This morning, when I finished reading George Packer's long article in this week's New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government's failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer's book, The Assassin's Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel - a collaborator - and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad's U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. "Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer - nearly impossible to obtain," Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn't bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. "It's like taking the decision to commit suicide," he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan's position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer's article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
Though the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley isn't the most "sexy" of critics (Pete Dexter's comments notwithstanding), I've always enjoyed his columns. He will champion anything he believes is worth reading, even naming a book by John Grisham as one of the "best" of the year in 2005. He also clearly loves to read, and it shows in his writing, as opposed to, say, Michiko who I'd imagine dreads every book that crosses her threshold. Yardley also has a wonderful column called "Second Reading" that does away with the tyranny of the new and allows him to select and ruminate over any title from the vast trove of books he's read. This week revisits a classic that I remember warmly from my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's well-known series about life on the frontier.Yardley offers some tidbits that were new to me: Wilder didn't start writing the books until she was in her early 60s, and her daughter, a popular journalist and novelist, co-wrote, or at least heavily edited, the books. In revisiting the book, Yardley doesn't succumb to nostalgia, but he does acknowledge why the books have had such staying power:Some of the readers who've urged me to include one of Wilder's books in Second Reading have said that they can be as satisfying for adult readers as for younger ones. In the sense that I had a pleasant time rereading Little House in the Big Woods, I guess that I agree, but it's not exactly an adult pleasure. Wilder's prose is clean, her people are immensely appealing and the details she provides of frontier domestic life are fascinating, but we shouldn't try to persuade ourselves that these books are more than what they are: very good books for children that -- as I realize far more keenly now than when I was a boy -- paint a rather idealized picture of the American past. Wilder herself never seems to have pretended that she wrote for any except young readers, so let's take her word for it.If you've read the books, you'll enjoy the essay.Bonus Links: The Home-Schooling Book Boom, The Little Men Who Love Little House
Just finished up the recent New Yorker double issue and a couple of items caught my eye. First, I noticed in the capsule book reviews that there is a new book by Andrea Levy out. I had no idea, and it's a shame because a new book by Levy should be big news. Her novel Small Island was one of the best books of the last five years (I read it in 2005.) This new book is called Fruit of the Lemon and it looks once again at Jamaican immigrants in England. While Small Island focused on the World War II era, however, in Fruit of the Lemon the action occurs in the 1970s, though racial tensions between the former colonizers and formerly colonized remain a major theme. This one is going on my list.Secondly, the New Yorker's master essayist Louis Menand digs into a book I mentioned here a few months back, The Yale Book of Quotations. The more I hear about this book the more I want it. It sounds like one of those essential reference books that is both useful and endlessly entertaining. Here's a tidbit from Menand's review:It is extremely interesting to know, for instance, that the phrase "Shit happens" was introduced to print by one Connie Eble, in a publication identified as "UNC-CH Slang" (presumably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), in 1983. "Life's a bitch, and then you die," a closely related reflection, dates from 1982, the year it appeared in the Washington Post. "Been there, done that" entered the public discourse in 1983, via the Union Recorder, a publication out of the University of Sydney. "Get a life": the Washington Post, 1983. (What is it about the nineteen-eighties, anyway?) "Size doesn't matter," a phrase, or at least a hope, that would seem to have been around since the Pleistocene, did not see print until 1989, rather late in the history of the species, when it appeared in the Boston Globe.
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In the summer of 2004, in what seemed like a simpler time when the Millions was barely a year old, and I was still a couple of months away from adding my two-cents worth (Canadian) to it, Max introduced me to the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski. While reading Shah of Shahs, and marveling at the reportage and at the powerful, witty and humane voice jumping off of the page, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a translation, and that not only were Kapuscinski's magnificent words and images being translated, but William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand had managed to capture the subtleties of his literary voice.Delivering those translated words so that the reader gets the full experience - all the nuances hidden in the shadows of the language - seems to me to be a monumental task. Think, then, what is involved in translating something which is entirely image. Where the flashes of color, and the music of the words, the rhythms and the tones, must all be conveyed to the innocent reader. Think what must be involved when translating poetry.A recent Globe and Mail article, "An Athlete in the extreme sport of poetry," profiles Erin Moure, who, along with Robert Majzels, has translated Nicole Brossard's Cahier de roses et de civilisation (Notebook of Roses and Civilization).On the seemingly daunting task of translating Brossard's poetry, Moure says: "There are challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain. Plus, Brossard does things in French that are syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well."The article also discusses the collaborative method that Moure and her co-translator used. Moure would "do three pages in a row, then Bob'll translate three pages in a row, the next three pages, and so on."As an interesting aside, Moure also wishes that there were other translations of Brossard's book: "You can only start to see the texture of the original language really, really when there's more than one translation."
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A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: "To be honest, there's so much s---. Most of the things we praise aren't very good." This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney's rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a "Snarkwatch" on their website. Yet the "snarkiness" has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer's unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain's favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled "Someone needs to have a word with Amis" and included the line "I won't tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it's terrible." (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, "I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman's new collection of essays." (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don't serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve. For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.
The rewards of fiction can be greater than that of nonfiction—the ecstatic feeling of transport when you’re pulled into the world of a story, given a new window into human experience—but you can also come away from a story angry that the writer has just wasted 45 minutes of your life.