Michael Herr died in June 2016. He was the journalist that I, like most of my peers who reported from Iraq, wished we could have been. His book Dispatches appeared 40 years ago, the pinnacle of embedded-style war reportage.
Besides Dispatches, Herr co-wrote Full Metal Jacket, and part of Apocalypse Now–America’s three defining cultural artifacts from the Vietnam War. Herr wrote Martin Sheen’s voiceover that begins Apocalypse Now, talking about Saigon and Vietnam: “All I could think of was getting back to the jungle. I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.”
If writing was a mission, it had been a long time since Herr had gone into the jungle. Instead, Herr chose silence—in 2001, he gave an interview for a documentary, First Kill, and he wrote a short book about his friend Stanley Kubrick.
But after 9/11, Herr had nothing to say about the years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Herr gave no comment on Sebastian Junger titling his own book War, as though Junger could somehow be definitive; Herr offered no television commentary on Fox News or PBS, taking a stand one way or the other; Herr never complained when reporters and freelancers, present company included, aped his surrealistic style in ways much more akin to plagiarism than homage.
I could call Herr’s silence a form of discipline, for realizing he had nothing new to say; I could call it a sin, for bottling up his wisdom and pulling a Salinger while the world crashed down around him; I can call it coping, choosing peace and quiet over a cacophony that’s only gotten worse—why demean oneself in such a world? And would his observations have carried any extra weight just because of a book from 1977?
Chances are he would have been one more target of society’s craving for revisionist history, of questions and accusations: “What did he make up? Is Dispatches really nonfiction? Composite characters? Is he a fabulist? Did he even go to Vietnam?”
I trusted Herr from my first moments in Iraq, in 2007. I got off a helicopter and a young captain offered to take my bags. “I packed them,” I told him, “I’ll hump them.” I learned that from Herr, who wrote “I never let the grunts dig my holes or carry my gear.” And I thought of Herr at the Bayji Joint Security Station, where I arrived just after a truck bomb nearly destroyed the place. Like Herr had written, “It was no place I’d have to tell anyone not to call me ‘Sir.’”
When I got back, I couldn’t wait to talk about it—sending photos and stories here and there, hustling up some publications. That was 2007, 2008, and 2009, now eight years since my last time in Iraq. I think about Iraq every day, write about it occasionally, talk about it more than I wish I did.
By the time I went to Iraq, Herr had long retreated into silence–not even mystery, since there was no Salinger-esque clamor for his reemergence. He lived long enough to see Vietnam demystified and reconstructed. He became a devout Buddhist, meditating at his home in upstate New York. Was that how he coped? Is that the right word?
Of course, our wars haven’t ended. This generation of soldiers and journalists and plenty who did both has just started reckoning with what Herr spent 40 years to get to.
As a coping method, “silence” is certainly the last choice many of us have made. Dignity, modesty, humility—surrendered like the Bayji compound was lost to ISIS. Who can blame us? This merry-go-round has too many brass rings hanging just within reach: book deals, screenplays, talking slots on news programs and bytes of space in Internet columns, essays in collections that might be read or might not. So much to say, and too many years to go before we can hope for Herr’s perspective.
Herr showed that war reporting—embedded reporting, specifically—could capture the soldier’s voice and life while keeping the real focus on the writer. Ernie Pyle never did that, not really. Herr’s prize—and curse—was presenting his own story foremost. For those writing about the wars in first person, third person, it doesn’t matter—it’s often a means to an end, the byline the subject.
I know this is true. My bookshelf is full of novels and nonfiction telling war stories from dozens of personal points of view. There is the patriotic jerkoff next to the self-flagellating regret; the melodramatic tale of a bright-eyed lieutenant rests on top of the cynical bureaucrat laughing at his own joke; a detached reporter unwilling to choose a side rests on a shelf next to a colonel’s second-guessing.
My own literary attempt is there too—my reporting packaged in a self-produced creation, a marketing tool and manuscript to send to publishers and agents. It doesn’t hold up—my 2009 conclusions fall apart, by 2017 long since revealed as a mirage. At least it wasn’t published.
I’m certainly not silent—I like to write reviews of books related to the wars, offering my take on somebody else’s. Now and then, I head to a library or small venue where the silverhairs spend an evening, and I narrate my photos and encapsulate my three summers spent in Iraq. It pays, and I can reuse my script and just make sure to change the venue’s name when I tell them thanks for having me. It’s all very familiar, and I tell myself it’s maybe new to them, and isn’t that worth something?
I was in the Army, went to Iraq in Desert Storm decades ago. I play the veteran’s card when I can, an easy comeback against the cocktail commandos of our toxic modern era. But it’s a reflexive superiority that feels badly disciplined—sounds good only in the moment.
Still, in writing classes, I do enjoy using different drafts of my work as examples of revision—to show how the overwrought melodrama of the first draft becomes a reasonable conclusion by the final. It’s a form of coping, the drafting and revision, that is—working out the absurdities that no audience should be subjected to. Our emotional investment with a first draft is a kind of reverence—we’re so pleased with our words, with our thoughts and with ourselves. But that’s pride, not message. The revision process requires us to be—in Lester Bangs’s perfect words—contemptuously indifferent, to cut without passion or prejudice. Writing gives us that underrated opportunity.
And then you have to say: I’m done. Leave the final draft and step away and now it’s in the world. Dispatches is Herr’s final draft—he never came back and said, “What I meant was…,” or judged his experience against another’s, or said “I told you so.” I am envious of that ability to take himself out of the game. If we want to know what he thinks, we can go to his book—words that will not change.
On Elvis Presley’s death 40 years ago in August 1977, Lester Bangs wrote that we would never agree on anything like we did with Elvis. We’re never going to agree on anything like we did on Michael Herr.
Now there are so many other wartime books to read, and who says Dispatches is better than any other? I thought it was Michael Herr, you thought it was David Finkel or Sebastian Junger or Clinton Romesha or Siobhan Fallon, or Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor or whoever you thought spoke to what you expected a war experience to read like, to look like, to capture the violence, chaos, and heartbreak.
If you don’t believe that we all once agreed on Michael Herr, I promise it was true. But he never tried to convince us.
In my war reporting I did my part to make these wars palatable to the masses. Do I feel a hint of moral crime from that contribution? It happened during a war. Did that thought occur to Michael Herr? Maybe he saw his copycats and sycophants and his silence meant: “Be careful what you wish for.”
But Herr was confident enough in silence to let us work that out ourselves. Myself, I see the brass rings; I will earn a couple hundred bucks to narrate my photos, or I’ll write an essay to keep my name current. I went to the wars and I still want a mission. For my sins, occasionally I get one.
This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on.
C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas — she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” — but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines:
AC or DC
You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.
In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.”
Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols — religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”
Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair.
In 2015, Lee’s lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death.
When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid.
Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way — all the way to the brim.
Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison.
Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing.
Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired.
James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014.
Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”
Read: A note on McPherson’s skill as a eulogist.
George and Martha — sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really).
With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the “ebony phoenix,” she rose and was saved by her writing.
William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people — mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site — and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him — until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new.
Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor.
And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order:
Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize.
Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner’s considerable charms.
David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.”
Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island — only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta.
Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci.
Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them.
Read: Conroy’s reaction to having his books banned.
Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever.
Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims — “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.”
Read: A Year in Reading on Jones.
Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész.
Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow.
Read: A detailed look at King’s work and life.
W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.”
Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms. The conventional battlefield was ours, the sky as well. So they made us bleed one body at a time — limb by limb — through the use of handmade bombs. If there is one tribe of the military that knows this tactic best, it is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians charged with combatting it. Brian Castner spent eight years leading EOD teams, including two tours in Iraq. The harrowing aftermath of that period of his life was well-told in his memoir The Long Walk; his latest work of nonfiction, All the Ways We Kill and Die, continues the memoir’s narrative while displaying Castner’s considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms.
Castner opens the book with a prologue that imagines the detonation of an IED in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective — a detonation, we learn a few pages later, that takes the life of his friend and EOD comrade Matt Schwartz. Castner, five years out of uniform and now a writer and freelance journalist, asks the question the book seeks to answer: “Who killed Matt Schwartz?” From there, the narrative loops in ever-widening arcs through a structure that roughly mirrors an EOD team’s post-blast actions. Collect the dead. Tend the wounded. Gather evidence. Hunt. Remember.
If there is risk inherent to the structure of All the Ways We Kill and Die, it is that its polygamous marriage of imagination, memoir, and reportage runs the risk of throwing off a genre-monogamous reader. There’s as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner’s exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction. The early chapters are fairly traditional narratives, Castner retracing the impacts of personal losses ranging from his dead friend to maimed comrades. But by Part III of the book, Castner must link disparate narratives from both Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping an eye on how he imagines a kind of IED archetype, this “Engineer” he suspects took Matt Schwartz’s life. The surreal rhythms of a drone pilot, a firefight documented through passages of military Internet relay chat — these are the disorienting signs of a disappearing center, as Part IV reveals how we hunt and kill.
The book is not a cut-and-dried war story; its conclusion is appropriately ambiguous considering the open-ended nature of the wars my generation has fought. Novels and memoirs by service members that address their time in Afghanistan or Iraq have not benefitted from the sense of closure granted veteran writers of World War Two, or even Vietnam. Where writers like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and Phil Caputo (A Rumour of War) could look back at the U.S.S. Missouri and the Fall of Saigon with respective clarity; novelists Matt Gallagher (Iraq, Youngblood) and Elliot Ackerman (Afghanistan, Green on Blue) need only peruse the Internet for unnecessary reminders that both wars drag on today. Memoirists have fared similarly. Both Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country and even Castner’s The Long Walk could only conclude by narrowing the lens to a hyper-personal focus. A former soldier lies in bed. A former EOD officer performs therapeutic yoga. There is no definitive ending when the events that shaped your story are still unfolding.
“Long and Messy and Gray” is the book’s narrative climax, and details the lifeline of an EOD troop turned lethal contractor whose name Castner redacts to “M_____.” Highly fragmented, but crafted so as not to bewilder, its nearest cousin is that brilliant piece of Vietnam writing, “Illumination Rounds” from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And it is the perfect final lift to a bracing narrative. George Packer noted in his New Yorker essay “Home Fires” that “fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” I contest the efficacy of a word like “honest” in this context; had Packer applied the word “effective,” the statement would prove more meaningful. “Long and Messy and Gray” might watershed the most effective personal war narrative structure I’ve encountered; the denouement that comes in Part V is necessary, but it’s this chapter that is most compelling.
All investigations, war-related or not, begin with a simple question and best of intent. But as Serial showed us last year, building a complete picture is about sorting through the puzzle pieces and assembling the mosaic as the meaning of each fragment appears. If, like M____, one returns to war dozens of times, the narrative must necessarily shatter each time. Within this frame, Castner shares the same creative space as Serial’s producer, Sarah Koenig. Certain pieces belong together, neatly assembled for the reader to observe. Other pieces, however, belong in a pile, appearing as they are overturned. There’s an art to this type of transient work, a sense of structural mastery just beyond the page that is all the more inspiring when you consider that both Castner and Koenig began with just one question: “Who?” The best writers fully admit that the best stories reveal themselves along the way. The best stories, as it turns out, might end up answering a different question altogether.
“Who killed Matt Schwartz” is the least of the questions answered within the pages of All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner captures the complex push and pull; the cost and reward; and a fully formed image of what it’s been like to be both in the middle, and on the periphery, of The Forever War. Despite this wide lens, however, Castner’s real task is to tell an intensely personal story. In the closing chapter, we find him walking the forest with his children, pointing out roots, ruts, and creeping vines that threaten their peaceful stroll. I imagine him pausing, pushing a knee into the rich brown earth and pointing ahead once more: danger there.
“In Saigon I always went to sleep stoned so I always lost my dreams, probably just as well, sock in deep and dim under that information and get whatever rest you could, wake up tapped of all images but the one remembered from the day before, with only the taste of a bad dream in your mouth like you’d been chewing on a roll of dirty old pennies in your sleep.” The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time series over at The Guardian soldiers on with its ninth pick, Michael Herr’s Dispatches.
This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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Joan Silber’s most recent novel, The Size of the World, is sweeping yet intimate, the kind of book that will take you across continents, and deep into characters’ individual lives. She is the author of the story collection, Ideas of Heaven, which was nominated for the National Book Award, as well as four other works of fiction.The Millions: The Size of the World is billed as a novel, although it could also be called a novel-in-stories or a collection of linked stories. While the book is in fact short stories that are either tangentially or deeply connected, it has the narrative drive of a more conventional novel. Really, it’s addictive. When you were writing the book, did you conceive of it as belonging to a particular genre? How did you balance writing separate narratives while still maintaining such delightful readability?Joan Silber: I did have the idea that I wanted to write a composite fiction more unified than what I’d done before – a hybrid between the novel and linked stories – but I didn’t exactly know what I was doing till I was into it. Which is to say, I made it up as I went along but I mostly knew what I was after. It was very gratifying to me to see how certain characters (Owen especially, who has the ending chapter) could come in again and be re-imagined in a way that pushed the story further. I’m very glad if the connections themselves caused a kind of narrative suspense.I knew this form would suit a book about people leaving home, with settings in Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, etc. But sometimes I think I won’t ever go back to writing a single-plotted novel. There’s a quote from John Berger, “Never again will a single story be told as if it’s the only one.” I think that’s pretty much what I believe, and this method fits with that, for me.TM: Last month you wrote for The Millions about reading books written by the citizens of the countries you’re traveling in. Did this reading prepare and/or inspire you to pen your novel? What other kinds of research, if any, did you do for this book?JS:I love doing research. Well, it’s easier than writing. In the early stages the research gives me details – Michael Herr’s Dispatches told me civilians in Vietnam were not liked by the military, for instance. Later, I zoom in on what I want – after I had written about an American woman married to a southern Thai Muslim, I went hunting for historical material on southern Thailand. And I found a great memoir by a tin prospector that served as the basis for another section.I’m addicted to online research. While I was writing the book, I hit Google many, many times a day, looking up the Feast of San Giuseppe in Sicily or the rules for Thai monks or the languages of Indian groups in Chiapas, Mexico.TM: I love to teach your story “My Shape” (which appears in Ideas of Heaven and was recently anthologized in the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction) because it’s a great example of how to tell a story in lush, detailed summary, rather than depicting it largely in scene. This pacing technique returns in The Size of the World, where you manage to capture a character’s whole life (or close to that) in a single chapter. Is this is a conscious craft decision on your part? What’s attractive to you about this kind of storytelling?JS: I have two somewhat contradictory impulses at this point in my life. I’m a miniaturist by nature – I love the small moment seen intensely. And I love the sweep of time passing. (In real life too, it moves me to see how people surprise themselves by where they end up.) It was a nice discovery for me to see that summary could be written as if it were scene, drawn with details. And this allowed me to get the intimacy of close narration into stories with a broader scope.I do like life-stories. The deepest ironies are in those lurching shifts people make, bit by bit.TM: The narratives in The Size of the World are all told in the first person, as are the stories in Ideas of Heaven. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the first person? What have been its benefits and drawbacks for you?JS: I came a little late to first person – my first two books were written without it. It strikes me now (I just thought this) that, oddly enough, I came to it as I began to move further from myself. Perhaps third-person at first gave me a distance I needed, and then I needed something else. I’m always trying to capture the emotional logic of characters, what they say to themselves about what they’re doing. I like the directness of hearing them sum themselves up. I’m not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices. The sentences are meant as translations of their thoughts.If there’s a decision about whether to “style” the prose to sound historical or flavored with vernacular, I usually opt for neutral wording. So, for instance, in the chapter about Annunziata, who comes from Sicily to New Jersey, I avoided inflecting her English (she’d probably think in Sicilian anyway) but I took pains to convey her reasoning.”Pains” is right. It takes a lot of trial-and-error to get the voices, especially at first. But the commenting that first-person voices can do is very handy for jumping over spans of time.TM: Ideas of Heaven was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004, and you were one of five women finalists. I was dismayed by the outcry following the nomination announcement; how did you deal with such reactions?JS: I think critics felt left out of the loop, since they’d never heard of us. (I’d heard of most of us, actually.) Their strongest objection was that we weren’t famous, which we already knew. I didn’t immediately think the criticism was anti-female, but after a while I came to think that some of it was. The good part was that we five got to know each other – we had dinners at my house and at Lily’s and have lunched in recent times. Christine Schutt has a terrific new novel out (Kate Walbert and I were at the kick-off reading) and Lily Tuck has a biography of the writer Elsa Morante out very soon. And we all like to think that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s daughter was named Willa and not Kimberly because of our advice.There were many good after-effects for me. A few months after the nomination, The New York Review of Books ran a great piece by Lorrie Moore, on that book and my others. What writer doesn’t want that? I feel that the nomination put me on the map and is the reason I’ve been getting good coverage on this new book.TM: Jessica on the Written Nerd blog calls you one of the most underrated writers in America, even after your National Book Award nomination. How do you feel about such a title?JS: I was very thrilled to see what she wrote.TM And, because this is a lit blog, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?JS: I can think of two – Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a story collection, and Margot Livesey’s novel, The House on Fortune Street. Toibin (whose previous book, The Master, I unexpectedly loved) packs each story with deft complexity, a resistance to the obvious, and a level of insight that is both cutting and humane. There’s something beautifully startling about his work – I’m still trying to figure out how he does it. Margot Livesey’s latest, The House on Fortune Street, is a novel with four interlocking parts, quite brilliantly composed. The plot has a center – there is the puzzle of a suicide to be solved – but it spins out in other directions. My judgment of various characters kept shifting and getting turned around. Especially remarkable is the nuanced treatment of a decent man with a Lewis Carroll-like attraction to young girls. A rare and original book.
1.Four years ago today, Michael Kelly became the first journalist to lose his life in Iraq while covering The U.S.A.’s most recent war there. He was young, 46, and remarkably accomplished, having recently been named editor of a reinvigorated Atlantic Monthly. This after he had made a name for himself writing for some of the big boys, the Sun and the Globe, the Times and the Post, the New Yorker, and then editor of the New Republic at an age when many men these days are googling the term ‘quarter-life crisis’ on their under-used laptops. He was a rare individual, and he left behind a wife and two sons, aged 3 and 6, when he died.Twelve years before he left home for the last time, Michael Kelly, who was raised on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (his parents and mine remain close friends and neighbors), wrote the definitive account of the Gulf War, the first Iraq War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. It was a war that went by many names, America’s 1991 military foray into the Persian Gulf. But the book goes by just one: Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War (Random House, 1992). It is based on the revealing, carefully crafted pieces that Kelly, stringing to the Boston Globe, GQ, and the New Republic while bouncing around the Middle East on his borrowed freelancer’s scratch, sent over the wire. Often mentioned in the same breath as Michael Herr’s searing account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, Martyr’s Day stands among the very best in a decorated tradition of American war correspondence.On April 3, 2003, Michael was no doubt pulsating with his writer’s instincts and observations, which surely would have become the follow up to Martyr’s Day. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, U.S. Army, and headed down the road to Baghdad International Airport in a Humvee driven by an army staff sergeant, Michael was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. The city of Baghdad at that moment was being liberated from Baath party control by the Marines. Here, on this very roadway perhaps, was an opportunity for Michael, twelve years removed from covering his first Iraq War, to reflect on the fact that this was the one event that neither he, nor anyone, had witnessed back in 1991: the fall of Saddam’s Baghdad. They took mortar fire, the Humvee went off the road, landing upside down in a ditch, and both Michael and the staff sergeant were killed.2.In 1991, Iraq was a nation led by a belligerent, authoritarian dictator, Saddam Hussein, who had ordered Iraq’s tanks and battalions into the oil-wealthy and blithely vulnerable neighbor state of Kuwait. The ensuing military conflict pitted a coalition of many nations, with the U.S. in command, against the Iraq army. It was soon apparent to the reporters at the “front” that the Iraq army was composed of men who felt about as much motivation to fight in defense of their tyrannical leader’s capriciousness as you might expect from right thinking, sane individuals – none at all. The rout was on.Maybe the most indelible passage in Martyr’s Day is Kelly’s description of an encounter he had with a ragged band of Iraqi soldiers on the road to Kuwait City. He and another reporter were eager to chronicle the post-liberation conditions in the invaded capitol and were driving their rented pickup truck hard to get there. Their nervousness at seeing Iraqi soldiers on the road gave way to astonishment when the soldiers, unarmed, under-clothed, and numbering around ten, eagerly surrendered to them, two American journalists.Now, said the lieutenant, he and his men were very cold and hungry and they would appreciate it if we would take them prisoner. I am five feet six inches tall and bespectacled and running slightly to poundage. Dan [Fesperman, Baltimore Sun reporter] is taller and doesn’t wear glasses, but he is not an overwhelming figure either. I don’t think either of us felt that we were the sort of men that take other men prisoner.Instead, they gave the men food and water, and piled them into, and onto, the pickup, driving a ways down the road, where they ran into a Saudi army unit, out doing its part for the coalition, though there was nothing much to do.It is at this point in the narrative, when the reader’s laughter at the perfect absurdity of the scene is beginning to subside, that Kelly brings it back to reality, to war, or the sobering specter of it. The Saudis, a bit starved themselves – for combat action – rounded up the Iraqis, now proper prisoners, and began hectoring them, and taking aim with their automatic rifles as though they meant to execute the men then and there.They screamed and shouted and made as if, any moment, they were going to shoot. The Iraqis, stunned and terrified, sat down in the dirt, their hands on their heads still, and their faces to the wind, in a ragged little line. One man clutched his Koran to his chest for protection and rocked, moaning, back and forth on his haunches. Another cried for Allah, and wept, and clutched at his crotch and hair in little paroxysms of terror. I watched them weeping and begging for their lives, and I had to turn aside so they wouldn’t see me crying too.Reading this passage reminded me of the battered canteen, olive green, and with liquid of dubious nature still sealed inside, that Michael gave to me upon his return. It belonged to an Iraqi soldier, he had said. I was fourteen years old. The soldier was probably dead.3.As the subtitle of Kelly’s book suggests, the Gulf War was a “small” war. It was a nasty, pathetic affair. It was not World War II, so well chronicled in multiple theaters of battle by Ernie Pyle, whose collection of dispatches, Ernie Pyle’s War, remains a benchmark classic of war correspondence journalism. Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper on a Pacific Island, his war so close to its end.What Kelly witnessed in 1991 was a far cry from Ernie’s War. And as a consequence, his book was necessarily more than blood-and-guts war journalism. This is not to say that the Gulf War was not a horrible, traumatizing, and often deadly experience for many people. Kelly describes many scenes of suffering. The squalid Kurdish refugee camps come to mind. But there is a bemused puzzlement, indeed, at times an absurdity to many of the proceedings. Kelly’s description of wartime Tel Aviv, under constant threat of a Saddam Scud missile attack, is memorable. What emerges is a vision of a modern day London during the Blitz – with kibbutz, and bits of rhinestone fashioned by the ladies to their government-issue gas mask kits to match their eveningwear. The Scud raids were infrequent and ineffective, and on the whole you’d have to say that 1991 Tel Aviv, with its discotheques, its beaches, its conscripted, no-nonsense army, and its irrepressible pro-American fervor, was a safer place than London in ’40 and ’41.Kelly’s engaging, funny, conversational writing, his man-on-the-street (of Baghdad, of Amman, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Dhahran, Kuwait City) perspective, assisted by his broad but honest impressions of some of the maddeningly complex political relationships among Middle Eastern states, regions, and peoples (of which there are a few), these qualities add much to Martyr’s Day. In addition to being a book about war, Martyr’s Day is history (the opening discussion of the history of Iraq from ancient empire to modern dictatorship comes to mind), and it is also armchair cultural anthropology: “I knew by now that in Arabia [Egypt in this case] office life was patterned after an older rhythm. An official in his government room received visitors in much the same fashion as his grandfather had in his courtyard – casually, endlessly, and with a good deal of overlapping, since no one was ever in any particular hurry. The love of talk and the love of manners dictated against hurrying into any matter at hand.” The book can sometimes sound like a very amusing travel guide to the Middle East, such as when Kelly describes the grand farce that is traveling into and out of Israel, for which he needed to carry two passports, one of which would never show a mark of having been to Judea, in order to appease the firm policy of non-recognition adhered to by Israel’s neighboring Palestinian nation states.There is one final important tonal element to Martyr’s Day, and it emerges early on, as Kelly describes the culture of Baghdad, where he spent a good deal of time in the days leading up to January 17, 1991, when American bombs began to fall on the city. This final element is a mixture of pride and disgust. The disgust is evident in his appraisal of the Saddam Hussein regime, its moral bankruptcy, its physical and ideological feebleness, and the mostly closeted dissatisfaction of an Iraqi populace that had been too long under the thumb of a tyrant, but had not the first clue of how to live in any other way. The pride is that of a patriot: being on the right side of things was important to Michael. His book of collected writings – essays, dispatches, op-ed pieces and the like, published in 2004, is called Things Worth Fighting For, and the book is a testament to his conviction as a man, a father, husband, citizen, and reporter. The strength of this conviction is evident in his words, the words of someone who believed in America, and freedom, and the inalienable right to drive a pickup truck out into the Arabian desert in order to Get The Story, which for Michael was not so much a right as a need.4.It is hard not to wonder where that need would have taken Michael Kelly if he were living today. It is hard to imagine that his pride in American global authority, so evident in Martyr’s Day, when the world really was on our side, would not now be muted, or questioned outright. He would have to confront the divisions in our society and in our government, divisions that have deepened as the state of the U.S.A.’s latest Iraq war has worsened, those heady days that witnessed the fall of Saddam four years ago slowly bleeding into a morass of sectarian violence and a mounting toll of American dead.Sometimes it seems like the needle in our country’s collective moral compass has been set spinning, as though in the presence of a malevolent magnetism. While I did not always agree with Michael’s opinions, I do believe that he was someone whose compass rarely failed him, and this sure-footed approach, honest, blue collar reporting, is something that is sorely lacking in our current climate of partisan rancor. I may not know exactly what he would write today, but I do know that he would make his voice heard, and do it with his unfailing wit, wisdom, and grace so that, agree or disagree, time spent reading his words would still be, as it always has been for me, time well spent.
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.