Two Cities of Books

When I was a young man in high school and early college I would often drive down to the local Borders or Barnes and Nobles bookstore to peruse the shelves; spending an afternoon reading entire books while seated on the comfortable sofas in the air conditioning – it was Phoenix after all – occasionally standing to walk to the little café for a croissant or a cup of coffee. And I would pass an afternoon, for I was poor and the entertainment free. Shelves and shelves of books; endless reels of stories to play in my imagination. Tolkien and Lewis; W. Somerset Maugham and Pearl S. Buck; Kierkegaard and Burke.

That, it would seem, was then. Things have changed for this generation. Borders, Barnes and Nobles are now gone – mostly – from our lives. They could not survive Kindle and the advent of America’s new age of illiteracy. America is said to have published more books last year – over four million – than at any time in the history of humanity. One would not guess that were so after a simple conversation with the average college student – or, still worse, a voter. Adolescents still though their time passed, adults glued to iPhones scrolling through profiles, crafting that most clever of post to satisfy the tiny endorphins product of the next “like” or “heart” or – the most coveted of all, the “retweet”. Flitting from screenshot to screenshot, tapping their devices more than 2500 times a day. Illiterate, blanking at any treatise longer than 140 characters.

Buenos Aires

There are only two cities I’ve visited – and I have visited many cities – that still preserve the literary spirit of old. Where being called a writer is still a coveted title and you may even encounter people sitting around the café or the confiteria, paper book in hand actually spending time with the author. These cities, incidentally, are Paris and Buenos Aires.

IMG_1292I spent some time in Paris recently, visiting “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore which is now too famous to be cool. A tourist trap along the Seine, hordes of Chinese snapping pictures – people from all over trying to look introspective and thoughtful but mostly preening for – wait for it – their Facebook timelines. “Look, I am at Shakespeare and Company”: like, like, like, like, like, like, angry face. Nevertheless it was fun to visit, to think about the days of Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway and Jean Paul Sartre (who, these days, would I’m sure find the place annoying and go elsewhere); and I bought a copy of the auto-biography of the store (yes, the store wrote a book) and rushed back through the refreshing spring rains to my little hotel room on the Rue de Mars by the Eiffel tower to drink a bottle of cheap wine and read about Paris’s literary tradition, personified – come to life in one small rundown bookshop along the Seine.IMG_1275

Then of course there is Buenos Aires, La Ciudad de los Libros – where my first novel was published in Spanish by a local publishing house in a place where the grand ideas are still hotly debated. Where people sit on Plaza de Mayo reading; where every third storefront along the storied streets of that old forgotten city that never changes is a bookstore. Where the sizzling smells of milanesa, the busy bustling of the servers dressed in a white shirt and black bow-tie as they lay down the hearty meals of meat and potatoes and local wine, still waft through the high thin colonial double-doors opened onto the street.

Buenos Aires 1

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two cities have survived, as they have, revolutions and coups and invasions and economic collapses relatively unscathed if somewhat bedraggled, a little bit rough and crumbling around the edges but with tremendous personality and a secure sense of themselves and their place in history. Germany they are not, bombed out and rebuilt pristine and new and clean – and boring. Washington D.C., a greedy, grasping city of global nomads, transients attempting to build a world upon the shifting sands of politics using only stolen money and pull – no time for reading, except perhaps the latest headline. Caracas, where when I was there a book in that little underground bookstore on Sabana Grande would cost maybe $100 or $150. Cedice Libreria desperately seeking to find a way to subsidize copies of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand in a city which read only free copies of Karl Marx and Heinz Dieterich until the stolen money ran out and the ideas lost their appeal and the books were used for kindling to cook the sad beans, the last gift from a government spent and tired. Africa – Bamako and Abuja and Abidjan; poverty so profound it allows no place for the written word. An illiteracy consuming Timbuktu, that ancient library town which once protected the greatest library between the House of Wisdom and Oxford.

No, Paris and Buenos Aires have muddled through – have withstood times of madness to endure as imperfect protectors of words. I too have some utopianism, like these old cities; for I too am a romantic. And, for that reason I also imagine myself not here, but instead there: a simple day in the belle epoque when people could still sit, and think, and debate, and write it all down. And when that was considered a gift to society, far from the maddening grasp of reality.

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Salammbo: A Book Review

It is often said that, for modern novelists, the field can be divided into periods of time “before” and “after” Flaubert. It is said that his influence on the modern novel is so all-pervasive that it is almost indistinguishable.

I can certainly see that in Salammbo; Flaubert’s historical fiction about a mercenary revolt in post-Punic war Carthage. In the novel, the protagonist Salammbo is a Carthaginian priestess of extraordinary beauty who falls in love with the mercenary barbarian general. Written almost 200 years ago, it still has the graphic descriptions, the beats and the forward momentum which we have come to expect from a (well written) novel today.

Interestingly enough, it has the same defects. Albert Camus used to complain about American novels, that they were the simple retelling of events and did not inject the protagonists state of mine, perceptions and impressions and hopes and dreams into the narrative. Camus can blame Flaubert – at least in the case of Salammbo. I believe the famous novelist was going for a “Helen of Troy” or a “Romeo and Juliet” experience by adding the fictional maiden corrupted by forbidden love, with death as the only possible outcome. The challenge is that, without letting us into Salammbo’s heart; without giving us her feelings and her anguish and her desperation the character becomes somehow cardboard and the love – less impactful.

Maybe I blame Flaubert for America’s chronic lack of personality in our characters, which has extended into Hollywood and beyond. More than likely its our own fault. Either way, I did not like Salammbo – the scenes of graphic “realism”, the genre for which Flaubert is given credit, were too brutal, too gory and not ‘cut’ or softened or rounded out by characters with whom the reader connects and which would make the reading experience beautiful and excruciating.

Nevertheless, it was a well written book by one of the masters. For that reason, alone, its worth spending time on.

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On 9/11 And Being American

“I hear you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” President George W. Bush, September 2001

And, true to his word – our word – they did. Boy did they. For there is nothing we cannot do as a country, united and with one purpose, at peace with ourselves and with our place in history. Messy and sometimes with multiple personalities and often with PTSD from a world which moves too quickly, which demands too much and so often gives so little in return. But Americans first, Americans last – Americans after all.

I watch this speech every year – and I remember walking down the leafy lanes of Waltham in the fall, wind somewhat crisp and perhaps the first lazy leaves having already fallen from the trees above – their work for the year done. Going to class; graduate school, preparing as so many good Americans have over the years for service to our country. For me, it would involve great sacrifice; proving my love for my home by leaving her for foreign lands. Keeping the mayhem at bay, showing there is a better way; helping those in need, fighting those who are wrong. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas – smart people know they are one and the same thing. What I did not comprehend in that split-second before the eyes of myself and a dozen of my friends from Ethiopia and Eritrea and Japan and Bhutan watched the fall of a tower, then two, was that the “End of History” had just itself ended. It could not stand up against 19 evil men who had decided to weaponize public transportation. That itself is worth some thought. In that minute, more than 3000 were killed; with the silent number creeping ever higher, 10,000 new cancer cases among New York residents. Thousands of soldiers killed or wounded on the battlefields. Humanitarian workers dying of car accidents and disease.

We are sometimes naïve in our goodness – Americans are. It’s part of the nature of our life lived in a free society; part of our ‘social contract’ in which we each seek out our own self-interest through hard work and discipline and thrift, understanding that the true meaning of freedom is freedom from our vices and our own raging passions; and in that understanding we reap a bounty that has spilled over to build the greatest society the world has ever known. Not by invasions, pillaging and theft; but the tremendous abundance of productively free men giving back through their love of themselves, their country and each other. We forget, in this, that these are not values often shared. Communists and socialists see the world in shades of green; envy and bitterness and oppression. Islamists see uniformity under their faith as the only legitimate expression of communalism and violence as their only method of sway. Totalitarians of all stripes looking to control others, but above all us – because we are the great prize – the redoubtable American spirit brought to heel.

And though we are naïve – we are also somehow realist, sharp and hard in our understanding of the fact that our land will not be protected through abandon or great oceans become suddenly small. That we have to protect it – actively and with the full power of our imaginations.

Since that fateful day I have found myself on many foreign shores – often in lands themselves shaken by terrorism – painstakingly making the case for freedom in the minds of men. Pakistan and Venezuela and Uganda and Mali. I have written novels about the different attempts of people to find a better way than ours (and the ensuing mess); I have delivered speeches and made campaign calls and written and written and written some more. I have been in terrorist attacks; car accidents; Ebola quarantined; assaulted and held against my will and spent more than one sleepless night sorrowing for what I have seen and worrying about what comes next. 17 years – a fair exchange for the sacrifice of so many of my fellow Americans? Perhaps.

America is going through a bit of a stressful moment. It is ironically (or perhaps not so) product of that age old argument about the role of a state and of violence in the construction of free societies. We have lost our unity and in so doing we have lost our common culture, and our resolve – fighting instead over the club with which we presume to beat each other into submission. I believe we will find it again – our resolve – and today is a great day to remind ourselves that we are all Americans, that we are the most prosperous society that has ever lived, where even our poor are at the top of the world order (I should know, for I have been among the poor), and be grateful.

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So today, when you tweet or comment on FB or stop by a colleague’s desk who you know thinks differently to jibe her about something some politician said, why don’t you instead say something nice. Tweet something nice. Stop to help a stranger. Honor the thousands of our dead; and maybe – just maybe – it will extend, today into tomorrow and onward. Isn’t that what those who perished would want?

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To Lift The Fog

There’s a formlessness upon the battlefield. The early morning fogs have not yet lifted; our dead, not yet collected. The battle raged late, waning only upon the exhaustion of the soldiers and the depletion of the stocks of battle counted in rounds and arms. Each side retreating from the field, counting the cost. Roll calls, makeshift nighttime hospitals; surgeries at the break of dawn for amputations, closing eyes when the fight has finally left – a coin for the boatman, a plain untreated pinewood coffin. A hole, not six feet – who has the time for that?

Because the fogs are clearing and the war is beginning again. Neither side has raised a flag; hoping desperately the other would, to preserve honor and preserve life. To go home victorious, justified – but to go home, first and foremost. That is the siren’s call of the soldier.

prophet

I am reading the deep old testament with my little boy at night before he goes to sleep. We have done this for years; a new devotional, starting again in Genesis and making our way through the creation on to the tribulations of tribal Israel towards Jesus. Laying the foundation for why salvation is so important and why it will not come from politics, armies, elections – utopias enacted upon the whims of those who only seek power and see in religion yet another way to attain it.

We are leaving the judges now; the period when God tried to govern the clans with special messengers. After they had fled Egypt, after they had defeated their enemies. Before the period of the Kings of Israel. I’ve always liked the judges; no pretentions on legitimacy other than that bestowed by God through wisdom and the occasional miracle. Eccentric, men and women with odd behaviors and bizarre requests and demands. And with deep human flaws; each nevertheless with a purpose, a reason for being called for such a time. To help Israel win their battles – battles they were always losing, because they did not follow the ancient purities required by their God, falling instead into sin time and again through the softness of flesh and weakness of mind.

It was never the foreign enemy who defeated the Israelites in battle. Their true destruction came always from within. Last night we finished Samuel; who took over from Eli, for the wickedness of his sons would not allow God to give them the priesthood; one cannot inherit divine insight. “Speak, for your servant is listening,” was what Samuel said to the Lord. Who would have known he was going to be instructed to tell his mentor that his days were over, and with them the days of the Prophets? They had failed to produce for the Israelites a life more abundant.

The Israelites had chosen to go with kings. I talked to my boy about peer pressure to evil, that while Israel wanted kings because everyone else had them; that was not the path which God had intended for them – but which nevertheless He would let them follow if they so chose. Of why groups of people tend toward bad decisions; things they know are not only wrong but also nonsense. And there is so much nonsense out there these days.

Tonight we will read about King Saul. Man’s experience with authority has so often been unpleasant; yet we do seek out our own trouble, don’t we? “Give us a king, who will brutalize us!!” we tell our God, we tell our fellow citizens. We tell ourselves. “Forget the prophets – forget words of wisdom whispered in the desert. They hold no power. What we want are guns, jails, rules – and a new nobility to oversee them,” we shriek thinking only of our enemies, never realizing our enemies are thinking only of us. And the war begins.

Moody

D.L. Moody

America had prophets for a time. Solomon Stoddard, Billy Sunday, D.L. Moody, Billy Graham. We did not listen to them either, just as the ancient Israelites abandoned theirs for the comforting mantle of authority we too have sacrificed their wisdom on the altar of “You do you”. Seizing the recipe for a life more abundant from the lips of great men and bestowing it upon wicked people who preach at us from in-between cocaine lines on the coasts.

They are more fitting, for we are not a society at peace with itself. These days we prefer the formlessness of our daily battle fields waged in schools and on internet sites and in courtrooms; destruction we bring upon ourselves like no enemy ever could. Violence upon our fellow countrymen, mischief in the dark. Bodies buried without thought or ceremony; parades not moral and victorious but instead soft and bent. These are the reasons I read the Bible to my little boy at night. He must know the epic tales; of a great God and his frustrating attempts to connect with people He created but cannot seem to control. He must know the feats of great heroes – he must be able to speak of Gideon and Sampson just as easily as he does Iron Man and Batman.

For only that will lift the fog and give edges to the formlessness.

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“Ordinary Savior” – An Anthology of Stories From a War-Torn Land

Peace is not the natural state of man in the world. That, at least, I have learned – if nothing else – over the last twenty years. The utopians of our post-modern world order would have us believe that with the right technocratic fixes, dials turned to the correct settings and levers pulled at the precise moments, we can manage our way to peace and prosperity.

Francis Fukuyama called this the “End of History”.

Seems like history ended, only to start up again in the lost corners of the world, places which exist as the opposite of epicenter, where: “A pre-modern formlessness governs the battlefield, evoking the wars in medieval Europe (…)” areas far away and forgotten and, “…owing to violence, volatility, and disease, are again becoming, as Graham Greene once observed, ‘blank’ and ‘unexplored,’” as Robert Kaplan has written. While we in lands powerful and erstwhile prosperous might use the strength of our currencies and power of our institutions – and our militaries – to hold the line against the “arriving ordeal”, we have been forced to surrender the interior to gangs and armed groups, jihadists and smugglers and traffickers where the wars bubble un-ceasing for years between bouts of a tense and unhopeful peace.

This is what has happened in Sudan, in Congo and Mali and Burma and Syria and Yemen and even places closer to home like Venezuela and parts of Mexico. And this is what is happening in northeast Nigeria, where the insurgency has raged at least for nine years; perhaps longer, depending upon how you count it.

But how do we end wars? How do we finally stop the staccato bursts of AK-47s in the dead of night or the blasts on market day where women sit behind little piles of fish and anemic tomatoes hoping for sufficient luck and providence to allow them that day to go home safe and with money to feed their ever-expanding families? Perhaps, just perhaps, we can look back to civilizations that flourished, not only for the nobles but for those who would have been peasants – people like me – to understand from whence peace might arrive. And I would suggest that it does not come from where you are imagining. You are probably thinking about the building of armies or the training of policemen or the drafting of a more sophisticated legislation – you perhaps see fields of tulips beyond the next bloody election. I am not talking of these things; because they have all been tried and found wanting.

I am talking of literature.

There is a case to be made that the enlightenment in Europe was not a result of political agreements, the limitation of monarchies or even the installation of the nation state following the Thirty Years War which ended the instability of empire. It was probably not the redistribution of wealth caused by the great plague, and the accompanying explosion of industry and a merchant class after all cobblers and tailors had perished. It was perhaps not even that essential act of wresting from the Catholic Church its corrupted iron grip over politics.

It is said that the west’s rebirth came in the form of reading – and reading novels. While Gutenberg gave us technology to allow us all to read, it was the novelists who injected our societies with empathy. The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists and make common cause with their conflicts and struggles; the source of compassion and pro-active “natural law” legislation and activism in an upward trend to deliverance.

Ordinary Savior

Cue “Ordinary Savior: New Stories from Nigeria’s Northeast”. This new anthology of eleven short stories written by residents of Nigeria’s war-torn northeast allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of people who live their lives under the ever-present threat of violence and war. The daily decisions taken, always considering the war. The existential choices that become ever-so-much-more-so in the face of scarcity caused by war and its destruction. The social evils with which a society must grapple – dislocation and rape and violence. Unwanted pregnancies; unintended displacements; unjust detentions. These stories, well written and moving, create empathy. It is my hope that this empathy begins to seep from the lost war-torn places in one of the poorest areas of the world and into the minds of men and women in the form of entertainment – of the powerful and the prosperous who might read the book while sipping Champagne in business class on the way to Berlin or while waiting in a doctor’s office in a place cold and clean to have their health preserved. People who have it in their power to affect the destiny of war and the futures of the unlucky inhabitants of violence.

So for you, reading this, I entreat you – pick up a copy of the anthology and immerse yourself in the stories of Nigeria’s northeast as you make common cause with people in their epic fight to overcome. Then find some way to lend a hand to their struggle. Because that is how we end wars.

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What is Going On? – An Essay

“Adorning the walls of my living room are pictures I have taken, printed large and glossy, of places across a world which has grown small. I often gaze at them, representing as they do—at least to me—the history of the rise and fall of countries and civilizations each telling me something about myself and, in turn, about others as well. Of those who rub up against me in the supermarket or on overcrowded subways or hurl insults at me over social media. About how ruin happens. But ruins captured on aluminum and put on display for an erstwhile guest to comment on do not capture the sadness or anxiety of how things fall away; the photographs of great buildings now empty or become instead curiosities for the tourists.”

Read the whole essay here.

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“The Old Man and His Sons” – A Book Review

I like to think about lost places; out of the way corners that are the opposite of epicenter yet where lives still continue though they have no knowledge of Paris and Washington DC. Timbuktu forgotten in the sand; Lubero captured by the high jungle; Coro hugging the pristine beaches.

Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands.

Did you know there’s a self-governing protectorate of the Kingdom of Denmark halfway between England and Iceland? Colonized by Vikings in the 700s and Christianized in 1100; the hearty residents have lived on the rocky volcanic outcropping for more than 900 years. I have thought of going here – it’s on my list just like the Falkland Islands are and in my research I found out that they also have an amazing little literary culture. What could be better than that??

Heoin Bru was their first novelist, born in the tiny village of Skalavic in the days when Torshavn was considered the big city. “The Old Man and His Sons” is his most famous story. Naturally, as all good stories, it is a one set firmly in time and place. It is about the islands, cold and hard and isolated. A whale hunt of significant size, a hungry island which sees a supply of meat before it, and the tale of one villager who goes into debt to acquire some of that bounty. And what that debt does to him.

Faroe 2

It is a story about food. We in the west often, from our bounty, forget about the tyranny of hunger pains. We gratefully ignore the fact that most of the time, in most of the world, the main consideration governing the actions of men has been that empty dining-room table and their efforts to fill it. Building a cushioned pantry between ourselves and that table – has that been our major accomplishment as a civilization? Or have we in our facile licentiousness inadvertently freed ourselves instead from discipline; of work and saving and planning our futures and preparing for hard moments – of gratitude to God for what He has given us and understanding that it is not always so; that there is no hard-fast rule that it must be so.

“The Old Man and his Sons” is a simple story, it is not brutal or tragic or violent – it tells its tale without the pretense to offend or to push the reader in any direction except to consider what it must have been like to live so lost away from the world in such a time as did the novel’s characters. If you too like lost places, as I do, consider a visit to Faroe Islands. To see the raging north Atlantic, to feel isolation and – more importantly – to read some amazing Faroese literature, and perhaps even pen some of your own.

I sure plan to.

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