Beautiful Animals

PARIS — A French farmer who smuggled migrants across the Italian border was sentenced on Tuesday to a suspended four-month prison term in a case that has shone a light on the government’s immigration policies…. “I will continue my actions because it must be done,” Mr. Herrou said. New York Times 8/8/17

Lawrence Osborn's Beautiful Animals is set on the Greek Island of Hydra, now a favorite of the super-rich. Naomi, 24, is spending the summer as she always did with her wealthy father and stepmother in their villa high in the hills above the port. On her morning swim, she meets the slightly younger Samantha who is vacationing with her parents.

They strike up a friendship, travel around the island together, and share their meals in one of the many port-side tavernas. While sailing around the island one day, they notice an Arab migrant, Faoud, asleep on a distant beach. They begin a discussion of whether or not to help the migrant.

So begins this moral thriller. Naomi is one of those individuals who exerts a strong influence on others. She argues persuasively that it is important to aid the helpless.

“Wanting to help the helpless is not an uncommon desire, and if you want me to explain it I’d say that I’m determined to make a difference. It’s not just an adventure. And if it is, it’s one with a purpose.”

Samantha is not so sure. She thought about ditching the charity and simply going back to her family and their games of chess and backgammon. She thought it would be much easier than the uncertain effort to help Faoud.

But she was the weaker of the two and gradually succumbs to Naomi’s view. They begin by taking Faoud small baskets of food, then they find him a shelter to live in for a while and finally devise a plan to help him leave Hydra and begin his journey to Greece and then Italy.

Naomi relished the role of a savior. Osborne writes, “It made her feel vital in a new way. To save another person: it wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t exactly and achievement but it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak. Such shifts were the substance of one’s moral life—they made the intolerable tolerable.”

But Naomi’s plan to help Faoud leave Hydra goes horribly wrong. So, begins the second half of the novel. Osborne describes Faoud’s motivations and beliefs about Islam and his Western pursuers. Here I must stop or you’ll have little desire to read the book.

I found Beautiful Animals an exciting novel, found it hard to put down and, at times, didn’t want it to end. It’s one of those that are in my mind, among my favorites.

If there is a message to be found in the novel it is that altruism, like anything else, has effects which are impossible to predict at the time. Naomi’s attempt to help Faoud fails, fails badly.

You might find the novel changing your views on the current refugee crisis. What is the nature of your engagement with the issue? At one point, Naomi tries to understand her desire to help Faoud, but she does so without anticipating the possible consequences of doing so.

Osborne writes, “What beautiful animals we are, Samantha thought, beautiful as panthers.”


On Protesting

It’s been 6 years since the Occupy Wall Street protests began on September 17, 2011 in New York’s Zuccotti Park. We are the 99%, they chanted. Similar protests spread rapidly throughout the United States and in some European cities, as well.

And then they were gone. The police cleared the protesters from Zuccotti Park two months after it began and that was pretty much the end of Occupy Wall Street. Has it had any lasting impact?

While it wasn’t the first to highlight the growing income inequalities in this country, it was surely the first large-scale protest movement to do so. And while there was much discussion of the magnitude of the problem and the importance of rectifying it, there was little in the way of doing anything about it.

Some have attributed the success of Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign to the receptive audience Occupy Wall Street created. Sanders argued forcefully to increase the minimum wage, reduce outrageous income inequalities, and end the enormous role of money in politics. However, all these issues had been discussed long before Occupy Wall Street and Sanders did not become the Democratic Party’s candidate for President

The same holds for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when she declared, “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” And later when she compared the annual salaries of the C.E.O.’s to those of kindergarten teachers. While less forceful than Sanders, she nevertheless made it a feature of her campaign. But in the end, she lost the Presidential election

Six years since Occupy Wall Street some of the rhetoric continues, but the problems persist. In a word, nothing much has happened in the intervening years. If anything, income disparities have increased, money still plays a powerful role in politics, and even though some states and cities have introduced minimum wage requirements, real wages have declined as living costs have increased and far too many people struggle to get by.

The larger question becomes, as Nathan Heller puts it in the August 21st New Yorker, “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” He too cites the Occupy Wall Street protest and says, “No US policies have changed.”

He recalls the winter of 2003 “when the world assembled, arms linked, to protest the prospect of war in Iraq…Three weeks later the United States was at war.”

And he points to the Women’s March this past January. “Throughout the nation and in nearly seven hundred cities all across the world, millions of people assembled …. Then on the following Monday the new administration went about its work as planned.”

Protests continue to this day, even more frequently now as a result of our current President and his policies. We express ourselves, we are there, our views spread, sometimes widely. But in the end, they have little effect on policies. We are still an imperfect nation, a developing nation. And as Heller concludes, “The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.”


September 11, 2001

We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling. John Updike

It was a Tuesday, about 9 am, West Coast time, sixteen years ago today. For one reason or another I was in the kitchen of our Portland home. The TV was on: “We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement.”

The sky was bright blue, not a cloud in sight and the North tower of the World Trade Towers was on fire. A plane was approaching the South tower. It wasn’t clear why until dark smoke began to fill the air and even then, I wasn’t sure.

Eventually we learned about the four coordinated attacks. The Pentagon was hit, a plane headed for the White House crashed in a Pennsylvania field, as the hijackers were overwhelmed by a group of brave passengers.

The towers fell, those who were lucky managed to get out, the dust and debris was everywhere and reporters were describing the chaos, hiding in building entry alcoves. Almost 3,000 individuals were killed in what remains the deadliest terrorist attack in this country. And it led to a war in Afghanistan that has become America’s longest.

Not everyone was waving the flag. Susan Sontag wrote: Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

Anyway, that’s how I remember that day. I think I have it right. I wasn’t terribly upset other than being angry. But it wasn’t an emotional experience, the kind that is often incorrectly recalled on repeated occasions, a so-called flashbulb memory.

Right away I thought it was the work of Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda. I thought we need to put an end to him.

Eventually, I learned how complex the plan was, the degree of training and preparation that went into the attacks, the skill involved. And I thought, if you will pardon me, what a clever guy he is.

The next morning, I went back to the open vantage from which we had watched the tower so dreadfully slip from sight. The fresh sun shone on the eastward façades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious. John Updike



We cast the shadows of our emotions on others and they theirs on us. Sometimes we threaten to choke on them. But without them there would be no light in our lives.
Ancient Armenian grave inscription

In Pascal Mercier’s Lea, two men, the narrator and Martin van Vliet, first meet each other at a café in Provence. Van Vliet has come to the Provence to visit his daughter, Lea, who is patient at a hospital in Avignon.

When the two learn, they are both from Bern, van Vliet invites the narrator to drive with him back to Switzerland. Along the way, van Vliet unfolds the sad tale of his daughter, Lea, and professional life as a surgeon.

The tale begins with the death of van Vliet’s wife. Their grief stricken young daughter, Lea, falls into a deep depression and isolates herself from the world. Then one day by chance, she comes alive, when she hears a violinist playing Bach in a train station.

“Now I heard what had made Lea pause: the sound of a violin. How often I have wondered what would have become of my daughter if we hadn’t done that! If chance had not played those sounds to us.”

She begins to learn how to play the instrument after he buys her a violin and vows to do everything possible to keep her content. In turn, Lea practices relentlessly and in time becomes a superb violinist, winning competition after competition.

“…she picked it up and started to play. Just as if she had been waiting all that time for someone to bring her, at long last, the instrument for which she was born.”

“The aimlessness that had accompanied her grief over her dead mother had come to an end. She had a will again! And what made me overjoyed: I could do something. The time of being a helpless onlooker was over.”

But then, Lea makes a mistake and loses a competition. Once again, she becomes depressed, van Vliet tries to think of what he can do to bring her back to life one more time. He hits upon the idea of buying her a priceless Guarneri Del Gusu violin.

This draws van Vliet into the theft of his research grant, whereupon he travels to Italy to use the embezzled funds to purchase the violin. The auction doesn’t go as planned, nor does Lea’s use of the violin.

However, for a while Lea plays beautifully once again. “After months in which that face had lost all its tension and prematurely aged, it was once again the face of Lea van Vliet, the radiant violinist who filled the whole auditoria.”

After Pascal Mercier wrote Night Train to Lisbon, which I have read at least three times, as well as seeing the movie adaptation, I looked upon anything he wrote as a “must read.” However, I didn’t finish his Perlmann’s Silence and, while I finished Lea, it didn’t bring me as much pleasure as Night Train to Lisbon. Indeed, far from it.

I found the novel repetitious and overly dramatic. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the friendship between the narrator and van Vliet, the fraught relationship between Lea and her father, as well and the power of the violin to both give meaning and destroy a person’s life.