An English professor and lifelong reader, David R. Anderson ’74 is rarely without a book (or three) to read. Here’s what is on his bookshelf today:
Searching for Utopia is the published version of the Clark Kerr Lectures on Higher Education delivered by Hanna Gray at the University of California in 2009. If you have any interest in American higher education, or in academic leadership, or simply in deep knowledge, clear thinking, and good writing, you should read this book.
Hanna Gray, who served as President of the University of Chicago from 1978-1993, begins her reflections on universities and their histories by contrasting the visions of two famous and influential American university presidents: Robert Maynard Hutchings of Chicago and Clark Kerr of the University of California. The contrast between them, she argues, “reveal[s] the two most familiar forms in which the American research university has been conceived.” Hutchins was “an uncompromising idealist,” while Kerr was “a pragmatic realist.”
Hutchins saw the modern university as characterized by “intellectual disorder and triviality.” He believed in what he called “permanent studies” which every educated person was expected to master. Sounding more like the eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson than a modern American university president, he declared, “Education implies teaching. Teaching implies Knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same.”
Kerr, Gray argues, “began by accepting the reality of an institution shaped by a history that could not be denied or undone and then worked to lay out a set of standards by which its strengths might be harnessed and its negative effects tempered.” Kerr, who coined the term “multiversity,” did not believe that “permanent studies” exist; rather, he sought to “rebalance and steadily to continue to adapt the university’s configuration to the always moving and changing landscape of learning.”
Having focused these two visions of a university, Gray then considers the treatment of the ideal of a university and of an ideal education in the writings of figures like Thomas More and Cardinal Newman and in the establishment and development of modern American universities. The search for Utopia takes many forms.
This volume concludes with a bold chapter on the “Uses (and Misuses) of Universities Today.” Not everyone will love this chapter. Gray argues for a “return to basics, to our academic center.” This means universities need to become “more deliberatively selective in what they choose to do.” Gray questions, for example, the amount of investment in facilities, and argues for a de-emphasis on teaching students to change the world versus a re-emphasis on advancing and preserving knowledge. She suggests we adopt the model of a “stripped down university” built on “an unfaltering commitment to academic imperatives.”
Wherever you come down on the argument of this last chapter, Searching for Utopia is an important book on American higher education. I encourage you to read it.
This novel, a signed copy, was a gift from my wife, Priscilla, who met the author at a writers’ workshop. One of the blurbs on the jacket cover describes it as “Part dazzling California noir, part dark American road trip, part sly psychological thriller.” That’s a pretty good description.
Daniel Hayes wakes up in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine. Naked and cold, he can’t remember who he is or how he got there. The good news is that when he struggles to shore there is a BMW there with clothes that fit him and a fifth of Jack Daniels with a little bit of whiskey left in it. The car’s heater warms him up, the clothes fit him, and the registration papers tell him his name. The rest of the novel, with the narrative alternately moving backwards and forward in time, answers the question of how he got to be naked in the ocean on the Maine cost and what to do about it.
What to do about it involves driving to California, his home, re-discovering who he is, and combating an evil persecutor. The nice thing about not knowing who you are is that you have a chance to start all over again: “You are who you choose to be,” as Daniel says at one point. On the other hand, his past keeps on intruding on and shaping his future the more he re-discovers about himself. Re-making yourself is a central theme of California writing.
If you sit down with this novel, be prepared for a bunch of bad things happening to people in the novel — it’s a sly psychological thriller, after all — but it’s a compelling narrative.
This book is 164 pages long, and every sentence in it is a question. (I have resisted the temptation to have every sentence in this commentary be a question.)
It’s amusing to read in short bits. One of the blurbs on the jacket cover calls it, among other things, the “perfect party game,” and I could see that. Here’s part of a paragraph taken at random from p. 107: “When you go to a football game, will you wave a towel for your team? Do you have any mounted animals or pelts? Do you ever have a notion such as ‘Today would be a good day for me to use a lever on something?’ Are you very happy with your hands or could they be other hands and suit you better? Can you quickly name a good thing and a bad thing?” and so on.
The question is whether this book amounts to more than a bunch of mostly-clever questions? Does it have some shape or form? Does it mean anything? (Oops, I’m lapsing into questions.) The very sub-title, “A Novel?” raises this issue. I don’t think it’s a novel, and if it has shape or form I’m not smart enough to discern it. There are topics that recur in the book (scrambling in the sofa for loose change while you hear the ice-cream truck coming down the street, the sexual attractiveness of candy-stripers, little green plastic army men), and the narrative, while not broken up into chapters is broken up into sections or units through the use of white space on the page, so I’m guessing there is authorial intent about form. But it doesn’t appear to me to go anywhere in particular. It just stops at the end.
Some of the questions are just pointless (“Would you rather receive as a gift a boomerang or a dead-bolt lock set?”), but some use figurative language to raise serious topics (“Could you entertain the idea that what undoes couple over time is that they neglect to apply polish to the grain of their wood?”) Some exemplify artful prose (“Can we relax and trust that our wishes in these regards, our posthumous affairs as it were, will really be administered as we have stipulated, or will we be frustrated and yelling through the glass wall of heaven or the hot opaque obsidian walls of hell at the corrupt disregard for our eternal wishes?”) Some you should ponder (“How many generations back can you name your ancestors?”)
But at the end of the day, this is a book best enjoyed in small bits at the sentence-level.
My friend and St. Olaf librarian Inga Velde read The Unlikely Disciple for her book group and mentioned it when I was in Rolvaag Library trolling for a new book to read. The author, while an undergraduate at Brown University, decided to spend a semester at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the university founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. This book relates his experiences there.
You can probably imagine the arc of this narrative already: Roose grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. One of his parents works at Oberlin College; the other is a lawyer. They are Quakers and, according to Roose, “spend a lot of time talking about peace and working for social justice.” I don’t know that his background qualifies Roose as a “sinner,” but it suggests a certain misalignment of values with the ethos of Liberty University. Roose enters this experiment seeing Liberty University and the people there as alien, intolerant, anti-intellectual. Will a semester there change his mind? Will he be “saved”?
Yes and no. Yes, he changes his view of the people at Liberty; no, he doesn’t go up for altar call. The Unlikely Disciple reads like a book written by a very smart undergraduate, which is fair enough, because it was. Its main tension is between the institutional values of Liberty University, the values espoused by the students and faculty there, and the real human connections he makes with the people there. Undergraduates at Liberty have the same interests and concerns as students elsewhere—academic performance, relationships, vocation, having fun. But they pursue these interests and deal with these concerns within a different set of parameters than most other students—no drinking, no dancing, no physical intimacy beyond hand-holding, required attendance at worship services, and so on.
During his time at Liberty, Roose manages to get an appointment to interview Rev. Falwell for a story for the student newspaper (“God bless college journalism and its low standards,” he crows.) That chapter is emblematic of the journey Roose takes in this book. He disapproves of Falwell, but he just can’t help liking the guy.
On a trip to Denver, I had some time to kill, wandered into a Barnes & Noble store, and saw this book on the shelf.
John Baxter is an Australian expat who has lived in France for thirty-some years. This book begins when he and a friend have dinner at the Grand Palais in Paris. It’s apparently a very fancy restaurant, what I call a “big plate, little food” kind of place. It’s the kind of place where when your soup comes it’s a little blob of something green in a big bowl. The waiter sprays foam into it and then pours in the liquid. It smokes. Baxter enjoys the meal, but after the dessert he wonders, “What had happened to the robust country dishes of fifty years ago, before the advent of nouvelle cuisine and food designed not to satisfy hunger but to show off the imagination of the chef?” (p. 8).
So, he embarks on a series of journeys around France, chronicled in the remainder of the book, to places where “typical” French cooking still flourishes. The goal at the end of the journey is a menu for a classic French banquet as defined by, of all organizations, UNESCO: a meal “commencing with an aperitif … and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetable, cheese and dessert” (pp. 11-12).
Baxter’s travels take him from one end of France to the other in search of dishes that might comprise his menu, food cooked the way the locals had been cooking it for hundreds of years. There are chapters on caviar, on mushrooms, on lamprey, on anchovies, on bouillon, and, finally, on beef. Locavores will like this.
With any book like this you are going to have to put up with a certain amount of pretentious name-dropping and coy self-flattery (the “dear friend” who lives in a house overlooking Cannes was an irritating addition to the narrative, for example). But these elements are overshadowed by a flood of historical, etymological, cultural, and just plain humorous insights that make the read worth it. Baxter’s hymn to coffee is lyrical, and his diatribe against decaf hilarious (“Decaf — the essence of disappointment. The fumbled pass that loses the game; the ball that rims the hole but doesn’t quite drop; … the mystery you realize on page ten that you’ve already read,” and so on for several paragraphs.)
The chapter on his trip to the country to see a whole beef roasted al fresco has a paragraph on eating meat that is perhaps less successful: “To see the animal entire made us aware of our kinship, of a shared nature as creatures of flesh that walked and ate and breathed and bred and died.” I imagine that works a lot better for you if you are the eater, not the eaten.
The menu he decides upon, and recipes for dishes he encounters in his travels, are in an appendix. Bon appétit!
You don’t have to think for long about innovators who have fundamentally changed modern life before you come to Steve Jobs. I use a MacBook Air, an IPod, and an IPad almost every day, but I’m not one of those people who have embraced Apple products like a religion. The designs are attractive, but they do what I need them to do at about the same transaction cost as all the other devices in my life, which is all I ask. So I wasn’t drawn to this biography because of the cool things Jobs created.Rather, I was hoping to read about what enabled Jobs to be so successful at envisioning what people would need and want, at creating innovative new products to meet those needs, and at leading a company — now, the world’s most valuable company — that delivered those products at a price people are willing to pay.This biography answers those questions. Jobs had a distinctive vision and was incredibly disciplined in making it a reality. He wanted to make devices that wedded design and function. He wanted them to be complete and whole in themselves. He wanted users of his devices to experience clarity and simplicity. He wanted his products to be things of beauty that were made with excellent craftsmanship within and without. To that end, he needed to control every aspect not only of the devices design and production but also of its use. When he and Steve Wozniak were designing the Apple II computer, Wozniak wanted to have eight slots on the computer where users could customize their machine by inserting various peripherals. Jobs insisted on only two slots, one for a modem, one for a printer. He designed subsequent products so that they could only be opened with special screwdrivers available only to Apple technicians.
Jobs was like one of his own products: self-contained, and not in a good way. With his family he could be warm and engaging one moment and utterly distant another. He was abusive to his friends, his employees, and his business competitors. He was domineering, mercurial, and stubborn. In short, he behaved like a person with single-minded determination to achieve a particular goal at whatever cost to himself and others.
To me, the great question raised by this biography was whether it had to be this way. Did Jobs have be that kind of person in order to imagine and produce those products and to lead Apple? Could he have conceived, manufactured, and sold anything as satisfying as the computer I am typing on now and been a better person? If not, I’m not sure it was worth it.
This book caught my eye on the shelves of Rolvaag Library. It’s (another) mid-life crisis academic novel. It’s also about teaching, Catholicism, parenting, and friendship.Gordon Clay teaches music at Goldhurst Community College, north of Fresno. Once, he was one of the promising bass players at Eastman, but despite many auditions, he was never seated in an orchestra. He wasn’t good enough. His college sweetheart left him for another man after graduation. Not good enough there, either. When the novel begins, he is in a bad place: living alone, eating junk food, feeling bitter about teaching at a community college, treating his students with contempt, and generally being unhappy. Also, he’s experiencing chest pains.One night, in the middle of the night, the phone rings. It’s a mother desperately looking for her lost son. She calls Gordon because he has the same name as her ex-husband, and she gets the wrong number from the phone book. It’s as though the possibility of a child, or a family, opens him up. He visits the playground where the little boy was last seen, and he meets another little boy whom he befriends. He sees a cardiologist and begins to eat a healthier diet and to at least contemplate exercise.
And he opens up to other people. Clay was raised Catholic. One of his students, Sister Cecilia, who aspires to be a musician and has no sense of pitch at all, cajoles him into attending the Ministry of the Living Faith Study Group at her church. There he meets Mikilauni Kukula, an exotic beauty from an island in the South Pacific obliterated by nuclear testing. Repressed, lonely middle-aged white man meets exotic, sensual, beautiful island woman. You can guess where this heads. But it’s not just about Gordon’s sexual re-awakening. It turns out the Mikilaiuni’s son, Moopuna, is the little boy Gordon had befriended at the playground. And that relationship turns out to be the most important one in the novel.
Gordon generally sees the world through a satirical lens: take his reflections on modern Catholic music, for example(he has to clean out his ears with Gregorian chant after attending a service); or the music department faculty meeting where four he and his colleagues squabble over who should receive a music scholarship; or his clear-eyed assessment of the plight of adjunct faculty. College Presidents do not fare well, either.
But he is also capable of sweet affection, and over the course of the novel Gordon Clay generally transitions from the angry, lonely satirist to a person with both the desire and capacity for friendship and love. His heart disease is cured. In the end, this is a sweet book.
Gretchen Morgenson ’76 is an Ole, recently named by Worth magazine among “the 100 most influential people in finance.” According to the magazine, she “may be the foremost investigative chronicler of the financial crisis and its fallout.” Worth goes on to say, “Morgenson is a must-read, especially at Goldman Sachs, about which she is brutal, and in the offices of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” So I was excited to read her new book.As I was first reading Reckless Endangerment I thought the best word to describe it was “angry.” Perhaps you can see from title why: the authors are not reluctant for a moment to name the motives they discern behind the behavior that led to the financial meltdown. Neither are they reluctant to name the individuals who exhibited that behavior. In fact, the authors come right out in the preface and say, “We are angry that the American economy was almost wrecked by a crowd of self-interested, politically influential, and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.”But on reflection I think that a better adjective might be “relentless” (the authors also refer in their Preface to their “unrelenting search for facts.”) This book doesn’t point fingers and call names. It constructs a specific, detailed, coherent, and compelling narrative of the causes of the financial meltdown, showing how a series of connected events, decisions, and actions led this country to the brink of financial disaster. As the authors claim, this book “connects key incidents that have seemed heretofore unrelated.” It is, in their words, “an economic whodunit.”
This book begins with Bill Clinton’s 1994 declaration that, “More Americans should own their own homes . . . to harbor, to nourish, to expand the American Dream.” The authors don’t argue that this was a mistaken policy goal (though they do argue that it quickly became one when it led to irresponsible lending to Americans who were not in a position to buy homes.) Rather, they argue that the strategy for achieving this goal was deeply flawed. The government turned to “Banks, home builders, securities firms, Realtors” and others to join in this effort. The problem with this strategy was that “it was unheard of for regulators to team up this closely with those they were charged with policing.” Because the private sector participants in this partnership could profit immensely from increased home ownership, they drove aggressively forward towards that goal. Regulators, unable or unwilling to stop the resulting unsound business practices and unethical behavior by self-interested parties, failed to protect Americans and the American economy from the consequences of those actions. The result was “trillions of dollars in investments lost around the world, millions of Americans jettisoned from their homes and fourteen million U.S. workers without jobs.” To make matters worse, those responsible for the unsound practices that led to the economic collapse and those charged with regulating them have not been held to account.
The principal villain in this story is Fannie Mae and its chief executive, James A. Johnson. The authors charge him with devising “a corrupt corporate model” that yielded great riches for him by “eliminating the traditional due diligence conducted by lenders.” Others in the business copied the model, and Wall Street provided the capital to lenders that enabled them to implement the model. Congressional leaders, investment bankers, and highly placed regulators – all named – fare badly in this narrative.
This book tells that story in much greater detail than this summary. It’s as compelling as a good detective story and as readable, which is remarkable given the arcane financial and legislative matters that are its subject. I recommend it to you.
My adventures in Nordic crime fiction continue. Patricia Martin, Director of Government and Foundation Relations at St. Olaf, suggested this novel, and I’m glad she did. It’s a fine detective novel.But it’s bleak. Really bleak. Here’s a meditation on his work by the detective, Inspector Erlendur, near the end of the novel:
Maybe it’s best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business.
Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in
all this? All this filth. Talking to people like Ellidi. Doing deals with
shits like Eddi. Seeing how people like Holberg get their kicks. Reading
rape reports. Diggin up the foundations of a house full of bugs and shit.
Digging up little coffins.
The novel begins with the murder of a seventy-year old man. It would appear to be a random murder, perhaps associated with an attempted robbery, if it weren’t for the note laid on his corpse: “I am HIM.” The search of the crime scene uncovers, hidden away in a bottom desk drawer, a photograph of a child’s coffin, and the subsequent investigation uncovers a path leading back decades to a brutal rapist, an undiagnosed heredity disease, hidden identities, family tragedies, and sins of the father visited on the son, all of which combine to explain the murder with which the novel opens. They also give rise to Erlandur’s discouraged soliloquy.
The protagonist is Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, and he is like the detectives in most other Nordic crime fiction (and American hard-boiled fiction too, for that matter). He’s estranged from his wife and children, his parenting skills are abysmal, he smokes too much, eats a terrible diet, doesn’t exercise, doesn’t get enough or the right kind of sleep, and his apartment won’t be on the Better Homes & Garden Tour any time soon. His colleagues regard him with a mixture of admiration and irritation. He’s impossible to supervise. On the other hand, he’s perceptive, brilliant, and tenacious. And – despite that moment of discouragement I quoted above – his personal problems don’t obscure his fierce desire for justice.
He is also, for such an unhappy person, deeply compassionate. The murder victim in the opening of this novel doesnt generate any sympathy at all, but the people whose lives have been bent by the train of events that led to his murder haunt Erlandur, and his determination that they should receive the justice they deserve drives him to pursue this investigation. The scene in which he re-buries a child’s coffin that had been exhumed is moving.
One reviewer commented that this novel “conveys the sense of painful inevitability underlying the old stories that medieval Icelanders told through the long winter nights.” That’s an interesting claim. I don’t know enough about Iceland to have an opinion about the extent to which the novel captures a sensibility or tone unique to that nation, but it clearly relies for a key plot element on the homogeneity of the Icelandic people. And that’s a theme worth pondering.
The prose is spare, the atmosphere is dark, the detective is unhappy, and the crimes are awful. Plus, it pours down rain throughout the novel. In the closing scene of the novel, we hear that “It had started raining again but he [Erlandur] thought the rain was somehow milder.” That’s as good as it gets in Erlandur’s world.
This novel was a gift from Jackie Henry, Administrative Director of the Norwegian American Historical Association, housed at St. Olaf. Followers of my bookshelf know how much I enjoy Nordic crime fiction. An introduction to a new writer in that genre is a real gift.Actually, Karin Fossum is not “new”; she’s only new to me. There are ten novels in her Inspector Sejer series, in addition to a long list of other works. Wikipedia says she is often referred to as “The Norwegian Queen of Crime.” If you haven’t read her, I urge you to start right away.
Bad Intentions begins with a drowninga young man recovering from a nervous breakdown who had been given a weekend away from the hospitalincluding Friday the 13thto spend with two old friends. Readers are given some insight into what happened that weekend, but not why, and the experience of the first half of novel includes watching Inspector Sejer and others come to understand both the what and the why. Then another young man’s body is discovered in a lake, there is a connection with the first drowning, and the reader and the Inspector learn together what it all means.
This is a novel about guilt, which the novel sees as corrosive, uncontrollable, irrepressible. Think Macbeth on the fjords. It’s also a novel about confession, the intermediary product of guilt, and about punishment and redemption, the end products of guilt. It is taught, clear-eyed, and spare. I recommend it.
My friend Einar Vannebo, who ably directs the International Summer School at the University of Oslo, gave me this book. He introduced me to Nordic crime fiction, for which I am most grateful.This is the sixth novel by Jo Nesbo featuring Oslo policeman Harry Hole, who specializes in catching serial killers. Harry is every supervisor’s nightmare: he has no use for systems and procedures, no regard for authority, and no fear of being fired. In fact, every time he gets fired, or quits, the police force ends up having to plead with him to come back. His personal life is a mess. He’s alcoholic, and when he’s trying to stay dry he uses drugs to replace the alcohol. He lives alone, and it seems hes likely to stay that way because every time he forms what looks like a healthy, loving relationship with a woman she gets caught up in his investigation when the killer sees her as Harry’s vulnerability, and bad things happen. In this novel there’s a further complication: his father is on his deathbed. It was a complex father-son relationship, but at least it was a relationship, and Harry doesn’t need to be further alone.At the end of the last Harry Hole novel, The Snowman, Harry’s lover Rakel and her son became victims of a really creepy serial killer. The Leopard opens with Harry estranged from them, living in a flophouse in Hong Kong, smoking opium, and in debt to the Triad, Hong Kong’s mob. But a new killer is on the loose in Norway, and Kaja Solness, a beautiful police officer, has been dispatched to persuade Harry to come home and catch the killer. You wouldn’t think that there could be a creepier killer, or one who uses creepier methods, than in the last Harry Hole novel, but there is. Don’t read this novel if you don’t have a stomach for some brutal, graphic death scenes.
The investigation in this novel plays out against a backdrop of internecine struggle within the Oslo police force between Harry’s Crime Squad and Kriposan elite crime-fighting unit that is seeking to absorb Crime Squad. This has been a running theme in Nesbo’s novels, and it’s hard to see why it’s so important to him. In any event, Harry ends up fighting on two fronts at once: trying to solve the crimes and trying to outwit Kripos. Keep your eye on Kaja Solness.
This is a seven hundred-forty page novel in paperback, so prepare yourself for a long ride that involves the Far East, Norway, Africa, avalanches, precious metals, instruments of torture, and off-market anesthetics. It’s like the Stieg Larsson novels in its ambitious scope but more tightly plotted. Though it’s a novel about solving a crime, it’s really a novel about Harry Hole. It starts with him taking refuge in opium, and it ends with him wishing for an “armoured heart.” Considering what happens in the intervening time, you can understand why.
I love John Sandford’s crime fiction. His twenty-one Prey novels (they all have the word “Prey” in the title) featuring Minneapolis detective Lucas Davenport are still my favorites, but a new Virgil Flowers novel is always welcome, too.Sandford is following a pattern similar to that of the late, great American detective novelist Robert B. Parker, who established himself with the Spenser novels, then added a second series, the Jesse Stone novels, and then a third series, featuring a woman detective, Sunny Randall. Similarly, Sandford became famous with the Prey novels, introduced the character of Virgil Flowers and then spun him off to his own series, and also began a series featuring Kidd, a shadowy figure in cyber-world who pursues bad people with his sidekick LuEllen. There haven’t been any recent Kidd novels, so I’m not sure where that one stands. The Prey novels are urban, the Flowers novels rural. Davenport wears expensive suits, is married to a doctor, and has a family. Flowers wears ratty old t-shirts featuring rock groups, has three failed marriages in his past, and tows a boat behind his truck on crime investigations just in case theres good fishing near the crime scene.This is Sandford’s fifth Virgil Flowers novel. A superstore chain wants to move into a small Minnesota river town, there’s a fight between proponents of the store and environmentalists, and deadly bombs start going offfirst one at the companys corporate headquarters, then one at the construction site, and then more. Virgil Flowers is sent to investigate. He uncovers civic corruption, discovers a lot of people sleeping with persons other than their spouses, survives a bomb that blows up his boat, and eventually catches the bomber. It’s not who you might think it would be. Nor is the motive.
It will be interesting to see where Sandford takes the Virgil Flowers series. At the end of the last Flowers novel, Virgil had a girlfriend, the sheriff of the town where he was investigating a crime. But she has caught the eye of a movie production company and is in Hollywood consulting with them on a movie about the crime. When your girlfriend goes to Hollywood while you’re towing a boat around, that can’t be good. The results are predictable. This novel ends with Virgil alone in a small town hotel, drinking a beer and musing about all the good women hes met that he’s not with, and feeling lonely.
This first novel, like so many of the interesting books I read, was a gift from my wife, the writer Priscilla Paton, who found it at the Twin Cities Book Festival. (Why she keeps giving me books about men having mid-life crises is a subject for another essay.)
This is a novel narrated by someone who doesnt seem to understand either himself or other people. Neil Fox, a venture capitalist who worked in New York and lived on Long Island, recounts the events of his life in 1970 from the perspective of twelve years later, after he has sold his partnership in his firm, moved to Key West, and contracted emphysema from all the cigarettes he smokes in the novel.
Fox is a difficult person. The novels first paragraph suggests why: I still had plenty of money in 1970, more than my neighbors could reasonably hope to come by, yet not so much anymore that I could forget them. My lawn was no longer quite big enough nor my hedges high enough. Fox seems to regard other people as an annoyance, an intrusion. Hes suspicious of them. He doesnt like his brother, who is also his business partner. He doesnt like his mother, who in truth does seem rather mean-spirited. He doesnt like his business partners. He cant connect with his daughter. Obviously, the marriage wasnt working.
The events of 1970 force him to engage with people, and this is a novel about what happens when he does. The novel, and Foxs mid-life crisis, begin with his wife announcing that she is leaving him. His daughter is departing for college as well. Out with the old. A new neighbor moves in next-door and keeps finding ways to insert himself into Foxs life. Eventually they form a business partnership, the neighbor introduces him to a woman who becomes his lover, and events take a course that I wont recount here so as not to spoil the plot. In with the new.
You can imagine a rich account from a self-conscious narrator about the changes in himself and his view of the world brought about by the changes in his circumstances, but you dont really get that in this novel. Rather, because Fox is not particularly self-conscious or self-critical you get his account of what is happening to him but its mostly up to you to understand the significance of whats happening to him or why he does what he does. You dont get much help from him. Its like a Henry James novel, or Ford Maddox Fords The Good Soldier in this respect.
I predict that you wont like the narrator, but you will likely feel sorry for him at times in his alienation and isolation. He has his opportunities to break out of them, and he may, to some extent. In his authors acknowledgements James Wallenstein that to an extent This novel may be said to be about failed partnerships. Thats a great description of it.
This novel makes brilliant use of acutely and minutely observed physical details of scenes, and many of these descriptions of the settings for the novels action provide clues to understanding the significance of those actions. For a guy who doesnt seem to see himself very well, Fox has a poets eye for the details of his surroundings.
At the conclusion of this interesting and well-written account of the birth of forensic medicine in the U.S., the author reveals that
“There are mornings, lit by the cold winter light, when I start talking about a poison in my book, revealing my own dangerous expertise, and as I do, I watch my husband quietly, not really thinking about it, slide his cup out of my reach.”
As with so many good books I’ve read, my wife, Priscilla, recommended this one. The fact that she rather gleefully recounted the numerous poisonings of one spouse by another that are described in the book may have put me in a similar position to the author’s husband: it seemed prudent to see just what she had learned from The Poisoner’s Handbook.
This book is organized by poison. There’s a chapter on chloroform, another on wood alcohol, one on arsenic, another on radium, and so forth. Many of these chapters open a window onto an important moment in American history that you see in a new light through the lens of poison. The wood alcohol chapter, for example, is about prohibition, and the radium chapter shines a light on Marie Curie and on the sad story of the dial painters, young women who painted radium onto watch faces to make them luminous and who poisoned themselves in the process. Industrial scandals abound.
The heroes of the book are Charles Norris, the first real coroner in New York (as opposed to cronies of the Tammany Hall political machine, men who bore the title of coroner but treated the position merely as a sinecure) and Alexander Gettler, a Hungarian immigrant whom Norris recruited to his laboratory in the Coroner’s Office. These two men, Norris with his vision for what a coroner should do and his tenacity in advocating for the office, and Gettler, with his brilliance as a bench chemist, founded forensic science.
You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate this book. It is a readable, compelling narrative about key moments in early twentieth-century American history spiced with lots of remarkable stories about poison and poisoners. I recommend it.
You can overthink the business of deciding which books to read. On vacation we rented a house near the sea. It was full of interesting books, and this was one of them. I was on vacation, and I had loads of free time, so I read it.Though based upon the letters that Julia Child and her husband Paul sent to his twin brother between 1948 and 1954, this memoir covers more than the five years or so that they lived continuously in France, the period when she learned to cook and began to teach and write about cooking. This is the period imagined so charmingly in the recent film Julie & Julia. It also recalls their postings to Germany and to Norway and then their return to the States after Paul Child retired from government service and Julia Child became a celebrity.Mostly, though, it’s about the years in France, beginning in 1948. If there is a narrative arc to this book it is probably the story of how Julia Child “found herself,” as she puts it. She describes herself upon their arrival in France as “confused,” lacking in confidence, and “overly emotional.” “I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was” (p. 67). Julia Child found herself through cooking, and one of the pleasures of this memoir is watching how her descriptions of herself change from this early one to the period of final preparation of the manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking where she is the one who insists on precision, process, and clarity.
Good news: the book is full of talk about cooking and eating. On the cooking front, pp. 60-61 tell you how properly to scramble an egg. Page 69 offers a simple recipe for roast veal. Pages 202-3 describe the complex and gruesome preparation of pressed duck. Page 174 discusses the many different versions of bouillabaisse. On the eating front, p. 97 describes a dinner at a restaurant called The Artistes: loup de mer (sea bass), “its stomach cavity stuffed with fennel, grilled over charcoal . . . . After that Paul had two venison cutlets with a wine sauce . . . accompanied by a chestnut puree. I had roasted alouttes (larks) and puffed-up potatoes . . . . Finally, a wedge of Brie and coffee. A perfect meal.” This book is full of descriptions like these.
This memoir reflects a time in France when you could go to the butcher or the cheese maker or the fish monger or the wine merchant and buy what we would now call “artisanal” products — hand-crafted, locally sourced, traditionally made items. We don’t live that way now, but this book isn’t angry about that. Its joyful recollection of that world and how Julia Child found herself while living in it makes this memoir energetic and optimistic.
I picked up this book because I had seen the author interviewed several times on The PBS Newshour as the Madoff scandal unfolded, and she seemed, as one of my professors used to say, “pithy, trenchant, and germane.” I thought her account of what happened would be clear and readable, and it is.At the end of the day, the story of Madoff’s fraud was pretty simple: he took people’s money and told them he was investing it for them, but he didn’t. Instead, he spent it on himself.How do you start down this road? In Madoff’s case, the answer seems to be banal: you actually are investing people’s money, you make some bad bets and you come up short, but instead of telling the truth and taking your lumps you fake the results you wished you had achieved, using other people’s money. You never turn back.
Madoff is an enigmatic figure in this book. You understand what he did and the proximate reasons why, but you don’t get much insight into how he explained to himself what he was doing, or how he rationalized his actions, or how far his self-awareness reached. Did he have dark nights of the soul? When he stepped aboard his yacht in France paid for with money stolen from his “investors,” did he feel a pang?
The author is probably not to blame here; it’s not clear that Madoff has given anyone insight into his inner life. So, even though this book is subtitled “The Death of Trust,” I wouldn’t call it a moral tale. The closest the book comes to this kind of writing occurs in the Epilogue, where Henriques meditates on the Ponzi scheme as a crime. It’s “the crime of the egotist, not the sadist” because — until the money runs out — there is no pain, only grateful “clients.” Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is particularly interesting and morally complex because of the way it allowed some of his “investors” who received vast sums from later investors to direct those phony earnings to wonderful acts of charity, helping universities, hospitals, and all manner of worthy causes.
The Epilogue also delivers a sobering analysis of how difficult it is to detect a fraud like Madoff’s. There is a mismatch, Henriques argues, between investors and regulators, that makes detecting fraud highly problematic. Investors are from Mars, regulators from Venus; or to put it more clearly, regulators believe in the fine print while investors never read it. To Henriques, the Madoff fraud demonstrates that our current approach to regulation — the “full-disclosure regime” — doesn’t work. “Inadequate disclosure was not what inflicted the catastrophic losses that so many of Madoff’s victims sustained. What inflicted those losses was their failure even to ask for some fine print, much less read it. What went wrong was their rejection of basic bedrock principles of investing . . . .”
Henriques goes so far as to argue that “The Madoff case demonstrated with brutal clarity another truth that we simply do not want to face about the Ponzi scheme in our midst: He is not “other” than us, or “different” from us. He is just like us — only more so.” Madoff was not “inhumanly monstrous. He was monstrously human.” Any of us has within ourselves the capacity to commit his crimes.
This is a lucid, well-paced book about a complicated subject. I recommend it.