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The Daily Journal: January 23, 2007

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Anthony Swofford’s First Novel
Jarhead Shoots Blanks

I’m not of those who think book reviewers aren’t to be trusted. Most people who say that—and care about books—are liars anyway: there’s no way to make it through what’s left of our bookish world (small though it’s become) without relying a great deal on reviewers. It’s a matter of honesty (the reviewer’s) and, as always, a critical outlook on the reader’s part. And an understanding of what a review ought to be: one informed opinion’s guidepost, rather than edict (it’s those reviewers who think themselves the Donald Trumps of the trade who deserve a good rosie in the noogies). So much for a preface to this item: Last week in the New York Times Book Review, William Vollmann reviewed Anthony Swofford’s first novel, Exit A. Swofford of course is the author of Jarhead, the best book (fiction or non-fiction, though it happens to be in the non category) to come out of the first Gulf War so far, a book that makes you taste the oily grit of the Arab desert while stunning you with the stupidity of war in general and of the American effort in Gulf War I in particular—yes, even that one, held to be, falsely, as exclusively a noble liberation rather than a rehearsal of follies to come. A few lines from Jarhead, to give you a taste: “When you have the muzzle of a high-powered rifle in your mouth, there are many things to consider other than your despair.” “The shitters in the rear vary in size and design, and while it would make sense for the number of shitters to correlate to the number of marines in the rear, you rarely discover such logic employed. A rear area with five hundred marines might have one three-holer or ten three-holers, depending on various tactical factors such as how far the colonel is willing to walk from any point on the perimeter to a shitter.” “If wars were fought only by the men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly. Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don't want to die so simply for so little.” So it was disappointing to read Vollman demolish Swofford’s novel. Swofford let us know in Jarhead that his intention was to be a novelist. Vollmann

Jarhead deserves its acclaim. The reason it does is made plain right on Page 3, in sentiments of which Hemingway would approve: “What follows is neither true nor false but what I know.” This expert knowledge is precisely what makes the book believable, valuable: “Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss.” Moreover, Swofford takes the trouble to observe and analyze the context of his experiences: “By late September the American troop count in Saudi reaches 150,000 and the price of crude oil has nearly doubled.” From a strictly literary point of view, this last is not an impressive sentence, but it does not need to be; the implied connection between its two statements is important; we Americans owe it to ourselves and our country to decide whether it is valid and, if so, what the implication may demand of us. Exit A deserves no acclaim because it doesn’t convey life vividly or believably. It analyzes nothing. Whatever distinctions and connections it makes remain superficial at best. Swofford’s ability to create character is vastly inferior to his capacity to describe reality as he himself experienced it. He frequently commits the error of trying to amuse us with grotesquerie while simultaneously expecting to engage our empathy. For instance: “General Kindwall sat in his office, constipated and paranoid.” General Kindwall is the heroine’s father. It is his impending death from cancer that will bring about the reconciliation of all parties. (Never mind a few loose ends: “They would answer those later. Together.”) For this wrap-up to be at all effective, we need to feel sorry for Kindwall, but he remains sufficiently constipated and paranoid to make that impossible. […] It is only my admiration for Jarhead that impels me to express my disappointment in Exit A so bluntly. I hope and believe that Swofford, who has many books ahead of him if he chooses to write them, can achieve true greatness on a future occasion.

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Not Quite Nell
Cambodian Jungle Girl Mystery

From The Age: "WHEN they found her last week, her father said, she was "bare-bones skinny" and shaking, scuttling like a monkey along the ground to snatch up grains of rice, her eyes "red like tigers' eyes". So when the first pictures of Rochom P'ngieng, the woman supposedly lost in the jungle for 19 years, emerged showing a calm and apparently healthy young woman rather than an emaciated, feral beast, the mystery surrounding her remarkable story deepened. Sal Lou, 45, a policeman from a remote village on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, told a local newspaper last Thursday that his daughter, who disappeared, aged eight, in 1988 while tending a buffalo herd, had mysteriously re-emerged from the Cambodian jungle. She was naked and unable to speak any intelligible language but unquestionably, he insisted, she was his lost daughter, Rochom P'ngieng. But as reports emerged of a naked man who had been spotted with the woman but ran off when challenged, the family began to close ranks. They first refused to take DNA samples to confirm the woman's identity, but Mr Sal Lou later relented. Police have thrown a cordon around their home in an effort to keep curious neighbours and the media at bay. [...] Mr Sal Lou said he first heard the story on January 13 of a woman who had been captured after a farmer caught her stealing rice. The naked woman was starving, with wild hair and a body blackened by dirt. He said he travelled to the Rattanakiri area, where she had been found, and was immediately convinced she was his daughter. [...] Oyadao district police chief Mao San described her initial condition as "half-animal, half-human". Despite the many questions, he said he had no reason to doubt she is Mr Sal Lou's missing daughter. [...] There is no clue to the fate of the second daughter, Chan Boeung, who was six when she disappeared on the same day. Their father said he had long since given them up for dead. [...] The woman is able only to communicate in sign language, patting her stomach when hungry, and is apparently disturbed, screaming and shouting when her "parents" approach, which has led some to speculate that she is mentally ill. One theory among sceptics is that the marks on her wrist are the result of years of being bound, common practice among peasant villagers in dealing with mentally ill people." The full story...

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The Fatal Flaw
On Robert Hughes

Mia Fineman on the great Australian critic, in Slate: Robert Hughes "is a bravura performer, both on the screen and on the page. He writes with astounding verve, in a voice that slips easily between boisterous vulgarity and polished eloquence. In Things I Didn't Know, which chronicles his career through 1970, he says the single greatest influence on his approach to criticism was George Orwell. For Hughes, Orwell's no-nonsense prose style and clear, everyday language offered an astringent antidote to the "airy-fairy, metaphor-ridden kind of pseudo-poetry" that filled the art magazines of the early '60s. As a result of this early training—and probably also as a matter of temperament—Hughes' writing is muscular and dazzlingly lucid; he refuses to indulge in sublime metaphysical musings or languid adjectival swooning, opting instead for precise, verbally nimble descriptions of art's effects. His critical perspective is that of an erudite outsider, which makes him immensely appealing to a mainstream readership: He knows his stuff, but he hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid. [...] He has described the boys in Caravaggio's paintings, for example, as "overripe bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream," and evoked Francis Bacon's famous screaming pope "smearily rising from blackness like carnivorous ectoplasm." In general, his taste tends toward art with a sensuous, intelligent physicality, a tactile sense of craftedness, and subject matter you can sink your teeth into. Goya is a longstanding favorite (his superb biography of the artist was recently issued in paperback), and he has published persuasive encomiums to contemporaries including Lucian Freud, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Crumb. But all critics have their blind spots: particular styles or tendencies that they categorically dismiss, unable or unwilling to engage with the work on its own terms. Hughes' is conceptual art, particularly the ludic, cerebral variety that began with Duchamp and has been carried on by generations of artists, from Joseph Beuys and John Baldessari through Tracy Emin and Maurizio Cattelan. [...] And it's here, in his refusal to engage with this core tenet of contemporary art, that Hughes still exudes a faint whiff of provincialism.” See the full essay...

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Patriot Acts
Vigilante Cop Acts As Judge, Jury, Prosecutor, Bailiff, Stenographer, Executioner

From The Onion: "Often referred to by his superiors at the Oakland Police Department as a "loose cannon," Lt. Buck Roth and his unorthodox policing methods have been the subject of controversy for much of his turbulent career. But the renegade detective who acts as judge, jury, prosecuting attorney, bailiff, court reporter, and executioner maintains that his approach gets results."Whatever it takes to clean up Oakland, I'll do it," Roth said Monday. "After all the laziness and corruption I've witnessed during my 13 years on the force, I've learned you can't trust just anyone to apprehend, arrest, fingerprint, photograph, delouse, interrogate, arraign, hear testimony from, and set bail for the low-life scumbags I deal with day after day." Roth triggered a firestorm of controversy last Thursday when he ambushed and gunned down a suspected killer in a Bay Bridge–area warehouse, even though the suspect was not armed at the time. He further angered area law enforcement when he admitted to single-handedly securing the scene, taking fiber and DNA samples, notifying the killer's next-of-kin, and performing ballistics tests on his own weapon, all before calling for backup, which is the required procedure. Roth, who is officially assigned to the OPD's Vehicle Theft division, said that he is not a one-man corrections officer, polygraph technician, sketch artist, parole officer, SWAT team marksman, death row chaplain, and evidence room supervisor because he wants to be, but because "the Alameda County criminal justice system has failed its citizens time and time again." "Am I supposed to just stand by and watch the clowns at HQ let these depraved bastards slip through the cracks?" said Roth, cleaning his service revolver as he scanned the two dozen subpoenas he personally issued and planned to serve later that afternoon. "The whole system is rotten to the core. Not one of these detectives, assistant DAs, court clerks, process servers, or parking enforcement officers knows his ass from his elbow." [...] Despite major qualms with the bureaucracy and red tape he creates and then has to deal with, the maverick cop is confident he is doing the right thing.” The full story...

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Photo of the Day
The scene on Ocean Beach, San Francisco, on Jan. 6. From a Christian Science Monitor story on protest, thanks to Pensacola Beach Blog.


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A Bertolucci Moment
Dalco, Olmo
From “1900,” one of the great movies of all time


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Crumbs & Quickies

In the Blogosphere

The Muslims Did It
Karen Armstrong's Islam

Ohdave tells you everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask, for fear of landing on an NSA watch list, about the book conservatives love to hate: "One of the impressions I was left with in reading this book was Armstrong's assertion that Islam has throughout its history been engaged in politics, and that secular leadership of the state is something unusual in Muslim history. By contrast, Christians and Jews have frequently seen their faith as being separate from the state, and in fact have often followed Christ's warning to leave the things of the state to the state. This observation, while empirically true, is certainly strange to the experience of people like me in the US who have observed an activist Christianity that has sought to overtake the American government for much of our lives. It is an important reminder that what is occuring now is something of a historical anamoly (although there is certainly precedent for it in history, as any student of the Puritans knows)." Read the full review...


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