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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007

It makes sense that, two years on, we’re seeing more and more books about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It’s time for reflection, to make sense of an event author James Lee Burke calls a “watershed in the history of political cynicism”. Burke’s own The Tin Roof Blowdown centres on an investigation into the shooting of black looters at the time of the storm. His is one of the few fictional Katrina stories coming out. Others, according to USA Today, include Patty Friedmann’s A Little Bit Ruined, about an eccentric evacuee, and Anthony Dunbar’s Tubby Meets Katrina, about a prison escapee.


Read a short interview with James Lee Burke on his new book here.


The Alabama Press-Register, over the weekend, had a great piece on the new non-fiction Katrina-inspired books. The article’s main focus is Demaree Inglese’s No Ordinary Heroes: 8 Doctors, 30 Nurses, 7,000 Prisoners and a Category 5 Hurricane, which chronicles Inglese’s efforts to assist the hurt and the suffering with only the most basic of tools at the ready.


Heroism and survival against the odds become the great theme of Hurricane Katrina literature. Another book due at the end of the year is Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina by photographer Thomas Neff. Neff’s pictorial essays reveal the tenacity of NO residents determined to hold fort and weather the storm. Neff’s is another story that showcases the strength of everyday people.


Further reading on Hurricane Katrina:


* Story of a Storm: A Book About Hurricane Katrina by Reona Visser (Quail Ridge Press)

* Nice Try, Katrina! Trails of a Hurricane Katrina Evacuee by Kendra Marie Harris (Infinity Publishing)


* The Children Hurricane Katrina Left Behind: Schooling Context, Professional Preparation, and Community Politics by Sharon P. Robinson and M. Christopher Brown II (Peter Lang Publishing)


* The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley (Harper Perennial)


* Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne (Random House)


* The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan (Penguin)


* Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson (Basic Books)


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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007

Was Vietnam like this? Every month, it seems, heavier and heavier tomes about the Iraq War are deposited on the nation’s bookshelves. Although they all have different wrinkles and unique takes on the subject, they can mostly be boiled down to a number of boldface observations, worthy of much discussion on the talk shows and blogs which have to pass for the common square these days:


1) How We Screwed Up
2) Who Screwed Up
3) We Need To Stop Screwing Up


By the time this is all over—a helpful piece of prognostication which has yet to show up in any of these tomes—the Iraq War could well end up being the most documented foreign-policy disaster in American history; and all of it being done while the fiasco was still going on.


Winning the Right Warby Philip H. GordonTimes BooksSeptember 2007, 224 pages, $24

Winning the Right War
by Philip H. Gordon
Times Books
September 2007, 224 pages, $24


Which brings me to yet another one of these books on the disaster, Philip H. Gordon’s Winning the Right War, which is worthy of your attention for a couple of reasons. First, Gordon doesn’t feel he needs to waste a lot of time on screwup nos. 1 and 2, rightly figuring that this is well-plowed territory at this stage. Second, he’s interested in finding a solution, not just pointing out how far we currently are from one. Gordon’s not much of an ideologue, being a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute who once served on the National Security Council and now teaches graduate classes in international studies at Johns Hopkins and pens learned prose on the world situation in his spare time. In short, he’s a wonk, but strangely for his species one who also seems interested in communicating with people who don’t live and die by the latest policy papers or declassified intelligence documents. His book is a briskly-written, short (160-odd pages, not including notes), pocket-sized manual for a foreign policy based not on bluster or ideology but in rationality and smart self-interest.


As is clear from the title, the main thrust of Winning the Right War is identifying where we went wrong and how to steer us back onto the right course. Or, as Gordon simply puts it, “The war on terror has not gone as planned because President Bush launched the wrong war.” The wrong war (meaning, for the most part, our interminable military adventure in Iraq) was launched, Gordon writes, because the threat was misunderstood at a fundamental level. When the president mischaracterizes the reasons behind the terrorist acts that launched the war in such a basic way by thinking it happened because “they hate our freedom,” it’s difficult to see how anything could proceed correctly afterward.


Gordon persuasively argues that that misunderstanding by both Bush and his neo-con enablers helps feed into their (incorrect, he thinks) belief that the struggle against terrorism is an epochal one with no greys to be seen. He quotes arch neo-con Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum from their book An End to All Evil—whose absurd title really says it all—saying that in the fight against terrorism there is not only “no middle ground” but only two choices for an end result: “victory or holocaust.” A better way of going about things just might be understanding that such juvenile oversimplifications will give us nothing but unending fear and disappointment. In strong, simple strokes, Gordon lays out the case for a long-term, Cold War-styled campaign against terrorism which utilizes every power at our disposal—economic, cultural, and diplomatic—to showcase America as a country to be admired instead of just feared, instead of our current approach of monolithic militarism. He also suggests, in not so many words, that some people need to just grow up: “Like violent crime, deadly disease, and other scourges, [terrorism] can be reduced and it can be contained, but it is unlikely ever to be totally eliminated.”


Gordon’s book is quite likely to be ignored by both sides in the debate, too gloomy for the pro-war folks (though, as we’ve recently heard, they don’t like to read anyway), and not nearly angry enough for the Get Out Now crowd. But that’s the problem with enourmous bloody clusterfucks like Vietnam and Iraq—people tend to get emotional.


Read the introduction to Winning the Right War here.


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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007
The Book of DisquietAuthor: Fernando PessoaPenguinDecember 2002, 544 pages, $16.00

The Book of Disquiet
Author: Fernando Pessoa
Penguin
December 2002, 544 pages, $16.00


Have you ever finished a book and then gone back to the beginning to read it all over again because you can’t bear to let it go? I did that for the first time a few days ago when I came to the end of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’d make a terrible, skewed reviewer right now: my thoughts are all superlatives. The main one is: “This is the only true book I have ever read.” That keeps going through my mind: This is the only true book I have ever read.


It seems truer than non-fiction because it is openly subjective. If you removed the author’s right to his ‘I’ then the book wouldn’t exist. Disquiet takes the form of a diary without dates and without a narrative connection between the days. The diarist does not, for example, meet a woman one week and then chart a course of love with her across the months, ending in triumphant dating by the climax. There is no climax. The order of the entries is more or less arbitrary. No one knows the order Pessoa wrote them in, or how he meant them to be arranged. Like most of his writing, the Book went unpublished during his lifetime. It was assembled from his unfinished notes after he died. (Some of the entries begin or end in ellipses, or hint at supportive paragraphs that he never got around to writing. Small squares have been drawn in places where his handwriting became too illegible to decipher.) The edition of the book that I’m reading—Richard Zenith’s translation from the original Portuguese, published by Penguin in 2001—comprises 481 of these notes, and ends with a Disquiet Anthology of pieces that could potentially have made it into the main body of the Book, but, in the end, didn’t.


The cumulative power of these scraps is something like that of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but Pessoa’s research was all inward, a hermetic brooding over his own emotions and ideas, where Benjamin liked looking up quotes at the library. Questions roll around in the diarist’s head. Who am I? What am I? How can I tell? How should I spend my life? Some of the entries are a page or more long, others are the written equivalent of idle doodles. “Faith is the instinct of action,” is one of those doodles. Another one: “Who am I to myself? Just another one of my sensations.” And: “To speak is to show too much consideration for others. It’s when they open their mouths that fish, and Oscar Wilde, are fatally hooked.”


Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa


Outwardly the diarist does very little. He goes to work, comes home, eats his meals in the same restaurant, and often looks out of his window. “Wise is the man who monotonises his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel,” he remarks. “A hunter of lions feels no adventure after the third lion.” Pessoa names him Bernardo Soares. Soares lives in four rooms, doesn’t travel, is unmarried, ungirlfriended, childless, unsociable, not handsome, not famous. He is what his author called a semi-heteronym, an imaginary person who is almost-but-not-quite Pessoa himself. Most of Pessoa’s other writing was done by heteronyms. “A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be,” he explained. His heteronyms had their own names and biographies. One was a suicidal aristocrat, another was an anti-Christian Englishman, a third was a Portuguese “nature-poet” named Alberto Caeiro: others were dying women, men who did the crosswords, bisexual dandies. Soares refers to them as freely as if they were real; he refers to real writers as if they were real as well. 


This common, imaginary bookkeeper’s brain is extraordinary rich—one of the effects of this book has been to make me aware of the wrongness of the word ‘extraordinary’ in this sentence. “I’ve had great ambitions and boundless dreams, but so has the delivery boy or the seamstress, because everyone has dreams,” Soares writes. “I differ from them only in knowing how to write. Yes, writing is an act, a personal circumstance that distinguishes me from them. But in my soul I’m their equal.”


Dreaming is essential, he decides, or, at any rate, it is all we’re fit for. “Dreaming is the one thing we have that’s really ours.” A daydream is the place where the human being is most free. All other freedoms are only the appearance of freedom. Even a king is not rich unless he is free in this way. (Saying this, he comes a little too close to the poor-little-rich boy idea embodied by those Hollywood comedies in which moneyed, staid people blossom anew thanks to housekeepers, bag ladies, chancers, thieves, kidnappers, carjackers, prostitutes, ethnic stereotypes, etc, although Soares doesn’t push it that far himself. Sometimes, when he goes to extremes, he can sound defensive or merely tongue-in-cheek: “[T]here are contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely and more turbulently than those who live externally,” he asserts, without evidence. “A dream can tire us out as much as physical labour.” Tell it to a labourer.)


Soares doesn’t make friends with people and he doesn’t woo women. It’s richer, he thinks, to drowse over them, to anticipate them as dream-figures inside his head, much as Pessoa imagined his heteronyms, independent thinkers yet dependent on him, their creator. At bottom, no one knows what they are, why they are here—religion doesn’t cover it, nothing covers it. The Book of Disquiet spirals around this unanswerable mystery and decides that it is unanswerable. There is no narrative to us: we live, we die, that much is certain. This is not a comforting realisation, but it is an honest one. That’s why The Book of Disquiet feels like the only true book I have ever read.


Compare thirteen different translations of Pessoa’s poem “Autopsicografia”.


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Friday, Aug 17, 2007
by Leslie Joseph

“I have been told repeatedly during various stages of my life that we are all moving toward the same luminous object ...”
—Patrick Elkins


Ink on Dreams of Transient Architecture is a unique reading (and listening, if the reader so chooses) experience from start to finish. The author, Patrick Elkins, wrote the story with complexity, creativity, and, at times, downright whimsy. Elkins’ official bio states that the book is about “public transportation and its relationships to impressions of air, friends, and (most importantly) flying insects.” Readers, however, will undoubtedly be left with impressions that run the gamut of moods and perceptions of the story’s resolution. Elkins’ accompanying book release parties tell a similarly choose-your-own-adventure story of their own. Events in Portland, Oregon and Ann Arbor Michigan have included puppet shows, songs, sing-alongs, and Patrick getting his hair cut.


Ink on Dreams of Transient Architectureby Patrick ElkinsKandapopMarch 2007, 129 pages, $10.00

Ink on Dreams of Transient Architecture
by Patrick Elkins
Kandapop
March 2007, 129 pages, $10.00


The book is aesthetically concise, measuring six by seven inches, a pleasing size for carrying around on adventures similar to those Elkins writes about in the story. Layout and illustrations were done by Keeli McCarthy, an artist and friend of Elkins’ whose offer to design a cover encouraged him to compile his travel journals into a novel. The story within is presented in off-kilter yet purposefully placed paragraphs and sections. Some themes are apparent, but the subject matter is diverse and at times, quite open to interpretation. Elkins shared in a recent interview that the book is based on years of journals kept to document his prolific travel on the Greyhound bus system. The time it takes to read Ink on Dreams once through has even been rumored to correspond with the time it takes to ride a city bus from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Elkins lives and works currently.


Patrick Elkins has received attention for previous works such as puppet shows, performance pieces, and membership in a wide variety of musical groups ranging from noise-folk to a country group led by his grandparents. His writing has appeared in Display magazine, Gravity Presses, The Eastern Echo, Cloudrag, and the Ypsi Mix. Ink on Dreams is Elkins’ first novel, but follows a great deal of experience interacting with and documenting the world around him. His is most definitely a work created from collective experiences and talents. The book was published by Francis of Prussia Books and Records, a division of Kandapop. The publishers are also long-time friends of Elkins and musicians themselves. The book includes a compact disc of music. The compilation CD is of a similar unique and creative caliber, but musician Arland Nicewander has emphasized that the music is not meant to be thematically related to the events in the book. He notes that one of the only distinct commonalities between the book and the CD are that both span many years, and much like the stories in the book, the songs were recorded at different times, in different places, and with different people. Musicians such as Lorraine Lelis, formerly of Mahogany, Arland Nicewander and Akina Kawauchi of Kanda, Scott P. Sonnier, Elise Sonnier, and Aleise Barnett are contributors. The cumulative product of a diversity of talents and experiences is a clever and satisfying musical experience. The CD is a great stand-alone listening experience full of romantic ditties and thinking people’s pop.


Patrick Elkins shares that he plans to finish writing the sequel to Ink on Dreams during a 10-month stay in Indonesia this fall. The follow-up book is tentatively titled A Satan and the author shares that it will be longer and more detail oriented than its predecessor. Further projects include a series of 101 one-act plays, musical endeavors, and continued efforts as a puppeteer. The musicians involved in the CD accompanying Ink on Dreams can be found working on a plethora of projects in their far-flung locales. More information on the book and music is available at http://kandapop.com.


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

Reading Henry Treece’s The Green Man, which climaxes in a long spasm of apocalyptic violence—death by sword, buildings on fire, women eaten by pigs, that sort of thing—it’s startling to remember that the author lived out his professional life as a well-liked schoolteacher and after his retirement gave history lectures to children. “He was such a stimulating person to talk to,” commented one librarian less than a month before his death in 1966. Green Man is a mash-up of Hamlet and Beowulf, drunk, savage, breathless, even laughing at its own atrocities, a strange and little-known book.


Treece was a poet before he became a fiction writer. He authored the first lengthy critical assessment of Dylan Thomas (Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies—Thomas called it, “This stinking book”) and in the late 1930s co-founded an amorphous Romantic movement named the New Apocalyptics. “The New Apocalypse, in a sense, derives from Surrealism,” he wrote in the movement’s manifesto. It was his awareness of Surrealism—a writer’s movement as well as a painter’s, although that’s not how it has been popularly remembered—that lent his historical fiction its air of alien authenticity and strangeness.


It gave him a standpoint from which he could look with equanimity at ancient Europe’s faith in portents and signs. In Treece’s first published novel, The Dark Island, a Belgaic warrior sees his brother shot in the throat, and, unable to comprehend this sudden horror, he believes that a raven comes down from the sky, screaming, “Caradoc, he is calling for you! The blood is coming out of his mouth!” This combination of old imagery, modern shellshock, and Romantic Surreal dreamshock is a bridge Treece would often use to bring his contemporary readers into sympathy with ancient peoples whose mindset would otherwise seem inexplicable. They were human too, he suggests; they understood things differently but their ideas seemed as valid to them as ours seem valid to us.


He has empathy, even, with the dead. In The Great Captains, one corpse “stared up at the sky, pleasantly, as though trying to weight up what sort of day it was going to be. He seemed to have died thinking of the last barley crop ... Medrawt noticed the broken nails of his hand, a hard-working hand ...” and we go on to speculate on this man for half a page, not because he, personally, is a vital part of the story (he isn’t; we don’t even know his name) but because he is human, he is there, part of the world, and it could have been one of the named characters, the ones we like, staring up at the sky, seeming to think about barley crops or “a new milch cow he had bought in the market last week.” Medrawt wonders over him, looking at the marks scratched into his bracelet, considering the possible nationality of his wife (foreigner or native?), and we learn something about the composition of Britain at this point in its history. The idea of Treece as a history teacher, a pupil’s favourite, makes sense when you read passages like this.


His characters are everything a reader would want them to be: tough yet too intelligent not to be weak sometimes, loving or cruel, curious about magic and about the gods (Christian or pagan, which to choose—his Vikings pragmatically dole out a bit of worship to everyone, just in case). His prose voice holds to a backbone of slight bardic formality that seems appropriate to the books’ subject matter without ever descending into thees and thous and other bits of cod-Ye Olde slang. He was always a better author than a poet. His poetry is mannered and outdated for its time. He was fighting against the forces of T.S. Eliot and modernism and the fight hobbled him, leaving him unable to move either forward into the future, or backwards into the past. Prose was his native medium.


He is dead, however. His books are not often reprinted. One day he will be forgotten: at one with the dead Jutes, the lost Picts, and the barley crops of history.


Read Henry Treece’s essay, “Notes on Perception and Vision.”


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