Telegraph Avenue: A Novel – Michael Chabon. Chabon has an impossible task. His The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my all-time favorite books. I was very eager to read this, his most recent novel. But it’s hard not to want it to be as good, as powerful, and beautiful as Kavalier and Clay. And since it wasn’t, it feels like a disappointment despite being a very good book.
I loved some of the concept. A racially-mixed group of 40-somethings living in and around Oakland, CA. The two men run a vintage vinyl store and play in a jazz band. There’s lots of good music stuff weaved throughout.
But some of the rest of it didn’t connect with me. This is a good book. It’s just not great. And when you’ve written a masterpiece, you’re liable to disappoint when you publish something that isn’t spectacular.
Fobbit – David Abrams. Kind of by accident I fell into a run of books that were about modern war, mostly in the Middle East/Western Asia. Fobbit is an updated take on the ‘absurdities of war’ novel. And it’s pretty good.
Abrams was a PR officer for the Army and served in Iraq, so he writes from experience. His focus is on the people like him, the Fobbits who served in various logistical and administrative roles supporting the infantry that went out and faced the insurgents, terrorists, etc. in Iraq. The Fobbits do live in danger and discomfort, but a whole different kind of danger and discomfort than the regular troops.
Despite their living conditions, their existence is not much different than that of people working in marketing firms back in the states. Their job is to massage the message. To ensure the world doesn’t ever think that the US (with a lot of help from the new, glorious, democratic Iraqi army!) is making things better in the post-Saddam world. While regular troops spend hours patrolling, worrying that every pile of garbage or dead dog is a disguised IED that will cost them their limbs or lives, the Fobbits spend hours debating the exact wording of a press release about an attack that the entire world has already seen live coverage of on CNN.
It’s a very funny book, and I think anyone can enjoy regardless of their feelings about the war in Iraq.
WAR – Sebastian Junger. The appropriately titled second part of my war readings is the companion piece to Junger’s documentary Restrepo which earned the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. I had seen Restrepo before and this served as a more in-depth look at what life was like for US troops charged with manning isolated outposts in the mountains of Afghanistan. They faced almost daily fire, lived in awful conditions, and many slowly turned into war-fighting monsters. It was frightening to read how the troops, if they went too long without a firefight, would engage in brutal fights with their platoon-mates just to discharge their pent-up energy.
This is a great book, not just because it’s well written or because Junger spent nearly a year imbedded with the troops in the wilderness. It’s great because it is a nearly perfect piece of journalism. He presents detailed accounts of the lives several troops, explaining how they ended up in the Army and Afghanistan, what their thoughts on war are, and showing how they change over the months they spend in combat.
While not a novel like Fobbit, it still gets to the absurdities of modern war. The impossible tasks we give our troops, to both fight elusive enemies on their home turf and attempt to rebuild Afghanistan when they aren’t shooting it up. The inhumane pressures we put on troops, asking them to live in squalid conditions while they face death each day, then casually ask them to turn it off and return to regular life. It asks hard questions without being anti-war, anti-troops, or anti-Bush.
The Odds: A Love Story – Stewart O’Nan. Step one in my year-long effort to knock out the O’Nan novels I’ve not yet read. This was the first time one of his books disappointed me. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; lots of people loved it and it was on several Best Of lists for last year. But I failed to connect with the characters the way I had in other O’Nan books. I don’t know if that’s because of his writing; if it wasn’t as good or I didn’t appreciate the tone in this one. Or if it had more to do with it hitting close to home. The Odds is about a couple facing a rash of mid-life crises and literally gambling everything in an effort to save their home, their savings, their careers, and their marriage. Seemed like a story that could be happening within our circle of friends, which was a little unsettling.
Running the Rift – Naomi Benaron. My first favorite book of 2013. This is a stunning novel set in Rwanda before, during, and after the 1994 genocide. Nkuba Jean Patrick is a Tutsi man growing up in western Rwanda. As the pre-genocidal ethnic tensions rise, he slips through the trap that is tightening around his community thanks to his academic performance and world-class speed in the 800 meter run. As his brother drifts off to fight in the Tutsi militia and his coach seems to be more-and-more tied to the Hutu Power movement, Jean Patrick cruises along thinking only of his studies, the 1996 Olympics, and the girl he loves, a moderate Hutu whose family is seen as collaborators when they fight for peace.
Of course, Rwanda blows up. Everyone around Jean Patrick is affected. There is a frightening 20-page stretch when his world completely collapses. There is resolution, but it’s far from tidy. Just as the real resolution in Rwanda has been.
Benaron hits all the absurdities of the Rwandan genocide. The arbitrary ethnic divisions the Belgians cooked up when they were running the country. The easy adjustment of one’s official ethnic identity when convenient for the government. The way people who worked and lived together peacefully for years turned on each other because of the urgings of madmen on the radio. The totally impotent Western response to the genocide.
I can see how some readers would find flaws here. There is the slightest sense that Benaron is working from a checklist that guarantees her book will earn awards and appear on Best Of lists. Genocide in Africa. (Slightly) forbidden love. Total heartbreak followed by redemption in the New World. Lots of foreign words sprinkled into her prose.
But her writing is excellent, the story is powerful and honest, and only the most cynical reader won’t be won over by this wonderful work.
In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars – Kevin Sites. I read Sites a lot while in grad school, when he was in the midst of his Hot Zone series for Yahoo!. He traveled the globe, hopping from combat zone to combat zone, trying to explain the hows and whys of war around the world to an indifferent American audience. And it was fun to read at the time. He operated almost single-handedly, writing, shooting photos, and assembling video reports. He seemed like he was on the cutting edge of journalism.
But this book fails to convey much of the intensity and importance of what he was doing in 2006-07. It feels like little snippets taken from his notebook, often more about his personal feelings about his job that what was going on in Congo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, etc. He had a better book in him. Unfortunately he couldn’t find it during this project.