My new book is more a pamphlet than a book. It is quite short, almost in the style of those Federalist Papers that have had such great publicity lately in the Broadway show Hamilton. It is a bit pricey also because I wanted to have it printed in color. My book shows how the Republicans have been quietly attempting to rewrite huge sections of the US Constitution by stripping away the body of laws, amendments and traditions that have been added to it over the past two centuries plus.
You can read my book in manuscript form. It has its own website because it was too big for this website. I would have liked to have had it published but there is not enough time before the election. It takes a long time to get a publisher to even accept a book for publication.
This is a nonfiction Constitutional thriller and I hope you will read it at:
Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst is a modern story, a story of today’s America and beyond. The Hammonds fall in love and marry and have a child. They name her Matilda Grace (Tillie). As time goes by, as their child grows older, they realize her brain may be wired differently (my words). She is a very bright child, but she has obsessions. Right now she is obsessed with massive monuments like that Buddha that was destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. She is also fascinated with inappropriate language, swear words. This may or may not be Tourette’s syndrome, but it sounds more willful than automatic. She has serious meltdowns over situations that seem small, insignificant, and unpredictable. No school has been able to keep her for long in spite of mainstreaming laws.
Iris Victoria, the second child, born two years after Tillie, does not have any of these issues but, of course, Tillie’s eccentricities affect Iris’s life in many ways. Family members take turns being the narrator of this story but often Iris is giving the running commentary of these key moments in the Hammond’s life when they follow Scott Bean, a seeming visionary in the treatment of children who don’t fit within the parameters of acceptable behavior in their neighborhoods or their schools. Josh and Alexandra love both of their daughters. They wend their way through modern theories which blame problems like autism or Asperger’s on things like junk food, or pollution. Alexandra says about her pregnancy, “You’ll struggle to remember details that seemed inconsequential at the time: Did you drink tap water? Did you eat any fish that might have contained high levels of mercury?”
Alexandra tells a tale that is familiar to every parent with a “special” child. She and her husband consult doctors. They consult the internet. They get an alphabet soup of diagnoses. They talk to other parents. They talk to schools every time Tillie does something a bit too violent to tolerate. They do not know what school they will enroll her in next. That is when Alexandra sees one of those flyers with the tear off telephone numbers on the bottom posted by a man named Scott Bean who seems to have insights into how to help these children. She checks him out on the internet and he seems quite legitimate. Finally the family buys into a camp that Bean is setting up for families whose children seem to be modern medical mysteries. He calls the place Camp Harmony.
This is a novel, but it straddles a line somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Any family who has been through trying to raise a child who does not conform to the developmental expectations of our culture will probably recognize the trajectory of the Hammond’s experiences. They will nod in affirmation at the discussions of possible environmental factors that could be causing these “disorders” to occur more frequently. They will feel quite familiar with the emotional stages these parents go through, with their quest to find a “treatment” that will give their child more positive experiences out in the world. They will try medicines hoping to find one that brings their child’s behavior back within the parameters of normalcy. Will they try something as desperate as the Hammonds who sell everything and move to Camp Harmony? How did that work out anyway? Well, of course, that I cannot tell you. Carolyn Parkhurst”s novel, Harmony, for me, does not make the cut as literature, but as a cautionary tale to folks in modern societies who find themselves in a similar situation it is well done.
Ben H. Winters captured my heart and broke it when he wrote The Last Policeman trilogy. I’m not sure how he did that but in my review of World of Trouble I put it down to the magic of good writing. Mr. Winters writes science-fiction with an apocalyptic edge. His newest offering, Underground Airlines, is in the same vein. One of the best reasons to write science fiction is that it allows you to include lots of social commentary without being pedantic. Instead you get to exercise your most flighty imaginings and then ground them in our present day human dilemmas.
Winters imagines that America never actually fought the Civil War to free the slaves. He proposes a parallel America where a compromise ended the war before it began. In this compromise, four US states were allowed to keep their slaves and to continue to use them in a variety of industries. These industries conduct their business in secure compounds surrounded with electrified fences and guards and security cameras. In the North, above and around these four Southern states, there are many free black folks, who are not as free as you would like them to be (sound familiar?). Since Northern officials assume that any one of them could be a runaway from a Southern business plantation they are subject to random stops. Their paperwork must be in order and with them at all times. Many free folks live in the poorest parts of the largest cities in areas that are all known by the same name, Freedman Towns. In these days many years after the compromise was made law the only thriving economies are the Four Slave States.
Jim Dirkson (not his real name), a black man who was once a slave, has been caught and turned into a bounty hunter. A chip implanted by the US Marshals insures that he can be forced to catch runaway slaves and return them to the “plantations” that own them. He has learned to appreciate the small pleasures that come with his very limited freedom and to tuck away the nagging of his conscience, which makes sense considering that he has no choice at all about what he must do. He is in Indianapolis on an ordinary case to catch a runaway named Jackdaw. However, on closer examination of Jackdaw’s file the case appears to be anything but ordinary. Martha, a young white woman with a mixed race child has her own reasons for joining Jim to solve the mystery of Jackdaw.
This may be a parallel America experiencing a divergent future; the fact is, though, that this slave-holding America, sadly, has much in common with our version of America which has supposedly chosen to abolish slavery and in which all men (and women) should be equal. We know that we have doled out freedom to Americans of African Descent quite grudgingly. Winters hits us with an alternate reality that (almost) might as well be our actual reality. Will any amount of excoriation and guilt teach us to look for ways to tackle the issues in our inner cities that function as race and poverty traps? Will we finally find ways to get people the things they need to live productive lives which promise a comfortable future? You won’t find the answer in Underground Airlines, but you will find that an exaggeration of our actual social conditions might get you thinking.
What was different about the escape of Jackdaw? Why was his folder so different from the others that Jim had been assigned? Where is Jackdaw now? What are the Southern States up to now? Ben H. Winters doesn’t forget to pursue his case once again, just as his Last Policeman did not give up even in the face of apocalypse. This novel did not quite break my heart the way the trilogy did, although eventually the fictional outcome could possibly be just as awful. Perhaps it is because the conditions in the America we already occupy have done the deed already. Still, I must say that I really connect with the stories that Mr. Winters has to tell.
Literature right now is looking at families and, just lately a surprising number of these families live in New York City. Perhaps it is because diversity has long been tolerated by sophisticated New Yorkers. Perhaps it is the desire, held in abeyance by many of us, to live in New York City for at least a while. Maybe it is because, somehow, raising a family in New York City, seems both better than raising a family elsewhere because of the pace of the city and all the cultural options that families can sample, and more problematic because it denies children more bucolic pleasures. Unless you have money it is probably quite difficult to raise a family in this particular American city. However, when you are the author of a book your fictional family can be as rich as you like and thus the whole NYC fantasy can play out. Despite the stimulating and expensive surroundings it is still possible to make points about modern life that resonate universally, so an author can have their cake and eat it too.
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub is just such a novel. We meet three people who met each other in college. They were in a band together and were quite popular at local college parties and bars. They wore gothic attire and managed to sound better than they actually were. A fourth band member, Lydia, who became very famous, died in an OD at the age of 27. Two band members, Elizabeth and Andrew married. Elizabeth is a real estate agent, Andrew, who inherited money, is a man who drifts from interest to interest. They have a son Harry, who is studying for his SAT’s. Zoe, the other band member, apparently so beautiful and lively that people are always falling in love with her, is married to Jane, a chef with her own successful restaurant. They all once shared a house in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn. Zoe and Jane have a daughter, Ruby, also preparing for her SAT’s. The college band is being resurrected in memory as a result of a decision that must be made.
This is a slice of life novel, although not in a strict sense since we do hear the backstory. Each couple is at a point of crisis in their relationship. Each couple must decide whether to remain together or to separate. Harry and Rudy, ditching their SAT Prep course also have things to work out both together and separately. Does it make any difference that one couple is made up of a man and woman and the other couple is made up of two women? That’s what is refreshing about this novel. We see two marriages and two families, but the difficulties and challenges each couple faces could occur in any relationship. This is lighter than you would think based on the subject matter, perhaps even a bit superficial, and perhaps the ending is a bit abrupt with too little detail about the outcomes for each character, but this is still an enjoyable book with engaging characters.
When I checked out what books were being published this summer I came across this novel, Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth reading or not but the description said that the author had written in Singlish, a dialect of English used in Singapore and that this was a dialect that in no way would affect my ability to read and understand this story. I am a language and word lover so that was all I needed to get me to give the book a try. I was afraid it would be some fluffy chick lit, but like the chick lit I have read, it contains deeper thoughts and redeeming qualities.
On the surface the narrator, Jazeline (Jazzy) and her friends, Imo, Fann and Sher seem quite superficial. They have been girls, like many girls in America, who go to work all week and then head out clubbing on the weekends. They are modern girls so they drink a lot, dance a lot, and they sleep around a bit. The dialect they speak in uses many references we think of as sexual and this fact alone means that this book will not suit all readers. In truth, there is no subtlety to be found in the Singapore bar scene that the Sarong Party Girls move in, which caters to every taste that men, if allowed, will indulge in, so I caution you again not to read this novel if you don’t want to learn about their world.
The story line reminds me, however, of an old American movie with the title How to Marry a Millionaire except these girls are already sexually active and they want to marry white guys (ang mohs). Still, like the women in the movie, it is easy to like Jazeline, and to wish her well despite the rather materialistic project she is currently pursuing. Every once in a while Jazzy shows some real insight into certain realities about the treatment of women in modern Singapore (and elsewhere) by men, especially obvious if you go clubbing every weekend in a bar scene where wealthy men like to keep an entourage of young pretty women around them while they party.
The author, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, manages to stay in dialect, using the hip cadences of Singlish almost all of the time. The dialect thins out a bit when Jazzy/Cheryl shares with us her insights into things she is starting to be critical of in relation to the male-female dynamic as she begins to think about finding a partner for life, rather than just living to enjoy the weekends. She is getting too old for the clubs and she is feeling pressured to find her ang moh right now.
Here’s Jazzy/Cheryl in almost full Singlish mode:
“Aiyoh—mabuk already?” Charlie said, blinking at us one time while she pulled out her cigs from her handbag and threw them on the table. This woman was really damn action! Her eyes are quite big and pretty, so she knows that when she acts drama a bit with them, men confirm will steam when they see it. Some more she always outlines her eyes with thick thick black black pencil, so it makes them look bigger and darker, a bit like those chio Bollywood actresses. This type of move – yes is quite obvious drama, but that night, I thought to myself, Jazzy, better take notes. If you can pull this off well, it can be quite useful.”
Here’s Jazzy/Cheryl losing some Singlish as she makes a deeper point:
“The truth is, even if I felt like I could speak honestly, I didn’t know how to explain everything – or anything, really. How to tell him about a society where girls grow up watching their fathers have mistresses and second families on the side? Or one in which you find out one day that it is your mother who is the concubine and that you are the second family? A society that makes you say, when you are twelve or seventeen, ‘No matter what, when I grow up, I am never going to be the woman that tolerates that!’ But then you actually grow up and you look around, and the men who are all around you, the boys you grew up with, no matter how sweet or kind or promising they were, that somehow they have turned into men that all our fathers were and still are.”
I enjoyed this novel even more than I thought I would because it is even more like that old movie How to Marry a Millionaire than you might think. Movies of that classic film era generally contained a message, a practical moral message that passed on some wisdom from the elders in a form that was palatable to a younger generation. I did not really expect to find this in Sarong Party Girls, but it is there, along with a lot of shocking descriptions of what “fun” is like in Singapore, and it made the book worth more. It made it as Jazzy would say, quite shiok — and it is quite feminist also, without leaving men out.
Alexander McCall Smith has been writing The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books for more than a decade and I love them all. These stores remind me that there is still sweetness in this chaotic and sometimes wicked world of ours. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi Radiphuti rarely have dangerous crimes to untangle. They are often called upon to clear up domestic difficulties, misunderstandings, or familial treacheries. Mma Ramotswe and her cohort (although somewhat eccentric) generally solve these delicate situations and sometimes set other things straight along the way.
In this current novel, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, Mma Makutsi forces Mma Ramotswe to take a vacation. When a case comes in and when it seems to have been placed in the lap of the perhaps-too-softhearted part-time pinch hitter Rra Polopetsi, Mma Ramotswe almost puts her friendship with Mma Makutsi in jeopardy. She proves that she is not good at vacationing. But her vacation gives her time to think some very good thoughts that remind her about her blessings:
“She gazed at her husband, Being loved and admired by a man like that – and she knew this man, this mechanic, this fixer of machines with their broken hearts, did indeed love and admire her – was like walking in sunshine; it gave the same feeling of warmth and pleasure to bask in the love of one who has promised it, publicly at a wedding ceremony, and who is constant in his promise that such love will be given for the rest of his days. What more could any woman ask? None of us, she thought, not one single one of us, could ask for anything more than that.”
Perhaps we don’t all agree with this sentiment and we might be inclined to want this and still want more, however, the emotion of this expression of marital love gives us hope that goodness will win out over evil and that we still inhabit a moral universe.
Even though this is the sixteenth novel in the series I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting my fictional friends in Gaborone, Botswana.