Monday, March 20

Less is more


Economics, “the study of how people allocate scarce resources for production, distribution, and consumption, both individually and collectively,” has been described as dry, boring and even dismal. Martin Riker describes one sleepless night for a young economics professor, scheduled to deliver a guest lecture the following day. Mimicking patterns of insomnia, The Guest Lecture describes a mother's angst over partisan politics, climate change, personal identity crises and “how my daughter’s generation will never know the sense of well-being my own took for granted, the limitless security we felt but never realized we were feeling.” Abigail lays awake in her hotel bed, imagining a conversation with the subject of her talk, John Maynard Keynes, and his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”

Published a year after the start of the Great Depression, in 1930, the essay imagined a better world for children over the next century. Optimistic and pragmatic, Keynes urged understanding the difference between wants and needs as well as absolute needs and relative needs. Prioritizing needs would allow more free time for education, art and other endeavors. “Leisure” may sound “like another word for doom, for failure” and yet “the belief that not working is something everyone should want,” Abigail muses. “Scarcity would be eradicated, rich countries would share with poorer countries, and before you knew it, everyone would be fed, housed, clothed… The whole world would be finished with ‘just a job.’” People would judge their lives, “not in dollars and possessions, but in how our time is spent.” Keynes critiques Abigail’s speech and life, urging conciseness: “You were born into an era of overload. Leaving things out is the great unmastered art form of your age.” 

Keynes had flaws, as conceded by Abigail, including anti-Semitism. But a key failing of his essay might be his failure to recognize our shortcomings – the distractions of television and the internet, the reckless consumerism and endless growth that contribute to environmental degradation, income inequality, erosion of democracy, widespread failure to achieve contentment and a culture that “churns out citizens full of antagonism toward itself.”  She mourns how “the imagination, wellspring of optimism and possibility has turned on itself, and now spends all its time obsessing and making everything worse.” She blames politics for the despair, noting that while the world always had challenges, the US quickly transformed from optimism and hope under Obama to pessimism and anger under Trump. She regards ideology as a set of assumptions that sooth fears. “Ideology isn’t a bad thing… but failure to recognize ideology for what it is, to bear in mind that society and culture are things we made up and can remake and improve, keeps us from changing those aspects of our lives that could be better…. Like the story that we’re all going to get our acts together on climate change before it’s too late. That is one I personally need in order to get through the day…” 

Other people determine our success. After failing to secure tenure, Abigail questions every aspect of her identity and inability to reveal her essential self: “That for too long you’d held in your head many self-romanticizing notions about your position as an outsider, notions that allowed you to feel sure of yourself and important to yourself as long as you were never forced to share them – the notions – with anyone else? That as long as you didn’t share this side of yourself with anyone else, it was all unadulterated potential, never forced to perform, never exposed to judgment.”  The realization comes on the heels of hearing a radio show that posed the question “How many Black friends do you have?” Abigail decides that she has no friends at all. She feels alienated, incapable of starting conversations even when dropping her child off at kindergarten: “The other parents all lined up talking like they already knew each other, like maybe there’d been an orientation or parent party I’d missed.” 

Mistakes made while young, ones that should not have mattered then or years later, haunt her nights. She cringes over her interactions with others: “you are uniquely ill-equipped to convey to the world what you care about or what you want to say. You know these things in your mind, or think you know them, and you are capable of saying these things or writing them, but the moment you do, you immediately doubt them. You are capable of being many selves but the moment you commit to one, it becomes an imposter, a dummy to dress up and roll out into the world in your place." She hates the dummy and wonders how other people learned to be so “public.” She frets about the fear of “not having lived,” which is really “a terrible series of tortures with no redeeming value.” She hides because the “person who puts herself out there is always the accused” and prefers instead “to live in a juvenile state of perpetual expectation.” 

So Abigail is left alone with her imagination, “the place where you ought to feel most safe and free, that you are in fact most weighed down by doubt and fear.” She tries to tame her racing thoughts. Sometimes “ideas spill out and for the most part make sense. A single thought doesn’t stick in the same spot but moves on to make room for a new on.” 

Abigail envies the Bloomsbury group, Keynes’ talented circle of friends including Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and T.S. Eliot. “So many amazing people and the different ways they’ve contributed to humanity and all along all I’ve wanted was to be one of them.” Still, Abigail is grateful for her husband and child. “Having a child doesn’t make you better than other people, but it did make me better than myself,” she notes. “Being absorbed with someone other than yourself must be better than being absorbed with only yourself.” And those experiences can provide training for meeting and understanding others: Step back, learn about yourself by assessing how others speak to you. “From this you can tell not who they are, but who they think you are.” We must remember the same when addressing others. Enjoy the process and do not count on success: “whether or not the world wants what you are good at doing at precisely the moment when you are offering it is anybody’s guess…. If you’re going to bet on yourself, bet irrelevance.” 

The book ends like a dream, vague, unsubstantial, not entirely satisfying, much like society’s general discontent. We fail to wrestle control over our economic system, with inadequate demands and failure of imagination. “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” concludes that the world, each life in it, could be very different – by confronting new ideas with a good attitude, extracting bad habits and refusing to live by rote while applying imagination to envision potential. We are but guests in this world who might do better by imagining conversations with children of the next century.

Monday, February 20


Devil House by John Darnielle is psychological suspense bordering on confusion. The novel begins with strong, precise writing and characters who tease readers’ curiosity. But the book's conclusion will disappoint as an unreliable narrator goes too far – descending into careless deceit, contradictions and possible insanity. 

Lead narrator Gage Chandler writes true crime - “the crimes people tell stories about, and the secret ones our stories seek to conceal.” Public attention helps build the stories, as “People get murdered everywhere, but not every murder blooms into myth.” 

The book analyzes transitions, friendship, inequality, parenting, refuges from abuse. The teen characters in two of Gage's books, one published and filmed, the other in progress, have parents who neglect them. When mothers try to become close, the sons pull back. "Remembering that children are older than you think they are is one of the most reliable errands of parenthood, and one of the hardest."  Teenagers are mysteries whether they come from so-called “good” homes or not, and no good guidance exists for preparing children for every crisis, odd situation or friendship. "But teaching your children to take care of themselves and letting them do it are two different things,” the narrator advises. “The former is a long labor of patience, and focus, and forbearance. The latter requires skills you never have time to learn when you're busy practicing patience, maintaining focus, and picking battles.” 

As a writer, Chandler is obsessed with detail and moments when choices are made. "My mother always taught me to take stock of the moment you're in, to not miss the big transitions. 'If you miss one, you don't get the chance to see it again,' she said." At the same time, Chandler regards forgetfulness as a gift. He claims to take pride in his research methods, but repeatedly deviates from his own rules. One example: He recommends letting interview subjects talk at length to share details, but interrupts during a key moment as a former shelter employee describes the patterns of homeless teens.  

The book details two crimes in California, more than a decade apart –the story of a young caring teacher who kills and dismembers two students who attempt to burglarize her Morro Bay home in 1972 and murders in a defunct Milpitas pornography shop of 1986. Chandler's editor urges him to write another book about the1986 murders – and Chandler buys the building to recreate the scene. Place and belongings intertwine with personalities, even while Chandler points out that most possessions remain with owners for less than a year. "They get donated to church bazaars when you're done with them; you like to imagine the former things of your daily routine going on to new lives about which you'll never know a thing." 

The 1986 case is unresolved with teen suspects but fewer leads and more contradictions. Derrick, described as the quintessential responsible high school senior preparing for college, hangs around the failing porn shop after school to help clean. He retains a key after the owner gives up on the business and invites friends to hang out at the store, including one homeless teen who has returned to the community and needs a place to crash. The e small group employs their art skills to transform the shop into a nightmarish setting that becomes known as the Devil House. 

Each teen's identity varies depending on time of day, location or companions. The group of teens in Milpitas in Milpitas are nostalgic, anxious about passing time. Derrick describes the routines he will miss upon leaving his home town - "bike rides on known streets, people he'd known half his life, the many perks of familiarity that only feel like burdens if you fear never being relieved of them." Another friend comments, "Even when we don't find ourselves doing something wild, we sort out several selves along the line as we're becoming the people we will be.... Most of the time, it's hardly even worth trying to remember how it happened. Most of the time, no one will care." Another character confides during an interview: “Am I the same person I was when I was young? Are my earlier selves still safe somewhere inside me? Is there a thread somewhere that connects the past to the present, or is everything more chaotic than we’d like to think?” The same questions clearly bother Chandler. 

The book is peppered with hints that the crime stories and Chandler’s own story are riddled with untruths. At one point, a character confides that “your mind could be your best friend or your worst enemy.” And a teen girl admits “there’s a gulf between the girl I was then and the person I grew up to be; when people want to talk to me about it, I feel like I’m telling them a tory from somebody else’s life.” Chandler concedes that he does not trust observations: “there’s a considerable distance between the things we’re called to bear witness to and the things we’d prefer to see.” All the characters have secrets that, as Chandler puts it do their work in shadows.  

During the course of writing the second story, Chandler receives a lengthy note from the mother of a teen victim in the 1972 case that shakes his confidence. She expresses dissatisfaction with his book, even rage, trying to convince him that her son's life had good moments and worth, despite lifelong abuse from his father and her own complicity. Jesse was a follower, whose only friend plotted the crime that got them killed. Gene was mean, angry, controlling – a friend tough enough to intimidate the abusive father. The mother tragically concludes about that friendship, “How he must have felt like he had finally gotten lucky in life.” 

The end of the book takes an abrupt turn with a new narrator. A childhood friend learns that Chandler published crime fiction, but delays reading his most successful book. “Such enthusiasms are like the tides; you can’t usually fight them effectively, but you can learn to wait them out.” The two men eventually reconnect and readers can’t help but wonder if one or both men might be connected in some way to crimes mentioned in the book - or at least understand the nature of abuse.  

As children, the men were lived in the same town, San Luis Obispo, not far from the setting of the 1972 crime, for two years, before the friend moved to Milpitas, the setting of the second crime. The two men connect and find “It is disorienting to inhabit, even momentarily, any space that has played host to one or more primitive drafts of the self you’ve now become. There can be pleasure in this, as in a reunion. There might also be fear, dread horror.” The visit focuses attention on Chandler's reliability and the friend finds himself questioning Chandler's success.   

Childhood is a distant, unattainable land – the source of hopes and goals, accomplishments and failures. Parents, teachers, classmates, settings and belongings, shape choices, imaginations and our very beings, limiting or expanding possibilities. “To gaze upon a childhood home through adult eyes to engage in an act of disenchantment. Great doors grow small. Turrets vanish. Emblems fray…. One should revisit such places only after having done some hard calculations. What are we willing to trade for a clear view of things. What are the chances we’ll regret the bargain later on?” He later points out that one’s “earliest friends hold a place of privilege in memory.” 

Abused children tend to trust one person, doing less well woith groups, and therefore their stories and choices are limited.  Chandler suggests to his friend that stories keep people going, the ones we tell about ourselves and others. “You learn to find the stories you need when you’re a kid, right? You learn to find the stories you need.” 

Going back home is not easy. Be wary of reconnecting with childhood friends. 

Tuesday, January 31

Fleeing does not mean escape


In Anywhere You Run, two sisters struggle to survive racism along with the trauma of losing their parents and an older sister. In a diary, oldest sister Rose described their father “just a man who wants all the same things every man is entitled to if this country were free.” Rose wonders “what ‘fair’ would feel like,” conceding “All three of us like little birds, our wings clipped by life in Mississippi.”  Jackson, Mississippi, is a dangerous place in 1964 at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Fair” is particularly challenging for women in their twenties who must contend with sexism, racism and economic inequality. For both, fleeing town is the natural solution when their problems become insurmountable.

Younger sister Violet, a beautiful free spirit, relishes a good time. After shooting and killing a white man who raped her, she tricks a lover to leave town before she running away a second time and purchasing a bus ticket for Washington, DC. Worried the police might be following, Violet abandons the bus in a small town of Chillicothe, Georgia, first working as a housemaid and then a short-order cook. She concludes, “Killing Huxley gave me some justice, but it took away my freedom.” 

Marigold is ambitious, volunteering for a civil rights group while hoping to attend college and study law. But then she becomes pregnant with an out-of-town lawyer who declines marriage. To salvage her reputation, she instead quickly marries an irresponsible would-be club owner, and the two leave for Cleveland. But a strong home life, reinforced by parents who provide love, encouragement and values, can shield individuals against the external forces of hatred. Author Wanda Morris describes the trap of an abusive marriage as terrible and cruel as systemic racism, and Marigold realizes “it was fear that had landed me in a pregnancy and a marriage I never wanted.” 

Violet’s wealthy lover hires an amateur and uneducated detective with an ill child who tracks Marigold to find Violet. The detective is protective of his own family but shrugs about violent treatment of blacks throughout the South, ignorantly assuming a zero-sum game, “less of them, more for him.” 

The two sisters reunite in Chillicothe, but not before more treacherous encounters with the detective and the Klan. Despite a slow and repetitive start, the book quickly picks up speed with suspense and heart.

Each woman runs to solve her problems, but cannot escape her character, family lessons on justice, or sisterly love. 

Wednesday, January 25


In Lessons, Roland Baines regards an abusive relationship from when he was 11 years old as the source of his many desires and failures. A piano teacher at his private boarding school pinches his inner thigh, hard, after he repeatedly makes a mistake during their music drills. He has fantasies about her, and she invites him to her home for lunch. Months later, Roland shows up at the cottage, and the two have intercourse. Memories of the strange teacher haunt him years later in this novel about parenting, abuse, ambition and lost potential. 

From the start, the novel analyzes how memories repeatedly shape our choices, serving as lessons in guiding one's life.    

As an adult, Roland determines that nobody escapes making their own self-made hell “at least one, in a lifetime.” She controls him: “He never had a choice. He didn’t want a choice.” 

Roland’s grades suffer and he leaves school early, avoiding the piano teacher and her attempts to trap him in marriage. That decision frees him in a way while also eliminating his chance to attend college. He decides he can be self-taught while earning an income by writing, teaching tennis and playing in piano bars. Roland travels and dates freely, and his twenties slip by. “He assured himself that he had his freedom and he was having fun. He could control his occasional anxieties about the aimlessness of his existence. But they swelled and finally broke through and could no longer be resisted. He was twenty-eight and not living a useful life…. Many people wasted their twenties or their whole lives in offices, on factory floors and in pubs…. So it had been worthwhile to be carefree, live hand to mouth and not be like everyone else. The very point of being young. Whenever he caught himself thinking or saying things like that, he knew it was himself he needed to convince.”

In West Germany, he studies German and befriends a family in East Berlin. The mother explains to him how children bind them to the communist system: “A bad step by the parents, a moment of unguarded criticism and the children might find the path to university or a decent career barred.”

Over the course of his life, friendships form and break over politics, whether Nazi cruelties or Brexit falsehoods and foolishness. 

A few years later Roland runs into his German teacher, Alissa, who yearns to be a writer, and they marry impulsively: “They decided they must have fallen in love from the start without recognizing the fact.” 

Both Roland and Alissa have jagged relations with their own parents. Her mother, Jane, traveled to Germany just after World War II, keeping a journal to write about the White Rose resistance. Her article is never published after Jane marries Heinrich, who had only a peripheral role in the movement. The general attitude about German citizens during that period – “Unless they took action no one could be exonerated, because every man is ‘guilty, guilty, guilty.’” Roland thinks of Heinrich having a good heart. “So when Heinrich spoke of national redemption by way of constructing a history of anti-Nazi sabotage, his prospective son-in-law did not say what he thought, nothing, not a score of White Rose movements, a million saboteurs… could redeem the industrialized savagery of the Third Reich and the tens of millions of citizens who knew and looked away.” 

Later, Alissa comments, “It’s so easy to forgive other people’s parents.” Of course, that is because troubling childhood memories do not intrude.

Roland confides in Alissa about the abusive piano teacher: “How driven he was, obsessed, and how it seemed an entire lifetime to him then. It took almost an hour to describe the affair, if that was what it was, and the school, the cottage, the two rivers. How strangely it ended. How it never crossed his mind that her behavior was depraved, despicable. Even for years afterwards. He had nothing to judge her by, no scale of values.” 

The couple has a son, Lawrence. His wife, Alissa, abruptly leaves Roland and her son, writing “I’ve been living the wrong life.” Roland is angry at first, investigated by the police for murder, but his emotions later transform into grieving and admiration. “Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu. She understood how a close acquaintance with writers like these could extend and enrich a love of freedom.” 

Roland, listless and somewhat narcissistic, remains determined to give his child a secure home. He holds and comforts Lawrence after Alissa leaves while confronting their future: “Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well, then even less. Others would know Lawrence better than he did, where he was, what he was doing and saying, growing closer to this friend, then this lover…. From his father, occasional visits, a sincere hug, catch up on work, family, some politics, then goodbye…. The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood and from here was impossible to conceive.”

Recognizing the power of childhood memories, Roland ponders the mysteries passing through the mind of the seven-month-old and experiences that may shape the rest of his life: “A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions – sounds, sights, touch – burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again. Or a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water, exercising their gravitational pull even eighty years later, on deathbeds, in last confessions, in final cries for lost love.” 

After a few years, Alissa publishes her first novel to great acclaim and Roland “saw the beauty of it. On a windy sunlit midweek morning she cleanly transformed her existence as she packed a small suitcase, and leaving her keys behind, walked out the front door, consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” Despite success or maybe because of it, Alissa refuses to connect with her son.

Meanwhile Roland drifts through what he calls “an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision. Except to leave school. No, that too was a reaction.” He makes friends easily and views the world as “agreeably diffuse” while anticipating that “in the new millennium, only eleven years away, humankind would have reached a new level of maturity and happiness.” Of course, that period of mature happiness is brief because the world does not heed history.  

Father and son live comfortably with Roland’s best friend and her children for many years, and the end is bittersweet as Roland determines that life – or the ability to create enduring and influential memories – was “pouring away from him. Events of three weeks ago were already receding or lost completely in a haze. He had to make himself catch some of it, just a little, or it would have been hardly worth living through.”  He keeps journals, one for each passing year, and sorts through his many photos, selecting 100 that represent his life: “there was that essence everyone forgets when a love recedes into the past – how it was, how it felt and tasted to be together through the seconds, minutes, and days, before everything that was taken for granted was discarded then overwritten by the tale of how it all ended, and then by the shaming inadequacies of memory. Paradise or the inferno, no one remembers anything much. Affairs and marriages ended long ago come to resemble postcards from the past. … First to go… was the elusive self, precisely how you were yourself, how you appeared to others.” 

Consider the patterns of memories. How do memories of the well-adjusted, secure person balance one’s self versus others?  

Lawrence follows some of father’s drifting patterns, also marrying a German woman, albeit enjoying a happier relationship that include grandchildren for Roland. The older man flounders yet does not resent his famous wife, counted among Germany’s greatest living writers. If anything, he pities her. “She had no one, no family, no close friends. Time had degraded him too but by all conventional measures, he was the happier. No books though, no paintings, nothing invented that would survive him. Would he swap his family for her yard of books? He gazed at her now familiar face and shook his head for an answer.”

Publishers Weekly quotes McEwan's agent Georges Borschadt as saying, "Acts of creation are the only things that matter." 

But no, that is not the lesson of this novel. Everyday life, family, love, joys and experiences are all that matter, and old memories need not dictate our future, and new relationships can over-ride the pain. As McEwan concludes, “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.” 

Intrusive memories can be tamed. 

Wednesday, January 4

Aging Congress

With a tight margin, the frontrunner in the Republican contest for speaker of the House of Representatives can afford to lose only a handful of votes.  

So far, Rep. Kevin McCarthy has failed to convince 20 Republican hard-liners. Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries emerged as the top vote-getter in each round. McCarthy must win a majority of voting members; absent members or those who vote present do not count. Jeffries would have to count on 11 Republicans going missing or voting present to win the majority. With multiple Republican holdouts, McCarthy would need at least 11 Democrats to not show up or vote present.  

As the struggle continues, observers wonder if the decision could take weeks, wearing members down, and whether the oldest representatives can maintain stamina for rounds of voting in a crowded chamber during the post-holiday winter months. The United States is reporting 400,000-plus new Covid-19 cases weekly.

Democrats, after years of cultivation and targeted messaging on climate change, reproductive rights and student debt, attracted more votes from young adults during the 2022 midterms. Turnout was 27 percent by voters aged 18 to 29, and exit polls suggest that more than 60 percent of young adults preferred Democratic candidates, according to Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Even so, Congress has been steadily aging since the 1980s, reports NBC. 

And oldest members of the House are dominated by Democrats. The House has 11 members aged 80 years and older: nine are Democrats and two are Republicans.  Grace Napolitano, a Democrat from California, age 87, is the House’s oldest member, replacing Alaska’s Don Young after his death in 1922 and then Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who retired this year. Young was 88 and Johnson is 87.

Vacancies can occur in Congress due to death, resignation or other reasons and the Constitution requires that these be filled by election – a special election if the vacancy occurs during the first session and by special election or general election if the vacancy occurs during the second term.   The 118th Congress began with one vacancy, after Virginia’s A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, died in November at age 61. A special election to fill that seat will be held February 21.

Age is not the sole contributing factor for deaths that could disrupt the balance of power. A Yale research study in late 2022 identified partisan differences in excess deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic – more than 70 percent higher among Republicans than Democrats in two states, Ohio and Florida.  That gap in death rates increased after vaccines became available and vaccine hesitancy emerged among Republicans.

Of the more than 70 newcomers to the House, five are 60 years or older – three Republicans and two Democrats.

Friday, December 16

Hell within


The Ghetto Within by Santiago H. Amigorena describes a carefree man leaving Poland to start a new home in Buenos Aires in 1928. His mother expects weekly updates about his new life, but Vicente scoffs, and despite his Jewish heritage, Vicente and friends scoff at the old-fashioned ways of their Jewish parents. Early on, Vicente makes halfhearted attempts to convince his mother and other family members to flee Warsaw, and as the decade progresses, he mostly stops writing. By 1938, her letters stop, too.   

Vincente’s indifference and scoffing soon transform into despair as news about the war in Europe and atrocities gradually filter through. He receives two final letters from his mother, in 1940 and the other in 1941, describing deteriorating conditions and an uncertain future with Germans herding Jews into a ghetto, treating them worse than animals. In what would otherwise be an ordinary, peaceful life, Vicente’s spirit is crushed, tormented over his mother’s last communications, obsessing if she went hungry or still wore a favorite shawl. 

Vicente sinks into a deep depression, spending some time with family and friends but no longer speaking, instead mostly gambling to confirm his own failure as a human being. His wife and her family are understanding, trying to accommodate him. Rosita and Vincente, both with “the hesitant, pale, mute fragility that revealed they had been much loved as children,” simply cannot comprehend the full extent of cruelty.

He describes scanning the newspapers for any bit of news before receiving his mother’s last letter – “for signs, for cluses, for hints that might help him understand – and searching, like everyone else, for reasons not to understand…. Like every human being, Vicente had wanted to know and, at the same time, had preferred not to know.” He longs for ignorance and the ability to erase his memory. “It is perhaps one of the most singular traits of a human being: just as the body, when it has endured too much suffering, or has grown too weak, temporarily lapses into unconsciousness… so that it can survive, or rather so that something can survive – something that is at once still human and already less than human, something that is still ourselves and is already no one.” 

Forgetting is impossible though. Every morning is the same for Vicente, “the same memories, the same guilt, the same longing to forget.” He waned to forget words and sentences and meaning, longing for "a silence so powerful, so constant, so insistent, so relentless that all things would become remote, invisible, inaudible." He walks miles to be alone, hoping to escape his fears, but silence brings no relief. "[U]nfortunately, though stillness is the opposite of motion, there is no opposite to thought, nothing that counters the workings of the mind: not thinking is merely another form of thinking."  

Most of all, he hopes to flee the voice of his conscience, even as he tortures himself about his inaction. “Something must be done to counter the nothing that I can do. I can do nothing. I cannot do anything. I have never understood the difference.” 

One account of the camps describes an inmate who asked why after being given an order an the guard pushing the man and retorting: Hier ist Kein warum. Here there is no why: “these words summed up the determination of the Nazis in the camps to create a space that was utterly different, a space in which there was no why.” Vicente determines his life is worthless, also lacks “a why,” and so, “He became another, another devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of a future.”  He describes feeling alone, sinking, heading only toward a grave. He becomes a shell, neglecting wife, children, job and friends.

Later Vicente’s grandson assumes that his grandfather must have wrestled with the notion that escape made him a traitor. Amigorena himself fled dictatorship in Argentina for Europe: “I was not where I should have been.” 

But the grandson does not complain or accepts the life given to him. “I do not know whether, before he died, Vicente realized that remaining silent was not a solution,” Amigorena concludes. Instead, language is intertwined with memory, providing guidance as guilt and despair pass to subsequent generations. To avoid being complicit, survivors and their descendants must reject attempts to forget or deny the evil. 

Friday, December 2



The Koran  prioritizes care for orphans: “And give to the orphans their property, and do not substitute worthless (things) for (their) good (ones), and do not devour their property (as an addition) to your own property; this is surely a great crime.”   

But children are helpless against greed, explains Fatimah Asghar in When We Were Sisters. After three girls lose their parents – the mother to illness, the father murdered – a maternal uncle takes control, not because of love or duty but rather he covets the government social security checks issued to each month.

He prohibits the girls from meeting his wife and two sons and instead sets them up in a small, filthy room in an apartment building that he owns, assigning equally vulnerable neighbors to provide day-to-day care. That daughters are less valued than sons is apparent from the start, and the girls sometimes maintain they are brothers or mother-sisters.

The uncle issues strict rules and, not wanting to be bothered by incidentals, teaches them how to forge his name for school paperwork. They attend school and can pursue activities as long as they are free. A neighbor reads the Koran with them, and when money runs low, the girls literally take to the street near the neighborhood mosque, begging for grocery money as orphans. The uncle is furious, yet also realizes that members of the mosque will gladly donate money to support the orphans. He uses those donations and the hundreds in Social Security payments to provide home renovations and comforts for his own family.   

The story is told from the point of view of the youngest, Kausar, who idolizes her two sisters, literally referring to them as gods. In turn, they regard her as useless and annoying. The young protagonist relays life disappointments, her serial abandonment and grief in a matter-of-fact way.

Early on, a Pakistani couple, undocumented and poor, selflessly love and care for the girls. The uncle's discovery that the girls sleep with the couple at night when frightened triggers a fight. The uncle scolds, “They’re not your kids,” and their beloved Meemoo retorts, “So whose kids are they?” Wary that the man's defiance might disrupt his schemes, the uncle accuses the couple of inappropriate behavior and kicks them out of their home. He then interrogates the girls about sex and relies on unstable young women to watch over the sisters.    

Once the oldest girl reaches puberty, the uncle stops arranging for caregivers, mostly leaves the sisters alone. The girls lie to classmates about home life, and teachers and neighbors fail to notice three girls struggling on their own, often hungry and unkempt. The oldest manages to hold the truncated family together, and the youngest admits, “I need an adult. And I don’t know how to get one.”    

On a lifelong search for a mother figure, Kausar contents herself with make believe: “We’re mothered by everything because we know how to look for the mothering, because we know a mother might leave us and we’ll need another mother to step in an take its place.”  With poignant and exquisite detail, the child describes relishing the warmth of the sun, shade from the tree, the smell of cookies, the street signs that guide when it’s safe to walk, a cloud of dust, or grass not yet trampled - all as mother's love.  Her constant anticipation distances her from others: “What no one will ever understand is that the world belongs to orphans, everything becomes our mother” and “All the mothers in the world reach out to the motherless.” A simple touch from siblings is overwhelming, and she thinks, “you’re held, you’re held, you’re held.”  

At one point, the youngest asks whether a sister still a sister when a mother dies? Kausar increasingly struggles to communicate fears, dreams and identity issues with sisters who are not much older than her. Each daughter dreams of escape, a better life, but the youngest has far less experience with love, motivation, trust – with basic routines and normality. She readily accepts chaos and cruelty from her interactions. At one point, she notes that Allah asks us to make language: “We assumed we meant the same thing when we spoke, because we said the same words. But. We were wrong. We were so wrong.”

Oddly enough, the youngest daughter gets along better with the uncle than her sisters do, and at one point, he urges Kausar to reconcile with a friend after an argument. “Don’t let the small things become the big things,” and she remembers that advice years later at his funeral. 

But a child who grows up without a mother can’t be depended on to understand what is small or big, right or wrong.