Sunday Bookchat

June 7, 2008

Time and again, the Bush administration has shown that its interest in and concern for America’s military personnel ends the moment a photo-op is concluded. Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (based on Sheeler’s Pulitzer-winning reporting for the Rocky Mountain News) is an unblinking look at the soldiers who have died in Bush’s war and the wrenching sorrow of their families and friends.

One of the book’s many fine qualities is the way it removes the cloak of invisibility the Bushies have thrown over the human cost of their Iraq war fantasies:

While “Final Salute” is not a muckraking book, it is still quietly horrifying. It bears witness to the ways in which casualties from Iraq are shielded from sight. Mr. Sheeler’s readers may not have realized, for instance, that dead soldiers’ coffins have been hidden in cardboard boxes (ostensibly to protect the coffins), toted by forklifts and stowed in the cargo holds of passenger planes.

Among the eloquent Rocky Mountain News photographs included here is a shocking image — by Todd Heisler, now of The New York Times — of commercial airline passengers looking out plane windows at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, trying to see what is happening beneath them. Down there, in the cargo hold, a Marine honor guard is preparing to deliver the flag-draped coffin of Second Lt. James J. Cathey to its final resting place.

Since Mr. Sheeler followed the individual stories of several military men and their families (no dead female soldiers are included in the book), “Final Salute” seemingly qualifies as an extended human-interest story. To some extent that’s what it is, if human interest includes the pain and frustration of surviving the death of a loved one (or breadwinner) in battle. But the book is given tighter focus by the man whom Mr. Sheeler treats as a central figure: Maj. Steve Beck, a marine who specializes in helping the bereaved. When Major Beck became a marine, he had never heard the term “casualty assistance calls officer.” Now he knows exactly what it means. And Mr. Sheeler’s readers will too.

Remember when Dick Cheney, asked what he thought about the death toll exacted from American soldiers in Iraq, shrugged it off by saying “they volunteered”? If Cheney ever says that again, he should be slapped in the mouth with this book.

* * * * *

Harlan Ellison, the larger than life author, critic, political activist and litigious slayer of Hollywood Goliaths, is the subject of a new documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, now in a limited New York run. Meanwhile, online publisher E-Reads has secured the rights to offer 32 out-of-print Ellison titles as e-books or print-on-demand trade paperbacks. Among the titles are such classics as Strange Wine, Deathbird Stories, Ellison Wonderland and Shatterday.

* * * * *

Nick Taylor wants to rescue the Works Progress Administration (and the New Deal) from the mists of the past and the distortions of conservative critics. Philip Bobbitt wants to rescue the war on terror from the Bushies. Arianna Huffington’s book Right Is Wrong will be the discussion topic this week at the TPMCafe Book Salon.

* * * * *

Elizabeth Drew reviews Jim Webb’s A Time to Fight and finds its author to be a complex, deeply interesting man whose views do not dovetail neatly with liberals and progressives, but who overlaps with them sufficiently to make him one of the more intriguing politiicans in Washington. Besides, he knows how to deal with frauds and clowns:

So Jim Webb arrived to the Senate with a reputation for being unpredictable, even a little weird, a little bit out of control, a little hotheaded. The sense in Washington that he was—well—different was enhanced by his famous first encounter with President Bush after the election, when at a November White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb refused to shake Bush’s hand. Bush then sought Webb out and asked him about his son, who was serving in Iraq, “How’s your boy?” and Webb replied, “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.” “That isn’t what I asked,” Bush snapped. “How’s your boy?” Webb responded, “That’s between me and my son, Mr. President.”

In A Time to Fight, he explains that what some criticized as impertinence was a result of his disgust over the nasty Republican campaign against him, which, he said, “fell into the predictable hog trough of Karl Rovian negativity.” Webb was particularly outraged by the Allen campaign’s attacks on his writing as “pornographic” and the work of a “pedophile.” As in the case with John Kerry, in not shaking Bush’s hand Webb was following his own code of honor. When Webb’s son returned from Iraq, he asked for a meeting of the two of them with Bush, and the matter was smoothed over. Webb was learning to soften his edges.

Not too much, I hope.

* * * * *

Can you guess which science fiction author is one of the Library of America’s biggest sellers? Can you guess which Israeli writer has a knack for pissing off Israelis? Can you guess the source of over 90 percent of the books published since 1972 that dispute mainstream environmental science?

2 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. Karen Haggerty Says:

    TOO FAST????? R U KIDDING ME?????

  2. Karen Haggerty Says:


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