“If there have ever been people on earth who should have been able to take a deep breath and say. 'Thank God,' we're the people,” said the author of “Gilead” to an audience of about 2,000 at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing. “Why not enjoy it?”
Instead, she said she sees people hunkering down in psychological bunkers, as if they're living in an alien and hostile land. “There's an increasing normalization of fear in this culture,” said Robinson, who has a new collection of essays, “When I Was a Child, I Read Books.”
“This is not the siege of Paris,” Robinson pointed out.
Robinson's speech echoed a certain president who is not generally beloved by conservative Christians: She sees “the accelerating problem of fear” as one that's causing individuals everywhere to lower the bar on what they can accomplish in their lives. “There are all these anxieties we internalize, and we create a smaller model of ourselves around them.”
As for the Great Recession and the current lukewarm recovery, Robinson asked, “Do we never expect to have a bad time? Every generation or so, something goes haywire. It's human history.”
Robinson said she can't figure out when people decided that previous generations' sacrifices and accomplishments should be used to create a “satin cushion that our generation is supposed to be carried on. It's bizarre. Not to mention not particularly admirable.”
But she said she rejects the notion that the United States is in decline or that our culture is “sprouting mushrooms.”
“I can't idealize an earlier generation of youth,” said Robinson, who sits on the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. “These people are wonderful.”
Nor is she opposed to technological advances that some see as putting pressure on publishing. “I love the Internet. If I can find out what 17th century colonial law is in Maryland, I'm a happy woman.”
Robinson, who calls herself a Calvinist by adoption, also rejected the fear-mongering she says certain figures have used to co-opt religion in strong terms. “A great deal of what I see among my students is anxiety that is aroused by the identification of religion with exclusivism …. what I think Jesus might have called Phariseeism.”
For example, there's a segment of the population that really detests liberal college professors that teach at secular universities. “That's me,” said Robinson. As far as any plot to destroy Christianity or patriotism goes, “I did not get the memo, I'll tell you that.”
When an audience member Friday morning pointed out that her speech “could have been ghost-written by Bill Moyers and aired on PBS,” and asked how she could have credibility among Fox News-watching conservative Christians, Robinson said, to audience applause: “I don't recognize any other obligation than to say what is true.”
Her new collection, “When I Was a Child, I Read Books,” is partly drawn from talks she's given to conservative Christian audiences, she said. And she's found that, if she's honest about what she believes, they'll listen.
“I think that's how a Christian conversation should proceed.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
A Jewish agnostic might not be the most obvious choice as a keynote speaker at a religious conference at a private Christian college named after John Calvin. But Jonathan Safran Foer was one of five “plenary” speakers at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich., along with Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie, Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt, and activist Shane Claiborne.
In two sessions, April 19 and 20, author Jonathan Safran Foer ranged widely over topics from his love of sculptor Joseph Cornell, why he would be an obstetrician today without his mentor, Joyce Carol Oates; the movie adaptation of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”; and editing the “New American Haggadah.”
Here are a few highlights:
“I'm interested in the kind of religion that makes life harder. I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion. I'm interested in a religion that forces me to take stock in myself. To ask the hard questions: 'Who am I really and am I the kind of person I wanted to be?' … Whenever religion is used to have it both ways, that makes me uncomfortable.
"Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac – these are the greatest stories ever told – the most important stories in my life. But I do think of them as stories. I don't read Bible literally, or maybe I do: I believe literally in the values spoken. Do I believe Abraham literally took his son Isaac [up on a mountain] to sacrifice him? I don't find that question all that interesting. I do find the undercurrents incredibly interesting and important.”
On the existence of God:
“It's something I continue to think about. I will never come around to idea of an anthropomorphic God.
I'm also uncomfortable with the word God.... I'm agnostic about the answer and I'm agnostic about the question. There's a definition of God that Christopher Hitchens believed in, and a definition of God that the Pope doesn't believe in. If you could put it into words, it wouldn't be God anymore. … I find the process really fulfilling. The endless search and endless wrestling really valuable.”
“I can't imagine praying to God. But I would like to talk about God in a literary way.
What's the best metaphor for God? Is God an author … a character or a reader? Is there a way to think about who God might be?
“It's an ongoing question for me. It's one I think about a lot more now than I used to. I used to dismiss the question. … [But] not in a contemptuous way. That's not how I grew up – I went to Hebrew school twice a week – my family had an immense respect for religion."
On editing the “New American Haggadah,” which came out in March and offers a new translation by Nathan Englander and commentary from Jewish writers including Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket:
“Passover is one of the oldest continually told stories and one of the most widely told stories.... The Haggadah is a user's manual for that night.... There are 7,000 published versions. No book has been revised more than the Haggadah.
[In it, it says that] in every generation, each person has to feel like he himself has to be liberated from Egypt. It's so weird, most people gloss over [the passage]. No other book makes such a strong demand. What kind of book could inspire that really radical leap of empathy?”
“I never wanted to write a novel that was merely read. Or merely liked or appreciated. Ideally, I want the reader to feel complicit in authorship of the book. There's a certain kind of book where reader sits here [points to audience] and the author sits here. I hate those books....”
What he calls the “11th and 12th Commandments” – “Don't ever change,” and “Change”:
“Kids are a great analogy. You want your kids to grow up, and you don't want your kids to grow up. You want your kids to become independent of you, but it's also a parent's worst nightmare: That they won't need you. It's like the real tragedy of parenting.”
“I don't know if I have any interest in preserving silence. I don't know that silence is a very good thing. I think quiet is a very good thing. In my books, silence is not the silence of reflection, serenity, or peace. It's the silence of not being able to communicate. A lot of my writing is about not being able to communicate things in my life.
“When I was young, I thought [writing] was this romantic thing.” Safran Foer went on to say he thought it would be like creating a mountain, by laboring every day to create sentences and “dump off all these sentences into the pile … and everyone would come and see and point to the top of it.
“Instead, I would encounter these holes ... I was [pouring] these sentences into the hole until it was level. Then I would move onto the next hole.
“As I've grown older, I've grown more convinced there's nothing that shouldn't be talked about. If we think we're protecting each other, we're not. … Families pay a huge price by dancing around the subject.”
On having his books turned into movies:
“Would you believe me if I said no?” [When asked if he'd seen the movie versions of his books] “Of course I've seen them! I thought that 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' was a really moving movie. The last third is really powerful. Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really miserly and inappropriate to go into that. I gave it away. I didn't give it away [chuckles from audience] but I gave away my right to complain. To split hairs is not in the spirit of what was done.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
It’s the Super Bowl of literary athletes, the Mardi Gras of bibliophilic partiers, Christmas for book-lovers across the world.
In the US, 25,000 volunteers will distribute 500,000 free paperback books in some 5,800 communities across the country through book-centered events and community drop-offs. In Britain, 20,000 volunteers will distribute 1 million books. Ireland and Germany are celebrating, too.
Sponsored by a coalition of publishers, booksellers, and librarians, World Book Night is modeled after a British program that began last year.
The point, says World Book Night director Carl Lennertz, “is to get good books in the hands of people who are underserved because of income or location or other reasons.”
Though there is no public registry of who’s giving away books where, participants will be handing out books in schools, prisons, and homeless shelters, some of which will be posted on Facebook and Pinterest.
“It’s also about giving,” he told USA Today. “There may not be anything that says, ‘I care about someone else, friend or stranger,’ more than handing them a book that you personally love and want to share.”
In the US, a committee of librarians, publishers, and booksellers selected 30 titles to distribute, including novels like Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” memoirs like Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” non-fiction like Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun,” and young adult hits like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.”
April 23 is the UNESCO International Day of the Book, chosen in honor of Shakespeare and Cervantes, both of whom died on April 23, 1616. World Book Night honors these literary titans and legions of others.
(An interesting aside: At yet another book industry jab at Amazon, USA Today reports most of the publishing industry, including Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, is involved in underwriting World Book Night. The one exception? Amazon. It wasn’t asked to participate because “the philosophy behind World Book Night has been about physical books in physical places, handed out person to person,” said Lennertz.)
To find out more about World Book Night and how you can participate, visit www.us.worldbooknight.org.
Happy World Book Night!
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Festival of Faith and Writing: the conference that brought John Updike, Salman Rushdie to western Michigan
Unless you write Amish romances, announcing one's faith at a literary conference usually isn't going to win a novelist more fans.
Or, as Tony Earley, author of the beloved novels “Jim the Boy” and “The Blue Star,” puts it: “It's not necessarily a good career move to go out and proselytize."
The 2012 conference, which ran from Thursday to Saturday, featured 64 speakers, including novelists such as Earley; Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was recently turned into a Oscar-winning movie; Marilynne Robinson, whose novel, “Gilead” won the Pulitzer Prize and whose sequel, “Home,” won the Orange Prize; and Nigerian author Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie, whose “Half of a Yellow Sun,” was also an Orange Prize winner. This year the festival drew more than 1,900 participants.
Luis Alberto Urrea, whose new novel, “Queen of America,” is a sequel to his acclaimed “The Hummingbird's Daughter,” gave the most dynamic talk I heard at the festival, an hour-long tour de force about faith, prejudice, and the border, starring his spiritual adviser, an 86-year-old Baptist preacher with, Urrea said, the disposition of an Old Testament prophet.
"This is a festival made for me. I don't often get to talk about things like faith," said Urrea. Where he teaches, at the University of Illinois, Chicago, "God isn't on the docket very much."
But, Urrea insists, a discussion of faith puts him squarely in his native territory. "I'm often mistaken for a political writer," said Urrea, since he writes about the Mexican-American border. "I'm a theological writer. I'm interested in the eternal soul. That's what I write about. To me, writing is prayer. I pray all the time."
“Everybody has a faith in something,” says attendee Deborah Schakel, a retired teacher of theater and American literature who stages a one-woman show about Beatrix Potter for elementary schoolchildren. Schakel, a resident of the Grand Rapids area, says she first came years ago to hear Madeleine L'Engle speak. “I don't come specifically for the faith, but this conference brings in such spectacular writers, and all of them have a reverence for life. Let's call it that.”
Earley, who is currently working on a collection of short stories, says that the festival, his first, was larger than he expected, noting that “among the literary community, [faith] has a slight whiff of hipness it didn't have 10, 12 years ago.”
“Once a writer's books wind up only in Christian bookstores, they're no longer engaged with the world,” says Earley. “It's a closed ecosystem.”
But The Bible, he points out, “is such a big part of our cultural patrimony, particularly of literature.”
As perhaps anecdotal evidence of that “whiff of hipness,” attendees had traveled from as far away as Washington State.
Nicole Sheets, a blogger and professor at the University of Washington, was at Robinson's address Friday night with her friend, Andrea Dilley, author of the 2012 memoir, “Faith and Other Flat Tires,” about moving to America after a childhood in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries, who had come from Austin, Texas.
“I like the name of it: the faith and writing. It resonated. Faith is so much part of my writing. I was touched that they invited me, as a Muslim. I thought that was really good of them,” said Aboulela, whose newest novel is “Lyrics Alley,” in an interview with the Monitor. “I've also welcomed the opportunity to talk about faith, because I don't usually do that.”
“Now, I found myself praying in a place that had stopped praying,” said Aboulela, who has a master's degree in statistics. “One day … I tried to write a letter to the editor. Fiction came out instead.”
Her first novel, “The Translator,” is a romance inspired by her favorite novel, “Jane Eyre,” in which a young Muslim widow and her Scottish boss are separated by religion.
Aboulela said she considers “Jane Eyre,” usually seen as a feminist novel today, a Christian book. If Mr. Rochester had been a Muslim, she explained to chuckles, the subject of bigamy would never have come up. “As a Muslim, there is no problem. There is no plot.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
Considering its rampant crime and long history of racial strife, South Africa may sound like a place that's better for leaving than living.
But author Jassy Mackenzie has chosen to stay in the country she loves. The same goes for her fictional creation, a private eye named Jade de Jong who's sexy yet unafraid to hurt others (or worse) if necessary.
Mackenzie's three de Jong novels are a treat for lovers of exciting thrillers and gritty mysteries. De Jong is brittle but likeable, unlucky in love and quick – wicked quick – with a gun.
Mackenzie's plots are fast-moving and believable, full of vivid characters like South Africa itself. Her novels – including the newest, "The Fallen" – depict an overcrowded country full of rampant corruption and the most vicious forms of violence imaginable.
De Jong finds herself battling human traffickers, cutthroat developers and hired killers. She doesn't have clean hands herself, a fact that could come to haunt her on the job and at home. Still, she boasts a basic sense of integrity and a soul that's not yet withered by the world around her.
In an interview via Skype from South Africa, Mackenzie talked about the hidden gentle side of South Africa, the detectives who influenced her (including one Nancy Drew), and the reasons her books are a bigger hit in the US than in her own country.
Q: For people who haven't read your books, what can you tell us about your main character, private investigator Jade de Jong?
A: Although she'd been away for 10 years in the first book, she is quintessentially a South African. She has a deep love for South Africa in spite of all its failings and in spite of the crime; she loves the diversity and the people.
The crime in South Africa facilitates Jade in a lot of her work. It allows her more carte blanche than she'd have in a country that had fewer problems.
Q: South Africa is a major character itself in your books. To an outsider who's never been there, it comes across as an extremely violent place in which the rich live hidden behind security guards and electrified fences. How do you wrestle with your depiction of the country where you still live?
It's a case of being truthful and having an eye for detail.
I know that some readers initially see only the fact that it is a very violent country. You'd struggle to find anywhere else that has the same number of extremes because it's also a place that has an incredible heart to it.
There's an amazing generosity and wonderful spirit in the people who are here in South Africa, an unbelievable kindness and friendship that you can be shown by a complete stranger who may actually not even have a job.
It shows its faces and facets in so many ways, and yet you have this violent side. Then there's that other extreme where you're tucked away behind high electronic fences, and you're still quaking that armed gangs will break in.
Q: Which mystery and detective writers have influenced you?
A: When I was beginning to read detective fiction and thrillers, the characters who really stood out were invariably the female ones.
I was impressed by these role models of strong and able women, who were sometimes quite brutal and verging on psychopathic.
There were the Modesty Blaise books, written by Peter O'Donnell. [The British spy-thriller books first appeared in the 1960s and were inspired by a comic-book character.] The character Modesty Blaise is the most complex, amazing character. She intellectualizes all her decisions and has this incredible sense of humor. I remember reading these wide-eyed as a pre-teen.
As an adult, my whole love for thriller writing has been thanks to American thriller writers. Not necessarily those who write female leads, although I've subsequently discovered Tess Gerritsen. My earlier favorites were Lee Child and Jeffrey Deaver.
More than the characters, it was just the whole way that those books were paced, the incredible sense of place and the amazing way in which they managed to work in these unbelievable plot twists.
She was hugely popular and a fantastic private investigator. I really enjoyed her and loved her individuality, the way that she took matters into her own hands.
Q: Your books are cinematic, full of vivid plot twists and movie-style violence. Will they be made into movies or TV shows some day?
A: I think every writer secretly lives in anticipation of that phone call. It's something that I would love. But like every other writer, I have to be patient.
Q: How do your books do there in South Africa?
They do better in the States than South Africa.
We have a lot of challenges here when it comes to local fiction.
In the apartheid days, fiction was very limited, and crime fiction was just about non-existent. It's hard to write about crime when the entire system you're writing about is one big crime.
Also, crime readers here can be distrustful of new authors, and it's hard to persuade a South African reader to read a South African writer when their books are sometimes not even displayed on the new book shelves.
Q: Your new Jade de Jong book is called "The Fallen." What happens in it?
Jade finds her romantic dreams horribly crushed on a trip to St. Lucia. She actually has an ulterior motive to go to St. Lucia, which is very close to a town where her mother died. She is on a quest to find out more about her mother, and she wants to see where her mother is buried. Of course, everything goes wrong, and there's a murder where they're staying.
Q: What about your next book?
At the moment, my next book, "Pale Horses," is in the editing process, and I'm excited about it. It takes the story to the new downtown of Johannesburg, and its reputation has the new high-rise capital of Africa and the richest square mile in Africa. It's about the wealth and the complications.
For more from women mystery writers who have invented fascinating female protagonists, check my recent interviews with authors Nevada Barr (the American creator of park ranger Anna Piegon) and Denise Mina (the Scottish creator of police detective Alex Morrow) here and here.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
A children’s book that has yet to be released has already become controversial for its pro-veganism message.
“Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action” written and illustrated by Ruby Roth, discusses testing on animals, farming practices and other issues. The book, which is the second for Roth after her first title “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals,” will be released April 24.
Dietician Nicole German wrote online that she thinks the book’s tactics would simply frighten a child into changing their dietary habits.
“The main problem I have with this book is that children are impressionable, and this is too sensitive of a topic to have a child read this book,” German wrote. “It could easily scare a young child into eating vegan, and, without proper guidance, that child could become malnourished.”
Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, told ABC News that he believes children should have as many options for animal and plant food as possible when they're young so they can make their own dietary choices.
“Any time you limit the variety of healthy foods, you chance limiting the nutrients they get," Ayoob said. "Over time, that can catch up with them."
However, others say they think the book could bring what they believe is much-needed awareness to children about where their food and other everyday items are coming from.
“Adults are too willing to turn a blind eye to the way our animal-based diets are achieved,” Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Center, told ABC. “Adults can make the conscious choice not to look there, to help protect a lifetime of dietary preferences. Kids are more malleable and impressionable. Maybe childhood is the best time to create awareness and change behavior accordingly.”
Roth, who is vegan along with her two children, told ABC that it was her wish to reach future decision-makers that prompted her to put her message in children’s book format.
“I decided to write a book for a new generation who will need to think, eat, and treat the environment differently if we are to solve the most looming health and environmental issues,” the author said. “With vegan choices, we can affect every major industry and reach every corner of the world.”
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.
A study conducted by The Atlantic magazine analyzed the cities in which e-readers were most popular – and the results may not be what you’d expect.
The Atlantic reached their findings by examining the Priceonomics database to see the electronics sales in each city. Results were then judged on what percent of total items for sale were electronic readers. According to The Atlantic, they determined their results using sales figures for Amazon's Kindle e-reader. They also checked on data on sales of the Nook, the e-reader sold by Barnes and Noble, but, according to the magazine, that data did not change the results they reached.
Kindles in Lexington accounted for almost 0.40% of total items for sale in the city, while Ann Arbor and Anchorage both appeared to come close to 0.36%.
Madison, Wis. took the third spot, with Washington, D.C. coming in fifth. New York City didn’t come into the rankings until spot number 16, and Boston only made number 42. Philadelphia was ranked at number 21, and Los Angeles was near the bottom of the list at number 87 out of 94. Fresco, Calif. came in at the last spot.
As noted by The Atlantic, Lexington, Ann Arbor, and Madison are all college towns with large populations of students.
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.
We’re not entirely surprised that Apple is taking on the Department of Justice.
"Our basic view is that we would like the case to be decided on the merits," Apple lawyer, Daniel Floyd, told U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, as reported by Reuters. "We believe that this is not an appropriate case against us and we would like to validate that."
The antitrust lawsuit alleges Apple and five publishers, including HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Macmillan, Penguin Group Inc., and Simon & Schuster Inc., colluded to fix e-book prices, as we reported earlier this spring. The DOJ’s concern is that this fixed pricing model, adopted by five of the big six publishers, has reduced competition in the e-books industry and raised e-book prices for consumers.
So far, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster have signed settlements with the DOJ. But Apple and the remaining two publishers, Macmillan and Penguin Group, appear intent to defend their actions in court.
In a statement to The Los Angeles Times, Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said, “The DOJ's accusation of collusion against Apple is simply not true. The launch of the iBookstore in 2010 fostered innovation and competition, breaking Amazon's monopolistic grip on the publishing industry.”
As we explained in an earlier post, there are two competing models for distributing books: the wholesale model and the agency model. Under the wholesale model, a publisher sells its goods to a distributor for a fixed price and the distributor is free to decide the actual price for the public. Under the agency model, publishers set the retail price and the distributor gets a fee.
But, as Wired’s Epicenter blog explains, “wholesale pricing causes two problems for publishers: it gives market leaders (read: Amazon) disproportionate negotiating power, and makes it possible to use heavily discounted e-books to boost sales figures, capture market share and sharply undercut sales of printed books.”
That, in short, is why Apple says it is fighting the suit. The DOJ, meanwhile, has promised it would pursue the case against Apple vigorously to keep the e-book market “open and competitive.”
Stay tuned; Judge Denise Cote scheduled the next hearing for June 22.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
In a 1991 interview, German Nobel laureate Günter Grass reflected on his career as a fabulist, saying, “I started to write down my lies very early. And I continue to do so!” These are not the words of an inveterate liar, but of a writer (of fiction and nonfiction) who has mastered the art of rhetoric and who knows that telling lies can sometimes be the most effective way to shine light on the truth.
By the time of the interview, Grass had already been internationally heralded as the author of "The Tin Drum," a magisterial work of magical realism about the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and as his country’s moral conscience. But then, in a twist that seemed to come straight from a Dickens novel, Grass revealed in 2006 that he had been drafted into the Nazi Waffen SS in his youth, a fact which has deeply undermined his moral and political authority. Were he a character in a novel, Grass might be labeled an unreliable narrator, yet is this not too harsh a verdict? Is being conscripted into the Waffen SS an inexpiable crime? Are not Grass’s works monuments of atonement? Grass’s confession, though it might have been made earlier, nevertheless speaks to the author’s moral courage.
Two weeks ago, the 84-year-old Grass made headlines once again when a controversial poem of his appeared in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Titled “Was gesagt werden muss,” or “What Must Be Said,” the poem deals with Israel’s aggressive stance towards Iran and the threat it poses to “world peace.” In response to the poem, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have pilloried Grass for his libelous and “shameful” stanzas, and Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, citing a law that prohibits ex-Nazis from entering the Jewish state, has declared Grass persona non grata. Further, as Grass himself predicted in his poem, there has been a rash of remarks about his “Anti-semitism.”
Yet, others have jumped to Grass’s defense. Novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted, “OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words” and Gideon Levy opined that people like Grass and José Saramago (a Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author who made some inflammatory remarks about Israelis in his day) “are not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinion of many people. Instead of accusing them we should consider what we did that led them to express it.” Grass has since clarified that his poem is an indictment of the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu and not of Israel as a whole, but this elucidation seems to have done little to temper the moral outrage against the author.
As many have (disparagingly) pointed out, “What Must Be Said” is very straightforward (and inelegant) for a poem. But for all its apparent bluntness, it has suffered from much uncharitable interpretation. A close reading of the poem reveals that Grass is neither the ignoramus nor the self-righteous polemicist that some of his critics have made him out to be. He certainly does not seek to “demonize Israel while portraying Iran as an innocent victim of aggression,” as one critic has argued.
In the first four stanzas of the poem, Grass enacts a kind of self-censorship; he refers only obliquely to Israel and it is not until the fifth stanza that he names Israel as the recipient of a (sixth) German Dolphin submarine. In the official English translation of the poem by Breon Mitchell, the “business transaction” is rendered thus: “my own country ... has delivered yet another submarine to Israel.” This act makes Germany more than just complicit in “the open danger” facing the world; in these lines, Germany is depicted as the real “aggressor” and Israel is merely the passive receiver of a submarine with nuclear warheads. In a sense, Grass is playing down Israel's role in the acquirement of submarines, but at the same time, he suggests that actions speak louder than words, that despite the fact that Israel has never referred to Iran as a "cancer" that must be "wiped off the map," its actions may be symptomatic of more than just a benign desire for self-defense.
The lines that have excited the most ire have also been subjected to the most flagrant misinterpretation. The typical response to Grass’s assertion that “Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace,” has been to decry his elision of the fact that Iran has long sought to destroy Israel. But that second line, “an already fragile world peace,” would seem to encapsulate, for any impartial and well-informed reader, the fact that both Israel and Iran have contributed to the instability of world peace. Grass’s “silence” about the history of the world’s tenuous peace simply indicates that he is less interested in apportioning blame for past crimes than in framing and assessing the status quo.
Finally, refusing to kowtow to the “West’s hypocrisy” over Israel's nuclear program, Grass “insist[s] that the governments of / both Iran and Israel allow an international authority / free and open inspection of / the nuclear potential and capability of both.” These last few lines, calling for a kind of bilateral disarmament, make loud and clear that Grass is neither exclusively sympathetic towards Iran nor overly censorious towards Israel. Indeed, in the second stanza, Grass calls Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “loudmouth” and “subjugator” of his people and mentions “an atom bomb [that] may be being / developed within his arc of power.” And in the sixth stanza, Grass emphasizes his close relationship to Israel, “a land / to which I am, and always will be, attached.” Elsewhere, Grass has claimed, “I have often supported Israel, I have often been in the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours.”
That “for years – although kept secret – / a growing nuclear power has existed / beyond supervision or verification” in Israel is a legitimate cause for concern, regardless of the provenance of Israel’s existential insecurity. Grass’s poem is many things, but it is not a blanket denunciation of Israel. It is an aging man's meditation on Germany’s misplaced guilt and his own battle with moral scruples; a brave (and sometimes rhetorically hyperbolic) appraisal of tensions between Israel and Iran; and a prophesy of the evil that will come to pass with untrammelled acts of belligerence. As such, it behooves us all to listen, with an open mind and shorn of prejudices, to what Grass has to say.
Rhoda Feng is a Monitor contributor.
Fresh off a $1 million deal with the Montana Attorney General’s office to settle allegations that he mishandled his charity’s money, “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson is back in federal court Wednesday to fight a civil lawsuit that claims that he fabricated parts of his bestselling memoirs.
The lawsuit, filed by four individuals from California, Montana, and Illinois, lists more than two dozen alleged fabrications. Defendants include Mortenson, publisher Penguin Group, co-author David Oliver Relin, and the Central Asia Institute.
In his bestselling “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson recounts a failed attempt to climb K2, being nursed back to health by a poor Pakistani village in the Himalayan foothills, and his resolution to build schools in that impoverished region. “Three Cups of Tea,” and later, “Stones Into Schools,” were conceived of as storytelling and fundraising vehicles for Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute charity, for which Mortenson collected tens of millions of dollars.
Much of the money was mishandled, as a Montana Attorney General’s office investigation revealed, and Mortenson resigned as executive director of the charity and will repay $1 million in misappropriated funds. The settlement does not address the contents of Mortenson’s books.
Now a group of disgruntled readers are pursuing a civil suit against the author. They claim he presented fabricated stories as fact in order to trick readers into buying his books and donating to his charity. The suit accuses Mortenson and his co-defendants of racketeering, fraud, deceit, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs are seeking triple the amount of total book sales, plus punitive damages. It is also asking the judge to order that everyone who bought Mortenson’s books be refunded.
“It’s his story. It purports to be his experiences. He can say it any way he wants to say. He has the right to publish anything he wants about himself,” Giampietro said. “The idea that you can be sued because perhaps they don’t like what you wrote, for whatever reason, is absurd.”
Not surprisingly, lawyers for Mortenson and Penguin Group are asking Judge Sam Haddon to dismiss the lawsuit.
What do you think? Should Mortenson and Penguin pay? Or is time to move on?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.