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Posts Tagged ‘truth’

In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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I loved the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, so I was excited to see that with Golden State he returns to the dystopian mystery genre (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Winters wrote another highly praised book, Underground Airlines, which I have not yet read). Golden State is even more dystopian than The Last Policeman. Golden State is a place sort of like California in a post-disaster world, a society where telling the truth is upheld by law, and lying can land you in jail or even exile. Our hero, Laszlo Ratesic, has been with the Speculative Service, which is tasked with protecting society from lies, for nineteen years. His old friend and mentor, Arlo Vasouvian, asks him to take on a partner, Aysa Paige, a young woman new to the force. They go out on what seems like a routine call, verifying the facts of a death, and from there, Laszlo’s life gets a great deal more complicated.

Laszlo and Aysa end up pursuing an anomaly, and as this fast-paced book unfolds, Laszlo’s certainty that the Golden State is a safe place where laws are upheld and truth is honored begins to unravel. From finding an irresistible “artifact,” a book “from what was” before the Golden State, to asking his ex-wife, who works in the Record (where everything that has happened to everyone who exists is recorded) for help, to uncovering several characters’ closely held secrets, Laszlo and Aysa chase their truth to the very highest levels of the Golden State.

Or do they? This is no formulaic mystery. What happens in the final hundred or so pages of The Golden State will give your book club plenty to discuss. What happens, in the end, with the information Laszlo uncovers? The implications of his discovery for the Golden State is open to interpretation. I’m fascinated by the madwoman/guide character and by Laszlo’s ex-wife, and would love to talk about their roles with someone else who has read the book. I appreciate that Winters leaves room for the reader to think about what happened to Laszlo and decide how it might turn out. Laszlo himself is on a new quest by the end of the book, and I’m hoping this means there may be room for a sequel.

The themes of the book are so timely — what are the consequences of making lies indistinguishable from truth, as we seem to have done? Can society go too far in seeking and upholding the truth? What is the relationship between evidence and truth? How should society deal with people whose truths are outside the mainstream? How does our society do this, even if it’s not as obviously extreme as the Golden State? What makes a person good, or bad, at what they do and how they live? Can a person have serious faults and be a hero? Can a person be a friend and a traitor? Some of these are age old questions, but I can promise you haven’t considered them in quite the same way as The Golden State.

Finally, and those of you who have followed this blog for any time know this is key for me — the writing is beautiful. In the scene where Laszlo tells Arlo about the novel he’s found disguised as a dictionary, and Arlo tells him it’s an artifact, Laszlo muses: “We are silent, then, silent on the steps of the Record, silent at the center of the State. There is a world that used to be and is gone. We live on it and in it, but we don’t know what it was. Its absence surrounds us.”

Truth, beauty, dystopia and the thrill of a page-turner that makes you keep the booklight on under the covers. Perfect. And what a work to pair with The Misinformation Age!

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The director of marketing at my college, who also teaches a communication course, asked me to order The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. It turns out this book discusses many of the things I’m studying in my “Science and the Media” course right now. The title might lead you to think this book is about fake news, but it goes far beyond that, covering the many ways that real information can be manipulated or shared selectively in ways that alters what people think.

A couple of things stood out for me as I read this book. First is something we talk about a lot in the library world — inaccurate or misleading information is a far greater problem than outright fake news. Really fake news — like the Pizzagate story — is often sensational and headline grabbing, and we usually indulge in some collective hand-wringing after one of these stories explodes. What’s more dangerous, and Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall detail this carefully in their book, is deliberate or even inadvertent spread of information that is factual but shared in ways that give people the wrong idea. For example, the tobacco industry knew it couldn’t undo or entirely discredit the research linking smoking and cancer, but decided on a different strategy, as summed up in a memo that O’Connor and Weatherall quote: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the public.”

In other words, the tobacco companies not only didn’t care that their product caused cancer, they also worked to make the public doubt the truth, so they could go on selling cigarettes. The book goes into a fair bit of detail about their misinformation campaigns. It wasn’t all through advertising — they recruited scientists to do research and then shared only what they wanted to from the results. So it wasn’t untrue, but highly selective, and it deluded people into thinking smoking was healthier than it is.

That is the root of The Misinformation Age. O’Connor and Weatherall share mathematical models that explain how scientists and others share and assess information. The way we do this — ostensibly to get to the most accurate view we can of something — is informed by a number of psychological tendencies related to how we decide who and what to trust. When bad actors, like the tobacco industry, or other commercial or political operatives, interfere with the way we receive information, we sometimes never even have the chance to reach the right conclusions. The second thing that stood out for me as I read is that these social influences impact not only the public, but also experts in science and the media, often slowing, if not completely obscuring, these experts progress towards truth.

And this is a book that doesn’t shy away from the idea that there is such a thing as truth. O’Connor and Weatherall are philosophers of science, so they come from a science perspective, but it’s worth remembering that many fields also boil down to this: there are facts, which encompass what happened, when, where, and with whom, which can be measured, quantified, described and verified. And then there is how we view the facts. Truth is the raw material, and our conclusions can contain the truth but are not themselves necessarily the truth. So when we take in only selected facts, or facts that have been manipulated to help us reach a particular conclusion, or facts produced in a particular way to benefit a particular person, group, commercial or political entity, we will form views based in only part of the truth. Online media (both traditional and social) makes it very easy to package truth according to a particular frame or value and share it widely.

And that is much harder to fight than “fake” news. As O’Connor and Weatherall note, “Merely sussing out industrial or political funding or influence in the production of science is not sufficient. We also need to be attuned to how science is publicized and shared.” This means watching out for balance bias: “If journalists make efforts to be ‘fair’ by presenting results from two sides of scientific debate, they can bias what results the public sees in deeply misleading ways.” I recently gave up listening to national NPR coverage because I’d had it with how often someone is invited on air who has prepared talking points that are not based in fact, and then is allowed to say those things without the reporter or host being able to note that the view expressed is unsubstantiated.

Las week I did tune in to an NHPR show, The Exchange, to hear a show on vaccinations. I was delighted that the host and the panel responded to uninformed callers the way media should — they acknowledged that the anti-vaxx view exists, and then calmly and factually explained why it is unsubstantiated. The host of the show even responded to a caller who claimed the show was on- sided by noting that because of the level of consensus among medical professionals that vaccination is safe, effective, saves lives, and eradicates disease, it would be wrong to present “both sides” as if they are equal. This is responsible media. Especially in reporting science, rather than creating the false impression that all theories have merit, the media should explain when a consensus has been reached, how certain it is, and what conclusions can be drawn, even if it means discrediting views that aren’t evidence-based.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a tough read, and you’ll be angry when you’re through — after all, you are part of this: “Public beliefs are often worse than ignorant: they are actively misinformed and manipulated.” But you may feel better equipped to seek evidence and resist misinformation, which is good for all of us, after reading this well-documented, well-reasoned book.

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As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!

 

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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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I’d read parts of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer with my student success class last spring in the modules on vocation, specifically the chapter called “Now I Become Myself.” My students were impressed with Palmer’s wisdom in statements such as “What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” and “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

Around the time I used this with my class, a friend told me this is a favorite book of his, so I intended to give it a full reading. I had actually checked it out of the library once before and had been too busy to read it. The same thing happened over the summer. This time I swore I’d read it all the way through and made it my “lunch book” — keeping it at work and reading in the sun or in my office each day after I ate.

How glad I am that I kept trying. Palmer’s wisdom is humble and humane and true. He generously shares his own missteps and fears in the service of helping readers avoid their own, or embrace them as the case may be:  “Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and vocation: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations — projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves — and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.” Yep. Ouch. Another gem: ” . . . there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.” Not something that’s easy to accept.

But this isn’t just a book about seeking one’s vocation. Palmer writes searingly about his descent into depression and his way back to wholeness: “One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” And acknowledges how painful, slow, and difficult this is: “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection — it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.”

He also expounds on leadership: “These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves.” And extolls the benefits of “inner work . . . like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer” and the importance of community: “Community doesn’t just create abundance — community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

In these times this passage will be one I return to frequently: “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.” Amen.

This is a brief book, around 100 pages, and small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket or purse or desk drawer. It merits reading and re-reading, and inwardly digesting. It would be a great book to journal with, or to discuss in a small group.

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Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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