Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A common tragedy

In late November, Ukraine will again observe Holodomor Day, a day of remembrance for those who died in the Soviet-engineered famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. The Holodomor and efforts to memorialize it have exacerbated existing tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. In 2009, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev sent a letter to the Ukrainian president, calling the Holodomor a "common tragedy" and reminding him that Russians had also died in the famine. Medvedev denied that the Soviet government intentionally targeted Ukrainaians for extermination through starvation.

How many died is still in dispute. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at 2.5 million, other sources up to 10 million, but the most cited number is about 5 million, dead either of starvation directly or starvation-related diseases. The Soviet government confiscated all of the grain, even seed grain, and either exported it to Western Europe to raise money to buy industrial machines or swept it into "emergency reserves" that went untapped as millions starved to death.

Armed Soviet guards were sent to keep control in the villages, and the newly instituted passport system kept peasants from leaving their villages to look for food. They were prevented from foraging or hunting, and their food stocks were taken. In desperation, some resorted to eating the bodies of the dead, and instances of people being killed for food rose. The Soviet government plastered posters in Ukrainian towns reminding the starving population that cannibalism was considered an act of barbarism, and some of those who had resorted to it were tried and sent to prison camps in the vast Soviet gulag system (where, unsurprisingly, cannibalism was also rather common).

The reaction from the West was minute, which researchers find confusing. After all, the genocide of 1 million Armenians had gone mostly unnoticed by a government that considered them too Eastern, too foreign, altogether too Other to get outraged about Turkey's efforts to exterminate them (despite the frantic pleas of the American ambassador, Abram Elkus, who resorted to trying to remind the government that the Armenians were Christians, and shouldn't that sort of obligate the US to intervene?).

But the Ukrainians were Europeans, Christian, relatively close to Western Europe, and America had a sizeable and growing immigrant population from the Ukraine, members of which tried unsuccessfully to sound an alarm about what was happening there. Journalists traveled to the Ukraine and were taken on carefully controlled "trips," where all evidence of famine was hidden, and reported that nothing was amiss. In fact, Walter Duranty, a British journalist who served as the Moscow bureau chief at the New York Times for over ten years, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Ukraine, in which he called reports of the famine an "exaggeration or malignant propaganda" and referred to reports of the famine in other media as "scare stories."

Duranty was hailed for his positive reporting on the Soviet Union and won great acclaim for his work. Of course, when it was revealed that not only did he know about the scale of the famine and deliberately conceal it, probably due to his own sympathies with Communism and that Soviet officials were blackmailing him by threatening to expose his unorthodox sexual predilections, his reputation began to suffer, culminating in repudiation by the Times' editorial staff and a serious but unsuccessful attempt to revoke his Pulitzer.

There were others who tried to draw national attention to the famine - journalists, members of America's Ukrainian community, and others who managed to travel to the Ukraine without the interference of Soviet officials, but their attempts were overshadowed by writers such as George Bernard Shaw, who were so enamored with socialism that that they refused to believe that a utopian system could produce such a monstrosity.

So, in November, Ukrainian officials hold a day of remembrance at Kiev's Holodomor Memorial, a bronze statue of a skeletal girl in a ragged dress. Visitors leave piles of apples, flowers, and food around her feet. Washington will soon get its own Holodomor Memorial; ground was broken for one in 2008, and President Obama released a statement of recognizance of the Holodomor victims last November.

The debate still rages over whether the Holodomor was a genocide directed specifically at the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government, intending to destroy the stable and independent Ukrainian peasant community, or whether it was merely convenient to starve several million people in the rush to industrialize the Soviet powerhouse. Historians point out that although other communities also had their harvests forcibly taken and faced hunger and disease, Stalin's policies towards the Ukraine were uniquely harsh, including the refusal to allow peasants to forage for food and the execution or deportation of those who tried to, as well as the stationing of armed guards to prevent the peasants from leaving their starving towns.

Famine as a tool of genocide has a long and varied history, the most recent probably being the Ethiopian famine, which was blamed on drought and a poor harvest, helped by televised images of dried-up riverbeds and withered plants. It seemed to escape everyone that Eritrea and other neighboring countries were also experiencing the same weather patterns, and while dealing with a reduced harvest, avoided famine, and that the hardest-hit areas of Ethiopia (Tangay and Wello) also conveniently happened to be where resistance movements to then-Emporer Haile Selassie were the strongest and most organized. After all, it's hard to agitate for political change when you're starving.

Of course, proving a famine is an act of genocide is tricky, as evidenced by the debate over the famine in Ukraine and questions over whether the Ethiopian famine was similarly used to affect specific groups. In the case of Ethiopia, it's true that the weather conditions and poor harvest contributed to the famine, but some historiographers have gone as far as to say that famine, in this century, is by and large a preventable condition (Amartya Sen, Famines and Other Preventable Conditions). Certainly the Ethiopian government contributed to the effects, by ignoring or suppressing reports from those areas and failing to ameliorate the famine in its early stages.

In "Famine Crimes and International Law," published in the American Society of International Law journal in 2003, author David Marcus argues that famine can be classified as a tool of genocide (he uses the term "faminogenic" to refer to government-directed activity that causes, exacerbates, directs, or prevents the amelioration of a famine) when certain policies or behaviors are adopted by the government in connection with a famine, and that such activity can be considered a crime against humanity if it fits certain behaviors.

He argues that the activity of the North Korean government, under which roughly 4 million people have starved to death (while South Korea, experiencing identical weather patterns, has experienced no famine) is one such example. Food aid is diverted, agricultural policies that worsen the famine are purused without regard to their effect, false statistics are published, and food distribution is used as a tool of reward and punishment.

Like the Ukrainian famine, the North Korean famine goes largely ignored by the world community, perhaps for many of the same reasons. Although the amount of food aid that was sent to Ukraine was miniscule, mostly ad hoc contributions by individuals, as opposed to the millions and millions of dollars of food aid that pours into North Korea, both the Soviet and the North Korean governments have made outside intervention impossible and ineffective, at best, and profitable only to the government, at worst. Which in turn begs the question, what can be done when it is the government itself that is the crime against humanity? In North Korea, as in the former USSR, the answer seems to be that only time and entropy are effective in toppling rotten systems.

Happy Banned Books Week!

This week is Banned Books Week.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Oh, Hans-Rudolph Merz...



I know! I know! That 2 sub-a paragraph about Budnerfleisch gets me every time!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Things that scare me.

Are, in no particular order, bugs, needles, kids who stare at you in public for no discernable reason, and how close we have teetered to complete global chaos. Why? Well, read this book:



Which, if nothing else, should convince you that our national motto should be changed to "live and don't learn!"

American Diplomats is collection of interviews with Foreign Service Officers, Ambassadors, and other State personnel, collected and edited by Charles Stuart Kennedy and William Morgan, both former Foreign Service Officers. American Diplomats is arranged chronologically, from the early years in the 1920s through World War II, the new world order of the Cold War and the chaos the collapse of the USSR created, to decolonization and its results in the 60s and 70s, the reopening of China, the beginning of U.S. engagement in the Middle East, to Desert Storm.

The interviews are alternately fascinating, hilarious, and frightening. Many of those who provided interviews spoke candidly about the challenges they faced, including an unresponsive and sometimes outright hostile U.S. government. The interviews also reveal why movement in the Department is so sluggish, especially in times when it needs to respond quickly.

Although Kennedy and Morgan tout the opportunities available for women in the introduction to an interview with the first female economic officer in Latin America, the interviewees are decidedly old school - out of the 40+ interviews collected, only two are from women.

The book would have benefitted from a more thorough editorial scrub - some of the interviews are so convoluted as to be difficult to read - but on the whole, American Diplomats offers an interesting and frankly terrifying look at how American has stumbled its way into and out of some of the worst contretemps of the last century - proving the adage that God protects drunks and fools.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Calling it.


Deciding a genocide is a genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries has started to resemble that old canard of blind men groping an elephant.

Everyone's feeling it. We just can't decide what it is.

And there's a reason for that. A 'civilized' world reeling from the shock of the Shoah needed some way to make itself feel that it could ensure that it wouldn't happen again. So, in 1946, the United Nations adopted one of its famous resolutions (that and a dime won't even get you coffee now) calling genocide a crime under international law. However, it wasn't until 1948 that the UN got around to actually defining what genocide is (or what it considered it to be), and as those of you familiar with the UN know, that is practically warp speed.

The UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as "any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
- Article II of CPPCG"

Right. Okay. That seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it?

So, who exactly is supposed to enforce this Convention?

Well, according to Article VIII:

Article VIII: Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III.

Mm. Okay. "Competent organs" should be taking appropriate actions. That kind of summons up images of being rescued by a giant kidney. This is appropriately vague, it doesn't really bind anyone to doing anything in particular.

After the Rwandan genocide (never again, remember?) and the genocidal killings in the Balkans, the UN adopted another resolution, Security Resolution 1674, which "reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

Right. Great. But the CPPCG and the Resolution 1674 have the same flaw, or convenient loophole, depending on how you look at it.

Simply put, if one delays defining an event as a genocide until it's pretty much over and the need for intervention has passed, you can pretty effectively get out of having to fulfill your 'responsibility to protect populations from genocide.' Which is why, in the early days of the Rwandan genocide, government spokespersons were twisting themselves into semantic pretzels and very carefully avoiding invoking the big G.

Which brings me to, in an extremely circular way, Gerard Prunier's Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide.

About, what, nine months ago, if you lived in a metropolitan area, especially this metropolitan area, you probably saw a lot of twenty-somethings walking around with T-shirts that said "Save Darfur!" on them. There were television fund-raisers and some celebrities got involved, and then all of a sudden everyone kind of noticed, hey, there's this place called Darfur and there appears to be some sort of genocide going on!

At that point it was pretty much over, and intervention, while probably still helpful and maybe even useful to the people living there, was kind of beside the point.

So why did it take so long, and isn't that always the question? Prunier tries to answer it in a flawed but important book.

Prunier argues that one of the reasons that Darfur didn't attract much attention on the world stage is that no one else could figure out what the hell was going on. The papers reported things like Arab-African clashes and murderous horsemen called Janjaweed sweeping down on villages and killing everyone with swords, which conjured up something out of T.S. Lawrence's Arabia.

But the truth was more complicated, and it's kind of hard to decide on a course of action when you don't understand what's going on on the ground, or even who the involved parties are.

To try to untangle it for the Western reader, Prunier goes back to the history of the various conquests of Sudan and the misleading use of the terms "Arab" and "African" by the Western press (a fine example of that linguistic slippage so beloved by English graduate students).

Prunier delves into the formation of the Darfurian sultanate, which sounds like something out of Star Trek but is actually the development of a large area controlled by distant Khartoum. Darfur in particular was ignored and starved of resourced by the governing powers. So, a split evolved, which later became couched in religious and racial terms, which in turn was exploited by whomever was ruling at the time and found it convenient to do so. Hence, the reportage of clashes between 'Arabs' and 'Africans' reported by the press didn't mean what readers thought it did.

The killing in Darfur was that most vexing phenomenon to the Western powers apparently responsible for preventing genocide: genocidal killings taking place within a larger war. This was similar to what let everyone pretend they didn't know what was going on in Rwanda - as long as the Rwandese leaders kept insisting it was a civil war with some regrettable but unavoidable civilian casualties, and as long as the West kept pretending it believed them, they got out of actually having to do anything about it.

So, with Sudan, Chad, and Libya all involved and the UN distracting itself with a protracted, fruitless, and ultimately useless "negotiation" and "peace plan" process in Abuja with the same leaders who were stonewalling anyone trying to get to Darfur to find evidence that genocide was in fact taking place, it was easy enough to claim that it wasn't clear whether or not the killings in Darfur counted or not. The UN busied itself with issuing resolutions calling for disarmament, negotiation, and humanitarian relief, none of which actually made a difference due to the complete lack of any sort of way to enforce them.

So, while Darfur burned, the international community concerned itself with a charade of a 'peace process' that had been dragging on since 2004, becoming increasingly desperate to secure a signature on an empty document, so at least it could point to something it had accomplished.

The result was the Darfur Peace Agreement, or DPA, a 108-page meisterwerk that included such dreams as an immediate ceasefire, the disarmament of the Janjaweed, and a power-sharing arrangement between the rebels and the government. And unicorns. For everyone.

So how does it end? Well, Darfur won't tell you, because it was published in 2007, shortly after the signing of the DPA.

Prunier is an excellent writer - and I say this because I am also reading his seminal Africa's World War, but Darfur is not his finest work. The book's main value lies in explaining Darfurian history for the Western reader, and drawing connections between events today and decades-old decisions in Sudan. It also shows how a lack of knowledge of the historical context led to Western media and the UN misunderstanding the situation on the ground.
Darfur as a book is flawed - the editorship is hasty, and the book gives the overall impression of having been rushed to print, as evidenced by its slapdash ending in the midst of the DPA signatory process. But Prunier can hardly be blamed for this, as the book seems to follow the conflict almost in real-time. The 2007 version is an update of a previously released work, and hopefully Prunier will complete a more thorough historiography and analysis of Sudan, in the vein of his other publications.

As for the end to the Darfurian saga? There is none, it's still continuing.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Neverending Story.



Tell Me How This Ends is a timely story. Following Gen. McChrystal's recent public excoriation, Gen. Petraeus became the ISAF and USFOR-A Commander, which is kind of like being simultaneously in the frying pan and the fire. Robinson's book, published in 2008 following the quelling of Iraq's nascent civil war, uses a workmanlike approach to analyzing General Petraeus' accomplishments in Iraq.

Although this book is ostensibly about Gen. Petraeus, Robinson actually reveals very little about her subject, aside from a few bits and pieces from interviews with his family and colleagues and some biographical information that isn't particularly groundbreaking. But it's actually fitting, in a way, since Gen. Petraeus is a very reserved figure - unlike the abrasive Gen. McChrystal. In fact, as Robinson reveals, Gen. Petraeus' military victories are due in large part not only to his tactical and strategic prowess, but to his extreme control under the most trying of circumstances, innate skill at diplomacy, and his extraordinary personal drive.

Although Robinson's book falls short as a biography, it does a commendable job taking the reader inside the unique and deadly conflagrations that engulfed different regions in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, during the bleakest days of the war. Although Robinson doesn't touch on the historical context of the Sunni/Shiite conflict (which is in itself the subject for another book, if not a couple of volumes), to her credit, she does devote a considerable amount of time providing the recent political context of the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and how sectarian divisions so thoroughly derailed the stabilization process, ignited a firestorm of violence, and very nearly caused the dissolution of the shaky Iraqi government.

Robinson's writing becomes particularly vivid in describing the violence that American force faced in Ameriya and Adhamiyah, two towns with particularly brutal and entrenched insurgent activity. Robinson chose to present the struggle in Ameriya and Adhamiyah through the perspective of the officers from Charlie and Alpha Companies, companies that suffered very high casualties in the struggle to clear the cities. This close perspective pays off with a look into the inner workings of a very cohesive group of soldiers who made remarkable accomplishments under some of the worst conditions of the war.

Although Tell Me How This Ends does not really provide a multi-dimensional portrait of Gen. Petraeus (if such a project is even possible, particularly now), it is nonetheless a very valuable work, and provides some remarkable and informative insight into how intertwined political and military activity was (and still is) in Iraq.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vat are you sinking about?!*

I thought this was rather timely, given that I spent the day at the Navy Yard: Marines Seize Ship from Pirates. Also, brilliant response on the part of Holger Roemer.

The Navy Yard's Naval History and Heritage Museum is pretty cool, with probably the largest collection of hawsers**, yardarms***, and brigs **** in the metropolitan area. And, as the above article attests, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* This is from a really bad joke about a ship crew trying to alert a German command that they're sinking.

** To the best of my knowledge, a type of rope?

*** I have no idea.

**** It's either a jail cell on a ship, or a type of unpalatable British pudding. Or it could be the unpalatable British pudding that people in a jail cell on a ship are forced to eat. So, basically that would be any sort of British pudding.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Naked and the Dead.




When Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid was published last year, it turned her into something of an insta-celebrity. Here was an economist, a Zambian economist no less, who was willing to commit what many policymakers consider the ultimate act of apostasy: Dambisa Moyo wrote a book about how foreign aid was not helping Africa, but instead contributing to stunting its economy, propping up dictators, contributing to an environment that makes gross abuses of human rights possible and profitable, and destroying the nascent emerging economies.

In short, Ms. Moyo was telling us, everything the West has done vis a vis aid in Africa for the past fifty years is wrong. Which the West, having dumped over a billion dollars into aid programs, probably really didn't want to hear.

I review this book with a lot of hesitancy, the most obvious reason for which is Dambisa Moyo has a PhD in economics and I don't. (Of course, she also worked for Goldman Sachs for nearly a decade, and I could point out that Sachs itself was propped up with government aid not that long ago. But I digress). The point is, Moyo could have told me that instead of sending aid money to Africa we should send shipments of emperor penguins, and I'd be inclined to believe her, since she's an economist and I'm not, nor do I really ever have any hope of being one.

So, I put Dead Aid down for a few days and read Charles Wheelan's Naked Economics, in the hopes that a book about economics written for the economics-impaired would help me get a better handle on Moyo's argument, or at least be able to read her book from a position of not-complete-ignorance.

Naked Economics is really about the psychology behind economics. After all, the global economic system doesn't just react to the markets. It is, for a large part, controlled by government institutions, and those institutions are made up of the collective will of groups of people. So, why do nations make poor economic decisions? Why do economic policies that seem to make sense often have disastrous unintended consequences?

Like the song says, it's human nature.

Much of Wheelan's book is devoted to finding out why we make the economic decisions we make in the economic systems in which we operate. Naked Economics, while touching on economic systems in different countries, is at its heart an America-centric book. Wheelan shows how decisions that affect the economy are made for political expediency, or to pacify a group of special interests, and how those decisions, while postponing some immediate pain, often generate longer-term and more intractable problems.

He also makes a convincing argument for the merits of capitalism. According to Wheelan, capitalism is the one system with enough freedom that allows you to gamble, and when you win, to win big. Of course, the flip side of that is that you can also lose big, which is why even capitalist countries aren't fully capitalist - their governments still exert control over industry, markets, and economic policy. Wheelan's frequent analogy to the idea of the economy as a pie is that in capitalist countries, while the division of the pie may be more unequal, the pie itself is likely to be bigger, so even those with a smaller slice get more.

So, did this help me understand Dead Aid? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I felt better equipped to find gaps in Moyo's argument, and less in the sense that I still have no idea if the ideas she proposes would actually work.

Dead Aid can't seem to decide quite who its audience is - voters wondering why so much aid is poured into Africa with so little apparent results? Economists? Policymakers? And some of the comparisons that she makes seem downright nonsensical - saying that landlocked African countries are similar to Switzerland and pointing to Switzerland's enviable economic development ignores the fact that Switzerland hasn't experienced decades of civil unrest, recent war, and has the distinct advantage of being surrounded by other strong economies in a relatively stable and prosperous part of the world.

Still, Moyo's ideas certainly demand scrutiny. She argues that the constant flow of aid is actually preventing African countries that are aid-dependent from unlocking their own untapped human potential - the human capital that Wheelan argues is essential for economic development. But what is perhaps most telling about Moyo's book is what she doesn't mention: namely, that's it's very hard to have a viable economic and business system when you are in the middle of a war, or facing a second decade of civil unrest, or dealing with groups of rampaging rebels and/or government soldiers (or both at once, as is the case in Congo). Without peace, there is no stability, and without the rule of law - law that protects human capital - there will be no economic development.

Which, of course, brings us back to Moyo's main point. Is aid working? Well, on a large scale, it hasn't up until now, although more and more nontraditional aid programs, such as microloans and microgrants, are emerging with very positive results. Moyo's book is definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than it forces one to think about whether the current aid policy is really doing what it's intended to do, or if a philosophy developed in the late 1940s is even still relevant to today's global community.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Confederate States of Insanity


John Kennedy Toole killed himself in 1969. He had written two novels, Confederacy of Dunces and Neon Bible (which he wrote at 16). Neither one had been published. It wasn't until 1976, when his mother, Thelma Toole, brought a copy of Confederacy to novelist Walker Percy, who was a professor at Loyola at the time, that anyone besides Toole and his mother knew the novel existed. Confederacy was published in 1980 by LSU Press, and slowly became a cult favorite. In 1981 it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a bestseller.

This is quite an accomplishment for a novel that has little, if anything, in the way of a plot, and whose main character and ostensible hero is a morbidly obese, chronically unemployed, spoiled, and pretentious medievalist twit who spends his time (in between eating bakery cakes and slurping down bottles of Dr. Nut soda supplied by his doting mother) writing polemics about how civilization has been on a steady downward slide since the Dark Ages.

But you probably won't care, because Confederacy is a rollicking, hilarious ride, full of characters with such unique voices that I more than once spewed water out of my nose whilst reading. I would advise you to exercise caution when drinking while reading this book.

Confederacy follows the trials of the aforementioned Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives in New Orleans with his mother. Reilly, who speaks in the studiously eloquent vernacular of the overly educated, has never held a job, despite having a master's degree in medieval studies. His passions are bakery cakes, his Big Chief tablets of invective, and writing furious missives to his ex-girlfriend, a Bronx feminist/activist/agitator named Myrna Minkoff.

Ignatius is eventually forced to get a job, first as an office worker in a floundering pants factory, and then as a hot dog vendor. Through a series of coincidences, Ignatius unwittingly becomes tangled up with various Quarter denizens, including the staff of a grubby strip called the Night of Joy, a hapless policeman who desperately tries to find a 'character' to arrest, and his mother's new love interest.

Like I said before, Confederacy doesn't really have a plot, but it doesn't need one. The dialogue is side-splitting and Ignatius is alternately grotesque and spittake-inducingly funny.

Because Louisiana, unlike the rest of the United States, is under the Napoleonic code of law, the rights to the book were jointly owned by Toole's mother and a few other relatives. Because no one ascribed much value to the carbon manuscript that had been lying around Toole's house, his relatives were easily persuaded to give up their rights to Confederacy, but once it became a success, a legal battle over the rights to Neon Bible began, and it was blocked from publication until after Thelma Toole died in 1984. Neon Bible was published five years later.

Interestingly enough, all four actors tapped for various incarnations of a film adaptation of Confederacy died (John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, and Divine). Another stab at a film adaptation, starring Will Farrell as Ignatius, sputtered out as well.

If you go to New Orleans, there is a statue of Ignatius in front of the DH Holmes on the West Bank, where the novel opens.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Agony of Ambiguity


Middlesex is author Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel. Eugenides' first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published in 1993, which terrifyingly enough, was 17 years ago.
Seventeen years. What was Eugenides doing all that time? The idea of a seventeen-year gap between publications is almost unthinkable for today's authors, who are churning* out Stephanie Plums and Sookie Stackhouses with disturbing regularity.

That aside, Middlesex is a fantastic book. The narrator, now-early-40s Cal Stephanides, gets right down to it in the first sentence: Cal was born Calliope, for all intents and purposes, a girl. But not actually a girl. To undertand Cal's unique nature, you have to go all the way back to the provincial town of Bathynios, Greece, where parentless siblings Desdemona and Lefty live on a hill above Smyrna. Desdemona is the archetypal sturdy village girl, sensible and earthy, who spends her days tending to her silkworm cocoons. Her dapper older brother haunts the gambling dens and whorehouses of Smyrna, seeking out prostitutes that look like Desdemona.

After the Turks invade and burn Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona flee on an America-bound boat, and take the opportunity to give themselves new histories and genealogies - as well as seizing the chance to act on their mutual attraction. The siblings get married onboard.

Now, contrary to rather long-held belief, isolated instances of inbreeding are not inherently genetically damning. Rather, successive generations of inbreeding continue raising the odds that a genetic screw-up is going to happen, by raising the odds that carriers of certain gene mutations will get together and pass the mutation along to their kids (see the Virginia Quarterly Review's excellent fall 2007 article about the isolated village of Aicuna and its large population of albinos).

So, when Desdemona and Lefty's son Milton falls for his second cousin, Tessie, the odds are stacked against them, because they're not only second cousins, but Lefty's father and mother are also sister and brother from a small town that already had a lot of married cousins. But Milton and Tessie don't know this, because Desdemona and Lefty have kept it a secret, so they blithely get married, have one genetically normal son, and a hermaphroditic daughter.

Calliope is one of the more rare variants of hermaphrodite, a male pseudohermaprodite. Desdemona's docter, an elderly and nearly blind Armenian from Smyrna that the siblings met on the boat, doesn't catch it, and neither does anyone else. Callie is for all intents and purposes a perfectly normal girl, until she crashes into puberty and, instead of sprouting a bust, gets a deeper voice, five o'clock shadow, and falls in love with one of her classmates at her private, all-girls school.

Callie's hermaphroditism isn't discovered until she ends up in an emergency room after an accident while on vacation with her first love. Her parents, who have no reason to believe she's anything other than a girl, take her to a therapist in New York, but when faced with the prospect of surgery to 'correct' her ambiguous genitalia, Callie flees.

Now, looking back on the unique circumstances of his life, Cal is lonely but decidedly male, living a parapatetic existence as a Foreign Service Officer and sabotaging any burgeoning romances before he has to explain what he is.

Middlesex is a denser, more complicated narrative than The Virgin Suicides. Eugnides delves not only into Cal's mind, but into the minds of Desdemona and Lefty, Cal's parents, his brother, and other assorted relatives. However, interestingly, Cal's potential romantic partners, in school and otherwise, remain ciphers. Cal names his first love the Object, and she remains as mysterious to him as Cal's body is. Middlesex is also a decidedly self-centered book, and Cal is the vortex around which the action whirls, the culmination of the consequences of a chain of actions that began generations before he was born.

Middlesex has a rather irritating strain of silliness that runs through it, which seems to have been cropping up in a lot of new fiction - the postmodern answer to magical realism? It distracts from the otherwise solid writing, as do the presence of a lot more stylistic flourishes than Eugenides' solid, unadorned debut leads one to expect. Middlesex also leaves a number of questions unaddressed about how Callie goes about officially refashioning herself as Cal without undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. Still, Middlesex is a rewarding novel from a very talented writer, and tackles the Hydra-headed subject of gender, nature, and nuture with admirable results.

And speaking of genetic mutations:



Armand LeRoi's excellent Mutants was published in 2003, and it's a gorgeously written, fascinating without being voyeuristic or exploitative, meditation on genetics and how genetic variations and mutations happen and what the results are. In eloquent language, LeRoi explains the basis for genetic mutations, how they are passed on, and exactly what occurs in the process of development. Mutants is also part historical treatise, and LeRoi presents a fascinating view of how mutations have been viewed, examined, diagnosed, and treated throughout history. From being celebrated as signs of wonder to being damned as evidence of divine curses, LeRoi treats the subjects of his book respectfully. After all, as he reveals, most of us are mutants, it's just that our mutations aren't visible.

*I must confess - I first wrote "pooping," but then took it out because I thought it was too rude.