Sunday, November 13, 2016

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This brief book, winner of the National Book Award, consists of what a man tells his fifteen-year old son about the world, and how he may prepare himself for what lies ahead. The author is Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American journalist who grew up in the ghettos of Baltimore and Philadelphia. His subject is the Dream, by which he means white America, and the primordial threat it represents to the African American's body:

Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society, and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible - this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white...The new people were something else before they were white - Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish - and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again... The elevation of the belief in being white was ... achieved through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. 

Coates reviews his life, from his childhood in which If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.

But he finds freedom in the library, where he can read what he wants and learn in ways that fit his experience and curiosity. He goes on to Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, where truly the best and brightest of black culture are assembled. He meets students from other cities, other countries, other world-views, and his eagerness to learn takes him to Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where every day he requests three books, and from them absorbs history, culture, philosophy. He meets, among other young people, his wife. But even within this cultural elite, the inescapable fact of their status in America is brutally present.

Prince Jones was an accomplished handsome young man, a paragon of what Howard University meant to Coates. But one night Prince Jones was murdered by a Prince Georges County, Maryland, police officer. What facts we know seem incomprehensible: Jones was driving from PG County through DC into northern Virginia to see his fiancee, and during that journey was pursued by a lone PG County undercover cop in drug dealer's clothes, through three jurisdictions, then shot in his car a block from his destination. The cop confronted Jones with his gun drawn and no badge. The cop's quarry was a drug dealer whose physique was not even remotely similar to Jones'. He claimed Jones tried to run over him with his jeep. During the inquiry, it was learned: The officer was a known liar. A year earlier he had arrested a man on false evidence. Prosecutors had been forced to drop every case in which the officer was involved. The officer was demoted, restored, then put out on the street to continue his work...[after the inquiry into Jones' death, the officer] was charged with nothing. He was punished by no one. He was returned to his work... 

The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies - the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects - are the product of democratic will... The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.

Coates delineates an unbridgeable gap between white America and the lives of black people. He traces this schism to the roots of our country, in which slave-holders prevailed in keeping slavery legal in the new nation. He is not wrong about the peril of being black in America, where no matter who you are, if you're black you can be shot down by a police officer - or citizen - so blinded by fear that imagining a weapon in a black man's hand is sufficient cause to kill him - and be exonerated for doing so.

Coates does not believe in God. He believes that body and soul are one, and that this life is all we have. He knows he is living in the cross-hairs, vulnerable at any moment to have his body taken from him by someone he does not know, who sees in him only a threat. He conveys this danger to his son, hoping it will not keep him from expressing his vitality.

Given the outcome of our recent election, what can people he identifies as white do?
We can challenge the militarizing of police departments: using armored vehicles and body armor and automatic weapons reinforces the attitude that they are at war, constantly under threat, patrolling for enemies, ready for combat.
We can challenge the justice system that allows murderers to walk free if those they killed were black.
We can challenge the penal system, in which for-profit prisons create a demand for cells to be filled.
We can challenge our own assumptions and fears, which form the basis of this deadly system.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin

Published in 1971, The Lathe of Heaven has complete relevance for our time. Ursula Le Guin's perceptive references to overpopulation, global warming, and the ravages too many humans have wrought on our planet, are as immediate as if she'd written them last week. But those problems are incidental to the story, which is about human limits and hubris.

In Portland, Oregon in the near future, George Orr, an average man in every respect but one, seeks the assistance of a psychologist, Dr. Haber:
"Why do you think your mother didn't notice that reality had changed since last night?"
"Well, she didn't dream it. I mean, the dream really did change reality. It made a different reality, retroactively, which she'd been part of all along. Being in it, she had no memory of any other. I did, I remembered both, because I was...there...at the moment of the change. This is the only way I can explain it, I know it doesn't make sense. But I have got to have some explanation, or else face the fact that I am insane."

So Dr. Haber tests him with hypnosis, recording a short effective dream on his Augmentor, a machine he has built to record brain activity in different states; sure enough, George's dream changes the mural on the wall from Mt. Hood to a racehorse. The doctor undertakes to help George, but gradually seeks more and more to control his dreaming, to direct it. As you might guess, the subconscious, while suggestible, is also unpredictable, and Dr. Haber's "solutions" to world problems have their own terrible consequences, while George is caught between not wanting to be his tool, and believing his visits to Dr. Haber are his only alternative to suicide.

That's enough story to go on. Le Guin's writing has a wonderfully distinct voice:

When he came out of the portals of Willamette East Tower, the March sky was high and clear above the street canyons. The wind had come round to blow from the east, the dry desert wind that from time to time enlivened the wet, hot, sad, gray weather of the Valley of the Willamette.

Le Guin shows us the incremental corruption of power - Dr. Haber has good intentions, but they are his intentions, based on his view of how the world should be. Inevitably his sense of self-importance drowns out his ability to listen, and his faith in the machine he has perfected gives him the illusion of understanding George's mental processes as he dreams. Like humans of every era, Dr. Haber knows enough to be dangerous, but not enough to realize how dangerous his knowledge is.

He wants to be in charge, more than he wants to be part of a whole. In this election season, that seems so familiar. Yet, given that Le Guin wrote this book 45 years ago, I feel more hopeful than I have in months, that this too shall pass, and life will go on. I highly recommend this book!

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.