Monthly Archives: March 2009

Levittown by David Kushner

Levittown touches on the story of the famous suburbs, but only to tell the tale of the integration of the falsely perfect community, which not only rejected African-American buyers but also prohibited renting to African Americans. When the Myers family purchases a home from its departing white owners, ugly violence ensues, even though the Myers have three small children including a baby! This is 1957. Fortunately many other residents support the black family through letters, practical help, and by keeping vigil when the police proves unequal to the task, but the minority of haters manages to create a dangerous and more than hostile climate until (slow) justice is done.

A good companion to other true stories about the supposedly idyllic 50’s: here, and here.

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Loneliness as a Way of Life by Thomas Dunn

Loneliness as a Way of Life is a sad, eligiac rumination about loneliness, quite different from the other Loneliness title reviewed here earlier, which cast a clinical look at the lonely. This one will appeal more to the literature minded, as the author uses King Lear, The Old Man and the Sea, and many other references to analyze the feelings and action of lonely people. It’s not my cup of tea. My favorite parts of the book were the ones where he got more personal, speaking of growing up as a orphan and the early death of his wife. Alas, the personal bits are just that, bits.

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Securing the City by Christopher Dickey

Securing the City describes the creation and operation of the New York Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit. If you thought that fighting terrorism was the province of the CIA or the FBI, you will be surprised to know that the NYPD maintains operatives in foreign countries and maintains tight links with multiple foreign anti-terrorism groups.

Some of the stories are very inspiring. For instance, the NYPD was able to quickly recruit, hire, and train many Arabic speakers by simply reaching out to its own, non-native but assimilated population (of US citizens, to boot) while the extreme bureaucratic requirements of the CIA or the FBI seriously hampered their efforts. It was able to dispatch police officers to the scenes of the Madrid and London public transportation bombings to bring back lessons on how to spot would-be terrorists and implement immediate new protection measures — whereas the other agencies took months to issue a wonderful, but very late report. It regularly stages “swarms” of police officers in sensitive spots to reassure the public that it is safe; dissuade would-be terrorists from targeting such unexpectedly-protected landmarks; and also train the police to think about terrorists along with their other regular duties.

Other stories are chilling. I’m not sure I would like to be watched from the sky, 24×7 (naturally I was, unknowingly, when I visited New York last year.) It seems that the vast resources assigned to the terrorist task force could perhaps be spent in other ways. And it’s also clear that the intercine wars between the federal organizations and the NYPD terorist unit are incredibly wasteful: it would surely be better to merge the efforts and share the techniques more transparently rather than duplicate the expenses. Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether such a frenzy around terrorism may not feed on itself: we must spend more because we know more about plots — even if, as the book makes clear, most terrorists are quite inept and pause little danger except to themselves.

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The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Perhaps I should pick less dark novels? The Vagrants tells the story of a Chinese town after the Cultural Revolution where a supposed “counter-revolutionary” is savagely executed (and her kidneys given to a high-ranking officials) and the ensuing popular protest is squashed just as savagely. To enliven the story add the distressed parents of the counter-revolutionary; a dirt-poor family with too many girls to raise who treats the oldest as a semi-slave; a sadist who pretends to volunteer to bury the executed woman; and a good-for nothing young man who turns out to be surprisingly sweet, the one ray of hope in the story.

Yet another proof that authoritarian regimes mangle people. Well-written, a little slow to my  taste, and mostly gloomy.

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Panic by Michael Lewis

Panic is the simplest of books: a compilation of newspaper and magazine articles about recent economic “crises” (from 1987 on.) The technique is very effective: it’s surprisingly refreshing — and oddly comforting at the same time — to read dark predictions about the stock market made in the wake of the 1987 “Black Friday” that read just like the ones written today. About a third into the book I must admit I got a bit bored. The pundits who pretend to predict the future are clearly not as clairvoyant as they’d like us to know, and with hindsight it shows.

And it’s most sobering to read again about the tech bubble, including many of my customers…

Overall, a good antidote to getting sucked in by today’s analyses, made in the same chaos as earlier crises.

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Ritournelle de la Faim by Jean Le Clezio

I’m afraid Ritournelle de la Faim is available only in French at this point. It’s a depressing Word War II novel about a teenage girl whose great uncle dreams of the Ile Maurice he left as a young man – and adores her (that part is very sweet and not at all depressing!) Her irresponsible family is surrounded by a motley crew of Mauritian emigres;  she befriends an arrogant and scheming Russian emigre and falls in love with a French Jew. She ends up taking care of her parents during the war and is eventually reunited with her lover. A sad book with fine emotional nuances, but a tad slow-moving and dark for my taste

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Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

By the always funny and understated David Lodge, Deaf Sentence starts out as a simple, perhaps superficial story about middle-aged deafness with hilarious observations about the indignities of miscommunications but veers into the heartbreak of helping aging parents, balanced by the joys and beauty of simple things. Very meditative and zen by the end, after you enjoy the pure fun and silliness of the first 100 pages.

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