2001We went back to plumb
a dozen of our favorite titles
from ten years ago
(those innocent times!)
and found that many of them
told of war, hunger, privation, secrecy,
and an even earlier
man-made Terror.The Autobiography
Of Abbie Hoffman
(Four Walls/Eight Windows)Abbie writes winningly, scintillatingly. His tale of those years is the tale of so many of us being bored silly during the Eisenhower years, all the while knowing that our country was sponsoring secret revolutions abroad, murdering dissent within its own borders. Our sense of justice was piqued, especially when we found out that our own elected officials "overthrew the elected Governments of Guatemala and Iran. They are trying every day to kill Castro."
There was organizing, there were marches, there was love in the streets, and psychedelics:
A Life magazine cover story was touting LSD as the new wonder drug that would end aggression. I've always maintained that Henry Luce did much more to popularize acid than Tim Leary. Years later I met Clare Boothe Luce at the Republican convention in Miami. She did not disagree with this opinion. America's version of the Dragon Lady caressed my arm, fluttered her eyes and cooed, "We wouldn't want everyone doing too too much of a good thing."
The CIA was funding LSD experiments at the Langley Porter Clinic. Hoffman and his friends stole a batch, and after trying it out, he reports: "Say what you want about the CIA, but they sure had damn good acid."
Time danced in space. I talked continuously. When the others didn't want to hear, I picked up the phone and called God --- collect. We had a nice chat. The Virgin Mary swept down from a cloud in the ceiling and I think we...I'm not sure, but we petted a little...
I took buddy Ira's pen and wrote, "I was burned on the silver rim of space." It took on meanings beyond meanings.
Later, Hoffman goes alone out to get food for everyone. A guy with a "funny white hat" repeats back his order,
"That'll be four tunafish, two ham and egg, five BLTs, four hamburgers, three malteds and a Coke."
"That's right," I agreed. "Do you have any mushroom clouds?"
"No, we ain't got mushroom but I can whip up a cheese omelette..."
"Right." I said.
Twenty-six lives later he appeared out of the back room with three huge brown bags stuffed with food. I paid the bill and somehow managed to steer everything back to the loft. "Let's see now, who ordered the pickle-and-mushroom bomb?"Go to the complete
The Evening Crowd
A Gay Life
In the 1940s
Ricardo J. Brown
(Minnesota)They didn't call them "gay" bars in that era --- and the night life was far different that what we have today. Kimser's was a drab hole-in-the-wall. During the day, it was what we thought of as a working-man's bar. It was only at night that the men (and occasional women) came in to the one place in town where they could be with other gays.
The owners --- Mr. & Mrs. Kimser --- pretended that their clientele was "normal." No affection could be shown. Strangers were treated with suspicion. Everyone followed the unwritten rules, because the crowd was in retreat from the outside world. In those days, if one was accused of being a "deviant" --- for example, by anonymous letter sent to one's employer --- it meant loss of job. For those arrested in flagrante delicto, it meant prison time and a permanent, damaging police record.Go to the complete
The Archaeology Of Garbage
(Arizona)Our landfills are not getting overloaded from disposable diapers and junk-food containers (less than 1% by volume) --- or even from plastics (16%) --- but by telephone books and the likes of the Sunday New York Times, which counts for over 40% of the waste. In Mexico, whole families live in the dumps --- they're called pepenadores --- and serve as excellent recyclers (some families pass their garbage rights on to their children since there is a fair amount of money to be made in their finds).
Most of us have a rather romantic view of the ideal garbage land-fill site,
There is a popular notion that in its depths the typical municipal landfill is a locus of roiling fermentation, of intense chemical and biological activity...an environment where organic matter is rapidly breaking down --- biodegrading --- into a sort of rich, moist, brown humus, returning at last to the bosom of Mother Nature.
The truth is, according to the authors of Rubbish! is that a landfill is "a much more static structure:"
Well-designed and managed landfills seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than to transform them into humus or mulch. They are not vast composters; rather they are vast mummifiers.
Furthermore, says the author, "it might be a good thing" --- largely because we don't want that black soup of chemicals, germ-laden organic waste, and other disgusting stuffs leeching into our water tables.Go to the complete
(Arcade Publishing)Soros and his family make do under grim and dangerous circumstances, saving countless other lives by printing up and distributing thousands of documents. His description of his pricing of fake papers is wonderful:
I should explain, by the way, that I had three different price categories for documents. First, I gave the documents completely free to people who were very close to me or in desperate straits. Second, from those people to whom I felt a moral obligation not to make a profit at their expense, I simply asked for my actual expenses, without consideration for the trouble or risk involved.
Third, from my wealthy clients I asked for whatever the market would bear. In fact, I had no particular limits for this category, or, as they say, there was no ceiling on the prices. Sometimes I received as much as twenty times the actual cost.
Soros comes out of this as a beguiling trickster, a combination of Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. He is not only resourceful, he has a rich sense of the ridiculous, an eye for detail that puts the reader in the middle of 1944-1945 Budapest. There is, for example, his forger, the one who prepares his documents for him. When they first meet, the artiste tells him that he no longer enjoys his job. In the old days, forging was far more professional and interesting:
"Do you think I enjoy doing this kind of mass production?" he asked angrily. "I don't deny that it pays well compared to the kind of really challenging and complicated work that I used to do. But the quality! The quality of the work is nothing to what it used to be."
Imagine how it was, back in the old days, when someone wanted, say, the title of royal chamberlain. You had to prove that eight patrilineal and matrilineal relatives were members of the nobility. Think of the effort, the study, the heraldic research that had to be done! Getting all the details and then painting the coats of arms could take months, years even. But today.
His voice trailed off and was replaced by a gesture of despair. "Today all the work and care and study that I devoted my life to is worth nothing. Today all they want is stamped forms. Quality means nothing."Go to the complete
(Steerforth Italia)History: A Novel is almost 750 pages long, and I am hard put to compare it to any novel I have ever come across. Perhaps we could say that it's not far from the USA Trilogy, largely because Morante is intent on tying history, and the history of WWII, and the history of the world, to her characters. This means that we get to see, first hand, the effect of those desperate years on body and soul. History, and circumstance become meshed with Ida's fears and struggle: the effect of war on psyches --- bombings, deportations, deprivation, daily patrols of police and the military and later, the SS and, specifically, Ida's daily terror (she's half-Jewish).
Dos Passo's USA, possibly --- but there is a touch of War and Peace. We are in the middle of great historical happenings: Rome under siege, there's a back and forth of the military --- the Americans to the south, the Germans to the north. There's the Italian resistance, governmental terrorism. There are the loss of homes and jobs and lives to bombers, the isolation of Jews, the effect of hunger on the very young. It is as if Tolstoi's great novel were focused on the effect of towering historical events on the poor and the powerless and the dispossessed --- people enmeshed in an historical progression over which they have no control.Go to the complete
The Time Machine
H. G. Wells
Nicholas Ruddick, Editor
I was still on the hillside upon which this house now stands, and the shoulder rose above me grey and dim. I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green: they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed --- melting and flowing under my eyes.
And then, the sun and the moon and the stars, starting with a fine and poetic reverie:
As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.... Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space, the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.
When he finally stops --- in the year 802701 --- The Time Traveler visits The Palace of Green Porcelain, a dark and dusty and fall-apart museum, where he finds a room of decaying books,
that had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified.
Go to the complete
And Its Women
Alexa Albert, MD
(Random House)My earliest subject was Star, a young black woman dressed in a turquoise spandex bodysuit. She had long straightened hair and ebony skin that was smooth save for one small raised scar over her left breast, from a cigarette burn many years earlier. As she walked into the office, she immediately made her reservations known. "I can't waste no time back here. I have to earn some money." I proceeded tentatively, glancing her way anxiously whenever the doorbell rang to announce a customer. In spite of herself, however, Star seemed to enjoy the interview and actually looked surprised when we finished nearly forty-five minutes later. A look of consternation crossed her face as I explained the next phase of the study.
"You want me to save the rubbers?" she asked, incredulous.
When I tried to explain that I needed to examine the condoms for breaks, her eyes glazed over and she cut me off. "Just so long as I get my forty bucks at the end."
This direct style of writing is what makes Brothel so impressive, for it's a clear-eyed view of life in a whore-house, with all that implies: the pettiness, the competition, the contradictions --- a straightforward business intermixed with some powerful needs --- all seen through the eyes of a research professional. We have the happy opportunity of seeing Dr. Albert becoming pals with the 'ho's' (that's what they call each other), becoming involved in their histories, their lives, their conflicts, their pain, their pleasures, and --- of course --- the agony that comes to them when they make rare forays into the real world.
Even in our relatively enlightened times, she tells us, even in Nevada, the prejudice is so extensive that when she goes to dinner at the home of George Flint, Director of the state Brothel Association, she finds herself in the midst of a bitter set-to between herself, Flint's own daughter, and a brother, Dean:
"I think there's a time and a place for some things," [Marlene] shrieked, jumping up. "My daughter's here, and Dean, I know you would never be talking about these things in front of your children."Go to the complete
The Last Cheater's Waltz
Beauty and Violence in
The Desert Southwest
(Arizona)She takes a naturalist's world view, mixes it with geology, history, psychology, humanity, and blends into a lyric whole that is sweet, sharp, and sometimes very poignant. The desert is where she lives --- in Utah, near Four corners --- but it is also where she travels and thinks and wonders about, for example, the United States creating and testing and developing the most secret awful weapons, and doing it in her homeland.
For example, she tells us about Los Alamos: besides being the locale for the brains behind the bomb, it was a place that had,
churches, schools, a theater, a symphony orchestra, teas, cocktail parties, alcoholics, and a mystique --- in the words of Freeman Dyson, "a brilliant group of city slickers suddenly dumped into the remotest corner of the Wild West and having the time of their lives building bombs." Los Alamos had punch served in chemical reagent jars and seven thousand fire extinguishers. It had no unemployment, no jail, no parking, and no in-laws.
Those of us who grew up with the bomb at first thought nothing strange of cooking up several hundred thousand Japanese in order to end a war, but then, with onset of sword-rattling (or bomb-rattling) from the likes of Curtis LeMay, John Foster Dulles, Josef Stalin, John Kennedy, Nikita Khruschev, we changed. After looking at the photographs of Ground Zero and reading John Hersey's Hiroshima and seeing those those pictures in Hiroshima Mon Amor --- ghastly shots of flesh literally dripping off the bone --- it finally came home to us that those things we were reading about and looking at some day might well be happening to
us.Go to the complete
The Barn at the End
Of the World
The Apprenticeship of a Quaker,
Mary Rose O'Reilley
(Milkweed)I want to convey the spirit --- better, the spirituality --- of The Barn at the End of the World. The freshness of O'Reilley's writing cuts through the pages with honesty, curiosity, that American craving for answers --- and, intermixed with it, very human bouts of American fret-work, anger, and guilt: the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life? and what-does-it-all-mean? and what-in-god's-name-am-I-doing-here?
During the course of this work, we are invited inside her soul --- to become part of her family, feel her woe at loss of children (they grow up, they go away), experience her continuing affection for her early Catholic training, marvel at her attempt to follow the Buddhist precept of caring for all sentient creatures (including sheep, who can be smelly and pig-headed and maddeningly obstinate) --- at the same time worrying whether she is doing right, whether she is on the right path. For there she is in the midst of a very rigorous monastery life and she finds herself missing books and comfort and people to laugh with and Pop Tarts and her favorite hobby --- of all things --- Sacred Harp Singing.
She is, in brief, like you and me: another of those American worry-warts caught in despair at where our country is going (jet-skis and happy faces a special bane) all the while wondering if there are other cultures that have something that can lead us out of the morass.Go to the complete
My Two Wars
(Steerforth)I would venture to say that these 300 pages are some of the best to come out of WWII, on the same level as James Jones and Norman Mailer. Thomsen's job was to sit in the glassed-in perch smack-dab at the front of those B-17s, and, at the opportune moment, take over from the automatic pilot, guide the plane over the target, open the bomb-bay doors, and drop the load. What we get to see is the evolution of an airman from being mildly gung-ho, somewhat interested in his task, to coming as close as one can to madness without actually having to be shipped home in a strait-jacket.
The power of the writing comes from the slow and artful and painstaking description of this change. And, so that we won't think it is just some personal quirk, Thomsen shows us that he was not alone in this descent: all the men who were his fellow pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners went through the same decay of spirit and soul.
A well-respected research group (headed by John Kenneth Galbraith) found, after the war, that saturation bombing done by the English and the Americans against the Germans did little actual damage to the Nazi war effort. On the contrary, it actually stiffened the resolve of the citizens. Furthermore, of the millions of tons of bombs dropped, some 5% actually reached the appropriate targets. The rest went into wheatfields, villages, towns, cities --- and people.
Americans at home found this out after the war; Thomsen and his fellows knew this while he was actually bombing the enemy. He knew that men, women, and children were dying from his bombs --- but his emotions had become so deadened by the missions, and their concurrent terror, that he could only reflect,
Dropping bombs on people from twenty-five thousand feet --- what could be cleaner, more purely and simply scenic, than that? From five miles up no bits of flesh or brains rebounded off your face, your limbs were not entwined in human guts, there were no dying screams, no cries for mercy; hell, you couldn't even hear your bombs. We thought at first that it was a lovely way to kill and that we would be spared remorse and the stab of conscience. But we were trapped by the lies we had been taught, for if man were sacred and a manifestation of God, how could we keep killing without going mad?
Go to the complete
My War Gone by,
I Miss it So
(Penguin)He's a reporter's reporter --- or better, the kind of person you and I would want having around to report on our war, if we happened to be in the middle of one (we are: it's called The War on Drugs. That one figures in this book, too).
My War Gone by, I Miss it So is also a growing-up book. Loyd starts out as a young stoner, bored and restless, and we get to watch him turn into a real reporter: he becomes one by default as other reporters for the London papers began to die off or get the hell out.
We also see him learn how to not fall apart under gunfire, or how not to turn crazy when he sees three women slaughtered by the Serbs and Croats and HVO (another temporary alliance) in the village of Stupni Do (!) by the professional cleansers under the tutelage of one Ivica Rajic. Rajic is described so clearly that you know he is a resurrection of the Ustasa, the brutes that ran Yugoslavia terrorism during WWII. He's just such a hoodlum, one of the many who come along as part of the baggage of any war when the opportunists find chinks in which to take over what's left of civilization and help get rid of it.Go to the complete
Adventures in Wartime Russia
Aleksander TopolskiWithout Vodka is an epic, and Topolski's travels come seem no less epic than those of Odysseus. He is captured in Gdynia, in the far north of Poland. He spends weeks or months in one prison, only to wake up and be transported by cattle-car to yet another. During the war, when transportation of men and material was so vital in the battles against the Germans, we learn that in the Stalin lunacy world, troop and cargo trains would be held up so that the enemies of the state could be carried to yet another prison.
It could become a bore, but Topolski made it, for this reader, a can't-put-it-down trip because of his honorable writing style, his ability to pace the material, and an uncanny ability to sketch the characters that shared the filthy cells and trains with him. Indeed, it's an On the Road epic set in Russia, 1939 to 1942, well-colored by a nation's very odd priorities, the dictator's hold over the people, and a state-sponsored system of destroying humanity and justice. The book's title comes from an old Russian saying --- it's so weird that without vodka you can't figure it out.
There were informers in every cell --- one learned to identify them the moment one came into a new prison. The guards were often as hungry and as ragged as the prisoners. Whenever there was a forced march, the same lines were intoned:
A step to the left, a step to the right, counts as an escape. The convoy will make use of their weapons without warning. March!
And the picaresque characters from all over Russia and Poland. Such as Kozakiewicz from Nowy Pohost ("akin to the Pennsylvania Dutch") who always refers to Topolski as "Sir," invites him to visit "when the war is over," talks to him about their favorite subject, food, most of all, what it is like eating on the farm:
For breakfast, milk still warm, straight from the morning milking. Sausages flavoured with marjoram. You ever had a ham from a wild boar cured in juniper smoke? And the pickled mushrooms and preserves our women make. Come! The larder is always full.Go to the complete