Thursday, August 31, 2017

PAGES FOR HER By Sylvia Brownrigg 384 pp. Counterpoint $26.

Sylvia Brownrigg’s “Pages for You,” a novel narrated by a naïve Yale freshman, was published in 2001. Just 17, Flannery was swept into an intoxicating, life-altering affair with an older graduate student and teaching assistant named Anne. Underlying her story was a sense of nascent promise — not just a sexual awakening but a whole life coming into focus. Flannery became besotted with Anne, but also with the potential that Anne augured for Flannery’s own adulthood.

Yet “Pages for Her,” the novel’s long-awaited sequel, set 20 years later, is cut through with disappointment. Flannery, now 38, is married to a successful artist named Charles, a boorish alpha male who’s self-centered and prodigious in both physicality and temper. The couple have a 6-year-old daughter, Willa, whose existence has helped distract Flannery from her frustrated creative ambitions. Having published a racy, successful roman à clef in her 20s, she now teaches part time at an arts college and wonders what happened to her once-complex identity. “Was there room in one self for author, parent, lesbian, mistress, wife, companion, solitaire?” she contemplates. “Or was the self finally a fixed size, incapable of containing such multitudes?”

“Pages for You” — written in sensuous, lyrical prose that contrasted appealingly with its truncated, two-page chapters — was a poetic outburst of obsession and energy. Flannery fell in love with Anne, yes, but also with the lush fall colors of New England and the writers she discovered in class and the unprecedented rush of sexual pleasure. “Pages for Her” is the deflating thud of reality, rudely encountered.

Flannery, sadder and wiser as an adult, seems to be sleepwalking through life when she’s invited to speak at a Yale conference for women writers moderated by Anne, who has become a respected academic and author. The prospect of a reunion gives the novel its zing; it’s hard to shed a tear for Charles, “a heavy breather, a snorer, a guffawer,” as well as a defiantly lazy father and an unfaithful jerk.

Alas, Brownrigg delays this meeting between the two women until the last fifth of the novel, choosing instead to flesh out the vicissitudes of Flannery’s life as a parent. Interspersed among the lengthy accounts of late kindergarten pickups and pizza dinners and cutesy conversations are a handful of sharp observations about motherhood and womanhood. Flannery suppresses her “distaste and indignation” at her husband’s behavior, and is subsequently described as “Willa’s mother,” as though parenting has drained her of even the very last vestige of her writerly self — her name. And in a provocative moment, she compares her obsession with Anne to her all-consuming love for Willa: “Everything you saw reminded you of her; you thought about her all the time; the world’s other shades faded next to the implacable brightness of the one you loved.”Photo

One of the gratifying aspects of “Pages for Her” is that it spends its central section with Anne, offering more insight into a woman who was seen in “Pages for You” only through the lens of Flannery’s heady infatuation. Now 48, childless, parentless and recently abandoned by her long-term partner, Anne can’t tell if she feels “free, or unmoored.” But the gnawing question from the previous book — whether readers should be compelled or disturbed by the story of a relationship between a 28-year-old teaching assistant and a 17-year-old virgin — is left alone.

When Anne and Flannery finally meet, the novel kicks into gear. The sexual energy crests, but more rewarding is some sense of the Flannery of old returning: audacious, confident, smart, seductive. Then “Pages for Her” ends, almost abruptly, as if Brownrigg knows these are characters whose story still has places to go.

I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy By Erin Carlson Illustrated. 341 pp. Hachette Books. $27.

Nora Ephron’s friends were lucky guys. They knew the total Ephron, a writer, filmmaker, hostess and maven of such forceful personality that even strangers felt the proprietary right to call her Nora. Those fortunate hundreds — she was a discerning collector — knew Nora the stinging commentator as well as Nora the productive romantic-comedy queen of the Upper West Side. And when she died in 2012, at the age of 71, following an illness she kept so secret that many of those closest to her were stunned, they were able to mourn Nora Ephron as a woman and artist in full.

The rest of us each embraced the kind of Nora we needed, based on our age and experience with romantic heartburn. And by “us” I of course invite men, but really, it’s women who have always considered Ephron family, allying with “My Nora” the way “Pride and Prejudice” devotees might claim “My Jane” Austen. Those of us who lived through the times she wrote about in her classic essay collections “Crazy Salad” (1975) and “Scribble Scribble” (1978) — indeed, who read the books when they were too new to qualify as “classic,” and who feel the melancholy that drives the mordant humor of her 2006 collection, “I Feel Bad About My Neck” — cherish Our Nora as a lively, opinionated sister who cut through crap.Photo

Meg Ryan in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally.” CreditColumbia Pictures

Those who weren’t around the first time are the audience for “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” written by Erin Carlson, a 30-something entertainment journalist who,

through no fault of her own, wasn’t there either. Carlson has done her library research, conducted informational interviews and Googled her unfamiliar names. She is able to explain to her generation that the movie producer Ray Stark was “a towering Hollywood figure” whose “tactics were cutthroat, part of the legend,” and that Leona Helmsley, “nicknamed the Queen of Mean, was a very successful hotelier and real estate developer joined in marriage and business to self-made billionaire Harry Helmsley, her third husband.” She also assumes her readers will know what she means when she says that “Nora, like a proto-Taylor Swift, channeled heartbreak into pop art,” and that Tom Hanks’s emails in “You’ve Got Mail” are “the fantasy edition of what every woman hopes to find, and rarely does, on Tinder (where grammar goes to die).” Old-school Ephron ladies say, Say what?

As any fan of any generation probably knows, the title “I’ll Have What She’s Having” comes from a defining verbal zinger in “When Harry Met Sally …,” the enduring 1989 romantic comedy written by Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the title couple exploring the possibilities (and impossibilities) of nonsexual friendship between a man and a woman. What Sally is having is a fake orgasm, in a crowded deli, demonstrated for Harry to make a point about women and sex.

The movie won Ephron a screenwriting Oscar nomination and landed an entry of honor in modern cinema history as an unconventionally literate variation on the conventions of romantic comedy. It also set Ephron on an unexpected path to fame in a territory those of us who were around the first time would never have believed of My Nora who wrote the 1972 essay “On Never Having Been a Prom Queen.” Bringing tousled Ryan and her sparkle along with her, folding in reliably delightful Hanks, and learning her way on the job as director as well as co-screenwriter, Ephron went on to devise a twist on the 1957 Leo McCarey beaut “An Affair to Remember” with “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993, and a variation on the peerless 1940 Ernst Lubitsch confection “The Shop Around the Corner” with “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998.Continue reading the main story

More movie work followed that — some good, some less so, since Ephron’s strength was never as a distinctive filmmaker with a cohesive style or graceful storytelling structure; she was always more interested in words on the page than in cinematic movement. That Carlson lacks the authority or experience to confidently analyze what Nora Ephron did and didn’t do as a filmmaker of romantic comedies — and fills the empty space with blog-post-like extras about what the director wore on the set — is the main reason this reader of neck-fretting age is not having what the impressionable author and her underanalyzed pop-culture project is having. Even as my generation steps aside, willingly, for younger writers and younger readers, we on the way out can be caught up short by the perspective lost as the parameters of “back then” shift in the analysis of pop culture.Photo

Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993). CreditTriStar/Photofest

But I digress! I have other harrumphs, too, from someone too old for this party. The author lures the browser with the subtitle “How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy,” anchoring her survey on “Harry/Sally,” “Sleepless” and “Mail.” My Nora would hate the hot air in the word “iconic,” but never mind: Nothing in “I’ll Have What She’s Having” makes a persuasive case for why “Sleepless” and “Mail” can be considered in the same category of excellence as “Harry/Sally” (me, I say they’re not); neither does Carlson make a convincing argument for why the romantic comedy needed saving (me, I say it didn’t, not if one looks at Hollywood history more fully); nor does she elucidate how Ephron saved the genre and shaped what came after (me, I say hooey).

So it’s back to the factoids, the digressive details about ancillary players and the awkwardly shoehorned, slapdash sociological observations (“As it happened, the Sandra Dee-ification of Meg Ryan held a mirror to sexually anxious times”). There is also an obligatory race-and-gender disclaimer, during which Carlson soberly notes that Ephron’s “fatal flaw” was living in a bubble. “While Nora created worlds in which we all wanted to live, her daffy, urban universes included mainly straight white people and couples at the unfortunate expense of diversity,” she recites, like a pledge of allegiance — and even then, she doesn’t stick to her own undeveloped thought. “Nevertheless,” Carlson continues, “Nora persists as an icon in the same big league as equally complex, multifaceted rom-com pioneers Woody Allen, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch, the master himself.”

I would like to challenge every word of that sentence — on Twitter, where grammar goes to die.

SARGENT’S WOMEN Four Lives Behind the Canvas By Donna M. Lucey Illustrated. 311 pp. (W.W. Norton & Company). $29.95.

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The Gilded Age (of white Americans), from the 1870s to about 1900, is a joy to research and write about. Crazy rich people doing, building and saying mad, impulsive, sometimes beautiful and often ridiculous things: traveling cross-country for séances; wearing leather pajamas while breakfasting next to a corpse; creating fantastical gardens and grand interpretive dance or poetry entertainments at lavish or ramshackle country homes. Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner are thought to have come up with the phrase for their novel of the same name, taking it from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

This period of rampant industrialization produced an enormously wealthy, largely oblivious 1 percent, of which Donna M. Lucey is a most sympathetic and intelligent chronicler. In “Archie and Amélie,” her 2006 book about a Gilded Age couple’s childhoods, disastrous marriage and lives post-divorce, she introduced us to Amélie Rives, goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and author of the once-sizzling “The Quick or the Dead?,” a novel about the erotic yearnings of a widow for her late husband’s brother, something Rives then repeated in real life with a similar passion for her eccentric-verging-on-floridly-psychotic husband’s younger brother. In that book, Lucey also took us through the life and poshly hard times of Archie Chanler, who was dashing, wealthy and crazy as a coot, with no modern psychotropic drugs to contain his florid delusions (I am Napoleon). They were a glamorous, absurd, doomed couple, and Lucey did her lucid, thoughtful best by them.

In “Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas,” she does even more of what she does best, creating a rollicking snow globe version of an almost unimaginable world of wealth, crackpot notions of self-improvement and high-flying self-indulgence (like now; you know who you are, Goop) woven around an often passionate commitment to, deep admiration for and wide-ranging pursuit of the fine and literary arts (less like now). Lucey is a persistent detective and a bemused, sometimes amused, storyteller, attentive to interesting, hilarious, disturbing detail: Isabella Stewart Gardner’s enormous diamonds, some of which had names and which she “wore atop her head on gold spiral wires so that they’d bob and sparkle as she talked”; the teenage Elizabeth Chanler, strapped to a “long machinelike” board for two years to “cure” her limp; Sally Fairchild, after a lifetime of serving as her mother’s nurse and bodyguard, hitting her stride at 80 by seducing a 30-year-old married man. “If that young woman can’t hold her husband,” she sneered, “that’s her lookout.”Continue reading the main story

“Sargent’s Women” presents biographies of four American ladies whose lives intersected with John Singer Sargent’s. The detail is deep, sometimes unnecessarily so, and the theme, that Sargent’s portraits “hinted at the mysteries, passions and tragedies that unfolded in his subjects’ lives,” is pursued in every chapter.Photo

Elsie Palmer, who starts things off in “The Pilgrim,” sat for Sargent when she was 17. It was a difficult commission and she was 18 by the time it was finished. Although Sargent’s early sketches show her as innocent, childlike and charming, Lucey tells us that the finished portrait “dispenses with charm.” In the final painting, Elsie looks like a grim little ghost, with her blunt bangs, pop eyes and pale little face. She’s clad in a pleated linen dress that resembles a shroud.

Although I associate the Gilded Age with Newport “cottages” and Mrs. Astor’s 400, Elsie Palmer’s life was centered on Colorado, then famous for its curative mountain climate, and the home of her father, known as the General, who made his fortune in railroads and built a great estate, Glen Eyrie, at what would become the town of Colorado Springs. After her mother, called Queen (not an uncommon nickname, it seems, among wealthy Americans of the time), suffered a heart attack and was told to avoid the thin Colorado air, she brought her daughters to England and embarked on a life of socializing with “lovers of art and music and literature.” When she died, Elsie returned to Colorado to run the household for her demanding father, a task made even more difficult after he was thrown by his horse and paralyzed. She escaped by marrying a nice, odd, rich younger man, with whom she’d been secretly engaged. For the ceremony at Glen Eyrie, she wore “a long brown wrap, covered with huge metal buckles.” Strung across it like the pieces of a coat of mail were “cords holding tiny bronze figures of animals of all kinds — a thousand of them.” Although Elsie’s husband, Leo Myers, had a great, unexpected success in the 1930s with a trilogy of novels set in 16th-century India, he remained a troubled soul and killed himself in 1944. We last see Elsie, at 82, with an old family retainer, taking long walks through the English countryside. For me, the fascination of this often passive, largely talentless woman lies in the trappings of her life. Although I did love the story of her oddball romance.

Lucia Fairchild, the focus of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” was the sister of the actual sitter, Sally Fairchild, the 21-year-old beauty Sargent painted under a thick blue veil on the beach at Nahant. Lucey must have felt that gorgeous, imperious, sharp-tongued Sally, who shunned suitors for many years to care for her mother — and never regretted it — wasn’t sufficiently engaging. (I disagree.) Instead we are given her little sister, not a great beauty but a successful, grievously hard-working artist who married a feckless, lazy leech, devoted herself to supporting him and their children, lost her eyesight and mobility before she was 50 and died soon thereafter, happy in her belief that the world would know and appreciate how good and loving her children were to her.

Elizabeth Chanler, one of the “Astor orphans,” was painted by Sargent in London when she was 27. Her story is dominated by an account of her passionate love affair with her best friend’s volatile husband, Jack Chapman, a leading intellectual light of East Coast society. Their ups and downs and intrigues, as well as their eventual marriage, are fully chronicled, but although this chapter, which Lucey calls “The Madonna,” provides an ample sense of the times it doesn’t relay very much of the woman who, as Lucey puts it, “remained the glue that kept her unstable husband intact.”

Last, never least, is Isabella Stewart Gardner, the only sitter who breaks out of the box of Gilded Age prototypes to emerge as a tigerish individual. She comes across as hardheaded and visionary, a riotous mix of Bette Midler and Dame Maggie Smith’s upper-crust characters. Gardner became Sargent’s patron and, Lucey adds, “one of his dearest friends.” After he’d “grown to detest portraiture,” that of the 82-year-old Gardner was the only one he asked to paint.

Sargent and Henry James are often paired as comrades, as closeted gay men, as great portraitists and as each other’s subjects. In 1893, in “Picture and Text,” James introduced Sargent to an American audience, arguing that the ideal artist “sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, elevates and humanizes the technical.” James makes it clear that Sargent is as close to this ideal as he can imagine in real life.

Lucey faces one significant difficulty as she slides these four clearly illuminated and carefully examined pearls onto a fascinating and filigreed chain, even as so many of the details are memorable and revealing. The problem with creating portraits of women from John Singer Sargent’s world is that so many of those portraits have already been brilliantly, unforgettably created and immortalized, from sketch to canvas, by Sargent himself.

GOOD BOOTY Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music By Ann Powers Illustrated. 418 pp. Dey St./William Morrow. $26.99.

‘Good Booty’: The Sexual Power of Music

“The sexiest moments of American music”: Little Richard, Madonna and Prince.CreditFrom left: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times; Gill Allen/Associated Press; Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

“Tutti frutti, good booty,” ran the pre-bowdlerized version of Little Richard’s hit song, one of the lyrics the NPR music critic Ann Powers cites to demonstrate the intersection of evocative gibberish and open, transgressive eroticism that, she says, is “at the heart of American popular music.” The line encompasses sexual frankness, piratical rapine, the backside in fetish and dance and a wordless endorsement of the pleasure principle. All this through the flamboyant vessel of a performer who himself embodied complexities of sexuality, race and the slippage between the spiritual and the carnal.

And “embodiment” is the relevant term for Powers. Her argument, that “we, as a nation, most truly and openly acknowledge sexuality’s power through music,” is intimately tied to the body: enslaved and objectified black bodies, the erotic sublimation and liberation of dance, the dialogue between charismatic performer and enraptured audience and the problem of “cyborg” singers like Britney Spears. She stresses the primacy of the voice, the flesh and the communion of bodies in a room together over the atomized experience of listening to disembodied sound (while acknowledging new forms of intimacy introduced by the age of recording). Powers connects her early attraction to popular music explicitly to its “erotic pull,” the “physicality” of live performance, and the centrality of music to the sexual awakenings of herself and her friends. She decided, she says, “to write a book about American music and American sex, one that would really be about American dreaming, violence, pleasure, hunger, lies and love.”Photo

It’s a self-consciously ambitious program (the jacket copy prepares the reader for a “magnum opus over two decades in the making”) befitting one of the rare rock critics with a national audience, and a key female voice in the field. It’s also one that Powers admits will be necessarily incomplete: “To talk about what’s revealed within the sexiest moments of American music … is to recast its history in terms that are more inclusive, and less dominated by old ideas of artistic genius or great works. … This retelling of American popular music doesn’t always focus on the big stories. It has gaps.” Powers does spend time with obscure artists like Florence Mills and Jobriath, and fruitfully explores the colorful, gender-fluid world of early gospel music. However, her story hews to a broadly conventional narrative — the intersection of African-American expression, white curiosity and appropriation, and the dialogue between the spiritual and the secular — that begins in Congo Square ring shouts and leads with inexorable circularity back to the New Orleans of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” Familiar figures like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison stand in for “the sexual revolution and its discontents,” while Madonna and Prince do the same for the MTV ’80s. Meanwhile, the centrality of eroticism in Powers’s narrative necessitates a de-emphasis on canonical artists without an obvious erotic component to their personas (Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan), and inconclusive glosses on others (Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson) whose sexual and racial stories are more complicated.

Powers allows herself the veteran rock critic’s slangy informality (Buddy Holly “was … getting laid on the regular”), which can create a tonal instability when set against historical filler (“By 2000 … people spent more and more time within the virtual realm made possible by a new phenomenon called the World Wide Web”) and quotations from academic sources. She has a zest for bold assertions, and some of them land: Her attention to the physical intimacy between Creole women and their black servants, the domestic eroticism of “gospel mothers,” the sensuous intimacy of soft rock, and the puritan sexual disgust of punk are all useful diversifications from the bawdy journey through national puberty that is the book’s primary narrative. Some are more debatable: Was Mick Jagger’s appropriation of blues “codes of potency” really a result of LSD? Do girl group and doo-wop’s “nonsense syllables” and “baby talk” really constitute inarticulate “play preceding full adult sexuality,” the “revelatory babble of an emerging generation”? Did Jim Morrison’s “sacrifice” of his member “on the altar of silence … strike like a final blow” to the ’60s?Continue reading the main story

The subtitle of “Good Booty” lays claim to “American music,” but Powers quickly acknowledges that she means “American popular music,” and her central point of reference for the erotic potential of music remains rock (Creole dandies, gospel performers, rappers and music as “a vocabulary of freedom” are all described in terms of rock). Jazz and country music are largely dispensed with in a three-page summary, along with the Great Depression, Great Migration and World War II, in a rush to get to teenagers and rock ’n’ roll. (Country music’s more ambivalent attitudes toward sex — Dolly Parton and “The Pill” notwithstanding — are inconvenient for the book’s whiggish thesis. Books like Nadine Hubbs’s “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music,” though, offer intriguing counternarratives of the kind it would’ve been interesting to find here.) Musical theater, which combines traditional romantic plots with queer and camp appeal, shares a paragraph with the art-music world in a brief consideration of AIDS-related work.

At its core, this is a story of the exceptional nature of American popular music. But if there is something sui generis about the explosive admixture of race and desire Powers declares essential to that music, arguably its world-conquering power has as much to do with the development of mass commercial culture industries as it does with something inherently liberating in its content. The musical and erotic thrill of miscegenation, of contact with an exoticized other-among-us imbued with projected musical, sexual and possibly criminal power, is hardly unique to the American imagination: Brazil, or the Roma diaspora, comes to mind. (And one can’t help noticing that African-American writers on African-American music tend not to underscore its erotic nature: Baraka points to blues as a result of a new black experience of solitude and individualism, Du Bois to sorrow, and Ellison to a kind of existential syncopation.) Unexceptional as well is the sublimation of multifarious desire into music and the “jaunty polyamory” of dance, as Susan McClary and others have argued in feminist readings of the European classical canon. Music has been central to the ritualized sexuality of fertility, circumcision, puberty and wedding ceremonies cross-culturally and from time immemorial. The ultimate novelty in American music is not eros and race-mixing, but technology, capital and global distribution.

Powers concludes, “When we think we can’t move, the music is always there to say we can.” But as Pascal Quignard and a growing number of scholars writing on music, war and torture have pointed out, sound and rhythm can act as much as a tool for control and violation of the body as one for emancipation. Communal noise, wrote Elias Canetti, is crucial to the unity of the bloodthirsty crowd. The experience of dissociation, of disembodiment, is as common a reaction to trauma as it is to the liberating pulse of the dance floor. Music is, indeed, a slippery and complicated force — especially for the optimistic narrative of the pop critic.

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor Hardcover – January 5, 2016 by Robert Burleigh (Author), Raúl Colón (Illustrator)(Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books)


Burleigh uses first person to introduce young readers to this truly remarkable woman, incorporating meaningful details that provide accessible entry points for young readers, like the fact that Tharp attended 17 different schools because her father’s job required their family to move, and that she loved maps. Graduating from college in 1948, she struggled to gain acceptance as a scientist because she was a woman. Tharp persevered, eventually making the profound observation that no one knew much about the structure of the ocean floor. Was it possible to map it? So began Tharp’s work on a truly ground-breaking project that spanned over 20 years, providing important information that changed how scientists understood not only the ocean floor but our planet’s shifting plates.

One of the many things I admire about this book is the wonderfully clear explanations of Tharp’s work as well as a subtle depiction of how a scientist works: with lots of conversations and debates. The text confirms, “Scientists are like that. They question everything.” All this is delivered in a perfect duet of text and stunning illustrations, done in a gorgeous watery palette, that extend the text. Aside from being simply beautiful, they aptly carry on the conversation with the reader! But let me hand this off to Cindy to tell you more.

TOTAL RECALL My Unbelievably True Life Story By Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Peter Petre Illustrated. 646 pages. Simon & Schuster. $35.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, a reporter asked about the Cohiba label on the cigar Mr. Schwarzenegger was smoking. “That’s a Cuban cigar,” the reporter said. “You’re the governor. How can you flout the law?”

The answer was as good a one-sentence encapsulation of the bodybuilder/entrepreneur/movie star/politician/braggart’s philosophy as all of “Total Recall,” his 646-page memoir, provides. “I smoke it because it’s a great cigar,” he said.

This is only one of countless ways Mr. Schwarzenegger has prized self-interest throughout his long, glory-stalking and (as he loves pointing out) extremely lucrative career. “Total Recall” contains nonstop illustrations of how he aims high, tramples on competitors, breaks barriers and savors every victory, be it large or small. Those who mistake “Total Recall” for a salacious tell-all may not be that interested in how many Mr. Olympiacontests he won (seven) or who he beat for a Golden Globe in 1977 (Truman Capote and the kid who played Damien in “The Omen”). Let’s get the scandalous stuff out of the way, because Mr. Schwarzenegger certainly wants to.

About the son he conceived with the family housekeeper, Mildred Baena, in 1996, he says only this: that he had always promised himself not to fool around with the help. That once, “all of a sudden,” he and Ms. Baena “were alone in the guesthouse.” And immediately after that: “When Mildred gave birth the following August. ...”

What “Total Recall” actually turns out to be is a puffy portrait of the author as master conniver. Nothing in his upward progress seems to have happened in an innocent way.Photo

The book begins with the obligatory description of his Austrian childhood and says that he and his brother were forced to do situps to earn their breakfast. He also explains how the bodybuilder photos he pinned up in his room made his mother seek a doctor’s advice. The doctor assured her that these were surrogate father figures, so there was nothing “wrong” with her red-blooded, heterosexual boy.

The book moves on to describe a hair-raising stint in an Austrian Army tank unit, where antics included driving one tank into water and trying to drag-race with another. This earned him an early release from service. He went on to win bodybuilding titles in Europe, move to America, garner the attention of the filmmakers who would feature him in “Pumping Iron” and land the Hollywood acting role he coveted in “Stay Hungry.”

When told by an acting coach to summon a sense memory of victory, he says, “I had to explain that actually I was not especially exhilarated when I won, because to me, winning was a given.”

And so it goes, through progress from pedestal to pedestal, until “Conan the Barbarian” makes him an action star. Mr. Schwarzenegger and his co-writer, Peter Petre, had to brush up on the details of his acting career by reading biographies and movie journals; his memory for slights, triumphs and salaries seems more reliable than his memory for work. But one way or another we learn how raw meat was sewn into his Conan costume for a scene in which he is attacked by wolves. (Sadly, the audio version of “Total Recall” is not fully read by him. You would have to rewatch the film to hear him say: “Hither came I, Conan, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, to tread jeweled thrones of the earth beneath my feet.” But it might be worth it.) In 1977 he met Maria Shriver, who would become his wife and enthusiastic helpmate until the matter of Ms. Baena and her son came to light. Although Mr. Schwarzenegger says that others wrongly imagined that to “marry a Kennedy” was one of his goals, he too speaks of their union as an accomplishment. Among many noxious references to his wife are a buddy’s pre-wedding quip (“Oh boy, wait until she hits menopause”) and his way of commissioning an Andy Warhol portrait of her. “You know how you always do the paintings of stars?” he says he asked Mr. Warhol. “Well, when Maria marries me, she will be a star!” He does not appear to be joking.

When Mr. Schwarzenegger was at the height of his movie career, he thought of quip making as one of his strong suits. (In “Commando,” about a man whose neck he has just broken: “Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired.”) But he was personable enough to cultivate his Democratic Kennedy in-laws and also grow close to the Republican circle of President George H. W. Bush. He claims to have been included in a decision-making meeting about the initial gulf war invasion of Iraq.

His account of his own political career is, of course, careful to accentuate the positive. He ran for governor of California in 2003’s recall election even after Karl Rove told him that Condoleezza Rice was being groomed as a future candidate of choice. He emphasizes his centrist credentials as a Republican favoring a social safety net, solar energy and stem cell research but also facing down his state’s three most powerful public-employee unions. He claims to have done his best to grapple with the state’s dire budget woes. But he atypically keeps the crowing minimal: “I do not deny that being governor was more complex and challenging than I had imagined.”

This book ends with a not-great list of “Arnold’s Rules.” They are basic (“Reps, reps, reps”), boorish (“No matter what you do in life, selling is part of it”), big on denial (“When someone tells you no, you should hear yes”) and only borderline helpful. When he met Pope John Paul II in 1983, they talked about workouts. The pope rose daily at 5 a.m. in order to stick to his regimen. If he could do it, this book says, you can do it, too.

The Tower of the Antilles By Achy Obejas Published 07.04.2017 (Akashic Books) 150 Pages

“THE MALDIVES,” a story included in Achy Obejas’s most recent collection, The Tower of the Antilles (Akashic Books), is about a woman leaving her cramped, limited home in Cuba for the United States. She’s lesbian, and in the process of being “saved” from her country by a father who is determined to convert her to Christianity, and whom she never gets to see. Of course, she doesn’t get saved in the way she thought she would, either. The story’s pragmatic voice and its themes of dislocation and everyday hardship are all typical of Obejas’s body of work. A journalist, and the author of three novels, a poetry chapbook, and numerous works of translation, Antilles is her second story collection. Her writing consistently asks how much access we have to each other and to ourselves. It questions the limits put on place and belonging for those who don’t fit one or many of the cultural stipulations about correct behavior, level of ability, sexual orientation and expression, gender, or religion. Foremost, however, Obejas understands that language is access.
The Tower of the Antilles houses 10 stories. The first and last tell a kind of fragmented origin narrative, bookending the more personal tales, and they begin with the same first line: “What is your name?” They are delivered in numbered sections; the first has seven, the last has six. The seven parts of the first evoke the Biblical creation narrative’s seven days. Called “The Collector,” it seems to alternate between two distinct time-periods — one primitive, one modern. The pieces come together, however, to show that this difference is of language, not of time. The islanders “had no calendar, no writing system, and kept track of days by counting on their fingers and toes.” When “visitors” first came to the island, the natives asked “through grunts and signs” how the new people had arrived. “We sailed on these big boats, said the visitors.” But the islanders saw no boats — theirs were small, made from maca trees. These visitors came on “caravels, each sporting three lateen sails angled against the wind.” After this encounter, the unnamed protagonist begins collecting all manner of sailing craft, renting spaces to keep them. In the end though, he undoes “each and every vessel,” and inventories the parts, “folding the fabrics left to right” like flags. Rather than a creation to begin with, we are given a discovery followed by a dissembling, as if to set us up for the clash that happens internally for people of colonized lands. Without the pre-packaged, acceptable identity of the mainstream, characters in Obejas’s fiction frequently encounter small identity crises.
Obejas writes with gentleness, without flashy wording or gimmicks, about people trying to figure out where they belong. For example, in a story from her 1994 collection We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, the protagonist’s friend is “too indio to be Mexican, and too Spanish to be Indian.” Her stories center around ill people, men who can’t face their attraction to other men, and a pair of women who sex-play with guacamole and put it back in the refrigerator afterward, only to have their male roommate eat it (unaware of its recent use). None of her characters is perfect; most of them are a little mean. In Antilles though, it’s impossible to miss the tenderness with which these flawed creations are handled. She’s both keenly aware of all the ways that people behave badly and of the complex emotional states from which those behaviors stem.
Full of odd, erotic encounters, Obejas’s work ripples with subtle humor. The titular character in “Kimberle” at one point wears “a harness with a summer sausage dangling from it.” The protagonist of “Kimberle” works for a man who smokes meats, and flesh is strewn throughout the story, so when the “summer sausage” shows up in the harness, it makes strange sense. “Kimberle” is about lust, need, violence, and precariousness, but these themes arise organically from the events, from the women’s dialogue and their choices, not from any summation by the author. Speaking with The New Yorker in January, writer Yiyun Li said, “With fiction one creates a set of characters and does everything possible to give them the space to live, including never interpreting them or analyzing them.” This is what Obejas does.
The two most affecting stories in the collection follow lead characters who have difficulty hearing, allowing Obejas to play with language in a way that perhaps only she and fellow translators can. “The Sound Catalog” follows Dulce through an inventory of heard things: “The radiator hissing,” “A bell,” “A thousand katydids.” Attached to each of these is a memory of Dulce’s. In one section, Obejas shows that learning a new language can be like the experience of having limited hearing. Dulce faces both challenges; her ESL teacher illustrates common American expressions through props. For one session, she brings a bell. “Whenever you hear a bell ring,” Dulce hears her teacher say, “anger turns on a swing.” By the time Dulce learns the actual adage, it has lost all possibility for meaning, and she concludes that she hears better in her native Spanish. Like the islanders from the first story, Dulce faces a problem that’s at once physical and intellectual. The islanders saw the boats but didn’t recognize them as boats, and so didn’t have language for them. Dulce neither recognizes the words very well nor hears them clearly, and so can’t attach the intended meaning to them. She recedes back to her own plane of understanding. Obejas lines up these spheres of knowledge and presents seeing and communicating with all of their limitations. In doing so, she demonstrates how easy it would be for the more powerful interlocutor to presume that the people facing these limits were in some way dull, rather than understanding that the system in which they were trying to function wasn’t built for them.
One of the last stories in Antilles, “The Maldives” best exemplifies Obejas’s multilayered awareness. It follows an unnamed woman as she leaves Cuba for the United States. Shortly before leaving, her ear begins to feel plugged. At the airport, though quite emotional, she discovers she can’t cry. A twitch in her eye makes her stop to consider if her symptoms are psychosomatic — is she dreading seeing her father? She eschews the plan to continue traveling to meet him, and instead settles with an American acquaintance. Shortly thereafter, she seems restored to perfect health, but her relief will be temporary.
The procedure she needs would be impossible in a Cuban hospital — this is no spoiler; the story begins with a brain tumor diagnosis — and herein we reach the crux of Obejas’s work. The systems Cubans fled weren’t working, but, as the protagonist of “The Maldives” discovers, the US systems aren’t either. She doesn’t have the money for medical care in the United States, and knows that if she returns to Cuba, it will only be so her family can care for her. She buys a one-way ticket to the Maldives, the country being consumed by the sea, an effect of climate change, and where the Maldivian president says he wants “the world to take responsibility.”
After arriving in the Maldives, the protagonist gets a job washing dishes:
I figure I can do that, or maybe gardening, until my eyes fail. Then I will sail to one of those islands where no one goes […] I will sink into the firmament of the Maldives one centimeter at a time and let the waters rise, lifting me, guiding me through the silent dark to my own Atlantis.
The talk of waters rising and the word “firmament” again, as with the collection’s inaugural story, evoke the Biblical. The language we use and the stories we tell impact the futures we can imagine, but they are also restricted by what has come before. Obejas’s Cuban characters, like most Americans, have limited access to the resources they need. One gets the sense that Obejas, like the Maldivian president, thinks it is time that the world takes these systemic problems on.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After By Heather Harpham Published 08.01.2017 (Henry Holt and Company) . 320 Pages()

“HAPPILY EVER AFTER” is a button on a fairy tale. But fairy tales are frightening. Their characters, whether virtuous princesses or idiot sons, find themselves in life-or-death situations; they make good choices or bad, and consequences reward them with marriage, or riches, or an escape from death, if they’re lucky. Heather Harpham’s debut memoir, Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, is a post–Into the Woods tale, in which the idealism of falling in love is matched by the disillusionment of real life. She’s a modern-day girl in search of a prince. A childless woman hoping to be a mother. Happily-ever-after, if it comes at all, will come at a price for Heather Harpham. We know it from the start.
Once upon a time, Heather and Brian fall in love in New York City, where she is an actress and he is a writer. Early in their relationship she gets pregnant. “Knowingly unprotected,” Harpham writes of their sex life. Never mind that Brian warned her: “If he wanted to have kids with anyone, Brian kept saying, it would be with me. If.” Sure enough, Brian doesn’t want the baby. Heather would love to be married to him, would love for him to figure out that he actually wants to be a father and a husband. But what Brian offers instead is financial support. Heartbroken, Heather moves back to California where she’s surrounded by friends and family, people who bring her dinners, and ice cream, and even a dog to keep her warm in the bed. She pines for Brian, but doesn’t tell him so. “We did not talk about the baby.” It’s one of many conversations they manage to avoid. “If we sit here long enough, I thought, things will shift,” Harpham writes before leaving New York. “But sitting on the steps of my landing, side by side in silence, we were the exact the [sic] same people we’d been an hour ago.” Throughout the book, she and Brian find themselves next to one another, barely speaking, “touching along the length of our sides: ankles, knees, thighs, hips, arms, shoulders.”
But when she goes into labor, Brian isn’t there. Her mother attends the birth in his stead. Her newborn daughter is perfect for a few hours, but a rare blood disorder quickly thrusts the baby into ambulances and hospitals: she needs transfusions. From afar Brian teeters on the edge of commitment, closely guarding his solitary writing time and rent-controlled-apartment-with-a-view. Eventually he’s drawn to California for a visit. And then another. An odd courtship resumes between him and Heather and revolves around the baby — Amelia-Grace — whose life is a big “if.”
Amid this long-distance courtship, Heather becomes pregnant again. “The fact that we were people who would rather not say condom aloud,” writes Harpham, “was maybe why we were always one step behind the best practices in birth control.” But the second pregnancy has the potential to be a blessing. If the new sibling is a match, the cord blood could save Amelia-Grace, who otherwise is doomed to a short life of extreme medical intervention. And yet Heather panics:
A second child now would seal my fate to Brian’s. I felt a rising feral terror of being trapped with two small children in a disintegrating relationship. Even a non-disintegrating one. How could I decide if I wanted to stay with Brain when I hadto stay with Brian?
Together with Amelia-Grace, whom they call Gracie, they go to a secluded beach house to sort things out together. Lying on the bed, Brian asks, “Are you happy?” Harpham responds, “I might be.” And then:
“OK,” I said.
“OK?” Brian said.
“OK. Yes.”
The exchange is this couple’s version of a vow. While it might seem precarious, from this moment on Brian is committed: completely and whole-heartedly. And the more committed he becomes, the more Heather’s resentment and anger grow. “I am bizarrely furious,” she writes. “Fury in search of an object.” Her rage sneaks out in shrill tones and silent looks.
The new baby, Gabriel, is born, and he is a match to be a bone marrow donor for his sister. Even so, Heather and Brian are ambivalent about the transplant procedure. Is it worth putting their daughter through such distress? What if she doesn’t survive? For months they agonize. At last, when Amelia-Grace is three, they decide to go through with it. After a brief move back to New York, they relocate to temporary housing in Durham, North Carolina, where they’ll wind up spending months at Duke Hospital.
If the story was initially about Heather and Brian stumbling into a relationship, at this point the narrative turns completely toward Amelia-Grace. Harpham remembers Gracie’s most-quoted movie, her preferred toys, her favorite nurse, as well as the sludgy chemo that she’s forced to swallow, and the neon-green vomit that comes from her empty stomach. Brian, meanwhile, almost disappears from the scene. Where once he was the focus, he’s now a bit player. If we haven’t wondered already, we might be asking ourselves at this point: what’s this book really about?
It wants to be an exploration of happiness — a fascinating subject, and Harpham is a heroine for our times. She was, after all, no fairy tale princess. Notwithstanding her deep desire to be married, when she met her prince she was an independent woman, living alone in New York, paying her rent as an actress. That she was as invested as she was in the conventional tropes of marriage and family might shine a light on our society, on how heavily we’ve been influenced by Walt Disney, Nora Ephron, and Jane Austen alike. In spite of her optimism, when Heather finally gets what she wants — a husband and children — she becomes disenchanted. That’s something to look at — however, a real examination would require confrontation.
Not that Harpham avoids facing off with people (a furniture rental clerk in North Carolina bears the brunt of her anger when their sublet has no lamps or dining chairs) but she’s secretive about herself with those around her, ranging from doctors to close friends. When she forms an intimate friendship with a new neighbor in Brooklyn, she withholds almost everything about her daughter, her marriage, her anxiety and grief:
I never mentioned Gracie’s illness. I didn’t tell Kathy that the toddler kicking her feet with faux hunger as we passed the ice cream truck had thus far visited UCSF Medical Center, Oakland Children’s, Stanford, NYU Medical Center, Weill Cornell Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Columbia University Medical Center, Long Island Jewish Hospital, Hackensack Medical Center, and Boston Children’s. I didn’t tell her that we’d recently sent slides of Gracie’s blood to a specialist at the NIH and several doctors at the Mayo Clinic.
I didn’t share with her the oodles of conflicting advice we’d gotten.
[…] I didn’t even tell her that Brian and I weren’t married because that part of our story invoked the whole: the unsettling fact that we looked like one thing but were another.
As honest as she is with us, we might wish Harpham were more rigorous with both her former and current selves. She’s a fine writer, and her story is captivating, but she has occasionally missed out on opportunities for reflection and self-interrogation.
Take the time at the hospital when Gracie wants sherbet, and Brian offers to go get it. Harpham is gleeful for time alone with her daughter:
When Brian leaves I say, “Gracie? Sweetie?” […] “You are getting Gabey’s blood, and it’s going to cure you.” […] Brian doesn’t like it when I superimpose my adult anxieties on her child’s reality. […] Let her have this experience as a three-year old. But I want her to hold on to this idea: she will be cured.
Brian returns with sherbet, and Harpham’s mother arrives “with pulled pork sandwiches for everyone.” But if anyone is paying attention, “everyone” doesn’t include Brian, who’s a vegetarian. This is where we might ask for a pause, for a moment when the writer changes the angle of her understanding to ask herself what she didn’t notice the first time through. The oversight, in the lived experience and then the writing of it, creates an uncomfortable distance between the reader and the author in both her roles, as narrator and character.
Harpham’s sense of humor also creates distance. When a doctor first explains to her that iron inside her daughter’s red blood cells might lodge in her brain, she replies with a joke:
“So you are saying what, exactly?” I said. “She’s at risk for rust head?” He looked at me, appraising. A long silent moment went by. “That’s humor,” he said finally, “common coping mechanism.”
Though Harpham admits to it, the doctor’s insight becomes a replacement for deeper investigation. Indeed, she “copes” this way in the writing, too — sometimes hilariously. (On an airplane Gracie insists that Gabe give her all of the elephant-shaped animal crackers. Harpham writes, “Gabriel is giving you his stem cells, I wanted to say. Let him have the ever-loving elephant.”) But the effect lessens over time. Harpham is trained in improv, a form that has morphed, over the years, into a close synonym for comedy. The origins of improvisation, though, reside in process rather than punch line; discovery is found only by falling without a net. If we could, we’d ask for the same in these pages: more depth and less gloss, more seeking and less knowing.
One moment especially offers just this sort of nuance. A baby at the hospital unexpectedly dies. His parents obviously have a close marriage, a relationship that stands in contrast to Heather and Brian’s. Afterward, when Heather goes to say goodbye to the couple, the father explains that they’re waiting for his cousin to arrive so they can drive home together. “We were three coming down here,” he tells her, “and we would be only two going home.” The chapter ends there, holding the reader in the eerie, liminal space that death imposes on life.
Meanwhile, that Harpham’s family has survived is less a “happily ever after,” and more the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other of real life. We know, we grown-ups, that a marriage is stronger for having endured a trial or two, and that what children bring, along with so much else, is a deep joy that’s layered with worry and fear. “I’m so happy I’m crying,” Heather says to her daughter when they can finally go home after a year of relentless medical intervention. Amelia-Grace is perhaps too young to understand that happiness is necessarily striated. But we grown-ups get it. We know the cost.

Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald EagleAug 27, 2017 by Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Veltkamp Hardcover (Persnickety Press) (#IBRChildrensbooks)

 In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered and threatened species list, but it still faces many serious threats. Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Veltkamp clearly outline the eagle’s precarious position in Beauty and the Beak: The True Story of How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle (Aug. 2017).

A policeman found a young, grievously injured bald eagle in an Alaskan landfill. The eagle was shot, starving, and weak, her upper beak destroyed by a bullet that left her unable to eat, drink, or preen her feathers. The policeman wrapped her in a coat and took her to a wildlife center, who named her Beauty. The center did what it could to help Beauty, but although her wounds had healed, she remained unable to eat or drink without help.

Enter raptor biologist Jane Veltkamp, who took Beauty to Birds of Prey Northwest, a raptor center in Idaho. There, Jane teamed up with an engineer, Nate, and Nate’s dentist to create a prosthetic beak. Hundreds of hours of work later, the team had designed and 3-D printed a new beak, enabling Beauty to eat and drink on her own.

The authors tell this heartwarming, inspiring story using relatively simple sentences and vocabulary appropriate for early elementary students. But the outstanding photographs steal the show, especially the close-ups of Beauty and the procedure to apply her prosthesis. Kids will be fascinated! This is a great book for STEM units with a host of curriculum connections, from science and technology to writing prompts. The authors have provided a large amount of back matter to supplement science lessons, including extensive information about bald eagles, their history and status on the endangered species list, suggestions on how kids can help the species, and a long list of resources, including web links and QR codes for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Although the science and technology included in this book are supremely interesting, the compassion and dedication of the people who put it to use to save this wonderful bird are the best part of the story. I defy anyone not to be moved by the picture of Beauty using her restored beak to take a drink of water.

George McGovern The Last Democratic Party Populist: : The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern (Politics and Society in Modern America) Hardcover – March 1, 2016 by Thomas J. Knock (Princeton University Press;My Life in the Service: The World War II Diary of George McGovernNov 11, 2016 by George McGovern and Andrew J. Bacevich Hardcover (FRanklin Square Press) ; My Brother's Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (Culture, Politics, and the Cold War) Paperback – March 22, 2017 by Mark A. Lempke (University of Massachusetts Press ); George McGovern and the Democratic Insurgents: The Best Campaign and Political Posters of the Last Fifty Years Paperback – November 3, 2015 (University of Nebraska Press)

On April 5, President Trump apparently saw some disturbing images on TV of Syrian children poisoned by chemical weapons, and decided on that evidence alone to completely reverse his policy toward Syria and that country’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad. He went from scoffing at the idea of the Syrian forces gassing civilians to lobbing 59 cruise missiles at the airfield from which the chemical-weapons attack was allegedly launched. This happened in roughly 63 hours.

It was just one more day in the horrifying reality-TV presidency of Donald Trump: Tune in next week to find out which country we’ll be bombing next! But remarkably, a great number of Democrats were mostly supportive—including Hillary Clinton and most of the Senate Democratic caucus. Even Bernie San-ders mustered a relatively mild critique, carefully foregrounding the inhumanity of the chemical-weapons attack before calling on Trump to come to Congress for an authorization to use military force.

The Democrats’ majority support for Trump’s cruise-missile strike is emblematic of just how at sea they are in terms of foreign policy. The party’s conservatives and moderates remain in thrall to a liberal internationalism that has, at times, not looked much different from Republican hawkishness, while its left wing—still marginalized after decades out of power—has failed to put forward a compelling alternative.

One perspective worth dusting off in this context is that of George McGovern, who is the subject of a new biography by Thomas J. Knock, The Rise of a Prairie Statesman. McGovern’s foreign-policy ideas not only offered a critique of an earlier era of hawkish liberalism; they also provide an excellent foundation for a badly needed new approach by the American left.

George McGovern has long been known as the man who got steamrollered by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election—the fourth-worst loss by popular vote in American history. McGovern’s popular image these days is as the avatar of a bunch of deluded leftists who seized the Democratic nomination, ran a far-too-left-wing race, and paid the price. His crushing defeat became the catalyst for a whole generation of Democratic politicians who rejected both the basic elements of New Deal liberalism and the dovish foreign policy of the New Left. From the 1970s through the Obama years, the Democrats would make their peace with many elements of the conservative economic and social agenda, from the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” laws to financial deregulation. In the 1990s and 2000s, they would also come to embrace a more hawkish foreign policy, often advocating the use of force as a way of solving various geopolitical and humanitarian crises.

This rightward swing in domestic and foreign policy was often justified by McGovern’s loss; if the Democrats were to rebuild a majority, the argument went, they would have to move the party back to the center. In retrospect, this strategy may have had the opposite effect, laying the groundwork for the numerous future crises—outsourcing, deregulation, inequality, mass incarceration, the spectacular decline of unions—that chipped away at what was left of the party’s electoral base.

Knock’s excellent, polished book is the first in a two-volume biography, and it ends in 1968, just as McGovern was hitting his peak years in politics. By doing so, it avoids framing his career in the context of that crushing 1972 defeat, thereby reminding us that in his prime, he was both a moral exemplar and a highly effective politician.

McGovern’s early life was quite extraordinary: Starting with his childhood in the Great Depression, he could almost be the saccharine hero in a Frank Capra film. The child of a South Dakota Methodist minister, McGovern witnessed firsthand how the economic calamity of the 1930s devastated neighboring farmers, and he also saw their recovery because of the policies of the New Deal. In high school and in college, he became a renowned debate champion, but his college career was interrupted once the country entered World War II.

McGovern’s wartime service was astoundingly heroic. “Among presidential candidates in the twentieth century, none save Eisenhower could boast of a more impressive combat record,” writes Knock, and his case is compelling. McGovern was one of the finest pilots of the B-24 bomber—a physically and technically demanding airplane to fly—and he saved the lives of his crew several times with brilliant feats of flying. On one notable occasion, he landed his plane on a dangerously short island airstrip in the Adriatic after it had lost two engines, for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

This wartime experience also left scars. On one mission, a bomb got stuck in the bomb bay’s doors, and just as the crew finally managed to free it, the plane flew over a remote farmhouse. It “looked like it went down the chimney,” one of the crew members recalled; the explosion obliterated the building. The incident haunted McGovern for years: It was almost noontime, and he knew from his own childhood that the family would likely have been at home for lunch. The incident helped sharpen his future skepticism about military interventions—particularly those that depended on attacks from the air.

After the war, McGovern returned to South Dakota and finished his degree at Dakota Wesleyan University. He tried his hand briefly at being a minister like his father, but he quit not long after and decided to attend graduate school at Northwestern University, where he earned a PhD in history. His thesis was a landmark study of the Ludlow Massacre, a gruesome slaughter of striking mine workers and their families in Colorado. After graduation, he considered a career as a professional academic.

However, politics had always held a magnetic attraction for McGovern. In 1948, he backed Henry Wallace’s third-party bid for the presidency. For the whole of the New Deal era, Wallace had been one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s most loyal and idealistic deputies, serving as secretary of agriculture from 1933–40 and as vice president from 1941–44. But he clashed with the party’s conservative wing, especially over his advocacy for a restrained diplomatic approach toward the Soviet Union, and he was replaced on the Democratic ticket by Harry Truman in the 1944 campaign, serving as commerce secretary until Truman sacked him in 1946.

Alarmed by the growing bellicosity of postwar America, Wallace mounted a somewhat erratic third-party run under the Progressive Party banner and argued again for a less hard-line approach to the Soviet Union—a big part of what attracted McGovern to his campaign. For their trouble, Wallace and his followers were viciously red-baited by Republicans, Democrats, and the national press. He ended up with a mere 2.4 percent of the popular vote and zero votes in the Electoral College.

McGovern concluded from this that third-party campaigns were futile. But he never abandoned his belief in the basic correctness of Wallace’s domestic- and foreign-policy ideas, and he suspected—correctly, it turned out—that Truman’s red-baiting would come back to haunt the party.

By 1955, soon after McGovern had finished his doctorate, the seat in the House of Representatives held by Republican Harold Lovre beckoned. Running as a Democrat in South Dakota—a rural, agricultural state that leaned heavily Republican—was a steep uphill climb. Then as now, however, conservative policy proved to be none too beneficial to the state’s voters, especially its farmers. Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, was a reactionary who considered Wallace’s New Deal farm programs—which had saved American agriculture during the Depression years—creeping communism. The policies of Benson’s Department of Agriculture led to huge price-crushing surpluses that reduced farm income and drove thousands of small family farms into bankruptcy. (Though to be fair, the surpluses weren’t entirely Benson’s fault: Increasing agricultural productivity had been the bane of American farmers for generations and had reached a new crescendo in the early postwar years.) This was an opening for McGovern, who tied the hated Benson around the neck of his opponent. In addition to his deep roots in the state, McGovern offered an intelligent articulation of how a populist government policy could help farmers: He favored a Wallace-style mix of production restrictions and subsidies that would help bring farm income up to “parity” with the rising incomes of industrial workers.

As he gained ground on Lovre, the state Republican machine, coordinated by South Dakota Senator Karl Mundt, mercilessly red-baited McGovern for supporting the diplomatic recognition of communist China and for having participated in Wallace’s 1948 campaign. But McGovern refused to back down, skillfully weaving his advocacy of peaceful diplomacy with the problem of agricultural surpluses at home, thereby offering South Dakotans a radical, populist policy line that ran from postwar foreign policy to domestic economics. He argued that South Dakota’s grain could be used overseas to feed the hungry, both on moral grounds and as a soft-power counter to the Soviet Union. The United States, he insisted, could “wisely use a small fraction of that amount to fight the hunger which breeds communism.” He also leaned on his war record and his personal contact with voters and made the red-baiting look dishonorable and cheap.

In the end, McGovern won by a good margin. It was the first time a South Dakota Democrat had been elected to Congress since 1936, and McGovern had had to rebuild the state party from the ground up, virtually on his own, to do it.

After four years in Congress, McGovern next decided to challenge Mundt for his Senate seat. He put up a decent showing but still lost, likely in large part due to the anti-Catholic sentiment stirred up by John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After the 1960 election, however, President Kennedy offered McGovern a position in the administration running a reconfigured and expanded “Food for Peace” program that would put his idea about using surpluses to help poor nations and fight communism into action. The program quickly ran into a problem: Some countries, like Argentina, didn’t necessarily want cheap American food, lest they undermine their own farmers. But others, like South Korea, did make good use of the program.

McGovern always knew that the Food for Peace program couldn’t fully escape Cold War politics, but he still did his utmost to stress its humanitarian mission. In practically no time, he got the program off the ground, and it helped to jump-start the economy of India in particular. “By mid-1962, some thirty-five million children worldwide were receiving daily Food for Peace lunches,” Knock writes. “McGovern had superintended the single greatest humanitarian achievement of the Kennedy—Johnson era.”

In 1962, McGovern attempted another Senate run—this time for South Dakota’s other Senate seat—and won. His “perception about the indivisibility of politics and foreign policy was to become his central mode of political analysis,” Knock observes—and just in time for Vietnam. McGovern decided that the budding US military intervention was a tragic waste of lives, resources, and money, and on September 24, 1963—two months before Kennedy’s assassination—he called for the withdrawal of all US troops, warning that “the trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world.”

After the assassination of Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson steadily escalated the conflict. Though McGovern did vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution—we learn from Knock that he was talked into it by Senator J. William Fulbright—he quickly distinguished himself as one of the Senate’s most eloquent and respected critics of the war. He readily and correctly discerned the basic shape of the conflict: that it was fundamentally a civil war, not a conspiracy by Chinese communists; that the brutal police-state regime in South Vietnam had virtually no popular support; that propping it up was morally hideous and profoundly damaging to America’s reputation; and that US troops would be perceived as little different from the French colonialist forces. American soldiers would thus get stuck in an unwinnable guerrilla war, just as the French had. The domino theory—the notion that a communist victory in Vietnam would lead to the communist takeover of Southeast Asia—was, he argued, ignorant and paranoid. Military intervention would do little to deter the communists from taking power in Vietnam; it might even embolden and empower them. Knock dryly notes that when McGovern attempted to make this case to Johnson, the president interrupted: “Goddamn it, George, don’t give me another history lesson!”

What made McGovern’s antiwar politics so compelling—and why, one suspects, they infuriated Johnson—was that McGovern not only had a critique; he also had a practical alternative. The United States should recognize the limits of military force, negotiate a withdrawal from Vietnam, and use humanitarian programs (especially agricultural ones) to shore up Western democratic capitalism against communist influence. Such a strategy had arguably worked in the past, when McGovern was running the Food for Peace program, and it would greatly strengthen the rhetorical claims of American freedom versus Soviet tyranny.

A visit to Vietnam in 1965—his first—confirmed all of McGovern’s suspicions. He met several dignitaries and military commanders there, including a cordial but ineffectual session with Gen. William Westmoreland. He made a heart—wrenching visit to a military hospital, where he saw dozens of mutilated American soldiers, and a horrified visit to a severely underequipped Vietnamese hospital, where the injured villagers—-many of them wounded by American munitions—were packed together in unsanitary conditions.

McGovern took the mounting atrocities personally, and as the war progressed, he tried with increasing anger and desperation to stop the war. The later sections of Knock’s book are undeniably poignant, a moving account of how one of America’s ablest politicians attempted to pull the country out of a gruesome, pointless, self-inflicted catastrophe, and how little difference it made in the end.

The remarkable thing about McGovern’s antiwar arguments is that they were all really quite obvious. Historical hindsight is one thing, but the sheer number of things missed by the elite Harvard liberals who ran the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is simply staggering. For example, Knock cites historical work arguing that “neither Kennedy’s nor Diem’s people ever understood the central issue behind the revolt,” namely agricultural policy. The Vietminh earned widespread support among the peasantry by ousting brutal landlords and slashing rents; the Diem regime attempted to reinstate them. But “Kennedy’s advisers could not grasp why peasants might side with communists,” and instead of land reform, they herded millions of peasants into “strategic hamlets,” merely deepening
the resentment.

Having spent decades concerned with American agriculture, McGovern instinctively understood this—and he kept returning to the point in order to persuade Johnson to change his policies. (Johnson did the opposite, cannibalizing half of the Food for Peace program’s funding to prop up the South Vietnamese war effort.)

One of the key reasons that Kennedy’s and Johnson’s advisers—and, for that matter, many of the intellectuals sympathetic to Cold War liberalism—failed to grasp this was their profoundly entrenched anti-communism. By capitulating to conservative fearmongering—or, indeed, embracing it, as Truman and other prominent Democrats did—liberal hawks rendered themselves incapable of understanding much of the world. Johnson was paralyzed with fear that he’d be remembered as the president who “lost” another Asian country to the communists (China being the first). As a result, he became the president who is remembered for starting a major unnecessary conflict, which resulted in over a million South Asians and over 58,000 Americans being killed.

Many Americans would come to agree with McGovern’s analysis of the war and of Democratic foreign policy more generally. In 1972, he won the Democratic primaries (albeit at the cost of deep divisions in the party, mainly over Vietnam) and was crushed by Nixon. Badly stung by the epic defeat, he went back to the Senate, serving the remainder of his term and getting reelected once more in 1974, until he lost during the Reagan revolution in 1980. McGovern spent most of his remaining years teaching, touring the lecture circuit, and dabbling in business and various side projects. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, again to boost up the party’s left flank, and received a respectful hearing. In 1998, President Clinton appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations’ agricultural program, and he worked with Bob Dole on a Food for Peace–style program to feed the hungry around the world—much smaller than the original, but still a quiet success.

Despite his bruising defeat in 1972, McGovern’s vision of an integrated domestic and foreign policy offered the Democrats a useful perspective about how to serve the country’s interests, both at home and abroad. Even when red-baited, McGovern refused to give up his advocacy of diplomacy, nor the use of humanitarian aid to advance the interests of the United States—and in the case of Vietnam, that courage turned out to be politically astute. President Johnson would have been far better served by suing for peace the moment he took office—indeed, if he had, he almost certainly would have won reelection and would be remembered today on a par with FDR. Instead, the war devoured his presidency and besmirched his legacy. Similarly, Hillary Clinton would likely have been elected president in 2008 had she not voted for the Iraq War; but instead of assimilating the lessons of her surprising loss to Barack Obama, she has continued to support hawkish policies and interventions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria—even when, several months ago, it was President Trump firing the missiles.

The tendency of Democrats to want to show they’re tougher than Republicans when it comes to foreign policy and the use of force has been crippling the party ever since McGovern’s dissent against the Vietnam War back in the mid- to late 1960s. Even in the wake of the Cold War, liberal internationalism has almost always involved various forms of military intervention, as opposed to the diplomatic and humanitarian policies that McGovern advanced as an alternative. After 9/11, this hawkishness merely mutated into a militarism that was directed toward defeating Islamist terrorism in the Middle East.

But there is a critical difference between the current moment and the Cold War. McGovern ultimately failed to convince his party because, in the Cold War era, a hawkish liberalism was at least intuitively plausible. The Soviet Union really was a credible threat: a repressive and powerful police state with thousands of nuclear weapons and spies all across the globe. Today, by contrast, neither the Assad regime nor Islamist terrorism is even in the same time zone as the Soviet Union was in terms of power, and the interventionism of Hillary Clinton, Bill Nelson, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, among others, becomes more obviously a fig leaf for the desire to expand American dominance over the rest of the world.

As demonstrated by the Sanders campaign, the left wing of the Democratic Party and the left more generally have struggled to create an alternative. Clinton’s biggest weakness was foreign policy, but Sanders barely pressed her on it. This was due, in part, to a left that is much better at opposing disastrous wars of aggression than at formulating an alternative perspective that can win over ideologically sympathetic politicians.

Some leftists simply end up concluding that the United States is fundamentally and unchangeably imperialist. Given the seemingly endless wars over the past 15 years, one can understand why they might reach that conclusion. But the terrible harm done to American interests by the Iraq War—which has cost trillions of dollars, killed nearly 4,500 American soldiers, and maimed tens of thousands more, for no strategic benefit whatsoever—demonstrates that the war was stupid as well as evil. And in any case, American politicians can’t be expected to govern the nation on an “America is bad” basis. If the left can’t propose an argument that is critical of excessive military force but also serves the national interest, it ends up ceding political ground to the interventionists.

In this context, McGovern’s vision of a humane internationalism that serves American interests is of particular value. In these troubled times, the world hardly needs more American guns and bombs; but what the left still lacks is a persuasive alternative vision of internationalism that can counter the hawkishness of both Beltway parties. If we are to exercise leadership in the world, let it be by setting an example and relieving humanitarian crises where we can—taking in refugees, treating the sick, feeding the starving. And while the specifically agricultural mechanism of McGovern’s humanitarian vision isn’t quite as plausible as it was in 1962, the fact is that, right now, there are famine or near-famine conditions prevailing in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, even as gigantic agricultural surpluses pile up in the United States for lack of a buyer. That might not be the most efficient way to relieve hunger, and it’s certainly not the only way to frame an internationalist politics that can also be justified by the way it serves our national interests. But it certainly merits a look—and, just as important, it offers the left, both within and outside of the Democratic Party, a basic template for a different kind of foreign-policy program that it can pursue. If nothing else, such policies will at least do a thousand times better in promoting our interests than burning through trillions of dollars to create yet another sucking chest wound in the Middle East’s political order.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Dark Dark By Samantha Hunt 256 pages; FSG Originals

The Dark Dark

A principal asks 13 pregnant students if they've formed a coven. A violent love bot uncovers a fugitive's tenderness. An unfaithful wife becomes a deer by night. In her first story collection, novelist Hunt guides us through dreamscapes of her own imagining, bizarre worlds in some ways not so different from our own.

A feminist manifesto threaded through imaginative fiction; it’s the most evocative, impressive collection I’ve read this year.

From the acclaimed author of Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt's first collection of stories, The Dark Dark, blends the literary and the fantastic and brings us characters on the verge―girls turning into women, women turning into deer, people doubling or becoming ghosts, and more
Step into The Dark Dark, where an award-winning, acclaimed novelist debuts her first collection of short stories and conjures entire universes in just a few pages―conjures, splits in half, mines for humor, destroys with absurdity, and regenerates. In prose that sparkles and haunts, Samantha Hunt playfully pushes the bounds of the expected and fills every corner with vibrant life, imagining numerous ways in which the weird might poke its way through the mundane. Each of these ten haunting, inventive tales brings us to the brink―of creation, mortality and immortality, infidelity and transformation, technological innovation and historical revision, loneliness and communion, and every kind of love.
Laced with lyricism, hope, Hunt’s characteristic sly wit, and her unflinching gaze into the ordinary horrors of human existence, The Dark Dark celebrates the mysteries and connections that swirl around us. It’s never all the same, Hunt tells us. It changes a tiny bit every time.