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.
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.
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.
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.
A novelist named E. Howard Hunt died today. Of course, E. Howard Hunt won't go down in history as a novelist, despite the fact that Amazon lists six (6!) pages of spy thrillers and non-fiction books he wrote, like Maelstrom, a potboiler from 1948. Howard Hunt will be remembered because he, along with G. Gordon Liddy, planned and executed the break-in at the Watergate national democratic headquarters in 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency.
E. Howard Hunt, a dapper but dour CIA agent, lived an interesting life. The fight against Communism was his obsession, and in this capacity he holds the remarkable distinction of being involved in not one but two (2) major failures of American politics, having also played a leadership role in the disastrous anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Looking back, it's fairly clear that he should have stuck to writing novels. But history had its way with him, and today we can only reflect on his death.
How were his novels? I've looked at his later ones but none caught my interest; I'd love to look at one of his earlier pulp-style novels but you can't even find a title with a cover image on ALibris's long list of his books. The earliest one appears to be called East of Farewell, published in 1942 -- if anybody out there has read any of these books, please share your observations by posting a comment below.
Only in the ancient Hindu sense of all-universe acceptance can I say that I think E. Howard Hunt was a good man. But he did America a big favor in the summer of 1972: he got caught. As anybody who's read All The President's Men knows, he and Liddy were across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel watching with binoculars as the police burst in on the spies, and one of the men arrested had E. Howard Hunt's name and phone number at the White House listed in the phone book in his pocket. Thus did a President fall.
Coincidentally, Howard Hunt died on a day when Watergate is on many people's minds. If you haven't been paying attention, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby is on trial for obstruction of justice in a case related to the pre-war search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libby's defense is pointing a finger at President Bush's close advisor Karl Rove, and it's all starting to remind me of those good old days of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and ... E. Howard Hunt.
Farewell to a hard-working American patriot and writer, E. Howard Hunt.
Beyond the above heavy depressing stuff, how about some Friday meme action? Okay, Bud and Jeff, here goes. Five things you didn't know about me.
Five Things You Didn't Know About Me.
1. I am incompetent at video games. My youngest daughter began regularly beating me at around the age of four. I also hate video games and I don't understand why people like them. I am aware that this is especially unusual because I work in the technology industry, and yet still I hate them.
2. I love reality TV shows. Other than The Office, reality TV is the only TV I watch. I'm currently running with The Apprentice, VH1's White Rapper (this is a GREAT, GREAT show) and Grease: You're The One That I Want (well, what can I say? I'm a Broadway baby). I'm skipping American Idol for now, but you better believe I'll be around for the final rounds. Go ahead and call me an idiot. Fortunately, my fiancee is an idiot too.
3. I like to walk a lot. I once walked from Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport to pick up my parents (this is a hike, especially if you forget to bring a map and get lost on the way). When I got to the edge of the airport I asked a maintenance worker how to get to the main terminal. He pointed me in the direction but told me to take a bus: "you don't want to walk the whole way." I said "I just walked here from midtown Manhattan, I'll be fine."
4. I am a telephobe. I often wish Alexander Graham Bell had never been born, not to mention that annoying Verizon ad guy.
5. I once wrote an anonymous article about a badly managed software project I'd worked on that was published in InfoWorld, the technology industry's leading weekly newsmagazine. I was very proud of this, and I got an iPod Shuffle for it. I also enjoyed the opportunity to mock my former managers at a cable network whose name I'd better not reveal. I wish I had more time to write articles about software development as it relates to media and publishing. I've also been published in Time Magazine's Netly News and on various online forums on subjects such as Java and AJAX programming.
Five things -- that's the meme. Catch it if you can.
I was skeptical myself when I first heard of this book, but something compelled me to pick up the magazine and see what old Norm's up to, and I found the piece oddly affecting. I may even read the book.
The Castle in the Forest fictionalizes the childhood of Adolph Hitler, and posits that Satan himself sent an agent to lurk in the Austrian forests to infect the innocent and sad child's mind with evil. The book is narrated by a cool, even-toned demon, and the story focuses on child Adolph's relationship with his cruel and self-important father, Alois Hitler. In this passage, they are planning to visit a neighborhood beekeeper who will play an important role in Hitler's training, and the devil carefully prepares the scene by planting a dream in the child's head:
As a matter of style, when it comes to dreamwork, I have always been inclined to avoid baroque virtuosities. Modest scenarios are usually more effective. In this case, I satisfied myself by producing as close a presentation of Der Alte's face and voice as I could manage before placing him in Adi's dream. For the setting, I used an image of one of the two rooms of the old man's hut, and made the yard visible through the window. The action of the dream could not have been more direct. As Der Alte led them inside his quarters, he fed Adi a spoonful of honey. I made certain the taste was exquisite on the boy's tongue. Adi awakened with wet pajamas from navel to knee and a whole sense of happiness. Stripping his wet night-clothing, a not unusual event, he went back into slumber, replaying the dream with his own small variations, looking to taste the honey again. In his mind, he was certain that he would soon meet Der Alte, and this emboldened him to ask his father to take him along next morning. Alois, as I have remarked, was pleased.
Okay, so the old goat can still write. What does it mean? I really don't know, but I keep thinking of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which also scrambled and reinvented the history of World War II, and also did so by delving into the mind of a child (in Roth's case, a frightened Jewish-American boy). It's a striking fact that two Judaic-American literary superstars are spending their mature years conjuring alternative visions of Nazism, as if grasping to finally come to terms with it.
In the link above, Sarah Weinman summarizes the Newsweek review of Mailer's book with a single word: 'trainwreck'. I find that interesting because I actually thought Philip Roth's novel was a trainwreck (clumsy writing, murky message), and yet many many people all over the world somehow seemed to relate to it.
God only knows if Mailer's new book will reach the same acclaim as Roth's did. Myself, I'm interested enough to read some more when I get my hands on it.
The book's title is something of a joke, and Gerald Ford mainly appears as a symbol for all that is ordinary, decent and unexciting. The novel is a sex romp in the traditional Updike vein; the narrator is a history professor who is juggling a wife, a mistress and several other candidates for his affection, and these women are all juggling various candidates for their affections as well. It's far from a bad Updike novel (see Brazil), but it's definitely a minor one whose best moments seem borrowed from his better books. One satisfying scene -- a long night in his soon-to-be ex-wife's spare room -- neatly mashes up the stoic farm-wise mother from the great Of The Farm with the sweet, sad teenage son of the equally great story Separating (collected in Too Far To Go). Updike wrote Memories of the Ford Administration after Rabbit At Rest, and he seems to be continuing to recline here.
So why and how does poor Gerald Ford get dragged into this whole marital miasma? The novel's conceit is that the narrator has been asked to write a paper titled "Memories of the Ford Administration", even though he'd rather write about President James Buchanan (his academic specialty) or about his mixed-up love life. He can't think of anything to say about Gerald Ford, so he wrote this novel instead. I'm guessing the Ford family didn't invite John Updike to the funeral.
2. Speaking of funerals, few commentators have remarked that it was not only a cruel dictator but also a novelist who got hung on Friday. Saddam Hussein's Zabiba and the King might have been ghost-written, but the epic allegory about a king, an innocent maiden and a usurper (who is said to represent the United States of America) was published as his work.
Memories of the Saddam Administration, anybody?
I've been inside the Times Building several times but I've never gotten a peek down Book Review alley, so I watched this show with great interest. Bad news first: the Book Review staff seriously lacks charisma. Sam Tanenhaus would certainly be played by Bob Balaban in the movie version, and his fussy observations about deadlines and polished prose and journalistic jargon remind me of Balaban's nervous folk-music tribute host in A Mighty Wind. Tanenhaus also resembles a Bananas-era Woody Allen when he gets excited and knits his eyebrows, but this mainly happens when he's describing the mechanical or procedural aspects of his job. He tries exactly once to wax romantic about a book (The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford) and it's a telling fact that the only thing he manages to say is that Ford won a Pulitzer Prize.
More bad news: in recognizing the "blogosphere", Tanenhaus disparages us (yet again, yet again) as sloppy writers. I insist to the New York Times Book Review staff that the best bloggers out here (and I volunteer to be on the team) can at least hold our own, and could possibly kick the Book Review's ass in a grammar/style face-off. I hereby offer a challenge.
Good news about the show: well, there's not much good news. It speaks for Tanenhaus's musical taste, I guess, that he has a Kurt Cobain poster in his office. The esteemed editor also shows a likable disregard for his physical appearance -- he must have known this was going to be "camera day" but he didn't shave or pick out one of his good shirts. Which I respect.
Tanenhaus's deputies completely fail to pick up the slack in the charisma department. Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about this odd reality show is that these nerds do not completely collapse on screen. Senior Editor Dwight Garner, who would also be played by Bob Balaban in the movie, seems a little more natural romping in the fields of literature than his boss, but it's depressing that both Garner and Tanenhaus pick the safe choice of Richard Ford (who really is too boring to read) when they attempt to rave about a contemporary novelist for the camera.
Preview Editor and political/history book specialist Barry Gewen, who gets a lot of face time in this show, looks like he wouldn't know what to do with a novel or a poetry chapbook if he saw one. He would be played by Weird Al Yankovic, and the slushpile/paperback guy would be John Legend in his feature film debut.
Speaking of slushpiles, I think I spotted a dusty copy of Action Poetry on the third stack to the right near the garbage pail in Tanenhaus's office.
Onto this week's actual Book Review. It's a war-themed issue, (which means, we now know, that the issue is Barry Gewen's baby). Many of the articles are outstanding, especially Josiah Bunting's bitter article describing a book called War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today by Max Boot. Bunting drives home the point that military bureaucrats and apologists (from every global power in the world) often trumpet their technological advances to cover up the fact that they are morally and strategically corrupt. A-fucking-men.
I used to get annoyed when the New York Times Book Review paid more attention to news and politics than to fiction and poetry, but lately I've been so wrapped up myself in our political debate that I don't mind. Other articles I enjoyed reading this week include Geoffrey Wheatcroft's dissection of Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation and Michael Goldfarb's impassioned introduction to Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
But I'm not thrilled with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's review of Robert Richardson's biography of William James, which fails to capture how truly exciting a philosopher William James is, and how relevant his Pragmatic philosophy can be in our own belief-stricken times. I'm glad the Book Review gave this biography a big two-page spread, though, and I hope I'll get this biography for Christmas.
You see, for many Jews like myself, the impossible image of a world where the Nazi slaughter never happened is a secret fantasy, a dark dream where we sometimes reside. Feelings of guilt and self-hatred related to the Jewish slaughters of World War II have become an evergreen obsession among Jews of every generation in every country in the world, and we all sometimes yearn for a fantasy world where "it never happened", where our children won't ever have to hear about it.
The problem is the secret formula that every Jewish kid figures out at some point: "they tried to kill us, so we must deserve it. There is something despicable about us" -- whether this thing is genetic, learned or karmic or most often a combination of the three -- "and we deserve to die". This myth cuts deep into the consciousness of many westernized Jews, especially those in safe countries (and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this explains a lot about Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Roseanne Barr, Larry David and many others).
Holocaust myths? Yeah, there are plenty around, and if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to start investigating myths about the Holocaust I think I'd like to knock a couple down too.
The biggest myth is that Hitler's Holocaust represents a uniquely terrible moment in human history. The sad truth is that it was no such thing. It was not the deadliest genocide of the 20th Century, for instance -- Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong both arranged for the deaths of greater numbers of their own citizens in order to reduce unsupportable populations. It was not the most efficient Holocaust -- it took many years for Eichmann's Aryan bureaucrats to kill millions of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and others, while the Hutus of Rwanda killed a million Tutsis in a single month in 1994. It wasn't the only Holocaust aimed at wiping an entire ethnic group off the face of the earth (the Turkish government tried the same thing in 1915, murdering one and a half million Armenians).
Here's the really bleak truth: Genocide is cheap. Genocide is easy. Genocide R Us. Read today's paper and catch up on the growing Holocaust in Darfur. Look at the bombings between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. I'm not even talking about Bosnia and Serbia and Kosovo, or Cambodia, or the the Belgian Congo, or the Native Americans. Can't tell your genocides without a program ...
There are a lot of Holocaust myths, and if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran wants to examine what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945 I think he's going to find out more than he wants to know.
How should American Jews react to the news of this conference of Holocaust deniers, which includes American Idiot David Duke? It sure is offensive (I'd like to go there and tell them how I personally know that the Holocaust happened -- because Grandma Clara had no family). But it doesn't do much good to get offended, so I say we wish them good luck, because genocide is a big topic for all of us to think about, and they might even learn something. They are entering the realm of study Joseph Conrad referred to as the Heart of Darkness, and it sure is dark in there. Not just for Jews, either.