Monday, June 6, 2022

Prague Winter, by Madeleine Albright

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2012 memoir of her childhood in Czechoslovakia, England, and Yugoslavia 1937-1948 covers history you may think you know, from the vantage of a small country caught in the tides of larger powers. After the Anschluss, in which Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the next to fall was Czechoslovakia. The small nation was multi-ethnic, and its German-majority region pushed to join Germany. 

Once the war began in earnest, Nazi occupiers created the Terezin camp, packing in resident Jews while creating for willing-to-believe inspectors a “model city” in which its detainees were dressed up and served abundant food – bounty that was snatched away as soon as the inspectors left. People were packed 50 to a room, disease was rampant, food and medicine in short supply, and soon transports began to death camps in Poland. 

Albright learned at the age of 57 that she had Jewish ancestry. Her non-religious parents converted to Catholicism, partly to protect her and her younger siblings, and partly so her father, Joseph Korbel, could continue his diplomatic career. She followed in his footsteps with her own ability to balance needs and forces, to find justice in difficult situations. We may cringe now at the notion of the Soviet Union as anyone’s savior, yet in WWII, small countries in eastern Europe had little choice, and made pacts with Stalin in hopes of establishing post-war autonomy. Although the Iron Curtain fell across Europe and Soviet forces supported Communist governments, leaders hoped to make the best of a situation they could not control. 

As she notes early in the book, “A scholar,” wrote my father, “inescapably reads the historical record in much the same way as he would look in a mirror – what is most clear to him is the image of his own values [and] sense of… identity.” And events bear out this assertion – again and again, people see what they want to, what fits their image of the world, blocking out uncomfortable facts that threaten that view.

This book is worth your time: because Albright is a fine writer; because she casts light from a lesser-known angle on events we consider familiar; because she understands the compromises forced on politicians, diplomats, and citizens by the sweep of history. She condemns cravenness and cruelty, but not well-meaning efforts to ameliorate harm. 

I think we read about and study WWII so much because it strikes us as a just war: unmitigated aggression coupled with genocidal plans and manifestations of pure evil, clashing with forces reluctant to take up arms, but whose courage aids their response. Righteous causes in war exist mostly in the eyes of politicians and generals – those who must do the actual fighting find less to beat their chests about. But as we watch Ukraine struggle against Russia, should we be sitting on the sidelines while their cities are bombed and people shot?

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This 2020 novel by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson starts in the present day and looks at our burgeoning climate catastrophe from many angles. And unlike the familiar doom-scrolling post-apocalyptic downers, this book threads a way forward to a living functional planet. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the scope of the problem and the juggernaut of progress, which seems incapable of change. But just 2 years ago, the skies were clean because suddenly everyone stayed home. So before we snuggle back into our ruts and try to ignore this existential threat, let’s consider how we live, and how we could live. 

The story starts off with a heat wave in India causing 20 million deaths. This catalyzes India to lead the world in an immediate shift to clean energy, which sweeps up into its sphere soil-regenerative agriculture – and also spawns a group calling themselves Children of Kali, eco-terrorists who shoot down planes, assassinate rich people, and sabotage the beef industry by introducing mad-cow disease. 

The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Paris Climate Agreements appoints a group, the Ministry for the Future, to find all possible ways to ameliorate climate change. The Ministry is representative of world populations, not just white men, and a spectrum of skills: diplomacy, economics, AI, infrastructure, law, agriculture, geoengineering, ecology, glaciology, insurance, security, and racial equity. Though we do meet some characters, Robinson packs a great deal of data and understanding of systems into this book. 

We see teams experimenting with ways to slow or stop sea level rise by pumping water from beneath fast-moving Antarctic glaciers, using oil-drilling machinery to do it. India buys time before another heat wave by geoengineering: seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to deflect sunlight. The mad-cow spread is so complete that cattle, a source of methane as well as deforestation, essentially disappear. Nations create wildlife corridors linking habitats, so that as climate destabilizes, wild animals are able to move safely to more livable areas. People join “2000 Watt clubs” aiming to reduce their energy footprint by tracking their housing, food, clothing, and transportation impacts. Sort of like getting in your 10,000 steps a day, except to benefit the world not just yourself. 

We see first the idea, then the implementation, of a carbon coin – carboni – with a long maturation value (think of a bond) payable to those who keep CO2-producing sources unused: oil, natural gas, and coal companies compensated for leaving it in the ground. Using blockchain to produce and track the carboni prevents their recipients from gaming the system, and as economies around the world shake, the carboni gains dominance. Carbon sequestration is done in many ways: pumping CO2 into old oil wells, separating it from oxygen and using the carbon as a building material, improving soil health, planting trees. This book is packed with ideas – not just good ideas, actionable ideas. 

Robinson makes a convincing case that we have the capacity to pull together as a species to protect our only home. He doesn’t scorn any technology that can help us get there. He also pokes at some of our assumptions: “Jevons Paradox [shows] that increases in efficiency in the use of a resource lead to an overall increase in the use of that resource, not a decrease” and observes What’s good is what’s good for the biosphere. In light of that principle, many efficiencies are quickly seen to be profoundly destructive, and many inefficiencies can now be understood as unintentionally salvational.” 

By pulling back from a US-centric view, Robinson is able to show that we – and by we I mean all life on this planet – are in the same boat. I appreciate that in this novel he puts India in the lead – one-sixth of earth’s population, nominally a democracy, situated squarely in the tropics where the intensity of the sun hits hardest – and through a fictional but likely catastrophe, mobilizes to change. And if this crowded country, so often viewed by wealthy nations as some lost cause, can pivot to a green future, then the rest of us certainly can. And it’s time!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Triangulations, by Lorine Kritzer Pergament

This volume, released in March, 2022, contains the novella Triangulations and a handful of short stories by Lorine Kritzer Pergament. The novella reveals the lives of several generations of women in one family, linked through artistic ambition, love, and tragedy. Protagonist Susie wrestles with her reluctance to have children, and as we follow her journey of learning more about her grandmother, a cousin of that generation, her own mother whom she never knew, and her sisters, we come to empathize with her hesitation. 

Pergament moves through time, sometimes inhabiting characters, sometimes viewing them through Susie’s imagination, prompted by stories her older sister is able to conjure from photographs. Their grandmother Fannie survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York’s Lower East Side, in a single day meeting the love of her life, and losing her best friend to the inferno. And fire continues to plague the family – Fannie’s daughter, Sylvie, suffered burns in a kitchen fire, with her baby – Susie – delivered a month early while she died from her injuries. Susie’s father won’t speak of Sylvie, and the young caretaker he soon marries, Clarisse, only came into the family after her death. She must turn to her older sister to learn more about their mother. 

Susie is a novelist, and her longtime boyfriend, Zach, who’d like to marry and start a family with her, is an up-and-coming painter. While she loves him, and cherishes their creative connection, having children is a fraught subject. The splintering of her own life renders her wary, and as she delves into the histories of her grandmother, and her grandfather’s cousin, Berta, she doubts a woman can both raise children and sustain a career. Even as she admires their accomplishments, she wonders how much more they could have done, without family demands impacting their ambitions. 

Reading Berta’s diary about living in France from the end of WWI, through Nazi occupation and into the decades beyond, Susie is struck by her predecessor’s adaptability, and her perspective. When she and her husband return to Paris after WWII, they find his optometry shop utterly smashed and burned. She writes: “Charles is despondent. He created that business from nothing, but is trying to be philosophical. We are all alive. What’s left are details.” Susie riffs on this: “We are all alive, the rest is details… Was having a child just a detail? Is being alive all that really matters?” While she appreciates the differences between Berta and Charles’ precarious situation and her own more secure one, she’s not prepared to write off the importance of her creative work as some mere “extra” – to thrive is steps beyond “we survived,” and represents more acutely her dilemma. 

Yet she also grasps the depth of Berta and Charles’ love, and how central that was to who they were. She finds resonance in Berta’s description of Charles as her “other half” – it’s how she feels about Zach. But, as he makes clear, that fundamental disagreement over having children will end their relationship. When we reach points in life where everything seems to be working, we want to make time stop. We know we can’t, but the desire to prevent change is our deepest self-deceit. Susie, recognizing this, has to abandon the version of life with Zach that fit so comfortably, and make a choice. Learning about the courageous women who preceded her, she’s better grounded to be fair to herself, and to Zach. 

Pergament writes with assurance about both the interior world of relationships and the larger sphere of events we cannot control, offering her readers plenty to ponder. 

Her short stories reveal the tensions and pitfalls in relationships. In “What Goes Up” we see a young mother at the end of her tether. In “Smell the Roses on Your Own Time” we watch a marriage unravel. “A Unique Package” surprises the best friend and confidante of a woman who has just died. And “Lost” visits the world of dementia from the inside. Pergament invests her women with humor, curiosity, and iconoclasm in contrast to the often straitlaced world they inhabit. People around them may find their behavior surprising or inappropriate, but this writer is in their corner showing why they live as they do, challenging her readers about our tendency to judge those who step outside the lines.

Monday, March 21, 2022

The Power of the Dog, a novel by Thomas Savage

This 1967 novel, recently made into a film, is truly Western, and if you don’t know what that means, this is a good place to start. Writers such as Wallace Stegner, Ernest Hemingway, Annie Proulx, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck are quintessentially Western – and so is Thomas Savage. He draws heavily on personal experience, growing up in Idaho and Montana on ranches, observing the predominance of landscape and weather to the experiences of people living there. 

For The Power of the Dog, he creates a family, the Burbanks, wealthy cattle ranchers in Montana. The elder Burbank, whom they call The Old Gent, has retired with his wife, the Old Lady, to a hotel in Salt Lake City to escape the harsh winters and isolation of the ranch. In 1925, brothers Phil, now forty, and George, thirty-eight, are marking their twenty-fifth year of running the operation, dividing duties and still sharing their childhood bedroom. 

But they are as different as two men can be: Phil is smart, shrewd, observant, skilled – and mean. All his powers he turns to crafting the perfect cutting remark, whether to a ranch-hand late for breakfast or to any non-white person daring to elevate themselves to equal status: Jews, Indians, Mexicans, he despises them. George, on the other hand, is a little dense, a plodder, but sociable and reflexively kind, giving others the benefit of the doubt. 

Phil manages the ranch hands, the cattle, the haying operation. While he likes to spend evenings in the bunkhouse, he sets himself above the cowboys, and they know it. Otherwise, he is isolated, answering to no one, going off alone, keeping his thoughts to himself. When George marries, Phil considers the woman unsuitable, and torments her with the intention of driving her off. She is a widow with a bright effeminate teenage son, another target for Phil’s scorn and derision. 

I won’t say more about the story, just observe how insightfully written it is: "[George] knew all there was to know about love, that it’s the delight of being in the presence of the loved one.” and “Doors, doors, doors, doors; five outside doors in the house, and [Rose] knew the sound of the opening and closing of each one.” 

Phil is not without humor – he muses on parties the Old Folks hosted, always awkward affairs with guests terrified lest they blunder socially, the conversation dominated by some subject happened upon then worried to death till it was time to leave: “Phil referred to that as the Cabbage Dinner, and it was one of the last parties that the old Burbanks ever attempted. But there had been others – the Mud-Hole Dinner and the Grizzly Bear Dinner.” 

I haven’t seen Jane Campion’s movie, but I highly recommend the novel.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Drive My Car - a film review

You could call this film “Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima” in echo of Louis Malle’s “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street” as another way of exploring Chekhov’s play about futility and despair. Ryusuke Hamaguchi doesn’t get his actor/director to Hiroshima until well into his story, but arguably he could have started with a recently-widowed man taking a job with a community theater – a two-month respite from a soured life in Tokyo. 

Hamaguchi starts, however, with the marriage of Yusuke Kafuku (Kaf-ku?) and Oto – she is a successful writer for television who gets ideas during sex, narrating them to Kafuku who later recites the stories back to her so she can write them down. One day he comes home from a cancelled flight to find her having sex with Koji Takatsuke, the popular young star of her series. He says nothing, and they are unaware of his intrusion. He quietly leaves, bottling up whatever this discovery stirs in him. 

Adding to the weight of this secret is Takatsuke’s appearance in Hiroshima to audition for a part in “Uncle Vanya.” Everyone at the theater assumes Kafuku will play Vanya, which suits his age and temperament, but instead he casts Takatsuke in the role. A surprise of another sort awaits Kafuku – due to a previous car accident in which a guest actor injured someone, Kafuku cannot drive his beloved red Saab. A driver is appointed – if he won’t accept Misaka his contract is null. So she becomes his driver. 

At first he is uneasy – he’s used to rehearsing lines while driving – but she assures him she doesn’t mind, he should do whatever he is accustomed to. And he does. Her silence and expressionless mien make it easy for him to work on the play from the back seat, without noticing her – she is unattractive, dressed in jeans, work shirt, and a shabby sport coat. But gradually he becomes curious about her; she takes him to the refuse center where she used to drive a truck, and bit by bit her story comes out. 

Again we see the power of Chekhov to move people. Takatsuke flounders as Vanya, and we learn he is in Hiroshima to wait out a scandal. Paparazzi snap pictures of him any time he’s in public, and he chases and assaults them. Takatsuke describes himself as empty, and Kafuku concurs – he chose not to play Vanya because to act well, he must open himself to the depths of the character, and he is unwilling to accept that vulnerability. But Takatsuke carries himself aloof from Vanya’s interior, which makes his acting suffer.

This film explores the hierarchy of theater, in which the director stays apart. The actors have a group bitch session after a reading all found unsatisfactory, but Kafuku has already left. The actors stay in Hiroshima, while his hotel is an hour’s drive away. The producers are there to smooth things over and enforce their set of rules. 

The Korean woman with the role of Sonya is mute, and plays her part using meticulously expressive sign language, which her husband translates to the cast and director. The actor playing Vanya’s young wife speaks English and Mandarin, Takatsuke speaks only Japanese. Chekhov would approve of this multi-lingual cast who cannot comprehend each other’s words. Humans failing to understand each other is the essence of his work. 

My only quibble is that the viewer has to know "Uncle Vanya" for the film to have full impact. In “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street” we see the progress of the play – the cast is rehearsing, with takeout coffee cups and street clothes, but the lines are Chekhov’s, and finally it dawns on us that we're watching the play – we don’t need sets, costumes, props. In “Drive My Car” the focus is on the lives of director, actors, and driver – the moving moments of the play are adrift from its full story.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

The Secret Knowledge of Water, by Craig Childs

The Secret Knowledge of Water is Craig Childs’ love letter to the desert, to its hidden pools, nocturnal streams, and floods. In a land of scarcity, water seems more abundant, more alive, more alluring, than in wet places. Childs journeys out into desert areas armed with detailed maps, but he is seeking to be surprised, to discover pools described by John Wesley Powell in 1870, to sojourn in the lands of the Tohono O'Odham, native people who live in and with the desert. 

The book is divided into three sections, each with its own aspect of water. We begin with Ephemeral Water, in which he seeks the water hiding out in water pockets, rock crevices, and underground until heat and parch evaporate its remnants. The next section is Water That Moves, which relates the stories of streams, creeks, narrow canyons where water can hide from the relentless sun. And finally, perhaps most beloved to him, is Fierce Water, about floods. 

The tagline of the book is “There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning.” He doesn’t seem much at risk of dying of thirst, despite wandering for weeks in places with no likely water sources. Even when he finds some tiny water pocket with a brackish gallon in it, he leaves it untouched though he is thirsty – it’s a religious kind of response. But floods fascinate him, and by the end of the book we concur in his assessment that floods are as much part of the desert as aridity. 

He writes, “[Water] is not a true element; its atomic structure can be easily broken into Hs and Os, a fact that startled many at the time of its discovery. It behaves so curiously, however, able to move unlike anything else we know of, that it is still unscientifically considered to be an element.” He describes the fish that survive inhospitable conditions, and notes the interference of humans – “There have been cases of native desert fishes being actively poisoned out of waterways to make way for non-native sport fish.” He commiserates with a biologist who has spent decades in a losing battle to preserve these unique species. 

From a cafĂ© in Kanab, Utah, he watches a thunderstorm, its flash flood arriving to the nods of locals and consternation of tourists. “The water in the street suddenly turned from clear to deep red, the red of the Vermilion Cliffs that surround Kanab, flowing instantly with the viscosity of milk and not water. Objects began to show. Rocks. Uprooted plants... The narrow downstream box of Kanab Canyon was going to be a violent place in about two hours. Anyone hiking down there, or lounging on a boulder in blatant sunlight, was probably expecting the next noteworthy event to be nightfall.” 

Childs writes beautifully about everything he sees – the shapes water has left on rocks; the birds, fish, trees, insects; the sight of a far-off thunderstorm; the ragged forms of desert mountains – and about his own yen to experience water directly. Often he strips naked to explore some narrow side canyon or bask beside a huge pool in the middle of rocks, that shouldn’t even be there. As the American Southwest descends into long-term drought, it’s worth your while to learn more about water. This book is a great place to start.