Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Round House

Louise Erdrich has been an important American writer for twenty-five years, yet it took most people by surprise when her latest novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award for fiction.  Perhaps it's because, while no one doubts her tremendous talent, she has insisted on writing in a distinctly Native American way rather than conforming to the smart, edgy style of her nonindian contemporaries.  By Native American way I mean an elliptical nonchronological style based on family, clan, and tribe, instead of the urban/rural setting with linear time flow construct used by most of us. However, in The Round House, (Harper, 2012) Erdrich earns her place in the mainstream by meeting three difficult challenges that defeat most writers .

The narrator of this novel is Joe, a thirteen year old boy who is growing up on a reservation in the Dakotas.  How many novels have you read whose children think, act, and speak like adults, at least part of the time?  Joe's thoughts, emotions, and behavior are perfectly believable, all the time.  I haven't encountered a more real child voice since To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both books explore a child's response to injustice, In Mockingbird it's racism, while Round House deals with rape.  Both books deal with crimes that society has made complex, but a child sees as the simple atrocity that it is.  The choice of a child to tell the story, and the skill Erdrich uses to make that child's voice real accomplish her first task.

The second is to artfully present a political argument without scaring away the reader with her passion.  Her focus is the injustice of the American legal system. US law prevents Native American tribes from using their own system of law and courts to prosecute crimes against their people by nonindians off the reservation.  Writers who make political points with their work frequently produce heavy handed polemic that drives readers who just want a good story away.  Erdrich handles this problem skillfully by making Joe's father a tribal court judge.  Antone Coutts, the husband, is ready to kill to avenge the rape of his wife.  Antone Coutts, the Indian judge, is perfectly powerless to do much except appeal to white friends in seeking justice.  Erdrich simply lays out the jurisdiction problems and leaves Antone standing helpless as his wife's rapist strolls about the reservation, safe behind a wall of white privilege.  The character and the story make the political point naturally and without the obvious hand of the author.

Finally, Louise Erdrich tells a story about the effect of rape that goes beyond the victim herself and shows the corrosive result in the lives of those close to her.  Both her husband and son are changed irrevocably by the crime.  They become different people.  People you may not like as much as you did when the book starts.  You may not like them, but you understand. 

The Round House takes us from particular lives of Native Americans to the universal lives of human beings.  That makes her mainstream.  And the way she does it makes the author and her work worthy of the National Book Award.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Glass Palace

Amitav Gosh's The Glass Palace (published in the U.S. by Random House, 2001) is historical fiction at its best:  entertaining, informative and compelling.  For those who like to immerse themselves in in a weighty multi-generational saga that not only concerns itself with family but with the fate of nations, its a perfect read. 

The novel revolves around the life and loves of Rajkumar, who starts the story as an eleven year old Indian orphan in the Burma of the 1890's.  He is in perfect position to witness the defeat of Burma's last king, and his deportation to exile in India.  Rajkumar, a very advanced eleven year old, finds his life long love in one of the queen's child attendants.  Their story anchors a book that explores the politics of independence and the economics of colonialism through the end of WWII and beyond. 

The Glass Palace surprised me by giving me a quick course in the process of harvesting teak in the depths of a rain forest and bringing it to market across the world.  It introduced me to the Indian National Army, with its doomed 25,000 Indians who joined Japan in the hopes of expelling the British from India after the war.  As the book ends the reader is given a peek into the bewilderingly crazy society of the military dictatorship in Myanmar.  These things are not part of the usual knowledge of Americans, even those who like history. 

Amitav Gosh invites the reader to put aside the frustrations of our modern high-tech life and join him in exploring the past of a land most of us can hardly imagine.  You'd do yourself a favor in accepting his invitation. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Elusive Wow: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Anyone interested in the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds would do well to read Robert Gray's well written The Elusive Wow: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Palmer Square Press, 2012).  This intriguing explanation of the use of radio astronomy to look for life outside our solar system begins with the 1977 discovery of a strong non-natural signal with an antenna operated by Ohio State University.  This is called the "Wow!" because that's the comment written in the margin of the printout of the signal by astronomer Jerry Ehman.  Gray patiently explains the system used to find this signal, the reasons it could not have been natural, and describes the puzzlement of scientists when the brief burst of radio power wasn't repeated.  He then proceeds to carefully describe the history of SETI (Search for ExTraterrestrial Intelligence) from that moment up until his book went to press in 2011.  The effort is now expanding to frequencies other than radio, and scientists are widening their net to catch signals more subtle than the  powerful  radio pulses encountered in the Wow! incident.  Although Robert Gray is an engineer by training, he is an amateur astronomer with competence and knowledge impressive enough to cause the managers of the world's largest radio telescope, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, to extend him blocks of time to search for radio signals from extrasolar civilizations--twice.  This volume also contains a valuable bibliography of books and articles, plus an extensive list of links to web sites dealing with the subject.       

This is a good book to start with if you are becoming interested in SETI.  If you are, you'd be in good company.  One fact that surprised me in Gray's book was that some really heavy hitters, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold have donated millions to looking for ET.  The little green men should guard their browser secrets well--free enterprise is on the way.