Sandcastle Girls a Good Way to Start Thinking of Armenian Massacre

By Chris Bohjalian
Random House, 299 pp.
* * *

Not the most effective cover art (or title)
Call it unplanned synchronicity. Just as I was getting ready to prepare a lecture for my immigration class that included the Armenian genocide, I picked up a copy of The Sandcastle Girls. In all honesty, I didn't know its subject matter; I only knew I needed a novel to read and that I liked some of Chris Bohjalian's other books. In fact, the title and cover art nearly led me elsewhere as each suggested a teen coming-of-age-at-the-beach book. It's not; it's a harrowing fictionalized treatments of the 1915 murder of 1.5 Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.

Bohjalian calls it "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About," and so it is. The Turks would prefer you call it "Self-Defense Against Internal Traitors and Terrorists," but that's sheer rubbish–unless you think small children and their mothers took up arms against a defenseless Ottoman Empire. Actually, Turks would prefer you don't know about how they butchered Armenians like roasting chickens. If you know about that one, you might start asking questions about how they treated Azerbaijanis, Greeks, and Kurds as well. But back to the novel.

It's set in 1915, the year of the massacre and the early days of World War One. (If you need another history lesson, the United States will, in 1917, enter the war on the side of Britain and France against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks.) Boston Brahmin and recent Mt. Holyoke grad Elizabeth Endicott decides to accompany her father to Aleppo, Syria, where he will coordinate the regional efforts of the Friends of Armenia. The FOA is a do-good but totally ineffectual relief agency that the Turks brazenly lie to and ignore, and which even the U.S. consulate thinks is just in the way. Elizabeth, though, is undeterred and resolute in her desire to do some good. She may be na├»ve, but she's not blind and she knows not to trust the Turks when they say they are 'relocating' women and children to keep them out of harm's way (as in a mass grave). Her efforts eventually lead her to take into her household an Armenian woman named Nevart, and a small girl named Hatoun who doesn't say much and is prone to disappearing. As it turns out Hatoun doesn't say much because she witnessed the Turks behead her mother; she latched onto Nevart in a refugee camp. Elizabeth will also eventually meet and fall in love with Armen Petroisan, an engineer who once believed in the Ottoman Empire–until the racists took over and, he is forced to conclude, murdered his daughter and wife.

The novel plays out Elizabeth and Armen's relationship against a backdrop of war and murder–think Dr. Zhivago without the ice palace. There are some fine plot twists, including the unlikely but true story of how the Armenian holocaust was documented through the efforts of two German soldier/photographers who got their images smuggled out the region. There are also harrowing tales from the infamous Battle of Gallipoli bloodbath, peeks inside orphanages, and suggestions that the U.S. pandered when it should have pushed. Elizabeth is also a nice mix of a Braham and the New Woman.

The novel is strongest for what it tells us about "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About." In telling it, Bohjalian uses a device of which I'm not overly fond–using a present-day narrator/snoop to uncover the secrets of the past. In this case, it's Elizabeth's granddaughter and novelist, Laura Petrosian, who recalled her grandmother's "Ottoman Annex" home in Pelham, Massachusetts, but not much about her grandparents. Laura's character and story feel contrived. There are a few too many coincidences and, let's face it, a novelist character from the hands of a novelist feels pretentious. The book's central metaphor, the sandcastle, is itself built upon loose ground, a small incident in the book that you could easily miss if reading late at night.  I also couldn't help think of Eleni, which uses the deep, dark family secret trope more effectively. But when we are in Turkey in 1915, the story tells itself. This book won't win style points, but give Bohjalian props for blowing the lid off Turkish silence. If you know little about the Armenian genocide–and that would be most people–this is a good place to start your own snooping into an atrocity whose hundredth birthday we shall soon commemorate. 
Rob Weir


Welcome to the (Brain) Deado-cratic Party

Brian Schatz: OMG! He's liberal and wins!

Here’s what happened on November 4: the Democrats got their proverbial clocks cleaned. It was a GOP rout—an old-fashioned, ass-kicking, beat-down, barnyard whupping.  Here’s what should happen next: the Democratic Party should reinvent itself and jettison the pandering centrists whose shrill voices signify nothing. Here’s what will happen: the party bigwigs will talk about the need to move more to the center to attract the “middle class.” (That group of Americans was pretty much rendered defunct by class warfare in the 1980s.)  In other words, let’s have more Hillary Clinton and less Elizabeth Warren.

If there is a less imaginative group of people than the Democratic National Committee please don’t tell me about them. There is great handwringing over the Democratic “loss” of the U.S. Senate, a load of hooey as the Democrats didn’t control that body on November 3. That “control” rested on a handful of Republicans masquerading as Democrats. In 2014, they lost to actual Republicans. Don’t take my word for it, look at the data.

As you might expect, conservative think tanks keep track of the most liberal members of Congress. Check out the voting records compiled by the National Journal, which counts the Heritage Foundation among its supporters. Now compare them to Tuesday’s results. Using their data from 2013, here are a list of incumbent “Democrats” that lost on Tuesday; the percentage following their names represents their support for conservative issues as interpreted by the National Journal: Mark Pyror (Arkansas, 54%), Max Baucus (Montana, retired when polls went south, 42%); Mark Begich (Alaska, 45%), Kay Hagan (North Carolina, 51%), and Mark Udall (Colorado, 30%). Come Louisiana’s run-off you can add Mary Landrieu (42%) to the list. The only person on this list that could remotely considered liberal was Mark Udall, who simply didn’t get out the Hispanic vote needed to keep his seat.

Now let’s look at who did win and how often they supported conservative issues:
                Brian Schatz (Hawaii, 11.8%) –reelected with 70% of the vote
                Al Franken (Minnesota, 14%)
                Jack Reed (Rhode Island, 16%)
                Tom Udall (New Mexico, 28%)
                Chris Coons (Delaware, 30%)
                Jeff Merkley (Oregon, 32%)
                Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire, 33%)

The numbers are pretty clear­—Democrats who had principles won; with the exception of Mark Udall, those who acted like Republicans lost. Want more evidence of why it would be suicide for Democrats to move to the middle? The National Journal also ranks the “most moderate” members of the US Senate. Guess who was smack dab in the middle, the very model of non-partisanship? Soon-to-be ex-Senator Kay Hagan.

Will the Democrats get the message? Of course they won’t! They’ll continue to tell us of how Barack Obama was misunderstood or stymied at every step by evil Republicans. (It couldn’t be because he’s an empty suit devoid of leadership skills, could it?) They’ll wax nostalgic for the greatest “Democratic” Republican of all time: Bill Clinton. They’ll salivate when Wal-Mart Hillary stops her endless political striptease and announces she’s running in 2016. She might actually win, given that the current GOP presumptives are crazier than an asylum during a Thorazine shortage.

Democratic voices will be shrill and they will signify nothing. Will they speak on behalf of working people? Heaven forbid! They’d be accused of fomenting “class warfare.” Funny, Bernie Sanders always says the real class warfare is that perpetuated by Wall Street upon American workers and the only way the GOP will ever get his seat is when he shuffles off this mortal coil. Will Democrats go into black and Hispanic communities and tell them that the GOP is racist? Shudder! That would lose the “middle class” vote—read suburban white bigots. Will they talk about the free trade fraud that steals American jobs and saddles American children with crippling national debt? Nope—they’ll talk about the need for Social Security reform instead. Will they ask why the hell American kids are dying in places populated by Islamic lunatics that we ought to allow to rot in their own rubbish? Oh no, mustn’t offend our “military families.”

And the only Democrats that will excite anyone are the Elizabeth Warren types. Who can blame voters for ignoring the incumbents who lost? If act like a Republican, why not vote for a real one? If you take a path down the middle like Hagan, you’re just not paying enough attention to warrant it from voters. Remember what Bob Dylan wrote: “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.” But first you have to open the window!



Standard Time is Substandard in My Book

Monday November 3, 2014: It’s 7:30 am and a beautiful sunny morning in New England. The sun is glinting off the hillside burnishing autumn’s fading glories with rusty red and yellowy brown hues. And I’m grumpy as I drive to work.

Take a good look New Englanders. 
No, I’m not in a foul mood because it’s Monday or because I’m going to work. I love my job, which means Monday is another opportunity to spend amidst smart, energetic young people. I’m seeing bright red (instead of fading red) because yesterday was my least favorite day in the calendar, the day we move the clocks ahead and lose an hour of late afternoon sunlight. In my view, Standard Time is a fraud perpetuated by energy companies to boost household consumption.

I hear people tell me they love the fall back clock adjustment because “I get an extra hour of sleep.” Really? Show of hands and be honest. How many of you actually slept an extra hour because the clock turned back an hour? Look, if you have little ones at home, clock time is irrelevant. If you don’t and if you work in anywhere other than a 24-hour convenience store, your body is operating on automatic rhythms and you probably got up yesterday after sleeping  as many hours as you usually do. Don’t believe me? Ask my cat, Minou. She was hungry at clock time 5 am and 4 pm, which her body told her was normal feeding time. I suppose an extra hour of sleep means nothing to a beastie that normally sleeps two-thirds of the day, but you’ve been sold a load of hooey if you think your one hour once a year means much to you. The clock changes at 2 am Sunday morning. How many of you actually changed your clocks before you went to bed? Plus, the next morning is Sunday and most of us can sleep in any damn Sunday we want.  

I do not need an extra hour of sunlight in the morning. I’m on my way to work and if I have turn on my headlights for the first part of my half hour commute, so be it. As I said, I love my job, but once I trudge from the parking lot to my office, I’ll be inside except when walking to and from my classes, and the sun is always up by then anyhow.  Later today I’ll be attending a lecture before going home. The event starts at 4:30 pm and I’d normally dawdle a bit to arrive after all the thanking of sponsors and longwinded introduction of a speaker whose bio I know or I wouldn’t be there in the first place. Not today, though. I’ll hustle a bit because the sun sets at 4:39 pm. By the time I get out, it will be pitch dark. Spare me all the public safety crap about morning light. Want to feel creeped out? Wander into a dark, remote UMass parking lot when the sun is down and get back to me.

Places such as Arizona and Hawaii never go on Daylight Savings Time. I don’t begrudge them that—they have more sunlight than they know what to do with. But I live in New England and before we start getting back a few precious seconds of light beginning December 22, our sun will set at 4:11 pm. For most of us, we’ll get up, get a peek at the sun on our work commute, and the Old Sol will bugger off to desert  and tropical climes before we get another look the next morning. Light-deprived depression is a very real thing up this way. It even has a name: Seasonal Affect Disorder.

So I say, no more Standard Time.  If Arizona can thumb its nose at the clock, so can New Englanders. Need an extra hour of sleep? Easily fixed—go to be an hour earlier! As for the rest of us, raise those hands, wave them about, and join in the chorus, “Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the suunnn  shine in.”