Monthly Archives: June 2017

“Hallelujah Anyway”: Mercy and Change

This week, I stumbled across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, 12 truths I learned from life and writing, through Twitter, and it inspired me to get her newest book at the library. (It also inspired me to write my own list, which was an helpful process.) I tore through Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, in a few hours. It’s a short book of essays. I intended to just read the first essay, but I happily spent the afternoon reading.

I love how she interweaves her own stories with Bible stories on the loss and rediscovery of mercy, particularly in challenging times. I particularly liked her story of tadpoles and loved this quote from the last page of the book:

Images of tiny things, babies, yeast, and mustard seeds can guide us; things that grow are what change everything. Moments of compassion, giving, grief, and wonder shift our behavior, get inside us and change realms we might not have agreed to have changed. Each field is weeds and wheat, but mix the wheat with yeast, the most ordinary of elements, and it starts changing the flour.  It becomes bread and so do we, bread to eat and to offer…(176).

We always have room to grow, as individuals and as a society. It isn’t always comfortable, but we can change.

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Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

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