4.21.2014

Amsterdam

In Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, two old friends Clive and Vernon meet at the funeral of Molly, the former lover of both. Clive is a composer struggling to finish a symphony and Vernon is an editor of a failing newspaper.

They ruminate over Molly’s swift decline. “The speed of her descent into madness and pain became a matter of common gossip: the loss of control of bodily function and with it all sense of humor, and then the tailing off into vagueness interspersed with episodes of ineffectual violence and muffled shrieking.”

When Clive begins to think he is losing his faculties, he meets with Vernon and together they agree to assist each other when the time comes call it quits. Their pact takes on an urgency when Clive finds himself unable to finish his symphony and Vernon is sacked from his editorship for publishing compromising photos of the current foreign minister.

They fly to Amsterdam for the premier of Clive’s never-to-be performed symphony. The two have become bitter enemies: Clive is appalled that Vernon published the scandalous photos and Vernon is shocked by Clive’s failure to help a woman being attacked during a hike he was taking in the Lake District.

At a reception for the members of the orchestra, Clive and Vernon end up drinking champagne laced with a deadly powder they have obtained from euthanasia group in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam, the winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, opens at a funeral and the specter of death and suicide hovers over the novel. Yet it is also dense with McEwan’s typical interests, as well as his talent in writing about them: the pleasures of walking the Scottish highlands, the joy of music, the collapse of “human project.”

When the definitive histories of twentieth-century music in the West came to be written, the triumphs would be seen to belong to blues, jazz, rock and the continually evolving traditions of folk music

…it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was—square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the television… roads and the tyranny of traffic.


The moral and creative failures of Clive and Vernon move the novel to its calamitous conclusion. In one-way or another the clock is ticking for everyone and McEwan offers up this advice:

monitor you own decline; then, when it was no longer possible to work, or to live with dignity, finish it yourself.



4.17.2014

All the Ships at Sea

A question. What percent of world goods are shipped by sea? Unsure? Oh, about 35%? Not a lot?

The answer is nearly everything, in fact, 90%, although in Hawaii, it is close to everything.

The question is discussed in a fascinating article (New York Review of Books 4/6/14) on container ships by Maya Jasanoff in her review of Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate.

Jasanoff reviews the history of shipping goods at sea, the development of container ships, techniques for loading/unloading them in port and the “byzantine ownership patterns,” where a ship can be registered in Liberia, fly the Greek flag, owned by a Norwegian company and have neither a Liberian or Greek or Norwegian in the crew. The ships are enormous, larger than aircraft carriers and the huge containers are stacked, stem to stern, seven high above the deck and another six below.

She also describes George’s experience on one of these ships, as well as her own, somewhat briefer excursion, and the dangers of Somali piracy. What they reveal is “an industry replete with appalling labor conditions, low wages, physical dangers, personal hardships, and environment costs.”

I happen to have considerable interest in this offbeat topic, not only because I live in Hawaii, but also because I look out at the ocean and wonder about all the container ships and barges heading to and from the Port of Honolulu. I first began noticing giant barges following behind something that was clearly a tugboat. Then I began wondering if the tugboat is used only to pull the barge to or from the harbor and or if it tows it all the way across the Pacific.

So I searched Google, “Do barges across the Pacific Ocean have engines or are they towed?” And the first listing takes me to page that in a flash answers my question. “A pioneer in ocean towing to Alaska and the islands of the Pacific, X has provided marine transportation services for more than 115 years. Today, the X fleet offers point-to-point towing worldwide with some of the most advanced and powerful tugs in the industry.”

So in a blink of an eye my question has been answered. I think what would I have done in all those days before Google? Nothing. The question is by no means sufficiently important to draw me to the library and those people around here, who I have asked, don’t have the foggiest idea. Moreover, I suspect the X or any other towing company hasn’t written any books that reside in the very fine university library hereabouts.

So now my days of looking out at the sea and staring out at the barges that slowly pass by are no longer times of wondering and I think that is really unfortunate. But I remain hopeful that other questions will drift in as I look out at the sea. Like, why do the airplanes take off and head this way when there’s scarcely any wind? Where are they headed, anyway? Oh yes, who does that gorgeous yacht parked in the harbor belong to?

I don’t know what I’d do without questions. Answering them is far less important. And I know that if eventually I chance upon an answer, it will only lead to more questions, for which I am ever so grateful.

Later I see two large freighters that have been lying offshore for days. I cannot figure out why. No room in the port? They are under quarantine for some reason? Their cargo is suspect? The longshoremen are on strike?

At night I see the lights on in cabin area. During the day, the ships move about as the currents take them. Two large freighters rather close to one another. The pleasures of having a view of the sea. More questions emerge. Where are they from? Why do they remain offshore so long? What type of cargo do they carry?

I see the film Captain Phillips and wonder if the ships are under siege by Somali pirates. I see another film, All is Lost, where Robert Redford sails by himself somewhere off Sumatra. I wonder where he is going. While asleep one night, his beautiful sailboat crashes into an enormous steel box that fell off a container ship. Water cascades into his cabin. Then I watch a TED lecture on container ships.

Again I get interested in these container ships. I learn that in 2010 the Harvard Business School chose Somali piracy as the best business model of year. Funny guys back there.


4.14.2014

Rachel Cusk's Outline Part 2

Dickens did it. Alexander Dumas did it. So did Henry James and Herman Melville. And now the English novelist, Rachel Cusk, is doing it. Cusk might be familiar to previous readers of this blog as I admire her work a great deal. Her latest venture is being published in the Paris Review, in each of the periodical’s issues this year.

Part 2 is the most recent in her forthcoming volume that is currently titled Outline. In the first installment, an English writer travels to Greece to teach a writing course. Seated next to her on the flight is an older Greek man who describes the failure of his two marriages and other family misfortunes. He invites her to take a boating excursion with him the next day.

Part 2 begins as they drive to a small boat harbor outside Athens. They continue their dialogue that, at times, is both amusing and stimulating. She swims far out to sea, all the while ruminating. I want only to comment here on a few of her ideas.

She notes that people can never change completely. Rather she believes whatever changes occur are latent, “had lain dormant, waiting to be evoked by circumstance.” I know well such an experience, although it is infrequent.

Once in a while I will meet a person and engage in the kind of conversation I’ve not had in years. It is quick, clever, witty, sometimes hilarious and usually leads nowhere. Only certain people in certain situations can evoke it. It is unpredictable, but when it happens it is worth the wait.

Cusk also comments at some length on a family she observes as she is swimming in the sea. They are gathered together on a boat. She sees how happy they are or seem to be. But then she knows that what she observes is probably not at all like they really are. When she looked at the family, what she saw was a commentary on her own life. She saw “a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there.”

In another language, this is the familiar actor-observer bias. The actors view the situation from their own experience, while those who observe it, see it from their own. The two can be widely divergent. Similarly, when explaining their own behavior, a person is likely attribute it to external events, while attributing other people’s behavior to personal or internal events.

She remembers a scene in Wuthering Heights. “Looking through the window, the two of them see different things. Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she feels and desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they are.”

In the evening, after their boating trip, they meet for dinner in Athens with another writer. The talk is lively, serious, interesting. They talk about the meaning of the self, a person’s identity. And Cusk comments to my delight: “I thought the whole idea of a “real” self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self with you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.” Yes, I exclaimed as I was reading along, I have always believed this was the case.

I am enjoying her story immensely. We are in Greece, in the summer, it is warm, very much so, and the dialogue is pure philosophy. What is next? A visit to an island in the Aegean? A trek up the Acropolis to the Parthenon? A discussion of Plato’s view of poets in the Republic? I will have to wait, although I’d rather not.


4.10.2014

The Archivist

With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition.

Those are the opening sentences of Martha Cooley’s novel, The Archivist. Her novel gives shape to that central theme. There are three archivists in her story.

Matthias is the archivist of a major library, a reader, emotionally remote.

I found myself finally in solitude, the point at which I seem to have been aimed all along, like an arrow that after much delay had finally found its target…Naturally there are individuals with whom I have reason and desire to interact…But behind or beyond these comminglings, I have safeguarded my solitude.

His wife, Judith, is an archivist of the Holocaust, who suffers from a life-long depression that frequently requires psychiatric hospitalization.

Judith was the only fully awake person I’d ever known. She watched and listened; she paid attention. History was anything but abstract for her, and she couldn’t defend herself against it. The war wasn’t somewhere else, at some other time. It was irrevocably present for her.

Roberta, a student at the university, seeks to be an archivist of the letters that T.S. Eliot wrote to a woman, after he consigned his wife to a psychiatric institution. The letters were given to the archives of Mathias’s library and not to be read until 2020.

Do you know what Belladonna means? Literally it means beautiful lady. Also it’s the name of a poisonous plant. Curious, no?

Eliot looms in the background, his poems are sprinkled throughout the novel, his conversion to the Church of England symbolizes the course each of the protagonist’s life. Here conversion is meant to be any major shift in one’s long held beliefs.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Eliot

Mathias eventually realizes he has failed Judith, failed her because he could not, didn’t know how to provide the emotional support she desperately sought in the depths of her depression.

In turn, once Judith learns her parents were Jewish, she becomes preoccupied by the Holocaust.

She was looking for a way to understand evil, not as a metaphysical abstraction but as a reality—the war’s reality, whose contours swelled and sharpened with each new piece of information we received from abroad.

Similarly, Roberta grapples with the knowledge her parents, who raised her as a Christian, were in fact Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. From time to time she must take leave of the university to care for her mother, hospitalized for another mild heart attack.

But any shrink will tell you that while denial is useful, it has its price. There’s no such thing as identity without history.

Three individuals orbiting around the process of conversion, it’s tremors, insights and regrets. The Archivist is a philosophical tour-de-force, a troubling and morally serious novel of ideas.

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every minute.
Eliot


4.07.2014

A Murakami Tale

Something about her expression pulled people in. It was as if this is something I thought of only later, of course—she was peeling back one layer after another that covered a person’s heart, a very sensual feeling.

They meet when they are twelve, students in the same school. They are quiet, lonely, and enjoy being together. Hajime walks Shimamoto home every afternoon after school. They listen to music, drink tea and talk to one another. They are too young to realize what is happening to them.

These are the central characters in Haruki Mukami’s beautiful novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun. In time, they part ways as Hajime moves to another town to attend high school and later college. While they lose touch with one another, neither can forget their times together. The feel of her hand has never left me.

Hajime marries a woman he happens to meet on the street, they have two children and he goes to work for her father who loans him money to open a nightclub. It becomes popular and with the profits he opens another. They have a home in a posh suburb of Tokyo, two cars, and a life that an observer would call idyllic.

But Hajime knows something is missing. Yes, he has a family, a job and two lovely children. But what then is missing? One night Shimamoto comes into his bar. She had read about it in a magazine. She will tell him nothing about her life. They talk and it is, of course, like old times. But she returns only intermittently and there are long periods when they don’t see each other. Hajime confesses to her one night:

Something’s lacking. In me and my life. And that part is always hungry, always thirsting. Neither my wife, nor my children can fill that gap. In the whole world there’s only one person who can do that.

Time passes until one night they drive to Hajime’s cabin, where Shimamoto wants to scatter in a nearby river the ashes of her only child, who died a day after being born. They end up spending the night together, finally consummating their love. In the morning, Hajime discovers she has left. It was the last time they were together.

No matter where I go, I still end up me. What’s missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I’m still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture me with a hunger that I can never satisfy.

Hajime knows the void will never go away, that he has to get used to it. No one is going to “weave dreams for me.” He knows he must now try to weave them other others.

The novel ends in this unfulfilled way. But it is life, Hajime’s life and the incomplete lives of others too. The hidden truths of Murakami’s tale are many. This is one. Here are three others:

After a certain length of time has passed, things harden up. Like cement hardening in a bucket.

But I didn’t understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

But you don’t know how empty it feels not to be able to create anything.

4.03.2014

A Life Built Around Reading

Phantoms on the Bookshelves is the title of Jacques Bonnet’s homage to the books that fill the bookshelves in his apartment, almost 40,000 volumes according to his estimate. He is not a book collector in the sense of stashing away prized volumes, but rather a serious reader, almost obsessed with its pleasures and the books he adds to his personal library.

Like many readers, Bonnet writes in his books, knowing full well that it reduces their value. But he’s not interested in their value or selling them, but in what he learns from them. He remarks the most difficult part of a reader’s life is where to put all the books. Because his collection is so large, it makes it impossible to move. How I wish I never did.

But each move I have made meant discarding all too many books, books that I never wanted to part with. More than once, I have needed such a volume, only to find, of course, that it was gone, making it necessary for me to buy it once again. Bonnet suggests that “To lose one’s books, is to lose one’s past.”

Then there is the minor problem of how to organize them. There are bookcases in every room of my apartment. Fiction books are organized by author’s last name in one room. Academic books are organized by topic in my study. And a miscellaneous collection of history, travel, biography and memoir reside on the bookshelves in another room.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves
takes us on a stroll among Bonnet’s books. We meet their authors who he claims we know very little. We also meet their fictional characters that Bonnet says we know a great deal.

“Authors are just fictional people, about whom we have a few biographical elements, never enough to make them truly real people. Whereas the biography of a literary character, even if it is incomplete—and explicitly so—is perfectly reliable: it is whatever its creator decided. So are his or her acts and words.”

Bonnet reads widely and he introduces us to a great many of those he most enjoys. It is clear, to paraphrase him, that the books that sit upon his bookshelves bring are the closest he will ever come to paradise on earth.

And just recently my favorite bookstore in Paradise (Hawaii), where I spend the winter, closed recently. It was a Barnes and Noble, one of the many in this chain that have closed lately in this country.

I feel the loss keenly. The store was located in the part of town I like most, where I used to go almost every day. Now it is gone. And I no longer go to the area as often as I used to. As if this isn’t enough, it will be replaced for a women’s clothing store, Ross: Dress For Less. “For the latest trends, the hottest brands, and unbeatable savings you gotta go to Ross.” What has happened to this country?

There is still one Barnes and Noble left in town, deep underground in a huge mall, where is almost impossible to find a place to park and with a collection of books that can’t hold a candle to the one that is now defunct. I have no choice, not an enviable feeling.

Now I have to order most of my books online or read them on my e-book, which is a world apart in my view from print editions. I know many readers face this problem now, also not an enviable feeling.

This year before I left for Hawaii, I took a look at all the books in the fiction bookcase and it almost led me to cancel the trip. I thought about the hours I spent reading some of them, the pleasure they brought to my days, the way they made them livable. I picked out a few to take with me, to read them again and recapture some of their magic. Most of them I had to leave, a great loss.

And then I thought about all the books I’ve read on my iPad and realized they weren’t there on the bookshelf. They were nowhere, yet another disadvantage of reading e-books. Verlyn Klinkenborg expressed a similar view in the Times recently:

“…I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say….This may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it.”



3.31.2014

Nazi Plunder

From 1933 until the end of the War the Nazis stole works of art in every country they captured. They took paintings, sculptures, gold, ceramics, religious objects, rare books and shipped them back to Germany. This systematic program of thievery is the subject of two films I've seen recently—The Monuments Men and The Rape of Europa.



The Monuments Men is George Clooney’s semi-fictional account of a group of men, an odd bunch at that, who recovered some of the most revered works of art stolen by the Nazis. We meet the men, are shown some of the art treasures they seek and eventually find, deep in a mine in Germany. We learn about the efforts of the museums in Paris, Italy, and Russia to remove the works from the museums and attempt to hide them in the countryside. And we meet Hitler, Goring and their henchmen who directed the Nazi looting organizations.



The Rape of Europa is a much more thorough documentary of the art works confiscated by the Germans. It’s a vast subject and the film attempts to sample a fair number of the them, including the conflict allied commanders faced in attacking a setting that was of artistic and historical significance, as well as the lengthy post war recovery efforts

One by one most of the treasures were found in over 1,000 places in Germany and Austria. Still an estimated to be 20% of the artworks stolen by the Germans have never been recovered, hidden away somewhere or destroyed by the Nazis.

From time to time we hear about a cache or a particular work that has finally been discovered. Recently hundreds of works, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, confiscated by the Nazis were discovered in an apartment in Munich that belonged to an elderly German.

Earlier a museum in Salt Lake realized that a small, pastoral painting by the French artist Francois Boucher was part of a collection stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish art dealer. Once confirmed, the museum returned the painting to the dealer’s daughter without reservation. And so the trail to the stolen art goes on to this day. Doubtless some will never be found.

However, neither movie discusses the millions of books stolen or destroyed by the Nazis, largely books confiscated from Jewish libraries throughout Europe. Starting with the book burnings of May 1933, the Nazis knew well how critical books were to the Jews. While most of them were destroyed, many that were valuable in some way were saved and sent to libraries or private collections in Germany.

The scope of Nazi book looting was enormous and the Monuments Men were able to return the majority of the books to their owners. Still a great many of the estimated two and a half million books they found could not be returned to their owners either because there was no way to identify them or their owners were no longer alive.


3.27.2014

David and Goliath


Malcolm Gladwell seems to have mellowed a bit in his recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants. There are fewer certainties or broad generalizations and far more “sometimes” and “in this kind of situation.”

For the first time in my memory, Gladwell acknowledges the limits his stories. They are the surprises, the unexpected that upsets myths. And like all his other books, the stories he tells are amusing and suggest novel ways to understand them.

Consider individuals who are dyslexic and have extreme difficulty reading. Can you imagine becoming a lawyer if you have dyslexia, getting through those enormous law book tomes, case after case of dense, complex details and interpretations? Gladwell discusses David Boies, who is dyslexic and in spite of that one of the leading lawyers in this country who represented IBM and Microsoft against US government prosecutions, Al Gore in Gore vs. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election and many other major legal cases.

Gladwell’s interpretation of Boies success represents the theme of this book: How persons with a disadvantage learn how to compensate for them, often enabling them to outperform or at least perform as well as those who have all the advantages. In Boies case, he learned to read more carefully, to listen intently, asking questions and to practice arguing cases.

Gladwell admits that compensation learning is really hard but if it is attempted intensely it can lead to skills that becomes habitual. Having a disadvantage need not always restrict someone. The qualities that appear to give a person “strength are often the sources of great weakness, whereas for the weak, the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

Similarly, Gladwell weaves together stories of how a girls basketball team overcame their weakness by applying the full court press, how in 1917 the vastly outnumbered Arabs, led by T.E. Lawrence defeated the Turks stationed by Aqaba by attacking them from the desert, rather than the sea, as expected. Crossing the desert with such a small band of troops was “so audacious that the Turks never saw it coming.”

“T.E. Lawrence could triumph because he was the farthest thing from a proper British Army officer. He did not graduate with honors from the top English military academy. He was an archaeologist by trade who wrote dreamy prose.”

Gladwell calls into doubt the belief that small classes are better than larger classes, that well-endowed private schools, attended by wealthy students are better than less privileged state run schools, and that losing a parent as a young child limits career achievements. Consider this remarkable observation:

Of the 573 eminent people for whom Eisenstadt could find reliable biographical information, a quarter had lost at least one parent before the age of ten. By age fifteen, 34 percent had had at least one parent die, and by the age of twenty, 45 percent.” See Note Below

David and Goliath repeats this theme over and over with entertaining tales, drawn across a wide spectrum. Disadvantages are not always limiting, weaknesses can be overcome, the unexpected can triumph, and “in certain circumstances a virtue can be made of necessity.” Gladwell clearly enjoys telling these stories and the reader enjoys knowing about them, but he is not writing science. Instead, he is piecing together a montage from disparate fragments of evidence.

Note:
Recently there has been some discussion of this topic. On the NPR Web site, Robert Kruwich asks, Why are there so many of them?

He cites evidence drawn from several sources, largely case studies. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor lost her father when she was nine. Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, lost his father when he was eighteen.

Gladwell also points out that almost a third of the US Presidents lost their fathers when they were young. A psychologist claims that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent when they were young than the population as a whole.

Note the reasoning here. None of it has anything to say about individuals who didn’t lose either parent when they were young. A sizable majority of children are raised in two parent families. Are they any less successful that those who aren't? The answer to that question is essential before we can claim the relationship between childhood parental loss and adult achievement is significant.

Two thirds of American Presidents did not lose one or both of their parents when they were young. I am sure the same can be said of the Justices on the Supreme Court and the majors of the major cities of this country.

Nor can we attribute any causal relationship between childhood parental loss and adult success. Perhaps children learn adaptive strategies for dealing with the loss of a parent. Sotomayor comments that, “the only way I’d survive was to do it myself.” And De Blasio, whose father was an alcoholic, like Sotomayor’s, says, “I learned what not to do.”

Countless factors lead to adult success, some of which we know a little about, others remain unknown, including the matters of chance and luck. While the incidence of parental death or absence seems high among successful individuals, its meaning must be weighed against the far larger incidence of the success of children raised in two parent families.




3.24.2014

Roth on Roth

Yes, character is destiny, and yet everything is chance.

Last week Philip Roth celebrated his 81st birthday. What is he up to these days? As far as we know, he’s holding firm to his claim that his writing days are over. On the other hand, his interview days are moving briskly along. The most recent is one he gave to an editor at the publisher of the Swedish translation of Sabbath’s Theater. (Reprinted in the Sunday Times Book Review, 3/2/14)

Whatever else he is doing, Roth has lost none of his verbal intensity, energetic prose, passionate expression, forceful phraseology, dynamic voice, dramatic discourse, pyrotechnic style, explosive language, not any of it. Examples:

In reply to a question about the subject of Sabbath’s Theater, he said:

I could have called the book “Death and the Art of Dying.” It is a book in which breakdown is rampant, suicide is rampant, hatred is rampant, lust is rampant. Where disobedience is rampant. Where death is rampant.

In reply to another on the claim he is misogynistic Roth replied:

Misogyny, a hatred of women, provides my work with neither a structure, a meaning, a motive, a message, a conviction, a perspective, or a guiding principle.

He disagreed with those who say his books focus on masculine power, rather, he said they deal with it’s antithesis: “masculine power impaired”:

The drama issues from … men who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement…

Finally, when asked how he views contemporary culture, he let loose with this one:

Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.

Philip Roth is the same old robust Philip Roth. He’s lost none of his power and says at last, he is as free as a bird, one released from the cage of writing novels.

3.20.2014

On Leaving Home

James Wood, who teaches literary criticism at Harvard and on occasion reviews books for the New Yorker, was born in Durham, England. He has lived in the United States for 18 years and says he never expected to stay this long. He writes about his ambivalence at living here, on what it means to return to his home that still feels like Durham, and the strange sense of exile he feels in this country. (Times Literary Supplement 2/20/14)

When he came to the United States, he had no sense of what might be lost. To lose a country or a home is “an acute world-historical event, forcibly meted out on the victim, lamented and canonized in literature and theory as exile or displacement…It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”

While I have often written about my search for a home, a Querencia in the Spanish sense of the world, I’ve never experienced anything like the sense of exile Wood describes or the more extreme exile that a person must feel when they leave the country of their birth, either intentionally or by force, for a place where they don’t know the language or a single person.

And I’ve always known I would return to the place I left, even if it didn’t feel like home or the home I was searching for. And I never felt the sense of homesickness discussed by Wood when he says he is sometimes homesick as he longs for Britain. “It is possible, I suppose to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore and refuse to go home, all at once. Such a tangle of feelings…”

He says he has made a home in the United States “but it is not quite Home.” Wood says so much has disappeared from his life, the English reality that he craves, the English voice, the peculiar English phrases and puns. All of that is but a memory and he confesses he knows little anymore about modern life in England. “There’s a quality of masquerade when I return, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.”

After reviewing the works of authors who have written about exile—Edward Said, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, Teju Cole—Woods concludes by returning to the time, 18 years ago, when he left England. Then he had no idea how it would “obliterate return.” “What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time…”

Isn’t this true of many of the decisions we have made throughout our life? We are woefully deficient in predicting how we will feel about the decisions we make and often only become aware of what we have done long after the choice was made, when it’s too late to do anything about it, should we wish.


3.17.2014

"Her Radar Was Always On"

In a moving tribute to his mother, Andre Aciman describes (New Yorker (3/17/14) her as beautiful, everyone thought so too. He says she was also vibrant, spirited, funny sometimes. She was born in Egypt, sent to a special school in France by her Jewish parents, well mannered with many friends.


She was also totally deaf as a result of meningitis as a child. There is no cure for it and she became deaf when the disease affected that part of her brain responsible for hearing. How she managed the rich life she lived borders on the miraculous to me.

She never learned more than a rudimentary skill at sign language and while she spoke, it was with a monotone, guttural voice that most people could hardly understand. They were more likely to laugh and make fun of her. She shrugged it off and sometimes laughed along with them.

But she did learn to read and write, although Aciman says she wasn’t able to form general concepts or understand abstract vocabulary. But she compensated for being deaf by her vivacious personality “her warmth, her unusual mixture of meekness and in-your-face boldness.”

Aciman’s family fled Egypt, along with a great many other Jews, shortly before the start of the Second World War. They settled in Italy for a while and then migrated to this country. But she never was able to master English, as well as she had French or Greek. But like deaf people often do, she pretended that she did and mumbled something in exchange that was usually understood, although she was never sure.

The various ways the deaf try to deal for their condition interests me greatly as I no longer hear as well as I once did. She carefully watched the lip movements of those she spoke to, as well as their gestures, her perception of their warmth, closeness, smile or frown, and all the other cues we normally use, often without realizing it, in observing someone’s body language.

With the increasing versatility of digital forms of communicating, Aciman dreamed of some device that would enable his mother to communicate more readily with her friends. When she was in her mid-80s, he gave her an iPad. She took to it immediately (in her 80s, no less!) and would Skype and FaceTime her friends, some of whom she hadn’t seen for years.

Aciman believes his mother was among the most discerning, perceptive persons he has known. She didn’t need language and was able to communicate in ways all of often use, again without being aware of it. But it gave her a life, a life that Aciman points out and, as I have come to appreciate more and more, is sometimes more direct, more telling. He concludes:

“Now that I think of what Shakespeare might have called her “unaccommodated” language, I realize how much I miss its immediate, tactile quality, from another age, when your face was your bond, not your words. I owe this language not to the books I read or studied but to my mother who had no faith in, and no latent or much patience for, words.”

3.13.2014

The Girl in the Blue Beret



Whatever we did, regardless of the risk, we had to do it. For my parents, it was automatic. For me also. We simply did it…Not every Frenchman had taken such chances.

The Second World War continues to preoccupy me. It isn’t entirely clear why. Partly I think it is the courage displayed, the resistance in France, the Holocaust, those who helped the Jews and those who didn’t. As a child I lived through the early part of the war in a house by the sea in Los Angeles. We worried about a Japanese invasion.

My reading isn’t focused or concerned with particular historical event or person. Rather, I chance upon news of an interesting book and begin reading it. So it was with an article, “The Real Girl in the Blue Beret,” that Bobby Ann Mason posted on the New Yorker Web site. She was writing a book about a downed American pilot who is rescued by members of the French Resistance, one of whom was a teenager wearing a blue beret

She wrote this woman in the hopes of meeting her, not know if she was still alive. Yes, she was, now well over 80, but still full of life and willing to talk about her experiences during the war. That is how I came to read Mason’s novel and how she transformed the wartime experiences of the aviator and the young resistance member into a work of fiction.

Marshall Stone is a retired American airline pilot who returns to France to meet the people who helped him cross over the Pyrenees and return to his bomber group in England. Annette is the teenage resistance fighter who was instrumental in his escape. Eventually he finds her, they unfold their respective histories, strike up a close relationship, and Marshall’s attempt to recapture this crucial part of his past comes full circle.

In the end, Annette answers the question I pose about every rescuer I read about:: Why did they incur such risks?

Whatever I did for you, I also did for myself, for my family, for France. We were crushed, Marshall. Defeated. You cannot know the shame. Whatever any of us did, we did for ourselves—so that we could have still a little self-respect. Just a little.


3.10.2014

Deborah Eisenberg



Deborah Eisenberg speaks of writing as something she has to do in her recent Paris Review (Spring 2013 #218) interview. “But really, one writes to write.” She doesn’t think of it as therapeutic, but then she says she couldn’t have managed the despair she was experiencing, if she hadn’t started to write.

She is bothered by how difficult it is and but doesn’t want it to be easy or approached casually. “I want to do something that I can’t do. I want to be able to do something that I am not able to do.” How often do we hear someone saying this sort of thing?

No wonder she is so often in despair and that for months, perhaps, years, she can’t write anything that satisfies her.

Eisenberg is Jewish, although not spiritually so, for whom Holocaust remains a haunting presence. And like her, I have sought to learn more about it from those who suffered through it or were able somehow to survive. She comments:

“I remember once when I was about five, asking my maternal grandfather, What was it like where you came from? And he said, It was cold. That was the end of the conversation. America was the beginning as far as many of those immigrants were concerned. What happened before that stayed in the darkness.”

“Many of us grew up knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about the horrors of grandparents lived through, and when we search for the source of certain anxieties, all we can locate is a kind of blank inscrutability.”

She is asked about the disparity between her life and that of poverty-stricken individuals. She replies: “The way to respond is to be as much of an activist as you can be, in whatever way you can be.”

It is a noble goal, but she is silent on how she goes about that. Again, I share her belief, but do nothing but proclaim the virtues of doing something.

She says what makes writing worthwhile is knowing you have a reader, one who responds as if they heard you. After all, writing is rather like communicating. You want to dialogue with someone.

Eisenberg concludes her interview with this comment about her writing life: “Either you have to quit for good or you have to tough it out. That’s the choice. You have to be patient.”

Yes, be patient, Richard. If you have anything left, it will come to you and if doesn’t, it will be all right.

3.06.2014

The Walking Desk

I’ve been exercising for years, was a long-time runner, now I go to the gym everyday. Or when I’m out of town, I take a walk, often two or three a day. The rest of the day I sit at my desk. That means I’m sitting most of the time I’m awake. Not good.

In an article in the New Yorker, the always-amusing Susan Orlean claims that sitting most of the day can cancel all the benefits of exercising for an hour or so of daily exercising. I always thought that being fit and healthy was simply a matter of frequent exercising. No, she says, non-exercise activity is far more important.


Here she is writing the article while walking slowly on a treadmill, typing away on her “walking desk.” The treadmill sits below an elevated platform with her computer screen and keypad, printer (on the floor), while her dog is standing by peering up at her. Meanwhile she is talking on the phone with Dr. James Levine, who she says is the “leading researcher in the marvelous-sounding field of inactivity studies.”

Levine claims we spend all too much time sitting somewhere, making use of a chair or sofa, not moving about or even standing. He reports that people who stayed thin were able to greatly increase their overall activity rate (fidgeting, pacing, standing, bouncing, or jiggling their legs) compared to those prone to gain weight.

According to Orlean, investigators have reported that individuals who sit for six hours or more each day have an over-all death rate twenty percent higher than those who sit for three hours or less, while walking (distance or time or number of steps was not reported) reduced the risk of cardiovascular problems by thirty-one percent and cut the risk of dying by thirty-two percent during the period of the study.

“The worst news,” she says,” is that hard exercise for an hour a day may not cancel out the damage done by sitting for six hours.” Can this really be true?

The treadmill desk seems a totally fanciful idea to me. I can’t imagine concentrating on my work or even emailing someone, while walking slowly. Orlean estimates there are now more than a thousand members of a group who work at a treadmill desk.

The practice is not exactly sweeping the nation, but her article does suggest that remaining inactive most of the day may have ill effects that haven’t been widely recognized before.


3.03.2014

The Great Beauty


The Great Beauty, winner of the Academy Award for the Best Foreign film of the year, is a treat, a film of visual riches, the riches of Rome, wild parties, melancholy reflections. None of it is true in the literal sense. It is a trick of the imagination, homage to another trickster, Fellini. But like all tricks, its deceptions have an element of truth in them.

The film is the story of a 65 year-old Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), who wrote a popular book some time ago and has never written another. He has a gorgeous apartment overlooking the Coliseum with a terrace where he gives his parties for the beautiful people of Rome that last all night and well beyond the morning sunrise.

There is exuberant dancing, absurd conversation, drinking, an overload of sensual riches that never stop. Jep wanders around the streets of Rome, watching, reminiscing, meets a friend, lingers in art galleries, and goes to another all night party, where there is more drinking, beautiful women, hypocrisy and boogie-woogie.


A reviewer writes: “Never have cynicism and disillusion seemed more intoxicating that in The Great Beauty.” That captures the spirit of this film perfectly.

Then a friend comes to visit Jep, informs him his wife died, that she only truly loved Jep, after an early romance between them. It is all written in her diary, unlocked after her death. The film takes a turn toward the solemn. Jep asks to read the diary. Her husband isn’t offended but says that it’s not possible, as the diary was thrown away.

I wrote to a friend who lives in Rome that I was going to see the film. From what I had read, I thought it would be a love letter to Rome. She replied:

Well, the Great Beauty does not at all represents Rome, I mean the reality described by the film is absolutely present, it is the image of a social class deeply present in Italy and it is the one which ruined our country because links politics and its power with private interests. However, Rome is magic, I travel a lot ... but Rome has something special, something that keeps you company also when you are alone. Everywhere you see there is art, the past and its traditions wraps you.

I left the theater in a daze, but unimpressed, not knowing what to say about it or what is worth thinking about. Jep had spent his life searching for the great beauty and never found it.

2.27.2014

Aaron Swartz


“I do not know you in person. I am just a year older than you. We have something common which unities—THE INTENET. We belong here. This is our world where boundaries are torn apart. I cried. Literally cried reading about you.” Shri Vignesh

I had never heard of Aaron Swartz until the day after he committed suicide. And yet like so many others, close friends to distant unknowns, I was deeply affected by his death early last year. Ever since, I’ve been trying to understand why.

I know the sudden death of any young person saddens me, particularly a person as talented and articulate as Aaron. Swartz was 26 years old and well-known among computer programmers as a software genius. At the age of 14, he participated in the development of RSS software. The following year he wrote the code for Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons, a Web site advocating alternatives to current copyright laws. At nineteen he started Reddit, a user generated news Web site.

Aaron cared deeply about the injustice of current copyright laws and in 2008 he and a few others wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.”

Two years ago he downloaded over a million articles from the JSTOR, the academic database of professional journals. A single copy of a JSTOR article usually costs around $30-$35. Not long after, he was indicted on several felony counts; if convicted he stood to spend a fair number of years in prison.

Most of what I learned about Aaron stems from Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile (3/11/13), Requiem for a Dream. She describes him reverently, says he was sometimes depressed, suffered from ulcerated colitis, dropped out of Stanford and later MIT and, in general, couldn’t finish projects. She wrote:

“He didn’t like people who did things that were just silly, that seem to have no purpose….he never internalized any notions about what he was supposed to be doing or not doing as a young person.”

Swartz became a political activist of several causes, but abandoned each one each one out of frustration with their limited, effectiveness. He tried living in San Francisco to work at Wired’s office, hated it because it was too loud, and the people were “shallow.”

Everyone was shocked when they learned of his death. The eulogies poured in all over the Web. His friend put up a Web site, Remember Aaron Swartz that included a video stream of his memorial service. Aaron represented many things to many people. I am among them and feel quite personally the loss of someone exceedingly important.

Here is how his friend, distinguished attorney and colleague Lawrence Lessig felt:

“I don’t want to be here. It’s like he jumps off a bridge and he pulls me over with him. I can’t go back. I don’t know what I can do. Nothing ever has come close to this, in its effect. I am never lost. I’ve never been so lost. I don’t know what to do.”

2.24.2014

Solo Faces

Last year wasn’t a terrific year of reading for me. Like everything else, some years are better than others. Nevertheless, James Wood, the book critic for the New Yorker said he had a good one, starting off with the works of Elena Ferrante, an author I had read and liked, but that was several years ago. He mentioned Jamie Quatro’s book of short stories, unfamiliar to me.

And then Wood waxes eloquently about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. His review in the magazine led me to buy the book. I’ve tried reading it three times now, getting a little further but never staying with it very long. Yes, she writes a brilliant sentence once in a while, but that by itself doesn’t make a great novel. Besides the story is about people who really don’t speak my language. However, I will not give up so easily

I made a list of the 30 or so books I managed to finish last year and really only one stood out, James Salter’s Solo Faces. Although it was written in 1979, I read it for the first time last year, 34 years after it was published.


A great mountain is serious. It demands everything of a climber, absolutely all. It must be difficult and also beautiful, it must lie in the memory like the image of an unforgettable year. It must be unsoiled…The mountain magnifies. The smallest event is irreversible…

His name is Vernon Rand, he’s a mountain climber, obsessed by it, the only thing that matters in his life. After a series of aimless jobs in California, he leaves one day for Chamonix in the French Alps, where he begins climbing the perilous mountains there.

Salter’s description of his climbs are exciting, tense, you can’t put the book down. Rand’s climbs are dangerous, risky, each one more dangerous and riskier than the one before. Sometimes he climbs alone, sometimes with friend, sometimes with anyone who will go up with him.

The Dru, Pointe Lachene, the North Face of the Triolet, the names of the steep, icy, mountains he climbed. There was an accident on the Dru, the West Face, far up, the climbers were still alive. No one could reach them, the helicopters were useless, one rescuer was killed. Rand takes a crack at it. He reaches them, brings them down safely.

“When he woke he was famous. His face poured off the presses of France. It was repeated on every kiosk, in the pages of magazines, his interview read on the buses by working girls on their way home. Suddenly, in to small rooms and houses the ordinary streets, he brought a glimpse of something unspoiled. For two hundred years France had held the idea of the noble savage, simple, true. Unexpectedly he had appeared. His image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.”

He travels around, meets and discards one woman after another, thinks they are all the same anyway. Bored, restless, he decides to climb the Walker—alone. It did not take him long before he realizes he wasn’t going to be able to do it. “The will was draining from him. He had the resignation of one condemned. He knew the outcome, he no longer cared, he merely wanted it to end.”

He says that once you’ve lost your courage, nothing else matters. He knows his days of mountain climbing are over, his world had come apart. “It’s finished. Once it’s over, it’s over.”


2.21.2014

Mavis Gallant

“Literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.”


For years I was an avid reader of Mavis Gallant’s "Letters from Paris" that appeared in the New Yorker. They were my introduction to Europe and to the city that for a while became my first and final destination each time I went there. So too were the stories she wrote for the New Yorker—116 in all.

Earlier this week Gallant died at the age of 91 in her apartment in Paris. She had lived there most of her life, after leaving Canada as a relatively young woman. She had no children, was not married and none of her work that I have read betrays any longing for the country or city (Montreal) of her birth.

Throughout the years Gallant lived in Europe she kept a daily journal. They are her accounts of the many changes in Europeans and their cultures after World War 2. The war ended in 1945. My first trip to Europe was nine years later. Rubble was still on the streets of London and almost every city in Germany I visited. People had scarcely any money and in Madrid, where Gallant lived for a while, Franco was still in power.

A friend of Gallant’s, Frances Kierman, is currently editing the vast, mostly handwritten entries for what will be the first of several volumes of her daily journal entries. During her last years, when she had been quite ill, she continued to work with Kierman in recalling the details of some of the incidents she wrote about.

Jhumpa Lahiri recently met Gallant to conduct an interview for Granta magazine. After their meeting, Lahiri wrote, "I had never met a writer who has inspired me so greatly, and towards whom I felt such enormous debt." Lahiri has recently moved with her family from the United States to Rome. Born in London to immigrant parents from West Bengali, raised in Rhode Island, she knows well the effects of such a background. In remembering Gallant, she commented: “the great act of bravery to leave Canada to live in Paris alone and to survive solely by means of her writing is such an extraordinary thing to have done. She was completely on her own.”

In her Paris Review interview Gallant said: “I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.”

In her remembrance of Gallant, Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker, also cited a passage from this interview: “Writing is like a love affair: the beginning is the best part.” Well maybe, but I can think of many exceptions.

Several excerpts from her journals were recently published in the New Yorker. They are drawn from four months 1952 when she was struggling to survive as a writer in Madrid.

I live on bread wine, and mortadella. Europe for me is governed by the price of mortadella.

When I think of my life before I came here, it is like someone else’s life, something I am being told. I can’t write anyone. At the moment I haven’t the postage, but even if I had, what to say?

Sunshine and little to eat (potatoes and potatoes). To the Prado, that small container overflowing with good things. Back to Goya. I go back and back and still he is haunting and terrifying.

No one is as real to me as people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them, as if the half-empty café were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.

Today from the balcony I see a blind man tapping his way long the buildings across the street. He reaches a street crossing; everyone watches, silent, and lets him walk full on into the side of a building. When he has recovered (for a moment he was like a butterfly beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away.

Today I have no money and no food.


Note: Portions of this expanded post appeared earlier on Marks in the Margin.

2.18.2014

Amour


Death teaches us that everything can stop in a moment. When everything ends, all that remains is love.
Cardinal Bertone

When I went to see "Amour" I knew what it was about. I had read the reviews, knew that some claimed it was not a film I should see or that I would like, let alone stay to the end. But I had to see it and when it was finally over, I’m glad I did.

It is a film everyone should see, grim as it is, for it is likely you will experience the events it depicts. We don’t talk about them, we do everything to avoid that, but when it arrives it will hit you savagely. And there isn’t anything you can do about it now or then.

Over sixty years ago the two main characters in the film, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant were young film stars.



As the film opens, firemen break into a Parisian apartment, begin searching for the source of the foul smell, and discover the body of an old woman in bed. We learn that the woman is Anne (Riva) who along with her husband Georges (Trintignant), now both in their 80s, are musicians.

We switch to a concert hall where eventually we discover them sitting together among the vast audience. They are listening to a performance by a pianist that Anne once taught and to whom he later tells that whatever success he has achieved is due to her.

Like them, their apartment, once quite elegant, appears to be wearing out, yet filled with books, photos, a grand piano, and mementos of their long life together. They are having breakfast, as they do each day. Suddenly Anne begins to stare into the distance, fixed on something. Georges tries to talk to her, she doesn’t reply, he shakes her, asks her what’s the matter, without a reply.



We learn that Anne has had a minor stroke, apparently the result of a blocked carotid artery. An operation must be performed. It is unsuccessful and her condition worsens. She returns to the apartment in a wheel chair, unable to get about on her own, although she is still quite coherent.

She grows weaker, and needs to be helped with the basics, shown in all their reality—eating, cleaning, excreting. George vows to care for her. But eventually it becomes too much. He hires an aid, then another, none stay for long and once again George becomes her only caretaker.

The tenderness George conveys to Anne throughout their long and difficult ordeal is an act of the purest love. It is the other half of this grim movie.

In The Coming of Age Simone de Beauvoir writes, “When we look at the image of our own future provided by the old we do not believe it: an absurd inner voice whispers that that will never happen to us—when that happens it will no longer be ourselves that it happens to.” Beauvoir wrote that sentence over 40 years ago. How prescient she was.

Our future is longer than it was then. The so-called marvels of medicine will keep you alive almost forever now. But as she said, you will no longer be the you that you are now. "Amour" makes it clear what you will become and the way it will affect those who love you.

Almost everyone who sees "Amour" has two reactions. It is difficult to watch and once you’ve seen it, you can’t get it out of your mind. The film delivers an important message, a personal message to everyone in this increasingly medicalized world. The experience you live through in watching the film will in time occur to you. The only unknown is when.

It is for that reason that it is such an important film to see, in spite of its excruciating depiction of old age. You have to ask yourself if you want to do anything about it, rather than let it unexpectedly descend on you. When it does, it will be too late. Who can predict when it is time to act?


3.27.2013

A Break


After blogging for over five years, it is time to take an extended break. I’m not sure when I’ll return. In the meantime, thank you for reading and for responding.

Blogging continues to be an unusual experience for me, sometimes surprising, sometimes illuminating. I hope you’ve learned a little something along the way; I certainly have.


3.26.2013

Unbroken


“If I knew I had to go through these experiences again, I’d kill myself.” Louis Zamperini

In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand unfolds the astonishing life of Louis Zamperini. You may not believe what I say about her account, but I have not distorted or imagined anything. Still my summary is nothing like the experiences Zamperini endured.

Louis Zamperni was a rambunctious kid who grew up in Torrance, California, where he broke into homes, robbed merchants, and had a great knack at getting into trouble. But he was never jailed, was usually successful, and must have learned then that he could do just about anything.

It was his older brother who finally found a way to channel his energy by means of long distance running, a mile and beyond. Apparently Zamperini took to the sport at once, he had a long stride, and a tremendous kick at the end of a race.

He qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finished 8th in the 5,000 meter race and caught the eye of Hitler who came up to congratulate him after his record-breaking time in the last lap. Hillenbrand suggests he did not do better because he overate to the extreme on the long ship ride over the Atlantic and was terribly out of shape by the time he arrived in Berlin.

When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. In May of 1943, the B-24 that he was flying went down on a search mission over the Pacific. Eight of his crew were killed, he and 2 others survived, one of whom eventually died on the raft they were drifting in.

They floated over 2,000 miles for 47 days. That’s 47 long days and nights without much in the way of food or water. They managed to survive by catching rainwater and an occasional fish they were able to snatch from the sea. This itself was an unbelievable ordeal. But there is more.

The raft eventually drifted on to one of the Marshall Islands held by the Japanese, to the dismay of the two survivors. They were captured, subjected to the most brutal treatment imaginable, especially Zamperini who was well known to the camp commander through his running feats.

He endured over two years of daily, intense assaults, starvation, slave labor, dysentery, beriberi, respiratory diseases, and physical injuries delivered by a succession of sadistic guards.

According to Hillenbrand, “…of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.”

Not surprisingly, after the Japanese surrendered and Zamperini was discharged from the Air Force, nothing was ever the same. He tried running again, but the injuries he sustained in the camps made it clear that was impossible. He had nightmares, terrible flashbacks, anxieties, and bouts of alcoholism.

He married, was separated from his wife several times, and finally, at her instigation, attended a crusade led by Billy Graham. Hillenbrand ends her account with an upbeat tale of his new career as a born again Christian and inspirational speaker.

I simply cannot comprehend how Louis Zamperini survived the ordeals he experienced during World War II, first the month and a half on the raft floating in the Pacific and then the years of torture in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Hillenbrand attributes his endurance to those early years in Torrance. Zamperini is currently 93 and lives in Hollywood. He has received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and made television appearances in this country, Europe, and Japan.

As she brings her account to a close, Hillenbrand writes: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird [the most brutal of the guards] had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away."

3.25.2013

Shouting Won't Help


We hear as we breathe—effortlessly—until we can’t” Katherine Bouton

In her memoir, Shouting Won’t Help, Katherine Bouton writes that forty eight million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. You don’t have to be entirely deaf to have trouble hearing, especially in crowded, noisy situations.

Hearing speech is usually the most difficult problem for those with hearing loss. Bouton claims one in five people, across all age groups, has trouble understanding speech and many cannot hear certain sounds at all.

Hearing difficulties are known to outnumber vision problems by a sizable percentage. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that hearing aids don’t work as well as glasses. In fact, by amplifying certain sounds, they sometimes make hearing worse.

Helen Keller considered her deafness to be a much more serious limitation than blindness. “…it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

Bouton first became aware of her problem when she was only thirty while working as the editor for the Times Book Review and then later, at other departments at the Times. She couldn’t catch everything being said at the group meetings she attended and even in speaking one-on-one with a person in her office. She heard voices, was aware who was speaking, but didn’t hear the words they were saying.

As she got older, she heard less and less, “I had trouble at teacher’s conferences. One of the kids or my husband would fill me in. I missed most of what was said in school assemblies. I never heard a single graduation speech. There were times when my hearing loss was wrenching. I missed confidences, murmured fears, muttered anger. I never heard the backseat chatter and gossip between my children and their friends.”

Eventually she became bilaterally deaf, all the while hesitant to begin wearing hearing aids. They are expensive, for some unattractive, easy to misplace, and sometimes not particularly helpful. Eventually she began using them, but they didn’t improve her hearing a great deal.

To my delight she said email is the” best thing that’s ever happened” to those who have trouble hearing. She has received emails using voice-activated software that she might otherwise not have been able to hear on the phone.

She finally accepted a cochlear implant, in fact two of them, and they came with their own limitations, like trouble transmitting music very well. She took a lip reading course, studied body language, met with researchers, and then other audiologists. But she never did recover her hearing.

Despite my sophisticated devices, I still can’t hear well enough to follow a conversation except under optimum circumstances—one-on-one, facing each other, in a quiet place. I hear speech, but I often don’t understand it.”

Hearing loss affects friendships, family and professional lives. If you know anyone who has trouble hearing, you might want to tell them about Katherine Bouton’s book. It might help them to recognize a hearing problem that they have been denying or simply unaware of.


3.23.2013

Happy Birthday Philip Roth


Last week Philip Roth celebrated his 80th birthday. A party was held, there was much writing about Roth and he spoke, quite memorably apparently, at the gala party held in his honor.

Here are some of my favorite links about Roth and the celebration.

Adam Gopnik suggests the occasion “doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer’s occupation itself.”

At the Times Charles McGrath and Tammy La Gorce write about Roth’s hometown, Newark, and the events held during the week long celebration.

David Remnick describes the events surrounding the week-long even, the several speakers at the party and says that Roth’s talk was “the most astonishing literary performance I’ve ever witnessed.”

The literary critic James Wood calls Roth his “literary hero.”

Here is a preview of the forthcoming PBS American Masters video Philip Roth: Unmasked

Watch Philip Roth: Unmasked on PBS. See more from American Masters.

3.22.2013

The End of Your Life Bookclub


In 1970 Mary Ann Schwalbe learned she had a fatal form of pancreatic cancer with only a few months left to live. She carried on her life for more two active years, as if nothing much had changed, years of chemotherapy and fully engaged on projects that often meant traveling abroad.

She was a person of remarkable courage, a life long reader, and an advocate of refugees in Asia and Africa. Her son, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club, describes her final years, the books they read together, often while she was undergoing long hours of chemo, and the organizations she either founded or supported.

That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”

He recounts her early work as a casting agent, then director of admissions at both Radcliffe and Harvard and, after moving to New York, her role in directing the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children that took her to Afghanistan, Liberia and Sudan. And in her final months she devoted all her dwindling energy to raising money for a traveling library in Kabul.

“It’s been eighteen months of chemo: of mouth sores, swollen feet, nausea, headaches, weight loss, lack of energy, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and fevers, and hours in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitals. And it’s been thousands of dollars of her own money and tens of thousands of dollars of Medicare.”

Through it all they kept reading and discussing the issues the books raised—Marjorie Morning Star, The Lizard Cage, Suite Francaise, The Last Lecture, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, etc.

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog is, in many ways, a book about books (and films): what they can teach us, and how they can open up worlds. But it’s really, like most great books, about people—and the connections they make, how they save one another and themselves.”

As the book club draws to a close, Schwalbe writes, “Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose—electronic (even though it wasn’t for her) or print, or audio—is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation.”

Their times together and the books they discussed forged a new relationship between them. It was not unlike the relationship I had with my mother in her final years. While she wasn’t seriously ill, we also formed a book group of two then. Every Sunday we’d talk on the phone about the books we had been reading and what they meant to each of us.

The End of Your Life Book Club is written with heartache and affection. “Even though nearly two years have passed since her death, I’m occasionally struck by the desire to call Mom and tell her something—usually about a book I’m reading that I know she’d love.”


3.20.2013

Like Someone in Love


In Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film, Like Someone in Love, much of what happens, and it isn’t a great deal, is seen through mirrors and glass. The film opens with a long scene in a Tokyo bar where we often view a character through a faded reflection in a door window.

The scene shifts to a taxi where a young college student, Akiko, is being driven to an aging scholar who is her client. She is a call girl trying to earn money to pay for her college education. At least, that is what we are told.

We view her through the car window, the small rear window inside the car, and then the one outside on the door. She is sitting quietly and then tearfully in the back seat listening to the voice mail messages from her grandmother who has come to Tokyo to see her. She tells Akiko that she will be waiting for her next to a statue outside the train station.

The taxi circles the station once, but a small truck blocks the view from the rear-door window. She asks the driver to circle again. This time we glimpse her grandmother, or what we assume to be her grandmother, again through the rear-door window

Akiko arrives at the book-lined apartment of the elderly scholar who says his name is Takashi. She begins looking over the photos, covered in glass frames, of Takashi’s family. They talk for a short while. It is the only time in the film that Akiko becomes the least bit animated.

She claims to be tired and I imagine she has had many sleepless nights arguing with her boyfriend, who claims she is his fiancĂ©. She says she isn’t hungry, doesn’t care for the shrimp soup Takashi has prepared for their meal, and repairs to the bedroom. She throws off her clothes and gets into bed. The ensuing conversation between Takashi and Akiko is viewed through a clouded mirror.

The next day he drives her to school. Once again there is a long scene in a car. After she is dropped off, we view an argument between Akiko and her so so-called boyfriend, Noriaki, from the car.

Akiko breaks away, heads into the building, whereupon the jealous Noriaki comes down to the car to confront Takashi. He is invited into the car and the two begin a friendly conversation, as Takashi lets the young man think he is Akiko’s grandfather.

There is another long drive as Takashi drives Noriaki to work, followed by another, when Takashi returns to rescue Akiko who has fought again with Noriaki. They return to his apartment and the film abruptly ends with yet another scene in which a glass object plays a critical role.

It was only later that I began to understand what Kiarostami is suggesting or might be suggesting, by viewing these individuals and presumably their inner life, from the reflections in the various glass objects that appear so often in the film.

We stand before ourselves in mirrors, we glimpse others through the mirrors they choose to reflect. But rarely do we see beyond the appearances. I am reminded of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in The Republic.

Socrates describes a group of prisoners in a cave who can only observe the shadows cast by the objects passing by outside. Socrates means to suggest that the shadows do not constitute reality, but that is all we are able to glimpse, never the “true form of reality” itself.

There is much deception and evasiveness in Like Someone in Love. Nothing is what we are told or what we are able to see. It is the same theme depicted in Kiarostami’s previous film, Certified Copy, which also spends a fair amount of time in a car, this time driving around Tuscany.

We’re all standing at the windows of our selves and others, glimpsing what we can, and only speculating about the rest, a highly risky endeavor that often ends disagreeably and with considerable misunderstanding.

3.18.2013

Small Courtesies


Every once in a while I send an email to one of my children or grandchildren. I rarely get a reply. Sometimes it is in response to a question they ask me. I try to answer it in an email and I wait in vain for a thank you.

On special occasions, we send a gift. With increasing frequency, we never receive a thank you note, email, phone call, or text message

I am disappointed when this happens. I ask myself is this reasonable? I am bothered by it. Is there anything more unsettling than being ignored, especially by someone you love?

Now I learn that I am out of fashion, that current email etiquette does not require a thank you or acknowledgement.

In the Times Nick Bilton writes, “Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life’s little courtesies. But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.” I utter a profanity.

If I was speaking in person to someone and they didn’t reply to a question I asked or a remark in our ongoing conversation, it would feel rather strange, to say the least. Yet the rudeness of such silence would be unmistakable.

I am sure I’d get a reply if we were texting each other or speaking on the phone. But not necessarily in an email.

Bilton quotes Baratunde Thurston, a co-founder of something called a “comedic creative company.” “It’s almost too easy to not think before we express ourselves because expression is so cheap, yet it often costs the receiver more.” Again, I utter a profanity.

I know I am older than these people and that I come from a tradition that both expects and appreciates a thank you note, regardless of how it is delivered. I do not understand or welcome the new era of digital silence.

I see people on the street, in restaurants, and elevators staring at the screen on their cell phone, usually hitting the keys with their thumbs. Sometimes, their thumbs are moving as fast as the speed of light. It almost seems that this gadget has become attached to their body.

A teacher describes a short seminar she will be teaching. She plans to give the students a few pre-assignments: one is to take a walk, observe what they see around them, but without taking their cell phones. To that I say, “fantastic.”

What an experience that will be, the trauma of a few minutes of solitude without that part of their body, as if they were leaving one of their feet at home before heading out for a walk.

The teacher says, “I am very sure—that asking them to spend half an hour without a cell phone is like asking them to take their clothes off. No cell phones, no cup of coffee—just take a solitary walk.”

I think this teacher deserves the Teacher of the Year award. And I wonder how the students will get by. Will they begin suffering from a new form of traumatic stress disorder? Or need to repair to their psychiatrist before the half hour walk ends?

However, I doubt this exercise will teach them the lost art of saying thank you when they receive a gift or a thoughtful email. I have no idea what it will take to do that?

3.13.2013

An MRI


It begins with flashing lights. Always on the left side of my field of vision. I can’t read. I can’t see clearly. I rub close my eyes. If I can get to the Tylenol, I take a couple. And if possible, I lie down. The lights flash across my forehead, so to speak, from left to right. In a half hour they are gone. And I can see again. Afterwards, I have a headache, sometimes mild, sometimes a little stronger.

The episodes were increasing, from maybe once or twice at most a year, to a recent series of four of them. One night I had such a pain in my head, I woke up, turned over and then it went away. Lately I have a low-grade headache that comes and goes during the day, never strong enough to require Tylenol, however.

What is going on? I go to the doctor to find out. He tells me we better have a look. I go to the MRI lab. I read about the procedure. “Our unique Philips Gemini GXL PET/CT system has both PET and multi-slice CT components….” “…multi-slice…?” Good grief, did I bargain for this?

What is PET? I read on. “PET (Positron Emission Tomography) is a powerful diagnostic tool…” I’m sure. What is CT? “CT stands for Computed Tomography.”  I am convinced. “CT is non-invasive, painless and relatively fast.” I remain hopeful.

I am laid out flat, inserted into a cylinder and then the music begins—bam, bam, bam; boom, boom, boom, drilling and more drilling, beep, beep, beep, drum rolls, squeaks, rat-ta-tat tats—again and again in progressive waves for forty five minutes.

Before it begins I am asked if I want to watch TV. Sure I say. So there I lay watching CNN and they are blasting my head with this Schoenberg. How am I expected to hear Wolf Blitzer when they are pounding my head with Arnold Schoenberg?

I am told it is over. They hand me a CD of the results. I say, what is this for? So you can see the images. What will I be able to make of them? Well, you can take it to another physician one day if you need to. I know that is something I am going to have to do for the rest of my life anyway.

I go to the doctor. The report has arrived. There is no evidence of any “cerebellopontine angle lesion, although “mastoid disease is present and possible medial temporal lobe atrophy.” There is also a “mild vertebrobasilar dolichoectasia with slight chronic indentation of the ventral margin of the pons in the right paramedian location by the basilar artery.”

I am thrilled by the news, although can’t make heads or tails of it. It is suggested that I take some Tylenol. No more flashing lights, no more headaches. The wonders of placebos.