Friday, March 25, 2011 is where the genius of Amazon meets the genius of Apple. You sign up for Audible with your Amazon password and get two free books right off the bat with the first month free. Then you pay $14.95 a month, entitling you to purchase another book -- an audio book-of-the-month club! If that's not enough listening, you can purchase further books at a 30% discount.

I got my new iPhone last week and yesterday I became a member of Audible. I was moving in this direction anyway, but then my iPod died on me last fall. I had already decided to get an iPhone once it was available from Verizon, so I just waited.

I listened to a lot of audiobooks when I was commuting out to work at AOL -- all of the Harry Potter books, for instance. Jim Dale was a pleasure to listen to, as was Barbara Kingsolver reading her Appalachian Spring. Probably the highlight was Derek Jacobi reading Robert Fagles' new translation of The Iliad -- absolutely thrilling.

Audiobooks have become a whole new art form, with narrators vying for prizes and other recognition. Audiobooks have turned what otherwise might be empty hours into learning moments. Not that I think every empty minute should be given over to music or books on the iPhone. I'm not sure I'll listen to books while working out -- if I'm doing that properly, I think I need more focus. Will I be able to listen while riding a bike? We'll see. But some of my dog-walking and driving time can surely be devoted to book-listening.

I had a friend in grade school whose father was legally blind. He used to get these heavy cases of recorded books from a special lending library. These were vinyl discs -- it was a time even before Books on Tape. In those days, of course, readers simply read the text out loud. There was no attempt to dramatize, develop different voices, or even give it much inflection. The evolution of this semi-charitable business into today's audiobooks is quite a story.

I'm not sure it could get any easier than Audible. You purchase it and it goes into "My Library" for download. You download it into iTunes, then sync your iPhone and start listening. In addition to the earbuds, I have the cable to plug the iPhone into my car sound system, and for that matter, into our living room stereo.

My first download last fall was Robert Reich's Aftershocks, which I got two-thirds through before the iPod died. With my new membership, I've purchased Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life and Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists. Presuming all goes well, I will report on these books in due course.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

It's hard to believe that the same Jeanette Winterson who wrote The Stone Gods wrote this book. In many ways, it probably is not the same author.

This debut novel, winner of the Whitbread Prize for first fiction, came out more than a quarter-century ago. It is warm and witty, in turn savagely satirical and touchingly poignant. Gender politics have come a long way since Winterson wrote this autobiographical novel about the "unnatural passions" a young woman in Lancashire, but it is, in the age of the Christian right and DOMA in this country, startingly relevant for an American audience today.

The narrator, whose name happens to be Jeanette, is the adopted daughter of a couple fully engaged in the Pentecostal evangelical movement in England. It is her destiny, her adoptive mother tells her from an early age, to be a missionary, and she is trained accordingly, becoming a highly regarded and precocious preacher in her local church and on domestic missions. But Jeanette soon finds herself cherishing intimacy with her girlfriends, first Melanie, and then Katy. Her world is populated with the female couple that runs the vermin store -- the type of couple quietly acknowledge and shunned in small towns throughout the world, as in Pittsburg, where my father's aunt lived with her companion -- as well as various spinsters who eventually confess to Jeanette that they have the same kind of leanings.

For her mother and her pastor, Jeanette's early forays in forbidden love are proof of a demon at work in her, but even an exorcism fails to cure her and eventually banishment is the only solution. At that point, as with most adolescents, Jeanette is ready for the rupture. But this rejection is so much more hurtful than what most young adults experience, and her sense of loss is palpable. The older Jeanette, ensconced by the end of the novel in the city, misses the comfort of hearth and home and the belonging she felt in the church.

Having grown to be agnostic, she even misses the God of her youth.
I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don't think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don't even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it.
This is something I can relate to perhaps more than I'd like to acknowledge.

English provincial life is rendered with such comic finesse that it doesn't matter if some of the finer details are lost on an American reader. You care for Jeanette, and ultimately you care for her mother, as hard-hearted as she sometimes seems. When Jeanette goes home for Christmas at the end of the book, her mother has "gone electronic" and does her mission work via CB. The last words of the book are her putting on her earphones, and saying into the microphone: "This is Kindly Light calling Manchester, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light."

Jeanette's plight moves the reader time and again, as when she hears her birth mother through the wall being sent away by her adoptive mother, or when she relishes the devotion of her dog, or mourns the passing of Elsie, an older woman who understood her.

The narrative is interspersed with fairy tales, myths, philosophical riffs that mirror Jeanette's interior life and add rich layers to the story. Perhaps the problem with The Stone Gods is that these somewhat extraneous bits dominate, whereas here they are firmly anchored in a very real narrative.

It is a book that at times makes you laugh out loud, or makes you stop and reflect about things. It is a coming of age narrative that takes you back to your own youth -- gay or straight has really nothing to do with it. It is a very rewarding novel.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Haves and the Have-Nots

My review of Branko Milanovic's book was published today in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
Just how rich is Mr. Darcy, the heartthrob of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? And how could it be that £200 a year was considered a fabulous income? Branko Milanovic playfully considers that situation and others like it in a thoughtful new book that comes to grips with a much weightier topic, involving one of the biggest issues of our time: the inequality of incomes.

Milanovic, the lead economist in the research division of the World Bank, has spent a career compiling and analyzing income data from every corner of the planet. Raised in a Communist economy, he is as comfortable citing Karl Marx as Milton Friedman. He’s also a renaissance man, widely read in many fields, especially literature. He distills his broad learning in a book that is lucid if not always easy, and, at 217 pages of text, is brief as advertised.

The Haves and the Have-Nots is also, as advertised, idiosyncratic. Sandwiched between three long essays that comprise the book are a number of entertaining vignettes that explore questions readers might not have thought to ask. Through his analysis, we come to understand, for example, just how wealthy Mr. Darcy is and, conversely, just how stark Elizabeth Bennet’s options are.

Similarly, Milanovic calculates the social advantage to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in her marriage to the civil servant Alexei Karenin, and what falling in love with Count Vronsky means in economic terms. Milanovic looks at how rich the Roman aristocracy was, and mulls over the question of who was the richest person ever (hint: It was not John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates or Carlos Slim). He even analyzes how open hiring of soccer players has concentrated talent in a handful of well-funded, European-based teams (think New York Yankees on a global scale).

The substance of the book is more difficult to understand but just as rewarding. Milanovic patiently tutors the reader in basic concepts necessary to understand why globalization has not led to a convergence of incomes, as classical economics had predicted, but in fact has increased the inequality between countries even as deregulation and free-market policies have widened the income gap in some rich countries such as the United States.

One of the greatest difficulties for any layman approaching economic issues is to understand the relative values of the numbers, and this is where Milanovic excels. How do the billions and trillions of today’s economies relate to the hundreds and thousands of yesteryear? What can you possibly make of the fact that in today’s world, the per capita income is $1,000 a year in some countries and $45,000 a year in others?

Milanovic’s insights come thick and fast. Asia and Latin America, economically, are mirror images of one another. Asia is a region where the inequality within countries is relatively narrow, whereas the inequality between different countries – say, Japan and Bangladesh – is wide. Conversely, in Latin America, the inequality between countries is narrow, but the gap within countries, such as Brazil, is wide.

As for the United States, Milanovic documents what we all know – that income inequality has increased dramatically in the past several decades and is now considerably higher than in the similarly prosperous countries of Western Europe.

Everyone from Robert Reich to Ben Bernanke has described this development as worrisome for its political and social consequences, but Milanovic keeps his focus on economics. For him, the fact that income inequality in the first part of this past decade reached levels not seen since the Roaring ’20s shows it is no coincidence that we experienced a major financial crisis in 2008, just as we did in 1929. The economic explanation, Milanovic says, lies in an excess of investable assets, which puts too much money in the hands of the wealthy, who then seek ever riskier investments to get adequate returns. Countries are better off economically when more of the income stays in the hands of middle-class families, who spend it on real things they need.

The first of Milanovic’s three essays, on inequality within a nation, especially demands a patient and motivated reader. But the rewards are commensurate. He traces the history of the study of inequality and elucidates the Gini coefficient, the main tool for measuring inequality within a country. The Gini coefficient demonstrates the rise in inequality in the United States, from 35 in the 1970s to above 40 now, compared with 30 in egalitarian Sweden.

In the second essay, Milanovic discusses inequality among nations. Here the key concept for comparing incomes is purchasing-power parity: What the local currency buys in real life, not the current exchange rate, is what determines its value and is the point of comparison.

The third essay looks at how these two different scales of inequality – within a nation and between nations–determine the inequality between individuals around the world. The author demonstrates that location – where you are born rather than into which class in that country – is the main factor in your rank on the global scale.

Milanovic’s brief and idiosyncratic little book provides quite an education. It gives the reader a new perspective and some useful tools for approaching issues of inequality. What it does not do is provide policy prescriptions, or even desirable objectives for national or international policy. Some of his geopolitical conclusions – that China is a world apart, and so far has not articulated a real economic theory for its own development; that Africa remains so poor that it has become a “fourth world” – are not as well founded as his economic arguments. For instance, what does China’s recent massive investment in energy and other natural resources in Africa, Australia and Latin America mean for economic development in all these regions? But that, as they say, is the subject of another book.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Bellini Card

This is the third book in Jason Goodwin's Yashim the investigator series that I am reading in preparation for reviewing the fourth, An Evil Eye, which will be published at the end of this month. As with the previous two, I will keep my comments on this short and save my general observations about Goodwin and the series for the review, which will be cross-posted here.

Suffice it to say that Goodwin keeps his great sense of place even in shifting the action of this novel to Venice instead of Istanbul. In fact, he largely succeeds in portraying La Serenissima as an historical suburb of Constantinople, an empire that temporarily borrowed the culture and glory of Byzantium for what turned out to be a brief flowering.

The 19th century Venice described here is a poor and decaying place, stifled by the Austrian occupation. The moral corruption equals the physical, which Goodwin renders well by contrasting the stagnant Venetian lagoon and its ill humors with the clean, bracing air of the Bosphorus. It is a time of transition in the Ottoman empire, too, as a young, new Sultan leads the Turkish empire into its final decline.

Yashim remains an appealing character, but unfortunately Goodwin chose to make Palewsky the center of attention for most of the novel. This Polish ambassador without a country, the closest thing Yashim has to a Dr. Watson, has always been a weak and poorly drawn character. Nor is Goodwin able to use this opportunity to flesh him out. He remains a dull and largely dull-witted personality.

There are other flaws. Goodwin introduces a courtesan who Palewsky's guide hires to warm his bed. She of course turns out to be a wonderful person, which is already a stretch, but she apparently, despite her profession, lives at home as a well-respected member of her family and a devout churchgoer. Sorry, can't suspend my disbelief that much.

Goodwin seems to delight in having his eunuch detective bed the beauty in each book, without probing into the physical and emotional sensitivities this entails. They are invariably enamored of him for reasons the reader is left to guess at. The byzantine plot is even murkier than usual this time. The final climactic scene -- Yashim's hand to hand fight with a Tatar in the mud of a canal trench emptied for dredging -- matches the earlier books with struggles in a tannery and large underground cistern, but is hard to follow.

Goodwin clearly wanted to vary the formula a bit by changing venues. We still have Yashim cooking his lovely Ottoman concoctions, still have the obligatory visit to the valide -- the original Sultan's mother and grandmother to the new Sultan, and the Greek vegetable vendor whose dialogue is incongruously rendered in ungrammatical English. A little more variation might have helped. Goodwin seems more attached to these little rituals than his readers might be.

Would I still be reading these but for the review? Probably not. Let's see what the new one has to offer.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Genius grants

Cross-posted on the Washington Independent Review of Books

After reading two novels in quick succession by genius grant writers (The Vagrants by Yiyun Li and The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon), I thought it might be interesting to take a look at other fiction writers who won the MacArthur Foundation fellowships.

It struck me reading their bios that both Li and Hemon were born abroad, Li in Beijing and Hemon in Sarajevo, and that English was not their native language – though you would never know it from their writing. Li was a 2010 MacArthur fellow and Hemon a 2004 fellow. I wondered if this represented a pattern in the awards.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – the same one that provides a lot of support to NPR – selects two dozen or so fellows each year, placing the emphasis on creativity in the winners’ chosen field. Virtually from the first class in 1981, these awards have been known as “genius grants,” and now consist of $500,000 paid out over a five-year period. They are awarded not for past accomplishment so much as an investment in individuals who have demonstrated creativity, to support them in their future accomplishment.

Although the awards include artists, musicians, scientists, architects, historians and poets among others, each annual group of fellows almost invariably includes a fiction writer. I confined my own scrutiny to the past 10 years, though Wikipedia provides a list of genius grant winners that makes it easy to track down any of them.

Sure enough, it turned out that the writer chosen in 2009 was Edwige Danticat, the 42-year-old Haitian-American writer, and the 2008 writer fellow was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 33, a Nigerian writer residing in the U.S. As I delved further back, however, there were a number of writers born in America as well. But it was clear that the foundation likes to highlight minorities as well as innovative and experimental writing.

Other patterns that emerged were a sort of favoritism for short story writers (though most are also novelists), a slight bias for writers with a Chicago connection (where the MacArthur Foundation is based), and what is probably a coincidence of spending time in residence at Wesleyan University.

Prizes are not necessarily the most reliable way to choose what to read, though most of us are seduced by “National Book Award Winner” or “Man Booker Prize Winner”, or Pulitzer, or Nobel. A genius grant award is probably as good a way as any to identify writers worth reading. Here are the other winners over the last decade:

2010 Yiyun Li. Born in 1972, Li grew up in Beijing and moved to the 1996 after receiving her bachelor’s degree there. She studied writing in Iowa, getting MFAs in both nonfiction and fiction writing. She now lives in Oakland. It was the story about her and the genius grant winners in September that got me started on this kick.

2009 Edwige Danticat. Born in Haiti, Danticat’s mother tongue is Creole. Her family emigrated to Brooklyn when she was 12. Her breakthrough came when her 1994 novel Breath, Eyes, Memory became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. I have her 1998 novel, Farming of the Bones, on my shelf and will probably read that first.

2008 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Born and raised in Nigeria, Adichie attended college in the United States. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published in 2003. She was writer in residence at Wesleyan in 2008. Her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun, is about the Biafran War and is probably the one I would pick first to read. It won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction.

2007 Stuart Dybek. Older at 68, Dybek was born in Chicago and still lives at teaches in the area. He is primarily a short story writer and has published two collections of poetry. I’m not a big fan of short stories, but I would probably be happy to dip into The Coast of Chicago, a 1990 collection, at some point.

2006 George Saunders. Another short story writer raised in Chicago, Saunders has an interesting background in environmental engineering. His stories are said to be satirical in the vein of Kurt Vonnegut, and he was writer in residence in Wesleyan in 2010. His collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline has been optioned by Ben Stiller and I would probably start with that.

2005 Jonathan Lethem. A Brooklyn native, Lethem merges science fiction of the Philip K. Dick variety and detective fiction in what has been called a hip and postmodern way. I would probably start with Motherless Brooklyn, a prizewinning 1999 novel about a hero with Tourette’s syndrome who investigates a murder. Fortress of Solitude would be a second choice.

2004 Aleksandar Hemon. A native of Sarajevo, Hemon was already a published author in what was then Yugoslavia when he was stranded in the U.S. in 1992 when the Bosnian war broke out. Because he only learned English as an adult, Hemon has been compared to Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. I had The Lazarus Project, a finalist for the National Book Award, sitting on my shelf for sometime and decided to pick it up because I liked the Yiyun Li book.

2003 Lydia Davis. A postmodernist short story writer who was once married to Paul Auster, Davis has some stories that are only one or two sentences long. She has been called the successor to Donald Barthelme, who I never liked. Not ruling her out, but I’m not likely to be in a rush to read her work.

2002 Colson Whitehead. A native New Yorker and a Harvard graduate, Whitehead wrote for the Village Voice after getting out of college. His first novel, The Intuitionist, published in 1999, was showered in praise, and his second novel, John Henry Days, also got a lot of notice. I’ve been curious about The Intuitionist, where a “colored” protagonist evaluates the safety of elevators through intuition, since it came out and would probably start with that.

2001 Andrea Barrett. A Massachusetts native and resident, Barrett has won a National Book Award and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer. I found the description of Servants of the Map, short stories about naturalists and maps (the Pulitzer finalist), so beguiling I ordered it and read it right away. Loved it, and it makes me think reading McArthur fellows is not such a bad idea. Adding Barrett’s Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal to my list.