.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: "The Mexican Suitcase" from the International Center of Photography

The Mexican Suitcase (2010)  

Published by the International Center of Photography, NY City
Edited by Cynthia Young

2 Volumes

In the mid-1930’s, three refugees from Eastern Europe came together in Paris, sharing a love of photography and an anti-fascist ideology. To survive they would take pictures on the streets of Paris and try to sell them to various journals, or hire themselves out for specific projects or photo shoots. Eventually, they changed their names to more neutral sounding pseudonyms (presumably to make themselves more commercially acceptable), and thus were born Robert Capa (originally André Freidman), Gerda Taro (originally Gerta Pohorylle) and Chim (originally Dawid Szymin).

Political Speech on Land Reform,
Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain;
Spring 1936; by Chim

With the start of the Spanish Civil War in mid-1936, the brutal and bloody battle between the elected government of the Republic of Spain and the rebel, fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco, the three friends traveled to Spain and ‘embedded’ (to use a modern term) with the Republican forces in order to photograph the war, both to earn a living and to get out the story of the fascist threat. A number of their photographs appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals during the war, however most of the negatives of the three photographer’s work from the Spanish Civil War disappeared after the war and were thought lost.
Off and on over the years the search had continued for the negatives, eventually leading to a man in Mexico who was rumored to have large collection of negatives that were similar to known photographs of Capa, Taro and Chim: the so-called ‘Mexican Suitcase’ of negatives. In 2007 the negatives were finally tracked downa and eventually delivered to the International Center of Photography (IPC) in New York City; the IPC assembled contact prints of the negatives, and some background history, into this two volume set, as part of an exhibit of the newly found negatives.

Cover of French magazine
Regards, with photo by
Robert Capa
Robert Capa is the most well-known of the three photographers, in large part due to his memorable photograph of a Republican soldier falling backward to his death as he is hit by a bullet while running across a field.  Through the years the photograph has become an object of some controversy, over whether the shot was staged by Capa, and in the introduction to this two volume set this controversy is put forth as one of the reasons the search for the missing negatives was picked up again. Unfortunately, as is described in the introduction, the sequence of negatives that include the fallen soldier was not part of the collection, and so that mystery remains to be debated.

Contact print of pictures
from battle for Mardid, University
City and Parque Del Oueste;
Gerda Taro

The first of the two volumes includes a discussion of the background of the photographers, the Spanish Civil War and their involvement in it, and the search for the missing negatives; it also includes enlarged prints of some of the negatives. The second volume contains contact prints of all the negatives that were found in the collection, divided into groups based on who was taking the pictures, and where they were taken, with some brief introductory notes before each group.

If you have an interest in the Spanish Civil War, this set is a fascinating look into the heart of that war, providing critical additional understanding beyond what might be read in the histories written about the conflict.

Other reviews / information:
Visit the International Center of Photography web-site for more information on:

For more details on the years of the Spanish 2nd Republic and the Spanish Civil War: The Spanish Civil War

See the 'Fallen Soldier' picture, and an example of the controversy over it, in an article on a PBS site by Richard Whelan (note also the comments that follow the article).

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: "A Fair Maiden" by Joyce Carol Oates

A Fair Maiden (2010)
Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)

165 pages

INNOCENTLY IT BEGAN. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight.
So opens Joyce Carol Oates’ slim novel A Fair Maiden; for readers of her earlier work, it will come as little surprise that the innocent beginning does not lead to an innocent end.

Mr. Kidder seeks out Katya as she stops to window shop during her walk to a nearby park with the two young children she is in charge of for the summer, as nanny for a well-to-do family on vacation in a small resort town on the Atlantic coast. He gently and carefully, but persistently pursues her, inviting her to his home with the children for tea, giving one of the children a book he turns out to have written and illustrated, and amazing Katya with his delicate works of art and musical ability. But misunderstanding and distrust arising from seemingly unbridgeable differences in cultural background, age and personality, mixed with the thrill and attraction of someone paying her so much attention, create a growing tension in Katya that must eventually find release --- suddenly and dramatically and with unexpected results. Given Katya as our narrator, we the readers can only share her confusion and uncertainty about Mr. Kidder’s intentions, fearing for her safety, but also intrigued by her new friend and his charming ways.

Similar themes of misunderstanding play out in Oates’ book of short stories that also appeared in 2010, Give Me Your Heart; this novel in fact has the feel of a story that was meant for that collection, but that grew beyond the constraints of a short story as she developed it.

Reading Oates’ novels and short stories it is hard not to either despair at the difficulty of two people truly being able to ever understand one another, or, to feel a deep relief in the belief (hope?) that we the reader at least do not suffer such a fundamental lack of understanding of those around us. And yet, especially in this election season, with what appear to be such large numbers of people screaming past each other in a frenzy to win their point --- red state versus blue state, rich versus poor, conservative versus liberal, urban versus rural --- the inability to reach a reasonable level of understanding between people as displayed by the characters in Oates’ stories can seem to be found around us at every turn.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION