My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
My father used to tell the story of the summer he spent touring Europe with his Uncle John. For five memorable weeks, he was allowed (or forced, depending on his mood) to ride shotgun in a decrepit VW bus, barnstorming the battlefields of World War II, listening to John - an uncle by marriage, practically a stranger - spin tales as tall as the day was long... never once stopping to pee. Last week, as I raced through Robert Stone's new memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, I found myself recalling the tone with which my dad described that Continental adventure, a kind of affectionate exasperation, or exasperated affection. Revisiting mid-century America in Robert Stone's company, it turns out, is a lot like traveling with a garrulous uncle. One is not always certain one's getting the straight dope, nor is the telling without its longeurs. But one would hate not to have made the trip.Stone himself returns repeatedly to questions of veracity, and declares himself to be after bigger fish than "just the facts":So much can be said about the intersections of life and language, the degree to which language can be made to serve the truth. By the truth I mean unresisted insight, which is what gets us by, which makes one person's life and sufferings comprehensible to another. We take an experience, or a character, an event, and so to speak we write a poem about it.The deepest insights in Prime Green harmonize the sensory impressions of how the world felt then to young Bob Stone, with the hard-won skepticism of a writer many years his senior. In chapters on Ken Kesey and Vietnam and helter-skelter Los Angeles, Stone probes the self-delusions and selfishness that underwrote the Sixties counterculture, while doing honor to its outsized personalities and nobler aspirations.The story starts not in the Sixties proper, but in 1958, aboard a naval transport ship traversing the globe. We see Robert Stone, fresh out of high school, exploring the shore and dreaming away the days at sea. The beauty of the ocean and its creatures would seem to bespeak the essential benevolence of nature, but racism in South Africa and a bombing campaign in Egypt trumpet the human capacity for ugliness. (Both the Rousseauvian and the Hobbesian notes will crescendo in the decade to come.) Back home in New York, Stone gets married and tries to write. After a stint in New Orleans, he moves to California as a Stegner fellow at Stanford, falls in with a band of proto-hippies led by Ken Kesey, and thus launches headlong into the turbulent waters of the Sixties.Writing about Kesey, Stone is at his best. The half of Prime Green that deals with Kesey could have been expanded and published on its own, under a separate title - Remembering the Chief. As it is, Stone's account provides a compassionate complement to Tom Wolfe's depiction of the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Stone's love for Kesey is evident, yet a kind of fraternal competitiveness allows him to see the man behind the persona more fully than did Wolfe. We feel the powerful allure of Kesey's charisma, without which the Sixties of pop-cultural memory might not have come into being - the "psychedelic movement," the Grateful Dead, the road to Woodstock. But we also see glimmers of fascism and paranoia around the edges of Kesey's ubermensch antinomianism... the beginning of the road to Altamont. More importantly, we come to understand the long silence that followed Kesey's early burst of literary brilliance.Stone himself suffered no such silence - after winning the National Book Award for his first novel, AHall of Mirrors, he published six others, as well as a book of short stories. (Larry McMurtry was also part of the prodigious group of Stegner fellows from the early 60s). In his seventh decade, Stone can still hammer out sentences of marvelous felicity and a kind of raffish charm. Moreover, focusing on his late friend and colleague Kesey frees Stone from the burden of writing about himself, which tends to nudge the aforementioned felicity toward glibness. The deceits and adulterous episodes that have marked his remarkable forty-five year marriage, for example, are mentioned almost in passing, tossed off as jokes. And the dark side of the author's hard drug use, like that of free love, is everywhere alluded to but nowhere dramatized. "We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us." End chapter. (More please! one thinks.)Apart from the long middle section that lingers on Kesey, Stone is most affecting when exploring his own failures of nerve and/or judgment. In early passages on South Africa and Jim-Crow New Orleans, he laments his own inability to take a public stand against apartheid, and thus illuminates the degree to which institutional racism depends on the silence and complicity of forward-thinking people. A queasy interlude in L.A. finds parents and their small children sharing balloons of nitrous oxide.When, would you believe, this one little tyke made this snarky face right at me and said ha ha or hee hee or some shit, 'These aren't balloons! They're condoms!' [...] We'd been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.An uproarious chapter recounts Stone's stint writing for a tabloid called "the National Thunder. It was an imitation of the National Enquirer, lacking the delicacy and taste of the original." And a late section on Vietnam, in which Stone excoriates himself for being a tourist in other people's combat zone, hammers home the horrific senselessness of that war. (I regret to say that I've never read anything else by Robert Stone, but I plan to start with Dog Soldiers this summer.)While providing a showcase for these bravura episodes, Prime Green remains somewhat ramshackle as a memoir. This may befit the anarchic, unfocused nature of the Sixties themselves, but it also speaks to an unsettling trend in the burgeoning confessional market: the memoir-as-article-collection. As with Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone, substantial chunks of Prime Green were first serialized in magazine form; to make them cohere into a sustained narrative requires a degree of readerly imagination, a filling in of holes.Read Prime Green as a kind of compilation album, however - a sampler of Robert Stone's range - and a quite different and more satisfying book emerges. In the course of 230 quick pages, we meet Ram Dass and Alger Hiss, undertake adventures in sex, drugs, war, and parenting, and encounter "unresisted insight" and wry humor in almost every paragraph. It's like riding shotgun with Uncle John, except the trip moves faster, and touches down on five continents, and we can climb off this bus whenever we like. Buses, come to think of it, play a special role here. In Robert Stone's nimble hands, Kesey's "Furthur" becomes a metaphor for the Sixties themselves. Whether one was on the bus or off the bus back then, whether or not one had yet been born, one now lives, for better or for worse, in the landscape the counterculture transformed. It was, as Stone puts it, "...a journey of such holiness that being there - mere vulgar location - was instantly beside the point. From the moment the first demented teenager waved a naked farewell as Neal Cassady threw the clutch, everything entered the numinous."
As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels' strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime's final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN's arrogance and Geraldo Rivera's foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson's narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote -- or ancient history -- compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson's daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels' concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson's epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.
There was a certain buzz in the air before Michael Hastings’s The Last Magazine was published back in June of this year. His personal story, in fact, is the stuff that good fiction is made of. A prominent journalist, he died just over a year ago in a single-vehicle crash in the hours before dawn, triggering speculation that he had been murdered. He began his career at Newsweek, which was how I came to know him. I worked far away from the glitz of the New York office, running the Middle East bureau of Newsweek in Jerusalem, researching, and eventually writing. I spent hours working on stories focusing on the Middle East conflict that seemed urgent, fresh, and original until they reached the svelte boardroom of the editors come Monday morning, where they were invariably shot down or changed beyond belief. I met many Newsweek writers as they passed through the bureau on their way to assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hotspots. Photographers, journalists, editors -- they all dropped by the bureau with their flak jackets, cameras, and sat phones. Mike Hastings was one of them, back then a reporter en route to Iraq for the first time. We had drinks one night in the bar of the American Colony, a favourite hangout of many foreign journalists. I liked Mike, sensing that underneath the bluster of war correspondent was a genuinely nice guy, jittery about his professional abilities but incredibly ambitious, wondering when he should propose to his girlfriend and whether he should encourage her to follow him to Iraq. He did propose, she did follow him, and a short time later she was killed when her convoy was attacked by Iraqi militants, as documented in Hastings’s autobiographical work, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. Around the time of his death, he had just published “Why the Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” an aggressive indictment of the Obama administration. According to reports, he emailed colleagues that he was now “onto a big story” and needed to go “off radar” for a while. Some say he was being tailed by the FBI. Hastings was just 33 when he died, but had already made his mark in the world of mass communication. After cutting his journalist teeth on Newsweek, beginning as an unpaid intern, he went on to write for Rolling Stone
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There are three worlds in The Curfew: the unsettling police state in which William and his 8-year-old daughter Molly live, the shared world of games, riddles, and sadness that William and Molly create together, and the world through Molly’s eyes as she tries to reconcile the first two. That first world was formed when the government was overthrown, quietly, overnight. “An ordinary nation... had gone to sleep one night and woken the next morning to find in the place of the old government an invisible state, with its own concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices. Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much so that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend nothing had changed at all.” In this new state, the government and the police were unseen. The mysterious disappearances of suspected rebels are the chief proof of their existence. In return, those suspected of being the secret police, or police informers, are in danger of being killed in broad daylight - shot on the sidewalk, pushed in front of a bus - by a seething citizenry. Brief, unremarked-upon episodes of violence are therefore frequent, as the government and its resistors wage anonymous war on the street, and the rest of the population try to stay out of the way. The book opens with the sound of a gunshot outside William and Molly’s home, which they sleep through. William is a former violinist, now an epitaphorist, employed by a mason to visit families of the dead and collaborate on the epitaph for the gravestone. He is no longer a violinist because music is forbidden, and because his wife mysteriously disappeared, and there’s no point in inviting more trouble when he’s the only one left to take care of Molly. Their life together is William’s attempt at an antidote to Molly’s bleak childhood — motherless, a student at a school where she is “told repeatedly to repeat things,” and increasingly aware of the bizarre violence around her. It’s a familiar tale — a parent trying to shelter their child from the harshest reality, knowing that everything they want for their child’s life is unavailable, and having to compensate. William is Molly’s guardian, teacher, and only friend. They spend their evenings playing logic games and solving riddles. In this world bereft of any candor, even this feels subversive. “Is it possible, wonders Molly, for the finest things to be hidden? To be hidden and never shared?” Much of Ball’s writing takes place in worlds that are slightly off, where the rules of society have been changed, and both the characters in these worlds and we, the readers, aren’t entirely clear what the new rules are. I’ve never felt oriented in one of Ball’s novels, but I’m quite sure I’m not meant to. When you’re in one of these muddled worlds, and something authentic happens - a daughter solves her father’s riddle, or two friends meet on the street - it shines like a beacon. Ball cultivates these quiet moments for us to see. When William asks bereaved families what they want as their loved one’s epitaph, he always ignores their first suggestion, like “rest in peace” or “dutiful son.” If he sits and waits, the unique details and talents come out, and he’ll eventually add “friend of cats” or “could skin a pig in the dark.” (N.B. One of the men he visits, who wants to decide on his own epitaph before his death, is named Stan Milgram. Stanley Milgram was a noted social psychologist who conducted a famous experiment on people’s ability to torture each other.) One day, as William is walking from one appointment to the next, he “passed through several alleys, which were themselves connected to other alleys. Here, the backs of things could be seen, unrepaired, unconstructed, unrepentant. Still, one was watched.” In The Curfew, everything and everyone has a hidden life incongruous with the conformity of the police state. One assumes that this is their sustenance, and they’ll make do with it. But one day William runs into someone who claims to have information about the disappearance of his wife. William can meet him later, to collect this information, but he’d be leaving Molly alone, and breaking the curfew. At this point in the novel, the narration shifts to Molly’s point of view. As William risks his and Molly’s existence in order to learn the truth, we are re-introduced to their lives through her eyes, emphasizing the fact that if William’s risk turns foul, hers will be the only perspective left. The Curfew is a refracted book, showing that each person is several different stories, depending on who’s looking. As such, it’s a book that evades rational conclusion. But, as someone says to Molly, “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.” See Also: The Millions Interview: Jesse Ball
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