Sunday, March 31, 2013

Adversaries ("Those Angry Days" by Lynne Olson)

One of the most frustrating points that is made about our current social and political climate is that it's never been this bad. When we talk about our elected officials, regardless of party affiliation, we bemoan the state of our government, their lack of empathy and shared sacrifice, their detachment and utter inability to accomplish anything substantial or beneficial. We demand civility and compromise, we demand clear ideas, and above all else we demand "conversation" over arguments and deadlocks--we want those in positions of power to discuss, share, and come away more informed. And then, to validate this belief, we turn to organizations and institutions that promote just the opposite: cable news channels that feed into our own ideologies so we're imbued with a sense of self-righteousness, a belief that our side is right and the other side is wrong, and it's on these cable-news shows that we see those very same politicians--the men and women we claim to abhor--lecturing The Other Side about proper behavior and the need to personify those very virtues they themselves refuse to embrace. It's a strange, maddening, and almost Orwellian cycle that feeds itself like a creature devouring its own offspring.

But it's not new.

When people say our current situation is worse than any other time in our nation's history, even the not-so-distant past of our fathers and grandfathers, they're presenting themselves as ignorant and foolishly idealistic. Anyone with an understanding of American history that goes beyond their high-school textbooks recognizes how prevalent and enduring these themes are throughout our centuries-long history. There has always been legislative inaction, conflict, arguments, and a lack of leadership when it comes to making our country a better, safer, stronger place; there have always been rotten and corrupt politicians wielding ridiculous amounts of power, talking heads espousing vitriol against those whose ideologies--or ethnicities--differ from their own, and the masses--unsure, angry, afraid--who are bribed and manipulated to pick one side or the other.

Case in point: the lead-up to World War II. Even today, we recognize the complexities and difficulties inherent in how we as a nation approached a war that, for many citizens, was not ours to wage until Pearl Harbor. We understood the evils of Hitler and the Nazis, even before we knew the full extent of his genocide, and in doing so we also understood the commitment it would take--in time, in money, in bodies--to defeat him. He waged his war in part because of the Versailles Treaty's retributive inequities, of which we shared the blame, but we could also step back and claim innocence; after all, we were not his neighbor, and he was not antagonizing us. We understood that much of his power was derived through scapegoating and fear, primarily of those minorities within Germany borders who did not have the numbers or influence to defend themselves, while also knowing many of our citizens--an unhealthy swathe of our own population, we must admit--held some of those very same repugnant views.

It's this division as a nation and a people that lies at the heart of Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, which chronicles the build-up to America's involvement in World War II. Ostensibly an account of the conflict between Franklin Roosevelt and aviator-turned-isolationist Charles Lindbergh, as the subtitle describes, Olson's book is actually the story of our divisions as a nation--a look at how our country was split on what to do about a war we didn't want any part of. And while Olson casts the wildly popular (and deeply communicative) Roosevelt and the wildly popular (but deeply reserved) Lindbergh as representatives of the two sides, both men are little more than supporting players who only meet once, and to no effect. Roosevelt is portrayed as little more than a sabre-rattler whose words do not translate to action, and Lindbergh is far from an isolationist leader, spending much of the story--set in the late 1930s and early 1940s--with his wife and children away from the public eye. When he does engage in politics, which occurs more and more in the book's second half, it's to give anti-war speeches that are increasingly anti-Semitic in nature. But even with his widespread fame, Lindbergh does more to damage the isolationist movement than further its ultimately fruitless agenda.

A more appropriate subject would have been the relationship between Roosevelt and Senator Burton Wheeler, who was Congress' most ardent and vocal isolationists...and a much greater (and more powerful) foe to Roosevelt than Lindbergh was, as he could actually propose--or, in most cases, stall--legislation related to the war. Or perhaps a better focus would have been the relationship between Lindbergh and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a progressive whose dogged pursuit of the aviator borders on obsession by the book's closing chapter; it was Ickes who led the White House's attacks on Lindbergh, not Roosevelt. Or even between Roosevelt's Republican opponent in 1940, Wendell Willkie, and the Republican Party itself, which threatened to implode over their own divisions--those who supported isolation against those who supported intervention--and ultimately fought this fight in Willkie's candidacy. By the end of the book, Willkie is one of the few public figures, other than Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who comes out of the entire pre-war debacle looking better than he did going in. (Willkie becomes one of those party-bucking, country-before-career politicians people today desperately yearn for, even though he himself gives in to election-year pressures and would not have even survived his own first term had he been elected.)

I'm willing to forgive Olson--or her publisher, or both--for framing the nearly 500 pages of this book as a fight between two men, one a president and the other an aviator, even if the men are more stand-ins than actually page-to-page adversaries; after all, it's the subtitle's promise that actually lured me in in the first place, and I'm far from disappointed in the book. And Olson actually does good by her subjects, including Lindbergh, whose repellent speeches are put into context when related to the man and his inability to process or predict the feelings of those around him; no one leaves this book a boogeyman, and all public figures, including those who are only given a brief mention here or there, are given some depth. (Ickes and Wheeler, undoubtedly the book's two most dichotomous figures, are also its most interesting and, surprisingly, the most fun to read about.) But there's so much to write about here, and so much more to learn, that even if Olson had doubled the size of this book and devoted novel-length portions to all of the divisions and conflicts mentioned within--big and small, national and parochial, enduring and passing--it still would still not have been as satisfying as promised by the subject matter. We know, living as we are now through an era of immense disagreement and change, that conflicts can tell us more about ourselves and our country than anything else, and that great conflicts and great history are often intertwined. And it's that quest--to know more about ourselves and where we came from, who we were then and are now, and how this can make us better people--that is the heart of American history, even when it's the sides of our past we'd rather excuse or forget.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Surviving ("Wave" by Sonali Deraniyagala)

Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala's memoir of surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, begins with strange, frothy ocean waves reaching further on shore than she's ever seen. Thirty pages later, the entire event is over: a tsunami, unlike anything the world has ever seen before, has claimed lives in fifteen countries and decimated entire villages, washing away everything--houses, vegetation, people--as though they never existed, and in a matter of mere minutes*. Deraniyagala survived, clinging to tree branches and somehow managing the violent, muddy deluge; her husband, two sons, and parents did not. By the time Deraniyagala realizes this fact--"accepts" would not be the right term, as we'll soon learn--we the reader also realize there are almost 200 pages left in her book. This imbalance--the pages in our left hand are scant, the pages in our right are not--tells us that we have barely scratched the surface of how this one unimaginable tragedy has affected Deraniyagala, who is now suddenly and irreversibly alone.

In memoirs like these, attention is usually given to those involved before the tragedy strikes: in lengthy expositions we see their lives, their backgrounds, their personalities, all of which enhances the pain we feel when they're suddenly taken from the writer and, simultaneously, the reader. In defying this convention and beginning with the tragedy, Deraniyagala walks us through the pain she feels in everyday situations that come from being a survivor--walking into her house, preparing lunch, talking with neighbors--all of which trigger one heartrending memory after another. It makes her past, her life before the tsunami, seem like nothing more than distant, painful memories, as though what happened that day by the ocean split her life into two. There was her life before the tsunami--fun, exciting, filled with laughter and contentment, now lost and untouchable, dangerous, even aggressive in its attachment and prevalence--and her life afterwards, filled with drug abuse, alcoholism, rage, suicidal thoughts, and utter helplessness. We know she still has her job at a nearby college, but it's never mentioned; she seems to exist only in bedrooms and empty apartments, all haunted. Her friends and family try to console her, mend her, watch out for her and protect her, but it's to no avail--they cannot relate to her, cannot understand her pain, and she pushes them away, ignores them, lashes out. Page after page, chapter after chapter, Deraniyagala seems to slip further and further away from herself, from those around her, from any hope of being saved.

And yet, for seven years--the scope of the book's remaining 200 pages--Deraniyagala learns how to coexist with the memories and the pain...and "coexist" is the best possible term to use. She doesn't overcome the heartbreak--even seven years on, walking the beaches of Miami or whale-watching in the Indian Ocean, there are still just as many triggers as the hours after the tsunami struck. She doesn't accept it or manage it, only "coexist" with it. After all, coexisting is often all we can do when our lives are interrupted by the unforeseen and unimaginable, and Deraniyagala seems to know that as the book closes. This is something she will never be far from, and understandably so, and it's something she can't control. She must live with it--the reminders, the loss, the pain--but part of living with something is living.

*Even today, almost nine years after the tsunami, we still don't know the scope of its effects. Hundreds of thousands were killed, though we'll never have an exact number. Tens of thousands remain unaccounted for and are most likely dead, their remains--and any closure for their families--irretrievable. And more than a million people were displaced from their homes.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Texas ("Let the People In" by Jan Reid)

I'll admit, I'm probably not the intended audience for Jan Reid's biography of Ann Richards. As someone who was only eight years old when Richards lost her re-election bid for Texas governor to George W. Bush, I knew her only as a peripheral figure in modern politics--that feisty, white-haired woman from the Lone Star State who ridiculed George H.W. Bush at the '88 Democratic National Convention and staked a claim for feminists everywhere, and both times in wicked little soundbites. In fact, it was in her death that I first came to know her; as news channels replayed those two punchlines ad nauseum--"....born with a silver foot in his mouth," "....backwards and in high heels"--she lodged herself in my conscious so thoroughly that, by the time Reid's biography was published last year, I knew enough about her that I also knew I wanted more.

Reid's book is a thorough, researched, entertaining, and often surprising account of how a mother and housewife who was active in political circles became the most recognizable woman of her time, and almost always through hard work and endurance rather than the typical dumb luck and good-ol'-boys nepotism. But lest we think of Richards as just a tender lily among rough bramble-patches, Reid dispels any preconceptions by letting us know--in page after page, chapter after chapter--about Richards' troubled younger years, when she spent her days doing drugs, getting drunk, and gradually drifting away from her husband as a sense of uselessness overtook her. It's a strange few chapters in the book, not because it sometimes feels like oversharing--this is a biography, after all, and Reid's job is to tell the truth as it is--but because in this age of hyper-sanitized life stories and endless media scrutiny, it's unique to see a politician's struggles laid out so bare and unpolished for us to see. In fact, as Reid points out, Richards did much the same during her own life, turning opponents' attacks on her alcoholism into opportunities to reach out to those who also struggled, especially Texas inmates who lacked any rehabilitation beyond prison walls. (As Reid mentions towards the end of his biography, one of Richards' greatest legacies is that of someone who helped the incarcerated fight the demons of dependency, which often led prisoners to re-offend and fall back into the system.) By the time she was elected governor, she was off illegal drugs, had been in AA for years, and maintained a respectful relationship with her ex-husband.

Even more incredible, though, is the detail Reid puts into demonstrating just how progressive Richards was on social issues, even as she governed a state that was becoming increasingly more conservative. (Texas has not had a Democratic governor since Richards left office in 1995.) Richards--the second female governor of Texas, and the first to be elected without help from a prominent spouse--appointed more women, Hispanics, and African-Americans to top government posts than anyone before or since, and her stance on LGBT rights--she didn't care--put her at odds with most of the country in the early 90s and, unfortunately, helped Bush's campaign--led by Karl Rove--make her into a liberal with radical views who didn't deserve to keep the state's top job. That's not to say Reid lets Richards off the hook for some of her more damaging decisions--not vetting close friends and campaign aides, letting her emotions get to her during speeches, becoming too enamored with the national spotlight--but he also knows that Richards was an anomaly: a politician who wanted to do right by all the people, not just those who voted for her, and in following her sense of duty she became a target.

What tends to slow Reid's book down, besides his immersion in all things Texas, is his over-reliance on letters written to and by Richards. They are deeply personal, often witty, and rich with information about Richards as she was beyond the cameras and speeches--her letters to Bud Shrake, for example, are sweet and frequently heartbreaking--but they often dominate chapters that are fine on their own. Reid relishes in reprinting many of Richards' letters and speeches fully, even though they take up pages at a time and tend to numb any interest the rest of the chapter had already built up. On top of this, Richards' most important speeches, including her '88 convention speech, are left either in snippets or unprinted altogether. This seems like an ultimate travesty--to write the biography of a state treasurer who was catapulted to national prominence (and the Governor's Mansion) because of a knock-down political speech and not give that speech its due. For many people, myself included, that speech defined Richards' legacy as someone who was funny, whips-mart, and photogenic but also warm, relatable, and never far from her roots...precisely the person Reid writes about, and precisely the kind of person we need more of.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Deception ("The Dinner" by Herman Koch)

Dinners--full, multi-course meals from appetizers to desserts, like the one depicted in Herman Koch's newest novel--are an easy plot device used to keep characters in one location for the duration of a story. After all, a restaurant is a cramped, public place where all those who visit must do so wearing the masks that come with being among others; social contracts kick in, and comfortable informality is displaced for pomp and respectability, regardless of how the people may act beyond the restaurant's walls. It's that same forced, almost inevitable change in personality that can provide your story with the impulses that move it forward--after all, masks cannot remain forever, slowly but surely causing the wearer to sweat and itch with discomfort, their skin wanting relief from being hidden behind something so strange, foreign, and uncomfortable. Give it enough time--and make the dinner last long enough, especially under the right outside pressures--and information is bound to reveal itself with the same mouth-watering deliciousness as the next course.

However, an author could just as easily send his or her characters somewhere else public--a theatre, perhaps, or a museum, school, or church. But it's only the restaurant that forces its people to stay sitting--after all, there is other food on its way, food you've already ordered and must eventually pay for--while also forcing them to interact with one another. In a theatre, characters have a distraction, one that cannot--and should not, according to the social contract--be interrupted. Likewise in a museum, school--where others are in charge, unlike customers in a restaurant--church, or any other public place, there are rules that prevent intense, mask-breaking conversation. In a restaurant, characters stay because, really, they must. On top of this--and perhaps the greatest benefit to setting a story in a restaurant--is the inherit metaphor in a dinner: you begin light, with drinks and a sparse salad or basket of bread, nothing too severe or challenging. As the dinner progresses, however, and the courses become more heavy and complex--more expensive--you can also push your characters to reveal more. The conflict should come with the main course--after all, its the focus of the entire outing, the one plate that will last the longest and fill you up more than any other--and only at the dessert, so unnecessary yet paradoxically so needed, so unhealthy and yet so unstoppable, can you finally resolve those same conflicts, can the dinner--the physical and metaphorical meal--end. And, as is the case, dessert almost always ends a meal on a note of satisfaction and accomplishment.

In The Dinner, Herman Koch utilizes every single aspect of dinners and restaurants to build suspense over what seems like an innocent prank committed by two teenage boys, who also happen to be cousins. The four main characters--the narrator and his wife, the narrator's brother and his wife--meet over dinner at a lavish restaurant in Holland for what should be a simple gathering of concerned parents. Over the next 300 pages, however, we watch the same four men and women slowly, subtly change, not by becoming new people, but by removing their masks and revealing to us who they really are. In the first few pages, our narrator is quick to reveal his bitter personality, especially where his brother--a future prime minister, we soon learn--is concerned. He seems petty and jealous, but no more than one sibling in relation to his much more successful--and possibly arrogant--brother. His wife, who we soon meet, is incredibly sweet and good natured, and their 15-year-old son is spoken of as the apple in both their eyes...and there is little reason for us to believe otherwise. When the brother and his wife appear, they match what we've already been told: they are influential to be sure, as the narrator is want to remind us time and time again, and his actions especially speak to someone overconfident in himself and his renown. By the end of the dinner, however, our feelings about all four will change dramatically, and its Koch's skill in depicting these transformations that gives The Dinner its richness.

Over the course of 300 pages--and over the various courses of the titular dinner, which also serve to organize the book's many chapters--we watch as the narrator and his wife show us just how ugly they both are beyond the initial petty smirks and winks. At the same time, the brother and his wife break down and reveal a common humanity that both the narrator and his wife, much to our disbelief, not only lack but seem to relish in lacking. They are not a modest couple living in the shadows of their fellow diners and family members; instead, they are sly, conniving, and ruthless, never moreso when on the subject of their son Michel, a boy who at first seems to be an innocent victim. In committing an impulsive and thoughtless prank, he and his cousin kill a homeless woman and wind up on television, albeit anonymously in grainy security-camera footage--a deep irony considering the social contracts and public attention the four parents must now contend with in the process of solving this very public crime.

Michel is portrayed by his parents as a typical teenager who goes too far, makes a hideous mistake, and should be given a chance to atone; why make his life worse, his father offers us, when he has so much time to make his life better? By the end of the novel, however, we come to understand that the source of Michel's actions, not to mention his subsequent offenses, all of which he's recorded and preserved in one way or another, is not in hormones or family problems or the naivety of a teenage mind. Rather, Michel is the spitting image of his own father who, by the novel's close, has discussed at least a half-dozen instances in which he's given in to his vengeful temper and lashed out at those around him--a bike-shop owner, a principal, the same brother he now dines with. More often than not, he has done so in front of his son, so much so that by the time he's recounting his last outburst--a school principal concerned with Michel's heartless essay on capital punishment--the narrator recounts with little self-awareness how he paused mid-beating to wave at his son out a window. Even more horrifying, this recollection--which is remembered with a hint of pride on the narrator's part--is offered to us at the same time the narrator's wife, Michel's mother, is taking up this habit to save her son from a life in prison, and the object of her wrath is none other than the brother-in-law who might someday be in a position of extreme power, influence, and scrutiny.

In reading The Dinner, I was reminded of another book, though one in many ways different than Koch's: Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. An epistolary novel in which a mother writes to her estranged husband about their son, who shot up his school, in the hopes of figuring out why their son behaved the way he did, Shriver's book bears many thematic similarities to Koch's, especially in how we the reader gradually begin to see the inner workings of a parent who is suddenly caught in an untenable situation involving themselves, their children, and the future. However, the two parents are opposites in how they see their roles in the tragedies brought about by their children: where Shriver's mother looks inwardly for answers--as we soon learn, the person to whom she's writing cannot actually write back--Koch's father looks only for ways to keep his son from harm. He sees little problem with the terrible act Michel has committed, and as the dinner ends and all seems suddenly, shockingly right with their lives, we learn that real evil--at least in Koch's mind--comes not from the society into which we're born but the men and women who guide us through that society. In a strange way, it's what we feed our children--knowledge, attitude, perspective, an understanding of social contracts and how we treat one another--that decides how this big dinner of ours will eventually end.