Monday, January 26, 2015

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's I am late to the Dunham phenomenon, but am fully onboard now. I am gob-smacked by this book of essays by the creator of the TV serial Girls, the Third Season of which I came upon recently and absently slipped into my VCR late one night. I didn’t know there was a controversy about her work, but of course now I realize there must be. She is a red-hot societal critic. She appears highly evolved to me. She is not cruel.

She astonishes me by her willingness to put her finger right there and point at something significant that many of us will twist to avoid confronting in a thoughtful way. To say Dunham’s work is refreshing doesn’t capture it. It is bracing, like standing in a winter wind, but not caring because you are with friends and are going back in where the fireplace is blazing and someone is going to say something funny and real.

This series of essays must be taken separately from her work as writer, director and character on a television show. This is not Hannah. Both are a kind of memoir, that is, they recreate some of Dunham’s lived experience. But we hear much more in the essays that exhibit her shrewdness, her now-adult clarity and experience, her ability to withhold (“There are things I will not say, that I will think and leave in my head”). But by golly, the things she does say, about the directors and producers she met in Hollywood, about her obsessive fears, about the cringe-producing dates and sex, ring so true, so exactly true, that even if they are not our experience, we believe.

Years ago I read a piece of literature and remember thinking then that some human experience was universal. When I mentioned it one day in a university literature class, the professor snarled “not everyone has the same experience and feels the same way.” I was shocked. It is probably true what that teacher said. Certainly not all of us are white, rich enough to go to Oberlin, bright enough to realize that getting a job, any job, is not enough for any kind of real life. But I argue it doesn’t matter where you came from or how you grew up. There is something in Dunham’s conclusions and experience that resonates. When she writes of visiting her dying great-aunt and receiving her warped and misshapen knitted scarves as gifts, when she writes of her fear of death, sickness, pregnancy, when she writes of the kindness and boredom she encountered in the baby-clothes shop, of the condescension she encountered in school and Hollywood—this stuff translates. We may not have done what she did, but we know that stuff. And she is both bright enough and brave enough to point to it.

In the section when Dunham describes her summer camp experience, she admits to being more attuned to her adult caretakers, the camp counselors, than to her camp mates. This doesn’t surprise me. She wanted more the attention and experience of the adults than of the teens. She was always observant, curious, outside. Psychologists must have helped. She spent a lot of time in their company over the years. It doesn’t appear to have hurt her, thank goodness, but instead may have given her a framework for her questions.

Thank goodness, in fact, for Lena Dunham. She survived the indignities of youth, not unscathed but whole. She understood enough to guess that her confusion and desperation was, if not universal, at least interesting and helpful in allowing us to recognize and celebrate our own authentic selves. She shares her experiences so that we, hopefully, can laugh and see the absurdity of the same. Women and men don’t have to go through elaborate rituals others have created just so that we can connect in a real way, but there are always the painful bits we get just a little bit wrong.

Towards the end of these essays Dunham confides that her real loves are “gossip, food, and the internet.” Those interests aren’t broad enough for her to earn the label “voice of a generation” since that hardly constitutes a voice. But her work is political, which may be why there is conflict when considering her work. It is political because it considers commonly accepted (and sometimes even legislated) ways of interacting, which she shows to be deficient in some way. She has given us enough thoughtfulness and authenticity to make us wonder what she thinks about things other than slipping into bed with another disaffected youth. We’ll have to wait for that. She might never share her thoughts on pressing international issues with us, but her work on the internal rather than the external is just as important if it spurs us to think. Art, wherever it manifests, is a win for all of us. Reign on, Lena Dunham!


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Friday, January 23, 2015

Changing the Conversation by Dana Caspersen

Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution Conflict is something no one can avoid in a life. If one experiences a conflict at work or home, the stress may twist our natural personalities and lead us to abuse ourselves or others. I may have been more resilient in the past, but now I find conflict extremely distressing and find myself fleeing from it.

Caspersen makes the point early in this marvelous book that while conflict is inevitable, working through it rather than running from it provides an opportunity for a creative solution that may actually fulfill both parties and create a stronger, more trusting bond between the two.

Earlier this year, after suffering a debilitating long-running conflict in my family, I took an online course in Conflict Resolution with the publishing group Shambhala. It ran for several weeks, included audio, video, reading, and homework. It was extremely useful. Many of the ideas presented in that course are given here, in this wonderfully concise handbook. Just opening this book and seeing the format made me weak with relief. There are just a few critical points on each page, giving us space and time to think about what is being said.

Resolving conflict requires a certain amount of willingness to understand the other side, even if the other side can’t easily articulate their position. We have to be able to ask questions until we get to the real reason behind the conflict…what needs are felt but not fulfilled? Emotions may appear to cloud the issues, but in fact are clues to the issues. We need to feel our own emotion (like, for instance, anger) and then ask why?

STOP when you feel attacked, FEEL the hurt of that, and then DON’T ASSUME you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. ASK questions (of ourselves and others) until you get closer to the unmet needs on both sides that must be addressed. We all have the same basic needs, but not all our needs are prioritized the same way all the time. And we might differ in the ways we decide to meet those needs.

We need to LISTEN to the other and ask questions, perhaps reformulating and restating their point of view as a query until we both understand their underlying need or issue. We can share our own point of view, but not in anger. Caspersen points out that we have to be sick and tired of our own unhelpful habits (of reacting when provoked or angry) in order to try to change that part of the equation.

It takes practice. We won’t succeed every time. But we get better at it. That there is another way has been an immense relief. If we have been lucky, we’ve met someone who can withhold judgment and tease out the cause of the emotion behind conflict, and defuse the hot air surrounding parties in conflict. This book shows us how to do that.

Best yet, this book is good for beginners and those experienced in the practice. It is too easy to forget how to deal when conflict arises suddenly. Just flipping through this book sets me immediately at ease. It is so helpful. I don’t need to learn it all again. I just need reminding. Again and again.

Maybe the part I like best about learning about conflict is that our reactions can be changed. Our reactions are not immutable. We do not have to go through life feeling at the mercy of those who have stronger, more articulate, or more obstinate positions. We can effectively “deal with” or solve conflict in many cases, and come up with creative and constructive solutions, create lasting intimacy, and a willingness to engage and trust. Some people manage it. Why not us?

This book is a marvelous thing. It has examples of common conflicts and language used in families, talking with teens, in work situations, in political discussions. On the facing page it gives examples of a more constructive approach. What could be better than this? We all need this book. Even conflict facilitators need this book, as I found out from attendees of the Shambhala course, at least half of whom were, or wanted to be, paid facilitators.

In my case, the conflict has been defused. There are still trust issues, perhaps because of the length of the conflict, but the open warfare is past. The scarring makes one want to make sure it never happens again, which is why I will keep this book close.


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Thursday, January 22, 2015

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage More than halfway through this collection of essays I begin to think that one of the most important characteristics for a successful memoirist must be good humor. Patchett wrote most of this collection of nonfiction essays earlier in her career for different publications. She supplemented those with a couple longer, deeper pieces written later: “The Getaway Car” and “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” “Dog Without End,” and “The Mercies,” all stories about the great loves in her life.

Together the essays comprise a history. We meet her dog, her grandmother, her husbands, her father. She recalls Lucy Grealy, the subject of her story of friendship called Truth and Beauty. We keep reading because she is a nice person and we like her. She writes well, but that isn’t all. She is irrepressible. She has character.

I am finished with the book of essays now, and I have to say I am relieved. I am relieved that her title story, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” is in fact, not only about her happy marriage, but also of her earlier failed marriage, a marriage that shook her—shook some sense into her. I used to be sad that such spectacular failures were necessary, but most of us have them hidden away in a closet somewhere, ready to be unearthed and examined again for any further shards of wisdom. Mine doesn’t hurt as much now, but there is usually still an involuntary tightening of my lips before I smile, with chagrin.

Which makes me think again of Ann Patchett and her good humor. The stories she tells in this collection remind us that there are moments in a life we wish we could share with others. Patchett is not just sharing her story, she is showing us how it is done. Readers, real readers, are always going to be interested in writers. We yearn to know how they do what they do, even if it would never occur to us to do the same. But Patchett is so generous with what she knows and what she does that we can see how she does it. One thing that runs through the whole book, every essay, is that she does not take herself too seriously. She takes her craft seriously, but she tends to forgive herself and others when we don’t quite live up. Or makes a funny joke about it.

When she mentions her mother was beautiful, the kind of beautiful that made people stop her in the street to compliment her, I had to find a photo online. I feel like I haven’t seen beautiful, naturally beautiful, in such a very long time I don’t even trust myself to know it when I see it anymore. Her mother is beautiful, it’s true. She has the kind of effortless-looking beauty that doesn’t pain one to look upon. But it didn’t make her nicer or wiser than anyone else. None of us gets it all.

Oh yes, Ann Patchett can write. This is a magnificent collection, and I recommend it heartily to everyone, anyone. It is for teens, it is for adults, it is for readers, it is for writers. Ann Patchett lives in the town where she grew up. She never had children. She spends a long time in school and a longer time sitting at her desk, writing. But somehow this book shows us the various ways in which the essential parts of our lives are not so distant. Love matters. It accounts for the joy and most of the pain that lingers.


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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

Dead Lions (Slough House, #2) Mick Herron wrote a two-book Slough House series featuring River Cartwright which began with Slow Horses and ended with Dead Lions. ‘Slow Horses’ is a nickname given to disgraced spies who live out the rest of what might generously be termed their careers in the MI5 Slough House, as opposed to working in pin-stripes at Regent’s Park. Too knowledgeable to be cut loose and too damaged to handle edgy assignments, these talented but dismissed spies are called upon in Dead Lions to chase a ghost—a Russian spy long hidden from view.

I’ve been reading backward through Herron’s work, beginning with his soon-to-be released Nobody Walks published by Soho Crime, which is a cornucopia of rich characterizations, cynical observations about the business of spying, and imaginative spycraft. I have not gotten to Slow Horses but I can tell you that these works are all of a piece. River Cartwright was ostensibly the main man in the first two books, though his involvement was not as pronounced in Dead Lions as Tom Bettany’s is in Nobody Walks.

Mick Herron has an eye for the ways individuals can look absurd in large bureaucratic organizations: who gets ahead, who stays ahead, and who stays alive are all subject to his scrutiny and imaginative doodlings. The failings of ordinary folk provide a rich vein of material.

Dead Lions is written like the screenplay for a TV series in that much of the novel is conversation. Unless one is a Londoner, this presents a little bit of a challenge in being able to follow the action especially when being told by a cynical and wily old sidelined spy. One never knows what is true and what is not even if one understands his language. When one grows up in an organization, there is a specific vocabulary for insiders. If one is not part of the group, understanding can be as difficult as crashing a company’s Christmas cocktail party. But like that theoretical Christmas party, if one holds on long enough for understanding to dawn, the ride is quite fun enough.

Herron is good at writing spy thrillers, very good, indeed. If this is your special genre, his books are a must-read. If British spy thrillers are only an occasional treat for you, he is still one of the best, and getting better all the time. Start with Nobody Walks.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner

My Life as a Foreign Country This shattering memoir describes clear as photographs the heat signatures of memory, the “shadows articulated by light.” It is terribly beautiful and the reverse. Shards of sentences fracture the consciousness. Turner tells us the pop-pop-pop of machine guns is patient and sounds sometimes like laughter, or “metallic elocution.”

It is queer to see, hear, speak the gorgeous language in this book and realize it describes the brittle, blistering, terrifying. Killing people with precision instruments. Not always intentional. The discordance is terrible. Turner tells us of the cold hard smooth perfection of chrome-plated steel firing pin. Fear and pitilessness are paired.

I wonder as I read about these soldiers joshing and murmuring to one another about 'field pussy' as they sight their rifles from the flat roof of an abandoned elementary school—do the Iraqi insurgents that are their targets think of these men as men? Turner imagines a bomb maker at his craft. He is an artist. The irony is cold and red and hot and black.

Turner tells us he always wanted to be a soldier. He is from a family of soldiers stretching back through a flamethrower on Guam to the Franco-Prussian war and one of the very last successful cavalry charges in modern warfare, the Battle of Mars-la-Tour. These men, these soldiers, survived. As a young boy, Turner practiced surviving. In the California scrub he dug trenches stocked with provisions. He practiced martial arts with his father in a makeshift dojo. He enlists in the cavalry. He thought it would make him a man. It did. But what man is this?

His remembered images startle us into recognition and give no mercy. The language lingers like the taste of cordite on the tongue or the smell of smoke in the air: The tremble of hair on a dead soldier’s head like sea grass on a sand dune; A moustache, found alone, on a bomb-cratered street; The dotted line traced from the Japanese kamikaze to the young woman in her homemade and heavily-laden vest.

A man is not big enough for his memories, Turner tells us. America is not big enough to hold the memories that are spilling out of the soldiers not big enough to hold them. The soldiers are dying of their memories. They could unpack some of those memories. Some of it is the detritus and the waste of war. Where do we put the waste?

A Billy Lynn moment occurs when a colonel visits Turner’s stateside training site and tells them he needs audio and visual for a video game. All in the life of a soldier…ours is not to question why…the cadence of the top-down command catch the exhausted men sideways.

The work, the name of Brian Turner evokes a whispered outbreath, an inward turn...and joy, hope. The beauty and sorrow is palpable, real, painful. Spoken. Written. Acknowledged. Poet warrior. Can we ever have enough of them?


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Monday, January 19, 2015

Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
”It is striking that, in a region as intimate as the Middle East, cultural ignorance and political miscalculation have played such perverse roles. By attacking the new country of Israel in 1948, the Arabs lost the chance to create an entity for Palestine. Through its policy of expulsion of the native population, Israel destabilized its neighbors and created a reservoir of future terrorists that was continually refreshed by new wars and population transfers.”

In surely what is the most intimately detailed report of the Carter Camp David Accords collected for public consumption, Lawrence Wright gives us a look at the men who came to that place in 1978 to wage peace. Chapter headings mark the thirteen days of talks, and within each day we are treated to the increasingly stuffy and claustrophobic internal debates which contrasted with the comfortable and laid-back atmosphere of the country playground.

As the chapters unfold, so do brief histories and biographies of the men who played a role: Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan; Israeli Minister of Defence Ezer Weizman; Prime Minister of Israel and leader of the minority coalition Likud, Menachem Begin; Egypt’s deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tohamy; Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski; U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance; American first-term President Jimmy Carter.

The men are merely men, with all the ticks, scars, and faults of men. What is so breathtaking is that the lives of so many depended on these men acting like statesmen. By meeting at Camp David, all three men were taking huge political risks for their own lives and careers. One might argue that the risks never left the personal realm. None of them really took risks with the nations they represented. Carter continued to financially and politically support both countries, Begin never changed his determination to settle confiscated lands, and Egypt simply withdrew support for Palestinians it had previously protected.

Wright concentrates his focus on the Israeli and Egyptian delegations. We get a look at Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, their background and rise to prominence in Washington, and Jimmy Carter’s team of advisors, but we get a more detailed look at what was happening in the other camps as talks progressed through two weeks in September. We learn, too, of the wars fought in the name of ‘legitimate rights’ which brought these men to Camp David.

There was a dangling thread that did not get resolved at Camp David, though two of the three parties believed it had been resolved. In the months after the agreement was signed, that dangling thread became part of the noose which helped to hang the careers of Carter and Sadat: Menachem Begin claimed he had not agreed to a settlement freeze while discussions with Palestinians continued but only for three months. Without the side letter that Carter and Sadat believed Begin had promised to produce, the concession was moot and not part of the original accord.

Begin returned to Israel triumphant, only to lose his closest advisors to resignations for his continued unwillingness to honor the spirit of the agreement he’d signed. Sadat was murdered by his own people three years later. Carter, having spent so much time on the effort of achieving the peace, had neglected his other duties and lost much support among his party and his electorate.

The agreement came at a time in Arab-Israeli relations when any observer could not be blamed for feeling despair. The Israelis were gloating and acting invincible with America’s money and support. The Palestinians were further marginalized and weakened by their loss of Egyptian backing and lack of good leadership. The conditions spelled out in the agreement continue to hold, but there is little sense of jubilation now.

The picture painted of Menachem Begin does not flatter his memory. He did his nation no favors by reneging on his promises, and may have furthered the cause of radicals opposing the direction of his leadership. Truth told, this history does not flatter the progress of Israel in its development into a country of democracy and promise. The Israelis look like they want a bargain when it comes to greatness, but they don’t seem to realize they must be willing to risk all for that honor.

This book must have been a difficult one to research and write, which only manages to shine a light on Wright’s achievement. He captures the ups and downs of high-stakes negotiation and gives us a feel for the real work involved in the process. There is little exhilaration here. Mostly there was just terror and relief.

In a final note, Wright tells the story of one of Begin’s closest advisors, Ezer Weizman, who was known to be a raging hawk when it came to protecting Israel with military might. One day his son was shot between the eyes in an engagement. At that point Weizman began to see the futility of war. Man seems determined to learn this lesson again and again, and not ever soon enough.


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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Kolbert’s premise, that we are likely in the midst of the Sixth Period of great extinction in the world’s history, is “a most awful yet interesting” idea, to quote Darwin out of context. Kolbert shares recent (in the past forty years) scientific discoveries, theories, and test results which many of us may not have had a chance to follow with the diligence of a scientist. She is not a scientist but a journalist who has interviewed scientists, and her wonderful easy style makes it simple for us to understand.

What Kolbert has done here is to overlay a timeline transparency of extinctions over the history of the earth’s geologic record and mankind’s progress with which we are more commonly familiar. Kolbert is merely reporting in this book, not advocating, though the reader comes away with an awakened sense of attention and sense of the irony that man himself may be the instrument of his own destruction.

Kolbert is what could be called a “neocatastrophist.” She believes that the scientific record shows that conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t---“long periods of boredom interrupted by occasionally by panic. Though rare, these moments of panic are disproportionately important.” Her reportage brings her to the conclusion that we are in the midst of a great extinction and that in the future…far into the future, the geologic record will clearly show something extraordinary happened in the hundreds of thousands of years of human habitation. But it may be visible only to giant rats, the one species she concludes may be likely to survive and thrive.

While at first Kolbert shares current examples of species extinction happening right now, gradually she comes to zero in on probable cause: habitat modification caused by humans. She takes us through a riveting series of investigations scientists around the world are conducting to test how species adapt to changes in environment like carbon dioxide levels, for instance. Since continents are so well-travelled now, there are fewer areas uncontaminated by introduced species which may or may not be invasive or destructive to native species. Kolbert argues that man’s unparalleled and insatiable need to discover, innovate, and change his environment was like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.”
”To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
That is not to say that we couldn’t slow the event down a little, at least for humans, if we began to pay attention at this point. “As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.” We are just witnessing and documenting the outcomes now.

Kolbert writes “Though it may be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.” Perhaps American Indians with their roaming, nomadic habits, no fixed abode, and principles including commune with nature and not taking more than they needed to survive, may have been the last great environmentalists. They had a light footprint, didn’t they? Or am I completely wrong about that?

In the last couple of paragraphs, Kolbert points out that some scientists are seriously considering reengineering the atmosphere by scattering sulfates in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back to space, or alternatively, to decamp to other planets. That, so far, is their best work. Perhaps if we just cut back on consumption, and left fossil fuels in the ground, we’d live long enough to figure out a better option.

Kolbert’s thesis ought to spark discussion, if nothing else. But we may be also witnessing the real-time devolution of our own species…no talk, no compromise. Get my gun.


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