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

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

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

Opioids – America’s Killer

An epidemic of opioids, opiates, prescription drugs and illegal narcotics, is killing record numbers of Americans. This isn’t news – it is a massive public health problem that has been getting worse for several years. The statistics are staggering. A New York Times article highlights that overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Nearly 100 Americans die every day from these drugs, prescribed or purchased illegally. It is having a disastrous effect on hundreds of thousands of families, communities across the country, and our economy.

We are getting a better sense of the how of why of this crisis. I count myself among those who did not comprehend its scope or causes. I knew that drug addiction was a continuing issue. But I had little sense to the pervasiveness and devastation stemming from opioid addictions and heroin use. A host of new reports and government actions has informed and awakened broad attention across the country. Even with the attention experts predict that numbers of deaths will continue to rise for the next few years.

Several factors have led this disastrous state of affairs. Pain management became a focus within healthcare, and cost concerns have led to more and more “pill” solutions to chronic pain. The economics of healthcare, in other words, propelled certain kinds of prescriptions and certain kinds of business to profit from these changes. An increase in cheap heroin – coupled with new drug selling techniques – provided more fuel, as did a host of new synthetic opioids. Knowing the root causes is important if we are to effect long-term, meaningful change. We need to address this as a nation and in our communities: opiates are ending and ruining lives.

One of the best accounts of how this crisis came to pass is Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Quinones is a journalist who has researched in the US and Mexico. Familiar with both cultures, he brings an on-the-ground feel to his reporting as well as a love of story-telling. He is a relentless journalist and a captivating writer. Dreamland won a well-deserved National Book Critics Award and is on many “best book of 2015” lists.

Quinones weaves together many narratives to make sense of this complicated epidemic. His perspective is through the eyes and words of people connected to the issue: doctors, addicts, parents, children, dealers, community leaders, and police. One thread is about how middle, rust belt America became the ground zero for black tar heroin. “Dreamland” was a swimming pool in Youngstown, Ohio. Long-ago it was a place of joy, family leisure, and a representational shared good among the town’s many residents. Gone for many years, its memory hovers as a far away time when life was better and more optimistic. Changes in the economy and culture, marked by job loss, fewer prospects, and the proliferation of prescription painkillers, highlight the Youngstown of the 2000s.

Quinones explains how our more recent world set the stage for increased drug use. The massive increase in the how and why of prescription pain-killers – in particular Oxycontin – is another thread. He takes us to medical conferences, doctor’s offices, and the pain clinics that sprung up in middle America. The development, marketing and distribution of heroin from the “Xalisco Boys” of Mexico. These young men, born in poverty in a small Mexican town, sought a better life. Often relatives or neighbors, many came to the United States to take part in the lucrative drug trade. Organized into small cells, they first sold heroin in the smaller towns and cities away from the established organized drug trade. The Xalisco Boys model was different. They only carried small amounts of the narcotics, never used the drugs, and were drilled into customer (addict) service. They had a growing market, an increased number of Americans who had an opioid addiction.

The American communities’ responses to the crisis forms another narration. Many parents never admitted that their sons or daughters were addicted. Deaths from a drug overdose was rarely reported and not often studied. Only when the numbers began to add up did families, communities, and public health officials begin understand the scope and massive spread of the problem. The journey of analysis and comprehension is another thread, as is the work of police in figuring out what was happening to their towns and cities. Fighting this spread of heroin called for different kinds of policing and prosecution.

Dreamland offers much to digest. It is wonderfully written but it is hard to read: so much sorrow, so much sadness, and so many tragedies. We learn who is profiting and who has avoided responsibility for the crisis, but the aim here is not blame. Quinones does not moralize. He explains with sympathy and patience. The better understanding he gives us is a window into the powerful forces that reshape lives. He also writes about compassion, cooperation and the many ways that people have worked to fight addiction and this crisis. Dreamland is also about everyday heroes who save lives and give us hope.

We need more books like Dreamland.

David Potash

Junctions of Memory, Identity and Loss

Slavkov u Brna is a small town in the Czech Republic. Centuries ago, it was known as Austerlitz. In 1805, one of the most important battles of modern Europe took place there, with Napoleon’s Army defeating the Prussians and the Russians. To commemorate this historic victory, the French named one of its large Parisian railroad stations Gare D’Austerlitz. It’s a stop on the Parisian metro today. Austerlitz is a place, a station, a stop, and a battle. It is freighted with meaning, which is probably one of the reasons that it is also the title and lead character is W.B. Sebald’s haunting novel, Austerlitz

Published in 2001, Austerlitz was immediately recognized as a significant work. Garnering several awards and prizes, it was also an inspiration for a movie. Sebald died shortly after the book’s publication. He was considered an important writer at the time of his untimely death. Sebald’s reputation has not waned and he remains popular today. He writes literature worthy of time, consideration and reflection.

The story of Austerlitz is recounted through a narrator who talks with the title character over many years. Their friendship serves as a vehicle for Austerlitz to recount his search for his identity. Raised by a cold Welsh family, Austerlitz was a child refugee from Czechoslovakia during the early years of World War II. Austerlitz gradually learns of his parents, his history, and himself. The themes are of loss and identity, but much more happens. We think about meaning, empathy, and the consequences of choice and contingency. It is a magically layered work, with streams of knowing and not-knowing strung together in an evocative web. Photos are sprinkled through the text. It has enough authenticity to read like non-fiction; I wondered, while reading it, where Sebald did his research. There is tremendous integrity in the work.

I found reading an overwhelming experience, emotional and intellectual. The details are compelling. The prose – often strung together at lengthy, building on itself and creating a cloud of observation, memory and questions, is mesmerizing. Sebald’s book offers a way to think about the Holocaust that is both global and individual, judgmental and compassionate. I was moved by the book in unexpected ways; it haunts me. Austerlitz is an extraordinary novel.

David Potash