Book Review: Godsend by John Wray

Godsend is an intense book, loosely based on the story of John Walker Lindh — who joined the Taliban out of what feels like a deeply misplaced longing for religious purity. The main character in Godsend is a young woman, eighteen year old Aden Sawyer, whose father is a scholar of Islam although not religiously observant, and whose mother is an alcoholic. Disillusioned by her California life, Sawyer runs away with a  high school friend Decker Yousafzai who presumably has cousins in Pakistan. She cuts her hair short, binds her breasts, and disguises herself as a young man in order to join a madrassa with Decker to study and eventually to cross over into Afghanistan to fight. Sawyer succeeds in deceiving the mullah whose madrassa she joins — sort of — and finds her way to a group being trained to do battle.

The story is graphic in conveying the terrifying danger for this young woman. She survives Decker’s death — he mishandles a bomb during their training and blows himself up. She survives the death of her protector, who knows she is a young woman and seduces her, survives an American drone strike that kills many of her fellow fighters, evades being married off as the second wife of an elderly mullah. We don’t know at the end if she finds her way back, or if she even wants to, but she is still alive.

Young idealistic people often put themselves in danger, and you don’t have to go all the way to join the Taliban in order to do that. In my Peace Corps experience, one of our volunteers had to be permanently evacuated because he challenged a big landowner, who sent people to kill him. Young aid workers in Africa and Asia, who used to be somewhat protected by the sense that they were doing good for the local people, have become targets of forces competing for power and are often in mortal danger. These days Peace Corps volunteers are at much higher risk of dying from readily treatable conditions like dysentery. In the late 1960’s we had a dedicated, U.S. trained Peace Corps physician in Panama City — although you had to get there in order to get help in those pre-cell phone days. The one time I did get really sick, I was too ill to get on a chiva and make the 2 hour ride. Now, volunteers are often treated by local physicians on contract. One young volunteer in China died because fluids were not available fast enough to replace what he was losing through vomiting and diarrhea.

Aden Sawyer is not an especially sympathetic character. She kills an old man during her training to show that she will follow orders without question. She is seeking a kind of purity that no one ever finds — although at eighteen you don’t necessarily know that. But I was deeply drawn into her story, and feared on every page that she would die: through being discovered and unmasked as a deceiver, from a drone strike, from malnutrition and cold, from a knife wound or bullet in battle.

How would Aden find home after what she has seen and done, even if she wanted to?

Writing Life: Booming Stats

WordPress notifies me when my stats are booming, and I can usually figure out what’s happening. Yesterday when I woke up I had 76 page views — a little light. Within 2 hours I had 196 page views. By day’s end the page views topped out at 331 — a good bit over my normal 200, give or take. Yes, that qualifies as “booming stats”. What caused the spike? Someone found my Fremont Solstice Parade naked biker pictures, and took time to look at them all.

I haven’t actually gone to the Solstice Parade in a couple of years. To get a spot good enough to take pictures you have to go by about 10am, and the parade doesn’t start until early afternoon. There are lots of great things to do here in Seattle in June, and standing around for a couple of hours in clouds of pot smoke awaiting the parade has fallen in my list of top choices. But the old pics are still up there, and apparently as interesting as they ever were. 🙂

Switching to a New Phone

I’ve just gotten the new Google Pixel 3 phone, and am trying to switch my two factor authentication to the new phone. Most of the WordPress platform is pretty intuitive, but not this. It’s entirely possible that I will get locked out of my account and being able to post. If that happens, I’ll have to corral Matt to help me or work with tech support at WordPress. If I miss my regular schedule of posting, don’t fear that something is amiss. It’s just me, lost in technology la-la land. 🙂

Book Review Addendum: More on The Witch Elm

I’ve finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm, all 500+ pages of it, and it’s a really good book. Highly recommend. When I last wrote about it, having finished about a quarter of the story, I called it a novel of identity and place.

Beyond that, French gives us the theme very early in the narrative. The young protagonist, Toby,  thinks of himself as a lucky person. Then he tells us, “It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal.

You can imagine then, as a reader, that a murder is in the offing — perhaps more than one.

I find the self-identification as “a lucky person” really interesting.

I’m thinking about self-identification because I’m about to conduct a pro bono board retreat, and I have to introduce myself to the participants — briefly. I hate these long winded recitations of everything a consultant has done since the dawn of time. Really, if anyone cares, all of that is available via a quick Google search. Rather, I have to give them a quick sense of who I am as a person, and suggest in a very few words why they should trust that in the time we’ll spend together, they’ll be in good hands.

I’m thinking of saying that I’m Irish in heritage and thus a good storyteller, so they won’t be bored. Then I’d say that I’ve led board retreats a lot, so no matter what happens, I’ll keep the experience on an even keel and bring us to someplace productive at the end. Then I’ll say that I’m an intensely curious person, so I’m really interested in where they are and where they go from here. Interesting … competent… curious. 

Would I also say that I’m lucky? I think not. The context isn’t right — for purposes of our retreat day, they don’t really care if I’m lucky or not.

But do I think I’m lucky? Maybe, if lucky means that a lot of things have worked out for me — albeit with a great deal of hard work and some severe and damaging losses along the way. I wouldn’t say that I’m lighthearted, far from it, if being lucky suggests a certain lightness of heart. Not my persona. But lucky? Maybe.

And you? If you picked three words to describe yourself, would “lucky” be one of them?

Book Review: Tana French’s The Witch Elm

Tana French is an Irish novelist whose crime series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad delves deeply into the psychology of criminals and criminal-finders alike. French has a keen sense of narrative, and her books are satisfying in the way that the late P.D. James was satisfying. Good crime novels tell a story. These books are about real people with complicated lives who get in trouble in entirely believable ways.

Now French has a stand-alone novel, not part of the Dublin Murder Squad series. The new book is The Witch Elm, and it’s a complex story of identity and place — Ivy House, behind which the wych elm that is the crux of the story grew for some 200 years.

I’m early into the book, and no doubt will have more to say about it later. But I’m struck in these beginning pages about the difference between growing up with a sense of place v. not. We moved a ton as kids, all but once in my mother’s home town of Kearny. To give you a sense, when I applied for Peace Corps service I had to list all of my addresses. I was 21 in my senior year of college, and I think I listed 18 places. Before my father died, I had the sense that we were moving to better ourselves. He was handy with wallpaper and paint and minor fix ups, and the new place we moved to was always a little bit nicer than the one before. After he died, our moves became frenetic. I think my mother believed that the next place would be the one to quell her restless unhappiness. Or, like Auntie Mame, Margaret just liked to move around and didn’t have the money to travel. That the frequent moves were disorienting and destabilizing to some degree to each her three daughters registered not a whit.

That’s not the kind of upbringing that creates a strong sense of place.

I found Minga after 40 years because she hadn’t moved more than a few hundred yards from where we’d lived side by side during the Peace Corps years. My friend Phyllis grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, where her brother still lives and her father lived until his death. My friend Ginny grew up among the Irish Catholic glitterati of Washington D. C., where her father was widely known in public relations and communications circles and her mother wrote a column on family life for The Catholic Standard. Ginny has lived her adult life in D.C. as well.

Those are people with a sense of place.

We all grow up with certain things in our personal tool kit, and other things for which we have to compensate. A sense of place is not something you can build in if you didn’t develop it over time.

I can imagine some ways in which a sense of place might be a burden. And, moving around a lot gave me certain strengths. I can become comfortable almost anywhere, and pretty quickly. I don’t have a huge connection with things, other than my collection of art photographs by people like Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Weegee, Vivian Maier. I suppose that not having an attachment to place made it easier to move from the east coast to the Pacific Northwest and build a new life in Seattle.

Just reflecting on an early theme that popped out at me from the book. Are you a person with a sense of place, or not? Glad to hear your experience.

Writing Life: “A Lot of Posts”

A friend and regular reader commented that I write a lot of posts, three or four a day, and she finds it hard to keep up. The comment brought a smile that she even attempts to read everything. That’s not what I expect.

Remember the basic premise of the blog: that as we age, paying attention to what’s interesting about daily life is, for me, a spiritual discipline. During our working years interesting experiences come to us unbidden, often at a pace we wish we could slow down. In our older years, that changes. We actually have to look. Doing so is a statement that we cherish life, find each day precious. Attention must be paid.

I write about different things because I have different audiences. Some follow only the grandparenting posts. Some follow the Panama posts. Some come for the political commentary. Some are big fans of the random funny bits, like the day I put on two different sneakers and didn’t notice until well into the day. Because of the diversity of what I write, and the fact that I write a lot, I attract readers from all around the world. Lots of people come and read one thing. Some, my regular readers, come and stay.

So, my friends, read as much or as little as you like. The world won’t end, nor will our friendship or our relationship as writer/reader if you skip posts that don’t interest you, or even if you only come to the blog occasionally. I’m deeply, hugely glad that you’re here at all, reading what and when you want. 🙂

New York Times on Trump and the Family Wealth

The New York Times investigative reporting on the Trump family empire, the tax dodging and cheating that created its wealth, Fred Trump’s constant bailing out of his much less successful son Donald, and the fact that the entire Trump clan — including Trump sister and federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry — participates in the flow of shadily gotten gains, is stunning. The report is long, 13,000 words. I read it once, and will read it again and again until the breadth of the audacity sinks in. What an investigative reporting tour de force. What a grotesque family. Nothing on TV — not Succession, not Billions — comes even close to the machinations of the real life Trump clan.

No wonder Trump acts with impunity, thinking he’ll never bear any consequences for his sordid actions. He never has.

My initial reaction is that this story, if Trump voters even read it and not just a Fox News summary of it, will solidify their adoration of Trump as a guy who really sticks it to the system and gets away with it. The admire his brazen disregard for the rules now. Even more so will they admire that the brazenness resulted in fabulous wealth. Of course, when the rich cheat the tax system, the burden is picked up by ordinary people. But to the Trump crowd, that seems not to matter.

To me, this story is an utter perversion of the American dream, a mockery of it. And the story is grotesque, a word first used by Jeffrey Toobin on CNN. The Trump family is grotesque in their lying, their cheating, their disdain for the decency that binds ordinary lives into a human family. All of this, commentators tell us, took place far enough in the past so that the statute of limitations has expired. This is like a crime family who has, by rolling over its ill gotten gains. gone legit. And now they occupy the White House.

One dark note lingers. Fred Trump was always there with is fortune, waiting to bail out Donald. There is no Fred Trump now, and no powerful entity — not a Republican Congress, not a Republican Supreme Court — that will bail him out either.

The Trump presidency, as I’ve always felt, is a slow rolling disaster.


Sounds of Life

The New York Times does some extraordinary things with OpDocs — in this case, a half hour of sounds around the world. You probably need fairly fast wifi for the documentary to play. Occasionally mine hung up, which I was able to move along by scrolling up one panel and then back down.

The documentary makes this observation: sound is one of the first things we experience in the womb, and sound is thought to be the last thing that expires at the time of our death. But in between, we are mostly a visual people. We concentrate on what we see.

This documentary offers us the chance to hear: bat sounds deep in a cave, molten lava moving toward the sea, fish and coral living around undersea reefs, lemur couples in Madagascar, rats in New York, a forest of genetically identical aspen trees swaying in the wind, a bus terminal in Lagos, Nigeria, an offshore wind farm, salt cracking on the surface of a Chilean desert — there are eleven panels all together. The experience is fascinating.

I think of times when I enter an experience mostly for the sound, like a symphony performance. I’m reminded of Archie’s first day care experience, when the infant room was staffed by Somali women who comforted and soothed the children and lulled them to sleep with rhythmic clicking sounds. I’m aware that one of the chief attractions of the villa I rent in rural Panama is that the master bedroom is only steps from the sea, and I can hear the sound of waves gently lapping on shore as I wake up.

What about you? Are there sounds that anchor you to a particular place, or a particular experience?

I think that after listening to this I’m going to be more attuned to the sounds of my day.

Finishing the Woodward Book

I’ve finished Bob Woodward’s book Fear, and the title is apt. Nothing in the book was a surprise; the gradually building story is devastating. This is a frightening account of a very limited, very damaged man with a feral cunning for manipulation who now occupies the most powerful job in the world — with few guard rails to keep him from wreaking havoc. Many of the people referenced in the book who were able to distract him and derail his worst impulses are gone: Rob Porter, Gary Cohn. The people who are left are, with few exceptions, enablers.

The other night Hillary Clinton was on Rachel Maddow’s show. Clinton repeatedly said things like “what are the facts?” and “where is the evidence?”. Trump values neither facts nor evidence. He has supreme confidence in his own instincts, no matter how misguided, ignorant, or foolish.

Will enough Trump voters come to their senses for the upcoming November election, and before the presidential election in 2020, to put an end to this disaster? We don’t know, do we?

Reading Woodward’s Book Fear

I’m working my way through the Woodward book, stopping to reflect as I read. All of the nuggets we’ve seen mentioned on cable news are there, and comport with what we see of Trump every day.

What comes through more strongly in the book than I had thought about before is that Trump is like the crazy uncle in the attic, wandering around the White House while the business of the country is carried on by his mostly B-team cabinet officials, relatives, hangers on, or ex Fox news people. Trump spends hours a day watching television and talking on the phone to his cronies and drinking soda. Literally. He doesn’t come down to the office until around 11 am, and once there the TV’s are immediately turned to Fox News. I suspect he foregoes the PDB, the president’s daily briefing. Too many words. I don’t know on whom we are relying for presidential judgment regarding the crises of the day, but it isn’t Trump. Whatever else recent presidents used to do on a daily basis — talk with world leaders, attend meetings and have briefings, consult with cabinet officials and military leaders — Trump isn’t doing that. Someone else is — probably a lot of someones.

A point I wrote about earlier — my belief that Trump isn’t smart — is confirmed not only by the book, but in this latest round of tariffs with China. Trump has fundamental misconceptions about a lot of things, and he holds on to them tenaciously even when corrected by his senior people. He believes, or says he believes, that China is paying us billions in tariffs. Actually, the tariffs are paid by the end consumer: American families.

Trump is, in office, just what he’s always been: the reality star, the performer. The U.S. presidency is looking more and more like The Apprentice, but the stakes are so very much higher.