Bathing the Lion

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Jonathan Carroll’s new novel is brilliant, fun and entertaining. I am not a reader of the fantasy genre, but I was convinced by Neil Gaiman’s high praise for Mr. Carroll and this novel. His other fans include Jonathan Lethem and Pat Conroy.

This is not fantasy with mythical beings. It is subtle, metaphysical and surreal. I don’t know the borderline between magical realism and fantasy but it must be in this realm. There is a fabulous Gene Wolfe quote about the dividing line: “magical realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.”

The “fantasy” underwhelms you at first. Set in a small Vermont town being gentrified by up-scale liberal New York City transplants it is a story about marital infidelity and mid-life crisis. Tolerant Vermont is not New Hampshire. The characters provisionally are: a lesbian bar owner and to a lesser extent her bookstore owner partner; an owner of an upscale men’s clothing store and his selfish and adulterous wife who is banging his business partner; and a long-time resident and recent widower barely known to any of them. The fantasy starts when they all realize they are sharing the same dream. Unraveling the meaning of this dream in time and space is the trajectory of the plot. Like a good mystery, clues are pearls slowly revealed.

Underlying the plot, this novel is about what it means to be human. As in a Lev Grossman novel, childhood stories come to life imparting clues. As with most fantasy good and evil are balanced and weighed. The theme is understated and left undecided. There are aliens who are omnipotent. Here omnipotent is mentally more powerful, but not all-knowing. Whether a theological statement is being made is open to interpretation. The aliens have the mental acuity of an automaton. Aliens are not necessarily enemies. The novel is uplifting about our species in spite of our foibles.

There are reviews of this book that will explain the plot and themes in more detail, but I would rather not spoil it for you. Readers who prefer fantasy or science fiction to be in their face may be disappointed in its build-up. There is a part of the novel where the fantastic elements predominate, but I found this less satisfying than when they are integrated with the normal lives of the characters. Having never read Mr. Carroll, I cannot tell you how it compares with his other works. I am interested in reading more of his works based on this novel. Mr. Carroll has an interesting family history: his father was a screenwriter of “The Hustler” and other movies; his step-brother is the composer Steven Reich. Between the two of them dinner conversation must have been interesting.

I apologize for leaving you in the dark about this book. I’d rather have you enjoy it with your eyes wide closed.

 

Amnesia

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The back jacket indicates that Peter Carey is available for select speaking engagements. I am thinking honorarium before I begin reading “Amnesia”. Peter Carey was a “Mad Man” in Australia, so self-promotion would not be inconsistent. On the other hand, he is one of only three two-time recipients of the Booker Prize. Is it money, rather than promotion?  He did not want to expand the Booker Prize to include A.merican authors, although he has lived and written in New York for two decades. His venue remains Australia in spite of this. A bit of a puzzler.

Unfortunately “Amnesia” is more a maze than a puzzle. It might have been aptly titled “Adolescence” or “Australia and America”.  I have not read Mr. Carey’s other works, and perhaps he was experimenting with a cyber spy-thriller genre, but this is not a successful experiment.

Gaby Ballieux, a love striken adolescent from a dysfunctional family of an actress mom and minor Australian Labor minister dad has released a worm into the Australia’s prison computer system which is apparently linked to U.S. prison. Prisoners are released and she is to be prosecuted. A failing but notable Australian writer is coerced to write a favorable biography in hopes of proving Gaby’s innocence. The writer, whose life is in danger for aiding and abetting, is in hiding throughout most of the book while writing this biography. The plot is very contrived.

The cyber aspect is thin. It is wrapper to make the book commercially current. Mr. Carey’s main theme appears to be anti-Americanism in Australia starting with the 1942 Battle of Brisbane during World War II. This violent  multiple day street brawl between the armed services from both countries was attributable to a variety of factors: women; racism; cultural differences and the economic privilege of Americans; liquor and misunderstandings. The event was censored in the spirit of allied unity. The other aspect of this anti-American theme is the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. Exercising Section 64 of the Australian Constitution for the first time,  Australian Labor party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr in favor of Liberal party Malcolm Fraser. Parliamentary issues aside, Mr. Carey focuses on alleged CIA (he does not mention MI6) interference because Whitlam wanted Australia to be non-aligned and was to reveal the CIA’s spy base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs Australia. Purportedly Governor- General Kerr was on the CIA’s payroll. As with Snowden and NSA it was claimed that MI6 and the CIA bugged the Australian government. The alleged “coup” was Chile redux.

If all of this seems disjointed and directionless it is. I kept waiting to learn about the hacking of the prison system, but the focus on hacking  was on the systems of a dioxin polluter of an Australian creek. Mr. Carey’s cyber research for this book seems to be less in-depth than Wikipedia.

The only consistent theme in this novel is teenage angst: To get approval of her nerd boyfriend during the formative years of computer hacking a girl becomes bourgeois radical. Yawn.

Perhaps the editors at Knopf knew they could get testimonials for this book or just could not tell a prize-winning commercial success to do a rewrite.  Fortunately, I am in the middle of two rewarding books. Maybe “Amnesia” is a good title, as this book is forgettable.

The Rebel Flag

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This evening the Governor of South Carolina announced that she did not believe the Confederate Flag should be flown at the State Capitol. This is a positive step if followed through by South Carolina’s legislature. They should also provide through legislation that it must not be flown on State or Federal land.

South Carolina did not always fly the Confederate Flag at the State Capitol. It did so, as did other southern states, after the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. There certainly was a racial tinge to this change, but it, nor the recent murders in Charleston are the only driving force for removal of the flag from government property.

It is now over 150 years since the end of the Civil War. As in all wars, not everyone who fought on one side or the other were strong believers in a particular cause or mission. Some clearly were, but young men and families fought as an expression of manhood; family and community loyalty; conscription, economics; pride and revenge. The Civil War was not just about emancipation; it was about union and secession.

Southerners are some of the most loyal Americans in many respects. This is true for South Carolinians.  Within and without the state for many the Confederate Flag is a reminder of racism and bigotry. For some (maybe a substantial minority) it remains an outward symbol of it. For many southerners the rebel flag is a cultural symbol of southerner heritage. It some respects it is a regional unifier. It is embedded in country western music. It is the rebel yell and the rebel spirit.

Unfortunately, the flag is also an expression of dissociative behavior. This would be understandable within a generation of the war. However it has been 150 years to get beyond this trauma and recognize that this symbol is disloyal to the United States of America to which southerners are otherwise so loyal. Southerners may not overtly or otherwise think of the rebel flag in this context, but it is. It goes beyond states rights and an extreme extension of Jeffersonian democracy. Southerners can be more polite and gracious than northerners (who also a significant number of racists). It is time they looked at this flag in the context that many in this country see it.

Our country is built on free speech. Those in South Carolina, or elsewhere, who wish to fly the rebel flag are entirely free to do so. Flying it or not, will not change the racial beliefs of those who associate the Confederate Flag as supportive of those beliefs.

However, it must not be flown on government property in South Carolina or any other state. We are one nation and there is no need to commemorate in act to destroy it. It would be an act of grace to the country if South Carolinians, who are so loyal to this country, to move this flag off all government property and to find another symbol for the pride of the South.

The Tusk That Did the Damage

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As I was reading Tania James’ novel I kept thinking about Nikita Lalwani’s “The Village” which I reviewed in December, 2013. In both novels the BBC sends journalists to India to do a documentary. In Ms. Lalwani’s book it is an investigative piece on a model open prison system. In Ms. James’ novel it is about a natural preserve for elephants. The distinction between the two is that there is more tension created between the crew and with locals in Ms. Lalwani’s book, whose plot is not revealed until the very end. Ms. James splits the novel into evolving chapters: The Elephant; the Poacher; and the Filmmaker. The elephant is the Gravedigger. Having lost his mother at a young age to poachers he is out for revenge as an adult. The poachers are both the poor farmers and the greedy. Each profit from the ivory trade and both are sought by the government. As the latter enforces and reduces poaching in the subject preserve it awards part of the preserve’s habitat to a lumber company. The filmmakers are two young documentary filmmakers trying to get noticed. There is an undercurrent of romantic involvement between the two. It is one-sided and up-ended by a relationship with one of the  guardians of the preserve. Journalistic integrity is briefly an issue.

This is a short novel and meant for a summer read. It is slightly informative about elephants, the local Indian culture and the tension between preserves and farmers. It is not meant to be a literary work, although the prose is fast-moving and readable. It is predictable in plot, but if you are looking for a quick read with a wildlife protection theme it is suitable.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

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The locale for Fatima Bhutto’s emotionally charged novel is Mir Ali in North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Territories (“FATA”) of Pakistan. FATA and the North-West Frontier Province (“NWFP”) are called the tribal regions that lie between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I would recommend that you get a copy of Jamil Ahmad’s superb short story anthology “The Wandering Falcon” which is an oral history of Pashtun tribes in the NWFP. It is a misnomer that there are two sides to every problem. There are many sides, but for simplicity we unfortunately reduce problem-solving to zero-sum games.

Ms. Bhutto’s novel is not simplistic. It traces the lives of three brothers. Aman Erum the eldest and the one who is determined to leave the history of Mir Ali’s revolt against the Pakistan government and military behind and become successful in the United States. Sikandar, the middle son, who is a doctor, tries to get by, because he and his wife Mina have already suffered. Hayat is the youngest and most radicalized. The family lives in Mir Ali, which is the second largest city in FATA. Their father fought unsuccessfully against the Pakistan government. Relative to the impoverished on the outskirts of town and in the NWFP they are middle class. As Pashtuns they have been discriminated against by the predominantly Punjabi population, but this too is misleading, as Pashtuns have a presence in Pakistan’s intelligence service. They do not support the Taliban and the more radicalized Sunni’s, as they are moderate Shi’a. The latter likely reflects the author as well.

Vacuums are opportunities for radicalization. Understanding both the history between FATA and in particular North Waziristan and Pakistan; economic disparities in the country; and religious and tribal rivalries; provides a better understanding of conflict. Foreign countries have fared no better in NWFP and FATA than they have in Pashtun Afghanistan. Boundaries drawn by the British are as much as source of conflict as they are in the Middle East. Aman Erum understands these statistics and Hayat knows he has no hope.

FATA Table

Like lines projecting upwards the boys lives bend by their weight and intertwine. The storyline is engaging and unforgiving. Ms. Bhutto does not offer easy answers in the end; there are none.
The author is no stranger to tragedy and political intrigue. Her aunt was Benazir Bhutto, who she accused of murdering her father Murtaza when she was a young girl. Her and her family’s history is conveyed in her book “Songs of Blood & Sword”.
The author clearly writes from what she knows. She is part of Pakistani “royalty”. She remains outspoken about Pakistan.
“The Shadow of the Crescent Moon” shows another side of that moon. It is well worth reading.

Interesting Facts

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I have yet to write a review about one short story. This is the exception. “Interesting Facts” by Adam Johnson appears in the June 2015 edition of Harper’s magazine. It is a powerful story that has breadth. It is told from the perspective of a wife who is suffering the ravage of cancer and the illusion and reality of the disintegration of her marriage and family. It casts memories, facts about Japanese and Native American culture, cancer treatment, literature, and media across a sea of anxieties.

While the loss of life is gender neutral, the loss of breasts in my opinion has no psychological parallel for men. It is less a matter of cultural stigma in our society, but it still may be felt as a diminution of womanhood in U.S. culture. Self-worth for adolescent girls is often focused on the development of breasts, perhaps because they are visible. Boys don’t share this social pressure. Men do have psychological scars tied to sex, it just seems different from the cost of a mastectomy.

The author is not unknown, although he was unknown to me. Adam Johnson received the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his novel “The Orphan Master’s Son.” I will be looking for that book. You should read this well written short story.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

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I had no read any of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works, so my choice of this 2005 novella is likely not representative of the body of his work. The story is simple, and not politically correct. A journalist who traded love for the company of working women in bordellos decides for his 90th birthday that he wants to sleep with a virgin. The madam finds a 14-year-old for him. The protagonist has the stereotypical Latin virility. He reminisces about his relationships and about age. Facially patriarchal the undertone is matriarchal. Emotion is a crevice that permits his exploitation.

There is nothing illuminating nor particularly entertaining in the tale. The prose is not distinguished. It may be no more than a work of an old man.

I would recommend that you opt for one of his more famous novels.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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On May 29, 2014 I reviewed “The Science of Herself”, a collection of short stories and an abbreviated biography of the sometime science fiction and fantasy writer Karen Joy Fowler. In “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, a coming of age, historical novel, Ms. Fowler delves into the psychological consequences of a family raising a child and a baby chimpanzee as siblings. A The New York Times’ 100 notable books of 2012, this novel is a must read.

I previously reviewed two other psychological historical novels: “The Man Who Walked Away” (see February 13, 2015) and “A Tale for the Time Being” (September 3, 2014). The latter was written by Ruth Ozeki, who Ms. Fowler acknowledges for her support in writing this novel. Their unassuming writing styles belie the depth of their works. In Ms. Ozeki’s novel, suicide and cultural dysfunction are explored. Here the subject is more basic: what is it that makes us human and distinguishable from our primate relative? Fern and Rosemary are epigenetic sisters in childhood. Genetics, however, cannot be ignored. As Fern ages the difficulties or raising a chimpanzee outside her natural environment emerge.

Rosemary is the Monkey Girl. She knows she is different, but the differences are not always clear to her. Fern also does not fit in when resituated with other simians in  lab cages. Ms. Fowler, through her characters, examines animal rights in the context of business and scientific research.

“The infliction of economic damage on those profiting from misery is a stated goal… This is why a number of states are considering laws that make the unauthorized photographing of what goes no in factory farms and slaughterhouses a felony. … It’s no coincidence that one of the Abu Ghraib torturers came to the military directly from a job as a chicken processor.”

The use of animals as pin cushions, food and pelts is not a diatribe. It is deftly handled within the context of the characters. Such “ag gag” laws have failed to be enacted in any state, although North Carolina had a Bill introduced in 2015.

The author’s larger purpose is exposing ill-considered psychological studies of animals vis-a-vis humans.

“But no one would name a baby after Harry Harlow. He’d taken rhesus monkey infants away from their mothers and given them inanimate mothers instead, mothers alternatively of terry-cloth or wire, to see which, in the absence of other choices, the babies preferred. He claimed, deliberately provocative, to be studying love.

The baby monkeys clung pathetically to the fake, uncaring mothers, until they all turned psychotic or died. ‘I don’t know what he thought he’d learned about them,’ Lowell said. ‘But in their short, sad little lives, they sure learned a hell of a lot about him.'”

Human study of animals is a one-way mirror. The presumption of intelligence is anthropomorphic. How well do animals adapt to humans and the human environment? Fern learns to sign as a means of communication. Rosemary can understand some of the mannerisms of Fern, but she, nor any other human, can  communicate in the language of any animal.

“‘Here’s the problem with Dad’s approach.’ …’Right in the fundamental assumptions. Dad was always saying that we were all animals, but when he dealt with Fern, he didn’t start from that place of congruence. His method put the whole burden of proof onto her. It was always her failure for not being able to talk to us, never ours for not being able to understand her. It would have been more scientifically rigorous to start with the assumption of similarity. It would have been a lot more Darwinian.'”

There have been studies that animals do not have the equivalent long-term (episodic) memory of humans. Primates apparently have short-term memory that is far superior to humans. Whether this is due to superior senses or different mental faculties is not clear (if the latter it might merit study in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia). There is no way to know the strength or weakness of episodic memory in animals, although data has been persuasive that scrub jays have episodic memory. Temporal remembrance -when things happened- is a weakness in animals and most humans.

At some time in the not to distance future we will need to come to grips with what is human. Google has a patent that instills robots with human traits. Deep learning, neural networks, will create machines that are independent thinking and perhaps more advanced than human. Science fiction may be misnomer. The fiction may be our present beliefs about ourselves,

This novel is more subtle than this review might indicate. It is first a good story with good characters. It is not a rant. The characters deftly raise questions within the context of the storyline. The plain language makes the evolving story unexpected and more powerful. Ms. Fowler tells the story starting in the middle and works backwards and forwards. I was not sure how she was going to end the book, but like the rest of the novel it was done strongly.

 

The Bone Clocks

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David Mitchell’s new novel is a conglomeration of stories wrapped around a paranormal tale. It is admirable in the breadth and depth of research that went into writing a novel with an expanse in time and space.

Immortality versus reincarnation is the field of battle between the Anchorites, who feed on the souls of the living, and the Atemporals (or Horologists), who following death assume a new human body, but with retention of knowledge from their past lives. The principal character, Holly Sykes, unknowingly offers asylum to a Horologist that the Anchorites are trying to liquidate. Holly is the thread that binds the stories: runaway English teenager; waitress at a Swiss ski resort and love affair with a future Anchorite; to life partner with a childhood friend who is a renown war correspondent and father of their daughter; acclaimed author about paranormal; grandmother and guardian of her granddaughter in a post-apocalyptic world. The trip provides a tablet for Mr. Mitchell to express views about British publishing and literary awards; social class at Cambridge; and war in the Middle East. As the Horologists have lived in many countries and during many centuries there is a smattering of culture and history along the way.

The Anchorites are formally The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass. The is some misinformation about the Cathar’s preaching that the world was created by the devil and not God; that matter is evil; and that Jesus was only a man. The Cathars were heretics to the Catholic Church. They did believe that the physical world, including the human body, was created by Satan, but polytheism aside, were more aligned with the New Testament than the Old. They were spiritual descendants of Manicheans, who believed in a spiritual God and not God as creator. Interestingly there are 12 Anchorites, as there are 12 Apostles, including St. Thomas. The twelfth Anchorite, the only non-white Anchorite anda double agent, takes the role of Judas. The second Anchorite is named Immaculée Constantin. Anchorites keep their number to twelve and must source a decantable guest every 3 years. They are taken to the Chapel where the Black Cathar decants the visitors soul into the Black Wine. The 12 anchorites assemble at a ritual known as Rebirthday where they drink the Black Wine. It is all a bit too contrived for me.

The book is most readable prior to the fantastical war between the Anchorites and the Atemporals. It is super-hero, good versus evil. To me, rather boring. It does not get better when the story line becomes post-apocalyptic. If there was an element of science fiction it might be tolerable, but there is no science involved. The story is the result of lazy futuristic musings.

This novel will never be listed for the Booker Prize.

“Last year Sir Roger shocked the arts world by purchasing U.K.’s foremost literary prize, renaming it after himself and trebling the pot to L150,000. Bloggers suggest that his acquisition was prompted by his latest wife, Suze Brittan, whose CV includes a stint as a soup star, face of TV’s book show, The Unputdownables, and now chairperson of the Brittan Prize’s panel of uncorruptible judges. … “I hear what you are saying about Slaughterhouse Five, Lord Brittan.” Nick Greek possesses American self-assurance, Byronic good looks, and I already detest him. “But if I were forced at gunpoint to pick the twentieth-century was novel, I opt for Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. It’s-“

“I knew you’d say that!” Suze Brittan performs a little victory jig. “I adore it. The only war novel to really ‘get’ trench warfare from the German point of view.”

“I wonder, Lady Suze,’ Nick Greek treads delicately, “if you’re thinking of All Quiet on the Western Front-“

I never read Cloud Atlas and I am less inclined to do so after reading this novel. The Naked and the Dead is a lot more inviting.

 

 

 

Possible Suicide… Another life lost.

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bwhite21:

In my review of “Redeployment” I asked for comments from Vets who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. I received a like and a follow from the writer of this blog. Her husband is a vet from Afghanistan. As in “Redeployment” in real life the war comes home with the Vet. Trauma is a continuing wound that can result in suicide. I am not sure if 20 Vets a day committing suicide is all vets, or just vets from these war zones. To put the number in perspective, 20 a day is 8030 vets dying from suicide each year. The US soldiers killed in Iraq since March 19, 2003 and in Afghanistan each to date are 4493 and 2357. Not all of these are killed in combat, although most are. The combined total of soldiers killed in these war zones since March 19, 2003 is 6850. The vets dying from suicide in one year is again 8030. Which is the war zone?

Originally posted on Life as I Know It:

Suicide… death… gone… forever…  I am going to apologize if this is rambling.

I hate it, I hate that a movie star who commits suicide or a person shot and killed in the United States gets more news press than the estimated 22 veterans a day that choose to take their own life.  In 2010 the VA was putting the number at about 18 a day.  Looking as an outsider I never really thought about the Veteran suicide rate until I met my husband.    How is it that people are not shouting from the roof tops about this stat?!?!   I have come to one conclusion…. its not about the stats, its about the soap box.  You can be a part of the facebook ALS challenge, talk about the famous person who commits suicide, or the guy killed by a cop;  but no one wants to bring up the…

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