Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


PEN World Voices: The Africa Track

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 28, 2007 07:33 am

Devoting my PEN World Voices Friday to modern African literature, I grab a seat at the Instituto Cervantes near the United Nations where Dedi Felman is moderating a panel of four diverse writers representing Algeria, Nigeria, Cote D'Ivorie and Zanzibar. There's a good crowd of fifty or so eager listeners, and many of us feel confused when the panelists enter and a male writer occupies the seat behind the name plate for Yasmina Khadra. Introducing each writer, Dedi Felman explains that Khadra's real name is Mohammeed Moulessehoul but that he was able to avoid censorship during his country's civil war by writing under a woman's name.

Khadra then immediately catches the crowd's interest by declaring that he does not agree with the basic premise of the panel, because, he says, he spent his life trying to rise above the perceived limitations of being "an African writer", only to find that he is now "stuck back in Africa". He states that this type of categorization amounts to "intellectually subcontracting". Since we're only about two minutes into the panel at this point, it's clear that Yasmina Khadra is here to make his presence felt.

As the panel progresses, in fact, it becomes more generally clear that Yasmina Khadra has got an attitude a mile wide. But I don't mind, since these festival panels often suffer from over-politeness, and it happens that Khadra is capable of delivering eloquent, poetic answers to questions about the concept of home, about language, about the importance of place (though he has to scoff at each question first). By the end of the event, Khadra reveals that it's not this panel but the American war in Iraq that makes him angry. He succeeds in making a very positive impression on the crowd, and I'm going to read his The Swallows of Kabul (I am worried, though, that he's going to beat up a cabdriver or a waiter before the night is over).

American-born Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala, author of the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation, is as placid as Khadra is rude, speaking of his unique use of "pidgin English" in his work, and reading from a new work in progress (directly from his laptop computer) that will prove, he hopes, that he is capable of writing about something other than child soldiers.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and currently living in England, is soft-spoken and thoughtful and doesn't mind trying to speculate about how Africa's unique history and frequent civil turmoil affects its literary identity.

Young graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet has a warm and unpretentious style, and she begins her self-introduction by marvelling at the fact that she is here on this panel when only two years ago she was living an obscure life as a legal assistant. Her Aya is yet another book I'm looking forward to checking out.

I race out of the Instituto Cervantes to get to the Donnell Library where Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng are speaking about their book What Is The What, which Eggers composed from Deng's experiences in Sudan. Obviously unaware of Eggers' star power (or is it Deng's?), I'm surprised to find a nearly hysterical crowd scene outside the library as non-ticket-holders jockey for standing-room positions. I can't generalize about all the events in this festival, but every one I've been to has been surprisingly well-attended.

The Eggers/Deng presentation gets off to an exciting start when Valentino Achak Deng proudly announces his news: he became a citizen of the United States of America just yesterday. He shows the crowd his new certificate of citizenship (to happy applause) and quizzes us with the questions he was asked, like "When was the Constitution written?" (most in the crowd say "1776", I try "1789", but Deng informs us it was 1787).

Unfortunately, though, it's all downhill after this exciting beginning, because Eggers and Deng seem a bit tired of their ongoing road show, and fail to light any literary sparks. The problem here is structural: Dave Eggers is playing the role of moderator, prodding Deng to tell stories, but it's clear that Eggers already knows the answer to every question he's asking (e.g., Eggers asks "Was it hard to leave any of your family members behind in Sudan?" so that Deng can tell the story of how it was hard to leave his family members behind in Sudan). Like the Beatles in 1970, this team needs to be broken up, and I have no doubt that either Dave Eggers or Valentino Achak Deng could do a better presentation on his own than they are currently capable of doing together.

Moderate complaints aside, my Friday sessions at PEN World Voices leave me feeling excited about the state of African literature and eager to read every one of these writers more. Based on the evidence presented today, contemporary African literature is thriving, and there's a lot I want to dig more deeply into.

My festival-going today will include a rare appearance by Patti Smith and Sam Shepard together at the Bowery Ballroom (the fact that Smith and Shepard are not only former artistic partners-in-crime but also former lovers may provide some extra chemistry at this event). I'll certainly be writing a report on this tomorrow.

The Most Useless Three Sentences In The World (And A Couple Other Things I’m Angry About)

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 24, 2007 08:47 pm

In anticipation of the shock wave of PEN World Voices coverage that's heading your way fast, today's LitKicks post will not be about literature. Today I'd just like to talk about three random things that it occurs to me to be angry about today.

1. Here are the most useless three sentences in the world:

"At the tone, please leave your message. When you finish you may hang up, or press one for more options. To leave a callback number, press five."

For God's sakes, is there anybody in the world who doesn't know that they can hang up a phone when they're done? And do I really have to hear this message over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over for the rest of my goddamn life, just on the off chance that someday somebody will want to press one for more options or leave a callback number by pressing five?

2. I recently got a new Hewlett-Packard PC with advanced video capabilities, and since I'm a techie by trade I figured I wouldn't have any trouble at all setting it up. Well, Hewlett-Packard sure made it as difficult as they could. The wild ride began when I found two manuals, one titled "Start Here" and another titled "Getting Started". Is this supposed to be like "Let's Make A Deal" -- I have to guess the right one? Apparently I guessed the wrong one, because my video capture setup sequence was demanding that I set up my "IR", but neither manual explained what an "IR" was (both manuals had lots of information, however, on how to identify my "keyboard" and my "mouse").

The comedy continues. Oh, it continues. The manuals contain extensive diagrams, but "these diagrams may not represent your actual model". It turns out they don't, even though modern publishing technology would easily allow a company as large as HP to deliver model-specific diagrams (really, HP, we have the technology). So I call customer support and am passed from one person to another, and with each transfer I have to repeat my phone number, my first name, my email address, my model name, my product number and my serial number. Apparently Hewlett Packard also doesn't know that modern digital communications technology would allow one customer service representative to pass this data along to another so I wouldn't have to repeat it. But I guess that's too challenging for a company like HP.

I bought HP instead of Dell this time on the recommendation of a knowledgeable person who told me that Dell is just as bad these days. If I could start this process over again at the beginning, I'd get a Mac.

3. I said this post had nothing to do with literature, but that's not true. My final complaint counts as literary, because apparently the United States military command overseas has been doing a lot of creative writing lately. There was some alarming testimony in the US Congress today regarding dead soldier Pat Tillman, whose family was kept in the dark about the fact that he was killed by friendly fire because he was a well-known football player and the commanders thought the news would hurt public morale.

There's only one problem with this: the American military isn't supposed to be writing fiction.

Today's Congressional hearing reached a painful pitch when Jessica Lynch showed up to testify on behalf of the Tillman family.

"The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate lies," Jessica Lynch told Congress. "I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were legendary." I think the American people are pretty confused about what's going on too.

* * * * *

Maybe these three items aren't so random after all. The main theme here seems to be incompetence, specifically the incompetence of large organizations like Verizon, Hewlett Packard and the Bush-Cheney administration. One of my complaints is trivial, one is annoying and ridiculous, and one is deeply disturbing. Somebody recently asked me what blogs are good for -- well, maybe they're good for speaking up about stuff like this. We are the customers of these corporations and we are the voters in this democracy. We deserve better, in all three cases above.

Reviewing the Review: April 22 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 22, 2007 07:36 pm

We begin today's New York Times Book Review with Liesl Schillinger's review of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, edited by Stephen Pascal:

Leo Lerman once turned down an invitation from the king and queen of Spain so he could dine with the Conde Nast publishing magnate Donald Newhouse. Another time, he flatly rejected a "Narcissus naked" Yul Brynner, who was begging him to sleep with him and pathetically murmuring, "Why won't you? Why won't you?" The first, and probably only, woman Lerman ever saw naked was his great friend Marlene Dietrich, at a time when she was having what he described in a diary entry as an "intense affair with Yul." According to Lerman's lifelong love and partner, the artist Gray Foy, Dietrich had asked Lerman into her bath to demonstrate "the female anatomy." Apparently, Lerman took in the view with respectful attention, if not passion. But he was not always so above-it-all. Meeting a young writer at a New York gathering in the mid-1940s, he complied with good humor when the man jumped on his back in a stairwell and demanded a piggyback ride. That man turned out to be Truman Capote. If you are not one of the sun-seeking stems craning out of the thicket of magazine-world Manhattan, this may raise an echoing question for you: Who is Leo Lerman?

But that is not the echoing question this raises for me. That echoing question is this: "Yul Brynner was gay?" And, beyond that, another question echoes more loudly: "Why should I care?" I don't want to read a 654 page book of journal excerpts from a member of Truman Capote's entourage, and nothing in this review persuades me, though it tries to do so, that this book is timeless or significant enough to deserve the honor of a NYTBR cover review. Yes, even though this Leo Lerman parried with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I still don't care. I like the accompanying illustration (by Istvan Banyai), anyway.

If the NYTBR editors chose the most well-written piece to be on the cover each week, today's spot would have gone to Erica Wagner's vivid review of Dani Shapiro's Black and White, which is both speculative and informative and gives me a very clear understanding of what this book is.

Christopher Buckley's Boomsday might also have been on the cover, even though Jane and Michael Stern don't appreciate its "puerile humor". I'm reading this book myself now, so I'll let you know what I think of it soon. As for what i think of the Stern Gang's review, I like it okay, but if I hear one more NYTBR critic use the phrase "too clever by half" I'm going to throw up by half.

Mark Sarvas has much praise for James Wilcox's Hunk City. Sarvas writes beautifully, as readers of his TEV know, but he may blunt the effectiveness of this review by making Hunk City sound like a sequel to Wilcox's earlier and apparently well-received Modern Baptists. Personally, I'm loathe to enter into a multi-novel saga at any point but the beginning, so this positive review has the undesired effect of making me want to read the earlier novel instead.

Stephen Metcalf's evaluation of Darcey Steinke's memoir Easter Everywhere shows serious control problems -- Metcalf's first paragraph meanders berserkly before finding its subject, but the article improves after that. Karen Ollson's introduction to Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well-written but leaves me confused as to whether or not this book has a plot. D. T. Max's demolition of Dana Vachon's pre-hyped investment banker saga Mergers and Acquisition is efficient and convincing; I didn't think I wanted to read this book, and now that I've read Max's review I'm sure I don't want to read this book.

There's a fine summary of poet Ed Dorn's Way More West: New and Selected Poems (and of Dorn's entire career) by August Kleinzahler, as well as a short but very enjoyable spin by Tom Shone on another book I'm looking forward to reading soon, Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts, which brings up a question book reviewers should ask more often:

How all of this will read in 20 years, or even two, is hard to say, although one suspects that what seemed so vertiginously modern will ultimately seem like so much cyber-age pschedelia -- as depthless and woozy as paisley-patterned shirts.

Rachel Donadio's endpaper on the closing of historical Russian archives under the Putin administration is well-intentioned, but unfortunately lacks any sense of context. Donadio approaches the subject of national security archives with a collector's glee, glibly quoting an expert who talks of one set of documents as "the holy of holies". Donadio also seems to have no footing in history when she quotes Christian Ostermann, the director of an organization called the Cold War International History Project, as saying "China is starting to catch up if not surpass Moscow in terms of archival access". Anybody familiar with the chilling secrecy that surrounds modern Chinese history will strongly doubt that. The Chinese government has got a century's worth of painful opening-up to do, and is not even close to Russia in terms of transparency. Donadio is supposed to know that.

The abundant literary offerings in today's New York Times conclude with a Charles McGrath profile of Amis fils and pere in the Magazine section which I plan to read as soon as I finish watching "The Sopranos", and a crossword puzzle dedicated to National Poetry Month.

Reviewing the Review: April 15 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 15, 2007 06:41 pm

This week's New York Times Book Review is devoted entirely to international literature, a welcome choice. I don't generally love "theme issues", but the NYTBR can do an issue like this anytime they want.

It'd be easy to complain about all the international writers who are not included in this 28-pager, but instead let's appreciate the ones who are. Chile's increasingly legendary Roberto Bolano gets cover-article respect from James Wood, who writes beautifully and makes a convincing case for Bolano's place in the contemporary canon (it's just too bad that Bolano had to die before this canonization took place). Wood effuses about a single long sentence in Bolano's The Savage Detectives that he describes as "a poem":

The musical control is impeccable, and one is struck by Bolano's ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence -- impossibly, like someone punting a leaf -- image by image, the falcon, the red hue, the sunset, the dawn, the dawn seen from a plane, the femoral artery, the blood vessel, the abstract painter.

Nobody will miss the fact that Wood is attempting to nudge forth his own "poem" in this critical piece, and my only problem with Wood's very thoughtful piece is that it is too achingly worshipful, too ecstatic, too much like a series of forehead kisses. Even when a great writer has just died and is being newly appreciated, this can be off-putting. Regardless, Wood makes his point, and I'm going to read Bolano's book.

At least two of today's translated authors get something more like a hard smack than a kiss to the forehead, particularly Austria's Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, whose Greed is massacred by Joel Agee for numerous stylistic and philosophical excesses. It's a funny piece:

This sounds like a page turner. Now I too have misled you. Nothing is further from Jelinek's mind than advancing a plot or even just telling a story.

Lucy Ellman is no kinder to Depths by Sweden's Henning Mankell, and I'm not quite sure whether or not Sophie Harrison intends to be kinder to Grotesque, Natsuo Kirino's tale of a quirky teenage murderer in Japan. Harrison refers to it as a "disconcerting stump of a book", but makes it sound rather intriguing despite this.

There's relatively more positivity in Fernanda Ebertstadt's review of Nada by Spain's Carmen Laforet, Terrence Rafferty's review of Delerium (what's with the one-word titles?) by Colombia's Laura Restrepo and Liesl Schillinger's review of All Whom I Hove Loved by Israel's Aharon Appelfield, which takes place in World War II-era Romania.

Ken Kalfus is a new favorite writer of mine (his dark comic novel A Disorder Peculiar to Our Country is still resonating in my brain) and I'm glad to see his byline on an article about Ice (another one-word title) by Vladimir Sorokin of Russia. Elizabeth Schmidt's consideration of The Story of the Cannibal Woman by South Africa's Maryse Conde rounds out an impressive global array.

Speaking of impressive global arrays, I was frequently reminded of Words Without Borders, a website and non-profit organization dedicated to international literature in translation, as I read this issue (full disclosure: I work as a technical consultant for Words Without Borders). It's great that the New York Times Book Review is also paying special attention to translated literature, but I do wish they had reviewed the new book Words Without Borders: The World Through The Eyes of Writers in this issue, or, barring that, I wish they hadn't produced a cover that looks a lot like the cover of the book. Witness:

Well, somebody at the NYTBR must have liked the book, anyway! It's the thought that counts, and overall I'm very happy with this week's issue of the Book Review.

* * * * *

The "Week In Review" section of today's Times also includes a memorable piece by NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus about his odd brush with Don Imus, who happened to be a vocal fan and supporter of Tanenhaus's 1997 biography of Cold War-era troublemaker Whittaker Chambers. Tanenhaus points out that Don Imus had many high profile co-dependents in his long career as a professional loudmouth, and hints gently at hypocrisy among these media/industry friends today. It's a very good piece, proving once again that for all Sam Tanenhaus's oddities as an editor, his articles are always worth reading.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Message: You’ve Got To Be Kind

by Levi Asher on Thursday, April 12, 2007 07:03 am

Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.

A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive -- not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).

My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut's freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.

Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.

Slapstick is considered "late-period" Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary "tribes" with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you're supposed to be nice to that person.

Close Slapstick, and we're back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.

Andrew Sullivan, Tim O’Reilly and the Neverending Battle of Free Speech

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 9, 2007 10:48 pm

Publisher and internet theorist Tim O'Reilly is widely respected within the technology industry for his books, which feature quaint ink sketches of wild animals on the cover, and which set the standard for high-quality, reliable book publishing on software, networking and open source programming.

Every techie in the world knows what the O'Reilly brand means. Remember the "Javascript" book that flashed during the video for Weird Al Yankovic's White and Nerdy? That was an O'Reilly book. O'Reilly also published the first-ever serious compendium to the internet, the Whole Internet Catalog, back in 1993 when nobody was publishing books about the internet (many editions later, the series is still in print). This primitive internet book was a godsend for me back then, and it was for everybody else struggling with telnet, ftp, WAIS and this crazy new thing called the WWW.

The tech book market is much more crowded today, but O'Reilly's reputation has never lost it's luster. He may not be a household name yet, though, as was discovered when the usually deft columnist Andrew Sullivan snidely dismissed Tim O'Reilly (apparently having never heard of him) in a response to a recent blog post about free speech policy on the internet. Sully has now retracted his original comments, but not without taking a beating from several quarters.

But the big story is not Sullivan's misfire but O'Reilly's article, which got a big write-up in the New York Times today, and is getting people riled up.

I think Tim O'Reilly's suggestions are fair and reasonable, and as a person who's worked with many community websites I believe his points are important as well.

I have a lot of personal experience with "free speech" on the internet. From 2001 to 2004, before we morphed LitKicks into its current form, it was a very active message board site. Most of the participants were smart and a lot of good things happened on these boards, but as the boards got more and more popular they attracted trolls and attention-seekers of various kinds, and I finally decided it wasn't worth the trouble and pulled the plug on the whole operation.

The low point, for me, was when an insane young fellow in England went totally bat-shit psycho on all of the people involved with LitKicks, culminating in numerous death threats, legal feints and interminable, absolutely interminable emails. Such are the pleasures of free speech. A couple of years and one restraining order later, that incident is now behind us. It's for reasons like this, though, that I stand behind the concepts Tim O'Reilly is proposing.

O'Reilly isn't suggesting that we change the way website operators run their sites -- he just wants to improve the dialogue about the meaning of free speech on the internet, so that site operators don't have to keep explaining it over and over again: "This is my website. The government does not guarantee you the right to post whatever you want on my website. No, this does not violate your free speech." Etc. Etc.

Again, anybody who's actually operated a community website or popular blog knows about the annoyances -- and worse -- that O'Reilly is talking about. I can't begin to describe how many different varieties of the "free speech" argument I had while LitKicks had "open boards". For instance, there were a few regular poets -- most of whom I liked very much -- who couldn't understand why I wanted them to stop posting four or five poems a day, every day, every week, every year. It was clear to me that they were giving me all their stuff instead of their best stuff, and it was also clear to me that it was my goddamn website and if I asked them to stop posting so often they should have agreed to do so. But ... try talking sense to poets. Just try.

Then there was a sweet kid in the midwest Who alsway Wroat Liek this!!!!! After three years of all this joyous freedom, I'd had enough free speech to last a lifetime, and the day I shut the LitKicks message boards down I became a much happier man.

(Incidentally, many of the old regulars still post poems on our (moderated) poetry board, and I'm always glad when they do. They also occasionally gather on other message board sites to reminisce about old times and totally trash my name, which really amuses me to no end.)

When I read the various arguments about "free speech and the internet" above, I wonder if many of these debaters have ever managed their own internet community sites. It looks a lot different when you're on the inside.

We all care about free speech, but free speech is not endangered when a private website operator decides not to publish somebody else's words. The world needs to finally stop getting upset about this fact, and Tim O'Reilly's article is another small step forward. Even if Andrew Sullivan got confused.

Reviewing the Review: April 1 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 1, 2007 09:46 am

I can't complain (and you know I like to complain) about a New York Times Book Review whose cover article informs me about a literary patron and publisher I'd never heard of, jazz-age ocean-liner heiress Nancy Cunard, who apparently published Samuel Beckett, anthologized W. E. B. DuBois, made love with T. S. Eliot and took her political idealism to such an insane extreme that she ultimately lost all her wealth and most of her friends. I may or may not ever get around to reading Lois Gordon's Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Politican Idealist, but Caroline Weber's review of the book is certainly a refreshing and informative piece.

I also can't complain about a Book Review packed with articles about poetry, baseball and politics (though today's issue is admittedly light on fiction). Emily Nussbaum reviews Deborah Garrison's motherhood-themed The Second Child mainly by comparing it to all the other forms of mommy chatter that inundate us, from blogs and magazines and television to the famous verses of Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (who Nussbaum strangely refers to as an "unsung poet of motherhood"; I don't think Plath is an unsung poet of anything). Nussbaum concludes that Garrison's work is too trivial and cheery, and "too self-congratulatory by half". I think the phrase "too __ by half" is too trite by half, and I'm not sure if this negative review is completely fair, but at least the critic's opinion comes through clearly.

Floyd Skloot is more benevolent towards Elaine Equi's Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems, and the critic reaches for a poetic voice in sympathy with Equi's as he considers her work: "Ripple Effect offers a broad sampling of Equi's career, 159 poems, proving her as capable of a memorable four-line epigram as she is of an elegant pantoum, jokey self-interview, surreal meditation on the color yellow or tender lyric sequence."

Leon Wieseltier is a superb writer, but his review of Sari Nusseibeh's Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life, a remarkably conciliatory book from an outspoken champion of compromise in the Holy Lands, shows more skill than wisdom. The critic, who openly declares his general sympathy towards Israel, spends the first half of the article praising Nusseibeh's important belief in the possibilities of peace, then closes the review by citing a few points where he doesn't think Nusseibeh fairly represents Israel's side. I wish Wieseltier had addressed a much more pressing question instead: how is the work of this groundbreaking peace activist being received in the lands where it matters most, the lands of Israel and Palestine? Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing this book in the United States of America, but who is publishing Nusseibeh in the Middle East, and who is reading him? I wish Wieseltier had reached for relevance in his closing remarks, instead of reverting to the tiring and pointless game of point-by-point debate that seems to smother every other argument about this topic. Nusseibeh's book seems to truly represent something special; Wieseltier's review of the book seems to represent the same old back-and-forth.

Stephanie Giry's evaluation of Tariq Ramadan's In The Footsteps of the Prophet also seems a bit narrow-minded. Ramadan's biography of Muhammad aims to establish the prophet's tolerance and humanity, and my own prior research into this topic leads me to agree with Ramadan that the love of violence that currently grips many loud Islamic voices cannot be traced to Muhammad himself or to the Koran. But Giry doesn't go that far: "Some will challenge Ramadan's understated, if not euphemistic, treatment of the Muslims' conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and his claim that armed jihad is justified only in self-defense." In fact, the Muslim conquest of Arabia was nowhere near as violent or intolerant as comparable conquests in Europe and Asia, so Giry's objection to Ramadan's point does not stand up to inspection.

Elsewhere, we get a couple of timely baseball book reviews by George Will (on Cait Murphy's historical Crazy '08) and Jim Bouton (on Derek Zumsteg's The Cheater's Guide to Baseball).

The most amusing passage in this week's Book Review comes from David Leonhardt, writing about Brian Doherty's Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, which focuses on Ayn Rand's legacy in contemporary politics:

Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges he has written "an insider's history," but it is also a sloppily written history. In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased. And almost everything about "Radicals for Capitalism" is too long: the terms ("Popperian falsificationist"), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages. Evidently, its editor also had libertarian tendencies.

Low Expectations: The Ishmael Beah Phenomenon

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 14, 2007 12:09 pm

I spent a half hour with Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and a venti coffee at a Starbucks recently. I didn't feel like plunking down $22 for the hardcover book, but I figure I can read most or all of it during the next few weeks (yeah, I'm a cliche and I go to Starbucks a lot). It's a captivating memoir by a former foot soldier in the civil war that raged across Sierra Leone several years ago, and I think Starbucks is doing an honorable thing in pushing their customers to buy this book.

When the narrative begins, Ishmael is a happy 12-year-old with a loving family, good friends and a taste for old-school American hiphop (Eric B. and Rakim is cited as a favorite, proving the young author's good taste). When his village is suddenly raided by a vengeful army, it comes as a complete surprise to him and everyone he knows. One minute he's playing with friends, and the next minute he's watching a distraught mother hugging the bullet-riddled dead baby she was just carrying on her back. Beah describes a shocking and sudden descent from peaceful calm to total carnage, and while his narrative voice offers nothing remarkable, the immediacy of his tale will move many readers. And it looks like they're buying it, as Starbucks has proudly announced big sales of 62,000 copies of A Long Way Gone, accounting for the two-thirds of the total 92,000 copies this book has sold.

This sounds great, until you put this news story into perspective with this one. While Starbucks has sold 62,000 copies of a worthy book, it has sold over 3 million copies of a Ray Charles CD. Starbucks' CD sales are strong enough to motivate the chain to create its own music division, and once you compare the book and music sales figures it becomes clear that Ishmael Beah's book is basically a goodwill gesture from the Seattle company, whereas music sales are an actual business. Even a CD by Antigone Rising has sold 70,000 copies at Starbucks, more than A Long Way Gone.

Maybe this is because Starbucks sells CDs for $12.95 to $15.95, while Beah's book costs $22 (of which $2 goes to UNICEF). Twelve to fifteen bucks is the right price point for a book like this, whereas most people will consider $22 out of the range for a quickie impulse buy.

With a price like this, in fact, it's a testament to the appeal of the book and to the curiosity of the Starbucks customer base that they've even managed five-figure sales of this book (a promotional tour by the author certainly helped as well). Like I said, I balked at the price and didn't buy the book (and I have bought several CDs at Starbucks in the last few years). I would have bought it for $14 (even $16 with an extra two dollars to charity). For $22, though, I'd rather just read it at the store while I drink my coffee and put it back when I'm done.

I'm impressed by this book and by the positive sales reports, but if music sales are regularly measured in millions of units and the whole book industry is getting excited about book sales in five figures, maybe this just proves how low our expectations are. If Starbucks can find the right packaging/price point for book sales, they might actually be able to turn books into a meaningful profit generator for the company. They should sell paperbacks instead of hardcovers, and they should price books at the same level as CDs and DVDs.

Until they do this, the Starbucks/Ishmael Beah phenomenon represents a minor success and a frustrating tease, a great idea marred by our beloved book industry's legendary cluelessness about how much people are willing to pay for books.

Don’t Want No Poor People ‘Round Here …

by Levi Asher on Thursday, February 22, 2007 08:27 pm

1. Janet Maslin doesn't think much of William T. Vollmann's new non-fiction book Poor People, in which he interviews and philosophizes about several specimens of downtrodden people including various real-life hobos, prostitutes and drug addicts. This book sounds almost like flame-bait, and I wonder if Vollmann is intentionally aiming to offend readers with this blunt title. Nobody likes to be categorized -- am I poor? Are you poor? I'm really not sure what Vollmann's up to with this whole thing, but I'll reserve judgement till I read it. I'll say one thing right now, though: a $30 price tag for a book about poverty is absolute bullshit. Let them eat cake, eh, Vollmann?

Why don't we all just sing along with Randy Newman now ...

Poor people got no money
Poor people got no money
Poor people got no money for books

They got smelly clothes and they talk real slow
Willie knows because he got a ho
They got big debts and they in too deep
They watch TV and just sleep sleep sleep
Don't want no poor people
Don't want no poor people
Don't want no poor people 'round here

2. Okay, that was stupid, but I got better stuff. The Millions has some worthwhile links about writings from American soldiers in Iraq. I've been paying attention to this type of contemporary writing lately, and I'm finding it very fruitful.

3. GalleyCat spills the news (is that even allowed?) that one of the authors selected for the upcoming Best American Short Stories of 2007 will be Dzanc Books author Roy Kesey, and that this edition will be guest-edited by the venerable Stephen King. I expect our Bard of Maine will provide a stimulating volume.

You may have noticed that I raved about Michael Chabon's Best American Short Stories 2005 over a year ago, but have remained eerily silent about Ann Patchett's 2006 edition. In fact, I had trouble finding a single story to go wild over in Patchett's selection, despite the fact that some of my favorite authors (Ann Beattie, Donna Tartt, Alice Munro) were represented. I find it very surprising that there can be such a shift in quality from one year to the next (and, by the way, I don't even like Michael Chabon's novels). I'm not sure if it's Ann Patchett's fault or if 2006 just wasn't my kind of vintage or what, but anyway this is why I haven't written a follow up to the 2005 series post. In case you were wondering, and you probably weren't.

4. Time book critic Lev Grossman is now running a blog, hosted at (and presumably owned by) Time, on geek culture. It's called Nerd-World, and it looks pretty good so far.

5. Check it: T. S. Eliot remixed (via Ready Steady). Nicely done.

John Crawford’s Last True Story

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, February 6, 2007 09:41 pm

I picked up The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq by John Crawford at a train station newsstand recently. The surprising thing about this is that I'd only planned to buy some gum. But I spotted the book next to the Strawberry Kiwi Trident, and something compelled me to pick it up. The back cover promo promised a straightforward insider's account of the war in Iraq, and that's something I'd like to read.

I ripped through the book in six hours, and I heartily recommend it. It's an unpretentious and non-literary memoir by a smart college student and National Guard reservist who was suddenly called up to combat duty. He'd just been married, and he was just a few credits short of graduation. But he was proud to serve, and he had high expectations for himself, for those around him, and for those above him in the ranks.

Those expectations were roundly disappointed on all fronts, but this book is wise without being bitter. In fact, the author keeps up a good sense of humor all around, as well as a good sense of adventure. The first story presents the simple tableau of an incredible sandstorm in the Iraqi desert. The entire tale is told to the roaring backdrop of a piercing sand-blast, with the roiling threat of enemy tanks just beyond the endless noise. The insistence of the sand storm reminds me of Ray Bradbury's The Long Rain (from The Illustrated Man); like Anthony "Jarhead" Swofford, this author knows how to paint a scene.

There are no over-arching political statements in this book. There is a moral crisis in which Crawford is forced to either rat out a fellow soldier who deserves it or allow an innocent soldier to be unjustly punished; you'll have to read the book to see which choice he makes.

The darkest narrative suggestions are unspoken. We learn that the author's brand new marriage did not survive his tour of the Middle East, and there's a dark undertone of anger somewhere within the author's words when he talks about his friends back home, who bug him to "tell a good story" over drinks after his return. So Crawford tells them a story, in which he shoots a child brandishing what turns out to be a broken gun, a toy.

No one at the table said a word; our circle had become a pool of awkward silence. Stephanie squeezed my leg under the table in support, but I didn't move.

"It's no big deal, man, you can just tell us a story some other time," Joe said reassuringly. The table began to resurrect; cups were refilled, cigarettes lit.

Here's an NPR interview with John Crawford, a worthwhile new writer.


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