Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Power Triangle: Military, Security and Politics in Regime Change. Hazem Kandil. Oxford University Press. 2016.


The recent uprisings in the Middle East revived three main approaches to studying political regimes. The first propagates the possibility of revolution, citing such examples as Tunisia and Egypt. Another is concerned with its impossibility: in other words, with the resilience of authoritarianism, drawing on cases of revolutionary failure in Iran, Syria and Bahrain among others. A middle ground was also put forth by students of ‘reform’, following on from George Lawson’s cutting-edge Negotiated Revolutions (2004), utilising cases like Morocco, Jordan and, of course, Turkey.

These three streams, however, often change positions. Taking Egypt as an example, from 2005-10 it was considered a case of negotiated reform. In January 2011, Egypt became a celebrated case of revolution. Two years later, a brutal coup put an end to those ambitions, and the country instead became a case of authoritarian resistance. The future is uncertain: literature on the Egyptian regime might keep going in circles between revolution, reform and resilience forever. The result is a library of swinging accounts, each describing the volatile situation of the regime in momentous snapshot but none comprehensively interrogating the power dynamics that construct such a ‘seesaw’.

Hazem Kandil’s book, The Power Triangle: Military, Security and Politics in Regime Change, fills this void, at least with regards to three of the aforementioned cases: Egypt, Turkey and Iran. This review will conclude by briefly highlighting his findings relating to each. But the main concern is the book’s theoretical contribution: that is, exposing regime dynamics through which the interchange between revolution, reform and resilience is made possible and plausible.

Utilising Bourdieusian social analysis to deconstruct the state, Kandil re-emphasises Jack Goldstone’s assertion that stability is as problematic a phenomenon as revolution. The variety of competing institutions within any regime makes it more of a contestation field than a unified front. Of course, common interests hold competing institutions together but there will always remain divided interests. Therefore, as Pierre Bourdieu succinctly puts it: ‘[state agents are] both accomplices and opponents – accomplices in the use of power, and opponents in competition’ (Bourdieu 2014 in Kandil 6). Thus, institutions ‘scramble to dominate the regime’ while making sure that the ‘regime itself is not destroyed in the process’. ‘Of course, sometimes they fail […] these are the mistakes that make radical change possible’ (6). Very rarely do they succeed in keeping the regime intact without manipulating and reorganising standing power arrangements.
Image Credit: (Ho-Teng Chang CC BY 2.0)

In normal situations, regimes reform and reshuffle. In failure situations, revolutions occur. In the unusual cases in which internal contestations are absolutely absent, the regime is truly resilient. The latter, however, is hardly possible, for even if contestation is not there, the possibility of it suggests continuous reform and reshuffling. A volcano remains a volcano even when dormant, and a (possible) coup remains a coup even if inactive. Both require cautionary measures or may have drastic repercussions. In this sense, regime resilience is in practice a lowkey regime change. Regime change is the norm.

In the upper echelon of institutions lie the three major regime powers – the military, the security and the politicians. The first holds the armed power; the second intelligence power; and the third administrative power (in Weberian terms). Other powers, like the economic and the popular, manifest themselves forcefully within those institutions, but do not have the capacity to foster regime change except through one of the three. Ripped to its bones, the state is an apparatus of coercion and administration, and those two functions can be executed solely (albeit not most efficiently) through the three main institutions. By extension, they hold the power to bring the state to a standstill, thus enforcing regime change.

It is through the study of the struggle between these institutions that regime change in its variant forms can be illustrated. This struggle, however, is not always as obvious as a revolutionary moment. This explains why revolution grasps the majority of attention in regime change literature: it is particularly instrumental in fleshing out how power balances are crystallised within a given regime. Yet the study of this crystallisation moment is not sufficient to demystify how a particular power distribution is made possible at a specific point in time. More importantly, it is not sufficient for speculating as to how this power balance will develop and its future implications. Only a longitudinal study of the regime’s genesis can do this.

Kandil’s genesis of the regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Iran achieves those two goals successfully: first, it demonstrates why Egypt ended up as a police state, Turkey as a militarily ‘protected’ (and limited) democracy and Iran as a popular theocracy. There is not a particular causation that can be singled out in any of the three cases, but an amalgamation of collisions, collusions and historical contingencies played in favour of a particular balance of power between the three main power institutions leading to one form of state or another. Nonetheless, ‘the domination of one or more forms of power (politics, military, etc.) is always temporary because any crystallization produces conflict’ (5). Scratching beneath the surface of the regime type is therefore essential to understand what might follow next. This is the second empirical contribution of Kandil’s genesis.

If there is one main thing that Kandil should be praised for, it would be his ability to brilliantly speculate on future events. In Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Kandil suggested a possible military coup in Egypt if the military could not manage to find a ‘tamed’ ruling partner. The coup happened before the release of the book reviewed here. Here, he makes a more impressive speculation, this time concerning Turkey. Not only does he anticipate a military coup against Erdogan, but even the possibility that the security forces can help Erdogan overcome this (220) – exactly what we witnessed several months after the book’s publication. As for Iran, Kandil points at the ‘Revolutionary Guard’ as the ‘meta-institution, which […] could override all other regime institutions and transform Iran from a popular theocracy to a military dictatorship, or worse, a police state’ (130). There are no signs of this yet, but it remains a conceivable possibility.

Admittedly, chance plays a big role in demonstrating Kandil’s prudence just as it plays a key role in bringing one sort of political possibility to bear over others. Yet beyond this contingency, which is incorporated into Kandil’s model, his illustrative powers also lie in his detail-driven account. Unlike models that dealt with revolution, reform or resilience as the singular norm, Kandil approaches the three as different sides of the same triangle. This triangle is ‘regime change’: a continuous phenomenon that defines both turbulent and stable status quos. Dissecting the ‘power triangle’ and studying each angle as both an autonomous institution and part of the wider regime constellation, Kandil identifies the complicated struggles beneath the surface unity of the regime. As such, he can see the vulnerability even within the strongest regimes (Turkey) and, inversely, the potential for contingent consolidation in the most trembling (Egypt).

The book is an extension and a constellation of the works of an exemplary scholar. Like his previous studies, it is a key reference for a historical sociology of Middle Eastern politics. But this book thereotically exceeds Kandil’s others in placing the three Middle Eastern cases within a wider context, suggesting the ‘power triangle’ as a generalisable analytic apparatus through which revolution, reform and resilience can be illustrated.

However, this aspiration for generalisation, although implicit, is also one of the few problematic aspects of the book. It is indeed a possibility – but asserting this requires further empirical interrogation, perhaps into more established democracies and countries with less militarised histories (such as in Scandinavia) and regimes where the economic dimension has been more definitive than the political in their genesis (Switzerland). Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Kandil’s model, as it stands, can be fruitfully applied to a plethora of nondemocratic states throughout the world. To expand it further, more work is required, which I hope Kandil will pursue.

The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique. Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang. Imperial College Press. 2016.

Unlike many anthropology readers that are as bulky as a phonebook, The Anthropology of China is relatively compact: it is only slightly bigger than a small iPad and is roughly the same length as one of the most widely used anthropology textbooks, Thomas Hylland Eriken’s Small Places, Large Issues. You might wonder: why does the size of the book matter? Considering that this book is to be used in classrooms, both price and portability affect its accessibility. Although the former is on the high side compared to other anthropology books, this is a textbook worth investing in, especially for anthropology teachers starting out on their first course on China.

Despite its modest length, The Anthropology of China is packed with useful references and valuable insights. Most importantly, it is the first book that tries to embed ethnographic studies of China in some of the major debates in anthropology. Anthropologists of other regions might ask: what is special about this approach? After all, isn’t anthropology about uncovering ‘the commonalities and specificities of humanity’ through studying particular people and representing ‘their lives through a type of writing called ethnography’ (9)? The problem is that traditionally anthropologists of China are more interested in particularities than commonalities. The tendency to give more weight to Chinese specificities stems from the field’s close affinity with sinology, which until recently was deemed ‘anti-theory’ by some critics. And for those who are interested in both the commonalities and the specificities, the fear of being seen as a reductionist or cultural essentialist silences any attempt at the comparison and generalisation that are the necessary processes of theory production. In the midst of this long-standing and unresolved debate about how far insights can be extended to more general principles (9), some anthropologists of China have retreated into writing ethnographies of the particular.

This is why the The Anthropology of China makes a timely and important contribution to the field. Instead of clamouring ‘enough about ethnography’, as eminent anthropologist Tim Ingold sarcastically did in his ‘anti-ethnography’ manifesto, Charlotte Bruckermann and Stephan Feuchtwang take notice of the discipline’s constant resort to ‘ethnographically oriented particularism’ (McLean 2013) and call for ‘a new way of studying the anthropology of China, namely one based on anthropology as much as on China’ (263). The authors hope that by bringing ‘anthropological studies of China into the field of general anthropology’ (263), it could open up new dialogues for anthropological and ethnographic theories. Likewise, in bringing theories back to the study of China, Bruckermann and Feuchtwang challenge specialists of China to stop navel-glazing and reconsider the ‘value of comparison’ (van der Veer 2016).
Image Credit: Suzhou main railway station, China (Alexander Mueller CC BY 2.0)

To demonstrate the promise of this new approach and to test how far concepts developed within a particular society can be used to understand others, the authors begin by examining the interplay between theory and fieldwork in light of Africanist anthropologist Richard Fardon’s writing on the ‘regionalisation of anthropology’ (Fardon 1990) in Chapter Two. By introducing a conceptual framework that is developed from outside Chinese Studies, Bruckermann and Feuchtwang encourage readers to question their China-oriented presumptions and take a broader view. As with the other ten chapters, a discussion of general theories is followed by ethnographic illustrations of the Chinese cases. In Chapter Two, the authors recall the life and work of Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005), a prominent Chinese anthropologist and student of Bronislaw Malinowski, to trace the trajectory and the regionalisation of the anthropology of China since the 1930s. Fei’s well-known theories of chaxugeju (differential modes of association) and tuantigeju (organisational modes of association) not only showcase the value of anthropological comparison, but they are also excellent examples of ‘nativization (bentuhua) of academic concepts rather than relying on foreign concepts to understand China’ (Harrell 2001: 155) (23).

Following an overview of the history of anthropology in China, the authors have provided us with insights from a wealth of anthropological studies in and beyond Chinese societies. Chapters Three and Four offer a very solid review of the study of kinship and relatedness in anthropology. In comparison, Chapter Five on love, emotion, and sentiment appears weaker, not least because it reflects the underdevelopment of affect theory in the anthropology of China. In the general theory section of Chapter Five, I was surprised that there is no mention of affect theories in relation to emotion and sentiment nor any attempt to historicise emotion, love or qing and their modern transformations. Although the chapter touches on changing attitudes towards sex and romantic relationships, China’s LGBTQ communities and their struggles are also completely absent. In future editions, the authors may consider incorporating this important theme into the ‘romantic revolution’ (108) section of this chapter.

Despite these shortcomings, readers will be pleased to find that most chapters are richly written with unique perspectives. Chapter Six is another great chapter on the classic anthropological topic of exchange, money and gifts. The summary of Emily Martin’s work on money in China is an absolute delight to read. Chapter Seven is about the localisation and globalisation of food in China. Like love and emotion, food has grown ‘in centrality to debate on how to understand the universality of human experience’ (144). But in this instance, the authors have done a much better job embedding Chinese food scenes in theories of globalisation.

Finally, I would like to comment on the final three chapters, each dedicated to a very interesting anthropological theory. Chapter Ten looks at the concept of hospitality, while Chapters Eleven and Twelve examine the implications of Marshall Sahlins’s ‘stranger-king’ theory for the imperial and modern state of China. Fascinating in their own right, these chapters nonetheless feel at odds with previous ones. It might have worked better if they were moved to the beginning as this would give readers a macro perspective necessary for grasping the micro.

Overall, The Anthropology of China is an informative volume offering students, teachers and general readers not only a unique perspective on China, but also on the study of China. Bruckermann and Feuchtwang have taught the book to final year anthropology undergraduates in the UK and recommend teachers of undergraduate and postgraduate courses use this book as a textbook. Having studied in the US and the UK, I would say that this book is most suitable for final year undergraduates in the UK or first year graduate students in the US. It may be difficult for students without a background in anthropology to follow certain discussions, but they will nonetheless find the cases presented in the book interesting. Last but not least, this book is a brilliant resource for new teachers like myself who are putting together their first syllabi for the exciting field of the anthropology of China.

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels. Princeton University Press. 2016.

The recent election of Donald Trump to the position of US President left many people perplexed. How could his campaign – a toxic mix of exaggerations, lies, fearmongering, xenophobia and sex scandal – succeed, elevating a man who has never held public office, and who some fear is temperamentally unfit to become president, to the highest political position in the land? And was his campaign a unique confluence of circumstances or did it merely highlight the long-term, structural flaws within the democratic system?

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, offers answers to these questions, as the authors – two of the world’s most prominent and celebrated political scientists – distil an entire career’s worth of learning into a single book.

The authors squarely take aim at the romantic notion of democracy, which they describe as ‘folk theory’. The folk theory of democracy is grounded in the Enlightenment tradition of rational choice: voters seek information, weigh the available evidence and then choose the government with the strongest policies to deliver on their pledges.

According to the authors, this ideal bears little resemblance to how democracy actually works. In fact, the ‘omnicompetent, sovereign citizen’ found in the influential writings of Robert Dahl and Walt Whitman is an unattainable myth: voters are incapable and uninterested in fulfilling the role required of them by democracy. Most people are too busy with jobs and families to give politics sufficient attention: rather than spending their leisure time studying the minutiae of trade deals or infrastructure planning, they, quite understandably, pursue more enjoyable pastimes.

Even the minority of voters that have the time and inclination to inform themselves about politics do not behave as folk theory contends. When faced with choice in a democracy, human judgement is overwhelmed by the complexity of the world and bent by self-interest. Voters use information not to challenge their own opinions but to rationalise them, which the authors describe as ‘enhanced bias’. To minimise cognitive dissonance – when an individual holds inconsistent opinions or beliefs – voters adjust their views to those of their favoured party, or simply avoid finding out what a party’s position is altogether if it conflicts with their own.
Image Credit: Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada, 2016 (Darron Birgenheier CC BY SA 2.0)

The authors argue that voters are also afflicted by ‘duration neglect’, where individuals are only able to recall the past few months and are therefore incapable of accurately assessing political performance over the standard four-year term of office. Voters are guided by their own personal circumstances, often punishing leaders when economic conditions worsen and rewarding them when they improve, paying little heed to the politician’s actions.

This point is illustrated using the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide election win. The author’s analysis finds that this election was not a ringing endorsement of FDR’s New Deal response to the Great Depression, but was rather the consequence of the relatively small economic upturn in the months prior to the election.

Additionally, external factors beyond the control of politicians regularly skew election outcomes. Natural disasters, such as droughts and floods, normally lead to voters attributing blame to whoever the incumbent is at the time: this is illustrated by how a spate of fatal great white shark attacks around the beaches of New Jersey in the summer of 1916 led to a ten per cent swing against Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election later that year. Bartels and Achen liken the habit of punishing politicians in this way to ‘kicking the dog to get back at a difficult boss at work’.

Instead of folk democracy’s rational voter, most voters base their political decisions on who they are rather than what they think. Political behaviour reflects our membership of a particular group, an expression of our social identity. Voters choose parties which represent their culture and community, and stay with their political tribe long after they have ceased to serve their interests.

Due to the spurious and capricious nature of democracy, the authors write that elections are little more than ‘a coin toss’ or a political version of ‘musical chairs’. The flaws in the democratic system mean election campaigns are fertile ground for exploitation by unscrupulous and powerful actors or, as the authors put it, ‘crackpots, rogue doctors and extreme interest groups’.

While the scope of the book is superb – particularly the opening chapters, which offer an excellent summary and primer of political science theory over the past century – the case studies draw exclusively on US examples, with many of these severely dated. There is very little reference to the media’s role in a democracy, while the digital revolution that has changed politics and voter behaviour in the past decade is not covered at all. Finally, the concluding chapter of the book, which offers proposals on how democracy can be made to function more effectively, feels somewhat cursory, given the multitude of flaws they have presented.

Bartels and Achen’s main recommendation is to limit private money in politics to curtail the role of special interests who exploit the weaknesses in the democratic process. But the advances in our understanding of psychology since the inception of the folk theory they highlight suggest that a complete overhaul of our governance is required. The grotesque spectacle of Trump’s campaign, and the danger that the next four years of his presidency poses to global stability, could at least have the silver lining of bringing this question to greater prominence.

While the authors emphasise that democracy remains far superior to alternative forms of governance, their argument that its virtues are not the ones that have been commonly attached to it throughout history is likely to make this book a timeless resource for political science scholars. And for anyone who is still struggling with the puzzle of Trump’s election, this book is a vital and enlightening companion to help us understand the strange events of late 2016.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Midsummer's Equation by Keigo Higashino, Minotaur Books

Another Inspector Galileo Mystery

Keigo Higashino is "the most widely read author in Japan, with hundreds of millions of copies of his books sold worldwide and nearly twenty films and television series based on his work," according to the author page in my Kindle edition of A Midsummer's Equation. It's the fourth Higashino book I've read, and I continue to enjoy them for the multi-dimensional characters, the clever plots, and the local color and food descriptions. I must say, though, that this, the third available book in the Inspector Galileo series, doesn't have quite as surprising a plot as the first two did.

At the beginning, we meet Kyohei, a fifth-grade boy traveling alone on a train. His parents don't want to bother with him during summer vacation, so they're sending him to a tiny seaside resort where an aunt and uncle have a small hotel. The boy is a major character throughout the story, which in itself is an innovative device in a mystery novel.

Immediately, we find out what Kyohei has for lunch:

"The train lurched into motion. Kyohei opened his backpack and took out a plastic bag with his lunch inside. The rice balls wrapped in aluminum foil were still warm. A small Tupperware container held some fried chicken and grilled egg, both favorites of his. He drank some water out of a bottle and crammed one of the rice balls into his mouth. He could already see the ocean outside the window. There was a blue sky today, and sunlight glittered off the waves in the distance, beyond the white spray closer to shore." (A Midsummer's Equation: A Detective Galileo Mystery, p. 2)

Kyohei's slightly drunk father's promise to him was that the food would be good at his aunt and uncle's place: "The food’s great down there," his father said. "I’ll tell your aunt to stuff you full of fresh fish.” (p. 3).

In fact, the reader finds out quite a lot about the aunt's cooking both for hotel guests and for the family in the course of the novel. Upon Kyohei's arrival, he learns that two guests are staying at the hotel. One is a retired police officer who soon dies a mysterious death. The other is Manabu Yukawa, Assistant Professor of Physics, Tokyo Imperial University, whom we've met before -- he's known to the police, whom he often helps out in investigations, as Inspector Galileo. (p. 15)

The boy and the physicist establish a very nice relationship, as Yukawa takes charge of teaching the boy some science while he's also consulting for a mining company AND helping the police. Quite a character! I was especially amused at several scenes in the middle of the book where Yukawa and Kyohei eat dinner together at the hotel. Yukawa is always served a high-end fresh fish or sushi dinner, while Kyohei has the family meal such as meatloaf, egg over a ball of rice, or pork cutlets. Eventually Yukawa requests to have the family's dinner served to him instead of the food intended only for guests. The aunt's cooking turns out to provide a critical clue in Yukawa's solution of the mysterious death of the police officer and the events from the distant past that were associated with it (but no spoilers here).

Quite a number of police officers and detectives participate in the case of the retired policeman's death, including two competing and not-fully cooperating teams from the local resort town and Tokyo. Several of their discussions take place while they are eating at a variety of restaurants with intriguing Japanese special foods -- the combination of detecting and dining is extremely enjoyable to read!

A woman detective named Utsumi is responsible for quite a lot of the pavement-beating work that's needed to locate information about both victims and criminals. She and Kusanagi, one of the detectives, have one meeting at a restaurant with a special food that's pretty unusual for American readers:

"Utsumi’s favorite spot to grab a late dinner in Asakusa was right next to the Azuma Bridge, a little place on a narrow alleyway wedged in between the main road and the Sumida River. Lucky for Kusanagi, there was a parking lot just across the way.

The two sat down at a table fashioned from the cross-section of a large log. They both ordered Utsumi’s recommendation: the cow tongue platter.

"'Well, let’s hear it,' Kusanagi said, pulling an ashtray over and lighting a cigarette.

"Utsumi pulled a navy-colored notebook out of her shoulder bag."

She informs Kusanagi of her detecting efforts as they wait for their food.

"'I showed the picture to everyone I talked to, but nothing.' Kusanagi frowned. 'Yeah, that would’ve been too easy.'

"Their dinner arrived. Each one of them had seven pieces of cow tongue on a large tray, surrounded by a small bowl of grated yam, a bowl of boiled rice and barley, salad, and oxtail soup.

“This looks fantastic,” Kusanagi said, snuffing out his cigarette."

They discuss the discoveries she's made about the whereabouts of one of the important targets of their investigation and they eat their dinner:

"Kusanagi took a bite of his cow tongue and whistled. The combination of texture and taste was sublime. 'That is good. Dammit. Now I want a beer.'"

"'Where would he have gone, then? An Internet café?'

"Kusanagi nodded, pouring his grated yam over the rice and barley. 'That’s where all the drifters, young and old, wind up these days. Cheaper than budget places in Sanya, and they’ve got showers. Wow, this yam rice is amazing too.'

"'Okay,' Utsumi said, 'I’ll try the Internet cafés tomorrow, then. We still haven’t figured out why Tsukahara was looking for Senba in the first place, though.'"

"Kusanagi sipped his oxtail soup, gave a little sigh, and reached for his jacket on the chair next to him. He pulled his notebook out of the inner pocket and flipped through the pages." (p. 149-150)

On a different occasion, an interchange between Kusanagi and a witness took place at a restaurant run by the person he wanted to interview:

"Kusanagi stood outside a restaurant that served okonomiyaki pancakes a short walk from Azabu Juban Station. ... The tables all had hot plates in the middle so customers could cook their own okonomiyaki. ...

"'How many years were you at Bar Calvin?” Kusanagi asked. “Twelve, exactly. ...,” Muroi said, pouring the batter out on the hot plate in front of them. There was a loud sizzle as drops of oil began to dance on the plate.

As the detective questions the owner about the his long-ago experiences that will help to catch the perp, he also enjoys some of the special pancakes:

"Muroi paused to check how the okonomiyaki was coming along before leaning forward in his chair. 'Actually, I heard a rumor about that.'

"Muroi flipped one of the pancakes and said, 'It wasn’t just me who saw him. A few of the other guys at the bar were talking about it, wondering why he was so worked up.'"

The questioning and the pancake flipping alternate as the detective learns more and more about the people who interested him. He wraps up when he has all the info he needs:

"'Right,' Kusanagi said, putting away his notebook in his pocket. It was over twenty years ago, as it was. He hadn’t been expecting Muroi to even remember as much as he had.

"'All done— eat up while it’s hot,' Muroi said, spreading some rich, dark sauce on the okonomiyaki before sprinkling it with seaweed and bonito flakes and cutting it on top of the hot plate. 'Oh, almost forgot the beer.'

"'Can’t drink while I’m on duty...' " (Quotes are from p. 170 - 174).

During this interchange, we the readers learn more and more about the motives for murder AND more and more about okonomiyaki, the special Japanese pancakes. (I ate them in an oknomiyaki place in Tokyo once and they were fantastic!)

All things considered, I love the combination of suspense, gastronomy, police rivalries, and clever characters in this novel, though I don't feel the need to summarize the story, just to give these few hints about the way the book is constructed. I'm actually a little surprised that the author, so famous in Japan, isn't better known here.

Labels: , Japanese Literature, June-2016, sushi

Leaving Lucy PearAuthor(s): Anna Solomon Release Date: July 25, 2016 Publisher/Imprint: Viking Pages: 336

An eighteen-year-old Jewish Bostonian from a wealthy family gives birth out of wedlock in 1917 at her uncle’s house in Cape Ann. Rather than turn the baby over to the Jewish orphanage at night she leaves the child at the foot of a tree in the pear grove on her uncle’s property where an Irish-Catholic family steals pears every summer. As she hopes they take the child and raise her with their other eight children. A decade later the birth and adoptive mothers are brought together and recognize the missing pieces from the puzzle of the child named Lucy Pear’s biography.

Leaving Lucy Pear, Anna Solomon’s second novel (The Little Bride, 2011, also reviewed on NYJB), examines gender roles, relations between social classes, assimilation, and the theme of flight or escape in prohibition era coastal New England at the time of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Like The Little Bridethis novel is narrated by a wise third person narrator, but where Solomon’s debut novel focused on one character’s story the new novel’s chapters alternate between characters, who include the birth mother, Beatrice (Bea) Haven; the adoptive mother, working class Irish immigrant Emma Murphy; Emma’s adulterous lover Josiah Story and his infertile wife Susannah; Josiah’s father-in-law boss Caleb Stanton; the title character; and their backstories.

The well-crafted chapters—some could stand alone as short stories—are handsomely written in sometimes poetic, somewhat formal and reserved prose Solomon’s readers will recognize from The Little Bride. At various times Bea and her social climbing mother Lillian are referred to as standoffish, and the same could almost be said of Solomon’s prose style, as if the language were trying to maintain an aesthetic distance from the characters and their interwoven narratives. Moving between chapters and their distinct narrative threads can sometimes feel disorienting, but the novel’s slow pace pays off in well developed characters, though our author often tells where she might have showed.

Solomon, who was born and raised in Gloucester, captures Cape Ann’s natural and social topography. Here is a descriptive and imaginative lyrical passage:

“It was easy to look out at his gracious bay and manicured land and see the logic of it all. It was easy to feel at peace.

“At night, when the logic was swallowed, when the gravel paths grew spectral and the pines rose up like a mountain range, a different pleasure worked at him. The barks of harbor seals sounded like feral dogs roaming the plain. A cat in heat became a moaning puma. Coyotes howled themselves into wolves, raccoons clawed themselves into boars as they ransacked the gardener’s compost heap.”

Henry, Lillian’s husband and Bea’s father, owns Haven shoes, a business that includes a factory and retail stores. Henry has anglicized the original family surname Heschel to Haven, while Henry’s journalist brother Ira, who married into wealth, changed it to Hirsch. Lillian is trying to ingratiate herself in Boston’s Protestant elite social circles and introduces Bea to her friend’s naval lieutenant son who impregnates her.

Bea is a talented classical pianist who has been accepted to Radcliffe College. She discreetly gives birth at her Uncle Ira and dying aunt Vera Bent Oakes’ home on Cape Ann’s eastern point (south of Gloucester) the summer before her classes start. Six weeks into her first semester she suffers a nervous breakdown and has to withdraw. She had hoped to marry her first cousin Oakes Hirsch, but her pregnancy and subsequent mental health doomed that wish, and when he returned from WWI he married someone else. Bea eventually enters an unconsummated marriage of convenience with Albert Cohn, a gay man.

When her mental health recovers sufficiently Bea becomes a temperance activist, which is further evidence of her assimilation; like Catholics, Jews tended to oppose temperance, which was a Protestant cause. First Bea forecloses the opportunity for her baby to be adopted by Jewish parents, and now she devotes herself to a Protestant social movement with xenophobic overtones.

Bea also becomes a family planning advocate and educator, and it is in this role that she first meets Emma Murphy at the latter’s front door in Lanesville (northwest of Rockport) on Cape Ann’s north shore, providing her with the address of a clinic where she can acquire a diaphragm. Emma’s fisherman husband Roland alternates between long periods of work away from home on a fishing ship and equally long periods of unemployment when he abuses Lucy Pear, who dreams of escaping to Canada to live with her older brother Peter.

While Roland is away Emma begins the affair with Josiah, a quarry manager and mayoral candidate who, noticing how hirsute, prematurely pubescent, brown eyed and curly brunette Lucy Pear does not resemble her straight haired, blond, blue-eyed siblings, assumes she is the product of a previous adulterous relationship.

Josiah gets Emma a job as a home care attendant for ailing Ira so that Bea will have time to campaign and ghost write speeches for him (and deliver women temperance voters) and hires the Murphy children to work in the quarry whose adult workers are agitated by the impending execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. While working in Ira’s home Emma realizes that Bea is Lucy’s biological mother.

This review will not reveal how Solomon resolves her interwoven plot threads. The somewhat rushed ending, though probably not predictable to readers new to Solomon’s work, is somewhat reminiscent of the final section of The Little Bride, and readers will probably be divided as to whether it is satisfactory. Leaving Lucy Pear is recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction, a cast of well developed mainly female characters, and handsome prose.

Dark at the Crossing Hardcover – Large Print, May 24, 2017 by Elliot Ackerman (Scribner)

Elliot Ackerman has made a habit of channeling the voices of people from diverse and distant places. His debut novel – “Green On Blue” (Scribner, 2015) – centered on Aziz and Ali, two Pashtun boys navigating the physical and moral hardships wrought by America’s most recent war in Afghanistan. Notably, Ackerman told this story from the Afghan perspective, bringing readers “new understanding of the complicated layers within Afghanistan’s tribal society,” according to novelist Roxana Robinson.

In “Dark at the Crossing” (Knopf, 2017), which is available today, Ackerman inhabits the character of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi-American desperate to cross Turkey’s southern border into Syria and join the “Free Army” fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Like Aziz, Abadi’s journey is complicated. He is quickly turned back from the Turkish-Syrian crossing by military police and then robbed. Soon thereafter, stuck on the Turkish side of the border, Abadi befriends former Syrian refugee Amir and his beguiling wife Daphne. Confronted with conflict – his identity, his cause, the crumbling marriage of his new friends – Abadi re-evaluates the depth and truth of his own ambition.

Some comments about the books from a recently published interbview
Did the original idea for this story begin with a place you visited, an event you witnessed or maybe someone you met? What led you to write "Dark at the Crossing"?

This novel began at dinner with a friend, a Syrian revolutionary turned refugee. We sat at an open-air café in Gaziantep, or Antep as the locals call it, an industrial city in southern Turkey. His wife was meant to join us but she had called and they’d had an argument. “I was unfaithful and she’s never forgiven me,” he told me. He then explained that the infidelity was not with another woman but with the revolution: its ideals, its excitement, all that he had sacrificed for it, too much, abandoning the emotional core of his marriage for what ultimately became a lost cause. A revolution, like a marriage, is a journey of the heart. Marriage is letting go of two separate worlds in order to create a single shared one. When a marriage dissolves, a couple is forced to reimagine that world, to start again. In the novel, I endeavored to tell the story of the Syrian Civil War, a failed revolution, through the lens of an intimate, universal emotional arc: a failed marriage.

The book is an exploration of grief—the death of a child, the destruction of a cause, the individual’s search to assuage loss. Having spent nearly three years covering the Syrian Civil War, I have watched that conflict’s spiral into darkness. I have witnessed the central choice of any failed revolution, any failed relationship: whether to accept what’s ruined and begin anew, or to keep faith with an increasingly hopeless cause.

What was the writing process like for this novel, and how did it differ from "Green On Blue"?

In my writing, I am often drawn to complex political themes. Politics is, after all, an emotional realm. What I endeavor to do in a book is to take those complex political elements and distill them into a story of more intimate emotions. In this respect "Dark at the Crossing" is similar to "Green on Blue", a novel which is set in Afghanistan. Both books also deal with a central question, or action. In "Green on Blue" the central action is a murder. In this book that central action is a border crossing. When writing both novels, I knew early on that the story was the journey the characters take towards those respective actions. A difference between the writing of the two books was that in "Dark at the Crossing" I knew much earlier on how the story would end. Much of the heavy work was figuring the reasons for why it ended the way that it did, whereas in "Green on Blue" I didn’t understand the ending until far later in the writing process. There is a discipline to writing—at least there is for me. I believe in the importance of showing up every day to do the work so that the characters and story reveal themselves.

You are living a fascinating life – Marine infantry officer in Iraq and special operator in Afghanistan, CIA paramilitary operative and now writer based in Istanbul. I imagine a memoir or story about your military and journalism experiences would make for very interesting reading. Why have you chosen to write fiction?

Why doesn’t a landscape artist just take a photograph?

All joking aside, I write fiction because more than any other form of storytelling it deals with our interior emotional lives. But as you noted, I do write journalism as well. Many of the novelists I admire most—Greene, Malraux, Didion—also worked as journalists and if you read their fiction you will often find the antecedents of their novels in their journalism. That tradition is less common today, but I’m drawn to writing—both fiction and non-fiction—that is fully engaged with the world. In my work, I am trying to be similarly engaged across forms.

What writers or people do you admire? Why?

There are many writers whose work I admire, but I don’t believe your question is about work, but rather who I admire as a person and this is a more difficult question, one that is intimate, because to say that I admire someone in the public eye who I do not know well would be dangerous as I might only be admiring their outward facing persona. So to tell you whom I admire, I will answer more personally and perhaps tell you the traits that I value most and try to express in my own life:

I admire my mother, a writer herself, for her commitment to her work over many decades. I admire my father, a businessman and entrepreneur, for his tenacity and vision. I admire my brother, a gifted mathematician and former Olympic wrester, for finding the improbable connection between the two and then excelling at both.

Friday, January 27, 2017

#OyVeyDonaldTrump and The Plot Against America Paperback by Philip Roth, Vintage

Iwould be an exaggeration to say that Philip Roth predicted the presidency of Donald Trump. But in 2004's
The Plot Against America, our greatest living novelist foresaw, in startling granular detail, how a demagogic
celebrity like Trump could come to power.

The first precondition is underestimation. Roth's Plot imagines that in 1940 world-famous aviator and America Firster Charles Lindbergh defeats President Franklin Roosevelt, who greets the news of Lindbergh's nomination by Republicans with domineering confidence. Roth writes: "Roosevelt raised everyone's spirits by his robust response on learning that his opponent was to be Lindbergh rather than a senator of the stature of Taft or a prosecutor as aggressive as Dewey or a big-time lawyer as smooth and handsome as Willkie. When awakened at 4 a.m. to be told the news, he was said to have predicted from his White House bed, 'By the time this is over, the young man will be sorry not only that he entered politics but that he ever learned to fly.'"

Robert Taft, Thomas Dewey, Wendell Wilkie — these men were to Roth's Roosevelt as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were to Hillary Clinton: members in good-standing of a familiar political class. The Clinton team at one point thought it shrewd to elevate "pied piper" candidates like Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz — surefire losers, all — and thereby push the eventual mainstream nominee farther to the right.


The second precondition is overestimation: an overestimation by the political establishment of its own mastery over the borders of permissible rhetoric. Trump scapegoated Muslims and Mexicans on his way to the White House. In an infamous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Lindbergh scapegoated "the Jewish people" or, alternatively, "the Jewish race" as one of the "most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war" in Europe. (The other groups were the British government and the Roosevelt administration.)

"The next day," writes Roth, "the very accusations that had elicited roars of approval from Lindbergh's Iowa audience were vigorously denounced by liberal journalists, by Roosevelt's press secretary, by Jewish agencies and organizations, even from within the Republican Party by New York's District Attorney Dewey and Wall Street utilities lawyer Wendell Wilkie." (Indeed, the real-life Dewey called Lindbergh's speech "an inexcusable abuse of the right of freedom of speech," while Willkie said it was "the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation." The textbook definition of a racist comment, you might say.)

As it so often does in Trump's America, establishment condemnation, in Roth's fiction, falls on deaf ears.

In addition to exploiting miscalculations by the political class, Trump and Roth's Lindbergh share other similarities. In the book, Lindbergh flies around the country in the Spirit of St. Louis; more advanced airplanes are, of course, at his disposal, but Lindbergh means to evoke nostalgia. He is greeted in Los Angeles by a crowd numbering in the "tens of thousands," many of them aircraft-manufacturing workers. He speaks in language that is "unadorned and to the point." He is unpredictable even to the "professionals who had been assigned by the Republican Party to steer the political novice through his first political campaign…"

Here is Roth presaging another fatal miscalculation: "Democrats were quick to belittle his barnstorming in the Spirit of St. Louis … At press conferences, Roosevelt no longer bothered to make a derisive quip when questioned by newsmen about the unorthodox Lindbergh campaign, but simply moved on to discuss Churchill's fear of an imminent German invasion … It was clear from the start that the president's campaign was to consist of remaining in the White House, where, in contrast to what Secretary Ickes labeled Lindbergh's 'carnival antics,' he planned to address the hazards of the international situation with all the authority at his command, working round the clock if necessary."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Innocence by Dean Koontz, Bantam

Spoiler alert. For once I’m going to talk about the plot is some detail so, if you prefer to come to this book without preconceptions, do not read this review.
As a lifelong atheist, I feel I’ve been the victim of some discrimination. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I read most of the novels by Dean Koontz (including those written under the various pseudonyms), but slowly grew tired of the style. Having taken my thirty year sabbatical, I therefore thought it would be interesting to see what the latest book was like. It’s called Innocence (Bantam Books, 2014) and, as you can see, the jacket artwork shows a scene featuring a lonely man in a hoodie, standing in the middle of a snowscape. It creates the impression that this man is a threat of some kind and that, as the book develops, we’ll go through the usual supernatural or horror thriller format of this man preying on the innocent or acting as a vigilante to protect the innocent. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the plot has this figure as a victim who hides himself away from the world. Worse, the final third of the book retrospectively converts the novel into an explicitly Christian and specifically Catholic tale. When the publishers design books with Satanic or other themes which they believe might upset the Christians, they put warning pictures and words on the jacket. There’s nothing on the jacket or blurb to warn atheists that this book is going to be deeply annoying.
So what do we have? This is a first-person narrative of a young man whose entire life has been blighted by his appearance. When he was born, the midwife wanted to kill him. This set the pattern and, had the mother not lived in a desolate house deep in the woods, he would not have survived. When he’s eight-years-old, his mother announces she can no longer stand him and throws him out. As he hides in the woods around the home, he sees his mother commit suicide so you can tell his appearance must be horrendous. At this point, all the options are on the table. He’s physically disabled in a very disturbing way. He’s hairy like a werewolf. He’s the antiChrist. To maintain suspense, there are no clues — our narrator is very unreliable and never describes what he sees in the mirror. When he comes to the city, he’s rescued by another older member of his “kind”. This man teaches him survival strategies and shows him how to live underground. Unfortunately, they are out in the early hours of the morning, having fun, throwing snowballs at each other when they are challenged by two police officers. As the man takes off his mask, the officers are so horrified, they immediately open fire and empty their guns into him. This distraction enables the young man to escape.
Dean Koontz
Dean Koontz
Fortunately, our hero meets a young girl. On the night her father was murdered, she escaped rape when fourteen and has been living a reclusive life while trying to collect evidence that will prove the man guilty of the murder of her father and the attempted sexual assault. They team up and then have one of these intense twenty-four hours in which several people are kidnapped and/or murdered, they go on the run, and the world as we know it ends. It seems the North Koreans are the agents of the Devil and have released a virus that will wipe out most of the human race.
This girl had a father so rich he could leave her with ten places to hide, one outside the city, miles into the countryside. This is very convenient. Further, to maintain security, only one other man is supposed to know where these places are. So she can safely play hide-and-seek around the city. Except how does she maintain all these places? There must be people who go in to clean and tidy, do the washing, and keep the refrigerator stocked with food. It’s not a problem financially. There are millions stashed away in different accounts and trust funds. But it’s the logistics of all these people going in and out of these places and never talking about it. No burglars ever break in. The pipes never freeze and burst during the winters. Then we have her remarkable powers of foresight. She can set up meetings around the city as the snow begins to fall, and she and the narrator will always end up at the right place at the right time for the plot to work. No, sorry, this is just the author moving the characters around so the plot will work out. There’s no suggestion she has supernatural powers of foresight.
And who are this pair? Well, by now you should be thinking they are the “reincarnation” (sorry, wrong religion) of Adam and Eve. Except that’s not quite right. They are pure innocence. In a photograph, they would look perfectly normal. But face-to-face with “ordinary” humans, they radiate a judgmental field in which the humans are immediately aware of all their sins. These poor folk are so horrified by the extent of their wickedness, they immediately set to and aim to kill the innocent one(s). To add insult to injury, there are also angels and devils floating around. In the end, the innocent survive the plague and go off to repopulate the world (a task which may take some time, so God provides manna to avoid the need to eke out dwindling food supplies). This makes Innocence an Armageddon novel with God providing the means for humanity to get a second chance. But this time, they are starting off with those who retain their innocence and are free from original sin. That should give the future generations a better chance of avoiding sin and walking in the path of righteousness. I suppose I have to classify this as Christian fantasy. In less polite mode, I can think of better ways of describing this literalist biblical belief in a God who judges humanity not worth saving from the plague. He just presses the reset button and starts over. So if you are a Christian who wants to see your worldview affirmed, this is the book for you. Otherwise, ignore the author’s name and the jacket design. Innocence is not a horror novel. It’s a waste of your time.

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands ,Aladdin, 400 pages, $7.99 Paperback. Ages 10-14.

Image result for The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Christopher Rowe, almost 14, considers himself extremely fortunate to be apprenticed to Benedict Blackthorn, an apothecary in London in 1665 who’s training him to become a pharmacist of that time.

Christopher grew up in an orphanage. A small inheritance and an active, inventive mind led to his passing the demanding Apothecary Guild exam and being apprenticed to Blackthorn at 11.

Blackthorn’s kind. He’s doesn’t beat Christopher, a daily occurrence for most apprentices, even when Christopher mixes gunpowder, causing an explosion that shreds the fur off Blackthorn’s stuffed bear.

Blackthorn teaches the boy cures and treatments for diseases and conditions using plants and other natural ingredients and trains him to use secret codes to keep recipes from being stolen. He encourages him to read his books on philosophy, history and science. Christopher devours all the learning.

For Christopher’s birthday, Blackthorn gives him a silvery puzzle cube. He celebrates with his best friend, Tom. Tom’s “a foot taller and built like a blacksmith” and always game to help with Christopher’s experiments.

King Charles II had returned to England five years ago after a long exile and the end of Oliver Cromwell’s strict Puritan regime. Puritans were purged and executed. Loyalty to the king is still questioned.

Three apothecaries are brutally murdered. When everything Christopher holds dear is threatened, he’s driven to use his skills to unmask the killers.

“The Blackthorn Key” is an imaginative tour de force of historic detail, science, crime and detection that will engross young readers looking for a strong story and new hero to admire.

Author Kevin Sands holds degrees in theoretical physics and has worked as a teacher and in other fields. This is his first novel. It’s a 2016 Edgar Nominee for Best Juvenile Mystery and has won many awards.