Saturday, December 29, 2018

WONDER---Swalllows and Amazons & How To Love the Universe

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom (Overlook Press) Sometimes I yearn for  a kinder gentler place. In this 1930s classic (comparable to Harry Potter in its era) I found adventure sailing with  four English children--during WW2. The oldest, age 12, Captain John, commands a 14 ft. sailboat with Susan, his first mate, able seaman sister Titty and seaman Roger, the youngest. They sail across a large lake to a wooded island and camp out, without adult supervision. Unimaginable in modern parenting, their mother encourages them by leaving them alone.

But she does check on them to bring treats with baby Vicky or hears news from adults, when Captain John picks up milk from the "natives." Their voyage of exploration begins with permission from their dad at the front, an enigmatic telegram:  BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN. Does father think they will drown or that they are not duffers?  Mother clarifies that dad knows John can handle the boat taught him last summer.

John, though doubtful he will remember, takes the responsibility seriously as does first mate, Susan, who helps him navigate and eagerly plans their food. They call their ship The Swallow and the idyll begins.  They have fair weather, find a cove and claim their camp, though it does seem someone may have been there in the past. Imagination is the wind in their sales, as young Roger plays he's a ship and Tittie dives for pearls. She references Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, writing in her journal of visits by "quaint natives" (her mother) as well as real islanders who make charcoal.

Imaginary adventures give way to the real thing, as one day they spot  The Amazon,a white sailboat with a pirate flag and two girls wearing red hats. Friendly rivalry is inevitable, especially when the girls raid Captain Flint's (their uncle) houseboat  and The Swallow is held responsible.  As the two ships vie for capture, there are real pirates on the houseboat. Before the summer's over, The Swallow and The Amazon join forces to solve a mystery, there's a dangerous night sail, Captain Flint walks the plank, and Tittie finds buried treasure. What a summer. I enjoyed their company.

HOW TO LOVE THE UNIVERSE: A Scientist's Odes to the Hidden Beauty Behind the Visible World By Stefan Klein (The Experiment, the  This book is the most mind-bending book I read in 2018. I can't describe it without including the chapter headings.

1. The Poetry Of Reality--A rose makes us aware that nothing and nobody stands alone. The more we know about how things in the universe relate to each other, the more mysterious the world seems to us.

2. A Marble in the Cosmos--The Earth rises over the moon and we see the universe as it is being born. Much greater spaces are concealed behind the visible cosmos. Reality is quite different than how it seems to us.

In this book the more science you know, the more awe inspiring nature appears. "The scientist's sharp eye even revealed things that at first seem ugly or repulsive to us. The fading of the rose is a symbol of decline, but if you look closely, you can see the hip growing deep within the withering petals, Each seed of the rose is a miracle of its own, because in each tiny kernal, the complete embryo of a rose is waiting for the moment it can soak up water, expand, break out of the husk, and stretch out its seed-leaves to the sun."

This is ecstatic, wise, wonderful writing by Klein, who studied physics and analytical philosophy, completing his doctorate in theoretical biophysics, before turning to writing to "inspire people with a reality that is more exciting than any thriller."

Read this book to be amazed at the world, as you may have been as a young child. There is a thrill of discovery in these pages, along with the unsettling adult feeling that we know nothing. Humility can be awe-inspiring. Loved this book.

S.W.   Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

War Memoirs--Afghanistan Noir, BLINDSIDED BY THE TALIBAN and IN THE RED ZONE, post-Saddam Iraq


Let us talk about that most crazy and foolhardy of  free lance journalists, brave ones who cover wars and in our time the "forever wars" of Afghanistan and Iraq. Vietnam a different story, body bags being loaded on planes, front and center on the six o'clock news. People were riveted-overloaded by daily body counts like a dark casino jackpot ever rising. Until it was enough, and Americans--old and young, liberal and conservative, veteran and resistor, surged in the streets to end that war. That old coverage gets little play now but then the numbers were enough. (Today, without the nightly network focus, would it happen?)

This post is to celebrate this rare journalist in the present, when our wars merit scarce network attention and coverage is often but a distanced reminder of what is going on far away --the horrific daily reality of war.  But there are news outlets who occasionally run stories by journalists enbedded with soldiers and their allies, working inch by inch-year by year--to wrestle peace from overwhelming destruction.  Now that Trump has pulled troops out of Syria, how long before the Taliban's retaken that ground? Will our allies, the Kurds, survive? Will coverage be shown?

I am not a fan of  war memoirs but in 2007, my friend Steven Vincent, a free lance journalist, went to Iraq to cover the war on terror. I saw him in New York and asked him why he was going back, he wasn't a career war journalist. Was it the adrenoline thing, feeling alive in the middle of death; a search for truth in destruction--personal issues?  Steve mentioned help for a friend. But before he left, he wrote an OpEd in The NY Times about local corruption. Soon after he was attacked, his friend got out. He left his  memoir In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq described as: 

"an American journalist's account of his daring solo expeditions through post-Saddam Iraq, is a vivid, frank, and unforgettable portrayal of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. An eyewitness of the 9/11 attacks, Steven Vincent went to Iraq to experience the daily realities of life and death in the crossfire of the war on terror. His report is essential for understanding America's enemies and allies in the critical but confusing struggle against radical Islam."

Carmen Gentile is another kind of freelancer, a veteran war journalist who covered Cairo in the 90's, unrest in the oil rich Niger Delta, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--embedding with soldiers on the front line. He's written for The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, though most outlets weren't doing a lot of war coverage, when USA Today agreed to send him back to Afghanistan. That was the trip he should have lost his life, he explains in his remarkable memoir Blindesided By The Taliban: A Journalist's Story of War, Trauma, Love and Loss (Skyhorse Publishers).

Gentile has to be the Philip Marlow of freelance journalists and his memoir is a kind of war noir, about one man's intolerable and ridiculous survival in extreme circumstances. Here is a guy who is struck in the face by a rocket powered grenade and survives. With humor and irony, he looks at the horror and idiocy of  his life before and after the near fatal attack. There's the dark humor of his comrades and  awful crawling heebie jeebies about going to the bathroom, when any movement spells death. And like Chandler's Marlow, he wonders why he's always putting himself in the way of bullets. 

A reluctant philosopher embedded with young soldiers half his age, Gentile probes why he's alive  when  helicopters evacuate men who won't make it to the hospital. After he's hit, he sees the shocked looks of others, wondering what's left of his face--his eye, before losing consciousness. Awakened after emergency surgery, Gentile questions the trajectory that got him to this place, lucky to be alive with a mutilated face. Self critical, in and out with meds, he  wonders what flaws inspired this nebulous career and his "perfect" woman to break off their engagement--by email.

Between multiple operations, state of the art experimental surgery to rebuild his eye, he finds some solace with another woman--while questioning what good he's doing her. He also plots a post  recovery rendez-vous with a lost love. Though painfully aware how passions override his judgement, Gentile's recovery is not negotiable.  Despite the welcome oblivion of painkillers, for weeks he must live looking down, unsure how and IF he's to go on. 

He recovers, facing truth and consequences. One day he finds Lucille, his aged motorcycle, and with one good eye takes a freezing ride to the Florida garage he calls the "Failure Cave"to figure out his life. Suffering flashbacks, he decides to cure himself by going back to Afghanistan. He embeds to the site of his most extreme trauma for MORE! And a few more embeds after that.  In the beginning of Blindsided By the Taliban, Gentile quotes  a friend who said "my greatest achievement is getting shot in the face." But he lived to do mind boggling work, looking through a sure and steady lens. 

Recommended for anyone who wants to know about the daily grind of war in Afghanistan and what it means to be a journalist embedded in the front lines. An outrageously honest, surreal and darkly funny memoir.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Prince of Orange County by Kareem Tayyar a YA for basketball lovers of any age

There are books that confound their genre and The Prince of Orange County (Pelekinesis) is not a formulaic  "coming of age" story but one that redefines the idea of what that means. From "Catcher in the Rye" you get  the bittersweet end of childhood fantasy lost in the torturous crucible of adolescence, with "Huck Finn" you do have a similar awakening to adventure and life, and you hope the hero will come to terms with the adult world. In The Prince of Orange County, the hero, at age thirteen, is already living a dream that just may happen.

Thomas Kabiri's "got game," meaning BASKETBALL, and is already playing with the big boys at his local playground court in southern California in 1986.  He can steal that ball and shoot and sling the "BS" with the other mavens in the local park. But it's not idle talk that his precocious skills might land him in the big-time--if he plays his cards right and grows to be more than 5'2". His moves have won games and earned the respect of his elder court buddies.

They are an odd assortment, from Bianchi, a guy never at a loss for words and girls, to Mississippi Rod with his natural glide and secret history of misfortune. Bianchi protects Thomas when he's dealing with players twice his size but no one censors talk about sex and drugs and, most of all, rock'n'roll. Thomas has come alive to music, whether it's his mom's Joni Mitchell or his own beloved Prince. He wants to hear more, and now he's got a whole summer!

Thomas the part-time player is about to go full-time. He's got his early morning paper route and has to be home at 6 for dinner with his eagle-eyed mother, otherwise hoops and adventure can fill his days. He tries not to think about his dad, who had to leave for Iran. Thomas' world also contains Mr. Roth, a legendary coach who gives tips with special sandwiches at his deli and Earl, a former star player from the East he meets on his paper route. Earl's from the big world of major teams. The fact he sees potential in Thomas as a player and a person is transformative.  When Earl takes him  to Tower Records, Thomas is bowled over by the history of all music, there for his selection.

Earl's reason for being there becomes a secret mission for Thomas, which takes him on a forbidden trip to Los Angeles, where he experiences the viccitudes of first love with a runaway (unlike himself) on her own quest. As Thomas tracks down a missing link from Earl's past, his world broadens to the basketball courts of L.A. and then beyond basketball. He learns about adult relationships, the emotional work and basic kindness crucial in friendships and romantce. He also experiences a sense of mortality. A complex world that awaits him--if only he were sixteen!

As Thomas' summer of adventures draws to a close, he's now thinking of basketball as an entry, a portal, to all the complexity that makes a life--flow on and off the courts.  Though this book is set in the 1980s, it's timeless funny and true. I completely enjoyed Kareem's journey in Orange County. Recommended for YA and adults, who can remember a certain summer when the world of adventure spread out before them.

Author Kareem Tayyar is a poet and novelist, as well as a Professor of English in Huntington Beach, California. He is a recipient of a 2019 Wurlitzer Fellowship for Poetry. This book is distributed by SPD (Small Press Distributors)