Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Galapagos" by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

You thoroughly believe that everyone should read more Vonnegut. It's good to practice what you preach.

Vonnegut is brilliant, and his brilliance lies in his weirdness. "Galapagos" is a weird book, but it is brilliant. It is set in both 1986 and exactly one million years later, and the narrator is dead. The central premise of the story is the de-evolution of humanity, primarily to rid ourselves of our worst feature, out great big brains. Those things do nothing but get us into trouble anyway.

Vonnegut tells the story in his characteristically familiar voice, with humor and informality, as if he and the reader are old friend. He never flinches from the unexpected, whether that means jumping from time frame to time frame, or placing a star in front of the names of characters who will die before the sun goes down, or even revealing that the narrator of the story is a ghost. Vonnegut's unique style always keeps you turning the pages of his novels and short stories, but the stories themselves are just as riveting.

"Galapagos" is about the end of humanity, or at least humanity as we know it. There is a small war, a few murders, the "Nature Cruise of the Century" (featuring Jackie Kennedy Onassis), and a pestilence that threatens all of human kind. Eventually humans are relegated to one isolated colony, the place where the miracle of biological evolution was first recognized, the Galapagos Islands. Safe on the rocky islands, humanity promptly continues to evolve and do away with our extraneous bits. Vonnegut is unclear about exactly what we become, there are flippers involved and many fish are eaten, but he is very clear about the biggest evolutionary step we achieve over the next one million years; our brains shrink. They weren't really necessary anyway. The rest of the book is example after example of this idea. Humans aren't all bad, in fact, we are really good at heart, but our over-sized brains keep us from becoming as superior as we could be.

The whole book reminded you a lot of a conversation you and your oldest son had last year. One day, from the back seat of the car he asked, "Dad, what's the smartest animal in the world?"

Reminding him that questions like that don't have easy answers, you replied, "Well, buddy, some people think humans are, but it really depends on what you mean when you say 'smartest'."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, what is smart?" you asked him. "I mean, some people think we are the smartest because we can build all of these things." You gestured around the car as you drove down the highway. "Cars, airplanes, roads, skyscrapers, things like that."

"Yeah?" six year old Nico responded, obviously wondering where you were going with this.

"But dolphins are pretty darn smart too." you reminded him. "Just because we can't communicate with them doesn't mean they might not be smarter than us."

"But... they can't make all of this stuff," he pointed out. "Cars, airplanes, roads, and skyscrapers."

"Ah," you said, savoring the moment. You had walked him right into the trap. "But what if dolphins are smarter than us because the realize that they don't NEED all of this stuff?" Nico's brows furrowed and you kept leading him down the rabbit hole. "All of these things are destroying the environment we live in. We keep building them anyway, even though they all might end up killing us in the end. What if dolphins are really the ones who are the smartest because they realized that making all of this stuff doesn't make you smarter or better? What if what really makes you smart is being happy with just swimming in the ocean eating fish and leaping out of the water and raising a pod of your own little dolphins? It all depends on what you mean when you say 'smart.'"

"Yeah!" Nico said, realizing what you were saying. "Maybe dolphins are the smartest, or maybe whales are... or maybe elephants! I've heard they are really smart too. What if they've got this all figured out too?" You stole a glance in the rear view mirror to see his face. The look he had as he reexamined the world outside the window... As he began to see reality in a new light... That's the same look you had on your face as you read "Galapagos."

But Kurt Vonnegut will always be a better story teller than you.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"The Nine" by Jeffrey Toobin (2007)

"...The Nine... became mighty in their day. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing... The Nazgul were they, the Ringwraiths, Sauron's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death."

God, Tolkien is the best!

Wait... this isn't a Tolkien review? But it's called "The Nine!" Oh... right. As in the nine Justices on The Supreme Court of the United States. Yeah, no. That makes more sense. That's cool too.

People have been telling you to read this one for a while. They were right. It is fascinating. Every page made you feel like you were learning really important things about the history of the US. "The Nine" focuses mostly on the court that served from 1994 to 2005. They served together longer than any other justices in the history of the nine member court. Toobin focuses on the conservative counterrevolution sparked by the Reagan administration. By the 1970's, liberalism was assumed to be written into the DNA of the United States. President Reagan and some influential think tanks and powerful organizations have been moving ever since to counteract that assumption. Their aims were simple, but bold. Expand the powers of the Executive Branch. End racial preferences intended to assisst African Americans. Speed up the executions of condemned prisoners. Welcome religion, and specifically Christian values, into the public sphere, and even into government itself. But, above all, to reverse Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban all abortions in the country. This conservative ideal, what Toobin calls a counterrevolution, is closer to reality today than it has ever been.

However much the book is about the culture wars of the past thirty years, it is much more about the lives of the nine justices, and Toobin invites you into those lives in a very intimate way. "The Nine" is much more about the personalities of the justices and their relationships with one another than you thought it would be. More than a dry collection of dockets and case names, it brings you into the decision making process and shows you how the law has been shaped during your own lifetime.

Even though the book opens with the death of William Rehnquist in 2005 and even though he was the Chief Justice for 19 years, it focuses mainly on the career of Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the "swing" vote for those eleven years with no vacancies on the highest court in the land. The book acknowledges that she was the most powerful woman in America until her retirement. If you wanted to win a case before the Supreme Court while justice O'Connor sat on the bench, you tailored your argument to move her opinion more than the other eight. As a justice, she loved the middle of the road and strove to reflect the opinions of the majority of the American people. Even though she was appointed by the Republican champion, President Reagan himself, her passion for women's' rights and her slow drift to the left (or the Republican party's slow drift to the right) has infuriated a generation of conservatives in the United States. For decades, Sandra Day O'Connor held back the conservative counterrevolution.

Her most crucial vote might have been the one which decided Bush v. Gore. It was O'Connor's vote that stopped the recount in Florida and decided the 2000 election for her party's candidate, George W. Bush. But simply deciding the outcome of a presidential election is not what made that vote so monumental, it was the result of that presidency reflected on her court that will shape the future of the United States. It was during President Bush's second term that O'Connor's husband's health deteriorated to the point where she realized she needed to retire. Even though the Bush Administration, which she had brought to power, proved to be a disaster for her country and for her party, and even as she watched the president erode all that she held dear, Sandra Day O'Connor had to hand over her crucial swing vote to the man she felt had corrupted her beloved party. The Supreme Court has been shaped more by her retirement during President Bush's tenure than anything in generations. Her retirement may be the thing that finally ushers in the conservative counterrevolution she fought so long to hold back.

The other justices are not forgotten in the pages of "The Nine." Each one became much more of a person to you as you learned of their distinctive peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies. Justice Scalia is a much more likeable character than his combative gruff persona had lead you to believe, and Thomas, with his infectious booming laughter, remembers the names of every clerk working at the Court, even those working for the other Justices. Learning about the new Chief Justice John Roberts' near perfect rise to the Court gave you much greater respect for him than you had before reading the book.

Toobin recounts notorious moments from the last fifteen years that influenced the court's decision making process. President Clinton's impeachment, Terry Schiavo's tragic case, Tom DeLay's brief tenure as the House majority leader, the ongoing imprisonment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He reminded you how insanely unwise it is to have elected officials (Secretaries of State) in charge of each state's election procedures. He also reminded you that the law is not above politics, and being a judge or Justice means being active in society, not merely "calling balls and strikes." 

The Justices are just people. They are asked to make tough decisions in difficult cases. Many of them decide along party lines, but Kennedy and O'Connor searched for compromise solutions, ones that reflected public and world opinions. There are fascinating paradoxes on the court as well. Justice Thomas has admitted to being the greatest beneficiary of Affirmative Action in the history of the United States, but he despises the institution and has voted to overturn it every time he has had the opportunity. Many of the members of the court claim to be Constitutional Originalists, yet they still believe the Supreme Court has the power to strike down legislation it sees as unconstitutional, even though this power is granted nowhere in the US Constitution. People are filled with contradictions, and the Justices of the Supreme Court are just people.

Overall, you found "The Nine" to be charmingly readable and disarmingly educational. Now someone needs to write a book about how the dynamics of the court have changed with the four new justices who have on board since this book was written. Roberts, Alito, Kagan, and Sotomayor will shape the future just as much as the previous court has shaped the past. Even as you write these words, the citizens of the United States are waiting for opinions to be announced from the Supreme Court in the next few days. Just four of the cases to be decided include the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, California's Prop 8 which stuck down gay marriage in that state, Affirmative Action at the University of Texas (and maybe every university in America), and a little thing called The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Elections matter in the United States. Presidents appoint Supreme Court Justices and those Justices determine the character of our society. The Supreme Court has always been a bellwether for where the United States stands as a culture. It's successes and failures are signposts we can all point to to show how far we've come and how far we still have to go. In a very real way, the lives of all Americans are beholden to the opinions of a few select people... The Nine.

On to the next book!