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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

September 27, 2016

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In the late 1990s in Chechnya, an eight-year old girl named Havaa hides as soldiers abduct her father and then burn her home. She flees to the woods, where she is found by a neighbor man, Akhmed. Unsure what to do, he takes her to a nearby hospital where they meet a bone-weary doctor named Sonja. The novel is about these three lives brought united by chance, how they weave together over times past, present and future in a bleak, devastated landscape.

It is a heavy novel with heavy themes—love and war, loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice. The writing is very good, and there are moments both in the description and in the observations that are razor sharp. One I jotted down: An exchange between two characters, one of them saying that Marx was right, “religion is a crutch.” The other retorts, “If you step on a landmine, the crutch becomes a leg.”

The narrative is a scatter of scenes that, like the title suggests, paint a bigger picture when considered as a whole. They have the feeling of something blown apart by a bomb, and it takes an effort on the reader’s part to piece them together into something meaningful. Perhaps I didn’t fully have the patience for this one. I admired the craft, from the fantastic opening line: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” But something about the characters felt distant all the way through. This book has great reviews—so good that I feel like I missed something or wasn’t in the right mood or didn’t pay close enough attention. Occasionally, I read a book that I love but is so off-beat that I hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. This case is the opposite. I didn’t love this book, but I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it.

Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick

September 17, 2016

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Even with fifteen years gone by, it may take another several decades to understand the full effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It’s clearly the catalytic geopolitical moment of the early part of this century. Today, ripples from 9/11 play out in the Syrian catastrophe, the rise of ISIS and the developing proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. While the attacks on that day were horrendous, the damage was compounded by the reaction of the United States and the mistakes we made in the subsequent years. In this Pullitzer-prize-winning book, Joby Warrick traces the path from 9/11 to the current situation, focusing on the rise of the Islamic State.

The three biggest rationales for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq—1) a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida, 2) Iraq’s role in 9/11 and 3) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—all proved false. But within the attempt by the Bush administration to rationalize its decision to go to war, it made another false claim that would seem relatively minor until a decade later. In trying to connect Iraq to Al Qaida, it pinpointed a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the link. Zarqawi was indeed an Islamist militant and had operated a training camp in Afghanistan, but he had no connection to Osama bin Laden or Al Qaida. To the average American hearing Zarqawi’s name for the first time when Colin Powell spoke it in his fateful U.N. testimony, it would have meant nothing more than a detail to make the claim of a connection seem more legitimate. But the false claim did something much more important for Zarqawi. It made him famous. In that one instant, this obscure Jordanian militant was now one of the great heroes of jihad, someone like-minded militants could rally around. In that moment, we were a kingmaker of the wrong sort.

Warrick details Zarqawi’s background, his dream of an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate, his rise to power in the Middle East and how the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing mistakes (disbanding of Iraqi army, deBaathification, failure to provide adequate security, failure to provide basic utilities, shooting of demonstrators in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, etc.) turned the situation into the perfect cauldron of chaos for Zarqawi’s campaign. Initially, his goal was not organization; it was destabilization. The Americans served their purpose in breaking the country. After that, Zarqawi just needed to ignite a civil war.

Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike in 2006, but his movement carried on, finding another catalyzing moment in the chaos of the Arab Spring. The Bush administration’s great mistake had been to get into Iraq. The Obama Administration’s was to stay out and let the situation fester. But the U.S. was war-weary country and Obama had political campaign promises to live up to. The gains of the 2007-08 surge were largely lost and the total collapse of Syria again provided the kind of chaos in which the jihadists thrived. They re-emerged under the black banner of ISIS (also ISIL or Daesh) and seized a massive territory in Syria and northern Iraq. Videos of beheadings and other atrocities became commonplace. Stories of misery under the caliphate’s barbaric laws leaked out. And the political situation got very, very messy.

There is a line that describes ISIS as “good butchers but bad soldiers.” This is both hopeful and foreboding. Hopeful in that they can be taken out with a unified, concerted effort by any competent military force. But until the will is there, they will continue their butchery.

Warrick draws on a wide range of sources, from high-level CIA agents and former agents to foreigners on the ground (the Jordanian sources contribute heavily to an understanding of Zarqawi). This is a gripping story, and unfortunately it is not fiction. The clear narrative here is that despite our desire to stay out of the Syrian hornet’s nest, we are responsible for it. One source, speaking of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current, brutal leader of ISIS, said “Had it not been for the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s greatest butcher likely would have lived out his years as a college professor.”

There are no easy solutions. In hindsight, there were multiple opportunities to snuff out ISIS before it got a foothold. In hindsight, there were moments that re-engaging would have been a much easier task than it would be today. In hindsight, the failures of the Iraq endeavor will extend far beyond the borders and timeframe of that war. Pundits want to point fingers and argue whose fault this mess is, as if that matters. They will out-rightly deny the facts of history and make up their own history if it helps make their point. When the story can become so skewed based on one’s particular political lens, it’s important to have factual account of what actually happened and why. This is an important book in understanding the truth of how we got to now.

Chuck Klosterman’s HYPERtheticals With a Five-year-old At Bathtime

September 17, 2016

I’m a Chuck Klosterman fan. He has a fascinating mind. Seems like a fun guy to just grab a beer with and chat. The episode of Marc Maron’s WTF with Chuck Klosterman is one of my favorites.

A little while back, I bought a game(?) he made called HYPERtheticals: 50 Questions For Insane ConversationsIt’s kind of a more intellectual version of Gregory Stock’s The Book of QuestionsKlosterman provides really elaborate hypotheticals that set up provocative dilemmas.

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Tonight I was reading them to my five-year-old when she was taking a bath. Some contain adult material, so I skipped those. But I wanted to see what she’d say and why she answered the way she did. Here are the ones she answered:

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Her answer:

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I thought that was pretty insightful. She maybe outsmarted the question.

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She wanted to lose her sense of smell.

Screen Shot 2016-09-17 at 9.47.20 PM.pngShe also said she’d replace smell with her touch. So she could feel smell in the air as a physical sensation in her fingers.

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She said the first one, which I was happy to hear. Screw the Hollywood-ized biopic. Why?

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I guess we all have a little of that dream in us.

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I had to explain to her that Einstein was a scientist who was like the most brilliant person ever. She said:

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To be fair, we were at a science-themed birthday party today, where a “Mad Scientist” came and performed some experiments that were borderline magic tricks. So the delineation between a really smart scientist and a hack magician might be a little blurry at the moment. I’m also pretty sure she thinks magic tricks are real magic. I’m not ready to burst that bubble.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

September 13, 2016

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I love Mary Roach. She’s cornered the market on quirky, surprising and often gross trivia. She started as a journalist, writing (as she puts it on her website) “sort of a reported humor column, wherein I covered things like vaginal weight-lifting and amputee bowling leagues and the question of how much food it takes to burst a human stomach.” She says she likes “Scrabble, mangoes, and that late-night Animal Planet show about horrific animals such as that parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading the fish around.” I’ve heard a number of podcast interviews with Mary, and it’s always a fun listen.

Likewise, Grunt is a fun book. As she explains upfront, there are plenty of books about the weaponry, strategy and psychology of war. She had no interest in covering that well-trod ground. What she was looking for were the stories in the nooks and crannies. The military, as she points out, is perfect for absurd trivia because of the conflux of massive amounts of money with peculiar needs and outside-the-box thinking. It’s hard to think of another book that slices so uniquely across topics such as battlefield hearing loss, marooned submarines, shark repellant, diarrhea, penis implantation and aviation bird strikes.

These topics are serious, of course. In many cases they’re a matter of life and death. It’s not hard to imagine why so much money was spent unsuccessfully searching for a repellant for sharks when one imagines a crew of Navy seamen swimming in the Pacific, awaiting rescue. Or why shooting turkey carcasses at 400mph out of a cannon into a jet engine is a worthwhile exercise if it can save one fighter jet from crashing. But just because the endeavors are serious doesn’t mean it can’t lead to absurd, often hilarious outcomes.

The military is often mocked for its wasteful spending and bureaucracy, but it is constantly innovating, and many of the innovations eventually find their way into civilian life. Research into flame-resistant materials and heat-refracting clothing (both covered here) will eventually save lives and provide comfort beyond the battlefield. Likewise with the military-funded medical advancements with prosthetic limbs and, explored in one chapter, genitalia.

But the most enjoyable bits are the failed experiments. The ideas that don’t quite work out, disasters and near-disasters. The failed weaponization of smell. The actors failing at playing victims in battle simulations. There are countless anecdotes in Grunt, but one of my favorite stories is that of the USS Squalus, a submarine that sank off the coast of New Hampshire in 1939. At the time, subs were equipped with an emergency buoy, which the Squalus crew released to the surface 240 feet above. The buoy was tethered to the sub and contained a phone with which rescuers could talk to the trapped crew. An interesting idea, but after a short bit of communication with the rescuers above, the phone line snapped, killing any ability to communicate. The rescuers had to resort to using a never-tested diving chamber. Working through the night, they managed to make four trips to the Squalus and rescue the remaining crew 33 members. Roach tells this story as well as other interesting ideas in underwater rescue—from emergency breathing apparatuses to “underwater parachutes.”

Whereas someone like Sebastian Junger embeds with the soldiers doing battle, Roach embeds with the nerds. And that’s what makes this book both different and charming. It’s a tad random. It leans pretty heavily on the gross. And some of the stories are better than the others. But overall, it’s entertaining and fun—exactly what it should be.

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton)

September 4, 2016

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I started reading stage plays to study dialogue and get more familiar with the conventions of writing for the stage. They’re a different kind of animal that forces a simplicity onto a work and exposes its narrative skeleton. Reading a play, it becomes clear how visually evocative good dialogue can be—how much it can convey about a character’s mood and underlying intent with subtle gestures. This stageplay was recommended by the Amazon algorithm after I read The Pillowman.

God of Carnage is the story of two suburban couples. Neighbors. One couple is visiting the other  to apologize and work out a dispute their sons had. The boy of the visiting couple hit the other boy in the mouth and damaged his teeth.

The beauty of this play is watching the four characters struggle to maintain the decorum required of them by polite society while underlying forces push and pull them. Reza sets up a kind of ecosystem of tension that manipulates the characters, moving them toward and away from one another, sometimes nearly off the rails. They teeter at the edge of absurdity, but in a way that makes you think, “Yeah, I can see how they got there. How I could get there.” It is a delicate dance, and the shifting allegiances is a delight to watch. Sometimes it is couple vs. couple, sometimes the men vs. the women, sometimes small alliances form between unlikely allies. All through very controlled, subtle shifts in the dialogue. As the story unfolds and we see glimpses of the desperation of each character, there is a looming sense that any of them could go off if their buttons are pushed in the right sequence.

This psychological study is interesting for these undercurrents. The plot is simple and doesn’t drive to a big finale, but the ride is fun nonetheless.

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

August 1, 2016

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Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are two of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. With decades of hindsight, they’re both celebrated as heroes of civil and human rights, though when they first emerged as public figures in the early 1960s, they more often roused fear, ire and hatred. In 1963, Ali was still going by the name of Cassius Clay. He was a brash young newcomer who declared to all who would lend an ear that he would soon upset Sonny Liston and become the heavyweight champ. He was seen by boxing purists as unpolished in style and disrespectful in demeanor. At the same time, Malcolm X was one of the most influential members of the Nation of Islam, the black separatist group that many whites viewed with suspicion and trepidation. Their stories intertwined during the most pivotal time in both men’s lives, indeed a volatile moment in the history of the United States. Blood Brothers is about the influence the men had on each other.

When Clay was on the rise, few gave him any shot of living up to the hype that flowed from his own lips. As the title fight with Sonny Liston approached in February of 1964, Cassius was a seven to one Vegas underdog. Boxing reporters wrote him off (leading to Clay’s famous “eat your words!” tirade when Liston failed to meet the bell in the seventh). But Clay did have an inner circle who believed in him. One of those people was Malcolm X. The two had met after Clay saw Malcolm speak at a rally in 1962. They had become fast friends, although the relationship and Clay’s growing affiliation with the NOI was kept under wraps to protect the boxer from bad PR. Malcolm may not have known a lot about boxing, but he recognized an indomitable character when he saw one. He believed everything Cassius predicted about his future. He believed Cassius was destined for greatness. Surrounded by doubters, this meant a lot to Clay.

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But Malcolm’s motivations weren’t selfless. He knew that a personality like Clay, a heavyweight champion, could bring legitimacy to the Nation. Clay’s membership alone would be a recruiting tool. The Nation knew it too. Even though they had decried boxing as a dirty sport, as soon as Clay won the championship, they changed their tune. Led by the fraudulent Elijah Muhammad, the Nation persuaded Clay to go public with his membership. In 1965, amid a storm of controversy, the famous boxer changed his name to Cassius X.

As Cassius was growing closer to the Nation, Malcolm was having an increasingly public falling out. His own beliefs were evolving as his understanding of true Islam grew, and he was becoming increasingly aware of Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisies. He and the NOI developed a very public feud and, forced to choose, Cassius sided with the NOI, abandoning Malcolm. There was an especially poignant moment when the two meet later in Ghana. Malcolm approached Cassius like old friends, but Cassius turned away, rebuffing Malcolm for leaving the NOI.

As the rift between Malcolm and the NOI grew, it then grew more and more caustic, then turned deadly. On February 21, 1965, before giving a speech at the Audobon Ballroom in New York, Malcolm was assassinated. Cassius, of course, would go on to live a long and celebrated life, the only three-time heavyweight champion and one of the greatest sports figures of the century. In his later years, he would follow a similar path as Malcolm, leaving the NOI and becoming an orthodox Sunni Muslim.  He passed away just two months ago, June 2, 2016, at the age of 74. But he had said publicly and in his autobiography that never patching things up with Malcolm was one of his greatest regrets.

While the intertwining of the two men’s stories is interesting, I didn’t find much new here. David Remnick’s King of the World and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention tell essentially the same stories. I wanted more of Ali’s private thoughts after decades of hindsight. Ali had a long time to think about his relationship with Malcolm and that period in his life. I wanted to know a little more about what the older, wiser Ali thought of his younger self.

That said, Ali is always entertaining to read about. His first fight with Liston is a classic, with his Louisville Lip clowning against Liston’s ex-con steeliness. One of my favorite moments is when, as the two are out promoting the fight, Liston says to Clay as Cassius is finishing a chicken dinner, “You eat like you headed to the electric chair.” Clay saw himself as an entertainer (“Where do you think I would be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler?”), but he claimed to be genuinely scared of Liston.

There are other moments when the poetry of the sport is captured beautifully in the lines. Although from a newspaper report, the book contains this wonderful analogy during the Clay vs Cooper fight in England. While Clay circled Cooper, popping him with jabs, one of his gloves began to rip. “As Clay threw punches, small tufts of horse hair spit out of the tear in his glove like spent cartridges…”

Or when the author describes Clay’s pauses mid-combination as if he were a master painter, “…stepping back to admire his work before adding a final dab of color.”

I could read about boxing all day, and in that, Blood Brothers delivers. But overall, while this book does bind the stories of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay together into one narrative, it doesn’t add much to what we already knew about that story.

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

August 1, 2016

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During final evaluations with one of my scriptwriting students (an advertising scriptwriting class), I asked him what kind of writing he admired. He mentioned the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. I’d never heard of McDonagh, so I asked him to recommend a play. He recommended The Pillowman. I read it and was blown away.

Act I opens with a classic prisoner’s dilemma. Two police officers are interrogating a man, a writer, Kataurian for his alleged role in a crime. His brother, they say, is in an adjoining room, also being interrogated. As they interrogate Katurian, their questions focus on a handful of his short stories, of which he has written hundreds. Katurian recounts stories for the officers, unsure of what they’re after. The stories are delightfully cruel and unsettling, like modern Grimm’s fairy tales. Katurian is obviously proud of the stories, though the literary nuances are over the heads of his audience. The officers are more concerned with plot points. During the interrogation, we begin to hear the screams of Katurian’s brother through the wall. In Act II, the two brothers are now together in a cell. Katurian is horrified to learn the truth of his brother’s confession.

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I won’t give any more away, because part of the delight is the way in which McDonagh metes out pertinent information little by little, orienting us then reorienting us. We feel we are in the hands of a master manipulator. And as the story grows darker and darker, we feel like we’re somehow being implicated in the crime. Because as the story unfolds, we learn that it’s not just the writer and his brother on trial for a crime. The writer is on trial for his unrelentingly cruel imagination. The stories are on trial—the morality of bringing such darkness from one’s imagination into the world.

The Pillowman leaves one equally dazzled and unsettled. The sparseness of the form is remarkable, as is the quality of each of Katurian’s stories nested throughout the play. They get progressively darker and progressively better, ensuring that we can’t look away. There is a lot to pull us along. The Pillowman is a psychological thriller of the highest order.