Monday, August 30, 2010

Cannonball Read #31: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

When I was in college, I took an international reporting class taught by this unforgettable woman. She began her reporting career by covering the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, and has since traveled all over Europe and the Middle East as a freelance journalist. I remember her recounting a story about getting caught in crossfire and catching a bullet on her leg while trying to interview a dictator. They kept telling her that she had to leave, get out of there, take care of her leg – but she insisted on completing the interview because she was worried she wouldn't get the chance anytime soon. The only reason why the dictator even answered her questions was because he was so impressed by her, she said.

Though I admire the career that my professor has and thought she was a fantastic teacher, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that she was nuts. And that was what I kept thinking while reading The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. The man is an amazing reporter and writer, and I am crushing on him so hard right now. But he has to be so incredibly fucked up to be able to do what he has done for so long.

Picture a soldier who comes home from war and who has lost soem of his friends in battle. He probably has some form of PTSD and is, understandably, withdrawn from his former life. What Filkins experiences seems so much more insane and unfathomable. Not only is he caught in its crossfire, he has to put himself at an emotional distance from the deaths and mayhem so that he can write about it for the paper. Filkins may not be shooting anyone, but he's certainly seen many people go down, and he has even had a soldier die because of him. He has come so close and escaped death so many times that he sometimes has a dangerous sense of recklessness. During his moments of arrogance, he believes that he is invincible – he will never be shot down/snipered dead/kidnapped for a ransom.

The craziest thing? Filkins is able to gather all these memories and pull them together into a beautifully moving account of one of deadliest wars in our recent history. If you have read any of his pieces for The New York Times, they are often very straight-forward, journalese articles of who, what, when, why. This certainly exists in his book, but the gravity of the war is enhanced by how very human all the players are. The marines that he and his photographer, Ashley, followed in Falluja; the insurgents who never quite know how to handle an American who is not in the military; the people who plead to him to tell their stories; the suicide bombers who might not have known what they had signed up for; Filkins' Iraqi translators and drivers, caught between their world and their work, who have saved his life more times than he can count – I read it all with a knot in my throat.

This has been the most affecting book so far during the Cannonball Read. Each time I got to my stop while reading it on the train, I always felt like I was being slapped, jolted into full-consciousness. How is it that the world I live in is real, and thousands of miles away there can be people fighting and dying and hurting and pleading – and that's real too? The disconnect is just too great.

(PS. The New York Times Magazine published an article that was adapted from book, if you're are interested in taking a look at it.)

Photo Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cannonball Read #30: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I went through The Book Thief so quickly, just zoomed right through it and it completely broke my heart in the end.

Narrated by Death, the story traces the life of Liesel Meminger, a young girl living in Nazi Germany. Death has met Liesel three times in her life, starting with the death of her little brother as they were being trucked to their foster parents in another town. Stopping at a nearby town to bury her little brother, Liesel managed to snatch up a book from the young undertaker filling up the small grave. The book is The Grave Digger's Handbook. Her foster father teaches her how to read the book during the night whenever she wakes up from her nightmares of her little brother dying. During the day, Liesel plays with her friends, especially with Rudy, who is in love with her. Her foster family are also hiding a Jewish man in their basement who eventually becomes Liesel's friend.

I'm really not sure what else I can say about this. Nazi Germany is seen in the point of view of a young girl. This means that we are able to feel her joy when she gets to joke with her friends or when she reads a book; it also means we feel her pain when she loses those friends and her family. Liesel is easy to identify with, but there were points when I wished I could be more removed from her emotions.

Death also has no qualms about telling you how the story ends. He makes it clear in the beginning that it's not about the ending, but about how Liesel, and us readers, arrives there. This sounds cliche, but though I knew what was going to happen, I was still deeply affected when I got to the event. Zusak had me wishing that Death would be lying about certain things, even though I knew that there was no "trick ending."

*****The Book Thief – Last Line*****
I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

Cannonball Read #29: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

This review is so over due and it’s for a book that is really difficult to describe, so it’s not going to be very good/clear. I read this for the June book club but didn’t finish it until much later. I had previously read it in high school and though I found the use of language to be formidable, it started feeling like a slough toward the end. Reading it this second time around, I had the same problem. However, I think I was able to get more from it this time than before.

Most people have read this so I’ll go over the synopsis very briefly. Our narrator starts out by telling us about where he is and telling us that he is invisible. The entire book a recount of his journey from the South, where he is from, to his underground home in New York. In the beginning, our narrator is willing to just follow authority blindly despite how degrading and menial some of his tasks are. He inadvertently gets into trouble in his college and moves up to New York to find work. In New York, he becomes a part of the Brotherhood, an organization that, on the surface, seems to be fighting for equality for black people.

Reading back on what I’ve written, I realize that reading Invisible Man gives me more of an emotional journey than something that is tightly based on plot development. That is not to say that the plot isn’t interesting – it is. But I cannot really recall specific events happening. When I think about the emotions and realizations that the narrator experienced, I am able to tie that to an event. I remember the disgust I felt at the narrator in the beginning when he was unable to see how he was being demeaned by being asked to participate in a boxing match in front of screaming, rabid white people. I remember the frustration I had because he wanted so badly to please Mr. Norton, who did not even consider black people to be their own individual selves, but were instead “his destiny.” I also remember the slow creeping shock I felt when Jack tells the narrator that the goal was to keep the people of Harlem under the Brotherhood’s control, and all their work was performed under the guise of empowering the black men.

Though I wanted to give up on it many times (since the book club discussion was over), I’m glad I made it through. There are some things that Ellison make very self-evident – like all the overt motifs of darkness and blindness – but other themes and characters are not so easy to understand (Bledsoe, and what he represents, simultaneously outraged and intrigued me.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am thankful that Pajiba – or more specifically, Snuggiepants – made reread this even though I started out not wanting to.

Image taken From The Vault.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Hero

City Room: Jetblue Flight Attendant Uses Emergency Slide to Escape Dispute

I wish that my restaurant/office building has an evacuation slide attached to it. "You want me to 'keep your mimosas coming' even though you just made me run to bring you three in 10 minutes? EVAC BITCHES!!!"