Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: The Corrections

The Corrections The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One way to look at a novel is to reflect on the skill it demonstrates. And, in that way, The Corrections is staggeringly good. I’ve read Freedom and I’m working through The Kraus Project, but neither prepared me for the deep excellence here. I found myself reading sections – Alfred falling from the cruise ship, Denise deciding to sleep with her boss’s wife, Chip describing the allure and disaster of Lithuania, or Gary rationalizing why he’ll capitulate to his controlling wife – and thinking, “This is so wonderful that I have to remember it.” Then I’d come across some equally stunning sequence that put that one on the back burner.

In the course of this sprawling story, we get the interwoven stories of the four principal branches of the family – Alfred and Enid and then each of the three kids – with such depth and patience that it never feels as if there’s a “favorite” here. In the tradition of the great Victorian era novels, this tells the story of a class of people rather than a single protagonist. As such, it’s atypically American, concerned as it is with a collective rather than a representative individual. (As such, it’s also much less ‘post-modern’ than its reputation holds.)

We also get a range of emotions. In the early sections with Chip, there’s a kind of malaise, a sense that our esoteric cultural theory has left us no more able to understand our culture and that, at the same time, represents a great waste of intellectual energy. In the Gary sections, we get a dose of misogyny (in its frustrations with Caroline) redeemed in some measure by its equal or greater contempt for Gary in his emotional weakness. In the Alfred and Enid sections, we get a sense of the scale of the story; it really does extend across the lifetime of a family, giving honor both to the hopes of its early years and respecting the sometimes silly traditions (like the Advent calendar) that have defined it. And in the Denise sections, we get the sense of someone hungering after a legitimate artistry (through her cooking), finding it, and losing it in the intensity of her feelings and self-doubt.

Somehow, Franzen ties all those elements together. In keeping with the apparent ambition to give a full portrait to a middle American family at the dawn of the 21st century, this is funny, tragic, ironic, sincere, and intimate. As someone who aspires to write novels myself, I can see that Franzen has accomplished all this in the course of the book, but I can’t untangle the technique and devices that produce that accomplishment. In ways that happen only rarely, I get the experience of being taken for the best sort of literary ride.

In all those ways, I find this worthy of all the acclaim it’s gotten. Freedom is certainly a strong novel, but it’s simply not as good as this one. Franzen may not be as cranky as he sometimes comes across in the media but, if he is, I can imagine some of it may stem from his semi-conscious awareness that he’ll never write anything this good again. Of course, only a small handful of living writers will either. Skill will get you only so far; if you pour most of your life into one great project, there simply isn’t enough life left to fill another masterpiece. There are ideas, contradictions and disappointments (and Freedom is full of those) but there isn’t the same flood of overwhelming experience. The reservoir is empty.

There’s another way to assess a novel, though, and that’s in what they used to call “the moral” way. This novel is more than just its superb skill. It’s also a claim for the kind of America we are and that we aspire to be. In that dimension, I have more mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Franzen brings a smarm to this – especially early and then in the closing pages – that troubles me. Maybe he’s kicking off the dust of his postmodern adolescence when he gives us Chip in all his ironic and conflicted theorizing. And maybe he’s working through a pose when he gives us a Caroline who is so icy, so incapable of giving Enid one last Christmas with her family. And maybe there’s something ultimately ironic in the sense that everyone is called upon to find his or her parents wanting.

The bottom line, though, is a dissatisfaction, a lack of faith in the people who make up our lives, that seems to me pessimistic. And maybe a little too easy as well. This is a novel powerful enough that we either have to acknowledge it or wrestle with it. And I find I have to wrestle with it in a lot of ways.

I find that ambivalence running through to the very end here. In one sense [SPOILER] the novel really ends when Alfred, in his final lucid moments, begs Chip to help him kill himself. It’s an intense, beautiful, and human scene. The father realizes he’s confronting a shell of the life he’s known, and he sees himself subjected to the indignity he’s fled for as long as he’s been himself. The son, knowing the weight of what’s being asked of him, knows as well that he can’t do it. It’s a great exchange, one freighted with real emotion and power. There’s nothing ironic in it; it’s just two men confronting mortality and realizing their own weakness in the face of death.

In truth, though, the novel goes on a dozen or so more pages. In them, Enid emerges into denouement. She visits Alfred every day, seeing to his care, but also taking time to “correct” him relentlessly. She gets to nag the mostly mindless fellow; she gets his body to herself, and it’s his body, Franzen tells us, that she’s wanted all along.

I find that scene a reversion to what I called the smarm, a letting go of the power of Alfred’s dying into the irony of the generally governing sensibility here. It’s a lingering vision of America as a kind of emasculated place. (Not only is Enid full in charge of Alfred, but Gary has long since capitulated to Caroline, and Chip has become a kept man with his new wife.)

Maybe Franzen has a point with that ironic pessimism. Maybe our America really is caught in the sort of irony spiral that a David Foster Wallace takes as his starting and ending place. Still, there are glimpses here of a deeper moral vision, and yet Franzen largely forecloses that vision. For all that this is a novel of surpassing skill, it gives us a disappointment with contemporary America that, next to an image it nearly accepts, is a disappointment itself.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever

The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever by John R. Schmidt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you think about it, there are only six or seven Chicago mayors who left real footprints over the last 125 years. There are the Carter Harrisons (two counting as one) who, as blue bloods governing the wild young city, got it all started. There’s the buffoonish Big Bill Thompson, Chicago’s Trump. There’s Cermak who started the machine and overshadowed the next couple decades of bosses even after his assassination. There are the two Daleys, and there’s Harold Washington. The rest, as they say, are commentary.

William Dever is commentary. John R. Schmidt admits as much throughout, even titling his last chapter, “The Least Known Chicago Mayor.” With his one term sandwiched between Thompson’s second and third, Dever had the misfortune to be in power right as the gangster world exploded. He was, according to Schmidt and everything else I’m familiar with, a principled, competent man in a job that called either for a corporate tool like Harrison or a buffoon like Thompson.

Schmidt’s central, sort-of question here is a good one: why did the most qualified mayor of his era leave so small a mark on this city? His answer, while fairly well researched, is somewhat less nuanced than I’d like.

Schmidt’s approach here is to spend time on personalities – on Dever’s and on such rivals and allies as Thompson, George Brennan, Edward Dunne, Charles Merriam and many others who walk into the story for a few pages before leaving again. I’d prefer to see more social analysis. Her talks about the temperaments and quirks of the men who came to lead the city, but he talks less about the different forces each represented. I know Cermak from a lot of other places; I know he was a notorious tough guy, a rough-hewn tavern owner who polished himself just enough to pull together the modern machine. But more interesting than his manner is that he rose because the city’s ethnics were maturing politically. No longer willing to throw their weight behind one or another elite fa├žade, they wanted one of their own. That’s a quick version of social history, something Schmidt largely ignores.

Schmidt does, however, provide an answer to his core question: Dever failed as mayor because, whatever else he wanted to do, he found himself caught on the horns of the dilemma of Prohibition. He needed to enforce the law to please his better-government backers (people as diverse as Julius Rosenwald, Harold Ickes, and Graham Taylor) but he needed to denounce it to have a chance at broad ethnic support. He couldn’t mock the law like Thompson did and would, nor did he see his way toward a principled resistance to it as Fiorello LaGuardia would do a few years later. Instead, he acted almost as an honorable hypocrite, squashing booze merchants while trying not to offend their most fervent customers.

That’s an interesting story, but it’s also a pretty thin one. Schmidt comes to admire his subject here, holding him up as a decent, likeable guy, but there seems good reason he’s so little remembered in the city’s history. He tried to bring a reasonable compromise in the face of the extreme corruption of Thompson, but the city wasn’t ready for it. He may have been honorable, but Prohibition Chicago had little use for honor.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a masterpiece. I’m hardly the first to come to that conclusion, but it’s nice to be able to declare that it holds up a decade or so after it made its big waves. The separate stories are all powerful, and they complement each other. We get one glimpse after another of the quiet, sad, and beautiful lives of these people, and then those glimpses come together to form a larger whole. As one line puts it, “People mostly did not know they were living life while they were living it.”

I think a relevant comparison here is Joyce’s Dubliners. If this one is less self-consciously revolutionary in its narrative and less ambitious in the swath of human life that it measures, it still finds a way of setting one slice of its subject alongside another. It gives us a city – or a small town – in a way that linear narrative could not. It presents us with fracture in order that we might see the whole.

It’s easy to dislike Olive herself. Whether she stands as the main character of a particular story or as a figure moving through the background of someone else’s, she comes across as edgy and bitter. The Yiddish is “frebisn,” but Yiddish hardly seems to apply in a Maine so apple-cider New England that you think you see Robert Frost’s footsteps in the crushed maple leaves at the edge of the frame. We have character after character – or more properly relationship after relationship since everyone comes to us either yearning for a new partner or assessing whether to stay with the partner she or he has – trying to deal with disappointment or lack of fulfillment. These aren’t people who turn readily to language; they’re self-reliant and stubborn, but they’re resilient too.

I find myself liking Olive’s husband Henry quite a lot. He absorbs Olive’s unhappiness and, as one character remarks almost in surprise, he loves her. Then [SPOILER] when he dies, Olive slowly discovers that she has the capacity to care for others. Her years as a frightening high school teacher have taught her to intimidate almost everyone, but her twilight love affair is deeply moving and a quietly beautiful way to wrap this up.

As great as this is, I fear I have read it at the wrong time, though. With a divisive election still so fresh, I think I’m hungry more for anger, irony, or fantasy. This offers, instead, a quiet and sad beauty. It’s a grown up novel – grown up in the best of ways – and I’m feeling very adolescent right now. The fact that I admired it (and, yes, enjoyed when I could give it the attention it requires) at such a moment further underscores its power. In a less tumultuous moment, this would probably shine even more than it does now.

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Review: Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago

Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago by Roger Biles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess that I picked this up when I did because I am hoping I might be able to place a manuscript with Northern Illinois University Press, and one of their editors recommended this to me as one of their strongest offerings. That disclaimer aside, I finished it because I found it compelling. I thought I knew Mayor Daley, and I find I was only partly right.

I enjoyed the final third of this differently from the rest because I was reading a history I knew and had, in some substantial ways, lived. I dimly recall the aging Daley, the man who ran the city and who seemed an institution even to a kid who’d get there a couple times a year to visit his grandmother, aunt, and extended family. Then I recall, in parts as a recent college graduate living in the city, the tumult of what followed: Bilandic, Byrne, Washington and the Council Wars.

Biles covers all of that, though with a faster and faster pace as he wraps things up, linking his subject to the early years (when this was written) of Richard M. Daley’s tenure. The heart of this book is earlier in the Daley years, though, and that gives a glimpse of a character who’s hard to see from the vantage of someone who knew him only at the end and largely through the political clashes that followed his death.

Biles is straightforward in his admiration of the early Daley. He’s too subtle a writer for naked evaluation, but we’re left with the sense that the “young Daley” (really the middle-aged party figure who waited for his shot and slid into the throne) was about as effective and admirable as any figure from machine politics could have been.

Daley’s early distinction came through his lack of flamboyance. Others looked to get ahead through graft or self-promotion. He settled in to do the steady work of governing. Whether as a state senator or as someone’s aide, he learned how to put together budgets, how to wait out his opposition, and how to forge alliances. He believed in his city, and he believed in the power of governance.

As a historian, I know the other end of Biles’s history as well. I’ve read a great deal about William Thompson’s utterly corrupt Prohibition city, and I’ve been a small part of telling the way in which Anton Cermak pulled together the original machine to usher in a new wave of the city’s government. I was less clear about the ways in which Kelly (allied famously with Nash) ran things, and I was almost ignorant about the way Kenneally allowed the mayorship to weaken, setting the stage for Daley to arrive and reinvigorate it.

If Biles gave us only those frames, only the before and after of Daley, this would be a worthwhile contribution. But the heart of the book turns on how this early Daley – this figure of efficiency and selfless ambition (to coin an oxymoron that feels right) – became the figure I remember from the end of his life.

Biles is too careful a historian to editorialize, but it feels as if there is something satisfyingly tragic in Daley’s rise and diminishment. In the name of the people he felt he represented – the white ethnics – he forged a coalition that depended on loyalty from every turn. Look out for him, and he’d look out for you. Or, as I like to put it, “From each according to what he could be made to give, to each according to what he could demand.” That meant securing the African-American base as well, giving them enough to be satisfied but not too much that they would want to take what the Irish and Poles felt was theirs.

The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King changed that equation. King charged Daley with limiting opportunities for Blacks, with buying their support too cheaply. Daley argued that he was better at supporting his Black constituents than any other big city mayor. The irony, as Biles lets us look back on it, is that both may have been true. Daley clearly did not do enough for African-Americans, and he deserves to be remembered for those failures. But, rooted in racism as much of his platform was, it’s also true that his effectiveness as a mayor – Biles argues that he was probably the most successful big city mayor of his era, an era that saw the decline of many of our most important cities – made it possible for him to do more than any of his peers. Daley may have offered the African-American community only crumbs, but he managed to put on a better banquet than any of his contemporaries, and that meant his crumbs were better than some mayors’ entire meals.

The tragedy we glimpse throughout this is the sense that Daley always did his best to represent the city he saw. It’s just that, as the city changed around him, he saw the one that used to be more than the one that was.

I lived in Chicago for much of Richard M. Daley’s time in office, and my wife came up with a line I have always appreciated: Richard II was not “the mayor you love to hate,” but rather “The Mayor you Hate to Love.” I felt then that the son had outdone the father by yoking the “lakefront liberals” like us to the most tolerant of the city’s conservative base, giving us imperfect but solid leadership.

It turns out the old man did the same thing. He took the city out of a dark age of corruption and ugly machine politics, and he slowed Chicago’s decline against a national tide of anti-city movement. Harold Washington and the second Daley pulled it back out when the pendulum swung back toward city life, but their job was easier than it might have been because of the work his father did.

And, as a final thought, I’m grateful for the efficiency here. This is no 900-page saga. It’s got a clear purpose, a straightforward analysis, and a crisp narration. If this is how NIU Press does it all, I’d be honored to be a part of it.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is in love with its premise – premises, actually – and I can mostly forgive it for that.

To start with, the foundational idea here is a lot of fun. A group of researchers unearth lost history by using their time machines to go back and record events otherwise lost to time. They work with a kind of rigor, and they have all sorts of adventures just keeping their offices in working order.

The idea of such time travel is necessarily contrived. They can, for instance, go back in time but not interfere (standard time travel stuff) but they are also unable to bring back artifacts. They can only observe. Until [SPOILER], that is, our protagonist makes the realization that they can bring back things that, in their own time, have no future. That may be a mostly burned and spent pine cone, and it might be a manuscript removed from the Library of Alexandria just before it would otherwise be incinerated.

Such insights almost always bother me: if the author is making such contrived rules in the first place, I feel she ought to live within them. Changing them to set up the climax seems like cheating.

Still, there is a lot of fun in the way our heroes set off for “one damned thing after another” and eventually run into historical settings. It might be better if there were more coherence to their travels – they jump from dinosaur era to Roman Egypt to Shakespearean England without sustaining any particular research project – but I can’t be too much of a spoil sport. The book moves with a nice, quirky narrative pace, and that covers over a number of possible complaints.

The second premise here is even better: our narrator is a spunky young woman who turns out to be much tougher than we originally think. Sure she falls for one of the other guys, but he falls first. She could almost take or leave him. And sure she turns out to save the day – days actually – but, while there’s a lot of luck, it’s usually due to her rare capacity to keep her cool.

We see that same calm-and-funny-in-the-face-of-danger demeanor when she’s just learning how the kooky place works. Others are always surprised; she’s unflappable. And her narration is shaped by that sensibility and by a sustained sense of humor.

The tone gets strange here. We deal with miscarriage, sudden violent death, and sociopathic killers in the same breezy way we get reports of office hijinks and spontaneous sex. Or, there’s the quick line I really enjoyed from early in the book, “Sex was like scratching a rash. It felt good when you stopped.” Or the perhaps even funnier one when, being flirted with by her soon-to-be-lover who’s just teased her about being a terrible driver, she jokes, “Pull over and I’ll give you the blow job of your life.” Without additional explanation, we get, “And then we hit a tree.”

So, bottom line, there’s a refreshing strangeness counterbalanced by a seeming lack of planning and that uneven tone. I hear it’s a smash in England and that it has a host of sequels. I can’t see myself going any farther with this, but I can understand why it would be someone else’s cup of tea.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was a little more than half way through this one, mostly admiring it, and asking myself the kinds of questions I habitually ask of books: does it work to have a narrator who, wise as he is, is so unable to get outside his experience and offer perspective; is it enough to raise issues of cultural difference without offering a larger critique; how does the fact that this is Young Adult fiction change how I should react to it.

And then I found my beloved cat killed in our driveway after getting crushed in an accident with the garage door. I’ll spare the details here, but I loved that cat, and the suddenness of her death left me numb.

By coincidence, I was just at the part in this book where Junior loses a series of important people. I hope it’s not too much of a [SPOILER], but I was walking the dogs in a daze, trying to pick up in audiobook where I’d been, and there was Junior dealing with his grandmother’s sudden and pointless death, his father’s best friend’s murder, and eventually the loss of his sister.

Yeah I loved the scene at the grandmother’s service when Ted Turner shows up, clueless, to try to buy his way into Indian ways. And yeah I grew to appreciate Junior’s wry take on the world as he persevered against all odds with a decency and optimism I’d love for any kid to have.

But what really got me here was a simple voice helping me deal with my own sudden grief. There’s a lot to think about here, but I loved this book because it was, in effect, the friend I needed at that moment. Maybe Junior (or Alexie if you will) was only that stranger on a bus who, seeing the shock of my face after bad news from the phone, put a hand on my shoulder. Or maybe he was the counselor who had a few kind words to help me make sense of something that may have been small – especially at a moment when we face a Presidential election of rare rancor and intense consequence – but that mattered to me.

Literature does a lot of things, and I read it for many different pleasures. I didn’t turn to this one for comfort, but it certainly comforted me when I needed it. I’m grateful to it, and I’m grateful to Alexie.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: City of Thieves

City of Thieves City of Thieves by David Benioff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a premise: the question of how we define masculinity is, in large part, a rewording of a deeper question – how can we show love for our fathers? That claim builds from a perspective that is both heteronormative and male, but grant me that much and see how wide it might reach.

Masculinity is culturally defined. I’ve always loved the legend of the meeting between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Richard, boasting of his strength, takes out his mighty sword and uses it to cleave an anvil. Saladin, standing nimbly before him, uses the razor-sharp edge of his blade to slice a piece of silk he’s let fall across it. Each of those attributes is a kind of masculinity, whether the Norman sense of the unassailable strong man or the Arabic sense of the lightning quick and wise warrior.

City of Thieves gives us two equally distinct visions of masculinity. There is Kolya, a handsome and able Aryan who lives his life unflappably. And there’s Lev, a big-nosed, neurotic Jewish young man who, always doubting himself, always rises to heroism. Lev may question himself at every turn, but he always carries himself as a man. At the beginning, he risks his life to save a friend. Throughout the middle, he proves an important and sober balance to Kolya’s impatience. And, at the end, well, [SPOILER] he kills the chief bad guy and gets the girl.

For me, then, this novel is most obviously a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy: it lays out the perfect scenario for Jewish masculinity, with all its flaws, to be the precise set of codes necessary for survival and eventually heroism. We come to like Kolya very much; he stands as one kind of masculine ideal. But Kolya’s excellence doesn’t overwhelm Lev’s. Instead, we see that it takes both masculinities – a more conventional (by American standards) masculinity and Lev’s Jewish one – for the partners to complete their mission.

If that isn’t clear before the end, well, the climax brings it home: how else can we understand the significance of the Jewish kid beating the vile Nazi at a game of chess? It’s the ultimate in “Is there a doctor in the house?” It’s like the high school tech nerd who, with the whole school watching, quick fixes the projector the principal needs in order to make possible the screening of some anticipated movie. It’s a contrived situation in which the boy’s particular skills – particular not just to him but to the culture in which he is emerging as masculine – are exactly what we need.

And it’s also wonderfully satisfying. If you forget this is a fantasy, then I can see how you might find it ahistorical or tone deaf. It’s not especially good history, nor is it emotionally true. Demanding such characteristics of it, though, is to misunderstand that this is a sustained wish projection. If noir is an interrogation of the codes by which a man should live in a world where there’s no reason to believe in a benign, ordered universe, then this is an exploration of the strength implicit in a stereotypical Jew’s qualities. It’s a reimagining of a dark time in such a way that a clever Jew can play a difficult and necessary tole in defeating the worst villains of the century. Lev wins because he is supposed to win, because the cards are stacked in his favor by our writer.

And Benioff does all that with good humor and excellent pacing. The subplot of Kolya’s counting the days since his last shit is funny and even joyful, and Lev’s sexual awakening is both tender and embarrassing. Reading this, I can see the sensibility that Benioff brings to his work on Game of Thrones. That too is a fantasy – a more apparent one – and Benioff invests it with many of the same concerns: its story line is also contrived, but there is room within it for a variety of masculinities to vie with one another. (In fact, that conflict between different cultures is the heart of Game of Thrones.)

It’s fair to add that, as with Danaerys, we also see how here how women can thrive in a masculine context. Vika ??? is, of course, not only the finest sharpshooter, she is also the finest partisan fighter and she is demonstrably more capable than either man. In this wish-projection world, she is the ultimate fantasy down to her taking time to wash and put on makeup when she returns to Lev in the closing pages. She excels at both the masculine and feminine codes, as both a model gentile in her fighting capacity and as a model Jewess in her eventual unveiling as David’s grandmother.

To return to my original point, though, I think this is not merely a fantasy of masculinity but also, as I suggest in my opening premise, an almost too-needy letter of affection to fathers. The back cover copy of my edition (well, the audiobook slug) makes a big deal about the idea that this is a novel written by a young man, David, from the recollections of his grandfather, that this is about David’s efforts to understand his grandfather’s experiences. And then, as Lev pursues his mission, he thinks fondly of his father, always measuring himself against the glimpses of literary greatness he still recalls.

That is, this is not merely an interrogation of masculinity but also a tribute to David’s forefathers. (Less so to his foremothers.) Yes it’s a fantasy, and yes it’s perpetually involved with how a boy is supposed to perform as a man, but there’s a sweetness in its almost transparent effort to embrace and even celebrate its fathers. This may not be literature for the ages, but it’s also something that works to break received conventions. It is perhaps too much fun to ring true as a history of Jews during the time of Hitler and Stalin, but it unfolds from that dark history into an imaginative space that offers a rare balance between poignancy, humor, suspense, and action.

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