Showing 1 - 6 of 6 annotations contributed by Trachtman, Howard

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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Spring

Smith, Ali

Last Updated: Dec-02-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Ali Smith is a Scottish writer. If she lived in the U.S., hopefully (a word I will come back to at the end) she would be a household name. She is 75% through a quartet of novels that are named for the seasons. Each captures the beauty and lightness of Vivaldi’s famous concerto and the heft of T.S. Eliot’s poetic quartets. Spring seamlessly blends brutal reality and a dream-like state. Anchored in the current world, it unfolds in a Brexit obsessed United Kingdom, and yet it incorporates artists, live and dead, ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Rainer Maria Rilke to Tacita Dean. The scope and inventiveness of the writing are staggering.

The plot will sound very odd in a brief summary. Like many modern novels, it incorporates two separate narrative strands that come together somewhat unexpectedly but satisfactorily in the climactic scenes. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Richard Lease, a modestly famous filmmaker who produced some well-regarded highbrow TV shows in the 1970s and 80s. He is considering an offer for a new film project about an imaginary crossing of paths by Rilke and Mansfield in Switzerland in 1922. But Richard is unable to rouse his enthusiasm partly because of misgivings about who he would have to work with. More importantly, he is still not over the recent death of his screenwriter, Patricia Neal or Paddy, who was more than just his artistic partner for four decades. Richard mulls over memories of their work and life together, reliving conversations and episodes that invoke Charlie Chaplin, Beethoven and Shakespeare. He aimlessly boards a train to Scotland. There, in an act of despair, he lowers himself onto the train track in an attempted suicide .

Richard is saved by a magical 12-year old girl, Florence. Although the description is scant, she is preternaturally bright, articulate, and endowed with an inexplicable power to move people to do what she wants. She supposedly was able to enter a restricted Immigrant Retention Center unaccompanied and persuade the supervisor to order a cleanup of the bathrooms for all the detainees. One morning, Florence encounters Brittany Hall, who is on her way to work as a security guard in one of the notorious British detention centers. Her dehumanizing work with the inmates is grinding her down, the degrading surroundings are destroying her soul.  Florence and Brittany end up at a train station and in an impulsive act, Brittany follows Florence onto a departing that is heading off to Scotland. The warm interaction with Florence on the ride awakens Brittany’s submerged feelings of humanity. They end up at the same destination as Richard, and there Florence persuades him to climb back on to the platform and saves his life.  A reinvigorated Richard, Florence and Brittany meet up with another mysterious character, a woman operating a mobile refreshment stand. The four travel in her crowded truck to Culloden, the site of the disastrous clash during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746 when the Scots were annihilated by the English army. There the story reaches its climax which I will not divulge in full. But simply said, in full sight of all the tourists attracted to the Culloden battlefield site, it does not end up well for Florence or her mother who suddenly appears on the scene.




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The Great Believers

Makkai, Rebecca

Last Updated: May-26-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The subject of Rebecca Makkai's engaging book, The Great Believers is the AIDS epidemic. Her narrative unfolds in two eras separated by 40 years. It opens in the mid-1980s with the funeral of Nico, one of HIV’s first victims when the epidemic exploded in the gay community living in Chicago. In the second chapter, the time frame abruptly switches to 2015 and introduces Fiona Marcus, Nico’s sister. She was part of the gay scene in Chicago in the 1980s, grew attached to the men, and provided the care and comfort that many of the families were unable to offer when their sons were dying of AIDS.

In the earlier time period, Makkai's main protagonist is Yale Tishman, the director of development at an art gallery affiliated with a prominent unnamed university in the Chicago area. He is working with a small group of colleagues, including a young man uncertain of his gender identity, to acquire a batch of paintings from Nora Marcus Lerner. She is an elderly woman who happens to be Fiona and Nico’s aunt. and who was part of the avant-garde social circle surrounding the modern artists living in Paris in the wake of the First World War. As Nora reaches the end of her long life, she desperately wants to preserve the artistic memory of her lover who died as a young man. As Yale works to finalize the acquisition, his relationship with his lover, Charlie, falters and triggers a series of untimely deaths in Yale’s close circle of friends. Ultimately, Yale also succumbs to the HIV virus.

In 2015, Fiona has engaged a private investigator to locate her estranged daughter, Claire, who is living in Paris and has rebuffed numerous efforts in the past to reconnect with her mother. Ultimately, Fiona is able to move past the intensity of her caregiving role to gay men in the 1980s and to reconnect and reestablish a tentative relationship with her daughter. There is hope that with a renewed bond with her daughter she can restore a reason to live that will be as strong as the work she did to support and sustain her gay friends through the agonies of AIDS.

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His Favorites

Walbert, Kate

Last Updated: Mar-06-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Kate Walbert’s recent book, His Favorites, is a compact 149 page novella that seems to be a direct outgrowth of the #MeToo movement, a work consciously addressed to women who have experienced sexual abuse from those in power over them. But linking the book to current events does an injustice to the artistry of this exquisitely constructed work. Ms. Walbert embeds her story of sexual exploitation in adolescence and focuses on a teenager who is abused by her popular English teacher in a prestigious boarding school.

Jo Hadley’s story begins abruptly. To outward appearances, she is a typical adolescent more concerned with how she looks, having a good time, and hanging out with friends than reading the Great Books. Suddenly, while driving a golf cart around the course on a lazy summer night, a close friend is violently thrown over side, strikes a tree head first, and dies instantaneously.
Only later do we learn about the profound impact this accident has had on Joy and her family. Joy is forced to transfer out of her neighborhood public school and enroll in the Hawthorne School. But Joy is clearly talented, adapts quickly to her new circumstances, and is placed in a special writing program for gifted students. There she falls under the tutelage of a charismatic 34-year old teacher, called Master. He has a reputation for running an irreverent, highly charged classroom and is always trailed by a legion of admiring young women from his advanced writing class.

Jo’s horrific s encounter with Master in his residential suite is followed by a failed effort to report Master’s behavior to the school leadership. We learn about Jo’s parents and the disintegration of her family after the accident. We meet her schoolmates. One is an attractive member of Master’s retinue who resurfaces several years after graduation in New York and who still seethes with resentment at her treatment by Master. A second classmate is musically gifted but far less stylish than the students in Master’s English seminar. She becomes the target of a cruel hazing prank that reverberates in Joy’s mind with the passage of time. As the book reaches its conclusion, the context in which Joy is relating her story is unexpectedly revealed, which casts all of her recollections in an entirely new light.  The storyline is disjointed and the vantage point shifts frequently. But the narrative is gripping and novella’s structure is exquisitely built on apt description and poignant allusions to other works in the literary canon including the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles and The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe.

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Summary:

Geoffrey West sounds like the perfect dinner guest. He has lived a fascinating life and his professional persona has evolved over time from theoretical physicist to global scientist. He is a distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute and is one of those rare people who knows something interesting and worthwhile about just about everything.

In Scale, West examines networks that provide the basis for complex systems: biological systems like the human circulatory system, coastal ecosystems, and man-made systems like urban communities and global corporations. He identifies three defining features shared by each. First, the networks serve the entire system and fill the entire space that is available. Second the terminal units in the networks share common design features and are essentially the same, whether they are the capillaries that provide nutrients and oxygen to peripheral tissues or the electrical outlets that enable access to the grid for home appliances.First, the networks serve the entire system and fill the entire space that is available. Second the terminal units in the networks share common design features and are essentially the same, whether they are the capillaries that provide nutrients and oxygen to peripheral tissues or the electrical outlets that enable access to the grid for home appliances. Finally, there is a natural selection process at work that is constantly optimizing the network function. West emphasizes that these defining features of complex systems are present in biological systems like the human circulatory system, coastal ecosystems, and man-made systems like urban communities and global corporations.

These common features enable West to identify fairly simple mathematical formulas that predict the relationship between changes in size and efficiency of complex systems. In general, in biological systems size and energy consumption are scaled sublinearly, i.e., metabolic rate does not increase to the same extent as size. The limits to growth occur because of the increased demands for maintenance of the system. What makes Scale an innovative work is West’s effort to apply the scaling laws derived from observations in nature to man-made complex systems such as cities and companies. He identifies two distinct components in these human systems, the materials that constitute the infrastructure and the creative work that is produced. West then demonstrates that while the physical demands of these complex human systems, such as roads, electricity, and water supply, which mirror the metabolic requirements of biological  systems, increase sublinearly, the productive output  like wages, theaters, and patent activity, which have no parallel in non-human biological systems, increase supralinearly. Moreover, this inventive works requires a proportionately increasing input of resources as size increases. West tries to draw lessons about the rational limits to growth by extrapolating from the scaling laws that underlie biological complex systems to the two components of the artificial systems created by mankind. West cautions against blind reliance on “big data” alone to solve the pressing social problems confronting mankind. Instead, he advocates for delineation of underlying mathematical principles to guide the analysis of the growth of cities and companies and rational future planning.

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