Tag Archives: 2015

20. & 21. Works by Robert Stone, “Under the Pitons”, Bay of Souls, and The Death of the Black Haired Girl

11 Apr

Under the Pitons, Robert Stone

“Under the Pitons” by Robert Stone is one of the world’s perfect short stories, a hard-edged thriller about an Irishman named Blessington, a line cook at French resorts who is piloting a sailboat full of drugs between St. Vincent and Martinique. In the opening lines Blessington is

“trying to forget the anxieties of the deal, the stink of menace, the sick ache behind the eyes.”

He’s a civilian in over his head, and the adventure quickly turns nail-biting and possibly fatal as he nearly runs into a barge under tow “a big black homicidal juggernaut, unmarked and utterly unlighted, bearing down on them” and then admits that the close call was his fault,

“stoned and drunk as he was….  his peripheral vision was flashing him little mongoose darts, shooting stars composed of random light.”

Stone is masterful at conveying the fear of being in the hands of this flawed captain in a tiny boat on dark water. And then the boat’s other occupants come into view and things get scarier. The boss is a drug-crazed Frenchman named Freycinet. Two women have come along in the misguided spirit of fun. Freycinet is sampling the product and irrationally insists that the boat take anchor off St. Lucia, within view of the Piton mountains, despite the reefs, the current and the inevitability of unwelcome attention from shore.

The story has all of Stone’s themes rendered down. There’s a flawed man, physical bravery, a world where Christianity is losing its grasp, the wonder and terror of nature or fate in such a world, and finally the religious question. Why is this man named Blessington? Are we to believe that in the end he was blessed, and if so by what?

A possible answer—though in a very backwards way—might be “blessed by love”. Blessington’s “designated girlfriend” on the trip is an American model named Gillian. Her first line upon seeing the Pitons is “Oh wow, look at those pretty mountains” a comment which as Blessington explains, is

“exactly the kind of American comment that made the others all despise and imitate her”.

But Gillian quickly turns out to be playing the other three as fools. By the return trip, Blessington is “starting to see the point of her” and they half-seriously vow to marry if they both survive.

Gillian also has most of the story’s great lines. In one exchange Blessington asks her if she’s a cop, and she says No, are you? And he replies, “Me? I’m Irish for Christ’s sake.” Her retort is, “‘Is that like not being real?’” Cutting and also very clever.

But she’s self-destructive. She says,

“‘Just between you and me, Liam, I have no fear of dying. I would just as soon be out here on this boat now as in my comfy little bed with my stuffed animals. I would just as soon be dead.’”

Her eventual fate seems to play into a Stone theme of wasted gifts—which I gather he thinks is one of our central problems.He struggles with the idea that there is something sacred, divine, worthy about our raw material. Life is a gift, so then what are we going to do with it?

He has a character say so in a different book, writing about abortion:

“‘We are taught that the universe is beautiful. We believe it is good. We believe its phenomena reflect a perfection beyond our understanding but that we can partly experience. Sort of. Man–I should say humankind, shouldn’t I?–is also sacred. Reflecting that being we know as God. Matter, stuff, quickened to human life, is therefore sacred.”

Stone recently passed away, and his thumbnail bio tells us that he was partially raised in a Catholic orphanage so it makes sense that for him the religious question is pressing. It haunts the other two novels of his I recently read, Bay of Souls, and Death of the Black Haired Girl (from which the above quote was taken.) Both are about married male academics wasting their own gifts by having affairs with dangerous women, and the metaphysical questions these affairs pose. Death of the Black Haired Girl, especially, was a work of interesting construction, with multiple viewpoints and folded layers.

I love Stone as a writer but I find “Under the Pitons” more perfect than the novels. It’s a faster and more deadly way of asking the recurring question: Why is this man named Blessington? In what ways might he be blessed?

19. Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller

2 Apr

Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller

Forming a lifelong relationship with an autobiographer is a strange thing. How much personal detail do I need or care to know about a woman whom I don’t even know? Yet I have now read three of African-expatriate Alexandra Fuller’s four memoirs, including this latest, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Fuller is one of those strange footnotes of history, a white African. She grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1970s during the civil war between the breakaway white-governed republic and black independence parties. Her farmer parents stayed on in Africa after the war, living a eccentric, alcoholic life, plagued with drama, hardship and yet also apparently a fair amount of love and joy.

“My parents pitied me the fact that–at least as far as they could tell–all my dramas had to be self-inflicted. They considered the acceptance of the certainty of pandemonium an essential ingredient to the enjoyment of life.”

Fuller’s first memoir, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight was the tale of growing up under the dubious supervision of these hard-drinking, tough-as-nails old Brits, who loved a country and a continent they had no rights to. The second, Scribbling The Cat, was about an even tougher war veteran neighbor of theirs in Zambia with whom she had an entanglement in her 20s. The third, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness focuses more on her parents’ experience and their troubled legacy as whites in Africa. And this one, Leaving Before the Rains Come, is about the end of Fuller’s 19-year marriage to an American with whom she eventually left Africa and had three children, now grown.

In the West, we learned that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa we learned that no one was immune to capricious tragedy.

Her African family is her perennial topic, and in this book she tries to understand how these roots affected her marriage. As she says in different ways throughout the book, her American husband, whom she met while he was a rafting guide in Zambia and then followed to a much less interesting Upper Middle Class life in the American West, was “a gallant, one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness.” She wanted to be saved, but then she felt erased. Her river-guide husband became a real-estate broker who, “always expected something more.” This is a relationship in which she writes “dread played a long, low note in my chest.” Elsewhere, she says,

“Divorce…is like a pot sitting forever on a stove suddenly coming to a boil.”

As a divorce story, this one makes perfect sense. And the desperate seriousness with which Fuller examines this material feels right. She’s looking for a version of events she can live with. Of course there isn’t ever really an answer on the end of a complex, decades-long relationship no matter how hard we seek one, so the reader is along for the gory details, a few hair-raising twists, and the frustrating half-wisdoms that come up along the way.

These are pretty interesting. I do want to know what Fuller’s dysfunctional parents think, since these are two people who have “lost three children, a war and several farms,” yet who

“had lived, worked and played together for the better part of forty years. Their tastes have cleaved and overlapped; they share bathwater, silently conceding that the grubbiest person goes last; they sleep under the claustrophobic confines of a single mosquito net.”

Her mother’s view on how to have a happy marriage is  something like “Oh, I don’t know. Marry the right bloke in the first place?” Her father’s doesn’t approve of divorce, but has a wonderful line where he says that life is basically, “You’re born, you die, and then there’s the bit in the middle.”

These refreshing viewpoints are probably why I’ve read three books about these people. And I like Fuller more all the time.

16. The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers

10 Mar

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers

The orderly, Church-centric English countryside in the 1920s isn’t someplace I should by any rights feel nostalgic for, but reading The Nine Tailors, a great mystery novel written in that time period by a feminist intellectual and devout Christian, makes me so.

This is one of the most popular books in writer Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, and it takes place in the English village of Fenchurch St. Paul, where Lord Peter’s car breaks down one New Year’s Eve, and he’s pressed into service ringing in the New Year on the bells of that village’s majestic old church, a structure so large and grand that Wimsey thinks it looks like “a young cathedral.” The parish is only 340 souls but, as the selfless and kind Rector Venables explains,

“you find the same thing all over the fens. East Anglia is famous for the size and splendour of our parish churches. Still, we flatter ourselves that we are almost unique, even in this part of the world. It was an abbey foundation, and in the old days Fenchurch St Paul must have been quite an important place.”

Naturally, suspicious behavior ensues during the bell-ringing, leading to a murder and an investigation for Wimsey, but the real heart of the book is the church, its bells, and the lovingly detailed portrait of English religious life in a small town in this era.

Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate church bells, which before telephones, internet, etc., were a system of public address. Each bell had a distinct sound which the population at large was likely to know, and depending on which one was rung and how many times, messages could be communicated. In this book there’s a bell called Tailor Paul and rung nine times it means someone has died, thus, “The Nine Tailors” of the title.

The other bells in Fenchurch St Paul are Gaude, Saboath, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, and their majesty shines even to the  modern reader. Saboath’s voice is silvery and sweet. Tailor Paul was, the Rector explains, “‘cast in the field next to the church in 1614. You can still see the depression in the earth where the mould was made and field itself is called Bell Field to this day.'” And her sound—bells are always female— is “bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them.” Batty Thomas has killed two men, and according to another character is “‘queer-tempered.'”

As the mystery unfolds we see the central role of the church in village life and during emergencies—it’s on high ground and everyone including Lord Wimsey literally lives there for weeks during a flood.

I’m a secular American in a polarized country (in a polarized world), and I can only imagine a society centered on a shared public space of a church, with a deeply habitual sense of shared ritual, where religion provides a code of good behavior and most of the local entertainment, and where this seems like that would be pleasant instead of terrifying. Elsewhere I believe Sayers has referred to the Church of England as “the great compromise,” and the sense of religion bringing people together instead of dividing them is palpable.

Conflict when it comes in this gentle and good society is a source of humor. Sayers often makes affectionate fun of church life, as when Mrs Venables explains about a local dispute:

“‘…they had some sort of dispute with the Minister about their Good Friday beanfest. Something to do with the tea urns but I forget what. Mrs Wallace is a funny woman; she takes offense rather easily, but so far, touch wood’ — Mrs Venables performed this ancient pagan rite placidly on the oak of the screen) — ‘so far I’ve managed to work in quite smoothly…'”

I’m fairly certain the beanfest is meant to be funny, as are the tea-urns.

I’m a social person, a blogger, a PTA mother, a charity volunteer and I often feel lonely in those roles; reading about England in the 1920s I think, Oh, I would have been active in the Church, and that would have been fun.

I’m sure there are people who will say, “you still can,” but I’m hopelessly on the other side of the culture wars for religion today. Which makes this kind of mystery novel a lovely escapist pleasure, and a new favorite of mine in the Sayers oeuvre.


15. All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu

5 Mar

Dinaw Mengestu All Our Names

My quest to read more literary fiction by writers of color has led me to many African War/ American Immigration books lately, putting me in a decent position to comment on a jacket-quote on All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu, which says that “This is not an immigrant story we already know.”

Eh, yes and no.

It is a version of the same African War/Immigration story we already know, and the title is unfortunately almost exactly the same as another recent book in the genre, NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names, but it’s nonetheless a refined and intense book told in alternating perspectives, and I enjoyed reading it.

The chapters labeled “Isaac,” are about a poor young man from an unidentified African countryside who spends time hanging around the university in Kampala, Uganda just before war against Idi Amin breaks out in the 1970s. “Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries” he says, or at least dress like them. He comes to the capital for reasons more personal than political, ready to shed his name and create himself, but soon falls under the spell of another young striver named Isaac who has better revolutionary credentials.

The chapters labeled “Helen” are about an aimless and depressed young white social worker in the American midwest who is assigned to Isaac, who has arrived in America under mysterious circumstances. The two embark on a romance under furiously segregated conditions, and it’s true that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s easy at this distance to gloss over the details and fail to imagine how oppressive and impossible it would have been for a black man and a white woman to date in a small town in the ’70s. After a humiliating and possibly dangerous meal together in a restaurant, Helen writes about the toxic effect prejudice has on the relationship:

“It seemed impossible now for us to move forward, and I assumed after that lunch that if there was any relationship left it would live on in the strictest privacy, late at night and exclusively in his apartment, with all the blinds closed and the lights off.”

And here is the simple but powerful passage when she and Isaac first hold hands in public (and they had to go to Chicago to do it):

“We hesitated, looking at our hands, not each other, then gathered our strength and moved forward. We walked. It didn’t feel like a victory over anything, but I was proud and, to an equal degree, scared. After walking one block like that I was grateful for the feeling of his hand in mine, and even for the anxiety that came with it. After two more blocks, the gratitude had turned to sorrow that we hadn’t had this sooner. All this time, I thought, we’ve been at best only half of what was possible.”

Mengestu’s writing is fast-paced, elegant and guarded. Notice how much distance and analysis there is, even in explosive moments like the passage above. The alternating chapters are short and feel honed-down to the bare essentials. There are a few major plot twists with large surprises, and the time-lapse intertwined stories complement each other, increasing the intensity of both climaxes…not a bad effect for a love story, come to think of it.



The J.M. Coetzee Award For A Bad Female POV

1 Mar

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Sometimes female characters written by men make me want to throw the book across the room, for a particular effect that I’m going to call The J.M.Coetzee, and now I’m instituting an award for it—shortly to be granted to another lucky author. I identified this problem a few years ago, reading Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, right after reading Disgrace, which I loved and for which the South African/Australian author of literary fiction won a Booker Prize.

In Diary of a Bad Year one of the three POVs is a young, attractive woman from the Philippines who does some cleaning and typing for an older, lecherous intellectual male character, and we read her supposed thoughts. The three POVs run side-by-side on each page, a neat conceit, and the two male perspectives are great. But in the portion of the book I read before giving up in disgust, the young woman thinks mostly about a) the male intellectual she works for and b) her ass, sex, how hot she is, “my silky moves,” how she is “racy, exciting and exotic,” and her ass some more.

At some point I just wanted to say, “No, dude, she doesn’t. You think about her ass. This is not what any woman thinks about all day long.”

I read submissions for a literary magazine, and I can tell you that it is only male authors who mention a female character’s breasts or nipples within the first few pages of introducing her. Female characters written by women rarely think about their nipples or breasts (shocking!). Women writers also rarely describe their female characters’ nipples or breasts unless it’s relevant to the story. (No one of either gender mentions male nipples, except the brilliant Mark Leyner. Go Mark.)

Someone could write a compelling female character who does nothing but think about her body, or a compelling person-of-color who is really into their own hot racial sex appeal, but that’s not what The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award is for. The young woman in Diary of a Bad Year doesn’t have a character. She’s reduced to her skin color and body parts, which is especially offensive when it’s put, allegedly, in her own words.

Coetzee’s heroine also fails some version of the Bechdel Test, which asks in part “Does your female character talk about anything other than male characters?” She thinks an implausible amount about her lecherous old boss and his academic pursuits, which could not possibly be of any interest to her. When she’s not doing that, she’s thinking about her husband (having sex with him), or sometimes God (another man; her religiosity is another racial caricature).

I know I am not supposed to speak for all women, but I will go out on a limb and say that any woman with a lecherous, disgusting boss does her absolute best never to think about him. If she suspects he’s looking when she walks away, her thought is not “Oh yeah, my ass is awesome, let me wiggle it for him to enjoy.” Her thought is, quite simply, “Ew.” She also definitely, totally, never imagines in loving detail how he masturbates about her:

“He hasn’t tried anything while I am with him, but what he gets up to after I exit is another story. God alone witnesses what he gets up to then, God and the blessed virgin and the chorus of saints. There is a pair of panties of mine he pinched from the dryer, I am sure of it. My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone and wraps himself in my undies and closes his eyes and summons up visions of my divine behind and makes himself come.”

It’s so ridiculous that I would laugh if I weren’t full-body heaving. Dude, she has never thought that. She cleans your house, takes your money, and gets out of there as fast as she can.

The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award goes to a writer who reduces a female character to a male authorial sex-fantasy, and who probably created the female character in the first place in order to tell us more about whatever man they really want to talk about. The girl is there “speaking in her own words” in order to put a lot of sexy sex on the page without the author having to decrease the dignity of the male character by having him cop to it. The girl can also admire the man and talk about what a good lover he is! It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s also bad writing if you consider that in good writing your characters are supposed to be human beings who make sense and are motivated by internally coherent concerns.

J.M. Coetzee can and should take on any POV he wants. He’s written very successful women in other books.  Moreover, I defend anyone’s right to write a misogynist character if it seems important to them to do so. Disgrace, the book Coetzee won the Booker Prize for, is a fairly sympathetic portrait of a professor who date-rapes a student, and I loved that book and went out to buy more of his work. But if I’m going to put up with a misogynist character, I demand that they be well-executed.

I will leave you with the words of Coetzee’s heroine, after the male intellectual has treated her to some yucky innuendo:

“I turn my back and off I go with a waggle of the bum, his eyes avid upon me.”

No, I don’t. I promise I don’t.

14. Things I Like About America, by Poe Ballantine

19 Feb

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There was a desperately unhappy and bored time in my life when I learned to draw the map of America freehand, all the states named, in the right places, mostly in the right shape; the line of the Mississippi helping to define the erratic edge of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana; the jigsaw of the northeast represented accurately; some rough attempt at 2-long, 1-tall scale done with the handspan between pinkie and thumb; all of it ballooning, squashed and demented, but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country. Or really I was thinking about elsewhere, freedom, escape from myself and towards a place where no one would expect anything of me.

I never left Brooklyn, but that’s my road story. Something about the map of America seems to evoke them, to call forth the idea that there’s a place out there where one could dispense with the bullshit, live the right way, just be.

That this itself is known bullshit and escapism only makes it more attractive.

Poe Ballantine is a master of the road story, a drunk, writer and late-bloomer, lover of women, laborer at crap jobs who, in his first published book, Things I Like About America, chronicles decades of drift. At some point he says he’s written 17 unpublishable novels, that 90 percent of what he writes is no good. His age skips from 17 to 28 to 43. He takes busses and stays in motels. He lives in Eureka, Louisville, Niagra Falls. He’s a man with no ties, down to his last few dollars, going somewhere new. There’s something deeply consoling about this much freedom…and this much failure.

And oh is his voice great.

Here he is describing an early encounter with crack cocaine:

The first inhaled hit of volatilized cocaine is the best: it launches you through the roof of the sky. There is no greater high. It makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe. You love, with the power of God, all things: house plants, bumblebees, lint balls, even the cat shit in the sandbox beneath the sink. I thought of Charlene and loved her for once purely, without resentment or remorse, without a trace of indignation for having neglected me. I longed to share this feeling with her, this unfathomable, infallible, and virtuous love. So I called her apartment but she wasn’t home.

It’s witty, unpretentious writing with many great turns of phrase. The high of crack “launches you through the roof of the sky” and “makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe.” Elsewhere he says, “I was dazed by love, like someone hit in the forehead with a two-by-four.” Elsewhere yet, running out of money, he writes, “I had about a month before my feet would be sticking out of a bunk at the Baptist Mission.” I liked the image of the feet, his ability to paint himself into a landscape.

There’s a point when the traveling gets to be too much, when the bad jobs reach their nadir, when he dreads again confronting, “the strangers, the empty room, the low-paying job where they would lead me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, the willful isolation and the poverty.” So he goes back to collage, likes it, almost graduates, but doesn’t stay, because,

“How can you expect to produce anything interesting or different while sitting in secure, climate-controlled comfort year after year, doing exactly what you’re told? How do you get your certificate of long-standing conformity and then expect somehow to stand out from the crowd?”

This brings us to the why of the road story. In the chapter “Never and Nowhere,” Ballantine says that

“for twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place. I’ve tried to explain the place but I can’t. It is something like nowhere but not a ghost town. It is alive.”

This is so strange that it bears examination. He’s not looking for an idealized way to live, he’s looking for a nowhere. I don’t understand this exactly, but I sense truth it in, the truth that makes road stories sad, haunted by suicide, driven by hope and failure in equal measures. Maybe when we hit the road we’re looking for a safe place to fail among all the other failed people, an anonymous room, a lowered expectation. Maybe we’re looking for a thing that isn’t there.

Ballantine almost kills himself, but then he makes it through somehow, and the book is evidence that his career slowly blossoms by its own lights.

This is another gem from Portland, Oregon small-press Hawthorne, who also publish Lidia Yuknavitch and Tom Spanbauer. These books are so great, so likeable, so well-written that it’s hard to understand why they aren’t front-and-center in every airport in America.  The world would be a better place, I tell you what.



The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, Charles De Lint

11 Feb

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles De Lint

Lillian woke up and had a long, lazy stretch. What an odd dream, she thought. She lifted a paw, licked it, and had just started to clean her face when she realized what she was doing. She held the paw in front of her face. It was definitely a paw, covered in fur and minus a thumb. Where was her hand? She looked at the rest of herself and saw only a cat’s calico body, as lean and lanky as her own, but covered in fur and certainly not the one she knew. “What’s become of me?” she said. “You’re a kitten” said a voice from above.

It is such a pleasure to experience clean prose and good storytelling when reading books aloud to children (….as anyone who has had to suffer through that godawful Harry Potter aloud probably knows). A children’s book has to move the plot along with every sentence, use every detail, create a perfect balance of scene-setting, emotion and action. I’ve found such skill in Beverly Cleary’s work, and now again in The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles De Lint.

The book was published in hardcover in 2013 and I bought it for my daughter a little prematurely because it’s about a little girl, magic and cats, which if you are the parent of a certain kind of little girl is all you need to hear. She’s now six-and-a-half and the perfect age for it. We’ve read a few chapter-books before, but this is the first one that she’s been truly eager to get back to. The story follows Lillian, who gets turned into a cat and then has various adventures trying to become a girl again.

De Lint’s name is familiar, and he’s published more than 70 children’s and YA books. Some authors get lazy at the tail end of a resume like that, but De Lint is clearly a master craftsman.

I am not enamored of the illustrations by Charles Vess, who is talented at drawing nature and animals but struggles to make human faces recognizable from one frame to the next. My daughter pointed it out right away, so criticizing the illustrations is another of her pleasures in the book! Like mother like daughter.

13. Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

9 Feb

Guantanamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi

First up, this book is not depressing, and is fun to read. I realize that’s a weird thing to say about a torture chronicle written by a current Guantanamo detainee, but I lead with it because I bought it only from a sense of duty to know, as an American, what my government is doing. I cracked the spine with dread, and then was amazed to find myself uplifted, not by the crimes and injustices of the American government, of course, but by the ability of the author to remain human and humane in the telling of his ordeal. Guantanamo Diary is a page-turner and a classic of war literature and I beg everyone who reads my blog to buy it and, ideally, go sign the ACLU petition for Slahi’s release.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi is a Mauritanian citizen who has been held in Guantanamo for 13 years, without charges, and who has experienced some of the most brutal interrogation performed at the facility—he has been tortured. He makes a compelling and seemingly open case for his complete innocence (and was cleared by Mauritania and Jordan before being extradited to the U.S. in 2002). A U.S. District Court judge ordered him released in 2010, but the Obama administration has appealed and he remains in Guantanamo to this day. At least one military interrogator resigned over his treatment. The book was written in 2005 and has been classified ever since, while the Slahi’s pro-bono lawyers fought to gain access to it. It was finally redacted and published January 2015. The volume’s editor, human-rights activist Larry Siems, writes of Slahi:

He has the qualities I value most in a writer: a moving sense of beauty and a sharp sense of irony. He has a fantastic sense of humor. He manages all of this in English, his fourth language, a language he was in the process of learning even as he wrote the manuscript.

All of these excellent qualities are harnessed in service of giving a precise, damning, humorously rendered detainee’s-eye view of American intelligence proceedings. Slahi often makes points “to be fair” to his interrogators or guards, puts himself in their position, tries to understand how they’ve ended up where they are, mentions good treatment as well as bad, etc. He writes:

If there’s anything good at all in a war, it’s that it brings the best and the worst out of people: some people try to use the lawlessness to hurt others, and some try to reduce the suffering to the minimum.

After being interrogated in Jordan for 9 months he reports being happy to be in American custody because, “I wrongly believed the worst was over, and so I cared less about the time it would take the Americans to figure out that I was not the guy they were looking for.”

Slahi learned English in detention, from his guards and interrogators. There’s a wonderful/horrible moment where he’s being dragged along with a bag over his head noting some of the finer points of spoken English: “…at the same time I was thinking about how they gave the same order two different ways: ‘Do not talk’ and ‘No Talking.’ That was interesting”

Over time, he says, “those responsible for GTMO broke all the principles upon which the U.S. was built and compromised every great principal such as Ben Franklin’s ‘They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.'” The abuses he writes about are chilling, from being forced to drink 22 ounces of water every hour for weeks at a time, sleep deprivation, beatings, stress positions, forced ingestion of seawater, isolation, enduring extreme cold, ice-torture, sexual assault and much more. One of the most surprising to me was that female interrogators seem to be routinely used to sexually harass, molest and humiliate the devout Muslim prisoners. What a great use of women in the military! The people responsible for coming up with these tortures shame and degrade American service-people.

Slahi eventually cracks under torture and confesses to anything and everything.

It’s probably stating the obvious to say that I don’t believe honorable people treat other human beings like this, whatever the ends may be.

I’ll end with one of his closing statements:

I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned first-hand. I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself. I don’t expect people who don’t know me to believe me, but I expect them, at least, to give me the benefit of the doubt. And if Americans are willing to stand for what they believe in, I also expect public opinion to compel the U.S. government to open a torture and war crimes investigation. I am more than confident that I can prove every single thing I have written in this book if I am ever given an opportunity to call witnesses in a proper judicial procedure….

Please everyone, buy the book and sign the petition. It is the least we can do.





11. Lord Peter, The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, by Dorothy Sayers

31 Jan

Lord Peter

I’m now re-reading all of the more obscure Dorothy Sayers books, delving into the corners of Lord Peter Wimsey’s existence that I wrote about earlier this month. There are twenty-one stories here collected—which seem to not be all of them, despite the “complete” of the title—and include two dated after Sayers stopped writing the novels. One takes place on the birth of Peter and Harriet’s first child, and the last, “Talboys,” is set in a happy future where the couple has three sons and the mystery involves not a corpse but Mr. Puffet’s stolen peaches. The story was not published in Sayers’ lifetime, and seems to have first appeared in 1972.

I’ve read that Sayers is credited with establishing literature’s first instance of a serial detective with an inner life, and the stories provide a good sense of Peter’s arc, from the earlier more theatrical work to the ravishing last two, where the authorial voice is more intimate.

The logs in the hall chimney were glowing a deep red through their ashes. Peter raked them apart, so that the young flame shot up between them. “Sit down,” he said; “I’ll be back in a minute.” The policeman sat down, removed his helmet…

Wimsey’s early cases are ghoulish, chilling, humorous and erudite, with a splash of 30s glamour and medical oddity. A lovely book.




7. Testo Junkie, by Beatriz Preciado

12 Jan

Testo Junkie, Beatriz Preciado, Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era

This book, translated from the French, is a “voluntary intoxication protocol,” in which Spanish drag-king activist and cultural theorist Beatriz Preciado takes testosterone off-label for 200-something days, as a strategy of resistance towards the involuntary intoxication of what she calls the “pharmacopornographic” regime. It’s a memoir, a terrifying and brilliant work of cultural deconstruction, and also a eulogy for the French writer Guillaume Dustan, a loved one of Preciado’s who died of a drug overdose in 2005. Some of the first-person text is written addressing Dustan. She explains:

I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me, so that I can write, fuck, feel a form of pleasure that is postpornographic, add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgender identity composed of dildos, texts and moving images; I do it to avenge your death.

I’m probably behind on this, but I’d never connected our cyborg prostheses—the phone, the laptop, that I-word thing I’m using to talk to you right now—with the “molecular prostheses” of drugs.  And oh but these things are connected, in Preciado’s theory, as an overall strategy of capitalist surveillance and control, which has moved away from human mercantile activity into the more fertile, more profitable ground of human subjectivity.

Specifically, she says that sex and sexuality, in which she’s including the vast realm of gender-identity, have become “the main objects of political and economic activity.”

I suspect that many gender-normative, heterosexual readers of my blog are not the types to think of themselves as even having a gender identity, which will be a stumbling block towards comprehending the vastness of the arena of control. Maybe seeing “some semoitechnical codes of white heterosexual femininity” will help: (And also, Preciado is funny.)

“…the subdued elegance of Lady Di, Prozac, fear of being a bitch in heat, Valium, the necessity of the G-string, knowing how to restrain yourself, letting yourself be fucked in the ass when it’s necessary, being resigned, accurate waxing of the pubes, depression, thirst, little lavender balls that smell good, the smile, the living mummification of the smooth face of youth, love before sex, breast cancer…”

As she puts it, gender is a “biotech industrial artifact” and we are living in a “gigantic pharmacopornographic Disneyland in which the tropes of sexual naturalism are fabricated on a global scale as products of the endocrinological, surgical, agrifood and media industries.”

She also posits a concept of “potentia gaudendi” or “orgasmic force,” which she claims is being put to work through pornography, among other things.

I have some doubts and questions. I find her arguments about the control of sexual subjectivity  convincing without seeing how she’s concluded that it’s the primary thing being controlled. If you look at capitalism as a vast strategy to generate in humans the desire to buy things, gender seems to be one of the many things we purchase. I will admit, though, that I’m not perfectly versed in a lot of the theory she’s riffing on.

And speaking of those riffs, the power of Preciado’s writing and synthesis is glorious to behold. She gets a manicure, hilariously. She writes about the World Cup. She starts thinking about the couch we sit on to watch TV and ends up characterizing it as “a tentacle of the control system, an installation within inner space in the form of living room furniture…a political device, a public space of surveillance and deactivation.”

I suspect she’s too serious of a thinker to want to be this entertaining, or to write prose this aesthetically exquisite, but she does both.

The path leading from the Vauvert writers’ residence to the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a paradise of plants over which they’ve rolled a tongue of asphalt. It’s a natural garden inhabited by new technoliving species: beavers, eagles, bulls, white horses, colonies of pink flamingoes, and cars. The cars that glide along that unique gray carpet are cyberpredators longing to eliminate all competition between mobile prehistoric organisms and new ultrarapid human-machine aggregates…. The beavers swim nimbly through the river, plunging under the submerged shrubs, their fur-covered shapes rippling…. On dry land their furry bodies become clumsy, their tails too heavy; their eyes still covered by a liquid film, can barely distinguish the other shore. The cars zigzag to try to trap these viscous volumes under their tires. Sometimes they hit them head on, making them burst into blood and guts.

She goes on to describe the eagle circling above the road-kill beavers as using the automobile as its “hunting prosthesis,” and looking forward to a meal of the beaver’s “foreign and exquisite tripe.”  It’s a perfect passage.

The strategies of resistance to pharmocoporn and the narco-state that the book offers in the end—voluntary intoxication, gender-hacking, activism, telling your own story—are surprisingly low-tech, and that too is perfect.