Thursday, July 3, 2008

New home for blog posts

My partner Jenn has created a wonderful new 21st century version of my website, www.geoffwisner.com. The site now includes my blog, so please go there to see new posts.

A Basket of Leaves is now available!

I mentioned it already in passing, but I don’t mind saying it again. My first book, A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, is now available for sale from booksellers including Amazon, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Powell's, Alibris, and AbeBooks. Journey through the 54 countries of Africa through novels, memoirs, travel books, and even some poetry.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Heinemann's African Writers Series

Around the time I finished writing A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa (now available at Amazon, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Powell's, Alibris, AbeBooks, and elsewhere!) I was saddened to read about the demise of Heinemann's African Writers Series, which began with Things Fall Apart and went on to publish many important African writers. I reviewed more Heinemann titles in my own book than those of any other publisher, including Things Fall Apart, Efuru, When Rain Clouds Gather, Mission to Kala, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Voices Made Night, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, Mayombe, Season of Migration to the North, A Cowrie of Hope, The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez, A Grain of Wheat, and The Gunny Sack. Now I've learned from Laila Lalami's blog that the African Writers Series is back! Good news for fans of diversity in literature.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Maybe it’s not advisable to read about the death of a father when your own father has just died. But Alison Bechdel writes about her father with such understanding — and her father was so different from mine — that reading it was a bittersweet but not too painful experience. Fun Home is a graphic memoir by the author of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. I first discovered Dykes to Watch Out For in the Boston Phoenix, and found that you don’t have to be gay to appreciate good writing and sharp humor. When Jenn and I were running our bookstore in Fort Greene, we featured the Dykes collections in our small but carefully selected gay and lesbian section. (Some customers were tickled to discover that Jenn, like the bookstore owner in Dykes, is a black woman with dreads — though the fictional owner is bigger and grumpier than Jenn.) I knew from Dykes to Watch Out For that Alison Bechdel was smart, but I didn’t realize how literary she is until I read Fun Home. She comes from a literary family, to be sure: In Fun Home we see her father reading Proust and her mother acting in plays based on Henry James and reading Margaret Drabble (a favorite of mine) for fun. Bechdel herself begins writing a diary at the age of ten, and excerpts from that diary appear throughout Fun Home. Fun Home is primarily about Bechdel and her father Bruce. Her mother is distinctly a secondary character, and even the names and number of her brothers are left pretty vague. (A boy in one panel is labeled “one of my brothers.”) But we see what seems like every flagstone, silk flower, and square of gold leaf in Bruce’s painstaking restoration of the family’s Gothic Revival house, and Bechdel is a tireless investigator of her parents’ troubled marriage and her father’s hidden life. Bruce Bechdel was struck and killed by a Sunbeam Bread truck while crossing the highway near another house that he was restoring. Bechdel returns again and again to this scene. She is convinced that her father killed himself (“There’s no mystery!” she imagines telling someone at the funeral. “He killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second.”) But readers may have more doubts. How likely is it that someone would kill himself in the middle of a working day, without a note or other warning, by jumping backward into the path of a truck? But whatever happened that day, Fun Home is an subtle, moving memoir of an odd, gifted, troubled family.

Whitman's Brooklyn

Greg Trupiano of The Whitman Project, who led the Walt Whitman tour I wrote about a while ago, has announced the launch of the new website Whitman's Brooklyn. This is from Russell Granger, who created the site:
Whitman's Brooklyn is now live online -- please share the good news! Come enjoy this highly-immersive experience of Brooklyn's pictorial heritage. Many of the images we've uncovered have never been published online before, and most have never been seen in such a large, vivid format. Color, too! All the images can be viewed at maximum browser size, and some-- including bird's eye views and maps--can be explored using a powerful zoom-and-pan tool. The site currently contains only a portion of what we have collected and prepared. Many more remarkable images and stories will be posted over the coming weeks. The site has been built in a format to enable visitors to participate by leaving comments, questions, ideas, and stories. Join in!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Exception by Christian Jungersen

The Exception is another book I was prompted to read by seeing the author at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. Christian Jungersen’s novel is set in Denmark, and the main characters are a small group of women who work at an institution that researches genocide. An insidious form of office politics gradually poisons the relations between these women, and although Jungersen doesn’t try to equate office politics with genocide, the mechanisms of human cruelty are thoughtfully and troublingly explored. In college and for a few years afterward, I read a lot about the Holocaust as a kind of research project into the nature of evil. I learned a lot, especially from Raul Hilberg, about the mechanisms of genocide, but not much about the psychology. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” didn’t seem to go nearly far enough. It seems that many of the books I was looking for at the time didn’t exist yet, so one of the most intriguing parts of The Exception for me was a series of articles written by Iben, one of the characters, on “The Psychology of Evil.” These are not only intelligent in themselves, but they footnote several (real) books that explore the problem of evil: Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub Understanding Genocide ed. Leonard S. Newman and Ralph Erber

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I read a lot of science fiction when I was in junior high and high school — Bradbury, Asimov, Harlan Ellison — but for a long time afterward I left it alone. In recent years, though, Jenn has gently reintroduced me to writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, and now Ted Chiang. Chiang is unnervingly good, and seems to have been that way from the start. “Tower of Babylon,” his first published story, won the Nebula Award, and his subsequent stories have won a slew of other major awards. Though Stories of Your Life and Others is Chiang’s only full-length book, Chiang doesn’t seem to have achieved the fame and fortune he deserves. Chiang’s stories are generally long, and are often categorized as novellas. They’re long because he doesn’t simply play with an interesting premise: He examines it from all angles, including its emotional impact on his characters. The first Ted Chiang story I read, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” takes the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity as literally as possible. People not only go to hell, but can be actually be seen there, under the earth. The visitations of angels are as devastating as tornadoes, and they attract angel-chasers who are just as obsessed and reckless as tornado-chasers. Other stories, like “Tower of Babylon,” use a similar strategy, asking “what if this were literally true?” and following out the implications. But it was the title (or almost-title) story of this collection, “Story of Your Life,” that impressed me the most. One strand of the story describes how the narrator, an accomplished linguist, finds a way to communicate with aliens who resemble barrels with tentacles, and in so doing begins to perceive time in a different way. The other strand presents moments from her daughter’s short life, which the scientist mother now perceives as simultaneous. It’s a moving story, with characters every bit as believable as those in “literary fiction.” It seems significant that although the appearance of the aliens made me think of the Antarctic creatures in H.P. Lovecraft, and the mother’s time perception reminded me of Slaughterhouse-Five, the grip of the story was strong enough that those connections didn’t occur to me until I’d finished it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

“Only God will remove me!”

My earlier hopeful post about developments in Zimbabwe was obviously off target. Sunday’s Times carried a heartbreaking story about the horrific violence being used against opponents of President Mugabe as a runoff election approaches. Today’s paper reports that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has decided that the level of violence is too high to justify taking part in the election. Meanwhile Mugabe declares, “Only God will remove me!” and South Africa has declined to put any serious pressure on Mugabe’s government.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

You’re missing

Please excuse the silence. I’m in a state of shock right now. My youngest brother John passed away earlier this month, less than three weeks after our father’s death from cancer. He died of a heart attack in his sleep. John had high blood pressure and a heart condition called bundle branch block, though I had never thought that this was life-threatening. He was under severe stress in recent months, both because our father was ill and because he had lost his job at the social services agency where he worked for almost twenty years. He told me he sometimes went three days in a row without sleeping. In his last email to me, he said that he was ready to concentrate on finding a new job but that it was scary because he’d never really had to do it before. My partner Jenn has created a website for John, which includes a slide show set to the song “You’re Missing” by Bruce Springsteen (one of my brother’s favorite musicians). Well over 75 people came to a memorial gathering for John on June 14, though it was put together at short notice. John had many friends, and all of us will miss him.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Guinea pigs for dinner

In the Times recently, a reporter described dining on roast guinea pig at an Ecuadorean restaurant in Queens. Guinea pigs are eaten, and apparently enjoyed, in the countries of the Andes, and a painting in the cathedral in Cuzco, Peru, pictures Jesus dining on guinea pig with his disciples. The reporter’s description was less than enthusiastic:
There was very little meat, and it tasted somewhat similar to the dark meat of chicken, gamey like duck or rabbit. The meat was fatty and stringy at times. I had to pick it off the little ribs, and the skin was crunchy, with parts of it thicker with a chewy, almost rubbery, texture.
I was reminded of The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian, the 16th volume in the Aubrey-Maturin series, in which Dr. Maturin sets out on a perilous mission through the Peruvian Andes. The account of guinea pig is even less appealing there:
Three times that day, and at ever-increasing heights, they had left their mules in the hope of a partridge or a guanaco, and three times they had caught up with the llamas not indeed empty-handed, since Stephen carried a beetle or a low-growing plant for the pack of the animal that carried their collections, but without any sort of game, which meant that their supper would be fried guinea-pig and dried potatoes once more; and each time Eduardo had said that this was a strange, unaccountable year, with weather that made no sense and with animals abandoning customs and territories that had remained unchanged since before the days of Pachacutic Inca.
A few pages later, Maturin suggests shooting a vicuña for food, observing to his companion, “You yourself said that you were tired of fried guinea-pig and ham.” Eduardo quietly confirms this in a little while, when Maturin says he would like to dissect an unusual bird they have just bagged.
‘That would mean fried guinea-pig again,’ observed Eduardo.
The two eventually arrive at a Catholic mission, but the priests are nonplussed at having little to offer their guests. “Well,” says one at last, “there may be a few guinea-pigs left in the scriptorium.” One would think that O’Brian has exhausted the subject, yet his final unfinished novel (published under the title 21) features “a formal dinner given by an Argentine grandee, which includes lobster in a bitter chocolate sauce and 70 freshly harvested guinea pigs.”

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The World of Donald Evans

My copy of The World of Donald Evans is one of my most cherished books. In addition to being a beautifully produced record of a short but luminous art career, it was also surprisingly hard to get. Used copies were not especially expensive when I looked for them online, but the first two or three times I ordered one, I was told the book wasn’t available after all. Maybe the book dealers decided they couldn’t part with them after all. Donald Evans was an American artist who lived in the Netherlands and died in a fire when he was in his early thirties. His specialty was the creation of postage stamps from imaginary countries, which he rendered in watercolors and often marked with custom-designed cancellations. Bruce Chatwin wrote a tribute to Evans that appears in the collection What Am I Doing Here:
His colour sense was as faultless as his draughtsmanship. A set of his stamps sits on a page like butterflies in a case. And, needless to say, he loved butterflies and came up with a country for them — Rups, which is the Dutch for ‘caterpillar’. He himself said he had no originality, and that he preferred to work from photographs or given images: yet one flat panorama of Achterdijk has the ‘breathed-on’ quality of a sepia-wash landscape by Rembrandt. His art was so disciplined that it was patient of receiving anything that happened to attract him — zeppelins, barnyard fowls, penguins, pasta, a passion for mushroom hunting, Sung ceramics, shells, dominoes; drinks at the Bar Centrum; windmills that were ‘abstract’ portraits of friends; the vegetable market at Cadaques, or a recipe for pesto from Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cooking: his way of recording the pleasures of food and drink reminds me, somehow, of Hemingway.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Grammatical humor

One of the pleasures of rereading Patrick O’Brian is that the Aubrey-Maturin novels become funnier as you become attuned to O’Brian’s understated sense of humor. Much of the humor is in the dialogue (pay particular attention to the pauses), but by no means all. This passage (p. 195 of Master and Commander) made me wonder if O’Brian was lectured as a child about ending a sentence with a preposition. Captain Aubrey is speaking to some midshipmen who have been doing poorly on their navigation homework:

‘You can write decently, I suppose? Otherwise you must go to school to the clerk.’ They hoped so, sir, they were sure; they should do their best. But he did not seem convinced and desired them to sit down on that locker, take those pens and these sheets of paper, to pass him yonder book, which would answer admirably for them to be read to out of from.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Racial understanding in Oregon

The Times has reported on the Restorative Listening Project in Portland, Oregon, which aims to increase understanding between the races on gentrification and other divisive issues. Looks like it's working already:

Last month, Joan Laufer, who is white and who moved into a house in Northeast in 2006, stood up to express gratitude to a black minister for describing how hard it was for blacks to get home improvement loans and for addressing some sensitive stereotypes.

“I’ve learned two things about all you guys already — why the houses aren’t fixed up and why you guys are riding around in all these big flashy cars,” Ms. Laufer, 55, a nurse practitioner, said.

At one point, she also asked blacks what she should call them — blacks or African-Americans.

An older black woman in the front replied, “People.”

Friday, May 30, 2008

Edward Wisner's fountain

Many thanks to the reader in New Orleans who noticed my post on Edward Wisner and commented on it. He sent this photo later, taken during a scavenger hunt, and added, "After reviewing the photo again, I realized that it must be the fountain that you mention in the article. It's located in West End Park near where the Southern Yacht Club was located (the yacht club was destroyed by fire in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). In fact, that whole area was heavily damaged by the storm surge. "
I enjoy the wetland motif of lily pads and cattails that was used to create this memorial fountain. Maybe someday I can see it in person.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What should I pay for that condo?

Renting isn’t necessarily for dummies, according to a new article in the Times. As the article says (apologies for those who can’t access it):

One of the big lies of the real estate business is the idea that renting a home is tantamount to throwing money away. It’s a useful fiction for real estate agents, because they make vastly bigger commissions on house sales than rentals. But the comparison isn’t nearly so straightforward for the rest of us. Renting involves one obvious, recurring cost that can never be recouped: the monthly rent check. Buying, on the other hand, involves multiple expenses, some of which aren’t so obvious. On top of closing costs, there are repairs, property taxes, mortgage principal and mortgage interest. (The mortgage-interest tax deduction reduces this last cost but doesn’t eliminate it.) When you own, you also lose the ability to invest your down payment elsewhere, like the stock market.
So where’s the break-even point? At what point does it become more expensive to rent than to buy? The article says it’s roughly the point where a property costs more than 20 times the annual rent for the same property. So if your apartment rents for $2,000 a month, you shouldn’t pay more than $480,000 to buy it. There are lots of variables to consider, of course, and the Times provides this nifty online calculator to play with them.

Amazingly Very Clean!

That's what the poster says at my local dry cleaner: "Platinum Shirt Service, Amazingly Very Clean!"

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iron Man

An email from a friend contains what I thought was an insightful review of Iron Man. Here it is:

I enjoyed IRON MAN. Well, actually, I didn't enjoy Iron Man the hero -- or Iron Man the computer-generated special effect -- or even IRON MAN the movie as a whole -- but I loved watching Robert Downey Jr as the solipsistic Tony Stark, hellbent on reinventing himself as Iron Man: it's a funny and nuanced bit of business, beautifully handled by a brilliant comic actor. The best scenes are those in which Tony is alone in the garage-cum-laboratory -- alone except for JARVIS (and that sophisticated fire extinguisher that is seemingly made to do only one thing -- extinguish fires -- and just won't leave the stage until it's had the chance to fulfill its destiny as a fire extinguisher). My favorite line is Tonys's remark after being borne aloft -- magically -- by boots of his own design, skittering around the room, and then coming in for a wobbly two-point landing: "OK, I can fly." He's just performed a technological miracle, but his mind is racing ahead to the next challenge, the next step in becoming Iron Man. He's a genius who takes no pleasure in his genius, he's too busy looking ahead to the next thing. This is all conveyed to the audience in a line or two and in an attitude, with a brilliant economy and flair. (I also liked the funny-tender scene in which Pepper Potts helps Tony replace the little "arc-reactor cup thing" that keeps his heart beating. I liked it because it was intimate in a yucky way, yucky in an intimate way, and the partly improvised dialogue both funny and sexy, in the old-fashioned, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, screwball comedy style. And because it was something fun and unexpected that arose out of the material -- and, in the end, proved anything but gratuitous to the storyline.) I read online that the sequel is scheduled for April 2010; I hope that now that all the throat-clearing exposition has been accomplished the writers can craft a really good movie out the world they've created, the way they did for SPIDER-MAN 2 (the Dr. Octopus chapter, which was the best of the lot, don't you think?). They just can't forget that what is really compelling about Iron Man is the actor in the suit, not the suit itself, or the physical punishment it can take . . .

Specimen Days by Walt Whitman

Last month I went on a Walt Whitman walking tour that began in Fort Greene Park and proceeded to 99 Ryerson Street, the only surviving building of the dozen or so where Whitman lived at various times in Brooklyn. (The frame building, wedged into a row of similar houses, is one story higher now than when it was built, and is covered in yellow siding.) Greg Trupiano, who led the tour, spoke highly of Whitman’s memoir Specimen Days, so I read it later in my Library of America Whitman, along with the original edition of Leaves of Grass. Specimen Days is a hodgepodge, but with interesting bits. It begins with reminiscences of growing up on Long Island, continues with an account of the wounded soldiers Whitman visited during the Civil War (some of the best material in the book), moves on to nature writing from then-bucolic Camden, New Jersey (maddening in its vague effusiveness if you compare it to the sharp-eyed observations of Thoreau), then concludes with thoughts on old age and some literary gossip, including visits to Emerson and Longfellow toward the end of their lives. Whitman had a nodding acquaintance with President Lincoln, and a brief item called “No Good Portrait of Lincoln” reflects on his face.
Probably the reader has seen physiognomies (often old farmers, sea-captains, and such) that, behind their homeliness, or even ugliness, held superior points so subtle, yet so palpable, making the real life of their faces almost as impossible to depict as a wild perfume or fruit-taste, or a passionate tone of the living voice — and such was Lincoln’s face, the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression. Of technical beauty it had nothing — but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination. The current portraits are all failures — most of them caricatures.
On the same page is a description of the wasted prisoners just released from Andersonville and other Confederate POW camps. “The dead there are not to be pitied as much as some of the living that come from there — if they can be call’d living — many of them are mentally imbecile, and will never recuperate.”

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman

Francisco Goldman is another author whom I checked out after seeing him at PEN. The Art of Political Murder is a nonfiction account of the murder of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala City in 1998. Goldman reported the case on spec for The New Yorker, returning to Guatemala repeatedly over a number of years. Gerardi was beaten to death on the grounds of the parish house of the church of San Sebastian (which was Goldman’s own church as a child). The killing came shortly after Gerardi released a massive report holding the former military regime responsible for the vast majority of the deaths of 200,000 Guatemalans in the country’s civil war. The motive and the culprits might seem obvious, but complications quickly arose. Why should the bishop be killed after the report appeared and not before? Wouldn’t military killers have done the job more cleanly? And what about the strange behavior of Father Mario? Goldman tells a complicated story in clean journalistic prose, though fairly close attention is needed to keep the movements and identities of the characters straight. (Helpful maps and lists are provided.) Though the killing and disappearance of witnesses are a recurring theme, Goldman doesn’t dwell much on the danger he is running himself. One exception comes when he receives a frightening phone call from the powerful Colonel Lima, one of the main suspects in the killing. The call is even more unsettling because static makes most of it undecipherable.
Knowing that I’d put myself on Colonel Lima’s radar make me uneasy, although I didn’t really think that anything was going to happen to me, an American citizen.... But when I came home at night I was frightened by the darkness of my room at the Spring, whose only window opened onto a small patio, and I worried about the flimsy lock on the door. Stuck in traffic on gray afternoons in late September, I’d feel overwhelmed by a very particular sadness, something that seemed to come from the unconscious memory of the street itself, of all the people who were driving or just walking to or from someplace — an office, a church, the movies, school — and must have had a last moment of panic or grief or resignation, realizing that there was no escape and that they would never get home.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The More You Watch, The Less You Know by Danny Schechter

I met Danny Schechter a while ago, at a screening of his funny and frightening movie In Debt We Trust that was sponsored by the community development organization NEDAP. It reminded me that I’d been meaning for a long time to read his book The More You Watch, The Less You Know, which was published in 1997. The More You Watch is a memoir of Schechter’s life as a media maverick, with a strong emphasis — especially interesting to me — of his involvement in covering the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It also contains a sharp analysis of how the news media, especially TV news, are failing the public. There’s a reason, for instance, why it’s taken so long for people to realize that if they’re broke and unemployed it’s not because of their personal failings.

A Harvard study has equated more TV watching with a drop in civic participation. One reason: Our powerful cultural industries shape the narratives by which ordinary Americans interpret their lives and outlooks. When those narratives never emphasize how ordinary people can change things, cynicism becomes rife in the public at large... News programming reinforces this. A friend of mine reports for a Boston TV station that practices “user friendly news.” She told me, “In almost every newscast we treat viewers as consumers, not citizens. For example, we give people tips on what to do if you have a cold, but no information about the crisis in health care. All problems are privatized and individualized; people are encouraged to think and act only for themselves or their family, not as members of a group, a class, or something called society.”
Schechter’s data on the media is necessarily dated, but it’s illuminating to see just how bad things had become even before Bush’s first stolen election and the latest round of media consolidation. I can’t check this (the book has no index) but I believe that Fox News (which played such an important part in calling the 2000 election for Bush) is barely mentioned, and neither is the Internet. I would love to see Schechter separate his media critique from his memoir, update the facts, and publish a shorter, sharper book on how the media continue to make us dumber.

The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret

I hadn’t heard of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret until I attended the session on short stories at this year’s PEN World Voices festival. He impressed me with his energy and his strong opinions on the state of the short story (including a wicked parody of the sort of New Yorker story in which nothing much happens but the sentences are beautiful). I picked up The Nimrod Flipout mostly because of a dinner-table rave from Bud Parr (though The Girl on the Fridge apparently doesn’t measure up to that one). As I’d heard, Keret’s stories are very short. (“Dirt,” for instance, is barely a page long.) Many of them work like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in that one strange thing happens and the routines of life adjust to that thing. Unlike Kafka, though, Keret is determinedly mundane in tone. (It’s doubtful that Kafka would ever write a story called “The Tits on an Eighteen-Year-Old.”) Most of his stories seem to be narrated by the same guy: a young Israeli, not too ambitious, who drinks and smokes quite a bit and whose emotional life is a bit flattened, perhaps by past trauma. But within these limitations, the stories manage to be funny, unsettling, and moving. Despite what Keret said at PEN about his lack of interest in craft, some of the stories are neatly structured. “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage)” is an extended Jewish joke, and “Your Man” (one of my favorites) has the fatedness of Poe or the Brothers Grimm. But there are others, like “My Girlfriend’s Naked,” that simply offer something strange and the narrator’s ruminations over it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My father, William B. Wisner

I’m sure one reason I’ve been preoccupied with family history recently is that my father has been seriously ill for the last few months. He passed away early on the morning of May 15, and my brothers and I were at his funeral mass on the 17th, where I spoke a few words. An obituary appeared in the local papers, which mentioned the Hospice of St. Lawrence Valley, which helped look after him. The hospice workers provided much-needed support for Pop’s wife Marcia, kept Pop’s spirits up, and enabled him to stay at home and out of the hospital (which he hated). Donations would be put to good use.

Baby hawks

This discouraging story appeared in the Times on May 13. The excerpts below are for those who can’t read it online. I suppose it’s remarkable that hawks try to raise families in Manhattan at all.

Three nestlings born in recent weeks to red-tailed hawks in the south end of Riverside Park in Manhattan are believed to have died, bird experts said on Monday. The body of only one young hawk — or eyas — has been recovered so far. The city’s avid bird-watchers have confirmed that the other two babies are not in their West Side nest and are feared dead as well.... “On Sunday morning I went out at 7 a.m.,” Dr. [Leslie] Day said in a phone interview on Monday. “Standing at the nest, I could see there were no babies. They had become so large, standing at the rim, strengthening their wings.” ... While the cause of death awaits a toxicology analysis, Dr. Day suspected that the parents may have fed the nestlings pigeons or rats that contained lethal levels of poison — a common cause of death for the delicate hawks.
In his website palemale.com, where the photo above appears, photographer Lincoln Karim later wrote, "UC Davis lab results are in for the 1st retrieved baby hawk from Riverside Park: Blood/organ samples contained lethal levels of two anti-coagulant rodenticides.... All poisoning of animals must stop now! Starting with Riverside Park and Central Park."

Edward Wisner, “Father of Reclamation”

Edward Wisner (1861-1915) is described in The Wisners in America as the “father of reclamation” due to his success in draining swampland in Louisiana.

For a number of years Edward Wisner was an editor and banker at Athens, Mich. Because of ill health he was compelled to give up those activities. So he travelled extensively in the South, locating finally in North Louisiana, where for many years he carried on land colonization and lumber selling. He also edited a newspaper at Monroe, La. In 1900 he moved to New Orleans, and he and his associates acquired more than a million acres of swamp lands in the delta of the Mississippi, largely lands west of that city.
The book quotes from “his close friend and associate, Judge R.E. Milling,” who spoke in 1917 at the unveiling of a fountain in honor of Edward Wisner:
“About twenty years ago a passenger on one of the Southern Pacific trains was standing on the platform of the rear car observing the country, and after having passed through miles of the low-lying prairie of St. Charles and Lefourche Parishes, inquired of someone standing near why such lands were not in cultivation. The person addressed happened to be a native — yes, not only a native, but one of that knowing kind who especially knew all about those lands, and he proceeded to enlighten the stranger to the effect that what appeared to be land was not real, but what was known as trembling prairie, formed by decayed vegetable matter, upon lakes that existed in the country, that what he saw was a mere coating and underneath was water of great depth. The passenger then asked, If such was the case, how did the railroad bed stand. He was answered that the railroad company had hauled in vast quantities of dirt and stone and built the road-bed. He remarked: ‘That is possible, but, if your statement is correct, what holds up the telephone poles? Why don’t they sink down into the great lake of which you speak?’ “Such was the introduction of Edward Wisner to the low-lying marsh or prairie lands of Southwest Louisiana. He did not accept the statement made by the native as such statements had been accepted by hundreds of other persons making such inquiries, but he returned and investigated, and upon investigation he found that what was presumed to be water underneath was blue clay which was rendered almost liquid by the amount of water it contained. Making this discovery, he at once saw the possibilities of the development of these lands.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Disappearing Bats

First frogs, then bees, and now bats... Over the last few months there have been reports of a massive die-off of bats in the Northeast. As the article at Bat Conservation International puts it, “Hibernating bats are dying by the tens of thousands in the northeastern United States, and a growing circle of top scientists is anxiously trying to figure out why. The mystery affliction, reported in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, is dubbed ‘white-nose syndrome’ because many affected bats had visible halos of white fungus around their faces.” I’ve always been fond of bats. On summer evenings at the family camp on Skaneateles Lake, when I was growing up, I would wait for dusk and watch them dart around for insects. In Arizona I once visited a wildlife refuge where hummingbirds visited feeders filled with sugar water during the day, and bats came to the same feeders at night. (This photo of an Arizona nectar bat is courtesy of Charles W. Melton.) And in Kathmandu I once saw giant fruit bats hanging from tree branches all day like big leather packages, then unfurling themselves at dusk and flying low over the city, flapping their wings in slow beats like albatrosses: an eerie and beautiful sight.

Reverend Henry Wisner and the Wolves

The page and a half devoted to the Reverend Henry Wisner (1807-1878) in The Wisners in America doesn’t promise much excitement at first. Wisner was born in Camillus, New York, to a family “all noted for their sturdy, moral and religious integrity.” At the age of twelve, Wisner “became the subject of divine grace” and began teaching school. “His great modesty, which was almost a mental disease, long kept him in the background, but in 1830, unsolicited on his part, he received his first license as an exhorter, and the following year his license as a preacher. The same year he was married to Miss Byancy House, a woman worthy to be his companion.” No examples are given of Rev. Wisner’s extraordinary modesty. Two paragraphs later, his eulogy is being read, and he is praised as “a man with an unsullied reputation.” Then comes the good part.

About the same time (November 9, 1878) Mr. DePew wrote a long article in the Yates County Chronicle (New York), giving a thrilling account of how Rev. Henry Wisner spent a night in a tree in the mountains of Pennsylvania in 1835, being trapped by pack of wolves after he had lost the trail in crossing the mountains, one night in his itinerary. To console himself and to pass away the time, while suffering all sorts of discomforts in the tree, he preached a long sermon on that occasion taking as his text, “There shall be no night there.” To prevent freezing, for it was the 12th of November and a sleet storm was raging, he grabbed the branches over his head and lifted himself up as far as he could and then he would suddenly drop to the branch on which his feet rested, a gymnastic exercise, or a species of dance, the music of which came out of the thick walls of darkness in the nature of blood-curdling yells of the blood-thirsty wolves.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

George W. Wisner, Abolitionist Reporter

On my way to work, at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, I pass by the clock of the old New York Sun paper, turned pistachio green with verdigris and bearing the slogan “It shines for all.” It was a treat to discover recently that my ancestor George W. Wisner was not only a reporter for the Sun, beginning when it was founded in 1833, but was a boisterous abolitionist. The Wisners in America quotes from a serial article called “The Story of the Sun,” which appeared in Munsey’s Magazine beginning in May 1917:

When George W. Wisner, a young printer who was out of work, applied to the Sun for a job, Benjamin Day told him that he would give him four dollars a week if he would get up early every day and attend the police court, which held its sessions from 4 A.M. on. The people of the city were quite as human then as they are today. Unregenerate mortals got drunk and fought in the streets. Others stole shoes. The worst of all beat their wives. Wisner was to be the Balzac of the daybreak court in a year when Balzac himself was writing his “Droll Stories.” ... The big story on the first page of the fourth issue of the Sun was a conversation between Envy and Candor in regard to the beauties of a Miss H., perhaps a fictitious person. But on the second page, at the head of the editorial column, was a real editorial article approving the course of the British government in freeing the slaves in the West Indies: “We supposed that the eyes of men were but half open to this case. We imagined that the slave would have to toil on for years and purchase what in justice was already his own. We did not once dream that light had so far progressed as to prepare the British nation for the colossal stride in justice and humanity and benevolence which they are about to make. The abolition of West Indian slavery will form a brilliant era in the annals of the world. It will circle with a halo of imperishable glory the brows of the transcendent spirits who wield the present destinies of the British Empire. “Would to heaven that the honor of leading the way in this Godlike enterprise had been reserved to our own country! But as the opportunity for this passed, we trust we shall at least avoid the everlasting disgrace of long refusing to imitate so bright and glorious an example.” Thus the Sun came out for the freedom of the slave twenty-eight years before that freedom was to be accomplished, in the United States, through war. The Sun was the Sun of Day, but the hand was the hand of Wisner. That young man was an Abolitionist before the word was coined. “Wisner was a pretty smart young fellow,” said Mr. Day nearly fifty years afterward, “but he and I never agreed. I was rather Democratic in my notions. Wisner, whenever he got a chance, was always sticking in his damned little Abolitionist articles.”... Wisner was stretching the police-court pieces out to nearly two columns. Now and then, perhaps when Mr. Day was away fishing, the reporter would slip in an Abolition paragraph or a gloomy poem on the horrors of slavery. But he was so valuable that, while his chief did not raise his salary of four dollars a week, he offered him half the paper, the same to be paid for out of the profits.... The influence of partner Wisner, the Abolitionist, was evident in many pages of the Sun. On June 23, 1834, it printed a piece about Martin Palmer, who was “pelted down with stones in Wall Street on suspicious of being a runaway slave,” and paid its respects to Boudinot, a Southerner in New York who was reputed to be a tracker of runaways. It was he who had set the crowd after the black: “The man who will do this will do anything; he would dance on his mother’s grave; he would invade the sacred precincts of the tomb and rob a corpse of its winding-sheet; he has no soul. It is said that this useless fellow is about to commence a suit against us for libel. Try it, Mr. Boudinot!”
Continuing the story, The Wisners in America says, “When Wisner’s health became poor, in the summer of 1835, he expressed a desire to get away from New York. His partner, Day, paid him $5,000 for his interest in the paper — a large sum for those days. Wisner then went West and settled at Pontiac, Mich. There his health improved and he became a noted lawyer and was a member of the Michigan Legislature. “Reference to the charts will show that George W. Wisner was a brother of Moses Wisner, the Governor of Michigan from 1858 to 1860.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s hard to keep up with the literary talent coming out of Nigeria these days. Among the 99 books from 54 African countries that I cover in my own book, A Basket of Leaves, Nigeria is represented by nine books, more than any other country: · Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe · The Slave Girl by Buchi Emecheta · The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola · Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka · Efuru by Flora Nwapa · Jagua Nana by Cyprian Ekwensi · Stars of the New Curfew by Ben Okri · GraceLand by Chris Abani · Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila I had read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda (who seems to be known by her first name) before I finished my book, but reluctantly decided not to include it. It was a fine domestic drama, but didn’t seem to shed much light on the life and culture of Nigeria. The same can’t be said of Half of a Yellow Sun, which traces the impact of the Biafran war on twin sisters and their families. This is a quietly devastating story, told in assured, flowing prose that rarely draws attention to itself. It ends not with a bang, but with a haunting absence.

Henry Wisner and the Declaration of Independence

My ancestor Henry Wisner is described in The Wisners in America as the only New Yorker to have voted for the Declaration of Independence. The following is from Franklin Burdge’s 1878 essay on Henry Wisner, quoted in the book. I enjoy the fact that a Tory journalist found “old Wisner” so irritating.
Henry Wisner was a tall man, vigorous and erect even in old age. Like his neighbors, he had little learning, but had natural abilities and pleasing address, and was appointed justice of the peace. He married, probably about 1740, Sarah Norton, of Queen’s county, and received with her a farm there. He owned a few slaves and considerable land about Goshen. His house was a mile south of the village, on the Florida road. It was a stone house, but is no longer standing. It is said to have once entertained George Washington and Baron Steuben. Wisner was prominent in the boundary war between New Jersey and Orange country, and in 1754 it seems there was a company of Jerseymen formed to take him and Colonel De Kay “dead or alive.” Wisner served in the New York Colonial Assembly from 1759 to 1769. The only Bill of any interest introduced by him was on December 12, 1759, to enable himself, John Alsop, John Morin Scott, John Van Courtlandt and Joseph Sacket, part proprietors of the patent of Wawayanda, to sell enough of the undivided land to obtain 1500 pounds to be applied in draining the Drowned Lands. They were an extensive cedar marsh annually submerged by the rise of the Wallkill. Drainage has since largely rendered them capable of cultivation to the profit and health of the inhabitants.... Wisner strenuously espoused the side of Colonial rights and warmly opposed the pretensions of the English Parliament. Rivington’s Tory paper (in 1781) put “old Wisner” among the “tyrants” and “unfeeling malefactors” of whom the Loyalists complained the highest. On August 15, 1774, Orange county chose Wisner and [John] Haring to attend the Continental Congress, then about to be held in Philadelphia, to concert measures of resistance to British aggressions. The Congress began in Carpenter’s Hall on September 5, but Wisner did not take his seat until the fourteenth.... The Second Continental Congress met in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, May 10, 1775, but Wisner did not appear until the fifteenth. He was not a prominent member of this body, but took part in its patriotic measures, including the wonderfully fortunate selection of a commander-in-chief of the American armies. [Wisner’s signature appears to the left of Washington’s on this document.] Wisner’s attention was early directed to a humble but very important subject, of which, in a letter dated Philadelphia, December 21, 1775, he writes: “Having for many months been seriously affected with the great disadvantage the colonies labor under for want of ammunition, I thought it my duty to apply myself to the attainment of those necessary arts of making saltpetre and gunpowder, and having far exceeded my expectations in both manufactures, I think myself further obliged to communicate the so much needed knowledge to my country at large.”... He was otherwise serviceable to the patriotic cause by having spears and gun flints made, and by repairing roads in Orange county by which provisions and other necessaries were transported to the American army. He also attended to collecting lead and to the manufacture of salt, and to fortifying the Hudson against the passage of the British vessels.
Burdge then takes up the question of whether Wisner and the other members of the New York delegation to the Second Continental Congress voted for independence, and if so, why their names did not appear on the Declaration. The delegates wrote home for instructions on June 8, 1776, and were apparently told they had no authority to vote for a break with England. In a second letter dated July 2, 1776, the delegates said they intended to refrain from voting, but a postscript showed that events had overtaken them:
It is probable that this letter was written by Wisner, as he sent it to the New York Provincial Congress with a note of his own saying: “Since writing the inclosed, the question of Independence has been put in Congress and carried in the affirmative without one dissenting vote.” This means [Burdge comments] that no colony voted against it, but that on July 2, 12 colonies, acting for 13, resolved that the united colonies are free and independent states. This then is the genuine national birthday.... Now we have neglected testimony of the intelligent and honorable Thomas McKean, a Delaware member present on July 4, that Henry Wisner voted for Independence. It is contained in four letters, one dated September 26, 1796, and printed in Sanderson’s Biographs, another dated August 22, 1813, and lithographed in Brotherhead’s Book of the Signers, a third dated January, 1814, and printed in volume 10 of John Adam’s Works, and a fourth dated June 16, 1817, and printed in the appendix to Christopher Marshall’s diary.... It is discreditable that there is no monument or other record bearing the names of the voters of Independence. The so-called signers of the Declaration are members of the Congress after August 2, who were then required to commit themselves to the cause. On July 4, about 12 of them were not at the Congress, and two and probably more of them, refused to vote for Independence. These 14 gentlemen have had immortality given them by the carelessness of history, to the exclusion of Henry Wisner, who better deserves it. Wisner’s duties called him to New York, (July 12) before the Declaration of Independence was engrossed on parchment and ready for signing, but he continued an unattending member of the Continental Congress until May 13, 1777, when a new delegation was elected by New York.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tom Otterness

My life revolves around the C line, and one of the highlights of that line are the rotund little bronze people that populate the 14th Street station. Little capitalists shaped like money bags (a more benign version of Thomas Nast’s Boss Tweed) perch contentedly on the benches, or play tug of war with giant pennies, or fall victim to toothy crocodiles that emerge from manhole covers. On my first visit to Roosevelt Island I was pleased to see Otterness’s Marriage of Real Estate and Money: a several-part morality tale perched on pilings in the shallow water. More recently, I was tickled to see Large Covered Wagon installed near the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge. When you walk to the back of the wagon, you see the heads of a pioneer couple who are getting the maximum enjoyment out of their bouncy ride.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

My ancestor Johanes Weesner

It’s been fascinating to me to uncover nuggets of my family’s history in the 1918 book The Wisners in America — but it may not be of much interest to anyone else whose name isn’t Wisner. My apologies to the non-Wisners out there. The book begins with the arrival of the first Wisner:

Johanes Weesner, of Switzerland, was the progenitor of most of the Wisners now living in this country. He came to America about 1714 (the exact date has not been established nor is it of much importance), with 10,000 troops of Queen Anne’s Swiss contingent, who had fought against Louis XIV, of France, under the Prince of Orange, and later under the Duke of Marlborough.... Perhaps the most reliable information we have about Johanes Weesner is contained in “A Memorial to Henry Wisner,” published by Franklin Burdge, of New York, in September, 1872.... It will be noted that Burdge says: “Johanes Weesner was born in Switzerland and fought against Louis XIV, of France, in the allied army under the Prince of Orange, and afterwards under the Duke of Marlborough. When their warlike toils were done, Queen Anne undertook to provide some of the foreign troops a home in the colony of New York. “The emigrants encamped for some months on Governor’s Island. Then Johanes Weesner went to work on the farm of Christian Snedicor, of Hampstead, Long Island. Snedicor owned land on the Wawayanda Patent, in Orange county, and he sent Weesner there to bring part of it under cultivation. By paying 30 pounds Weesner became the owner of a farm on July 23, 1714. It is supposed the situation is the present town of Warwick, near Mount Eve, on the border of the Drowned Lands. The district was called Florida as early as 1733. Johanes Weesner died a little before May, 1744.”
The book goes on:
That Johanes Weesner was a thrifty and industrious man, and with the hearty co-operation of his family, accumulated considerable property for those days, thus displaying shrewd intelligence and fine judgment is indicated clearly in his will... It reads: “In the name of God, Amen, I, Johanes Weesner, of Florida, in Goshen, in Orange county, yeoman, this July 6, 1733, I leave to my eldest son, Hendrick, 30 pounds. I leave to my son, Adam, my dwelling house and land I now live upon, with all the buildings; and he is to pay to my son Hendrick the 30 pounds above mentioned. I leave to my youngest daughter, Mary, now living with me, 140 acres of land, which I purchased of Barent Bloome, June 7, 1732, situated in Orange county, near Goshen, as by deed. “After payment of debts, I leave to my three daughters, Catharine, wife of Thomas Blain, Ann, wife of Philip King, and Mary, all the rest of my personal estate. “If my dear and loving wife, Elizabeth, should survive me, she is to have the use of all my estate, and no division is to be made during her life. I make my wife Elizabeth, and my good and trusty friends, Michael Dunning and Daniel Denton, both of Goshen, executors. “Witnesses, John Smith, Joseph Sutherland, Josiah Keeder. Proved in New York, May 19, 1744.”
Hendrick’s son Henry Wisner, the grandson of Johanes Weesner, later became a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, and the only New Yorker to vote for the Declaration of Independence.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thoreau and the gunpowder mill

I generally defend Thoreau against accusations that he was peculiar or antisocial. He surely saw more of his neighbors in the course of a day than I do, and his Journal is full of the stories told to him by farmers and townspeople (many of them collected in the engaging book Men of Concord.) Sometimes, though, he does something that makes him appear rather coldblooded. In January 1853, a gunpowder mill in Concord blew up in a deafening and deadly explosion. When Thoreau arrived at the scene he described it with a rather cool tone, and ended on a jarringly practical note.

January 7, 1853 About ten minutes before 10 a.m., I heard a very loud sound, and felt a violent jar, which made the house rock and the loose articles on my table rattle, which I knew must be either a powder-mill blown up or an earthquake. Not knowing but another and more violent might take place, I immediately ran down-stairs, but I saw from the door a vast expanding column of whitish smoke rising in the west directly over the powder-mills four miles distant.... Arrived probably before half past ten. There were perhaps thirty or forty wagons there. The kernel-mill had blown up first, and killed three men who were in it, said to be turning a roller with a chisel.... Timber six inches square and eighteen feet long was thrown over a hill eighty feet high at least,— a dozen rods; thirty rods was about the limit of fragments. The drying-house, in which was a fire, was perhaps twenty-five rods distant and escaped. Every timber and piece of wood which was blown up was as black as if it had been dyed, except where it had broken on falling; other breakages were completely concealed by the color. I mistook what had been iron hoops in the woods for leather straps. Some of the clothes of the men were in the tops of the trees, where undoubtedly their bodies had been and left them. The bodies were naked and black, some limbs and bowels here and there, and a head at a distance from its trunk. The feet were bare; the hair singed to a crisp. I smelt the powder half a mile before I got there. Put the different buildings thirty rods apart, and then but one will blow up at a time.
But just when you think Thoreau has no feeling for his fellow man, you see him returning to the subject of mortality in the days that followed.
January 14, 1853 The bones of children soon turn to dust again. January 21, 1853 In the night I dreamed of delving amid the graves of the dead, and soiled my fingers with their rank mould. It was sanitarily, morally, and physically true.
Six years later, the accident is still on his mind:
July 21, 1859 The canal is still cluttered with the wreck of the mills that have been blown up in times past, — timber, boards, etc., etc., — and the steep hill is bestrewn with the fragments of the mills, which fell on it more than half a dozen years ago (many of them), visible half a mile off. As you draw near the powder-mills, you see the hill behind bestrewn with the fragments of mills which have been blown up in past years, — the fragments of the millers having been removed, — and the canal is cluttered with the larger ruins. The very river makes greater haste past the dry-house, as it were for fear of accidents.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

PEN World Voices: Rian Malan

I read My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan not long after it came out in 1990. It was recommended by my ex-boss, a white South African exile who headed up the US office of the International Defense and Aid Fund. The book was frighteningly honest, he said, and when I read it I agreed. Malan wrote about growing up in an Afrikaner family, rebelling against the prejudice that surrounded him, playing in a rock band, losing his virginity to an African woman, and becoming a crime reporter in Johannesburg. But none of this was simple. Malan wanted to feel solidarity with the Africans, but he was afraid of Africans. He witnessed terrible crimes by the security forces but other atrocities committed by anti-apartheid activists, and even some motivated by witchcraft. Malan’s thoughts about race in South Africa remain complicated and uncomfortable, and his statements at the PEN panels on Memoir and Reportage and on Truth and Reconciliation reflected that. It would take more thought, a rereading of My Traitor’s Heart, and research into Malan’s later writings for me to reach any real conclusions. In the meantime, hearing him prompted questions: What is the value of honesty? Malan doesn’t spare himself in his memoirs, and the result is a compelling, even harrowing picture of a conflicted man. It is even, in its own way, a work of art. But honesty doesn’t guarantee correctness, and it doesn’t necessarily advance relations between the races. As Malan said about the South African truth commission, it opens up old wounds. Should the crimes of freedom fighters be regarded in the same way as the crimes of the regime? This was a question that moderator Paul van Zyl touched on in the Truth and Reconciliation panel. Maybe the crimes of freedom fighters should be treated more leniently, because their cause is just. Maybe they should be treated more harshly, because the perpetrators should know better, and they don’t have the excuse of being trapped in the belly of an oppressive regime. Or maybe a line needs to be drawn between the justice of a cause and the actions of those who fight for that cause, as Michael Walzer argues in his book Just and Unjust Wars. Does it distort reality to examine oneself too deeply or critically? Malan tells how, during his years in America, he would present himself as a just South African, an Afrikaner who couldn’t stomach defending apartheid by force. He said that he was "lying through my teeth," but reading him or listening to him forces you to conclude that it was least partly true. By owning his negative impulses and not his positive ones, and by focusing on the worst deeds of the best people, Malan’s vision of the future turned dark. This habit of mind may have been one reason why Malan expected an all-out race war in his country that never came (he describes how he found himself peddling "my little blood pudding" just as Nelson Mandela was being released from 27 years in prison) and why he seems so dissatisfied by the work of the truth commission.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

PEN World Voices: Books That Changed My Life

This was my last session for this year’s PEN festival, and it was a pleasant change of pace from the panels on wars and genocide that I’d attended earlier. Spurred and challenged and interrupted by the multilingual and irrepressible Paul Holdengräber, five authors spoke of the books that had been most important to them. The choices were more unusual than I’d expected. Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M., went with a safe pick: The Lily of the Valley by Balzac, which she’d heard on the radio as a child. Antonio Muñoz Molina spoke of E.O. Wilson’s Journey to the Ants, which made him realize that books about oneself, or people like oneself, are not always the most important – that close observation of nature can open up new worlds. Yousef Al-Mohaimeed recalled his first exposure to The Arabian Nights, which his sister read to him as a child, and Zorba the Greek, which broke through his narrow-mindedness. Annie Proulx spoke of reading Jack London’s rollicking prehistoric melodrama Before Adam when she was seven years old and bored to death by Dick and Jane and Spot. I was most pleased, though, by the choice of Olivier Rolin, a last-minute substitute on the panel whose name did not appear in the program. The book that changed his life (though he argued with the idea that any book can make that grand a claim) was one of my own favorites: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Why? Because Under the Volcano deals with “the loss of Eden, the fall, the guilt, the impossible salvation, the forces inside man which compel him to defy himself, to terrorize himself” (or did his French accent cause me to mishear that?). And yet it was “full of humor, not boring, not solemn, not Dostoyevsky.” Which led to a charming digression by Holdengräber about whether Dostoyevsky had a sense of humor, and how the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky allegedly met: each reading a copy of The Idiot, with Volokhonsky (reading in Russian) laughing to herself while Pevear (reading in English) saw nothing to laugh about. So maybe the translations have been the problem all this time.

PEN World Voices: Truth and Reconciliation: A National Reckoning

The panel on Truth and Reconciliation had all the substance and detail I had hoped for from the panel on African Wars – in part, perhaps, because the subject was more specific, and in part because of the efforts of moderator Paul van Zyl. Van Zyl, formerly a key figure in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now with the International Center for Transitional Justice, had the expertise necessary to ask pointed questions, the tact to focus discussion when it went off course, and the patience to listen to attacks on South Africa’s truth commission without becoming defensive. Most of these attacks came from Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart, which was published in 1990 as apartheid was entering its last throes. Malan, a crime report in Johannesburg, had seen the worst of South Africa’s political and nonpolitical violence, and he expected an all-out race war in those days. “I thought the wounds of history were too deep – the chasms of class and history.” The idea of a truth commission to address these wounds of history was a good one, he said, but could have been better executed. The commission succeeded in opening old wounds, he said. Its process was biased and distorted and therefore made white South Africans feel resentful. The “sentimental soft-focus human rights context” set up a Manichaean opposition between fascist whites and progressive, nonracial blacks. (The ANC, he said, didn’t admit whites as members until 1985.) Van Zyl responded to these points, but only after letting Malan have his say. It was the ANC and not the white nationalists, he said, who sued the truth commission to prevent its report from being released – one sign that the commission was hardly pro-ANC. And just as the Nazis and the French Resistance were not on the same moral plane, a distinction had to be drawn between violence committed in defense of injustice and in the attempt to end it. Having worked for several years as an anti-apartheid activist, the dialogue on South Africa was the most compelling to me, but there was much else to appreciate. Lieve Joris, author of The Rebels’ Hour, spoke about the child soldiers of the Congo and the violence that spilled over the border from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Alexandra Fuller, the Rhodesian-born author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, asked, “Who cares about truth and reconciliation when there’s no reparations? You’ve got the farm and the Mercedes Benz, and I’m stuck in a scrubby piece of desert with a goat.” (I remembered, from my time in Zimbabwe in 1990, that you could see a straight line, as if drawn by a ruler, between the lush green of the white commercial farms and the dusty blight of the “communal areas” where native Zimbabweans scratched out a living.) During the Q&A a woman asked one of those questions that make me cringe: whether it might be helpful for countries like South Africa and Guatemala to send young people to the US to study democracy before returning to their homelands. Van Zyl noted what many must have been thinking: that America since 2000 is not the ideal laboratory for democratic principles. Francisco Goldman, author of The Art of Political Murder, had already spoken of what happened after many American-educated Guatemalans returned with dreams of reform. The military regime said that reform would open the door to Communism, and the regime’s US government backers agreed. About 70% of these young people, Goldman said, were killed by the regime.

PEN World Voices: African Wars

The panel for African Wars brought together two writers whose work I had known and respected for years – Nuruddin Farah and Chenjerai Hove – with another, Abdourahman Waberi, whom I had met the day before and found sharp and engaging. I expected some harrowing stories, stinging denunciations, and tough proposed solutions. What I didn’t expect was the aimless, detached, abstract quality of the discussion and the troubling racial undercurrents that seemed to surface in the room. The discussion got off track almost at once, after moderator Violaine Huisman threw out for reaction a quotation from Ryszard Kapuscinski. “Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa,’” he had written in The Shadow of the Sun. “In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.” “Africa does not exist?” retorted Hove. “Where is the man coming from?” Farah and Waberi, quickly showing themselves to be more subtle than the plain-spoken Hove, said that of course Kapuscinski was referring to the immense diversity of the continent. “Africa is too complex for the likes of Kapuscinski,” said Farah, dismissing the work of a man who covered twenty-seven revolutions and coups between 1958 and 1980. “Because it exists, that’s why we have wars.” Hove tried to deal with the problem of war more substantively, but his comments covered familiar ground. The national borders established by the Berlin conference in the 19th century had no meaning for ordinary people, he said, and led to conflict. War is about the distribution of power and its benefits. Everything is political: even the chairs we sit on and the trees planted along the streets outside are there because of decisions made by human beings. Hove’s points were valid, if a bit obvious, and could have been the basis for a deeper discussion. But perhaps because he presented himself more as a man of the people than an academic, and because he illustrated his points with homely anecdotes (one of them about a war that allegedly broke out between Botswana and Zimbabwe when a hunter chased an elephant across the border), the mostly white audience laughed for what seemed the wrong reasons. Those crazy Africans, fighting over elephants! Farah’s contributions were more sophisticated but less helpful. Each reason for war that he offered seemed to carry the message that there was little we could do about it. War is a part of the national development of African countries, he said. The conflict in the Congo is the equivalent of the 30 Years’ War in Germany. Every form of industrial and mechanical development in Africa had been interrupted and frustrated by slavery and colonialism. However much you love your child, you must be willing to see it fall before it learns to walk. Wars, he said, do not happen overnight. They gestate in the hearts and minds of people. What about Zimbabwe? asked a black woman in the audience. The chimurenga war of the 1890s was against colonialism, but the struggle today is for democracy. Oh no, said Farah. Democracy is not something you fight for. It is something that happens at the end of a long process by which you grow and develop and eventually become a whole person. (Not a message likely to inspire those struggling to end the dictatorship of Mugabe.) Though I have lived and worked in Zimbabwe, I don’t always enjoy the way my fellow white people talk about Africa at events like this one: sometimes trying too hard to show their expertise in all things African, but more often self-righteous or apologetic, trying to make plain that they are not like those other white folks with their backward ideas. At this point a white woman spoke up to say that on a visit to Africa (I forget if she said exactly where) she had met many people whose voices were not being heard. What could be done to help them express themselves, to find their voices? I cringed a little at the tone – what can be done to help these poor people? – but waited with real interest for the answer. “What kind of question is that?” broke in a black woman from the back of the auditorium. Farah seemed to agree, brushing away the question as meaningless, but Hove objected, defending not so much the question itself, but the woman’s democratic right to ask it. However naïve the attitude of the questioner might have been, I didn’t see what was wrong with the question. And indeed, as I learned later, in another session going on simultaneously at the French Institute, the Nigerian novelist Uzodinma Iweala was describing how he had brought video cameras to an AIDS center in Africa, and the delight of the residents in using the technology to express themselves. Maybe the quashing of the woman’s question was driven by an irritation in the audience that I felt myself. More than five million people have died in the Congo since 1998, in a war that, if it were happening in Europe, would be referred to as World War III. But by the end of an hour and a half nobody had made any practical suggestions to help stop the wars of the future. More African Union troops or UN peacekeepers? A crackdown on international arms trading? More funding of microfinance initiatives to increase prosperity? And more to the point (since these were writers, after all, and not policy wonks), nobody had told a story that might inject the topic with the urgency it deserves – nothing that would render intimate and specific the familiar, easily ignored image of anonymous Africans dying in endless and meaningless wars.

Friday, May 2, 2008

PEN World Voices: Short Stories

Tall and striking in an elaborately figured dress or robe, Radikha Jones of the Paris Review began this session with a spirited defense of the health of the short story, noting that her own magazine receives 1,200 submissions a month. But the short-story authors on hand quickly undermined her position. Ingo Schulze noted that his publisher didn’t want the word “stories” on the cover of one of his books. Etgar Keret said that the fragmented nature of reality in Israel caused readers to avoid short fiction and bury themselves in epic novels. Abdourahman Waberi said he was encouraged to write whatever he wanted, so long as he called it a novel. Only Young-ha Kim reported that he comes from a country – Korea – where the short story is held in high regard. An annual prize of $10,000 goes to the best short story, and writers must show prowess in that form to be taken seriously. There are four Chinese characters, he said, that refer to murdering someone with a very short weapon, and that’s the challenge of a good short story. Keret put it a little differently: a short story that works is like killing someone with a toothpick rather than an atomic bomb. The titles of these authors’ collections were irresistible: 33 Moments of Happiness by Schulze, The Girl on the Fridge by Keret, and The Land Without Shadows by Waberi. (Young-ha Kim had also published a novel called I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.) I was especially happy to see Waberi, who is the first author from Djibouti whose work I’ve been able to find in English. He read from a story called “The Seascape Painter and the Wind Drinker.” I bought his book after the reading and chatted with him a bit as he signed it.

PEN World Voices: Reading the World

As the title should have alerted me, this session was a collection of short readings rather than a discussion of some literary or political topic. My attention span for being read to is limited – I go to readings more to see what the author looks and sounds like, and for the Q&A, rather than for any particular nuance in the reading itself – but this group was varied enough (and each one brief enough) to keep me focused. Peter Carey read from the beginning of his new novel His Illegal Self, after calling the modernistic podium “terrifying” because it wouldn’t hide his restless legs. (“I’m a fidgety fellow,” he said.) The Norwegian writer Halfdan Freihow read from a book called Dear Gabriel. Written in the form of a letter to an autistic son, the book is referred to as a novel in the PEN program, but in its details and the way Freihow spoke about it, it seemed at least strongly rooted in reality. Francesc Serés, an author who lives in a Catalonian village with sixteen inhabitants, read from a story that begins with a man standing on pool table and hurling the balls at a mirror behind the bar: a few lines in Catalan, then at greater length in a flowing and heavily accented English My favorite segment, though, was Janet Malcolm’s reading from her new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. I’ve always found remarks about Stein much more interesting than reading Stein herself (though wasn’t it Stein who said “remarks are not literature”?), and Two Lives contains some juicy remarks, some of them about the difficulty of reading her. Malcolm’s subject, at least for this part of the book, was a Stein scholar named Ulla Dydo, the author of a 659-page work over which, Malcolm says, hovers the question “Is Stein worth the effort to read her?” Dydo had studied a Stein work called “Stanzas in Meditation,” of whom someone wrote that it was perhaps the dreariest long poem in the world. Dydo noticed that throughout the manuscript of the poem the word “may” had been crossed out, often violently, and replaced with “can,” or in different contexts with “today” or “day” – often to the detriment of the sound and sense. The reason came to Dydo in a dream while she was staying in a spartan hostel near the Beinecke Library. “May” was the name of Stein’s lover in an early and forgotten autobiographical novel called QED, and a vindictive Alice B. Toklas had forced her to take out every “may” in the long poem. Startling as it is in itself, Malcolm noted that it lends credibility to the passage in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast when he recounts a visit to Stein’s home in which he hears Toklas speaking to her in a way he had never heard a human being speak to another. Some have assumed that this was Hemingway’s revenge for snide comments by Stein, but in fact may have been (whatever Hemingway’s hangups about gay people) evidence that lesbians can be just as sadomasochistic as anybody.

PEN World Voices: The Secret Lives of Cities

The Secret Lives of Cities brought together authors whose work has focused on particular city: Recacoechea on La Paz, Al-Mohaimeed on Riyadh, Goldman on Guatemala City, and Furst on Minneapolis. Though Al-Mohaimeed (who spoke with the help of an interpreter) and Recacoechea made striking comments, they were handicapped by lack of fluency in English, so Furst and Goldman tended to dominate the discussion. Furst, though a native New Yorker, had set his novel The Sabotage Cafe in Minneapolis, a city he had never lived in. Recacoechea objected that this couldn’t be done, but Furst maintained that he knew enough from many visits there to catch the personality of the place. In fact, he found New York the hardest place to write about. Like the narrator of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, he would have to give a hundred different versions of New York to convey what he knew. Furst knew Minneapolis at least in part because of the “many ex-girlfriends” who have lived there. A city is made up of the mindset of those who live there, he said, and there is a psychological war between various factions to be “the mood, the mode, the idea” of that city. "The kids in my book," he said, "are anarchist fuckups, who see the possibility of creating a space of disruption to keep the city alive." Furst’s book is set in the Dinkytown neighborhood near the university, and through the eyes of a woman returning there after twenty years away, he describes how the vegan whole-wheat pizza joints and the head shops where you could buy a feather-tipped roach clip have given way to boutiques with cute names and Japanese restaurants with bland teak walls. Goldman was a volcano of fluent description. I haven’t read his fiction so I can’t comment on the way he draws characters, but he describes Guatemala City like an investigative journalist. A beefy man with a plain face, Jenn thought he was the kind of harmless-looking fellow that people might spill their secrets to. His latest book is a work of nonfiction, The Art of Political Murder, which Lieve Joris (at the panel on genocide) had mentioned having read. One of Goldman’s riffs began when the moderator, Matt Weiland, made a comment about the experience of someone who lives in a city, a “city liver,” then cocked his head, realizing that sounded odd. “Guatemala City is hard drinking, so city liver is there,” said Goldman. "It’s a lawless city," he went on. Seventy percent of the cocaine that reaches the US is transshipped there. Squatter slums have grown on the horrible muddy inclines around the city: a pulsing, perverted life. There’s space for enormous creativity, effervescence, “criminal busyness.” Crib houses are packed with stolen Indian babies from the highlands, being fattened up for the US adoption trade. Chop shops are dug into the ravines, Goldman said, and cars stolen in New York City may end up there. The city is extremely murderous. More people were killed there in 2006 than in Afghanistan. The gangs are medieval in their arcane structure and fervor. The city is pulsing with a very, very dark life. “Frank is working for the tourist board of Guatemala,” Weiland said dryly.

PEN World Voices: Writing Genocide

I read several books on the genocide in Rwanda while I was working on A Basket of Leaves, and Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld was one of the most striking. Instead of interviewing the survivors (as he does in another book), he talked to the killers themselves — the men who had spent their days tracking down Tutsis in the papyrus marshes near a town in the south, and killing them. Like all books on the genocide, it never adequately answered the question of how seemingly ordinary people become capable of atrocities — but it was a brave attempt to do it. Writing Genocide was the first panel I attended in this year’s PEN World Voices festival, and when I got there I was disappointed that Hatzfeld couldn’t come. But I soon found that Lieve Joris and Christian Jungersen had more than enough interesting and disquieting things to say to occupy the time. Joris, a Belgian writer living in the Netherlands, has spent years in the Congo and has written three books about the country, including The Rebels’ Hour. Jungersen is a young Danish novelist whose new book is a psychological drama called The Exception. Before describing their own books, each author began by giving his or her impressions of the others’ work. Jungersen said the protagonist of The Rebels’ Hour was the strangest character he had ever felt sympathy for: a young man whose feelings of ostracism drive him to power and violence. Joris said The Exception, which she read in Dutch, reads like a thriller. It tells the story of four women working in a human rights organization in Copenhagen, where office politics come to mirror the paranoia and vindictiveness of the crimes they are researching. Both writers, they noted, were (like Hatzfeld) writing about the perpetrators of genocide rather than the victims. Joris’s character was based closely on a real-life person whom she had gotten to know over several years. “I’m not going to put him on a Wanted poster,” she said. “I had to find a novelistic way to tell the story.” The risks in telling his story, she said, were that she might blow his cover, or that she might burn her own wings (whether physically or psychologically she didn’t make clear). This was a difficult book to write, she said. She lives near a canal in Amsterdam, and at times she was tempted to throw the manuscript into the canal, and herself with it. Though Joris had come closer to witnessing genocide, Jungersen had thought deeply about how it works. We are always told how important it is to feel the pain of others, for instance, so we might suppose that warm, empathetic, well-socialized people are less likely to participate in genocide. Not so, he said. Genocide thrives on emotion and togetherness, on feeling part of the group and dwelling on the suffering of oneself and one’s people. According to one expert he interviewed, it is the misfits who are most likely to resist the pressure to do evil: those who are “half weird,” who wear two different shoes, the computer geeks, those who aren’t part of the group.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ghost bikes

I usually buy my fish in Chinatown, since there are no fish stores near my home, and the supermarket fish looks dubious. I go to the same place, near the terminals of the Fung Wah and Lucky Star bus companies, and walk over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, since the entrance to the bridge is only about a block away. Last week, on the traffic island near the entrance, I saw something new: a ghost bike commemorating a young man who was killed near that spot. I had seen a few ghost bikes in New York before: old bicycles painted white and chained to a street sign, usually with some flowers and a plaque identifying the person who was injured or killed. Ghostbikes.org is one site for more information on this phenomenon, but there are others.

Back to Governors Island

I see Governors Island nearly every morning when I walk over the Brooklyn Bridge on the way to work, though it was a while before I even knew what it was. The island intrigued me for a long time, especially when it was barred to the public: a low wooded island with a few buildings scattered on it, and a massive octagonal white structure with vertical black bars on its sides. The white octagon was so somber and impressive that I thought it must be a monument of some kind. (I only learned later that it provides ventilation for one of the tunnels under the East River.) During the winter, when I walked home over the bridge after dark, it was eerie to see only one or two electric lights on the island. The island was an oasis of quiet and darkness, only a few hundred yards from the glowing glass towers of the financial district. Once the island was opened to the public (though only during the summer, and for limited hours), I tried to get there once or twice a year on the ferry. My favorite spots were the round fort at the island’s corner, with its walls of soft red brick and deep embrasures, the broad sloping meadow that spreads out from the second, star-shaped fort, and the long row of deserted frame houses where officers used to live. Cicadas shrilled in the hot grass, and Canada geese stalked along the footpaths. Governors Island is one of the most peaceful spots I know in the city. I feel a sense of connection there, so it was a little strange to read in The Wisners in America that Governors Island was the first place in the New World where my ancestor Johanes Weesner lived. He and about 10,000 other Swiss soldiers arrived in New York around 1714 were “camped” on Governors Island for several months before finding new homes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Foreclosures

The building next to my own apartment building went through a couple of owners recently before being gutted and abandoned. Now what used to be a reasonably attractive place is a brick shell with a padlocked front door, yellow tape running around the front, and a X in a box painted on the facade that marks it as condemned. An article in the Post says the number of foreclosures in Brooklyn in the first quarter of 2008 is up by 26.6% from the same period last year. That sounds bad, until you see that the foreclosure rate is even higher in every other borough, reaching 101% in Staten Island. And that sounds bad, until you see that the increase in foreclosures for the country as a whole is 112%.

The Brooklyn Literary 100

The New York Sun recently published a list (and map) detailing the Brooklyn Literary 100. In addition to the places, many of which I’m familiar with — Fort Greene Park, Prospect Park, Ozzie’s, the Brooklyn Lyceum, Community Bookstore, Heights Books, and the Brooklyn Book Fest — there were lists of prominent writers and editors, broken down by neighborhood. As silly as it is, and Colson Whitehead pointed out just how silly, to attribute special literary qualities to the borough of Brooklyn or any of its neighborhoods, I was surprised to see that Park Slope didn’t dominate as thoroughly as I expected. It has 19 names, including Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer, but so does Fort Greene, which has Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead himself. (Though didn’t I read somewhere that he had moved to somewhere like Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens?) If you throw in my own neighborhood, Clinton Hill, which many consider an extension of Fort Greene, you get 9 more names, including James Surowiecki of The New Yorker. Prospect Heights, just down the street, has 12 names, including heavy hitters like Rick Moody, Philip Gourevitch, and George Packer.