Oct 14, 2010

Terry Takes Us to War

How does one prepare a meal designed to showcase a book devoted to the details of modern combat?  If you're Terry, you avoid the partisan temptation of eating MRE's alongside our soldiers and instead you set your meal in the once lush valleys of Afghanistan.  On Tuesday, Terry invited us to dine on Afghan stew and a selection of middle eastern flatbreads (home-cooked by Gail, no less).  We didn't eat on the floor, using only our right hands, but we did appreciate some of the hardship faced by Afghan villagers caught in an unforgiving war between insurgents and occupiers.

Of course, there were a couple among us who had to bring their artifacts of war into Terry's demilitarized zone.  Roy showed up with a selection of bullets of various calibers, and we were duly impressed by the size of the 50 cal. rounds as well as the sniper casings.  Paul, on the other hand, came dressed as a modern-day recon grunt with an appreciation for Coppola's Apocalypse Now.  Wearing an Arab headdress and camo fatigues, and slinging a six-pack of Budweiser, Paul was ready to celebrate his distance from the front lines.

The Book
In War, Sebastian Junger plunges himself and the reader headlong into the war in Afghanistan by repeatedly embedding with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade over a 12-month span in 2007 and 2008.  Marooned on a rocky outpost in the Korengal Valley, the platoon faces (and initiates) multiple attacks with insurgents from Pakistan and elsewhere.  Junger describes the ferocity of combat and digs deeply into the relationships and attitudes of the men involved.  With Junger's story as our backdrop, we found our discussion veering again and again back to Vietnam or, in Larry's case, WWII and the legacy of his father's Japanese-American unit. 

Our reaction to War was unusual among the books we've read:  we found much to criticize in the narrative, but we forgave Junger and applauded his ability to show us the reality of combat without the customary political filter (and filler).  While Stan dismissed the book as a glorification of combat without the necessary context (this after proclaiming that he'd "read every major book about war"--Stan,  I wrote down those very words!), most of us disagreed and felt that the exhilaration of battle described by Junger was accompanied by plenty of reflection on its emotional consequences. 

With a 7.8, Junger's expose of combat in the Korengal Valley ranks high on our list of rated titles. 

Next Up
Dean's choices for next month  featured his perennial favorite, Among the Thugs.  In a deft series of parliamentary maneuvers (and, I'm sure, backroom dealings), Dean engineered a surprising upset and foisted on us Bill Buford's famous study of football hooligans, a la Manchester United.  Next month will tell us if Buford's treatise is the answer to a question no one has ever cared to ask.  (Sorry, Dean, but I couldn't resist one more jibe.)

Oct 11, 2010

Dean's Book Choices for November

Here are the titles proposed for our reading in November:

Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford:  Non-fiction.  
An embedded reporter goes into the underworld of the Manchester United Soccer Club’s fan base and examines the psychology behind crowd violence and mob mentality.  Newsweek Top 50 books to be read in your lifetime.  (Recommended)

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Fiction. (Referenced in Dark Star Safari)
Early 1900 adventure up the Congo River by English explorers. 110 pages, Short, engaging read. One of my favorite books.

The story tells of Charles Marlow, an Englishman who took a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in Africa . Heart of Darkness exposes the myth behind colonization while exploring the three levels of darkness that the protagonist, Marlow, encounters--the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the European's cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.  Although Conrad does not give the name of the river, at the time of writing the Congo Free State, the location of the large and important Congo River, was a private colony of Belgium 's King Leopold II. Marlow is employed to transport ivory downriver. However, his more pressing assignment is to return Kurtz, another ivory trader, to civilization, in a cover-up. Kurtz has a reputation throughout the region.

This symbolic story is a story within a story or frame narrative. It follows Marlow as he recounts from dusk through to late night, to a group of men aboard a ship anchored in the Thames Estuary his Congolese adventure. The passage of time and the darkening sky during the fictitious narrative-within-the-narrative parallel the atmosphere of the story.

Three Cups of Tea (One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.   Non-fiction.

In Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time , Greg Mortenson, and journalist David Oliver Relin, recount the journey that led Mortenson from a failed 1993 attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to successfully establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to promote peace with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote communities in central Asia . Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.

In 1993 Mortenson was descending from his failed attempt to reach the peak of K2 . Exhausted and disoriented, he wandered away from his group into the most desolate reaches of northern Pakistan . Alone, without food, water, or shelter he stumbled into an impoverished Pakistani village where he was nursed back to health.

While recovering he observed the village’s 84 children sitting outdoors, scratching their lessons in the dirt with sticks. The village was so poor that it could not afford the $1-a-day salary to hire a teacher. When he left the village, he promised that he would return to build them a school. From that rash, heartfelt promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time.

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazel (300 pages)

A new book and author that has not received any awards but will if he keeps going (also is a friend of a good friend of mine and met him at an Obama inauguration celebration party; might be able to have him come to the meeting); NY Times book review:

In the opening scene of “Beat the Reaper,” the former mob hit man Dr. Peter Brown pauses in the act of disabling a mugger to give readers a paragraph-length tutorial on the architecture of the human arm. Halfway through the paragraph he throws in an asterisk, and in a footnote points out that the lower leg is a lot like the forearm, only less fragile. That footnote had me worried.   Fortunately, Brown’s creator, the novelist (and doctor) Josh Bazell, is an unusually talented writer. Most of the many digressions in “Beat the Reaper,” his first book, are genuinely entertaining, and the few that don’t work — the footnotes are the most common culprit — annoy primarily because the story is so engaging that you don’t want to be yanked out of it even for the time it takes to glance at the bottom of the page.

Bazell’s protagonist, né Pietro Brnwa, used to be a contract killer for the Mafia, as mentioned. But eight years ago, following a work-­related dispute that involved throwing his best friend out a window, he had a change of heart, entered a witness-protection program and enrolled in medical school. Now he heals people instead of murdering them — although, as the incident with the mugger shows, he hasn’t entirely given up his old ways.

It will not be giving too much away to say that Brown’s old employers eventually do learn where he is. The climax of “Beat the Reaper” finds him locked in a medical freezer, waiting for his arch­nemesis to arrive and finish him off. The plan Brown concocts to save himself is the novel’s most original flourish. It is also completely outrageous, so much so that I had to stop and think about whether I could really suspend my disbelief. In the end I decided that, as with the footnotes, Bazell had more than earned my indulgence as a reader. If there’s a better recommendation for a story than that, I don’t know what it is.