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.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Fools Rule!

Today being the Fred and Marigold Anniversary, a poem:

Fools Rule!

When people are awful and life seems grim,
That’s when we need sillies the most.
Laughter’s not “extra”, child of a whim,
It’s that step bread must take to be toast.
The fool trapped inside you longs for release
To joke and provoke you to smile.
Indulging your jester puts blues to the rest or
At least cuts you slack for a while.

Roll in the grass, bark like a dog, throw handfuls of leaves in the air,
Lie on the earth and feel your pulse pounding.
Rejoice to be human, do what you dare
Down ‘mongst the animals, safe from the cannibals
“Because we taste funny” resounding
Laughter’s our motto, everyone ought to

Acknowledge that life is astounding.

NC Weil 
April Fools Day 2016

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Babushkas of Chernobyl - Film Review


On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded and caught fire. At the time, it was the world's worst nuclear accident (though in March of 2011 it was superceded by the earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima reactor, a slow-motion catastrophe still in the making).  The area around the reactor was evacuated and closed, declared an Exclusion Zone. Within a 10 km radius, radiation levels are extremely high. Within the 30 km zone, levels are still toxic, but that zone is not depopulated.

The documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris and released in 2015, explores that world.

Three groups of people spend time in the Exclusion Zone:
1. Scientists tracking radiation hot-spots and effects (new hot-spots keep showing up, since the radiation doesn't stay in one place), sampling soil, water, plants and animals. They are rotated out of the zone every 15 days to forestall toxic buildup of radiation in their tissues.
2. A group of enthusiasts of a post-apocalyptic video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whose mecca is the 10 km zone. They seek the abandoned city Pripyat, quite near the reactor, to get there climbing barbed-wire fences and sneaking through the forest, their dream being to tramp through the deserted buildings of a once-thriving city - essentially playing high-risk hide-and-seek. On camera we watch young men fill bottles from the river and drink it, though the water doesn't look potable even if it weren't radioactive. They don't stay long. Police patrols arrest and remove them - when they can catch them.
3. The babushkas. In Russian, the word (pronounced BOB-ush-kuh; the pronunciation buh-BOOSH-kuh refers to a style of colorful kerchief worn by these women) babushka means grandmother, but more than that, it refers to the tough peasant women of a generation not much longer for this world, survivors of what they call the "famine of Stalin" and World War II.  In the aftermath of the explosion they were evacuated, but they longed to return to their motherland, the villages where they spent their lives. And because they were old (ages range from 70s to 90s and even older), there seemed no harm in letting them come back - the ailments of age would likely kill them before radiation did.

They live mostly alone, with chickens and pigs, planting, harvesting, distilling their own moonshine, and foraging for sustenance. In the Exclusion Zone there are no stores (no nightclubs, as one babushka laughs), only the labs. They're on their own. But the forest is beautiful, wild and lush, abundant with game and plant-life.  There are about 130 of these old women. They cheerfully share their raspberry jam, their potatoes and mushroom soup with visitors - it would be rude not to partake. Our young tour guide says she eats as little as possible then gets out of there. We watch one babushka lovingly add new soil to the planter box over the grave of her grandson, then plant flowers in it. Who will tend her grave?

When conditions are dry and the wind picks up, radioactive dust blows around - this is the most dangerous time to be in the zone. After rains, when the air is humid, it's a little safer. Groups of scientists visit the babushki, taking samples of their garden soil, their water, the buckets of mushrooms they've harvested for soup, eggs from their chickens, berries and tomatoes. The Geiger counters are clicking away, the levels far above anything considered safe. The babushki are, however, thriving: cheerful, independent, hard-working. They laugh about the crows that will maraud for eggs if they leave the coop open, or the wild boars that root in the garden eating potatoes. An almost toothless babushka demonstrates how banging on a pail eventually scares the wild boar away - after he's eaten his fill. But clearly she doesn't mind sharing her harvest. Another remarks that if she had stayed in Kiev, where she was evacuated, she'd be dead by now, what with the polluted air and the traffic and noise. The forest is her home. She impales mushroom caps on a tree at different levels: near the ground for the hedgehogs, at thigh level for the wild boars, and at eye level for the moose. She uses the diminutive form for each of these animals - they might as well be her children, the way she looks after them.

Our tour guide brings us near the damaged reactor, pointing out the porosity of the concrete sarcophagus originally built to entomb it. She shows us the new cover under construction, a giant arch of concrete which will be rolled into place, to seal in the radiation - for a hundred years. She seems very pleased with this new structure. It's worth remembering that the half-life of uranium-238 is something like 4,468,300,000 years (source: Wikipedia: Isotopes of Uranium).  We can't even imagine how long that is.

Those who tout nuclear power as "clean energy" conveniently ignore not only this timeline but the accidents which have already occurred.  It's time to admit humans have not even begun to grasp the task of coping with toxins so long-lasting, and that we have no way of either cleaning up, storing, nor containing such material until geologic-scale time finally renders it harmless.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Too Far Afield, by Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass's 1995 novel Too Far Afield is set in East Berlin during the time leading up to, during, and immediately following the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.  His primary character, Theo Wuttke, known as Fonty, is an aging scholar/ file courier in the Reich Aviation Ministries building, whose labors under the East German government have earned him a permanent shadow, a man named Hoftaller.  Unlike the spies familiar to us from stories and movies, Fonty and Hoftaller have many conversations, spend a lot of time together, and work together - except when Hoftaller plays his government-agent card to prevent Fonty from going "too far afield" - speaking bluntly about political affairs, pursuing his friendship with a Jewish professor, leaving Germany, and so on.

Fonty's life study is of the writer Theodor Fontane, a man born exactly a century before him, and whose life events he parallels, consciously and unconsciously, throughout his own.  Fontane, referred to as The Immortal, becomes, through Fonty's scholarship and life-mimicry, indeed a timeless figure.  Working under censorship constraints, Fonty uses lectures about The Immortal to cast light on current events, a secret language well understood by his audience.

The novel has two central metaphors. First is the paternoster, a continually moving loop elevator whose open-front compartments one simply steps into to board, and out of to leave, on any floor.  No doors, no buttons, no pausing to move cumbersome objects on or off.  And no record, visible from other floors or by any engine-room observer, of one's travels.  Thus, a person who has occasion to visit many parts of a building, such as file courier Fonty, can choose his compartment companion, or avoid one, and make his journeys, observing activity on every floor he passes, all unobtrusively.  He and Hoftaller take many long rides together, and when tasked with writing a history of the building, he describes the appearance, feet first or hat first, of various high-level officials as they ride the conveyance.  Having worked in the Ministries Building under first the Reich, then the Workers and Peasants State, and finally in its incarnation as the Handover Trust, Fonty is as much a piece of its history as the paternoster itself.  Grass uses the elevator's circularity as one more confirmation of the cyclical nature of life - especially Fonty's.

His other metaphor is the diving duck. Fonty loves to spend time in the Tiergarten, watching the ducks paddle along, vanish suddenly beneath the surface, then pop up - where?  He envies them, because he would disappear if he could - indeed, he tries.  But he is also a diving duck, veiling his own views in his talks and articles about The Immortal, as though the present time were some lake surface he can dive beneath, traveling in concealment till he emerges to make his point.  And thus, though the government distrusts him, he is able to express himself with comparative freedom.

The plot, modest as it is, does not distract from the central observations of unification's impact particularly on East Germans: having grown poorer than their Western counterparts, they are underdogs when the private property confiscated by the East German state comes up for sale, and is promptly snatched up by West Germans with money.  The richly ironic title of the Handover Trust perfectly encapsulates this imbalance - the handover is essentially a handout to West German businesspeople, and trust is nonexistent.

Grass beautifully weaves the centuries together, showing that experience is recurrence, and that knowing the past is not only instructive but essential to knowing who we are as individuals, as nations, as humans.