Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson stopped by yesterday to sign copies of An Army at Dawn. This book is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy that will describe the liberation of Europe in World War II. This first book is about the liberation of North Africa, and the next two will cover Italy and France. Naturally, I asked him how the books were coming along, and he told me that he had put them on hold while he was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and now he is writing a book about that experience. It will be exciting to see the many quality books that are being written by journalists and writers who spent time over there. We also discussed John Keegan, who seems to be the authority when it comes to popular histories of war. Atkinson professed to loving both The Mask of Command, which studies generals and commanders in wars from Ancient Greece to the present, and The Face of Battle, which gives similar treatment to the common soldier. Later on, while I was reading about those two Keegan books, I was pleased to discover that he has a new book that is a mere two weeks from hitting the shelves. It is enticingly titled, Intelligence in Warfare: From Nelson to Hitler.
In 1886, Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to his brother enumerating the following requirements for his own writing:Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic natureTotal objectivityTruth descriptions of persons and objectsExtreme brevityAudacity and originality; flee stereotypesCompassionI like to present this list at the start of any fiction writing class because it’s wonderful conversation fodder. Everyone has one they cherish (for me, it’s compassion), and one they revile (as my students recently pointed out to me: Can anyone every be totally objective? Isn’t the fleeing of stereotypes stereotypical?). After a discussion of this list, I have my students replace one or two of Chekhov’s rules with their own. Popular answers include: passion; avoidance of adverbs; write what you know; write what you don’t know; and humor. I always add “Bold use of metaphor” – whatever that means. If I were to revise Chekhov’s list, I’d take the “extreme” out of “extreme brevity.” Too wordy.Perhaps Chekhov hadn’t read Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, in which he advised, “Extreme brevity will degenerate into epigrammatism.” I have a feeling that Ernest Hemingway did catch this warning, though, for when he was challenged to write a story in six words, he took old Poe to task with this:”For sale: baby shoes, never used.”I love Hemingway’s story – how it attests to the power of implication! For a long time, I thought it very sad, until author Antoine Wilson schooled me otherwise. Now I appreciate it even more.As pointed out on this blog a few days ago, Smith, the online magazine devoted to storytelling and personal narratives, is publishing a compendium of 6-word memoirs by various authors (some of them were previously compiled in the 2007 edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading.) My favorites include Drew Peck’s “Ex-wife and contractor now have house” (which follows in Hemingway’s footsteps of implication), and Bob Redman’s “Being a monk stunk. Better gay” (for its musical qualities). All entries are fun, and they make you want to try writing one.I myself am terrible at the six-word story, autobiographical or not. Perhaps that’s the real reason why I don’t want the “extreme” in my “brevity.” I use as few words as a story requires – but sometimes a story requires a lot of words. Isn’t that what writers of the long short story – such as Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg – might tell you? But Poe warns against this, too, for “the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable.”Uh oh.
There are two types of people in this world: (Segment One) people who adhere, as a point of pride, to every last comma and period of the laws of punctuation, and then there the people who just don’t have the time (Segment Two) and, frankly, are a little tired of hearing about these numerous and arcane rules that are supposedly all that separates us from the animals. Bearing in mind that Segment One would be offended that anyone might suggest that punctuation rules are not self-evident and that Segment Two will tell you to blow it out your ear, a book aimed at teaching the populace the in and outs of punctuation doesn’t seem likely to be a blockbuster. Yet just such a book was a huge seller in England last year. Are the Brits crazy or are we Americans missing out on the pleasurable nuances of punctuation? We’re about to find out. Next week, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss comes out, and its current sales ranking of 6 at Amazon indicates that it will indeed be a success on this side of the Atlantic. And the New York Times seems to like it, which can’t hurt. The success of this book will cement the notion that Americans appreciate this British brand of book that delivers dull subject matter contained in a humorous package and prove that the big sales of last year’s most delightfully useless British book, Schott’s Original Miscellany, was not a fluke. (I hope that I punctuated everything correctly in that post.)
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis’s interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of “sports” stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother’s undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan’s life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government’s shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the “Kurdish Issue” in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d’etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d’etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 – there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to “correct” his “thinking” during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of “enforcing” democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
I listen to a lot of Public Radio, perhaps too much. And while I probably shouldn’t be scheduling my days around radio shows devoted to cooking or news quizzes, there are some Public Radio personalities that do deserve my devotion (and you probably yours too.) One of these is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Glass was recently in the news for his vocal protests of FCC crackdowns. In this essay from the New York Times Magazine he takes up for Howard Stern and criticizes the absurdity at the center of the decency battle. And the Houston Chronicle explains that Glass isn’t just a public radio host, he’s also a sex symbol. Often considered one of the funniest voices on radio, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life. His fans are already clamoring for his latest book due out this June. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another of Sedaris’ collections of humorous, autobiographical essays, is previewed here in the Sydney Star Observer. And then there is Terry Gross, master interviewer and host of the long running show Fresh Air. A collection of Gross’ famous interviews will be coming out this fall, titled All I Did Was Ask. Here’s an interview with the queen of interviewers at the Detroit Free Press.
Counterpoint is rereleasing a collection of Donald Barthelme tidbits (it’s subtitled “Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays”), The Teachings of Don B.. The collection is perhaps most notable in that it contains an introduction by Thomas Pynchon. I’m fairly certain it’s the same essay by Pynchon that’s found here. It begins:Though to all appearances a gathering of odds and ends, what this volume in fact offers us is the full spectrum of vintage Barthelmismo — fictions thoughtfully concocted and comfortably beyond the reach of time, reactions less exempt from deadlines and rent payments to news of past moments that nonetheless remain our own, not to mention literary send-ups, intriguing recipes, magisterially extended metaphors, television programming that never was, strangely illuminated dreams, elegant ranting, debonair raving, and more, much more.Now that’s a blurb.