Thursday, October 19, 2017

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Hardcover, 355 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Grove Press ISBN13: 9780802126450 Literary Awards: National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2017); Man Booker Prize Long List (2017)

This deeply impactful novel, contrary to what the title might suggest, is not merely beautifully written and proportioned; it is weighted with historical, cultural, philosophical, and political insights from an area of the world well hidden from the sight and understanding of the majority of Americans. The novel is so dense with authentic-seeming detail that it demands the kind of close attention few novels warrant.

In a L.A. Times interview, Charmaine Craig tells us this novel is based on her mother Louisa’s story. Craig could not have done a better job of memorializing her mother’s memory, and it was heartbreaking to hear her recount meeting the popular Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi a few years ago and being recognized as her mother’s child.

Craig spent nearly a decade writing this novel, using some of the time researching and reading declassified CIA documents to see how her mother’s first husband was murdered in the process of peace talks with the Burmese leadership, apparently with the help of some double-dealing by the CIA. Her mother, a one-time beauty queen, became a leader of Karen rebels in the mountainous eastern region of Burma. While at first Craig did not want the book to be political, it is clearly a political document, and extremely informative for that. It puts the political wrangling in Burma, particularly now in this time of Burma’s opening to the West and the Rohingya persecution, in historical and global perspective.

Books of such regional particularity are rare things in English; that Craig attempts to share with us the tumultuous experience of her parents and grandparents growing up in such a consequential time and in such a distant clime is a rare gift. What makes this spectacular novel well worthy of its place on the 2017 Man Booker Prize long list is not the accuracy of its history, but how Craig’s characters navigate and philosophize their roles in their own fictional histories. Deeply meaningful statements on the human condition are sprinkled throughout the book, observations and philosophies articulated by one or another character facing a great challenge.

The predominant religion of Burma is Buddhist, though many Karens are animist or Christian. Craig spent some time explaining the following phrase:
“It is better to be in a position of having to ask for charity than to be in the position of never having to ask.”
This sounds very close to a lesson I’d once heard from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who said that having less than one needed offered an opportunity for developing and expressing compassion. Craig explains that having to ask for something develops one’s spiritual muscle.

In another circumstance, Craig draws a lesson from a Jewish rabbi when one of her characters is appealing for advice:
“One of man’s injunctions is to strive to live joyously. In the face of these terrible wars abroad, when our very peace is threatened, we must find a way to rejoice in our circumstances. We must find a way to do more than endure.”
What a remarkable and completely freeing and true thing to say. At the end of the novel, several characters look upon their lives and recognize this necessity to strive…to find greatness in the midst of failure. The lessons are applied, and it is grace-giving and forgiving and loving, despite all.

Individuals engaged in a civil war lasting generations are concerned with the state of their souls:
"I’ve been trying to figure out all these years—in defending our rights with this revolution—is whether or not we have the right to kill…It seems clear enough that violence, murder even of the murderous, is a surrender of a kind. But do we have the right to stand by and watch people be made slaves…"
I love that Craig asks these big, earthshaking questions because the answers are the things that may save us. The questions show us we are worthy to be saved. We will all come across these questions in the course of a life and to have a story big enough, consequential enough, to introduce them without pedantry is a tremendous gift.

Craig mentioned in her interview that she worked as an actress for a time until the stereotyping in Hollywood became too much of an obstacle to great work. I can tell her from this side of the screen the failures of imagination by casting directors and producers are agonizingly apparent. But I wish I could encourage her to “be the change you seek” and to write for the screen if she can. I would tell her the country is hungry for diversity of color and experience and she is likely to be very successful, if that is where her heart lies.

I feel so grateful for this big dense book of history and imagination. Craig is enormously talented and I wish her every success. The book is also available in audio, read by the author, produced by Blackstone Audio. The author has a disconcertingly American voice when one might expect something accented, even British. However, were Craig to publish the book she says in the interview that she wrote first--the one about her mother and herself growing up--that American accent would make all kinds of sense. Sounds like a good sequel, doesn't it?

However one consumes this book, I highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Hardcover, 457 pages, Pub June 13th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company ISBN13: 9780316270755 Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

I'd never read Sherman Alexie's first great breakout book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I'm not sure why. I was interested; perhaps I was saving it. Instead I chose to read at this time his new memoir which could also be read as a eulogy for his mother.

His upbringing sounds like it was a rough time all round. His parents were alcoholics. Sherman didn't come out unscathed, but he has been reaching out--he is fearless in revealing himself and his family. Perhaps he has found this makes him more likable, relatable.

The end papers of this hardcover memoir are printed with a quilt pattern. Alexie tells us his mother quilted all the time, even through the night. He himself has at least ten quilts of hers and he uses all of them. But when his mother died, he wanted to collect all the quilts she'd left behind and burn them all. I didn't get the impression he did so. For whatever reason.

Lillian, that was her name. Lillian was one of the last speakers of his ancestor's native language. In a chapter entitled "Eulogy," Alexie repeats the phrase My mother was a dictionary over and over, every couple lines, but she never taught me the tribal language. The poem ends,
She always said to me, 'English will be your best weapon.'
She was right, she was right, she was right.
Perhaps my favorite poem is one of his shortest, called "Communion" in which sentiment pairs with form:
we worship
the salmon

because we
eat salmon
The chapter entitled "Missionary Position" will stay with me a very long time. While in high school, one of Alexie's friends said something deeply racist in his company, having momentarily forgotten he was Indian. He ended up dating her for a few years, and once gave her a pawnshop ring that was worth $20. When they broke up, she gave the ring back. He sold it back to the pawnshop for $10.

In the beginning of the book, in a chapter called "Scatalogical," Alexie explains there is something called a grief poop. After everyone had left the funeral home, two days after the death of his mother, Alexie stayed behind to use the restroom. A sign hung on the wall behind the toilet: Please be gentle with our toilet. The pipes are old. Be judicious in your use of toilet paper. He tells us "I took the largest shit of my life. I expelled everything." He ended up breaking up the poop into pieces and had to hold the pieces in his hand so he could flush them in four tries. "Thing was as big as a walrus." I'd never known about grief poops, but it makes sense.

Alexie's work has become indispensable for the well-read American. One cannot claim any credibility as a reader without having dipped a foot into his world and walked awhile in his boots. Reading Alexie is a kind of responsibility.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Hardcover, 784 pages, Pub Jan 12th 2016 by Princeton Univ Press ISBN13: 9780691147727, Language: English, Series: Princeton Economic History of the Western World, Awards: Cundill Prize in Historical Literature Nominee (2016)

The most remarkable thing about this look at economic development in the United States since 1870 are two things: the size of the book, and the fact that it is readable. While size and subject are intimidating, the writing style is friendly and accessible, even to non-economists, and one comes to see the advantages of having all this information in one book rather than in several. Published in 2016 by Princeton University Press, this work must be a source of pride among those who worked on it. It is has real weight.

Since I concentrated my efforts on conclusions rather than proofs, I only skimmed this Hummer-of-a-tome, but I found that each chapter had something useful, surprising, and remarkable about it. What Gordon is saying can have startling implications for how we look at the next forty years economically-speaking. His forecasts will matter to how we construct public policy, e.g., growth will continue to decline, wealth inequalities will continue to increase. Even if he is only showing us the outcomes of what we have wrought, intentionally or not, he helps us to envision what comes next.

As his title foretells, Gordon tries to explain the extraordinary rise in productivity from 1928-1950 and its decline from the 1950-2014 by saying that big innovations along with education and WWII spurred a growth we haven’t seen since, and that even the technological revolution in the early 1990s did not produce as large a change in productivity as earlier innovations like railroads, cars, immigration, financial instruments, women in the marketplace, etc.

What I like about Gordon’s writing is that he proposes we use basic economic theory to explain certain observable phenomenon, like the upsurge in labor productivity in the 1920-1950 interval.
"In a competitive market, the marginal product of labor equals the real wage, and economists have shown that labor’s marginal product under specified conditions is the share of labor in total incomes times output per hour. If the income share of labor remains constant, then the growth rate of the real wage should be equal to that of labor's average product, the same thing as labor productivity. Could an increase in real wages have caused, directly or indirectly, the upsurge in labor productivity that occurred between the 1920s and 1950s?"
We should really be looking at the need to increase real wages now, to solve issues of productivity and growth, taxes and national income, income inequalities and budget deficits. I believe even Republican small-government adherents will be shocked at what increased wages will unleash in the cash-starved labor economy. A corporation's profitability will be affected, but there is plenty of fat in the wage system that can be cut. We can’t force corporations to flatten their pay scales to increase payments at the lower end of wage scale and decrease payments at the top, but we can, and have, used tax policy and other inducements to curb the worst tendencies.

Gordon explanation for the American Great Leap Forward in economic terms was the Great Depression and World War II. The New Deal was the result of the Great Depression, raising real wages and a shrinkage in weekly work hours. Substitution from labor to capital as a result of real wage increase is evident in the data on private equipment investment. Additionally, the reorganization of business after the drop in profits and output increased efficiencies not realized to that time. The effects of a war economy on top of these changes is clear.

What really struck me about Gordon’s charts and graphs is how closely productivity and growth aligned with the entry of women into the marketplace in significant numbers, and how, when they retreated to fuel the baby boom, growth subsided. Know it is only a factor, but just sayin’…maybe we should let women run the country and the economy for awhile 👧🏽 and see what happens. There is no question there would be changes in how we do business.

Ultimately Gordon is not prescriptive except to say that we should be putting much more money into preschool education than we are currently doing, given its proven benefits. We could also basically ‘brain drain’ the rest of the world through immigration policy, if we wanted. That idea makes me uncomfortable, but so does the irrational immigration policy we have been pursuing for the past two administrations. The immigration policies of the current administration do not bear discussion.

Paul Krugman reviews Robert Gordon.

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