Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Photographer: Into War–Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders

The Photographerby Emmanuel Guibert, Didier LeFevre, Frederic Lemercier

The Photographer: Into War–Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders (First Second Books, 2009) is the story of photojournalist Didier LeFevre’s first assignment: to accompany a team of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) who were traveling through Pakistan to Afghanistan in 1986, during the long bloody conflict between the invading Soviet Union troops and the Taliban. The book is a collaboration between artist Emmanuel Guibert and LeFevre, assembled by graphic designer Frederic Lemercier. The pictures include both LeFevre’s original contact sheets (it’s interesting to note that contact sheets of photos are not unlike strips of comics) and Guibert’s drawings, while the text is reconstructed from discussions Guibert and LeFevre had about the journey. (LeFevre’s journals, mentioned in the book, were lost years before.) The result is a powerful reading and viewing experience. It’s a good example of how the graphic novel format can work elegantly for nonfiction; it’s also a good example of how inadequate the term “graphic novel” is for a work that make equal use of text and illustrations. And the decision to do this as a graphic novel, however inadequate the phrase is, was exactly right, because we need both the visuals and the text to fully grasp the experiences LeFevre and the MSF team underwent. It began in Peshawar and ended, three months later, in Afghanistan. Just getting to their destination involved plenty of danger; it required many pack animals and forty armed guards. Straying off the path was not encouraged, as landmines were prevalent; and there was always the fear of snipers or of being attacked by roving soldiers of either side. Their destination was a small village in northern Afghanistan, where they set up a clinic to treat the men, women, and children who were the collateral damage in a brutal war. When the team was returning back to their home base in Pakistan, LeFevre made an unwise choice to travel back to Pakistan by himself – a decision that nearly got him killed. Reading The Photographer is a stunning, unforgettable experience: you somehow emerge from your time spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Didier and the members of MSF a better, more humane individual.

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A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms

Kick in the Head

by Paul B. Janeczko

Paul B. Janeczko’s  A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms (Candlewick, 2009) should be required reading for literature classes from elementary school through college. It’s the best way I know of to discover (and appreciate) the various forms of poetry, including, as it does, memorable examples and joyful – there’s no other word for it – illustrations by Chris Raschka. Janeczko covers 29 different forms of poetry, ranging from those likely to be familiar to most readers, such as couplets, haikus, sonnets, and quatrains, but also those less likely to have been encountered in casual reading, like concrete poetry, villanelles, the found poem, the pantoum, and more. The poets and and their works include a satisfyingly diverse mix of writers, both the famous and the unknown (at least to me). The former includes everyone from Ogden Nash (and his couplet “In the world of mules/There are no rules”), to William Blake (and his quatrain that begins “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright … “); as well as Edward Lear, followed by what I can only call an “anti–limerick” by Stephen Herrick on the opposite page; Gary Soto (an ode to a pair of sneakers); and an excerpt from one of Robert Service’s most famous ballads, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Don’t miss the examples of epitaphs – I’m still smiling about the one for Pinocchio.

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The Tourist

The Tourist

by Olen Steinhauer

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Olen Steinhauer when he came through Seattle a few months ago. I’m pleased to report that he’s a totally nice guy and I loved his new book, The Tourist (Minotaur, 2009). I’m happy about that for two reasons: one, of course, is that I’m always delighted to find a really good thriller, and two, it’s hard to read a book with an open mind if you’ve met and didn’t care for the author, which, sad to say, I’ve had happen more often than I’d like to remember or recount. During lunch Steinhauer mentioned that one of his favorite books is John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is the novel by le Carré that I like best. This didn’t come as a total surprise, because while I was reading The Tourist I kept thinking that of all the contemporary thriller writers out there, Steinhauer is the one who comes closest to delivering the same pleasures that le Carré does: a tightly constructed, smartly complex plot played out in the morally ambiguous universe of spycraft, a healthy dose of cynicism, and a main character with many secrets and much pain in his life. And like le Carré, Steinhauer has come up with terminology for aspects of the espionage game that seem so natural it’s hard to believe that it isn’t used by spooks themselves. (Maybe it is. Who knows?) Milo Weaver is a field–based spy, a “tourist” in his agency’s lingo (their counterparts who work in the home office are known as “travel agents”), whose assignment is to hunt down a wily, longtime foe known as “the Tiger.” When Milo runs into an old friend, Angela, who, in fact, may be more of a Judas than a Peter, it turns out that Angela is also trying to get to the Tiger. For spy novels, uncertainty is the name of the game. Unlike le Carré, though, who’s pretty pessimistic about the possibility of rewarding and happy personal relationships for his characters, Steinhauer gives Milo a happy home life, which points up all the more insistently the bleakness of his profession and the particular job he’s been assigned to in this novel.

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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

disreputablehistoryby E. Lockhart

E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau–Banks (Hyperion, 2008) is not only one of the most enjoyable teen novels that I’ve read in a long time, but it’s also one of smartest. It’s smartly written, with a cast of well–drawn characters; it has an intelligent and witty narrative voice; and Lockhart has created an original and thought–provoking plot that carries a serious message along with its good humor. (This would be a terrific choice for mother–daughter book groups.) Twelve- to fifteen-year old girls looking for a relationship novel that’s neither sappy, angst–y, nor a fantasy need search no further: here it is. Frankie starts her sophomore year at Alabaster Prep a changed young woman from the geeky freshman she was just a few months ago. When she starts going out with handsome Matthew, the senior boy who’s the catch of the campus, she’s pretty sure she’s left all remnants of the old nerdy Frankie behind. But when she learns that Matthew is the president of an all–male secret society of juniors and seniors at the school called “The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds,” her immense annoyance at being excluded simply because she’s female leads her to come up with a brilliantly inventive (if perhaps slightly illegal) scheme to get back at the club members. But I think the caper–filled plot — entertaining as it is — is Lockhart’s method to get us interested in knowing Frankie, who is purely and simply a delight. She’s a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, she loves words (I foresee a lot of engaged readers playing with the notion of “neglected positives”if —being disgruntled means you’re not happy about something, why not use gruntled when you are?) and she’s not afraid to either ask questions or challenge accepted norms. I wish I had been exactly like her when I was 15. 

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Admission

Admissionby Jean Hanff Korelitz

In her novel, Admission (Grand Central, 2009), Jean Hanff Korelitz tells two intertwining stories: one is an inside look at the world of the admissions process at an elite American university; the other is about what happens when we consciously try to erase a part of our past. Portia Nathan has something in her past that she’s kept secret for almost two decades. She’s never told Mark, her partner of 16 years, she’s never confided in her close friend Rachel, or her mother, the uber–feminist Susannah, and she’s certainly never shared it with her colleagues at Princeton University, where she works as an admissions officer. There’s never been a real need to. Not until, that is, she runs into John Halsey, a fellow Dartmouth grad and a teacher at an experimental school in New Hampshire (where she’s gone on a recruiting trip) and meets his brilliant but eccentric student, Jeremiah, whom she encourages to apply to Princeton. Her encounter with John and Jeremiah sets into motion a series of events that eventually forces Portia to acknowledge that choices she made years ago are about to influence how she’s going to choose to live in the present. I’ve always enjoyed Korelitz’s novels. She’s written three before Admission, including  A Jury of Her Peers, Sabbathday River, and her most lighthearted, The White Rose. They are each marked by her warmth and her ability to make her characters real to us, so that we forgive them their flaws and their often less–than–perfect decisions.

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Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents

Into Thick Air

by Jim Malusa

I don’t, personally, actually know any botanists, but I have to admit that I’ve never thought of it as an especially adventurous profession, so I certainly wouldn’t have picked Jim Malusa, a scientist whose specialty is the biogeography of southern Arizona, as the guy–most–likely–to undertake (and write about) a series of very adventurous bike trips. Yet (to the good fortune of readers everywhere), he did. As described in Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents (Sierra Club/Counterpoint, 2008), he spent parts of six consecutive years riding his trusty bicycle to the lowest spots of all six continents, overcoming everything from extreme weather, extreme insects, and the very real possibility of land mines if he strayed off the road in Africa. His journey takes him from Darwin, in northernmost Australia, to Lake Eyre, deep in Australia’s desert (my favorite part because I love reading about Australia) and in Asia, from Cairo to the Dead Sea. In Europe, he goes from Moscow to the Caspian Sea, while in South America he bikes from Puerto Montt in Patagonia (bemoaning the ever–present winds), to Salina Grande in Argentina. In Africa, he toured from Djibouti to Lake Assal; and finally, he went from Tucson (his home) to Death Valley. Malusa has a knack for meeting interesting people, hearing fascinating tales, and seeing unusual sights. For example, there’s an old state cafeteria in Volgograd, he tells us, “featuring perhaps the world’s only aluminum bas–relief of dumplings.” Malusa’s philosophy of travel is summed up in this super sentence: “Travel without surprises was merely an agenda.” I’ll try to keep that in mind on my own trips.

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The Color of Lightning

The Color of Lightning

by Paulette Jiles

In The Color of Lightning (Morrow, 2009), her powerful and moving third novel, Paulette Jiles begins with a real person and, taking the little that is known from the historical record, creates a life for him that illuminates a morally complex time and place in American history — from the last years of the Civil War, when Texas was opening up its land for settlement, and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, losing their traditional hunting grounds, were kidnapping and/or murdering the settlers until the early 1870s. During this same time, the U.S. government was trying to corral (almost literally) the Indians on reservations. The book’s hero, Britt Johnson, is a black man, a freed slave, who, along with his wife and three children, accompanies his former owner and several other white families to homestead on the north Texas plains. One day, while Johnson and most of the other men are away, their settlement is raided, many are killed (including Johnson’s oldest son), and the others, mainly women and children, are taken north with the Indians. (These are dreadfully vivid scenes of carnage, torture, and pain, not for the queasy of stomach.) Heartbroken, and in an angry despair, Johnson rides to the Indian camps to rescue his family. Another major character (one wholly invented by Jiles) is idealistic Samuel Hammond, a member of the Society of Friends who is appointed as an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to use peaceful means to disarm the Indians and get them to agree to become farmers. Other characters for whom we grow to care deeply are Tissoyo, who was banished by his tribal leaders; Mary, Britt’s wife, almost fatally damaged both physically and psychologically by her treatment in captivity; and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a terrifically stubborn white woman taken in the same raid as Mary was. Along with her fully developed characters and vivid, brilliantly crafted writing, Jiles explores the conundrum at the heart of the America following the Civil War, as can be seen in this discussion between Hammond and another white man, Deaver, an itinerant painter. Deaver says:

“They (the Indians) are our great mystery. They are America’s great otherwise. People fall back in the face of an impenetrable mystery and refuse it. Yes, they take captives. Sometimes they kill women and old people. But the settlers are people who shouldn’t be where they are in the first place and they know it and take their chances.”

“You are very cavalier about this.”

“So are they, my friend. The Texans are cavalier as well. Perhaps we can regard this as a tragedy. Americans are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility. Tragedy is not amenable to reason and we are fixers, aren’t we? We can fix everything.”

I was especially moved by the dilemma of the white children who were kidnapped at a young age and had little memory of their early years, as they grew up knowing nothing except their life on the plains. Here’s how Jiles describes one little girl’s feelings about being brought back to the white family she scarcely remembered:

“…she was not afraid of going hungry, or starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing. Of the sky shuttered away from her sight, herself hidden from the operatic excitement of the constant wind and the high spirits that came when they struck out like cheerful vagabonds across the wide earth with all of life in front of them and unfolding and perpetually new. And now herself shut in a wooden cave. She could not go out at dawn alone and sing, she would not be seen and known by the rising sun.”

Incidentally, Britt Johnson’s adventures as an Indian hostage hunter became the inspiration for Alan Le May’s 1954 novel, The Searchers, which was turned into the 1956 John Ford film of the same name. In the movie, the character based (very loosely) on Johnson, through the vagaries of the creative process and Hollywood casting, is played by John Wayne.  

 

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