Archive for September, 2008

Tall Tale

Monday, September 29th, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie, 2008

Akbar Red Fort Agra

A very white blond European adventurer finds his way to the Mughal court of Emperor Akbar bearing a letter from Queen Elizabeth I (which he has stolen). Unimpressed by the letter Akbar orders the adventurer to tell him the truth about himself. Terrified, the young man blurts out that he is a blood relative of Akbar and then realizes he will have to come up with a story to explain this wild claim. The longer the story, the longer he may be able to escape whatever punishment Akbar may have in mind.

The remainder of the book is this tale, involving three young Italian boys from Florence in the time of the Medicis where even the pope (Leo X) is a Medici. One of the boys, seeking adventure, becomes a cabin boy on the flagship of captain general Andrea Doria. When the Ottoman fleet surrounds Doria, the captain sets the boy adrift in a small boat in a deep fog to blow the captain’s horn and confuse the Ottoman’s about the Italian fleet. When the fog clears the boy is alone with the entire Ottoman fleet surrounding him. He is taken captive, given a Muslim name, and raised as a Turk. He becomes a talented fighter and is given his own small army of Janissaries, including four giant albinos Swiss guards named Otho, Botho, Clotho, and D”Artagnan. When the Shah turns on the young warrior, he kills the shah and takes his favorite concubine who claims to be descended from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. The enchantress, who bewitches men wherever she goes is accompanied by her look alike maid Mirror. They escape to Italy and Florence where the ruling decadent Medici hires him and his mercenary army.

Medici Palace Florence

The tale continues until it is revealed that the blond boy is the grandson of the Italian Janissary and the enchantress. Akbar’s favorite wife is a mythical woman who is therefore perfect and the source of great jealousy in Akbar’s court. Akbar is so impress by the tale that the mythical wife suddenly vanishes to be replaced by the equally mythical enchantress who also knows the secret of eternal youth. An entertaining read. Rushdie is not lacking in imagination.

George Eliot in Venice

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

The World Before Her, Deborah Weisgall, 2008

George Eliot

Novel by a writer well versed in the arts takes us on an intimate tour of Venice through the eyes of two women, married apparently for financial security; Marian Evans (George Eliot), who visited Venice on her honeymoon in 1880 at age 60; and fictional sculptor Caroline Spingold, who accompanies her financial wheeler-dealer American husband to Venice in 1980.

Whistler’s Venice

The author imagines a meeting between Marian Evans and the painter James Whistler who was in Venice at the time of her honeymoon. Marian Evan’s circle includes her deceased long time lover George Henry Lewes, probable lover Herbert Spencer, John Chapman, Franz Liszt, Robert and Clara Schumann, and other luminaries of the age. The writing of these sections is in a style typical of the period of Henry James.

The sections dealing with American Caroline suffers by comparison though both take us inside rare Churches and Palazzos of Venice including the Jewish ghetto and the lagoon where rare glimpses of the Dolomites can be seen. We wait impatiently to return to the Marian Evans tale. Still, this work is well researched and well imagined and worth reading.

Vader Crushes Skywalker

Monday, September 15th, 2008

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer, 2008

This is the story of Dick Cheney a.k.a. Darth Vader and his omnipresent bullying lawyer and chief of staff David Addington and how the two of them after 9/11 took over the presidency and led the administration into the dark side from which it has never returned. Cheney is described as having changed into a paranoid, deranged fanatic after the attacks, living in underground bunkers emerging only to browbeat the few administration opponents into defeat and resignation. Neither Cheney, nor Addington, nor John Yoo, who gave legal cover to the administration from his justice department position, appear to have any respect for the constitution or for the law. Everything is about the powers of the imperial presidency. This account leaves little doubt that the power of the presidency resides securely in the hands of Cheney-Addington.

This work is a good companion piece to Nemesis, Shock Doctrine, Ghost Wars, and Legacy of Ashes.

The principle focus of the book is the capture and treatment of prisoners (illegal enemy combatants) in the war on terror both by the DOD military and by the CIA. It meticulously tracks the few cases have come to light and makes a compelling case that virtually nothing of value was learned by the torture inspired interrogation methods. Among the few cases are several cases of murder and numerous cases of innocent victims. Covered are the CIA special rendition program and black sites (unknown prisons) located throughout the world (including Afghanistan, Thailand, presumably Poland, and others) where the captured are held indefinitely beyond the reach of any law.

The book could have been about those heroes who tried to stand up to Cheney-Addington except these otherwise conservative actors always lose or their short lived victories are immediately undercut by new, equally illegal moves by Cheney-Addington. Bush is portrayed as a cowboy easily manipulated and largely outside the decision fray. Cheney presents him with a decision and Bush signs it. Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft, while supportive of Bush, are clearly outside the decision making loop. Of course good soldier Colin Powell was outside the loop.

When congress passes anti terror legislation sponsored by John McCain, Addington simply crosses out the parts he and Cheney disagree with (most of the bill) and have Bush issue a signing statement stating basically that he will not enforce the law. Later, when a bill is passed giving legal war crimes cover to the participants in the torture activity all the way up to Cheney, loose cannon McCain votes for the bill. (Maybe Bush is so ignorant of what is going on he doesn’t need cover?)

Korean lawyer John Yoo, who clerked for Clarence Thomas, was appointed to the Justice department key Office of Legal Council where he was in a position to write opinions which are considered legally binding interpretations of the law for the administration that act as “golden shields” or “get out of jail cards” for the administration. Most of these opinions including the torture authorization and the domestic surveillance opinion which end runs the FISA courts were kept secret even from those responsible for implementing the opinions.

When two cases on Guantanamo Rasul v Bush and Hamdi v Rumsfeld reach the Supreme Court, even Antonin Scalia votes against the administration. Other would be Luke Skywalkers here are Yoo’s successor Jack Goldsmith who almost has a nervous breakdown and resigns before he was able to rewrite Yoo’s secret torture opinion, William Waxman, Alberto Mora, and Phillip Zelikow. So far, Darth Vader has won every battle.

Forget Texas

Monday, September 8th, 2008

The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block, 2008

A first novel deals with Alzheimer’s victims in Texas. An elderly hunchback remembers his dead twin brother and his brother’s wife that was also the hunchback’s lover. A daughter that the hunchback assumes is his own runs away to New York and disappears. The hunchback sells more and more of his family farm until only the decrepit house and barn are all that remain, surrounded by Dallas suburban mansions. He holds on in the hopes that the lost daughter will return. The hunchback’s mother and brother suffered from Alzheimer’s.

The novel alternates to a second character, a 15 year old boy whose secretive mother has come down with Alzheimer’s and is now living in a nursing home. The boy studies Alzheimer’s and discovers that a genetic variant known as EOA-23 an early onset familial disease (invented by the author) which originated with a prolific English noblemen in the 19th century. Some of his descendants have been traced to Texas. The boy must find out where his mother was born and her maiden name (both unknown to the boy’s father who met his mother in New York) to discover her true story. He starts interviewing known EOA-23 families looking for clues to his mother’s origin.

The hunchback and boy have in common stories told by their mother about a mythical land Isadora, a place without memory where nothing can be misplaced or lost. These stories seem to have been passed down through generations of families. The author ruminates on the mysterious workings of the mind where forgetfulness is necessary to pattern recognition and mental organization. We create a meaningful and recognizable world by forgetting most of what we perceive or experience. There are cases of people with the ability to memorize long lists of numbers or names or texts but who are unable to organize information or even understand what they have remembered. The author reminds us that forgetting is an essential part of how our minds function.