Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Thrones, Dominations" Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh

This is the next to last novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series and the first of the two completed by Jill Paton Walsh from notes left by Sayers after her death.  "A Presumption of Death", the final novel, finds Harriet Vane Wimsey raising three sons during WWII, while Lord Peter is mostly off on a secret foreign mission.  "Thrones" gives us the beginning of their marriage, so long delayed, now so completely fulfilling.  I intend to go back and re-read some of the earlier books, both to recapture my initial pleasure in them and to see how they compare--in style and in substance--to the co-authored ones.

I suppose all readers have fairly particular qualities they look for in the books they read; I know I do.  I love a novel that has intelligent, interesting characters--at least some of them, a plot that pulls me in and keeps surprising me, substantive ideas that make me think and/or see things in new ways, arcane information about lines of work (mining, ship-building, medicine, crime) and interesting subjects (archaeology,  diamond cutting, psychology, mountain climbing), and, most of important, because without it I read no further, good writing.  I lean toward domestic realism, small English country towns, the clash of cultures, and some love interest.

"Thrones, Dominations" pretty much fits the bill.  It's interesting to observe a marriage of equals, where both partners are highly intelligent and respect each other's gifts.  It's also interesting to watch as Harriet navigates her husband's upper class world, complete with long-time family servants and a snobby sister-in-law.  In English novels the clash of cultures often occurs within the broader English milieu and involves class.  A yeoman farmer might feel as alien in a lord's drawing room as a Tahitian at an American southern barbecue.  Harriet refuses to be cowed, and we admire her for her resolve, especially her determination to keep writing mystery novels despite her new role as a married woman.  In pre-war England (and America) a woman was expected to give up working when she married, unless she was a servant or a laborer.  I will have more to say about the role of class in the novel shortly.

In Chapter 9, there is a fascinating discussion between Harriet and Peter about fiction in general and the mystery novel in particular.

Harriet says, "Things have to be connected or the reader would not believe them."

"It's odd, that, isn't it?" said Peter.  "If unconnected and spur-of-the moment things keep happening in the real world, why shouldn't they be plausible in novels?"...."But in real life random things occur, and there may actually be no plot, in that sense of the word."

"I think a novel has to deal in a different kind of truth," said Harriet.

At a different point in the novel, Harriet explains that a mystery has to be about a murder, not a robbery, a forgery, or the like.  It has to involve life and death: two lives, two deaths.  Because in England at this time the penalty for 1st degree murder was hanging.  A Lord Peter mystery may be arch and amusing, but serious matters are at stake.  I enjoyed seeing this kind of literary discussion woven into the fabric of the novel.  It lifts it above the level of the run-of-the-mill who-dunnit.

Front and center, of course, is the matter of class and decorum.  This is perhaps what is most difficult for Americans to understand, let alone sympathize with.  Lord Peter is the second son of an earl.  He won't inherit the estate and title, but he occupies a very high place in society indeed.  He does not work for a living, only out of a sense of duty (in the foreign service) or for fun (solving crimes).  He has all the tics of his class--the clipped accent, the precious locutions--and it is fun to see Harriet parry them with her own middle-class common sense.  These two are beyond class, at least with each other, which shows it's possible if one has sufficient courage to shrug off others' expectations.

When I was a freshman in college, my composition professor told the class that the great subject of literature is the war between men and women.  "And I do mean it's a war," he said.  I don't want to agree with him completely, but there is some truth in that he said.  Harriet and Peter are aware of this eternal tension as well, and it makes their marriage more interesting.

A silly woman has been murdered, and Harriet says, "...I want to see the stupid woman avenged!"

"A woman, however stupid, being on your side?" [says Peter]

"In what conflict, Peter?  Are men and women at war?"

"We are not," he said.  "At least WE are not."

"No, indeed," she said.  "I think what I meant was that I wanted to see the weak protected against the strong, and stupidity is a form of weakness."

"A potentially lethal form," he said.  "Nothing is weaker than a murdered corpse..."

All too often, when it comes to love, weakness is the silent partner in a game played with power as an opponent.  Peter remarks on the long years he wooed Harriet to no avail, and she acknowledges her reluctance to admit she needs him.

"That was my fault.  All that peacocking and manoeuvring.  I was overbearing; trying to win you by overpowering your resistance.  Every attempt I made made it harder for you to accept me, because acceptance would have been surrender.  In my own defence all I can say is that I eventually realised that I could not win a free spirit like yours in such a way."

Harriet describes the war between men and women as a game, even if it is not their game.  Women put up a show of reluctance.  The man is enflamed by her resistance and "storms the citadel."  She gives in from "pity or love or mercy for his need and must be paid in gratitude.  It's a dangerous game; it contaminates love with power."

Perhaps even more interesting is the relationship between Lord Peter and his man-servant Bunter.  They are very much master and man, and they would never think of crossing the line with each other, yet there is genuine love between them--real friendship that rivals even familial ties.  How can this be?  How can two men from such unequal backgrounds, with such divergent lives and opportunities, where one almost literally controls the other, possibly find a common ground upon which to meet as friends.  And yet they do.  At least in the novel.  Although she never says so explicitly, I believe Sayers is a subversive when it comes to upholding the class system.  Her heroine is a self-made, professional woman with a mind that is very much her own.  She makes it possible for Bunter to marry--with dignity--by arranging to have the stables done over into a cozy apartment for the newlyweds.  She befriends Bunter's wife in a way that makes it clear she considers this servant's wife an equal.  It is Harriet who shows up the class system for what it is: an unfair categorization of people based not on merit but on circumstances of birth. 

One shouldn't sneer at the English for their traditions, nor even for some of their prejudices.  They come by them honestly.  Whiffs of the feudal system still linger in their air.  Americans never had anything like English history to shrug off.  Before we feel too smug about our supposedly classless society, let us remember we have our own problematic history to reckon with.  "Thrones, Dominations" may be a satire on the upper class, but it is not a screed.  Only Peter's older sister is genuinely unpleasant, but she isn't dangerous.  Peter's older brother may be the heir, but he's a bit of a buffoon.  Peter, who embodies every upper-class mannerism, is nevertheless entirely fair and genuinely concerned about others' welfare.  It is clear that Sayers likes him very much; she may make light of his oversights from time to time, but she never scorns him.

There are plenty of other readers who have read and studied Dorothy Sayers more than I, so I shall not presume to offer a well-developed analysis.  I enjoyed the book and would recommend it, though even now many of the details are fuzzy.  The plot is the first thing I forget about a novel I have read, and it doesn't take long for this to happen.  But in mysteries it's never the crime that interests me; it's the reactions and relations among the characters that stand out.  Best of all, though, is when an author says something true about life that seems both original and familiar.  Harriet's and Lord Peter's discussions of art and love do both.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to Live, How to Grow: Tentative Answers

"Find a job you love, and you'll never work again."--Winston Churchill

"I never worked a day in my life."--my dad

Here is something I've thought a lot about: How should I live my life?  Some follow the precepts of a religious faith, others social conventions or family expectations.  Of course, some people never think about this at all and simply go wherever the wind blows them.  But ever since I was a young teenager, I have consciously been trying to answer this question for myself.  It hasn't always been easy.

The other day I read a review of a new book in the NY Times: "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua.  Ms. Chua is a Harvard law professor, is married to a Harvard law professor,  and is the mother of two teenage daughters.  The girls have been denied many of the normal activities of the American teenager--sleep-overs and the like--in order to devote more time to academics.  Ms. Chua, following in her Chinese parents' footsteps, has raised her girls to be successful, obedient, focused.  When one of the children was quite young, her mother threatened to cut off the head of her teddy bear unless the played a certain piano piece perfectly.  By bedtime the little girl had managed to please her mother and toyicide was averted.  Not until the younger daughter was thirteen and rebelled--loudly and in public--did her mother reconsider her approach to child rearing.  Ms. Chua had never listened to her American husband's pleas for her to let up sometimes; she just knew her way would lead to successful adulthoods for her girls, and that, after all, was what life was for.  Success--academic, financial, social.  All that takes hard work and sacrifice, but the end result is well worth it--at least in Ms. Chua's view.

I haven't read "Tiger Mother," but this review got me thinking.  I can't generalize about everybody.  Each life is unique, and everyone has to figure things out for him/herself.  But in addition to the question, "How should I live?", another equally important question for me is "Whom should I live for?". 

I remember my mother saying once, when I was a surly teenager, "You don't fly in the face of convention."  My mother had lots of sayings like that.  I like pithy sentences that encapsulate rules-to-live-by.  "Waste not, want not."  "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."  "He who loses his temper loses the argument."  There is wisdom here.  But when my mother told me not to go against mainstream social expectations, I said silently to myself, "Watch me."

When I was in college, I had a sorority sister (Yes, I was in a sorority.  I did TRY to follow the mores of my time and place, at least sometimes.) who was headed to med. school.  She studied all the time, and I mean ALL the time.  The Saturday evening of our spring dance, she and her boyfriend closeted themselves with their books.  They never let up.  I admired her, I suppose, but I basically thought she went a bit overboard.  I've known more than a few people, many of them friends, who have been successful all their lives, for whom studying hard was a given, even if for a course that seemed boring or irrelevant to their interests.  I've always worried that I'm selfish with my time and energies.  I agree with Aristotle that one of life's aims, perhaps the principle one, is to avoid boredom.  Next to snakes, I probably fear boredom more than anything.  Exhausting yourself simply to please others or to fulfill someone else's dreams seems to me like giving up an important part of your own life.  Many years ago, when I was a high school teacher, I had a student who told the class his father had hated every day he went to work.  He'd spent twenty years of his life an unhappy man.  I wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

It's a lucky person who has a passion, be it playing an instrument, running a marathon, or breeding bulldogs.  My passion is reading.  I still find it peculiar every time I hear of a school principal volunteering to eat worms if his students will read X number of books.  (True story.)  Why anyone, even a kid, should have to be coerced or cajoled into reading is beyond me.  I am lucky to have been around books all my life.  My life would be an empty desert without them.  One of my deepest fears--and I say it now for the first time--is that I will go blind and be unable to read.  I don't like being read to, and listening to books on tape is not real reading.  So when I was in college, and in graduate school for that matter, I read a lot, not just my assigned reading but always something on the side as well.  Something just for me.  I can always find time for "selfish" reading, even if it's just ten minutes over breakfast.  I've read a lot of very fat novels over tea and an English muffin or standing in line at the DMV.  This is probably why I was a decent student but not an outstanding one. 

Fortunately my parents (both teachers) didn't seem to care.  I wasn't pushed.  In fact, one of my favorite memories of my dad was the time I got a D (oh, the truth comes out now!) in a college French course.  I was planning to major in French, so this was a something of a setback.  My father taught at the same school.  In those days grades were sent home to parents, so I knew it wouldn't be long before my failure came to light.  I decided to get the worst over with and went to my dad's office.  I had a knot in my stomach and was afraid I might cry.  I hated to cry in front of my parents; I thought it made me appear immature and weak.  I hated not being in control of my emotions.  I told Dad what had happened, knowing he would be especially disappointed as it was he who had encouraged me to major in French in the first place.  Here is what he said: "Everyone ought to get at least one D just to know what it feels like."  I will never forget that moment.  I knew that, whatever else, he was on my side.


  I have always believed that teachers are born, not made.  This is not to say that education is irrelevant or that teachers don't need to learn a very great deal before they stand in front of a classroom.  But I know I have never done anything professionally as rewarding as teaching.   For me, there was really never anything else, though it took a while to figure out what level I was best with and even longer to grow into a mature teacher with enough confidence to do things my own way.  I came to love my students even more than my subject, English literature.  I wanted to give them confidence in themselves, to encourage their independence, to demonstrate my own passion for literature in hopes they might want some of my obvious pleasure for themselves.  I believed it was more important to connect with them than to assert my authority over them.  I wanted them to follow me of their own volition because I had something they wanted.  If I could have taught without giving grades, I would have been delighted.  You do not slap a grade on a meaningful conversation; there is no need to quantify an experience that moves you.  I wanted to have conversations with my students, grounded in the literature under discussion, that went both ways and touched on real life, that answered in some fashion questions about how we should live.  I wanted to leave my classes feeling I had grown intellectually and emotionally because of what transpired between my students and myself.  I wanted to feel we were all part of a community that wanted the best for each of its members.  By the time I retired I believe I had found that.  I am grateful beyond words for my life in teaching.  If I were rich, I would have done it for nothing.

Just as there is more than one way to be an effective and loving parent, so too there are many ways to teach.  But it's not just a matter of following the right protocols, measuring input and output, or completing the syllabus.  It is about lighting fires, and that very much depends upon the personality of the teacher--and the student.  Good teaching is about relationships, about mutual affection and respect.  The indefinable quality that makes for a good teacher cannot be measured.  You know it when you see it.  That is why I believe the current emphasis on "assessment" is a cop out, a way of rewarding the mediocre (who fill out forms to perfection) and choking off the air of those who would ignite the imagination and passion of their students. 

Young children are thirsty for love and for information.  Curiosity is innate, and its cognate is love.  Just as love is essential between parent and child, so too love is important between teacher and student.  If your first-grader loves his teacher, chances are good that he will learn as much as he can.  Parents love their children even when they sink into adolescent angst.  Sadly, this is just when teachers often begin to separate themselves from their students' emotional lives.  First graders and eighth graders need very different things, but both need love to flourish.  I was a teacher, but I never for a moment considered teaching the very young, and when I taught adolescents I knew it was a bad match.  I loved my own children at those ages, but I certainly wasn't drawn to kids who weren't my own, or only rarely.  I do love young adults however, and that is where I found my niche.  Many professors avoid freshman classes like the plague.  A recent study has shown that college students don't learn all that much in their freshman and sophomore years.  Questions are being raised about how and why colleges are failing.  In my view, they are failing because many professors don't love their students.

My mother taught junior high, what we now call middle school.  I found eighth graders to be quite insane and hard to tolerate.  They are like puppies that might have been cute once but haven't grown out of the biting and chewing stage, only now their teeth are sharp.  My mother was a wonderful teacher, beloved by her students.  And she loved them; bright or slow, privileged or poor, she sympathized with their awkwardness and insecurity.  She once told me that the only way to be a good teacher was to love your students.  That may be the most important single piece of advice anyone ever gave me. 

I sympathize with freshmen, who may be away from home for the first time, who are used to succeeding but are now afraid they won't make it in college, who are ready to fall in love.  My heart goes out to all of them.  If they seem lazy or indifferent, it may be because their life is a mess.  Anger or rejection is not the correct response.  Sophomores are different.  A lot has been sorted out, friendships made, routines established.  I have found this to be the year when students are most intellectually alive.  They have discovered, if they are lucky, that there is a lot of fascinating stuff they'd had no idea about or they have found they can now see familiar things in exciting new ways.  They have not become jaded, cynical about the institution of higher learning, burned out, or increasingly anxious about what comes next.  A lot is going on in their heads; they are at the beginning of genuine maturity.  And the beginnings of things are always revelatory.  I love being there to watch them bloom, knowing that the shy, bumbling freshman of today will be a poised senior with even a bit of gravitas four years hence.

It's a matter of development, as well as good study habits or challenging courses.  Most students will write better as seniors than as freshmen, whether they take freshman comp. or not.  They will grow in wisdom as they get older, just as I hope to do.  Small children want to please their parents; so too students want to please a teacher they are fond of and who they feel cares about them.  Not all professors feel as I do, and that's OK.  By the time they're in college, students should be responsible for themselves, whether they like their professor or not.  Graduate students appreciate their professor's approval, but it probably doesn't make them work any harder.  That is why I love freshmen and sophomores.  They are old enough to know what adult love is (whether they've experienced it yet or not), so they are ready to identify with the world's greatest literature.  They inhabit a new world where anything can happen.   

Friday, January 14, 2011

Birthdays Then and Now

Tomorrow it will be exactly 49 years since I spent my sixteenth birthday in Kabul, Afghanistan.  If 16 is the beginning of adulthood, then I have spent my entire time as an adult remembering the place where I became the person I am today.

The first thing you notice as you step off the plane is the smell, a pungent, eye-watering mix of smoke, dust, sweat, and animal urine, including the human kind.  It hits you like a wall.  You will never stop noticing it, but you will eventually get used to it.  You'd better, as there is no escaping it.

Memory, at least for me, is like a string of beads, with each bead a snapshot or a vignette that I wear as a souvenir of my life.  Here are a few I have kept from Afghanistan.

Week One: We, my parents and I, move into a one-storey house, constructed of some indefinable material that resembles cement and smells like wet clay.  It stands inside a compound, protected by high stone walls that enclose a garden filled with spindly trees and a profusion of hollyhocks.  This seems like an oasis in comparison to the monochromatic,  dusty street outside.  The first night, as I lie in my narrow bed, I hear rats scurrying around in the ceiling above me.

Week Two: We have been embraced by the other Americans living here as though we were long-lost relatives.  Eve, the wife of the director of the agency my dad works for, convinces my mother to bring me along on a VW bus trip to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan in northern Afghanistan, not far from the Russian border.  With my dad's encouragement, we board one of two buses, settle in behind our Afghan driver, and leave Kabul behind.  We are a motley group that includes the ever-enthusiastic Eve, an older couple who seem to be seasoned travelers, and a young woman traveling alone.  She is almost as quiet as I am and keeps pretty much to herself.  I learn later that she has a brain tumor.

Afghanistan, with its barren mountains, welcome streams lined with more of those spindly trees, and occasional mud-walled villages, is Biblical.  We pass camel trains headed for Kabul with their loads of firewood, grapes, or melons.  Quite frequently our road is blocked by herds of fat-tailed sheep.  Their wool is used to make the ubiquitous carakul hats worn by the men (Hamid Karzai wears one today), their meat provides a major source of the Afghan diet's protein, and the fat rendered from their basketball-shaped tails is burned along with their dung in the table-sized stoves that provide both cooking surfaces and heat for Afghan homes.  During the winter months, whole families sleep on rugs atop these stoves or sit around it with their feet next to the burning embers.

Our little caravan includes both men and women.  I point this out because we quickly discover that Afghanistan has no public restrooms.  Maybe it has no restrooms at all.  One of the things I have already learned is to keep my eyes above waist level so as not to look directly at men squatting in a ditch beside the street while they shit, pee, and blow snot with their fingers.  When we stop to relieve ourselves, the men go to one side of the road, the women to the other.  I search fruitlessly for a hill, be it ever so small, to hide behind, but I never find one that offers much privacy.  Thank goodness the men and women keep their backs turned to each other.

I am grateful for many things in my life, and one of the most memorable has to be seeing the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.  I don't know the entire history, but many centuries ago there must have been Buddhists in this now Muslim land, enough to devote the time and labor it would have taken to carve these huge figures out of Bamiyan's rock cliffs.  They are not free-standing but are held fast by great slabs of red rock, lined up like palace guards, gazing out across the fields, the river, and the brown vastness with unseeing eyes.  Were these monuments in Scotland, say, or Germany, or even other parts of Asia, they would undoubtedly be popular tourist attractions, like Stonehenge or Angkor Wat.  As it is, they stand like Ozymandias, nearly forgotten relics of a lost time.  They will only become more widely known when the radical Islamists of the Taliban destroy them in a frenzy of cultural cleansing.

Everyone these days is aware of "culture shock."  With so many world travelers, students studying abroad, and immigrants, the onslaught of loneliness, homesickness, and alienation has become familiar, to be expected like jet lag.  I did not know that culture shock could literally make you sick. 
It started for us when my mother threw up.  It may sound strange, but I had never seen her incommoded in this way before.  I was as shocked by her vomit as if I'd seen her naked.  My mother was a woman of grace and dignity, qualities impossible to maintain in the midst of retching.  I'm afraid I was more embarrassed than solicitous.

We spent a memorable night in some sort of inn, or maybe it was someone's house.  The details have become fuzzy.  What I do remember, however, is the terror I felt when the police entered our bedroom and asked for our passports.  We had been strongly cautioned NEVER to turn over our passports to anyone.  Eager Eve whispered to us to pretend to be asleep.  I lay unmoving beneath a scratchy quilt while she waved her arms and shouted at a young officer who was clearly out of his depth.  He may have been intimidated by Eve, but I knew he had the power to arrest us, lock us up, make our lives miserable.  When he finally left, I felt as exhausted as if I had been hauling bricks.  The exhaustion didn't lift as we began the return trip to Kabul.  I was beyond tired, in a state of semi-consciousness that made the rest of the world seem as if it were at the far end of a long tunnel.  I stopped talking and sank into myself; I tried not to move, and when we stopped for the night I fell into bed as if tumbling into a pit.  I have never again experienced anything remotely like those days of radical disconnection.  I wasn't aware that I was suffering; I only knew that I wanted to be left alone inside my own head.  I have always imagined that those ravaged, shocked people whose photos we see in reports about starving Sudanese or refugees in crowded, filthy camps must feel something akin to what I felt.  I had stopped caring, stopped trying, stopped thinking.  There was no fear, no pain, only the desire to be left absolutely alone.  I have since wondered if this is the way you feel just before you die.

To be continued.

More for the Book List

I have always adored Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry for their wit, intelligence, and insight into the human scene, so when I saw that Mr. Laurie had written a novel, I had to read it.  Yes, "The Gunseller" is droll, filled with arcane information about the global, illegal gun trade, and astute, especially on the male psyche when confronted with a pretty woman.  This is not great literature, nor is it exactly a crime drama, though there are crimes aplenty.  The protagonist/narrator has a quip for every occasion.  Laurie can make murder funny.  As I read the book, I kept having to remind myself of the seriousness of the book's subject.  It will never replace "War and Peace," but if you enjoy British wordplay, vivid characters, and a tangled plot, you will like this novel.

I had never heard of Susan Hill until a friend loaned (lent?) me "Howard's End is on the Landing," a memoir cum booklist that Ms. Hill compiled during a year of "reading from home."  For a year, she purchased no new books, instead returning to her own copiously filled bookshelves for books as yet unread, as well as old favorites.  Susan Hill is a few years older than I, but we are of the same generation.  We share the same cultural and literary references and a very similar approach to literature, though she is English and I am American.  She loves books the way I do, so as I read her comments about books and authors she knew or has met, I felt I was in the presence of a kindred spirit.  I learned about writers hitherto unknown to me who I will now certainly track down and read, and I read with delight her accounts of the Sitwells, T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. P. Snow and his wife Pamela Hansford Johnson (am I the only person on this side of the pond who has read them?), Iris Murdoch, and the list goes on.  Hill is herself a novelist, and I already have one of her novels in my pile of books to read.  I am grateful to her for introducing me to some new (to me) writers and for her judgments about books I too have read.  We do not agree on everything though.  She dismisses Australian and Canadian literature, even though she does mention Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.  I love them; she doesn't.  She is a Christian and includes the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer on her list of 40 essential books.  She appreciates the silence of the cloister and writers who have found refuge in monastic life.  I guess I feel about that the way she feels about Canada: I'd rather not go there.  This is a gem of a book that has short chapters and is easy to read.  Only occasionally did I stumble; she has an authorial "tic" whereby she repeats phrases for emphasis and it becomes annoying.  (I have spent a few minutes searching for an example and found none, but I'd say there are at least half a dozen of these constructions in the book, enough to leap off the page and eventually lose their punch.)  Now I am ready to get down to business and read through (much of) her list myself.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Jaw, jaw" better than "war, war"

There are days when I wish everyone would just shut up.

I concede that is too much to hope for, so I might as well add my words to the rhetorical tsunami overtaking our country.  After all, so long as we're still talking and not seeing fisticuffs on the floor of the Senate, I guess there's still some hope that political violence can be avoided.  I know that when I see a foreign governmental body erupt in shoving and hitting I want to laugh--but not for long.  If it can happen in (help me out here--I know I've seen televised footage of such activities, but I can't remember where they occurred)_______, it can happen here.  We are not immune.

Let me state categorically that I do not believe Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, or even Sarah Palin is responsible for Rep. Giffords' shooting, so let's take that out of the equation, as Jon Stewart did.  I do, however, hold the Right responsible for the inflammatory speech and abandonment of logic that has us all so stirred up.  Here's what worries me: a growing segment of our population feels betrayed and marginalized--for good reason.  I see too many parallels with post-Weimar Germany, when the German economy failed, and the middle and lower classes rose up to support Hitler.  I'm not saying Glen Beck is Hitler; what I am arguing is that a restive middle class (lower middle class) does not bode well for the future.  Hitler was able to articulate the people's anger, provide an explanation for their situation that absolved them of responsibilty, and reinstate national pride.  Anger, blame, hubris.  How many times have we heard politicians (from both camps) and talking heads say the people are right to be angry?  How many times have we blamed the Chinese or the Europeans or the Mexicans for our problems?  How many times have we heard that America is, and ought to be, the best country in the world and a beacon to the rest of humanity?  Our political discourse has morphed into a moral debate in which the Right demonizes the Left.  OK, so there's Keith Olbermann.  I bet most Tea Partiers don't even know who he is.  But EVERYONE knows Glen and Rush and the divine Ms. P.  Both sides are not equally guilty.

Instead of arguing about whose rhetoric is more inflammatory (I've already given my opinion on that), why can't we debate POLICY?  Let's assume the Right gets what they want: the status quo ante for health care, the expulsion of undocumented immigrants from Latin America, increased Presidential power (provided the President is Republican).  What would be the results?  Insurance companies would make even more money and have even more say in what kind of care people get--what else is all that paperwork for?  Millions would slip between the cracks and live with anxiety and the real prospect of financial ruin.  The low-level jobs that provide a foundation for our standard of living would disappear.  Congress would become increasingly irrelevant, a place where people shout at each other (or the TV camera) while the President assumes more and more control, as we saw with Mr. Bush.

Obama is not trying to accrue more personal power.  More than any President in my long memory he has been conciliatory and open to discussion.  It is the Right that has stone-walled.  He is desperately trying to keep America a civil nation.  It remains to be seen how effective he will be in this endeavor.  What is apparent is the push (from the Right) to adopt more and more laws restricting this or that behavior.  The Right calls for free speech, until one of its own is challenged.  The Right wants a free-for-all of guns in the mistaken idea that regulation is the same thing as strangulation.  The Right demands that everyone abide by their definition of marriage, even if it denies the individual's right to choose his or her own life path.  They say, "Don't mess with ME," then turn around and say, "Here's what YOU have to do."

The danger of violence is real.  Some of us remember the 'sixties, when civility all too often turned into carnage, and there was plenty of blame to go around.  Crosses were burned in the yards of black people, Southern sheriffs brutalized law-abiding citizens, innocent people were killed and injured by Left-wing fanatics, and heiresses were kidnapped.   When words fail, bullets follow.  That is why it is essential that we keep talking, no matter how tiresome it may seem.  We also need a crash course in logic and logical fallacies.  Glen Beck's arguments by analogy are worth no more than the chalk he illustrates them with.  Reasonable limits on gun ownership are not a slippery slope on the way toward emasculation.  Fairness, not religious doctrine, should be our guide.  I, for one, will listen to an argument that is well-reasoned, supported by evidence, and presented in a respectful tone.  When slogans substitute for substance--"Don't retreat, reload!"--I not only stop listening; I get angry too, and I don't like the way that feels.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Whither Obama

Like many progressives these days, I am disappointed that President Obama hasn't put the Republicans in a half-Nelson and wrestled them to the ground.  I have my own ideas about why this has happened--or not happened.  If only we had faced the mundane problems that any nation faces, I believe Obama would have proved to be a good President, with the potential of becoming a great one.  Sadly, too much went wrong: the disastrous economy, the oil spill, the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Had he even been able to focus on just one of these, things might be quite different, but he faced a trifecta of catastrophes. 

But the problem is not simply the bad luck of unfortunate events.  Obama's real "problem" is that he's too nice, too reasonable, and finally too conciliatory.  In most circumstances these would be admirable qualities, but a President needs to be more of a Bobby Knight and less of a cheerleader.  I cringe whenever I hear him say, "I am responsible...."  For a less-than-perfect oil clean-up, for wars he didn't start, for an economy he didn't create.  When Harry Truman said, "The buck stops with me," he was being fiesty.  When FDR said, "I welcome their [Republicans'] their hate," he was not cowering in fear of "mis-speaking" or shilly-shallying.  Obama seems to want to follow in those stalwart's footsteps, but his feet aren't quite big enough. 

I desperately hate to say this, but I fear that race may be an issue here.  I have no doubt that Obama is capable of strong speech and a calculated show of temper, but I sense his reluctance to be perceived as anything other than a reasonable black man who is non-threatening.  I am thrilled we have a black President.  Michelle Obama is right to be proud of America for that reason, if not for that reason alone.  But the President seems to be trying too hard to be the Sidney Poitier of politics.  He's the "guess who's coming to dinner" black man who is so perfect no one can fault him, at least not for his manners.  I appreciate his desire to set the tone in Washington, to make a space for reasoned discourse and respectful disagreement.  Unfortunately, his enemies refuse to play that game.  These Republican bullies, like bullies everywhere, zero in on the nice kid in the class.  And the sad thing is, the bullies often win.  I wish it were otherwise; I wish intelligence, morality, and compassion came out on top every time, but the truth is, bullies usually get away with it.  It saddens me to think that our first black President may be seen as one of our weakest, not because he is a weak man, but because he is a nice one.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolution #1: Books I Have Read

I wish I'd started this years ago, but better late than never.  This year I resolve to keep a list of all the books I read, along with a bit of commentary to help me remember them, as I tend to forget one book as soon as I pick up the next. 

The following are actually books I read in December, 2010, but I figure they give me a running start.

"A Summer of Hummingbirds" by Christopher Benfey.  Emily Dickinson,  Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the artist Martin Johnson Heade were all caught up in the 19th c. hummingbird craze.  This book details the small literary and artistic world these figures inhabited and explains why hummingbirds were so important to each of them.  I'd never heard of Heade before, but the others are, of course, very familiar.  This book is a pleasure, not because it provides deep analysis, but because it presents novel information and fresh interpretations of old favorites.

"A Presumption of Death" by Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy Sayers.  Jill Walsh took notes left by Dorothy Sayers after Sayers' death and put them in a novel set during World War II.  Lord Peter is off on a secret mission, while Harriet Vane, his lady-wife, copes with wartime privations and anxieties with her two young sons at Talboys.  This is one of those closed-community mysteries, where suspects are limited to a discrete number of individuals.  I never read mysteries for the plot and don't really care "who-done-it".  What I relish is the atmosphere and the psychology of the characters.  This book describes wartime England, bringing to life a time just before my own birth.  It gives me a glimpse into the world as my parents must have known it, when victory against Hitler was anything but certain, and ordinary people often rose to heroic heights.

"The Birthday Present" by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell).  This "birthday present" is not your typical necktie or diamond bracelet.  It is, in fact, a kidnapping with erotic overtones.  It concerns the contemporary English middle class and pits "normal" family life against something a bit more decadent.  Vine/Rendell never shies away from sensational material, but her style is so down-to-earth her books never seem truly salacious.  Her characters, at least some of them, tend to go to extremes, showing by contrast the fragility of what most would call normal.

"The Naming of the Dead" by Ian Rankin.  I love Rankin's detective John Rebus.  He is sixty-something in this book, overweight, out of shape, with a bit of a drinking problem.  Imperfect in a word.  But he is clever, dogged, and willing to break rules if that will produce results.  His integrity is impeccable, and he is loyal to his friends.  Maybe it sounds perverse, but I enjoy watching the parallel tracks of the soon-to-be-retired detective: his uncanny ability to see beyond the obvious and his shambolic life.  Two brothers have died, one Rebus's, and the novel is about grief, regret, and the bonds of family, as well as murder most foul and corruption at both the local and the global levels.  The action takes place against the backdrop of the G8 conference of world leaders in Edinburgh, Scotland.  George W. Bush makes a brief appearance when he tumbles off a bicycle and scrapes his knuckles.  And Tony Blair flies in and out, trying to be everywhere at once.  The Iraq war figures in, and the restoration of order that we expect from mystery novels is no guarantee that the world will have the same kind of resolution.

"The Collected Stories" by Mavis Gallant.  Like many Canadian authors, Mavis Gallant has not achieved the recognition she deserves.  Or perhaps it would be more correct to say she is a writer's writer.  I would put her in the same company as William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore--masters of the short story all.  Gallant is Canadian, but most of her stories take place in Europe or, most often, Paris or provincial France.  I would not read a Gallant story for a neat plot or a clever ending.   I do read her for her atmosphere and her study of broken or wounded characters.  As Lionel Trilling put it, "The world's great literature was not created by a bunch of happy chuckleheads."  Mavis Gallant is rather melancholy, which is perhaps why she appeals to me and my somewhat morbid sensibility.  Unlike Rankin's novel that brings recent world events into focus as a backdrop to its action, Gallant's stories are internal.  Lives unfold beneath the shadows of disappointment and failure.  For some reason, this appeals to me, not because I am sad but because I know that many are, and my sympathies are engaged.  Some lives are blighted; that's a fact.  One of the graces of literature is its finding beauty even in the dark.

"Here's Looking at Euclid" by Alex Bellos.  This book was something of a departure for me.  I usually stick to fiction, history, or biography; "Euclid" is all about mathematics, a subject I avoid whenever possible.  This book won me over right from the start.  It's not about solving problems, and it doesn't ask questions whose answers may be obvious to others but are totally opaque to me.  It didn't make me feel embarrassed by my lack of math skills, which I have been ever since my parents were first called in for a teacher conference when I was in third grade.  Bellos's unique book is a compendium of interesting facts about the origins of numbers, the remarkable things that math can do--whether it be in the form of puzzles or the formulation of technological wonders--and a plethora of mind-blowing information about infinities.  Yes, plural.  He discusses some of the great mathematicians, past and present, from Pythagoras to Euler, as well as "lightning calculators" (those individuals who can compute with huge numbers in their heads in a matter of seconds).  I am no better at solving math problems (beyond simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) than I was before, but I now have a much greater understanding of the appeal of math.  Math is not magic, but this book makes it seem magical.  It contains a world of wonders.