Saturday, May 05, 2007

Books & Stuff

At the end of April I spent a week away at a training class (Please feel free to call on me for any and all of your interest based negotiation needs. After a week of training I feel like Gandhi.) After returning to the real world, I got very excited about writing a piece on graphic novels. I spent a week putting it together in my spare minutes. It was a beautiful work of art. Seriously Pulitzer Prize winning stuff. Then my computer at work ate it.

I'm not an eejit when it comes to computers. I looked all the obvious and non obvious places, but alas. It seems to have evaporated. I'm not quite ready to give up on it and re-write it (because it will be written my friends, one way or another), and I plan to pester the IT guys good and well tomorrow.

I went to not one but two movies last week, but unfortunately neither of them jazzed me enough to write much about them. They were Miss Potter and The Year of the Dog. Not great. Not bad. Not a complete waste of time, but neither rocked my world either. So, until the fabulous graphic novel article is found or re-written, and/or I see or hear something sock blowing, I thought I'd share with you some of the books I've been reading and enjoying lately.

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley -

Thanks to my high level, perks replete job in public libraries, I often find myself in possession of advance reader copies of books. After doing this job for ten (aack!) or so years, one even finds oneself getting quite blase about them. Oh, wow, another Sophie Kinsella clone about a sassy professional woman approaching 30 or 40 or (god forbid) 50 whose incisive intellect and wit frighten all the men around her to flee from her stupendous size six self to sub-zero sized model/actresses. How unique. Hey, if you want to be really original, why don't you put a picture of expensive Italian 3 inch heels on the cover? No one's ever done that before.

Every once in a while, though, a title comes through that does, in fact, still has what it takes to blow my skirt up. Boomsday by Christopher Buckley falls into that category. I eagerly read anything written by Buckley, and would have read it regardless of topic. But, as it happens, Boomsday is about something I can actually relate to: the culture clash between the Baby Boom generation and all that followed.

Buckley writes satirical novels with outrageous enough plots to be superbly entertaining but with enough true to life details, particularly of the swirling cesspool of Beltway politics, that you almost feel smarter for having read it, despite enjoying yourself fully.

The star of Boomsday is PR executive Cassandra Devine who, in her spare time, runs a blog devoted to agitating young generations against the massive Baby Boomer Social Security debt. Say what? Funny Social Security reform? In a not so subtle homage to Jonathan Swift, whose Modest Proposal suggested that the Irish could simultaneously solve the unemployment and famine problems by selling their children as food, Cassandra proposes that the government offer the ominous hordes of retiring Baby Boomers incentives for killing themselves. Her crazy idea gets the attention of an attention seeking congressman who wants to ride the ensuing publicity storm into the White House.

It's typical Buckley stuff. Funny, irreverent, bi-partisan heckling. It's not quite as good as Thank You For Smoking, or even Florence of Arabia, but it's a great weekend read.

Holidays in Hell by P.J. O'Rourke

I found Holidays in Hell at the local used bookstore and, after purchasing, discovered that it was inscribed:

To Bart, Good luck with the article (just make it up!) P.J. O'Rourke, Dec 1, 1989

Dunno who this Bart is, but I'm flattered to think that P.J. won't mind me taking the inscription as my own.

Reading Holidays in Hell is a nostalgia trip, or perhaps an acid flashback, depending on your point of view. The book, first published in 1989, is a collection of essays O'Rourke wrote during the '80s about various parts of the globe, near and far, and the various messes these parts managed to get themselves into, with and without U.S. help. During the time O'Rourke wrote the pieces in Holiday in Hell, the Axis of Evil was Russia-Iran-Russia, with Libya, China and possibly Korea waiting in the wings. George the Pere was the only Bush worth worrying about, and he wasn't even running things yet. Ah, the good old days.

We revisit some almost forgotten classic global shitstorms of yore. Anyone remember the U.S. bombing Libya? Anyone? Muammar al-Gaddafi? If you find yourself thinking, huh, whatever DID happen to that dude, well, I'll tell you. He's still running Libya, although apparently in a way that is now acceptable to the U.S., unlike the 80s when he ran around privatizing U.S. air force bases and nationalizing Libyan oil, pretty much the opposite of what the U.S. had in mind.

We visit cheerful global outposts like post-Marcos Phillipines, Contra-ville Nicaragua, North Korea when Pappy Il-Jung was still in charge and Epcot Center. Along the way O'Rourke drops his trademark acidicisms like "Is Nicaragua a Bulgaria with marimba bands, or just a misunderstood Massachusetts with Cuban military advisors?" He visits some places, like still Communist Poland and still Apartheid South Africa, which one can confidently think, wow, things sure have improved. Other places he visits, like Lebanon, Korea and Palestine, make one feel the wheels of progress grinding ever backwards.

O'Rourke is unapologetically crotchety and conservative, though it's the old school conservatism one hardly sees anymore, at least in avowed conservatives. Reporting on the momentous occasion of Gorbechov's visit to the United States in 1987, P.J. comments on the irony of the American left's love fest for Gorby:

"This is a bit of a mystery since Communists and Republicans both hate liberals. Regan believes that liberals should be deported to Russia, and Gorbachev believes they should be sent to Siberia. The two sides are in perfect agreement on this point."

My favorite essay in Holidays in Hell is "Among the Euro Weenies", detailing a month in 1986 when O'Rourke was stranded in Europe while trying, unsuccessfully, to fly to Libya just as the U.S. began it's bombing campaign. Instead of getting to hang out with his reporter buddies in a war zone, O'Rourke must spend a month in various European countries arguing with airline representatives and catching endless flack from Europeans for the bombing campaign. Although this took place mere months after the Russians almost successfully poisoned all of Europe with Chernobyl, the streets of most European cities were filled with protesters against the United States, and most conversations O'Rourke had were with people accusing him of unhealthy affection for John Wayne and American Imperialism; wanting to build McDonald's everywhere and itching to start World War III. (Never mind the fact that World War III would be antithetical to McDonald's plan to take over the world's food supply.)

I enjoyed this article because, in fact, it absolutely mirrored my own experience while traveling in Europe in 1992. At that time, all were in uproar over Gulf War, the first. McDonald's seem to be a particular bone of contention with many Europeans, which actually led to one of my most satisfying experiences. My friend and I were visiting a friend of hers and his brother, for the sake of jingoistic stereotyping, let's call them Hans and Franz. Hans was a lovely man and a gracious host, but Franz had United States issues. Many of these issues could be traced to his year as an exchange student at the University of Louisiana which happened to coincide with the shooting of Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student, by an overzealous homeowner. So, you know, a kinder person might cut him some slack, but by that point I'd been in Europe seven months and had spent seven months politely smiling while perfect strangers screamed at me about American foreign policy.

I should mention here that I've always been liberal. For the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote, I walked two miles along a grassy highway median to vote for Dukakis. I'd decided that if George I had been re-elected in the '92 elections, I wasn't going to return to the United States. I wasn't a fan, but months of abuse from perfect strangers about forty years of U.S. foreign policy would be enough to make Barbra Streisand re-consider her party affiliation.

Anywho, Franz made all the usual whines about the evil US. During dinner out one evening a small child at a table next to us made a comment which made Hans laugh. Loosely translated what he said was "But grandma, television without a VCR is like television without cable". We all laughed, except Franz who grumbled "You see? THIS is what America has done to us." Without much thought I shot back "Well you didn't have to BUY it. Besides, I think if you look on the back of your TV, it was probably made in Japan." At that point, it was game on between me and Franz.

One day Hans & Franz took us sightseeing in a beautiful town called Trier. It was just around Christmas, Christmas Eve, or the day after, which meant that many things were closed. At a certain point, my friend and I decided that we were cold and hungry and would like to stop for a nosh, which we suggested to our escorts. Perhaps enraged at our desire to deviate from the day's scheduled activities, Franz snapped "I suppose you wish to go to McDonald's" with as much disdain as an angry German can muster. Uh, no. We just want to stop somewhere heated for a coffee, for chrissake.

We walked block after block past shops and cafes closed for the holiday, at which point we rounded a corner and, behold, the only place open on this day of days, this manger for lost souls, packed to the gills with people lining up out the door, was a McDonald's. In the words of Nelson Munz: "HA HA!" I've never been so happy to see a McDonald's in my life, before or since.

My point, and I do have one, is that reading P.J.'s essay made me realize that apparently, regardless of what may be happening in the world, Europeans are never so happy as when they are miserable about U.S. foreign policy. As someone who likes Europe and Europeans, it seems clear that our best course of action as a country is to continue pissing them off every way possible. In fact, it seems very likely that we will continue to piss them off, regardless of what we do.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars by Max Brooks

In 1984 historian Studs Terkel published The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. A collection of firsthand accounts of World War II from a broad cross section of American society, The Good War offers real insight into the war and its impact at home and abroad. It reveals some of the ugly truths about the war which history has tended to polish over, such as the massive racism facing many soldiers within the armed forces, and, in general effectively shows that while nations may wage wars, they are ultimately fought by individuals.

I will be the first person to admit how utterly bizarre it is that a book about the world under siege by zombies reminds me of nothing so much as The Good War, but there it is. The similarity is, I'm sure, not a mistake. Max Brooks has created a story told entirely through "interviews" with people from all over the world recounting their experiences with the horrible time when the earth was overrun by a nasty virus which transformed victims into the living evil dead. The conceit of the book is complete and seamless, from the introduction explaining the genesis of the book during the author's research for the United Nations' Postwar Commission Report to the grave review bites on the back discussing the importance of the work for future generations understanding of this horrible time.

Lest I make this book sound like some kind of tedious homework assignment, let me assure you that it is a (sorry, pun intended) scrumptious treat. The "realism" only adds to the creepy, compelling story tracing the plague's odd genesis (accidental or engineered?) in rural China to its terrifying spread to almost every continent, decimating populations, destroying civil order and unity and basically grossing everybody out. The zombies are perfect zombies: they're slow moving, lumbering, moaning, rotting corpses whose success lie in their overwhelming numbers, rather than any sort of tactical skills. They can't climb and have the ill luck of freezing in the winter, but they remain animated underwater, so don't try escaping by diving into the pool.

When it comes to understanding history, governments and military, Brooks has the details right. The world does not unite in face of this threat, but fractures. State of the art military weaponry fail spectacularly. The only way to kill these bastards is bashing their brains out, one at a time. To complete the verisimilitude there is even a website which allows visitors to measure their likelihood of survival during a zombie invasion. Mine is an uninspiring 36%, although reading the book I'm surprised it's not lower. Clearly I need to take up some kind of sword training, and perhaps move to a tree house.

1 comment:

Lopez Kilpatrick said...

Great posting! Ah, yes, I do remember our trip with Hans and Franz. As Kati says, Franz was incensed that we would eat at McDonald's during our trip to German. So pissed in fact that he stomped off to find someplace else that was open. By the time he came back he was frozen, and even more pissed. Kati and I were snacking, and Hanz was happily eating his way through a double order of fries and apple pie, plus not one but two quarter pounders with Franz's then girlfriend. And after all that stomping around, the only place that Franz had found open for lunch was... wait for it... a pizza joint. Now boy howdy, that's German!