Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Book critic Michael Dirda champions reading for pleasure

11:22 PM CDT on Wednesday, October 29, 2008
By EDWARD NAWOTKA/ Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

The mid-20th-century Italian novelist Italo Calvino once asked: “What do reading and lovemaking have in common?” The answer is, of course, pleasure.

Longtime Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda concurs. The title of his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, says it all. It is his fifth collection of essays about books and reading, after all.

“I wanted to break open the canon in ways that surprise people, by including books like Sheridan Le Fanu’s ghost stories or the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer,” Mr. Dirda says by phone from his home near Washington, D.C.

Mr. Dirda will be sharing his inclusive view of literature, and his gift for celebrating the pleasure of reading, with thousands of Texans at this weekend’s 13th annual Texas Book Festival taking place at the State Capitol in Austin.

He’s no stranger to such scenes, having been a regular presenter at the National Book Festival, which was co-founded by first lady Laura Bush in 2001 and is modeled on the Texas Book Festival, which the first lady also co-founded.

Mr. Dirda sees the rise in the number of book festivals as a positive trend in a culture said to be increasingly disinterested in books and reading.

“The country has a lot more readers than we realize,” says Mr. Dirda. “When I’ve gone to festivals, I’ve seen people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. There does seem to be a real enthusiasm for books that we sometimes forget about. What’s more, there often is a little something for everybody at such things, so it’s a great day out.”

Mr. Dirda’s own passion for books is infectious. The Pulitzer-winning critic’s latest book (Harcourt, $25) offers summaries of 90 titles, ranging from the accepted ancients, such as Plutarch and Ovid, to contemporaries Eudora Welty and AndrĂ© Malraux, as well as writers whose works may not be everybody’s idea of classics, such as H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and cartoonist Edward Gorey.

The most important thing about the book, says Mr. Dirda, “is that people realize this is not academic literary criticism — it’s a book of enthusiasms, books that are important to me and that I want to introduce to others.”

The book is so effective that, as one reads it, it’s all but impossible not to pitch it aside and rush out to purchase whatever title Mr. Dirda has just finished describing, be it Xavier de Maistre’s anti-travel book A Journey Around My Room (written in 1795 after he was confined to his quarters for 42 days as punishment for dueling) or the Icelandic Sagas or the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. That Mr. Dirda should be so high on medieval and Romantic literature, an area the majority of us will find obscure, is no surprise: It’s the field in which he holds a doctorate.

His eclectic interests might meet their match at the Austin event, which this year includes gay-themed young adult fiction, T. Boone Pickens in conversation with Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith, a panel covering “Water Issues in Texas,” and a talk with Pulpwood Queen Kathy Patrick, the larger-than-life personality who runs Beauty and the Book, a bookstore-cum-hair salon in Jefferson, Texas.

Though it’s an election year, which means publishers have largely decided to hold back their biggest name authors until the media might pay attention again, there are still a number of not-to-be-missed authors on the roster, such as LBJ biographer Robert Caro, who is being honored with a Bookend Award from the organizers, and novelist Richard Price, who will be interviewed by Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch.

The only disappointment to Mr. Dirda is the absence, for the first time in many years, of Kinky Friedman.

“He’s someone I’m fond of and who I actually think of as being a Texas writer,” says Mr. Dirda. “Otherwise, I don’t think of a writer, Larry McMurtry for example, in that way. I tend to think more about the quality of their vision or their process.”

As for Mr. Dirda, he’s looking forward to catching up with fellow authors whom he admires, including Francine Prose, Christopher Buckley and Roy Blount Jr.

“Otherwise, I’m just the same as everyone,” he says. “I’m looking for discoveries. And hopefully, as is the case with my book, rediscoveries.”

Houston freelance writer Edward Nawotka, who served as programming and communications manager of the Texas Book Festival in 2004, will interview Mr. Dirda onstage at this year’s festival.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fairgoers Raise $12,500 for Agent’s Memorial Fund

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/27/2008 12:45:00 PM

At a charity raffle at the Frankfurt Book Fair, dozens of friends and colleagues of the late Gernert Company literary agent Tracy Walker Howell raised $12,500 to benefit the Tracy Walker Howell Memorial Fund. The money raised will go toward endowing a scholarship at Howell's alma mater, Middlebury College, for a student to study for a year at the C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Italy.

Howell, who served as a literary agent and director of foreign rights for The Gernert Company, died suddenly on February 8, 2006, age 42. She was widely known, in part, because of her role as manager of world publishing rights for John Grisham. Organizers of the raffle included Cecile Barendsma and Cullen Stanley, both of Janklow & Nesbit, and Hal Fessenden, v-p of subsidiary rights, Penguin USA. Nancy Wiese, v-p director of subsidiary rights at Grand Central, served as MC of the event. Among the prizes were several weeks in vacation homes spread across the globe, as well as jewelry, and a custom drawing by Matteo Pericolli. Among the winners were scout Virginia Marx, who won a week in the Liguria vacation house donated by Ullstein Heyne publisher Ulrich Genzler, and Maria B. Campbell, who took home a new Sony e-reader. A full list of prizes and winners, as well as further information about the Tracy Walker Howell Memorial Fund is online.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

No One to Believe In: Unreliable narratives of the war on terror.

Originally appeared in The Texas Observer

Ed Nawotka | October 17, 2008 | Books & the Culture

Austin literary agent James D. Hornfischer has represented a variety of military authors and written a pair of bestselling World War II naval histories, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts. His experience tells him that books about war are published in four distinct phases.

The first phase is composed of books by journalists and other professionals sent to cover the war for newspapers or magazines. These are literally the first drafts of history.

The second wave often comes from officers and administrators—educated elites—who have celebrity cachet to cash in or are motivated to justify decisions questioned by first-wave journalists.

The third and most enduring phase chronicles major events from the viewpoint of small groups of soldiers or sailors. These books often deal with war’s aftermath and pain, and are written by the grunts, the ground-pounders, the trigger-pullers.

The fourth and final phase, Hornfischer says, is written by historians, who generally wait until military documents are declassified and filed with the National Archives before weighing in.

Why do we need so many versions of the same story?

Because truth in war, whether physical or moral, is contested terrain.

Apply Hornfischer’s theory to the so-called war on terror and we’re already well into phase three, on the cusp of phase four, and showing signs of the emergence of a new phase entirely.

Phase one included Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. Published in 2004, it chronicled the Rolling Stone embed’s time with a Marine reconnaissance unit as it made its way across Iraq during the initial invasion.

Phase two included apologias such as American Soldier by Gen. Tommy Franks and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq—books that tried to explain what had just gone wrong.

The transition to phase three started with combat narratives by Ivy League–educated officers, such as Andrew Exum’s This Man’s Army and Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away. Both men make much of their educations; Exum graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Fick from Dartmouth. Exum and Fick, only just removed from the start of the war, are less conflicted about their roles than Dallas resident Brandon Friedman, whose memoir, The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (a book for which Hornfischer served as literary agent), describes how Friedman (another college-educated officer) had longed since childhood to fight but became demoralized after twice nearly dying in friendly-fire incidents.

It’s interesting to note that Fick is one of the soldiers featured in Wright’s Generation Kill, reinforcing the suggestion that later-phase war books often serve as correctives to earlier-phase titles.

One phase is effectively saying to the other: You cannot be relied upon to tell the whole truth.

Who, then, can be relied on to tell the truth?

Take, for example, Jessica Lynch, a West Virginia native who is on record saying she joined the Army to help pay for college. After her supply unit’s capture by Iraqis in March 2003 and her subsequent rescue, Lynch became a national hero. She appeared on the cover of People and struck a $1 million deal with the publisher Knopf for a book titled I Am a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story.

Despite the title, the book was actually written by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Rick Bragg, who took half the advance. It was only with such help that the book reached bookstores by Veterans Day in November 2003, less than eight months after Lynch’s rescue.

Among the book’s biggest revelations was the assertion that Lynch had been raped while a prisoner—a claim that Bragg inserted, despite Lynch’s claim that she couldn’t remember the three-hour period during which the rape supposedly occurred. The claim has been countered by the doctor who treated Lynch following her rescue in Iraq, and largely discredited since.

Was the rape fact, fiction, or conjecture?

Cynics called its inclusion propaganda, but just as well to call it a sign of the times. Whether it’s James Frey lying about a prison term or Colin Powell lying to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction, we live in an era of unreliable narrators.

Think of the phrase “the war on terror.” What does that mean, exactly?

Or the word “interrogation” with regard to “enemy combatants.” Isn’t that just a smokescreen for torturing prisoners of war?

Think of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Outrage may be a better word for it.

Various books have been written about Abu Ghraib, starting with Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib by Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the story in The New Yorker in May 2004.

Thousands of news stories were filed. The soldiers involved were publicly pilloried, and the name and face of Lynndie England—the young Army private photographed holding a naked prisoner’s leash—became synonymous with American shame. England went to jail, as did some of her cohorts. Yes, there have been trials, but no one of any real authority has ever taken responsibility. No one above the rank of sergeant ever served time, and no one ever faced charges for war crimes, torture, or violations of the Geneva Conventions.

And like all tragedies of American life, including 9/11, Abu Ghraib is already fading away into memory.

Until last year, few authors had any kind of access to the soldiers who perpetrated the crimes at Abu Ghraib.

But in 2007, Tara McKelvey published Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. That book, according to Hornfischer’s theory, effectively started the fourth wave of books on the war on terror.

McKelvey doggedly tracked military documents and computer files supporting claims of abuse, such as one guard’s “wish list” of “alternative interrogation techniques,” including “phone book strikes” and “low-voltage electrocution.” Even more disturbing is McKelvey’s revelation that civilian contractors probably participated in the abuse, and one translator may have sodomized a male teenager.

Working from interviews with former detainees—many of whom express reluctance about sharing their stories—McKelvey served up a dozen case studies of abuse that went beyond what was shown in the infamous photographs. The dirty laundry list includes sophisticated forms of torture like stress positioning, “monstering” (deprivation of diet and sleep), and, McKelvey strongly suggests, rape and murder. The worst abuse, she reports, took place at makeshift short-term detention facilities such as gyms and trailers, where detainees were held for less than 14 days and then released without any record of their imprisonment.

She writes about videos of bored prison guards “Robotripping” (getting stoned on a mixture of Robitussin and Vivarin) and simulating sex with one another.

In addition, McKelvey tracked down many of the principals in the Abu Ghraib photos for interviews, and she was the first writer to interview England in person after the soldier’s trial and subsequent 36-month incarceration.

McKelvey’s book isn’t without flaws. She tries a bit too hard to ascribe overly simple sociological motives to the perpetrators, suggesting that the poverty-stricken home lives of some of the soldiers contributed the abuse.

For example, Lynndie England worked at a chicken-processing plant where animals were arguably abused (though, curiously, she quit in protest) and participated in amateur porn shoots before her tour of duty in Iraq—all of which, McKelvey asserts, not entirely convincingly, predisposed her to bad behavior at Abu Ghraib.

Unfortunately, with the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy, and the fact that the war is still being fought, it will be some years before a full picture of what happened at Abu Ghraib emerges. If and when one finally does, it is likely to have as many facets as a shattered mirror.

The latest example of the search for the truth of the Abu Ghraib story is Standard Operating Procedure, which takes two forms: a film by Errol Morris and a book written by Morris and Philip Gourevitch, each of which draws on the same source material: 200 hours of interviews with those who worked at Abu Ghraib, including five of the seven MPs indicted for abuse. Given the multiple lenses through which Morris and Gourevitch tell the soldiers’ stories, Standard Operating Procedure might be considered a phase-five book, a work that simultaneously synthesizes the narratives that came before it and casts doubt on their strict veracity.

The most important of these sources is Sabrina Harman, an aspiring forensic photographer who took many of the scandal’s most famous photos—Hooded Man, Leashed Man, the Naked Human Pyramid—including the most damning evidence of all: the photo of a dead Iraqi, killed by the C.I.A. during interrogation at the prison.

Harman appears in one notorious photo posing over the dead man, beaming a smile and offering a ridiculous “thumbs up” sign. (This photo was taken by reservist Charles Graner, the Svengali of the group and the man responsible for posing many of the photos, who fathered a child with Lynndie England and later married another MP from the group, Megan Ambuhl. Graner is notably absent from the film; he’s still serving a prison sentence for his role.)

Harman tries to explain why she looks so pleased in the picture: “I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla, and so whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands. ... So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just—I just picked it up from the kids. It’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo, you want to smile. It’s just, I guess, something I did.”

This sounds like a self-serving justification for a gesture that’s callous at best, evil at worst. As a viewer and reader, do we believe that she’s telling her truth, or is she just concocting an excuse? Morris uses a camera device called the Interrotron to conduct his interviews. The person being interviewed looks directly into the lens and so appears to be making eye contact with the viewer in what looks like a direct, human connection.

Reading Harman’s words on the page is one thing, but watching her say them in the film makes us want to believe her, to forgive her even. But can we?

“Every narrator is unreliable,” Morris told the Observer this year. “I’m a big fan of Vladimir Nabokov; he’s the king of the unreliable narrator. My favorite book by him is Pale Fire and the character of [Charles] Kinbote. And just like Kinbote, we’re all self-deceived. When someone recounts the past, whether it’s Kinbote or Lynndie England or Sabrina Harman, they are re-enacting their past in words, they are trying to recover the various pieces from the bric-a-brac of memory. To think for a moment that it’s an absolute description is a mistake.”

The very existence of two different pieces of work—a film and a book—with the same name and deriving from the same sources suggests competing versions of the truth. The book is not a movie tie-in version of the film, nor vice versa. While both are drawn from the same interviews, their tones differ significantly, not least in the fact that Morris’ film, unlike the book, offers dramatic “re-enactments” of the events at Abu Ghraib.

For his part, Gourevitch suggests that some events are so complex and inherently confusing that they might ultimately be unfathomable.

“There is a constant temptation,” he writes in Standard Operating Procedure, “when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of it.”

It’s tempting to think he’s referring to Morris. At the very least, he’s acknowledging the dangers of placing too much faith in any single interpretation of history.

If Hornfischer’s four-phase hierarchy presumes truth—or at least understanding—is ultimately attainable, Standard Operating Procedure’s phase-five bifurcation shows significantly different narratives unspooling from the same recent past.

And why shouldn’t there be doubt, of our leaders, our generals, even our soldiers? The Bush administration has sown these seeds with its own language, in which a “mission accomplished” is the start of America’s longest war, and a weapon of mass destruction is nothing but an aluminum tube.

Documents like I Am a Soldier Too, Monstering, and Standard Operating Procedure, imperfect as they are, might be the closest we can come to the disorienting confusion of this war, which is itself so vaguely defined, yet so incontrovertibly real, and which has already claimed so many victims—not the least of which is the very idea of truth itself.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Detailed Warren Buffett bio reveals man behind fortune

Oct. 10, 2008, 11:19AM

THE SNOWBALL: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.
By Alice Schroeder.
Bantam, 960 pp. $35.

If you've looked at your 401(k) statement and started to fear that everyone in financial markets is either greedy, predatory or incompetent, do yourself a favor. Take $35 out of the mattress and buy a copy of Alice Schroeder's The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. At a time like this, it's a real comfort: Buffet is living proof there's at least one wholly rational person managing money.

The Oracle of Omaha is one of the rare money men as well known on Main Street as on Wall Street. Actually, he could probably pass you on Main Street and you wouldn't notice. Despite his $50 billion-plus fortune, Buffett has rejected the Robb Report trappings of the ultra-rich. He drives himself to work (in a Lincoln Town Car), eats at McDonalds, drinks Coke and still lives in a modest house he bought in 1958. Yet, depending on who's counting, he's either the richest man in the country or second-richest, trailing only Bill Gates (a good friend and, according to Schroeder, a surrogate son).

Certainly, this part of the reputation is well-known. But what of the man behind the money?

That is what biographer Schroeder sets out to reveal. What she delivers is the portrait of a middle-American Midas with enough anxiety about parents to rival Hamlet's. Her tendency to psychologize is the one notable flaw in what is otherwise an excellent and highly enjoyable look at the business titan.

A native Texan and graduate of the University of Texas, Schroeder befriended Buffett while working for Morgan Stanley, where she covered Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, as an analyst. Blessed by Buffett to write the book, she was given access to his files, friends, family and, often, himself, and has stuffed the book with anecdotes.

While readers may want to get to the icy deal-making of Buffett's adult years rather than linger with boy Warren as he sells 5-cent packs of gum, Schroeder makes clear these early experiences provided the foundation for his mature investment philosophy.

A key moment occurred in 1941 when Warren, age 11, stumbled upon the concept of compounding in a library book called One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000.

"Compounding married the present to the future. If a dollar today was going to be worth 10 some years from now, then in his mind the two were the same," writes Schroeder, suggesting he was mentally leveraging his investments even as a prepubescent.

A year later he partnered with sister Doris to buy his first stock: three shares of Cities Service Preferred, a favorite of his father's, who had started his own stockbroking business in the midst of the Depression. Buffett bought at $38.25 and sold at $40, netting a $5 profit.

Soon after, the stock rocketed to $202 a share. "Warren learned three lessons and would call this episode one of the most important of his life," Schroeder writes. "One lesson was not to overly fixate on what he had paid for a stock. The second was not to rush unthinkingly to grab a small profit."

The last lesson was that losing someone else's money would upset them and that he shouldn't manage their money until he was confident in what he was doing. Warren, we're told throughout the book, avoids confrontation and likes to be liked.

This stance, Schroeder suggests, goes back to his parents, who were "notable for their lack of warmth." His father had a "Quaker-like personality." A zealous Republican, he eventually served in Congress. His mother was prone to explosions where she would tell her children they were "worthless, ungrateful, and selfish; and should feel ashamed."

As a consequence, Schroeder says, he has spent much of his life seeking approval from surrogate mothers. That latter ranged from his two wives to the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to his steady bridge partner Sharon Osberg (with whom he plays on the Internet many nights).

Personal issues aside, the core of the book chronicles how Buffett transformed Berkshire Hathaway from a virtually worthless textile business into (as of 2004) a company with 172,000 employees, $64 billion in revenues, profits of $8 billion a year and (in 2006) a valuation of more than $200 billion.

Schroeder's focus is sharpest from the years 1999 to 2004, when she offers a detailed account of his thinking and decisions, both wise, such as his canny avoidance of the dot-com bubble, to mistaken, such as his purchase of Dexter Shoe Co., which he calls the worst acquisition he ever made.

Since so much drama of business is cerebral, it helps that Schroeder can get into his head, which she does by interspersing Buffett's direct quotes, in italicized blocks, into the narrative. It's a surprisingly effective device, one that provides a kind of meta-textual commentary to the work, though it does leave the impression that Buffett is looking over Schroeder's shoulder the whole time.

Buffett isn't especially quippy, and Schroeder has to work hard to smelt aphoristic business advice from the ore of her subject's life. What she comes away with is folksy and somewhat bland: Follow your own "Inner Scorecard" and not the crowd, look for the "cigar butts," stocks discarded by others but with just enough tobacco for one more puff.

Then there is the rather strained metaphor that gives the book its title:

"The snowball just happens if you're in the right kind of snow, and that's what happened with me. I don't just mean compounding money either. It's in terms of understanding the world and what kind of friends you accumulate. You get to select over time, and you've got to be the kind of person that the snow wants to attach itself to. You've got to be your own wet snow, in effect. You'd better be picking up snow as you go along, because you're not going to be getting back up to the top of the hill again. That's the way life works."

(But don't snowballs melt easily, especially in the midst of a market meltdown like the one we're in now? Not when they are like Buffett's — his metaphorical snowball must be the size of a small moon.)

If you're looking for advice about the current financial crisis, you won't find it here: The book all but ends in 2004 with the death of his first wife Susie from cancer, with just 23 pages devoted to 2004 to the present.

Perhaps the best thing to do is consider his comment at the time of the Enron debacle: "Cash and courage in a crisis is priceless." Watching Buffett's recent market moves, which include a $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs, you'd have to say he sees opportunity when others are trying to flee.

If Schroeder's book proves anything, it's that Buffett is one money man who follows his own advice.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Ike Dealt Heavy Blow To Texas Booksellers

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/6/2008

When Hurricane Ike hit Galveston Island, Tex., a little after midnight September 13, Tim Thompson lost his livelihood. Midsummer Books, the 2,000-sq.-ft. bookstore Thompson had owned since 2004, was completely destroyed. “We had eight feet of water in the store,” Thompson said from his temporary home in Austin. “We left the day before and didn't have time to save anything other than the computer with the stock database.”

Thompson employed a manager and a part-timer, both of whom also evacuated. Though he estimates insurance should cover half of his losses, he will not reopen. “I agonized over the decision. But I was planning on moving the store next summer, anyway, and it's going to take the island months to get back to normal. Business would be terrible.”

He said he will move his family back to Galveston once it is habitable so his children can finish out their school year. After that, he doesn't yet know. As far as the store is concerned, he has had one inquiry about purchasing the name and goodwill, but isn't certain anything will come of it. “For now, Midsummer Books is history,” Thompson said. It was the island's only bookstore focused on new books. Earlier this summer, Hastings Entertainment closed an outlet on the island. Galveston Books, a used bookstore, remains, though it, too, was severely damaged.

Elsewhere in southern Texas, many bookstores were left without electricity, which disrupted business for a week or more. In Houston—where some people are still without electricity even three weeks after the storm—Brazos Bookstore was closed for 11 days and had water damage to a small section of the store. Manager Jane Moser canceled nine events, including one with A.J. Jacobs on September 11, the day before the storm. She estimates lost revenue to be as much as $50,000.

Down the street at Murder by the Book, manager McKenna Jordan and assistant manager David Thompson returned from their wedding in Scotland and Paris honeymoon to find water had seeped through the ceiling and soaked the carpet of the store. Power was out, and Thompson said they bought a generator, which allowed them to keep the store open, even though they had to choose between running the cash register or keeping the lights on. Two events had to be canceled—one with Margaret Cole (who, coincidentally, had her 2005 event at the store canceled because of Hurricane Rita) and another with Brad Meltzer. On generator power, the store still managed to host Don Winslow (who drew 30 people) and Austin writer Joe Domenici, who brought in 50. In all, the store's power outage lasted eight days. “We can't complain too much. We came off so much better than we could have,” Thompson said.

Further west in Houston, author David Ebershoff managed to make it to Blue Willow Bookshop on the day before Ike. “He was fantastic,” said owner Valerie Kohler. “Then we didn't have power for two days. Otherwise, things got back to normal relatively quickly.” The same went for Katy Budget Books. “We closed early the day of Ike and lost power for two days, canceling a pair of events,” manager Stacey Ward reported.

Of the more than a dozen chain booksellers in the region, all Barnes & Noble stores are open again. Borders closed some stores due to power outages. The last two to reopen were a Borders store in Houston (reopened September 25) and a Waldenbooks store in Baytown, Tex. (reopened September 26).