Saturday, February 11, 2017

Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States by Daniel LaChance

Freedom from caprice and freedom from injustice, the Court discovered, could sometimes come at the expense of one another. The system they ultimately approved did nothing to resolve the conundrum. Indeed, its unsolvability, and the Court's refusal to acknowledge it, would profoundly shape the exercise of capital punishment in its revived form. A civil libertarian commitment to negative freedom underlay, in the end, a modern death penalty riddled with internal tensions.

I had both excitement and trepidation about reading this book: On the one hand, a history of the death penalty taking a novel approach; on the other hand, much like my reaction to literary criticism, I had a kind of anti-elite bias against anything that refers to itself as a cultural history (WTF is the point of a cultural history, I thought to myself).

In the sense that I still don't know what to do with a cultural history (or literary criticism for that matter), my trepidation was fair. However, in the sense that I don't even care because this book was so interesting and thought-provoking, my fears were completely unfounded.

LaChance has written a book that explains the cultural meaning of the death penalty over the last fifty (or so) years. And referring to books, movies, newspaper articles, even Dexter, he has placed the death penalty within specific U.S. cultural tensions. I read him as developing two narratives that counter-balance each other: One is a kind of liberal-elite-ambiguity narrative. The other is a moral-clarity-hero narrative.

The first narrative is about contradictions within liberal thought. Thus, he discusses the post-war era, where faith in experts (owing to their perceived role in engineering the victories of World War II), was high. We believed in the ability of government and collective action to solve problems. Thus, looking to In Cold Blood (among other sources), LaChance shows how crime was seen as a failure of the State, and how a better (and achievable) State could solve the problem of crime. Criminals were not criminals out of choice, but as a consequence of failed (but fixable) social institutions. Thus, we simply needed to make our social institutions better.  Here, the death penalty represented a relic of a distant past--a blunt tool that failed to recognize that an individual's crimes were less about the person's flaws than about society's flaws.

This narrative began to unravel, however, as we devoted more attention to white, young serial killers, who seemed to have every benefit of modern society and nonetheless chose to kill. Faith in the potential of institutions began to be replaced with a fear that modernity hid some kind of unease. LaChance writes, "In an era when elite faith in rehabilitation was peaking, inexplicable acts of multiple murder by young white men exposed a nihilism that was at stark odds with the technocratic confidence of the age." This complicated the view of the death penalty as unnecessary, and left liberal thinkers in an undecided space about both the death penalty and social problems in general.

This first narrative is counterbalanced by the second: the hero of moral clarity. So, where liberal thought about the death penalty suffered from indecision, doubt, and ambiguity, a cultural phenomena emerged: the vigilante hero represented by Dirty Harry. Vigilante films represented a push against moral ambiguity by representing moral clarity untethered by liberal-elite social mores.

LaChance follows these narratives to the present day.

In the moral-ambiguity narrative, a fear arose that social engineering deprived people of their individuality. Movies and novels like A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, represented a push back against social engineering and the kind of conformity it implies. These media symbolized the plight of the individual v. the society. In this regard, the death penalty came to represent a person's individuality. The individual's act of murder, both in choosing to commit a violation against the social order and in accepting the consequences, rebelled against a society of conformity.

This man knows the difference
between right and wrong.
In the moral clarity narrative, DAs who zealously sought the death penalty began to fill the role of the vigilante hero popularized in movies like Dirty Harry. LaChance describes how media depictions of death-seeking DAs described the DAs as maverick heroes, intentionally obtuse about resisting a broken court-system that coddles defendants. In rejecting the broken court system and seeking the death penalty against defendants, these vigilantes represent the Good in a corrupt, morally relativistic society.

The moral-ambiguity narrative continues with a discussion of death penalty movies from the 1990s and 2000s, which  LaChance points out were whitewashed, conveying that, as a society we had overcome the racialized mob justice of the past (LaChance, of course, points out how problematic the whitewashing is). However, more important for LaChance's narrative, these films humanize the death row inmates by being narratives of rehabilitation and remorse. The plot arc of, Dead Man Walking, for example, is one of spiritual and moral revelation. LaChance points out how this humanizing aspect of the films, consistent with the death penalty's symbolic assertion of individuality, had the effect of ignoring the important dehumanizing parts of executions. In this regard, the death penalty becomes the catalyst for death row inmates to go on their spiritual journey.

The moral clarity narrative continues with a discussion of the nuclear family and its relationship to the victims' rights movement that began in the 1980s. As social issues arose in the post-war period, social-conservatives came to view the cause of these issues as erosion of the heteronormative family unit. This was relevant for the death penalty because the death penalty came to represent a defense of the family unit. That is, the rise of the victims' rights movement correlated with the rise of "protecting the family" as a social movement. Victims' rights arguments were phrased in terms of protecting the family, or in terms of how crime violated the sanctity of family. And thus, starting with the 1980s and the victims' rights movement, we see a gradual shift from prosecutions being on behalf of the state towards prosecutions being on behalf of the victims.

Where will this all go? LaChance predicts that on a long enough time line, defense of the death penalty will eventually give up, not because of a moral victory from abolitionists, but in grudging acceptance that bureaucracy and legal challenges will always prevent the death penalty from living up to its promise of retribution: "It will end not in fire but in ice, when those unmoved by exonerations or botched executions or evidence of race disparities give up on it."

This was a great read: LaChance's discussions of movies and novels were interesting and accessible (he often refers to media so ingrained in pop-culture that even where I hadn't seen a movie I understood enough about the movie to follow along). You do not need to know anything about the death penalty or criminal justice to enjoy this book (though I think it also speaks to anyone who has familiarity with these issues).

And I think writing this review actually answered my question at the beginning. What does one do with a cultural history? One understands a little better. I feel I understand the death penalty a little better because of this book, and that is enough to justify reading it, no?

There's another reason that cultural histories, or at least this one, are worth reading. This book shows how, in a sense, no debate is an island. Views of the death penalty are not held in isolation, but are part of an entire system of thought (on both sides). Thus, a discussion about the death penalty (or any particular issue) is really a debate about something bigger. In light of our recent, divisive election and liberal attempts to understand "what went wrong," I can't help but wonder if we're all missing the big picture as we argue about the details: when we argue about the crowd size at the inauguration, what are we really arguing about? I don't know, but LaChance's book has reminded me that even a seemingly discrete issue is part of a broader context.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Katherine Boo's nonfiction gem chronicles the lives of inhabitants of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum nestled behind a wall plastered with tile advertisements that promise your floors will be "Beautiful Forever." Annawadi sprung up in the shadow of luxury hotels next to Mumbai's airport, and its residents subsist (or fail to subsist) on tiny incomes from gathering and selling recyclables generated by the airport and surrounding construction sites.

The lives of Annawadians are incomprehensibly difficult. Their feet sprout towers of fungus during monsoons; their children's rat bites become infected and erupt with worms; they live on the brink of a lake of sewage, scrounging for food and recyclables in its midst. The infrastructure keeping them safe and alive is broken and corrupt--hospitals are decrepit, police and politicians all in someone's pocket, and their justice system is hopelessly convoluted. Nevertheless, Boo manages to craft a cinematically beautiful, suspensful tale around the tragically intertwined lives of Annwadi families after a woman sets herself on fire (suicide, as one can imagine, is a common way out). The prose reads like fiction--vivid, piercing fiction:
Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, toward home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink-flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary in January 2008. 
Boo's writing is so seamless and her characters so layered and nuanced that I had trouble believing that this was really a work of nonfiction. She follows her characters through so many moments--both public and private--that it was hard to imagine how she could have gotten such access. I found myself distracted by the specificity of insight she had into individual characters' thought processes--how could she possibly know what they were thinking in that moment? There is an author's note at the end of the book that I wish she had put at the start. In it she describes her process, the years she spent building relationships, the video cameras she gave children to film many of the events she describes. I was a little more sold after reading it, but still somewhat incredulous.

All that being said, this was a fantastic read. It's packed with information about corruption and poverty in India, but it doesn't read like a book packed with information. I've read a fair amount about India over the years, and I learned more from this book than from anything else I've read. It's heart-wrenching, but manageably so. I wish I had more of a sense of what to do or how to help--this is certainly much more of a descriptive account than it is a call to action--and I don't know how Boo spent as much time as she did immersed in this level of poverty without losing her mind (or just giving away all of her money).

A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem

Do you consider it probable that owing to the principle of fireworks and kicking, people will soon be taking walks upon the moon, while their perambulations will at the very same moment be visible to hundreds of millions of other people in their homes on Earth?  Do you consider it possible that soon we will be able to make artificial heavenly bodies, equipped with instruments that enable one from cosmic space to keep track of the movement of any man in a field or on a city street?  Do you think it likely that a machine will be built which plays chess better than you, composes music, translates from language to language, and performs in the space of a few minutes calculations which all the accountants, auditors, and bookkeepers in the world put together could not accomplish in a lifetime?  Do you consider it possible that very shortly there will arise in the center of Europe huge industrial plants in which living people will be burned in ovens, and that these unfortunates will number in the millions?

Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of book reviews, but only of books that don't exist.  There's a rich tradition of this sort of thing, going back to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and Jorges Luis Borges' story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote."  Like those books, Lem's having a little bit of fun--imagining books that would be too outrageous, or else too tedious, to actually write, but using them as a foundation for some difficult ideas as well.

The first review in the collection is one of the most fun.  It purports to be a review of a French take on Robinson Crusoe called Le Robinsonade, about a shipwrecked man who peoples his island with fictitious servants, friends, and would-be lovers.  These invented people refuse to do what the shipwrecked man wants, and he finds himself dismissing his servant, who somehow continues to prowl around the island.  He invents a beautiful women, and then is forced to invent a way to prevent himself from actually sleeping with her, since she's not real:

I am Master, here I can do anything!--he says to himself immediately, for courage, and takes on Wendy Mae.  She is, we conjecture, and allusion to the paradigm of Man Friday.  But this young, really rather simple girl might lead the Master into temptation.  He might easily perish in her marvelous--since unattainable--embraces, he might lose himself in a fever of rut and lusting, go mad on the point of her pale, mysterious smile, her fleeting profile, her bare little feet bitter from the ashes of the campfire and reeking with the grease of barbecued mutton.  Therefore, from the very first, in a moment of true inspiration, he makes Wendy Mae... three-legged.

The shipwrecked man isn't mad, Lem argues, he's just caught in a bind: the more realistic his inventions, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the fantasy of illusion.  The book becomes more and more obscure as the shipwrecked man gets more and more trapped in his own inventions, which produces a sentence that I'm inducting into the great sentence hall of fame:

From this point on, we must confess, the book grows more and more difficult to understand and demands no little effort on the part of the part of the reader.  The line of the development, precise till now, becomes entangled and doubles back upon itself.  Can it be that the author deliberately sought to disturb the eloquence of the romance with dissonances?  What purpose is served by the pair of barstools to which Wendy Mae has given birth?  We assume that the three-leggedness is a simple family trait--that's clear, fine; but who was the father of these stools?  Can it be that we are faced with the immaculate conception of furniture?

Elsewhere, Lem uses these parodies to make critical statements about both literature and science.  Gigamesh is a really hilarious parody of James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the structure of the book (a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, just like Ulysses retells the Odyssey) is jam-packed with so much arcane meaning that it actually encapsulates all of human knowledge.  Lem goes off on long, riotous parodies of academic jargon:

Opening the book to random, we find on page 131, fourth line from the top, the exclamation "Bah!"  With it Maesch refuses the Camel offered to him by the driver.  In the index of the Commentary we find twenty-seven different bahs, but to the one from page 131 corresponds the following sequence: Baal, Bahai, Baobab, Bahleda (one might think that Hannahan was in error here, giving us an incorrect spelling of the name of the Polish mountaineer, but no, not at all!  The omission of the c in that name refers by, the principle already known to us, to the Cantorian c as symbol of the Continuum in its transfiniteness!), Bapohmet, Babelisks (Babylonian obelisks--a neologism typical of the author), Babel (Isaac), Abraham, Jacob, ladder, hook and ladder, fire department, hose, riot, Hippies (h!), badminton, racket, rocket, moons, mountains, Berchtesgarden--the last, since the h in "Bah" also signifies a worshiper of the Black Mass, as was, in the twentieth century, Hitler.  [Berchtesgarden was Hitler's mountain retreat in Bavaria.--ED.]

All this is in the service of mocking the elitism of literary critics whose work suggests a privileged kind of reading not accessible to everyday readers.  In another review, Lem talks about the rise and fall of a DIY book called U-Write-It, which would allow readers to rearrange classic works of literature.  There's much handwringing about what this will do to the classics by professors of English, but the project is a failure: "No one cared to play U-Write-It, not because he nobly forebore to pervert quality, but for the simple reason that between the book of a fourth-rate hack and the epic of Tolstoy he saw no difference whatever."

The most thought-provoking of these is a review of a science book called Non Serviam, about the (fictional) science of personetics.  Personetics involves creating mathematical models of human beings inside computed mathematical space, and recording the way that they interact.  This serves as a backdrop for the story of a mathematically-modeled civilization who begins to wonder who their creator is , engaging in the same kind of theological arguments that human beings have engaged in for centuries.  They conclude that God does not love them, and that they owe him nothing, and insofar as it's some schlub scientist in a lab, they're right.  In other reviews, Lem takes on the Einsteinian understanding of the universe and the idea of probability.

Lem's methods can seem a little cheap--after all, where's the good faith in taking down books no one has written, and taking down arguments no one has made?  Or to present half-assed ideas he wouldn't want to commit to?  But A Perfect Vacuum becomes an image of a man laying out his own conflicted visions, talking to himself--hence the title.  And besides, Lem makes the very same point from the beginning, when he opens the book with a critical review of A Perfect Vacuum itself.  "Did Lem really think he would not be seen through in his machination?" Lem writes.  "It is simplicity itself: to shout out, with laughter, what one would dare not whisper in earnest."

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Paper Girls

Brian K. Vaughn is one of the more revered names in comics today (not that I'm an expert). His sci-fi series Saga is pretty much universally beloved, Runaways was a massive hit in its day, and I'll just assume people like his X-Men stuff. This latest series, Paper Girls, is up there with any of those. If you liked Stranger Things this past summer, Paper Girls is going to be right up your alley. It's November 1st, 1988, and four barrier-breaking twelve-year old girls are delivering their paper routes in the pre-dawn hours. Erin has nightmares with Ronald Reagan in them; George Bush for president signs are visible on lawns; Tiffany is mortified to realize how much time she wasted playing Arkanoid; Mac smokes and calls people faggots because, as a time-traveling character says, "You guys live in a fucked-up time." Basically, Vaughn nails the 80s.

As does artist Cliff Chiang, whose work here is fantastic. The detail he throws into relatively one-off gags like the aforementioned Bush campaign sign, the character that pops in the faces of each of the four girls, hell - the fact the guy has to draw so many damned bicycles. It's book 1 of an ongoing series, so I will say, don't go into it expecting resolution. But this does end on an interesting cliffhanger, and there are certainly enough questions abounding to propel the series for another couple of collected volumes, easily (oh, right, the plot, mention the plot - time traveling warlords with dinosaurs? I'm not really sure, actually). Paper Girls is a rare series where I have no qualms recommending it for people who don't even particularly like comics. It's really a great read.

Book 9: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This has already been reviewed (at least) twice on this blog, so I feel like I can get away with a shorter review here. There's also precious little left to say; Homegoing is an amazing achievement. The structure, the scope, the maturity, the fact that Gyasi is a first-time novelist. Homegoing will be remembered, and taught, for decades to come, and she's 26. My mind reels.

I'll touch on just a few of my personal highlights. The machinations of imperialism are treated as well here as anywhere I've ever seen. The early chapters recall Things Fall Apart, but Gyasi's focus on the experience of women opens new horrors that have rarely been mentioned as explicitly in other accounts. The omnipresence of rape, for instance, made me think of the banality of evil, again and again. As the story shifts to America, the absence of the Civil War is fascinating. One of my favorite podcasts is Backstory, which focuses on American history in order to explain the America we live in today. The Civil War is constantly held as the major changing point in American history; in Homegoing, it is a passing reference at best, because, honestly, what is the difference between chattel slavery and the mass incarceration that puts H in the mines of Alabama for what is, at best, a misdemeanor offense?

The H chapter moved me more than any other. As a teacher, Homegoing just constantly thrilled me with its classroom possibilities. It could - and very likely will be - a semester-long class. There is just so much room to bring in other readings, other concepts, sprouting off of every single chapter. Honestly, there just aren't enough good things to say about this book.

So I'll end with a really pedestrian note: Gyasi's ability to create such fully realized characters, each in the space of about 20 pages (seriously, the chapters are super consistent in length), is incredible.

I will also brag that I read the physical book, and, yes, the family tree was super-useful.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When she wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of these things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind's eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect. 
Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing starts with two sisters in Ghana and traces their daughters and their daughters' daughters through 300 years of history, moving from Ghana to America and back again. Part of the beauty of the novel lies in the discovery of the structure, so I won't say much beyond that Gyasi has managed to make a 300 page novel spanning 300 years feel leisurely and measured, giving depth and weight to each generation's experience.

There is so, so much going on here. There are the ravages of slavery, of colonialism, of war, of imprisonment, of drug addiction. The family lineages are periodically severed--the passage of information from one generation to the next cut off by choice or by force--and yet each generation bears the burden of everything that came before, often subconsciously. Because of that (or maybe because I had more context for them), I found the more modern chapters more heartbreaking. The generations of horrific abuse that came with the slave trade and warring factions within Ghana were painful and difficult to read, but felt distant and foreign. When Gyasi got to life under Jim Crowe and poverty in East Harlem (compounded by the generations of pain and suffering laid out before), I almost couldn't bear it. That being said, the accumulation of traumatic memories (or their loss) seems just barely manageable:
"When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free."
The village where the stories begin is run as a matriarchy, and women, despite being treated as literal and figurative property, hold an almost mystical power all through the novel as mothers and wives. There is definitely a tension here; women seem to suffer the most brutal losses and abuses, but they are also revered and seem to be able to better fend off the isolation that runs throughout.

A homegoing can be a funeral, a return home to God, and to the generations that have gone before, and Gyasi plays with the idea of home and of return throughout. The book ends with a series of homegoings, and Gyasi manages to make a heart wrenching book end with an upward stroke without breaking form or seeming trite.

I can't believe this is a debut novel. The prose is gorgeous, the scope massive, and I couldn't put it down. Gyasi is able to weave just enough hope into a laundry list of horrors that you don't lose hope, and the jumps in time keep you moving forward just when you're ready to give up.

A note which I wish I'd known before reading: there is a family tree in the opening pages of the book (and before where the e-book starts you off) that is really helpful!


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

She discovered a rhythm, pumping her arms, throwing all of herself into movement.  Into northness.  Was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it?  Each time she brought her arms down on the lever, she drove a pickax into the rock, swung a sledge onto a railroad spike.  She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad.  The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her.  Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them.  The station masters and conductors and sympathizers.  Who are you after you finish something this magnificent--in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side.  On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light.  The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood.  The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

What if the Underground Railroad really were an underground railroad?  That's the premise of Colson Whitehead's novel, which is a piece of what they used to call speculative fiction: not an extrapolation of contemporary politics onto the possibilities of the future, but a reimagining of the past in the service of contextualizing and reenergizing it.  By literalizing the railroad--and reimagining the slave societies of the South in such a way that turns their social realities into literal ones as well--Whitehead hopes to make the horrors of slavery seem new, and freshly horrible.

The heroine is Cora, a slave under the control of the sadistic Randall brothers in Georgia.  Her mother is the only slave to have ever escaped from the Randalls', and so when Cora escapes with a slave named Caesar, it raises the ire of the famous slavecatcher Ridgeway, whose failure to catch Cora's mother many years ago still haunts him.

Cora's path takes her through South Carolina, where what seems like a more enlightened society turns out to be stealthily designed to oppress slaves.  They don't seem like slaves anymore, and are granted limited freedoms, even healthcare, but Cora learns that medical studies are secretly carried out on them.  (Of course, this horrible invention is not an invention at all, but a literal description of the famous Tuskegee experiment, which infected black men with syphilis.)  Cora takes a job as a reenactor in a museum, depicting slave life in a way that makes it look anodyne and paternalistic.  (It reminded me of this Vox piece on what it's like to lead tours at a plantation.)  She escapes into North Carolina, where powerful whites have decided to eliminate the political anxiety slaves pose by simply getting rid of them--all of them--and hanging their bodies along a miles-long trail.  Tennessee is literally burning, an apocalyptic setting right out of The Road.

Ridgeway is the novel's most effective creation.  While the whites of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee tie themselves in knots with moral justifications for the way they structure their societies, Ridgeway understands the cruelty of slavery, and simply doesn't care.  Which is more insidious: their rationalization, or his honesty?  Cora, by contrast, seems more like a bundle of heroic tropes: ignored, belittled, even among slaves, but intrepid, hopeful, headstrong.  It's an unfortunate result of the novel's construction, which requires Cora's virtue to contrast Ridgeway's evil, that makes her so dull.  Whitehead's attempts to complicate her psychology--her resentment toward her mother; her complicated guilt over killing a white boy in her escape--largely fall flat.

So does the novel as a whole, unfortunately.  For all its recontextualizing, it never seemed to me as if The Underground Railroad had something especially insightful or memorable to say about the practice of slavery or its effects.  Whitehead seems mostly to use his imaginative license to maximize slavery's depravity--but, unless you're one of those idiots asking the plantation tour guide if some slaves didn't have it real good, what kind of fresh understanding is that?  But the novel's biggest problem is that nothing in it is as imaginative, or out-there, as the railroad itself.  The Underground Railroad doesn't quite live up to the power of its premise.

Here's Chloe's review.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Ships lost at sea and then, most dreadfully, a civilian boat, a ferry, sunk between Canada and Newfoundland, that close to our own shores.

That night I could not sleep and walked the streets of the town.  I had to think of the people gone to the bottom of the sea.  Old women, nearly old women like my mother, hanging on to their knitting.  Some kid bothered by a toothache.  Other people who had spent their last half hour before drowning complaining of seasickness.  I had a very strange feeling that was part horror and part--as near as I can describe it--a kind of chilly exhilaration.  The blowing away of everything, the equality--I have to say it--the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them.


If Alice Munro's Dear Life has a theme, it's the way that men oppress women.  Munro's touch is so light that you might not notice, and her love and respect of the minutiae of domestic life can look a lot like traditionalism.  But it's there in "Amundsen," a story about a woman who takes a job teaching children being treated for tuberculosis at a far outpost, only to be romanced, and then abandoned, by the town's haughty doctor.  It's there in "Gravel," about a mother who is too absorbed with the hippie lifestyle of her new beau that she fails to see her daughter's unhappiness, with tragic results.  It's there in "To Reach Japan," about a woman who lets herself have a shocking affair aboard a train, only to be racked with guilt about leaving her daughter alone in the cabin.  It's there in "Corrie," about a woman who realizes--after decades--that there was never really a blackmailer, and that her lover's been pocketing all the hush money.

Brent said this was his first introduction to Munro, and it took him a while to get into it.  I can see that--nothing here strikes me on the same level as the best parts of The Lives of Girls and Women or The Passage of LoveI mention those stories above because they stuck with me the most, but there's a lot I have already forgotten: weird little slice-of-life tales that don't quite seem more than a slice.  (What's "In Sight of the Lake" about?  I can't recall even a little.)  But when Munro is good, she really is the best.  "Gravel" especially is a masterpiece of short fiction.  Munro's choice not to follow the voice of the girl, or the mother, but the girl's younger sister, as mystified by the actions of her older sister as she is of her mother, is so simple, but the kind of authorial choice that reflects her brilliance.

The best part of the collection, though, is the "Finale": a quartet of semi-autobiographical tales that Munro calls "the first and last--and the closest--things I have to say about my own life."  (Can we talk about Munro's mastery of the em-dash?)  These stories have the ring of truth; they feel real in a way that the calculated packaging of most of the collection's stories do not.  I particularly loved a story about Munro, seized in the middle of the night by the fleeting thought that she might, if she wanted, strangle her sister in the bunk bed below.  She slips out of the house every night and wanders town, unable to deal with this thought, which surely makes her a freak, only to encounter her father, waiting up for her, who says, in effect, that everyone has thoughts like that.  Of course they do.  But it's the province of great writers to put into words the things we are unaware of, or too afraid to say, and I think I'd have been to afraid to put a thought like that, dredged up even from my childhood, to paper.  Instead of the O. Henry-esque turn of some of the fictional stories in the collection, Munro gives us a classic reflection on the intersection of family and private fear:

However, on that breaking morning he gave me just what I needed to hear and what I was even to forget about soon enough.

I have thought that he was maybe in his better work clothes because he had a morning appointment to go to the bank, to learn, not to his surprise, that there was no extension to his loan.  He had worked as hard as he could but the market was not going to turn around and he had to find an new way of supporting us and paying off what we owed at the same time.  Or he may have found out there was a name for my mother's shakiness and that it was not going to stop.  Or that he was in love with an impossible woman.

Never mind.  From then on I could sleep.

Book 8: The Axe and the Oath by Robert Fossier

Dubbed as a history of ordinary life in the Middle Ages, the Axe and the Oath is easily one of the most confounding history texts I've read in a long, long time. Fossier, a professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, seeks to cover daily life of the non-nobility over a stretch of 1000 years, working thematically instead of chronologically. This task is massive, and, judging from this book, impossible.

Fossier's book is translated from its original French, and I found myself contemplating the writing on a meta-level almost as much as I found myself paying attention to the information in the book. I have to imagine the book makes more sense in French - or, at the very least, Fossier's constant declarations, "I could say more..." come off with a different meaning in French than they do in English. As just an example from the last 100 pages, after I had the brilliant idea to start taking notes on these things:

  • On law: "As is my wont, I will no venture into a technical area that is among the most encumbered..."
  • On peace and honor: "...war (about which I shall have more to say) and the periodic effrois, or terrors (about which I will not)..."
  • On weights and measures: "I shall not pursue the question of the calculation errors that abound in medieval accounting..."
  • On universities: "So much ink and saliva [ew] has already been spent on this majestic medieval 'heritage' that I shall add only a few minor notes..."
  • On literature: "The best I can do is sweep out a corner or two."
  • On monuments: "I am not about to draw up interminable lists of monuments, or painted and sculpted works."
  • On art: "I have no intention of studying the evolution of all these works."
  • On human knowledge: "During the course of my narration, few surveys have left me as unsatisfied as this one."
  • On the Church: "I am supposing that my reader is not hoping here for a history of the Church."
Fossier ends with a three-page epilogue that he mentions is there only because epilogues are expected in an academic work. In this epilogue, he writes, "In truth, I am not quite sure whom I am addressing." It shows.

Moving away from the book, I've actually been looking forward to this book for a few years now. Back in October of 2013, my wife and I took her visiting mother up to the Cloisters. Despite living in the city since 2000, it was my first (and so far only) trip to the museum. For those of you who aren't from New York City, the Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum that focuses on medieval art, and mimics in part a medieval castle. I saw the Axe and the Oath in the bookshop and marked it down for future reading.

On that trip to the Cloisters, the 40-part Motet was on display. I had seen it once before at MoMA, but at the Cloisters, it took on an entirely different meaning. The Motet is an installation piece, with 40 speakers set up in a circle; each speaker is an individual voice of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a sixteenth-century chant/hymn. In the antiseptic environment of the MoMA, it is breathtaking. There is nothing else to consider except the human voices coming together in concert to create such a moving, beautiful piece.

In the Langon Chapel at the Cloisters, built in 12th-century style, it is transcendent. Better than anything I can imagine, it captured the feeling of living in the Middle Ages and the role of the Church in such a world. Outside, it was a dark, violent world. The woods were dark and mysterious. Nature was unexplained. Death could come at any moment. Inside, in the confines of a chapel, there was beauty. There was the harmony of God. Better than anything else, it explains the role that a Church (however exploitative it may have even been realized to be at the time) played in the lives of the people. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book 7: How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer

I swear I'm not limiting my reading to the books in the Read Harder categories, but this is the sports book requirement from said challenge.

My dad loved Soccer Made in Germany on PBS in the early 80s. I had nothing to do in 1994 when the World Cup was on TV, since I only had a learner's permit until right after the Final, so that was my first taste of actual soccer (who could remember how Colombian gangsters killed that one guy who scored an own-goal, allowing the US to advance to the second round?!?!). As recently as 2007, I freely mocked my coworkers who followed the Premier League with their instance of saying "darby" when the word is clearly derby. Then I started playing in a few rec leagues with some friends and my cable carrier picked up NBC Sports so I could bother my poor wife by adopting another sports league. So I guess this is a long way of saying I've only really cared about soccer as a sport to watch more frequently than the world cup for about five years now.

Being interested in the results of the game for only a limited time, I have long been fascinated by the larger soccer culture and how it affects culture in general. The best book about sports fandom I've ever read remains Fever Pitch (when I read it in 2001, I told my friend Sweaty that it was the best book about being a Red Sox fan that could possibly ever be written - unfortunately, I must have said this within earshot of a Hollywood exec, because three years later there were Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore on the field after Foulke flipped the final out to Miniwinivich)(not his name, I don't care). Bill Buford's Among the Thugs scared the holy hell out of me. The rivalries that competitions like the World Cup and the Euro Cup put on the field against each other resemble WWI or imperialistic struggles. Soccer truly can be used to explain the world, it seems.

Which Foer proves in a very entertaining read. He uses various clubs and national teams from around Europe and South America to explore most of the modern world, such as new oligarchs, American culture wars, antisemitism, and globalization. Each chapter makes its point in a compelling fashion, while touching on some of the most famous pieces of soccer history that even a casual fan of the beautiful game could connect to. (Like, Pele. I'm betting just about everyone knows who Pele is.)

While every chapter is interesting and worth reading, I think the first, on How Soccer Explains the Gangster's Paradise, is probably the most compelling to people unfamiliar with soccer, as it focuses on horrific violence. (Maybe I'm revealing a lot about myself? Meh.) As much as I loved Among the Thugs, it's from a time before I started paying attention to soccer, and a time that certainly seems like it's in the rear view now. Hooliganism has been priced and policed out of the British Premier League. I have no doubt that there are still fascist firms stirring shit up, but they no longer terrorize vast swaths of the population as they did in the 1980s. The hooligans that Foer tracks down (and this information, too, could be a bit dated, as this book was published in 2004 - recently to be sure, but before a vast infusion of Russian and Middle Eastern oil money that has greatly transformed a lot of the big leagues around Europe) are Serbian nationalists who partook in ethnic cleansing. In 2012, I took a group of students to the Hague and the International Court of Justice, where some Eastern European warlord was on trial for the murder of 40,000 civilians (obviously I did a great job tracking the details). Seeing this man, stone-faced, answering and deflecting questions about ordering his snipers to open fire on women trying to cross a river, was stomach-churning, and he was behind bulletproof glass and completely unaware of my existence. The characters that Foer encountered in shady bars and firm clubhouses... I can't even imagine.

Also amazing, because of his similarities with our own Dear Leader, was the chapter on Silvio Berlusconi and his teams at AC Milan. If only Trump had gotten permission to buy the Buffalo Bills... But it wasn't enough for Berlusconi, and it probably wouldn't've been enough for His Orangeness, either. Oh well.

Basically, this was great beach reading if you like either soccer or... the world.




Sorry. I couldn't resist.