Friday, August 16, 2013

"Rake" Made Me Laugh

As I was reading Scott Phillips's new dark comic novel Rake with great enjoyment, I had the thought that he was channeling the late great Charles Willeford. Phillips's blithe psychopathic protagonist seems especially reminiscent of Willeford's Richard Hudson (in The Woman Chaser). Both men are violent, womanizers, and determined to make a movie.

And sure enough, Phillips notes the influence of Willeford (and Highsmith) in this nice little L.A. Times interview: "Scott Philips Talks About his Novel 'Rake.'" If you like the offbeat, amoral humor of Willeford, you'll like Phillips's writing, too.

Rake is narrated by an unnamed American actor -- the star of a soap opera that has taken off in France -- as he traipses around Paris, signing autographs, bedding women, beating up wayward youth, and seeking financing for his movie. Even as he becomes embroiled in various criminal activities, he keeps chasing tail, working crossword puzzles, and getting a good night's sleep. Phillips continually mines humor from his protagonist's libido and insouciance. As a side note, the book is also a sort of love letter to Paris (Phillips lived in France for a time).

Rake is more of a lark than Phillips's previous work, The Adjustment (follow link for my review of that). I hope his writing doesn't become too madcap, but then, Phillips is pretty damn funny.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy

On the day that Detroit declared bankruptcy -- the largest such municipal filing in U.S. history -- I picked up Detroit: An American Autopsy and started to read it. Usually my timing isn't so good.

Detroit belongs alongside Days of Destruction, Days of RevoltLike DDDR, LeDuff's history/memoir charts part of America in decline (or rock bottom) -- in this case, what was once a model city and industry. The auto industry built Detroit, and the city swelled to about 1.2 million people in the 1950s. Today, about 700,000 people live there. This means blocks of buildings are left derelict and uninhabited. The loss of tax base, of course, contributed to Detroit's financial downfall.

But Detroit's undoing has also come at the hands of elected officials, entrenched judges, corruption, mismanagement, and so on. LeDuff in particular discusses two crooked, pitiful, but sometimes colorful fallen elected officials -- both of whom served time in prison: Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Council Member Monica Conyers (wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers).

Detroit also has plain bad luck and consistently picks losers. For instance, when a tough chief of police was ousted, he was replaced by Ralph Godbee, who "took a kinder, gentler approach to policing." The murder rate subsequently went up, the police renewed fudging crime stats, and part-time preacher Godbee ends up resigning after bedding "a bevy of female officers." Other losers picked by the Detroit: the Key to the City was given to tyrants Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe.

LeDuff's book is as much memoir as history or journalism. He charts his own family's history in the Detroit area, including the unnatural deaths of his street-walking sister (drunken accident) and niece (OD). LeDuff's close personal investment in his story provides emotional -- but not sentimental -- weight. At the same time, the title is a little misleading since it primarily offers recent snapshots of Detroit -- not quite a full autopsy. Another book with the same title, for instance, might've proposed more solutions or examined certain public policies (e.g., causes of death) more directly. But no matter, this is a powerful book that shows how far an American city can fall -- and how far it will have to go to recover.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A New Look at the Vietnam War: Nick Turse's "Kill Anything that Moves"

Once again, I was swearing off war books, but someone told me to read a new book about the war, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, and I did. It is frightening and sobering -- and I've read a lot about the Vietnam War. Reading it reminded me of viewing the Holocaust film Shoah. Like filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, Turse interviewed eyewitnesses, perpetrators/soldiers, and surviving victims -- and the results are impressive and overwhelming.

Based on Turse's doctoral dissertation -- and painstakingly researched and sourced, though very readable -- this book has a central thesis: The American way of war in Vietnam resulted in mass killings of civilians in South Vietnam. The My Lai massacre was but one example of thousands of days of misery visited upon the people of Vietnam. The conditions that made war crimes possible were created at the highest levels of government and military command.

Now, 40 years or so from the wind-down of the war, Turse's observations might seem matter-of-fact.  We all know how horrible Vietnam was (though usually we think of U.S. soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians), but what this book details is the pervasiveness of wanton murder of unarmed civilians throughout the course of the war.

Ultimately, it was policies and politics that drove the carnage. By early 1971, Telford Taylor, a retired army general who served as chief counsel at the Nuremberg trials, said in a nationally televised interview that Westmoreland might well have been prosecuted for war crimes. A field general, Julian Ewell, and his executive officer Ira Hunt were the primary proponents of pushing "body counts," which led to indiscriminate civilian killing in the populous Mekong Delta in late 1968 and 1969 -- in an operation called Speedy Express. Unarmed civilians were subject to artillery fire, helicopter attacks, and ground troop invasion. Civilians were shot for running from the approach of soldiers. The dead were inevitably counted as Vietcong, but consider one fact uncovered by a team of Newsweek reporters: Ewell's division reported killing 10,899 enemy troops, yet it recovered only 748 weapons. At one point 699 "guerrillas" were killed, but only 9 weapons captured. These non-correlative numbers indicate widespread killing of unarmed civilians.

Did the U.S. military care? In fact, Turse draws heavily on declassified documents from the Pentagon's War Crimes Working Group, which was set up in response to My Lai. Turse explains: "The group did not work to bring accused war criminals to justice or to prevent war crimes from occurring in the first place. Nor did it make public the constant stream of allegations flowing in from soldiers and veterans. As far as the War Crimes Working Group was concerned, these allegations were purely an image management problem..."

The policies and the cover-ups are what's central here. While Turse rightly lauds reporters like Seymour Hersh (whose writing broke the My Lai story), he also notes that the press sat on or effectively killed stories. (And hey, the New York Times hasn't reviewed this book, which seems unbelievable.) In 1972, Newsweek's Saigon bureau chief Kevin Buckley wrote, in part, "Four years here have convinced me that terrible crimes have been committed in Vietnam. Specifically, thousands upon thousands of unarmed, noncombatant civilians have been killed by American firepower. They were not killed by accident. The American way of fighting this war made their deaths inevitable." This lead was killed and the article watered down, and Speedy Express is now hardly known.

While Turse focuses on leadership, policy, and cover-ups, he also carefully documents atrocity after atrocity. There is the West Point colonel who hunts Vietnamese from his command helicopter, the decorated sergeant whose wildcat team kills and mutilates civilians, the personnel who routinely torture, and on and on. Turse looks at sexual crimes and South Vietnam prison conditions as well.

Many hard facts and figures back up Turse's points. Did the U.S. have a plan to help the people of Vietnam, so they would turn from communism (or nationalism or patriotism)? One telling figure: In 1967, USAID's total medical budget to support health programs in Vietnam equaled 0.25% of the total U.S. spend in the nation.

So, where does this leave us? Turse makes clear that we have not adequately assessed Vietnam -- and that failure continues to haunt our foreign policy and military.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Knife Music: Good Book, Problem Reader

I remember, many years ago, that the NY Times had a film critic who seemed to love everything she saw. She was very enthusiastic, but I couldn't trust her in the end. She just liked being at the movies and watching whatever was on the screen -- and she made little distinction between a middling film and something really outstanding.

At times, I feel like a reader (and filmgoer) with the opposite problem -- little grabs or excites me. I start books and don't finish them. I'm lukewarm about movies that others rave about. It's a problem, then, if I want to offer my views with a good semblance of fairness. (When I was younger and brash, I might've argued for critical "objectivity," but not anymore.)

All of which brings me to David Carnoy's Knife Music. This is a good, entertaining book -- certainly worth noticing; I sucked it down in just a few days. It's the story of hotshot, semi-womanizing ER surgeon Ted Cogan who is (wrongly?) accused of the statutory rape (which is just plain rape in California) of a teenage patient. Cogan is a complex character, sympathetic yet cold, well-off and resourceful but in deep trouble. He's pitted, in part, against a dedicated police detective, Hank Madden.

While I semi-feverishly turned the pages of Knife Music, it also lagged in a few areas. First, too much backstory -- especially a chapter about Cogen. And too much detail. I'm on thinner ice here. The mystery writer needs a certain amount of detail to bury clues, and detail creates "l'effet de reel" (to fall back on my weak Roland Barthes). But when is extra detail too much? Consider, for instance, that Madden spies on Cogan "through a set of compact but powerful Nikon binoculars." I would've settled for "compact" and assumed that the cop had a good enough pair of binoculars for his job; I didn't need the brand. The book seems too full of this minutia. But maybe this is just me being cranky?

Though Cogan faces the prospect of an ugly, public trial and jail, he never seems in too much jeopardy. The book is set in the wealthy environs of Silicon Valley, with jaunts to the Stanford campus, a gated community, and a country club -- wealthy but not Sternwood-wealthy. Is there some sourness to this world of privilege, something that might be exposed? Carnoy succeeds with an engaging breezy novel. Should I fault him because I wanted rougher weather?

Friday, April 12, 2013

News Flash: Bear Serves in World War II

I missed a month, but I'm back. My reading is varying widely, and though I swore off war books after reading We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, I made an immediate exception for Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak, which I read for my younger daughter's library book group.

Soldier Bear is a young reader's novel based on the true story of a Syrian brown bear adopted by a group of Polish soldiers during World War II. Wojtek (or "Voytek," as the bear is called in the English translation from the Dutch) is a cute nuisance, but he eventually wins over various officers and even helps carry artillery shells. The bear accompanies the soldiers (aligned with British forces) from Egypt to Italy, where he serves near the front in a transportation company.

A central critical question seemed to hover over my reading of this book: "How do you write a book about war for young kids?" While earnest and heartfelt, Soldier Bear offers only a few tough insights into the war. One soldier, Lolek, is traumatized when he sees two soldiers killed by a bomb, but this is the only human death we see (there are other animals, too). In the end--and perhaps justifiably, considering the intended audience--Soldier Bear is more of an animal yarn than a war novel. It made me think of the animal books of Gerald Durrell (which I really don't remember, so the comparison might be off). The book also never quite emotionally captures the daily grind, boredom, and fear that fill out a soldier's everyday life. In some regards, the characters and the storytelling are a little flat.

My older daughter--a junior in high school--is in a Vietnam War class, and they are reading Tim O'Brien, Ron Kovic, and others. Though war reading can be tough, it makes sense since these students are on the cusp of enlistment/selective service age--and will soon by voters. Even younger students read All Quiet on The Western Front, which might be misguided. It's a terrifying, vivid book--no Soldier Bear--and shouldn't be relegated to high school freshmen English. (I'll note too in passing that in my post on All Quiet, I wrote, "I'm going to try to wind down my war reading for a bit," and that was in November 2010. Now, I'm really going to try--maybe I'll switch to books about urban blight, poverty, and general misery.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Required Reading: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed

For a few years now, usually in winter, I’ve been reading books about war—novels and sometimes non-fiction. I’m not exactly sure why. In the most basic way, war books have exciting narratives—they are about life and death. War also instigates astounding actions and reactions, which make for interesting reading. I have mostly read books about Vietnam and World War II, but also Iraq and Bosnia.

Now, in what feels like a culmination and maybe a stopping point for a while, I’ve read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998). It has shaken me, and in its way, shamed me. For World War II and Vietnam, I can assume the role of an historic observer. I remained more or less informed on and voted with a mind toward policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think I ignored the events in Rwanda as they were happening and being reported.  During the genocide in Rwanda, I believe I was teaching an introductory course on epic, working on my doctoral dissertation, riding my bike, and generally lazing about. I neglected the pious Hebrew school adage about genocide—“Never again.” I didn’t even muster much awareness.

We Wish (I’ll use this shortened title) surely indicts my neglect. But certain actions—well-intentioned humanitarian actions—were worse than neglect in that they ended up aiding and abetting the genocidaires (the French term used for the Rwandan mass killers). It turns out, too, that the U.S. utterly neglected its obligations under UN General Assembly Resolution 260, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Clinton expressed regret that he had not intervened (and he was the first western leader to visit Rwanda after the genocide). Gourevitch writes that then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright’s “ducking and pressuring others to duck [intervention], as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, was the absolute low point in her career as a stateswoman.”

If American inaction is retrospectively reprehensible, then French support for Hutu Power is even worse. Belgian colonialism played a fundamental role in creating an environment for genocide. Many religious organizations and their leaders, at least within Rwanda, supported the genocide as well.

The UN was awful. The Canadian head of the UN force, Romeo Dallaire, was repeatedly thwarted in his effort to intervene more forcefully. Though the UN prevented the massacre of some people, Dallaire later asserted that 5,000 well-equipped soldiers may have been able to prevent a half million murders.

I think I might’ve held the common misperception that the genocide was a sort of uncontrolled spontaneous mob spasm of racial killing. Chaos in a failed African state. From this point of view, it is easy to think that military and political intervention would have been futile. In fact, Rwanda was a well-organized country with a government that planned the killing well in advance, promoted it on radio and in print, and enforced its execution. Consider this: in the months leading up to the genocide, the government imported machetes from China and distributed them to the majority Hutu population for the express purpose of exterminating the Tutsi minority. In 100 days, 800,000 to a million people were killed.

Dessicated bodies at the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre
The genocide ran its course—and civil and social order basically broke down. It ended when much of the killing had been completed and a force of primarily Tutsi exiles from Uganda drove Hutu Power out of the capital city of Kigali. This led to the formation of enormous refugee camps that sheltered war criminals along with genuine refugees. Cholera killed another thirty or forty thousand people in the camps.

Recovery in Rwanda, in Gourevitch’s account, is at least buoyed by compassionate and sensible leadership, embodied by then-General Paul Kagame (who has been Rwanda’s President since 2000). Gourevitch describes Kagame as part of a post-postcolonial era that views the west with healthy skepticism.

Late last year, I heard a presentation by Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontieres or MSF), and its representatives spoke about the dangers of aid being used as a weapon of war. In Rwanda and cross-border refugee camps, this was certainly the case. Thus certain types of humanitarian aid are counterproductive—an argument that writer (and onetime Ugandan resident) Paul Theroux also makes in Dark Star Safari (which I reviewed back in 2002). So where does that leave a concerned westerner? I don’t know.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Joe Sacco: Comics Journalism and Conflict

For a few weeks now, I have been reading (and viewing) the award-winning comics journalism of Joe Sacco. It has really made a strong and unexpected impact on me.

I started with Sacco's recent work in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which is primarily made up of text written by Chris Hedges (discussed in my previous post). I like Sacco's work in this book, but Hedges's text plays the starring role.

In Sacco's most acclaimed books (and all his own), Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, all the text is provided in comics panels. The images convey as much meaning and drama and reportage as the words. Unlike traditional journalism, Sacco is part of the story: his thin, worried figure makes its way through muddy streets in war-torn Bosnia (1992-95) or the West Bank or Gaza Strip (from 1990-91). We see him as outsider impacting the story -- and he also stands in for us -- amazed and befuddled at the destruction and survival of the places he visits.

I'm not a comics or graphic novel aficionado, but I would say that Sacco's drawings are loosely in an R. Crumb style, but a little more realistic (in his later works) and finely detailed. Sacco's birds-eye panoramas are especially compelling, showing wide angles and bustling activity that aren't usually caught in a photograph. Perhaps an apt comparison would be Brueghel. To my mind, the tension between the subject matter -- serious and deadly -- and the comics style gives the work great vitality.

Sacco mostly focuses on the nature of civilian life in conflict-torn areas. He also provides some history and context, especially in Gorazde. The U.N. comes off very poorly.

Sacco doesn't have a website, though you can find some images online. It's far better to dive into the over-sized books. I've included a couple of covers and one author self-drawing (much like what appears in his books; taken from the publisher Drawn & Quarterly's website). I believe this constitutes fair use, but I want to respect copyright, so if image owners (e.g., Sacco, his publishers) want images removed, please say so in the comments.