Monday, January 30, 2012

Rick Santorum Will Not Be Babysitting America

Since his strong showing in Iowa, there’s been lots of talk about former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s prospects for winning the Republican nomination for president. I’ll take this opportunity to put those ruminations to bed: He has absolutely no chance. Oddsmakers at Intrade put the chances of him dropping out of the race before February 5th at 55 percent. (If you’re the wagering type, you can bet on it yourself for $6.50 a share the last time I checked.)
Santorum’s defect—if it can be whittled down to just one—is that he lacks the popular appeal and unifying message to beat Barack Obama next year, which has become the single overarching caveat for winning the GOP’s nomination. In particular, his divisive stance on social issues like contraception, homosexuality and women’s rights—and the offensive comments that often accompany it—place him to the right of most Republicans and has made him a pariah among everyone else, including progressives, centrists, moderates and Libertarians. Click here to read this at The Philly Post.

Friday, January 27, 2012

One From The Stacks: The Bridge on the Drina

“Of all the things that life drives man to shape and build, none, I think, is as precious as bridges . . . They serve no arcane or evil purpose.” - Ivo Andrić

When he drafted that sentence, Bosnian writer Ivan "Ivo" Andrić would have had no way of knowing that the object that inspired its writing -- and became the backdrop for the book that helped win him a coveted Nobel Prize for Literature – would one day run red with the blood of innocents, bearing witness to the very evil of which he absolved it.

Last week I went to see the film In The Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut about the Siege of Sarajevo. Shot over 42 days mostly in Hungary, Jolie relied on Bosnian and Serb cast members to tell the story of forbidden love between a Serb captain and his Muslim prisoner. The film generated significant controversy in Bosnia and was protested by both rape victims – who found the love affair between jailer and victim offensive – and ethnic Serbs – who objected to what they saw as the vilification of their national identity. I think that caught Jolie off guard a bit since both she and Brad consider themselves deeply committed to social advocacy issues and have their own multi-ethnic brood to prove it.

At one point Jolie even lost permission to film in Sarajevo; it was eventually restored but filming was nevertheless cut from ten to just three days, during which the Academy Award-winning actress ceded directorial responsibility to an assistant. I guess you can't please everyone.

I personally found the film moving and insightful, and balanced on the whole, albeit historically restrained (the Serbs, it should be noted, were the victims of their own ethnic cleansing during the First and Second World Wars at the hands of Croatian Catholics and Muslims, an injustice that is mentioned only in passing in the movie.)

Anyone whose ever met a Serb knows them to be extremely proud people – a nationality grounded in a sense of place and history. A people who stick together, for better of worse. Albanians are the same. I knew lots of Albanians when I worked in the restaurant industry and I can tell you, they have no doubt that they are the proverbial shit. Americans find this somewhat hard to understand. Not that we don't think we're the shit, but it's different. We're the shit by association, by hard work and military might, by hubris and a sense of collective entitlement, perhaps. But not by genetics. That's because we live in a new country defined by its heterogeneity; Serbia on the other hand is the grizzled old man of nations. Opinionated, coarse, boastful. Serbs will talk about the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 AD, which paved the way for centuries of Ottoman rule, like it happened yesterday; and many still sees it as a personal affront, one that has yet to be avenged. For them the war was nothing less than a crusade for payback. The Battle of Kosovo comes up briefly during the movie In the Land of Blood and Honey, in a conversation between two Serb soldiers, and it made me think of Andrić's book.

A Croat and a Catholic, Andrić was born in 1892 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had only recently changed hands from the Ottomans to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He was raised in Višegrad on the river Drina in eastern Bosnia, which would become the setting of the book The Bridge on the Drina, and, many years later, the backdrop for bloody ethnic violence during the Bosnian civil war.

His muse, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, was completed in 1577 AD by the Ottoman court architect Mimar Sinan. It was named in honor of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, an Ottoman statesman who was brought to the court in Istanbul as part of the Devshirme program -- which is featured in the opening of Andrić's book. Under Devshirme, young Christian boys were taken from their families and forced into service of the Sultan as Janisarries – a professional military class. Andrić begins The Bridge on the Drina with a description of Mehmed Pasha's kidnapping:

“On that November day in one of those countless panniers a dark skinned boy of about ten years old from the mountain village of Sokolovici sat silent and looked about him with dry eyes. In a chilled and reddened hand he held a small curved knife with which he absent-mindedly whittled at the edges of the pannier, but at the same time looked about him. He was to remember that stony bank overgrown with spars, bare and dull grey willows, the surly ferry-man and the dry water-mill full of draughts and spiders' webs where they had to spend the night before it was possible to transport all of them across the troubled waters of the Drina over which the ravens were croaking.”

I probably read The Bridge on the Drina in a week, maybe a bit more, riding its pages across four centuries, from Mehmed Pasha's midnight ride, through the bloody Serbian revolts against Turkish despotism, the reconquest of large swaths of the Balkans by Austria Hungary, and, in the end, the sound of German boots and exploding Serb shells announcing the start of the Great War.

The book's main character, its protagonist, is the bridge itself, sturdily observing generations of peasants and traveling nobles, conniving officials, soldiers and bandits, while reclining figures lounged upon its kapia drinking Turkish coffee from brass cups. It witnessed song and courtship, executions and betrayal, and the shouts of Muslim and Christian children playing in its shadow, because during their years of shared triumph and hardship, “Turks, Christians and Jews mingled together."

Andrić won the Nobel Prize for his body of work in 1961 and died in 1975. Two decades later Višegrad, would be the scene of some of the worst ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian civil war. Hundreds of Bosnian women were raped, and Andrić's noble bridge became a killing field as victim after victim of the Serb paramilitaries was dumped into the Drina, turning its turqouise waters crimson and its parapets oily and slick.

And as it has done for centuries, “The bridge remained as if under a death sentence, but none the less still whole and untouched between the two warring sides.”


The Bridge on the Drina (paperback)
By Ivo Andrić
Published by University of Chicago Press (1977)
Originally published in 1945 by Prosveta Publishing Co., Belgrade
Translated from Serbo Croat by Lovett F. Edwards
Introduction by William H. McNeill
Purchase date unknown; bought used; price $0.50 (price inscribed in pencil on title page)
Condition: Good (slight cover damage)

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Monday, January 23, 2012

For the love of books

One from the stacks: Giving my books a second life on the Web

Like most writers I have a lot of books. They surround me while I work and I find that soothing and dispiriting at the same time. They remind me of all the work I haven't done; and sometimes that makes me want to give it all up and get a normal job like everyone else. A job that ends at five o'clock and requires no more of me than can be crammed into the space of eight hours and five days, so that the rest of the time I can do all the other things I enjoy, like running and cooking and dining out and drawing, and playing drums and just sitting in front of the television with my wife and my dog without feeling like I should be in front of the keyboard...well, writing.

Writing for a living (or more accurately, assuming anyone cares what you write) can lead, if unchecked, to unrestrained arrogance; and the presence of books, lots of books – by writers much better than myself – helps keep me in my place. But more often they are less trenchant, reminding me that I am engaged in a timeless pursuit, a linguistic crusade for truth and beauty that I should be honored to count myself a part of it. I know I'm not alone in saying books – printed books, on paper, not electrically charged particles of liquid crystal – are inspirational.

I've never counted my books, nor do I have a reasonable estimate of how many I might have. Sometimes they are an immense burden. And I mean that in the literal sense. Books are heavy as shit, and hard as hell to move. At 41 I just bought my very first house; in other words I've spent the entirety of my adult life as a renter, moving myself and my books an average of once every two years. It's a pain in the ass, and I know I've stayed places (and with people) longer than I would have liked to because of my reluctance to pack my books.

Every time I move, my books are the first things boxed and the last unpacked. Also with each move I invariably determine that when I finally get around to unpacking them, I will catalog them in some relevant way – typically in the standard manner, alphabetically by author; but on at least one occasion I settled on regional classifications subcategorized by genre (Continental fiction, American nonfiction, English get the idea). This has yet to happen, which can make looking for an individual volume frustrating to the point of madness. As you can see from the photograph above (which shows just a tiny corner of one shelf) more often than not my library endures in perpetual disarray, a prolonged state of literary anarchy in need of a bibliophilic Dear Leader to instill order and discipline.

Given all the drawbacks of mass book ownership it shouldn't come as a surprise to know that I sometimes question the rationale of carrying these thousands of pages around at all. On more than one occasion I've considered tossing them, or more likely giving them away. Once, many years ago, I sold my entire collection to a young entrepreneur who was trying to open an indy bookstore (a noble if foolish endeavor). I needed the money. And he needed the books. I don't remember getting much for them, but it was enough for what I needed at the time. I never did get to visit the store and can't say with any certainty if it ever even opened.

I've since replaced some of the books I sold (a collection of Paul Bowles' short stories comes to mind). I wouldn't sell my books now. Mostly because I no longer see them as individual items, commodities if you will, but as something much more personal: A library is an intellectual self-portrait of he who created it.

I do however occasionally commit to whittling down my library and disposing of the more expendable volumes. I like placing them in a box in front of my house and watching from the window as passersby rifle through the books I've determined are no longer worthy of standing sentry on my shelf. Let them bother someone else for a while.

Yet I'm still plagued by the notion that my books are waiting for something to happen that never will. Do they tire of being shuffled from place to place, collecting dust in between moves? I make sure to give them attention. I like pulling them down at random and flipping through the pages. Sometimes I find old notes, bookmarks from bookstores that I visited that no longer exist, or highlighted passages that long ago had meaning. Sometimes the words still do and it's like finding a little piece of treasure I'd forgotten I had. Other times, removed from whatever context inspired me to make the notation in the first place, they are cryptic messages from another time, another me, and I take pleasure in trying to decipher their (and my) meaning. But except for a handful of favorites, I rarely read books twice. There are too many unread ones that still require my attention.

It's high time that I did my books some justice. With more and more people turning to e-readers and tablets, the printed book needs it more than ever. So I've decided to give my own modest collection a renewed purpose, and hopefully give something to you at the same time.

At random intervals (i.e. when I feel inspired to and have the time) I will feature a single volume from my library with a brief (or sometimes not so brief) assessment of what it meant to me and why I think you should read it (or not).

I won't tell you I'm going to work through my entire library. For one thing I'll probably lose interest before long and then I'd have made a promise I can't, or won't keep. And anyway not every book in my library is worthy of the time. Not to mention, I haven't read them all. Any true bibliophile who tells you they have is lying through their teeth. As I've already noted, book collecting is as much about being in the presence of great books as it is about reading them. Which is why, no matter how many e-readers are sold and how many e-books marketed, the printed volume will always have a place in the world of the true lover of literature. This is my way of honoring my library – or part of it at least – with a second life on the Web. 

One From The Stacks Archives

The Bridge on the Drina, By Ivo Andrić

The Art of Eating, By M.F.K. Fischer

Justine, By Lawrence Durrell

The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, By Joseph Goebbels

Burning Chrome, By William Gibson

Collected Stories (1936-1976), Without Stopping, Paul Bowles 

Last Exit to Brooklyn, By Hubert Selby Jr. 

The Journals of André Gide, By André Gide

Sunday, January 22, 2012

U.S. military's reprehensible history of animal cruelty

"Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” — Milan Kundera

Some things just can’t be unseen. They etch themselves into our consciousness waiting for the right moment to leap into view and remind us how utterly contemptible the world can be, and, too frequently, the depths of depravity to which humans willfully descend.

Last week, as the major networks and newspapers burned hot with the story of four young U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of several dead Taliban fighters somewhere in the unforgiving wilds of war-torn Afghanistan, a video crossed my desk showing U.S. service members engaged in behavior so barbarous that it makes piss-gate look like a Boy Scout cookout. And yet, despite the fact that it depicts similarly clad troops operating in the same theater of war, chances are you haven’t even heard about it. Click here to read more at The Philly Post...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Defending Monogamy or How Gay Unions Can Save Marriage

In December, the Pew Research Center released a study revealing what many people of my generation already know: Fewer Americans are choosing to get married these days than at any other time in our nation’s history. Barely half of adult Americans are married today. By contrast, when my parents were getting hitched in 1963, 72 percent of their peers were joining them at the altar.

And yet at the same time straight people are rejecting the institution of marriage, tens of thousands of homosexuals—many of whom are already in long-term committed relationships—are fighting for the right to partake of it. As a married heterosexual, let me just say I’m pulling for them. Contrary to popular conservative rhetoric, allowing gay people to formally acknowledge their commitment to each other won’t doom marriage; instead, it might just save it. Click here to read this piece at The Philly Post.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Culture War will be won by attrition

On Tuesday, Iowans officially christened the 2012 primary season, handing Mitt Romney an oh-so-subtle early victory and, sadly, putting an end to the colorful and entertaining campaign of Michele Bachmann.

It’s nothing to get excited about. The Iowa Caucuses are notoriously unrepresentative. More than 90 percent of the state is white, and upwards of 70 percent of Iowans identify themselves as evangelical Christians (not exactly an ideal cross section of America, or even the GOP for that matter). Yet, as I watched the results roll across the television screen and read about them later in the paper, the ritual got me thinking about Republican voters—their hopes, fears and motivations—and, more generally, those of the roughly 50 percent of Americans of all stripes who will likely turn up at the polls next November.

What is it that makes them tick?

We think we know the answer: It’s the economy, stupid. Only it’s not. Click here to read at the Philly Post

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Needles and the damage done

With a single sentence buried in the 1,200-page omnibus spending package for 2012, signed into law last week by President Obama, social conservatives in the House quietly took a hatchet to one of the most effective strategies cities have for preventing the spread of HIV. The provision ended federal support for needle exchange programs that have been backed by most major health organizations, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Obama himself.

The subcommittee responsible for the rider is led by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R., Mont.), who once told a reporter: "The problem with AIDS is, you got it, you die. So why are we spending money on the issue?" AIDS advocates say the change will likely doom countless addicts to contracting HIV as well as hepatitis C. Click here to read at The Philadelphia Inquirer...