Data on GDP per capita is from the World Bank.
Monday, February 28
Thursday, February 17
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
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.
Saturday, January 15
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes Port-au-Prince in January 2010, a place already so desperately poor, prompting survivors to scramble to rescue loved ones and strangers and “to save photographs and whatever trinkets they held dear that meant nothing at all to anyone else on earth.” In the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and later in the refugee camps, people become the same, “were always the same,” and as one market vendor observes, this was “something we had always known from our low-to-the-ground perches…”
In What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy, ten narrators, connected by blood and, in some cases, friendship share the story of the earthquake and its aftermath. the stories are poignant and brutally honest. Often, small and seemingly inconsequential objects and memories link the characters and the relationships they cherish. Even before the earthquake, all held “dreams about where they’d rather be.” Individual methods may have varied, including wealth, marriage, or crime, but the common hope is to escape hardship and grinding poverty.
Haiti ranks among the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of less than $3000. Such poverty blurs individuality, and vendor Ma Lou, mother and grandmother of two narrators, describes the marketplace as a place of “colliding senses, … much of it decay, especially at the end of the day, when the best of what’s available is gone and all that remain are castoffs, the leftovers.” She describes the market workers as blending into the dust, becoming “one with the elements…, the nothing that we are.” She adds, “striving toward perfection is beyond our reach.”
Haitians who managed to flee prior to the earthquake learn the news by way of international broadcasts. Haunted and torn, they do not feel as they belong in their new homes: “Sometime, being an immigrant is like being illiterate,” explains one of the narrators. He feels the weight of the tragedy, knowing that up to 300,000 died and survivors endure unthinkable hardship – hunger, sexual assault, cholera, injuries while no medical treatment. Yet he also understands there is little he can do to help by returning home. “The weight of not being able to do enough,” Didier notes. “If I was honest with myself, that was why I’d left.”
The book lightly criticizes charity and donors who set agendas for tackling crises, drawn into assisting others while seeking credit. Organizations and donors judge needs while victims can only wait and accept whatever is given. Of course, after the earthquake, Haitians required safe shelter, clean water and nutrition, yet what should be so easy, supplying basics, becomes overwhelming. And of course, individuals have needs and priorities less obvious to others – a photograph of a loved one, bones of a deceased husband, the fading memories of a child’s pattering footsteps, giggles and final kiss.
One of the most vulnerable narrators, a woman who loses three children refers to NGOs as Not God’s Own. The tent where she lives after the quake includes a label, “A gift from the American people … in association with the Republic of Ireland” and she finds herself regretting dreams and plans made with a husband who abandoned her after the tragedy. “She wished they had other things in mind, escape routes and exit strategies. They’d set their eyes on nothing but a future in which everything would go according to a fabricated plan that they believed in more than in reality itself – or that amplified it.”
Globalization of news, the instant knowledge about a distant crisis, might catch attentions briefly and that invites comparisons. Not long after the tragedy, one of the narrators, an architect, receives an email about an earthquake in the Italy and the loss of 200,000 rounds of pecorino. Activists quickly organize a global campaign to cook Italian recipes and donate proceeds to the region. “It was a kind objective, a goodwill gesture, but reading about it only made me sigh wearily,” notes Anne. “For every round of cheese, a person had died in the Haiti earthquake, and now I was expected to respond to this regional calamity while still burying our dead as if I, and others, might be ‘over’ what had happened to us….”
Still, the architect flounders in helping her hometown and leaves for Africa, later putting her energy to entering an international competition for rebuilding a Haitian cathedral near her neighborhood. She cares deeply about the project, describing the luxury of researching the history, exploring and imagining new beauty, while deciding whether her goal in creating a replacement is to commemorate the dead or recognize what remains. Her section concludes: “I did it for the satisfaction of doing something, of imagining a better, less hostile future, where a God might still exist to watch over us.”
As pointed out in Allure of Deceit, no amount of rules and regulations can prevent the ambition, greed, judgment, control, or inequality that can accompany organized charitable giving.
The publication of What Storm, What Thunder, a work of fiction, was timely as another earthquake, magnitude 7.2, struck Haiti in August 2021, about 70 miles away from the capital, destroying more than 60,000 homes and killing more than 2,000 and injuring 12,000.
Tuesday, December 28
Pointing out the obvious
Society often ostracizes its most extraordinary children. Bewilderment by Richard Powers is set in the near future in a bleak world of irreversible climate change with constant reminders of the habitat loss and environmental stress. The US is caught up in a downward autocratic cycle, as citizens resist a government that becomes increasingly more repressive, impatient with any who are “different.”
The story follows one small family who cares about neglect of the planet. Robin, nine years old, is often frustrated, hurt and angry, bursting with observations and questions even while determined to understand and follow in the footsteps of his activist mother who died when he was seven. Theo, an astrobiologist, raises the boy on his own, distraught over his many parenting errors. Classmates consider Robin “weird” with teachers urging medication and treatment: “I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son…. The suggestions were plentiful, including syndromes linked to the billion pounds of toxins sprayed on the country’s food supply each year…. Oddly enough, there’s no name in the DSM for the compulsion to diagnose people.” Theo cannot imagine “Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet.”
After the school suspends Robin for punching another child, Theo takes the boy on a camping trip in North Carolina where he and his wife had honeymooned. And he makes plans to enroll the boy in experimental treatment, similar to biofeedback, using recordings provided by various human subjects including his mother. Over the weeks, Robin absorbs her intelligence, ambition, cheerful optimism and unlimited empathy for all living beings, no matter how small, including “systems of invisible suffering on imaginable scales.” Robin increasingly speaks out for the planet and voices her concerns in eerie ways. At one point Robin tells his father “there’s no point in school. Everything will be dead before I get to tenth grade.” The father concedes that the “Decoded Neurofeedback” was changing his son “as surely as Ritalin would have. But then everything on Earth was changing him. Every aggressive word from a friend over lunch, every click on his virtual farm, every species he painted, each minute of every online clip… there was no ‘Robin,’ no one pilgrim in this procession of selves for him ever to remain the same as.”
The pronounced progression, similar to that of the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon, unnerves Theo. He worries about Robin getting along in a world where so many “lived as if tomorrow would be a clone of now” and understands “In the face of the world’s basic brokenness, more empathy meant deeper suffering.”
Robin sees too clearly that humans collectively are “breaking the whole planet” and “pretending they aren’t.” He tells his father, “Everyone knows what’s happening. But we all look away.” Yet Theo suspects that resistance may be impossible against the billions who bask in delusions and can only conclude, “Oh, this planet was a good one.”Interruptions, about a twelve-year-old boy. Gavan is well-read and full of questions about the world, tolerating neither hypocrisy or assertive ignorance, and teachers urge the parents to put the boy on Ritalin. His mother, while admitting that the boy has a knack for finding trouble, vehemently resists. Gavan convinces his best friend to skip school and follow a project engineer into the forest, hoping to collect evidence that might stop construction of a cross-island road. A brutal murder follows, and mother and child work separately and at cross purposes to expose secrets about an unnecessary road that would forever change the character of their Alaskan community.
Some children point out the obvious. “As children grow up, the memories and stories of childhood become myths. The details shape a child’s life, providing motivation, hope and comfort as life grows more complicated.”