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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

I haven’t read Tracy Kidder since The Soul of a New Machine which I loved. Obviously that was a mistake. This book is excellent and its subject, inspiring: the life and work of Paul Farmer makes me believe that all the big problems of the world would be soluble if people had attitudes similar to his—and that he’s capable of infecting anyone who gets anywhere near him, maybe even just reading this book. People don’t of course generally have Farmer’s attitudes, but still he has accomplished much by a relatively simple philosophy—that it’s wrong (and unnecessary) for there to be desperately poor people in the world. For him that translates into bringing top notch medical care to every citizen of the planet. He thought that could be done without the usual rational for how to help the poor: doing the greatest good for the greatest number with the resources you have. Farmer’s biggest success was convincing the medical world that they were wrong in thinking the best way to fight TB was to concentrate on drug programs for those with TB which could be cured by the most common (read “inexpensive”) drugs and ignoring (i.e. leaving to die) those with MDR (multi drug resistant TB) which needed careful diagnosis to figure out which combination of very expensive drugs were necessary. In Farmer’s world view, every person on the planet deserved the same medical care; he was impervious to anyone who tried to suggest to him that that wasn’t “practical”. In the MDR case, he found a test site in Peru and proved his point, not the least of which was that if the MDR cases went untreated, they would facilitate the spread of the most dangerous kind of TB. Farmer also thinks there’s no population with AIDS that does not deserve to be treated with the latest drugs. Along the way he’s brought dying children from Haiti to Boston for treatment and cures and brought open-heart surgery to the poorest part of Haiti. The organization he founded, Partners in Health, perpetrates his messianic philosophy of medicine.

Farmer works in two very disparate worlds he very much wants to bring closer together: Harvard Medical School and the top notch Boston hospitals that give him access to and his clinic in the central highlands of the poorest country in the western hemisphere—Haiti. He started the work in Haiti before he even went to medical school himself and obtained his medical degree plus a PhD in anthropology at the same time, while spending significant amounts of time at his Haitian clinic. He’s clearly one of those smart, driven and extremely energetic souls whose drive to accomplish is nothing short of miraculous.

Kidder doesn’t say how he chose Farmer as a subject for his book, but it’s clear his research extended over several years during which he visited Farmer in Haiti and Boston many times—and traveled with him to international conferences and to places where Farmer was working such as the slums of Lima, Peru and the prison system of Russia. Kidder is one of those writers whose books evolve organically, without a clear chronology or even a topical outline. If there’s one organizing principal it’s Kidder’s own experience with Farmer, from his first impressions through his broadening understanding of a complex man and his work. The book is a joy to read and Farmer’s life is nothing short of an inspiration. This book may be the perfect melding of superb writer and worthy subject.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin

I wasn't very enthused when this book was chosen by a nonfiction discussion group I belong to, but I ended up loving it. Toobin's narrative is interesting and accessible. You don't have to be a lawyer to understand it, though you'll learn some legal terms if you didn't know them. I got a bit confused by the numerous cases cited at first but the real focus is on the last few years when I've at least heard of the controversial cases and often know quite a lot, thanks to the PBS News Hour's detailed reporting on cases.

Toobin explains how the Supreme Count has moved from the "liberal" Earl Warren court to the "conservative" John Roberts court. In the process, he stops to characterize each of the Justices now serving on the Court (as well as several who've left it since the Reagan years). He talks about how during the Reagan administration the Federalist Society was formed with branches in law schools. Its founders were going against the grain since most law schools at that time were liberal. How members of this society dedicated their efforts, in the intervening years, to moving the highest court to the right is both a major theme of the book and a prediction of its conclusion: however unsuccessful George W Bush's presidency might seem, Bush has succeeded completely in choosing (and getting confirmed) two judges, both of whom are well to the right of any of the other justices. Toobin, whose book goes through the session which ended in 2007, shows how already decisions on abortion rights and affirmative action practices have been well to the right of previous decisions.

Sandra Day O'Connor, who became increasingly liberal as she tried to reflect the will of the people of the US, comes out as the hero of the book if a nonfiction book can be said to have a hero. Clarence Thomas turns out to be a nice guy if still the most rigid conservative one can imagine. The others are just as interesting. Read the book and see. The background on the justices is skillfully woven into the narrative; the book's structure is organic, moving backward and forward within the overall narrative of the move from left to right from the Reagan years to the present.

The case of the Bush v Gore in 2000, Toobin maintains, tarnished the Court's reputation, not because it made Bush president but because the Court shouldn't have taken the case in the first place. The history of the Supreme Court and the abortion issue permeates the book and makes me wonder again just what it tells about this country that so much time, energy and brainpower has been expended on this issue.

Toobin is a writer for The New Yorker and a legal analyst for CNN. His book is based on extensive interviews with each of the justices.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra

“Yasmina Khadra” is the pseudonym for an Algerian military officer. He adopted a female name to avoid military censorship, but I wonder if it’s not also because he understands women. The characters of Zunaira and Mussarat lay bare the bleakness and emptiness of the Taliban’s ideology and the focus of his subsequent novel, The Attack, is on understanding a female suicide bomber.

The author said of this book, “The West interprets the world as he likes it. He develops certain theories that fit into its world outlook, but do not always represent the reality. Being a Muslim, I suggest a new perspective on Afghanistan, on the religious fanatism and the, how I call it - religiopathy. My novel, the "The Swallows of Kabul" gives the readers in the West a chance, to understand the core of a problem, that he usually only touches on the surface. Because the fanatism is a threat for all, I contribute to the understanding of the causes and backgrounds. Perhaps then it will be possible to find a way to bring it under control.” (It’s a translation from a German source and I think fanaticism is meant in the place of fantism.)

The Swallows of Kabul follows two couples, one educated and middle class, the other from a lower social scale. Neither has children or obvious extended family and both find their lives narrow and hollow as a result of the rules imposed by the Taliban. Both are isolated, without the interests and values of their former lives. One woman is dying; the other, once a magistrate, is reduced to “being” the burqa she must wear. The deterioration of the two couples is a microcosm of the world under the Taliban:

  • "Things in Kabul are going from bad to worse, sliding into ruin, sweeping along men and mores. It’s a chaos within chaos, a disaster enclosed in a disaster, and woe to those who are careless. An isolated person is doomed beyond remedy. The other day, there was a madman in the neighborhood, screaming at the top of his lungs that God had failed. From all indications, this poor soul knew neither where he was nor how he had lost his wits. But the uncompromising Taliban, seeing no extenuating circumstances in his madness, had him blindfolded, gagged, and whipped to death in the public square." [pp. 71-72]

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin

I read Godwin’s earlier memoir (Mukiwa, A White Boy in Africa) 10 years ago so naturally wanted to read this one, though I wondered what a man younger than I by a decade or more could have to write two memoirs about. The answer is “plenty”. This one is focuses on the period between 1996 and 2004 when Robert Mugabe is encouraging the “wovits” (supposedly vets of the civil war but mostly thugs and opportunists) to confiscate land from white settlers. Mugabe seems to want to get rid of whites in Zimbabwe and to make what was a country genuinely successful at developing a multi-racial society into an all black country; ruining the country's economy in the process. Production is down, the economy is shrinking, inflation is off the wall. Not only whites but middle class blacks are immigrating in droves.

Godwin, a journalist, has lived in the UK and the US for years but loves his country and has made a specialty of getting jobs reporting from there. His parents remained there as did his sister, a TV journalist. What's compelling about this memoir, though, is the author's skill at simultaneously reporting on the beauty and promise and on the horrible political present of a part of the world most of us know little about and think of only as a place of abject poverty and ugliness. Godwin's love of Zimbabwe and its people, black and white, is infectious. But he's very talented also at weaving Zimbabwe's story in with that his own family. His older sister, killed by terrorists whose grave is vandalized. His physician mother who’s given and given again to the people of Zimbabwe. His younger sister whose journalism gets her banned to North London where she broadcasts back to Zimbabwe.

Godwin learns during the time frame of the book that his tight-lipped British father is actually a Polish Jew and holocaust survivor trapped in Britain in 1939 where he went on a course to learn English. His mother and sister ended their lives in Treblinka. His father was never allowed to leave Poland. Godwin’s telling of his father's story would seem totally irrelevant to present day Africa, as would Goodwin’s own experience of volunteering his time in the wake of 9/11 (his own neighborhood), but that's the beauty of a good memoirist who can make anything that happens to him "relevant”. In the end he feel compelled to compare his own need to leave Africa with his father’s to leave Poland: “Like Poland was to him, Africa is for me: a place in which I can never truly belong, a dangerous place that will, if I allow it to, reach into my life and hurt my family. A white in Africa is like a Jew anywhere—on sufferance, watching wearily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility.”

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

This was my third reading of Our Mutual Friend and this time I saw a great deal of bitterness on Dickens’ part, a writer who, despite an ending where the main characters end up not only happy but prosperous and where the bad guys are punished, associated business success, society and wealth with swindling and hypocrisy. The Podsnaps, the Veneerings, Flegby, and the Lammles and most of “society” are irredeemable. Humorous—certainly, though not among Dickens’ best satires. And static. The social gatherings of these characters—who were not aristocrats so much as those who have exploited others to grab on to their piece of the rock—are mock socials, where everyone plays a part and no real interchange of ideas or feelings takes place. Dickens, of course, planned that—to show how close they were to play acting. (These occasions remind me of the Ascot scene in the film of My Fair Lady, everyone in black and white and moving like stick figures to fulfill social expectations.)

Mr. Boffin, "The Golden Dustman", miraculously manages to maintain his good nature in spite of his money, though he is tried first and found worthy. John Harmon is allowed to regain his wealth only after he’s given it up and learned the value of love and honor as a poor man. Eugene Wrayburn, an upper class twit who is redeemed by the love of a lower class woman, even manages to turn around MRF (my respected father, as Eugene calls him with some bitterness, who decided his profession the day he was born). But initially, though Eugene was drawn to Lizzie, following the values of his social class, he had no thought of marrying her.

Bella Wilfer, like her husband, has to be deprived of money and position to learn to appreciate what to Dickens are real values, and the father she adores, who has a desk in the corner furthest from the fire at Chicksey Veneering and Stobbles in Mincing Lane and is constantly demeaned by his wife as unassertive and unambitious, is likewise immune to the siren song of the social position that goes with money. Though Mrs. Wilfer’s pretentious posings are far funnier than those of the Veneering set.

My least favorite Dickens’ novels are Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby, and they seem to me to be driven by an anger and a bitterness that override the human drama and that is more the case in Our Mutual Friend than I detected earlier. Podsnappery is clever and amusing but superficial.

The real drama in Our Mutual Friend is provided primarily by Bradley Headstone whose obsession with Lizzie causes him to alienate everyone who cares for him. His jealousy of Eugene causes him to follow compulsively as Eugene laughs at him, causes him ultimately to try to murder Eugene and blame it on Rogue Riderhood, the river denizen who just happens to be minding the lock (fraught word that) that leads to where Lizzie—anxious to preserve her respectability—has hidden herself. Riderhood, an unabashed low life, understands and seeks to profit by Bradley’s obsession and ends up killing them both. In a post-Freudian time, Headstone might be an episode’s leading man on Law & Order, one where the psychiatrist is the chief witness. Interestingly, only the villain Headstone is, like the good guys of the novel, relatively uninterested in money and society.

I go back to Bleak House as my "favorite Dickens".