Saturday, March 23, 2013

Freedom - by Jonathan Franzen

The main character of this large book appears to be Patty Berglund. Her husband Walter figures prominently as well, as do several other characters. But Patty is the only one who gets to write portions of her own "autobiography", oddly in the third person.

Patty was an athletic young girl who got knocked off the track to a basketball career when she injured her knee. She changed her dreams, married Walter, had children, did her best to become a super housewife. She knew all along that she was not as nice as others thought she was, but there was much she did not know about herself.

Patty was originally attracted to Walter's best friend, Richard Katz. Katz was a musician, womanizer, who initially did not respond to Patty's hints. Patty, however, found herself increasingly attracted to Walter anyway. Walter was almost an anti-Richard. Thin, geeky, an environmentalist. Something in him, though, responded to something in Patty, the ex-athlete who was not much aware of the environment.

We follow Patty and Walter through many years, dipping into the lives of their children and parents as well. Until comes a time when something has gone out of their marriage and Patty is dissatisfied in general. She has become less and less fun to be around for just about everyone. In spite of which Richard is drawn to her.

What is "freedom" in this context? The freedom to do as we please? The freedom to be away from others, to be alone? We watch as Richard continues his self-destructive life, as free as can be. We see Patty and Walter's son free himself from the nest, then later engage make some questionable choices in his career, free from interference. Patty and Walter live their own lives, essentially free of each other.

Some reviewers have called this a novel of its time, and as I think of it I can agree. In a way, it sums up life today in the US for many in the upper middle class in a way that reminds me of John Cheever. There is a lot of humor but underlying that is real warmth. Something you don't see so much in Cheever. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Drift: by Rachel Maddow

Rachel brings us a clear, well-documented account of how our military has expanded and changed since WWII. She takes us from the entry into Vietnam, through Johnson's and Reagan's presidencies, and on through to Iraq, Pakistan, and beyond. She shows us how each step was taken that led to where we are now. And where are we?

A president can wage war now without bothering the rest of us. Fewer than 1% of US citizens are in the military, and as a rule we tend not to care about modern-day mercenaries: the employees of Brown, Kellogg, & Root, Halliburton, and Blackwater by whatever its current name is. At this time the private companies are putting more boots on the ground than is the US military. Because of sloppy or nonexistent oversight, these companies are costing us far more than just the cost overruns: they have wiped out our image in many companies, where they behave as ungovernable bullies - and in fact they are.

The privatization of war has consequences beyond even this, however. We can spend our way into and out of wars and keep going on about our business. We see no difference in our day to day lives. We don't pay for these wars in sacrifice or any other way. And therefore we have become numb to what they really are.

Years ago I remember reading an economics textbook. I remember little of it, but I remember this point: you can't have a successful economy manufacturing destruction. You have to build, not destroy. It is hard for any of us "regular folks" to comprehend the deficit we've created by waging these wars, and even harder to comprehend that payment will have to be made. In fact, it appears that collection has started. Our economy has been in the tank for a while now. It isn't just because of inflated housing.

I don't read many "political" books. I'm not a political junkie, although like many I hold strong views. This may be why I personally like Rachel so much. She does the work! And she explains it really really well. She rarely gets it wrong because she's passionate about facts. I came away from this book understanding how our constitution got to be irrelevant, how our standing army gradually and then exponentially increased, how we started farming out the work, even how we built up our nuclear arsenal, and even after the end of the cold war how we keep building it.

At the end Rachel offers us a checklist of what we need to do to get back on track. I believe that every member of congress and the president and his advisers all need to read this book and pay attention. I think it's possible that many of them are so caught up in day to day politics that they have lost the thread. It's here, it's clear, and we all need to pay attention.

I can't leave it there. Rachel brings to this tale all of her usual wit, which helps when we try to swallow.