Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#30: The Ghosts of Martyrs Square

In my junior year of college, I spent a semester studying in the Middle East. My program was based in Cairo but we traveled throughout the region. By the end of the spring, we'd made it to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Even so, if I could change any one aspect of that semester, it would be to visit Lebanon.

As detailed in Michael Young's The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, the nation has an irregular heartbeat and constantly appears under threat of cardiac arrest. And yet somehow, democracy, or some semblance of it, insists on habitual self-resurrection in the area of the world seemingly most hostile to the democratizing impulse. History and the present, the liberal and the traditional, even the nation's dual languages, Arabic and French, serve as constant reminders of democracy's promise in a culturally diverse populace. Young, in recounting Lebanon's recent history (2005-present), writes, "What makes Lebanon relatively free in an unfree Middle East is that the country's sectarian system, its faults notwithstanding, has ensured that the society's parts are stronger than the state; and where the state is weak, individuals are usually freer to function."

In this interpretation, the same national character that so infuriates international observers is actually responsible for Lebanon's fragile peace. As the Sunnis bedevil the Shiites, the Christians ally themselves with the power of the moment, and the Druze follow suit, the collective political incoherence renders centralized governing nearly impossible.

Not that Syria didn't give it the old college try. On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated via a truck-bomb in Beirut. The Syrians were widely viewed as the perpetrators, and thus was launched the Cedar Revolution, a series of protests against Syrian intervention that eventually led to its expulsion from Lebanon.

This is, roughly, where Michael Young's national history begins. He recounts how, merely one year after the impossible became reality as Syria left Lebanon, the war with Israel threatened to reverse the year of progress; Hezbollah, acting in compliance with its Syrian and Iranian patrons, destabilized a country still reeling in the aftermath of al-Hariri's untimely death. Interestingly, Young takes this opportunity to chide progressive Western journalists and observers for their embrace, however tentative, of the self-described Party of God: "Lebanon loved the resistance, the statistics proved it, and the good word was beamed out to an unquestioning world," he writes, sarcastically describing the West's perception of Hezbollah's domestic standing during the 2006 war against Israel.

Young can be forgiven his zeal; as a Lebanese citizen he is justifiably nonplussed by incomplete international characterizations of his country. And yet, like many journalists dipping their toes into full-length books, he proffers a smorgasbord of ideas and counterpoints without progressing between themes in a cohesive manner. At times, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square reads like a 254-page op-ed column; I suppose that's the point. But in regards to this country that defies all description, I was hoping for a little less theorizing and a little more substance.

#29: Tinkers

Tinkers gave me pause as to judging a book by its awards. My edition of Paul Harding's short novel, his first, sports a "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" label on the front cover; I will think twice before purchasing a book based solely on such public acclaim.

This book is a classic example of the type of writing that one either embraces or shrugs at, likely with little gray area comprising the remainder. Harding has a way with words, and particularly with describing intricate details of pedestrian items. "The hair on my neck prickled from nape to crown, as if a current were passing through it, and as the current leapt off of the top of my head and if I had my back to the trees, I would feel the actual wind start up the back of my neck and ruffle my hair and the water and the grass and spin the swallows in its choral voice stirring all of the old unnamable sorrows in our throats, where our voices caught and failed on the scales of the old forgotten songs."

If you're thinking this sounds like another recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy, it's because it does. In All the Pretty Horses and The Road, McCarthy takes special delight in the bending of the grass, the hue of the twilight sky, and the trembling manes of all those pretty horses. Harding follows suit here, although to his credit he hasn't entirely neglected his punctuation or the rules of grammar in the process.

In this case, as in The Road, the central relationship is that between a father and son, although this, for the most part, is where the similarities end. Tinkers is less apocalyptic than introspective, and its setting is as mundane as The Road's is grandiose. Beginning with the simple sentence, "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died," Harding paints a dreary image of creeping death, interspersed with winding memories of a childhood past. As George drifts in and out of consciousness, it is his father he recalls: Howard, a man tortured by sudden seizures, who, after years of indignity and humiliation, walks away from his family for Philadelphia, and a new start.

Paradoxically, while Harding takes special care to paint elaborate portrayals of material items, it is the conspicuous absence of explicitly denoted thoughts that affords the understated Tinkers its emotive impact. However, the plodding cadence of the writing gradually renders the novel viscerally unappealing. Perhaps this is to be expected of a book whose main character specializes in repairing clocks: the tick-tock of passing time is more celebrated here than dreaded. But as it pertains to reading a novel, award-winning or otherwise, I prefer my time to fly by unnoticed.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

#28: The Lotus Eaters

The Lotus Eaters is Tatjana Soli's first novel, but you wouldn't know that from reading it. Much like her protagonist, the American photojournalist Helen Adams, Soli possesses a rare survival instinct in perhaps the only area as treacherous as Vietnam in the 1970s: the world of publishing in the digital age. For the most part, she even manages to steer clear of the worst authorial minefields -- there's little in the way of deus ex machinas here -- a feat made all the more impressive by the pervasive cliches endemic to war novels.

It is not just Soli that deftly avoids danger. Her creations do much the same. Adams, her colleague and lover, Linh, and even, well, her other colleague and lover, Sam Darrow, specialize as much in danger as they do in photography, a fact that hardly goes unnoticed by any of them. "We're in the business of war," Darrow boasts at a dinner of photojournalists one night. "The cool thing for us is that when this one's done, there's always another one...The war doesn't ever have to end for us."

And, mostly, it does not. The country and the war, working in tandem, swallow up countless people; they are all Vietnam's involuntary subjects, even as they struggle to maintain the rapidly disintegrating notion of self-determination. At the end, as Saigon fell to the Viet Cong, the pungent odor of finality was more terrifying to Adams than the inexorable violence itself: "Ten years ago it had seemed the war would never end, and now all she could think was, More time, give us more time."

The conflict's pornographic hold on Adams was but a reflection of the same transformation, years before, in Darrow. "Welcome to our splendid little war," he had said upon meeting Adams, but by then he had long since forfeited the right to use the possessive to describe a force that so clearly controlled him. His obsession with the perfect shot -- shooting for hours in blazing heat, or wandering, seemingly oblivious, into the line of fire with camera in tow -- became an all-consuming object. With his biological family back home relegated to a bit role, Darrow found camaraderie and even intimacy in the words and passions of people who, if not inheriting his fate, at least shared his proximity to history.

Helen Adams was just such a person. As a female war correspondent, with each word and action eliciting a close scrutiny to which her male counterparts were never subjected, she found herself simultaneously navigating the darkest recesses of human destruction and repeatedly proving her mettle in a man's world. Eventually, with the North Vietnamese closing in, these two paths coalesce in increasingly desperate attempts to satisfy the addiction to violence, even as its manifestation spills over the nation's borders into Cambodia. For Helen, as for Darrow and Linh, war was an end unto itself. "'The good ol' days are gone,'" a soldier tells her, just two months after she arrives in Vietnam. But it was not until the war's waning moments an eternity later, with those "good ol' days" tucked well into the past, that the wreckage of this incomprehensible human tragedy reached its long-awaited hour of reflection.

Monday, July 26, 2010

#27: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

In The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, author Steven D. Smith discusses a practice he dubs "smuggling." He explains the term thusly: "Our modern secular vocabulary purports to render inadmissible notions such as those that animated premodern moral discourse...But if our deepest convictions rely on such notions, and if these convictions lose their sense and substance when divorced from such notions, then perhaps we have little choice except to smuggle such notions in the conversation -- to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise."

Smith then purports to debunk classic modern examples of jurisprudence or governing philosophy as embodying just this sort of intellectual hijacking, or smuggling. Stating that "conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling," Smith then attempts to display how these logical implications play out in real-life applications.

Shining an inquisitive light on some of our more revered (e.g. the harm principle) and controversial (e.g. end-of-life decisions) principles, Smith works to show the ways in which their public expression has been abbreviated by the conspicuous lack of transcendental foundations (be they religiously based or otherwise). Unfortunately, while these embodiments of his theory are convincing at times, Smith is noticeably reticent to provide any neat solutions. In the book's last paragraph, he alludes to their absence, writing, "And so, in the end, it seems that the only general prescription that can be offered is, once again, the seemingly bland recommendation of...openness."

Openness in the lexicon of Smith means to allow those "inadmissible notions" to join their logical conclusions in the realm of public dialogue. However, even as he argues for their inclusion, he appears reluctant to embrace this broader conversation wholeheartedly. "There is a risk that a more open conversation may be acrimonious," Smith acknowledges. "Even so, that sort of conversation is ultimately more respectful of the participants. More respectful and also, potentially, more productive and substantial: that is because we will be talking about what we really believe."

Whether Smith is right remains to be seen. The left and the right appear to be diverging more quickly now than ever before, and this political dichotomy is only one of many fault lines dotting the mottled landscape of public conversation. Openness as a societal antibiotic, or as an unnecessarily opened can of worms? Let the debate begin, Smith would say, but at the very least let us be honest about how we choose our sides.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

#26: If You Follow Me

There's plenty of internalizing taking place within the pages of Malena Watrous' If You Follow Me. Some of it is explicit, and at other times implied. But it's always there, lurking beneath the placid surface. If this is already starting to sound like a lifeless addition to the all-is-not-bliss-in-domestic-paradise genre, take a deeper look. In fact, all is not bliss here either -- the rare worthwhile novel is -- but the cast, a twenty-something lesbian couple, and the setting, rural Japan, help Watrous avoid fiction's most egregious cliches.

Marina is a twenty-something recent wanderer who, on something suspiciously like a lark, decided to follow her lover to East Asia for a year of teaching abroad. Her father's suicide, looming like an omnipresent monster in her recent past, was the catalyst that brought her and Carolyn together: they met in a bereavement group during senior year in college, where Marina mentally characterized her soon-to-be girlfriend as "tough and spiky, with a rod in her tongue and buzzed hair that moved through a Kool-Aid spectrum." Carolyn, for her part, was still grieving her loss, at age twelve, of her mother to cancer, and had been attending the bereavement group since freshman year.

The two were an unlikely pair to begin with; a year of living abroad together, then, was a monumental risk. And yet, Marina remembers, "when she asked if I'd consider moving to Japan with her, I didn't hesitate before saying yes...I couldn't go back to San Francisco," with all its childhood memories of her fading father and the stark reality of a mother trying desperately to move on.

Marina's sojourn in Japan is kicked off with a letter from her mentor, Hiroshi Miyoshi, a native son who has been handed the unfortunate task of keeping a close eye on the two Americans and facilitating their acclimation to Japanese social mores. Succumbing to bouts of self-consciousness, Miyoshi prefers to communicate disapproval of Marina's (frequent and unintentional) breaches of etiquette through handwritten letters written in rudimentary English; these missives provide the bulk of the laughs in what is often a deeply introspective story.

Miyoshi's inaugural letter scolds Marina on her ignorance of "gomi law," that maddeningly esoteric set of rules governing trash disposal. "Dear Miss Marina how are you? I'm fine thank you. A reason for this letter is: recently you attempt to throw away battery and jar and some kind of mushroom spaghetti and so forth, all together in one bin. Please don't try 'it wasn't me.' We Japanese seldom eat  Gorgonzola cheese!"

Time passes. The clock ticks and tocks. First, there is Marina and Carolyn fighting. Then there is Joe, a cheeky British fellow and the only person in Japan who knows that his two female acquaintances are not just friends, but intimate as well. Throw in a minor television celebrity, a unique cast of small-town Japanese friends (notably Noriko and Keiko), and a shifting relationship with Miyoshi, and one can see that Marina is due for some noticeable life changes.

What those changes entail impacts different people in different ways. Some of these changes are gradual, and others more sudden. Frustratingly, many of them fail to grab the reader's attention (at least mine) and hold it for the time necessary to make these metamorphoses feel significant. It is not so much that If You Follow Me is not a tale worth reading, but one gets the sense that it could have been shortened without much loss. Malena Watrous hits high marks for complexity, but mostly forgets the value of brevity.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Subway culture and the panhandler

I lived for nine years in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a town of crooked one-way streets, Irish bars, and, perhaps most ubiquitously, innumerable homeless people. Living in and amongst those same streets and watering holes, Boston's displaced roam freely, their casual insouciance unperturbed by the occasional disapproving policeman or irritable bench neighbor. The city, while perhaps not embracing them, at least affords them a generous measure of nomadic self-determination, and for that reason Boston remains a favorite sanctuary for the housing-challenged.

This is not to say these hardy men and women are without want. When their cash flow devolves into a steady trickle downstream, our homeless friends take to the subway -- the T, as it is known -- and, in the spirit of of the First Amendment, brazenly wield their vocal chords to great effect in pursuit of, if not happiness itself, its closest approximation as embodied by a fast-food meal or a bottle of Jim Beam. This commonly takes the form of a bleating voice in which the plaintive tones of defeat can clearly be heard: "Can you spare some change?"

It is more a statement than a question, even as its last syllable hangs desperately in the air, an unresolved dissonance calling for resolution. The sincerity is as evident as the tact is lacking: money is needed. Whether for drugs or food, alcohol or medicine, we neither know nor care; they are here, among us, and the choice is ours. We toss a bill or two their way, or we do not. We look away, avert our eyes. We do not remember them, nor they us; strangers passing in the night, all.

New York's subway system is home to investment bankers, Mexican accordion players, and apathetic Upper West Siders. Broadway houses the nation's finest productions, but the real theater, unfolding in stuttered moments, performs for free somewhere between 96th Street and Park Place on the 2 line. Here the homeless traipse through subway cars, plying their craft as they wedge their way through the tired ranks of the gainfully employed.

The last time I shared a New York subway car with a panhandler, I felt as if I were listening to a sales pitch. I was. While a bit melodramatic for my taste, one cannot argue with the $2.25 price of admission. Words such as "interim" and "requisite" filled the air, as New Yorkers turned back to their New Yorker in silence. One is constantly under the impression of having seen this particular solicitor before, perhaps on the same train line. The pleas for money are theatrical (and thus memorable), recalling a failed actor blandly reciting lines that have long since lost all meaning. They inevitably begin with some variation of "I'm sorry, and I don't mean to disturb you," but of course they do. Trust has left the building, or at the very least the subway car, and empathy along with it. I do not drop money into the hat.

I'm not sure why Boston and New York diverge in this way, nor will I ever, most likely. It is merely one of the myriad aspects in which the compressed millions that comprise our modern cities coalesce into collective entities of their own. Somehow, these cities of random individuals gain distinctive, differentiated, holistic identities; somehow homeless culture becomes but one among countless mirrors reflecting these. Personally, I can respect the Bostonian directness, a challenge to the general public to lend a helping hand. I feel no such affinity for the New Yorker, who, borrowing the cadence of a stage voice and the persuasive technique of a politician, alienates me before completing a sentence. Like everything related to Boston and New York (especially as felt by a Bostonian), one of the two must be superior. Somewhere, a master panhandler is crafting the perfect pitch, and waiting for its debut in the city.