Monday, September 24, 2012

“Surfing Near the Siege”: A Review of Jesse Aizenstat’s Surfing the Middle East

Surfing the Middle East is a book of endless dicotomy. Subtitled “Deviant Journalism for the Lost Generation,” Aizenstat’s diary and depiction of his two trips to the Middle East is equal parts eye-opening participant journalism in the tradition of Sebastian Junger and V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers (the best book I have ever read about the tangled weave of cultures and belief systems in the Middle East) and an at times over-the-top homage to the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson (as evidenced most obviously by the opening quote from the good doctor and more subtly by the rampant use of his signature words: “savage,” “swine,” “fiend,” and his metaphorical device of linking drug-tripping adjectives with his on-site experiences).
            To be fair to Aizenstat—whose idea to surf in Israel and Lebanon while immersing himself in the Gordian knot of what is happening “over there” as an American Jew was as excellently executed as it was extremely evocative in concept—I have spent the past eight years reading everything I can find written by or about Hunter S. Thompson (indeed, as I was reading Surfing the Middle East I was also reading Hey Rube, so the Doctor’s typical dialogue and devices were foremost in my mind). Thompson’s appeal is his intense Uniqueness, and any attempt to borrow from or otherwise emulate what he so carefully cultivated rubs me the wrong way. It’s like trying to paint like Jackson Pollock and pass it off as in any way your own. I have watched with no small sorrow as Johnny Depp sinks into a not-so-subtle cartoon echo of his fallen hero. Sad.
            Aizenstat—a self-professed “smartass”—succeeds best when he is caught with his guard down, letting the waves of misery, injustice, absurdism, and poor policy that is the history of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict wash over him like some rogue wave. These moments—which happen with more frequency and greater intensity as he gets deeper into the Reality of things—like a Nor’easter moving into the mid-Atlantic coast where I spent my youth—make this book a must-read for anyone who cares at all about what is really happening among the flying rhetoric and rockets.
            Of course, like any successful story arc, the main character, fictional or not, has to start from somewhere far from where he ends, and watching Aizenstat’s armored plates of wise-cracks and playing the couldn’t-care-less California surfer-dude crack and fall away as he attends fire-flinging political rallies on both sides and sees first hand the Andersonville-esque squalor of the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila one cannot help but invest in his pain and disbelief.
            The book is abundantly filled with quotes penned by everyone from social commentators like Mary Shelley and Mark Twain to absurdist/existentialists like Albert Camus and Joseph Heller and is richly illustrated with nearly a dozen indispensible maps and a section of provocative color pictures. [I was doing a series of workshops for eighth graders in the West Virginia Capitol Complex on the Constitution and Bill of Rights while reading the book and the inside cover shots showing the disturbing dicotomy between the war and the western shore opened more than a few lost and jaded eyes]. There is also an ipad app [as well as a blog and numerous YouTube videos], illustrative of the hip and happening mode that feeds the surfing metaphors that are Aizenstat’s own coin of the realm. I was quickly reminded that what we think of almost without fail as an unmitigated desert-scape actually has a considerable coastline that provides page after page of apt comparisons between the surfer’s unpredictable dance with the swells and daily life in the camps, bombed out neighborhoods, checkpoints, and mosques and temples in Israel and Lebanon.
            Like the metafiction of the Beats, Surfing the Middle East boasts a compelling cast of characters: Jewish and Muslim surfers; attractive and flirtatious female border guards; no nonsense Israeli soldiers; wealthy Palestinian playboys living the club life; and an on-the-edge journalist from Texas nicknamed As-Salibi (“The Crusader”) who clandestinely gathers stories for a Palestinian news agency are just some of the many people that serve to educate and escalate Aizenstat’s transformation.
            This is not to say that at the start the author is in any way vacuous or not in tune. Despite his put-on surfer persona and failure to pass the Foreign Service Exam (the precipitating incident that started him on his journey—what Joe Campbell would identify as the hero’s “Call to Adventure”) his writing demonstrates an impressive knowledge of geography, mythology, foreign affairs, Middle Eastern history, and human psychology. In that regard, he is very much like Hunter S. Thompson, who, thru the drug and booze–fueled madness that mark his writing and his life, was a brilliant analyst whose political and pop culture predictions more often than not came true.
And Aizenstat definitely knows enough about the nuances of surfing to thread them through the multi-colored, multi-textured Middle Eastern tapestry that he weaves.
            As I said at the start, Surfing the Middle East is about nothing if not Dicotomy. I’ve explored several in this review—the serious journalist vs. the smartass surfer; the Israelis and Palestinians; the war and the western shore. These could be considered the macro-dicotomies. But dig a little deeper [stick around as the sun starts to set for that one last perfect wave] and you can mine the riches of the micro-dicotomies: the Sunni vs. the Shia; the blood-lusting militant vs. the old man struggling to feed his family in a quiet corner of a bombed and burned out world after being chased from his home by a roving gang of those blood-lusting militants; the shortest distance between two points vs. the realities of traveling in such a divided, border-guarded land; and perhaps the most compelling of all—the Jekyll and Hyde nature of organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PLO and many of the so-called leaders on both sides. The deeper you go—the longer you ride the tide—the more you want to know and the less you can ignore.
            So what about the non-Jew, the non-Muslim, like myself? What is our role in all of this? Because we most certainly have one. If you know nothing about the history and horrors of this area of the world, let this book be your passport, your circumventing navigational tool, your entrypoint to the rallies and the temples and the mosques.
            And when you’re done, just try and forget what you have read.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

“Symmetry and Artistry in a Well-Told Tale”

A Review of Seth Hammons Unheard Of [Book One of The Keys] (2012, ISBN 978-0-9859841-0-6)

Welcome to a brand new world. Two actually. The first is real, the other a writer’s creation. Both are equally important to this book.
            The first is a world that allows an author, almost independently, to publish a high-quality book without a publisher. I am talking more and more often in my reviews about these ultra-small, independent, and DIY authors and presses because they are growing in prevalence. Print on demand is virtually indistinguishable from large-volume runs that were the norm only 3 short years ago. Seth Hammons has written one of the best books I have read from this world in some time, and it bodes well for the future of literature that a book like this is in the world.
            The second world is the one created by the author. It centers on The Iori Keys, a group of islands wherein two classes of people reside—the Imperial Iori and the workaday Brecks, the former of whom oppress the latter.
            The differences between the two are numerous, familiar, and important: be it Science vs. Nature, Dogma vs. Paganism, formal schooling vs. orally passed knowledge, materialism vs. simple living, aggression vs. peace, or privileged vs. working class, Unheard Of tells us all about ourselves—our predispositions, our prejudices… and it does so with a simplicity and depth of craft that plays lightly like the music with which it is centrally concerned.
            The success of this music is its symmetry. For the first third or so of the novel, three central characters—the spoiled son of an Iori duke, the granddaughter of elderly farmers, and an ex ship’s navigator fallen on hard and drunken times—live their parallel lives. Although it is the sublime inevitability of good storytelling that we know that they will meet, Hammons makes us wait until the time is as perfectly ripe as the fruit and wheat yielded on the family farm.
            Although both the characters and the circumstances are deeply rooted in traditional storytelling themes—as are all the secondary and tertiary characters—Hammons gives us plenty that is fresh and new. His use of music as magic and explorations of other arts, such as whittling, all show a thorough understanding and reinforcement of the main themes through extended and well-rendered metaphor.
            In his Acknowledgments, the author says that his first foray into novel writing was a million-word epic that is not this book. All the practice shows. The prose is rich and rhythmical. The pages fly by. And I cared very much about the main characters. Their frustration, pains, and wants became my own. I rooted for them, and became emotionally and vocally moved when they were thwarted—or when they thwarted themselves.
            Like the works of Shakespeare or Tolkien, a well-crafted fantasy speaks to us through the ages and the mists of make-believe places to exactly where we are. The prejudices and injustices of Hammon’s set of islands are our own. Religion, economics, schooling, family—these are central pillars of any society, or set of societies, and if it were not for the thrumming hold of the cadence of the prose, one could get pulled into more modern matters of the war in the Middle East, ongoing prejudice in all areas of society, and what some are calling the “class war.” It is impossible to remain neutral when reading Unheard Of.
            Of how many books can we say the same?
            Unheard Of has some big surprises… some real “I didn’t see that coming” moments, but each are grounded securely in the story. There are no cheap tricks or gimmicks. And being the first book in a series (at least, I hope Hammons is writing more), there are some pressing matters with which we are left to wonder.
            I would happily recommend Unheard Of to those eighth grade to adult. There are some beautifully rendered maps by Zeyan Zhang (who also did the cover) and a Glossary. This is an excellent book for a discussion group, and the Glossary seems to be specifically crafted to suit just that.
            Reading the biographies in the back of the book, I can’t help but root for both the author and illustrator.
            No matter which world you consider—the real one of publishing and those trying to make their way in it or the fantasy one in which these memorable characters reside—this is a story that deserves a broad and loyal audience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“Bullets, Buddies, and Babes”

A Review of James Phoenix’s Frame Up (Grey Swan Press, Sept. 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9834900-3-6)

I like bold. Writers should be. During my three-decade-long literary apprenticeship I have come to agree with teachers and working professionals that being a good writer—nevermind a great one—takes a hell of lot of effort, study, and belief in yourself.
            You have to be bold.
So I was immediately interested in James Phoenix and his debut novel when I read that he was intending Frame Up to help fill the void left by Robert Parker (author of the ultra-popular Spenser and Jesse Stone detective series’) when he died in 2010. There are several other names of note in his press materials—Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler.
His own literary apprenticeship certainly seems to fit the subject matter—while he was learning to write well (and he does) he worked as a dishwasher, a waiter, a factory worker, a construction laborer, a stone tender, a weightlifter, and bouncer, a lobsterman, a salesman, and a successful International hi-tech entrepreneur.
Elements of all of these varied jobs appear in his book. And his publicity photo presents the image of a no-nonsense New Englander with an edge.
Learn your craft. Set your sights high. And then put it out there. Let the audience decide.
That is the great democracy of small-press publishing, especially in the age of print on demand and DIYers flooding the market with their words.
In this case, Phoenix is offering his book in hardback. Taking a risk at reaching a new audience fresh out of the gates with a $27.95 cover price.
He’s bold. And it seems to suit him. And the genre in which he works.
The hardboiled detective is a beloved American icon, whether on the page, the screen, or the stage. My recent foray into the field with a murder mystery musical in which the lead character is a trenchcoated, whiskey-slugging gumshoe in 1939 Manhattan was such a hit I was commissioned to write a sequel. Whether it's the wise-cracking, the knuckle-busting, or the bevy of beautiful clients who prove to be medicine good and bad, characters like Phoenix’s—a Boston cop now retired and turned private eye named Fenway Burke—are easy to root for and fascinating to watch.
Frame Up pays homage to all the best parts of the genre—it’s got the arrogant rich, the scum of the Earth criminals, the pissed-off cops, the beautiful women, and the loyal-to-a-fault friends. It’s got plenty of violence, and fast cars, late nights, and trendy locales. The dialogue is snappy and abundant, making for a quick read that moves along toward a satifying end. It’s also got the requisite dead ends and false leads.
It’s even got some romance.
Another aspect of the book, which has become a staple of crime dramas on TV, is the use of technology to solve crimes. The recent updating of Sherlock Holmes to be as adept at using cell phones and computers as the original character was at analyzing tobacco and mud samples brings the detective genre home to new audiences and Phoenix introduces an interesting tertiary character to help Burke with the more complicated cyber-work of tracking down clues in the twenty-first century.
I applaud Phoenix’s boldness—and fans of the crime drama, including Parker’s—should enjoy this latest addition.
I regret having to end an otherwise positive review by making note that the book suffers from an inordinate amount of typos. A thorough editorial review of the manuscript before publication would have elevated this book to the first-class publication its author no doubt would like it to be.