Monthly Archives: February 2011

Who Cares About Your Memoirs?

Neil Genzlinger reviewed four new memoirs in the January 30, 2011, edition of the New York Times Book Review. He subtitied it, “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.”

Genzlinger insists that way too many people are writing memoirs, which is something I’ve noticed. I mean, Justin Bieber wrote his memoirs! And Patrick Buchanan, who served with a bunch of presidents, hasn’t?

Genzlinger writes:

Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child, or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

He then lays down four guidelines for memoirist wannabes, and illustrates each point with his review of a memoir.

  1. That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.
  2. No one wants to relive your misery.
  3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.
  4. If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.

If you have an eclectic love for books, you might appreciate this cleverly crafted piece.

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Dallas Cowboys Stadium

Touchdown Steve, in the Cowboys endzone.

Looking down on the field from above the endzone.

It was interesting to see where players' lockers were located. Tony Romo was between tight-end Jason Whitten and backup QB Jon Kitna.

During our vacation in October, Pam and I toured the new Dallas Cowboys stadium. That’s where they are holding the Super Bowl tonight.

It’s quite a place, I tell ya. Gorgeous all around. We took a VIP tour that lasted 2 hours, and got us into a luxury suite, the media booth, the players’ and cheerleaders’ locker rooms, and onto the field. And plenty of other nooks and crannies. Very impressive place.

Unfortunately, this year’s team isn’t worthy of their new digs.

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Disney, Pocahontas, and Genocide

Previously, I reviewed the book “Generation Kill,” about the Marine First Recon foray deep into Iraq during the initial invasion. Evan Wright recorded one interesting anecdote which I found most interesting.

A soldier named Espera, who is an American Indian, mentions watching the animated movie “Pocahontas” with his eight-year-old daughter. He tells the other soldiers:

“What’s the true story of Pocahontas? White boys come to the new land, deceive a corrupt Indian chief, kill ninety percent of the men and rape all the women. What does Disney do? They make this tragedy, the genocide of my people, into a love story with a singing raccoon. I ask you, would the white man make a love story about Auschwitz where a skinny inmate falls in love with a guard, with a singing raccoon and dancing swastikas? Dog, I was ashamed for my daughter to see this.”

He’s got a point, doesn’t he?

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Book: “Generation Kill,” by Evan Wright

“Generation Kill” is among the many superb books written by journalists about the Iraq and Afghan wars. Dexter Filkins, David Finkel, Sebastian Junger, John Krakauer, Michael Yon…and now Evan Wright. Though actually, Wright came first, publishing this book in 2004.

Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, was embedded with the First Recon Marines during the 2003 invasion. As soon as the invasion started, they were at the forefront, plunging deep into Iraqi territory. The book won a national magazine award, and was adapted as an HBO miniseries.

Wright specialized in writing about youth subcultures–radical environmentalists, skateboarders, criminals. He saw the military as another youth subculture. He pitched the idea to his Rolling Stone editor, and found himself in a combat zone for the first time. And whereas many reporters experience one firefight and then go home to tell their story and act like experts, Wright endured 17 firefights, including one during which 26 bullets slammed into his Humvee door.

Evan Wright

“Generation Kill” definitely has the feel of Rolling Stone. The tone and style would make the legendary Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson proud (though Thompson would have been a bit more irreverent).

Whereas Sebastian Junger’s book “War” was focused in one place, “Generation Kill’ is pretty much a frantic, careening joyride through southern Iraq. It reminded me a bit of Kelly’s Heroes.

Take a bunch of young men, train them to use very destructive weapons, get them hyped up, and then send them out to meet the enemy. That’s a recipe for mayhem. And Wright records plenty of mayhem. These young soldiers, highly trained and eager to use their expensive weapons, shoot up the countryside, including a number of innocent bystanders. There are a couple incidents which could easily be labeled as war crimes, and the targeting of civilians is disturbing, though the “fog of war” justifies a good deal of it.

“However admirable the military’s attempts are to create Rules of Engagement, they basically create an illusion of moral order where there is none. The Marines operate in chaos. It doesn’t matter if a Marine is following orders and ROE, or disregarding them. The fact is, as soon as a Marine pulls the trigger on his rifle, he’s on his own. He’s entered a game of moral chance. When it’s over, he’s as likely to go down as a hero or as a baby killer.”

Wright does a good job of presenting surreal images of war.

“Corpses of the Iraqi attackers who fell in the road have been run over repeatedly by tracked vehicles….There’s a man in the road with no head, and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no legs….

“You pass three dead men by the road, surrounded by weapons, then shepherds in the field behind them waving and smiling. There’s a car with a dead woman shot in the backseat–no hint why Marines or helicopters shot her.”

Wright makes regular pop-culture references. Of one harrowing drive through a hostile Iraqi town, with everyone emerging unscathed, he wrote, “The whole engagement was like one of those cheesy action movies in which the bad guys fire thousands of rounds that all narrowly miss the hero.”

He  throws out a lot of interesting tidbits, like the fact that while the Marines generally use the metric system, snipers still do everything in yards. And then there are wonderful lines and passages like these:

  • “There’s a definite sense of exhilaration every time there’s an explosion and you’re still there afterward.”
  • “US military doctrine is pretty straightforward in situations like this: if there even appears to be an imminent threat, bomb the crap out of it.”
  • “One thing you can say about intense weapons fire, it sounds like it ought to. It’s an extremely angry noise.”
  • “In a pitched firefight, denial serves one very well. I simply refuse to believe anyone’s going to shoot me.”
  • “In addition to the embarrassing loss of bodily control that 25 percent of all soldiers experience, other symptoms include time dilation, a sense of time slowing down or speeding up; vividness, a starkly heightened awareness of detail; random thoughts, the mind fixating on unimportant sequences; memory loss; and, of course, your basic feelings of sheer terror.”

Wright updated the book in 2008 by tracking down many of the soldiers and letting us know what they’re doing now. Some re-upped for additional tours. He tells their stories, and captures their reflections on the early days of the invasion, in the “Afterword.” This may have been my favorite part. Having become so acquainted with these soldiers, I was delighted to learn what became of them. The book had been out for several years, and the Marines apparently felt Wright captured what happened pretty well. At least, they were open to talking to him again.

Like Eric Kocher, a prominent character in the book. He served four deployments in Iraq, but called it quits in 2007. “I’m just tired of seeing fifty-dollar bombs destroy two million dollar vehicles and kill Marines every day.”

Wright uses the real names of soldiers, except for several officers who are clearly incompetent and, in one case, a little nuts. For them, he goes by their nicknames, two of them being Captain America and Encino Man. I kind of appreciated that.

This is a superb book. I’m not sure that I would recommend it above some of the others I’ve read, but it definitely ranks among the best books about our present wars written thus far.

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Book: Disintegration (Eugene Robinson)

The New York Times Book Review had a piece on Eugene Robinson’s new book “Distintegration: the Splintering of Black America.” The review noted how Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post–and an African American–divides the African American population into four groups. Coming from a first-class thinker like Robinson, I found this categorizing very interesting.

1. The Transcendent Elite. These are blacks who are famous or wealthy or highly accomplished, and for whom their skin color just isn’t an issue. A lot of them go by one name: Oprah, Kobe, Labron, Tiger, Jay-Zee, Beyonce, etc. Then there are academics like Henry Louis Gates, and writers like Eugene Robinson, and political figures like Al Sharpton and Colin Powell. They function in a world of wealth and power and, as the review says, “do not belong to the black community.”

2. The Mainstream Middle Class. This group represents the majority of black Americans today. They own homes, work professional jobs, and have a full stake in the American Dream.

3. The Emergents. These are mixed-race families and black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. They obscure our whole image of what it means to be African American. (Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Colin Powell would be members of this group, in addition to being part of the Transcendent Elite.)

4. The Abandoned. This is the large underclass who are concentrated in cities and poor Southern rural areas. Their numbers keep increasing.

Robinson writes, ““There was a time when there were agreed-upon ‘black leaders,’ when there was a clear ‘black agenda,’ when we could talk confidently about ‘the state of black America’—but not anymore.”

Robinson says these four groups have little in common and don’t interact much. They have different mindsets, different aspirations, and different lifestyles. As a result, it’s wrong to talk about a “black leader” or “black agenda,” because the dynamics between the four groups are too complicated. We often view the black population as a single entity, especially in political terms (as we do the Hispanic population), but that’s just not the case.

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Book: “The Blonde,” by Duane Swierczynski

Duane Swierczynski has quite an imagination. His books are unusual, and unpredictable. Such was the case with “The Blonde” (2007).

I previously read two of his other books, “The Wheelman” from 2006 and “Severance Package” from 2008.” “The Blonde” would be in the same league as “Severance Package,” both of them dealing an ordinary guy caught up in the machinations of a super-secret government agency which specializes in assassinations. But whereas “Severance Package” takes place in one building during a span of a couple hours, “The Blonde” ranges from Great Britain to Mexico.

The first line is, “I poisoned your drink.” It’s spoken in a Philadelphia airport bar by The Blonde to Jack Eisley, a journalist passing through. Here’s the deal: she has been injected with nanites (tiny robots) which course through her blood. She must stay within 10 feet of someone at all times. If she doesn’t, the nanites will know, and her head will explode. Slipping poison into Jack’s drink, with the promise that he’ll die in 9 hours unless she gives him the antidote, is her way of keeping someone close.

The nanites trace back to a diabolical scientist named The Operator, who is following her. There’s another US agency involved, and they’ve sent a benevolence killer named Kowalski after her. Then Jack gets infected with the nanites, too–they can be transmitted through saliva, and in a weak moment he kissed the Blonde. So now he has to stay within 10 feet of someone at all times, too.

The book takes us on a wild ride through nighttime Philadelphia. As with Swierczynski’s other books, the plot is unpredictable. You just don’t know where things are headed, though it’s obvious a showdown is in the works.

I was surprised when THE END came after 225 pages, and another 50 pages remained. Those 50 pages were filled with a novella called “The Redhead,” which was a sequel to “The Blonde.” Interesting. “The Redhead” was very good.

I’ve become a big fan of Duane Swierczynski. He has a few other books out there, and a new one coming out in March 2011. I need to track these books down.

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