I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
Pete Dexter’s new book Train comes out October 7th. Here is my review:In the grand tradition of Los Angeles noir, Pete Dexter’s new novel Train, is framed in black and white by the minds eye. Yet Dexter has applied his considerable skill to softening the edges; it is delicately written noir.Train is the nickname of Lionel Walk, a black caddy at a posh Brentwood country club, whose world seems populated only by malevolent forces: the crass racism of the country club members, the criminal element among his fellow caddies, and the undisguised malice of his mother’s lover. In the same city, and yet, of course, in another world entirely, a woman named Norah is brutally attacked and her husband is murdered while they are on their yacht, anchored off the coast. Norah manages to escape into the arms of Miller Packard, whom Train will later dub “Mile Away Man,” which sets the book careening towards its inevitable conclusion. Packard is brilliantly written as both heroic rescuer and herald of malevolent chaos.The mystery inherent in this book is not of the whodunit variety – we know from the start who commits the murder on the yacht – rather it is to see which of the forces that seem to inhabit Packard will win out in the end. In fact, one of the strengths of the book is Dexter’s ability to embody his characters with such ethereal qualities. Packard seems as though he has been touched by some unmentioned force that torments him. Train, meanwhile, has been similarly touched, and though this force is of pure benevolence, one cannot be sure if it will be strong enough to lift him from his circumstances. Train turns out to be, of all things, a golf prodigy, which would be a lucrative gift for almost anyone except someone in Train’s circumstances. Instead, his unaccountable proficiency serves only to further enmesh his life with that of Packard and Norah and a blind former boxer named Plural.Train is bleak but captivating. The book unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself not wanting to look away.
Of the novels selected as National Book Award finalists in the Young People’s Literature category, Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is the title that my high school students would reach for. McCormick’s latest novel is based on the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. It is a story of a young boy who grows into a teenager on the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, a young boy who endures unspeakable trauma, and survives. My students are drawn to books that feature violence and drama and tragedy, in part because they crave perspective: a way to understand the small and large tragedies of their lives, to appreciate the bounty of resources and freedoms available to them, and to feel grateful rather than burdened.
They want to read about kids like them, dealing with hardships both familiar and alien, encountering struggles and learning perseverance. Patricia McCormick must have a keen awareness of how compelling such topics are to young readers: her earlier novel Sold deals with a young Nepali girl who is sold in to sex slavery, Cut with a protagonist who self-harms. Both books are widely read among my students. A few kids actively avoid what they label as “depressing books,” but many more reach for McCormick’s titles and others: Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Lewis Alsamari’s Escape from Saddam. And through these stories of remarkable young people, my students grow in their capacity for empathy and in their knowledge of the world.
So if Never Fall Down would be their first choice from the selection of National Book Award finalists, Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos would be their second — a book not about a nation wracked by genocide, but a family broken by addiction. In both books we find a young protagonist clinging to hope in the face of pain and loss. Young readers open books and hope to find some piece of themselves reflected in the pages. And while it is easy to dismiss this urge as the notorious ego-centricity of teenagers, and true that they are often ignorant of national and international affairs, it doesn’t follow that exposure to diverse topics of great depth leaves them apathetic. On the contrary, as evidenced by the Kony 2012 social media explosion, teenagers have the capacity to care a great deal, even if they are often under-informed, or unsure of how to best direct their compassion to action.
What they can do, is read. And you cannot read books like these, hear a story like Arn Chorn-Pond’s, without feeling a sense of incredulity at the fortune of your life. And when you are young, as you construct your identity and determine your place in your world, you must grapple with the disparity of experience determined by the time and place of one’s birth, with the suffering that abounds near and far, with the resilience of the human spirit which allows for hope in the face of this suffering. For my students, reading a book like Never Fall Down will forever change the way they see the world.
In April of 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond’s hometown of Battambang, Cambodia is full of life. “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere,” Patricia McCormick begins Never Fall Down, in the voice of Arn. “Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.” Arn is nine years old, and the other sounds of his nighttime village, the whistles of bombs falling in the distance, serve as little more to him than the authenticating backdrop to the make-believe battles he and his younger brother play, taking turns flying the plane, being the hero: “We shoot probably a hundred bullet, die a hundred time.”
When the real war comes to Arn’s city, it is the Khmer Rouge who bring it. These soldiers in their “black pajamas,” many no older than Arn, force the people of Battambang out of their homes and into the street, where they are told that they must leave their town, but only for three days. Their forced exodus is replicated across Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s guerrilla Communist regime, evacuate whole cities into the countryside, and attempt to build a radical agrarian society. Thousands of Cambodians die during these first forced marches, and it is during his evacuation from his home that Arn first realizes the astonishing human capacity to become desensitized: “In just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.”
Three days pass, but the people of Battambang are not allowed to return home. Over the next four years, Arn will be subjected to starvation and torture, will watch helplessly as his friends and family are killed and displaced, will learn to do whatever is necessary to survive. As is the terrible fate of children soldiers across the globe, and all the powerless held captive by violent and criminal regimes, Arn must hide his humanity, must hide it so well that he risks losing it forever. “I make my eyes blank,” McCormick writes of Arn’s tactic for avoiding the wrath of the Khmer Rouge. “You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.”
There are other rules of survival. When the Khmer Rouge first invade his city, Arn’s aunt and caregiver gathers him and his siblings in her arms and instructs them, “Do whatever they say…Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow you the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” Bend, but do not fall. Arn sees too many fall: some cut down by the Khmer Rouge, some who fall as they walk, as they stand, even as they sit, like the girl who dies sitting next to him as they eat the bowls of dirt and water that pass for dinner. And though he sometimes dreams of falling down too, he resolves to stay alive:
So hungry all the time now, my stomach eat itself, a pain like never I had before in my life. And so tire, I think sometime I sleep standing up. Other time I think maybe I will just lie down in the field; the ground, it call my name. I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.
As a child, as a teenager, Arn Chorn-Pond did not have the luxury of exploring human suffering in the abstract, as many of my students do. His story, as told by Patricia McCormick, is one of bravery, of fierce resilience, of compassion and hope in the face of ineffable evil. It is the story of how music saved his life, how friends and strangers saved his life, how his personal strength saved his life, how luck saved his life. It is the story of his determination never to fall down, but to bend, and survive. As he crosses the border to Thailand, four years after first being driven from his home, Arn is a whole lifetime in one young man, but he is alive. “And me, a soldier who kill every day, me, with body, with heart like old man, I crawl like baby.”
In January 2003, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Baghdad on a 10-day visa. With arrangements in place with various Scandinavian print and television media, the freelancer joined the growing ranks of international press who wanted to witness the changes that were in the air. Well, ten days grew to twenty and eventually to a-hundred-and-one. When she finally left, in April 2003, one type of hell had been replaced by another.Out of all this comes A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal – a powerful bit of reportage that chronicles not only the thuggish brutality of Saddam’s regime and the heart-wrenching civilian “casualties of war” caused by the chaotic “Shock and Awe” invasion, but also a gripping behind-the-scenes account of war-journalism which at times plays out like a thriller.When she first arrives, its still Saddam’s show. We see Seierstad working her way through the red tape of the Iraqi Ministry of Information. It seems so much like Soviet-style media control that at times I feel like I’m reading an account of a Western journalist in Cold-War era Moscow. When Seierstad eventually gets the chance to meet people in Baghdad it’s always with an official “minder” and the answers she gets are almost always stock answers. These people are afraid. Saddam had instituted a form of domestic terrorism, putting fear into the lives of Iraqis. Even the odd time that Seierstad escaped the watchful eye of her “minder,” responses from some citizens showed just how Saddam’s cult of personality had indoctrinated them. Saddam was everywhere. Posters, statues, all art glorified this megalomaniac. Seierstad also chronicles the poverty under his regime. The wars with Iran and Kuwait, the first Gulf War, and the ensuing Western sanctions had crippled the country.But it was early 2003 and something was in the air. Whatever line the Ministry of Information was giving, everyone knew the US invasion was imminent. The closer they got, the more Saddam’s regime lost its grip. The reins of government slackened and when Seierstad sneaks out to interview people, they begin to speak a bit more freely, more candidly. Feelings were mixed. The US invasion, just days away, was alternately feared and anticipated, often in the same breath. The common thread through most of the civilian responses was “Well the US is coming, let them sweep Saddam and his regime away and then leave, immediately”. Given the hell they’d been living through, no one could be surprised by this kind of resigned-optimism. And given the nature of war, no one can really be surprised that this optimism was shattered.Seierstad’s eye for detail is remarkable. At one point, on the eve of the invasion, she goes to an open-air book market. At that point, it had been a dozen years since the last scientific periodical was available in Iraq, but the Iraqis’ thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. There was a boy looking for a book about cloning, and a man seeking any book he could find about structuralism. Another was searching for Sartre. The insatiable quest for scientific knowledge and artistic enlightenment, especially through periods of brutality and oppression, has always been, to me, humanity’s saving grace.Seierstad also shows how the “human shield,” that collection of activists who flocked to Baghdad to physically oppose the US invasion, wound up becoming a tool of the Iraqi regime. While the Shield-ers wanted to protect hospitals and orphanages, the Iraqi government instead used them, co-opted them, by placing them in front of Iraqi infrastructure. They became pawns.Free of the lures and pressures of being an embedded journalist, and providing a clear-headed Scandinavian reasonableness to a chaotic situation, Seierstad’s account is unique. And as a Western woman trying to maneuver independently in a Middle Eastern country, even one which is admittedly more tyrannical than fundamentalist, Seierstad’s compelling tale becomes a worthy addition to modern reportage.