Archive for June, 2015

This Evening

If I could travel back in time this evening,
I’d find Mother in her favorite chair,
half-watching the TV movie of the week.
Seen from afar, she seems
to be conducting an invisible orchestra,
yet look again; the baton
she wields is a pair of knitting needles.
It being October, this must be
a Christmas present she is working on.
Taking shape, a throw
for somebody’s lap, but whose she won’t
say until found beneath the tree.
She has been hard at it for weeks now.
Still working, she nods off.
Since Father fell asleep in his Lazyboy
more than half an hour ago,
the TV plays to an inattentive audience.
Whether it is a loud commercial
or the clatter of the scissors and needles
as they tumble to the floor,
suddenly she is awake again, intent on
gathering her wits and yarn.
Picking up her stitch and the storyline,
“That’s enough of that,” she says.
After all, somebody has to wake Father
when the News comes on at 10.
If time would only relent, I’d join them.

Highway North

A river following
the path of least resistance,
winding between hills,
this highway doesn’t know if
it’s coming or going.
And still the drizzle persists.
Shoulder to shoulder,
attentive sentinels dressed
in green camouflage,
the trees hold the sky at bay.
August has already
begun to rust the weeds to
a crisp autumn hue.
What has been found there…
an empty wrapper,
indecipherable newsprint,
a prayer answered?
Swept down from on high,
in dark cassocks,
a murder of crows inspect
for fresh possibilities.
Their hard eyes meet mine
with studied interest.
And still the drizzle persists.

The Prize : The Epic Quest For Oil, Money, And Power / Daniel Yergin

This massive tome (700+ pages) traces the history of the oil industry from the 1850s into the early 1990s. It provides a panoramic saga that takes the reader from the hills of Pennsylvania to the Saudi Arabian desert, with numerous stops across the globe. While Yergin focuses on the oil industry, showing how it became the essential ingredient in fueling the world economy, he also details how this resource helped to shape the politics of the Twentieth Century.

The first half of the book captures in great detail (at times plodding) the expansive growth of the oil industry. In its early days, fortunes were made and often lost, as individuals of all stripes got caught up in the search for oil across the American landscape. Yergin portrays a colorful cast of characters, everyone from wildcatters and tycoons to politicians eager to join in get-rich schemes. Thousands of companies sprang into existence as a result, and then like most industries, slowly began to consolidate until just a handful controlled this valuable resource.

Oil quickly began to drive the world economy in the first half of the past century, and the industry did it its best to collude in keeping prices high. But this proved a difficult task. From the beginning, the politics of oil was a volatile arena. While the Standard Oil Company attempted to become the behemoth controlling the industry, in the end it never came close to achieving this goal.

The second part of the book focuses on the power shift that took place in the industry following the 1950s, after huge oil fields were discovered on the Arabian Peninsula and in South America. Rather than remaining top dog, the commercial oil industry was soon faced with a wave of countries nationalizing their petroleum resources. Still, because these countries were competing against each other, prices for oil remained on the low side.

This all changed when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) formed and it began to unite various countries to increase the cost of this precious resource. This led to several “oil shocks” that sent the economies of the western world into a tailspin. But just as the oil companies failed to control the fluctuations in the global price for petroleum, OPEC was also unable to dictate what the consumers in the western world paid at the gas pump.

Yergin provides a host of reasons for this fact. The members of OPEC all had separate political aims, often in conflict with each other. Additional oil fields and conservation efforts also played a big part in keeping their power in check. As he shows time and again, the oil genie, once released from his bottle, proved beyond the control of the oil industry or the oil producing countries.

As I pointed out, there are times when this book gets bogged down in the minutiae of facts and figures. Fortunately, Yergin is a good storyteller and has done painstaking research on this topic. For anyone wanting a better understanding of the Twentieth Century, his book provides an excellent overview of Big Oil’s impact. The chapter on the role of petroleum in the outcome of World War II is especially enlightening.

As the years following the 1990s have shown, the oil industry remains a key component driving our global economy. While many have tried to link their good fortune to this commodity, it remains a resource that continues to elude efforts to control fluctuating prices. To this day, oil remains the joker in the deck. Try as they might, the oil industry and the oil producing countries have yet been able put the genie back in the bottle.  Yergin has done an excellent job of showing why that most likely will be the case for a decade or two to come.

The Submission / Amy Waldman

As this novel opens, a jury in Manhattan has gathered to select a memorial for the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It is a blind competition, and when they choose a design representing a garden to honor those killed, all hell breaks loose when it is discovered the anonymous winner is an American Muslim. The designer of this particular submission is an up-and-coming architect named Mohammed Khan. He is a proud man, non-religious, and someone who comes across as haughty when people begin to question the inspiration for his design.

To a good many Americans, especially those on the political right, there is a fear that the garden is an Islamic plot meant to subvert the true meaning of the memorial. It does not help that Mohammed refuses to discuss what influenced the design he submitted. Once his name becomes known, conspiracy theories go viral on the Internet and the popular press begins to raise red flags.

His biggest supporter on the jury is Claire Burnwell, a rich widow who lost her husband in the terrorist attack. But her faith in the designer is shaken by Mohammed’s refusal to address his inspiration. Claire’s convictions are soon challenged by outraged family members, publicity hungry journalists, and opportunistic politicians, who begin a vocal campaign to override the jury’s decision.

In other words, it is a book that clearly reflects the headlines that have dominated the news regarding the public’s mistrust of American Muslims in this country. And yet from the beginning, there was something about this novel that bothered me. The raging debate taking place seemed too overblown, and a good many of its characters struck me as merely one-sided. I found them used as mere props created to drive the plot ahead, rather than to portray the complexities of the situation.

A good many people will probably disagree with me on this point. Nonetheless, midway into this novel I found myself feeling more annoyed than captivated by the story as it unfolded. Perhaps Waldman hit too close to a nerve regarding the right-wing tilt such a situation might provoke in this country.

Even so, I found the plot to be too manipulative, portraying the situation in black and white rather than capturing the surrounding gray. Clearly, it is a book that will evoke emotions in the reader. In my case, I found the novel too drawn out, and one that left me feeling drained well before I reached its end. It is a novel that might have had more impact if compacted into a much shorter story.

The Passport

How can you forget it?
That hot summer day you got lost between
the covers of a book.
Thought to be in your upstairs bedroom
but actually centuries away.
Deaf to the insistent cries from friends
to come outside and play.
Caught in a riptide of sentences tugging
you into uncharted depths.
Amazed to find an entire world contained
in its woven nest of pages.
Not just one person, but an entire tribe
residing in those few pounds.
Feverishly racing ahead and yet hoping
to never reach the end.
Rather than being read, its words soon
absorbed by osmosis.
A summer day spent between the covers,
the gift of an open door.
It was the passport that led to a library
still transporting you today.

The Handkerchief Drawer : An Autobiography In Three Parts / Thelma Ruck Keene

When Keene’s wrote this autobiography in 2002, she was eighty-six years old and living in Vancouver, British Columbia. But the story she shares only covers a portion of her life, from 1916 to 1966. Still alive today, perhaps she is working on part two of the book.

Shortly after her birth in 1916, Thelma Ruck Keene’s father was killed on a battlefield in France. His family was British to the core, and firmly entrenched in society’s upper middle class. Her mother, on the other hand, while British, had the taint of a Spanish grandfather. In the first part of this autobiography, Keene describes a childhood where she moved back and forth between both families. When visiting her father’s parents, there was a large country house to stay in, complete with two servants. For the most part though, she lived in humbler circumstances with her mother. As a young girl, she traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where her mother and an uncle earned Chiropractic degrees. Then it was back to England where she was sent off to boarding school.

Keene’s description of her childhood in pre-World War II Britain and America makes for interesting reading. But the second half, covering the war years, really drew me in. It is during this time that she travels to Budapest to work for the British government. Soon dislodged when Hungary joined the Axis in 1940, she moved to Greece, only to be uprooted again by the advancing German army. Then it was on to Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus. Along the way, Keene describes the different cultures she was exposed to, and the various men who were drawn into her orbit. As one would expect of a woman raised in a more restrictive era, this is not a kiss and tell kind of book. But clearly, a wartime environment led to a loosening of moral boundaries.

Part three of this autobiography covers the years from 1944 to 1966, and addresses life in Britain following the war, her failed marriage, and the son that resulted from it. But while it addresses her growing independence as a person, it seems rather humdrum compared to the first two parts of her life.

As a self-published autobiography, The Handkerchief Drawer is not a book that can be found in bookstores. Nonetheless, I was impressed by Keene’s ability to vividly recreate the history of her past. Not only that, it turns out that she is a gifted writer. If still available, it is a book that would engage a good many readers. This autobiography is no mere vanity project.

Midsummer’s Eve

Tonight, the dark has failed to take hold.
Momentarily, a wisp of cloud
muffles the moon’s loud splash of light.
But distinct and unperturbed,
luminous shadows continue to lengthen.
Basking in this ambiance,
every backyard tree is elegantly profiled.
Sound is in a traveling mood;
should allergies cause someone to sneeze,
the entire neighborhood
would promptly respond Gesundheit.
Every bed is unoccupied.
The Sandman, drunk of scented nectar,
is too tipsy to report for work.
Pity the confused cardinal in its nest,
not knowing whether
to sing good night or good morning.
Astonished, as we all are,
by dusk already announcing the dawn.