Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DEAD LINE by Stella Rimington

Two months ago (two years after it was released in the UK), Dead Line, Stella Rimington’s fourth spy novel about MI5 officer Liz Carlyle, was published in America. The book is a study in looking for something without knowing precisely what it is. Carlyle’s attempt to uncover a deadly plot designed to disrupt a Middle East peace conference is just that kind of puzzle, as is her search for Mr. Right, which serves as the novel’s subsidiary plot.

Just weeks before multiple heads of state are to arrive at Gleneagles in Scotland for a Mideast Peace summit, MI6 (Britain’s rough equivalent of the CIA) relays intelligence to MI5 (Britain’s rough equivalent of the FBI) suggesting that two undercover operatives with ties to Syria have hatched a plan to disrupt the high-level gathering and scuttle any hopes for peace. Carlyle gets the case and uses both systematic investigation and intuition to narrowly avert disaster.

Carlyle is searching in earnest on the romantic front as well. But wouldn’t you know it, the available men in her life are unappealing boors, while all the good ones are taken. Yet by novel’s end, Rimington hints at a budding romance. Something to look forward to in book five?*

Every protagonist needs a sidekick. Lord Peter has his Bunter, Don Quixote his Sancho Panza, and Liz Carlyle her Peggy Kinsolving. Peggy is as literal minded as Liz is intuitive, and together they cover the territory. Perhaps they also represent two sides of Rimington’s personality.

I was introduced to Rimington by John Wilson’s August 16 Books & Culture podcast. Rimington, I learned, was the first woman to serve as Director General of MI5. After 27 years in the spy trade, she settled into a directorship at Marks & Spencer and began to write books about spooks. Since I am drawn to authoritative writers, I wanted to read espionage fiction by someone who wasn’t making everything up.

Stella Rimington’s writing is competent, though it lacks the breathless thrills often associated with the genre. No matter. With a steady hand, she paces her satisfying plot step by methodical step.

Next up for me will be Rimington’s nonfiction memoir of her MI5 years, Open Secret. It’s due back at Wheaton College’s Buswell Memorial Library in just five weeks. I’ll make a note to pick it up
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*Rimington's earlier Liz Carlyle novels are, in order of publication, At Risk, Secret Asset, and Illegal Action. The fifth novel, Present Danger, is available in the U.K.

Monday, August 30, 2010

JIGSAW: AN UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION by Sybille Bedford

In a house that is anchored and insulated with books, a book occasionally goes missing for its entire lifespan. Someone must have given me Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw some ten years ago, right after the 1989 novel was reissued with a new introduction. I found it last week in my bedside bookcase, brand new, untouched, and out of print.

"She is one of the best writers in English, and Jigsaw may be the best of her books," said the Boston Globe reviewer quoted on the cover. Well, maybe, if the reader has high tolerance for erratic punctuation and destructively haphazard lives. It is hard to put this book down, just as it would be hard to stop watching a train bearing down on a car stalled on the tracks.

The story starts in about 1913 with the narrator, still in her pram, being asked to sleep through one of her mother's infidelities. It ends less than 20 years later, by which time the mother has destroyed her own health, sanity, and relationships. She has apparently not destroyed her daughter, the narrator, though the young woman is in a precarious place.

The reason we suspect the narrator will survive and thrive is because Jigsaw is not really a novel, even though the cover says it is. It is Bedford's coming-of-age memoir, billed as fiction only to allow her certain liberties with names and events. "What I had in mind," Bedford wrote in her introduction, "was to build a novel out of the events and people who had made up, and marked, my early youth.... It had to be a novel in which the events had actually happened and happened largely as described; to invent, such was my instinct, would have been pointless: it mattered that these things had occurred."

Born to an eccentric German baron and his German-English-Jewish wife, Sybille spent her earliest years with her eccentric father in a crumbling castle in southern Germany. Later she joined her peripatetic mother for months at a time in Italy and in the south of France, and for several years she lived pretty much on her own in London - all before she was out of her teens.

You can learn more about Sybille's life from her obituaries in various newspapers - the Times, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph - but you will quickly note that dates and places are far from uniform. I'm guessing the fictionalized story in Jigsaw is closer to the truth than some of the supposedly factual obits.

Why might you want to read Jigsaw? Let me count the ways.
  • You enjoy memoirs
  • You're interested in the Roaring Twenties, the "lost generation," the Jazz Age
  • You like to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, the Bloomsbury Set
  • You feel better when you read about people whose problems are much worse than your own
  • You have a clinical interest in dysfunctional family systems
Less than a  year before her death, Bedford wrote a book she called a memoir, Quicksand. According to a review in the Observer, it tells pretty much the same story she already told in Jigsaw. Both books describe a childhood in an environment of failed marriages, serial adultery, child abandonment, haphazard education, gambling addiction, drug addiction, financial ruin, narcissism ... in short, nearly every kind of dysfunction and codependence imaginable, more than 50 years before pop psych popularized those terms. I would have expected Sybille to die young and tragically.

Instead, she began writing for publication when she was middle-aged. Her works include the 832-page Aldous Huxley: A Biography as well as several novels, books on travel, and accounts of court trials. According to her obituary in the Independent, she
was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature - elected one of the society's 10 Companions of Literature in 1994 - and was appointed OBE in 1981. She was also an active member of the English Pen Club, and its Vice-President in 1979. Her joie de vivre expressed itself in an abiding curiosity about human beings, a deep love of nature, and a lifelong interest in wine.
She died shortly before her 95th birthday.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

There's no such thing as a split infinitive

I am so tired of politics. And religion. Especially when they crawl into bed with each other and start shouting. So today I'm going to forget about them altogether and revolutionize English grammar instead. English-speaking friends, it is impossible to split an infinitive.

Not that most of us care. If asked what's wrong with Star Trek's aim, "to boldly go where no man has gone before," we're likely to point out its sexism, not its placement of the word "boldly." But if you harbor any residual guilt about split infinitives from long-ago English classes or from several decades of of copyediting, here's good news.

Structurally speaking, it makes no sense to say that the infinitive in Star Trek's mission statement is "to go." Nope. The infinitive is "go." Just plain "go."

In other European languages, the infinitive is one word, not two. "Go," for example, is aller in French. "To go to France" is aller en France. But the French, like the English, often use little words like the English "to" when a sentence has two verbs. "He begins to read" is il commence à lire, and "she decides to leave" is elle décide de partir.

Why then do English speakers say that the infinitive is "to read" and "to leave," while French speakers do not say it is à lire and de partir?

Well, one explanation is that in French, depending on the sentence, the same infinitive may require "à" or "de" or no preposition at all. In English, by contrast, the "to" is always required ... except that it isn't.

Yes, we always say "I want to go," never "I want go," and even though le prince du Danemark said "être ou ne pas être," the original Hamlet said "to be or not to be."

But we never say "I must to go" or "I can to go" or "I may to go" or "I had better to go" or "I should to go." And in all of these sentences, the second verb is most definitely an infinitive.

So why should even the most rigorous grammarian have "to go boldly" when he or she "can boldly go"? No reason at all : the infinitive, even though often coupled with "to," is simply "go." You can split it from its preposition, but you can't split the infinitive itself.

Blair Shewchuk, CBC News Canada's Senior Editor of Journalistic Standards, would probably disagree with my analysis (everyone does). He quite cheerfully approves separating the "to" from the verb, however, and that's what counts. In "To Boldly Split Infinitives," a delightful summary of the debate, he tells of one author with the right spirit:
In a letter written in 1947, U.S. author Raymond Chandler put it this way: "Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split."
I like that. It's bold.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

EAT PRAY LOVE, the movie

No, the Eat Pray Love DVD isn't out yet, but if attendance this afternoon at Cinemark Seven Bridges is any indication, it won't be in theaters too much longer.

Not that it's an unpleasant movie. I believe the nine of us middle-aged ladies in theater 7 all had a fine time. Some of us even talked back to the screen. Nobody snored, even though there was not a single chase scene.

It's just that there's nothing in the movie to warrant the adulation that has kept the book of almost the same name (commas extra) on the New York Times best-seller list for 184 weeks. Not even Julia Roberts, who at 42 is about 10 years too old to play Liz - though if you need a reason to see the movie, girls, Javier Bardem could provide it. My friend and I had been making mmmm, mmmm noises during the preview of the upcoming George Clooney film, but as soon as we saw Javier, we completely forgot about George.

Still, Bardem, 41, is about 7 years too young to play Felipe, the Brazilian to whom Liz eventually succumbs. This is delightful, actually, since so many movies pair nubile young things with actors past their prime and expect female viewers to suspend disbelief. It is not at all hard to believe that Roberts could fall for Bardem.

But their romance is only part of the movie, and not the longest part. Before we ever meet sexy Felipe, we have to get through Liz's marriage, her subsequent boyfriend, her trip to Italy, her trip to India, and the first part of her trip to Bali. In an NPR review titled "The 'Eat Pray Love' Problem: How Movie Liz Ruined the Story of Book Liz," Linda Holmes writes:
Two hours and 20 minutes is simply far too long for this story. By the time Elizabeth Gilbert — or, rather, the person I will call "Movie Liz," to distinguish her from both Book Liz and actual Elizabeth Gilbert in real life — finishes up in Italy, the thought that there are two entire countries left for her to visit is like realizing at the close of a one-hour doctor's appointment that the doctor has only looked in one ear.
Too many shots of pasta, Holmes suggests. Besides, I would add, the food was poorly chosen. Italy has a marvelously varied cuisine, but from this movie you might think it was one long chain of Pizza Huts.

The whole Italy portion, in fact, is a rapid succession of clichés : primitive living conditions, lecherous young men, Neapolitan clotheslines, rude gestures. The Asian portions are equally stereotypical. In India we see squalid cities and a Bollywood wedding, while in Bali we meet expats and native healers.

Of course Liz, not the countries or the other characters, is the center of attention. Befriending people everywhere she goes - natives and other tourists - she shows that she's not really a narcissist (even though the conversations are all about her). She come uncomfortably close to looking like a colonialist, though, when she gives one grateful woman a house.

In the end, Liz thinks she has learned something, but I had a hard time telling what it was. I will grant, however, that her third man is better looking, sexier, and much, much richer than the first two.

When Eat, Pray, Love was published four years ago, readers either loved it or hated it. The ones who hated it aren't going to go to this movie anyway. Unfortunately, many of the ones who loved it are likely to walk out of the theater saying, "I'm going to have to go back and reread that book. I thought there was a lot more to it than that."

If that's what you plan to do, I'd recommend taking a look at Gilbert's next book too. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage got neither the rave reviews nor the astronomical sales of the first book, but it updates Liz's story and leaves her in a better place. My review of it is here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

THE POOR CHRIST OF BOMBA by Mongo Béti

If you're interested in African colonial history or cross-cultural evangelism or feminist sociology, or if you'd just like to read a good character study told from an interesting viewpoint, you might want to try to find a copy of Mongo Béti's shocking 1956 novel, The Poor Christ of Bomba. It probably won't be in your library, but you can get an English translation from Amazon or the original French from www.amazon.fr.

The Reverend Father Superior Drumont is a complicated man. He is a true believer, a Frenchman who has devoted over 20 years of his life to working in rural Cameroon. He is also a rigid moralist, a self-righteous minor despot, and a criminally negligent administrator. He knows something is terribly wrong, and he feels tired and confused and guilty. But he fails to understand his own role in a shocking web of corruption that comes to light during three weeks in February.

On the surface, The Poor Christ of Bomba is about Father Drumont. On the very first page Denis, the 15-year-old narrator, says that according to his father, Jesus Christ and Drumont are one and the same. The book's title probably refers to the priest, though it could be an ironic commentary on the collapse of the Bomba mission. Denis, however, does not foresee the impeding crisis. He is loyal to the Catholic church and adores Father Drumont. Through his naively admiring eyes, the reader comes to know the conflicted priest.

Besides being an engaging character study,  the novel is a trenchant commentary on colonialism. The setting is Southern Cameroon in the 1930s, a country that became a German colony in 1884 and then lived under French rule from World War I until 1960. Father Drumont has been trying to turn Cameroon people into Christians without understanding their traditional religions, their social systems, or their mores. At the same time his friend Vidal, a French administrator, is trying to turn the colony into a profitable venture without understanding or caring about the effects his actions will have on the indigenous people.

Reading the novel over 50 years after it was written, I was struck by its women. From the outset,  Drumont is unsympathetic to them. During mass he drags a woman to the altar and forces her to kneel in penance; the narrator has no idea what she has done. He demands that mothers immediately take fussy babies outside. He campaigns (unsuccessfully) against unwed mothers, and he insists that polygamous men abandon all their wives except the one they like the best.

By the end of the book, his rigidity has turned into something close to sadism, though Drumont doesn't see it that way. In fact, he almost seems to understand the sin he and the other men have been committing against women. Listen to him muse to another white priest:*
The indigenous woman, the docile little black woman - what an ideal machine! No need to oil her, you see! No need even to check from time to time to be sure she isn't rusting in the little garage we've stuffed her in.. .. She takes care of her own maintenance, and she  asks for work to do.... The worst thing is that we figured this out. Long before we came, the natives already knew that women make a fine machine; don't think for a minute that they're stupider than we are. So here we come - Christians, Christ's messengers, bearers of civilization. And what do you think we do? Do we give women back their dignity? Not a chance. Oh no. We keep them in servitude. But now we're the ones who profit.
Drumont's understanding does not seem to improve his behavior, however. When he finally figures out that something terrible is happening on his watch, he summons over 50 women who live on the compound to tell him what is going on. Predictably, they are afraid to talk - they have already been repeatedly victimized and fear reprisals. So Drumont has them beaten until they give in. But when they finally tell him what has been going on, he sends them away, even if they have nowhere to go. Knowing that many of them are ill, he provides no medical care. They are at the bottom of the food chain, and it seems not to occur to Father Drumont that his whole approach to evangelization has created a truly hellish situation for his most faithful followers.

Mongo Béti's characters may be literally black and white, but this story is not about villains and saints. Father Drumont's perceptions change as the story progresses, and at times he is almost sympathique. The colonist Vidal is often likable. The narrator's sidekick, Zacharie, is both amusing and appalling. Only the catechist Raphaël comes across as totally corrupt, and he is African - though, to be sure, an African who works for white missionaries. Evil lies not so much in the individuals as in the way power is allocated and used in colonial Cameroon. And in the end, the women suffer more than anyone else.

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*I don't have a copy of the English translation, and neither does my public library. This is my own loose translation of a paragraph I found striking.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A different idea for Ground Zero

Here's an idea for people who are unhappy about having an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center, especially if those people are Bible-believing Christians and/or defenders of the U.S. Constitution. What if American Christians got together and offered to build an interfaith memorial instead?

Since we follow someone who suggested loving our enemies and forgiving seventy times seven (which we tend to ignore when we rant against the Islamic center), this would allow us to be more literal about our faith. And since believe in our Constitutional rights of religious liberty and freedom to assemble (which we might jeopardize by refusing to allow the Islamic center to be built), this would allow us to be more traditional about our politics as well - all without making the Muslims pay for the building.

See, we could pay for it ourselves. It would be cheap: only 50 cents from every American Christian would do it. We probably wouldn't want to call it Córdoba, since that brings to mind a city where medieval Muslims gave a fair amount of religious liberty to Christians (something Christians at the time were not doing for Muslims in neighboring cities). But we might call it something like The Reconciliation Center - a very biblical term that evangelicals should like.

We could include separate worship rooms for Christians, Muslims, Jews, and every other faith held by victims of the 9/11 attacks. We could also include a multifaith meditation room for everybody, with pictures of the deceased and symbols of hope and peace.

Just as important, we could use the memorial to bring the community together now and in the future. I don't know what the neighborhood needs - apparently it's rather rich in strip clubs and sex toys - but how about a gym where kids of all faiths could play together? A food pantry staffed by and serving all people? A library with great works from many traditions? An auditorium where speakers, films, and concerts promoting reconciliation could be featured? A clinic offering free medical care for the homeless?

The only drawback I can think of in building such a center is that terrorists would absolutely hate it. They're already upset at Sufi Muslims such as Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the Córdoba Initiative.Think how mad they would get if Christians co-opted his idea, improved it, and invited him to join them. They might even bomb the place!

But as Jesus said, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake."

Righteous imports: why it's OK for California food to travel to Illinois

"More evidence links pesticides to hyperactivity," says a headline from yesterday's Los Angeles Times, with similar articles in newspapers all over the world. Yet another good reason to be careful what we eat - and yet I've got to say it, righteous eating can be crazy making.

Going to the farmers' market isn't good enough : we have to ask every farmer where the food is grown, what fertilizers were used, whether it was sprayed with pesticides.

Just shopping at Whole Foods isn't good enough either (though it's generally more righteous than, say, Jewel)  : not all of their products are organic, locally grown, wild-caught, or whatever else we're told we have to look for. And we even have to be cautious at Trader Joe's, my favorite grocery store in the world. Thank goodness they are starting to stock a lot more organic foods.

Which is why I appreciated Steven Budiansky's op-ed piece in this morning's New York Times : "Math Lessons for Locavores." Budiansky, bless him, holds that
eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being. 
He gives the numbers to back up his assertion, too.

Budiansky is not in bed with Big Ag. He's a historian, journalist, and mathematician who blogs at Liberal Curmudgeon: Who Says You Have to Be a Conservative to Be Pissed Off? I like the way he thinks.

After reading his article, I feel much better about buying (organic) California strawberries and (wild caught) Alaska salmon, though slightly guiltier about driving to the grocery story four times already this week to get them ("A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy," says Budiansky).

Guilt is OK, in small doses : it's the manure of the soul. I'm just glad I don't have to spread it on my (organic) New Zealand apples.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

OTHERWISE by Jane Kenyon

Fifteen years ago poet Jane Kenyon died of leukemia, just a month before her 48th birthday. A year later, in 1996, Graywolf Press published Otherwise, a collection of poems she was putting together right up until her death. Though most publishers refuse to publish poetry because most books of poetry remain unsold and unread, Otherwise is still going strong.

Here is my review of Otherwise, first published in Books and Culture magazine in 1997 as "An Appetite for the Sun."

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Jane Kenyon lived the unabashedly romantic life of a poet as imagined by a screenwriter: Graduate student marries middle-aged professor, renouncing academia for poetry, learning rural ways at her husband's ancestral farm, escaping occasionally to foreign parts to enjoy fine food and wine and art, becoming--as did her husband--poet laureate of New Hampshire. She falls victim to debilitating depression, he to cancer. They struggle, they write, they love, they rise above their afflictions-until she, only 46 years old, is diagnosed with leukemia and dies 15 months later.

It is not surprising, then, that Otherwise, Kenyon's posthumous collection, has been widely and favorably reviewed; or that on the anniversary of Kenyon's death, tributes to her were held in New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts, while a 1993 televised interview of Kenyon and her husband, Donald Hall, was rebroadcast on PBS stations in Connecticut.(1)

Hall, in fact, spent a busy spring reminiscing about his late wife at various poetry festivals, at a luncheon at the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association, and with NPR's Terry Gross on Fresh Air.(2 )His poem-memoir, The Old Life (Houghton Mifflin, 134 pp.; $19.95), is dedicated to Kenyon; its final poem, "Without," is a masterpiece of raw, unmediated grief.

An enormous spiritual hunger
Despite the flurry of interest in Jane Kenyon, both critical and affectionate, it is rarely mentioned that her poetry is suffused with Christian references. When Terry Gross asked Hall if his wife maintained her faith in God throughout her final illness, he showed Yankee reticence. "Yes," he said, and then again: "Yes."

Faith did not keep her from suffering, he quickly noted: "Often there were long hours of night when there was no grace present, and there was suffering and despair. . . . I don't mean despair of survival, but despair simply of the immediate circumstances of suffering." The couple's shared faith went beyond words: "We both wanted paradise, and to meet again in paradise, so much that we couldn't speak of it."

Kenyon spoke freely of her faith, however, some three years earlier when Bill Moyers interviewed the two poets for the PBS special "A Life Together," which won an Emmy Award in 1994. When Kenyon and Hall moved to Eagle Pond Farm in the midseventies, they "got into the habit of going to church" because that's what the neighbors expected of them. Soon Kenyon discovered an "enormous spiritual hunger" fed but not satisfied by poetry. "Before I knew what had happened to me," she told Moyers, "I'd become a believer"-not in the frightening God of her childhood, but in "a God who, if you ask, forgives you no matter how far down in the well you are. If I didn't believe that I couldn't live."

For Kenyon, that statement was not hyperbole. Her poems reveal a woman dogged by depression:
It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I
turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,
"Where is your God now?"
Kenyon addresses depression directly in "Having It Out with Melancholy":
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
"We're here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated."
And yet, unlike many depressed persons, "Jane wanted to live. She was astonished at how much she wanted to live," Hall said to Terry Gross.

"My belief in God, such as it is, especially the idea that a believer is part of the body of Christ, has kept me from harming myself," Kenyon had told Moyers. "When I really didn't want to be conscious, didn't want to be aware, was in so much pain that I didn't want to be awake or aware, I've thought to myself, 'If you injure yourself you're injuring the body of Christ, and Christ has been injured enough.' "

An extreme state of light
Kenyon selected and edited the nearly 200 poems in Otherwise during the last six months of her life. The first 20 poems are new; the last, "The Sick Wife," begun the month before her death, is unfinished. She chose the rest from her four published collections, omitting those she no longer found representative of her work, making minor changes to some of those she included.

The collection reveals a profound religious consciousness. Reviewers often mention her Zenlike imagery: the stark yet fertile descriptions reminiscent of haiku, the self-reproachful resignation ("How much better it is / to carry wood to the fire / than to moan about your life"). Even more pervasive are the Christian symbols: the biblical imagery and quotations, the faith and hope that persist in the presence of suffering.

Many of the poems deal with melancholy, illness, old age, and death. "There was not a great deal of comfort" in her faith, according to Hall; easy answers offered her no solution to pain. "You wouldn't be so depressed / if you really believed in God," says a friend in "Having It Out with Melancholy," and Kenyon offers no response. In Kenyon's universe, God does not remove pain and evil--but neither does he will it. In "Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993" God thinks:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
Kenyon does not stand apart from the evil she observes: "Darkness is all around and inside me." Yet her poems, like her beloved flowers, strain toward the light. On a hot day in April,
I saw that a yellow crocus bud had pierced
a dead oak leaf, then opened wide. How strong
its appetite for the luxury of the sun!
Light brings health and growth and reveals beauty in dark places. Looking at "Dutch Interiors," she exclaims,
Now tell me that the Holy Ghost
does not reside in the play of light
on cutlery!
Like the Holy Ghost, light also reveals imperfections. The sun comes out after a snowstorm, and "In this extreme state of light / everything seems flawed." Sometimes--frequently--light is denied. Here the poet's faith seems strongest: "If it's darkness / we're having, let it be extravagant," she says. Death is not necessarily an enemy; darkness does not overwhelm light. Writing of a woman in a nursing home, she plays with the word light as she alludes to Jesus' invitation in Matthew 11:28-30: "Master, come with your light / halter. Come and bring her in."

In one of her best-known and best-loved poems, one that Kenyon told Bill Moyers was given to her by the Holy Spirit, she writes:
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
God, she says in "Notes from the Other Side," "as promised, proves / to be mercy clothed in light."

Present at the Creation
Kenyon's poetry at first glance seems artless. Like fine wine, however, her poems linger on the palate, disclosing unsuspected depth and complexity long after the first taste. Look, for example, at the short poem "Cesarean":
The surgeon with his unapologetic
blade parted darkness, revealing
day. Then from her large clay
he drew toward his masked
face my small clay. The clatter,
the white light, the vast freedom
were terrible. Outside in, oh, inside
out, and why did everybody shout?
The surgeon with his unapologetic blade . . . Is this T. S. Eliot's wounded surgeon, plying the steel? The word "unapologetic," from apologia, "to speak in defense," suggests that the blade is not raised in defense against cancerous intrusions, but rather unapologetically is bringing life into existence, like the word of God that is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

. . . parted darkness, revealing day. The creative word, the Logos, spoke all things into being (John 1:3); the word of the Lord made the heavens and gathered the waters of the sea (Ps. 33:6-7); the word of God "separated the light from the darkness" on the first day of creation (Gen. 1:3-4).3

Then from her large clay he drew toward his masked face my small clay. As from "the dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:7), the surgeon takes the child. In a biblical birth poem Job cries out, "Remember that you fashioned me like clay" (Job 10:9). Like Job, who cannot escape personal involvement with his maker, this small clay is inexorably drawn toward the surgeon. Yet unlike Job, who sees his creator face to face (Job 42:5), the small clay sees only the mask, like the veil over Moses' face shielding Israel from God's dazzling glory (Ex. 34:30-35).

The clatter, the white light, the vast freedom . . . And indeed there is glory in this place as the newborn is delivered "from the power of darkness" (Col. 1:13) "into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9), into "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21).

. . . were terrible--as "the day of the Lord" is "terrible indeed--who can endure it?" (Joel 2:11). With God-given freedom the newborn will leave the womb's paradise, learn good from evil, earn bread through sweat, birth children in pain. In God-beamed light, her works will be displayed for judgment. "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world. . . . For all who do evil hate the light," said Jesus, "but those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God" (John 3:20-21).

Outside in, oh, inside out, . . . Breathing, no longer floating; crying out at the noise and light, she is now "a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17). Or perhaps it is the universe that is new--"a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more" (Rev. 21:1).

. . . and why did everybody shout? Because that's the appropriate response to creation, "when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy" (Job 38:7). It is also the definitive announcement of the new creation--"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout" (1 Thess. 4:16, KJV).

Is this poem about a Caesarean birth? A soul's new birth? The creation of the universe? The Last Judgment? The New Earth? Yes to all.

The poet as priest
Jane Kenyon's poems are short, concrete, and simple. They offer the reader revelations of everyday beauty. They reveal sorrow without despair and hope without false cheer. Reading them is emotionally satisfying, and Kenyon is a sympathetic romantic heroine. For all of these reasons, Otherwise is a good book to own and to give.

On a deeper level, Kenyon's poems have a quality that sets them apart from most contemporary poetry: They abound in the rigorous, clear-headed faith of the Christian tradition. Even before she became a Christian believer, Kenyon told Bill Moyers, she began to see "the spiritual dimension that poetry could have, an almost priestly function for the poet."

In Otherwise, Jane Kenyon has fulfilled her vocation.

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1. Quotations from Jane Kenyon speaking with Bill Moyers are from the 1993 PBS special "A Life Together: Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon," presented in Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (Doubleday, 1995), 219-38.

2. Quotations from Donald Hall speaking with Terry Gross are from a tape of Fresh Air (WHYY, Philadelphia) broadcast on NPR member stations in April 1996.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

INCENDIARY by Chris Cleave

Incendiary hit British bookstores on July 7, 2005 - the day four suicide bombers crippled London transport, "killing 52 people and injuring more than 770." The timing was eerie. In Chris Cleave's novel, a group of suicide bombers have struck a London stadium, killing more than 1000 football fans.

Incendiary is about one of the survivors, a young working-class widow who has lost not only her husband but also their four-year-old son. The woman, never named, tells her story in the form of a letter to Osama Bin Laden.
I'm going to write to you about the emptiness that was left when you took my boy away. I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind. I want you to feel that hole in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son. What could be more natural?
Incendiary is Cleave's first novel. His second is Little Bee, which last month I called "the best novel I've read so far this year." Little Bee fans, be warned: Incendiary is also brilliantly written, but it is much harder to read.

Some reviewers complained about the abundance of East London slang. Really, I don't think that is what slows down most readers: it's easy enough to figure out from the context. What makes this novel hard to read is its raw first-person portrayal of unquenchable grief spilling over into madness.

Both Little Bee and Incendiary are built on situations that sound a lot like the latest news stories. Both include a pair of journalists as major characters, and in both cases the journalists wrestle with how much to tell about what they know. If the journalists sound realistic, it's because Cleave himself used to work for the Daily Telegraph, and he is clearly concerned about the U.K.'s foreign policy and approach to terrorism.

His novels are nothing like journalistic accounts, however. They are literary fiction with all of that genre's characterization and interiority, rescued by a reader-pleasing overlay of plot and wry humor. Here's an example of Cleave's black humor:

Terrible things have been happening, and the protagonist wonders aloud how anyone can "carry on living in a world like this." Her friend sighs.
--People keep themselves busy don't they? he said.

He turned to look out over London.

--Look at all that, he said. Under each lightbulb is somebody keeping themselves busy. Exfoliating and applying the anti-wrinkle cream. Writing long sales reports people will only ever read the last page of. Agonising whether their cock is shrinking or the condoms are getting bigger. What you see down there is the real front line in the war against terror. That's how people go on. Staying just busy enough so they can't feel nervous. And do you know what they're mostly busy doing? DIY. For a whole week after May Day the airports stayed closed and the DIY stores stayed open. It's pathetic. People are laying their fears to rest under patio slabs. They're grouting against terror.

I looked away from the city and back at Jasper Black.

--You don't think much of people do you?

He shrugged.

--I'm a journalist, he said.
A film version of Incendiary was released in 2008. It got rotten reviews. This is not surprising. What makes the book worth reading - and it is definitely worth reading, if you can handle chaos and grief - is not so much the story as the compelling way Cleave tells it

You can read more about Chris Cleave and his books on his website.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

THE HERETIC'S WIFE by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

Here's a page-turning historical novel that will appeal to women who like Tudor England, chaste romances, and a clear demarcation between good and evil, especially if they identify Protestantism with good and Catholicism with evil.

The setting of The Heretic's Wife is England under Henry VIII, mostly between 1528 and 1533, and Antwerp, a major trade center where heretics could live and work in relative safety. The underlying conflict is between England's chancellor, Thomas More, and proponents of the "new learning" - scholars intent on translating the Bible into English and reinterpreting the church's traditional theology. The protagonist is Kate, a bookseller whose great-grandmother owned a Wycliffe Bible, whose father died in a Lollard prison, and whose brother has been forced to abjure and abandon his bookshop. Not surprisingly, she soon finds herself part of a network of Lutherans including the famed Bible translator William Tyndale.

The Heretic's Wife has a lot going for it. Vantrease is a fine storyteller. She deftly interweaves several stories that eventually intersect without ever confusing the reader or letting any of the multiple plots lag. Her characters are well drawn. Though Kate strikes me as a bit insipid, she's a nice person that readers can identify with - unlike fiery Anne Boleyn, disgusting Henry VIII, and sado-masochistic Thomas More. Vantrease uses period detail well: food, clothing, streets, pageants, prisons all come to life without overwhelming the story. And she usually writes conversations that are formal enough to sound historic while colloquial enough to sound real.

Vantrease used to be an English teacher and a librarian; she holds a PhD in English, and she has traveled widely in Britain. She has done her homework, and it shows. I wish I could give the book a glowing recommendation, but I can't.

Her portrayal of Thomas More - and, by extension, all those who opposed the reformers - is simplistic and misleading. Her Sir Thomas, the villain of the piece from beginning to end, is a monomaniacal heretic hunter propelled by a perverted need to inflict pain on himself and others.

To be sure, More was not the gentlemanly saint portrayed in A Man for All Seasons - at least not by contemporary standards. As Peter Ackroyd notes in his brilliant biography, The Life of Thomas More, the chancellor hated heresy, threatened heretics, approved of burning them, and sent several to the stake. "In that respect," Ackroyd writes, he "was no different from most of his contemporaries.... Burning was the natural remedy for those who refused to recant or who later relapsed."

This does not mean, however, that England's air was black with the smoke of burning martyrs, as one might think from reading The Heretic's Wife ("Tidings from England grew ever more disturbing. With each new ship, frightened refugees brought stories of burnings"). During More's three years as chancellor (1529-32), only six heretics were burned.

That's six too many, but bear in mind that in 1525 Luther published a tract urging people to "smite; slay, and stab" intransigent peasants, "secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or dev­ilish than a rebel." Calvin famously burned Servetus at the stake, and he also burned quite a few women as witches. Sixteenth-century ideas of justice were not the same as ours, and More was a man of his times.

If More was not a crazed executioner, neither was he the sadistic torturer portrayed in this novel. As Ackroyd argues, it is highly unlikely that he tied heretics to a tree in his garden and whipped them mercilessly, though this was the claim of some detractors. As for self-flagellation, Vantrease's descriptions make More sound like a sexual pervert, not an ascetic penitent following a discipline also practiced by men such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, and John Paul II.

Vantrease is a novelist, not a historian, and she's entitled to invent characters any way she likes. (Hilary Mantel, this year's Booker Prize winner with Wolf Hall, also depicts a thoroughly disagreeable Thomas More.) What Vantrease loses in her characterization of More, though, is any sense of why he might have behaved as he did, apart from his own moral flaws. Thomas More seriously believed that the church, England, and the world were teetering on the verge of hell. And for people living in the 16th century, hell was more real than London.

How can we, in our secular society, imagine More's fears? Think of Thomas More as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Think of Martin Luther as Osama bin Laden and William Tyndale as one of his agents. Think of all Protestants as terrorists, and think of the English Bible as a nuclear weapon. What would you expect More to do?

C.J. Sansom's four Tudor novels (which I reviewed here, here, and here) convey the chaos of the era and the suspicion, terror, and misdeeds that characterized all sides of the conflict - Roman Catholic, English Catholic, and Protestant. By contrast, The Heretic's Wife is a simple tale of good and evil in which pure-minded lovers of God and Scripture bravely combat bad doctrine, repression, and cruelty. It's propaganda, not history - but it's a good read.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

BFF - 50 years and counting

Kathy and LaVonne, c. 1961
As of today, Kathleen and I have been friends for 50 years.

Our mothers were close friends before we were born, but Kathy lived on the east coast and I lived on the west so we knew each other only through Christmas letters. We finally met on my 12th birthday, in Kathy's aunt's house, and we talked all afternoon.

We never stopped talking, though the topics keep changing.

Back then we talked about boys and parents and our impending move to Michigan - she from Washington, DC; me from California. We spent the next four years (grades 8 through 11, when we lived four houses apart on the same street) arguing about which coast was better, confiding about the boys we had crushes on, sharing books (which our strait-laced teachers sometimes confiscated), complaining about our unnecessarily restrictive parents, and dreaming about what we would do when we grew up.

Then I moved to France, California, Michigan, Washington state, and Illinois; while Kathy lived in Michigan, France, California, Indiana, and Maryland. Except for a few months in Michigan when we were in our 20s, we never lived in the same place again. But together we've toured vineyards in Napa Valley, shopped for curtains in Indiana, and groaned about loud American tourists in Oxford.

Over the years we've talked about boyfriends (several ) and husbands (one apiece), dogs (mine) and cats (hers), sex, food, wine, friends, and travel. We both left the conservative denomination of our youth and became Episcopalians. We both spent many years caring for aging parents. We consoled each other as our parents died.

Kathy and I don't get together all that often: she's back in DC, and I live near Chicago. After 46 years apart, our lives are quite different, and we don't know most of each other's friends. But we stay in touch through email and Facebook and telephone. Just yesterday, in fact, we discussed Social Security and buffalo mozzarella.

My granddaughters, who are older than Kathy and I were when we met, talk about their BFFs - best friends forever. Everyone should have at least one. Forever isn't nearly long enough.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

NO LONGER AT EASE by Chinua Achebe

Just about every list of great African novels includes Chinua Achebe’s 1958 classic, Things Fall Apart (see my review here). Achebe, a Nigerian by birth who now teaches at Brown University, wrote the novel when he was in his 20s. Two years later he published a follow-up novel, No Longer at Ease. The two books should be read together.

Both stories are tragedies: a good man comes to a bad end. His weakness combines with exterior circumstances to bring him down.

The first novel is about Okonkwo, an Ibo village leader around the turn of the 20th century when Britain was turning Nigeria into a colony. No Longer at Ease picks up the story two generations later in the mid 1950s, as Nigeria moves toward independence. Its protagonist is Okonkwo's grandson Obi.

Obi is the son of Isaac Okonkwo, who (in the first book) repudiated his father's ancestral traditions and converted to the colonists’ religion. A recent graduate of a British university, Obi no longer practices Christianity. His passion is for education, achievement, and moral rectitude. Obi wants to clean up Nigeria and, as he tells his friend Christopher, he knows how it should be done:
     "The civil service is corrupt because of these so-called experienced men at the top," said Obi.
     "You don't believe in experience? You think that a chap straight from university should be made a permanent secretary?"
     "I didn't say straight from the university, but even that would be better than filling our top posts with old men who have no intellectual foundations to support their experience."
     "What about the Land Officer jailed last year? He is straight from the university."
     "He is an exception," said Obi. "But take one of these old men. He probably left school thirty years ago in Standard Six. He has worked steadily to the top through bribery--an ordeal by bribery. To him the bribe is natural. He gave it and he expects it. Our people say that if you pay homage to the man on top, others will pay homage to you when it is your turn to be on top. Well, that is what the old men say."
     "What do the young men say, if I may ask?"
     "To most of them bribery is no problem. They come straight to the top without bribing anyone. It's not that they're necessarily better than others, it's simply that they can afford to be virtuous. But even that kind of virtue can become a habit."
Alas, as the reader knows from the very first chapter, Obi will run afoul of the law.

At first everything seems to be going his way. His Western education has qualified him for one of the coveted "European posts" - a senior-level government job usually reserved for white people. He lives in one of the better districts of Lagos. He has a car, a driver, a houseboy, and a woman he loves.

But Obi no longer belongs anywhere.

In many ways he is more like the colonizers than his countrymen. Having spent four years abroad, he sees his country with new eyes, and it looks shabby. He will not grease any palms. He will not allow the tribal council, his father, or ancient customs to dictate his behavior. He is independent and will make his own decisions about education, money, and whom to marry.

His Western leanings tend to isolate him from family and friends. Members of the Umuofia Progressive Union do not understand his clothing, his speaking style, his taste in food, and – especially – his intransigence when they object to his fiancée. His parents are hurt that he so readily flouts ancient traditions. Eventually Obi walks out on just about his entire support system.

And yet his British employers and associates do not see him as one of themselves (his boss has a visceral dislike for Africans). They do not help him get the practical information he needs to function in their society – information, for example, about insurance and taxes and cash advances.

In the end he is on his own, and no one - not the learned judge, not the British Council man, not even the Nigerian men of Umuofia – can understand why Obi would compromise his principles.

Achebe took the book's title from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Journey of the Magi." He quotes these lines in the epigraph:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
For all their faults, it is easy to identify with and even love Okonkwo and Obi. And for those of us who talk glibly of "culture wars," it is eye-opening to look through their eyes at a genuine clash of cultures, one whose repercussions are still being felt sixty years later.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Saving marriage

A longtime friend recently posted this as his Facebook status:
I really don't want to get into an acrimonious debate but I wonder if anyone, liberal or conservative, can calmly, and without inflamatory or deprectory language, explain to me why some people feel that same-sex marriage threatens or undermines heterosexual marriage?
Right after reading his question, I read an article by a conservative Christian leader who felt extremely threatened by the San Francisco federal court judge's ruling against Proposition 8. "The central institution of human civilization suffered a direct hit, and its future hangs in the balance," he wrote, but he offered no reasons for that belief that would persuade anyone who did not already agree with him. His reaction was typical in the conservative Christian blogosphere, and I figured my old friend was not likely to get a reasoned answer anytime soon.

But finally this morning comes an intelligent commentary in defense of traditional marriage: "The Marriage Ideal" by Ross Douthat, who is conservative, Republican, and Christian.

Douthat begins by demolishing the usual anti-gay-marriage arguments. He then offers his own description of what he calls "a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes":
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
He allows that this understanding of marriage has been on its way out for quite some time, having been replaced by "a less idealistic, more accommodating approach." "If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal," he concludes, "then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary."

Douthat is not happy about the fading of the older marital ideal. Still, I don't expect most conservative Christians to love his op-ed piece. While affirming the value of the traditional Jewish and Christian definition of marriage, he points out that this definition is not necessarily held by other religions, other cultures, or even many contemporary Jews and Christians.

One could argue that in a diverse, democratic society, the state's duty is to ensure that people of all religious traditions - as well as people with no religion at all - are left free to practice their own beliefs. While a religious group could marry or refuse to marry according to its doctrines, civil marriage should allow for varying traditions.

If the older marital ideal really is, as Douthat believes, "one of the great ideas of Western civilization," then churches who share his view would do better to stop fighting gay marriage and instead turn all their attention toward fostering lifelong fidelity among the already and about-to-be married. Marriage will not be saved by a legal definition. As Douthat points out, "the lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights."

If anything can save marriage - traditional or contemporary - it will be the witness of married couples - straight or gay - who are getting it right.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Clarification: What I meant to say about Missouri

When my previous post about Missouri's health-care insurance vote and obesity rates was re-posted on Sojourners' God's Politics blog, commenters told me I was "a little unfriendly," "insulting," "trashing obese people," and lacking compassion for the poor. Among other things.

I went back and reread my post, and I wish I hadn't used the word "fat." My "good luck, Missouri" remark was meant to be sarcastic, but not all readers saw it that way. I am sorry for my insensitivity and have made a few changes to the post.

In addition, I discovered that some important text had been inadvertently dropped. I would like to blame blogpost, but I suspect the fault was my own. The WSJ quote was missing, which meant much of the rest of the article made less sense. The stats on health-care costs were then wrongly attributed to the WSJ, whereas the report actually came from Trust for America's Health. I got it right in the first draft, but somehow the published article was incorrect. I have no idea what happened in the meantime. I have made more changes to the post to fix these errors.

Here's what I meant to say, with a few points of added clarification:

Every year, more and more Americans cross the line into obesity. Obese people, on average, have lots more health problems than normal-weight people. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be obese. (This is partly because the government subsidizes corn, which is turned into high-fructose corn syrup, which is especially prevalent in inexpensive junk food.) When health insurance is not mandatory - and subsidized for people who can't afford it - a lot of poor people suffer unnecessarily. They have more health problems than their richer neighbors, and unless they have Medicaid or health insurance, they have fewer resources for treating them.

I strongly believe America needs a mandatory, not-for-profit health system that provides basic health care for everyone in the country. I also strongly believe our agricultural policies have led to eating habits that are harming us all, but especially the poor. I found it ironic that last Wednesday's news included both Missouri's vote against mandatory health insurance and Missouri's joining the list of states with obesity rates of over 30%. I do not think either of those facts is going to be good for the poor.

And I would like to add a P.S. I am not putting down on obese people. I am not unaware of eating disorders (I wrote about my aunt's experience here). There are lots of theories out there about why Americans are getting heavier every year, and about why countries that adopt American eating habits are also getting heavier: some of them are probably right. But that's not my point. My point is this: we need to provide basic health care for everybody - especially since we appear to be getting less healthy every year.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Missouri's health-care dilemma

Yesterday, by a 3-to-1 margin, Missouri voters passed Proposition C: "No law or rule shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system."

From the New York Times:
“This really wasn’t an effort to poke the president in the eye,” said State Senator Jim Lembke, a Republican. “First and foremost, this was about defining the role of state government and the role of federal government."
On the same day that Missouri voted against mandatory health insurance, the Center for Disease Control released a study listing Missouri  among the most obese states in the union. From the Wall Street Journal:
Ten years ago, 28 states had obesity rates of below 20% of their adult population, the CDC report said. In the latest survey, Colorado is the only state, along with Washington, D.C., that fits that description. Also, no state had an obesity rate above 30% in 2000, whereas nine states are above that threshold today, the report said. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
Obesity is often a sign of ill health, and our country's increasing obesity rates go hand-in-hand with increasing medical costs. Here is some date from a report released last month from advocacy organization Trust for America's Health, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” page 107:
  • Obesity-related medical costs total $147 billion a year, or nearly 10 percent of all annual medical spending (based on 2006 data).
  • Of the $147 billion, Medicare and Medicaid are responsible for $61.8 billion. Medicare and Medicaid spending would be 8.5 percent and 11.8 percent lower, respectively, in the absence of obesity.
  • Obese people spend 42 percent more on health care costs than healthy-weight people.
 Ironically, when you compare obesity rates by state with how states voted in the 2008 presidential election, you discover that all nine states with over 30% obesity rates voted Republican. By contrast, eight of the nine states or districts with the lowest obesity rates (Colorado, District of Columbia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Oregon, Montana, New Jersey) voted Democratic. Does this mean that the states most likely to try to opt out of the federal health-care program are the states most likely to have high medical costs? And if so, what does that mean for those states' budgets - or the health of their residents?

This is no time for people in blue states to crow, however. Here's more grim news. The CDC report says that "in 2000, [alarmed by our nation's obesity rate of 19.8%,] a Healthy People 2010 objective was established to reduce the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States to 15%." Instead, we gained more weight. Lots more.

Not one state achieved the goal of a less-than-15% obesity rate by 2010. Whereas in 2000 28 states had an obesity rate of  less than 20%, in 2009 only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a rate that low. In 2000, no states had an obesity rate of more than 30%; in 2009, nine states do.

When all the states are put together, our average obesity rate is 26.7% - almost 7 percentage points higher (and about 27 million more people) than nine years earlier. And since weight and height were self-reported in the study, many analysts believe our true obesity rate is even higher than the study indicates (be honest now: is the weight on your driver's license entirely accurate?).

With or without federal insurance mandates, we are seriously weighing down our nation's health-care system. If Missouri successfully challenges parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act - and it may not, because federal courts are likely to disagree with their election results - then Missouri lawmakers had better start thinking about what to do with their citizens who are too rich for Medicaid but too poor, too optimistic, too negligent, or too stubborn to pay for health-care insurance.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

ZOO STORY: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French

I like zoos. Good ones, anyway. When our children were very small, we lived near the San Diego Zoo and went there nearly every week. We now live within visiting distance of the Brookfield Zoo, where we used to take our grandchildren and where we once celebrated our anniversary, and the Lincoln Park Zoo, which we haven't visited in too long a time (anyone for a trip to the zoo this weekend?). Until I read Zoo Story, though, I hadn't really given much thought to what goes on behind the scenes.

Thomas French was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times when he read Yann Martel's Life of Pi and decided he wanted to learn all about zoos. That was in 2003, just as four elephants from Swaziland were about to take up residence at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Zoo Story begins with the arrival of the elephants, now the zoo's most physically powerful creatures, and continues with Herman the chimpanzee and Enshalla the Sumatran tiger, king and queen of their own domains. No matter how strong, dominant, or popular they may be, however, all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the zoo are under the control of an even more powerful alpha male - Lex Salisbury, CEO, known to his employees as El Diablo Blanco.

Through fast-paced, absorbing stories, French depicts power struggles on many levels. Demonstrators from PETA and other animal rights groups oppose bringing in the elephants. Bamboo the chimp dethrones former alpha Herman. Enshalla refuses most suitors and outwits her keeper. An elephant tramples an employee. Zoo employees grumble about their tyrannical boss. Lex tangles with the mayor, the zoo board, and the press. Who knew that zoos were such hotbeds of dissent and intrigue?

Underlying the stories is an ethical question: should zoos even exist? Obviously zoos with small, dirty cages and scruffy, frightened animals should be revamped or closed. But what about zoos like Lowry Park that have created natural looking, cage-free environments, that attempt to breed endangered species, and that even return many of their animals to the wild after training them for independent living? And what makes anyone think that nature, "red in tooth and claw," is a better place for animals than a commodious zoo?

On the other hand, can large wild animals ever live normally in a confined area? Are endangered species, rather than being preserved, being domesticated to the point that they can no longer survive outside a sheltered environment? Do even the best zoos really care about animal welfare, or do they exist to make a profit?

French never answers these questions, but they preoccupy him right from the epigraph:

"I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces.
Religion faces the same problem.
Certain illusions about freedom plague them both."
--Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Zoo Story makes me want to spend a day at the zoo. It may make some readers want to shut the zoo down.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Understanding the immigration debate: the necessary context

If I hadn't just read Moving Millions, I might not have noticed how many of this morning's news stories relate to immigration.

Jeffrey Kaye, a freelance journalist and special correspondent for The PBS NewsHour, subtitled his book How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration. It's a book that goes way beyond what I'm used to reading in news stories or op-ed pieces about Arizona's new law. Kaye looks at immigration around the world, not just in America. He frequently puts today's stories in historical context. Most of all, he looks at business practices and government policies that either entice or drive people to leave their homes in search of a better life.

There's a lot of data in the book, and Publishers Weekly called it "a dense read." It isn't, really--Kaye injects enough stories and interviews to keep eyes from glazing over. If I sometimes found it hard going, it was because each chapter examines a different facet of immigration, and sometimes the evidence seems to lead to contradictory conclusions. In the final chapter Kaye ties things together and clearly states his own views, though he offers no policy recommendations. Since it majors on information, not advocacy, Moving Millions will probably appeal more to wonks than to activists.

But back to this morning's news stories, and how Kaye helped me understand them:
"Immigrant Maids Flee Lives of Abuse in Kuwait." Indentured servitude seems to be par for the course in some Middle Eastern countries where the elite have an obscenely luxurious lifestyle and immigrants, whose passports are confiscated so they can't run away, are forced to do all the work. Moving Millions includes a damning chapter about immigrants in Dubai.

"U.S. Official Boost Efforts to Protect Immigrant Crime Victims." Good enough - but why should immigrant laborers, whose work keeps our food prices low, need special visas in order to have basic human rights? Is it really necessary to be mugged in order to seek justice?

"Christiane Amanpour Takes On ABC News' 'This Week.'" Immigrants contribute to the American economy at all levels, as you've no doubt noticed if you've looked for a doctor lately. Amanpour, a British citizen, is the daughter of an Iranian named Mohammad and a British Christian. She is married to an American Jew and recently moved from London to New York.

"Border Deployment Will Take Weeks." Yup, and it's not going to accomplish anything except possibly help re-elect politicians who should know better. Fences and guns don't keep people out when businesses lure them in. And if businesses stop hiring illegal immigrants, expect the American cost of living to skyrocket.
Interestingly, some companies are trying to have it both ways. According to one Arizona politician quoted in the book, "Many of the companies that made a profit off the backs of migrant workers were the same companies donating money to anti-immigration proponents." See my April 29 post in which I suggest that many businesses want immigrants here, but they want them scared. They are so much easier to exploit when they're terrified of being sent home.