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Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews

The Politics of 21st Century Life

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! For teens getting ready to vote in their first major election, the swirl of political topics can be more than daunting; it can intimidate them into selecting candidates that someone else chooses for them. That's exactly what I did the first few times I went into the voter's booth, and I wish I had trusted myself enough to work out my own choices rather than going with whom my relatives thought I should vote for.

Lawrence Potter's This May Help You Understand the World is a very readable introduction to dozens of different topics on world affairs, national politics, and the environment. In short, three to five-page chapters, he addresses everything from the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims to what Saddam did to the Kurds, what the Fairtrade label means, and why plastic bags are evil. This book is an excellent springboard for so many long discussions that it really belongs on every bookshelf. Understand the World gives readers enough information to participate in conversations on current events and will also spark interest in those topics that particularly appeal to you. It was published in 2007, so the section on US elections is a little bit dated, but really that is a tiny quibble. Iran is here, along with North Korea, Russia, China, Israel, the PLO, and Chechnya. You couldn't ask for a better primer written for the average reader. The author does an outstanding job of not leaning too far left or right and should be lauded for carefully crafted explanations to so many of the questions we often feel too embarrassed to ask.

The Iraq War is on everyone's mind this year, and we are fortunate that novelist Walter Dean Myers has been thinking about it, too. In his latest book, Sunrise Over Fallujah, Myers gives readers a front row seat to the ever present insanity found in war. Robin "Birdy" Perry is like a lot of young soldiers: eager to do the right thing for his country and also looking for the perfect combination of adventure and experience that will help him sort out what he should do with his life. In letters home to his Uncle Richie (from Myers' Vietnam classic Fallen Angels) Birdy tries to sort out how he feels about the Army and his job in Civilian Affairs. When the book begins, it is February 2003, Saddam Hussein is still in power, and everyone expects the war to be over quickly. Birdy and his fellow soldiers are there to "successfully interact with the Iraqi people." Nothing of course works out as planned.

In a lot of ways, Sunrise Over Fallujah will read as an all too familiar story. Other than technology, the basic truths of war have changed little since 1965, 1950, 1942, or even 1918. Birdy and his friends are alternately bored and terrorized as they travel in and out of the Green Zone, and their interactions with the locals are both poignant and infuriating. The group of soldiers, strangers in the first chapter, quickly become friends, which makes inevitable losses that much more difficult. Birdy grows beyond his initial idealism and confidence to question not only the dubious orders of his superiors but the larger issue of the overall U.S. mission. Just as countless soldiers have done before him, he hates the enemy for killing his friends while he also finds himself questioning just who the enemy is. This leads to statements like these:

"I think you're right," Captain Miller said. "We're supposed to be helping our side win the peace and we don't even know what we mean by peace."

There are alarming echoes of every Vietnam book ever written in that sentence, but it doesn't make it less true. Similar passages can be found throughout the book, all of them disturbing and depressing in turn. Myers doesn't hold back when it comes to transforming Birdy into a cynic, yet he never crosses a political line. This is not about bashing the President or the Iraqi Congress or whoever should have done whatever to prevent the quagmire his characters find themselves in. Sunrise Over Fallujah doesn't have time for that kind of story. This is first and foremost a book about soldiers at war, and the specifics that Myers provides to make it our war, in our century, are enough to set any reader on a rampage to know the truth. Nothing is as Birdy expected it to be, just as nothing was the way his Uncle Richie expected decades before. Consider this illuminating moment near the novel's end:

"Sir, the war you began is over," the sheik said. "That war you won. It was not beautiful in the end—there were no violins, no birds singing in the sky—but it is over. What is going on now is a completely different war. In this war you merely stand on the side and hold the coats. This war is not about you or America."

For a look at life after fighting in Iraq, Jay Kopelman has written a book about post-traumatic stress disorder both within himself and his dog Lava, whom he rescued from the war zone. The story of how Kopelman and Lava found each other and the Herculean effort it took to get the dog to U.S. was detailed in his first book (which I highly recommend), From Baghdad, With Love. Now in the sequel, From Baghdad, to America, Kopelman gets much more personal about what the war did to his dog and admits—almost against his will—what it did to him.

As a retired USMC officer, Kopelman spends a certain amount of the book explaining what it means to be a Marine and how they are trained to handle war. He also goes into some detail on what has been happening to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans when they return to the U.S. His frustration with the current system for addressing returning soldier's needs and how it allows so many vets to fall through the cracks—or indirectly encourages them not to report psychological or emotional damage—comes across very strong to readers. Kopelman himself seems conflicted on the solution: he explains in detail how it is important that soldiers and Marines be prepared to kill in an instant but then acknowledges that their training for toughness fails them utterly when they return to civilian life. From the statistics he presents, it is clear that the military knows they have a problem, but even Kopelman is reticent at first to explore all the resources available at the VA; the desire not to be branded as "a wimp" is very strong to overcome.

Because of his openness about PTSD, young adults who are close to war, either through their own experience or via family members, will find much in Kopelman's personal discoveries to enlighten them. Especially in later chapters when the author details Lava's behavior struggles and his attempts to find the best way to help him (which eventually results in vet prescribed anti-depressants), From Baghdad to America really excels. The book only fell flat for me when the author made repeated references to the superiority of the Marines over other branches of the service. While they might just be jokes, there are far too many of them, and they could alienate some readers who need desperately to know how Kopelman and Lava handled PTSD. I hope future editions will see those comments removed so this important book can be appreciated by the widest audience.

There are many other areas of concern beyond the U.S., and books can be found on all of them. Because of the recent contested elections in Zimbabwe, the continued genocide in Darfur, and the multiple environmental, economic, and social problems plaguing the sub-Saharan region, I believe that Africa is the continent that will dominate many aspects of foreign relations for the U.S. in the future. In light of that, Gerald Caplan's The Betrayal of Africa is a must read. Part of the indispensable Groundwork Guides series of books, Betrayal is a step-by-step analysis of western involvement in sub-Saharan Africa affairs since slavery. Caplan, who has long written on African affairs, knows his subject intimately but is able to write about it in a manner that those new to the continent's issues can easily understand. He is not an African apologist, but he carefully points out how nearly all of the region's issues are rooted in relationships with the west. As he explains in the chapter "History Matters," since the so-called "scramble for Africa" in the late 19th century, the west has involved itself in African affairs with casual abandon. "We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, he quotes British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, "unhindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were." Rwanda was apparently given to Germany by other European powers, even though "no German, and indeed no white person, had ever entered it."

Clearly, Africa is a problem for the West, because we made it so.

Caplan has sections on numerous subjects, from colonialism and independence (did you know Zimbabwe has been independent only since 1980?) to the so-called "Big Men of Africa," apartheid, the genocide in Rwanda, and the skyrocketing debts to foreign banks shouldered by many countries. He can not hold back his frustration over how the west has dominated African affairs and various countries (the U.S. prominent among them), supported or "propped up" tyrants who callously robbed their people, and contributed to the struggle of Zaire, Uganda, Somalia, Chad, and so many others. Compelling, direct, and briskly written, The Betrayal of Africa is yet another reason why the Groundworks Guides are so important for teens.

Taschen has also just reissued Peter Beard's 1965 classic look at Africa: The End of the Game. This is an incredibly powerful environmental and social title and one of the more unusual books I own. Beard is famous for his photographs, and they are here by the dozens, providing intimate portraits of African wildlife both in its glory and sad decline. But he does more than study animals, he also writes movingly about the continent's early twentieth century past and the white people who "discovered" it then, such as Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa and J.H. Patterson, the chief engineer on the British Mombasa-Victoria-Uganda Railway and the one who killed the so-called "man-eaters of Tsavo." Beard combines diary excerpts, handwritten pages, period photographs, and his own words and images to create a picture of the continent like no other. There is a reason this book is a classic, and its significance to understanding Africa's past can not be overstated. Beard's described it this way in 1977:

In the light of what has happened almost everywhere, in the face of thinner and thinner illusions, it can no longer be categorized as a wildlife book. It is a book about human behavior—in a world that once had coherent meaning.

You should read contemporary books on Africa, but Beard offers something different: a portrait of how it was and a hint of how it might have been. The author was, as Paul Theroux writes in his new introduction, "Rare among visitors to Africa; Beard went simply to learn and grow." The lessons were harsh, however, and in The End of the Game Beard spares no one his discoveries:

No one dreamed that the game could ever be depleted by a handful of immigrants with maps and gun powder, however immoderate they might be. And yet, within a matter of years, this paradise would become part of the modern world, a battlefield desert littered with the carcasses of elephants beyond number, a flatland boneyard, a treeless, bleached-out dustbowl, something climactic and conclusive. As Fitzgerald wrote, of another paradise, "...for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Reading The End of the Game will give you a visual and prescient perspective on what was life in Africa and how much has been lost. More specifically it shows how the short-sighted policy of confining wildlife to increasingly smaller areas resulted in massive die-offs from starvation. Sometimes "zoos" just do not work, no matter how large the territory (for elephants in particular this book is a real eye-opener).

Combined with Caplan's informative title on the politics of power and influence that have haunted the sub-Saharan for more than a century, Beard's readers will have a firm foothold from which to find their own way through the continent's contemporary pains and triumphs. From here you read the books of journalists and the words of African poets and novelists; from these two titles you can truly begin to learn why Africa matters so much in the 21st century.

For national matters, the biggest issue by far is the sorry state of the American economy and the troubled times so many American families find themselves in. In No Choirboys, Susan Kuklin considers another aspect of American society that disproportionately affects the poor: the prison system. She interviewed several young men who were placed on death row for crimes committed when they were under the age of eighteen. While providing some basic information on their crimes, those acts are not the point of the interviews. Kuklin is interested in exploring how teenagers can end up on death row or in prison for life, and beyond that, if harsh sentencing is appropriate for the very young. (In 2005 the Supreme Court determined that execution for crimes committed under the age of 18 was unconstitutional; Kuklin addresses how her interviewees end up transitioning to life sentences.) The interviews are incredibly frank and passionate and provide some eye-opening insight into what prison is like for teens. Quite frankly I found much of what was revealed here to be terrifying and have a hard time understanding how anyone could possibly leave prison anywhere even close to being able to rejoin society.

In addition to the three young men in prison (the youngest of whom was fourteen at the time of his crime), Kuklin also interviews the younger sibling of a teen who was executed just prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the younger siblings of a teen murder victim, and a lawyer who takes on death penalty cases. What readers will likely take from all this are some serious thoughts about how poverty and a poor education lead many young men to prison, and even more so how teenagers can make foolish mistakes that change their lives in an instant. More than one of the young men mentions how he was not serious enough in school or did not know what he wanted to do, how he wasted time making mistakes because he did not know better. If that's not an indictment of modern society, I don't know what is.

The future of the American way of life is the subject of two science fiction novels on government control and security which I recently reviewed at Guys Lit Wire: Nick Mamatas' Under My Roof and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. In Doctorow's novel the Department of Homeland Security now wields a fearsome amount of power on our home shores. For Mamatas the country is embroiled in an endless array of overseas wars to "protect America's freedoms." In each case young male protagonists find themselves caught up in events beyond their control and forced to make decisions about how they want to live and what sort of country they want to live in.

Doctorow has written the far more earnest book. There is little to laugh about in Little Brother, and in fact the tension builds until a scene of torture where it is clear that the Constitution is long gone in place of a more dictatorial "freedom through security" approach. The plot focuses on Marcus, a teen who knows his way around computers big time and gets caught in a web thrown by local law enforcement in the minutes after a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Held against his will by DHS, he and his friends are terrorized by government interrogators only to be released after days of suffering and humiliation. On the outside he soon learns that in an effort to keep the city safe, its residents are being tracked and traced in an untold number of ways. Marcus decides to fight back, and much of the book follows his efforts as the unofficial leader of hundreds, if not thousands, of other teens who perform all manner of technological tricks to foil DHS's efforts to control everyone through spying. What drives Marcus is the disappearance of his best friend Darryl, who was lost the night of the attack and last seen being taken into custody.

There are holes in Doctorow's plot and moments where readers have to suspend their belief, not on the advanced technology he describes but in the characters' actions. There are no shades of grey here—the villains are really really bad guys who seem driven to imprison people for no good reason. While the Guantanamo parallels are obvious, these are American teenagers who don't have criminal records, and it all gets a bit hard to believe. There are also a few other plot points that seem to exist purely to keep Marcus moving in certain directions but do not stand up on their own. Doctorow is aiming high in a different direction from plot though; he wants a novel of big, fearsome ideas to make his readers think. He suggests that just as we have allowed TSA to control us in lines at the airport and DHS to craft the mother of all terrorism watch lists and the President to build an honest to God gulag on foreign shores for the sole purpose of circumventing U.S. law—well, we also might someday let a lot of innocent Americans be alternately controlled and terrorized on a daily basis because the government says it is for the best.

The book is not perfect, but it is a powerful thrill ride in which a group of smart teenagers are the only ones willing to stand up and take chances to make things right. In that respect, Doctorow has pulled off quite a coup. It's not often that teens can be realistic heroes; they usually need magic, James Bondian gadgets, or adult foils that are stratospherically stupid. Little Brother succeeds for its audience because in different ways you can see parts of this book happening, and when Marcus makes his stand, you want him to succeed—even if his reasons for doing so are a little bit of a stretch.

In Under My Roof Herbert becomes the unwitting accomplice when his father, suffering from multiple frustrations, pops a cork and builds a small nuclear device, which he then stores in a garden gnome for safe keeping. He declares their Long Island home as the new state of "Weinbergia" and henceforth independent from the U.S. What follows is the faxing of greetings and offers of peace with countries all over the world and discussions with the neighbors about the gnome and its trigger, which Mr. Weinberg happily carries around. Soldiers soon show up at the door along with the press and, rather quickly, a lot of other people who are fed up the country. They ask if they can emigrate to Weinbergia, and soon Herbert is sharing the bathroom with a lot of people he doesn't know and holding press conferences and very carefully mowing the lawn (where the gnome still resides).

As an added twist, Herbert is telepathic and filled with the thoughts of everyone around him. The telepathy is not a distraction from the plot; it is part of what makes Herbert a very quirky protagonist and provides him with a chance to one up the adults. This ability is critical when a small group of Weingbergians make a midnight run to a nearby gas station to assuage some chocolaty cravings and things get ugly in an unexpected way.

Mamatas does an excellent balancing job in Under My Roof between the national political story, the domestic struggle Herbert faces as he is stuck between his separated parents, and the growing awareness he has that people really do have the power to change the country. It is almost as if everyone has been saying and feeling and doing what the government wants for so long that they've forgotten that it is all about them—every decision the government makes is to one degree or another all about them. Herbert gets this, and in a slightly more off-balance way, so does his father. Their relationship, which is where Mamatas enjoys some of his funnier moments, is key to the story's success and manages to make this thoroughly off beat futuristic tale definitely relatable to present day coming-of-age stories. In the end I think Mamatas has pulled off something wonderful with Herbert's story: he gives readers a taut political SF thriller that manages to be equal parts suspenseful and humorous with a good dose of goofy family charm throw in. While Doctorow's book has gained a lot of attention, I think Under My Roof has flown under the radar; there is a lot of food for thought in this one, and it should not be missed.

Finally, Cecil Castellucci has been quietly making her case for the significance of public art in her two books for the DC Minx line of graphic novels. In The Plain Janes she introduced Jane, a victim of a terrorist bombing in "Metro City" who then moved with her parents to the safety of the suburbs. She can't let go of her unspoken relationship with a fellow victim, however, a young man who was grievously injured but had an art notebook that Jane saved. As she makes friends in her new school (all named Jane), Jane centers on art as proof that life is important. She and her friends begin performing guerilla art projects around their town, much to the consternation of many of the adults who see it as vandalism and seek a more secure (and thus controlled) environment. The first book ends with their largest project yet, in which Jane's crush is caught and the group seems poised to collapse in the face of the difficulties they are facing.

The new title, Janes in Love picks up immediately after the first, with the girls trying to stay in touch with their art goals while also entering into various romantic relationships. The primary Jane continues her pen pal relationship with her fellow terror victim and also struggles to persuade her mother that taking chances is the best way to celebrate freedom. The group fractures a bit (as friendships will in high school), and yet they try to remain committed to the cause of spreading art in new, innovative, and very public ways. The significance of art to a free society and the different ways that art can be perceived are central themes in Castellucci's stories and just as significant as her simultaneous coming-of-age storylines. The Janes are determined to make art, whether it involves hanging puppets from trees, laying out prom dresses in a parking lot (with the words "my body is beautiful"), or pasting posters on a fence that state "Free Art Now." As the girls and their friends become more daring and find their collective voice in the art projects, the strident voices of those who oppose them are more pronounced. But you have to ask while reading this book, who gets to decide what is art and what is vandalism? It's not an easy answer—one that has been debated for decades by many others who faced the same challenges as Castellucci's characters.

The grandfather of all books on graffiti culture is William Upksi Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs. "Bomb" in this case is not literal, but as the author explains: "I say bomb the suburbs because the suburbs have been bombing us for at least the last forty years. They have waged an economic, political, and cultural war on life in the city. The city has responded by declaring war on itself." The book is as much about hip hop, race, and urban versus suburban living as it is about graffiti, but it certainly serves as a fascinating historical reference on the art of spraying paint on buildings. Wimsatt uses interviews, letters, and a mix of topical essays and personal reflections to put together a collection that dares to demand equal respect for those who live in the city (and we're not talking a penthouse in Manhattan) and those who mow lawns in the leafy suburbs. In one interesting section he recounts the "Rules of Graffiti," which includes input from some of his readers like the following:

Cavemen did it, so did Romans and Egyptians. The Incas did it, so did the Greeks and Native Americans. There was graffiti on the New York Subway a year after it was built. There's graffiti on the moon. If graffiti is vandalism and vandalism is garbage, then man has left his mark with garbage all over the universe.

As a discussion of art versus vandalism and an exploration of why graffiti is so prevalent in cities versus suburbs, Bomb the Suburbs is enormously interesting social history. The language is rough, so this is strictly for older teens, but it weighs in on a subject that needs some cultural analysis. Castellucci could have set her Janes in a city neighborhood, but she doubtless would not have found the drama she was looking for; in the suburbs even using a clothes line is a decision heavy with drama about class and status. In the ongoing era of homeowners association and PC attitudes, we forget what it is to be brave. Even words in chalk carry significance now, if you live in place that prefers its sidewalks a pristine shade of white. Castellucci seeks to challenge that mindset, and teens reading her books will likely find themselves asking similar questions about who sets the rules and why.

Reading all of these books should make voters wonder just what it means to be safe, what it means to be free, and what it means to live in America. Hopefully from there readers will gain a new interest in the people running for office this fall, and in the significant power behind the choices we all will make.

 

This May Help You Understand the World
By Lawrence Potter
Marion Boyars 2008
ISBN 9780714531373
256 pages

Sunrise Over Fallujah
By Walter Dean Myers
Scholastic 2008
ISBN 9780439916240
290 pages

From Baghdad to America
By Jay Kopelman
Skyhorse Publishing 2008
ISBN 9781602392649
224 pages

The Betrayal of Africa
By Gerald Caplan
Groundwood 2008
ISBN 9780888998255
144 pages

The End of the Game
By Peter Beard
Taschen 2008
ISBN 9783836505307
280 pages

No Choirboy
By Susan Kuklin
Henry Holt 2008
ISBN 9780805079500
212 pages

Little Brother
By Cory Doctorow
Tor 2008
ISBN 9780765319852
382 pages

Under My Roof
By Nick Mamatas
Soft Skull 2006
ISBN 9781933368436
144 pages

Janes in Love
By Cecil Castellucci
DC 2008
ISBN 9781401213879
176 pages

Bomb the Suburbs
By William Upksi Wimsatt
Soft Skull 2007
ISBN 9781933368559
169 pages

 

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