When I was in my middle twenties, the same age as Lynsey Addario when she started her amazing journey as a conflict photojournalist, I was doing somewhat of the same thing.
I say “somewhat” deliberately.
I was covering the Long Hot Summer race riots and the growing anti-war demonstrations in late 60s America. Though sometimes harrowing, what I was doing was a mere cakewalk compared to Addario’s post 9/11 years of covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur and the Congo.
She has dodged bullets, bombs, near starvation and dehydration, and kidnapped twice, both times feeling that she was surely going to die. All the time she was trying to juggle some semblance of a love life as affair after affair ended because her work got in the way, until she finally found a kindred soul.
What I found most interesting in Addario’s book was not the very real drama of covering horrific violence. I might be a jaded reader, but I had already read much of that.
It was her deeply personal insights into the worlds that she covered that most intrigued me.
Here is one insight from the time she was trying to enter Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban rule. She had to apply for a visa to enter the country from Pakistan, and she was given this advice from a fellow journalist before she visited the Embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: “Do not look any Afghan man directly in the eye. Keep your head, your face, and your body covered. Don’t laugh, or joke under any circumstance. And most important, sit each day in the visa office and drink tea with the visa clerk, Mohammed, to ensure that your application will actually get sent to Kabul and processed.”
Later, after she was convinced that she would finally receive her visa, she has one last chat with Mohammed:
Mohammed suddenly leaned forward, glancing through the window to the inside of the main embassy, looking for anyone who might have been listening. There was no one.
“Can I ask you a question?” he whispered.
“Sure, ask me anything, sir,” I said, “as long as my answers do not inhibit my getting a visa.”
He smiled nervously. “Is it true…,” he started. “I mean…I hear that men and women in America go out in public together without being married.” He paused again, leaning in to look out the window until he was reassured no one was listening. “That men and women can live together without being married?”
I knew he was taking a chance with the question. The Taliban insists its members renounce sexual curiosity; his anxiety flooded the room.
“Are you sure my answers will not affect whether I get my visa?” I asked.
“I promise you they will not.”
“Unmarried men and woman in America spend a lot of time together,” I said. “They go on something called ‘dates’ to movies, to the theater, to restaurants. Men and women sometimes even live together before they marry, and” – unlike in Afghanistan, where most marriages were arranged by and among relatives—“Americans marry for love.”
Why was I saying this to a Talib at the Afghan Embassy? Given the cultural and language barriers between us, I felt certain that he understood no more than 10 percent of what I was saying. But he was enthralled.
“Do men and women…Is it true that men and women touch? And have children before they are married?”
“Yes,” I replied gently. “Men and women touch before they are married.”
“"You are married, right?" He asked.
I smiled, finally comfortable enough to tell him the truth. I don’t know why I felt comfortable enough to tell him anything. Maybe because he felt comfortable enough to ask such racy questions? To admit that his mind went to a place forbidden to an unmarried man by the Taliban’s severe interpretation of the Koran? “No, Mohammed. I am not married. I lived with a man for a long time—like we were married.”
He interrupted me. “What happened? Why did you leave? Why are you not married?”
Mohammed was no longer a Talib to me. We were simply two people in our twenties, getting to know each other.
“In America women work,” I said. “And right now I am traveling and working.”
He smiled. “America is a good place,’ he said.
Five days later I picked up my visa.
This tiny scene, captured brilliantly, better than anything Hollywood could write, and set in a dusty, run down office in Peshawar, Pakistani, spoke clearer to me than all the many books and articles I have read about the great gulf between the West and some of the Islamic world.
It was the novelist, not the photographer at work.
While Addario’s photos are first rate, and scattered throughout the book, it was also evident in It’s What I Do that she has an uncanny ability to communicate with her subjects, to meet them on a deeply personal level, despite whatever language and cultural barriers she may face, be it with tough Kurd fighters in the north during the invasion of Iraq, or African women dealing with unspeakable violence committed against them in Darfur or the Congo; or even charming some of the dastardly, women hating Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan before they were overthrown by the Americans after 9/11.
Interestingly, it was the American servicemen that gave her much grief as she tried to do the job she was paid to do, sometimes only smirking at her for being “a girl,” and sometimes calling her “fucking bitch.” She also makes it clear in the book that she did not like President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Still, her ability to relate to her subjects, seems to me, is part of the reason for the success of her award winning photography; not just her considerable bravery and technical skills under the direst of circumstances.
This is a must read book. It is easy to see why Lynsey Addario won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting.
It’s high time for a new and boldly authentic Irish-American voice in literature, and that voice belongs to Eamon Loingsigh (whose last name is pronounced “Lynch”).
Thanks to the maverick visionaries at Three Rooms Press, who since 1993 have defined themselves as “a fierce New York-based independent publisher inspired by Dada, Punk, and passion”-- this remarkable debut novel has seen the light of day.
The Irish. It’s their ethnic turf we’re on in this evocative historical novel. We’re steeped here in the rough, grim, dirty, dangerous, and always tense realm of what was once called “Irishtown.” The docks of Brooklyn figure heavily here, as do the streets—yes, the mean streets—of New York in the era of the First World War.
However, unlike the bulk of historical fiction that oftentimes makes exclusive use of an omniscient narrator with an all-encompassing point of view, Eamon Loingsigh has done something startling here. He has begun his novel in the first-person singular, and thus we’re engaged right away by a tone, a perspective, a mood, and a personal voice as compelling as that of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
Here is Loingsigh’s crucial opening paragraph, in which his command of the material is on full display:“Down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass there once roamed a gang I fell in with. A long time ago it was, when I was young and running. It’s all I had, this life. Just as yours is yours. Don’t let yourself think mine is anything different, anything better. I won’t have it that way. It was just a life, and there you have it. But like so many born on the isle of Ireland, I am to die far from home. Though such a grief has since let me alone, as bitterness only cuts into the bone, I am at ease with it in my age. But to go ‘way with all these memories, well, I rush them out for you to breathe them in.”
And that intoxicating overture then concludes with this: “So here I am to send a story you true and fair. About blood. And honor. About the code of men, and about empathy too.”
It is through the voice of narrator William “Liam” Garrity that much of the tale is told, but various shifts to omniscient narrative are achieved. It’s a larger-than-life story that evokes the universal mythological cycle that was patented as “The Hero’s Adventure” by scholar Joseph Campbell.
The trans-Atlantic crossing of “Liam” Garrity (who hails from County Clare in Ireland) is meticulously recalled. And his endless trials, conflicts, confrontations and transgressions on American soil serve as the bulwark of the story.
To survive, as was the case with untold thousands of destitute Irish immigrants, it is imperative for “Liam” Garrity to join a gang. And thus ensues his mythic series of tests, his crossing of thresholds, his accommodating of violence and treachery, and most of all the sheer exuberance that defined the coming-of-age crucible for many young men (and women) in those anything-but-sentimental yesterdays.
Woven into the fabric of the main story (set in the 1914-1918 epoch) are flashbacks, allusions, references and asides that hark back to the debacle of the Great Famine in the 1800s. That was a historic calamity for the Irish that has yet to be understood as the genocide that it was, what with Great Britain’s governmental policies doing much to advance and, indeed, to worsen the evolution of the Famine, or, The Great Hunger (as the Irish sometimes define it).
But in Light of the Diddicoy, the pulse of the story remains always that of first-person narrator “Liam” Garrity, and while the flashbacks to earlier issues in Irish history are compelling, they never cause Loingsigh to digress too heavily.
Quite the other way, in fact. In this first volume of what promises to be a trilogy, it becomes clear that “Liam” Garrity is carrying the history of his people with him into the bars and alleys, the streets and the waterfront docks of Brooklyn, at the precise moment when America was emerging as a pivotal power upon the world’s stage.
Most compelling of all is that Eamon Loingsigh has made tremendous use of his gifted ear for dialect. The colloquial daily speech of that era’s “great unwashed” (with wildfire locutions, fractured grammar, animated slang, and pungent profanity), wafts up off his pages with zeal.
This novel’s evocation of the immigrant experience is akin to the textured, deeply researched, richly imagined re-creation of Italian-American immigrant life found in Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim.
Light of the Diddicoy is an important contribution to the realm of Irish-Americana.
(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)
When a good friend told me that I should read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand I didn’t hesitate downloading it onto my Kindle and begin reading it. I had been curious as to its longevity on the best seller’s lists.
Though I appreciated the fortitude Louis Zamperini displayed when he was yet a young man, winning the 1939 Olympics in track, I wasn’t drawn into the story UNTIL it told of the United States entering World War II in 1941 when Louie enlisted and became a bombardier in the Pacific theater.
Laura Hillenbrand’s writing style is like that of a reporter, in that she states the facts, one after another with little embellishment. Louie Zamperini had a remarkable memory as he told her his story. I was impressed by the immediacy of the writing, especially in the scenes where his plane was being bombarded and riddled with bullet holes.
I didn’t know who Laura Hillenbrand was as I had not read her other best seller, Seabiscuit.
Returning on the Megabus from the Bay Area to Los Angeles after Christmas, to make up for having spilled coffee on me, the gentlemen next to me gave me two issues of The New York Times magazine. I was pleased to find in the December 21, 2014 issue an article on Ms. Hillenbrand titled “Unbreakable.”
Reading it, I learned that Ms. Hillenbrand is 47 and has what is sometimes called “chronic fatigue syndrome,” but which is more accurately known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Because of the debilitating illness, she rarely leaves her home in Washington, D.C.—she is as secluded as the great hermetic novelists; her seclusion brings to mind that of the great poet Emily Dickenson.
By the time Ms. Hillenbrand embarked on writing Unbroken in 2003, Louis Zamperini was 86 (he died just last summer at the age of 97.) Since he lived in California and no longer traveled, they couldn’t easily meet. “Over the next seven years, as she researched and wrote ‘Unbroken,’ they would speak by phone hundreds of times but never meet in person…”
On May 27, 1943, the Green Hornet, the plane Louie and his comrades were commandeering, crashed in the Pacific. Louie and two other air force officers, Phil and Mac, survived the crash. For the next 47 days they were adrift on two rubber life rafts, often surrounding by cunning sharks, who would have liked nothing better than to make lunch of them…
Now my attention was riveted. The life rafts were poorly provisioned. They had neither food nor containers with which to catch rain water. To survive, they caught and ate raw the occasional albatrosses that lit on the rafts. They battled the sharks, Phil and Mac smacking their noses when Louie was overboard. They kept their sanity by playing memory games and by recounting in minute detail dishes their mothers had prepared. I vowed never again to complain about whatever minor physical deprivation I might be subjected to…
All told they drifted nearly 3000 miles to the west across the Pacific before they were finally rescued, only I use the word “rescued” lightly because they were found by Japanese sailors. Their rescue was a case of “out-of-the pot and into-the-fire.” For the next two years they were held in various Japanese camps, where their treatment was deplorable. They were nearly starved to death, subjected to back-breaking work and tortured.
Under the Third Geneva Convention, (actually, this version was not ratified until 1949) prisoners of war (POWs) must be:
All of these stipulations the Japanese summarily ignored.
Reading Unbroken was for me a life changing event! I had no idea of the brutality American/British POWs were subjected to…
One guard was an utter psychopath. When he learned Louie had been an Olympic athlete he targeted him and made his life hell. The man’s name was Watanabe, but the POWs called him “Bird.”
When someone is tormented over a length of time and lives with the fear that his tormentor will eventually murder him, he doesn’t walk away free and clear when the abuse has ended. Talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! Being repeatedly degraded and humiliated but not being able to retaliate for fear it will bring about his death if he does so, so worked on Louie’s psyche that his mental anguish continued.
He was so haunted by violent dreams that he became an alcoholic; his only comforts were inebriation and his plan to return to Japan, hunt down the Bird and kill him.
The paradox of vengefulness is that is makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them. They believe that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.
Four years after returning from the war, Louie was living in an apartment in Hollywood, lost in alcohol and with plans to murder the Bird. His wife, Cynthia returned from Florida but was staying only until she could arrange a divorce. They lived in glum coexistence, each one out of answers. When Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on one of his crusades, Cynthia went alone to hear him and was moved what he said.
She persuaded Louie to attend one of Graham’s sermons.
Graham preached from the 8th chapter of John—the story of the woman taken in adultery. Jesus says, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”
Graham asked his listeners how long it had been since they had prayed in earnest. He said that God takes down your life from the time you are born to the time you die. And, when you stand before God on Judgment Day, you might say, ‘Lord, I wasn’t such a bad fellow,’ and then they will show a moving picture of your life, from the cradle to the grave. You’re going hear every thought that was going through mind every minute of every day, and you’re going to hear the words you said. Your thoughts and your deeds are going to condemn you as your stand before God on that day, and God is going to say, “Depart from me.”
And Louie knew he was a good man but he also knew what he had become.
When he went again to hear Graham, Graham asked, why is God silent while good men suffer?
What God asks of men, Graham said, is faith. His invisibility is the truest test of that faith.
As Louie listened, he recalled praying when he was lost at sea and promising God that if He would save him, he would dedicate his life to Him.
Right then and there he renewed his pledge. He returned home, threw out all of his alcohol and cigarettes, and, perhaps most importantly, because Christianity asks believers forgive those who have wronged them, HE FORGAVE THE BIRD FOR WHAT HE HAD DONE TO HIM.
In that moment his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness fell away.
The letter Louie wrote to Watanabe might be used as a model for people who wanted to confront those who have harmed them and offer them forgiveness.
Louie states in a forthright manner what was done to him without belaboring it. Then he tells the consequences of that abuse: “The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble…but, thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, ‘forgive your enemies and pray for them.’” He ends his letter by saying, “I forgave you and now hope that you will also become a Christian.”
The Bird was not punished. Knowing that he would be brought to justice when the war ended, he went into hiding. On December 30, 1958, as part of the reconciliation between the United States and Japan, prison guards guilty of crimes against the POWs, were granted amnesty. The Bird then emerged from hiding, married, fathered several children, and became a successful business man.
When Louie returned to Japan in 1950, he was informed that the Bird was still alive! Louie wanted to convey his forgiveness in person, so he sent a message to the Bird, asking to see him. The Bird refused.
In order to make a movie of a book so rich in content as Unbroken inevitably a certain amount of cutting and shaping must be done. It’s a matter of emphasis, how to best illuminate a book’s essence. Here I felt the movie fell short…perhaps, I should say that, if given the chance, I would have done it differently, for the movie mostly focuses on Zamperini’s experiences as a bombardier, the 47 days he and his comrades were adrift in the Pacific, and his experiences as a POW in Japan, where he was tortured by the psychopathic Watanabe (had the war existed for a week longer Zamperini may not have survived.) All of this is great stuff but I don’t think the movie did justice to his redemption.
I also didn’t think the actor who played Watanabe was well cast. He was too effete, haughty but without the brute, sexual strength described in the book. I would have welcomed if his mental illness had been dramatized more fully—after he beat prisoners within an inch of their lives, he would suckle up to them and say he was sorry—he derived sexual pleasure from his sadism—but soon he returned to his sadistic ways.
No mention was made in the movie that the war ended when the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9th, which, of course, caused Japan to immediately surrender. The POWs feared when the war ended that the Japanese would kill them all, but, thankfully, it seems that they were so demoralized by their defeat that they lost the will to carry through on this evil intent.
The only attention paid to the war’s aftermath was in the form of postscripts added at the film’s end, therefore, Louie’s torment, his desire for revenge and his redemption were pretty much ignored.
The best of works of art are those that bring about a change in the viewer. Some years ago, when I was seminary student, I determined that the only way peace would ever be achieved on earth was when people, no matter how gruesome the offense, forgave the perpetrators. I continued to believe this but often lacked examples which show the transformative power of forgiveness. Unbroken personifies this principle.
Louie died last summer at the age of 97, 69 years after he was released from the Japanese prison camp. He had spent the last two-thirds of his life building and helping run camps for underprivileged children, a happy man.
A well-known TV producer in England, a collector of poetry, creatively brilliant, novelist Daisy Goodwin seems a woman at the top of her game. Using a history degree from Cambrige and a study of film, Goodwin successfully weaves a compelling and touching tale of historical fiction in The Fortune Hunter.
England during the Victorian Era is a romanticized time when, at least among the upper echelons, certain behavior was expected of both well-bred women and gentlemen and gossip was the favorite pastime, with the gentleman’s sport of fox hunting a close second.
This is the setting where The Fortune Hunter feeds fiction into the much talked about relationship between the beautiful Empress Elizabeth of Austria and her guide during the fox hunts, Captain Bay Middleton. Middleton was respected and rumored to be a ladies’ man even though his station in high society was rather low.
Before the Empress comes to England with her charms and influence, Middleton meets the obscure Charlotte Baird. She is a young girl with a large inheritance. (So as not to blur lines between the fiction and history I will refer to the fiction from here on.)
Charlotte is not the belle of the ball; she is plain-looking and devotes her time to photography (an up and coming hobby for women with money but not at all popular at the time). She meets Bay Middleton and is lost to his charisma, looks, and surprising vulnerability.
The relationship might have been straightforward and appropriate, but Middleton, although sincere, was weak to the charms of beautiful, strong women and people will always talk when a young lady’s money, not to mention her virtue, are in question.
I feel the novel is well written, intertwining historical facts and traditions of the day with emotionally rich fiction. The story has its ups and downs as any story does. Romantic fiction is not always the most compelling style of story for me, and I rarely found myself eager to listen for long periods on end.
However even in disinterest, I talked about what was happening in the story with friends because the fact stands: it is a good story. Fourteen hours is a long time, and I at times fought not to finish but I’m glad I did. Characters come along that allow creative listeners to guess at what is coming, creating a hook. After you’re hooked, (even if it is well into the book) you have to finish.
Clare Corbett reads The Fortune Hunter as you’d expect from a talented English woman. Outside of the outlandish caricatured voices of a few of the more comic characters (an American included), Corbett, amazingly brings to life the novel’s cast of characters from a handful of accented locations.
After The Fortune Hunter (only Goodwin’s second novel), I expect the same level of brilliance in her novels to come. She puts a modernized spin on Victorian romance that is sure to capture a great audience. If the era or the style is your cup of tea, I highly recommend The Fortune Hunter. If not, and you find yourself listening to it by someone else’s choice (as happens), do yourself a favor and enjoy it, even if you keep it to yourself.