Sunday, November 06, 2005

Five Books, Five Minutes

Five Books, Five Minutes. A number of you have asked -- Where the hell is it? Here it is. Participating in this discussion are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Dona, Jess, Ty, Ava and Jim, Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude, Betty Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man, C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review, Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix, Mike of Mikey Likes It!, Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz and Wally of The Daily Jot.

Jim: We planned to do this for the last edition but ran out of time. Cedric mentioned it in the news review when he noted a poem by Langston Hughes.

Rebecca: "Mother to Son" which Cicely Tyson read at Rosa Parks' memorial. So good choice and props to Cedric.

Cedric: Thanks. I don't remember the poem from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman. It was new to me when I came across it in the book which Ava had suggested.

Ava: The Dream Keeper and Other Poems with illustrations by Brian Pinkney.

Betty: I enjoy it when we read poetry and one thing I noted with this and the other book was how much more having illustrations make a book of poetry to children. My kids would grab the book and ask me about the pictures. "What's he doing?" They were interested. I enjoyed Hughes' collection but I really enjoyed the book suggested by Billie in an e-mail which was Ruldolfo Anaya's Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez. The illustrations were by Gaspar Enriquez. It was a long wait to get that on loan but it was worth it.

Dona: Billie suggested it at the end of August.

Betty: My kids loved this because the illustrations were in color and in the Hughes book, the drawings are in black ink. The illustration where the young woman is crying was one they, my kids, would always ask for. "Why's she crying?" They knew why because we'd read it and read it but they liked that illustration. There other favorite one was where Cesar is seen smiling as a group of mournings warm their hands over a campfire.

Jess: We should note that Hughes' book is a collection of various poems and Anaya's is one poem illustrated.

Ty: Ceasar is dead,
And we have wept for him until our eyes are dry,
Dry as the fields of California that
He loved so well and now lie fallow.
Dry as the orchards of Yakima, where dark buds
Hang on trees and do not blossom.
Dry as el Valle de Tejas where people cross
Their foreheads and pray for rain.

This earth he loved so well is dry and mourning
For Cesar has fallen, our morning star has fallen.

Elaine: Which is the opening of Elegy for Ceasar Chavez and I will note my favorite poem from Hughes' collection, "Passing Love:"

Because you are to me a song
I must not sing you over-long.

Because you are to me a prayer
I cannot say you everywhere.

Because you are to me a rose --
You will not stay when summer goes.

Mike: Which was really a powerful poem and I was struck by how much Langston Hughes achieved with so few words. Each one, each phrase seemed carefully thought out and converyed so much. "Autom Thought" and "Snail" are perfect examples of that.

Jim: And Dona wants us sticking to time limits tonight so we'll move on to the next book, Janis Karpinkski's One Woman's Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story written with Steven Strasser. Comments?

Mike: It read like it was told to. Like the other guy took down notes from her or from tapes of her. That made it easy to read but it was a little flat.

Elaine: Which may be her style and I'm not trying to be insulting. She notes that she spent a lifetime trying to ensure that no one could write her off as an "emotional woman." But I know what Mike means, it was kind of cut and dry. That, again, may be a reflection of her personality.
For a field report, it's probably quite lively but it left a lot to be desired for me. I know we're all of muted opinions on this book.

C.I.: I'll note that she had a difficult career in terms of being a "break through" as a woman. I'll note that she takes responsibility and feels that the blame is a shared responsibility. She does stick up for the soldiers who were under her command and that was, is, admirable. If she needed a co-writer, she should have gone with someone who was more like Amy Goodman. I say "more like" because I doubt, I could be wrong, that Goodman has the time or the inclination to serve as a co-writer on someone's autobiography. But in the hour with Karpinski on Democracy Now!, Goodman got to a lot of issues that this book skirts. I'll also nit pick that there seems to be confusion on the part of the writers of this book on a number of reports. Seymour Hersh was working with 60 Minutes II, for instance.

Mike: What about The Times report on the prison she talks about?

C.I.: I'm not remembering a report in The Times, a follow up visit in the spring of 2005. I largely ignore the paper's Iraq "reporting," but I wondered if she was referring to Jane Mayer's article in The New Yorker? There was another instance, beside the Hersh and 60 Minutes II collaboration where I felt the credits were wrong. I wondered where the fact checker was and I stated to Jim and Dona that I was hesitant to say that because it will lead to a dismissal of her own story. Her own story may be correct but the press identifications and the claim that Jessica Lynch was abused by Iraqis should not have made it into print. Karpinski was serving in Iraq and perhaps she didn't get the story we got here or maybe she knows something we don't but I did wonder about the inclusion, in one sentence, that Jessica Lynch was abused by Iraqis.

Jim: Did anyone feel that they were better informed after reading the book?

Wally: I did but I may be the only one.

Jess: If you've got common sense and a basic understanding of the facts, most of the book won't be too surprising. She was the fall guy for abuses at Abu Ghraib and others who were higher up and actually directing the abuses didn't.

Wally: Where I found clarity was in her stuff about people on her same level trapped in the same bind she was where this gets grabbed or taken by agreement and not by anything formalized in writing which really looks like people were looking for fall guys from the start. I also found it news that the cash was just kept around by Americans instead of in a bank and there was no formal procedure for following up on where the money went, how much was spent, etc.

Rebecca: We should make clear that Karpinski asserts she didn't know of the abuses in case anyone's missed the Democracy Now! interview. But, and C.I. was talking about this, that's not really the heart of the book. That's an opening and an ending but, largely, this is her story of her life in the military and the hurdles she had to overcome. In the end, she only bumps up against them again. I feel sympathy for her and agree that the abuse was not the result of a "few bad apples" acting on their own but I also feel like the abuse isn't seriously addressed.

Elaine: I grappled with that and finally, my own feelings, decided that her style is the problem there. She's very to the point, very terse. So saying it was a horror or horrific is a big statement for someone like that. But to write about Abu Ghraib requires more than that and that's one of the areas where Amy Goodman was able to draw her out a bit more in the interview. Another reason to have a co-writer who doesn't mesh, personality wise, easily with Karpinski who identifies so strongly with orders from above must be right.

Wally: Which is actually the downfall, trusting her superior and not using the chain of command to make a stink.

Kat: And I'll say it, I read the book and didn't think we needed to take part in promoting it. I don't care if she has a flat personality or not, I didn't care for the book. Humiliation is okay, torture is not. This is fine, this is not. A lot of black and white in her world and I frankly didn't need to read it. Is it the torture that's so awful to her or the fact that photos were taken? That may be harsh but she doesn't seem overly concerned that the CIA delivers a man to Abu Ghraib who's dead, for instance. It may all fit into her chain of command world but I found it disgusting.
I almost bought the book when we decided to include it just because I was feeling lazy and not wanting to deal with checking out and returning a book. I'm the same way with videos lately and am using pay per view like crazy. But I am so glad I got off my lazy butt and went to the library because I would feel collective guilt if I'd purchased the book and supported the "MI does what MI does" approach that didn't seem to deal with the serious implications of what was going on that didn't emerge, thus far, in photos. I wasn't impressed.

Jim: There was, in discussions while reading the book, serious conflicts expressed and reservations about it. We're including it in the discussion and, hopefully, have provided you with enough to know whether you want to read it or not. Our next book is The Onion Presents Embedded In America: America's Finest News Source Complete News Archives Volume 16.

Wally: I loved this one.

Mike: I laughed my ass off.

Ava: We should note that this collection pulls from The Onion which is a humor magazine.

Jim: Does anyone read The Onion? Anyone? C.I.?

C.I.: Me? No, I don't. I have one friend who thinks it hilarious and sends me stuff from it via e-mail but if you don't put in a personal message, I delete that stuff without reading it or watching it when someone sends a funny video. I have too many e-mails, I'm talking about personal e-mails here not Common Ills stuff, if you don't have something to say, don't waste my time with group forwards.

Mike: So you hated the book?

C.I.: I enjoyed the parodies of feature writing. I felt there was strong inspiration there and a point was being made. With regards to the real news parodies, especially when dealing with the Bully Boy, a lot of it seemed obvious to me. It was silly joke time and it didn't always have a point.

Elaine: Sophomoric humor.

C.I.: I think, from this book, there's tremendous talent involved in the magazine and I think they show it best in their parodies of feature writing but in terms of anything approaching political humor, I wasn't impressed, sorry.

Wally: I liked the book a lot but I don't always get the point, to be honest. I'm just laughing to laugh. I laughed hard at your and Ava's review of Freddie but my mom's the one who pointed out that the point was that Hollywood portrays gay as hyper-feminity and a few other things. So I'll admit that I'm reading to chuckle and not looking at whether or not a point's being made. I wish I'd thought of that before I read the book so I could give some input on it now but I didn't.

C.I.: And I want to be clear that I'm just saying their attempts at political humor were funny at times but overall I felt it was more humor based on a word or phrase and not based on a larger issue. I enjoy political humor, and I'm not speaking of some guy sitting at a piano dashing off ditties, but I didn't find a lot of political criticism in the hmor. With the feature article parodies, I did find a lot of criticism. That's just my own personal taste. Mike loved the book too, Wally, so don't doubt your own reaction. Humor's a personal thing.

Mike: I did love the book and I still do. I'll admit it's like a Pauly Shore movie a lot of the times or Ernest but I like those kinds of movies sometimes. Betty?

Betty: I didn't laugh that much. But I'm the last one to talk. I've reworked and reworked my latest chapter and now I think it's not funny and that it sucks and I'm planning on spending several hours Sunday afternoon trying to fix it but have decided no matter how awful it is, I think it sucks, it's going up just to get something up. They do a weekly magaine and I'm sure they have even more difficult time constraints than I do so I'll give them credit for getting stuff done. But I didn't laugh that much.

Mike: Cedric?

Cedric: I really didn't laugh and stopped a little less than halfway through the book. I can see how a lot of people would enjoy it but it wasn't making me laugh and I felt like, "Okay, I got that joke the first time it popped up.

Mike: So just Wally and me loved it?

Dona: No. Jim loved it. He was reading it in bed and laughing out loud. I told him to put the book down, turn off the light and go to sleep because I had a presentation the next morning in class.

Jim: So instead, I took the book out to the living room and stayed up all night reading it and laughing.

Mike: Okay then. C.I., what was the funniest thing to you?

C.I.: Jackie Harvey's Hollywood pieces were funny in their Larry King meets the mythical Walter Scott of Parade. Like both, the mythical Harvey was hugely out of touch. You could picture him saying, on the eve of the release of Gladiator, Russell Crowe will not become a star.
"Walter Scott" wrote something similar. It's the most slanted, most pro-Bully Boy, pro-Republican gossip column and I felt "Jackie Harvey" captured that perfectly. "Ask A Guy Who Just Ran Nine Blocks" played to me like a Kids in the Hall skit that wasn't cutting it but kept going on and on. The "Community Voices" pieces made me laugh as well. There was a J-Ass piece that wasn't political but it worked because it was mocking the "older cop-younger partner" nonsense that you see on too many Steven Bochco TV series. I didn't hate it and if I subscribed to The Onion, at least half of each weekly issue would make me laugh but I thought the political attempts weren't that funny.

Jim: Our last book was picked by Betty, Nancy Milford's Zelda. Betty, why don't you explain why you picked that?

Betty: Zelda is about Zelda Fitzgerald and I hear of he in school when we read Francis Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night, but I didn't know anything about her really other than "nuts." I wanted to know more about her and saw the book in my library so I selfishly suggested it so I could read about something I wanted and, at the same time, get "credit" for my personal reading. I was really relieved when C.I. and Elaine both e-mailed me, "Great choice."

Elaine: I didn't have to go to the library or a book store for this one. We both, right --

C.I.: Have copies of it on our book shelves? Yeah.

Dona: And I'm going to note that I pitched this book, Saturday evening, as a roundtable discussion on creativity and authorship but Jim shot it down as not "weighty enough" for its own feature, the topic so I insisted that we reserve a large section of time to discuss this book.

Mike: I'll go first because Wally and I were talking about this Saturday morning and we both felt like F. Scott Fitzgerald comes off like a real dick.

Jim: Talk about why you feel that way.

Wally: Well he's using whole sections of his wife's writings in his own work. He may rework it, use it as a blue print, but there's the house and he's saying he built it from his own plans.

Dona: And a hypothesis is that Zelda has her mental problems because she's there to aid her husband's writing and what would life have been like if she's been encouraged in her own pursuit of writing? She's too old, by the time he's establishing himself as a writer, to be a dancer, the ship has sailed. But she's encouraged in terms of lessons by her husband on that impossible dream and is that because he'll do anything to have her scraps of writing to use on his books.

Ava: And some of the short stories were joint pieces.

Jess: And I was saying to Dona earlier this week that authorship is rarely clear. I don't mean to justify F. Scott Fitzgerald's actions or to condemn them but, not having read Save the Last Waltz, I don't know what she was capable of. She might have written a good paragraph or a bad paragraph but reading it may have sparked an idea in F. Scott so authorship isn't always clear.
Rebecca could say, "I hate that it rained last week" and I could grab the guitar later and have a song about rain. Did Rebecca's comment help? Yes. How much? Enough to justify crediting her with the song? Maybe if I'm using her "I hate that it rained last week" in the song but if it just sparked me to write on the same topic, then no.

Ty: I understand where Jess is coming from on that and I've heard it from him all week but, forgetting that Fitzgerald's job is to write, I'm left with the fact that he was her husband and I don't think that the marriage is served.

Ava: And certainly we don't think in terms of "good person" or "bad person" when we're reading a novel unless they did something evil and usually on a large scale but how much did a marriage suffer, with knowledge of it suffering and Zelda suffering, to result in the classic novels that Fitzgerald wrote?

Jim: And --

Dona: No, you can be silent. I wanted this as a feature and you didn't think there was enough in it so don't take up the time right now. "She said sweetly."

Cedric: Because this isn't just a case of a marriage where two people fight or someone's cheating on someone. This is a marriage where one of the two is sick, very sick, and the other is aware of that illness. And it's easy to build up the firewall between the work produced and the ways in which it was produced but we're talking about a biography of Zelda so you do have to evaluate the events and not just say, "Tender Is The Night is a great book!"

Jess: But to produce something, most people have to have a high sense of themselves. You can't plug away, successful or not, if you don't think there's a chance that you might produce soemthing of value. Did he cross that line, F. Scott, becomes the question and, from Zelda, I think most people would say yes. But how much are we removing the artist from the equation is my question?

Ava: And there's the fact that Zelda is destroyed. We don't know whether she would have hit that road any way or not. It certainly is obvious that F. Scott's actions didn't help her. But in another life with another partner would conflicts still have emerged that led her to where she ends up? Jess, I can seperate the artist and the art. Reading it, Zelda, didn't make me think, "Gatsby is trash!" or make me want to toss his books in the trash. But I did feel that there's a credit owed that's not granted. A dedication of thanks does not cover, my opinion, the contributions Zelda was making to his work. That said, a book on him might argue that the strain on him, due to his wife's condition, was unbearable. Does that justify not crediting? To me, it doesn't. I feel the same way about The New York Times' use of stringers to report on Iraq. Everyone of those writers, unless they refuse it, should have co-credit in the byline at the very least. Not reduced to a credit at the bottom of the article.

Rebecca: Ava's comments are making me think of the play Lily Tomlin did . . .

C.I.: The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life In The Universe.

Rebecca: Yes, thank you.

C.I.: Written by Jane Wagner.

Rebecca: The two hookers are being interviewed in the limo --

C.I.: Brandy and Tina.

Rebecca: Right. And after they're done and get out of the limo, one of them makes the point that the article will come out and some guy's going to have his name on it.

C.I.: And Tina says they should have gotten co-credit or that "It should at least say, 'Lived by Brandy and Tina.'" And in The Pelican Brief, the film, Darby Shaw gets co-credit on the article. In the book, she doesn't. The article exposing everything.

Rebecca: But what is 'authorship?' Should Chalabi have shared a byline with Judith Miller on all of her "WMD In Iraq!" stories? Since she was just doing stenography, should Chalabi, Scooter and the rest have all shared bylines?

Wally: What I keep coming back to is that he's using her work. She might be drawing an ope patio and then he takes her blue print and makes it an enclosed one, but its her blue print and she should get credit because if she didn't draft it, he never would have come up with the enclosed patio.

Cedric: And I can get behind that but for me it keeps coming back to forget what his job is, his actions were personally disgusting to me because he's picking the bones of a mentally unbalanced woman and this same woman is the one he chose to marry. He may be a great artist but he's not coming off like even a half-decent person.

Dona: I'm about to call time so I want Kat to jump in here because I'm sure she has something to say on this and I want to be sure she gets the chance to.

Kat: Okay, to me, it's a writing partnership. That's how I see the relationship. But a partnership means shared credit. I laugh whenever Paul McCartney whines "I wrote 'Yesterday' all by myself but John Lennon's name is on it and Yoko gets royalties from it!" Yeah and McCartney gets royalties off of songs Lennon wrote by himself. This is about greed because "Yesterday" is one of the most played songs the Beatles have. Well too bad greedy Paul, you were in a partnership and the terms were you shared credit. The fact that Lennon's dead doesn't mean you can try to steal money from his widow and it doesn't mean that you can go back on the agreement. But with Zelda, she's clearly doing the work of a partner and she's uncredited. How much of that has to do with the times they lived in? A lot of men did what Fitzgerald did on lesser levels. They seem to think throwing out a "Thank you to my wife who read every draft of this" covers it and it doesn't. But Zelda also deserves blame for accepting it. It's like Pat Benetar turning over her career to her husband. Yes, it was socially acceptable in some circles and Benetar probably had pressures. But in the end, Benetar has to take responsibility -- especially for the fact that she gets progressively watered down once he's in charge of the act. The difference is that Zelda was mentally unstable and, as far as we know, Pat Benetar isn't. So how much she could have agreed to or expressed early on is called into question by her later period when the illness is full blown. Another thing to consider is that mental illness was seen differently in that time. There are a lot of variables here but, as outlined by Nancy Mitford, Zelda deserves co-writing credit on the works she helped with either directly or ones that F. Scott took her written ideas and utilized them, reworked or not, in his own writing.

Dona: And that's going to be the last word. If you feel like the discussion on this topic could have and should have continued, direct your angry e-mails to Jim.
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