Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Kicked off my winter stay-cation yesterday afternoon with a brisk hike up to the top of Mount Tabor.  A cool, gray Wednesday in the Rose City, just a few days into winter. I pushed at a pretty good pace to get the blood pumping, but it was full dark by the time I got back.

I'm through with work for the rest of the calendar year. I hope to close out 2014 doing the things I love best: reading, writing, going to the movies, playing games, and hanging with my African honey bee. Life is good.

Twenty-fourteen hasn't been a peaceful year. Neither for the world, nor for me, personally. Maty and I changed residence last summer, as told, and the stresses of that endeavor were compounded by stress and anxiety at our various workplaces, by health issues, by wars and rumors of wars. I try not to be troubled. All these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
Maty is working this Christmas morning: caring for sick and elderly people. She'll be home this afternoon, and we'll have our Christmas dinner and exchange gifts. Just the two of us, Muslim and  agnostic, celebrating Christmas.

Pumpkin pie ready for the oven
But I want to wish all of you --everyone out there whom I've had the honor of befriending, every cherished cousin, every good-hearted stranger who might stumble on this pronouncement --peace.

I wish you peace.

Pie's cooked! Merry Christmas, all! Peace and love!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Book review: The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell's sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, was an inevitable pick for my book club. We'd already read three of his previous novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas, and Ghostwritten) all of which were unanimously and thoroughly enjoyed. So Mitchell's latest seemed like a sure thing.

Well, although the novel is certainly an entertaining read, it failed to meet my expectations in some ways. And, among the members of my book club, I'm not alone. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Bone Clocks is the story of (among other things) an Irish woman named Holly Sykes. Rather than try to summarize the plot myself, I'll rely on Sceptre, David Mitchell's publisher:
In 1984, teenager Holly Sykes runs away from home, a Gravesend pub. Sixty years later, she is to be found in the far west of Ireland, raising a granddaughter as the world's climate collapses. In between, Holly is encountered as a barmaid in a Swiss resort by an undergraduate sociopath in 1991; has a child with a foreign correspondent covering the Iraq War in 2003; and, widowed, becomes the confidante of a self-obsessed author of fading powers and reputation during the present decade. Yet these changing personae are only part of the story, as Holly’s life is repeatedly intersected by a slow-motion war between a cult of predatory soul-decanters and a band of vigilantes led by one Doctor Marinus. Holly begins as an unwitting pawn in this war – but may prove to be its decisive weapon.
A much better synopsis than I could provide, with the added benefit that I can now proceed to what it is I like about the novel, and what I found lacking.

What I liked about the novel, first and foremost I suppose, is that it is David Mitchell. The man has a sublime talent for writing engaging, vivid prose. His dialog is so sharp it could slice sponge cake. The worlds he creates are not only mind-blowing but, more importantly, consistent and true to their own laws.

Which brings up another aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed: the continued unveiling of the David Mitchell universe. The Bone Clocks makes reference (in subtle ways) to all of the other David Mitchell novels published to date. The book is chock full of these "Easter eggs." I won't mention any specifics (wouldn't want to reveal any spoilers), but suffice it to say, I was regularly delighted, as I read this book, to discover that various characters were the very same that appeared in Black Swan Green or number9dream or Ghostwritten. Scenes that occurred in other novels are referenced in The Bone Clocks. I noticed many such references while reading this book, and I'm quite sure there are many I missed.

Also, The Bone Clocks is a contemporary novel in every sense of the word. Holly, the protagonist, is a teenager in 1984, which makes her a few years younger than me. At the end of the novel, she's in her sunset years living in a world that seems all too inevitable. Well, God willing, I'll live to see the accuracy of David Mitchell's future and I hope he's wrong!

What I didn't like about the novel: I found the long expository conversations about the nature of the two supernatural factions, the soul-decanters and the reincarnating vigilantes, to be tedious and a bit confusing. I'm sure David Mitchell has it all sorted in his head, and he relates the information through dialog rather than taking the easy way out (the way Margaret Atwood did with Oryx and Crake). Nonetheless, once the idea is fully exposed, it loses some of its intrigue. I found it much more tantalizing in Mitchell's other novels, when readers could only guess at the nature of the strange beings that appear from time to time.

But mostly, what I found disappointing about the novel was this: running throughout, there is a whiff (and just a whiff, mind you) of self-satisfaction. David Mitchell is widely acknowledged as one of the day's gifted novelists and I'm one of his biggest fans. But success is heady stuff. Or maybe it is that, when a writer attains a certain level of success, his editors become a bit more reluctant to use their red pens. In any case, The Bone Clocks seemed less "tight," less perfected than Mitchell's previous books.

That's the problem with being a virtuoso, I suppose. When you set the bar that high, people come to expect so much.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grieving in the aftermath of the CIA torture report

The report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, the so-called "torture report," confirms a suspicion that many have had all along: the extent of the abuses perpetrated by CIA operatives was greater than previously known, and included techniques much more heinous than the (heinous enough) water-boarding.

I'm sick at heart, not only by the contents of the report, but also and more so by the reaction to it from many of my fellow citizens. Some random quotes from people with whom I've engaged on the topic:
  • "I feel no compassion for those animals."
  • "I will NEVER second guess or criticize those who put their lives on the line to keep all of us safe."
  • "When it comes to terrorists there are NO Christian values for them. We don't use Christian values on Muslim terrorists who want to kill all our people in the name of Ala [sic]." 
How easily cast aside, those little angels we've created to comfort ourselves! Matthew 5:39, the Geneva Convention, the Golden Rule --meaningless platitudes, one and all. People! Can't you see that torture debases not only the victims, but the perpetrators? It dehumanizes them. It makes them beasts.

Fear does ugly things to people. And people have been justifying atrocities in the name of God for thousands of years. There's nothing new in it. But to see it unfold before my own eyes... oh, America! I grieve!

Foolishly I'd hoped that at this point in life I might have endured most of my disillusionment. This report, and the reaction to it, exposes that sentiment as naive.

So I'll say this: for my part, I advocate prosecution of all perpetrators of torture, regardless of their nationality or faith and no matter the justifications they put forth. But the apologist voices (most of them, the very people who regularly complain that the United States has strayed from its "Christian values") ensure that that will never happen.

And I'll still allow myself one hope: the hope that I will never condone torture. To do otherwise would be to relinquish my humanity and I won't do it!

I pray I have the strength to live up to that conviction.