Posted tagged ‘Reading’

You Can Thank Me Later

March 7, 2015

Nothing but unicorns and rainbows in this post.

Every now and then, rarely, a book comes along that makes you want to grab strangers on the street and hold them by their shirtfronts until they promise — pinky swear, no mental reservations allowed — that they will get and read that irreplaceable book as soon as you let them get go.

I’m a few pages into that book.  So I’m doing all that to you, grabbing hold as firmly as I can, to the limit our intertubes allow.

The work is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk.*  It is a work of intensely observed natural history, if that’s the way you take it.  From another angle, it’s a memoir of grief.  From any point of view, it’s a work of art.  MacDonald’s prose is simply beautiful: resonant on the sentence level, unbelievably sharp — you’ll cut yourself on her images — and even in the slow entry I’ve allowed myself so far,** possessed of an accumulating beauty that reminds me of something I too easily forget, why it is I love the practice of words.

For a proper learned review, a lovely piece of writing in itself, see Kathryn Schulz’s elegant review at The New Yorker.  Here’s a taste:

Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.

Simone_Martini_038

For my part, I’ll just tease you with the first paragraph of the book.  It’s a soft open:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.  It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand.  It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases.  There are ghosts here:  houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.  There are spaces built for aid-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses.  In spring, it’s a riot of noise:  constnt plane traffic, gas guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines.  It’s called the Brecklands — the broken lands — and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all. At five in the morning I’d been staring at a square of streetlight on the ceiling, listening to a couple of late party-leavers chatting on the pavement outside.  I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with smoething like microwaved aluminium foil, dinted, charred and shorting with sparks.  Nnnngh. Must get out, I thought, throwing back the covers. Out! I pulled on jeans, boots and a jumper, scalded my mouth with burned coffee, and it was only my frozen ancient Volkswagen and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going, and why.  Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest.  The broken forest.  That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.

A soft open indeed.  Action, of a sort, but (as yet) not terribly consequential.  A character, with whom we haven’t had the chance to form a bond of sympathy.  Lists.

And yet, as I read these few lines again, I’m sitting here gobsmacked, full of professional admiration, taking notes.  So much good writing, so much promise, in what, told baldly, is an utterly unpromising scene.  (I couldn’t sleep so I got in my car to look for some birds in a nasty bit of wasteland.)

What I’m feeling on this read is the rhythm.  MacDonald’s a published poet, among other things, and she writes prose that recalls that discipline, with word-by-word attention to sound and beat, to build into a play of sentences that imposes a kind of music on top of sense.  As I’ve dived further into the book I forget, sometimes, to pay attention to that kind of fine-grained technique.  Instead, I’m being carried along by who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing.  As Schulz says, this is a “wondrously atypical book.”  It delivers its goods polyphonically; there’s always another level to experience.

I’ll stop there, but I hope you won’t.  I’m grabbing you, folks.  I’m pulling hard on your lapels.  I’m leaning in.  I’ll speak slowly, so there’s no chance of a failure to communicate.

Buy this book.  Read it.

You can thank me later.

*Amazon link for reference purposes.  If you can support your local bookshop, it’s the policy of this blogger to encourage you to do so.

**I’ve had to stop myself from dropping everything — sleep included — and racing too fast through this one.  It really is that good.

Image:  Simone Martini, St. Martin of Tours, 1322-1326

 

Brief Non Political Interlude To Celebrate Some Smart Writing (Scott Huler edition)

October 14, 2013

Been celebrating the Bat-Mitzvah-hood of my wonderful niece the last few days, and so benefited from some low-intertube days.  Got dug into a book I’ve been peering at on my shelves for a couple of years now along the way.  (One of the pleasures of travelling is the sudden opening of slices of time that the working day routine obliterates.)  And this morning, still on east coast time in my childhood home town of Berkeley (explains a lot, doesn’t it), reading in bed just before 6:00 a.m., I came across this paragraph of just plain, intelligent, happy writing:

What caught my attention about the Beaufort Scale was at first the beauty of its language, but there was something else, something powerful, about how it does its job.  What the Beaufort Scale is, fundamentally is scientific language.  Its descriptions are beautiful, to be sure — but what they also are is distilled, thorough, complete.  The Beaufort Scale, in Beaufort’s form, takes the wind at sea, anywhere all over the planet — wherever a ship might encounter it — and reduces it to a format that is not only clear but quantifiable and communicable.  The Beaufort Scale takes observation and turns it into information.

That’s from Scott Huler’s de-fin-ing the wind, delightful book on the making and significance of the Beaufort Scale, the standard measure of wind strength sailors have used for a couple of centuries now.

Fishing_Boats_with_Hucksters_Bargaining_for_Fish_1837-1838_JMW_Turner

Scott’s a friend of mine, and a fine writer.  He gave me my copy of this book a while ago, and it was just the pressure of all the stuff my day job needs me to read that held it up on the pile this long.

My loss.  I’m finding lots of smart pleasure as I go along with Scott, and nuggets like the passage above  (on p. 124, if you’re asking) is that capture his gift for doing what I like best in science writing (or really, any text).  He distills his narrative down to the essence of its point, the meaning to extract from the (delightful) journey through historical narrative and anecdote.  Where and how and by whom the idea of matching measures of wind strengths to the effects of given speeds on something physical — a tree branch, a windmill vane, a sail — makes (in Scott’s hands) a wonderful account of how  18th century minds made sense of their world.  That’s reward enough on its own — but in the passage above you get something more, something of how an enterprise, science, actually works, or rather, made itself into a system of acquiring both knowledge and understanding of unique rigor and power.

And with that note, apropos of nothing contemporary or political (unless you read well between my lines), why don’t we all enjoy some nice, fresh (never half-) baked open thread.

Image: J. W. M. Turner, Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish, 1837-1838.

 

Why We Fight (Kind of Meta)

July 21, 2012

Attention Conservation notice [w. apologies to Cosma Shalizi, from whom the phrase is stolen]What follows is what in the newspaper business used to be called a thumbsucker  — in this case, yet another way to see the GOP as not just wrong, but so steeped in an error of principle, of worldview, as to be irredeemable.  It’s got a nice anecdote in it, lifted from someone else, but there’s no need to read on if you don’t like such stuff.  Which last is, of course, a PGO of its own.  See:  I’m fractally unnecessary.

______________

I don’t recall an election in which two such strikingly opposite visions not just of the United States, but of human nature, so clearly set the stakes.  Let me get to part of what I see by some indirection:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, with (thanks to the exceptional luxury of a sabbatical) much more to come.  I’ve started out by trying to catch up on some of the political books I’ve missed recently — and I’ll probably have some thoughts to share about Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites before long.  I just finished Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy too, though I found it perfectly interesting, but less compelling than Hayes’ book for a number f reasons.  Still that’s a philosopher’s take on the same problem explored in the book that prompts this post, Virginia Sweet’s God’s Hotel.  

Sweet’s work is a memoir of her doubled journey as a doctor at the last surviving American big city alms house, San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, and as a scholar trying to understand Hildegard von Bingen’s spiritual and practical approach to her form of medicine.  Sweet’s book has been enthusiastically received, and I can see why, though it didn’t move me in quite the same way it seems to have for some others.  It’s Sweet’s lack of struggle that gets me, I guess; there’s no doubt in my mind she did sweat and suffer over her 20 years caring for the poor, but in recollection the life  unfolds with an easy rhythm, no matter how tumultuous the world around her might be.

That said, though, the core message of the book is that there is a profound difference between health care and medicine, and that we ignore the virtues of the art and practice of medicine at our great cost.  As one of  her reviewers notes, this is a subversive thought:  Medicine is a craft, performed one-on-one, slowly…

…while health care is a commodity, something that can be abstracted and, in a sense, mass-produced:

Sweet doesn’t romanticize much, and she never suggests that she, her patients or anyone should trade modern medicine and its quantifying tools for Hildegard’s actual practice.  But she makes the point a good historian of ideas should: one studies the past not to recreate it, but to understand what its thoughts meant to its thinkers — and then what meaning those same insights may have in the radically different time and place in which the historian lives.  Use Hildegard as a tool to probe what the consequences may be if we commit ourselves to life within Mitt Romney’s vision of America.

In that frame, here’s just a brief passage, in which Sweet describes her even-tempered reaction to the consequences of an infestation of her hospital by the kind of consultants that Romney’s parent firm Bain produces:

Above all, the [consultants’] report said, they’d been amazed by the anachronistic presence of a head nurse on every one of the hospital’s thirty-eight wards.  As far as they could tell, this head nurse did nothing but sit most of the day in  her chair in the nursing station.  She answered the phone, to be sure, and kept the charts tidy; now and again she when out and inspected a patient with one of her nurses.  Also, she made coffee, kept the TV room and lounge neat, organized patients’ birthed parties and in general, did whatever needed to be done. It was a pleasant job [the consultants] observed, helpful, no doubt, but one hundred years after Frederic Taylor’s description of scientific management, and in a time of tightening health-care budgets, such a use of a skilled RN was excessive.  They’d even seen one head  nurse whose only task was knitting.  That’s right, a head nurse who, as far as they could tell, spent all day in her chair at the head of her ward, doing nothing but knitting blankets and booties for her patients.

So their main recommendation was to change the nursing structure at Laguna Honda.  The job of head nurse should be eliminated.  Instead, a new nose manager position should be created, where each nurse manager would be responsible for two wards instead of one.  She would no longer answer the phones, tidy the charts, or help out with patient care.  Rather she would manage the staff…

It was a lesson in the inefficiency of efficiency.  And the best way to explain is to tell you about the head nurse who knit….[hers] was a little-old-lady-ward, with thirty-six little old ladies — white-haired, tiny and old — and sure enough almost everyone one was wrapped in or had on her bed a hand-knit blanket; white and green, white and red, white and yellow.  And there was the head nurse sitting in her chair at the nursing station, answering the phone, fussing with the charts, observing her charges, and knitting one of the few blankets remaining to be done.

I’ve thought a lot about those blankets since the disappearance of the head nurses and their well – run neighborhoods of wards.  About what the blankets meant and what they signified.  And here’s the thing: The blankets made me sit up and take notice.  Made me pay attention. Marked out that head nurse as especially attentive, especially present, especially caring.  It put me and everyone else on notice.

It’s not that the ladies for whom they were knitted appreciated them or even noticed them. Who did notice was — everyone else. Visiting family noticed.  Looking down the center aisle, they saw two rows of little white-haired ladies — their mothers, great-aunts, and sisters — each lady bundled up in a bright, many-colored hand -knit blanket. They also saw that each had makeup on, and her hair done and her nails polished by the nurses who knew that, down at the end of the ward, was the head nurse, knitting. The Russian ambulance drivers noticed, when they rushed onto the ward to pick up one of the ladies…Even the doctors noticed.  The blankets put us all on notice that this was a head nurse who cared.

…those blankets signified even more than attention and caring. The click of that head nurse’s knitting needles was the meditative click of — nothing more to be done.  Although it had seemed to [the consultants] that the head nurse  did nothing except knit, that nothing was, as the Tao says, what the Superior Man does when everything that was supposed to be done has been done.

We did get used to the new system eventually.  The remaining staff learned to answer the phones, tidy the charts, talk to families, help the doctors, survey the ward and support one another at the same tim they were looking on the computer or filling out the forms that the new nurse managers created.  But the new system had a cost.  It was stressful. After the head nurses were cut in half, there were more illnesses and more sick days among the staff; there were more injuries more disabilities, and earlier retirements. Among the patients there war emore falls, more bedsores, more fights, and more tears.  And this, in the broader scheme of things — even economics — is not efficient.

…The [consultants’] report  taught me not only the lesson of the inefficiency of efficiency.  It also taught me the lesson of the efficiency of inefficiency.

Because it wasn’t just the tasks of the head nurse that fell by the wayside with [the] recommendations. It wasn’t even their watchful re-creation of neighborhoods within the village of the hospital.  It was the time they had, the unassigned time, that not only belonged to them but spread itself to all the staff — doctors included. That unassigned time, as inefficient as it seemed to be… turned out to be one of the secret ingredients of Laguna Honda.  With the elimination of the head nurses, so economical on paper, some of that extra time was also eliminated, and with it, some of the mental space to focus and care.  There was, I discovered, a connection between inefficiency and good care…

I don’t want to romanticize here, any more than Sweet does through her long narrative.  To channel my inner Freud, sometimes the old ways of doing stuff really are outmoded.  No one who has recently spent four years in academic administration needs to be reminded of that.

But Sweet’s point is one I’ve been thinking of more and more as each Bain vulture capitalism story makes its way in and out of the Look! Shiny! media narrative.  Sweet mentions that the consultants who got rid of half of the head nurses shifted $2 million in the budget.  They collected $200,000 for their recommendation — an agreed 10% bounty on all “savings” their study produced. They correctly determined an individual inefficiency, and missed, in Sweet’s account, the systemic advantages of what seemed to their analytical framework, their faith, to be an obviously flawed system.

And so it goes throughout the current GOP worldview.  We know that the private sector is the GOP solution to (putative) problems in the public schools [paywall] by selecting the right measurement criteria.  Bobby Jindal can determine the cost of libraries, but not the cost in money or possibility of their loss. The number wins; the uncertain future weighs for nought.  The usual catchphrase for all this is privatizing profit and socializing risk — which is what the GOP seeks for social capital as much as the financial kind.  Hence the stakes of this coming election.

But beyond that pretty familiar notion, what came to front-of-mind as I read Sweet’s story was the reminder, if any were needed that the basic worldview of the two sides in this election are not the same, for all the overlap of interest and elite corruption and all that the circular firing squads of the left can (sometimes accurately) describe. I said this was meta, and it is, and I should probably let y’all get back to your Saturdays.  But behind the consultant’s technical apparatus is a vision of a world of individual action and reaction. Cut here, save the money, Profit!

Taken to the level of politics and national elections, it’s a vision (sic!) of a country best understood as an assemblage of 300 million individuals. Hence, among the adherents of this view, the furor over the suggestion that business folk had any help building their businesses.

If you think that such a view of the lack of connection between one person’s endeavor and the next is the way to educate a population, receive health care in a timely and useful fashion, to innovate, then the GOP is for you.  If you think we live in society in which individuals  gain freedom of opportunity and access to experience supported by the links between the lives of all those 300 million — if you inhabit reality, that is — then we need to destroy the current GOP root and branch, now and for the forseeable future.

Put another way:  we need to recall that I didn’t build this blog…without the internet, without its readers, without…you get the idea. 😉

And that’s enough meandering.  I’ve just finished my next, post-Sweet book in this orgy of reading, Elaine Pagels, Revelations. Interesting, culminating in a very good explanation of what from my perspective I read as the reason Isaac Newton so excoriated what he saw as the theft of Christ’s church by Athanasius, his imperial patrons and his allies.  Not sure what to grab next.  No matter.  What a joy it is to read and read and read…

Images: Jan Steen, The Sick Woman, ​ before 1679.

Max Liebermann, The Canning Factory, ​1879.

 

Why I Love the English Language (and writing)

April 16, 2010

From Nick Mamtas

Carver became a legend on 72 short stories. I just sold my 60th.  But thanks to the handy chart at the back of Carol Sklenicka’s mammoth biography, I know that Carver never sold stories to anthologies with names such as The Walri Project, The Naked Singularity, or Fucking Daphne. Am I doing something wrong?

(h/t Andrew Sullivan.)

I don’t quite know why this tickles me so, except that as a writer, I love reading writer’s rants.  Or perhaps its the fact that I now have some almost-certain-to-be-unreached destinations to which my own work could aspire.

I

mage: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (January 1937, vol. 29, no. 1). Covert art by Margaret Brundage.

My Favorite iPad Hater Nonsense so far

April 7, 2010

From commenter zyodei at Cory Doctorow’s blog at BoingBoing (h/t @jasonpontin’s twitter feed):

Of course, I will still never buy one, because as has been pointed out by its design I still see it as something that is designed primarily for consuming information, not creating it. And who needs that?

Uhhh…those of us who create not “information,” but works of communication, craft, art, whatever.

I mean, I don’t know about anyone else, but I hope that folks actually, you know, read what I write, not to mention see or hear the other works I create.  Consuming that stuff, again, not information but composed, intended works, is something for which the iPad, among other devices, is just a dandy platform.  More of this please.

Not to mention that there are lots of hours in the day when I — I, and not a seraph, not an avenging messenger of the Tech Lords — find myself consuming other folks’ good work, and don’t need or necessarily want to haul my lapbeast.

I’m not saying that there is any affirmative necessity that should send all tech-happy folks into Father Jobs’ arms.  There are lots of reasons not to buy another thing.  I haven’t got mine yet, and didn’t get swept up on a wave of gadget-lust when I briefly toyed with one in an Apple store yesterday.  And choosing to save one’s pennies because it doesn’t perform the functions you require, as it appears it doesn’t for zyodei,, is sane, perfectly reasonable.

It’s just the “who needs that” tag that harshed my mellow.  No writer that I’ve ever known lays down words for a game of solitaire. Even as we — or at least I — write, the words seem to me to be leaning toward a reader.  Who needs “consumers” — an ugly, misleading name?  I do; every last line I write does.

Image:  Antoine Wiertz, “The Reader of Novels,” 1853

In Defense of Reading: Jim Lefferts Guest Posting On Books That Will Reward Your Gaze

October 25, 2009

Jim Leffert, a fellow member of perhaps the most broad-spectrum Jewish congregation in existence, Harvard Hillel’s Worship and Study Minyan, reads more than almost anyone I can think of, and writes about his voracious and small “c” catholic habit for the benefit of that congregation and on GoodReads.  His latest is below.  Winter’s coming…stock up on books.  (And no, I didn’t post this because of the mention in passing of my latest book below, but mention it he does, for which my thanks.)

If I were to weigh in, I’d add that I fully share Jim’s enthusiasm for Stone’s Trial of Socrates — perhaps more than fully, given that I didn’t feel the book slowed down at all; I found it gripping throughout.  I haven’t read the new Ian Pears, but I think I was somewhat less caught up in his Instance of the Fingerpost than Jim was.  Reading his comments below, though, makes me think I should take a second look.  And my thanks to Jim for alerting me to the Sister Pelagia stories.  I’d never heard of them, but they sound like the kind of haute beach reading I truly love.

Anyway — the point of this all is to celebrate the book any which way we can, so read, then read.

The Trial of Socrates

By I.F. Stone

So you think that Socrates is deservedly one of civilization’s culture heroes for his pioneering use of the dialectic method in philosophy and for being a martyr for philosophic inquiry when he ran afoul of the Athens city fathers, who sentenced him to death by swallowing hemlock? I.F. Stone doesn’t think so, and in this book he lays out evidence to explain why the democratic government of Athens tried and executed him. Stone may not excuse the decision to execute Socrates but he makes a case for why it happened.

Analyzing a variety of ancient sources, he demonstrates that Socrates had great contempt for Athens’ democratic form of government and continually ridiculed it to his young tutees; energetically advocated an “enlightened” rule by autocratic dictators; did little or nothing to speak out against or stand up against the dictatorial regimes that periodically took over Athens; and points out that his tutees, who were all from the aristocratic class, included two of the main dictators.

Stone also argues that had Socrates wished to, he could have persuaded the jury to give him a lesser punishment. Instead, because Socrates wanted to die, he baited the jury and goaded them into imposing this unusually severe sentence. Stone comes out swinging on the first page of this book and never lets up. He fires away: Socrates loved to poke holes in others’ reasoning to make them look stupid but did not offer a viable alternative to others’ thinking; furthermore, he didn’t take his wife and children’s well-being into consideration when he goaded his captors into making him kick the bucket. The book moves a little slowly in some places, but all in all, it offers an enlightening analysis of Greek philosophy, politics, literature, political history, and legal practices as he explicates the most memorable legal case of the 5th century B.C.E.

Molly and Me

By Gertrude Berg

Aviva Kempner’s fine documentary about Gertrude Berg, titled “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”, led me to check out Berg’s 1961 memoir. According to Kempner, Berg was an important culture hero who translated the immigrant Jewish experience into a prime time nationwide radio and later television show that lasted a quarter of a century. A creative force acknowledged as the inventor of the sitcom, Berg conceived the characters, hired the actors, and wrote every episode.

Molly and Me is a charming, entertaining, and at times poignant portrait of Berg’s immigrant family’s struggles and strivings (sort of an “All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown”), her experiences growing up at her family’s Catskills hotel, and her entry into and life in show business. Unfortunately, about 60 pages before the end, the book runs out of steam. By now, she is a famous and accomplished performer and the only suspense she offers is how much will she worry and sweat and, by her own account, torment the people around her as opening night approaches, before finding out that she is again triumphant.

It turns out that the real reason that the book sags is that Berg omits the heartbreaking story of how the blacklist claimed her co-star, Philip Loeb and led eventually to the demise of her show, despite Berg’s efforts to protect him and keep the show going. For this story, you’ll have to go to Kempner’s fine film, to Glenn Smith’s biography of Berg, or to the thinly fictionalized account offered in the film The Front, in which Loeb’s best friend Zero Mostel portrays a character based on him.

Stone’s Fall

By Iain Pears

With The Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears created a new kind of masterwork—a historical novel constructed intricately to work like clockwork, which glides sequentially from one subjective narrator to another, so that each section unveils new explanations that upend the previous narrator’s picture of the characters’ motivations and actions . In addition, this remarkable novel draws the reader deep into 17th century England’s skullduggery and political and geopolitical machinations.  A subsequent novel, The Dream of Scipio, presented three stories, spanning 15 centuries. Continuously inter-cutting from one story to another, that book intertwined the three human dramas as it brought to life the political and ideological backdrop of each story and era.

Pears’ latest novel, Stone’s Fall, is as ambitious as An Instance of the Fingerpost. Three sequential sections, each with a different narrator, piece together a story that continues from 1867 until 1910 (the sections are in reverse chronological order). The mystery to be explored (as introduced years later in the early 1950’s) is why British titan of industry John Stone plummeted from the window of his town home in 1909. Was it an accident? Suicide? Was he pushed? Stone’s alluring and mysterious widow hires a crime reporter from a London newspaper not to solve this mystery, but rather to tie up a serious loose end that is critical for unblocking the disposition of Stone’s estate. The reporter is seriously mesmerized by the widow (leading me to wonder at times if the book was going to turn out to be a remake of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but the twists and turns of their relationship merely set off the labyrinthine plot.

As if A Tale of Two Cities was insufficient, Pears gives us three—London, Paris, and Venice–plus side visits to the provinces. The book is a rich brew that includes not only the characters’ personal dramas, but also crises in the British and European financial system (in this respect, the book is a sequel to Tom Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter), industrial and technological history of the late 19th and early 20th century military industrial complex (a la Richard Powers), geopolitical machinations, scandal, skullduggery, and many other ingredients that convey a sense of time and place. At times, the characters go into overdrive in order to an ending that left me disappointed, but Stone’s Fall is an absorbing and rewarding read nonetheless.

Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockeral

By Boris Akunin

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Boris Akunin (the pseudonym of Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartishvili) has written 11 detective novels, taking place in the 19th century, which feature Russian secret agent and detective Erast Fandourin. Five of these novels have appeared in English. The present book is the third volume in a more recent series that takes place in the waning years of the Russian Empire—around 1910—and that feature an inquisitive and adventurous nun, Sister Pelagia, as the hero.

Having missed the first two installments, I am unaware of the extraordinary and tragic events that led young Polina Andreevna to take up the habit and retire to a convent in rural Zavolzhsk by the Volga River, where she serves as headmistress for the local school. In this book, however, Sister Pelagia soon leaves the monastery and travels far afield, as she seeks to solve the murder of a man believed to be Manuila, a charismatic Russian preacher and founder of a sect of Russians who want to live like Jews and travel to the Holy Land. Manuila is despised both by xenophobic and anti-Semitic elements

in Russia and by the established Jewish religious community, but the reasons for his attempted assassination are unclear. When the murdered man turns out to be a sect member who was posing as Manuila for security reasons, Sister Pelagia resolves to find the real Manuila in order to protect him from harm and to resolve the mystery of who is after him. SisterPelagia is also vexed by a vision that she has involving a cave and a red cockerel.

Sister Pelagia’s ally in her detective efforts is Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky, a public prosecutor who is himself an assimilated Jew who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Berdichevsky’s zeal to get to the bottom of this mystery is amplified by his infatuation with Sister Pelagia. As Berdichevsky pursues his leads deep into the heart of reactionary governmental and quasi-governmental circles, we encounter the political convulsions and intrigues of the time, and particularly the anti-Semitic hostility that boiled over periodically into pogroms and later, into the infamous Beiliss blood libel trial (as detailed in Maurice Samuel’s fine book, Blood Accusation). While Berdichevsky investigates in Zhitomir and St. Petersburg, Sister Pelagia, forced to flee Russia, travels to the Holy Land, where she encounters a group of Zionist Halutzim, a Palestinian Arab guide, a group of homosexuals who are re-establishing Sodom with the help of an American millionaire, and the assassin, who is determined to eliminate her and Manuila.

I was impressed by Akunin’s extensive use of material from Jewish sources throughout the story. The twists and turns of the tale are truly impressive, and one may find humor, pathos, rationalistic ratiocination, political intrigue, and spiritual mysteries nicely brought together.

Jim Leffert is a psychologist who practices in Cambridge and Framingham, Massachusetts.

Image:  Lilly Martin Spencer, “Reading the Legend” 1852