Saturday, May 27, 2006

Read This Book: "The Time Traveler's Wife"

First of all, fair disclosure makes it essential that before I review The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003, San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage), I must tell you, dear reader, that I am mad for anything dealing with time travel. It might very well be my favorite science fiction/fantasy theme, and I will read just about anything that even hints at dealing with the concept.

That disclosure taken care of, this is a fabulous book. I can’t think of any better descriptive word. I was entranced by the story, by the way the story is told, by the characters - it is just a fabulous story, fabulously well told. I’ve been having trouble finding books that will hold my attention just lately. This one grabbed my attention and did not let go; I only didn’t sit and read it straight through because of things like, oh, having to work.

We are taken into the life of Henry DeTamble, who is able to travel through time. Well, able might not be the best word - he spontaneously travels through time, not able to control when he goes, or where, or how much time he spends in the past or, less often, the future. This turns out to be a genetic trait, something that eventually comes to be called Chrono-Displacement Disorder. Because, after all, every condition must have its own name here in the twenty-first century. Different things trigger his travels. The first time it happens is on his fifth birthday. His parents have taken him to the Field Museum in Chicago for his birthday, and he just does not want to leave. That night, he travels there again and spends the night with an older version of himself. It will not be the last time he spends time with himself in an older or younger edition.

While he cannot control his travel, Henry often travels to particular places and events. He visits his mother’s death in a car crash over and over. And he often goes to a particular meadow, where he gets to know a girl named Claire. The first time they meet, Claire is six years old and Henry is thirty-six. As they meet again and again through the years, Claire falls in love with Henry while he already knows that they will eventually marry. After a two-year period in which they do not meet, Claire comes across a non-time-traveling Henry when she visit’s the library where he works. She is 20, he is 28. She practically jumps him; he has no idea who she is since all of the times he has time traveled to visit her he has been older than he is on that day. She tries to explain who she is, what their relationship is, but he is clueless and she has to ask him out.

The story, like Henry, jumps back and forth through time. That might have been difficult to follow, except that the author indicates for every scene what the date is and how old both Claire and Henry is at the time. It also brings a heartbreaking tone to the telling, as the reader waits for something to happen that we know will take place but some of the characters do not know. It all works wonderfully, though, to draw the reader into the story.

The characters are wonderfully drawn. We see them warts and all, intimately. I can’t recall too many novels where I have felt so much a part of the lives of the characters, as if they are living people rather than ink on paper with just a semblance of life. It is easy to care for these people, and to worry about what will happen to them.

If I have any quibble with the book at all, and it is a small one and probably just a relic of my own perceptions, it is that it often seems to be taking place in an earlier time. Despite the pop culture and pop music references to places like McDonalds, to people like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the book had a feel of taking place in some earlier era. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it was sometimes jarring to me to see some of the modern references.

On the other hand, the inclusion of actual historical events provided what was, for me, one of the most poignant moments in the book. Henry, having traveled into the future as well as the past, knows what will take place on the morning of September 11, 2001. He has told Claire about it, and on that morning she wakes up early only to find Henry and their daughter sitting in front of the TV. “How come you’re up,” she asks him. “I thought you said it wasn’t for a couple of hours yet.” His reply to her is, “I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer.” That scene brought tears to my eyes. It made so much sense to me. I miss that normal, non-paranoid world, that world where a congressman hearing a construction worker using a nail gun didn’t automatically think it was weapons fire and cause a panic and the shutdown of a whole office building in Washington, D.C., which happened yesterday, as I write this.

Enjoy this book for just what it is, an extremely good story. Or enjoy it for the ideas it presents the reader to think about at leisure - and there are plenty of them in there. But please, read this book.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Oooooh. Secrets...

In his Senate hearings today, General Hayden - he's Bush's nominee to head the CIA, in case you haven't been keeping up with the circus that is Washington - said something today that I thought was interesting. He said that the CIA needs to get out of the public eye and back into the business of learning secrets. Not a direct quote, but close enough to his gist for government work.

It made me laugh. That secrets thing always does.

Now, I know that in what passes for the real world, the gathering of things people and governments try to keep secret and then keeping them secret is part of the cat-and-mouse game that is the intelligence establishment.

I know that.

But it just sounds so childish.

"I know something you don't know! Neener, neener, neener."

And it isn't just the government that does it. It's all those secret societies. The Masons. Skull and Bones. All those top businessmen and government boys who gather at the Bohemian Grove in northern California and do whatever they do every year. It's religions, too, some of them. The Mormons act like the world would come to a screeching halt if someone told what goes on in their temples. Never mind that anyone who wants to know can find out on the internet. It's even some businesses. I used to work for a company that acted like the next week's work schedule was a state secret or something. They would never let anyone see it until the day before it began.

People seem to have the notion that knowing something no one else knows, or that very few other people know, makes them all special or something. They don't mind letting you know that they know something you don't. In fact, sometimes that seems to be the whole rationale for having secrets - so that they can brag about it. I think of it as the "if I told you, then I'd have to kill you" syndrome.

But, God forbid you let on that you don't care about their secrets. Or that you tell them you think they're acting like a five-year-old about the whole thing. Then they'll tell you that you're just jealous that you don't know what they know.

No. I'm not.


You all can go play with your secret decoder rings all you want. I'm going to go do something, oh, intelligent.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Warren Jeffs, Osama bin Laden, and the FBI

The FBI has finally gotten with the program and put Warren Jeffs on their 10 Most Wanted list, right alongside fellow polygamist Osama bin Laden. Jeffs was profiled on "America's Most Wanted" on Saturday night, from what I understand, and the mainstream media is finally waking up to the fact that there is a cult right here in the United States that marries off girls as young as 12 years old to much older men and kicks teenage boys out of the community because they constitute "competition" to the older men who want to marry these children.

Don't believe it? You can read about this so-called "prophet of God" on the ABC News website. Jeffs is the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the FLDS, an offshoot of the Mormons. The two churches have been separate entities for several decades, as the LDS church in Salt Lake City are anxious for everyone to know. The FLDS follow doctrines that the LDS officially quit teaching long ago, such as plural marriage (or polygamy, with one man having many wives). The Salt Lake church still has the scriptures teaching plural marriage as part of their official canon, even though their official position is that they excommunicate anyone found to be practicing polygamy - but that is another topic for another time. The FLDS church never stopped the practice, and in fact it is one of the main tenets of their belief. A man, they believe cannot enter the Celestial Kingdom (their highest degree of glory) and become a god himself without having at least three wives. Many FLDS men have many more wives than that. Jeffs himself is said to have at least 50 wives.

Understandably, the government has a bit of problem with all of this and has indicted Jeffs on several charges having to do with sanctioning - indeed, arranging and officiating at - the marriage of such young girls as well as for molesting a male relative. This has sent Jeffs on the run, and no one outside of his followers, which number as many as 10,000 or more in the US and Canada, have seen him for over two years. I don't know what has taken the FBI so long to make catching this man a priority, unless they are afraid that they could have another situation on their hands like they did in the 1950s when they police raided the FLDS headquarters in northern Arizona in the 1950s but ended up with few or no convictions and much sympathy given to the poor fundamentalist Mormons for having their religious rights stepped on.

By letting this go on for so long, there is a very real possibility that when the Feds to catch up to Jeffs they are going to have another Waco on their hands. People who know much more about the FLDS than I do, people like Jon Krakauer (quoted in the ABC News story linked above), who wrote a book called Under the Banner of Heaven, which touches on the FLDS and their practices, fear that is what will happen.

I think the real point here is that just because someone cites a religious belief for something, that does not mean that it should be tolerated if it otherwise violates laws such as those protecting children from abuse. I'm a big fan of the First Amendment, but I don't think anyone ever intended the free exercise clause to protect people who marry off 12 year old girls to men sometimes in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. And I don't think it was meant protect people who kick teenage boys out of their own homes, ostensibly for things like watching television or talking to girls, because those boys constitute a threat to the older men who want to accumulate a collection of young wives.

If this has piqued your interest in the situation with Jeffs and the FLDS and you'd like to know more about some of the unbelievable things that have been going on right here in the United States for longer than most people realize, I would recommend that you read Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which I mentioned above. I wrote a review of that book (scroll down to the second post; it will have the title of Krakauer's book in the post's title) in January, which will give you some idea of the territory Krakauer covers there.