I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
On Feb. 9th, the documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the War in Iraq went into limited release across the U.S. The movie follows the National Endowment of the Art’s (NEA) program to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experience into words. Although the movie itself has gotten mixed reviews, the program has been considered a great success. After workshops across the nation led by the likes of Vietnam veteran and novelist Tobias Wolff and Tom Clancy, soldiers’ writings were collected in an anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The book includes short stories, poems, letters and essays, arranged by theme and, unlike the movie, has received a considerable number of accolades.Brian Turner, whose book Here, Bullet, a collection of poems on the war in Iraq, was reviewed here last week, was a participant in the workshop, and appears in the movie reading his poem “What Every Soldier Should Know.” Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the movie or pick up a copy Operation Homecoming, I have in the past found great value in the first person accounts of World War II collected by Studs Terkel in his book The Good War, and especially in Haruya Cook’s and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War (an absolutely stunning accomplishment that is a must read for anyone interested in Japan’s part in WWII.) The power of these accounts to educate and inform can’t be overestimated and all indications are that Operation Homecoming will be an excellent resource for those interested in another perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.More information on the Operation Homecoming Program is available through the NEA.Bonus Links: Operation Homecoming mentioned in the New Yorker “War Issue.” And a list of World War II non-fiction compiled with help from readers of The Millions.
Kurt Vonnegut fans will be interested to know that a collection of previously unpublished non-fiction is set to be published by Penguin in April, a year after his death. From the catalog:Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve new and unpublished writings on war and peace. Written with Vonnegut’s trademark rueful humor, the pieces range from a visceral nonfiction recollection of the destruction of Dresden during World War II – a piece that is as timely today as it was then – to a painfully funny story about three privates and their fantasies of the perfect first meal upon returning home from war; to a darker and more poignant story about the impossibility of shielding our children from the temptations of violence. This is a volume that says as much about the times in which we live as it does about the genius of the man who wrote it. Also included here is Vonnegut’s last speech, as well as an assortment of his drawings, and an introduction by the author’s son, Mark Vonnegut.I’m also told that Mark Vonnegut’s introduction, “sheds some light on their family life and Kurt’s writing habits.”
I have an odd schedule this fall – I’m a part time grad student and a part time professional. I’m spending time north of the city in Evanston as well as downtown and at my apartment on the North Side. This means a lot of off-peak time spent on the El, where I’ve been able to continue my quasi-sociological study of Chicago based on what I observe people reading on the El. One thing I learned today: there’s not as much reading going on during those off-peak hours. Apparently, if you’re riding around on the train at ten in the morning or three in the afternoon, you’re not likely to have your nose in a book. On the four trains and one bus (purple line, red line, and the 92) that I rode today I only spotted four books, three of which I was able to identify.Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach – It seems a bit morbid for an afternoon train ride, but I’m told that this book is a quite entertaining example of the “biography of a thing” genre.Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson – This one sounds pretty interesting. It’s about a militant civil rights radical who was forced to flee the country. He ended up in pre-revolutionary Cuba where he started a radio show called Radio Free Dixie.Bloodlines by Dinah McCall – mass-market paperbacks are to bookspotting as pigeons are to bird watching.Previously: May, July, August
Now that Thanksgiving weekend has finally come to a close, I have a bit of time to let you know about one or two odd and interesting books I’ve noticed lately. I happen to think that Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the more enjoyable books I’ve ever read, and I also loved reading about Kesey in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which, by the way is fantastic if read back to back with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels since the books tell essentially the same story but with different points of view and writing styles). So, I was rather intrigued when I came across Kesey’s Jail Journal. It’s a colorful amalgamation of collages, drawings, and text that he created during various stints behind bars over the course of thirty years.Another interesting looking book is Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death which is a companion book to the HBO series. I’m not a big fan of TV show companion books. They are nearly always hastily produced assemblages of screen captures and mind-numbingly idiotic text, but this one appears to break the mold a bit. The book isn’t an episode guide; instead it meanders through various backstories in an appropriately eerie sort of way, with lots of odd photos and ephmera related to the show. In that sense it’s interesting for what it is, but it’s also a triumph in book design. The book slides into this odd, plastic, vertical slip cover that is faintly reminiscent of a coffin, and the book itself lacks a traditional spine, and instead appears to be a series of booklets artfully woven together.Finally, I’m sure all the Mcsweeney’s watchers have seen this item, which for me falls into the annoying “weird for the sake of being weird” category. Projects like William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down keep me interested, but it bugs me to see McSweeney’s squandering the advantages they have over other independent publishers with so much forced silliness and ironic posturing.
Between July 1 and November 5th, I don’t think I read anything longer than a three-page spread on Politico or anything more literary than a New Yorker cartoon. Political campaigns are experiments in all sorts of deprivations. The days are long and narrow, filled with fast food containers and the sounds of vibrating Blackberries. I started on the Obama campaign back in January in South Carolina. Many of my colleagues on the general election campaign in Pennsylvania had been at this for almost two years, a stunning feat of endurance that stretched from hours spent knocking doors after dark in frozen New Hampshire, straight through to the week of all-nighters that preceded Election Day.Among the things I lost to an around-the-clock schedule, books were not the most precious. On any given day I missed talking with my friends, or going for a run, more. But if books were not the things I missed most, their absence was in one way the most profound. While the hurly-burly of the campaign never caused me to question the importance of calling my dad or cooking a meal, it did cast doubt over the value of reading.In this past Sunday’s Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem wrote of the author Roberto Bolano, that he “never tires of noting how a passion for literature walks a razor’s edge between catastrophic irrelevance and sublime calling.” The frantic activity of a campaign questions the relevance of a reading life. It was energizing these past few months to feel myself so squarely in the flow of history, and coming down the homestretch in October, it would have felt like I was stepping out of the current to have spent an afternoon reading. But just as one can only subsist on almonds and M&Ms for so long (I made it a week), after awhile I found I needed books as much as I needed vegetables. Literature is sublime when it invigorates awareness of the world around us, and we rely on the store of that awareness in times, like campaigns, when there is not a lot of opportunity to assess where we are or to question where we’re going. Now that it’s over and I’m reading again, I find that stories are not so much a refuge or a pause as they are a way for me to put my feet on the ground again.
Writing at home can be distracting and discouraging. It’s hard to concentrate when surrounded by all your stuff. There’s TV to watch, chores to do, people to call on the phone, a dog to walk. Days can go by without a word ever being put on the page. So writers seek refuge outside their homes to write in more conducive settings, a local coffee shop or University library, for example. Writers of a certain stature might attend a writers’ colony hoping for a stretch of forced productivity, while others will fashion their own writers’ colonies by secluding themselves in a rented office to toil away.With this in mind, two enterprising former MFAs in New York City, noting the need so many writers have for a place to write, have created Paragraph Workspace for Writers. As they describe it:Paragraph is a membership organization dedicated to providing an affordable and tranquil working environment for writers of all genres. We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.Paragraph was created by writers for writers, with an understanding that writers work best in a quiet, comfortable space away from the hurry and obligation of urban life.For between $80 and $132 a month (depending on length of commitment and level of access) writers can use the space – a decked out 3rd floor apartment on 14th Street – as their own little writing venue. The online application for membership includes space for references, presumably to weed out the crazies. I can think of a few other reasons why this may not work – the more members the group gets, the less worthwhile the space becomes for each individual member; there are hundreds of places in New York that provide the same environment (though perhaps not the 24 hour access), starting with libraries; a writer in need of such a space is not likely to have the disposable income to spend on it – but who knows, maybe it’ll work.