Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis vs. Computer Chess

Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers' latest release, is an evocation of the early 60's New York folk scene, told through the misadventures of also-ran folksinger Llewyn Davis. The wintry colors and period clothes and cars take us back, but we are clearly in the hands of storytellers who like to mess with their characters, and thereby with us. Davis can't catch a break - the single he performs on as a session man goes on to be a hit, but in his desperation for cash he's already signed away his claim to royalties. He tries to hawk his records, tries to get money out of his producer, cadges a series of couches and floors to sleep on, takes a pointless trip to Chicago, and basically burns every bridge, some while he's in mid-crossing. The cast of Coen oddballs exists primarily to enable the hell he's made of his life, but for all the focus on his sad puppy eyes, we can't see inside.

Andrew Bujalski's 2013 release Computer Chess is set in the mid-seventies. Teams of computer geeks crowd a southern California hotel for their annual man vs. machine chess competition, bringing the large clunky hardware that was state-of-the art a mere 30 years ago, and huddling to strategize. Meanwhile an encounter group is lodging in the same hotel (with overlapping use of the conference room) for activities which include chants, group embrace, sensory awakenings... Anyone who remembers the seventies will not believe this movie was made in 2013 - no anachronistic spin spoils the effect. Shot in black and white with hand-held home movie cameras, the film offers not the Coens' ironic glib hi-def rendering of Greenwich Village, but an affectless depiction of nerds and encounter groupies.

Computer Chess explores a theme central to modern life without our present-day suspicion and defensiveness toward technology. Rather, we are offered the we're-all-in-this-together early collaboration of programmers with computers. These nerds are frustrated equally by the complexity of the problem they have set themselves, and the machines' inadequacy. Though they generally agree that in another ten years a computer will beat a Grandmaster, they despair at their programs' apparent stupidity.

Some of the chess hangers-on are after something else, deeply paranoid about whose money is behind the more successful teams. Mike Papageorge, a scam artist, insults the organizer, pretends he had a room reservation, then after being rebuffed by the hotel clerk, tries to cadge floor-space in every competitor's room and ends up sleeping under a conference room table. There he wakes to the ministrations of the encounter group, who guide him through a rebirthing.

The central character of Computer Chess is Peter, a young nerd whose combination of intellect and innocence attracts those around him to make confessions and advances, neither of which he wants. Can computers wonder about the soul? Are the vast number of possible chess moves really just a speck in comparison to human potential? These are not questions he would have chosen to ponder, but it's certain he will leave the competition a changed young man.

Llewyn Davis is a depressive combination of serial sponger Papageorge and young Peter, in whom others look to discover the parts of themselves they doubt and dislike. But unlike Davis, who gives a blank look to the Chicago record producer who asks bluntly, "Who's inside Llewyn Davis?" the characters in Computer Chess know who they are and what they want, and strive on, undeterred by failure. Davis, lost in the haze of his own compounded misery, cannot see out to get out.  

The Coen brothers' people are Characters, but Bujalski's characters are People.
In my grading system,
Computer Chess rates an A+ 
Inside Llewyn Davis gets a B-

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Guest Post - Infinite Jest, Take Two

Guest blogger (and son) Ernesto, who gave me this book to read, offers his take:
W/r/t my second complete reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest:

While I am baffled that I spent several months reading/lugging this humongous book everywhere (again!), it was all worthwhile. Like with any re-examination of something, I found that a lot was gained, more details observed, and the deeply interwoven world of the book came into full focus.

The main questions I am left with are:
Why does JOI [James O. Incandenza, as a ghost] choose to visit Gately of all people?
Why does Orin [JOI's eldest son] decide to unleash the Entertainment?
The ambiguities of the novel's end are numerous, but like any text so massive, many of the answers can be found within. The master copy of the entertainment which JOI had interred inside his cranium is missing when Hal [Incandenza], Joelle [Prettiest Girl of All Time aka PGOAT], Gately, and John Wayne unearth his remains. The imprisoned Orin cuts a deal with the AFR, giving them the location of the master. The shadow government of the ONAN is prepared to handle the onslaught of the paralyzing entertainment with PSAs and mass electrical outages.

The first time I finished, I was flabbergasted by the lack of closure even with these hints. However, a gimmick I discovered on the internet offered a more comfortable resolution: Flip to the start and read through the first section, ending on page 17. Doing so places the reader at the latest chronological point in the story, the last year of subsidized time. It also refreshes for us all of the poignant details of Hal's opening inner monologue. And since one has already sunken weeks of time into the book, clearly showing some obsession, it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to flip to the beginning and start over (ala the Entertainment or a Substance).

The use of style in the book is likewise infectious, giving the reader a repertoire of slang from across the Bostonian class spectrum. The colloquial writing makes the book even more digestible, at least once you get over the hump of the first 200 pages. The main narrative is colored with disturbing stories told both by individuals from and on their way into AA and nearly indecipherable nuggets of AAVE or phonetic Irish-English. These sections are so numerous and seemingly unconnected, but not a single character or tangent stands alone.

The twisted version of America (ONAN) from a dimension where things are just a shade worse is compelling as well. Not only is it futuristic in its predictions -- 1996 was a long time ago, technologically speaking -- but the technology itself moves people to be radically anti-social (see the section on videophones and the mask industry that comes about as a result). This deeply sad America is caught up in spontaneously disseminated entertainment (cough Netflix, cough cough Amazon Prime) and advertising agencies literally own time itself. The amalgamated TelePuter combines our society's favorite technological distractions into one (as we see rapidly occurring with video-streaming technology). The late Ray Bradbury often pointed out that science fiction's visions of our future serve best as a warning. Infinite Jest should be considered in the same way, something to admonish us and give us pause as we creep deeper into self-absorption and indulgence.

One of  the recurring points in DFW's writing, whether it's short stories, speeches, or in IJ is an urging for human beings to be compassionate; to strive to understand and love someone other than oneself. JOI's stated purpose for having made the entertainment was to get an emotional response out of Hal, to show beyond a doubt that he loved his son despite his own emotional distance and crippling alcoholism. In curbing his own addiction, Hal becomes (by all appearances) a rabid and horrifying animal, which adds to the dark irony of JOI's attempt to elicit emotions from his son.
It's easy to see that Wallace writes what he knows: depression (for which he received electro-shock therapy), addiction/recovery programs, and competitive junior tennis. Reading this 1079 page story for the second time I can't help but applaud David Foster Wallace for creating a world so simultaneously colorful and flawed and an opus so magnum.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Boom and Bust at Uranium Drive-In

Denver's Starz Film Festival screened Uranium Drive-In, a documentary by Susan Beraza featured in both Spotlight on Colorado and Environment in Focus categories. With her film crew Beraza visits the small drying-up towns of Naturita and Nucla in Montrose County in Western Colorado. These towns and Uravan, which was demolished as part of a Superfund cleanup in the 1980's, were founded by mining companies who came for the uranium. Mines and mills offered high-paying jobs, and the residents chose to live with the risks of underground mining and exposure to radioactivity. But when Energy Fuels returned in the mid-2000's to open a uranium mine at Pinon Ridge outside Naturita, they were opposed by a coalition of environmental groups led by Sheep Mountain Alliance, headquartered in the town of Telluride 70 miles to the east. Pinon Ridge in the Paradox Valley lies in the watershed of the Dolores River, which flows into the Colorado - leakage of radioactive water would have magnified repercussions downstream. 

The name Telluride now conjures ski paradise, film and music festivals, beautiful scenery and beautiful people - but before all that Telluride was a mining town, its groundwater poisoned by cobalt, tellurium and other heavy metals. I wonder how many of the owners of multi-million dollar vacation homes are aware of its history. But to the people of Naturita and Nucla, towns without jobs, Telluride is populated by rich people who care more about Paradox Valley's land than about the people trying to survive on it.

Energy Fuels wooed Naturita and Nucla with the promise of high-paying jobs, offering opaque assurances that the contamination "mistakes of the past" would not be repeated under current regulations. However, in Canon City, where Cotter Corporation's uranium mill has been closed and the mandated cleanup has revealed the extent of groundwater contamination, a resident shakes her head at their short-sightedness. Her own father, one of the founders of the Cotter facility, spent his last painful years working against the opening of further uranium mines, before dying of cancer. In fact, the Cotter facility was in the news again this week, for its largest to-date leak of contaminated water.

Residents of Nucla and Naturita waited out the challenges and petitions, but by 2012 when the permit was finally granted, the bottom had dropped out of the uranium market, and Energy Fuels, laying off workers from another mine, was not going to invest in Pinon Ridge.

Mining and drilling are by nature boom-and-bust: when companies have extracted what they value and made their money, they leave. The people who settle remote areas to work for them are left high and dry, on their own to create an economy if they can - or abandon their homes, if they can't.

Naturita residents have started a website,, to explore ways to revitalize their community with sustainable work. Current ideas include a reservations call center for nearby Telluride, agricultural revival, mining tourism, festivals, a shopping district, and boosting outdoor tourism - hunting and fishing, horseback riding...
They are looking for ideas, and more importantly, funding.

In the end, this is a challenge not just for struggling rural areas, but for us all: are we willing to think past our own wallets, to consider who's supported and abandoned every time we buy something? Right now it's hard to find products made in this country, but that can change, if we're willing to pay more knowing the money goes to our neighbors, not primarily into the pockets of the very corporations that took their jobs overseas.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Infinite Jest

I finished David Foster Wallace's massive novel today - whew. At this point I'm not sure whether he just ran out of steam, or reached what he considered an end-point - certainly some large issues are left unresolved.

By the end we know why Hal Incandenza, sighted at the beginning having a meltdown at a college interview, cannot produce words to back up whatever interest he's supposed to have in matriculating. And we can infer what happens to Don Gately, the live-in staffer of a halfway house for addicts whose story holds our attention for the last 40% of the book. But we don't find out about the Quebec Separatists - does their rebellion succeed, or do they remain in the shadows, waging guerrilla warfare on choice targets? Do they get their hands on a master (reproducible) tape of The Entertainment, a film so compelling that those who view it are reduced to an infantile state, incapable of any action except repeated viewings, so that through broad dissemination they can bring O.N.A.N. into helpless compliance?

Instead of answering these questions, Wallace introduces even more characters through recollection, only some of whose stories feel satisfactory (satisfactory in the sense of having a beginning, middle and end, with characters developing and changing as a consequence of the narrated events).

What can an editor say? He invests in certain plot-lines and devices, only to abandon them short of resolution. It is a novelist's prerogative to "throw in the kitchen sink," including whatever shows up during the writing - short stories are required to be to-the-point, with extraneous material cut. But whether we're talking Ulysses, Moby Dick or Anna Karenina, the longer form accommodates digressions. However, those books, in my experience, have cohesion in the sense that everything in them leads one, by varying paths, to a conclusion. Melville's hundreds of pages of riffs on whale behavior, the polycultural milieu of a whaling ship, and the obsessions of its crew, prepare us thoroughly for the grand finale in which the Pequod and the white whale have their fatal encounter.

I can't say this of Infinite Jest - some of its subplots, while fascinating, contribute nothing to the fate of the characters we have come to care about, and things we want to know are left hanging. Is this incompleteness an enticement to obsessives to dig deeper, through multiple readings and heated discussions, to some mystic level where it all meshes? I feel as though I have committed many hours to a particularly long and convoluted shaggy dog story.

Not that I wasted my time - Wallace was a gifted user of language, from such well-coined phrases as "advanced worry" and "windbagathon stories" to "gave him the howling fantods" - it is always a pleasure to read someone who can give us those Aha! moments when words mirror the world. And though he only uses first person with Hal Incandenza, episodes are frequently in the POV of a character, with that person's imprecision and self-interruption coloring the descriptions: "Gately has to monitor the like emotional barometer in the House and put a wet finger to the wind for potential conflicts and issues and rumors." If I have a criticism of this, it's that even in omniscient narrator mode, Wallace sprinkles "like" through the text, Valley-girl style, as though this cousin of "y'know" has a contribution to make.

When one invests a whole book in a mystery, the revelation had better be good. I admit to disappointment with discovering the content of The Entertainment - would that really render every viewer a semi-comatose drooling idiot? Perhaps Wallace's appeal is principally to obsessives, who can dig to their hearts' content through the minutiae he has provided.

I'm more drawn to the Douglas Adams school of revelation: a spectacularly egocentric character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, emerges unscathed from the Total Perspective Vortex: "When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."" (from Wikipedia quoting "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe") This reduces most people to babbling. But not Zaphod. "When it showed him the "You Are Here" marker, Zaphod correctly interpreted the Vortex as simply telling him that he was the most important being in the universe." (Wikipedia again:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Infinite Jest, Round 1

My son Ernesto gave me a copy of David Foster Wallace's doorstop of a novel, Infinite Jest, a few months ago, and we agreed to read it together this summer. Alas, summer will be long gone before we finish. But on we trudge. I am now a third of the way into this exploration of obsession, addiction, waste and tennis in the near future.

Obsession and addiction are the same thing, experienced by different aspects of one's being. Obsession occurs when the mind is trapped in orbit around a particular object, behavior or interest. Addiction is the same stuckness, manifesting physically. One is hardly superior to the other: if you can't play your best competitive tennis without your special rituals, clothing and equipment, you're addicted no less than the person whose body has been invaded by need for a particular tickle: coke, 'drines, sex, alcohol, pot, etc., and will do whatever is necessary to obtain it. 

Either one diminishes the rest of the world.

Almost 400 pages into IJ, I've found a character who seems "normal", though that is a consequence of damage: Schacht is an "under-18" tennis player whose ranking is on the wane thanks to the one-two punch of Crohn's disease and a permanently injured knee. He can still play, but not at the champion level. Unlike his classmates who oscillate between obsessives' poles of tennis and recreational drugs, he accepts his lot. He's studying to become a dentist, and his game has reached a Zen zone with a high achievement-for-effort ratio because winning no longer matters. Likewise he can take or leave the drugs. He is free, and so far he's the only character I can think of able to make such a claim.

As for waste: as we learn the history of O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations, which excludes the Concavity where separatist Quebec seethes), we begin to grasp that the consumption on which our economy has been built since the end of WWII has generated a waste stream so massive that we've run out of places to dump it. It appears that the waste zone for toxic North American residue is The Concavity, and from the Boston area, near its border, regular launches by the E.W.D. (Empire Waste Disposal) are shot skyward - though probably not into orbit (I haven't got there yet).

An obsessively notated book offering obsessive amounts of detail about its topics seems a natural spawning-ground for obsessives, and all you have to do is Google Infinite Jest to see that they are legion. DFW's end-notes expand in likewise obsessive fashion on the subject of mention, whether that is a game of chicken played by young men in Quebec, or the filmography of the Incandenza family patriarch, or a phone conversation between brothers which reveals a great deal about certain events in that family. You can no more skip the end-notes than you could skip dozens of pages in the body of the novel - they are part of the story. Whether much of the information offered in the almost 100 pages of end notes belongs there (as opposed to nested in the narrative), is a moot question. There it is, and there you'd better read it.

Still, he has a way with words. How can any writer fail to love a sentence like this:
[Schacht is] one of those people who don't need much, much less much more. ?
There are some very funny moments (which I won't relate here, since that would both pull them out of context and spoil the surprise of coming upon them) - not infinite, perhaps, but some good laughs. It has taken awhile, but somewhere between a quarter of the way in and a third, I have identified the outlines of a story I want to follow. What happens to these people? What happens to these nations? I'm sure those answers lie ahead.

Friday, July 26, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Families: circumstances splinter them. People find substitutes for blood-kin, sometimes in greed, sometimes as the most profound kindness, and those ties become the locus of life. Khaled Hosseini's third best-selling novel, And the Mountains Echoed, is not just about Afghanistan, from mid-century to a few years ago - principally it is about people who lose, steal, or invent families, and how the emptiness of losing and the hunger of creating them, govern people.

A boy and his little sister are parted when she is adopted by a wealthy childless couple in Kabul, a flirtatious poet and her quiet artistic husband. The girl doesn't know the caretaker is her uncle, who keeps an eye on her. In Afghanistan's war-splintered society, those who can afford to, leave: the woman takes the girl to Paris; neighborhood brothers go from Kabul to California. A different sort come to stay: a Greek plastic surgeon whose mother has taken in the disfigured daughter of her closest childhood friend; a Bosnian nurse. And opportunists and profiteers flourish in the chaos.

In each case, the richness or vacancy of their lives emanates from the bonds they make, of family and friendship. Hosseini walks us artfully through his characters' stories - he incrementally reveals the love between the Greek and the disfigured girl who's come to live with him and his mother, while counting down the two minutes of a homemade camera's exposure.

This male author has given us some strong women: the poet who scandalizes Kabul society with her amours, her erotic poetry, and her wild parties; the girl who later looks after this poet she has come to realize is not her mother, and who becomes a mathematician and professor; the Greek's mother, who fears no one and says what she believes, convinced it is better to hurt people with the truth than with lies; the disfigured girl she takes in, whose mechanical aptitude provides the strength with which she approaches the world; an Afghani girl, victim of a jealous uncle's axe attack, who after treatment by the Greek surgeon and his Bosnian nurse, writes a book in which she omits her disappointment in the Afghani emigrant who longed - for his own peace of mind - to "save" her, but in the end would not disrupt his American life with her presence. And the daughter of the original brother, who sets aside her own dreams and ambitions to care first for her cancer-stricken mother, then for her father as he sinks into dementia.

Hosseini draws a big circle, traversing time and place, composed of the smaller circles of individual lives. He shows us that violence and redemption are personal, states of mind as much as the havoc wrought by war. The village from which the boy and girl travel as the book begins, experiences in microcosm what has happened to the whole country: in a mad fit, the girl's bereft father cuts down the ancient tree at its center, and by the end every house has been razed. The residents of the new town nearby that assumes its name display the materialism and vapidity of people without roots, ruled over by a profiteer who controls them with patronage while he lives in luxury in a walled and guarded compound.

It is no wonder, in the face of the relentless misery and horror of the Afghanistan we encounter in the news, that readers are drawn to Hosseini's books. He writes:
A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose.
He says: of course war and injustice are terrible. But look more closely: love and kinship give people strength. This person struggles, and her story makes you ache - but another can make you smile.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Lives of Others - Reflections on the Stasi

This is an appropriate time to watch the 2006 Foreign-Language Oscar winner The Lives of Others, set in 1984 in East Berlin. We now know that the Stasi, the East German secret police, had files on hundreds of thousands of citizens. Human weaknesses were levers to pry open the secret compartments of hearts and thoughts, with the aim of preserving a system which could only survive under conditions of universal mistrust.

Following the information released by Edward Snowden, we should take careful note of what our government is doing today. "Oh, we're just looking for patterns," the NSA assures us. "We're not actually listening to individual conversations or reading personal emails, unless we have a warrant first." Of course, you'll have to take their word for that, since FISA has locked the surveillance process in Catch-22 layers of secrecy. They won't tell you they've been requesting records of yours unless you happen to ask, but those under surveillance have no right to know they are. So no, you're not going to find out. These days, you can't even catch someone red-handed going through your mail or tapping your phone - it's all done remotely.

If we have to take their word for what they're collecting and keeping and what just runs through their filters, the open society our founders sought to create and sustain, is dead. Trust flourishes in the open. A look at The Lives of Others reveals how even love cannot protect lovers from the state, from each other's vulnerabilities.

The East German government was pretty sure it was protecting its citizens from harm, from all those troublesome thoughts and activities that were corrupting the West. The film's writer protagonist was shocked to be told, after the Berlin Wall had come down, that he had indeed been under full surveillance - he imagined that because he was careful, because he self-censored his work to stay out of prison, he was above suspicion. But the former minister who punctured that illusion did so with the only satisfaction he had left: smugness regarding the extent of the spy-state over which he had presided so long. No one was above suspicion, not even the apparatchiks who did the prying and spying.

The film ends on a note of gratitude and nobility, a bow to the courage and humanity of the spy who saved the writer. But as we refine the technology of snooping, can we hope for such weak spots? The new NSA data center in Utah, 1.5 million square feet, will have a capacity of a yottabyte of data - the equivalent of 500 quintillion pages of text. Why? For whom? If they're just filtering, why do they need so much storage? Your service providers at the phone companies (all of them), Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc. have already declared they have provided no access and no data to the NSA. Do you believe them?

Our prosperity has greatly simplified the task of spying on us. Phones equipped with GPS aren't only handy for you: they're a boon to the snoops. Just a decade ago, the military didn't want publicly-available GPS units to be as accurate as theirs: they considered them security risks. But now, the secret-collectors must be high-fiving each other over the increased accuracy of the devices: your activities can be tracked precisely. Which plane were you on, what book did you download (or check out of the library, for that matter), which friends do you hang out with? Where do you shop, what do you buy, who's in your contact list? They know more about you than your mom ever did, but there's no reason for them to be indulgent: the NSA is not the home of unconditional love.

The fall of the Berlin Wall isn't going to save us this time - we have to speak up, loud, often, and in large numbers: this massive data collection is only making us "safer" in a limited sense. Over the long term, we will be at the whim of a state the Stasi could only dream of.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

This Sporting Life - film review

Lindsay Anderson is best known for 2 movies, 1969's  If..., about a student rebellion at a boarding school, which brought fame to Malcolm MacDowell, and 1973's O Lucky Man, in which MacDowell cements his reputation as a young man with a curled lip who bears watching.
But before that, in 1963 Anderson made the film This Sporting Life, which is in its own way a more powerful story about the disaffected.

Richard Harris stars as Frankie Machin, a working class brawler who pushes himself to be selected for the local professional rugby team. One fragment of story at a time, we come to understand his living situation - he rooms with a widow, Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), and her two young children. Eventually we learn that her husband died in an accident at the factory owned by Gerald Weaver (Alan Badell), the man who casts the deciding vote to pay Machin what he asks to join the rugby team.

A semi-articulate brute, Machin swaggers with the status his rugby prowess gives him, but he's attracted to Margaret, in whom he senses another broken soul. She smiles only a few times in the entire film, emotionally ravaged by her husband's death (she polishes his work-boots every evening), unwilling to open her heart again.

Machin, a child himself in some ways, is good to her children, but Hammond is wary of his brutish nature - he hits her a couple of times, and once nearly rapes her.  Still, you think they could work it out, until the evening he takes her out in a new fur coat to a fancy restaurant popular with the team's owners. There his boorish behavior embarrasses her, while those his rudeness targets simply ignore him in that chilly English manner which epitomizes class division.

The film has a gritty look: black and white, with the sound of bodies - no helmets, no padding - crunching, blood and mud smearing the players' white shorts and shirts. The camera lingers on Harris' flat forehead and hawk nose, the pensive strained beauty of Rachel Roberts, the hemmed-in landscape of rain-glazed narrow streets or a skyline of roofs studded with chimney-pots against a steely sky.

One of the difficulties of adapting for the screen is the mismatch between the complexity of a novel and the 90 to 120 minutes allotted a movie. Novelist David Storey's screenplay, as too often happens, pursues multiple story-lines to the detriment of the film: Machin's relationship with an older man, "Dad" Johnson (William Hartnell), who supports his ambition, provides a strong thread - until Johnson fades out of the story. Likewise, we see the greed and bloodthirstiness of the team's owners who live vicariously through the brutal sport, and for a while it seems Machin will turn his rough strength on them. But that potential we sense in Machin to defy the circumstances of his life and class, doesn't materialize. He loves Hammond, and perhaps she loves him, but unable to cope with his untamable behavior, she suffers a brain hemorrhage and dies.

Any of these threads could have made a strong story: Machin relying on then finally rejecting Johnson; Machin turning his toughness on Weaver and the other owners; Machin and Hammond trying and failing to connect through love. By pursuing all three, Storey and Anderson leave us dissatisfied.
Still, two powerful performances make this flawed film worth watching: Richard Harris, a cross between Paul Newman's Hud and Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski (or perhaps Johnny in The Wild Ones), plays a feral man who punches his team captain during a scrum while pretending the assault was by an opposing player, yet cavorts happily with Hammond's young children; and Rachel Roberts, a blunt-spoken woman wounded by loss, who puts up a harsh facade to protect herself and her family. These two could heal each other, if the world would leave them alone long enough. But they are trapped in the town where their past looms, and the gossip and contempt of neighbors curdles their intimacy. You want them to break free together, but their entrapment is the essence of their working class lives.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust

A year ago, Fred and I took a Faulkner class from a professor at DU, and were amazed to discover this incomparable writer whose work we'd never delved into. Over the ensuing months we bought a number of his books, and recently read (aloud, to each other) his Nobel Prize winner, Intruder in the Dust. It's only 158 pages (11 chapters) but length is relative.

Hanging his ruminations on a simple plot, Faulkner discourses on race, the legacy of the Civil War, the unity of Man regardless of attitudes or external circumstances, time, society, and the actions of the relatively powerless to utterly transform a tense situation.

In brief, the story is that a solitary and dignified old Negro, Lucas Beauchamp, whose grandmother was a slave and grandfather her owner, is jailed as the murderer of a poor white man from the up-county woods. Lucas refuses to defend himself by telling what he knows, and a lynch mob quickly forms outside the jail. A pair of sixteen-year old boys - one black, the other (our narrator) white - and an old white woman go out to the churchyard that night where the dead man has been interred, to dig him up to prove that Lucas' pistol did not kill him.

But things are not as they seemed to be, and over the course of a day, night, and the following day, the boy demonstrates courage, persistence and mettle, learning plenty about his fellow humans into the bargain.

In post-World War II Mississippi, some things have changed while many have not. The country people's poverty and racism have scarcely budged in a century, and white men take it as their right to rise up against any black man who dares look them in the eye. At the same time, attitudes among the townsfolk have evolved, to a degree. Yet none of the powerful will take action until the word of a venerable and proper white spinster requires them to.

Faulkner's sentences (some a page and a half long) can hardly be diagrammed - they are thickets into which you follow a route apparently through, but in a meandering way so compounded with digression that by the time the longed-for period arrives, you just have to stop and marvel that you got to the end (but where are you now?). Just a short sample:

"Charley. Go back and finish your breakfast. Paralee isn't feeling well this morning and she doesn't want to be all day getting dinner ready:" then to him - the fond constant familiar face which he had known all his life and therefore could neither have described it so that a stranger could recognise it nor recognise it himself from anyone's description but only brisk calm and even a little inattentive now, the wail a wail only because of the ancient used habit of its verbiage: "You haven't washed your face:" nor even pausing to see if he followed, on up the stairs and into the bathroom, even turning on the tap and putting the soap into his hands and standing with the towel open and waiting, the familiar face wearing the familiar expression of amazement and protest and anxiety and invincible repudiation which it had worn all his life each time he had done anything removing him one more step from infancy, from childhood: when his uncle had given him the Shetland pony someone had taught to take eighteen- and twenty-four-inch jumps and when his father had given him the first actual powder-shooting gun and the afternoon when the groom delivered Highboy in the truck and he got up for the first time and Highboy stood on his hind legs and her scream and the groom's calm voice saying, "Hit him hard over the head when he does that. You dont want him falling over backward on you" but the muscles merely falling into the old expression through inattention and long usage as her voice had merely chosen by inattention and usage the long-worn verbiage of wailing because there was something else in it now - the same thing which had been there in the car that afternoon when she said, "Your arm doesn't hurt at all now does it?" and on the other afternoon when his father came home and found him jumping Highboy over the concrete watertrough in the lot, his mother leaning on the fence watching and his father's fury of relief and anger and his mother's calm voice this time: "Why not? The trough isn't near as tall as that flimsy fence-thing you bought him that isn't even nailed together:" so that even dull for sleep he recognised it and turned his face and hands dripping and cried at her in amazed and incredulous outrage: "You aint going too! You can't go!" then even dull for sleep realising the fatuous naivete of anyone using cant on her on any subject and so playing his last desperate card: "If you go, then I wont! You hear me? I won't go!"
"Dry your face and comb your hair," she said. "Then come on down and drink your coffee."

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Earrings of Madame de...

The exquisite 1953 Max Ophuls film The Earrings of Madame de... follows the trail of a pair of earrings from emblems of superficiality, to symbols of deception, betrayal, and finally of genuine love. The Countess Madame de... (Danielle Darrieux) and her husband the General (Charles Boyer) live in the upper reaches of Paris society, their evenings a round of operas, galas and sumptuous parties. She incurs a gambling debt and cannot bring herself to ask her husband for the money, so she pawns the pair of diamond earrings he gave her as a wedding present. And thus this peripatetic jewelry begins its travels.

On a trip across the Continent, the Countess crosses paths with suave Italian diplomat Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica), who contrives a carriage collision to meet her. In one long magnificent tracking shot, Ophuls shows the pair waltzing, through 6 costume changes, their relationship deepening from flirtation to fondness to amour, ending the final dance only after a servant is snuffing out the candles and the musicians are packing up.

When she returns to Paris, the General, who could tolerate a harmless affair, observes the pair's strong feelings and sends her away to get over it, but she's restless, moody, torn - in short, she is deeply in love. Daily the Baron sends letters to all the possible places one might find her, and she reads them all and tears up her replies. Those fragments thrown from a train window become a snowstorm of longing...

The General wants his wife back as the coquettish companion of his social calls, but by now she is bedridden, consumed with grief and yearning, violating her part of the pact of a high-ranking couple. The earrings she so readily pawned as her husband's wedding gift, become as a memento from the Baron the objects most precious to her.

Boyer plays magnificently a man accustomed to power, who nevertheless tries to reason with his wife, to draw her back to the life they once shared. De Sica, for his part, shows us how the stirrings of heart disrupt even the smoothest man, making him clumsy, impatient and forgetful of all but his love. And Darrieux's beauty transforms from the glittery surface of a society lady, to an inner beauty revealed by love. A comic touch is provided by the jeweler Remy (Jean Debucourt) who buys and sells the earrings an absurd number of times under changing circumstances.

As the earrings travel in concentric circles inward, from mere tokens of wealth to items of real value, so too does the Countess mature from a careless childlike flirt to a woman of great feeling, transformed utterly by love.

This is one of the most beautiful stirring films ever made. The small screen cannot do justice to the beauty of Ophuls' visuals - ask your local movie-house to show it.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wolf Hall book review

Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and no wonder. She weaves together history and the inner life of a self-made man at a pivotal moment in England's history, creating a rich tapestry of the human desires that reordered an era. If you're familiar with Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, a hagiography of Sir Thomas More, this is its verso. More was the brilliant, humble, moral lawyer who as Chancellor chose silence and death rather than defy his king or deny his church, when Henry VIII was casting off his 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn, with whom he hoped to produce an heir to his throne. Churchmen, scholars, diplomats and schemers all worked to give Henry what he wanted, while loyalists to the Pope, the French emperor, and Katherine and her parents (Phillip and Isabella of Spain) resisted. Civil war was not out of the question.

Mantel's hero, however, is Thomas Cromwell. In Bolt's play he is a lout whose power stems from blackmail, and whose web reaches far. But in Mantel's intimate characterization, Cromwell, a blacksmith's son, has the instincts of a born politician. Fleeing a violent father, the boy makes himself useful to people in the fabric trade, and living in Europe becomes fluent in many languages. With no illusions about the nobility of man, he applies Machiavellian principles to achieve his aims. He is observant, a good listener, and cultivates a memory system that proves invaluable as he moves into the rarefied worlds of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves steadfastly, then Henry, Anne Boleyn and her court, Katherine, churchmen, even More despite their differences. Conversations with friends and foes alike are witty, barbed and productive.

Mantel's great achievement is that for the eight years of the story's focus, 1527 - 1535, we live in Cromwell's skin with him. He never fails to note the fabric worn by those around him, we feel deeply the deaths of his wife and daughters to "the summer sweats", a devastating illness in which a person goes to bed in the morning feeling bad, and is dead by sundown. We see the satisfaction he takes in bringing young men into his large household, guiding them and setting them on productive paths. He also takes in strays: the widow and children of his brother; a pregnant young woman whose abusive husband has abandoned her and their two small children ; a French youth with bloodthirsty inclinations. He buys the loyalty of servants in his enemies' households, to keep track of their doings.
He is the King's adviser because while he is soothing in how he imparts bad news, he doesn't hide the facts. Henry trusts him, and we feel he should, because here is a man who is his loyal subject, who will bend his will and use his connections to get him what he wants.

And perhaps because he is immune to Boleyn's charms, he earns her confidence as well. The aristocracy scorn him for his low origins - though he says very little about his childhood, claiming not to know even what year he was born - but they also fear him: he is a shrewd investor while they squander money they assume they have, and it unnerves them to see in high precincts a man who gained power and position without bloodlines.

Cromwell is depicted as a generous man, loving husband and father, always on the lookout for the welfare of those under his protection. More, on the other hand, oversees the torture of those he regards as heretics, belittles his own wife in her presence, and is as parsimonious as Cromwell is open-handed. Between Bolt's story and Mantel's one must wonder, Who were these titans of reason really?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: John Crowley's Four Freedoms

John Crowley explores mind, body, spirit and human society through intriguing individuals. He's unafraid of coincidence, magic, or mystery, every person enmeshed in a life that constricts in some ways but exalts in others.

His 2009 novel Four Freedoms is about World War II America.
"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way-- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world."
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress, January 6, 1941

Roosevelt's optimistic assertion is not enough to transform the status quo, but in combination with America's shift to a wartime economy and the removal of white men, drafted and sent overseas, from their accustomed dominance, it adds impetus to a sea-change. Marginalized people - cripples, minorities and women - are suddenly wanted, and paid, to step into the vacancies - and so they flower, and thrive, and find fulfillment far outside their accustomed niches.

We follow Prosper Olander, a young man with a twisted spine and useless legs, who journeys from Chicago to an airplane factory in Oklahoma. This factory, the creation of a pair of brothers long fascinated by flight, is a self-contained village: houses and streets, clinics, child care, a newspaper, cafeterias and entertainment - an ideal community dedicated to war materiel. Its round-the-clock workforce have come from all over the country to earn top wages. Most are women, many married to servicemen but others single, excelling at work they've never before been allowed to do.

Crowley's story flows from one character to another, into their lives and thoughts. We learn important moments in their histories, we see how love and loss have blunted them, and we watch as they form alliances then break them. Prosper, though crippled, attracts certain women, and proves a simpatico and able lover, a catalyst who makes them consider a more open future.

This book is primarily about women: Prosper's father left when he was small, his struggling mother fell ill, he grew up with a pair of maiden aunts. Meanwhile, the women he meets are on their own in ways unthinkable just a few years before, their resourcefulness surprising not just to them but to society at large. One is a standout softball pitcher, another a young mother who becomes a highly competent inspector in the factory.

Crowley fully evokes wartime: the way ramped-up military manufacturing ended the Depression; the rationing of food, gasoline, and other resources; the sounds, smells and habits of an era. Changing circumstances shook society into motion: new places, new roles, new confidence. The weakening of the family gave rise to individual success, and like-mindedness trumped blood ties as people sought personal freedom within relationships. By ending the story after V-E Day but before the servicemen come home, he leaves us with a hopeful vision of America's future - along with the realization that in every era greatness is squandered, and we permit or maybe even welcome the fetters of the past.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, Fare Well

I first encountered Roger Ebert forty years ago at University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs. He came every year with a movie, and sitting by the stop-action 16 mm projector in the 150-seat theater, he would spend an hour a day over the 5 days of the conference screening the film, stopping the scene every time he or another audience member had an observation to make.

It was a conversation in the dark - no need for shyness - and he shared his deep knowledge and genuine delight in the ways a movie engages us to tell its story. Color, lighting, depth of focus, which direction characters are facing, lines of perspective, use of sound, camera motion or stillness, closeups and long shots, image motifs, rapid cuts or continuity, the ways the director develops themes and uses plot structures -- he, and we, explored and talked about it all.

Some years later, when I lived in the DC area, I was fortunate to attend a similar movie-in-depth, the subject being Citizen Kane.  Again, in the companionship of darkness and our collective love of film, we talked for hours about frame after frame, from Orson Welles' camera angles that included ceilings, to the lengthening table that illustrated in a quick succession of shots the estrangement of Charles Foster Kane and his wife, to the rich palette of his black-and-white creation.

Roger knew so much about this relatively young art form, but he didn't just love high-born films - he loved movies too: Swamp Thing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High - he admired craft and a well-told story, whether the intention was to explore universal themes or just to entertain.

Roger, thank you so much for opening our eyes!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is a guilty pleasure for me - her books are such easy reads that surely something's wrong with them. I started some years ago - the first I really remember is Ladder of Years, about a woman who walks away from her family during a trip to the beach, goes to the next town, and sets herself up: a rented room, a job, a routine. From that distance she communicates with her bewildered husband and children. I liked it because what mom hasn't enjoyed the fantasy of just leaving, pulling the rug from beneath her family's expectations of her? Imagine the family car suddenly having a mind of its own, and instead of schlepping on errands, taking off for parts unknown just for the change.

Then I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and began to know Tyler's milieu - the eccentric (which means off-center) characters who bumble through life trying to be fair, trying to understand a world that fails them, trying to reconcile their own histories with who they think they should be.

Tonight I finished Digging to America, a rumination on what America is, what makes a person American, and the nature of outsiders. Two Korean baby girls arrive on the same flight to Baltimore's airport, each met by her adoptive family. Because the Americans are loud and inclusive, they pull the Iranians into association which becomes friendship. The two extended families are full of ideas about each other, assigning cultural attributes based on peeping through this window onto others' lives. They're often comical, sometimes offensive (and offended), but as their lives intertwine they become just people, close in the way family members are: a source of irritation, but like a grove of bamboo, connected underground.

Tyler's a best-selling author, which suggests that eccentricity is a refuge for many readers: a place to contemplate and make peace with our own oddities, and to come away more tolerant of others' foibles. Much light fiction is escapist: science fiction, spy stories, steampunk, vampires, a school for wizards, mysteries in which we can read at a happy distance about someone else's fatal problems. But she writes another kind of novel: reflective, in which rather than forgetting our own lives in favor of those more glamorous and dangerous, we find the poetry and humor in ourselves. And appreciate ourselves more, as she exalts failings by showing the humanity and compassion that precipitate them. Her characters may not be swashbucklers, but by their own measure they dare, and sometimes succeed. And she is kind: the highest achievement in her books is the growth and recognition of love.

If I were teaching high school English, she'd be on my reading list. Her characters don't outgrow oddity, they learn to flourish within it - surely that would be a comfort to a fifteen-year-old who's pretty sure no one understands.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

A primary benefit of being in a book group is reading works one would never know of. Such is my experience with Tan Twan Eng's saga The Gift of Rain. This novel explores Malaysia in the years preceding and during WWII, as the Japanese prepare then execute their invasion.
The Gift of Rain is told in two parts. Book 1, set before the war, lays out for us the multicultural milieu primarily of Penang, a small island off the Malay coast opposite Sumatra. In flashback we learn the story of protagonist Philip Hutton, youngest son of a British industrialist by his second wife, a Chinese woman who forsook her family to marry, then died while their child was seven. The youth's two brothers and sister, from their father's first marriage, are estranged from him to varying degrees - like Penang, Philip is an island. When he's about eighteen he meets a Japanese gentleman who practices aikijutsu, an early form of the martial art aikido. Endo-san takes him under his tutelage, where Philip learns Japanese as well. Aikido differs from the other martial arts in its core belief that violence is a result of being out of harmony, and the proper response is not to react with violence but to use the attacker's energy to restore harmony. This ideal is not only at the heart of what Endo-san has to teach his pupil, it also stands as a metaphor for their relationship. Endo-san travels up and down the Malay coast, sometimes with Philip, who unwittingly provides him a great deal of information which later becomes useful to the invading Japanese.

Book 2 is about the war, and where there was much lightness in the first section, now all turns dark. When the Japanese invade China, the rape of Nanking horrifies everyone, and the local Chinese population swells with refugees. Endo-san is regarded with suspicion, as is Philip for spending time with him. Once the Japanese take over Penang, Endo-san openly works for the Imperial Command, and Philip collaborates, translating for them. Most stories featuring collaborators are told from their victims' point of view - it is fascinating to view such actions from the inside, watching a naive young man try to do something he considers honorable (save his family) while enabling atrocities.
Tan Twan Eng's language is often beautiful as he describes the peoples and cities of Malaysia, and the dilemma he explores is a wrenching one. Philip's lack of perception about Endo-san's presence in Penang may annoy some readers - but he's obviously in love with his mentor, and love is famously blind. Though the story delivers him a measure of comeuppance, the very fact of his survival may prove unacceptable to those who have been on the receiving end of that combination of passivity, naivete and fear that mark a collaborator. The road to hell is paved indeed with the best intentions.

The novel explores the questions of fate and past lives. Though Philip rejects the idea of reincarnation, ultimately he falls back on it as some small justification for things he has done. Certainly he suffers, but not as much as those betrayed by his choice to make himself a tool. Ultimately, it is only through the broad view that humans are flawed and deserving of forgiveness, that I am willing to think of Philip with anything but contempt.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is the most precise writer since Henry James. Where he carries the reader to the heart of his observation in a closing spiral of phrases set off by commas, Lively offers carefully-spun details, the particulars of work and relationships. And where James offers a Pointillist view of his subject, those dots of deliberately expressed color coalescing at a distance into an image, Lively weaves in tapestry fashion - these threads, these shadings - from which patterns emerge, become vivid; yet, a few more passes of the shuttle subtly change what we see. And when she is finished, Ah. We know she's done, every thread has been incorporated, nothing remains to say, the picture is complete.

Lively's novel The Photograph begins straightforwardly enough: Glyn, a landscape historian rummaging through old papers in his closet, discovers an envelope he's never seen. The photo inside is of a group of people: his wife Kath, her sister, her sister's husband, a woman friend and her man friend. And his wife and her brother-in-law are holding hands in an intimate clasp, unseen except by the camera. Kath has been dead some years - how can this revelation make a difference now? And yet, as Glyn confronts those in the photo with its evidence, one person after another finds life shaken from its moorings. This sylph with her vital glow revisits them all, undoing their certainties, reasserting the mystery that surrounded her.

Lively uses her found-object catalyst to examine people's relations to work, to family, to friendship, to the entire range of emotions from dissatisfaction and jealousy to the full storm of love.

This slight novel, 231 pages, pulls no punches, employs no gimmicks, promises nothing it does not deliver. We are in the hands of a master. There is no bombast, only the struggles and escapes familiar to us all, directed and pointed to illuminate a life. If you appreciate clear simple language which lays bare the hidden heart in all its complexity, you should read this fine book.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, begun in the 1920's and still in some draft version when he died in 1940, is nevertheless a masterpiece.

Four stories entwine in the narrative: the devil visits Moscow with his retinue, predicting to the editor of a literary journal the improbable circumstances of his death. Satan's presence soon leads to overcrowding in the mental hospital as people babble about impossible occurrences. The second story, a novel rejected by Soviet publishers, recounts Pontius Pilate's days during and immediately following the crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Nozri. The novelist, despairing of a life of fruitless endeavor, throws the manuscript into his stove, but as the devil remarks, "manuscripts are not so easily destroyed." We're given a taste of life in Moscow, among theater-goers and at a large restaurant frequented by writers and poets. And the author of Pilate's story, the Master, is the lover of Margarita, a woman of strong will and courage who makes a pact with the demons in order to bring peace to the man she loves.

In the satiric vein of Gogol, whose comic novella The Nose ridicules bureaucratic self-importance, Bulgakov's devil plays with people's greed and vanity. Booked for a magic show at the city's largest theater, the devil materializes a boutique and invites women to come try on - and keep - the lovely gowns and shoes. They hurry in, shedding their own clothes, dressing in finery. He flings money at the audience, who scramble to collect the notes. After the performance's abrupt end the crowd leaves the theater, only to find their new clothes vanished and the money worthless. A thousand women in the streets in their underwear must of course attract attention, but since the truth - that magic has been practiced - is impossible, officials deny the reports. They ascribe the sight to mass hypnosis, just one of the author's digs at the lockstep mentality of Stalin's time.

Bulgakov fought obscurity and the censors, and he portrays officialdom as selfish, incompetent and short-sighted. Likewise, the literati ignore the poet who witnessed the editor's bizarre death; from his room in the mental hospital he struggles to convince anyone of what he's seen. 
Something strange happened to [the poet] Ivan Nikolayevitch. His will seemed to crack, and he felt weak and in need of advice. 
"But what is to be done?" he asked timidly.
This is the famous question posed by Lenin during the Revolution, and coming from this poet who mistrusts his own senses, it strikes an absurd and pitiful note in contrast to the thundering challenge issued by Soviet Russia's hero. Small wonder the novel didn't see publication until 1966.

The chaos sown by the devil and his henchmen is wild and fantastical. Scoundrels inflict their bombast and corruption on other scoundrels, and bureaucrats scurry to gather evidence they refuse to believe, while credulous men populate the mental hospital - the perpetrators do not strike us as evil. Rather, they have come to torment the pompous and reveal the idiocy of fools - we could wish for such powers!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Dovekeepers

Alice Hoffman's novel The Dovekeepers recounts the story of the Jews of Masada in 73 CE (Common Era, aka AD) who resisted the Roman army, dying in martyrdom rather than be slaughtered by their enemies or taken into slavery.
Through the first-person narratives of four unusual women she recreates the disparate events that brought refugees, warriors and the devout to the nearly inaccessible mountaintop palace built for King Herod centuries before.

Yael, whose voice we first hear, is an assassin's daughter who flees Jerusalem with her father as the Romans conquer that city and destroy the Second Temple. They survive in the desert, a fitting locale for a fierce woman whose element is fire, and who identifies with the lion, ruler of the hottest summer month. They seek her brother Amram, a warrior, and follow rumor of him, finding him finally in Masada where he is a man of renown. In that city she joins the other women who care for the doves, gathering the birds' dung to fertilize the fields and orchards that make the redoubt a place of plenty.

Next we meet Revka, widow of a baker, refugee with her daughter, son-in-law and young grandsons from the sacking of their village. Unaccustomed to the dangers surrounding them, they linger at an oasis where the boys and Revka bear witness as renegade soldiers rape and murder her daughter, while her son-in-law is out praying - for it is Yom Kippur. Revka later poisons the soldiers, but their deeds cannot be undone. When her son-in-law returns he goes mad, and the four of them journey on to Masada where his only desire is to join the warriors there, and kill. The boys are struck mute by the horrors they have seen, and Revka only wills herself to live so she can care for them. The dovekeepers when they arrive are Shirah, a woman from Alexandria, and her two daughters, Aziza and Nahara. 

The third portion of the book is narrated by Aziza, sixteen when she begins her story. Her mother's eldest, she does not know her father. Her sister and brother are children of a chieftain from Judea, one of a tribe of bloodthirsty horsemen who raid caravans crossing the desert. This chieftain honors Shirah though he purchased her, and raises Aziza to ride and hunt. The girl, whose element is steel, loves the ways of men. Once her mother declares she has a signal from her lover, the family slips away in the chieftain's absence to the shores of the Dead Sea, buying passage. Once across, they make their way to Masada. There Aziza attracts the eye of Amram, Yael's brother - but it is an escaped Roman slave brought by a raiding party to the fortress and put to work (still a slave) assisting the dovekeepers, who understands her skill with weapons and teaches her archery. She lives a double life: as a woman, restricted in her actions; and as a warrior, dressed as a youth, a deadly shot and fearless but unable to reveal her identity.

At last we hear Shirah's voice. She is a witch and prophetess whose element is water, taught several languages along with knowledge of herbs, spells and divining by her mother, who sent her from Alexandria at thirteen to be safe with kinsmen. There she falls in love with her cousin, who later becomes the charismatic figure inspiring the people of Masada to live in relative equality - men and women are treated differently, but there are no rich and poor - all share in bounty and starvation alike, devoted to God. Eleazar and Shirah have loved each other since they met, though he is married already. When she is discovered to be pregnant - and unwed - she is cast out of his household, from whence she falls in with the chieftain. She brings her children to Masada so she can be near her love; here she is feared and hated, though individually women seek her out for help in securing a man's love, curing ailments or easing childbirth.

As each tells her story, we move closer to the Roman army's siege of Masada and the martyrdom of the 900 Jews who defended it until they were overwhelmed. There is much in this book that is grim and brutal, and none of the characters have clean hands except the Essenes, a nonviolent sect anticipating the end of this world, who eschew possessions except the scrolls they copy to leave buried in jars in different places: the Dead Sea scrolls. The Romans do not spare them, but their writings survive in hiding.

There are fanciful elements to the novel: a cloak of invisibility used by the assassin; a woman who faces down a lion and a leopard unscathed; a witch who can summon a deluge; a slave kept useless in chains for months while his keepers starve; the convenience with which characters' paths diverge and reconnect and destinies are sorted out. And the editor in me finds Hoffman's redundancy exasperating - in succeeding paragraphs she tells and retells the same moments, as though she doubts the reader's attention. Nevertheless, she's done her research, and though I'm no historian, in the main I trust her recounting of this group's rebellion against Rome, their courage and struggle to survive, and in the end their accord, their willingness to die at each other's hand not the Romans'. Hoffman has brought history to life with her strong characters and visceral imagery.