Café I

The best restaurant in the history of the city of New York closed forever last year, and it was all my fault.

It was a modest little place in the center of a long row of squat gray buildings, tucked in between a yoga studio and a plumbing supply wholesaler. It did not have a listing on Yelp, or a marketing budget, or even a name. The restaurant—people just called it that, “the restaurant,” if they called it anything—was open only for lunch on weekday afternoons, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to be closed on Fridays if the weather was nice outside.

The owner’s name was Sandy, and Sandy worked alone. No one knew why. None of us knew a thing about Sandy, other than the one startlingly obvious fact that Sandy was a genius with food. Every meal I ever had at the restaurant was superlative, off-the-scale excellent even in a city of high-level cuisine. Sandy’s food was always simple in concept—heart-nourishing soups, thick meaty sandwiches, hand-crafted salads—but everything was fresh and delicious and skillfully prepared.

Sandy very easily could have been a famous chef with a national reputation, leading a talented brigade at a high-end restaurant that would thrill diners and dazzle even the most jaded food critic. But that would have meant dealing with investors and sous-chefs and waiters and bartenders, and that wasn’t what Sandy wanted to do at all. Sandy worked alone, and that informed what the restaurant was and how it worked.

The restaurant didn’t have a menu, for one thing. You ate whatever Sandy was dishing out that day, and you were grateful for it. If you were a regular—that is to say, one of the few people who knew of the restaurant’s existence—Sandy would send you a text in the morning, telling you what was available that day. You replied “IN” or “OUT,” and if you were “IN,” Sandy would send you a text telling you when to pick up your lunch.

When you walked into the restaurant, you walked down a long, thin corridor until you came to a tiny window, where your lunch was waiting for you. Just to the right of the window was a large refrigerator stocked with bottles of Poland Spring water, one to a customer. (If you wanted a soda, or coffee, you had to bring it in yourself.) You took your lunch, got your water bottle, and found a place to sit down.

And this was the beauty of the restaurant, what made it so special, what made those of us who ate there so devoted to it. There weren’t any tables. The restaurant had carrels, like at a library, and each carrel had one chair. You found an unoccupied carrel, sat down, turned on your laptop or tablet or whatever other device you liked, put on your headphones, and ate your delicious lunch in complete solitude.

I mean, you just couldn’t beat that.

I only found out about the restaurant because of a guy I barely knew. His name was Ron Newman, and he had rowed crew at Brown when I was at Princeton. He was leaving Manhattan for a new job in Seattle, and that meant he could nominate someone to take his place as a regular. He’d remembered me as a kindred spirit, I guess. We had a quick drink at a quiet bar in the Financial District, and he told me all about Sandy and the restaurant and how it worked. I was skeptical at first, and then I tried Sandy’s pastrami sandwich—on toasted pumpernickel, with hand-ground mustard and just a tiny smear of apple butter—and I was hooked.

I ate at the restaurant at least three times a week, more if I could get away with it. Every time I had a lunch meeting in the office, eating a flimsy sub sandwich and having to listen to other people crunch on mass-produced potato chips, my heart sank. But whenever I could get out of the office and grab a quick bite at the restaurant, I was revitalized. It was more than just the food, although the food was spectacular. It was the opportunity to commune with myself, to be alone for a brief moment in a city of 7 million people, to be exactly the person I expected myself to be, and nobody else.

The last time I went to the restaurant was a sunny day in late August. Sandy was making roasted eggplant soup, spiced with curry powder, served with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt. I left the office and strolled the four blocks to the storefront. Two people were waiting out front for me.

“There you are,” Lance said.

Lance was my supervisor, and Clayton was with him. Clayton worked in human resources, something to do with staff development. I stifled the urge to run in the other direction.

“We thought we could do lunch,” Clayton said. “Lance saw you come into this place a couple of times, and we figured we might join you for lunch.”

I should have lied. I should have told them that I was going to the Thai restaurant on the next block, or that I was just out for a stroll. But I couldn’t make the words come out of my mouth. Lance opened the door and ushered me inside, and I was trapped.

There was just the one brown paper bag waiting for me in the window. I took out three bottles of water, and handed one each to Lance and Clayton. I took my bag, knowing there was only one serving of soup inside.

“Let’s find someplace to sit down, first,” I said. “I’ll see if I can get you something.” I showed them to a carrel; they looked skeptical but didn’t ask any questions. I went back to the window.

There was a screen just behind the window, so you couldn’t see into the kitchen. I had never seen Sandy, not any more than just a hand putting a bag in the window. I didn’t know anyone who had ever seen Sandy, or had had so much as a conversation with the reclusive chef.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but two people from my office followed me here, and they want to try the soup. If it’s not too much trouble.” It was a horrible moment for me, saying something to somebody else in the restaurant, in the very citadel of solitude.

Approaching Sandy and asking for a favor was like a cargo-cult savage asking the heavens for canned Spam, but I didn’t have a choice.

I waited for a long moment in silence.

“I am really sorry about this,” I said. “Please.”

I could just barely make out Lance and Clayton’s conversation; one of them was saying, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, anyway?”

Two brown paper bags appeared in the window. I snatched them, said a brief word of thanks for my deliverance, and went back to the carrel, where an obviously agitated Lance and Clayton were waiting for me.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” Lance said. “Is there not any place to sit?”

“Or a menu?” Clayton said.

“Trust me,” I said. “It’s delicious. Maybe the thing to do is to take it back to the office and eat there.”

“It’s soup,” Lance said. “It’ll get cold, and then we’d have to heat it up.”

“Do you think we could find a couple of chairs?” Clayton said.

I went down the row of carrels, and found two of them were unoccupied. I grabbed the chairs out of them, and slid them down the aisle. This earned me more than a couple of glares from other diners, but nobody said anything. They wouldn’t.

“Here you go,” I told Lance and Clayton. “Sorry.”

“This is easily the weirdest restaurant I have ever been to,” Lance said.

“It’s so quiet,” Clayton said. “It’s too quiet. It’s like eating at a library, except you’re not supposed to eat at a library.”

I opened up my container of soup and motioned for them to do the same. It was heavenly, the sweetness of the yogurt balancing out the bitterness of the roasted eggplant. Lance and Clayton tasted theirs, but their focus was on me, and that made me even more uncomfortable, if that was possible.

“We wanted to have a chance to chat with you outside the office,” Lance said. “You know, to talk about you, and your development, and your future with the firm.”

“We have been watching you for a long time,” Clayton said. “Your work has been stellar. But we’ve noticed that you don’t always do your best work when you’re collaborating, or when you’re a team. You always seem a little reserved, a little aloof.”

“Not that this is a bad thing,” Lance said. “But we think it could hurt you down the road. You know, as far as getting promoted. This soup is delicious, by the way.”

“I know,” Clayton said. “It’s got just enough spice to it. Anyway, look. We are not trying to get on your case here, all right? This is not going on your record. It’s a friendly chat. What we’re trying to do is to see if we can figure out how to get you to open up around other people. Be more of a team player.”

“It’s a personality thing,” Lance said. “Not a work thing. It’s just that people don’t like to work with someone who’s not all that outgoing, you know?”

If we had been at work—in some anonymous conference room—I could have addressed everything they were saying. I could have explained that I wasn’t being aloof or reserved or anything like that, at least not on purpose. I could have pointed out everything that I brought to the table, how it balanced out those elements of my personality. But here, in a space that was created to honor silence, introspection, and incredible soup, I could not say a word in my own defense.

“This is outstanding soup. Lance, doesn’t your wife manage a restaurant?”

“She does indeed, and she’s always looking for new talent. And this soup is evidence of that. Do you happen to know the chef? Because…you know, working in a place like this, a chef is probably looking for greener pastures, right?”

A door that I’d never noticed before opened, and Sandy came bursting out of the kitchen. She raced down the aisle of carrels to where we were standing, and took off her chef’s hat.

I had never seen her before now; nobody had. She was unspeakably beautiful. In a town filled with beautiful women, she was something like a minor goddess. And she was incandescently angry.

“You’ve had your soup,” she said. “Now get out of here, and don’t come back. Ever. This is my place. I worked hard for it, and I sweated blood to get it just the way I wanted it, and I’m not giving it up for anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” Lance said. “Because you could do so much better, with a little more effort. You could be a real star in this business.”

“Leave,” she said, and her pastel blue eyes were visibly seething with anger. Lance and Clayton put their soup containers down and silently filed out of the restaurant.

Sandy turned to glare at me. “What were you thinking, bringing them here?”

“I love you,” I said. I hadn’t meant to say it, but it was true. I had never loved anyone before, and I had to say it to her, if I never said anything again.

“You are banned,” she said. “For two weeks. Don’t try to call me or text me, or you’ll be banned forever.”

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked. “Maybe we could go and…”

“Get something to eat?” Sandy asked. “No.”

“Go see a movie?”

“Talk to me in two weeks,” she said, and went back into the kitchen. I finished the dregs of my soup and left.

I returned a week later, just because I couldn’t stay away. There was a line at the restaurant that was already out the door and spilling out into the street. The next day, the line was around the corner. The next day, the line was gone. There was a handwritten note attached to the door that said, “Closed forever.”

I got a “needs improvement” on my quarterly evaluation from Lance and Clayton, and I took the hint and quit. I spent half my severance pay on a private investigator to try to find Sandy, but he could find no trace of her. I spent the other half of the money on a two-month lease on the storefront Sandy abandoned.

The first two weeks, all I made was grilled cheese sandwiches. But all of the regulars came back, like nothing had happened. I started to learn how to cook from watching YouTube videos. I can turn out passable stews now, and decent sandwiches, and last week I made a curried Waldorf salad that wasn’t too far removed from what Sandy would have made.

The only other thing I did differently was to give the restaurant a name. I hold on to the hope that one day Sandy will just decide to walk by, to see what’s occupying the space where her restaurant was, and she just might see the name on the door and step inside and order something, just out of curiosity. It is a thin reed of hope, I know. But dreams have been built on less.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: A MAN AT ARMS, by Steven Pressfield.

From the acclaimed master of historical fiction comes an epic saga about a reluctant hero, the Roman Empire, and the rise of a new faith.

One of the most interesting facets of religious belief is that religious belief has answers for everything. The Bible is full of what’s called “wisdom literature,” with advice on how to solve everything short of how to fix holes in drywall. In Orthodox Judaism, this is supplemented with incredibly detailed rabbinical teachings. Deuteronomy 6:9 commands that the words of the Shema prayer be written on the doorposts of your house, which is easy enough, until you realize that there’s a dispute as to whether the words on the scroll should be horizontal or vertical, and that because of that, you have to put them diagonally.

Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. (Here’s how you can tell; Stoicism doesn’t have holidays.) Stoicism is behaviorist; its teachings are focused on ethics and virtue. The true stoic isn’t (as the modern usage has it) someone who is indifferent to emotion; it is someone who lives their lives consistent with their own ethical code.

I don’t know if Steven Pressfield identifies as a Stoic or not, but his signature philosophy is something of an uneasy marriage between Stoic ideas and Manichean cosmology. The Manicheans, like George Lucas, believe in a dark side in constant conflict with goodness and light. Pressfield’s philosophy, expressed succinctly, is that there is a creative spark of light in all of us, and an invisible dark force, called Resistance, that is trying to blot that spark out. The job of the creative mind is to create, and not to surrender to the siren call of Resistance, however that manifests (usually as negative self-talk).

The appeal of the Pressfield Way, for lack of a better term, is threefold. First, it’s uncomplicated. It doesn’t take a very sophisticated viewpoint to understand that applying butt to chair is work, and checking your email and Twitter and sneaking into the kitchen for a snack is not-work, and is therefore the work of Resistance. Second, it’s task-oriented, a philosophy that is supremely helpful if you have a job to do that needs doing and you need to eliminate distractions in order to do it. Third, it tallies with lived experience. Everyone deals with obstacles and procrastination every day; the Pressfield Way is dead useful as a mental model for addressing these conflicts. (I just this minute brought up the George R.R. Martin website, and he’s busy watching movies and reading Hemingway and, as far as we know, not writing, so that tells you something right there.)

There are, however, three main limitations with using the Pressfield Way in practice. First, it can’t always tell you what kind of work to do. This is especially difficult if, like me, you have creative projects pointing at different directions every day. Down in the basement, I have furniture that needs to be refinished, and an art project that I need to finish, and the kids got a keyboard from Santa Claus and I want to learn how to play that at some point. I have this book review to finish, and a hundred others I’ve written that I want to cross-post to my website. I have to rework the website for my (struggling) publishing company, and I have a web project about baseball and one about music that I want to complete. I have a good idea for my sixth law review article. My fourth novel is about halfway complete, and then I have two non-fiction projects (one about politics and one about history) that I want to pursue. And I have a day job on top of that. I not only have your ordinary garden-variety everyday Resistance to deal with, I have an inner voice telling me that I need to work on the other things that keeps me from completing the thing I am doing.

Second, the Pressfield Way can’t tell you if the work you are doing is crap or not. The most common self-talk you get from Resistance is what you are doing sucks and you are wasting your time with it. Pressfield teaches us that Resistance is always lying and always full of crap. Which is true enough as far as it goes, but every lie has a kernel of truth in it. Maybe what I am doing really does suck. How do I know? How can I tell? (This is where your editor and your beta readers come in.)

The third limitation in the Pressfield Way is love.

A MAN AT ARMS is about this limitation, about the intersection of fighting Resistance with finding love. Its hero is Telamon, a Greek warrior in the Roman legions now working as a mercenary. Pressfield portrays him as an exemplary Stoic, someone who acts according to his own code, impervious to any other concerns other than the welfare of his mules. Telamon accepts a commission from a Roman officer to track down a fugitive Christian who is carrying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. The Romans want to suppress the apostle’s message, and Telamon wants to be paid.

The problem is that there’s a little girl involved.

As a story, A MAN AT ARMS Is lacking in a lot of ways. Telamon seems scarcely human, and seems an unlikely object of childish devotion. The narration is chock-full of little deviations, some helpful, others with the consistency and appeal of cold oatmeal. The action scenes are taut and cinematic, though, and the villains are suitably villainous. But the attraction is in the clash of philosophies more than anything else, and in this area if no other, A MAN AT ARMS is instructive, and worthwhile.

The message of the Pressfield Way in terms of the twenty-first century would-be novelist, typing merrily away on his wireless keyboard, listening to 80’s rock through his Bose speakers, is forthright. Spouses and children are tools of Resistance. You spend all your time hanging out with other people, whoever they are (which you can’t of course always do in this year of grace 2021), and you are not going to get as much work done, and that is a fact. But you have to talk to your wife, you can’t (sigh) let your kids play with their screens all day, you have to do your other job, and what do you do with that? Pressfield, in his other books, says that you fight Resistance, you become a professional, you follow the path of the warrior.

In A MAN AT ARMS, he comes to a very different conclusion, and the correct one. Pressfield paints an idealized man of infinite Stoic virtue and accomplished prowess, the exemplar in many ways of his own personal philosophy, and it all comes to tatters in the face of love.

Book Reviews, Literary


The author of Off Ramp takes readers on a journey into the excess and beauty of Christmas in an American suburb by following three people through all their holiday preparations and celebrations. Reprint.

Critics, in one way, are sort of like World War II submarine captains: they love nothing more than a juicy target — and the bigger, the better. In TINSEL, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever has two of the most tempting targets in his sights — well, three if you count Sarah Palin, who just merits a quick sideswipe here.

The first — and less obvious — is the concept of the Edge City. First popularized by Stuever’s Washington Post colleague Joel Garreau, the Edge City is what was once pasture and is now a 21st century metropolis with malls, big-box stores serving as urban centers, and new communities tied to — but far from — urban downtowns, largely without history and (depending on who you talk to) wholly without a soul.

Stuever, a self-confessed member of the godless East Coast liberal media, seizes on Frisco, Texas as his Edge City target. Frisco was once a small community in Collin County, a railroad
depot in the vast expanse of prairie north of Dallas. Today, it has over 100,000 residents, a sprawling shopping mall, a Double-A baseball team, and the usual agglomeration of chain retail and dining establishments. In short (not least because Collin County is solidly Republican), it can, under the right circumstances (and if you’re a deep-dyed “urbanist” blue-state liberal), symbolize all that is wrong with America.

Stuever rents a room in a mini-mansion, researches the town’s history, geology and demographics, and identifies three families to follow around the barren and bleak Edge City
landscape. But Frisco is only his secondary target. Stuever is after something bigger; indeed, the biggest thing that there is: the Christmas season and the absolute maelstrom of consumer spending attendant to it. And although the commercialization of Christmas is one of the favorite dead horses for critics to beat (right up there with who-really-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays and the college football playoff system), Stuever manages to go a few steps beyond the usual so-this-is-what-it-has-come-to story.

The author finds his first family on Black Friday in line waiting for the Frisco Best Buy to open its doors at an ungodly hour (the mother serves as “praise leader” for a big-box church, which, predictably, gets skewered as well). The second family features a stay-at-home mom who has a small business where she decorates the homes of harried suburbanites who don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves. The third family is consumed with one of those colorful Christmas light displays you see in beer commercials that draws visitors from all over the Metroplex.

TINSEL, like Christmas itself, is wonderful if you’re in the right mood — and if you’re not, it can make you wish you were dead. Stuever’s biting humor (which owes at least a small debt to David Sedaris) undercuts the sticky sentimentality of the season. But it’s his skills as a reporter in noticing the small, telling details that make this book such a fascinating read (his analysis of the Christmas village figurine industry is worth the cost of the book all by itself).

If TINSEL was just a snarky, mean-spirited take on the holiday season as celebrated in a soulless corner of flyover country, it would be a worthwhile and timely effort. What distinguishes Stuever’s work here is not just the excellence of his prose but that it is leavened with more than a little introspection and regret. Just when you think he has gone too far in his criticism — and I say this as a proud son of the North Texas prairie — Stuever takes a step back, examines his attitudes, and manages to find some good in the holiday and those who celebrate it. For a critic, that is quite the achievement.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW, by Conn Iggulden

Continues the story of Genghis Khan as he embarks on a quest to conquer the mighty Chin empire, leaving a trail of devastation behind as he makes his way to Yenking, capital of the empire, and prepares to lay siege to the city and starve it into submission.

Define “civilization” however you want, but there’s always going to be some amount of barbarism mixed in to whatever definition you can come up with.

Only a truly technically advanced civilization could produce things like 50-inch high-definition plasma televisions with picture-in-picture and remote control, but only a truly uncivilized barbaric horde could make sure that the only things worth watching at any given time are celebrity dating shows, Rachael Ray cooking programs, and baseball games on the West Coast that don’t even start until after my bedtime. Civilization gives you email, barbarism gives you spam. Civilization gives you iPods, barbarism gives you “American Idol.” Civilization gives you luxury sedans with satellite radio and heated leather seats, barbarism gives you traffic jams to sit in.  It’s all intertwined.

Conn Iggulden has completed his second book focusing on Genghis Khan’s life story. Large wedges of it are about the conflict of barbarism and civilization, and a lot of that has to do with water, of all things. Genghis leads his united Mongol tribes off the steppes of Central Asia into the hinterlands of China, but is balked by the tall walls that surround the Chinese cities. His soldiers are superb cavalrymen and bowmen — savage, ruthless and skilled — but they stare at fortifications in vain. The first city they encounter is served by irrigation canals, so Genghis sends his men out to break them. This ends up flooding a significant part of the Mongol camp, which is a minus, but leads to the eventual capitulation of the city.

Iggulden makes the contrast between the uncivilized Mongol horde and the civilized Chinese empire even starker in two other scenes involving water. Genghis sends two of his brothers to infiltrate a Chinese city, and they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of hot running water for the first time. At the same time, Genghis leads his young sons to a far-off river in winter, making them immerse themselves in the near-freezing water to make them the kind of tough-minded conquerors who could overthrow the great cities of China.

Iggulden — co-author of THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS — is trying to make the point that the Mongols were able to challenge the more civilized, more educated, more sophisticated Chinese Empire because they inculcated the warrior virtues (which Genghis summarizes as “the cold face”) of stoicism, courage and martial skills. (Iggulden never draws the contrast between our television-addled, PlayStation-wielding boys of today with Genghis’s sons, though it seems to be a preoccupation.) But as Genghis imposes his will on the Chinese, civilization imposes its will on him. Not only is his youngest brother Temuge seduced by the lure of hot baths, he becomes the Mongol Empire’s first official bureaucrat.

All of this sounds as though GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW is little more than social commentary merged with horse opera. Gladly, there is much more to it. There is an incredible amount of wanton destruction and cruelty, enough to delight the heart of the most bloodthirsty armchair Mongol. Early on, there is a scene where Genghis discusses the mob of peasant refugees who have been kicked off their farms by his rampaging horde. He decides that there is nothing left for the peasants to do but die, and they are killed, making a mountain of the dead — and this is just an aside in one paragraph. (Later on, even worse things happen to the next set of peasants.) This is a fighting book, filled with scenes of battles, melees, sieges and military exploits of every kind.

And at the head of the river of blood stands Genghis Khan, imagined by Iggulden as implacable, honest and forthrightly determined to make the world safe for Mongols to do what Mongols do. Genghis is a bit less likable here than he was in Iggulden’s first book about him, GENGHIS: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE, where he was an abandoned child struggling to survive. But here he leads his incomparable cavalrymen into a conflict with civilization itself, one that he can win, and one where civilized modern readers (safe in their armchair, with their satellite radio and laptop close at hand) can cheer his victories.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: RESCUING PATTY HEARST, by Virginia Holman

A daughter of a schizophrenic mother recounts how she and her sister were held hostage for four years while their mother gave way to psychosis and how the medical system of the 1980s inhibited patient progress and victimized their families.

In 1974, Virginia Holman was kidnapped. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is her ransom note.

The kidnapping was “custodial”, which usually conjures up images of battery or abuse, or a divorce gone horribly wrong. The perpetrator here was not Holman’s father or mother; instead, it was a disease. Holman’s mother began experiencing delusions related to an undiagnosed case of schizophrenia. She came to believe that she was a soldier in a secret war and had to set up the family’s vacation cottage on the Virginia coast as a field hospital to care for hordes of orphan children. But there were only two children in the small cottage — Virginia and her baby sister — and they were not being cared for.

Holman tells the story of her childhood experiences on two parallel tracks; each chapter has a date heading that explains whether a younger “Gingie” Holman, or her older, wiser contemporary counterpart is telling the story. We see what happens to Gingie, what she felt about it at the time, and how it affects her now. The author constantly evaluates and reevaluates her mother’s actions and her own through the prism of time and experience, rotating back and forth in time to better understand what happened and why.

The book’s subtitle is “Memories From A Decade Gone Mad”; its first line is “Nineteen seventy-four was a bad time to go crazy.” Holman does not blame the excesses of the 1970’s for her mother’s illness, but makes the point that society was so topsy-turvy at that time that her mother’s schizophrenia-induced actions seemed more normal than they otherwise might have. Holman’s role model at that young age was Patricia Hearst, kidnapped heiress turned domestic terrorist. She is invoked as a symbol of the times, showing how stunning reversals in character and action can take place.

RESCUING PATTY HEARST is a beautifully realized portrait of a seventies childhood set against the backdrop of a devastating illness. Holman is blessed with both a powerful memory bank and astonishing skills at reviving the spirit of a lost civilization from the misty past. Some of this is unavoidably sentimental, but the areas of the book dealing with her mother’s mental illness are starkly unsentimental. Holman’s intimate knowledge of the disease is tinged with both sympathy and anger, leading to an honest, non-sensationalized portrayal of the reality of mental illness. Her memoir covers not only her mother’s strange and powerful delusions, but also the day-to-day struggle that accompanies mental illness. Early on, Holman discusses an early delusion of her mother’s that results in a stare of disgust from a harried salesman — “a look,” Holman writes, “that would become increasingly familiar in the years to come.”

If Virginia Holman’s mother had never experienced mental illness, there still would have been the makings of a memoir here; her portrayal of a childhood and a time is masterfully written and affecting. The presence of mental illness lends the book a wrenching quality, bringing home the reality of mental disability and the effects that it has on families and lives. Holman succeeds in describing her childhood; she triumphs in describing her mother, her illness and her plight. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is an extraordinary work, putting to shame more conventional or sentimental portrayals of mental illness.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE GHOST MAP, by Steven Johnson

I think that it must be a very rare thing indeed for an author to not want a book he or she has written to sell a lot of copies–or at least for them not to sell a lot of copies for a bad reason. For example, I enjoyed GHOST FLEET, an imaginative thriller about a possible Chinese invasion of Hawaii, and while I certainly would like to have the book earn a wide readership, I would not want that to happen because China had, in fact, invaded Hawaii. (I imagine that the authors would agree.)

THE GHOST MAP, as I write this in January 2021, is selling well, and is selling well not because the book is so well-written and well-researched, but because the world is struggling with a global pandemic. Although there is not a great deal of similarity between the mid-nineteenth-century cholera outbreak in London and the twenty-first century outbreak of COVID-19, there is a commonality in terms of the fear of infection and frustration about how the crisis can be dealt with.

THE GHOST MAP is only sort of a history of the cholera outbreak that devastated (and, as the author points out, decimated, in the literal sense) the Soho neighborhood of London. It is primarily an intellectual history of the outbreak, and illustrates both the “knowledge problem” as set forth by Friedrich Hayek, and its corollary, written by Mark Twain, writing decades before Hayek.

The “knowledge problem” can be summarized thusly:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Or to summarize, nobody can know everything that he or she would need to know to make rational decisions. And as Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Both the lack of knowledge and the persistence of what we may call anti-knowledge are ubiquitous in society, and are especially troublesome in the time of pandemic.

For London, the facts were that the bacteria that causes cholera was both unknown and unseen, and as so, there was no consensus on how it was transmitted. John Snow, a Victorian (in the most literal sense of the word) surgeon had determined that cholera was transmitted through the water supply. But the scientific community at large had determined that cholera was spread via bad smells, of which there were an abundance in London.

Snow was as close as anyone could be to solving the knowledge problem; he had exactly the set of medical, social, and analytical skillsets needed to determine the source of the cholera outbreak. As Hayek stated, Snow was “in the best position to command all the best knowledge available.” But he had to fight against those who believed the alternate theory, and he was unable to prove his theory until a local clergyman–seeking to disprove Snow– became  the “man on the spot,” with the specialized local knowledge to find the specific cesspit located next to the specific well which was the cause of the epidemic.

Johnson’s story is, happily, triumphant, and the the problems of cholera have, in the Western nations, largely been licked. (Outside of Western nations, cholera is a real problem, causing thousands of deaths each year.) Removing the handle of the pump on the contaminated well was a perfect solution–effective, cheap, and simple. (Treatment of cholera, which was unknown at the time, is basically Gatorade–Johnson has a hearty laugh at the quack nostrums sold in London to battle cholera.

THE GHOST MAP concludes with a long essay about how the work of John Snow impacts modern times–which I thought was a bit too long, until Johnson made some very prescient comments about the next pandemic and what it will look like. The knowledge problem related to COVID-19 is much more fiendish. COVID-19 is everywhere, not just in one impoverished London neighborhood. It is spread (or we think it is spread) by airborne particles or close contact, and up until recently we thought it was spread by asymptomatic patients. Although we seem to have a solution to the outbreak, the logistics in getting vaccines to billions of people is several orders of magnitude higher than removing one handle from one pump. The anti-knowledge, or misinformation, about COVID-19 has spread faster and farther than the virus itself.

There’s no doubt that the current popularity of THE GHOST MAP is due to COVID-19, which may be one of the few good things that has occurred as a result. It’s outstanding history, sociology, and epidemiology all in one. I hope that we are fortunate enough to have enough John Snows in this generation, and that we’re able to cut through the misinformation in time to save lives.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE HOUSE OF STYX, Derek Künsken

The first in a ground breaking, action-packed and exciting new science fiction series from the best-selling author of The Quantum Magician. Life can exist anywhere. And anywhere there is life, there is home. In the swirling clouds of Venus, the families of la colonie live on floating plant-like trawlers, salvaging what they can in the fierce acid rain and crackling storms. Outside is dangerous, but humankind’s hold on the planet is fragile and they spend most of their days simply surviving. But Venus carries its own secrets, too. In the depths, there is a wind that shouldn’t exist. And the House of Styx wants to harness it.

I bought in to THE HOUSE OF STYX based on one word, and that was “Venus.” I have been fascinated and intrigued about the idea of living on dirigibles in the Venusian atmosphere since the idea was first broached. Derek Künsken imagines a far-future where the different nations have staked claims to the different worlds, and somehow or other the French-Canadians got hold of Venus. All righty then. I was sold.

To the extent that THE HOUSE OF STYX is a pioneer story, it works very well. The main characters–a family of scruffy outlaws scraping the lower depths of the Venusian atmosphere–are exactly that, explorers of a new frontier. And rebels in the bargain, once a socialist-medicine death panel decrees that their oldest child should be medically exiled due to his Down Syndrome diagnosis. But it’s a pioneer story with twenty-first century priorities and values. (I disliked the heavy-handed seduction of the sixteen-year-old transsexual character by an older character, mostly because everyone else in the book seemed to be cool with it, no big deal.)

The difficulty I had with THE HOUSE OF STYX is not its setting, necessarily, or its villains (yes, of course they’re faceless capitalist bloodsuckers, because of course they are) but with the author’s lack of faith in his source material. This leads to the inclusion of a plot point that seems preposterous, to the point where the main characters are constantly having to explain to the other characters that it’s not as preposterous as it sounds. (I won’t reveal it here except to say that it’s real CHARIOTS OF THE GODS type stuff.) I was very much attracted to the idea of colonists making their way in a harsh Venusian landscape (there is still plenty of that) but not so much the machinations of the plot Künsken has constructed.

I quite like THE HOUSE OF STYX, and I certainly forgive the author for writing the book he wanted and not the book I expected. It’s solid stuff. But I came away caring much more for the characters (well, some of them) than what awaits them on the surface of Venus in the next installment. That’s a recommendation, mind you, but a slight one.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE SENTINEL, by Lee Child and Andrew Child

“It is close to midnight on a Saturday night when Jack Reacher gets off a bus at the Greyhound station in Nashville. Reacher is in no hurry. He has no appointments to keep. No people to see. No scores to settle. Not yet anyway. But in the early morning hours, under particular circumstances, a familiar thought will be snaking through his sharp, instinctual lizard brain: A voice in his head telling him to walk away. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time he listened to his gut instead. Meanwhile, seventy-five miles south and west of Music City is a sleepy little town where a recently-fired guy nurses a grudge that will fester into fury–and a desire for payback. But who is watching him, standing guard over a long-buried secret, ready to strike before it can be revealed? If you don’t have a sense of the danger you’re in, then it’s best to have Reacher”–

There are basically two Jack Reacher plots; one where he gets roped in to addressing a major national security threat, and one where he accidentally stumbles into someone’s evil scheme. I like the first kind much better, because it makes more sense. I dislike the second kind because the suspension of disbelief in which you have to engage is like dangling the Chrysler Building into the Grand Canyon with a fly rod and thirty-pound monofilament fishing line. Can’t be done.

THE SENTINEL is a bit of a hybrid of these two styles, but it relies on Reacher being in a small Tennessee town in the exact same instant that the evil schemers are forcing an innocent man into a car. If Reacher is ten minutes early or late, or is in Key West or Seattle, he never sees this happen and the story doesn’t happen. This isn’t quite as ridiculous as him spotting the evil scheme from a moving train, but it’s close.

The main problem with the second-order Reacher stories is that the evil schemers aren’t up to his fighting weight. This kind of book puts Reacher up against small-time laundromat owners or yuppie lodging entrepreneurs. Reacher tears through mooks like this as though they were made of wet cardboard.

Here, the evil schemers are a little more adept, but not much, and even though it’s a pleasure to see Reacher prevail, he’s not really being tested here.

The Andrew Child version of Reacher has him being a little more of a motormouth than usual, but other than that there’s no discernible loss of quality in the story. THE SENTINEL is a perfectly cromulent second-rank Reacher novel, if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s what you’ll get.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: LEGACY OF WAR, Wilbur Smith and David Churchill

A brand-new Courtney Series adventure. The action-packed new book in the Courtney Series and the sequel to Courtney’s War. The war is over, Hitler is dead – and yet his evil legacy lives on. Saffron Courtney and her beloved husband Gerhard only just survived the brutal conflict, but Gerhard’s Nazi-supporting brother, Konrad, is still free and determined to regain power. As a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse develops, a plot against the couple begins to stir. One that will have ramifications throughout Europe. . . Further afield in Kenya, the last outcrop of the colonial empire is feeling the stirrings of rebellion. As the situation becomes violent, and the Courtney family home is under threat, Leon Courtney finds himself caught between two powerful sides – and a battle for the freedom of a country. Legacy of War is a nail-biting story of courage, bravery, rebellion and war from the master of adventure fiction.

LEGACY OF WAR is the sixteenth book (unless it’s the nineteenth book) in a series of historical novels that span the distance from (if I have this right) the French and Indian War to the post-World War II period, when this volume takes place.

Wilbur Smith and David Churchill have the unenviable job here to make this book accessible to readers like me who haven’t read the other books in the series while putting in the occasional reference to the other books for fanservice. This is trickier than it sounds; you don’t want new readers to get lost or veteran readers to get bored. How this works out in practice is that Smith and Churchill balance out the action scenes with plenty of scenes that not only aren’t action but that look backward to the previous books rather than forward. This can be made to work, but you have to find a balance, and the problem with LEGACY OF WAR is that it often feels unbalanced.

The way this works in practice is that the action is centered in the novel’s timeline, while most everything that isn’t action harkens back to the other books. As far as the action goes, there’s absolutely nothing to criticize, and you’d look foolish to do it. Smith and Churchill put their heroes up against ex-Nazis and the Mau Mau rebels with panache. There’s an argument to be made that heroine Action Girl Saffron Courtney and her ex-Luftwaffe fighter jock husband are smarter and braver and more talented in the ways of war than any real people could ever be, but LEGACY OF WAR pits them against some very bad people that test even their extreme limits.

Part of the balance issue is that you can’t just have action scene after action scene; you have to give the reader a break. The problem is that the scenes that aren’t action scenes are either dull or incomprehensible. There’s a lot of talk about involving some distant cousin (who apparently features in some of the other books) but that particular subplot sputters out with a wet splat. That sort of thing is just boring (although it may not be to veteran readers); what is actively annoying is that Smith and Churchill spend so much time making the good characters out to be liberals who understand which way the forces of history are going (easy to do in hindsight).

The last paragraph of the book review (at least the way I do it) traditionally recaps the review, provides a pull quote, and makes a recommendation. I’ve been sitting here for the last hour trying to figure out how to do it, and this is me throwing up my hands. There’s nothing wrong with LEGACY OF WAR, there are plenty of things right about it, but you might be better off reading the other fifteen (or eighteen) books first instead. Otherwise (setting aside the well-done action scenes), LEGACY OF WAR doesn’t have enough to recommend it. That’s it. That’s the review.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE LAST BERSERKER, by Angus Donald

THE LAST BERSERKER is, technically, a bildungsroman, which is a fancy German literary word to describe a novel where the main character starts out young and then learns things along the way. Here, said main character is learning how to become a berserker, a warrior in medieval Europe who enters into a state of bloodlust on the battlefield, heedless of personal safety. This is not what a modern person would call a stable job, but at the time it probably had a lot of glamour and travel attached to it.

Of course, like any other job, you don’t just show up on your first day at the office and start out as a berserker. You have to work your way into it, which is where the bildungsroman aspect of things come in. Our hero, oafish Bjarki Bloodhand from the island of Bago, starts out as an apprentice killing machine, and is spotted by a medieval talent scout, who rescues him from the hangman’s rope and whisks him off to a combat academy in the Black Forest.

There is perhaps a little more postmodernism in THE LAST BERSERKER than you might expect, and if you are thinking that maybe there’s a little bit of Harry Potter going on, you wouldn’t be wrong. (And maybe a little bit of Star Wars, as long as we’re being all analytical about it.) Young Bjarki is attached to the Bear Lodge, where he learns both the basics of warfare and the deep mystical lore of the berserker. This requires the apprentice warrior to manifest an animal spirit inside oneself that gets unleashed, to terrifying affect, on the battlefield.

The bildungsroman is a fairly conventional genre, and there is a fairly conventional progression to the events in THE LAST BERSERKER; if you think you’ve read this one before, you’re probably right. What makes THE LAST BERSERKER work isn’t necessarily the plot, or the characters, or the historical setting, but the description of the battle scenes. Angus Donald manages to handle both the large-scale and small-scale descriptions of battle. And fortunately, there are enough of those to keep the action going and overcome some of the rough spots in the narrative.

THE LAST BERSERKER has one too many convenient coincidences and flat characters to be truly outstanding, but it delivers on its promise of blood-soaked action.