Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sea of Storms by Stuart B. Schwartz (Hurricanes in Caribbean)

A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina

Hurricanes have the power to fascinate us, as do earthquakes and tornadoes, in their total power and seeming randomness (and in a small way to an epically bad final episode of Dexter).  Every hurricane season takes a toll on some region of the US or elsewhere, and while the news reports can be disturbing and frightening, it’s in the handling of these natural disasters that political policy, social attitudes, and scientific ignorance is most seen and least commented upon.

Stuart B. Schwartz has created a history of Hurricanes in the region that seems them the most…the Caribbean.  Scores have occurred that usually stay above the midline of South America and further up the East Coast of the US, centering mainly on the Caribbean from Mexico to the Bahamas and other islands. When my parents lived in Belize, I heard stories of people tying themselves into palm trees to survive the occasional hurricane. I didn’t believe it, but apparently, it’s not a rare plan when you are faced with a mighty storm, flooding, and no shelter.

Schwartz begins with one of the earliest recorded hurricanes and the written histories available from it, and goes on to explore the scientific basis for the cause of them.  Sailors often could tell when something was awry, but how that knowledge was dispersed was unlikely to help many people.  Starting with this hurricane in Veracruz, he weaves together the human and scientific elements that inevitably alter our history.

The first storm described was one that hit Veracruz in 1552, one described by the author as a “sixteenth-century Katrina”. The aftermath led many to conclude it was God’s punishment that led to such devastation: “they were set in a social, political, and conceptual frame that made an understanding of this catastrophe a moment for reflection on human sin and moral failure as the cause of God’s anger” (3). Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, increasing in every century since, this opinion is still widely shared and proposed as the reason for modern day hurricanes and similar storms.

Since hurricanes were not well-known meteorological behavior in many climates, when information about them reached Europe and other Northern regions, many of the details were converted into object lessons regarding good and evil.  It took a great deal of time for research into changes in weather, ocean conditions, and even animal behavior to be undertaken to prevent such disasters.

One chapter discusses early European forays into the Caribbean, with a somewhat ironic tale of two enemies whose fate was determined by such weather.  Columbus’ enemy Francisco de Bobadilla was the investigator who chained up Columbus and returned him to Spain with a very unfavorable report.  Years later, they meet again in Santo Domingo, where Bobadilla is heading out with a fleet of gold.  One of those ships held gold that belonged to Columbus that was being carried to Seville. Columbus warned both him and the governor that a huge storm was coming, but neither wanted advice from him.  He was even refused entry into the port. So Columbus found a small port to shelter in temporarily, and held out during the storm, while the others headed out.

Unfortunately for them, the prophecy of Columbus, who used his experience with observation of weather changes and water behavior, came true. Only the ship carrying Columbus’ gold survived. The rest, some twenty six boats, went down in the storm.  Sadly, five hundred plus sailors and the remaining gold sank.  Columbus may have felt vindicated, but he then suffered rumors of being “in concert with the Devil and that he had actually called down the storm upon his enemy” (11).  I’m not a big fan of Columbus, but wow. Major burn.

When scientists set about trying to predict and prevent hurricanes, their ideas ranged from ridiculous to somewhat on target, but always at a cost.

Whatever the scientific value of such attempts at weather modification, these hurricane projects and those to increase or decrease rainfall were always politically controversial, since changing the course of a hurricane or changing areas of rainfall might save one area from injury, but place another in danger. Fidel Castro claimed the United States was carrying out environmental warfare by trying to divert rainfall from Cuba to ruin its agriculture (274).

Interestingly, it was Castro as a leader who was the one most interested in responding successfully to the next hurricane, Flora, where “all of the institutions of the regime were mobilized for the relief effort – militias, the army…the Red Cross and police “(288). He interacted with victims and played a visible role in the country by seeking out more information about the storms and relief available. This was in sharp contrast to the nearby regions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,hit brutally and where the dictator Duvalier appeared to care not at all by the damage or his people’s losses.

Throughout the centuries since the hurricane in Veracruz, the responses are strangely the same.  Not all take advantage of warnings given (which are not always clear), and when the damage is done, blame is given to the people themselves for abandoning God or living a lifestyle deserving of such disaster. An example of this, outrageous as it is, is Hurricane Katrina.  The failures on so many levels is sobering and obscene.

First, despite Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was gutted after the election of George W. Bush. Bush’s campaign manager called it “an oversized entitlement program” and its level of preparedness was diminished (entitlement being the code word for helping the poor).  After all, after 9/11 there were less funds allotted to it, and then it came under the direction of Homeland Security with a focus more on “anti-terrorist activities”.  Good intentions may have led to very poor decisions, but it appears there was a more sinister attitude in play.  One journalist, Eric Holderman, is quoted in the book as warning via the Washington Post that “hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, fires and flu were destined to be a national concern on a weekly or daily basis.  They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them” (318).

He makes a valid point.  Reducing protection across the board in case of a natural disaster weakens the US as a whole, as a terrorist act garners more of a reaction. And never can this been seen more than in Hurricane Katrina.  When it occurred, I was on a rafting trip in Northern California.  Away from news, even radio, for a week, made coming home to the disaster seem as if Armageddon had arrived in New Orleans.  For many, it might as well have been.

New Orleans reeling from a hurricane is no surprise. First, the location. Dangerous levees, a low ground point in comparison to Lake Ponchartrain, and the levels of the Mississippi all contribute to a region surrounded by water (so much so that graves are raised on concrete platforms in the city cemeteries rather than in the ground).  In addition, about a quarter of the city lived below the poverty line, and was 67% African American. This demographic was not considered politically valuable and thus efforts to help Louisiana were largely pushed aside, despite credible warnings.
We can all picture the Superdome and its intense overcrowding, but less known is the more insidious wrongs that took place:

Doctors were turned away from aiding victims because they did not have state licenses; buses were not mobilized [for evacuation] because they lacked air-conditioning or toilets; bus drivers were not allowed to serve until they had the required sexual harassment training; the governor’s request for national aid was delayed for five days because it had not been made in writing (324).

It’s hard not to quote this entire chapter as it is so shocking.  I had no idea that FEMA tried to suppress photos of the dead or of those trapped on roofs or hanging on to flimsy floating boards.  Were they worried about bad PR? Food was not provided to Superdome evacuees.  While 80% of the city had been evacuated, those that remained were blamed in the press for not leaving in a timely way, despite that many of these were the poor and elderly that did not have the means to escape (remember the lack of buses?).  The fact that not ALL could escape was already predicted by expert projection made no difference:  no plan was implemented to change that, so this television visibility “drove home a message of social and racial inequalities”. 

Now, all of this is tragic, and yet many people still feel that the situation was impossible to prevent and thus impossible to prepare for. Yet, attitudes of leaders and TV buffoons illuminate a further, racially biased attitude that had to contribute to the disaster, either in beliefs about it or towards its victims.  While you may have the TV pundits say dumb things, like Bill O’Reilly, who “suggested that those who had not evacuated were drug addicts unwilling to leave their suppliers”, it’s more troubling when the political leadership in the US and especially that region (people in a position to change and improve policy) also speak ignorantly of the disaster.  Robert Baker, a Baton Rouge congressman, stated “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”  Rick Santorum (fun to google him), a Republican candidate for President, felt that those who didn’t evacuate should be penalized.  As if they weren’t already by the sub-human conditions.

Additionally, many TV outlets emphasized and exaggerated the occurrences of crime and looting. In fact, many of the looters were taking only food, milk, toilet paper and bread. 

And of course, there were the interpreters, such as many ministers who suggested, just like in Veracruz centuries before, that an angry God was in punishment mode. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, “said in his reelection campaign that God had punished New Orleans for the war in Iraq”.  Such blame was attributed widely in many circles, namely Republican and Fundamental.
As Schwartz states so elegantly near the end of the book, “Providentialism was, as it has usually been, employed to support existing political convictions rather than as a catalyst for new interpretations or changes of heart (335)”.

The book concludes with an overview of Hurricane Sandy and the political clout that was banked upon in the aftermath, as well as the unnecessary damage and suffering to New Jersey residents.

There is no sense of this being a complete downer, but more an example of how attitudes (religious, secular, and political) often ignore the scientific basis for how things occur, and even avoid learning more about what science can tell us about hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Much of the science behind hurricanes is discussed in the book, and knowledge of such is possible, not so much to prevent but to prepare.

Hurricane season starts June 1, 2015.

Review copy provided by Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

You Will Never Find Me by Robert Wilson (Europa World Noir)

I was so disappointed with this novel. I normally love Europa Edition's World Noir series, and I've read every single one of Wilson's novels, so I was primed for a great read. Which this was not. I am going to try and explain but it's tough to describe some of the issues with it:

1. Mercy and Charles are back, and while both are complicated individuals, they act with a distinct aloofness that even extends to their daughter. When she runs away, they don't seem realistic in their actions.

2. All the remaining characters are either all bad or all good: no moral ambiguities. El Osito is evil, yet, but not much more than that. The other cops, the inevitable Russian connections, the drug dealers and the fences are all just one-dimensional and don't change at all during the book. This makes for very little tension.

3. The plot is ALL over the place geographically, which is fine, but the connections between places seem tenuous. No one misses a plane, everything runs smoothly, surely Wilson knows that never happens. No one runs out of cash, everyone meets up as planned, there's not a single wrinkle in anyone's plans.

4. Besides the Columbian drug dealers and the UK dealers making a deal (with surprisingly financial savvy even for the lower tier sellers), we have a Russian side plot that makes no sense at all. Wilson is trying to drag in the poisoned Russian spy from real life into the novel and it's too much. A side kidnapping serves no purpose to the main story of the daughter running away. Maybe it was to appear complex, but it seems like when a novel has an open spot many authors toss in a Russian and a execution to make it appear topical. Instead, it was a yawn. The entire Russian portion of this did not further the plot at all.  Additionally, the behavior of the father of this other kidnapping is just off-the-hook: he truly calls the shots and makes the police look ridiculous. HE was interesting, the rest were laughable.

5. Peripheral characters like Esme and Isabel and the Spanish detective were interesting but unexplored. I suspect the Spaniard may appear in his own series in the future.

6. Hugely emotional moments regarding life or death matters are treated with an "okay, then"reaction rather than real human behaviors.

7. Without spoilers, I have to say the final scene was completely ridiculous. It made me laugh it was so implausible and yes, corny. To the point of cheesy. It suddenly felt like a Hugh Grant movie ending.

8. Finally, most people who have watched any crime show on television know the rules: always look behind you, never leave an assumed dead body with a weapon nearby, and never stop to chat while being chased.  Yet most of the characters commit these silly mistakes repeatedly.  Gah!

Aside from this, Wilson's other novels are FAR superior.

Review copy received from Europa Editions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Adeline by Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is trying to recreate the days leading up to Virginia Woolf's suicide, when she put stones in her pockets and waded into the Thames. To do this Vincent had to get into the mind-set of Woolf, to put herself in her position in relation to her husband, her house, her memories, et al. At first I was intrigued. Woolf never had an easy life, and people were much tougher then.

What got to me was once in Woolf's mind, I didn't really want to stay there. I'm not sure how much of this is imaginary thought process is based on fact, surely some is. But for the most part, assuming to understand someone's mind, especially someone who clearly has a mental illness, is problematic. The author does reference bits and pieces of Woolf's work (she's clearly done her homework), but much of it felt generic. Generic depression symptoms, when depression really is never generic. To be frank, I got bored. I realize this was fiction, a novel that isn't supposed to be real. Yet the premise has to connect somehow with real life, or why read it? I'm not sure it could stand apart as a novel of any woman, it's clearly tied to Woolf. Yet taking that liberty means we have to assume it's somewhat accurate.

In some scenes, she takes perhaps a five-minute action and extends it into ten or more pages of Woolf's thought processes.  Intriguing to consider, but it makes for a very slow read that doesn't feel cohesive because such little actions are expanding upon so greatly. 

I did notice that some parts are written much in the same style as Woolf's work, as if her thought process was exactly the same as Mrs. Dalloway, for example. (The flowers, the flowers!) But Dalloway was a character, not Woolf herself. Right? I can't picture all of Woolf's women characters being a version of herself, as they were all so unique. Except that one in To the Lighthouse who annoyed the heck out of me.

I normally quote lines in my reviews that I think are engaging or telling to the style. I found none to mark in the book that struck me as exceptional, except for a few zzzzz's scattered about.

In any case, for a Woolf devotee, this might be a delicious way to curl up and imagine more.  Maybe it's guilt: as a teenager I was forbidden to read Sylvia Plath OR Virginia Woolf by my mom. 

Review copy provided by Amazon Vine.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bettyville by George Hodgman

"Nor is she sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of the strangers it came with."

Inside those two sentences George Hodgman has created an instant picture of his mother, Elizabeth. A writer, he's returned home to care for Betty as she begins that slow, desperate decline. To say she's eccentric isn't enough, so Hodgwell shows us via the visual. To say she's a spitfire doesn't even begin to describe her....she's a tortured soul who he finds moaning in anxiety in the afternoons but cracking jokes at dawn. The disparity between the humor and loneliness is familiar. But her loneliness is not one to be solved but to be reckoned with...just because he's come to town isn't going to change her nor the course of that lonely path.

Hodgman's own life is fascinating; how he interacts with her in her rural Missouri, far from his home in New York, is a testament to family duty combined with family love. Even while that family love may not be of the Hallmark movie-style. Small town life sounds really good in this, described faithfully, even in his loathing of Walmart.  I really liked how Hodgman describes events and people,  especially in this setting, and especially of his mother:

"By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back."

I loved that line. As a writer and a reader, it's perfect. Many, many like them appear in this book.

Between their conversations and recognition of themselves in each other, they find a new closeness different from his early years as an only child. Burnishing that relationship is a landscape many of us can't relate to: rural hills, church suppers, and the existence of "bric a brac". The times they drive together are poignant. On one eventful night, they accidentally hit a deer (whom Hodgman describes as "... deranged. It hated its life)  while driving fast in the dark to get her to a bathroom. "This is a woman who can treat the transmission of a common cold as a tragic twist of fate, but crash into a creature who you fear is Bambi's papa and you will encounter a soldier prepared the storms of Normandy."

And yet, despite her decline, it's not terribly sad.

Oh. Actually it is. It is sad. The loneliness she feels that he expresses is piercing. With a parent in the same position (and being a caregiver child myself), I ache at some of the familiar scenes. I read it fairly soon after reading "The Long Goodbye" by Meghan O'Rourke, another gorgeous and thoughtful memoir of the loss of a mother. Both underline the very seed of our lives, the child grieving the parent, occurring often long before their actual death.

But it goes beyond the idea of caregiving for a into a more intimate path of caring for ourselves.  Hodgman gives up a great deal to be with her, yet he also gains.  He sees the small town life from a different place than when he was a child.  Additionally, it touches on his struggles as a gay man whose parents don't really accept his identity.  Rather than anger, he reaches another point of acceptance tempered with disappointment. Who he is becomes the subject just as much as who Betty is.  The child not wanting to disappoint his parents, those of that older generation who prefer to avoid uncomfortable subjects, remains in the man who loves his mother for exactly who she is.  Even if she cannot fully accept who he is.  He's there for the long haul, regardless, as he says,

"I am staying not to cling on, but because sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home."

So, it's heartbreaking. You will need tissue. You will laugh. And you just might hope you get a chance to be there for someone, to be that "other piece" for someone when the puzzle is completely undone.  Most of all, you may find yourself marking up the book to highlight special quotes.

A few of these, just to illustrate his beautiful writing:

"People forced to live by conventions are always the first to enforce them. I think this applies to my mother. A practical investor, she bought stock in the usual choices because they ordinarily pay off without risk or pain. She never imagined they could betray her or that anyone close would break them.  Never a practical investor, I have always gone for the crazy horse."

"I think people who have always felt okay in the world will never understand those of us who haven't."

After I read this, I turned to the beginning to read it again. I've become an evangelizer for this memoir. My mother and husband have read it. My English professor has dibs on it next.  I am hoping it wins a National Book Award like Patti Smith did.  I hope it becomes as well known as Paul Auster's journals. I hope it gets a PEN award. Anything that will get people to read it and see that throughout love and loyalty is a simple connection to Little Debbies and a casserole left on the front porch.

If it interests you, the author's website features pictures of Betty, George's father, and some of the other family mentioned extensively in the book.  Oh, and pay attention to the cover: it features some little details mentioned in the book.

Review copy received from the Amazon Vine program.