By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Pacifism is a form of moral narcissism that was epidemic in France between the wars, but the French at least were entitled. In addition to 1.4 million dead in the Great War, half of the 8.4 million who served were injured, including ä more than 1 million disabled. Surviving veterans often died young as a result of having been gassed in the trenches or butchered by inept surgeons. The carnage led to a demographic dead zone in the late ’30s, when the pool of potential conscripts was especially shallow. Thus, the average age of the French army that collapsed so quickly in 1940 was over 40, although unlike the current U.S. military, its ranks were not swelled by thousands of mothers.
As I said, there are parallels. They had wine (2.5 million liters daily for the army alone), but we have Prozac. Religious and political conservatives had made common cause, much as they have in America today. As with Vietnam here, the previous war had undermined faith in the French military; the country took solace instead in what is known today as the “international community.” France hid behind a thicket of treaties, some with allies, and others (the kind purporting to ban armed conflict) with enemies. All this negotiation and paperwork culminated at Munich in the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The French rationalized this and other appeasements by pointing to the unjustness of the peace imposed on Germany at Versailles, much as some people rationalize terrorism today.
Fortunately, the parallels go only so far. Weber’s scathing book is a pleasure not just for its vivid portrait of a time and place, but also because, ultimately, we are so very different from the French (who hated us, by the way, even then). Americans are usually reluctant to fight and, at least at the outset, we fight ineffectively, until finally we get organized and remember that the only way to win is by visiting unremitting violence on the enemy, without worrying about whether it will make people who hate us already hate us even more.Daniel Akst’s first novel,St. Burl’s Obituary, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His second novel,The Webster Chronicle, was published last month by Putnam. David L. Ulin
More than once since September 11, I’ve found myself rooting through the bookshelves for my dog-eared copy of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, a memoir — originally published in 1967 — that re-creates the first 18 years of its author’s life. Why I did so, exactly, is hard to say, except that Stop-Time is a personal touchstone, a source of identification and comfort that has resonated for me since I first discovered it at age 15. Back then, I was a shy and awkward adolescent, trying to fit into the culture of a New England boarding school, a culture to which, I knew, I’d never truly belong. In Conroy I found a sympathetic spirit, a misfit who embraced his own outsider status — who, growing up (like me) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, haunted the same luncheonettes, movie theaters and sidewalks as I had, yet found within this patchwork not chaos but connection, a way of staking out the boundaries of his own emotional world.
Over the years, I’ve re-read Stop-Time many times, and it remains one of the few books I regularly give as a gift. But in the wake of September 11, Conroy’s memoir has taken on a new significance, since what it describes, among other things, is the mundane reality of New York in a way in which it may well never be described again. New York, after all, is no longer just a place where people live; it has become a metaphor for everything we have lost. For those of us who grew up there, the loss is more than just one of innocence — it is a loss of history, of memory, of the simple pleasures of the city’s streets. In Stop-Time, I find myself returned to New York as I once knew it, where kids play hooky to go to the movies, or stay up all night reading novels in the quiet stillness of a back bedroom.David L. Ulin is the editor ofAnother City: Writing From Los Angeles, recently published by City Lights.Chitra Divakaruni
Badly in need of solace and faith in the wake of the September 11 attacks — like most of America — I reached for The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, an extended interview with the Dalai Lama by Dr. Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist who puts to the Tibetan spiritual leader questions based on some of the more difficult problems faced by his clients. The essential question he asks — one that most of us have asked, from time to time — is: Why is there so much unhappiness here in America, the most prosperous country in the world? And its corollary: Is it, then, possible for any human being to be happy?
Replying with humor, compassion and generous, frank examples from his own life, the Dalai Lama asserts with complete conviction that “Happiness can be achieved by training the mind.” Many of the techniques he offers seem similar to those in a typical self-help manual, but it is the uniqueness and depth of the Dalai Lama’s thinking — and, perhaps, his Eastern perspective — that makes this book so singular. For example, he states that contentment is very difficult to come by without self-worth. Nothing new there, but unlike so many of us, his sense of self-worth comes not from possessions, honor, fame or even character, but, rather, from recognizing the connection we share with the rest of humanity. “That human bond,” he states, “is enough to give rise to a sense of worth and dignity. That bond can become a source of consolation in the event you lose everything else.”
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