Monthly Archives: December 2018

“Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday

asymmetryListed as one of New York Times top 10 books of 2018, Asymmetry is a literary phenomenon that satisfies on multiple levels.  On the basic level, the novel offers two engaging, purposely unrelated stories, exquisitely written.  At the next higher level, there are delicately subtle “blink-and-you-will-miss-it” threads that tie the sections together. Still higher, the novel explores asymmetry and inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography and justice.  And at the meta level, the novel questions the writing of fiction itself.

The first section of the novel, “Folly,” begins with a meeting in a New York City park between Alice, a 25-year-old editorial assistant, and Ezra Blazer, a famous and critically acclaimed novelist in his seventies. Ezra asks Alice, “Are you game?”  The two swiftly begin an unconventional, tender romantic relationship whose duration spans the section. Ezra gives her books to read, among other odd gifts, and they watch baseball together and talk about literature. He teaches her how to pronounce Camus (“It’s Ca-MOO, sweetheart. He’s French.”). One day, on a walk, Alice confesses to him that she was doing some writing of her own. When he asks whether she writes about their relationship, she said she does not, and that she would rather write about people “more interesting” than her.

As their relationship grows closer, Alice begins to wonder about how it fits into the course and direction of her life. Ezra is in declining health, in need of regular medical attention, and frequently physically dependent on Alice. When she tells him that she does not think she can continue their relationship, Ezra says, “Don’t leave me. Don’t go. I want a partner in life. Do you know? We’re just getting started. No one could love you as much as I do. Choose this. Choose the adventure, Alice. This is the adventure. This is the misadventure. This is living.”  The section ends with this open question.

The novel’s second section, “Madness,” begins with the detention by immigration authorities of an Iraqi-American practical economist named Amar Jaafali at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2008. Amar is on his way to visit his brother, Sami, in Kurdistan, and has planned to stop in London to visit friends there for a couple of days, including a foreign war correspondent.  The Kafkaesque action of Amar’s detention is interchanged with his recollections of his childhood and early adulthood.

The style of the first section is mostly unemotional dialogue.  The second section is told from Amar’s first person highly sensitive perspective.  In Amar’s story, we get the day-to-day effects of war on his family in Iraq and the often-disconnected perspective of western journalists who tend to arrive in the Middle East with preconceived notions about the region. However, the longer they stay in the region and actually experience it, the more disproven their notions become.  “There’s an old saying about how the foreign journalist who travels to the Middle East and stays a week goes home to write a book in which he presents a pat solution to all of its problems. If he stays a month, he writes a magazine or a newspaper article filled with ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ and ‘on the other hands.’ If he stays a year, he writes nothing at all.”

The third section of the novel – “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs” – consists entirely of a transcript of a recording of a BBC interview with Ezra Blazer for its “Desert Island Discs” series, in which guests choose their favorite musical recordings, which are played between their responses to interview questions. In the interview Ezra reflects on his life and work, and the transcript ends with him asking the female interviewer on a date, posing the same question to her that he did to Alice in the novel’s first section: “Are you game?”

It’s rare that a book continues to pose questions and engage a reader on so many levels long after the final page is read.  I highly recommend embarking on this literary adventure.  Are you game?

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 2 to discuss Asymmetry at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Red Notice” by Bill Browder

rednoticeRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is an enthralling memoir by Bill Browder that reads like an espionage thriller.

Bill Browder comes from a leftist family.  His grandfather, Earl Browder, runs for President on the American Communist Party ticket in 1936 and 1940.  He appears on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938 with the caption “Comrade Earl Browder.”  Forcing depression-era America to focus on the failings of mainstream capitalism, he arguably causes most political players of the time to revise their policies leftward.  Into this family comes grandson Bill Browder making the ultimate rebel move:  he embraces capitalism and gets an M.B.A. from Stanford.

After getting his feet wet with his first few investment and consulting firms, he chooses to specialize in the enigmatic and virgin area:  Eastern Europe.  His first assignment in Poland is getting paid big consulting bucks to ultimately tell the failing bus company to lay off most of the staff – it is equally disastrous and humorous.  While there, he witnesses Poland’s first-ever privatizations – the government is unloading its property and state-run businesses at a steal. The lightbulb goes off when he realizes, quicker than most investors, the demise of the Communist bloc offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get insanely rich.

In 1995, Hermitage Capital Management is born, Bill Browder moves to Moscow focusing on investments in Russia. Here begins a rollercoaster ride wildly whipsawed by the volatility of investing in the wild-wild East.  By 1997, Hermitage is the best performing fund in the world, and Bill Browder is considered a financial superman and instant expert on investing in Russia.  His meteoric rise (turning $25 million into $1 billion) takes a dive (down to $100 million) when Russian oligarchs begin diluting the value of shares owned by westerners.  Putin is elected in 2000, in part, because he vows to clean up malfeasance by the oligarchs.  At first, Browder considers him an ally, but later realizes Putin doesn’t want to clean up Russia; he just wants to redirect the bounty from the oligarchs to his KGB friends.  With continued opportunistic, creative, and stealthy investing, the Hermitage fund recovers, skyrocketing to $4.5 billion.  Browder is the largest foreign investor in the country.  And then, in 2005, while flying back to London, Browder is detained at the Moscow airport for 15 hours and expelled from Russia with no explanation.

Browder puts up a fight.  His office, those of his attorneys, as well as those of the underlying companies in his investment portfolio are raided.  His Russian attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovers a fraudulent $230 million tax scheme committed by internal officers.  Those that committed the crime have him arrested, and, while in custody, he is tortured and killed.

At this point in the story, Bill Browder transforms from the mega-capitalist investor to a fervent activist seeking justice for the murder of his friend and attorney.  He brings his fight to Washington and with another roller coaster “winds-of-fate” story, achieves bipartisan support for the Magnitsky Act signed into law by Barack Obama in 2012.  That law bans 18 Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the US and freezes their assets.  Putin immediately retaliates by banning Americans from adopting Russian children.  Bill Browder understands the danger he is up against.  He tells the reader that if he dies a mysterious, untimely death, know this: it was Putin.

I highly recommend this riveting memoir – a tale much richer than fiction.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 3.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 5 to discuss Red Notice at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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