Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Past ("Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami; Philip Gabriel, trans.)

2014 marked ten years since I graduated from high school--a small, some would say meaningless milestone that is typically accompanied by a reunion of some sort. In my case, the invitation arrived a few weeks into August, after some dedicated outreach on the part of a former classmate. She organized a modest get-together in a community park less than a mile from our old high school, nothing too demanding, and attending would have been easy--after all, I only live 90 minutes away and have weekends free. Nevertheless, I didn't go, and I don't plan on attending any reunions in the future, either. This decision had nothing to do with the quality of my high school, which I enjoyed overall, nor an attitude about my former classmates; instead, my decision has everything to do with the person I used to be and how that version of myself doesn't exist anymore.

Yes, we all change after high school, but most people change linearly:  they become the person they were already becoming, moving every further down a straight line while leaving behind those aspects of themselves that they outgrow. There are those rare few, however, who change in substance rather than style or amplitude. (To be more metaphorical about it, most of us change the hues of their self-portrait, deepening some colors and lightening others, while a few simply paint over the entire canvass with something completely new. I would fall into this latter category.) The high-school version of myself was a different creature altogether, a character constructed Frankenstein-like to mask--or personify, I've never been sure which--the toxic punch of sadness, self-loathing, anger, confusion, and desperate clawing jealousy that fueled my teenage years. Not that I was miserable by any stretch of the imagination, or that the tempestuous emotions raging inside of me were any worse than those experienced by my classmates, but the relationships I built were always shallow and one-sided, and to this day I'm only in regular contact with two or three people from that time in my life. This was not an instance of people "drifting apart," as the cliche goes; this was an example of people leaving the theatre after a four-year performance unaware that one of the actors had joined them in the streets, having been too consumed by himself to care about anyone sitting in the audience beyond their occasional applause.

While every teenager is different, I was different in more than just the usual ways--permanently, undeniably different--and it would take me another few years to fully understand and accept those differences...and only then, in my early 20s, could I actually begin to work on myself in the same way most of my classmates had years before. They'd had guides to help them, people who had been through many of the same experiences and could lend their wisdom or point my classmates in the right directions. And while I was blessed with fantastic parents and excellent teachers, none of them could offer me a guiding hand because none of them had faced down the long stretch of asphalt that had been steamrolled out in front of me. And I was too afraid--too ashamed, too mistrusting--to ask for a pair of shoes before setting my feet on the boiling tar and beginning my walk. Looking back, and knowing what I know now, it's easy to blame myself for being fearful of something that was terrifying only because I decided that it was, because I didn't think I was strong enough or mature enough to handle it. In the moment, however, life's obstacles can seem insurmountable.

And so, to hide the fact that I was different--an appalling possibility in such a small, conservative, rural town--I both embraced and denied my otherness in the same breath, transforming me into a walking Jekyll forever caught in mid-transformation. It was a strange identity to embrace, one I still don't fully understand, but the distance I gained after graduation--from my small town, my peers, the public image I'd manufactured for myself--allowed me to step away and become a better, more self-aware person. It also allowed me to see just how vacuous and unappealing my former self had been; even though I can claim to have been liked, it was for the wrong reasons. My friendships only existed for my own benefit, and when they couldn't offer me anything else, the friendships faded into nonexistence. Other friendships were nurtured on negativity and gossip, which was less about friendship and more about making ourselves feel better by criticizing others. And the sarcastic sense of humor I developed early on was deployed to defuse any serious situation or push away those who might disrupt the character I'd made for myself. To meet up again with anyone who knew me back then would have forced me to resurrect that character in memory, if only briefly, which would mean having to reconcile the two all over again--an activity I have no interest in repeating, even to explain away my past or the person I now am. I'm more comfortable letting that past identity continue fading into history, kept alive by little more than yearbook notes to my classmates that, ten years later, mean very little out of context.

At the same time I was sending contact information to the president of my graduating class, all for an invitation I had no intention of opening, Haruki Murakami's awkwardly-named Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage found its way into my hands. I read the entire book in two days, devouring a story that seemed destined for intrigue and suspense--an unexplained death from the past, former friends who suddenly abandoned the protagonist and, years later, are just as shadowy and evasive as before--but ended somewhere nuanced and profound, far from the choking cityscapes of Murakami's native Japan and his penchant for unique and bizarre situations. The novel's closing chapter, where our protagonist finally gets a sense of closure over his past, is tender and moving, filled with supporting characters who defy every cliche you expect Murakami to throw our way. Compared to the novel's opening pages, which are clunky and seem to embody the author's need for professional direction--an awkwardness that seems to embody what it's like to be actually be a teenager--the closing moments leave you with a sense of understanding, something you very rarely have when you look back on your past in search of clarity.

All of the cliches associated with reunions--with meeting people you knew in your younger and more vulnerable years, as Nick says in the opening lines of The Great Gatsby--assert that we'll revert at once to our past selves. The sarcastic outcast will still be the sarcastic outcast, the star athlete and his girlfriend will have gotten married, the bookworm will be making six figures in an impressive start-up company, and past relationships will be awkwardly rekindled over tasteless drinks and food. That is the nature of cliches, after all. But the reality is different. We come back as changed people, though the degree of our personal transformations are varied, and often we come back because there's something left unanswered, like in Murakami's novel. But rarely does the past hold a key to helping us understand ourselves. We have to find the answers to those questions ourselves, even if it means walking away--and maybe even staying away--from the places where we came from.

Books Read in 2014
  1. Marie Antoinette's Head:  The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution (Will Bashor) [review]
  2. We Learn Nothing (Tim Kreider)
  3. The Best American Travel Writing 2011 (Sloane Crosley and Jason Wilson, ed.; eBook)
  4. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) [review]
  5. Rising from the Plains (John McPhee)
  6. Clockwork Angel (Cassandra Clare)
  7. The Optimist's Daughter (Eudora Welty)
  8. A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk (Valerie Steele, et al, ed.) [review]
  9. The Old Gringo (Carlos Fuentes; Margaret Sayers Peden, trans.)
  10. American Lion:  Andrew Jackson in the White House (Jon Meacham)
  11. Ramayana: Divine Loophole (Sanjay Patel)
  12. Andrew's Brain (E.L. Doctorow) [review]
  13. Train Dreams (Denis Johnson)
  14. The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  15. The Burglary:  The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (Betty Medsger) [review]
  16. Incarnadine (Mary Szybist)
  17. Our One Common Country:  Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Road Peace Conference of 1865 (James B. Conroy) [review]
  18. Starting Over (Elizabeth Spencer) [review]
  19. The Race Underground:  Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway (Doug Most)
  20. The Mad Sculptor:  The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Harold Schechter)
  21. The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald; Michael Hulse, trans.)
  22. Unbroken:  A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand)
  23. Going Clear:  Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Lawrence Wright)
  24. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Nathan Englander)
  25. Tomorrow-Land:  The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America (Joseph Tirella) [review]
  26. Monster (Walter Dean Myers)
  27. The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse (Philip Schultz) [review]
  28. Notes from the Internet Apocalypse (Wayne Gladstone) [review]
  29. Dog Whistle Politics:  How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Ian Haney Lopez) [review]
  30. The Wives of Los Alamos (Tarashae Nesbit) [review]
  31. The Splendid Things We Planned:  A Family Portrait (Blake Bailey) [review]
  32. Bark: Stories (Lorrie Moore) [review]
  33. *To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  34. Grandma Gatewood's Walk:  The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail (Ben Montgomery) [review]
  35. Encyclopedia of Early Earth (Isabel Greenberg)
  36. Blood Royal:  A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (Eric Jager)
  37. The Consolations of the Forest:  Alone in a Cabin of the Siberian Taiga (Sylvain Tesson; Linda Coverdale, trans.)
  38. *Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman)
  39. 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative (Paul Kengor) [review]
  40. An Idea Whose Time Has Come:  Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Todd S. Purdum) [review]
  41. High Crime Area (Joyce Carol Oates) [review]
  42. A Window on Eternity:  A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park (E.O. Wilson and Piotr Naskrecki)
  43. 50 Children:  One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany (Steven Pressman)
  44. You Are Not Special:...And Other Encouragements (David McCullough, Jr.)
  45. Six Amendments:  How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (John Paul Stevens) [review]
  46. The Fight for the Four Freedoms:  What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Harvey Kaye) [review]
  47. Beyond Magenta:  Transgender Teens Speak Out (Susan Kuklin) [review]
  48. What It Takes:  The Way to the White House (Richard Ben Cramer)
  49. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons:  The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (Sam Kean) [review]
  50. Birdmen:  The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies (Lawrence Goldstone) [review]
  51. The Eternal Nazi:  From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet)
  52. The Oldest Living Things in the World (Rachel Sussman) [review]
  53. The Last Kind Words Saloon (Larry McMurtry) [review]
  54. The Cruelest Miles:  The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury)
  55. I'm a Stranger Here Myself:  Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Bill Bryson)
  56. 63, Dream Palace (James Purdy)
  57. Congratulations, By the Way:  Some Thoughts on Kindness (George Saunders)
  58. Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (Geoff Dyer)
  59. The Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Gregory Rabassa, trans.)
  60. The Map Thief:  The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (Michael Blanding)
  61. This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz)
  62. Crabwalk (Gunter Grass; Krishna Winston, trans.)
  63. Tenth of December (George Saunders)
  64. *Things You Should Know (A.M. Homes)
  65. Taking on the Trust:  How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil (Steve Weinberg) [review]
  66. Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
  67. Geek Love (Katherine Dunn)
  68. Carsick:  John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (John Waters) [review]
  69. Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut)
  70. The Most Dangerous Book:  The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Kevin Birmingham) [review]
  71. The Zhivago Affair:  The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Peter Finn) [review]
  72. Ecstatic Cahoots:  Fifty Short Stories (Stuart Dybek)
  73. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness:  Four Short Novels (Kenzaburo Oe)
  74. The Skeleton Crew:  How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases (Deborah Halber)
  75. Fierce Patriot:  The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (Robert L. O'Connell) [review]
  76. *The Commitment:  Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family (Dan Savage)
  77. The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492-93): And Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real (Clements Robert Markham, ed.)
  78. Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies (Alastair Bonnett)
  79. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Deborah Blum)
  80. The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (David Eimer) [review]
  81. The Northmen: Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (Julius Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, editors)
  82. Last Stories and Other Stories (William T. Vollmann) [review]
  83. The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl:  How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis (Arthur Allen) [review]
  84. Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare)
  85. Shocked:  Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead (David Casarett) [review]
  86. The Scorpion's Sting:  Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (James Oakes) [review]
  87. Explaining Hitler:  The Search for the Origins of His Evil, Updated Edition (Ron Rosenbaum)
  88. Gruesome Spectacles:  Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty (Austin Sarat) [review]
  89. The Americans (Robert Frank)
  90. *Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire:  The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (Rafe Esquith)
  91. *There Are No Shortcuts (Rafe Esquith)
  92. The Outlaw Album: Stories (Daniel Woodrell)
  93. Eleven Years (Jen Davis) [review]
  94. The Explorers:  A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses, and Impossible Success (Martin Dugard) [review]
  95. We Were Liars (E. Lockart)
  96. Fun Home:  A Family Tragocomic (Alison Bechdel)
  97. What If?:  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Randall Munroe) [review]
  98. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Haruki Murukami; Philip Gabriel, trans.)
  99. When Paris Went Dark:  The City of Lights Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (Ronald C. Rosbottom)
  100. Dr. Mutter's Marvels:  A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz) [review]
  101. The Young Man and the Sea (Rodman Philbrick)
  102. Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)
  103. Thoreau at Walden (Henry David Thoreau; John Porcellino, editor and illustrator)
  104. The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell) [review]
  105. How We Got to Now:  The History and Power of Great Ideas (Steve Johnson)
  106. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:  And Other Lessons from the Crematory (Caitlin Doughty)
  107. Leaving the Bench:  Supreme Court Justices at the End (David N. Atkinson)
  108. Belzhar (Meg Wolitzer)
  109. Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)
  110. Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann; Kerascoett, illus.) [review]
  111. Snowpiercer, Volume 1:  The Escape (Jacques Lob; Jean-Marc Rochette, illus.; Virginie Selavy, trans.)
  112. A Chance Meeting:  Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 (Rachel Cohen)
  113. Chasing the Falconers (Gordon Korman)
  114. The American Vice Presidency:  From Irrelevance to Power (Jules Witcover) [review]
  115. Shoah:  An Oral History of the Holocaust (Claude Lanzmann)
  116. The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History (Elizabeth Kolbert)
  117. The Best American Infographics 2014 (Gareth Cook, ed.)
  118. America 1844:  Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation (John Bricknell)
  119. The Resistance:  the French Fight Against the Nazis (Matthew Cobb)
  120. Unreasonable Men:  Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics (Michael Wolraich) [review]
  121. Dance of the Reptiles:  Rampaging Tourists, Marauding Pythons, Larcenous Legislators, Crazed Celebrities, and Tar-Balled Beaches:  Selected Columns (Carl Hiaasen; ebook)
  122. Hiroshima Nagasaki:  The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermaths (Paul Ham) [review]
  123. After Lincoln:  How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace (A.J. Langguth) [review]
  124. The City of Ember: the Graphic Novel (Jeanne DuPrau; Dallas Middaugh and Niklas Asker, illus.)
  125. True Grit (Charles Portis)
  126. Among the Hidden (Margaret Peterson Haddix)
  127. Resistance:  France 1940-1945 (Blake Ehrlich)
  128. Hand to Mouth:  Living in Bootstrap America (Linda Tirado) [review]
  129. The Strange Library (Haruki Murakami)
  130. Eleven Days in August:  The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (Matthew Cobb)
  131. Dogfight at the Pentagon:  Sergeant Dogs, Grumpy Cats, Wallflower Wingmen, and Other Lunacy from the Wall Street Journal's A-Hed Column (The Wall Street Journal)
  132. Leni:  The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Steven Bach)

*A re-reading.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Empathy ("Hand to Mouth" by Linda Tirado)

Over the last two years, there has been a steady but not entirely unprecedented rise in public attacks on Americans who are poor, unemployed, and underprivileged. This is in part due to the 2012 presidential election, in which supporters of Mitt Romney were forced to defend his opinions on the "47% of Americans" who receive government assistance--those on Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and so on, all of whom Romney's supporters derided as "takers"--but was in retrospect little more than another example of conservative politicians deriding those who they saw as lazy, selfish, and transitively inferior. In fact, ever since Lyndon Johnson proposed and signed legislation intended to foster a Great Society, there has been an undercurrent of resentment where the poor and impoverished are concerned, especially when it comes to government programs. This resentment is often underscored by offensive stereotypes, scapegoating, and a belief that those who aren't on these programs are ethically and morally superior to those who are.* Unfortunately, those who advance these beliefs have the power and influence to diminish such important programs, and they advocate for such changes with abandon.

In writing Hand to Mouth, which builds off a Gawker post published last year, Linda Tirado is attempting to give voice to those who are so frequently maligned, including herself and her family. Much of her book is an explanation of just what those who are poor or live in poverty have to endure on a daily basis as they struggle to work part-time and at-will jobs, both of which are loosely overseen by the federal government, while also dealing with addiction, sending children to school, negligent landlords and abusive bosses, and paying bills on time. In doing she, she explains how the system is structured to work against those who work so hard to make so little:  the inefficiency of raising the minimum wage, the difficulties of moving from one job to another, the winless choices inherent in insurance policies, and so on. In outlining this for unfamiliar readers, she also demonstrates why neither political party is in any way equipped to correct these issues--meaning, unfortunately, that they will continue into the distant future.

She also uses her own life as a way to explain some of the stereotypes associated with those who are poor or impoverished. For instance, after a horrible car accident, Tirado was left with missing and damaged teeth, which made her instantly less employable. In order to fix her dental problems, she would've needed strong insurance--which she did not have--and the ability to pay for an upgrade in dentures years later, which she also did not have. Over time, as her original pair of dentures broke apart, eating became painful, which affected not only her health but also her ability to communicate with friends, family, and even customers. At the same time, in order to stay awake and on her feet through two or three part-time shifts, she took to smoking--a cheap way to get an instant hit of dopamine--which did little to help her overall health and probably scarred her already stained teeth even more. But, as she points out, when a paycheck is on the line, suddenly the Surgeon General's warning on the side of a cigarette pack becomes less of a deterrent.

The reason a book like Tirado's is so important is because, throughout much of the country--at least among the 250 million or so Americans who are not poor or living in poverty--there is a lack of understanding about just what being impoverished means. We talk of the United States as the Land of Opportunity, and yet we've created a system in which that opportunity is becoming less and less available to more and more people. And while some national figures attempt to build grassroots progressive movements to address the growing disparity between rich and poor--movements that, they hope, will also carry them into higher office--there is very little that can be truly done at this place in time, and it's for one simple reason:  a lack of empathy.

When we speak about the plight of those who are struggling, unemployed, or living below the poverty line, we talk in such a way as to convey our sympathy for their struggles--how we understand what they're going through and how unfortunate it is that there isn't more we can do. This is an easy way for those who aren't poor to avoid the discomforts that come with realizing they are part of the problem. This is the unspoken issue with "being sympathetic"--it is a way for those who aren't suffering to make themselves feel better without actually helping those who are suffering. Instead of proffering meaningless sympathies and advocating for self-serving political movements, we need to become a more empathetic society--a society that strives to legitimize the feelings and experiences of others over our own by recognizing their struggles and actually working towards a goal of some kind. Even Tirado admits that it wouldn't take much on our part to correct some of these injustices, but we can't do that until we admit that those who are poor, living in poverty, unemployed, or underprivileged live in a completely different society than we do, not because they've chosen to or are too lazy to find their way out, but because we've allowed our system to become an inhumane machine that chews up those who work so hard to keep it functioning.

*This attitude is typified by recent legislation meant to force those on welfare to undergo random drug screenings, even though men and women on welfare are statistically less likely to take illegal drugs than those who are not on welfare.

After ("Hiroshima Nagasaki" by Paul Ham)

Determining the thesis of Paul Ham's Hiroshima Nagasaki can be accomplished with ease by simply looking at the table of contents--specifically, chapter six, which is entitled "Japan Defeated." This would seem to imply an end to Ham's investigation of the titular events; after all, the surrender of Japan is what history tells us was the ultimate goal--and accomplishment--of the atomic bombings of Japan. And yet, beginning as it does on page 166, chapter six does not even mark the halfway point:  when the chapter ends, there are still 300 pages remaining, almost all of them devastating in their critique of not only the American government but the Japanese one, as well. The story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ham believes, is not at all what we think it is.

For the longest time, we have told ourselves--in anecdotes, on television programs, in textbooks--that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, that Hirohito's empire was so thoroughly invested in complete victory that it was willing to fight until the last man, woman, and child had shed their blood. Defeat, we have been repeatedly told, was not part of the Japanese vocabulary, and to force their hands, we had to demonstrate the utter destructive abilities of our own military--a clear and unequivocal sign that Japan would not survive if it continued to resist surrender. Part of the reason this story has survived as long as it has is because of our national hubris--a belief that, because of our victory and the speed with which we developed such destructive weapons, we were the deciding factor--and part of the reason is because we, as victors, were in the position to write the history ourselves. (As the saying goes, history isn't written by the losers.) But the overriding reason is that, for decades after the actual bombings, most of the pertinent information related to the decision and its aftermath was classified or unpublished by the U.S. government, including communications between members of the Japanese government that was intercepted and decoded by the MAGIC program.

Even today, those intercepted communications--which should be readily available on websites and in government publications--can only be accessed in bits and pieces across the internet, if at all. (The diplomatic cables between members of the Japanese government, which Ham uses to great effect throughout much of his book, are available in full only on 15 reels of microfilm that exist in a handful of college libraries across the country.) The reasons for this odd hesitancy to publicize more about our own history has never been explained, though theories might abound. What matters, however, is that the lack of awareness over what these documents reveal distorts our own understanding of history--our knowledge of what was done in our names and with our tacit permission, if not our unchallenged approval--and keeps us from making sure the tragedies of the past don't become tragedies of the future.

For example, the belief that Japan's government was unified behind its last-man-standing mentality is easily disproven by the MAGIC intercepts, in which many of the top men in Hirohito's government pushed vociferously for their country's surrender to the Allies, only to be refuted by more ardent and nationalistic colleagues. Perhaps the most vocal of these figures is Naotake Sato, a diplomat whose awareness of the situation transformed him into one of the few honest men in all of Japan's government, and he spoke his mind with careless abandon--a decision that could easily have cost him both his position and his life. The bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki play a minimal role in the back-and-forth between those voices advocating for continued hostilities against the Allied forces and those demanding a quick but honorable surrender; in fact, when notified of the bombing of Nagasaki during an hours-long meeting meant to plan out the terms of their surrender, the top Japanese officials are recorded as demonstrating little reaction or concern, a fact that our own country has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.*

The main reason the Japanese government was unmoved by the dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on their own people is that their empire was already suffering immensely at the hands of the Allies. Their country was prevented from importing any food or necessary supplies by an Allied navy blockade, and their closest neighbors--China, the Soviet Union--were also against them, removing any chance for humanitarian aid. Towards the end of the war, they hoped the latter of these nations, under the leadership of Josef Stalin, would at least serve as the arbitrator in negotiations with the Allied Powers; when the Soviet Union instead declared war on them, it marked the disappearance of the last possible hope of the Japanese government and its people. Millions were starving and homeless due to Allied air-raids and fire-bombings, and hundreds of thousands were dead; had the Allies simply kept the blockade intact and continued pushing towards the Japanese mainland, it's safe to assume--and General Eisenhower himself agreed after the war--that Japan would have been forced to declare surrender before the year's end anyway.

Likewise, the American government's decision to drop both bombs is called into question by Ham's research. Much like Japan, the American government experienced its own tumultuous split over how. when, and where to use the atomic bombs. Truman seemed determined to utilize the weapon as soon as possible, refusing to proffer a warning to the Japanese government about what would happen to their cities. (There were some in the government who said a warning would persuade the Japanese to surrender before the bomb was even used, an idea that is difficult to prove.) And, much like Japan, there were those who attempted to secure a peaceful resolution, or at least a resolution that did not involve the use of cataclysmic weapons. Included among these voices was Joseph Grew, the former ambassador to Japan who understood, after a decade of firsthand experience, that demanding Japan give up its emperor as part of an "unconditional surrender" would force the country to continue hostilities, even when all hope seemed lost. Grew, who had been interned by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, was soundly ignored.

In the end, Ham argues that it wasn't the atomic bombs that forced Japan to finally surrender, nor was it the naval blockade--which, he argues, had a much greater effect on the Japanese government's decision than the actual bombs--but the Soviet Union's refusal to act as an intermediate and its subsequent declaration of war against Japan. Only then, according to the correspondences of those in power, did the government of Japan finally give in to what the rest of the world had seen as inevitable for some time. What followed was an ocean surrender and, as Ham writes, an occupation by the Allies that was shameful, with the American government steadfastly denying the true legacy of the atomic bombs:  radiation poisoning, illness, and death, all spread across generations. Journalists who gained access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki wrote about and photographed the aftermath; much of this evidence was soon confiscated or censored by the American military. Not until John Hersey's Hiroshima, published in 1946, did the American public come to understand the true extent of the devastation.

And yet history continued to tell us that, had it not been for these two bombs, the war would have become even bloodier, lasted even longer, cost even more American lives. The atomic bombs, we are told, actually helped save lives and end the war. This postulation isn't entirely false--an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have certainly resulted in the deaths of Allied soldiers, as the mainland forces were surprisingly strong--but to offer those options as the only two we could have taken demonstrates a remarkable unwillingness to reexamine ourselves and our own war-time decisions, especially today. Yes, we didn't know then what we know now, so past generations should not be denounced with retrospective guilt--they were simply embracing what they were told by the very same government that had led them through the largest war in world history, and against some of the most vile dictators we would ever experience, including an empire that attacked us on our own soil. But to look back with so many previously classified and unpublished documents now available--albeit limitedly--for our consumption, and retain the same theory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is ignorant, if not downright dangerous. It allows us to see cataclysmic weapons as a viable--and paradoxically lifesaving--solution, one that values the civilian lives of one nation over the civilian lives of another, without understanding all of the implications and nuances inherent in such a momentous decision.

Yes, the people of Japan held onto their emperor, even as their emperor ignored them, and they had been brainwashed--or threatened--into believing their crusade against the Allied Powers was a noble one. But to use this as an excuse to dismiss hundreds of thousands of lives as justifiably expendable, simply because they were civilians under the other side's government, sets a dangerous precedent where foreign policy and war is concerned. By waving aside these numbers and statistics, and by ignoring the photographs of sick and deformed Japanese civilians--men, women, and children who were guilty of nothing more than being born in a country that warred against our own--we are casting ourselves as something less than the scions of liberty and freedom we so vocally aspire to be.

People will debate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for decades to come, and there will never be a consensus over the efficacy--or even necessity--of Fat Man and Little Boy. Even Ham, for all the positive aspects of his book, leaves much to be desired in terms of writing a comprehensive and accurate history. But there can never be one, at least not yet:  we exist beyond a time and place where one could be written, and our minds are too frequently clouded by ideology, propaganda, and patriotism to see what needs to be seen. Instead, we need to take the bombing of Japan for what it can still teach us, and that requires having all the information available to us, without restrictions or concessions. Unfortunately, as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki grow ever more distant, and those who continue to push a simplistic, winner-take-all history fade into that very same timeline, we will see its legacy spread tendrils and grow. The truly sad part is that, without more books like this one, regardless of its successes or failures, we won't even realize that it is happening until the cycle repeats itself and we're back where we started, having learned nothing.

*There are those who point to Hirohito's 1945 radio broadcast, in which he stated that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives," as proof of the opposite. But what a government tells itself and what a government tells its people are often completely different.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shame ("After Lincoln" by A.J. Langguth)

Of the 20 chapters in A.J. Langguth's After Lincoln, a history of the United States' failed attempts at reunification and peace following the Civil War, nineteen of them are concerned with the events of just over two decades:  1865-1887. These eventful twenty-two years saw the assassination of Abraham Lincoln--the moment that serves as this book's opening scene and, by intimation, the catalyst for what comes later--the elevation of Andrew Johnson to the presidency, the elections of Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, as well as the first black politicians in the nation's history, insurrection in every Southern state, the disenfranchisement of black voters, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, revolts, mobs, and the widespread murder of former slaves, their supporters and defenders, and their descendants. In the process, Langguth also offers us a wealth of backstories and foreshadowings that break through the timeline's constraints, but overall this is the story of a generation in which the opportunity to correct centuries of oppression and genocide was squandered in a single generation, thereby enshrining such horrors for centuries to come.

Only by the twentieth chapter--the final chapter--does Langguth take everything he's presented and connect it to our modern world...or at least as close to our modern world as he feels necessary. In this case, that means ending his history of Reconstruction with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a monumental piece of legislation that Langguth seems to imply marks the end of the tortured history of America's shameful, post-war racial history. Which is the problem with After Lincoln, the fourth and final volume in the author's series. Langguth, who himself covered the Civil Rights Movement as a reporter, seems to bestow the Civil Rights Bill with the qualities that Lyndon Johnson himself emphasized in advocating for its passage:  "Let us close the spring of racial poison," Johnson said and Langguth quotes, continuing, "Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole." These words were and continue to remain noble words, unquestionably, and Johnson pushed these ideals and their enforcement more than any other president since Lincoln, even though his own history on issues related to civil rights were often questionable.*

And yet, exactly fifty years later, we know with certainty that our nation did not come together and become one again. In many respects, we remain a country divided--millions of people standing on separate shores looking for unity in the opposing reflections but finding strangers. It's easy to point to events from this year and claim that we have not come as far as we should have or thought we had--since 1865, 1887, 1964--a claim that is hard to quantify, no matter who you are. It's also easy to see the events from this year and say, with misplaced confidence, that at least it's not as bad as it once was:  no more lynchings, no more laws against interracial marriage, no violent protests over the integration of schools. However, by making these statements, we are looking to excuse ourselves from responsibility. According to the former, we are only aware of our lack of progress when tragic events force us to reexamine how we treat one another and approach issues of race; unarmed black men and children are shot and killed, protests erupt, and only then are we able to assess the level of progress we've made. On any other day, when the news is not dominated by similar stories, we can dismiss our responsibility as people and citizens to consider such possibilities. The latter implies that any sort of progress, regardless of its breadth or depth, excuses whatever problems remain to be solved. But lesser violence is still violence, and lesser hatred is still hatred. We see what crimes are no longer committed rather than which crimes remain, and we refuse to believe that what we've consigned to the dust-bins of history have any relation to what occurs in the broad sunlight of our own backyards, even when it's clear that one is our inheritance from the other.

In reading a book like After Lincoln, it's easy to choose a particular person or group of people and lay the blame for our current problems at their footsteps. Andrew Johnson is perhaps the best example of this inclination. He was an undeniable racist and an unabashed drunkard who based much of his decisions on satisfying his own sense of inferiority and need for acceptance and validation, and his decisions undoubtedly allowed for much of the atrocities that followed. But in focusing on Johnson--or Ulysses Grant, or John Wilkes Booth, or Gideon Welles--we absolve the millions of people who came before us, experienced racism and racial violence--as perpetrators, apologists, bystanders, armchair advocates, what have you--and did nothing to fight back. In fact, Langguth's book is full of those who can be seen as accomplices to the crimes and missteps of Reconstruction, but there are comparatively few men and women--Amos Akerman and Benjamin Bristow at the federal level, thousands of unnamed women who taught in black schools at the local level--who we can look to as genuine heroes. Unfortunately, in the history of the United States after the Civil War, it's the perpetrators who dominate its pages, as their fingerprints are all over the problems we face today, alongside the fingerprints of previous generations whose poisoned ideologies remain with us, haunting us in different forms but with the same goal. And regardless of the form, the severity, the excuse, hatred is hatred, and its history is far from over. Its final volume has yet to be written.

*A.J. Langguth passed away on September 1 of this year, just over two weeks before After Lincoln was published, and in his "Acknowledgements" he mentions being in hospital and then restricted to home. It's possible--and I'd like to believe this--that this final book of Langguth's was rushed, and that, had there been more time, he would have written a stronger closing chapter.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Goals ("Unreasonable Men" by Michael Wolraich)

In the introduction to Unreasonable Men, his history of the Progressive Movement in the early 20th century, author Michael Wolraich sets an uncomfortable tone. Writing of the Republican politicians who advocated progressive policies--an eight-hour work day, trust-busting, conservation, the abolishment of child labor--Wolraich draws a direct link between the era of Teddy Roosevelt and our own times, writing that "those who identified with Roosevelt or La Follette called themselves progressives," their opponents "called themselves conservatives," and that, in reciting this era in American history "when America broke into two ideological factions, we can see more clearly what we're fighting about and better appreciate the stakes."

This is, for obvious reasons, a dangerous series of statements to make. Men like Roosevelt and La Follette did indeed call themselves progressives--the latter much earlier than the former--but rarely if ever does Wolraich actually quote any Republicans referring to themselves--or being referred to by others--as conservative. (Woolraich does that himself, and mostly when talking about William Howard Taft.) Similarly, the implication that our nation was politically and ideological homogenous until the early 1900s, when it "broke into two" for what Wolraich implies was the first time, is so ridiculous that it must be taken as little more than a poorly-stated thought that slipped by the editors; otherwise, it would be a terrifying insight into how little the author knows about American history.

These two small missteps, sheltered as they are in the book's introduction, are a pretty concise diagnosis of the problems with Wolraich's book, despite all of its positive aspects. After all, Wolraich is not a bad writer; in fact, his prose is engaging, and he quotes from both primary and secondary documents without losing the narrative flow, which can be difficult when relying on Congressional speeches and presidential correspondences. But his book lacks context and, more importantly, focus. In terms of the first, the political landscape Wolraich presents ignores almost ninety percent of the elected officials of this era, focusing on a handful of the most powerful--and often the most corrupt--senators and representatives. In doing so, he inadvertently makes this a story not about a grassroots movement against the existing social structure but about a half-dozen old congressman who stood in the way of social change because of their own vested interests. (The most important voting members of Congress came from the still-expanding Western states, where people saw firsthand the stranglehold of the locomotive industry, but Wolraich speaks of them as one collective group rather than as individuals.)

In terms of the second issue, Wolraich's claim that his book is advocating for insights drawn from the past would make more sense if the history he presents supported that claim. But the most successful years of the Progressive movement, according to Woolraich's own research, occurred not under the presidencies of Roosevelt or Taft, or even early in the senatorship of Robert La Follette, but the first term of Woodrow Wilson, which occupies the last 6 pages of the book, and only then as an abridged history. There, Woolraich's details all of the major accomplishments that were not passed into law over the preceding 250 pages--an odd decision that seems to debunk the very legacy of both Roosevelt and La Follette, foisting it instead upon a Democrat who had zero influence on progressive policy until his ascension to the White House.

The underlying reason for this choice seems to be that, rather than exploring their ratification, Wolraich wants to understand the process it took to get those specific policies and bills passed...which is a perfectly acceptable approach to history. Unfortunately, if we take the past as a guide for the future, the Progressive Era--as is the case with all past eras--does not translate well. The primary reason is that, unlike one hundred years ago, there are no Teddy Roosevelts or Robert La Follettes around to lead a movement for change; the closest figures we have who meet these requirements, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are both fantastic candidates, but even they could not rally the country to change in the way Roosevelt and La Follette did. Yes, there are similarities between early 20th-century America and early 21st-century America--the popular election of our congresspeople is controlled by the politicians themselves, money has an unprecedented influence over our elected officials, banks possess unchecked powers while labor is being stripped of its own powers, economic disparity is growing--but the average American does not understand its root cause. They've been told that any difficulties in their lives are the responsibility of the other side, and journalism--once dominated by muckrackers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell--has become a shallow circus deficient of substance and impartiality. The Fourth Estate, forever entrusted with the responsibility of keeping us informed, has abandoned those responsibilities, and there is no one around who seems able to rise above such a glowing deficiency in our democracy.

By deciding that we can learn--and must learn--from an era that passed into history a century ago, Wolraich is making it seem as though the genuine problems we face have an easy solution, one we can discover simply by consulting textbooks and turning their lessons into a checklist. This is not how progress in the United States works. The reason we are facing the same problems again as a nation is twofold--because we have forgotten the past, and because we are different people now. Those who want to consolidate money and power for themselves have learned from the mistakes and oversights of their predecessors and are now better prepared for any impending challenges to the status quo. The rest of us are not. We could be, if only there were those who could lead us there with their words and their writing. Michael Wolraich, in offering us an engaging but flawed and unfocused book, is not one of those people.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Second ("The American Vice Presidency" by Jules Witcover)

To be elected vice-president of the United States is to acquire a thankless and almost foreordained task. Of the 47 men who've held the office, only four have gone on to be elected president in their own right after their predecessors' term ended--and the results were decidedly mixed.* Nine more succeeded a president who died of natural causes, was assassinated, or--in the case of Richard Nixon--was forced to resign.** And, perhaps most tragically, when seven of these men died in office themselves, not a single one was replaced until the president himself faced reelection and was able--or perhaps forced--to fill the post, a testament to the office's historically low opinion among not only the majority of Americans, who didn't seem to notice the vacant posts, but also the nation's own federal government, which didn't seem to care. (The situation is even more tragic when you add to this total the number of vice presidents who passed away within a few years of leaving office, many of them having served their final months or years in declining health to no one's apparent alarm.)

In fact, of these 47 men, only one was able to achieve a level of true dignity, grace, and equality in his role as vice president. He did so on level footing with his president, based on an agreement reached amiably between the two men before their party's convention, while also avoiding any deep and lasting rifts between himself and the Oval Office. He presided over the Senate with skill, making sure his firsthand knowledge of the institution's ways didn't imbue him with either arrogance or deference, and he took on legislative and diplomatic responsibilities beyond the Senate without ever neglecting his Constitutional duties there. And yet, after spending four years as the nation's second-most-powerful public figure--only "a heartbeat away from the presidency," as they say--there are few if any Americans who would be able to identify Walter Mondale from this description. Such is the fate of those who choose to seek--or are foolish enough to accept--the office.

Today, the vice president is seen as less of a stand-by commander in chief--a person ready and able to take control in case of a presidential vacancy or national emergency--and more of a path to scoring political points and possibly influencing the outcome of an election. Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden did much to reassure voters who were concerned over the freshman senator's inexperience with the culture of Washington, D.C. and the United States' near incomprehensible foreign policy, both of which Biden--a Senate veteran and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations--offered in spades. Obama's opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, chose as his running mate Paul Ryan, a nationally recognized congressman whose staunch conservative ideals overshadowed Romney's damaging record as a moderate. Four years earlier, John McCain chose Sarah Palin, the relatively unknown first-term governor of Alaska, as a way to counteract Obama's historical significance while also invigorating his campaign with some much-needed personality; unfortunately, the decision backfired, transforming the election into a referendum on Palin's preparedness and intelligence rather than a contest between candidates and their ideas.

Then again, Obama and his opponents were in good company:  very rarely has a president's running mate been chosen simply to guarantee a fluid transition should the nation's highest office be suddenly and unexpectedly vacated, as the Constitution prescribes. Instead, many of the nation's vice presidents were chosen to offset--or complement--the leading name on the ticket rather than to ensure the continuation of the federal government in times of crisis or tragedy. As might be expected, this often put our country at great risk. John Breckinridge, the vice president under James Buchanan, would later join the Confederacy during the Civil War, causing the Senate--which he had joined after leaving office--to declare him a traitor and unanimously expel him from its body. Had Breckinridge found himself president at any point, the fate of the entire country, not to mention the Civil War and the end of slavery, might have changed dramatically. There is also the more recent example of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, who was forced to resign from office a full ten months before Nixon himself on charges of corruption, for which he plead "no contest." Had Agnew been able to hold onto his office for another year, he would have become the most powerful man in the world; instead, he is today considered one of--if not the--worst vice president in American history.

Unfortunately, in the long history of the American vice presidency--which, in the hands of Jules Witcover, comes in at just over 500 pages an in an abridged and heavily summarized form--not a single one of those 47 men could claim to have had a lasting influence on the nation while in office. Even the most bombastic, progressive, or controversial of these men--Walter Mondale, John Nance Garner, Dick Cheney--today recede into history only as footnotes rather than interesting chapters all their own. Most Americans, if not all but the most astute students of history, have little knowledge of any of the vice presidents who served outside of their own lifetimes. As our nation continues to grow older, that fact becomes increasingly true.

The subtitle of Witcover's book is "From Irrelevance to Power," and the most striking example of this shift is Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's vice president, who seemed at times to be the more influential of the two men. And while Cheney's legacy will be debated for decades, at least until there is enough distance from the emotions of the moment, just as all presidents and vice presidents are judged, he seems to have been the driving force behind Witcover's lengthy and largely impartial--if not entirely exhaustive--study of the office and the men who have held it. As the next presidential election approaches, one in which we will see two new nominees choosing two more candidates for the vice presidency, we must remind ourselves that the vice presidency has a greater role to play in our lives and government than any of us recognize. After all, it's been forty years since a vice president was forced to succeed a president; the youngest voters at that time of Gerald Ford's swearing in would now be fast approaching retirement age. As history demonstrates, fate has little interest in what we choose to remember from the past and what we choose to forget, and our actions--not to mention the actions of the next president, his party, and his supporters--can determine the entire future of the country in unexpected and irreversible ways.

*John Adams succeeded George Washington and was a failure, whereas Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams and was a success. Martin Van Buren followed his president, Andrew Jackson, into the White House but only served one term, just as George H.W. Bush followed Ronal Reagan in 1988 and was voted out four years later, and for almost the same exact reason--a tumultuous economy.

**These nine men were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford. Surprisingly, the forty years since Ford ascended to the presidency marks the second-longest span of time in which there has been no presidential vacancies, second only to the fifty-two years between George Washington's inauguration and William Henry Harrison's tragic--but entirely avoidable--death one month into his first term.

Friday, October 24, 2014

On Percy Jackson: A Response to Rebecca Mead

Earlier this year, Ruth Graham of Slate Magazine denounced young adult literature--and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars in particular--for offering what she saw as substandard material, a criticism that was couched in a greater denunciation of the adults who actively read YA books over other, more "literary" offerings by writers like John Updike and Willa Cather. Now, a few months later, another prominent magazine--this time the New Yorker, perhaps the nation's most renowned venue for literature and criticism--has published an article on YA literature, only this time the object of criticism is Rick Riordan, and the writer bases much of her opinion on firsthand observations of her son, a Riordan fanatic. Thankfully, Mead's article does not embrace the same arrogant tone that so feverishly dripped from Graham's, and much of what Mead has to say seems derived from a deep and honest belief in the importance of literature for young children and teenagers. In fact, her article devotes its opening paragraphs to a summary of two opposing camps--those who believe children benefit from reading anything, and those who believe that learning can only come from through the reading of more "literary" fare--but as she continues, Mead quickly embraces Graham's close-minded attitude towards the former, and her reasoning devolve into arrogance.

As someone who spends much of his day surrounded by both teenagers and books, not to mention teenagers reading--or refusing to read--said books, I feel compelled to offer my own insight into this argument over the works of Rick Riordan and, to a lesser extent, young adult literature in general. As a high school English teacher, I've had more than a few opportunities to become acquainted with not only the works of Mr. Riordan but the original myths upon which his novels are based; last year, I even forced myself to read one of Riordan's myth-based books, though not the Percy Jackson volumes Mead focuses on. Instead, it was The Red Pyramid, 540-page work based on Egyptian mythology rather than Greek or Roman, but nonetheless consistent with the focus of Mead's complaints.

I'll be honest, I didn't finish the book. I got halfway through it--I can't even remember what most of it was about--and had to set it aside for good. Riordan may sell a lot of books, and he may have a rabid fanbase, but his ability to craft a fluid and engaging narrative wasn't strong enough for me. The chances of me picking up anything else written by Riordan are pretty slim, though I suppose I could be convinced. But what separates me from Mead in this area is that, unlike her, I recognize that my interests cannot--and should not--have any bearing over what other people read, especially when it's something they want to read. If my students, many of whom like Riordan's books, read him with the same level of passion and focus that I have when reading, say, the newest Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King, then any opinion I have about his skills should be left unexpressed on my part. If a student ever asked for my reaction to his books, I'd be honest and tell them exactly what I've just written here--that I tried once, a while back, didn't enjoy it, stopped halfway through, and moved on--but I would never go so far as to try and dissuade them from reading him. I'd encourage their reading, even tell them I hoped they would enjoy the book, and end by saying I looked forward to hearing about it at an SSR conference later that quarter. Which--and I'm not lying here--would be the complete and honest truth.

Where Mead and I also differ--and this is perhaps Mead's biggest problem--is on the book she recommends in place of the Percy Jackson series, which is D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Written by a husband-and-wife team and published more than 50 years ago, the D'Aulaires' collection takes its readers through the most famous and important myths, many of which are retold--in much different fashion--in Riordan's own series, only the D'Aulaires did so without the addition of an overarching story concerning teenagers at summer camp. In extolling the virtues of this book, Mead acknowledges its age, though she holds that aspect of it up as a positive--the language is more poetic, she says, and contrasts it to lingo- and pop-culture-heavy quotes from Riordan's work, a rhetorical tactic I will address momentarily--and admits that most children, when given a choice, would opt for Riordan's versions, which she attributes to its "irresistibly cool" language.

Which is a revelation that, for someone who is supposedly familiar with literature and literary criticism, demonstrates a near disqualifying level of unfamiliarity with how literature actually works. The "irresistibly cool" language Mead so easily dismisses--you can almost feel her eyes rolling as you read the words--is not some strange second language introduced by an alien race to corrupt the spotless legacy of Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner. It's how people talk today. Very rarely does anyone in this day and age--children, teenagers, middle-aged parents, senior citizens--speak like a Greek hero, or even in the dull, manufactured tone of the D'Aulaires' collection, which reads as though it's been polished and revised by an entire college English Department.

Earlier in that same paragraph, Mead denounces Riordan's incorporation of "obsolescence"--Craigslist, iPhones, Powerball, all of which she feels date his novels--even though, in a preceding sentence, she quotes the opening lines to the D'Aulaires' book, which mentions shepherds and herdsmen, two professions that are so rare these days, or at least appear in radically different forms, that they themselves could be seen as dating their source material in much the same way. (Furthermore, the original Greek myths as retold by the D'Aulaires mention smiths, chariot-drivers, and a slew of other mortal professions that would be foreign to modern students.)

Besides teaching students who read--and discuss, and recommend--Riordan's books, I've also had the chance over the last few years to teach myths taken directly from the D'Aulaire's collection, which I've used to both prepare my students for The Odyssey (English 9) and help them understand how various myths from across the world share common themes, ideas, and characters (World Literature & Composition). This experience provides me with what I would consider the ultimate proof against Mead's argument that students would find the literary and refined work of the D'Aulaires more beneficial than the work of Riordan and his ilk:  the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths is boring.* Every student of mine who has been handed a chapter from any of their mythology books and told to read it has found it unworthy, not because it might be inferior to anything else I could have offered them, but because it was written in a different time for a different population. It is like handing students a typewriter and telling them it's just as equal to the Chromebook or iPad they have in their lockers. It doesn't mean the typewriter is a horrible object, or that we should disdain or ignores its importance; its simply the relic of older times, significant in its day, but not something that has any true and immediate relevance in the lives of young people.

Which is the truth of literature:  it changes. Mead criticizes Riordan for taking these prized myths, which have lasted for millennia, and besmirching them with modern-day references, a cliched storyline involving teenage protagonists, substandard paraphrasing, and lackluster prose. But Riordan is simply following the lead of those very same men and women who, thousands of years ago, began telling their own stories...which they, in turn, had adapted from stories they themselves had been told. When you study world literature, you understand that these stories, regardless of where they come from, all share such an incredible number of similarities that believing they arose spontaneously and without outside influence--without the fingerprints of a premodern globalization--is a mark of arrogance and stupidity. Riordan may be far from a lasting writer--he is this generation's S.E. Hinton, its Carolyn Keene, destined for dollar-bins and garage sales, as is ninety-nine percent of all books published today, or ever--but he's basing his work on the very same mythology that both borrowed from and lent to other storytelling traditions. By reading Riordan, young readers aren't just entertaining themselves, escaping into a fantastic alternate reality, or engaging with relatable characters--they're participating in a tradition as old as the stories themselves.

That my seem like a lofty and hyperbolic statement, especially in response to a poorly developed article by someone who seems to have forgotten what it means to be young and interested in books. In fact, if I were to guess, I'd say there are articles out there somewhere, perhaps buried in the reels of old newspaper microfilm, in which some respectable critic from mid-century bemoans how the D'Aulaires took such prized myths, made them accessible by children, and presented them with dozens of illustrations. After all, that was the era of Edith Hamilton's dense, virtually inaccessible Mythology book, and to present any form of classical literature in such an edited fashion would have surely stoked the ire of the Old Guard. If that person had existed, it seems as though Mead and her parents had little issue ignoring them, just as millions of readers today will have no problem ignoring the ridiculous concerns of people like Mead, who would be better served reading more of these books rather than wringing their hands over children who seek them out. Or not. After all, Mead can read whatever the hell she wants--it's her right as a reader, after all, just as it's the right of her own child and children everywhere.

*Just to be clear, I'm not saying I don't think people should avoid the D'Aulaires' book, or that it shouldn't be taught. I'm only saying that, in attempting to denounce one book while elevating another, Mead has replaced the subjectivity and democracy of readership with her own biased ideas about which is better, and what books we should be reading over others.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Darkness ("Beautiful Darkness" by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët; translated by Helge Dascher)

The setting of Beautiful Darkness, the graphic fairy tale by Fabien Vehlmann and illustrator Kerascoët, is not a charming castle or faraway wonderland populated by anthropomorphic daydreams, but the corpse of a young girl. Struck down inexplicably in the book's opening panels, she is presented to us as a Tennelian cadaver laid out on the forest floor. The book's characters--small, toylike creatures in the girl's body--soon crawl from her mouth and nose and circle around her, blissfully unaware of what this means for them, or who she even is. (In fact, the cause of her death is never disclosed and, in a perverse way, it doesn't seem to matter.) Instead, they line up for bits of cookie, then disperse into the wild and unmapped brush around them, almost all of them lost in their own enchanted delusions.

Soon, they begin to die one by one, and in horrifying ways. One creature, desperate for food, climbs into the nest of a bird and sits among the hatchlings; when the mother-bird returns and prepares to regurgitate the morning's catch, her beak pierces the creature's tender organs, causing it to vomit blood before dying in the high branches. Another, even more famished, feasts on maggots from the corpse before crawling deep into her soft skull, where it finds shelter but is also haunted by the girl's own memories; eventually, the story drifts away from this creature, and we can only assume it dies within the bone-walls she has come to call her home. There is cannibalism, the torture of small animals, a live entombment, and a half-dozen other instances of nature's vicious indifference towards the small figures, who have gone from the warm protections of a child's anatomy to a cold, Darwinian world of predators and prey.

Throughout much of the story, this reality exists in spite of the blind optimism of its protagonist, a blond-haired girl named Aurora, who is borne of pure fairy-tale obligation:  the wholesome daughter and watchful granddaughter, the princess-in-waiting, the sugar-toothed dreamer in a world of cynics and wickedness, the defining version of just what we've come to expect from Disneyfied bedtime stories. She is pre-ball Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty before the curse, Snow White before the apple has been bitten. She is Alice searching for her way into Wonderland, forever testing the balance between too large and too small, all without ever becoming frustrated when the equilibrium escapes her. Throughout much of the book Aurora works to keep order, once even arranging a party between her fellow creatures and some of the forest's wild animals--an attempt, she says, to encourage friendships between both parties, which ends in predictable failure. Soon, the others begin to take advantage of her, dismissing her attempts to adapt and using her goodwill to feed and shelter themselves.

This is, the author and illustrator tell us, the nature of humanity:  we are selfish, cold-hearted animals fit to live among the rabid tail-and-claw underclass, and the fairy tales we tell ourselves and our children--the very same stories represented in Aurora's blond hair and sunny demeanor--are not only worthless but delusions in themselves. To create a story as graphic and cold as this one, and to populate it with small creatures the size and appearance of both toys and people, is to juxtapose the fantasies we have of ourselves--as veritable royalty, or of overlooked beauty awaiting the midnight carriage and glass slippers--with the truth behind our masks. The message of Beautiful Darkness--a contrast in itself, it could be argued--is that the behavior Aurora faces, even when she's exhausting herself to help others, is the same behavior we exhibit to one another, not just in times of hardship, but in all aspects of daily life. 

In the end, Aurora--our bastion of morality and humanitarianism, this personification of our own fantastical ideas of ourselves, left standing alone among supposed degenerates--gives in to the darker angels of her nature and lashes out, first at a furry companion and then at those who wronged her time and again. She does so not around the girl's corpse, which has now rotted away into a heap of bones, but the warmth of a cottage--the home of a nameless woodsman whose shelves are littered with broken keepsakes, including a clock and child's doll. In a way, the authors might argue that in taking revenge, Aurora fulfills her destiny by becoming the harshest creature of all--by ripping away the mask of fantasy and embracing the ugliness beneath. And when she does, we smile...and we tell ourselves we're glad the villains got what was coming to them, even as those spinning this story know that we smile because the virtuous Aurora has joined our ranks. She has awoken from her slumber and joined the shadows of a much different and deeper sleep.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this entire story, however, is that Aurora has not wandered far in order to find the woodman's cottage. Which means that, just a few dozen feet from his door, are the bones of that very young girl. Which begs the questions, did this man know her in life? Was he her father, or perhaps an older brother, or uncle? Why is it that this one man, so thoroughly involved in the wilderness beyond his front door, never once stumbled upon her body, or at least noticed the smell of rot in the forest air? And why would a man, so obviously alone, have a broken doll on his shelves when there is no evidence that he has children of his own? The question arises that, perhaps, this man is callous, or even ignorant. Or perhaps he knows she is there, that he is the one who felled her body as he might fell one of the surrounding trees. Or perhaps, in this world--this dark and honest anti-fantasy--we must live with the unknown, the mysterious, the unpursued. Perhaps it is time we accept that, sometimes, unhappily ever after is the best we can do.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cycle ("The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell)

An entire decade separates David Mitchell's newest novel The Bone Clocks from what is perhaps his most famous work, Cloud Atlas, and in writing about the former it is inevitable that we must also discuss the latter. Not only do both books share the same overarching plot--the movement of souls through time, whether abstractly (in the case of Cloud Atlas) or literally (in the case of The Bone Clocks)--but a similar structure, as well. Where the stories in Cloud Atlas are organized like concentric circles, with each story interrupted at the halfway point until we reached the end of the chronology and each story's second half is resumed, The Bone Clocks traces the entire life of one person, Holly Sykes, often as it's witnessed and intersected by other characters, who each narrate a chapter. This allows Mitchell to do what he loves best, and what make his books unique among so many others:  to not only explore language but wear it like a well-tailored wardrobe made of words, which he wraps around the throats and tongues of his storytellers with ease.

Unfortunately, these similarities also work to amplify the weaknesses in Mitchell's work. Where Cloud Atlas allowed Mitchell to trace the English language as it evolved across centuries, including well into the future, and imbued his stories with a hypnotic richness, the changing tones of the The Bone Clocks' half-dozen narrators is one of the book's great inconsistencies: from desperate teenage Holly in the opening pages to self-assured literary badboy Crispin Hershey in the novel's middle to a body-jumping Horologist named Marinus in the penultimate chapter and, finally, Holly again, now elderly and living in a post-grid Ireland with her two grandchildren, Mitchell's use of language is at times beautiful but more often than not infuriating. For instance, the second-to-last chapter involves a battle between two metaphysical armies that is narrated, in real time, as though it were a piss-poor action-adventure novel more appropriate for the paperback bin at a thrift store. It is the novel's longest chapter, and also it's most sophomoric. (The final chapter--and the shortest--all but makes up for the preceding disaster by being the novel's best, and at times I wished Mitchell had excised it and made it a post-apocalyptic novel all its own.)

Furthermore, Mitchell's editing skills, which kept Cloud Atlas a lengthy but succinct work of literary architecture--the pipes did not jostle or leak, the wires didn't flicker, the windows let in warm and endless daylight--have all but abandoned him here. Coming in at 630 pages, The Bone Clocks is loaded down with unnecessary tangents and details, often running a dozen pages or so in length. Extended exposition has its place, to be sure--to develop characters, for example, or to introduce complicated ideas without rushed explanations--but here it seems as though Mitchell were writing a half-dozen different novels at the same time, noticed shared characteristics, and joined them together in a moment of frustration. And the stitching that holds these disparate pieces together is the ongoing war between two small armies, the body-jumping Horologists and the cannibalistic Anchorites, which interrupts the otherwise standard storylines as wild, pseudo-mystical diversions that become ponderous when they drift beyond the pace of the dense, esoteric conversations with which Mitchell is obviously the most comfortable.

Where The Bone Clocks exceeds the impact of its ancestor, however, is in its relevance to our contemporary life. In structuring his novel around the idea of a cycle--that certain immortal souls can move from body to body--Mitchell also drops his characters into a world that demonstrates its own cycle, albeit with subtlety. Beginning in the 1980s, with Holly Sykes running away from home, Mitchell follows her across decades and continents; in the background, constantly moving in and out of the rising action, is the changing society around her, including the move from vinyl records to digitized music, bicycles to voice-operated cars, fossil fuels to bioelectricity. By the time Holly's life is sunsetting, a failure of the world's grid plummets almost all of humanity back into a world before alternating currents, processed food, and the Internet. The world we live in now, Mitchell suggests, is not a long step in the upward progress of our world, as we all believe, but rather the apex of a bell-graph. The decline, if and when it happens--and Mitchell's prose is weighed down by data that seems meticulously researched, if not altogether blatantly expressed--will return us to an existence reminiscent of 200 years in the past, and we will be forced to begin again. We will need to grow our own food, live within our means, travel on foot or by non-motorized wheels, communicate with those closest to us, and tackle the darker impulses of human nature, including fear and intolerance.

The Bone-Clocks is ambitious, to say the least, and Mitchell certainly deserves praise for pushing the boundaries of his own writing into new and even more otherworldly directions. Unfortunately, ambition is often a misinterpretation of recklessness, and the few sparse moments of beauty in The Bone-Clocks do not alleviate the pain of knowing just how good this novel could have been if its author had just separated himself from his own cycle and began again, anew. As even Mitchell's own characters realize, the novelty and superiority of reincarnation becomes tiresome very, very quickly.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Legacy ("Dr. Mütter's Marvels" by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz)

When Thomas Mütter died in 1859 at the age of 47, friends and colleagues alike celebrated his life and career while also bemoaning the possibility that he might someday be forgotten. After all, his importance to medial science and the field of surgery was extraordinary. He was one of the first surgeons in the country to use early forms of anesthesia, which enabled him to perform complicated and often primitive procedures with little pain inflicted on his patients. He also embraced the idea that doctors should operate in sterile environments as to prevent infection and the spread of bacteria; that the care patients received after surgery was just as important as the care they received during surgery; and that doctors should treat their patients with compassion and understanding rather than indifference, as though they were little more than walking, breathing cadavers on which to experiment. All of these notions were newfangled and even controversial at the time, and Mütter faced pushback from many of his own colleagues, who felt as though any challenge to the status quo was an affront both professional and personal. Mütter belonged to a generation of surgeons who saw the limitations and mistakes of his chosen field and worked to change them for the better--to put the patient's wellbeing first and disregard ego completely.

In writing the story of Thomas Mütter from beginning to end, and even beyond those two seemingly final boundaries, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz has fulfilled the wish of many of those who hoped for an "able hand" to someday write his biography--the story of "a great and good man," a pioneer in American medicine. And while it took more than 150 years for that book to be written--during which time American medicine advanced with such speed and breadth that even a man as forward-thinking as Mütter would be astonished--it arrived at a perfectly opportune time, as the legacy of Thomas Mütter has evolved over that same span of time into something he would have never expected. Today, this accomplished and altruistic man is known for the museum that bears his name and the thousands of specimens housed within its fireproof walls: evidence of medical mysteries, anatomical anomalies, and disquieting disfigurements. There is the death-cast of Chang and Eng, history's most famous Siamese twins; glass cases filled with skulls; organs, tumors, and growths preserved in jars; an 8-foot human colon; the body of a "soap woman"; the face of a horned Frenchwoman; and dozens of artistic renderings of those who suffered from horrifying deformities, among many others.

In truth, this museum seems almost tailor-made for our current age, where morbid curiosity can be veiled by the anonymity of the Internet, photographs and articles can be shared to millions at the touch of a finger, and various aggregator websites can use the museum's seemingly endless collections to increase their click-and-share statistics with attention-grabbing headlines. It's tempting now to see Mütter's museum--the encapsulation of his life's work, his philosophy as a doctor and man--as a Barnumesque sideshow, its tents and flaps replaced by beautiful architecture and an association with one of Philadelphia's great colleges. However, the gawk-and-share attitude of our modern age makes us unable--or maybe even unwilling--to see the truth behind Mütter's legacy. Rather than preserving these thousands of specimens because of their shocking nature, he did so because of the stories behind them. When Mütter operated on a patient suffering from strange or startling problems--a face deformed by burns, say--he looked them in the eyes, treated them like human beings rather than untouchables, talked them through the procedures, and looked after their comfort during the operation, which was especially important in the years before anesthesia. Where others, including Mütter's own colleagues, saw patients whose impairments made them less than human--and therefore less deserving of kindness or respect--he saw them as equals in need of his help. Mütter's legacy is one of empathy and grace, two traits that are downright necessary when treating people suffering from debilitating ailments, and his museum is a testament to his ability to look beyond the damage into the person beneath. To feature these scars in a museum is to create a monument to Mütter's humanity--a collection of pieces that speak to his ability to see beyond the pain they caused and recognize the frailties, and promises, in us all.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hypothetical ("What If?" by Randall Munroe)

Let us imagine for a moment an astronaut adrift in space. Never mind how he came to be in this predicament, or how he's been able to survive so long--for it has been a long time--floating without sustenance, water, or fresh oxygen. Never mind any of that. Instead, imagine that he finds himself drifting towards a black hole. As he approaches what would certainly be a sight of unprecedented beauty--a whole celestial body so dense it draws in everything around it at a gravitation speed unlike anything else in the universe--he begins to  warp physically. Whatever body part is closest to the black hole--in this case, we'll say it's his feet--will be pulled by the star's immense gravity, even as the rest of his body remains outside of that same pull. This will cause his feet--bones, muscle, and skin--to stretch into unimaginable lengths. And because the black hole acts with such speed, there will not be time for his feet to detach from the rest of his body. Instead, this stretching will continue to affect one body part after another--ankles, lower legs, knees, thighs--until it reaches the pelvis, at which point the difference in gravity at the toes and head will be so great that the molecules of the body will no longer be able to hold this poor astronaut together, and he will separate.

The astronaut, needless to say, is not happy about this.

Unfortunately for him, he and his lower body are still drifting towards the black hole, and the gravity now begins to affect his upper half in the same way it affected the lower half. The pelvis and gut, the chest and hands and elbows, the arms, the shoulders, and finally the neck and head--all of it will be pulled down at different rates, stretched, and snapped into even more pieces, until the entirety of the astronaut is little more than a cloud of atoms being funneled down towards the mass' surface. Everything--bone, tendon, skin, organ--will become little more than microscopic traces of the man's existence, never to be found. After all, black holes are the unforgiving cemeteries of the universe:  anything that approaches a black hole and crosses the event horizon, even light, can never escape, regardless of whether or not it had any choice in being there in the first place. Such is the case with our poor astronaut.

This entire process has a name:  spaghettification. I learned about this when I was about twenty-five years old, from an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson that had been posted online. Had I learned about this ten years earlier, when I was still in high school, perhaps I would have actually enjoyed my secondary science classes. That is, had I been properly informed of all the inherent dangers of the world and universe around me--not just the spaghettifying effect of black holes but the "degloving" affects of an atomic blast, which I learned about from the History Channel, or the ant-zombifying fungi featured in online science articles--I would have sat with rapt attention, astonished at the universe's beautiful and violent indifference to us, and the increasingly bizarre ways in which it could snuff us out at any moment, should the situation permit it.

Or even when the situation was illogical, improbably, or even impossible. It wouldn't have mattered to me. I would have taken copious notes, disgusted my parents with the gruesome details over dinner, sought out and devoured books on the topic. And while I most likely wouldn't have understood anything beyond a few basic words among the technical jargon, it would have shown me the potential of science--the secrets it held, the possibilities it embraced--rather than boring me with rote equations, sophomoric vocabulary terms, and chromatic textbook diagrams. Where I should have suffered a Broadway-level range of emotions every day in class--joy, confusion, horror, anger, sadness--I instead was only bored. Where I should have been told to stand and move around, to poke and dissect and investigate, to stare at the unknown through microscopes or cast studious eyes up into the dark heavens, I was given one large tome after another and told to fill in the worksheets. Perhaps, if science had been presented to me in a different and much more descriptive way, I would have graduated with a greater respect for science and its many fields rather than a begrudging acknowledgement of its importance to accompany the B's and C's that littered my transcript.

In What If?, I finally find the book I'd needed then--and, possibly, the book most curious but easily bored high school students need still today. Compiled from his online webcomic, which features stick-figure representations of various hypothetical scenarios--a baseball pitched at 90% the speech of light, for example, or a quick swim around a nuclear fuel pool--Randall Munroe's book is based in deep research but avoids slipping into snore-inducting disquisitions. He is, in a way, the cool science teacher you always wish you'd had in middle school, except his lessons would most likely have gotten him fired. Take, for instance, the aforementioned fastball, pitched at 90% the speed of light--an act that, if possible, would decimate not only the pitcher and hitter but everyone in the stadium and much of the surrounding neighborhood, as the air in front of the baseball would be compressed with such speed that it would trigger rounds of fusion, blast gamma and x-rays, and wreak apocalyptic havoc, "all in the first microsecond."

Or take the jet-pack made of machine guns. Alone, an AK-47 is only powerful enough--when fired downward--to lift a squirrel into the air, though it would run out of ammunition long before that lightweight little rodent became the first representative of its species to be launched willingly into space. (Munroe never discusses whether this lone squirrel would actually be consenting to this ride, as squirrels don't consent to much of anything. Then again, its decision to remain on the gun seems like implied consent, unless of course some conniving scientist has glued its tiny feet to the gun. Such are the unanswered questions of science, I suppose.) An entire platform made of machine guns would also be ineffective, rendering any hopes of a newly resurrected space program--the National Aeronautics and Second Amendment Space Administration, or NASASA--moot.

What makes Munroe's work worthwhile is not just his understanding of science--he is a former NASA roboticist and graduated college with a degree in physics--or his ability to convey that information in a humorous and easy-to-understand way, but also the way in which he bases every witty explanation in scientific fact. In the process of reading about hypothetical situations, not all of which Munroe himself takes seriously, he is teaching his readers the most important and integral scientific concepts, many of which we've probably forgotten since high school...or never learned to begin with. This includes gravity, velocity, momentum, the Periodic Table, chemistry, and probability, many of which are complemented with diagrams and equations that are often complex but never complicated when put into context and explained. It's a textbook for the bored, attention-deficit, darkly humorous misfit in all of us--that middle-aged kid sitting in the back of his high school science class drawing silly pictures in his notebook, hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, his teacher might explain to him just what a hypersonic hockey puck would do to the human body.

After all, a kid can hope, can't he?