I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
Reading the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, it sometimes seemed to me that he had he had slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every dusty village in the forgotten corners of the world. He brought us with him to peer at the world's unknown "little" wars. There are many who, in the last few decades, have taken up this sort of reporting, people like Jon Lee Anderson, William Langewiesche, and Mark Bowden, but none possess the sympathetic eye of Kapuscinski.In his book Imperium, Kapuscinski chronicles the invasion of Poland by the Soviets in 1939, which he witnessed as a boy, and one can see how being one of history's forgotten people shaped his view of the world. Kapuscinski's writing is notable as much for what is there as for what it lacks, namely a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it, which even the best Western reporters are rarely able to avoid. Living much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, he could write about oppressed people from the point of view of the oppressed, but from enough distance to eschew any of the ideologies involved. He had a gentle eye for details and always satisfied by being just as incredulous, weary, and terrified as I would have been had I somehow found myself in the astonishing situations he sometimes ended up in. No tough guy swagger for Kapuscinki.And those moments, they were incredible: Kapuscinski, out of bribe money watching his driver plow though flaming roadblocks in the Yoruba country of Nigeria in The Soccer War; arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane in The Shadow of the Sun; stuck for days in a stifling, crowded airport in Yakutsk with little hope of getting a plane out of there in Imperium.But Kapuscinski does not assume he is the only one with a story to tell. For entire books - Shah of Shahs about the abuses of the Shah of Iran and The Emperor about the mad Ethiopian king Haile Selassie - he turns his pen over to the people who were there. Those two books fit into the now familiar genre of "oral history," and they provide an invaluable look into the lives of the oppressed.Kapuscinski's singular point of view is perhaps best summed up by what he wrote in a section of The Soccer War about his time in Ghana: "The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves."Kapuscinski brought that different reality to his readers, and in doing so helped shed light on the forgotten corners of the world.Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the PAP news agency said. He was 74. The AP obit.Some Links:New work from KapuscinskiMy review of Shah of ShahsA bit on Imperium (scroll down)A bit on The Shadow of the Sun (scroll down)Excerpt from ImperiumExcerpt from Shah of ShahsExcerpt from The EmperorExcerpt from The Soccer WarExcerpt from The Shadow of the SunExcerpt from Another Day of LifeWikipedia bioKapuscinski's writing in GrantaBill Buford interviews Kapuscinski
When my first novel was published in the summer of 1992, I was working a full-time day job as a newspaper columnist. But every weekend I would fire up my 1954 Buick – which figured largely in the novel – and drive from my North Carolina home to far-flung independent bookstores to give readings, answer questions and sign books. I'm sure I spent way more on gas than I made selling books. One of the first stores I visited was Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., where I was greeted warmly by the owners, an effusive woman named Carla Cohen and her more reserved partner, Barbara Meade. Only later did I learn that Meade thought she worked like a cat ("unobtrusively") while Cohen worked more like a dog ("joyfully"). They readily agreed to let me park my Buick right on the sidewalk in front of the store. Cohen and Meade understood that it pays to advertise, especially when the advertising is free and sports a two-tone paintjob and a glittering "Dagmar" front bumper. The reading was a success for all of us. So naturally I was saddened to learn that Carla Cohen died on Monday at the age of 74 from a rare form of bile duct cancer. But I was also heartened to learn that Politics and Prose, which Cohen and Meade opened in 1984, has become a cultural institution in our nation's capital and that crowds routinely line up down the block to attend readings by the likes of Bill Clinton, J.K. Rowling and Tom Wolfe. The secret of the store's success has been that the owners loved books and weren't afraid to have opinions or share them with their customers. And the customers responded to that passion. When news of Cohen's cancer diagnosis got out last summer, she and Meade put the store up for sale. They received about 50 offers and narrowed them down to half a dozen. While some book lovers in Washington are anxious, it appears likely the popular store will live on. Other independent bookstores I visited during those long-ago selling trips have not fared as well. Books First in Richmond, for one, is gone. Many others have succumbed to chain stores, on-line retailing and the sad fact that serious readers of serious writing, always a tiny minority in America, are beginning to look like an endangered species. Yet some of the stores I visited are not only surviving, but thriving. In addition to Politics and Prose there are The Regulator in Durham, N.C., Prince Books in Norfolk and Burke's Books in Memphis. Patrick Brown recently wrote an enlightening essay in these pages about other independents that are beating the odds. Almost always there are passionate book lovers like Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade involved in those successful stores. When Matt Drudge asked to give a talk at Politics and Prose, Cohen turned him down, saying he wasn't a journalist, he was a "rumormonger." Thanks for doing that. And thanks for letting me park my Buick in front of your store, Carla Cohen. You will be missed.
Roger Ebert was a movie man. All over the internet, he is being remembered for his love for movies, for the enthusiasm he brought to film, and for elevating it to its rightful place as art. All well-deserved. But as much as he “belongs” to film, so too does he belong to us writers. We ought to consider him one of our own, rather than thinking of him as a pop icon, denizen of another, separate world. While movies were his subject, the written word was, for most of his life, his chosen medium. “When I write,” he said, “I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share . . . deliberate thoughts fall aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note." Then later, after his illness had taken his jaw: “When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was.” Ebert elevated film to the level of literature, but at no loss to literature: an exceptionally well-read working writer, he would quote Wordsworth while trashing Baby Geniuses, or e.e. cummings while praising 2001: Space Odyssey. Ebert's love of books manifested in a home library of 3,000 to 4,000 titles, and a book lover's clingy expectation that he might at any point “need” one or another of them. The temptations aroused by walking past a bookstore were, he wrote, as bad as those faced by an alcoholic passing by a neighborhood bar — strong words considering his own self-documented struggles with alcoholism. He fantasized about moving to a smaller place and bringing only, say, 200 or so of his most essential books, but couldn't really dream of giving any of them up because, in his words, “well, they're books, and you can't throw away a book, can you?” The outpouring of affection shows how beloved he was by writers. The cause is obvious: Ebert cared intensely about writing, and more than many of us, he brought his best self to it. He was “reluctant to write in a hurtful way” — unless it was to trash a movie that he felt was cruel in spirit, or that insulted its audience. He helped other writers, too, extending his hand to young upstarts and secretly sponsoring other Chicago journalists who joined AA. Say what you will about his taste in movies or his willingness to embrace “trash” (even in a “silly” film, he wrote, “you will find something profound” about “what people desire and fear”). No writer can help but find it humbling and awe-inspiring to know that a man who lost the ability to eat, to drink, and to speak somehow managed to keep writing. I doubt many people could do that. I'm barely able to muster the heart to write after I’ve eaten a burrito. Just holding on to the will to live in Ebert’s state would be too great a challenge for most, but he wrote and wrote: about movies, politics, atheism and faith, alcoholism, everything else in life, and death. He wrote through a debilitating illness, through surgeries and years of hospital care. That is bravery, in my book. Doing something for love — of movies, of writing, of his fans — in the face of death is bravery. We writers ought to embrace him for it. The rest of us can only hope that, if we are held on the precipice as long as he was, we are visited by some portion of his courage. Image via Wikimedia Commons
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It would seem that Ray Bradbury’s sole association with the Middle East was the spurious allusion to his most famous novel in the title of Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary screed against the Iraq War, Fahrenheit 9/11. (Bradbury abhorred the allusion, even calling the left-wing film-maker a “screwed a-hole.”) Little did Moore know that Bradbury’s bond to the Middle East was actually a strong one, especially to Baghdad, the city his imagination inhabited. “We must be,” he often liked to say, “tellers of tales in the streets of Baghdad.” According to the best known study on Bradbury, Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, this was “the central notion of his authorship.” Bradbury saw himself in the same tradition as the fantasy storytellers of Baghdad, of The Thousand and One Nights. Most critics will find the notion that Bradbury’s stories owed anything to the Arabic literary tradition as startling as the stories themselves. But Bradbury’s self-definition as an Arab storyteller mustn’t be ignored. Indeed, the science fiction tradition to which he by all rights belonged arguably began with a story by the medieval Arabic physician Ibn al-Nafis, whose 13th-century novel, translated as Theologus Autodidactus, is cited as the first science fiction novel, not to mention the science fictive attributes of the Theousand and One Nights themselves, as noted by writers from Robert Irwin to Gilbert Adair. Their imprint on Bradbury’s work is little-noted and buried beneath subtle allusions. Unlike his colleagues in the canon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein , or Isaac Asimov, little of Bradbury’s narrative concerns futuristic, dystopian descriptions, preferring, as Gerald Jonas puts it, “cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors” -- which happens also to be a succinct summary of the Arabic oral tradition Bradbury claimed for himself. The Martian Chronicles narrated the conquest of Mars with little technological detail -- as one astute blogger notes: “He didn't focus on the engineering, his rocketship stories were clearly more influenced by the Thousand and One Nights than by the moon landings.” Bradbury acknowledged this debt more openly in his short story collection, The Illustrated Man, which adopts the frame narrative of the Nights, weaving unrelated short stories together, all told by the eponymous protagonist’s talking tattoos; the Illustrated Man, of course, is a re-invention of Scheherazade. But like The Thousand and One Nights, his stories were no mere fantasies; they pretended to entertain, all the while scabrously censuring not just the societies its characters inhabited, but those its audience inhabited too. Be it Scheherazade in the ancient past or Guy Montag in the distant future, they are concerned with abuses of authority in the present. Guy Montag’s role as a book-burning fireman was once most relevant to a McCarthyite America whose censorship of dissident views began to resemble the totalitarian tendencies it supposedly opposed. That was the 1950s. Today, Fahrenheit 451's lessons are less relevant to America than they are to another region, a region close to Bradbury’s heart. Michael Moore so angered Bradbury because the film Fahrenheit 9/11, with its provocative subtitle, “the temperature at which freedom burns,” trivialised his warnings. Bradbury believed America had truly recovered from her perturbing past proclivities. “I don't believe that any of the governments of the past 60 years, including the current one, are guilty of using war to aggrandize their power.” he once said. But the film’s concern with the Iraq war did edge the novel’s relevance towards the region where those perturbing proclivities are these days most widespread. For it is the Middle East that now has most to learn from Bradbury. I don’t mean his whimsical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “to create a new Jewish homeland in South Florida,” even if many in the region are likely to sympathise. The Middle East remains by far the most censored place on earth with more banned books than the library of a Roman Catholic parochial school. Where flag-burning and cartoon-burning are well-documented, the escalation into book burnings is a justified fear. This refocusing of Bradbury’s relevance is only to be expected. When writing Fahrenheit 451, he was in fact thinking of the Middle East all along: “I wasn't thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years [sic] before.” In the Egypt I inhabit “5,000 years” later, voters are currently faced with a choice between Islamist repression or repression of Islamism, two authoritarian candidates with little appreciation of freedom of expression. No one has advocated book-burnings, but book-bannings -- a less gruesome cousin -- remain the order of the day, many politicians even calling for the infliction of that fate on Egypt’s own greatest novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. No wonder that a few years ago a cultural exchange promoted by the National Endowment for the Arts picked Fahrenheit 451 as the focus of reading groups in Cairo and, unmissably, Alexandria. My Middle Eastern memorial to Ray Bradbury may seem an unorthodox one, but it is the one he doubtless desired. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he gave an answer that sadly none of the obituarists have recalled: “Arriving in Baghdad,” he instructed, in Conversations with Ray Bradbury, “walk through the marketplace and turn down a street where sit the old men who are the tellers of tales. There, among the young who listen, and the old who say aloud, I would like to take my place and speak when it is my turn. It is an ancient tradition, a good one, a lovely one, a fine one. If some boy visits my tomb a hundred years from now and writes on the marble with a crayon: He was a teller of tales, I will be happy. I ask no more than that.” Of course, like a medieval jester in Baghdad, he pretended to be a mere teller of tales. Let us in the Middle East not forget that he was also a teller of truths. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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