Saturday, January 26, 2013

Money. Romance. Self-Preservation. Recognition.

With A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers has written a fascinating, fast-paced novel for baby boomers in today’s global economy. By placing main character, American Alan Clay, in Saudi Arabia to bid for IT business, he showcases American culture like the Hope Diamond on purple velvet. In khakis and white shirt, Alan stands out among white thobes, gutras, black burqas, and iqals. He expects a faster pace; he expects appointments to be kept; he expects the king to be impressed with his company’s holographic presentation. The locals are much more muted and often amused by Alan’s expectations.

Fifty-four-year-old Alan wrestles with past personal failures and the business world’s focus on youth. As a formerly successful salesman, he laments the U.S. economy’s slip into China’s hands. Using Schwinn, his former company, as a case study, Alan thinks, “How did your suppliers become your competitors? That was a rhetorical question. You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish. Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are being made there, in one province.”

One aspect of A Hologram for the King that I enjoyed is that Alan is “a noticer.” He observes details of Saudi landscape and culture, which Eggers describes in streamlined prose. I also enjoyed Alan’s openness to friendships with Saudis, who take him on wild adventures and who reveal realities to him that his business associates have been secretive about. Eggers moves the plot along in these natural, fun, sometimes unnerving, ways. And I loved how Alan discovers so many pretenses—facades, charades, ideals—by going behind the scenes of what he was supposed to see.

What his hosts want him to see is a utopian city. At one point, one business associate, Mujaddid, shows Alan an architectural model. “‘Mr. Clay, I give you the dream of King Abdullah.’ … The model’s tiny buildings, each as big as a thumb, were all cream-colored, with white roads winding throughout, curving gently. There were skyscrapers, factories and trees, bridges and waterways, thousands of homes. … Alan had always been a sucker for a model like this, vision like this, a thirty-year plan, something rising from nothing—though his own experiences with bringing such a vision to fruition had not been so successful.” Throughout this book, polished presentations duel with streetwise humanity. In Alan’s current and past observations and in Alan’s adventures, Eggers brilliantly supplies metaphor after metaphor supporting this juxtaposition, as well as what appeals to the human heart.

And what appeals to the human heart are: “Money. Romance. Self-Preservation. Recognition.” This mantra shows up at key points in the story as Alan remembers sales motivations he learned as a Fuller Brush salesman. All four motivations play in Alan’s current situation. [epiphany spoiler alert]: His experiences in A Hologram for the King lead him to appreciate, rather than lament, his maturity. You’ll have to read the book to learn final events though.

Friday, January 25, 2013

War's Realities

Review Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War

If you want to read a gripping, graphic account of World War I soldiering in the tunnels and trenches of northern France, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is your book. If you want to read a love story framed around World War I, skip Birdsong. Its subtitle, A Novel of Love and War, is a bit misleading as the novel is light on the love part. A more apt, though clunkier, subtitle could be a novel of attempted love numbed by war.

At various points, Faulks mentions birds to thread this theme through Birdsong, for example, “In the wonderful quiet, when the German guns had stopped, they heard the song of a blackbird.” Perhaps he means to imply that main character Stephen Wraysford’s ability to love takes flight or sings like a bird after the war. In my opinion, this symbolic bird never leaves the nest. Wraysford tries to love, but seems unable due to a vacuum of love in his childhood and then the horrors of war. He remains a grounded dodo bird.

Although I don’t see birdsong as metaphor for love here, I can see—but only with camo-covered field binoculars—how love fits in the subtitle. It’s not in a traditional, romantic sense. This novel shows love’s imperfection, and then on top of that, what a mess we make of love, including fighting battles that steal any hope that love is even possible. Faulks gives us a contrast of war’s inhumane coldness and the passion/security he calls love. He also gives us wildly contrasting views of intensity: sexual passion and unthinkable atrocities. One is doing everything that feels good; the other is doing nothing that feels good—and in my opinion, Faulks presents both as immoral.

Birdsong is not a book I like. It is a book I respect, however. Faulks starts the pages crackling with passion of two young lovers in 1910 and ends them in 1979 with flat facts bequeathed to subsequent generations by the lovers’ destructive betrayals. In between, he bloodies the pages with graphic World War I live action. Stephen Wraysford, the character linking 1910 with 1979, seems a joyless drifter from beginning to end. Nearly all 483 pages are about him; yet I did not sense I ever knew him, despite having read many of his emotional responses to both love and war actions in the novel. I found it hard to care, even when war seemed to develop his conscience and mature his view of love.

What seems more like the main character in this novel is the war itself. In much the same way that Tim O’Brien’s July, July reunion account lapses into vivid Vietnam War flashbacks, nonwar parts of the Birdsong story seem but vehicles to shout, “War is hell.” And Faulks powerfully communicates this message with graphic details of war strategies and failed plans, soldiers’ grisly injuries and deaths, and soldiers’ emotional coping mechanisms.

Strategies like using tunnels and trenches were educational for me. Reading about limbs being blown off and much worse was extremely difficult for me. At times I had to turn away. (Maybe that was the point.) And then the wartime narrative dragged tediously on and on. (Another point, since the war rumored be over any battle now lasted four years?) Learning about men’s emotions in the midst of this unthinkably inhumane saga was what changed me.

My ancestors who saw World War I action are gone, but now I have an inkling why my father and a former boss, who both saw World War II action, teared up and could not talk about their experiences. I want to cry just thinking about the horror they’ve held inside all these years if they have seen even half of what Stephen Wraysford saw. He never really recovered from that war. My father and employer, however, soldiered bravely on in civilian life to overcome and become productive, positive, well-rounded, generously loving men. I appreciate what they overcame to accomplish this even more now that I’ve read this novel.

That I appreciated this book without liking it is to Faulks’ credit. His portrayal of the men’s brave perseverance through war’s horrors is inspiring. Soldiers braced themselves for death at any time, whether entering a tunnel, crouching in a trench, or running into shell fire toward German barbed wire. I felt claustrophobic just reading about being in the tunnels. So many exploded and collapsed, burying alive many of the novel’s characters. I also found the soldiers’ disciplined obedience interesting. Unless I missed it, no soldier spoke of World War I’s big picture or international politics. There seemed no overarching, grand philosophical purpose for their sacrifices—just uncompromising obedience to military superiors. Their country had entered this war; that was reason enough to fight.  

I was touched by the loneliness enforced by the delicate balance of bonding with men you knew might die any moment. One recurring emotion was the isolation soldiers felt when their loved ones could not understand war horrors. They wanted to shake the numbness—maybe talking about it would help—but they learned no one wanted to listen, and furthermore, how could they understand?

You might be able to understand better after reading Birdsong.

Monday, January 14, 2013

View from the Treadmill

I had a pretty good workout this morning. I do try not to compare my abilities to others', really I do, because it just discourages me. Maybe I’m finally accepting middle-age limitations though because today I was able to laugh at this observation.

While walking on the treadmill, I face a brick and pebble courtyard, which this morning was covered with ice. First, a twenty-something woman bounced across the courtyard. Her long brown hair flipped and curled behind her in the breeze. She smiled and gazed straight ahead. Perched in front of her like a parrot on her left forearm was an open laptop computer. Not once did she look down at the ice she sped across.

A few minutes later, a forty-something woman plodded flat-footed, carefully, head down, eyes glued to the risky pavement surface. She, too, carried a computer, closed, safely zipped inside a padded laptop case clutched tightly to her chest.

I wondered how a sixty-something (me) might cross the courtyard today. I’d probably also eagle-eye every step in spite of the spiked ice-cleats strapped to my shoes. And I’d have the laptop in a padded backpack and wish I weren’t too vain to buckle a pillow to my butt. Oh, did I mention knee pads and helmet? (haha)

Did I witness a contrast in age abilities, perhaps just levels of body confidence or physical fitness, or what? I don’t know, but shortly after I thanked God I hadn’t flown off the back of the treadmill at 4.5 mph and it was time for me to adjust the speed back to a more confident and age-appropriate 3.5, I dismounted. As I limped away, I glimpsed the treadmill readout of the very fit thirty-something woman next to me: 6 mph. Since she’d just mounted the machine a few minutes earlier, I wondered if that was just her warm-up speed.

Oh well, I am pretty pleased with my workout, and my whole body feels wide awake. This is the body I’m in, and I’m taking care of it. And I don’t want to be any of those other women. So there.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Billy Graham's Prayer for Our Nation

I've been meaning to write a blog post about our tendency to justify selfish motives, and maybe I still will. But I received an e-mail today with this prayer, credited to Billy Graham*, and I thought it timely to pass on here.

“Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good,’ but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values. We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare. We have killed our unborn and called it choice. We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable ... We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem. We have abused power and called it politics. We have coveted our neighbor’s possessions and called it ambition. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment. Search us, Oh God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from sin and set us free. Amen!”

 The scripture address, by the way, is Isaiah 5:20: Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

* says this is not Billy Graham's composition. It has circulated before as Paul Harvey's prayer, but it can be traced to a Kansas pastor's speech in 1996. A Reverend Joe Wright offered his version of this prayer, originally written by Bob Russell for a Kentucky prayer breakfast the year before.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole

Whoa! When we emerged from our cars on the street where we’d grown up, we seemed to tower over the little brick houses. Where was Alice’s bottle marked “Drink Me” so that we could shrink to proportion with our old neighborhood? My brother, one sister, and I had an adventure in memory-land a few weeks ago. We wanted to share childhood memories as we walked around “our” block, walked the few blocks to the church/school, and walked to the park that had been our four-season destination for eight years.

As we stood in front of “our” house, we named all the neighbor families we could remember. In our minds' eyes, the street and front yards took on our typical 1950s summer evening scene. Apparently, we found Alice’s bottle, because suddenly we were little again—merrily zig-zagging across yards with Monica, Holly, Susie, Martha, Tommy, Paul, Tim, Scott, Danny, Maggie, Forrest, Jeannie, and Sharon. Running, hiding in bushes and under porches, squealing with delight, calling out to each other—yes, we could see and hear it all.

When we got to the park, we envisioned skating there with our father. (I had worn Dad’s red wool ice skating socks the day of our memory-land visit.) We couldn’t quite remember which park building had housed the warming area where we had drunk hot cocoa. The sledding hill had been flattened, much to our dismay, and the pool where we all took swimming lessons is now a wave pool. The largish kiosk where we all had craft classes was still there. We laughed about all the potholders we wove there … all the Popsicle stick birdhouses we glued there! When we got to the church/school, it was locked. I felt sure grade school memories would flood back if I could smell the hallways. I said as best as I remembered, the halls usually smelled of recently mopped-up puke. Much to my surprise, my sister agreed! Probably a good thing we couldn’t go inside; our heads would have bumped the ceilings—golly, even the school seemed Lilliputian.

The highlight of our adventure, though, was being invited by the current owner of “our” house for a tour of the inside. We’d been trying to figure out how to photograph the three of us, plus the house number, to e-mail to our other sister, when we noticed the house owner back in the garage. Although he was on his way somewhere, he graciously took the time to take us through the house. Again, we had the sense of being giants. We remembered and shared many stories. Mother and Dad used to watch late-night TV on the old black and white set in the living room next to the stairwell. I used to sneak out of bed and lie on the top step upstairs where I could hear some programs. We pictured where our mother ironed, where she sewed our clothes and taught my sister to make doll clothes, where the fishbowl was, where my brother fell off a table, where our little sister’s crib had been, where we’d put on dance shows for the neighborhood, where my brother’s Lionel train set ran on the big board painted by our father to look as if the tracks wound through lakes and forests, where we played Ping-Pong. For some reason, my memory of our burying a parakeet under a lilac bush was a vivid one.

We showed the current owner which closet our father had built out and speculated some of the storage cubbies in the basement seemed to be Dad’s signature style. The owner showed us they had kept the shiny pale-green tile walls of the upstairs bathroom and the black and white floor of the powder room. We recognized them! He also regaled us with disaster stories—their big flood, the lady across the street backing her car into the house and on another occasion, their parkway tree, and another neighbor’s tree falling on their screened porch. The owner had a remarkably good sense of humor about all these disasters. Of course, our parents had had to clean up the mess after three feet of water in that very basement in 1957, and then again 30(?) years later after six feet of water in the house they moved to, so our tour of the basement included a number of flood-comparison stories. Since this man and his wife had lived there 31 years, he was also able to report on the deaths of many of the former neighbors we’d remembered as we’d stepped out of our cars earlier. Sadly, four of the deaths were children in our generation.

So many stories came to our minds from that other, smaller time. My brother ran up to meet Grandma at the train with his little red wagon to carry her suitcase home in. We had a mulberry club whose sole purpose was to collect mulberries from the bushes behind the yard and secretively eat them in the garage. The lady next door to the south invited us over for cookies and to “see the world” through her stereopticon. Some of her cards were even in color! One day the little girl next door to the north was choking on our driveway, and our grandmother rushed out and held her by her ankles until the obstruction popped out. We had great fun splashing in an inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. My sister remembers a sandbox, but I do not.

While inside “our” house, we babbled fountains of memories. When we regrouped later at a coffee shop, stories continued to bubble. We ate Alice’s pebble that turned into a cake and returned to adult size. Fast-forward 50 years from those memories. Much has changed, but much has not. That house, that neighborhood are part of us, part of who we turned out to be.