Friday, December 31, 2010

The Horse Boy

The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son
Rupert Isaacson (2009, Little, Brown and Company )

Rupert Isaacson is a travel writer; he met his wife in southern India (he’s British, she’s from California) and has traveled all over the world; he has close friends among the Kalahari Bushmen. He’s also a horseman who, as a young man, trained horses for a living. So when he and his wife, Kristin, had a son, he had high hopes of sharing a life of adventure with Rowan.
What he didn’t count on was Rowan being severely autistic. At five, he was not toilet trained, and he threw tantrums all day long; his parents had not been out together in years, because not even the most devoted grandmother could handle him safely.
Distant as he was from people, Rowan loved animals, and he made a deep connection with a neighbor’s horse, Betsy. She was unusually careful and patient with him; on Betsy’s back, Rowan was calm, and verbal, more than he ever was at home. The only other time he achieved that level of peacefulness was at a gathering of native healers, when Rupert’s African friends were on a visit to the US.
As Rupert and Kristin watched Rowan grow, and worried about how to get treatment for him, Rupert conceived a strange and powerful notion that Rowan needed to go where he could be treated by shamans, in a horse culture. Rupert made up his mind to take his son--who was difficult to take to the grocery store--to Mongolia, and thence to the border of Siberia, to see the shamans of the reindeer people. Kristin was understandably daunted by this prospect, but as Rupert raised the money (by getting an advance on this book) and signed up a video crew of three, the trip took on a reality for the whole family.
The Isaacsons didn’t really know what to expect from the journey; they were working out of Rupert’s deep, strong intuition. What actually happened was astonishing: Rowan made his first friend, lost toys without having hysterics, and (perhaps most thrilling for his parents) gained control of his bowels. He has not been cured, but he is healed.
I would dearly love to know more about the mechanics of Rowan’s transformation. Was it the hours on horseback in his father’s arms, the hours in the tent with his mother singing to him, some language in the touch of the shamans? The question is well beyond science, in its modern, techno-experimental sense--you can’t put an MRI on a moving horse, and you can’t send a hundred randomly chosen children to outer Mongolia, to see how many of them come back talking. That kind of science depends on reducible, reproducible events, and Rowan Isaacson is one of a kind.
To his credit, Rupert does not claim to have an answer to the question. He’s too skeptical to convert wholesale to the religion of the shamans, though praying to the spirits of certain places comes to seem natural. With all the hardships of the trip, his persistent question is this: “Was this all complete hocus-pocus? Was I a fool for even being here at all, dragging my family through...through what, exactly? Or were we exactly where we needed to be?”
The applicable study here, which Rupert Isaacson has done, is science in its natural form: deep, close observation of nature. That’s also, of course, what traditional healing traditions are all about. The Mongolian shamans have experiential insight into the storms in Rowan’s mind, and the unspoken language he shares with animals. If the drums and burning herbs that are the tools for expressing that insight seem primitive, it’s because they are primal.
The Horse Boy is a story of faith, too, in its natural form: loving perseverance. Intellectual assertions about belief weigh nothing compared to actually packing up your gear and getting on an airplane. Faith’s reward, fortuitously, is Rowan’s healing, but also new opportunities for hope. Through The Horse Boy Foundation, Rupert has started a farm to provide equine therapy for autistic children, and to train others in the work.
Rowan Isaacson is still autistic, but he has made contact with our world. Will he grow to become a translator between worlds, a shaman in his own right? I hope some day he’ll tell us what it’s like to be him.

More information, and film clips:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Religious Case Against Belief

The Religious Case Against Belief
James P. Carse (2008, Penguin Press)

Why is there a religious case against belief, and why is one needed? Doesn’t religion entail, or indeed consist of, a certain set of beliefs? Actually, not at all; in The Religious Case Against Belief, James Carse makes a philosophical case for disentangling the two concepts.
His definitions are not everybody’s: consider the recent spate of books that attempt to make a scientific case against religion, or, as Carse would have it, against belief. For instance, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith promotes the idea that (all) religion is a dangerous error of logic that could be cured by a universal commitment to factual reasoning. So far as I know, his reasoning has not converted anyone away from religion in the real world, and Carse explains why: “Belief systems are stunningly resistant to such correction, for the simple reason that deeply committed believers are not offering a variety of debatable proposals about the nature of the world. They see the world through their beliefs, not their beliefs from a worldly perspective.”

Belief (and here Carse is making the extreme case, caricaturing for effect) is the stuff of martyrdom, the sort of certainty one would kill or die for. He gives the example of Martin Luther under examination by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in a confrontation that would lead to Luther’s excommunication. “These were two powerful men, facing each other across a line neither of them would cross. Charles remained untouched by the young monk’s teachings. The monk never retreated.” How could they have? 

This mutual intransigence was epoch-making in its own right, of course, but Carse is making a more abstract point. “Belief systems thrive in circumstances of collision. They are energized by their opposites.” Belief creates boundaries between what is believed and what is not. Subscribing to one belief system involves rejecting another, by definition. “They are joined in a kind of compact that freezes them to a stable self-understanding consisting of a reverse image of the other.”

But did either Luther or Charles have the last word about what Christianity is? No. Whatever Christianity is, it is larger and more durable any of the belief systems that have attempted to contain it, and Carse regards this as a mark of a true religion. Like the other religions with histories reaching back through millennia, Christianity has evolved and renewed itself continuously even as it has maintained a distinctive identity. Each religion has characteristic questions which demand answers as insistently as they resist them. Who is Jesus? Who is the Buddha? What does the Quran say, or the Torah? What they have in common, according to Carse: “After a lifetime spent meditating on and studying these questions one only begins to understand how elusive the answers are. Can we even imagine Muslims agreeing on what the Quran says? The point is that in each case, it is not a general ignorance but one that is acquired, one that is specific to each religion.”

Religion is an unfinished conversation, which attracts a community willing to keep talking. Now we can see why belief is so often conflated with religion: it’s endlessly tempting to adopt solutions to the large questions.“Mystery is difficult to live with, and for some even terrifying. It can often be of great comfort to hide our unknowing behind the veil of a well-articulated belief system. For this reason, the historic religions seem to be a particularly fertile source for absolutisms.” 

Fortunately, the historic religions are also fertile sources for the poetic imagination, which doesn’t just push at the walls of belief, but dissolves them. Inside any religion, at any time, poets and prophets may arise to challenge the boundaries set by belief. Inside any religion, the gathered community gives rise to cultural expressions of all kinds, and these, in turn, nourish community.

James Carse is a retired professor of religion, but he’s writing here as a philosopher. His logic is careful; his language is precise and a little dense. He’s also the author, as it turns out, of one of my favorite books of the nineteen-eighties, Finite and Infinite Games.* If the words ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ have been poisoned irrevocably for you, I commend the earlier work, which covers much the same ground, couched in different words. Subtitled “A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility,” it’s philosophy in jeans and a sweatshirt.

However you read him, Carse stands for living in relation to the horizon, free from our self-created boundaries. At boundaries, we meet only conflict; beyond the horizon, the unknown waits.

*1986, The Free Press

Email edition, December 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

And God Said

And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning
Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (2010, Thomas Dunne Books)

Biblical translations are a mainstay of the publishing industry; there are a staggering number of different editions and translations available. Can any of them be said to be an accurate translation? Joel Hoffman has an interest in the philosophical and religious issues that question raises, but he approaches it from the point of view of his training in linguistics, and there’s plenty of interest there, too.
The short answer is, no translation works perfectly at all levels. The more compulsive one is about translating each word, the more likely one is to miss the sense of the phrase or sentence. Hoffman has some prime examples of such errors from the King James Version of the Bible. At another extreme, he cites some twentieth century versions, like the Good News Bible, that are more paraphrases than translations.
Moreover, in both those cases, and nearly all others, the translators have failed to account for the multitude of tonal registers the Bible presents: some books are history, some prophesy, some poetry, but these distinctions are paved over in favor of a single linguistic tone; in the case of the King James Bible, it’s a language we don’t really speak any more.
Translation always involved compromise. Hoffman says, “...the ideal translation will work at every level--from sounds, through words, and up to concepts and effect. But because this is seldom possible, the translator must choose which level should be given priority. Most people are of the mistaken opinion that the words should always be given priority, that as long as the words are translated correctly, everything else falls into place.”
We need some linguistic imagination to notice that just because ‘blue’ in English connotes sadness, or possibly lewdness, other languages may have no such convention; how would you know that in Germany, ‘blue’ stands for truancy? Such idioms are powerful, and easy to miss. So when we hear that Esau was ‘ruddy’, Hoffman points out that we are probably missing a packet of connotations, of earthiness and strength.
The book abounds in delightful linguistic geekery. For instance, Hoffman takes us through a nice exercise about the word ‘covet’ in the Ten Commandments. Examining other places this rare word occurs, it might just as well (or better) be read as ‘lay claim to’ or ‘take possession of’, which makes a good deal more sense in the Tenth Commandment (or, Ninth and Tenth, but that’s another story.)
Of course, many of these issues are of more than linguistic interest. When the Gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophesy, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”, the term ‘virgin’ is an error, both in the King James Version and in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hoffman shows persuasively that the original Hebrew simply said ‘A pregnant woman will give birth to a son.’ What would that mean to everyone, over the years, who has failed tests of Christian faith that hung on the Virgin Birth of Jesus?! Where is the translator with the nerve to render the English that way?
What would it mean if, instead, as Hoffman says, “The sign here is a reminder that extraordinary things can come out of the ordinary”? If a woman having a baby is a sign that God is with us, I call that good news enough. Thanks be to God.


November 2010

Friday, October 1, 2010

All Souls

Not a new book, but new to me--

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie
Michael Patrick MacDonald (1999, Ballantine Books)

In 1966, Michael Patrick MacDonald was born into a family with no father, and eight kids; that’s not counting the child he replaced, Patrick Michael MacDonald, who had died at three weeks of age, of an illness that a non-impoverished child might have survived. But ambulances didn’t go into Boston’s Columbia Points housing projects, and hospitals would only do so much for people who couldn’t pay.
Helen MacDonald got her family out of the projects for a while, by moving to Jamaica Plain, to an apartment in her parents’ house. How do you fit a family of nine into a two-bedroom apartment? Easy--Mom sleeps on the couch, two girls in one bedroom, and, in the other, six boys on mattresses on the floor, like so many pups.

No bedtimes, no mealtimes--to me, this is a nightmare from another planet; to the MacDonalds, it was just everyday life. When the family got too rowdy for the grandparents, they moved back to South Boston, this time to the Old Colony projects. They took a third floor apartment with six rooms, and a lavish supply of cockroaches. Southie nonetheless looks like ‘the best place in the world’, according to the dictates of Southie pride, a distillation of Irish pride brought down from the legions of immigrants who made Boston home in the face of formidable social and economic obstacles. The Old Colony projects were violent, run down, and under the sway of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s* Irish mob. After a few fistfights, and a few pranks, the MacDonalds found their place.

Like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, All Souls is as funny as it is disturbing (or the other way around.) MacDonald presents the poverty, violence, crime, and drugs as simply the way things were: people expected to be at the mercy of the cops, the courts, and the criminals, and that expectation was perfectly fair. Wearing stolen clothing and selling drugs may be terrible choices, but the MacDonalds and their neighbors are not, I remind myself, choosing from the range of choices I enjoy.

In the 1970’s, a Federal desegregation order drove Southie’s better-off inhabitants out to the suburbs; the proportion of single-parent and impoverished families in the neighborhood correspondingly shot up. Kids whose families couldn’t afford parochial schools dropped out in droves, faced with the prospect of being a white minority in a city school even more under-funded than their own. Without excusing the excesses of violence the situation evoked, MacDonald questions the wisdom of trying to improve the condition of poor black Bostonians by mixing them with white Bostonians hardly a whit better off.

As the youngest child of his mother’s first family, Michael MacDonald was the family’s natural witness and storyteller. He grew up to bear witness to the troubles of the neighborhood he loved, and to work for social justice. He made friends with activists from Roxbury and Mattapan, other troubled neighborhoods, more easily than with Boston’s liberals: “Liberals were usually the ones working on social problems, and they never seemed to be able to fit urban poor whites into their world view, which tended to see blacks as the persistent dependent and their own white selves as provider. 
Whatever race guilt they were holding onto, Southie’s poor couldn’t do a thing for their consciences.”

I found All Souls distressing but enlightening. If Americans find anything harder to talk about than race, it’s class; and using race as proxy for class has only muddied the waters. MacDonald lovingly gives names and faces to the victims of urban poverty, who, whether killed by disease, crime, drugs, or suicide, deserved better than they got.

Peace, friends--


*Whitey Bulger’s brother Billy was, for many years, the president of the Massachusetts State Senate. The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr’s book about the power the two of them wielded, is harrowing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

So You Think You’re Not Religious?

Disclaimer-- I have the pleasure of knowing James Adams as a Harvard Square neighbor, customer, and friend; “he’s a gentleman and a scholar, and there’s dam’ few of us left.”

So You Think You’re Not Religious? A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Church
James Rowe Adams (second edition, 2010; St. Johann Press)

In So You Think You’re Not Religious, James Adams sets himself a formidable task: asserting the value of Christian faith and practice to skeptics, and overcoming their very reasonable objections. It’s perhaps in his favor that he’s an extremely reasonable man, and that many of these objections were his own, at other times in his life.

It’s also to his advantage that he is not trying to turn skeptics into believers, as such. In fact, he holds that the ability and willingness to question certitude are assets on the spiritual path: what’s required of the skeptic, in place of blind doctrinal assent, is a tolerance for the paradox and ambiguity so often found in the Bible, and in human communities. (It will help if the skeptic can locate a progressive, questioning church, and avoid over-literal fundamentalist groups; the book’s appendix provides practical advice about this.)

But if not a believer, can a skeptic be an honest churchgoer? The question is not whether we can believe six impossible things before breakfast, but whether we experience a longing for a truer way of understanding our place in the world. Adams says, “A thinking person with intellectual integrity is not likely to observe that life is largely nonsense and let the matter drop there. Such a person is apt to feel compelled to pursue the business of trying to make sense out of the nonsense.”

That pursuit can be immeasurably aided by companionship a church can provide, and by the ritual and study opportunities found there. Adams is himself our companion in probing some of the most familiar stumbling blocks, those found in the Gospels and the creeds. The word ‘creed’ itself points to quite a serious obstacle: the words “I believe in” have come to be heard as if they expressed an opinion about a factual state of affairs. A truer reading of ‘Credo’ would suggest a sense of ‘setting one’s heart on,’ whether longing for, or placing trust in, the promises of the Holy. After all, says Adams, “Any statement about God is bound to be both inaccurate and incomplete.” Our efforts to understand God with the head only, and not with the heart, are necessarily incomplete, and it’s not intellectually dishonest to acknowledge it.

It’s liberating to read the Gospels through the lens of myth, rather than taxing them with literal, historical demands they cannot meet . The recorded words of Jesus display a remarkable fondness for paradox; instead of answering questions, he often reflects them back on themselves, as if to cause a small explosion in the questioner’s mind, and ours. Adams muses on how the Jesus portrayed by Matthew is particularly close to those he calls, ‘you of little faith.’ Skepticism and doubt seem to be marks of the minds Jesus was most interested in reaching, and this should be a comfort to us in the midst of our discomfort.

Participation in a church community entails genuine risks; religious disciplines impose real costs. But much good may come of it: “Doubters and people of little faith may discover that Jesus would have supported them in their skepticism about organized religion. They may find that their questions have something important to contribute when they decide that their goal is not to abolish Christianity but to help fulfill its promise.”

Amen, amen. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, safe travels to you.

September 1 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Big Short

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Michael Lewis (2010, W.W. Norton)

Michael Lewis is the perfect person to explain to us just what happened when, in the fall of 2008, Wall Street brokers and bankers went down in an avalanche of credit default swaps; he can also explain what in the world credit default swaps are, and why people wanted to bet on them, one way or the other. Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker (1989), about his own experience in the bond trading business--a business that brought us the financial crises of the nineteen-eighties (on a substantially smaller scale, though it felt sufficiently catastrophic at the time.) His Moneyball (on baseball) and The Blind Side (football) made the market forces in American sports delightfully clear, while keeping an eye on how those forces affect individual people.
Now he’s got the inside track on the biggest financial story of the past decade, how the sub-prime mortgage industry took on a life of its own, giving rise to a spectacularly large and long-lived housing bubble. The collapse of that bubble in 2008 took billions of dollars of value out of the worldwide financial system--where did that value go, and what did it consist of in the first place?
The Big Short is a high-resolution, super-slow-motion picture of the Wall Street avalanche at its critical moments. As you might imagine, it’s a story about greed, arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity; it’s also about a handful of people who saw the housing bubble for what it was, and put themselves in a position to profit from its implosion.
These mavericks at the heart of Lewis’s story are a quirky bunch: “All of them were, almost by definition, odd. But they were not all odd in the same way. John Paulson was oddly interested in betting against dodgy loans, and oddly persuasive in talking others into doing it with him. Mike Burry was odd in his desire to remain insulated from public opinion, and even direct human contact, and to focus instead on hard data and the incentives that guide future human financial behavior. Steve Eisman was odd in his conviction that the leveraging of middle-class America was a corrupt and corrupting event, and that the subprime mortgage market in particular was an engine of exploitation and, ultimately, destruction. Each filled a hole; each supplied a missing insight, an attitude to risk which, if more prevalent, might have prevented the catastrophe.”
These characters, and a few others, saw something all the other actors did not see, or refused to believe. Why? Was it greed? was it fraud? Was it a herd mentality, or willful obtuseness? Yes, yes, and yes. There’s a school of political thought that would have us believe that markets are always smarter than individuals, (to say nothing of the questions of whether they are fairer, kinder, or more honest; sometimes, maybe, but you shouldn’t count on it.) The Big Short shows us some ways markets can be seriously dumb, as well as opaque and fraudulent, or, of course, all three at the same time.
Lewis writes, “The subprime mortgage market had a special talent for obscuring what needed to be clarified.” A dazzling array of abbreviations and acronyms sprang up around the business of turning loans, especially mortgage loans, into bonds. The razzle-dazzle was partly aimed at investors, and partly at bond-rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poors. It’s profitable to own the stream of income represented by other people’s debt--but only if those people are actually going to keep making payments. This is one thing if you’re talking about a government entity like a county or a state, and something else entirely if the debt is a mortgage, or collection of them, that are made with teaser rates, to people who had no money for a down payment.
Somehow--and Lewis actually knows how--some of the latter kinds of bonds, and bonds created from them by sleight of hand, received AAA ratings of quality from the rating agencies, (which had, to put it mildly, a conflict of interest); the salesmen of Goldman Sachs and its confreres made so much money selling the bonds that they caused dumber and dumber mortgage loans to be made, out there in the real world; and a form of bond insurance created by AIG Financial Products became a way to place bets on financial events. He writes, ”Financial markets are a collection of arguments. The less transparent the market and the more complicated the securities, the more money the tradings desks at big Wall Street firms can make from the argument.” In the end, because some bond dealers got confused by their own obscurity, they wound up mis-pricing the risks, and laying some enormous, terrible bets; the resulting avalanche is still playing out.
The lucidity with which Lewis presents all this is truly a joy. Because this is a popular new book, my library has some copies marked as Speed Reads, due back in one week rather than three. That won't be the problem--just don’t start it at bedtime.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb.
David Kushner (2009, Walker & Company)

The 1950s saw hundreds of battles over desegregation across the United States. The battles over lunch counters, buses, and schools were famously fought in the streets, in the press, and in the courts; all these venues were also significant in the story of housing desegregation. David Kushner’s Levittown tells the story of one such battle on an intimate scale: what happened when, in 1957, a black family moved into previously all-white Levittown, Pennsylvania. Without attempting to cover the entire history of the era, Kushner also casts a useful light on the larger economic, governmental, and social forces at work.

The tale starts with Abe Levitt and his sons, Bill and Alfred, who started building housing developments on Long Island during the Depression. Levitt & Sons went on to build housing on military bases in World War II, and they were primed for bigger things in the postwar housing boom. On thirty-five hundred acres of nematode-ravaged potato fields, they constructed an entire town, complete with parks and shopping centers. Under the influence of Bill Levitt’s considerable ego, the town of Island Trees was renamed Levittown. Veterans swarmed to rent, then to buy, and move in with their families.

White veterans, that is. In addition to Abe Levitt’s strictures about landscaping, about which he was something of a martinet, the rules of the new community excluded ‘any person other than members of the Caucasian race.’ Such a clause was permitted, indeed encouraged, by Federal Housing Administration regulations that had, from the FHA’s founding in 1934, specified that ‘business and industrial uses, lower-class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups’ all qualified as adverse influences that would lower property values.

The Supreme Court overturned such explicit restrictive covenants in 1948, calling the clause “unenforceable as law and contrary to public policy.” But the policy was still in effect in many places, including the second Levittown development, outside of Philadelphia, where Lew and Bea Wechsler lived with their daughter and son. The house next door to them had been up for sale for two years when the Wechslers met Bill and Daisy Myers, who were living in nearby Bloomsdale Gardens, and looking for a house. What the Myerses wanted in the spring of 1957 was a three-bedroom house for their growing family, with a garage for Bill to use as a workshop; 43 Deepgreen Lane fit the bill perfectly.

Kushner’s book is partly based on memoirs written by Lew Wechsler and Daisy Myers, based in turn on the journals they kept, so he can give us a day by day record of the mayhem that ensued in August, 1957, when Bill and Daisy Myers took possession of their charming pink house. A vociferous group of neighbors dedicated themselves to a campaign of harassment and intimidation that included rock-throwing, name-calling, cross-burning, and harassing phone calls, without any particular hindrance from various contingents of police who were ostensibly there to protect the newcomers. The Levittown Shopping Center sold Confedarate flags, and one faction of the neighborhood mob made inquiries about joining the Ku Klux Klan.

The story was catnip to the press, both because of its resonance with the integration of the Little Rock schools, which took place the same autumn, and because of the iconic nature of Levittown: “Papers from Moscow to London covered the standoff in what had long been viewed as America’s quintessential suburban dreamland. Life magazine had just run a long spread on the story that week, including dramatic photos of the Myerses and Wechslers under siege in their homes.”

Other neighbors supported the Myerses, repairing the damage done by vandals, bringing food, and sitting up nights in the Wechslers’ kitchen, standing guard. In October, Thomas McBride, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania filed an injunction to stop the “unlawful, malicious and evil force the said Myers family to leave Levittown;” McBride himself took part in the trial, two months later, and the transcript, which Kushner quotes liberally, is gripping.

The injunction served its purpose, and the Myerses remained safely in Levittown till they moved to York, Pennsylvania, a few years later, but-- how did this crisis happen? There’s plenty of blame to go around: certainly a few of the neighbors were unreconstructed racists, and the local police response was a failure. The court records show that Levitt and Sons made promises to buyers that Levittown would be whites-only. Bill Levitt claimed that he was just giving the buying public what it wanted, and that any other policy would have put him at a disadvantage to competing developers. Or perhaps it was the banks, the realtors, the FHA, Congress--it’s turtles all the way down. Be that as it may, the upshot, as Kushner says, is stunning:“... from 1934 through 1960, less than 2 percent of the $120 billion in new housing underwritten by the U.S. government went to minorities.”

Kushner’s writing style is a little too breezy for me in places, but the scope of the book is beautifully judged. Within the broader story of the great migration to the suburbs, he makes the Levitts, the Myerses, and the Wechslers distinct personalities and consequential actors. He can’t quite make me understand why some of the people of Levittown thought they had a legal right to deny other people their right to live there peacefully, but that kind of thing goes on today, and I don’t understand it yet.

Another thing that’s important to remember, because it now seems so strange to those of us who didn’t experience it, is the Red-baiting that was attached to civil rights activism. The Wechslers, as it happened, had actually met through the National Student League, a group with ties to the Communist Party, though their faith was severely damaged by Krushchev’s 1956 revelations about the Stalin era. To hear Senator Joseph McCarthy tell it, anyone who opposed racial discrimination was a Communist. Really? Communists were the only people who were fighting to extend the promises of America to all Americans? Where were the Christians?
I guess that’s a story for another time.

Email, July 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Carry Me Home; Leaving Birmingham

Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
Diane McWhorter (2001, Simon and Schuster)
Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son
Paul Hemphill (1993, Viking Penguin)

If one is of a certain age--which for this purpose I am not--Birmingham is a somewhat infamous place to be from. (I lived there in 1963, the year of police dogs, water cannons, and the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church, but I was two, and we lived ‘over the mountain’, in the leafy southern suburbs.) The civil rights history of Birmingham exerts a great fascination for some of us who just missed first-hand experience of it. To write Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter immersed herself in that fascination for fifteen years.

McWhorter is a child of Mountain Brook, the wealthiest and leafiest of the southern suburbs. “Most of America knew of my city only as a sort of race circus--redneck freaks and Jim Crow wretches, clashing under the live fireworks of ‘Bombingham.’ But behind the scenes was a third set of principals, from whom I was learning the ordinary rituals of prosperity at the Mountain Brook Club.” Carry Me Home details the links between the Big Mules of Mountain Brook, assorted violent Klansmen, the city government, and the FBI. On the other side, the movement against segregation reflected the class divisions within black Birmingham, becoming a mass movement somewhat in spite of the traditional leadership.

McWhorter shows us large characters sometimes not at their best--Bull Connor, Fred Shuttlesworth, Robert F. Kennedy, George Wallace, as well as Martin Luther King--and hundreds who might otherwise be forgotten. From a thicket of incisive and often ironic details, a story of courage and perseverance emerges. In Carry Me Home, the martyrs and heroes of Birmingham have a worthy monument.

In the acknowledgments that end her book, McWhorter thanks the editor who ‘commanded me to shrink the manuscript to a size that could be manipulated without the aid of a forklift...’; trimmed by two-thirds, Carry Me Home still weighs in at 700 pages, with index and notes. If your reading list doesn’t quite have room for it, but you’re interested in the subject, allow me to commend an alternative.

Paul Hemphill’s Leaving Birmingham was written while McWhorter was starting her research; it’s longer on memoir, shorter on footnotes. Hemphill describes the industrial and class history that divided Birmingham into Poor white, Rich white, and Black. (He’s poor white: his father drove trucks on long hauls, before the Interstates; in a useful counterpoint, the book makes space for the voices of a black man, and a white woman from Mountain Brook. ) Like McWhorter, he contemplates the usefulness of racial division and hatred to the captains of industry. And like her, he’s passionate about the issues of justice and peace raised by Birmingham’s history, because it’s there that these are not abstractions, but visceral and deeply personal--indeed, matters of life and death.

February 2002

Friday, May 14, 2010

His Brother's Keeper

His Brother's Keeper: A story from the edge of Medicine
Jonathan Weiner (2004, HarperCollins)

     His Brother's Keeper takes Jonathan Weiner to the frontiers of biomedicine, where the latest genetic technologies promise wonders. Some of these wonders are happening already, and others are not quite around the corner. He is led by Jamie Heywood, a young mechanical engineer turned genetic engineer and activist, who is on a quest for a way to help his brother. In 1998, Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with ALS, ametrophic lateral schlerosis, which we also know as Lou Gehrig's disease. Beginning with weakness in his right hand, Stephen gradually lost nerve function; he could expect to lose the ability to walk, and eventually the ability to breathe, leading to death within five to seven years.

     The past decade has seen spectacular advances in molecular biology and genetics, but the use of these technologies to help sick people is just getting off the ground. Today's work in genetic science includes the hope of using viruses to add genetic material to the cells of adult patients, potentially renewing their ability to carry out their functions. Weiner says, "Hope asked: How soon can we use this invisible anatomy to repair a dying nerve, brain, or heart? Fear asked: How much of the body can we change without losing the patient we hoped to save?"    

     This tension permeates the Heywoods' story. Jamie wavers between non-profit fund-raising and the entrepreneurial model of a Silicon Valley startup; he wants to see important basic research done, but he needs it to bear medical fruit in time to save his brother. Stephen has no choice about being a patient, and may consent to being a test subject, but he'd just as soon not be a poster child; he also wants to be a carpenter, and a husband and father. And while Weiner tries to be an objective reporter, he also falls under the spell of Jamie's persuasive enthusiasms, which sets him up for discouragement as problems, both scientific and bureaucratic, prove intractable. Meanwhile his own mother exhibits symptoms of a growing neural disability, and part of his attention is back at the family home worrying about her.

     Weiner fell into the middle of this story, and he leaves it before its end. Jamie remains driven, continuing single-mindedly to seek people and money who would bring a treatment for ALS closer. Stephen has moved into a wheelchair, and needed a voice enhancement apparatus; he remains easy-going and thoughtful. "Stephen was still convinced that his brother would find a treatment or a cure, maybe after Stephen himself was gone. But there was nothing supernatural about any of it. That is how big things always start. They have to grow from a couple of lucky little things. They are normal miracles."

     Such determination, such love, such hope--these are surely miracles too.

March 2005

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Any Good Books,
May 2010

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt, 2006)

It’s a pleasing literary oddity that Harper Lee and Truman Capote shared a small-time childhood, and grew up to be such different kinds of Famous Writers: he, one of the most ardent self-promoters the literary world has known, as famous for parties he threw as for books he wrote; she, the author of one of the most highly acclaimed, widely read, and influential novels of the twentieth century, but somewhat overwhelmed by the resulting acclaim.

Mockingbird, Charles Shields’s unauthorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee, is packed with such gentle ironies. Capote had already published his first book when Lee left college to try the writing life, so his example may have proved to her that such a thing could happen; he read parts of To Kill a Mockingbird; and he incidentally introduced her to Michael and Joy Brown. The Browns, having come into a windfall, gave Lee the money to concentrate on writing for a whole year, without having to work at a job.

But the most direct literary assistance went the other way: without Lee’s help, Capote would not have gained entry to the inner life of Finney County, Kansas, and In Cold Blood would not have gotten off the ground. So, in addition to being the mother of one of the greatest books of its century, Harper Lee was the midwife to one of her friend’s most notable works. (By this time the reader has seen enough of him not to be surprised that his thanks are perfunctory.)

To Kill a Mockingbird, meanwhile, won the 1961 Pulitzer prize, and was featured by all the book clubs. It sold 2.5 million copies the first year, and some thirty million more, since. Shields observes, “...almost from the day of its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird took off, but gradually left its author behind.” Her second novel never saw the light of day, whether because of the time spent prize-collecting and movie-making, or helping Capote do research in Kansas, or, just as likely, the feeling that there was, after such success, nowhere to go but down. She was, to herself, a hard act to follow.
Alan Pakula’s production of the movie (and Horton Foote’s screenplay) subjected the book to the tightening and rebalancing necessary to bring in a reasonable running time; the three years of the books action become one year; and, at Gregory Peck’s urging, the dramatic focus fell more heavily on the trial, and much less on the lives of the children. Peck was probably right about that, cinematically speaking--and he won an Academy Award for the performance.

Now in her eighties, Lee still lives in Monroeville, where her book has become a cottage industry, the way Anne of Green Gables has for Prince Edward Island. In the twenty-five years between the action of the novel and its publication, Monroeville had modernized too much to be useable for filming. Since then economic progress has stagnated, and it’s returned to being something of a backwater. Since 1990, the town has produced an annual play of the book, bringing even more pilgrims to town. How trying it must be for Lee to go out to breakfast, and meet the millionth person who can’t help gushing about the book, and demanding to know why there wasn’t another.

Of course, as an unauthorized biography, Mockingbird is itself such an intrusion; our curiosity is natural, and perhaps this book is the safest distance from which to satisfy it. But if you’d like to be perfectly sure of being polite, don’t read it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Big House

The Big House: a century in the life of an American summer home
George Howe Colt (Scribner, 2003)

All over the Atlantic coast there are hundred-year-old houses passing into the third and fourth generations of ownership by a single family. Summer after summer of genial seaside matriarchy, with the menfolk turning up Friday night to go sailing or play a little tennis; and kids collecting seashells, or, driven within by rain, playing Sardines, or paging through their fathers' very own copies of the Hardy Boys.
George Howe Colt is the right man to tell his particular version of this archetypal story. He has the right house for the job--"a massive, four-story, shingle-style house as contorted and fantastic as something a child might build with wooden blocks." The Big House, as it's known within the family, is the most prominent house on Wings Neck, which stands on the Cape Cod side near the head of Buzzards Bay. The house boasts nineteen rooms, seven fireplaces, and a year-round population of mice, squirrels, and bats.
And he has the right family -- descended through one great-grandmother from the Forbeses of Naushon, the Atkinsons and Colts have all the marks of the Boston Brahmin--winter homes in Dedham; Harvard for the men; Miss Winsor's School and the Chilton Club (and the occasional insane asylum) for the women; and the proud vestiges of former wealth. "The Boston area was full of families like ours, venerable tribes that had nothing left to remind them of their former prominence but their names--which no longer counted for much--and their ancestral summer homes." The visitor is not meant to be able to tell whether they are sleeping on the original horsehair mattresses because the family can't afford new ones, or because these are perfectly good, and so long-wearing. (Probably both, of course, but it wouldn't do to discuss it.)
Times being what they are, with two-earner families unable to drop everything and give their children a couple of months by the sea, The Big House is too expensive to keep, and too high-maintenance to sell. Can anyone of George's generation come up with what it would take to buy it, let alone renovate it? Change is always painful, but the house winds up in good hands.
The Big House is a worthy addition to the pleasures of literary WASP-watching. Colt combines historical perspective with deep affection for this hardy tribe; we can only envy the legacy he is leaving for his own descendants.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Parallel Play

Any Good Books, April 2010

Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s
Tim Page (2009, Doubleday)

Tim Page was forty-five years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, information which he met with a thrill of recognition amounting to relief. “I felt as though I had stumbled on my secret biography. Here it all was--the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests... .” Parallel Play is his own version of that biography, a memoir of walking through the world as a stranger.
He was lucky, mostly, that he was very bright. Precociously verbal and an early reader, Page absorbed information on his pet subjects thirstily. He obsessed over maps, stories, silent films, and music; in his preteen years, he played the piano, composed music, wrote stories, and produced and directed movies with the neighborhood kids.
But being bright only helped up to a point. He baffled his classmates with learned disquisitions on Enrico Caruso and D. W. Griffith, and drove his teachers mad with his inability to pay attention to their subjects. Biology and Algebra were simply not of his world, and he wound up failing or skipping the better part of high school, to the consternation of his father, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.
The bright spots in his story include a few perceptive and sympathetic adults Page had the good fortune to meet: the grade-school teachers who let him stay inside at recess and read the encyclopedia; the school nurse who let him hide out in the dark quiet of her office; the UConn librarian who pointed him to the books about old opera stars; the high school English teacher who challenged him as a writer; and a teacher he met during a summer at Tanglewood, who suggested he might be a natural New Yorker. This idea, and the concomitant notion that Page might make himself at home at the Mannes College of Music, turned out to make a great deal of sense, leading (by way of Columbia University) to a career in music criticism.
Some of what made Page’s life better was of his own doing: at the age of twenty, he decided to leave drugs and cigarettes behind, and not to waste the years he had left; he learned to meditate, which gave him a measure of daily peace. In his second year at Mannes, he pushed himself to make new friends by the simple expedient of introducing himself to one stranger a day in the student lounge.
Such gumption is one of the compelling things about Parallel Play; another is the sharp, clear writing. How’s this for a credo: “...while I admire poetic opacity in certain authors and filmmakers, I cannot tolerate it in my own work. You may or may not like something I’ve written, but I’ll do my damnedest to ensure that you know what I wanted to say.”
Page disclaims any special credit for honesty, holding that “telling the truth about my life seems to me not only the moral imperative of this book but its sole excuse.” The truth-telling may also, in itself, be a facet of Asperger’s, both in Page’s extraordinary recall of his feelings, and in his inability to bend the truth for anyone’s comfort, including his own. Having so long battled with extreme self-consciousness, he’s now possessed of an exceptional self-awareness, as when he talks about his distance from his beloved sons: “Perhaps I had to fight off too much intrusion from my father. Then again, as I sometimes fear, perhaps I am not quite a mammal.”
Ah, but no, doesn’t that fear sound profoundly human? Sad, funny, and brave, like this lovely book. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Known World

I read books so that you won't have to, but they're usually good ones. In February of 2005, however--

A Rant

The Known World: A Novel
Edward P. Jones

Quoth Amazon--
Award Winner: The Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award
Editorial Reviews -- Book Description
In one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, Edward P. Jones, two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order and chaos ensues. In a daring and ambitious novel, Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all of its moral complexities. 

Well, that's all fine, but a more incompetently written novel I have seldom seen. Some of the characters in this book are unlettered, and unaccustomed to the niceties of punctuation and grammar; but there's no excuse for the writer and editor to be likewise. Where to begin?

Consider: "The mule followed him, and after he had prepared the animal for the night and came out, Moses smelled the coming of rain." Why are people calling this beautiful writing, when it's not even grammatical? When you read it out loud, don't you stumble over the change of tenses? (In fact, every page I tried failed the reading-aloud test.)

Or this: "The 1940 U.S. census contained an enormous amount of facts,..." Ouch.

The characters are no less inchoate. "Fern Elston had chosen not to follow her siblings and many of her cousins into a life of being white." The paragraph goes on to explain why this was a good choice. The next paragraph begins, "But it had never crossed Fern's mind to pass as white." Well, which is it? Did she choose, or did she never think about it? Either assertion would tell us something about the character, but the contradiction is nonsense.

Worse, Jones cannot decide what part of the story he is telling at any given time. He can't resist foreshadowing, so much so that when we finally get to the episode in question, there's nothing left to tell. He also thinks nothing of going back over information we've long since been given. Here's page 143: "Calvin, Caldonia's twin brother, said to her, ..." This is meant to be helpful, perhaps, but have we really forgotten it since page 141? Are we being taken for amnesiacs, or is Jones just not paying attention?

In places, Jones seems to be writing with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other; we're told things and immediately told that they don't matter:
"Bennett started up again and Skiffington went down the steps to the road, the dust rising almost imperceptibly as he set both feet down. A good rain would do us all some good. He looked over his shoulder. The door to the jail was open just a bit, but it did not matter because he had no prisoners that day."

So why tell us about it? And is that second sentence a quote of what Skiffington is thinking, or what? How are we supposed to know? And why is he thinking that, if you can barely see the dust? And how do you set 'both feet' down, anyhow--did he jump off the last step, or should that be 'each foot'? Makes me cranky.

The overall effect is of being told the plot of a twelve-part miniseries by a carful of eight-year-olds. Breathless run-on sentences, narrative meandering into pointless dead ends, ceaseless interruptions for 'oh, yeah' explanations,-- the short of it is, you're not in reliable hands with the narrator. As storytelling, it's a soup sandwich.

This is the sort of book that B. R. Myers is describing in "A Reader's Manifesto", that makes you wonder what book the rapturous critics were reading. What makes them so snow-blind? Do they love to be bored by droning repetition? or confused by sentences that buck the reader off in the middle? or do they really find this novel "a modern masterpiece, which not only tells an unforgettable story, but does so with such elegance, grace, and mystery that it, finally, staggers the imagination."? That's from Jeffry Lent: remind me not to try reading his own bestseller.

I also have to wonder, if The Known World had had a competent editor, who had cut a hundred-plus pages of repetition and premonition, (and organized the events sequentially, and repaired the prose, and given the characters individual voices) would that better book still have won a Pulitzer? If not, why not? and if so, why didn't somebody see to it?

I know, I know, it's a waste of energy to hate something so passionately, but if this is what Literature is coming to, I'm going to stick to Books.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
Kevin Roose (2009, Grand Central Publishing)

Kevin Roose is a young man of unusual enterprise and resourcefulness, qualities which make him, while still an undergraduate at Brown, a successful writer. First, he talked himself into an internship with A. J. Jacobs; at the time, Jacobs was writing The Year of Living Biblically*, and had an opening for a slave to try out some of the commandments on. In the course of that project, Roose and Jacobs paid a visit to the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Roose met some students from Liberty University, another part of Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg fiefdom. Curious about college life in a religious environment, he decided to find out first-hand, by spending a semester at Liberty.

It was (so to speak) an inspired choice. In many ways, Lynchburg is a more foreign environment that the capitals of Europe would have been, yet it was a place where he could walk unnoticed among the native population, and study it from the inside. It would have been next to impossible to pass as a Mormon, or a Muslim, without really being one, but Evangelical Christianity lacks a unitary set of visible signs for telling who is and who isn’t in the tribe. Roose could speak the language, with a little coaching, and he would surely amass material for a book.

It’s classic immersion journalism: he really has to undergo the experience, and do the work. He has to conceal a few basic things, like his plan to write a book, and most of his liberal political and social views; he has to convince his parents that he (probably) won’t come back brainwashed. He has to live under restrictive social rules--no drinking, no cursing, no physical contact with girls beyond a quick hug; and he has to adopt strange new habits of praying, Bible-reading, and church-going.

The curriculum is a bit of a shock, as you’d expect, especially since Roose opts for the core curriculum of Biblical and religious thought. He finds the Bible and Theology classes the most interesting, though he has lots of catching up to do. The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, while alive and well in Liberty’s facebook culture, is something Roose studies “out of academic interest, not because I think either one describes my personal journey to salvation.”

Other classes are more frankly about indoctrination: ‘Evangelism 101’ and ‘History of Life’ require compartmentalization of a fairly extreme sort. The earth is six thousand years old, and the theory of evolution is wrong. “I can feel myself carving a second, smaller self out of the first, sort of a religious version of W.E.B. DoBois’s double consciousness. And the Christian slice of my brain is more apt to give these things a fair shake.”

Even without drinking and sex, student life is fun for Roose. He enjoys his fellow students, who are some of the nicest and happiest people he’s ever met, and he admires their sincerity; but he finds a healthy streak of rebellion among them, whether sneaking kisses or watching R-rated movies on their laptops at night. “The trick to being a rebel at Liberty, I’ve learned, is knowing which parts of the Liberty social code are non-negotiable. For example, Joey and his friends listen to vulgarity-filled secular hip-hop, but you’ll never catch them defending homosexuality.”

The anti-gay party line at Liberty is as fundamental and prominent as creationism and opposition to abortion, and it’s just as hard for Roose to accept, though he chooses to keep quiet about that, too, as a matter of staying in character. “At first, I couldn’t believe Liberty actually had a course that teaches students how to condemn homosexuals and combat feminism. GNED II is the class a liberal secularist would invent if he were trying to satirize a Liberty education.”

Roose keeps coming back to the giant cognitive dissonance of education at Liberty--in what sense is this a liberal arts college? “It’s a place where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt--all of which should be present at an institution that bills itself as a liberal arts college--are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda.” He's only losing the time, since he is leaving after one semester (and no, Brown will not give him credit for ‘Evangelism 101’,) but he feels bad for the people whose only college education this is.

Roose does not become a Christian, in the end. The bundle of right-wing ideas that Liberty ties up with its evangelism is much too unappealing to him, but he still respects and admires the way faith works in the lives of his friends. Those friends, in their sincere, friendly way, continue to hold his eternal soul in hope and prayer, but they also like him the way he is; I do too. I have hopes that he’ll stay in touch with those friends, and perhaps give us a sequel on how their lives work out after Liberty. Will they stay in the cocoon of like-minded Christianity, or if not, how will their encounters with the secular world affect them?

Roose is modest about the effect one person can have, reaching across the God Divide, but he is optimistic: “...judging from my post-Liberty experience, this particular religious conflict isn’t built around a hundred-foot brick wall. If anything, it’s built around a flimsy piece of cardboard, held in place on both sides by paranoia and lack of exposure. It’s there, no doubt, but it’s hardly forbidding. And more important, it’s hardly soundproof.”

From his mouth to God’s ears.

March 1, 2010

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: a journey into the heart of fan mania
Warren St. John (2004, Crown Publishers)

And when did you begin to suspect you had a problem, Mr. St. John? a perhaps unhealthy fixation, let us say, on college football? "I'd gone to Columbia to study humanism and the great books--to become a rational being. Crying one's self to sleep over the failure of a group of people you've never met to defeat another group of people against whom you have no legitimate quarrel--in a game you don't play, no less--is not rational." Columbia, it should be said, was at that time engaged in breaking a record for the longest losing streak in college football, but that's not why Warren St. John was curled up in a ball on his dorm room floor. No, it was his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide, who had suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of the Auburn Tigers, the game every year Alabama most hates to lose.

"One of the most comforting experiences for anyone who considers himself weird in some way is to find other people in the world who are, in the same way, weirder." Well, Mr. St. John has found them, in spades. The scores of people who drive motor homes, (some of them "the sleek aluminum ones that resemble a 737 with the wings lopped off") every autumn weekend, to wherever Alabama is playing football, represent a summit of weirdness that cried out for further study. Good-natured weirdness, to be sure, especially when the good guys win, but how do these people do it? and why?

Well, sometimes writers have the best job in the world. He took a season-long leave from the New York Times, and went on the road with them. The first week he went with a couple of fans from South Carolina; the next couple of games he was a sort of wannabe, in a mere car; and after that he drove the cheapest RV he could find that would actually proceed down the road, guzzling gas at four miles to the gallon.

There's football in this book, but only in the same proportion that it enters into the tailgating weekend--which may begin on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, for the self-employed, or those who have called in sick. Parking arrangements vary from campus to campus, but the RVs always wind up clustered together, their occupants sharing beer, food and stories while they wait for Saturday's game.

St. John has an ear for those stories, and an eagle eye for the characters he meets. He tracks down the couple he first saw on television, whose daughter was foolish enough to schedule her wedding for the day of the Tennessee game. (They made it to the reception.) He's friendly with a ticket broker in Tuscaloosa, who makes a nice living keeping track of how badly people want to see the next game, buying and selling accordingly.

He also makes some intelligent digressions into the psychology of fandom--the brain's chemical rush of victory, especially when there has been suspense, and the pleasure of belonging to an identifiable Crowd, no matter how broadly dispersed. Especially if your team is Alabama, and has been since you could first pronounce the word, there's nothing rational about it, and that's the way it should be.

Roll Tide.

An e-mail only edition,
October 2004

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Traveling with Pomegranates

Any Good Books
February 2010

Thanks! to Suzanne Benton for recommending this book.

Traveling with Pomegranates: a mother-daughter story
Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor (2009, Viking)

The events of this joint spiritual memoir took place in the late 1990’s. Sue Monk Kidd was a writer, but not yet the novelist who would startle the world with The Secret Life of Bees; her daughter Ann was finishing college and trying to chart a course into adulthood. Traveling with Pomegranates braids strands of travelogue--real journeys to Greece and France--with journal entries detailing the unfolding of life changes that occurred along the way.
Ann’s school trip to Greece is a liberation for her into a more confident, independent womanhood; she connects powerfully with the image of Athena, though, as it happens, her transformation has just as much in common with Persephone’s period of wintry waiting. Sue, meanwhile, faces middle age: the approach of menopause, and her daughter’s progress toward leaving the nest, guide her to seek new icons of motherhood.
One of these is Demeter, mother of Persephone, who has her own watchful waiting to do. Another is Mary, the mother of God; Sue finds herself drawn to images from throughout Mary’s life story, and that story’s own history. All this is tricky territory for a nice Baptist girl from Georgia, and to her credit, she acknowledges it. “If I pursued [Mary], it would mean a whole compass-change in my spiritual life. There were people who would think it was fatuous, if not theologically egregious. I suppose some part of me thought so, too.” She can study her resistance to see what it’s made of, but when dreams, poems, icons, and paintings all point the same way, the time comes to quit resisting.
Ann struggles, at the same time, with conflicting possibilities for her life’s work. When she’s turned down for graduate studies in Greek history, depression swamps her, and she sleepwalks into a much less inspiring graduate program. She’s so listless on the return trip to Greece that her mother is worried. I liked this: “I’m worried she might ask me what’s wrong and I’ll have to lie, or worse, tell her the truth.” What Ann secretly wants is to become a writer, though she’s daunted by the prospect of ’going into the family business’. What if the difference in their talent is too great? She comes to realize that even if she follows in her mother’s footsteps, she will ultimately make her own journey.
Though the material is unavoidably personal and specific to these women, Traveling with Pomegranates will speak to women at many stages of our lives. What spoke most strongly to me were the ruminations on the writing life. Ann wonders, “If I was cut out to be a writer, wouldn’t I be better at it? Wouldn’t it come easier?” Like so many things in life, it’s a combination of will and grace; the grace won’t find you if you don’t sit down to the work. And her mother has new questions simmering inside: “What will I leave behind? What will become of the world? What indentation will my work make? Why do I make myself audible like this?”
It’s a risk, no question about it, but we can only be glad that both of these women have dared to write so boldly, and beautifully. It’s an exceptional gift that they were able to do it together.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness
Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

I've admired Karen Armstrong's writing on the history of religion, though it would be fair to admit that I found A History of God dauntingly, even overly, comprehensive--it took me a year of occasional bedtime nibbling to get through it. She is broadly knowledgeable, and a skillful writer; and she brings to her study of religion a passion for it as a human enterprise. "...I tried not to dismiss an idea that seemed initially alien, but to ask repeatedly, 'Why' until, finally, the doctrine, the idea, or the practice became transparent and I could see the living kernel of truth within--an insight that quickened my own pulse." The Spiral Staircase is Armstrong's memoir of how she came to work this way.

The book begins with Armstrong renouncing her vows after seven years as a nun, having entered the convent when she was seventeen. (Her earlier memoir, Through a Narrow Gate, describes those years.) She was midway through her courses at Oxford University, studying English literature. Emerging from the cloister in 1969, Armstrong encountered a world vastly different from the one she had left. She also found that the habits of mind formed in the novitiate could not be left behind as easily as the nun's habit. Obedience, in particular, made scholarly life difficult, as when she was called upon to find something original to say about the works she was studying--it took her a long time to get her own voice back.

The book is both frank and compassionate about the twists and turns of Armstrong's subsequent career: academic success and failure; teaching; and a detour into television production, spiraling back to a life of research and writing that bears a distinct resemblance to the solitude and silence of the cloister. The difference is instructive, however: no longer under pressure to believe in anyone else's vision of God, she finds the Holy by following her own path.

Because of her study of the relationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, she is now frequently called out of her solitary studies to help bridge the gaps among them. "Our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless. And what our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies."
Hallelujah, Amen.

January 2005

Monday, January 18, 2010

Open House

Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own
Patricia J. Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

Patricia Williams contains multitudes. She's the author of three books on American race relations; she is a columnist for The Nation, and a professor of law at Columbia University. She's the great-grand-daughter of a house slave, and the unmarried mother of an adopted son. She's a piano student distinguished more by determination than skill, and she possesses one of New York City's better collections of take-out menus. And what a story-teller!
Many of the stories are tales of Williams's family, a remarkable collection of (mainly) aunts who rode education as far as it could take them in their day, and encouraged her to push farther. "They always insisted that I work hard, but not that I be perfect. They worked hard with me, on me, for me." Any family has complications, of course, including some that are peculiar to black families: she had an aunt who married into a prestigious white Boston family, who wound up reinventing her white son-in-law as her own son, in effect disinheriting her daughter.
The essays in Open House are relatively personal, compared with the political bent of Williams's earlier collections.; but Williams here shows us that such a clean distinction would be a luxury in her life. From the time she was one of nine black women in her class at Harvard Law School, she has had a sort of evil twin, who exists in the opinions and prejudices of others. She has, as it happens, an actual public voice, a record of speech and writing about race, gender, and various legal issues; and then she has the straw man--the liberal feminazi of Rush Limbaugh's dreams, as pictured by some of her students, for polemical purposes of their own. She even had the dubious distinction of the full Lani Guinier treatment: when she was scheduled to give some talks on the BBC, she found herself reading about her supposed self in the British press, as a supporter of "favoritism, tribalism, liberalism, literalism, and the degradation of civilization as we know it."
Williams's view of the contradictions of African-American life is both entertaining and enlightening. On compulsive striving to overcome stereotypes: "...when huge amounts of energy go into jumping through those hoops for the sole sake of performance rather than personal satisfaction, a kind of bitterness settles over the enterprise. We risk a deep disappointment, an existential fatigue that can poison the entire enterprise." Ain't it the truth?

April 2005

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift; The Quality of Life Report; Southern Fried

E-mail only, May 2005
Just to get us in the mood for summer--and if that seems early, remember my internal calendar is based in Alabama--a look at the fiction shelf.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
Elinor Lipman (2003, Random House)

The Quality of Life Report
Meghan Daum (2003, Viking)

Southern Fried
Cathy Pickens (2004, St. Martin's Press)

Not just fiction, friends, but Chick Lit: all three of our heroine narrators are going through life changes that make them ask the big questions, like 'What should I do with my life?' and 'Where do I belong?'

Elinor Lipman's Alice Thrift is, in one way, exactly where she belongs; she's a surgical resident, who all her life has suffered the social gracelessness reputedly common to surgeons. She's swept off her feet--sort of--by Ray Russo, who gives her the flowers-and-candy treatment so relentlessly that it seems less trouble to marry him than to figure out why she doesn't really want to. She's busy, after all, and not altogether certain that she'll make it through the first year as an intern. (I can tell you that the marriage is a disaster, because Alice tells us so herself, right up front.)
Now, who here hasn't at some time accepted a date, because, what the heck, you might turn out to be wrong, and have a good time? The disaster that is Ray happens to Alice because she isn't really paying attention, which is a neat trick for Lipman--to show us through her own eyes all that Alice is missing. And fortunately, she is a decent enough person to attract other friends and allies around the hospital, and we can believe the good they see in her. What Ray sees in her is a puzzlement, and feels rather phony, even to Alice; but she has a moment of clarity in just the nick of time.

In Megan Daum's The Quality of Life Report, Lucinda Trout enjoys much wider horizons than Dr. Thrift, but shares many of the same work/life conundrums. Is her immediate boss just cranky, or possibly evil incarnate? Are the ideas you talk yourself into the best ideas? Lucinda talks herself into a lulu--she moves from New York to a small city two thousand miles west of Central Park, to send back televised reports on the part of the country where one-room apartments don't cost two thousand dollars a month.
As the older narrator is embarrassed to confess, this amounts to cultural slumming on an impressive scale. Young Lucinda secretly imagines that midwestern standards are so far below those of New York that she'll receive an instant promotion in popularity, attractiveness, wit and all-around genius. Indeed, she is welcomed with open arms by the local liberal-hippie contingent, the crowd that runs the public tv station and the Coalition of Women. And she manages to send back a few reports on quaint local customs, even if she has to contrive them herself: it's the first Barn Dance they've been to in many a moon, but her local friends are up for it. (Unfortunately, of course, they're too chubby and badly dressed to appear on television in New York, unless they are actually confessing to methamphetamine abuse.)
The cultural clash is often very funny, in a painful way. Lucinda continues to describe Prairie City as a New Yorker would see it ("There are lesbians in the midwest?"), but her problems take on a reality and seriousness undreamt of by that old self. Faced with the empty propane tank, the boyfriend with three children and no money, and the growing awareness that her friends know she's been condescending to them but like her anyway--Lucinda gets to quit fantasizing about being a good, spiritual person and actually become one.

Moving even deeper into the realms of brain candy, Cathy Pickens's Southern Fried is a competent murder mystery; but it's also a coming-home novel with a real sense of place. Avery Andrews is a lawyer who has jumped off the corporate ladder (evil boss) in Columbia, S. C., and retreated upstate to her home town of Dacus. Pickens gives us a nice sense of why that's such a great distance: she was a loner in Columbia, but Avery has People in Dacus, including a great-aunt who feels free to drum up law business for her over cheese straws and petit fours.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The First Word

Any Good Books
January 2010

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
Christine Kenneally (2007, Viking)

In The First Word, Christine Kenneally is on the trail of a mystery: “Where, in (pre-)human history, did language come from?” It is a daunting question, to be sure: because words are made of breath, which leaves no fossil record, (when you probe beyond the advent of writing, only about six thousand years ago) it’s hard to see how to tackle it. It’s tempting to invoke the Garden of Eden, or the Tower of Babel, and be done with it.
By way of prologue, Kenneally also tackles an interesting question about the history of her primary question. Although Charles Darwin was curious about the matter, and included some philological speculation in The Descent of Man, major linguistic bodies of his day explicitly declined to countenance papers or talks on the origin of language. That philosophical embargo continued into the twentieth century: the field of Linguistics itself, to the considerable degree that it was dominated by Noam Chomsky, mostly left the question alone. Kenneally says, “Having stripped away all of the untidy bits of language as ‘performance,’ Chomsky defined language as an idealized, perfect, and elegant system. The brain, on the other hand, he said, was messy. How did something so messy develop something so perfect? It was a mystery, he said, one that was, for the time being, insoluble.”
How do you go from an insoluble mystery to an answerable question? It helps to rethink what sort of a thing ‘language’ might be. Of the other linguists Kenneally writes about (having narrowed her cast of characters for the sake of intelligibility,) Philip Lieberman is the most critical of Chomskyan ideas about the uniqueness and perfection of human language. He writes of language “as not so much a new thing that humans have as a new thing we do, and we do it with a collection of neural parts that has long been available to us. Moreover, when you think about language this way, it is not really a ‘thing’ at all but a suite of abilities and predispositions, some recently evolved and some primitive.”
Broken down, that suite of abilities yields to a variety of approaches. Studying apes in the wild gives scientists insight into the way our ancestors may have understood relationships of kinship and reciprocal benevolence. Parrots, dolphins, and chimpanzees have learned to use symbol systems to generate novel expressions. Preverbal human babies, and adults with deficits caused by brain injuries, have also shed light on how the parts of our language apparatus depend on one another.
The recent explosion of genetic data has contributed to the picture; I’m quite thrilled to know that humans have a gene, a bad copy of which inhibits the ability to speak, that is 98% similar to one in birds that allows them to learn how to sing; the current human version is roughly as old as language. All that tells us, though, is that FOXP2 is a necessary but not sufficient condition for human speech; that’s a long way from really understanding how even this one gene is expressed. Kenneally says, “Language evolution research has illuminated a complicated geometry of species, traits, and relationships, and in the face of this newly defined space words like ‘uniqueness,’ ‘innateness,’ and ‘instinct’ have come to mean everything and nothing.”
The First Word contains multitudes, far beyond what I can do justice to in this space. Kenneally writes well, folding the science smoothly into her narrative. While it’s early days for evolutionary linguistics, the good news is that students are coming along who embrace the insights of biology, anthropology, cognitive science, and computer modelling. More good news, says Kenneally: “At the time I wrote this introduction, pretty much every one of the main characters in this book, and a slew of others, was writing his own book to present at greater length his particular version of how language evolved.”
I can’t wait.