Monday, January 26, 2015

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Hardcover, 265 pages Pub 2014 by Random House ISBN13: 9780812994995

I am late to the Dunham phenomenon, but am fully onboard now. I am gob-smacked by this book of essays by the creator of the TV serial Girls, the Third Season of which I came upon recently and absently slipped into my VCR late one night. I didn’t know there was a controversy about her work, but of course now I realize there must be. She is a red-hot societal critic. She appears highly evolved to me. She is not cruel.

She astonishes me by her willingness to put her finger right there and point at something significant that many of us will twist to avoid confronting in a thoughtful way. To say Dunham’s work is refreshing doesn’t capture it. It is bracing, like standing in a winter wind, but not caring because you are with friends and are going back in where the fireplace is blazing and someone is going to say something funny and real.

This series of essays must be taken separately from her work as writer, director and character on a television show. This is not Hannah. Both are a kind of memoir, that is, they recreate some of Dunham’s lived experience. But we hear much more in the essays that exhibit her shrewdness, her now-adult clarity and experience, her ability to withhold (“There are things I will not say, that I will think and leave in my head”). But by golly, the things she does say, about the directors and producers she met in Hollywood, about her obsessive fears, about the cringe-producing dates and sex, ring so true, so exactly true, that even if they are not our experience, we believe.

Years ago I read a piece of literature and remember thinking then that some human experience was universal. When I mentioned it one day in a university literature class, the professor snarled “not everyone has the same experience and feels the same way.” I was shocked. It is probably true what that teacher said. Certainly not all of us are white, rich enough to go to Oberlin, bright enough to realize that getting a job, any job, is not enough for any kind of real life. But I argue it doesn’t matter where you came from or how you grew up. There is something in Dunham’s conclusions and experience that resonates. When she writes of visiting her dying great-aunt and receiving her warped and misshapen knitted scarves as gifts, when she writes of her fear of death, sickness, pregnancy, when she writes of the kindness and boredom she encountered in the baby-clothes shop, of the condescension she encountered in school and Hollywood—this stuff translates. We may not have done what she did, but we know that stuff. And she is both bright enough and brave enough to point to it.

In the section when Dunham describes her summer camp experience, she admits to being more attuned to her adult caretakers, the camp counselors, than to her camp mates. This doesn’t surprise me. She wanted more the attention and experience of the adults than of the teens. She was always observant, curious, outside. Psychologists must have helped. She spent a lot of time in their company over the years. It doesn’t appear to have hurt her, thank goodness, but instead may have given her a framework for her questions.

Thank goodness, in fact, for Lena Dunham. She survived the indignities of youth, not unscathed but whole. She understood enough to guess that her confusion and desperation was, if not universal, at least interesting and helpful in allowing us to recognize and celebrate our own authentic selves. She shares her experiences so that we, hopefully, can laugh and see the absurdity of the same. Women and men don’t have to go through elaborate rituals others have created just so that we can connect in a real way, but there are always the painful bits we get just a little bit wrong.

Towards the end of these essays Dunham confides that her real loves are “gossip, food, and the internet.” Those interests aren’t broad enough for her to earn the label “voice of a generation” since that hardly constitutes a voice. But her work is political, which may be why there is conflict when considering her work. It is political because it considers commonly accepted (and sometimes even legislated) ways of interacting, which she shows to be deficient in some way. She has given us enough thoughtfulness and authenticity to make us wonder what she thinks about things other than slipping into bed with another disaffected youth. We’ll have to wait for that. She might never share her thoughts on pressing international issues with us, but her work on the internal rather than the external is just as important if it spurs us to think. Art, wherever it manifests, is a win for all of us. Reign on, Lena Dunham!


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Friday, January 23, 2015

Changing the Conversation by Dana Caspersen

Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution Conflict is something no one can avoid in a life. If one experiences a conflict at work or home, the stress may twist our natural personalities and lead us to abuse ourselves or others. I may have been more resilient in the past, but now I find conflict extremely distressing and find myself fleeing from it.

Caspersen makes the point early in this marvelous book that while conflict is inevitable, working through it rather than running from it provides an opportunity for a creative solution that may actually fulfill both parties and create a stronger, more trusting bond between the two.

Earlier this year, after suffering a debilitating long-running conflict in my family, I took an online course in Conflict Resolution with the publishing group Shambhala. It ran for several weeks, included audio, video, reading, and homework. It was extremely useful. Many of the ideas presented in that course are given here, in this wonderfully concise handbook. Just opening this book and seeing the format made me weak with relief. There are just a few critical points on each page, giving us space and time to think about what is being said.

Resolving conflict requires a certain amount of willingness to understand the other side, even if the other side can’t easily articulate their position. We have to be able to ask questions until we get to the real reason behind the conflict…what needs are felt but not fulfilled? Emotions may appear to cloud the issues, but in fact are clues to the issues. We need to feel our own emotion (like, for instance, anger) and then ask why?

STOP when you feel attacked, FEEL the hurt of that, and then DON’T ASSUME you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. ASK questions (of ourselves and others) until you get closer to the unmet needs on both sides that must be addressed. We all have the same basic needs, but not all our needs are prioritized the same way all the time. And we might differ in the ways we decide to meet those needs.

We need to LISTEN to the other and ask questions, perhaps reformulating and restating their point of view as a query until we both understand their underlying need or issue. We can share our own point of view, but not in anger. Caspersen points out that we have to be sick and tired of our own unhelpful habits (of reacting when provoked or angry) in order to try to change that part of the equation.

It takes practice. We won’t succeed every time. But we get better at it. That there is another way has been an immense relief. If we have been lucky, we’ve met someone who can withhold judgment and tease out the cause of the emotion behind conflict, and defuse the hot air surrounding parties in conflict. This book shows us how to do that.

Best yet, this book is good for beginners and those experienced in the practice. It is too easy to forget how to deal when conflict arises suddenly. Just flipping through this book sets me immediately at ease. It is so helpful. I don’t need to learn it all again. I just need reminding. Again and again.

Maybe the part I like best about learning about conflict is that our reactions can be changed. Our reactions are not immutable. We do not have to go through life feeling at the mercy of those who have stronger, more articulate, or more obstinate positions. We can effectively “deal with” or solve conflict in many cases, and come up with creative and constructive solutions, create lasting intimacy, and a willingness to engage and trust. Some people manage it. Why not us?

This book is a marvelous thing. It has examples of common conflicts and language used in families, talking with teens, in work situations, in political discussions. On the facing page it gives examples of a more constructive approach. What could be better than this? We all need this book. Even conflict facilitators need this book, as I found out from attendees of the Shambhala course, at least half of whom were, or wanted to be, paid facilitators.

In my case, the conflict has been defused. There are still trust issues, perhaps because of the length of the conflict, but the open warfare is past. The scarring makes one want to make sure it never happens again, which is why I will keep this book close.


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Thursday, January 22, 2015

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage More than halfway through this collection of essays I begin to think that one of the most important characteristics for a successful memoirist must be good humor. Patchett wrote most of this collection of nonfiction essays earlier in her career for different publications. She supplemented those with a couple longer, deeper pieces written later: “The Getaway Car” and “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” “Dog Without End,” and “The Mercies,” all stories about the great loves in her life.

Together the essays comprise a history. We meet her dog, her grandmother, her husbands, her father. She recalls Lucy Grealy, the subject of her story of friendship called Truth and Beauty. We keep reading because she is a nice person and we like her. She writes well, but that isn’t all. She is irrepressible. She has character.

I am finished with the book of essays now, and I have to say I am relieved. I am relieved that her title story, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” is in fact, not only about her happy marriage, but also of her earlier failed marriage, a marriage that shook her—shook some sense into her. I used to be sad that such spectacular failures were necessary, but most of us have them hidden away in a closet somewhere, ready to be unearthed and examined again for any further shards of wisdom. Mine doesn’t hurt as much now, but there is usually still an involuntary tightening of my lips before I smile, with chagrin.

Which makes me think again of Ann Patchett and her good humor. The stories she tells in this collection remind us that there are moments in a life we wish we could share with others. Patchett is not just sharing her story, she is showing us how it is done. Readers, real readers, are always going to be interested in writers. We yearn to know how they do what they do, even if it would never occur to us to do the same. But Patchett is so generous with what she knows and what she does that we can see how she does it. One thing that runs through the whole book, every essay, is that she does not take herself too seriously. She takes her craft seriously, but she tends to forgive herself and others when we don’t quite live up. Or makes a funny joke about it.

When she mentions her mother was beautiful, the kind of beautiful that made people stop her in the street to compliment her, I had to find a photo online. I feel like I haven’t seen beautiful, naturally beautiful, in such a very long time I don’t even trust myself to know it when I see it anymore. Her mother is beautiful, it’s true. She has the kind of effortless-looking beauty that doesn’t pain one to look upon. But it didn’t make her nicer or wiser than anyone else. None of us gets it all.

Oh yes, Ann Patchett can write. This is a magnificent collection, and I recommend it heartily to everyone, anyone. It is for teens, it is for adults, it is for readers, it is for writers. Ann Patchett lives in the town where she grew up. She never had children. She spends a long time in school and a longer time sitting at her desk, writing. But somehow this book shows us the various ways in which the essential parts of our lives are not so distant. Love matters. It accounts for the joy and most of the pain that lingers.


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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

Dead Lions (Slough House, #2) Mick Herron wrote a two-book Slough House series featuring River Cartwright which began with Slow Horses and ended with Dead Lions. ‘Slow Horses’ is a nickname given to disgraced spies who live out the rest of what might generously be termed their careers in the MI5 Slough House, as opposed to working in pin-stripes at Regent’s Park. Too knowledgeable to be cut loose and too damaged to handle edgy assignments, these talented but dismissed spies are called upon in Dead Lions to chase a ghost—a Russian spy long hidden from view.

I’ve been reading backward through Herron’s work, beginning with his soon-to-be released Nobody Walks published by Soho Crime, which is a cornucopia of rich characterizations, cynical observations about the business of spying, and imaginative spycraft. I have not gotten to Slow Horses but I can tell you that these works are all of a piece. River Cartwright was ostensibly the main man in the first two books, though his involvement was not as pronounced in Dead Lions as Tom Bettany’s is in Nobody Walks.

Mick Herron has an eye for the ways individuals can look absurd in large bureaucratic organizations: who gets ahead, who stays ahead, and who stays alive are all subject to his scrutiny and imaginative doodlings. The failings of ordinary folk provide a rich vein of material.

Dead Lions is written like the screenplay for a TV series in that much of the novel is conversation. Unless one is a Londoner, this presents a little bit of a challenge in being able to follow the action especially when being told by a cynical and wily old sidelined spy. One never knows what is true and what is not even if one understands his language. When one grows up in an organization, there is a specific vocabulary for insiders. If one is not part of the group, understanding can be as difficult as crashing a company’s Christmas cocktail party. But like that theoretical Christmas party, if one holds on long enough for understanding to dawn, the ride is quite fun enough.

Herron is good at writing spy thrillers, very good, indeed. If this is your special genre, his books are a must-read. If British spy thrillers are only an occasional treat for you, he is still one of the best, and getting better all the time. Start with Nobody Walks.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner

My Life as a Foreign Country This shattering memoir of time spent during war in Iraq describes clear as photographs the heat signatures of memory, the “shadows articulated by light.” It is terribly beautiful and the reverse. Shards of sentences fracture the consciousness. Turner tells us the pop-pop-pop of machine guns sometimes sounds like laughter.

It is queer to see, hear, speak the gorgeous language in this book and realize it describes the brittle, the blistering, and the terrifying. Killing people with precision instruments was not always intentional. The discordance is terrible. Turner tells us of the cold hard smooth perfection of chrome-plated steel firing pin. Fear and pitilessness are paired.

I wonder as I read about these soldiers joshing and murmuring to one another about 'field pussy' as they sight their rifles from the flat roof of an abandoned elementary school—do the Iraqi insurgents that are their targets think of these men as men? Turner imagines a bomb maker at his craft. He is an artist. The irony is cold and red and hot and black.

Turner tells us he always wanted to be a soldier. He is from a family of soldiers stretching back through a flamethrower on Guam to the Franco-Prussian war and one of the very last successful cavalry charges in modern warfare, the Battle of Mars-la-Tour. These men, these soldiers, survived. As a young boy, Turner practiced surviving. In the California scrub he dug trenches stocked with provisions. He practiced martial arts with his father in a makeshift dojo. He enlists in the cavalry. He thought it would make him a man. It did. But what man is this?

His remembered images startle us into recognition and give no mercy. The language lingers like the taste of cordite on the tongue or the smell of smoke in the air: The tremble of hair on a dead soldier’s head like sea grass on a sand dune; A moustache, found alone, on a bomb-cratered street; The dotted line traced from the Japanese kamikaze to the young woman in her homemade and heavily-laden vest.

A man is not big enough for his memories, Turner tells us. America is not big enough to hold the memories that are spilling out of the soldiers not big enough to hold them. The soldiers are dying of their memories. They could unpack some of those memories. Some of it is the detritus and the waste of war. Where do we put the waste?

A Billy Lynn moment occurs when a colonel visits Turner’s stateside training site and tells them he needs audio and visual for a video game. All in the life of a soldier…ours is not to question why…the top-down command catches the exhausted men sideways.

The work, the name of Brian Turner evokes a whispered outbreath, an inward turn...and joy, hope. The beauty and sorrow is palpable and painful. Spoken. Written. Acknowledged. Poet warrior. Can we ever have enough of them?


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Monday, January 19, 2015

Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
”It is striking that, in a region as intimate as the Middle East, cultural ignorance and political miscalculation have played such perverse roles. By attacking the new country of Israel in 1948, the Arabs lost the chance to create an entity for Palestine. Through its policy of expulsion of the native population, Israel destabilized its neighbors and created a reservoir of future terrorists that was continually refreshed by new wars and population transfers.”

In surely what is the most intimately detailed report of the Carter Camp David Accords collected for public consumption, Lawrence Wright gives us a look at the men who came to that place in 1978 to wage peace. Chapter headings mark the thirteen days of talks, and within each day we are treated to the increasingly stuffy and claustrophobic internal debates which contrasted with the comfortable and laid-back atmosphere of the country playground.

As the chapters unfold, so do brief histories and biographies of the men who played a role: Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan; Israeli Minister of Defence Ezer Weizman; Prime Minister of Israel and leader of the minority coalition Likud, Menachem Begin; Egypt’s deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tohamy; Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski; U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance; American first-term President Jimmy Carter.

The men are merely men, with all the ticks, scars, and faults of men. What is so breathtaking is that the lives of so many depended on these men acting like statesmen. By meeting at Camp David, all three men were taking huge political risks for their own lives and careers. One might argue that the risks never left the personal realm. None of them really took risks with the nations they represented. Carter continued to financially and politically support both countries, Begin never changed his determination to settle confiscated lands, and Egypt simply withdrew support for Palestinians it had previously protected.

Wright concentrates his focus on the Israeli and Egyptian delegations. We get a look at Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, their background and rise to prominence in Washington, and Jimmy Carter’s team of advisors, but we get a more detailed look at what was happening in the other camps as talks progressed through two weeks in September. We learn, too, of the wars fought in the name of ‘legitimate rights’ which brought these men to Camp David.

There was a dangling thread that did not get resolved at Camp David, though two of the three parties believed it had been resolved. In the months after the agreement was signed, that dangling thread became part of the noose which helped to hang the careers of Carter and Sadat: Menachem Begin claimed he had not agreed to a settlement freeze while discussions with Palestinians continued but only for three months. Without the side letter that Carter and Sadat believed Begin had promised to produce, the concession was moot and not part of the original accord.

Begin returned to Israel triumphant, only to lose his closest advisors to resignations for his continued unwillingness to honor the spirit of the agreement he’d signed. Sadat was murdered by his own people three years later. Carter, having spent so much time on the effort of achieving the peace, had neglected his other duties and lost much support among his party and his electorate.

The agreement came at a time in Arab-Israeli relations when any observer could not be blamed for feeling despair. The Israelis were gloating and acting invincible with America’s money and support. The Palestinians were further marginalized and weakened by their loss of Egyptian backing and lack of good leadership. The conditions spelled out in the agreement continue to hold, but there is little sense of jubilation now.

This book must have been a difficult one to research and write, which only manages to shine a light on Wright’s achievement. He captures the ups and downs of high-stakes negotiation and gives us a feel for the real work involved in the process. There is little exhilaration here. Mostly there was just terror and relief.

In a final note, Wright tells the story of one of Begin’s closest advisors, Ezer Weizman, who was known to be a raging hawk when it came to protecting Israel with military might. One day his son was shot between the eyes in an engagement. At that point Weizman began to see the futility of war. Man seems determined to learn this lesson again and again, and not ever soon enough.


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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Kolbert’s premise, that we are likely in the midst of the Sixth Period of great extinction in the world’s history, is “a most awful yet interesting” idea, to quote Darwin out of context. Kolbert shares recent (in the past forty years) scientific discoveries, theories, and test results which many of us may not have had a chance to follow with the diligence of a scientist. She is not a scientist but a journalist who has interviewed scientists, and her wonderful easy style makes the science simple for us to understand.

What Kolbert has done here is to overlay a timeline transparency of extinctions over the more commonly known history of the earth’s geologic record and mankind’s progress. Kolbert is merely reporting in this book, not advocating, though the reader comes away with an awakened sense of attention and sense of the irony that man himself may be the instrument of his own destruction.

Kolbert is what could be called a “neocatastrophist.” She believes that the scientific record shows that conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t---“long periods of boredom interrupted by occasionally by panic. Though rare, these moments of panic are disproportionately important.” Her reportage brings her to the conclusion that we are in the midst of a great extinction and that in the future--far into the future--the geologic record will clearly show something extraordinary happened in the hundreds of thousands of years of human habitation. But it may be visible only to giant rats, the one species she concludes may be likely to survive and thrive.

While at first Kolbert shares current examples of species extinction happening right now, gradually she comes to zero in on probable cause: habitat modification caused by humans. She takes us through a riveting series of investigations scientists around the world are conducting to test how species adapt to changes in environment like carbon dioxide levels, for instance. Since continents are so well-travelled now, there are fewer areas uncontaminated by introduced species which may be invasive or destructive to native species. Kolbert argues that man’s unparalleled and insatiable need to discover, innovate, and change his environment was like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.”
”To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
That is not to say that we couldn’t slow the event down a little, at least for humans, if we began to pay attention at this point. “As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.” We are just witnessing and documenting the outcomes now.

Kolbert writes “Though it may be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.” Perhaps American Indians with their roaming, nomadic habits, no fixed abode, and principles including commune with nature and not taking more than they needed to survive, may have been the last great environmentalists. They had a light footprint, didn’t they? Or am I completely wrong about that?

In the last couple of paragraphs, Kolbert points out that some scientists are seriously considering reengineering the atmosphere by scattering sulfates in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back to space, or alternatively, to decamp to other planets. That, so far, is their best work. Perhaps if we just cut back on consumption, and left fossil fuels in the ground, we’d live long enough to figure out a better option.

Kolbert’s thesis ought to spark discussion, if nothing else. But we may be also witnessing the real-time devolution of our own species…no talk, no compromise. Get my gun.


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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash

Something Rich and Strange: Selected StoriesRon Rash is too good to miss. If you aren’t familiar with his name, you must read a story or two, just so that you know his style, his subject. He writes about the Carolina Blue Ridge Mountain section of the Appalachians and his subjects are the wide range of mostly forgotten folks who live there, out of common view. We recognize them—their needs, resentments, their motivations—instantly though we wouldn’t claim to be them.

This is a collection of thirty-two stories culled from earlier works plus two new ones at the very end, “Outlaws” and “Shiloh,” that have not been previously collected.

One of my favorite stories, “Three A.M. and the Stars are Out,” is reprinted here from an earlier collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay. It tells of a retired veterinarian who still gets calls from his old customers and he still goes to help out. His wife is dead four months and he sometimes forgets she’s not there to answer back when a newspaper article prompts his comment.

The time frame in Rash’s stories stretch from the Civil War to today. Another favorite story is the first in this collection, called “Hard Times,” about depression-era Appalachian life. A farmer with a bitter and disagreeable wife discovers eggs are missing from his Bantam’s nest and resolves to catch the culprit.

Back-country superstitions and ways brought down from olden times play a part in the lives of people. “The Corpse Bird” features an owl who brings bad tidings, and a college-educated man visits a Pentacostal church to be cured in “Chemistry.” The scourge of drug abuse features in several stories, as naturally told as though it were endemic.

Rash polishes his stories until there is not a word too many nor out of place. He has also written novels, one of which is due out as a feature film in February 2015, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, called Serena. It looks as though it is shot on location in the Appalachian range, but in fact it was shot in Prague, Czech Republic and Denmark. Though the film does not garner high marks yet, I think we’d agree it probably isn’t the actors' fault. Probably read the book first so you won’t be disappointed.


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Monday, January 12, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? One imagines the word “cartoonist” should be paired with “funny,” and certainly I am accustomed to think “funny” when hearing the name Roz Chast. But not any more. The only thing I thought was funny enough to laugh at in this book-length cartoon about the decline of her parents was the part she did not draw out: the photographs of her parents’ apartment after they left it one day for a ‘trial run’ at an assisted living facility. For some reason, the 1950’s vintage ammonia inhalants placed prominently in the small bathroom medicine cabinet struck me as very funny.

But for the first time I felt Roz Chast and I could be friends in some alternate universe where our circles intersected. We are nothing alike, but she opened up her world and her thinking and her motivations in this piece and made herself very vulnerable. And I cannot help but find her experience and explanations interesting and worthy of respect. It is so different from my own way of thinking that I feel sure I could learn something—a new way to look at the world, perhaps. I have never understood the distance that adult children have toward their parents’ needs though I honestly think that is the norm, and this book went some way to giving me one person’s explanation.

In an interview with Terry Tazioli for the TV segment Well Read, Chast said she used her parents’ decline and death as a subject and she would encourage her own kids to do the same when her time comes because “it is all material.” She spent a couple of years agonizing over this stuff, and it is the agonizing stuff that makes the best material, for cartoons, for literature, for music or film. That this book made so many of the “Best Of” lists shows how it resonated with the public at large.

But it wasn’t funny, really. What kept me reading was not “wondering how it would turn out,” since I already had an idea about that, but how Roz was managing it. When Elizabeth Chast, Roz’s mother, was diagnosed with a digestive-tract fistula at 96, her sister, a retired R.N., recommended she “have the operation” to remove it. In my experience, this devil-may-care attitude towards the actual hands-on nursing care required in such a situation (even if it goes well!) is typical of the R.N.s I have known…it’s almost as though they have no idea, or so devalued is the day-in and day-out effort of recovery and of care in their eyes that they don’t even see it. How can that be?

Anyway, Chast's description of the assisted-living facility caught many of the weirdnesses therein very well. I always thought the door art was helpful for those folks who were looking for their rooms, though I suppose if you’ve forgotten your room number and floor, you’ve probably also forgotten what was decorating your door. But Chast caught the dinner-table cliquishness, the empty game rooms, the choking and falling over very well. That is not so funny for me. It is more awful than anything. I am not sure how things will go for my loved ones and me, but I’m not looking forward to that.

I admire Chast for putting together this book. She spent a few years with this problem and was able to digest it enough to share her experience. It wasn’t the “waste of time” so many of us fear. I argue that it is the point. Birth, love, death...these are the things that matter to all humans. Certainly when death comes there is opportunity for breakthrough moments of understanding and intimacy.

No one can want a lingering death, but that may be what we face. It is infinitely preferable to know what death can look like, so that we can make modifications to that outcome that if we can. My great aunt wanted to live to 102, and darn it, she did. But I know now I’m not going to set a goal like that. I’m sure it gives some folks the impetus to carry on, but I am not sure that carrying on is the point, exactly.

Chast provokes strong feelings in this book, and many of us that face these issues may very well handle them differently. The book began to resonate when Roz talked about her mother’s emotional distance, denial, and lack of empathy. It is important to remember that when we get to that place: the mental strength and indomitable will that keeps us independent may not be the same skill we need when we can no longer cope on our own. We need to start thinking again about others—what they are experiencing, and how best we can fit in a changed world. If you want others to care, you must care also, and show it.


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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt

Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil
"That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem."

This book is positively lucid in comparison to the one other book I read by Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, since this is a journalistic piece, first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1963. Basically the book is merely a report on the trial, which would have to exclude examination of the issues that the trial raised, e.g., Why did it have to be the Germans? Why did it have to be the Jews? What is the nature of totalitarianism? What is the nature of evil? But Arendt goes as far in including relevant facts that pertain to the trial as she can, and it is ravishingly interesting. Arendt was already so well-informed by then about the history of development of the "Final Solution" in which millions of Jews (and others: Russian functionaries, Gypsies, the asocial, the sick, and mentally-ill patients) were killed.

Of course we want to know how the Holocaust could happen, and Arendt goes a long way to showing us the compliance of so many government officials of other countries, of German functionaries, and of ordinary citizens. Fear played a large part, but there was more. In Germany, the management of information and expectations was so complete that, for instance, ordinary Germans were convinced that Hitler would gas them eventually, if the war was lost: "The Russians will never get us. The Fuhrer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us." They did not sound indignant, she reports, but resigned. Such an action must have seemed rational, in their universe.

In the Postscript to this book, Arendt points out that this report of the trial, when first published in The New Yorker, caused an outcry ascribing to her attitudes which she does not possess, and attributing to her words she did not say:
"Even before its publication, this book became both the center of a controversy and the object of an organized campaign…The controversy began by calling attention to the conduct of the Jewish people during the years of the Final Solution, thus following up the question, first raised by the Israeli prosecutor, of whether the Jews could or should have defended themselves. I had dismissed that question as silly and cruel, since it testified to a fatal ignorance of the conditions at the time. It has now been discussed to exhaustion, and the most amazing conclusions have been drawn…Since the role of the Jewish leadership had come up at the trial, and since I had reported and commented on it, it was inevitable that it too should be discussed. This, in my opinion, is a serious question, but the debate has contributed little to its clarification."

"There is of course no doubt that the defendant and the nature of his acts as well as the trial itself raise problems of a general nature which go far beyond the matters considered in Jerusalem. I have attempted to go into some of these problems in the Epilogue, which ceases to be simple reporting.
Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his own personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing."
Superior orders, Arendt points out, are, in law, no excuse for failures of judgment, though persons on trial often have this taken into consideration when their sentences are meted out. Eichmann was hanged shortly after the trial ended, so following orders was not considered to be exculpatory in his case.

One of the things that damned Eichmann was not his following of orders, per se. He did his job to the best of his ability, something of which he was inordinately proud. When, in 1944, he received orders from Himmler countermanding earlier behaviors, i.e., that he should now take care of the Jews instead of transporting them to the killing fields, Eichmann sabotaged his orders as much as he dared, to the extent at least that he felt he was 'covered' by his immediate superiors. Arendt suggests that his conscience "prompted Eichmann to adopt his uncompromising attitude during the last year of the war," and one can certainly understand his confusion and distress. All his previous excellent compliance that required him to silence thought was now being shown for what it was--a terrible crime.

This report holds within it so much of human behaviors, bad and good. We are blessedly treated to the wonderful story of true clarity of thinking in the case of Denmark:
"The story of the Danish Jews is sui generis, and the behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe—whether occupied, or a partner of the Axis, or neutral and truly independent. One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence…Italy and Bulgaria sabotaged German orders and indulged in a complicated game of double-dealing and double-crossing, saving their Jews by a tour de force of sheer ingenuity, but they never contested the policy as such.

"That was totally different from what the Danes did.

"When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation. It was decisive in this whole matter that the Germans did not even succeed in introducing the vitally important distinction between native Danes of Jewish origin, of whom there were about sixty-four hundred, and the fourteen hundred German Jewish refugees who had found asylum in the country prior to the war and who now had been declared stateless by the German government. This refusal must have surprised the Germans no end, since it appeared so “illogical” for a government to protect people to whom it had categorically denied naturalization and even permission to work…The Danes, however, explained to the German officials that because the stateless refugees were no longer German citizens, the Nazis could not claim them without Danish assent…

"What happened then was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy…riots broke out in Danish shipyards, where dock workers refused to repair German ships and then went on strike… "
Police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search for Jews to deport, but they were forbidden to break down doors, so only Jews who voluntarily opened their doors to them were seized. The Jewish community had been warned by Danish officials, who had been told by a German shipping agent, who had probably been advised by the German official in Copenhagen whose attitude had, when resistance had been firm, practically melted away.
"Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin, It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their 'toughness' had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage."
It is a great relief to discover that something worked against the thoughtless, just-following-orders persistence of the perpetrators’ human machine.

In the context of my other recent reading and thinking, I have a couple of things to say: that Thomas Pynchon’s book Inherent Vice says something about thoughtlessness and evil—how we must struggle against thoughtlessness at every opportunity in order not to do evil. And with respect to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, we must think about the effects of lifestyle on energy usage and how this affects climate and the world. We must demand better leadership from our government--or at least have the politicians do what we say.

This is one of the indispensable books for it is the jumping point for so much fruitful thought and discussion.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Responsibility and Judgment by Hannah Arendt

Responsibility and Judgment I am in the middle of reading Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and thought I might like to see what Arendt wrote after her critique of Eichmann’s trial. About the same time I found myself wrestling with the ideas presented in Naomi Klein’s 2014 book subtitled Capitalism vs. The Climate, and entitled This Changes Everything. I thought, as I read about Eichmann in Jerusalem, that some of the same “lack of the ability to think” applies to the world’s populace when it comes to lifestyle and our impact on climate.

There was a great uproar when The New Yorker magazine published Arendt’s piece on Eichmann’s trial in 1963, mostly because Arendt questioned Jewish leaders for their complicity in the destruction of their own people by a lack of resistance to the German aggression against Jews. As it happens, Arendt had further thoughts after the Eichmann trial about the phrase she coined then: “the banality of evil.”

In the 2003 edition of Responsibility and Judgment is an introduction by Jerome Kohn which begins by recalling that in 1966, a few short years after her Eichmann article, Arendt addressed a large audience that had gathered to attend a colloquium in New York. Attendees were particularly concerned at this time with the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, and wished to hear what Arendt advised: that is, what they could do individually and collectively to change U.S. policy.

But Arendt
"did not believe that analogies derived retrospectively from what had or had not worked in the past would avert the pitfalls of the present situation. As she saw it, the spontaneity of political action is yoked to the contingency of its specific conditions, which renders such analogies unavailing…Arendt did not mean that the past as such was irrelevant…but that the past is not past…the past—past action--can be experienced in the present…It is we as a people who are responsible for them now." (Kohn, Introduction, pp. vii-ix)
It occurs to me that she might give the same response to climate activists who sought to apportion blame for the condition of the world and the direction of policy.

In one of the shorter essays in this volume, called “Collective Responsibility,” Arendt begins
"There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them…Two conditions have to be present for collective responsibility: I must be held responsible for something I have not done, and the reason for my responsibility must be my membership in a group (a collective) which no voluntary act of mine can dissolve, that is, a membership which is utterly unlike a business partnership which I can dissolve at will…This kind of responsibility is always political…[There is] a dividing line between political (collective) responsibility, on one side, and moral and/or legal (personal) guilt, on the other…In the center of moral considerations of human conduct stands the self; in the center of political considerations of conduct stands the world."
Basically Arendt is making the point that no moral or personal attitude to things we have not done absolve us of responsibility for these things, and that we have a collective responsibility as human beings to deal with them…something we probably already knew in the case of climate change, except that now we all are both [politically] responsible for past errors and [morally] for errors made now. This essay was written in 1968.

Three years later, in 1971, Arendt published “Thinking and Moral Considerations” which helps me when considering the climate crisis as an example of a failure to think, Arendt’s definition of evil. “…[Eichmann] was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”

It is difficult to summarize Arendt since the points she makes follow one another, but in this essay she concludes
"Thinking in its noncognitive, nonspecialized sense as a natural need of human life, the actualization of the difference given in consciousness, is not a prerogative of the few but an ever-present faculty of everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not the 'prerogative' of those many who lack brain power but the ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded—to shun that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered (i.e., ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’). We were here not concerned with wickedness, with which religion and literature have tried to come to terms, but with evil; not with sin and the great villains who became the negative heroes in literature and usually acted out of envy and resentment, but with the nonwicked everybody who has no special motives and for this reason is capable of infinite evil…

For the thinking ego and its experience, conscience, which ‘fills a man full of obstacles,’ is a side effect. And it remains a marginal affair for society at large except in emergencies. For thinking as such does society little good, much less than the thirst for knowledge in which it is used as an instrument for other purposes. It does not create values, it will not find out, once and for all what ‘the good’ is, and it does not confirm but rather dissolves accepted rules of conduct. Its political and moral significance comes out only in those rare moments in history when ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” when 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’

At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters. When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.”
Please forgive my extended quotes which, out of context, may not make much sense. However, I am trying to carry you along with my thinking about the looming climate crisis, of which the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico seems the most egregious folly. One simply has to finally take a stand, and this is mine. It seems the scientific “logic” that goes along with approvals of this sort is what got us here in the first place. Perhaps a more wholistic view is in order at this time.

To get back to this collection of Arendt’s essays, she wrote several at the time of massive upheaval in America, and though she did not address the pressing issue of resource depletion at that time, she did address issues of race, and the integration of schools. It is enlightening (exciting, even) and not really all that obscure to follow her arguments that school children were being forced into the front line positions of fighting racial discrimination, and that this was an(other) example of the failure of government to provide reasonable leadership and protection for the people they “served.”

What I come away with is Arendt disclaiming any particular sorcery when it comes to “thinking.” This is the right, indeed the obligation, of any human. We have not been doing ourselves, our community, our world any good by ignoring what was given. Thinking requires that we stop and think. We cannot think and do things at the same time. The point Arendt makes again and again is that we must think in order to avoid doing evil.

If you are interested and missed my earlier review of This Changes Everything, check it out here.


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Monday, January 5, 2015

Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge

I may have had an unusual education, but by the time I left college I did not know that many companies administer a type of IQ test or personality test to applicants as part of their interview procedure. Only in a course in graduate school did I encounter the very cool questions devised to see how one thinks. Ben Ambridge doesn’t give us many IQ questions here, but lots of PSY-Q questions, designed to determine how people perceive, think, and compose opinions. Ambridge thinks they’re fun, and I agree, but they’re not only fun. I argue that it is also instructive to know how most people answer these questions, right or wrong.

The set up for the puzzles, jokes, experiments might be just a sentence or a paragraph. The explanation often takes a little more space, not including thinking time. Take for example the short set up for The Patient: “Scientists have found a new disease that is spreading around the country…The disease is pretty rare, but it causes cancer…scientists have developed a test that is 99% accurate, and you have tested positive! What are the chances you have the disease?” I am sure you have seen this, or a variation of this example before. Do you remember how to solve it? What percentage of folks can figure it out? (A hint: many psychologists find this confusing!) Ambridge gives us this, a little history of how the question is used in real life situations, and links to further reading about game theory, examples, and a math website that makes jokes about frequent errors in the use of statistics.

Ambridge also uses real life scenarios like online dating statistics, whether or not to leave your present job with a struggling company, whether to change lanes in heavy traffic. I have encountered these types of questions, the results, and the studies that engendered them before but Ambridge is such a good-humored and enthusiastic host that one doesn’t mind looking the fool once again. Truthfully, I think this is the perfect book for a bright teen who may find they are interested in the way folks make decisions, reveal their prejudices, and believe fallacies. Our own errors in judgment are likewise illustrated.

And not just teens! My brother just returned from a job interview for a high-end managment job and they gave him a PSY-Q for TWO HOURS! What a riot. I wish I'd shown him the book beforehand. He at least wouldn't have been surprised or thrown by some of the questions. Well then, perhaps teens also. The teen with whom I shared the book with became immediately engrossed. He’d stated more than once that he might be interested in programming for online games. I can’t think of a more entertaining way to learn about the ways people perceive the information they are given, how they react in certain situations, and how impressionable we all are. This book is a fun way to get an education.

Ambridge is amusing, clear, and relevant. Readers may find they want to follow the web links to further information and more tests, if their interest is piqued.

This book is a Penguin Paperback Original, but it is also available as an eBook. If the links are embedded in the e-text, that might be the best way to read this book, though there is something about being able to pass around a paper copy that is appealing.


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Friday, January 2, 2015

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Klein has every reason to be depressed about the way governments the world over are relinquishing their responsibilities when it comes to air, water, and land pollution. Although she admits to faltering in looking forward to the future we have left for our children, in the end she does not quail: she comes to see that there is a glimmer of hope that humans might actually slow or stop other humans from destroying our habitat, and the habitat of other species on the planet. In fact, our salvation may only be possible if the electorate, the populace, refuse to accept what we are being offered by our governments and the corporations “serving our needs.”

Oh, what a thing man is…but Klein’s concludes that “humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy—the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.” Climate change is not merely about climate: Klein explains how it has always has been and always will be about social justice. It isn’t about the politicians or corporations, really, any more, it is about us, though it is true that corporations
“have become the authors of the laws under which they operate…In fact, current trade and investment rules provide legal grounds for foreign corporations to fight virtually any attempt by governments to restrict the exploitation of fossil fuels, particularly once a carbon deposit has attracted investment and extraction has begun. And when the aim of the investment is explicitly to export the oil, gas, and coal and sell it on the world market—as is increasingly the case—successful campaigns to block those exports could well be met with similar legal challenges, since imposing ‘quantitative restrictions’ on the free flow of goods across borders violates a fundamental tenet of trade law.”

Klein makes the inescapable point that we are currently legally bound to accept fracking, oil drilling, and coal extraction on or near our own land and that stopping it from happening requires court action. The poorest and most disenfranchised among us usually have the least tools, but fortunately in Canada and areas of the U.S., some native Indian communities find that the original land grants give them some clout when refusing extractive industry, a strange reversal of fortune in this era of “Drill, baby, Drill.”
"many non-Native people are starting to realize that Indigenous rights—if aggressively backed by court challenges, direct action, and mass movements demanding that they be respected—may now represent the most powerful barriers protecting all of us from a future of climate chaos."
This is about us. We have the power. Politicians and corporations just make the ride more comfortable or less. One could argue that they are not responsible for changing the world—we are. So…it is time to take action and put in place the kind of leadership we seek. Diverse constituencies must come together to make transformative change.

Klein makes the point that the touted “jobs” that are reaped in building, for instance, the tar-sands pipeline would be swamped by the jobs created if that investment went into green investment. And speaking of investment, it is not enough, Klein asserts, merely to divest of extraction industry stocks, but it is also necessary to reinvest those monies in the place they might do the most good: “today’s climate movement does not have the luxury of simply saying no without simultaneously fighting for a series of transformative yeses—the building blocks of our next economy that can provide good clean jobs, as well as a social safety net that cushions the hardships for those inevitably suffering hardships.”

A couple of months ago I reviewed Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a book the journalist Chris Hedges collaborated on with the graphic artist Joe Sacco. That book describes the “sacrifice zones” in the United States that sustain the extractive industries and a corporate mindset, rather than a consideration of the wider body politic by “sacrificing” certain areas of the country and land to degradation so that the rest of us can live comfortably. Klein mentions the same phenomenon, but she puts us in the driver seat:
“To fail to [confront an imminent and unavoidable climate emergency]—which is what we are collectively doing—knowing full well that eventually the failure could force government to rationalize ‘risking’ turning whole nations, even subcontinents, into sacrifice zones, is a decision our children may judge as humanity’s single most immoral act.”

Klein does discuss the responses and solutions proposed by scientists and corporate entities have given to obvious indications of climate change, to give the other side their say. But in wide discussions with the larger scientific community, the solutions thus far proposed all have hideous effects that may be worse than the problem. For instance, one idea that apparently has gained some traction is the concept of exploding sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays and some of its heat, similar to a volcanic eruption. Unfortunately, most scientists agree that this would have deleterious effects on monsoon and other weather patterns and certainly would have consequences we have not yet determined. In other words, the proposed fix is to carry on with our lifestyles and almost certainly do more damage, rather than thinking about how to conserve, protect, to think of the world and the creatures on it as a whole. We could utilize our best minds and skills to recreate our energy future, but that opportunity to date is being wasted on chimerical solutions rather than the more obvious one of paying attention.

What Klein does show us, sadly, is how in the past green movement proponents and non-profits have tried to work with oil and gas companies but have ended up in their pockets: “chummy green partnerships” she calls it. “The climate movement has found its nonnegotiables…and it is delivering some of the most significant victories the environmental movement has seen in decades.” There is a movement afoot, and motion has been detected in pockets of resistance across America and the world. It is gaining mass and momentum, and she is urging us to jump onboard and make the changes we wish to see. We have the power.

What use is despair? If we are going down, we might as well go down fighting. Klein quotes Yotam Marom, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street in New York: “The fight for climate isn’t a separate movement, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity for all of our movements. We don’t need to become climate activists, we are climate activists. We don’t need a separate climate movement; we need to seize the climate moment.” Just possibly we might be able to change the world.

This is a big book, but not a difficult or dense read, since undoubtedly the reader that picks up this book will be familiar with some of the facts. It is a fascinating discursive discussion covering the whole world when giving examples of pollution from and resistance to extractive industries. It is a massive collection and organization of information and a real work of generosity. Thank you, Naomi Klein!

--Later-- Still thinking about this book when I picked up Hannah Arendt's Responsibility and Judgment, essays written after her report on Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I found myself thinking about Arendt's definition of evil alongside Klein's thesis. Check it out here.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set them Free by Héctor Tobar

Deep Down Dark: the untold stories of 33 men buried alive in a chilean mine and the miracle that set them free
”The San José Mine [on the fringe of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile] spirals down nearly as deep as the tallest building on Earth is tall, and the drive along the Ramp from the surface to the deepest part of the mine is about five miles.

The Atacama Desert is one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world. There was once a river, the Copiapó, which ran through a city of the same name on the edge of the Atacama, but mining and population pressures have long since bled the river dry. Copiapó is where the men working in shifts of seven days on and seven days off sleep during their work week at the San José Mine. These facts alone would make a story about Copiapó fascinating, but since August 2010 we remember the province for a mining disaster that transfixed the world.

It is difficult to imagine the ordeal thirty-three men trapped deep in a Chilean mine with less than two days stored food and a few bottles of clean water must have experienced in their more than two months underground awaiting rescue. It is less difficult to imagine the despair and anxiety filling these men as they contemplated their situation.

By any common reckoning, the men should have died. At a different time or place, they might have, but by the extraordinary perseverance of the families of the miners and the efforts of an international team of mine rescuers, the men were resurrected to face life above ground once again. This is the story of their experience—how a disparate group of men working overtime to pay their bills and as a newly-formed team are trapped together in a collapsing mine by a sheared mega-block of the igneous rock diorite, precursor to granite, one-third the height and twice as heavy as the Empire State Building.

The story has a propulsion all its own. Our understanding of the ordinary stressors of a working day is amplified by the dark, hot, and humid conditions of the men's imprisonment. These men all know how mine collapses of this magnitude have been treated in the past, and must look past their expectations for weeks to hold out hope for a rescue. We saw the event unfold from the outside. Now, for the first time, we hear the inside story.

By some remarkable act of will and foresight, the men agree to share their story as a team. No member of the thirty-three will gain fortune by exploiting the story they all shared. How Héctor Tobar, U.S. citizen, correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and son of Guatemalan immigrants to the U.S., is chosen to tell the story is fascinating in itself and is shared in the New York Times Book Review Podcast.

The explosive noises, changes in air pressure, falling rock, dust and debris surrounding the men during the most severe thirty minutes of the collapse is terrifying enough. The moment the miners realize their path to the surface is blocked and the moment the rescuers discover the same news from their side of the megabloque is responded to with the exact same words: “Estamos cagados” [loose translation: “We’re fucked.”]

What happens after the men realize their predicament--how they react to one another, to their imaginations, to their hunger, pain, sorrow—is what makes this story such a remarkable document. The process of the rescue is interleaved with the telling of the internal lives of the trapped men. It is hard to put this book down, so convinced are we that we will learn something valuable about the strength and resilience of men under pressure.

The proceeds from the sale of the book (and there is talk of a movie starring Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepulveda, one of the miners with a big personality) will go to the miners themselves, which is incentive enough to buy the book, though we learn through our reading that money created more problems than they solved for these humble and stoic men. We wish them well, and god willing, a life worthy of their enormous challenge.

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