Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day War Stories

War stories are the most enduring stories of all. That’s a rather depressing thought, but no less truthful. War stories go as far back as the Illiad, and continue to be written about, produced for film and television or for the theater.

What is it about war stories that continue to sway audiences? What do we gain from them? When Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released more than a decade ago, it opened our eyes about the true costs of war and the bravery of the men who fought in WWII. But if it was designed to caution us, we did not heed its warning. Within two years of its release, we were in Afghanistan. And two years later, we were fighting in Iraq. Both wars were painfully unnecessary (as the recent killing of Osama bin Ladin has pointed out), and the fear and jingoism which brought us into both conflicts now seem of a different time and place.

During that time we were presented with more war stories. Hollywood played its part by releasing films such as In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Lions for Lambs, and The Hurt Locker, which won its director Kathryn Bigelow an Oscar in 2010. Documentaries such as Restropo (whose co-director Tim Hetherington was recently killed while documenting the war in Libya), No End in Sight, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrated the power of documentaries to tell war stories in all their raw authenticity. The number of fictional tales about Iraq or Afghanistan have been scant, but war stories are still being written. Both Denis Johnston’s Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn are about the Vietnam war. Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner takes place during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and follows through to the rise of the Taliban. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun hauntingly details the civil strife that occurred in Nigeria during the 1960s. And then there was James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna, a WWII story about black soldiers which was made into a film directed by Spike Lee. In non-fiction, which has taken up the slack of war reporting, there is Sebastian Junger’s War, Brandon Friedman’s memoir The War I Always Wanted, Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War, David Finkel’s The Good Soldier, and a wealth of others. Television presented us with the miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, both about WWII; Generation Kill, about Iraq; Army Wives, and Saving Jessica Lynch, an NBC movie that was rightly criticized for its inaccuracies.

Then of course there are the classic war novels and films: War and Peace, The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Catch 22, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home; Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on River Kwai, Patton, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Back to Bataan, M*A*S*H, Platoon, Glory, and so many others, many of which starred John Wayne.    

But the question still remains. What draws us to these stories? I suppose it all depends. There seems to be three different types of war stories out there. There are those stories which validate the actions of war as an heroic endeavor: men testing out their mettle on the battlefields, true leaders rising to the challenge of defeat and victory. These are the tales of the Illiad, of Shakespeare’s Henry V, of Patton, of The Green Berets. Then there are the stories that are meant to simply document the war experience: Saving Private Ryan, Hamburger Hill, All Quiet on the Waterfront, The Hurt Locker, HBO’s documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and Generation Kill. Then there are the anti-war stories, the stories that are meant to caution, to horrify, to provoke. Films like Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Redacted, and The Tillman Story, a documentary about fallen U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, whose death from friendly fire was misused by the Bush Administration as propaganda, fall easily into this category.

Depending on what audiences are searching for at any given moment, war stories offer insightful glimpses into what it is like to be on the battlefield, to witness the horrors of carnage and destruction, and to suffer from its aftermath. They, like horror stories, push us to the mouth of hell and bring us back to safety. Unfortunately, what they cannot do is teach us somehow to avoid them in the first place.

This Memorial Day I dedicate my post to my late grandfather, Paul Buford Shipman, a WWII veteran.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Manning Marable's Biography of Malcolm X Explores His Work as a Social Activist

The late Manning Marable’s new biography A Life of Reinvention: Malcom X is a dense, well-researched, and thoroughly engaging examination of the life of Malcolm X and his reinvention as an important social activist in the 1960s. Marable, who passed away at the publication of his latest work, spent over a decade researching and writing it, and the breadth in which he covers the span of Malcolm X’s brief and extraordinary life is compelling (there’s nearly a hundred pages of research notes and bibliography). What emerges in this examination is less hagiography, as Malcolm X was positioned in many accounts following his assassination, but a complex portrait of a man reinventing himself, his style, and his religious and political beliefs.

In A Life of Reinvention, Marable covers the familiar terrain of Malcolm X’s life: his childhood, the death of his father, his rise to petty crime in Boston and Harlem, his subsequent imprisonment, his conversion to the Nation of Islam where, after his release from prison, he becomes a minister; then later his conversion to orthodox Islam following a hajj to mecca; his acrimonious break from the NOI, and of course his brutal and untimely death. As a historian, however, Marable is less interested in the personal aspects of Malcolm’s life (though he does include new and somewhat titillating information regarding his sexual exploits during his youth and his marriage to Betty Shabazz), but more concerned with his political activism. It is here that A Life of Reinvention pays its dues.

As early as the mid-fifties, Malcolm X’s interest in political and social activism began, much earlier than one might think following his break from the Nation of Islam. After a 1957 altercation between NOI members and the police, when one of the members was brutally beaten by the police and taken to a local precinct station house, Malcolm X mobilized a team of NOI members to attend to the injured Muslim. The police beating also attracted the attention of angry Harlemites who immediately aligned themselves with the Muslims, prompting one harried police officer to state “No one man should have that much power.” (This scene was depicted in the 1992 Spike Lee film Malcolm X). Marable reveals how this encounter led Malcolm X on a life-long journey toward a political maturity that would take him away from the black nationalist rhetoric of the NOI and toward civil rights, human rights, and Pan-Africanism. As the title of the biography reveals, Malcolm X’s life was one of reinvention and, as Marable quotes civil rights activist and Malcolm X’s good friend and debate opponent Bayard Rustin, that his life was “the odyssey of an American Negro in search of his identity and place in society.” But much of that identity, as Marable aptly reveals, involves Malcolm X’s search for a political voice that would speak to the largely voiceless African Americans trapped in northern ghettoes.

Malcolm X was a work-in-progress at the time of his death, still struggling to find the right voice to reconcile his beliefs in black nationalism, orthodox Islam, and Pan-Africanism. Had he lived longer, he perhaps would have found that voice, and we can only speculate what force it would have had on the international scene.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rejection Letters, Self-Publishing, Amanda Hocking, and Me

Rejection is the name of the game if you’re a writer. As a writer, I’ve geared myself up for that inevitable rejection letter or, for modern times, email. There’s the usual “We really enjoyed reading your work, but doesn’t fit our needs at this time.” Or, as one rejection letter noted: “It didn’t hit the mark.” Ouch!

But any writer who's passionate about her work will keep chugging along, sending out submissions in hopes that one day some editor will take a chance on her. It’s heartening to know that some of the more famous writers also went through that painful process before finally getting published.

I found this site which has a list of famous authors and the number of times they’ve been rejected before their first story or novel was published. It’s an interesting site and I encourage you to check it out. Writer's Who've Been Rejected.

It’s also eye-opening to see the number of well-known writers who’ve self-published. This includes everyone from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and James Joyce's Ulysses to James Redfield's Celestine Prophecy. Ulysses I can understand since it was banned at one point. Most major publishing houses probably had cold feet publishing it. It just goes to show that some of the most important work in literature were self-published.

I’ve been reading a lot about indie publishing or self-publishing and with good reason. You see, I’ve recently launched a project with to fund a writing project I’m working on (yes, I know this is a bit of shameless self-promotion, but you do what you can). Kickstarter, which was itself launched two years ago to help artists find funding opportunities, has opened up a way for writers like myself who’d like to take their careers into their own hands.

I’ve no illusions about self-publishing. I’m aware of the reputation, how it opens the floodgates mostly for unskilled writers to get published, how self-published writers end up spending more time on marketing and publicity than on writing. That was the story of Amanda Hocking, a self-published writer who recently made a six-figure deal with St. Martin’s Press. Unlike Hocking, though, there is also the possibility that you’ll end up lost in the shuffle. Yes, I am very much aware of all that. But I figure, the same thing happens to writers in the major publishing business, so in the end what difference would it make?

I’ve chosen to take this route mostly as a way to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can finally get published. If nothing else comes out of this, then I’ll have the pride of knowing I accomplished this major undertaking. Nonetheless I'll still keep chugging along.

At any rate, check out the site at Kickstarter, watch the very primitive video I posted explaining the project, and if you’re so kind do make a pledge. There’s some pretty cool incentives too!

If you’re interested in reading some of my work, here’s an excerpt from a short story that will be part of the collection. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nemesis by Philip Roth: A Review

There are a few names in the literary world that are undisputed giants and Philip Roth is one of them. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read any of his work before. That’s a shame because his latest novel, Nemesis, published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is the kind of work that only a stylist confident in his craft can conceive.

The title of the novel never appears in it once, even as it covers the span of many nemeses that put a stranglehold on the American consciousness during the 1940s---World War II and the polio epidemic, to name two. Lying at the center of the story is Bucky Cantor, the twenty-three year old playground director in a small, Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Like a lot of young men during that time, Cantor tries to sign up for duty to go to war, but is rejected because of his poor eyesight. He watches with a bit of guilt and regret as his two best friends are shipped out to the European theater. Cantor’s desire to fight is not only shaped by his upbringing (his mother having died in childbirth and his father, an embezzler, being sent to jail, Cantor was brought up by his stern but loving grandparents who taught him about honor and duty), but no doubt by the stakes which were certainly high within the Jewish community. His sense of duty also shapes how he responds to the greater threat that overwhelms his Newark home.

Cantor settles down into his job as a playground director, supervising young boys in their outdoor activities during the summer. Despite his disappointment, Cantor’s life is seemingly idealistic. He loves his job and he has a girlfriend, Marcia, whom he loves very much. Then the polio epidemic strikes in New Jersey, first in the Italian community, and suddenly Cantor’s world is thrown into disarray. When a group of young Italian toughs show up on the playground and spit onto the cement  to spread the polio virus among the Jews, the entire Weequahic community is thrown into panic when afterwards two of Cantor’s boys are stricken and die. Before long, the virus spreads throughout the community and no one has the proper response to a disease whose origins are unknown. Unlike the Nazis, this nemesis cannot be seen; there is no way to fight it. Along with the weekly air raids, the sirens of ambulances spiriting young children to the hospital become a sickeningly present reality, reminding Cantor, a seemingly healthy and athletic man, of his own vulnerability.

Cantor, a simple young man given more to the sturdy lessons of his immigrant grandparents than esoteric arguments, is now caught in a spiritual crisis as he watches the young boys under his charge get sick one by one. He begins to blame God and eventually himself. When Marcia offers him the opportunity to get out of Weequahic for a job at Indian Hill, a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains where she is a counselor, he takes it, but not after some waffling on his part about leaving his boys behind. Cantor is a man wracked by guilt and it soon becomes apparent that the nemesis for which the novel implies is as much about the power of guilt as it is about war and disease.

Since the discovery of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, the memory of that epidemic has receded from the American imagination and we can all be grateful for the ingenuity of modern medicine for that. Yet it isn’t hard to imagine the paralyzing fear Americans felt during this time when the war on both fronts and the Nazi threat also preoccupied their fears. After all anyone who has lived through the pique of the AIDs epidemic during the 1980s knows what that is like. Roth confidently examines a small niche in American history with a tale as fully realized as it is intimate. He casts in stark relief the way both the polio epidemic and WWII affected individuals, families, and entire communities with the knowing details of lived experience. And I have to say that it is a pleasure to read someone who is wholly confident in his craft. His language and sentence structures are as comforting as a tight embrace and yet they wring out hard truths about the universal nature of guilt and fear.    

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Freedom Riders, a New PBS Documentary for the 50th Anniversary

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, an 18 day Civil Rights campaign in which a group of young people boarded a U.S. Trailways bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in order to test laws that recently desegregated interstate buses in the south. In honor of the anniversary, PBS is airing on May 16th a two-hour documentary called Freedom Riders, based on the nonfiction title Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault. Today, Oprah will host the film’s director, Stanley Nelson, along with the men and women (the Freedom Riders) who were a part of that campaign on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

This is an important piece of history and I encourage anyone to check out the doc (I have not seen it myself). I’ve written about the Freedom Riders before. Here’s an excerpt from that article I wrote and a link where you can read the rest. You can find out more about the film at

The summer of 1961 was going to be hot in more ways than one. After the 1960 Supreme Court's decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case struck down segregation laws governing interstate buses in the south, Students for the Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to test the Kennedy administration's resolve in enforcing the new desegregation law by organizing Freedom Rides that summer. The strategy was simple: a biracial group was to board buses from Washington, D.C. and travel south, with white passengers sitting in the back and black passengers in the front. The group included thirteen brave young men, including James L. Farmer, William Mahoney, John Lewis, William Sloan Coffin, Jim Zwerg, James Peck, George Bundy Smith, Frederick Leonard and others. Dubbed the Freedom Riders, they boarded the Trailways bus in Washington, determined but sober about the seriousness of their expedition. Trained in the nonviolent tactics used in the lunch counter sit-ins the year before, they knew what was expected ahead. As the civil rights movement gained speed in its goal to demolish segregation laws in the south, winning victories along the way, the resistance from southern whites had grown more virulent. Mob violence had marked every nonviolent protest organized by SNCC. They didn't expect any different that summer.

On May 4, the Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. and were expected to arrive on their final destination in New Orleans on the 17th of that month. On May 14, Mothers Day, the group broke up into two, each traveling a separate bus into Alabama. As expected, violence greeted one of the buses as it reached Anniston. A mob of 200 assaulted the bus, hurling stones and slashing the bus's tires. Though the Freedom Riders manage to escape the mob, their bus was firebombed six miles out of town when they stopped to change tires.

The second bus likewise met with violence in Birmingham. A mob descended on the bus and began attacking passengers. White Freedom Rider, Jim Peck, received the worst of the violence, requiring fifty stitches for the injuries he sustained during the attack. Bull Connor, the city's Public Safety Commissioner, claimed his police officers were off for the holiday. But Bull Connor, who had set fire hoses and snarling dogs on children as they protested in Birmingham the year before, was a well-known Klan sympathizer. Later, it was learned that Connor purposefully kept his men off duty and that the FBI was well aware of the impending violence awaiting the Freedom Riders once they appeared in Alabama.