Friday, December 18, 2009

The Kabul Beauty School

The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

After languishing on the back burner for the better part of eight years, Afghanistan is once again the focus of the global war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks on the United States, is still at large, Iran is building nuclear weapons, and the threat-level in the United States remains a steady Code Orange. Ten months into his first term, President Obama, under the advice of military leaders and global security experts, plans to send 30,000 troops to this war-torn, God-forsaken place in an attempt to create a governable nation. For the sake of our national security and that of the rest of the civilized world, we must hope he succeeds. Meanwhile, if Deborah Rodriguez has her way, Afghani women will be making the country a more beautiful and economically independent place by using American hairstyling techniques. On the surface, this may seem like a silly idea; it is, however, anything but.

Afghanistan has a long history of occupation by foreigners beginning with Alexander the Great in 330 BC, who wrested the territory from the existing ancient civilization. This nation is located at the intersection of the great trade routes which linked Europe, China, Russia, India, and Africa for thousands of years. Across millennia, each cultural influence left its mark on Afghanistan, but the Persian and other Arabic invasions had the defining impact. Archaeological evidence suggests that the nation we now call Afghanistan has been occupied by humans for 50,000 years. During that entire time, the area has been at the epicenter of local and global power struggles, and so it remains. In the decades spanning the early 19th and 20th centuries, the expanding empires of Great Britain and Russia threatened to collide but were confronted by Persian armies once more seeking control of Afghanistan. The British and the Russians defeated the Persian forces and, as the turn of the century approached, negotiated a settlement which defined the boundaries of modern Afghanistan. Great Britain retained a high degree of control over Afghanistan until 1919, when the British, worn out from fighting wars on many fronts, ceded control to the Afghan king, Amanullah Khan.

Amanullah Khan reigned for ten years and sought many reforms, including compulsory elementary education. He began establishing diplomatic relationships with other nations and abolished the Muslim veil. The latter angered religious fundamentalists and Amanullah was forced to abdicate. From 1929 until 1973, the royal family retained power, but corruption plagued the monarchy. Meanwhile, economic hardship created social turmoil which the dysfunctional government could not control. In 1973 the Prime Minister, Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, staged a military coup d’état and ousted the monarchy. He established a Republican form of government and installed himself as Prime Minister and President. Unfortunately, President Khan’s government retained many of the totalitarian practices of the monarchy, leading to yet another revolution in 1978.

The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan lasted one year. President Nur Mohammad Taraki and his government moved quickly to modernize and solicited help from the Soviet Union for the building of infrastructure, in the amount of roughly $1.3 billion. The secular nature of the government reforms, including the banning of womens’ burquas and mens’ long beards, led to the rise of Muslim holy warriors, the Mujahidin. Growing instability in the region created an opportunity for the Soviet Union to take a strategic position and as a pre-emptive measure, President Jimmy Carter arranged for the covert funding and training of the Mujahidin through the Pakistan secret service organization. By 1979, the Afghani government was unable to maintain order causing the Soviet Union to invade Kabul in order to protect its interests. For the next nine years, the United States under the cover of the Mujahidin did battle with the Soviet Union-backed government. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia assisted in funding the resistance as a means of stemming the flow of communism. Osama bin Laden, himself, was one of the Saudis involved in supporting the Mujahidin. He quickly severed ties with that effort and went on to found Al-Qaida, a global Islamic effort to fight the Soviets. In other words, at that time Osama bin Laden was on our team. In 1989, the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, however they continued to fund the government while the United States and Saudi Arabia funded the Mujahidin.

In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union fractured, leaving Afghanistan without the support of a super-power. The Soviet-backed president, Mohammed Najibullah, remained in power until 1992, when he was overthrown by Mujahidin-backed political leaders. With the Soviets out of the way, long-simmering tribal tensions heated up and the nation was thrown into a state of civil war. A group of fundamentalist Muslim scholars and former Mujahidin fighters amassed sufficient power to gain control of most of Afghanistan, and so the Taliban was born. Only a small portion of the country, in a remote northeastern pocket, retained diplomatic recognition as the government of Afghanistan. The de facto Taliban government, remains in power to this day. 

September 11, 2001. The United States experienced the first attack on the mainland since the Japanese submarine attacks of World War II. The person responsible for the 2001 plot, Osama bin Laden, easily identified by intelligence, went into hiding somewhere in Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban refused to hand him over to the United States for prosecution, and our nation rallied behind the second President Bush’s decision to go to war in retaliation.

Meanwhile, on the banks of the river of history, life went on in embattled Afghanistan. Aid agencies and charitable organizations, hoping to provide relief to innocent and long-suffering Afghani citizens recruited hundreds of volunteers, one of whom was a hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez, who all but abandoned her children in her search for meaning in her own life. After a few months of wondering what she was doing there, given that she had no relevant skills or training, Ms. Rodriguez started cutting hair for other volunteers, and an idea took hold. What Afghani women needed, imagined Ms. Rodriguez, was a beauty school, giving them marketable skills and a measure of independence. The Kabul Beauty School is the first-person account of how Ms. Rodriguez defied the odds and the Taliban’s strangle-hold on social life in Afghanistan and created a school of, by, and for women.

While qualitatively different, this book reminded me of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson’s memoir of his efforts to build schools for girls in Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan. Both Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Mortenson understood that teaching valuable skills was much more helpful than providing handouts. They also understood that overt opposition to the Taliban would only hurt those they wished to help, and that was their critical key to success.

Afghani women currently must be covered from head to toe when in public or in the presence of men, or risk a violent attack. The beauty school became a refuge for these women; a place where they could shed their veils and have some fun. In the course of setting up the school and teaching the basics of hair cutting and coloring, Ms. Rodriguez learned some very sad facts about her new friends. Many were in abusive marriages and were subject to the will of their cruel husbands and capricious mothers-in-law. If not for rampant unemployment on the part of their men, the students in the Kabul Beauty School would never have graced its doors. Just the same, the women resorted to slipping money into their husbands pockets in order to maintain the pretence that the men were the breadwinners.

The Kabul Beauty School is an imperfect book, written by a tremendously flawed and complicated person. In spite of this, it is an important book for Americans to read. Many of us assume that under every burqua is several thousand dollars worth of designer clothing and accessories. In the oil-rich nations on the Arabian peninsula, that may be true for women of privileged circumstances. Afghanistan, however, is a wasteland, economic and otherwise. Food is scarce and luxuries are scarcer. Even the Taliban rulers live more like nomads than princes. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are far more important than any notion of democracy, the rule of law, or amassing wealth; and religious fundamentalism is a way of life. Just the same, like most women, Afghani women cherish their femininity and express it to the greatest extent possible, even if hidden behind impenetrable veils. Another assumption I have heard about Muslim women is that they choose the veil and submit to the wearing of it freely. I wonder. If wearing a veil is a mark of decency in your culture, and failure to wear one brands you as a “woman of a certain profession” who wouldn’t wear a veil? On the other hand, I do not doubt that there are women who, if given the choice free of consequence, would continue to cover up, in the same way that some American women decline to wear revealing clothes even though many around them do.

Of all the problems plaguing Afghanistan, the burqua seems more symbolic than substantive. It would be nice if that country could come out of this current military incursion with a government which met the needs of the people and afforded women the choice of whether or not to cover up. Given its history, however, Afghanistan will have a hard time balancing the competing interests of the various cultures and religious factions which endlessly fight to defend the honor of their ancestors and belief systems. Deborah Rodriguez and Greg Mortenson understood, intuitively, that economic independence on an individual level was far more likely to spread peace than any large-scale program, military or otherwise.

In his speech at West Point, President Obama appeared to struggle as he maintained his characteristic equilibrium: not revisiting the past even though it created the chaotic present; asking Americans to sacrifice more lives and treasure with no guarantee of success; maintaining America’s stature as a world power while battling crippling debt levels at home. I hope that Mrs. Obama reads The Kabul Beauty School and talks to her husband about it over dinner. As critical as military action is in that region, promoting economic independence on an individual level is what will usher in Afghanistan’s long-awaited and desperately needed golden age. All it will take is one person to give up Osama bin Laden.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Body & Soul

Body & Soul by Frank Conroy

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

For the coming season of gifts, I recommend this beautiful, uplifting, and moving novel about music, New York City, genius, and love. The preface to Body and Soul is a line from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.” Keep this quote in mind as you follow the life of Claude Rawlings from his humble and mysterious origins to celebrity concert pianist.

The story takes place in New York City in the 1940s – 1960s, and as Claude grows from a toddler to a child to an adolescent to an adult, the city changes profoundly as well. In an early chapter the author, Frank Conroy, pays homage to Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, giving us a time stamp for Claude’s childhood. The crowds of soldiers and sailors returning home to celebrate the end of the second world war reminded Claude to ask his mother about his father, who was, she said, a soldier. Claude sensed that his mother had a story she didn’t want to tell, because she refused to give him any information, other than to say he was probably dead. Unlike some fatherless sons, Claude was not ashamed of who he was or where he came from, but throughout his life he did wonder about his absent father.

Claude Rawlings’ mother was a troubled alcoholic, often too drunk to care for him properly, so Claude became self-sufficient at a very young age. When sober, Emma Rawlings drove a taxi cab and occasionally made Claude ride along with her during the earliest hours of morning when she would take mysterious passengers to shady destinations. By having Claude in the cab, Emma could keep her meter running and refuse passengers while she waited for her clandestine clients to return. This plot line explores how easily innocent people became entangled in the culture of suspicion and fear that threatened the American way of life in the era following the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, Claude discovered music in the form of a small, sixty-six key piano stuffed into a corner of the storage room where he slept. With nothing to do and no one to talk to, Claude became fascinated with the white and black keys and how each was a precise half-tone different from the ones next to it. While his mother drove her taxi, Claude had nothing but time and soon discovered that he had a gift for music. That discovery also led him into a deep and abiding friendship with Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store on 3rd Avenue, hidden under the shadow of an elevated train track, in New York’s upper east side.

Mr. Conroy, in describing Claude’s discovery of the piano and his intuitive understanding of musical sound, provides a concise tutorial on the Western twelve-tone chromatic scale. If you remember “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do” from The Sound of Music then you know what a musical scale in a major key sounds like. On a piano, the C-major and A-minor scales use only white keys. All the other major and minor scales – D, E, F, G, A, and B – use one or more black keys. Within an octave, moving left to right, there are twelve tones: c, c-sharp, d, d-sharp, e, f , f-sharp, g, g-sharp, a, a-sharp, and b. Moving right to left, the tones are called c, b, b-flat, a, a-flat, g, g-flat, f, e, e-flat, d, d-flat. Each key has a discrete sound wave frequency which pleases the human ear and can be identified by those rare people with perfect pitch, of whom Claude was one. Claude, a young child, figured all of this out without the benefit of knowing what any of the keys were called, to the amazement of Mr. Weisfeld.

The story of Claude’s musical education is a fascinating glimpse into the rarified world of a child prodigy. Some critics of this book feel that Claude’s character is too one-dimensional. I disagree. Gifted people are often clumsy in social situations and many have difficulty with intimacy. Even as a tiny child, Claude was unusual and moved through life as if he were an omniscient observer. As he began exploring the world around the small apartment he shared with his mother, Claude made friends with a maintenance man at a large and beautiful apartment building. This man, Al, put the boy in a potentially threatening position but ultimately redeemed himself by becoming an important figure in Claude’s life. It was Mr. Weisfeld, however, who served to guide Claude through life both as a prodigy and as a boy growing up in the Jazz Age. When Claude shows Mr. Weisfeld, at the music store, where he would begin his musical education, how well he completed his first lesson in the beginner piano book it is, to borrow a phrase from “Casablanca,” the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And yet, as close as Claude and Mr. Weisfeld become across the years, while the boy grows into an adult, there is much about himself that the older man never shares. It is only at the end of the book that Claude discovers the truth about his best friend, mentor, and surrogate father.

Fatherhood is an important theme in Body & Soul. The mystery of Claude’s biological father slowly reveals itself, as Emma Rawlings learns to live without alcohol, and is a surprising and poignant coda to the book. Mr. Weisfeld, Al, and a series of music maestros who help shape Claude into a man as well as a great artist, serve as father figures. Claude tries and fails to father a child, himself, and this failure breaks the heart of his wife and college sweetheart. It is through his father-in-law that Claude learns another side of fatherhood: that fathers have the power to destroy their children through cruelty, abuse, and humiliation. Claude’s birth father, unable to have a role in his son’s life, does no harm, in the Hippocratic sense. When they finally meet for the first and only time, it is as if they had always been together; and in a way, they had.

Meanwhile, in the economic boom following the Great Depression, New York City changes from a place built and populated by immigrants into an economic Mecca. Skyscrapers replace three and four-storey walk-ups, tenement houses give way to high-rise apartment towers, and unsightly elevated train tracks yield to construction cranes. Developers and speculators ride the irresistible force that changes the face of Manhattan and eventually meets with the immovable object that is Mr. Weisfeld and his music store. It is an ancient story of how greed and corruption run rampant while taking advantage of free markets, of how easily the powerless are swept aside, and of how difficult it is to resist the powerful forces of progress.

Today, the population of Manhattan houses roughly 71,000 people per square mile. On New York’s Upper East Side, the median income approaches $100,000. In contrast, residents of crowded and decaying housing projects and slums barely get by and live in constant fear of criminals. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times, depending on your address.

If Claude were born today to a single mother in a rough inner-city neighborhood, would he ever venture beyond his door? Would he transcend his circumstances or join a gang and cycle in and out of prison? Would he survive into adulthood? It makes me wonder how many tremendously gifted children, geniuses, or potentially great leaders are hidden away, too afraid to leave home, numbed by hours of mindless television, and nourished by cheese puffs and soda. I also wonder whether there is a goldmine of human potential rotting in the juvenile justice system, children who will never have the opportunity to realize their potential, or even to live without fear of being caught by a stray bullet. Mr. Conroy’s novel is not meant to be a social commentary, but these are some of the questions that occurred to me after reading Body & Soul.

Body & Soul is a celebration of music, the universal language. It is also a rich, many-layered and very American story about uniquely American music. To some listeners, jazz is a formless mish-mash of musicians playing whatever they want with no coherence. Mr. Conroy’s book explains that jazz is a very complex musical form which builds on chord structures from classical music while borrowing rhythms from other cultures. Jazz musicians don’t work off of sheet music, for the most part; each ensemble functions as a team, improvising around a particular key and rhythm. Jazz and blues use selected notes from a given key rather than the entire octave which gives these genres their unique tonal qualities. Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and the other great composers of western music gave the world a body of work which reveal the beauty of the human soul at a time when humanity was actively reaching for divinity through great art and architecture. Beethoven, Italian architect Brunelleschi, and artist Michelangelo came very close. Classical music provided a foundation and a rich trove a material for future musicians to mine in the creation of new musical forms. While much of today’s popular music is cranked out of digital studios, there remain great musicians creating pieces which we will listen to for the next one hundred years. Mr. Conroy, in Body & Soul, provides a basic understanding of how symphonic music continues to evolve in its complexity and its ability to describe, musically, our collective psyche.

Read Body & Soul and end 2009 on a high note.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Emotional Lives of Animals

The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

After reading The Emotional Lives of Animals, a small minority of people will become vegans and leave their estates to PETA. A few others (assuming they can read) will throw the book at the cat and kick the dog to express how they really feel about it. Most readers, however, will find this to be a very thought-provoking book, equal parts anecdote, philosophy, and science. The author, Marc Bekoff, is a distinguished science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has won awards for his work studying the social interactions of many species. This book is the product of his research and draws a number of conclusions about how we humans could and should improve our interactions with the animals in our world.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, Professor Bekoff raises a number of questions which deserve consideration. First, do animals have feelings, and if so how do we know? Second, what would be the ethical implications of animals having feelings similar to ours? Third, how do we avoid anthropomorphism? Professor Bekoff helps the reader work through these questions and many others by sharing his scientific findings. In the end, however, the author reaches some conclusions that are somewhat colored by his beliefs about human-animal relations which some may find a bit extreme, and a very small minority will find not extreme enough.

Most of us would agree that dogs (as well as other animals) display a range of emotional behaviors, but does this mean that they have an emotional life similar to ours? Some would argue that as dogs have evolved away from their wolf ancestors, they learned to behave in ways that appeal to humans simply as a means of survival. Cognitive ethology, a relatively new branch of science, addresses this question with the study of how animal minds work and whether or not animals are aware of themselves as separate beings. It further seeks to understand if animals are capable of emotions as we experience them and, if so, to what extent. Finally, cognitive ethology examines the ability of species to make decisions based on unexpected events, to solve problems as a way of increasing their chances for survival, and to pass learned information on to successive generations.

In reading The Emotional Lives of Animals, I kept wishing that Mr. Spock (the emotionless Vulcan of “Star Trek” fame) had been doing the research, because it is hard to believe that cognitive ethologists can be perfectly objective in their observations of animals at play or in stressful situations. When studying animals, human scientists cannot help but respond emotionally, and so the challenge for them is to find ways to quantify behavior from anecdotal evidence and field studies. The greater challenge, however, is to be willing accept data which refute what minds and hearts believe to be true. Unfortunately, while Mr. Spock could be completely objective, he would likely fail to recognize emotional responses to stimuli, and therefore would be unable to differentiate between, say, playing and fighting. In other words, to study emotions one must have them.

Cognitive ethology has its roots in the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin was educated to become a doctor but preferred the natural sciences and philosophical pursuits. Extremely intelligent and hard-working, he finished tenth out of a class of 178 at Cambridge, studying theology and nature. Upon graduation from Cambridge, Darwin accompanied Captain Robert FitzRoy, aboard the HMS Beagle, for a five year exploration of planet earth. During this voyage, Darwin made detailed notes on geology, ecosystems, plants, and animals. These data fleshed out his knowledge of the animal kingdom which had been earlier informed by the work of Carl Linnaeus (the father of taxonomy) and other prominent naturalists such as John Gould, the ornithologist, and James Francis Stevens, founder of the Royal Entomological Society of London. Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species laid out his theories of evolution and natural selection. While initially met with some skepticism by religious fundamentalists, Darwin’s theories have been largely validated by the scientific community through research and field studies across the ensuing decades.

Mr. Bekoff and other animal behavioral scientists use Darwin’s work as a starting point because it was Darwin, himself, who first posited that animals have emotions. If we assume that all chordates (animals with spines, including homo sapiens) have similar nervous systems, then it should follow that instinctive responses to stimuli will be similar. All chordates, for example, recoil from pain and experience the “fight or flight” response to threats. These primitive responses originate in the limbic system of the brain: there is no thought involved. Happiness, sadness, anger, and jealousy indicate a higher level of consciousness, in other words, we have to know we are happy, sad, mad, or jealous and that requires a sense of self as part of a community. Each of these higher emotions originate in distinct areas of the brain and can be measured by functional MRI studies. The brain research that Mr. Bekoff and others have performed show that dogs, elephants, pigs, horses, and other animals experience emotions in much the same way that humans do. This is where the author begins to wade into deep water.

Mr. Bekoff presents a strong argument that the factory farms and slaughterhouses which put food on most of our tables are filled with terror and suffering, and that is morally wrong. Technological innovation and factory farming provide the means to feed many more people per acre of farmland than would be possible if we all had to raise our own animals and till our own soil. This efficiency, unfortunately, comes at a high price: environmental degradation, unsanitary conditions in food processing facilities, and other practices which are harmful to human health. On the other hand, without this degree of productivity, perhaps millions of people would die of starvation every year. It is Mr. Bekoff’s hope that his work and that of his colleagues will lead to more humane practices in the farming and slaughter of animals for food.

As living organisms, according to biology, our first job is to sustain our species.  As sentient beings, on the other hand, we understand the suffering of others. The idea of herding our fellow humans into a slaughterhouse – where they would watch as those ahead in line were eviscerated before being processed into plastic-wrapped cuts of meat, sausages, and “by-products” – is unthinkable. It would be morally wrong to subject members of our own species to that treatment for our own consumption. So, the question is whether it is wrong to send other sentient animals – the ones we eat – to slaughter. If we assume that humans evolved along with every other species living on earth, and further that we have bodies which require animal protein in order to thrive, then it is hard to advocate vegetarianism. While it is possible to eat a nutritionally balanced diet without eating animal products, it is difficult and, on a deep level, unsatisfying. Hunting and fishing for food could be, therefore, a more ethical choice than purchasing mass produced meat and poultry.

Another issue Mr. Bekoff indirectly raises in The Emotional Lives of Animals concerns human moral and ethical development. As creatures evolved from single-celled organisms to the kaleidoscopic variety we have thus far discovered, survival often meant collaboration within species. A school of fish, a flock of birds, a pod of whales, a tribe, a family are all examples of structures which enhance the ability of a species to “be fruitful and multiply”. Behavioral studies of dogs and primates reveal that these animals have hierarchies and rules which govern their behavior, enabling a dog pack to work as a team to take down prey, and requiring primates to divide labor and share food for the benefit of the clan. Once a species develops an ego, however, things get more complicated. Chimpanzees, like humans, are capable of deceit, jealousy, and murder. Unlike humans, however, chimps do not appear concerned with the meaning of good and evil. Some chimpanzees are simply mean or psychopathic, but most go along to get along, celebrating births and mourning deaths. We humans, on the other hand, seem to struggle mightily with ourselves on questions of good or evil, right or wrong, and caring for others over self interest. As individuals, most of us are pretty decent people, but these moral questions are often lost in political and policy decisions. If providing life-saving care to sick people means a tax increase, a surprising number of us will be opposed to it.

It struck me, after reading The Emotional Lives of Animals, that perhaps humans are still evolving, that in many ways we have not yet outgrown our tribal origins. Deep within each of us is a hunter, a warrior, a member of an exclusive tribe. Civilization – art, science, religion, law, knowledge – is what moved us out of savagery and, some would say, closer to God. In order keep our species on this trajectory of progress, especially as the planet becomes more crowded, we need to focus our political discourse on ethical questions such as how we acknowledge and respect the emotional lives of our fellow creatures, be they human or animal, and what our collective responsibility to other beings is.

Marc Bekoff sums up his book nicely: “What do we do with what we know? …We each must make our own choices.” The most important thing is to understand the systems and processes by which we live. No single person can right every wrong in the world, nor should he or she try. What we can do is make choices: we can choose to eat free-range and organic meat, poultry, and eggs. We can learn to appreciate or, at least tolerate, vegetarians. We can adopt pets from animal shelters and spay and neuter them. Most important, however, is to do what we can as individuals to reduce the suffering in the world. As the Dalai Lama says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.” Amen.

Copyright 2009 all rights reserved, Teresa Friedlander

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

A boy survives for 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean after the ship carrying him and his family, along with a collection of zoo animals, from India to Canada sinks. He washes ashore in Mexico and is rescued by fishermen. He is the sole survivor of the catastrophe and the only possible source of information about why the ship sank. Representatives of the Japanese owners of the ship interview him in the hospital where he is recovering and the boy tells them how he survived the ordeal. That is the story in 90 words of “dry, yeastless, factuality” as Pi would say.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a much better telling of this same story. Actually, the book contains two versions of the story: the first recounted by Pi to the author and the second in response to doubts about the details of Pi’s story. The author (who is a fictional creation of Yann Martel) begins by telling his own story of how a bad case of writers’ block caused him to travel to India in search of inspiration. In Pondicherry, a town in a small former French colony in southeast India, the author meets a man by the name of Francis Adirubasamy who claims to know a story which he says “will make you believe in God”. Over tea, Mr. Adirubasamy tells the author the story of Pi and how the boy survived the sinking of the cargo ship, Tsimtsum. Intrigued, the author travels to Toronto, Canada, to meet Pi in person, and Pi, now a middle-aged man, agrees to tell the his story of survival. In 100 chapters.

Pi’s story is bracketed at the beginning by the “author’s note” and at the end by the transcript of the Japanese inquiry into the lost ship. These two sections serve to set the book up as a work of non-fiction, even though the reader understands that this is not the case. Life of Pi does not fit perfectly into a single genre: it has elements of magical realism and allegory, it is an epic tale of survival, and it is an analysis of man’s ongoing effort to rise above our animal instincts. Mr. Martel weaves information about post-colonial India, zoo-keeping practices, religious belief systems, and philosophy together to create one of the finest examples of story-telling published within the last decade.

Life of Pi appeals to a broad spectrum of readers thanks to Mr. Martel’s delightful writing style. Within the story are parables giving insight into Pi’s character as well as anecdotes which explain his religious beliefs (Hindu, Christian, and Muslim simultaneously), his name (Picine Molitar Patel), and his knowledge of animal behavior. The book is a pleasure to read for those seeking entertainment, but scratch the surface and Mr. Martel opens windows into ancient cultures, religions, and myths through the deft use of symbolism and bits of history. For example, the ill-fated ship was named Tsimtsum, a Kabalistic term in the Hebrew language describing how God withdrew from a part of infinity to enable our world to exist. The sinking of the Tsimtsum created a space for Pi’s story to unfold in the same way that Pi makes room within himself in order to survive the ordeal.

Pi, as a young boy, is wise and rational as well as emotionally innocent. He is curious and asks many questions in his search for deeper understanding. It is this aspect of his personality which saves him. In primary school, he suffers endless teasing about the name, Picine (French for swimming pool), which his school mates pronounce as “pissing”. In his first act of self-preservation, he decides to establish himself as Pi on the first day of his first year of middle school. In mathematics, pi (Π) is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and is usually expressed as 3.1415 or 22/7. This is important symbolically because pi (Π), which was discovered by the ancient Babylonians about 2000 years before the birth of Jesus, is always the same no matter how big or small the circle. Pi, the character, the deep thinker, loves this aspect of his new name.

Pi’s father owns a zoo and as a matter of his childrens' safety demonstrates the nature of predation by putting a live goat in a hungry tiger’s enclosure, with predictable results. Better to know first hand that predators kill without remorse, says the father to his sons, than to be misled by seemingly placid behavior. The Pondicherry Zoo is famous for its goats because they happily share an enclosure with a formerly lonely rhinoceros. This yields another lesson in which the father explains how surviving an extraordinary situation sometimes depends on unlikely alliances.

Survival is the most obvious theme of the book: surviving childhood humiliations, the everyday dangers of life, and extreme situations. Religious belief, or lack thereof, is a second theme Mr. Martel explores in Life of Pi. More important than both, however, is the uniquely human gift of storytelling. Stories – created, remembered, and passed on through time – differentiate us from animals because without stories and traditions to govern our decisions, we could only act instinctively. Pi practices three religions simultaneously because he cannot choose a favorite: he understands that they are all different versions of the same story of creation, sacrifice, morality, and salvation. Even atheists have faith – that there is no God – and therefore Pi feels kinship with them. It is the agnostics who do not believe in anything that Pi dismisses as having no imagination. Pi says to the author that “choosing to believe in nothing is like choosing immobility as a means of transportation”.

Pi’s story of survival begins when his family decides to close down their zoo and emigrate to Canada in order to escape Indira Gandhi’s heavy handed policies. Many of their animals must cross the ocean in order to reach their new homes and so the family sets up a temporary zoo in the hold of the cargo ship. One night, several days into the voyage, something goes wrong and Pi wakes up in time for the Chinese crew of the Tsimtsum to put an orange life vest on him and toss him into a lifeboat. As the ship sinks, he realizes he is not alone on the boat: there is a zebra with a broken leg and a snarling hyena. After the ship sinks, a tiger swims toward the lifeboat, climbs aboard, and hides under the boat’s canvas cover out of fear and seasickness. Soon an orangutan floating on a large bunch of bananas meets up with the lifeboat and the motley crew leave the detritus of the ship behind. Initially, the passengers on the lifeboat maintain a truce of sorts, but soon the hyena kills and eats the injured zebra. When his hunger returns, the hyena kills the orangutan. Meanwhile, Pi constructs a raft out of life preservers and exiles himself by means of a long rope to avoid being the hyena’s next meal. The tiger finally emerges from hiding and in a rage dispatches the hyena. Pi draws from his knowledge of zoology to establish a boundary enabling him and the tiger to share the forty foot boat. Pi maintains his status as zookeeper by catching fish and turtles for the tiger and in exchange the tiger doesn’t kill him.

The two strange bedfellows ride the Pacific Ocean currents and miraculously reach Mexico where the tiger escapes into the wilderness and a severely dehydrated and sunburned Pi is rescued by fishermen and taken to a hospital. When news of a Tsimtsum survivor reaches the ship’s Japanese owners, two representatives travel to Mexico to interview him. The Japanese listen politely to Pi’s story but question its veracity. Pi then tells them a different version of what happened. At the end, the reader, like the Japanese, can choose between the two stories. Pi recommends the better story.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Life With a Star

REQUIRED READING: Life with a Star by Jiří Weil

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

Life With a Star is a story of survival and hope in the face of certain death and relentless despair. It is about making sense of the senseless and finding beauty in decay. More than any other book I have read, Life With a Star shows how the human spirit can vanquish even the most determined enemy. To understand, consider how you would make sense of your world if a knock on the door meant that the government, with the help of your neighbors, had decided to give away your home and possessions down to the clothes on your back; and that once fully dispossessed, you would be herded like livestock onto a train which would deliver you to your miserable death? What would it be like to be told that while you waited to be called to the train station you must wear a large and bright yellow symbol to make you easy to pick out of a crowd? And what if that symbol was beloved by you and your people, reminding you of your ancient heritage? The answer is that you couldn’t make sense of any of it, even if your race had been despised and persecuted for millennia. So how might you survive such a nightmare; and then, much later on, how would you tell this story without breaking down?

Jiří Weil, the author, survived by pretending to die and then hiding for three years. Much later, when the terror was far enough in the past, he wrote Life With a Star, the story of a Jewish man in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under Nazi occupation, as a way of explaining how it was possible to outmaneuver death of both body and soul. The titular star was a large, yellow star of David that the Nazis ordered all Czech Jews to sew a onto their outer garments for easy visual identification. Failure to wear a star was punishable by death, but wearing the star subjected one to harassment and discrimination; and every minute of every day of life with a star only brought the inevitable call to the train station that much closer.

Life With a Star is surprisingly beautiful and uplifting to read. The protagonist, Josef Roubicek, is a bank clerk who is neither rich nor privileged, but comfortable and in love. Before the German invasion, he and his beautiful Ruzena carried on a long and passionate love affair. Their romance ended when Ruzena and her husband were deported to a so-called work camp. Bereft, alone, and star-clad, Josef sustains his soul with memories of Ruzena and his body with stale bread and watery ox-blood soup. He clings to life even though giving in to death would be much easier for everyone. While his home crumbles around him and he eats food hardly fit for rats, Josef refuses to be defeated. Instead, he grows into a serene and memorable character. Josef dismantles and burns his furniture piece by piece so there is nothing left for the subsequent occupants, except for one “old broken-down coffee table.” To stave off loneliness, he maintains a dialog with Ruzena, reliving many of their conversations and intimate moments. Even though the floor is uncomfortable and he is always cold, Josef sleeps as much as possible because Ruzena frequently visits him in his dreams. When he wakes up to find that Ruzena has gone away again, his only other pleasure is to watch how a leak in the roof gets worse throughout the winter. Just knowing that the apartment will be uninhabitable by the time the Nazis get around to moving someone else in feels like victory.

Through the Jewish Community, a quasi-governmental organization made up of Jews doing the bidding of the Nazis, Josef was ordered to work in a Hebrew cemetery. He and his co-workers dug graves, raked leaves, and buried the fortunate dead. During breaks over tea, Josef and the other men became friendly – but not close – for reasons they all understood. When Josef was called to the train station, a clerical error gave him an opportunity to walk away, and in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity, he did just that. From then on, Josef understood that he was in an end game: that it was only a matter of time until his name came up again. During this stolen time, he appeared to go about business as usual, but out of sight he made some dangerous friends. One fine spring day, Josef met a man named Josef Materna, a Czech who hated the Nazis, and accepted an invitation to visit. Materna’s mother soothed Josef’s soul with fresh-baked buns while Materna and his allies, a fearless group of domestic terrorists, helped Josef find the courage within himself to rise above the ugly hatred that had invaded his world.

Josef’s relationships with the living included his aunt and uncle and a cat named Tomas. The aunt and uncle had taken Josef in as a child, treating him as their own until the Nazi invasion. Fear turned them into angry and bitter people and they drove Josef out of their lives. Meanwhile Josef allowed Tomas, who sought refuge from stone-throwing children, to live in his apartment. Josef and Tomas found comfort in each other: Tomas offered companionship and Josef shared bits of his meager meals. To the aunt and uncle, this small act of humanity was proof of Josef’s ingratitude for everything they had done for him because, they said, it put them at risk. In spite of their meanness Josef remained loyal to his aunt and uncle, and lovingly bid them farewell as they boarded the train to their doom.

To this day there are people who do not want to believe that the Holocaust happened. But it did happen. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, the Jewish population in eastern Europe plummeted from 15.3 million in 1933 to about 5 million within a decade, either from the genocide or by emigration. The Nazis themselves kept detailed records of the people they sent to their deaths: inventories of their possessions, birth certificates, passports, school transcripts, bank statements, and death certificates. In addition to the Nazi’s self-documentation, the Allies using still and movie cameras captured sickening images of the mass graves and death camps. To see the footage of living skeletons liberated from the Nazi camps and the piles of bones in the graves is a devastating, but necessary, experience.

Hatred of and violence against Jews dates back to antiquity when pagan Romans and Greeks desecrated Hebrew temples and forced Jews to disperse, hence the term “diaspora.” A Jewish scholar from Austria, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1860 in his analysis of German feelings of superiority over the Semitic races – Jews, Arabs, and Assyrians. In 1880 Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, published a pamphlet called “The Way to the Victory of German Spirit Over the Jewish Spirit,” in which he narrowed the definition of anti-Semitism to refer only to Jews. This pamphlet helped spark a social movement which laid the groundwork for politics based on genocide.

Approximately six million European Jews died at the hands of the National Socialist German Workers Party – under the leadership of a charismatic madman – following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. Economic collapse, catastrophic inflation, and wounded national pride created an environment ripe for demagoguery. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist with a mother complex, rose to power by tapping into Germans’ long-simmering resentment of Jews – a somewhat insular people who seemed prosperous in good times and bad – and called upon his countrymen to join him in bringing them down. It wasn’t enough to brutalize the Jews, to burn their homes and businesses, and commit random acts of violence against them. And, there were too many simply to deport, even if another nation would have taken them. Adolf Hitler declared that only a “final solution” would rid Germany, and eventually the world, of the “Jewish problem” forever. With chilling efficiency, the Nazis created a government program to round up, seize the assets of, and kill every Jew within the nation’s boundaries.

It was the Nazi’s programmatic anti-Semitism that enabled otherwise decent people to turn away as their Jewish neighbors were marched off to death camps. Meanwhile, the Nazis staged parades, rallies and other events to ignite nationalistic pride and to celebrate the superiority of the Aryan race. The message was simple: Germany could only achieve greatness if the Jews were eliminated. To reach that end, Hitler set out to “reclaim” the German Empire, first by annexing formerly German land in Czechoslovakia, then by invading Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Jews who had fled to those countries were once again in jeopardy. By creating a common enemy in the Jews, Hitler gained the allegiance of many eastern Europeans. Meanwhile, there were secret soldiers undermining the Nazis from within. Many so-called Aryans risked their lives to offer comfort and safe harbor to fugitive Jews. Others either through destructive acts or outright deception did their part to weaken the Nazis. Finally, good triumphed over evil and the nightmare came to an end.

Jiří Weil, a survivor of the Nazi’s surreal nightmare, pays tribute to the secret soldiers who risked life and limb to stop Hitler. Josef Materna exemplifies the internal resistance; Materna’s mother, with her warm buttered bread, represents the good people who kept starving Jews alive with illicit gifts of food; and Josef Roubicek with his child-like innocence reveals the cruelty of hate. Too many Jews were caught off guard and, like deer paralyzed by headlights, easily killed. Life With a Star celebrates the beauty of humanity which gave Josef and others like him the hope and courage necessary to survive.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Independent People

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

Every now and then, I read a book which is so good it takes my breath away; Independent People is one. It is a work of fiction in the tradition of the great Russian novels, describing a society undergoing seismic shifts brought on by forces the people do not fully understand and cannot control. Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for this novel in 1955, but it was not widely read in the English-speaking world and thus languished in obscurity for many years. In my opinion Independent People belongs on the bookshelf with Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and other classic literary works because, like them, it is a tapestry of words: colorful, beautifully detailed, richly textured, and singular. Independent People is both the compelling story of a foolish, tragic, frustrating, and loveable man whose world fails to conform to his expectations and beliefs, and an intimate encounter with the soul of Iceland.

Literally translated from the Icelandic the title, Sjálfstaett Folk, reads “Self-standing Folk,” a perfect label for the main character, Bjarthur of Summerhouses, who values his independence above all else. In a larger sense, this theme is integral to the story of Iceland, a geologically young island nation which evolved from Viking settlements into a modern, independent, parliamentary democracy. To Icelandic peasants, such as Bjarthur of Summerhouses, being completely self-sufficient and beholden to none, is the highest measure of success. But can an individual – or a nation – succeed in isolation? That is the essential question the author analyzes through the story of Bjarthur’s struggle to stand alone, on his own two feet, needing no one and owing nothing.

Bjarthur Jonnson, was born sometime after the year 1910 into the household of the local landholder, the Bailiff at Utirauthsmyri. Global economic changes and a brewing world war created a situation which enabled serfs, such as Bjarthur, to buy their freedom and become crofters, or share-croppers. At age 18, Bjarthur had saved enough to become the owner of Summerhouses, a small croft, and to purchase a herd of sheep. His first act upon taking possession was to laugh in the face of the spirits known to have haunted Summerhouses since the time before the Vikings arrived by refusing to add a stone to the cairn located at the entrance to his property. Bjarthur, an independent man, would pay no tribute to ghosts.

The Mistress of Utirauthsmyri arranged a marriage for Bjarthur to one of her serving girls who, it turned out, was carrying the child of the Bailiff’s son. Bjarthur discovered this fact after the wedding and treated his young wife accordingly. His unhappy marriage was the first of many misfortunes to befall him. During a fierce storm in his first winter at Summerhouses, Bjarthur went out in search of his prized sheep and got caught in a blizzard. Four days later he returned to find his wife dead with a tiny infant on top of her. Despite his hard heart, Bjarthur fell completely in love with the baby whom he named Asta Sollilija (Beloved Sun Lily) and she became the joy and torment of his life.

Independent People spans the period during which Iceland emerged from a centuries’-old agrarian economy, under the control of a few wealthy land owners, in response to political and economic upheaval in the outside world. Halldór Laxness does a masterful job of explaining why that happened and how it affected peasants such as Bjarthur. The author does this by taking us back in time to the volcanic eruptions in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which gave rise to the island some 20 million years ago. The first human inhabitants, according to legend, were Irish and Scottish Christians who fled attacking Vikings, although there is no archaeological evidence to support this. In the year 874 AD, following discovery of Iceland by explorers, Ingólfr Arnarson, a Norwegian chieftain, became the first settler. (Ingólfr Arnarson is also the name Mr. Laxness chose for the Bailiff as a way of indicating his social status.) Many Norsemen along with their Irish and Scottish slaves emigrated to Iceland across the next 100 years and soon most of the usable land was settled. Around the year 930, the ruling chiefs decided to hold an annual assembly, called “Althing,” in order to resolve disputes, make laws, and appoint juries for trials. This marked the beginning of an independent nation and Althing remained a governing body until the 19th century when the Danish king abolished it.

Bjarthur of Summerhouses, like his contemporaries, was a Christian because church membership was the same as citizenship. Before Christianity arrived in the tenth century, Icelanders looked to pagan gods such as Odin, Freyr, Thor, and Freyja, to explain ancient mysteries. The Christians set about converting pagans with the goal of eradicating the practice altogether, but not everyone agreed to convert and bitter disputes arose. The Althing at the time decided to adopt Christianity as the national religion but permitted the pagans to worship in private. Concurrent with the religious “culture war” clans began merging into larger groups under powerful chieftains who waged a seemingly endless series of attacks against each other. In spite of, or perhaps because of the fighting, this was also when Iceland’s literary arts flourished, giving rise to a great tradition of story-telling, folk lore, and epic poetry. The civil strife finally ended when Norway’s king took over Iceland, around 1260, leaving a power vacuum which the Church took full advantage of. Parishes replaced clans, bishops replaced chieftains, and ancient pagan practices were outlawed. On a spiritual level, however, the Icelanders retained many of their pagan beliefs but adapted them to be compatible with Christian teachings. In Independent People, Bjarthur and his contemporaries go through the rituals of Christianity with a complete lack of spirituality. They are men of the earth and understand that no amount of Christian prayer will tame the forces of nature.

To Bjarthur of Summerhouses and other crofters the fear of famine was ever present owing to Iceland’s short growing season and periodic volcanic eruptions. In the 14th century a particularly large eruption spewed a dark cloud over the northern hemisphere causing the so-called “Little Ice Age” which lasted into the 19th century. A volcanic eruption in 1783 instantly killed 9,000 people as well as most of Iceland’s livestock. By the end of this period, known as the Mist Hardship, roughly one fourth of the population had died of starvation. Icelanders kept the memory of these disasters alive through poems and stories.

Life in Iceland was so difficult that few people noticed or cared that Europe was on the brink of war. Bjarthur was glad when World War One broke out and a sudden demand for Icelandic wool created an economic boom, allowing him to enjoy a degree of material wealth. Instead of worrying about diseases and parasites in sheep, crofters suddenly found themselves being asked to take sides in political battles as a socialist movement arose to challenge the status quo. Independent People is an astute analysis of the attractions of socialism for the world’s workers as well as its fundamental flaws. We in the United States, never having been subjected to the whims of monarchs and land barons, cannot understand a nation embracing socialism or communism. Icelanders, however, were led to believe that socialism would protect the interests of peasants and put them on a par with their former masters. In reality, socialism simply replaced power based on land ownership with centralized urban politics. The Bailiff at Utirauthsmyri moved to Reykjavík where he became an important politician and the peasants, his former serfs, suffered from economic decline caused by his policies.

While Bjarthur of Summerhouses’ world changes profoundly throughout his adulthood, he stubbornly remains the same. I was reminded of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, King Lear from Shakespeare’s play, Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, and Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion while reading this book. Bjarthur is a character as emotionally challenging as the tragically flawed protagonists of those classic stories because, like them, he is his own worst enemy. Unlike them, and somehow in spite of his meanness and stupidity, he is a gifted poet whose verse is like the sound of water dancing over smooth stones; it turns out he has a beautiful soul. Bjarthur of Summerhouses will make you smile while tears run down your face.

(Important note: The introduction to Independent People is adapted from a condensed retelling of the story and gives away the whole plot. My advice is either to skip it entirely or wait and read it after you have savored the pleasure of Halldór Laxness’ book.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

What does America look like? The answer depends on whom you ask. Each of us has a personal vision of our country shaped by our families, communities, schools, churches, jobs, and cultural experiences. If, however, you ask this question of enough people from different socio-economic, demographic, and cultural groups, what emerges is a kaleidoscope of views. America is a single nation, yes, but it has people with many, and often opposing, opinions about who we are collectively. To some, that is troubling but to others our variety is what makes us a beacon of hope for the world, a place where everyone’s views may be expressed and, with hard work, anyone can succeed. Given this multi-faceted society, one might think that a young man with a Kenyan father and white, middle-class American mother would easily find a comfortable social niche. For Barack Obama, however, the opposite was true: figuring out where he belonged in the country of his birth was a long and often painful process.

The fact that he is President of the United States does not increase the importance of Mr. Obama’s memoir. Dreams from My Father explains young Barack Obama’s quest for identity and at the same time, provides insight into why black Americans, more than three decades after the end of segregation, still struggle to feel fully American. As a youth, Mr. Obama considered himself a black American and, while not embarrassed by having a white mother and grandparents at home, tried to fit in with “the brothers.” In one painful episode, Mr. Obama made fun of a fellow college student for “acting white” by studying hard and wearing argyle sweaters, only to be put in his place by his idol, Marcus, who said, “Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff’s together instead of passing judgment on how other folks are supposed to act.” A year later, writes Mr. Obama, that episode still upset him because he felt exposed as a fraud, but it did give him the insight that being black in America was about more than skin color. The fact that his father, Barack Obama Sr., was Kenyan didn’t mean that he shared the experience of people who had been abducted, abused, and despised for generations. Mr. Obama may have looked the part, but he was not and could not be a brother.

Rather than turn away or turn inward, Barack Obama decided to do something to right the wrongs left over from slavery and segregation, so he became a community organizer in Chicago, a racially divided city which had recently elected its first black mayor, Harold Washington. Mr. Obama’s description of the thought process that went into becoming a community organizer is sometimes humorous and often painful. Like so many idealistic young people, he wanted to change the world: change presidents, change the congress, change the hearts and minds of the people. That was about as detailed as it got. He saw himself as a leader, an agent of change, able to mobilize the grassroots. As badly as Mr. Obama wanted to be a hero to black Americans and lead them out of poverty and oppression, it was those same black Americans who taught him the hard way that his ideas, no matter how brilliant, were just that: his and not theirs. That humbling lesson could have discouraged or embittered a lesser man, but Mr. Obama’s temperament would not allow him to stay down for long. He learned from his mistakes, of which there were many, and tried again.

A big mistake was clinging to an idealized version of the Civil Rights movement. Barack Obama wanted, more than anything, to join the March on Washington, stage sit-ins, raise consciousness, and lift black Americans up. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, he was about twenty years too late. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the traditions which made up the fabric of the black American community were shredded, leaving a disillusioned, angry, dejected, and even self-hating population in its wake. In the name of “urban renewal” cities razed whole neighborhoods to build housing projects. Commercial development encroaching on residential areas also took a toll. Public schools in predominantly black areas, where community ties had been broken, deteriorated while at the same time, increasing numbers of teenagers became parents themselves. Meanwhile, drug use increased, providing a means for young black men and boys to earn money and led to bloodbaths in the streets. Black families fleeing the dangers of the city migrated to suburbs but were often greeted with hostility and waves of “white flight”. The community that Mr. Obama wanted to organize, it turned out, was in much worse shape than he had imagined.

After repeated failures to motivate citizens to challenge Chicago’s politicians, Mr. Obama learned that organizing with unions or creating job banks would not solve the more fundamental problem of teaching a high school dropout how to read or use a computer. Nor would these approaches provide safe child care for a sixteen-year-old mother so she could return to school, or after school supervision for children whose parents worked long hours. “In other words, it was different for black folks.” Pretending that the past is no longer relevant and that we have truly achieved racial equality denies reality. Having grown up outside of the black American experience, it took Mr. Obama a while to understand this.

Working within black churches, all that remained of black America’s cultural world, was problematic because the clergy were mostly interested in getting funding to keep their doors open and the heat on. Many congregants, having reached a degree of comfort in life, were not interested in fighting city hall. After several frustrating attempts to motivate parishioners at one church to demand needed repairs in their neighborhood, Will, one of Mr. Obama’s handful of loyal committee members suggested “taking it to the streets!” The problem, he explained, is that the people who most needed help didn’t necessarily go to that church and wouldn’t feel comfortable attending a meeting there. In spite of his skepticism, Mr. Obama helped Will print and distribute fliers announcing a meeting at a strategically located street corner. The appointed hour arrived and the “streets remained empty at first, the shades drawn down the rows of brick bungalows. Then, slowly, people began to emerge…” More than twenty people showed up, to the great surprise of Mr. Obama, ready to talk about long neglected potholes, missing stop signs, abandoned cars, and other problems the city should have fixed long before. At the end, Will said to Barack Obama, community organizer, “told you.”

Unless you tuned out the presidential election of 2008, you probably know the basic facts of Barack Obama’s adult life: that he was a star at Harvard Law School, that his community activism led to a career in local politics, that he ran for the Senate and won without the backing of the Democratic Party machine, that he wowed the Democratic National Convention in 2004, that he won the presidential primary against a field of formidable opponents, that he has an accomplished wife and two cute young daughters. Dreams from My Father provides the back story: who his parents were, what their young lives were like, how they met, why they divorced, and how each interacted with their son, Barack Obama Jr. In this book, Mr. Obama shares the experiences that shaped him: living in Indonesia with his mother’s second husband, being sent to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, his one and only meeting with his father, and connecting with his Kenyan half-sister following their father’s death. Even more interesting and poignant is Mr. Obama’s journey to Africa in search of hidden pieces of himself. During the presidential campaign, brief mentions were made of family in Kenya, but to understand who this man, the 44th President of the United States, is requires taking the time to read his memoirs. Even if he had never been elected to public office and remained an obscure figure, Barack Obama’s book would still be important.

Until reading Dreams from My Father I never understood why it was so hard for many black Americans to go along and get along with white Americans. Affirmative Action programs, while well-intended, only open doors. They do not cure the social ills which hold so many down and trap their children in the brutal cycle of poverty. Mr. Obama, with his multi-cultural upbringing didn’t learn to see the ideal human as having light skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect teeth. The people in his world were multi-hued and of all shapes and sizes. Sort of like America. That he embraces our patchwork society, may be why Barack Obama won the presidency. That he loves this country in spite of the shameful episodes in our history is something we should all take to heart.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two Centuries of American Banking by Elvira and Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

It is a fact: the United States is a nation of debtors, both individually and collectively. Recently some of our largest financial institutions have imploded seemingly because of too much debt, but the truth is more complicated. When it appeared our economy was on the verge of collapse, the federal government responded by incurring a staggering amount of debt in order to provide credit (i.e., short-term debt) to businesses, governmental entities, and individuals. Even though progress has been slow, almost to the point of imperceptibility, without that infusion of massive amounts of money, our nation quite likely would have fallen into economic chaos. What that might look like is this: scarcity of food, diapers, gasoline, and electricity leading to rationing and possibly rioting in the streets. So, as unimaginable as the amount of debt we will be leaving to future generations is, at least our country continues to function. Meanwhile we grapple with rising unemployment, falling property values, a failing automobile industry, and reinventing our industrial base.

There is plenty of blame to go around as to why we are in this economic crisis, but probably the most important reason is that banking and investment practices became more about betting that real estate prices would continue to rise than about creating real wealth. At the bottom of the pyramid was the actual real estate, the land and houses. As long as demand for housing continued at a fever pitch, everyone with investments prospered, at least on paper. When suddenly it became hard to sell real estate at hyper-inflated prices, the bottom fell out of the financial house of cards and investments backed by mortgages lost much of their face value. Only a lucky (or shrewd) few cashed out before the fall. The rest of us who were hoping to educate children or retire on our savings are having to rethink those life goals.

Elvira and Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli were curators of numismatics (i.e., currency) at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology, and in 1975 published a “pictorial essay” of the history of American Banking. This book Two Centuries of American Banking is rich with engravings, photographs, reproductions stories of the evolution of banking in the United States. It concludes with the advent of electronic banking (a major factor in the current crisis) and covers everything from counterfeiting to bank robbery. While not comprehensive in scope, Two Centuries of American Banking gives a concise tutorial on the fundamentals of the nation’s banking system and provides some cautionary notes which in retrospect we should have heeded.

Economies depend on banks to keep trade going. And because of how interlinked the world’s economies are, the current financial crisis in the United States is global in scope. To understand why the world’s banking systems are in a shambles requires a basic knowledge of banking and how it came to be an abstract form of trade. In ancient societies, people traded what they grew, made, or mined at marketplaces and negotiated each trade based on supply, demand, real value, and relationships. In small agrarian societies, this system worked well because the goods didn’t have to travel far and strangers were few. As trade routes made the world both larger and smaller and transactions became more complicated, banks emerged and became vital to trade.

Banks originated in Mesopotamia sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC as a way of securing things of value. Temples and palaces served as bank buildings and initially were used to store grain, the first form of currency. After a time, these banks became safe houses for cattle, tools, precious metals, and other items. Writing, it is thought, was developed by the Mesopotamians as a way of keeping records of ownership. Precious metals were melted into coins and could be exchanged for the value of items on deposit, simplifying trade. Counterfeiting was a problem until the Babylonians established a formal economic system and standard weights and measures under their Code of the Hammurabi. Banking matured and many currencies came into common use, creating the need for money changers. As centuries passed and the ancient Greek and Roman empires rose and fell, many disputes arose about the relative values of different currencies. The Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar (30 BC – 14 AD) introduced the first integrated system of monetary policy and taxation.

Money lending dates back to around 400 BC in Greece where ten per cent interest was normal for business loans and twenty to thirty per percent for shipping loans. According to the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus cast the money changers and lenders out of the temples because they were making a profit by charging entry fees to those who wished to hear the word of God. It is important to remember that at that time, temples functioned as banks which is why money changers and lenders coexisted with priests and rabbis. While his reasons were philosophical and spiritual, what Jesus did, in effect, was to demand the separation of banking and religion in Palestine, and that marked the beginning of a new church.

Meanwhile, on the Italian peninsula, the Romans became increasingly powerful and expanded their control across Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. After Jesus’ death, around 30 AD, Christianity gained ground as a religious movement because Christians refused to worship the Roman Emperors as gods. This led to persecution and martyrdom, which in turn inspired more people to become Christians. Despite this resistance, the Roman Empire continued to swell, eventually reaching Britain. Maintaining such a vast empire caused great economic problems. In order to increase the money supply, Rome began circulating coins made of less than pure gold, silver, or bronze, causing runaway inflation. By 270 AD, the silver content in Roman coins was, according to some historians, about four per cent. It wasn’t until the reign of Constantine (306-337 AD) that the Romans developed a standard for coinage which stabilized the world’s economy. Constantine also decided to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, thereby founding the Roman Church. When Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410 AD, banking ceased and did not resume until the Crusades, some 500 years later. Funding an effort as sweeping as the removal of rival religions such as paganism, Judaism, and Islamism, required tremendous amounts of money in liquid form. Resurrected banks provided the means.

Fast forward to the original thirteen colonies of the north American continent. The New World was rich in natural resources and the colonists produced valuable crops such as tobacco, corn, and cotton which they sold at a profit. The King of England, believed in taxing the colonies’ earnings on exports as well as their purchases of imports, such as tea. The Parliament also passed a law, the so-called “Bubble Act” of 1720, which terminated all banking functions in the colonies, severely limiting the colonists’ ability to prosper; without banks it was virtually impossible to borrow money for new business ventures. In 1776, the colonies had had enough of Britain’s strangle hold and declared independence.

By 1780, the Continental Army was in sorry shape: the soldiers were hungry, poorly clothed, and often barefoot. It seemed likely that the war of independence would be lost, according to Thomas Paine, “from the want of money, means, and credit.” A group of Philadelphians met at The Coffee House on June 8, 1780, and pledged their assets as a way of securing loans to keep the army going. This inspired additional citizens to pledge property and that led to the formation of the Pennsylvania Bank which provided the Continental Army with the vital resources for the war effort.

With the British defeated, the new United States of America was deeply in debt and needed a more sophisticated means of managing the economy than the Pennsylvania Bank could provide. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, proposed to Congress in 1790 the formation of a national bank to centralize the finances of the nation: specifically repaying the debts incurred during the war, keeping tax revenues on deposit, and funding congressionally approved expenditures. Hamilton argued that a central, national bank with no ties to a particular state’s charter was critical for the smooth functioning of a federal government. Despite opposition from Thomas Jefferson and some others, President George Washington signed the law which created the Bank of the United States in 1791. The initial stock offering was immediately over-subscribed and the stock price soared.

The idea of local banking as a way of helping merchants manage their money and providing loans to farmers, artisans, and settlers caught on soon thereafter. Banks earned money by charging interest on loans, depositors earned money from interest the banks paid. The use of bank notes representing the cash on deposit came into fashion, although there were problems with counterfeiting and forgery. A more fundamental problem with the bank notes was that each bank had its own engraver and printer and so there was no uniform currency. Moreover, there was no regulatory function to ensure that a bank only printed notes for the amount of capital it had on deposit. The uncertainty this caused meant that bank notes were often “worth less than the paper they were printed on.”

Of particular interest in the Clain-Stefanellis’ book is the chapter on “Crisis and Recovery, 1920-1935.” In the 1920’s, “city people felt prosperous…and sales of consumer goods increased enormously…the stock market became an interesting game…” and banks lent money to people to buy stocks. Then as now, a frenzy of speculation pushed the limits of the stock market, and when the bubble burst, fortunes disappeared as the value of stocks plummeted. Then as now, the crisis was global and banks failed in great numbers. Then as now a newly elected president took drastic steps to quell the financial panic that gripped the nation in an attempt to restore confidence. The Clain-Stefanellis’ book explains how market speculation with too little regulation and oversight can create phantom wealth, which has a nasty habit of disappearing.

Once upon a time, wealth was measured in gold, land, and other things of real value. In the modern world, very few of us keep bags of gold at home as a way of safeguarding our treasure, rather we opt to deposit our paychecks into bank accounts and calculate our net worth based what we own minus what we owe. Keeping money under the mattress, so to speak, is not and never has been a good investment strategy. Even though investments carry risks, the potential for reward can often be great. Our fatal mistake this time was to assume there would be no end to demand for real estate, we bought more expensive houses than we could afford, purchased investment properties, and took out loans that depended on our ability to make a profit in the future. When the demand for real estate abruptly ended, too many of us lost everything, and as a result our country almost did too. Will we learn from this experience? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, as citizens, we all have a responsibility to become better informed. In the words of George Santayana, “those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone"

REQUIRED READING: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić
Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, Copyright 2009

Once upon a time, a boy named Aleksandar lived in Visegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina, when it was part of Yugoslavia. While the adults in his world worried about who was in charge of what and which political faction was getting a better deal from the Yugoslavian government, Aleksandar did what little children have always done and always will do: he laughed and played and made friends and went to school and got to know his neighbors. For him, this was also a time of magic: his grandfather, Slavko, made him a sorcerer’s hat and magic wand with which Aleksandar could be “the most powerful magician in the non-aligned states,” as long as his magic accorded with “Tito’s ideas and the statutes of the Communist League of Yugoslavia.” The boy was skeptical; he didn’t really believe in magic until his grandfather died. He did, however, believe what his grandfather told him, and Slavko believed the only thing more important than Communist ideals was the power of imagination. When Slavko died, suddenly, in the same instant that Carl Lewis was setting a world record for the 100 metre sprint in 1981, Aleksandar knew his only chance to bring his grandfather back to life was by magic. Aleksandar stood at Slavko’s grave with the magic wand and wearing his magician’s hat, refusing to be moved and having to be carried away. It made no sense that the magic failed, after all Grandfather was a loyal party member and supporter of Tito. With his understanding of the world shattered, Alexandar fell into a prolonged state of grief and confusion from which he would never fully emerge until two decades later when he returned to Visegrad in search of memories.

Aleksandar inherited his grandfather’s gift for story-telling as well as his ability to see beyond the obvious. Before he died, Slavko exhorted Aleksandar to “imagine the world as better than it is.” And he did. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is Aleksandar’s stream of consciousness remembrance of the people and events of his childhood and how the wars ruined everything and caused his family to flee to Germany. Aleksandar narrates the story in present tense, returning life and color to people and places that are long gone: family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and townspeople; stores, houses, streets, and schools. The book is written with the innocence and sensibility of a child, the language of a poet, and the yearning heart of a young adult trying to make sense of a lost childhood.

We describe wars in terms of battle lines, weaponry, casualties, and troop levels. Looking deeper, into the grieving families, disrupted daily lives, empty markets, destroyed infrastructure, and most poignantly, bombed out schools is too uncomfortable for many of us, especially if we tend to think romantically of war heroes and decisive battles. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is the classic novel of how conflict and regime change run roughshod over social order and civilization. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a modern variation on that theme, pulling back the curtains on the horrors of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. Unlike Tolstoy’s masterpiece, however, this book is about the devastating effects that wars have on the landless and powerless – and sometimes faceless and voiceless – members of a society. The author, Saša Stanišić (pronounced “Sasha Stanish-itch”), gives a virtuoso performance with his poetic description of life in Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Broz Tito who, during his life, was celebrated by world leaders as a great statesman who united the quarrelling Balkan nations into a peaceful and prosperous whole.
In the decade following Tito’s death in 1980, long-repressed tensions began to boil over and caused irreconcilable conflicts over cultural, religious, and national identities. When, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence in 1991, the wars began in earnest. The struggle that ensued was brought to a head by Slobodan Milošević (milosh-a-vitch) a prominent Communist leader who used his political skill to increase Serbia’s power in the region while reducing that of Croatia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina. Milošević operated within the framework of the greatly flawed governmental structure created by and for Tito and was able to tilt the balance of power in favor of Serbia. By enflaming racial hatred toward the Bosnian Muslims, Milošević succeeded in creating a common enemy for both the Serbians and the Croatians, and the term “ethnic cleansing” came into common use.
Saša Stanišić, born in 1978, grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and as the violence and armed conflict moved into their town, he and his family fled to Germany. Before the Serbs invaded Bosnia, children played and neighbors mingled without caring too much about tribal loyalties. Once the war moved into their town, everything changed. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone shows how a child might interpret inconsistent and irreconcilable facts of life under a crumbling Communist regime, as explained by the adults in his world. In the book, Aleksandar has a friend named Asija (pronounced “As-EE-a”) who wears a headscarf, in other words, she is a Muslim. For reasons he doesn’t understand, this headscarf becomes a problem for Asija and one day Aleksandar cannot find her. Rumor has it that they fled to Sarajevo, but no one knows for sure. Her loss broke Aleksandar’s heart and finding her becomes an obsession.
Everyone in Aleks’ town knew about Serbo-Croatian aggression and the spreading of conflict, but are still caught off guard when the war arrives. Aleksandar tries to convey this by explaining “…how fast war moves when it really gets going.” One day everything is normal and the next day, soldiers sit down at the dinner table demanding to be fed and putting the moves on pretty young women in the household. Soon there are bombing raids and everyone is forced into cellars. While frightening, this is a fun adventure for about five minutes and then Aleksandar gets bored and manages to slip out. He witnesses executions of people he knows, good people, not criminals. The River Drina, the lifeblood of Visegrad, a river which can be loving and gentle when not swollen by snow-melt, becomes a conveyance for the dead.

When Aleksandar is a young man, still living in Germany, he tries to piece together his past and begins by making lists of things he remembers. The child-like quality of his narrative has moments of comedy, such as the time when Aleksandar tries to get his family to invite the neighborhood drunk to join them on their summer vacation trip to the seashore. Most of Aleks’ early memories are of how bewildered and amused he was by the adults in his life, several of whom are eccentric to the point of insane, and others who are merely delusional. As the story progresses, Aleksandar seems to lapse into a psychological breakdown brought on by the horrors of war. His great grandparents who are “at least 150 years” old maintain their ancestral home in an increasing state of decay. Whether they are alive or merely ghosts is unclear, but their presence in Aleksandar’s life is real. His grief over losing his childhood to a senseless war pours out of this book, and yet the book isn’t emotionally heavy. Through Aleksandar’s delightful voice and way of imagining things as better than they are, Saša Stanišić transcends the tragedy and trauma of the Bosnian war and brings the reader into a time and place most Americans know very little about, as if on the wings of a butterfly.
There are many reasons to read this book. First, it is an extraordinary feat of story-telling. How the soldier does in fact repair the Gramophone is an episode so absurd that it is must be a real story; no one could make it up. The author creates a visual and emotional world that feels real, featuring characters with intertwined lives filled with tragic and comic events which move the story along. Second, the writing is original, compelling, and poetic. Saša Stanišić’s writing has a dream-like quality and moves fluidly between past and present while keeping the various plot threads intact. Finally, under the veil of artistry, this book provides insight into what the Balkan wars were all about and why NATO sent troops, including US forces, into the area to try and stop the conflict.
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone reminds us that war is a very bad way of resolving conflicts. Even wars fought for the right reasons leave people and places in ruins, and have the effect of obliterating history. When we speak of “civilian casualties” we mean children with innocent hearts and curious minds and parents who dearly want their children to grow up and enjoy good lives. It is possible that Aleksandar, the narrator, suffers from a variety of psychological problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. The streams of memory rush like a swollen river or dance like a brook over rocks and sometimes it is difficult to keep up with the narrative. To enjoy this book, you must slow down and allow Aleksandar to tell you his story. Think of him as a child who needs to talk about what happened to his hometown, who had a crush on a Muslim girl who disappeared, and who still visits with his dead ancestors. That Saša Stanišić could write such a beautiful book about such a terrible time is an act of grace and generosity, and a reflects his faith in the human spirit. I hope the author, like his subject, has made peace with his past.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Infinite Jest"

REQUIRED READING: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2009)

This book falls under the category of “I read it so you don’t have to”, which is not to say that you shouldn’t read it. At just over 1,000 pages of complicated text and twisted plot lines, Infinite Jest is, according to TIME Magazine, one of the most important novels published in the last fifty years. The book, a painfully funny satire and prescient social commentary, is set in a future time when Canada, Mexico, and the United States have merged into one large nation referred to as ONAN (Organization of North American Nations) possibly as a result of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). In this mammoth nation, the pursuit of televised entertainment is the national pastime and sobriety is no longer the norm. Some of the topics David Foster Wallace examines in Infinite Jest include toxic waste disposal, mental illness, tennis prodigies, twelve-step recovery programs, terrorism, and politics. The plot can be difficult to follow at times but the intertwined stories are so interesting and compelling that I devoted an entire summer to this book.

Mr. Wallace, who died in 2008, had the rare ability to capture the inanities of life and use them to examine social changes which often happen before anyone notices. He was brilliant: a graduate of Amherst College with a double major in English and philosophy, and a concentration in logic and mathematics. His senior thesis was so exceptional that Viking Penguin published it as a novel entitled The Broom of the System. Frank Bruni, a writer for the New York Times magazine stated in a 1996 profile that, "Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone." Not only was he intellectually gifted, but David Foster Wallace had been a tennis prodigy and experienced a childhood similar to what he so colorfully described in Infinite Jest. Sadly, for much of his life, Mr. Wallace suffered from depression and in the end that is what killed him. When I heard that he had committed suicide, I cannot say I was surprised.

Genius and mental illness frequently co-exist. Edgar Allen Poe, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, and other important cultural and historical figures suffered from depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorders. Recent scientific studies at Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of Toronto confirm the correlation between creativity and madness; it is thought that psychological illnesses open extra data gathering pathways in the brain. Infinite Jest is a pure example of this theory. Mr. Wallace describes a world that is a vortex of tragic and comic insanity where people increasingly turn inward, or self-medicate, in the same way that he did. Reading the book, I was awestruck by his observations and intuitions; Mr. Wallace may not have had a “beautiful mind” like the schizophrenic mathematical genius, John Forbes Nash, but he saw trends and social currents the rest of us tend to filter out. Had he been less brilliant, he might have been mentally healthy, or conversely, if he had been mentally healthy, he might have been less brilliant. We will never know.

Unlike Moby Dick author Herman Melville, pioneering geneticist Gregor Mendel, poet Emily Dickenson, and many others, Mr. Wallace did enjoy success during his lifetime. Almost immediately upon release, Infinite Jest garnered a cult following among English literature majors, philosophy students, and others who enjoy a book that challenges them and stretches their ability to think. It remains widely read and discussed because in addition to the brilliance of the writing and social observation, Infinite Jest pushes the novel form. For one thing, it is a blend of genres: sports novel, family drama, thriller, and science fiction, tied up with wit and satire, tragedy and comedy. For another, Infinite Jest makes use of footnotes as chapters, taking us out of our comfort zone, in pursuit of clarity, and leaving us wondering if we will ever get back. (Note: If you skip the footnotes in this book, you will miss a good part of the story.)

Infinite Jest is rich with puns and literary references beginning with the title, which is taken from a line in “Hamlet”, and possibly hints that the joke is on the reader. In the book, “Infinite Jest” is the title of a deadly form of video entertainment which causes the viewer to die from the pleasure of watching it. One plot thread concerns the theft of the original copy of the so-called “entertainment” which has already killed a number of unsuspecting viewers, including its creator. Given its utility as an undetectable instrument of death, the original “Infinite Jest” cassette is a hot commodity. A group of physically impaired Quebecois separatists (the Wheelchair Assassins), who get around on electric scooters, wants to use “the entertainment” to coerce ONAN into letting French Canada secede and to take revenge on the former United States. Other criminals want it as well and will stop at nothing to get it.

Meanwhile, at the elite Enfield Tennis Academy, students get stoned daily in order to tolerate the endless drills and hand-strengthening exercises required to produce champions. Fortunately, just downhill, is the Ennet House of Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic) where counselor, Don Gately, works hard to help residents achieve sobriety. Don was himself a football prodigy and therefore knows the stresses the Enfield students are under. He became addicted to pain pills after an injury, lived a life of crime, and accidentally killed someone before being sent to rehab. A number of ETA students cycle in and out of Ennet House throughout the book and Don Gately is there for all of them. He is a non-traditional hero who can’t seem to avoid trouble and is one of the most likeable characters in the book.

The creation of the unified North American nation ignites American-Canadian border tensions when much of New England is ceded to the Canadian part of ONAN and designated a toxic waste dump, named “the great concavity”. The Wheelchair Assassins are particularly aggrieved that New York Giants fans fling their trash into the now-Canadian concavity using oversized catapults. With control of “Infinite Jest” the assassins hope to put an end to this insult. Their plan is to take advantage of Americans’ love of passive entertainment and commit mass murder by disseminating “the entertainment”.

One of the funniest themes in Infinite Jest is the invention of subsidized time. No longer is a new year referred to as, say, 2009; corporations buy the right to name each year. My favorite year is “The Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment”, with “The Year of the Whopper” as a close second. Again, Mr. Wallace might have been on to something. Perhaps our government should consider selling the naming rights to new years as a way of raising revenue for the financial bailout while allowing entities to repair their damaged reputations. Imagine: 2008 could have been called “The Year of Chinese Pet Foods”. How about “The Year of Peanut Company of America Peanut Butter” instead of 2009?

Infinite Jest, published during the first Clinton Administration, is remarkable in how un-farfetched many of it’s predictions are. Mr. Wallace intuited that the American political system was heading for freefall: in the book Rush Limbaugh is a recently assassinated president. He also understood that sooner or later wheelchairs and electric scooters would be everywhere; our population is aging, after all. Finally with the commercialization of everything including time, Mr. Wallace foresaw the collapse of the United States economy. The part he got wrong was that NAFTA would result in the unification of North America. Although, who knows what the world will look like in twenty years?

What differentiates a good novel from a great one is not only how thought-provoking it is but how well it withstands the test of time. Infinite Jest will be studied, discussed, and read for many years by anyone who wishes to understand America pre-9/11 as well as by those who love the English language. Mr. Wallace has been compared with Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis; he was a genius who happened to be a writer, as opposed to Shakespeare, a writer who happened to be a genius. If he had found a way to conquer his depression, we can be certain that David Foster Wallace would have continued to redefine the American novel. As I said in the beginning, Infinite Jest is not a quick or easy read and if you decide not to bother, no one will think the less of you. If, on the other hand, you give this book a try, you will never forget it, and David Foster Wallace’s creative genius will forever change the way you think.