‘My Life As A Foreign Country’ By Brian Turner

My Life as a Foreign CountryI saw Brian Turner speak for the second time when I saw him at the Hill Center (kudos to those folks for partnering with the Post‘s Ron Charles on this series). The first was when he read at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

I knew him as a poet, but My Life as a Foreign Country is very expressionistic memoir. More Jean Genet than Frank McCourt and more like Breton’s Amour Fou than any traditional prose book.

The book, about his time as a Marine in Iraq, grows progressively more disjointed and disturbing over its course, as if mapping the psychic damage and dislocation of a war without purpose nor end. It begins as an expressionistic, but still recognizable autobiographical form. Childhood. Parents. Why he joined the Marines. But fragments of his father’s military service, his grandfather’s, and even the Civil War appear. Incidents in Iraq are overlaid with nightmares and fears, before finally horror, memory, fear, mental illness, and reality merge, without the relief of Turner distinguishing them for the reader.

Weekend Reading – Don’t Start What You Can’t Finish



Finishing a book every time, after having started it, makes you a better person.

What responsibility do editors have in creating greater equity in literature and publishing? And the answer is not, ‘don’t worry about it – they should only publish good stuff, rather than engage in some kind editorial affirmative action’ because, unless you believe that 90% of all good writing is done by white, heterosexual men (and if you believe that, you are probably some heinous combination of racist/misogynist/homophobic and I really don’t care what you think, you intolerant snot), that attitude just isn’t doing it.

Best and worst coffeeshops to get your done in, according to the DCist. Myself, I’m a fan of Port City Java (though it doesn’t have wi-fi on weekends) and while Port City didn’t make the top five, it was repeatedly mentioned for qualities like ‘comfy couches’ and ‘availability of seating.’ So… lots of love from me and some love from DCist for Port City. As it should be, I suppose.

Arming Middle Eastern antiquities lovers with ‘rescue archaeology’ strategies.


‘Artful’ By Ali Smith

9780143124498While enviously browsing  the art theory section of the bookstore in the National Gallery of Art, I saw this book and was immediately intrigued by it.

Artful is not exactly non fiction, not exactly a novel, and not exactly a collection of essays, but is something of all three.

Smith’s husband, apparently a university lecturer on literature, has recently died and the book is structured around his notes for four undelivered lectures. She digresses, extensively quoting from poetry and sometimes assembling ‘new’ poetry from lines from poets like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and others to create a ‘new’ poem. She is even, briefly, haunted by visions or hallucinations of her late husband visiting her and stealing things (though she also recognizes that it must be she who is actually the thief, because her husband is not there.

It’s a beautiful book, but my expectations were too high, I fear. Nonethless, it is beautiful and a moving, highly literate elegy.

The Downtown Barnes & Noble Is Closing And That Saddens Me

The Barnes & Noble nearest me, the one downtown, at 12th and E, will be closing this December.

The joys of the inevitable closing sales are not mitigants enough to make up for the loss. Yes, Capitol Hill Books is very close to my home and, yes, there are many great indie bookstores in Washington, DC, but this store, owned by a huge, evil corporation though it is, fulfills a very particular and useful function in my life.

Whenever we go downtown to see a movie, either at Chinatown for the big blockbusters of the E Street Cinema for the cool foreign, indie, and documentary movies, this Barnes & Noble provided a welcome space for a bookish type like me to browse and shop. Besides the fact that the only place to buy books downtown now is Urban Outfitters (and I’m making an angry and melancholy joke here, because humorous books about poop and cats and 99 ways to ruin good scotch by mixing it with other things do not feed my soul), it represents a kind of ‘third space,’ a welcoming, public location for people. That, and it has a huge selection of scifi and fantasy paperbacks.

Politics and Prose is a better bookstore, but it’s not half as close nor a third as easy to get to; Capitol Hill Books is a used bookstore, which is a different kind of space, and doesn’t serve coffee.

And… it’s just sad when a bookstore closes.

‘From Artisan to Worker: Guilds, the French State, and the Organization of Labor, 1776-1821’ By Michael Fitzsimmons

Artisan to WorkerA caveat here: Fitzsimmons was one of my professors in college.

I had to get my reader card for the Library of Congress to find a copy of this book (it’s irritatingly difficult and expensive to get copies of academic works) and, of course, I had to read it in one of the Library’s reading rooms (not the cool one, but a smaller one, but closer to the stacks where this book was stored, so delivery was faster).

One of the less written about consequences of the French Revolution was the dissolution of the guilds and worker managed corporate entities (though, not all workers – just ‘masters,’ as opposed to apprentices). Without overromanticizing the guild structure, it’s hard not to view this as a loss for working people. He never uses the words, but in the titular move from ‘artisan’ to ‘worker,’ it’s hard not to think of Marx’s famous alienation of man from the product of his own work.

An early anecdote about a man who tried to get around the guild system in the expansion of his wallpaper manufacturing business is illustrative of what would be lost without guilds. Jean-Baptiste Reveillon wanted to streamline and unite all aspects of production, from papermaking to printing – and to do so outside of the guild structure. He succeeded, at least for a while, and at the height of his success, he used his wealth to push for a decrease in the daily minimum wage to something roughly equivalent to the cost of a loaf of bread.

A few little bits that struck me:

Paris is the center of France in a way that is not true of many of other countries’ capitals and largest cities. In my own experience, Bangkok might be an exception.

Even as early as the Bourbon Restoration, the Chamber of Commerce opposed the concept of organized workers.

For better or for worse, mechanization would proceed unimpeded by guilds or regulations, generating greater social injustice than the system of corporations had engendered…

Note: in this case, corporation is meant in a different sense than in modern English and refers to various guilds and professional/worker associations.