Thursday, August 31, 2017

America's Guilt Front and Center in American War

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Egyptian born author Omar El Akkad grew up in Qatar, moved to Canada where he was a journalist for The Globe and Mail, and then came to Portland, Oregon, where, we're told, he lives in the woods. No wonder. As a journalist he has covered terror plots, the war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution, and the Black Lives Matter movement. His novel, misleadingly referred to as a tale of a second Civil War, is informed by all that he has born witness to in his life as a reporter.

"American War," does, indeed, pit what's left of the south after global warming has flooded out Florida and Louisiana, against the new northern government based in Columbus, Ohio. The south stubbornly wants to keep its old ways, still using now illegal fossil fuels. Poverty and hunger are rampant, and secessionists track down those who want to escape to the north for a better life, imprisoning them in tent cities.

But what El Akkad is really doing here is teaching readers how simple it is to create a terrorist. There is a lesson here for those who aren't afraid to admit our nation's culpability, our years of supposedly spreading democracy throughout the world, especially in the middle east, where we aren't welcomed or wanted. Our bombs and drones have decimated countries like Iraq, the former cradle of civilization, for no good reason and as the pilloried Rev. Wright once said, "Our chickens have come home to roost."

Rather than an imam, El Akkad gives us a mysterious white man, Albert Gaines, who trolls Camp Patience and other refugee camps in the south, identifying unique young people who are smart, tough, and angry, yet are malleable enough to be used as human weapons of destruction. He makes them feel special, singled out for extra rations, more comfortable living conditions for their families, and he fills their heads with false history.

In Sarat Chesnut he finds the perfect foil. At first we are lulled into believing that she will be the heroine and for some, she may be. I would be more inclined to refer to this big, strapping, sexually ambiguous girl as the anti-heroine. Her story is devastating and not an easy read. She is brain washed, used to complete missions that no one else is crafty or crazy enough to take on, but loyal to her family and to her cohort.

This book is beautifully, passionately written. El Akkad's observations are clear-eyed and often cynical. He doesn't hold mankind in very high esteem. At one point he describes water boarding so specifically and horrifically that you just know he has witnessed its results first hand. We Americans tend to ask, "Why do they hate us?" El Akkad answers.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Books About Books

Product DetailsNothing gives more pleasure to deep readers than books about books and their effect on readers. Two lovely such memoirs about literature kept me sane over the past couple of weeks. Ann Hood's "Morningstar, Growing Up with Books," is the more down to earth of the two, informed by her blue collar, Italian-American roots growing up in the Rhode Island mill town of West Warwick. All she ever wanted to do was to get away.

Ann was the family nerd, the little girl with glasses who asked too many questions, learned to read without being taught, and whose life changed when the first public library opened in town when she was ten. Breezing past the children's section, not even deigning to glance in its direction, she filled her arms with Peyton Place, The Blackboard Jungle, Valley of the Dolls, and In Cold Blood. As a librarian, I can't help but be overjoyed at the kind of customer she was. As a woman, I can't help but love the warm, honest, seeker that she's become.

Each of the ten chapters in this little gem represents a life lesson that she learned from a book. "How to Dream," (Marjorie Morningstar), "How to Ask Why," (Johnny Got His Gun), or my favorite, "How to Fall in Love with Language," (Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows), take Hood back to the place and time where she read a particular book. Her memories and observations are deeply personal yet somehow universal.

The same can be said of the more erudite but no less enchanting "Books for Living" by Will Schwalbe, the author whose lovely debut "The End of Your Life Bookclub" spoke to the loving relationship he had with his mother and the poignant time they spent together discussing their favorite books while she was dying from pancreatic cancer. I love how he describes their reading as "whimsical, casual, and promiscuous."

Product DetailsEducated in swank private schools, well-traveled, Manhattan denizen, Schwalbe still writes with the same passion and open heart as Ms. Hood. Using a similar format, Schwalbe begins each chapter with the title of a book and the life lesson he gleaned from it. Classics like "The Little Prince" (Finding Friends), "Giovanni's Room" (Connecting), "Death Be Not Proud" (Praying), or "David Copperfield" (Remembering) share equal space with the children's book "Wonder" (Choosing Kindness), and the popular thriller "The Girl on the Train" (Trusting).

He rhapsodizes over Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," (how is it I haven't read this one yet?) and introduces Lin Yutang's "The Importance of Living" which sounds like an absolute "must own" book that touts the joys of slowing down and enjoying life's simple pleasures. All the while he reminisces, as Hood does, about where he was and what he was doing when these books came into his orbit.

Both Ann Hood and Will Schwalbe are a joy to spend time with. While you're reading it would be wise to keep a notebook handy because you're going to have your reading cut out for you when you finish. I've just placed about ten holds with our local library! Lesson learned? Calm down and read on!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Roxane Gay's Hunger

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Roxane Gay is morbidly obese. She does not shy away from her physician's description. In fact, she deliberately caused it.
"I ate and ate and ate," she says, "in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe."
At the age of twelve, Ms. Gay was gang raped. The leader of this assault on her young body was a boy she believed she was in love with. She realizes now, with more than twenty years of hindsight, that if she had been able to speak of this horrific invasion of her very selfhood, she might have been able to understand that it wasn't her fault. Her parents, a counselor, might have prevented the punishment she visited upon herself. But as a "good girl," a Haitian-American overachiever, a Catholic, she feared the judgment that might condemn her.
This tragedy informed Roxane Gay's life. Her visceral writing seethes with repressed violence. Just dip your nose into "An Untamed State." What other way is there for a wordsmith to work through trauma? Gay is an outspoken essayist, and I have no doubt, a fantastic writing teacher. With "Hunger, A Memoir of my Body," she lays her soul bare, trusting us, the readers, not to judge. It is a work of remarkable bravery.
Not only is this book psychologically astute but it is also a remonstrance. Fat shaming, a form of bullying, is alive and well online and in public. The world is obsessed with women's bodies. We have a president who feels entitled to comment on the "shape" of the wife of a world leader, who encourages withholding food from beauty contestants. Ms. Gay reminds us in many uncomfortable ways of the agony of being an oversized woman in a world created for "average" size people.
Gay's crowning achievement with this cathartic memoir is learning to love herself so that she can accept the love of others. After an accidental fall that left her hospitalized and laid up for quite a while, she realized that her protective veil of body mass could also be her downfall. Having to rely on family and friends, she opened her heart to love, the true hunger that is the crux of all our yearning.
Roxane Gay will be a keynote speaker at the National Book Festival in DC over Labor Day weekend. Though she admits to an aversion to being touched by strangers, it will be hard for me to resist offering a hug. I'll hold back, of course, out of respect for this truly beautiful woman.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Leavers, An Amazing Debut

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A front page article in today's New York Times, "Loving and Leaving America," gave me a jolt of reminder that I haven't yet written about a debut novel I finished last week that blew me away. Lisa Ko's ( "The Leavers" is an incredibly sophisticated, slow moving examination of the nuances of being an immigrant, or being born to one, in the United States today.

The voice of young Deming Guo will stay with you for a long time. Conceived in China, born in a sweat shop in New York City, then returned to China to live with his grandfather for five years, he is brought back to the United States by his mother Polly, after her father dies and she has exhausted all other options. Completely unequipped to mother a five-year-old, hiding from immigration authorities, Polly lives with her boyfriend, his sister Vivian, Vivian's son Michael, and Deming in a three room flat in Chinatown.

Ko wisely creates a seemingly unsympathetic character in Polly, at once lavishly loving and cringingly selfish, Polly is a schemer who doesn't plan to settle. She has brains, ambition, and dreams of a better life, one that frightens her less ambitious lover. When she disappears without a word, friends believe she's off to Florida to begin work managing a nail salon.

"She'll be back," they all assure Deming. But how, he wonders, could she leave without even saying goodbye?

 That question will haunt him for years. His search for answers will haunt readers who recognize that this scenario is playing out every day on the streets of our country as ICE cracks down on undocumented immigrants, breaking up families, and wrecking havoc on the psyches of the legitimate children left behind.

Eventually social services arrive and Deming Guo, a Chinese American boy, is adopted by a well-meaning but emotionally distant couple who believe that the best way for Deming to assimilate, far from the city that he loves and the only people he knows, is to become Daniel Wilkinson, all American boy. And Daniel tries, he really does. He wants to please but there's a rebellious streak there, perhaps a bit of his mother? There's also a raging anger against the woman who left him and nowhere to place that ire except against himself.

Just when you think your heart will break for Daniel and the road to self-destruction that he's on, just when you think you want to throttle Polly for pursuing her own dreams without thought to Deming's wellbeing, Ko reveals Part II of her book and we are treated to another entire novel told from Polly's point of view.

Nothing is black and white in this remarkable novel. Polly is complicated, her actions certainly worthy of analysis. But when you read her story you will, hopefully, be loath to judge. Lisa Ko has written a beautiful book about the plight of immigrants but offers no simple solutions. Awarded Barbara Kingsolver's Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this book begs to be discussed by socially engaged readers.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Nothing Fake About Jeffrey Gettleman's News

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The press has been taking a terrible beating over the past year. It appears to be open season on reporters, bloggers, and journalists. Anyone who questions the hard work, integrity, and sacrifice that newspaper employees expend to bring the truth of the world to caring readers should dip their toes into Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeffrey Gettleman's memoir of his ten years reporting from east Africa.

I'll admit that I wasn't sure I would enjoy spending time with Gettleman. He gave the impression of a rather immature, selfish young man on a quest for excitement in the Hemingway tradition. I'm happy to say, that as he wrote and I read, I grew to appreciate his sometimes uncomfortable honesty. I realized that Gettleman was taking readers through his own slow maturation process and that it was well worth the time.

As a college student at Cornell, Gettleman took part in a mission to aid refugees in Kenya and southern Malawi. Africa had invaded his soul. He became fluent in Swahili. Though he had majored in Philosophy, he had a dream of becoming a journalist, writing about Africa for the most prestigious papers in the United States. Remarkably, via such an inauspicious location as Brooksville, Florida, Jeffrey Gettleman hone his craft and ultimately landed the position of East Africa Bureau Chief for The New York Times. What he learned about observing and recording, about what to put in and what to leave out, is a writer's dream.

There's also a love story. His college sweetheart, Courtenay, the one he knew he wanted to be with for the rest of his life, though he often didn't act like it, is one tough, likable gal. An attorney who finally realized that her life with Jeff, if she chose to take that road, would always have to revolve around his career, Courtenay learned video editing and joined him in Africa, working by his side under immensely difficult conditions

Though Jeff expresses his passion for Africa and its people, the joy and sense of home that infuses him when he is there, he has taken some heat for thoughtlessness and insensitivity over the years. He has sometimes put himself in danger for the story and, when that happens, other people's lives are endangered too, people who don't have the wherewithal to contact a publisher's office to request intervention. There are times when he questions whose side he's on and he developed some pretty jaded views of the CIA and their machinations with rebel groups in Somalia.

Still I enjoyed this book tremendously and sensed in Gettleman a sincerity of purpose. He is no phony and is not averse to pointing out his own failures as a man and as a husband. But here's how I know his love for the continent of Africa is true. Courtenay gave birth to their two boys in Nairobi, two little ones who are being immersed in the colors, smells, and beauty of their multicultural surroundings, a gift they will never forget.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Staying Power of Cabaret

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a new rendition of the Broadway musical Cabaret at the Kennedy Center. I had read a negative review in the "Washington Post" but didn't share it with my friends until after the performance. The reviewer found the production too dark, a criticism that led me to wonder if he'd ever seen the play before or if he was only making the comparison to the Liza Minnelli film. Because the play is dark, indeed. And it should be.

Based upon the collection "Berlin Stories" by British writer Christopher Isherwood, the play centers around the rise of Fascism and the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930's. The Kit Kat Club, the cabaret of the title, acts as a microcosm of the decadent, and yes, gender fluid (before the term was cool) lifestyle of the city's denizens that opened the doors for the creation of the Aryan nation.

No matter how many times I see Cabaret produced, and how much I love the music, I find my stomach beginning to churn in the final scenes of the first act when Herr Schultz proposes marriage to Fraulein Schneider. Though they become engaged, I know that his sweet naivete will ultimately be rewarded with violence and rejection. Schultz is a Jewish fruit seller with his own business. Schneider is the proprietress of a seamy boarding house, a woman who relies on good relations with local government officials for her business permits.

In the second act, a low level Nazi officer points out what everyone has ignored. A marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew will not be tolerated. Arguments break out, sides are taken, and a few guests begin to sing the chilling "Tomorrow  Belongs to Me." As more people join in and the music grows louder and more militant, the audience realizes that they are witnessing the cusp of a new world order. It is terrifying. (from the film, which did it best)

And even though Herr Schultz's store is trashed by vandals, he attempts to convince the more clear-eyed Fraulein Schneider that this craziness will pass, that they should proceed with their marriage, that it will be safe.

"We are Germans after all," he says. "We are one people." The rest, as they say, is history.

You might wonder how a play this old, it was first produced in the '60's, can maintain its relevance. But all you have to do is think, as I did watching this latest version, of the poem attributed to German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller:

"First they came for the Socialists, but I was not a Socialist, so I did not speak out... Then they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist......."

You know the rest. Right now, here in the so-called greatest democracy in the world, we are facing a crisis of enormous proportions. We have elected an erratic leader who has placed himself above the laws of the land. Each day he is in office is another day of chaos. The normal checks and balances built into our constitution don't seem to apply.

Of course, as a cock-eyed optimist, I want to be Herr Schultz. I want to say, "This too shall pass." But what if it doesn't? What if we, like Germany's Jews, put our heads in the sand and take no action until it is too late? I don't have an answer and I don't know what to do. I can only offer this advice. Continue to read, to educate yourselves about our history and our rights, and to be vigilant. Knowledge is power and we must share it widely if we are to keep our democracy free to all of our citizens. When they come for one of us, they come for all of us.