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Joe Kraus

Kingston, PA, United States
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  • Freakonomics

  • Revised Edition
  • By: Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
  • Narrated by: Stephen J. Dubner
  • Length: 6 hrs and 55 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 8,017
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 5,831
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 5,831

Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life, from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing, and whose conclusions turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Thus the new field of study contained in this audiobook: Freakonomics. Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives: how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Good, but be careful

  • By Shackleton on 07-03-08

Early Promise Marred by Unapologetic Overreach

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-14-19

Part of this book is right up my alley. It chronicles how a really clever economist applies the tools of his field to questions seemingly outside it. He tries to show, for instance, that we suburban parent types worry more about gun violence than about our swimming pools as life-threatening hazards for our children. Or he shows us that real estate agents have incentives to sell our houses for less than they might otherwise get. Or that sumo wrestlers have incentives to cheat when they find themselves in the crucial rubber matches of their events. Or even that there’s a way to determine which Chicago public school teachers were feeding their students answers on standardized tests.

Each of those anecdotes is presented cleverly, and there’s something satisfying in seeing someone make such clear sense of the world. Dubner chronicles Levitt’s breakthroughs with a pleasant enough pattern: we come to understand a problem, Levitt asks a clever question, and we see the sorts of data that give him insight no one else has ever gleaned.

This takes a notorious turn, though, when Dubner talks about Levitt’s most famous proposal. That is, in trying to figure out why crime dropped as dramatically as it did in the early 1990s, he determined that was the era when children were coming of age who would have been born if not for Roe vs. Wade. That is he proposes that crime dropped as it did because a generation of likely criminals were aborted.

To be fair, both authors acknowledge the dicey morality of that claim. Dubner takes it head on by declaring that morality is the story of the world as we would like it to be while economics is the story of the world as it is.

The two also dance around, at times thoughtfully, over the possibility that there are errors in the methodology. And maybe there are.

But the morality that seems violated here isn’t merely the Thou-shalt-not of abortion politics in either direction. Instead, it seems as if Levitt has violated a central tenet of his own work. He has, that is, oversimplified a complicated scenario.

A proclivity toward crime, like his airy assertion that IQ is hereditary (which it might be but, if so, it warrants a lot of explanation before it can be used as a stand-in for functional intelligence), is just something too full of variables for such a clearly declared premise. It may be that children whose parents didn’t want them – the potential children who were aborted – do have a higher likelihood of committing crime, but surely there’s more to it than that. More skilled economists than Levitt – like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein – have traveled similar territory, and they’ve done it by acknowledging more ambiguity. And by making less sweeping claims.

This starts with the pleasure of watching someone who builds a fascinating case insight by insight and term by term. By the time this ends, though, it feels as if our authors have tried to slip a couple of major terms by us, as if they’ve gotten us to accept premises we never signed on for.

There’s cleverness here, but it falls short of Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, and it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth.

And I’m tempted to dock it another half star for reprinting the original articles Dubner wrote on Levitt. It seems an unnecessary appendix, and it’s awkward to get the same anecdotes delivered in a different tone, sometimes with ancillary information that might have had more effect earlier in the book.

  • The Mars Room

  • A Novel
  • By: Rachel Kushner
  • Narrated by: Rachel Kushner
  • Length: 9 hrs and 41 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 668
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 612
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 611

Featuring original music by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon! It's 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, deep in California's Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Amazing novel !

  • By Amazon Customer on 06-08-18

An Unblinking, Postmodern Take on Loneliness

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-10-19

There are a lot of ways into this powerful novel, but, as I got toward the end, it occurred to me that it’s most insistently about the nature of loneliness.

That’s a bigger claim than it seems, since this novel is so clearly about other things as well. For one, it’s about the way women suffer in the penal system, how the poor and unfortunate can lose everything because they don’t know how to defend themselves. Here, for instance, Romy might not have gone to jail at all, or might have gone for something dramatically less than two life sentences-plus, if she’d had an attorney able to demonstrate that she’d been the victim of sustained and disturbing sexual stalking.

It also reflects one kind of post-modernist school. A quick search tells me she understands herself as inspired by Don DeLillo (a fine inspiration to select, I’d say) and there’s evidence here of someone who acknowledges the difficulty (impossibility?) of rendering characters in all their dimensionality yet who attempts it all the same. This is a novel of ideas, but it’s simultaneously a story of characters, above all Romy, who recognize the extent to which their denied the full experience of life. One reflection of that is the impressive way Kushner de-eroticizes the business of sex. There are graphic parts here – Romy is a stripper, after all – but we get them as transactional experiences.

And this is also a powerfully feminist novel, one where the experience of women matters in and for itself, independent of men or even masculinity. Yes, most of this is set in a women’s prison, but it’s deeper than that. Romy defines herself on her own terms, on the basis of her own desires and choices. She’s not concerned with what others think or even what they might think. She is entirely of herself, and she shows a refreshing self-awareness throughout.

But I’m struck by the nature of loneliness here because I think part of what Kushner is expressing – depressingly – is that the human condition makes true connection much harder than we can imagine. In what may be my favorite quote in a novel full of rich language and insight, Romy describes her first time shooting up heroin as, “an experience exactly the way a young girl dreams love can be.” The idea is all there in that moment. Romy falls “in love,” but it isn’t with anyone. It’s self-absorbed and detached.

We see this at the level of the story itself. I hope it isn’t much of a [SPOILER] to report that Romy loses everyone she cares even remotely about. The novel opens with her stuck on a bus taking her to the maximum-security prison where she’ll spend the rest of her life, and it follows her through life inside, the eventual death of her mother, the loss of her son as he’s adopted away from her, and through to her brief pointless escape. No one gets in. No one matters. The man she’s killed thinks of her by her stage name as he stalks her; she thinks of him as “Creep” Kennedy. Each casts the other as a character in a private experience, transparently so.

We see it as well at a macro level. I’ve been struck by a species of contemporary novel, informed by postmodernism, that I describe as the “rhizomatic” novel. I think of Colum McCann in particular, but it includes Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Joan Silber’s Fools among others. The striking feature of those novels is that we see a fragmented story that, from a novelist’s eye view if none of the characters’, connects disparate characters in an interconnected web.

In this case, though, Kushner does the opposite. For all that her characters overlap in their encounters, they affect each other only incidentally and without enduring influence. The close of the novel, for instance, brings her heartbreaking realization that, with her recapture, she’ll never get to know her son’s experience. “He is on his path as I am on mine,” she says, and that truth extends in other directions. She learns only very late that her best friend, Eva, has died, and she learns that from Eva’s father who confesses to having been so estranged from his daughter that he didn’t know of the death for years himself. Our second most significant character, Gordon, a would-be English professor who teaches in the prison for a time, agrees to mail a letter from a woman he thinks is crazy; he never knows that it results in the near murder of another character, and he never has cause to reflect on what he might have learned from his throw-away favor for someone. And the Unabomber makes an appearance, writing his manifesto against technology – and against the possibility of human connection – at the same time but isolated and removed from everyone else.

That is, there is something that might look like a vast web connection these characters, but it tears the moment we put any weight on it. None of these characters ultimately influence the others. They’re in dark situations that overlap, but even darker is the sense that we can never come to know them since they can never get beyond the narrow limits of their own experience. It’s a grim picture of a lonely world.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Remembering Roth

  • By: James Atlas
  • Narrated by: James Atlas
  • Length: 1 hr and 21 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 416
  • Performance
    3.5 out of 5 stars 370
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 372

In 1977, when he was 28, James Atlas published his first book, a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, and was stunned to receive a congratulatory letter from Philip Roth. He had been moved by the tragic story it told. Thus began a friendship that lasted, with a few intervals, until his death. He was living in rural Connecticut then, having exiled himself from the literary noise of Manhattan in order to focus on his work, and was on his own. He invited Atlas to come visit, which he did - the first of numerous pilgrimages to the Roth homestead. 

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • made me think as much as many long books.

  • By K D on 03-10-19

A Glimpse at a Famous Friendship

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-07-19

I never got to meet Philip Roth. I never even got to see him read from a distance. I did read him, extensively, and I did get to write and lecture a fair bit about him. (Shameless plug: my summative lecture on his career is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqZf7G32kcE&t=12s ) I was demographically like a lot of his younger friends – that is, like Adam Gopnik and James Atlas, I’m a Jewish writer (Atlas even went to my cousins’ high school – but somehow I never got the chance to hang out with him.

I still regret that, but I’m grateful to Atlas for giving me a sense of what I missed.

Above all, there’s confirmation of what I’ve heard often before: Roth was, in person, one of the most charming and magnetic personalities you can imagine. He enjoyed Atlas’s early biography of Delmore Schwartz, wrote Atlas to tell him, and the two became friends.

This isn’t long at all – it’s an extended essay as much as an almost-book – but it’s rich in detail about Roth’s humor, in both its good and ill dimensions.

My favorite amusing anecdote is from the time Atlas saw Roth sitting to talk with Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez. When Roth asked Hernandez how he was able to play so well on the field, Hernandez said, “It’s mental.” When Hernandez asked Roth how he was able to write so well, he answered, “It’s physical.”

Another winner comes when Roth asks Atlas to join him in the country with the “rich and famous.” “But I’m neither of those,” Atlas replies. “I know,” says Roth, “but they hate you as it you were.”

There are many others, though, and Atlas does a fine job of not overdoing their shared cleverness. It’s two men who enjoyed talking with another.

And then, in ways also famously characteristic of Roth, it isn’t. Atlas can’t put his finger on what soured their friendship. It may have been Atlas’s perhaps too aggressive biography of Saul Bellow, and it might just have been Roth aging into irascibility, but they stopped being as close.

This part of the memoir works just as well as the beginning. It shows the two continuing their friendship but in strained fashion. In a poignant moment, Roth writes him as “James” rather than as “Jim,” and Atlas sighs at the implication of estrangement.

In the end, Atlas is sad to think he’s not one of the thirty friends gathered around Roth’s bedside at his death – thirty being a very large number for a man who claimed so often to be alone, and a number large enough for Atlas to think he might have been part of it.

Atlas tells us he was in the running to write Roth’s biography, and I’m confident he’d have done a good job. What we have here, though, is something else. It may be slighter than a full biography, but it seems more personal than any biography could have been. It’s the account of a strong writer coming to terms with what it meant to be friends with one of the great voices of our time.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Last Orders

  • By: Graham Swift
  • Narrated by: Simon Prebble, Gigi Marceau Clarke, Jenny Sterlin, and others
  • Length: 8 hrs and 29 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 138
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 96
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 94

In a London Pub called The Coach and Horses, four men gather. Three of them have been friends for half a lifetime, having fought in the same war, drunk in the same pubs, and bet on the same horses. Now they have come together to deliver the ashes of a fifth man, Jack Dodds, to the sea. Their journey, which will take them deep into their collective and individual pasts, lies at the center of an astonishingly moving novel of friendship, memory, and fate.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Don't hesitate

  • By Robert on 03-23-06

Confusing, But With Engaging Rhythm

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-07-19

I have to admit, I didn’t give this one the attention it deserves. I gave it a shot because it’s a Booker Prize winner and because it was on sale. I liked the tone, the sense of overhearing the conversations from the “gentleman” farther down the bar who talk as if there’s no one else in the room, but it turns on so much subtlety that I lost track of much of the underlying context.

I couldn’t always tell, for instance, which friend had which frustration over the charge to bury their friend Jack. Some were drawn to Jack’s wife, Amy, and Amy herself was so full of resentment that she didn’t want to be part of the journey to scatter the issues. I never found out why, and I lost track of how Jack and Amy’s son Vince fit into the plot, but in some ways I didn’t care. That’s because, while tedium is a part of the narrative method, it also seems a large part of the context. These are men who haven’t seen their lives turn out as they hoped. Their pleasures are a pint at the pub and pretending the old times were better than they were.

To my surprise, though, I didn’t stop reading (well, listening). The rhythm of the speakers themselves kept me going. Like those too-loud gentlemen at the bar, they entertained me sometimes, often enough, that I could never quite pull the plug on the story. I sensed its general outline – they’re carrying the ashes and getting ever closer to their destination – and that crossed with the rich language of the speakers kept me going.

I wish this one reset itself more often than it does, that it caught us up periodically, but I think that reflects some of its moment. It’s a dated work in some ways, both in its echoes of a Modernist structural ambition and in its unreflective display of the working class as objects, but it seems a strong example of its kind.

From quick digging, I see that this had some notoriety for echoing the plot of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I suppose I see that, but I’d say it has more in common with a favorite of mine, Wallace Markfield’s To an Early Grave, which also tells the story of a group of friends as they venture to their dead friend’s funeral. Or throw in Daniel Fuchs’s wonderfully playful Homage to Blenholt about a young man determined to pay his respects at the funeral of the neighborhood Jewish gangster boss. Or, for that matter, Antigone, who’s determined to see her brother buried despite Creon’s edict otherwise.

So, as a quick retort, I’d say I don’t hold it against this at all that some people saw parallels to Faulkner. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, right? And remember that Faulkner was stealing as well.

This one falls short of the greatness I’ve come almost to take for granted from more recent Booker prize winners, but it’s a striking experiment in form and tone, so I’m glad I didn’t put it all the way down.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • The Round House

  • A Novel
  • By: Louise Erdrich
  • Narrated by: Gary Farmer
  • Length: 12 hrs and 39 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 2,505
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 2,198
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 2,200

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and 13-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance takes a bit of getting used to

  • By Library on 04-22-13

Justice in Multiple Colors

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-28-19

I probably read this one a bit too quickly to get everything out of it, but I was fortunate to be guided by the criticism of my student. (Thanks Emily.) As part of a senior honors project, she’s reviewing the book as a potential contemporary work that she could share with her future students.

Emily’s thesis is that this is ultimately a novel about justice, and I’m glad to find my experience of the book confirming that. Joe is a boy, only 13, who has to grapple with how to find justice for his mother, his father and himself after a man rapes his mother. On the one hand, it ought to fall to the American courts to do that. On the other, because there is a gap between that court justice and the power of tribal law, the rapist escapes.

That fundamental clash is exacerbated by the fact that Joe’s father is a Native-American judge. He ought to be able to see justice done, but he’s growing old as the novel moves along, and he finds the law is powerless before a sociopath who’s plotted his crimes carefully. Meanwhile, Joe’s old grandfather tells him stories of Indian justice, of the way tribes dealt with “windigos” who threatened it.

In a [SPOILER] Joe eventually kills the rapist with the help of a friend, also 13. They succeed and recognize the justness of their actions, but there’s a final, troubling moment: the other boy, who’s fired the fatal shot, is killed in a car accident that pertains to a sub-plot around his love for a girl who’s moved away. It’s as if, in the end, we see a third strand of justice, a cosmic, karmic sort.

I’ll leave it to Emily to decide how appropriate this is for her intended audience. There’s perhaps more YA intent to it than I especially love in my own readings, but I think – as Emily shows – there’s also some abiding substance to it.

It’s been years since I got to Love Medicine. Maybe it’s time to get back to that.

  • Jerusalem

  • By: Alan Moore
  • Narrated by: Simon Vance
  • Length: 60 hrs and 41 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 318
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 304
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 304

Alan Moore channels both the ecstatic visions of William Blake and the theoretical physics of Albert Einstein through the hardscrabble streets and alleys of his hometown of Northampton, UK. In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England's Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap housing projects. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district's narrative, among its saints, kings, prostitutes, and derelicts, a different kind of human time is happening.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Magisterial, magnificent!

  • By JackFaust77 on 11-05-16

Ambitious Wrestling Match with the Visionary

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-26-19

Members of the Vernall family have been charged – more accurately “named” – by heaven to tend to the “edges of creation.” And, in this massive, visions-of-the -holy-saturated, occasional masterpiece, Alan Moore shows us several generations of the clan as they spend their lives tending to the possible holiness of the Boroughs, a working class neighborhood of Northampton.

And that’s only book one. The subsequent two books – equally large – expand that same story into a kind of heaven that exists above and below the Boroughs and then into what it means to attempt art that examines the intersection of the holy and eternal with the everyday world we know.

In all, this is exhausting, but that’s not a bad thing. It has moments of real inspiration, brilliance perhaps, and it’s ambitious in ways hard to imagine from someone who has spent so much time in the world of commercial comic books – even if he did write the revolutionary Watchmen. There are certainly portions that could be cut; some are redundant and some demystify stronger parts. But the sheer weight of this is part of its excellence. Don’t pick this up unless you’re willing to risk weeks’ worth of obligation. Do pick it up if you’re willing to get lost in a book that’s trying to marry poetic madness to our seemingly ordinary contemporary world.

Moore takes the name of his book, one on which he is reported to have spent most of the last decade (and this at a time when, had he chosen, he could no doubt have continued in the far more lucrative work of creating graphic novels that Hollywood was lined up to film), from William Blake’s epic illuminated poem. Like Blake, his overarching goal is to trace the residue of the deep holy as it manifests itself in the world around him. Like Blake, Moore is attempting to write about the potential of vision – “four-fold vision” as Blake put it and as Moore quotes it in chapter 9 and elsewhere. The central idea of both Moore’s and Blake’s conception is the claim that our world isn’t fallen, that England or “Albion” isn’t mere ordinariness but one edge of heaven.

Blake looked at London and Moore at Northampton, but the point is the same. Each suggests that if we can push ourselves past a thick crust of contemporary culture – for Blake it was the rigidity of the scientific revolution, what he called “Newton’s night” and for Moore it’s the sheen of consumerism – we can see that Jerusalem herself, that emanation of heaven, sits on top of the streets and fallen people we walk past every day.

The first book is simply stunning. He takes one character after another, spins his or her life forward and back, and culminates in a moment of vision. There’s beauty in the ordinariness of the spurs to the visionary moment. One man sees “angles” in the upper reaches of a church. Another goes temporarily mad in the middle of his foundry work. Another sees a painting begin to speak. Another is moved by the beauty of an infant being pushed in a stroller by her mother. And one simply chokes on a throat lozenge.

There’s a structure to the method, but Moore is gifted enough that it, in the first book, it doesn’t become predictable. He brings each of his separate characters to life, only very slowly showing how their lives intersect, not simply in their moment but across the generations. We learn eventually that ghosts walk everywhere among us and that, to them, time is no more bewildering than distance or height. If we could see properly, we would understand that nothing ever ends. Or, to quote Blake again, we would realize that “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

The bulk of the second book turns on the mystical experience of three-year-old Mick Warren who, having choked on his throat lozenge and been pronounced dead, spends several chapters traipsing about a kind of heaven as part of a group of urchins calling themselves the Dead Dead Gang. In the course of his adventures, Mick sees the world from above and below, and as it was and will be. He experiences a series of visions that stamp him as a Vernall – as he indeed is from his mother’s side – and give him access to a mysticism the rest of us can only imagine.

Compared to the rest of the novel, this section is the least inspired. It’s disappointing – by comparison at least – to see the attempt at serious visionary work suddenly filtered through the eyes of a child. The opaque quality of revelation gives way to something more primary-colored. We even get a somewhat condescending exposition from the devil Asmodeus giving too much clarity to what the first book largely implies.

The third book turns mostly on the run-up to an art exhibit of work by Alma Warren, Mick’s sister, who has heard his stories from the mystical world. He forgot but briefly recalled them after an industrial accident. Her paintings chronicle them in some fashion.

I enjoyed the first book of the novel the most and appreciated but was glad to be finished with the second, but I find myself thinking about the third one most of all. In some ways, whether the novel is a success depends on how effective Alma’s work comes across. At one point in the final chapter, Alma explicitly worries that she might have failed, that she might – rather than capture a genuine mystical vision – have managed only a grand act of nostalgia. Blake may be the central inspiration here, but, striking as his work is, there is a sometimes conventional quality to its composition. As the character Handsome John puts it at one point when he is admiring one of Blake’s painting, “He drew like a baby.” Alma, working in papier mache and capturing a child’s adventures, risks some of the same.

Perhaps more broadly, an even greater indictment is that chapter after chapter is filtered through a single consciousness. Each is a distinct and limited focus even as the individual in question typically wins a visionary moment. It’s inspiring to see those different consciousnesses radiate out in the different chapters of the first book. By the third, the question is whether they knit together in full.

There are glances in what Alma accomplishes that gives a sense she has succeeded. As she proposes at one point, “Art saves things from time.” She suggests her project is “a glorious mythology of loss” and that she is attempting to understand, “The development of English as a visionary language” that has served the likes of John Bunyan, John Clare, William Blake, and James Joyce.

In one inspired passage that feeds into her work, we see the world from the point of view of the Builders, cosmic architects of human fate who use snooker cues as their tools. Two Builders get into a fight over the fate of young Mick and that explains how he dies temporarily and then later recovers his memories. When they fight at the start of the third book, one Builder reflects on his struggle with the other, “We know everything. He blacks my eye, and China’s great leap forward plunges it into an economic abyss. I collapse his nose, and Castro comes to power in Cuba. From my split lip dribbles structuralism, rock and roll and hovercrafts. We pick the golden clots before they are ready, and the Belgian Congo blooms with severed heads. Of course we stride among you, thigh deep in your politics and your mythology. We wade through the pink, map-scrap pebbles of your disintegrating Commonwealth. We march in a black tide on Washington. We juggle satellites and Francis Bacon. We are Builders”

A bit later from the same section, we get one of the boldest claims for the nature of art and its reflection of life: “We bomb Guernica just to create that painting.” That sort of visionary claim, in the very end, is the hope of the power in Alma’s work. She’s an artist who risks the nostalgic and the conventional, but she’s also someone who wants to play in the very furnace of creation.

The jury remains out on whether this is a satisfying culmination of the novel’s early promise. As I reflect on it, though, I think that uncertainty may be part of Moore’s ultimate goal. Some of this work remains as straightforward as the comic books of his childhood and early career. Some of it nevertheless aspires to be a 21st century Blake. As Alma says to the poet John Clare when she encounters him in a vision near the end, “We’re either all of us saints or none of us are.” There’s a good case for either of these, and that’s a central joy of this work that tries, and maybe succeeds, in seeing beyond the world we see every day.

  • In the Skin of a Lion

  • By: Michael Ondaatje
  • Narrated by: Tom McCamus
  • Length: 6 hrs and 10 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 360
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 332
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 334

Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick's life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning The English Patient.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Superb

  • By Joshua on 02-25-18

Lush but Often Bewildering Prequel

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-07-19

When I think of Ondaatje’s work – and all I’ve read before this is the marvelous The English Patient – I think of internal experience. I think of narrators who are trapped in a bed or confined to an abandoned hospital, or recuperating from amputated thumbs. I think, that is, of characters in the midst of reflection.

As I look at his method of narration, though, it’s actually steeped in the external. As he writes, he pans across landscapes. He gives us lush descriptions that become almost cinematic. In this book in particular, I often found myself lost in the larger story, but I never felt bored. I was always confident I was in the hands of someone who knew how to make words bring scenes (and, implicitly, characters) to life.

It’s a challenging method. Part of the inspiration of The English Patient is that it’s claustrophobic. Characters recall experiences of vast spaces and of epic love, but they don’t get to leave the scene of the hospital for the setting of the story’s present tense. That novel, tangled as is it, has a clear and tight focus. Everything points to the experience of our nurse and patient who, without quite knowing it, sit as the culmination of a number of great emotional arcs.

Skin of a Lion, though even shorter, is expansive in its scenery and in its setting. We go from the wilds of Canada in the days of timber empire, to the building of Toronto’s sewer system, to the birth of a radical workers’ movement in the years before World War I. It doesn’t have the same inspired focus of The English Patient. It’s never boring and always reflective of great passion, but it spins in different directions.

As an elevator pitch, this is an inspired plot: a young man who learns dynamiting from his father goes to Toronto, contributes to the great physical work of building the city, becomes radicalized through a betrayed love and from seeing the greed of the city’s capitalists, and determines to assassinate his arch enemy by swimming through the very sewer tunnels he helped build.

Given Ondaatje’s method, though, I rarely saw that plot as it unfolded. (In fact, I have to acknowledge various on-line sources as helping me sort out how one scene connected to another.) I loved the reading experience of being caught in the lush exterior reflections of the characters, but I was generally confused about how they combined. I respect the ambition behind all this – as a scholar of American multi-ethnic literature, I admire Ondaatje’s seeming goal to celebrate the mix of immigrant labor that made the city, and I recognize the philosophical claim that, when dismantling the master’s house, one cannot use the master’s tools. That is, I think I understand that he’s challenging conventional chronological narrative as a means of critiquing our received history. Still, he’s asking a lot of us. He writes brilliantly but here, in what turns out to be a prequel to The English Patient, he never lets his story cohere.

I’m all in for more Ondaatje, and I do recommend this one, but be prepared for a challenging ride once you begin.

  • Manhattan Beach

  • A Novel
  • By: Jennifer Egan
  • Narrated by: Norbert Leo Butz, Heather Lind, Vincent Piazza
  • Length: 15 hrs and 16 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 3,954
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,621
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 3,616

Anna Kerrigan, nearly 12 years old, accompanies her father to the house of a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. Anna observes the uniformed servants, the lavishing of toys on the children, and some secret pact between her father and Dexter Styles. Years later her father has disappeared, and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that had always belonged to men.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A Narrative of a Girl Diver

  • By WillowGirl313 on 10-30-17

Too-Conventional Work from a Strong Experimenter

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
2 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-01-19

Reading this makes me think of those times when I see a hip-hop star invited on some TV show to sing in a traditional manner, maybe, for instance, for the national anthem. Some of them are good at it; we get to hear someone best known for rapping come out with a passable Nat “King” Cole. In general, though, it’s disappointing. These are people talented in a particular way – they’ve found ways to work with rhythm that transform “ordinary” song – but they seem more or less ordinary when they sing in a conventional, traditional way.

In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan played with rhythm in memorable ways. I suppose I liked the novel a little less than many people – in the end I preferred what Colum McCann, Rachel Kushner, and Joan Silber are doing in the same vein – but I still thought it was memorable and impressive. She found a way to interrogate a moment, to trace the spider-web of linkages among people who aren’t entirely aware of one another. (My name for it the “rhizomatic novel.”) It was good stuff and cutting edge. It was to the conventional novel, to complete the metaphor, like hip-hop is to Motown.

Manhattan Beach, though, turns out to be Motown. You’re not going to find more people inclined toward the material of this novel – it’s all about gangsters and night clubs in the 1930s and then the 1950s – but it’s conventional in a way that I can’t help but find disappointing. Egan is not without talent, but this is not where her talent shines best. She’s good at disrupting the rhythm of narrative. While there are some impressive moments of chronological suturing here, it’s ultimately a novel bound by its own sequence and limited by characters defined by events rather than interiority.

I guess I have to reveal some SPOILERS to get any more specific. Anna is a dynamic little girl whose father, a charismatic man who’s risen in the longshoreman’s union as a bagman – a position he took because he needed money to care for his other physically and mentally challenged daughter – and come increasingly under the spell of gangster Dexter Styles. There’s a dash of Gatsby to it all, but the heart of the novel takes place half a generation later when Anna is a young adult and insists she can crack the all-male cohort of WWII home-front divers involved in repairing various ships for the military.

SPOILER CONTINUED: The actual story is larded with melodrama. Anna overcomes male chauvinism as she becomes a diver. Her father has disappeared, apparently murdered by Dexter. She starts an affair with Dexter and, on getting pregnant, finds sisterly support from a handful of differently emancipated women. And, then – ULTIMATE SPOILER – we learn her beloved father isn’t dead but that he fled years before because of the conflicting pressures of the gangster world and caring for his disabled daughter.

That’s a plot worthy of a Victorian novel, meaning that this is, if you allow for a change in context and time, a novel in conventional form. Unlike A Visit from the Good Squad, this one takes its power from what happens rather than from the thoughtful and creative way it’s organized. This is a novel that depends on its characters and their growth – in a traditional fashion – and, bottom line, that convention keeps it from turning into anything so memorable.

I can well imagine why Egan chose to write this as she did. It’s ambitious and sprawling. It’s likely the sort of novel she imagined writing when she was – as so many of us were – that adolescent curled up with a fat book and imagining her name on its spine.

As this has emerged, though, it seems both too safe and too self-contained to be that memorable or, really, that good. I’ll give Egan’s next one a chance, but I hope she finds her way back to what first brought her attention. She’s belongs to literature’s hip-hop age more than to its classical one.

  • Waking Up

  • A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
  • By: Sam Harris
  • Narrated by: Sam Harris
  • Length: 5 hrs and 53 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 7,547
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 6,580
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 6,487

From multiple New York Times best-selling author, neuroscientist, and "new atheist" Sam Harris, Waking Up is for the 30 percent of Americans who follow no religion, but who suspect that Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history could not have all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • An Excellent and Inspiring Listen

  • By Jeffrey on 09-12-14

Thoughtful Work Diminished by Easy Assault on Fait

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-31-19

Review of Sam Harris’s Waking Up

This book wasn’t written for me, but it is awfully interesting, and I respect it for the influence it’s had on some people I really respect. (Shout out to my brother Ed!)

To begin with, I’m frustrated by the frame of Harris’s project. As his subtitle suggests – “A Guide to Spirituality without Religion” – he’s trying to justify his interest in spirituality to an audience inclined to be skeptical of it. I get the impression that his ideal audience for this part of the book is the late Christopher Hitchens, whom Harris acknowledges as a friend and influence. If you are an avowed atheist, as Harris and Hitchens are, then you no doubt look on most interrogations of the spiritual as intrinsically flawed. If you insist always on logic and reason, then there’s a lot to be suspicious about when someone starts talking about consciousness and the illusion of the self.

In his first chapter or so, Harris rehearses a quick set of reasons to dismiss traditional religion entirely. As he sees it, it’s a series of “myths, superstitions, and taboos,” a set of harmfully distracting fairy tales. As he makes that case, though, he relies on a lot of assumptions among his target audience. Hitchens would no doubt nod in agreement with such a phrase, but what about the rest of us? (It doesn’t help, by the way, that Harris seems to have little understanding of the crucial and nuanced ways in which Judaism is different from the other Abrahamic traditions he speaks about. For that matter, I suspect he’s mistaken about Islam and its Sufi traditions as well as Christianity and many of its esoteric strains.)

There’s no reason for me to rehearse the argument here – in brief, I’d argue that Harris conflates what I think of as a crisis of literalism, the misapprehension by contemporary “faithful” of texts that previous generations understood more poetically, with what we’d both agree is something like idolatry. But I’d argue as well that there’s no reason Harris needs to rehearse this argument here either. He frames his thoughtful discussion of spirituality and meditative practice with this quick, and in many ways condescending, overview. It’s like a devotee of Picasso and Matisse trying to explain why there might be something worth valuing in a comic book, or a classically trained dancer explaining why we should pay attention to hip-hop dance. Those metaphors fail, though, because there are thoughtful “highbrow” thinkers who find a way to value both types of art. Harris seems to feel he has to start from the sense of religion as flawed and harmful before he can try to extract elements of value from it.

All that’s just the frame, though. The main thrust of Harris’s book is a thoughtful take on what spirituality is and how we might come to study it through the tools of self-reflection and meditation. Starting from his background as a neuroscientist, one who has spent much of his life trying to learn from practitioners of meditation across the world, he bolsters his description of what it means to meditate with what’s taking place inside the brain. (There remains a trace here of what I call the “error of his frame.” It’s as if he’s trying to tell the Hitchens of the world that – don’t worry, bro’ – there’s still a lot of science behind the soft sounding stuff.)

As I read all this, I am intrigued by what it would be like to be a successful meditator, and I am led to think more carefully about reports from a couple good friends who say that regular meditation has improved the quality of their lives. That part of this book strikes me as meaningful, and I’m not sure anyone else could have written it – certainly no one else I’m aware of.

And, if it feels like I might be quibbling with what I call the “frame,” I find myself resisting the thrust of this part on a more thoughtful level.

The fact is, I’m a bad meditator. I enjoy yoga, but I have learned it’s agonizing for me to do it without a sense of how time is passing. (In fact, I have to sneak a watch in with me. So long as I know where I am in the hour, I can relax. When I lose sight of that, I feel a vague panic that time might have stopped. It’s “against the rules,” but I enjoy the experience only when I am hyper-conscious of time rather than lost within it.)

And, while I acknowledge the value of others’ experience, I don’t apologize for my own resistance. Good for others – and I mean that without condescension or sarcasm – if they can find strength and calm in discovering that the self is an illusion. I find comfort in the idea that I’m called always to better my “self,” however illusory that notion may be. I respect traditions that push toward a sense of the self as quantum, but I also respect the Western philosophical tradition founded on Socrates’s challenge to “know thyself.” When I write in the essay tradition of Montaigne, I understand myself as limning my own self, my own experience, and I value the experience of encountering others attempting the same thing. In that light, I think of Kurt Vonnegut, who was famously hostile to meditation and its practices (supposedly because his first wife got “lost” in such experience as he saw it). Instead, Vonnegut insisted that there was a “Western” practice of meditation. It was, he said, called reading, and he understood it as the experience of discovering (as opposed to losing) a sense of self through its similarities and contrasts with others.

I’m not dismissing what Harris is arguing here, and I don’t want to do him the disservice of casting his arguments as absolute. While he focuses here on the power of meditation, he’s also clearly spent much of his life pursuing science and other forms of intellectual inquiry. Still, I can’t help but put the end-frame on my own take on his work:

I have heard a number of times, but most movingly at my nephew’s bar mitzvah, the story of a rabbi who used to insist that we carry notes in our left and right pockets. On one he’d write, “I am the center of the universe.” On the other, “I am meaningless before the divine.” The idea was to strike a balance between a sense of self as all-encompassing and a sense of it as, to steal from the traditions Harris valorizes, illusory. It was also, I like to think, an effort to strike a balance between means of inquiry. It takes doubt – a doubt that Harris admirably uses through his application of science and reason to these questions – but I believe as well that it takes faith – a kind of faith that I think Harris too readily disdains – to accept the other crucial half of our place within the world.

I admire Harris for shining doubt on aspects of spirituality, for reclaiming them for the Hitchens of the world for whom they would otherwise be inaccessible. I also think he misses a big part of the picture in his seeming inability to look through the lens of faith at the same phenomena.


  • Touch

  • By: Claire North
  • Narrated by: Peter Kenny
  • Length: 12 hrs and 42 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 655
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 601
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 600

Kepler had never meant to die this way--viciously beaten to death by a stinking vagrant in a dark back alley. But when reaching out to the murderer for salvation in those last dying moments, a sudden switch takes place. Now Kepler is looking out through the eyes of the killer himself, staring down at a broken and ruined body lying in the dirt of the alley.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Large volume changes on most sentences.

  • By Nathan on 05-16-18

South of North's Best Work

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-24-19

Claire North has a recipe (or so I take it from The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope) and I generally like it. She takes a sci-fi premise – a man is born again at the same historical moment life after life or a woman leaves no lasting impression on the people – but that’s only the start. Where lesser writers just dump the premise and run, she explores it, brings out its contradictions, and resolves them. Then, working that exposition throughout the larger plot, she produces an exciting climax where our protagonist, meeting a character of the same nature, has a final showdown determined by the rules of the universe she’s created.

As if all that weren’t enough, she draws out a worthwhile philosophical interrogation about the nature of identity. Who are we if we’re born again with the capacity to “improve” on the decisions we made in our first life? How is it possible to fall in love if no one is ultimately like you? And what might it mean for us ordinary humans if there are other types with superior awareness?

I loved those other two of North’s novels, and I look forward to reading more of her work, but I think this one comes up somewhat short.

For starters, the sci-fi premise here is that the central character is a kind of ghost, a spirit who inhabits the bodies of others. He/she can move from person to person by touch. The mechanics of those movements are vintage North. There are some great scenes where our ghost protagonist, Kepler, passes from a body that’s been shot into the body of someone wounded nearby, into the body of the shooter, and then on to safety by a rapid switch of passers-by. It’s a whole new kind of thriller action.

As this goes along, though, I think it begins to undermine itself. Because the ghost takes on so many characteristics of his/her host, he is constantly in flux. There’s no stability, no “there there.” By the end of the novel, when Kepler declares him/herself in love with a human who’s gotten pulled into a conflict between Kepler and another ghost, it isn’t clear what that might mean. Kepler has been so many different people, has allowed so many hosts to get killed and hurt as a consequence of his/her actions, that how he/she would experience a sense of a self falling in love never comes clear.

It may be that I read this one too slowly and allowed my attention to drift, but I found myself less and less interested in the internal premises of its action. Kepler would be after a character who appeared one way and then after the same character who appeared completely different. I’d get a sense of the particulars of a scene, and then the scene would shift altogether.

As a reader, I’d find myself getting caught up in the action, and then it would change so dramatically that, even after I recalibrated which body which ghost was wearing, I couldn’t recover the same interest. It’s as if North, who is investigating the nature of identity, obscures identity so much here that one of her central premises more or less evaporates.

I’m still on for more of North’s work, but I think this one – the second she wrote under this pen-name – simply outsmarts itself.

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