Friday 23 December 2016

A Spy infiltrates ISIS in Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow

The following review was originally published in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because I have written extensively about its subject, terrorism and counter-terrorism in reviews and in the second volume of That Line of Darkness.

Author Daniel Silva. (Photo by Marco Grob, courtesy of HarperCollins)

The murder of civilians over the last couple of years in France and northern Europe to my knowledge has been portrayed in fiction at least twice, in Todd Babiak’s, Son of France, and most recently in Daniel Silva’s, The Black Widow (HarperCollins, 2016) – before the events in reality actually occurred as both authors indicate. Silva has written sixteen novels in his Gabriel Allon spy series about an Israeli master spy, and on the basis of his current offering – the first that I have read – he is skillfully adept at rendering a gripping page-turning thriller. There are sufficient backstories to inform new readers: Allon began his career as a spy and assassin when he tracked down the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; he lost a son to a terrorist car-bomb, shattering his wife’s mental faculties leaving her languishing in a care home. At this point in his career, his fieldwork appears over. Because of his past record of derring-do exploits along with some mishaps, the fabricated story of Allon’s death has been circulated. He is actually living in Israel, virtually in hiding in large part to protect his new family, and he is on the cusp of becoming security chief for “the Office” known in real life as the Mossad. His cover is that of an internationally recognized art restorer and we initially meet him in The Black Widow working on a Caravaggio at the Israel Museum.

Just prior to taking on this new responsibility, a terrible atrocity occurs in Paris when a French conference centre, organized to study the growing anti-Semitic violence, is the victim of a terrorist truck bomb attack. Hannah Weinberg, the woman who heads the centre, along with everyone else at the conference, is killed. The terrorist is a woman seeking revenge for the death of her fiancé who was killed in Syria fighting for ISIS, hence the novel's title. Since Weinberg had a personal connection with Allon and because the victims were Jews, a top secret French intelligence team seeks the assistance of Allon in locating and eliminating a mastermind terrorist known only by several security services as “Saladin” who has orchestrated the attack.

Friday 9 December 2016

Class and Celebrity in Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because Toobin argues that Patricia Hearst, though initially a victim of a violent assault, did cross a line in which she would have incurred a more serious criminal sanction had she not been shielded by her privileged family.

Patricia Hearst (centre) leaving from San Francisco's Federal Building after received her seven-year sentence, on April 12, 1976.

The year 2016 may be remembered as the one in which celebrity became a vital touchstone in American culture. Most notably was the grotesque upset Presidential victory of Donald Trump in which a reality-TV concept, complete with the dramatic, over-the-top meanness and coarseness – as evidenced by the boisterous rallies and venomous post-truth tweets – helped propel him to the White House. On a lesser scale, this year witnessed both a spotty, award-winning television movie, The People v. O. J. Simpson, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 biography, Run of His Life , and the superior documentary, O. J.: Made in America, in which Simpson notoriously utters “I am not black, I’m O.J.,” a statement that underscored his celebrity status. Sadly, it is possible to draw another connection between a seismic political event and an infamous crime story. In her 2010 book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, journalist Rebecca Traister investigated the 2008 Presidential election and found bile examples of visceral misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton that included affixed to t-shirts “I wish that Hillary had married O.J.” Thirdly, this year marked the publication of Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday) that directly links a series of crimes in the 1970s with celebrity and class.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Retreating to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood

This review, that originally appeared in Critics at Large, is reproduced here because as a psychological mystery, it is about a cohort of mid-twenty-year olds who attend a hen party in which a line of darkness is crossed.

Ruth Ware's debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was published last summer by Simon & Schuster. (Photo: Ollie Grove)

In the week before the recent American election, I was feeling anxious – with good reason, as it turned out. Despite the polls, I felt a need to escape the tumult about the election. The World Series did not particularly interest me so I decided to dip into an absorbing page turner that would distract me. I found that Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood (Simon & Schuster, 2015), satisfied my needs.

The narrator, Leonora Shaw, a reclusive crime writer, receives an email from someone she has not met inviting her to attend a hen weekend (a bachelorette weekend, in North American parlance) to celebrate the upcoming wedding of an old college friend at a house in the Northumberland English countryside. Nora – the various names that she and others affix to her are an important ingredient of the plot – living alone in London and valuing her privacy, has no interest in spending time with people she does not or hardly knows. Nora is uncertain as to why she has been invited since she and the bride-to-be, Clare, once best friends, now estranged, haven’t seen each other since college ten years earlier. Furthermore, she has not been invited to the wedding. She doesn’t even know who Clare is marrying and she does not ask. If Nora had, she would not have attended the party – but then there would have been no novel, or a very different one. (This question is raised at one point in the story.) But maid of honour, Flo, is insistent that Clare wants her there, and maybe it would be pleasurable to reconnect after all these years. Reluctantly, Nora agrees, but as soon as she arrives at this remote, modernist glass house, we know that this is not the kind of getaway that she anticipated. Things go terribly wrong: old tensions arise, tempers fray, painful secrets from the past spill out, an ominous shotgun hangs on the fireplace wall, and an intruder enters followed by a tragedy.

Sunday 13 November 2016

The Power of Music and Remembering in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because of both the horrific transgressions perpetrated by  the Chinese government in the last century and how artists were able to provide moments of humanity through music and storytelling.

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Scotiabank Giller Prize on Nov 7. (Photo: Roberto Ricciuti)

 “Music which is so dear to me, and without which, more than likely, I couldn’t live a day.” 
– Dmitri Shostakovich, quoted by Madeline Thien.

Montreal-based writer Madeleine Thien’s new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf Canada, 2016), has garnered a passel of accolades – including winning this year’s Governor General’s award for fiction, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and being shortlisted for the Man Booker Award. I am pleased to report that the novel’s enthusiastic reception is warranted for several reasons. Thien’s vividly-drawn characters spans three generations against a panoramic backdrop of more than sixty years of tumultuous Chinese history: the civil era of the late 1940s, land reform and the hare-brained scheme of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s that through famine cost the lives of thirty five million,  the fanaticism engendered by the decade-long Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s,  and the hopeful expectations of the 1989 pro-democracy protests followed by the tragic massacres in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing of these last two periods is especially gripping. A magisterial novel, Thien’s third and most ambitious in scope, speaks to the enduring influence of music – in this case, Western classical music – when a change in official tastes can render that music and its practitioners dangerously bourgeois. Finally, it is a reminder of storytelling’s power, particularly in a state where the historical narrative has been altered or suppressed to suit the dictates of the regime’s shifting political permutations.

At the novel’s outset, the narrator of the chapters set in the present, Marie or Ma-li, a Canadian-Chinese mathematician, recalls her father’s death by suicide in Hong Kong when she was ten years old following the brutal suppression of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Within a short time, Ai-ming, the nineteen-year-old daughter of her father’s teacher before the Cultural Revolution, arrives in Vancouver, forced to flee those same terrible events.

Sunday 30 October 2016

Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise (Part 2 of 2)

Hungarian Jews waiting in line at the Swiss embassy in Budapest, 1944. (Photo by Agnes Hirschi, Carl Lutz's daughter)

Last August I had the good fortune to be a member of a study trip river cruise along the Danube that sailed from the port town of Vidin (after two days in Sophia, Bulgaria) to Passau in Germany that concluded with a two-day trip to Prague, Czech Republic. It was an exhilarating experience because of the significant ports of call at which we stopped and the stimulating conversations with fellow passengers. But my lasting impressions were more about what was imparted or omitted by the local guest lecturers and tour guides, and their often selective or subjective remarks. This review is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece was published two weeks. The second, and concluding, part is below.
– Bob Douglas

Arriving in Budapest and opting for the Jewish sites tour rather than a general city tour turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. The guide was excellent, wonderfully integrating historical, personal and the contemporary at both the places we visited and in the talk she gave at the “Glass House.” At one time a glass factory showroom owned by a displaced Jewish manufacturer, it was during the war the location at which the Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz, sheltered 3,000 Jews by annexing it to the Swiss legation, thereby extending diplomatic immunity to the place. It is now a museum to honour Lutz. 

The guide provided history not merely as interesting or diverting but to explain how the Hungarian kingdom that lived as a relatively peaceful multi-national state for a thousand years was eviscerated by the catastrophic 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a dismemberment that contributed to the tragedy that would befall Hungarian Jews during World War II and continues to reverberate today. Allied to Germany in World War One, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed after the defeat. Hungary experienced a short-lived but traumatic Communist experiment that was followed by forcing it to accept a treaty that shredded the country, losing two thirds of its territory and one third of its ethnic population. The national shame was accompanied by the perception that its citizens had been stabbed in the back by internal enemies. A scapegoat was found in the Jews, particularly since a number of them had been supporters or part of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The first expression of anti-Semitic legislation occurred in a 1920 law that restricted Jewish university students to six percent of the population. 

Sunday 16 October 2016

Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise (Part 1 of 2)

The still-visible damage from the NATO bombing of Belgrade. (Photo: David Orlovic)

Last August I had the good fortune to be a member of a study trip river cruise along the Danube that sailed from the port town of Vidin (after two days in Sophia, Bulgaria) to Passau in Germany that concluded with a two-day trip to Prague, Czech Republic. It was an exhilarating experience because of the significant ports of call at which we stopped and the stimulating conversations with fellow passengers. But my lasting impressions were more about what was imparted or omitted by the local guest lecturers and tour guides, and their often selective or subjective remarks. This review is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece appears below. Part 2 will be published here in two weeks.
– Bob Douglas
The first sentence of Alan Furst’s wonderfully crafted novel, Night Soldiers, reads: “In Bulgaria, in 1934 on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death.” Although a powerful sentence, it did not originally leap off the page until I reread large sections of the novel when I returned home from the Danube cruise. Nor did I initially give Furst’s map of the Danube from 1934-1945, that graces the beginning of the book, more than a cursory glance until recently. Only the first thirty-five pages and the last section of Night Soldiers are about his activities along the Danube, but those pages more deeply resonate. They also provide striking insights that I thought were sometimes missing when I listened to the Bulgarian lecturer and guide.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Mind Control in Stephen King’s End of Watch

This review that originally appeared on the online site, Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because King's novel explores the transgression of boundaries - criminal and genre - that I investigated in both That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great (Encompass Editions, 2012) and The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013)

Author Stephen King. (Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

When I began reading the first installment of Stephen King’s hard-boiled crime trilogy – the critically acclaimed and Edgar Award-winning Mr. Mercedes (2014) followed the next year with Finders Keepers and concluding with End of Watch (Scribner, 2016) – I wondered how long King would confine himself to the genre’s conventions. He did pretty well for over two and a half volumes then he veered into his comfort zone, the realm of horror that draws upon tropes of the Gothic. As a crime novel, End of Watch generally works because King finds a way to retreat and provide the police with a reasonable explanation for the resolution though we, the readers, know that the conventions of a police procedural cannot explain what has occurred.

Sunday 18 September 2016

A Financial Dystopia: The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because the novel explores to what extent a family will go to preserve their dignity, self respect and their lives when confronted with catastrophic financial ruin.

Novelist Lionel Shriver. (Photo: Andrew Crowley)

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all...” 
– Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles
Lionel Shriver has churned out a number of novels that explore the zeitgeist by offering sharp satires. Inspired by the example of her older brother, she wrote about obesity in Big Brother (HarperCollins, 2013) and of the fear of falling sick in America before the Affordable Care Act came into effect in So Much for That (HarperCollins, 2010). She may be most known for her response to the Columbine high school shootings in We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail, 2003), which explores the psychology of the mother of the perpetrator, an international best seller that was adapted as a film. Her most recent entry, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (HarperCollins, 2016) taps into economic insecurities and to the precariousness of the global markets likely inspired by the 2008 near-financial disaster. In a February piece in the New York Times, Shriver described herself as a libertarian, socially progressive and economically conservative. Her targets are big governments that infringe upon individual liberties through a punitive tax code, the welfare state and government surveillance – and yet she would be on the left end of the Democratic Party on every conceivable social issue. Her conservatism is much more on display in The Mandibles.

In her novel, Shriver imagines a near-dystopian future, some of it not that far removed from current reality. The European Union has dissolved. Putin has been made President for life. Books have become obsolete, newspapers have folded and Internet commerce no longer exists. The American dollar is in free fall, competing with a Russian-backed international currency, the bancor. American citizens are forbidden to take more than $100 out of the U.S. Entitlements have driven the debt to unsustainable levels because the government and the Federal Reserve Bank have been buying prosperity with borrowed and invented money. In a disastrous decision, the United States defaults on its loans, including the T-bills held by American citizens, causing the dollar to crash. The newly-elected Latino President becomes increasingly dictatorial. The government confiscates all the gold in the country, including wedding rings. Foreigners buy up real estate and businesses. There is unsustainable hyperinflation as prices can rise steeply in a single day. Water, fuel and food shortages threaten everyone, and people rob their neighbours to stay alive. Widespread unemployment exists, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work. America is relegated from superpower to pariah state, a condition which Shriver offers a comedic ironical touch: a thriving Mexico builds a border wall to keep out desperate illegal Americans seeking refugee status.

Monday 5 September 2016

The Obsessions of George W. Bush: Jean Edward Smith’s Bush

This review that originally appeared on September 4th in Critics at Large is reproduced on this website because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) contains several chapters on the Iraq war that Bush initiated.
( r. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld)

“I am the commander. I don’t need to explain. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

- George W. Bush

In the first full-fledged biography of the forty-third President, Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first sentence of the preface, reads: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The reader may well ask who is the author and is he credible. Jean Edward Smith is not a left-wing critic of Bush but a respected scholar who has written several well-received biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay (the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II and hero of the Berlin airlift), and John Marshall, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early nineteenth century, an oeuvre that inspired the conservative pundit, George F. Will, to describe Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Given these distinguished credentials, I was intrigued to read Smith’s hefty volume at eight hundred pages. Besides, I had spent months years ago reading and writing about Bush’s responses to 9/11, his invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq and I did wonder whether I got it right. Based on Smith’s exhaustively researched and fluidly written biography, I did feel affirmed. If anything Smith’s judgments on “Asleep at the Switch” – the chapter title for Bush’s lack of attention to security before September 11 – his overreaction to that tragic day by his decisions to invade two countries, the erosion of civil liberties and “The Torture Trail” – another snappy chapter heading for which Smith excels – constitute a more devastating critique of Bush’s years, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Yet there are surprises as Smith credits Bush with a number of achievements. By mining the important secondary sources, the memoirs of the historical actors, numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and – apart from Bush himself – several interviews with key participants, Smith has skillfully synthesized them into a three-dimensional portrait of Bush.

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson's White Rage (Part Two)

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large August 21/16

Carol Anderson’s examination of the backlash against the 1960s Civil Rights legislative achievements during the Nixon and Reagan eras constitutes perhaps the most controversial sections of White Rage. It is no exaggeration to assert that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, initiated by Lyndon Johnson – whom Anderson rightly acknowledges as an enlightened figure even before he became President – facilitated seismic changes. The new laws did much to curb overt discrimination, open up job opportunities, close the racial gap by the doubling of college enrollment for blacks, and exponentially increase black suffrage. Consider that before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, only six percent of blacks could vote; within three years that jumped to sixty percent. It is significant that these gains rekindled white resentment, and the courts and the governments at the federal and state level found ways to exploit that sense of grievance. Nixon was able to appoint four new Supreme Court judges who reflected his conservative philosophy. The Court continued to undercut the 1954 Brown vs The Board of Education decision by arguing that vast disparity in public funding between white schools and inner city minority schools did not constitute racial discrimination and that the constitution did not guarantee education. State governments found ways to dilute the power of the black vote through gerrymandering, a process in which city, county, or state officials redraw district lines to ensure that Republican candidates are elected. All levels of government slashed the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. Republican administrations sullied African Americans by linking them with drugs and crime. In a recent article in Salon, Anderson cites a 1994 Harpers’ article in which Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, cynically acknowledged the race baiting deployed by the Nixon administration: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against black[s], but by getting the public to associate. . .blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing” the drug “we could disrupt those communities, We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” This is an example of white rage writ large.

Sunday 7 August 2016

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson’s White Rage (Part One)

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing it on this site because of my interest how ideology in this case, white supremacy,  is used to justify crossing a line to diminish or destroy another people's humanity. What makes this book so remarkable is how the author demonstrates how much of that process was done under the cover of the law.

“We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

- Barack Obama speaking in Selma on March, 7th 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march 

During the week of the Republican Convention when Donald Trump proclaimed himself as the candidate of law and order, and reading Carol Anderson’s historical catalogue of white resistance to black progress, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2016), two thoughts came to mind. Rightly denouncing the murder of police officers, he said nothing about the murder of black men by the police, even the murder on November 26, 2014 of twelve-year old Tamir Rice who was killed in Cleveland, the city where the convention was held. No charges were ever laid against the officer. Secondly, I wondered whether Trump was aware that he was retrieving Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy that pandered to racists during the 1968 presidential election. Nixon was another practitioner of dog-whistle politics: a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience, for example, to racists. According to Anderson, one of Nixon’s most trusted aides, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Another Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, noted after the candidate saw an ad that showed entire cities burning without ever mentioning blacks, Nixon chortled, “It’s about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” By not acknowledging the African-Americans killed, Trump expressed a similar contempt for African-Americans at the 2016 Republican Convention.

Friday 29 July 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 2): Patricia Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady

Reading The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, I noted that although it covers much of the same material and sources as Ken Burns' The Roosevelts, Patricia Bell-Scott offers a new angle and brings Eleanor Roosevelt into sharper focus with a fuller, more rounded portrait, rendering her a more complex individual than served up in the documentary television series. She continued to encourage her husband to live up to his promises and professed ideals but what is different about The Firebrand is that she in turn was challenged by Pauli Murray (1910-85), an African-American socialist activist, lawyer, poet and first African-American female Episcopal priest.

The unlikely friendship between ER and Murray began in 1938 when the latter sent an impassioned letter to the President that caught the attention of his wife. Murray had been denied admission to the University of North Carolina because of her race and she was rightfully outraged, considering that FDR had just visited the university and praised it for its social progress. Her plaintive plea: “We cannot endure these conditions. Our whole being cries out against inequality and injustice” prompted the first lady to offer a glimmer of support: “The South is changing, but don’t push too fast. There is a great change in youth, for instance, and this is a hopeful sign,” an exchange that captures the dynamic and tone for much of their correspondence that was to continue for decades until ER’s death in 1962.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 1): Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Originally appearing in Critics at Large, I am reproducing it here because of interest in personalities that have exhibited courage in the last century.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Since Ken Burns adapted David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, to an Academy Award winning Brooklyn Bridge (1981), he has produced and directed numerous masterful feature length documentaries for PBS. His signature trademarks are a combination of still photos, archival film footage, unseen actors reading the words of historical characters, apt American music and an array of historians, journalists and (if possible) surviving contemporaries who offer compelling anecdotes and insights into the era, an issue and the characters. Burns avoids dramatic re-enactments. His oeuvre includes The Statue of Liberty (1985), the iconic The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Lewis & Clark (1997),Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001),The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The Central Park Five (2013). Most recently PBS has aired Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015), a six-hour treatment of Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of cancer, the one film Burns did not direct because he was so personally connected to the subject: his mother died of cancer when he was a young boy. In 2016, he returned to directing and producing the thrilling Jackie Robinson that excelled in weaving together sport, politics and race.

It is, however, Burns’ 2014 mammoth seven-part, fourteen-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on the private and public lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, that is the one I will be discussing today –  focusing mostly on the second generation of Roosevelts. As with many of the films cited above, Burns collaborated with biographer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the elegant and accessible script and is one of the historians – along with Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham and journalist George Will – who offers trenchant insights. Actor Peter Coyote won an Emmy award for his compelling narration. The stellar cast of actors’ voices include Meryl Streep for Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Giamatti for Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Herrmann for FDR, an astute choice since he persuasively played the role in the television series Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977).

Saturday 9 July 2016

Nothing Any Longer is Forbidden: Nazi-Occupied France on Stage, Small Screen, and Page

This essay was originally posted on Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because of the demonstration of courage in the face of terrible adversity by characters in the drama, television series and novel that I  review.

A scene from Soulpepper's production of Incident at Vichy. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only that name we give to that stranger, that agency we cannot feel. Each man has his own Jew, it is the other. And the Jews have their own Jews. 
– Leduc, in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy
In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. 
– Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As the lights go down, we hear the ominous sound of a train, chilling because the setting is 1942 in France.Incident at Vichy then opens with a daily occurrence: the systematic rounding up of suspected Jews by the Vichy government as it submitted to German racial laws. On this particular day, a number of men and a teenage boy have been shuttled into a ramshackle detention centre and lined up on a bench, none of them certain why, initially thinking that perhaps the authorities are interested only in checking their papers. But as they get called in one-by-one for questioning (off stage), they begin suspecting more sinister motives – there is talk about trains locked from the outside and rumours about work camps – while at the same time they protect themselves with self-delusions that freedom will come, particularly after the first man called in, the businessman is given a pass to leave. Of course the audience knows precisely the reason: most of them are Jews and the Nazis' purpose is to identify individuals who belong to their designated “inferior races” so that they can be dispatched by train east to Poland. The discrepancy between the audience’s knowledge and the uncertainty of the characters contributes to the tension (for some audience members at the Toronto Soulpepper performance I attended that tension was clearly unbearable expressed through fidgeting, movement as if to leave but decide to stay, almost a mirror of what was happening on stage) that Arthur Miller’s ninety-minute one act 1964 drama is designed to generate.

Sunday 26 June 2016

The Night Manager: From Page to Small Screen

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large  and is reproduced on this site because both the novel and the television adaptation prominently feature the element of transgression.

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, in AMC's adaptation of' John le Carré's The Night Manager.

“[Pure Intelligence] meant turning a blind eye to some of the biggest crooks in the hemisphere for the sake of nebulous advantages elsewhere.”
– John le Carré, The Night Manager 
“Guns go where the power is…Armed power’s what keeps the peace. Unarmed power does not last five minutes. First rule of stability.”
– Richard Roper, in John le Carré's The Night Manager 
Note: This review contains spoilers.

Part of what made John le Carré’s version of the Cold War so fascinating was the way it avoided a Manichean view of the universe. Shading, ambiguity, and doubt were qualities absent in earlier examples of the thriller from Le Queux, Buchan or Fleming but not in a le Carré Cold War novel. Only the most obtuse reader would fail to recognize how alike Smiley and Karla were, secret sharers on either side of the Iron Curtain. Smiley represented the better side – decent, compassionate and endowed with a healthy skepticism – and he believed that Karla’s fanaticism would be his undoing. However, Karla defected for the love of his lost daughter. Smiley regarded himself as an archetypal liberal – reasonable with measured responses – but he could sustain a murderous hatred for someone who betrayed him, an antipathy that could cloud his judgment. This does not mean that Smiley became Karla: the Soviet spymaster ordered the murder of agents while Smiley did not. Smiley believed in the power of Western democracy but feared that if his side succumbed to Karla’s methods, the decencies he professed will become illusions and feared that he could lose his own humanity. While he agonized over these moral conundrums, Smiley and the intelligence services were civil servants who pursued their opposite numbers. Communist agents were often ruthless murderers but, unless they were moles inside British intelligence, Smiley (or le Carré) did not regard them as evil villains. Then the Cold War ended and le Carré became an angry man. 

That anger radiates throughout le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel The Night Manager (1993). It is as if the author is questioning whether the principles that inspired the West to fight the Cold War were nothing but hollow rhetoric. If its purpose was designed to protect freedom and capitalism, how is Richard Roper – a wealthy and powerful illegal arms and drugs smuggler operating out of the Bahamas to peddle weapons to anyone who will provide him with a profit and admirer of the odious Idi Amin – possible? Masquerading as a respectable business magnate, he is frequently described as “the worst man in the world” – and le Carré is not intending any sense of irony – because Roper’s greed and callousness without any redeeming features, render him a villain rarely depicted in the Cold War novels.

Friday 17 June 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part II)

The following is Part II of Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election. Part I was published here yesterday. The piece is an edited adaptation of an address I presented at the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11.

Louisiana politician Huey Long, during a radio broadcast, January 1930.

The bigoted nativism that Trump stokes is not unique in the American historical experience. In 1780, papist immigrants were targeted allegedly for their fecundity; in 1850, the scapegoat was the Chinese who allegedly could not assimilate; in 1920, Jews were feared because they threatened the economy. The cartoon does not take into account the no-nothing movement that became the American Party in 1854 which called for the end of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland. But these historical episodes were generally relegated to the political fringes and no major Presidential candidate took them seriously as a major plank in their election campaign.

Demagoguery did, however, threaten to become a part of the 1936 presidential election. In an era when the 'radio priest,' Father Charles Coughlin, contended that "someone must be blamed," governor and then senator of Louisiana, Huey Long, did plan to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nominee. FDR did take the threat seriously. The following is an astute comment from Harry Williams, a major Long biographer:
He was intensely interested in himself. He had to dominate every scene he was in and every person around him. He craved attention and would go to any length to get it. He knew that an audacious action, although it was harsh and even barbarous, could shock people into a state where they could be manipulated. 
Sound familiar? The novelist Sinclair Lewis was so alarmed by the possibility of a Long presidency that he was inspired to write the dystopian novel, It Can’t Happen Here about a demagogic senator who becomes President and transforms America into a fascist state. Here is that senator campaigning:
My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth, and second, to realize that whatever apparent differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength–though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are racially different from us–we are all brothers, bound together in the great and wonderful bond of National Unity, for which we should all be very glad. 
Long was assassinated before he had the opportunity to challenge FDR. But the power of Sinclair’s novel has continued to resonate.

Thursday 16 June 2016

Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election (Part I)

The following is an edited version of a presentation I delivered to the Mensa Society International Conference in Toronto on June 11

“The Gothic thrives in a world where those in authority – the supposed exemplars of the good – are under suspicion.” 
– Mark Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street, 1997.
The Gothic is a “demonic history text … in which its common thread is the singularity and monstrosity of the Other.” 
Louis Gross, Redefining the American Gothic, 1989
If I were to deliver a political overview about the current Presidential election campaign, I would be substituting Hilary Clinton for Barack Obama. Given that I'm more interested here in delving into Gothic undercurrents, I think it is more apt to explore the values that represent vastly divergent visions of America, and they are best personified by the President and the Republican Party’s standard bearer, Donald Trump. Obama embodies a multicultural, inclusive perspective, a worldview that exemplifies the best of twenty-first century America. At the same time, he champions a cornerstone of traditional American culture, that of civic nationalism – a citizenship that depends upon shared values. Donald Trump represents a parochial, more atavistic view of America, a throwback to an earlier era when racist and misogynous beliefs had legitimacy for large numbers of Americans. His incendiary rhetoric also suggests a belief that citizenship should be based on ethnicity or race, an ideology that almost destroyed Europe in the 1940s, was revived during the genocidal Yugoslavian wars of the 1990, and is once again acquiring populist currency in parts of Europe, a form of ethnic nationalism that flouts the rule of law, celebrates the strong man, and fosters a contempt for and persecution of minorities and immigrants by tapping into a seething geyser of xenophobia and Islamophobia.

American Gothic, by Gordon Parks (1942).
My reference point for the Gothic is not the historical painting, Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic, the most iconic in America (even for its countless parodies). Gordon Parks' 1942 photograph of the same name is more significant given that an African-American woman with her broom and mop is staring out at us with an out of focus American flag behind her. She is more emblematic of someone in a state of quasi servitude. This photograph also suggests that some Americans harbour a more ambiguous relationship with America because their value as citizens is not as esteemed as others. Over a half a century later, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, expands upon this idea by exploring how European-American authors have marginalized and ignored African-Americans, or used them as a screen to project Caucasian savagery (even deprived them of their humanity by demonizing them). Although her slim 2008 monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, largely draws upon literary texts from the American canon to develop these ideas, I suggest that her insights can also be applied to the larger culture.

Saturday 11 June 2016

The Demonic and the Vulnerable in Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I reproduce it on this site as O'Brien's novel not only deals with how victims find their voices after horrific transgressive acts but the naturalistic novel also is fused with Gothic undertones.

Author Edna O'Brien. (Photo: Bryan O’Brien)

“I wanted to take a dreadful situation, and the havoc and harm that it yields, and show how it spirals into the world at large.” 
 Edna O’Brien on The Little Red Chairs
When Edna O’Brien published her debut novel The Country Girls in 1960, a coming-of-age novel, it was banned and reviled in Ireland because of its frank portrayal of female sexuality and a woman’s struggle for self-determination in the face of social legal constrictions. Since that time O’Brien has written novels, plays, short stories and a memoir that have expanded and deepened these themes. In 1994 she added a political dimension in House of Splendid Isolation, wherein she explored the mindset of an escaped IRA self-confessed murderer and plumbed his humanity beneath the crimes he had committed. Most recently, the grande dame of Irish literature at the age of eighty five has just published her twenty-fourth book and most ambitious, The Little Red Chairs (Little, Brown and Company, 2015) and found little humanity in a mass murderer, responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing. (Even before the text begins, O'Brien informs us that the title refers to the 11,541 empty red chairs set out in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serb forces in the early 1990s. Six hundred and forty-three of the smaller chairs in the sombre tableau were dedicated to children killed at the time.) Even though her settings are in rural Ireland and London with a brief, hair-raising foray into The Hague, Red Chairs has a global reach as countless numbers from the streams of refugees – the unending diaspora fueled by war, fundamentalism and hatred – make appearances not through impersonal media coverage but as fully fleshed human beings who are given distinct individual voices through the artistry and sensitivity of O’Brien. As a result, she has written a reimagined exploration of alternative history and a harrowing, extraordinary novel.

Sunday 29 May 2016

The Human Cost of Policing and Security Work in the Novels of Robert Wilson

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is posted on this site because the novels of Robert Wilson addresses the psychic cost of crossing a moral boundary.

Novelist Robert Wilson. (Photo: Gabriel Pecot)

“He felt empty and immensely distressed. Police work did this to him. When it was all over, there was nothing left but disappointment. Mystery gone, quest terminated. All that was left was an overwhelming sense of loss and pointlessness.” 
 Robert Wilson, The Ignorance of Blood, 2009.
“You can’t kill someone, even if it is in the heat of the battle and remain the same. Once you’ve felt that kind of savagery and done that kind of damage to a fellow human you can never re-enter the world of men. You are always going to be separate, an outsider. Some can live with it, others can’t.” 
 Robert Wilson, You Will Never Find Me, 2015. 
I suspect that most readers of Critics at Large are not familiar with the British novelist, Robert Wilson. My goal in this review is to change that condition by sharing my own excitement for this unique voice. Wilson occupies a space somewhere between writing police procedurals and thrillers. In his early novels written in the first person, he sounds a little like Raymond Chandler but as he progresses, the best work of Alan Furst comes to mind. Whether his novels are set in West Africa (the Bruce Medway quartet), in Portugal (where he lived for a time), in Seville Spain, or in London UK, Wilson writes with authority, offering both shrewd political and social commentary and astute psychological insights. Moreover, he writes well  spicing his narratives with lovely images that regularly invite a re-read.