Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marketplace of Ideas - Part II

Continuing my saga of this year's Miami Book Fair ... If you missed it, you might want to start with Part I.



... Beginning with Peter Matthiessen, who has finally (after seven long years) reduced the epic trilogy that started with Killing Mister Watson into a single volume called Shadow Country. It seems to me that this project all by itself could qualify him for a Nobel Prize, or at least a lifetime achievement award from somebody. Actually he's up for the National Book Award, and he would have my vote if I had one.

His long-time interest in this subject began when he was a teenager on a fishing trip with his father in Florida bay. Their boat passed the ruin of an old house on the shore, and their guide told them "that's the old Watson place," and gave them a short version of the tale: how the evil Watson had been shot dead by a unanimous collection of his neighbors, a weird case of vigilante justice. The story hooked young Matthiessen like a fish.

He's 81 now, and eventually ended up spending a big chunk of his writing life pursuing the truth behind the legend and turning it into an exhaustive and definitive work. The new version should not be considered an abridgment, according to the author. Rather, the book has finally reached its intended form.

The original 1500 page version "frightened the publisher," who convinced him it could only be printed in three separate volumes, reduced to a mere 1300 pages. However, according to Matthiessen, the middle volume never worked as a novel in its own right even though it contained much of the best material. So he kept on going, and has finally honed it down to 900 pages crammed into a single narrative, as he originally intended.

In response to a question from the audience, he revealed that he reworked many of the characters in the process, eliminating or toning down some while bringing others to the fore. One example was the solitary black citizen whose bullet was "the first one to strike Watson, and the only one needed." In the earlier version he appeared but had no voice in the narrative; in the new version he has much to say.

So, OK, Mattheissen has done his part and it's up to the rest of us to meet him half way. I finally have to read the durn thing. Looking forward to it immensely.

Briefly -- because I could go on at great length about both of these -- the second session concerned (1) Marshall Goldman's Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia, which describes the strangle hold that Russia has on Western Europe though its gas pipelines, and (2) Andrei Cherny's The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour. (Yes, two more examples of subtitles. They're everywhere.)

This second one forced me to revise my ideas about the occupation of Germany after WWII. We like to think we were welcomed as liberators and immediately used the Marshall Plan to rebuild the country in our own image. The reality was much more in line with our current experience in Iraq.

[Begin digression:]
The victorious allies started out with the idea of destroying Germany and its industrial capabilities far more thoroughly than had been done at the end of the First World War. The population was fed a starvation diet during three years of occupation, and opinion polls showed the vast majority of Germans would prefer living under Communism if it would guarantee them full stomachs.
But then the closing of the East German border by the Soviets and the isolation of West Berlin led to the Berlin Airlift, a conveyor belt of airplanes, one every 90 seconds, that kept the city's supply line open for nearly a year. In the midst of this, a simple act of human kindness, when an American pilot decided to drop some candy to the kids down below, became an international symbol of resistance and good will, and resulted in a reversal of public opinion in the rest of Germany.
More importantly, during those eleven months Harry Truman got re-elected and created the Marshall Plan to do for the rest of Europe what the airlift had done for Berlin -- foreign aid on a scale never seen before or since, and surely one of the best investments America ever made.
A slogan of peace activists is "Wage Peace" -- the idea that if we put the same resources into conflict resolution that we put into warfare, there is no telling how far we can go toward making a more peaceful and prosperous world. And if there is any doubt about whether it would work, just consider this question: Which was more responsible for building the resurgent continent of Europe as we know it today -- destroying its cities with bombs, or bombing its children with candy?
[End of digression.] Well, I warned you I could go off on either of those topics, so that was it.

Before heading to my last event I hit the streets again. This time I turned up some bargain jazz CD's at the WDNA booth -- two for five bucks, with a free bumper sticker thrown in. I can now proclaim "I [heart] Serious Jazz" on the back of my van. Along the way I also had a nice chat with a man giving away pamphlets that proclaimed "Islam - Religion of Peace." Amen to that. (You can read about it at www.alislam.org.)

Words in Pictures

Normally, graphic novels (meaning the ones that are mostly pictures, not the ones full of explicit sex and violence) give me the willies. They are too similar to those wordless pictorial newspapers in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which were all people had to "read" after they had burned all their books. Nevertheless, I attended a session featuring four artists and their books, and came away very glad that I did.

First off, our friend Youme Landowne presented Pitch Black, a project she did in collaboration with Anthony Horton, a man who she met on a subway platform in New York and ended up following into the subterranean depths of the city to visit the tunnels where he had lived for some years. This slender volume belies the power of the story it tells, fittingly in stark black and white. I love the opening epithet: "Just 'cause you can't see don't mean ain't nothing there."

Ms. Landowne's Selavi, a children's book about a group of Haitian orphans who started their own radio station (true story!), received a lot of attention and four awards, including the Jane Addams Peace Award. It appears Pitch Black will extend her reach to an adult audience.

Swiss artist Alex Baladi showed several of his books of comic-style art, including Frankenstein -- not a retelling of the story, but set in his home town of Geneva which, he reminded us, was the original setting of Mary Shelley's novel.

Then Ralph Penal Pierre, from Haiti, impressed us with a comprehensive rapid-fire slide show of his highly professional illustrations. He's a working artist, making his way in one of the most difficult economies in the world by cranking out slick commercial work as well as his own creative projects. On the drawing board now: a highly realistic (in style) book-length "monologue on peace." Amen to that again.

Finally, syndicated cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, who publishes her daily strip "Minimum Security" online, introduced us to her first graphic novel titled As the World Burns, in which a half-blind bunny who escaped from a mascara testing lab joins the good fight to save the world from an army of alien robots. Stephanie herself is a bright-eyed young woman who talks cheerfully about reading a Communist newspaper and wittily about nearly everything. I haven't enjoyed having the comics read to me so much in ages.

Concluding on this upbeat note, that there is humor even in the end of the world, I departed with my autographed copy of Pitch Black resolved to come back again next year -- assuming we all survive that long -- and to have read a lot more books.

1 comment:

  1. "just cause you can't see don't mean aint nothing there"-Anthony Horton

    Thank you for writing up that wonderfully diverse panel. The Miami Book Fair always brings unexpected connections,stories,and friends. I enjoyed Art Speigleman and Francoise Mouly discussing Visual Literacy and the accessibility of comics.