Monday, November 21, 2005

A Day in the Life of the Book Fair

It's hard to believe, but I've been coming to the Miami Book Fair for 22 years, since it first began. During that time it rapidly matured from something that could have been a flash in the pan into the premier such event in the country.

Maybe it has something to do with publishers living in New York, which is growing grayer and colder by mid-November, while Miami is usually waiting for its first cool spell of the fall. But if it were only the weather, then surely mid-winter would be the time to insure the biggest draw.

Instead, what has insured the Fair's success is the maturing of community support. More than the existence of financial grants, it is the dedication of those who make it happen--people like Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books&Books, our favorite area book store--and those who turn out in droves to attend the hundreds of readings it produces, not only on the weekend of the Street Fair but throughout the year.

The Book Fair plays no small part in supporting the community of writers in the region. Writers, both successful and aspiring, have an annual fountain of inspiration in their midst, a chance to see and hear and hang out with some of the most notable figures in print.

I long ago gave up trying to take it all in. It's not possible. The readings take place simultaneously in twelve different rooms ranging in size from the large auditorium that seats up to a thousand down to intimate classroom or gallery spaces--even, in the case of The Spoken Word Cafe, a tent. And they last from 10 am to past 5 pm. Even if you don't eat (and who can pass up the opportunity to purchase overpriced fair food washed down with a five-dollar lemonade?) and even if you try to limit yourself to the things that interest you most, there are still schedule conflicts that force you to make tough choices, or to duck out of the question session at the end of one reading and sneak into the middle of another one already in progress. On top of that, you have to find at least a little time to do some book shopping in the stalls on the street.

But then, that's the fun of it. For a reader, the chance to wallow in readings of this quality, so plentiful that you can't do them all, amid heaps and stacks and racks full of books, is a feast that naturally belongs where it is on the calendar, right before Thanksgiving.

Just to give you a taste, here's how my own choices ran this year:


We arrived late but still caught the second of two travelogs. Elliot Hester, a native Miamian who spent a year making his way around the world, has written Adventures of a Continental Drifter. He entertained us with a tale about the night he was nearly beaten to a pulp by the martial arts bouncers in a tourist trap in Bangkok, saved only by his remote resemblance to boxer Mike Tyson. A lot more fun to hear about than to live through!

11:30 found us basking in the warm rays of Carribean culture. Robert Antoni took us through an all-night muddy bash during Carnival in Trinidad--enough to make you want a shower by the time he was done.

Then Pablo Medina shifted gears to the complete introspection of his cigar-maker invalid, a transplant from Cuba to Ybor City (near Tampa) where he was felled by a stroke and turned into a bed-ridden patient, unable to move. I've never heard such material so vividly portrayed since I read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, about a more horrifically afflicted veteran of World War I.

Finally Marlon James captivated us with his gossiping old Jamaican ladies and an account of how the "Rum Preacher" came to a bad end. As they say in the islands, "soon come, mon."

At 12:30 it was time to do politics. We sat in on George Packer's presentation on The Assassin's Gate, his study of how things are going in Iraq (the short version: not well). Hard to believe there has been enough time for him to research and write on this subject while it is still unfolding daily, but his interviews with people "on the ground," as opposed to those in high places, have yielded rich fruit.

The other member of this panel (David Rieff had to cancel) was Jonathan Ralston Reid, a Canadian who has written The Collapse of Globalism. This is not something he's predicting, but something which has already happened, according to his interpretation. All the promises of the "new world order" having failed, with the opposite results all around us, does make it look as if the emperor paid too much for those invisible clothes.

I'm pleased to be able to count some of the authors as friends and mentors. After lunch we had poetry for dessert at the reading of James Brock (friend), Michael Hettich (maybe not quite friend but certainly acquaintance), and Campbell McGrath (closer to the mentor category since my workshop with him at the Seaside Writer's Conference). It was good to note how "friendly" these differing voices were with one another. And always a pleasure to listen to.

[An example of schedule conflict here -- one of our friends was notably absent because she just HAD to see novelist Amy Tan, currently appearing in another building.]

But we weren't done yet. At 4 p.m. we heard Bruce Feiler on Where God Was Born. Feiler is personally exploring the historical landscape of the Bible, visiting such places as the Garden of Eden (currently paved). His earlier work, Walking the Bible, will soon make an appearance as a Public TV documentary series. Consult your local listings.

Also on this panel was former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who has written a scholarly Life of David. Most memorable for me in his presentation was the description of what happened to the Israelites after they arrived in the Promised Land. Miffed at the way they behaved, the vindictive God that they had back then arranged for an army to come in and move them back out. The lesson in this was that the important, essential thing was not having a nation, or a temple, or even a rabbi or priest, but that every person would have their own relationship with God. It was a maturing of the concept of religion, and emphasized that religious experience was directly available to each individual.

Sherwin B. Nuland was the final participant in this session, and introduced me to someone I was ignorant of: Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 13th century who dared to correct the Talmud if it differed from the opinions of science. Where is he when we need him?

By now you catch the drift--we're only at the end of day one, and worn out. Time to ride the people-mover down to Pericone's Italian eatery, and to dine amid the outdoor foliage.


We launched into Sunday with John Dufresne (both friend and mentor) who regaled us with more samples from Johnny Too Bad (which might have been titled The Further Adventures of Spot the Dog). I confess I have not yet finished this book, though I already own an autographed copy. The way things are going, John may have read it to me by then. He also gave us a new "found" story ("I no longer make things up, I just write them down.") about a green-card wedding and its aftermath.

John's partner for this session was Richard McCann, a new discovery for me. McCann's careful, intimate prose cuts close to the emotional bone. And I was delighted to hear him relate how long he labors compulsively over his revisions.

Interestingly, both authors had photographs to back up their tales, prompting me to think we should all have to prove the veracity of our fiction by presenting the evidence.

On the advice of my sister-in-law we hastened over to the auditorium at 1:00 to catch Jonathan Safran Foer reading from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Mr. Foer is entirely too well poised and assured for someone of his tender years and has no right to be able to write as he does, with wonderful inventiveness and killingly accurate insight. Media hype has not obscured the scale of this talent which, if we're lucky, will be with us for quite awhile. Our time was well spent.

At 3:00 we attended Science Matters, which was broadcast live on CSPAN. It seems a new publisher, Atlas Books, is bringing out a continuing series of science books written by novelists for the lay reader. The idea is to come up with eminently readable and interesting treatments on the lives and works of scientists.

Judging by the three examples, the project is off to a great start. In The Discoveries, Alan Lightman has documented a number of scientific breakthroughs during the 20th century, ranging from Einstein's first theory to the discovery of the structure of DNA to measurements of the distance to the stars.

Rebecca Goldstein, a former mathematician herself, has written The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gรถdel--a proof, she insists, which is accessible in its outline to the lay reader, with little math or symbols required. I'll let you know after I read it. I took a class in statistics once, and a year later I could no longer read my own crib notes for the final exam.

Finally, David Leavitt has written a new account of Alan Turing's invention of the computer. Titled The Man Who Knew Too Much, the book focuses equally on Turing's famous contribution to the breaking of the German Enigma code, his invention of all the key concepts used in computer design long before they could be built, and his persecution as a "security risk" due to his homosexuality. Having read the other Turing bio, Alan Turing, the Enigma, I look forward to this new insight into his life and work.

Finally, it was 4:30 and time for poetic dessert again. Philip F. Deaver, Andrew Glaze (who I met while hosting the Butterfly Lightning readings), Jesse Millner (friend), and Susan Wheeler collaborated to bring a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Only 363 days until the next one. Book your rooms now.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Once and Future Draft

Let's think about the draft for a moment. Not the annual NFL draft, but the military one, and not the historical draft that ended in the 1970's with the Vietnam War, but the future draft, the one that may soon have to be reinstated to support the military adventures of the current administration in Washington.

The Founding Fathers were so anti-military that they didn't want their new country to have a standing army at all, only state militias consisting of volunteer citizen-soldiers who would defend the nation but not make war in the name of any king. The politicians who followed them, however, soon found themselves at odds with England again in the War of 1812 and with a need for a stronger navy. Then, in expansion mode, the army was used to annex Texas from Mexico (I don't think I've ever used three X's in one sentence before—make that four) and to virtually annihilate the Indians to make way for westward migration. In only a generation or two, what the Founding Fathers had tried to avoid had happened: the United States had a powerful military arm that was being used for aggressive purposes.

There was still a strong sentiment against military conscription, however. It took the Civil War, with its massive casualties, to make the first draft necessary. In spite of all the “volunteer” regiments that were raised, mandatory conscription was the only way to satisfy the insatiable need of both armies, North and South, for fresh “cannon fodder.”

Even at its inception the draft was far from universal or egalitarian. It was possible to send someone to serve in your place, so many who found it inconvenient and could afford the option hired stand-ins for themselves. The pattern of exceptions for the well-to-do was established from the beginning.

The draft was discontinued as soon as it was no longer needed. We never had a so-called “peacetime” draft until after the Second World War. Of course, calling that period of the Cold War “peacetime” is begging the issue, since it included two major undeclared wars—in Korea and Vietnam—and coincided with the largest buildup of weaponry in our history.

While it was no longer possible to send someone else in your place, the wealthier members of society could find other ways to exempt themselves when they chose to do so. Doctors and lawyers could be employed to build cases for medical deferments or to find other loopholes, and local draft boards could be subject to persuasion by powerful members of small communities. If nothing else, easy duty could be obtained in the National Guard, which fulfilled the service requirement with a minimum sacrifice of time, and reduced active combat duty to a remote possibility. Even for the middle class, simply attending college could be enough to delay a draft notice until the age of enlistment had safely passed.

Quite early, allowances were made for individuals who objected to warfare on religious or moral grounds. This made the unpopular system more palatable to some, though in practice the “Conscientious Objector” status was difficult to obtain and carried a stigma of anti-patriotism which was undeserved and unjust.

The situation changed during the Vietnam War, however. As the conflict became more obviously pointless and wrong, public opinion turned draft resistance into a mainstream option that was chosen by a large segment of the population. Thousands who would never have thought of themselves as Conscientious Objectors participated in mass protests and draft card burnings. Eventually the draft, and the war itself, became untenable.

Interestingly, and unfortunately, when President Nixon first instituted the draft lottery, which informed many that they were unlikely to be called up, and then abolished the draft altogether, it soon became apparent that he had knocked the legs out from under the resistance movement. The war had been forced to a close, but the return to an all-volunteer army set the stage for the eventual resurgence of militarism as a tool of foreign policy. Clearly, the general public no longer cared as much about what its army did as long as they themselves were not required to do anything more than pay for it.

The peace making initiatives of President Carter in the middle east were soon replaced by Reagan's popular invasion of Grenada, new “advisory” missions in Central America, and vastly increased spending for new ballistic missiles and a “Star Wars” defense system of mythic proportions (and fictional capabilities). Then George H.W. Bush followed suit by sending in the troops to extract the intractable President Noriega (a former CIA plant who had stopped playing ball), and ultimately to engage in the first Gulf War, most likely because his close family friends in Saudi Arabia were getting uncomfortable about Iraq.

Even President Clinton was drawn into conducting poorly targeted military reprisals against “possible” terrorist targets in Africa, and an underfunded debacle of intervention in Somalia. Such is the momentum of militarism that it begins to make its own demands to be put to use.

Now we are responding to the actions of terrorists by invading and occupying entire countries full of mostly innocent and law abiding citizens, and subjecting them to wholesale bombing campaigns. We should be asking many questions. Is this an appropriate or effective response? Does it protect us from terrorism? Does it make terrorist attacks less likely or more likely in the future? Where does it all end? Is Iraq the last country we will have to coerce into a “regime change,” or only the next in a series?

Perhaps the best question of all is: how much longer can we maintain a policy of global military offensive with an army of volunteers? It seems clear from enlistment statistics that the draft, so long abhorred by the country and so recently set aside, will soon have to be resurrected yet again.

There will be many repercussions from this, but foremost among them will be that a new generation of Americans will look with new eyes at our national intentions. For better or worse, the prospect of war seems entirely different when it is an event for which your own participation is not requested, but required by law.

By all means, let us look again. With luck and good judgment, we may find that we have better things to do.

Friday, November 11, 2005

My Father, the Veteran

I tend to think of my dad at least once every Veteran's Day.

He came of age after World War II had already started. His mother decided her boys were not going to wait to be drafted, so she drove him down to the recruiting office to sign up. Thus, at the tender age of 18, a dreamy student who wanted to be a classical pianist became part of the US 4th Armored Infantry Division. Of above average intelligence, he was offered a chance to go to Officer's Candidate School after basic training. By the time he came out as a new second lieutenant, the D-Day invasion had already happened. He crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship stuffed with soldiers. Years later he told me how seasick he'd been from the pitching of the ship, and how he finally found a perch high up where, hiding behind a metal wall, he couldn't see anything but the sky, which made it seem as if they weren't moving around so much.

His unit went into France and Belgium, where they ended up on the fringes of the famed Battle of the Bulge, the last great German offensive of the war. He lived through many horrible experiences during the short space of a few months of intensive action. Once he was nearly killed when an artillery shell landed right behind him, knocking him flat on his face and sending a piece of shrapnel through his backpack, belt, and overcoat, and stopping just short of his skin.

Another time the convoy he was in, winding around hills in the dark, came under fire. They shot back for half an hour before discovering it was the head of their own column that had mistaken them for the enemy.

Finally, one cold winter night while they were firing blindly into the dark in a snowstorm, a single bullet finally found him, punching him in the chest and knocking him down. Men around him shouted "medic!" and "the lieutenant's hit!" but all my dad said was, "Oh my God, my forty-dollar coat!" As an officer, he had to buy his own clothes, and he had just obtained a new overcoat for the winter.

That was the end of his war. His lung had collapsed and he lost a lot of blood, but he pulled through okay. The rest of his time in Europe was spent convalescing. After the war was over he even got to do some sightseeing on leave, visiting Switzerland and Italy as well as France and Germany. By the time I knew him, his wound was an old scar--a small one on his chest near the right shoulder, a larger one on his back from the exit.

But there were other wounds. His faith had been shattered by seeing what supposedly Christian people were doing to each other in war. Combined with his study of philosophy when he went to college, the experience led him to leave the Catholic church and to become an agnostic, if not atheistic, seeker.

He was also politically disillusioned. Aware that the US had committed atrocities every bit as abhorrent as those of its enemies (the fire bombings of Dresden, most cities in Japan, and the perhaps needless nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as prominent examples), he wondered what the war had accomplished. Fascism may have been defeated overseas, but he saw it rearing its ugly head here at home in the form of the Rosenberg executions, the McCarthy hearings, and the increasing imperialism of American foreign policy. If the aim of the war had been to make our future safer, then it had failed. Instead we were living under a permanent threat of nuclear destruction more horrible than anything that had gone before.

His college education had been postponed, and even though he managed to pick up where he left off, attending Columbia University and the Julliard music school on the GI Bill, some degree of focus and drive had left him. He married his wartime sweetheart, started a family, and left New York to begin a new life in Miami.

But the new life eluded him. It became a struggle of survival as he moved from one menial job to the next ... sales clerk, postal worker, milk delivery man, nurse's aide at the Veterans Hospital. My mom went to work to bring in more money. Things were always tough between them. When I was twelve they separated, then divorced.

Eventually Dad found a career in botany through Fairchild Tropical Garden, where he worked until his death in 1974. He even went back to college at the University of Miami and got a degree in botany, graduating cum laude at the age of 38. It was never a lucrative thing to do, but he seemed to find some peace and contentment there among the lush tropical vegetation.

His old wound only hurt in certain kinds of weather, but he suffered from chronic bronchial infections for the rest of his life, and twice developed pneumonia. The second time the disease refused to respond to treatment. He died, you might say belatedly, from complications as a result of military service. He was 50 years old.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

From Primordial Soup to Immemorial Nuts

I just picked up a couple more fragments of information on the "Intelligent Design" issue (is it only coincidence that the initials are ID, as in "unconscious mind?") and thought they deserve comment.

It seems those "gaps" they talk about are gaps in the fossil record, as if the theory can be demonstrated only by uncovering the remains of every version of every animal that has ever existed--or at least enough of them so a smooth progression of forms can be laid out in a museum.

Of course, that is asking the impossible. The conditions that produce good fossils are rare and random, and finding them can be quite a task in itself. It's a miracle we have found as many as we have and that careful study of them has revealed as much as it has. Even so, there is plenty of evidence from comparative anatomy of both living and extinct animals to be able to chart their development and their relations to one another.

That's not to say that we fully understand it all yet, or that there may not be surprises in store. It was a recent discovery that the dinosaurs may be more closely related to modern birds than to modern reptiles--that they may in fact have been warm blooded. But this is another example of how our knowledge of the present can help us shed light on the past. Rather than throwing up our hands at the "complexity" of it all and falling back on Divine powers to explain it, we are rewarded by pursuing careful observation and logical analysis.

Another "gap" is the mystery of what happened in the Cambrian period when a tremendous proliferation of new forms of life appeared in the relatively short space of about five million years. Was this God fanning the flames? We don't have a definite answer yet, but there is a fascinating solution put forward by Andrew Parker in his book, In the Blink of an Eye (here's a review).

Observing that the eyeball originated during that time, he proposes that it was the refinement of vision that explains the surge of evolution. Suddenly, geologically speaking, predators could see their prey better and prey could see the predators coming. Mates could find mates by appearance. So issues of coloring, locomotion, speed, and reflexes all became dramatically more important than they had been.

For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn't even matter if Parker is right. It's a wonderful and plausible example of how we can figure things out.

The last "gap" is the supposed lack of evidence for the "primordial soup" of organic chemical compounds in which life, it is thought, first formed. This is admittedly a big missing piece, but we are not without clues. We know so much about the molecular structures of living things that we can begin to make educated guesses about what sort of conditions would be necessary for simpler chemical compounds to link up into something that can reproduce itself. One thought is that lightning may have played a part--how's that for Divine intervention! Dramatic enough for you?

But the eventual proof of this will probably only happen if and when we can recreate it in a laboratory (wait till you hear the screams of protest over that) or if we find it taking place on another planet, which is far less likely to happen. We won't see it here on Earth, of course, because the conditions have changed. The atmosphere we breathe has been created by living things, and is no longer the harsh mix of gases that must have existed In the Beginning.

Maybe if we could just find the Primordial Can that the Primordial Soup came from ...