Book Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
ISBN: 978-1-59780-157-7
Publisher: Night Shade Books

Paolo Bacigalupi presents us with a devastating vision of the world that could be should we allow the corporations with their production of GMOs to control our food supply as they seem disturbingly intent upon doing. He also reminds us that change and suffering are constants in human existence.

Everything is under extreme tension in Bacigalupi’s Thailand city of Krung Thep. Seagates guard the city from inundation, but during the monsoons must be augmented with coal-fired pumps, which add to the environmental degradation, which in turn has led to rising ocean levels. Starvation is held at bay with genetically modified foods, which are susceptible to toxic diseases. Everything created to solve one problem creates another.

So many millions have died since the disappearance of cheap energy and safe food crops that the departed must wait and wait and wait for suitable bodies to reincarnate. They hang about waiting, sometimes engaging in conversation with the living.

And the tension spring is the primary power supply for almost everything. Trains are powered by them, but the vast majority of people travel no faster than a bicycle. A vehicle from the “expansion” era travels at speeds almost incomprehensible for the people of Krung Thep and are as rare as snow leopards.

There are new beings in this world. Cheshire cats, genetically engineered as a birthday gift to a modern Alice, have supplanted the domestic feline. There are new people, too. People made of recombined DNA of animals and humans to exhibit the obedience of dogs and the strength and speed of the swiftest and strongest of animals. There are also flaws deliberately engineered into these people. They cannot reproduce and their cooling system is deficient causing them to overheat quickly.

But they are human in shape and thought and feelings. Most everyone regards them as less than human, without souls. It is the old argument. That which has no soul is less than and can be created, exploited and disposed of without consideration, without karmic consequence.

Is this a story about the tension between good and evil? It could be, but The Windup Girl is not that simple. It is a story about choices and about the consequence of choice. Ultimately, the characters must make choices they can live with and in that way are all, including the windup girl herself, exactly like the rest of us.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Review: The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century

Title: The Fourth Century
Author: Édouard Glissant
Translation: Betsy Wing.
ISBN: 0-8032-7083-6
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 2001

“All this wind…”

These are Papa Longoué’s first words in The Fourth Century by Édouard Glissant. The wind is a constant theme in the novel. It is a wind of enormous force, a hurricane which carries off his silent wife, Edmée, to her death. It is the wind of history, of our own histories which if not known blows us all to our deaths, asleep. The Fourth Century awakens the dead and gives them voice. This is the African descendants’ history of Martinique. A history not written, not examined, trivialized by the French colonialists who, as the conquerors, the ones in power, annihilate the people they must control by annihilating their languages and histories.

History is written by the dominant culture and is primarily concerned with the battles and victories of the most powerful and wealthy in that culture. The Fourth Century departs from that paradigm and presents the oral history of the African descendants’ experience as slave, as maroon, as freed men and women, as toilers in the soil, as individuals and families seeking meaning and life on the island, while never quite able to forget or remember the “infinite country” from which they were torn.

Glissant’s stream of consciousness approach creates a prose poem of a novel, beautiful from the beginning to the end. In many ways it is incomprehensible for the non-African, non-Martinican, but what is gleanable, what is knowable, is so worth knowing that what is unknowable can only be mourned, not ignored. To read Glissant is to begin to scratch the back of the mirror, to see through the slivers to another world.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Book Review: Snow

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Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
ISBN: 0-375-40697-2
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
A novel about Turkey

Ka is a man on a journey who does not know where his next step will take him. He is a poet who can no longer write poetry, an atheist no longer certain of the absence of God, an observer incapable of seeing. He has outlived the reason for his exile, but has been so long away from Turkey that its cultural nuances escape him. Yet he has never learned the language of his adopted country and has spent his years in exile reciting old poetry to small audiences of ex-patriots.

It is his mother’s funeral that brings him back to Turkey, but it is on an errand for a newspaper editor that he travels to Kars. That, and love.

Kars is in Eastern Turkey, situated at a height of 1750 feet. Its winters are harsh and long and it is often isolated by snow. In fact Kars is snow in Turkish and is a shortened version of its original name, which meant snow-water for the ponds of water left by melting snow. It is an ancient city on the path between Armenia and the rest of Turkey, For more than 900 years, it has been an intermittent battleground for conquering armies of Kurds, Armenians, Russians and Turks. Pamuk frequently refers to the beautiful, empty, decaying Armenian buildings, visible reminders of one conquering wave. Mentioning these buildings is a controversial act as Pamuk is one of those who maintain the unpopular assertion that Armenian Turks met with genocide during the Crimean War at the hands of their Turkish countrymen.

Westerners have a tendency to view the east as mysterious, as if there is a veil of culture we cannot penetrate. Parmuk uses the substance of snow to symbolize that veil.

The snow of Kars enshrouds, isolates, mutes, silences. The veil at its most complete is a shroud that Islamic women wear to protect them. But the impoverished dead also wear shrouds to protect them from gazes they cannot return, and from the earth which surrounds them. We refer to things we do not understand or misunderstand as being shrouded in mystery. The greatest, most shrouded mystery is that of God by whatever name you use. The never-ending journey is the one toward understanding. The agnostic / atheist mistrusts the religious who claim to have knowledge of the nature of deity.

Snow enshrouds Ka on his journey to Kars and throughout his visit. The bus bringing Ka to Kars is the last one to arrive before the roads are closed due to the storm and though isolation due to storm may be an annual event in this remote city, it nevertheless has the effect of suspending the normal culture during Ka’s visit. Things happen when daily life is interrupted, when travel is restricted and work slows or halts altogether, when people with time on their hands look for ways to fill the time. There is a kind of constant snow in Kars and the countryside where unemployment is high. Restless men sit in tea shops, sit at the feet of holy men, join the military, ponder their unhappy plight and consider who is to blame.

In Turkey, the east meets the west and Islam meets Christianity. Urbanized Turks seem to have one foot in Europe while those further from Istanbul are inclined to fear that Europe will erase their culture.

Ka had escaped to the west (Germany) as a young man fleeing a crackdown on leftist radicals. While at university, he became an atheist which, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, marked him as an intellectual who has adopted the European/Western culture and, more importantly, as one who has rejected the Turkish/Middle Eastern culture.

The poet left his creative well in Turkey and cannot be a poet in another land. In all his years of exile he has not been able to write a single poem.

Ka is a name the poet chose for himself as a child. It is the primary initials of both his first and last names, which Ka disliked so much that he chose to use just the initials. Ka represents the life-force in ancient Egyptian religion and whether or not Pamuk named his main character for this reason, I am left with the sense that he is describing the life-force of Turkey as that of a flawed poet.

Pamuk’s Turkey is as ambivalent as Ka. Civically secular, it is also very much Islamic. Elements in Turkey have tried to maintain the separation between religion and state that Atatürk instituted as the first President of Turkey. But a significant faction in Turkey is not comfortable with this and constantly agitates for theocratic rule.

Ka’s religious ambivalence is revealed as he weeps in the presence of a holy man. He feels a yearning for Allah, but only in the holy man’s presence. Once outside of the apartment, where the faithful and the troubled come to unburden their hearts, he returns to his normal state of mind, re-entering, with some relief, the secular civic structure of Turkey. Though he is most comfortable in that secular environment, he remains wistful. Not only does a part of him exist on a spiritual level and his poetry flows out of that level, but it is possible that even as he is puzzled by them, he envies those who have no doubts.

Central to the plot is a theatre of the absurd. A coup literally staged by an aging itinerant actor and the local military corps aided by the police and the ever-present and distrusted secret police. He recognizes that Ka, as a poet and erstwhile reporter, is his best hope of immortality. He orders the poet brought into audience with him and uses him in his manipulation of events.

Snow is dialectic and the central dialogue occurs in a conversation at the Hotel Asia arranged by Ka, from which he is absent. Blue, the revolutionary accompanied by a chorus of Islamic radicals, argues with an adamant atheist, and the Islamic feminist daughter of the atheist. It is an Asian dialogue: Does commerce (social and economic) with the west contain the seeds of destruction of Asian culture. Does Turkey, by opening itself up to the ideas of the west, by embracing what the west offers, risk losing its culture, its unique identity? Will it lose God in the process? If it does not embrace the West and the EU, will it become irrelevant in the modern world? Will Turkey sink deeper into poverty? These are questions that burn under the surface, around which the dialogue dances.

Though Ka is not in the Hotel Asia, he does become entangled in this conversation because of the nature of the journalistic errand, which has brought him to Kars. It is a story of suicides of Islamic schoolgirls who have been forbidden to wear the scarf of the devout Muslim to school. What is the connection between these suicides and the edict which has banned them from wearing the scarf? An editor friend has asked Ka to make the journey to Kars and report on the phenomenon.

No one seems to know the truth about the suicides and no one seems to want to know. The young women appear to be unknowable. Their motives are hidden by the barrier of death and the lack of knowledge even their families appear to have about them, as if they are ciphers. At least one of the girls has become idealized.

Conversely, everyone in Kars knows why Ka is there. His every step, every interview is known. People seek him out and tell him that he must not believe this one or that one.

Blue is a rebel, an Islamist, fiercely opposed to secular government. He is the lover of Kadife, a young woman whose actions may have inspired the suicides. A man like Blue helps the disaffected to name who is at fault, what is at fault: the West, those who want to join the European Union and the secular state which orders that Muslim girls cannot wear scarves to school. Like everyone else with a point to make, Blue exploits the suicides. Though he is a wanted man in hiding, suspected of being behind terrorist attacks and assassinations, he demands an audience with Ka. Blue, in particular, wants to set Ka straight about the reason for the suicides, though it becomes apparent that he, himself, does not know.

Ka is also seeking love. He agrees to go to Kars not because he is intrigued by the story, but because he knows there is a recently divorced woman living there whom he knew at University. He remembers that she was very beautiful and although he was not interested in her as a youth, he becomes obsessed with her almost before he even sees her again. He pursues his obsession throughout the story. He believes that she represents his last chance at love, his last chance to avoid a lonely old age. He wants to bring her back to Germany to live with him. Ipek may symbolize Turkey and the hopelessness of a love affair with a country you can no longer call home. Ka makes love to her, believes he does love her, is almost convinced that she will love him and that she will leave with him. Ipek is nominally westernized. Her sister is Kadife (Blue’s lover). If Ipek symbolizes Turkey leaning westward, Kadife symbolizes Turkey leaning eastward. Both women appear rational and thoughtful.

In Kars, Ka writes poem after poem. Thirteen poems pour out of him almost whole. He is so focused on writing these poems down that he is distracted even occasionally from pursuing the object of his desire. Ka is removed, he is the journalist, the reporter, the observer. As an observer he is never completely involved in the scene around him. This makes him the ultimate go-between, the mediator and negotiator for the actor who is pulling the strings of the coup. But no matter how removed an observer believes himself to be, he impacts what he observes, and this Ka does in tragic ways.

Parmuk’s prose as translated by Maureen Freely is flawless, beautiful, hypnotic. He ignites a desire to know more about Turkey, to know what can be unveiled while understanding that language itself is the ultimate shroud, the guardian and container of culture.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Book Review

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Thrity Umrigar
ISBN: 073946986X
William Morrow
A novel of privilege and poverty, of love and betrayal.

I was on the MAX, where I spend a good bit of my time, nearing my station, and I still had about five pages to go. I briefly considered staying on the train until I’d read those last few pages. I abandoned that in favor of sitting on a bench in Holladay Park, in the shade. There was no way I could wait until I got home. Breaking the spell with the bike ride and dinner just wasn’t an option. I had to know what choice Bhima would make.

Umrigar sets her story of love and betrayal in Bombay (Mumbai), India, a vast coastal city, in a country that has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years. This portrait of two Indian women is evocative and moving; written with grace, humility, and compassion. Sera is a Parsi, descended from Persians who immigrated to India a thousand years ago and have become a wealthy and powerful class. What matters about her servant, Bhima, is that she is not Parsi. She is a lower-caste Hindu woman whose circumstances have gone from poor to miserable. Bhima is clearly the more sympathetic character even though she often reacts to turmoil by physically and emotionally attacking those she loves the most. She fears for them, and her fear causes her to punish them, because she truly doesn’t know what else to do. She reacts like a trapped animal, chewing at her own flesh to obtain freedom.

Umrigar’s novel deepened my undertanding of oppression and how very much prejudice is a vehicle for cruelty; an excuse for it. Deeply internalized prejudice distances the abuser from the object of abuse and this is the case with the antagonists in The Space Between Us. They cannot help knowing that they are being cruel, but they believe it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t because they are the “ruling” class. Ruling in the sense that their privilege gives them power over the classes beneath them. A power so nearly absolute that it may as well be such. Certainly the classes beneath them have a part in supporting the illusion of relative intrinsic worth. But their collusion is hardly voluntary. It is how they survive. They cling to the edge of life and anything can sever their hold.

Societal taboos are among the tools the ruling classes use to differentiate themselves from others and subjugate the workers. Since being a poor subject is generally a miserable way to live, poor subjects try to conform to the ostensible behavior of the ruling classes. But these efforts only succeed in the poor binding themselves more certainly into virtual slavery. Rejecting the social taboo and refusing to define oneself by the terms of the ruling classes is a step seldom taken without education. Ignorance has a deadening effect on the accomplishment of freedom.

Sera, the Parsi woman, wants to believe that she regards Bhima as no less human than herself, but finds herself unable to allow the servant to sit on her furniture or use her utensils to eat or drink. Yet, she does not see the contradiction in the fact that Bhima is the one who prepares the food the Parsi family eats and washes the utensils they eat it with. Nor does Sera fully recognize that paying Bhima is not an act of generosity.

Though devestating in its portrayal of oppression and exploitation, this is a story, not a diatribe. The Space Between Us is skillfully and vividly rendered. Simply, quite powerful.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

You can’t sleep here

The old woman is sleeping. Her eyes are closed and her chin sits on the top of her bundle of possessions. Her hands dangle in her lap, arms rest on her thighs. She sits heavily on the blue metal bench. Her gray hair is neatly fashioned in a tight bun on the top of her head. The woman wears no makeup on her pale, slightly ruddy face. Her clothes have that washed-out no particular color look and fit loosely over her large body.

The green plastic chair is the first thing I see as I approach the transit station. It is overturned and tied to the top of her cart. Everything and nothing gives her away as someone who has nowhere to go. But mostly it is the cart or rather the possessions in the cart, which I can’t actually see. I can see several full plastic bags and something large and dark blue. It could be a blanket or a sleeping bag folded up. Everything in the cart is as tidy as her hair. The cart is not a grocery store cart. It is the kind of two-wheeled cart one can buy to tote groceries from the store.

This is what I see as I pass. I think how hard it is to just get enough sleep when you are homeless. You sleep in small frames of time never having enough to really recharge, to really give your body and your mind, particularly your mind, what it so needs to survive. Thriving is a wistful dream. Sleep deprivation kills. Even this kind of sleep deprivation shortens your life even if you have a place to live and plenty of nutritional food and exercise and love. If you don’t have these things, there is no reserve and sleep deprivation is more lethal.

While housed people are thinking about how to have healthier longer lives, the old woman just wants to sleep. And Christ, is that too much to ask? Apparantly so. As I board the train, I see two police, one on each side of her. I see her outstretched hand holds something. An identification? The train begins to move slowly out of the station and the woman stands up, begins pushing her cart, moves away from the bench, from sleep. Weariness in her every lumbering step.

Be here now — We’re not

Six degrees of separation is about connectivity. The theory is that you know A who knows B who knows C who knows D who knows E who knows F. Though at the time it was postulated at five degrees, the theory was first developed in 1929 in response to the observation that telephonic communication and faster modes of travel were shrinking the social world making distance less relevant in the structuring of our social webs. The closer we are bound together by our technology, the less constrained we are by time and distance. Crossing the ocean can be physically accomplished in a matter of hours for those with the necessary resources. Almost anyone can cross that same distance with their voice in the time it takes to establish the connection. Speed dial shortens this time to a press of one button, and if the call is answered immediately, then maybe one or two seconds have elapsed.

Six degrees of separation may or may not be an accurate theory. It is of mathematical design, tested by mathematicians at universities. It makes a good round for the internet and everyone tries to reach Kevin Bacon, which runs his name through everyone’s mind and ups his famosity meter. Now Bacon is using the concept to raise money for charities.

As we draw closer together, separation from our physical world is increasing. We have accomplished six degrees of separation from being present in the world. Here I define the world as the natural world. Earth, sky, water, time. Soil, stream, air, this moment, last moment, next moment.

Separation level one–asphalt or concrete path between our feet and the soil;

Separation level two–vehicle traffic drowns out the sounds of nature of things that live in the sky;

Separation level three–ipod music, separates us from the sounds of traffic;

Separation level four–cell phone separates us from our spatial environment by placing us with the other person in a kind of telephonic space;

Separation level five–cell phone texting separates us from the sound of another person’s voice into the more abstract and symbolic world of cyberspace;

Separation level six–cell phone with camera which interprets the visual world while we text so that we do not see directly where we are, but only through the filter of the camera lens.

Sharks, guppies & puppies

Evening, Gresham Central Transit Station. Max is stopped, the gate is down, no way I’m going to catch it. I run with my bike because I don’t want to get a ticket for riding on the platform. I can’t believe it. I’m going to catch it . . . right up to the doors and I’m lifting my bike to take the stairs . . . the door closes in front of me.

It’s not raining. I won’t get pissy about it. I make the call home. Just missed the train. A courtesy guy gives me a strobe light for signaling buses in the dark. He talks about bus drivers who won’t stop, how the city has grown and isn’t friendly. People from other places, he says, from harder places bring their meanness. His accent is south of the border, but he’s a Portlander, looking at the strangers who are making this place hard.

Over Courtesy Guy’s shoulder Guardian Angel approaches, belly hanging over his large winged silver belt buckle. Bright yellow nunchucks dangle from his belt. He holds up his cell phone/camera and snaps the inside of the shelter. Seeing something there invisible to me. A police cruiser slips up to the curb. I can see it through the etched and frosted leaves, idling there, watching the Angel. Or watching for gangstas, or watching for kids on skateboards, for maniacs in wheelchairs who stop on the tracks and refuse to move, watching for ticket sharing scofflaws. Society’s delicate balance at risk. The cruiser moves on. The Angel flips through the pictures he took. A not-in-service train comes, stops impotently, goes, and finally, the westbound to Hillsboro train.

I call my friend whose brother can’t find his way. He’s living in his truck, smells of diesel and decay. He’s calling shelters, getting that TB test next week. She can’t let him stay, can’t lose her housing. She can’t take care of her brother. It’s so hard to live in a world about money and property, not people.

I hear cards shuffling and watch a boy in a hoodie. Young card shark, shuffles his deck. Says to the boy across the aisle, “Hey dude. Hey dude. Hey dude, pick a card.”

The boy shakes his head, but finally takes a card. Shark says, “Remember your card. Remember your card.” He places the card on the top of the deck and says, “Tell me when to stop cutting.” Cuts the deck three or four times, the boy says stop. Shark starts tossing the cards, one by one, on an empty seat. He goes fast. Only hesitates once. Then he stops, says, “I guarantee. I guarantee. The next card is yours. If it’s not yours, I pay you $5 dollars, if it is yours, you pay me $1. Are you in?”

I can see the boy’s been drawn in, but doesn’t want to be. He shrugs. The shark flips the card. “Is that your card?”

“No.”

“Damn, I lost five bucks.” The shark gathers up his cards. Some new people get on the train and he tries to pull them in to his game. Finally starts a rap about all the kinds of dope he has on himself. ”I’ve got weed, meth, you name it. I got all kinds of dope.” No takers. He changes his patter. Says, “This is Oregon it’s green up here. Not California. This ain’t California.” Then he goes on about Miss California and marriage between men and women and those democrats complaining about Miss California and at 60th, he gets off the train.

Dogs on the train start barking at each other.

It’s Portland.

We’ll end this thing one swine at a time

Egypt is killing all its pigs. A swineless country on the Nile. That’s just crazy, but if we can’t blame it on the pigs then who? Conspiracy theories. This morning I woke up thinking why haven’t I heard any good conspiracy theories about swine flu. I thought, must be somebody who thinks the drug cartels in Mexico are behind it, must be somebody who thinks a secret government lab in the US has infiltrated Mexico and spread the virus in order to test a new biological weapon delivery system, must be someone who belives that Mexican immigrants are being used by Al-Qaida to weaken the infidel with flu so that they can swoop down upon us with scimitars and mullahs and veil all our women and carry off our children, there has to be a chem-trail conspiracist somewhere who is absolutely certain that the virus fell from the sky. And damn me, if I didn’t find almost everyone of these theories whipping around the internet like eggwhites in a cuisinart.

Was it too warm today?

Some days are just not meant for bitchin’. Everyone floated up to the surface today, stretched, and felt the glorious sun for the first time in many months, a warm sun, a beautiful warm day. We biked out to Peninsula Park, sat between the baseball games and the fountain. We watched a squirrel precariously balancing on one of the topmost twigs of a bare tree. I’d never seen a squirrel go so high. I can’t imagine what it was after, maybe the sun. 

I thought about what it would be like to play the cello in the gazebo. If I knew how to play one, I would go to Peninsula Park on the first warm day in Spring and pull my bow across the strings, bring out that mellow resonance. Cellos, oboes, bassoons, English horns–for me these are like comfort food. There is no anxiety in such instruments. Sadness, melancholy, but no anxiety and no shallowness. 

But I did complain later about being just a little too warm. Just a little. Not enough to jinx it, I think.

Cosmic Dust

We speak of old mountains eroding away, crumbling, truncated by eons of wind, rain, earthquake. But what is old on this planet, this earth? What does it mean to be young? To be old? Even the cosmic dust is as old in its elements as the oldest particle. It is the reformation that is new. As mountains, one is new, another is old. As matter, all are the same.

 

I like to think of cosmic dust falling through the planet’s atmosphere, burned in the friction of air to an invisible speck. So small it slips into a pore of my skin, meanders with determined gravity past cellular atoms to fall out of me at some point of exit further down nearer the ground and there on the earth it lies, slightly contaminated by contact with my interior self. 

 

I imagine it is an infinitesimal fraction of a long dead race of beings come to rest here. I put out my tongue and taste the memories of others dropping radiant from the sky.