Friday, December 30, 2011


Over the years I've argued that it's fruitless to compare iterations of a story, especially when crossing forms (book to movie, etc). Better to take each on its own terms, I say. My converts are few, even among my own family. There seems to be a natural tendency to select a version and deem it authoritative. It's not always the original.

This week, at a family gathering, I told my brother-in-law that the book I most enjoyed this year was True Grit. It's great, I told him, maybe even a masterpiece. Economy, voice, plotting, characters. All done superbly. And it's funny. In the best way, because the humor is so embedded in the characterization.

I don't know, my brother-in-law said. I picked it up in the book store, but there didn't seem to much there that wasn't in the movie. (I think he was referring to the recent Coen Brothers adaptation.)

Exactly, I said. All of the best lines and situations are there in the book. Plus, you get Mattie's voice.

Not enough value added, he said.

Later that day I went to see the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with my father. Or, as he calls it, The Girl with the Purple Parrot (see previous post).

At various times during the movie he leaned over to say, That's not how it happened, you know.

As if the Swedish movie (he hasn't read the book) is real life and the American movie is loosely fictionalized.

He was particularly disturbed by the ending, which conflated two characters and ended on the wrong continent. I agreed that it seemed muddled and tacked on, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered they had a mystery to solve.

And it's just not true, my father huffed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Secret to a Long Life

Lately I have been consumed by my father's health. Trips to Cincinnati to visit him in the hospital, phone calls with my sisters, talks with doctors and social workers.

At least twice a day, Sam and I compare his father's health to my father's health. His father is 86, ten years older than my father, but his father is still living in his home. Even after an amputated leg and bladder cancer. My father wasn't able to stay in his home, and now he's on a fast-track to assisted living. Which he, and we, can't afford. It's constantly on my mind.

Sam and I are talking about this--again--just before I walk to the mailbox. When I come back, I hand him the mail that is addressed directly to him. One piece is a postcard from his dentist. Sam was due for a cleaning in January, 2010.

Wow, Sam says. They're just now letting me know that I'm two years late for my appointment.

That's quite a reminder system they have, I say.

You know, Sam says musingly, my father's been doing well for two years. Pretty much since January, 2010.

Spooky, I say. You think there's a connection?

We ponder this for a moment or two.

I think I'll make an appointment, Sam says. Just for a cleaning, nothing else. I don't want to kill my father, I just want him to suffer a little.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Especially Seeking Somalis

Not long ago, I was at the Global Mall and I ran across a neon green handbill. It was a casting call for the Tom Hanks feature film, Capt. Phillips, and it stated that Sony Pictures was "especially seeking Somalis."  Because I found this handbill outside a Somali money-wiring business, and because the auditions were held at the Somali Community Association, I can only assume that some Somalis are on board with this project.

It made me think, though.

On one hand, it would seem to be a step forward to have a film company insist that Somalis play Somalis. Unlike Black Hawk Down which used mostly Nigerian actors. (Or even The Good Wife, a show I love, which has a Somali character who doesn't look to be Somali).

On the other hand, I have actor friends who would argue that it doesn't matter. Actors are actors. They inhabit other identities.

But I think it does matter. When I was writing the Westerns section of my book Adaptations, I did a lot of research into how Native Americans were depicted in film. One of the films I cited, A Man Called Horse, particularly crystalized a lot of the controversy. Ward Churchill, a Native American activist and author, pointed out: "This droll adventure, promoted as 'the most authentic description of North American Indian life ever filmed,' depicts a people whose language is Lakota, whose hairstyles range from Assiniboin through Nez Perce to Comanche, whose tipi design is Crow, and whose Sun Dance ceremony and lodge in which it is held are both typically Mandan."

At the time, most reviewers agreed with Louise Sweeney, who said: "A Man Called Horse does have a documentary realism for several reasons. ... Production notes emphasize the use of members of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in feature roles and behind the scenes, creating accurate costumes, teepees, and weapons." Today, the notion that this film is documentary-like is almost laughable. Watch it. It hasn't held up well.

Our collective opinion has changed because there has been work done to educate people about Native American issues. We've come some distance from images of the Red Man and the Noble Savage.

Which, I guess, is my issue with this Tom Hanks film, however well-intentioned. Pirate is to Somali as Savage is to Native American.

Otherwise, would Jeffrey Gettleman (one of the best and only Western journalists covering Somalia from inside Somalia) have ended a recent article about the drought and famine in Somalia with this paragraph (emphasis mine):

It is important to remember that however plagued Somalia is, however routine conflict, drought and disease have become, however many Somalis have already needlessly died, Somalis are not somehow wired differently from the rest of us. They are not numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. I’ll never forget the expression on Mr. Kufow’s face as he stumbled out of Benadir Hospital into the penetrating sunshine with his lifeless little girl in his arms. He may not have been weeping openly. But he looked as if he could barely breathe.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Conversation with a Young Poet

I need to write six poems for my poetry project, but I don't know what to write about, Mary says.

Mary is fourteen and in the sixth grade. She's behind in her schooling because she lived in Africa until a few years ago.

Why don't you try thinking about childhood memories, I suggest. Does anything come to mind?

The jumping cats.

Jumping cats?

Yes. When I was little, my father and I used to sit on our porch and listen to the cats jump from roof to roof. The houses were very close together, you know. This was when we lived in Guinea.

How did that make you feel? I ask.

Okay when I was with my father, but scared at night. Loud thumps and scratching sounds would wake me up. The cats were all black with yellow eyes.

That does sounds scary, I said. I think that story would make a really good poem. What else do you remember?

There was a European boy in our village who walked on his toes all the time.

A European boy?

Yes, he had an accent.

And he walked on his toes?

All the time.

Desmond, who has been listening in, jumps out of his chair. Like this? he says, walking with a bounce.

No, Mary says, like this. She gets up and stands on her toes, like a ballerina on pointe.

Wow, I say. He walked like that all the time?

Uh huh. We laughed and laughed and laughed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Writing About Real People

I recently published an essay about what it's like to live with someone who is struggling with a neurological disorder. (To be specific, his disorder might be multiple sclerosis, or it might be a form of ALS. We don't have a definitive diagnosis. All we know is that it sucks.)

I published the essay (called "Toadal Chaos") in Gulf Coast, a wonderful journal out of the University of Houston.  I was really proud to be in this issue, because it's very beautiful and contains some very fine work. The problem was ... I couldn't tell anyone.

While I had implicit approval from Sam to write about our struggles, I hadn't shown him the essay. It was hard to write and I knew it would be hard to read. I was afraid it would hurt him. To be honest, I was sort of counting on the fact that only writers read lit mags. But I felt guilty. Since I've been writing nonfiction I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about privacy and trespass and truth, etc.

Then a friend gave me a copy of Sharon Solwitz essay, "The Witness Complains," about living with her husband's MS. Our stories are remarkably similar, although we expressed them in very different ways.

So I wrote to Sharon and asked her whether she had shown her essay to her husband. How would someone react, seeing himself exposed in such a way? She kindly wrote back immediately and said that it had been difficult for him to read, but that he was grateful. Her words had shown him that she had seen and understood what was happening with him. Illness is so isolating.

Still, I didn't show my essay to Sam. He had to ask for it. He said he wanted to read everything I've published in the last year. I prevaricated. There isn't much, I told him. Which is true. It's been a dry year. He persisted.

I went into the other room while he read. His sobs were so loud I had to come out several times to make sure he was okay. I cannot even say how difficult those minutes were.

When he was done, he said it was honest. He said there was no reason for me to have kept it from him. He said it was hard to read.

The story doesn't end there. Last Sunday, he took my essay to his family's holiday reunion. He set it on one of the tables with a sticky note to mark the place. He did it because he wanted his family to know about what I do. Such bravery astounds me.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events

I'm on the phone, again, with my father. This time I've called him. To get his side of the story.

The story is something I won't go into here, for many reasons, including legal ones. Let's just say that it involved provocation, violence, an evil neighbor, and his golf handicap. Familiar tropes.

Our discussion ranges far and wide, backwards and forwards. People have been after him his whole life, my dad says, for no reason. There was that guy at the steel mill who tried to knife him. Good thing he was able to talk him down with a quote from Thomas Payne. Then there was the guy in the army who tried to shoot him. That time he talked him down with quotes from Shakespeare.

I'm exhausted by the speed of his chatter. By the mental leaps necessary to follow what he's saying. Dad, I say. Have you ever wondered why so many people want to kill you?

See! he said. Your Old Man is a great character! You should be writing about me!

I've been hearing this for years. What a great source of material you have! people say.

It occurs to me that this is just another untruth in  a whole rat's nest of untruths. No matter how you look at it, the vessel is half-empty.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Golden Years

Oh, the ways in which I can procrastinate are many and varied. I should be writing, and if not writing, grading papers, but instead I am packing. (We are moving.) And instead of packing, I am googling Philip Gibbs.

He was, apparently, the author of over thirty books, and, in his day, a famous WWI journalist. For some mysterious reason, I have a novel by him called The Golden Years on my bookshelf. The spine is cracked and the pages are yellow and the cover is a rather unattractive plum color. I am trying to decide whether to keep it or throw it out.

The first line is promising: "It seems incredible that I should know a lady who once danced with the Emporer Napolean ..." The last line is coy: "Did you say two lumps of sugar, my dear?"

I'm never going to read this book and I guess I'm never going to get rid of it. If it were more contemporary and in better shape, I would donate it to the library--but they will, I think, throw it out. (Too much like calling the Humane Society about a stray cat.)

However forgettable, I'm sure it took Mr. Gibbs a sizable chunk of time to write this book. And, while writing a book myself--one that is probably forgettable and certainly time-consuming--it just doesn't seem right to heartlessly toss his away.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Before They Were Pirates

This morning I heard that, in Egypt, the streets are ringing with protest poetry. This is wonderful, and even surprising, but nothing new for that part of the world. In Somalia, many believe poetry helped bring down their dictator. In honor of the moment, I'm excerpting a little from an unpublished essay of mine. 

Long before the Somalis were pirates, they were poets.

Poetry was present in every facet of life. Everything merited a poem, from churning butter to herding goats to visiting a friend to turning down a marriage proposal. If you wanted to request something, you did it with a poem. If you wanted to object to something, you did it with a poem. If you wanted to explain something, you did it with a poem. Somalia was (and still is, to a large extent) an oral society and poems contained the information needed to live. They taught botany, animal husbandry, geography, history, ethics, philosophy. Poetry was also a political force. Each clan appointed a poet who played a key role in making war or protecting peace. In fact, some say it was poetry, as recently as a few decades ago, that finally brought Somalia’s dictator down. 

I’ve read everything I can find on the subject, although there’s less than you might think, given poetry’s importance in Somali culture. Nobody knows how far back their poetic tradition goes. British explorer Sir Richard Burton, one of the first Westerners to venture into the land of the Somalis, made note of it in the 1850s:

The country teems with “poets, poetasters, poetitos, poetaccios:” every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines.
The complexity of the art form he described has led people to believe that the practice stretches much further back, but, mysteriously, there are no surviving poems prior to the 1700s.

Poetry contests, much like our poetry slams, have long been a common form of entertainment in Somalia. Canadian author Margaret Laurence, who lived in Somaliland in the 1950s and who made the first attempt to translate Somali poetry into English, describes a competition in which the objective was to write a poem about the vagina without using the word and without offending public sensibilities. One can only imagine the neologisms that were created in the service of that set of constraints.

Sometimes the contests weren’t as playful. In the early 1980s, when Somalia was nearing its breaking point and its president, Siad Barre, had shown himself to be just another corrupt and cruel African dictator, two poets decided to challenge one another to a poetic duel that would directly confront the regime. Where do these Japanese cars come from, one poem asked, when most people have nothing? Cassette tapes, which had been enthusiastically adopted by the nomads, became the delivery method. Poets from around the country, and the world, added their voices to the debate. Poetry cassettes were everywhere. All told, around sixty poets contributed about one-hundred-and-twenty poems.

Not long after the contest began, the SNM—one of the first and largest resistance movements— was formed, operating out of a base in Ethiopia. Some say the country’s turning point came when the two poets who began the contest defected to Ethiopia in the middle of the night and began to actively work with the resistance. “And the armed poetry started,” as one poet put it.

For the years I’ve been teaching Somalis, I’ve searched for evidence of their poetry. Not amongst the intellectuals in African Studies programs, but in the homes of newly arrived refugees. I’ve heard that poetry cassettes still circulate, but I’ve also heard the old poetic tradition, based as it is on the pastoral lifestyle, is being wrecked by war and usurped by the Somali love for new technology. So who knows? Once, when I was trying to buy a Somali-English dictionary, a Somali friend gave me a ride to the market where they are sold. Her car was old, low-slung and rusty. Beneath the sound of the exhaust, I heard something verse-like coming from the cassette deck. It was in a language I didn’t understand. Is that poetry? I asked excitedly. No, she said gently. That is Qr’aan.

When I’ve asked Somali women about their poetry, they tell me to talk to the men. (The women’s poetry is usually private and domestic, the men’s is far more public.) When I ask the men, they shrug, but not unkindly.  

Is it because it is too difficult to translate? Or because I won’t understand? Don’t know enough about camels? Or drought? Or clan politics? Or is it because they are refugees, and have other things to think about?

Note: Alexander Stille's The Future of the Past has a wonderful chapter about how technology is impacting Somali poetry. He talks at length about the impact of poetry on Barre's downfall.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Then and then and then

The other morning I woke up wondering how much a visit to a hypnotist would cost. Because I can't remember what phrase William, my guide in Kakuma, said to mean "no problem." He said it so often and it was so him that I assumed I would have written it down. But it's not in my notes. Apparently he said it so often and it was so him that I thought I wouldn't have to write it down.

So, while writing about Kakuma, I had to decide whether it was important enough to follow up on. I decided it is. It matters. I'll have to send an email and ask, What is it that you say again? That means no problem?

Then I started to write a description of a coffee shop in Kakuma and I discovered that my notes on this, surprisingly, are pretty good. I've even got the color of the u-shaped platform seating--Caribbean blue. But when I started writing about that I discovered this detail didn't really matter.

(It does to me. I find it ironic that there's so much Caribbean blue in the desert, but when I tried to write that I found myself so lost in the Tangled Woods of Digression that I had to drop it. Ditto for the Splash Motel in Lodwar.)

Then I read a note from someone in my book club. This person said that she didn't finish last month's book (a memoir) because she heard the author say that in recreating a childhood scene she (the author) had made up the color of a dress. It was an easy memoir to put down, so there's that. But of course she made it up.

Anyone who has written or tried to write a memoir knows you have to find your own line in the sand: on this side, things that matter; on that side, things that don't matter. On the side of things that don't matter you might make up a color or a name or even a time of day. On the side of things that matter, you try to be truthful and hope for the best.

And yet the woman in my book club is very smart. Her opinion is probably shared by the majority. So it seems there's a disconnect between writers and readers.

Then, while I was pondering all this, a single scrap of paper, amidst all the detritus on my desk, floated to the top. It says: "Our literary opinions are so tangled with our emotions that your relationship with a particular book is a lot like your relationship with a sibling. It depends on what and how much you are willing to forgive." (I don't know where this quote is from, but it seems to be from a review of some sort.)

Then, while I was pondering that, I started wondering if you could substitute cultural for literary and whether or not it would still be true. I was wondering this because I was just involved in an unpleasant incident with a Somali parent, an incident much like the many incidents that I hear about shortly after someone has told me they hate Somalis and I ask why.

Then I decided that, when it comes to memoirs and Somalis, I am willing to forgive quite a lot but not everything.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Conversation With My Father About True Grit

I'm on the phone with my father, who has just seen True Grit.

Did it hold up? I ask.

We both like the old John Wayne movie, if only for the line That's bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.

Yeah, he says, pretty much. The spy played a better part than the musician.

The spy? I say. We seem to be crossing genres.

I don't know, he says. You know. The guy who's best friend is Africa.

Huh. I try to make the necessary intuitive leaps.

Then I get it. Ohhhh, I say.

Matt Damon, who plays a spy in the Bourne movies, and whose best friend is Ben Affleck, is better than Glen Campbell, the singer, who played the same part in the original. Is that it?


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

When I read Lydia Davis

When I read Lydia Davis I start to think like Lydia Davis. Or, to be more exact, I start to think that I think like Lydia Davis. How could I really know how Lydia Davis thinks? It's true, she has published several hundred stories in which her mind is on display, but I have read somewhat less than several hundred. I have met Lydia Davis, though, on two occasions. The first time we met was in Florida, and I took her to see some alligators that lived in a sinkhole. She was fascinated in an appealingly childlike way. She was also fascinated, again in an appealingly childlike way, by the moss in a nearby tree. In fact, she collected some to take home with her, although I warned her this would also mean she was taking home the chiggers in the moss.

The second time I met Lydia Davis she did not remember me. But when I reminded her of the alligators, she remembered them. So I am less memorable than an alligator.

Now I wonder what she would have said if I had mentioned the moss. Am I also less memorable than a chigger? 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Confetti from a Giant's Wedding

I am currently reading Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. It's a great book with some of the most insightful thoughts about Africa, Somalia and Somalis that I've read in a long time. He's also a good writer.

Tonight I was struck by his fanciful description of the landscape as he is driving south from Hargeisa, Somalia, "into a world of sand, rock, thorn trees and plastic bags [italics mine]. Given away free in markets, millions of blue and pink thin plastic bags blow across Somalia like confetti from a giant's wedding."

This is just as true in the desert in Northwest Kenya. Littering is not a concept that holds any sway there.

This became clear to me one day when I was walking through the streets of Kakuma and my backpack fell open. Peter, my guide, stooped down to help me retrieve the things that had fallen out. He put my camera and water bottles back in my pack, then he showed me a phone card.

Has this been used? he asked.

Yes, I said.

He zipped up my backpack and dropped the phone card on the ground.

I was shocked. I wanted to pick the phone card back up and put it in my pocket, but all I had to do was look around in order to see how pointless that would be. Water bottles, plastic bags, paper, cans, feedbags. Junk everywhere.

I remembered someone telling me that plastic bags were going to be banned in Kenya. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous. With all that corruption, they're going to worry about plastic bags? I thought. But then I saw how bad the problem was .... and I thought, Well at least they're doing something.

So I asked Peter, What about the plastic bags? Is it true they're going to be against the law?

He seemed puzzled. How can they be against the law? he asked. If you are moving from one house to another house, where would you put your clothes?

NOTE: The ban was enacted on January 6th of this year. And there must be something about plastic bags that brings out the poetry in people. Here's what the National Environment Management Authority's Acting Director General said in his statement:

“Our country has many colours and when God was creating the world, he only allowed plants to give us flowers, so when our landscape becomes flooded with many artificial flowers of varied colours due to poor management of plastic bags and wrappers, then it becomes a problem."

Nicely put.

O'Connor v. O'Connor

Last night I watched an episode of a TV show in which a sixteen-year-old girl gets pregnant and tries to decide whether to have an abortion.

Then I went to sleep and dreamed a Flannery O'Connor story. It was beautiful, brutal and brilliant. It confronted the human condition, all our hypocrisy and selfishness. It was a masterpiece--I wish I could tell you more. I couldn't believe I'd never read it before.

There were discussion questions following the story:

1. O'Connor was devoutly Catholic. What elements of this story are Christian?
2. How does this story shed light on O'Connor's decision as Supreme Court Justice?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Chance Meeting in Which I Find Out About the Sudan Scholarship Fund

I am finally feeling somewhat back to normal--I flipped the calendar from November to January!--and now I'm ready to talk about one of the more heartening experiences I had in Kakuma. While I was waiting in Lodwar for the plane to Nairobi, I chatted with a gentleman--a former Lost Boy who is now a U.S. citizen--who travels around to test students in refugee camps. The high performers, he told me, are given scholarships to Nairobi University.

This is his wonderful blog (I am the woman he mentions, who took a shower four time a day!) ... please check it out:

I had, in fact, met one of the scholarship students at a restaurant in the camp. My friend and guide, William, can and did talk to anyone about anything, and he struck up a conversation with some Sudanese young men who were sitting at the table next to us. The conversation was mainly about this week's referendum, in which the South is voting whether or not to declare independence from the North. I was stunned by how articulate and informed the young men were. The conversation took place in English and Sudanese and I sometimes had trouble following it, but what I did determine was there is hope for South Sudan if these are its potential leaders.

Will you go back to Sudan after the referendum? my guide, William, asked.

East west ... one of the young men replied.

Home's best, William said, completing his sentence.

My chance meeting with Daniel at the airstrip was also heartening for another reason. Misery loves company. We talked a little about the conditions in Kakuma and agreed that it was hot.

He had been staying at the Guest House too and had seen me going to the shower several times a day to wet myself down.

I had a little trouble with the heat, I admitted.

You could die in heat like this, he said kindly.

I know, I said, because I think I almost did.

It meant a lot to me that someone who had lived in the camp for several years agreed that conditions there are tough. It didn't make me any less plump, white and Midwestern, but it helped.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Freedom of the Press and the Kindle

Bear with me as I try to connect these two subjects. I've been wanting to talk about my experience with the Kindle while I was in Africa and news of Okey Ndibe's arrest is the prompt.

My thinking is rarely linear.

I read today that Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe was arrested at an airport in Lagos and questioned for several hours. His passports--U.S. and Nigerian--were seized. He has been a person of interest to the Nigerian government since he spoke out about elections there.

I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Ndibe in Kenya, at the Kwaani Literary Festival. He is, quite simply, one of the most charming men on the planet. I developed quite a crush. He's also a great writer.

The subtext throughout the Kwaani Festival was the devastating impact a lack of free press/free speech has had on Africa's writers. Many of the writers who spoke there are in exile. Mr. Ndibe lives in the U.S.

Here's the pivot: In Kenya, it's hard to get your hands on a book called It's Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong. It's a lively, readable book about John Githongo, who blew the whistle on corruption in the Kibaki administration. In a final chapter of the current edition, Ms. Wrong writes about how copies of her book are being passed around as pdf files. "This greedy appropriation of more than three years' work dismays me, but perhaps there is something poetically fitting about a story of illicitly recorded confidences and website leaks being filched, in its turn, via the internet."

I downloaded it, while I was in Nairobi, onto my Kindle. I couldn't have easily obtained the book any other way. And I paid for it.

So, I wonder, what role might e-readers play in getting around government censorship?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

It Comes Down to a Cupholder?

In northwest Kenya, near Kakuma refugee camp, it's all about water. Children wave plastic yellow containters by the side of the road, begging for water.  Under the searing sun, I saw an emaciated man digging in a dry river bed, trying to find water. Around the camp, people carry plastic baggies filled with water rations.

Things are reduced to basics: water, food, toilets. I had a meltdown there, just trying to make it through the day.

In many parts of Africa, the short rains did not come this year. There have always been cyclical droughts, but climate change and deforestation have made the problem worse. It was very hard to see it first hand.

We all know, or should know by now, that the U.S. is, per capita, the second greatest emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the least, but is among the areas feeling the greatest impact of climate change.

And so I've been carrying around a pain in my heart when I read, in the Columbus Dispatch, an article about how fuel efficiency is not driving auto sales: "You have about 5 percent of the market that is green and committed to fuel-efficiency," said Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the country. "But the other 95 percent will give up an extra 5 mpg in fuel economy for a better cupholder."

Monday, January 3, 2011

And Now I Know I'm Old

Telephone Booth Graveyard in Lamu

The day before Thanksgiving, we took our afterschool group of Somali children to COSI (the Center of Science and Industry) in downtown Columbus. I hadn't been there for years and was really looking forward to it. When I was a child, my girl scout troop went every year, and I still remember what fun I had there.

So I was anxious to hear what my group of eight-year-olds was looking forward to.

The first place I want to go is the 1980s, Yahye said.

Everyone agreed. Yes, they wanted to go to the 1980s.

Sure, why not, I thought. Big hair, big shoulder pads, Just Say No, AIDS, MTV, Pac Man ... That exhibit could be interesting.

But we couldn't find it. And nobody at the Information Desk could help.

There is no 1980s exhibit, the person behind the counter said. Are you sure the children aren't thinking about the 1890s? The Progress exhibit? Where, beginning in 1898, you travel through time with the people of a small midwestern town?

Maybe, I said.

I turned to Yahye. Do you mean the 1890s? The time travel exhibit?

He shrugged. Sure. Whatever.

And that was what the children wanted to see. And the thing in that multi-million dollar museum that most captivated their attention?

The phonebooth.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Favorite Books of 2010

I'm going to take a little break from the Africa posts to list my favorite books of 2010. Not all of these were published recently, but they were all read and enjoyed by me in the last year.

  1. Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment. This old couple and their dog won my heart. Simply charming.
  2. Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo. A big, challenging thriller centered around the dark side of the aid game in Africa.
  3. For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez. So much is said here and yet the pages are few. A Vietnam book for people who don't like Vietnam books.
  4. The Year of Living Dangerously by C.J. Koch. A really great book that has been overshadowed by the film. Deals obliquely with the germs of genocide and makes sense of acts that are impossible to justify.
  5. Lit by Mary Karr. She's largely responsible for the memoir craze, and this last addition shows why.
  6. The Hungry Tide by Amitov Ghosh. A good story set in an exotic, fascinating location, the Sunderban archipelago.
  7. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Beautiful and haunting from start to finish.
  8. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Plays with form, but there's substance here, too.
  9. American Rust by Philipp Meyer. A good old-fashioned sort of book, in the tradition of the great American novel.
  10. Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss. A collection of smart essays.
Oh, and two classics that held up:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Watership Down by Richard Adams