March 11, 2007

Dispatches From the Edge

Dispatches From the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival by Anderson Cooper
Nonfiction – Memoir
Finished on 3/5/07
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

Wow. What an emotionally draining read. I can’t begin to imagine how Anderson Cooper (or any journalist, for that matter) has dealt with all he’s witnessed, given that I had to stop reading his incredibly gripping memoir several times, as it was just too much to take in in large chunks. After reading Bookfool’s thought-provoking review last November, I picked up a copy of the book at the library for my husband (in spite of Bookfool’s superb review, I still wasn’t sure it was my cuppa tea). However, Rod has a good handle on what sort of books I like and was pretty certain I’d enjoy this one. He was right. I loved it. We both agree that Cooper’s lyrical prose (a bit reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man) was top-notch. Cooper’s tends to be a bit more crisp and succinct than Bragg’s (and not quite as humorous), but the emotions still resonate and tug at your heartstrings. Those journalists sure can write!

Dispatches From the Edge is basically broken down into two halves. The first consists of three events: the Sri Lanka Tsunami (2004), the war in Iraq (just Cooper’s time there between 2004 and 2005), and the children starving in Niger (2005). Cooper juxtaposes these emotional stories with his own personal history: his father’s death (1978) and brother’s suicide (1988), trips to Bosnia (1993) and South Africa (1994), and Somalia (1992) and Rwanda (1994). Each segment flows seamlessly into the next, connected with a related thread of thought from the details of each story. The second half of the book is devoted entirely to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2004) and how it pulls the author from his personal abyss of despair.

I have nearly two dozen passages marked with sticky notes; had I owned the book, I suspect I would’ve wound up with more than 50% of the text highlighted. Here are just a few:

I was ten when my father died, and before that moment, that slap of silence that reset the clock, I can’t remember much. [Emphasis mine]

For years I tried to compartmentalize my life, distance myself from the world I was reporting on. This year, however, I realized that that is not possible. In the midst of tragedy, the memories of moments, forgotten feelings, began to feed off one another. I came to see how woven together these disparate fragments really are: past and present, personal and professional, they shift back and forth again. Everyone is connected by the same strands of DNA.

Coming home meant coming down. It was easier to stay up. I’d return home to piles of bills and an empty refrigerator. Buying groceries, I’d get lost – too many aisles, too many choices; cool mist blowing over fresh fruit; paper or plastic; cash back in return? I wanted emotion but couldn’t find it here, so I settled for motion.

In the four days between my brother’s death and his funeral, it seemed as if we were marooned on an ice floe broken off from a glacier. We didn’t leave the apartment. A giant chasm had opened up around us, and we were suddenly separate from the rest of the world.

My mother lay in bed retelling the story of Carter’s death to each person who came to visit her, as if by repeating it she’d discover some new piece of information that would explain it all, would perhaps reveal that it hadn’t really happened, that it was all a misunderstanding, a terrible dream.

Regarding Katrina:

In normal times you can’t always say what’s right and what’s wrong. The truth is not always clear. Here, however, all the doubt is stripped away. This isn’t about Republicans and Democrats, theories and politics. Relief is either here or it is not. Corpses don’t lie.

When you’re working, you’re focused on getting the shot, writing the story. You sometimes don’t notice how upset you are. In Waveland, I certainly don’t. Late Wednesday night, I’m talking to someone back at the office about the woman we left on the street, and I find myself crying. I can’t even speak. I have to call that person back. At first I don’t realize what’s happening to me. It’s been years since a story made me cry. Sarajevo was probably the last time. I’ve never been on this kind of story, though, in my own country. It’s something I never expected to see.

I used to get back from Somalia or Sarajevo and imagine what New York would look like in a war. Which buildings would crumble? Who among my friends would survive? I always told myself if it did happen here, at least we could handle it better. At least our government would know what to do.

…Katrina showed us all that’s not true.

This is the only chance we get for a test run if something even more horrible happens or something as horrible happens with a nuclear device in this country. And we botched this one. We won’t get a chance to botch it again.

Some twenty thousand people took refuge in the Superdome, told to come by the city’s mayor, who called it a shelter of last resort. He’d hoped that help would arrive from the state or federal government within two days. It didn’t. Hope is not a plan. [Emphasis mine]

This is a heartbreakingly sad book. The images Cooper describes are burned in my mind’s eye, impossible to forget. And, I think that’s the point. We shouldn’t forget about the loss of humanity (on our soil and abroad) and the failure of our government to do what its citizens expect and deserve. But it’s not just the hopelessness of wars, and famines, and inept politicians that breaks my heart; it’s Cooper’s story, as well. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy, the type you’d enjoy hanging out with, sharing a couple of beers, listening to his travel stories or talking about who’s going to win the pennant this year. But it’s quite obvious from his writing that he’s fighting some demons, trying to come to terms with his own losses, all the while encountering nightmare after nightmare, all in the name of journalism. I suspect the purpose of his memoir was to share the atrocities he’s witnessed in his career as a correspondent, yet I wonder if he realized how cathartic (such a cliché, I know) the writing of this memoir would be, and how it’s apparently helped him begin to recognize his own grief. He strikes me as a very driven man who leads a very lonely life. I can’t help but hope he can open himself up to finding true happiness and not continue to race off to the corners of the earth, fleeing his own empty life.

In spite of the sad subject matter, this is a phenomenal (and important) book that I highly recommend. I've already given a copy to my dad for his birthday and can think of several other possible recipients. Now that I’ve discovered Cooper is the reader for the audio version, I plan to get the CDs at the library in the next month or two. I have a feeling it’ll be even better listening to it narrated by the author than reading the printed words. Having said that, I plan to buy a copy of the book for my permanent collection and future re-read. Guess I'd better stock up on highlighters while I'm at it.

For more information about the book, be sure to read Anderson's blog post here and book review here.


  1. You have been reading a lot of interesting books lately! This looks really good now that I see it from a different perspective. I might have to keep my eyes out for this one. Great review!

  2. I've put this one on my wish list, Les. I don't always like to read non fiction from television reporters because although many of them can report, not many are good writers. HOWEVER, the bits you pulled out sound like Cooper has his writing skills honed. Sounds like the kind of book I'll enjoy. Thanks for the review!

  3. I've had this on my list since I saw him on Oprah. He was very impressive, yet real. So glad you enjoyed it. Thanks!

  4. Terrific review, Les. Nope, I'm pretty sure you didn't use any of the quotes I used; I think I only chose two (one of which was the "we're not the droids you're looking for" anecdote).

    It's definitely an emotional read. I viewed Dispatches from the Edge from a completely different perspective, though. I think having lived through Katrina and it's aftermath, I felt *relieved* that someone wrote a book describing the truth with intelligence, empathy, and anger aimed in the right direction. His own story is heartbreaking, but it's also a story of healing and one in which he used his own pain to say, "Don't let this happen to our own, again." I just loved the writing and the depth of Cooper Anderson's emotion. I feel lucky to own it.

  5. Lovely, lovely review, Les. I have always been interested in Anderson Cooper, and the bits you passed along just make me want to read the book more.

    Definitely putting it on my Bookmooch list right now.

  6. Les, Thanks so much for the review. I have admired AC's work on CNN and have wanted to read his book.

  7. Kailana - I never would've picked this one up if I hadn't read Bookfool's wonderful review. It's very readable and the grief aspects really resonated with me.

    Wendy - I've never read anything by any sort of television/movie celebrity (other than Michael J. Fox's memoir), but this was outstanding. I think Cooper's writing proves that he's more than just a talkhead. He's very talented.

    Joy - Looking forward to reading your review!

    Nancy - I do love that droid quote! My hubby says he uses it all the time.

    Yeah, I can see how we both enjoyed the book from different angles. I was deeply moved by the section about Hurricane Katrina, but I think it was the grief aspects that resonated with me. Thank you so much for writing such an exquisite review and piquing my interest!

    Andi - Thank you so much. Your "lovely, lovely" made my day. I'm pretty certain this is a book you'll be happy you read. And thanks for the reminder about Bookmooch. I need to sign up. I have a ton of books to get rid of that the used bookstores don't want (too much overstock, I suppose).

    Bybee - I'd never really paid much attention to Anderson Cooper until a few months ago. Now I try to catch his 360 program when I remember to. Enjoy the book!

  8. Great review!!

    When I do watch the news, I like to watch AC on CNN. I saw him on Larry King Live also talking about the book. I may have to use this for one of my Non-Fiction Five books!

  9. Lovely review, Les. I saw Cooper on Oprah and was impressed. After reading your review I'm going to make a point of getting & reading his book. Thank-you.

  10. 3M - Oh, I wish I had seen AC on Larry King! I'll bet it was an interesting interview. I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts if you do read the book for the Nonfiction Challenge.

    Booklogged - Thanks! Well, it seems I've missed AC's book tour (Larry King, Oprah, etc.). Maybe I'll catch it this summer during the repeat season. I'll bet it was interesting. He's quite a remarkable man.

  11. Anonymous11:17 AM

    I keep meaning to pick this one up, but then forget about it whenever I get to the library or bookstore. But yours is another in a long line of great reviews and positive comments I've heard about Cooper's book.

    And I've loved Anderson Cooper since first watching him host 'The Mole' - the best underappreciated reality show ever.

  12. Lesley - I've never seen The Mole, but just discovered it's available on Netflix, so I've added it to my queue. Thanks!

  13. Anonymous7:50 PM

    Oh, cool! I really need to renew my Netflix account - they have The Vicar of Dibley, too.

  14. Anonymous10:44 AM

    Hi Les,

    I've been wanting to read this book for a while. I hope it's OK I added your blog to my new blog. Happy Reading in 2008!

  15. Kari - Of course it's ok. I'll add your blog to my blogroll, too.

    I think you'll enjoy AC's book. I wish I could track down an email addy for him, so I can send him a fan letter. I am so impressed with this book.

  16. Anonymous7:59 PM

    Great review, thanks, it really helped me in a comprehensive reading test jaja.

  17. caley2:08 PM

    i know this review is 2 years old.. but i had to tell you that i read this book for my AP language class and i feel the same way about it as you. it is an absolutely amazing book. i cried multiple times while reading it. he just perfectly intertwined everything. it's ridiculous how it all flowed so well..

    but another book i would recommend- i have no idea if you have read it before or not- is News Junkie by Jason Leopold. it is a lot like this one with bringing personal life together with journalism. and has a prevailing theme of a father figure, just like this one.

  18. Miguelon - Thanks for the visit. Glad the review helped you with your test. :)

    Caley - Wow, has it really been two years?! I love it when I get a comment on an older review, though, as it gives me a reason to re-visit the book without taking the time to re-read it.

    What a cool book to read for an AP class! I'll bet it lead to a great discussion. Thanks for the recommendation for News Junkie. I'll have to take a look at it today at work.

    Thanks again for stopping by with your comment. Take care.

  19. This sounds excellent! I looked it up on audible and found that Cooper reads it himself, which makes it even more appealing. Thanks for telling me about this book, Les.

  20. JoAnn - I agree. I think listening to AC will make it a wonderful "reading" experience. Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. My computer got hit with a virus last week!


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