Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Tyrant

The name “Donald Trump” does not appear in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics.

But it’s impossible to read this examination of tyranny in Shakespeare’s plays without considering our own times and our own tyrant.

As author Stephen Greenblatt observes, Shakespeare, “deftly sketched the kind of person who surges up in troubled times to appeal to the basest of instincts and draw upon the deepest anxieties of his contemporaries.”

Richard III is perhaps the greatest villain in history. Shakespeare makes him a warped, pitiable creature that enacts horrors yet somehow gains our sympathy. Rudely stamped, Richard III rises to power through allies who think they can control him and followers who seek advantage in his power.

Yet, when obtaining the crown, he finds it an empty experience, the source of more troubles rather than less as his enemies gather to overthrow him. He dies, alone on a battlefield, abandoned by all.

Macbeth is a reluctant tyrant, goaded into murder by his wife, and then haunted by memories of the bloody deed. “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” he says of his anguish. Macbeth recognizes his sin and is driven mad by it, to the detriment of his country.

King Lear is another self-destructive monarch, divvying up his kingdom among ungrateful daughters while spurning those who speak truth to power. The consequence is internal exile and madness, the narcissism of the old king laid bare.

In Coriolanus, ancient Rome is beset with turmoil. The patricians have taken too much, leaving the plebeians to starve. In a speech reminiscent of Howard Schultz, an aristocrat claims that the patricians are the source of every good thing in the lives of the people:

you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds of comes from them to you
And now way from yourselves.

This goes over as well as Schultz at SXSW. After a series of conflicts, the war hero Coriolanus is on the verge of becoming dictator of Rome. All he needs to do is humble himself before the plebeians. Yet, he can’t even do this minor thing, unable to hide his hatred of commoners. His candidacy fails and he is banished.

Shakespeare was an optimist, believing that tyrants ultimately fall, undone by their character.

We have our own mad king now, a little bit of Lear and a lot of Richard III, a villain, a usurper, that has troubled domestic tranquility as he gnaws away at American democracy.

Yet, like the tyrants depicted in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics, he too will meet his end, undone by the flaws in his character.

 

Digital Minimalism – Control Your Social Media Addiction

Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport is a call for the intentional use of social media, controlling it rather than letting it control you.

Social media is the tobacco of our age, an addictive product that consumers are almost powerless to resist. How can you fight against a corporation using the top engineers in the world to turn you into a digital lab rat?

Take a Break

An avid non-user of social media, Newport offers solutions in Digital Minimalism, ranging from the practical to the absolute.

One of the most radical is to take a 30 day break from social media. Log off. Delete the services from your phone. Block them on your computer. Then figure out what to do with your free time, like going to the gym or taking up pottery. After thirty days, consider in a very deliberate manner what services you want back in your life.

He takes another idea from the Amish, who are not as techno-phobic as they appear. They adopt technology when it useful to them, such as gas generators and power tools, but only if it fits in with their commitment to be “in the world, but not of it.” The Amish example is an argument for carefully weighing the impact of new technology before you let it into your life.

Free isn’t free. For me, this was the most compelling point in Digital Minimalism. Everything has a cost, including free online services. The cost is your time. Facebook is an amoral corporation that wants to seize every minute of your day in order to serve you more ads and collect more data.

My Name is Joe Flood. I’m addicted to Twitter

The iPhone is also an anxiety-making device. I was never much of a Facebook user but I fell in love with Twitter when I first saw it at SXSW a decade ago. In the early years, it was glorious – a collection of the techno-savvy offering help, support and advice.

When I wrote my first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, I tweeted out my progress, posting the word count as I went. The encouragement I received kept me going as I typed away in coffee shops.


Twitter in 2019 is very different. Now, it is the thing you check every morning on your iPhone to see if the world still exists. What part of the Constitution is Trump violating? How many children are being jailed on the border? Who has Mueller indicted? And what racial/sexual/political scandal is stirring up society today?

For most Americans, anxiety climbed in 2016 and then accelerated into the stratosphere, fueled in part by the device that we obsessively consult, and our Troll-in-Chief, Donald Trump.

Involuntary Digital Minimalism

I recently had to get the battery in my iPhone replaced. When they told me it would take three hours, I nearly sobbed. I left the Apple Store in a daze, unsure of what to do with myself without the device I used for news, entertainment, diversion and even to tell the time.

I wandered across Wisconsin Avenue and down the cobblestone streets of Georgetown, my eye draws to a garden of beautiful red roses.  Wanted to Instagram them. But I couldn’t.

I continuing walking, not knowing what I was doing or where I was going. I saw a park I had never seen before. Walking through it, I realized it was behind a public pool that I used to go to when I lived in Glover Park.

I decided I’d walk uphill to the Georgetown Library. They would have a clock there, so I would at least know the time.

In the library, I still felt antsy, checking my pocket where my iPhone should be. Barely thirty minutes had passed.

I got a novel from an author I had never read before: Bernard Cornwell. After walking down the hill, I got a sandwich and then coffee, immersing myself in the adventures of Richard Sharpe for a few hours.

I didn’t know what time it was. Didn’t know what was going on with the world. Was unaware of any likes I might have received. Instead, I had sunk into the pleasure of a tale well told.

It was the most relaxed I had felt in months. Going back to the Apple Store, I sat a table in the busy store and read, a book in front of me instead of a glowing screen, an outlier among patrons concerned only with the restoration of their electronic tablets.


A Genius emerged from the back with my iPhone.

I didn’t want it back. Wanted to stay in this quiet moment with this book forever.

He handed me the phone. I took it.

Let’s Get Intentional

Since then, I’ve tried to be more intentional about my social media use. I carve out time to read and write. I turn off all my iPhone notifications. Try not to check Twitter during meetings. Place my phone out of reach when watching Netflix.

I’m addicted, like most Americans. I can’t imagine going 30 days without social media.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writer’s block, is that your brain resists commands from the ego. It doesn’t like prohibitions.

Bad habits can’t be banned; they have to be replaced with good ones.

Digital Minimalism made me realize that almost anything, even wandering the streets looking at flowers, is better for my psyche than the the bright and false world of social media.


Lake Success: Fiction in an Age Beyond Belief

Lake SuccessHow do you write fiction in an age that is beyond belief?

Gary Shteyngart demonstrates how in his funny new novel, Lake Success.

Shteyngart is a novelist of decline, previously aiming his lens at the former Soviet Union in Absurdistan. He writes of societies in collapse, his characters powerless to stop the farcical sweep of history.

The rot that began overseas has now come here, personified by Donald Trump, who loiters on the periphery of this book set in the summer of 2016. He’s the disaster that won’t happen, the New Yorkers in the book assure themselves. We, of course, know better.

Shteyngart doesn’t typically write about winners. But he does so in Lake Success, the book centered on a pair of the 1%, a hedge fund manager and his wife. Despite their astronomical wealth, and all the luxuries it can buy, they are desperately unhappy. Their son is autistic, a diagnosis that they refuse to admit to themselves or their families. All the money in the world can’t fix him, a situation that sends both of them spiraling out of control.

Barry breaks first, making a run for it, with his $2.4 billion hedge fund collapsing and the SEC on his trail. Throwing away his iPhone and going off the grid, he takes a nostalgic journey – on Greyhound – in search of an ex-girlfriend and the path not taken.

Shteyngart is a New York novelist. No one writes better of the delights and terrors of the city. There’s a great passage at the beginning of the book where Barry stumbles into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4 AM, drunk, bleeding and incoherent. To the cops stationed there, “he looked just like another New Yorker.”

The bulk of the novel is Barry traveling by bus across the country, meeting a very different world from his hedge fund manager associates. These chapters are not as strong as the New York sections, lacking the detail and emotional connection of his Gotham work. While there are funny vignettes of dead downtowns (Germans on a tour of “The Wire” locations in Baltimore), they seem rushed and superficial.

While Barry goes in search of his past, his wife Seema is left to clean up the mess. After engaging in an affair with poseur novelist, she’s forced to be truthful with her striving Indian family about her son’s condition. She also must confront the truth of her own life. Is she more than a rich man’s wife?

In Lake Success, Shteyngart writes about Trump without writing about Trump. Barry has benefited enormously from our leveraged economy, memorably described as a man who goes like a thief in the night, stealing a little bit from every house he visits. And, like Trump, he makes and loses immense sums, with little consequence to himself, but enormous consequences to the country as a whole.

Despite the topical theme, it’s not his best book about our times.

Super Sad True Love Story is a better novel. Without the burden of the present, Shteyngart creates a New York and a country gone mad, teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and the deluded, dream-like worlds of Americans who don’t realize that their world is about to end. Brilliant, hilarious and heart-breaking, it’s a love letter to a country that’s about to disappear.

Everything by Shteyngart is worth reading but if I was new to the author, I’d start with Super Sad True Love Story, his masterpiece.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

I won’t link to the clickbait article (since removed) on how libraries should be replaced by Amazon. You’ve seen it or at least heard about the piece, published by Forbes, who will apparently post any piece of dreck that crosses their digital transom.

Twaddle, came the response from librarians on the Internet.

Among the many things that the author (an economist!) gets wrong is that libraries solely provide books. While they’re very good at that, today’s libraries supply a valuable “third space” to meet, learn and check your email without having to buy anything. This alone is an invaluable service to the community.

Libraries Under Threat

I’m fortunate to live in Washington, DC, which has a wonderful public library system. This wasn’t always the case (see the Marion Barry era) but today the nation’s capital is graced with beautifully renovated branches, like the West End Library. I love checking their online catalog at home, putting a hold on a book, and then picking it up.

If an entrepreneur pitched this concept to Silicon Valley (it’s Uber for books!) it would be worth a billion dollars. But, since libraries have been around since the dawn of civilization, we take them for granted.

Don’t.

Seminole County, FL, where I grew up, is considering outsourcing its library to the lowest bidder, a project that will make a contractor slightly richer and the community much poorer.

A Catalogue of Wonders

Instead, let us celebrate and appreciate libraries. A good place to start is The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells.

This book is less a history of libraries (though you’ll get that) and more of a wonderful collection of stories about bookish pursuits from a master storyteller. You’ll learn how books created the world, from Sumerians scribbling down accounts of grain surpluses to the sweeping tales of the Bible. Every great society has valued books and libraries, from the Romans who treasured (and stole) Greek manuscripts to hidden collections of books amassed by Elizabethans.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is a world tour of libraries, both real and imagined, from the secret stacks of the Vatican to the biblioteca of Borges. Along the way, you’ll learn the scurrilous methods used by collectors to assemble their libraries and how collectors were deceived by unscrupulous booksellers. Henry Clay Folger bought a lot of dubious crap marked Shakespeare when bringing together the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Libraries made us. Without books, and the ability to transmit knowledge across time and space, we would not have civilization. Let’s celebrate our one of our oldest and most valuable inventions: the library.

 

When Conflict Comes Home: American War

American War

The problem with most dystopian fiction is that it’s too neat, taking place far enough in the future to feel exotic, but familiar enough so that we can picture ourselves in the action. Katniss Everdeen could be your teen neighbor, confronting tyranny the same way she protests changes in the school lunch menu.

In contrast, American War by Omar El Akkad feels too real. It’s an America just twenty years in the future, a day that most of us will live to see, depicting a world in which our decline has continued into catastrophe. A country split by red and blue has stumbled into a second Civil War.

The world intervenes in the conflict, like we intervened in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But this time it’s the Arab world rescuing the new one. The Red Crescent builds refugee camps. Food aid arrives on ships. And arms and advisers are sent to the Southern side to continue the war.

But in American War, we don’t learn this until later. Unlike other dystopian novels, we don’t know exactly what’s going on at the start of the novel. War comes to an isolated homestead in the American south. A family must decide whether to stay, fight or flee.

Omar El Akkad has reported from countries wrecked by American intervention. He takes their stories and places them here. His brilliant novel is about the collapse of our civilization, the desire for vengeance and how war has a logic of its own, imposing dreadful decisions upon even the most enlightened citizens.

American War shreds the neat formulas of dystopian fiction to show a future that is far too real for comfort. It also illuminates the deadly cost of our own overseas interventions by placing war in the United States. In this novel, we’re the refugees, the soldiers and the terrorists, all trying to find safety in a devastated land.

Horror on the Great Plains: The Hunger

Alma Katsu examines the dichotomy between the myth of Manifest Destiny and the grim reality of settlers trudging west in her new novel, The Hunger.

It’s a story you’ve heard before, of how the Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive after getting stuck in the mountains on their journey west.

Katsu’s point in this gripping novel is that the evil began long before then. It was with the wagon train from the beginning, trapped in the dark hearts of the settlers, all of whom had good reasons to flee their lives back east. These are less brave pioneers than troubled souls seeking salvation in California. The Hunger tells us their stories, unwrapping them slowly, the true horror not revealed until the very end amid the squalor of a desperate camp in the Sierras.

Interestingly, the book overlaps with another I read this year – A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. The doomed Donner party originated in Springfield, with many of the principals familiar with the future president, though this is unmentioned in The Hunger. You could read the books back-to-back, the straight historical fiction of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln and then the horror of The Hunger, to see how different authors depict historical figures and events.

They’re both good reads, particularly if interested in American history, and the truth behind some of our most cherished myths.

My DC: Blossoms, books and gelato

Jefferson Memorial with cherry blossoms

A weekend of cherry blossoms, books and gelato taught me to love DC once again.

I’ve become inured to the sights and sounds of Washington, DC – the historic monuments, the thudding helicopters, the blue sparkle of the Potomac. I see and yet don’t see, because they’re so familiar. Playing tour guide for the weekend helped me rediscover the city.

The occasion was a college reunion. Because I was the only one who still lived in the city, I was appointed tour guide.

It’s hard work being tour guide! Much easier to be led by another, not knowing where you’re going to eat or what you’re going to do next, confident that the tour guide has those details figured out. Make it a large group – eight people – and make it the height of the spring tourist season, and you can understand why I was a bit anxious. Thankfully, it was an easy group that I knew from time spent together at American University.

The advantage of being tour guide is going to the places you like best. Here are my choices for 36 hours in Washington, DC.

Friday

The Darcy
My friends stayed at this boutique hotel by Hilton. Located near Logan Circle, it’s an ideal home base for visitors who want to explore the city. Even better when you get an upgrade to a top-floor suite!

Tidal Basin
If you come to DC, you’re going to walk. During cherry blossom season, it’s also the easiest way to get around (other than biking, of course). After checking-in at the Darcy, we walked down 16th St to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, along with half a million of our friends, it seemed. The walk is about thirty minutes, and filled with interesting sights along the way, like the White House and Washington Monument.

Thai Tanic
Every Thai restaurant in DC must have a pun-based name. Popular among Logan Circle locals like me, Thai Tanic been serving interesting Thai dishes on 14th St for years. They were also very accommodating as our party grew from six to eight on a busy Friday night.

Gelato time

Dolcezza
How I love this place! The gelato is delicious. I almost always get a combo of dark chocolate and hazelnut. If you’re with me, this is a mandatory stop.

Saturday

American University
It wouldn’t be a college reunion without a trip to college. We went to AU in the pre-wonk era, which was far more fun, and considerably cheaper, than the serious world-changers of today. While the campus is nicer, with a brand new School of International Service, it’s not the same, probably due to the lack of alcohol.

Surfside
One of the challenges of leading a large group through DC is, “Where will we eat?” While they took my favorite burrito off the menu, Surfside in Glover Park was still a good choice. No one noticed a group of eight in this taco joint mobbed with soccer moms and kids from the field across the street.

Bob in Georgetown

Georgetown Waterfront Park
If you’re with me, you’re walking (or biking). Thankfully, my friends love to walk. After lunch, we walked down Wisconsin Avenue and 33rd Street to the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which has a great view of Rosslyn and the Key Bridge.

Dog Tag Bakery
Georgetown Cupcake is for tourists. Instead, visit this pleasant little shop near the C&O Canal that helps military veterans and families. The scones are great and they serve Compass Coffee.

Whole Foods P St
Finding a table for eight on a Saturday night in Logan Circle struck me as impossible. Instead, everyone got food and drink at Whole Foods and partied back in the suite at the Darcy Hotel. Sushi, cheese, fruit, beer, wine, chicken, chocolate rugelach – we ate well, without the hassle of going out.

Sunday

Lil B
This New Orleans-inspired coffee shop at the Darcy Hotel became the spot to meet every morning. While the beignets are more like fried dough than what you’d find in the Big Easy, they make good hangover food.

Dupont Circle Farmers Market
Why don’t I go here more often? This sprawling market has more than just produce. You can get pancakes, pizza and even a growler of beer from Right Proper.

Spanish Steps
One of those 0ff-the-beaten path places that I love, this miniature version of the Roman landmark is a spot I captured in an award-winning photo. It’s a lovely walk from Dupont Circle, as well, in which you pass art galleries and embassies. Makes a great spot for portraits.

Kramerbooks

Kramerbooks
Now, this is a required stop, at least if you’re with me. Washington loves its bookstores and Kramerbooks is the oldest and most famous. I have a connection to it too – I did a reading here. You’re sure to find something smart for the plane in this bookstore.

Of course, this is just a small sample of things to do in DC. But if I’m the tour guide, there’s going to be gelato, coffee and books. That’s my DC.

Little Free Library Find: Bel Canto

Bel Canto

What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.

Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.

This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.

Free Library Find: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members

I let books find me. One reason I never fully embraced the Kindle is that I don’t always know what I want to read. Sure, you can find anything in the world by typing  a few letters into an e-reader but that’s not the same as aimlessly browsing titles on a Sunday afternoon.

Serendipity is what’s missing from the e-ink experience, the happy accident of stumbling upon the right novel at the right time.

In Praise of Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are ideal for us serendipitous book browsers. Located in every neighborhood in Washington, these little boxes offer literary surprises for readers.

“Take a book, leave a book” is the motto of this nonprofit organization that fosters reading across the nation. I like to drop copies of my book, The Swamp, into Little Free Libraries in DC.

And I almost always find something interesting to take home with me.

The nicest Little Free Library in Washington is located at the top of a hill in Kalorama. Just a block from witless Jared and Ivanka, this bookish outpost is in a park, and offers a sunny bench to read your discoveries as dogs bark and children play.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was a free library find, a book I pulled from the box like literary treasure.

The novel is a hilarious satire of academic life told through the endless letters of recommendation that Professor Jason Fitger is forced to write for students and colleagues. Each letter is inventive and unique; combined they tell a story of budget cuts, romantic humiliation and creative failure. Schumacher’s wry, ironic style reminded me of David Lodge, who satirized academic life in forgotten classics such as Small World.

Free is a powerful attractor, drawing you to things you might never consider. But the world is full of free things to read.

Selecting a book is an investment of time, not money.

You never know what you’ll find in the free library – biology textbooks, romance novels, books by unknown authors. Finding something worthwhile, like Dear Committee Members, feels like an achievement, not just because you discovered something great, but also for participating in the great reading experiment that is the Little Free Library.

Weekend Read: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter
In the Midst of Winter

My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books like In the Midst of Winter find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.

One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.

The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.

The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.

The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.

How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?

In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.