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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This was a book I suggested for my f2f bookgroup, because it was on my shelf and unread. It had sounded interesting when I first heard of it but my interest had paled. I started reading it though and was totally hooked. If, like me, you heard about this book from a friend or on the radio or TV, you probably heard that it begins with the author leaving her Park Avenue home in a taxi, dressed for a concert, and when the taxi stops in traffic, and she sees her Mother sorting through a nearby dumpster in search of something useful or valuable. The author was so upset she asked the driver to turn around and take her home. How could you stop reading without understanding the background of that story?

Dispassionately and honestly written, Walls' memoir of her precarious childhood was mostly amusing at first as her parents lived in substandard housing in small towns in the Arizona-California-Nevada desert and "skedaddled" when things got tough—when her father got fired, or the bills built up or there was some positive reason to move on—like gold (literally) in the next town. They always expected their ship to come in—the father had drawn up plans for an efficient, environmentally friendly house he called the glass castle, which they would build when they got some money—hence the title.The memoir is written in short chapters, each focusing on an incident or anecdote. At first it's more amusing than dark, possibly because the author was reflecting on life when she was very young.

Still the first incident, the author's earliest memory, was when she was seriously burned at 3 years old, spent 6 weeks in hospital and carried a lasting scar. Her parents didn't believe in "overprotecting" children, but I found myself cringing at the risks they took for these four children. Halfway through the book, the situation darkens considerably, as the family leaves the West (where the mother grew up) and moves in with the father's family in a coal-mining town in West Virginia. Jeannette is 10 or 11 then and going to school regularly (before the parents had taught them mostly at home—and taught them well). She could see how other people lived. They live in a two-room shack with electricity (when they pay the bills which is infrequently) but no indoor plumbing. They had no furniture—when they kids were little they slept in cardboard boxes—and Rex (the father) build crude bunk beds for all four in one room. He was increasingly drunk and angry and the children were seriously deprived—freezing in winter, wet because the house leaked, and frequently hungry. They worked as soon as they could—without that they'd not eat.

Lori, the oldest, finishes high school and goes to NY and Jeannette joins her after the 11th grade. The other two follow suit. The fact that they all help each other, though, testifies to the closeness of the family and when the parents turn up with all their possessions in an old, illegally registered van, they say it's to keep the family together. The reader, guided by the author, likes and respects Rex in spite of his faults. The mother is certainly amusing but seems ultimately more selfish. The parents get thrown out of several NY locations and end up on the streets for several years before they find a squat. Rex, always handy, fixes it up and helps everyone in the abandoned walkup by figuring out how to tap into someone else's electricity. He dries out occasionally, even gets a job upstate but the mother entices him to come back and when he does he comes back to drinking again.

It's a fast read, amusing but never, in spite of the subject, depressing. Ultimately one has a bit of envy for one growing up in such a family in spite of it all.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a great novel. Like Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, the most famous West African novel, Purple Hibiscus deals with the interaction between cultures, only several generations after the first white men, the cultural landscape is far more complex than in Okonkwo’s time. The heroine is a 15 year old girl whose father has completely bought into the “white man’s” ways. He’s Catholic and takes his religion not only seriously but to the excess that he abandons his elderly father who refuses to convert from traditional beliefs and practices and he punishes his wife and children for “their own good”. He is in short a tyrant, more set in the ways of the white man than the nuns and priests who come from Europe, and he motivates everyone around him by the threat of eternal damnation.

Kambili, his daughter, honors her father for what he does—he’s a factory and newspaper owner, gives much of his wealth to help his people and stands up for individual freedoms in risky situations. Like her mother and brother, she never refers to her father’s excesses, even among themselves. She follows the schedule her father sets up for her and studies to be first in her class because that’s all he will accept. She has no friends outside the family—no time on the schedule—and the father sees no value there. She doesn’t worry about the future because she knows that when the time comes her father will make study and career decisions for her.

Then she and her brother visit their widowed aunt (the father’s sister) who’s struggling to keep herself and her three children afloat on a lecturer’s salary at a University where politics comes before learning and where electricity, gas and water are always irregular. Food is less plentiful than at home and you have to cook it yourself, but there is laughter in the house and love is shown openly. Gradually Kambili and Jaja change. A young missionary priest who plays football with the local kids and sometimes appears in his sweaty shorts turns their understanding of the Church on its head.

It’s a coming-of-age story in a complex cultural situation. The ending is as explosive as Nigerian politics and testifies to the endurance of human love and connection in the worst possible conditions.

The first sentence pays homage to the author's greatest predecessor: "Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère." Not only does she tell an updated Things Fall Apart story, but she manipulates things (the missal and the figurines) into symbols like Achebe with Okonkwo's gun.

The Longest Night by Gavin Mortimer

This is one of those books that tries to follow multiple events on the same night of disaster. I’ve previously read one that focused on the night of December 29th, 1940, the night St. Paul’s Cathedral was reported (by Edward R. Murrow) to have been destroyed but in the morning pictures showed its dome substantially unharmed, above the smoke. This one focuses on the night of May 10, 1941—toward the end of the Blitz (when Hitler was turning his focus to Russia—he’d abandoned the idea of an invasion of Britain and would begin an invasion of Russia in June). That night was probably the most destructive of all the nights of bombing during the war. Books like this one do give readers a sense of what was happening at the level of individual people and buildings. It’s a quick but dramatic read.

The book, though has a number of flaws. (1) It’s very hard to figure out its organization, beyond the obvious loosely chronological order. There are no chapter headings and its very easy to miss what’s happening simultaneously. (2) There are photos, many of the people whose stories are told in the book, but there are no maps or charts that might makes it easier for the reader. I found myself wanting to sit with a detailed map of London at my fingertips as I read. (3) There’s no bibliography at all. He refers to his sources and quotes what he takes word for word from their work (though often incorporating the quotes quite awkwardly), but a reader interested in the Blitz enough to read a whole book about one night is likely to want to know the sources. (4) Finally, I suspect there are factual errors. I’ve skipped several I was just not interested enough to follow up but finally came across one that describes the fires in Westminster Abbey. He refers to a glass portion of the ceiling collapsing in almost the exact stop where King George VI and Elizabeth were married 4 years earlier. That date had to be wrong since they were married in 1923 and the daughters were approaching their teens during the war. They were crowned in 1937 so I expect he meant "coronation" not "marriage" but that's a big error. Maybe I should add that the title, intended to recall The Longest Day, is a cheap shot, especially for a book that's not as well done as the original.

All that said, I enjoyed the book and I appreciated the viewpoints of the people he interviewed as well as the written accounts he used in putting it together.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

I expected to find a book about teaching Dickens’ Great Expectations in unusual circumstances. I thought my own first experience of GE—teaching it to Third Formers at Sierra Leone’s Albert Academy in the mid sixties—might be relevant. It wasn’t particularly. The novel was so much more than a tale of an effective teacher.

Recently I seem to have discovered a new form of contemporary novel, one that is dominated by plot and by the biggest moral questions humans can ask, that is very well written, often by someone outside of Europe or North America where the novel began and where inhabitants claim ownership. Likely to be short by novelistic standards. This one is a perfect example. As is A Woman in Jerusalem by A. B. Yeshova and The Attack by Yasmina Khadra which I read earlier this year.

This one is from New Zealand. The main character is a black girl from Bougainville, an island of Papua New Guinea (or the Solomons depending on point of view and/or politics) known, if at all, as a battlefield in WWII, but also the scene of a deadly rebellion that never grabbed much international attention.

The main characters are a schoolgirl named Mathilda and her mother, Dolores, struggling in the midst of armed rebellion in the mid-90ies, to survive in their traditional village, as well as Mr. Watts, also a resident of the village who was briefly the schoolteacher when all other whites and most educated blacks had fled. It’s Mr. Watts who introduced Great Expectations into the curriculum. He’s not really a teacher, feels unprepared for the job, but uses Pip’s story to encourage the children to have faith in who they are and what they stand for even in the midst of radical danger and change. Mathilda is the student who most internalizes Pip’s example and Dolores, her mother, is Mr. Watts’ greatest critic—because he is godless, doesn’t believe in the Devil either, and doesn’t know how to do anything practical.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Misha Vainberg is a Russian Jew with a degree in multiculturism from Accidental College (somewhere near Chicago). His father is the 1,238th-richest man in Russia—one of the new businessmen/gangsters of contemporary Moscow. Misha, 30 years old and 300 pounds is exuberant, emotional and in love with New York (and the money his father’s “business” provides) and with Rouenna from the South Bronx for whom he pays the dental bills and the tuition to Hunter College.

Misha goes back to Russia (to the city he often calls St. Leninsburg) and keeps in touch with Rouenna (and his shrink) by phone and the Internet. While he is there his father is murdered and Misha can’t get a US visa because his father killed an influential person from Oklahoma. And Rouenna makes noises that suggest she’s falling in love with Jerry Shteynfarb (author of "The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job")—clearly a jab at the author himself (author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) even down to the goatee that’s prominent on the dust cover picture. Misha sees Shteynfarb as not a “real Russian” because he emigrated as a child.

Misha, desperate to get back to New York where he “belongs”, follows a lead to an obscure republic on the Caspian Sea where he expects to find a crooked diplomat who can get him Belgian citizenship and passport which he hopes will allow him back to NY. It’s when Misha goes to Absurdistan that the satire (which made me laugh hysterically in the first part), takes over and the plot becomes…yes, absurd, and the satire a little too much. Misha writes a proposal when he gets made a minister in the opportunistic government—run by the father of his current girlfriend—that maneuvers to make other powers bomb them so they can get AID from the US to rebuild. (Turns out they’re desperate because the oil’s run out though neither they nor Golly Burton will admit it). Misha hasn’t figured that out yet; his idealistic grant proposal reminds me of a satiric newsletter I wrote in grad school when I should have been studying.

In NY and St. Petersburg the satire is really funny but the Absurdistan stuff got tedious. I can see the comparison to Catch 22—there are a lot of really good digs, but I don’t think the whole novel really holds up.

Witness to History, 1929-1969

As a result of watching the Ken Burns special on The War, I’ve been considering reading books that focus on WWII. I read the Manchester memoir almost arbitrarily—it had been on my shelf a long time—and then my sister and I started talking about memoirs of the period. She thought Bohlen’s was one of the best. I knew about him, of course, because I’ve read a lot of George Kennan and they were friends and colleagues.

So I found a used copy on Amazon and ordered it. When it arrived, I thought I’d just sample the first chapter, but I read nearly 150 that first day and then just kept reading. Bohlen was a foreign service officer who decided to become a Soviet specialist shortly before the US established diplomatic relations with the USSR so he was assigned to the first Moscow Embassy in 1934. Though he served other places (Japan—where he was interned at the beginning of the war, France and the Philippines) Bohlen’s expertise and interest were in the USSR and he served presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson as interpreter and/or advisor. He translated for top US officials dealing with the Russians and so was present at numerous historic meetings (starting with Teheran and Yalta) and gradually evolved from “just the translator” into an aide and resource to Presidents and Secretaries of State. He was especially close to Roosevelt advisor Harry Hopkins and traveled with him to Moscow to confer with Stalin in May of 1946, before the Potsdam Conference (which he also attended).

Bohlen’s deep involvement in US foreign policy with respect to Russia from 1934 through the Cuban Missile and after is fascinating. He talks about internal issues with respect to foreign policy both in the US and in the USSR. He had personal relationships with all the presidents through Johnson and with all the Secretaries of States (Hull, Stettinius, Byrnes, Marshall, Acheson, Dulles, Herter and Rusk) as well as personal interaction (friendships were not really possible) with Russian leaders from Stalin to Kosygin and Brezhnev, especially with Khrushchev, as well as with their foreign ministers and other prominent members of the government. He was Ambassador to France and wrote about de Gaulle and his peculiarities. His insights into people and issues are profoundly interesting to anyone who’s read extensively on these periods. There’s even a chapter on the McCarthy era difficulties—Bohlen was not easy to confirm as Ambassador to Moscow because McCarthy and initially other right Republicans believed that at Yalta Roosevelt had condoned the USSR’s domination of Eastern Europe (among other issues).

Charles Bohlen lived from 1904 to 1974. The book was published in 1973.