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.