Friday, October 7, 2016

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Harper Lee completed Go Set a Watchman in 1957, and her agent shopped it to publishers. J.B. Lippincott wanted to know what else she'd written, so she worked on what was published as To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. The earlier-written novel, set fifteen years later, was only published in 2015. Harper Lee died in February 2016 at the age of 89. The merits and shortcomings of this new book have fed an argument about Ms. Lee's state of mind when she agreed to pursue publication - was she senile? Was she pressured by her heirs, who stood to make money off sales of a book sure to be (as it has been) a best-seller?

It is the subject, race, and her approach to it, that have caused this schism: some critics have praised the novel highly, while many others have condemned it sharply. Race, segregation, and inequality are - should be - much on our minds these days. Atticus Finch, embodied for many in Gregory Peck's august, sensitive and upright performance in the wonderful film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a man of courage who stands up for right and justice, defending a black man on trial for the rape and murder of a white woman in a small southern town. His lawyerly pleading wins our hearts: "Here," we think, "is a man intent on righting wrongs, unafraid of those who oppose him!"

Spoiler Alert - I'm going to discuss the entire book. If you want to read it without knowing what happens, stop reading this now!

For the first half of Go Set a Watchman, that's the Atticus Finch we see - older now, afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis but still at 72 a lawyer at work, an honest and straightforward man. Then Jean Louise (Scout), his daughter, home on a visit from New York, listens in on a meeting of all the notable white men in the town as they discuss methods of maintaining segregation. And there is Atticus, introducing the out-of-town bigot who leads the way. Atticus stands beside this hateful small-minded man, giving him respect and attention.

Jean Louise spends the rest of the book wrestling with questions not only of justice and race but also, closer to home, of her sense of betrayal at her father's abandonment of everything he taught her to believe. How could he support these rabid race-baiters? How could he lend his imprimatur as a respected member of the town, to this loathsome campaign?

It's hard not to think of William Faulkner's novel Intruder in the Dust, in which a black man is jailed and narrowly avoids being lynched for the murder of an up-county (white trash) man - a murder he did not commit but will not unbend to address his accusers to deny. Faulkner riffs on repudiation, on the bravery of an old white woman and a pair of teenage boys, one white and one black, who save the imprisoned man because they have to, as honest people. They take on themselves the duty to repudiate the lies about Lucas, because he will not come to his own defense but such lies must not stand, must not be allowed to destroy him. Hate and ignorance must be resisted.

Atticus justifies his support of the segregationist cause by claiming that black people in the south are more backward than whites, that the Supreme Court decision (presumably Brown vs. Board of Education) is pushing them ahead too fast, that the NAACP are meddling outsiders forcing their will upon ignorant locals, that black people are not ready to have equal stature with whites. Jean Louise rejects his arguments and rages against him, but in the end Ms. Lee frames Jean Louise's push-back as a step toward maturity: Atticus has been Perfect, and finally she can see he is not, and bash him off the pedestal he's been on all her life. This liberates her, but leaves unresolved the question of whether, if even fair-minded Atticus has joined the lockstep racist movement, it is either acceptable or inevitable to push for a society in which African Americans must remain an underclass.

Harper Lee has pulled a bait-and-switch on us - she lays out the arguments for and against segregation, and racism itself, but at the last minute reduces these to the catalyst by which Jean Louise gains an adult view of her father.  She gives us a southerner's view of the Civil War by differentiating the social structure of the slave-holding states from the rest of this country, and using that to justify - and excuse - racism, Klan activity, Jim Crow.

How you feel about this book will depend heavily on how well you can compartmentalize: writing skill and vivid characters, separate from the world in which they live, and their attitudes. I admired Harper Lee's writing more before I compared her willingness to rationalize the racist structure of small-town Alabama, to Faulkner's solid repudiation of it in rural Mississippi.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot's book should shock you. As the great wheel of America’s attention moves race to the top again, the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman dying of cancer in 1951, whose tumor cells were harvested by the hospital where she suffered and finally died, stands as an explosive example of the power structure’s indifference to Americans whose ancestry is African. Not only was she never asked for consent for the use of her tissues, her family found out inadvertently many years after her death, when portions of her medical records were quoted in news stories. Meanwhile, her cancer cells, of a surreal potency, spawned a multi-million dollar industry as HeLa in medical research.

Her family did not benefit. Indeed, when researchers tracked them down more than twenty years after Henrietta’s death to collect blood samples - curious to see whether any of her progeny carried those unique cells - they never explained their purpose nor followed up.

The enormity of this disrespect permeates the book. To read in magazine articles about the autopsy of your mother, whom you barely remember, is as profound an invasion as one can imagine. And when her children battled to set the record straight - even her name was bowdlerized - they were treated as an obstacle, a nuisance, people incapable of understanding and therefore undeserving of explanations.

Skloot is not just a brave and tireless researcher, she is a storyteller, building a narrative about a strong joyous woman, mother of five, whose untimely death tore the stable center from their lives. Through persistence and dedication, Skloot was able to earn the trust of a family who had no reason to trust anyone, especially a white person interested in the medical anomaly that their mother became to the world. She takes us into the volatile heart of a shattered group of people, making us feel the pain they endured, the bitter irony of Henrietta’s cell empire juxtaposed against their poverty and ill health.

What made her different from the other journalists and researchers who interviewed the Lacks family? She was not only bent on telling Henrietta’s full story, she was also determined to be fair to them. She cared. She was swept into their struggles, learning from them as they learned from her. And finally, the truth made healing possible. This should be required reading in high school science classes.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

This fictionalized story of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, and a pioneer in other ways as well, suffers a little from breathlessness. But on the whole, McLain evokes early 20th century Kenya - the people, the landscape, the colors and scents and wildness. And her subject is a worthy one - a woman of courage, a great heart.

Beryl Clutterbuck's mother moved to England with the couple's sickly younger son when Beryl was small. She and her father stayed on the farm in Kenya where he raised and bred racehorses, and at his side she learned everything he knew about conformation, blood lines, racing, and the thrill of riding across the open country. Her inseparable companion was a Kipsigis boy her age. Together they hunted and explored the bush country, and her father, distracted by his own affairs, let her run wild.

When she was about 12, a series of governesses tried to civilize her, to little avail, but she was presented as a debutante at 16 in Nairobi, and soon her life took a different turn. Her father's debts had overtaken him. He sold off the farm and decamped to Cape Town with Beryl's last governess, eventually his wife.

Beryl had two disastrous marriages, the first at 16 to a taciturn hard-drinking neighbor, the second six years later to a pampered Englishman who seemed a loyal friend till pregnancy took them to England where he quickly sank in thrall to his mother. She didn't let marriage stop her from pursuing a certificate as a race-horse trainer, which she received at age 18, being the youngest person and first female to earn the distinction. This brought her the respect to find work at various horse farms, training thoroughbreds and living as she pleased.

Africa attracted misfits who became kindred spirits. Among these were Denys Finch Hatton, a hunter who led tourists on big game hunts, his inamorata Karen Blixen, her husband Bror, Denys's friend Berkeley Cole, and others.

Many of the colonists in Kenya at that time were younger sons with no inheritance - bloodlines without money - and ne'er-do-wells shaking off the strictures of European society. There was a lot of sleeping around, drug use, drunkenness, and general dissipation. The ones who fared best were those who embraced Africa with its droughts and floods, lions and wild elephants, poisonous snakes, thorn trees and all the rest. Beryl, as untamed as the country, loved it. Growing up there made it possible for her to flourish as a horse trainer, as a woman with very few restrictions, and later as a pilot.

Her freedom is enviable even now, when (some) women have more opportunities - from a young age she was on her own, not allowing her marriages to restrict her more than temporarily. Her great love was Denys Finch Hatton, but despite strong attraction, he was not a man to be tied down. When he died crashing his plane, that did not stop her from loving to fly, feeling the exhilaration she had enjoyed as a horsewoman.

If you're interested in her adventures as a pilot, read Markham's memoir West with the Night, or Mary Lovell's biography Straight on Till Morning: the Life of Beryl Markham. Instead, this is the story of her youth, when she spent a lot of time training horses and earning notoriety and fascination among white colonists. Africa was an essential part of her - she could hardly have achieved what she did within the strictures of a well-ordered society, an urban milieu. In Kenya, she had room to push herself beyond limits, to live fully.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Reviewed by NC Weil

Spoiler Alert! I’m discussing the entire book. If you haven’t read it and would like to be surprised, stop reading this now.

Winston Niles Rumfoord, an aristocrat from Newport, Rhode Island, and his dog Kazak, during a journey to Mars, blunder into a chronosynclastic infundibulum, a phenomenon of Vonnegut’s creation – effectively, it puts intruders into a time-space scrambler, setting man and dog on a comet-like orbit in which they materialize at regular intervals in various places. Rumfoord discovers that he can view the future as easily as the past, and uses this knowledge to manipulate people – individually and as a species – on his origin planet.

Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, is abducted under Rumfoord’s orders to serve in the Army of Mars, a huge cadre recruited and kidnapped from every nation on earth, and trained as a conquering force. The vast majority have antennae implanted in their skulls that direct their actions, and their memories are wiped to make them obedient soldiers. A select few do not have antennae – disguised as ordinary soldiers, they are the true commanders, carrying controllers to manipulate their platoons.
For Constant, known on Mars as Unk, memories keep bubbling up, despite a series of memory cleanings.  The commander in his unit is Boaz, who takes Unk under his wing because he knows he was once a rich and famous libertine – he intends to have Unk show him the legendary nightlife of American cities after they conquer Earth.

Salo is a Tralfamadorian stranded on Titan, a moon of Saturn, awaiting a replacement part for his spaceship so he can continue his journey across the universe with a message whose contents he does not know. He is a machine. The last 200,000 years of Earth history and human development have been messages to Salo that the part is on its way.

Rumfoord’s purpose in amassing and deploying the Army of Mars is to unite Earthlings, first against a common foe, then as adherents in the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. The dehumanization and slaughter of the Army of Mars, part of his grand plan, troubles him not in the least. God the Utterly Indifferent bears a strong resemblance to Rumfoord.

Unk and Boaz leave Mars on the supply ship, but instead of joining the invasion, they end up on Mercury, where the ship’s guidance system takes it deep into a crevasse then stops. In the caves of Mercury, Unk and Boaz go their separate ways, and when finally the native creatures – harmoniums – spell out the escape route, Unk leaves but Boaz remains on Mercury.

Vonnegut considers free will from a number of angles: Malachi Constant’s fortune is inherited from his father, who acquired it by investing in companies based on their initials. Market knowledge is no match for dumb luck. Malachi says, “Somebody up there likes me,” which Rumfoord throws back at him through the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, whose scapegoat is a small statuette called a Malachi, symbolizing that luck has nothing to do with God.
Did Rumfoord establish his religion in order to protect the human species from self-destruction after his demise? On Titan, the only place he is always present, we see him dematerialize, whisked off to some other part of the universe never to return. So he knows his cycles of visiting Earth and other places between the Sun and Betelgeuse are going to end, and earthlings will be left not only without his guidance, but without the Tralfamadorian meddling that defined Earth cultures for 200,000 years. At that point, we will be in need of structure. So is Rumfoord’s treatment of our species ultimately humane, or yet another example of his megalomaniacal certainty that only he could guide Earthlings?

If your entire life (beginning to end) is open to viewing any time, can you have free will? That would imply you could change your future, but Rumfoord merely sees his future, and is less an actor than a cog. Doesn’t sound like free will.
Salo, messenger of the Tralfamadorians, has been programmed to make his interstellar journey – no free will here. Everything that happens on Earth has been in service of ordering the replacement part for his spaceship then delivering it – no free will for Earthlings. The Army of Mars are brainwashed and controlled with antennae in their heads – no free will here. Unk’s travels from Mars to Mercury then to Earth, then to Titan, are all because of Rumfoord’s manipulation – no free will for Unk.
Adherents to the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent are convinced by Rumfoord’s prophecies – which are for him mere glances into a future he knows. They have surrendered their wills to their religion.

The only being who exhibits free will in the entire book is Boaz, Unk’s platoon commander. He chooses to stay on Mercury when Unk announces he knows how to leave the crevasse – in the company of the harmoniums, away from his own species, Boaz has discovered his own goodness. He feeds the harmoniums with music, protecting them from overdoses, and in doing this, realizes that his life has been caught up in being hurt, and hurting others. He’s done with that. Making harmoniums happy is a better life than any other he can imagine.

Is Vonnegut saying that a human can have free will only when he’s no longer around other humans? Is he saying that kindness is an avenue to freedom? Vonnegut was famously cynical – likely he would say that Rumfoord represents humanity – lacking freedom, but only too happy to impose entrapment on everyone else, and that being a heartless megalomaniac is an advantage.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Unless, by Carol Shields

Carol Shields's novel Unless is more satisfying as an expose of gender imbalance than as a story.  We meet Reta Winters, a writer in her forties - wife, mother, friend, indispensable translator for a feminist of a previous generation - who in the midst of all these roles finds her orderly life derailed by the disappearance then estrangement of her oldest daughter. 

A mother with daughters is necessarily aware of how women are dismissed in the cultural world to which we contribute as second-class citizens. One of the novel's threads is a series of letters Reta composes to academics and critics whose lists of literary greats virtually exclude women. She challenges their omissions, and increasingly pours out her concerns for how this effacement must affect her daughters, who look at this cultural elite without seeing their own reflections anywhere.

Every chapter title is an adverb or conjunction: Nevertheless; Instead; So. For me these were not guideposts - the chapters all have a similar tone. But in the chapter Unless, Shields says this:
"Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior 'discourse,' but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they're just so much narrative crumble...
"Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless - that's the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It's always there, or else not there."

Embedded in Shields's novel is Reta's, wherein we observe our protagonist's work on the sequel to a well-regarded debut. She anticipates the irritation of readers (myself included!) who wish writers could stretch a little further than writing novels about novelists, or giving the protagonist their own name (at least she doesn't do that), by riffing on the complexities of being a writer, and how those give Shields leverage to reveal the creative process. 

But the story is about Norah, nineteen, who has abruptly dropped out of college, left her live-in boyfriend, and taken up residence on a street corner, holding a sign saying Goodness. She does not communicate, and interacts as little as possible with passers-by, who might add a coin to her cup, or with the staff at the homeless shelter where she spends her nights. Some time after Norah's disappearance, one of Reta's friends sees her on her corner and alerts the family. She will not be budged. Each parent, and her sisters, visit her regularly, leaving warm clothes, food and money, hoping but doubting that she will use their offerings. And her silent vigil becomes the center of her family, disrupting joy, undermining confidence, breaking their hearts.

Reta's "light comic novel" can't sustain that tone - we see her struggle with the choices of her protagonist - a character who at the outset seemed superficial develops depth, doubts her plans, and ultimately makes her home in a larger harder world than the one where she began. Is Shields framing a commentary on how Norah's silence has a gravity that pulls those nearby into her force-field? Norah has power, which she wields by aspiring to have none. Is Shields saying to the crusty old male cultural milieu: "You have silenced us - but see how elemental we are? Our silence overwhelms your noise."-? For a book in which not a lot happens, Unless is a provocative read.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald braids three narrative strands: memoir, triggered by the abrupt death of her father; a treatise on falconry and hawks, particularly goshawks, the largest and most unruly of the hawks; and a biography of T.H. White, best known as author of The Once and Future King but also a man tormented in a distinctly English way, a failure as a schoolteacher and an even less competent falconer, whose struggles with his submerged homosexuality taint everything he attempts.

Macdonald’s prose is a blade slicing along the differences between the English language and the American – you may read Jane Austen or D.H. Lawrence without feeling alien, but Macdonald’s word choice and phraseology are purely English, highlighting its separateness from the way we speak and write on this side of the Atlantic. Her vocabulary is well-suited to her subjects. Here’s her first sight of her hawk:
“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick.  A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

In reading her father’s plane-spotting journals she understands how he developed his patience and powers of observation, which enabled his success as a professional photographer. She recounts a captured moment:
“…a black-and-white photograph my father had taken many years ago of an elderly street-cleaner with a white goatee beard, wrinkled socks and down-at-heel shoes. Crumpled work trousers, work gloves, a woollen beret. The camera is low, on the pavement: Dad must have crouched in the road to take it. The man is bending down, his besom of birch twigs propped against his side. He has taken off one of his gloves, and between the thumb and first finger of his bare right hand he is offering a crumb of bread to a sparrow on the kerbstone. The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly at the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.”

Her father’s death more catalyst than cause, she goes deep into her own wildness, withdrawing from human company. Training the solitary goshawk consumes her, and she intersperses her own experiences with T.H. White’s ragged efforts. She knows more about falconry than he did at the time he wrote The Goshawk, but doubts herself at every turn.

She writes also about threats to wildlife – from climate change, from pesticide and herbicide use that kill off first the insects, then the animals and birds that fed on them, till very few creatures remain. After a visit to a California condor captive breeding center, she writes: “I think of what wild animals are in our imagination. And how they are disappearing – not just from the wild but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind.”

Macdonald is balefully honest – about her grief, doubts, fury, the kinship she develops with her goshawk, mastery of which is analogous to mastery of herself – a self which has become feral, implacable, merciless, and terrified. Together, she and this bird learn to navigate the world, one leading then the other in their quest for equilibrium, trust and certainty. Observing the goshawk’s instincts, she identifies some of her own. There are things the bird must be trained to do, but other things she already knows, primal and incorruptible. Macdonald seeks this ground within herself, even as she recognizes it in her young charge.

This beautifully-written book skewers slipshod reasoning and dangerous metaphors. She has to become nearly a hawk to finally understand what being human is, and to value the distinction. The hawk’s blood-lust is part of who she is, but the hardening that lets the author kill a rabbit with her bare hands is borrowed from her predatory partner. She observes how easily we devolve into killers who don’t question the cost of shrugging off our humanity, and shows that we may admire the grace and strength of a bird of prey without aspiring to be one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande's compact book about aging in our modern world, is compassionate and practical. He challenges us to re-examine the ways we end our lives - the ways we force those we love to end their lives - and posits some alternatives to constraints none of us want for ourselves but prove all-too-willing to foist on our elders.

My mom says AGE is an acronym for Aggravating Geriatric Experience. She would know. She doesn't want to be babysat, monitored, checked on, "helped" in her home, forced to eat or drink "the right things" or prevented from sitting alone in her apartment. But the combination of being sedentary and stubborn is untenable. She falls. She gets dehydrated. She forgets. And she's not suffering alone - her refusals impact those who love her, who must rescue her from her choices.

But when we can't take care of ourselves, Here Comes Medicine to keep us alive. We can't see far enough into the future to recognize when to stop. The medical model of dying is a juggernaut of procedures and drugs, and only in hindsight do we know when we should have said, Enough!

Gawande's solution is to ask his patients what activities they love, and the ability to do these things becomes his yardstick for the value of treatment. A man whose joy derives from watching football on TV and eating chocolate ice cream, can weather paralysis of his legs. But if being able to walk is what keeps him ticking, paralysis is unacceptable. That's where I draw the line.

Or so we might say, when we're able-bodied, at a remove from death. As we draw nearer, it's common to discover that being alive, hearing the voices of loved ones, touching them, seeing the sunrise, make that earlier line easy to cross. Well, I can't walk, but I can still -- And so we trap ourselves. Medical advances allow us to pass one limit after another, until we lack the awareness to say I've gone too far. 

This book, powerful as it is, addresses physical not mental debility. In my grandma's final year she was senile, though physically intact. We were close, and all my life I'd known she never wanted to be without her mind. I had a very strong urge to put a pillow over her face and hold it there until her body quit. She would have thanked me. I knew I must not do that, so I didn't, but I still think I should have.  And I hope someone will help me check out, before I'm at the mercy of too much treatment.