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.
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.