Sunday Bookchat

February 23, 2008

Who killed Bishop Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera in 1998? And why should you care? Francisco Goldman has the answers to both questions, and many others, in The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? For those who remember the slaying of Oscar Romero and the rape-murder of three nuns and a religious worker in El Salvador in 1980, Goldman’s book will sound infuriatingly familiar.

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Because it’s Oscar weekend, and because life affords entirely too few opportunities to talk up the work of overlooked American master Upton Sinclair, here’s a link to an essay keyed to the success of There Will Be Blood, the film loosely based on Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! Biographer Anthony Arthur talks about Sinclair’s lifelong hopes of hitting it big with Hollywood and the qualities his novel shares with the film.

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In this excerpt from Susan Faludi’s book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, we learn what happened to the 9/11 widows when they started to resist being turned into icons of heroic, patriotic kitsch:

Widows who didn’t contribute to the “wonderful story” found themselves dropped from the media dance card. Widows who openly flouted its terms were treated far worse – they found themselves the objects of widespread censure. This was the lesson learned by one group of women in particular. As the wives of the most vaunted “heroes”, the firefighters’ widows were at first the most exalted – “perfect virgins of grief”, New York magazine called them. That is, until the day the virgins began throwing off their habits, and – armed with an average $2m to $3m (£1.5m) in compensation and charity cheques – began to exercise some economic and personal independence. Their private affairs – what they shopped for, where they chose to live, whom they dated – attracted public scrutiny and public reproach. The widows were said to be spending “blood money” on what were invariably referred to as “lavish lifestyles”.

Media censors took exception to “the many expensive Xboxes under one widow’s Christmas tree”. They printed scuttlebutt about firefighters’ widows who were supposedly going on “exotic vacations”, having breast implants, or filling their garages with fleets of Mercedes-Benzes. Some widows did trade in their old cars for new ones or move their families to better homes (and why not?), but by and large, the more egregious reports of “spending sprees” were unverified. The same lack of hard data backed the media-declared trend of widows romancing their late husbands’ firefighting buddies. Press reports variously set the number of women engaging in this “dirty little secret” at “many”, “at least eight”, “at least a dozen”, and “10 or 11 such love triangles”. In the end, the press produced exactly two documented cases of a love affair between a firefighter and a firefighter’s widow – and provided specific information on only one of them, thanks to non-stop bad-mouthing by the widow’s resentful brother-in-law.

The New York Post ran multiple stories on this domestic matter, under such headlines as “Boob implants and vacations? ‘I’d like to knock in her 40G teeth.’ The quotation in the headline belonged to John Amato, the brother-in-law, who, despite such threatening outbursts, was cast as “The heartbroken brother of fallen firefighter”. The story made the rounds nationally and, soon, internationally; Debbie Amato, the “merry widow” was denounced in the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun, the Bristol Western Daily Press, and the [British] Daily Mail, which claimed she had “cut the grieving process to a minimum and found comfort instead in a new luxury lifestyle”. The most deplored indulgences were those “boob implants”, an investment that suggested the ultimate sacrilege: the perfect virgins of grief were starting to regard themselves as sexual beings who might not spend the rest of their lives in widows’ weeds.

The crimes of the firefighters’ widows were fiscal and sexual – misdemeanours compared with the felonies of a final group of widows. The “Jersey Girls”, as a group of women whose husbands died in the World Trade Centre styled themselves, were “just four moms from New Jersey”. They hadn’t used their compensation cheques to change their lifestyles: they were already leading comfortable lives, thanks to their husbands’ careers as investment managers and securities traders. They weren’t getting breast implants or having affairs. Yet, their violation of the script would be deemed the most egregious: the independence the Jersey Girls exercised after 9/11 was political.

As conducted in the U.S., the War On Terra is a fantasy epic in which Republicans are stalwart leaders, Iraq was a teeming nuclear ammo dump pleading to be liberated by John Wayne, and terrorists are a bunch of ichor-dripping orcs out of The Two Towers, with George W. Bush as Aragorn. For the inhabitants of this fantasyland, nothing is more to be feared and attacked than someone who threatens to pop the dream bubble.

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Now that George Romero’s new zombie movie, Diary of the Dead, is in theaters, the time has come to ask: Is Christianity a zombie religion? Ponder this question and others with Kim Paffenroth, author of Gospel of the Living Dead.

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Literary prize-winner attacks literary prizes! A look at author/entrepreneur David Eggers and his McSweeney’s empire of literary hipness. An appreciation of novelist James Baldwin, who said America didn’t have a black problem — it had a white problem. Anthony Lewis sees hope in the history of the First Amendment and free speech in America. A new book about Starbucks expects its readers to swallow more than just coffee, says the News Statesman.

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