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Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones

Pity the Middle Ages, so often derided as the dreary placeholder between the classical and modern eras. Or, worse, it’s a catchall for all things retrograde. Want to insult some people? Tell them that their ideas are from the Middle Ages or that their actions are medieval.

Dan Jones, author of “Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages,” argues this thousand-year period of history deserves more respect. Not only does he indeed make the case, he does so by taking us through a full millennium in just under 600 pages. Such an endeavor could have been a slog to read, but he managed to produce the exact opposite, organizing a potentially unwieldy topic into sections that are both informative and enjoyable. In fact, Jones’ enthusiasm for this period of history, coupled with his strong narration, reignites the Middle Ages and shows how it’s foundational to understanding the modern world.

The Middle Ages had to follow a show-stealing act, of course: the mighty Roman Empire, with its many accomplishments. But Romanization came after the Legions marched through a land and subjugated any given population. Quoting Virgil, Jones notes that one such task of a conquering Roman was to “battle down the proud.” So when we read of the barbarians on the move toward the end of Roman rule, we know that the Roman world had its many cruelties as well.

As an example of waning Roman power in the fifth century, Jones tells of the plight of a far-flung Roman territory: Britain. Invading Saxons prompted native chieftains to write a pleading letter to a Roman general. “The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians. Between these two modes of death we are either killed or drowned.” How was the letter received? It was labeled the “Groan of the Britons.” The Brits were on their own.

Huns stampeded westward, possibly—as tree ring data suggests—to escape a “megadrought.” Their movement and eventual demise prompted other tribes to wander and conquer. There’s a lot to take in, and only occasionally do you come across an arid sentence such as, “Meanwhile, across the Alps a barbarian group known as the Lombards…” The fact that a lackluster sentence stands out is meant as a compliment, for, again, it demonstrates that most of Jones’ narrative has some verve.

Jones smartly forms his chapters so that they can be optioned into standalone readings. You can jump past, say, the chapter on Byzantium and delve into the reading on the Arabs. And each chapter helps clarify the historical significance. Take the Arabs. The modern political map of the Middle East is illuminated by briefly reading its Middle Age history. Plus, during a time when post-Roman rule was being sorted out, the Arabs did their part by establishing houses of learning: libraries.

When Charlemagne, king of the Franks and the first Holy Roman Emperor, died in the ninth century, he had unified most of central and western Europe. It didn’t last. But, as Jones points out, unification became the persistent dream of many, including Napoleon Bonaparte, “another irresistible warrior and accumulator.”

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “I already knew that.” And no doubt many of you already know that Vikings founded the Kievan Rus on territory that now includes parts of Russia and Ukraine. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century shifted some power from Kiev to Moscow, a power dynamic that we all know is very much alive today.

Regardless of your historical familiarity, Jones does capital work in establishing a continuity that moves the history along. You have monks, plagues, crusaders, the rise of the merchant class, and the establishment of universities. On land, we have gothic architecture. On the sea, we have navigators in the process of opening up the world.

And, of course, we have knights. If you were to ask someone to word-associate the Middle Ages, “knights” would probably be a frequent choice. They, and their order of chivalry, live on in our imagination. Even today, receiving a knighthood in the United Kingdom is considered a great honor. Jones mentions that this imaginative spark was in the Middle-Ages mind as well, as evidenced “with a heroic new literature that painted knights as lovers and questers whose ethical code perfumed the dubious reality of the deeds.” There’s “The Song of Roland” from 1098. In the late 14th century, Chaucer gave the first tale in “The Canterbury Tales” to the knight. Arthurian legend even found its way to Richard the Lionheart, for on his way to the Third Crusade he claimed to brandish Arthur’s Excalibur.

With the Renaissance and the Reformation, we see both the rise of humanism and the power of individual action. Jones contends that quite a few of the names we associate with the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, for one) were products of the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, the medieval period was coming to an end.

Primarily this is a book of political history. A cultural reading into the lives of everyday individuals is not within its scope. (He does tell us that the average human existence “hovered somewhere just above terrible.”) But this does not mean the discussed individuals are presented as mere soulless entities in a thousand-year political disquisition.

Jones, for example, shares the ending of Gelimer, a vanquished sixth-century Vandal king. He and a couple thousand other Vandal prisoners were marched into Constantinople’s Hippodrome. A full crowd was in attendance as he was made to surrender his royal robes and to lie prone at the feet of Emperor Justinian. The Byzantine emperor was in his lofty perch, and Gelimer was no longer a royal ruler over anyone or anything. The fleeting nature of prestige and political power was apparently at the forefront of Gelimer’s mind, for he calmly, and repeatedly, quoted from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Heist tales lend themselves well to a cinematic telling. The visuals are all there, from the hushed planning to the eye-darting execution. Sometimes you think the crew might just make it out with the goods. Other times you just know they are doomed from the start. But what of a heist novel? I didn’t think I had ever read one. This past summer, however, I knew this was about to change; for Colson Whitehead was set to publish “Harlem Shuffle,” a heist novel.
Whitehead is literary gold. He’s won the National Book Award and—count them—two Pulitzer’s. In “The Underground Railroad,” grim reality paired with magical realism to describe two slaves escaping a brutal Georgia plantation aboard an underground railroad system that’s literally an underground railroad, an antebellum allegory of fleeing slavery. Devastation continued in “The Nickel Boys,” which detailed the abuse in a Jim Crow-era reform school. Heavy reading, both.
“Harlem Shuffle” is a welcomed exhale. But it’s still a Colson Whitehead novel, so you would be safe in supposing that it’s both good and hard edged. It just has to be. And you would be right on both accounts.
We follow Ray Carney, the proprietor of a Harlem furniture store. It’s 1959 and Carney struggles to make the rent for his family. It doesn’t help that his in-laws treat him as though he’s beneath their daughter. Every interaction feels as though they are waiting for her to “wake up to the poverty of her choices.” Never mind that his mother died when he was young, thus leaving him to the whims of a neglectful father. His father was indeed a crook, but Ray learns one unintended lesson from him: “living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live.” And never mind that, despite all this, he earned a college degree. To them, he’s just a “rug peddler.”
Carney so badly wants to move his family out of their cramped, noisy apartment and onto a more respectable block that he often embarks on long walks just so he can gaze at coveted apartment buildings and dream. But, to be sure, he needs money for this to manifest. It helps that his cousin Freddie will occasionally show up at the furniture store with random stolen goods that Carney unloads for a cut. These are small risks with small payouts.
Freddie changes this risk/reward ratio by partnering with a hardened group of criminals. Their plan is to rob the Hotel Theresa, a Harlem icon. And it’s more than just about making a high-dollar score. Black Harlem residents like Carney’s in-laws live in a neighborhood called Strivers’ Row. This Harlem echelon, along with Theresa’s past reputation of Harlem sophistication, wore on some Harlem residents because they knew none of it was for them. Carney knows part of the reason his in-laws disapprove of him stems from the color of his skin. Even they think he’s too dark. This job would bring bourgeois “black Harlem down a notch.”
Not that Carney initially wants anything to do with it. He’s a furniture salesman, not a crook. It’s because of Freddie’s big mouth that these other criminals even know of Carney, that they think he’s the one to move the stolen Theresa jewelry via his merchant connections.
Carney has a choice to make, telling Freddie that he will sleep on it before he decides. “A night of Carney staring at the ceiling was enough to close the deal, the cracks up there like a sketch of the cracks in his self-control.” He grew up not wanting to be a crook, but he also can’t deny that he grew up surrounded by criminals and their lifestyles. Moving stolen goods provides a small thrill to an otherwise mundane life, “a zap-charge in his blood.” The heist goes down, and the rewards and repercussions are meted out according to streetwise maneuverings.
Years go by and we find a more prosperous Carney. The furniture store is doing well and he’s being courted by the elite Dumas Club, which restricts membership to Harlem’s professional class only. (Carney’s father-in-law is a member.) Yet even then, if Carney wants to get in, it’s going to be a decorous dance.
Carney also takes a second job: plotting and exacting revenge. This second job has him “keeping crooked hours,” going to sleep a little earlier and then waking up for the night work. “Midnight, rise and shine.” It’s an hour “when the con polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books.” And we have the pleasure of reading all about what he’s up to.
We end in 1964, with Harlem changing. All of New York City is changing. Whitehead takes us through the riot that happens that year, with Carney not only trying to protect his store but to keep order both with the choices he’s made and with the unpredictable actions of his various associations. Throughout the novel, this city is alive, its own character. We already know that some streets and establishments in the city are not for the faint of heart. It’s one thing to call them dangerous and potentially wild, but it’s much better to read how Whitehead writes them, as with this one bar: “The atmosphere in Nightbirds was ever five minutes after a big argument and no one telling you what happened.”
A lot goes on in Carney’s life, so it’s easy to miss that no one really knows him. His family is his one constant (aside from his store). Yet even when he’s with his wife and kids, he seems distant (partly because he keeps his criminal life secret). It’s not until the moments when he’s in imminent physical danger does he seem to yearn for them. During one instance when someone is pointing a pistol at him he thinks of “his sleeping wife and daughter on their safe bed. That little lifeboat aloft on the dark and churning Harlem sea.”
Carney doesn’t fit in with the crooks nor the Harlem elites. That’s unfortunate, because those are the only two groups of people he knows. Still, he’s a survivor in the engine known as New York City. Early in the novel, during one of his apartment dream-walks at night, he imagines himself and his family in an apartment building on Riverside Drive, on a floor high enough where he can see the Hudson River. “With his hands on the sill, he’d look out at the river on nights like this, the city behind him as if it didn’t exist. That rustling, keening thing of people and concrete. Or the city did exist but he stood with it heaving against him, Carney holding it all back by sheer force of character. He could take it.” Whitehead wrote an entertaining heist novel, yes, but it’s also so much more.

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Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Battleground of the Cold War by Jeff Shesol

Shared national narratives matter. They cohere generations around a belief system: that the country’s general purpose is, in a word, good. Such binary choices that reduce complex entities to either “good” or “bad” are often fraught with circumstance. But sometimes the circumstances ease the choice. Take the Cold War. Of course one could easily pierce the relative goodness and badness of the U.S. and the Soviet Union with specific examples. But if this same one had to choose between a liberal democracy that provides opportunities to correct injustices, or a totalitarian regime that summarily expends individuals for the regime’s sake, we should think it an easy choice.

Still, Americans in the mid-20th century actually needed to see, not just believe, that the Soviet experiment would eventually fail. Jeff Shesol, author of “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Battleground of the Cold War,” frames it more narrowly: Americans needed to see their country win the space race.

The term “existential threat” is probably overused. But an American at the end of 1957 could be forgiven for claiming it. That year, the Soviets launched both Sputnik and American dread. If the Soviets could launch a satellite into orbit, what else could they do? It didn’t help that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in his usual haranguing style, said that they were producing ICBMs “like sausages.” Inside the Pentagon and the Eisenhower administration, there wasn’t much regard for the R-7 Semyorka rocket the Soviets used to launch Sputnik. They thought it crude, good for only lifting heavy payload and not easily directed.

Nevertheless, questions of what the American’s were doing in space persisted, greatly annoying Eisenhower. At a news conference, he played down Sputnik. “They have put one small ball in the air.” Much later Eisenhower would nonchalantly say to reporters, “It’s not necessary to be first in everything.” While true, it’s hardly a sentiment to rally around. And as Shesol notes, many Americans thought being second in space meant being second in everything.

Under intense pressure, Eisenhower agreed to a space program. He believed that it had to be non-militaristic so as to make it less prone to the military-industrial complex. So he and Senator Lyndon Johnson, over drinks at the White House, finalized a bill that created NASA.

What followed was Project Mercury, the United States’ first man-in-space program. Shesol says it began as “a program in search of a purpose—beyond the obvious aim of ensuring that the man in question was American and not Russian.” There was already talk of landing a man on the moon, yet Eisenhower had little patience with such a fanciful thing. Plus, his Science Advisory Committee reported that the whole thoroughfare was an “emotional compulsion.” Eisenhower ultimately slashed Mercury’s budget.

James Webb, NASA’s administrator, hoped to have better luck with President Kennedy as his campaign rhetoric intimated some support. But when the Soviets sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit, there was growing worry that the U.S. would not catch up to, let alone surpass, the Soviets. Besides, Kennedy had more earthly concerns: Berlin, Cuba, Southeast Asia, and domestic civil rights abuses. In a meeting with Kennedy, Webb showed him a model of the Mercury spacecraft. Kennedy dismissed it, said it looked like something you would pick up at a toy store.

Interesting as this political history is, the book really thrums when it focuses on America’s first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, test pilots all. Because the space program was in its nascent stages, their roles were not clearly defined. The astronauts wanted spacecraft designs to allow for consistent pilot control. The engineers, however, sought to minimize the astronauts’ role in flight, seeing them more as backups for when the automatic functions failed.

NASA administrators had the Seven on a constant travel and training schedule. At times, they stood united, pushing back against such things as having to pay for their meals when on official trips. When they were in danger of losing their flight pay because they were unable to log enough flight hours, they went to the press to have their demands met. But they were a competitive group otherwise, settling into two factions. There was John Glenn (with Scott Carpenter, “Glenn’s only true friend among the astronauts”) and Alan Shepard (who had the rest).

It was an unexpected delight to read Glenn’s backstory. He grew up dreaming of flight, eventually earning his pilot’s license in college. As a Marine in World War II, he was assigned to fly transport planes. For Glenn, this would not do and lobbied for combat. It was granted and he more than relished it. He knew he was not invincible, but his confidence as a pilot was undoubtedly secure.

He continued in the Korean War, this time flying jets. “Glenn seemed to hurl himself at targets, flying too fast and too low through sheets of anti-aircraft fire, blasting his 20-millimeter cannons.” One of his wingmen, Ted Williams (yes, that Ted Williams, of the Boston Red Sox), would later say of Glenn: “The man is crazy.” Williams could be prickly, but he also had high praise for Glenn: “Absolutely fearless. The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him.”

At war’s end (and disappointed that it ended), Glenn became a test pilot, where he earned the reputation as someone who engaged in what servicemen called “sniveling.” Glenn would go on to explain what this meant: It was “going around and getting what you want to get even if you’re not slated to get it. There’s nothing wrong with it—and I was superb at it.” After he flew the first supersonic transcontinental flight (a mission he devised), he gained some fame, even appearing on “Name That Tune.”

It wasn’t just the relative aw-shucks ease in which Glenn appeared before the cameras that irked most of the other astronauts. It was more that Glenn was not like them. Drinking and womanizing were common. Glenn partook in neither. (Glenn never knew life without his wife Annie. They grew up together, and Glenn would often shield her from situations where she would need to speak, her stutter having been rated at 80 percent.) Glenn saw their libertine activities as a liability to the program. They often saw him as a scold. (Glenn believed in the notion of astronaut-as-role-model. Some members of the press tried to apply this model to Shepard, inferring that he was from humble origins and a churchgoer. In reality he grew up wealthy and openly stated that he didn’t belong to any church.)

When NASA asked the astronauts to rank who should be assigned to the first mission, Glenn knew he was in trouble. Most of the country thought it would be Glenn. Many in NASA, however, believed that Shepard was the more talented pilot. The 1-2-3 mission order would be Shepard, Gus Grissom, and then Glenn. NASA announced that while a choice had been made, the astronaut’s name would be released later. Through all of this, a livid Glenn had to stand and smile.

Shepard’s successful suborbital flight bolstered the nation’s confidence in the program. But NASA was not satisfied with suborbital missions. They thought it akin to a circus act: throw a man up in the air and then watch him come down. Grissom went on his own suborbital flight, but to little fanfare.

It was actually fortuitous that Glenn was third in line. For now, the more powerful Atlas rocket was in use, ready to carry a capsule into orbit. Shesol builds the intensity by taking us through the numerous scrubbed launches that delayed Glenn’s liftoff, the issues either mechanical or weather related. When we reach February 20, 1962, we know this is the day. We know exactly how this turns out; but Shesol takes care to have us in the moment, on edge. Glenn rides the elevator to the top of the rocket and works his way into the Mercury capsule. It’s so small, in fact, Glenn says, “You don’t get in it, you put it on.”

There was a growing national sense that this was it, an American was about to orbit the earth. People lined up along the beaches near Cape Canaveral, Florida to witness the launch. It was becoming real for Glenn, too. He was strapped in, and it felt as though the booster below him “was alive. It screeched and growled. When he shifted back and forth, it moved, just slightly.”

While in the capsule, Glenn was able to speak to Annie via telephone one final time. Dangerous missions had long standing in their shared life together, but this one was spectacularly dangerous. He ended the conversation with the same sign-off he had used since World War II. “Remember, I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.” Even though she was frightened, Annie repeated her part of the routine. “Well, don’t take too long.”

Americans were gathering around televisions and transistor radios. Schools would soon close for the day. Then the engines fired and the rocket ascended, arrowing and splitting the air into sound waves. And as long as it kept thrusting, there was a feeling that we were going to make it. In Grand Central Station a thousand or so people (eventually swelling to ten thousand) watched the big screen; someone in the crowd found the breath to yell, “Go, go, go!” President Kennedy, watching a TV in the White House, heard Walter Cronkite scream on-air, “Go, baby!”

Over the next five hours, Americans listened and waited. (Shesol points out that in 1962, 78 percent of Americans had not traveled by air.) Glenn completed his planned three orbits and returned safely. Within the same decade, Americans would behold the success of new rocketry and space exploration, culminating in the mighty Saturn V rocket and the moon landing. The technological achievements, along with the stunning visuals of space travel, were grand enough to speak for themselves. Yet, throughout—and even though it wasn’t always at the forefront of American consciousness—the space race was seen as a metaphor for the Cold War.

The Soviet Union collapsed and the Mercury astronauts are gone. If you tour the launch sites at the Cape today, you’ll see plenty of buildings marked “SpaceX,” not “NASA.” But you can still feel the history, a sense of believing in a shared endeavor. This is part of our narrative.

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The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Character-driven versus plot-driven stories: Readers of literary fiction often claim the former while just about everyone else stakes the latter. (Just look at the bestseller lists.) But they are not mutually exclusive, of course. You can have both. One fairly recent example where varied readers said, “You have to read this,” to other readers would be “Gone Girl,” the plot a bucking bronco of she said/he said. Twin this with its strong character development, and you can count literary fiction readers among the beguiled.

I’ll add to that an example from this very year, fittingly titled “The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The novel centers around Jacob Finch Bonner, a literary novelist who peaked early in his career. His first book actually made it into “The New York Times Book Review.” But his second — and then his third — book tanked, leaving this once “young and upcoming” novelist neither young, nor upcoming. He doesn’t even have a literary agent anymore.

Still “theoretically (as opposed to actually) working on’’ a current novel, he agrees to teach (strictly for money, doubtless) a writing workshop at some never-heard-of MFA school (Ripley). Anyone can sign up, and anyone does. Even the most earnest of students run the gamut, as in “the guy who’d wanted to correct Victor Hugo’s ‘mistakes’ in a new version of ‘Les Misérables’ and the woman who’d conjured the indelible non-word ‘honeymelons.’”

Then there is Evan Parker, a student who appears to have never read a story, let alone aspired to write one. He’s a flat-out jerk who clearly doesn’t want Bonner’s advice. He’s there, he finally discloses to Bonner, to make connections that will lead to his finding a literary agent who will then, in turn, help him secure a book deal on the novel he’s writing. Bonner, in disbelief of all this, tries to convey how unlikely this is, especially since he won’t share any of his writing.

Parker’s unfazed, because the plot of his novel is a “sure thing.” He reluctantly acquiesces and allows a few pages to be read. Bonner inwardly concedes that this guy can write. It’s not great, but neither is it hackneyed. Then Parker unpacks the plot, and Bonner is stunned: The plot is amazing.

The workshop ends and Bonner moves on to other side gigs that are becoming less “side” than “main” because he has all but ceased writing. He creates a website “touting his editorial skills,” and it does not go well. “The writing he encountered in this new role of online editor, coach, and consultant (that marvelously malleable word) made the least of his Ripley students seem like Hemingway.”

A few years pass and Bonner wonders what became of Parker and his “sure thing.” After some online investigating, he learns that not only does the novel remain unpublished, but that Parker has died. And this is the moment, the crossroads. This amazing plot is now authorless. You can almost feel the rush of euphoria surge through Bonner as he justifies his decision. How can he deny a plot that needs a writer? Ignoring it is not an option; it would forever gnaw at him, at any true writer. And are not new stories mere retellings anyway? “’Miss Saigon’ from ‘Madame Butterfly.’ ‘The Hours’ from ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ ‘The Lion King’ from ‘Hamlet,’ for goodness’ sake!” He was given an “urgent, shimmering thing,” so he, the literary writer, must write it.

Once published, Bonner’s book becomes every bit the success he hoped. Straight to the top of the bestseller list. Oprah blesses it. His appearances and readings now fill auditoriums. (He no longer has to suffer through the indignity — as he did during his earlier books — of having only his parents show up at a reading.)

He’s living the successful writerly life he has always wanted. Yet he’s terrified. At any moment someone could stand up during a reading and yell out that he is a fraud. And come it does, the allegation, via an anonymous email: “You are a thief.”

To say any more about what happens next would be criminal. (I will say: It’s engaging.) Stephen King has a blurb on the jacket calling it “Insanely readable.” I’m not quite sure what he means by that, but I’ll agree. And it’s more than the plot. Korelitz made Bonner a curious joy to spend time with. He’s pleasant enough on the outside but sardonic on the inside. To wit: Before his fame — and while teaching — he expresses to a colleague who teaches poetry that he wished he read more poetry. In reality: “He didn’t, actually, but he wished he wished he read more poetry, which ought to count for something.” After he’s famous, and after yet another bloke says to him, “My wife read your book,” Bonner thinks, “Five monosyllabic words, speaking volumes.”

Bonner’s genial affect belies his inner turmoil. But even if there wasn’t something weighing on his conscience during the height of his book’s success, I can’t see that he would be much happier. Not as stressed, sure. But adulation only goes so far. An old cliché fits Bonner perfectly: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

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Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer

Tales of polar expeditions haunt because we know how they end. In the early 20th century, pack ice crushed Ernest Shackleton’s ship, dashing his race to trek Antarctica. Even this is a relative success as all crew members survived. Not so for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. He and his crew were never heard from again. (The British government subsequently investigated their disappearance. Perhaps they should’ve left well enough alone lest unpleasant answers surface, such as those told via eyewitness Inuits: The shipwrecked crew cannibalized each other. News of this scandalized England.)
In “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of World,” Andrea Pitzer takes us back even further, to William Barents’ 1596 quest to find a northeastern route to China. Brisk and informative, it’s also stress-laden from bow to stern. Precariously, we sail up and around Nova Zembla, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean just north of Russia. Storms threaten to snap our mast. Polar bears prowl and then attack. It’s constant tacking to slip evermoving sea ice, some akin to floating mountains. On one occasion, we pass through an ice canyon, which is equal parts mesmeric and terrifying. (“Snow and hail lacquered the ships white, turning them into ghost ships.”) We’re sailing into the unknown. And Barents attempts this journey three times.
A Dutchman, Barents manifested his country’s spirit of the day: capitalize on Far East trade. Spain and Portugal had already made numerous entries into the Southern Hemisphere, so the Dutch looked for a way to expedite trade that avoided the arduous journey around the Cape of Good Hope and awaiting pirates. Of course the Dutch knew that there was a reason no northern route yet existed. But they also were hoping to underscore a long-standing argument that if one could make it past the ice, there’s a chance conditions would moderate. The idea of a temperate North Pole was something that respected cartographers took seriously. As Pitzer notes, Barents and Dutch merchants chose to believe this “lethal delusion.”
Barents didn’t command these voyages; he navigated. While he was in high standing among the crew, his singular goal to complete a voyage often collided with the crew’s singular goal to survive. Most of the book surrounds the third voyage and the sea ice’s eventual victory. Barents and crew must winter on Nova Zembla, and Pitzer’s telling of their ordeal is as harrowing as you can imagine. Without trapping arctic foxes, it’s hard to see how they would have survived. Scurvy had weakened them to the point they could barely function, not that they could do much outside anyway. Often, the structure they built was completely buried in snow during the long polar night.
And then, of course, the polar bears. Pitzer writes of their “lethal magnificence,” and that “each bear offered the same fusion of the mundane and the mythic as the Arctic itself.” Even a felled polar bear almost killed the crew. Desperate for sustenance, but loathing polar bear meat, they devoured the bear’s liver. This almost killed them because a polar bear’s liver contains a lethal dose of Vitamin A.
The asides that Pitzer offers throughout the book are welcome relief from reading of the sailors’ miseries. I learned that most European sailors of the time didn’t know how to swim. And even though we are in the nascent stages of the scientific revolution, superstition still often carried the day. Dutch sailors crossing the equator for the first time had to pay a fine in honor of Poseidon, god of the sea. Also, seeing a parhelion (where ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the illusion of two or three suns) was a good omen to sailors. (Of course, superstition and sailing seem forever entwined.)
Pitzer states that, in terms of making preparations, it’s somewhat perplexing that Barents didn’t learn from his two erstwhile attempts. It’s a good point because he was almost snared by ice during those voyages as well. Perhaps it can be attributed to European hubris of the era: The rest of the world is to be conquered, and we are the ones who will do it. On one of the earlier expeditions, the crew, sailing Russia’s northern coast, came across an indigenous man. Instead of inquiring how he and others survived in this unforgiving climate, they asked him if the territory they were on belonged to “the grand duke of Moscow.” The Nenets man had no idea whom they were talking about. No matter. They tried to kidnap him nonetheless. The same applied to animals. See a walrus? Kill it and take only the tusks. Tragi-comically, on their first expedition they thought they could catch and actually hold a live polar bear aboard the ship. They were quickly disabused of that notion.
Escape from what they called Ice Harbor did not happen until June 1597. Barents did not survive the return, dying next to the sea that would bear his name. (Sailors would also call the sea “the devil’s dance floor.”) He and his crew had discovered Spitsbergen, sailing farther north than any known human. But it’s their story of survival that captivated. A handful of years later, Shakespeare made mention of it in “Twelfth Night”: “where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.”
Barents’ voyages changed how polar regions were seen. They became destinations to be explored, not thoroughfares to other lands. According to Pitzer, Barents “launched another identity for explorers: the beleaguered polar hero.” These new explorers would be less concerned with linking known lands than with exploring the unknown as the end itself. And their hallmarks were suffering and endurance.
Pitzer eventually discusses what most readers will be thinking throughout the book: Barents sailed 400 years too soon. Disappearing sea ice is a fraught subject, and Pitzer’s book shows us what’s being lost. The polar wild now includes emaciated polar bears clinging to melting floes. In writing the book, Pitzer made a trip to behold Ice Harbor. The current that sent driftwood to the shores—thus providing life-saving fuel for Barents and crew to burn—now sends plastic trash. As I said, this book is stressful.

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Inside Story: A Novel by Martin Amis

A frequently asked question of authors in “The New York Times Book Review” goes something like this. “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which authors do you invite?” From the answers, we are to glean literary leanings. To me, what’s also being revealed is authors’ idea of a dinner party.
I’m partial to lively dinner gatherings, so you, dear reader, will be seated next to Norman Mailer (the Mailer from the 1970s). Across from him will be the essayist Christopher Hitchens (the Hitchens from any decade). And it just so happens that Hitchens’ good friend is a fellow Oxford-educated writer, and one of my favorite novelists, Martin Amis. He’s the quintessential English wit to add a cool levity that will attenuate the other combustible personalities at the table. Let’s seat him across from you.
Amis is renowned for using his high style of prose to unveil modernity’s excesses and absurdities, often writing about characters you would never actually want to know (which, trust, works). He is in his seventh decade and has stated that his latest novel, Inside Story: A Novel, could very well be his last. It’s a work of autofiction, so some might be frustrated in delineating fact from fiction. It nonetheless certainly reads like an autobiography. (Amis doesn’t spare himself in the book. He quotes George Orwell: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”). Plus, those who like his work will not really care one way or the other. Amis knows how to turn a sentence, so we are willing to afford him a wide latitude. Example: In one of his earlier novels he placed himself as an actual character. This was too much for Amis’ father, the venerated novelist Kingsley Amis; for when he came across the portion of the novel that introduced the character “Martin Amis,” he threw the book across the room.
Here, Amis more/less oscillates among three individuals. Because Kingsley was a large presence in Martin’s excellent 2000 memoir, “Experience,” he’s not one of them. But, just you wait, one of these three will hand Martin some big news concerning Kingsley.
First is the novelist Saul Bellow, whom Amis revered. Conversations between the two came naturally, and Amis recounts many. We learn that Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and three National Book Awards, “despised with every neutrino of his being” what often passed as literary pedagogy. He did not abide attending literary conferences only to be told such things as what “Ahab’s harpoon symbolizes.”
We already know that novelists are users by nature. “Novelists are power-crazed usurpers,” cautions Amis. If you friend one, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a novel. Bellow, apparently, ran with this notion, ruining many of his marriages and driving some of his family members to cease speaking with him. Yet, according to Amis, Bellow’s last wife possessed an “atavistic fire” of devotion as Alzheimer’s plagued him.
“Writers die twice,” writes Amis. And it happened to Bellow. When Amis looked into his eyes one day, he knew that Bellow’s writing days were over. Gone was the prose that was a “force of nature.” Bellow was experiencing a “death of the mind: dissolution most foul.”
If Bellow’s prose was a force of nature, it could be said that Christopher Hitchens was a force of nature. To say he was a columnist and an orator understates Hitchens. He used the pen and the lectern about as fiercely and masterfully as one can, possessing “no ordinary powers of restiveness and mental orchestration.” And no institution or individual was safe. At times, especially in his later years, it almost seemed that Hitchens was becoming a contrarian for its own sake. But he remained consistent in challenging anything fascistic or nonsensical, which, to him, included religion.
Amis and Hitchens met in the early 1970s, their lives eventually following a similar pattern of marriage, children, divorce, and then remarriage. Amis has plenty of stories to share about his friend. And no recounting of Hitchens would be complete without mentioning his copious intake of alcohol and cigarettes. To wit: one night, Amis and Hitchens had an epic go with vodka, wine, and various other spirits. The next day, a severely hungover Amis found that not only had Hitchens made it to an early morning television appearance and debate, but he also wrote an article for publication. At noon, Hitchens let himself into Amis’ place, poured a whiskey for himself and inquired how Amis was feeling. In response to hearing of Amis’ dreadful state, Hitchens devilishly replied, “Mm. I don’t get hangovers. Can’t see the point of them.”
The point of them, of course, is to listen to your body’s distress moan: “Slow down, man.” This lack of communication caught up with Hichens in 2010 when he was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. Amis says that Hitchens had a “compulsion to stride into his fears.” But still, there’s no small degree of poignancy to read that Hitchens quietly lamented the finality of it all: never seeing England again; missing his niece’s upcoming wedding. Hitchens’ two deaths were in proximity, and Amis was a dot-the-i friend to him through it all; he was by his side during treatment and at his death.
Then there is Phoebe Phelps, a girlfriend of Amis from the late 1970s, a woman he found “alluringly amoral.” When she went broke from gambling, Amis invited her to live with him. But cohabitating did not change the fact that she did not return love in kind. He knew he had made a mistake, that he was “out of his depth, and going under.” (You can find characters like her in Amis’ fiction. And you can see this version of Amis as well. In “The Information,” our protagonist awoke one morning “at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed.”)
Their relationship ended after five years. Decades later, Phelps reentered Amis’ life. On September 12, 2001, still shocked from the terrorist attacks the day prior, Amis was met with another jolt. Phelps rang him up to announce, “It’s been bothering me for twenty-four years and I don’t see why it shouldn’t start bothering you.” The bother: Phelps said that Kingsley had told her that he was not Martin’s father. The poet Philip Larkin was.
Martin’s wife tells him that this was just another contrived cruelty from Phelps. (And it certainly appeared that it was.) Martin can’t help but mull it about, however. Yes, Kingsley and Philip were friends. Yes, too, Martin appreciates Larkin’s poetry. But the thought of being “a Larkin” chills him. It’s clear that so much of Larkin repulses Martin: that Larkin skirted fighting the Nazis, that he was a sour and gloomy mess who hated children. (And Martin’s love life fell more on the Kingsley side of the ledger, meaning Kingsley had a staggering number of affairs. While Martin did not go to quite that extreme, he was more in line with Kingsley’s camp than with Larkin’s “irreducible church-mouse penury.” This clearly bothers Amis. Take from that what you will.) Phelps was jealous that it was Martin who went on to marry and have children. She couldn’t stand that it was she who became, in essence, “a Larkin.”
Amis also has plenty to impart on a range of topics, including writing. Here’s one: want to write a religious novel? Don’t, says Amis, “because fiction is essentially a temporal and rational form.” That’s why Amis can’t get on with Graham Greene. He likens reading Greene to riding a train. The prose moves along smoothly enough, but the tea trolley is rattling away. To Amis, that annoying rattle is religion.
As of this writing, I’ve left the last handful of the novel’s pages unread, for two reasons. 1) I don’t want good books to end. 2) I know that Amis is saying goodbye to his readers, so I’m trying to delay my bereavement. Over decades, he’s taken great care of his readers, his guests. If he had never written a word, Amis states that he would have been more than content with being just a reader. Because no other art form better reveals the depth of an inner life than literature. When we read of others doing, as Bellow writes, “the silent work of uneventful days,” we see in them derivatives of our own. Well, Mr. Amis, I’m pleased you wielded a pen and did the long work. And if this is it, and our visits have come to an end, then know this: Believe, the pleasure was all mine.

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The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary D. Carter

If there’s one college course that seems to fall into the “liked it/hated it” dichotomy, it’s probably Macroeconomics. For every student who leans into studying the national economy, there’s another who will be just fine to never again read such phrases as “elasticity vs. inelasticity of demand.” There’s one man to credit (or blame) for this: John Maynard Keynes.

Keynesian economics (read: macroeconomics) has pulsed throughout our political economy since the New Deal. In short, some of its main tenets concern full employment, aggregate demand clearing supply, and inflation. Still, I knew very little about the British economist himself. “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” by Zachary Carter certainly took care of that knowledge gap.

Mathematics, not economics, was Keynes’ University of Cambridge degree. After a brief stint as a civil servant, he returned to academic life at Cambridge, which was where the Exchequer’s office found him just prior to World War I. A banking crisis afoot, Keynes’ keen mind was known and needed. So he crammed his 6’7″ frame into a motorcycle sidecar and made his way to London.

The Great War and the British economy would engulf his life. He wouldn’t fight in the war, as he applied for conscientious objector status, a position he came by honestly. Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Set, which included such notables as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. Of the many things that formed their bond, with the arts at the pinnacle, pacifism was certainly a part. For some in the group, that Keynes would work for the government during wartime went beyond the pale.

The frustration was returned in kind by Keynes. Someone, he argued, had to address the awful reality and manage a wartime economy. This wouldn’t be last time there was tension within the group. Years later, Keynes fell for, and subsequently married, a Russian ballerina. This was contrary to the Keynes they knew. Bloomsbury Keynes was a homosexual.

At war’s end, Keynes vehemently opposed the Treaty of Versailles. Forever an enemy of austerity measures, he believed the harsh economic terms would destabilize a defeated Germany and potentially lead to another world war. The treaty put Keynes at war with himself. As a young man, obtaining a post at the esteemed British Treasury was his singular goal. Now, having seen firsthand how important the roil of politics is, he could not sit quietly as a future disaster was being orchestrated.

He penned “The Economic Consequences of Peace” which became a sensation in both Europe and the U.S. His intellectual might was on full display, doubtless, but so, too, was his acid tongue. Sparring no one also effectively ended his government career (at least until World War II). Keynes is famous today for his economic theories. In the early 1920s, however, his fame was as a polemicist.

Had a pre-war work—finally published in 1921—augured more than just an acknowledgement that it “made a contribution to the field,” Keynes may have swiftly returned to university life, but, this time, in the philosophy department. His “A Treatise on Probability” was overshadowed by one of his friendly rivals. For when Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was published, the gravity shifted and all of academia fell in with the Austrian philosopher.

Keynes continued to publish on economics and, in so doing, challenged conventional (classical) economics. At the macro level, the study of economics was firmly entrenched in laissez-faire thinking: You let the business cycles work and equilibrium will be achieved. Keynes certainly agreed that supply/demand was the driving force. But what of those moments of disequilibrium? Laissez-faire’s response: It will won’t last; the market will stabilize in the long run. “In the long run,” Keynes returned, “we are all dead.” This rejoinder has been bandied about ever since and in a myriad of contexts. But here’s the rest of the quote: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes advocated what economists now call “demand management.” Demand did not always clear supply, especially during times of war and depression. To Keynes, government expenditures via fiscal policies would shift the demand curve. Such movements would have a positive multiplier effect on other areas of the economy. His multiplier theory argued that laissez-faire’s inaction was actually actionable in that it allowed economic distress to reverberate.

While Keynes’ work would be seen as “revolutionary,” the man behind it was somewhat uncomfortable with that adjective. In many ways, his worldview was formed as a Burkean conservative. But he also valued some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s egalitarianism. Merging the two philosophies to thwart authoritarianism was, to Keynes, a laudable enterprise. He loved his posh Bloomsbury life too much to see it end. Plus, he wanted the rest of us to have a chance to live such a life as well. So he was no Marxist. In fact, he believed that Marx’s argument that capitalism would inherently fail was inherently wrong. At the same time, he didn’t believe that there was any natural law that destined capitalism’s success either.

Keynes taught his theories at Cambridge, yet, initially, they were not winning the day among graduate students. (Marxism was.) This began to change. Not only were these students beginning to embrace Keynesianism, some would travel down to the London School of Economics and provoke impromptu debates with the students still fixed in laissez-faire. Eventually, American economics students embarked to Cambridge to study under Keynes.

Still, Keynesianism was at the periphery. Keynes knew he needed to codify it into an esoteric work meant for academics. (In the world of academia, “you need a theory to kill a theory.”) This was realized in the “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.”

The Great Depression resulted in Keynes becoming Churchill’s de facto chancellor of the exchequer. Particular attention was given to the fiscal policies put in place in the United States, as they were seen as test cases for Keynesianism. The result: American economists who initially resisted Keynes became Keynesians in the same decade of his death.

According to Carter, “No European mind since Newton had impressed himself so profoundly on both the political and intellectual development of the world.” The revolution had come. And as happens with so many revolutions, so comes the counter-revolution.

In the U.S., the aristocracy saw Franklin Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. Riled moneyed men were willing to fund academics and publications willing to challenge Keynesianism. William F. Buckley Jr.’s “National Review” used Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” as its intellectual base and went to work. Keynesians were up for the fight. What left them reeling, however, was McCarthyism.

Keynesianism would have many morphisms throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. American Keynesians, at turns, embraced more corporate-influenced policies the British Keynesians found abhorrent. Another famous quote concerning Keynes came from President Richard Nixon: “I am now Keynesian in economics.”

Enter Milton Friedman’s monetarism and decades of strident debate concerning the size and role of government in fiscal and monetary policy, and here we are. (Economists can be an acerbic lot, where things get really personal, really fast.) And you don’t have to go back too far to see Keynesian fiscal initiatives at work, as in the 2008 financial dilemma.

Regardless of the modern relevance of Keynes, here’s what Carter wants us to take away from his astute book: Keynesianism isn’t so much about economic theory as it is about radical optimism. Keynes lived in a time of dire economic crises that gave rise to authoritarians who then took their respective countries off the cliff. For him, economics was the light by which we could find our way out. For us, Keynes was every bit a philosopher of war and peace.

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The Silence by Don DeLillo

Illusory though it is, there’s an endorphin-rush moment when you begin a novel that feels as though it was written just for you. The story’s arc is almost irrelevant. What blows your hair back are the observations in sentences that seem perfectly formed. It’s as if your limbic system has been waiting for this moment. And from this instant, you know that you will need to read everything ever written by this author, this new shadow of you. For me, one such author is Don DeLillo.
I don’t recall how it was in my twenties I ended up reading DeLillo’s “Libra,” a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. I wasn’t particularly interested in traveling into an imagined rendering of Oswald’s mind. By novel’s end, however, I felt as though I learned more about him than any nonfiction book could reveal. But more than anything, it was DeLillo’s writing that had me up, pacing and reading. There was a rhythm to the words. To this day, I will reread a chapter of DeLillo, much in the same way we listen to our favorite musicians over and over.
DeLillo’s awards and accolades are many, his influence on a generation of writers legion, notably Jonathan Franzen and the late, great David Foster Wallace. His modernist style made him a talisman to those pondering modern life. While DeLillo may not be a widely read author, his writing reminds me of what someone said of The Velvet Underground: not many listened to their music, but those who did started a band. Reading DeLillo made one want to write. And, after 50 years as a published author, he’s still at it.
His latest novel, “The Silence,” could actually be considered a novella. It’s only 117 pages, double-spaced. (The fact that such a svelte book was released in a fickle publishing industry speaks to DeLillo’s reputation.) It takes place on Super Bowl night, the year 2022. A couple, Tessa and Jim, are flying back to New Jersey from Paris. As they approach stateside, the commercial plane loses its lift and plummets. Whereas Jim had been staring at the screen that tracks the plane’s location, airspeed, and estimated time of arrival, he now visualizes the soon-to-be news footage reporting their fiery demise.
At the same moment, another couple, Max and Diane, are ready to watch the game in their Manhattan apartment and are also waiting for Tessa and Jim to join them. Already there is Martin, a former university physics student of Diane’s. Then all electric currents and signals disappear. When it dawns on them that this outage is widespread and not likely to end soon, Max (who appears to have a slight gambling problem) loses it a little. He stops just staring at the blank screen and starts to announce a made-up football game, replete with commercials.
Martin, already a man with “a nowhere stare,” begins spouting thoughts that are sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes absurd. For him, that blank screen means so much more than a power outage. “What is it hiding from us?” Not knowing what else to do, Diane observes and listens to these two, a low-grade panic beginning to well insider her. “The pauses were turning into silences and beginning to feel like the wrong kind of normal.”
Tessa and Jim survive the crash and eventually find their way to Max and Diane’s apartment. (On the shuttle ride from the crash site to a medical clinic, the van comes across a woman jogging amidst this grid shutdown. An odd site, the van’s driver slows to the jogger’s pace, the shuttle riders watching her as she blithely jogs.)
DeLillo is a master of dialogue. In this novel, however, the characters don’t really converse with each other. More than once, someone will exclaim that they are just going to say what comes to mind, for—given the current situation—no one is going to remember it anyway.
During the Cold War, DeLillo’s work explored how life plays out under the threat of mutually assured destruction. There was a dread mixed with weapon-worship, as evidenced in his noting that we named warheads and rockets from Greek and Roman mythology. On this night, in the year 2022, there’s no electrical power to launch such force. The conversation is no longer about nuclear arms; it’s now “the language of living weaponry. Germs, genes, spores.” To Martin “the war rolls on and the terms accumulate.” In fact, he seems to think that this blackout is just the beginning of World War III.
If you have yet to read DeLillo, I would recommend beginning with earlier works, such as “White Noise” or “Libra.” The former devilishly satirizes university culture in an era of unyielding media saturation; the latter shows us how a disillusioned loner can make history. (I am not saying don’t read his latest novel, for it was certainly prescient, being that it was written before our own upheaval that greeted us soon after last year’s Super Bowl. I am saying that his earlier works are that of a virtuoso.)
Another theme DeLillo mines is the formidable nature of crowds. In the “Silence,” our characters try to avoid what they know is taking place on the streets. (Max ventures out briefly to take in the growing tension, “a thousand faces every minute,” “curses rising into the air.”) This power is on full display in “Mao II” (another recommendation), the book beginning with a mass wedding ceremony officiated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
In “Underworld,” DeLillo’s brilliant magnum opus (and my favorite), we begin with “an assembling crowd,” making their way to game three of the 1951 National League pennant, these New Yorkers bringing “with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day.” Outside the Polo Grounds, a black kid, with “a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful,” gathers with other kids—black and white—who can’t afford a ticket. They briefly strategize the best way to jump the turnstiles.
Inside, during the game, Jackie Gleason holds comedic court. An F.B.I. agent whispers to J. Edgar Hoover that the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb test. This is the game where Bobby Thomson hits the series-winning home run with “the shot heard around the world.” The kid who jumped the stiles catches the ball. “This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath.” Such events are life-defining. Yet they are, as all moments are, fleeting, “fading indelibly into the past.” It’s an electrified blend of fact and fiction that reveals truth, the very reason we read serious fiction. This is why we read Don DeLillo.

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The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann

East Berlin, early November 1989. Protestors seeking political reforms thrum the city. You can feel it: The old communist order is falling apart. And so is Bernd Zeiger, Stasi officer.

While you and I know that the Berlin Wall is set to topple, the characters in Jennifer Hofmann’s excellent debut novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures do not. And, really, the protests that contribute to the wall’s cracking are just sporadic backdrops throughout the novel. What Hofmann gives us is a small cast of characters trying to lurch their way through daily life in a regime that has already taken so much from them.

Zeiger, nearing the end of his career as an officer in East Germany’s brutal secret police organization, is—like the wall—on the verge of total collapse. He has “developed a death wish, passive but pronounced.” The impetus for his breakdown: Lara, a waitress at the café he frequents, has disappeared. Apparently, Zeiger is so starved for human connection that an accidental near fall at the café, resulting in Lara catching herself by placing her hand on his shoulder, has reduced him to a vessel of total need. His life is a double helix of loss of meaning and a yearning for the one thing that might restore some balance: Lara. Driving Berlin, he sees her everywhere. “Lara, the blinding cherry lights ahead. Lara, the speckle of dried dirt on his windshield. Lara in the stratosphere. Lara in the ether.”

If Zeiger had one life-defining event, it was penning a reference work entitled “Standardization of Demoralization Procedures” (SDP Manual). As a young Stasi officer, he was unsettled by the Soviet method of torturing subjects into confessions (real or not). So he codified a different kind of torture, where recipients were at the end of a barrage of mental maneuverings (ridiculous, yet effective) that led to mental chaos. If they confessed, great. If not, it didn’t really matter. A different charge awaited.

An example of its comic absurdity: Subchapter 1.1, “Demoralization through Repetitive, Tedious Speech,” where, in one case, a Party spokesman talked for so long he had “anesthetized an entire room of journalists with his old Berliner lilt.” Still, to Zeiger, it was his “life’s work, a substantial volume, the closest he’d come to fathering.”

I won’t give away what becomes of Zeiger’s search for Lara, but it’s ultimately both fantastical and beautiful. Throughout his pursuit, we learn that Zeiger was on his way to becoming a young orphan after his father was marched into oblivion, Germany having lost the Eastern Front during World War II. (The Eastern Front cost many German children their fathers, “when more stray dogs than grown men had roamed the streets.”) The process of becoming an orphan was complete after his mother received a small box, courtesy of the Soviets. Inside were the remains of her husband. Soon after, she had an “accident’ and “fell face forward into her Walther service gun.”

Dark stuff, indeed. However, the book is often wickedly funny. When a colleague presents a picture of his adult son (also gone missing), Zeiger sees in him “features reminiscent of circus performers with pituitary problems.” Further losing his repose, Zeiger says to this colleague, “I think I’m dying.”

“Differently than the rest of us?”

“I believe so.”

“What makes your death so special?”

“That it’s mine.”

Then there was that time in Zeiger’s career when he reported to work having not received the memorandum that the color gray had been banned within the Party. At HQ, everyone else wore clownishly bright attire. The concept of gray, he learned, “was the sustenance of skeptics.”

So there you have Zeiger, crushed by the Soviets in his youth and then made to do their bidding as an adult. And he knows it. “Failure and shame; iron and steel.”

There are moments in the novel when the question of “Why?” is asked. Why was insanity allowed to reign for so long? It’s almost impossible to find a satisfactory answer. One can only circle around it. “Misery was never content with its victories, not because it was greedy, but because it had no memory.”

The torturer ends up torturing himself. “Any room, he realized, can be a torture chamber. It need not be titled as such to become one. A bedroom, a pretty house, a state, one’s own porous skull.” Hofmann’s novel is a reminder that the building and ultimate tearing down of a wall that was meant to divide expended too many lives, lives that would have been better spent doing just about anything else.

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The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency by John Dickerson

The time is nigh, fellow citizens. This Tuesday, we shall exercise our franchise and elect a president. Many have made their respective choice already via absentee or mail-in voting, so tabulating the results among the 50 states could require some collective patience. Regardless, we do know that come January 20th, either Joseph R. Biden or Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office at noon, thus bestowing the privilege to wield the powers vested under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Always a weighty event, now is a fine time to explore the office of the presidency.
This is what John Dickerson tackles in The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. Mercifully, Dickerson doesn’t devote much time to what has been explored elsewhere, and for quite some time: that we are in the age of the “imperial presidency,” where the U.S. presidency now brandishes power beyond what the Constitution allows. It’s also known (perhaps somewhat erroneously) as the “unitary executive,” its more legalistic name. (I say “mercifully” because there’s plenty of excellent scholarship on this already.)
If anything, Dickerson addresses evolving presidential powers through anecdotes. For example, William Henry Harrison didn’t offer policy initiatives during his campaign, as he believed that would encroach on congressional prerogative. We now, of course, expect a whole array of presidential proposals, mostly of the domestic variety. However, when it’s realized that so much of the workday is spent addressing voluminous foreign policy matters, a new reality quickly manifests within a newly sworn president. Consider President Kennedy. Soon after taking the oath of office he was made privy to an operation that was already in full planning motion: The Bay of Pigs invasion.
President Eisenhower has received renewed interest in recent years, and Dickerson follows suit. Eisenhower developed a quadrant system where he assigned issues an importance level, Q1 housing the most urgent. He was prescient enough to realize that Q1 could swallow up a presidency; so the challenge was to ensure that the urgent didn’t crowd out other initiatives he wanted to achieve. (And did you know that Ike had such a bad temper White House staff referred to him, just among themselves no doubt, as “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang”? Fully aware of his temper, Ike wrote in his journal, “Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly.”)
Dickerson doesn’t share such narratives as mere historical asides. He’s attempting to edify the reader on how our previous presidents led the executive and how historical events were met and managed by presidents, which in turn changed the presidency. Prime example number one is FDR’s initiated policies during the Great Depression. A lesser known example is that presidents were once not expected to be “on the scene” when natural disasters struck. LBJ changed that in 1965 after a hurricane devastated New Orleans. When his motorcade came across a 9th Ward high school sheltering displaced residents, LBJ addressed them: “I’m your president and I’m here to help you.”
Dickerson structured the book so that you can essentially pick any section and begin reading, as most anecdotes last only a handful of pages. But this is also the book’s greatest weakness. Just when you think you found a theme, we’re off to another president of another era, over and over again. Plus, there are too many plodding sentences telling us what a president should strive to accomplish. While I think Dickerson is correct on the merits, stylistically more than a few sentences made me wince. Dickerson was once a political reporter for Slate and Time. He’s a television reporter now, so maybe that’s why his writing has taken on a folksy sheen, where metaphors are freely mixed.
Still, the book certainly works well in spots. Dickerson seemingly knew that no U.S. political history book would be complete without revisiting the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The framers understood that the challenge was to establish a limited federal government that was still vigorous enough to function. While the will of the people manifests through elected representatives, their passions must be checked. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would be necessary.” Thus the separation of powers: a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary. They knew that unscrupulous officeholders could be elected. What they hoped was that the institutions would survive.
I’ll leave it to you to wrestle with what the founders would think of the balance of power we have now. But I will say that they placed Congress under Article I of the Constitution for a reason. There are many factors that have led to waning congressional relevance (with gerrymandering leading the way), but it would be intriguing to know how the founders would process the practice of outsourcing legislation to the executive branch, where an executive order is decreed only for it to be summarily ended by the next president.
Dickerson uses his conclusion to offer modest remedies to the political realities we have now. I appreciate the effort, but I’m dubious. Dickerson acknowledges that there’s no longer an environment where a president and a ranking member of the opposing party will sit in a room and compromise à la President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill. These two men were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, so they certainly argued. But when one crossed the line with a press comment, the other was called and offered an apology. They agreed on little, but they knew that governing such a large, heterogeneous country meant compromising so that there was working legislation to address complex problems. (Even President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich met privately to discuss legislation.) Anyway, yes, we should consider how to better our outsized presidency, as Dickerson proposes. But just as the political landscape we live in today resulted from accretion, so also is the hope for a return to a point where a moderating spirit between the two political parties is more rule than exception.

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