“It’s safe, but”

As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.

When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.

Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.

Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster.  In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.

Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:

“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome

Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).

But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty.  It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.

Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness.  From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:

Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.

Please Look After Mom

Outside the market you saw two people cutting apart a fish that was as big as a sedan. You asked if it was tuna, since it was so large, but the vendor said it was an ocean sunfish.  You were reminded of a character in a book whose title you couldn’t remember. She was from a seaside town, and she would go to the huge aquarium in the city every time she had a problem, to talk to the ocean sunfish swimming inside. She would complain that her mother took all her life savings and went off with a younger man to a different city, but then, at the end, would say, But I miss my mom; you’re the only one I can tell this to, sunfish! You wondered if that was the same fish.

Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin sold close to a million and a half copies in South Korea, and is set to be published in 18 countries around the world.  It’s the first of Shin’s books to be translated into English.  My full review for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is here.

Whatever Spell

There’s a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives where an unhinged author starts to drive himself mad waiting for a particular writer’s review of his latest book. Given what he knows about the critic, he’s sure the review will be scathing, and will destroy his career.  Rather than wait to see what this critic comes up with, the author challenges him to a duel to the death.

To keep myself out of fatal sword-fights, I find it helpful to look at John Updike’s rules for book critics from time to time when I need a little bit of refocusing in the book reviewing department:

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Daniel Mendelsohn takes a similar position:

Even Aristophanes — who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic — seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge anymore,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over.  “I must not lose the love of either one of them. / One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers.

An Afternoon at the Museum

Lan came to visit! (click on thumbnails below)

 

photos by me and Lan

When the Killing’s Done

Knowing that Jay is a fan of novelist T. C. Boyle, on Friday one of his Daily Beast colleagues (who works in the books section) gave him an extra copy of Boyle’s latest novel.

When the Killing’s Done is officially is out tomorrow, and Boyle will be on The Takeaway to talk about some of the environmental questions it raises.  Over the weekend, I decided to give the book a read ahead of Boyle’s interview. I borrowed Jay’s copy and blogged about the book for The Takeaway:

Boyle gets around the difficulty of dramatizing environmental issues by dramatizing the environmentalists themselves. To drive home the tension between their positions, he draws out the similarities between Alma and her nemesis David. Alma and her biologist boyfriend Tim Sickafoose are vegetarians, and so are David and his girlfriend Anise Reed. They all live in the Santa Barbara area, they all drive white Priuses, and they all grapple with the quandaries of consumption while listening to the same hippie folksinger—and the similarities don’t end there. Like Alma, David’s girlfriend Anise has matrilineal ties to the islands: Her mother worked as a cook on an island sheep ranch in the 1970s.

Though their philosophies on what’s best for the natural world around them clash perfectly, Boyle makes it clear that both the Alma/Tim and David/Anise camps are equally motivated by a mix of childhood sympathies, inclinations of personality, and adult life politics. Our approach to moral questions about the environment, Boyle seems to suggest, is as complicated as the environment itself.

The full post is at The Takeaway’s blog.

One small thing I left out: I was more than a little bit annoyed at Boyle for making one of his character’s conversion to meatlessness come at the hands of a proselytizing Hindu.

Alma won’t touch the bacon– she hasn’t eaten meat since her conversion to vegetarianism in the seventh grade under the influence of her best friend, a girl from India whose parents were both doctors and who persisted in wearing a red caste mark on her forehead through the end of junior high …

Of course this is the only mention that this nameless character and her persistent “caste mark” get.  And of course, my annoyance comes from personal recognition of this particular bundle of stereotypes.  I stopped eating meat at age 10; my mom applied a small dab of kumkuma on my forehead every morning before school, after we said our prayers; my father is a physician.  But preach vegetarianism?  That kind of “girl from India” would know better.  So should Boyle.

The Scale of Maps

It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.

Belén Gopegui

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind if some secret hours, days, and months were quietly slipped into my life.  So much to do, so little time!

Among the things filling my recent accounted for hours: A review of The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui I wrote for the latest issue of Words Without Borders.  Enjoy!

Revolution in Egypt

It took eighteen days (or was it thirty years?) but finally the man who once said “I have a PhD in stubbornness” has stepped down.

Undoubtedly, Egypt’s struggles are far from over — there are still too many unknowns at this stage — but for those of us watching from the other side of the world, what an exhilarating ride it’s been.

There’s also still no single answer to the question I posed last week — why now? — and President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation only raises more questions.  What will the military takeover mean for the country? Can the army make good on its promise to ensure fair and peaceful elections? Will the crowd that’s organized so bravely on the streets be able to find solid political footing in the halls of parliament? What will become of mid-level government officials who supported the old regime? What will become of Mubarak himself? Who will step up to fill the vacuum of democratic leadership? How will the United States reposition itself towards the new Egypt? How will Egypt’s economy regain its footing after three weeks of this $300-million-dollar-a-day disruption? What will this upheaval mean for the rest of the Mideast?

So far, Egypt’s revolution has been the most-covered international news story in 4 years — and it looks like the story is just getting started.

Winter and Their Discontent

Another winter storm, another revolution.  With more terrible weather expected overnight, I’ve packed up for yet another stay in a hotel across the street from my office — keeping tabs on Al Jazeera’s ongoing Egypt coverage all the while.  If today’s developments are any indicator, this week’s looking to be another very busy one at work. News from the Middle East has been nothing short of riveting, and I’ve been proud to be part of The Takeaway’s standout coverage of protests in the Middle East (including the brand new podcast launched today).

I’m still gathering my thoughts — and, like everyone else watching developments in Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt from afar, “monitoring a very fluid situation,” to say the least — so for now, I’ll leave this post with just one question that’s been on my mind. It stems, in part, from an anecdote relayed by Wendell Steavenson, blogging for The New Yorker from Cairo:

A girl who had collapsed with stomach pains was brought in, carried in the arms of an Army captain. Her parents had taken their four children to the square in the morning and the family had been there for six or seven hours. Her father, Amr Helmy, a former Army officer, told me that he believed it was important that they see the demonstration. “They need to start getting used to them!” he joked, “so they learn that they don’t have to be afraid. Our generation wasted our life in nonsense.”

A courageous sentiment.  But why now?  That’s what I’ve been wondering.  It’s also the question that was posed on The Takeaway this morning by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sedat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland:

For me as a political scientist, I’ve always said (and I’ve repeated it over and over again), the puzzle to me has never been, ‘are there reasons to revolt?’  The puzzle has always been, ‘why haven’t people revolted already?’

I’ll be mulling this over as events in Egypt unfold — and maybe when the storm passes, the answer will be more apparent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Observed

One of the things that made the biggest impression on me at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was a short film that plays in the theater just inside the museum’s entrance.   The film takes the visitor back to the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death — the night he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.  April 3, 1968 was a dismal, stormy night in Memphis, but despite the weather, the church where Dr. King was speaking was packed.

Death was on Dr. King’s mind. The wind rattled the windows and doors of the church eerily as he spoke:

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.

And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

Because Dr. King didn’t sneeze, he was in Memphis that night, showing his support to the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike.  Two months before, 2 sanitation workers had been crushed to death on the job.  It was raining heavily and they had tried to take shelter in their truck, but its compactor mechanism accidentally went off, killing them. On the day of their deaths, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay because of the bad weather — while their white supervisors were paid for the day’s work.  Those events pushed the overworked, underpaid sanitation workers — young and old black men who “worked like dogs” (one man remembers his starting salary as $1.03 an hour) — to go on strike.

Dr. King didn’t sneeze, but on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine motel anyway. He did not live to see the end of the sanitation workers’ fight in Memphis, but on the Monday after her husband’s death Coretta Scott King led the march he’d planned to attend.  The workers’ demands were simple: Bargaining rights and better wages. Their slogan was even simpler: “I AM A MAN.”  More than 40 years later, it seems hard to imagine a more eloquent rallying cry — or starkly poetic cause — for Dr. King’s last battle.

 

photo by me: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis

Percolating

It’s been a busy week back in New York and back at work.  Here’s a round up of this-and-that, including a few follow-ups on things I’ve blogged about before:

– An interesting New York Times story about rehabilitating Tolstoy caught my eye.  In her diaries, Sofia Tolstoy expresses a great deal of concern about how she’ll be judged by historians. But it never occurs to her that her husband could himself be remembered in a mixed light.

– A piece attempting a humorous take on yoga from NPR’s Sandip Roy irked me.  One commenter summed up the problem nicely: “A man who identifies as belonging to a particular ethnicity, paradoxically ignorant of a particular tradition of said ethnicity, is by virtue of said identity assigned to write an article communicating nothing so much as said ignorance.” Right.

– In this week’s New Yorker, a very enjoyable review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series puzzles over its popularity. “The jokes aren’t funny. The dialogue could not be worse. The phrasing and the vocabulary are consistently banal,” Joan Acocella writes.

– The ever-sharp Elif Batuman reflects on interpreting entrails and suggests prognostications help us find out who we are in this great little essay.

– Earlier this week, my former PW editor Marc Schultz wrote about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces “slave” for the n-word. The piece set off a cascade of debate on censoring Mark Twain (The Takeaway invited Morehouse’s David Wall Rice to weigh in; he made a strong case against the NewSouth edition).  But one thing that seems to have gotten lost in the discussion is that editor Alan Gribben’s decision to drop the n-word wasn’t part of any agenda — it grew out of countless conversations with readers and educators across Alabama who told him they were staying away from Huck Finn because of the n-word. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” Gribben told PW.  So why not make an alternative edition available?

– Ben Yagoda takes on The Elements of Clunk. Someone should publish a set of stylebooks on the essential conventions of writing for broadcast, print, the ‘net, email, G-chat, Facebook walls and text message.  And then make them into an iPhone app so I can put them all in my pocket.

– Over at The Awl, Heather Havrilesky beautifully sums up a modern malaise (which I, for one, suffer from): Personal Branding Disorders.  “Do you want to be a part of the next wave of rich personal self-promotion, or do you want your child to grow up not knowing what really good sushi tastes like?” she asks.  Okay, okay. I give up on the sushi.

Happy New Year!

photo by Jay: my morning coffee (back in California)