Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between
By Jeff Sharlet
If Jeff Sharlet, in this compilation of 13 essays, is trying to capture the humanity of the people he encounters, he’s failed. Most of them are flat; they resemble each other so much from essay to essay that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate them. But if he’s using these encounters to document his indecision about whether he himself is a man of faith, then many of the essays become much more engaging and resonant. Some of them are too weighed down by his self-reflection and self-critique, but the more traditional reported pieces succeed in interesting the reader in the author’s struggle to understand his faith by observing the effects of faith on others.
Over the past ten years, Sharlet has written a lot about religion and about fundamentalism. In 2001, he and novelist Peter Manseau launched KillingtheBuddha.com, an online literary magazine about religion. In 2008, Sharlet published The Family, about a network of Christian fundamentalist groups enmeshed in American and international politics. In the acknowledgements of Sweet Heaven, Sharlet explains he wrote many of its essays at the same time he was researching his other books.
The earnestness of zealotry—the willingness of zealots to proclaim that they care deeply aboutsomething—touches him, but the ignorance that comes as a result of their single-mindedness repels him. He explores these contradictory feelings in essays about teenagers who have completely devoted themselves to fundamentalist Christianity. In “She Said Yes,” after briefly dissecting Ron Luce, a Christian preacher who’s founded BattleCry, “the most furious youth crusade since young sinners in the hands of angry God flogged themselves with shame in 18th century New England,” Sharlet turns to his most devoted followers. These teenagers have literally bought into BattleCry, spending $7,800 a year to attend Luce’s Honor Academy in East Texas. Within a few pages, he teeter-totters between empathizing with them and patronizing them. He can’t condone fundamentalism, but he can understand it.
In “Quebrado,” Sharlet admires the sincerity of Brad Will, another kind of fundamentalist, an activist and journalist killed while reporting in Mexico. In writing about these characters, Sharlet reveals that he, in contrast to them, is curious about the world around him, but is wary of the kind of full-throttle commitment he sees in the faithful.
The Chukchi Bible
By Yuri Rytkheu
Trans. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Can the author of a story about indigenous people be accused of idealized, patronizing Noble Savage characterizations if that author is himself a member of the nation? The question arises more than once in The Chukchi Bible, even as each successive chapter draws the reader more deeply into the story and fate of the Chukchis, a group that lived—and still lives, in far fewer numbers—in the northeast nether-regions of Russia, just over the Bering Strait from Alaska. This beautifully rendered tale is a tribute not only to Chukchi history but to their tradition of oral storytelling. But the question of whether Rytkheu is laying on the primitivism keeps arising.
It’s especially distracting in the last few chapters, when Rytkheu zooms in to tell the story of his grandfather, Mletkin. Rytkheu, an author of several previous novels about the Chukchi, vividly recounts his grandfather’s journey: young hunter, shaman, sailor on a U.S. vessel, exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, and finally a wizened old man who sees his people’s values and traditions sandblasted away by American and Bolshevik influences. Rytkheu romanticizes Mletkin’s life and character, especially when it comes to Mletkin’s romance with his wife, Givivneu. In Rytkheu’s telling, Mletkin is a lover straight out of medieval England—a chivalrous knight who literally challenges another man to a duel to win his bride. For Rytkheu, it’s not enough for his grandfather to be merely a man: he must be a flawless representation of the best qualities of all the Chukchi ancestors described in the book, the Last of the Chukchi, as it were. But even this two-dimensionality doesn’t detract from Rytkheu’s beautifully wrought and absolutely gripping tales of whale hunts, shamanic torture tests, feasts and famines, naming ceremonies, that all provide a unique glimpse into an all but unknown culture.
A Kind of Intimacy
By Jenn Ashworth
Obese, shy, and friendless, Annie is new to the neighborhood, a 28-year-old mysteriously former wife and mother who relies on copious amounts of self-help literature to navigate what she sees as a frightening, disordered world. Like another horror heroine, Stephen King’s Carrie, who came before her, Annie is an outcast with a fucked-up parent, a young woman whom society ignores when not belittling or ridiculing her. Her line, “Most of the time I dealt with my father by pretending to be deaf,” deftly sums up her childhood, which she visits in several flashback chapters. Annie narrates the story, and it quickly becomes clear that her recollection of events can’t be trusted. English first novelist Jenn Ashworth’s choice to have her unreliable narrator toggle back and forth between two storylines sometimes causes the first-time novelist to trips clumsily over the curtain that hides Annie’s disturbing past, rather than pulling it back at a deliberate pace until the climactic converging of the storylines. Ashworth does, however, masterfully inject notes of thrilling—and funny—dread into many scenes, as when Annie refuses to admit to herself that she has just come down from a week-long wine-fueled bender, or when she “accidentally” overhears her neighbors taking a shower together. Like all really great pieces of creepy writing, these passages only really get to you after you put the book down—and putting it down might be a challenge at its best moments. Unfortunately, the climax of the book is not one of those moments—not because it’s not well-drawn, but perhaps because it feels a little too inevitable, in a way that betrays the originality of the main character and her story.
The Union Jack
By Imre Kertesz
Originally published in 1991 (but never before translated), the story is in the conditional tense, as if the narrator were going to tell it. This despite the fact that he’s already told this story “a few days—or months—ago” to a group of former students at his birthday party, right around 1989, as the Soviet Empire begins to crumble. This historic collapse, of course, marks the end of Russia’s continuous hold on Hungary since WWII—continuous, that is, save for a couple weeks in 1956… when a student revolution, quickly squelched, became a touchstone of 20th-century Hungarian history. It is a moment during the ’56 revolution that concerns the narrator, with the English flag—the Union Jack—draped across a Jeep that is fleeing Hungary and abandoning her to a quick, decisive counterattack followed by decades of puppet governments and Soviet bullying.
But before that can happen, he must flash back further, to 1948, when as a 20-year-old cub reporter, he is living a life that “ground along,” until he witnesses a Party bigwig carted off to prison in a black limousine. “[T]he person who only yesterday had still been a bigwig there was today fit only to be abused with the names of canine predators.” He can no longer bring himself to pursue journalism in the absurdity of such a “disaster era,” so he spends the next eight years discovering a way to live an authentic life even after reason and truth abandon his society, even after witnessing “how an entire nation could be made to deny its ideals,” as Kertesz put it in his 2002 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
The prose is difficult—the novella is a single, 80-page paragraph—but the perspective the narrator provides from the losing end of a failed revolution, and the peace he’s found with it, make for a powerful conclusion that is worth the careful read the book demands.
Cringe editor Sarah Brown has taken that time-honored tradition of dusting off a dozen-year-old journal, paging through it, and wondering, “What the hell was I thinking?” In doing so, she’s created a cottage industry that includes a blog, a monthly reading series, and now a book. Somewhat ironically, Cringe the book capitalizes on a few dubious publishing trends — the precious, over-sharing narrative that relies on embarrassment as the sole road to empathy, and blogger-authored novelty books that don’t weather well — that might make some writers and editors look back on this anthology in a few years’ time only to, well, cringe. But to her credit, Brown has put together more of a toilet-tank-lid miscellany than a blasé coffee-table book. The concept is relatively simple: this is a collection of pages torn from diaries and journals, school notebook covers, letters, fan mail, post-it notes and more, all donated by contributors who introduce and explain their artifacts.
While this tendency to wax nostalgic for such a recent past (none of the contributors are over 40) doesn’t sit well at first, several things elevate Cringe. Brown has curated her entries well, selecting participants with good-natured, relatable senses of humor. Anne Frank and her diary, “Kitty”, are cited as inspiration (and apologized to) more than once for the self-acknowledged dreck that follows. Some contributors take the easy route for their intros, culling their yuks from the well-worn LOL territory of instant messaging and Facebook status-updating, as in “Knock knock: Who’s there? A friendless, bitchy eleven-year-old!”
The very best entries meld hindsight with an empathetic understanding of their past selves, and, more generally, the plight of the American teenage nerd. “What makes you cringe the most, I think, when you look through your childhood journals, are those moments when you realize how little you’ve changed,” one contributor writes. True, and he also proves how much comfort this realization provides. This strange collection necessarily lacks the emotional resonance of an autobiographical confessional like “Kitty”, but Cringe certainly has a shot at transcending the glib and often disappointing transition from gimmick to book.
The 20 women whose essays are featured each tell a story of self-harm, usually a self-destructive stage within the first 25 years of the contributor’s life. The stories range from cutting to cocaine and heroin addiction to breast cancer. Having fairly recently reached the other side of those first 25 years (I’m 27), while I was reading most of these essays I was reminded of a night a few years ago. I was a college freshman sitting at a bar with a new girl-crush, a 24-year-old hipster writer from Toronto who had a lover — not a boyfriend. Over beers, I told her that I had just begun to feel that I was winning the “battle” over anorexia. I explained, in a conspiratorially low voice, that I had lost a tooth and some hair a couple of years ago when it was really bad, but that therapy seemed to be helping, although I was still obsessed with calorie-counting. After a few sentences, she cut me off. “Yeah, I had anorexia, too. Everyone had anorexia in high school.” In other words, as one of her ironic thrift-store t-shirts might have put it, “Shit Happens.” I realized wondrously that I was boring her.
That anecdote’s not meant to imply that the Live Through This essayists don’t have some harrowing stories to tell. (Leagues more harrowing than my tale ever was, in case we’re keeping score.) Their self-destructive phases shaped their lives and, in some cases, vitalized or revitalized their art. But the narratives they construct, told in the same conspiratorial, soul-baring tones I used at the bar that night, have a cringe-worthy tendency toward self-exploitation. They are hackneyed tales of distressed damsels, the only twist being that the perpetrator and the victim are one in the same. The editor, Sabrina Chapadjiev, writes, “The actual act of self-destruction is something that repulses those who do not understand it.” But, for those of us who do understand “the actual act,” a book that revels in every gory detail of my gender’s masochistic leanings (the one exceptional bright spot being Diane DiMassa, the only contributor who uses her absurd sense of humor to strike the perfect note), makes for a yawn-fest of pre- and post-feminism jargon.
In this take on the lefty media’s impact on progressive politics, Theodore Hamm, editor of the Brooklyn Rail and professor at the Metropolitan College of New York, commits the mortal sin of sucking all the fun out of Stephen Colbert, The Onion and Michael Moore. Hamm proposes that since September 11, pop culture has birthed a “new blue media” composed of liberal bloggers, Moore, Jon Stewart, Colbert, The Onion and Al Franken’s and Mark Green’s Air America Radio. Hamm’s main premise — that this new media has “transformed the style, and to a lesser extent the substance of progressive politics” — may be proving incorrect on the eve of his book’s publication. “Rather than echo the cautious mush of the 2000 edition of Al Gore or John Kerry in 2004, most leading Democrats have now adopted the combative tone of Howard Dean,” writes Hamm in his introduction.
Hamm’s thesis is debatable. But there is little doubt that the examples he cites are more popular than ever, which is why it’s hard to understand why he chooses to write so dully about them. To prove his point, Hamm covers the recent history (ca. 2001-2007) of each media source in gratuitous detail, offering little of the analysis that should have comprised the bulk of this book. After all, if you’re the kind of person who would bother reading The New Blue Media at all, chances are you also have at least a passing familiarity with the birth, death and rebirth of Air America and the increasing popularity of the Daily Kos blog, and you probably wouldn’t need to slog through a 30-page narrative of their recent history either.
Rather than reading a recap of the past five years of my daily media intake, I would have preferred Hamm’s analysis of, say, the fact that four of the five new blue media members he cites are entertainers, not news reporters. As it is, New Blue Media reads like an undergraduate’s American Studies senior thesis. And as someone who didn’t even read her own undergraduate American Studies senior thesis, I wish good luck to those who give this one a whirl.
The poet drags us through some well-worn criticisms of the schizophrenic reception immigrants receive once they reach the U.S. gossett tsk-tsks talk-show host blowhards (targets so worn out as to have been rendered irrelevant). She shakes her head over immigrants who are hated only to turn around and hate (echoing the 18-year-old montage of five men spewing their profanity-laden prejudices in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). And yet. While her subject matter has been done to death, gossett manages to transcend the pedantic by writing a book that helps us realize the connection we all share. And this connection doesn’t arise from some cheeseball, humanity-exalting trait, either. Our collective choice to mount the hamster wheel that is daily life in this Greatest Nation on Earth — and our blind panic once we realize we don’t know how to jump off — binds us to one another.
Even more admirably, gossett’s words, some of which are trite and some of which are inspired, are not the reader’s chief guides to this realization. Rather, the rhythm of the verse itself leads the reader to experience the connection. We can feel that rhythm in poems like ‘have we got a job for you!’ and ‘report bias incidents against immigrants today!’ Every one of us is a part of the same damn hustle. gossett has obviously spent plenty of time listening in her neighborhood — “the upperupper west side manhattan neighborhood where the republic of harlem coincides with the dominican republic.” Since she’s not a native Spanish speaker, she’s listened not so much to the words her neighbors say but instead to what they are really asking for.
As a reward for making the effort to listen, she has heard that we live in a system we did not create and are trying frantically to simultaneously learn and beat. Give up your hustle, and you’re dead. While that may sound dire, she impresses again, because her rhythms still manage to pulsate with hope. In her experienced hands, we both face the cold, cruel world and imagine another way, a time or place where we wouldn’t have to have a hustle, but could just be.
Bikini Kill. Modest Mouse. Fugazi. Sebadoh. If you like these bands, you’ll love Silent Pictures, Pat Graham’s first photography book. Graham toured with several of the bands featured, snapping iconic shots of ’90s DIY-indie-undergrounders performing and at rest. One look at the concert photos will convince anyone that Graham not only documented this scene but helped create it — check out his great cover art photograph for Bikini Kill’s The CD Version of the First Two Records. Photo info appears as a list at the back of the book rather than in caption form, which you can either view as an annoyance or an invitation to perform a parlor trick. After all, wallflower that you are, you may notice Silent Pictures on the coffee table during the cocktail party of a friend of a friend. You may flip the book open sullenly, recognize a face or a space, wonder whether you’re right, and then flip to the back of the book to demonstrate your knowing hipster knowingness. Is that Ted Leo singing in a dingy Brooklyn studio? Is that the Austin airport? Why, yes, yes it is.
Sometimes, when I read a book jacket blurb like the one on Gentlemen (“dazzling … a breathtaking performance”), I uncontrollably snort; which is to say that it’s seldom an author takes my breath with his performance. Seldom, but not never, and as it happens, Gentlemen accomplished the task. This is the book Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay wishes it were. Like that book, Gentlemen seems to have been born of the author’s deep-rooted need to fulfill his boyhood fantasy of adulthood by living vicariously through his own characters. But I enjoyed Gentlemen more than Kavalier & Clay because while both books are expansive and ambitious, only Gentlemen manages to be really funny. It even pokes fun at how seriously it takes itself as Östergren’s magnum opus. The book was first published in Sweden in 1981, and the Swedish pop culture references went right over my head, but the universal warmth and good nature of this book didn’t. My pithy, back-of-book jacket quote: “A Fanciful Piece of Nordic Fun!”