Analysis, Reading, Reviews

Book Review: Cartography

Nonfiction! In this post I discuss Cartography by Kate Schifani, the memoir of a gay woman in the US air force during the American occupation of Iraq. Also presented are some prime examples of “show don’t tell” for writers.

When it rains in Iraq, mud clings to everything. It sucks boots off feet, it bonds to the fabric of pants, and it fills the wheel wells of HMMWVs responding to indirect fire so they stop rolling. Insurgent mud. Mud that makes the air smell like a pottery room full of unfired sculpture, the kiln a few months away.

Yesterday, right after the big storm, Sarkis convinced some of the fishing commandos to give him a small live fish (caught with the net, not the grenade), which he added to the giant lake by the front door of our compound. Schwab and I sit under the canopy and watch the fish swim around in seven or eight inches of water.
“You could give it to The Source when it dies,” I say. “I wonder what that would get you.”
“Herpes, probably,” Schwab says.

Cartography by Katharine Schifani

Part 1: Who’s going to love it?

Anyone interested in an on-the ground perspective of the late American occupation of Iraq, with a keen eye for absurdity is going to love Cartography. This nonfiction book is a whirlwind full of pain and humor and ridiculousness that’s too strange for fiction:
from a forklift that only turns left, to a navy seal that doesn’t wear pants, to Iraqi soldiers cooling off by bathing in an open top water tank directly used as a source of potable water… the layers of strangeness of the misguided foreign occupation are compounded by the author’s experience of being a woman and a lesbian during “Don’t ask don’t tell” as America’s directionless occupation winds down in fits and starts.

If the idea of non-fiction Catch-22 sounds appealing, then look no further than Cartography.

Part 2: Who’s going to hate it?

This memoir does not have a traditional arc. If there’s meaning to be found in the chaos you’ll have to find it by reading between the lines.

The writing can be disorienting as it jumps from contrasting image to contrasting image and characters talk over and talk past each other. It’s no doubt an accurate representation of the disorienting nature of events such as losing power steering on an armored truck on a restricted Iraqi highway, but that might not be what you want to read.

If you’re hoping for direct judgment or at least interpretation from the perspective character, you won’t find it. Most of the time the author’s opinion is absent. She’s a stoic camera observing a circus of inept, immature, friendly, corrupt, well-meaning, sleazy, lazy, resourceful, and arrogant characters.

If you have low tolerance for waste, bureaucracy, inflexibility, locker room humor, or cruelty, you might not like this book.

Lastly a serious warning, though the subjects are handled maturely and not gratuitously, there is a limited amount of sex, violence, suicide, and sexual assault.

Part 3: What I thought?

It’s fantastic.

Three Kings is a favorite movie of mine and the highs and lows, the absurdity and mundanity that catches you off guard in a serious situation that that movie does so well, it’s the same in Cartography.

I tried to read Catch-22 a few years ago and didn’t finish it because it got repetitive. I felt like I got the point and was ready to move on. Each chapter in Cartography functions more like a short story and each one is fresh and strange in it’s own way.

Cartography is funny. There aren’t really any direct jokes, but there are plenty of surprising call backs that bring the reader into the inner circle of inside jokes. The situational comedy in a warzone, quirky characters, and moments of truth and beauty kept me turning pages.

Cartography could have sunk in the ocean of the violent, sad, stupid situation of its setting, but its humor not only keeps it afloat, but fills the sails with wind and it soars.

We pass a navy 0-3.
“Did you see her name?” I ask.
“Nope, didn’t bother,” says Schwab.
“That was Captain Downer,” I say and think to myself, I hope she gets promoted to major soon.
“She’s in the navy,” Schwab says. “Wouldn’t that make her a lieutenant or something?”
Major Downer.

Cartography by Katharine Schifani

Part 4: What writers can learn from it?

How to paint a picture of characters by showing, not telling:

Jim smiles, tells me about his previous job in Dubai, explains the stacks of money he has, shows me a new (simulated) Rolex he has purchased, and eats another Samoon chewing with his mouth open. We mention again our strategy and, in the middle of my discussion of cooperative support agreements, Jim turns his back to me and asks the general, “What happened to the fish they used to serve here?”
Frank, Jim’s interpreter, relays Jim’s question to the general, waits for a response, and says, “The fish on Monday?”
“Yes,” says Jim. “There used to be this delicious fish here. What happened?”
Sarkis leans in and says to me, “That fish was terrible, like frozen fish sticks.”
“The soldiers got tired of fish,” the general says.
“And since they are a democracy now,” Frank interprets, “they voted fish out of Monday,” and the general grabs his stomach and laughs and laughs as small amounts of rice and lentils spray from his mouth. Some catch in his mustache; some land on Jim and Frank.

Cartography by Katharine Schifani

The author could have said that Jim and the general are rude, uncouth, and uninterested in the day-to-day minutia vital to their mission in Iraq, but that would be boring. So instead they interrupt to talk about fish sticks they like. Both of them talk and laugh with food in their mouths.

The details in dress, mannerisms, and decor are top notch throughout Cartography.

In conclusion, Cartography is sharp, funny, bold, difficult at times, and surprising. It’s a short read that doesn’t overstay its welcome and I highly recommend it.


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