Category Archives: war

An Unnecessary Woman.

UWfinalcompAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the kind of novel that practices what it preaches, one where form matches function, and one where I felt ready to give up on it half way through when I couldn’t define a real plot line, but then began to see what Alameddine was up to with his protagonist.  Aaliyah Saleh, 72, has lived alone in her Beirut apartment ever since her husband of 4 years left in her early twenties. She spent her career working, and educating herself, in a bookshop and retired when the shop closed.  She translates a novel a year, using French and English versions to write an Arabic one, and yet she simply saves her work in a small back room of her apartment.  We meet her when she is pondering her next translation, and her thoughts take us through the Lebanese Civil War, as well her more personal battles.  By the end, it feels like we’ve not necessarily read a book with a clear plot, but instead got to know a woman and her city.

The most interesting part of this book for me the fact that while Aaliyah is virtually a recluse at this point of her life, she is also a brilliant literary theorist–and her theories were fascinating. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away.  This is what Alameddine did with his work, and why I think this book wasn’t written with the standard narrative plot. I think this book is brilliant, though difficult to recommend unless you comfortable stepping into Aaliyah’s world–and if you are reading from a privileged, Western perspective, being made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Because her world is so intricate and complex, and because it took me the entire length of the book to fully appreciate its purpose (the “rising action” occurs in last 15 pages or so), I thought the best way to end this post is to share some of Aaliyah’s ideas–her reflection on the literature she reads and the Lebanese Civil War is extraordinary. The irony of the title is not lost on the reader, because though she is a childless, unmarried, reclusive woman, her voice is also absolutely necessary in a reader’s growing understanding of human existence.

None of us know how to deal with the aleatory nature of pain. (98)

One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe. (99)

There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories. (148)

No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed. (155)

To write is to know you are not home…It is that longing for a mystical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art…I appreciate longing.  (195-196)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

51l1ADoTZzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by  Anthony Marra ended up becoming one of my favorite books of 2014. Set in war torn Chechnya, the settings alternate between Eldar, a small village, and a mostly abandoned hospital in nearby Volchansk.  The narrative structure reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See, which played with time and the order in which the story was presented to the reader.  In this story, there is a timeline at the beginning of each chapter that goes from 1994-2004, with the chapter’s focus highlighted.  Marra covers the interconnected story of about characters, focusing mainly on Havaa, a young girl whose mother had died and whose father was disappeared at the beginning of the story, the neighbor who takes her in, and Sonja, the only doctor at the hospital who returned to Chechnya from London to be with her sister, who has also disappeared.

In an interview at the end of the book Marra describes his style: “War breaks cities, buildings, and families, but also time and the way stories are constructed. To tell this story in a straightforward, linear fashion would fall short of capturing the absurd, recursive manner in which its characters assemble their chaotic narrative. All the characters in Constellation are trying to piece back together their fragmented lives, and I wanted to embody that in the novel’s structure. As each character attempts to rescue what has been lost, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole,” 394). Marra beautifully captures the struggle and desperation of each of the characters–enabling us to feel the chaos, confusion, and heartbreak alongside of them.

When describing her missing sister to border guards, camp officials, and aid workers: How could an instrument as blunted as language express one as strange and fleeting as Natasha? Metaphors failed her; Natasha could not be summarized, (271).  It was this sentence that helped me wrap my mind around what Marra was doing with the structure of the story–language cannot fully express a nation at war, let alone an individual.  The shifting in time, backward and forward through the memories of six or so individuals can provide only a glimpse of the confusion, the loss, the human weight of what happens when we begin to destroy each other and then try to find the kernel of humanity left there.

The title felt a bit pretentious to me until I found the reference: While reading The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, she stumbled across this: Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (184). 

These words, especially constellation, seem to perfectly describe life’s processes–and when considered out of a medical dictionary, have enormous metaphorical weight.  Each individual character in the story was actively involved in each phenomena–each has that individual constellation of connectedness between irritability and growth, adaptation and organization, and so on.  When the individual stories are layered, all of a sudden the night sky, and the human story, becomes infinitely more complex.  I’m fascinated by the way individual stories lend themselves to larger historical narratives and I think it is absolutely necessary for us to understand both.  I mentioned this concept a few weeks ago when I was thinking about why reading narrative (fiction or nonfiction) is important: we get to hear voices and understand places that are so far outside our own experiences, and by doing so we become more aware, more empathetic, and (thankfully in my opinion) more understanding of the fact that life is deeply more complex than the two-sided camps that much of American media portrays.  This is vital if we are to make real progress as humans.

To end, I wanted to share this excerpt from Sonja (who copes by quantifying and distancing), as she looks at Havaa upon her arrival.

Those smooth, spit-cleaned cheeks gave no indication of the dreams crowding her skull.  Should she make it to adulthood, the girl would arrive with two hundred and six bones. Two and a half million sweat glands. Ninety-six thousand kilometers of blood vessels. Forty-six chromosomes. Seven meters of small intestines. Six hundred and six discrete muscles. One hundred billion cerebral neurons. Two kidneys. A liver. A heart. A hundred trillion cells that died and were replaced, again and again. But no matter how many ways she dismembered and quantified the body lying beside her, she couldn’t say how many years the girl would wait before she married, if at all, or how many children she would have, if any; and between the creation of this body and its end lay the mystery the girl would spend her life solving.  For now, she slept. (49)

silence and fear.

Some context: I love learning about history when it isn’t connected to memorizing names and dates, but rather when it encompasses understanding culture and incorporates what was going on in the world of the arts simultaneously.  There are so many complexities and nuances in our collective history as humans that I love digging into. I finished UnbrokenMaus I and II and Night earlier this year and then spent the last week reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen (who wrote Devil in the White City), and ordered the biography Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas before I was even finished, which is about the Christian theologian who was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler.  I’m enmeshed in World War Two and non-fiction (albeit mostly narrative), which is rare for me, but I am loving it.

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family in Berlin in the mid 1930s, when Hitler is rising to power.  Dodd was an unconventional choice for this position, and far from top of the list in potential candidates.  He was a history professor and a self professed “true Jeffersonian” in his manner and politics.  Larsen does an incredible job documenting Dodd’s ambassadorship and the politics of the time.  Though I was familiar with the U.S. isolationist stance before World War Two, it was fascinating and frightening to learn about the politics surrounding the way we interacted with Germany during this time.

In 1934, the American Jewish Congress with support from the American Federation of Labor planned a mock trial of Hitler at Madison Square Garden.  When Germany caught wind of this, Hitler ordered Foreign Minister Neurath to demand that it be stopped.  The American government communicated that because of our belief in free speech, there was nothing they could do to cancel the event, though they did not make, at that time, any kind of statement against Hitler.  Larsen makes an excellent point about this:

“One result was a sequence of official protests, replies and memoranda that revealed both Germany’s sensitivity to outside opinion and the lengths U.S. officials felt compelled to go to avoid direct criticism of Hitler and his party.  The degree of restraint would have been comincal if the stakes had not been so high and raised a question: why were the State Department and President Roosevelt so hesitant to express in frank terms how they really felt about Hitler at a time when such expressions clearly could have had a powerful effect on his prestige in the world?” (231).

It was easier to hide behind the guise of politics? It was easier to turn a head than to get involved with what seemed to be someone else’s mess? People pleasing seems like a good temporary answer?

A few pages later Larsen asks, “What was everyone afraid of?” (241).  This is one of the overriding questions of the entire book, and one that speaks into not just politics at the international or governmental level, but a personal level.  Quietly ignoring things that are wrong offers temporary safety only.

The title of this book is a reference to the Tiergarten, a park in Berlin that was one of the only places in the city where people felt safe to have private conversations.  As I think about its symbolism, I can see two sides: hiding one’s true thoughts in a garden, rather than bringing them out into the open, or the concept that we all need to have spaces in which we can be alone and be heard away from whatever metaphorical beasts are in our lives: that maybe we need space in order to stop listening to the fear and actually consider what is right?

It is uncomfortable to think about this because speaking out at this time in history could mean death of oneself or family, and when there are people to protect all of a sudden everything becomes gray.  So, on that note, all I can say is that I cannot wait to finish reading Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the length that he went for what he believed to be true. More on that later.

Ambassador Dodd was asked to resign in 1938 because he seemed to be taking too bold a stance against the Nazis, even though his actions could be described as silent protest.  He spent the remainder of his career traveling and speaking against the regime until his death in 1940.  Gah. 

Unbroken.

So many people have recommended Unbroken, the life story of Louie Zamperini–Olympic runner and Air Force bomber and POW in the Pacific during World War Two, by Laura Hillenbrand to me over the past few months.  It worked out perfectly that my mom had recently read it, so I curled up for many hours of my visit home for Christmas in front of the fireplace with it .  I love history, but realized that my knowledge of the Pacific front of the war was incredibly small, which is sad to me because my grandfather was on the Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the Navy SEALS, in Japan. Hillenbrand’s book provided a well researched overview of what went on and some of the facts I learned in the book shocked me.  The narrative arch in the book, though, took my breath away.

I wrote my last post about my struggle in thinking about the lost in war, and this one I realized is one about the survivors. It still leaves me thinking: at what cost will humans ever stop?  I cannot imagine surviving through what these men faced as prisoners.  It was impossible for me to read this story without feeling sick to my stomach about the complaints that arise about my own life circumstances.  What stood out to me the most in reading this book is the incredible fortitude of the human spirit. It saddens me that this phrase might sound cliched, because if I look at the hardships people have faced faced throughout history and the fact that they have survived–be it a global war or a personal one–is truly miraculous.  And in the case of surviving the war, making it home was only half of the battle:

The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were a torn-down men.  They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it.  They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized.  Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand…Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.  For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness.  There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history.  Some succeeded.  For others, the war would never really end,” (349).


In my city there are times that it feels like a superficial quest for outward beauty: to maintain the posture that every aspect of one’s life is meticulously curated.  But, as most New Yorkers know, there is beauty in the broken and in the faces that no fashion magazine would ever run.  There is beauty to be found in the mess and in the trying.

In my last post, I wrote about how wars are often fought for freedom of some sort, and that for the opposing forces there seems nothing left to do but to obliterate the other side.  It seems to me as though this can stand for a metaphor for living–for those who can’t escape the messiness of being human, anyway.  It feels as though my reading life is bleeding one book into the next, because I am about to finish Lit by Mary Karr, which is the story of her battle with alcoholism–finding freedom and everyday fighting against the blackness.  I can’t help but think about how she needed to find her way to peace.  I just saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (one of my favorite books) and was broken watching Oskar, the 11 year old main character who lost his father on 9/11, struggle and fight through his pain, in a way different from everyone else around him.

My students often complain about why they have to learn something that they think they will never have to use.  I have set answers for every subject area, but my one for social studies is always that I think that the best president, and any kind of leader for that matter, will always be the one who not only looks anxiously into the future, but one who is able to look back into the past–understanding both the macro and micro horrors and hardships.  For it is understanding–and experiencing–struggle that enables us to live and lead in a just, compassionate way.  Louie Zamperini’s story was a reminder to me of many things, but the most heavy one to me was to know the stories that make up our collective past: to learn what others have been through and to let that lead me into a life of greater compassion and understanding–as well as hope for the moments when I find myself fighting a battle that seems greater than myself.  The incredible part about it, to me, was that this was not a work of fiction–but rather, a demonstration of the patterns that great works of fiction try to portray.

War and letters and stories.

I had a rough start with For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.  As his is typical style, it was written in a matter of fact, moment by moment description, in this case mostly from the voice of Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the revolutionary guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.  But, Hemingway accomplished his goal and while reading it I felt like I was there with him, moment by moment, which is probably also the reason why I never made it past 3-5 pages when reading it before bed and why it took multiple in-flight reading swathes of time and my break from school to finish.
About two thirds of the way through, Jordan spends time reading the letters found in the pockets of a dead opposing cavalryman, which spurs on one of the longest inner conversations that the reader hears in the story. The entire account is fascinating, and is Jordan thinking about who and why he has killed.  Here are a few excerpts:
“You never kill anyone you want to kill in a war, he said to himself,” (302)…
“How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force,” (304).
“Listen, he told himself. You better cut this out.  This is very bad for you and your work,” (304).
I would argue, and actually don’t think it’s that controversial of a theory, that the reading of his dead enemy’s letters were what brought on his mental struggle with the death that accompanies war.  What I find interesting about this, though, is that it comes back to the core of my own beliefs: once you know someone’s personal story, even the bits of daily minutia detailed in letters Jordan read, it is near impossible to view them in the same way.
I struggle with war because whenever I read about it.  I am constantly thinking about the lives of the lost–on either side–and generally it is the daily minutia that destroys me.  The first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it was the displays of the personal effects those sent to concentration camps gave up: the piles of brushes and razors, the pile of shoes.
This is what creates empathy in literature and I why I plead with people to read…and write.  To me, reading is the great metaphor for understanding humanity and a reminder for me to remember that everyone in front of me has a story–whether it’s a student who is driving me crazy, the driver who is honking at me to walk faster through a crosswalk, a stranger I pass on a run.
The interesting part of this excerpt from the book, though, is that Jordan says that thinking in this vein is very bad for his work–which is true.  To fight for his cause in this context, personalizing the enemy would lead to failure.  He talks himself through the fact that he must do what he is doing to create a better world for the future: and yet, there are people fighting on the other side who believe the same thing, whether it is war on a national level or between two people.  And sometimes, looking back, there is a clear, right side.  Sometimes there isn’t.
I wonder a lot about the fact that throughout history, it has come down to fighting to achieve freedom. I wonder a lot about what this says about us as people.  I wonder about what would create a world (or nation or state or city or home) without violence.  I don’t think it’s possible to live without conflict, but I wonder what it would take to teach us to handle it differently. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing about it as many of my recent reads have been about war, both fiction and non fiction, adult and young adult.   I have no answers and it only gets more complicated, but reading and writing is the only way for me to work through it all.