No Country for Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95
The battle between good and evil is as old as storytelling itself. Perhaps not since Satan vs. God has the battle been so Manichean, so explicit, so clearly drawn as it is in Cormac McCarthy's new novel. The bad dude in No Country for Old Men is so egregiously malevolent he seems superhuman. And his murderous instinct is so close to the surface he may kill you if you mispronounce his name. It's Chigurh, which sounds something like "sugar."
Our hero is a grizzled old lawman - this is the West again, McCarthy's own blood-soaked, savage West - named Bell. Picture a world-weary Richard Farnsworth, who still believes in facing down wickedness, though he would admit to some human equivocation. He says, "[Y]ou realize that you have come upon somethin that you may very well be equal to and I think that this is one of them things. When you've said that it's real and not just in your head I'm not all sure what it is you have said."
The story begins with the discovered aftermath - bodies, abandoned car, weapons - of a recent drug sale gone bad. The opening sections are beautifully drawn: a scene of homicidal human darkness under a bright, brutal sun. Young Moss, recently married, stumbles upon the carnage, picks up something he shouldn't have picked up, and the swift action begins. This book moves like shadows over the desert - dialogue-driven and slick like a cinematic thriller. It's McCarthy's most accessible book. Gone is most of the biblical language, stripped back in favor of a more colloquial yet musical cadence, which eschews extraneous description.
If the book, in its bare-bones horror, doesn't quite reach the bleak fairy-tale wonder of McCarthy's singular early novels, Child of God and Outer Dark, it has its own insistent reality. It benefits from leaving behind the Spanish-inflected convolutions of his last two "Border Trilogy" novels. No Country for Old Men progresses like a bad dream. Its surge is hot-blooded.
The center of the book is really its otherworldly antagonist. Chigurh is not so much drunk on blood - that would imply that he's out of control - as he is single-minded in his philosophy. His philosophy is quite simple: What's good is what's good for Chigurh. He has no conscience; he's all id. In short, he's a mean, mean man.
Much was made over the "gnosticism" of some of McCarthy's bleak, earlier tales. The concept of the world as deeply flawed, as dangerous and disordered as nightmare, is resurrected here in Grand Guignol fashion. It's a godless universe, this dismal West, and some of the inhabitants are running amok. Such corruption chills even the honest man; poor Moss is drawn in like a calf, while Sheriff Bell seems to stand alone, a pillar of deep righteousness, wounded witness to the monstrousness in men.
The book follows many different story strands, stringing them out, one by one: the evil Chigurh as he stalks the contemporary American West in search of what's his; the good Bell, a decent man on the trail of a killer unlike any he's witnessed before; and Moss, who is ensnared by bad fortune. The momentum of the book is such that the reader is plunged into the action, gradually realizing that these paths will eventually intertwine and that it will not be pretty when that happens.
"It takes very little to govern good people. Very little," Bell says. "And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it."
This is a story about justice and fate and consequence. Cormac McCarthy, with graceful, elliptical, finely tuned prose, remakes these themes into something fearsome and inimitable. - Corey Mesler
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Uncensored: Views and (Re)views
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco/HarperCollins, 370 pp., $24.95
"The short story is a minor art form that in the hands of a very few practitioners becomes major art."
"Of the literary genres, biography is perhaps the strangest."
"If American Southern Gothic survives as a literary mode, it's only as parody."
"Ours is a memoir-obsessed literary culture."
What a pleasure it is to read comments such as these by the saucily opinionated Joyce Carol Oates in Uncensored: Views and (Re)views.
Oates has published more than a hundred books in a variety of genres, but as she writes in the preface to Uncensored, only in nonfiction is it "always my 'own' voice that speaks" before "an (imagined, hoped-for) audience of individuals like-minded enough to wish to read about literature."
Oates encourages readers to understand that reviews and essays have a "hidden but not absent" dynamic of storytelling. Indeed, it is her strong narrative instinct that makes these pieces so inviting. The collection - 38 essays and reviews loosely organized around thematic strains such as "Not a Nice Person" and "Homages" - provides a venue for Oates to champion authors she feels have been overlooked and to assess in her thoughtful and singular manner Ernest Hemingway, Emily Brontë, Carson McCullers, Richard Yates, and Anne Tyler.
As a critic, her "governing principle is to call attention solely to books and writers that merit attention, and to avoid whenever possible reviewing books 'negatively' except in those instances in which the 'negative' is countered by an admiring consideration of earlier books by the same author."
"Review-essay" best describes most of the pieces here, and usually it is Oates' style to survey an author's corpus, focusing on the strongest and weakest works. For example, writing in an essay titled "Novels by Joan Williams and Nabokov: Today's Best and Yesterday's Worst," Oates praised Memphis novelist Williams' second novel over the re-release in English of Nabokov's early Russian novels. Of Williams' Old Powder Man: "This is the most prized kind of story - the careful documentation and dramatization of a man's life." Of Nabokov's Despair: "[U]nfortunately, the novel has practically nothing to offer."
Aficionados of Irish literature, which she calls a phenomenon of the 20th century, will find many suggestions for their reading list. There is a laudatory section on Colum McCann's Everything in This Country Mist, and in "Irish Elegy: William Trevor," she awards Trevor the unusual distinction of being as accomplished with the short story as longer fictional forms: "If a Trevor novel displays the taut dramatic unity of a short story, a Trevor short story often displays the amplitude, by synecdoche, of a novel."
One of the most spirited essays, "Catherizing Willa," takes its title from a letter Hemingway wrote to Edmund Wilson. Hemingway expressed outrage that Cather drew from the movie Birth of a Nation to create a battle scene in her novel One of Ours: "I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere." Oates moves through the misogyny directed at Cather to feminist literary critics who embrace her but conclude that "if Cather had been a lesbian, but never acknowledged lesbianism, she was therefore in 'denial' of her lesbianism."
Here also Oates makes some judicious comments on the nature of biography, quoting Oscar Wilde's observation that "biography lends to death a fresh horror" and that, as a genre, it contains the most replicated and recycled material.
Southern authors do not go unnoticed. The talented Valerie Martin receives admirable attention in "Property Of," in which Oates provocatively analyzes Martin's eighth novel, Property, set in 1828 Louisiana.
Oates' essay on William Wells Brown (1816-1884) clarifies even more of the concerns raised in Property. Of the African-American authors who wrote from the perspective of having been a slave, Oates finds that "no one has written more movingly and more persuasively" than Brown, yet he remains largely unknown to contemporary readers.
Recalling her reading (age 15) of Thoreau's Walden as "the most dramatic reading experience of my life," perhaps Oates' prodigious publication history and voracious reading is really no surprise. With Uncensored, she should easily find her "imagined, hoped-for" audience. - Lisa C. Hickman
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By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 308 pp., $25
One of the perks of visiting my in-laws outside New York City is getting to bed early so I can sort through the books upstairs. There are books everywhere, stacked on the nightstands or the bookcase in the hall. Even better, a new box of titles usually shows up soon after we arrive, courtesy of Connie Martinson, who reviews books and interviews authors for her cable television show in Los Angeles. The books to us are Aunt Connie's overflow: printer's proofs, first editions critiqued with sticky notes, duplicate copies never read.
Unhindered by bookstore marketing or even book covers, finding a good read from Aunt Connie's stash is all about chance and intuition. How's the title? (Flesh and Blood: sounds like a real downer.) Who's the author? (Michael Cunningham: a no-nonsense American name). When was it published? (1995. Why didn't anyone else in the family want to read it?)
Undaunted, I dive in. By the time I get home, I've finished Cunningham's second novel. A week later, I check out The Hours from the Poplar-White Station library. "This is the best book I've read in a decade," I proclaim, unaware of the book's popularity until I finally see its book jacket: Pulitzer Prize winner and an upcoming motion picture. "Man," I say to myself. "I guess Michael Cunningham has a lot more fans than just me."
These days, Cunningham fans might be wondering about the criticisms being fired at Specimen Days, his first book since winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999. Michiko Kakutani's review last month in The New York Times was particularly scathing: "Specimen Days reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise - a creative writing assignment that intermittently reveals glimpses of the author's storytelling talents, but too often obscures those gifts with self-important and ham-handed narrative pyrotechnics."
The narrative pyrotechnics Kakutani references are inspired, I assume, by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which Cunningham uses to tie together three novellas all set in New York City but separated by time. In the first, a ghost story during America's Industrial Revolution called "In the Machine," 12-year-old Lucas speaks in spontaneous bursts of poetry he doesn't understand. In the second tale, a post-9/11 detective story titled "The Children's Crusade," young boys recite Whitman to a police psychologist over a help line. Then they hug a stranger and detonate themselves. The final tale, called "Like Beauty," takes place 150 years in the future where a post-apocalyptic "simulo" quotes Whitman to feel more human.
For even casual readers, the poetry prompts an obvious comparison. Is Whitman the same kind of seamless literary guide to Specimen Days as Virginia Woolf is to The Hours? Probably not, but then he doesn't have to be. In Specimen Days, Whitman is more a message than a technique, helping readers navigate Cunningham's dark and disturbing side. His poetry reflects not only his own utopia but a hopefulness that Cunningham wants desperately to believe. ("We're all the same person. We all want the same things.") Whitman does, after all, remind us to celebrate everybody and everything. Consider, for example, the explanation by young Lucas (Cunningham?) for not returning Leaves of Grass to his teacher when he leaves school for the ironworks factory:
"What he wanted was the raucousness of the city, where people hauled their loads of corn or coal, where they danced to fiddles, wept or laughed, sold and begged and bartered, not always happily but always with a vigor that was what he meant, privately, by soul. It was a defiant, uncrushable aliveness. He hoped the book could instill that in him."
Other elements connect Cunningham's stories as well, making them eminently readable. There's place (Bethesda Fountain in Central Park), events (a sweatshop fire), objects (a luminous white bowl), and three characters reinvented in different ways (Simon, Luke or Lucas, Catherine, Cat and finally Catereen). Then, of course, there are Cunningham's words, strung together with an eloquent ease that makes readers stop, after a page or two, to flip back and reread a single sentence.
With Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham reaffirms his position as an eloquent storyteller whose characters speak our own thoughts or muse the way we wish we did. For me, that is more than enough.
- Pamela Denney
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By John Twelve Hawks
Doubleday, 456 pp., $24.95
John Twelve Hawks lives off the Grid. His face does not appear on the inside cover of his first novel, The Traveler, nor is he planning a national tour to promote the book. Rather his refusal to reveal his identity, his anti-celebrity stance (even his publisher doesn't know his real name), is itself the cleverest form of promotion. Hawks has chosen to play the part of one of his characters, living outside the watchful eyes of what his novel calls "The Virtual Panopticon."
The Traveler mixes fantasy and sci-fi action across a landscape of paranoia. Beneath it all, Hawks is pushing for a revitalization of the spiritual world - a decidedly Christian one.
The plot revolves around two brothers, Michael and Gabriel, who are Travelers. This means they have the ability to leave their physical form and project their Light, a spiritual energy, into other dimensions. They are opposed by the Brethren, a secret society that wants to monitor and control every aspect of human life. But most humans are ignorant or unconcerned about the vast intrusions into their privacy.
When Travelers leave this world, they gain a clear perspective and return to disrupt authoritarian control. For protection, they have a young woman named Maya, the last of the Harlequins. The plot twists involve alien communication, genetically engineered hyenas, and, of course, budding romance.
LITERARY from page 20
Hawks draws on a hodgepodge of philosophical and pseudoscientific realities to craft his dystopian vision, from Bentham's Panopticon to quantum mechanics. He grounds them in realities many Americans would recognize.
The Brethren are the ones controlling the strings, but they operate on data drawn from a U.S. government database, which was established, Hawks tells us, after the passage of the Patriot Act. The characters in the novel are constantly faced with the challenge of avoiding Brethren surveillance.
Where Hawks' novel really frustrates the reader is its patronizing treatment of everyday life. He portrays humanity as sheepish morons trudging through what they believe is "reality." But the notion of alternate realities is far too clichéd to be lorded over the reader, and Hawks' bitter dismissal of modern life as shallow becomes a bitter pill to swallow, especially when one has to read some 450 pages of cardboard prose.
The novel will certainly appeal to conspiracy theorists and intellectual name droppers. The violence, however, is never particularly well drawn, though the locations are widespread. But cyber-readers might enjoy the book's treatment of e-sabotage and stealth and can find an interesting set of Web sites spawned by The Traveler at the Random House site.
Hawks doesn't conceal his worldviews when it comes to governments, the military, or science, but his treatment of spirituality is done with care, beginning with universals, moving into interactions with Judaism and Buddhism, and slowly working to Christianity. It was here, however, that I felt the most paranoid, peering past the novel and feeling that Hawks was speaking, through some coded language, to a much larger issue of control. - Ben Popper
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Confessions of a Recovering Slut & Other Love Stories
By Hollis Gillespie
ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 258 pp., $24.95
I feel I should start this review with some zany anecdotes: like the time my best friend shot at me because I was breaking into his house; or the time my other best friend, a male bartender, did his hair in a beehive; or the time I got knocked up, was told I was having a boy, and then proceeded to talk about "my penis" and how I wasn't going to have it circumcised. And then found out I was having a girl.
Only none of those things have ever happened to me. (And to be honest, I'm okay with that.) They did, however, happen to Hollis Gillespie, a commentator for NPR's All Things Considered and a humor columnist at Creative Loafing, an alternative weekly in Atlanta.
As columns, Gillespie's pieces are tightly woven tapestries of her life in a bad part of Atlanta. Most start with an anecdote or some racy comment, then meander a bit, stream-of-consciousness-style, until she has added layer upon layer to her story. She then gets to the moral or point and neatly ties it all back to the beginning. Taken alone, each section is a tidy 800-word-ish package chock-full of funny observations, well-turned phrases, and attitude.
But as a memoir to curl up with on a rainy summer night, well, you better have a near-lethal case of ADD. I'm all for repackaging content - turning written pieces into podcasts, novels into screenplays - but for it to work you need to refine the piece to fit the medium. When they make books out of movies, for instance, they don't just print the dialogue; they describe the scene and add background. Newspapers often print commentary derived from speeches, but they omit the ice-breaker or joke at the beginning.
Ultimately, Confessions of a Recovering Slut doesn't translate well into book form. Some details are repeated over and over - which makes sense in a long-running column about someone's life but is sort of tedious in a book - while other, seemingly important, details are omitted. In a column, things can be written around or skipped for the sake of space, but in a book, it can leave the reader feeling like something's missing, no matter how zany the anecdote. - Mary Cashiola
Hollis Gillespie will be signing Confessions of a Recovering Slut at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on July 28th.
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Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season
By Matt Taibbi
The New Press, 332 pp., $24.95
The difference between "spanking the monkey" and Spanking the Donkey is, finally, one of degree rather than kind. And this is praise, not criticism. The former term, of course, describes a spirited activity fueled by an excess of testosterone and materially assisted by an act of the imagination. So does the latter term, which happens to be the title of Matt Taibbi's truly amazing post-Gonzo almanac of his experiences on the 2003/04 presidential campaign trail.
Full and fair disclosure: My path intersected with Taibbi's on one portion of his Wanderjahr - the Howard Dean "Sleepless Summer" tour of late summer 2003, when the presidential prospects of the Vermont maverick (now the Democrats' national chairman) were at their zenith. At the time, Taibbi, whose home base was and is the New York Press, an alternative weekly, was working on the tab (in more ways than one) of The Nation, the venerable conscience of the political left.
He chose to quote me once (on the good-solider liberalism of also-ran candidate Dennis Kucinich) and to refer to me as "one of the true good guys" on the campaign plane. This is a distinction I will cherish for life, inasmuch as Taibbi in that Nation article and in this volume is a relentless scourge of anyone and everyone else he encounters, including Kucinich, who was his personal favorite for the presidency.
When I got my review copy of Spanking the Donkey, I was chagrined to notice that I had been demoted to "one of the true nice guys" on the plane, but that was somewhat compensated by the addition of another quote from me, this one agreeing with Taibbi on the literal nonexistence of Dean's oft-reported "prickliness" - naught but a press-pack fiction.
Nobody - candidate, pundit, or functionary - measures up fully for Taibbi on that score or any other. Little wonder that his chapter on New Hampshire 2004 is entitled "Prickless for President." Though he reluctantly conceded that eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry was "a vast improvement over the other guy," George W. Bush, Taibbi spends a chapter dissecting Kerry's much-vaunted acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, determined to prune away all passages that smacked even remotely of "bullshit." This is all that was left over: "I was born in Colorado. America can do better."
Despairing of all the normal methods of reviewing such pablum, Taibbi decided one day, while accompanying John Kerry for Rolling Stone, to don a Viking suit and ingest two tabs of LSD. On another occasion, he rode the press bus - the A-List bus, mind you - in a gorilla suit. The resulting prose is reflective of that mode.
Lookit, this is a man who once edited a satirical magazine in Moscow (yes, that Moscow) and who - swear to God, it's in his bio - "played baseball for the Red Army and professional basketball in Mongolia."
A final self-description by the author: "As he awaited sentencing, Taibbi managed to pen his memoir. Today it stands as an ultimate testament to blind careerism. Even as he faced death, he managed to write more than 200 pages detailing his failed efforts ... and in the end he confessed only to having 'furthered stereotypes.' But history knows differently."
History damn sure does know differently. Actually, this illuminating panorama of the late campaign year is more than 300 pages and it's brilliantly successful. And there isn't a stereotype furthered anywhere along the line. Imagine Andy Kaufman cross-cloned with Hunter S. Thompson and Jon Stewart, all of this scrambled DNA hanging by one arm, apeman-like, from the edge of acid-heightened consciousness. Blind? Wide-eyed, rather, and if that's careerism, then I really am the nicest guy on this airplane. - Jackson Baker
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Son of the Rough South:
An Uncivil Memoir
By Karl Fleming
PublicAffairs, 418 pp., $26.95
Many a book written by a reporter is all history: a black-and-white retelling of details - some behind the scenes - but with little page-turning value. Books like these usually follow the same narrative line: This is what happened, this is what I reported, and this is what also happened. Fortunately for readers of Karl Fleming's Son of the Rough South, the author's journalism career was fostered by a love of storytelling and not the other way around.
From the very beginning, Fleming's book is a page-turner, hooking readers with the first sentence: On May 17, 1966, after I had spent years in the South reporting on the civil rights movement and living with the constant threat of being beaten or killed by white people, I was beaten and almost killed by black people on an angry street in South Central Los Angeles. From there it's a nonstop ride through the Jim Crow South, the civil rights movement, and this country's race relations. Perhaps most importantly, the book is a nostalgic journey through the author's life.
Fleming discusses his position as Newsweek's bureau manager and chief civil rights reporter early on, but the job titles take a back seat to his real subject: an average man caught up in a changing world. Although the book is peppered with Fleming's coverage of pivotal civil rights events, such as the Watts riots, the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four black girls, and the integration of Ole Miss, it is the back-stories that are most interesting.
Fleming never forgets that to many of his readers the civil rights movement and names such as Stokely Carmichael, Bull Connor, and James Meredith are simply historical figures with stories that happened "back then." To claim and maintain these readers, he structures the book with a good plotline and plenty of action.
Written in roughly chronological order, the book's second chapter begins with Fleming's poor childhood, which ultimately lands him in a North Carolina orphanage. Through subsequent chapters, readers learn of Fleming's stints as amateur athlete, school prankster, young Navy man, cook's helper, roofer, and so on. From there readers are privy to the incidents that shaped the author's attitudes toward inequality, racism, and bullying - all hallmarks of the 1960s South.
In true journalistic fashion, Fleming adequately presents both sides of the story, from Klansmen intent on "teaching coloreds their place" to angry black militants with upraised "black power" fists. When he is labeled a "nigger-lover" by whites and "white traitor" by blacks, Fleming remains true to his first responsibility: reporting the news.
Fleming's book is dedicated "to all reporters who did the right thing." Surely we would all like to be included in that group. - Janel Davis
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White Gold: The Extraordinary
Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves
By Giles Milton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $25
Giles Milton's history, White Gold, which roughly spans the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s, is anchored by the narrative of Thomas Pellow, an Englishman captured by pirates at the age of 11 and for the next 23 years a slave under a Moroccan sultan named Moulay Ismail. One of Milton's many sources includes Pellow's autobiography, which was titled:
The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, in South Barbary. Giving an Account of his being taken by two Salle Rovers, and carry'd a Slave to Mequinez, at Eleven Years of Age: His various Adventures in that Country for the Space of Twenty-three years: Escape, and Return Home. In Which is introduced a particular Account of Manners and Customs of the Moors; the astonishing Cruelty of their Emperors, and a Relation of all those great Revolutions and Bloody Wars which happen'd in the Kingdom of Fez and Morocco, between the years 1720 and 1736. Together with a Description of the Cities, Towns, and Public Buildings in those Kingdoms; Miseries of the Christian Slaves; and many other Curious Particulars. Written by Himself.
Pellow's title pretty much summarizes Milton's book and brings up two interesting points about White Gold. First, Pellow's including every aspect of his story in the title mirrors Milton's own meticulous approach. Ironically, given the title's detail, Milton wasn't comfortable trusting Pellow's work to be the whole truth. He did not have the original manuscript, and the story was so fantastical that he believed Pellow must have been embellishing. So Milton dug up old journals and letters and read through unpublished manuscripts and rare books. He found that what he read in these sources matched Pellow's account.
The upshot of all this research is that White Gold is an extremely full history. Milton uses the first third of the book to serve as background before beginning Pellow's story. And what an introduction: There are pirates and battles at sea, and there is the persnickety sultan Moulay Ismail, who agrees time and again to return the English citizens he's made into slaves. The sultan breaks his promises for all sorts of reasons, such as Queen Anne's failure to deliver a present of 12 spotted deer. That Queen Anne had died and therefore could not make good on the deer was not Moulay Ismail's problem. White Gold is marked by dozens of details such as that one. (Another: If Moulay Ismail was wearing yellow, your ass was grass.)
There are, however, stretches when Milton's no-stone-left-unturned style is something of a chore. White Gold is a history book, after all, and this brings up that second interesting point about Pellow's memoir and its relation to Milton's work.
Where Pellow's title is painstakingly accurate, Milton's doesn't quite fit, specifically when it comes to the wording of the subtitle: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves. Pellow's story is extraordinary, and the Islamic Moulay Ismail did have white, Christian slaves whom he was particularly proud of. But the subtitle reads like a marketing hook - extraordinary, Islam, white, million - that doesn't reflect Milton's even-handedness. It also suggests the very questionable motive of a publisher trying to take advantage of feelings stirred up by the war in Iraq. - Susan Ellis
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They Poured Fire on Us From
the Sky: The True Story of
Three Lost Boys from Sudan
By Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, with Judy A. Bernstein
PublicAffairs, 311 pp., $25
The people of the Dinka tribe in Sudan used to be all about cows. Dinka children would gather in the evening to play games with clay cattle until their mothers called them inside for a dinner of porridge or termite soup. A family's wealth was based by how many cattle the father owned, and young boys often doubled as shepherds.
But in 1987, civil war struck, and the Dinka's focus switched from cows to survival. Life changed dramatically as bodies began piling. Huts were bombed, and those left alive survived on water and minuscule U.N. rations.
Imagine experiencing all of this at age 7, not knowing what became of your mother and father after your village was raided by your own government.
These are the collective experiences of Sudan's "Lost Boys," the young victims of a civil war between the Islamic Sudanese government and the Christian Dinka and Nuor tribes. In They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, three men from the Dinka tribe, brothers Benson and Alepho Deng and their cousin Benjamin Ajak, relate stories of survival in their war-torn homeland.
The story begins as the Lost Boys, the name given to the child refugees of the Sudanese war, recall their pastoral beginnings. But the setting soon changes when their village is bombed and Benson and Benjamin are forced to flee into the night without their parents. Alepho was in a neighboring village, but he also fled in an attack two years later.
Together, groups of young boys escaped to Ethiopia, which they'd heard was free of war. But after months of traveling on foot and almost starving to death, the boys were forced out of Ethiopia when that country erupted in its own civil war.
The Dengs and Ajak were often split up and assumed one another dead. They were finally reunited in a refugee camp in Kenya, where the Lost Boys who survived Ethiopia fled. On the way to Kenya, hundreds of them died from lack of water, starvation, or untreated diseases. At one point, Benson was forced to drink his own urine to stay alive. Alepho almost died of yellow fever, and Benjamin suffered a leg injury that threatened amputation.
In 2001, the Dengs were relocated to the U.S. as part of an international refugee relief program. Benjamin arrived in 2004. In San Diego, they were introduced to a whole new world. Their assigned mentor, Judy Bernstein, took them on their first trip to Wal-Mart, which Benson later described as "a king's palace." Bernstein purchased a few composition books and encouraged the boys to record their memories of war and survival.
With the help of editor Clive Priddle, their short essays became chapters that tell a moving story that places the reader in the heart of war. When they thirst, you thirst. When they cry, you cry. Although their customs are foreign, their tale of human survival is universal.
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky places a face on war, and it's hard not to think of today's civilians in Iraq. The Lost Boys are living proof that war hurts more than the combatants. Perhaps they can teach us a lesson. - Bianca Phillips
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Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco
By Peter Shapiro
Faber and Faber, 336 pp., $26
Disco is simultaneously one of the most maligned and beloved musical genres in America: Its sterile production and outrageous fashion still inspire Halloween costumes, but its hits have proved durable necessities for every wedding party and Greek mixer, where everyone knows all the dance moves to "Y.M.C.A." How disco came to be and how it elicits such contradictory responses are the main subjects of Peter Shapiro's exhaustively researched and endlessly fascinating Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco.
That title is only slightly misleading. Most of the timeline is fairly well known, at least among historians of the era. Against a backdrop of municipal crises and the letdown of post-'60s idealism, disco united various groups of marginalized New Yorkers underneath the mirror ball; the music was created at the confluence of the black, gay, and Hispanic subcultures. Beginning with the various clubs opening in abandoned warehouses and with celebrity DJs like Larry Levan and Francis Grasso who made them popular, Shapiro recounts the innovations that made disco possible. For instance, working with two turntables, DJs could mix and repeat tracks fluidly, thereby eliminating the between-song silences that often emptied the dance floor.
Once partygoers were able to dance all night, the music adapted to fit the need. Disco hits emphasized a military beat (which Shapiro credits to drummer Earl Young on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost"), and later those hits would grow longer, filling 12-inch singles and then entire sides of albums. The songs' imperative was to keep people dancing, which made disco "a music and a scene of prodigious physicality, an embrace of a previously forbidden body and pushing that body to the absolute limits."
If disco was physicalized music at gay clubs like New York's Crisco Disco, for African Americans it was more cerebral, a means of taking stock of the previous decade's liberal promises of civil rights, equality, community, and prosperity. In one of the book's most fascinating chapters, Shapiro explores the image of the "smiley face" in early disco songs like Sly Stone's "You Caught Me Smilin'" and the Temptations' "Smiling Faces Sometimes," exposing the racial paranoia driving the music and likening Harvey Ball's iconic, yellow smiley face to a pickaninny. "Despite disco's happy-faced exterior," Shapiro writes, "the sense of chill and foreboding of the 'smiling faces' songs lurked underneath every percussion break, every snazzy string arrangement, every rhinestone synth fill."
Arguing against funk's primacy over disco, Shapiro describes the music as a powerful integrative force, one that created a sense of equality in clubs. But it was bound to outgrow those tiny dance-floor communities, becoming "liberalism's last hurrah, the final party before the neocon apocalypse." Clubs like Studio 54 became notorious for their exclusivity, demoting the marginalized clubgoers who were disco's original audience to mere entertainment for celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Bianca Jagger. Worse, disco didn't play very well in the heartland, where listeners bristled at the out-and-proud aesthetic. Destroying LPs on air and hosting massive album bonfires, radio DJs fomented the "disco sucks" movement, which, Shapiro argues, "had all the hallmarks of a Nazi Kulturkampf."
That backlash, which still dogs the genre's legacy, ensures that almost all present-day listeners approach disco with an apologetic irony, despite the power it once had to express the mortal fears, social uncertainties, and dire hopes of so many dancers without sounding merely escapist. In Shapiro's summation, "the contemporary memory of disco serves only to camouflage the pain of one of the most difficult decades in American history with an afro wig and rainbow-colored stockings." - Stephen Deusner
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Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Reality
of Race in America
By Bakari Kitwana
Basic Civitas, 210 pp., $23
Former executive editor at hip-hop magazine The Source and frequent contributor to The Village Voice, among other publications, Bakari Kitwana hits the zeitgeist bull's-eye with his third book on hip-hop culture, Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, a title that should provide good bedtime reading for anti-hip-hop alarmists like Bill O'Reilly.
Combining interviews with white hip-hop fans of various ages and levels of involvement (including the significant presence of Memphian Wendy Day, founder of activist group the Rap Coalition) with those of black hip-hop writers and thinkers and his own firsthand experience at the forefront of hip-hop culture, Kitwana emerges with a manifesto of sorts about how the rise of the postsegregation, hip-hop generation is altering the racial dynamic in America.
Kitwana explodes the timeworn clichés of what he calls "the old racial politics" and the widespread racial oversimplifications that establishment gatekeepers have deployed to comprehend and explain the popularity of hip-hop. (Though Kitwana engages in some racial oversimplification himself, trotting out the tired myth of rock-and-roll as black culture stolen by whites instead of the product of mutual cultural collision from the very beginning.)
Rather than seeing racial baggage as merely a force that would attract white fans to hip-hop (as a form of rebellion or "cultural safari"), Kitwana cites how the eradication of old barriers has changed the way young white people might relate to black culture. He points to the institutionalization of black history and culture as part of mainstream America rather than something excluded from it, from the civil rights movement in high school history curriculums to Sanford & Son and Good Times on network television. He then demonstrates how this has prepared a postsegregation generation of white culture consumers to interact with hip-hop in a less self-conscious way than their parents engaged black culture.
Kitwana only falters when his own cultural single-mindedness is exposed, resulting in an undercurrent of hip-hop exceptionalism that doesn't undermine the author's arguments so much as the writer himself.
"Part of the reason the culture is so influential among today's youth is that most young people who identify with hip-hop, unlike rock and roll and other musical genres, identify with more than music," Kitwana writes. But the collision of youth culture and popular music is always about more than just music. Hip-hop, as all-pervading as it now is, has no monopoly as a tool for providing cultural identity to its listeners.
- Chris Herrington
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The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases
Edited by Jeff Vandermeer and
Bantam, 298 pp., $14 (paperback)
Dismayed by the ugly, distorted face that greets me in the mirror each morning, I recently turned to several medical guides to determine the source of my affliction. Finally, I found it. Apparently I am suffering from something called Extreme Exostonis, which results in "bony tumors ... so prodigious as to break the skin (mostly without loss of blood), extending out from the brow like branching antlers, the greatest of these growths measuring two feet in length." Before I called my physician and demanded further testing to confirm this awful diagnosis, I leafed through the rest of the handy Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases and discovered that this disease, along with dozens of others described in great detail here, is entirely made up.
As is Dr. Lambshead himself, ostensibly a London-born and Berlin-trained physician who decided to compile an illustrated booklet of the unusual ailments he had encountered in his illustrious career. In truth, the book is a compendium of "eccentric and discredited diseases" dreamed up by some two dozen contributors.
It's a clever concept, all right, and many of the diseases and symptoms are downright hilarious. Ballistic Organ Syndrome, for example, "manifests itself as the sudden and explosive discharge of one or more bodily organs at great velocity." In the case of Bone Leprosy ("or Saint Calamaro's Leprosy"), Dr. Lambshead reports that one patient "lost his pelvis, scapulars, and clavicles, and got along with only a skull, spine, and some ribs. This man called himself Vecchio Calamaro, or 'the old squid.'" Lambshead also notes, in his meticulous way, "He may have been born in Italy."
The trouble is that a little of this medicine goes a long way. Even for a certified hypochondriac like myself, the list of diseases soon grows rather tiresome. After all, the reader quickly "gets" the joke - page after page of a strangely named disease, bizarre symptoms, and silly references and footnotes - so the book becomes a bit repetitious.
More bothersome was the fact that so many of the contributors decided that their disease had to be accompanied by violent, sometimes downright gruesome, symptoms. Catamenia Hysterica, for example, is a version of male menstruation, "whereas men bleed most commonly from the urethra, anus, or nipples. Bleeding from the navel is extremely rare." Hsing's Spontaneous Self-Flaying Sarcoma begins with a splotch on the forehead. "A day or so later, the outer layer of the epidermis splits at the temple into a series of lotus-like petals ... and the victim bloodlessly sheds his skin." And Razornail Bone Rot ... well, you don't even want to know about that one, but you get the idea.
Still, the book has its moments, and it comes with vintage illustrations (though it's hard to tell if those are made up too). As with the symptoms, be warned that some of the art isn't for the squeamish - especially one page showing a penis being sliced off. That is the only way, according to Dr. Thackery L. Lambshead, to cure Pentzler's Lubriciousness. n
- Michael Finger