Thursday, January 16, 2014

"In the Night of Time," by Miguel Muñoz Molina

A revolutionary guardsman deems Ignacio Abel, the protagonist of Antonio Muñoz Molina's "In the Night of Time," a gentleman with a union card."

Civil wars often divide countries. Spain's sliced Iberia into a series of mind states, intellectual positions and moral prerogatives that deposited a prismatic understanding of those traumatic events in history's hopper.

How you understand the conflict depends very much on who is telling the story, a devout Catholic or Falangist, a millenarian anarchist, a determined communist, a socialist intellectual with sympathies rooted in a class not their own.

Abel is a working class boy made good by studying hard in preparation, and marrying up to cement his drive for respectability.

His complacency, his thinly veiled boredom with bourgeois Spanish life, mark him as something other than the family he's married into, architectural brilliance and financial success notwithstanding.

As the country lurches toward civil war, circumstances in the family come to something of a boil as his socialist tendencies clash with their own Catholic and evolving fascistic allegiances.

The ebullient Republican milieu and the opening up of Spain in the 1930s, following years of dictatorship, led to outside influences and armies of curious visitors. One of these, Judith Biely, a student, revolutionizes his life, awakens the older man's sexuality and deepens his appreciation for Madrid, the city he grew up in yet has never truly seen.

About the time the affair comes to light in Abel's domestic life (not a spoiler) the civil war has broken out. They go together, this conflict at home and the larger one outside it, to the point where the same things that divide Abel's family, divide the country.

The story opens with the architect running from Spain and his family, floating through New York's Pennsylvania Station. Muñoz Molina's is a backward glance at Abel's family life, his professional milieu and colleagues, "the affair" and other relations with different strata of Spanish society.
Relations that define him.

Because he is shacking up with his lover when the fascist uprising launches, Abel ends up on the wrong side of the front from his family. Or, considering that they, good conservative Catholics, would not have been able to protect him from summary execution, on the right side of the new dividing line.

But his leftist sympathies are not enough to save him from being rousted up by an anarchist patrol and readied for the firing squad, only to be saved by an old friend of his father's.

Although a man of the left, the author's portrait of revolutionary Madrid has much in common with that rendered by right winger Agustin de Foxha in "Madrid: From Royal Court to Checka."

It's a dreary, unromantic and dangerous place where the violence comes from within and without alike. One of those places where death takes root so strongly that it no longer discriminates on the basis of guilt or ideology, but harvests what ever innocent stands in its way.

De Foxha's last-scene departure across the border into southern France is a welcome return to warm bourgeois normalcy, and Abel's arrival in New York's Hudson River valley is much the same.

The revolutionaries in control of Madrid are not the armed and noble yeoman of a certain strain of Spanish Civil War literature. Not for Abel, who has eaten from the tree of knowledge so that he sees things too well to act and lets fate pick his poison for him.

"They're intoxicated by words and anthems," he writes of the red and black hordes lording it over Madrid's streets, "as if they were breathing air too rich in oxygen and didn't know it. But perhaps it was he who was mistaken, his lack of fervor proof not of lucidity, but the mean-spirited hardening of age, favored by privilege and his fear of losing it."

Although they are ostensibly on his "side," the randomness and brutality of the violence the revolutionaries mete out is something the architect simply can not forgive and he grows disheartened with the political experiment in his homeland.

Being about Spain, the story can't help but be about the contrary demands of tradition and the yearnings of the individual heart.

So, sure, he feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but..."Only with [his lover] had he discovered and now regained what he'd never known could be so pleasurable, the habit of conversing, explaining himself to himself, confirming immediate affinities in what until then he'd thought of as solitary sensation and thoughts."

Judith Biely instructs him in that most American of indulgences, the self, while the country outside their lover's lair is enmeshed in an epic and all-inclusive struggle.

So "In the Night of Time," is about many things and as such, deals in ambiguity, ambivalence and irony.

Is Abel a coward to leave his family on the fascist side even though the marriage is shot and he is free? How can he make himself useful to the Republic when the "magnitude of the catastrophe" it faces is so evident, when it doesn't even want his support?

Muñoz Molina is a big prize guy in Spain, a prestige writer, who has earned the right to air out his thoughts. It is a long book and when Igacio Abel's children come up, they will come up for a good four pages minced with flashbacks, epiphanies and confession.

The publisher would have done well to furnish a few footnotes identifying certain of the historical figures Ignacio Abel engages as an architect on one of the nascent Republic's big projects, a new university city.

It helps to know his protector Juan Negrín would rise to the presidency, that Julian Besteiro was a socialist and president of the parliament under leftist coalitions, that Alejandro Lerroux was the long-time leader of the Radical Party.

Without some background, they are just names people are not likely to know much about, unless the Spanish Civil War is their "thing," which may in the end be where this book finds its audience

Even those readers may find the author has managed to add a degree of freshness to a topic they are already familiar with.

"The Voyage of the Rose City," by John Moynihan

This review aims to do John Moynihan the honor of considering “The Voyage of the Rose City” on its merits rather than dwell on the fact it is written by famous a U.S. Senator's son who left the world too soon.

“Rose City” refers to the merchant tanker ship the author took a character-building job on back in 1980. A well-heeled boy with a developed intellect and soft hands, he comes in for a good deal of disdain from the hard-bitten types that make up the Rose City's crew.

Moynihan's narrative drags when he gets into the nuts and bolts of industrial labor on a big tanker. Yes, he's diving for pearls those of us with regular lives are unfamiliar with, but the detail is too heavy. Of course, another seafaring text, “Moby Dick” is guilty of the same crime where facts about whales and the industry that harvests them are concerned. So there you have it.

He also frontloads his portraits of the crew so that you either have a great memory or have to mark the descriptions and return to them when a character surfaces with little more than a name clipped to his ear. But lots of great novelists have used that technique as well. So there you have it.

“Rose City” isn't so much a story as a literary documentary about life on a merchant vessel. The only narratives that exist are of the small bore type and focus on Moynihan's evolving relationship with individual crew members. These have mostly satisfying results as he slowly begins to blend in with those different than himself (becoming less different through the seafaring life), but they are not very deep.

A lot has happened since 1980 that both add and detract from the value of the text. Now, of course, it is a timepiece describing a bygone world. A book about work, which is rare these days, much as we are all saddled with the obligation.

As you read, the idea of the cell phone keeps popping into one's mind as these modern men endure the pain of separation from loved ones that today would have made their lives much easier.

The western literary canon offers many a diary of life at sea and Moynihan's is a worthy addition to that canon, for those who revel in adventure, and for those that dream of doing what this one writer did.

"Fevered (A hotter planet and our health)" by Linda Marsa

There are growing number of books being released about climate change and this one addresses its impacts on individual health and the public systems designed to address those impacts.

Guess what? They're insufficient. Author Linda Marsa has travelled far and wide in gathering information from places where climate change is already wreaking death and destruction, spurring desperate attempts at adaptation.

In line with recent reports (2013-14) suggesting the impacts of climate change may confront all of us sooner than expected, Marsa gathers up a string of evidence that will scare the wits out of you, that special American citizen who believes in causes, effects, and the evidence linking them.

The author's focus is on the need to build a strong public health infrastructure able to cope with the widespread effects of climate change. Marsa asserts that because many of the perils associated with global warming are generally predictable, it is possible to design or adapt buildings and communities to be more resilient.

Strategies for creating a nonpolluting, clean-energy future can also improve public health.

A chapter entitled “Fever Pitch” examines the relationship between rising temperatures and the persistent and greater diffusion of diseases beyond their typical geographical distribution. Essentially, shorter, warmer winters aren't killing these things off and they actually grow stronger when they survive.

“Fevered” looks at the way global warming impacts air quality. “Rising temperatures will make bad air even more dangerous,” writes Marsa, “cooking up a witches' brew of pollutants that will sear the delicate tissue lining the lungs and aggravate an astonishing array of other health issues ranging from heart disease, to lung cancer, to dementia.”

“The Hot Zone” portends the more frequent occurrence of death by heat wave, characterized here as large tragedies going under-reported, because the dead can't always be linked directly to the heat, even though they were killed by existing ailments the extreme conditions triggered.

Chicago, France, Russia, Philadelphia, all have recent and ghastly stories related here.

“Health Care on Life Support” dissects the collapse of public health infrastructure in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and what came after, which was more of the same.

Marsa reports, nonetheless, that The Crescent City became something of testing ground for federal policies aimed at “disaster-proofing” healthcare there.

For example, patient records are now kept electronically, and New Orleans is also part of a federally funded pilot program that stores this information in a central information exchange, efficiencies that might have saved lives in the hurricane's wake.

The chapter entitled, “Running on Empty,” covers the dangers of malnutrition, examining the case of actress Audrey Hepburn, who endured starvation as a Dutch citizen during World War II, before transitioning to the topic of agriculture's increasing difficulty in cultivating a hotter planet.

A lot of that difficulty comes down to water – here she looks at the situation in the American southwest where the Colorado River no longer reaches its natural delta, wrung dry by a growing population.

Circumstances in Australia, which is at the forefront of climate change impact, involve “catastrophes of biblical proportions; unleashed killer heat waves, agricultural collapse, bushfires of unimaginable ferocity and hastened species extinction.”

Drought has wiped out entire agricultural communities, and it is possible “vast portions” of the country's northern regions could be submerged by rising seas, rain storms and flooding

Because of its unique vulnerability, Australia has become a living laboratory for adaptation to a warmer world. Marsa makes a trip down there. The country's system of water consumption control offer a preview of what we'll be seeing everywhere someday, or sooner.

“Holding Back The Waters” returns to New Orleans, documents efforts at retooling water management and flood control systems in a sustainable way and reverses the environmental degradation that made Katrina worse than it needed to be.

Also covered are the problems in south Florida and the apparently borrowed time the city of Miami is living on, as sea level rises to threaten the lowing lying community and its freshwater supply sources.

It's not all darkness. There are strategies not only for adapting health care systems to a warmer world, but also for developing sustainable cities as a matter of public health. By way of example, Marsa sheds light on the Orange County Water Authority's pioneering to reuse wastewater for potable purposes.

New York, covered in a fulsome network of mass transit, and characterized by vertical lifestyles, is held up as an example of the good way to live, although the fact you need to be rich to reside there is not mentioned.

Writes Marsa: “Sylvan paradises like Vermont, where you don't have to wait until farmers' market day to buy locally grown, produce, may intuitively seem like places where sustainable living would be much easier than in urban areas. But the reality it quite different. Because the population is so spread out, Vermonters use nearly four times as much gasoline as New Yorkers, and six times as much as Manhattan residents. Ironically, on just about every other barometer, Green Mountain State residents turn out to be the resource hogs: They have larger carbon footprints, guzzle more water, dump more garbage, and consume quadruple the amount of electricity as the average New Yorker. In other words, the seductive allure of rural life is simply wrongheaded at a time when the world's population is surging toward eight billion and roughly 80 percent of Americans live in cities.”

“New York,” Marsa writes, “developed as a city before the advent of the automobile, so it is compact and dense. To become more like New York, the rest of us are going to have to undo the half century's worth of damage to our health and the social fabric of our lives that resulted when we became a car-centric society and suburban sprawl became a way of life.”

But New York may be just as car-centric as any city out there. Robert Caro's “The Power Broker” painfully documented the efforts of a man who never drove a car, Robert Moses, to bind the city up in ribbons of “parkway.”

One of the few people able to thwart him was Jane Jacobs, the urbanist who extolled the dense city neighborhood as a place of social health and economic vitality.

“Fevered” is progeny of Jacobs' own books. Her vision was of a sustainable city before that term became a byword for future survival. Marsa's work links the loss of high-density, transit-served urban villages with the sprawl that characterizes most development over the past half century.

Marsa's contribution is to take the ideas Jacobs propounded in her books beyond the concerns of neighborhoods and microeconomics and link them to the causes of climate change, and the health of the people in those neighborhoods hopefully driving those economies.

The author asserts that the universal and modern dependence on individual, motorized transportation is responsible for a series of direct health hazards ranging from lung disease and obesity, and indirect impacts such as global warming.

Marsa echoes Al Gore's call for a Marshal Plan to fight global warming in his “Earth in Balance” with her own call for a medical Marshall Plan that would recapture the spirit of cooperation that arose with WW II's outbreak.

“We must become that country again,” she pleads.

"The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac" by Kris D'Agostino

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac (TSHFA) invites us into the world of that generation schooled in film studies and condemned to scour a barren workplace landscape for salvation.

The title is accurate, if a little more sizzling than the steak itself. The yarn unwinds in New York State's Hudson River valley, if not exactly in Sleepy Hollow, and portrays a family struggling to unite in a time of crisis.

TSHFA has the markings of a post-grad MFA work. Clean and clear structure and a precise prose relating a story of smallish dimensions.

Author Kris D'Agostino admits the work is at least partially autobiographical and that, like any good story, he's sprinkled a little stardust here, and added a fictional character with greater dramatic arc than anything at hand, there.

Sometimes those are good things and, in this case, the author writes very well. The story attempts to relate complex emotions and sentiments with a simplicity that is a hallmark of his prose. The other is his ability to select from what's going on in the vast world around for attention.

Which is to say that when D'Agostino pulls back his narrative for a moment of observation or reflection, the subject and delivery are worthy and good.

The main character is an educated boy whose inability to get out of the house and gain independence has somewhat arrested his development. Efforts at focusing on an extraction plan are distracted by his father's cancer and professional decline, his little sister's teen pregnancy, and an overdue mortgage.

The setting is a economically depressed rural-to-exurban world where a family looking for signs of hope is best advised to look inward instead of out. This is a slice of contemporary America well-rendered by somebody reporting from the frontlines.