Thursday, February 28, 2013

Black History Month & Campbell's Your Blues Ain't Like Mine

 As Black History Month wraps up, we have this article from yesterday's Politico: "Obama hosts Black History Month reception:"
President Obama is hosting a Black History Month reception at the White House on Wednesday, an official told POLITICO. The president planned to speak at the afternoon event. Attendees included Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Phylicia Rashad, Stevie Wonder, Hank Aaron and Magic Johnson, the official said. The reception after Obama attended the midday unveiling of a statue of civil rights leader Rosa Parks at the Capitol.

Best novel involving African-American history? I think many people would choose something by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, but I could never get into their writing styles. Instead, I would recommend the under-appreciated Bebe Moore Campbell and her novel Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, which is loosely based on the Emmett Till murder:
The supreme court ruling on desegregation blew winds of change in Hopewell, Mississippi where the classes--monied, poor whites, and blacks--knew their places. When a 15-year-old African-American unknowingly crosses the accepted line, he is brutally murdered by a poor white, setting in motion a series of events that leave no one in the town untouched. Powerful in emotion (from understated to explosive), propelled by unstoppable forces, the book is compelling reading. It exposes family, race, and class divisions in America from the 1950s to the present...

Pinochet Secrets Revealed & Gething’s Under a False Flag

 From Sunday’s BBC story “Chile's Gen Pinochet 'tried to cling to power' in 1988:”
Late Chilean military leader Augusto Pinochet wanted to hold on to power when he lost a referendum on his rule in 1988, newly declassified documents in the US suggest. They say Gen Pinochet sought the support of his closest military allies to overthrow the results. But they refused and Gen Pinochet had to accept defeat. The following year, Chileans elected a civilian government and Gen Pinochet was replaced in 1990.
Speaking of recently declassified documents, papers declassified in the early 2000s serve as the basis for Tom Gething’s Under a False Flag, a fast-paced CIA novel based in Chile.  Pro: a well-paced novel based on Pinochet’s overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende.   Con: doesn’t provide the Chilean perspective about life after life after the Pinochet takeover. Description:
October, 1972. Will Porter joins the CIA’s secret war against Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende. Working under cover, Will’s job is to manage the dirty money going to fund the opposition and disrupt the Chilean economy. A budding friendship with university student Ernesto Manning and his beautiful sister, Gabriela, complicates Will’s job and threatens to blow his cover. In a turbulent world of deceivers and deceived, Will must choose between friendship and betrayal, truth and lies, love and duty.
A book that delves more into what Pinochet’s rule was like is Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Pro: it was written by one of Chile’s most famous novelists. Con: it uses an experimental narrative, so if you want a straight-forward story, this might not be for you. Description:
As through a crack in the wall, By Night in Chile's single night-long rant provides a terrifying, clandestine view of the strange bedfellows of Church and State in Chile. This wild, eerily compact novel—Roberto Bolano's first work available in English—recounts the tale of a poor boy who wanted to be a poet, but ends up a half-hearted Jesuit priest…assigned—after the destruction of Allende—the secret, never-to-be-disclosed job of teaching Pinochet, at night, all about Marxism, so the junta generals can know their enemy.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bipolar Disorder & Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot

Bipolar disorder has been in the news a few times this month.

The film Silver Linings Playbook, which won the Oscar for Best Actress last night, revolves around Patrizio Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) and how he copes with bipolar disorder after leaving a mental health facility and moving in with his parents.

The disorder also featured in last week's Jesse Jackson Jr. story.  Here's a Chicago Tribune article from February 20th, “How much weight does Jesse Jackson Jr.'s illness deserve in the scales of justice?:”
You've probably heard the Jesse Jackson Jr. shopping list. The furniture, the furs, the $43,000 Rolex... All in all, according to federal prosecutors, the former Illinois congressman spent $750,000 of his campaign funds on personal purchases... What made him do it? Greed. Arrogance. Entitlement. Those are the easy, familiar explanations. But Jackson's family and the Mayo Clinic say he suffers from bipolar disorder, and if we take that claim on faith — I do — the answer to what made him do it is more complicated. And if it's more complicated, is he guilty in the usual criminal way? How responsible is any mentally ill person for his or her behavior?... Bipolar disorder brings wild mood swings. People with the condition go from depression to impulsive behavior. They may fluctuate between grandiosity and feelings of worthlessness. "Spending sprees" is on the list of symptoms. So is "poor judgment." But bipolar disorder is not insanity. People with the illness may not be able to control what they do, but that doesn't mean they're not aware of what they're doing. (Emphasis mine.)

If you would like to read a novel that features bipolar disorder prominently, try Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, described by The Daily Beast thusly:
In the book, Eugenides delves into the psychology of three college seniors (who, like the author, went to Brown) as they graduate in 1982 into a recession and a love triangle. There’s Mitchell, who loves Christian mysticism and his classmate Madeleine Hanna; Madeleine, who loves romantic idealism and her classmate Leonard Bankhead; and Leonard, a polymathic biology student and manic-depressive, who loves lithium [note: bipolar disorder was historically known as manic–depressive disorder]. “Being called to on to describe Leonard’s depression called for as much experimental writing as anything I’ve written,” Eugenides said.
How accurate is Eugenides' depiction of bipolar disorder? UCLA psychology professor David Miklowitz found it very accurate:
Many depictions of bipolar disorder have appeared in books and films, but few (in my opinion) accurately portray the ups and downs of bipolar I disorder. Instead, they tend to capitalize on Hollywood-style depictions that may be dramatic, funny or even tear-jerking, but rarely capture the pain caused by the illness for the sufferer or his or her family members, or the difficult decisions that have to be made. A notable exception is the novel “The Marriage Plot”... Leonard, one of the novel’s main characters, cycles from mania to hypomania to depression and back several times, and the descriptions of these different states are dead-on. What’s more, Eugenides shows us bipolar disorder through the eyes of a spouse, Madeleine, who is well-meaning and loves Leonard deeply, but is way out of her league in dealing with his disorder.

Marijuana in the US & Boyle’s Budding Prospects

 Earlier this month we touched on the War on Drugs and its impact on Mexico.  Now it's time for a look on how it is playing out in the US.  Here's today’s Politico story “Bill unveiled to legalize medical pot:”
Flanked by more than 150 advocates from around the country, Oregon Democrat [Representative] Earl Blumenauer on Monday put forward his legislation allowing states to legalize medical marijuana in an effort to end the confusion surrounding federal pot policy. Blumeanuer’s legislation, which has 13 co-sponsors — including GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California — would create a framework for the FDA to eventually legalize medicinal marijuana. It would also block the feds from interfering in any of the 19 states where medical marijuana is legal.

For a novel about growing pot in the US, try T.C. Boyle’s Budding Prospects:
All Felix Nasmyth and friends have to do is harvest a crop of Cannabis Sativa...and half a million tax-free dollars will be theirs. But they haven't reckoned on nosy Northern California-style neighbors, torrential rain, demands of the flesh, and Felix's improbable new love, a wayward sculptress on whose behalf he undertakes a one-man vendetta against a drug-busting state trooper named Jerpbak. As their deal escalates through crises into nightmare, their dreams of easy money get nipped in the bud.

Rwandan Genocide Asylum Case & Benaron's Running the Rift

Continuing the blog's recent Africa theme (we touched on Zimbabwe and South Africa earlier this week), here's Friday's BBC story "Rwandan woman stripped of US citizenship after lying about genocide:"
A Rwandan woman who won political asylum in the US after hiding her family's role in the 1994 genocide has been convicted in a New Hampshire court of lying about her own part in the mass killings. Beatrice Munyenyezi, 43, was immediately stripped of the US citizenship she had gained a decade earlier in the same courthouse where she was found guilty on Thursday of making false statements to officials in order to cover up how she selected Tutsis to be raped and murdered. She faces up to 10 years in prison and then likely deportation to face a trial in Rwanda for genocide.

For a novel based on the Rwandan genocide, try Naomi Benaron's award-winning Running the Rift:
Having worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda, Benaron clearly acquired a very lucid sense of her characters' lives and of the horrors they endured. Her story tells, with compelling clarity, of Rwandan Tutsi youth, Jean Patrick Nkuba—who dreams of becoming Rwanda's first Olympic medalist. It's a dream he must postpone for more than a decade as the internecine savagery, Hutu vs.Tutsi, slaughters millions and derails the lives of countless others. While it would be counterintuitive to pronounce this a winning, feel-good story, there is something to be said for hope restored. (Review from Daily Beast.)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscar Night, Hollywood, & Leonard's Get Shorty

 Oscar night! From today's BBC story "Oscars: Hollywood prepares for Academy Awards:"
Hollywood is gearing up for what is likely to be one of the most unpredictable Academy Awards for years. Hundreds of fans and members of the world's media are in place on the red carpet and there is tight security outside the Dolby Theatre. The ceremony is due to start at 17:30 Los Angeles time (01:30 GMT). No film is expected to sweep the board, and hostage drama Argo has overtaken historical epic Lincoln in most predictions for the best picture prize. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Abraham Lincoln, is favourite for best actor, while Les Miserables star Anne Hathaway is tipped for supporting actress.
What is the quintessential novel about Hollywood culture? It certainly is *not* the inexplicably popular The Day of the Locust, a poorly-written snooze-fest. I vote for Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty:
Mob-connected loanshark Chili Palmer is sick of the Miami grind -- plus his "friends" have a bad habit of dying there. So when he chases a deadbeat client out to Hollywood, Chili figures he might like to stay. This town with its dreammakers, glitter, hucksters, and liars -- plus gorgeous, partially clad would -be starlets everywhere you look -- seems ideal for an enterprising criminal with a taste for the cinematic. Besides, Chili's got an idea for a killer movie -- thought it could very possibly kill him to get it made.

Mugabe's Zimbabwe & Sabatini's The Boy Next Door

From the Bloomberg article "Mugabe Paves Way for Zimbabwe Election With Referendum:"
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country for more than three decades, set March 16 as the date for a referendum on a new constitution, paving the way for elections needed to end a four-year impasse. Mugabe, 88, made the announcement in the Government Gazette today. Last month he agreed on a draft of the constitution with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, his main political rival. An agreement brokered by the 15-nation Southern African Development Community in 2009 led to a coalition government between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Under that pact a referendum on a new constitution must be held before elections can be called. “I do, by this proclamation, appoint Saturday March 16, 2013 as the day on which the referendum will be held,” Mugabe said. Negotiations on the constitution stalled over issues including dual citizenship, reform of the security forces and land rights.
Which brings us to the novel The Boy Next Door, written by Zimbabwean Irene Sabatini:
Sabatini debuts with a love story set against the backdrop of Mugabe's Zimbabwe, from its independence in the 1980s to the decline of democracy in the 1990s. Lindiwe Bishop is 14 when her neighbor, 17-year-old Ian McKenzie, is charged with killing his mother. Lindiwe's shy, at the top of her class and from the first black family that settled in Bulawayo after integration. Ian is boisterous, a dropout and from the last white family remaining in the neighborhood. They only meet briefly before he is jailed, and when he's released a year and a half later they strike up a secret friendship...
If you'd like to delve further back into Zimbabwe's past, there's Doris Lessing's novel The Grass is Singing, which is set in 1940s Rhodesia/Zimbabwe:
Set in South Africa under white rule, Doris Lessing's first novel is both a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a beautifully understated social critique. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm work their slow poison, and Mary's despair progresses until the fateful arrival of an enigmatic and virile black servant, Moses. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses--master and slave--are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion.
I don't usually include memoirs in these posts, but the following memoirs by (white) Zimbabweans are very popular:  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin.

Godwin has also written an acclaimed non-fiction work on Zimbabwe, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe:
Godwin arrived as Robert Mugabe, the country's dictator for 30 years, has finally lost an election. Mugabe's tenure has left Zimbabwe with the world's highest rate of inflation and the shortest life span. Instead of conceding power, Mugabe launched a brutal campaign of terror against his own citizens. With foreign correspondents banned, and he himself there illegally, Godwin was one of the few observers to bear witness to this period the locals call The Fear. He saw torture bases and the burning villages but was most awed as an observer of not only simple acts of kindness but also churchmen and diplomats putting their own lives on the line to try to stop the carnage.

Oscar Pistorius case & Gordimer's The House Gun

From Friday's BBC story "Oscar Pistorius granted bail in Reeva Steenkamp case:"
South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, who faces murder charges over the fatal shooting of his girlfriend, has been granted bail after a four-day hearing. The Paralympic champion denies murder, saying he shot Reeva Steenkamp thinking she was an intruder at his home.
I also found interesting the NPR article "In South Africa, Crime And Violence Are Permanent Headlines," which goes into some of the deeper themes involved in the case:
No place has been as riveted by Oscar Pistorius and the Valentine's Day shooting death of his girlfriend as South Africa. But even before this sensational story burst into the headlines, South Africans were fiercely debating issues that are more or less permanent fixtures in this country — crime, and violence against women. Crime has always been high in poorly policed black areas, and whites have felt it more in recent years as well. It seems most everyone has been victimized, and many more than once. Well-off South Africans live behind high walls, they pay private security firms to patrol their neighborhoods, they have state-of-the-art security systems, and some of them are armed. So when Pistorius said in court that he mistook his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder breaking into his home, he was offering an explanation that struck a chord with many of his countrymen. Yet South Africa is also a place where violence against women is out of control, from rape on the streets to abuse between a man and his female partner.
I'm not a huge fan of Nadine Gordimer's writing, but her novel The House Gun seems to have at least a little in common with the Pistorius case, and certainly delves into the theme of violence in South Africa:
Privileged whites in post-apartheid South Africa, Harald and Claudia Lindgard have managed to live the better part of 50 years without ever confronting the deepest shadows in their culture... When their architect-son, Duncan, is arrested for murder, both know that the charge is preposterous. But Duncan himself fails to deny his guilt, and his parents are brought by a harsh and ungainly process to accept the possibility that he has committed an unthinkable crime. Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun is a gravely sustained exploration of their long-delayed but necessary descent into an intimate acquaintance with the culture of violence that surrounds them.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Death Penalty & Grisham's The Chamber

From this week's NPR story "Georgia Death Penalty Under Renewed Scrutiny After 11th-Hour Stay:"
A Georgia inmate's execution was halted Tuesday night with less than an hour to go. Prison officials had already given Warren Lee Hill one of the drugs when a federal appeals court stepped in. Hill has an IQ of 70 and his attorneys have long claimed that he's mentally impaired. His case is now raising questions about Georgia's law, which makes it difficult for defendants to prove they should be exempt from execution. The 52-year-old Hill is in prison for killing his girlfriend, whom he shot 11 times, in 1986. Then, while in prison in 1990, he used a wooden board with nails to beat another inmate to death. More than a decade ago, three state doctors that examined Hill said he was not what was then called "mentally retarded." But all three have changed their opinion.
Want a novel set on death row that explores both sides of the capital punishment argument? Try John Grisham's The Chamber. I don't like the book jacket descriptions, so instead I'll use an Amazon review from Jessica Lux:
Grisham manages to make the reader just as torn as the other characters about whether Sam deserves to/should die in the gas chamber for his crimes. I got totally immersed in the book, and spent a lot of time contemplating the death penalty in general. This is a masterful story and a good book for anyone who wants to look at the grey areas of the law and what is right and wrong.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Haitian Dictators & Danticat's Krik? Krak!

From yesterday's BBC story "Haiti's 'Baby Doc' Duvalier avoids appearing in court:"
Haiti's former ruler Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has been ordered to appear in court in Port-au-Prince after failing to attend a hearing. Relatives of some of those allegedly killed or tortured by his militias in the 1970s and 1980s want him charged with crimes against humanity. Mr Duvalier had filed a last-minute appeal to avoid appearing in court. The ex-leader, who returned to Haiti in 2011 after 25 years in French exile, had already missed two hearings. He denies all charges, with his lawyers saying the case should be thrown out.
Want a book about life under Baby Doc? Try Edwidge Danticat's short story collection Krik? Krak! :
Danticat, born under Haitian dictatorship, moved to the U.S. [in the 1980s]. Many of the stories in this moving collection reflect the misery she has observed from afar and leave readers with a deep sadness for her native country. Survivors at sea in a too-small, leaky boat endure any indignity for the chance at escape. Selections about those remaining in Haiti have a dreamlike quality. A woman must watch her mother rot in prison for political crimes. A young father longs so much to fly that he gives his life for a few moments in the air. A prostitute plies her trade while her son sleeps. "New York Day Women" shows what life might be like in the U.S. for immigrants without resources. Through unencumbered prose, the author explores the effects of politics on people and especially the consequences of oppression on women, the themes of which figure into each of these vignettes.
For those of you who prefer classics, you might try Graham Greene's The Comedians, a novel about life under Baby Doc's dictator father Papa Doc:
One of Graham Greene's most chilling and prophetic novels, The Comedians is set in a Haiti ruled by Papa Doc and the Tontons Macoute, his sinister secret police. Just as The Quiet American offered a preview of the coming horrors of American involvement in Vietnam, this novel presages the chaos in Haiti.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Afghan Women's Rights & Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns

Sad news out of Afghanistan this week:
Taliban targeting Afghan women and government workers, UN report finds. The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has decreased for the first time in six years, said the UN, but targeted killings by insurgents – particularly of women, girls and government employees – increased dramatically.... the report showed a 20% increase in the number of women and girls killed or injured. Deliberate targeting by the Taliban and other insurgents also tripled in 2012, said the UN. Most were hit while in their homes or working in fields. Of the 854 female casualties, 504 were a result of insurgent attacks, while foreign and Afghan troops were responsible for 155 deaths and injuries. The Guardian, 19 February 2013

And it looks like a law banning violence against women is facing serious opposition in the parliament:
The Afghan Battle Over A Law To Protect Women. Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree in 2009 banning violence against women. But the parliament, which is currently on its winter recess, has been unable to pass it and give it permanence as a law. There's major disagreement on key provisions where Islamic and secular law come into conflict. And activists say the gains made in women's rights since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 are slipping away. Masooda Karokhi, a female member of parliament, has been pushing to get the proposal through the male-dominated legislature. NPR, 20 February 2013

A relevant book I just finished is Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, which follows the lives of two women in 1990s and 2000s Afghanistan as they experience the Soviet invasion and withdrawal, the ensuing battle between warlords, the Taliban takeover, and life following the defeat of the Taliban.  Here's the book jacket description:
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan's last thirty years, from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding, that puts the violence, fear, hope and faith of this country in intimate, human terms. It is a tale of two generations of characters brought jarringly together by the tragic sweep of war, where personal lives, the struggle to survive, raise a family, find happiness, are inextricable from the history playing out around them.

UK Multiculturalism/White Flight & Smith's White Teeth

 From yesterday's BBC story "Why have the white British left London?:"
Something quite remarkable happened in London in the first decade of the new millennium. The number of white British people in the capital fell by 620,000 - equivalent to the entire population of Glasgow moving out. The consequence, as revealed by the latest census, is that white Brits are now in a minority in London, making up just 45% of its residents.
(Check out the comments on the story: I find them especially interesting.)

What's a novel about multiculturalism in London? Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which Time magazine listed as one of its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005:
Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie's best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for "no problem"). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly "foreign"— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire's worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Abstinence Education & Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher

For the "it's news to me" file, here's a week-old U.S. News report "Congressmen Introduce Sex Ed Reform Bill:"
On Valentine's Day 2013, Illinois Reps. Randy Hultgren, a Republican, and Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat, re-introduced the Abstinence Education Reallocation Act, which would reform federal funding of sex education. An earlier version of the bill would have allocated $110 million in annual federal funding to educational programs that include a focus on forgoing sexual intercourse until marriage.
Perfect companion novel? The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta:
Thanks to an off-hand remark made during a class discussion of oral sex, sex-ed teacher Ruth Ramsey finds herself a target of the Christian evangelicals who are increasingly influencing the schoolboard of suburban Stonewood Heights. Forced to attend remedial sessions with a smug “Virginity Consultant,” Ruth is isolated and alone, caught in the polarized red-versus-blue landscape of present-day American suburbia.  Then one morning at her daughter’s soccer game, Ruth meets Tim Mason, a cute forty-something volunteer coach. Ruth feels an instant attraction to Tim, but when he draws the girls together for a spontaneous prayer circle after the game, she angrily yanks her daughter away from the proceedings, placing herself once again in the sights of the evangelicals.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Violence in Peru & Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes

From this week's NYT story "Peru Objects to U.S. Embassy’s Warning to American Tourists:"
A United States Embassy warning to American tourists about a potential kidnapping threat in the Cuzco region of Peru, which includes the Incan citadel Machu Picchu, drew vehement objections from Peruvian officials on Friday.  But a United States Embassy official said credible evidence existed of a threat from a Peruvian terrorist group. The official confirmed a report in La República, a Peruvian newspaper, that said that leaders of the Shining Path guerrilla group had discussed kidnapping foreigners, particularly Americans, in intercepted communications.

Which brings us to Mario Vargas Llosa's novel Death in the Andes:
In a remote Andean village, three men have disappeared. Peruvian Army corporal Lituma and his deputy Tomás have been dispatched to investigate, and to guard the town from the Shining Path guerrillas they assume are responsible. But the townspeople do not trust the officers, and they have their own ideas about what forces claimed the bodies of the missing men.
In my opinion, Mario Vargas Llosa is Latin America's greatest writer. His later novel The Feast of the Goat, set in the Dominican Republic, is also superb.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nigeria Kidnappings & Habila's Oil on Water

From today's BBC story "Nigeria foreign workers abducted in Bauchi state:"
At least six construction workers, some of them foreigners, have been seized by gunmen who attacked a camp in northern Nigeria, officials say...  No-one has admitted the abductions but the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, has staged a series of attacks in northern Nigeria.
Kidnappings in Nigeria feature centrally in Helon Habila's novel Oil on Water:
In the oil-rich and environmentally devastated Nigerian Delta, the wife of a British oil executive has been kidnapped. Two journalists-a young upstart, Rufus, and a once-great, now disillusioned veteran, Zaq-are sent to find her. In a story rich with atmosphere and taut with suspense, Oil on Water explores the conflict between idealism and cynical disillusionment in a journey full of danger and unintended consequences. As Rufus and Zaq navigate polluted rivers flanked by exploded and dormant oil wells, in search of "the white woman," they must contend with the brutality of both government soldiers and militants.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Impact Events & Lucifer's Hammer

According to Wikipedia, an impact event is the collision of an asteroid, comet, meteoroid, or other celestial object with another celestial object such as Earth.

This issue has been in the news a lot this week. First, the BBC's article "Meteorites injure hundreds in central Russia:"
A meteor crashing in Russia's Ural mountains has injured at least 950 people, as the shockwave blew out windows and rocked buildings. Most of those hurt, in the Chelyabinsk region where meteorites fell, suffered cuts and bruises but at least 46 remain in hospital. A fireball streaked through the clear morning sky, followed by loud bangs.
And yesterday we had a near miss with an asteroid:
An asteroid as large as an Olympic swimming pool has raced past the Earth at a distance of just 27,700km (17,200mi) - the closest ever predicted for an object of that size. It passed far closer even than the geosynchronous satellites that orbit the Earth, but there was no risk of impacts or collisions.
(From the BBC article "Asteroid 2012 DA14 in record-breaking Earth pass.")

What would happen if a large celestial object hit the earth? That's the subject of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's novel Lucifer's Hammer:
The gigantic comet had slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization. But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival--a struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known.... 

NB: The novel was written back in the 1970s and is, at times, racist. Aside from that major flaw, it's the best Earth-after-comet-cataclysm novel I've ever read.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Experience of Returning Soldiers & Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

From today's BBC article "Obama to announce 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan:"
President Barack Obama will announce in his State of the Union speech 34,000 US troops will leave Afghanistan by early 2014, a White House official has said. The move would effectively halve the current US troop levels in the country from about 66,000.
What's a good novel about how soldiers experience their return to civilian life? I'm currently reading Ben Fountain's novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It's about U.S. soldiers back home from Iraq on a mid-deployment victory tour (not about them re-integrating with society after their deployment is over):
A ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents at "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal"--three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew--has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America's most sought-after heroes. For the past two weeks, the Bush administration has sent them on a media-intensive nationwide Victory Tour to reinvigorate public support for the war. Now, on this chilly and rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside the superstar pop group Destiny's Child. Among the Bravos is the Silver Star-winning hero of Al-Ansakar Canal, Specialist William Lynn, a nineteen-year-old Texas native. Amid clamoring patriots sporting flag pins on their lapels and Support Our Troops bumper stickers on their cars, the Bravos are thrust into the company of the Cowboys' hard-nosed businessman/owner and his coterie of wealthy colleagues; a luscious born-again Cowboys cheerleader; a veteran Hollywood producer; and supersized pro players eager for a vicarious taste of war.

For those of you who prefer classics, there's always Hemingway's short story "Soldier's Home."

North Korea's nuclear test & Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son

From today's BBC story "North Korea carries out biggest nuclear test:"
North Korea has carried out its third, most powerful nuclear test despite UN warnings, and said "even stronger" action might follow. It described the test as a "self-defensive measure" necessitated by the "continued hostility" of the US. Its main ally, China, criticised the test, which was condemned worldwide. Nuclear test monitors in Vienna say the underground explosion had double the force of the 2009 test, despite apparently involving a smaller device. Analysts say this could take Pyongyang closer to building a warhead small enough to arm a missile.

So what is it like to live in North Korea?  After visiting, Adam Johnson attempted to depict the country in The Orphan Master's Son, which is now probably the most well-known English novel set in North Korea:
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return. ... Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves... Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Upcoming Papal Election & Tobin's Conclave*

This morning I read that Pope Benedict XVI is retiring. The race was on to find a papal novel! Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find anything amazing.

 Dan Brown's Angels and Demons is centered on Vatican politics, but it also features evil albino henchmen serving, if I remember correctly, Illuminati-like overlords.  I was looking for a book which stuck a little closer to reality, so that ruled Brown out.  

Andrew Greeley's White Smoke is just what I was looking for plot-wise:  ambitious cardinals vying for the papacy.  Unfortunately, Greeley's writing is atrocious.  Here's a (mercifully) brief sample, an exchange between the journalist Dinny and his editor (who always speaks in exclamations!):

Despite myself and despite the damage that air travel does to my organism, my heart was beating faster. Maybe, like my editor had said, this would be the most exciting story I had ever covered .
"Even more than Rwanda?" I had demanded.
"No way," I had replied as I listlessly rose from my chair. "Nothing more than the Democratic convention. Or maybe even the Republican convention."
"Dinny!" he had shouted at me. "Cut the bullshit! You're dying to go!"
"All right, I'll go home and pack."
I don't know what bothers my organism more! The excessive exclamation marks, the lame joke, or maybe Dinny's immediate change of heart with next to no explanation?! Shoot me now!

Marginally better is Greg Tobin's Conclave:
Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Timothy John Mulrennan has known since childhood a deep and abiding faith in his God and his Church that leads him to a career as a priest-and propels him onto the stage of...the election of the first Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic church of the third millennium.
Along the way he encounters some of the most remarkable characters in contemporary fiction: Henry Martin Vennholme, leader of the conservative lay movement called Evangelium Christi, and Mulrennan's bitterest enemy within the church...Cardinal Leandro Biagi, a wily and urbane politician who would be at home in the time of the Medicis and Borgias...
I think you get the idea. The question is, how much bad writing/plotting are you willing to wade through to get a fictional account of a papal election? In my case, not much. The only part of this book I can recommend in good conscience is the fast-paced chapter twelve, in which we witness papal election plotting, the entry of a dark horse candidate, and the election's outcome. In sum, it's a bad book (hence the asterisk in this post's title) with one chapter that stands out as the best fictional depiction of a papal election I've been able to find.

Other recommendations of novels/short stories welcome!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kumbh Mela & Seth's A Suitable Boy

From today's BBC article "India's Kumbh Mela festival holds most auspicious day:"
The main day of bathing is taking place at India's Kumbh Mela, with more than 30 million pilgrims expected to take a dip at the confluence of India's Ganges and Yamuna rivers. This is the most auspicious of six bathing days at the event, billed as the biggest human gathering.
Want a novel that immerses you in Kumbh Mela and other Hindu traditions? Try Vickram Seth's A Suitable Boy. It's long, but I hear it's very worth it. Here is an excerpt from the book's description of Kumbh Mela:
They wore woven bags, shovels and buckets, stakes, flags, feathers and large marigold garlands. Some were suffering from the heat and fatigue. Others sang as if in a snack, or singing bhajan and other sacred songs, because the excitement of watching the mother Ganges removed the jet lag at a time. Men, women and children, old and young, black and clear, rich and poor, Brahmins and untouchables, Tamil and Kashmiri, sadhus in saffron dresses and naked naga sadhus rested on the sand all along the streets. The smell of incense, marijuana, sweat and food: the crying of children, the megaphones that whistled, women who sang Kirtan and policemen shouting; the sight of the sun sparkling on the Ganges and the sand faded into small whirlwinds where there were people, all conspired to infuse a sense of compelling euphoria.
(h/t to the Ana Morales blog.)

And here's a description of the novel as a whole:
Vikram Seth's novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find -- through love or through exacting maternal appraisal -- a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Homelessness & Swindells' Stone Cold

From today's Washington Post editorial "600 homeless children in D.C., and no one seems to care:"
The District has set a dubious new record for the number of homeless kids crammed inside a scary, abandoned hospital that serves as the city’s makeshift family homeless shelter. There are about 600, according to a nightly census done by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness... This, of course, is happening in the same city now rolling in a $417 million budget surplus and on track for a $240 million surplus in the coming year.
A good book about homelessness is Robert Swindells' young adult novel Stone Cold. Most of the book is narrated by a newly-homeless teenager, although we get occasional interludes from the perspective of a crazed man who kills homeless people. The serial-killer storyline seems a little unnecessary, but it does add suspense. Plus, if I'm going to read/watch something about serial-killers, at least this book also gives some insight into societal ills (unlike, say, Dexter).

If you prefer classics, I've heard George Orwell's semi-autobiographical novel Down and Out in Paris and London is, like most things Orwell, excellent.  If you'd prefer a book written by someone who spent much of their life homeless, I've heard John Healy's autobiography The Grass Arena is good.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Egypt Turmoil & Aswany's Yacoubian Building

From today's Al-Ahram article "Opposition forces set for protests against Morsi government Friday:"
A number of political parties and groups are mobilising for mass anti-government protests on Friday... The call comes after widely published reports of human rights violations against protesters involved in recent anti-government protests, including reports of torture.
A great way to get some insight into the tensions between the supporters and detractors of Egypt's Islamist President Morsi is to read Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building, a well-written novel with a cast of characters drawing from nearly all segments of Egyptian society:
All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed "scientist of women"; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires. These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany's remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world.

British Horsemeat Scandal & Sinclair's The Jungle

From today's CNBC article "First Burgers, Now Lasagna: Horsemeat Scandal Widens:"
Testing has confirmed that beef lasagna produced by food manufacturer Findus contained horsemeat, Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) said on Thursday... Investigations into suppliers have been launched in recent weeks after revelations that beef products sold at major British supermarkets including Tesco and fast food chain Burger King contained horsemeat.
Perfect book for this issue? Upton Sinclair's meat-packing classic, The Jungle:
1906 bestseller shockingly reveals intolerable labor practices and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards as it tells the brutally grim story of a Slavic family that emigrates to America full of optimism but soon descends into numbing poverty, moral degradation, and despair. A fiercely realistic American classic that will haunt readers long after they've finished the last page.
(This description is from the book's page on Amazon.)

The book's final three chapters are politically preachy and can safely be skipped. Since the book was published in 1906, it is available free online.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

War on Drugs & Winslow's The Power of the Dog

The New York Times had an fascinating article this week on the War on Drugs and U.S.-Mexico relations: "Hand of U.S. Is Seen in Halting General’s Rise in Mexico." Here's one of the parts I found the most interesting:
“When it comes to Mexico, you have to accept that you’re going to dance with the devil,” said a former senior D.E.A. official, who requested anonymity because he works in the private sector in Mexico. “You can’t just fold your cards and go home because you can’t find people you completely trust. You play with the cards you’re dealt.” A former senior Mexican intelligence official expressed similar misgivings about American officials. “The running complaint on the Mexican side is that the relationship with the United States is unequal and unbalanced,” said the former official, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke anonymously to discuss diplomatic and security exchanges. “Mexico is open with its secrets. The United States is not. So there’s a lot of resentment. And there’s always an incentive to try to stick it to the Americans.”
A novel that delves deeply into the War on Drugs and U.S.-Mexico relations is Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog:
An explosive novel of the drug trade, The Power of the Dog, takes you deep inside a world riddled with corruption, betrayal, and bloody revenge. Art Montana is an obsessive DEA agent. The Barrera brothers are heirs to a drug empire. Nora Hayden is a jaded teenager who becomes a high-class hooker. Father Parada is a powerful and uncorruptable Catholic priest. Callan is an Irish kid from Hell’s kitchen who grows up to be a merciless hitman. And they are all trapped in the world of the Mexican drug Federación.

Corruption in India & Adiga's The White Tiger

The following is from this Monday's BBC article "India court charges Suresh Kalmadi with corruption:"
A court in India has charged the chief of Delhi's 2010 Commonwealth Games, Suresh Kalmadi, with corruption. Mr Kalmadi and nine others have been charged with cheating, forgery and criminal conspiracy. He denies the charges and has pleaded not guilty. The case will be heard at a fast-track court in Delhi. Estimated to be worth $16.5m (£10m) in funds lost to the exchequer, the case is one of several corruption scandals to have rocked India's government.
A hilarious novel that discusses corruption in India is Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger:
In this darkly comic début novel set in India, Balram, a chauffeur, murders his employer, justifying his crime as the act of a "social entrepreneur." In a series of letters to the Premier of China, in anticipation of the leader’s upcoming visit to Balram’s homeland, the chauffeur recounts his transformation from an honest, hardworking boy growing up in "the Darkness"—those areas of rural India where education and electricity are equally scarce, and where villagers banter about local elections "like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra"—to a determined killer. He places the blame for his rage squarely on the avarice of the Indian élite, among whom bribes are commonplace, and who perpetuate a system in which many are sacrificed to the whims of a few.
(The above book review is from The New Yorker. I can't find the original New Yorker page it comes from, but here is the Amazon page I found it on.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

CIA in Saudi Arabia & Munif's Cities of Salt

From today's BBC story "CIA operating drone base in Saudi Arabia, US media reveal:"
The US Central Intelligence Agency has been operating a secret airbase for unmanned drones in Saudi Arabia for the past two years. The facility was established to hunt for members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen. A drone flown from there was used in September 2011 to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric who was alleged to be AQAP's external operations chief.
I think a good novel for this news story would be one that gives a little history of U.S.-Saudi relations, ideally with some insight into how Saudis have viewed the relationship. Although I have not read Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt (I found the first few pages a little slow and moved on to another book, but I plan on giving it another try), it seems to fit the bill. I hear that if you can have a little patience with the pacing, it's a great read:
...this novel records the encounter between Americans and Arabs in an unnamed Gulf emirate in the 1930s. As oil exploration begins, the destruction of an oasis community amounts to "a breaking off, like death, that nothing and no one could ever heal." The promise inherent in the creation of a city divided into Arab and American sectors provides the novel's most striking revelation: here not merely two cultures, but two ages, meet and stand apart. Alternatively amused and bewildered by the Americans and their technological novelties, the Arabs sense in their accommodation to modernity the betrayal of their own traditions.
Munif is a Saudi national and was raised in Jordan. From what I've read, I imagine the "unnamed gulf emirate" in the novel is largely based on Saudi Arabia.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

U.S. Embassy Ankara Attack & Hart's Savarona

The attack on the U.S. Embassy Ankara was recently in the news again now that Marxists have claimed credit for the bombing:
A Marxist group with a history of political violence in Turkey claimed responsibility on Saturday for a suicide bombing at the American Embassy in Ankara the day before, releasing a statement calling the United States “the murderer of the peoples of the world.”
A good piece of fiction for context on embassy/consulate life, threats abroad, and politics in modern Turkey is J. Patrick Hart's Savarona:
Bill Bigelow is a drifter with a history of mental illness and a habit of removing his clothes at the worst possible times. When he lapses into psychosis, his only hope is George McCall, a junior diplomat with demons of his own, both real and imagined. A literary journey to the heart of modern Turkey, this darkly comic first novel transcends genre with its penetrating wit and observation.

U.S. War in Afghanistan & Abram's Fobbit

From Sunday's NYT article "Pentagon Expects U.S. to Retain Presence in Afghanistan:"
The Pentagon’s top civilian and military officials on Sunday expressed an expectation, even a desire, that American troops would remain in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in December 2014, although they emphasized that no decision had been made.
A book that seemed insightful about working in a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Iraq is David Abram's Fobbit. I say "seemed" because I haven't been there and wouldn't know. But the book is excellent: darkly humorous, like Catch-22 for the 2003-2011 Iraq War. While the novel is based in Iraq, I imagine that much of what was true about life in Iraq's FOBs remains true for the FOBs in Afghanistan. Here's the book description:
Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield – where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like an office job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy. Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Boeing Dreamliner Glitches & Crichton's Airframe

From today's WSJ story "Boeing Dreamliner: Experts Still Stumped Over Burning Batteries:"
Despite talk of progress, investigators still don't know what caused the dangerous Dreamliner mishaps. As the probe of burning batteries aboard Boeing Co.'s 787 jets stretches into its second month, an international team of air-accident sleuths remains stumped about the underlying cause, according to people familiar with the details.
Want a painless way to learn some basics about how complex commercial jets are and what happens following the inevitable glitches at 35,000 feet? Of course you do! Enter Airframe:
Why did a passenger plane "porpoise"-pitch and dive repeatedly-enroute from Hong Kong to Denver, killing four and injuring 56? That's what Casey Singleton, VP for quality assurance for Norton Aircraft, has to find out fast. If Norton's design is to blame, its imminent deal with China may collapse, and the huge company along with it. With Casey as his unsubtle focus -- she's one of the few Crichton heroines, an all-American gal who's more plot device than character -- Crichton works readers through a brisk course in airline mechanics and safety.
(That's the Publishers Weekly description found on Amazon.)

U.S. Immigration Reform & Boyle's Tortilla Curtain

With Obama's and various senators' immigration reform proposals being in the news, this is a great time to read T. C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain. Here's the description from Goodreads:
Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.
The book is short, moves quickly, and does a good job of giving both sides' perspectives. I give it an A-. On a separate, non-fiction note: the Gang of Eight's immigration reform proposal in congress seems to have a lot in common with the reforms suggested in a 2010 book published by the American Enterprise Institute titled Beside the Golden Door:
"I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" the last line of Emma Lazarus's famous poem invites immigrants to enter a land of economic opportunity. Many have accepted that invitation; today, foreign-born workers make up nearly 16 percent of the U.S. workforce and account for almost half of workforce growth over the last decade. Rather than capitalizing on these gains, however, recent immigration reforms have resulted in an inefficient, patchwork system that shortchanges high-skilled immigrants and poorly serves the American public. Beside the Golden Door: U.S. Immigration Reform in a New Era of Globalization proposes a radical overhaul of current immigration policy designed to strengthen economic competitiveness and long-run growth. Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny outline a plan that favors employment-based immigration over family reunification, making work-based visas the rule, not the exception. They argue that immigration policy should favor high-skilled workers while retaining avenues for low-skilled immigration; family reunification should be limited to spouses and minor children; provisional visas should be the norm; and quotas that lead to queuing must be eliminated. A selective immigration policy focused on high-skilled, high-demand workers will allow the United States to compete in an increasingly global economy while protecting the interests of American citizens and benefiting taxpayers.

Welcome to Newsworthy Novels!

Good historical fiction novels help me experience and understand the past. Books like Gore Vidal's Lincoln and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart come to mind: books that help readers understand Civil War America or colonial West Africa in ways that most non-fiction can't. Similarly, I think some novels can help us better understand what's going on in the news today. Sometimes I find myself reading an article and not being able to (or not giving myself the time to) deeply empathize with the people involved. The purpose of this blog is to take a story from the headlines and find a novel that can help give the reader that insight.