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Revisiting the Best Novel About NY After September 11th

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2010 at 10:23 am
Netherland

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The announcement this past week of this year’s finalists for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction drove me to revisit last year’s winner, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which I think still may be the best book written about New York after September 11th.

(Admittedly, I have yet to read Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, which is being widely heralded).

What does being the best mean? Is it like being the world’s tallest midget? The club of post-9/11 books has some truly awful members, with Don DeLillo’s Falling Man perhaps being the most disappointing.

And, even if it is the best in this category, how does it compare against just regular novels about any old subject?

The answer is that yes, Netherland is probably is the best novel yet written about life in New York after September 11th. And, yes. It’s a mighty fine book when just considered as a novel.

The plot is fairly simple. Hans van den Broek moves to New York from London with his wife Rachel, a very successful lawyer, and their young son. The attacks of September 11th happen. They have marital problems, she goes back to England. He falls in with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure with dreams of making New York the center of the cricket universe, is murdered. Hans moves back to England and reunites with his family.
For those concerned about having the plot spoiled, most of that is spelled out in the first few pages. Hans and Rachel are at home in England when he gets a call from a New York Times reporter telling him Chuck has been killed, his body having been fished out of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

The problem is that O’Neill, who has born in Holland but raised in Ireland, has written a book more in touch with his Irish roots, with such beautiful sentences that they stop you dead in your tracks, causing you to want to slow down your reading and savor each page.

Why is that a problem? The book is supposed to be told in Hans’s voice and he professes to be filled with a flat affectation common to his Dutch upbringing and a “clunking lexical precision” when it comes to English.

Yet he comes up with sentences like:

“Ice was spread out over the breadth of the Hudson like a plot of cloud. The whitest and largest fragments were flat polygons, and surrounding these was a mass of slushy, messy ice, as if the remains of a zillion cocktails had been dumped there.”

And, describing a sunset:

“The day, a pink smear above America, had all but disappeared.

So, while the voice of the character doesn’t always fit the character, you read on, forgiving, because O’Neill has painted a lyrical portrait of the American dream and all its shortcomings.

The book begs to be compared to The Great Gatsby, even beginning where Gatsby ends, with the elusive main character dead in the water. And, it’s not a bad thing. This short book is filled with the anxiety so many New Yorkers (I being one of them) felt in the months after September 11.

O’Neill gives several visions of what the American dream can be from that of Ramkissoon, an immigrant from Trinidad, to Hans, the Dutch expatriate who arrives via London. It gives us different takes on what a successful relationship can be from Chuck’s complicated love life to Hans’s relationship with Rachel, which seems to fall apart without much prodding only to come back together, also without much prodding.

Not everything in Hans’s life necessarily makes sense, decisions occasionally appear hasty without much reasoning, but that’s the way it was and the way it often still is. People try. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t.

O’Neill, most definitely, has.

Kicking David Paterson When He is Down

In Politics on February 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm
New York State Governor David Paterson opening...

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I know the temptation is to say it’s wrong to kick someone when they’re down.

But, as the noted Italian historian Luigi Barzini wrote of what his countrymen knew:

“Why not when he is down? When else, if you please, should one kick a man more advantageously? When more safely and effectively?”

Which brings us to David Paterson.

As is being widely reported, Paterson is announcing today that he is dropping out of the governor’s race in New York.

I almost wrote that he wasn’t going to seek reelection but since we know Paterson took office when Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign in a call girl scandal. So, now New York has had two governors in a row felled by scandal.

As The New York Times, which broke the story, detailed, Paterson’s problems stem from his apparently intervening in a case against a top aide. Of course, that wasn’t the first reported problem with the aide.

Since taking office, Paterson has not exactly been inspiring and, the fact is, you have to look at him in the context of where he came from — the Manhattan Democratic Machine that gave us Charlie Rangel.

Not to say that Paterson, his father and people like Rangel and David Dinkins were bad or corrupt — certainly they didn’t hold a candle to the Brooklyn or Queens Machines when it comes to malfeasance — but it does point to the downside of machine politics.

So, maybe Paterson survives all this — though I suspect he won’t. I think the question’s going to be whether he is able to survive the rest of his term.

I guess Illinois better watch out…

Goldman Sachs' Greece Fire

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 at 10:29 am
Image representing Goldman Sachs as depicted i...

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It’s a lot like buying life insurance on someone and then killing them.

That’s what’s happening in Greece where companies such as Goldman Sachs — after having helped the country hide the true size of its debt — have been using a financial tool to bet the country would default on that debt.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: ““It’s a scandal if it turned out that the same banks that brought us to the brink of the abyss helped Greece fake the statistics.”

It’s something that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said this morning would be investigated.

While many — including TrueSlant colleague Matt Taibbi — have argued that even after helping bring the global economy to the brink, companies like Goldman still don’t get it, there are those who are saying it’s wrong to point the finger at Goldman.

Really.

Writing for Business Week, Mark Gilbert starts off by saying: “For once, the whipping boys and girls of finance are innocent.”

Ok…

“Chastising Goldman Sachs for flexing its muscles on behalf of customers is akin to slapping a kitten for its adventures with a ball of wool…”

Ummm….

“Or admonishing a killer whale for playing with its lunch by tossing a baby seal in the air before ingesting the pup.”

Wow (and really maybe not the best analogy given what happened in Florida yesterday — which actually took place more than five hours before Gilbert’s story was posted so there’s really no excuse for that having found its way online).

Yeah… I’m thinking some still just don’t get it and there’s a real danger this Greece fire may quickly spread from the kitchen.

So much to read: Pen/Faulkner Nominees Announced

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Earlier this month, Mark Lawson writing in The Guardian, kind of made the argument that American fiction — if not quite dead — isn’t what it used to be.

While he points to books like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as indications “a new phase is beginning,” he doesn’t seem all that optimistic, spending a lot of time pointing to warning signs — the deaths of Salinger and Updike, the fact that while Updike used to be on the cover of Time Magazine, that’s now an honor that belongs to Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown — and writing:

“It’s clear than an era in American fiction is coming to a close.”

Yesterday, furthering the notion that there’s still a lot to be said on this side of the Atlantic, the five nominees for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction were announced:

Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in 15 years, which got some great reviews including this one;

Lorraine Lopez’s Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories, a collection of ten stories that “defies boundaries of skin color, ancestry and gender, elevating mundane events and predicaments to the scope of larger human dramas” according to the Nashville Scene;

Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, also a collection of stories, which appeared several places, including in The New Yorker;

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, her first novel in almost a decade, which The Washington Post called “the most mature and ambitious one she’s written;”

and

Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, which led to Esquire calling Whitehead “the coolest writer in America.”

The award will be announced on March 23rd with the winner, who will receive $15,000 (runners-up get $5000 each), being honored in a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC on May 8th.

So much to read, so little time.

Surprise! Congress Knew More Than They've Let On

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm
United States House Permanent Select Committee...

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Newly released documents obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Amnesty International show that members of Congress were more informed about the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques than they have admitted.

The documents — mostly CIA authored summaries of briefings given to Congressional leaders — show that some of them were told details of the enhanced interrogation techniques being used and, in at least one case, made it clear they saw no need to pursue a request to further investigate.

“Quickly, the Senator interjected that he saw no reason for the Committe to pursue such a request and could think of ‘ten reasons right off why it is a terrible idea’ to do any such thing as had been proposed.” a CIA briefer wrote after meeting with Pat Roberts, then the Republican head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The briefer was referring to a request made by Roberts’ predecessor, Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, for the committee “to undertake its own assessment of the enhanced interrogation.”

In that same briefing, the CIA informed Roberts that they planned to destroy videotapes of the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and others.

“Senator Roberts listened carefully and gave his assent,” the memo-writer noted.

To his credit, in the same memo it’s reported that when the CIA described one “interrogation” (the CIA used the quotation marks) which “included the cocking of a pistol (reportedly unloaded) near his blind-folded face, and the brandishment of an electric hand held drill” — “Senator Roberts winced.”

The New York Times also reports that Roberts released a statement saying the memo does not “begin to represent the entirety of my oversight of interrogations” and that he later did persuade the CIA to brief more Senate staffers on the program.

Another document released reveals that 68 members of Congress and staff attended at least one of scores of briefings on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Still another document — this from 2004 — describes a secret briefing by the military to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the wake of the revelations about abuse at Abu Ghraib. The CIA — which was invited to the briefing — took very careful notes.

“There is no evidence or indication that anyone in intel directed it,” Major General Don Ryder told the committee. “These acts appear to have been committed by undisciplined soldiers who lost their values and did not understand what they were doing on a midnight shift.”

When Representative Porter Goss asked if there were “widespread problems.” Ryder first said “Any case is inappropriate.”

Goss — Are there dozens of such cases?

Finally..

Ryder — There is a total of 35 known cases. From December 2002 to today, 25 deaths, 10 others are soldier misconduct. Of the 25 deaths, 14 are undetermined or natural causes. One is justified manslaughter, with a solider following ROE (Editor’s note — rules of engagement). There are two ongoing homicide investigations. Ten other cases of physical abuse, and two cases of sexual assault against females.

“In eight cases there may have been abuses during interrogation,” Ryder added when Goss asked if these were “cases of gratuitous acts or part of assigned procedures.”

Representative Jane Harman said “This is a 10 in the Richter Scale. This is totally unsatisfactory and I am disgusted. It is not satisfactory to tell me about rules and procedures. We need to know a lot more.”

Tom Parker, the policy director for counterterrorism and human rights for Amnesty International USA released a statement saying:

“These documents reveal that members of Congress colluded in covering up evidence of the US Government’s torture program. This is hardly the kind of oversight in which the American people can have faith.”

It was only a matter of time

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Najibullah Zazi has pleaded guilty.

Zazi, one of three men indicted last September for plotting to attack New York City, told a federal judge in Brooklyn that he was guilty of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to murder and providing material support to Al Qaeda.

Just last week, his father — Mohammed Zazi — who had been charged with obstructing the investigation into his son, was granted bail.

And somehow it did seem inevitable given that even before he had been indicted — when he was just at the center of a million questions — it had been reported that he was cooperating and was considering pleading guilty.

While that was in September… sometimes these thing just take time.

I guess it’s score another for the criminal justice system.

Calling Cheney's Bluff

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm
Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

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Last April, Vice President Dick Cheney went on Fox News to talk about the great successes they had had with waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.

“They didn’t put put out the memos that show the success of the effort… what we gained as a result of this activity,” he told Sean Hannity. “I know specifically of reports that I read I saw them lay out what we’ve leanred through the interrogation process. And what the consequences were for the country.”

Cheney said in that interview that he had asked the CIA to declassify those memos — probably knowing very well that wasn’t likely — so the world could see what he was talking about.

Well, while those memos have not been released, last week the House Judiciary Committee released a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility that referred to the memos, the key of which is known as The CIA Effectiveness Memo.

The news was not so good for Cheney.

The report makes it clear that the Effectiveness Memo had several problems — mostly where it came to being accurate.

While the whole report is 289 pages long, I suggest headed about 252 pages in where we find out that while the memo asserts that “Abu Zubaydah ‘provided significant information’ about Jose Padilla and Binyam Mohammed, ‘who planned to build and detonate a dirty bomb’ the truth is that he actually disclosed the information when confronted with “traditional interrogation techniques before the CIA began using” Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.

“More importantly,” the report continues, ” the CIA Effectiveness Memo provided inaccurate information about Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation.”

The report concludes that because of the problems with the Effectiveness Memo, they question legal memos that used it as a building block such as memos — known as The Torture Memos — by Steven Bradbury, who was the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, giving the CIA added legal authority to use the EITs.

Would you trust me and buy this book?

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2010 at 11:06 am

Would you believe me if I told you The Interrogative Method by Padgett Powell is a masterful book? Did you know it’s written entirely in questions, one after another, with no apparent rhyme or reason, yet drawing you further and further in?

Have you read anything by Powell before? Maybe you read Edisto, his masterful first novel that tells the story of Simons Everson Manigault, the remarkable 12-year-old who could have been created by Salinger?

Did you know he’s written five novels now and that this may be his best, even better than Edisto?

Speaking of Salinger, what do you think about the fact that he’s died? Had his seclusion left him dead to you already? Do you wonder what he was doing all those years up in Cornish?  Do you wonder what he left behind? Don’t you think by now that some reporter would have gotten a hold of his will?

Would you like me to return to Powell now?

Maybe I should repeat that this is a masterful book, a stunning novel, yes, a novel, even though there’s no discernable plot? But there is a story, isn’t there?

I should tell you that I think it would be impossible to read this book and not end up with a picture of the narrator, shouldn’t I?

I should tell you that I think his sadness, isolation almost leap up off the page, shouldn’t I?

Have you ever read a book where the narrator asks so many questions — the book, after all, has interrogative in the title — yet never comes across as an interrogator, as a prosecutor? Where he’s asking all the questions yet seems to be involving you in the conversation in his life?

Are you prepared to be challenged? Do you understand that I’m trying to tell you that it’s not an easy book but it’s well worth the effort?

Would you be surprised if I told you that despite the hundreds and hundreds of questions — probably over a thousand — it’s actually a relatively short book, only 164 pages?

Do you think I should have quoted from the book? Would you be upset if I told you that I didn’t because I really think you should read it on your own, from start to finish, letting each question build on the one before?

Have I made it clear that I thought this book is an astounding accomplishment that should be read?

Have you bought it yet?

I really wanted to believe he was Deep Throat

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2010 at 11:13 am
Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State, 1981.

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Alexander Haig is dead.

According to The New York Times, the 85-year-old died this morning at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and while many will remember him for his spectacular power plays such as when Ronald Reagan was the subject of an assassination attempt, I will always remember for almost being Deep Throat.

Deep Throat, of course, was the name given to the super secret source of The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward as he and Carl Bernstein helped unravel the Watergate scandal.

Guessing who he was became the ultimate parlor game.

In 1982, former White House Counsel John Dean pegged Haig as the cuplrit.

And while it made sense on a certain level — even as late as 2004, the American Journalism Review pointed out that Haig did match some of Woodward’s descriptions of his source — it didn’t take Haig long to deny it, calling the claim “absurd.”

Of course, there’s also the fact, that Mark Felt, who was the FBI’s number two, was later revealed to be the source.

Still, it was a nice thought, that this former Chief of Staff under Nixon, former Secretary of State under Reagan, former Supreme Commander of NATO, could also be a great defender of democracy and the First Amendment.

Alas, it was not to be…. I guess we’ll go back to remembering as the man who said he was in charge, forgetting about the people above him.

Oh, well.

The Shame of the United States in Seven Paragraphs

In Crime, Politics, World on February 11, 2010 at 10:59 am

“Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities.”

Those are the words ending the seventh of seven paragraphs declassified yesterday by a judge in the United Kingdom describing the treatment of Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian national and British resident who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002.

He was held in secret prisons in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan before being moved to Guantanamo Bay in September 2004 where he stayed until February of last year when he was released without ever being charged.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Mohammed in a lawsuit looking to hold people accountable for his rendition, while in custody, Mohammed:

“was fed meals of raw rice, beans and bread sparingly and irregularly. He was kept in almost complete darkness for 23 hours a day and made to stay awake for days at a time by loud music and other frightening and irritating recordings, including the sounds of “ghost laughter,” thunder, aircraft taking off and the screams of women and children.”

After being released, Mohammed sought whatever information the British had about his treatment. It boiled down to a battle over a seven paragraph summary of his treatment.

Even after British courts ruled the paragraphs must be released, the United States warned Britain not to do it, saying they would curb the exchange of information between the two countries if the information was released.

What’s sort of — but I guess shouldn’t be — astounding is that the United States tried to keep the seven paragraphs suppressed even after much about Mohammed’s treatment was detailed in court papers.

As the British court wrote in paragraph 55 of their decision:

“There is no secret about the treatment to which Mr. Mohammed was subjected while in the control of the US. Authorities. We are no longer dealing with the allegations of torture and ill-treatment; they have been established in the judgment of the court, publicly revealed by the judicial process within the USA itself.

So, now that the details of Mr. Mohammed’s treatment were detailed in the US Courts and reaffirmed by the British Courts, what was the reaction of the United States to the release of the seven paragraphs?

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair released a statement saying the British decision was “not helpful” and “creates additional challenges” but the two countries will persevere.

Not a word about Mohammed and how he was treated but at least our priorities are in order.

As for the seven paragraphs, here they are:

“It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2002 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer.

v) It was reported that at some stage during that further interview process by the United States authorities, BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed.

vi) It was reported that combined with the sleep deprivation, threats and inducements were made to him. His fears of being removed from United States custody and “disappearing” were played upon.

vii) It was reported that the stress brought about by these deliberate tactics was increased by him being shackled in his interviews

viii) It was clear not only from the reports of the content of the interviews but also from the report that he was being kept under self-harm observation, that the interviews were having a marked effect upon him and causing him significant mental stress and suffering.

ix) We regret to have to conclude that the reports provide to the SyS [security services] made clear to anyone reading them that BM was being subjected to the treatment that we have described and the effect upon him of that intentional treatment.

x) The treatment reported, if had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom, would clearly have been in breach of the undertakings given by the United Kingdom in 1972. Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could readily be contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities.”