By LeRoy Lawson
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
New York: Anchor, 2014
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
New York: Penguin Press, 2015
Above the Waterfall
New York: Ecco, 2016
New York: Penguin, 2011 (originally published in 1987)
For a reader, seeing is never enough. Neither is being there. You have to read up on it, get another’s point of view, reflect on and modify previous impressions.
That happened with a vengeance earlier this year. My wife, Joy, and I joined four others for an unforgettable couple of weeks in Fez, Morocco. After we returned to the States, our friends wanted to know—as friends do after every tramp abroad—“What was the highlight of your trip?”
It was an overnight stay in a Bedouin camp in the Sahara Desert. Not the real thing, you understand. It was a tourist camp. But we slept on mattresses covered by piles of heavy blankets (and still shivered!) in makeshift shelters, ate Bedouin food (delicious), in the night made use of a gigantic sandbox when nature called—and got there and back on camels.
That whetted my appetite, so as soon as I got home I rented Lawrence of Arabia (starring Peter O’Toole), the 1962 three-hour-plus epic movie. Then I wanted more, so I read Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia. I could cut this review short and just refer you to the subtitle, which accurately sums up this well-researched, well-written biography: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
Perhaps I could add one more phrase: And the Demythologizing of T. E. Lawrence. My first surprise, after watching the 6-foot 3-inch Mr. O’Toole on the screen, was to learn that Lawrence was only 5-foot-5 and completely unprepossessing. No matter, he still managed to rally the Arabs to follow him in some of the greatest feats of derring-do of World War I. He flaunted orders from his British superiors, dazzled the sheiks whose cause he championed, and threw himself courageously—sometimes recklessly—into his quest to wrest freedom for his friends from the tottering Ottoman (Turkish) Empire as well as the rapacious colonial superpowers (England, France, Germany, America) who were, even in the darkest days of that dark war, polishing the Saharan/Mediterranean countries for jewels in their imperial crowns.
Lawrence in Arabia reads like a good novel. I wish it were. The fact that it’s factual makes it a pretty discouraging study. While Lawrence’s dogged devotion to his Arab friends is admirable, his devious plotting and his blind belief in his own righteousness are not. Still, he comes off looking better than the Western political powers (including American oil companies) and mighty military men. Obviously, the man cared. He walked the talk, living and dressing like an Arab, listening like a friend, committing himself to their good.
In addition to Lawrence himself, Anderson weaves in the careers of young men who played outsized roles in this drama: an American oilman (and scion of the Yale family), a Romanian agricultural specialist, a German spy, and a young sheik with whom Lawrence enjoyed an uneasy friendship. There’s not a dullard among them.
I read the book to learn more about this remarkable man and the arid, forbidding land we had just visited. What I gained was some insight into why we Americans can’t seem to extricate ourselves from the political/religious/military quicksand that is the Middle East.
Refreshing the Soul
Sometimes, though, one needs to turn from being there to talking about it. In other words, nothing—travel, study, the movies—nothing is as refreshing for the soul as a good conversation.
It’s the disappearance of conversation that is the focus of Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Dr. Turkle, an MIT professor, has been studying the effects of the digital revolution for more than 30 years now. She’s not a Luddite radically opposed to technological advances. Not at all. In fact, she has often written positively about this electronic revolution. But her studies have convinced her that our always-connected lifestyle has been killing meaningful conversation—and the loss of conversation has drastically weakened our ability to create, to produce, even to relate.
I understand where she’s coming from. I’m not just thinking of the students in my class whose eyes surreptitiously dart, when they think I’m not looking, from the professor to their tablet, smartphone, or laptop. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is to be unable to carry on a genuine conversation with a dinner companion or even a houseguest who can’t stay electronically unconnected—and thus who makes it impossible to stay connected person-to-person.
These devices are perfect for helping us to hide from genuine relationships. But, when children can’t hold their parents’ attention because they are staring at the screen or talking with someone far removed, or when cowards hurl insults at whoever out there in cyberspace disagrees with them without seeing the hurt (we’ve invented a whole new style of bullying), or when we carry our phones to bed with us because we’re afraid to be alone—well, the damage is incalculable.
What is the antidote? The rediscovery of genuine conversation which, Turkle believes, engenders empathy, so we can understand one another. And understanding, so we can relate to one another. And relationships, which are ultimately what the good life is all about.
I can’t boast about Turkle’s writing style, but I think I’d really enjoy a good chat with her.
I don’t read as many novels as I used to, but here are a couple that were recently recommended, and for good reason.
Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall contains many passages that are, simply put, achingly beautiful. At first, though, they are simply confusing. It’s not until I figured out that there are two narrators telling the story from their individual points of view that I could relax
and luxuriate in the language and the setting.
The setting. It’s rural Appalachia, in the mountains of North Carolina, not far from where I recently lived. These aren’t “made up” people to me. They are as real as some of my friends in these parts. And just as complex. There’s Les, the retiring sheriff with just three weeks to go before he hangs it up, whose reverie is spoiled by some local meth-heads destroying themselves. And there’s Gerald, the cantankerous coot accused of poisoning the resort’s fishpond. Everybody believes he did it, but Les isn’t so sure. In fact, he gets more and more sure Gerald, as ungrateful as a man could be, whose sheriff is trying to save his hide, didn’t do it.
The sheriff is a good man, but no saint. He skirts the letter of the law himself.
Then there’s his friend Becky, the local forest ranger. She’s made her mistakes, too, and bears the scars on her psyche because of them.
The language. My biggest surprise was the language. I wrote my master’s thesis on one of England’s premier poets, the Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who invented some of his own rules for poetic rhythm and whose lush, alliterative word choices are equally enchanting and puzzling.
I was well into the novel before I realized Nash was deliberately having Becky write in Hopkins-ese. You might find it a little off-turning; I was hooked.
Above the Waterfall is a mystery story of sorts, as Sheriff Les strives against the odds not to find who-done-it, but who didn’t.
I’m out of space, so let me just point you to James Welch’s Fools Crow. Welch, a Native American writer, sets his novel in post-Civil War Montana, when the white man turned his attention from killing his brothers on both sides of that terrible conflagration, to claiming the West by driving out the Native Americans who were there first.
The protagonist is Fools Crow, a young warrior and leader coming into his own. We view the incessant, inevitable encroachment of the white man through his eyes as he tries to protect his pregnant wife’s tribespeople.
You can’t read this novel quickly, because though Welch writes in English, his proper names are those the Blackfeet employ, and the mind-set, including the religious mind-set, is foreign to us. But the story is powerfully told, made all the more compelling because we do, sadly, know the end of the story.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.