Monthly Archives: September 2013

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom came to my attention when a co-worker, hoping for collegial intellectual discussion, announced a discussion of this just published novel.

The invitation to a potluck dinner and book discussion was welcome indeed, but I started reading the book and, oops, I didn’t like it. I couldn’t imagine being anything but depressed if I invested another five or six hours and finished it. So I didn’t… nor did I attend the discussion.

My husband tried to read “Freedom”. His reaction was that it was like Garrison Keillor but mean-spirited. The author doesn’t like the his characters.

Controversies have emerged. Why, when a man writes about relationship and families, is it a profound big deal, but if a woman does the same, it’s “chick lit”? Hmm… And why did the male author decide to write from the female point of view? Why not tell the story as experienced by one of the other two main (male) characters?

What have we got here? Our heroine is “bad”, our hero naive, and the third party to this distressed love triangle is “damaged” but creative.

This reminded me of The World According to Garp. Everyone is badly flawed, but the punishments befalling them are inordinate – death (in Garp), humiliation, estrangement… Also like Madame Bovary. Did she really deserve such a horrible death?

I put this book down half way through, and didn’t finish it.

(I wrote this in September of 2010.)


“The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt

The problem with this book is that it must be read through two totally different lenses. First, it is the memoir of a dying man. Judt suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, one of the cruelest neurodegenerative maladies. ALS leaves the mind trapped in a paralyzed, helpless body. Judt died two years after he was diagnosed. His original symptoms were those of a mild stroke.

Judt’s work must also be judged in light of his (high) academic standing and status as a “public intellectual”. I’m no judge of academics and have little knowledge of “public intellectuals”, though I’m inclined to think we need more of them, or perhaps should pay better attention to those we have. (Judt solves one of my problems by telling me where to FIND public intellectuals – The New York Review of Books.)

So what about The Memory Chalet? It’s a charming book. The “chalet” is Judt’s alternative to The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (by JD Spence). Suffering through torturous nights in his quadriplegic condition, Judt needed a mental “device”, a mnemonic, to remember the essays he “wrote” in his head. He remembered a chalet in Switzerland where his family used to vacation. It was a humble, 12 room hostel he recalled in comprehensive detail and which had, for him, a wonderfully positive ambience. Moving through it in his mind allowed him to organize his ideas and recall them later for dictation to an assistant.

What did he write? A great deal was about his childhood and education. He loved trains, hated school, became aware of his Jewish identity… The picture he paints of post war England is detailed. It’s hard for us, looking back, to understand what “austerity” meant. Judt fills in the details, and also elucidates the sense of solidarity, of unity, that England experienced after WW II (and has since lost).

Judt became interested in politics very young (14?) and embraced Zionism and socialism to the extent of spending extensive holidays on a Kibbutz. His parents were displeased when he spoke of moving to Israel permanently. Of these experiences, he says “Before even turning twenty I had become, been and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” To the relief of his family, he enrolled at Cambridge and studied history.

What about Judt the “public intellectual”? He taught at various universities and wrote extensively. His original field was criticism of French historians (hope I got that right). He says his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2006) secured “public intellectual” status for him. He tried to overcome the Western European habit of ignoring important events in Eastern Europe. He describes his decision to learn the Czech language as a turning point in his intellectual evolution.

Judt described himself as a “universalist social democrat”. It’s going to take me a while to parse that. In the meantime, I think it would make a good mantra.

I might read Postwar, but more likely will look at Thinking the Twentieth Century (published posthumously, coauthored by T Snyder) first. Written in dialogue format, it is sounds accessible to non-historians like me.

“Sweet Tooth: A Novel” by Ian McEwan

This book should be called “A Novel of the Cold War”, or perhaps be identified as a spy thriller. The scene is London. Our young heroine (Serena) stumbles into the web of the British domestic surveillance agency and goes to work as the lowliest of clerks. She doesn’t know that one of her boyfriends was suspected of passing information to the Soviets, and hence she is under suspicion. She is quite a rule breaker and risk taker herself.

When Serena finally gets put onto a “project”, the plan is to support writers of a certain conservative political persuasion. She falls wildly in love with the man she is ordered to “recruit”. 

Add “atmosphere” and a plot twist that totally surprised me, and you have a good, absorbing novel. I will return to this author.

“The Orphanmaster: a Novel of Early Manhattan” by Jean Zimmerman

First class historical fiction! The time period is just before the English conquer New Amsterdam and transform it into New York City. New Amsterdam is a cultural mishmash, the Dutch in charge but many other groups represented, including native Americans and Africans.

The main character, Blandine, is a young woman who was under the “care” of the orphanmaster while a teenager. In her twenties, she is a rising business person, trading general merchandise and trying to move into the more lucrative trade in animal furs. The community is suffering the disappearance of children, first orphans and then others. Hysteria rears its ugly head.

Blandine and an English spy team up to solve the mysterious deaths and fall in love. Lots of color and adventure. Good to read! I think this book is part of a series, and hope to read the rest.

“The Literary Conference” Cesar Aira – post modernism again

No, this didn’t work for me. The first part of the book (The Macuto Line) establishes a strong visual trope, an artifact both enticing and mysterious. The protagonist “solves” the mystery, becoming rich and famous. In the second part of the book, he attends a conference where one of his own plays is performed. Simultaneously, he undertakes a “Frankenstein” type of experiment which almost destroys the world, or at least the city hosting the conference.

At one point I stopped reading for a few days. I thought I might enjoy the book more if I read it out loud, or listened to it on tape. The writing has an hallucinogenic quality. Very visual. If you want to get stoned without smoking a magic mushroom, this book is for you. Otherwise, don’t bother.

“A Sea Story: The Untold Story of the US Navy Response to 9/11” by Joseph Pignataro and Barry AA Dillinger

The author is the protagonist in this recounting of what happened on a Navy ship in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Pignataro changed all names except his own, which makes me wonder about the captain and other senior officers, whose names must be a matter of public record, ditto the name of the ship, USS Leyte Gulf (a Ticonderoga class cruiser, not a destroyer). The ship is described as a “bodyguard” for a battle group and normally carries about 350 people.

I have no memory of the event at the climax of this book, the ill fated boarding of an Iraqi tanker suspected of carrying embargoed goods and weapons. Several sailors died. This was probably not reported publicly at the time.

I suppose the Navy has “boarding” all figured out, but to me it seems strange to send so few people into such uncertainty with so little planning for their extrication.

I think writing this book was “therapeutic” for the author. I put the term “therapeutic” into quotes because it  is entirely possible J Pignataro didn’t ever feel he needed “therapy”. But as a witness to shocking violence and sudden death, he was certainly a candidate for PTSD, and as I read his description of the events on the boarded ship, I had the sense that he was trying, as he described his team’s movements and the responses they faced, to make sense of something incredibly complex and troubling. 

I have read that “narrative is the beginning of recovery”. Before a person can recover from trauma, it is necessary to tell the story. I hope that his experiences left no permanent scars on Pignataro.

Reviews on Amazon cast doubt on some details in this book, but I would rather read this kind of energetic first person account than some polished and 100% fact checked memorandum. My thanks to the author for giving me a glimpse of his world!

“The Town that Food Saved – How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food” by Ben Hewitt.

I’m posting this in honor of the First Annual Tour de Farm New Jersey. Someone forwarded me an e-mail about this event, and I realized that the cyclists would pass through my township, stopping at Sahl Farm which is two miles east of my home. What is the Tour de Farm? It’s a bicycle tour intended to support NJ agriculture and learn about New Jersey farming. The tour was supposed to get to Sahl Farm at 4 pm. I got there – not much was happening. I chatted with the farmer and then with the driver of the “sag wagon”, the vehicle that saves the day if bikes break down or muscles fail to cooperate.

Our conversation wandered to Vermont, and I mentioned the book which is the subject of this post. I read it in August of 2010. My thoughts at that time…

Very scary book. I never watched Al Gore’s A Simple Truth, but I would say this is on a par with it.

We could have a food crisis.

We have seen the price of gas run wild, the housing market implode and unemployment soar. Yes, our ‘food system’ could get messed up.

Should I stockpile food?

There’s lots more to this book. The town of Hardwick, Vermont, has struggled with loss of industry and the difficulty of farming Vermont’s rocky hills. One Amazon reviewer says the book “…made me think — really think — about reasonable scale and the importance of pulling local food down from its elite and expensive status”.

Lately I’m hearing lots of buzz about organic farming and local food. I may give this book a second read.

Oops? Most recent post contradicted by another source!

Ever hear of Amanda Marcotte? Me neither… Her opinion piece entitled “So Why is the Teen Birth Rate Plummeting?” ran in the Press of Atlantic City this morning, and doubtless in many other papers. She brings good news – teenaged women are having fewer babies.

She offers two reasons, one policy based and the other more subjective. Some jurisdictions have implemented “aggressive” sex education and family planning programs. It seems that teens want to avoid pregnancy and do so successfully when protective measures are available. 

Marcotte also cites the power of (negative) example: “… maybe it’s just that in 2008, the mere existence of Bristol Palin showed that conservatives didn’t even believe their own story about abstinence-only as an effective teen pregnancy prevention tool. It’s hard to sell kids on the idea of avoiding contraception when the results of that advice are on stage at the Republican convention.”

So have I changed my mind about The Spirit Level and the arguments in favor of greater income equality. No! There are still the other problems which the book addresses, and I feel like a society with an extensive middle class is where I want to live. It is, after all, where I had the good fortune to grow up.

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr: “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett.

Much discussion recently of the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here is a book that supports what King arrived at from another angle – the value of narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

The methodology used by Wilkenson and Pickett is EPIDEMIOLOGY. Yes, the statistical study of disease, applied to several health related social problems – juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, addiction, incarceration rate… Using data from the United States (state by state) and the developed world (country by country), the authors show that these problems all increase with inequality of income. They use data from reputable, publicly accessible sources. Their conclusions are based on solid science. 

If a group of problems all correlate with one factor (in this case, income distribution) maybe THAT’S what we should address, instead of plodding away at initiatives directed at six different problem areas. 

This book is readable, and should be required for anyone planning to run for public office or charged with responsibility for public health and welfare. Not to mention the citizen/taxpayer!