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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Attack by Yashmina Khadra

Yashmina Khadra is the pen name of a former Algerian Army officer—male, though "Yashmina" sounds female doesn't it?

The main character is a surgeon who in the early scenes is dealing with an emergency at a Tel Aviv hospital. A suicide bomber has devastated a fast food restaurant in the middle of a children's birthday party. The surgeon is an Arab, of a Bedouin family, now a citizen of Israel and with mostly Jewish friends. He's a secular humanist, dedicated to protecting life, scornful of terrorists and ideologues of all sorts. He's a brilliant surgeon who has received many honors, though he is discriminated against, even by some colleagues though he's personable and self-effacing and therefore loved and honored by more. But at checkpoints he always has problems.

His wife is not home when he gets there—she's gone to visit her grandmother in Nazareth. He collapses in bed, exhausted, only to awakened in the middle of the night to be told by a friend in the police that the suicide bomber was his wife. He is sure she was just in the restaurant for some reason—there is no doubt though that she died there. No one else has any doubts about why she was there. He's held in jail for 3 days. When he's released he's reviled by his neighbors and beaten up by an angry mob.

The doctor's journey to understanding takes up most of the book. The writing is beautiful and spare (obviously the translator is excellent, but the book must have been at least as powerful in the original French—it was first published in 2005 in France). The emotional content is razor sharp and genuine. Not since I read Joan Didion's My Year of Magical Thinking have I read a book straight through till I finished it. For similar reasons: the stark emotional content in beautifully controlled prose.

This one is fiction. The main character is attractive and sympathetic, but what's really compelling is the mind of an Arab who was living a useful and satisfying life in Israel but who's pretty much suppressed (one understands exactly why) the ugly part of the country he grew up in. To understand what happened to his wife, he has to go back—physically to Bethlehem, Nazareth and ultimately Jenin, the "big city" near where his family still lives presided over by a great uncle—head of the clan—who fought with Lawrence of Arabia. But also back in time to the young boy roaming the hills outside Jenin, to the ghosts of his father, the artist who's determined his son will become a doctor, and of the mother who'd lost her son in the process. Without abandoning his own values he comes to understand almost more than he can bear about the lives and beliefs of those who didn't have his opportunities to escape.

I can't imagine that the movies won't pick this one up. It's fast moving and violent and the contrasts between the upper middle class life in Tel Aviv and poverty of Bethlehem, to say nothing of the bulldozed streets of Jenin, should be dramatic.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

This is a really good book. I like Obama but I've not made up my mind who I want to be the Democratic candidate for President. Certainly if I based my decision on a book, he would rate much higher than Hillary whose book I enjoyed but was not nearly as moved by. In any case, this was not a campaign book--though its reissue now certainly is politic.

It was written 1995 and isn't about politics. Obama was the son of a white American woman and a Kenyan student she met and married at the University of Hawaii. The marriage lasted a relatively short time and Barack never knew his father. At a young age he went with his mother to Jakarta where she married an Indonesian man who became his step father and the prime male influence when he was very young. He went back to Hawaii before his mother's marriage ended to live with his grandparents and attend a prestigious prep school. He met his father only once, when he was 10 years old, and his father came to visit. He found his father formidable, a little scary. The time was awkward. His parents kept up a friendly correspondence and for awhile so did Barack, but there was no close relationship, no real understanding of his father.

Hawaii prided it self on being a mix of races but there weren't that many blacks. A picture of his 5th grade class I saw recently in a New York Times article shows him the only black. Barack started hanging out with black friends, figuring in America he had to find his way as a black man, that it was not possible in the racial climate of the time to identify totally with his mother's family. So who his father was became important to him. His father had gone back to Kenya to important jobs and other marriages and other children. Barack Sr. was known to be autocratic and his son had had difficult connecting with him—In fact even at long distance it was a problematic relationship. Barack met a half sister who was studying in Germany and after college he planned to visit Africa, but his father was killed in a road accident before that visit could take place.

Once he returned from Indonesia, he lived with his mother and with or near her parents. He was close to his grandfather and hung out with him at card games and in pool halls where one of his grandfather's friends a black poet named Frank who had some connection to the beat poets was one of his influences. He loved his grandfather, but knew he had to make his life among blacks. He realized he couldn't be white but didn't quite know how to be black. That struggle is the focus of this book. On the cover is a quote from Marion Wright Edelman, a woman I've always admired: "Perceptive and wise, this book will tell you something about yourself whether you're black or white."

The book has three parts: the first focuses on his childhood up until he graduates from Columbia and considers getting a job. The second part is about his work as an organizer and activist on the South Side of Chicago—learning to live with and understand blacks. There he formulated many of his ideas about race in America. The third is about his eventual trip to Kenya where he meets the African side of his family and begins to know his father in a way he never had before. All of it is thoughtful and honest and extremely well written. I recommend it highly. You don't have to have any interest whatsoever in the American presidential election to find it an interesting book.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Libra by Don DeLillo

(I read this one last month, before White Noise, but forgot to post. ) This one is brilliant. I always liked DeLillo but had stopped reading him after he got popular. Until I read Underworld with a reading group a while ago and loved it. It was the publication of DeLillo’s latest, Falling Man, that got me to go back and read the others. Someone in one of my bookgroups remarked that DeLillo had been writing about terrorism in some manner for a long time and I realized that was true. So I decided to have something to compare his 9/11 novel with when I read it, deciding to read Libra, White Noise, and Mao II.

I’ve read a fair number of analyses of the Kennedy assassination and besides I was an adult when it happened—newly married and in grad school. I didn’t see Jack Ruby shoot Oswald—we didn’t have TV, but my husband and I were in the kitchen where I was making bread that morning, and listening to the radio. I did of course see the rerun on TV when we went to the Union later in the day to stand in the clusters of students watching the various TV sets in the main lounges.

I knew most of the details of Oswald’s life but had no idea who Oswald was. That’s what DeLillo filled out and I can see why Oswald has been considered the novelist’s greatest character. The title is the astrological sign for balance and harmony—Oswald’s birthday was Oct 18th. And Oswald was the perfect dupe to build a conspiracy around. Bright but not too bright. An independent thinker. Born suspicious and angry at being made to feel inferior. Susceptible to anyone who even pretended to take him seriously. Seriously—the character if not, of course, the real person—trying to find a balance between East and West, the US and the USSR, both of which he both loved and hated, wanted to be loyal to but felt betrayed by—and was betrayed by.

The characters around Oswald are fleshed out as well: his mother who whines about how hard she tried to keep her family together. Marina, marooned in an enemy country with two small children, doomed to be the wife of the most notorious traitor of the century. Jack Ruby plus a bunch of CIA and pro-Cuba types who really were in the background of the assassination and whose plots are given substance in the novel.

The better-known characters in the assassination story—Kennedy, Jackie, Johnson, Connolly—are mere cardboard walk-ons. Marina may identify with Jackie who’d just lost a baby, but for the most part DeLillo leaves the major players to “real” history. And “real” history is not what he intended to write, admitting that he’d altered much in the historical record and made no attempt to provide any factual answers.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Two children meet in a house in Paris. Both families have some connection with the Fishers, mother and daughter, which stretches into the past. Henrietta, 11, is met by Naomi Fisher, spends the day in the house, and is to be taken to meet an escort who will take her to her grandmother’s in Mentone. Leopold, 9, has come from Italy where he lives with foster parents; he expects to meet his “real mother”, a friend of the Fishers, for the first time on this visit. He wants not to return to Italy and imagines a glorious reunion in which his mother whisks him off to a wonderful life.

The novel is structured into three parts, with the first focusing primarily on the present day where the two children meet. The last part returns to that day and the two children. The middle part focuses on “the past”, the backstory that relates the two women in the house to the two children. I think Bowen's point was to take a morally ambiguous situation, one which couldn't help but have an effect on the children involved, and explore it in some detail.

I don't think this book cries out for a moral interpretation. What the author is looking for is an exploration of complex human interactions, within individuals, between and among adults and between and among children. (It's important that there are two children, by the way, to see how they interact and how complex are their inner lives already.) And in order to explore that complexity, one has to look at the past as well as the present. The book does not ask us to sort out the morality of the characters, but to recognize the complexity and how it leads and misleads to behavior, how it ruins lives and screws up the next generation. It asks us to recognize good and bad in most of the characters, positive and negative traits and behaviors.

It asks us to consider the complexity of human interaction. If one's reaction is that these characters are whining, whinging people who fail to take responsibilities seriously, it implies that these are bad people and that the author is condemning them. I don't think that's the case. I think the author is exploring human complexity and suggesting that no one is free of that complexity and hence totally moral or immoral. Furthermore it suggests a series of disconnects between behavior and morality. The most immoral characters (i.e. Mme Fisher and maybe Henrietta's grandmother), for example, set themselves up to be the "best sort" and perhaps even believe it.