Showing 1 - 10 of 14 annotations contributed by Trachtman, Howard

Behold the Dreamers

Mbue, Imbolo

Last Updated: Jul-05-2022
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the basement of the apartment building where I live, down the hall from the small exercise room, there are two plain wooden bookcases. Each one has five shelves, and they are filled to overflowing with books that people have finished reading and that are now available for the taking. The books cover the gamut of fiction to history to self-help and everything in between. Under pressure to unclutter our apartment, I have added about 30 books to this library. The books do not come with any recommendation and so there is no way to know if the original owners liked the book or got rid of it because they could not get passed the first chapter. I am a frequent borrower. About two weeks ago, I scanned the shelves again and on one of the lower shelves, I noticed this book by Imbolo Mbue. I remembered that one of her books had been selected by the editors of the New York Times as one of the Best Books of the year 2021 so I picked up this earlier book. Two weeks later, I am here to report that I am glad I did.

The novel is a moving story of two families whose fates get intertwined in the year 2008. One family is a couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, with their 6-year-old son. They have recently come to the United States from Cameroon. They chose to try their luck in New York in the hope of escaping the dreary life that they see in their future if they stayed where they were. The other family, Clark and Cindy Edwards, is a wealthy couple living in a posh apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan. They seem to have it all -- health , wealth, and the freedom to do whatever they want. Clark is a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers, and he interviews Jende for a job as his chauffeur in the opening chapter. Jende gets the job, and it is a game changer for the Jongas. It gives Jende the self-confidence that he is a traditional provider for his family and allows Neni to enroll in school and actualize her goal of becoming a pharmacist. For both of them, they can feel more comfortable with the idea of a growing family. They have received their ticket to the American dream.

However, while the Edwards are the picture of success to all who see them at the glamorous parties and fund raisers they host and attend, there are cracks beneath the surface of their dream life. Clark is working 16-hour days to try to stave off the imminent bankruptcy of Lehman and the financial collapse that will follow in its wake. Cindy is a psychologically traumatized person who struggles to keep her family whole and provide a loving and safe haven for her two sons. Ultimately, Clark is forced to leave Lehman and take up a job at Barclays Bank. His wife suspecting infidelity ultimately succumbs to drug and alcohol abuse. The Jendes lose their financial footing and are forced to confront the question -- where will they be best able to live wholesome lives of meaning and self-worth? They have to decide whether to persevere and try to make things work in New York or whether to return to their native country, Cameroon. The book ends with a question from the Jongas’ older son to his parents, “Home?” Mbue artfully asks this same question to  her readers.

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Summary:

In this age of intellectual sub-sub-sub-specialization, it would be unfair to say that people have completely abandoned grand narratives in their discipline. There are still brave souls who are willing to take on the big picture and try to synthesize what is known in their field as well as allied areas into a cohesive all-encompassing story. Stephen Pinker is a prominent example of someone who has leveraged his expertise in psychology and linguistics to fashion upbeat histories of humanity. But it would be fair to say that it is unusual to encounter a book that takes on the world and confidently asserts, “I think you have it all wrong.” To possibly be correct in the claim would be rarer still. This book by Graeber and Wengrow falls squarely into that small category.

The book has a bittersweet back story that only adds to its appeal. It represents the result of a decade long collaboration between Graebner, an anthropologist, and Wengrow, an archeologist. It originally started as pure academic fun between two colleagues but quickly escalated into a serious dialogue that culminated in a book with 83 pages of notes and a 63-page bibliography. Sadly, Graeber died unexpectedly at age 59 of necrotizing pancreatitis shortly after completing the work and did not live to see its publication.

The book has attracted a great deal of attention because it takes on the accepted grand narrative of human development, namely, a linear evolution from a primordial state of innocence and equality to a society in which hierarchy and inequality are hard wired into existence. The key step in this transition is the move from small groups of hunter-gatherers to agriculture-based groups that gradually grew in size and became more centralized in structure. This resulted in the prioritization of private property and the consolidation of the population into cities that mandated top-down control. Regardless of whether you invoke Rousseau as your intellectual guide or Hobbes as your rationalization for a powerful sovereign state, the traditional view is that you will reach the same endpoint, the loss of equality. Graebner and Wengrow challenge this “myth.” Their operational method is to examine the scientifically sophisticated data that have been gathered by archeologists from prehistoric sites around the world. They conclude that the prevailing view shortchanges human inventiveness in framing how people have chosen to live and undermines our freedom to reconsider the way society is organized. As an example of the scope and originality of the book, in the second chapter, they argue that this Enlightenment notion of “noble savages” and steady linear progress may have arisen among the French intelligentsia in the 18th century in response to the interaction of North American Indians with the French in the New World. Heady stuff that you thought you would not have to think about after college.

The book is loaded with facts and details about burial grounds, temples, houses, and playing fields that archeologists and anthropologists use as the ground truth in their work. They document how there was great variability and fluidity in social structure over course of the year in prehistoric times, demonstrating that though men and women could not control their environment they could do their best to adapt by alternating between planting and food gathering before there were “farms.”  In contrast to the view that agricultural groups, with their need for defined plots of land, created the notion of private ownership, they cite real world evidence from places as far flung as Poverty Point in Louisiana to the Australian Western Desert that the sacred realm was the origin of individual possession. They contrast in great detail the lifestyles of communities living along the west coast of North America, in the region from Washington State to northern California. The evidence is clear that while the northern communities were hunter gatherers, patriarchal, more warlike, and more ostentatious, those in the south were characterized by a less showy land-based public sphere and a more peaceful demeanor that was reflected in a greater role of women in defining the activities of daily living and social structure. The communities were not isolated and had contact with one another, underscoring the fact that the ways of life were active choices and not passive default modes. The start of farming was gradual over thousands of years and was not a revolutionary change, and prehistoric communities could switch their mode of sustenance in the face of changing circumstances.

I will not have to take a final examination on the book so I cannot say that I can repeat the names of all the Amerindian communities living in middle America along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers or recount the details of all the artifacts of and rites performed by the Mesoamerican civilizations. Graebner and Wengrow discuss an incredible number and variety of archeological sites throughout Eurasia and Africa, in addition to those in the New World, so I have to take the authors’ recitation of the facts on faith. I am sure that some of their interpretation is open to question by experts in the fields. But Graebner and Wengrow will certainly get you thinking.

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Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary:

When we think of genetics and pedigrees, we expect our traits and characteristics to be passed down in a predictable pattern from parents to children. In his book Far From the Tree , Andrew Solomon labels this transmission from one generation to the next as vertical identity. However, his book focuses on circumstances where inheritance follows what he calls a horizontal pattern. In these cases, the offspring have an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to their parents. They land far from the anticipated spot under the tree canopy and are dramatically different from their parents. He or she must acquire their identity from a peer group that is outside the parents’ experience. One chapter in Solomon’s book focuses on genius as seen through the lens of the violinist Joshua Bell and his family. Most of us would gratefully welcome a child of genius whether in science, architecture, or music and embrace the apple that landed far from the tree. Reading Benjamin Labatut’s riveting book might cause you to rethink this thought experiment.

Nothing will quite prepare you for the literary world that Labatut has invented. It is a unique blend of fact and fantasy, an incremental layering of fictional conceits on known historical details. A stream of people from history pass through the book, some deservedly famous and others more obscure. But all of them are possessed of genius. All of the characters lived through the turbulent first third of the 20th century when quantum mechanics revolutionized the traditional understanding of physics. They confronted the challenge that this new knowledge presented to the grand view that people had held about how the universe was designed and operated.

The book opens with Fritz Haber, whose research on nitrogen fixation chemical reactions provided the basis for the production of fertilizers, pesticides and explosives. Haber’s work had diametrically opposite effects on the course of history. On the one hand, he enabled dramatic increases in agricultural crop yields and prevented global hunger. At the same time, his discoveries increased the carnage in World War I and yielded compounds that led to innumerable deaths by asphyxiation in the trenches in no-man’s land and, later, in the Nazi death camps. There is Karl Schwarzschild who was able to solve Einstein’s equations in the general theory of relativity while fighting in the German front lines during World War I. He identified the potential existence of black holes, Schwarzschild singularities, long before Stephen Hawking made them famous. Alexander Grothendieck, considered the most influential mathematician of the last hundred years, also passes through the pages of Labatut’s book. After an extraordinarily creative career in which he totally upended established concepts in geometry and number theory and other mathematical fields, he ended up abandoning his life’s work. He devoted himself to Buddhism and, retreating to a secluded village in the Pyrenees, he lived out his last years alone and unrecognized. Erwin Schrodinger is forced to enter a Swiss sanatorium to convalesce from tuberculosis. While there, under the influence of a teenage girl similarly afflicted with tuberculosis, he derives his wave equation and the Psi function to explain the wave-particle duality of light and matter. Even Schrodinger is perplexed by this discovery. He cannot reconcile himself fully to the truths of quantum mechanics and spends the rest of his scientific life trying to unify it with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Finally, towering over the narrative is Werner Heisenberg. He agonizes over the discrepancy between the Newtonian physics that he has learned in the university and what he is uncovering in his research into the subatomic realm. He is overcome in a semi-mystical vision and articulates the uncertainty principle. Heisenberg realized that his matrix mathematics put an end to the stable universe created by the Enlightenment in which everything is governed by rational laws of nature and observable cause and effect.

By focusing on these men (sadly, not a woman among them) of uncommon genius, Labatut vividly illustrates how the gift of deep insight drives intense scientific creativity but also agonizing psychic pain. It is as if the awareness of hidden truths is inextricably linked to human suffering. This summary may sound pedantic and unbearably heavy. Only if you enter into Labatut’s unique literary space will you appreciate the inventiveness and intelligence of this overpowering book, all 191 pages of it. It is well worth the trip.

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Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The Graduate is a movie classic from what seems like a bygone era. It is accompanied by great music by Simon and Garfunkel and has one of the most famous one-word lines in cinema history. When Benjamin Braddock is wandering aimlessly around the pool at a graduation party thrown in his honor, a friend of his parents asks him what he plans to do with his post-collegiate life. Another family friend jumps in and volunteers, “Plastics.” There are many who will also give a one-word answer to any medical school graduate searching for a career – Genetics.

In this important new book,  Kathryn Harden provides staunch support for the key role of genetics in health, disease, and in human well-being. She provides a remarkably clear primer on genetics in accessible language. Harden begins with statistical issues like the normal distribution and Bayesian priors. In her capable intellectual hands, she uses analogies that effectively move the teaching agenda forward. With recipes as a framing image for genetics, she demonstrates the relationship between the coding material in the DNA nucleotide sequence and the actual building blocks, namely the proteins that do the heavy lifting inside cells. Concepts like genetic recombination, linkage disequilibrium, and monogenic versus polygenic disorders are introduced and make perfect sense. She then builds on this foundation to consider genome-wide association studies (GWAS) which represent the powerful tool that has been introduced to explore the relationship between genetic endowment and health. That is where things start getting complicated.

When people think of medical genetics, they usually have classical Mendelian disorders in mind. They are caused by mutations in a single gene that disrupts a protein pivotal to normal health. Examples are sickle cell disease, hemophilia A, or muscular dystrophy. However, many health problems like hypertension that are associated with significant global disease burden are polygenic. This means that they are caused by less dramatic mutations in a number of genes that in the aggregate lead to the disease.  Harden details how quantitative assessment of the contribution of these minor variations in a large array of discrete genes enables the formulation of polygenic risk scores (PRS) for these conditions. These measures provide estimates of susceptibility to developing other polygenic conditions like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

As a psychologist, Harden’s work focuses on the application of PRS to non-medical aspects of human behavior such as impulsivity, attentiveness, job satisfaction, and executive function. The waters remain relatively calm until Harden’s fellow psychologists venture into the realm of educational achievement and lifetime income status. Harden methodically reviews relevant studies that have been done with siblings, twins, adoptees, and family trios. She dissects them and highlights when investigators have misinterpreted their data. There is a steady drumbeat of data, almost too much at times. But the overall consensus that emerges is that PRS and other measures of heritability continue to show a genetic component for these psychosocial outcomes in large population studies. The challenge that Harden raises is how to incorporate this knowledge about genetics into a better understanding of these aspects of human behavior and if and how to address abnormal manifestations.

Questions remain concerning how genetics “causes” these changes and how to interpret the findings. What is determinative? Is it genetics i.e., nature, or is it all environment i.e., nurture? There are those, like Harden, who advocate for thoughtful analysis and utilization of all the GWAS data. She highlights the difference between use of PRS to assess outcomes within populations versus between populations. In sharp contrast, there are others who resist  the introduction of genetics into psychology. Pointing to the sordid history of eugenics and its degeneration into the creation of racial hierarchies, the opponents of the Harden’s work dismiss it as unscientific at best and destructive at worst. Harden makes a compelling case for the validity of the science and a spirited defense of the thoughtful use of genetics dismiss it as unscientific at best and morally repugnant at worst.

Harden provides a strong defense of the science and statistical methods and offers a spirited argument that without acknowledging the role of genetics in human achievement, society will be unable to thoughtfully address inequalities and restore balance. Her work touches on many other pressing issues including human autonomy, agency, freewill and the role of government intervention. She outlines a social agenda that acknowledges the importance of genetics as a contributing factor. But it incorporates a recognition that its distribution in the population is solely a matter of luck and does not serve as the basis for a hierarchy of human worth. I leave it to readers to judge for themselves the validity of her proposals, but her commitment to making this world a better place is not in question.

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Bewilderment

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Dec-20-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Science is a fundamental part of modern reality. It is used to explain the workings of the world around us and is instrumental in making that world a more hospitable place to live in. There are those who assert that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. They advocate considering science and religion as parallel but not intersecting ways to understand the place and purpose of human beings. What about science and art?  Or science and literature? Can they peacefully co-exist? Richard Powers is an author who has dedicated his literary career life to the proposition that they can.

In his latest book, Bewilderment, he examines the question whether neurobiology can help people achieve empathy, potentially even merge with another person. Theo is an astrobiologist, someone whose job is to explore the conditions on the many planets in the universe and to determine if they are able to support any form of life, but especially human life. The underlying premise is that there are bacteria, fungi, and animals that can live under very extreme circumstances on Earth. So even if other planets have different atmospheres, ambient temperature, water, or chemical elements, Earth should not be the only planet with life.

Theo’s wife, Alyssa, has recently died in a car accident and he is still grieving the loss. She was pregnant at the time, and the accident occurred when she lost control of her car when trying not to run over an animal on the road (more on this in a minute).  Theo has one son, Robin, who is very bright but on the autism spectrum with significant anger issues. The father and son are fiercely connected and share their lives; the early part of the book beautifully describes a camping trip that they take together. But Theo has his hands full with Robin. In order to avoid medicating his son, Theo enrolls him in an experimental program, Decoded Neurofeedback  (abbreviated DecNef, like any DARPA-sounding program). The experimental study will enable Robin to control his emotions better. This would be accomplished by capturing his mother’s brain waves in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The pattern of her neural activity, which reflected her intense love of animals and nature, would provide a template that could be channeled into her son using feedback methods. The objective of the experiment  is to convert Robin into a more sensitive child who is more attuned to the world around him. Robin is remarkably responsive to the sessions, more so than any other participant, and he becomes someone who has the same warmth and protective feelings towards animals and the environment as his mother. But funding for the project is terminated, Robin’s fMRI sessions stop, and he gradually reverts back to the child he was. There is a final twist. But I leave that to those who are motivated by this annotation to read the book.

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Summary:

1971 seems like a very long time ago. Richard Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was still raging, and China and Russia were the sworn enemies of the United States. Fifty years have passed, and at first blush, the world seems like a different place. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they can stay the same.

One of the most horrifying events of that year was the prisoner revolt at the Attica State Prison in upstate New York in early September. I did not live in New York at the time and have only a vague recollection of reading the newspaper reports of what happened. But ask anyone living in New York who was at least 15 years old at the time and they will tell you that they have vivid memories of what transpired over the five days from September 9-13. In this extraordinary book, Heather Ann Thompson recounts in all its gory detail the prisoner uprising, the bloody retaking of the prison by state troopers, and the nearly thirty years of investigation and legal wrangling that occurred in its wake.

By the late summer of 1971, there had been prisoner rebellions in state penitentiaries across the country including a nearby high security facility in Auburn NY. There was increasing tension and escalating prisoner protests against the inhumane conditions in all prisons including overcrowded cells, limited access to food and fresh air, and routine brutal treatment at the hands of the correction officers. Finally, Attica prison erupted on September 9 after a minor skirmish between guards and prisoners. The prisoners took 38 hostages and over a thousand prisoners escaped their cells and crowded into the prison yard. They created a communal space to take care of each other that was equipped with meager resources. There was a central meeting area for the leaders of the uprising. They created a human shield around the hostages to protect them from harm.

Over the next four days, there were intense negotiations between prison officials and the prisoners. A team of observers including Tom Wicker was  bought in at the request of the  prisoners to serve as witnesses and act as potential mediators. Finally, after negotiations fell apart over the prisoner demand for amnesty, without warning, the troopers dropped tear gas cannisters from helicopters and stormed the yard. Tragically, when the  dust had settled, 32 prisoners and 11 hostages had been killed by bullets fired by the troopers. This terrifying sequence of events is described in the first third of the book. The remaining part details how prison wardens destroyed critical forensic evidence and collaborated with state politicians  up the chain to Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s office to portray the events as a successful suppression of a radical-supported attack against the state. They solicited false testimony and pursued a one-sided prosecution of the prisoners for the murder of one guard and several prisoners. There are too many villains in the story but also some true heroes – a coroner who refused to back down from his post-mortem examination showing that all the victims were killed by gunfire, knowing that only the state troopers had firearms. The prisoners who confronted the legal system, defense lawyers willing to take up the cause of the prisoners, a brave state lawyer who was an essential whistleblower, all were vital in the pursuit of truth. At the end, the justice system failed nearly everyone involved, and Attica Prison remained an important part of the New York State correction system. The only monument is a stone at the entrance to the prison memorializing the hostages who died.

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East West Street and Ratline

Sands, Philippe

Last Updated: Jun-28-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

The literature on the Holocaust is vast and has been examined from every angle. One might think that nothing more could be written on the topic or that there could be no new perspectives on this horrific event that occurred less than 100 years ago. But Philippe Sands would prove you wrong. In these two linked books, he tells an extraordinary real life story that combines personal experience and world history into a narrative that is as powerful as any novel.

East West Street is the first in this unplanned sequence of books. It recounts how Sands received an invitation to an academic conference and traveled to Lemberg, Poland (modern-day Lviv, Ukraine), where his family came from. His seemingly clear-cut goal was to understand what happened to his relatives and why his grandfather Leo Buchholz was the only survivor. As he digs deeper into his family’s tragic story, he learns that two men, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, attended the same university in Lemberg as his grandfather and at about the same time after World War I.  The three men did not know each other and Lauterpacht and Lemkin are not household names. However, Sands underscores their importance in coming to grips with the Holocaust and skillfully weaves the two men’s stories together.

As his grandfather struggled to escape the ravages of the German occupation of Europe, Lauterpacht and Lemkin were already thinking about how to punish the Nazis for their wartime crimes. According to international law before these two men arrived on the legal scene, state sovereignty was uncontested and leaders could do whatever they wanted to their citizens without fear of external intervention. Lauterpacht coined the term “crimes against humanity” to provide an international framework to prosecute the Nazi leaders, and Lemkin devised the term “genocide” to create a new crime that transcended national boundaries. Sands describes how these two vastly different men struggled to get their terms incorporated into the formal charges against the Nazis by the team of lawyers that represented the victorious nations at the Nuremberg tribunal. In the course of his investigation, Sands meets Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, who supervised the extermination of the Jewish population in Lemberg and the surrounding area and who was one of the 23 defendants in the Nuremberg trial. Niklas is contrite and rejects his father because of his monstrous crimes. However, he introduces Sands to Horst Wachter, the son of Otto Wachter, Hans Frank’s chief deputy, who was primarily responsible for implementing the Final Solution on the ground.

This is where Ratline picks up the tale. In this sequel, Sands describes in more detail what happened to his own family, while Otto Wachter climbed higher in the Nazi hierarchy. Sands describes Wachter’s growing family and his infidelities. He documents how his wife ignored Otto’s behavior and military activity while benefiting from all the perks that came her way because of her husband’s efficiently murderous success. Wachter was forced to run for his life when the war ended and spent almost a year hiding out in the mountains of central Europe to escape capture. When it appeared safe, he traveled to Rome to take advantage of the “ratline” of the title to escape and find refuge in South America. Through the conniving of Vatican officials, American counterintelligence officers, and others he almost succeeded. But he died in mysterious circumstances before he could leave Rome. There is an extraordinary and logic-defying linkage between the families that comes to light because of Sands’ meticulous detective work, and it rivals anything a screenwriter could dream up.

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Transcendent Kingdom

Gyasi, Yaa

Last Updated: Jun-07-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Can scientists be religious? Is Religion or Science best able to deal with the psychological problems that can arise over a lifetime? Yaa Gyasi’s powerful new book, Transcendent Kingdom, aims to answer these perennial questions. Gifty, the precocious daughter of two Ghanaian immigrants, is the narrator and the main character in this novel. She grows up in Huntsville, Alabama where her parents settled after moving to the United States. Her mother works as home health aide and her father is a manual laborer. Gifty’s older brother, Nana, is a talented athlete who excels in basketball and becomes the leading scorer and star of his high school team. Religion is a key element in the mother’s worldview, and she impresses this on Gifty.  The mother and daughter attend an evangelical church, and both are convinced that they can feel the presence of God, that he speaks to them, and helps guide their life. The father, called the Chin Chin Man, becomes homesick for Ghana and leaves the family to return his birthplace.

With the nuclear family reduced to three and her mother overworking to earn enough to care for her children, young Gifty assumes major responsibility for her older brother, Nana. He suffers an ankle injury during a basketball game. Unfortunately, playing out a common script, he is given a prescription for oxycodone to control the pain. The prescription is renewed and Nana, like so many others in similar situations, becomes addicted and ultimately succumbs to a heroin overdose. The family is now a twosome. In parallel with the family saga, Gifty is a graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford after a successful college career at Harvard. Her mother moves in with her because of extreme depression. Gifty is working on mice using state-of-the-art methods to map the neural pathways that control reward-seeking behavior.  Her research effort is motivated by an attempt to understand her mother, who has almost no reward- seeking behavior due to her depression, and her brother who could not suppress his reward-seeking activity. The story is filled with emotionally wrenching episodes that fill in the details of the main characters. The ending is surprising but provides a satisfying resolution to Gifty‘s approach to life and her challenges with her family members’ experience with overwhelming psychiatric disease.

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Hamnet

O'Farrell, Maggie

Last Updated: Oct-19-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The underlying premise of this engrossing book is the well documented historical fact that William Shakespeare had a young son who died at age 11, relatively early in his father’s theatrical career. The son, named Hamnet, was one of twins born to William and Agnes Hathaway (O’Farrell refers to her as Agnes rather than Ann based on some public records) in 1585. The cause of death is unknown, but O’Farrell imagines that he fell victim to the plague. She weaves an electric narrative that begins with Shakespeare as an educated young man who is a teacher and private tutor to children in Stratford-on-Avon. His relationship with his glove maker father who has fallen on hard times is at a near break point. In the past, Shakespeare’s father had been an important town official but because of a mixture of misguided business deals and bad behaviors, he has become an object of public scorn. His rage at this reversal of fortune is directed at his bookish son. But then, Shakespeare meets Agnes Hathaway. She is 8 years older than William but entrances him with her unconventional personality and her exotic skillset including bee keeping and an uncanny ability to heal people with herbal remedies. They marry and have their first child 6 months later to be followed in short order by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

Agnes recognizes William’s unique potential and supports his choice to leave his family and head off to London to make his name in the theater world. Shakespeare rarely returns home to Stratford, and we only learn of his growing success indirectly. Agnes is forced to raise her children as a single parent and has to deal with her overwhelming grief when Hamnet dies. As she mourns the loss of her son, she is overcome with doubt about the fidelity of her absent husband, and her faith in their marriage is threatened. Ultimately, Agnes is given a playbill featuring the production of a new play written by her husband and she sets off on a trip to London to confront him on his own turf. She arrives uninvited at the Globe Theater in time to witness a performance of the play in which her husband has been able to channel his own grief at the loss of his son into one of the enduring literary works in the Western canon.

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The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Last Updated: May-21-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Historical fiction, the artistic space that exists between actual persons and events and a writer’s imaginative ability to create a new story, is an established genre. The narrative usually is told by someone whose name does not appear in history books but who was a firsthand witness to events as they unfolded and the people who influenced their course. A variant are novels that are written from the perspective of someone who is in fact part of the historical record but is either unappreciated or overlooked. The extraordinary success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Elizabethan novels written in the voice of Thomas Cromwell, a chief minister to King Henry VIII, attests to the appeal of this format. Julie Orringer’s wonderful book “The Flight Portrait,” falls nicely into this category.

The novel is written through the eyes of Varian Fry. His name is not well known today. But he was a well-regarded journalist who wrote from Berlin in The Living Age and the New York Times about Hitler’s savage treatment of the Jews in Germany in the mid-1930s, well before most of the world came to realize the existential threat posed by the Nazi regime. After a brief period in the United States, he returned to Europe in 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Over the next year, with money that he helped raise, Fry was able to help over 2,000 embattled artists, scientists, philosophers, and writers to escape Europe and find safe haven in the US. Among those Fry saved were Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophuls, Arthur Koester and Claude Levi-Strauss. It is hard to imagine the counterfactual, a world deprived of the contribution of these people because they perished in Europe. The novel details the complications, emotional and physical, that Fry, a non-Jew from a wealthy family, endured as he arranged for safe passage across the Pyrenees or by boat out of Marseilles for his anxious petitioners. The fraught negotiations with Vichy officials and the against the grain support he received from some heroic individuals in the US consulate, specifically Hiram Bingham IV, are played across the taut chapters. The title refers to a collection of unique artworks that the artists created to call attention to their plight and help raise funds for the ERC. The tension is palpable, the threat is real, and outcome uncertain until the end. It is an intelligent and engrossing read.

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