Tuesday, December 22, 2009

House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger

This book is very revealing in terms of the degree to which the Bush administration, both father and son, set themselves up in a uniquely close relationship with Saudi Arabia - resulting in unimagined consequences in a post 9/11 world. All in the name of guaranteeing America oil for the foreseeable future. Craig Unger does a masterful job in relating the play-by-play history between the U.S. and the Kingdom, not just in terms of politics and the Gulf War, but also in terms of corporate involvement, especially the Carlyle Group. In a nutshell, the Saudis received military protection in exchange for cooperation on lucrative oil deals. Michael Moore's 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 draws heavily from the book.
The evolving situation in Afghanistan was most interesting, where the U.S. and Saudis were supporting the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union invasion. The Saudis wanted to show the support of the royal family to the jihad. But no Saudi prince wanted or needed to brave the Afghan mountains. Enter Osama bin Laden, age 22, who took a leadership position and went into Afghanistan without hesitation. The reason for his choice was a simple function of the extraordinary degreee to which the wealthy (construction) bin Laden family was tied to the royals. Unfortunately for Bush, the long-term implications of supporting a network of Islamic fundamentalist rebels was never considered. The Bush attitude was that the collapse of the Soviet Union was more important than the growth of the Taliban. The bottom line here is that bin Laden learned an important lesson in this war - mujahideen warriers fighting for Islam could bring a superpower to it's knees.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, King Fahd allowed U.S. forces into the Kingdom. This was a calamity as far as bin Laden was concerned and set the wheels in motion for revenge. But the Bush regime turned a blind eye for years to come, funding the Taliban as late as May, 2001, under the guise of eliminating the opium trade.
The book ends with the repatriation of the U.S.-based Saudi royals in the days following 9/11. This is amazing, while the whole counry was grounded, a few charter flights rounded up high level Saudis and returned them safely home. This secret evacuation is mind boggling, to say the least.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

This is a very simple book, in fact I'm seeking inspiration here as to just what lies beneath the surface. I don't think very much, which surprises me as this Irish author is receiving much press lately, including a recent 4-page writeup in the NYT Magazine (May 3, 2009). This is a story about Eilis (pronounced eye-lish) Lacey, who was forced to leave her (and the author's) home town of Enniscorthy, Ireland, for the New World in 1950 to seek work. She leaves reluctantly, but falls in love with local Italian plumber after not too long in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill. She must return to home for a reason I will resist revealing and then gets caught between two worlds. So much for the plot. While we're at it, the author's name is pronounced CULL-um toe-BEAN.

It is curious that I read this book weeks after reading Delillo's towering masterpiece Underworld and both books take place in Brooklyn, but this one later by one year. Both reference Bobby Thomson's famous home run, Delillo's masterpiece prologue taking place at the Polo Grounds, home to the New York Giants, while Toibin's Eilis is introduced (p. 168) to the national pastime at Ebbet's Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ironically Delillo nominated him in 1990 for the E.M. Forster Prize at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which he won.

Toibin has been short-listed twice for the prestigious Booker Prize, but I'm having trouble seeing it with this short novel. He wrote this novel while teaching at Stanford. Toibin is keenly aware in this novel of an Irish presence in New York that has eroded dramatically over the years. Interestingly, Toibin says that to enhance the relation between author and reader, he resists physically describing his protagonists. By not describing them, you make the reader's perception more intimate. The Times article also quotes "The opposite of being English was being Irish. The Irish tradition came from the lead actors' playing the parts of tramps or powerless people and still holding the stage. There was not the English tradition of doing Hamlet the prince....These actors came from nowhere, ther was no nobility about their characters. The only power they had was over the word."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

This nifty little book can be read in a few hours, but it is hardly filled with as much insight as Gladwell's two previous books The Tipping Point and Blink. Gladwell makes the case in Outliers that highly successful people are more the result of circumstance than intrinsic smarts. He also invokes the 10,000 hour rule and establishes in a compelling fashion that great achievers spend about that much time honing their craft whether it be Bill Gates spending time at the nearby Univ of Washington computer center near his home in hghschool or the Beatles' well known stint playing clubs night after night in Hamburg. These leaders are products of history and community. Their success is grounded in a web of advantages, some deserved, some not, some just lucky. In the end the outlier is not an outlier at all.

For me, the Eureka moment in the book was the last chapter, "Jamaican Story." He describes his own family legacy originating in Jamaica, where his great-great-great-grandmother was bought as a slave. The owner fathered a light-colored son, who was spared a life of slavery. His mother's education was the result of riots in 1937 that led to schooling opportunities and the industriousness of a Chinese grocer who was willing to loan the family money for education.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Underworld by Don Delillo

How to capture the essence of this 827 page "towering" work of literature ? It is like the 2004 Paul Haggis film Crash on steroids. So many lives (over 100 characters) intersecting on so many levels. But the careful reader is rewarded time and again with brilliant moments in a novel that juxtaposes a forward and backward presentation of time. More than anything else, Delillo is focused on the role of image in high and mass culture. Throughout this novel, Delillo, a native New Yorker, portrays his town as a postmodern dystopian wasteland.

The narrative, as first revealed in the beautifully crafted Prologue, that was published separately before the book came out in 1997 (and that it predates 9/11 is important), relates to the trajectory through various random owners of the home-run baseball that Bobby Thomson hit out of the Polo Grounds in the bottom of the 9th inning on October 3, 1951, to give the home-team New York Giants the winning pennant. Known fondly as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," it is arguably the most famous home run in history. Cotter Martin, a young black adolescent who snuck into the stadium snags the winning ball only to have his father sell it a few days later at Yankee stadium to a world series fan on line to see the Yankees play the Giants. And so the ownership trajectory begins with the first two "ball handlers." That same date in 1951, the Russians tested an atomic bomb over modern day Kazakhstan. A New York Times front page that shared both stories with equal weight was the inspiration for Delillo's masterpiece.

The book's dust jacket immediately captures the reader's attention. Most bizarre, it is a photograph, taken by Hungarian fotog Andre Kertesz, of the World Trade Center. What is verily odd is the random capture of a large bird flying towards one of the towers, eerily prescient of the 9/11 plane that would hit the North Tower a few years later (see online literary web site www.mrbellersneighborhood.com/story.php?storyid=403). Ironically, the WTC site would become one of history's largest waste management projects, a theme throughout the book. Delillo obsesses with waste generation - the nuclear apocalypse may have receded, but the environmental apocalypse looms.

The book has been termed "historiographic metafiction" (fiction that self-consciously reflects upon itself) blurring the lines between history and fiction. As metafiction, the author uses the novel's artists to think about his own position as a novelist. The author devotes the full text to a proof of his belief that the commodification of culture is quintessentially postmodern. And he beautifully deploys this premise through a series of film viewings by the novel's principal characters. The films include Zapruder's 8mm "home movie" of the Kennedy assassination, the Rolling Stones never released 1972 documentary Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank), and Sergei Eisenstein's Unterwelt, a faux film (it doesn't really exist, although Delillo's description of the film images is faithful to the film makers style), and, analogous to Zapruder, a brief home video shot by an adolescent girl who inadvertently captures a murder by the Texas Highway Killer.

These films about films or behind-the-scenes documentaries are postmodern while Eisenstein's film is modernist. In the Zapruder film, we witness a private screening of a bootleg copy of an 8mm home movie projected on many TV screens, running in continuous loops at varying speeds. Once the shock of the assassination wears off, the "images become available for aesthetic contemplation" (see Duvall's Don Delillo's Underworld). There is a magical moment during the Intermission of the Radio City Music Hall screening of the Eisenstein film Unterwelt. Klara Sax feels a rumbling of the subway train under the theater, yet another underworld that will figure into the life of Ismael Munoz, grafitist extraordinaire, an underground version of the dadaist artist Klara herself. These sublime little forms of nexus run rampant through the novel.

Just as Klara has painted retired B-52 bombers in the Arizona desert in a work of art that few will ever see, Delillo has written a gargantuan novel of 827 pages that few will ever read from cover to cover. Can we establish a linkage between artist (author) and work more postmodern than that ?