By Roxana Robinson

Picador | 2014 | (paperback) | 400 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Now that President Obama has committed America’s armed forces to a new phase of combat operations in the Middle East (however limited, so far), it is an excellent time to shine a light on one of the most important and impressive novels to emerge from the Iraq War.

 Sparta, first published in 2013, is now more timely than ever.

As anyone who follows the news can attest, military veterans are committing suicide in record numbers.  The term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (first coined in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the late 1970s) is now as familiar as any lingo can be.  And, one by one, books are piling up (memoirs, novels, and story collections) by authors who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Sometimes both places.  These recent conflicts have become America’s longest wars.  Perhaps also our most ambiguous

Enter Roxana Robinson.  In a literary career that is redolent of the glory days when a gifted author could be known as a Man of Letters or a Woman of Letters, Roxana Robinson has authored nine books: a magisterial biography of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, three short-story collections, and five novels to boot.

Never shying away from exceedingly knotty, emotionally wrenching narrative motifs (her novel Cost is a tour de force storyline regarding the calamity of heroin addiction and its impact on a singular family), it’s perhaps inevitable that Robinson would ultimately confront the theme of war and its deleterious effects on one traumatized veteran’s milieu.

And confront it she does.  In Sparta, the modern-day wartime odyssey of Conrad Farrell is articulated, anatomized, and painstakingly dramatized with such precisely etched sentences and such a plethora of telling details that it’s fair to say that this novel belongs on the same shelf as other Returning Veteran Chronicles: e.g., John Dos Passos’ One Soldier’s Initiation (a World War One account), James Jones’ Whistle (the capstone third volume to Jones’s World War Two trilogy, which began with From Here to Eternity and continued with The Thin Red Line), and so many others.

Aside from the fact that Sparta is a novel written by a female Quaker who has neither served in the military nor been a witness to war, there are other unique aspects to this work of art.  Protagonist Conrad Farrell was partly inspired by reports that Robinson read about a new demographic in America’s military.  She learned that there had been a sizable increase in middle-class and upper-middle class college-educated enlistees, offsetting the usual pattern of so many recruits being fresh out of high school or from the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

In the case of Conrad Farrell, being a college graduate also means being an old-fashioned liberal arts aficionado of the highest order: He is a Classics major, with a deep admiration for the ethos and legacies of the ancient Greek city of Sparta.

In Robinson’s mesmerizing prose, the fixation that Conrad Farrell has on antique ideals is clear.  Here he tries to explain to his parents his passion for joining the Marines:

“It’s kind of a continuum.  The classical writers love war, that’s their main subject.  Being a soldier was the whole deal, the central experience.  That’s what first got me interested.  Sparta.  The Peloponnesian War, the lliad.   Thucydides, Homer, Tacitus.  I wanted to see what it was like.”

His liberal, peace-love-and-granola parents, raised in the post-Vietnam era with its tainted view of all things martial, are flummoxed.

As is the case with so many other grand enlistment fantasies, the actual experience of Conrad Farrell is light years away from what he expected.  Although he rises to each challenge presented by boot camp (and the training regimens of the Marines are notoriously demanding), his four years in Iraq leave him transformed and grimly aware that there is no place whatsoever for him in the civilian society he returns to.

Here, too, Roxana Robinson has created a narrative that belongs with the best of the books left behind by others who explored the agonies of returning veterans.

Incrementally, as one episode builds upon another (Conrad cannot renew his rapport with his girlfriend; he can’t get traction on any career path; his anger curdles into rage, and before long he is in fear of his own potential as a walking time bomb, all of which baffles him and bewilders others because he did not get physically wounded in Iraq and it’s assumed that he ought to adjust accordingly), the arc of the narrative burrows more and more into the depths of one man’s crises

There are multiple issues and a great many passages in Sparta rivaling the best writing of male veterans who described in their memoirs or their novels this same type of postwar trauma.  In his memoir A Rumor of War, author Philip Caputo was merciless in delineating his own transitions from gung-ho Marine to embittered combat veteran to furious citizen whose towering rages were fueled by the idiotic indifference of vast swaths of civilians to the war that plagued his generation.

Similarly, in his novels Some Came Running and Whistle, not only did James Jones create seminal PTSD narratives, but he also meticulously illustrated how it was not just veterans who are affected by wartime traumas, but everyone around them too.

In Sparta, novelist Roxana Robinson has deployed her stupendous imagination as well as her stellar research skills for the purpose of writing this generation’s The Red Badge of Courage.  And she has succeeded as handsomely as Stephen Crane did (let the record show that Crane, too, was neither a combat vet nor yet a witness to war at the time he composed The Red Badge of Courage).

Coda: Not long ago, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta received the James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction by the USMC Heritage Foundation.  Such an honor says it all.

(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)

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Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—
and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph
of Women in TV News

By Sheila Weller

Penguin Press | 2014 | 496 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Trifecta biography.  I should patent that phrase.  It’s my way of describing the kind of work that only a few biographers accomplish.

Most biographies illuminate and illustrate a single life.  But dual biographies (about JFK and Jackie, FDR and Eleanor, and everyone else from Elvis & Priscilla to Nixon & Kissinger) do abound.  However, there are not many trifecta biographies.  And yet, investigative journalist Sheila Weller is making a career out of this niche.

Five years ago, with Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, Weller linked together and anatomized the varied ways in which the works and days of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon contributed as much to the soundtracks of the 1960s and 1970s as the works of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and James Taylor. 

Now, Sheila Weller uses the same approach to confront the world of TV news in recent decades.

In The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News, the career quests of three archetypal female strivers are explicated against the dramatic backdrop of the always patriarchal, always hyper-competitive, and always image-driven milieu commonly called the news business.

The national news programs on television during America’s postwar epoch (from the debut of The Today Show in 1952 right up to an including 9/11) always were among the most influential media forces creating the American template all those years ago.

Yes, the music industry was powerful and radio and records (for many) were the stuff of life.  Movies, of course, continued to periodically enthrall America and its culturally starved denizens, although TV’s addictive capacity hobbled the film industry.

Above all else, though, the realm of TV news was the red-hot center of America’s central nervous system.  Gradually and then suddenly, women were also telling the stories: Barbara Walters was doubtless the godmother of them all, but in her wake came the cadre of other women (from Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung to the Diane-Katie-Christiane trio examined here).  Their emergence was part of the Zeitgeist

Author Sheila Weller’s greatest achievement in The News Sorority is to show us just how entangled the lives of TV trailblazers like Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour were with the tumultuous social history of their personal coming-of-age odysseys.

Born in 1945, Diane Sawyer was chronologically at the dawn of the Baby Boom, whereas Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour were born in 1957 and 1958, respectively.  Therefore, all three of them entered the testosterone-drenched field of TV news when America was mired in crises both national and international.  For example, Sawyer was 23 in 1968 (when America was undone by everything from the dual assassinations of Dr. King and RFK to the debacles in Vietnam and elsewhere), while Couric and Amanpour were 23-ish as the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980 discombobulated Jimmy Carter and ensured Reagan’s ascendance.

Until about five to ten years ago, when the endlessly revolutionary permutations of the Internet simultaneously upended the music business, the primacy of TV news, and eventually the publishing industry (just a mere decade ago, few were the ones who truly believed that print journalism would be imperiled by all things virtual), the race to be television’s premier female news anchor was an Olympian endeavor.

And no women worked harder, strategized more effectively (with their essential combinations of Machiavellian smarts and flirtatious fandangos), or captivated more viewers (at various times) than Diane, Katie, and Christiane.  The fact that we can identify them solely by their first names signifies how vast their media reign was.

The three women whose backgrounds and ambitious professional journeys form the content of this hefty, deeply researched, marvelous narrative mosaic (it never palls, despite being well over 400 pages) were all children of the post-WW II era.

Thus, Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour emerged as full-fledged careerists as the post-1970 Women’s Movement helped to redefine American life in the decade bookended by Kent State in 1970 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

And so, in the final epoch of traditional television news as a major presence in the millions of American homes, something unique was achieved by Diane, Katie, and Christiane: They entered the national psyche and soul, functioning as narrators of the American experience.

Of course this book has been spotlighted for its juicy gossip, its catfights, and all the usual personal peccadilloes that we all pretend to hate and love to love.  Like any fiercely competitive realm of endeavor, the TV news business was full of competitive furies.  In that respect, it was no different from the world of rock music stars or book writers or Hollywood titans (not to mention big-time sports).  But that’s a sideshow.

The heart of this narrative and the reason it is important can be summed up in one statement of fact:  This trifecta biography reminds us all that not so long ago, three audacious and bold women conquered a media industry.

Such triumphs are mythic.  And this book is a triumph worthy of their legacies.

(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)

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The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us

By Diane Ackerman

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. | 2014 | 344 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Amanda Martin

Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside one’s head.”

Diane Ackerman is one of the foremost writers on the natural world. Possessed with a fierce curiosity, an enthusiastic sense of adventure, and the ability to clearly communicate the often complicated work and discoveries of the people who have dedicated their lives to various scientific and naturalist pursuits, Ackerman is an ideal guide, whether taking us through A Natural History of Love, or adventuring in Antarctica with penguins and swimming with whales in Patagonia The Moon by Whale Light, or recounting an incredible story of World War II Warsaw in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

She has great empathy for all her subjects, human and otherwise, allowing us to feel the excitement and joy they have in their pursuits. Above all she is a gorgeous writer of prose. It is worth noting that she is also a fine poet.

In her latest book, The Human Age, Ackerman is clear that humans are part of the natural world.  This may strike some as counterintuitive: Aren’t humans at war with nature, tampering with everything, leaving great swathes of destruction wherever they roam?

Isn’t it inevitable that we are headed to the kind of post-apocalyptic future so prevalent these days in YA fiction?   Ackerman is a realist: there is global warming and it is manmade; the climate is changing, species will continue to go extinct and the seas will rise. It is possible that we will destroy ourselves. But, Ackerman proposes, it is not inevitable. We humans are a clever species, able to adapt to a changing environment, and we have in the past come up with wonderful ways to improve the world and mitigate a lot of the unintended consequences of our collective actions.

For the 200,000 years it is estimated we have been around, human beings have been living in the Holocene — meaning “Recent Whole” — Age. Ackerman says that this is about to change. The powers-that-be —who, in this case, are a “distinguished panel at the Geological Society, the official arbiters of the geological time scale” — will be renaming the current age by the end of this decade. We will be living in the Anthropocene Age—the Human Age—so named to reflect our species’ impact on the planet.

As Ackerman recounted during a recent talk, one of the questions under discussion is when to actually date this new era from. Should it start with agriculture when our species first began manipulating nature? Or did the Human Age really begin in the 18th century at the dawn of the Industrial Age? Or is the Anthropocene Age even younger than that, born in the 1940s and ‘50s, decades of the atom bomb and petrochemicals? Whatever the start date, the impact of humans is undeniable, from changes in the climate, to the modification of animals and plants, to the modification of our own minds and bodies.

Ackerman takes us along as she explores this world made by us, introducing us to a host of sentient beings, not all of them human, not all of them even carbon based, but all of them playing a part in this new human age.

Among them: Budi the 7-year old orangutan who plays daily with an I-Pad, given to him courtesy of an international effort to improve the lives of captive apes by providing mental enrichment; the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky who has been taking pictures of manmade “manufactured landscapes” for the past quarter century; ocean farmer Bren Smith who is practicing “mariculture” (“think of it as 3D farming that uses the entire water column to grow a variety of species,” he tells Ackerman).

The world has been shaped by us, and we have invented technology to let us find out even more about it. Technology is now shaping us from our minds to our eyes — in the United States one-third of all adults are now myopic; a recent study shows that 95% of students in Shanghai and Seoul are also suffering from “urban eyes” —all this nearsightedness caused not by heredity but by spending too much time looking at screens. Articles also abound on the dangers of a sedentary life spent in the company of computers and television, and obesity is a modern epidemic.

Ackerman covers a lot in a few hundred pages - from seeing our planet in space to exploring the effects of the microbes that inhabit our bodies on our minds. What is the definition of a human anyway? How does a species define itself? Language, says Ackerman, was essential to the development of our species, modifying our grey matter. “. . . (L)anguage was our plumage and claws, The more talkative among us lived to pass on our genes to chatty offspring.” Reading and writing, however, is “pure luxury”, we are not hard-wired for it and it takes hours of practice. Communication is essential between humans; interspecies communication has begun. There’s “Apps for Apes”; musical collaborations (see Dave Mason’s YouTube recording); and development of an interspecies internet is ongoing.

If animals are communicating with us, if they are considered conscious beings, that brings up all sorts of ethical questions. The question of what exactly consciousness is is ongoing, but nonetheless “. . . On July 7, 2012, a group of neuroscientists met at the University of Cambridge to declare officially that nonhuman animals ‘including all mammals and birds and many other creatures, including octopuses’ are conscious. To formalize their position, they signed a document entitled ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-human Animals.” Ackerman then brings up self-awareness, which humans are, but so, demonstrably, are other animals.
And what about robots?  “What about new webs of life?” wonders Ackerman “Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?”

She introduces us to the wonderfully named Hod Lipson, a professor at Cornell University, whose specialty is “evolutionary robotics” and who envisions a new species “Robot sapiens”. And then she explains how the European RobotCub Consortium developed a robot, the iCub, which has evolved a theory of mind.

The world of the future may be one where the walls of city buildings are replete with plant life and roof gardens as can already be seen on the rooftops of Los Angeles and Chicago, and the walls of buildings in London and Paris. Where animals who are now extinct or on the verge of extinction can be resurrected, thanks to worldwide efforts to protect the DNA of species and the breakthrough in stem cell development. Ackerman takes us to Nottingham University, home of the Frozen Ark, “which stores the DNA of 48,000 individuals from 5,438 different animal species.”

Which brings up another host of questions, such as, just because we can resurrect a wooly mammoth — and Ackerman says we can — should we? Just because we can breed cats who can glow in the dark —and we can — should we?

Ethical questions are being grappled with as what was science fiction comes closer to reality. The advent of 3-D printers may entirely change manufacturing; but what is already happening is that human body parts, such as windpipes, are being created and used in surgeries. Is Star Trek’s replicator far behind (all of this technological innovation so that a Captain Picard of the future can order a good cup of hot earl grey tea in space)? Body parts are being grown, injectable cell therapy instead of knee replacements seem close, and medicine advances in a race with new viruses which, basking in a warmer earth, expand their territory and attack us.

Ackerman is an unsentimental realist. She knows the state of the earth and its atmosphere; she knows how dangerous these new discoveries can be in human hands. But she is also an optimist, giving us not only a future to look forward to, but a pretty incredible present to explore. In Ackerman’s eyes, we’re a very interesting species with a lot of potential and this could possibly be a very good age to be alive.

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A Man of His Own

By Susan Wilson

Read by: Fred Berman, Christina Delaine, Rick Adamson, and Jeff Gurner

Macmillan Audio | 2013 | Running time: 10 hours | 8 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

If I were to give, Susan Wilson’s latest book, A Man of His Own, a two word review, it would be: Dog people. In my time in New York, I’ve seen the relationships people build with their dogs: the time, money, and effort that is summed up in love for a furry little friend.

Wilson has written seven books that have seen varying levels of success, including the New York Times’ best selling list and the basis for a made-for-TV movie. In perusing her bibliography, one will find A Man of His Own is not Wilson’s first canine-centered story making it clear she is skilled at bringing to life dogs and the special relationship they develop with their human counterparts.

To tell this story of undying love, the resilience of the human heart, and the consequences of war, Macmillan brought together four accomplished and award-winning readers to narrate the respective chapters of the four main characters: Rick, Pax, Francesca, and Keller.

Pax is a German Shepherd Rick finds in an alley as a minor league ballplayer with high hopes. Francesca is a young, small town girl from Iowa who wants more out of life. While visiting her cousin in Boston, she sees Rick in the bullpen. Their eyes meet, and they are rushed along in the whirlwind of love.

Pax, however, will take his own time warming up to Rick’s new love. When WWII picks up and the draft starts sending it’s young men, fathers, and husbands to war, the perfect life the young couple is building, along with the rest of the country, will be challenged.

And finally, there is Keller. As an orphan, his relatives passed him around until Keller wound up in reform school. His rough life didn’t change much when his great uncle, Clayton, claimed him and brought him to his shack to work his fishing boat. So when WWII came, Keller saw it as his way out.

As the war wages on, Francesca takes comfort in Pax but is slowly buying into the notion that we all have a part to play, and eventually, this comes to include Pax.

In the Army, Pax’s willful spirit makes him tough for the handlers to train until Keller comes along. By war’s end, Keller and Pax are inseparable, and Rick is broken. What happens after is a twisted triangle of love, duty, respect, and attraction between the three humans with Pax (which means peace) in the center.

A Man of His Own is a story of endurance, what makes life worth living, and how important it is to keep our eyes on those things.

The plot is realistic, involving a few twists and wrenching moments. It is a soft, and family friendly book with a stubborn but loyal dog as a main character.

I understand the purpose of Wilson’s use of Pax’s perspective but feel it’s use limits the reality of the book. Dog owners might disagree, seeing first hand the perception and personalities of their pets, and for this reason, I would recommend this audio book for those who do disagree.  There is another curious chose that the author makes. While Rick and Keller, as well as the dog they both love, are written and read in third person omnipresent perspectives, Francesca is written in first person.

The males’ voices counter the effect of this choice to a degree, but the first person account gives the book an overall feminine voice, which I feel allows women to more readily identify with the story’s conflicts and relationships. For dog-loving women (which I feel safe to say Wilson is), she has struck gold once again, and this audio book will only add to the notice and acclaim A Man of His Own is already receiving.

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