Monday, March 29, 2010

Review of : Palestine by Joe Sacco

It is nearly impossible to side with either the Israelis or the Palestinians. If you understand both sides, you are sympathetic to both causes. But this isn't about choosing sides. For Sacco, this is about understanding. Like most Americans (and a lot of the world), Sacco had a certain view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and that view usually said that Israel was fighting for its land against Palestinian terrorists.

So basically, around 1948, Britain decided to clear out the Palestinians and make a Jewish homeland, in present day Israel/Palestine. Around 400,000 Palestinian refugees were displaced from their homes. Now Israel, backed financially by the United States (to the tune of $2,400,000,000 annually for military alone) and Britain, possesses incredible amounts of control over the land and over the Palestinians, who now live in these kind of slums, under Israeli martial law.

Sacco is clearly, after his two month long stay in Palestine, sympathetic towards the Palestinian plight. And even knowing the Israeli side of things, it's hard not to side with the Palestinians. Yes, Hamas is a Palestinian organization but they are extremists, just like any other political state is going to have their extremists who think violence to the only solution. You can't point at a peoples extremist organizations and say, "Look! They are all terrorists!" It's more complicated than that. It's always more complicated than that.

Through Sacco's interviews with dozens and dozens of Palestinians and Israelis, we are left with little hope for the region. But the reader is given a chance to understand the voice of the Palestinian, a voice that has for too long been heard through the distorted megaphone of political rhetoric and media misrepresentation. They are prisoners in their own land. Families with children, living in squalor and fear. Stories of extreme non-safety, of random raids and emprisonment. Imagine your home is broken into, except you know it might be broken into at any moment and you will be home because there is a 8 o'clock curfew and you might be beaten or taken to prison or killed or forced to leave while they bulldoze your house and destroy your olive trees, your entire livelihood. This is Palestine.

"Israeli's are tired of apologizing for the occupied territories! There was a war! We won the land in the war! It's our land now!" -an Israeli, pg. 264

"You know what the peace process is? It is our Palestinian leaders signing papers to make what the Israelis have done legal. But it doesn't matter. Let them make it legal. It doesn't change a thing!" -an elderly Palestinian man, pg. 278

"And if I had guessed before I got here, and found with little astonishment once I'd arrived, what can happen to someone who thinks he has all the power, what of this---what becomes of someone when he believes himself to have none?" -Joe Sacco, pg. 283

Monday, March 22, 2010

'Your Face Tomorrow' Book Group

Conversational Reading is starting a multi-month book discussion of the three volume novel, Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias. Feel free to join in and discuss what is sure to be some kick ass lit.

The reading schedule is


–1: Fever–

* Week 1, March 21-27: pp. 3 – 95 (Section ends at: “But before getting back to the Tupras . . .”)
* Week 2, March 28 – April 3: pp. 96 – 180 End of Section 1

–2: Spear–

* Week 3, April 4-10: pp. 183 – 233 (“Yes, I did remember . . .”)
* Week 4, April 11 – 17: pp. 234 – 316 (“This ability or gift was very useful . . .”)
* Week 5, April 17 – 24: pp. 317 – 387 (End of VOLUME 1)


–3: Dance–

* Week 6, April 25 – May 1: pp. 3 – 60 (“And so in the disco . . .”)
* Week 7, May 2 – 8: pp. 61 – 121 (“I left the restroom as resolutely . . .”)
* Week 8, May 9 – 15: pp. 122 – 201 (End of Section 3)

–4: Dream–

* Week 9, May 16 – 22: pp. 205 – 264 (“He fell silent for longer this time . . .”)
* Week 10, May 30 – June 5: pp. 265 – 341 (End of VOLUME 2)


–5: Poison–

* Week 11, June 6 – 12: pp. 3 – 113 (“Yes, we almost certainly shared that in common . . .”)
* Week 12, June 13 – 19: pp. 114 – 171 (End of Section 5)

–6: Shadow–

* Week 13 June 20 – 26: pp. 173 – 230 (“When you haven’t been back . . .”)
* Week 14, June 27 – July 3: pp. 231 – 328 (End of Section 6)

–7: Farewell–

* Week 15, July 4 – 10: pp. 331 – 393 (“I didn’t in fact think much about anything . . .”)
* Week 16, July 11 – 17: pp. 394 – 482 (“Wheeler stopped speaking and eagerly . . .”)
* Week 17, July 18 – 24: pp: 483 – 545 (End of VOLUME 3)

Review of : Heaven is a Playground by Rick Telander

In the summer of 1974, Telander, a writer for Sports Illustrated, spent his time in and around Foster's Park, the notorious training ground for street ballers, befriending the rotating cast of neighborhood characters.

Probably the best thing about this book is Telander's remarkable ability to evoke a sense of time and place. Flatbush, New York, concrete jungle, hot hot summer, city playgrounds, deteriorating basketball courts, drinking cold beer in the shade, radios, endless noise, endless heat. Telander puts us there with him, among these players, both basketball and otherwise.

They are all, more or less, for better or worse, basketball prodigies. They live basketball because for most, that's their only chance to get out of the ghetto. Which sounds crazy to write but it was (and is?) true. And in Foster's Park, if you wanted out, you had to have Rodney Parker on your shoulder.

With all its sad figures, Parker, for me, is at the top of the list in Telander's melodrama. Parker had declared himself a kind of 'ghetto scout', proclaiming who was deemed worthy of his attention and time, and then doing his darndest to get that player into college or better yet, the NBA or ABA. When he wasn't scalping tickets, he was at Foster Park, mentoring his proteges or lecturing kids about what it meant to be a man (though Parker seems to have a tenuous grasp of adulthood himself). And what was in it for Rodney? Apparently nothing. As Telander comes to believe, Parker did it for the love of the game...and as the reader comes to realize, also for the thrill of the deal, and the love of power (however small), and the love of admiration (however imagined) and, as it turns out, for friendship.

As characters, Parker, along with Fly Williams, carry the narrative. I found them to be the most interesting and pyschologically perplexing. Telander does an excellent job of bringing their emotional idiosyncracies to the surface, helping us see behind the mask of braggadocio. Williams ultimately "betrays" Rodney, though you get the sense that Williams couldn't really help himself...he was too damaged, his life destined to self-destruct.

And also, I want to add, there is a purity within these pages. Basketball, though an escape route for some, is played mostly for the love of the game. Simply because there is nothing like a game of three on three, four on four, playing to win, yes, but also playing just to play.

Review of : Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

I don't know why I hadn't read this before. It seems kinda essential to any graphic novel lover's library. A classic, if you will. Just passed me by I suppose. I remember watching the movie...though I don't remember the movie itself very well. In my memory, I have cinematic visuals to go along with the graphic novel though I only remember specific bits and pieces. There's this guy who writes these suggestive signs in his window, right? To the girls? Or is that another movie? Either way, that wasn't in the graphic novel. I should watch the movie again. Nancy thought maybe Christina Ricci was one of the girls but I don't think so. Upon doing a quick search, that actress was Thora Birch.

We follow the day-to-day wanderings of Enid and Rebecca, two recent high school graduates. They walk around town and spout negativity, as bitter, psuedo-intellectuals are wont to do. Wont? I'm not sure I've ever used that in a sentence. Cool. They are girls forming into women, teenagers into adults. They are confused, angry, hormonal, and in their specific case, social outcasts. Though it seems that their "outsider-ness" is, in Enid's case, of her own making, or at the very least, she enjoys her label (self imposed label?) of being the outcast. Strange for the sake of being strange. Which I've always found those sort of people to be kinda annoying and sad because it seemed that they really just wanted attention and love like everyone else, which isn't so strange at all.

The artwork is what propelled the story for me, more than the plot, which was loose but engaging. The two-colored pallet that Clowes chooses to use, helps add to the "ghost world" theme, the idea of a not-quite-there world, populated with strip malls, fast-food joints, everyone living inside their own heads, etc. True human connection is fleeting in this ghost world, and often times, unattainable. The townspeople who do populate the story seem to be there mostly for Enid and Rebecca's amusement. They sneer at those that are different from them (which is almost everyone...and those people in turn treat them as outsiders), they tease those who they find interesting (Josh and Weird Al), and mock the desperate citizens who search for companionship (guy who placed ad in the paper and the astrologist). And I get the sense that all this negative energy directed at the world around them is really probably a defense mechanism of sorts, protecting them from actual emotions and feelings, preventing them from connecting with the people they are supposed to hate.

And even Enid and Rebecca find it hard to maintain their friendship, the post-graduate life straining the bond between them. Rebecca seems content to stay in this unnamed town (further adding to the ghost world, a town without a name) and maybe even sees a future within its borders. But Enid, ultimately, decides if she wants to exist, she'll have to leave and become someone else entirely. Because no one truly exists in a ghost world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review of : Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995

Devasting is the first word that comes to mind. The story of the Bosnian War is a bit complicated (like most wars) but here is a radically condensed summary: Yugoslavia was made up of mostly Croatians, Serbians, and Muslims. And after WWII, the then president Josip Broz, commonly known as Tito, looked to down play ethnic nationalism and have each group live side by side peacefully. Then Tito died and Serbian nationalism took hold through the new Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, who became the president of the Yugoslavian Federation. Intimidated and scared by Slobodan's renewed Serbian nationalism (leftover from post WWII atrocites perpetrated on the Serbs), Crotia and Slovenia declared independence, leaving Bosnia to stand alone against the now hostile Serbia. So...war descends upon Bosnia, though "war" isn't really the right term because that implies two, more or less equal, sides fighting it out but really it was essentially ethnic cleansing of the heavily underarmed Muslims by the Serbs. Now, remember, Serbs and Muslims had lived peacefully side by side. They were each others friends, neighbors. But much of the Serb population had fled during this time, leaving mostly Bosniaks (Muslims) in Gorazade. So when the fighting began, it was the Bosniaks old friends and neighbors who came for them. Again, this information is skeletal. This is by no means a complete picture.

But that's where Sacco comes in. Through his reporting and interviews in Gorazde (one of the designated "safe areas" by the UN, whose power is largely portrayed as a joke throughout the book), all of the war's nuances begin to emerge. And all of the war's tragedies. Make no mistake, this is a bloody, gruesome, unflinching, compelling account of what was happening in Gorazade and Bosnia. The mass murders, mass graves. The snipers. The constant artillery fire. The understaffed, ill-equipped hospital, over run with grotesque injuries, with little more than brandy to dull the pain. Doctors amputating legs with kitchen knives. Dead children. Legless children. Rape. Houses looted and burned. Civilians drenched in gasoline, left to burn alive.

The vignette that haunted me the most was one from Visegrad, a small town just north of Gorazade. A man retells the horrors he witnessed from his window, as he watched Serbs load his neighbors in the back of a truck, take them to a near by bridge and proceeded to slit their throats, one by one, tossing their bodies into the waiting river below. All night, he could hear the continuous splash of bodies hitting water. Men, women, children. No one was spared. In the course of three days, he estimated he saw 200-300 people murdered on that bridge.

The art work is stark. Black and white. Shimmering, harsh, almost nightmaric. Sacco's style renders the Bosnian landscape and its people beautifully. I travelled down through parts of Eastern Europe in 2002. Slovakia, Hungary, Crotia, and flew out of Sarajevo. Walked down "Sniper Alley". Stood on the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Most buildings were in varying states of war-torn decay. The region was stupidly beautifully at times and ridiculously sad at others. Sacco does a great service to Gorazde and their surrounding neighbors, showing us through the eyes and stories ot its citizens, that even under tragic circumstances, life can still be lived with joy, grace, and hope.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review of : The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte

Satire is the word of the day when it comes to Sam Lipsyte. Satire, sure. Fine. But a love of language is what I come away with when I read Lipsyte.

I'm always reluctant to take up review space with summarizing the plot but anyway, the main character, whose name may or may not be Steve, is diagnosed with a "fantastically new" disease, which the reader comes to assume, or I came to assume, is just Death, like how we're all dying, in some sense of the word. I'm not going to claim that I "got" or "understood" everything that was going on in The Subject Steve. Both plotwise and idea-wise. But I like I said, Lipsyte is a language man, American, corporate language. And yes, the book is frequently funny. And oddly violent. But satire is often violent, right? Exaggerating the violence that is already present in the "real" world?

Let me just freestyle a little here, get some things out there: Meditations on ones mortality, understanding Death in an absurd world, accepting the passage of Time, capital T. What matters? Language matters. The Word matters. The rhythm of modern language, the playfulness, the abstractness. A common language. A common knowledge, a common understanding. Human connection through a common language, through common abstractions.

There is a common voice, as others have remarked, running through these pages. Each person seems to share the same mind. The same language. And though everyone seems to understand one another, real clarity feels like it's just off stage. Especially for "Steve". He both understands completely and understands nothing. Exaggerated satire? Well, of course, one of the main goals of satire is for us to recognize ourselves in the exaggeration. What is it? One who knows that he does not know, is a truly wise man? The more you learn, the less you know? And if you don't know, now you know? Et al.

Now, I'm trying to write concretely about a book that speaks in corporate, slogan-ed tongues (see Lipsyte quote below for more clarity). So you can imagine the difficulty. But it feels like Lipsyte is asking us to pay attention. Not just to life but to language. Well, he's asking us to do a lot of things. Or more like, "Hey, look at this. Think about it this way instead of this way."

And this: when his characters actually spoke in length, I found it compelling. Heinrich's zookeeper fable? I almost missed my bus stop. And Steve's childhood recollection of his father and his best friend's father getting into an erotic "fight" in the tool shed? Easily the high point (for me) in the novel and some of best writing I've read in a while.

"You see too much and you can't see anything at all." pg. 122

"I guess the problem is insincere speech. Life-crushing speech. At least from the language end. I’ve always liked writers who have an ear for all of the subtleties, the particulars of the given cant, the officialese, the business-casual lingo, the business intimate, the intimate casual, all the modes of modern (and unmodern) utterance. I love to read writers who can bend these particulars, spit them back, or knead the feeling back into them. That’s the response, from the perspective of fiction writing. What else? Corporations are part of our current predicament, but every age has a predicament. I’m sorry, I’m not feeling properly apocalyptic today. It’s all going to work out. McJihad is around the corner."

-excerpt from an interview with Sam Lipsyte

Friday, March 12, 2010

Review of : The Wavering Knife (Stories) by Brian Evenson

What a strange, dark, original, little collection. Surreal at times, all-too-real at others (see what I did there?). I don't remember exactly where I first came across Evenson's name but he comes with much acclaim. Everyone seems to agree that the story 'Promise Keepers' is far and away the best (and one of the most disturbing) of the collection. It's also pretty darn funny.

Some other noteworthy stories are 'White Squares', 'The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiqutte', 'Virtual', 'Barcode Jesus', and 'House Rules'. Evenson seems to be big on 'ideas' (which I know is vague and stupid of me to say) though sometimes his execution seems to fall a little short...and sometimes they're just so bizarre that I just don't know what in tarnation is going on. I mean, what the hell was 'The Progenitor' about?

One guy remarked how the font sucked and while this might seem shallow, I'm gonna have to go ahead and agree with him. The font was oddly distracting and I can't help but wonder how simple things like that (bad font choice) get that far down the editorial line to the point of publishing the bad font choice.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review of : A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell

I'm usually not one for memoirs but this did a fine job of keeping me engaged, mostly due to the short chapters (most no more than two pages). I would have liked to have read more of Sampsell's meditations on his family and their unique household. Most of his ruminations about his less than stellar father were all kinda jammed into the end when his father died but I found those 20 pages or so chronicling his father's death and funeral to be the most honest and gripping of the entire book.