Friday, June 9, 2017

THIS MARLOWE, an historical novel of espionage, treason, suborned honor, and gay love



THIS MARLOWE
MICHELLE BUTLER HALLETT

Goose Lane Editions
$19.95 Kindle/ePub edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: 1593. Queen Elizabeth reigns from the throne while two rival spymasters Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex plot from the shadows. Their goal? To control succession upon the aged queen's death. The man on which their schemes depend? Christopher Marlowe, a cobbler's son from Canterbury who has defied expectations and become an accomplished poet and playwright. Now that the plague has closed theatres, Marlowe must resume the work for which he was originally recruited: intelligence and espionage.

Fighting to stay one step ahead in a dizzying game that threatens the lives of those he holds most dear, Marlowe comes to question his allegiances and nearly everything he once believed. As tensions mount, he is tossed into an impossible bind. He must choose between paths that lead either to wretched guilt and miserable death or to love and honour.

An historical novel with a contemporary edge, This Marlowe measures the weight of the body politic, the torment of the flesh, and the state of the soul.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE OF WATER, outdoors life at its most contradictory



THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE OF WATER
CRAIG CHILDS

Back Bay Books
$16 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: Like the highest mountain peaks, deserts are environments that can be inhospitable to even the most seasoned explorers. Craig Childs, who has spent years in the deserts of the American West—as an adventurer, a river guide, and a field instructor in natural history—has developed a keen appreciation for these forbidding landscapes: their beauty, their wonder, and especially their paradoxes. His extraordinary treks through arid lands in search of water are an astonishing revelation of the natural world at its most extreme.

My Review:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE PHOENIX YEAR, novel that feels more like an intelligence dossier



THE PHOENIX YEAR
DAVID L. BLOND

Wattle Publishing
$21.99 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: “… from out of the fire, would rise a new order, like the legend of the phoenix. There would emerge a new world, a new super economy…”

So starts a sequence of events destined to rock world economies to their very core. On the 50th anniversary of their induction into the Society of the Phoenix, a group of billionaires is about to change the world dramatically, with devastating effect.

Overseen by the reclusive Heinrich Von Kleise, the Society has hatched an audacious plan to subvert world economies, by using and abusing some of the world’s wealthiest businessmen and their families; in some cases, holding them literally to ransom, or worse.

Michael Ross, an economic advisor to the US President, Ben Masters, a disgraced property tycoon, Natalya Avramowitz, a Russian economist and spy, and “Kim” a CIA Agent, find themselves at the center of this plot, involving inside trading, sex slavery, and political corruption.

As the world careens towards financial Armageddon, can Michael, Natalya and Kim prevent global disintegration, or are the world’s financial institutions fated to implode?

The Phoenix Year by David L. Blond is a gripping novel, encompassing many of the financial crises that have hit the headlines in the past decade. The author has skillfully woven these together to create an action-packed conspiracy thriller.

My Review:





Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE COURAGE CONSORT, novellas in spare and lyrical prose



THE COURAGE CONSORT: Three Novellas
MICHEL FABER

Harvest Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: With his elegant prose, distinctive imagination, and deep empathy, the bestselling author of The Crimson Petal and the White once again dazzles us in three novellas. "The Courage Consort" tells of an a capella vocal ensemble sequestered in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a monstrously complicated new piece. But competing artistic temperaments and sexual needs create as much discordance as the avant garde music. In "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," a lonely woman joins an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey and unearths a mystery involving a long-hidden murder. In "The Fahrenheit Twins," strange children, identical in all but gender and left alone at the icy zenith of the world by their anthropologist parents, create their own ritual civilization.

In each of these novellas, Michel Faber creates a unique, self-contained world, where the perennial human drama plays out in all its passion and ambiguity.

My Review: Inspired by my recent remembering of reading Faber's stonking novel THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, which has been adapted into an Amazon Prime episodic series, I fished this collection of novellas from my boxes to give it an overdue review. Actually, I suspect my 2005-2006 review is on the hard drive of my boxed-up PC but I can't be arsed to get it out, hook it up, etc etc. I quite like Faber's unlabored elegance of prose. I'm a little shakier on some of his storytelling choices. I get more wobbly when we get into the nuts and bolts of an individual story's constituent bits, as there seem to me to be, unfailingly, expectations raised that are never satisfied, threads that are left to dangle like the annoying loose tag at the back of your neck rubbing you when you put on your expensive new shirt. Still looks good, yet there's that damned itchy thing....

The Courage Consort brings us the disintegration of people, relationships, and institutions over the course of a heavy, humid summer trip made by the five members of the titular consort to a country château in Belgium. They are there to prepare for the world premiere of an avant-garde composition by an enfant terrible composer. The piece is terrible, they all know it, but they are "serious" musicians and they sing a capella, so it's either whatever the vulture drops in front of them no matter how malodious or endless iterations of melodious but, well, shop-worn stuff like Sumer is icumen in. A person could go bonkers doing that one for a living.

Catherine Courage, our PoV character, is battling her way out of the gray, annihilating purposelessness of a serious depression, one senses not her first. She is married to the founder of the consort, she is one of the women whose experience of life is being controlled by men, and she is pretty well done with everything. We're given to understand that even her attempts at suicide are half-hearted. She's a gorgeous soprano, though, and an a capella group sans soprano is dire listening. As the Courage Consort is an avant-garde a capella group, I suspect I (and thousands like me) would find them dire listening at any time. Catherine is getting to that point herself:
Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it. Even the way a sustained A-flat tended to make an auditorium's air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately. It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all sound-waves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping paper off it.
But dig we must in this vale of tears, Catherine being an obedient consort hauls herself to Belgium for the rare luxury of two weeks' paid rehearsal time smack in the middle of nowhere much. No distractions. No shops, either. But oodles of nothingness is wonderful when rehearsing complicated music.

The thing about nothingness, as defined by city people, is that it's not nothingness but the absence of city. The country's a noisy place, usually; Catherine herself is unnerved by the silence of the country birds, where in London she's accustomed to birds shouting their fool heads off in the occasional city tree. More trees, fewer birds per tree; fewer roads, fewer pedestrians, fewer cars:
Nature meant the absence of people. It was a system set up to run without human beings, concentrating instead on the insensate and the eternal. Which was very relaxing now and then. But dangerous in the long run: darkness would fall, and there would be no door to close,
no roof over one's head, no blankets to pull up. One wasn't an animal, after all.
One is an animal, in point of fact, one is simply very bad at being a country animal. Like dogs and cats brought to the country are wildly curious and dash about sniffing before coming home for supper from the old familiar dish, Catherine begins to explore the Belgian forest. She's scared witless by a weird cry that she believes could be human; like a city cat, she's not equipped to figure out what it is in all likelihood. She and the city cat are having a lark. They're not gonna make it left to themselves, or at least most won't. Catherine wouldn't be among the survivalists starting civilization from scratch post-apocalyptically any more than Fluffy or Mittens would be in the barn hunting the rats.

But the rats can come indoors when it's human rats we're talking about. The can drive Porsches, wear tacky ostentatious clothes, and write terrible a capella music after stabbing their wife with a stiletto heel in the Milan airport. Their musical patron coming to the château to hear their rendition of his deathless opus leaves the entire consort enveloped in the choking fog of falseness. One of them, responding to the literal stink of the figurative stinker, takes action:
[He] was padding around the house like a bear, going from window to window, opening them all wide. It wasn't until he was opening the biggest, nearest window that his fellow Consort members noticed the whole château stank of the sort of perfume probably derived from scraping the scrotums of extremely rare vermin.
And that's Faber at his most Faberly. That kind of surface wit rumpled by barely concealed metaphor riding on a deeper structure of meaning is easy to read and pass by; but wait: The lumbering bear of a character, trapped inside the château to be forcibly trained to perform against his natural inclination attempts to make the miasma left by a pretentious macaque-faced poseur stop bothering him are obvious enough. Then look again. The big, fat bear-man quiet. He sings bass. His part in the composition being sung is compared often to the throaty chanting of Tibetan monks. He never does anything for himself, not cooking nor cleaning nor walking; yet he is always ready to work, always prepared in his admittedly uncomplicated part of the performance, always the one least riled by foolishness and most focused on the job. The quote above, in two sentences, is his purpose in the story's world wrapped in the Baroque paper referenced above. Faber likes doing that, giving his reader play-pretties that some will dismiss as brummagem, others will judge heavy handed, and some will see as pointers to the action to come and significators of the reason the story came to be in the first place.

The consort's process of atomizing in the wake of the scrotal scent-marking of the château accelerates; Catherine processes her depression more and more by living for her time feeding the bear-man and moving about in the woods that she still doesn't understand or trust but can't resist. She leaves her husband to his accustomed role of fixer, explainer, creator of images and maestro of the consort's musical identity. It's a desperate job of papering over cracks and slapping paint on plasterless brick walls. His contralto, previously Catherine's cicerone in the mysteries of flat paved roads leading through featureless obscure woods, focuses more and more on the primal job of feeding and tending her infant. His tenor, a raging horndog, furtles about the place seeking any distraction from his sexless state:
This morning, although she couldn't hear any identifiable television sounds filtering down into the kitchen, Catherine had a feeling it was probably still chattering away to Julian in his room, because the purity seemed to have been taken out of the silence somehow.
There was an inaudible fuzz, like the sonic equivalent of the haze from burning toast, obscuring Catherine's access to the acoustic immensity of the forest.
Julian's tenor is transmuted into the cosmic microwave background, both inescapable and inaudible, omnipresent and irrelevant to the foreground action...until he makes a discovery among the books there that is a major source of my mild disgruntlement with most of the Faber books I've read: A book of Massenet songs, pages uncut, that he finds and suggests they'd do better to sing from than the terrible piece they've been hired to premiere, is glancingly mentioned as probably containing forgotten works and never heard from again. The macaque-faced composeur (oo, I like that one), confronted at last by a technical flaw in his composition, makes what is apparently a token defense of himself and then the consort is allowed to do "whatever [they] like" for no apparent reason and without significant fireworks despite his brief appearance being a perfect set-up for a hissy-fit-throwing set piece...a few other let-downs, herrings painted reddish then allowed to swim back to the school, and we arrive at the tragedy inevitable from the moment our bear-man bass aired the place out. It's a nice piece of writing, a good story modest in scale and told with economy that would have benefited from just a bit more, or a minor bonsai shaping. Solid and attractive, like all good furniture.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps



The Fahrenheit Twins


Monday, May 8, 2017

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY, stories from a new Nigerian voice



WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY: Stories
LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH

Riverhead Books
$26 hardcover, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: A dazzlingly accomplished debut collection explores the ties that bind parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends to one another and to the places they call home.

In "Who Will Greet You at Home", a National Magazine Award finalist for The New Yorker, a woman desperate for a child weaves one out of hair, with unsettling results. In "Wild", a disastrous night out shifts a teenager and her Nigerian cousin onto uneasy common ground. In "The Future Looks Good," three generations of women are haunted by the ghosts of war, while in "Light," a father struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And in the title story, in a world ravaged by flood and riven by class, experts have discovered how to "fix the equation of a person" - with rippling, unforeseen repercussions.

Evocative, playful, subversive, and incredibly human, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky heralds the arrival of a prodigious talent with a remarkable career ahead of her.

THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU!

My Review:

The Future Looks Good

War Stories

Wild

Light

Second Chances

Windfalls

Who Will Greet You at Home

Buchi's Girls

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is the first of these stories I read, back when it was a finalist for the 2016 Caine Prize. My review is here.

Glory

What is a Volcano?

Redemption

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Winner winner barfed-up dinner


I believe we have a winner in the migraine mystery solution sweeps: Cleaning products. Housekeeping just came through spraying some toxic horror and the eyegraine has begun. The hurts-to-blink stage approaches fast. This sucks sweaty sweaty socks but if it's showing me how to stop triggering these hellish things, it's going down as a net plus.

SO MUCH FOR THAT WINTER, Danish author Nors's English-language debut



SO MUCH FOR THAT WINTER: Novellas
DORTHE NORS
(tr. Misha Hoekstra)
Graywolf Press
$15 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: Dorthe Nors follows up her acclaimed story collection Karate Chop with a pair of novellas that playfully chart the aftermath of two very twenty-first century romances. In “Days,” a woman in her late thirties records her life in a series of lists, giving shape to the tumult of her days—one moment she is eating an apple, the next she is on the floor, howling like a dog. As the details accumulate, we experience with her the full range of emotions: anger, loneliness, regret, pain, and also joy, as the lists become a way to understand, connect to, and rebuild her life.

In “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” a novella told in headlines, an avant-garde musician is dumped via text message. Fleeing the indignity of the breakup, and friends who flaunt their achievements in life, career, and family, Minna unfriends people on Facebook, listens to Bach and reads Ingmar Bergman then decamps to an island near Sweden “well suited to mental catharsis.” A cheeky nod to the listicles and bulletins we scroll through on a daily basis, So Much for That Winter explores how we shape and understand experience, and the disconnection and dislocation that define our twenty-first-century lives, with Nors’s unique wit and humor.

THE PUBLISHER SENT ME A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU.

My Review:

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

Days

Monday, May 1, 2017

THE BABYSITTER AT REST, Jen George's wowee-toledo! debut collection



THE BABYSITTER AT REST
JEN GEORGE

Dorothy, a publishing project
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Five stories—several as long as novellas—introduce the world to Jen George, a writer whose furiously imaginative new voice calls to mind Donald Barthelme and Leonora Carrington no less than Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus. In “Guidance/The Party,” an ethereal alcoholic “Guide” in robes and flowing hair appears to help a thirty-three-year-old woman prepare a party for her belated adulthood; “Take Care of Me Forever” tragically lambasts the medical profession as a ship of fools afloat in loneliness and narcissism; “Instruction” chronicles a season in an unconventional art school called The Warehouse, where students divide their time between orgies, art critiques, and burying dead racehorses. Combining slapstick, surrealism, erotica, and social criticism, Jen George’s sprawling creative energy belies the secret precision and unexpected tenderness of everything she writes.

My Review:

Guidance/The Party

The Babysitter at Rest

Take Care of Me Forever

Futures in Child Rearing

Instruction

Sunday, April 30, 2017

NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING, Rose George's tales from the world of shipping



NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate
ROSE GEORGE

Picador
$17 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: On ship-tracking Web sites, the waters are black with dots. Each dot is a ship; each ship is laden with boxes; each box is laden with goods. In postindustrial economies, we no longer produce but buy, and so we must ship. Without shipping there would be no clothes, food, paper, or fuel. Without all those dots, the world would not work. Yet freight shipping is all but invisible. Away from public scrutiny, it revels in suspect practices, dubious operators, and a shady system of "flags of convenience." And then there are the pirates.

Rose George, acclaimed chronicler of what we would rather ignore, sails from Rotterdam to Suez to Singapore on ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls; she patrols the Indian Ocean with an anti-piracy task force; she joins seafaring chaplains, and investigates the harm that ships inflict on endangered whales. Sharply informative and entertaining, Ninety Percent of Everything reveals the workings and perils of an unseen world that holds the key to our economy, our environment, and our very civilization.

My Review: Rose George is Mary Roach said with an English accent. I love lines like this:
I like that Maersk is a first name. It's like a massive global corporation named Derek.
Who can resist reading stuff by someone with this gamine grin in her prose?

Trade has always traveled and the world has always traded. Ours, though, is the era of extreme interdependence. Hardly any nation is now self-sufficient. In 2011, the United Kingdom shipped in half of its gas. The United States relies on ships to bring in two-thirds of its oil supplies. Every day, thirty-eight million tons of crude oil sets off by sea somewhere, although you may not notice it. As in Los Angeles, New York, and other port cities, London has moved its working docks out of the city, away from residents. Ships are bigger now and need deeper harbors, so they call at Newark or Tilbury or Felixstowe, not Liverpool or South Street.

In 2009, Lloyd's List reported that Maersk had sent a memo headed "Zero Recruitment in Europe." The columnist was scathing. "Famously, there are already more blue whales than there are British seafarers on British ships. The difference is that people are taking conservation measures to save the whale."

All workforces have waves and changing of guards. There were lascars and now there are Filipinos. But the diminishment of British and American merchant navies is unprecedented. There is regular fretting about recruitment in the pages of the shipping press. Some British seafarers plan to retire early or move into shore jobs. The captain [of her ship]...can be cold about his job—it is moving giant boxes, and that is that—but the force of his anger about his changed industry conveys something other than coldness. Before the oil crisis in 1973, there were British crews, British labor laws. After that they took the companies offshore. They offered us contracts with thirty percent lower wages, take it or leave it."
Same as it ever was in labor-versus-capital relations, isn't it.



THE BOX, demystifying the invisible world-changing role of shipping



THE BOX: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
MARC LEVINSON

Princeton University Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. "The Box" tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.

Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.

But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential.
Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.

My Review:

THE MOST PERFECT THING, how life begins in fragile containers



THE MOST PERFECT THING
TIM BIRKHEAD

Bloomsbury USA
$27 hardcover, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: Renowned ornithologist Tim Birkhead opens this gripping story as a female guillemot chick hatches, already carrying her full quota of tiny eggs within her undeveloped ovary. As she grows into adulthood, only a few of her eggs mature, are released into the oviduct, and are fertilized by sperm stored from copulation that took place days or weeks earlier. Within a matter of hours, the fragile yolk is surrounded by albumen and the whole is gradually encased within a turquoise jewel of a shell. Soon afterward the fully formed egg is expelled onto a bare rocky ledge, where it will be incubated for four weeks before another chick emerges and the life cycle begins again.

The Most Perfect Thing is about how eggs in general are made, fertilized, developed, and hatched. The eggs of most birds spend just 24 hours in the oviduct; however, that journey takes 48 hours in cuckoos, which surreptitiously lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. From the earliest times, the study of birds' ovaries and ova (eggs) played a vital role in the quest to unravel the mysteries of fertilization and embryo development in humans. Birkhead uses birds' eggs as wondrous portals into natural history, enlivened by the stories of naturalists and scientists, including Birkhead and his students, whose discoveries have advanced current scientific knowledge of reproduction.

My Review:

THE OPTIMISTIC ENVIRONMENTALIST, a welcome positive message in a world of depressing facts



THE OPTIMISTIC ENVIRONMENTALIST: Progressing Towards a Greener Future
DAVID R. BOYD

ECW Press
$17.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: Yes, the world faces substantial environmental challenges — climate change, pollution, and extinction. But the surprisingly good news is that we have solutions to these problems. In the past 50 years, a remarkable number of environmental problems have been solved, while substantial progress is ongoing on others.

The Optimistic Environmentalist chronicles these remarkable success stories. Endangered species — from bald eagles to gray whales — pulled back from the precipice of extinction. Thousands of new parks, protecting billions of hectares of land and water. The salvation of the ozone layer, vital to life on Earth. The exponential growth of renewable energy powered by wind, water, and sun. The race to be the greenest city in the world. Remarkable strides in cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink. The banning of dozens of the world’s most toxic chemicals. A circular economy where waste is a thing of the past. Past successes pave the way for even greater achievements in the future.

Providing a powerful antidote to environmental despair, this book inspires optimism, leading readers to take action and exemplifying how change can happen.

My Review:

WHAT THERE IS TO SAY WE HAVE SAID, a long, lively friendship in letters



WHAT THERE IS TO SAY WE HAVE SAID: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell
Suzanne Marrs, ed.

Mariner Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: For over fifty years, Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, two of our most admired writers, penned letters to each other. They shared their worries about work and family, literary opinions and scuttlebutt, moments of despair and hilarity. Living half a continent apart, their friendship was nourished and maintained by their correspondence.

What There Is to Say We Have Said bears witness to Welty and Maxwell’s editorial relationships—both in his capacity as New Yorker editor and in their collegial back-andforth on their work. It’s also a chronicle of the literary world of the time; read talk of James Thurber, William Shawn, Katherine Anne Porter, J. D. Salinger, Isak Dinesen, William Faulkner, John Updike, Virginia Woolf, Walker Percy, Ford Madox Ford, John Cheever, and many more. It is a treasure trove of reading recommendations.

Here, Suzanne Marrs—Welty’s biographer and friend—offers an unprecedented window into two intertwined lives. Through careful collection of more than 300 letters as well as her own insightful introductions, she has created a record of a remarkable friendship and a lyrical homage to the forgotten art of letter writing.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

New glasses ordered! Next the goofy meds might need adjusting



Yeup, I needed a new Rx for glasses alright. I'm also now taking Ocuvite twice a day up from once. Will now discuss adjusting the anxiety meds upward as well. These bloody migraines have got to stop.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Well, April has pretty much rotted on ice for me


I've been having migraines for the past few weeks. This is the first time since 2012 I've had the pain part...mostly I just get eyegraines, with the trippy Egyptian/Art Deco/Paisley hallucinations. I kinda sorta enjoy those, at least they keep me entertained.

These suckers, while mild by migraine standards (I know people whose suffering with the migraine events in their lives make me weep in sympathy), are stinkin' miserable and make me want to do socially unacceptable things to my TV-watching neighbors and roommate. With headphones on, eyes behind sleep mask, and endless rain sounds at a precisely tuned volume, I get through the 2-3 hours they last. Then sleep.

All of this is bad for reading and worse for reviewing. To the writers and publishers to whom I've promised reviews, they will happen, though timing is going to be off. I apologize all over myself, I regret any miffed feelings my brain's treason is causing (if any), but regularly scheduled curmudgeonliness will resume the instant I can get a handle on what brought this wretched plague back.

My next visit to the eye guy for a prescription check-up, eliminating the possibility that it's just horrific eyestrain (it's not, but I'm thorough), was moved to April 28th. Glaucoma? Some other eye disease? Elimination round begins then.

Think kind, soft, TV-less thoughts at me, please.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Taking a short hiatus

Hello my friends! I've been suffering from eyestrain. I need a new prescription and glasses, so until that happens I'm not able to read without headaches. I will be back in service ASAP.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

THE QUEST, fourth Ancient Egyptian novel, goes over the top



THE QUEST
WILBUR SMITH
(Ancient Egyptian #4)
St Martin's Press
$9.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Wilbur Smith has earned international acclaim for his bestselling River God, The Seventh Scroll, and Warlock. Now, the unrivaled master of adventure returns with the eagerly awaited sequel to his thrilling Egyptian series with his most fantastic story yet. The Quest continues the story of the Warlock, Taita, wise in the lore of the gods and a master of magic and the supernatural.

Egypt has been struck by a series of terrible plagues, killing its crops and crippling its people. Then the ultimate disaster befalls the kingdom. The Nile fails. The waters that nourish and sustain the land dry up.
Something catastrophic is taking place in the distant and totally unexplored depths of Africa, from where the mighty river springs. In desperation the Pharaoh sends Taita, the only man who might be able to find his way through the hazardous territory to the source of the Nile and discover the cause of all their woes. But not even Taita can have any idea of what a terrible enemy waits in ambush in those dark lands at the end of their world.

No other author can conjure up the violence and mystery of Ancient Egypt like Wilbur Smith. The Quest marks his stirring return to the acclaimed series and proves once again why fans such as Stephen King praise him as the world's "best historical novelist."

My Review: Okay. I started the series with an historical novel, shifted into overdrive as a fantasy element came to the fore in Warlock, and now we're in full-blown fantasy mode. The story isn't remotely believable as history, but it's s a good deal of fun.

What's disturbing to me is the squicky sexual politics. A eunuch is de-eunuched supernaturally to make the beast with two backs with a (young) reincarnated version of his long-dead love. I'm not sure that makes me all warm and fuzzy about love spanning the ages or really, really uncomfortable with old men sexing up little girls. Well, okay, she's not an actual little girl. But something just doesn't sit right with me. I don't know exactly what it is, in that the author isn't in any way making this prurient and sexual but is presenting it as lovers separated by death being reunited. I am not, however, comfortable with it, and it significantly clouded my enjoyment of the exciting, adventurous, and action-packed Wilbur Smith novel surrounding it.

The goddess battle was, I'm sorry to say, not a worthy end to the build-up we got. It was almost an afterthought, and it should have been a centerpiece. On balance, the Smith novel aspects are redeeming only to a middling extent. The pages turned, they will for all Smith readers, but the essential backing of history's known Egypt wasn't quite enough on this outing.

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW: one of the most poignant novella titles I've ever read



SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW
WILLIAM MAXWELL

Vintage
$14.00 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: In this magically evocative novel, William Maxwell explores the enigmatic gravity of the past, which compels us to keep explaining it even as it makes liars out of us every time we try. On a winter morning in the 1920s, a shot rings out on a farm in rural Illinois. A man named Lloyd Wilson has been killed. And the tenuous friendship between two lonely teenagers—one privileged yet neglected, the other a troubled farm boy—has been shattered.

Fifty years later, one of those boys—now a grown man—tries to reconstruct the events that led up to the murder. In doing so, he is inevitably drawn back to his lost friend Cletus, who had the misfortune of being the son of Wilson's killer and who in the months before witnessed things that Maxwell's narrator can only guess at. Out of memory and imagination, the surmises of children and the destructive passions of their parents, Maxwell creates a luminous American classic of youth and loss.

My Review: What a beautiful but sad book.
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory--meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion--is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
So speaks out narrator as he sets out to recreate the end of his childhood. The last gasping breath of an unhappy lad's, I think innocence is too light-hearted a term for it, ignorance of the full measure of unhappiness that others can bear in addition to himself, even if he waits a half-century to get to the meat of the pain:
Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen–the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of washing day, of wool drying in the wooden rack. Of ashes. Of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper. Take away the early-morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops.

His work clothes are still hanging on a nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on or takes them off. Nobody sleeps in his bed. Or reads the broken-back copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine. Take that away too, while you are at it.

Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too–the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.
"Cletus" brought to life as an Einsteinian thought experiment, a boy whose remembered existence is defined by a murder committed or a suicide perpetrated or both. Or neither?

But let me say this. My confusion about this issue is paralleled by the narrator's confusion about his own place, his very existence in the world of this little prairie farming town. His father isn't much for feelings, and he's a "sissy" and an artistic child...except for music, the art form his father loves and he knowingly resists learning as his only somewhat outward act of rebellion.
As he turned away I had the feeling he had washed his hands of me. Was I not the kind of little boy he wanted to have?
What strikes me as hilarious, in a not-funny-at-all way, is:
We were both creatures of the period. I doubt if the heavy-businessman-father-and-the-oversensitive-artistic-son syndrome exists anymore. Fathers have grown sensitive and kiss their grown sones when they feel like it, and who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.
Well now, this novella having a publication date of 1980, all I can think is that Maxwell intended this as sly humor. Or else he was deaf and blind.

Sly humor it is.

And it's of a piece with the Maxwellian phrases that abound in this book. It's always so tempting to rush to the Goodreads quotes page and add...almost every line he writes. Retyping the entire book being, then, a real temptation, I add no quotes to the ones already found there. I rely on the mathematical certainty that all of us together are smarter than any one of us individually. Let the hive mind decide which of these sentences are crucial, which best illuminate Maxwell's writerly chops as well as his storyteller's acumen.

But the title of this review gives me away. I want to add something to the quotes page. I can't, though, because even I the "oh-so-what-about-spoilers" King-Emperor feel the last two pages of the story can't be excerpted without making the point of reading the book evaporate.

It is damned near heartbreaking, what those pages say and what it means. I was perfectly glad to read this book, and rate it close to four stars. Then the ending hit me with Negan's baseball bat.

Maxwell wrote a good little story and a perfect ending. That deserves recognition. Read it, please, it won't take long and it will give you something beautiful in return.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

BP BLOWOUT, a thorough analysis of the most expensive corporate-caused disaster in history



BP BLOWOUT: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster
DANIEL JACOBS

Brookings Institution Press
$23.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: BP Blowout is the first comprehensive account of the legal, economic, and environmental consequences of the disaster that resulted from the April 2010 blowout at a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident, which destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killed 11 people. The ensuing oil discharge—the largest ever in U.S. waters—polluted much of the Gulf for months, wreaking havoc on its inhabitants and the environment.

A management professor and former award-winning Justice Department lawyer responsible for enforcing environmental laws, Daniel Jacobs tells the story that neither BP nor the federal government wants heard: how the company and the government fell short, both in terms of preventing and responding to the disaster.

Critical details about the cause and aftermath of the disaster have emerged through court proceedings and with time. The key finding of the federal judge who presided over the civil litigation was that the blowout resulted from BP’s gross negligence.

BP has paid tens of billions of dollars to settle claims and lawsuits. The company also has pled guilty to manslaughter in a separate criminal case, but no one responsible for the tragedy is going to prison.

BP Blowout provides new and disturbing details in a definitive narrative that takes the reader inside BP, the White House, Congress and the courthouse. This is an important book for readers interested in the environment, sustainability, public policy, leadership, and risk management.

THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU.

My Review: At the very beginning of this infuriating book, the author makes this statement:
The federal government brought criminal charges against BP and four of its employees. The company pled guilty to manslaughter and other charges to resolve the criminal case, agreeing to pay a record $4 billion in fines and penalties. Two BP employees were acquitted, and two pled guilty to misdemeanors. No one will go to prison for the accident. In stark contrast, the federal government prosecuted hundreds of individuals for filing false claims against BP. Seventy-five were incarcerated.
And this was under the late, lamented Obama administration. Can you even imagine what would happen if this were to happen under the current kakistocracy? The peons would be out polishing BP's tankers, chanting how sorry they were for the trouble their childrens' deaths were causing the corporation, the US Army guarding them with live ammunition in their guns.

The book is a good case study, at a high level, for what lies at the root of the epic disaster that has spawned a CGI-fest of a film, though few other tangible results outside the Gulf Coast. The disaster is, in hindsight, apparent from the get-go. BP filed the paperwork to gain drilling rights to this piece of the Gulf of Mexico that was, shall we say, slipshod:
On March 19, 2008, BP purchased from the federal government for $34 million the lease rights to a nine-square-mile area off the coast of Louisiana anomalously named the Mississippi Canyon. After making the purchase, BP went through the process of submitting to federal regulators the necessary plans to obtain permission to drill a well in the area.

BP's lengthy Initial Exploration Plan (EP) for the Macondo well was submitted in February 2009. In the section entitled "Blowout Scenario," BP wrote that "a scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this EP." In other words, the worst case scenario question was not applicable.

BP also submitted an Oil Spill Response Plan. It described the various species of wildlife that supposedly could be affected by an accident in the Gulf. In an indication that the Macondo plan was a cookie-cutter extract from another plan, some of the species identified in it (such as sea lions, sea otters, and walruses) exist not in the Gulf's warm waters but in frigid Alaskan waters. ... William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and later co-chair of the Presidential Commission investigating the BP disaster, said that he was "shocked" that BP was not better prepared than Exxon had been more than two decades earlier.
Sea lions in the Gulf. Man, I must have worse vision than I thought, living down there and going to the beach all those years and never so much as catching sight of one. So clearly we're not talking about a regulatory agency with much interest in the paperwork that's submitted to it. Not even the most cursory glance could possibly have been given to this farrago and had it pass muster.

And yet it did pass, like intestinal gas, and it's symptomatic of a far nastier problem that was fixing to blow. BP has a long history of taking the easiest way to get to its profits. It has been fined many times for careless operations resulting in human and environmental problems. Nothing, however, has yet been seen to equal the explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. The event itself is largely offstage for most of the book, forming the backdrop for the author's primary focus: and then what happened? The answer is, for all that it's contained in under 200 pages, admirably complete. Author Jacobs is in his element when relating the details of the disaster to the people and places they describe:
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, is conducting the GuLF Study, the largest ever study of the potential health effects associated with exposure to oil. The study plans to follow more than 30,000 members of the affected communities (cleanup workers and local residents) for ten years.
Preliminary results, reported in 2014, revealed that cleanup workers were 30 percent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. Results reported in 2015 showed that the incidence of wheezing and coughing in cleanup workers was 20-30 percent higher than normal.
After noting the clarity of Author Jacobs' presentation of the facts, I'll note their worrisome content and fret over the likelihood of the current administration's having cut or eliminated the funding for this study and its eventual report. The data would, I have little doubt, be very useful to the anti-oil lobby and will most likely be sent to live with the three-eyed, five-finned fishes around Macondo.

An issue that arises in almost every debate I've ever had with right-wing radicals is the stupidity of charging corporations with other-than-civil-law crimes. A corporation isn't a person, I've trapped a few into saying; if that's so, I counter, why does the law treat the corporation as a person? And after a horrible event like the Macondo well blowout that was primarily caused by the careless actions and reckless inactions of BP, can the fact of criminal culpability really not be considered and assigned?
What purpose is served by pursuing a corporation criminally instead of civilly when the primary sanction to be imposed in either case is a monetary penalty? The company itself cannot be sent to prison, and its directors, officers, and employees cannot be punished for the company's own ctiminal acrs. ... Reasonable minds differ on the question, with some legal scholars taking the view that the criminal justice process is wasted on corporations when civil sanctions are available. Although the concept of double jeopardy does not bar the government from seeking both criminal and civil penalties for the same transgression, arguably there is some overkill in its doing so.

In BP's case, however, there was very little overlap between the criminal offenses and the civil violations. Of the criminal charges brought against BP, the only negligent discharge count also constitutes a civil violation under the Clean Water Act. Moreover, when a company is responsible for such a huge calamity as the BP disaster, arguably it should be subject to both civil and criminal enforcement actions.
The nightmare that millions of people will continue to endure, in the form of a radically degraded environment that most likely will continue to suffer consequences of BP's bad business practices, seems to me to call for assignment of criminal culpability. Luckily, the courts agreed; also luckily, BP itself realized it was in new territory here and pled guilty to and/or settled almost all the suits brought against it.

This was not cheap, and it will continue to be not cheap for quite some years to come:
The nation's worst offshore oil discharge has resulted in what appears to be the world's most expensive manmade corporate disaster. At $61.1 billion, BP's estimate of its total costs broke all known records.

Significantly, the taxpayer bears all the risks of any unknown natural resource damage costs that exceed [a court mandated] $700 million cap. Depending on those potential costs—as well as how other societal costs are valued—all told the cost of the disaster might wind up growing substantially.

No matter how one values the costs of the BP disaster, they were enormous. Enormous for the company, its shareholders, the American taxpayer, and society as a whole. BP may have all but closed its books on the disaster, but the taxpayer and society may be left holding the bag.
BP's share price took a big hit after the Macondo disaster. The company used accounting chicanery to disguise the fact that, as a whole, it has yet to break a sweat paying the bills from their collective wrongdoing. They're profitable in spite of a lower market valuation. They're still drilling in US waters, in fact. Earning money from robbing the same nest they've already epically fouled. So their shareholders, from state pension funds down to index-fund shareholders, aren't in danger of losing real as opposed to fantasy money. That hasn't stopped a plethora of shareholder lawsuits from being filed. Some well-intentioned, suing to prevent the corporation from abusing the value of their shares by taking stupid risks, down to stupid stuff meant to be just annoying enough to get the suing parties a go-away payoff.

Ain't greed grand.

Author Jacobs advocates for a retreat from that kind of shareholding, described as shareholder-value management. The central presumption of this system is that managers have an affirmative legal duty to place the maintenance of shareholder value above any and all other concerns insofar as no laws are broken. There's a wink in there. No *important* laws, meanong ones that anyone can enforce expensively to the company's detriment. He cites a distinguished Cornell law professor, Lynn Stout, who claims that's a self-serving myth, "[c]hasing shareholder value is a managerial choice, not a legal requirement." Author Jacobs continues:
[Stout] maintains that BP shareholders do not necessarily want to raise share value to the exclusion of any other interest. "Real human beings own BP's shares, either directly or indirectly through pension and mutual funds, and real human beings care about much more than jusr whether BP stock rises."

A more enlightened current view of a corporation's purpose is known as the stakeholder theory. It teaches that a corporation owes a duty not just to its shareholders but to all of its stakeholders. These stakeholders include its business partners, customers, employees, and communities, among others. ...[M]any of BP's stakeholders were adversely affected by the BP blowout. They included BP's shareholders, whose stock plummeted. [The CEO]'s focus on being [primarily] an "operating company" backfired from any perspective.
The operating company that was supposed to save value for the shareholders by cutting corners has, with this disaster, received its death blow in my opinion. The current U-turn in social thinking will, I am confident, be short-lived. Too many people understand what it means and oppose its efforts.

Chapter 12, "Have We Learned or Only Failed?", is probably the most iportant part of the book. The question as phrased contains a big clue to the author's apparent purpose in writing this careful, complete overview of the Deepwater Horizon's death while drilling the Macondo well: Is past prologue, as it almost always is? "It depends," says Author Jacobs. It always depends. This book came out mere weeks before the 2016 election. The somewhat dubious tone of chapter 12 might have turned apocalyptic had it been published even a month later. The quoted paperwork above, filed by BP in pursuit of profits from the Macondo well, might be appalling but the agencies now in charge of licensing and inspecting oil drilling are not going to get larger or better funded now. The past is prologue. This time even the preface hasn't changed. It will most likely get worse before it gets better.

Sleep well.

Friday, March 31, 2017

FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT, belated light on a valorous unsung woman hero



FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT: Letters of a WASP Pilot
SARAH BYRN RICKMAN

Texas Tech University Press
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: More than eleven hundred women pilots flew military aircraft for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. These pioneering female aviators were known first as WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and eventually as WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Thirty-eight of them died while serving their country.

Dorothy Scott was one of the thirty-eight. She died in a mid-air crash at the age of twenty-three.

Born in 1920, Scott was a member of the first group of women selected to fly as ferry pilots for the Army Air Forces. Her story would have been lost had her twin brother not donated her wartime letters home to the WASP Archives. Dorothy's extraordinary voice, as heard through her lively letters, tells of her initial decision to serve, and then of her training and service, first as a part of the WAFS and then the WASP. The letters offer a window into the mind of a young, patriotic, funny, and ambitious young woman who was determined to use her piloting skills to help the US war effort. The letters also offer archival records of the day-to-day barracks life for the first women to fly military aircraft. The WASP received some long overdue recognition in 2010 when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal-the highest honor that Congress can bestow on civilians.

THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU!

My Review: It's amazing the depth and breadth of my ignorance about women's roles in military history. As World War II cranked up, the need for planes to get from where they were built to the place they were needed grew critical. Men had been ferrying the planes for the Army Air Force before open hostilities broke out. Naturally enough, these men were needed as combat pilots after Pearl Harbor was attacked, since they had the proper gentialia to be fighters. That left a vacuum for women to fill, much like wartime exigencies made in so many industries and walks of life.

That much I'd sort of assumed. I had no notion of the roots or the branches of the womens' role in this vital area of military endeavor. We've probably all heard of Amelia Earhart because she died on that round-the-world flight. But the world she came out of, the raw, rough early flying days, had plenty of women piloting these primitive fabric-and-wood crates in air circuses and barnstorming shows and everywhere there was flying to be done. Unsurprisingly, these were the women who filled the ranks of experienced flyers training raw recruits as the Army Air Force lunged to the limits of physics getting planes built, trained in, flown, and all around the town to coin a phrase.

I, to my surprise, was surprised. Logically the use of the women whose aerobatics were skilled from surviving the flying entertainment industry is no leap, but I just didn't know such a thing had existed. So score one for Author Rickman, a dedicated scholar of the WASP and WAFS, in the educate a man column. Score another one for making a couple thousand words bringing the whole readership up to speed so efficiently without missing a chance to entertain us with anecdotes from the era. I was sure, then, from the earliest pages of this book, that I was going to enjoy learning about Dorothy Scott and her world.

She was brought into the world by weird parents; her mother was well past thirty when she married her father, a man slightly her junior who was what we would now call a serial entrepreneur. For the early, World War I, days of their marriage, the Scotts lived on a fishing boat sailing between Alaska and Seattle. G.M. Scott bought the boat to make his fortune. Then sold it because he made his wife pregnant a second time, and the mere idea of two adults, a baby, and a three-year-old on a working boat made me claustrophobic 100 years later. It turned out to be an extra-good idea because the baby was twins, Dorothy and her brother Ed.

The boat morphed into a Ford dealership in rural Washington State. (I'm still chuckling over a man known as "G.M." to all and sundry selling Fords.) The three Scott siblings were shown the value of turning your hand to anything that needs doing; their family survived the Depression well enough for all three to discover a shared love of flying that led all of them to enter the Army Air Force or its equivalent, the WAFS, as soon as WWII started. What failed was the parental Scotts' marriage, as Mrs. Scott left rural Washington to settle in Los Angeles to be near a sister, apparently preferring this to being near a husband who "had a well-recognized temper."

Dorothy Scott was a lovely young woman, as the ample illustrations in the book demonstrate. She was as conventional as her parents: until she was accepted for WAFS training she was a flight instructor after not-quite graduating from college. Her father, concerned for the future of his clearly unusual daughter, had wanted her to enter the business world. That was out when her one, and I get the feeling from what's not said half-hearted, stab at it failed to pan out. Reading this passage from one of Dorothy's letters home to him, I think G.M. probably realized that the best solution to a problem is, sometimes, the least ordinary one:
Then we climbed in BTs [Basic Training planes]...To do it up right, we made a formation take off between smudge pots lining the runways. Remember, it was night! Oh pop, I'll never in all my life forget that ride! There we were nearly touching the next plane and guided only by small lights [on each plane] and the flare of the exhaust.

I was so busy watching the next plane that for a moment I forgot to look around, but soon I did, and the rapidly fading field looked like a million small fires.

We cruised in close formation for quite a ways, then we separated some. All of a sudden—swish, and we were in a snap-roll! I'd tightened my belt but did it even more, and from there to Memphis I had trouble telling when we were right side up and when we weren't. Loops, slow rolls, Immelmans, and everything else kept me plenty on the jump. I've never had such a ride. It was a very clear night but dark so the stars above looked a lot like the small clearing fires below and I had to check the instruments to believe anything.
The young woman penning those lines was never, ever going to be a stewardess or a housewife or a secretary. She was not built for those things, she was built to fly airplanes and be in the sky away from ordinary life.

And so it is, perhaps, for the best that a transition from the exciting and important flying life that Dorothy led until 3 December 1943 was unnecessary. Dorothy died in a terrible, pointless training accident as she was beginning a new flying skill: Pursuit aircraft, the powerful fighter planes that feature so heavily in war movies! How she would have loved that phase of her career. How incredibly poignant that, while she was taking her first steps on that path, an error in a control tower where she knew no one yet cost her, her trainer, and another pilot their lives.

Not to mention three mothers. Three fathers. Unknown numbers of siblings, spouses, cousins, aunts...death doesn't stop taking. It is so very unfair.

Now, listen carefully: Author Rickman made me care enough about this long-gone lady, that enthusiastic and engaged and excited young woman on her way up in her career and her life, that I sniffled a little when reading about her death. In a biographer, that level of nice and accurate rendering of the subject is a gift. Since this is not the first WASP biography from her, I suppose the author's skills in reanimating this long-gone world and its already collected stakes are in fine fettle from use and experience. But still, this was more than I expected when I saw this title while researching possible Women's History Month review subjects.

I've read other books published by Texas Tech University Press, and have liked each of them. A collection of short fiction largely set in the part of South Texas I'm from; a novel of the Plains Indians; a story of the settling of the part of Central Texas I grew up in. Each one was an excellent reading experience, and I'm very pleased to add FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT to their ranks.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

THE OTHER EINSTEIN, the reconstructed life of the first Mrs. Einstein



THE OTHER EINSTEIN
MARIE BENEDICT

Sourcebooks Landmark
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

THE PUBLISHER SENT A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU!

My Review: Marie Benedict, I salute you. The decision to tell the story of Albert Einstein's first wife, physicist Mileva Marić, and her intense intellectual beginnings fading into parental tragedy, emotional aridity, and ultimately humiliating drudgery, was bold beyond belief. There was quite simply no way on this wide green earth to make everyone with an interest in the story happy. Many would be satisfied with nothing less than a jargon-laden, drily scientific reconstruction of the potential/probable debates the couple most likely had. Others would faint from terror at the mere mention of names like Boltzmann, Mach, Drude, et alii. The line Benedict chose to tread was weighted in favor of broad strokes on all fronts. Imagine a woman...an Eastern European woman...arriving at one of the world centers of scientific inquiry at all, at a time in history when women had no vote to cast, no right to own property, and the very real risk of dying in socially mandatory childbirth across the entire world.

That was Mileva. Really, that is all that must be said of her. She was so exceptional that she arrived in this place at all, held her own academically, and but for meeting a charming rogue who wiled her out of her virginity and thus her rightful place in the world, might well have been as much a name to conjure with as Madame Marie Curie. Benedict does this by whisking us through the social life of Mileva's bluestocking buddies as they have musicales and climb local beauty spots, the whirl of cafe society among Mileva's male colleagues as they discuss and dispute their subject's roil and ferment over coffee, introducing us to the extraordinarily supportive Serbian father whose dreams and fears for Mileva come through his comparatively few actual lines. All in barely a hundred pages.

It is the fate of any author telling a private person's personal story to be an inventor. Dialogue can't be anything but invented. Letters, especially in the Belle Epoque, can (if Clio so wills it) be found and either quoted or digested, but Life isn't a novel and so doesn't offer the precise words needed for dramatic purposes. After all, fiction is a bunch of lies that, properly stuck together, make the truth undeniably visible to all. Benedict has very clearly made her way through a great deal of research material and has selected from the piles, stacks, boxes, shelves those moments and matters and words that best fit her plot.

The saddest part of the above, to me, is that she wasn't required to do very much discarding or eliding to make Albert Einstein into a proper shit of a man. The daughter he never saw, born out of wedlock because his harpy of a mother wouldn't countenance Mileva as a wife for her unemployed wastrel of a darling, was only the beginning of a life-long pattern of verbal abuse...there exists a letter from him to Mileva listing an appalling, humiliating list of conditions she must follow to be allowed to remain with the Great Man...and emotional neglect that extended to his two sons from their marriage. Not that he was any too cuddlesome to his cousin Elsa, aka Mrs. Einstein the Second: He proposed to her younger, prettier daughter after finally wearing Mileva down into agreeing to a divorce. Wise lady said no; her mama married Einstein anyway, knowing what was what.

Mileva's later Einsteinless life was one of economic deprivation, despite the eventual arrival of the Nobel Prize money promised to her in the divorce settlement. (Her own family's economic comfort evaporated with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Great War.) One of her sons was schizophrenic. Investing in a Swiss boarding house didn't work out well. Mileva was born under an unlucky star, and was so very clearly an intelligent, decent human being who deserved better than she settled for in life.

She was a tragic pioneer of women's rights to a place at the table in the sciences. She was a fascinating character. She deserves to be discussed, celebrated, lauded along side her famous ex-husband, and Marie Benedict has made a sold stride in that direction by writing The Other Einstein. September is National Science Club Month, and if I were in a science club, I'd demand we read this book. There is so very much to discuss in these pages, discussions that will last well beyond the club meeting itself.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WHAT BECOMES US, abusive relationship escapee lands in fascinating trouble



WHAT BECOMES US
MICAH PERKS

Outpost19
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A modern-day pioneer in search of a new life, pregnant Evie leaves her abusive husband and lands in a close-knit community divided by local colonial history a story that goes deep to the roots of the American conscience. Following a near fatal accident, Evie, a mild-mannered, pregnant school teacher, abandons her controlling husband and flees Santa Cruz, California for the wilds of western New York. She rents a farm house on a dead end road in a seemingly ideal, multi-cultural community. When she begins teaching at the local high school, she becomes obsessed with an assigned book, The Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson. This early American classic is the first book written by a woman in the Americas and details Rowlandson's harrowing captivity during King Philip's War in the seventeenth century. As Mary Rowlandson's insatiable hunger begins to fill Evie's dreams, Evie wonders if she may actually be haunted. At the same time, Evie becomes obsessed with her neighbor, a married Chilean immigrant. As she grows more pregnant, her desires/hunger grows out of control, and threaten to destroy her adopted community.

THE PUBLISHER SENT ME A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANKS Y'ALL!

My Review: Micah Perks has some big brass ones. It's not every novelist, even one whose previous novel received a lot of praise, who would choose to narrate her novel of a woman's decision to take her own power back from a controlling and very unempathetic man from the point of view of the couple's unborn twins.

I do believe we have a new narrative option for future writers: Multiple third-person unborn.

Add into this the author's tale within the novel, a factual historical account written by the captured and enslaved Mary Rowlandson (a white woman) during King Philip's War. A tale that's apparently also a portal, kind of a non-Potterverse Horcrux, as Evie (our uterus-bearer) travels (?--the "dreams" Evie has are, well, you decide when you read the book) into the time Mary Rowlandson suffers the torments of being prisoner to the Wampanoag people's powerful Queen Weetamoo.

But Evie isn't a stranger to the feeling of being a prisoner. Her husband, so strong, so handsome, so omnicompetent, had her completely under his iron sway. He is Right; she is wrong, incompetent, weak. She can't even wipe a kitchen counter properly. It started as a willing submission on Evie's part, a sense of being coddled and protected and, in the agricultural sense, husbanded. As is so often the case, relationships founder on the rocks once used as foundations. Evie realizes she and her unborn children must not live as her husband's captives...though in all honesty, I suspect an unpregnant Evie would simply have stayed. Just my thought on the matter since the text offers no speculation on the subject.

Running away from home in a scene that's a comic parody of the classic shin-down-the-tree trope, Evie leaves the beautiful anti-Paradise of Santa Cruz and lights out for the territory. In this case the territory is upstate New York, an obscure corner of same, populated by crazies, eccentrics, and people who probably shouldn't be given the vote. It's perfect for Evie. She even stumbles across the perfect house in the first minutes of her presence in Lonely Rincon Road:
She shuts the door and examines it, no lock, loose in the frame. She rests her hand on the crack between the door and the wall and feels that cool, moist, radon-breath on her palm. This basement is the only part of the house she dislikes. Californians don't have basements. She doesn't like the idea of the ground underneath a house hollowed out, destabilizing the whole structure. She duct tapes stiff old sponges she finds under the sink across the crack between the basement door and the floor in hopes of sopping up the radon before it enters the house. Then she pulls a strip of the duct tape across the door to the wall.
Perfect! Across the street from an unsettlingly handsome Chilean immigrant, his felonious war-protester wife (this is set in the first Bush administration), their headstrong young daughter, his super-Christian brother and that family of wackos (the normal one ran away to New York City so they pretend she's dead), his wife's ne'er-do-well brother and sons (Juniper, their mom, is Not All There and wisps through the narrative like really good hash smoke); well, you get the drift. And the house, radon-filled basement and all, is Evie's dream. Her husband is a continent away and unlikely to think of looking for her where she is; she's left no clues she can avoid leaving to lead him there.

Add in Evie's job at the local high school and the elements are there for a darn fine life.

Stories wither and shrivel without conflict. The conflict on Lonely Rincon Road centers on Narrative of the captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Evie encounters the book for the first time as she prepares to teach high school history in place of a fired Evangelical friend of her nutty Christian neighbors. His take on the book was, shall we say, not to community standards. Evie has a much more disturbing relationship to the book.

She's possessed by Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. They're dreams, thinks Evie, who has developed perinatal somnambulism. They're dreams so vivid they come to life in her mind in ways the book she's reading and teaching cannot possibly record:
Then it's grey morning, and Sarah has disappeared.

Mother rises up. She feels light, light in her body, light-headed, achingly stiff and run through with panic. She rushes hither and thither, asking everyone what have they done with her child, her papoose. Sarah, her baby? She rocks her arms to show who she means.

Finally, someone points to the ridge above the village and mother climbs up there and finds the grave. She places her hands on the fresh dirt. She thinks, Don't leave me here alone. She will dig Sarah up, and she even pulls up a fistful of dirt to begin, but then she stops.

When Mother rises this time, she is a hollow thing, a ghost thing, a thing filled with air. She can imagine herself a dandelio gone to fluff, blown by her little girl's last breath, dissolving into a thousand separate seeds each with its own wing to fly off the ridge and away.
Remembering that the book is narrated by Evie's unborn twins explains the use of "Mother" and remembering that the dream being narrated is accompanied by sleepwalking and remembering...hell, don't remember anything, just read that passage and tell me you don't *get* in the depths of your guts the horror of a parent losing a child. That Evie is given this vision or transported to this moment in history, or however you choose to construct it in your reading, while pregnant with twins, tells the true story here. Evie is a terrified emotional cracked vessel. Evie, whose waking time teaching the teenagers of her neighbors is fraught with the usual angst and rage teens bring; whose nights are spent unkowingly wandering, possibly stealing but certainly taking others' belongings; whose undivorced ex looms in every thought she has about the men in her world; whose sanity just might be slipping away from her, is kept at just the right distance from the reader by the unborn twin narrators:
Holding her belly with one hand she hurries down the stairs in her long nightgown, through the living room, bangs painfully into the table with her hip, pulls open the door, and rushes into the spindly woods. She stumble-runs for a while, then finally stops, leans against a smooth grey beech tree, trying to catch her ragged breath. She leans her head against the slim trunk. She can see a bit of moon through the trees. She presses into her belly again, and again she feels us, something that is not her inside her. She can't stop smiling and poking at us. It's a wild, satisfied animal smile. She thinks, How good not to be caught in Joan's bedroom, how good here in the woods. How good my babies are both alive, and they lived under my ribs. She begins to walk again, humming one of those songs she'd taught to her students in California. This land is your land, this land is my land, it was made for you and me. She sings off key, and fiercely.
Like all the best ghost stories, this one is rife with funny moments...a Passover seder that's a hoot, a wardrobe malfunction whose hilarity leads to a sad and poignant moment with the religious family's denial and prudery; and the spooky but (to me, anyway) really hilarious ending of the novel, all meet in one moment which demonstrates that Micah Perks has big, big brass ones like I told you up top. Nothing is resolved, like in life, just gears shifted and four-wheel-drive mode engaged as all Perks' characters experience massive, painful, life-altering transformations in the circle of a fire on a beautiful night.

Welcome to the world, y'all. It doesn't get less screwed up outside Mother's womb. But y'all are in a world enviably rich and passionately alive. Most poor suckers don't get in a lifetime even half the fun of just y'all's gestational residence in Evie!

Buy, read, laugh; think; cry; you won't be sorry.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

AGNES MARTIN, overlooked for pop-fame but not for artistic recognition of her genius



AGNES MARTIN: Her Life and Art
NANCY PRINCENTHAL

Thames and Hudson
$39.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Over the course of a career that spanned fifty years, Agnes Martin s austere, serene work anticipated and helped to define Minimalism, even as she battled psychological crises and carved out a solitary existence in the American Southwest. Martin identified with the Abstract Expressionists but her commitment to linear geometry caused her to be associated in turn with Minimalist, feminist, and even outsider artists. She moved through some of the liveliest art communities of her time while maintaining a legendary reserve. I paint with my back to the world, she says both at the beginning and at the conclusion of a documentary filmed when she was in her late eighties. When she died at ninety-two, in Taos, New Mexico, it is said she had not read a newspaper in half a century. No substantial critical monograph exists on this acclaimed artist the recipient of two career retrospectives as well as the National Medal of the Arts who was championed by critics as diverse in their approaches as Lucy Lippard, Lawrence Alloway, and Rosalind Krauss. Furthermore, no attempt has been made to describe her extraordinary life. The whole engrossing story, told here for the first time, Agnes Martin is essential reading for anyone interested in abstract art or the history of women artists in America."

THIS SPECTACULARLY LOVELY BOOK WAS PROVIDED BY THAMES AND HUDSON AT MY REQUEST. I AM DEEPLY GRATEFUL TO YOU.

My Review: Agnes Martin's life began in complexity, proceeded in complexity, and ended in complexity. She wasn't from a happy family, evidence suggesting her father's existence added little to her mother's happiness or material success; his life appears to have diverged from his family's before Agnes could possibly have known anything of him, as early as 1914 (she was born in 1912) when her mother assumed ownership of the Saskatchewan land where he brought them to homestead. The famously close-mouthed Martin spent most of her youth on Canada's West Coast, not the Saskatchewan prairie; yet it was that prairie, vast and limitless vistas defined by the unique quality of unmodulated light, that ever and always lived in her eye.

Author Princenthal's unenviable task in biographizing Martin was set early on, in that closed-mouthedness and its close relative "is this real or is it Memorex?" Can the few recorded utterances of a quiet, and often quietly under the heavy burden of mental illness...symptoms recorded by friends suggest schizophrenia dogged Martin's life, undiagnosed and gratefully not severe enough to cause outside intervention...be rationalized into a single narrative, or is it even important and relevant to make this attempt?

I myownself say no to that. I think what survives in the way of others' memories of Martin and her life and her utterances are best read, viewed, absorbed as simply as possible, representative of Martin's preferred presentation of self. Let us leave the private and inner world of the artists to the artist, accept what she said at a given moment as her truth, and recognize that her truth evolved with her spirit and her magnificent, mathematical, ultimately and beautifully spiritual artwork.
Martin's retrospective evaluation of the artwork she made during her initial years in New Mexico was categorical: "At Taos I wasn't satisfied with my paintings and at the end of every year I'd have a big fire and burn them all." ... The ouevre begins modestly, with several small watercolor landscapes strongly reminiscent of John Marin; they could be among those of which she said, "I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like anthills." This is not necessarily a failure of representation. The clarity of the atmosphere in New Mexico (see above for reference to unmodulated light) does make distant mountains look deceptively close, hence oddly small, and Martin's depictions are sprightly and fresh, capturing the regal blue sky and hurrying clouds so characteristic of the high desert.
This 1947 image of Taos' mountainous amazing landscape is a rare survivor of Martin's tendency to destroy her works, a female Cronus (Crone-a? heh), when they weren't up to her demanding standards. Princenthal on this specific piece:
...a confident sketch of deeply shadowed mountains in bright sunlight, rendered with quick, precise strokes.
This is precisely how the image hits my eyes and the words could have come from my own brain; this is the moment when I began to trust Author Princenthal to lead me, not simply to inform me of facts, but lead my eyes to moments and places I would have gone to had I the erudition and the visual vocabulary to know of them. In reading a book about an artist, this sense is (for me) irreplaceable; it is akin to the feeling I get when, as a recent and deep disappointment with Edward Hoagland's latest novel demonstrated on the downside, an editor and/or author demonstrates a solid and deep grasp of detail.

Martin's early and unsatisfactory landscapes, journeyman works no doubt but fine ones indeed, gave way in her middle age...she was forty in 1952...to the Abstract Expressionist-ish work of her second round of schooling at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The heady art atmosphere of 1950s New York could not possibly have passed Martin by, though Author Princenthal makes plain the comparatively more conservative art culture of the college. I suppose that's inevitable in an academic setting where preparing a person for a career in art instruction is the purpose. This image is, in my eyes, one of the most Agnes Martin-ly images she produced in that time, superior in its emotional affect on me to several more derivative Abstract Expressionist canvases:
Martin spent much of her life...well into her 50s...either in poverty or damned close to it. Not so very unusual for an artist, I suppose, but I can't help but feel when I look at this huge 48" x 72" work that the cost to her for the materials must have been ruinous; and to my eye, the painting itself should have sold for Jackson Pollock money. Princenthal has this to say about the work:
More robustly narrative, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, tentatively dated 1953, is, at 4 by 6 feet, a very large painting by Martin's standards at the time.... It is executed in oil on board, and in feeling is decidedly graphic, with delicate contours, executed in finely drawn, ink-black lines, and vaporous washes of color. The biblical narrative is given a sharp twist into what clearly seems, not the exodus of two mortals fallen from a state of grace, but the escape of a terrified woman from a powerful if irresolute man. Adam's head, outlined in profile, faces up, howling; a star shoots across the sky above him. Though reaching forward, he seems immobilized, perhaps by the horseshoe-like shapes that link his slightly bent knees. His upright form spans the surface, an anchoring column. Eve, by contrast, is in chaotic flight. Facing us, her arms wide in appeal, she is lifted up by a graceful, bounding leg, and also by a spinning, propeller-shaped foot; she appears as well to be supported by wings. Windswept green leaves adorn her back. The colors, thinly applied, are mostly pale shades of pink, blue, and white, though a bright red form scythes across Adam's midsection; flying toward his chest is what seems to be a disembodied breast. For all the inscrutability of its symbolism, the composition is powerfully integrated; its emotional register is of baffled panic, as in a dream from which the sleeper desperately tries, without success, to scream herself awake.

This 1958 work is unusual and deeply interesting to me. Martin's creation of it is structural as well as painterly. It fits my idea of Martin as an artist of space and time. The author has this insight to offer:
Without question she would come to resist, in the most vigorous terms, any suggestion that her work represented landscape, water, weather, light, or any other natural conditions or forms. But the natural allusions in titles persist for some time...what is arguably clearest, in these works of the late 1950s and early '60s, is the difficulty of giving up such references to landscape and water, of turning away from the kind of natural beauty to which she was so clearly alive, and which offered so much in the way of painterly, and emotional, resources. ...Martin was experimenting with reliefs and fully three-dimensional constructions made from materials found around the [New York] seaport. The Laws, 1958...consists of a tall, narrow wooden board (it is 93-1/2 by 18 by 2 inches) that is painted grey below and black on top; a gridded pattern of boat spikes is driven into the black field. ... "The life of the work depends upon the observer," [Martin] wrote. And, "if we can know our response, see in ourselves what we have received from a work, that is the way to the understanding of truth and all beauty."
So for all Martin's strenuous rejection of Nature as Muse, Martin the artist knew and said in words that the viewer perceives the work and derives from it the meaning and beauty that she can, and will. So while the intent was not to re-create the world on canvas or board, the perception of the viewer inarguably takes precedence over the intent of the artist. Constructions like The Laws can be seen as attempts to reject Nature but end up, at least to this viewer, evoking the very seaside that provided their materials. I don't think Martin was done with the natural world.

Martin's many years in New Mexico were a wildly mixed bag, monetarily speaking; her art never stopped its endless refining process. Sometimes it's only in deprivation that a spiritual seeker can find a way to speak her truth. Martin's explicit rejection of Nature as her muse will always ring hollow to me. She herself said, "Almost everyone believes that art is from the of the artist meaning the intellectually grasped experience. ... I want to repeat: there are no valid thoughts about art. If your sensibilities are awake you will respond."
This 1992 untitled image presents the Agnes Martin I suspect most people are familiar with. Her color planes and smooth geometry and gorgeously realized symmetry create a calm mood, a lot like looking at a Taos springtime landscape or a visit to a sunrise seashore. Agnes Martin's limitless vistas and perfectly tuned spaces, colors, shapes, and ideas are timeless...literally outside of time. Her art, in that sense, truly does reject nature as a muse. It's impossible to paint a landscape or a still life that is outside of time. Light forbids it.

Agnes Martin's endless journey into the symmetry and beauty of shape, form, geometry, and color's softest subtlest corners, really constitute a biography told in awakened images. The work absolutely perfectly reflects this summation by Author Princenthal:
The way Martin lived, the way she dressed and ate, socialized ans spent her private time, the way she furnished her homes and traveled, conformed to no one's notions of high style. She didn't wear black, she wasn't svelte or soignée. While she never owned a television (or a computer), neither did she live off the grid...She loved fancy cars and ocean liners. She liked being honored. She valued humility above all else. She was at once a consummate insider and a lifelong outsider, a devoted student of Zen and Christian mysticism, ans a sworn skeptic. She was of sound mind (and to the extent that such a state can be defined), and at times she was not. Her most reliable testimony remains her majestic work.


NOTICE All Agnes Martin artworks are copyrighted. For information on reproduction rights, contact Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society, New York.