Tuesday, January 31, 2012
I think Google has become something of a modern oracle, both hilarious and horrifying (especially the auto-complete feature). For example, the top completes for "how to get" will tell me how to get married in a video game, get rid of fruit flies, get a passport, get rid of bed bugs, and get a girl to like me (I imagine that happens after I'm a passport-holding, bed bug and fruit fly-free individual and I propose to her in Skyrim).
Fortunately, Joan Connor's recipe for quitting love is twelve easy steps, explicated in one of her short stories in a mildly entertaining but frustrating collection.
I find Connor's short stories overly precious, enamored with words and wordplay to the point of weariness, although there are occasional flashes in her less embellished stories. Overall, How To Stop Loving Someone seemed in need of a serious pruning.
In "Men in Brown," a reclusive textbook editor falls in love with her UPS man. In "The Wig," a husband and wife on vacation embark on a role-play that strains their relationship. "The Writing on the Wall," is a pleasingly spare vignette of adolescent awkwardness.
Many of Connor's stories are set in isolated, island settings ("Aground," "Halfbaby," "The Fox," and "Tide Walk") and she displays a sharp eye for detail when her stories aren't slumping under their own fussiness. In "Palimpsest," the last story in her collection, her unraveling obituary writer finds himself "drowning in meaning, a surfeit of meaning, meaning everywhere." Unfortunately, after wading through How to Stop Loving Someone, I know how he felt.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Of all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was probably the least equipped to deal with a natural disaster of this magnitude. Overloaded or insufficient infrastructure, a pre-existing dearth of medical facilities, cement buildings that pancaked at the first tremor, and deforested hills that triggered mudslides all contributed to the horrifically high death toll.
But as news of the earthquake broke, aid and personnel began pouring into Haiti. Why then was the response so chaotic and disorganized, and why, twenty-four months later, are thousands of Haitians still living in tents?
Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, attempts to untangle the labyrinthine maze of aid organizations and funding sources in Haiti After the Earthquake.. Dr. Farmer's Partners in Health began in Cange (central Haiti) and now operates in several countries, including Lesotho, Malawi, and Rwanda.
It is clear from Farmer's introduction that he holds Haiti and its citizens in the highest esteem, and Haiti After the Earthquake takes a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the issues in Haiti. Instead of calling for more aid or NGOs, Farmer instead calls for greater autonomy for Haiti's government and public sector, and blames the well-intentioned flood of humanitarian aid for further weakening Haiti's public sector, which is crucial for any long term or sustainable improvement in Haiti's infrastructure.
While the convergence of aid groups, groups from the United Nations, and the appearance of the U.S.'s Comfort hospital ship and its crew certainly saved lives, Dr. Farmer details the discouragingly disorganized, politicized, and fragmented relief efforts that unfolded in the weeks after the earthquake. Haiti After the Earthquake does an excellent job of explaining the answer to what talking heads started asking during the evening news cycle: if so much aid was pouring in, where was it going and why weren't things being repaired faster?
The answer, of course, isn't simple, ranging from the unintended consequences of USG relief laws to the nascent turf wars that started budding between NGOs to the simple reality of trying to function within a system that, at the best of times, didn't work.
Haiti After the Earthquake also humanizes the victims of the earthquake, from the families of the heroic medical staff of Haiti's hospitals who returned to work, unpaid, often homeless, unfed, without news of their families and friends, and continued their work of saving lives.
Haiti After the Earthquake includes a section, "Other Voices," written by Haitians and members of the Haitian diaspora, including Dr. Farmer's wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer. "Other Voices" is a welcome addition to Haiti After the Earthquake, presenting the Haitian perspective that is so often missing in the narrative surrounding the earthquake.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Just kidding. I do have a huge backlog of books (well, not huge. Like four.) that I want to post about, but I just finished In The Garden of Beasts, and man. I don't know - good book, but something about it just bothered me.
So. Erik Larson is the author of The Devil in the White City (HH Holmes, the Chicago World's Far serial killer), and Larson's specialty is nonfiction that reads like historical fiction. I don't mean this in a bad way at all - he's certainly a deft and entertaining writer, and he does a thorough job of sourcing, but he definitely leans on the side of narrative versus historical fact.
So! Garden of Beasts is about Ambassador William Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany in the early 1930s, during Hitler's consolidation of power.
Ambassador Dodd was a rather bizarre choice of ambassador - a quiet, introverted, rather poor history professor whose overarching loves were his unfinished manuscript of The Rise and Fall of the Old South and his farm in Virginia. Dodd originally hailed from North Carolina, the son of subsistence farmers, and rose to a professorship in Chicago through fortitude and determination.
Disappointed at his inability to work on The Old South because of the demands of his position, Dodd got the idea that a nice, quiet ambassadorship somewhere in Europe.
Why did Roosevelt call Dodd? Roosevelt's first five candidates all turned the ambassadorship in Berlin down, and Dodd certainly didn't fit the ambassador mold - not the least of which was not having an uninterrupted supply of personal wealth to finance the lavish lifestyle of the "pretty good club," as the Foreign Service elite called themselves, while living on an ambassador's relatively meager salary.
Dodd accepted Roosevelt's call and packed himself, his wife Martha, their adult daughter, also Martha, son Bill, and their Chevrolet - a symbol of Dodd's pledge to live within the means of his new salary - and set off for Berlin.
Much of Garden focuses on Martha (the second), and for obvious reasons - girl was a walking scandal. A short list of her conquests includes a minor member of French nobility, a slew of authors and poets (W.I River, Thomas Wolfe, and Carl Sandburg among them), a few financiers, a NKVD member and Soviet operative, and a rack of Nazis. Martha even attended a dinner with Hitler, at the invitation of one of his inner circle, who hoped to steer Martha and Hitler into a relationship. Already secretly married when the Dodds departed for Berlin, Martha definitely put some mileage on the couches in the new ambassadorial residence.
Dodd arrived in Berlin during a period of great tension in Germany, when Ernst Roehm's Storm Troopers and Hitler's army were beginning to wrestle for control, German nationalism was becoming increasingly intense, legal restrictions on Jews were fast becoming codified, and attacks on Jews, Americans, "non-Aryans," and anyone unlucky enough not to whip out the Heil quickly enough were becoming commonplace.
Dodd began butting heads with his staff almost immediately. Bookish and frugal, Dodd was a poor fit in the embassy, and quickly alienated much of his staff. Although Dodd objected to many of Hitler's policies, he was certainly not sympathetic to Germany's Jews (his diaries and letters reveal the chilling, casual anti-Semitism that pervaded many levels of the U.S. Government, even complaining about how many Jewish staff members were employed at the American embassy) and, like many other statesmen, was initially suckered into believing Hitler's lies.
Martha became quickly and thoroughly enamored of Nazi Germany, praising the "youthful, shining faces" of the German people and the new exuberance that thrummed through Berlin, and became close to a number of high-ranking Nazis (and by close, I mean really close), although she became disillusioned and repudiated the Nazis towards the end of her father's term in Berlin.
Dodd, Martha, and many of the Embassy staff were prolific letter-writers and diary-keepers, and Larson also had a wealth of Embassy correspondence to plumb from, which he uses to fashion an intriguing snapshot of life at the Embassy and in Berlin. Still, the focus of Garden of Beasts is certainly narrow, and less entertaining characters get short shrift - Dodd's son Bill is mentioned maybe three times in the novel. Larson also skimps on the historical detail (he mentions Germany's wretched economy very briefly, although it had an enormous impact on policymaking in the early 1930s, when Hitler's government repeatedly threatened to default on their debt as a strategy to keep American criticism of their brutalities quiet), but he does a wonderful job of capturing the zeitgeist of both Berlin and the American embassy, a world unto itself.
Larson habitually ends his chapters with cliffhangers, which gets tiresome after the sixth or seventh one, and I looked askance at some of his statements: for example, mentioning the famine in Ukraine with a cursory "famine scoured the Ukraine," which makes it sound like Ukraine's famine was a natural occurrence, ignoring the fact that the famine was man-made, created by Stalin and his circle to break Ukraine's resistance to Soviet rule.
Larson's final analysis of Dodd, as a "lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness," is, in my opinion, rather too generous. Dodd's embassy bowed more often to the Germans than to its own citizens, repeatedly putting appeasement towards a bellicose German government ahead of the safety of Americans in Germany, and Dodd's outspokenness about the Nazi regime only began after he'd been relieved of his post - conveniently coinciding with the waning of popularity of pro-German sentiment.