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(Blue Rider Press, pp 302, $27.00)
A great undiscovered jewel, and from what I infer, a book that deserves to get into every single book club in the nation, and beyond. My enthusiasm is perhaps excessive. There comes a time when a book appears and has valuable lessons to teach us. We learn something we never suspected existed. People in their 60s’ have a life as well, and they go through ups and downs like the rest of us, and still have to learn lessons along the way. They can even display resilience and an appetite for life. It is pleasant surprise that a publisher would release a book that actually concerns our aging nation, where so much emphasis rests on the land of twenty-something Lena-Dunham wannabes teaching the world with great self-assurance life lessons and proper etiquette. Which begs the question: what is more interesting, someone who fumbles through life while brandishing a narcissistic flag and seems to have all the answers? Or someone who has worked hard to build a life, only to lose everything overnight and who has to pick herself up to start again—at age sixty?
This is exactly what happens to Meredith Maran who had a perfect life, meaning living with a sense of safety that no one could ask for more, with a good marriage (to the woman of her dream), a beautiful Victorian house, a good writing career, and an active social life. And then Life comes knowing at her door, like it tends to when things are going too well, and it takes everything away, and more. The best friend dies; her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer; she loses her job, and the house, along with the marriage. Welcome to “The New Old Me.” This is where we meet Meredith, dead broke about to move to La La Land, CA, where she struggles to rebuild her life and self, with all the scrawny feathers that come attached to them, fanned by heartache, loneliness, and self-doubt. The energy of the prose however shows us that beyond the circumstances lies a strong-willed and witty woman, and sure enough slowly Meredith crawls out of her trenches, and she does so with humor. For those in search of summer inspiration, this is your book. Look no further. (It was my wife’s favorite read so far this year.)
(William Morrow, pp 368, $26.99)
In “Wicked City,” one can smell the whiffs of Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway as he journeys back and forth between New York and East Egg. You can touch Princeton, the Prohibition, the allure of speakeasies with Fitzgerald pouring himself a scotch, and nudging the fabulously wealthy yawning at thought of attending the next party. From where we stand, the era feels like a distant shore, a fata morgana only made possible by the booming business and new wealth created overnight, the windfall of WWI. In typical Hollywood stories, with the new breed of winners come the losers, and not necessarily those who never had, but rather those who tried hard, got there, and walked away on a whim, which, for many of us, reveals a certain disposition towards foolishness. This is where Williams starts her two-time-framed narrative. The story moved from present to past and back and forth. “Wicked City” is a Nick Carraway journey in reverse.
Ella Gilbert starts at the top of society and decides to leave it all behind upon learning that her banker husband cheats on her. She trades her life of luxury and high-comfort in Soho for a small pad of Greenwich Village. That’s for the near present. But Williams’s story also is situated in 1924, where the Village was not the ultra-expensive resort for the startup moguls of today. Back then there were forbidden places, where more prosaic people went in search of excitement. The place in question is a speakeasy, the Christopher Club. The club introduces the second protagonist, Geneva Keely, a flapper, who gets caught in a raid and is forced to help the police track down her father, an important bootlegger . . . The story takes its own flight as we ponder how the two narratives are interrelated, making the twists and turns highly entertaining and surprising.
(Grand Central Publishing, pp 399, $28.00)
Whoever came up with the subtitle for this fascinating book did an excellent job creating a strong hook. Who indeed would not want to live longer? Contrary to what you may consider, that life is just a game of roulette, with molecules moving one way and DNA reacting in another, the authors claim that you can certainly influence your longevity. To entice you into their secret, they ask: why some people at 40 look like 60, while others at 60 look like 40? The story narrated here deals with telomerase and, more precisely telomeres, which are the capstones at the end of the DNA, whose states mirror the way we treat ourselves. Good telomeres will keep you disease free longer. Translation: your lifespan will be elongated.
Here, as in diet books, we find that the main culprits for premature aging: quality of sleep, frequency of exercise, types of diet, and chronic stress, all of which deeply impact our telomeres. Over the book, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn (Nobel Prize winner) and Dr. Elissa Epel clearly demonstrate the mind-body connection. Having recurring negative thoughts for example will affect also your telomeres, and your appearance. Telomeres shorten in repeated adverse conditions. People looking healthy have long telomeres. So the main question you should ask yourself, and it should make you want to pick up this book at once, is whether a body who has been exposed to all types of unhealthy habits and physical and self-inflicted mental abuses can reverse damages done to the capstones of its DNA? In other words, are frayed telomeres irreversible? The book goes at great length to provide answers. Particularly fascinating are the chapters discussing the impact of early trauma during pregnancy and income inequalities to show the relations between depression and schizophrenia . . . which logically would mean that we may pay the price for circumstances that we do not control and that, in turn, impact our appearance. But nothing is set in black and white, and life choices still play their part. One thing is certain, reading this book will not age you.
(Other Press, pp 296, $26.95)
Psychosomatic illness is problematic. Disregarded as not real, it is often not considered seriously and is relegated to footnotes in medical books. And yet, it is all around us, often having debilitating effects on the sufferer, which can last for years in some cases. According to Dr. O’Sullivan, it costs the health system twice as much to treat as diabetes. Expensive for imaginary treatment. Who has not heard of someone suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome or sudden memory loss? In this important book, O’Sullivan lays out her case for a new approach and treatment methods for psychosomatic illness. Her argument is convincing. Taken from real life experiences, through her work as a neurologist and neurophysiologist, she shares the cases of some of her patients and ponders how come so many of them complain about symptoms without any physical manifestation? Is it really all in their head?
At first brush the book can appear predictable, since each chapter is matched with a specific patient. There’s Pauline, Camilla, and Rachel among others. But each has been carefully selected to illustrate precisely O’Sullivan’s claims. The plurality of psychosomatic manifestations run far and wide and would appear to stem from hidden stress and major traumas. O’Sullivan points out surviving rape or exposure to chronic mental abuses as being frequent culprits. We’ve known for century that the mind can affect our physical health. But clearly, here O’Sullivan seeks to establish a connection between mind and body that goes beyond simple mood disorder treatment. She advocates for new ways to look, understand and treat unexplainable symptoms, paving the way for bringing relief to her patients. Some of the cases will break your heart. Matthew did it for me.
(Library of America, pp 896, $40.00)
Besides the inviting silky quality of the paper, this volume from the Library of America offers an impressive collection of articles, essays, personal stories, and declassified documents from WWI, from both participants and observers. The volume aims at providing a never-before kaleidoscope view of the “never again” war, that is the French-German butchery which supposedly was going to be the war that ends all wars.
I can only imagine the headaches A. Scott Berg, the supreme editor of the book, must have experienced to decide what to include and exclude. The wealth of the materials is just staggering, spanning the beginning of the war to the ratification of the infamous “Versailles Treaty.” Lots of names will be recognizable to the modern readers, Edith Wharton, John Reed (who proceeded to go to Russia), Willa Cather, W.E.B Dubois, and of course Woodrow Wilson. But there are many others to whom history has not been so kind and who nonetheless made important contributions. Charles Lauriat is one of them. His telling of the sinking of the “Lusitania” reads like a novel, a first direct personal account of the tragedy during the swift German Torpedo attack. The sinking of the luxury liner was pivotal, for it signaled an important escalation towards the eventual US entry into the WWI conflict in 1917. The major lessons to be learned here come from the abundance of testimonies left to us as vestiges of the past, from which we are still trying to make sense. Given that in our new millennial age the past seems to carry less and less weight, the publication of this volume offers an in-depth ballast to anchor ourselves with the understanding that where we stand today is not so random. Especially in the light of the upcoming 100-year anniversary. Time for reflection is never wasted.
“Trump’s Great American Suicide“
Is America committing suicide? That is the thought swirling around the darkest recesses of my mind ever since Trump got elected. “Is America the Next Atlantic City?” is another. Though both strong contenders for my attention, they differ. The Atlantic reference suggests that something happened to the New Jersey town, which, in turn, implies that its townspeople were victims. The suicide version suggests a self-inflicted injury.
If there is any indication to the direction the nation is taking, the first weeks of the Trump presidency have pointed towards a bumpy ride. Executive orders are signed faster than they can be implemented. President Trump vows to gut the government, crack down on illegal emigrants while attacking the media for being “the enemy of the people.” Chaos paves the way. Radical statements can be an effective strategy during an electoral campaign to rally supporters, but to govern by them inevitably raises a déja-vu specter. America seems on its way to go down the Atlantic City route.
Unlike Trump’s new America, Atlantic City started as a fairytale. Once upon a time an ambitious young Trump arrived in town and said he would create tons of jobs and build a casino so big that it would become a beacon for many to come. Financial experts told him that the “vision” was unsustainable. He persisted. The venture culminated in such an apocalyptic bankruptcy that the too-big-to-fail developer had to be kept on financial respirator, leaving a smoldering trail for years to come simmering behind. No one got the promised happily-ever-after ending.
Trump is now at the helm of the ultimate project, America.Inc. Whether he got there by selling the same emblazoned “Make America Great Again” dream to its most destitute population is irrelevant. What matters is the position he took: the messianic savior. That he, and only he, could fix America from its own “carnage.” Although it is uncertain what “carnage” he is referring to (given that the economy has never been so robust), in the light of the Atlantic City debacle, one must ponder if voters were not seduced by Trump’s glitzy discourses, and ignoring by electing him they were espousing a form of socio-economic suicide. Great dreams allure a contagious casino mentality. Fortunes can be made overnight. They still rely however on randomness as the last chance to overcome adversity, even if the belief provides a short-term relief. Betting on Trump is a sure bet, we are told.
Within the context of a Christian tradition with a strong evangelical agenda, a call for its population’s suicide would make sense. Wouldn’t its members welcome the end of the world if salvation frees them from their own post-mortem analysis? The scriptures, we are told, will reveal its members the second coming, but only after the apocalypse. Temptation to rush the process could be inspiring. So why not elect a man who promises to “drain the swamp” and tear down all aspects of a working society? But spiritual suicide is the one I have in mind.
But America’s suicide is not a metaphor either. Though Trump’s well-commented-upon pathological traits could be blamed: his delusion of grandeur and profound narcissism. Nor is his temperament an issue here: his impatience, impulsiveness and hypersensitivity. More relevant to the suicide case is his jarring ignorance of cultural, political and worldly affairs. The fact he never reads and yet claims to know more than anyone else is problematic and raises the issue about knowledge. Are his ideas for America merely opinions caught in the glare of TV stations? Where do they come from if not? At the moment, Trump’s desire to bankrupt the American government feels more like an enforced suicide.
No airline would consider an individual plucked from the street to pilot a passenger-filled 787, without prior training. Yet, a man with no prior training was put in the pilot seat to fly the America plane. An election based on the assumption that the skill sets to run a real-estate so-called “empire” transfer logically to a country. Are the passengers better off having a non-pilot flying their plane? Time will tell. No sane person (that I know of) would get into that plane, however short the trip, if they knew about the pilot’s lack of competence. Yet, the dictum “he’s not a politician” somehow when applied to the presidential function works as an advantage.
Unless it is a form of suicide that eludes me, to fly the America plane the captain should, at a minimum, be able to understand some the dashboard’s instruments. Not just the economic ones, but also the diplomatic, judicial, environmental, ethical, educational, etc. all that constitutes the finely-tuned USA machine. President Trump falls short on all counts in staggering ways. Not only he has no interest in the instruments but also demands to have them removed from the plane. He wants to free the banking system again from regulations, ax the Dodd-Frank buffers, dismantle a restraining EPA, giving permission to pollute streams, repeal the Obamacare (the list goes on) without ever asking himself why these regulations were implemented in the first place. Regulations are viewed as impediments to job creation. Is the job-for-all Atlantic City vision being implemented to the American economy?
The same distortion seems to be taking place. The belief that America is a corporation. It is not. America is a country with states, three branches of power, with federal, state and local authorities, supervising a vast range of communities. Within these communities, business takes place. But business is only one aspect of the country. Running a country by putting business interests first with the understanding that businesses alone can fix broken communities is a serious delusion. History shows up that it has never been the case. Businesses destroy communities.
The Industrial Revolution did not provide workers with wealth. On the contrary, it made them more destitute. Workers worked longer hours for less money, because of stiff competition. Living and working conditions were appalling, insalubrious. Mortality was high. Workers had no power. 120 years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, little had changed. Take a look at Bangladesh today. It is a picture of us 100 years ago. This is what capitalism looks like without protections and regulations.
It took the butchery of WWI for the process to reverse. Workers began to unionize, mobilize themselves into organizations and communities. Governments along with politicians were forced to recognize their powers. This mobilization from the bottom up called for a better repartition of wealth. The standard of living we enjoy today would never have happened otherwise. A strong government working for the peoples with a robust legal system to protect the peoples from the abuses of both businesses and government is paramount to guarantee equality—a fair share of the pie. Trump’s dismissal of this fact is like flying the America plane with a naked dashboard.
The Great Depression came about because of a lack of banking regulations. The Great Depression did not however manage to obliterate unions and interest groups. They throve for even better protections. The Great Recession was also the fruit of a deregulated financial market. It is shocking to learn that an expert like Alan Greenspan could naively believe that the market would take care of itself. The market works for its own interests. The market will never be on the side of the peoples. It is indifferent to them. Peoples are its collateral damage.
Herein lies the great paradox at the heart of Trump’s course of action. Destitute voters are made to believe that a government defending their interests is responsible for their plights. Strangely, each time social-economic disruptions arise, blames and accusatory fingers point at government and legislation, never at the culprits who created the mess. Focus is on symptoms and never on causes. How did we get into this ideological twist when businesses’ main concerns are to drive down wages or move jobs abroad to cut their expenses and maximize profits? How could blue-collar workers believe that cutting taxes for the 1% and corporations, vowing to erase 70 % of regulations protecting them, taking away their health insurance, were good measures for them? Doesn’t this sound like asking workers to commit suicide to prove the goodness of the market economy? Or like selling the Atlantic City casino mindset on the promise that when the market is strong, the trickle-down society will be flooded with jobs?
Something does not align with the argument. There is a great deal of delusion floating in the air. Why would Trump care so much about the plight of American workers in the first place? Running a government implies servicing the peoples. Being a president demands a no self-interest stance. Trump is a businessman. Businessmen always put their self-interest first. They are against obstacles. To this day, President Trump is unable to give a speech without bragging about himself and acknowledging the existence of anyone else but himself. How is he going to make “America Great” when he has surrounded himself with a team of bankers and billionaires, who have no experience in the functioning of a government or public offices, and who mirror his mindset? How great America is going to be when his new secretaries are put at the head of agencies with the mission to dismantle them?
Demonizing state and federal agencies for their own failings will not solve the unemployment problems. Government and regulations exist to protect the peoples. The promise to get rid of up “75%” of regulations if not more,” would make the American society roll back decades of social and environmental progress. Check and balance mechanisms were put in place, precisely, to prevent the society from imploding through the maneuvers of unregulated industries. Getting rid of regulations will once again create a deflation of wages and more employment, since workers will be replaced by automation. Invariably, deregulations, in the name of efficiency, lead to bigger monopoly, less competition, and higher prices. Trump’s program will only increase disparities among workers and the wealthy. Trump’s vision of America is Atlantic City redux. A brash gamble that opens the door wide to sheer plutocracy with unprecedented cronyism. And we all know that this sort of fable never ends well.
March 2017. Only six weeks have elapsed since Trump took power, and what a contrast with the previous administration. The country seems to have been seized by the invisible hand of hysteria and neurosis. In recent memory, never a concentration of angry and vocal citizens has been so strident and quick to gather. In this time of uncertainty, it is always wise to take a deep breath and step to the sideline to better understand what is happening. Are we deluding ourselves with this new administration? Is the threat real? Or are we just venting the seething resentment that has been cementing since the beginning of the Great Recession and, why not, the costly Iraq War? This month’s selection provides reflections on our national and chaotic mental states.
(Open Road Integrated Media, pp 488, $16.99)
Sanity can be regained in many ways. While there are those who go to great lengths to analyze a person’s psyche to better penetrate it and spend a great deal of time to suggest curative solutions by trial and error, there are also those who advocate the more expeditive fire-by-fire approach. Divergent psychologies imply different perception and understanding of humankind. This is where Alan Jacobson (a truly underrated author) situates himself. Not that he necessarily believes in the latter approach, but in terms of thriller writing, his willingness to throw his characters into the darkest recesses of the human mind makes his story feel like boarding a hell-train from page one. His new Karen Vail’s novel, “The Darkness of Evil” is beautifully layered for this reason.
Think for a second if you woke one morning and found out your father was a serial killer. What would you do? What would you say? This is what happens to Jasmine Marcks, one of the protagonists. Is it possible to love a father who tortures innocent young women? Can a sadistic killer be a good father? Whose allegiance should a daughter have in mind, the community or her father? No easy answer, no matter who we are. But here the novel addresses the question in an original way. Jasmine, who turned her father in to the police, has written a book about him. But the incarcerated serial-killer father manages to escape and now seeks revenge. Karen Vail must protect Jasmine from her own father. But what is Jasmine now going to do about it? . . . “The Darkness of Evil” is a brisk, surprise-filled twisted ride, which will drain every ounce of darkness out of you and make you feel like a sober angel.
(Avery, pp 356, $26.00)
A major contradiction lies at the heart of Western societies. The constant pressure towards the quest for happiness. It is no secret that the pressure to be happy creates more anxiety than happiness. Tons of books from fields as varied as sociology, psychology or self-help, have attempted to deal with this issue. Often providing short-time relief with Band-aid remedies, which, as their names indicate, never last over time. Even before pre-Socratic thinkers it was known that happiness never comes from achievement or success, or wealth, or even fame for that matter. And yet, our Western societies keep on promoting these values, with disastrous results on its members. Depression, neurosis, feeling of inadequacies, feeding an endless loop of existential FOMO, and so on, abound around us.
“The Book of Joy,” is one of those timeless books that aims at cutting straight through the glut of daily self-pressured drives and bad self-talk. Written by the Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, with Doug Abrams, “The Book of Joy,” details their conversations, which took place over a one-week period in Dharamsala, India. The goal of the book, beyond reuniting the two spiritual leaders, was to teach the world that the quest for happiness is precisely a futile endeavor, because it is ephemeral. They profess instead to rely on joy, at any moment in life. Especially in time of tragedy and great suffering. Both of them are living proofs, having witnessed countless atrocities. “Every tragic situation can become an opportunity.” Abrams who has a strong Eastern interest translates the teaching into accessible lessons. The message is clear and easily absorbed. But like all disciplines, mastery requires a daily practice. No way around it.