Category Archives: Favorite Stuff I Read

Redeployment by Phil Klay

RedeploymentI saw Phil Klay interviewed about his book of short stories. Interesting, but no thank you.

More war? I’ve had so much war. What could he possibly have to say that I haven’t heard already? I had more than a few reservations about reading it.

But then I kept hearing about him and this book.

He’s a Dartmouth graduate. He’s a Marine Corps veteran. His book was short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. He was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.”

And then the book won the National Book Award for fiction.

So I read it. It’s utterly and quite literally breathtaking. I found myself not breathing for long passages.

I think every American should read it, no matter what you think you know about the war(s), no matter your opinion, no matter if you’d rather not. There’s a disconnect for Americans, I think, that’s different today than for wars past. In World War II, for example, most households had someone fighting, and 100% of the population had to contend with rationing and availability of goods. I’ve heard that less than 0.5% of Americans serve in the military today. How many people do you know personally who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan? How has your personal economy been disrupted? For me, I can’t think of anyone who fought or anything I’ve done differently. Americans were in it together, this time we’re not.

The stories in “Redeployment” are written from the POVs of every kind of person you can imagine deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, in every kind of situation. Ben Fountain’s back cover blurb on my copy sums it up: “If you want to know the real cost of war for those who do the fighting, read Redeployment. These stories say it all, with an eloquence and rare humanity that will simultaneously break your heart and give you reasons to hope.”

This is the section I was going to quote, but here’s Phil Klay reading it …

Here’s something you might not know. Marines don’t have a medical unit of their own. They use Navy Corpsmen. My son was a Navy Corpsman. Every time Klay mentions corpsmen in a story, I think of him.

I think of how I didn’t know Navy Corpsmen followed Marines. I didn’t know how the Navy worked.

I didn’t know anything.

But now I know we were lucky. He stayed on the “blue side,” the Navy side, and he’s home now, a Navy veteran, going to school to continue his medical studies.

Lucky. So very lucky.

boots

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

will graysonI’m a huge fan of John Green so I can’t imagine what took me so long to read this book. But I’m sure glad I did. And now I’m a David Levithan fan too. They have that rare talent to make you laugh and cry at the same time.

But mostly laugh.

“If I were to stand on a scale fully dressed, sopping wet, holding ten-pound dumbbells in each hand and balancing a stack of hardcover books on my head, I’d weigh about 180 pounds, which is approximately equal to the weight of Tiny Cooper’s left tricep. But in this moment, I could beat the holy living shit out of Tiny Cooper. And I would, I swear to God, except I’m too busy trying to disappear.”

“And you know how no one ever listens to [their parents’] advice, because even if it’s true it’s so annoying and condescending that it just makes you want to go, like, develop a meth addiction and have unprotected sex with eighty-seven thousand anonymous partners? Well, I listen to my parents. They know what’s good for me. I’ll listen to anyone, frankly. Almost everyone knows better than I do.”

“And then he hugs me. Imagine being hugged by a sofa. That’s what it feels like.”

“Tiny doesn’t just sing these words — he belts them. It’s like a parade coming out of his mouth. I have no doubt the words travel over Lake Michigan to most of Canada and on to the North Pole. The farmers of Saskatchewan are crying. Santa is turning to Mrs Claus and saying ‘what the fuck is that?’ I am completely mortified, but then Tiny opens his eyes and looks at me with such obvious caring that I have no idea what to do. No one’s tried to give me something like this in ages.”

“And, since they are theater people, they are all talking. All of them. Simultaneously. They do not need to be heard; they only need to be speaking.”

“How have I ended up dating this sprinkled donut of a person?”

Sigh. I heart John Green and David Levithan. They not only make me want to be a better writer, they also make me want to be a better person.

How ’bout you? Are you a fan of John Green and/or David Levithan? Which is your favorite book?

Birdsong — A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks

birdsong I read this for my book club and while I found it hard to read at times — mostly during the in-your-face WWI scenes from the trenches — it did have some excellent passages that grabbed me by the eyeballs and forced me to read them again.

“The pressure of Madame Azaire’s foot against his leg slowly increased until most of her calf rested against him. The simple frisson this touch had earlier given to his charged senses now seemed complicated; the sensation of desire seemed indistinguishable from an impulse toward death.”

Faulks is a master of description, which is probably why I had trouble with the gruesome war scenes.

“An aroma of cress and sorrel was just discernible when the swing doors pushed open to reveal the waiters in their black waistcoats and long white aprons carrying trays of coffee and cognac to the tables at the front and shouting back orders to the bar. At the end farthest from the kitchen was a tall cash desk at which a grey-haired woman was making careful entries in a ledger with a steel-nibbed pen.”

“… she seemed no more really than a pale version of what womanhood could achieve. Stephen viewed all women in this way. He felt sorry for men who were married to creatures who were so obviously inferior; even the men who were happy and proud of the imagined beauty of their wives had, in his eyes, made a desperate compromise. He even pitied the women themselves: their vanity, their looks, their lives were poor things in his eyes, so far short of what could exist.”

In the modern day section, the character had a one-night stand. She was neither happy nor guilt-ridden by it.

“She felt a little tenderness toward him. She wondered what function the episode had served in his life and in his mythology of himself.”

That passage made me close the book and stare into space. I wondered, too, about all the brief encounters — non-sexual, in my case — throughout my life that meant very little to me, but might have been much more important to the other person. And vice versa.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my grown daughter. I’d remembered something  I’d done during her childhood that jumped to the top of the Things That Make Me A Bad Mother list. When I explained and offered my most sincere mea culpa, she laughed and said she didn’t even remember the incident.

My relief, of course, was immediate and overwhelming because I’d just whittled that list down to a more managable 999,999 things.

What about you?  Have you ever wondered what function an episode had served in someone’s life and mythology?

 

(4) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

One of the Harry Potter movies was to be shown to all the kids near the end of term, until one of the fundamentalist missionaries took exception. The “compromise” was that only one class was allowed to watch it, so the author had to make a Sophie’s Choice between her classes. I had just read a review of the movie Jupiter Ascending, about how delightfully bad it was, which made me desperate to watch it. And I could.

There’s a parallel to be drawn here between the scared North Korean Party trying to control the minds of their citizens and these missionaries trying to do the exact same thing.

(3) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

It was at moments like these that I could not help but think that they — my beloved students — were insane. Either they were so terrified that they felt compelled to lie and boast of the greatness of their Leader, or they sincerely believed everything they were telling me. I could not decide which was worse.

While the author was there, they were told all the other colleges had closed except theirs. They were teaching the sons of the elite. All the other kids from the closed colleges would be sent off to work on infrastructure projects, in anticipation of Kim Jun-Un’s ascenscion, she speculated. The missionaries fully funded this particular school, which is why it was tolerated. She was pretending to be a missionary, but she really wasn’t a believer.

I sang along, but I could not help noticing that if you replaced the word ‘Jesus’ with ‘Great Leader,’ the content was not so different from some of the North Korean songs my students chanted several times each day.

(2) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

For the first time, thinking was dangerous to my survival.

I share a birthday with Kim Jong-il. Today, in fact. All the kids in North Korea receive gifts from the Party today. Sometimes my birthday coincided with a day off school, thanks to a President’s birthday, but I always pretended it had something to do with me.

I wonder what a North Korean kid thinks who shares our birthday.

(1) Favorite Thing I Read Today — Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

This is a memoir of a woman who went into North Korea pretending to be a missionary (but was really writing a book about) teaching English to college-age boys. It’s a fascinating glimpse behind that curtain. It’s hard to imagine myself living in such a closed system, but she does an excellent job of making you feel the panic and suffocation.

There were only a handful of times any student veered from the script. During our conversation about Park Jun-ho’s birthday party, one of the boys blurted out that he liked singing rock ‘n roll, and then he turned red, quickly checking to see who might be listening. I had never seen anyone scan the room so fast, and the other students went quiet and looked down at their food. There was no explanation for such an instinctive reaction except for a sort of ingrained fear that I could never fathom…..Was this really conscionable? Awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved. If they were to wake up and realize that the outside world was not crumbling, that it was their country that was in danger of collapse, and that everything they had been taught about the Great Leader was bogus, would that make them happier? How would they live from that point on? Awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world.

 

(6) Favorite Thing I Read Today—The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

This just made me laugh.

In 2004, Willibald Ruch coined the term “gelotophobia” to refer to the fear of being laughed at. There’s no known cure for gelotophobes, but for a start, it’s best to keep them separated from gelotophiles (those who enjoy being laughed at) and katagelasticists (fans of laughing at others).

And here’s what they suggest, after their global research. I couldn’t agree more.

Surround yourself with the people and things that make you laugh. Seek out interesting places and interesting people. Focus on the friends who make you laugh, not the ones who bring you down. Choose as a partner someone with whom you share a sense of humor, someone who helps you see the lighter side of life…. And it may be cliched, but remind yourself that everything is going to be okay. That thing that seems so scary in the moment, so catastrophic and worrisome, is only scary because you’re paying so much attention to it. It’s okay to complain, but add a bit of wit to your grumbling. Figure out a way to make that violation benign.

Amen.

And pick up this book. There’s a fascinating section about the Mohammad cartoonists. They were writing about the events from 2005-ish, but as the Paris bombings were fresh in my mind, it took on added significance.

(5) Favorite Thing I Read Today—The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

The authors set about crafting the world’s funniest joke, using all the tools they’ve learned along the way.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls emergency services. He gasps, “My firend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s makes sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a gunshot. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”

Not very funny, eh?

In hindsight, the joke’s blandness makes sense. The world’s funniest-rated joke isn’t going to be the zinger that the most people find hilarious, it’s going to be the zinger that the least number of people find offensive…. “It’s the color beige in joke form.”

(4) Favorite Thing I Read Today—The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

They’re still in Japan …

The country is so homogeneous, so unified in its history and culture, that most zingers don’t need set-ups at all. There’s no need for explanation or detailed backstories. Folks get right to the punch line. One common joke, about an Olympic gymnast whose leotard was too high, has apparently become so familiar that even the punch line isn’t necessary. All you have to do is gesture to your upper thigh.

I suppose we have a little bit of that, like when someone tells a story about some stupid incident. We might shorthand it and say, “Was this person blond?” Or perhaps quote a movie line that sums up a more detailed response. But my mother and my kids, for example, rarely see the same movies.

I can’t think of any other way a joke might work with all swaths of Americans. Can you?