Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
Elections in the U.S. never excited me much – partly because I don’t get to vote, but mostly due to the general lethargy of American voters. The brutal and breathtaking Democratic race for the nomination between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the rise and fall and re-rise of Senator John McCain in the Republican field changed that, however. And not just for me.While following the race to the presidency, I could not stop thinking about Thomas Geoghegan’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life. What had inspired this politically apathetic, almost bored citizenry to turn out in record numbers and pitch for their candidates? Another book review two to five years down the road may try to answer that question. In the meantime, Geoghegan’s book might hold a candle on what may be going through the minds of this newly excited, interested cadre of voters.The Secret Lives of Citizens chronicles the politically, bureaucratically disgruntled author’s move from Washington, D.C., to Chicago in search of a participatory civic life. Geoghegan (pronounced gay-gan) in 1979 is working at the Carter Administration’s Energy Department and is a firm believer in the New Deal and unions. He is a self-declared “national Democrat” and an unabashed political idealist – the way teenagers are in their first relationship: madly in love with everything about the affair and deeply disappointed at the end.Tiring from all the hoops he has to jump through to push for energy policies, Geoghegan decides to go after smaller fish. He considers cities where civic participation is a relished norm, a place where people know their representatives and turn out to vote, an urban setting that breathes politics. Chicago quickly climbs to the top of his list.But Chicago is a political animal. There is nothing civic about politics in the Windy City. It does not take Geoghegan long to this find out, but he makes his peace and uses the opportunity to delve into the Founding Fathers, the constitution, the federal structure, causes of voter apathy and the New Deal, among other issues. He muses about the failures of the electoral college and the inequality of equal representation of each state in the U.S. Senate. And all in good, light fun.Geoghegan cannot help himself, however. Eventually he joins the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington – the first of two black Chicago mayors. (The second is Eugene Sawyer, who was elected by the city council to complete Washington’s term after he died in office.) Geoghegan’s campaign war stories and reverence for the occasion is telling of the 2008 elections.Washington’s effort was historic and unparalleled. His staff brought out all the disenfranchised black votes to beat the Democratic machine. Washington clinched the nomination from two white establishment figures: current mayor and son of legendary ex-mayor and party boss Richard J. Daley, Richard M., and incumbent Jane Byrne. Then, Washington beat his own party in the elections, which rallied behind the white Republican candidate. His achievements were not only due to the South Side, but also because the white “elites” of Lincoln Park, who came out to support him.North Chicagoans like Geoghegan were giddy with excitement. They knocked on doors, led rallies, manned telephones. This was a democratic revolution.Now, it seems, the U.S. is on the cusp of yet another revolution. This election is historic in many aspects. The Democrats were down to a woman and a black man until the last primaries. The Republicans might shed Karl Rove politics and redefine their party around McCain. With a slumping economy, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, record oil prices, climate change, renewable energy and the next round of Supreme Court appointments hanging in the balance, the outcome of November elections has the potential to set the agenda for generations. All of this, it seems, has triggered an awakening in the electorate.Geoghegan must be giddy, again. If you too are excited, check out The Secret Lives of Citizens for one politico’s take on what motivates people – and why it really, really, truly, seriously matters. Geoghegan’s quick, 251-page stream of consciousness will grab you and paint a solid picture of America that is at once different, yet eerily similar. If you believe in, or at least hope for, change through politics, you will find an agreeable guide in The Secret Lives of Citizens, which succeeds in not taking itself too seriously while making a strong case for political participation.
Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth. Accordingly, most reporters and editors would like to think, or believe, that they successfully fulfill that duty. In Reckless Disregard, Renata Adler demonstrates that a news organization’s commitment to proving the veracity of a story runs the risk of covering the truth and justifying falsehoods, however.In fall 1982 and summer 1983 two lawsuits filed in the Southern District of New York tested the nerves of both plaintiffs and defendants – in these instances news organizations Time Magazine and CBS. Adler meticulously chronicled the cases of Sharon v. Time and Westmoreland v. CBS for the New Yorker, and then compiled her reporting – with additional passages and a scathing Coda (epilogue) – in Reckless Disregard.The “actual malice” standard, established by Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), is the cornerstone of libel suits against the press/media. A libel plaintiff in the U.S. faces an uphill battle and bears the burden of proof; i.e., the defendant does not have to prove innocence. Instead the plaintiff has to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the published “statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”Israeli Minister Ariel Sharon, therefore, had to prove that the Time’s article, “The Verdict is Guilty,” which suggested that he was responsible for the massacres carried out by Phalangist soldiers on September 17-19, 1982, in Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon, were published despite contrary information available to the magazine’s reporters.General William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, carried the burden of showing that CBS had libeled him in the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception” by knowingly ignoring hours of interviews and extensive information which demonstrated that, unlike the program’s assertion, he had not tempered with the Order of Battle to draw an optimistic view of the war, hence conspire to trick the government and the people.Adler raises important questions in Reckless Disregard: is actual malice, originally intended to protect the press’ First Amendment rights, used to justify publishing falsities? What do Time and CBS’ all-out-litigation-war strategy – conducted by the prestigious, aggressive law firm Cravath – say about the truthfulness of their reporting? Who, really, is the victim in these cases – the media or the plaintiffs?Reckless Disregard presents to the reader, in a matter-of-fact manner, how both cases unfolded, albeit being slightly sympathetic towards the plaintiffs. The record, as presented by Adler, indicates that news organizations can be slanted, that they might have an agenda, or theory, which they believe merits advancing, and that they might drift away from the facts to create more scandalous news/documentaries.This is all sad, of course, especially to an aspiring journalist. But if you are interested in law, reporting and David-vs.-Goliath scenarios you should consider Reckless Disregard. Adler sure succeeds in showing that a supposed victim (Time and CBS and, consequently, the media’s First Amendment rights) might actually be the aggressor (merciless litigation that resulted in Sharon and Westmoreland to lose credible libel cases). Her narrative of the cases was deemed threatening – to the point that CBS and Cravath tried to intimidate the author and Knopf, her publisher, and stop the publication of Reckless Disregard. Adler seems to have hit the right chords after all.
The first thing you’ll notice is the urgency. Our hero’s youthful voice flirting with maturity, ready to move and ready to take you with him, whether you’re ready or not. Even when he’s waiting, you sense the activity, the plans and schemes to move his life along, to leave for pastures greener, or in the meantime, to bear the ten thousand bombs falling all around him.Ten thousand bombs. This is Beirut – 1982. The civil war has been raging in Lebanon since the mid 70s and would continue for many more years. For Bassam and his best friend George, this is the only life they’ve known. In DeNiro’s Game, the first novel by Rawi Hage, that life explodes onto the page, as Bassam dreams of escaping the day-to-day horrors of a city under siege. A city at war with itself.Fuelled by longing, by testosterone, Bassam does whatever desperation demands of him to acquire the money to leave. All the while we sense Beirut’s past weighing heavily on Bassam’s shoulders:”I climbed onto George’s motorbike and sat behind him and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamluks had stolen the villagers’ food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandfather.”Bassam’s childhood friend George eventually joins the militia, plunging head-first into the hell that governs their lives. George lives life one step closer to the extreme, constantly tempting fate. This is where the title comes in: George is nicknamed DeNiro by many of his cohorts, who share his fascination for the Russian Roulette game played out in the film The Deer Hunter, literally a death-defying game which becomes almost a rite of passage for George and others in his group.Meanwhile Bassam deals with life in a broken city. The horrific and the mundane become one:”Ten thousand bombs had split the winds, and my mother was still in the kitchen smoking her long white cigarettes.”And an awareness of mortality mixes with youthful arrogance. Bassam tempts fate in his own way:”Death does not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was flying on the curved road… I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god’s spear, a traveling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth underneath me. I was a king.”Less a political tract than a survival story, DeNiro’s Game illustrates how a war breeds anarchy which then gives way to militia rule. Thuggery. And for two young men living by their wits, it’s eat or be eaten.I left Beirut when I was two years old. The civil war was still a few years off, but the whole region was unstable. And so my parents, with little Andrew in tow, packed up what we could, left behind a lot more, and abandoned the life we knew to begin a completely new one in Canada.Bassam’s neighbourhood – that’s where we had lived. The town in the mountains outside of Beirut where Bassam and George would temporarily escape the city – that’s where my grandfather was from – and was basically our second home. These neighborhoods and towns had existed for me as idyllic pre-war photos that my parents and I would periodically pore over in our comfy Canadian living room. Then on the evening news, a different Beirut – a Beirut of snipers and militias and bombed-out neighborhoods.This novel is the first thing I’ve read that draws it all together and takes it home. It would have been simple for my family to not make the life-changing decision that they made. Then I would have been like Bassam or George, growing up in a perpetual state of civil war surrounded by drug-running and siege-survival. And while my temperament, even as a youth, tended to be gentle and contemplative, I wonder how a brutal youth would have changed my very nature. And on the flipside, how different Bassam and George would have been had they been spared the never-ending rain of ten thousand bombs.