Don’t Judge a Book by Its Blurbers

WITH RAVES FROM OUTLETS ranging from The New York Times and The Guardian to The New Yorker and NPR, I expected to be wowed by Rachel Cusk’s trilogy-opening novel Outline. I knew going in that this is an unconventional book, and I’m not huge into experimental(ish) fiction, but the wide-ranging praise convinced me to give it a try.

Cusk’s work follows a novelist traveling from London to Athens to lead a weeklong writing workshop. Beginning with the protagonist’s interaction with a seatmate on the flight to Greece, we get ten chapters’ worth of conversations between her and others she encounters. A colleague; her students; the seatmate again; and so on. The writing is compelling, and Cusk’s observations frequently piercing and incisive, but there is barely a plot and no conflict to speak of. I kept waiting for something, anything, to happen to make me interested in the characters. It never did.

With so much applause directed its way, I readily acknowledge that Outline may be a book that is simply over my head. More discerning readers than I called it among the best novels of the year it was published. Regardless, I found it more peculiar and frustrating than trenchant, and I am content to pass on Transit and Kudos, the second and third books in the trilogy, while I read other books more to my liking. | DL

A Great Book About Mars NOT Written by Andy Weir

THE FIRST CLUE that Sarah Stewart Johnson’s 2020 science memoir, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, is something special is right there on its cover. Above the matter-of-fact subtitle, “Searching for Life on Another World,” sits the work’s evocative, lyrical title: The Sirens of Mars.

The pages that follow bear witness to the title’s poignancy. In prose that is both poetic and clear-eyed, Stewart Johnson intertwines her journey from Kentucky schoolkid to Ph.D. planetary scientist with the history of the pursuit of evidence of life on the Red Planet. These chronicles are necessarily connected; Stewart Johnson began contributing to NASA’s Martian missions while she was a grad student and hasn’t stopped since.

From the debunked canals to failed launches to the dazzling success of the recent rovers, she lays out where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going. Stewart Johnson also shares about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field, and of how she immersed herself so deeply in another world that she sometimes lost her place in this one. She writes all of it with language as lucid and beautiful as the Martian vistas we have been privileged to glimpse in recent years. | DL

Risky Business: When the Government Doesn’t Want to Govern

EARLY ON IN his most recent book, The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis writes:

The United States government … managed a portfolio of risks that no private person, or corporation, was able to manage. Some of the risks were easy to imagine: a financial crisis, a hurricane, a terrorist attack. Most weren’t: the risk, say, that some prescription drug proves to be both so addictive and so accessible that each year it kills more Americans than were killed in action by the peak of the Vietnam War. Many of the risks that fell into the government’s lap felt so remote as to be unreal: that a cyberattack left half the country without electricity, or that some airborne virus wiped out millions, or that economic inequality reached the point where it triggered a violent revolution. (Emphases mine.)

fifth-risk-paperbackLewis’s book opens in the summer of 2016, when the Clinton and Trump campaigns were instructed to meet with the Obama administration, as required by federal law, to begin learning about the government whose highest office they were purportedly seeking. Team Trump, as Lewis describes in appalling detail, was profoundly disinterested in this undertaking, an attitude that had not changed by January of 2017, when it received the keys to the executive branch. He continues:

Enter the presidential transition. A bad transition took this entire portfolio of catastrophic risks — the biggest portfolio of such risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world — and made all the bad things more likely to happen and the good things less likely to happen.

Which, of course, is precisely what occurred.

Published in 2018, two years before the novel coronavirus overwhelmed the world, two years before the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd, and two years before municipal governments across the country spat on the First Amendment by tear-gassing peaceful protestors and detaining journalists, The Fifth Risk persuasively lays out just how much Uncle Sam provides for this country, almost all of it out of the public eye and much of it responsible for keeping safe and solvent the very citizens who profess to loathe government. As always, Lewis writes clearly and compellingly. The book is no screed; rather, it’s a nonpartisan plea for Americans to educate themselves about, well, what their government actually does, as opposed to what Fox News says it does.

It is that early passage that gets me, though. Beginning on Inauguration Day 2017, the United States assumed a far greater risk of devastating losses precisely because the President and his team had no desire to govern. The last three-and-a-half years have confirmed this in general, with the last four months making it inarguable.

Some reading this will see it as just more political stupidity from a snowflake libtard who hates America. It is not. I write here not of politics but of governing, which are crucially different things. In placing his hand on a Bible and swearing an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the President promised to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, [and] promote the general Welfare.” These tenets are the foundation of our most sacred governing document. They are what the Founding Fathers believed were the government’s chief responsibility.

With months to prepare for COVID-19, the President stuck his head in the sand, refusing to listen to the dire warnings of the country’s best public-health experts and condemning tens of thousands of Americans to death. With his country in desperate need of unity, the President has wrapped himself in the flag of a treasonous nation that took up arms against the United States to preserve the right to own other people. And with the economy on the verge of collapse, the President escapes to the golf course every weekend.

As Lewis writes, months before he was elected, the President signaled with clarity that he did not want to, well, preside. Our current national calamities are the price all of America is paying for this potent, destructive failure. | DL

Reviews: ‘1917,’ ‘The Sacrament’

THE LARGE SWATHS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE are the domain of the historians. Eras, wars, empires, kingdoms, presidencies, movements — even pandemics — are contextualized and explained, their antecedents and consequences laid out and analyzed that we might understand not only what happened, but also why and how.

The individual players and moments from those times belong to the storytellers — the writers, painters, musicians, playwrights, and filmmakers. Artists deliver us perspective and meaning that help us make sense, at a human level, of the historians’ chronicles.

1917Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917 offers up a simple premise. A British force of 1,600 is about to attack what is believed to be the retreating remnants of the German army. Aerial reconnaissance, though, shows a much larger enemy group massing to catch the British in a trap. There are no lines of communication allowing those at the rear to warn the 1,600 not to attack.

A young soldier named Blake is summoned to a makeshift field headquarters; he enlists a fellow comrade in arms, Schofield, to join him. The pair meet with a grim-faced general who charges them with making their way to the attacking troops before they charge the next day, and delivering a letter ordering them to stand down.

Why Blake?

His brother is one of the 1,600.

The wanton destruction and vast suffering wrought by the War to End All Wars — if only — are ever present. But they are brought down to a personal level by Mendes’s focus on two soldiers, painfully young men, fighting their way to the front to save lives. It is a completely engrossing story, in no small part because for Blake, the stakes are as high as possible.

The gimmick of the movie is that Mendes filmed it as if it were a single shot, and that only enhances the intimacy. We are never far from Blake and Schofield; we see what they see and only what they see. The scale is personal, which engages us with their quest even more.

Similarly, Olaf Olafsson’s trim, quiet novel The Sacrament examines the larger issue of child abuse by Catholic priests through the eyes of a middle-aged French nun. Twenty years after traveling to Iceland to investigate allegations made against a school headmaster, Sister Johanna Marie has been contacted by a man she believed was one of the headmaster’s victims as a boy. She is sent by the Vatican, in the form of a cardinal who has long known of a personal secret Johanna Marie carries, back to Reykjavik to meet with the man.

SacramentOver the course of her journey, she recalls her life-altering time studying at the Sorbonne, the charming young Icelandic woman she roomed with, and the original investigation, with its intriguing cast of characters.

The themes are overarching — memory, identity, justice, redemption, spirituality. But by giving us the gentle, disarming Johanna Marie to tell the story, and by setting it not amidst the Machiavellian intrigue of St. Peter’s or in bustling America but within the relative obscurity of Iceland, Olafsson forces us to look an appalling travesty with much greater focus than we otherwise might.

Additionally, just as Mendes reduced the scope of his story with the single-shot technique, Olafsson only rarely directly quotes anyone. Dialogue is rendered without quotation marks, as if it is not conversations being reported but Johanna Marie herself pulling up a chair and telling us what happened as she recalled it. We are inside her head, living with her doubts and regrets, and it gives the novel emotional punch.

Journalists have been chronicling COVID-19’s everyday happenings for months, and they will continue to do so in the months and years to come. Eventually, the historians will weigh in, undoubtedly uncovering even more proof that so much awfulness could have — should have — been prevented.

But it will be the artists who will give all it truly human meaning, just as they have always done. | DL

COVID No. 7: I Keep Using the Word ‘Normal’ …

HERE’S MY PRIMARY TAKEAWAY after a week of all this:

Whatever you can do that safely, responsibly reflects your prior coronavirus activities, do it. Do it often, do it eagerly, do it with intention.

That’s what gonna keep us sane and ready to pick up when the risk is behind us.

Yesterday, that meant a walk, a nap, and a visit with dear friends/family, with whom we observed appropriate social-distancing guidelines while we sat on their patio, luxuriated in the early-spring late-afternoon sun, had a few drinks, and laughed our asses off. It meant ordering takeout pizza, stromboli, cheesesteaks, and fries from our favorite local shop, watching Veronica Mars reruns while we ate, and playing Balderdash to finish the night.

Today it meant finishing an intriguing, thoughtful novel, catching up on some work, taking another nap, and cooking dinner.

It was all, once I yanked my head out of Twitter and news sites and such, delightfully normal. And normal is our friend, now more than ever. Normal will help see us through this, help us to realize that there is a lot more under our control than we might think. This is no small thing.

Control what you can, let the rest go, be kind, compassionate, forgiving, generous, and understanding, and we will get through this. I don’t know what waits for us on the other side, but that’s of little concern now. Focus on today. Focus on what matters. | DL

Burnet Up, Or How Just a Few Kind Words Can Inspire the Writer in Me


WITNESS STATEMENTS. Memoir. Medical reports. Journal article. Trial record.

There’s an awful lot going on in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel His Bloody Project, not least of which is that the crime referred to in the title is established in its opening pages. A triple homicide in a poor village in the Scottish Highlands in the late 1860s — that’s what happened, and the reader knows it straight away.

It is in the how and the why where Burnet’s tale lies. Using a variety of storytelling techniques and devices — those listed up there in the first line — he crafts a strikingly original work of vivid details, meticulous characterization, and compelling plot. As a writer, I have found myself returning to Burnet’s adroit handling to figure out how to make my own work better without throwing up my hands in despair because nothing I produce will ever be that good.

I tweeted as much to him and Matthew Klam — whose deeply felt Who Is Rich? I hope to discuss in a future post — and was reassured that all of us who struggle to make magic with words are wrestling with the same demons.

“If it’s any consolation,” Graeme Macrae Burnet tweeted back at me, “I often have the same thought!”

Yes, indeed, Mr. Burnet. It is of enormous consolation. I’ll be back at the keyboard tonight. | DL

Tome Swift, or How Smaller Page Counts Are Feeding My Habit

short readsTHE PLAN TO read more in the new year was going well. Until it wasn’t. Even my audio book consumption dropped off. In both formats, I started works only to get into them and lose interest. And before too long, my reading momentum was gone.

Looking for a way to get my nose (and ears) back into books, I recalled a list I’d seen online of well-done quick reads. That seemed like a good way to ease myself back into it — not by taking on a weighty doorstop whose heft could prove intimidating, but by leveraging the psychological boost that a work of smaller scale could provide. The Goldfinch? Um, no, not this week. Dept. of Speculation? Jenny Offill’s novel, checking in at 192 pages, is at the top of the list I’d seen. Perfect.

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Trig Newtown, or How Heavy-Duty Math and Science Don’t Mix Well with Audio Books

Indy and MarionTHE AUDIO VERSION of James Gleick’s Isaac Newton is a mere five CDs — about two-and-a-half round trips to work. Newton was a genius, of course, a pioneer in mathematics and physics, yet I knew little of his life beyond the almost certainly apocryphal tale of the apple conking him on the head, leading to his theorizing about gravity. So I figured Gleick’s book was worth a listen.


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I’m Thankful That I Have Many Reasons to Give Thanks More Than Once a Year

THE FOLKS who research happiness say that regular reflections on gratitude improve one’s mindset. I wouldn’t mind an improved mindset, so I probably ought to think more often about what I’m thankful for. Many of my Facebook friends have spent each day this month posting about the things for which they’re grateful. But the best I can do right now is to offer this list today, Thanksgiving Day, about my gratitude, as I did last year.

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‘You Ain’t Clean’: As Flannery O’Connor Observes, None of Us Is

wisebloodTHIS POST was supposed to be a gushing paean to Flannery O’Connor’s astoundingly good debut novel, Wise Blood, whose audio version I concluded listening to on my way to work yesterday.

O’Connor’s masterful capture of the mid-century South — of its deeply ingrained racism, its dusty sleepiness, its barely hidden corruption — is startling. None of the characters is likable, though in O’Connor’s confident hands they attain a cockeyed dignity. Each has his or her own unique voice, and the author handles multiple points of view deftly.

The religious overtones for which she became known are already fully present here; indeed, the book turns on them. Despite her relative youth, O’Connor offers them to the reader forthrightly and without apology.

I hadn’t read her since a short story or two in college, and Wise Blood made me wonder what took me so long.

But what grabbed the most was one of the final sentences I heard:  Continue reading