Monday, January 28, 2013

Salman Rushdie, Free to Write

It's difficult to believe that it was so long ago. I remember the fact that a fatwa (death sentence) was issued by the Ayatollah of Iran for the writer Salman Rushdie. I had not read, and still have not read, The Satanic Verses, not because I took issue with the supposed blaspheming of Mohamed but because I had always believed that Rushdie's work was inaccessible to the every day reader, at least to the one that I was in 1989.

But if Salman Rushdie's simply fantastic "fictional memoir," Joseph Anton, is any indication, I'll soon be checking out The Satanic Verses and everything else I can get my hands on. Yes, the book is long, but this is a must for lit-lovers and author groupies everywhere.

I'm not quite sure what was behind Rushdie's decision to write his memoir as fiction, perhaps fears of reprisal after all these years still run deep. You may not realize  that Joseph Anton is the name under which Rushdie, his family, and various wives had to live during the long years of seclusion, a name chosen as a tribute to two favorite authors of his, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.

One really cannot imagine the hardship and emotional strain that must have plagued Rushdie during those years yet he tells his story with relatively little bitterness and a great deal of honesty. The things we take for granted, the ability to own a home where you want to live, to see your children (not being able to see his beloved son when and where he wanted was one of the greatest burdens of his exile into oblivion), to travel, visit with friends, shop for a new suit, were all carefully orchestrated by the British home service, much like our FBI. All too often plans were nixed at the last minute for security reasons.

And though Rushdie became close with and truly appreciated the sacrifices made by many of his keepers, the British government was begrudging in its support and often let it be known that they believed he was a trouble maker who had brought on his own angst. Public opinion ran hot and cold, publishers acted cowardly, refusing to print a paperback copy of the verses, even though they had a contractual obligation to do so. A translator of his book was murdered. His ability to write freely was hamstrung and depression dogged him for many years.

Librarians, especially, who read this account of Rushdie's sacrifice for the belief in freedom of speech, will marvel that he had the will to continue the fight against censorship when it would have been so easy to cave in.
Authors from all over the world took stands for and against Rushdie and the fatwa and I want to read every book ever written by those who had the courage to speak and write against such an unspeakable wrong. South African Nadine Gordimer, in particular, was staunch in her unwavering friendship.

Product DetailsThe cause of all this trouble? Just a book. A volume of words sprung from an author's imagination. But such a dangerous thing! I'm so proud that I work in a book loving industry and in a library system whose former director, the person who hired me twenty years ago, put Lee Country squarely on the map when she had to defend a book from censorship. May we always have the courage to speak up for the glory of all words whether or not we agree with them.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Profiles in Courage

No, today I am not writing about the classic book by John F. Kennedy but about something more personal. I am thinking about my new heroes, my brother and sister-in-law, Alan and Sharon, who have spent the past five days here with us in the healing rays of the southwest Florida sun.

Recently my baby brother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that's going to need an aggressive form of treatment. I floated the idea that they might want to get out of the frigid Ohio weather for a few days of R and R before the grueling rounds of chemo begin. When they agreed, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

How do we ever know where and when illness will strike? Why some and not others? What can we blame? Environment? Genetics? Exposure to some chemical we still don't even know about? I suspect it's all a great big crapshoot and a waste of time, energy, and psychic power to even speculate. What's done is done and we can only move forward from today.

If my sister and I were asked, I'd bet we'd both admit to having made some less than stellar decisions during the course of our lives. My brother, on the other hand, did all the "right" things. Married to his middle school girlfriend for forty years now, father of four, granddad to five, he is just quintessential middle America.
A man who worked at the same job for thirty years, provided for his family, sacrificed, I'm sure, many of his own and Sharon's dreams for the sake of putting his kids through school, giving them the groundwork for a good life, a solid foundation, he thrilled to his first trip out of the country just last year.

Now, at 62, their wings are being temporarily clipped. But in their presence this week I felt such peace and acceptance in their attitude toward the months ahead. I questioned my own beliefs. I've written here before about how much I despise the military metaphors used to describe the unrelenting pursuit of healing from cancer. The "battle." The "long fight." I don't even know if I'd find the courage to move forward if it was me in this position.

But watching the two, still in love after all these years, walk together down the beach hand in hand, rejoicing in the warmth of the sun, the sound of the wavelets, the bracing smell of the salt water, I sensed deep in my soul that the healing had already begun.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Examined Life

There's a proverb credited to Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living," with which I completely disagree. I seem to know an inordinate number of people who can't seem to simply enjoy the life they're given, day by day. They feel compelled to rehash the past again and again, flogging themselves for roads not taken, wrong decisions made, what-if's and why's.

So much wasted energy that could be applied to moving forward, from this day on, without a backward glance. News flash! You can't have a do-over and, most likely, you wouldn't do it any differently anyway.

So why, then, have I been drawn recently to so many autobiographies, not to mention that burgeoning genre, fictional biographies? I suppose it's fair to say that, having arrived at a certain age, public figures, entertainers, and writers, too, want to make sense of the past. As long as they don't spend too much time apologizing or recanting, then my inner voyeur enjoys the ride.

Not too long ago I finished Carole King's memoir, A Natural Woman. The downloadable version was read by Ms. King herself, voice raspy from the years of performing, but still warm and confident. I felt like she was just chatting with a friend in her living room while she accompanied herself on the piano to illustrate various modes of music that she was discussing.

Anyone interested in the history of American music would love this book which pretty much covers half a century. You can probably count on one hand the number of musicians who can change with the times, always looking forward, staying relevant for fifty years and Carole King is one of them. Unless you are a musicologist, you may not actually be aware of how much she has written for others as opposed to producing for herself.

I seem to remember - this is going back some - that Carole King made a name for herself helping Democratic political figures and advocating for our beleaguered planet. What I didn't have any knowledge of, and something that she shared, was that she had a long relationship with, and then married, a man who abused her both physically and mentally. This was quite a confession and took some courage but she says she spoke out to help others.

Can you imagine, a woman so prominent in a man's world, on stages all over the county with the likes of James Taylor, exuding such uber-confidence in her public life, being battered at home? In the home that she paid for, filled with her own precious children. Her confession was a good reminder that women from all walks of life, educational background, and financial circumstances can be vulnerable to mistreatment. A lesson shared and a happy ending.

Next up? The Boss! Let's see what music critic Peter Carlin has to say about Springsteen. Then I'll tell you about Salman Rushdie's fascinating "fictional" biography Joseph Anton. I'm reading as fast as I can.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

This is Why I'm a Librarian!

I was going to title this posting, "This is Why I Fear Religion," but having spent yesterday with a friend who is working on being the change we want to see in the world, (thank you Beth) I decided that I, too, should put a positive spin rather than a negative one on the massively successful book discussion we held at the library the other day.

The book was Amy Waldman's The Submission, a title I've discussed here before and one that knocked me out when I first requested to review it for Library Journal. I've since read it twice more and have shared it with others. 37 people turned out Thursday to talk about this controversial first novel by the former New York Times middle east bureau chief.

The novel centers around Mo (Mohammed) Kahn, an American architect whose anonymous entry in the contest to design New York City's 9/11 memorial, was chosen as the winner after a contentious battle between Claire, a 9/11 widow, and an artist with an agenda of her own.
If you are old enough to remember the dust up that surrounded a very similar situation when Asian scuptor Maya Lin's entry was chosen for the Vietnam Memorial in DC, then you'll know that emotions ran high then and run high in this novel too, simply because of Mr. Kahn's Muslim moniker. They also ran high in our meeting room!

I believe that Ms. Waldman intended her book to help us readers confront and examine our own prejudices. She did a superlative job! To their credit, the women in our group were perhaps honest to a fault. I'll admit to being taken aback by one lady though, who's been coming for several years now and has always seemed open to being tested by uncomfortable literature.

She asked the group why American Muslims have not apologized for 9/11, indicating that she's still waiting and, judging by her body language, is still irate! She then posited that the Koran exhorts followers to kill for their religion. I worried that I might lose control of the discussion as a few others began mumbling agreement.

Then I looked at Beth. She spoke in an almost Zen-like manner, pointing out that, in fact, though she didn't believe it was necessary, many Islamic organizations apologized profusely for the horror of that day. We were then able to move on as other astute readers noted that the United States has not apologized for slavery, came late to the table in reparations for Native Americans, and certainly can't be proud of Manzanar and Hiroshima. Whew! Now, back to the book.

We discussed the similarities between the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah, all purported to be the word of God. We talked of the immigrants who also worked in the twin towers and the families they left behind who feared coming out of the shadows to collect the money that was rightfully theirs. We spoke about terrorists and about the fact that reasoning with or trying to explain their behavior is a losing proposition.

One customer told of her agony as she waited for a phone call from her son who had had an appointment at Cantor-Fitzgerald that morning. After almost 12 years, she admitted that this is the first book she's been able to read that dealt with 9/11. She, too, had hoped for more from The Submission.

I found the writing to be perfection but many of us expressed disappointment with the ending. Twenty years later, the main characters had not managed to arrive at a deeper understanding of each other or their beliefs.Tragically realistic.

Someone asked the group, "if you were writing this novel, how would you prefer to have it end?" I could have kissed her!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Beginning the new Reading Year with Ben Fountain

A full week into the new year and I haven't posted any thoughts or reviews. I do apologize. Can a blogger have writer's block? I believe this happened to me once before and it's a terrible feeling. At once, there is so much on my mind yet so few words with which to express it all. The new year has brought a mixed bag of opportunities to grieve and to rejoice. Through it all, there are books, a reader's salvation.

I'm in the middle of three fabulous novels and will be holding my first book discussion of the new year tomorrow at the library. Amy Waldman's The Submission will be controversial. I'll let you know how it goes down with my bookies here in Estero.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has received kudos galore, yet I haven't heard any of my customers asking for it and I'm curious as to why. Is it too soon to be writing about the Iraq War? I hardly think so. Is the author, Ben Fountain, a veteran who is too close to his material? No, in fact, he was an attorney before being nominated for the National Book Award.

Karl Marlantes, author of the most compelling novel of war that I've ever read, Matterhorn, called Fountain's first novel "the Catch-22 of the Iraq War." Is it funny? At times I did laugh out loud. But more often I succumbed to a profound our human weaknesses, our arrogance, our foolishness, and especially, at the futility of war.

Billy Lynn is a nineteen year old war hero. He isn't even sure why but he's sure that he will never be the same young man who deployed with the Bravos barely a year ago. Because there was a TV journalist from, of course, Fox News, (one of Fountain's victims of brilliant mockery), embedded with the troops, a reluctant act of bravery by Billy and his group landed on the front page of every paper, and the TV screens of every home, in America.

Now the heroes are being used by the Defense Dept. (do you remember Jessica Lynch?) to promote the war and entice other young men into service. As they are sent around the country for public displays of jingoism, backslapping, and hero worship, these boys begin to realize the idiocy of their situation. They are set to be redeployed within days.

Ben Fountain is a master wordsmith. His insight into hypocrisy is razor sharp. His hilarious take down of the phony world of Hollywood is spot on. It seems that the story of the Bravos and their successful battle at the Al-Ansakar canal is being shopped around by a film producer. Will George Clooney put up the money? Is Hillary Swank really interested in the lead?

This is not a book to be missed. Ben Fountain is a remarkable writer whose characters live and breathe on every page. Billy's sister Kathryn, the pacifist who wants to spirit him out of the country, Norm, the entourage laden owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Faison, the perky, big breasted cheerleader willing to relieve Billy of his virginity IF he remains a hero, are at once caricatures and people we meet every day on the street.

This a profound expose of America's love affair with war and the devastating effects on the young men we place in harm's way.