Any creative worth some heft of salt knows that when a work is completed the journey is only half done. The work must cease its building phase—the artist must stop dabbing, the writer must stop fiddling, the dancer must end practice and get on with the stage—and the work must then be passed into the arms of the waiting crowd. The creative must relinquish control; it is a sacrificial act as much as it is a power grab, and the creative must contain this dichotomy if the creating is to continue and not stagnate. Any creative that falls into either of these two holes will lose the friction needed to make and originate new work.
The conversation will start immediately. If the work has impact (for good or for ill) it will be shared and elaborated upon again and again and again, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries. The creative arc will only end when the masses lower it back into silence. If the work has managed to maintain itself in the physical world, there can be a rebirth. Certain unfortunate works may become perverted, and misused, proceeding forward into the future zombie-like; the creative takes risk every time a work is released and set flown.
Art is the echo of humans in time. The world is full of footprints of us. A book is no lifeless lump of paper, a portrait no mere lonely, empty vessel, but the echoing voice of some individual, who took their two hands and starting clapping fervently into the darkness.
Francine Sterle’s stellar chapbook, Nude in Winter, is a fluent culmination of such echoes, Sterle specifically choosing to reconstruct the voice of paint and painter (sometimes photo and photographer) into the voice of pen and poet. Containing 58 ekphrastic poems, Nude in Winter is both reflection and progression, as image is spun into idea and color into sensation. In each work mulled over, Sterle finds the doorknob, and swings open the closed frames to lay bare the vast landscapes behind them. Interacting with the artworks of known names such as Frida Kahlo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and William Blake, to the lesser known names of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, Sterle’s poems are alive and breathing, speaking in clear voices, while still maintaining the thin string tied to the artist’s liminal, braced world.
I do not know why I come to the window— / white curtains framed by a white wall. / The first breath of morning moves them. / They do not hesitate. / If rain dampens the leaden sill, / they shiver in the washed air, / waver when an animal heat crawls / hour by hour across the yard, / tremble when another summer / crumbles to dust. Some days / they refuse to move as if they hear / crows scolding them from the trees. / Soft as an owl’s downy breast, they allow / the light of dawn into the house / to nest on the floor by the bed. / Behind them, everything fades. / I do not know why I come to the window.
It’s not very often a poetry book sends me whirling through WikiArt.org like a madwoman. Every page turned left my mind pivoting in the wonder: What is she seeing? Where are her eyes? Some art I knew, of course; Giovanni’s Madonna in Prayer and Blake’s Albion Rose are hard not to know. Some artists are so renown, even if the painting itself alludes, the unique style of the elite artist pushes in like a tide, and Monet’s delicate brush, Kahlo’s dreamlike, surrealist spectacles leak in.
And the work can grip you—suddenly. Sterle’s words profess a deep yawning into the body of another. I took it upon myself to read aloud to one of my friends “Rag in Window”, and as the last lines came out I fell into a total sob, bending myself over in the chair, forehead to my thighs and book clutched to my chest, weeping.
Sterle’s work instigated the age old question in me: What is art for? It has often seemed a stupidly worded question for it has seemingly unlimited answers which begs (what I’ve always felt, the more apt question) why ask it at all? Open ended, and circular, I avoid it like the plague, yet always someone’s words, someone’s art, someone’s performance drags me back, drags me back and away and back again, an ebb and flow of life that can’t be discarded, leaving it to become one of the most undying questions of life. Why art? What is art for? What is the artist’s goal? Desired achievement and does it matter? Is the artist a mere secondary element to the grander life of a work, or is it more like the relationship between parent and child? (The endearing mark of its nurture almost inseparable from its identity.)
Nude in Winter pokes at these questions, and so blows them open, where Sterle herself then walks into them like rain. With the falling drops, she finds the shapes, the contours, the materials, and she takes these elements and builds her own art: A departed father, an unspoken love, a prodigal son, a girl sexually abused, the metacognition of a sculpture, the doubts of a old man, the morality of observation, the poet debating words at a desk.
Perhaps this is what art is for: Validation of ourselves. Our inner existence revealed, in the careless cascade of peaches from a basket, the green skin of a bearded violinist grown from the pulled sound, color as emotion and memory, our personal pain expressed vividly in some stranger’s rendering… Is this what art’s for? Sterle asks, rising the question up, and the page turns and it falls back in. Her scapes are visceral, her sight imaginative. The laws of interpretation are bent back around and fed to the reader, revealing the age old question yet again, but in new words: Are there laws? What is art for?
Francine Sterle’s chapbook is worth reading. No blunt halfhearted wisdoms are shoved in your face, no chintzy metaphors and tired facsimiles that often weigh down modern day pop-poetry are present. Sterle’s work invites one into a gallery of gasping, singing, whispering beings, each poem displaying another arc, each line carved alive from out the canvas. It is a beautiful book, an intimate book. A book worth reading and a book worth having on your shelf.
Five out of five stars for Francine Sterle’s Nude in Winter.
The featured image is Peaches by the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet. (1883) Available via the public domain. All the artworks (with the exception of Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital) are featured in Francine Sterle’s ekphrastic chapbook, Nude in Winter.
The human relationship with time has always been a pushmi-pullyu one. Usually, when time is exhorted upon in our daily lives, it is spoken about in its quantity and availability that can be allotted and used in the chaotic arrangement that is existing. One has either “too much time” or “too little”; time is “running out” or “dragging on”; we must “set the time”; we must properly “time” musical notes and when to throw the ball; we discuss our past with the mapping phrase “back in my time”; furthermore, time as exactitude, and time as nomothetic. Time, as we experience and use it, is a constantly shifting needle, pushed and pulled throughout our lives. Should a person have one of those suspiciously strange, eerily flawless days, time is “right on”—and, before one can even savor the delicious, punctual moment, the pleasing perfection has passed—swooped into the river of this mystical thing we know of as time.
During the western Age of Enlightenment, time in literature became personified. As nature became Nature and love was exalted to Love, so time was written as Time—a subtle, though I believe, sure expression of our intimate link with the mysterious, rolling hour. Time accompanies us without falter, an ever present companion such as the likes of oxygen proceeding in and out of our bodies and the microbiology of our skin. We occupy time as much as it occupies us. Its material, mechanism, and form mostly eludes us, but its force is undeniable, unstoppable, enviable even… Time, like death, is perfect, in that it cannot be improved upon. In its function, in its being, time is unsurpassed.
I have long been an admirer of time, perhaps because I have long felt time was on my side. As a child, I yearned for my grandmother’s white hair and her vein strewn hands; as an adolescent, I craved a craggy forehead and a bespeckled, splotched chest. Now, in my thirties, I sometimes in the night flip through the pages of old diaries, and with my feet clung to the leather of my seat, chin rested on my beaten knees, I trace the ink I looped into intimate disposition, and consider how I can barely grasp what has been and what will be. Often seen as a bandit, I’ve spent my life viewing time as a great giver. Hasn’t my life been nothing short of but a constant receiving and processing of time? Time is a filler, not an emptier. I think I have been lucky, for this perception has seemingly protected me from much stress and anxiety.
So a book on time was irresistible. I have read several now, one of the best being About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies. My latest read, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time (in its native Italian: L’ordine del tempo) is a summarized, but rich rendering of Rovelli’s life’s work: the study of space and time. Well plotted and envisioned, Rovelli’s book is written for the layman while not shunting expertise. From the point by point charting of Newtonian time, to the nebulous musings of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, to a fever dream of possibilities, Rovelli explores far and wide what it means to be in time, and what it means to be time itself.
One after another, the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun. The growth of our knowledge has led to a slow disintegration of our notion of time. What we call “time” is a complex collection of structures, of layers. Under increasing scrutiny, in ever greater depth, time has lost layers one after another, piece by piece. […]
One by one, we discover the constituent parts of the time that is familiar to us—not, now, as elementary structures of reality, but rather as useful approximations for the clumsy and bungling mortal creatures we are: aspects of our perspective, and aspects, too, perhaps, that are decisive in determining what we are. Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.
The Order of Time is a progression—from beginning to end—into greater and greater entropy; this, I think, is part of Rovelli’s vision, for it is the story of time. The opening chapters are of time’s material, its measurement and mechanism, and what could be considered its proofs. Some myths and beliefs are quickly expelled, and with a very sharp scalpel, time is sliced; what was once explained and referred to as a singular body, flowing and constant and in perfect sync with all of space, is blown apart into innumerable sects. Rovelli explains, “Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. There is not one single time; there is a vast multitude of them.” Gravity, and heat, are massive influences of time’s current. A human being who lives on the seafloor will have more time than one who lives up in the mountains; our aquatic friend’s processes will process more slowly, while our mountaineer’s will process faster.
This is not a matter of perception—but fact. Precision timepieces have shown us that time does indeed move at different rates, and it all boils down to Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity. Thermodynamics also plays a role, keeping time in its forward trajectory. Though time is multitudinous, it is certainly moving in one direction, Rovelli reassures. If I fall and skin my knee, I can not go back. Time is a river, as it has long been waxed and waned; however, each drop of water, each locality, exists only in relation to the others. Though it seems the river is one, it is not. It is our limited perceptions that see it as such. Time is not the broad stroke of a very big brush; it is intricate, painstaking pointillism.
So Rovelli makes a bold conclusion: due to the splintered, smattering that is time, there must therefore be no present, just past and future. In such squeezed, bubbled localities, the present is merely a construction of the human mind; in the material of the universe, time is a strange serpent, a creature of merely head and tail, asymmetrical and without equidistance. This leads to another revelation: that time is something that is happening. To us, time is understood by the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. The rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the comings and goings of the tides, the circulations of the seasons. We count the ways in which things change. From out the fields of physics, we find ourselves being led by Rovelli into the forests of philosophers. If time is happening, and if the happening of life is the continual totaling of events occurring around us, if suddenly, nothing were to move, nothing were to change, would time cease to pass and therefore, cease to exist?
It was a question Aristotle posed, and Rovelli rolls it in his hands, considering. He does this a lot throughout the course of the book, spinning the thoughts of his predecessors, as though spinning a basketball on his finger. It’s a balancing act, and the Law of Angular Momentum. The momentum must be conserved, or the whole thing falls off.
And things do fall off. Certain parts of The Order of Time can leave one scratching one’s chin like a chimp. At stages, a reader can feel the brain growing; a lightheadedness that invokes the sensation that your head will detach from your shoulders and float upward until your crown bumps the ceiling, rolling on its side as though a helium filled balloon. To his credit, Rovelli does his best to put things within reaching distance, but sometimes you’re just left up on your tippy toes, straining for the box. “Many parts of this story are solid, others plausible, others still are guesses hazarded in an attempt at understanding the whole.” Rovelli writes. The Order of Time begins very differently than how it ends; it proceeds from definitive rudimentary bits into manifold extrapolations; lopsided, and on incline, the ball in form of a book that is Rovelli’s mind rolls further and further ahead into question: this, by all means, is time.
Though time is fascinating to me, and I have spent countless hours discussing it in both verbal and written form, it was not the subject of Rovelli’s words that I found most enjoyable about this read—rather, it was Carlo Rovelli himself. (This is something that occurs often to me in reading: it is not only books I find so interesting, but the writers of books as well.) Rovelli has a wandering mind, and his elegant prose and choice vocabulary lend a wonderful freeness to The Order of Time that is so often lacking in the genres of science and nonfiction. In the dilating eye of quantification, the soulfulness and emotion of his study does not leave. Embracing the poetry of a carefully unfurling scene, Rovelli communes easily with his memories, his loves, his life. In what he calls “the residues of the past”, it is Rovelli’s reveries that make The Order of Time a book worth reading.
As humans—most notably over the past several decades—our explorations into the cosmos and the inception of it All seems to be emitting a quadraphonic sound: gravity, heat, space and time are all converging like points on a compass, but in our eager hands the arrow keeps spinning, round and around. It is a question: will we be able to sail deep into the unknown seas with this compass? Are these great titans the guides that will aid us in our strive to know more, and go further than we have ever gone? I don’t know, but over the years of my reading, it is clear to me that slowly, a consensus is being built by an impassioned chattering of scientific minds. These four things, have something to do with the birth of our universe. And if you are someone who is interested in The Big Questions, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is a fine piece of writing to add to your library.
Make time for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. I was not disappointed; hopefully, you won’t be either.
Four out of five stars for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time.
In the morning of October 2, 2018 a massive oscillation of pulsing white started to heave its lungs over the southwestern Caribbean sea.
For the NHC (National Hurricane Society) this was nothing out of the ordinary. Such disorganized accumulations of thunderstorms occur fairly regularly during the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season, however, dutiful in their profession, they began to monitor it. Over the next few days, the tropical disturbance slowly, in a smooth fog-like creep, began to gather itself into a definite whorl. An enormous wheel, of rumble and powder, started to roll northward and then so eastward toward the Yucatán Peninsula. Its body got built quickly, and a head began to form. By October 6th, a lazy, sleepy eye was taking shape. Advisories got initiated. People waited on the land, looking out. On the 7th day, it depressed, spun, and woke, and by 16:55 UTC that day it had a name. Hurricane Michael over the next three days would begin barreling into the Gulf Coast and Florida, its gaze reaching landfall on the 10th of October. In wild winds and torrential rains, it popped up electrical poles like wine corks, smothered beaches, flooded rivers, tore into houses and flung small animals into the sky. Northward it banked, tired—yet still determined—and poured and howled itself over the states of Georgia and both Carolinas. On the 11th day, its one, beautiful mean eye closed; still, like a sleepwalker, it continued. Hurricane Michael had one last gasp, and after traveling east for four days, its cyclone-shell dropped on the Iberian Peninsula the 16th of October, washing Portugal in its death throes. No doubt it was satisfied with its brief, but brutal life.
I was not there, of course; I was safe and snug on the west coast of the United States, watching it all from my laptop. I had an awe and respect for its savagery, its sheer size. Hurricane Michael in little more than a week had ripped through a dozen countries and touched three continents. It slouched its belly over some 5,000 miles, crushing all it could before it vanished into literal thin air. I found it remarkable, and terrifying; a true Titan of Nature.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, the glaring, unforgiving Sun, are all welded into the amorality of the Earth and Universe, so very far beyond the simply duality of right and wrong that us human beings so lovingly cling. It was at this time, watching Hurricane Michael thunder itself through the lower east coast, that the true mass of climate change—the heavy bodies of the fast rising seas—sat all their weight upon me. As I scrolled safely through the destruction of Hurricane Michael (a pang for being a rubbernecker, twinging) it began to fully settle upon me just how much we were not ready for the onslaught of destruction that was making headlong for us.
The water, la belle dame sans merci, was coming. And she was arriving at a good clip, unable to wait for anyone or thing. I saw it, like a vision: if the west coast of the North American continent would burn in wildfires unending, than the east coast would flood. Highways would wend along the seafloor, barnacles would encrust front steps; the tops of buildings, pockmarked from eroding salt and oiled in algae, would metamorphose into small craggy islands, waves breaking upon them like rocky shores. It was all going to happen, in the rising decades, the turbines of a windmill wheeling in one direction—the east coast was going to flood. One day, the tides would come and the waters would cease to recede. Hurricane Michael with its wake had washed clarity over me, and I sought more detail in the emerging scene.
(So, I went to the bookstore, for I know it is safe to assume that when something of importance strikes me it has surely struck someone else far more educated than I, earlier, and that that someone has probably written a book about it. Lo and behold—there it was.)
Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is not a book to enlighten and uplift a reader. It is a book of education and facts, designed to inform, ask open-ended questions, and little more. Goodell has one thing on his mind: what’s going to happen, when the water comes? Not if—when. Compiling, vetting, daydreaming, Goodell pens the coming scenarios lurking beneath those encroaching waves. Someday in the future, the Ferrari on the seafloor won’t just be a haunting image in a fiction dystopia. In the approaching decades, as a child grows into an adolescent and so into an adult, so too will the sea gradually climb, and the land—along with the coastal metropolises of the homo sapien world—will become one with the cold blue.
The real x factor here is not the vagaries of climate science, but the complexity of human psychology. At what point will we take dramatic action to cut CO₂ pollution? Will we spend billions on adaptive infrastructure to prepare cities for rising waters—or will we do nothing until it is too late? Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands—or will we imprison them? No one knows how our economic and political system will deal with these challenges. The simple truth is, human beings have become a geological force on the planet, with a power to reshape the boundaries of the world in ways we didn’t intend and don’t entirely understand. Everyday, little by little, the water is rising, washing away beaches, eroding coastlines, pushing into homes and shops and places of worship. As our world floods, it is likely to cause immense suffering and devastation. It is also likely to bring people together and inspire creativity and camaraderie in ways that no one can foresee. Either way, the water is coming. As Hal Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, told me in his deep Old Testament voice as we drove toward the beach one day, “If you’re not building a boat, then you don’t understand what’s happening here.”
A book that opens with a prologue titled “Atlantis,” like many current events reads of the day, a reader is aware that they are likely going to feel a little depressed and a lot disappointed. This is to our nonfiction writer’s benefit, however, for a good enough writer can grasp what a book is for. Though fluffy feel-good inspiration and kinship memoirs flood the shelves in these self-help, self-love times, a book has a much greater power, one that many modern writers do not utilize fully: The Omen. In this, science fiction writers particularly excel, and lucky for Goodell, his subject of choice falls nearly parallel to the realm of science fiction. But, The Water Will Come is not a fantasy—it is frightening reality. Goodell employs not the mistakes of the past to get his point across, but the what-ifs of the future, and he does it well, gently veering readers to brush by grave scapes of political deadlock, citizen denialism, flooded neighborhoods, climate refugees, health and sanitation nightmares, nuclear spills, abandoned houses, skyscrapers half submerged and crumbling into the sea. The complexity of the situation he tries to make clear: the future of rising seas looks less like an orderly spider’s web and more like a mountain-sized tangle of electrical cords. No one really knows what’s going to happen when the water shows up; but, it’ll show up, salty and bacteria ridden and full of fecal matter and dead things. It’ll kill trees, fuck-up army bases, eat poorer countries and neighborhoods alive. When it comes, not everyone is going to play fair. The rich will likely get along fine, pack up and move inland or to higher ground, sail around the rusted hats of buildings in their boats, continue with their lives. Others won’t be so fortunate.
How much will the waters rise? How much land loss are we talking about here? Once again, Goodell says with a distressing shrug, we’re not sure. But the hopeful 3 feet 2 inches reported in the 2013 ICPP report is looking grimly underestimated. This is of particular importance, because in 2013 the thaw and collapse of the Greenland ice sheet happened too sudden and too quickly to be included. Scientist thought the melt would take decades longer than it did. This is regrettable, for the 2013 ICPP report was the scientific bases on which the 2015 Paris Climate Accords was constructed. Countries all over the world are planning for at most 4 feet of additional water. But by possibly as early as 2075, we’re looking more at 7 to 10 feet of sea level rise. Some climate scientists even suggest as much as 25 feet by 2100.
If I lived on the second floor of a small apartment complex right along the ocean in Miami-Dade, with 10 extra feet of water, I could open my window, sit my leggy self on the pane, and dip my toes in.
And Miami-Dade is ground zero. Those who will be hit the hardest will be those living in Atlantic coastal cities like New York, USA and Lagos, Nigeria; the island states of the South Pacific, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands (the Marshelles made famous by climate change); Alaska and the upper Canadian coasts (the melting of the Bering Strait a national security and foreign affairs nightmare for the United States); and Shanghai, which sits only about 13 feet above sea level, built on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta. Small towns will be hit too, and perhaps suffer even harder than their big metropolis neighbors, who’ll have more money to fund big projects such as raising sidewalks and roads, building and tearing down infrastructure, and fixing municipal sewer systems that have broken down from the erosion of salinization, the salt of the rising ocean seeping into everything.
There will be refugees: people who have lost everything and will have to move across national lines, over oceans, travel hills and valleys to find new homes. And we are not ready for them. Such displaced people will have no protection, Goodell reminds, for under international law, there is no such thing as a climate refugee. Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives (deposed by a military coup in 2012) made an enemy of big Western polluters by being fervently outspoken about the fate of his island country. In 2014, he issued the following statement to the polluting giants: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.” Though seemingly bleak, Nasheed’s pronouncement is disturbingly real. Consider how the world today is handling the present refugee crisis. With the first-world countries, from Denmark to Australia to the supposed haven of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (the United States of America) slamming their doors, one does not have to be a prophet to envision the horrible future that awaits on the coming, ever rising, ever rising waves.
Has Goodell written a good book? I don’t know; the writing is a tad dry. (I guess I’ll forego a rating on this review.) Goodell’s writing doesn’t wow, however, on such a dire timeline—one that seems fated to be swallowed into aquamarine dimness—flowing prose and cruel optimism (or pessimistic declarations) seem not the point. Goodell presents what’s there, and like many journalists turned authors, his writing is informative, brief, concrete; and, when he does dream, he does so in a way where he confines himself to the modern day consensus of “Hey now, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.” The Water Will Come is the book I was searching for, and it is what it is. Whether we as citizens of Earth will heed the warnings in its pages, is yet to be seen, but the word is getting out, and Goodell is doing his part in trying to make sure it outpaces the water.
2018 was the year scientists all over the world declared that we were no longer talking about climate change—we were living it. That year, record high temperatures struck Europe and India, Hurricane Florence ripped through Cape Verde and Hurricane Michael followed suit, famine continued for many East African countries, wildfires burned on and on.
It will only get worse. Many climate scientists believe our planet is on the path to becoming a “hothouse.” By 2100, the Republic of Kiribati, and many other South Pacific nations, will be underwater. As the waters rise, and the heat grows, rainforests and coral reefs will shrivel and collapse, freshwater ecosystems near the coast that become contaminated with seawater will choke and die. It will get hotter. Southern Spain and other parts of Europe will turn into deserts; the western United States will be caked in the fumes of wildfires. Berlin, Germany will become as hot as Basrah, Iraq. Such radical transformation in such short time seems impossible to many—but it is already here.
Change is coming; the Anthropocene has begun its march. At current, the world is undoubtedly ours. For how much longer, is a topic up for debate.
Goodell’s message is clear: the water will come. But so much more is riding in on those crystal waves. Though the horizon looks dark, the future will forever remain unknown to us until the light of the present breaks it free. All Goodell and the lot of us can glimpse are the silhouettes of things to come.
And, if you are gazing out, seeking glimpses, The Water Will Come is a good place to start.
The featured image is a view of the eye of Hurricane Michael taken on Oct. 10, 2018 from the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth. The photo was taken by astronaut Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, who began working with NASA as a Flight Surgeon in 2006. In 2009, she was selected as a NASA astronaut. Image provided by Wikipedia – Thank you.
At the turn of the 16th century, a monumental shift was about to occur in scientific medicine.
Not so quietly, a call to intellectual arms was on the move. In 1527, Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, would help ignite a medical revolution by publicly burning the works of Galen and Avicenna, throwing the much accepted medical theories and practices of the classical masters, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, into doubt. The world was changing. By the end of the 1500’s much of the occultist influence of the previous principles would be dumped. With the old skin shed, the 17th century would come in with a roar. Throughout the 1600’s two of the most significant advances in all of medical science, inoculation and blood transfusion, would take their first teetering steps. Marcello Malpighi, a lecturer in theoretical medicine at the university of Bologna, using the light of the setting sun, would be the first human being to observe the capillaries through the lens of a microscope. The circulatory system, in all its glory, was being revealed. Yet such monumental revelations, riveting and inconceivable at the time, would be small potatoes compared to what was coming on the wing of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment rocked the world, and struck a chord in the western medical sciences. Students flocked to lecture halls, experimentation abounded. What was not known was now known; what was invisible could now be seen. Huge developments were breaking out, huge discoveries being made. And, during this cataclysmic time, small and unnoticingly at the end of the 17th century from an Ancient Greek word meaning “wound”, the term trauma slipperingly entered the medical Latin. The pin drop of this moment, a mere pebble deposited in already rolling waters, would not be truly realized until centuries later.
Though the Greeks used the term only for physical injuries, it would evolve, and around the late 19th century trauma would come to encompass the description of both physical and psychic harm. It is this latter, evolved meaning, psychic, that so often predominates the modern day relationship with trauma. In Bessel Van der Kolk’s illuminating work, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Van der Kolk plunges headlong into this most tumultuous, eluding of maladies, and gives a studious, heartfelt attempt at bringing integration and clarity into this often misunderstood condition and field.
How to even begin to tackle such a hulking shadow? For those of us who have experienced it, lived with it, trauma is a hydra that pursues its vessel without tire. Van der Kolk, M. D. has spent the greater majority of his life aiding, studying, and observing the individuals hounded by this miraculously persistent of beasts. From car accident victims to rape survivors, from children who have been molested to war veterans, Van der Kolk’s breadth of interaction with the wounded is revealed potently in his book’s pages. Much like the Swiss physician nearly 500 years before him, the Dutch born Van der Kolk is seeking a revisioning of ingrained practice and theory; however, unlike Paracelsus, he has chosen to write books instead of burn them. (A less flashy, though better way I would think.)
In the prologue, Van der Kolk is quick to the point: Trauma affects all of us, our brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, daughters, sons, neighbors, ourselves. Trauma can occur at any moment, happen at any time. In what is often designated into the realm of “other people”, Van der Kolk moves the needle, and advises an awareness that human beings have tendency to let slide. “Trauma […],” he places tenderly, “is unbearable and intolerable. Most […] victims […] become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on.” In these words, it is very easy to forget how fast one can lose control of one’s own life. Yet it happens; in terrible frequency it happens. To the young and old, weak and strong alike. Trauma, like cancer, can rise from the dead. Dormant in the body, it can sudden, fling, and burst sundering through as a tsunami. The brain, for all its faults, is very good at what it does: Storing and maintaining information. But what of horrors? What of profound grief? The brain keeps them, the body suffers them, and the mind, in the grip, writhes.
“[…]traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t integrate new experiences into their lives.[…] Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.’
“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of symptoms […] . This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.”
A book so stuffed with information one has to wonder how Van der Kolk fit it all in, I was very moved and learned a lot from The Body Keeps The Score. A work of relentless devotion, Van der Kolk maintains and promotes the highest of medical ethics clearly: “First, do no harm.” Though many of his patients have histories of horrible aggression and violence towards other human beings, Van der Kolk has only one objective on his mind: Healing. This might make him seem naive, or at worst, enabling to certain readers. But Van der Kolk has not chosen a profession in justice, or law, or philosophy; he has chosen a profession in medicine. And medicine is about treatment and recovery. He doesn’t much seem to care if he comes across gullible and sentimental. What he does care about, to his bones, is results. Open and driven, the writing speaks to these qualities. Crisp, empathic, and full of study, The Body Keeps The Score is a book foremost about medical science. Trauma, and all its terrors, is secondary.
Sectioned down into five parts, Van der Kolk uses the first four chapters to thoroughly discuss the origins and varied symptoms of trauma. In the fifth, and final chapter, Van der Kolk refocuses the energy into what he believes matters most: Recovery.
In the briefest of briefs and oversimplified, trauma stems from “immobility”. When the instinctual fight or flight responses to terror are denied, the human body continues to create hormones and continues to fire off nerves that instruct the individual to either fend off the attack, or flee. When the panicked pumping of these faculties produces no result, the brain and body, in a way, begins to implode. This implosion, internal and frightening and powerful, can hijack the mind, and from this commandeering, thrown completely out of whack, an individual can become ostracized from their body. They are, essentially, tossed off their own ship. What follows is an endless treading of water and desperation not to drown. Adrift, and wounded, without any navigation tools, the person begins to develop symptoms both physical and psychological from what is nothing short of total exhaustion.
To say that Van der Kolk presents a well researched documentation of trauma and its many expressions is an understatement. So much has gone into The Body Keeps The Score that it can make a reader dizzy. Eager to fit all his arguments and observations in, I will say that if the book has any fault at all, it is that Van der Kolk jumps from point to point to point so frequently, that the ability for the reader (and writer for that matter) to mull and chew upon what’s been laid out is squished.
But this is a small matter, and one that did not dissuade this reader from being impressed by the astonishing workload Van der Kolk has taken upon himself and convinced by the enlightening though troubling facts dispensed in rapid fire formation. Chiefly in the beginning chapters, Van der Kolk makes it clear that mental illness—in its ever growing bouquet of variation—is not birthed out of chemical imbalances spur-of-the-moment. Mental illness, overwhelmingly, is the result of trauma, either formed from a singular catastrophic event (such as a car crash, or a rape) or from repeated punishment and exposure to violence (such as an abusive childhood, or a long war). Van der Kolk, as clearly and kindly as he can, provides a thorough mapping of what happens to the human brain when such circumstances occur, and how these changes then create rippling effects throughout the body. Presenting studies, PEW supported statistics, using images, telling his own stories and the stories of his patients, Van der Kolk dissects the arguments for the belief and trust in purely pill-form medicine. The root cause of such painful and often confusing conditions are not addressed, he argues, and therefore modern medicine continues to fall short for the elephant in the room continues to be ignored: Trauma. How can we prevent mental illness in the brain and body if we do not acknowledge the inception of these diseases? Van der Kolk is not just asking for better, more talk-based healing. What Van der Kolk is pushing for is a cultural awakening.
In a illuminating surprise, there is a hidden, tertiary plot inside Van der Kolk’s information laden volume. One that he has slipped in effectively and, perhaps, quite unconsciously. It is a story of denialism and silence.
Trauma is everywhere, in our siblings, our cousins, our parents, our friends, our neighbors. Then so, The Body Keeps The Score strategically tells us by simple deduction that abuse is everywhere, rape is everywhere, violence is everywhere, domination and hate is everywhere. The hardest lesson of the world, the most uncomfortable of truths, Van der Kolk tells in strict and factual form. Strangers, foreign invaders, monsters of the dark do not arrive in the form immaculate conception. Therefore mental illness—be it PTSD, depression, a behavioral disorder, insomnia—does not arrive by way of spontaneous combustion or generation. No, mental illness is foisted. Those who do our loved ones harm are us. An uncle, a father, a mother, a friend, a fellow employee, a sibling; trauma arrives more often than not on the wings of an intimate than on the heels of a catastrophe. It is this hidden lesson, poignantly slid between the lines of Van der Kolk’s compelling volume, that I found held the most weight. The silencing of abuse and trauma victims, Van der Kolk reminds us, comes at a high price: Skyrocketing medical expenses, homelessness, drug addiction, mental disorders, autoimmune sickness, and more. The question Van der Kolk most wants asked is this: Not what is wrong with a patient (this is often evident), but what has happened to them.
Though great advances have been made in all the medical fields, and the composition of our bodies has never been diagrammed more pristinely, puzzlingly, perhaps predictably, we still remain largely in the dark about the interactions and operations of our inner components. This statement will no doubt cause dispute; however, the likelihood of agreement on the conflicting reports of the scientific media and misinterpretation of discovery, is high. It is evident that, even if a small pocket of heavily uptodate individuals exists, and are inching ever closer to a totality of medical anatomy, biology, neurology, et al., it remains so that the vast majority of individuals are constantly bombarded with opposing results about what is good for them and what is bad, what will harm them and what will not, what is so and what is not so. An avalanche of unreplicatable results continues to plague psychology and much of modern medicine. So, unavoidably, The Body Keeps The Score is a book of subject information to be argued over and disagreed. For his part, Van der Kolk understands and sympathizes with his fellow physicians in the “finding a needle in a mountain of needles” problem. But this does not stop him. Van der Kolk has done his homework, put in his hours, and has chosen to listen to his patients, and, what is perhaps most revealing, Van der Kolk has chosen to believe their stories. And their stories are violence, their stories are sexual abuse, their stories are guilt and shame and above all, suffering. In the epilogue, Van der Kolk writes, “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society.” This is, by all means, Van der Kolk’s ultimate goal. To take the ugly thing from the shadow, and bring it into the light.
If you remember, I opened this preposterously long review with a short history lesson. History, by all means, is a great way to reveal the world. To understand where a thing comes from, we must first understand the events that led up to it, the foundation and components that birthed it, the environment and circumstances that hindered, or nurtured it. From a time of great revolution of thought the word trauma emerged. From there, it has traveled hills and valleys, and will continue to move and change and perhaps rebirth and die despite what future awaits. But, its genesis, its life, is planted firm. Though trauma is from the Greeks, *trau, an extended form of root *tere (or *terə) is a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to “cross over, pass through, overcome.”
I do not know if we will ever become a trauma-conscious society in the way Bessel Van der Kolk hopes us to be. I do not know if suffering has purpose, or greater meaning, or if there is a magic bullet out there, waiting for medical science to uncover and wield. But I do know that human beings are strong, stronger then we will ever know, and of the stuff of stars. The cover of The Body Keeps The Score is what initially drew me; a wonderful portrait of human body surrounded by what could be perceived as hands or birds or sound blasts or stars… I saw them as stars. And my first thought upon viewing the picture was how it felt like a transformation.
On the blotted shape, with no characteristics other than legs, torso, arms, and head, there is the heart. Just a heart. A small red dot in a rising shadow.
The heart keeps the score.
Four out of Five Stars for The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
The featured image is an antique lithograph of an anatomy chart of a human body showcasing its internal system by Korpers Des Menschen (1898). Provided by rawpixel – Thank You.
Sisters Sabrina and Daphne have had a rough few years.
After the mysterious disappearance of their parents, the Grimm daughters have bounced from awful foster home to god-awful foster home, and their caseworker, Ms. Smirt, is desperate to get them off her hands. The girls, wily and unruly, are nothing but trouble. But at last, Ms. Smirt has found a wayward relative, and she is eager to be rid of them.
Now they’ve landed in the caring (and possibly crazy) arms of Relda Grimm—a plump and smartly, fashion-impaired woman claiming to be their long lost grandmother. Granny Relda lives in the middle-of-nowhere, in a township called Ferryport, in a queer house next to a dark, twisting wood with her companion, Mr. Canis, and an enormous faithful hound named Elvis.
Eldest Grimm, Sabrina, after years of bad luck, spends her days plotting possible escape routes while endlessly quarreling and questioning all that Granny Relda says and does, trusting nothing and doubting everything with every fiber of her being.
But buoyant and brave Daphne rather likes their new living arrangements; Granny Relda is everything she could hope for in a grandmother, with her strange, delicious cooking, piles of odd books, and her calm insistence that fairy tales are real, and that magic exists.
Something troublesome is afoot in Ferryport, and the Grimm girls are in for a ride.
“Watching Daphne drive Ms. Smirt crazy was one of Sabrina’s favorite pastimes.’
Smirt had made a mistake when she chose a career working with children […] especially since she didn’t seem to like them. Ms. Smirt complained whenever she had to touch their sticky hands or wipe their runny noses, and reading bedtime stories was completely out of the question. She seemed to especially dislike the Grimm sisters, and had labeled them rude, uncooperative, and a couple of know-it-alls. So Sabrina was sure it was Ms. Smirt’s personal mission to get the girls out of the orphanage and into a foster home.’
So far, she had failed miserably.”
This is a fun book. I enjoyed both our heroines, with Daphne’s bubbly optimism serving as a solid tonic to Sabrina’s incessant paranoia and angst. As the first volume in a now long, exciting, well established series, The Sisters Grimm easily unfurls a wonderful world of magic and adventure. I very much like the detective, gender-bending spin Michael Buckley has taken the Brothers Grimm and their infamous tales on.
I indulged in the slew of characters. I laughed out loud at some of their antics, the puzzling situations they found themselves in; I loved Daphne’s snarl at pompous Puck, at his mentioning of “women’s work”. I found the mishmash of fables entertaining, and was intrigued by the mystery.
It’s lithe enough to let you float on adventurous seas for awhile, yet just dark enough for adults to sink their wisdom teeth into, taste the salt of worry and the nail-biting tingle of danger. Peter Ferguson’s pencil-esque illustrations lend a fantastical, childlike feel to the book, and definitely fit the flavor of tall-tales. One is immediately catapulted into excitement, fun, and mystery, and I felt content upon turning the final page.
Go ahead and pick up The Fairy-Tale Detectives. Who doesn’t like a good fairy tale?
If you’re like me, you wonder what happened to the supposed coming convictions of the top bankers from the top firms after the 2008 financial crisis. Not a single person went to prison. The recession was a meteor that slammed into the United States at 13 km per second, creating an upheaval of the financial system and rolling us into a dark hole that at the time felt 6 feet deep. Coming to the aid of the quivering industries, the government tossed out bailouts like a float chucking out candy at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With the malfeasance of the financial firms well documented, and the reek of guilt emanating from every pore, you probably waited just as I did for the prosecutorial gavel to slam down. And oh, we waited—oh did we wait. We waited so long some of us sprouted grey hair and were closing in on grandkids. What was the Justice Department doing? Why the feet dragging? The papers wanted to know, the people wanted to know. When the trickle of deferred prosecution agreements came in, the rage came in too; the Charging Bull was descended upon by millions of confused, angry Americans. One of the largest movements of the current era, Occupy Wall Street, flooded big cities. To put it in everyman terms: People were hopping mad.
Then, par for the course of the modern day, the rage died. The social media feeds moved on, the executives walked scot-free; however, the landscape of America was forever changed.
So what the hell happened? “I waited for the government to charge bankers with criminal wrongdoing. And waited. The indictments never came.” writes Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jesse Eisinger.
The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives is Jesse Eisinger’s exhaustively researched gamut of just that: Why the indictments never came. Like many of us, the lack of action from the Justice Department nagged at him. Being a journalist, Eisinger began turning over stones. He came to find ( as most things are) the truth to be complex and winding. Even so, one word clearly did stand out in his mind as to why the Justice Department had failed. A fragment in a speech by James Comey, given in 2002 to the criminal division of the Southern District of Manhattan after being appointed the fifty-eighth US attorney by then-President George W. Bush, summed up Eisinger’s feelings perfectly.
“Before we read off the box score, I have something to say,” Comey said. “We have a saying around here: We do the right things for the right reasons in the right ways.”
All the assembled prosecutors had heard that exhortation in some variation, from Comey in the hallways or in smaller meetings, and from other chiefs.
Then Comey asked the seated prosecutors a question: “Who here has never had an acquittal or a hung jury? Please raise your hand.”
The go-getters and résumé builders in the office were ready. This group thought themselves the best trial lawyers in the country. Hands shot up.
“Me and my friends have a name for you guys,” Comey said, looking around the room. Backs straightened in preparation for praise. Comey looked at his flock with approbation. “You are members of what we like to call the Chickenshit Club.”
Hands went down faster than they had gone up. Some emitted sheepish laughter.
The aforementioned complex and winding truth, though unable to be boiled down to one concentrated point of fault, could in fact be summarized: ‘Cowardice’, Jesse Eisinger found, plagued the Justice Department. After Comey’s compelling speech, ironically, a trend began. The well-dressed, well-educated, and well-groomed lawyers of the DOJ over and over again failed to bring any charges against executives involved in white-collar crime. As a snail confronted with salt, the department shriveled up. Deference became the norm. No one was willing to bring executives to court for fear that they might lose.
Eisinger has written a good book. The bureaucratic game boards are well laid out, the accounting jargon followable. Eisinger starts at the beginning, building a history, telling the story of when, where, how, and why through a compelling timeline starting around the Enron trials and ending near the dusk of the lackluster Yates memo. The United States government has become more and more pro-business—this is no revelation. What is impressive, however, is Eisinger’s incredibly provocative and detailed report. The pile of evidence he pushes forward is eyebrow raising. What Eisinger presents isn’t just capitalist culture bleeding into government; what Eisinger presents is a full occupation. The Fat Cats have sunk their claws in deep, and our government doesn’t appear eager to shake them off.
The events leading up to the present day milquetoast-ridden DOJ and SEC Eisinger documents in detail. Death in the body politic doesn’t happen with a single thrust; it happens through dozens and dozens of tiny stabs from legalese and lobbying, spins and promotions, bloated incentives and revolving doors. From the 1971 Powell memo, to the debacle of the Arthur Andersen trial, to the “namby-pamby” settlements of AIG and KPMG, to the reversal of the Thompson memo, to the loss of investigative ability within the DOJ and SEC, to the arrival of “the Obamanauts”, to the misguided ruling of Judge Lewis Kaplan and to the ostracism of the corporate boogiemen Stanley Sporkin, Paul Pelletier and Judge Jed Rackoff, the demise of the prosecution was made. A pipeline from big business progeny to esteemed colleges was built; the prosecutorial means in which to pursue investigations were gutted; 9/11 hit, and the resources dried up, sent to the DOD to battle terrorists, both real and imaginary. All these things, compounding through the vastly shifting world landscape, dealt a thousand small blows, and the DOJ went down like a sack of hammers. For the white-collar criminals, it is a Gilded Age. For them, never has there been a more freewheelin’ time to be alive.
To read the newspaper today is to be in a constant state of disappointment. So it is in reading The Chickenshit Club. It is evident the governmental systems that have stood strong for centuries are now becoming relics on a planet that is rapidly evolving. The people and the technologies are outpacing the laws. A surprising statistic: About 91% of all currency exists only in digital form. In Jesse Eisinger’s words, understanding tax fraud is like translating “Aramaic into Mandarin back into English.” The world of white-collar crime can feel so daunting, even to the most well-versed of veterans, but we must keep up. The boom/bust cycle roars on, and so must justice.
Jesse Eisinger has put an important book into the public sphere. Though the plops of dropped balls can still be heard on any given day, there is one good thing to take away: Somewhere there’s a journalist, picking up bread crumbs, turning over stones. Though the Rolls-Royce driving criminals and Windsor knot wearing lawyers might skirt the courts, it’s nice to think that maybe, when they’re at their dining-room tables having morning coffee, they’ll pick up the paper, and see their name printed in black ink, beneath a headline that says something like this:
Four out of five stars for Jesse Eisinger’s The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives.
From 1968 to 1989 the western world was overrun with ghouls.
Crime was rampant, and not just the petty kind. Between 1980 to 1989 alone, some 600 active serial killers roamed. It was madness. The movie theaters filled their seats with slashers and methodical, cannibalistic swoll men, wearing masks, wielding axes, stitched into black gloves. People were scared. Single women made plans so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. Each Halloween, Jasons showed up, in gaggles on the front steps of houses holding pillowcases aloft, caroling “Trick or Treat!”
By the 90’s, a cool down occurred; the shadows began to slither back into the cracks. The masks got peeled back. The gloves put away. We caught some, and the ones we didn’t got sleepy. By the 2000’s, the Era of the Serial Killer was deemed over. Now we have the Rampage Killers, with their trench coats and guns. Columbine changed everything. The forensic scientists came, garbed in their angel white robes.
Some of us are obsessed with those times. Some of us would rather bury it in the deep dark earth. Some could care less, but we all know the stories, and some of us know the checklist: 1.) Always park your car under a streetlight. 2.) Don’t wear a ponytail if you jog in the early morning. 3.) Always keep your blinds closed at night. 4.) Don’t be sympathetic to men in the dark.
Men in the dark; that’s how they get away. Sink into the oil pits and vanish like ghosts. In such foul, pathetically twisted minds we can’t breathe, but some of us dive in anyway. Some of us wade into the slosh, and try to feel out the skeletons laid at the bottom with our toes.
I’ve been reading True Crime since I was young. My mother always had mystery books and crime novels scattered about the house like autumn leaves. Patterson, Grisham, Garwood, Sandford, Johansen, Higgins Clark. Sometime in the 90’s the general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nominee Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt showed up. I gobbled it like chocolate. I was hooked. I read True Crime on my back porch rooftop by flashlight, in my bed with the crank of the snake light; in my closet, when the sun set I’d climb into my haven and turn the switch and illuminate the bulb with a click. I developed a studious, unabashed love. The names of vile men and women stacked high in my brain; the tools they used, the odd ticks that inhabited them, the men and women they killed, the men and women who survived—those who had outsmarted them.
Contrary to the pop culture, the lump of serial killers aren’t meticulous geniuses. In the US, their average IQ runs below the national average, at about 94.5. They get away not because of their mountainous intellects, but rather because what they do is so chaotic and beyond reason, they simply fall out of sight.
But a slim few of us have eagle eyes. Some of us are dogs that get something in their mouths and refuse to let go. Bloodhounds with noses that continue hunting over the hills long after the trail has gone cold. One of those individuals lived in Los Angeles, with a famous husband and a little girl. Her name? Michelle McNamara. And her True Crime tour de force I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is destined to be a classic, and has shaken up the investigation world.
“Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? […]’
“Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.”
In the decades of the ghouls, the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker) was one of the most infamous. In the state of California, in a span of about ten years, the diabolical GSK committed fifty sexual assaults, terrorizing Sacramento and the neighboring counties before moving down south, where he murdered ten people, targeting male/female couples in their beds. He was an absolute plague. Whole towns filled their streets with floodlights. Worried and tortured men patrolled in their cars when night fell. Women couldn’t sleep, their minds buzzing like bees. GSK played with his prey, like a cat with a spider; hog tying victims, muttering incoherent nothing’s as he ransacked their homes, placing teacups on husbands backs as he raped their wives, leaving out milk and cookies, phone calls to the police. Behind him was a littered trail of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He ducked, dived, slithered, and got lucky. The Golden State Killer was never caught. His sadistic legacy oozed through the 1990’s and 2000’s like molasses. But through that time, under the radar, armed with a laptop and a fierce, determined mind was Michelle McNamara. She believed that the case was crackable. That EAR-ONS was catchable. McNamara knew he had a face, and she worked tirelessly to drag that face into the light.
A book of conflicting feelings, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a victory and a tragedy: A victory because Michelle McNamara’s stalwart resolve and keen brain has lit a fire; a tragedy, because the brilliant McNamara died before the work was finished. Lovingly and painstakingly put together by her husband, well known comedian Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s unfinished novel hangs in nebulousness, much like the Golden State Killer himself, who she hunted obsessively. Yet the book stands strong nonetheless, which is perhaps the greatest testament to McNamara’s deft, enthralling pen. Even released too soon, the arrow still hits its mark. The writing is clean, crisp; the visuals and sensations leap off the pages, and I was turning and turning them late into the night, my heart hammering.
Many times reading True Crime one can not help but be engrossed by the wicked killers and their sadistic actions; however, what is wonderful about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is that the most engrossing, captivating character on this dark wending road is McNamara herself. McNamara is fascinating, brave, intelligent—she feels like a secret weapon. Through all the blood, fear, and darkness, McNamara holds out a lantern, and by her little flame we all find our way out of the rumpus night. Bringing organization to chaos, hope to despair, McNamara doesn’t give up, and through her diligent collecting of the pieces, and her preening of the muck, a picture, a truth, starts to take shape. In the epilogue – Letter To An Old Man – she writes:
“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me.’
“I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves.’
You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”
Michelle McNamara, from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Although now gone, McNamara’s hunt continues. GSK may still lurk, but now, thanks to McNamara, the world is awake, and watching.
“The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bellies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.”
Erich Maria Remarque, from All Quiet on the Western Front
In my sophomore year of high school I read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of war, and it changed me.
All Quiet on the Western Front was a book that captivated my mind, laden in the grotesque horrors of violence and the unblinking, unflinching nature of modern warfare. Young and angry when I read it, the refracted nihilism that scorches Remarque’s words created slow burns of thought inside me, and I was so in love with it, I stole a copy from the school library one evening. It was late 2002, and 9/11 had already struck. The cogs and pistons that would turn the engine of the Iraq War were being built; my country was wounded, and vengeful. I still have that mass market paperback, its spine riddled with crags, its corners dogeared and torn. The many hours I spent with Remarque’s novel, began to shape questions I wouldn’t be able to put answers to for years. What war was or wasn’t. What violence meant or did not mean. What victory or shame lied in mass murder and death.
In Chris Hedges descriptive and moving work, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was hearkened back to that time; that time of upheaval and new thought, and the challenges of examination into the unmanageable, unimaginable aspects of murky human action. For me, the book is a vindication. My study and thinking has always led me to understand Violence and Power exist not in parallel to each other, but in polarity. The same deep-cut axis runs through them, but their motives and roles play in opposition to one another, with Violence as the perversion of Power. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that validated and echoed these long held feelings and thoughts of mine, and Chris Hedges accurately and elegantly, with harrowing prose and lived experience, explains war by explaining the continental clashes of Violence and Power.
“We are humiliated in combat. The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. The abstract rhetoric of patriotism is obliterated, exposed as the empty handmaiden of myth. Fear brings us all back down to earth.
Once in conflict, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. When this move takes place we have nothing to do with a world not at war. When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic. […]”
It should be understood that War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not about combat, but is a novel about the mechanisms that drive war into being. Cultural and governmental mechanisms like propaganda and mythos, pedantry and jingoism, and the destruction and perversion of tangible and intangible heritage. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent, having spent large portions of his life as an observer in warzones and combat scenarios; from the Croat-Bosniak War of the early 1990’s, to surviving imprisonment in Sudan, to escaping ambushes in Central America, Hedges has witnessed firsthand the brutality, and emptiness, that is war. Hedges openly speaks of such painful and disturbing memories, and through the keen pen of a journalist is able to bring clarity and compassion to horrid scenes often never seen by citizens back home. Bit by bit, Hedges picks apart war, eradicating the radiant myths and elaborately ornamented slogans, and so strips it raw to reveal it butt naked. What is left is a disturbing portrait of addiction and denialism, corruption and greed, and of course, violence.
Living in this time of an unprecedented refugee crisis, and the inexhaustible rise of quibbling dogmatism and hate, Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a balm of rationality, analysis, and humility. The book does more than provide a window for the reader to peer into violent conflict, but provides a mirror into our darker, deeper selves. Hedges, in his heart, is a psychologist, and through his words performs a sort of logotherapy on us; we are caught off-guard by his undeniable authenticity and intuitive mind. The bite of the statistical, and emotional truths presented through him leaves one stranded on a very small island, and we are forced into a reckoning with the cold, hard realities of war, and our own individual parts within it.
Hedges does acknowledge that sometimes war is unavoidable. With maturity, it is acknowledged that human folly and power grabs are inevitable and that diplomacy will sometimes fail; yet, through this acknowledgement Hedges takes us out of this often overused excuse, and brings us back down to earth. War in its foundations is sinister, unrepentant, and destructive. In what Hedges calls “a collapse of the moral universe”, war turns right and wrong upside down, and all things are liquidated to “the cause”. People, men and women and children, are transmogrified into objects. War diversifies nothing and coagulates everything, stuffing the veins and preventing blood flow to the heart and mind. In essence, war is a collective stroke. In what Hannah Arendt coined “nihilistic relativism”, all loathful deeds are canceled out by other loathful deeds, each horrible act justified by each other horrible act; by dispelling the existence of moral truth, the parties of war create a vacuum in which no light can get in. War sits in this void, and after it is over, this void does not evaporate but persists, and is more often buried, rather than confessed. This demolishment of truth perpetuates the myth of war, and therefore war becomes not a teacher, but an invalid, dumb and deaf. No lessons are learned, no honest accounts are passed down. The hollowness hangs in the graves.
In the first pages, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” is shared. Though at the front of the book, for this review, I believe the poem works best for closing. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is required reading, not because it is heavily anti-war, but because of the unfiltered reflection of all ourselves that exists within its pages. The old Lie, is at last, swept away.
Owen I think would be proud.
If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori.
The featured image is a screen shot taken from the 1930 movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.
Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.
I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.
When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.
Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.
In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.
“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”
Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.
Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.
I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.
Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.
Like many with and before me, one of my first compelling reads as a youth was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In the beginning chapters, there is a most enthralling moment – illustrated by an ant and a piece of string – where Mrs. Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit explain how a clever loophole in time and space allows them to travel the universe.
We know it as “the tesseract”, or, “the fifth dimension”. In reality i.e. geometry, a tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube, consisting of 8 cells, 24 faces, 32 edges, and 16 vertices. It is, in short, a cubic prism. But at this explanation, the tesseract looses its mystique and magic. In the book we understand the tesseract only as this: The way to bridge the gap between worlds.
In reading L. N. Holmes’s too short but gripping chapbook Space, Collisions, I was hearkened back to this moment. The moment where somehow, incredibly, far flung worlds are brought together, and the canyon that once sat between them is closed.
“Across the water, I can see a mosque built from tan and green stones. Further along the shore, cruise ships and freighters have been plucked out of the water and deposited onto the sand, like beached whales. People dot the shoreline, mirroring us, waiting for us on the other side. […]
On our shore, one of the men with the guns shoots off a round toward the sky. I bolt inside my house. From the window, I see everyone scatter and disappear like crabs scuttling into their holes. I haven’t seen any crabs for days. The gunman stands alone on the beach, abandoned by friend and foe alike. Everything is afraid as we wait for the unknown.”
With publication by Ghost City Press, L. N. Holmes’s chapbook is a mere 14 pages, with only 9 pages of story material. It’s small. That being said, Space, Collisions is available for free download. And it is worth it. The book contains three stories: “When Continents Collide”, “Trace”, and “Spacefall”, and though all are good, it is really “When Continents Collide” that is the star of the show. In the story, a man living on the shores of North Carolina waits and watches the collision of the continents of North America and Africa. The tale is like origami, folding into shape; from the sands, he sees the country of Morocco steadily slouching forward from across the Atlantic, and the final moment before the tumultuous slamming of the land masses is so visually serene and moving, one almost forgets it’s a death. I found this story immensely emotive, and striking. There is not much explanation as to why this event is occurring, with the players in the tale themselves full of confusion and uncertainty; however, this is one of the great self-determinations of short story writing. The reader and writer know there is limited time, that things must proceed quickly, and this limitation allows a huge berth of creative freedom. The writer must get to the point, the message, and all other thoughts and burdens are caved into the purpose.
The other two pieces “Trace” and “Spacefall” take up little more than two pages. “Trace” is poetic and nebulous; “Spacefall” is equally poetic, but less nebulous, with a definite tale being told. They exist as a nightcap to the emotion and adventure. Both are finely written, and both leave a sense of more. Along that note, if anything is wrong with this chapbook it is simply that there’s not enough of it. L. N. Holmes has a talented pen and a great imagination, but this chapbook needs a little more meat on its bones.
It’s Four out of Five stars for Space, Collisions. L. N. Holmes is fresh off the boat in the writing world, but nonetheless is bending space and time. So, who knows, maybe by tomorrow she’ll be a best selling author.
Full Disclosure: I was contacted by L. N. Holmes and was asked to give an honest review. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and maybe you’ll make the cut!
The featured image is a photo of the Andromedids meteor shower. In L. N. Holmes’s flash fiction “Spacefall” the Andromedids are present in two women’s sense of love and pining. Source/Photographer: from the International Meteor Organization, taken over East Point Lighthouse, NJ by Robert Lunsford – Thank You.