A Big, Wonderful Novel — A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men.  Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York.  After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields.  More importantly they are all interesting and likable men.  With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal.  Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing.  Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.  

 Jude commands most of the attention.  Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character.   I kept wanting to fix his life.  (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative.  We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do.  Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.

This is a long, rich book.  I just had to keep reading.  The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest.  The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period  was intriguing.   

Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters.  I wanted more for them.  Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient.  If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…  

For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it.  (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.)  Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time.  I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.

I highly recommend A Little Life.

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Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – A Terrifying Read for Our Own Era

People really need to read this book!  William L. Shirer, the famous author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany, kept a diary while he was stationed in Berlin from 1934 to 1941.  Shirer began as a print journalist but was converted to a radio journalist in Berlin the 1930’s and though 1940.  I recently read his diary from that period, Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941.  Shirer’s writing is clear and absorbing. His diary is a primary source, and it makes for harrowing reading.

Shirer was a foreign correspondent for various American outlets when he found himself in Germany in the 1930’s and through the pivotal year 1940.  His own experiences of struggling with censors and putting out his broadcasts in the midst of heavy bombing are justification enough for his book.  His visits to the countries Germany has defeated are fascinating and ominous all at the same time.  Many of his colleagues were kicked out by the Germans.  Shirer tries to stay on the grounds that his witness is important, but he knows the Germans are using him or at least think they are.  It is a fascinating game.  Shirer’s narrative bounces from visits to battlefields, to encounters with Nazi leaders, to every day life in Berlin, to worries about his own safety and self-respect.  He tries to figure out exactly what is happening and get the word out without getting kicked out of Germany.

The transcending importance of this book is that Shirer’s personal experiences occur within the malevolent atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the countries it defeated.  I found it impossible to read about the unrelenting cruelty and domination of the Nazi’s and not think about what is happening in the United States today.  Whereas here we have attempted censorship of the press and ham-handed efforts to exclude reporters, in Nazi Germany this is what actually happened as a matter of course.  Germans had long been denied accurate internal reporting of hardships and loss, so they became inured to it and stopped believing anything they read.  Now we find ourselves in an era of “fake news,” where our leaders feel no compunction to tell the truth or keep their promises.   Bullying has become an accepted political tactic.  Are Americans getting to cynical and complacent to resist?   Similarities with Nazi Germany are growing, and we should fear what might come next in our own country.

Shirer’s diary underscores the point that the truth ceased to matter in Nazi Germany and that the Nazi leaders felt emboldened to create an endless, self-agrandizing narrative to dress up and justify their criminal actions.  So, too, were they emboldened to villify Jews and other handy scapegoats because they felt they could. This is a terrifying blueprint.

Although Shirer’s book feels particularly prescient at this time and he openly states his opinions, he has not written a polemic. This is the diary of someone trying to be a journalist in the midst of Nazi Germany.  Shirer’s own American perspective is very much in place and enhances the value of his diary, which he obviously kept hidden while in Germany.

Lastly I should note that whereas liberals like myself may read this book and draw ominous analogies with current American politics, even if your politics are far to the right of mine, this book has profound historical significance and is an excellent read.  I recommend it.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education

Mychal Denzel Smith, a contributing writer for The Nation, among other things, has written an important book.  Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education held my attention and driving home its central point.  We live in a racist society, and no amount of rationalization or picking apart the facts of a particular incident can deny that black people are getting killed by the police at an alarming rate, and that this fact is symptomatic of our racist society.  

Smith was in his late 20’s when he wrote his short, intense book.   He covers a lot of ground, ranging from the central fact of systemic racism to more unusual themes.  He discusses the difficulties black women have endured in a movement that has frequently focused only on the plight and challenges faced by black men.  This is something Smith comes to see, just as he begins to appreciate the plight of gay black people.  Smith is candid about his experience and points to times when he may have rushed to conclusions or when he faltered in his own life.  Smith struggled with depression, and he is candid about his reluctance to seek help and about the value of the help he finally received.  Ultimately, Smith projects a remarkable and well-placed confidence in himself and his options.  

This book is also a remarkable account of an undergraduate education.  Fortunately, his family didn’t give him much choice about attending college.  It was assumed he would go and do well.  Like a lot of teenage boys I know, Smith doesn’t seem to have given a whole lot of thought to where he would go to school, and he wasn’t a driven student, for the most part.  Fortunately, his time at Hampton opened his eyes to a lot of things.  The fact that he wasn’t studying for a particular career gave him freedom and the opportunity to experience a number of things.  He gratefully notes how at least one teacher had an enormous impact on him, and his adventures and misadventures in running the school paper gave him a practical political education.  It is always a good thing to stop and reflect upon the advantages of a liberal arts education and of not having a fixed game plan at an early age.

Nothing undercuts Smith’s anger and bleak assessment of racism.  That is the crucial underpinning of this book.  He doesn’t try to provide a fix.  His willingness to look back and assess himself and others and to adjust his thinking about certain “norms” make this a very illuminating book. Mychal Denzel Smith advances the conversation on race in America.  His own willingness to assess and reassess his own assumptions and positions over time set a fine example for the rest of us.  I am so glad I read this book.  It was often an uncomfortable read, but it kept offering new ways of looking at issues and events.  Throughout there was the constant drum beat that until the police killings of black people stop, we have little hope of moving ahead.  Given that underlying premise, Smith opens a dynamic conversation.

The Butler’s Child – An Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer

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Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography.  Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases.  The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife.  Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs.  Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.

Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living.  Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.

Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country.  Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness.  As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades.  Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there.  This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back.  Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.

Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges.  Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining.  Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys.  The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal.  Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel.  As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North.  One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.

This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney.  Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life.  One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform.  He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do.  For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches.  Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance.  It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”

Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures.  He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American.  He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white.  He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions —  he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood.   While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing.  Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia.  It’s almost like yoga:  Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do.   In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice.  In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task.  His was an historic crusade.

 

 

Mortal Sins — An Intelligent Discussion of the Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Scandals

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Michael D’Antonio has written a profoundly depressing and comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s failure to recognize and prevent the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.  Mortal Sins  —  Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, was published in 2014, over a year before the release of the recent movie Spotlight, which focuses on Boston’s clerical abuse scandals over many years.  Spotlight  is an excellent movie and does a tremendous job of showing how difficult it was to uncover the vast scope of the problem and to recognize the church hierarchy’s willful obstruction and tacit perpetuation of the problem.

While Spotlight was focused on the particularly sordid Boston experience and coverage provided by the Boston Globe, Mortal Sins follows the scandal trail all over the country and ultimately around the globe.   Mortal Sins also gets into the nitty gritty of the legal actions that compelled the Catholic Church to accept responsibility for what had happened and to begin to take steps to prevent future atrocities.  As a lawyer who had some acquaintance with this issue years ago, I found the legal discussions particularly interesting.   While it would be nice to think that the church decided to do the right thing because that was its ethical obligation, in reality the church was often reluctant to do anything other than sweep the problem under the rug until it faced horrific public exposure and crippling financial losses.  It is a good question whether the church would have taken any action at all, but for the financial ruin it faced.  But for the legal actions, it is unclear when if ever the church would have stepped up to the plate on this issue.

How and why the abuse happened, as well as the campaign to stop it, makes for a compelling story.  Fortunately Mortal Sins also focuses on the damage done to the individual victims.  The pain, betrayal and hopelessness they endured should always be the centerpiece of this saga.  Some victims were emotionally wrecked for life, while others seemed better able to move on with their lives.  Many children never told anyone or, if they did try to tell, were punished for it.  Even when children’s parents believed them and confronted the church hierarchy, they were frequently given the utterly false promise that the abusive priest would be kept away from children.

D’Antonio doesn’t shy away from looking at the structure of the priesthood and the types of candidates it attracted.  While acknowledging that other religions have faced abuse issues, D’Antonio’s position is that the structure of the priesthood made it particularly attractive to troubled priests and that the church was programmed to look the other way, rather than fix the problem.  Anytime you get in a situation where the primary focus is on helping and shielding the perpetrators to the detriment of their victims, you know something is rotten.

I highly recommend this book.  While steps have been taken to stop sexual abuse of children by priests, this problem has not gone away.  And, as Spotlight brutally reminded us, we all have a responsibility to confront the problem and protect our children.

 

 

 

 

Ravensbruck — An In Depth History of Germany’s Concentration Camp for Women

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Sarah Helm has written an exhaustive and exhausting history: Ravensbruck – Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.  This detailed recounting of the horrific crimes committed at Ravensbruck, the only women-only concentration camp, is mind-numbing in detail.  I wasn’t always able to follow the thread of all the individual women’s experiences at Ravensbruck, but Helm’s excellent writing nonetheless paints a consistently grim  picture of unmitigated evil.

Ravensbruck wasn’t set up as strictly an extermination camp, although selections and mass murders were routinely conducted.  In addition to executions, beatings and starvation, Ravensbruck was also the scene of grisly medical experiments, most of which were conducted on Polish prisoners.  Even though many of them died, these Polish prisoners managed to communicate with the outside world about their ongoing plight.  Those who survived the crippling and often fatal medical “experiments” were consistently threatened with selections designed to eradicate the evidence of what had been done to them.

Women were sent to Ravensbruck from all over Europe and for all sorts of reasons.  Prisoners included Jehovah’s Witnesses, resistance workers, communists, prostitutes, intelligentsia from conquered lands and an assortment of “ordinary” German women who expressed disillusionment with the Nazi regime.  There were some Jewish prisoners, but they were in the minority.  There wasn’t much resistance at the camp, but the refusal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and many of the Russian prisoners to manufacture war materiel was impressive.

Heinrich Himmler’s direct oversight of the construction and operation of Ravensbruck would be remarkable except for the fact that his mistress lived just down the road, so it was convenient for him to stop by.  Himmler was keenly interested in the selection for execution process, as well as the grotesque medical experimentation.  Toward the end of the war, he played an interesting game of trying to trade some prisoners with the Allies in a delusional effort to save his own skin.  This  was in sharp contrast to Hitler’s orders to kill all the prisoners and to prevent them from falling into allied hands.

The saga of the end of the War was a blur of last-minute executions, beatings, forced marches, starvation and dashed hopes.  Unfortunately many of the Ravensbruck prisoners fell into the hands of Russian “rescuers,” who raped prisoners and non-prisoners alike.  Back home, the Russian prisoners in particular were punished for the sin of having been imprisoned.  Other prisoners often kept their stories to themselves.

Fortunately, some of the Ravensbruck prisoners did keep a record and some of them very much recalled what happened at the camp.  Sarah Helm’s interviews with survivors are very moving.  In addition to direct interviews with some of the survivors, Helm relies upon various diaries, public records and the evidence given at the war crimes trials of Ravensbruck’s administrators, doctors and guards.  The matter-of-fact testimony given by some of the doctors and guards about the atrocities they committed was absolutely chilling.

This isn’t an easy read, but the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck deserve to be remembered, and this book honors them.  Helm has done a magnificent job of gathering the evidence of what happened and presenting an organized history of a terrible place.

Play Ball — Two Baseball Books

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We are heading into the baseball playoffs, and I am beyond thrilled that the Pirates are going to the post-season for the third year in a row!  This is heady stuff for any Pirates fan, particularly since we lived in Pittsburgh and rooted for the Pirates the whole time they had the longest string of losing seasons of any professional sports franchise.  Really.  We are in New York now, but my heart belongs to the Pirates.  And the Steelers.

Under the circumstances, I am not sure why I picked up Aaron Skirboll’s, The Pittsburgh Cocaine 7 (2010), but I did, and it is an interesting cautionary tale.  In the 1980’s, well in advance of the more recent steroid craze, major league baseball was overtaken by a cocaine frenzy.  The problem seems to have existed for most major league teams.  Obviously not every player indulged, but a bunch of them did.  It was a bad time for baseball and for the country.  It is terrifying to think of pitchers hurling fastballs while high on cocaine, but some of pitcher did exactly that.  The League and baseball club management seem to have had no idea how to deal with this problem other than to put on blinders.  That didn’t work out so well.  They didn’t keep drugs out of the club house; they didn’t provide timely help to their addicted players; and the baseball brand suffered.

PIttsburgh ended up being the focus of much of the cocaine scandal.   Skirboll tells of a number of spoiled, self-destructive PIrates players indulging in an orgy of cocaine.  For some of them, scoring their next coke seems to have been far more important than the game they were being paid to play.  The PIttsburgh prosecutor, in this case the US attorney, took the usual prosecutorial tack and gave the users (in this case, the players) immunity in order to go after their dealers, the source of their cocaine.  As a result, players testified against the dealers, and the dealers were the ones who ended up getting prosecuted and going to jail.  Everyone gave up everyone else to save their own skin, and the fan/dealers paid.  Players may have damaged their careers, but no PIttsburgh Pirate went to jail, no matter how much coke he snorted.  On a humorous note, the Pirates mascot parrot was also implicated but avoided jail time.  Really?  I thought prisons were full of cages.  While the prosecutor’s logic is understandable, at some level it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the local dealers.  Basically, the little guys took the rap for the spoiled players.  As recounted in The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, most, if not all, of the dealers were fans who just got a tremendous kick from hanging out with professional baseball players.  In a lot of cases, the players were vociferous in their demands for coke, and yet often stiffed their dealers.  These particular dealers don’t seem to have made much, if anything, from their drug sales to players.  Skirboll certainly implies that the fan/dealers wouldn’t have gotten into trouble, or at least not so much trouble, but for their zeal to keep their baseball idols happy.  The moral plays out again and again in college and professional sports:  It is never a good idea to give an athlete (or anyone) whatever he or she might want.  Limits and the ability to say “no” can be good things.

Happily, the PIttsburgh Pirates of today seem to be a far more sensible group of men.  It is such a pleasure to see them win the right way.  Go Pirates!

David Halberstam’s book The Teammates  —  A  Portrait of a Friendship (2003), is a warmer and fuzzier baseball story.  Halberstam, a great sportswriter and baseball fan, sets his story in the fall of 2000, when some of Ted Williams’ old Red Sox teammates are driving down for a last visit with Williams, whose health is in decline.  The trip is made by Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, who are in their early 80’s.  Bobby Doerr, another close friend and teammate, is unable to to make the trip, but tales of Doerr are included in this lovely book, which is rich with memories of these four players who came up at the about the same time and who got to know each other very well as teammates on the Boston Red Sox.

This is not a definitive biography of anyone, but it is rich with vignettes of all four players.  The stories of how they got to the big leagues and how they learned to play ball are wonderful.  The three friends were all loyal to Ted Williams, who seems to have been a really difficult personality at best.  Going fishing with Williams was particularly stressful, since no one seems to have been able to meet his highly arbitrary standards.   Equally hilarious was a story of an aging Williams standing in the middle of a trout fishing stream and furiously demonstrating the proper way to swing a baseball bat.   As tough as he was on them, Williams does seem to have appreciated them.

There are no sordid tales of drugs or infidelity in The Teammates.  This is just a nice, thoughtful book about baseball and friendship.