The Submission No Masterpiece, but a Good Read

Over-hyped, but worth reading.

The Submission (2011)

By Amy Waldman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 9780374271565

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The premise of journalist Amy Waldman’s debut novel The Submission is that history repeats itself. In 1980, blind design submissions were submitted for the proposed Vietnam War Veterans’ Memorial. When the entry was chosen, a hailstorm of controversy erupted when the winner was 21-year-old Maya Lin. Some claimed her design was ugly, but most of this was a mask for what other critics simply verbalized: disgust that an Asian would be given the task of designing a memorial for Americans killed in an Asian war. (Never mind that Ms. Lin was born in the U.S. and is of Chinese descent, not Vietnamese.) As we know, Ms. Lin did build “The Wall,” though she was forced to accept a compromise in which Frederick Hart’s “Three Soldiers” statue sits at the memorial’s entrance.

Flash ahead to 2003. Another selection committee sits in New York City and solicits blind entries for a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero. The committee has narrowed it down to two choices, a soaring abstraction known as “The Void,” favored by art critics on the panel; and a contemplative design called “The Garden,” the choice of panel chair Claire Burwell, a wealthy socialite and 9/11 widow. “The Garden” wins, but there’s a problem: the architect’s name is Mohammad Khan. Does the committee stand by its choice, or does it conclude that there is simply no way that a Muslim can build the memorial?

Once again, objective reality is of secondary concern. Khan is also native-born, Ivy League educated and, like many immigrant kids, prone to hyper-Americanism. This 37-year-old son of immigrants doesn’t even like his first name; he prefers to be called “Mo.” His main motive for entering the contest was disgust over the attack and his desire to show the attackers that they can’t do this sort of thing to America. As for being a Muslim, he’s about as Muslim as secular Jews or infant-baptized Catholics who wouldn’t know a Mass from moss (like yours truly). His religion is a thoroughly American one: he’s obsessed with money and success. His hubris is that the thing he loves most is himself.

Mo’s ego, secularism, naïveté, and stubbornness are about to clash with another American reality: that politics often trumps fairness. Waldman sketches a world we all recall after 9/11–Islamophobia, the bunker mentality of those fearing new attacks, the rise of rightwing hate groups, the hyper-nationalism of those bent on revenge, and the stifling of voices of opposition to Bush-era military adventurism. Remember when the Dixie Chicks were boycotted for a remark that they were “ashamed” to from the same state as Bush? Or when one was considered a traitor for opposing the Iraq War? One can easily imagine the hue-and-cry if Waldman’s fictional scenario had been the reality of 2003.

Waldman populates her novel with thinly disguised provocateurs that abound in post-9/11 America: the cynical rightwing shock jock Lou Sarge; the Tea Party-like chair of Save America from Islam, Debbie Dawson; Sean Gallagher, a loser blue-collar guy suddenly thrust into the limelight as the Christian champion of his dead brother; Burwell, the do-the-right-thing fuzzy-headed liberal; and Alyssa Spier, Mo’s egoistic doppelganger, except that she’s an amoral tabloid hack willing to exploit anything and anybody to advance her lackluster career. Mo has no hard-fast principles beyond the belief in his own brilliance, his sense of entitlement, and his rigidity. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of him: Islamic rights lawyer Laila Fathi, orthodox Muslims, rightwingers seeking to make him their poster child for lost American values, and liberals wanting him to be “reasonable” and “explain” himself. The latter becomes crucial when alarmists interpret his design as a “Muslim” garden and see its design as plot to mock America.

Waldman wisely lets all of this play out according to internal logic and refrains from telegraphing or judging. But she does give us an alternative take on 9/11 widows: young Bengali mother Asma Anwar, whose illegal immigrant husband worked as a custodian in the Twin Towers. Waldman’s cool detachment moves the narrative and makes readers question their own assumptions. A liberal, for instance, might viscerally embrace Mo, but might also come to see him as a foolish prig; and it’s hard to see how even the most sanctimonious reactionary can be unsympathetic to Anwar.

Both Entertainment Weekly and Esquire made The Submission their book of the year, and all manner of prize nominations are rumored. Is it that good? Not really. It’s thought provoking and a breezy read, but it’s no literary masterpiece. I found myself very dissatisfied with the final chapter, one in which Waldman let down her guard and wrote a futuristic coda that’s a liberal/utopian version of “And they all lived happily ever after.” Some of the characters–including New York’s mayor and the State governor–are more caricature than plausible; some of the dialogue is contrived; and Waldman leaves some logic holes. (Why was a Frederick Hart-like compromise never considered?) The Submission is a bit like the post-9/11 hysteria–more hype than substance. Forget the lofty heights; this book belongs in a more humble but respectful category: Good book. Good read.


Reasons to Discover Gina Forsyth

The content is better than the cover (which is meant to be ironic).


Promised Land

Waterbug 0101

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Remember how your mother told you not to judge a book by its cover? Mom’s advice works well for music as well. I was unfamiliar with Gina Forsyth’s music and a curmudgeonly cover and song titles such as “Lord Have Mercy,” “Sweet & Sunny South,” and “We Will Be Reborn” made me suspect I was in for a Baptist accounting of my iniquities. This makes me guilty of the sin of presumption and Ms. Forsyth of insufficient telegraphing of irony. This collection from a native daughter of New Orleans is a delightful mix of sardonic humor, country sweetness, Cajun insouciance, and snarkiness, with occasional forays into delicacy. Both the material and Forysth’s voice reminded me a bit of Cheryl Wheeler, though Ms. Wheeler certainly has more range. The songs? As Forsyth put it, her intent was to present the Promised Land in four chapters: America itself, pre-and post Hurricane Katrina, and “transformation.” That song “We Shall Be Reborn?” It owes more to Howard Zinn than to Pat Robertson. “Sweet & Sunny South?” Call that one a love-hate relationship populated by colorful characters, some lovable and some loathsome. In fact, Forsyth delights in opposites; she has the wisdom to see America as a place of great promise, but also one of slap-you-in-the-face disappointments, so you might as well have some humility when things go right and keep your sense of humor honed to take away the sting when life goes wrong. And when all else fails, party a bit (“What I Did on Mardi Gras Day”).

I liked this recording way more than I thought I would, though I could have done without “11 Days,” a song about her medical woes. I’m not squeamish about the (over-sharing) medical details, but I did find the June-spoon-moon rhyming scheme hard to stomach. Check out Gina Forsyth. Not only does she sing some fine songs, she scratches out a heck of a Cajun-style fiddle.

When you check her out, skip YouTube. The videos there are of such poor quality that you won’t get a fair sample. Instead go to Forsyth’s Webpage and check out the title track. __Rob Weir


Coupons? Not Worth It!

Jeeves! Please take the limo to the Stop n' Shop so we can save a dollar on Miss Fluffy's din-din.

Food activist Michael Pollan offers simple but sage advice to Americans who worry that their food is neither nutritious nor safe: If it’s advertised, don’t buy it. As Pollan warns, foods that come attached to expensive promotions are often laden with salt, calories, fat, and chemical additives. To Pollan’s counsel I offer this codicil: Avoid all grocery products for which a coupon exists.

I know this goes against the cultural grain–there are even coupon aggregators now, such as Groupon. Still, the easiest way to get fleeced like a summer lamb is to buy food around which there is a coupon campaign. These products fall into two categories: those products seeking to convince you that ordinary food isn’t, hence its inflated price; and those that try to seduce you into buying quantities that one might stockpile to ride out nuclear winter. Here are a few recent head scratchers:

Cambell’s invites you to save a dollar if you buy ten cans of condensed chicken noodle soup. That’s a whole dime a can. Holy cow! Take the savings and buy a Bentley! Or, maybe you ought to compare Campbell’s to your local store brand, which is likely to cost at least a quarter less than Campbell’s, whose subsidiary might have made the store brand in the first place. Even if it didn’t, there isn’t much in chicken noodle soup–a (very) few pieces of rubbery cubed bird, some pasta, salt, and water. Plus, where the hell are we supposed to store ten cans of soup? Did Campbell not get the memo that birth control is legal, families are smaller than in the 1890s, and that people no longer live in houses the size of Botswana?

Krusteaz (who?) also wants you to save a buck by buying two packages of their “bakery style cookie mix.” Any bakery that actually made cookies that tasted like store dough would go out of business in a week. But here’s the other thing: If you’re an adult, you don’t want to have cookie dough handy; if you have little ones, making cookies from scratch is part of the childhood experience. Plus it’s wicked cheaper than premade products.

Totino’s also flashes promises of a big one-dollar savings. All you must do is buy four of their Crisp Crust Party Pizza. Does anyone in America live in a place where there’s no local pizza shop? Not even a Domino’s? Is the local dough slinger so inept that he can’t make one that tastes better than a frozen pie? And again I must ask the question: Where are we supposed to store four big old boxes? My fridge freezer compartment gets crowded when both ice trays are filled.

Hellman’s will save you­–you guessed it!–one American buckeroo on three mayonnaise products. Okay, just trust me on this one–you simply don’t want to go through three mayo jars within the expiration date window. That dollar you saved won’t make a dent in new trouser expenditures.

Tide offers two dollars off on any three laundry products–detergent, softener, stain treatments…. You really don’t need to buy softener any more. That’s a scam holdover from the days in which detergents were filled with lye and with now-banned chemicals. Forget it and you’ll notice nothing! So do we need three bottles of Tide? Are we confusing this stuff with OJ?

Uncle Ben’s will give you one of their rice dish packages for free. All you have to do is buy three packages of rice. I won’t lecture you on how you should eat brown and river rice, not the polished white stuff, but I will tell you that you can buy a large sack of rice at a local Asian market for far cheaper than three Benjamins (even if he is a relative). The Asian rice will have something supermarket rice doesn’t: actual flavor. But if you must buy it at the grocery store, polished white rice is all the same. No need to pay more.

I’ve saved the best for last. Fancy Feast will give you a one-dollar break on twenty-four cans of Fancy Feast Gourmet Cat Food. Look, if you can afford to buy such overpriced chow for Fluffy, paying another buck isn’t going to make you cash in your diamond mine stock. But two dozen cans? My cat can make a Midwestern hog seem like a diet queen, but not even she can gobble her way through 24 tins in a timeframe that would justify knocking down a wall to build more storage. Besides, if I bought that many, where would the ten cans of chicken noodle soup go?

Coupons for morons? I gotta million of ‘em!