Bodies in Oblivion

Bodies in Oblivion

Lethe

Lethe stands behind a wire fence, staring at me with piercing hazel eyes. He is bald with skin so red and wrinkled his head resembles a healing wound. Still, we creep closer to one another until we crouch on either side of the fence, almost touching.

Hello, I say. Lethe says nothing audible, but presses the side of his body against the wires, all the while keeping his gaze fixed on mine. A whiff of rot puffs into my nostrils. It is a hot day- 90 degrees or more- and we are bathed in one another’s scents- dirt and feathers, shampoo and rubber sneakers, dandruff and coffee, dead mice and sweat.

On the side of his cage, a white sheet in a plastic sleeve tells this story:

Lethe hatched in 2000 and was raised at a wildlife rehabilitation center in California. Despite precautions to keep him from imprinting on humans, he became highly socialized and upon release at a state park, kept coming down to people (particularly women) to play with their shoelaces! Even after a return to captivity and several months in isolation from people in a large flight cage with other vultures, he preferred human companionship.

Lethe: a river in the underworld. To drink its waters brings oblivion, but the kind that erases pain. Why else would the waters of forgetfulness be offered up in the land of the dead, but as a comfort and a means of escape? The subject of Death, given an opening, wells up through my carefully built internal levees. I lost my mother three years ago now: suddenly, preventably. Before my mother died, she always spoke of how she wouldn’t. She insisted, on my fears of oblivion, that she would always find me again. In her journals, I found fragments of her dreams: a constant flow of communications from the dead; an alcoholic aunt who passed away jaundiced and wasted, appears to her young and untroubled, glad to report she has shucked off that broken-down husk; a distant cousin rolls by to flash an enigmatic thumbs up; even total strangers leave messages with my mother to pass on to the living. But so far, for me, only one dream: my mother is drowning and I try to shout a warning that will not penetrate the molasses-like membrane that separates this world from the next.

Lethe grabs the fence wire with his beak and blinks at me. I stare back, seeing not something but someone behind that barrier of wire designed, we are told, to protect us both. The owls and hawks I have approached in surrounding enclosures merely tolerate observation. They angle their bodies carefully, deliberately away from the human gaze, turning their heads on an oblique angle, keeping my curiosity at wing’s length, but carefully surveilled. Lethe, now pressed so hard against the wire that his feathers poke through, welcomes this mutual intrusion.

I don’t want to break the rules, which somehow I know would mean reaching out to touch him. So I look into his eyes and breathe him in. There is a fleck of gristle on his face. He stinks of those molecules released by decomposition. I wonder how many deaths have sustained him these seventeen years: all of the bodies in oblivion, the traces of which now pass through the air and into my nostrils, my lungs, dissolving in my blood.

It takes only about two years for any one breath to have spread itself around the world. The molecules of breath last thousands of years. Given the arithmetic, roughly one particle of the last air that was breathed out by anyone who ever existed will appear in my next breath. I realize, with a jolt, that by now my mother’s breath, circling the world, has made it everywhere. She is likely here, in my breath, in Lethe’s, being passed between us, in a kind of river that flows not through the underworld, but through the living, a river of constant remembering.

Lethe reaches down to his right ankle and tugs on his fetter- a leather strap that he drags in the mud and dust. He eyes me and tugs the strap again, then presses himself back against the fence, getting as close as he can, gripping the bars with his beak. I know, I say, but those are the rules.

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Kim Barker, Doubleday, $25.95 (300p) ISBN 978-0-385-53331-7

Barker, a journalist for ProPublica, offers a candid and darkly comic account of her eight years as an international correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Afghanistan and Pakistan, beginning shortly after September 11. With self-deprecation and a keen eye for the absurd, Barker describes her evolution from a green, fill-in correspondent to an adrenaline junkie who gets hit on by Nawaz Sharif, former Pakistani prime minister, and becomes adept in “how to find money in a war zone, how to flatter a warlord, how to cover a suicide bombing, how to jump-start a car using a cord and a metal ladder.” Barker reveals how profoundly the U.S. continues to get Afghanistan wrong–that American personnel in the country live in a bubble, rarely dealing with Afghans, that they trample on local customs by getting routinely and “staggeringly” drunk despite Islam’s prohibition of alcohol, and throw offensive costume parties at the Department for International Development (DFID). In equal measure, Barker elucidates the deep political ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S.’s role in today’s “whiplash between secularism and extremism,” and blasts Pakistan’s leaders for destroying their nation through endless coups and power jockeying.

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Little, Brown, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-01723-7

Rhodes-Pitts, an essayist and recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, takes as her title a 1948 essay wherein Ralph Ellison describes “nowhere” as the crossroads where personal reality meets the metaphorical meanings attached to people and places. A transplant to Harlem from Texas, Rhodes-Pitts began a personal journey into the iconic neighborhood, poring over Harlem in literature and life, reading its empty lots and street scenes, its billboards and memorials for clues to what it means to inhabit a dream (that fabled sanctuary for Black Americans) and a real place (the all too material neighborhood buckling beneath relentless gentrification). Acutely conscious of the writer’s simultaneous role of participant in and recorder of present and past, Rhodes-Pitts weaves a glittering living tapestry of snatches of overheard conversation, sidewalk chalk scribbles, want ads, unspoken social codes, literary analysis, studies of black slang–all if it held together with assurance and erudition. Like Zora Neale Hurston (whose contradictions she nails), she is “tour-guide and interpreter” of a Mecca cherished and feared, a place enduring and threatened that becomes home.

The Winter of Our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart

The Winter of Our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

The Winter of Our Disconnect

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale Susan Maushart, Penguin, $16.95 trade paper (329p) ISBN 978-1-58542-855-7

Maushart (The Mask of Motherhood) embarked with her three teenagers on a six-month screen blackout (no cellphones, iPods, PCs, laptops, game stations, or television) to discover if the technology intended to stimulate and keep us virtually more connected was, as she suspected, making us actually more disconnected and distracted. Ironically, Maushart may have gone screen-dark, but her writing remains riddled with “textspeak”–“LOLs,” “WTFs,” emoticons–and exhausting chipperness and self-conscious “hipness,” which all distract from an otherwise intelligent and eloquent core text. Funny and poignant precisely when it is not trying to be, this book vacillates between diary entries (written longhand) and deeply researched reportage, which brings needed balance to the subject of new media, often touted as either the answer to all of our problems or the accelerant of societal doom. What Maushart’s experiment uncovers is a commonsense conclusion: in a world of proliferating demands on our attention, exercising the on/off switch is the ultimate practice in understanding connection.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram

Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts
Gregory David Roberts (933 pages/St. Martin’s Griffin)

Shantaram parallels its author’s own true story of escaping a maximum security prison in Australia and living as a drug runner and passport forger in Bombay during the 1980’s. Roberts was eventually captured and forced to serve his 19 year sentence, where it took him “thirteen long and troubled years to write Shantaram. My hands, damaged by the residual effects of frostbite, suffered so badly during the winters in the punishment unit of the prison that many pages of the manuscript journal, which survived and which I still have with me, are stained and streaked with my blood.”
Shantaram is narrated by the protagonist Lin, who ends up living in a slum where he runs a makeshift medical clinic. His physical and philosophical struggles form the heart of the novel’s emotional thrust. Can someone be a good person after making many mistakes, or is it possible, “to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?” This moral argument becomes the lynchpin of the story and the heart of a deep conflict over where to invest a moral authority. Lin observes both fault and favor with society’s ways of dispensing justice, comparing the cruelty of the prison system with the communal compassion and punishment he sees meted out in the slums in Bombay, but all the while considering himself an outsider, no matter how desperately he wishes otherwise.
Shantaram is an uneven, messy book involving tens of characters, plotline after plotline, and the physical and emotional geography of what is essentially ten years worth of the author’s life, and the writing reflects that inconsistency. At its best moments, Shantaram is alive and eloquent with true self-expression, while at other times it collapses into cliché so groan-inducing it’s hard to believe the same author wrote these lines. In the end, it is a sense of the deep-down desperation of a man who must tell his story that keeps you reading. One way or another, Shantaram grips you by the hand and says, let me tell you a story that matters.

The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

November 28, 2009

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

The rings of the planet Saturn are really one continuous ring made up of innumerable small particles. One well established astronomical theory suggests the rings are debris left over from a moon that was pulled apart when its orbit fell too close to Saturn. Light reflected from the varying substance of the rings is what makes Saturn appear to wax brighter and ebb dim.

W.G. Sebald’s book, The Rings of Saturn, does not concern itself directly with the planets or astronomical topics, but with a very personal exploration into how a contemporary person can possibly shoulder an awareness of shared human history, and not be obliterated by it. His title serves as a kind of map legend for how his book is meant to be followed and understood. The Rings of Saturn begins where many stories end—that is the moment of surrender. Our narrator, fresh from a walking tour of Suffolk, England, has found himself hospitalized in a state of physical and emotional paralysis, noting that “I saw a vapor trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery … our world… no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.”

Sebald, born in Germany in 1944, has concerned himself in many of his books, with the aftermath of Word War II— specifically its effects on the collective psyche. In The Rings of Saturn this sense of collective memory is not just an idea discussed, but an experience created via Sebald’s narrative style and occasional photographs which serve not simply to illustrate, but work as sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous counterpoints to the story. The plot of this book is simple: our narrator sets out on a walking tour, noting the local and regional history as he goes. But Sebald immediately begins to complicate the idea of personal experience, introducing characters either known to him as friends or literary figures he has a personal rapport with, letting their voices take over, until it is difficult to say who is guiding the reader—Sebald himself, or a kind of merged voice made up of whatever persona from the past we have tuned in to. The overall effect is both disconcerting and strangely equalizing. Reading this book is akin to dreaming someone else’s dream—not just experiencing another person’s internal landscape, but also grasping that particular sense of ineffable significance that only a dream conveys.

The major themes of The Rings of Saturn are memory, the fear of death because of the loss of self-awareness, visibility and invisibility, and the idea of the human capacity for both cruelty and forgetting. Sebald’s rings are the rings of history and human experience—at one moment, taken together and when the light catches them right, they give off a mesmerizingly beautiful incandescence. At another moment, one sees them for what they materially are—the dregs of utter destruction swirling in a void.

What makes this book worth reading is that these huge, heady, existential, tectonically vast ideas never hijack the deeper purpose of the book—that is to point out the profound beauty and human compassion that Sebald sees even at moments of great despair. It is a perfect book for anyone who has ever questioned how to live in a moment when the weight of the sheer amount of history seems difficult to bear, or as Sebald puts it, “Will what I have written survive beyond the grave? Will there be anyone able to comprehend it in a world the very foundations of which, have changed?”
In story after story, Sebald returns to the idea of continual accrual and collision—of births and deaths, of the changing of the landscape both suddenly and gradually—and that this continual cycling is what produces the light that signals life. Hence why the invisibility of that airplane, cutting across the sky in the hospital window frame, signified a fissure in Sebald’s life—the fissure being the moment of understanding that there is no permanent grasping of meaning. Like the rings of Saturn, which are really only one ring, sometimes what lies beneath is visible, sometimes invisible, sometimes bright, sometimes fading, as things become one thing for a time, and then drift apart.

The Rings of Saturn
written and with photographs by W.G. Sebald (296 pages/New Directions 1995)
translated by Michael Hulse
reviewed by LJ Moore email: editor.moore (at)gmail.com

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