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Tom's Review of Books
Dear Tomdispatch Reader,
For 30 years, I've been a book editor in -- or at the edge of -- mainstream publishing. I still co-run and co-edit a series I helped launch back in 2003, The American Empire Project (out of Henry Holt's Metropolitan Books). I've often written back to readers who wanted me to check out their books (or favorite books of theirs) that the saddest response a long-time book editor is this: I have so desperately little time to read books these days. And it's true... it really is...
Nonetheless, in those wee hours after I've put Tomdispatch to bed, taken my bleary eyes off the next still-to-be-edited manuscript page, and turned off The Daily Show or those interminable late night reruns of Scrubs and Seinfeld, I still pick up a book and paw through a few pages. These days, I escape into fiction far less often (and miss that feeling of being swept into another universe); but, when it comes to nonfiction, I still have that urge to travel the world, peek into other cultures and universes, plunge into history, and, above all, look for new ways to frame our own puzzling, unnerving moment. More than anything, I'm still moved by the generosity of writers willing to travel where I wouldn't dare go (or couldn't even book passage), who have seen things I never will, who understand things I haven't grasped -- and want to take me along.
Anyway, like some old addiction I haven't kicked, it seems that I just can't keep away from the world of books. Next year, Tomdispatch will be spinning off books at -- for a tiny website -- a prodigious rate. New works that first began at the site will include: Nick Turse's The Complex, How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives and a book on America's Iraq by Michael Schwartz, based on his running commentaries at TD. (Both are due in the spring of 2008.) In May, The World According to Tomdispatch, an imperial reader, will be published by Verso Books!
With all that in mind, I thought I'd try my hand at a little Tomdispatch extra for subscribers -- a Tom's Review of Books newsletter that won't be posted at the main screen of the site. So, if I don't hear cries of pain, horror, or outrage from you, perhaps I'll do two to four of these little book letters a year, recommending works I've liked, some connected to Tomdispatch, some not. And, of course, the holidays seem like a reasonable time to begin -- that classic moment when, if you're like me, you enter a bookstore stocked with a staggering array of titles and only a faint idea of what in the world you should be picking up for gifts.
So here goes -- and please excuse the self-interested beginning. Think of it as dealer's choice.
In an era when an American culture of triumph returned to our world, only to crash and burn in Iraq, my own book, The End of Victory Culture, might be worth a pit stop. Written in the mid-1990s, it's just been reissued, updated to the present moment, and offering a perspective not found elsewhere. Of course, I've written about the book before at the site (and crib from it regularly for my own pieces). If you want to learn a little about its more serious side, just click here. In the meantime, let me suggest its charms as a secret cultural history of our times by offering the following five trivia questions - and answers - drawn from the book. (You'll be able to answer hundreds more after reading it!):
1. What was the great commercial triumph of cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy with his "spine-tingling episodes never before shown on TV!"? (Answer: Marketing his signature black shirt to one million children soon after World War II, at a time when black was still associated with mourning or Italian fascism.)
2. What did Desi Arnaz tell the studio audience of the top-rated TV comedy I Love Lucy in 1953, after Lucy was accused of being a communist by gossip columnist Walter Winchell? (Answer: "And now I want you to meet my favorite wife -- my favorite redhead -- in fact, that's the only thing red about her, and even that's not legitimate.")
3. When did the first interracial kiss make it onto television? (Answer: November 22, 1968, in outer space. Star Trek's Captain Kirk had to turn his back to the camera to simulate placing that kiss on Lieutenant Uhuru.)
4. From what movie did junior officers at the Army Command and General Staff at Fort Leavenworth, responsible for planning some of the ground campaign in the first Gulf War, choose a nickname -- and what was it? (Answer: Star Wars and it was "Jedi Knights.")
5. When, on May 1, 2003, George W. Bush made his carefully timed, late afternoon landing on, and strut across, the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, to announce that "major combat operations" had ended in Iraq against the backdrop of that infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner, what term did his advance men use for the photogenic moment chosen? (Answer: "Magic hour light.")
Now, on to those all those other books.
At the top of my 2007 list is the new paperback of Mike Davis' Planet of Slums. Talk about a single book taking you on a wild ride across a planet you hardly knew was there! It's not just a matter of wholesale global urbanization, which is stunning enough in itself. (After all, since the late 1970s, in China alone, more than 200 million people have moved from the countryside into cities, with another 250-300 million expected to follow in the coming decades.) Nor is it just the impoverishment of so many new city dwellers. It's also the de-linking of the city in whole regions of the globe from all industrial processes, meaningful jobs, or well-being of almost any kind. Not the city with slums, in other words, but the city as slum. And Davis, typically, was there first. "Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven," he writes, "much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor... Indeed, the one billion city dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life nine thousand years ago." To wield a phrase from the 1960s, this book is mind-blowing. Davis is one of a kind. If you haven't met him on the page, start here.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman hardly needs me to recommend it. It was, after all, a bestseller. But once you accept Weisman's premise -- that, by some unknown means, in a single historical moment (this one, to be exact), humans were removed wholesale from the planet, the book is anything but downbeat. It's a riveting exploration of how the traces of the heavy hand of humanity would slowly disappear and, everywhere, nature would return. As a dyed-in-the-wool city boy, I have to admit that there was something moving about that return of nature -- you can't help rooting for it -- and gripping about the way Weisman describes the dismantling of my home town, New York City, starting with those flooded subway tunnels almost the moment the power -- and so those 753 underground water pumps goes dead. Imagine! Sooner or later, Second Avenue, on which I took a bus to school so many mornings as a child, will be a river. This book is, in fact, an infernally clever way to grapple with climate change, without claiming to be about it at all.
Even here, by the way, put Mike Davis at the head of the class. In the final chapter of his 1999 book Dead Cities, he began dismantling a great city, London, in what would become the Weisman-ian manner. Of course, to my mind, the single greatest literary dismantling of a city (and a civilization) takes place violently in H. G. Wells' 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. With gusto, Wells turned the task of taking London apart over to his "Martian" invaders. (I first read that book under the covers, after curfew by flashlight, at about age 12 or 13, and practically scared myself to death.). After hearing a heartless discussion about the British extermination of the Tasmanians, Wells reputedly decided to turn the tables, fictionally at least, on imperial Britain. In the process, he invented most of the tropes of the invader-from-outer-space sci-fi novel. Ever since then, we humans have been imagining scenarios in which implacable aliens with superweapons arrive to devastate our planet. What if, as Davis and Weisman might both agree, it turned out that the implacable aliens were us?
Speaking of that, I noticed that one of my favorite (tiny) "travel" books -- ostensibly by bus deep into Africa, but in fact by research deep into European colonial history -- was reissued this year by the New Press: Sven Lindqvist's "Exterminate All the Brutes." (The title, of course, is taken from Kurtz's mad scrawl in Conrad's Heart of Darkness). What a ride through the planetary past Lindqvist takes you on as "progress" and "extermination" leave Europe hopelessly intertwined, cut a swath across four continents, and arrive back home as the god of slaughter, machine gun in hand, in August 1914. In a sense, you could think of this book as the story of how the Jews of the Holocaust were essentially the Africans of Europe. Read it and weep, as they say. (Or check out my old Nation review of it by clicking here.)
And talking about cutting a swath of destruction across a country, don't miss Dahr Jamail's first book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq -- and, while you're reading it, think of us as the invading Martians. I hardly need to extol Jamail to Tomdispatch readers, but his book offers a remarkably fresh glimpse at what those "Martians" looked like and felt like through Iraqi eyes. This book should outlast the war it recorded (even given Washington's urge to remain in Iraq forever).
On more purely American ground, not to say Ground Zero, stands Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, which explores the full range of bizarre responses to the 9/11 attacks -- the set of fantasies that Americans, the media, and especially the right-wing and the Bush administration conjured up in about 30 seconds. It offers a genuinely original window into the American psyche, for those brave enough to peek. Where did all those fantasies of manly men and women-in-need-of-protection come from anyway in a nation that mainly watched 9/11 on TV? Faludi is convincing when she argues that they emerged from an American mythology whose origins are as old as the Puritans and which has been etched, almost like a genetic code, into our national consciousness. The Terror Dream has largely been reviewed as a 9/11 book, but, believe me, it's so much more fascinating and deeper than that.
Oh, not that I haven't recommended it before, but if you're in that classic, history-can't-repeat-itself-can-it mood, Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East is the book to cure you. Yes, Virginia, it all happened before. The invasion bringing "liberation" and "democracy," behind which were the grandiose dreams of a "Greater Middle East." The miscalculations, the unexpected, bitter guerrilla war that followed, the full fiasco. The difference? Napoleon's disaster took a mercifully short three years to unfold and he, at least, brought along a corps of scientists, rather than private security cops and crony corporations, and some of them found the Rosetta Stone. Cole, who runs the Informed Comment website (my daily bread) is just a barrel of energy and so has set up a separate blog for his book, which is fascinating in its own right.
In Soldier's Heart, Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Elizabeth Samet takes us into an otherwise no-admission world -- that of the officer-corps-in-the-making for our all-volunteer Army. As that force has become ever less a citizen's army, and so ever less connected to all of American society, it becomes ever more important for the rest of us to understand it. Samet offers what, on the face of it, might seem an unlikely vantage point for illuminating military culture. She teaches literature and poetry to West Point cadets, but she's canny and eagle-eyed -- and the ways the young almost-officers she deals with every day grapple with literature (especially war poetry) turn out to be telling. "Like their teacher," she points out -- like most of us, in fact -- "most of my students first encountered war and military life through the stories of their fathers and from the movies... The signal difference is that they have actually agreed to turn make-believe into real life." Not surprisingly, "owning war" -- wresting the right to write about and interpret it from civilians -- "is one of the things for which they will fight hardest." The book is peppered with insights into these young men (and women) and what drives (and confuses) them, while introducing the civilian reader to a culture that is the best and worst of small town life. Samet even takes time to consider that almost all-purpose military exclamation -- nobody really knows where it came from or exactly what it means -- "hooah" (which she finally bans from her classroom).
Near the top of the must-read stack of books by my bedside, along with Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine (my next stop actually) and an account of the great Arab conquests in the century after Mohammed's death, is Studs Terkel's new autobiography, Touch and Go. Our premier oral historian -- and all-around amazing character -- he is now 95 years old, but don't you dare say that this is his last book! He continues to defy the odds. Until I read this one, let me recommend two slightly older Terkel gems, both perfect paperback purchases: Hope Dies Last, Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times is his oral history of activists, from the 1930s into the twenty-first century. It's filled with stirring testimony and a reminder that, in bad times, to dispel the gloom, hoping is not enough. Only acting -- even taking the smallest step toward change -- engenders actual hope and a sense of optimism. I'd like to urge on you as well Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, Stud's oral history of death. For those of us of a certain age, it is, I guarantee you, a strangely upbeat, genuinely uplifting book. I edited it once upon a time and I have to admit that some of the interviews moved me so that I found myself tearing up even as I marked the pages. I'm unlikely ever to forget the mother who forgave her son's killer (to his face) or the touching fantasy of the Chicago sanitation worker who donated part of his liver to a man he didn't know.
Okay, consider the book "review" part of this letter officially over. Whatever minimal authority or expertise I may have has now fled the premises. But that won't stop me -- not before I wax enthusiastic about two plays I've seen recently. If you're not already in New York or not coming soon, you can stop here and holiday good speed to you. If you are, or you will be, then rush for the phone (212-352-3101) or onto the Internet and order tickets to Howard Zinn's Rebel Voices at the Culture Project, which has just added shows through December 18th (and will soon be adding more for January). In it, six young actresses and actors (and the odd guest reader) work energetic magic with passages from the Zinn/Anthony Arnove book Voices of a People's History of the United States as well as stirring songs. I have to say that it's a distinctly feel-good event.
And, if that isn't enough for you, pick up that phone again (212-967-7555), you mad fool, or grab that credit card one last time for David Henry Hwang's fabulous new play, Yellow Face, at the Public Theater only until December 23rd (unless extended). It's a very personal, inventive, and superbly acted farce of mistaken racial casting and identity, of father, sons, and American dreams (as well as nightmares -- sometimes the two can't be told apart), of anti-Chinese hysterias and other strange phenomena of our American world.
And with that, to all a good night and -- let's hope -- a happier New Year of reading and everything else. Tom
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