December 16, 2014

Boredom Punctuated by Terror

The Human Body, by Paolo Giordano, (Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin), 336 pages, released October 2, 2014

Paolo Giodano’s The Human Body has been on my to-read list since the moment I first heard about it. Originally published in Italy, this book traces the experiences of a small company of Italian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I’ve read and been impressed by  several recent novels coming out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You. As a result, I was curious to see one of these conflicts from a European perspective—what would be the similarities and differences in story arc, in characterization, in understanding of the purpose and the value of the conflict?

As it turns out, there are far more similarities than differences. This isn’t to say that I found The Human Body predictable. What was predictable (and simultaneously completely unpredictable) was the experiences of the soldiers: the blurred line between comaraderie and bullying, the long stretches of boredom broken by moments of terror, the day-to-day discomforts of life in a war zone.

The character’s in Giordano’s novel include a young man who has enlisted despite his widowed mother’s protests; a career soldier whose selfishness has kept him alive and whose cruelties have kept him amused; a soldier attempting to build a relationship with a woman he’s only met on line; a female soldier trying to make her way in this male-dominated environment; a low-ranking officer and part-time gigolo who’s just discovered one of this clients is pregnant; a medic who copes by keeping himself half-numbed through a mix of drugs and indifference. In one sense these characters are “types,” variations on the platoon members we’ve come to expect in films and books about war. But Giordano’s writing makes each of them engaging and individual.

At the heart of this novel lies an ill-chosen mission to accompany a group of Afghan drivers who have worked for the Italian forces as they leave the war zone in hopes of returning home: a thirty mile trip that would take less than an hour outside of a war zone and that takes nearly a week in the novel’s setting. Movement is slow, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are everywhere, and the soldiers suffer from a variety of illnesses and injuries even before the mission starts.

The Human Body makes for gripping, but uneasy reading. One worries about the fates of different characters, especially as their weaknesses become clear. Giordano’s work is an extraordinary accomplishment rendered into beautiful English by translator Anne Milano Appel.

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December 11, 2014

Black Prophetic Fire

Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf, (Beacon Press), 248 pages, released October 7, 2014

In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf wrestle with two questions: “Are we witnessing the death of Black prophetic fire in our time? Are we experiencing the demise of the Black prophetic tradition in present-day America?”

Prophetic as it’s used here isn’t referring to to fortune-telling or predicting the future. The authors use prophetic in the biblical sense—a calling out of what is wrong in a society and a demand for change. West and Buschendorf see this tradition threatened by “the fundamental shift from a we-consciousness to an I-consciousness… a growing sense of Black collective defeat… [and] a Black embrace of the seductive myth of individualism in America.”

West and Buschendorf address their questions through a series of conversations (later edited by Buschendorf) each focusing on a diffferent Black prophet and the movement that prophet was a part of: Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ella Baker; Malcolm X; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

For the reader, getting to “eavesdrop” on these conversations is an exhilarating and challenging experience. Both scholars have such extensive knowledge in multiple academic fields, that their dialogues become lessons by extension—not because the writers’ tone is didactic, but because few other thinkers would be capable of synthesizing and analyzing this disparate material.

Simply put, this is the most intellectually and ethically engaging book I’ve read in years. Topics of discussion range from the increasingly globalized visions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the role of religion in each of these prophet’s lives; the differences between the charismatic leader and the group-centered leader.

The book has a sense of immediacy (and emergency) because these conversations are grounded in the events of the time in which they occurred. And what was occurring at the time that West and Buschendorf were conversing? The occupy movement. As a result we also see the authors move along a trajectory from excitement to disappointment to hopefulness.

If you have any interest in issues of justice and the power of individuals, this book is absolutely essential reading. It’s not just the figures featured in each chapter who are prophets—West and Bischendorf deserve the title of prophet as well.

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December 09, 2014

Words at War

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 288 pages, released December 2, 2014.

I first learned about Armed Services Editions (ASEs) when my mother brought an ASE copy of Anna and the King of Siam home from a book sale. She’d picked it up, not because of the particular title, but because it was an ASE: one of the books sent free of charge to service members during World War II. It represented the best this nation was capable of and—it was a book, always a valuable commodity in itself in our home.

Molly Gupta Manning’s When Books Went to War offers a detailed, engaging history of the production and distribution of ASEs. An outgrowth of book drives to provide service members with reading materials (which gathered far too many outdated and unwieldy books), ASEs became a symbol of what the U.S. was fighting for.

Part of the Nazi agenda in Europe was the eradication of books considered insufficiently Aryan. This movement began with book burnings in Germany led by college students. The German Government created the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), an office charged with assessing the contents of libraries (and museums and other cultural institutions) in newly occupied territories. Desirable books we confiscated and sent to Germany for use there; undesirable books were destroyed.

The extent of the ERR’s work was horrifying. Manning tells readers that “In Eastern Europe, the ERR burned a staggering 375 archives, 402 museums, 531 institutes, and 957 libraries. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed half of all books in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and fifty-five million tomes in Russia.”

In contrast to this cultural holocaust, the U.S. produced millions of books for distribution to service members. These books were published in lightweight, small (but unabridged) versions, designed to fit into the pocket of a military uniform and to weigh no more than a few ounces. The choice of titles was deliberately broad, ranging from classics to contemporary literature to how-to manuals. Despite a Congressional effort at one point to limit the topics acceptable for ASEs, these books were chosen to represent a range of viewpoints. Some titles, such as Strange Fruit, were released as ASEs even as they were being banned in some U.S. cities.

The ASEs were extraordinarily successful. They gave soldiers a form of occupation during the war’s “hurry up and wait” moments; they were read in hospitals, chow lines—any and every situation service members found themselves in; they were even, yes, read in fox holes between bombardments.

As Manning explains, the ASEs lead to significant changes in U.S. society after the war. The popularity of ASEs was one of the inspirations for the GI Bill granting service members educational benefits. The GI Bill democratized U.S. higher education, which had largely been an upper-class purview until then. ASEs also ushered in the era of the pocket book. These small, portable editions remained popular with soldiers and also were embraced by the general public because of their low prices and portability.

For any lover of books, any reader of U.S. history—When Books Went to War is an essential delight. This part of our country’s story deserves to be better known. Fighting fascism with presses yielded benefits we still enjoy today.

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December 04, 2014

After the Revolution Comes the Change—Or Not

Tehran at Twilight, by Salar Abdoh, (Akashic Books), 240 pages, released October 7, 2014

I’ve been doing my best to read any fiction I come across that depicts life in contemporary Iran. Thus far, Salar Abdoh’s Tehran at Twilight is the best of those I’ve read.

Abdoh’s Iran is a place where the question isn’t if one has been complicit, but rather the extent of one’s complicity. Malek Reza, the novel’s protagonist, is an Iranian-American, one who initially supported the revolution, but moved to the U.S. with his father when the revolutionary government became as violent towards its own citizens as the shah’s had been. As Reza notes near the end of the book, “Change always carried a price. Often that price was that there would be no change at all”—words that, unfortunately, ring true in too many countries, including the U.S.

Reza’s best friend, Sina Vafa, has returned to Iran after he and Reza finished their educations at U.C. Berkeley. Vafa is still committed to the revolution despite its disappointments, still eager to engage in clandestine activity in Iran or in surrounding countries.

After years of separation, Vafa contacts Reza, asking him to return to Iran and—upon Reza’s return—asking him to accept Vafa’s power of attorney. This request, not surprisingly, is more complex than it seems, ultimately sundering the two men’s friendship:

Later on, whenever he thought about it, Malek would come back to this night as the precise moment when something broke between him and Sina. It was like he was watching his friend drift away in a boat and there was nothing he could do to stop it or reel him back in. Something was finished. But they still had to play along.

Part of the novel’s richness is that it looks beyond these characters’ lives to see present-day Iran through other sets of eyes as well. There’s James McGreivy, a former marine grown critical of U.S. policy, who’s been hired to teach writing at the same New York college where Reza is employed. Importantly, there are two mothers as well: Reza’s, who walked away from him and his father before the revolution, and Vafa’s, living in straightened circumstances since her son evicted her from the one piece of property she’d been able to reclaim from the revolutionary government. The relationships among these characters balance love, distrust, and bitterness in varying amounts. In the Iran of the novel, no relationship is simple.

Tehran at Twilight begins a bit slowly, but is worth sticking with. As the characters and their predicaments engage you, you’ll find yourself reading more quickly, hungrily, and feeling unwilling to put the book down. Read this book both for the picture of Iran it offers and for its insights into human relationships.

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December 02, 2014

The Other William Shakespeare

The William Shakespeare Detective Agency: The School of Night, Colin Falconer, (Cool Gus Publishing), 177 pages, released October 7, 2014

I have a weakness for mystery novels. I also have a weakness for historical fiction. So when I see a promising historical mystery, I’m caught. Colin Falconer’s The William Shakespeare Detective Agency is latest such book to have reeled me in.

The William Shakespeare of the title is not the playwright. It’s his cousin, just up to London from Stratford, determined to make a more interesting life for himself. Will sees himself as something less than that famous cousin:

Trouble clings to me like a burr to a sheep’s fleece. I don’t know why. I’m not an easy mark, a man my size, I have to duck my head to get through doors, and I’ve put on a bit of muscle these last few years from throwing sheep around at the market and helping at the smithy. Perhaps it’s my manner; I’m not fierce by nature, and it encourages some to see how far they can push me.

Will gets plenty of pushing in this novel. He’s knocked out three times, has his hand cut open by a dagger wielded by a capital-L Lady, is robber repeatedly by the same urchin, and has to wriggle his way out from under his cousin’s “dark lady.”

The historical detail here is pretty good. Falconer certainly captures the fatalism—and the odors—of 16th Century London. On the other hand, as in many such novels, there is more mixing among the classes than one would expect. So the story comes across as both real and unreal.

That Lady who cut his hand open? She hires him to look for her scoundrel of a husband—not because she misses him, but because she hopes to find proof he’s dead. Will takes on this challenge willingly (sorry) and, after the usual kinds of surprises and plot devices, solves the mystery.

OK, it’s not great literature, but it’s fun bedtime reading.

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December 01, 2014

Strong Like Cedar

House of Purple Cedar, Tim Tingle, (Cinco Puntos Press), 192 pages, released February 18, 2014

Once again, I find myself deeply impressed by a title from Cinco Puntos Press. The books coming from this Texas-based publisher are an eclectic, impressive bunch. Case in point: Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar.

Set in the late 1800s, House Made of Purple Cedar offers the life story of Rose Goode, a young Choctaw woman with close ties to family and community, but particularly to her grandparents. At this time, Oklahoma was not yet a state. It was Indian Territory, the final stop on the Trail of Tears, a forced march that had taken the Choctaw (and a number of other First Nations) from their original home in the deep south. An Indian Agent (who, of course, is not Indian) oversees the lives of Choctaw in Rose’s community of Skullyville.

The relationship between the Choctaw and the Nahullos (anglos) is tense and made much worse by the presence the alcoholic, Indian-hating sheriff Hardwicke. The community has been plagued by arson, which started with the burning of the girls’ school, New Hope Academy, in which twenty schoolgirls died.

The Choctaw community repeatedly faces the challenge of defending itself against Nahullo violence, not only because of the arson, but because of attacks on individual Choctaw as well. The first impulse is to attack in kind, a response that would only bring down more violence. Instead the Choctaw find ways to respond with dignity.

This book is full of characters who captivate readers. Besides Rose, there’s her grandmother Pokoni who may (or may not) take on the guise of a black panther after her death. There’s also a one-armed Civil War veteran who looks over the villages children in uncertain times. There are also several Nahullo wives looking for ways to survive abuse by their own husbands.

This description may make the book sound somber, which it is—but it is also a delight, glowing with the ingenuity and hopefulness of the Choctaw community. This book transcends genre in that it’s suitable for readers from late grade school up to centenarians. I can see myself giving it to a ten-year-old neighbor. I can also see myself giving it to a book-loving great aunt. The prose is straightforward, beautiful in its lack of adornment.

If you’re looking for reading that really matters—and that is really beautiful—you’ll find House Made of Cedar deeply satisfying. And while you’re at it, check out some other titles from Cinco Puntos Press; they have a marvelous catalogue.

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November 28, 2014

A New(ish) Look at Ebola

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, by David Quammen, (W. W. Norton & Company), 128 pages, released October 20, 2014

David Quammen is one of the best prose stylists writing today. He can make the complicated clear, he can lead readers into abstract issues through the strength of his narratives, and his natural curiosity means that he’ll almost always ask (and answer) those questions that were hovering at the edge of your mind.

In 2012, Quammen received well-earned praise for Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Given human encroachment on nearly every corner this planet, it’s no surprise that some of the newest and deadliest human diseases are zoonoses, diseases  transferred from animals to humans.

One of these zoonoses is Ebola. A few years ago, awareness of Ebola was probably limited to the scientists studying it, the doctors attempting to treat it, its victims, and enthusiastic readers of popular science writing. Today Ebola is a worrisome presence on the edges of many people’s minds, given the current outbreak in several African nations, which have led to a handful of cases being treated within the U.S.

In this climate, a book about Ebola by a writer of Quammen’s caliber is quite welcome. Ebola, however, isn’t quite a new book. It’s an updated republication of the material on Ebola originally published in Spillover. Quammen has added an introduction and epilogue that contextualize the recent epidemic within the disease’s history. Unfortunately, this book went to press before Ebola moved from Africa into the U.S., so while it’s highly informative, most readers will have a host of questions this book doesn’t answer.

If you read Spillover, you’ve already encountered most of the information in Ebola. If, however, you missed Spillover when it came out—or were overwhelmed by its near six hundred-page length—you’re in for some fascinating reading in this reworked, shorter text.

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November 25, 2014

A Young Heroine in 15th Century Spain

The Last Song, by Eva Wiseman, (Random House of Canada, Ltd.), 234 pages, released October 14, 2014

Last week I wrote about Voyage of Strangers, a YA novel set during the era of the Spanish Inquisition and of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world. While written for a slightly younger audience (Random House recommends it for ages 10 and up), The Last Song also balances an engaging narrative with a frank depiction of the wrongs committed by the Inquisition.

Eva Wiseman’s The Last Song is told in the voice of fourteen year old Doña Isabel de Cardosa, daughter of the physician to their majesties, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Isabel has not realized that her parents are conversos—both from families that outwardly accepted Christianity several generations ago, but that continue to live privately with Jews. As violence against Jews increases, Isabel’s parents betroth her to the son of a powerful Spaniard with a long Christian lineage, hoping this will provide protection for her within the volatile political and religious climate.

At the same time that Isabel is betrothed she finds out that she is a Jew and also befriends a young Jewish man who serves as a foil to her less-than-charming fiance.  Then Isabella and Ferdinand order the expulsion of the Jews and Isabel begins learning painful lessons about the extent of friends’ and servants’ loyalties in this climate of fear.

Isabel is brave and resourceful individual who takes action to keep her family safe, both before and after her father is arrested by the Inquisition. Perhaps some of Isabel’s luck and planning pushes the limits of probability, but Wiseman makes sure her readers understand how exceptional Isabel’s case is. Wiseman offers other portraits of Jews, Moors, and slaves that convey the prejudice and violence of the time.

This book provides valuable context for Columbus’ voyages. While he is mentioned only in passing, readers see both the world he comes from and the impact of this age of conquest on Europe’s minority populations.

As a teenager interested in questions of justice—both present day and historical—I would have valued reading this book and spending time on the thinking it inspires. I expect this will be true for many young readers who are lucky enough to come across The Last Song.

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November 22, 2014

What Destruction Gave Birth To

Fat Man and Little Boy, by Mike Meginnis, (Black Balloon Publishing), 416 pages, released October 14, 2014

Imagine that each of the two atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II begat a human being (or a being near human) upon impact. That’s the premise behind Mike Meginnis’s Fat Man and Little Boy. Yes, Fat Man (he changes his name to John) is fat; and, yes, Little Boy (later Matthew) is little. In an ironic touch, however, Little Boy is the “big” brother, born three days before Fat Man.

Fat Man and Little Boy travel, first across Japan, later about the world, trying to figure out who they are. Each remembers coming into being during an explosion, but has very little sense of self beyond that. Strange things happen where they travel: women and animals conceive and give birth in a matter of weeks, sometimes to healthy offspring, sometimes to deformed or incomplete creatures; strange molds grow at an unnatural rate wherever they are.

This concept is brilliant, but I enjoyed the book less than I thought I would. The prose is crisp, but I found I couldn’t stay engaged enough with these two central characters for the full 400+ pages.

I’ll acknowledge that I’ve never been much for science fiction (which is more or less that category Fat Man and Little Boy falls under), so that may explain my lukewarm response. The book has gotten excellent reviews on GoodReads, so clearly there is a readership out there who can appreciate it. If you like science fiction or if you enjoy reading extended parables of a sort, you may want to check this book out for yourself.

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November 20, 2014

YA Novel: Columbus’ Ocean Blue Is Red with Blood

Voyage of Strangers, by Elizabeth Zelvin, (Lake Union Publishing), 270 pages, released September 30, 2014

Elizabeth Zevin’s YA offering, Voyage of Strangers, is essentially a problem novel. But, what problems!: the inquisition, the conquest and forced conversion of Caribbean natives, and slavery.

Set during the time of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world, Voyage of Strangers tells the story of siblings Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend, Hutia, who Diego meets during Columbus’ first voyage. Diego and Rachel come from a family of recursos: Jews who publicly live as Christians, but who continue to practice their faith in private.

Diego returns from the first voyage determined to find a way to transfer his sister from their aunt’s house in Spain to Firenzi, Italy, where the rest of their family have gone to live. While in Spain, they witness the worst of the inquisition, both the daily slurs and lies of anti-Semitism and the burnings of Jews that serve as a form of pubic entertainment, as well as a reminder of the power of the Christian church.

Rachel would prefer to remain with her brother and, managing to pass herself off as a boy, accompanies him on the next voyage. Once in the “Indies,” both witness the violence of the conquest, including rape, murder, torture, and forced labor. Rachel and Hutia fall in love, which is not just problematic, but life-threatening given their situations.

This book isn’t an easy read. It represents an admirable attempt to wrestle with the past in a way that is appropriate for young adult readers, but that doesn’t gloss over the violence and bigotry of the time. It’s the kind of volume that may lead readers on to other books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a richer understanding of our own hemisphere’s history.

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