SEA PRAYER: A Book Review

Annika Perry's Writing Blog

On 2nd September 2015 an image flashed around the world that saddened and horrified us all. A young boy, later identified as Alan Kurdi, lay motionless on a pristine beach in Turkey, the dawn sun glowing around him. He was dead. During his three young years he knew only war in Syria; a war his parents fled to find safety. The photo of Alan touched everyone and inspired, nay, I would say, drove one famous writer to pen a short book, Sea Prayer.

Within Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer the words and illustrations are intrinsically linked, creating a wondrous work of art.

The first page starts as a letter (quasi-eulogy) to the narrator’s son, Marwan, and it recalls the beauty of life in Homs. The father describes his childhood when he had woken “to the stirrings of olive trees in the breeze/to the bleating of your grandmother’s goat”.

Tender, colourful…

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Woodstock Memories 2

Part 2

Woodstock Site 50 Anniversary

The Woodstock Music Festival site today is on the National Register for Historic Sites and part of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

We arrived on Saturday mid-day, August 16, 1969. (See the previous post, Woodstock Memories).

People were moving around, in front of the stage and up the hill, standing and chanting. Country Joe was leading the chant about fixin’ to die in Vietnam.

The hillside was densely packed in front of the stage and on our right, so we decided to try to cross to the other side. First, we took a path in front of the stage, only to have our shoes sink into the mud. Turning back, we followed a clear corridor in the crowd up the hill, and then another path, single file, across to the far side.

We were riding the high of anticipation. We heard people talking, learned the band playing was Santana. The place was rocking. What a great soundtrack for what I was feeling. What I felt others were feeling too. For what the experience was like on many levels.

We reached the other side of the hill, and there, on what was like the arm of an easy chair, we found a good spot. We could see the side of the stage. My brother spread the little blanket and with relief and a feeling of accomplishment we sat down. Not far away another corridor ran to the top of the hill.

People were in small groups, some couples, sitting in their own spaces, sleeping or dozing, talking, or getting up and moving around. When Santana finished their set, I told my brother, “I’m going to look for food. I heard there were food vendors at the top of the hill.”

As I walked uphill I stopped several times to look at the crowd. I got to the top and headed for some wooden structures. They were empty. A couple of people said the food ran out yesterday.

A row of port-o-sans stood nearby with people waiting in line. A woman coming away said, “It’s disgusting.”

Some people, I later heard, were using the woods lining the hillside.

I turned around and walked back downhill. I told my brother the news: there’s no food or water.

A man and woman sitting near us must have heard me.

“Would you like a coke?” the woman asked.

I was embarrassed to answer. I hated to take something they might need.

But we said, yes, and they handed us the coke. That sustained us for hours. My brother and I talked about what bands might have played already, and which were yet to play. We didn’t know. Announcements were being made from the stage. We were ready for a concert, and at the same time, with so much to absorb, with all that was before us, time and space and what was important took on a different quality.

This was more than a music festival. This was something else. 

An army helicopter came over and looped around.

“They’re going to suck us up and take us directly to Vietnam,” someone said.

“I think they’re dropping flowers,” another person said.

Canned Heat played their bluesy rock, and the witty “Going Up The Country, “perfect for the journey we’d just made – and were now making in a different way. 

From time to time I walked about twenty feet toward the center of the hill to where two vans were parked, and looked down at the stage. Creedence Clearwater rocked.


Walking toward a spot where I could see the full stage. Note the people without shoes and socks on. The ground was wet and muddy. We were sitting in a less muddy spot.

I was staring at the hospital tent across the road, white with vertical pink stripes, and a smaller tent not far away. A helicopter lifted off near the tents and flew low over us. The noise shredded the music. I was annoyed, distracted. Another one took off, and then another, and after a while the sound melded into the music, into the murmuring and cheering from the hillside, part of the soundtrack of the experience.

A man staggered toward the fence. I heard people say, “He’s tripping. He needs help.” Two men appeared and helped him, half-carrying him away. Later, a woman came down the hill and freaked out along the fence. Someone following her told us, “She’s freaked out by the crowd. It’s got to her. We’ve been here since yesterday.” He helped her along the fence and down to the road.

I wondered at that. Could it become too much for a person? And taking drugs in such a situation. Things could go awry. This was not helped by the lack of food, water and shelter. I wasn’t into drugs, and no one tried to get me or my brother to take any.

Suddenly I thought, I should take a picture of the crowd. Walking uphill, some people smiled at me, others were sleeping, but most were sitting as if they were in the best place in the world. Not in the mud, on wet grass, in summer heat and humidity, but in a place of the heart and appreciation of living, as if beyond space and time, in a collective imagination.


Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Saturday, August 16, 1969. Photo: Mary Clark

The crowd became part of my mental experience. More than just sensory experience.  Watching the helicopters come in and lift off at the hospital across the road, I was looking at the lake behind it, and for a moment I experienced “seeing” into the future. I saw a world where people related to one another in a new way, not with social pressure or any kind of violent force. It was a completely different atmosphere. 

What was happening here was one of the possibilities for human beings. For how we could live together without an overload of rules, with behaviors decided by those involved in quiet negotiation, respecting one another’s space.

When evening was coming on, people lit the way with flashlights for those walking up and down the path near us.

Night fell and the music played on, punctuated by silences and announcements. For me, the highlight of the evening in terms of music was Janis Joplin’s performance. Her voice was filled with many notes and frequencies besides the dominant one. It came down over us, expansive, resonant, and made an immediate connection. (Later I heard she was stoned and her performance was shrill and fragmented. That’s not what I heard. Maybe it was the difference between being directly in front of the stage and getting the dominant notes versus hearing her through the large amps placed partway up the hill. That technology may have caught all the notes and nuances.)

After Janis, Sly and The Family Stone came on. Many in the crowd rose to their feet, higher and higher. I rose but quickly sat back down. I put on my jacket and zipped it tight, but the damp chill of the ground made its way through. I tried to hold on because I knew my brother wanted to hear The Who. I thought it was about 1 or 2 a.m. and did not want to leave so early. So I lay down and shivered. Finally, I said, “I have to leave.”

He wanted to stay, so I said, “You stay, and I’ll walk back to the car. You can come later.” (Obviously, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I may have breathed in quite a lot of pot in the time we were there.)

“No, I’ll go with you,” he said.

We made our way to the fence, along it and down a short slope to the road, a way we’d seen others do it during the day. We began walking and must have taken a turn too soon. It was very dark on the road. Only a few people were walking near us.

“I don’t think this is the way we came,” I said. “We might be lost.”

He asked if we should turn back, and I said no, let’s keep going. I think this is the right direction. In truth, I was happy, floating along.

I heard the other people having a similar conversation.

A sound came rolling over the hills. The Who. The unmistakable chords of Pete Townsend.

“You’re hearing The Who,” I said.

“It’s not the same thing,” he groused.

I’ll never forget the sound of The Who rolling over the hills.

We saw a lake through a line of trees, glimmering with lights here and there. A couple or small group of people approached, headed the other way.  We told them we didn’t know where we were and where we wanted to go.

“Just keep going and when you get to the end, turn left, and you’ll find the road you’re looking for.”

They were right. Soon we were walking away from the town of Bethel. Time grooved by and I began to wonder, but with only a slight thrill of panic, whether we would ever get back to our car. 

Dawn came, and a familiar shape appeared in the near distance.

“There it is.”

The little white Corvair. What a welcome sight. 

The sound of the doors opening gave me a sense of comfort. I drank from the thermos. We were on our way home.

(Later I would learn that Janis sang at 2 a.m., and Sly and The Family Stone about 3 a.m. The Who started at 5 a.m. We must have left about 4 a.m. or later.)

I realized a number of things afterward. I realized that I liked people, that I liked being with people. And that they could organize themselves, just coming together to do something because they wanted to do it and make it work and then go away. They could express themselves, whatever they thought and felt was fulfilling. Woodstock was a social and emotional, an intellectual and artistic experience. People made up their own things to do, games to play, an art gallery out in the trees.

For me it was also very personal. I didn’t feel judged as I did in high school and college. The people at the festival were interested in things other than themselves, than in appearances and status.

We wanted to be free and we were saying, we can do it. It was a glimpse of the potential for people, for what we can do if we want to. 

Woodstock was a phenomenon, those performances and the coming together. It won’t happen again for a long time. I hope, someday, such large peaceful gatherings will be commonplace.

Woodstock Memories

Part 1

woodstock8 (2)

Photo: Mary Clark, August 16, 1969

In 1969, I was living in South Plainfield, New Jersey, and after two years at a community college, I had been offered a scholarship to Rutgers University. Without the inexpensive community college and this scholarship I would not have been able to attend college. My town was primarily blue and white collar middle class, and my family on the lower end of middle class. For many years both of my parents worked. We had to scrape by at times but never went without food or medical care.

In my adolescence I listened to rock’n’roll on a transistor radio. I was fourteen when the Beatles came to America. But I was a Rolling Stones fan and during my teens listened to as much rock as I could – usually by myself. Some of my friends talked about the bands they liked, but we didn’t share much or spend time together listening to records. In high school the bands played Light My Fire and a few other hits. I was listening though to something else. Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.

One day I went into a head shop in downtown Plainfield, New Jersey, where several times before I had bought a madras shirt or a pair of bell bottoms. A sign was tacked up by the sales counter about the “Woodstock Music Festival,” saying the store had tickets for sale. I’d heard rumbles on the local rock stations about this festival, and now, here, was a tangible sign that it might actually happen. The price made me think twice, high but perhaps not too high. I would have to borrow my parents’ car, which would not be available until Saturday, the second day of the festival. I went home without buying tickets. I heard more about it on the radio and a vision began to form in my mind. Days later I headed back to the store and bought two tickets, one for me, the other for my brother, Gordon.

My parents agreed to let me take the family car, a white Corvair, going up Saturday and coming home Sunday. I was 20, Gordon was 17, too young to drive. On the news that Friday night, we heard a big crowd had showed up at the festival. Great, I thought, it’s really happening. In the morning, we packed up a thermos of tea and one of water and a couple of blankets. We always had a flashlight in the glove compartment. Soon we were on the highway heading north to the New York state border. Gordon looked at the map as we traveled on the New York Thruway. Turning off the Thruway I drove down Route 17. When we turned onto a two-lane road to Bethel, we joined a caravan of cars making its way toward the festival. A short while later we crawled along, passing cars parked by the side of the road. We could keep going like this or find a place to park and walk the rest of the way.

Ahead of us the cars were bumper to bumper and a crowd of people walked alongside them. There were fewer and fewer open spaces to park. The shoulder was narrow and sloped into a ditch. I saw a good spot and dived in, hoping the small car wouldn’t get stuck.

Woodstock 1 Taken Where we Parked on 17B

Photo: Mary Clark

My brother and I got out of the car and saw people walking in our direction. They were on their way out. I asked, “How far is it?”

“Eight miles.”

Eight miles? Gordon and I looked at each other.

“We’ve come this far,” he said.

We decided to leave the stuff behind and take only one small blanket. I had a windbreaker and my purse, and my little Brownie camera.

“We’ll be able to get food and drink in Bethel,” I assured him.

We started to walk. People were walking in both directions but most of us were going toward Bethel and the festival. Trees shaded us and we observed and listened to people around us, not shoving or jostling, walking in a relaxed manner, but with purpose. We wanted to get there and worried about the bands we might be missing.

Someone told us we could take a shortcut over the hills. We didn’t know the territory and didn’t want to get lost, and we didn’t want to walk over people’s farms. So we stayed on the road.

After two hours or more we came to a crossroads and a smattering of small buildings. The town of Bethel. People were walking in all directions. Cars moved slowly, laden with people. We found out where the store was and walked inside. The shelves were bare. Two or three non-edible items were left. An old farmer guy was sitting by the counter.

“Do you have anything?” I asked him, staring at the empty counter. “Lifesavers?”

“We’ve been cleaned out,” he said.

The little store had a bathroom which he let people use. Outside again, we reflected: no food, no water. Should we go on? I wanted to, but didn’t know how he felt.

“How far is the festival?” I asked a passerby.

“A mile,” he said, pointing, “down that road.”

“I’m going,” Gordon said and strode off down the road. I pulled out my camera and got a shot of him walking off carrying the blanket.

Woodstock 2 Gordon On The Road August 16, 1969 (2)

Gordon Clark in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves

There will be food and water at the festival, I thought.

We passed homes where the residents sat on lawn chairs watching us and others were by the side of the road handing out water.   

Farther along, a single line of cars moving at snail’s pace filled the road. We followed the people ahead of us onto a dirt path that paralleled the road. In some places it went up several feet. Looking down I saw a police car, maybe a sheriff, and he must have heard us talking about food.

“Are you hungry?”


“Here,” he said, handing us a sandwich.

I ate a bite and my brother finished the rest as we walked. I saw people coming over the hills. I guessed they had taken the shortcut.

We passed a lake where people were swimming and bathing. A few of them were naked. I looked and looked away. Then I decided not to be shy and took a photo.

Woodstock 4 by a lake btwn Bethel & the Festival 1969

A group of tents came into view on the other side of the road. People were walking around and sitting in the doorways.

Soon a sound rose from the other side of a wooded knoll, like a kind of rhythmic humming, and the beating of bongo drums. We walked behind a huge stage. A low makeshift bridge with some kind of artwork crossed the road.

Packed into a crowd on the narrow road, Gordon and I wound our way with other new arrivals, looking for a gate. We went under the bridge and came to the other side of the stage.

I got out my ticket, held it in my right hand. Walking forward, before I could stop, I saw a fence down in the mud. I glanced at my brother and we walked over it together.

I put my ticket back in my jeans’ pocket. Then I looked up and saw the crowd.

“Holy ….”

On the hillside, people as far as the eye could see. Wrapped in blanket of sky. Rapt in a beating of drums and funky guitars.

Will there be any space for us?

I was confident there would be. I felt drawn by the people to join them, secure in myself and in connecting to this crowd.

Summer Reads

Here are a few books I’ve enjoyed so far this summer.

A Good Home, A Memoir, by Cynthia Reyes

A Good Home

Cynthia Reyes’ journey from a pink bungalow in Jamaica to a Victorian Farmhouse in Toronto is captivating. Each home is the center of a vibrant and interesting life, inhabited by family and friends, and in one case, a female mentor. She shows us how a home is not just a place to live, but a place we fill with our spirit, and where our spirit can renew itself, grow and thrive. I’d like to know more and look forward to reading her sequel, An Honest House.

Somewhere More Simple, by Marion Molteno

Somewhere More Simple

This story of life on the small islands cast into the sea off the coast of Britain is one of the most hauntingly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. The descriptions of the islands are precise, poetic, and will make you will feel as if you’re living there. Some passages reminded me of D. H. Lawrence, others of Virginia Woolf, but the narrative is modern, attuned to environment and relationships. A great read.

The Very Worst Riding School in the World, by Lucinda Clarke

The Very Worst Riding School in the World

This is a very good opening to the longer story which is available upon subscribing to Lucinda Clarke’s monthly newsletter. Her understated British sense of humor is perfect for the challenges of living and operating a “riding school” in Africa. The story itself is both funny and sad at times, but her love of Africa’s people and land, and of course, the individual horses, shines through. This little book is a gift to its readers.


Uncertain Light: Book Review

Uncertain Light by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

I was drawn in slowly, sometimes considering not going on, but beyond the valley mists and the world’s tallest mountains, lurks a promise. That kept me reading, and I’m glad I made the journey. This is an amazing look at people whose work we hear of, and yet do not know, at places remote and veiled in violence, where refugees gather and ancient towns bury their treasures.

One of the great treasures, discovered only after trust is achieved, is the work of a local poet, imprisoned, disappeared, his poems suppressed by one government after another. But he is not forgotten, his poems have been disseminated throughout the region, in various translations. The skill needed to translate them into English creates a new and surprising network of local and foreign people. 

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action.

In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. These are no hive-mind of like-minded people. Instead, each person has a distinct history, and carries an aloneness which is palpably felt in every moment. Even as they search for connections, each one keeps to her or his solitary walks. This yearning and this isolation accompany those who work in unsettled areas, who move through uncertain light.

Molteno’s experience with Save The Children comes through with portraits of the trauma children live through in turbulent times: their loss of family members, shelter, food, and education. “‘Them’ and ‘Us’ wasn’t primarily about cultural difference, the unbridgeable divide of life-chances was between the children of whatever race or religion who went to school like hers … and those for whom school was an unreachable dream…who sold things at roadsides, who carried heavy loads…”

In Hasilgah (the place of achievement which was originally named Be-hasil-gah, a place where nothing can be achieved), a town near the border of Tajikistan, a small group of people, many women, and the men who relate to them as equals, keep family and community together in adverse times. They protect not only children – future creativity, but also the creativity of the past. “Each step … forward will also be a reaffirmation of what mattered in the past.” Life is both history, social and personal, and future, challenging and beckoning, but the struggle for healing and wholeness always takes place in the present.

The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.

This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.

The Red and Black Aquatints of Robert Motherwell

Red Sea 1 Robert Motherwell Red Sea 1 (1976)

In the early 1990s I published a monthly community newspaper called the Clinton Chronicle (NYC). This review was written by Claire Machaver, a woman whose joy was manifest along with her generosity. 

Long Fine Art Gallery, March 2 – April 30, 1994, 24 West 57th Street, New York

At the Long Fine Art Gallery, the cumulative effect of the glow of the multiple dense Red and Black Aquatints is striking. Robert Motherwell likened this effect to Plato’s image of art as the shadow cast on the dark cave’s wall by persons passing by the fire. In the Republic, Plato regarded such viewing of shadows as the first step in the path toward viewing the brightest of all things in the material world, the Sun – a metaphor for the vision of the best among realities, wisdom.

Motherwell’s graduate work in philosophy and psychology at Harvard and later studies in art history with Meyer Schapiro provided him with the impetus to address problems of visual communication. With this background, he could draw upon such masters as Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso.

For nearly a decade Motherwell addressed a continual problem of uniting disparate elements in his work.

“It used to cross my mind from time to time that it would be much more intelligent to go the other way – To begin with unity and then, within unity, create (through dividing) disparate elements.”

Motherwell became the heir to Mondrian’s rectilinear geometry and Matisse’s reduction and simplification of his own prior paintings.

Resolving the issue of inside/outside in his Open series of paintings, Motherwell employed a window motif that remains on the picture plane rather than functioning as an illusion of space. These windows do not describe a view. Instead they distill the geometry of all windows and act as symbols. Motherwell’s spare, elegant black lines suggestive of open windows in number 9, Red Open With White Line (1979), and in numbers 4 and 5 in the exhibit, Untitled (1972-73) recall the windows in Matisse’s 1914 painting, French Window at Collioure, a simplification of his 1905 painting, The Open Window (Collioure), and his 1914, View of Notre Dame, a simplification of an earlier View of Notre Dame painted the same year.

The A la Pintura aquatints are illuminations for Rafael Alberti’s poem, A la Pintura (Homage to Painting), first published in 1948. There are three major works in the exhibition: Red 1 – 3 from A la Pintura (1991); Red 4 – 7  from A la Pintura (1969); and Red 8 – 11 from A la Pintura (1971). These aquatints are subtle variations of square and rectangular black imagery on a red ground, with the Spanish text printed in red and the English translation printed in black.

r_motherwell Red 8-11

It was Picasso who first indicated in his writings as director of the Prado museum and in Guernica, with its symbolic and mythological references, how a painter might bring together images that would be universally recognized as archetypal symbols, with the expression of the social consciousness of the artist.

Motherwell wrote, “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head.” The abstract imagery he developed was derived from dialogues with political events, other art, literature and psychoanalysis. Red Sea 1 (1976) is one of the first prints to fully employ automatic “gestural” drawing. Referring to the gesture, Motherwell said, “the true way to imitate nature is to employ its own processes.”

Motherwell explained the intensity of the Red and Black Aquatints. “What aquatint can do . . . better than any other means of a painter, is to saturate certain mould-made papers with an intensity of hue that cannot be equaled (except perhaps in stained glass light).” Aquatint is a specialized technique which uses a metal plate coated with a porous resin to create a granulated effect. This beautiful show provided a lasting impression of a master’s graphic oeuvre and his remarkable ability to use the gestural image in abstract art.


She was amazing!

The Observation Post

The only thing better than singing is more singing. –Ella Fitzgerald

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Today marks the birthday (4/25/1917) of one of my all-time favorite female jazz vocalists, EllaFitzgerald. Nearly forty years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing The First Lady of Song (as she was fittingly known) when she was appearing in San Francisco at a time I happened to be there. Her performance that night confirmed what I’d dug from decades of collecting her records and listening to her sing and interpret lyrics as only she could.

Ella, my musical muse and soulmate in song, for all the ‘spiritual’ pleasure you brought (and continue to…

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Happiness: A Review


In a series of stories linked by characters and themes, Happiness by Aminatta Forna describes two lives on the front lines of human cruelty and resilience. Attila, an expert on PTSD, works in war zones and disaster areas. The other main character, Jean, a wildlife biologist, has seen the cruelty of humans toward wild animals firsthand. They meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. Attila loves music and dance, and Jean plants gardens in the most improbable places. One is self-care with the hope of sharing, the other combines self-care with caring for the environment and wildlife. They refuse to be alienated, they continue to relate to people they’ve known a long time and to strangers who need help or offer to help them in their ventures.

The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. However, in my view, Nietzsche’s statement is a generalization. Human beings are more complex. Some people will be damaged by trauma, some will be resilient, and some will be both.

Both Jean and Attila see the real illness, the worst loss, and it’s not the damage done by traumatic events. It’s our capacity for denial, of death, and of life in all its messiness. We try then to eliminate things we cannot control. The coyote and fox, both species Jean has studied in the field, are beyond our control. Some people welcome their presence as reminders of the wild and free in themselves, while others are threatened because these animals cannot be managed and thrive independently of humans.  

The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Surmounting our difficulties to take this kind of action is pure rebellion against the damage done. There’s joy in this, and helping another person or animal affirms our humanity. It can be the simple act of giving a bit of food to a hungry fox on your lunch break at the back of the hotel you work in. It can be the more complex interaction with an old friend who now has dementia. A brief time of meditation or contemplation, a silent reverie by a river, or in a field making eye contact with a coyote, renews our connection with life. Through these acts, and the thoughts and emotions which give them a basket of flesh and blood, people find the strength to overcome trauma. 

The passages meant to convey this joy often fall flat, at times detailed to death, other times described more as an ordeal or willful event that is fraught with the character’s anxiety. While there’s truth in these last two situations, the subduing of happiness seems to serve the author’s goal of setting aside happiness for hope. My other flushed grouse, to use a wildlife allusion, is the gratuitous first chapter. To equate the thrill of the hunt by a professional hunter or sports hunter with the hunt of a conservationist disregards the difference in intent, beliefs, and consequences, and emphasize the heightened senses of the hunt, and the similarity of human and animal behavior. Forna does better when she shows the difference between blood lust and its opposite: the strength that caring requires, the effort of advocating, saving and letting live.

Have you read Abundance? – Part 3

The book, Abundance, part of which is summarized here, describes how technology can solve many of our problems: energy production, food production and distribution, reducing waste, and improving health care. It’s all about creating a world that satisfies human needs, with a nod to protecting the earth. What are the values behind this move into a tech-managed world?

A Better Man

Although biotechnological applications in food have created much controversy in recent years, the science itself is nothing new. The 12,000-year history of farming is characterized by farmers manipulating living systems, creating new strains of crops through cross-pollination and manipulating the plants’ DNA.

Technology may have moved on, but the principle of manipulating organisms remains the same. Today, advances in genetic engineering provide solutions that are proving to be a key weapon in the fight to feed an ever increasing population.

However, the applications of biotechnology are not limited to food production. Craig Venter, famed for his project to sequence the human genome, is currently working to develop strains of algae as a biofuel source. Using algae is extremely beneficial as it doesn’t require arable land, can be grown in saltwater and is also capable of absorbing carbon from nearby power stations. If Venter hits his target, he will be able…

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