Freedom, Sebastian Junger

A very brief – with the text clocking in at only 133 pages, the 13 additional pages of ‘Sources and References’ are fully 10% as long – riff on the nature of freedom, structured as memoir of a 400 mile hobo along railroad rights of way from Washington DC to western PA, just shy of Pittsburgh and the Ohio border.  In the company of a varying group of old friends (who appear to be, or at least include, combat vets, hence the nickname ‘the Last Patrol,’), Junger seems to have embarked on this journey in search of something about simplicity, slowing down, the essence of frontier and a different side of America than he (and his readers) experience in ‘regular,’ daily, modern life.  While the narrative follows the geographic and chronological path of the walk, Junger’s musings are super-structured into three parts – Run, Fight and Think – representing his idea of the components of freedom. 

Run – To be free, one path is to escape those who would enslave them.  In early history, humans were well-suited to this, being among the greatest endurance machines of any land animals (birds and sea mammals, of course, out-class us by geometrical proportion).  Interesting to note that mechanized transportation, despite making travel fast and easy, has actually done more to decrease that freedom, by requiring we buy into an economic and social system to acquire and afford any slim possibility of moving faster or farther than our oppressors.

Fight – the earliest human conflicts being physical and between individuals, freedom was province of the largest, strongest and/or most ruthless fighters, who casually subjugated the rest (women being, by that definition, the least free of all; though Junger’s discussions are pretty much anthropocentric, women being mentioned now and then, almost as a sidebar).  Deeper examination, however, reveals that the biggest man does not always win. Whether in individual combat, where a smaller, quicker or more enduring man may best a big, slow opponent, or in war, where a small grass-roots insurgency can almost always win over a large mechanized, formalized army, the outcome is never so simple and rarely so certain.  This, he points out is why we have any hope of freedom – if it were always true the strongest would dominate, conflict would suicide and disputes end as soon as it became clear who was the stronger. (To an extent, that is the case; except that ‘stronger’ is a complex enough characteristic that it may take a battle to determine to whom it properly applies.)

Think – here our guide considers some less- obvious indicators of Freedom.  Having little or nothing to lose, he points out, makes his band of walkers more free than those whose homes and communities they pass (kudos to Kris Kristofferson and Bobby McGee for keeping us all mindful of that one).   By relieving them of dependence on a larger social structure or economy, it further enhances the illusion of freedom, though Junger points out that no one living an existence more developed than that of individual hunter-gatherer is ever that free (and a purely individual hunter-gatherer is doomed to extinction, so…).  There is always trade-off between belonging to a social unit and having the freedom to do whatever one wants. Always.

Different styles of leadership though, result in more or less freedom.  Hierarchical organizations, by allocating resources and authority in unequal measure, result in far less freedom for most of their members.  Non-hierarchical structures, where resources are shared and authority is earned and maintained by casual action and consensus, allow for greater freedom at all levels -and tolerate a greater level of disorder, as result.  The Irish and American battles for independence are referenced here, and also employed as lead-in to the one section that more-deeply acknowledges female contributions, pointing out women’s roles in keeping the community alive while men fight over it.  And also, at crucial moments, making public the moral or immoral bases for actions, sometime even shaming the men of one side or the other into acting more justly. Sometimes.

It is fitting then that the tale winds to a close by considering labor battles, just as he nears Pittsburgh, Youngstown and the industrial centers of the mid-west, a region identified in the public mind with both a vociferous defense of freedom cast as patriotism and a simultaneous lack of freedom under the stifling supply/demand market for lesser-skilled labor and the power of capital and market domination.

One other through line is Junger’s appreciation for the many lost and wild places still remaining in what is generally considered a densely-populated part of the USA.  Railroads, he points out, are both a source of such (the buffer lands either side of long-distance tracks being prevented from despoilation both by their often-rugged geography and the danger, noise and disruption they would inflict on any other activity placed beside them) and by law – theoretically off limits, yet practically un-policeable, as this tale proves.  There is still an American frontier, Junger suggests, room for exploration and room for freedom, of a sort, if one is willing to put down the trappings of belonging and comfort and take up the hard work and simple satisfactions of other places, other eras, other ways of life.

Having listened to and considered these worthy ruminations, perhaps the final word is to read the author’s notes on the book jacket and learn that Junger “…lives in New York City with his family.”   Freedom, it seems, is what one chooses it to be.

Endure, Alex Hutchinson

Subtitled Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, this in-depth survey of then-current (2018) scientific knowledge on the subject is written in the extended-magazine-article vein of Malcom Gladwell, who penned its foreword.  For a distance runner, it’s riveting stuff; as researchers ferret out the relative importance of physical versus mental fitness, of food, oxygen, hydration and heat, etc., etc.  For anyone else though, it’s likely to be too much by a multiple of miles.

All that science can use a little drama, so in addition to sprinkling in the anecdotes, Hutchinson wisely brackets segments of his book with the story of Nike and Eliud Kipchoge’s attempts to run a sub-2:00 marathon. The technology and resources devoted to that goal are staggering, as is the idea of what that pace demands of a human animal. An inspiring milestone, despite the questionable advantages employed to achieve it.

Even Hutchinson confesses by the end that it is all a bit confounding, and the best advice is still pretty simple.  His response is to quote this haiku by trainer Michael Joyner:

“Run lots of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in a while”

Practicing your craft and pushing your limits regularly are nothing new.  Perhaps the most significant piece of insight Hutchinson discovers is the importance of believing in your own potential to exceed past performance.  All the rest may make a small difference at the margins, but when race day comes it is often inspiration and commitment that make the difference between elation and disappointment.

My own thoughts at the end of this read were less about how to maximize one’s performance in endurance events, than of what that performance can mean to other aspects of life.  Running a marathon is never going to change the world (unless you are one of the genetically- and socially-blessed .001 percent, and even then will change it in only a very slim aspect), but having run a marathon can give one the confidence and strength to be better at any or all of the other things one does.  And that, I believe is where the real value lies, in the endurance of life itself.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Darkly humorous, this Booker Prize-winner plays with our desire to believe its hero is actually a decent man despite his early admissions of guilt. When, late in the tale, his crime becomes clear (the ‘unreliable narrator’ turns out to have been entirely reliable), we are challenged to decide whether we condemn or forgive him, given the greater evil of the world in which he is required to survive, and in which we all play a part, regardless of how remotely.

Set among the impoverished majority of early 2000s India, The WhiteTiger can be read as a primer for those unfamiliar with that society, but they are also clearly an abstract for the hundreds of millions in similar straits in other nations around the world (“the colossal underclass,” as Adiga is quoted describing them on one website).  Insufficient resources, insufficient opportunity, insufficient education, insufficient justice; all these contribute to Balram Halwai’s ruthless take on survival.  That ruthlessness though, armors a soft heart – his anger takes forever to rise, his violence is not enjoyed, but endured for what it will achieve.  Even when he grudgingly admits to condemning his family back in the village of Laxmangharh, his reasoning is more amoral rather than immoral – he takes no pleasure in their fate, but rates it only incrementally worse than that to which they had already been condemned by birth: a few more decades of poor, ignorant backwater toil before the death which eventually comes for us all.  The same ‘cage’, as he describes it, from which he has so narrowly escaped.

That metaphor of the white tiger (a creature, we are told, of which there is only one born in an entire generation) works on multiple levels.  Not only are the poor caged as truly as animals in a zoo, so too is there little value in being a unique individual -beautiful, talented or valued in any way – if one must still live one’s life in a cage with nothing to do but eat sleep and procreate.  And when Balram kills and steals from his employer Ashok in order to escape, one is challenged to judge those acts any less natural (and neutral) than a tiger who, finding its cage door left open (the novel’s ‘red bag’ on the car seat…), might well kill and consume its keeper on its way out of the zoo.  Not out of perversity or evil, but simply as an act of survival – kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. 

In a brief author interview appended to the e-book edition, Adiga vouches for the reality of his settings and the corruption he describes.  This is fiction but not speculative fiction; poverty and oppression such as this really exist, and those with certain strengths or intellect may well be driven to extremes such as Balram’s in order to feel they have escaped it – even if, to these middle-class American eyes, his upward step seems a very small one.  All those heavily-accented voices on unsolicited phone calls, those poorly-worded spam e-mails and destructive malware episodes we hear about on the evening news – this novel educates us as to why anyone would spend their hours in what we are so quick to dismiss as criminal activities.  They are, perhaps, just surviving in the best way they can find.   

Amid such bleakness, it is very fortunate that both author and character bear an abundance of wry humor. Naming Ashok’s American-born wife ‘Pinky Madam’, is one inspired example, the comic self-aggrandizement of Balram delivering his entire memoir in a series of late-night monologues directed to the soon-to-visit Premier of China is another.  An abundance of such touches ensure that that this bleak message is not bleak in the telling.

A unique and eye-opening prize-winner well worthy of its award, and a useful reminder of how undeservedly-fortunate we of  ‘the first world’ really are.   

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

An absorbing puzzle, Piranesi appears for a time to be a fantasy novel, its protagonist trapped within an alternate reality where the rules of nature and society are totally strange to the reader, though that central character, referred to as Piranesi, has completely accepted them.   Later, it reveals itself as a murder mystery worthy of a twenty-first-century Agatha Christie, the requisite cast of oddball characters interacting partly inside the grandest crumbling mansion one could imagine, and partly in an outside world quite like our own modern England.  By the end, it morphs into a psychological drama, dilemmas of perception and memory, fanaticism, indoctrination and obsession taking center stage as Clarke provides an explanation for what at the outset seemed inexplicable. 

There is artifice here, befitting a novel whose setting seems taken directly from works of art.  Without interviewing the author herself it is impossible to know whether her creation was inspired by the real Piranesi’s grand visions of crumbed antiquity, or whether her vision came by itself and was only later given the referent to add a layer of credibility.  Either way, for those who are familiar with Piranesi’s works, the link adds tremendous vividness to the novel’s setting.  For those not familiar with the drawings, it might spark a desire to look them up (assuming, of course, that such a reader even realizes there was a famous person named Piranesi).

Writing these notes, I pulled up some images of the artworks, and was reminded that their subjects are referred to as ‘imaginary prisons.’ Not sure whether that was the artist’s choice or just something art historians came up with, but the appellation only strengthens the connection between etchings and novel, as Piranesi the character has, in fact, been imprisoned by another character for his own nefarious purposes.

One small curiosity for writer/readers and bibliophiles – there are 245 numbered pages in the hardbacked I bought (stickered as a ‘Barnes & Noble EXCLUSIVE EDITION’ ), but then the final fifteen or so pages are totally unnumbered.  Is this an unconscionable oversight by the production team? An attempt to obscure the brevity of a volume which runs under 300 pp. yet sells for full hardback price?  Or is it an authorial device, commenting on how those final pages relate to what has come before (the unpaginated chapter contains supposed ‘background’ information to what has come before, transcripts which surely could have been formatted differently in their imagined ‘original’ form, but are just as certainly now part of the text of the actual book we are reading)? Or is it just a subtle crimson herring, one more mystery dropped at the reader’s doorstep to make them wonder what they may have missed in the larger puzzle they only think they have solved? Like the title’s origin story, one may never know.

As with her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, one comes away with great appreciation for Clarke’s ability to create and entangle, to baffle and entice.  Where the first posited ‘real’ magic having once existed in the ‘real ‘world, this one posits a ‘real’ and accessible alternative world existing side-by-side with our own ‘reality.’  Both offer engrossing escape and clear insights into human behavior, including the ways in which we deceive, manipulate and take advantage of one another for our own ends.  Trips worth taking, these are, even if neither of their endings is nearly as satisfying as their beginnings.

The Beauty in Breaking, Michele Harper

Recollections and cogitations by an ER physician, mingled with memoiria of her own abusive childhood and efforts to grow beyond its effects.  Admittedly, I picked it up for the former, and might not have bitten if I had known how much there would be of the latter – the ultimate impact is more self-improvement of the yoga-incense-and-herbal-tea variety than medical drama, but on the other hand, what it really is turned out to be entirely appropriate, as it became available on my Kindle just before a medical emergency put me in an ambulance on the way to an ER myself, at the same time I’m experiencing acute withdrawal symptoms from a forty-year long day-job and pondering relocation for the next phase of life.

So, yeah, there is that.  Change – real, beneficial change that replaces negatives with positives – comes most often when we admit the past is over, or no longer endurable, or however else we acknowledge that something is broken.  And in that brokenness, if we are lucky and observant, we may glimpse the beauty of what could be.  Different.  Not necessarily easy.  Not necessarily glamorous or lucrative or admirable to anyone but ourselves, but truer and more productive than keeping on with what we deep down know – if we would only admit it to ourselves – is simply not working.  In Harper’s case, it is relationship with her family, her husband cum ex-husband, her subsequent boyfriend, the medical career for which she strove so long and hard only to find it deformed by economics and bureaucracy.  For each of us it is different and yet the same.  To find the path forward we must reach the cliff on our current path, stop, look around and discern a new way forward.

This is a generous book, empathic to all, even the assholes she shows in all their sphincterity.  Generous even to the physically-abusive fathers and knife murdering psych. admission at her VA hospital stint.  Not so generous to the medical establishment, VA administration, or the military mentality; but not without excellent reason either.  It is clearly intended to provide hope and comfort to others, an offering of the author’s own pain and insight.   A gift, to anyone ready to receive it.

Failure, Harper quotes Astro Teller of Google, isn’t making mistakes. Rather, failure is identifying that a course of action you have taken doesn’t work, but proceeding with it anyway.  So break-down, let yourself fall apart if your current configuration is not resulting in a happy and productive life, then put yourself back together (with the best help you can find) and embark on a new and better life.

Not a bad message in these broken years we are currently enduring; a welcome gift from an admirable soul.  Thank you, Ms. Harper. 

The Spymaster of Baghdad – A true story of bravery, family and patriotism in the battle against ISIS, Margaret Coker

Coker, a reporter with a long resume in the Middle East and elsewhere, shines a light on how Iraqis (like the citizens of most nations colonized and fought over by the so-called great powers) have borne more of the burdens and demonstrated a greater share of the virtues in our wars than our day-to-day political discourses admit.  Necessary to that, she also provides a cram-course on the sectarianism which fuels every development in Iraq, unfortunately dooming many of them to failure despite all the good intentions in the world.

(Coker is wise enough also, to provide an early digression on how names are commonly-formed and casually-used in the region; not by the given- and sur-names to which Euro-Americans are so used, but suffixes for place of origin  and prefixes that illustrate relationship, with fatherhood and first sons predictably given the same assumption of primacy they occupy in so many traditional cultures.)

The spymaster of the title is one Abu Ali al-Basri.   After opposing Saddam and choosing exile over death, he returns after the US-led invasion, hopeful he can be part of creating a better Iraq, but despite talent, skill and dedication, ends up heading one tiny branch of a Hydra-headed intelligence apparatus that serves more to protect the power bases of its various legislative benefactors than to secure the nation.  When ISIS forms though, the need for real success becomes undeniable and Ali is finally allowed to assemble a small force of serious spies, nicknamed The Falcons.

The al-Sudani family has suffered in its own ways, living in the Shiite near-ghetto of Sadr City, a Saddam-created slum lorded over by Muqtada al-Sadr and his descendants and militias.  Two Sudani sons, Harith and Munaf, join Ali’s Falcons, for very different reasons, but with equal dedication and commitment.

Meanwhile the young Sunni student Abrar al-Kubaisi has lived a privileged life yet still succumbs to the lure of fundamentalism, as so many college-age women and men have succumbed to whatever political trend is ripe at the moment their own desire for a cause is flowering.  She then ends up on the opposite side of the ISIS fight.

It is these players whom Coker follows as their stories converge, diverge and end in various forms of tragedy, as lives are lost, broken or destroyed with alacrity by a culture evolved and divided over centuries.  There are good people here, and good intentions, but no magic wands.   For every bit of progress, it seems, people like Harith sacrifice their lives at alters created by people like Abrar whose twisted morality makes them see horrendous evil for anything but what it is. 

Not a screed for any particular military or political policy, The Spymaster of Baghdad is a dash of ice-water in the face of the notion that outside forces can readily fix any of this (and, incidentally, that keeping US troops forever in Iraq is the way to attempt it).  Nothing new there, of course, but a message which deserves broadcasting, illuminated here from an unfamiliar aspect, and so vitally worth repeating and sharing.

Sometime the real James Bond speaks Arabic.

Luster, Raven Leilani

Got wind of this while searching for some other book I’d jotted down, and certainly glad it came into my frame.  Leilani writes in nearly stream-of-consciousness style (not usually a favorite) and her central character is about as far from my own reality as could be, far enough that I feel self-conscious even writing about it; I so am not the droid she is writing for.  The language is clear and strong enough though, the observations numerous and illuminating, the plot points so unexpected yet credible, that it was difficult to put the book down, even when my eyes were shouting “time, Gentlemen.”

Edie’s background is inner-city poverty, drugs, abuse and abandonment (having read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family is a helpful frame of reference), and her present is aspiring young info-worker with a hunger for casual sex and a well-justified case of imposter syndrome.  When an accumulation of excesses results in loss of both job and housing, she is drawn to peep in on her older, married lover in the comparative wilds of New Jersey, only to be caught out by his wife.  And there the fun (for reader, not characters) begins.  With maneuvers that keep everyone on their toes, the author insinuates Edie into the not-so-happy couple’s life, causing all to reconsider their presumptions and themmselves.

Leilani is very good at holding back information – hooking us into the story before she makes clear Edie is Black, and well into the family before Edie or we learn they have an adopted daughter – also Black – and even father into her web before we learn that Edie is an aspiring artist, and quite talented judging by the offhand way in which she creates credible representational paintings on a shoestring.  All of which helps to shift her lover, Eric, from center focus at the beginning to near-total irrelevance by the end, while her art, female-ness  and Blackness do just the opposite.  An apt comment on the perils of defining oneself by others, and a very contemporary critique of the cumulative effect of centuries of male-centric culture and storytelling.    

Straddling the line between academic/literate writing exercise and popular fiction, this is a primarily a social drama, certainly not a romance (though it deals with the ideas of romance and entanglement quite lucidly) and brings along more than a hint of comedy between the lines. Above all it is idiosyncratically entertaining at the same time that it pulls the heartstrings. One deeply wishes for Edie to overcome the boulders she drags around behind her, and even though the ending is not pat, we close the covers thinking that maybe, just maybe, she is on her way to doing that.

Clever and surprising, Luster is right on point for today; a home-run.

Loving Graham Greene, Gloria Emerson

An initially-slight tale, which grows and grows right up to its end, as slight lives desperately try to grow themselves into something important without completely relinquishing the comforts to which they have accustomed themselves.

Emerson writes with an almost nineteenth-century reserve which aptly suits her characters and relates as well to Greene’s place in the literature of espionage and political machinations.  Her purposes in writing are manifold but gratefully, they materialize gradually out of the mist of incident, rather than being trumpeted or italicized in authorial asides or straw-man puppetry. 

The ultimate impression is that one has been given a glimpse of one corner of human existence (or two perhaps, the one being Molly & Bertie’s well-meaning Princeton idle-class existence, the other the deadly-intrigue filled politics of Algeria on the edge of civil war) with the curtain pulled aside to expose what would more-typically be left hidden and thus deniable.

This debut novel by a former N Y Times correspondent is a winner, and one to re-read again someday. 

And No Birds Sang, Farley Mowat

Plucked this one off a second-hand store shelf after recognizing the author’s name.  Canadian Mowat had come to my attention for his naturalist-memoir, Never Cry Wolf, first encountered as a successful feature film in the early 1980’s, and read sometime thereafter.

Regarding this present slender volume, I find it somewhat uncomfortable that ‘charming’ is the first word which comes to mind in summarizing a book whose main intent – and emotional effect – is to honestly portray the utter brutality of war.  It is a testament to the author’s personality, his innate positivity against all odds (a characteristic evident in …Wolf, as well) and his ability to view whatever is before him with innocence and wonder despite its negative aspects, that reading his memoir is not a depressing experience.

The book chronicles a brief period in Mowat’s life in which he transitions from eager and idealistic youth to terrified veteran of a selection of humanity’s habitual horrors, as evidenced during the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. In the process he displaces conventional notions of glory and heroism with harsher truths of luck, desperation, endurance and the sometimes-terrible adaptations of which the human heart and mind are capable when required to cope with – and, if fortunate, survive – extreme situations.

Right after reading the book, I wrote that “In its own way, this belongs on the shelf with Wiesel’s Night, Krakauer’s Where Men Find Glory, Shehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and Moore and Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.  It’s that Good.” 

Looking up Mowat’s bio just now though, to check my memory of his bibliography, I come across a very serious criticism that places that judgement in a different light.

Mowat, it seems, was dogged during his career by allegations that his environmentally-themed works were actually more fiction than non-.  Wolf researchers hotly contradicted the supposed observations and experimentation in Never Cry Wolf, and even the simple timing and circumstances of his visits to wolf-country were not borne out by available records.  Experts on indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic were equally damning on his supposed adventures among those tribes, as were better-credentialed historians on his conjectures about pre-Norse explorations by a people he called ‘The Albans,’ for whom no other record exists.   What there apparently are records of, on the other hand, are a quote of Mowat saying that he “never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” and something of a personal motto, found among the author’s papers, that “…when the facts have particularly infuriated me, Fuck the Facts!”

Attending a different author’s reading some years ago, I was dismayed to hear her make a similar admission regarding a magazine piece about travel adventures (the genre in which she had made her name).  Her excuse was that people go to travel magazines seeking a certain sort of release from mundanity, it was her job to provide that, and since the reader would never know which parts were truth and which fabrication, there was no harm done.

To me, labelling any work as non-fiction (which includes presenting it in a publication not identified as fiction) is to make a claim of authority and factuality; it creates a certain covenant between writer and reader.  Encountering in fiction an event or insight which is not familiar to them, the reader evaluates it speculatively, and forms an opinion of whether or not it represents actuality, doing so largely in light of whether it conforms or not to the reader’s own experience.  Encountering the very same piece of information in a work presented as non-fiction, we are explicitly being directed to take that information as superseding any counter experience or belief we may have – ‘this is the truth, accept it.’  Such a claim of authority must properly be earned by a certain amount of rigor, and self-discipline which includes, as its lowest bar, not simply ‘making shit up’.

I’m just sayin’…

In the end then, And No Birds Sang gives a reader cause to ponder not just one but two weighty, and yet very different, themes: the experience of fighting in a war, and the experience of reading about any other person’s experiences.  Pretty good payoff for fewer than 200 pages.  

Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

This third-novel, released ten years before the modern-day drama Room brought the author to a wider audience, is an historical romance written from a modern feminist understanding.  Donoghue allows the reader to believe for a time that young Mary Saunders may find a way out of the bindings of class, gender and culture, but then, as surely as forces of nature, those strictures of man close in, allowing her fewer and fewer options as time marches on.  A modern reader may imagine she could have chosen differently, but the character is so well and fully drawn, so grounded in her time and place, that the ending ultimately feels inevitable, regardless how much we may wish it otherwise.

Scenes of Mary’s early days on the streets have a liberated joy to them; it is unclear how fully  the author believes such joy and value could truly exist there, or is only reporting her character’s illusions, but either way, they offer a powerful contrast to the sense of grinding obligation which rules the rest of the story.

An alternate-reality Jane Austen perhaps; more true to the lives of a wider sampling of 18th century women than are the troubles of Austen’s well-to-do stratum.  That it becomes, toward the end, a tragic exercise is only another way of saying it feels true to its times.

With over a dozen novels published to date, plus five story collections and numerous other stories, plays, screenplays and non-fiction, Donoghue is an impressive force in offering alternatives to the limited ways in which women have been allowed to appear throughout too much of fiction and history.  One whose other works this reader will definitely be seeking out in future.