Sunday 27 December 2015

My Top Ten Books of 2015

This overview of favourite books originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing on this site because it contains book about transgression and my more recent interest in reclaiming our humanity or exploring the better sides of our nature.

I have reviewed some of the following selections (link provides); all were read in 2015 and about half were published this year.  – Bob Douglas

All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson (2008) was the first police procedural that I read that feature DCI Alan Banks. I was so gripped by the novel that I continued to read several more from the series but none of them surpassed its originality. We are never in doubt about the identity of the perpetrator but Robinson imaginably unfolds the why and the how by watching an amateur production of a Shakespearean drama about jealousy.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a dual account about an albino child prodigy in Nazi Germany and a blind girl in France before and during World War Two. Werner has an astonishing skill for fixing radios that earns him a place at a training school for the Nazi military elite. Then his talents are put at the service of the Reich to identify the sources of enemy transmissions, a task which will challenge his essential decency and morality. These chapters chillingly recreate the fanaticism and thuggery that we associate with the Third Reich and are among the best in the book. To compensate for her blindness, Marie-Laure’s father builds a model of the neighbourhood for her so that she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When the Nazis occupy Paris, the two of them flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo to live with his uncle who uses his radio transmitter on behalf of the Resistance. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure will intersect during the Allied invasion. Despite an unnecessary subplot about a valuable and dangerous jewel and a few stereotyped minor characters, Doerr unfolds a completely new tale about a familiar terrain, one that Dickens might have written had he lived in the twentieth century.

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Impact of Aesthetics in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I reproduce on this site because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) has several chapters on National Socialism ideology and its consequences and because one of its chapters explores Nazi aesthetics. In the book under review, aesthetics offers a stark counterpoint.

The living room at Villa Tugendhat (to the right of the onyx wall), the setting for Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

“The Glass Room remained indifferent, of course. Plain, balanced, perfect; and indifferent. Architecture should have no politics...” 
– Simon Mawer, The Glass Room
Simon Mawer is adept at reimagining and creating powerful storylines from history. His recent espionage novels,The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Tightrope, are a tribute to the female resistance fighters in World War Two and an exploration of the nuclear politics of the early Cold War. In a somewhat different manner, his superb 2009 Booker Prize finalist, The Glass Room (Little, Brown) is inspired, as the author acknowledges, by the history of a cultural landmark, the Villa Tugendhat, currently a museum in the Czech Republic. It was once owned by a wealthy Jewish couple who were forced to flee to Switzerland when the Nazis incorporated Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich and the house itself was appropriated by the Nazis. Then it was confiscated by the Soviets who used it as a ballet school and a clinic before the Czech Republic acquired and renovated it and transformed it into a museum.

Mawer’s novel loosely follows the history of this “jewel of modern domestic architecture,” but in his reworking, he uses the house as a literary device to examine the dreams and illusions of its various inhabitants. The cool rationality and beauty of this exemplar of minimalist architecture serve as a counterpoint to the conflicted emotions of those who live within its spaces, compounded by the combustible forces of six decades of twentieth-century Central European History, much of it tragic. Almost the entire plot takes place within its shimmering spaces. When the narrative strays beyond it, the actions of the characters are a response to the luminescent architecture and its centrepiece, the Glass Room. As a result, a house, or more specifically a room, becomes the principal character in a novel that marries plot with aesthetics, but the aesthetics is not burdened with heavy-handedness or pretension.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Life in the Shadows Never Ends: Simon Mawer's Marian Sutro Novels

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large. I am reproducing on this site because Simon Mawer's  protagonist, Marian Sutro, demonstrates a heroism that is missing in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but here PTSD reinforces what I did write about.

Author Simon Mawer. (Photo: David Levenson)

Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (Little, Brown 2012) – the American edition is Trapeze (Other Press, 2012) – and its sequel Tightrope (Little, Brown, 2015) is like reading two parts of the same novel. The more ambitious Tightrope can be read independently, but I think readers can derive more pleasure if they begins with the first. Reminiscent of Sebastian Faulkes’ Charlotte Gray, The Girl chronicles the war efforts of a young English woman with a Catholic francophone childhood who is recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the spy network, to become a secret agent. In the Scottish Highlands, Marian Sutro attends a school for spies where she undergoes commando training and learns among other skills how to survive interrogation. She is ultimately parachuted from an RAF bomber into the South-West of France to join the Resistance, along with a young irreverent Frenchman, Benoit. Although the work she knows will be dangerous and fraught with risk, Marian “felt only a great rush of excitement.” Throughout, she displays her bravery and when the occasion calls for it, she becomes a ruthless killer.

Sunday 15 November 2015

The Power of Art to Mobilize: The Wind in the Reeds

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is somewhat different than previous entries on this site because it reviews the memoir of an actor and activist who used both his art and his philanthropy to assist in the rebuilding of a community devastated by Katrina.  


J. Kyle Manzay and Wendell Pierce in Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, Lower 9th Ward in 2007. (Photo: Paul Chan)

“At this place, in this moment in time, all mankind is us… Let us do something while we have a chance.” 
– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

“Art is not a sideshow for the real business of life, it is at the heart of what it means to live as a human. At its best and highest, art changes people’s hearts, minds and even their lives.” 
– Wendell Pierce, Wind in the Reeds (Riverhead Books, 2015) 

Rarely does a memoirist write so passionately and eloquently as actor Wendell Pierce does about the power of art in his The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. His subtitle reveals the one of its two interrelated subjects: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that barrelled into a vulnerable New Orleans in August 2005 turning what should have been only a natural disaster into a social, political and environmental tragedy killing fifteen hundred people. The second is a poignant love letter of sorts to his mother and father, both towering influences in his life and who owned a “modest little house” since 1953 in the Pontchartrain Park neighbourhood, the first African American middle-class subdivision in New Orleans, and the site of some of the worst damage.

Sunday 18 October 2015

A Female Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because I wrote seven chapters on Nazi Germany in That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions 2013)

Author Jane Thynne.

This review contains some spoilers for Jane Thynne's A Winter Garden and The Scent of Secrets.
Over a month ago at the Berlin airport, I picked up a copy of the novel, A Winter Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Jane Thynne, an author with whom I was not familiar. I was most interested in finding out whether she had anything new to say about the deeply-lined runes of the Third Reich. Apart from a few academic studies that Thynne acknowledges, I do not recall any novelist that explores as she does the intensity of Nazi misogyny and contempt for women. When I finished it, I ordered the next book in the series, The Scent of Secrets (Doubleday Canada, 2015). In the UK, the same novel is published with the title, A War of Flowers. Unfortunately, the cover of The Scent of Secrets is almost identical to that of A Winter Garden. On the plus side, either Thynne or her publishers made the astute decision to hook the reader by publishing the prelude and chapter of the subsequent entry in the last few pages of the book. She succeeded with me.

A reader might think that Thynne, a former print and television journalist and the wife of author, Philip Kerr, who has written several well-received novels on the Third Reich, might overlap with her husband. But in terms of subject matter and style, they are completely different. Whereas Kerr’s protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is a wise-cracking police officer and later a private detective with a cynical view of the world who has seen the worst of humanity, Thynne’s central character, Clara Vine, whose mother was German and father is English, has been recruited in 1933 by British Intelligence to become a spy while she establishes herself as an actress in Berlin’s Ufa studios as her cover, a process that apparently occurs in the first Clara Vine novel, Black Roses (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Her novels offer a woman’s perspective of the regime as Clara’s task is to gain admittance to the circles of the Nazi wives, and, in The Scent of Secrets, a greater challenge: to win the friendship of the woman closest to Hitler, Eva Braun. But there is a paradox that the series can probably never fully resolve: how can a single, independent and half-English woman have access to and influence in the corridors of power in such a misogynous regime?

Sunday 4 October 2015

Resonating Impressions from Berlin, 2015

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large August 4th and I reproduce here because modern Germany is a central focus for That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013). I add a few more photos on this site.

A section of the Berlin Wall Memorial. (Photo by Bob Douglas)

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
– Helen Keller
Berlin from my experience is one of the most stimulating cities in the world. As a long-time teacher and student of modern German history, Berlin possesses a fascination for me. Ian Buruma’s Wages of Guilt: Memories of Guilt in Germany and Japan (1994) contrasts Germany’s efforts at reparation with Japan’s denial of its aggression during the war. Nowhere in Germany has any city taken more responsibility to address this vital issue than Berlin. For fiction, Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper (1983), where we meet a diverse gallery of characters from both sides of the Wall, and his novel set after reunification, Eduard’s Homecoming (2000) are both insightful portraits of different periods in Berlin’s history. In the latter, the protagonist returns home from California after he inherits property in what was East Berlin, and is forced to examine both his family history during the Nazi era and his own actions, questioning whether he is just another West German opportunist who is taking advantage of the misfortunes of East Germans.

I still regret that I never travelled there before November 1989. Nonetheless, I have visited the city three times: in the early 1990s shortly after the Wall, the most tangible symbol of the Cold War, came down; ten years later; and for over a week at the end of this summer. Each time, the city resembles, at least in part, an urban palimpsest as it physically and spiritually tries to remake itself after the ordeal of the Third Reich and the tensions of a divided city during the Cold War. For example, the first time we exited from the U-Bahn at the old city centre, Potsdamer Platz, the area was desolate grassland that had lain fallow during the Cold War because it was situated right along the Wall. The second time, modern architecture featuring the Sony Centre, a monolith of glass and steel with a huge tent-like conical roof, showcasing the history of German film (an exciting exhibition), began to spring up. Currently, the building boom with both commercial skyscrapers and high-end residential housing has turned the Platz into the business-entertainment centre of Berlin. And that is just one site, as cranes continue to operate throughout the city both building and renovating. As thrilling as the first two trips were, the latest was the richest in large part because I carried with me a copy of Berlin by Norbert Schürer (Interlink Books, 2015) and participated in four of the eight thematic, reasonably priced, walking tours offered by Insider Tour.

Friday 18 September 2015

Doppelgangers in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and Joyce Carol Oates’ Jack of Spades

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large on September 17 and is reproduced on this site because the common thread of the doppelganger is a major motif in both That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War  and That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden  both published by Encompass Editions in 2012 and 2013.
Note: this post contains spoilers for Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and Joyce Carol Oates’ Jack of Spades

The power of writing and its obsessive hold over fan readers is a theme with which Stephen King is familiar. In Misery (1987) Annie Wilkes becomes increasingly psychotic after she reads a manuscript by the protagonist writer, Paul Sheldon, due to a sense of betrayal after she learns that the writer decides to dispense with his popular Victorian romantic heroine series and write a contemporary novel spiked with violence and profanity. In his most recent outing, Finders Keepers (Scribner 2015), King narrates the tale of two teenagers, set thirty-five years apart, a troubled Morris Bellamy and a generous Pete Saubers, who become enthralled with the Jimmy Gold novels by John Rothstein, a novelist who bears a strong similarity to J.D. Salinger. After Rothstein finished his trilogy that made him rich and famous, he retreated to a farm in New Hampshire where he refused to publish anything further prompting Time magazine in 1960 to acclaim him to be “America’s Reclusive Genius.” When Finders Keepers begins in 1978, rumours have circulated over the intervening years that Rothstein continued to write.

When a high school teacher introduces the first volume, The Runner, to an alienated but bright student, Morris Bellamy, he becomes hooked and the book changes his life. Bellamy identifies with the anti-hero Jimmy Gold, who will remind readers of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Jimmy and the other characters that populate the novels are more human and real to Bellamy than any living person. But as he read the third novel, The Runner Slows Down, he becomes enraged because he considers Jimmy a sellout moving from New York to suburbia where he marries, has two children and works in advertising living a Mad Men, Don Draper-like, vacuous, philandering existence. The tipping point for Bellamy’s descent into a ruinous life is his professorial mother’s curt and sarcastic dismissal of the first two volumes, yet offering faint-hearted praise for the third, the one that her son despises. Leaving home, he slips into petty crime. After spending a year in a Youth Detention Centre, Bellamy hatches a scheme with two hapless accomplices to invade Rothstein’s farm, and steal his money and the notebooks of the unpublished writings that the writer has been squirreling away for years.

Except for the last detail outlined above, King dispenses the rest of this material throughout the novel. In the first chapter, the ghoulish red-lipped Bellamy – “Red Lips” becomes an epithet to characterize him – carries out the home invasion where he kills Rothstein: a sellout does not have the right to live. Bellamy stashes all of the money and the over one-hundred notebooks in a trunk he buries near his mother's home. But before he can read one word of what's in the pilfered cache, he spends 36 years in prison for an unrelated crime. A few years before Bellamy is paroled, Pete Saubers, whose family lives in the same house where Bellamy once lived, stumbles upon the trunk and devises a scheme to financially assist his family without revealing its provenance. His parents have been cash-strapped since his disabled father, Tom Saubers, was seriously injured when the title character in Mr. Mercedes drove a car into a crowd of people at a work fair. But reading the notebooks are a transformative experience in Pete’s life. Already a good student, he develops a passion for literature, especially the writings of Rothstein. However, once Bellamy is out of jail, the only thing that has kept him alive in prison is the goal of turning his fantasy of reading the notebooks into a reality, which puts Pete in his crosshairs.

Finders Keepers is the second of a planned trilogy of hard-boiled mystery narratives without signs of the supernatural or paranormal as they follow retired Detective Bill Hodges. The 2014’s award-winning Mr. Mercedes was the first in the series, which pitted Hodges against Brady Hartsfield, the homicidal title character. (The final pages of the current novel tantalizingly suggest the direction of the future third.) In Finders Keepers, Hodges and his two young sidekicks, an intellectual prodigy, Jerome Robinson now a Harvard student, and an emotionally damaged but resourceful young woman named Holly Gibney, are relatively minor characters and do not even appear until the second half of the novel. When we meet Hodges for the first time on page 150, he is working on a case as a private investigator. These pages allow King to pay homage to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, as John Banville did, writing under his pseudonym Benjamin Black, but much better in Black Eyed Blonde. King attempts to capture the tough-guy demeanour of the Marlowe-like Hodges, but I found a dip in the novel’s energy when our attention is diverted from the inevitable confrontation between the two major protagonists. Perhaps King is giving us a preview of the style he will employ in the concluding novel. Regardless, when King finds a hook to shoehorn Hodges into the larger narrative, the intensity of the novel accelerates. Once Bellamy has identified who possesses the notebooks, he will stop at nothing, including murder, to retrieve them. We know that Hodges and his team will do everything they can to thwart his goal, and save Pete and his family.

Besides the suspense and the fast pace – two King trademarks – that drive the novel to its riveting conclusion, what perhaps is most interesting is King’s exploration of the doppelganger. Both Bellamy and Saubers share the same passion for Rothstein’s novels and notebooks. Bellamy has to know whether the third novel was merely an aberration and Saubers, who has already read the next two novels, is motivated to parlay his love of Rothstein’s fiction into his own writing career. But there is a fundamental difference between the two: besides not being a zealous psychopath, Pete knows what really matters, not the notebooks but the safety of his family – real people not characters on a page – and he is willing to sacrifice the one to save the other. He is also appalled that Bellamy would kill Rothstein merely because he did not like the direction that the writer took in his third novel. These two characters are not the traditional notion of the doppelganger since one is not the ghostly double of the other, but they are the mirror image of each other; one acts a foil for the other. The utterly ruthless and predatory Morris Bellamy serves to clarify the humane values of Pete Saubers.

A more traditional doppelganger is at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Jack of Spades (Mysterious Press, 2015). Our contemporary Dr. Jekyll is the commercially successful writer of high-brow mystery novels, Andrew Rush, whom one critic dubbed the “gentleman’s Stephen King.” Yet, no matter how many best-selling novels Rush has written, he feels insecure about his writing and is envious of King’s vast sales and the huge sums of money that his competitor has made. Oates references King several times in Jack of Spades, sometimes amusingly with her tongue firmly planted inside her cheek. Possible reasons for her allusions to King are that he has had his own darker, more cynical pseudonym, Richard Bachman, whom King decided to discard, she has herself experimented with nom de plumes, and finally King wrote The Dark Half (1989), about a writer, Thad Beaumont, who decides to kill off his doppelganger, George Stark, with murderous results. (Beaumont’s fictional alter ego comes to life and begins to stalk those responsible for his demise and Beaumont becomes the chief suspect.)

To compensate for his blandly predictable suburban family life, Rush acquires an alter ego. Whereas Rush toils at his computer methodically, slowly plotting out each successive novel, his noir self "Jack of Spades" writes in longhand at a feverish pace after midnight fortifying himself with scotch, quickly churning out “cruder more visceral, more frankly horrific” violent potboilers. No one, not even his wife and children, knows the identity of the writer as he communicates only electronically with a different publisher.

Rush is able to keep his respected public and darker private life separate until two developments occur. His grown daughter picks up a copy of a "Jack of Spades" book that Rush left carelessly lying around and finds it not only "gross" but disturbingly similar in plot to a childhood mishap which almost ended her life. A reader can surmise what happens in the novel. Secondly, Rush is the recipient of a bizarre plagiarism lawsuit from an unhinged reader, a local woman claiming he not only copied her ideas, but physically stole her work. While the even-tempered Rush is annoyed at being accused, he urges his lawyer to take no legal action when the case is dismissed but "Jack of Spades" bays for revenge, and Oates chronicles Rush’s slow descent into madness as his alter ego begins to take over his life. The voice of Oates’ Mr. Hyde becomes mocking and more insistent as the blandishments and rationalizations of "Jake of Spades" appear in italics. At one point, his wife enters his secret office – a room that she thought was only for storage – and wonders about the voices she is hearing. An agitated Rush quickly ushers her out of his private domain while angrily denying her queries, the first step in the disintegration of their marriage. "Jack of Spades" becomes an Iago voice suggesting that his wife is having an affair and that his family is a drain on his energies. Under the demonic power of "Jack of Spades," Rush is subsumed by his inner percolating impulses. The psychopathology that has operated beneath the surface throughout his life, which Oates gradually reveals, becomes more dominant as Rush increasingly begins to act like one of the nasty characters that he created in his "Jack of Spades" novels.

Beyond the literary device of the doppelganger, what the authors of Finders Keepers and Jack of Spades have in common is that they share a love of literature. Besides the influence of Salinger, King’s novel evokes John Updike’s Rabbit novels, and Finders Keepers is studded with allusions to Joseph Conrad, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Emile Zola. In his English class, Pete reads D.H. Lawrence’s story, "The Rocking-Horse Winner," and it deeply resonates with him given its message that “money from nowhere almost always spells trouble.” Oates’ ability to cross genres from historical romances, contemporary social problems, young adult fiction, and in particular the Gothic is well known. The Gothic influences, which inspired Jack of Spades, are specifically mentioned, especially the short stories and novels of Edgar Allan Poe that are not only enumerated but are integrated into the plot. Both novels explore the power of literature over its readers or over writers themselves and their fictional counterparts. Literature can inspire readers to the better angels of their nature or serve as a cautionary warning that authors or their books can become a source of pathological fixation.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Racism in Alive in America: Part Two

Part One of this piece appeared on Critics at Large on Sunday, August 16 and Part Two appeared on that site on August 23.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 
                                                   ― William Faulkner

Jim Grimsley's contention that “We reserve our special ideological fury for blackness” suffuses Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If the tone in most of Grimsley’s How I Shed My Skin is a gentle wistfulness, the mood that percolates throughout Between the World is one of anger, desperation and fear, punctuated by flashes of love for his teenage son, Samori. Coates, the author of the memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, has written in the form of a letter to his son about what it means to be a black man in America today. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.” The violence to which Coates refers encompasses slavery, the terror of Jim Crow, and police brutality right up to the present moment, much of it covered by Grimsley. But Coates’ prose has a much more personal edginess to it as he has internalized and lived that history. The power of his writing in part derives from his capacity to dissolve the distinctions between the past and the present where one seamlessly flows into the other. Read the lyrical passages in Between the World and Me where he urges his son to not only respect all other living human beings but also to extend it to individuals once enslaved.

Coates insists that no amount of false morality about “personal responsibility” on the part of African Americans can shield them from lethal violence. Right from the outset when he attempts to help Samori grapple with his feelings after the police officer in Ferguson who killed Michael Brown was not indicted, Coates refuses to comfort his son or the white reader for whom this book is really intended, with “praise anthems [or] old Negro spirituals.” “There is no uplifting way” to tell the hard realities about brutality in America. Instead of bromides about racial progress, he can only offer the need for struggle, as he sets out to explore the question of how to “live free in this black body” when “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.” As a result of his own life experiences, he believed he was in a war “for the possession of his body, and this would be the war of his whole life.” This is not a book for those whose only touchstone for improving race relations is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or for anyone who wants to see America through the prism of what Coates calls the “Dream” of “perfect houses with nice lawns.”

Sunday 16 August 2015

Racism is Alive in America: Part One

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing on this website because racism, albeit not the American expression, was an integral component on both volumes of That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War and The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden both published by Encompass Editions 2012 and 2013.

“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.” 
― John C. Calhoun, 1848
Some of the names will be familiar, some may not: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott and Freddie Gray. What they all share in common is that they were unarmed black men who were either killed by the police or in the case of Martin, by an armed killer who was acquitted. Compound these individual killings with the June domestic terrorist act in Charleston, S.C., where a young white man motivated by sheer racial hatred executed nine black worshipers in an historic black church. The zealot left behind a manifesto that leaves little doubt that he was inspired by the Web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a prominent white supremacist group that has funded Republican contenders for the Presidency in 2016.

The current incumbent, Barack Obama, has belatedly become emboldened and retrieved his mojo in the twilight of his Presidency, particularly on matters of race. Where once he cautiously deployed the bully pulpit to speak about encouraging personal responsibility, he has now, in columnist Maureen Dowd’s words, “discovered a more gingerly voice.” Consider the following checklist: a searing speech on race relations and his moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the Charleston eulogy for the pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney. For the first time in American history Obama made a presidential visit to a federal prison to showcase the problem with sentencing policies that have filled the nation’s prisons with nonviolent offenders who are disproportionately African American. There he spoke with felons to say, “There but for the grace of God.” He also told the NAACP that African Americans were “more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained,” and more likely to be arrested. “They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.” But his boldest comments occurred when he chose a podcast with comedian Marc Maron to address race relations. Although he said that they have clearly improved in our lifetime, he made it clear that “we are not cured” of racism “and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Slavery and Jim Crow discrimination cast “a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.” Obama’s impassioned remarks suggest that he is either in tune with the zeitgeist or he has been reading Jim Grimsley's courageous memoir How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books, 2015) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ unflinching treatise Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Although they are strikingly different in tone and style, they complement each other and offer insightful contributions to the conversation about race in America.

Sunday 2 August 2015

The New Cold War in Jason Matthew’s Palace of Treason

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because I concluded my Soviet chapters in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) with a brief assessment of Vladimir Putin, a central character in the novel under review.

Novelist Jason Matthews. (Photo: Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times)

“[Putin] was a natural conspirator who was concerned about one thing – sila – power, strength, force. It was having and keeping sila that everything else derived: personal wealth, Russian resurgence, territory, oil, global respect, fear, women.” 
–  Jason Matthews, Palace of Treason (Scribner, 2015)
In his debut thriller Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews introduced Dominika Egorova of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the most intriguing heroines to grace the espionage genre. Courageous, a stunningly attractive former ballerina and capable of unleashing lethal force on anyone who presents a threat, Dominika is a synesthete endowed with the gift of seeing emotions as colours above the heads of those around her. (When I reviewed Sparrow two years ago, I mistakenly suggested that her synesthesia was a metaphor for heightened intuition. I have since learned that synesthesia is a neurological condition that may affect four percent of the population. Those who experience this phenomenon usually see colours in letters and numbers or associate sounds with colours, but in some rarer cases a synesthete can associate particular colours with specific people. The latter application is the most relevant to Dominika.) She is also a graduate of the Sparrow School, where male and female agents are taught advanced sexual techniques as an aid to seduction and recruitment. Dominika is recruited by Nate Nash, an internal-ops officers, also tasked with handling CIA assets. His aura is deep purple, one that is “warm, honest and safe.” But the increasingly reckless Nate breaks every rule of security by becoming involved with Dominika. In the sequel, Palace of Treason, Mathews provides sufficient back story so that anyone can enjoy this novel without having read its predecessor.

Sunday 19 July 2015

The Power of Art in Fear and the Muse Kept Watch

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large July 18/15 and its relevance to this site I think should be obvious given that six chapters in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) are devoted to the Soviet Union.

In the introduction of Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: The Russian Masters – from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein – Under Stalin (The New Press, 2015), journalist Andy McSmith, reminds us that the purpose of George Orwell’s classic 1984 was to demonstrate how the creative life was crushed out of the people, leaving them incapable of free thought and acting like robots. By contrast, McSmith argues that Soviet citizens, who absorbed great drama, music, film, novels and poetry, could not be turned into robots even under the machinery of Stalin’s terror. They would outwardly conform but they remained sentient beings who needed and appreciated great art. As a result of the Revolution, a vast more number of Soviet citizens were exposed to the arts, especially theatre, because of that hunger. This is an intriguing thesis, one that I agree with, though I am not certain that the author has proven it. At times he does provide convincing evidence, but he leaves it to the reader to make the connections.

I do not want to suggest that Fear and the Muse is devoid of intellectual pleasures. On the contrary, one of its great strengths is that it comfortably shoehorns these artists and their art into one book. Too often, cultural life is relegated to a single chapter in Soviet histories, confined to biographies or specialized monographs on one of the arts. Instead, McSmith combines astute biographical profiles with perceptive insights into their art and how both were related to the larger cultural and political climate of the time, especially given that Stalin paid considerable attention to the arts. There is not much that is new here, and he ignores the role of the visual arts, but McSmith’s major accomplishment has been to synthesize in lucid prose a great amount of material from secondary sources and translated Russian correspondence. One bonus is that he is self-taught in Russian, and some of his more memorable quotations occur when he quotes from untranslated Russian correspondence.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Crossing Moral Boundaries in the Historical Mysteries of Joseph Kanon

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I have reproduced it on this site because the thread that unites his novel, moral transgression, is the central theme of the two volumes of That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions)

Novelist Joseph Kanon. (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Joseph Kanon, the former publishing executive, has demonstrated two great strengths in his novels: his capacity for providing a textured atmospheric backdrop to his murder mysteries populated by both historical and fictional characters, and his ability to convey to readers the pressing moral questions of the moment. In his seven novels, the setting for at least part of each novel has been between 1945 and 1950 where the unresolved issues of World War II are played out.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Moral Quandaries in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

This review  originally appeared in the online site,Critics at Large, June 21/15 and reproducing on this website because, although I did not write about Vietnam in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) I did discuss the power of Marxist Leninism ideology and its often inhuman implementation and the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War and its military responses.

The American Embassy in Saigon, on April 29, 1975. (Photo by Neal Ulevich)

“This fantasy of Americans as rescuers has re-emerged in Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam … telling a story that is good for the American soul. The movie depicts how, in the final hours of American involvement in Vietnam, a handful of courageous Americans initiated the rescue of 130,000 South Vietnamese allies from the clutches of evil communists…It was exactly what I thought it was going to be, American good intentions get reaffirmed. Although Vietnamese faces end the film, they are just victims who are grateful to Americans.” 
 Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Last Days in Vietnam (2014) 

When I first saw Rory Kennedy’s must-heralded documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, I was moved by the humanitarian and heroic impulses of Americans, notably the former US Army officer, Stuart Herrington, to rescue as many as possible South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on planes, ships and helicopters. These efforts are presented as saving them from an impending bloodbath perpetrated by barbaric hordes from the North. But as I watched the film more carefully and read reviews by Vietnamese who in 1975 were young children, I began to harbour misgivings about the film. There is little in the way of context. Although the film rightly mentions the Communist massacres at Hue, it says nothing about the successive corrupt South Vietnamese regimes that enjoyed no public support, that foisted on its people, for example, the vastly unpopular Strategic Hamlet program that relocated peasants to areas where they would be isolated from the Viet Cong, supposedly protected by militias and barbed wire. Nor does the film allude to the American carpet bombing or the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide that continues to afflict Vietnamese (and some Americans)suffering from mangled limbs, physical and psychological disorders. We sometimes forget that four million people died, half of them civilian. It does not help that the film frequently shows a map with a spreading, blood-red stain to indicate communist advances, akin to the creeping communism commonly depicted in Cold War-era graphics. And if the Vietnamese are not invisible, they only appear as uniformly grateful.

A much more complex and nuanced perspective about Vietnam and American culture can be found in the dazzling debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. When the author was four years old, he escaped from Vietnam with his parents and brother in 1975 and has written movingly about that time and growing up in California.

Monday 15 June 2015

Week Eight: Contemporary Expressions of Blue Spaces

Joe Darby
"Dr Rieux decided to write the account that ends here, so as not to be one of those who keep silent, to bear witness on behalf of the victims to leave at least a memory of the violence and injustice that was done to them, and to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise."
—Albert Camus, The Plague

"I take away (from his works) the compelling idea that there is serious evil in the world today, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things. But we should not use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction."
—Barack Obama writing on the back cover of the reissued The Irony of American History (1952) by Reinhold Niebuhr

In 2004, Graphic pictures of prisoners being abused by U.S. military personnel in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were given to journalist Seymour Hersh and the CBS News TV show, 60 Minutes II and then, made public.  Amongst photographs of prisoners of war being tortured in compromising position, one shows naked Iraqi detainees piled on top of each other, with U.S security personnel showing thumbs-up signs in the background.
Joe Darby, a U.S. reserve soldier stumbled upon the pictures on colleague Charles Graner’s camera while posted in Abu Ghraib.  It took him a few weeks before he decided he had to tell.  Darby was promised anonymity, but then Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld exposed his identity while publicly thanking him on television.
He was quickly shipped home to the U.S. and given armed protection for a few months.

Monday 8 June 2015

Week Seven: Women as Agents of Change

What would men be without women? Scarce, sir, mighty scarce.

—Mark Twain

Women might just have something to contribute to civilization other than their vaginas.

—Christopher Buckley, Florence of Arabia

The mechanism of violence is what destroys women, controls women, diminishes women and keeps women in their so-called place.

—Eve Ensler, A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer

A World Apart was written by a woman who grew up in South Africa in the 1960s, while her parents were involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and it is very much a daughter’s story. Even though her parents were brave and dedicated, their child still nurses a sense of resentment because she did not get all of the attention she felt she deserved. A World Apart is both political and personal - a view of a revolutionary as the middle-class mother of a normal 13-year-old girl.
The girl’s name is Molly, and the film opens with episodes from her typical childhood in an affluent white South African community. She takes ballet lessons, she is picked up after class in a big American convertible piloted by her friend’s mother, she attends the usual birthday parties and splashes in a neighbor’s swimming pool.
The only thing unusual about her life is that some of her parents’ friends are black, and in white South Africa in 1963, that is very unusual indeed...."
—Roger Ebert

Sunday 7 June 2015

The Old-School Spy in the Espionage Novels of Charles McCarry

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large Sunday, June 7, 2015 and I reproduce on this website because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) does include several chapters on Nazi Germany in the 1930s and that is the setting for a seminal part of the espionage novels by Charles McCarry because the circumstances of the early life of the protagonist, Paul Christopher, helped to shape the life of the future spy.

Novelist Charles McCarry. (Photo by Bill Keefrey)

It is surprising that Charles McCarry is not as widely read as other espionage writers, even though he does command respect from writers like Olen Steinhauer and Alan Furst. Critics have linked him with John le Carré, likely because both writers once served in their respective intelligence agencies. McCarry worked as a field agent under deep cover for the CIA from 1958 until 1967 in Europe, Africa and Asia, experiences that provide his novels with an authentic atmosphere. But I find the comparison odd since no one would confuse McCarry’s sympathetic portrayal of the CIA – affectionately dubbed “The Outfit” in his novels – and his belief that the country’s intelligence agencies are the best bastion for the defence of the American way with le Carré’s conviction that the intelligence methods of both Western and Communist countries were vile and morally senseless. Le Carré likely would not have written that Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism is "a lie wrapped up in a sham surrounded by a delusion,” a statement uttered by the head of the Outfit in Second Sight (1991). Yet both writers share a similar passion in delineating plots that identify and root out the moles that are deeply buried in the higher echelons of their respective secret agencies.

Monday 1 June 2015

Week Six: Moments of Humanity in Vietnam

Hugh Thompson

The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason for his being.
 —Gen. Douglas MacArthur, 1946 cited by Trent Angler in The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story, 1999.

The Guardian January 11, 2006
Hugh Thompson, who has died aged 62, was the helicopter pilot who tried to halt the My Lai massacre of more than 500 villagers by American troops during the Vietnam war. At one point, he rescued 15 defenceless civilians while training his machine guns on US infantrymen commanded by the infamous Lieutenant William Calley, threatening to shoot if they did not stop the slaughter.

By the time he arrived in Vietnam in late December 1967, Thompson was a 25-year-old chief warrant officer reconnaissance pilot with the 123rd Aviation Battalion. On March 16 1968, he was flying his H-23 scout helicopter, with its three-man crew, over a part of Quang Ngai province known as Pinkville, supporting a three company search-and-destroy assault on several villages, which faulty intelligence had indicated were heavily defended by Vietcong troops. The US 1/20th Infantry Battalion attack was led by Charlie Company, commanded by Captain Ernest Medina, who sent in the 1st platoon, led by Calley, to clear out My Lai and several neighbouring hamlets.
Charlie Company was bent on revenge; days earlier several of its members had been killed by Vietcong mines and booby traps. Without a shot being fired against them, Calley's men began slaughtering anyone they could find - old men, women and children. Groups of villagers, 20 and 30 at a time, were lined up and mown down. In the four-hour assault, the men of the 2nd and 3rd platoons joined in.

Monday 25 May 2015

The Campaign for Civil Rights during the 1950s and 1960s

"It's a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with."
—Pete Seeger

"As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this."
—Paul Robeson

"An unjust law is no law."
—Martin Luther King

For an assessment of Seeger's life and career, you might wish to read Susan Green in Critics at Large

We will be showing clips from the 2007 documentary Peter Seeger: The Power of Song

Roger Ebert says that the film is a tribute to the legendary singer and composer who thought music could be a force for good, and proved it by writing songs that have actually helped shape our times ("If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn") and popularizing "We Shall Overcome" and Woody Guthrie's unofficial national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."

Sunday 17 May 2015

Alan Furst: The Anti-Fascist Novelist

This essay originally appeared on 15 May in Critics at Large and is reproduced here because the the novels of Alan Furst encapsulate the historical era that constitutes a substantial portion of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013)

Novelist Alan Furst. (Photo by Rainer Hosch)

"… Don't tell the world, but Stalin's just as bad as Hitler." 
"Why not tell the world?" 
"Because they won't believe it, dear colonel." 
- Alan Furst, Spies of Warsaw (2008) 
In 1984, Alan Furst, a journalist and author of four novels, travelled to the Soviet Union and it changed his life. As he noted later, he saw fear in the eyes of the people he met, and it shocked him. He decided that he would never again write a novel set in contemporary times, but that the threat posed by every expression of fascism between 1934 and 1945 would be his subject. To gain a greater grasp for the historical and geographical milieus, he and his wife relocated to Paris – the setting, at least in part, for almost all his subsequent novels. He purchased old books and maps to ensure greater verisimilitude. As a result, readers can be confident that the streets, restaurants and nightclubs are accurately depicted and that they are not likely to find anachronisms; any book or film that a character or the narrator cites could have been read or seen at the time of the novel’s setting. Influenced by espionage writers Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, the social novelist Anthony Powell, and perhaps by films such as Casablanca (1942) and the noirish, The Third Man (1947), Furst set out to create his own niche in the espionage literary domain and published the first of thirteen historical thrillers, Night Soldiers (1988), a set of novels that became known as the Night Soldiers Series.