Saturday, December 30, 2017


“I am an artist, you know. It’s my right to tell you what to think. I’m chosen. You’re not.” That is the nutshell version of a long-standing effort to wrest art away from bourgeois aesthetic concerns and onto political ones. This tug is at work in every branch of the arts. But for economy’s sake, I will keep to the words art and artist as shorthand for the range of disciplines.
Today’s arts culture—the segment of it that appeals to museum curators, faculty hiring committees, and awards panels—mimics the intellectual fray of the 1960s, itself an imitation of contests begun in the 1910s and ‘20s. From the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, through assorted utopian declarations of the 1960s, on to the hectoring of Mike Pence by the cast of “Hamiliton,” artists have been on a steady, determined march toward ideological preachment.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

'You Should Have Known,' by Jean Hanff Korelitz is very good,review by By SUSAN DOMINUS

The first half of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel about a New York therapist is less than revelatory, although that turns out to be for excellent reason. Grace Reinhart Sachs, an affluent Upper East Side mother with a thriving couples practice, frets almost generically about such privileged concerns as how much to push her son to continue with his violin lessons. She offers loving descriptions of an ideal husband — a pediatric oncologist — who somehow never gels into either a recognizable type or an intriguingly unique character. The absence of key friends and family members feels underexplained.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the reader to realize that these structural weaknesses are, in fact, intentional blurrings — vague, unsatisfying details seen from the perspective of an unreliable central character, a woman unable to look too closely at the sharp edges in her ­cashmere-cloaked life.
Grace has always been fascinated by the power of denial, but she misinterprets her preoccupation as professional, not personal. As the novel opens, she is about to publish a book, called “You Should Have Known,” exhorting women to stop constructing elaborate stories that justify the failings of the flawed men in their lives and to move on to more deserving partners. Interviewed by a writer for Vogue, Grace lays out the extent of women’s blindness in the face of romantic hope: “He could be holding up a placard that says I will take your money, make passes at your girlfriends, and leave you consistently bereft of love and support, and we’ll find a way to forget that we ever knew that. We’ll find a way to unknow that.”
It’s a given that Grace, as the happily married expert, isn’t actually a part of that “we,” but within days of uttering those words she learns that the mother of a schoolmate of Grace’s son has been murdered, and that her own husband, supposedly off at an oncology conference in Cleveland, has suddenly become unreachable. Grace experiences these two events as distressing but wholly unrelated, intelligently finding ways to unknow the significance of details whose meaning must be apparent to the reader — her husband’s cellphone, left behind; the persistent police interest in his whereabouts. It takes an accumulation of worrisome, undeniable new facts to topple the nest of comfortable illusions she has worked so hard to gather.
Continue reading the main story
Dramatic irony isn’t the only pleasure of “You Should Have Known”; Grace’s husband’s pathology is erratic enough for behavior that holds genuine surprise. But the real suspense here lies in wondering when Grace will catch up to the reader. When and how will she come to know what she should have known and at some level maybe already did?
The momentum of the novel, not to mention the writing, takes off just as Grace starts stumbling her way, arms outstretched, toward a glimpse of her husband’s true nature. Reasonably astute about the subtle class distinctions and self-justifications of the moneyed world Grace inhabits, Korelitz writes with far more originality and energy when boring down into the mechanisms of denial. That phenomenon is the terrible mystery she seems most interested in solving. “And then in a location so deep inside her that she had not known of its existence,” she writes of a moment of insight for Grace, “something heavy and metallic chose this moment to creak the tiniest bit open, with a grating of rust and the release of a new terrible thought: that everything rising around her was about to converge.”
Korelitz manages to pull off the contrivance that Grace, having written an entire book about blind spots, could be so spectacularly sabotaged by her own: The advice book is understood as the clanging of an alarm, the product of Grace’s own subconscious raging to be heard. In contrast, the novel’s resolution feels surprisingly neat and tidy for a story about the messiness of the mind. In fiction, some details, the ones that tug almost imperceptibly at the reader’s subconscious, set the stage for an unexpected but inevitable truth; others merely make too obvious what will happen next. In “You Should Have Known,” both varieties show up in the service of a story that holds the soothing promise — despite all evidence to the contrary — of a happy-enough ending.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz review by ALICE B. LLOYD

The campus novel is overripe for a renaissance. Because it will take a satirical rendering à la Lucky Jim—or perhaps dozens of them—to expose the painfully silly social politics of campus protest culture to the clarifying light of enough readers' wry, self-aware laughter. Unsurprisingly, few have dared to go there lately what with the risks of offending P.C. mores and triggering viral outrage probably outweighing the uncertain benefits of a literary insight.
It's all the more delightful, then, that in her latest novel, The Devil and Webster, Jean Hanff Korelitz—author of Admission and You Should Have Known—breaks ground in this richest of fields. She pits the thoroughly liberal president of a thinly veiled Dartmouth, Korelitz's alma mater, against a media-savvy student protest whose inarticulate aims this president craves to validate. Naomi Roth is the beleaguered leader of fictional Webster, a staunchly progressive New England college haunted by its very white, very male history.
(The book's epigraph quotes Daniel Webster's seminal 1818 defense of Dartmouth, "It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!"—while its title takes us to the 1937 short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and Daniel Webster's fictional, Faustian defense of one poor soul to a jury of the damned. Webster, in the end, kicks the devil—a smooth-talking Mr. Scratch, no match for the great orator—from the New Hampshire courthouse.)
Naomi is Webster's first female and first Jewish president, a scholar of second wave feminism—the pre-intersectional, pre-LGBTQIA wave Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem rode—and, until recently, a popular Women's Studies professor. She distinguished herself to the board as the dean of women's affairs with her skillful handling of an unprecedented PR crisis: A student enrolled as Nell, and joined an all-female feminist affinity house to boot, only to matriculate already most of the way to becoming "Neil." A decade ago, Neil's presence in women-only housing posed an existential threat to the separatist feminism Dean Roth studied in her work and fostered, at least in theory, in her classes. It was as though her diplomatic management of students' and parents' concerns over Neil proved to the trustees and presidential search committee, quite believably, that Whatever weirdness may come, we need a highly competent hippie at the helm…
But once Naomi Roth made her full ascent to the presidency and had a few good years never feeling quite at home in the president's mansion, Webster College entered a climate in which the Neil crisis would have played out quite differently. She herself would become the target of a new type of student unrest, one that does not state its vague, intersectional aims so readily. Eradicating "like two centuries of impacted racism," as one student puts it, (or an eternity of transphobia, for that matter) doesn't begin such discrete "asks" as an audience with the president, so Naomi would learn.
Korelitz's novel shines for these subtle, artful framings, balanced on contextual details a reader lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the tessellating contortions of progressive campus discourse might miss. The story's central drama might as well have been drawn from fairly fresh headlines: A popular professor in a conveniently intersectional field—African-American folklorist Nicholas Gall, in the novel, who's failed to publish and plagiarized when he has—is denied tenure for these fully legitimate reasons trustees and administrators cannot reveal publicly. The unmanageable and inarticulate protest that erupts in response labels itself "Webster Dissent" and claims the school's intractable racist legacy as its source of outrage. An encampment, students in tents, shanties, and sleeping bags, colonizes around "the Stump." It's a literal tree stump but more so a symbol (just like Dartmouth's Old Pine) of swiftly broken promises to Native Americans unfulfilled from the college's founding until the 1970s, and a central meeting place for students, whom Naomi watches from her office window. The student leading the protest—he calls himself Omar Khayal and is a Palestinian refugee—is the shining apotheosis of righteous victimhood. And he's a friend and protégé of Professor Gall's.
Naomi, and not just because of the confidentiality restrictions shielding tenure decisions, can do nothing but "open her door" to the protesters and support the compassion, if not the logic, behind their dissent. (When it becomes clear they plan to camp out well into the winter—and the spring, as it turns out—Naomi has the college provide a "warming tent with heaters, blankets" and "the kind of toilet-trailer you found at your swankier outdoor wedding." Demanding they return to their dorms is just not her way; she brings the comforts of the twenty-first century dorm to them.) "Her heart went out to the them," and she sees herself in their struggle, even though she herself knows better. "The world would never work if people refused to perform this exact alchemy, to recognize that any injustice paid to one of them was paid to every one of them, and it was the duty of those who had a voice to speak for the voiceless," she believes. Naomi's daughter, a sophomore at Webster and a mainstay at the Stump, stops talking to her—and even becomes a spokesperson for the protest movement.
This struggle of Naomi's to encourage the students' stand against injustice and yet still maintain presidential authority, represents, Korelitz has said, the strained role of a former campus radical grown up to become the power that gets protested: "In this case the story was about a confrontation between a woman who considers herself ideologically in line with her own younger self and an enigmatic student who appears to see her very differently, and who forces her to rethink who she is and what she actually believes," Korelitz told Inside Higher Ed. What happens when radicals grow up and actually occupy positions of power? That was the question the novel began to coalesce around." As an undergrad at Cornell, young Naomi Roth occupied the president's office to protest ROTC recruitment. Now that she's in charge, witnessing what children on campuses put themselves and their administrators through—this refusal to tolerate injustice anymore, the twisted expressions of which we on the right too easily ridicule, President Roth believes—stretches her love and patience for modern movement mentality. It's a modern movement mentality that's kept her daughter out in the cold for months.
A conversation between Naomi and her friend Francine, the admissions director at Webster, supplies a definitive summing up. Francine, who read all their essays, after all, observes that student protesters today don't care for the president's support. "They want to build their own constituencies. They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents," she tells Naomi over a strained meal in student dining.
["…Omar] didn't answer emails. I did what I could, though I suppose I could have done more."
"Well…" said Francine. But she declined to make the expected noises. No! You tried so hard! "Really, what was I supposed to be doing? My door's been open for months. I've tried to get him to talk to me for months. What kind of protest declines dialogue with its opponent?"
"A modern one," Francine said dryly. "These kids are not like we were. You were," she corrected. "Interaction across the battle lines isn't what they're after. They want to build their own constituencies. They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents."
"Or accomplish anything," Naomi said, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, they're accomplishing plenty. They're compiling influence. They're emerging from the crowd."
"Gaining 'likes.' Getting 'retweeted.'"
"That's part of it. No point denying it."
"Building their brands. Getting famous."
Francine shrugged. "Fame is power. Omar grew up powerless, remember. It's not like he's a Hollywood starlet. He has the entire Middle East to heal. Shouldn't we be helping him?"
We encounter a strange plot twist toward the end, before that a timely hate crime hoax, and even a meddlesome conservative professor emeritus on the board who leaks news of Gall's plagiarism to a right-of-center reporter (me, I imagine). All of these developments carry along the brisk action. But still my enjoyment of the The Devil and Webster was colored over by memories of Dartmouth College, unmistakably Korelitz's muse. Although she's lived in Princeton, where her husband is a professor, for decades—and other reviewers home in on whiffs of Williams (like Williams, Webster is not in the same athletic league as "the Ivies" but rivals them in U.S. News rankings, calling itself, cheekily, "The Harvard of Massachusetts")—no other New England campus strains against its demons just so:
Once a school of the richest, the WASPiest, the most loutish and most conservative of American men, and then later, after its extraordinary transition in the 1970s, the institution of choice for creative and left-leaning intellectuals of all genders and ethnic varieties. "A small school in the woods, from which, by the Grace of God, we might know His will" had been its motto in the early days, when Josiah Webster hacked his way north from King's College (later Columbia) to establish his Webster's Indian Academy beneath the towering elms. Two centuries later, with nary a Native American student in nearly that long, those words—like so much else about Webster—had been revised: "A small school in the woods, from which, by scholarship and thoughtful community, we might know the Universe."
I can't say for sure I would have enjoyed this book so much, in other words, if I weren't inescapably bound to swap in Dartmouth's Eleazar Wheelock for Josiah Webster, the Old Pine for the Stump, the former Indian mascot for… the former Indian mascot. Or to read Dartmouth's thirteenth president, Hungarian-American John G. Kemeny, for the Franco-Armenian Webster president Oksen Sarafian, whose progressive vision changed everything the moment he arrived on campus in 1966, and whose guidance Naomi desires from the depths: "She wished that Oksen Sarafian were still here to be walked around the campus, introduced to what he'd made, and to the Jewish female (feminist!) scholar who now sat at his old desk. She wondered how he'd be handling the kids out at the Stump. She wished she could ask him." Sarafian, as with the non-fictional Kemeny, admitted the first women and inaugurated the reparative Native American studies program—now, just like Dartmouth's, among the nation's finest. (When Korelitz arrived at Dartmouth in 1979, Kemeny was two years from retirement.)
Maybe it takes a woman of Dartmouth, after all, to look out on a generation of protest-crazed college students and see nothing new under the sun—and to say so, sharply but lovingly, in crisp satirical terms. There's something about four years in those rugged wilds caught (as Dartmouth still is, and "Webster" too) between the old guard that still hates to see a single frat close and the frantic, progressive march toward an amoral emptiness based, in the novel, on a what turns out to be a remorseless lie. But it takes a grown-up radical's steadiness, in Korelitz's telling, to kick the devil from the courthouse.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Foreign Country,’ by Charles Cumming,is very good review by NY Times

A jumble of events across time and continents kicks off the new spy thriller “A Foreign Country,” by the Scottish writer Charles Cumming. Amelia, a young au pair, disappears in Tunisia in 1978, leaving behind a lovelorn seducer. Years later, an elderly French couple are murdered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Soon after, a young man is abducted from a dark Paris street in a 20-second maneuver “as easy as lighting a cigarette.” And Amelia, now the new head of MI6, the British intelligence service, has gone missing during a sudden trip to the South of France.
It is up to Thomas Kell, a spy disgraced in a torture scandal after 9/11, to track down the chief. “Find her and we can bring you in from the cold,” a former colleague tells him.
If the phrase seems a sly tribute to John le Carré, well, it’s not the only one. Shreds and patches from the master show up throughout, as in a subplot about a long-lost child, which echoes one from “Smiley’s People.” Or maybe I’ve been reading too many spy novels. They train you to see connections, after all, even ones that may not be there.
“A Foreign Country” is silkily written, and more cool than hot. Cumming, whose earlier novels include the enthusiastically received “Trinity Six,” describes exotic locales with detail and affection, and is relatively sparing in his use of bang-bang, at least until a big, gory ­Hollywood-ready finish.
While this novel nods to the past, it’s rooted firmly in the mess of our present. “A Foreign Country” describes today’s wars and morally ambiguous tactics — including “passive rendition” and “outsourced torture” — with an acerbity that might make le Carré proud. Cumming is no knee-jerk liberal, and Kell, his chosen speechifier, argues that “too many people on the left” have blinded themselves to the high stakes, “interested solely in demonstrating their own good taste, their own unimpeachable moral conduct, at the expense of the very people who were striving to keep them safe in their beds.”
The psychic wounds of British complicity in the mistreatment of terror suspects are still fresh. But some things never change in the world of British spy novels. The Americans are violent blunderers. The French are so very wicked. And the British are sad but noble holdovers from a better time, tarnished by their association with icky us.
Geopolitics aside, this is a novel about identity. We change: seeing “King Lear” as a college student is interesting, but seeing it years later with your own child is shattering. Across our experiences and transformations, however, the self runs through it all like a bright thread. Spies like Amelia and Kell, Cumming tells us, lose that thread. In the middle of a sleepless night, Kell reflects that “his entire personality had grown out of a talent for the clandestine; he could not remember who he had been before the tap on the shoulder at 20.”  By the end of the novel Kell has gotten not just a chance to get his old job back, but a shot at redemption as well. Given a ticking clock, a bad man and a question to answer, Kell must show that he can act effectively without trashing those principles he keeps talking about. Underneath all the jets and ferries, the heroic alcohol consumption, the cellphone SIM cards and computer hacking that make a spy thriller move, the real story in “A Foreign Country” is the quest to reclaim our better selves, the people we once thought we might be.

Continue reading the main story

Saturday, August 5, 2017

White man's game : saving animals, rebuilding Eden, and other myths of conservation in Africa by Stephanie Hanes, just put on reserve at NYPL

PW Reviews 2017 May #4
Journalist Hanes advances a too-little-regarded position regarding philanthropic aid and conservation efforts in this forthright volume on Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park. For years, Hanes argues, well-meaning Westerners have launched ambitious conservation initiatives in developing countries, taking control of the narratives surrounding the places where they've become involved. Rarely, Hanes contends, do locals get a say. She examines this disconnect, dividing her analysis into three sections. The first looks at ways in which Africa has been discussed historically and "why we are still stuck in them." Hanes traces Africa's appeal to outsiders back to the late 18th century, when adventure-seeking Europeans made their way to what they dubbed "the Dark Continent." In the modern era, fund-raising efforts such as Live Aid helped to perpetuate the idea that the continent "was poor, sympathetic, and in need of aid." The second section focuses on Gorongosa itself. "Biologically and topographically diverse," the park is "one of the best safari locations in southern Africa" and home to scores of vulnerable species. Hanes concludes by considering organizations such as National Geographic, whose travel-friendly depictions of the continent continue to obscure some of Africa's true struggles. In straightforward and fervent prose, Hanes gives readers "a new way of thinking about nature, conservation, and the pitfalls of best intentions." (July)
Copyright 2017 Publisher Weekly.

Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons is great

Queen Bees Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen is very good

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, the new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, is absolutely gripping reading, chock full of juicy, revelatory reporting about the Democratic nominee’s campaign that you really wish you had read during the actual campaign. Alas, Allen and Parnes had to agree to save their best material for the book in order to receive the extraordinary access they were given. The authors are blunt about how what they observed of Team Clinton behind the scenes was completely different from what most of the public saw: Over the course of a year and a half, in interviews with more than one hundred subjects, we started to piece together a picture that was starkly at odds with the narrative the campaign and the media were portraying publicly. Hillary’s campaign was so spirit-crushing that her aides eventually shorthanded the feeling of impending doom with a simple mantra: We’re not allowed to have nice things. Wouldn’t it have been nice to know there was a “feeling of impending doom” inside the Clinton campaign last year?It’s not that there was no coverage of the campaign’s infighting and stumbles. There just wasn’t much to suggest that the dysfunction of Clinton’s team would prove fatal, or even that it was worse than the usual clashing of egos in a high-stakes national race. The Trump campaign was usually portrayed as an out-of-control clown car, with feuding egos, bumbling incompetence, and campaign managers changing as regularly as Spinal Tap drummers. The Clinton campaign, by comparison, was perceived to be an experienced, well-funded, well-organized, well-oiled machine brimming with dozens of campaign offices in swing states and a proven ground game. Except privately, the people running the machine had their doubts, and weren’t shy about sharing them with Allen and Parnes. In Shattered, we learn that ten speechwriters, consultants, and aides had a hand in writing Clinton’s announcement speech, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a long, muddled mess. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, briefly brought in to help, concluded that the speech (and by extension, the whole campaign) “lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and sounded enough like standard Democratic pablum that, with the exception of the biographical details, could have been delivered by anyone within the party.”
We learn that Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, chose not to spend money on polling, relying instead on analytics surveys. “In Florida, Craig Smith, the former White House political director, and Scott Arceneaux, a veteran southern Democratic political operative, had begged Mook to poll the state in October to no avail. Mook believed it was a waste of money.” (Clinton’s campaign spent $563 million during the cycle.) Bill Clinton reportedly told one aide the Friday before the election that Florida was “in the bag.” Trump won the state by about 100,000 votes out of more than 9.4 million cast. We learn that Clinton’s Wisconsin volunteers lacked basic resources such as campaign literature to distribute while door-knocking. “What is the point of having a hundred people on the ground if you’re not giving them any of the tools to do the work?” asks one unidentified “veteran Democratic organizer familiar with the Wisconsin operation.” We learn that in late October, after FBI director Jim Comey’s letter indicating the bureau had reopened the investigation into Clinton’s e-mails, longtime aide Jake Sullivan “believed there was a reasonable chance Hillary would lose the election, and he began pressing Mook and others to abandon efforts to expand the Electoral College map in favor of locking down states that added up to 270.” In other words, quite a few people knew that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was a paper tiger. Loyalty to the Clintons (and fear of retribution) kept them from speaking publicly and honestly about it. It must have been a great relief to these frustrated, frightened Clinton staffers to vent to Allen and Parnes, knowing their words wouldn’t risk influencing the outcome of the election. Allen and Parnes, on the other hand, knew that the public was getting, at best, a seriously incomplete portrait of the state of the race and the election dynamics, and they acknowledge the uncomfortable position this put them in: We made one decision early on in our process that proved crucial in allowing us access to key players even at times when most of the media was walled off from Hillary and her senior staff. We agreed to conduct all of our interviews on background, which provided anonymity to our sources. That gave them an extra sense of security on the off chance that we broke a vow that we observed throughout our reporting: none of the material would appear before the election. . . . The trade-offs enabled us to get an extraordinary look at the last, tumultuous chapter of the Clinton era. If the journalists with the best access to the front-running campaign hadn’t had to save all of their best material for a post-election book, maybe the results of the 2016 election wouldn’t have been so stunning.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

You Belong To Me By Colin Harrison is very good,review by Megan Abbott

By Colin Harrison
324 pp. Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
Late into Colin Harrison’s noirish new novel, “You Belong to Me,” Paul Reeves, a prosperous 50-year-old immigration lawyer, sits in the storied Grand Central Oyster Bar, missing his father. “This doesn’t look like a church,” he recalls his father telling him when Paul was a boy. “But it is.” Decades later he surveys the familiar dark wood, the “ancient” waiters, the swordfish he and his father had seen still mounted over the bar. “You had to have places in the city like that,” he decides, “or you didn’t know who you were anymore.”
Is Paul longing for a simpler, more communal era when, as his father says, people could go to a bar and “feel like they are part of things”? Or is this the bleary nostalgia of certain white-men-of-comfort in a city always in flux? Both, it seems. Longing for a lost authenticity mingles with a deeper, less articulated fear of displacement and obsolescence. We hear echoes here of another noir hero, Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, who is forever mourning a bygone Los Angeles — once “a big dry sunny place … good-hearted and peaceful,” as Chandler put it, but now given over to harsh neon, “fast-dollar boys” and a smug suburbia. Marlowe belongs nowhere.
Noir has always had a complicated relationship with nostalgia, alternately rejecting the past as a psychological prison and romanticizing it as the lost Eden that predated our fallen present. At its heart, however, the hard, hungry gaze of noir has always been fixed instead on the future. It’s a genre filled with the kind of characters the novelist Laura Lippman calls “dreamers who become schemers.” The dedicated employee who decides to steal from the boss, the drifter who wants the rich man’s wife, the low-rent crooks who try to pull off the big con.
Harrison loves his schemers, especially the high-stakes New York City variety, and his exuberance for plundering financiers, money-grubbing heirs and double-dealing musclemen for hire is the fuel that propels “You Belong to Me.” At the center is Paul, whose comfortable lifestyle comes from his boutique law practice but whose passion lies in obsessive rare map collecting. In the novel’s opening scene, Paul attends a map auction with his neighbor Jennifer, the fetching young wife of Ahmed Mehraz, a fast-rising lawyer-financier from a wealthy West Coast Iranian-American family. Mid-auction marks the sudden, dramatic appearance of William Wilkerson, a recently discharged Army Ranger and former lover from Jennifer’s hardscrabble past.


It’s a classic noir triangle, but it widens quickly to introduce a roundelay of characters with volatile tempers and conflicting agendas, including Paul’s sometime girlfriend Rachel, Ahmed’s worldly uncle Hassan, Wilkerson’s God-fearing Texan father, sundry contract killers and map dealers — even a former Mexican cartel assassin hiding from El Chapo. The common denominator among them seems to be a voracious hunger: for money, power, revenge, a baby, a bargaining chip, a return to a more glorious past — or, in Paul’s case, for a very old map. “Wish and dream,” Paul philosophizes at one point, standing among his maps. “Trouble and desire.”
The story that follows is deliciously twisty and, intermittently, startlingly violent. With such a wide cast, its many characters risk feeling like types, or even stereotypes, but Harrison attempts to give most of them a moment in the sun: an explanatory back story, a convincing moral justification, even a Rosebud moment. “Everyone had a private journey,” Paul observes, “and no one was ever completely known by anyone.” Some journeys, however, are more compelling than others; “You Belong to Me” is weakest when ventriloquizing its primary female characters, with Rachel and Jennifer never fully coming to life — and seldom driving any of the real action.
But Harrison’s interests are never entirely with the novel’s younger characters anyway. Instead, the emotional and moral heft of the story resides with its older men: Uncle Hassan, whose role in Iran’s tumultuous history has imbued him with a moral gravitas; Mr. Wilkerson, the Army Ranger’s father, who fairly glows with “Friday Night Lights”-style grace; and, ultimately, Paul himself. “No one,” Hassan ruminates at one point in the action, “is interested in the opinions of an old man … sitting next to a pool in California.” He adds, “History moved on, left you at the station holding a heavy suitcase and a worthless ticket.”
But within the moral universe of “You Belong to Me,” these three men of middle age — a father, a father figure and (if Paul’s girlfriend has her way) a father-to-be — exert a powerful force. “When you never know your father,” Jennifer speculates as her life unravels, “it causes all kinds of trouble.” It’s a view Paul, and Harrison’s narrative, support. The novel’s older men, these canny patriarchs, seem to understand everything the younger characters do not. If the hot passions of youth — desire, jealousy, foolish pride — fail to cool into something softer, more measured, then the catastrophe looms. It is up to these wise men to set things right, and Paul in particular succeeds in engineering, in the novel’s last pages, a dizzying series of machinations to institute an order on the disorder he sees, moving characters around likes pawns on a chess board. Or like push pins on a map.
Maps, as Paul tells us, seek to fix in place what can never be fixed. They attempt to stop time and assert a false permanence. And what rescues the ending of “You Belong to Me” from what might feel like too tidy a conclusion is the messiness that is Paul, the dreamer-schemer.
Early in the novel, Paul admits to dreaming of owning every map ever made of New York City. To do so, he feels, would give him a godlike power — a power even to destroy, if he so chooses. “For the collector collects to have. To own, to worship, to possess — to say this is mine and no one else’s.” This is the essence of noir, this unstoppable urge, this voracity so intense it starts to feel perverse even to the subject.
It is irresistible to note a very similar passage in Harrison’s recent account of his own obsessive map collecting in “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York.” With exquisite unrepentance, he notes that his Brooklyn brownstone is covered in thousands of maps and he, like Paul, longs to own every one of New York City. “I crave them, I fever for them. I feel that a map I do not have but want is yet rightfully mine; I must touch them and smell them and possess them, must run my finger along their stiff or soft or irregular damaged edges.”
This is the obsession that we see in Paul and that thrums deliriously through the novel. He wants them all. He can’t stop, and doesn’t want to. It’s consuming. The hard, hot beat of noir goes on.
Continue reading the main story

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America by B. Alexandra Szerlip,is great

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes,is very good,review by By John Greenya - The Washington Times

Had I known that Jojo Moyes had twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, “The Girl You Left Behind” would quickly have become the book I left behind — which would have been a big mistake. What the author has written is not a love story within a historical setting, but an excellent historical novel that is also a moving love story. Excuse me, make that love stories. The book opens in 1916, the midpoint of World War I. The small French town of Peronne — which actually exists, then and now — is occupied by the Germans, whose soldiers have taken everything worth taking, all the valuables and, of course, all the decent food. Even though the townspeople are starving, the Germans want more from them.
The commandant informs Sophie Lefevre that every Monday night she must feed his soldiers in her family’s small restaurant, Le Coq Rouge. Sophie is in no position to object or to resist — her beloved husband Edouard, a gifted painter, is, like all the adult males of Peronne, in the French army, fighting the Germans in some unknown part of the country, though odds are he is a prisoner of war. The commandant tells Sophiethat he will provide the food, and she and her sister will cook and serve it (and the wine) with appropriate hospitality.
It’s the last requirement that earns Sophie the ill will of her own townspeople. She has already proven her mettle by standing up to and staring down the Germans in a magnificent opening scene, which I will not reveal here. Yet some of her neighbors expect ongoing heroism.
That theme, once established, remains a leitmotif throughout the World War I sections of the novel, as does the existence of a beautiful painting of Sophie done by Edouard when they were falling in love. The commandant, no barbarian (at least not culturally) covets the painting, and, eventually, Sophie, in equal measure. However, just when Sophie is taken by the Germans and whisked away in the back of a truck to an unknown fate, and the plot has thickened almost to the point of congealing, the author whisks us away (reluctantly, in the case of this reader, and deposits us in London in 2006).
The painting of the book’s title now hangs in the bedroom of Liv Halston, a 33-year-old Londoner who, like Sophie before her, has just lost her husband. The difference is that when we left Sophie, her Edouard was, presumably, still alive, whereas David Halston, Liv’s husband, a brilliant young architect with an even more brilliant future, has died, very undramatically, in bed at home at age 36.
As Liv tells someone, late in the book, “‘Can you imagine you slept through the person you love most dying next to you? Knowing that there might have been something you could have done to help him? To save him?’”
The torch Liv carries for her husband, who had bought “The Girl You Left Behind” for her on their honeymoon, burns very brightly for very long, and then, when it appears she is about to slip through the safety net of her meager social life, she meets another man and falls for him.
Paul is a professional art-theft investigator, and the company he co-owns specializes in restoring European art stolen by the Germans (in both world wars) to the heirs of their rightful owners. In an intimate scene (that strained my credulity more than a bit) he sees “The Girl” on Liv’s bedroom wall and recognizes it as a painting his firm has been hired to find. From that point on, the novel speeds to its resolution, but not before going back in time to pick up, and finish, the Sophie-Edouard story, and then returns to Liv-Paul in modern-day London. It is to author Jojo Moyes’ great credit that she accomplishes this difficult task not just with aplomb, but with a compassionate conclusion that is entirely plausible.
This is a novel with many tangents, little streams flowing off the main body of water in the way of so many tributaries. It’s a bit like reading a family tree and learning how every one of the main family members fared in life. The secondary characters are all believable and marvelously well-drawn. Here I think immediately of the commandant, but also of Sophie’s siblings, her heroic sister, her doubting Thomas of a younger brother and one fellow resident of Peronne in particular.
In the 21st-century London sections, there’s Mo, a younger hippie-type who befriends Liv, and vice versa, as well as Paul’s partner, a woman with a heart of gold bullion — all in all a superb cast and an excellent story. There’s even a fast-moving court scene sequence, which, being set in Great Britain with wigs and all, provides an interesting difference for readers more familiar with American legal thrillers.
By the end, “The Girl You Left Behind” had become not just a picture-perfect historical novel, but also a true mystery-thriller. And I no longer cared how many romance novels Ms. Moyes had written.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.