Monday, October 27, 2014

Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok

I want to talk to you today about an ambitious novel by a local writer and political activist, Benjamin Parzybok. The name of the novel is Sherwood Nation. A problem for all fiction writers is that of inducing the reader to suspend disbelief, and for dystopian or utopian novels, the suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult to achieve. The setting for this book is a possible future for Portland after a profound drought has set in and water rationing is mandatory. As the drought progressed, the Deschutes dried up in a single summer, and,
Finally, the greatest of them all, the Columbia River, its sources choked in mud, leaked its death-song through the gorge, and became only a scaly alligator skin of memory. In its wake, valleys turned to deserts, fertile farms to dust, and the great migration East began.
I have to admit upfront that I found this novel tough sledding, and not only because I had trouble suspending disbelief. Since I am fortunate in that I can read whatever I want, and reading is my main work, I am spoiled and used to fine writing. In the end, I think this novel is much more interesting and important for the political questions it raises than for the story itself. For the most part, I’ll leave the political questions up to Norm Diamond in his interview with Benjamin also included in this show. Unlike many futuristic books including those that attempt to raise political consciousness, this is a serious and mostly successful attempt to create real characters, and to let much of the action be determined by the characters portrayed. By the end of the book (though not during much of the long middle sections), I found myself really wanting to know the outcome—concerned for the fate of the main characters and for the city-state they had created. 

The plot of the book is long and rather complicated, and I have no intention of giving way the story, but I will say that it begins with a brave act carried off by a few people who decide to call attention to illegal water deliveries being made to rich folks in the West Hills. This small group decides to waylay one of these unmarked water trucks as a way to call attention to the illegal distribution. Renee is one member of this small band; she is injured in the attempt to commandeer the truck, and the local media get plenty of footage of her bleeding and wounded but handing out water to the group of onlookers who surround the truck. She is dubbed by the media as Maid Marian of Robyn Hood fame—one who steals from the rich to give to the poor. 

Renee (a.k.a. Maid Marian) has a boyfriend named Zach who is one of few who still has a job; he works for an advertising agency that works for the Mayor. Although sympathetic to Renee’s anger and frustration about city management and water distribution, he is unable to act with her, because he sees no fruitful outcome from her activities. Like many activists, Zach is paralyzed by uncertainty and the need to make sure causes he fights for are pure and have some real chance of succeeding. His need for purity and certainty frustrate Renee,
Zach—you’re always planning. And organizing and cataloging and recording and doing every preliminary step so as to avoid acting. I think what you do—writing ads, trying to make what the city needs palatable—is great. I mean it’s a mixed bag, you know that, and you’re doing what you can in there. But somebody has got to be out here on the front line.
I have heard complaints like this one from many activists, and I certainly see myself as one of those who stalls and waits for the right cause, the right moment, and it seems often simply to be an excuse for not acting. And yet, what to do? How do we bring about real change?

Because Renee’s water action is caught by the media, she quickly becomes a popular celebrity, and heads up a plan for a NE neighborhood to secede from the city, take up the task of water distribution as well as the safety and security of the neighborhood. Before long, she heads up what gets called Sherwood Nation, a kind of city-state that cuts itself off from city services and governance. 

Soon Maid Marian forms an alliance with a person who has been a powerful drug-lord in the neighborhood, and he becomes her general while his son Jamal becomes Captain and leader of the Green Rangers.

The credibility of the storyline is shored up by Parzybok’s intimate knowledge of Portland neighborhoods and of local governance. The Mayor and city council are other players in the action that ensues, as is the National Guard which is in charge of water distribution. 

While the storyline is very difficult to believe, I applaud the author’s effort to address questions of political action and expedience in the times we face now and the even harder times it appears are coming. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s 1975 novel Memoirs of a Survivor in which she scolds both the left and the right for acting as if the end of times is near—that all will end in a grand apocalypse.  There will be neither complete salvation nor destruction. Instead, contends Lessing,  there will be survivors, and life will continue one way or another. The questions will always be how we will act from where we are then, and how we should act now in order to prepare for a better future. Lessing’s novel predicted much that would come to pass in London as homeless kids grew in number, unemployment skyrocketed and social services broke down. Renee, Maid Marian, comes to similar conclusions about end-times.
“There are no end times,” she whispered into the room. It was a mantra she’d taken up since her first night in Sherwood. A poem of sorts that had taken shape in her head, the words reeling out of her. “There are no end-times. This time is simply a tunnel, from one time to the next.  I work here to see us through. The darkness is a passage.
The reader is told that crime-rates plummet, schools and clinics reopen and run better in Sherwood Nation than in the rest of the city, and yet we are also told that Sherwood Nation only lasts for nine weeks. Even with the combined efforts of a multitude of volunteers, it is hard to see how all of this could take place in a mere nine weeks, a blink in history. 

Whatever the plausibility of the events described in this book, the stories of the individual characters are well told and interesting. including the intense soul-searching each does as events come to pass. 

I would say that the political aims of the novel are noble, and the questions raised about how and when to act crucial not simply for Sherwood Nation, but for us-here-now. Whether this is enough to make it a good book, I will leave up to you readers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I want to talk to you this morning about a beautifully written book by Anthony Doerr that came out in May of this year; the title of the book is All The Light We Cannot See. It is a book about World War II as seen through the eyes of a French girl and a German boy. The story begins in 1939, skips to Aug. 1944, and then moves forward from ’39, backwards from ’44, interweaving the lives of the two children and how the war affects them. The French girl, Marie-Laure is blind from an early age and raised by a devoted and loving father who is the keeper of keys and locksmith for a museum in Paris. The boy, Werner Pfennig, is an orphan, who, along with his little sister Jutta, lives in a small orphanage in Zollverein, 300 miles northeast of Paris. 

Marie’s father carves a wooden model of the neighborhood in Paris where they live and gets his daughter to learn the streets and buildings by carefully feeling the intricate model he has created for her. When they are forced to leave Paris and flee to Brittany as the Germans advance into France, they settle in with a relative in Saint-Malo. There the father again carves an intricate model of the town, including every structure and street so that his daughter will be able to navigate the streets on her own in case she is left on her own.

Werner is a bright young boy fascinated by all things mechanical and especially by radios. 

Doerr quotes Joseph Goebbels in a beginning note, “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” And it is radio that eventually connects the two children in complicated and interesting ways. From a very early age, Werner and his sister listen to radio broadcasts from Paris that enchant them. Clever Werner finds a discarded, inoperable shortwave radio, fixes it and begins to pick up whatever signals he can from Germany and cities in Europe. Soon, he is repairing radios and other mechanical devices for everyone in his neighborhood. Eventually, we readers learn that Marie’s eccentric uncle Etienne, a recluse who is a lover of science and classical music, broadcasts science programs from a powerful transmitter he has built in his home, and the programs are picked up by Werner. Both Werner and Jutta are fascinated by the science in the programs, the readings from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the lovely sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  It seems simply magical to them that they can hear this voice from a city so far away which brings them both music and science.
One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light. “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Musings about light and color, both philosophical and scientific,  pepper this book, and are deeply interesting and beautifully expressed. 

When Marie and her father are forced to leave Paris, due to his locksmith position in the museum he is entrusted with an incredibly beautiful diamond called The Sea of Flames. A German officer and gemologist who begins to collect antiques and treasures ransacked from Paris for the Reich,  lusts after this gem he has read about but never seen.  His relentless search, and the myths surrounding the gem provide yet another strand that brings together the lives of the two children.

Werner’s skills with radios lead to his being drafted into an elite military school for German boys, which is part of the Wehrmacht, and eventually he is assigned  the task of tracking down radio transmissions in occupied France. The mathematical method of triangulation Werner develops to track down the origin of radio transmissions is carefully described in the book, along with other scientific developments of the day—all of which add to the story-line. 

Marie-Laure miraculously survives the shelling of Saint Malo, though most of the inhabitants do not. Doerr  quotes Philip Beck in a beginning note: 
In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire…Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.
Besides the main stories of Marie and Werner, there are also side-stories about other children, Marie’s great-uncle Etienne and her grandfather. But rather than telling you more of the touching story about the lives and intersection of these children—a story that needs to be read rather than glossed, let me simply say that Doerr does an outstanding job of portraying in sympathetic ways how the war impacted the lives of ordinary people in both France and Germany. 

I will not tell you the fate of Werner and Jutta, nor of the gem, The Sea of Flames, but I’m sure you will find those stories as intriguing  as I did. Although this is the story of a horrible war, it is in many ways a really lovely book, and one that you will be glad to have read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I want to talk to you this morning about a book that describes a friendship between two women: a ninety-one year old woman whose life is mostly in the past, and a seventeen year old girl who is waiting for her ‘real’ life to begin. Their names are Vivian and Molly, and it takes Molly (and the reader) about half of the book to discover just how much they have in common.

This carefully researched novel is Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, and it is based on stories about abandoned children who were literally shipped on trains from the east coast to Midwestern farm states, and at each stop the children were herded into town halls or churches to be cursorily examined by local farmers—the ‘lucky’ ones adopted on the spot, the not so lucky herded back onto the train and sent to the next stop. The orphan trains ran for decades (from 1859 to 1929). 

But while this historical phenomenon is the backdrop and inspiration for the novel, the story itself is about the budding friendship between the girl, Molly, and the old woman, Vivian. Molly is a Penobscot Indian who has bounced from foster home to foster home for almost all of her young life. Now, only months from reaching an age that will release her from the jurisdiction of the state, she has been busted for stealing a book, and the only thing that saves her from Juvie (juvenile detention) is an agreement to enter into a community-service position with Vivienne, who needs help cleaning out her attic. 
Sometime in the second week it becomes clear to Molly that “cleaning out the attic” means taking things out, fretting over them for a few minutes, and putting them back where they were, in a slightly neater stack. Out of the two dozen boxes she and Vivian have been through so far, only a short pile of musty books and some yellowed linen have been deemed too ruined to keep.  
As the cleaning and organizing proceeds, Vivian’s own past as an orphan unfolds; Molly changes her tone of exasperation over the fact that  it seems that nothing is getting accomplished, and begins to see herself as an ally in retracing the history of the woman next to her.
In truth, though she hasn’t admitted it out loud until now, Molly has virtually given up on the idea of disposing of anything. After all, what does it matter? Why shouldn’t Vivian’s attic be filled with things that are meaningful to her? The stark truth is that she will die sooner than later. And then professionals will descend on the house, neatly and efficiently separating the valuable from the sentimental, lingering only over items of indeterminate origin or worth. So yes—Molly has begun to view her work at Vivian’s in a different light. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process—in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots. 
This little novel skillfully swings back and forth between Spruce Harbor, Maine in the second decade of the 21st century and New York City 1929 as well as hardscrabble Midwestern towns that are stopping points for the Orphan train. Besides the tense and troubled present for Molly who has about exhausted her options in the foster program, there is a mystery that unfolds as Vivian attempts to discover elements  of her own orphaned childhood. I’m not about to reveal the mystery or it’s outcome, but the emotional similarity in the lives of the two lead characters and their eventual bonding is beautifully wrought. 

The babies and the cute, very young children are the first to be adopted as the orphan train heads west. Boys who are old enough and strong enough for hard farmwork are also often chosen along with girls who can help around the house and farm. The not so attractive and the frail are paraded out at each stop, and then put back on the train. As their adult attendant informs them before their first stop. “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.”

Other than signing some papers that promise food, shelter, and education for those old enough, there is no oversight over the lives of the children who are adopted. Vivian learns quickly that the agreement to send the children to school is observed only if it is convenient for the adoptive parents, while beatings and deprivation are far more likely than educational opportunity. For Molly in the foster program and Vivian on the orphan train, hard labor and sexual exploitation are the norm. 

While not being adopted is Vivian’s fear as her train goes from stop to stop, she soon discovers that adoption may be far worse. Molly, too, understands that foster homes may be more dangerous than state care. As she listens to her foster-care worker:
I listen … and nod politely as she talks, but it’s hard to concentrate. I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.
As Molly listens to descriptions Vivian gives of her early life in Ireland, and then of her life in New York before the death of her parents, and finally her many stops in Midwestern towns and life with different families, she comes to see how very similar their lives are. Both learn to pass; both feel broken inside.

Despite the sadness of this novel, it is a lovely story. The unlikely friendship that springs up between Molly and Vivian constitutes a sort of salvation for each of them. As the author says in the Prologue, 
I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened…I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is—a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.