Book Pairing: “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman and “Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart

A year or so ago, I read “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman in an attempt to get my head around the endless conflagrations that dominate the Middle East. At the same time, I was also reading “Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart, a comic satire about a former-Soviet state that fakes a civil war in an attempt to capture the West’s attention and, more importantly, its money. The result was an odd convergence; Shteyngart’s cartoonish satire seemed to cherry-pick, but amplify, the most salient revelations from Freidman’s nuanced consideration of the political and social climate in the region.

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“From Beirut to Jerusalem” is the culmination of the ten years Freidman spent in the Middle East, first as a correspondent in Beirut, then in Jerusalem. The book is a document of Freidman’s Middle East education: from a zealous pro-Israeli Jewish teenager in Minnesota to an awestruck journalist in Beirut to a grizzled Middle East observer in Jerusalem. Freidman offers a crystalline analysis of the chaos in the region, perpetuated by “Hama rules,” a reference to a small town in Syria leveled by its own leaders in a brutal display of power. Tribal rivalries and brutal sectarianism have always ruled in Lebanon, trumping peace at every turn. For Freidman, “Hama rules” illustrated his personal “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. The irony of Friedman’s education is the fact that, despite its success, Israel suffers from similar problems as Lebanon, mainly a political paralysis caused, at its root, by tribalism. The result, in his opinion, is that a silent majority, in both countries, whose call for moderation and compromise is drowned out by the shouts of zealots on both sides. Friedman concludes, “in Lebanon they called the paralysis ‘anarchy’ and in Israel they called it ‘national unity,’ but the effect was the same: political gridlock.”

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To include the word “absurd” in the title of one’s novel would seem a bit on the nose. It has all the subtlety of being slapped in the face by a sturgeon. And that’s the effect Gary Shteyngart is going for in his satirical novel, “Absurdistan.” It’s the story of Misha Vainberg, a gluttonous man-child (aka Snack-Daddy), the only son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, living in a state of arrested development, pining for all things American in Russia’s post-Soviet capitalist carnival. To avoid his father’s enemies, Misha tries to circumvent diplomatic roadblocks and buy his way to America via the tiny Caspian oil-republic of Absurdistan. In Absurdistan, Misha is embroiled in a simmering feud between two ethnic groups, the Sevo and the Svanï, who have fought for centuries over which direction Christ’s footrest tilted on the cross. When American multi-nationals (“Golly Burton, Golly Burton”) arrive with chants of “LOGCAP and cost-plus contracts” their schism threatens to explode into a full-blown mediagenic civil war, proving that the only thing more lucrative in the 21st century than oil… is conflict.

Many times, the joy of reading is discovering the serendipitous connections between one book and another. Paired together, Thomas L. Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan,” offer a vivid portrait of political (and tribal) conflicts and capture the passion, bad faith, and human folly that usually lie at their heart.


Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

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The 150-word Review: Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke” manages to evoke almost every literary and cultural trope related to the Vietnam War and still remain unique. It is a confounding novel that pokes you with occasional sections of purplish prose, only to follow them with flashes of clarity and power.

In many ways, “Tree of Smoke” is a reflection of the present, where reality has grown increasingly fragmented and vague. It shifts between several of points-of-view, through characters who, for the most part, seem to tread along the peripheries of the war. Johnson’s characters rarely experience suffering first hand but serve as witnesses to the tragedy and perversion occurring around them. They never confront their pain directly; instead we can palpably sense their pain through their denial, resignation, and self-destructiveness. And they neither seek nor offer any truths about their experiences. Perhaps the elusive Tree of Smoke is the illusion of “truth” itself.

Having this book on your shelf will impress: Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, MIchael Herr (and maybe Stanley Kubrick), the National Book Foundation, Psy Ops specialists, fans of “Jesus’ Son,” Michiko Kakutani, and B.R. Myers of the Atlantic Monthly.

This book will go great with: Bushmills and Lucky Lager

Set the mood with: Nineteen by Paul Hardcastle

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Denis Johnson was not present to accept the National Book Award for “Tree of Smoke,” due to the fact that he was on assignment in Iraq at the time.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

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The 150-word Review: There’s this scene in “Apocalypse Now.” Nineteen-year-old, “Mr. Clean” (Laurence Fishburn), lies dying on the deck of a swift boat. His comrades-in-arms are looking down upon him. They look directly into the camera and we see them through his eyes. The sun repeatedly peeks from behind their heads, stars flare in the camera’s lens, reminding us that we are watching a film, that none of what we are seeing is true. Yet all of it is true. We feel it. We are dying.

Tim O’Brien’s novel, “The Things They Carried,” is this scene. In the chapter, “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes, “that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” “The Things They Carried” is filled with unflinching stories of intense terror and madness, beauty and sorrow. Throughout, O’Brien reminds us that it is a work of fiction, but all of it is true.

You would like this book if you’re a fan of: metafiction, “true” war stories, reflexivity, gallows humor, gritty hyperrealism, generalizations, catharsis.

This book would go great with: “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.” Some of the things they carried. (or this).

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Interesting fact Norm, the story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” was made into a film in 1998, entitled, “A Soldier’s Sweetheart,” starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Reading this book would impress: Francis Ford Coppola, post-modernists, and (I would imagine) anyone who has truly experienced war.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

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The 150-word Review: I wonder about the stories behind those “lost pet” flyers you often see on laundromat bulletin boards or telephone poles. There is a tragic eloquence to them. The simple description of a pet and promise of reward hint at a greater sense of helplessness and loss, a sense that a part of someone’s identity has disappeared, that the owner is no longer whole. I imagine that Haruki Murakami must wonder the same thing.

“The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” begins with the disappearance of a Toru Okada’s wife’s cat. Thus Toru, an unassuming stay-at-home husband, must begin a strange journey that results in the dissolution of his marriage, the discovery of a hidden talent, the confrontation of unrevealed demons, and the unexpected promise of personal fulfillment. As always with Murakami, Toru encounters an eclectic menagerie of characters, in which each plays a vital role in unwinding the mystery of the wind-up bird.

You would like this book if you’re a fan of: lucid dreams, doppelgangers, classical music, seductive mediums, interesting birthmarks, war atrocities, misanthropic teenagers, pure-hearted loners, and a wonderful mix of literary and pop culture.

This book would go great with: Nikka Yoichi 15 Year Single Malt Whisky (look for the hint of nutmeg and cinnamon)

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm… two chapters from the third volume of the original three-volume Japanese paperback edition were not included in the English translation.

Reading this book would impress: David Lynch, mediagenic demagogues, literary kotaku, and anyone living on the islands of Malta and Crete

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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The 150-word Review: Whenever I read Graham Greene, I quickly find myself muttering, “THIS is how I want to write.” Greene writes with a crisp economy, steadfastly pressing the plot forward. Greene’s novel, “The Quiet American,” set in Saigon during the last days of the First Indochina War, is my favorite example of Greene’s excellence.

Alden Pyle, the title character in this story, is a green CIA operative, an earnest and misguided idealist, who befriends the story’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, a cynical British reporter. Fowler describes Alden Pyle by saying, “I’ve never met a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” When Pyle successfully challenges Fowler for the love of his callow mistress, Phoung, and his local meddling causes disastrous consequences, Fowler is reluctantly forced to take part in the events around him. The ironic punch line of Greene’s novel is “the only quiet American is a dead American.”

You’d like this book if you’re a fan of: expatriate literature, rationalizing jealously or envy, covert operations, subtlety and irony, applying literature to current events for perspective, crisp prose.

This book would go great with: bàhn mí, a vermouth cassis, or a pipe of opium

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Interesting fact Norm… Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his 2005 performance as Thomas Fowler in a film adaptation of “The Quiet American,” starring opposite Brendan Frasier as Alden Pyle.

(Terrific casting. If there was any American I’d like to see “quieted,” it’s Brendan Frasier. However, I did like “Encino Man.” OK. He can live.)

Reading this book would impress: neoconservatives, the editors of “Let’s Go! Saigon,” Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Burgess.