Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy

Every winter I read a big thick book. This year I chose The Forsyte Saga, which is actually three novels, linked by two short interludes.  The first volume, The Man of Property, was published in 1906, and the final book, To Let, in 1922. The saga is the history of an upper middle class English family whose older generation’s births spanned 1799 to 1820. These ten siblings, a selection of their children, and theirs, are the characters, in scenes set from around 1890 through the early 1920s.

“[Forstyes] are...half England, and the better half too, the safe half, the three percent half, the half that counts. It’s their wealth and security that makes everything possible; makes your art possible, makes literature, science, even religion, possible. Without Forstyes, who believe in none of these things, but turn them all to use, where should we be? My dear sir, the Forstyes are the middlemen, the commercials, the pillars of society, the corner-stones of convention; everything that is admirable.”

In The Man of Property, Soames Forstye is the epitome of the breed: quiet, snobbish, cold, proper, self-disciplined, possessive. Therein lies the tale. In his youth he meets a beautiful young woman, Irene, and determines to make her his wife. Through persistence he succeeds - but then she realizes she does not love him. To him, she is his most shining possession. To her, he is a jailer - the sumptuousness of her prison means nothing to her.

Irene meets a Forsyte cousin’s fiance, an architect, with whom attraction is immediate and profound. Soames engages the young man to design a house for him, and Bosinney, in consultation with Irene, builds the expensive lovely house, Robin Hill, in a bucolic spot not far from London. But Bosinney and Irene fall in love. He breaks his engagement, she breaks her marriage vows, he dies in an accident and she shuns Soames, who, repulsed by the thought of publicity, does nothing. They live separately, without communication, still married.

The first interlude follows: Indian Summer of a Forsyte, about the last years of Old Jolyon, Soames’s uncle. A great connoisseur of beauty, he buys Robin Hill, a purchase which at the time suits Soames, who hates the house but averts a scandal by not having to advertise it. Old Jolyon provides Irene money to live on, and wills her a generous stipend. He warms in her presence, and reconciles with his own son Jolyon (whose daughter was the architect’s fiancee) and his two children by his second wife.

Now the second novel, In Chancery, opens (chancery is court - the title refers to Soames assisting his sister in her divorce from her drunken spendthrift husband, and Soames finally pursuing his own divorce from Irene). Jolyon the younger, a watercolorist and also a great appreciator of beauty, is a complete anomaly in that acquisitive family. Eventually this Jolyon finds his way to Irene. Soames, by now older and desirous of an heir, finds her still so beautiful that he entreats her to come back and father a child for him. She repudiates him. At last he presses for divorce, to marry a young Frenchwoman he does not love, who bears him a daughter. In an ironic twist, Irene and Jolyon move to Robin Hill, where they have a son.

So ends the second volume. Now we have the weakest section of the book, the mercifully short Awakening, a treacly flight of fancy in the mind of Irene and Jolyon’s son Jon at age eight or nine.
The final book, To Let, opens with Jon and Fleur, Soames’s daughter, both nineteen, meeting by chance. Their cousin and his wife (first cousins to each other, in one of the durable love matches in the saga) host Jon at their country place, where Fleur comes to visit.  The two young people fall in love. Irene and Soames are both appalled by this liaison - the ugliness of their parting will not allow either to make rapprochement for their children’s sakes.

That’s the bare bones of the story. What makes it fascinating is, on the one hand, Galsworthy’s way of plunging the reader into a time and place foreign to us, but guiding us skillfully. Here’s what the Forsytes think of Bosinney’s death:
“In their hearts they would even feel it an intervention of Providence, of retribution - had not Bosinney endangered their two most priceless possessions, the pocket and the hearth?”

On the other hand, the full tale has the symmetry of a composition by Bach - parents who have no use for each other, children who fall in love. They neither lead their elders to reconciliation, nor go as far as Romeo and Juliet to tragic ends. And we see the importance of beauty and love in society - Jolyon wins Irene by gentleness, and by allowing her whatever freedom she wants. Soames, who clenches onto things and people, estranges his young second wife -
“He knew that she knew that they both knew there was no love between them, but he still expected her not to admit in words or conduct such a thing, and he could never understand what she meant when she talked of the hypocrisy of the English.”
His only concern when she has an affair under his very nose, is its effect on his adored daughter: his daughter, he thinks of Fleur, not theirs.

Lest you think Soames a monster or a buffoon, you should read this trilogy - he is so fully developed and so thoroughly human that to scorn him is to scorn ourselves. The possessiveness that is his undoing is a family trait - he is only the most perfect manifestation of it. What he wants to possess is beauty - in addition to Irene, he amasses a formidable collection of paintings, which he chooses with an eye to resale value but nevertheless appreciates while they are his. When he visits the last member of his father’s generation - Uncle Timothy, now a hundred - he reflects that the house should be a museum, for it is a perfect representation of the bygone Victorian world. Every object, adornment, custom in the house exists in a backwater untouched by anything more recent than the Boer War. Yet Soames perceives that these furnishings that meant so much to his childhood have no value in the modern world.

Copious notes assembled by Geoffrey Harvey in the Oxford World Classics edition (1995) illumine Galsworthy’s references, enriching the story for a modern audience.

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Step out of time - immerse yourself in a world better and worse than our own.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Full Body Burden, by Kristen Iversen

I've waited decades for a book like Full Body Burden, which spells out with appalling clarity the frequency and extent of release into its surroundings of plutonium created for bomb triggers at Rocky Flats plant in Front Range Colorado. I grew up in Boulder, twelve miles away. The author of this expose, Kristen Iversen, grew up next door to Rocky Flats, and downwind. She observes:

"The term body burden was used to describe the amount of radioactive material present in a human body, which acts as an internal and ongoing source of radiation. The DOE established a permissible "full body burden" for lifetime accumulation of radiation within the body on the assumption that a worker whose exposure did not exceed this level would not suffer ill effects... Exposure to plutonium was linked to cancers, brain tumors, and reproductive disorders, but plutonium was determined to be most dangerous when taken into the lungs. Particles of plutonium weighing 10 micrograms or less can easily be inhaled."

The sculpture Cold War Horse stands alongside CO Highway 72, a monument to Rocky Flats and its legacy.

As the population of the Denver metro area surges, open areas are irresistible to developers. Even now, houses are being built - and sold - on land almost certainly contaminated with plutonium and other toxic byproducts of its manufacture. The nuclear arms race pursued by our government and the unprincipled greed of developers have worked hand in glove to make land laced with waste that will be radioactive for 240,000 years seem suitable for homes, roads, hiking trails, and municipal water supplies.

The Front Range is windy, dry, and dusty. Plutonium's most deadly form is inhaled dust. After a hasty underfunded "cleanup" of the plant, site of numerous fires, spills, and other accidents, the DOE has turned over the property to the Department of Fish and Wildlife as a nature preserve. Scientists who conducted soil and water and sediment tests downwind and downstream from the facility have reported, again and again, perilously high levels of contamination. But lawsuits and reports seeking to tell the truth about these problems have been silenced in the name of national security, and their records sealed.

Yes, even the FBI, which raided the compound in 1989 to seize records pertaining to accidents, waste handling, and a culture of secrecy, after presenting findings to a grand jury, was prohibited from publicizing their findings. DOE continues to fund studies that find no health hazards in the vicinity of the plant, though independent investigations have repeatedly warned against plutonium in the soil, in the groundwater, in creeks draining away from the plant and water supplies into which those flow, and in the air - in a windy region.

Iversen interweaves her history of the plant with sketches of neighbors who worked there, and more poignantly, tells the story of her own family - her alcoholic father, depressed mother, younger sisters and brother, and the constant stream of animals sharing their lives. Her stories of the dogs, horses, and assortment of smaller creatures paint a vivid picture of children running free on open land, seeking escape and solace on galloping horses.  The secrecy in her home life, where drinking and its consequences were never mentioned, mirrors the imposed secrecy that made them believe the plant up the hill, run by Dow Chemical, was manufacturing cleaning products.

Ultimately, secrets must be exposed, their harm addressed. What you don't know can certainly kill you. Thinking of moving to Front Range Colorado? Read this book first!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Summerlong, by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Last Unicorn decades ago. Every time I visit a bookstore, I check the Sci Fi/ Fantasy section to see if they have a book of his I haven't read yet. So I was delighted to find Summerlong, a new and lovely novel in which the mythic and the everyday bump up against each other.

A young woman named Lioness shows up on the Puget Sound island where Abe, a sixty-something scholar, toils over a book, visited often by his longtime inamorata Joanna, a flight attendant, and her daughter Lily. The visitor has an aura of spring, and the very earth responds - the air is gently warm, the soil and plants abundant, and around her people feel touched as if by magic. Though Lioness appears young, in her eyes are the memories of centuries, of aeons, and her voice and accent evoke Otherness.

In Beagle's stories, the world we're accustomed to and one with greater possibilities exist side by side, and one need only to turn a certain corner to move from our quotidian plane to one where myth and mystery are part of the landscape.

In a time when kindness seems in short supply, this writer offers a long view in which joy is contagious and even a god can be moved by what we do. Read him and smile!

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.