03 December 2018

UNCOMMON CAUSE: An uncommonly fascinating memoir of military life

by General George Lee Butler
With illustrations by Victor Guiza
General George Lee Butler
We all assume we know something of military life. We’ve seen lots of movies. Watched documentaries. Read a few books.  Some of us are close to members of the military. Nothing, however, will prepare you for the magnifying glass that 4-star General Butler holds to the military in his memoir. No, you say, not my speed – I promise you, reading UNCOMMON CAUSE is worth your time and terribly important in this day and age of sound-bites and tweets.
            General Butler’s memoir portrays an incredibly expansive military life, but with an eye towards how that life affected family and community, as well as a nation. A one-of-a-kind glimpse into the inner workings of the military well beyond being the defender of the peace.
Turns out, General Butler is a Don Quixote. He doesn’t always choose his battles, he charges ahead with audacity and hope, and, although he invariably creates change for the better, he has often risked his own life and career. He's a true American hero. 
Born to a military family in 1939 [auspiciously, the year Britain and France declared war on Germany] George Lee Butler graduated the Air Force Academy, where he subsequently taught and where parts of the memoir have been incorporated into the training manual. He also found time to earn a PhD in Political Science and was an Olmstead Scholar in France, where he earned a Master’s in International Affairs. A pilot who served in Viet Nam [a war he ultimately challenged] he has logged in over 3000 hours flying time in various places. And, beyond many other accolades and accomplishments, was designated Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command from 1991 – 1994, which means, if you don’t know, he had his finger on the nation’s nuclear arsenal even though he argues for the elimination of reliance on nuclear weapons.
            By and large, the world wants to move away from the nuclear era. The question is how fast and how far. In a world of sovereign nation-states, I can't rationalize any number above zero. If it's more than zero, you have to acknowledge every nation has the right to have them. 
Most impressively, this General is a fine writer. As lengthy as the reading is – two volumes, over 800 pages – it’s a page-turner. Almost impossible to imagine one life as rich and as deeply embedded in 20th century American history as this one. However he will tell you he absolutely owes it all to his wife, and honors all military spouses.
As you will come to understand, she was as much in service to her country as was I, making her mark in every assignment and on everyone privileged to be in her company. 
Volume I deals with the formative years and Volume II with what he calls the transformative and I would call the maturity. From the naiveté and perseverance of a young man to a dedication to the better-articulated high ideals of the older and decidedly wiser.
General Butler said he spent ten years writing the book, with numerous rewrites and readers. When I asked what, if any overriding message he wanted to send, he answered, “the unique risks to life and limb, the primacy of leadership and integrity, and the unrelenting sacrifices demanded of members, their spouses and most especially, their children.” And when I asked him to cite the most life-altering challenge or experience, he replied, “Always do and say the right thing, no matter the personal cost.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I met General Butler some years ago at an event for one of several non-profits he and his family support through their charitable foundation, and his lovely wife Dorene has been a supporter of my fiction. I can tell you in all truth they are quality people and this is a quality memoir.
Take the time to read these volumes. Enjoy each of the many fascinating episodes. When you reach the last page, you’ll be glad you know General George Lee Butler. 
Available in hardcover [a fabulous gift] or for Kindle [and Kindle Unlimited for free.]

19 November 2018


By Jenny Erpenbeck

Writer Jenny Erpenbeck
Too often the great works of other languages are not translated for the English speaking reader. We miss out on a lot of great fiction and different voices, and the stories that underscore other cultures. Fortunately, German writer Jenny Erpenbeck is available now in paperback, by acclaimed translator Susan Bernofsky, and THE END OF DAYS is worth reading for the most serious reader.

Make no mistake – this is not entertainment, nor is it a page-turner. It requires time, attention and thought, but it’s worth it.

The premise, like others that have recently taken on the what-if question of multiple lives, posits the life of one single person who dies five times – first as an infant, and then in each of the stages of life. This is not a spoiler, it’s the reason to read. A literary-existential concept – what is the life we might have had? And how does that inform the life we have lived?

Approximately eighty years ago, an arts and crafts teacher in Vienna declared the work of one of her pupils sloppy and shoddy. Is it possible that this pupil was given so long a life for the sole purpose of having the sentence uttered by that loathsome Viennese woman finally canceled out, buried by a new sentence uttered by a new teacher? Has she been in the world all these many years so these two sentences – to give just one example – can confront each other within her, and the good one defeat the bad? Might everything that’s ever been said and that will be said everywhere in the world constitute a living whole, growing sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another, always balancing out in the end?

Paul Auster did a particularly wonderful version of this in the novel “4-3-2-1” and Kate Atkinson explored a similar theme in “Life After Life.” Both recommended.

Erpenbeck opens the novel with an epigram from Sebald’s great fiction, “Austerlitz” in which he also said, At some point in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I’m living the wrong life.” How many of us have had that thought once or twice?

In END OF DAYS, in prose that makes you stop and read again, and again, a female protagonist rides her five lives through five phases of European culture. From the early 20th century through wars and revolution and ultimately the dismantling of the Berlin wall. In these pages, politics is personal and the personal does not exist in isolation from the politics. Characters are haunted by Goethe, by the extermination of Jews, Russian supremacy, poverty and corruption, and also redemption. They find it difficult to express their feelings [extremely Germanic] and in their repression, they suffer almost as much as our favorite Russians in Tolstoy. A lot of ground covered in just 238 pages. And much to consider about what composes a life.

When her husband – who despite his serious illness had lived longer than many healthy men – finally died, the old woman accepted her daughter’s invitation, gave away all her chickens, packed up the Holy Scripture, the seven-armed candelabra, and her two sets of plates, and went to live with her. She left behind the semidarkness in which she’d been spending her life, along with a few pieces of furniture, their feet all scraped and scratched – her husband had taken a saw to them whenever they began to rot, shortening them by a centimeter or two – and left behind the dirt floor that was just the same outside, her granddaughter had scratched letters into it with a stick when she was little. Soon the thatch roof would weigh down the now abandoned house, pressing it into the ground, and covering it until it decomposed.

I nearly underlined the entire novel. Profound and poignant, it’s a word-by-word fictional feast. And, in these crazy days of political turmoil across the globe, worth exploring again what it is that makes not only each single life worthy but the collective.

In paperback and for your favorite e-reader. 

19 October 2018

EDUCATED with a capital PhD

Advanced Studies in the School of Hard Knocks

Writer/Family Survivor Tara Westover 
Truth, in this memoir, is definitely stranger than fiction. If this had been written as a novel, you might accuse the author of vast exaggeration. Sometimes, totally beyond belief. And yet, true.
Poignant, fascinating, shocking, and sometimes overwrought, for good reason, this is a story of a young Mormon girl’s coming of age. Not what you expect – oh yes, there is the revisionist ideology, the isolation, the close-knit family of many children. And yes, we see the powerful grip of the patriarchal culture.
However this patriarchy also suffers from the father’s deep psychological disturbance, likely bi-polar disorder, which has been passed on to at least one of the sons, and also suffers from profoundly powerless women, even those who wish to rise above who are inevitably and frequently dragged back down. Few, like Westover, are driven sufficiently to rise again.
However she also appreciates the blessings of rural Idaho. There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.
The family is so off the grid, so paranoid about medicine or institutions of all types, and so removed from community life other than a few co-workers in the family junkyard business, no one seems to care about the seven children, even when horrible accidents threaten their lives. This family is more concerned about preparing for the coming apocalypse and Tara’s mom, a self-taught mid-wife and herbalist, is focuses on canning food and ultimately protecting their hard-won wealth.
…my father had taught me that there are not two reasonable opinions to be had on any subject: there is Truth and there are Lies.
Although taught to read only by the bible, the elder brother finds his way to college, inspiring sister Tara to do the same, but she has to teach herself enough math, writing and basic grammar, and science, to take the ACT, twice, before she is accepted to Brigham Young University. From here, she is blessed with interventions and mentors who help her learn and grow and eventually land at Cambridge University and subsequently earn a PhD in history at Harvard. To do all this, she must detach from her family, the hardest lesson of all.
For as long as I could remember, I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known, and yet for some reason, here at this university, in this chapel, for the first time I felt the immensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.
You will find yourself cheering for Tara Westover, also cringing at many of her experiences, and reminded once again of the sheer power of knowledge. And storytelling. 

15 September 2018

Orange is not the new black, it's just black.


Author Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner is one of those writers who grab you at once or confound you. Or both. In this, her fourth novel, she grabs you by the shoulders, and then by the throat, and holds you despite, or because of, the subject matter: women in prison.

The novel deals largely with how they got there and how they survive, told in short takes between past and present. Kushner does not gloss over a thing. I suspect the attention to detail is as scrupulous and intense a portrait of prison life as written by an outsider. And, beyond all that, page-turner fiction.

We meet the narrator, Romy, on the overnight journey to prison. She has been sentenced to long sequential terms for the murder of her stalker. She cannot see beyond the end of the tunnel.

They were moving us at that hour for a reason, for many reasons. If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule, they would have. Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us…

The title, by the way, refers to a seedy strip club in San Francisco where Romy gave lap dances and where she rose above her coworkers, until she got into trouble.

If you’d showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night.

Her descriptions of the city by the bay are elegant and detailed, and a harsh contrast to its currently high-tech persona. She has had to leave her son behind with her mother, a ne’er-do-well herself with whom Romy has had a tumultuous relationship, and the shadows of the mother-daughter and the mother-son bond hovers over the story.

Kushner doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for Romy or any of the other memorable characters. Nor does she expect you to them. This is not a victim narrative. She merely tells their stories. You will alternately shield your eyes or, yes, cry for them. More often you may marvel at the atrocities that result from the inequities that pervade American culture, on display and intricately woven through the lives of these prisoners. And their captors.

My only critique is that Romy’s remarkable perception and insight seems the voice of a well-educated erudite person, and does not fit this character. Still, you put that out of your mind in favor of the narrative and the wisdom.

Did you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a cheap value, a certain cheap value.

This is prison, beyond cliché or reality television. About inmates, and also the bystanders, the opportunists, in and out of prison, and those who might offer redemption. Like a Russian novel with all its drama and passions. A very good read.

21 August 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Everything we read about war is about the war – strategy, maneuvers, the drama and death. We too rarely read about, or watch on film, the immediate aftermath of war in a country, like England, ravaged for years. The slow return to past lives. The reparation – financial, personal, emotional. Or, an underground force still at war to tie up loose ends and ensure its end. It’s a fascinating time, brought to life by the great Ondaatje. A novel as intimate as memoir, and, to my mind, his best yet. 
Ondaatje won the 50 year Booker Award this year
for The English Patient, worth rereading.
When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually toward you. ‘A memoir is a lost inheritance,’ you realize, so that during this time, you must learn how and where to look. In the resulting self-portrait everything will rhyme, because everything has been reflected. If a gesture was flung away in the past, you now see it in the possession of another. So I believed something in my mother must rhyme in me. She in her small hall of mirrors and I in mine. 
In this, his eighth work of fiction, Ondaatje sets his sights on this transitional period, through the eyes of a young man employed by the government who finally uncovers his mother’s role in the war, and learns more about the people she placed he and his sister with to keep them safe.
However, as we know, and are reminded of late, children removed from their mothers are inexorably changed, in their view of the world and of themselves. This narrator, introduced as a school boy, evolves into an astute observer, a loner tethered to the past, while his sister becomes unforgiving and distrusting. Around them, a charismatic cast of endearing characters with their own secrets, who protect them and serve as surrogate family.
A lot happens, much is revealed, but slowly, quietly, in exquisite prose. Take your time.
Warlight is rendered in images. No trappings of war, only suggestions of its existence on the periphery. Nathaniel tells the tale, and also manages to convince us so completely of his revelations over time, he is able to describe events in places he couldn’t have been.
He learns his mother was a notorious spy, integral to the war effort in western Europe. So valuable, that long after the war, the extremist opposition searches for her to exact vengeance. She is never as safe as her children, who have been left with seemingly unsavory neighbors and their eccentric circle of acquaintances. The mother called her children by pet names, so the children give their caretakers odd names like The Moth, another The Darter. There is a story embedded in every name, every move they make – love stories and stories of profound friendship, also disappointment.
We order our live with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken – Rachel, the Wren, and I, and Stitch, sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete, ignored like the sea pea on those mined beaches during the war.

Warlight is a stunning work of fiction, recently released in hardcover or for your favorite e-reader.