I’ve never been a big fan of film adaptations of books. If I watch the movie version and then decide to read the book, as is currently the case with American Psycho, I can’t help but have an image of the actors in my head. If I read the book and then watch the film, I’m tempted to be that guy who says, “You know, the book is much better.”One time when I was interviewing a Hollywood screenwriter who had just published his first book, I asked him if he’d like to see a movie version of his novel someday. Absolutely not, he said, noting that having turned books into screenplays, he knows that by the end of the process one rarely looks like the other.But what bothers me most is when books for children are adapted for the big screen. I’m not talking about projecting Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! onto a movie screen. That’s fine with me. The book already has colorful pictures and isn’t considered a novel in the literary sense. Instead, my gripe is with, oh, say, the film version of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series.As a kid, one of the things I loved about reading was how I could create an image of what the characters looked like based on the author’s description. Sure, I suppose some of those books had pictures of characters on the cover, but that’s a far cry from seeing Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, on billboards and in commercials for the movies.Admittedly, I also am not a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I read the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, before seeing the movie, and I had no desire to find out what happened next.I acknowledge the movies probably have spurred thousands of children to read more than they had before, but it’s the kind of reading that concerns me. In the end, kids end up reading books about wildly imaginative characters while being denied the pleasure of imagining what those characters look like. That disappoints me.Who knows, maybe most kids can easily separate the Harry Potter books from the films, especially since some of the screen adaptations allow for some creative license. I just hope the movies haven’t stifled the literary imagination of young readers.
The short story was but one of many writing genres embraced by author Paul Bowles, known also for his novels, travel essays and poems. The influential American writer drew the admiration of other literary giants such as Tobias Wolff and Norman Mailer, who said Bowles “let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square… the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.” That aptly describes the content of the dozen short stories found in Too Far From Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles. The selected stories were written over a span of approximately 25 years, beginning in 1950.As an expatriate who lived for many years in Tangier, Bowles’s writing not only demonstrates a keen understanding of the Western traveler (“A Distant Episode”), it also shows how he comprehended the varied inhabitants of Morocco (“The Delicate Prey”) more than any other American or European writer of his time. From the dunes of the Sahara desert to the peaks of the Atlas Mountains, Bowles effortlessly enters the minds of a people living in the French Protectorate (1912-1956).Bowles masters a range of narrative techniques in a variety of settings. While he’s perhaps best known for The Sheltering Sky – a novel adapted for the screen, starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger – Bowles is also at ease with stories set in the Caribbean (“Pages from Cold Point”) and elsewhere. In one story (“The Circular Valley”) he even adopts a type of meta-narrative by giving voice to a spirit that moves in and out of the consciousness of birds, fish, humans and reptiles to experience emotions in different forms of life.Bowles’s short stories are indeed very brief. The longest in this collection is 28 pages (“The Time of Friendship”), and most are less than half that. The brevity is a testament to his word economy. Characters are developed quickly and fully in the opening pages, and in each tale the protagonist is faced with nothing short of a profound, life-altering event – emotional, physical or both. When necessary, Bowles does not shy away from the harsh realities of life outside “civilization.”The man moved and surveyed the young body lying on the stones. He ran his finger along the razor’s blade; a pleasant excitement took possession of him. He stepped over, looked down, and saw the sex that sprouted from the base of the belly. Not entirely conscious of what he was doing, he took it in one hand and brought his other arm down with the motion of a reaper wielding a sickle. It was swiftly severed. A round, dark hole was left, flush with the skin; he stared for a moment, blankly. Driss was screaming. The muscles all over his body stood out, moved.Some readers may find it frustrating how Bowles often uses foreign words – Arabic, French and Spanish – when the English translation is insufficient. But not only are such occurrences sporadic, they also lend a certain authenticity to conversations between a melange of characters.
With the prospect of a Democrat in the White House, paired with a continued Democratic majority in Congress, many old and new ideas on the liberal agenda are poised to come to fruition in 2009. One item likely to be on the to-do list is the future of international trade.In Freedom From Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy, author Edward Gresser says progressive politicians must return to their liberal roots and recognize the benefits, both foreign and domestic, afforded by reduced tariffs and greater participation in the world economy. In short, knocking down trade barriers will create peace and prosperity for all.Gresser, director of the Trade and Global Markets Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, argues that modern-day liberals have betrayed the Democratic party’s former pro-trade policies – initiated by Grover Cleveland, advanced by Woodrow Wilson and solidified by Franklin D. Roosevelt – by flirting with protectionist measures once trumpeted by Republicans such as William McKinley and Herbert Hoover.Over the past 30 years, he says, labor unions and environmental groups have brought about an ideological shift that now has many Democrats pushing for a kind of economic isolationism fortified by high tariffs to protect against global competitors such as China.Sadly, the matter of free-trade agreements is dismissed summarily by Gresser, who calls them “a bad combination of large controversy and small consequence.” Seeing as how the United States has free-trade deals pending with Colombia, Panama and South Korea – all likely to cause a political showdown on Capitol Hill – it’s unfortunate the pacts aren’t considered discussion worthy.But before addressing contemporary issues such as the rise of China and the influence of the WTO, the book offers an historical perspective – nearly half of the book’s 230 pages – on the impact of various trade policies on the United States and the world at large. Though he often belabors the point that trade benefits economies, the timeline is an informative and entertaining read offering a colorful account of how societies have valued certain goods over the years and the ingenious methods employed by entrepreneurs to transport those items.The book does an impressive job of reconstructing the political atmospheres that caused the ebb and flow of protectionism in the United States over the years. But while the text adequately explains why liberals began to abandon Roosevelt’s trade policies, little attention is given to how this ideological about-face played out. Was there a serious debate among party leaders?Eventually, the discussion turns to today’s trade structure, at which point the experience of one garment worker in Cambodia is used to let the reader know all is well in the factories of the developing world. Despite numerous reports detailing abysmal working conditions in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, accusations of worker exploitation are discarded en masse by pointing to the experience of this one woman, as well as a few others in China who speak highly of factory conditions. While it seems fair to say workers’ conditions vary by factory or country in the developing world, the scenario presented here leads one to believe that calls for enforceable labor standards are unnecessary, and unions that push for regulations and threaten tariffs are essentially the economic isolationists reminiscent of the early 20th century.But not all trade critics are proponents of protectionism. Instead, many seek to strengthen or establish labor and environmental standards – objectives Gresser says are unreasonable demands to place on large countries like China or poor countries like Papua New Guinea – for the sake of foreign workers and the ecosystem as a whole.Yet Gresser is not unsympathetic to the victims of established trade policies, and he acknowledges the system needs fixing. He rightly points out that the lower class in the United States bears the brunt of the tariff system; essential goods such as food and clothing carry disproportionately higher tariffs than luxury items.However, on several occasions the author is guilty of the sin of omission, particularly when it comes to using statistics. For example, when describing the increase in U.S. exports to China, it’s noted that by 2006 they had risen from $13 billion to $50 billion. In one year? Over the course of five years? There is also no mention of the trade deficit between the two countries, which, for better or for worse, is a number often cited by trade critics.Similarly, some facts and figures go unreferenced. For example, a lengthy quote from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni about the trade obstacles facing developing countries receives no citation. Did the author conduct the interview? Did Museveni make those remarks in front of the U.N. General Assembly? The reader should not have to ask such questions.Perhaps most disappointing, though, is how the book is filled with literally dozens of grammatical errors, typos and inconsistencies. At one point we read that the “hopes and worries of the 21th century are not new.” Other times it’s not even clear what century is being referenced: “The -century liberals who designed this system were far-sighted, optimistic, rational, and right.”It’s unfortunate that a book with a provocative premise struggles to articulate its assertions.
Yet another book about World War II may seem like a yawner. Because, seriously, what hasn’t been written about the subject already? With the history side of things well-documented, most new books delve into personal accounts of the war years. In Never Surrender, British author Michael Dobbs does just that, but with a twist. The result is, according to the cover, “A novel of Winston Churchill.”Historical fiction can bring out the best or worst in a writer. Sometimes the author is an academic with nothing but names, dates and the question: What if? That approach often manifests itself in hundreds of pages consisting of too much history and not enough fiction. Other times the perfect balance is achieved, as with Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a novel about the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.After reading this 316-page novel, it’s clear the historical fiction genre suits Dobbs well. Never Surrender strikes the right balance.The book is set primarily in 1940, in the weeks leading up to and including Great Britain’s desperate retreat from the European mainland and Adolf Hitler’s advancing Nazi army. Churchill’s leadership was still in its infancy, and he had few allies, both in England and beyond. The book serves as a vivid reminder of just how close the island nation came to striking a deal with Germany, and how reluctant the United States was to offer military aid to its weakened ally.But Churchill is not the only character in this book engaged in battle. Across the channel in France, a young medic and conscientious objector named Don Chichester witnesses the horrors of war as the dead and wounded are brought before him.They laid him on the kitchen floor – the table was occupied – and a doctor slowly unwrapped the sodden cloth. Two terrified eyes stared out, but of the rest of the face there was almost nothing. No lower jaw, no tongue, no cheek, only those two staring eyes which understood it all. Fingers clutched Don’s sleeve with the force of a man under siege from pain he was incapable of resisting.Such descriptions are used sparingly, making them all the more powerful, and realistic, for Don is soon separated from his unit and joined by a wounded French soldier in search of safety back in England.By giving an equal amount of attention, and text, to the realities on the ground and to the decision-makers back in London, the novel deftly moves back and forth between the historical and the fictional. Churchill’s survival is certain; Don’s fate is less so.Yet the two men share a similar handicap: Both are crippled by feelings of unfulfilled expectations set by their fathers. And it takes the unsolicited counsel of a foreigner for each to gain perspective.Dobbs, who is a former advisor to prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, is no armchair historian. His proximity to England’s leaders has made him privy to the psychological burdens carried by those at the top. Furthermore, his experience as a newspaper reporter on both sides of the Atlantic is demonstrated by a fluid writing style full of English subtlety and wit.While the 2003 book, rereleased in paperback this September, is the second in a series – Winston’s War (2002), Churchill’s Hour (2004) and Churchill’s Triumph (2005) – about events before, during and after World War II, it is undoubtedly capable of standing alone. Some readers may desire to see what comes next, but reading what comes before will require a 704-page commitment.Of course, any piece of historical fiction opens itself up to sins of omission. Certain events are left unmentioned, meaning readers who have studied the second World War in depth might feel like moviegoers who watch a film adaptation of their favorite book.At the same time, the opposite can be true for those not steeped in the history of World War II. Questions may linger throughout about whether certain characters are historical or fictional. Fear not, all is explained in the epilogue. But it’s safe to say that those who appear fictional are just that. So trust your literary instincts.
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.Counterterrorism officials in the United States, and elsewhere, have failed to utilize two easily accessible tools in the war against terrorism, according a former FBI undercover agent who uses his personal experiences to support his recommendations in Thinking Like a Terrorist (Potomac Books, 2007).Author Mike German’s prescription is simple: Examine publicly available texts published by terrorist groups and study effective techniques previously used by governments to combat terrorism.So how should the United States and its allies deal with al Qaeda? Readers who are hoping to gain secret access to the mindset of Osama bin Laden and his operatives will be sorely disappointed. The book devotes a mere 10 pages, out of 200, to discuss the U.S.-led war on terrorism.Instead, neo-Nazi groups in the United States and the Irish Republican Army are discussed in great detail. In that respect, German sticks to what he knows best, and he tends not to overreach. It’s unfortunate, though, because German doesn’t apply yesterday’s lessons to today’s challenges, other than pointing out that the United States fulfilled al Qaeda’s wishes by bringing the war on terrorism to the Middle East.In this very readable book, German’s greatest strength comes in describing his years working undercover for the FBI infiltrating neo-Nazi groups. His tales are riveting and put a human face on people known more for their appearance, as skinheads, than the complexity of their ideology. This 25-page section at the beginning of the book not only lends credibility to German’s later insights, it also reads like a primer on neo-Nazi activities in the United States, explaining how infighting and a lack of funding have rendered this fractured movement ineffective.But from there the book takes a questionable turn as German asserts that all terrorists operate in the same way. He says terrorists “don’t behave differently just because they live in different parts of the world.” Readers in Israel would undoubtedly dispute this claim, especially when one considers the prevalence of suicide bombers in the Middle East compared with the United States. To hear German tell it, busting up al Qaeda should be no more challenging than dismantling the Ku Klux Klan or the IRA. But that’s easier said than done.For one thing, the number of Arabic- or Urdu-speaking agents available to infiltrate al Qaeda is limited, to put in mildly, compared with white English speakers for undercover assignments in the United States or Northern Ireland.But when it comes to the meat of the book – how terrorists think, and what they think about – German excels. He describes how terrorists hate being referred to as mere criminals. They prefer to be known as political prisoners, if apprehended, and the martyr status that comes with it.Perhaps the most common characteristic among terrorists is having an us-versus-them mentality. It justifies all actions, no matter how violent. And these justifications come in the form of articulate and charismatic speakers, as well as prolific writers, aiming to foment fear and attract new members.Recognizing that there are always two sides to terrorism – terrorists and their targets – a significant portion of the book analyzes the actions of governments and discusses how they can sometimes act as the ultimate recruiting tool for terrorists, from investigations to prosecutions to torture. (References to abuses in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib are conspicuously absent in this portion of the book, though he later criticizes the detention of enemy combatants.)German takes an even-handed approach in describing the views of terrorist groups by letting them speak for themselves. He uses excerpts from communiques and manifestos rather than relying on experts to give summarized interpretations. Many readers are likely to be exposed to these unedited texts for the first time.But in citing these texts, German often disparages modern-day terrorist groups for cribbing their mission statements from previous terrorist organizations. At times, the same could be said of German’s book. Besides his personal experiences with law enforcement, German uses the work of historians, and even philosophers, to buttress his arguments.German eventually tries his hand at original analysis by introducing what he terms the Government Accountability Scale after writing, “First we need to find a way to evaluate the relative legitimacy of different governments using objective criteria.”c A noble goal, to be sure, but such evaluations usually require more than the four pages allotted by German.The scale is meant to measure the extent to which a government is either repressive or free and open, as a way to determine the legitimacy of terrorist activities. The only problem is that there are only two data points on German’s scale: fascism and democracy. Governments are either like Italy under Mussolini or the United States since its inception.This analytical tool contributes little to the existing body of knowledge about the relationship between states and terrorists. And for a book that doesn’t hesitate to lapse into government speak with acronyms like COINTELPRO, short for the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program, the Government Accountability Scale receives no such shorthand. Perhaps that’s because referring to “the GAS” would detract from the issue at hand.German often takes a historical approach in laying the groundwork for his analyses. In doing so, he poses several thought-provoking, what-if scenarios to highlight terrorism’s evolution, and how perception plays a determining role.For example, should Polish Jews who attacked Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto be considered terrorists or members of the resistance? And what if Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was targeting child molesters? Would his actions be more acceptable?Overall, the book offers overwhelming praise for the infallibility of the U.S. legal system in its usefulness in fighting terrorism. But German has harsh words for American officials conducting this war, and he offers the moral of this story with the book’s parting words: “We can’t survive as a nation committed to the rule of law if we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We know what that kind of thinking is. That’s thinking like a terrorist.”
This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.In September, as many Americans reflect on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four government reports detailing progress in the war in Iraq will be presented to Congress and the American public. The most anticipated of these is expected to document the findings and recommendations of Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. military forces in Iraq.Recently, the White House acknowledged that instead of limiting authorship of the report to Petraeus, as initially expected, Bush administration officials such as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will add their take on whether military and political benchmarks in Iraq are being met.While the scope of the report is limited to progress in achieving benchmarks, the underlying question persists: Are the benchmarks and troop surge moving the United States towards victory in Iraq? Similarly, what constitutes victory in modern warfare, particularly in a conflict such as the war on terror?Author William C. Martel tackles those questions, from a predominantly historical perspective, in his new book, Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Martel, a professor of international security studies at Tufts University who has also taught at the Naval War College, argues that since victory in war means different things to different people there is no coherent definition, making it difficult to craft effective wartime strategies.It’s not a new argument, but certainly a timely one, especially since military leaders, policymakers and politicians, all with their own understanding of victory, will contribute to the Petraeus report.The book begins with brief descriptions (a few paragraphs each) of how military leaders, theorists and state leaders over the centuries have defined victory. Of the 59 thinkers summarized, some are familiar – Mao Zedong and Napoleon Bonaparte – while others, like John I. Alger and Azar Gat, are less so. Still, the format proves a useful tool for comparison, in case you’ve ever wanted to see how Machiavelli’s impression of victory (dominate the enemy completely) stacks up against that of Sun Tzu (avoid any war if at all possible).Different types of victory – tactical, political-military and grand strategic – are ascribed to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Vietnam War and others, followed by more detailed cases studies of six recent U.S. military conflicts, starting with the 1986 bombing raid on Libya, a country now in the process of normalizing relations with the United States, and ending with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.Overall, Martel, a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of the Providence Journal, lays out his well-sourced argument in a fairly readable fashion. But in the book’s 309 pages of text, there certainly are moments when he lapses into the lexicon of academia. Early on, Martel qualifies the aim of the book, writing, “The intent is to build the foundations of a pretheory of victory, on the premise that such pretheoretical concepts will be useful for scholars who are interested in comprehending, in formal and systematic terms, the relationship between war and victory.”For those not familiar with what pretheory is (i.e. pretty much anyone who isn’t a social scientist), Martel offers this explanation: “A pretheory describes the process of conceptual exploration that is designed to identify carefully and observe relationships in a field of inquiry, and subsequently to formulate organizing principles and testable theories.”Martel is more direct when discussing two events that will likely be of high interest to most readers – the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – while acknowledging their limited achievements.In Afghanistan: “The outcome of the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom seems consistent with the grand strategic victory intended (although U.S. policymakers did not use that phrase directly) in that the United States has achieved its objectives – with the exception of capturing (or killing) the top leadership of al-Qaeda and Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.”In Iraq, where the outcome is still murky, Martel writes: “Whether the forces of democratization take hold in Iraq will influence judgments about a U.S. victory, as will the length and violence of the postinvasion occupation and the timing and conditions of the U.S. withdrawal.”While some may want to frame victory against the Iraqi insurgency as a moving target, Martel essentially argues that such an approach misrepresents the appropriate definition of victory for this conflict.He writes: “While we could describe victory in Iraq on the basis of classic measures of defeat, such as territory lost or gained, defeating the opponent’s military forces, or destroying its economy and infrastructure, these measures would be inadequate here because this war is being waged on ideological grounds.”That’s something to keep in mind when reading the achievements highlighted in the Petraeus report.