Gray Mountain, by John Grisham, is in some ways a traditional Grisham novel. He often has great ideas that get you interested right off the bat. This was no exception. A Young Wall Street Lawyer gets laid off after the Financial Crisis of 2008. As a severance perk the firm pays for her health insurance if she agrees to work pro bono for a charity. As a result she finds a job with a Legal Aid firm deep in Virginia. There she discovers Appalachia and all that comes with it, including coal. The coal industry is up to its old tricks and some employees need legal help in dealing with Big Coal.
Sadly, like most Grisham novels in my opinion, he starts off with a great idea that fizzles because he does not know how to finish it. Grisham is like a good starting pitcher who needs a closer. This book is in that strong tradition. It fizzles at the end. In the meantime it did provide an entertaining read.
Before it ends, the heroine, Samantha helps a number of indigent people who were getting screwed. The saddest of her cases involves a coal miner who contracts Black Lung disease for which he is entitled to be compensated, but the system, and all embroiled in it, use that system to deny benefits. Samantha in the best tradition of the law tries to get redress. Big Coal resists. As Grisham writes, “coal companies are brilliant when it comes to finding new ways to screw people.”
As Grisham writes:
Chester said, “it’s a favorite trick in the coalfields. A company mines the coal, then goes bankrupt to avoid payments and the reclamation requirements. Sooner or later they usually pop up with another name. Same bad actors, just a new logo.”
“That’s disgusting,” Samantha said.
“No, that’s the law.”
Grisham is nothing if not cynical about lawyers and the law. But in recent years he has also painted the other side of the story, with lawyers like Samantha. There are some good lawyers too. This is what she learns from another lawyer, talking about court rooms, “I love them. It’s the only place where the little guy can go toe-to-toe on a level field with a big, crooked, corporation. A person with nothing–no money–nothing but a set of facts can file a lawsuit and force a billion dollar company to show up for a fair fight.” That is the majesty of the law. Even if the fight is not always fair, often it is. Often it brings justice. That is a pretty good thing.
For another client she helps, when no one else will, Samantha realizes this on her way home:
“As she drove away from the Starlight Motel, Samantha realized she had spent the better part of 12 hours aggressively representing Pamela Booker and her children. Had she not stumbled into the clinic that morning, they would be hiding somewhere in the backseat of their car, hungry, cold, hopeless, frightened, and vulnerable.” Again, a pretty good thing.
Sometimes– maybe not often enough, but sometimes–lawyers can be proud of what they do. Damn proud.
Though the wonders of the CBC Radio App, I listened to a fascinating interview on CBC with an old friend whom I have never met–Len Deighton. I never met him but I grew up with him. Deighton was the writer of spy novels from the 1960s to 1980s. He was in my opinion a great writer. He was right up their with another favortie John LeCarre. Both of those writers broke the protocol of spy novels in suggesting that the good guys–the British and America spies–were just as morally corrupt as the bad guys–the Communists. Who would ever have thought that?
Listen to this conversation between Bernard Samson and his boss Dickie Cruyer in British intelligence, who Phillip Coulter described as having “a PHD in office politics,”
Bernard: Who pays him?
Dickie: He’s not for sale Bernard.
Bernard: Then he’s no one I know.
His first novel, which he actually wrote for himself because he did not intend to publish it, did catch the public attention after he did publish it. He described blink and dingy streets of Berlin soaked with betrayal and paranoia. As Philip Coulter said, his books described “a broken down society at war with itself in which the greatest dangers were from within.”
Deighton realized that one of the most most common fears of our policial leaders was a fear of a lack of information. He likened this to a fear of the dark or a lack of confidence that our future unknowns will be benign. That opened up a lot of room for intelligence services (at least until the arrival of Donald Trump who relies instead on his own personal ‘intelligence.’)
Deighton described this in the first of the fabulous trilogy Game, Set & Match where the spy Bernard Samson had sent a young and inexperienced spy, McKenzie, to a situation in which he was murdered. After that Bernard had terrible visions of McKenzie’s brains spattered on the wall behind his corpse. The visions came back to him at night and he shuddered. “I felt guilty and as I prepared for bed I suffered the delayed reaction that my body had deferred and deferred. I shook uncontrollably. I did not want to admit even to myself that I was frightened but that image of McKenzie kept blurring into an image of myself. And my guilt was turning into fear for fear is so unwelcome that it comes only in disguise and guilt is its favourite one.”
Coulter interviewed Deighton in the London Travellers Club dining room where well educated and well to do Englishmen who had travelled abroad met to discuss their travels. The club was a vital a cog in the British class system. It had a huge library with books that went right up to the ceiling. However, like the books in British aristocratic manors, many of them were seldom read. They were not really there to educate their owners; they were there for decoration. As Coulter said, “Fake books. A Library not used for the purpose of imparting knowledge are in some ways metaphors for the themes in Len Deighton’s novels. Worlds where things are seldom what they seem where those with the trappings of power and competence actually rarely have those skills. The room too is emblematic of the class tensions that run through Deighton’s books. The tension between a natural aristocracy with wealth and power and the classes below them with little or none.”
Yet Deighton was actually ambivalent about that class system. He saw the good and the bad of that system and saw himself as a referee between the classes. He is a spectator. As Deighton said in the interview, “If we look at history we see that the upper classes provided people with a sort of dignity, knowledge, self-respect and honour that is completely absent from the political world today and the world has grown much poorer in practicalities.”
Deighton’s complex view of classes is a familiar theme right through his books, filling them with humour, delight, and wonder. As Coulter said, “Yes he believes that there should be a leadership cadre, but no it shouldn’t be closed. Those who lead bear responsibilities not legislated but moral.”
This ambivalence in his novels is exemplified best by his main protaganist Bernie Samson. Sampson is constantly wracked by that cruel division. After all he is the one who failed to go to one of the better British schools and had this constantly held over his head and his career by his superiors in the office and inferiors in life. “His office wars revolved around the occasionally inept but well educated bureaucrats who are his bosses.” Here is a delightful example, in a description by Bernie Samson:
“On Wednesday afternoon I was in Brett Renssalaer’s office. It was on the top floor not far from the suite the DG occupied. All the top floor offices were decorated to the personal taste of the occupant. It was one of the perks of seniority. Brett’s room was modern with glass and chrome and gray carpet. It was hard, austere, and colourless, a habitat just right for Brett with his dark worsted Saville Row suit, and the crisp white suit and club tie and his fair hair that was going white and the smile that seemed shy and fleeting, but was really the reflex action that marked his indifference.”
Deighton knew this world of spies from London was interesting, sly, and vicious, but above all complex. It is a world well worth inhabiting with a master guide like Len Deighton. He is well worth reading.
I have wanted to go to the Tucson Festival of Books for many years. Every year they have some very interesting authors. So this was the year we decided to go. I was unable to secure tickets in advance. This was a mistake. But, I figured, that should not be a problem; after all for each venue they reserved 25% of the tickets for walk in traffic. We would just walk up right? Wrong!
To begin with we were late getting off by about 30 minutes and we missed the first event called “Sizzling Suspense” and featured 3 authors. We only knew one of them. That was J.A Jance as one of the authors. Chris and I had both read at least one of her books and liked them. However when we arrived we had a very difficult time finding parking. We had been told it was Spring break so parking would be easier. Wrong! Maybe it was easier than it was regularly, but it was definitely not easy.
As we were walking in we noticed there were a lot of people here. As we walked beside some enthusiastic attendees we were assured we would have a great time. One said she came very year and loved it. We were getting exciting despite the late start.
First, we were amazed at how many outdoor booths there were. Most were related to books or reading. All kinds for all kinds of readers. Childrens’ books, University of Arizona books, nature books, mystery books, religious books, non-fiction, etc. There were Mormons trying to give away information about tracing our ancestral roots. Maybe they wanted to convert our dead relatives. That’s what people back home say they like to do. How do you convert dead people? There were more traditional religious nuts warning us to repent. You name it there was something there for your taste. The crowds were large. There was a busker in a pedestrian underpass under a street who played wonderful music. The acoustics were astounding where he stood. Even cheap Mennonites tipped! This actually was the highlight of the festival for me. Now you know it did not end well. I also loved some bumper stickers: “He’s not My President.” “Reading is sexy.” ”Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists.”
Eventually we found parking, not that far away from the site but we missed the first event. Still no problem as we took time to review the brochure. We took so much time that we got to it “only” about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to start, but that should be enough time. Right? Wrong! The subject was “Is Democracy in Danger?” I thought that could not be very popular. Wrong once more! I went to the end of the line while Chris sat down near the entrance to the Hall. It was a very long line. I was getting doubtful about this process. About 25 feet from the entrance, after about 20 minutes of standing in line, it was announced that we would not get in. The line had been too long. It sucks to be us.
This was frustrating but we decided to get in line for the 3rd event even earlier so we could get in. This event was called “Lets Get Real” and featured writers from the southern border. Although this was currently a very popular subject of debate, given Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border, I thought there would not be big crowd for this talk. Wrong again! I was not there early enough. Many people support the wall; many do not. Same story. Just before getting to the entrance it was announced we would not get in, even though I had been in line for nearly half an hour. So the day was half over and we had got into zero events. Needless to say I was frustrated with how this worked. I confess I even said a few bad words. I am not a very good Mennonite. Me bad. No. Tucson Festival of Books bad.
I wanted to hear Noam Chomsky, one of my favourite political writers, and the featured speaker, who would be talking in the evening but I feared the same problem. I had been enough line-ups. I told Chris, “We are going home!” Wisely, she said, “no.” Lets go to Madera Canyon so we get something out of our 90-minute drive to Tucson. Good thinking Chris. So we left without seeing 1 single event. We walked around, ate some food, looked at some weirdos and left.
It was not a total waste however. I figured out that there was no purpose in going to this Festival without tickets. Had I bought them I realized I would still have to stand in a lineups, but only for a few minutes. There was a special line-up for ticket holders and provided people were not late they would get in.
The Festival often have some very interesting authors. Here is a very partial list from years past:
2011 – Elmore Leonard
2012 – Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
2013 – R.L. Stine
2014 – Richard Russo
2015 – Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Sam Barry, Greg Isles, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan & Scott Turow -The Rock Bottom Remainders
2016 – J.A. Jance
2017 – T.C. Boyle
2018 – Billy Collins (America’s Poet laureate)
That is a pretty impressive list.
I also realized this was an immensely popular festival. The 2010 United States Census put the population of Tucson at 520,116, while the 2015 estimated population of the entire Tucson metropolitan statistical area was 980,263. That is similar to Winnipeg in other words. Yet this festival was huge. Many writers. Thousands of attendees. Everything free! Even parking (after we found it) was free.
What really amazed me though were the thousands of people who showed up. People of all ages. Not just intellectuals. Kids. Moms. Pops, odds and sod, Hundreds of friendly volunteers. How could there be so many people to come to hear about books? I was stunned. Yesterday when we told a friend where we were going today he was perplexed. “Why would you do that?’ he asked. Tucson has many intelligent people that was my conclusion. I hope to try it again when I am wiser.
When I first heard about Louise Penny I was very surprised. She had been an unexceptional host on CBC radio in Winnipeg. As a regular CBC listener, I listened to her nearly every day. I heard she had moved to Quebec. Much to my surprise she wrote a book called Still Life. It was a murder mystery that took place in a small fictional village in the eastern townships called 3 Pines. I found it a little difficult to believe that she could be any good. How could a young woman from Winnipeg be a good mystery writer? That prejudice shows you how stupid I can be. Later I learned she was on the New York Times bestseller list. That did not seem improbable; it seemed impossible.
Sometimes it pays to listen to your spouse. Chris became a Penny fan and suggested I read her too. It took me a couple of years to follow her suggestions. Funny, how suggestions from a spouse are the last that are followed. And Chris says, “Should be the first to be followed. As a matter of fact, since Chris is a big mystery fan, when I learned this Winnipeg woman was an internationally respected mystery writer, I suggested she read her. Now Chris has conveniently forgotten my suggestion to her! Funny how that happens!
Eventually I read her first novel and concluded Penny is indeed a very good writer. Chris was right. Again I have to admit that. I have started to read her series now. Chris has read them all. This year I read the second in the series, Dead Cold. This convinced me that Penny is an exceptional writer.
One of the great pleasures of the series is Penny’s description of this small town in Quebec and it’s many fascinating inhabitants. This is how she describes the small town in her second novel:
“Three Pines had what she craved.
It had croissants and café au lait.It had steak fries and the New York Times. It had a bakery, a bistro, a B & B, a general store. It had peace and stillness and laughter. It had great joy and great sadness and the ability to accept both and be content. It had companionship and kindness.”
There was one outstanding incident in Dead Cold that I want to mention. It involved Clara, a recurring character in the series. Clara is an artist. So far she has toiled without success. She does not know if she is any good or not. Naturally she was insecure. She asked CC, who Clara wrongly thought was a friend, to introduce her art to a Montreal art critic. Then one day she encountered CC on an escalator in a Montreal department store, and CC, her erstwhile “friend” pretended to be talking to the critic as she was travelling down the escalator and Clara was travelling up. She led Clara to believe that the critic had dismissed her art as “amateur and banal.” It was cruel gesture and entirely deflated Clara. Clara was “murdered by words.” She “knew” her art was crap.
A few minutes after this painful incident, Clara encountered a homeless bum on the streets of Montreal. The bum was lying on the ground covered in vomit and excrement. The bum was an old woman. Clara intended to give her a bag of food. She almost stopped; the smell was so bad. Yet she continued and placed the bag beside the old woman. Amazingly, the old woman turned up to Clara and said, “I always loved your art, Clara.” How could that be?
For some reason, Clara was convinced this bum was God. The shit-covered bag lady was God! She thought she had met God. In my opinion Clara was wrong. She had not met God; she had become God. By offering food to the bum she became God. The Buddhists say that we must learn to become the Buddha. This is what Clara had done, and in the process she was redeemed. This is what we should do; we should become God. I believed that this is what genuine religion is all about. Religion leads us to the God within.
All of this in a mystery novel. Funny how that happens.
Like the Republic of Imagination that I read last year, this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran that I read this year in Arizona, was brilliant. Both are written by Azar Nafisi. This one is an odd little book. It is written by a young Iranian professor of English literature who now teaches at an American University, but tells us about her first years as a professor in Iran during and after the time of the Iranian Revolution. She started sort of a book club at her home when she felt suffocated by the oppressive regime while teaching in the University of Tehran. She went home to escape and took some of her female students with her. The professor and her students rebelled. They rebelled not with guns, bombs or conspiracies. They rebelled by reading American and English literature! In their hands that was a revolutionary activity.
All of the women lived in a totalitarian society where officials were wary of the Professor but didn’t really know what to do about her. Some of them learned how to resist. Some of them suffered serious consequences, but that is not really what the book is about. The book is about literature as rebellion.
Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.”
One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsbyon trial. Her students play the roles. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her more radical female students from her book club. It is a remarkable achievement. According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” It is a revolt against moral hubris in favor of what I have come to call moral humility or restraint.
The Iranian officials tried to prescribe what all the people should do, how they worship, how they love, what they read, and what they think. It tried to restrain them totally. The women became revolutionaries not by any overtly political acts, but only by readingand thinking. None of them fired a gun. Yet, the women learned how literature can defeat ideology. This is what Nafisi in her second book called “the Republic of Imagination.” Nafisi sees literature as revolutionary force opening the mind to possibilities. Imagine please, Jane Austen as a revolutionary!
Its books like this we should read when we are forced to confront authoritarianism. Times like now.
If you read this book it may be the best book you read this year. It is written by a Canadian lawyer, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. Or go to the CBC Radio archive and listen to the CBC’s 2017 Massey Lectures. The book contains those lectures. It is a delightful combination of personal reminiscences of himself and his family and his life as a UN human rights prosecutor and reflections on his experiences.
The book starts out with a wonderful and humorous description of how his family fled Iran as religious exiles fleeing persecution after their revolution. He was a young lad and did not realize why they were leaving the country he loved, but he was excited to go to Canada. His first impression was from 30,000 ft. in a jet.
Sadly, he found that Canada was not the country of unabashed welcoming of refugees. Instead in the schoolyard he was bullied as a “Paki.” Ignorant Canadian school children did not know better. He was different; so he was mocked. He spoke funny, that meant he must be ready to be made fun of. He thought the Hockey Night in Canada song was our national anthem. Maybe he was right.
Later the bigotry of Canadians morphed. He described it this way, “As my school days came to a close, the all-purpose pejorative “Paki” label was given way to a more sophisticated taxonomy of bigotry. Thanks to the simplistic sound bites and sensational images that passed as evening news, Arabs and Iranians were merging in the popular imagination as a barbaric race of crazed terrorists. Instead of getting better the ordeal by association was getting worse. It didn’t matter that we were actually the biggest victims of those same bearded fanatics appearing on their television screens, or that Western leaders had sabotaged secular democracy in our countries. Our story was irrelevant. We were merely a blank screen on which others projected their psychological needs, of either scorn or of pity.
Whether in the schoolyard or in global politics the clash of civilizations is a convenient escape from the visceral fear of embracing others. The bully and the bigot, the tyrant and the terrorist need to inflict pain on others to escape their own pain. Connecting with others renders us vulnerable; accepting differences challenges our way of life. The cowardly way out is to make enemies rather than doing the hard work of learning and growing. Why struggle to discover a deeper identity when hatred is within easy reach?”
In the book Akhavan meanders through many examples of a failure to empathize. Arabs and Israelis. Serbs and Croats. Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. Western European settlers and North American indigenous peoples. And many more. Invariably he adds value to the discussion of these conflicts. But he always comes back to the central concept of empathy. He quotes Persian philosopher Rumi: “the wound is the place where light enters.”
Here is what he says about the West and Islam,
“For much of history, Islamic civilization has been the enduring “other” of the Western world, and Western civilization the enduring “other” of the Islamic world. But the reality today is that the irresistible forces of globalization, the inexorable expansion of our collective unconscious, is infusing diverse peoples with an ever-broader sense of belonging. That is exactly why the extremists are panicking. In these times of accelerating change, they need each other more than ever. The white crusaders and the wicked jihadists are inseparable dancing partners, entangled in an awkward tango of mutual disgust. Whether they like it or not, identities are not fossils in a museum. They are inherently dynamic constantly shaping and being shaped by others in a never-ending exchange of perspectives. Amidst intensifying interdependence, parochial identities will invariably give way to a wider loyalty. Then better to negotiate the inevitable by dialogue rather than violence. The xenophobic hissy fit of identity warriors is futile avoidance of a shared future.”
Akhavan finds empathy as the basis of human rights. As an immigrant to Canada, during a time when brown people were rare and exotic, he understands from deep personal experience, that “multiculturalism is a messy affair.” It is often difficult and challenging. But is there any reason to believe that we are not up for the challenge? Akhavan points out,
“We each have a unique path, but when our journeys occasionally converge, we may discover that we also have a shared humanity; that we all suffer; whatever our identity may be. The universality of human rights means that despite our differences, we all deserve to be treated with the same dignity. We should not project demeaning stereotypes on others, portraying them as savages to justify our bigotry. But in celebrating diversity, we should also not become apologists for those that abuse others in the name of tradition.”
It is a fundamental theme of the book that we must recognize that other people suffer, just like we do. He knows, as Shakespeare’s Shylock did, that each of us bleeds in the same way. When we recognize that, we empathize. As the original meaning of the word “sympathy” indicates, “we suffer with.”
That is precisely why we have to be skeptical of claims from our leaders that “we” are different from “them”. No matter how much they want it otherwise, this is not a matter of “us” against “them.” This is a matter of “we.” We are in this together. We really are one human race, no matter where we come from, no matter what the color of our skin, and no matter how we worship (or not) our gods. We are fellows.
Akhavan says that our encounters with human rights atrocities have a lot to say about who we actually are, as opposed to who we pretend to be. That is why Akhavan explores how the pursuit of a virtuous self-image affects our perceptions of suffering at the periphery of our society. This is a version of the thought, now often accepted, that a civilization is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable–i.e. those who suffer at the periphery.
Akhavan points out that many of us are no longer able to define the sublime by reference to the divine. Therefore, to many, they are unable to find moral certainty. As Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov said, “If God is dead then all is permitted.” To such thinking Akhavan responds as follows:
“Disabused of the catastrophic illusions of the past, in our post-modern search for transcendence we have embraced human rights as the secular sacred. Having shunned absolute truths, we navigate the stormy seas of moral relativism, weary of foundering on the forbidden rocks of individual autonomy and cultural diversity. In this disenchanted universe, belief in the inherent dignity of humankind is the magical island where we can still find refuge amidst moral uncertainty.”
Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy is the concluding book in a trilogy of books (you might say trinity) that follows All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. It has taken me about 15 years to complete the trilogy. That is because the books are so intense. They contain scenes of excruciating violence. I could not abide the thought that I should quickly go from one to another. The books are dark and skewer all facile optimism. These are books that make you think and make you feel at the same time. Like Saul Bellow, I do not believe thinking and feeling are severed from each other. I have the feeling/thought that it is the same with McCarthy. They are one.
The first book, made into a film, was about 2 boys going to Mexico from New Mexico in a search of stolen horse taken after their father died. The boys grow and meander though the 3 novels. Each of the 3 books are powerful. They are not easy reads. McCarthy makes it difficult. But the books are worth the trip. Like Steinbach claims (with much less justification). Read them all.
The books straddle the old and the new like the plains and the cities of the title. They also straddle the border between the US and Mexico–the blood meridian. They also straddle the time of the old west and the new west. The people are tough–incredibly tough.
At the end of the trilogy (I won’t tell you who so as not to ruin the surprise) the one character who has meandered (I love that word again) through the series, is sitting next to a woman whose children have been regaled by his stories of “horses and cattle and the old days” is watched by her. They look at his old weathered (experienced) hands: “ropy veins that bound them to his heart. There was map enough for men to read. There God’s plenty of signs and wonders to make a landscape. To make a world.”
Each book in the trilogy is dark in its own way, yet each has a vision of light that pokes through the darkness as well. John Grady, the young protagonist, learns a very hard lesson. He learns what Eduardo says, “The world may be many different ways for them but there is one world that will never be and that is the world they dream of.” Dreams are important in the book yet they are also not entirely real. Yet at the end we also learn, “This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Nothing else can contain it. Nothing else be by it contained.” Is that really dark?
Pigs in Heaven is a sequel to Kingsolver’s Bean Tree her amazing book about a young girl Taylor on the run from a suffocating life in Kentucky where she is scared she is going to get pregnant like all the girls in her small town of Pittman. Instead on the way to Arizona she stops at service station/restaurant in the middle of nowhere, an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma, where she is “given” a 3-year old child that is a physical and mental wreck after suffering unspecified but obviously serious abuse. The young woman who gives her away had informal custody of the child when her sister, the mother, was unable to take care of the child. To save the young child from further abuse, in desperation she gives her up to a passing young white girl, Taylor. The book describes the strong bond that develops between the mother, Taylor, and her young child, Turtle. She adopts the name Turtle because she holds onto Taylor with a grip as tight as that of a turtle. She has found her safe harbour and won’t let go.
Pigs in Heaven continues the story of Taylor and Turtle 3 years later. I do not want to give away the plot. I hate reading reviews that do that. The book involves various ethical issues that arise out of the relationship of adoptive mother and child.
One of the characters in the book is a Native American woman with the ominous name of Annawake Fourkiller. Ominous name or not, Fourkiller, is smart and not without empathy. As she says, “I want to do the best for the most people.” That is a simple, but noble goal. Unfortunately life is not always simple, for she has a problem. It is a complicated problem. She thinks that like Shakespeare said, “I have to be cruel in order to be kind.”
The problem arises out of the deep gulf between Native American and American world views. Jax (named after the beer), Taylor’s loveable rogue boyfriend, a member of a band called appropriately, Irascible Children, explains the American ethos this way: “I heard the usual American thing. If you’re industrious and have clean thoughts you will grow up to be vice president of Motorola.” Annawake astutely diagnoses Jax’s attitude as typically American–individualistic. “Do right by yourself,” she says.
She contrasts that view with her own arising out of her Cherokee heritage. She said, “I had a hundred and one childhood myths and they all added more or less up to ‘Do right by your people.” She asks Jax if that is so bad. It’s clearly not bad, but its not the same as Jax’s myth. And there arises the conflict. It is a fascinating conflict. Annawake Fourkiller says “Some people say religion is finding yourself, and some people say it’s losing yourself in a crowd.”Jax can’t understand how that is possible. She says you lose yourself in a crowd at a dance. “Not like American Bandstand, not recreational dancing, it’s ceremonial. A group thing. It’s church for us.”
Of course part of the problem is Taylor. She is impetuous; she is a rebel. We knew that from the first book. We know that more deeply after reading the second. As her mother, Alice, says, “She’s independent as a hog on ice.” The relationship between Taylor and her mother also informs this book. Two tenacious mother/daughter relationships. As Alice says, “When you are given a brilliant child, you polish her and let her shine. The universe makes allowances.”But it also delivers powerful challenges.
At the end (which I don’t want to give away) the characters get a rare chance–“one of those rare chances life gives us to try and be the very best we are.” The book is about what they do with those chances. This is a wonderful book. I recommend it to one and all. Kingsolver is a great novelist. I am not sure she has got all the credit she deserves.
I love reading–always have, always will. I love my family, my friends too–always have always will. In Arizona all our family and friends from back home are back home. Too far to see. So we have lots of time on our hands. Much of that time is spent reading.
At home I have lots of books. In the fourteenth century the largest library in Europe, the Sorbonne, had about 1700 books, about the same size as my library. I take pride in that. Sadly I can’t take those with me, but I sure can take some.
Traveling and reading is not always easy. Even ebooks are not without their challenges. Lewis Lapham the former editor of HarpersMagazine once wrote, “it pleases me to learn that Abdul Kassem Ismael, grand vizier of Persia in the tenth century A.D., never travelled without his library of 117, 000 volumes, carried by a caravan of 400 camels trained to walk in alphabetical order. Well I did not bring that many books, for I did not have a caravan of camels. But I have brought some outstanding books here to Arizona.
Besides the books though we have been blessed by time. One without the other is sterile. Because we have so much time it is possible to engage in deep reading. Harold Bloom, following Shelley, said that deep reading is giving up easier pleasures for more difficult pleasures. The only reading that matters is close and deep re-reading. Democracy can only survive if we learn to think well and powerfully. He also likes the quote from Wallace Stevens: “the reader becomes the book, summer was like the conscious being of the book.” Sometimes I get that feeling. Especially in Arizona where I have more time to read.
That does not mean all the books we read are deep books. Far from it. I am what Saul Bellow called “a poor soldier of culture.” Pulp fiction can be good too. Good pulp that is. For example, I love James Lee Burke. He writes great pulp. I have already one of his books on this trip.
Saul Bellow one of the best American novelists of the 20th century knew the value of good books. He also realized that modern readers had many distractions. As he said, “Well there is a violent uproar, but we are not absolutely dominated by it. We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher, activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to cut through the whirling mind of a modern reader, but it is still possible to reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone , we novelists may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too.”
I have definitely experienced complications this trip. Mainly brought on by braying hounds of American politics. I needed to get back to essentials, and reading has allowed me to do exactly that.
So reading here in Arizona has been a great pleasure perhaps more than at home because here, away from the hurly burly, it is easier to find what Bellow called that “quiet zone” where reader and writer meet.
The rewards of reading area also deep. I want it to be like Saul Bellow said in It All Adds Up, “Literature in my early days was still something you lived by; you absorbed it, you took it into your system. Not as a connoisseur, aesthete. Lover of literature. No it was something on which you formed your life, which you ingested, so that it became part of your substance, your path to liberation and full freedom.”
Jonathan Franzen is another writer who appreciates reading. He compared it to watching television, “in reading, unlike watching TV one reflects and one gains much…”instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.”  Franzen acknowledges that this is elitist. “The elitism of modern literature is, undeniably, a peculiar one– an aristocracy of alienation, a fraternity of the doubting and wondering… The first lesson reading teaches us how to be alone.”  That’s why I always say, the reader will never be bored, provided he has a book or magazine near at hand. Then life is always good. I try to teach that to my grandchildren. I hope they learn it.
I also cherish the fact that in modern life, with the decline of reading, the reader is also the rebel. Franzen quoted Don DeLillo from a Paris Review article in 1993 who pointed out that everything in modern culture argues against the novel and that this required a writer who was opposed to power to be a rebel, i.e. one who is opposed to assimilation. Sort of like Karl Kraus the Austrian satirist who said after World War I that there was the “hopeless contrary” of the nexus of technology, media, and capital. The reader and the writer as rebel!
George Monbiot is one of my favorite writers. He writes regularly for The Guardian a paper I subscribe to. I find his writing invariably thought-provoking. He often takes positions that are contrary to received opinion from left or right, though he has a serious left wing bent. His latest book is called How did we get into this Mess?
Like me, Monbiot is deeply opposed to plutocratic government. That is government for the rich, not government for the people. It is often nominally democratic. It appears democratic, but the institutions of democracy have been corrupted or usurped by rich people for their own advantage.
It is interesting how some rich and privileged get ordinary people to vote for politicians who so obviously serve their rich masters, rather than ordinary people. How do they do? That is part of what has got us into this mess that we are in?
Monbiot puts it this way,
There are two ways of cutting a deficit: raising taxes or reducing spending. Raising taxes means taking money from the rich. Cutting spending means taking money away from the poor.
Since there are vastly more poor people than rich people, one would think it would be very difficult for rich people to convince enough poor people to vote for politicians who support the interests of the rich over the interests of the poor, but that is exactly what has been happening in the west for at least the past 30 years. Ever since Saint Ronald Reagan came riding on his horse out of the west. In fact they have been remarkably successful. As Monbiot said,
So the rich, in a nominal democracy, have a struggle on their hands. Somehow they must persuade the other 99 per cent to vote against their own interests: to shrink the state, supporting spending cuts rather than tax rises. In the US they appear to be succeeding.
After Reagan these policies in the US were continued by all Presidents, even the Democrats. As a result taxation of wealthy people is at its lowest in 100 years. As a direct result inequality in the west in general and in the United States in particular has increased astoundingly. As former Republican senator Alan Simpson said, “The little guy is going to get cremated.”
A lot of the work in getting ordinary people to vote against what is good for them and for what is bad, was done by an organization called Americans for Prosperity (‘AFP’). This is one of those organizations supported by Charles and David Koch two of the richest men in America. They have spent hundreds of millions supporting lobby groups that urge politicians to lower taxes on the rich and remove government regulations that they see as interfering with their right to do business as they want, no matter who is harmed in the process. They have been big supporters of Donald Trump among many other right-wing politicians in the US.
Monbiot described their work this way, “AFP mobilised the anger of people who found their condition of life declining, and channelled it into a campaign to make them worse.”
The Founding Fathers of the American constitution were worried about mob rule. That’s why they built into the constitution an elaborate system of checks and balances. By and large that system has worked fairly well. But there are new challenges the framers of the constitution were never aware of. As Monbiot said, “The primary threat to the democratic state and its functions comes not from mob rule or leftwing insurrection, but from the very rich and the corporations they run.
The rich in America have created a plutocracy. That is a government designed to work for the benefit of the rich at the expense of everyone else. I am not saying that all rich people have done. Some rich people have done this. And they have been extremely effective at doing precisely that. As Monbiot said, they have done that by
promoting the same dreary agenda of less tax for the rich, less help for the poor and less regulation for business…I see these people as rightwing vanguardists, mobilising first to break and then to capture the political system that is meant to belong to all of us. Like Marxists insurrectionaries, they often talk about smashing things, about ‘creative destruction’, about the breaking of chains and slipping of leashes. But in this case they appear to be trying to free the rich from the constraints of democracy. And at the moment they are winning.
Their crowning achievement came after Monbiot’s book was published–the ascension of King Donald. Now look at what we have got!