Mature women and lovers therof, add this to your list …

A House that Looks Good

A Good House?

The Good House, by Ann Leary.  A fine and funny and readable portrait of a sixty-something single psychic-descended-from-witches real estate agent in New England.  She vies with corporate brokers, her grown children, her friends and neighbors, new and old loves.  Throughout all this, she describes in detail her love for alcohol.

And no, of course, she tells us–she is not an alcoholic.  Except that she is.  But instead of  alcoholism as grim disaster a la Days of Wine and Roses,  it is part-time craziness that alternates with the keen pleasure of imbibing, all of which is refreshing, so to say, but still adds up to a train-wreck of a life.

Plus, there is Rebecca, the wealthy young married-to-a-rich-guy woman who falls in love with a married psychiatrist; there is Frankie, the town junker who can get anything done; and and there is  nude swimming and sailing and lobster-trapping and nature in a New England the author clearly knows and loves.

It all sounds a bit bathetic and soap opera-y as I write this out, but there is genuine depth here about life beyond sixty.  Check this book out, ladies and gents of a certain age.  I predict you will be amused, and even a bit enlightened.

This entry was posted on July 6, 2013. 8 Comments

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” soars!

The title  is perfect on at least three different levels: 1)  behavior of the butterflies; 2) behavior of Dellarobia Turnbow, who wants to flee her marriage; and 3) behavior of the media, and for that matter most of the human community, which prefers to fly away from the knowledge of climate change and its consequences.

Butterfly Habitat?

Butterfly Habitat?

Butterfly Habitat?

Butterfly Habitat?

Butterfly Habitat?

Butterfly Habitat?

Our Dellarobia!  You will laugh, you will  flinch, you may cry, at our working-class housewife’s sexually-restless desperation as mother of two young children,  wife of a man less inquisitive than she, and daughter-in-law of a mean-spirited woman who appears to pull all the strings.  Dellarobia wants so much more, and on the level of fun fiction, this is the story what she gets and what she doesn’t.

Kingsolver uses Dellarobia and her cast of supporting characters masterfully  to delineate the class difference between environmentalists and poor Christian rural farmers.  And through Ovid Bryan, her  Caribbean scientist who shows up to study the Monarchs butterflies, the author even manages to give us a believable scenario where for once class trumps race, even in the old South.

But the main thing about this book, whose real main characters are the Monarchs and climate change?  Against all odds, the novel’s  insightful exploration of our weather plight manages to be uplifting.  It turns out that people care about butterflies, maybe even enough to do something (quickly!) about the impending ecological disasters that are lurking all around us.

Some say this book is preachy, and certainly the authorial view is clear throughout.  But why is this criticism leveled most often at works that take on politics and point to the need for change?  Is Nabokov’s Lolita didactic because he insists on showing us the internal workings of a pedophile?  Do we call Fitzgerald to task for subjecting us to the travails of the upper class in The Great Gatsby, or is it just Steinbeck who is prescriptive,  in The Grapes of Wrath, and In Dubious Battle?

Maybe it’s the Soviets’ fault!  In their demand for socialist realism, did they ruin social realism for us all forever?  Or does the incessant critique serve the interest of the status quo, by denigrating any call through fiction for substantive change?

In any event, if  you want to scare yourself with a dystopic description of what California weather could be like in 2025, try TC Boyle’s A Friend of the EarthAnd if you want to understand what it’s like to be a young Latina scientist drilling for ice cores, Carbon Dreams, by Susan M. Gaines, is well worth your while.   But if you are only going to read one novel on climate change, make it Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  She allows us to laugh and dream and worry about the politics of the issue, all at the same time.

Butterfly Habitat?

Butterfly Habitat?

This entry was posted on April 22, 2013. 8 Comments

Two good movies about progressive politics from times still fresh in memory:

1.  No, starring Gael Garcia Bernal.  Remember the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup against Chile’s President Salvador Allende, the first and only elected socialist at the time in Latin America?  Pinochet, the military strongman who came into power, killed and tortured thousands, and disappeared thousands more.   His henchmen broke the bones in folk singer Victor Jara‘s hands, then executed him with others, in the Chile Stadium (re-named the Victor Jara Stadium in 2003).  For those of us in the North American left movement, this coup felt very personal, as if it could have happened to us.

In 1988, finally, there was a referendum on Pinochet in Chile.  Each side–pro or con on the Dictator– was allowed a sequence of fifteen-minute ads on nation-wide TV.  This movie is about the “No” campaign.   How to use that light bright commercial medium to get the military tyrant’s heel off the neck of the people?  So much pain to convey; so much need for hope!  Not a fast-paced film, but instead an authentic account of the aftermath of Pinochet’s damage, which, understandably, almost overwhelms the left’s ability to get the job done.   Ah, but not quite, so Chile finally gets to move on to the post-modern mostly capitalist mess that characterizes our current time.

2.  Ginger and Rosastarring Elle Fanning.  During the Cuban missile crisis there were reports of how many millions would be lost in Europe if the U.S. and the Soviet Union had a nuclear exchange.   As a young teenager I had spent sleepless nights after finishing books from my parents’ shelves about the bombing of Hiroshima, and the torture of Algerian guerrillas by the French.  So I was primed for the nervous fear of nuclear annihilation that came just as I started college.  My mother was so concerned that she came out of her political retirement to resume activism in the Women’s Strike for Peace, and that must have reassured me, because I don’t remember being as terrified as I should have been.

This movie takes us inside the British Ban the Bomb movement during this tense time, from the viewpoint of two sensitive young girls, one of whom is all too certain that everyone is going to die.  They both struggle, not only with the fear of no future, but also with the internal dynamics of their families.  Here the rough personal situation wreaks havoc, but at least no thermonuclear war, so that’s something to be happy about, innit?

Each film presents a detailed, persuasive reconstruction of a time gone by in a country other than the USA.  The mature viewer remembers times and places that resonate with Shulamith Firestone’s truth:  the personal is political.  And, the reverse is also true.  The political is personal as well.

This entry was posted on April 21, 2013. 4 Comments

Who is the Greatest Narcissist…

In TC Boyle’s  The Women?

Narcissism is not in short supply in this book.  The Great Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, was adept at both preoccupation with and promotion of self.  And the three women who sacrificed their respectability to have him–all after he had six(!) children in his first marriage– were as  involved with themselves as with their oft-absent lover.

But for absolute narcissist?  The person absolutely lost in self, who can’t think or talk or understand anything else, and who has no insight into the havoc this wreaks?  Miriam, the second of Wright’s three disastrous romantic entanglements,  trumps them all.

Anger courses through Miriam like a river in flood, like a match put to tinder, like a lightning strike on water.   Miriam changes from a believer in love without marriage into a harridan on behalf of her own marriage, which, since she lacks even a shred of remorse or self-knowledge, bothers her not one whit.

Remind you of anyone you know?  If so, you will find this book compelling.  Boyle describes Miriam with such care–even love if that’s possible with such a horrible person–that you may end up with insight into whoever has sucked you into their destructive sphere.

Also, if you are interested in what it was like to live when divorce was fault-based with a vengeance—when men and women alike were ruined if they followed their hearts out of unhappy marriages—you will be fascinated.  If you want believable internal detail about three women who struggled for the freedom to do what they liked with their own lives, you will enjoy this book.

Born in 1914, a Feminist Teaches at a Left-Wing Camp

Born in 1914, a Feminist Teaches at a Left-Wing Camp

And for a bonus, through Mamah, Wright’s first great love, you will learn about Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist who explored female sexuality at the turn of the twentieth century.

Woman Unionist in a Male-Dominated World

Woman Unionist in a Male-Dominated World

Finally, if you care about what made Frank Lloyd Wright tick, you will know him better after you read this book.

An aside about the historical novel.  After reading Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter,  I was shocked to discover that Lymen Epps, John Brown’s best friend, who died due to Brown’s son Owen in the book, in reality attended  John Brown’s funeral!   Call me crazy, but when a novel uses characters that existed in history, the author should be correct about the basic historical facts.

What makes the historical novel’s enterprise thrilling is that the fiction genre allows the inquiry to move inside the factual character’s  heart and soul.  This is why fiction, historical or not, is arguably the most accurate truth of all.  So Banks apparently wanted to surmise that Owen fell in love with Epps’ wife, and/or had a gay attraction to Epps himself, and/or couldn’t handle black/white friendship.  That’s fine, but why does it require having  Owen kill Epps off?  Banks is a compelling writer, but when I discovered all this, I was sorry I had read the book at all.

Re The Women, there are no such unpleasant surprises.  Sure, the narrators, Tadashi Endo and Seamus O’Flaherty, are fictional, but they are not central to the action, so it’s fine.  Also, duh.  Fictional is fictional; there are no actual facts that matter.  Not so with Epps.  A human being deserves to have the date and manner of his death remain intact.

The three women who risked all to love Frank Lloyd Wright are amazingly real and alive in this book, and for that alone The Women is well worth the read.

This entry was posted on April 19, 2013. 2 Comments

Three documentaries to gladden the anti-war environmentalist’s heart…

1.  The Gatekeepers.  The retired leaders of Shin Bet (the Israeli FBI/CIA) agree–it’s time to craft peace with the Palestinians.  Old men who have made war tend to have regrets.  Too late, of course.  But this film could affect the present situation, if the Israelis would only take it in.  Their major spooks believe the current course is ruinous–for Israel!

2.  A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living PlanetRobert Redford, Van Jones, Ashley Judd, Isabel Allende and Meryl Street all narrate this film on the course of the environmental movement, from conservation through toxic pollution and into the grandaddy social justice/environmental crisis of them all.  You guessed it–climate change!  This movie is guaranteed to uplift and inspire!  Maybe even move you to action?

3.  Greedy Lying Bastards.  Good title, no?   Could refer to a lot of people, but we’re lookin’ at those who funded and took money to deny climate change, based on deliberate falsehood instead of science.  This concerted campaign set the movement to mitigate climate damage back by oh–maybe ten years?  And that was a decade that we definitely could not afford!  But maybe we are finally getting through to the American public and its leaders.  (See comment by Andy Gunther, Union of Concerned Scientists board member, on this blog).  Here the film-maker gets visibly more pissed off as he makes the movie, which adds to its power.

Am I becoming simplistic in my old age?  Everything is  connected.  Our planet is wearing out from the burdens we, the human species, impose on it.  War chews up the earth and every living thing upon it.  Corporate greed and obscene “profits” threaten to do us all in.  Seven and a half billion people, and counting.  We need to turn swords into shared ploughs, for a more sustainable way of life.

All three of these excellent films point in this direction, along a rocky, but still fertile road.

This entry was posted on April 15, 2013. 2 Comments

Two novels about crazy death

Too Many Needless Deaths

Too Many Needless Deaths

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin, examines the aftermath for the family of a young journalist kidnapped and killed a la Daniel Pearl.  Prose and dialogue are both lively, so this is a good read.  (Ah yes, the “good read” — a label that equates fiction with entertainment, when it can and should be so much more.)

Henkin gives us a go-getter physician mother, whose sadness has distanced her from her less-ambitious husband.  And three sisters—one married and trying to get pregnant; one an orthodox Jew who has made aliyah and has kids galore; and the third unmarried but coupled—all well-drawn.  And I grew quite fond of the bereaved  father, even though he was less important to the action.

But here is the problem:  no one in this liberal Bush-hating family, resplendent in its all-white privileged lifestyle, explores deeper aspects of fundamentalism, religious hatred, war.  So, despite the political tragedy, often my favorite subject matter, and the author’s penchant for loving detail, this novel bored me a bit.

The Exception, by Christian Jungerson, on the other hand, is oddly compelling for the opposite reason.  Set in the nonprofit Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), the book is about the surprisingly cut-throat competition among the women scholars who work there.  There are threats from a mysterious and deadly source, and the women spend a lot of time suspecting one another.  Two women bully a third, pretty much just because they don’t like her.  One woman, apparently happily-married, has been involved with one of the perpetrators.

Essays by two of the women inform the reader about various genocides, and whoo-ee, have there been a lot of them!  We are treated to details from Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and others, though not, for once, anything from WWII.   It turns out that more have died from genocide in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, than from combat between soldiers.

But the men in this book? The gender that directly perpetrates the genocides?  Two understanding husbands, one understanding lover, one sensitive boss, and one old-hand at genocide research who could end up with either or both of the single women–all ciphers compared to the women characters.

Yet this author’s attempt to connect the actions of ordinary people, as we compete and cut each other down, with the motives of those who run amuck, is excellent.  The book requires its readers at least to try to understand better the evil side of humanity.  And if we are thoughtful, we sense that it is quite near our own ordinary selves.

Henkin is the smoother writer. Jorgensen, at least in translation, can be disjointed.   But given the choice, I prefer Jorgensen.  Fiction, when it is about the political issues of the day, must grapple with them on a deep level or fail as quasi-voyeuristic soap opera.  The New Yorker review of The Exception  prompted me to look for this book.  Well worth the effort.





The Opposite of Devastation

The Opposite of Devastation


Oakland in February--Not DC!

Oakland in February–Not DC!


…and, wouldn’t you know it, February 17 2013 in DC was also the coldest day of the winter.  Brrr!

I know, I get it—we no longer call it global warming,  let alone the old phrase “greenhouse effect.”  It has become–with broad scientific consensus–Climate Change.  Droughts, wildfires, huge storms, more snow (but less snow-pack), and the hottest year ever, in 2012.

But still—the paradox.  While tens of thousands gathered at the Washington Monument to listen to the program, admire the signs, circle the White House, we had to jump in place just to keep from freezing!

But first the prelude…

Knowledge of climate change can result in a deep black hole of oily depression.  Confinement to a dry, burnt landscape.  A lurch into the tornado’s scary black funnel.  A nightmare of monstrous waves whipped by the wind.  In other words, you can become unbalanced.

Stalked by Fear

Stalked by Fear

The antidote, I tell myself, is mass action with like-minded people.  I ponder whether to go all the way from Oakland to DC.  A friend exhorts me not be responsible for emissions from the plane trip. (One round-trip flight from New York  to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person!)  Another friend’s rationale is that the flight will occur whether I am on it or not.  Yet shouldn’t we organize, all of us, to take fewer flights?  I have not seen that action item on any agenda, though, and I do fly for vacations.  How ironic if my conscience checked in now and eliminated this particular trip.

So I board the plane wearing a bright orange 350.Org t-shirt that says “We>Fossil Fuels” on the front, and has a smoke stack plus $$=the earth on fire (in pictures) on the back.   A stranger in the aisle seat informs me that he drives an electric car with the vanity plate “350ppm.  This leads to a detailed verbal exchange.  The young woman in the middle seat smiles politely throughout, and says nothing.

Disinvest in Oil!

Disinvest in Oil!

Upon arrival I check my e-mail, only to find a letter from350.Org’s leader  Bill McKibben.    He tells me that the march planned in SF is at least as important as the one in DC.  I choose not to believe him.  I spend a cold day touring DC’s free art museums.  Go see Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn if you get the chance.

Sunday morning I head to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) office for brunch.  Light bright spaces, overlooking a rooftop landscape.  Pastries, bagels and cream cheese, strong hot coffee.  Carrots and nuts that I wrap in napkins for later.  All those years of giving money pay off…

NRDC Rooftop Landscape

NRDC Rooftop Landscape

Fortified, I set off for the Washington Monument with the others.

Where is the Presdident, by the way, while we are marching down the street toward his house?   Playing golf in FloridaWith Tiger Woods.  And oil executives.   Now, to be fair, as Jon Stewart would say, maybe Barack and Tiger and the Texas oil guys were all worried together that during their grand-children’s lifetime the planet will no longer support the human species…Could be, right??  Haha.

An unnamed source (after all, this is DC), who goes to White House meetings all the time, assures me that protestors at the august abode drive the President’s staff crazy!  Why?  Apparently we are supposed to trust Mr. Obama, and not make him look bad.  Ah, but Barack—why not see that we have got your back, so you can Do The Right Thing?

The rally gets under way.  Reverend Lennox Yearwood from the Hip Hop caucus is the  MC.  He tells us that the issue today is even more important than those that led Martin Luther King to speak in this same place fifty years ago.

The Crowd Gathers

The Crowd Gathers

Van Jones, former White House “green czar,” characterizes this time for Presidential action as “the last play in the last quarter of the game,” and exhorts the President to realize that the Tar Sands decision is the most important he will ever make.

What’s so bad about the Tar Sands Pipeline anyhow?  After all, we have 55,000 miles of oil pipeline crisscrossing the United States, and no problema, right?   Like the one buried in the Yellowstone River, which when it broke, fouled 70 miles of the scenic bank, killing fish and wildlife and prompting a massive, months-long cleanup.   Haha.

So what if the Keystone Pipeline would be the longest in the U.S. ever, longer than the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which stretches 800 miles?  After all, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) assures us that Canada is responsible for only 2% of the world’s emissions, and that the technology of getting oil from sand is becoming cleaner by the minute.   (Beware, though–the disclaimer warns that the reader cannot hold CAPP liable for the accuracy of any of this).  Plus, CAPP adds, most greenhouse gas emissions are produced by auto exhaust.  Maybe if we all blame someone somewhere else for the problem, the climate won’t change?  Besides, isn’t auto exhaust related to oil which is used for gasoline which fuels cars?

It turns out that squeezing oil out of sand is extremely wasteful.  To produce a single barrel of oil requires 2-4 tons of sand and 2-4 barrels of water.  Enormous shovels carve out open pits in the tar sands and scoop out the greasy interior, which is hauled away to a processing facility.  There, the stuff is combined with water to form a slurry, which forces the sand to sink to the bottom while the bitumen floats to the top. Once the bitumen is extracted, the run-off is piped into large, stagnant tailing ponds of sand, water, and bitumen impurities.  To make it to the pump, this purified bitumen heads to an oil refinery. And since bitumen is a highly viscous “heavy” oil that doesn’t flow as easily as lighter crude, it requires more processing to facilitate its flow through those long miles of pipeline.

The upshot?  The process releases three times more carbon dioxide  than typical oil production.

This is why NASA scientist and climate expert James Hansen says that if the government approves the project, it’s “game over” for curbing climate change.

Not Easy Being Green--But We Must!

Not Easy Being Green–But We Must!

Okay now, before you get discouraged?

Back at the rally, Bill McKibben informs us that students from 256 colleges have signed on to campaign for their schools to divest from oil.  He exhorts us to mark off the days at the end of July, typically the hottest of  the year, and set aside bail money.  (As I write this, I have just  entered “direct action on climate change,” every day from July 27 to July 31.)

An investment banker says that oil is now a bad investment.

Michael  Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, assures us that “the spell of oil has been broken.”

A Vermont Senator named WhiteHouse, of all things,  lends official support to all this.

Jackie Thomas, First Nation Chief of the Saik’uz in Canada, reminds us:

“Oil will spill; it’s just a matter of when.”

(Think Exxon Valdez.  Think BP.  Think thirteen biggest oil spills in world history, ranging from 25-36 million gallons in the Scilly Isles, UK, up to 380-520 million gallons in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait.)

She continues:   “I need your help as the bulldozers come.  I am laying down my life.”

Yikes.  Think Rachel Corrie.

Chief Thomas also says “never in my life have I seen white and native work together, until now,”  mentions something called the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, and leads us in an approving chant of “CIA!  CIA!”   (Well, I never!)

We Must All Unite Somehow

We Must All Unite Somehow

And we–half  to two-thirds young people, Barbara Rhine estimates–set off  with our “Forward on Climate Change” posters, to circle the White House.

We Are Here, Mr. President!

We Are Here, Mr. President!

“We are unstoppable; another world is possible!”

“Hey!  Obama!  We don’t want no climate drama!”

“Drilling oil by the hour.  What do we do?  Fight the power!”

Is it the cold, or are there tears in my eyes, as we all pledge and swear and yell and scream—to make a difference?

And we do circle that White House.  We take our pictures.  We return to the Washington Monument.  Washington’s finest clear the street behind us so we can’t turn around.

We Are Not Welcome Back

We Are Not Welcome Back

Back at the Monument, people beat drums.

Pound It In

Pound It In

The kids dance some more.  Eventually I return to the hotel after all this, and take a hot bath.

So.  Contemplation of climate change is a kaleidoscope.  Or maybe one of those carnival rides that straps you in and spins you until you get sick.

On the up side:

Big Oil has noticed.  Big Oil is worried?  NBC reports that Big Oil took a poll and 69% of the American people support Tar Sands.  I wonder how they asked the question?  Oh, right.  They presented arguments for the pipeline and none against.  Another poll showed 60% of British Columbians oppose a Canadian tar sands pipeline.  Pick your poll.  Or do you even need a poll?  Will the climate obey the popular vote?

On the down side:  The arctic ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising, the seas are becoming acidified.  The scientists tell us it is all happening faster than the predictions.  There will be, or already has been, a tipping point.  There is already no way any time soon to get the earth back to the way it was before we came along with our emissions.

Time Is Running Out

Time Is Running Out

Up Side:  Everybody who is courageous enough to face facts knows A LOT needs to be done.

My “Forward on Climate Change; Adelante por el Clima” button causes a flight attendant on the way back to inquire, and before we are done she tells me that she has landed in Baltimore during the winter and needed no coat.  She gives me her e-mail so she can “take action” with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“And one person can make a difference,” she asks me, “right?”

“Right,” I tell her.

“Right” is what I must believe.

Down side:  the New Yorker article re how Staten Island fares in Sandy’s wake.  Devastation.  Scary.  The future for all of us?

Up side:  the cab driver to the NRDC brunch wants leaflets for the back pocket so all his fares will read them.

The young hotel waiter’s face lights up when I tell him why I am here.  He grins and informs me that he studies environmental issues at City College when he’s through with his morning shift

I send pictures home.  I am holding two posters, looking happy.  The White House looms.

Barbara Rhine Was There!

Barbara Rhine Was There!

My daughter texts me:  “Oh good!!!!  So glad ur there representing all of us!   Shout extra loud for me…Tell them Marina (17 months) and Alexa (due in April) need a healthy planet!!!!”

I start to cry every time I remember this message.

Ah, yes.  I forgot the metaphor of the emotional roller coaster.  That too.

See Comments here!

Hope Springs

Hope Springs

This entry was posted on March 4, 2013. 4 Comments