THE EVENING AND THE MORNING by Ken Follett

For a confessed bookaholic and fan of Ken Follet’s collective works what could be better than a new novel that is over 900 pages?  After having read and digested THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, WORLD WITHOUT END, and A COLUMN OF FIRE I have long looked forward to Follet’s prequal to his Kingsbridge series, THE EVENING AND THE MORNING with great anticipation and I must confess I was not disappointed.  Set in England at the turn of the 11th century Follett, a master storyteller has conjured up a complex story of human greed, passion, slavery, clerical corruption, and political uncertainty.  The story commences from the east with a Viking raid on the village of Combe that results in devastation and loss for its inhabitants.

Follett’s new book continues the approach taken in PILLARS OF FIRE and other volumes in the Kingsbridge saga.  The reader is exposed to powerful personalities, some acceptable, others cruel and nasty. Of course, love and human emotion are factors and on full display. Even though the book takes place between 997 and 1007 AD competition, jealousy and other traits of the human condition are clear.  Follett describes what daily life was like in England and Normandy at the turn of the 11th century – the forests, castles, poor villages, ale houses, farms, whorehouses, and religious buildings.  The political machinations of the nobility and church figures dominate a good part of the plot.  During this historical period survival was key as most woman did not live past their thirties, many of which dying in childbirth, and men succumbing by their late forties.

England and her invaders in the century. 11th Century, Year 2, Coat Of Arms, Fashion History, Middle Ages, Vintage World Maps, British, England, Art

Follett immediately introduces a series of characters each with their own agenda and character flaws, some of which even have positive traits!  Follett is a master storyteller with an incredible ability to capture the reader’s attention only after a few pages.  Follet’s immediate focus is on a family that consisted of three brothers, Edgar, a ship builder and very bright, Erman, the eldest, and Eadbald both of which are common laborers with little skill.  The matriarch, Mildred has the final voice in family decisions since Pa succumbed during the Viking attack as did Edgar’s love, Sunni.  The family lost everything and is forced to accept working a rundown farm fifty miles away to survive.

Edgar emerges as one of the dominant characters that Follett creates along with a host of others.  Chief among them was another family with three brothers, Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring, who held political power from the king, Wigelm the thane controls most of the forest and surrounding areas, and Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring the leading figure in the corrupt church he rules, and of course, Gytha the deceitful mother who pulls strings behind the scene.  Follett, as in all of his novels is able to  create so many different threads and characters, weaving them together seamlessly in a story that eventually becomes clear. 

As the plot develops a number of other important individuals play important roles.  Aldred, a Monk concerned with books and learning who becomes involved in an investigation of the Bishop of Shiring, Lady Ragnhild, the daughter of Count Hubert of Cherbourg, known as Ragna who falls in love with Wilwulf when he visits Normandy to negotiate a treaty.  Ragna was kept in the dark about a number of important things after she marries Wilwulf and moves to England.  Two other people that appear over and over are Dreng, the owner of an ale house and his brother Degbert Baldhead, the Dean of Deng’s Ferry Minster and owner of numerous farms that are worked by tenant farmers and slaves.

Follett develops a number of plot lines that are important.  First, the plight of Edgar’s family following the Viking attacks.  Second, Aldred’s religious fervor and his suspicions concerning the minster in Deng’s Ferry.  Third, the relationship between Cherbourg and the English settlements in need of protection.  Fourth, the marriage of Wilwulf and Ragna.  Fifth, the corruption and deceit that seems to pervade every page.  Sixth, the machinations of church politics and the hypocrisy of monks, priests and bishops, a problem that would plague the church for centuries,  Lastly, the structure of England.  What is the relationship between a king, in this case Ethelred and the nobility who ignore his rulings?  What is the relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a bishop who refuse to conform to the preaching’s of the church?  In the story that Follett conjures up we have Wilwulf the ealdorman of Shiring ignoring King Ethelred’s pronouncements, and Wynsan, the Bishop of Shiring ignoring the teachings of Elfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

MIDDLE AGES Collage Sheet with gryphon, unicorn and illuminations, by JUNKMILL Copyright Free Images, King Arthur, Digital Collage, Collage Sheet, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Medieval, Finding Yourself, Printables
(England during the Middle Ages)

Aside from the inherent political conflicts that exist in feudal England at the end of the dark ages Follett brings to the reader’s attention the issue of slavery.  In England during this period 10% of the population consists of slaves.  Among those classified as slaves are people in poverty who cannot provide for themselves, soldiers and ordinary people taken prisoner in war, or people punished for crimes.  These individuals consist mostly of people ages eleven to thirty who become servants, prostitutes, laborers, and any other activity their owners can think of.

As the story evolves plots seemed to be enveloped by subplots as Follett deftly springs numerous surprises on his readers.  Just when you think you know how things will play out; he shifts gears. Follett’s recreates a period fraught with the hazards, the harsh physical realities, the competing influences of politics and religion, detailed and convincing, providing a solid underpinning to the later installments of the Kingsbridge series. 

As Bill Sheehan points out in his review in the Washington Post that “Taken both individually and together, the Kingsbridge books are as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilization — with its laws, structures, customs and beliefs — as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction. Despite their daunting length, these novels are swift, accessible and written in a clear, uncluttered prose that has a distinctly contemporary feel. At times, the prose can feel a bit too contemporary, as when Ragna, ruminating on some conflict with her husband, wonders: “What was bugging him?” Mostly, though, Follett writes in a transparent style that rarely calls attention to itself, moving his outsized narratives steadily — and compulsively — forward.

Ken Follett with "Eisfieber" ("Whiteout").

While the Kingsbridge novels are in no way formulaic, they all rely on common narrative elements, such as multiple alternating story lines, a large cast of characters from all levels of society, the patient accumulation of precise period detail, and specific long-term goals, such as the building of a cathedral or, in “World Without End,” a bridge and hospital. But perhaps the key to Follett’s success is the way in which his gifts as a thriller writer have merged so seamlessly with the larger demands of historical fiction. Follett presents his worlds in granular detail, but the narratives never stand still. Something dramatic, appalling or enraging happens in virtually every chapter. Rape, murder, arson, infanticide and betrayals of every stripe follow one another in relentless succession. The result is a massive entertainment that illuminates an obscure corner of British history with intelligence and great narrative energy. THE EVENING AND THE MORNING is a most welcome addition to the Kingsbridge series. I hope it won’t be the last.”*  I agree wholeheartedly!

*Bill Sheehan, “Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH prequel is just as transporting – and lengthy – as his famous epic.” Washington Post, September 21, 2020.

Windsor Castle was built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. King Edward III rebuilt the palace to  become "the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England". Edward's core design lasted through the Tudor period, during which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made increasing use of the castle as a royal court and centre for diplomatic entertainment. Berkshire, England Stock Photo

(Berkshire, England, 11th century castle)

RAGE by Bob Woodward

Donald Trump has made an inordinate number of mistakes since assuming the presidency, however one of his most egregious was agreeing to an eighteen hour over nine session interview with author Bob Woodward.  The Washington Post investigative reporter had previously written a chronicle of Trump’s first two years in office entitled, FEAR which was not very flattering toward the president.  Trump, a firm believer in his own powers of persuasion was out of his league assuming if he developed a personal relationship with Woodward that his new book would praise the president and be an asset in the current presidential campaign.  The result has been Woodward’s latest work, RAGE which was once again even less flattering toward Mr. Trump.

Woodward’s effort is somewhat ironic in that his reporting during the Watergate crisis of the early 1970s helped remove Richard M. Nixon from office.  Now, almost fifty years later Woodward has written a book supported by audiotapes of his interviews with the president that provides evidence for the numerous falsehoods that president has engaged in since the book’s release.  As a historian I find it more than a coincidence that a reporter as thorough as Woodward is involved in another pursuit of a lawless president involving tape recordings.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

The book itself presents countless examples of Trump’s lies to the American people over a number of important issues that include his downplaying the coronavirus, his relationship with and the actions of North Korean leader Kim Jun-Un, his approach to racism and white nationalism, and of course his impeachment.  Trump comes across as a liar, a petty vengeful individual, a self-absorbed person who appears devoid of human decency who exhibits little or no empathy in his approach to a pandemic, hurricanes, and the wildfires out west.

From the outset, Woodward pulls no punches in recounting Trump’s attitude toward Covet-19.  Trump freely admits, though he has since denied that he downplayed the effects of the virus and its possible impact on the American people.  As early as January 28, 2020, Trump was warned by Robert O’Brien, the National Security advisor that “this is going to be the roughest thing you face.”  Matt Pottinger, the Deputy NSC advisor reaffirmed what O’Brien had stated and argued that after speaking with his Chinese sources concluded “don’t think SARS 2003, think influenza pandemic 1918.”  On February 7th, Trump told Woodward that “I think that [it] goes away in two months with heat…you know as it gets hotter that tends to kill the virus.  You know, you hope.”  Trump described the virus as “deadly” and “it goes through the air.”  At the same time as he expressed these fears in private Trump publicly reassured the American people that there was nothing to worry about and he had everything under control.  There is no reason to discuss the impact of Trump’s attitude and actions.  But it cannot be denied that while over 200,000 people have died, Trump has not carried out his constitutional duties to protect and defend the American people.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats attends a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16 2019 in Washington DC President Donald Trump and...

(Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats)

The book presents a plethora of examples of Trump’s malfeasance in office.  Each example is supported by excellent sourcing, a Woodward trademark, and we have audio tapes to support what the narrative purports.  One must keep in mind that Woodward has been chronicling presidential administrations for close to fifty years, that’s over twenty-percent of all presidents have been subject to Woodward’s incisive pen.  In all that time there has been little if any hint of emotion on his part in dealing with his subject matter.  However, in the current instance that emotional current  is present.  Trump realized that the first draft of history of any administration during the last five decades has been written by Woodward, and Trump wanted to influence it.  But, Woodward, aware of Trump’s obsession with the book still is the truth teller and if one turns to the last few pages of the narrative his personal reaction is based on Trump’s constant denials and absence of responsibility as he has lied to the American people.  Woodward concludes that Trump was the wrong man for the job of president because of the overwhelming evidence that the president has no sense of reason, order, guidance and morality and his administration suffers from “an organizational sickness,” and Trump, a personal sickness forcing Woodward to reach no other conclusion.

In reaching this judgement Woodward has examined the most important aspects of the Trump administration.  His personal relationships with James Mattis, John Kelly, Dan Coates, Rex Tillerson, and numerous others are all explored and it is interesting as information about them has reached the public with the publication of RAGE none of these individuals has come forth to dispute what Woodward has written.  Areas of concern include the relationship with Kim Jun-Un where the North Korean leader, after a legitimate war scare as related by Mattis, meets with Trump and achieves everything that he sought, particularly recognition by the United States, with Washington receiving little or nothing in return.  The situation in Syria is documented as Trump, as a favor to another of his authoritarian “buddies” convinced Trump to withdraw and or reposition US troops in Syria in order for the Turkish military to go after the Kurds, our ally for over a decade and our main partner against ISIS.  Trump’s attitude toward NATO and allies in general is depicted and an obvious cause for concern as Trump’s transactional nature is such that he does not accept the American need for allies with the attitude that there is little they can do for America and that they do not carry their own military and financial weight.  Mattis wondered what made Trump think anyone could make it alone in the world.  A country always needs allies just examine history, but since Trump does not read and has no sense or knowledge of history this intellectual exercise is superfluous.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(Former Defense Secretary James Mattis)

What separates Woodward’s work from others is the detail that he presents after assiduous research.  A prime example are the letters between Trump and Kim Jun-Un seemingly declaring an uncomfortable “bromance.”  These letters present insights into the minds of both men and go a long way in explaining why to this day nothing of major importance has been accomplished.  The conversations between President Xi and Trump are eye opening as more and more it is clear the Chinese stonewalled, but in an earlier conversation Trump asked Xi to help him get reelected.  The commentary of Coates and Mattis is important since neither has gone public with their evaluations and experiences with Trump, but for the first time we see their angst over this presidency, the damage he has caused, and their fears for the future.

Woodward’s discussion of the Mueller Report and impeachment is fair and well thought out.  His conclusions are interesting in that he argues that it was more Ron Rosenstein’s investigation and report rather than Mueller.  The fact that there was no “John Dean type” with a smoking gun like Watergate was a major reason that Trump seems to have gotten away with colluding with Russia, though the Mueller Report did not exonerate him despite what Attorney General Bill Barr stated in his four page summary of the report.  Mueller was limited in what appeared to be an expansive investigation.  Mueller himself, as well as his staff of lawyers and investigators could not stray too far for fear of being fired, which Rosenstein made clear.  In the end Trump weathered the greatest threat to his presidency to that point which certainly emboldened him.  It is no accident that Trump’s machinations with Ukraine to smear Joe Biden through his son Hunter began almost simultaneously to the end of the Mueller investigation.

Trump’s disparagement of the intelligence community is on full display and the true nature of Vice President Pence is apparent as he throws his former close friend Dan Coates under the bus with his “fawning” over the president.  Be it Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Covid-19, the threat of White supremacists, Trump, when he actually reads his daily briefing always finds fault with the CIA, FBI, and a myriad of other intelligence agencies.  It caused Coates to state, “to him a lie is not a lie.  Its just what he thinks.  He doesn’t know the difference between truth and a lie.”  Intelligence had to conform to Trump’s prejudices and beliefs, if not they were rejected outright.

Bob Woodward
(Author, Bob Woodward)

At times it seems as if Woodward is banging his head against the wall as he tries to reason with Trump, i.e., his questioning of Trump over the Ukrainian matter that led to his impeachment.  For Trump, his “perfect phone call and transcript” were enough and he did not grasp the concept that a president cannot shake down a foreign leader to acquire dirt on a political opponent.  Other conversations would repeatedly produce a Trumpian riff dealing with past disparagement and feelings and get nowhere.  But I admire Woodward for trying.

Woodward relies heavily on interviews with a number of important former administration officials which he refuses to name, but their identity comes out in the narrative.  Their frustration and fear of Trump is warranted based on their experiences.  Nothing was more dangerous than the reaction to Covid-19 and the policies or lack thereof of the administration.  Woodward covers the full expanse of Trump’s tenure in office, but it is his response and lies to the American people are the most important aspect of the book.  A great deal of what Woodward covers has been mined by others, but in the realm of Covid-19 it reflects how dangerous Trump is for the health of American people, as even Trump realized as early as February 7, 2020 in reference to Covid-19 when he said, “there’s dynamite behind every door,” at the same time he was playing down the coming pandemic and lying to the American people by arguing “the virus would go away on its own” at a time when there was only twelve cases.  But as we know the virus proliferated and Trump obfuscated as he remarked that he “always played down…I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create panic.”  In the end he said, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

Woodward treats the reader to important comments and conversations dealing with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Up until April 17, 2020, Trump had at least implemented travel bans against China and Europe, shut the country down for fifteen days but amidst a thirty day extension of the shut down on April 17, the president tweeted about liberating Virginia, Minnesota, and Michigan violating his own stated policy.  Trump’s mantra was to open up the country willing to accept the tidal wave of death that would result and decided to muzzle of Fauci.   A frustrated and concerned Fauci remarked that Trump “was on a separate channel,” his leadership was “rudderless” and his “attention span is like minus-number as “his stated purpose is to get reelected.”  No matter what question Woodward would ask the result would be a defensive Trump saying “the virus had nothing to do with me.  It’s not my fault.  It’s—China let the damn virus out.”  When Woodward pointed out he was in charge of the national interest, Trump would ignore the question or change the subject.

Rosa Brooks in her September 10, 2020 review of the book in the Washington Post asks what new insights does Bob Woodward’s latest book, RAGE offer?  “We learn that President Trump is not the sharpest tool in the shed; members of his Cabinet consider him a narcissistic fool, devoid of empathy and incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Trump blithely minimizes the lethality of coronavirus because he doesn’t want to look bad. He takes no responsibility for anything, boasts repeatedly about his wealth and genius, and shows nothing but contempt for those who happen to get in his way.”  The end results this morning the 200,000th American death was announced. What wonders what might have been different if Trump would have performed his constitutional duties.

(President Trump and Vice President Pence)

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins

(Acapulco)

For those of you who have had your eyes opened by Don Winslow’s trilogy dealing with the Mexican drug cartels you will not be disappointed by Jeanine Cummins’ new book AMERICAN DIRT.  Cummins offers a number of motivations in writing her novel.  Chief among them is that there are numerous books that depict the underside and violence of the drug cartels which contribute to the worst stereotypes involving Mexico.  Cummins on the other hand wants to deal with the flipside of that narrative, describing the experiences of ordinary people who for their own personal reasons must leave their families and past lives to escape northward.  How does a woman manage to escape a place like Acapulco where the story begins and take her child to an unknown destination facing possible horrors that they have only heard about in passing?  For Cummins, these stories have been overlooked, but she argues that all migrants need a voice as they are people with needs, dreams just like others and she intends to give them a platform.

Cummins begins her novel by metaphorically hitting her readers with a blunt object.  It makes the reader sit up and pay close attention and continue to read about another senseless killing that the Mexican police have no intention of solving.  The opening scenes deal with a mass revenge killing of sixteen people that Lydia and her eight year old son Luca must hid in the corner of a bathtub in order to escape.  Immediately, Lydia realizes that her husband, mother, aunt, and cousins are dead and that she and her son must leave as fast as possible before they are next because she knows who the killer is, though is unsure why her family is victimized.

Lydia first met the man who ordered the massacre in the bookstore she owned in Acapulco.  One day, Javier Crespo Fuentes, known as La Lechuza, enters the store and after browsing the stacks he chooses a number of items that are Lydia’s favorites.  After chatting it appears that they share a love of books and over the next few weeks he visits the store, buys more books, shares his poetry, and Lydia believes they have developed a close friendship.   Lydia’s husband, Sebastian Perez Delgado is a reporter who specializes in unmasking Mexican cartels and in this case unbeknownst to Lydia he has written an article about the head of Los Jardineros, Lydia’s new friend.  Once she learns who Fuentes is and the carnage and death, he has wrought she is conflicted.  First, she denies her friend is involved and then once the murder of her family takes place, she realizes she and Luca must run.

US-Mexico international border: Layers of Concertina are added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S. - Mexico border near Nogales, AZ, on February 4, 2019. See more information below. Stock Photo
(Nogales, TX and Mexican border)

Despite what she has been through Lydia’s approach to Fuentes is puzzling as she tries to balance her family’s needs with the truth, and the fact that Fuentes has fallen in love with her. The question is why she tortures herself emotionally after all that has occurred, a question the novel really does not address.  Half-way through the story Lydia learns why she and her son have become fugitives from Fuentes’ cartel and his contacts across Mexico.  From this point on it dawns on Lydia that she and Luca are the target of a nationwide search where police, social services, and other governmental institutions are in the pocket of the cartels.

Cummins graphically recounts Lydia and Luca’s journey as they leave Acapulco employing La Bestia, cargo trains, as they ride on top of the cars along with hundreds of other migrants from all over Central America and Mexico who are trying for a new life in the United States.  Cummins has produced a gripping story that in many ways is unconventional as she tells it from the viewpoint of the migrant experience.  Lydia suffers from a great deal of guilt as she sees herself as responsible for the death of her family and now all she can do revolves around saving Luca.  For years she pitied migrants, now she had become one.  Cummins’ portrayal is fraught with danger as Lydia and Luca must jump on to moving trains from overpasses, travel at night by themselves, and deal with “supposed” government migrant agents who are really predators who want to sell young girls and woman into sex slavery, rob them of their few possessions, and if they are of no use kill them.

The author creates a number of moving and important characters.  Soledad and Rebeca are beautiful sixteen and fourteen years old running from the dangers of Honduras who join with Lydia and Luca to form a quasi-family.  Along the way there are a number of people who help them, a doctor, priests, and peasant families all assist.  But there is danger around every corner.  The goal for Lydia and Luca is to reach an uncle in Denver, for Soledad and Rebeca they have an uncle in Maryland – however reaching those destinations seems almost impossible as they run into a number of nefarious characters along with those who want to help.  The question is who do you trust?

The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. Volunteers are said to have found hundreds of water gallons vandalised in a patch of Sonoran desert.

(The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. )

Cummins shifts the stories chronology a number of times to facilitate providing the background history of each of the main characters past.  As she does what takes place at the outset of the novel makes more and more sense, even in a convoluted way.  But the question must be asked, does the author reach her goal of making the reader aware of what is going on at our southern border, through the eyes of those who desperately want to escape their homeland for a better and safer life – that answer must be yes.*

*I would recommend Lauren Groff’s review of the book, “American Dirt Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis,” New York Times, March 6, 2020 for an excellent analysis of what Cummins’ wanted to achieve and if she was able to do so.  It follows below:

‘American Dirt’ Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis

By Lauren Groff

  • Published Jan. 19, 2020Updated March 6, 2020
  •  
  • AMERICAN DIRT
    By Jeanine Cummins

A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, “American Dirt,” I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house. The novel opens into a tense and vivid scene in Acapulco, the massacre of an entire Mexican family during a quinceañera cookout. The only survivors are a mother and her 8-year-old son, who must flee the narcos who spend the rest of the book hunting them down. When the boy’s mother tackles him so they can hide behind a shower wall in a bathroom, he bites his lip and a drop of blood splatters on the ground.

“Footsteps in the kitchen. The intermittent rattle of bullets in the house. Mami turns her head and notices, vivid against the tile floor, the lone spot of Luca’s blood, illuminated by the slant of light from the window. Luca feels her breath snag in her chest. The house is quiet now. The hallway that ends at the door of this bathroom is carpeted. Mami tugs her shirtsleeve over her hand, and Luca watches in horror as she leans away from him, toward that telltale splatter of blood. She runs her sleeve over it, leaving behind only a faint smear, and then pitches back to him just as the man in the hallway uses the butt of his AK-47 to nudge the door the rest of the way open.”

As the anxiety-riddled mother of an 8-year-old — as a person who has nightmares after every report of a mass shooting — I felt this scene in the marrow of my bones.

But another, different, fear had also crept in as I was reading: I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.

Yet the narrative is so swift, I don’t think I could have stopped reading. I kept turning the pages, following Lydia and Luca, the mother and son, as they flee through Mexico, gathering a misfit band of other migrants. We learn that Lydia had been a bookstore owner, the wife of a journalist who infuriated the wrong people, and Luca a tiny prodigy of geography. They are hunted by Los Jardineros, the cartel that killed Lydia’s family. They are robbed by corrupt police officers. They learn how to ride La Bestia, the train on which hundreds of migrants die every year. They ultimately find themselves in Nogales, where they must cross the desert by foot at night with a coyote to arrive in the United States. Their painful and thirsty hours in the desert haunt me still.

I have been trained by my education, reading and practice of literary fiction to believe that good novels have some titration of key elements: obvious joy in language, some form of humor, characters who feel real because they have the strangenesses and stories and motivations of actual people, shifting layers of moral complexity and, ultimately, the subversion of a reader’s expectations or worldview. The world of “American Dirt” is too urgent for humor or for much character development beyond Lydia’s own. There is a single clear moral voice entirely on the side of the migrants, because the book’s purpose is fiercely polemical, which I would have understood even without the author’s note in which Cummins writes that she intended “to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear,” so that people who are not migrants can “remember: These people are people.” Polemical fiction is not made to subvert expectations or to question the invisible architecture of the world; polemical fiction is designed to make its readers act in a way that corresponds to the writer’s vision.

All of this is to say that “American Dirt” contains few of the aspects that I have long believed are necessary for successful literary fiction; yet if it did have them, this novel wouldn’t be nearly as propulsive as it is. The book’s simple language immerses the reader immediately and breathlessly in the terror and difficulty of Lydia and Luca’s flight. The uncomplicated moral universe allows us to read it as a thriller with real-life stakes. The novel’s polemical architecture gives a single very forceful and efficient drive to the narrative. And the greatest animating spirit of the novel is the love between Lydia and Luca: It shines its blazing light on all the desperate migrants and feels true and lived.

“American Dirt” seems deeply aware of the discrepancies in power between the desperate people it describes, and both the writer who created it and the reader intended to receive it; the book offers itself as testament to the fact Cummins has worked to decrease this power differential. The major objection to cultural appropriation has always been about the abuse of power: inadequate research, halfhearted imagination and a lack of respect, the privileged assumption of the right to speak on behalf of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. In her afterword, Cummins relates that she did tremendous research, traveling extensively, interviewing many people, sitting with her material in utter seriousness for four years. Still, writers like Myriam Gurba have brought up concerns with the novel, saying that it trucks in stereotypes of Mexico as a place of danger while the United States is always envisioned as a place of safety, that these stereotypes could inadvertently give fuel to the far right in their contempt for Mexicans. At the same time, other Mexican-American and Latina writers are speaking out in support of the book, people like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and Erika Sánchez.

It’s true that because this book’s aims are polemical, its intended audience is clearly not the migrants described in it, who — having already lived its harrowing experience — would have no need to relive it in fiction. “American Dirt” is written for people like me, those native to the United States who are worried about what is happening at our southern border but who have never felt the migrants’ fear and desperation in their own bodies. This novel is aimed at people who have loved a child and who would fight with everything they have to see that child be allowed a good future. Cummins’s stated intention is not to speak for migrants but to speak while standing next to them, loudly enough to be heard by people who don’t want to hear.

Fiction is the art of delicately sketching the internal lives of others, of richly and believably projecting readers into lives not their own. Writers can and should write about anything that speaks urgently to them, but they should put their work into the world only if they’re able to pull off their intentions responsibly. In the end, I find myself deeply ambivalent. Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism; at the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me. When I think of the migrants at the border, suffering and desperate, I think of Lydia and Luca, and feel something close to bodily pain. “American Dirt” was written with good intentions, and like all deeply felt books, it calls its imagined ghosts into the reader’s real flesh.

Lauren Groff’s most recent book is “Florida,” a story collection.

AMERICAN DIRT
By Jeanine Cummins
383 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.

Aerial view of Acapulco, Mexico An aerial view of Acapulco, Mexico.  rr Acapulco Stock Photo
(Acapulco)

MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN by Ben Hubbard

Mohammed bin Salman

(Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman)

Who is Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS?  Is he a young visionary reformer that he purported to be when he first came on the scene; the man who most probably ordered the death of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi; or a rising dictator whose lack of experience has led to rash decisions like the war in Yemen which has greatly contributed to the destabilization of the volatile Middle East.  In Ben Hubbard’s new book MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, we are treated to a deep dive into how he rose to power in Saudi Arabia and what his policies have done to impact the daily lives of the Saudi people and the countries that must deal with the Riyadh regime, it’s oil wealth, and its influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times is very adept at digging deep into his subject area and developing astute observations.  At first, he provides the background history that resulted in the creation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom and the context of the Salman family in particular MBS whose actions always seem driven by how he could maximize his own personal power and influence.  Hubbard concentrates on the dynastic “pecking order” and how MBS, the sixth son of the twenty-sixth son of the kingdom’s founder would rise to power through luck and a series of deaths that unclogged the narrow path to achieve the position he coveted.  With the passing of a number of princes MBS would then develop a strong relationship with his father as they realized that they held many things in common. This renewed relationship was the cornerstone that MBS rode to power which should result in his succeeding his father on the throne in the not too distant future.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

(Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.)

In examining MBS’ life, Hubbard points out that he did little to make his mark before 2015, with no experience in the military, corporate policy, or knowledge how the United States functioned.  This would result in a number of miscalculations in how he thought Washington would view his adventurous policies.

Despite extensive experience in the region, Hubbard viewed Saudi Arabia as a black hole because of its murky politics and opaque society that was dominated by social conservatism, support for terrorists, and its Wahhabis beliefs encouraging the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi influence appeared invisible, but Hubbard, a perceptive writer soon saw through what MBS was all about.  The book is an easy read and points are understandable for the layman as Hubbard relies on his extensive knowledge in the region, interviews with people from all walks of life, and traveling the country extensively learning about the pre and post-MBS period before his visas were terminated in 2018.

Hubbard carefully details the political machinations within the royal family focusing on MBS’ competition with Mohammed Bin Nayef, a moderate who was next in line to the throne ahead of him.  By 2016, MBS publicized his “Saudi Vision 2030” plan that was the core of his reform program which at the outset was his calling card to gain support.  Throughout this period the Obama administration remained skeptical when it came to MBS’ plans.  They felt he had all the ”buzz words” but little substance calling for economic reforms, but no political reform, privately arguing that he was too cocky despite the fact that his economic program made sense when he argued that his government suffered from an oil addiction.  MBS’ world view saw Iran as the major threat, along with the Moslem Brotherhood and the German intelligence service, the BND warned that the new assertive Saudi Arabia that MBS proposed could destabilize the region, i.e.; confrontational stance toward Iran, promoting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.  However, MBS’ new approach called for improved relations with Israel.  MBS shared Israel’s view of Iran and its puppet, Hezbollah and admired the country’s technological and economic power.  MBS had never been totally supportive of the Palestinians, seeing them as an impediment to peace and in the not too distant future it is quite possible that an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement may be in the offering.

Jared Kushner

(Jared Kushner)

Hubbard introduces the reader to the contradictions of Wahhabism by focusing on a moderate cleric named al-Ghamdi Ahmed Qassam who confronted the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which he believed went too far and was much too intrusive in the lives of the Saudi people.  Hubbard explores a number of examples ranging from the lack of woman’s rights, religious fealty, and support for the dynasty reflecting how absurd their actions were. 

Hubbard’s incisive analysis is on full display in discussing the life and impact of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter who in his early career had links to Osama bin-Laden, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  He believed that the Afghan revolt would reform Afghanistan, but he would be greatly disappointed particularly after 9/11 when he broke with al-Qaeda.  The later Arab Spring further encouraged Khashoggi’s belief in reform in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia which would soon be another major disappointment.  He continued to write about the Saudi Dynasty as a reporter for a number of Arab newspapers and the Washington Post, but his repeated criticisms of Saudi policies in Yemen and Saudi society led to his murder, a murder that Hubbard chronicles in detail despite the Crown Prince’s denials that he was responsible.

Hubbard does a good job digging up important information particularly the implications of an Iranian backed Wikileaks dump of the hacked Saudi Foreign Ministry.   Among the documents leaked was details concerning Saudi Wahabis missionary work worldwide training clerics and spreading the Saudi version of Islam.  Hubbard’s observations are quite astute as he states, “the funding was not just to promote Islam, but to promote the right kind of Islam, which meant undermining the wrong kind of Islam,” – stop the spread of Shiism in China, India, and Africa.  Further, Hubbard presents the actions and results of MBS’ disastrous policy of going after the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War with almost full American support.  The devastation of Saudi bombing and resulting death and infrastructure loss is eye opening.  Hatred for Iran who supported the Houthi rebels was and remains the driving force for MBS.

(Ben Hubbard)

MBS’ obsession with Iran led to confrontation with the Obama administration who eventually grew tired of death and devastation in Yemen, his refusal to consider the civil rights of his people, and his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal.  In perhaps the most important part of the narrative Hubbard recounts MBS’ anger at President Obama apart from his nuclear deal, and his lack of action in the Syrian Civil War.  As disagreement mounted MBS looked forward to the arrival of the Trump administration.

Hubbard’s remarks on the similarities between MBS and Jared Kushner are well thought out and he develops their similar ideologies and needs for power and wealth.  Hubbard refers to the “the two princelings” as the key to the new burgeoning relationship between the Trump administration and MBS’ government.  After eight years of sparring with Obama, Riyadh saw a breath of fresh air as issues like Iran, Yemen, arms deals, peace with Israel all seemed to come into greater focus as Trump, led by Kushner were open to whatever MBS offered, especially Saudi money entering the US economy, and kowtowing to Trump’s ego.  By March 2017, the depth of the MBS-Kushner relationship was clear as joint plans were being developed and implemented.

There are few new revelations in Hubbard’s book, but a useful synthesis of how ruthless MBS is and how he achieved power and developed a close relationship with the Trump administration.  The strength of the book is Hubbard’s thorough reporting and anonymous interviews of people inside the kingdom until the Saudi government stopped providing him visas in 2018.  As critical Hubbard is in detailing MBS’ rise and policies he does point out that women can now drive, and he did work to break through some of the barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating.  In April 2016 he striped the Commission of its powers and allowed certain forms of entertainment that previously had been banned.  But despite some progress, Hubbard warns that authoritarian regimes can do popular things, but when it comes to opposition it will not be tolerated.  Hubbard credits MBS for countering centuries of Saudi history by uncoupling the clerics from the monarchy.  “Under MBS, the states’ authority comes less from its claim to defending religious orthodoxy than from a sense of authoritarian nationalism.”

The question must be raised as to which direction MBS will go in the future, but part of that answer may lie in American presidential politics.  Trump has given him a free hand with little or no criticism especially when it came to Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.  Hopefully, a Biden administration would demand greater accountability, if not MBS can continue to exercise his power with little restraint and based on his  age the United States will have to deal with him for years to come.


The Western media, foreign business and politicians will no longer be able to fete MBS as a great moderniser and visionary pulling his desert kingdom into the 21st century, writes Law [Reuters]

CLOSED CIRCLES by Viveca Sten




Sandhamn Island In The Stockholm Archipelago

(Sandhamn Island, Sweden)

Viveca Sten continues her Sandhamn murder series with her second installment CLOSED CIRCLES in which she continues her “softer” approach to the Swedish noir.  Unlike other authors, Sten chooses to mostly leave out the blood and gore and presents violent acts in a much more acceptable fashion, though the story does begin with a murder.  The victim Oscar Juliander, a womanizer and corrupt lawyer is shot as he stood by the boat’s steering column, the “Emerald Gin,” as he jockeyed for position at the Round Gotland Race.  Juliander was the first vice chairman of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) and a successful bankruptcy lawyer.  He was killed when the starting gun went off to begin the race which coincided with the bullet that resulted in his death.

Sten interestingly constructs her plot through a number of characters that appeared in STILL WATERS the most important of which are Detective Inspector Thomas Andreasson; Nora Linde, a lawyer and old friend of Andreasson; Carina Persson, an administrative assistant on the police force who was in a relationship with Andreasson; and Detective Inspector Margit Grankvist, Andreasson’s partner.  Sten introduces a series of new characters aside from Juliander which reflect the social status and lifestyles of RSYC members. They include Ingmar von Hahne, the yacht club secretary; Hans Rosensjoo, Chairman of the RSYC; and Martin Nyren, head of facilities for the RSYC among numerous others.

From the outset the dominant question revolves around who killed Oscar Juliander.  There are a number of interesting theories.  First, though married he had over thirteen mistresses over the years who he had made certain promises to.  Second, he was scheduled to replace Rosensjoo as Chairman of the RSYC, perhaps someone was jealous or had other plans.  Third, Juliander lived his life well beyond his financial means, i.e., how did he afford his lavish sailboat, leading to the supposition that the Russian mob may have been involved.  Fourth, Juliander was fond of drugs.  Fifth,  he was in possession of a crooked credit card linked to an offshore bank account that was difficult to penetrate, and lastly someone might have been focused on killing members of the RSYC’s board of directors.

For about two-thirds of the novel the plot line zeroes in on the investigation of Juliander’s death until a second killing takes place.  As you continue to read you expect some sort of defining moment, but Sten continues and strings you along.  To facilitate the story line Sten delves into the private life of Andreasson and Linde’s private lives in much more detail than in STILL WATERS.  For Andreasson his involvement with Carina Persson, fourteen years younger and the daughter of the Chief of Police puts him in a quandary, how to break it off and not anger anyone.  In Linde’s case her marital difficulties with her physician husband Henrik continues from the prequel as she inherits an old mansion that she wants to maintain, and her husband does not.  The marriage had difficulties before this new issue, and it is a focal point in the story as she turns to Andreasson for advice and he in turn looks to her for professional assistance in dealing with banking regulations to help solve the murders.

Namn: Viveca Sten.  Ålder: 60 år.  Bor: I en villa norr om Stockholm. Sommarhus i Sandhamn i Stock-holms skärgård.  Familj: Man och tre vuxna barn.  Gör: Är författare, juridisk rådgivare, styrelseledamot och föreläsare.
(Author, Viveca Sten)

Juliander’s vehicle for his wealth was a foreign credit card set up through a secret bank account.  The way banking regulations were set up, particularly in Liechtenstein it was difficult to obtain banking records.  Sten spends time explaining how these regulations impeded criminal investigations especially in certain countries.  It seemed the only way to penetrate this vehicle of corruption was if the issue revolved around terrorism or drugs.  In Juliander’s case it appeared that the protective wall was just about money laundering or other forms of accumulating wealth.

As the novel progresses Sten integrates the fears and angst of a number of characters, among them is Diana Soder who fears for her life because of a number of threatening e-mails.  Further the wives of RSYC board members have their own agendas as do a number of other somewhat shady characters.  Sten’s work flies by as you read as the translation from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg is well done.  I enjoyed CLOSED CIRCLES and I hope to continue reading the series, with GUILTLESS, next up.

Sandhamn, Sweden Oh The Places You'll Go, Finland, San Francisco Skyline, Denmark, Touring, Norway, Sweden, Scandinavian, Semester

(Sandhamn Island, Sweden)

HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE by Jon Meacham

Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis at Mass Meeting in Nashville

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center right, is escorted into a mass meeting at Fisk University along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, left, and Lester Mckinnie, center, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesJuly 21, 

When John R. Lewis died recently, part of America’s conscience passed with him.  With all the turbulence, chaos, lies, and antipathy toward race that is endemic to the Trump administration it makes every day difficult.  A case in point was yesterday in Kenosha, WI when Trump refused to acknowledge the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and his subsequent paralysis or his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen year old AR-15 carrying killer of two men.  For me this has led to despair as I do not see a way out of America’s current condition with a “serial igniter” when it comes to race. Trump and his acolytes blame everyone but their own policies and rhetoric for where we are as a country, and one can only imagine what will become of our racial divide should he be reelected.

Watching and listening to the outpouring of respect for Lewis by the American people because of his message of non-violence and hope for the next generation was always reassuring, but now he is gone.  However, the texture of his life’s work is on full display in Jon Meacham’s latest work, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE.  Mecham’s latest is not a full scale biography like his previous subjects, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and George H.W. Bush, but a more nuanced rendering of the development of Lewis’ personal theology and his contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement dating to the 1950s.  Mecham’s new book is somewhat a sequel to his wonderful book THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR A BETTER ANGELS where he expresses an optimism for America’s future that I believe has been shattered by events in Portland, Kenosha, and the rise of the alt-right white supremacist movement in this country.  We are bombarded each day by bifurcated politics and have lost the leadership of a great man. 

martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In true Meacham fashion his newest narrative history relies on extensive research and the application of incisive analysis as the keystone to his examination of Lewis’ life work.  Mecham points out his goal was to present an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’ life in the Civil Rights Movement, “of the theological understanding he brought to the struggle and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”  Mecham’s opening chapter entitled “Overture” returns the dying Lewis suffering from pancreatic cancer to Selma, AL last March to celebrate the events of fifty-five years ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was almost beaten to death by a white mob supported by police which frames the stage for his remarkable life’s work and accomplishments, but also his optimism and love in the face of hatred.

For Lewis growing up in the segregated world of Troy, AL the church become his comfort and restorative zone and from an incredibly young age he fashioned himself as a preacher.  He possessed a great imagination and quickening faith from biblical themes of resurrection, of exile, and deliverance shaped and suffused Lewis’ life from its earliest days.  Even as a boy he would preach to his “congregation of chickens” located in his “chicken coop”who he would minister to each day.  He would experience the vividness of the Jim Crow order and its segregation realizing how evil it was from an early age.  Once he was exposed to an integrated society at his Uncle’s home in Buffalo, he realized how difficult it was to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and segregation.

The watershed moment(s) of his life was his exposure and later meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King.  For the first time King’s words introduced a vision of “non-violence, religiously inspired protest, to a way of seeing the world in terms of bringing the temporal in tune with the timeless.”  Lewis was not concerned with the streets of heaven, but the streets of Montgomery and the way black and poor people were treated.

Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967

There were a number of individuals who influenced Lewis’ intellectual development.  Apart from Dr. King, the “social gospel” concepts of Walter Rauschenbusch, the strategy of non-violence of Reverend James M. Lawson, along with the murder of Emmett Till, and the work of Rosa Parks all impacted him greatly.  Mecham does a workman like job weaving Lewis’ upbringing and later life within the context of American history.  His intellectual and emotional development applied to upheavals in America are clearly explored and provides a roadmap into what Lewis thought and what type of man he would become.

Lewis saw integration as a key step forward toward bringing the world into a closer tune with the gospel.  Meacham allows the reader to accompany Lewis on his life’s journey including experiencing the approach of peaceful protest met by violence, arrest and imprisonment in Nashville, TN, Oak Hill, SC, Jackson, MS, and Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. in the mid to late 1950s.  Along the way we meet the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Birmingham’s First Baptist church, James farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Medgar Evers, Field Secretary for the NAACP before his murder by Klansmen in Jackson, Diane Nash, a key organizer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and of course the likes of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, George Corley Wallace, and John Patterson.  There were also those that did not go along with Lewis’ “Beloved Community.”  Men like Stokely Carmichael who believed that systemic racism would not be defeated by non-violence – he favored radical action after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights bill that led to Lewis’ removal as Chair of the SNCC; and Malcom X who favored a more militant approach and denigrated some of Lewis’ ideas, though later on they came much closer to each other’s ideals.

The Missing Malcolm X

Malcom X

Meacham presents a balanced approach integrating theology, socio-economics, and political components that Lewis brought to the Civil Rights Movement providing insights into what made Lewis tick and made him such a social and political force of nature. 1963 would be a watershed for Lewis’ development and the Civil Rights Movement.  Meacham provides intricate details of events surrounding protests in Birmingham and Jackson culminating in the March on Washington on August 28th of that year where Lewis at age twenty-one was the youngest speaker.  At the age of twenty-three after his participation in the Freedom Rides and a stint at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, Lewis was elected Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC led the growing militancy of the Civil Rights Movement provoking violent resistance against their cause that pushed a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black rights.  By 1965, the Johnson administration gained the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting destroying the legal foundations of Jim Crow.  1965 was also the year that Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge as they marched for voting rights in Selma, AL, an event known as Bloody Sunday.  SNCC leadership would pass from Lewis to Stokely Carmichael in 1966 whose Black Power slogan was the antithesis of Lewis’ vision of a nationwide integrated community. But the SNCC would flounder due to FBI harassment and internal disagreements and passed from the scene by the late 1960s.  By 1968 Lewis would join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and after Kennedy’s assassination he would go on to be elected to Congress where he would serve for more than thirty years.

Much of Meacham’s work relies heavily on Lewis’ memoir, WALKING IN THE WIND and as the author points out he did not set out to write a full scale biography.  Meacham reminds readers that if they wanted a full scale biography they must wait until Rutgers historian David Greenberg completes his own work.  But in the interim, Meacham’s work should hold the fort for those with an interest in a remarkable man.

John Lewis. Courtesy High Museum.

(John R. Lewis, booked for one of his many arrests)