Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reality always wins

I've lifted the second half of Martin Grebel's book title to headline this review because it's something I believe. The book is Reality Check: In the Battle Against Reality, Reality Always Wins. Its a short book by a clinical psychologist arguing for reality, starting with the problem of our beliefs.

How do we know that what we believe is real? In many cases, how do we even know what we believe? Many of our beliefs are formed in early childhood, long before we are capable of judging whether they are true or not. And once we have a belief, especially one that gives us our sense of identity, we tend to ignore or discount any evidence that contradicts the belief and to accept without question evidence that supports it. For example, a child growing up in a very troubled, poor, and uncaring family "would almost certainly develop far more negative beliefs about life" than one growing up in secure, loving family.

Grebel notes that parents have complained over the years that their children don't listen or still act inappropriately no matter how angry they get or how they threaten. If the parents do not change their beliefs about how to moderate a child's behavior—a belief usually based in how they were raised—nothing will change.

Grebel notes that science—"an intricate, subtle, and complex system used in acquiring knowledge and applying it to the knowable world"—is the most reliable model for evaluating beliefs. Science relies on accumulating evidence to determine whether a hypothesis or theory (or belief) is valid or invalid. The challenge, of course, is to recognize both one's beliefs and the evidence that contradicts it. (We usually don't have trouble recognizing the evidence that supports what we believe.)

When belief systems are invalid, he writes, "they often produce long-term negative effects on our well-being, while also lowering responsiveness to our real needs, wants, and feelings. In these instances we pay a double price: loss of self and coping with negative outcomes." For example, people who are overly self-directed tend to believe their viewpoints are not only correct but are the only valid view. "They believe that being aggressive in pursuing their own goals is always legitimate regardless of any negative impact it may have on others." Others, impacted negatively, may reject or sabotage or avoid (or all three).

While I think highly of Reality Check, I thought it could have been even better with an index and with more examples from sources other than Dr. Grebel's on practice. As it stands, it is almost an essentials text rather than fully exploring the subject—when I would like more. Nevertheless, Reality Check should make you think (always a good thing), and I recommend it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Nantucket Five-Spot: An interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters

Nantucket Five-Spot by Steven Axelrod is subtitled "A Henry Kennis Mystery," but it's more thriller than mystery because we know (or should know) at page 14 who the bad guy is. We just have to see how much mayhem he plans to cause on Nantucket island one summer at the height of the tourist season.

Henry Kennis, the narrator, is Nantucket's chief of police. (Axelrod thanks Nantucket Police Chief William Pittnam "for his continuing advice and support.") The book starts with a bang. In the first paragraph, Kennis and Franny Tate, a former love, are having a romantic dinner overlooking Nantucket harbor "when the first bomb went off."

Almost immediately, the island is overrun with state police, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force agents as Kennis and his officers are elbowed aside for crowd control and "support."

Of course, Kennis and his staff know the island and the year-round residents—and the residents know their chief, an important factor. Indeed, Nantucket itself is virtually a character in a book filled with characters, and Axelrod's characters have strong feelings about the island's changing landscape (the second bomb partially destroys a nouveau country club).

As Kennis says about a careless driver, "That's something I hate. People who drive like that. Sometimes I want to arrest everyone—throw them all in jail, impound their cars and their cell phones and their computers and their TVs, and give their stupid McMansions which they use two week a year to the homeless people who need a roof over their heads."

Nantucket Five-Spot is satisfyingly complex with a pulse-raising conclusion. And, perhaps because Axelrod has an MFA in writing from Vermont College, the writing often crackles: "He was a slender man with lots of well-groomed blond hair framing his hawkish face, blue eyes set tight together, sharp nose, thin lips clinched around his indignation, sucking it like a sourball. He spoke with a slight southern accent...." Another example: "For some reason she reminded me of my daughter, soberly explaining that popping all the bubble wrap would make it easier to fit the plastic into the recycling can, when both of us knew she just wanted to do the firecracker dance."

For readers like myself who trip over foreshadowing, the novel did cause me to stumble once or twice: "Just how catastrophically, tragically, fatally bad that choice had been she was going to learn before the end of this close and humid summer day...." And as I wrote a moment ago, the story is complex with wheels within wheels that might put off some readers.

But on balance, I think Nantucket Five-Spot is an interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters, and a plot that edges right up to but never quite tips over into the preposterous.

Friday, December 19, 2014

What does it mean to be human?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler does not need my endorsement. It was short-listed for a Man Booker prize and nominated for Nebula Award for Best Novel. Barbara Kingsolver gave it a positive review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review when it was published in June 2013.

It is the story of Rosemary Cooke, her sister Fern, her older brother Lowell, her psychologist father, and her mother. It's an unusual story because Fern, virtually the same age as Rosemary, lives for the first five years of her life as part of an experiment to learn the effects of being raised within a human family— and the effect having a non-human "sister" has on Rosemary. But rather than tell you more about the story, let me tell you some of the reasons why I enjoyed the book so much:

1) Rosemary addresses the reader directly. She begins chapter 1: "So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996...In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn't told you that, you might not have known." Fowler tells us her story in a friendly and engaging voice and never has to resort to another point of view.

2) The story is plausible. I believe that Rosemary's memories of growing up with Fern could be a five-year-old's memories. I believe in her life as a college student at UC Davis. I believe everything that happens to her and the people around her could have happened.

3) The novel reports a healthy amount of scientific information about experiments into language acquisition and the differences between humans and chimps.

4) The characters, even the minor ones, seem fully drawn. (I'd like to study to see how Fowler does it because I would like to be able to do so myself.) These are people you could know.

5) The structure of the book is interesting. It is not a straightforward chronological account, and I can imagine that certain readers would be put off by this. I found it fascinating, however, by the way Fowler gives the reader information. For example, we don't learn that Fern is a chimpanzee until page 77. (There, I've spoiled it for you. But read the book anyway.)

6) The novel addresses good questions: What does it mean to be human? What are the ethics of experiment on animals? Do animals have any rights? Should they? Can we trust our memories? (No.)

A remarkable novel. Read it for not only the reasons I've just given but for your own pleasure.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An engaging journey from belief to freedom

Reportedly, the Jesuits say, "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man." The idea being that if you can indoctrinate a child early enough, he/she will never question the underlying belief system.  

John Van Dixhorn says, "It strikes me as a tragedy, even a form of abuse, that my radiant intelligence, available to all healthy children, could create an adult of feeble intelligence because I was indoctrinated into a belief system before I could think for myself. By the time my intellect awakened, I was already imprisoned in that belief system." His memoir, Prisoner of Belief, is an account of how he broke free. The subtitle gives away the story: "One Man's Odyssey to Reclaim His Soul—from Evangelical Minister to Searching Psychologist."

Dixhorn, now in his late 70s, was the middle of nine children, brought up in rural Wisconsin, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church. Religious training dominated his life, a Calvinism that dwelt on the perfection of God and the imperfect and deprived nature of man. When his grandfather was dying, John blurted, "Grandpa, I know I'll see you again in heaven." The old man rebuked him, pointing out that only God determined who would be in heaven. He learned about sex from watching a bull service a cow, and was mortified by his own sexual thoughts and desires—mortification the church encouraged. His Youth for Christ leader told boys that "masturbation was sinful and that he could tell if we were masturbating, because the whites of our eyes would yellow."

Dixhorn studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and was ordained with the Evangelical Free Church of America. As such, he was committed to a belief in biblical inerrancy; the Bible as the word of God, without mistakes, without contradictions. If there is an apparent contradiction, the fault is with the believer, not the text. Unfortunately, "the gospels are not biographies of Jesus but statements of religious belief written by Christians for Christians." Gradually, although Dixhorn was a pastor to churches in New City, NY; Naperville, Il; and Orange, CA, his doubts about the Bible and questions about his beliefs grew. And he saw how belief could torture parishoners.

The son of a couple in the church was sent to Vietnam during the war. The boy's parents were naturally concerned, but his mother was comforted by a verse of scripture she read the day the boy left. "She felt it was a sign from God that he would keep her son safe." He didn't, and Dixhorn met regularly with the parents for months to help them in their grief. One day the mother made an individual appointment. "She knew why God had not spared her son, and it was destroying her emotionally." She'd had a secret abortion at sixteen—not even her fundamentalist father knew. She'd killed her baby, and that's why God had taken her son. Knowing her Bible, she said, "David had a man killed in battle and God took his baby. I took my own baby, so God had my son killed in battle." Dixhorn was trapped: "How could I comfort her and honor the Bible at the same time?"

In time Dixhorn realized that he had "cherry-picked my own way through scripture all the time thinking I was taking the Bible at face value.... How could I be a true, Bible-believing Christian without acknowledging that biblical writers presented very different and contradictory views of God. How could I follow the teachings of a God that advocated something I knew was wrong, even downright evil?" He couldn't and eventually left the ministry, earned a master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a doctorate in clinical psychology. He did post-doctorate work in psychoanalysis and became a certified psychoanalyst in California.

I found the book to be a engaging intellectual journey and the paragraphs above barely hint at the story's richness. We come to realize with Dixhorn that fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Communist, Fascist—is anti-intellectual and totalitarian. "My own experience and self-reflection gives me better insight into the motivations and pain involved in giving one's self over to a totalitarian system," he says. "As a psychologist I can listen more deeply to the religious and ideological ruminations of my patients." He sounds like a fascinating and caring man.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the right thing to do?

Michael Shaw Perry has published Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition: A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed.  Perry is well-equipped for such a discussion. He earned a BA in philosophy from Dartmouth and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins. Apparently an over-achiever, he also obtained a JD from the University of Michigan Law School.  His book reflects his "personal and intellectual struggles with the framework for ethical thinking and trying to figure out how to live a purposeful, fulfilling life." It is not light reading.

Ethics, says Perry, "is the study of how one ought to structure one's life and it is from this that ethically correct actions follow." When one is faced with a moral dilemma, ethics can help us understand the right thing to do. Perry says there are three kinds of moral dilemmas:

1) The pedestrian—the kind of daily choices we have to make, between, say, going to a child's birthday party or finishing a project at work; between telling a cancer patient she has six months to live or saying nothing.

2) The theoretical—push a fat man off a bridge to his death to stop a runaway trolley that will otherwise kill five people tied to the track? I.e., that is should you kill one person to save five?

3) The critical—a dilemma in which someone, through no fault of her own, must make an impossible choice. I.e., a mother in a concentration camp is told to choose which of her two children may live. Fortunately, such dilemmas are rare if only because there is no satisfactory solution.

After discussing moral dilemmas generally, Perry clears the ground of earlier philosophical approaches to ethics by discussing the weaknesses of theological, deontological, consequential, and value-based approaches. While each of these may have value in a specific situation, history has shown that they are not universally applicable—and philosophers like Plato, Bentham, Mill, Kant, and others have tried to develop an ethical theory that would be universally applicable.  Perry argues, cogently, that such an approach is bound to fail because they leave a gulf between the theories and "our moral condition as we find and experience it."

Perry's approach is to ground ethical behavior in identity. "I am a human being and as such have various needs, interests, and obligations. I respond to reasons, show sympathy with others, desire certain ends, feel affinity with my fellows, etc." Moreover we often have many other identities: child, brother, father, husband, citizen, employee, manager, and many, many more. Some of these identities you can never shed. You are still someone's child even if your parents are dead, even if you were an orphan. Other identities are more transient. You may be a member of the PTA, but you can drop out without serious consequences.

With these identities, says Perry, come ethical norms and obligations. These are perhaps clearest for people like doctors and lawyers, professions for which the norms and obligations have been hammered over time. It means that a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, a police officer, a President may perform an ethical act in that role that would be someone who is not a doctor, a lawyer, etc.
It also seems to mean that ethics are culturally bound. That is, an act that would be unethical for a businessman in one culture (offering a bribe, for example) may be perfectly ethical for a businessman in another—same identify, same act, different ethical norm.

As I said above, Moral Dilemmas is not easy reading. It would have been helped with more concrete examples, less passive voice, and a good editor. (The chapter about ethics and lawyers is among the most lively and accessible.) Nevertheless I believe the book is worth the effort to absorb if only to help clarify your own thinking about the right thing to do in what seems to be a moral dilemma.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What makes Micahel Connelly so great?

I've written enthusiastically about Michael Connelly in the past, so I am not here to praise his latest Harry Bosch mystery, The Burning Room, but to sketch some of the reasons why I think he's one of the best crime writers in America.

1) He knows where to start the story for maximum dramatic effect. Here are the first two sentences of the new book: "It seemed to Bosch to be a form of torture heaped upon torture. Corazon was hunched over the steel table, her bloody and gloved hands deep inside the gutted torso, working with forceps and a long-bladed instrument she called the 'butter knife.'" We are watching an autopsy that initiates an investigation into a 10-year-old shooting.

2) He limits the point of view to Harry Bosch. The reader knows only what Bosch knows. This means Bosch has to learn things from his partner, a young detective named Lucy Soto, and from other people. So the book is crowded with names and places, but we are able to keep track easily and the flow feels natural.

3) His account of LA police procedures and politics ring absolutely true. Because I do not know Los Angeles well, I cannot tell whether places are where Connelly says they are—but I suspect they are. Using real streets, neighborhoods, and locations lends the book authority and verisimilitude.

4) The puzzle Bosch has to solve is both complex and plausible. He is working on a both a 10-year-old shooting and a 21-year-old arson case and the action stops long enough for Bosch and his partner to compare notes, or for Bosch to report to his superiors on his progress, which helps the reader keep track of what's going on.

5) Connelly is able to introduce history (back story) naturally without interrupting the story's flow. For example, Bosch and the reader learn the details of the arson case by reading about it from departmental records. At another point he is talking to a retired detective about an old case and he recalls "the infamous 1997 shoot-out in the streets outside a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood." Bosch played only the most minor role in the incident (part of the team securing the crime scene after it was all over), but the memory has its role.

6) His characters are neither paragons of virtue nor embodiments of evil. Bosch is, in some ways, a loose cannon, although he will get a search warrant when he needs one. He's doing his best to be a good father to his teenage daughter. When Bosch and Lucy meet a neo-Nazi ex-con witness, perhaps the most unpleasant character in the book, the guy seems more pitiful than viscous for all his vitriol.

7) He does not rely on coincidence to help the story along. I believe there is only one incident that might be considered coincidence in the entire 388 pages (a news story that happens to appear on the back of a news clipping Bosch is reading). But it is so natural few readers would question it.

8) The dialogue is crisp and at times funny. For example, a reward has been offered and Bosch gets one of the tip callers who says: "I want to register for the reward."
"What do you mean 'register,' sir? It's not a lottery. Do you have information that can help us?"
"Yeah. I got information. The shooter is named Jose. You can mark it down."
"Jose what?"
"I don't know that part. I just know it's Jose."
"How do you know this?"
"I just do."
"He was the shooter."
"That's right."
"Do you know this man? Do you know why he did it?"
"No, but I'm sure you will get all of that once you arrest him."
"Where do I arrest him?"
The man on the other end of the line seemed to scoff at the question.
"I don't know that. You're the detective."
"Okay, sir, so you are saying that I need to go out and find and arrest a man named Jose. No last name, no known whereabouts. Do you know what he looks like?"
"He looks Mexican."
"Okay, sir, thank you." Bosch hung up the phone, banging it hard into the cradle. "Douche bag," he said to himself....

9) The descriptions of places and people are crisp and to the point. For example: "Ojeda was sitting at a small table. Seeing him in the cold light of the room, Bosch saw that he was a handsome man with a full head of jet-black hair, smooth skin, and a trim built. There was a weariness or sadness in his dark eyes...."

10) He saves a final twist for the last seven pages of the book. It's entirely plausible, a complete surprise—and I'm not going to spoil it here. Read the book.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is David Samuel Levinson's first novel (He published an earlier collection of short stories, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will.) It is set in small fictional college town in upstate New York. The plot involves three main characters:

—Catherine Strayed, the 40-something-year-old widow of Wyatt, a promising writer whose first novel was mercilessly savaged by the famous critic Henry Swallow. Catherine works in a bookstore in town and is slowly recovering from Wyatt's accidental(?) death. She seems to be drifting through life and to be terribly passive.

—Henry Swallow, a late 50s professor and critic who was Catherine's lover when she was his student. He has become the head of the college's writing program and, although it was his review that apparently destroyed Wyatt's writing career, Catherine rents the cottage on her property to him. He seems to be randy old goat on which age, lust, and liquor are taking a terrible toll.

—Antonia Lively, a 23-year old writer who is Henry's current squeeze and protégé who has followed him to the town. Antonia has written a best-selling book presented as fiction but based closely on her family's history. Antonia insinuates herself into Catherine's life because she would like to plunder it for her next shocking best-seller. She is a bright young thing escaping a disfunctional family.

Because this is a novel about writers, writing, and critics, Levinson has some interesting things to say about the subject. For example: "Good fiction lies to get at the truth," Wyatt used to say. "Good journalism tells the truth to gae at the lies. It's only great literature that does both. It presents a world in which the two aren't just intertwined, they're inseparable."

Here is Henry speaking to a writing class: "If I can see the writer in the work, then it's clear to me this writer is more involved with his own story than with imagining a fictional one. This is a fiction class, where you will share and evaluate one another's stories. Notice the use of the word 'stories,' because that's what I expect from you—stories, not journal entries or personal essays or chapters from your Great American Novel that also double as your autobiography. Fiction is about character. Fiction is never about you."

As a writer, I find all this—and especially Henry's long (too long to quote) indictment of contemporary publishing—fascinating, but I wonder how many readers who are not writers care.

I also wonder how many readers will be put off by the way Levinson tells the story. He begins with a first-person narrator who sets the scene. The next 100 pages are told in third person as the narrator reports the thoughts and words of the characters, thoughts and words to which the narrator could not have had access.

Which is why I was jarred when, on page 108, a paragraph begins, "I myself wasn't at Leland's to hear Henry's denunciation...." Who is the "I" here? Who is telling this story? (We eventually find out, but I was more put off by Levinson's tying up the loose threads than satisfied.)

One curious contradiction within the novel is Henry's view of fiction quoted above and Antonia's (and the stated position of the novel itself; i.e., this really happened). Antonia's seems to be that fiction is only thinly disguised fact. If Antonia cannot learn the facts about Catherine and Wyatt's marriage, she cannot write her book. She cannot make anything up. What does she think of Henry's pronouncements?

So although I had problems with some of the characters and their motivations, and in general do not respond well to novels set in made-up places, I think Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a very creditable first effort and well worth reading.