Sunday, October 25, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 9)

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 8.    

A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.

I read Hamilton's words and it is impossible for me not to reflect on the perpetual vibration of revolutionary moments.  I think of another republic - Weimar Germany - so named because in 1919, at the conclusion of World War I when the monarchy was transformed into a republic, the National Constituent Assembly was convened in the City of Weimar and its constitution drafted there.  The Kaiser left power peacefully, but even this relatively non-violent revolution was accompanied by crippling hyperinflation, battles in the streets of Berlin, and the murder of opponents of the leading socialist party  - the Communist revolutionaries Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht.  At this moment in America, we hear the screams of 'tyranny' from the left and 'anarchy' from the right.  I think that it's fair to say we are experiencing our own form of agitation.  Our framers sought stability for their burgeoning nation as they were coming out of a period of revolution, but time moves ever forward and when governments are incapable of being dynamically responsive to big societal changes, they become brittle and desperate.  Witness politics 233 years after Hamilton dreamed of his united states.

There are many flavors a republic can come in, if you are deliberately designing a government.  In Paper No. 9, Hamilton looks to discredit an argument advanced by opponents of the United plan, who cited the French political philosopher Montesquieu. Montesquieu is best known for the concept of the separation of the powers of the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government as a means of averting despotism.  He advises republics of small territory to restrain those incapable of moderation from seeking glory and oppressing their fellow citizens. The anti-Federalists opposing Publius use this to support their argument. Hamilton counters, claiming it is not an either-or proposition.  One can reduce the size of members of the Union, he writes, but nothing says they cannot be joined under the aegis of one confederacy. In fact Montesquieu explicitly proposed the formation of 

a confederate republic as the expedient for extending the sphere of popular government and reconciling... [and here Hamilton quotes Montesquieu] "the internal advantages of a republican, together with the external force of a monarchial government..."

"A republic of this kind, able to withstand an external force, may support itself without any internal corruption...If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have equal authority and credit, in all the confederate states... Should a popular insurrection happen, in one of the confederate States, the others are able to quell it. Should abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound. The State may be destroyed on one side, and not on the other;"

And here he says something that surprised me:

"the confederacy may be dissolved, and the confederates preserve their sovereignty."

Even Montesquieu allows for an out-clause.

Hamilton clarifies that a confederacy draws the line by restricting the exercise of its authority to the "members in their collective capacities, without reaching to the individuals of whom they are composed." One guarantor of restraint is the members' voting power.  The Lycian confederacy, in the 14th and 15th century BC in what is now Turkey, had a council of 23 member republics, the largest of which had three votes, the middle level two, and the smallest one. Montesquieu singled it out as his model confederate republic.

Friday, October 23, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 8)


 THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 7.    

A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers

 If we are wise enough to preserve the Union, we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us. Her colonies in our vicinity, will be likely to continue to much disproportioned in strength, to be able to give us any dangerous annoyance. Extensive military establishments cannot, in this position, be necessary to our security. But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or which is most probably, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe - our liberties would be prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other. 

Hamilton again writes about the superior safety of the united over the disunited model, however, he makes a novel point in Paper No. 8.  European nations have a history of maintaining armies perpetually ready to fortify their borders and defend themselves against conquest, he writes. Regular skirmishes erupt to breach borders. The advantage is a recent history not of long violent wars and toppled empires, but of small towns taken and re-taken, a constant drain on resources. But the relative youth of America means that borders are not yet fortified. The result in a disunited America will be the easy victory of more populous over sparsely populated states, and a constant state of war that would be "desultory and predatory."

However, the ultimate cost here is that each American state, like the nations of Europe, will establish standing armies to defend their borders.

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct.  Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war - the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort...to institutions, which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.  To be more safe they...become willing to run the risk of being less free. 

The smaller and naturally weaker states will have the most urgent reason to build up a large military, constantly at the ready to defend themselves, and here he makes the most vital point, this will require strengthening the executive branch of government.  

It is the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.

Vigorous leadership emphasizing strength, with the assistance of disciplined armies, will progress over time toward despotism, as was seen in "the old world."  Monarchy is what the founding of America was trying to escape.  Whether leaving for the promise of practicing a minority religion or greater economic opportunity, the antidote to restricted freedom was going to be the establishment of a system of representative government. This newly drafted constitution promised to be the next step in that process.

Hamilton vividly contrasts nations rarely exposed to invasion with those living in constant fear of them. With those rarely exposed:

The laws are not accustomed to relaxations, in favor of military exigencies - the civil state remains in full vigor...the smallness of the army renders that natural strength of the community an overmatch for it; and the citizens, not habituated to look up to the military power for protection, or to submit to its oppressions, neither love nor fear the soldier...the army under such circumstances...will be unable to enforce encroachments against the united efforts of the great body of the people.  

vs.

The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it - its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military states becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees, the people are taught to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.

Count on Alexander Hamilton writing in 1787 to put into words why Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump's assembling paramilitary forces composed of personnel from various Federal agencies to subdue vigorous protests is an outrageous infringement of Constitutional principle and not an invocation of "law and order" as usual. It reeks of despotism to subjugate American citizens' anger using military action carried out by forces in unmarked vehicles, wearing combat fatigues but with their insignia obscured, who are apparently not accountable to ranking military leaders.  One sees in action just what Hamilton spoke of - a shifting away from Legislative and toward Executive authority.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 7)


THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 6.    

A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

Avoiding internecine conflict between states continues to occupy Hamilton's attention in Paper No. 7.  He cites particularly, the likelihood of territorial disputes, given the "vast tract of unsettled territory within the boundaries of the United States," and the prevailing practice at that time of asking states to make concessions to the union that then existed in 1787 "for the benefit of the whole." However, he cautions, disuniting the states would mean that each could apply different principles,leading to more potential hostility without a "common judge to interpose between" the parties. 

 The same difficulty could apply to commercial disputes, and he imagines that significant objections are likely to raised by neighboring states if duties were levied by one against another.  Settling the public debt of the existing Union was a particular concern as states could disagree not only to the rules governing what portion of the debt each would be responsible for, but also to policy regarding the discharging of a debt in general.  

There is perhaps nothing more likely to disturb the tranquility of nations, than their being bound to mutual contributions for any common object, which does not yield an equal and coincident benefit. For it is an observation as true, as it is trite, that there is nothing men differ so readily about as the payment of money. 

Apparently Hamilton had it right on the money. Even living under the ratified federal constitution here in question, 233 years later, the American president is arguing the value of our contribution to NATO and the United Nations. Hamilton concludes:

America, if not connected at all, or only by the feeble tie of a simple league offensive and defensive, would by the operation of such opposite and jarring alliances be gradually entangled in all the pernicious labyrinths of European politics and wars; and by the destructive contentions of the part, into which she was divided would be likely to become a prey to the artifices and machinations of powers equally the enemies of them all. 

It saddens me as I read repeatedly about the power Publius saw vested in the Constitution.  To them, it was a guarantor of a bond between Americans strong enough to encourage sacrifice of personal, party, or local advantage to the greater good of the whole.  Clearly that power has dwindled and personal or party advantage reign supreme.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 6)

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 5.    

A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

Alexander Hamilton takes up the pen again in the sixth paper. He writes:

A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt, that if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other.  To presume a want of motives for such contests, as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties, situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.

The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable. There are some which have a general and almost constant operation upon the collective bodies of society: Of this description are the love of power or the desire of preeminence and dominion - the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety. 

Masha Gessen reminds us in her recent book Surviving Autocracy of Barack Obama's speech upon the election victory of Trump in 2016.  Obama praised the democratic hallmark of a peaceful transition of power, adding:

The point, though, is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.

Yes it is the point.  That our democracy was dependent upon good faith is abundantly clear, now that so many in power no longer practice it.  One must assume from what Hamilton writes, that he sees the Constitution as imposing enough good faith among us, including those elected to office, to counter that ambitiousness, vindictivness, rapaciousness, and love of power of which he writes.  He saw our formation as a union as binding us to act in good faith towards our laws and one another. Many executives and legislators have pushed the boundaries through history, but love for the law has always superseded the love of power. Until now. 

We the people,... in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty" do ordain and establish this Constitution...

We ordained it.  We invested it with a kind of holiness.  Our founders chose their words seriously. So seriously that three men argued for 85 days to convince the citizens of New York of the value of its passage.

Those who argue that discrete states can be united through mutual interest in commerce, writes Hamilton, are not supported by examples, either from ancient history or more recent events. In fact, advantages of trade and navigation for trade can often be seen as the justification for war. Hamilton is clear eyed about the promise of our better natures motivating us to work together in harmony without being compelled to do so. 

...what reason can we have to confide in those reveries, which would seduce us into an expectation of peace and cordiality between the members of the present confederacy, in a state of separation? Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

"Neighbouring nations are natural enemies...", Hamilton quotes Vide Principes des Negotiations by L'Abbe de Mably, "unless their... constitution prevents the differences that neighbourhood occasions, extinguishing that secret jealousy, which disposes all States to aggrandise themselves at the expense of their neighbour."  It is the written rule of law, and its proper administration, that guides human nature away from its natural tendency towards selfish ambition.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 5)

 

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 4.    

A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers

John Jay writes in Paper No. 5 of a letter that Queen Ann wrote to the Scottish Parliament in 1706 in favor of the union of England and Scotland:

An entire and perfect Union will be the solid foundation of lasting peace: It will secure your religion, liberty, and property, remove the animosities amongst yourselves, and the jealousies and differences betwixt our two kingdoms. It must encrease your strength, riches, and trade: and by this Union the whole Island, being joined in affection and free from all apprehensions of different interest, will be enabled to resist all its enemies.

There's a sales job if there ever was one. Buy united elixir! It will remove blemishes, relieve tooth pain, improve the insulation of your home, and generally shower riches upon you - or it certainly will for the salesperson since she will have your revenue.  However hyperbolic Queen Ann's promises, they worked! Scotland and England created a formal political union in 1707.  It took only 150 years for the Scots to start campaigning for Home Rule. An independence referendum was voted on as recently as 2014 and almost 45% of Scots voted for independence.  When the UK voted on Brexit, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU in contrast to the 48% of British citizens overall.  The First Minister of Scotland claimed this as a justification for another independence referendum, but the Prime Minister declined to put it to a vote so soon after the last one.

Jay adds to the arguments he already made by using the example of the history of Great Britain to support why a united nation is preferable to a divided one,  The disagreements between the three nations that previously comprised Britain, he claims, kept them in a nearly perpetual state of war centuries, weakening their ability to defend themselves from the attacks by foreign enemies.  He proposes that multiple nations on the American landmass would create policy and border disputes.  He cautions that these nations will not necessarily be equal in their in their strengths, as if to say, if you welcome war don't be so certain that you won't lose. 

Separate nations would also have separate commercial interests, and their commerce with other countries would be regulated by separate treaties.  So adjacent nations could end up taking opposing sides in a dispute with a third party, risking the dangers of war with each other. 

I have always found it interesting when Americans argue - why should we care what other nations think?  Clearly the founders of our government had a different idea.  They understood that power is defined by the ability to defend oneself and to support oneself via commerce, and those abilities are dependent upon our relationships with other nations.

Here are links to the other installments: 1, 2, 3

Monday, October 19, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About Our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 4)

And on we go with THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT.   Here is that link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers 

Did any of you read the opinion piece in today's The New York Times by Michael Albertus about the upcoming vote on Chile's new constitution? I thought it interesting to read in parallel to The Federalist Papers since it is about another populous focused on creating rights and delineating responsibilities of government towards citizens and citizens towards government, but they are doing so in reaction to an autocratic regime of the elite, so they are emphasizing accountability, citizen engagement, and decentralization, whereas Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were arguing for centralization. Chilean citizens vote to ratify or not on October 25.  I wonder what they will choose and whether there are pieces in their newspapers, or other media, doing the work of The Federalist Papers?

 In Paper No. 4, John Jay continues to consider the advantages of Federalism in ensuring the safety of Americans. He reflects on the ubiquity of war under monarchy:

It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenver they have a prospect of getting any thing by it, nay that absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for purposes and objects merely personal, such as, a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts; ambition or private compact to aggrandize or support their particular families, or partizans.  These and a variety of motives, which affect only the mind of the Sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice, or the voice and interests of his people. 

Leaders who govern based on revenge for personal affronts or aggrandizement of their families and allies?  Outrageous. Thank heavens we don't have to put up with that anymore. That is only when the decisions rest on the "mind of a Sovereign," and having neither a mind nor a Sovereign at the helm of the now united states, we have nothing to fear.   

Jay identifies the most likely incitement that might encourage other nations to perceive us as rivals and threaten war is commerce. He envisions that the States may engage in trade with parties such as China or India, supplying ourselves independently with their commodities rather than relying on third parties.  The expansion of our own commerce, Jay writes, is likely, as our merchandise will be be preferred for its affordability and quality, although he offers no support for this assertion, perhaps a forerunner of 'Buy American!' At the time, Spain shut off access to the Mississippi River and Britain did the same for the St. Laurence, which Jay saw as presaging future jealousy of nations that could become our rivals in trade.

These circumstances could invite war and it is a strong national government, Jay argues, that will discourage it.  One central government will be more competent at military defense not only because it will consolidate the best experience across the states, but it will also create a unified system of discipline.  A Union can choose to act on uniform principles of policy - in other words, it will weigh the benefits toward one or another individual part, and choose to act when it most benefits the whole. and then apply the combined resources of the whole towards that defense.  It is interesting that Jay chooses to remind his New Yorker readers of the reputation of the British Navy - the militia of the enemy - whose high regard he attributes to consolidated leadership and training of the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English who comprise it. 

But really, he gets to the meat of the matter, when he asks what armies or fleets they could pay if they didn't combine the resources of the disunited states. Which brings up one of the key powers that the pre-constitution Articles of Confederation did not afford the government - the right to tax its citizens.  Given the history of the rejection of British rule for this very reason, that omission can hardly be surprising.

I can see that there are a few of you reading out there, but no comments as of yet. Take the plunge, won't you?  

And if you haven't read the other installments they are here: 1, 2

Sunday, October 18, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Papers Nos. 2 & 3)

 

Welcome back to THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT, a read-along challenge with the aim of focusing attention during the lead-up and aftermath to the 2020 U.S. election on something more essential than the mess that currently passes for politics.  Here is a link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers. 

Papers numbers two and three were both written by John Jay.  Jay served many roles in the formative days of the United States - he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, President of the Continental Congress, Secretary of State and of Foreign Affairs for President Washington, Governor of New York, and is probably best known for being the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was known to have written only papers numbers two through five. 

Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.  

It's worth remembering that the American Constitution did establish federalism, because the states did ultimately ratify it. This is what we signed up for and yet today candidates regularly run for federal office on "anti-government" platforms.  Jay writes that the plan is "recommended not imposed," he submits it for the voters "sedate and candid consideration," but concedes that such consideration is "more to be wished than expected."  It seems is that the voters of his day may have been, shall we say, as driven by passion and impulse as are some of our own.  

Jay lays out the decision to be made by the voters of the time: do we look to the states to be the separate guarantors of our safety and prosperity, or do we confer that ultimate power on a consolidated union?

His arguments for Federalism begin with his observation that the landscape is physically undivided, as if to say, if god wanted it divided, he would have made it that way.  He shares his belief that "Providence" not only made land and rivers of beauty and usefulness, but that he gave them:

to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government...This country and this people seem to have been made for each other...

My reaction to this is two-fold.  On one hand, I feel disgust at the assumption that this land was made explicitly and exclusively for people only like himself. It was not made for the natives who inhabited it for thousands of years prior to his ancestors' arrival, nor for the Portuguese who settled it in the 16th Century, nor for the Africans who were dragged here against their will. The blithe certainty with which he writes could only be born of religion, which seems to breed certainty when humility would be more appropriate.  One doesn't have to look very far to see the descendants of this sort of opinion in the United States of today. When he claims that "we have uniformly been one people...every where enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection," I can only hear the delusion of someone who believes that their own experience must be everyone's. 

On the other hand, I am struck by his love for the physical attributes of America as a land. I wish that this appreciation of its beauty and bounty was a more influential priority in people who serve in office today.

In Paper No. 3, Jay argues that a centralized government affords better security against threats from "foreign arms and influence" than do separate states or confederacies. Jay does not consider so much our defense against others via arms, he first addresses whether it is a United or disunited America that itself is likely to invite war because of violation of treaties or outright violence. Imagine, he so values peace that he first considers whether America is more likely to observe our responsibilities towards other nations. He notes that in mediating questions of the treaties between nations, this will be more efficiently, consistently, and dispassionately accomplished by a central government than by multiple entities, where one or the other may have distinct interests. Should it come to war for a just cause, he argues, a national government will afford more robust security. Lastly, a national body will have the widest choice of expertise and talent.  

What do you take away from Papers 2 and 3?

And in case you missed it, here is a link to my post of Paper 1.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Intro and Paper No. 1)

It has been ages since I have written here, let alone created a series, I fear that I may be out of practice. Back in 2007, I visited a poem every Friday in a series called An Inflorescence. That originated from a hankering to read and think about a form that would counter the statistical and scientific material that I was spending time with while earning a PhD in neuroscience. Similarly, this series is born out of a need to change the channel.  

The clamor of politics these days is reactive, ugly, and lacks the space for reflection on or reference to our political and philosophical underpinnings. Well, nobody is going to do it for me, I thought.  What would I read to counter the noise?  My choice was a return to a 'classic,' that is a work that has been judged to be of established value, and that was essential to our origins as a body politic.  

The Federalist Papers were written in 1787-88 by three founders of the United States government, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, under the joint pseudonym of Publius. They were published in three New York newspapers the Independent Journal, New York Packet, and The Daily AdvertiserThe Federalist Papers are a collection of 85 arguments to the people of New York State that the Articles of Confederation, the original U.S. government charter, quickly written during wartime in 1777, was insufficient in granting the Federal government the authority that it required to govern.  The papers advocated for the ratification of the newly written Constitution that proposed, among other things, the establishment of a federal government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and conferred upon that government the ability to levy taxes and regulate commerce.  

Proposition:  With 85 essays, most of them brief, reading about one per day skipping a few upcoming holidays, we should be able to get through them by inauguration day.  I don't know about you, but I need a project that helps focus me on the original positive purpose for the establishment of these united states, that reminds me of the value inherent in a "government of laws and not of men," and that is on-going through what is left of the campaign, the election, and its results.  I invite you to read along with me and share your thoughts in the comments.  This links the full text of The Federalist Papers freely available on line- thank you Project Gutenberg.  

Caveat:  Please be warned, this is my blog. I write what I think here. I am issuing an invitation for reflection on and engagement with a classic work.  This is a space for civil discourse, and what is civil is determined by me.  If your comments are false, excessively whiny, or unkind I will delete them. 

And with the housekeeping out of the way, let's start with Hamilton's first essay. 

...it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. If there by any truth in the remark, the crisis, at which we are arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. 

It is striking how seriously Hamilton takes the responsibility of the ratification process towards the future. One must wonder what he would think of the ability of our present society to embody good government, but his point here, I believe, is whether imperfect people can create a government that is better than they are.

It is notable, too, that he begins his consideration not with the arguments for, but instead with the obstacles to passage of the new Constitution:

the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the office they hold...  and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves by the confusions of their country...

Time and writing styles have changed, but apparently "men" have not, a strangely comforting thought. Blaming men, Hamilton continues, for their biases is a dishonest point of view. These men likely have honorable intentions and are simply making "errors of mind led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears."  There are so many reasons that a "wise and good man" can be wrong, he essentially writes. How elegant to apparently argue your opponent's honor, attributing his opposition only to misunderstanding, and to uncertainty that those who "advocate the truth" aren't motivated by greed, personal hatred or party politics. He paves the way for the role of the essays that will follow in attributing to his opponents the possibility of being influenced by them.

Hamilton is aware of the passion both sides feel in the debate over ratifying the Constitution and he counsels 

nothing could be more illjudged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterised political parties... they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations, and by the bitterness of their invectives.

Ratification in this context is about agreeing to a system of government with centralized powers, something still objected to by some today. Hamilton here makes his point of view clear:

The vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty...

I hope that I will have some reading companions to accompany me on this journey.  Assuming that I do, what were your thoughts on reading the first paper?


Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Great Championer of Art (Books - Kenneth Clark: Life, Art, and Civilisation by James Stourton)

Kenneth Clark, I think it is safe to say, was the most influential championer of art of his time.  Art consultant to King George VI, Director of Britain's National Gallery at just 29 years-of-age, Clark maintained this role through World War II, and although the paintings were removed to protect them from German bombs, he made the museum a rallying place to bolster the spirits of the people via art and music programming.  Art as an antidote to war  - the antithesis to American president's decision this past week to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts in favor of military spending. Clark was also creator of Independent Television - an alternative to the BBC, and is probably best remembered as creator and host of the landmark television series Civilisation, made in 1969.  He was friend and patron of many artists and writers the likes of Duncan Grant, John Betjeman, and Henry Moore.  It is easy to see why James Stourton was drawn to write Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) with such a compelling subject.

Stourton was thorough with the timeline of events, comprehensive in chronicling Clark's many relationships with artists, royalty and paramours, and complex in revealing his subjects contradictions - a mind described as cold and hard as a diamond, yet a nature passionate enough to break down in tears as he narrated an episode of Civilisation on the steps of the church door at Wittenberg. This biography would have been helped by a clearer sense of time and place. Although Clark accomplished some of his most memorable acts in war-torn London, they seem no different from those that occurred in the 1950s or 1960s.  The decades slip by unnoticed, first the war, then the Ministry of Information and suddenly Clark is working in television.  I found myself looking back a few pages looking for the indication that as Clark's vitae was covered that happened in the context of a world whose politics, science, art and design changed.  We know that Clark made a call, wrote a letter, or sipped a drink, but the phone, the pen, the glass is invisible. If insulation from change was the point, this was unclear. The resulting biography was a series of deeds occurring in a vacuum, making a rich life feel strangely unanchored. 

What comes through in Strourton's book regardless is what Clark stood for. Clark quoted Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiography in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.  Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last."  Judging by this standard, the United States in 2017 will be remembered as thoughtless, illiterate, and impoverished.    

Monday, September 5, 2016

Personal Mysteries Drive Forward a Story of International Law (Books - East West Street by Philippe Sands)

Once known as "little Paris of the Ukraine," the city of Lemberg (also called Lwów, Lvov and Lviv, depending on the moment in history and who was doing the calling) figures prominently in Philippe Sands's East West Street (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).  Invited to deliver a lecture on international law at the University, he uses the opportunity to do a little research into family history, as it is the place of his maternal grandfather's birth.  In seeking answers to questions about his grandparents' immigration to Paris in 1938, he learns that three other men crossed paths in the city of Lviv. One was Hans Frank, a lawyer appointed by the Nazi's to run the Jewish ghetto, where he condemned its entire Jewish population to death.  The other two men both figured prominently in Sands's own profession, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, Both studied law in Lviv, they event studied under the same professor, and both invented key mechanisms of international law used today.

Lauterpacht conceived of crimes against humanity, which he saw as an internationally applied mechanism that uses principles of national law to protect the well-being of individuals against acts by the country in which they reside, such as enslavement, deportation, torture, or murder.  Until this point the state was seen as an entity whose power was inviolate (some countries still see it this way) but Lauterpacht felt that the right of individuals to liberty and the pursuit of their pleasure was sacrosanct, and superceded a nation's sovereignty.  Lemkin invented the concept of genocide.  In fact, the word did not exist before he coined it.  It was as a law student that Lemkin first felt a sense of outrage towards the Turkish mass slaughter of Armenians.  "So it's a crime for  Tehlirian to strike down one man, but not a crime for that man to have struck down one million men," Lemkin is said to have asked?  Lemkin described the process via which the German state stripped Jews and others first of their nationality - severing them from the state, then dehumanizing them - removing their legal rights (since, being stateless, they no longer could claim the protection of the law), and finally by killing them spiritually, culturally, and eventually literally. Lemkin's concept was focused as a legal solution to this process, and so on crimes committed against groups rather than individuals.  During the Nuremberg trials following World War II, both he and Lauterpacht vied for the use of their mechanism in prosecuting Nazis.  The trial set the precedent for the trying and punishing of such offenses that were excused under the laws of their own countries, but seen as an outrage by broader humanitarian standards.  Mechanisms to carry out international justice have taken a long time to put into practice.  It was the late 1990s before international law had the teeth to punish individuals such as Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and August Pinochet, former president of Chile, for their crimes.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

What is left when what we loved is gone? (Books - What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

In the New York art world of the 1970s, art historian, Leo Hertzberg, experiences a powerful painting.  He buys it, beginning a friendship with the artist Bill Wechsler that is the center of What I Loved (Sceptre, 2016) Siri Hustvedt's deep, serious, and multifarious novel, first published in 2003 and recently released in a beautiful new softcover edition from Sceptre.

What I Loved is about many things: art, love between friends, between lovers, spouses, parents and children, and it is also very much about loss - as the title presages.  It is Hustvedt's accomplishment that though this novel occurs over a span of thirty years, interrelating the psychology of hysteria and eating disorders, page-long descriptions of visual art, details of quotidian domestic existence and passionate infidelity, and moments of profound grief, and though it is told from the first-person perspective of a somewhat fusty art academic, you don't look at the brushwork.  The ins, outs, and intersections of theme, of characters and of what they make - because everyone is painting, drawing, writing essays, a dissertation, cooking a meal, staging a rave (these characters are nothing if not generative) - this welter of detail gives rise to a single complexity - a work of rich substance and of emotional heft.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A harpist for whom someone else pulls the strings (Books - The Extra by A. B. Yehoshua)

A. B. Yehoshua is one of just a few Israeli writers, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman, whose novels are regularly translated and make their way to the U.S. I especially enjoyed his Mr. Mani, a sweeping tale of six generations of a Sephardic family.  His latest The Extra trans. Stuart Schoffman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) concerns Noga, an Israeli-born harpist, living in Holland.  Following her father's death, her brother wishes their mother to leave her Jerusalem apartment and move to an assisted living facility near his home. His mother resists, so a compromise is reached - she will try out the facility for three months.  Through a quirk of the law, she risks losing her Jerusalem apartment if it is not occupied by a member of the family, so Noga is asked to take a leave from her job with a Dutch orchestra and stay in Jerusalem for that period.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Consequences of Betrayal (Books - Exposure by Helen Dunmore)

Helen Dunmore's Exposure (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016) is a gently genre-defying novel - a deep and satisfying story of relationships posing as a cold war spy novel.  It  is as if someone were filming an espionage thriller and this is the story from the backstage perspective.  The actor makes his entrance into the office to be challenged on the missing pages from the dossier, but you, the reader, are watching him as he prepares off-set, smooth back his hair prior to his entrance, and when he enters to play the scene, instead of focusing on the written dialogue, you hear a voice-over of what he is thinking while playing the scene.

Since this is the obverse of an espionage novel, the plot as such is not the point, but... it is the 1960s. Lily's husband, Simon, who works a mid-level job for British Intelligence, is asked by his superior, Giles, to return a sensitive file when Giles unexpectedly lands in the hospital.  Lily unwittingly discovers it and buries it to protect her husband.  Simon is just unimportant enough in the power hierarchy, and the file just important enough, that he becomes a scapegoat when its disappearance must be covered up. He home is searched. He is carted off, awaiting a courtroom trial in a jail cell and Lily and her children gradually become ostracized.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Flat storytelling dulls new YA series (Book - Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel)

Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants (Del Rey, 2016) is the first volume of a planned YA fantasy series.  A young girl happens upon a giant hand at the bottom of a hole dug into the earth.  It is composed of an unidentifiable metal, is several thousand years old, and sits in a square shaft whose walls are painted with symbols. Fast forward 20 years and this girl has become a scientist who joins a team of quirky experts - military and scientific - who are charged to understand the origin and purpose of the hand. Has it been placed here for good or evil?  Who by, since humans were not known to be technologically advanced enough to build such an object 3,000 years ago?  Unfortunately, this potentially compelling story is told as a series of diary entries or interview transcripts, the result being chapters that explain what has already happened. The narrative is fast-moving, but dull because we are at a remove from the action of the story. It is full of pseudo-profundities about the power of ultimate destruction and international relations.  Even reading this during the Brexit vote while traveling in the UK did not conspire to ignite the kindling under these timely ideas.  Neuvel's attempt to create suspense by having the main interviewer of each of the characters stories be an invisible but powerful presence (think Charlie in Charlie's Angels) is his best idea, but falls flat due to a prose style that manages to feel too cute and show-offy.  Where Neuvel is most effective is in capturing the feeling of scientists at work on a problem.  The lab sequences ring true but aren't enough to drive me to read further in this series.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Birth of a Narrative (Books - The Sky Over Lima by Juan Gómez Bárcena)

The debut novel of Spaniard Juan Gómez Bárcena - The Sky Over Lima (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) - is a mischievous, Escher-like paean to the power of the written word.  His protagonists are 20-year-old Carlos and José, the first the scion of an aristocratic family, the second of a nouveau-riche manufacturer.  Both are rich enough to rent a Parisian-like garret in their home city of Lima, and, although they live with their parents, go there to live out a fantasy of being great writers. They have a passionate crush on literature, playing a game in which every person they encounter is turned into a character in a great novel. Their law professor become's Tolsoy's Ivan Ilyich.  A woman of their acquaintance, Madam Bovary having lived into old age.  When they learn that Ramón Jiminéz, the Nobel-winning Spanish bard that they idolize, has published a volume not available in Peru, they struggle to write a letter that will convince him to send them a copy, unsatisfied with draft upon draft, until they realize:
They must embellish reality, because in the end that is what poets do, and they are poets, or at least they've dreamed of being poets on many late nights like this one.  And that is exactly what they are about to do now: write the most difficult poem of all, one that has no verses but can touch the heart of a true artist. 

It starts out as a joke, but then it turns out it's not a joke.  One of the two say, almost idly, It would be easier if we were a beautiful woman, then Don Juan Ramón would put his entire soul into answering us, that violet soul of his - and then suddenly he stops, the two young men look at each other a moment, and almost unintentionally the mischief has already been made. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

One Immigrant Who Made America Great (Books - Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow)

I'm not sure that Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Books, 2004) the bestselling biography and basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical phenom needs any more hype, but here it goes. Chernow's book is a monument to one of America's most personally complex and influential founding figures.  It is lengthy not because Chernow, as is often the case in modern biographers, can't manage to make choices about which bits of his research to share -- a toenails-and-all approach -- but because he integrates his subject's story with necessary personal and historical context.  One cannot understand either the sheer amount of Hamilton's contribution to modern America: its constitution, party system, how voters are represented, how the state and federal governments relate, the system of checks and balances - nor the weight of these contributions, without understanding his role in the Revolutionary war, his relationship to George Washington (and by extension, who our first general and president was), and the opposition Hamilton faced from Thomas Jefferson (and who he was), James Madison (ditto), John Adams (ditto), and Aaron Burr (ditto), and having an overview of his most influential work The Federalist Papers.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Small bombs, large impacts, no simple explanations (Books - The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan)

In Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016), three boys set out on an errand one afternoon in Delhi. Only one of them returns.  Tushar and Nakul, brothers, are hindu. They are killed by a terrorist's bomb. Their friend, Mansoor, is muslim. He survives, but with physical and emotional scars.  Mahajan writes of the origins and the consequences of such "small" acts of devastation.  They are perpetuated by just one or two individuals. The bombs are built with easily found materials and fit neatly in backpacks. The political perspective of the perpetrator and the pain of the survivors are similar in their intense myopia, but, as Mahajan writes:
The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later.  A good bombing begins everywhere at once.

A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult.  A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling cars and sloping beggars...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

People are more than objects in space (Books - A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin)

Ethan Canin was already one of my favorite authors for having written For Kings and Planets, and I have frequently recommended his The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air.  With A Doubter's Almanac (Random House, 2016) Canin has written a "great" book, in the sense of giving expression to profound experiences, and also, I believe, in creating something whose meaning extends beyond its exemplars - the concerns of these specific characters, the obsessions of the period in which it was written - and has the potential to be enduring. Time will tell on that second point.

In some ways, Canin is writing about the same things he has always written - fathers and sons, success and failure, gut-smarts and brains - all within the scopes of the grandest of considerations: time and space.  Time as it is experienced on a human scale, through one generation of a family experiencing another.  Three generations of the Andret family are the focus of this novel.  Space as it is described by a branch of mathematics called topology, which studies the interrelation of things, though not on the level they are visible in nature, on a hypothetical level of multiple dimensions. This is the focus of the work of Canin's protagonist, Milo Andret, who may be a genius in using math to describe such relationships but is profoundly disabled in forming a typical human bonds and severely limited even in insight into himself.  In one scene, Canin describes Milo as having to touch his own face to understand that he was smiling.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The hyperfocus of life during illness, and the book as immersive technology (Books - Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher)

Scarred Hearts (Old Street Publishing) by Max Blecher was first published in Romanian in 1937, but did not reach English readers until 2008. The novel is set in a sanatorium in France, describing life there for tuberculosis patients.  Although written in the third-person, Emanuel is clearly a stand-in for Blecher himself, who was diagnosed with Pott's Disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, at age 19.  Treatment for this condition at that time immobilized patients in body-casts.  They lay on their backs in special carriages which could be wheeled around in by people or horses, adding infantilization to their list of indignities.  What is striking in this novel is that, in the face of death on a daily basis, most of Blecher's vividly drawn characters are still focused squarely on the banalities of daily living.  Blecher writes in an adolescently effusive tone of Emanuel's lust, jealousy, urge to relieve the itching under his body cast, or his embarrassment at the smell of his body, given his limited ability to wash. That is not to say that he ignored pain, loss of function, or mortality, but the narrative style focuses less on the moment-to-moment shame of it than it does on the absurdity.  When 19-year-old Emanuel learns of his diagnosis he writes:
So many horrific things had occurred, so sententiously and so calmly, during the last hour; so much catastrophe had taken place, that, exhausted as he was by the day's excitement, for a delirious, irrational moment Emanuel felt like laughing. 
As he rides the train with his father to Berck Sanatorium, Emanuel meets an old lady whose son is a long-time patient.  She asks if he has an abscess? 
'Yes, I do,' Emanuel replied with a certain brusqueness. 'What's it to you?'

This time the old lady said nothing. In the calligraphy of  wrinkles on her face there was a clear sign of some great sadness.  In a half-voice she ventured to ask if the abscess had been fistulised...

'It's a good thing the abscess is not fistulised,' muttered the old lady.

'And if it were?' replied Emanuel absently.

'Ah well, then it's another matter...' and leaning into his ear she whispered breathlessly: 'The word at Berck is that an open abscess is an open gateway to death.'
Blecher's narrative pulls us inside the hyperfocus of a life commanded by illness.  Today we celebrate technologies like virtual reality that are supposedly unique for immersing viewers in a full sensory experience of, say, sitting in the cockpit of a plane or walking across a battlefield, but Blecher's writing reminds one that books can be equally effective at enveloping the reader in the sensations of an experience that are not actually occurring to them.

In this book, context is all. Blecher immerses us first in the immediate urgency of a young man's crippling illness, once that is achieved, the impact of this brief novel succeeds because we know two things, only one of which was known to Blecher.  One is the tragedy that the author would die at 29 years-of-age, something we are aware of as his character worries about his appearance before meeting a girl he is infatuated with.  Don't waste time, I wanted to scream as I read, but he struggles any young lover would, despite being tied to a carriage and immobilized in a body cast.  The second is the absurdity, that, given the year of Blecher's death (1938), he would never see the war which would focus the entire world myopically on an infection of its own and that, if he hadn't died of tuberculosis, as a Romanian jew, he would likely not have lived but a few more years.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Innocence rescued in a modern literary fantasy (Books - The Children's Home by Charles Lambert)

I am a great admirer of Charles Lambert's books, having enjoyed his thriller-like works Any Human Face and The View from the Tower, his debut novel Little Monsters, and With a Zero at its Heart, a recent volume of brief poem-like episodes of memory, surprising to me for how they departed in style from his other published work. Never short on surprises, Lambert's latest is again a departure - I'd call The Children's Home (Scribner, 2016) equal parts dystopian fantasy, gothic tale, and parable. Reading across Lambert's work, I have observed a theme of betrayed innocence, which has been expressed in a story of disenfranchised children. Unlucky orphans have made their way into stories from Dickens to J. K. Rowling.  I think that perhaps one appeal in tales like these is that, as a reader, I take on the perspective of that child.  I can project my own not-knowing, my isolation, and sense of danger onto theirs - feel the risk, but safely, as this is art - and then later can defeat the adversity, feeling accomplished, knowledgeable, and secure. 

In The Children's Home, though, Lambert has turned the form on its ear (not surprisingly).  Here the protagonist, Morgan Fletcher, is a grown man - but perhaps not fully grown - and this is part of the point.  He has been the victim of his mother's cruelty and has quite literally lost his face (read his sense of self).  In the course of this story, it is a child, or band of children really, who help him grow up. The tale makes nods to literary predecessors - Orwell and Kafka - with a nameless Ministry that sates itself by devouring children - H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison - with a protagonist whose interior and exterior faces are very much at odds. I think that I detect an homage to Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, perhaps?  As a thriller writer, Lambert knows how to create narrative tension by not answering all the reader's questions.  As a poet, he holds back from explaining everything the reader wants to know, so that we insert our imaginations into the text.  In Lambert's fantasy writing, the world is familiar and yet never quite what one expects (the sun rises in the West, for example) and the clues are subtle.  It feels a very Lambertian reading experience that in paying close attention, this reader felt that he had teased out special details hidden just for him, felt rewarded, even accomplished, at the conclusion of The Children's Home.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Alexander Humboldt's broadreaching influence on modern science (Books - The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf)

Andrea Wulf's biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) shares the irrepresable energy of her subject. Wulf convincingly contends that the German-born explorer, adventurer, scientist, and author (1769 - 1859) was the creator of our modern understanding of the natural world. His interests extended from volcanoes to plant-life, to climate, to the cosmos and his influence can be seen in the way we comprehend nature as something not to be ruled, but as something that human beings exist within - something complex and "alive." Humboldt is an ideal subject for reconsideration in a modern scientific biography.  Wulf paints a picture of Humboldt as a contemporary outsider, offering strong support that he was gay.  He warned in the 19th century of the impact humans could exert on climate. Finally, his expertise of the natural world was preserved in dozens of volumes that were appreciated as much as repositories of factual information as they were for their poetry. This passion helped father the contemporary environmental movement, influencing naturalists Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir.  It can arguably be appreciated in our own era's melding of the arts and sciences in an effort to broaden understanding of our small place but potentially devastating impact in a very large and complex system.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bloomsbury myth-busting of the highest order (Books - Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Viviane Forrester)

Viviane Forrester's Virginia Woolf: A Portrait (Columbia University Press, 2013), in 2013  is less strictly a biography than it is a literary myth-buster.  If you are a fan of all things Bloomsbury, and I am an enthusiastic one, you are likely to be fascinated by new primary source material about Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Duckworths.  She uses this, a close reading of long-published letters, diaries and fiction, and a fresh frame-of-reference to reinterpret the famous relationships of Virginia Woolf to her father, husband, sister, and her own psyche. Her writing style is familiar and conversational, like a good literature professor leading a high-level seminar to share an original understanding of work she has reconsidered deeply.  I don't know what it would be like to read this work without having a thorough grounding in Woolf's work, Leonard Woolf's diaries, and the famous Quentin Bell biography of  Virginia Woolf, but I imagine it would be pointless. However, if you are an aficionado, the literary archeology is excellent, the writing accessible and clean, and the conclusions startling.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The science of autism is a story of real people (Books - In a Different Key by John Donvan & Caren Zucker)

Ruth had stopped doubting herself the morning she saw Joe do a jigsaw puzzle upside down.  For some time, she had been nagged by a feeling that he was not like her other children in some crucial way.  Six months earlier, Joe had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally...

And then there were these puzzles.  He was working on one just then, a map of the United States whose parts were sprawled, like him, all over the kitchen floor and through the doorway into the living room.  He was getting it done: New Hampshire met Maine, and New Mexico snapped in next to Arizona.  But he was getting it done fast, almost too fast, Ruth felt, for a two-year-old.  On a hunch, she knelt down to Joe's level and pulled the map apart, scattering the pieces. She also, deliberately, turned each piece upside down, so that only the gray-brown backing was showing.  Then she watched what Joe did with them

He seemed not even to notice.  Pausing only for a moment, Joe peered into the pile of pieces, then reached for two of them.  They were a match.  He immediately snapped them together, backside-up, between his knees on the floor.  It was his new starting point.  From there he kept going, building, in lifeless monochrome, out of fifty pieces, a picture of nothing. 

What John Donvan's and Caren Zucker's In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (Crown Publishers, 2016) is especially good at, is conveying a picture of autism historically, scientifically, and socially, by telling the stories of the people involved.  One in 68 children have a diagnosis, so it's hard to live in today's America without hearing about autism.  Understood as a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder, it is diagnosed based on impairments in communication, especially social relatedness, and a restricted repertoire of activity and interests. The dysfunctions it results in manifest themselves in different persons as impaired eye contact, failure to develop peer relationships, an absence of or delay in developing communicative speech, an inability to conceive of other people's mental states or emotions, lack of spontaneous imaginative play, inflexible adherence to routines which are disruptive to daily functioning, and persistent preoccupation with part of objects rather than their conventional uses, symptoms which must be present prior to three years-of-age to be diagnostically relevant and which often are noticed suddenly, after a period of apparently typical development.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Unexpected World of Cage Fighting and What It has to Do With Us (Books - Beast by Doug Merlino)

I am as guilty of it as the next person - reading for comfort.  Either we read about worlds with which we are familiar or, and I think worse, to confirm what we believe we already know. I say 'what we believe we know' because that's the risk - isn't it? That we might learn something new, or that we might change our minds, and sometimes that comes in unexpected packages. I read Doug Merlin's Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) because Doug is a friend and, frankly, would never have read it if left to my own reading habits. I'm glad that I did.
Jeff Monson was, as usual, running late.  He was trying to get his two-year-old daughter, Willow, to eat.

"Here comes the plane, Willow," he said in a singsong voice, holding out a spoon to the girl, who was sitting in her high chair. "Are you ready for the plane?"

Willow threw back her head, covered in red curly hair, laughed, and refused.

Monson wore shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt that stretched to cover his muscled frame.  His head, which rose out of a triangular based of trapezius muscle, was bald.  FIGHT was tattooed on the left side of his neck, directly above an exhortation to DESTROY AUTHORITY.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Coming of age in the footlights (Books - The Little Shadows - by Marina Endicott)

Award-winning Canadian novelist Marina Endicott is not widely known in the U.S., but she deserves to be. Her The Little Shadows (Doubleday Canada, 2011) is an entertaining, coming-of-age saga of three sisters, Aurora, Clover, and Bella, working for their supper on the vaudeville circuit circa 1912 with their widowed mother.  Aside from simply being a good story, there were three things I particularly enjoyed about The Little Shadows.

This is a coming-of-age story about women rather than men, which is still a literary rarity.  When it begins, the emphasis is on the sisters' act, how they function as one, as their survival depends upon its success.  But as they mature, they become individuals as artists and women.  The joy of the plot is tracing the development of their characters and how their talents shape them to be the women they become.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A tale of coming together while coming apart (Books - Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy)

In Sleeping on Jupiter (2015, Hachette India) Anuradha Roy creates a tale of convergences.  An Indian girl, Nomi, is orphaned when her parents are slaughtered in war. She is given refuge in an ashram, where she is sexually abused by the guru, after which she is adopted by a European woman and raised in Scandanavia.  As a young woman she returns to India, to Jarmuli, the seaside town where the Ashram was located.  Three older women, good friends, go on a long-planned trip to the same seaside town -  a well-earned but final fun weekend, as one of them is becoming infirm.  They make a pilgrimage to Jarmuli's famous temple. At the same time, one of the older women's sons has also made his way to Jarmuli for work, following the break-up of his marriage.  And a young man tries to earn enough money to escape from under the abusive thumb of his uncle by working as a temple guide. These characters come to Jarmuli, some from darkness in their past, some with present woes.  Their meeting is meant to have a redemptive ring to it, but Roy's beautiful lyrical prose doesn't seem to raise the convergence above coincidence.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Life is more than what we know (Books - In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman)

A well-to-do Londoner, his marriage and his job as an investment banker in ruins as the economy collapses in 2008, receives a visit.  Zafar, whom he knew in college, is of Bangladeshi birth, an orphan, a mathematical prodigy, an Oxford graduate, and a human rights lawyer. Agitated, traveling only with a backpack, Zafar arrives at our narrator's home and tells the remarkable story of how he came to be as he is now - a tale of contemporary Asian politics, English colonialism, and the Incompleteness Theorem of mathematician Kurt Godel.

In In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014) story- telling itself is an important part of the story. Both who we are and how we're known, it explains, are narrative constructions.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Man Who Wouldn't Be Known (Books - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara)

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) has been written about widely and short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.  As I started it on the recommendation of my local bookseller this past summer, I had heard very little of the hooplah.  I believed I was reading a typical modern tale of  four friends who went to college together, chronicling their coming of age, their successes, failures and jealousies in relationships and work. But A Little Life defies this genre. The friends are an architect, an actor, an artist, and their friend Jude, around whom they and this story revolve. Jude is a man of great beauty, although he is never physically described by the author.  He is brilliant and creative, although he makes his very ample living as an attorney.  Yet with all of the accoutrements of success, Jude cannot allow himself be loved, so severely is he traumatized by abuse he suffered as a child.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Revolution in thought and practice (Books - The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow)

Erasmus Darwin, 18th Century physician, writer, grandfather of the more famous Charles, and one of the eponymous lunar men of Jenny Uglow's book, wrote in the later years of his life:
Credulitas. Credulity.  Life is short, opportunities of knowing rare; our senses are fallacious, our reasonings uncertain; man therefore struggles with perpetual error from cradle to the coffin.  He is necessitated to correct experiment by analogy, and analogy by experiment...
If you live life with an ounce of curiosity in you, you likely recognize the longing Darwin so pithily expressed . If you, like Darwin, James Watt and Matthew Boulton inventors of the steam engine, Josiah Wedgwood potter and chemist, Joseph Priestley religious radical and the discoverer of oxygen, or any of the other principal characters in Uglow's The Lunar Men (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), live to pursue your curiosities, then this is your creed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Two memoirists of passion (Books - Love is Where it Falls by Simon Callow & On the Move by Oliver Sacks)

In the last several months I read the memoirs of two fascinating, beloved, gay, British-born public figures.  One was published recently, the other 15 years ago.  One works in one of my areas of expertise - the arts - and the other in the other - the science of the brain.  The authors were actor Simon Callow and Dr. Oliver Sacks.  Their books are Love is Where it Falls (Penguin Books, 2000) and On the Move: A Life (Knopf, 2015).  Their books are forthright and generous, the authors deeply giving of themselves, and they are crack writers.  Knowing them now, as I do, it is fitting that these copies are signed.

She had, she said, been walking down Piccadilly, musing on the fact that it was Moliere's birthday and that not a single actor in England would know, much less care.  Musing on this sad reality, it had suddenly struck her that, yes, there was an actor in England who would know and care: me.  And so she had gone into Fortnum's and ordered the wine and had it sent to me, to celebrate, with my actor friends, the great playwright's birthday.  
So begins an unlikely romance between a fierce, 70-year old theatrical literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, and 30-year-old actor Simon Callow.  I find myself wanting less to write about the merits of this book than to quote from it.  These two live passionately and are attracted to each other so relentlessly, because their taste in art is not so much an aesthetic about life's decor as a deeply held principle about the way to live it.
We must feel, that is everything. We must feel as a brute beast, filled with nerves, feels, and knows that it has felt, and knows that each feeling shakes it like an earthquake. 
or
I do so passionately believe that the only meaning of life is life, that to live is the deepest obligation we have, and that to help other people live is the greatest achievement. It's in that light that I see acting, and that alone.


Oliver Sacks has written so humanely and observantly of his patients' lives (for instance here and here), and so openly of his peculiar fascinations, that this memoir, and this is the third of his books that might be classified as such, was a welcome departure.  Here, finally, Sacks scrutinized as deeply and wrote as openly about his own life - particularly his inner life. This was welcome not only in knowing more about so great a man and storyteller, but also because one read it in the context of his impending death (about which he wrote so beautifully here and here) and because one could feel in the narrative drive this desire to share it all before it was too late.

Early in Sacks's writing career, the great poet W. H. Auden said to Sacks
You're going to have to go beyond the clinical... Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.
This is really where Sacks's writing succeeds so magnificently in combining what is true with what feels true in a story. I cherish his writing and hope to celebrate his life in a live program in the coming year.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Impressions of Napoli and Ferrara (Books - Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante & How to Be Both by Ali Smith)

A number of years ago, I switched from writing reading-to-reading impressions, posted as I read, to fully composed reviews after having finished a book.  I recently began a new job running a cultural center in NYC, so, although I have been reading, I haven't had the brain space to write full fledged reviews.  I'm going to try doing some capsule reviews as well as doing more of the the impressions while reading model for a while and see how that goes. I hope some of you will be along for the journey. 

Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan quartet, composed of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and, The Story of the Lost Child, is a stunning portrait of the friendship between two women and particularly how the life of a great friend can become subsumed in one's own.  It is a literary page-turner and arriving at the end of some 1,700 pages I experienced how masterfully structured it was. Ferrante's narrator is herself a writer and the quartet, especially the final volume, reflects on the process and consequences of writing.  She manages to be smartly self-aware without becoming overly explanatory.  Her mastery of craft is made plain to me when I think of the broad cast of some 40 characters with whom I had become familiar.  The scene writing, as in the wedding reception that closes the first volume, brings the huge cast into spectacularly vivid focus, even while creating a tone that feels so of its period (late 50s/early 60s) that my mind's eye sees it in the Technicolor palate.  I cannot recommend these enough.

I feared that Ali Smith's How to be Both might become twee because of its concept, but I should have known better. Smith has constructed a pair of interrelated tales, one set in renaissance Italy based on the life of fresco painter Francesco del Cossa and the other set in modern day Britain concerning a daughter mourning the death of her mother, an activist. The plots are cleverly referential of one another but don't yield their secrets easily.  The concept, such as it is: these stories can be read with either as the first.  In the order I read them (15th century first) the narrative keeps the reader working to understand what Smith's narrator sees.  Without giving away too much, she/he sees aspects of the other narrative. In fact, each story's art making protagonist has a window into the other, and the effect for the reader is something like an infinity mirror. Smith's literary time travel is a puzzle of sorts, offering some intellectual smiles and even thrills at hearing the 'click' as a detail falls into place. I am a rabid fan of Smith's Artful and her themes of identity, loss, and the uses of art are visited here again but in a different guise.  Smith loves to play with form, and to let you know it.  If Artful was an argument (a narrative about the composition of a lecture on art), How to be Both is a more traditional immersive narrative experience, but one that plays with the tension between then and now, between life and death, between art and audience, and between visual and narrative form. You know those 'which writer would you invite to lunch questions?'  Ali Smith would be one of my guests.

Still to come, capsules  of Simon Callows' Love is Where it Falls, Olver Sacks's On the Move, and Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life and while-I-read impressions of Hiding in Plain Sight and Lunar Men.