Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

Finally we have a journalistic nonfiction big and detailed enough to show the humanity behind the war in Afghanistan. I knew it could be done, had been done in fact, beginning with Rory Stewart’s chronicle of his walk though Afghanistan in 2002 just as the Taliban government fell. That book, The Places in Between, stands as the clearest, most in-depth view of the people and places with whom America has been involved for a decade. This book by Anand Gopal goes in that class. I am eternally grateful to both men for finally exposing for us the beating heart of Afghanistan.

Gopal’s exceptional journalism didn’t take hold of me at first. At first I was cringing at what I know to be true: that our military, acting on orders from above, landed in Afghanistan like creatures from outer space. They were good people, all, but their mission was undoable. They had no idea what was going on, who to trust, and how best to fulfill their mission, i.e., to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The people shifted. The mission shifted. Our soldiers struggled, and we got reports of raids gone wrong. No wonder. Gopal tells us now how any American mission could never have worked in an Afghanistan as torn and bloodied as it was in 2001.

This is the absolutely indispensable companion book to other books recounting American involvement in Afghanistan. The confusion on the ground was experienced by everyone, not just soldiers: no one knew whom to trust, who to follow, who to support. If you ever wondered who, in fact, is in Guantanamo, you have to read Gopal’s chapter “Black Holes.” By the time you have finished this chapter, you must see the absurdity and madness in the fog of war. “You survived one way and one way only: through the ruthless exploitation of everyone around you.” Men under fire just act like men after all.
"Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed would up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo. No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda."

The most affecting portrait Gopal shares is that of Heela, the Kabul University-educated wife of a UN worker in a farming village in Uruzgan. Her story illustrates the confusion and prejudice suffered by provincial residents though the period of the first election in 2004. A changing series of governors, and officials, each murdered by the one before, left in place one of the most ill-tempered and combative.
“this whole land is filled with thieves and liars…”--Hajji Zaman.

It takes one to know one.

Gopal gives us in-depth views from a Taliban leader, warlords, militiamen, fathers, husbands, wives, collaborators, militants, prisoners, and tribal leaders, but three portraits in particular: "Akbar Gul, a Taliban commander who quit after 2001, only to rejoin the movement and become an insurgent commander fighting against the U.S.; Jan Muhammad, who rose from humble origins to become a major warlord who worked closely with American forces; and Heela, a housewife from Kabul who fled to the countryside to escape the civil war."

These people we understand. Gopal allows us to see their motivations, their striving, their joys, their defeats. The dangers involved in the reporting is only mentioned in passing, but in a country where seismic shifts in alliances is everyday, it is a gift to have a journalist curious and capable enough to have done this work. An interview of Gopal with TurkeyAgenda gives his thinking about the book.

This book was a Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

”The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.”

I wonder if Gawande doesn't have that a little bit wrong. It is life that is meaningless and a misery without a larger connection, not death. Death may be a balm to those with no one to tether them, to tend to them.

My great aunt lived to be 102 years old. She would often say, looking at the younger generations, “It’s wonderful to get old.” Gawande touches on this in his memoir chronicling the death of his father and in his discussion of dying well. Older folks have more moments they classify as happy than do younger folks. Oldsters generally experience less anxiety, too, perhaps from having “seen it all before,” but perhaps also because they know bad times do pass. Usually.

I still think my great aunt was being just a little facetious, since the rest of Gawande’s book tells us pretty explicitly that old age is not for wimps. In fact, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggested in her novel The Signature of All Things, we do better when we turn towards “the great changes that life brings” rather than turn our wills away. Gawande tells us how it is possible in some cases to choose less treatment rather than more when faced with life-threatening illness and experience a better quality of life in our final days.

This is pretty grim stuff but Gawande is graceful, as graceful as he can be when the choices are so limited and so frankly horrible. When a loved one (or we ourselves) must make choices, it is wise, he counsels, to ask ourselves a few questions: What do we fear most? What do we want most to be able to do? What can/can’t we live without? What will we sacrifice so that we can accomplish what it is we want? Our choices may change as circumstances change, so one has to revisit occasionally, to make sure we (and our family and our doctors) are proceeding along the path we have chosen for ourselves.

It is almost, but perhaps not quite, enough to make one wish for a sudden, early death. We all must go through it, so we’re not alone. It’s just that medical knowledge, technology, and skill can do only so much, and after that we still have to face the inevitable. Gawande gives lots of examples of patients and of people he has known who have these choices thrust upon them. On balance, he concludes, those who accept, rather than thoughtlessly fight, a terminal prognosis have a better death.

This book is worth reading, maybe more so before you need it. Filling out the hospital’s required “health care directive” is actually difficult unless you have someone like this to explain what it actually means. No intervention may mean weeks instead of months; it may also mean calm instead of recovering from radical surgery. It may just be unbearably depressing. I get that.

One interesting study Gawande talks about is one in which people who know their time horizons are short, or who experience life-threatening conditions (e.g., living in a war zone, 9/11, surviving a tsunami) change their view of what they want out of life, their "hierarchy of needs" as defined by Maslow. People with unlimited horizons put a high premium on growth and meeting people who are interesting and influential. Those with foreshortened horizons look to their closest friends and family for sustenance and comfort. War zones may not grant you friends or family, but certainly intense, highly-charged, and memorable relationships result from them. Little is expected, much is granted. And I guess that is key. There is more generosity to go around when one is in the final days and it may be best not to occlude that blessing with a confusion of treatments that do not mean a better life.

Gawande addresses some of the most difficult questions we have to decide in a lifetime. It is not easy to read. But it helps, I think, to know what choices we can make when the time comes for someone we love or for ourselves.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter
"The way death is both near and infinitely remote, the way it freezes and somehow kindles the heat of something grotesque and maybe irresistible and sexy, which is life at its most desperate….this dark yearning is what happens when we idealize anything: the form of a woman, a landscape, a spiritual impulse. We move it closer to the realm of the dead, if not outright kill it."
Well. It’s a word Heller uses almost as punctuation throughout the novel, ending a thought, a conversation, a statement. The word has all the resonance of a bell, signaling the moment we must think for ourselves, decide its inflection, trust our narrator or not. Because we have here an artist who sees the world uniquely and reacts quickly, almost instinctively, to what he sees, to what he senses. He’s dangerous…until he is allowed to express and release his guilt and sadness over the death of his child, until he realizes he has a choice.

A couple of years ago I decided Heller’s debut The Dog Stars was one the best fiction books I’d read that year. After reading this novel I conclude that I am simply susceptible to his writing. His characters’ responses have a physicality so completely "other" from my own that I read his work with a deep curiosity. In this novel Heller addresses the nature of celebrity, the essence of evil, the knowledge of guilt, the awareness of choice, the balm of redemption.

A painter who likes to fish comes upon a man beating a tied horse. Meeting that man again in the dark while fishing a river, the painter kills the man.

I began by listening to this book on audio. I knew from the moment he began talking about fly fishing that I would read it, so I could go slow. Hot sun on cold water, a rushing river, a swirling pool, a limb casting shade…these things I must savor. When he mentioned cadmium yellow, I went out and got the paper copy.

Reading made this more accessible to me. When I saw the way the sections were divided, with gallery descriptions of paintings on display, and noted the spacing of paragraphs, everything slowed to the proper pace and got much more manageable. I sunk into this book like a lead weight through clear water. Heller hooked and played me, only to let me go at the end. It was fun; there is a little regret in being released.

Heller raises important questions about art, and the celebrity of art: does great art require emotional upheaval? He gives us his influences: Stegner, Hemingway, McCarthy, Beam (as in Jim Beam), Homer, Picasso, Delvaux. He answers the question he raises this way: Great art evokes emotion and the artist must be brave. Why brave? Because bravery is breathtaking, inspiring. Was Jim Stegner brave? Perhaps: not in the violence of his killings, but in his resistance to the characterization of criminal, of wrong-doing.
"Paintings [and novels] can take on a life of their own. It’s like stuff happens in them when you’re not looking. The crow and the horse started out as adversaries—I mean the crow would like to eat the horse, if he ever, say, jumped off the cliff and became a carcass. But instead they began to talk. I think maybe the crow cursed the horse. I told you that I thought the crow was telling the horse that he had a choice, that he didn’t have to jump after all. Well, I think that’s sort of like Eve biting the apple. You were talking about Genesis. I think it’s like that, the crow is like the serpent. He is giving the horse the awareness of choice. And with a full knowledge of choice comes a foreknowledge of death."
I can't let this review go without saying that Stegner's walk up to Ten Thousand Waves, the first sex scene with Sophia, and his description of a death-defying chase over mountains and through rivers felt positively lived. But the main argument--the grief-stricken father, the violence (thrice!), the celebrity--lacked some kind of convincing soul. I liked reading it anyway, but it struck me as a blue coyote.

Heller has the goods to write about nature, art, and us ordinary folk...what we feel when we feel deeply. We don't have to murder to screw everything up.

The audio is a Random House Audio production, read by Mark Deakins. The book in hardcover by Knopf is a lovely thing, printed as it is with the paintings’ description as section dividers. One may linger over those descriptions, getting a feel for size, for color, for sense.

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State Snowden and Greenwald were afraid the information they’d risked everything to expose would be ignored or shrugged off by the public, so inured are we to the pervasiveness of “threats” and its counterbalance “surveillance.” In one of the later chapters, Greenwald addresses the idea of privacy, and why we need it:
“Only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free—safe—to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves…it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.”
This statement contains both the reasons for and reasons against the massive state surveillance program executed under the aegis of the National Security Agency.
“We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We wouldn’t want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.”

The last two chapters of this book are extraordinarily thought-provoking: Greenwald shares his thinking on privacy and the purpose of journalism, or "the fourth estate." He is clearly angry, but his anger serves a purpose. Greenwald won several awards for his reporting on Snowden, including being named one of 2013's Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine (along with Snowden). The last two chapters of this book tell us why.

Elsewhere in the book Greenwald discusses meeting Snowden and introducing him to the world and he shares some actual screenshots of the material provided to him by Snowden. Undoubtedly some of this material and the accompanying discussion of it will help bad actors realize the extent of U.S. oversight of their activities, and allow them to think of ways to evade detection. In that sense, this has undone some of what our security agencies have put in place.

But neither Greenwald nor Snowden are traitors in the absolute sense. Mass surveillance itself makes detecting and stopping terror more difficult. There is too much information. These two shined a light on that important caveat. Greenwald and Snowden also reveal how the machinery of protection can and is being used alternatively…to obtain economic, financial, and political advantages, e.g., trade data, negotiation talking points, private correspondences between a foreign leader and her advisors…and how it can be used to monitor us, should the need arise.

We may not feel the danger now, said the frog in the warming pot. But the danger is clear, all completely beside the fact that individuals within the surveilling organizations have access to the data, anytime, anywhere. “People are willing to dismiss fear of government overreach when they believe that those who happen to be in control are benevolent and trustworthy.” How many of us can say this for successive political administrations that change party affiliation?

But what is monstrously clear to me is large numbers of people involved in instituting and executing the series of programs revealed by Greenwald and Snowden believe they are “protecting the state,” when in fact they may be doing the opposite. In the past I recall wondering how mass delusion was possible. Isn’t this another case of the phenomenon? The convincing arguments about fixing security failures have given way to clever folks believing “collect it all” is in the public interest. How they can believe it day after day, year in year out must be that their education and their economic livelihood are tied up in it: all high tech entities are involved. The system becomes inescapable. And they can’t talk to anyone about it.

I think Greenwald makes an eminently reasonable argument when he says that we have made the threat of terrorism an argument for dismantling the very protections that make our system of government so unique and so exceptional and so universally admired. We go to the dark side on that path. We have other examples of countries that have made such choices, some still operating today. I do not think that should be our goal.

Greenwald defines the concept of the “fourth estate” thusly: “those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistence on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable.”

Regarding journalistic objectivity, Greenwald is blunt: “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none.” I admit that has been an issue that has bothered me for years, having discovered a remarkable lack of objectivity in newspapers even in choosing which stories to run and which to withhold.

The final chapter in this book is a mighty indictment of the powerfully connected U.S. media establishment and celebrity reporters and finally tells me why Snowden went to Greenwald with his information, as opposed to any other news organization. It also relaxes to a certain extent the tension I experienced at the beginning of the book upon learning of Greenwald’s adversarial and aggressive stance, though I can’t help but worry that I am now being managed by Greenwald.

I think everyone can agree that Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald are brave folks. Whatever else folks have been calling them, that, at least, is the truth.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act In calm, clear, patient English McEwan presents a particularly agonizing example of the stunning success and haunting failure of a juridical system, indeed, of a well-tempered, well-disciplined judicial mind. A transcendently wise decision over a matter of life and death cannot save a vital, loving, innocent teenaged boy without concomitant fulfilment of the obligation to prepare him for the world. McEwan’s prose is precise, alluring, devilish, revealing in a paragraph a history, in a pause an acceptance. It is magisterial.

McEwan’s quietly devastating intellectual and legal thriller has the requisite two plot threads, but both occur within the confines of one character, Fiona. One thread traces the crumbling of a long-time marriage between two successful adults on the cusp of old age, and the other is defined by a case Fiona is handling in court. McEwan’s choice to make his central character a judge and a woman brings an undeniable tension to our reading. We are not accustomed to imagining the home lives of judges.

The dissolution, by silence and sighs, of a long-term marriage is distressing enough, but when neither party wants it, it is a kind of willful “suicide” and we are undone. The case that delivers the coup de grâce features a religious young man undergoing medical treatment for leukemia. His faith does not allow a life-saving blood transfusion and Fiona must decide whether he is to live with treatment or certainly die.

It is ungainly to pair the word “children” with “jurisprudence” by any stretch of the imagination, and yet that is something McEwan does here. It is something many family lawyers do every day, day in and day out, for their working lives. The tension created by the cool, educated rationality and judicial restraint exhibited in a hotly debated and divisive case of life-giving treatment versus religious scruple is stomach-churning and mind-roiling. Fiona makes a wise decision hailed by all litigants (view spoiler).

McEwan skillfully manages us by cranking up the tension and releasing it in unexpected ways. On the day Fiona visits the boy in her case to see if he is aware of the consequences of his decisions, she inappropriately experiences a thrill of excitement in contemplation of the hospital visit. Fiona "likes hospitals." She has good memories of her own hospital stay as a child. As she enters, the décor of the hospital parodies the ambiance of an international airport promising different destinations, PEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY, NUCLEAR MEDICINE, PHLEBOTOMY, in signs with motorway lettering. The absurdity of these observations helps us through our approach to the too-terrible-to-contemplate interview. The hospital scene is unexpected, surprising, life-giving--filled with tension and its not-quite release.

Another gorgeous set-piece comes months later. Nowhere had McKwen even hinted at anything so crass as sexism in the high courts. But in one slyly telling scene he has Fiona on assignment in Newcastle, staying overnight without her husband in a drafty mansion with four other judges
“in dark suits and ties, each holding a gin and tonic, [who] ceased talking and rose from their armchairs as she entered.” At dinner, “after a hiatus of polite dithering, it was agreed that, for the sake of symmetry, Fiona should sit at the head. So far she had barely spoken.” During the dinner conversation about ongoing cases under adjudication, one diner solicitously interrupts Fiona’s closest dinner companion with “I hope you realize just how distinguished a judge this is that you’re talking to.”
Just in case you missed her significance.

Even when Fiona is away from court and home there is tension. She has set herself up to open Christmas Revels in the Great Hall, playing Berlioz, Mahler, Schubert on piano in front of colleagues where “standards were punitively high for an amateur affair…It was said they knew a bad note before it was played.” Her schedule permits little time for practice, but when she finally is able to schedule a practice with the barrister with whom she is to perform, he spends acres of precious time ranting about a case he is working on, while we listen and grow anxious.

The lawyerly rants seeded throughout the novel serve many purposes. The first crushes any notion of pure Justice. Any system of justice made by imperfect persons will be imperfect. We also can see the eminent reasonableness of the barristers in their struggle to serve justice. The rants increase the readers’ tension not only because they may be long and complicated but because we know any ruling will be fraught with dissent and division. These things place a judge in an intolerable position. Fiona recognizes in law concerning children “kindness…[is] the essential human ingredient.”

One cannot help but imagine a terrific movie being made from this carefully crafted short novel. Sections of it read like stage directions, so much do we learn from a glance, a setting, a situation. So much of the tension in the relationship between Fiona and her husband is manifestly visual and unspoken, so polite and yet so hurtful. And the boy. We want to see the boy.

McEwan writes with such economy, clarity, humor, and insight that it is always a joy to discover what he will to focus on next. The 2014 hardcover edition published by Doubleday is beautifully printed, and a pleasure to hold, to read. I even like the cover. The novel is a stunning success. Kudos all round on this one.

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