§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: February 2007

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

I’m having a hard time finding what to say about this novel. The blurbs are so glowing that I feel like a dummy for not really liking it. And I’m also at this point not sure why because I read the first 100 pages and loved it, but somehow once the rhythm of the novel was established, it became predictable. The characters became predictable and the action less and less interesting.

The setting is the town of Kalimpong in the Darjeeling district of India, near the borders of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. The Himalayan peak, Mount Kanchenjunga, soars over the area—and the novel. The historical focus is the rebellion of the Nepalese who believe the territory actually belongs to them and launch a takeover and occupation of the area which forces all the non-Nepalese to understand what it’s like to be the underdog. And maybe being the underdog is the major theme of the novel.

The characters are marvelous and clearly account for the power of the novel. Desai not only has the characters interact in the present but traces their pasts to help the reader understand their presents. There’s the grandfather who came from humble origins and was smart enough to get sent to England to be educated and who came back on the eve of independence to become one of the Indians pushed ahead in the Civil Service with the departure of the English. He is a judge. His experience in England though causes him to find the Indians inferior in every way. He hates the English for looking down on dark-skinned people but he hates the Indians who are not as “English” as he is—he takes this out on the wife he married before he want to England and who interferes with his powder puff—clearly used to make his skin lighter. There’s the cook who sends his son to America and Biju, the son, who scrounges from one restaurant kitchen to another in NYC, hating it and not getting ahead. There’s Sai, the judge’s granddaughter, orphaned when her parents—her father is a budding astronaut—are killed in a Moscow traffic accident, who goes to live with the judge. And her boyfriend who’s Nepalese…. A host of minor characters are beautifully drawn.

The plot is fairly predictable, the themes are gigantic—racial and ethnic prejudices that form a mesh around the characters—nothing so simple as one difference in race or color or religion and the violence, both personal and political that results.

July July by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is known as one of the best writers about Vietnam: If I Did in A Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. I read The Things They Carried last year and gave it a 10.

Yesterday I read July July his latest novel after reading a short story which constitutes one chapter of the book. I liked the novel. It was intense like his other work. Marla and David from the story are two of maybe 12 main characters in a story about the 30th reunion of the class of 1969 of a small college in Minnesota. David is the only character who had been wounded in Vietnam and he is handled with O’Brien’s usual depth and humor, but this isn’t really a “war novel” but one with the larger theme of how the characters have dealt with the legacy of the 60ies—many had been idealistic or at least involved in political or social action.

The book is funny too in an ironic sort of way, but to my mind not as successful as O'Brien's war novels. David is in many ways the sharpest character. He and his alter ego Johnny Ever comment throughout.

The book is focused almost exclusively on male-female relationships. One man went to Canada to escape the draft but his lover didn't show up at the plane. After a marriage, a child, and an affair with the woman who was responsible for his wife's death, he goes to the reunion expecting to get back with the woman who hadn't shown up at the airport. One woman had two husbands (one legal and one not) and two households. When she falls in love with a third, the first two move in together and a crisis ensues. The backstory of Spook (the wife) is harrowing—she was a twin, her sister died at 5 and she stopped talking and has used (probably not consciously) "dumbness" to escape all her life. Another woman was suffering from a secret she kept—how she had an affair with a classmate at a North Woods resort where he drowned. Now the secret is getting in the way of her relationship with the husband she loves. All are sympathetic characters—there are really no villains in this book except life and war and disease (one woman has had breast cancer and her husband finds her body repelling and another has a serious heart condition). Also perhaps entrenched ideas.

The writing is compelling--as is O'Brien's writing generally--but it's doesn't have the depth somehow of his war books. David, who lost his leg in Vietnam, is in many ways the most realized and believable character.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

This book is the obvious choice if you want to read just one book about terrorism. Wright, a New Yorker reporter, tackled an amazingly difficult subject and wrote an analysis that is both compelling and compassionate. There’s nothing “high-handed” about it. There’s no rant. He makes every effort to understand the lives as well as the ideas of Al-Qaeda members and precursors who are influential in the organization that targets the United States as the evil power in the world. He begins with Sayid Qutb (theorist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who whose experience in the US in the 1950s led him to brand Americans as racist, materialist, immoral and trivial) and building up to Osama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Wright, educated at Tulane and the American University in Cairo where he also taught, has a long-standing interest in the Middle East. He conducted hundreds of interviews for this book so that he was able to report not only the religious and political ideas of those responsible for 9/11 as well as terrorist acts leading up to it, but he reports on their lives, their families, and their personal quirks, habits and experiences. He views them as individuals shaped by their environments as well as by radical religious ideas. He tells us, for instance, that bin Ladin is 6 feet tall, not 6’5 or 6 and that the theory that he suffers from kidney disease has never been confirmed.

Starting with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1950s, Wright traces the roots of radical Islamic terrorists from Qutb’s hatred of the US and his extraordinary influence on Egyptian radicals through events such as the assassination of Sadat in Egypt, the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Iranian revolution, the first World Trade Center bombing, the truck bombing in Dharan, the African embassy bombings, and the USS Cole incident.

At the same time as readers begin to understand the terrorists, Wright focuses also on the agencies and individuals in the US who were tracking them down, particularly on flamboyant FBI agent Robert O’Neill who fought bureaucracy and communication barriers constantly and ended up leaving the FBI in 2001 for a position as the head of security at the World Trade Center—and died on 9/11. Despite heroic work by O’Neill, Richard Clarke and many others Wright names in various US agencies, the indictment of bureaucratic in-fighting, in-group loyalties, and lack of cooperation on the part of US intelligence is devastating.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s terrific. The writing is superb and the story is far more compelling than any thriller. If you want to understand the enemies of the United States, start with Lawrence Wright.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah

This book was written by a young man, born in 1980, who was away with his friends when the rebels attacked his village in Sierra Leone. He was not yet 13. He and his friends wandered together, barely managing to feed themselves. Sometimes they were attacked by villagers who assumed a roving bad of young boys was dangerous—likely to be affiliated with the rebels; they fled from several villages that were attacked. They were eventually given a choice of leaving a village than had given them sanctuary or be inducted into the army. It was the army or starvation. They were issued AK 47s and taught how to kill. (Interestingly they had not deteriorated into wild creatures á la Lord of the Flies before the adults took charge. In one village they were suspected of being rebels and the cassettes (US rap music) in Ishmael's pocked suspected to be training tapes until he played them and mimed to the tape and got the whole village dancing.)

He was not an illiterate kid—but a good student in a secondary school, as were the friends he escaped with. One of the officers in the Army read Julius Caesar in his spare time. This book totally puts to the lie the notion that this Civil War was a matter of ignorant and disposable "tribal" people fighting each other, an attitude I think many in the West have when they hear of African civil wars. (Similarly, I think part of the power of Hotel Rwanda was its portrayal of people everyone could identify with caught up in horrible and arbitrary violence, giving a lie to that feuding primitive tribal preconception.)

This kid survived and came to the US where he was educated at an international high school in NY and Oberlin College. The book is remarkably well written, with a narrative style that's compelling and some startlingly original figures of speech describing his experiences. He’s also extraordinarily open about his feelings in all situations—from the drug-induced frenzy of combat to the nightmares he experienced after the army to his first experience of snow and cold in New York City.

It’s startlingly clear that many many children in his situation didn’t survive. A seven-year old, inducted with him, died in the first battle. Several of his companions in the rehab center ended up rejoining the army when the war came to Freetown. When Ishmael was asked to go to an interview where a UN agency was interviewing juvenile victims of war to represent Sierra Leone at a UN convention in NY, he didn’t know what to do in the box people were walking into and when someone pushed a button and the box moved, he only knew not to be afraid by the reaction of the others in the elevator. And that was in Freetown. Imagine his reaction to New York.

This is an important book. I know of no other by an author with this kind of experience as well as with the language skills and understanding able to tell this kind of story.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

This was a reread because it’s going to be discussed in one of my book groups. I encountered it my in the first class after I decided to be an English major. Eventually I wrote a senior thesis on time in this novel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—and got myself all tied up in Henri Bergson, particularly his idea of time as duration, or subjective time which seemed to me critical to the stream of consciousness in fiction.

Of course, Portrait isn’t really “stream of consciousness”, though Joyce was straining after that mode. It’s a third person narrative where the author limits himself to the thoughts and perceptions of a single character, in that respect similar to what Henry James called “centre of consciousness” or writing like you were looking through the back of the character’s head and experiencing what he experienced and reporting it as he experienced it. Clearly, Joyce is much more interested in what went on in Stephen’s head than the people and events in his life.

In Portrait, there is basically no exposition—where the novelist (or whoever is telling the story) sets the scene and “interprets” for the reader, and that’s what must have seemed so radical at the time Portrait was published. The only “label” we get in the entire novel is the word artist in the title. Joyce’s purpose in the novel, generally understood to be very autobiographical, is to document the growth of the aesthetic, moral and to some extent political aspects of his character. The other characters exist only in Stephen’s reaction to them. And in the end the people, the ideas, the politics and the religion Stephen grows up among stifle him and he decides he must flee Ireland to become the ultimate Irish writer. The ultimate romantic hero—Joyce signals that clearly in his name for the character, Dedalus, the classical hero could fly on wings of wax, but who flew too close to the sun so that his wings began to melt and he fell back to earth.

I found many passages rereading this novel which have been reverberating in my head for 40 years, (though I doubt they would have meant nearly as much to me had I read them for the first time now instead of at 18 or 19). Here are two of them:

  • Stephen discussing ideas with his friends: “The artist like the God of the creation remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
  • The end of the novel: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Interestingly, though, just having read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, I'd have to say that this novel makes a perfect case study for the danger of indoctrinating children with religion. The priests and the sermons are downright terrifying. Stephen's is initially fearful of etermal damnation, but as he matures the fear is replaced by anger and rebellion and the realization that he has to leave all that behind.

Clearly too, Joyce has influenced aesthetics enormously, certainly, I realized, at this rereading that he's influenced my aesthetic far more than I had realized. God "paring his fingernails" as he watched the antics of his creation is not far off the absconded God, the one who set the clockworks in motion, that motivated Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the USa tad more ironic I suppose. The equation of the artist with God was sort of scandalous at the time, certainly in Ireland, and maybe it would be now too.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Remember "Which Twin has the Toni"?

This morning on a book list we were following up a reference to Eugene waves and Marcel waves and eventually home permenants were mentioned so I told my Toni story. Remember those ads? Which Twin has the Toni? In one version they had sort of shoulder length hair with soft waves. I had hair to my waist which my mother insisted not only on braiding but then looping up behind my ears. (See attached pictures, circa1948.) I thought it looked goofy and she pulled and scratched when she washed my hair and every morning it took forever to brush and braid. (When mother was in the hospital, Daddy sent me across the street for a neighbor to do my hair in the morning.)

But back to Toni. Mother was sick of my fussing. So she proposed cutting my hair and "giving me a Toni". She also mentioned a little friend of mine whose hair I envied--shoulder length, barely turned under at the bottom. (She was pretty, I thought; surely that couldn't hurt like the braids was my thinking.) So I agreed. Mother and Grandma did the Toni, each did the curls on one side. The result was AWFUL. Tight "old lady" curls, with one side MUCH tighter than the other. (See other photo, that's NOT the Grandmother of the tight curls. It was taken some years later and the uneven sides had been correcteed, but it's still pretty awful. Early 1950ies.) Is it any wonder that my Mother and I fought about hair until she died, she always wanting shorter hair and more curls, me always wanting longer hair and no curls? I think my mother saw long hair or loose curls as "wanton" in some way. She was not comfortable with the1960ies!
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