Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

The graying of America's prisons

Outside the small town of Somerset, 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and just a twenty-minute drive from field where Flight 93 plunged to the ground on 9/11, doctors and nurses provide around-the-clock medical care to more than 100 elderly and chronically ill men, offering them everything from nutritional support to end-of-life care.

The patients exhibit many of the same ailments as patients in any other long-term care facility in the state, including respiratory ailments, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and pulmonary disorders. But they share one significant difference: These patients are under the care of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and even if their prognoses were to miraculously improve, many of them will still die behind these walls.

Welcome to the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s only prison that is specially tasked with handling what is becoming a serious problem across the state and the nation: a surge in the number of sick and elderly prison inmates.

According to a report from Human Rights Watch released last month, the number of senior citizens under American correctional supervision is higher than it’s ever been, and growing at an alarming rate. The study found the number of state and federal prisoners that are 55 or older — the official threshold for old age behind bars — grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010. The number of prisoners over 65, meanwhile, surged 63 percent — or 94 times the rate of the general prison population — in the three years prior to 2010.

Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and the author the report, blamed the increase on “tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and the now more than four-decades-long War on Drugs.

“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities,” she said, “yet U.S. corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”  Click here to read this article at The Philadelphia Tribune

Monday, February 13, 2012

One From The Stacks: Justine

First American Edition (1960)
“There are only three things to be done with a woman... You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.”-- Lawrence Durrell

It would be hard to understate just how influential Lawrence Durrell's 1957 novel "Justine" has been on me as both a reader and a writer. It's one of just a handful of books on my shelf that I've read twice: once as a twenty-something on the brink of writing the great American novel, and again several years ago when I replaced my long missing original with two used copies; one of these I gave as a gift to a new girlfriend having talked up the book to such a state that it seemed unfair not to break down for a copy. (If it was a ruse, it worked; the girlfriend is now my wife and her copy of Justine – a paperback and the lesser of the two volumes – has since been sacrificed to free up valuable shelf space in the house we now share.)  

If memory serves, my original copy came from my mother's book shelf. She was and still is something of a glutton for continental period-fiction and long ornate tales written by nineteenth century Romantics (Bronte, Flaubert), and it is not hard see "Justine" as an extension of the same themes adapted to pre-war Egypt. Whatever she saw in the book, the impact must have been profound because she named my sister after its title character. I’m not sure if our Justine knows that story or -- having little use for literature -- if she’d appreciate it much if she did. I can say the similarities between the two namesakes are few if any and my sister, practical to a fault, shares none of the brooding sensuality of Durrell’s dark-eyed Jewess (Sorry Sis).   

In any case, "Justine" is one of those rare pieces of fiction that not only warrants a second reading, but demands it; and a third and fourth too if possible. The prose is so dense and the phrasing so aureate that it takes discipline and endurance to uncover the rather elementary plot line beneath. 

The book is the first of four volumes (he preferred to call them siblings) in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – a series of novels set in Egypt’s second largest city, each but the last of which takes place during the same time frame but is told from a different character’s perspective. As such, plot isn’t really the point; it’s the storytelling that carries the tale (although at times the burden is too heavy and the story gets dropped altogether only to be picked up a page or two or five down the road.)

Durrell had exhaustive command of the English language, a painterly vocabulary and a poetic sense of timing. That’s a potentially volatile mix, and the author would be the first to admit to occasionally losing control over it. 

Discussing his writing style, he told a Paris Review interviewer:
“It’s too juicy. Perhaps I need a few money terrors and things to make it a bit clearer—less lush. I always feel I am overwriting. I am conscious of the fact that it is one of my major difficulties. It comes of indecision when you are not sure of your target. When you haven’t drawn a bead on it, you plaster the whole damn thing to make sure. And that leads to overwriting.”
But when it works (and it almost always does) it’s that same juiciness that makes Durrell such a delight to read.  Purists of the less-is-more school of American Realism may dismiss his literary coruscation as self indulgence – and in fact more than one critic has done just that. Reading it as a young man, however, "Justine" challenged me like no other novel had to that point, and it made me a more attentive reader in the process. Rereading the book as a middle-aged writer was different but no less gratifying. Mostly I was less seduced by its hyper-eroticism and more attuned to its cutting depiction of bourgeois angst and the tendency of all lovers toward willful self destruction. 

Much like Ivo Andric -- who chose the ever enduring Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge as his protagonist for his masterpiece, “The Bridge on the Drina” -- Durrell’s character of choice is not a person but an object, an element as it were– in his case the city of Alexandria, his “princess and whore.”  Alexandria, Durrell wrote, “was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.” 

Dutton Paperback (1961)
In "Justine," Durrell turns the classic love triangle into a tetrahedron of tragic proportion, prefaced by the following quote from Freud's Letters:
"I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that."
The unmanned narrator (in later volumes revealed as Darley) -- an Irish schoolteacher who has emotionally abandoned his partner Melissa to engage in the seduction of Justine, the wife of a local man of means -- is left to suffer for his sins when Melissa perishes, Justine disappears, and he winds up on a remote island caring for the child Melissa has had with Nessim, Justine’s husband. 

A sad and sordid tale, to be sure. But more than anything the story is a vehicle for Durrell to celebrate the heights and depths of his beloved metropolis (he met his second wife in Alexandria and "Justine" is dedicated to her). He revels in the flies and beggars, the civil servants, the haut monde, the flaneurs, gossips, the prostitutes and their clients, and the "sweet voice of the blind muezzin, a voice hanging like a hair..."

Durrell’s prose is chewy and highly visual, as much word painting as literature, and is adorned with sublime metaphors like this -- one of my favorites, describing the character Capodistria: “…under his eyes chairs became painfully conscious of their bare legs.”  Mmm, tasty.

From the first page Durrell reveals his astute sense of color and texture:
“Notes for landscape tones. Long sequences of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust–sweet-smelling brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water. Light damp clouds, earth bond, yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk-mauve and watered crimson-lake. In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air.”
The author wrote fast, which makes his accomplishments all the more stunning to someone like me, who painfully considers each line, each word, like a surgery resident perfecting a heart bypass. He wrote "Justine" on Cyprus in just four months, taking time off to deal with threats to his life resulting from his work for the British government -- which confirms not only his mastery of the craft and command of the language, but also his ability to work in less than ideal circumstances.  

Upon completion the book drew almost immediate critical praise. And, at 48, when he finished his Quartet, Durrell was hailed for breathing new life into what many critics had lamented as a dying art form.

Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1964, critic Robert Scholes remarked: “The novel may indeed be dying, but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”
Justine (Hardback)
By Lawrence Durrell
Published by E.P. Dutton and Co. (1960) first American edition, twelfth printing
Originally published in 1957 by Faber and Faber
Purchase date 2009, from The Title Page in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Purchase price: N.A.
Condition: Good (no damage but missing dust jacket; Top image is of same edition) 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

A few words with Zbigniew Brzezinski

 Zbigniew Brzezinski, Via Charlie Rose
The political scientist, statesman and geo-strategist on the decline of American exceptionalism, the Arab Spring and America's role in the rise of the Taliban.

Mitt Romney is a true believer in American exceptionalism.

Speaking last October before a crowd of cadets at South Carolina's elite military academy the Citadel, the GOP presidential frontrunner laid out his vision for what he likes to call the “American Century.”
“America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world,” Romney told the audience, and went on to invoke our nation's divinely inspired mandate to shine our beacon of Democracy into the darkest recesses of our troubled planet: “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” he said. “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will.”
That's just not so according to former National Security Advisor and geo-strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, who says the vision of America advanced by Romney is one that is no longer tenable, while the idea that a challenger can rise up and take our place amounts to a fairy tale.

“The fact of the matter is...the world today is much more diversified, the population of the world is much more politically awakened, and hence hegemony by a single superpower is no longer feasible,” Brzezinski says.

In his new book, “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power,” Brzezinski argues that the likely outcome of America's decline would be a protracted period of global chaos, with some countries – like Georgia, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel – likely faring worse than others.

To make sure that doesn't happen, Brzezinski asserts that the United States needs an “intelligent foreign policy” that acknowledges America's important role as a nucleus for Western cohesion while recognizing that its days as a unilateral global force are over. 

To use a football analogy, America must accept it is no longer the star quarterback that single-handedly wins the game and embrace its new role as coach, whose duty it is to bring out the best of the team and each of its members.

Brzezinski's vision of an empowered West includes not only our traditional European allies, but Russia and Turkey as well. With the rise of China as a global power, he says, the notion of the West as a dominant bloc can no longer be taken for granted, and instead needs to be sustained through determination and common purpose. 
“The West as such is not finished, but its global supremacy is over. That in turn underlines the central dependence of the West's future role on America...,” Brzezinski writes. “How the American system performs at home and how America conducts itself abroad will determine the place and role of the West in the new objective and subjective global context.”
As for American exceptionalism, Brzezinski would argue that we have spent the past three decades slowly forfeiting that distinction through failed domestic policy and our “culture of self-gratification and deregulation.”

In “Strategic Vision” he details six domestic liabilities that are chipping away at America's status as an international power: our skyrocketing debt, our flawed financial system, widening income inequality, our decaying national infrastructure, our increasingly partisan and divided political establishment, and a population that is woefully ignorant of even basic geography, let alone foreign policy.

In order to secure our place on the global stage, Brzezinski says, the U.S. needs to get its house in order: “Only by demonstrating the capacity for a superior performance of its societal system can America restore its historical momentum...,” he writes.

It's a tall order for sure, but one that is within our power to grasp,  Brzezinski says. And the place to start is with our primary and secondary education systems, which, the author notes, consistently fail to generate adults with the ability to understand the world around them and America's place in it.

For the past four decades Brzezinski, who is now 83, has held a pivotal position in global geo-politics as what some pundits have called the Democrat's answer to Henry Kissinger.  He served as National Security Advisor to President Carter and was a central figure in normalizing relations with China, helping broker the Camp David Accords, and promoting the plan to arm Afghan rebels against invading Soviets. That last distinction has drawn some criticism, since analysts largely agree the failure to adequately support Afghanistan following the Soviet withdraw led to the country's eventual rise as a haven for terrorists.

Today Brzezinski teaches American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and serves as a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Last week I went to hear Brzezinski speak in Philadelphia as he began his book tour for the newly published “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.”

I followed up the next day via e-mail to ask him to elaborate on a few points:

In explaining why you decided to write this book you noted that you had high hopes for America’s future as a global leader in the wake of the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, but that in the end we “blew it.” When and how did we first go off the rails as a nation in terms of realizing this goal that you talked about? 

Zbigniew Brzezinski: The United States started going off the rails in terms of its own domestic financial practices as well as its highly materialistic and acquisitive social culture quite some years ago.  At least two or three decades. In that sense the domestic binge as well as financial irresponsibility are not the consequence of any one particular administration or one of the two dominant political parties.  Insofar as America’s inability to sustain its global preeminence is concerned, enormous damage to America’s standing was the result of the unjustified, unwarranted, and falsely justified decision by the second Bush Administration to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq.  That produced a prolonged war, the costs of which continue to be felt, and it very badly undermined America’s standing and influence in the world.

In his state of the union address, President Obama talked of our “iron-clad” commitment to Israel. Some people would argue that alliance has done more harm than good in recent years, while others would say our commitment is one of shared ideology and should not be viewed strictly through a strategic lens. What are your thoughts on that?

ZB: There is no problem in my mind with the “iron-clad” U.S. commitment to Israel because it is derived from a sense of moral obligation to the Jewish peoples’ right to have their own state, especially given the tragic consequences of the Nazi-inflicted holocaust.  Accordingly, I do not have any particular problem with it provided that the above commitment is not interpreted to mean that the U.S. has to do whatever the Israeli government desires, and that the U.S. has to refrain from any criticism of Israel’s policies.  The fact of the matter is that Israel is fundamentally a client state of the United States, highly dependent upon American military power, enormously generous financial support, and broadly gauged political protection from hostile countries.

I wonder if you would comment briefly on the Arab spring. Do you see this as a precursor to democracy in the region?

ZB: I think it is very important to recognize that not every social upheaval automatically is a contribution to the emergence of stable constitutionally-based democratic government.  The events in much of the Arab world of the last twelve months involve primarily a form of populism, reflecting a widely felt rage against authoritarian and self-serving governmental elites who promoted systems characterized by massive corruption and social inequality. Populism, however, does not mean that democracy necessarily follows. A populist upheaval to become democratic has to be guided by broadly gauged public understanding of the intricacies of constitutional government, of the need to rely on and respect the rule of law, and that in turn also calls for a political elite who is sensitive to the deeper meaning of the notion of human rights and constitutional rule.  Populism can lead to democracy, but by itself it is not necessarily democratic.

I’d like to take a step back to the Cold War for a minute and talk about the U.S. proxy war with Russia in Afghanistan, in particular our actions following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It's been suggested that our failure to provide adequate financial support to the country after the Soviets left helped create a  power vacuum that eventually turned Afghanistan into a terrorist haven. In hindsight what could have been done differently?

ZB: There is no doubt that American support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion created much good will among Afghans towards the United States, which was reflected in the ease with which the United States was able to overthrow the Taliban regime after 9-11.  Without that sympathy for America, the United States would have been plunged immediately into a prolonged conflict with many more Afghans supporting the Taliban.  It is also important to remember that al Qaeda appeared on the scene only in the latter phases of the Soviet-Afghan war, approximately in the last two years of the Reagan Administration.  Following the defeat of the Soviet-sponsored regime in Kabul, the United States failed to step in with immediate economic support for the new Afghan regime.  That contributed to its weakness and eventual overthrow by the Taliban. In any case, in retrospect, it is very clear that the failure to follow through with large scale economic-financial support to Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet invasion created the problems which continue to beset not only Afghanistan itself but countries like the United States, which certainly do not wish the Taliban to come back to power.  This is an issue that will have to be addressed on an international basis, because the neighbors of Afghanistan have to recognize the fact that they have a stake in a stable and nonfundamentalist Afghanistan.  That consideration also applies to such countries as India, Russia, and China which are not Afghanistan’s neighbors but would be affected in the long run by a renewed failure within Afghanistan.

Friday, February 3, 2012

One From The Stacks: The Art of Eating

"First we eat, then we do everything else." - M.F.K. Fisher

In a departure from last week's post, which exposed the reader to one of the basest expressions of human passion – the will to conquer, I'd like to introduce you to this week's featured book, which celebrates what I consider to be one of life's highest pursuits and preeminent pleasures – the will to eat.

And I can think of no writer of the twentieth century that has offered a more poetic tribute to the goodness and beauty of food and drink than M.F.K. Fisher.

Born Mary Frances Kennedy in 1908 in Albion, Michigan, Fisher came of age both as a woman and a writer during one of the most glorious epochs for the enjoyment of gastronomical pleasures of the last century  – that is, the time between the two world wars, before anyone even conceived of something as banal as a frozen Salisbury steak (that happened in 1953) and when pure local ingredients were the only ingredients around. 

By the time she died, in California at the age of 83, Fisher had written some 15 books on food, travel and the art of gastronomy, as well as hundreds of stories for the New Yorker, and had produced an English translation of “La Physiologie du Goût” (The Physiology of Taste) by the eighteenth-century gastronome Brillat-Savarin, who once said “A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

"The Art of Eating" is a compendium of five of her most enduring works: Serve it Forth; Consider the Oyster; How to Cook a Wolf (written during the victual depression of World War II); The Gastronomical Me; and, An Alphabet for Gourmets. In this last book she runs through all 26 letters –  with chapters on subjects ranging from Family and Gluttony to Turbot and Xanthippe (the abusive wife of Socrates), in which she takes on wives who nag their husbands during meals with the following scrambled egg “recipe for a shrew” -
“Beat eggs angrily until they froth; Add the water. Season without thought. Heat oil quickly to the smoking point in a thin skillet, pour in egg mixture and stir fast. Scrape onto cold plates and slam down on carelessly laid table.”
The Catch & The Feast
My copy of The Art of Eating is old and tattered and retains the faint musty odor of the library from which is was plucked – that of a dear family friend named Bill McGrail (its sentimental value granted it a reprieve during the Great Purge, when I sold my original book collection for less than it was worth to raise money for things I definitely didn't need.) 

McGrail was the type of gentleman that is, sadly, in short supply these days. He lived wife his wife Mary down the street from my grandparents in the haughty east end Long Island town of Remsenburg in a whitewashed cottage surrounded by overgrown astilbe and lavender and God knows what else.  A dozen half-wild cats -- which Mary gave names like Churchill and Roger Brown -- found refuge in a repurposed tool shed. The house is long gone now, having been torn down and replaced with a structure more suited to the neighborhood.

A hunter, fisherman and avid outdoorsman, he was also a  model of civility and class – an entrepreneur, bon vivant, epicure; he was the first person to impress upon me through example that a man's place is indeed in the kitchen...and the garden...and the marsh...and, of course, sidled up to the bar nursing a glass of single malt scotch (which, I'm ashamed to say, I've yet to acquire a taste for).  He could shoot a goose, dress it, prepare it to perfection with thyme and salsify, and then pick out the perfect Chateauneuf du Pape to go with it.  As proof, he and his first wife Joie published a book of essays and recipes in 1969 titled "The Catch and the Feast," which walks the reader from kill to table, with asides on conservation, family and the art of entertaining along the way.  A copy of it still sits on a table in our Remsenburg home. 

Bill is also the only person I ever saw pull off a pair of red tartan pants with his tuxedo and look dashing doing so.

Later in life when he knew he was dying,  Bill called on my father to pay him a visit and my sister and I went along. He was getting rid of his stuff, as dying men with lots of great stuff often do. The inside of his house was as curious as the outside. The stuffed heads of animals Bill had shot hung on the walls next to framed reproductions of German expressionists and African art.

We left that day with two things: an old bone-handled butcher knife that's 15-inches long if it's an inch and my copy of The Art of Eating, which Bill insisted I read. Dad kept the knife.

It took me a while to get to it but when I did I was sucked right in to Fisher's world of dinner parties and trans-Atlantic voyages, and awed by her seemingly uncanny habit of popping into far flung French bistros just as the jovial proprietor or his buxom wife was emerging from the kitchen with a tray of steaming gougeres and a cracking Sancerre.

Fisher married in 1928 and accompanied her husband Alfred to France where he was studying for his doctorate at the Faculte de Lettres at the University of Burgundy. Her description of life there convinced me I had been born half a century late, and too far west.

In The Gastronomical Me, she writes:
“We went as often as we could afford it to all the restaurants in town and, and along the  Cote d'Or and even up into the Morvan, to the Lac de Settons, to Avallon...and down past Bresse.  We ate terrines of pate ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed butter. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of Ecrevisses a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast sofented with the paste of theor rotted innards and fine brandy. In village kitchens we ate hot leek soup with white wine and snippets of salt pork in it.”  
I didn't know what  Ecrevisses a la nage was, but I couldn't wait to try it.

I did finally visit France (Paris, not Dijon) several years after reading "The Art of Eating." But as a 23-year-old student, Ecrevisses a la nage was not on the menu. I had to settle for baguettes and Beaufort, but to this day they were the best cheese sandwiches I've ever tasted. 

The Art of Eating (paperback)
By M.F.K. Fisher
Published by Vintage Books (1976)
Originally published in 1954 by The Macmillan Company
Introduction by Clifton Fadiman

Purchase date 1992? 
Purchase price: Gift from Bill McGrail (stamp on title page: “MC GRAIL 166-EAST 61ST STREET, NEW YORK, N.Y. 10021)
Condition: Fair (cover damage, all pages intact,
some yellowing)

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Some atheists act like fundamentalists without a faith

I can remember the first time I admitted out loud I was not a Christian. I was probably 22 at the time and had sensed for years that my spiritual compass was taking me down a different path than the one my Catholic family members and the other people in my small suburban community were on. It had just taken me that long to formulate the words, which at that time must have seemed pretty radical, even to a young nonconformist like myself.

Since that day I have firmly established myself among the minority of Americans who do not count a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ—or in my case, the even smaller minority who reject the notion of  an omnipotent entity to whom we owe thanks for our mere existence—as a defining characteristic of their relationship with the world around them.

As a practicing Buddhist, not only am I am a functional atheist (I’ll spare you the exposition on Buddhist cosmology), but I’m a heathen as well. And worse: a humanist. Yet rather than carry what I consider an enlightened approach around on my shoulder like a proverbial chip, I have learned that part of my personal path involves a level of humility, and an acceptance that life is not all about my beliefs, or non-beliefs as the case may be.

I feel a profound sense of discomfort every time I witness fellow non-believers adopt the same fundamentalist zeal they detest in their religious rivals to advance their own agendas, almost always in the guise of defending the Constitution. Click here to read at The Philly Post.