Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006

Wading Toward Home by Michael Lewis
Are Iraqis Optimistic? by The Lincoln Group
Room No. 12 by Naguib Mahfouz

As you can see, I've been a very, very bad girl. Within the past three days, I have devoured the last half of TBA Nonrequired Reading 2006. I read it so uncharacteristically quickly that I didn't have time to keep up with their respective blog posts. As a result, I've decided to be lazy and economical with my space by attemping to squeeze my thoughts on the final half of TBA Nonrequired Reading into one post. (Large inhale.) Here it goes:

"Wading Towards Home", another personal account on the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in New Orleans (and after reading the articles in the New Yorker it feels as if I've read many), is surprisingly original. It has added a new layer to my understanding of the tragedy by telling the story of the people on the other side of town, opposite from those in the Lower Ninth Ward, the upper middle class. I haven't read too many stories about the people on the dry side of the flood most likely because most of them weren't the ones sitting on their roofs waiting for rescue, or herded into sports centers or shipped out on buses.

What I also didn't know is that some of those who did stay (or in some cases, came back) were preparing themselves for the race war of the century. At one point a misinformed police officer advises his white friends, "If I were you , I'd get the hell out of here. Tonight they gonna waste white guys, and they don't care which ones." Another young man who has just flown in on a Russian assualt helicopter (where in the world did he get that thing?) says, "Hell, yes, I was scared. We didn't know what to expect. We thought Zulu Nation might be coming out of the woods."

Yet, in all of his travels through his middle-class neighborhood, Lewis never comes across a raiding, bloodthirsty black person and it doesn't take a genius to figure that what the young militant man really meant was that he was hoping the Zulu nation might be coming out of the woods. Then he would have had a reason to shoot, therby giving him an outlet for his repressed racist anxiety.

This anxiety seems to be the real subject of "Wading Toward Home". Lewis writes, "They harbored a deep distrust of their own city and their fellow citizens - which is why they were so quick to believe the most hysterical rumors about one another." However, Lewis is optimistic: "The ghosts have been flushed out of their hiding places; now there's a chance to chase them away, or at least holler at the a bit." I wish I could be as optimistic as Lewis. I wish I could believe that the floods exposed the nastiness hiding in New Orleans, which will then melt away like the water flowing back into the sea. I wish I could, but I don't. I will hope though.

"Are Iraqis Optimistic?", a newspaper article written by an American soldier posing as an Iraqi journalist who denounces terrorism and puts a positve spin on the Iraqi, is a part of a PR campaign sponsored by the Pentagon. There isn't anything surprising in this piece. In fact, once you know who's writing it, the article says everything you would expect it to say. For instance: "Our national wealth is once again our own, instead of that of a terrible dictator. Hundreds of thousands of satellite TVs are in Iraqi homes...most important, we can now practice our religion as we choose, whether we are Sunni, Shia, or Christian." Huh. No comment. The only thing surprising about this piece was its existance but, then again, even that's not a surprise - not in the world we live in today.

I'm not quite sure what I think about "Room No. 12" by Naguib Mahfouz. Its ending in certainly a suprise. Mass murder by drowning is not quite how I expected the story to fold. I suppose, however, when one considers the hotel manager, a man so in need of control that he becomes unhinged when he's presented with a situation beyond his comprehension and power, a situation which comes in the form of mysterious woman and a large party, the fact that he condems the party to death is not so much of a surprise. After he gives the order that the people in Room No. 12 should be left to drown, Mahfouz writes, "...he felt his great burden lighten, as his confidence returned with his clarity of mind." As it turns out, in the little world of his hotel, the manager is nothing more than a petty dictator and he acts the part to perfection.

Ok ladies and gents, it's getting late and I'm zoning out. I think this is as good a place as any to stop so I will. I promise I'll finish this post tomorrow. Until then...night, night.

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, pt. 1

by Nick Hornby
The Preface

I've decided today that I will begin reading the one book on my shelf that is sure to break my heart with jealousy - Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. If you will remember, this is the book that plummeted me into a pit of depression when I discovered that Hornby, a much better and more successful writer than I could ever hope to be, was doing what I'm trying to with this blog in a monthly column for "The Believer." I bought it grudgingly because reading it would be an education after all and, as an aspiring writer who's never had a thing published, well I should be in the business educating myself. So I've begun reading The Dirt and damnit so far it's great. I hate it.

I hate it not only because Hornby, a writer of whom I had promised to steer clear (I really did hate How to Be Good - really), is a much better writer than I am, or not even only because he has my dream job ("Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which is read the books I wanted to read."), but also because Hornby tells the world the message I had always thought it was my duty and destiny to impart: Reading should always be pleasurable and if it isn't you should be reading something else. Hornby writes, "...if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a TV program."

Not only has Hornby taken my message but - and here's the real kicker - he's inspired me. He's finally turned up the volume to the little voice inside my head, the one that I've been ignoring for the past two months, which has been telling me that I need to put Jared Diamond's Collapse down and simply walk away. Slogging through that book has been a dreadful chore. Hornby has forced me to realize that by continuing to read it, I'm merely reinforcing the despicable myth that "books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good." So I'm putting it down and picking up The Dirt.

I can't claim that I don't feel the sour swallow of jealousy worming its way around in my belly still but I'll get over it. Who knows, maybe I'll learn something while I'm at it.

Letting Go of God?

by Julia Sweeney
from The Best American Nonrequired Reading

These days it seems as if God and who's a "true believer" or not is on everyone's mind. I suppose I shouldn't say everyone, if who I really mean are the politicians running in the 2008 presidential election hoping to get the religious right votes which ferried Bush into office twice, those people who are the religious right, and those of us deathly afraid that those religious right folks might give us another pean of Bush-style religious sanctity.

But its relevancy to the political environment isn't what makes Julia Sweeney's autobiographical piece which charts the devolution of her belief in God such a wonderful read. It was wonderful because - and I'm being completely subjective here - I related to her journey every step of the way. Step one: The smug superiority Sweeny feels towards the Mormons who come knocking on her door, I've felt that. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, which is as much a fringe faith as Mormonism is but I still felt that sting of superiority when I could question my Baptist friends on the origin of Christmas accutremon and they would come up empty.

But then, Sweeny writes, "I realized that I had been getting a bit lazy about my faith...So I decided to rededicate myself to my church." That's step two, we have in common, except my rededication wasn't a result of missionary Mormons but the consequence of reading a library pamphlet which included an unflattering history of Jehovah's Witness. That's one of the few places Sweeny and I diverge - Sweeny rededicates herself to her faith to prove herself right. I rededicated myself to prove someone else wrong. Our rededications both had the same result though: surprised disgust, growing disbelief, and an undying hope that things are going to get better as soon as we learned a bit more and had a little more faith.

During my own Bible study and struggle, I too had the conversation that Sweeny has with her priest as he tries to explain away her confusion and disillusionment with the Old Testament: "Well, the Exodus story is myth in the sense that it never actually happened. But it's not a myth in the fact that the story was believed by a group of people who shaped their identity in the world based on thinking it was true...You have to read [the Bible] with the eyes of faith," the priest says. That speech didn't work for Sweeny and neither did it work for me. I mean really, if the priest is right then he can't seriously argue that there's any difference between Christianity and Greek mythology if it's all based on myth, nor from any other religion in history of the world for that matter. What religion in the world isn't used by its believers to shape their identity in the world? According to the words of the priest - and according to the words of my own spiritual leader - it's not required that the stories in the bible be true, only that we believe they're true. If that's not the largest crock of bull I don't know what is.

And finally Sweeny and I took that last step together: Admitting to ourselves that we believe there is no God and learning how to live with that. "And I began to see the world completely differently," Sweeny writes. And she's right, you do. Sometimes the world looks better than the way it did before with God in it and sometimes it looks worse but mostly it just is.

"Letting Go of God" is a journey. Like any good journey, there's suspense, drama, love, and loss. I loved it because it's a journey I've taken. You'll love it too because it's a journey we should all take, even if we don't end up in the same place.