Archive for December, 2007

Stepping Outside the Wire

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2007 by rkunzig

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Think about it: when is the last time you saw an ordinary Iraqi civilian interviewed by American media and couldn’t spot the at least one shadow of a man holding an M-16?

Seldom, if ever.  Due to the suicidal risks of reporting on Iraqi streets, journalists never go outside “the wire”–the defensive perimiter of a military base–without serious heat.  It’s not easy to interview someone coming home from the grocery store when your entourage includes eight to ten heavily armed men.  Consequently, “Iraq” becomes an idea, just a battlefield.  If people live there at all, we don’t hear from them.

In Michael Massings’ second article for The New York Review of Books on The Iraq War in the media, he cracks a window on our musty understanding of the Iraqi people.  Inside Iraq is a blog sponsored by McClatchy Newspapers, written by the Iraqi men and women working for its Baghdad Bureau.  Forget corporate consolidation, censorship, or any of the other cancers in Western media: these guys write from the dirt up, covering everything from weddings to teachers’ strikes.

The Iraq War is unlike any other in that the information distance has closed to a hair’s width.  In WWII it took months for letters to reach the States; now, soldiers can blog from the battlefield, and the Iraqis can reach us without mediation.  It’s our duty to listen.

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Benazir Bhutto Assassinated

Posted in Uncategorized on December 27, 2007 by rkunzig

bhutto-benazir.jpgBenazir Bhutto, 54, is dead after a gunman opened fire and detonated a suicide bomb at a rally in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.  14 supporters were also killed in the blast.

Bhutto returned from self-imposed exile earlier this year to participate in January’s parliamentary elections. She criticized current PM Musharraf’s seeming inability to deal with Islamic militants in Pakistan, and welcomed American involvement.

This was the second attempt on Bhutto’s life. In October, a Karachi attempt killed over a hundred supporters. Despite cautions from Musharraf’s government, Bhutto continued to hold public demonstrations.

“I decided not to be holed up in my home, a virtual prisoner,” she told CNN. “I went to my ancestral village of Larkana to pray at my father’s grave. Everywhere, the people rallied around me in a frenzy of joy. I feel humbled by their love and trust.”

Bhutto is survived by her husband of twenty years, two daughters and a son.

New York Times

CNN

BBC

Al Jazeera

The Emergency Times

Elysium

Posted in Uncategorized on December 24, 2007 by rkunzig

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        Master Gunnery Sergeant Ken Etherton drives a big, gray dodge truck, one that requires passengers to mount it like an elephant, with a leap and a prayer.  He pulls it into a parking spot in the assembly area for the 5th Marine Regiment. 

                “This is where the busses come to pick us up and drop us off,” he says, his voice made gravelly by years of smoking and barking commands.  “This is where we got onto the bus to go to Iraq.”

                “Wow,” I say.  I’ve been saying it a lot this weekend, mostly in response to stories involving guns and smoke and shouting; other times, to the sweeping mountain climbs and plunges of North San Diego County, where the sunsets look like watercolors and boulders bigger than dump trucks litter the mountainsides.  Now I’m imagining a simple, boring parking lot transformed into a scene of early morning goodbyes, some final, as mothers and sisters and sons and daughters and lovers throw their arms around jarheads in battle cammies, packs loaded for a deployment in hell. 

                Ken hops down from his driver seat.  He’s 5’8” in boots, but built like a bulldog: square shoulders, thick chest, neck made of steel cables, round head shaved clean to the scalp.  His eyes shine a maniacal blue, which is intimidating until he smiles, revealing two registers of braces on his teeth.

                In two and a half years, MGySgt Etherton plans on separating from the Corps and entering the civilian sphere.  Braces are the first step.

                “There it is,” he says, pointing across the assembly area.  “Shit, I’ve never seen this before.”

                A red gate, the kind I imagine sitting outside a minor Vietnamese Pagoda, marks the entrance to 5th Marine’s memorial ground.  Beyond it, the Pendleton mountains loom, like sleeping giants hunched over. 

                I stick my hands deep in my pockets and shuffle along with Ken towards the gate.  He’s here to see the names of his fallen.  I’m here to see one name, one we share, but one I own in a very different way.

                Around the memorial grounds are stone slabs, each with an arrow pointing in the directions of 5th Marine’s battles, along with a distance in miles: Belau Woods, that way.  Okinawa, over there.  Hue, way the fuck that way.  My shoes are standing on concrete poured to honor something I was never a part of, something I’ll never understand. 

                To our left, near the edge of the memorial grounds, stands a hulking granite slab with steel handles on top.  This is a Texas Barrier, a roadblock used by U.S. forces in Iraq.  It can stop an 18-Wheeler doing 50, and now, it bears the names of the 5th Marine dead in Operations Iraqi Freedom I-III. 

                No yellow ribbons here,  nor any flags flapping proudly in the wind.  The front of the memorial bears a simple, jagged outline of Iraq, surrounded by the seals of the 5th Marine regiments that fought there.  On the back, the regiments are listed side by side, the names of their dead unrolled beneath them like a scroll.

                Ken runs his fingers down the names, pointing out guys he knew, how they bought it.  He points out two best friends who joined the Corps together, requested the same unit, and died in the same Humvee. 

                “And then there’s Chad,” I say.

                “Yeah,” Ken says.  “There he is.”

                LCPL RICHARD C CLIFTON             3 FEB 2005.  I run my fingers over the engraving.  I lay my palm flat against it and push.  It can stop a truck, but what can’t it stop?  Time?  Apathy?  Me?  I give it another push.  I want to knock it down.  That would make the papers.  It would be the first time anyone heard of the 5th Marines, or the memorial they have here. 

                “Shit,” I mutter.

                “I know,” Ken says. 

Where I’m Calling From

Posted in The Real World on December 20, 2007 by rkunzig

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For the past week I’ve been crawling around California, living off the generosity of others.  The purpose is ostensibly academic, so I can’t sound like I’m having too much fun, but updates are pending: anything from what I’ve seen here, to Raymond Carver, to the new issue of The Kenyon Review.

In the meantime, here’s Slate.com, saucy as ever, with their campaign correspondent blogging live from the road. 

He stole my reading list.

Posted in Uncategorized on December 6, 2007 by rkunzig

Michael Massing’s article for the New York Review of Books, “Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs” not only stole my thesis punchline, but my reading list as well.  Massing gives Evan Wright and Nathan Fick fair shakes, but seems to be hellbent on the point of civillian casualties; regardless, his head is in the right place.  Most civilians are content shrugging off the costs of war with some nauseating platitude–“War is hell,” or worse, Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” bit.

Wright holds them, holds us, to the fire.  Massing promises subsequent articles exploring the “hidden human costs” incurred since the invasion.  Let’s hope his bile doesn’t get the better of him.

Where Fiction Dares, a New Novel of Modern Americana

Posted in Books, The Real World on December 6, 2007 by rkunzig

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I’m a seafood snob. I don’t order fish unless I’m close enough to the sea to smell the salt, or unless I’m near a reliable freshwater source. I go to school in Ohio.  Suffice to say, I skip the “Cajun-spiced Scrod” at the dining hall.

My holidays, however, are filled with Ahi tuna, seared, sesame-encrusted and settled on a bed of oriental noodles; little neck clams in a white wine sauce; blue crabs, fresh from the Chesapeake; Oysters on the half shell. Going to a Red Lobster on the Delaware shore would be like going to an Olive Garden in Italy.

And yet I’m intrigued by Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, Last Night at the Lobster. According to a NYTBR article, O’Nan was inspired to write the novel by a newspaper article about a couple who went for some deep-frozen seafood at a Red Lobster in Connecticut and found the branch restaurant closed.

“That little article made me think it was this loss of a little world and I just started daydreaming about it,” said O’Nan in the NYTBR article.

The novel follows General Manager Manny DeLeon, as he sees his branch through its last day, from the mid-morning food prep to the emptying of the register. DeLeon tries to maintain some sense of dignity, even though a new Red Lobster is doubtlessly being built in a new strip mall in a new suburb somewhere, anywhere he isn’t. There are, according to NYTBR, “nuanced portraits” of tensions between workers, and a lament on DeLeon’s part for a spent affair with a waitress.

True Americana is something that authors constantly grasp at, and some, like Updike and Ford, achieve it spectacularly. I’m shocked that it took someone this long to recognize the loamy, fertile literary peat in places like Red Lobster, or Applebee’s, or any similar fast-food-plus restaurant. I worked at an Applebee’s in Ocean, New Jersey for a summer, and everything about the restaurant, from its customers to its employees, was beyond ridiculous. One of the servers had inch-long fake nails, purple weave and a shrill voice that summoned us hosts across the restaurant to report on any number of things: why we double-sat her, why we didn’t bus her table, if Alonzo’s (her boyfriend’s) baby’s momma had called. On her twenty-first birthday she got drunk off a single Long Island Iced Tea, fell of her bar stool and walked out the door to pick up her daughter from the babysitter’s.

One of the managers was a stalwart drunk and an indiscriminate leerer. He sulked around the dining room, asking how-is-your-meal-tonight with all the enthusiasm of a U.S. Census taker.

The “smoke area” in the back actually functioned as a make-out den for two of our guy servers.

Places like Applebee’s have eluded literature because they’re caricatures of themselves, completely devoid of sincerity or meaning. Even the most creative Post-Modernism couldn’t ennoble the Ocean branch.

In any event, I’m looking forward to seeing how O’Nan’s DeLeon handles his last day as general manager, seeing his ship to the bottom of Red Lobster’s hypothetical ocean, as the corporate goons offer cheery waves and a middling termination bonus. Meanwhile, all the servers chuck their aprons over their shoulders and walk next door to the Olive Garden.

At least they won’t have to fold napkins for the next day.

Richard Ford, the Coolest Old Guy Ever

Posted in Books on December 3, 2007 by rkunzig

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What a nice time to be Richard Ford.

Having wrapped up his Frank Bascombe trilogy last year with the superb The Lay of the Land, he appears this holiday season as the guru behind The New Granta Book of the American Short Story. This is not, however, your daddy’s Best American ________: the selection of Ford, the choice of now, is crucially important.

In 1982, Granta published its famous “Dirty Realism” issue, in which Ford appeared alongside Raymond Carver and Tobais Wolf, laying claim to a new canon like conquering frat boys, laconically swirling bourbon in lowball glasses.

Ford, venerable by 1992, was invited by Granta to edit The Granta Book of the American Shorty Story. He underscored the 1982 issue with his selection: T.C. Boyle, Vonnegut, Cheever, Carver, Updike, Welty, Tan. The “American” short story was being discussed without Young Goodman Brown, or Bartleby; or, for that matter, diamonds big as the ritz, or white elephants.

The collection was criticized as being too white, too male, too fraternal, especially considering that two of the selected authors–Wolff and Carver–were also in the 1982 issue. Despite criticisms, the collection stood without faltering as evidence of a new force in American literature, one which understood the short story better than anyone since Hemingway; better, perhaps.

Without stretching too far for relevance, I think Granta’s new collection comes at a time when American literature needs such a statement: That, despite all the jargon, scare-slang and intellectual numbness of the Bush years, the American short story endures, and furthermore, triumphs. Ford chooses a new generation of writers to join the old ones: Alexi, Lahiri, Packer.

Of Lahiri, he chooses “A Temporary Matter,” the opener from Interpreter of Maladies. If any short story could possibly say This Is America Today, it’s “A Temporary Matter.” When you pick up The New Granta Book, make sure it’s the first one you read. It speaks to the importance of Ford’s new collection better than I could.

(Here’s a link to an article Ford wrote about the short story as a form.)