The coming-of-age story is a timeless and enduring literary genre, the “bildungsroman”, which is, according to Webster, a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character within the context of a defined social order. Often told in the first-person, whether it be Tom Jones or David Copperfield, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Amir in The Kite Runner, it can be fascinating to watch a human being change and develop. It is both universal and unique.
Every coming-of-age story has its similarities in which the reader can recognize their own story, and each story is different as each life is different. The success or failure of the work is in the story told, the language employed in the telling, and if our interest in the storyteller and the other characters sustains the reader for the length of the novel. When it all is said and done, do we care? Author Gurjinder Basran’s Everything Was Good-bye is a success on all these counts.
Early in the book Meena, the teenage heroine, is embarrassed when her best friend Liam— whom she is ditching school with — discovers a piece of paper announcing that she has won second place in the “Young Writers of Canada” contest and inviting her to Toronto to accept her scholarship. “This is amazing,” he says, “why aren’t you happy about it?”
“It’s complicated,” says Meena.
It is complicated, as is most everything in Meena’s life. She has the normal searching for identity problems that any girl growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia — or Los Angeles, California for that matter — in the 1990’s would have. But hers are compounded by her family circumstances, a Canadian-born daughter of Punjabi Indian immigrants, she is the youngest of six daughters now being raised by a widowed mother who barely speaks English and is “illiterate in two languages”.
At home she is “Meninder”, ordered by her mother to dress in traditional Indian clothes, speak Punjabi, and behave in a traditional manner to the extended Punjabi community who visits the house. At school she is “Meena” who self-identifies with “The Smart Ethnics” — preferable to the FOB’s (fresh off the boats) and DIP (dumb Indian Punjabs) who think that taking advanced algebra will help land them their dream jobs. She may listen to the same music her peers do and dress in mini-skirts that resemble those that Debbie Harry wears, but she will always look ethnic and be treated differently, whether it be benign as when her English teacher doesn’t sign her yearbook in the same flirtatious way he does with the rest of the girls in her class, or offensive, as when Liam’s father tells his son to stick to his own kind as he catches sight of Meena leaving their home.
Liam is Anglo, and complicated. An only child being raised by a single father, Liam is a rebel. He’s smart, artistic, bored by school — which he cuts regularly — and is an autodidact. Meena finds him irresistible and knows her friendship with a white boy is forbidden, it could ruin her reputation. Meena’s mother has two desires for her daughter: higher education to pursue a meaningful career — lawyer or doctor, but not a writer, because to be a woman author is not anything that a traditional Sikh woman would aspire to — and to be married to a suitable Punjabi man, because a woman must have a husband in their society. And Meena has the examples of her older sisters and cousins to show her the pitfalls ahead.
Three of her sisters agree to arranged marriages with various results which range from pragmatic indifference to physical abuse. A fourth sister, Harj, is followed home from high school daily by a car full of young men, and enters the house each time in tears until finally, one day, she is forced into the car and taken to an empty lot by them. The watchful neighborhood “aunties” who keep an eye on everyone in the Indo-Canadian neighborhood report this to her mother. The victim is blamed for her rape and her mother hits her; Harj leaves home vowing never to return or speak to her mother.
But her mother is not a monster who betrays her daughters, she is a loving woman bound by the traditions of a culture in a foreign land. She is not Canadian; she is Indian, a woman who supplements the monthly survivor stipend the Canadian government pays for the death of her husband, who died in an accident on a construction project, by cleaning hotels and farm labor. She truly loves and wants the best for all her daughters, but her conception of “best” is often at odds with the contemporary western world her children live in.
Meena remains torn between her identities, unable to choose. Is she the “new wave, post punk, alternative girl” that Liam asks to run away with him, or is she the dutiful daughter who craves the love and acceptance of her mother and extended community? Not making a decision becomes the decision: when Meena is ready to take the plunge, Liam is already gone.
Seven years later the now 24-year-old Meena is the only daughter left at home. She has traded dreams of becoming a novelist for an entry level job at a PR firm. She has defiantly held out against an arranged marriage but is not defiant enough to leave home and live independently, date a white co-worker, or even hang-out with co-workers. She does have one male friend Kal whom she first met as a young child when their mothers cleaned office buildings together. They are good friends and sometime lovers, unable to commit to each other, perhaps unable to truly love each other, and yet surprised to find themselves feeling jealous when they each end up with another.
For Kal it is the left-wing, politically argumentative and organic-consuming Irmila, an Indian immigrant from Hong Kong. For Meena, it is Sunny Gill, the rich only child of a wealthy Indo-Canadian family,
Sunny despises the mill that his hard-working immigrant father grew rich from; Sunny is a lawyer because his family expected it, but he plans on becoming rich off real estate speculation. His family promises him the money he needs for his investment if he does not marry the unsuitable Jasmine, whom he loves, if he will marry a suitable girl, such as Meena.
Meena is seduced by the wealth; by the importance she feels by being “Sunny’s girl” who doesn’t have to wait in line at clubs. She becomes his fiancée, then wife. It is an identity that she is willing to lose herself in, to the point that she agrees to change her first name to Surinder (which sounds like “surrender” to these western ears) because her superstitious mother-in-law’s astrologer deems it more favorable.
Life with Sunny is not terrible, nor is it good. It is just life, to be endured, much as her sisters’ and mother’s life is. There are some victories, as when Meena persuades Sunny that they should move out of his parents’ home so they can have a place of their own, and some defeats. Meena is relieved not to have to accompany Sunny and his parents on their annual trip to India; the previous year’s trip had been a disaster with Meena ill the whole time. With them gone she has independence and decides to attend a photography opening at an art gallery Irmila invites her to. The photographer turns out to be Liam.
It may be eleven years since they have seen each other, but the love and attraction are still there, and they become lovers. Liam wants Meena to leave Sunny and be with him; she is still unable to make an active choice as to whom she wants to be, how she wants to live. As Liam puts it “You still can’t make a decision to save your own life. Everything is about everyone else.”
But again, even no decision is a decision, life is about choice. And ultimately Meena has to make some difficult ones. This bildungsroman does not have a neat end, it leaves Meena with a choice to make sometime in the future. But it does end with her having a clear idea of who she is.
Basran uses language beautifully. There are vivid images painted: Meena putting her journals afloat on a raft and setting them on fire before her wedding, a funeral pyre for the girl she was and the dreams she had; forcing herself to eat a rare steak “the bloody mess” Sunny has ordered for her; standing in the cold trying to scrub traditional henna designs off her palms.
Meena describes her relationship with Sunny: “when I was with him . . . I was someone even if at times I was unrecognizable to myself. I hated those moments when we were alone and there was nothing to say, the silence a reminder that I might have condensed myself to make room for him.”
When Sunny leaves for India she says “His absence made room for me.”
Meena means that both literally and figuratively. There are rich descriptions of food, smells, saris, weddings, nightclubs, fights and love making. This is a protagonist I grew to care about. My only quibble: I could have used a glossary for all the Indian words; sometimes I did stop to look them up, often I was too engrossed in the story and pressed on. This is Basran’s debut novel, I look forward to reading what comes next.
The Viet Nam War was the most unpopular war ever fought by the United States. It was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from November 1, 1955, to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The U.S. government viewed involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment. Twenty years after it started, it had claimed 52,000 American lives and the lives of over one million Vietnamese.
Protests across the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s brought the war to an inconclusive ending; troops that survived the bloody ordeal staggered home to less than a hero’s welcome—American soldiers who had risked their lives fighting for this country were subjected to derision and shame—many developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, became unemployable and were homeless. The war that had served no good purpose was a blot on the national psyche.
Fifty years is a given length of time for a nation to come to grips with its ghosts—it took 50 years for the people of Germany to begin to acknowledge its Nazi past, and it has taken these past 50 years for us to reconcile the waste of a war fought on the territory of an extremely poor nation, where we had reeked considerable damage without realizing anything valuable in return…
John Rixey Moore, a 21 year-old, philosophy major who had graduated from the University of Virginia, was drafted in 1967 and was sent to Viet Nam to be part of a Special Force of Green Berets to do reconnaissance missions into the Viet Nam jungles. He was sent to Forward Observation Base 4, which was located on the eastern shore at the bottom of Marble Mountain, a mountain that rose from the shore like those in Oriental paintings. This was a strange place for the US Army to place a camp since the mountain was ribbed with Buddhist caves (some carved with elaborate pagodas) that were inhabited by the Viet Cong and thus was at all times in harm’s way.
On his very first night at the camp it was attacked in what was the worst military engagement John Moore was to experience during his Viet Nam stay, including the insertions into the jungle where the enemy was sometimes within touching distance. Much of the camp was destroyed. Americans and Viet Cong were killed or severely wounded. Moore himself suffered shrapnel in his hip, leg and foot. The mayhem was appalling and instilled a fear that remained with him during his entire tour of duty.
It took Moore twenty years to write Hostage of Paradox. He began writing it for his brother’s children. That gave him the focus he needed. Early on when he got to the description of that first night at FOB4, he found the memory too painful to proceed. So, he turned his attention to the second volume of his memoir, which is an account of what happened when he returned home the war. That volume is called Company of Stone; it is also published by Bettie Young Books and will soon be available through Amazon. Once he completed Company of Stone he was able to proceed with his account of that horrible night and with the rest of his Viet Nam memoir.
What strikes the reader about Moore’s writing is his phenomenal memory, the detail with which he recalls events that happened 25 years ago. Moore says that fear is a great driver, and that’s why he remembers the events he endured in such detail. Another notable thing is his vocabulary, which greatly exceeds the common person’s. This he attributes to all the essays he was required to write while a student at Woodbury Forest Prep School.
Soon enough Moore was made the captain of his unit, which contained himself, another American, and half a dozen Nungs, or Chinese mercenaries. A usual mission consisted of being air lifted by helicopter to a pre-determined location in the jungle with orders to search for troops who had captured prisoners of war, to do surveillance of helicopter crashes, or to survey battle scenes. Being responsible for the lives of seven or eight other soldiers heightened his sense of responsibility and accentuated his fear.
Once they were dropped, they usually spent four or five days crawling around the damp jungle, their nerves on end, lest they be discovered, their clothes soaked through and through, being assaulted by armies of insects, eating only rice balls (they could never do the civilized thing of setting up a camp) and sleeping half-awake on their backs with their guns released lest they suddenly be assaulted by the enemy. On one mission, while making his way through a dense jungle, Moore encountered a ten-pound orange centipede, something sure to haunt his dreams to the end of his life.
Moore usually carried a fifty-pound radio, which he used to signal headquarters as to their location and any other relevant information. When thoroughly exhausted to the point that they could no longer function, he would request an extraction. Then they would wait until at last they heard the sounds of the helicopter wings coming to lift them from their location into the helicopter and back to headquarters.
Here is his description of coming across an enemy camp where Agent Orange (napalm) had been dropped:
“The complex salad of rancid odors grew as we worked our careful approach the next morning. Grayish light through the trees ahead soon gave way to open sky and a great sagging canopy of coming rain, plump and low. As we emerged, beneath the clouds was revealed a landscape of the Last Judgment. It required a long minute to grasp the scene and the implications of what it contained. The earth was churned, torn, scorched, layered over with still smoke, and strewn with the blackened remains of dead humans. Parts of bodies protruded from the furrowed ground amid the skeletons of shattered trees, some shivered off at the base of the trunk, many others with a single grotesque and hopeless branch left. Nothing moved. The place still radiated heat and had been swept clean of living things by a tempest of orchestral death. There were no birds. Even the air was stilled.”
Yearly monsoons assault Viet Nam with a particular fury—every day a deluge of rain tears at the jungle and made progress by enemy forces or our own nearly impossible.
Moore proved to be very good at what he did. Though he attributes his survival to luck, intelligence seems to have also played its part. As he observed the statistics—lucky soldiers often survived two or three missions. He had survived four. He then became paranoid, sure that he would not survive another. But, survive he did, and we are richer for it because of his narrative. When he was discharged, he was reluctant to surrender his rifle because he felt safe as long as it was in his possession,
When asked what happened to Viet Nam after the fall of Hanoi in 1975, Moore answered, “In the immediate aftermath of the American withdrawal the Communists took over the whole country and changed the name of the old southern capitol from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. The whole united country then sort of fell back into its thousand-plus year decline until the US manufacturers began to invest in its labor pool. A lot of clothing is now assembled in Vietnam, and I understand it’s coming back as a tourist destination. It does have great swimming beaches.
“On a recent episode of BBC America's ‘Top Gear’ program, the presenters took a motor scooter ride all the way up the coast from the old Saigon to Hanoi along old Route One (The Highway of Tears, when we were there). I like the program and watched it all. I was astonished to see major cities and high-rise buildings all along the route where there used to be a warren of dirt streets and shanties with corrugated tin roofing. So, it seems the country, like so many others, has gained a great advantage for having hosted another American war.”
Producer Tom Perry writes, “John Moore fills this memoir with craft, immediacy, and authenticity. Simply the best Vietnam narrative I have ever read.”
My understanding of the Viet Nam War is scant—I often read to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of certain periods of history. This was the only Vietnam narrative I’ve read. I got from it what I was looking for—descriptions of what it was like being a soldier in the jungles of Viet Nam.
Rebecca Dana crash lands in Crown Heights, teetering on her impossibly high heels, sporting micro skirts and skimpy shirts, a walking strutting invitation for censure by the local Hasidic Chabad Lubavitcher police. The Lubavitcher sect prefers its women to be covered – not even an elbow should be visible – and, while we’re at it, religiously observant, which while nominally Jewish, she emphatically is not.
What will happen in this dark clash of cultures (within the same culture)? Will frumpy Hasidic women start sporting Louboutin heels? Will Rebecca rediscover her pintele Yid (spark of Jewish identity)? Did I mention her landing pad is shared with a hunky Russian rabbi, cheap rent being the catalyst? Will the relationship between this fashion journalist and her roomie blossom into something more?
Remember your identity crises of yore? Well, Dana falls into a dark hole here when her perfect boyfriend of 4 years jilts her, claiming she’s not “pretty enough.” Her perfect life crumbles around her. She no longer has the koyach (strength) to write fluff pieces about $4,000 shoes, speculate about Tiger Woods’s mistresses and go clubbing till the wee hours. The high life has lost its appeal, for the moment anyway. So off she goes on an impulse to farthest Brooklyn. What was she thinking?
This is a woman whose bible is Sex and the City; she worships Carrie Bradshaw. A self-described nerd, daughter of two chemistry professors, once she discovered fashion, she never turned back. As soon as she was able, she hightailed it out of Pittsburgh and moved to New York City; breathing in that great air from the subway grates, she was in heaven. With her job at the Daily Beast, she asked for nothing more.
Now here she is spending Shabbos inhaling the warm scents of challah, genuinely liking the Orthodox women she meets and figuring out that for some of them, this life with its many rules and prohibitions is exactly what gives them peace – they know what their role in life is, they do not have too many options. She starts to ask herself why she is so superficial – shouldn’t she be off in Africa saving starving children?
Cosmo, the rabbi, meanwhile is foaming at the bit. He turns to jujitsu and becomes a fanatic, toning his body so that he vaguely resembles Brad Pitt. He shaves his beard. He longs to play bass again with a band. He starts chomping on raw bacon and coveting cheeseburgers and all kinds of trafe (non kosher) food. He accompanies Rebecca to Manhattan parties. He seems to like what he sees of the big wide world – oh no!
Dana’s account of this year in her mid-20’s is charming and entertaining and told in the breeziest of tones. She pulls no punches about her failings as a perfect human being, embracing finally who and what she is: “. . .if I could have back all the minutes in my life I’ve spent thinking about how I look, it would be enough time to earn a Ph.D. . . . A coat by Alexander McQueen is art. To wear these things is not just to feel fancy but also to feel joined, however superficially, to something beautiful. . . .I love stuff. I’m a girl in America in the twenty-first century, and damn it, a pretty dress makes me feel alive.”
Yet she also admits she has always felt like “a smooth cylinder with no parts for joining.” The year in Crown Heights highlights for her, among other things, the importance of finding a “community of meaning,” those who share your ups and downs with you, who appreciate who you are at this very moment, not who you are striving to become.
Dana’s writing can be lovely: “Someone once told me that every time you relive a memory you change in small but irrevocable ways. So the more times you flash back to that one thing he said or that time you took a long drive on a spring afternoon when the forsythia was just blooming, the more the moment evolves in your mind. To me, this is the sweet magic of love, that no time is static, nothing is fixed. It doesn’t begin in one place and go from there. Instead the whole sprawling mess of it shifts and changes over time. So the story of forsythia writes and rewrites itself over and over, as does every moment before and after, smoothing and refining itself in a larger context, shading and coloring all the corners of memory until your whole life is something softer: a photocopy of a photocopy of the original. First we write love stories, then they write us.”
This tale of two cultures holds lots of possibilities and I’m not sure Dana fulfilled all of them for me. The ending seems a little tacked-on and rushed. She tells us Cosmo often said humorous things – guess I missed that?! The bio says she’s married now – what?!! – she brought us all the way through this year and didn’t spill the beans? I guess you get used to being in on someone’s thoughts and life and all and hurt when suddenly you miss the best story of all! So hurt.
It’s astounding to realize that Charles Dubow’s novel Indiscretion is the author’s debut work of fiction. Dubow writes with the flair, precision, insight, compassion, and all-embracing narrative verve of someone who has already yielded a half-dozen compelling works. Yet, this is his first novel. And it’s a marvelous, memorable one.
Like many other one-word titles, Indiscretion is a loaded term. The connotations are abundant. Indeed, this is a love story (with plenty of lust) that evolves into a tale of betrayal and broken dreams. And all along the way, its characters seduce the mind.
Indiscretion is in the tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and James Jones’s The Merry Month of May.
As with all the above, Indiscretion is narrated by a chronic observer—in this case, a character named Walter Gervais—who sees all the other protagonists up close and personal, but always with a discerning and somewhat detached eye.
In his childhood, Walter Gervais was the best of friends with a girl named Maddy, who has grown up to be financially independent. Maddy is now married to Harry Winslow, a novelist whose popular and critical successes are dreams come true. In the milieu of Maddy and Harry (they’re paragons of upscale Hamptons glamour, and they effortlessly cavort everywhere from Manhattan to Rome), there is a never-ending flow of witty banter, wealthy accoutrements, and sensual indulgences.
Inevitably, despite all the bulwarks in place to protect both their privileged lives and their marriage (which is, in fact, solid and authentic . . . until it isn’t), the “indiscretion” of the title occurs (more than once) and in a cascading series of dialogues, epiphanies, revelations and stunning confrontations, lives are shattered.
Dubow controls his material with the mastery of Irwin Shaw or John Cheever, when they were at their peak as New Yorker short-story writers:
In the restaurant they order a drink. “You know,” says Ned. “Women can forgive just about everything but what you did. And it makes them almost crazy when it happens to someone else because they’re so afraid of it happening to them. Ever since you showed up, all Cissy can do is spit about you and keep asking me if I’m happy with our marriage and how much she loves me. I got to tell you, hoss, I’m having the best sex I’ve had in years.” He laughs, and Harry smiles. “So who was it?” asks Ned casually, sipping his Scotch on the rocks.
Harry knows what he means. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I’d rather not say.”
Narrator Walter Gervais (whose peripheral role in the beginning segues to a larger, more conflicted presence) varies the tempo of the proceedings, and intense episodes of conflict are balanced by his ruminations:
What I find so puzzling about Harry’s behavior was how natural he was about it. It was as though he was a born adulterer. It is possible that sort of thing comes more easily to some men, especially writers, actors, or spies, those who become so used to inhabiting other personas, other lives, that they lose touch with the one life that really matters.
Some men, I imagine, would have felt pangs of guilt, or at least some anxiety. They would have been scared of being caught. Their deception exposed, their home life broken upon the rack.
In such passages, Dubow’s narrative control is reminiscent of the enthralling tone and mood often sustained by W. Somerset Maugham at his best. Case in point:
Of course, it’s never anything so abstract. His betrayal was as natural as a disease, as a cancer that builds up quietly inside the body and then erupts unbidden when there is nothing else to keep it in check. And when it happened, it consumed him.
The most impressive thing about Indiscretion is that in it second half, as Harry and Maddy endure myriad psychological, emotional, and social contortions while they struggle to somehow heal their relationship, multiple layers of complexity and nuance ensure that the novel never sinks to the level of a talk-show confessional.
And though it harks back to the great storytelling gems of the past, Indiscretion is as contemporary as the latest iPad. Charles Dubow’s greatest triumph is in the way that he reinvents and reinvigorates familiar themes in a mesmerizing new way.
M. J. Moore has recently completed an authorized biography of novelist James Jones.)
Last October, as tropical storm Sandy was slowly forming itself into Hurricane Sandy some 600 miles south of Jamaica in the Caribbean—not yet on anybody’s mental radar but certainly on the actual radars of scientists—oceanographer John Englander was probably grabbing some well-deserved rest. He had just, twelve hours earlier, digitally sent his book, High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crises, to Amazon to be listed for sale the very next day.
In the book he had written, “Despite the massive potential danger, one can envision New York City being defended against 20 or 30 feet of sea level rise...I don’t want to minimize the challenge for New York City, they are legitimately concerned about the impact of sea level on tunnel and subway entrances. Also, the other four boroughs of the city have significantly lower elevation exposures.”
Englander said that “one can envision New York City being defended against 20 to 30 feet of sea level rise,” because the defenses to allow that to happen have not (“yet” one hopes) been put into place. And so the only nearly 12 foot sea level surge that Sandy—now given the media made moniker of “Superstorm”—caused in Lower Manhattan had exactly the impact on tunnels and subways that Englander mentions.
This projection and then immediate realization of crises might be considered an interesting coincidence, maybe even an amusing one, if it wasn’t a deeply alarming and sad one. It is almost as if Hurricane Sandy came into being to add a rather devastating exclamation mark to Englander’s main thesis in his book: that it is time to wake up, it is time to pay attention, and it is time to do something.
Not that Englander presents this in any harsh or strident manner. Indeed, High Tide is not an alarmist, the-sky-is-falling book, but rather a calm and considered detailing of the data leading to the fact—not fancy—-- that the sea level is rising. And will continue to do so for the next thousand years. Although Englander makes it clear that this is due to global warming speeding up, and that that—and the very fact that it is even happening when the planet should actually be in a cooling trend—has been the direct consequence of the massive amount of carbon dioxide that humans have thrown into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels over the last hundred years, he does not moan and groan and beat his chest and declare what awful creatures we humans are.
Rather, he seems aware that human-caused global warming is more a consequence of the exponential expansion of our knowledge and understanding of physics and the mechanics of the universe that has taken place in the last five hundred years, than any black-soul malicious intent. How would it have been possible for humankind not to have exploited its new knowledge to gain a better control over our environment—if I may use that word—to create a life more easily and comfortably; more competently and efficiently led?
Life was always well understood to be short and brutish, it would have been unnatural, given our propensity to expand our natural abilities through tool-making, not to seize the opportunity to make it longer and more, what we have come to call, humane. That this enthusiastic and energetic exploitation of knowledge of how things work has led to dire consequences, Englander presents not as a horror to assign blame for, but simply as a fact to be dealt with.
And, indeed, as he says, “This may seem like a bleak forecast, but the success of our species is intricately linked to our ability to adapt. If we have the courage to look at our future, we can make it a livable one.”
In other words, humankind’s intelligence (and all that goes with it) that got us in this mess, is exactly what we need to call on to adapt to it and survive.
From this nonjudgmental position Englander has written a short, concise, and precise book detailing the facts of global warming; the difference between long-term global change and day-to-day meteorological conditions; the ancient and recent history of sea level rise and its causes; and projections of future sea level rise, both if we do nothing or do something about it.
And he lays out the consequences of sea level rise, which are substantial whether we do something or stubbornly do nothing about the problem. For no matter what we do, both the melting of the Arctic ice cap, indirectly, and the melting of the vast ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctica, directly, has set the sea level rising for the next one thousand years. It will be, he says, “The single most profound geologic change in recorded human history.”
Englander declares that we cannot at this point stop sea level rise, we can only try to mitigate its impact by lessening as much global warming as possible. And we need to prepare our “densely developed coastal society” for a reality where much of coastal land as we now know it—although smartly defended for as long as possible, it is hoped—will have to be abandoned over the coming centuries as populations withdraw from disappearing islands and changing coastlines.
This will take individuals, investors, corporate leaders, and governments to both plan and execute what Englander calls Intelligent Adaptation. It can be done, Englander states, but it will take dispassionately understanding the facts and pragmatically acting on those facts while dropping political polemics. It will take the effort of heroes from all walks of life who will admit to no discussion of villains.
Even oil companies Englander refuses to cast as black-hearted for they, “Help meet our vital energy needs. They are providing a valuable service that we depend on. Our power needs are not going to reduce magically, and the replacement technologies will take a long time to develop and implement....”
Englander prefers to see business not as an enemy, but as half of the healthy partnerships with government that “will be essential to our ability to adapt.” For it is not some magical reversal of the dire consequences of sea level rise, but rather as much mitigation of, and intelligent adaptation to, those consequences, that he is calling for.
Of course, to make such a call is easy, to do is far more difficult—and perplexing as the task is so daunting. Englander, however, does not leave us high and dry on the problems of being low and wet. In the last section of the book entitled “What We can Do,” he covers a number of practical efforts for defending our coasts as long as we can and for preparing for, and adapting intelligently to, the substantial changes sea level rise will cause. He also details how new technologies paired with political and personal will can slow the rise of the sea, and ease our way into a future of challenges.
High Tide on Main Street is an intelligent, pragmatic, and useful book full of data presented simply, clearly, and never dryly. It is a well-structured book for ease of comprehension, and you will not get lost among the information. Englander never presents the problems of sea level rise as anything less than urgent, but also never with the voice of panic.
It is exactly what anyone interested in the future of our existence on this planet should read, absorb, and use to make personal decisions of how to lead a life; how to design business and corporate strategies that contribute to the intelligent adaptation he says we need; how to make local and national decisions if you are an elected official, and, most generally, how to best use your fundamental democratic rights as you enter into the voting booth.
Truly, a book for everyone.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” The motto of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, set in motion by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1956, expresses a beautiful sentiment meant to encourage ideas and opinions, progress and growth. It is that encouragement and the utter failure of the movement that underlines and sets the backdrop for the award winning and bestselling author, Gail Tsukiyama’s, lastest novel, A Hundred Flowers. Tsukiyama shares the story of a family struggling in the wake of Sheng’s (a father, a son, and a husband) abduction by the Communist Party of China for the writing of a letter criticizing the government.
A year later, communication has ceased between Sheng and his family, and they don’t understand why, or how life can go on with out him. Sheng’s son, Tao, is afraid to ask his mother, Kai Ying, what his father did or where he’s gone, but the void he feels compels him to climb the large kapok tree growing in their courtyard for a glimpse at White Cloud Mountain, a sight he had enjoyed searching for with his father. When he falls, life takes another drastic turn for the small family.
The family must take comfort in each other and continue to hope for Sheng’s possible return, while also wondering if he ever will or if he’s even still alive. The secrets that lie between them push them apart and draw them together. To reveal the truth and set things straight, Sheng’s father sets off on an adventure that takes him to the edge of his resources and introduces a new friend and a new hope for his family. The cast of characters is brimming with realistic examples of strength, compassion, and hopefulness, but they all experience the lows of life as well: the losses, the fears, or the occasions when life doesn’t feel worth living. By exploring the path that brought them all together, the family sees that they are bound to each other in a support system that promises that the future will be, if not brighter, at least existent; they will survive.
This brilliant portrayal of a family torn half apart and mending like the kapok tree that Tao falls from is brought to life by the familiar voice of Simon Vance (The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, reviewed in Vol.4 No. 27). I was happy and not surprised to discover that Vance won the 2012 Audie Award for Best Male Narrator, and he doesn’t disappoint in A Hundred Flowers. He brings Sheng’s family to life with his warm and inviting voice. Tsukiyama’s story and Vance’s voice make for a delightful journey into the early years of Communist China, when the promise of a better China never seemed so bleak.