Making a Mark

Diving deep into history loosens the ties of self-identity and self-importance. It humbles. An admixture of research, imagination, argumentation and narration, true historical focus alters how we see the world. Its rewards can be transcendent.

Stefan Hertman’s book, War and Turpentine, lies at the intersection of history, memoir and fiction. Hertmans is a successful author who also held a faculty post at the Royal Academy of Arts in Ghent, Belgium. His grandfather, Urbain Martien (1891 – 1981) was a World War I hero and an artist. In his latter years, Martien wrote six hundred pages of autobiography that he gave to Hertmans before he died. After avoiding them for a few decades – promising to himself that he would study them when he had time – the upcoming centenary of the war and an increasing sense of guilt and obligation brought Hertmans to the task. He retyped the handwritten pages, talked with relatives and family, and began to research the life and world of his grandfather.

The result, War and Turpentine, is a story of discovery, love, loss, and the horror of World War I. Martien was a soldier who struggled through tremendous trauma, driven by a sense of obligation and duty. His life was good, tragic, and deeply European, a tangled web of conflicting tendencies and values. Hertmans weaves the discovery of his grandfather and his personal memories around the heart of the book: Martien’s memories and his experiences in World War I. The war scarred him, physically and emotionally. It could not be forgotten or overcome; it irrevocably defined him.

And yet – and the yet is vitally important – the book is about Martien’s love of art and of women. It is about his mischievousness, his creativity, and his will. Taciturn and disciplined, he was also a true romantic. Hertmans’s prose and structure are engaging, giving the story a powerful emotional pull. He also knows where and how to share the unexpected – the discovery of an image or a childhood memory of an aging man doing a handstand.

Are any of us any smarter, braver, wiser or more talented?

War and Turpentine was awarded several prizes, all well-deserved. It is a book (not just a novel) that will hold up well over time, just as Urbain Martien did.

David Potash

But For the Grace of . . . .

Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The papers, classified documents that showed that the US government was aware that the Vietnam War was not going well, redefined the public debate about the conflict and led to the prosecution of Ellsberg. He escaped conviction – the government broke many laws in its attempt to silence him – and he left government work to devote his life to political activism.

It was no accident that Ellsberg, a trusted civilian defense analyst in the 1960s, had access to sensitive material. He was a Marine who attended Harvard for his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. Ellsberg’s dissertation on decision theory raised issues that are still being studied to this day. His work for the RAND Corporation was very well-received. A smart and knowledgeable scholar, Ellsberg’s professional life developed at the intersection of ideas and defense policy.

Ellsberg recently wrote The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. A non-fiction autobiographical account of his work as a nuclear war strategist in the early part of his career, the book explains much of the thinking – or non-thinking – surrounding the development and potential deployment of the US nuclear arsenal. It is a book about organizational decision-making, politics and strategy. It is a sobering read. The Doomsday Machine is not the most up-to-date or comprehensive work about contemporary nuclear arms. It lacks current data, the big picture about how things have and have not changed over the past few decades, and efforts and stabilization. It does bring a personal touch to the madness, though, and make a compelling case for attention. With the recent nuclear false alarm in Hawaii on our screens and in our minds, coupled with the latest plans for loosening the potential use of nuclear weapons, the warnings in The Doomsday Machine seem all the more relevant.

Some of the key points Ellsberg hammers home:

  • There is no one nuclear “button.” In fact, the decision to use nuclear weapons is decentralized and at the discretion of military officials far down the organizational tree.
  • Much US nuclear strategy is based on the assumption that the US would strike first.
  • Much US nuclear strategy assumed that a nuclear conflict could only occur with the USSR and China – never just one of these countries. This was a problem for decades.
  • As US nuclear planning became more sophisticated, anticipated casualties – which numbered in the hundreds of millions – grew to reflect the true consequences of a nuclear war.
  • When Ellsberg first saw Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic satire, Dr. Strangelove, he considered it as accurate as a documentary.

Ellsberg’s proposals for a saner, slightly more safe future involve taking apart the doomsday machine (his term for this decentralized nuclear arsenal) include getting rid of the land based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), stop planning for strikes that target other country’s leaders (with no leader, there can be no surrender or de-escalation), and then promise never to use nuclear weapons. He notes that many times US presidents reference the potential use of nuclear weapons.

It is a scary problem to consider. We have more than enough nuclear weapons to make human life an impossibility and seemingly poor controls regarding their potential use. Ellsberg’s analysis of the Cuban Missile crisis highlights just how lucky we have been in avoiding nuclear conflict. Deterrence is poorly considered and something that needs a rethink. In fact, the broad question of nuclear strategy demands attention. Ellsberg’s book is a well-written and cogent warning about the state of the nuclear arsenal: who controls it, who thinks about it, and how it developed.

David Potash

Few Smiles Here

Comedy clubs are often dark places. We look for a chuckle, laughs, a good time – and more often than not, we see comedians mining their pain for humor. That sort of emotional mining is tough, dangerous work. Laughter can be a bitter reward.

David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar is a searing novel about comedy, performance, and the legacy of pain. It’s a brilliant book and well worthy of the Booker Prize. It is narrator is a retired judge, Avishai, who was asked by an aging comedian – a former childhood friend – to attend the friend’s stand up show. The comedian, Dov Greenstein, asks that Avishai come to “really see him.” The judge reluctantly agrees. He is a less than perfect narrator, and we work through his perspective as he recounts the show, his feelings about it, the audience’s reactions to it, and the story of Dov as he knew him. The novel takes place over a couple of hours in a second-tier comedy club – a dive – in a small Israeli city. Everything is down-market and headed toward decrepitude.

Dov Greenstein is short, unattractive, and in tremendous psychological pain. Through jokes, narration, questions, and soliloquies, we learn of his childhood and the trauma that shaped him. He has lived his life in a callous world, bereft of real human warmth and understanding. Dov’s acerbic humor is an accurate reflection of his environs. He turns his intelligence, and his interrogatory, on himself. The show spirals out of control, becoming less comedy and more autobiographical confessional. The audience leaves but a few stragglers stay, trapped and seemingly unable to look away. As the judge learns and remembers, we put the pieces together. We readers, like the judge, are complicit in the pain and creativity of Dov’s act. A Horse Walks Into a Bar is powerful and unsettling literature.

David Potash

On Fire, and Fire, and Fire

Expectations can be hard. I’d heard very good things about Garth Risk Hallberg‘s debut novel, City on Fire. Set in New York City in the 1970s, it was billed as epic, Dickensian, a zeitgeist of the city in a perilous time. It has a fascinating beginning and Hallberg writes well. At at more than 900 pages, though expectations can only carry one so far. The last six-hundred pages of the book took time, patience, and a bit more stubbornness than anticipated.

The novel centers around the shooting of a young woman whose beauty and charm allow her to cross into multiple communities. Hallberg moves back and forward in time, giving each group of people affected (the man that found her; the punk group that was friends with her; the journalist writing about her; the detective investigating her shooting; the husband that was having an affair with her) time, more time, and more time still. Once I stopped just reading and began to mull over what I was reading and why, I began to picture a large wall of post-it cards, lines, and cross-references in Hallberg’s studio.

Don’t get me wrong. He writes well. The mood he establishes is tremendous. The book is plotted carefully and yes, if there’s a hook early someone hangs something on it later. And Hallberg works diligently to capture a city that was bordering on lawlessness, that at certain hours and in some neighborhoods, lacked a shared sense of community.

That wasn’t the whole city, of course. It’s the city that would do well in a Netflix or HBO drama, in a superhero or detective movie. I don’t begrudge Hallberg his environment; I just wish he had made it a bit more interesting. Along similar lines, he carefully crafted characters are more thoughtfully created than truly alive. At moments they break out – only to be yanked back into a large painting that is more interested in overall atmosphere than the folks who inhabit it. There’s an outstanding shorter novel trapped in this lengthy version.

City on Fire is a fine book, well-suited for a long relationship. If you’ve got good choices for something else, though, you may not want to invest the time.

David Potash

Delightful, De-lovely, and Debatable

If one of the key skills of being a good book editor is knowing what would sell and what would not, I’m glad that my career is elsewhere. It’s often a surprise to me.

Take Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that is being made into a movie. When it was published a few years back, it seemed that everyone was reading it (at least when they weren’t watching Game of Thrones) or talking about it. It’s a hefty work and folks likened it to Dickens. I then read that a few critics thought it wasn’t that great after all – while others said to read it anyway. The debate seemed to be about the quality of Tartt’s prose, the complicated plot, and its relative accessibility.

The book’s opening, a lengthy first-person narrative account of love, loss, a bombing, and a theft is tightly written. It’s engaging, memorable and really impressive. The remaining 750 pages? I found it to be much less effective. In fact, it seemed to lose direction and several times I lost interest. It surprised me that so much attention has been given to this novel. It is a solid work, but really? It is not an amazing novel and it is most definitely not the kind of literature that college students will be writing about in ten years. At least that’s my take. It took some reflection and study, though, to figure out why I was disappointed.

I am fine with complicated plots, accessible prose, and the occasional awkward sentence. There can be more than a few clunkers in the prose, too. A novel doesn’t have to be highfalutin or philosophical or even aspirational for me to give it praise. I am a tolerant reader, ready to give the author many breaks. My interest in a novel tends to be hooked to a character, a plot, a question, or, if the writer is really good, a viewpoint or perspective. What frustrates me is an absence of authorial integrity or consistency.

We don’t need to review the plot of The Goldfinch, which is easy enough to find. It is a coming of age story. Through much of the latter part of the book our narrator – a teen and then a young man – leads a self-destructive lifestyle, consuming massive amounts of alcohol and drugs. He is an addict, a deeply troubled and wounded character. Yet this behavior has no effect on his narrative voice, the lucidity of his prose, or even his actions. This disconnect between voice and action, between action and consequences, undermines any belief I might have given to the novel’s reliability. It undercuts the credibility of book’s plotting and the characters’ actions.

Tartt is an accomplished novelist and she is clearly capable all manner of authorial strategies. But here, she avoids exploring questions of perspective or narrative veracity or the creation of an alternative reality. Nor does she seem interested in changing her authorial stance. Instead, she moves the story along in the same way. And that is why I lost interest – because I felt that she lost interest.

I wish Tartt success and I nod in acknowledgement to those that like The Goldfinch. It is not for me. It turns out that I am a stickler for integrity in my fiction.

And sorry about the Cole Porter pun in the title.

David Potash

Women in Occupied Paris

Les Parisiennes, by Anne Sebba, examines at the lives of women in Paris from the late 1930s, through WWII and the Nazi occupation, until after France regained autonomy. More historical journalism than a traditional work of history , the book attempts to capture the wide range of experiences of women in this period of crisis and change. It’s an ambitious endeavor. Sebba has consulted memoirs, biographies, the popular press, and, occasionally, primary sources from everyday women in Paris. However, so much happened to so many over the 15 years that simple or even consistent characterizations are very difficult. It’s an extraordinarily interesting time – a period of drama and heartbreak, as well as heroism – and Sebba does a fine job capturing the period’s complexities.

Most of us are not historical actors. Rather, our lives are shaped by history. Sebba gets this. The key battles of World War II were not fought in Paris. However, the war’s violence – and in particular, its violence against Jews – took place throughout the city. It was a battlefield of a difference sort. Sebba gives the reader a better understanding of the interplay of individual women’s lives and the moral ambiguity of life under occupation. Questions of honor, collaboration, and agency were all played by women and on women, literally and symbolically. I think that Sebba could have advanced a more explicit feminist argument – it would have sharpened her narrative – but her interest is in the person.

Sebba is attuned to the horrors of the war. She examines its impact on her subjects, writing with compassion and imagination. She is a skilled writer.

Sebba, also, is aware of the difficulties inherent in her approach. She seems of two minds, sometimes giving more focus to the political. Other times she is more keen on the personal. In fact, there are two  subtitles to the book: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation is one and the other is How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation. The former is more historical and the second is more biographic.

Haunting Les Parisiennes are questions of why: why did some women collaborate and others resist? Why did some women risk their lives to protect Jews and others were fine profiting from anti-Antisemitism? These questions are difficult and they defy simple explanation. Read collectively, they speak to the deep challenges of everyday life in the occupation.

The lives Sebba has unearthed are extraordinary. The war was a cauldron for choice – one could not simply “live” and get by. Basic survival demanded extreme behavior. With or without broader analysis, the individual stories make for fascinating reading. Les Parisiennes offers a valuable perspective to understand the complex tragedy that was World War II.

David Potash

Facing Addiction – Full On

Charming and deceptive. Honest to a fault and blind to large truths. Lovely and awful. Cat Marnell is a super smart recovering addict who lives these contradictions.

Marnell recently came out with a memoir, How to Murder Your Life. She’s held a number of positions in the beauty/women’s media – with Glamour, Vice, Nylon, xoJane, and Lucky. She’s written about herself – her drug use, career, love life, sex life, family, obsessions and self-harm with humor and honesty. She embodies intelligence and self-destructiveness. The story of her longer journey, captured in this book, is fascinating and terrible to behold. Making it more than bearable is Marnell’s wit, humor and a candor that makes one wince. You want to look away, you want to shake her, and you keep reading.

Marnell’s narrative voice is both agent and witness to success and catastrophe. She knows how to pull it together and she knows how to flame out – and she does both with regularity. The painful repetition of her screw ups can make for less interesting reading. However, it underscores the difficulty of stopping  addictive behaviors. Addicts don’t stop being addicted; it is part of their identity. As much as you may wish for clarity and happiness, there is no complete resolution in any next chapter of Marnell’s book. She lives a life of more highs and more lows.

Marnell’s childhood was marked by wealth, strife, and unhappiness. From an early age, prescriptions and non-prescription drugs were a part of her everyday life. Health care professionals, including her father, a psychiatrist, made sure that she was medicated and re-medicated to deal the stresses of growing up, attention deficit disorder, and teen angst. She moved from a college internship into full-time employment in the New York City media world. Work gave her a sense of importance and agency that was missing from the rest of her life. You can feel the triumph in her voice when she describes those early career advances. But from her teens until now, in her mid-30s, she’s struggled with her addictions, career, relationships, and gaining control of her life. At many times she self-sabotaged to the point of murdering her life.

And yet – and the yet is important here – Marnell’s immediacy gives a real sense of what it is like to live as an addict and to have hope. My experience is limited. I have known two friends who have lived with serious drug addiction. For both, it fractured their identity, scrambling sense of self and direction. It is more than a conflict between healthy and unhealthy impulses. Addiction reshaped identity through action, adding a lens of meaning that fundamentally altered their person-hood. That splintered self, aligning actions with impulse, is woven through How to Murder Your Life.

Marnell might sell many copies of this book for the scandals, and the drama. Stick with it, though, and you’ll gain an understanding of the powerful ways that addiction harms. I really wish Cat Marell well. She’s a very talented woman who is lucky to be alive. She’s also fortunate to have the facilities to write such fresh and engaging prose. I do not believe that all of her really wants to murder her life. She’s around to talk about it and she cares. She is clear and direct about behaviors to avoid, particularly for women.

I am optimistic that her honesty strips the appeal from what an Instagram-follower might believe is a glamorous lifestyle. Her story is cautionary. Life can be challenging enough.

David Potash

The Benefits of Democracy: Learning From History

Historians tend to distrust sweeping arguments, particularly when claims include predictions. It’s an understandable caution. We are trained to work carefully, looking backwards. The tools that help a historian are not the necessarily the same skills that identify macro-trends and tendencies. But don’t avoid history because it can’t predict the future. Good histories, read collectively and critically, tell us a ton. Better still, when good history is coupled with the insights from the social sciences, very promising ideas are possible.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty is thick and robust history with social science, and it is done very well. Written by economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James A. Robinson, the book covers centuries of growth, conflict, advance and decline. It is national histories looked at globally and comparatively. The authors draw from many continents, reading widely and critically. The authors offer ambitious thinking about world history.

Their arguments proceed in two parts. First, they look at the range of factors which shape the degree of democracy or autocracy in a nation over time. Their big picture observation is that shifts to greater democracy are often the result of threats, real or potential, by those that have money and power. Without viable threats, wealth and power tends to accumulate. Power begets power – and there is no inevitable democratic impulse. The arguments in Federalist Papers #10, in other words, bear out over the centuries.

The second half of their book examines the benefits of more of living in more democratic societies. They use an economic lens primarily, but also include research from other social sciences. They explain that the nations that support more “creative destruction” from capitalism experience greater innovation and wealth. It is an empirical argumentation, not ideological. Acemoglu and Robinson have the data and history to support their claims.

Acemoglu and Robinson’s explanations are not the only ones, of course, to explain any one historical trend. They are not searching for detailed history. They pass over contingencies, which bedevil all historical arguments. Further, their historical interpretations may not be the “best” when it comes to understanding the complexities of any one revolution, a war, or a similar historical event.

Why Nations Fail delivers is a powerful argument for democracy using history and social science. The authors identify the synergies of inclusive economic activity, which is supported by property rights and rule of law, which align with greater democratic values. The push towards equity brings with it, over time, greater wealth and prosperity for all. The benefits of living in a liberal society are broad and mutually supportive.

In contrast, extractive nations, with less free economies, often struggle recurring violence and instability as their leaders struggle for wealth and power. Many of these countries have histories as colonies and shallow democratic tendencies. Less free nations are less wealthy. Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument is captured in their title: they have a recipe for how nations fail.

It is thoughtful and thought-provoking book, a very interesting way to think about world history. Why Nations Fail would be a delight to teach, too. The benefits of democracy are more plentiful than we realize.

David Potash

Changing My Movies

I love a good movie. Not films – movies. Movies are about entertainment. No friend ever says “You have to go see this movie.” That’s not the case for films. Seeing a film is freighted with expectations of art, philosophy and meaning. When I’m looking for that, I reach for a book.

But of late I’m finding it harder to enjoy movies. My mind wanders. I’m increasingly aware of genre, expectations, and arc. Why do the plots of so many movies resolve around violence? I know that conflict is essential to drama, but movies’ fixation on one kind of conflict – violence – has become tiresome. It is not escapism. We have more than exposure to violence every day.

I don’t understand why action and suspense so often relies on explosions and guns. Or why a movie’s final conflicts must have even larger explosions and bigger armories. Guns, more guns, and even more guns are not the only way to solve problems or bring a conclusion to a movie. Violence in a movie is not necessarily satisfying, suspenseful, or entertaining. It is lazy, to my way of thinking, and it perpetuates a ton of lazy thinking about violence. It’s so common today and movie makers seem unable to break out the rut. Movies weren’t always like this.

No longer do I get a cathartic thrill when the villain meets a particularly grisly end in a movie. My adrenaline doesn’t pump. It’s boring and unimaginative. We know what’s going to happen.

My movie dissociation could be because of the many shootings that fill our papers and screens. The violence in the news and in our neighborhoods is more than numbing; it’s scary and sad. The change may be me – age and it’s possible that I could be seeing the wrong movies. Whatever the cause, it is definitely affected my movie going. I am too aware of the movie habit of solving any and all conflicts with a bigger boom. There’s no suspense in that.

I’m going to hold out for better. Older movies that rely on character, dialogue, and imaginative plotting could do it. Resolution through cleverer means.

Or I might go see a film.

David Potash

Back In the Hood

Back in the day I lived in Brooklyn, near the Gowanus Canal. It wasn’t fashionable then, though the signs of gentrification and development were discernible if you looked closely. The neighborhood had character. And if you were polite, listened, and happened to be in the right spot at the right times, you could meet the neighborhood’s characters, too.

Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is a detective story about that part of Brooklyn. Published in 1999, when I was nearby, it takes the idiosyncrasies of the hood and blows them up into something special. There’s murder, love, deception and more deception. Driving it is the wise guy narrative of Lionell Essrog, a self-taught detective with Tourette’s.

Lethem is a talented and prolific writer. What makes Motherless Brooklyn so interesting is the mixture of genres, deft plotting, and the wisdom of Essrog. He’s a smart man, a smart-ass, and a good egg – an Archie Goodwin (if you know Nero Wolfe) or Travis McGee. Detective stories with that kind of voice, written in the hands of an accomplished author, are reliably entertaining.

Motherless Brooklyn is a good book but an even better read.

David Potash