Saturday, September 17

Echo Maker

 



Mark Schulter is left with brain injuries after overturning his truck on an isolated road in rural Nebraska. His sister, Karin, gives up job and home, returning to their hometown near the Platte River to provide care. The brother describes his condition like living in a video game, where he cannot advance to the next level. Karin worries about him being dependent on her for the rest of his life, that she would “fail him, as she had failed to protect her parents from their own worst instincts…. She needed him to be way he would never be again, a way that she was no longer sure that he had ever been.” Mark is belligerent and frustrated, and she describes this as a “crushing new innocence,” even though he discarded potential long before his accident. 

Mark is convinced that his sister is an imposter, gradually suspecting that his home, community and friends are fake, all conspiring to cover up a government plot. Further, he fears he is the center of this plot, possibly connected with the annual mass migration of sand cranes to the Platte River. 

The birds mate for life, following reliable patterns, while humans lie to one another, use one another and themselves, while destroying their own communities, families and homes. The annual migration appears massive only because increasing development reduces the birds’ habitat. The same numbers of birds crammed into less space brings stress and disease. “They used to roost along the whole Big Bend: a hundred and twenty miles or mile,” explains Daniel, the brother’s childhood friend, an environmentalist, and a lover whom Karin once discarded. “That he spent time with her at all left her amazed, ashamed, and grateful,” she notes at one point, and later decides: “What could he possibly get from their new connection? Simply the chance to do things right, at last. Reduce, reuse, recycle, retrieve, redeem.” She later finds herself wondering “Could anyone trust anyone who trusted anyone so much?” The answer, with these characters, is no.

The characters are susceptible to gossip, conspiracy theories and memories of past wrongs. Karin suggests that “people liked people who made them feel more secure,” but that is not really true of her relationship with her brother or anyone else. She lacks self-esteem, with memories of physical and sexual abuse. “Everyone alive was at least as scared as she was. Remember that, and a person might come to love anyone.” 

Karin pleads for advice from a renowned neuroscientist who agrees to meet the brother. Both Karin and the doctor harbor doubts about their own motivations in providing care. 

The neuroscientist seems to have the ideal life and marriage, but it soon becomes clear that he does not really listen to his wife or daughter. His job is his life, his priority, and he’s devastated after reviewers attack his most recent book detailing his approach to assisting patients. The accusation: He is “milking others’ personal disabilities for personal gain.” And so he decides to return to Nebraska and reexamine Mark, wondering why the case unsettles him so, but not hundreds of others. “What has triggered such continuous surprise in him, the sense of awakening from a long sham?” 

At one point, the neurologist marvels at the brain being “Unable to recognize that it’s suffering from any disorder.” That description applies to every character in the book.

Crisis can erode or strengthen individuals. Some people step up and find the reserves to do battle. Others, like a former journalist, withdraw: “She had lost something of herself, or thrown it away, refusing to compete…” 

The novel's title, The Echo Maker, suggests that an individual does not develop personality and character on his or her own, that we constantly respond to the comments and behavior of others via our own reactions and responses – a continuing echo process that imprints our behavior, forging our character and sometimes forcing us to repeat mistakes over and over. The neurologist describes how One group of scientists discovered a mirror-neuron system the monkey-see, monkey-do neurons. We observe and copy the behavior of those surrounding us, for better or worse. 

There are many selves – the past and remembered self, the mirror and echo self for others, the self we strive to keep intact from the control of others: “Every burst of light, every sound, every coincidence, every random path through space changed the brain, altering synapses, even adding them, while others weakened or fell away from lack of activity The brain was a set of changes for mirroring change. Use or lose. Use and lose. You lose, and the choice unmade you.”

And so we should choose carefully among our associates, escaping those who might limit our potential.

We must decide if our values and goals, our individual personality, can remain intact within the confines of our families and communities. Are we doing what we can to lift others? And if not, perhaps it’s better to be alone. 


Thursday, August 4

Lying for love

 

Two sisters, once close, take off from New York City for a monthlong vacation to Sunshine Falls, NC, the setting for a book by one of their favorite novelists. The younger sister, Libby, carries a checklist of activities for stepping out of their comfort zones. The two lost their single mom and Nora took on a mothering role. Nora admits she is set in her ways – orderly, demanding, grouchy – and she regularly procrastinates on her promise to start becoming “another Nora.” Nora tries to protect, pretending all is okay or fixing problems without Libby knowing: “I always want her to have everything she wants “– and a ‘tiny controlled version of things,” “the mess of it,” “all spills loose.”  

Both keep secrets, even lying in the effort not to alarm the other, and Nora, a book agent, admits: “I feel that heart-pinch sensation, like I’m missing her, like all our best moments are behind us.” She should wait until they are in their 50s or 60s. She tries to shape their lives like the stories she reads before sending them off for publishers. “Decisions, memories, activities are like constructing a story. “That’s life. You’re always making decisions, taking paths that lead you away from the rest before you can see where they end. Maybe that’s why we as a species love stories so much. All those chances for do-overs, opportunities to live the lives we’ll never have.” For Nora, her favorite books never offer the ending she wants, with characters confronting both loss and hope. Expecting another end is “a way to lose something you’ve never even had.” 

The sisters love each other and seek control like inept mothers, trying to make another human being happy by deeming to know what is best. But the problem with that control is that neither is pleased with the results. Sisters can be very, very different, and each must learn to live with that. 

The problem with small towns is apparent for Nora: “One minor lapse in judgment and you can’t go a mile without running into it.”  The closeness forces people to get to know one another and puts most on their best behavior. The two main characters are exceedingly cautious. Lengthy, quippy, contrived conversations prevent the couple from tackling topics with depth with constant interruptions for intimate or tough moments. At one point, Nora reflects that “Some books you don’t read so much as live.” Sadly, the dialogue gets in the way, taking on a stilted, tiresome quality, with characters, especially the editors, in the bad habit of mentally reassessing each comment and joke. Rather than relax, accept and enjoy time together, the couple obsesses about being viewed as boring, with one recalling a breakup line from the past: “If we stay together, every single day for the rest of our lives is going to be the same.” 

Nora works while on vacation on the author’s next book, featuring an agent who resembles Nora – a mean shark of a woman who is also “Tired, lonely, no real life.” And Nora increasingly worries about the distance and secrets and what her sister really thinks of her. “It’s one thing to accept that the person I love most is fundamentally unknowable to me; it’s another to accept that she doesn’t quite see me either. She doesn’t trust me, not enough to share what’s going on, not enough to lean on me or let me comfort her.” Nora comes to realize that the younger sister's memories of childhood are more painful than pleasant, including one when their mother broke down at a cash register because she could not afford a lime to make the girl’s favorite cookies. Memories, the narrative of childhood whether accurate or not, shape our moods, character and ambitions. 

I often advised students in a communications class taught to craft their lives and careers the way a writer selects details for a story. Consider the choices, aware of new paths and opportunities. Be prepared to adjust and revise. Build a set of memories and relationships to avoid dwelling on a life that could have been lived. 

Thursday, July 21

Costs of corruption

 

Ghana ranks 73rd out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Index – with 33 percent of people surveyed suggesting that corruption had increased during the previous year. A similar number report paying a bribe for public service. 

And yet, Ghana is one of Africa's least corrupt countries.

The Missing American by Kwei Quartey is about an elderly American widower who meets a Ghana woman on a Facebook group. Gordon Tilton falls in love and then wires several thousand after the woman claims her sister requires surgery. It’s hard to believe that any rational adult might fall for such a request. Most victims are intent on moving on and keeping the crime a secret. But Tilton confides in a journalist friend who suspects official involvement and urges him to fight: “this is what scammers rely on – your shame and embarrassment. They’re master manipulators. You’re not the culprit here, you’re the victim and it’s time to turn it around and become a survivor,”

Tilton heads off to Ghana alone to report the incident to Accra police and track the culprits known as sakawa boys. Unsatisfied with the investigation, Tilton proceeds on his own and goes missing. 

Emma Djan, 26, is a new detective. She lost her job as a police officer after an attempted rape by a commanding officer. A colleague advises her to apply to the detective agency, and she obtains a job at an Apple store to get by in the meantime. Weeks later, the agency’s owner calls, and during their first meeting the new employer demands honesty, punctuality, patience and curiosity: “second to lying, what I hate most is lateness.”  

Yet like it or not, lying is an essential skill for investigators, especially those immersed in a corrupt society. From the start, when Yemo Sowah  asks if Emma has job elsewhere, she lies and says no, eager to start the following day, working for Tilton's son to search for the missing father.

And later, the lies come easier. After tracking down Tilton, her boss tells her that the agency’s role in that investigation is complete. Yet Emma continues to pursue witnesses and ask questions. She cozies up to one of the sakawa boys, lavishing him with praise, coaxing him to talk about his connections.

Rogue curiosity and corrupt officials catching on to her lies nearly get Emma killed. 

The fast-paced book with multiple subplots also offers a brief, intriguing look at charitable endeavors. A wealthy Ghanaian woman organizes a documentary promoting an autism center and featuring one child’s artistic talent. She plans a shoot: “She would enter the scene, sit next o the boy, and explain how she often welcomed him and other children from the Center to her home (which wasn’t entirely true). The idea was to put an ‘international face’ to the appeal and boost the Center’s new website and crowdfunding campaign. [The] theory was that well-off people are more likely to donate if they could ‘see themselves’ in the video - if they could ‘relate’ to a well-heeled, fashionable woman contributing to such a noble cause.” 

Her reasoning? She frets about donor fatigue, and people in the West were weary of images of flies buzzing about the heads of starving children.

Charitable needs are great in countries throughout Africa. But internet scams and massive corruption erode trust and generosity, and donors find it easier to just say no. 

By one estimate, Ghana loses about US$ billion each year to corruption. The costs are high, as revealed in The Missing American.

Photo of new highway interchange in Ghana, courtesy of African Development Bank Group.

Thursday, July 14

"What you could be..."

 


 










All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr follows two children, one in Germany and the other in France, mostly between 1934 and 1944. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is blind and depends on her father who works for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, for constant directions in moving about their home in Paris. Werner Pfennig, an orphan in the coal region of Essen, relies on books found in the trash to study mathematics and physics.

The two characters spend only one terrifying afternoon together, but there are earlier connections. Werner and his younger sister find a broken radio, which he repairs, so they can listen to broadcasts from around Europe, including a science program for children hosted by Marie-Laure’s grandfather. Ambitious, longing to do anything but work in the mines that killed his father, Werner tries to overlook the horrors of a fascist system, fearful when his sister speaks out. After the Nazis ban devices that access foreign programming, he smashes their radio, incurring his sister’s wrath.

Passing competitive exams, Werner is sent to a national political institute run by Nazis, a place where “every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness.” Werner is protected by helping a professor research use of radio waves to locate transmitters. He befriends a wealthy, connected boy who loves nature and birds and refuses to humiliate others. Frederick recognizes that a cruel system traps them all and at one point advises, “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.” Werner “has the sensation that something huge and empty is about to devour them all.”

Werner is curious, keeping a notebook and logging all the questions he wishes to explore. Yet the fascist system, like extremist religions, is intent on control and preventing people from thinking for themselves. One instructor suggests: “Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.” Later, on the front, another colleague marvels about Werner, “What you could be.” Werner finds himself missing the coal town he was so eager to leave and his sister: “her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.” She could see through  the Nazis’ angry propaganda: “How did Jutta understand so much more about how the world worked? While he knew so little?”

Marie-Laure, unable to see, is understandably fretful and anxious, full of questions about the impending invasion of France, and the writer is skilled in describing her surroundings through only the senses of taste, smell, sound and touch. Her father makes a model of their neighborhood and drills her on using her cane, counting drains and curbs, touching fences and tree trunks, to find her way home from unnamed locations. She possesses a few Braille workbooks along with a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. She comes to view the world as complex mazes: “The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models…. None were more complicated than the human brain… one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”

The father and daughter flee Paris for the coast and his uncle’s home, and the museum entrusts the man with a rare diamond, rumored to be cursed. Her father rejects such stories. “There is luck maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.”

Marie-Laure and their housekeeper convince her introvert uncle to support the resistance. Werner’s unit detects the family’s hidden radio, and the two children connect in person and help one another. One survives and the other perishes. 

The war teaches that ordinary life – simple, normal secure routines rather than power or riches – is heaven. Those on either side who survive the war are traumatized. Every bite of food, any comfort, feeling like a betrayal to those who did not. Brutal memories sabotage pleasant ones, and grief about those who did not survive prick any scrap of happiness. Decades later, the character who survives wonders if the war’s dead and missing might travel the sky in flocks – “That great shuttles of souls might fly about… They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour… someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world. We will rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”

Ordinary beauty can be the most rewarding, and some we do not notice until it vanishes. 

Friday, June 24

Costs of abortion bans

The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, for now giving states the right to allow or ban abortions. Thirteen states have trigger laws; more lawsuits will follow, with more rights expected to be curtailed by the conservative US Supreme Court. 

For now, the laws affect the states with the lowest abortion rates, below the national median of 20 percent.  Of the states with trigger laws, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas have the highest abortion rates of the group, still less than 15 percent. For 2022, those rates meant more than 55,000 abortions for Texas, more than with 12,000 for Tennessee, and more than 9900 for Louisiana.  

The new laws, without efforts on family planning and education, will result in thousands of unwanted children and increased poverty. Abortions won't end, and the communities will soon learn the costs.

Women and entire communities will have to adjust. Allure of Deceit, set in Afghanistan, focused on how the Taliban’s rigid controls for women resulted in lies, abuse and misery.   

Source: Word Population Review

Wednesday, June 22

Ingredients for dystopia

 











To Paradise, set in four time periods, reads as two distinct novels about a United States in decline, increasingly fragmented over social and political issues, environmental degradation and limited resources. I would not have imagined enjoying this story by Hanya Yanagihara, yet am glad I gave it a chance.

Each of the four parts follows imbalanced partnerships among characters who share a mix of names: David who rejects an approved marriage proposal from steady Charles in 1893, and instead takes up with Edward, rumored to be a scoundrel; partners Charles, a lawyer, and David, from Hawaii, in 1993; partners Charles, a renowned expert on emerging diseases, and Nathaniel, knowledgeable about Hawaiian artifacts, who struggle with a radical son, David, in the mid-21st century; and Charles with his granddaughter, Charlie, in the dystopia of late 21st century. Connecting the four tales is a Washington Square home in New York City.

The first two parts read as a series of gossipy anecdotes - wealthy men feeling angst over lacking a sense of purpose. In each, a young gay man is considered “naïve” and inept, coddled by family and lovers. The David of the first wakes up each morning, hoping to join “the slipstream of activities that animated most people’s lives” instead of facing “only a day as ill-defined as any other, one he would have to endeavor to fill on his own.” HIs life is a prison, “something he was only waiting to use up….” 

Most of these characters pursue freedom while failing to realize that attempts to control others limits freedom for all involved. David of the first part achieves freedom by lying to his father and other would-be protectors. A narrator points out that the second part's David, yearning not to be a burden or disappointment, will only realize when he is older that no one is ever free: “that to know someone and to love them was to assume the task of remembering them…. that knowledge that your life was inextricable from another’s, that a person marked their existence in part by their association with you.” The second David resents his weak and indecisive father, for whom Hawaiian royal status was eliminated by developers and later statehood. The man, coddled by an angry, bitter grandmother, used by a manipulative friend, regularly waits for “the next day to begin.” 

By the third story, society is in rapid decline. Nathaniel and son David resent Charles for his role in creating tighter restrictions on society to prevent the spread of disease, and Charles is upset that the boy does not finish high school and impregnates an older woman. “It takes a special kind of cruelty to make a baby now, knowing that the world it’ll inhabit and inherit will be dirty and diseased and unjust and difficult…. What kind of respect for life is that?” After David and Nathaniel die, Charles raises the child on his own. 

Granddaughter Charlie, developmentally delayed, must navigate an increasingly rigid, impoverished society in 2094 that has endured a series of pandemics, but perhaps her limited understanding is a blessing. A medication during her childhood resulted in seizures, disability and a stunted personality, yet she adores her grandfather, the man who contributed to increasing controls including lockdowns, identity checkpoints, segregated neighborhoods, containment centers, and more, all in the attempt to protect society from disease. Charlie prefers routine, describing how even mystery stories, not knowing how they might end, made her anxious until the state bans such tales. Shortly before his death, the grandfather, recognizing the dystopia, arranges a marriage with a man named Edward, a partnership based on security rather than love. 

New York of 2093 bans television, internet, or foreign travel, and the grandfather is on constant watch for hints of resistance: “to live in a place like this means to be aware that that little movement, that twitching, that faint, mosquito-like buzzing, is not your imagination but proof of another existence, the country you once knew and you know must still exist, beating onward just beyond the range of your senses.” Accurate information becomes precious, and some will even kill for it. “Data, investigation, analysis, news, rumor: A dystopia flattens those terms into one. There is what the state says, and then there is everything else, and that everything falls into one category: information.” 

Those controlling the dystopia hope that people forget not only historic freedoms and rights but how “technology was once applied, and what it was once capable of doing, and how many ways we once depended on it, and what information it could provide.” Charles acknowledges his contributions to dystopia and wonders how people in places like Germany, Phnom Penh or Saigon knew when to leave: “I had always imagined that that awareness happened slowly, slowly but steadily, so the changes, though each terrifying on its own, became inoculated by their frequency, as if the warnings were normalized by how many there were. And then, suddenly, it’s too late.”  

As society evolves, the characters transform from aimless to resigned, defeated and surrendered. Each tale is left hanging, each character confronting mortality, about to make a decision in changing the trajectory of his or her life story. “You just do it out of practice – because that’s what a human does,” observes a friend dying from AIDS in the second part. Peter, best friend to Charles, admits his biggest fear about dying is realizing how much of life he wasted. “I’m scared because I’m going to die not being proud of how I lived.” 

The novel’s unusual structure contributes to the purpose. Complacency and comforts of earlier eras, attempts to control and protect, contribute to horrors that follow two centuries later. 

Saturday, May 28

The luckiest


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was a gift from a treasured friend, and finishing the novel was like saying farewell to another friend. At first, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may seem like a wealthy dandy, but time and time again proves himself to be a calming force – charming and deliberate, observant and generous, optimistic and kind, all the while under house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow from 1922 to 1954. Rostov, fond of Russia, left London to face charges by the new government. The offense? A short poem that Russian authorities have deemed as a dangerous “call to action.” If Rostov leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

The punishment requires moving from his luxurious suite, surrounded by his possessions, to a tiny room in an upper floor of the hotel. Forced to downsize, Rostov mourns until he realizes that no possession can match the value of a strong friendship and he suddenly marvels at how people find it easier to say farewell to friends than possessions. “For eventually we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from places to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance.” The count then concedes that “a thing is just a thing,” examining his belongings one last time before “expunge[ing] them from his heartache forever.” 

The book is poignant for those shut in during the pandemic, those who abhor consumerism, and those near the end of life, when memories outnumber plans and dreams for the future. Rostov, well read and philosophical, is determined to live life as a man of purpose, and an optimistic one at that. He considers prisoners from literature who relied on hash marks to mark their days, noting how a year in prison could be mourned or celebrated. “For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years. Or if philosophical investigations are not to your taste, then let us simply agree that the wise man celebrates what he can." The trapped man may be imperfect, but he inspires because he never stops striving for improvement and is always open to friendship. 

Reduced status and cutbacks for the Metropol, representing the decline in Moscow's cosmopolitan culture, do not trouble the count. Upon entering the Piazza at Christmastime, he is momentarily disappointed at finding the room ungarlanded, the balustrades unstrung with lights, a single musician replacing the orchestra, and most of the tables unfilled, but then his optimism kicks in: “But then, as every child knows, the drumbeat of the season must sound from within.” 

The man is advisor, confidant and friend to all, finding reason to chat with everyone, staff and guests, including journalists, visiting dignitaries, and even Nina, a precocious pre-teen who purloined a passkey for the entire hotel, thus expanding their range for exploration and entertainment. Her brief visits over the years give him opportunity to watch her develop as a patriot. 

The hotel is a welcoming cocoon in treacherous and volatile post-revolutionary Russia with shifting regulations, heightened mistrust and vague communications. Take “comrade,” increasingly popular as a Russian greeting: “A word of semantic efficiency, comrade could be used a as greeting or a word of parting. As a congratulations, or a caution. As a call to action, or a remonstrance.” Mishka, poet and dissident, is the long-time friend who actually wrote the poem that landed Rostov in detention. He visits Rostov occasionally, mourning the demise of Russian culture, traditions and honesty: “Our churches, known the world over for their idiosyncratic beauty, for their brightly colored spires and improbable cupolas, we raze one by one. We topple the statues of old heroes and strip their names form the streets, as if they had been figments of our imagination. Our poets we either silence, or wait patiently for them to silence themselves.” 

Rostov, a long-time Metropol client who understands the meaning of impeccable service and traditions, eventually signs on as waiter at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s restaurant, teaming up with the chef and maître d’ in organizing events, tables and meals. He is skilled at sensing despondency and subterfuge, falsehoods and exaggeration, but resists giving up on others easily. “By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration - and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” 


A former Army colonel – Osip – seeks a better understanding of the West and turns to Rostov, with his reputation for being well traveled and cultured, for tutoring. The lessons are subversive, relying on materials like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the film Casablanca. Osip, viewing the US and Russia in competition, is fascinated: “we an Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good.”   

The early 1930s are unkind to free-thinking Russians. Nina, a married woman with a young child, returns to the Metropol to request that Rostov watch her daughter while she visits the imprisoned father in Siberia. Rostov complies, not realizing the favor is not short-term. Hotel staff and friends come to his aid, and the seamstress assures Rostov that he is up to the challenge: “If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy…. they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.” 

Responsible for a child, he immediately discovers the joys of answering unending questions, and teaching by example, including stories from his own childhood and family home of Idlehour. One of those stories is about a clock that only rings twice a day, because Rostov’s father believed that no one should “attend too closely to the clock.” Thus, “if a man woke no later than six, engaged in a light repast, and then applied himself without interruption, by the hour of noon he should have accomplished a full day’s labor.” The noon bell signaled the end of work and time for “wise liberty”: “he should walk among the willows, read a timeless text, converse with a friend beneath the pergola, or reflect before the fire – engaging in those endeavors that have no appointed hour, and that dictate their own beginnings and ends.” And after a day lived well, there was no need to hear the second chime. One should be soundly asleep and to otherwise hear it “was most definitely a remonstrance” about laying awake and wasting valuable time. 

Rostov recognizes life in the hotel limits aspirations for his young charge, Sofia. When she regrets that the memories of her parents fade with time, the count advises, “no matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”  He wants her to explore her talents and the vast unknown, and the count resolves “it is hardly our purpose at this stage to log a new portfolio of lasting memories. Rather we should be dedicating ourselves to ensuring that they taste freely of experience.” 

Long hours alone at the hotel allow Sofia to become a skilled concert pianist, providing the opportunity to travel to Paris for a concert, under the stern watch of party chaperones. Rostov prepares for them both to leave the Metropol, albeit with separate destinations, relying on a network of friends abroad and a stash of gold hidden away in the desk he kept over the years. When Sofia departs, he offers two pieces of parental advice: “The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” He admits that he will be both sad in her absence and joyful at every thought of her new adventures.  

Shortly before he leaves, Mishka witnesses Rostov’s wide group of friends at the Metropol and their kindness. “Who would have imagined,” the friend observes, ‘when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.” 

With the right frame of mind, the simple wanting of happiness, anyone can be as lucky as Count Rostov. 

Thursday, May 19

Educated











Tara Westover was the youngest of seven children born to survivalist parents in Idaho who trusted neither public schools nor the medical establishment. The family avoided birth certificates, telephones, or insurance for the family vehicle – but the father eventually allowed the internet and a few activities for his youngest children like theater, singing and dance.  In her memoir, Educated , the author recalls that “Learning to dance felt like learning to belong.” Yet happy memories are few , and the family home was a place for injuries, violence, humiliation and shifting loyalties. 

As the youngest, Tara explains how she never knew her father as the carefree, happy man portrayed in an early photograph. For her, he was “a weary middle-aged man stockpiling food and ammunition.” She regularly had to remind her parents of her age, pointing out she was not as old as they assumed, as when at age 10, she had to treat an older brother who didn’t change out of gasoline-soaked pants that were later accidentally ignited and her parents scolded her for using ice-packed garbage bags on the burns.  

The fundamentalist Mormon parents insisted they homeschooled the children in basic reading and math skills, but Tara describes how she and her siblings spent most time helping her father in his makeshift scrapyard and the mother with her unlicensed midwifery practice that included collecting herbs and preparing folk medicines. The older boys left home as teenagers for jobs - driving rigs, welding or working scrapyards. But Tyler aspired to attend college, using savings to purchase a trigonometry book and other texts to study. The father, worried about the temptations and disappointments associated with an education, discouraged his children. “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,” he retorted. Somehow Tyler’s conviction “burned brightly enough to shine through the black uncertainty,” and the brother did not return home again for another five years.

The family wields religious beliefs and shame as a weapon and means of control. Another brother, Shawn, appoints himself as a guardian over Tara, accompanying her to activities, shaming her for a maturing body, and lashing out with physical abuse when he doesn’t like her clothes or chats with boys. Tara knew that girls had fewer opportunities than boys, and girls could not be a prophet, but conversations with Tyler suggested that she had a “kind of worth that was inherent and unshakable.” Tara detests the shame she feels about Shawn’s accusations and abusive behavior, later admitting that “the only thing worse than being dragged through the house by my hair was Tyler’s having seen it.”  Others witnessing the abuse made her shame and pain more real. 

As a teenager, Tara increasingly enjoys experiences away from home with other relatives and friends, and begins to question her family's ways. The father is paranoid about the government and Illuminati, and Tara recognizes that when she tries to describe his fears to others, she sounds awkward and rehearsed: “the words belonged to my father” and “I was ashamed at my inability to take possession of them.” Tyler convinces Tara to study for the ACT and apply to Brigham Young College as a homeschooled student. “’There’s a world out there, Tara,’ he said. ‘And it will look a lot difference once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.’”

At school, her lack of basic knowledge is stunning. In a class of Western art, she encounters a word she had never seen before – Holocaust – and unfortunately raises her hand to ask its meaning. The professor assumes sarcasm and quickly moves on while other students shun her for what they viewed as a vulgar attempt at humor. She immediately feels like a freak and wonders how everyone around her automatically senses her ignorance. I must admit to cringing at such a question and wondering why she didn't look the word up online. My husband and I both taught undergraduates for more than two decades, and agreed that we would have likely provided a brief definition in class - the Nazis murdered more than 6 million civilians, European Jews and other minorities, men women and children, during World War II - and would have asked to speak with her after class about her purpose in this question.  A teacher's duty is to unearth such deficits and provide the student with resources.

Ignorance leads to loneliness for those who mingle with the educated, and education leads to loneliness within the Westover family. When Tara returns home to work one summer, her brother called her vile names, “wh---” and “n-----.”  Early on, she tries to pass this treatment off as humor, but after college, the brutality makes her feel uncomfortable and angry: “I had begun to understand that [our family] had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others – because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.” 

Her outlook on life had transformed completely, as Tara heard “a call through time” that shaped new conviction, separating her from the family’s tradition of humiliating others for pleasure. Refusing to go along, she mastered new forms of self-discipline that included thinking for herself, one that included the skills and culture shaping her early life. 

While in college, Tara attends a study-abroad program at Cambridge University and must apply for a delayed certificate of birth. Lacking documentation, she relies on an aunt’s affidavit to obtain a passport. During the program, she becomes curious about how historians and other gatekeepers of the past “come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught. Dad could be wrong and the great historians … could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in.”  

Growing up, she had always yearned for a boy’s “future” – to be a “decider” and to “preside.” As a graduate student, she is elated to discover works by philosopher John Stuart Mill, who "claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it was now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations…. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known.” She explains her reaction: “Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are women.”

Years pass and visits to her family home both terrify and wear her down. She realizes that the disagreement with her parents would never end, and her PhD at Kings College later began with the question: “What is the person to do, when obligations to family conflict with obligations to friends, society or self?” 

The Westover parents eventually severe ties with Tyler, Tara and another adult child who pursued higher education that prompt each to question family traditions.  

Separation from her family brought Tara peace. “I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing [her father’s] sins against mine.” Separation allowed her to focus on memories of the most pleasant, productive parts of her childhood. Otherwise, she freed herself from a distorted reality, misinformation and assertive ignorance. “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.” 

I began reading and writing about the high rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan in 2010, research that led to the publication of Fear of Beauty. Of course, the United States was not immune from forces rejecting education and science, intent on shaming and controlling others, especially women. “Some illiterate adults have grown up in families and communities that devalue and resent education, trapping generation after generation,” I wrote for the Jungle Red Writers blog in 2013. “Some students were bullied into rejecting reading, and others do the bullying themselves. Some grow up feeling alone and stupid only to discover a learning disability long after school years have ended. Others know that seeking help as an adult takes courage and fiercely rally their children and grandchildren to read and avoid a humiliation that’s so often a motivation for violence.” 

Irrational fear, like education, can transform society one family at a time, yet individuals can break the cycle.

Wednesday, April 13

Friendship











Some people are victims and others are predators and one’s status can be based on intelligence, appearance, wealth, age or more. Stereotypes prevent friendships and complicate investigations.

And then there are the vast majority of people who navigate life in between those categories, avoiding crime, cruelty and victimhood altogether. Irene, a calm and accepting elderly woman in A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins, understands how others view her, “fulfilling their expectations of the aged: sitting a chair in a room, alone, musing on the past, on former glory, on missed opportunities, on the way things used to be.” Irene is accustomed to others mistaking her dehydration, fatigue, occasional forgetfulness as dementia and hesitant to explain why she sometimes wanted to lose herself in confusion. “How on earth to make clear to him that while it as frightening, the feeling could also e, on occasion, thrilling? That she allowed herself, from time to time, to skip meals, hoping it would come back to her, that feeling that someone was missing, and that if she waited patiently, they’d come back. Because in those moments that she’d forget that William, the man she loved… was dead…. she could lose herself in the fantasy that he’d just gone out to work… and in a minute, just a minute, she’d hear his key in the door.”  

Hawkins zeroes in on friendship. One character, crime victim as a child, mourns losing her talent for friendship, and “once it was gone, it was a difficult thing to recover.” Hawkins continues: “Like loneliness, the absence of friendship was self-perpetuating: the harder you tried to make people like you, the less likely they were to do so; most people recognized right away that something was off, and they shied away.”

Older people often complain it’s more difficult to form friendships with age, too, and Irene offers a reason: “The truth was that you felt a certain way inside, and while the people who had known you your whole life would probably see you that way, the number of new people who could appreciate you as that person, that inside person, rather than just a collection of the frailties of age, was limited.” 

With her husband dead, Irene does the hard work of forming new friendships, even with those who might be flawed, including an alcoholic neighbor and a young woman with a brain injury. “The best thing about them, from Irene’s point of view, was that they didn’t make assumptions…. They didn’t take for granted that she would be physically incapable, or small-minded, or uninterested in the world.”

Irene appreciates companionship even though she had once read “that the happiest people on earth were unmarried childless women. She could see why – there was a lot to be said for that sort of freedom, for not being answerable to anyone, for living exactly how you pleased.” Love can trigger a ferocity that is hard to understand, as explained by a mother who recalls holding her son after he was born and “you imagine a glorious, golden future. Not money or success or fame or anything like that, but happiness. Such happiness! You’d see the world burn if only it meant they would be happy.”  

That mother and other characters in the book may view curious Irene as a busybody – but she understands love and loss. Of course, she is the character who solves two murders.  


Friday, April 8

Lies and details




















From all appearances, a newly retired couple with four grown children in Apples Never Fall, seem happy and comfortable until the wife goes missing for three weeks. Joy and Stan once ran a tennis school, dreaming of their own children finding success. The book, set in Australia, is about parenting and disappointments, with the youngest noting, “There’s this idea that all you need to do is believe in yourself, but the truth is, we all can’t be Martina.”

The exquisite plot could unfold in any wealthy Western setting or describe any passion. Yet every detail and off-the-cuff anecdote matter: the useless feelings associated with retirement, bitterness about a star student seeking out another coach, a child’s anger about a visiting student removing a banana from her backpack, sudden grief in a laundry room about a loved one years later, a key worn around a stranger’s neck, a souvenir magnet that slides down the refrigerator, a father’s reasons for escaping arguments, a husband’s stubborn refusal to rinse his plate, placing it in the dishwasher.

Retirement is stressful for the Delaneys. “No routine. Just the two of you stuck in your home, stuck in your aging bodies. An argument over a damp towel left on the bed could last for days and then it often turned out that the argument was … about something hurtful that was said thirty years ago….” Retirement eliminates the distractions that long soothed the sharp edges of hard feelings. Retirement requires adjustment, and as on character concedes, every lengthy marriage presents multiple motives for divorce or murder. Joy observes: “There were a lot of new rules for life, and she hadn’t caught up on all of them. Her children, who had come into the world completely uncivilized and learned all their good manners from her, sometimes cried, “Mum! You can’t say that!’”

Joy goes missing after a bitter and loud argument with her husband, who typically leaves home for hours or days after such incidents. His wife finds herself wishing she could do the same. “Sometimes she abrogated responsibility by fantasizing about kidnappers bursting into the house, bundling her into the back of their van, and taking her for a long rest in a nice, cool, quiet dungeon.” But Joy always prioritized her children, ready to listen and care for them, while also refurbishing the most unpleasant of family memories. “Why not rewrite the memory and remember it was a perfect day? What was the actual benefit of accuracy when it came to memories?”

Neighbors, friends, waitresses and others observe the family after Joy goes missing, even eavesdropping on conversations. The “neighbors were a nice, ordinary, happily married couple,” one friend tells the police. “This was absolutely true and absolutely not true. There was no such thing as a nice, ordinary, happily married couple.”

Chatty, rambling and impulsive, Joy worries at times about dementia. But she has empathy, too, and when a young stranger shows up on her doorstep, the couple takes her in. “Imagine, Joy thought. You’re all alone, without money, in a strange city, and you can’t go back home, what can you do except throw yourself on the mercy of strangers” She couldn’t imagine the same for herself. “She had always been cushioned by people.” The young woman, Savannah, surprises the couple by cooking, cleaning and caring for them. This inevitably concerns among the four children, prompting envy and reflection.

Liars tend to rely on excessive details, and Joy’s children notice Savannah’s mocking use of “tangential detail,” and this prompts concern and envy among her children, who had long since become bored and impatient with the Joy’s detailed stories. “Her children were the only ones allowed to tease her about this.”

Characters in this story often lie to one another or withhold details. “People made accusations of lying with such triumph: as if pointing out a lie won the game, as if you’d just shatter with the shame of it, as if they’d never lied themselves, as if people didn’t lie all the time, to themselves, to everyone.” Lies and impatience with details, the urge to protect loved ones and release old resentments, hinder the investigation, delaying discovery about why Joy Delaney disappeared.

Thursday, March 3

Lessons

 











In this unconventional American Western, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a Chinese-American family pursues a hardscrabble life, prospecting for gold and working other mines with two goals. Ba, the father, wants to buy his own plot of land, and the mother longs to return to China. Set in the mid-1800s, the family confronts slurs and discrimination while the two daughters – Lucy and Sam, ages 12 and 11 – endure a mixture of abuse and tough love at home. It's easy to imagine members of this family questioning, “can you love a person and hate them all at once?”

Both girls are smart, adapting to new settings, as the family moves in search of work and a sense of home. Lucy openly yearns for a formal education, much like Sofi in Fear of Beauty, but poverty, discrimination and her father’s general mistrust prevent her from consistently attending classes. Sam, with another set of desires, nurtures the ability to keep secrets.   

The story begins after their father’s death in 1862 and the girls’ flight from a mining town, and the book leaps from past to present and back, with the story of the journey, separation, reunion and a heap of painful memories: their father’s upbringing and parents’ meeting, the death of a baby brother, their mother’s disappearance, the quest for work, comradery, and respect.

The parents make no secret of their longtime preference for a son, and Sam takes to cutting her hair, dressing in boy’s clothes and accompanying her father to the mines for work, all the while regarding her body as “a temporary inconvenience.” Lucy struggles to understand Sam who wants to be a cowboy, an adventurer, an outlaw and concludes that her sister is “Young enough to think desire alone shapes the world.” 

Lucy gathers intently observes and listens to others – including her parents and strives to please anyone who might teach her. She discovers lessons in agreement, politeness, trickery, shame and “imagining herself better” along with the disappointing stream of “Lessons in how other people live” and “Lessons in wanting what she can’t have.” 

Often, when trying to please others, when not moving through the wilderness, she loses her identity and values. 

As a child, Lucy resists the notion the family might return to China, insisting she does not want to live with other Chinese, blurting out a common ethnic slur herself. Her father, in one of his gentler moods, whispers the Chinese word for Chinese people, and the two sisters “let the name for themselves drop down the cracks in their sleep, with a child’s trust that there is always more the next day: more love, more words, more time, more places to go….” 

One of the most haunting parts of the book is the father’s background story, relayed after his death by the wind sweeping over the land. The orphan, raised by Natives, former slaves and others ostracized by society did not grow up with people who looked like him. “But that’s not an excuse, and don’t you use it," he admonishes Lucy. "If I had a ba, then he was the sun that warmed me most days and beat me sweaty-sore on others; if I had a ma, then she was the grass that held me when I lay down and slept. I grew up in these hills and they raised me….” 

The father cherished wildness, and Lucy wondered if that was the “sense that they might disappear into the land – a claiming of their bodies like invisibility, or forgiveness?” 

Other lessons are brutal and erratic as the father teaches the mother English, the mother teaches the father Chinese, and both parents guide their girls on how to be tough and endure adversity. The isolated, beautiful, and crafty mother urges her daughter to find choices: “’[B]eauty’s the kind of weapon that doesn’t last so long as others. If you choose to use it – mei cuo, there’s no shame. But you’re lucky. You have this, too.’ She raps Lucy’s head.” 

The alcoholic father’s angry cruelty forges a connection between two young women with many differences. Lucy also absorbs lessons on injustice, loyalty, gratitude as well as the land's harsh beauty. “I looked for a fortune and thought it slipped between my fingers, but it occurs to me I did make something of this land after all – I made you and Sam…. I taught you to be strong. I taught you to be hard. I taught you to survive…. I only wish I’d stayed and taught you more. You’ll only have to make do with bits, as you have all your life.” 

Regardless of hate, love and other emotions in between, the father repeatedly drills the girls on one key lesson. Family comes first. Ting wo. Of course, such fierce loyalty means freeing other family members freedom to go their own way. 

Tuesday, March 1

Neighbors at war

 









Russia's president, rattled by NATO and nostalgic for the Soviet Union and Cold War, invaded Ukraine after the latter's leadership rejected a pledge to not join NATO.  Russia has also threatened others. “President Vladimir Putin has demanded NATO withdraw all outside forces from the region and commit to Sweden and Finland never being allowed to join,” reports Edward Lucas for Foreign Policy. 

Putin's use of brute force in Ukraine provides new incentive for Finland, Sweden and Ukraine to pursue NATO membership.

NATO leaders met on February 25, calling on Russia to stop the “senseless war” – and to “immediately cease its assault, withdraw all its forces from Ukraine, and turn back to the path of dialogue and turn away from aggression.”

NATO’s 30 allies contribute to the budget on an agreed cost-share formula based on gross national income – “This is the principle of common funding, and demonstrates burden-sharing in action.”

The US State Department describes US cooperation with NATO’s three Baltic State members – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The countries bordering Russia have shouldered the security responsibility, reports Lucas. “The Baltic states and Poland play their part too: Their defense budgets exceed the minimum 2 percent of GDP mandated by NATO. These funds are spent wisely, including on modern weaponry that could at least slow, and thus help deter, a Russian attack.”

NATO is supporting Ukraine against Russia’s aggression: “Thousands of anti-tank weapons, hundreds of air-defence missiles and thousands of small arms and ammunition stocks are being sent to Ukraine. Allies are also providing millions of euros worth of financial assistance and humanitarian aid, including medical supplies to help Ukrainian forces.” 

Global military spending as a percentage of GDP has been in decline since the end of the Cold War, but Russia's current leadership is intent on reversing that trend. 

So far, the Ukraine military, aided by citizens under siege are slowing the Russian invasion. NATO members – along with many other countries – are imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia that could plunge the country into a depression as long as President Vladimr Putin is in charge. 

Data on military spending for Russia and selected neighbors from the World Bank.

Monday, February 28

Neighbors

 


Russia shares land borders with 14 nations, along with maritime borders with another five. Russia threatened Ukraine over its interest in joining NATO. After Ukraine refused to capitulate, Russia invaded. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a deranged speech on February 24 outlining his complaints with Ukraine, as transcribed by the New York Times:

It is a fact that over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading NATO countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we invariably faced either cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure and blackmail, while the North Atlantic alliance continued to expand despite our protests and concerns....

For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation....

The leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine, those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia....

To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.

Today, Russian shelled residential and commercial areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, killing civilians who by their resistance demonstrate no desire to be linked with Russia. More than 60 percent of Kharkiv people are of Russian heritage. So, Putin has essentially ordered strikes on fellow Russians. 

Ironically, Ukraine, like Belarus and even Russia, are already so-called NATO "Partners for Peace."  Russia has since threatened another neighbor, Finland, about joining NATO as a full member country.  When Russian troops entered Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 and took control, there was no resistance. NATO did not lift a finger, and polls since suggested that Crimeans, while dissatisfied with corruption and the economy, are generally pleased with Russian rule.  

The treaty alliance explains that NATO membership is open to “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Data on GDP per capita is from the World Bank. 

Thursday, February 17

Inequality

The Glass Kingdom, creepy and suspenseful from the start transforms to simple  horror by the end, masterfully detailing the resentments that emerge over inequality and the ways that individuals justify stealing from others: “It was a war between herself and the moneyed classes, and in that war all ruses were legitimate, all feints justified,” concludes Sarah soon after creating and selling a set of forgeries, presented as correspondence from her most recent employer, a famous author. Committing a crime eliminates social protections, and when encountering trouble later, Sarah cannot turn to authorities: “It was too late, in any case, to become an upright citizen and call the police.”

A reader must suspend belief about the plot and numerous character decisions. Why would the author retain her own handwritten letters to celebrities like Angela Davis or Diana Vreeland? Why would collectors sell them to the author and not to the other collectors seeking them and paying a premium price? Wouldn’t the collectors have direct dealings? And Sarah’s transport of a couple hundred thousand by air, crossing international borders, would surely be much riskier with more challenges than described.

Then again, people are odd, sometimes extraordinarily lucky or unlucky as the case may be. And loneliness – so familiar during the Covid pandemic – compounds the poor decision-making displayed throughout the novel: “The burden of that solitude had begun to crush her hour by hour.” Sarah fails to recognize the assuming manipulations of a new friend Mali who requires assistance in covering up another crime, not posing questions or objections after Mali suggests: “Let’s do it my way, OK? I’m sorry to get you involved, though,” quickly adding, “We’d both like that, no?” Finally, why would a young woman not quickly abandon a hotel losing guests, let alone a city with increasing civil unrest?

The dark and moody novel powerfully demonstrates how inequality makes trust or mutual respect impossible. Characters are divided not only by wealth and skill, but ethnicity and religion. A hotel maid concludes that the farangs, referring to foreigners, are “animals in their hearts, untouched by the grace of Lord Buddha” – and they exist in a “prison of their own making, and she entered that prison only to make a living. For in the end there was no other reason to enter it at all.”    

The book conveys that life is unfair at every level. Highly visible, cruel inequality ensures that sinister unfairness and corruption never end.

Wednesday, February 16

Memories of love










The Parted Earth is a family saga that begins with the 1947 Partition of India. A teenager, Deepa, observing and worrying how New Delhi and neighborly relations can change violently in a short period of time, recalls a comment from her mother: “People are inherently good… they’re just not inherently good all of the time.” The comment ominously foreshadows the ethnic hatred and violence of the Partition, turning neighbors against neighbors and even some parents against children, as noted by Stanford’s Partition Archive:

“Up to two million people lost their lives in the most horrific of manners. The darkened landscape bore silent witness to trains laden with the dead, decapitated bodies, limbs strewn along the sides of roads, and wanton rape and pillaging. There was nothing that could have prepared the approximately 14 million refugees for this nightmare. The 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan was accompanied by one of the largest mass migrations in human history and violence on a scale that had seldom been seen before.”

The book begins sweetly, taking on the tone of a young adult novel while describing the happy life of Deepa, the only child of two progressive physicians. But violence and chaos mark the summer of 1947 with India on “the verge of a war with itself.” The brutality and separations haunt survivors long afterwards, lingering for generations. For those who witnessed the atrocities, “Distance and time were inconsequential.” Collective grief ensures loneliness, trust is fragile, and parents struggle to explain events to their children. Withholding information about a child’s father, conceived during the chaos, is cruel. Learning horrific truths about a parent’s role in atrocities is perhaps even worse.  

Deepa bears a son, Vijay, who searches for the father he never met and answers about his mother’s resentment. A search in India and Pakistan separates him from his daughter, Shanti, who is 10 and raised in the United States. 

Every character, during the days of Partition and long afterward, is left feeling as if he or she could have done more – displayed more grace, more compassion, more patience. 

Unlikely friendships that cross generations and cultures bring comfort, new perspectives and even rescue. For Vijay, it’s Miss Trudy – his mother’s friend who cares for him and treats him as her own. His mother was stern, ensuring completion of homework, assigning extra math problems to do and books to read, providing shelter and food. Yet “Miss Trudy taught him how to make dough rise for bread, how to sew on a button, how to draw a dragon, kick a football…. She tended to his skinned knees, comforted him when his classmates called him a half-caste bastard. Miss Trudy let him be weak, so that when his mother picked him up in the evenings, he could pretend to be strong.” 

Deepa is furious after Miss Trudy poses the boy's questions about Vijay’s father. More than anything, Deepa feels “betrayal… sudden understanding about the special closeness her son shared with his babysitter, instead of his own mother.” 

Years later, Shanti, wonders why Vijay, her father, was so distant, spending so much time in India. In her forties, she forms and embraces a friendship with an elderly widow next door, whose husband committed suicide, and the two women share details from their pasts.  

Sharing stories and close listening pays dividends as Shanti finds the widow’s husband on a website that documents Partition experiences, and the widow locates the sister of Vijay’s father, Shanti’s grandfather, in Pakistan. 

Planning for Partition and the aftermath with mass migration, surging resentment and violence, spanned a few months, but the rebirth, renewal, and forgiveness required years.  

Shanti spent only a few days at a time with her father, but is grateful to have known his love. “She didn’t have it for long enough. But now, in her forties, she felt it stronger than ever. She would hold on tight to it and never let it go.” Love, however brief, is embedded in memories, providing strength to trust and care for others even while handling loss. 

Saturday, January 29

The purpose of children











Scarlett Chen, impregnated by her employer, is sent to a secret home in California, with the goal of obtaining US citizenship for the infant. The employer, already married with three grown children, is possessive, "acting as if he had a right to her every thought, to her every move." Perfume Bay is more prison than resort, and Scarlett is furious when the home's manager, Mama Fang, hands over payment and expects her to give up any claim to the child. Mama Fang had hardened herself to the cruelties of such an unscrupulous business, vowing to watch out only for herself. “She did not know then that this vow would harden her. If you only looked out for cheats and con artists, you only found cheats and con artists. You became one yourself.”  

Scarlett refuses to comply. Raised by an angry, controlling woman whos enforced strict one-child limits in their poor village, she resents inequality, being told what to do. And so Scarlett flees Perfume Bay. "America called to her: the land of cars, of fast highways that opened up the country that she'd always wanted to explore, the country where she could make a life for her daughter." She soon discovers that the corruption and inequality of factory work in China are not so different from the tough scrabble in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Compounding her stress – a soon-to-expire tourist visa means that she must dodge immigration authorities as well as the detectives dispatched by her lover and his friend to hunt her down.  

Vanessa Hua analyzes the role of children and families, and the struggle for immigrants to the US, where “even the most prosperous had to endure snubs, slurs, and worse.” Families become insular and children become the means for pursuing a better life. “For the poor, children doubled as their only retirement fund. For the well-off, their children were still a kind of currency, in the rivalry among one’s friends and colleagues, and in the lifetime tally of success.” 

Such goals become futile as parents approach end of life, and one character observes: “The prospect of death coming closer made you consider your life, what you wanted in what remained.”  

Raising a child in harsh conditions, the need to sacrifice, Scarlett gains a new perspective on life and gradually comes to understand her mother’s tough ways. Valuing and using her ingenuity and setting firm priorities, Scarlett becomes more intent on giving to her immediate family and friends rather than taking. 

Tuesday, January 18

Peril










Democrats and Republicans battle for the soul of the nation, a sentiment expressed by Joe Biden in a 2017 essay for The Atlantic. Astoundingly, the party that long claimed to uphold law, order, and family values embraced Donald Trump as its leader. Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa details the final months of the Trump administration and early months for his successor, Joe Biden .  

Trump’s goal as president was to disrupt government, and Biden's style is to restore expertise, competence and faith in government. With a style that is choppy even for journalists, the book details how the two men handle policy and crisis. Trump bullied and humiliated his staff, and the administration had a revolving door with four chiefs of staff, six national security advisors, and six defense secretaries in four years. Trump rejected allies and fellow NATO members while cozying up to troubling leaders of Hungary, Russia and North Korea. 

Trump’s flightiness, cowardice about direct confrontations, and crazed anger over losses and stalemates may have been most apparent in his approach to Afghanistan. On November 11, four days after Biden was declared winner of the 2020 election, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was surprised by a one-page memo on “Withdrawal from Somalia and Afghanistan.” 

The memo, signed by Trump, had an unusual format. Quickly determining that the Defense Department staff, the national security advisor, and White House counsel were also unaware, General Mark Milley explained that Trump “signed something … without all the due diligence and military advice that I’m supposed to give him by law.” 

The national security advisor soon alerted Milley that the memo was “a mistake” and should be nullified. Still, staff continued to worry that the volatile man could order all manner of military actions, even in his final hours, and many had little choice but to tiptoe around him, trying not to spark dangerous conflict. 

Trump’s sole interest by January was convincing others that he had won the 2020 election. He renewed contact with Steve Bannon, a former advisor, who offered an ugly plan: “If Republicans could cast enough of a shadow on Biden’s victory…, it would be hard for Biden to govern. Millions of Americans would consider him illegitimate.” 

Trump and some supporters pressed Vice President Mike Pence to reject certified electors from battleground states including Michigan and Arizona. Pence declined, after legal experts rejected such maneuvers. On January 5, the night before the joint session of Congress for certifying the election results, Trump ordered his campaign staff to release a statement that he and Pence were in “total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.” Trump did not consult with Pence or his staff.

On the morning of January 6, Pence advised Trump that he was headed to the Capitol to do his job, and Trump whined, cajoled and pushed. Accustomed to getting his way, Trump had two expectations – for Pence to reject valid ballots and Congress to cave. 

After Pence and Congress declared Biden the winner, many in Congress continue to remain wary. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, recalling Nazi Germany, warned that Democrats could not take anything for granted after January 6. “Germany was one of the most cultured countries in Europe. One of the most advanced countries. So how could a country of Beethoven, of so man great poets and writers, and Einstein, progress to barbarianism?” Democrats must tackle the question, Sanders said, and the task is not easy.

Less than one quarter of the book is devoted to Biden’s presidency although the Trump section is sprinkled with reactions from Biden as candidate. Biden is simply less shocking.

One anecdote stood out, though, suggesting that Biden's staff overprotect and overdo for the president. Peril describes staff interrupting and joining a sensitive call between Maine’s Senator Susan Collins and the president – “Technology taking over, everyone on the line, running all their lives…. Another shadow over the shoulder of Joe.”

The book also describes Biden as holding firm to his principles, with a decision-making style that contrasts sharply with Trump’s. 

Like Trump, Biden rejected a “forever war” in Afghanistan and a mission that “had shifted from its original intent.” Struggling with the “damned-if-you do, damned-if-you don’t” decision, Biden ordered a thorough review and announced the end of U.S involvement in the war less than three months into his presidency, fully understanding that the Afghan military, trained and supplied by the US military, might fail in defeating the Taliban. 

By August 15, the Taliban stormed Kabul.

Throughout Peril, numerous leaders and political observers fret about Trump’s behavior, so much so that they become problems themselves. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who befriended the former president, explains: “Smart, rational people break when it comes to Trump. He’s not trying to get them to break. There is no magic. He’s just being him. And he wears you down. He’ll get you to do things that are not good for you because you don’t like him.” 

It's one of the many reasons why voters should ignore Trump. Peril describes Graham’s repeated efforts to convince Trump to accept his loss in the 2020 election and move on. In one such exchange, Trump worried about losing his base. “They expect me to fight, to be disruptive.”

Trump’s supporters demand disruption even while claiming the United States is exceptional, the best country in the world. And there is the contradiction, embracing the country as superior, exceptional, untouchable even while doggedly pursuing disruption of its finest institutions, especially when their leaders refuse to capitulate to one highly flawed man. 

Photo, courtesy of Alex Kent.