Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand

Lives don't often provide the satisfying arc we appreciate in fiction - Unbroken does. The first third is an adventure, the middle half is sheer torment, and the end is redemptive.

In 1936 Louie Zamperini was an Olympic distance-runner, drafted before he could fulfill his dream of winning the 1500 meters in 1940. He served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater in WWII, escaped the wreckage when his plane crashed in the ocean, and spent over 40 days in a raft, living by ingenuity and luck amid sharks, on what meager food and water they could capture from sea and sky, only to land emaciated on a Japanese-occupied island where he and his surviving crew member were taken prisoner. He spent the next two horrific years interned first in a secret interrogation camp then in two notorious POW camps where he endured unimaginable torments at the hands of cruel men.  

The rebuilding of Japan into an ally against the communist countries of Asia required the US to turn a blind eye to Japanese wartime abuses, so it is a revelation for anyone younger than the generation who fought them, to read about the deliberate starvation, ghastly medical experiments and calculated barbarities that claimed the lives of many POWs and twisted the post-war existence of the rest. From our comfortable distance of hindsight we decry the use of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this story bolsters the contention of members of the war generation, that use of this shocking new weapon was the only thing that prevented a full-scale invasion of Japan, to end that war.

During the castaway section, when one of the ever-present circling sharks leaps from the water attempting to grip "Zamp" in its maw, we feel a thrill - what an adventure, what a feat of survival. But when after many days in their small raft, starving, the men are spotted by a plane (rescue! at last!) then that plane strafes them, passes, and returns to strafe again, the reader feels jolted by the world's injustice. And that's only the beginning, the first step into their long hell.

Incarceration is a terrible ordeal, gripping and appalling, and Hillenbrand tells it vividly - the men's starvation, illness and thirst, the small measures of defiance that bring on added punishments but keep their wills alive, the whole twisted world of prison camp commanders and staff in which the POWs' rations are sold off on the black market while the dregs of the military wield absolute control. These men's experience is more Holocaust than The Great Escape.

But we, like Zamperini, do finally achieve peace. Barbarity wasn't invented in the wars being fought now - it is as old as human altercation. This book is as powerful an argument in favor of diplomacy and peace, as you could find. War is not a heroic enterprise, War is Hell. We do well to remember that when we clamor for vengeance, for matching destruction by "our enemies" with our own.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's new movie The Zero Theorem returns again to the cosmic questions that must plague his sleep, and to a vision of a not-far-enough-distant future where a dazzling mix of bright busy noisy public spaces contrasts with the cavernous decaying church where our hero Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) sleeps upstairs amid the organ pipes. He works as a programmer for Mancom, the organization which watches everything and controls everyone. But he is really waiting for a phone call, a voice on the line that will tell him why he exists. Which is why he exists: to wait for the call. Samuel Beckett would love this movie.

Qohen's supervisor makes him attend a party where, stepping into a quiet room, he meets the Master (Matt Damon); he also meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a call girl whose enticements he rebuffs: "I don't like touch." These encounters change the pattern of his days: The Master recruits him to work on the Zero Theorem in a perfectly-Gilliam space with old mosaic floors and iron circles and the hoses and tubes so familiar from Brazil, all surrounding and feeding some gigantic machine, the nerve center of this highly-controlled-in-chaos society. Here Qohen meets Bob (well, the Master's 15-year-old son, played by Lucas Hedges, who calls everyone Bob because he can't spare brain power to remember names), who explains that everyone is a tool.

Qohen is given permission to work at home (where he wants to be, in case his phone call comes). His computer screen looks like a giant smart-phone, and using a video-game controller he manipulates equation-cubes in a vast structure where sometimes they fit perfectly and he achieves Upload, but other times cause avalanches or explosions of already-constructed areas. Bob visits to explain the Zero Theorem - that we are nothing and to nothing we return, so nothing matters. Bainsley shows up. Bob tells Qohen she's a tool, but Qohen thinks maybe she really does like him, as she claims. She gives him a Virtual Reality suit he can wear when he visits her website, and they have virtual interludes in a tropical paradise, just the two of them - and Qohen's isolation begins to crack.

Surveillance is constant, which we're reminded of by black-and-white camera-eye sequences. Gilliam's vision is a chaos of speeding, flashing, blasting - as if the world were a combination Times Square and game arcade. The mash-up seems futuristic, but the elements already exist: targeted ads, cameras everywhere, blind constant pursuit of money, sex, drugs and drink. No contemplation, no silence. Are we there yet, Terry?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

...And Ladies of the Club

..And Ladies of the Club is a journey through time. Much is being made of Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood whose characters, filmed over a decade, grow up in real time. This novel uses the full lifespans of its characters to tell not only their stories, but to illuminate the times as they lived them.

This tome came out in 1984 as a supermarket best-seller (hundreds of thousands of copies), the first published work by Helen Hooven Santmyer, age 88 when it went paperback and hit the big time. I read it then, and recently a book group member chose it. We allowed ourselves 2 months to read it (1433 pages!) but even so, I fear I am the only one who made it to the end.

The book is well worth reading. Santmyer follows a group of women in a small Ohio town from their college (we would think of it as high school) graduation in 1868, to the ends of their lives in the early 1930's. In that span we get history as people lived it (depressions, issues of race and class, politics, the powerful impact of war on the lives of veterans) as well as changes in transportation, communication and expectations. She is a fine writer, expressive and clear, using well-crafted sentences to tell her saga.

The primary character is Anne Alexander Gordon, whose father is a doctor, and who marries a (Civil War veteran) doctor, then their son becomes one, and against the odds of his upbringing, her grandson does as well. Anne believes most deeply in a life of joy, and through her struggles she is always able to find it in unexpected places and people.

The other principal is her best friend, Sally Cochran Rausch, whose husband, an ambitious Civil War vet, becomes the town's leading citizen. He buys a decrepit rope-mill and builds the business through economic surges and crashes. Union organizers can get nowhere with his loyal workers - he demonstrates during crises that he considers it his duty to look after them. Sally is a sensualist, taking pleasure in being a gracious hostess, filling her house with music, family and friends, and holding grand parties. She is a snob, but loyal and strong.

The Club of the title is the Women's Club, formed when Anne and Sally graduate, as a way of advancing literary life in their community. At first, only high-status ladies, teachers and ministers' wives are invited to be members, but over time the group's cliquish tendency gives way to recognizing the intelligence and scholarship of lower class women, even avowed Socialists.

Characters are finely-drawn: we see generational continuity, and the foibles and mistakes of the heart that cloud futures. But we also see the enduring comfort of long friendships, the sparks of sudden love, mischievous children, adults who make the best of second-best. 

Well done!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beach Read: The Truth, by Michael Palin

It's August - time to read something light. At my favorite Venice, California bookstore, Small World Books, I picked up Michael Palin's 2012 novel The Truth.

In brief, it's the story of Keith Mabbut, middle-aged British pen-for-hire and frustrated novelist. He is offered a shocking amount of money to write a biography of Hamish Melville, an elusive environmental crusader who pops up in the world's hot spots to mobilize indigenous peoples to resist the destruction of their homelands by resource-greedy corporations. Mabbut has to find Melville, gain his trust, and glean his story on a short deadline.

But why is Urgent Books offering him so much money, and why is its CEO such a creep? Meanwhile, Mabbut's wife, separated from him for a year or two, wants to marry her new lover, his twenty-something daughter is in love with an Iranian refugee, and his slightly-younger son won't speak to him. And his historical-recreation "not science fiction" novel languishes while he tracks Melville to India. In the process of pursuing this story, he's surprised by his own environmental activism reawakening after decades of slumber.

The book is more serious than I'd expected of a Python, but it's a decently written page-turner. And it's aptly named: variants of Truth shimmer in every chapter: what people live and die for, what they will corrupt those around them for, the mundane truths of how to treat people, and that humans are not really trustworthy. Mabbut ultimately has to decide what his truth is, and to speak it - just as everyone he encounters must voice their own version.

One can do worse for beach reading - go find a copy!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lord of the Flies

Fred and I worked with a Boy Scout troop for close to 15 years, and he used to pull out his copy of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies by way of explaining to the dads of the 11-year-olds what they could expect from a pack of teenage boys.

Standout theater director Peter Brooks filmed the book in 1963 - in black and white, with a group of English schoolboys. Updated from the original shipwreck, the boys are marooned by a plane crash. Nevertheless, the story is the same: how easily the veneer of civilization rubs away to reveal the savage.

At the start, Ralph and the boy we'll only know as Piggy promote rules and fairness, but already we recognize a boy, Jack, who itches to be in control and soon finds ways to attract a following. Ralph, with his insistence on allowing anyone to speak while holding the conch shell, and emphasizing the importance of using a fire to signal rescuers, represents civilization itself. Piggy, nearsighted, asthmatic and chubby, represents physical weakness - but his limitations make him kind to the younger boys - he looks after them, tells them stories, comforts them. Jack represents savage remorselessness, favoring those boys who accept his authority and using fear to control the rest.

There is also a Beast. When the camera finally gives us a clear look at a dead paratrooper, we understand it doesn't matter that this apparition is human and dead - the boys are afraid of an external threat. Guarding against the Beast gives them purpose and community, but it also drives them to extremity. And they forget what Ralph tries again and again to remind them: their first duty is to signal for help - that is, to remember the civilization they have left, to maintain loyalty to it, to keep themselves in a state such that they can return to it.

Fire, killing the pigs, blood, discarding their clothes in favor of body paint and masks - these elements mark the group's descent. Ralph's signal fire is a cry for help, but the bonfires that incite the others to bloodlust are its opposite. To someone who worked with boys for many years, this was all so familiar: pyromania, struggles for dominance, scapegoating, the animal just beneath the surface - but always there were boys willing to help the younger and weaker in their midst, to tolerate difference, to uphold (at least some of) the aims of civilization. The savage cannot be removed from within us - the best we can do is to give that wildness forms of expression that allow our humanity to flourish.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Locke - a Film Review

Spoiler Alert! If you're planning to see Stephen Knight's Locke, stop reading now - I'm going to discuss the entire movie.

It's tricky to make a film succeed when only one character is on-screen, even more so in the limited space of a car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is project manager for a high-level concrete company, and on the eve of a pour of historic proportions, he is interrupted: a woman with whom he had a single sexual encounter is pregnant, and her baby is coming early - coming now. As we learn, his own father abandoned him, only showing up when Locke was an adult. Indeed, our protagonist's success in life - his attention to detail, his reliability, his calm and professional way of handling problems - may all be attributable to rejection of everything his father was: selfish, drunk, ineffectual, weak.

He makes a choice, at the beginning of the film, to be with Bethan, a woman he hardly knows (and as he assures her, feels no affection for), as she gives birth. She is 43, alone, and this baby is her last chance at joy. And Locke, whatever it costs him, claims the child as his own, and will be there with its fearful distraught lonely mother. In addition to being the eve of the Big Pour, this is also the night of a big soccer match. His sons are excited, his wife is even wearing the team jersey. And he is driving away from them all: from the job for which he has primary responsibility, from the family life he would rather be part of.

On the one hand, the simultaneity of these events is a contrivance. On the other hand, life is exactly like this, challenging our priorities and our humanity. When we first learn of his errand, we think he is leaving his wife for "the other woman" - but very quickly we realize the two women are poles apart in his thinking. He tells Bethan they hardly know each other, he is only coming because he is set on doing the right thing. His wife Katrina's reaction is not surprising, given that he is in a car and not face-to-face with her: by their third conversation, she informs him that the difference between one night of infidelity and none, is a world of difference, an intolerable breach. His explanation: a rainy night, two bottles of wine, the flush of success from completing a difficult job (Bethan was his assistant on-site for several months), and a profoundly lonely person. He says he felt sorry for her. Katrina isn't buying that. And the fact that he is choosing an out-of-wedlock child over the rest of his life, only strengthens her conviction that there's more to this liaison than he is letting on.

Locke has abandoned his job at a critical juncture: the night before the early morning start of pouring 300-plus trucks' worth of concrete for the foundation of a skyscraper. If any of the concrete is inferior, or the rebar set incorrectly, the whole structure is vulnerable - and he is clearly a man who takes pride in his work, this project the capstone to his career. He knows his boss will fire him, which indeed he does. Yet he calls his foreman Donal to walk him through the procedures of the night, which are numerous and nerve-wracking, so that the project will succeed despite his absence. His loyalty to his work is both admirable and exasperating - if it's so important to him, why is he not at that construction office instead of hectoring Donal over the details? But he has chosen a human over a building, a life over a job. At the same time, he has devastated the lives of those closest to him: his wife, his sons, his boss, his foreman. Is it fair for this birth to trump everyone else in his life? Is he really doing "the right thing"? We understand why he makes his choice - but do we concur?

This is one of those movies that can spark profound reflection on morals, ethics, and how the ripples from a seemingly insignificant action can change everything.

Quibbles: we're familiar with product placement in movies; this is a veritable infomercial for BMW. The contrast between the concrete-encrusted boots he removes before getting in, and the sleek new car, shows that this man, successful enough in his work to afford a luxury car, is still a get-your-hands-dirty kind of manager. But I confess I gagged a bit.
My major complaint is that Locke is a poster-child for distracted driving, yet there are no consequences. He has a flow of wrenching conversations, he initiates calls, he leafs through and reads from a folder, and gazing in the rear-view mirror he addresses his dead father, all while tooling down the motorway. Emergency vehicles scream past from time to time, he is passed by tractor-trailers - and the fact that his mind is all over the place apparently has no effect on his driving. Only at the beginning does he sit at a green light while a truck behind him honks repeatedly - for the rest of the movie he drives competently. Not likely!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The "Other" WNBA

I'm in Detroit at the National Meeting of Women's National Book Association - the most fun, energetic, accomplished group I've ever come across. Our mission: members are women and men dedicated to promoting reading and to supporting the role of women in the community of the book.

Unlike many book-oriented organizations, WNBA is full-spectrum. Writer? You belong. Reader? Certainly. Librarian? Literacy advocate, publisher, editor, literary agent, poet, children's book illustrator, blogger, graphic novel creator, journalist, memoirist, crossword-puzzle creator...? YES! All of these and more.  As we approach our 100th Anniversary in 2017, we can look at many proud accomplishments:

Since 1940, we have presented the WNBA Award to “a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation.” (WNBA website)
Some recent recipients: Ann Patchett, who not only writes prize-winning novels but founded Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, in defiance of the trend of bricks-and-mortar stores shuttering; Masha Hamilton, noted international journalist and women's advocate; the late Kathi Kamen Goldmark, author and co-founder of Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock group composed of well-known writers (Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Stephen King) who raise funds for literacy programs.
Since 1959 we have held a non-voting seat as Non-Governmental Organization in the United Nations. Of particular interest to WNBA are, among the UN's Millennium Development Goals: Achieving universal primary education; Promoting gender equality and empowering women; Reducing child mortality rates; and Country Focus: United States and Afghanistan. We partner with Afghan Women Writers Project (AWWP) which encourages expression through writing among Afghani women and girls. (WNBA website)

Since 1983 we have given the Pannell Award to a pair of bookstores, one children's specialty and one general, to "recognize bookstores that enhance their communities by bringing exceptional creativity to foster a love of reading in their young patrons. The winning stores receive a check for $1,000 and a piece of original art from a children’s book illustrator." (WNBA website) The awards are presented at BookExpo America's Children's Book and Author Breakfast in New York.

In 2007, WNBA initiated National Reading Group Month (October) which celebrates the joy of shared reading. In a time when people feel increasingly isolated, reading groups foster community, promote love of literature, and highlight literacy. (NRGM)

But all that is secondary - I love this organization because these people (most but not all, women) love books and are lively, engaging, dedicated, and very good at the wide range of skills WNBA represents.

Sound appealing? Check us out!