Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book review: The Rehearsal

A while back I reviewed a novel by Eleanor Catton, New Zealand's new writing sensation. That novel, The Luminaries, is Catton's second novel. It won the Man Booker Prize for fiction and it is a marvel of plotting and structure. I was and am astonished that such a young writer (Catton is 28 years old) could produce such a profound and delightful work.

In fact, The Luminaries was such a great read that I was compelled to purchase and read Catton's other book--her debut novel --The Rehearsal.

The Rehearsal is a coming-of-age story set in modern-day New Zealand. The main protagonist, Isolde, is a student at Abbey Grange, a girl's prep school rocked by scandal. It has recently been discovered that Mr. Saladin, the school's jazz instructor was involved in a love affair with one of the students, Isolde's sister, Victoria. The taboo relationship is the subject of dark, guilty fascination by the girls and of consternation by their clueless parents. Isolde, overshadowed and forgotten in all the concern over her sister, confides in her saxophone teacher who provides private lessons in an attic room near the school. The sax teacher --enigmatic, cold, and secretly passionate --has an agenda of her own. She takes vicarious pleasure in hearing the stories her students tell her about their lives. Meanwhile, Stanley, an aspiring young actor, has enrolled in "the Institute," a drama school situated across the square from Abbey Grange. He and the other acting students decide to create a dramatic production of the scandal as their first-year project.

What unfolds from there is a subtle tale of angst and youthful confusion. It is a good read, but not a whimsical one.

The Rehearsal challenges readers in a number of ways. Much of the action takes place "off-stage" and requires the reader to infer what has happened in the gaps. The timeline jumps around between present and past and it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the chronological sequence of events as the characters progress through the year.

In her experiments with structure, Catton reveals herself as a student of David Mitchell. (In fact, she names Cloud Atlas as one of her Top Twenty Novels of All Time.) The Rehearsal seems to be taking place on stage. Characters sometimes deliver theater-like soliloquies, complete with spotlight and faded out surroundings. At other times, the narrative is "live" and taking place in the here-and-now. This transition can sometimes occur within a single scene.

Catton is a superb writer. Her prose is polished, and well-crafted; intricate despite its simplicity. She makes good use of symbols and populates the story with ample allusions to theatrical classics like Equus, Barefoot in the Park (to name just two).

I enjoyed this book, but at times it felt arduous. The novel is universal enough that I had sympathy with the characters, but really, I think it will mostly speak to young women. That is, young women will probably have the easiest time accessing the insights that Catton offers. (And, I must say, I continue to be amazed that such a young person could have such keen perceptions when it comes to human motives.)

After reading The Luminaries, I added Eleanor Catton to my list of must-read authors, and The Rehearsal does nothing to make me doubt my decision. But for all the craft and skill that went into its creation, The Rehearsal is a mere prolegomenon for The Luminaries which I found to be exponentially more enjoyable.

If her next novel surpasses her second by the same margin, we could be witnessing the birth of a new Emily Brontë. But a Brontë with a David Mitchell twist!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Early spring calls forth the buskers

Impromptu busker band
We're still a few days from the equinox, but don't tell the Rose City. The recent stretch of warm, sunny days had Portland folks shedding their parkas and slickers in favor of shorts, skirts, and sandals. And, just as it always does, the good weather brought forth the buskers.

Last Wednesday, when Maty and I took a stroll down to Fred Meyer to pick up some groceries, we encountered a busker band playing blue-grass outside Powell's Books. They were so good I had to stop and give a listen.

I listened to them run through a couple tunes. The dobro and bass held things down while the mando and fiddle traded solos. It was an impressive display of musicianship, made all the more wondrous when I learned that the session was completely impromptu. Indeed, the musicians had never before played together! It happened that they were all on Hawthorne busking and decided on the spur of the moment to collaborate.

I captured a little smidgen of the jam they were laying down. Give a listen at the link below:

"The Impromptu Busker Band"
  • Mandolin: Rich Landar
  • Dobro/Harmonica/Voice: Joe Derby
  • Bass: Mike Cheddarschmit
  • Fiddle: Deedee
Buskers from New York

Meanwhile, just a half-block up the street, another busker band, hailing all the way from New York, was laying down another jam. This was a three-piece: guitar, stand-up bass, and snare. The guitarist and bass player sang and played kazoo solos as well. This band was more polished than the impromptu band. (They were, after all, a traveling act). Alas, I wasn't able to capture their sound.

Life on Hawthorne Boulevard. I do so love it.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The State of Oregon versus Joseph Toland

Judge Karin Immergut
"I have a high tolerance for scotch," said Mr. Sharp --a ruddy, grizzled man, about 10 years my senior. His round, watery eyes were magnified by the lenses of his spectacles, giving him a myopic appearance. The patch at the front of his black baseball cap read "Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi." "After I got out of the military for a while there, I was putting away a fifth a day." He held a paperback spy novel in his hand, closed around a cracked and grimy finger.

"You're lucky you didn't pickle your liver," I remarked.

"Not my liver," he said. "But everything else."

We sat on the bench in the corridor outside Judge Karin Immergut's court room on the fourth floor of Multnomah County Courthouse. Potential jurors were strewn up and down the marbled corridor, absorbed in their electronic devices and their books and magazines, some seated on benches, others sitting cross-legged on the floor or leaning against the walls. There wasn't much talking.

I didn't feel like talking much, either. So although Mr. Sharp waited, I didn't reply.

We each returned to our books.

Soon enough, the court assistant, an eager, clean-cut young man in jacket and tie, emerged and asked the potential jurors to come in and be seated. Twenty-nine of us filed in and filled the plastic chairs at the rear of the courtroom.

Judge Immergut sat at the bench. She was a woman about my age, with a wise and kindly face. She wore her hair parted on the side. She projected a down-to-earth sensibility that gentled the authority afforded by her judge's robes. This was a woman  temperamentally suited to be a judge. My impulse was to admire her.

The attorney from the DA's office was a tall, square-shouldered young man with a thin strip of carrot-colored beard running along his jaw. He sat at the right side of the long table before the bench. To his left sat the counsel for the defense, a studious-looking young man, clean-shaven with dark hair, an open face, and an erect posture. He looked as if he might spring from his seat at any moment. He wore Clark Kent glasses and a dark blue suit jacket.

Next to defense, sat the accused Mr. Toland.

Mr. Toland wore slacks and sneakers and a brown suit jacket that was a size too big. His head was shaved on top, but a well-trimmed beard  and moustaches grew thick on his chin and jaw. The orange-red of his beard stood in stark contrast with his gray eyes. He had a long head and a doleful expression. He kept his eyes on the table surface when we came in, his shoulders pulled inward, as if he were trying to draw into himself, to hide. I thought of an abused dog.

The case was simple. Mr. Toland was charged with possession of a Schedule I drug. Specifically black tar heroin.

Black tar heroin
The defendant was arrested in February, 2013, when a Portland City police officer responded to an emergency call about an incident in Waterfront Park, near the Salmon Street fountain. The officer found Toland unconscious and laying on a park bench. While awaiting the arrival of emergency medical technicians, the officer performed an assessment of Mr. Toland and discovered a plastic baggie containing about a half-gram of black tar heroin.

The generalities of the case thus explained, jury selection began.

Counsel for defense rose. "I'd like to hear from everyone. Now that you know the allegations, is there anyone here who has strong feelings about heroin that he or she feels might preclude his ability to judge this case fairly?"

Mr. Sharp, the scotch drinker, raised his hand. "I was an MP in Vietnam. I saw a 14 year old girl die from heroin use. I'm biased toward drug-users and I think my opinions would cloud my judgement." Defense thanked Mr. Sharp for his comment.

Behind me, a young woman with hair cut close around her ears, raised her hand. She wore wool leggings and a loose sweater and seemed casual and unconcerned with her own beauty. She spoke. "I think drugs should be decriminalized and I don't think people should be prosecuted for drug use. I don't think I could be objective on a case like this." She wore an expression of sullen defiance.

Several others nodded their heads in agreement. Judge Immergut interjected. "As jurors, you should not give any consideration to sentencing. You job is to determine the defendant's guilt or innocence." She turned to the idealistic young woman, addressing her by name. "Ms. Carter, you don't feel you can judge the case fairly?"

Ms. Carter shook her head. I thought I caught a glint of pride in her unhappy expression. God bless her, she had a flag to wave and she'd found the courage to wave it in court. It was brave of her and it made me like her.

Alas, her cause wasn't the issue at hand.

Counsel for defense asked me how I felt about it. I tried to speak carefully. "I don't think incarceration is an effective way to discourage drug use. But I think I can judge the facts of this case without bias."

(Last time I served jury duty, I took a different approach.)

Twelve of us were selected for the jury. Ms. Carter and Mr. Sharp were not among us.

State's case was straight-forward. He reasserted the allegations we'd heard earlier. We saw video and listened to the testimony of the arresting officer. He was tall and thin, with an angular face and a dark complexion. He reminded me of the actor, Jeff Goldblum. He was self-assured and credible.

Defense did not cross-examine the officer.

Scene of the crime
Defense then presented its case. In his opening statement, counsel emphasized the exact wording of the charge against Mr. Toland. Specifically, counsel informed, the charge included the word "knowingly." That is, Mr. Toland knowingly possessed the drug. That word, counsel insisted, was the difference between guilt and innocence.

Counsel called the defendant as its sole witness. Mr. Toland claimed he did not know how he had come into possession of the heroin. He was a recent arrival in Portland at the time of his arrest. He'd come from North Dakota and was staying with a friend. On the night of his arrest, he testified that he had gone out that evening by himself. He'd gone to a bar, the name of which he could not remember, and had proceeded to become inebriated. His last memory of the evening, he claimed, was leaving the bar when his money ran out.

That was it. That was his story. Too drunk to remember what happened.

The State cross-examined. Had Mr. Toland ever used heroin? Yes. Did Mr. Toland remember telling the police that he had used morphine the evening of his arrest? No. Did Mr. Toland remember telling the police that he had injected morphine that he had bought on the street? No.

This continued for about 10 minutes. Defense raised two objections. Judge Immergut overruled one and sustained the other. At the end of the defendant's testimony it was obvious that the sandwich had no meat.

Defense rested.

State recalled the arresting officer who testified that he had not smelled alcohol on the defendant at the time of the incident. The State rested.

Closing arguments ensued and then we, the jury, sequestered in the jury room.

It was over in about twenty minutes. Out of fairness to Mr. Toland, we tried to imagine some credible scenario in which he might have unknowingly come into possession of heroin. "What if one of the bystanders slipped it into his pocket before the police arrived?" someone suggested, doubtfully. Nobody felt like making a stand on that hill.

"He probably bought it when he was drunk," someone said.

"Being drunk isn't an excuse," someone else said.

We informed the bailiff that we'd reached a verdict.

When we were back at our seats in the courtroom, I handed the verdict form to the bailiff, who passed it to Judge Immergut. When she read it, no one betrayed a hint of surprise. Least of all, Mr. Toland. I watched his face. His expression fell ever so slightly, in a kind of facial shrug. Resignation. But no surprise.

"Okay, now I just have one thing I do before I dismiss you," the judge said. "I want to poll the jury just to make sure we have a legal verdict. By a show of hands, how many believed Mr. Toland was guilty?" She scanned us quickly. "Okay, it looks like it was unanimous. Thank you, jurors. You are dismissed."

Moments later, as we were gathering our belongings from the jury room, Judge Immergut stepped in to speak with us. Court was adjourned. "How'd it go?" she asked us all.

"I felt bad," I said.

She nodded. "Yeah," she said.

On the bus home, I thought about it some.

Counsel for the defense did a good job of evoking pity for Mr. Toland. I felt for him. Thirty years old, physically disabled because of a car wreck in 2011, two years out of work. A life getting flushed down the toilet.

But he'd presented no case.

The smells of garlic and liver greeted me when I stepped in the door. Maty was at the stove.

"Hi, sweetheart," I said.

She heard something in my voice and turned to look at me. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said. "I'm just a little sad."

Update: Joseph Toland was sentenced to 18 months probation and 60 hours community service. He was also required to attend a drug treatment program and fined $200. If he completes the 60 hours of community service, the $200 fine is waived.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Crisis in Ukraine: Nothing we can do

Russian troops in Crimea
Crisis in the Ukraine. And here we are, these vaunted United States, fretting and wringing our hands with very little ability to influence events.

It's become a familiar role for us. If the last 15 years have demonstrated anything,  it is the limits of our global influence.
  • Ukraine, this very moment --No matter what may have transpired in eastern Europe since the collapse of the Iron Curtain 23 years ago, Ukraine is still on Russia's front porch. And access to the Black Sea via Sevastopol is a vital Russian interest. As vital for them as is the Panama Canal to us. They will go to war over it. When Russian interests are this pronounced, there is very little we can do. Issue a series of sternly-worded communiques, haggle with western Europe over sanctions and watch Russia do as it will.
  • Afghanistan, 2001-present --After a decade of war, the United States is set to withdraw from this "graveyard of empires" without having accomplished anything. The Taliban, the target of our invasion, lurks in the mountains, waiting us out. The future for the long-suffering Afghani people is not bright, but we've demonstrated that anything we might try to do to help them only makes matters worse.

  • South Ossetia, August, 2008 --When this crisis occurred, people still believed we could impose our will through military projection. The whole thing was instigated when the supremely incompetent Condi Rice gave assurances to Georgia that the United States would stand by them in defying Russia over South Ossetia. When the Georgians attempted to put down a separatist uprising, Russian troops moved in and shattered Georgian aspirations. Georgian President Saakashvili pleaded with the US and western Europe for help. But once the crisis started, Junior had enough sense to know that he'd overreached. After all, Iraq and Afghanistan were already turning sour and Junior had no credibility left to defend. Saakashvili's pleas went nowhere.
  • Syria, August, 2013 --In spite of the "line" that President Obama drew, credible reports indicate that the Assad regime went ahead and used chemical weapons on civilian populations. Reports indicated that casualties surpassed 14,000. For a time, it looked as though Obama would be compelled to launch a military response. After all, if a president issues empty ultimatums, the geopolitical stage is disastrously destabilized. But Secretary of State Kerry (perhaps inadvertently) provided an out that Syria and its sponsor state (Russia) quickly seized upon. Now, a diplomatic shell game is underway and President Obama looks foolish and impotent.

  • North Korea, November, 2010 --In a shocking demonstration of defiance and power, North Korea shelled a South Korean military installation. Another in a series of provocative and audacious actions that have characterized the North Koreans for the last 60 years. New reports of atrocities add to the already despicable record of the North Korean regime. But beyond our trip-wire containment force on the DMZ, we can only stand back and watch.
  • Iraq, 2003-2011 --The granddaddy of all foreign policy debacles, Iraq. Launched with deception and lies, driven by greed and fantastic visions of a reformed Middle East, Iraq at least served to leave no doubt about the limits of our influence. Iraq is still burning.
So, here we are, Year of Our Lord 2014, having spent a staggering $7 trillion on defense since 2001 --more than the combined military budgets of the 13 next biggest spenders. And with a full-blown geopolitical crisis unfolding, we're relegated to watching helplessly as the Russian bear mauls the Ukraine. 
US defense spending compared to the 13 next biggest spenders
Not that I'd advocate a military response, even if one were available. Junior Bush effectively demonstrated the limits of military power so that even the most dim-witted can see it. (Mad Johnny McCain and Lindsay Graham might be the exceptions.)

For a brief historical moment after the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed the United States would be the world's only superpower. But global events over the past 15 years have dispelled that illusion.

It's not that the days of American global hegemony are over. It's that they never really were.

Can we all see that now?

Here's lookin' at you, kid.