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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

This is another one you probably don’t want to read about before reading it. You need to stop right now and read the book.

My first thought when I saw this title was that the author was writing a book about how he became a terrorist or something like that, maybe getting into the head of the suicide bomber. It’s not. In fact, the only place any form of the word “fundamental” is used in the book—other than the title—is in the work the main character does at the prestigious Manhattan valuation firm he joins after Princeton. He is constantly enjoined to stick to “fundamentals”, nothing else. “At Princeton, learning was imbued with an aura of creativity: at Underwood Samson, creativity was not excised—it was still present and valued—but it ceded its primacy to efficiency. Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time an again. We learned to prioritize—to determine the axis on which advancement would be most beneficial—and then to apply ourselves single-mindedly to the achievement of that objective.” So the irony double entendre begins with the title.

The book is a narrative, told to an American tourist at a sidewalk eatery in the center of Lahore some years after the events of the story take place. The narrator is Changez, still in his twenties, reviewing his career at Princeton and the valuation firm and the “change of heart” that made it impossible for him to continue. It is not just a friendly conversation. Changez perceives some hostility, even fear, in his interlocutor and shows a hostile edge himself. One imagines him with shabby clothes and a full beard—somewhat threatening, hardly the clean-cut young man who’d beat out fellow Princetonians for his spot as an analyst and then bested the trainee class at Underwood Samson. He’s a university lecturer now, involved intimately with his students, some of whom are clearly revolutionaries of some sort.

It’s a love story too. Changez goes with a group of graduates to Greece right after graduation and experiences the seaside for the first time in his life, indeed travel as an amusement of the rich—for his companions are privileged sorts. There he discovers Erica who blends into the group but is also aloof, deeper than the rest. They continue to meet back in NY where she lives with her parents on the Upper East Side. It’s no simple love affair. Erica is damaged, the result of the death of Chris, her childhood companion and lover. The closer she comes the Changez, the more the damage surfaces until she checks into an institution to protect herself from the life around her and disappears from there, possibly throwing herself off a cliff into the Hudson.

Changez is in Manila when the Twin Towers fall and he is elated, though ashamed of his reaction. He is detained and searched more thoroughly than the others on the return to New York and he begins to notice a different reaction to him on the streets. At home war is threatening with India; the US attacks Afghanistan, a Muslim neighbor of Pakistan, but depending as it does on Pakistan, does not side with it in the matter of India. He parents caution him not to come home for Christmas, but he does. And begins to see himself differently. When he returns he grows a beard, making himself more threatening to Americans, but more authentic to himself. He’s chosen for a plum job in Chili, but screws it up—deliberately. A Chilean in the firm he’s come to value tells him about the janissaries, Christian youth captured in childhood and trained to be Muslim soldiers—fierce and loyal, but he remarks that because they were captured as children they have no memories of their former lives. Changez gets the implication loud and clear; he’s become an American businessman (“my Pakistaniness was invisible, cloaked by my suit, by my expense account, and—most of all—by my companions”) but he does have memories.

Erica has written a novella she’s trying to get published and after her disappearance, her mother gives Changez a copy. He’d expected tortured autobiography but instead found a narrative that “shimmered with hope, and although it was for the most part rather spare, it paused often to delight in little detail: in the texture of a piece of fallen fruit, for example, or in the swaying antennas of crayfish in a stream.” Watch for the details and the metaphors in Hamid’s novella as you read—you’ll be blown away.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tomorrow by Graham Swift

I like Graham Swift but I didn’t like this book. I’ll have to explain what’s suspenseful about the novel in order to explain why I didn’t like it so if you don’t want to know stop reading.

The novel is a middle-of-the-night monologue—more like an all night monologue—by Paula Campbell Hook, addressed to her twins a week after their 16th birthday when, she starts out by saying, she and her husband have decided to tell them something likely to shake up their lives and possibly to break up the family. One assumes at first that the parents are breaking up, but that doesn’t make sense since she says that a week after their 16th birthday was a date they settled on a long time ago for this revelation.

The big secret turns out to be that they were conceived by artificial insemination by donor sperm, and their father is not really their father. Paula basically tells the story of her love for Mike and their lives up until that moment. The voice is authentic; the narrative very well done, but the significance escapes me. I don’t understand why they didn’t tell everyone at the time and their children long before age 16. I really don’t understand why she’s worried that the twins will feel their world is so turned upside down and themselves so betrayed that they’ll leave. Anger, she might reasonably expect, but hardly total rejection, especially in the light of the fact that up until this moment of truth it had been a pretty happy household.

So, the premise for me being so flimsy, Swift’s skill in executing it just isn’t enough. It’s not even enough to say that pregnancy with donor sperm was unusual enough in 1979 (when the twins were born) to have called forth this much angst. It’s 1995 when the great revelation is due after all.

I’m sure my outlook on this subject is colored by the fact that four of my seven grandchildren were adopted (and not the biological child of either parent), in open adoptions where, if the birth parents are interested (not all are), there is regular contact and where the children themselves knew from a very young age. Parenting trumps eggs and sperm every time and will, I’m sure, for Paula’s children as well—though we never find out.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m thinking about this one, a reread, in juxtaposition to the last one I read—an account of a battle in Sadr City. There too the soldiers were children and the war essentially a Children’s Crusade (as Vonnegut points out the original Children’s Crusade ended badly with most of the children sold into slavery). It (Martha Raddatz’s book The Long Road Home) should have been an anti-war book but wasn’t. I think people often make the mistake of assuming that you can’t both support the soldiers and rail against the waste and destruction of war. Not so. What was wrong with Raddatz’s book was that she supported “the mission” a little too much.

But back to Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim is an innocent sent to war without a gun—as a chaplain’s assistant. He’s captured in The Battle of the Bulge near the end of the war and sent behind German lines as a laborer in Dresden where he happens to survive the firebombing of the city in February of 1945 in an underground vault of a slaughterhouse with some other American soldiers, their guards and a few carcasses on meat hooks. Above them the firestorm virtually destroys the city and tens of thousands of people in it. This book always reminds me of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. Not that they have much in common, the latter being nonfiction, but each packs an emotional wallop and each has preserved the memory of a horrendous evil perpetrated by humans against their own kind in war—and become an anti-war classic.

Billy has become “unstuck in time”. He’s abducted by aliens and held prisoner on the planet Tralframadore where he’s put, naked, in a zoo under a dome (because he can’t breathe the cyanide atmosphere) on display, eventually with a female and child. He never knows exactly where or when he’ll be at any one time—freezing in the snow in the battle he doesn’t understand, on a train moving east with other prisoners, in the slaughterhouse or wandering the city afterwards, or some time in his subsequent life where he becomes an wealthy optometrist, marries Valencia and has a son who becomes a Green Beret in Vietnam, or on Tralframadore. He does know when he’ll die though, an irate American soldier (Lazzaro) promises a dying soldier (something of a crazy actually) to take revenge on the man responsible for his death—Billy Pilgrim, and in 1976 he does.

Nothing about the war, the battles—where both sides are scraping the bottom of the barrel for soldiers (old men and children) and equipment—even clothing—or the firestorm, is heroic. The end is in sight, the big decisions made, and it’s all over but the last of the dying. “So it goes” as Vonnegut says with every mention of death in this novel.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family by Martha Raddatz

Martha Raddatz is an ABC News correspondent who has reported from Iraq from the beginning and whose commentary I first heard on the PBS TV program Washington Week. This book takes as its subject a company of soldiers who had just arrived in Iraq with a "peacekeeping" mission in Sadr City, just at the moment when the insurgency, entirely unexpected by the soldiers, began. They expected Iraqis they met to be happy to see them, not sniping with AK 47s and flinging RPGs as they drove down the street. Nor did they expect the people to block the streets with everything from old refrigerators to dead bodies. They didn't expect to be pelted with rocks and human excrement. They didn't expect shooters to advance with women and children in front of them. They didn't expect to have to shoot at small boys running along side of their vehicles firing at them.

The incident at the center of the book occurred on April 4th, 2004. A platoon went on their first routine mission in Sadr City and were ambushed in the middle of a city full of hostile people. Their vehicles were disabled and one soldier was killed and several others seriously wounded. They managed to turn off into an alley and radio back to Camp War Eagle for help. During the afternoon and evening 3 rescue missions were dispatched and similarly attacked. They had some armored HumVees and Bradleys and a few tanks but many had HumVees with canvas tops and troop trucks with no protection at all. In the end 8 soldiers died and over 60 were injured. On the same night, insurgents took over all the Iraqi police stations in Sadr City and the job in Iraq changed radically from the peacekeeping mission these soldiers expected. Raddatz tells the story in great detail, avoiding the kind of in-group slang outsiders are not likely to understand. If battle descriptions turn you off because you don't understand what's going on, you'll find this book different. She also focuses on the soldier's emotional responses, thoughts of their families at home and relationships with each other

The book focuses on the First Cavalry based in Fort Hood, Texas, and Raddatz interviewed both the soldiers who participated in the battle and their families back home. She gives significant focus to the families back home. At first I was bored by the lives of the women, but late in the book as Raddatz focused on the reactions of the people back at Fort Hood when they heard about the events of that April 4th, I found myself tearing up on almost every page. An Amazon review singles out this dialog, when the army team comes to inform Lesley Hiller that her husband has been killed:

"She opened the door and saw an army chaplain. Another officer in uniform was with him. There wasn't a chance for either visitor to say a word.

" 'No!' Lesley yelled. She was frantic, panic-stricken. 'You all got the wrong house!'

"She slammed the door.

"The officers stayed outside and began calling her name softly.

"After a moment she opened the door a crack.

" 'Are you Mrs. Hiller?' one of them asked.

"She shook her head. 'You have the wrong house,' she insisted.

" 'Is your name Lesley?'

" 'No,' she said again. 'You got the wrong house!' Then she started to scream."

This book doesn't focus on politics at all. The closest it gets is when a young soldier asks his commander why they left all their tanks back at Fort Hood and the commander, himself stressed out and emotionally vulnerable, remembers asking for more but can only reply wearily, "We didn't know". The book is intended for the American public, not in the least inured to having its young men killed or horribly wounded. It probably wouldn't play well in Baghdad, considering that the lowest estimates were 500 dead in Sadr City that night. It's also a book the American public needs to read. We may not have become "soft" but we do have great respect for human life and value every human life. Remember that line from Casablanca? ("You may already have noticed that life is cheap in Casablanca.") Life is not cheap in America, but there's a cost and right now most Americans are not paying much attention to those paying the price.

By the way, Cindy Sheehan's son Casey was killed that night in Sadr City and the story of how she opposed his joining the army and her reaction to his death is also here.