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Our friend James McBride shares a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut that he delivered at the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Foundation Gala
Not long before he died, I did a reading with the late Kurt Vonnegut at a church in Manhattan called St. Barts. Before the event, Kurt and I stood in the church courtyard while Kurt smoked. He smoked filterless Lucky Strikes. I asked him, "Filterless cigarettes? They're terrible for you. Why smoke em?" He inhaled one deeply and said, "More value."
Suddenly the rectory door opened and his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, popped her head out. She said, "Kurt! Hurry up! Come inside. The people are waiting. They've got coffee and doughnuts for you."
Kurt, his face covered in cigarette smoke, took a deep drag of his filterless cigarette and said, "But dear, I just brushed my teeth."
We went inside, and during the Q&A, a woman said, "Why don't you two speak out against the Iraq war? You're writers! Why aren't you doing something to let people know what's going on?"
Kurt said, "Miss we don't have the power you think we have. They affirmation you want, we cannot deliver to people who aren't listening."
And therein lies the problem. We live in a society so wired everyone can write a book about nothing. My plumber is writing a book. My marriage therapist is writing a book. My ex-wife is writing a book, presumably about our marriage therapist. Newt Gingrich wrote a novel and he's a short story. Bill Clinton wrote a biography and he's a novel. Barack Obama -- all book writers. In fact, I can't think of anyone offhand who is not either writing a book or who does not believe their life is worthy of one. With all these people writing books, there's no one left to read them. So I think fewer people should write books, and more people should spend time thinking.
What all this blogging and the internet chit chat has done, is given us the chance to talk more about nothing. Just because some rant on television or radio sells toothpaste and sneakers and beer does not mean the person saying it is smart or a valid political movement. They're just salesmen with different titles, selling a different kind of drug, the drug of obedience, the drug of compulsory behavior disguised as patriotism or religion. But I remember Kurt Vonnegut. His kindness. His talent. A veteran and former P.O.W. who swore off all wars forever, because he saw its destructiveness. His widow Jill was one of the first women photographers to work in Vietnam.
The PEN Faulkner organization supports the NEW Kurt Vonneguts and the NEW Jill Krementzes in its school program. That's why I'm wearing this tux. And that's why my fellow writers and I gather nervously before you like sheep, in a town that, at times, seems to be is living proof that the world is run by gangsters. You are a few of the good. Thank you for keeping up the good. God is watching. He will bless you for your good, and in the end, right all wrongs in this world. That's the real Writing On The Wall. It's also the prayer on my lips every night.
Ellen Feldman, whose novel NEXT TO LOVE follows the lives of three women during the years of World War II and its aftermath, shares some of her favorite books about the World War II home front.
Most World War II novels are tales of the actual fighting, but a few tell what life was like at home.
"The Lovely Leave," a short story by Dorothy Parker in the Viking Portable Dorothy Parker, brings home the pain of a young married couple's separation and the anguish of an all-too-brief leave with aching immediacy.
Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1949, is technically a military story, but it takes place on a base in Florida and is really about the military on the home front.
Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener, is, as the title implies, set in a war zone, but the battles that rage are not military, and the original Nellie Forbush in the story did not have nearly as good a time as she did in the smash musical.
Everyone knows the movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, but few have read the long narrative poem by MacKinley Kantor that it was based on. Though I have nothing on which to ground my speculation, I cannot help thinking Kantor was trying to do for World War II what Stephen Vincent Benet had done for the Civil War in John Brown's Body.
Collections of letters from men and women serving in the military, while not technically about the home front, provide vivid pictures of life during the war.
As Always, Jack: A World War II Love Story, by Emma Sweeney, which will be reissued in January, 2012, is a beautiful tale of the author's parents' courtship as told through her father's letters.
War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll, has a deeply moving section of World War II letters.
Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front, edited by Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, reveals what it was like for the women once the men went to war.
Don't You Know There's a War On, by Richard Lingeman, presents a bird's eye view of America in the throes of war, including such fascinating tidbits as the fifty-three girls who were sent home from the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft factory on "moral grounds" because they wore sweaters to work on the assembly line. For some reason, the women who wore sweaters to work in the office were not deemed immoral.
G.I. Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, by Deborah Dash Moore, examines what it was like for the roughly half million young Jewish men who served in the war.
Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II, by Maggi M. Morehouse, does the same for the one million African-Americans who endured the same segregation and injustice in military life as they did in civilian.
Virtue Under Fire, by John Costello, is a study of changing sexual mores and morals during the war.
Alison Thompson, author THE THIRD WAVE, shares a letter she wrote to her parents while volunteering in Haiti during the cholera epidemic.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I am lying in my tent in Haiti, typing on my iPhone under a flashlight. A full moon is leaking in through my window and 47 ½ palm trees are casting Halloween shadows on my roof. Mutant dinosaur mosquitoes buzz in my ears in search of a landing zone, and the cock-a-doodle-doo rooster's body clock is out of whack.
How can I tell you about the things I have seen without making you cry into your cereal? I'll spare you the details of babies dying in their own vomit, but I will tell you that after our first night at St. Mark's hospital our medical team broke down and cried, helpless at not being able to save everyone. Out here you are only as good as your last prayer, and God's inbox is backed up.
On my first night in the ER I walked the ward alone checking on IVs while sick people called out in Creole. I don't have a clue what they were saying but I do know they were dying, and I could smell it in the air. Je t'aime was the only French word I knew, and a few weak smiles leaked out. That night I felt like an alien on Planet Cholera. While checking out the morgue I ran into Loune from Partners in Health as she was unloading heavy boxes of supplies from a truck. I felt a swell inside me as I watched her slave away in the dark. She's a quiet hero of the cholera outbreak and deserves a trip to Disneyland. There are many quiet heroes here mopping floors and cleaning contaminated fluids for 30 hours straight.
The good news is that today, after visiting hospitals and clinics in St. Nicolas, St. Marc, Bocozelle, Pierre Payen, Villard, and l'Artibonite valley (where the cholera started), the cholera is in a lull and has leveled off, and patient numbers have dropped. We will continue to monitor the situation and are working with pastors and leaders to educate villagers on cholera. Ted Steinhauer from Medical Teams International (who started the Quisqueya operation after the quake) is leading good teams and carefully studying the stats.
Haiti is a land of rumors and we need focused communications directly from the source. I have seen all these briefs and stats with my own blue eyes. I'm on my 24th Clif Bar and am craving seared tuna sushi with jalapeño from Nobu.
For more dispatches from Alison Thompson, follow her twitter feed at http://twitter.com/lightxxx