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Book Notes


ISSUE:  Summer 2009

Current Events

After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, by Paul Starobin. Viking, May 2009. $26.95
“Great as it is, American power is limited,” Walter Lippman warned in 1954, as a rebuke to Time founder Henry Luce, who had recently proclaimed the dawn of an American Century. In the wake of World War II, the US seemed “the great nation of futurity” of Luce’s imagination, a bona fide superpower whose optimism and ingenuity would insure exemption from the usual fate of empires. But Starobin argues that, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the US has increasingly shown Lippman’s pronouncement to be true. One of Starobin’s favorite words is “vigor,” and he finds it—as well as the kind of open-mindedness and imagination that transformed American into a superpower—in direly short supply. He looks admiringly at the social systems of Europe and charts the rising dominance of China and India for signs of who might hold sway in the twenty-first century. He presents several such possibilities, from a “Chinese Century” to an entirely depolarized world without any superpowers to an unlikely but tantalizing scenario in which city-states like New York and Mumbai break free of any national constraints. After America is sobering, but not entirely depressing. In presenting the prospect of a diminished America, Starobin is desperately trying to motivate us out of the torpor that has engulfed the country for roughly the last eight years, if not longer. He stays true to his progressive ideals, casting admiring glances toward California and holding out some hope for our new forward-thinking president. And he is eager, too, for the US to no longer play global policeman, so that we may finally do some much-needed house cleaning. “The After America world does not have to be a disaster for America,” he writes. “In fact, it could even be a liberating moment.”
—Alexander Nazaryan

How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, by Reza Aslan. Random House, April 2009. $26
Amidst the multichannel chatter of talking heads, Aslan’s lucid and measured analysis of the War on Terror rings out as clear as a bell. Aslan possesses the rare ability to render complex academic arguments in straightforward, jargon-free prose. His first book, No god but God, took on Samuel Huntington and the “clash-of-civilizations mentality” that provided a large part of the intellectual girding behind the Bush administration’s foreign policy. In How to Win a Cosmic War, Aslan goes a step further, arguing that, by defining the War on Terror in Manichean terms, “We have not only played into the Jihadists’ hands, we may have set the groundwork for a new and terrifying age of religious war.” In his erudite exploration of religious fundamentalism and politics, Aslan takes us from Colorado Springs to Masada, from the eleventh-century crusades of Pope Urban II to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1920s Cairo, treating all of his subjects to an evenhanded analysis. In contrast to “pseudo-intellectuals” like Aayan Hirsi Ali, Oriana Fallaci, and Brigitte Gabriel “who make a living fanning the flames of Islamophobia,” Aslan argues that the best way to win a cosmic war is “to reject the religiously polarizing rhetoric of our leaders and theirs . . . and to address the earthly issues that always lie behind the cosmic impulse.” The election of Barack Obama, Aslan writes, is a good first step. “As the embodiment of the freedoms of faith and conscience for which all the peoples of the world strive, America is itself the most powerful weapon against the spread of Global Jihadism.”
—Michael Lukas

History

American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone, by D. D. Guttenplan. FSG, May 2009. $35
I. F. Stone’s six decades as a gadfly columnist, investigative journalist, and publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly newsletter brought him in contact not only with those possessing power but also those hoping to fundamentally reshape it. This patient recounting of Stone’s career charts two ascensions punctuated by a sharp downturn. First came the meteoric rise from book-obsessed New Jersey boy named Isidor Feinstein to op-ed columnist for the New York Post with easy access to New Dealers throughout FDR’s administration. The second ascent begins approximately with the launch, in late 1953, of his humble four-page newsletter and continues mostly uninterrupted until his death in 1989, when he was celebrated as a paragon of journalistic ethics. In between rests a low period, roughly coterminous with the Truman administration and the rise of Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting and J. Edgar Hoover’s spying, when Stone struggled to find popular support for his work. Guttenplan’s narrative underscores the importance to Stone’s thinking of Popular Front solidarity—a pragmatic left-leaning politics suspicious of factionalist in-fighting. Yet the times Stone lived through, from the left’s dalliance with the Soviet Union in the 1930s to the student-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, were notable for radicalism’s virally proliferating splinter groups and internal tensions. Guttenplan’s deep knowledge of this history can lead to overlong descriptions of minor players and other slow patches, though his writing is never less than clear. What emerges is a fascinating twentieth-century counternarrative that is often told only piecemeal in history textbooks.
—Brian Sholis

Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, by Susan Jacoby. Yale, March 2009. $24
Decades after he was accused by Whittaker Chambers of serving as a spy for the Soviet Union, Alger Hiss continues to draw both widespread scorn and sympathy. Jacoby traces the debates concerning Hiss through the Cold War as a way of exploring developments in US cultural and intellectual life. In spite of the confusion surrounding the case, argues Jacoby, those on the left and the right immediately adopted clear-cut positions regarding Hiss’s innocence because of what he embodied. For liberals, Hiss symbolized the ideals of the New Deal—of state power harnessed for the well-being of the individual. Conservatives, however, viewed him as a crucial example of the dangers that “leftists” posed to national security and the American way of life. Hiss’s lifelong quest for exoneration fluctuated with the shifting contours of the Cold War. After McCarthy-ism, Americans worried less about the dangers of indigenous communism than about the possibility of nuclear war. The New Left’s disillusionment with the government during the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, gained Hiss a more sympathetic audience. With the neoconservative turn of the 1980s, Hiss’s reputation waned once more, and because of newly available US and Soviet evidence, it has never recovered. Jacoby adroitly shows how intellectuals and public leaders have used Alger Hiss to shape perceptions of America’s past. For those seeking to understand the contentiousness of liberal-conservative debates today, this book is compelling reading.
—Victor V. Nemchenok

The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding, by Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott. Yale, March 2009. $27.50
This terrifically readable work of intellectual history reads more like an historical novel than nonfiction. Its focus is the bizarre misunderstanding between Hume and Rousseau, a one-sided conflict that seems to have begun from a light wound to Rousseau’s extraordinarily sensitive self-esteem. Later, when Rousseau was alone with his sad paranoia—living in the comfortable situation that Hume had worked at considerable length to set up for him—his resentment grew. His conviction that Hume had betrayed him stemmed not from facts, but rather “the passionate certainty in the rightness of one’s cause” that flowered from Rousseau’s willingness to be directed first and foremost by his own feelings. Hume, for his part, was irked but ultimately compassionate toward Rousseau. Of his former friend’s sensitivity Hume wrote, “He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin.” Zaretsky and Scott have a fine sense for anecdote, pacing, and the pleasures of stray bits of history that don’t necessarily move the matter at hand forward but are just too good not to work into the narrative. Strong on incident, the book does not delve much into comparing the philosophies of the two men except in explicating how their works informed how they lived, in Rousseau’s willingness to be carried away by his intuition of betrayal, and in Hume’s methodically argued defense, tempered by his deep sympathy for his fellow man, even those touched by madness.
—Peter Walpole

Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America by Barry Schwartz. Chicago, January 2009. $30
This consideration of Lincoln’s standing in collective memory is aptly timed, for it coincides with the two-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday and the election of President Barack Obama, who frequently invokes Lincoln as a model, The current view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, Schwartz says, does not accord with historical fact, but confirms his thesis that historical reputations are “necessarily congruent with the changing tastes and expectations” of society. Lincoln’s image as common man, frontiersman, and the preserver of the Union has receded, while his symbolic value as emancipator and seeker of racial justice has increased. This evolution is consistent with Schwartz’s explanation that the “politics of memory” are shaped by cultural forces. Schwartz’s use of polling techniques to test his theories of historical revision and changes in collective memory are supplemented by his own deep knowledge of Lincoln, as well as a penchant for provocative theory-building.
—Richard C. Collins

With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775–1783, by Matthew H. Spring. Oklahoma, December 2008. $34.95
In this penetrating study, Spring disputes characterizations of the British war effort against the Continentals as hidebound and unimaginative. He finds that British soldiers were flexible in their approaches to combat, adapting tactics to meet local challenges and conditions in America. Spring identifies the major shortcoming of the British Army in its reliance on shock tactics, which worked spectacularly against massed formations but tended to lose their effectiveness in wooded areas or against dispersed foes. For these reasons, British troops usually prevailed in the majority of battles against the American rebels. The rub, however, was that in addition to defeating the Continentals militarily, the British had “to induce the rebel leadership to give up the armed struggle in favor of a political settlement” and “encourage the populace to cease supporting Congress’s war effort.” As Spring rightly notes, it was this last goal that eluded the British, primarily because the patriot militia could act to suppress Loyalists locally, thus preventing a grassroots loyalism. Ultimately, as in many wars, British troops won tactical victories, but the strategic objectives of their war hovered maddeningly beyond their grasp. Those expecting a narrative account of British operations and campaigns during the American Revolution should look elsewhere; Spring’s study provides an excellent overview of the ways in which British units typically fought rather than an account of all their battles and skirmishes. Drawn judiciously from contemporary sources, Spring’s book should prove fascinating to those who have some background in the operations of the American Revolution.
—Peter Luebke

Fiction & Poetry

Brooklyn: A Novel, by Colm Tóibín. Scribner, May 2009. $25
“What she loved most about America,” thinks the heroine of Colm Tóibín’s ferociously good sixth novel, “was how the heating was kept on all night.” Even on the most bitter of winter mornings, when the wind whipped through the tree-lined boulevards, the air “was like toast,” and “you had no fear when getting out of bed that your feet were going to freeze on the floor.” The date is sometime in the 1950s, and young Eilis Lacey has left her mother and sister in Enniscorthy, Ireland, for American shores. After a harrowing sea journey—a week in total, and most of it spent in the toilet or curled up meekly on a bunk—she moves into a Brooklyn boardinghouse and lands a job at a local clothing store. “Each day, [Eilis] needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened,” Tóibín writes. She stored it away, “so that it did not keep her awake at night or fill her dreams with flashes of what had actually happened and other flashes that had nothing to do with anything familiar, but were full of rushes of color or crowds of people, everything frenzied and fast.” At heart, Brooklyn is a distinctly old-fashioned novel: an “immigrant saga,” with its successive themes of wide-eyed wonder, homesickness, emotional strife, and the flush of first love. What sets the book apart is Tóibín’s razor-sharp ear. He’s good with conversation but better yet with atmosphere, and the boomtime New York he evokes thrums with a calamitous, happy energy.
—Matthew Shaer

The Proof of the Honey, by Salwa Al Neimi, translated by Cal Perkins. Europa Editions, April 2009. $15 paper
In “The Proof of the Honey” a French writer, after traveling to Egypt and expecting to reenact Flaubert’s hedonistic 1847 trip to the Levant, declares: “There is no sex in Islamic society!” The statement presents a stereotype that the unnamed female narrator of this short novel aims to overturn. A scholar of classic Arabic erotica, she unfurls tales of her affairs, particularly with a man dubbed “the Thinker,” while also sprinkling in numerous examples of healthy and open sexuality from Arabic and Muslim texts dating back to the Prophet. Traversing large swathes of the Muslim world, the narrator unearths some interesting anecdotes in her juxtaposed explorations of contemporary Arab sexual mores and forgotten erotic texts. She also firmly establishes a vibrant, historically rooted, quite refreshing vision of Arab sexuality, one in which a “free spirit” like the narrator can flourish. But Al Neimi’s book reads more like a bawdy, occasionally illuminating literary essay than a passion-suffused novel. Perhaps that’s not surprising, considering that the narrator is a scholar preparing to present an essay on the literature she studies. Yet if Al Neimi thinks, like her narrator, that to bring old books of Arab erotica “out into the light is a matter of public well-being” an essential step for creating a sexually educated, egalitarian society, then a novel devoted to the subject requires more emotional depth—and shouldn’t trumpet its thesis so loudly.
—Jacob Silverman

Sag Harbor: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, April 2009. $24.95
Ten years after his jaw-dropping debut The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead has (finally!) written another novel worth running down the street with and loudly praising to random strangers. In a dramatic corrective to the flaccid experiments of The Colossus of Manhattan and Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead delivers another portrait of echt New York that’s just as indelible as the one that made him a star. This bouncy autobiographical story is set in mid-1980s Long Island, in the historically black town of Azurest where fifteen-year-old narrator Benji summers with his Manhattan professional parents. Always the sharp-eyed needler, Whitehead plays with preconceptions from the start, with Benji (a braces-wearing lover of Bauhaus) noting that, “according to the world,” he and his gaggle of friends “were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses.” The story that Whitehead has sketched out here is nothing much, just a thickly lived knot of episodes from Benji’s summer (working in an ice cream parlor, enlisting in an epic series of BB gun battles) that amble rather than march to a conclusion. But the novel—full of digression upon digression—has such a lived-in warmth and focused radiance that it hardly matters. By the time Benji’s vividly rendered summer draws to a close, it’s all you can do to not shiver at the fall chill.
—Chris Barsanti

The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems, by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. Graywolf, March 2009. $15 paper
This pithy compilation of poems by Greek poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke introduces English-speaking readers to her meditations on the relationship between the poet and her body, between language and flesh. Poems in this collection depict the body as the landscape where the vulnerable, erotic, surreal, quizzical, and grotesque intersect in the fleshy, humdrum rhythms of daily life. Indeed, they reflect Anghelaki-Rooke’s sensibilities not as an ideological feminist, but as a female who experiences her body—and therefore the world—with intense self-awareness. She appraises her experiences in a mix of mundane and surrealist language: the insectoid spirit in eroticism, the mortality evoked in a barber’s haircut, a language-less utopia called Lipiu, the omnipotence wielded by a hand that caresses. Poems like “The Body is the Victory and the Defeat of Dreams” or “Love-Struck Reptile” give us access to an otherwise untranslatable monologue between the poet and her body. Opening remarks by the poet’s friend and editor, Karen Van Dyck, introduce her to those unfamiliar with contemporary Greek poetry and her place in that genre. Van Dyck arranges the pieces thematically to reflect how, in her fifty-year career, Anghelaki-Rooke came to poetic terms with the body initially through autobiographical reflection and mythological adaptation, and lately by musing about how the act of writing poetry is a curious trick of the body writing about itself.
—Dionisios Kavadias

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995–2009, by Stephen Dunn. Norton, January 2009. $24.95
Dunn’s newest offering spans six collections—from Loosestrife (1996) to Everything Else in the World (2006)—and adds twenty new poems. In the earlier work, there are the effortless evocations, which range from observations on leaving youth behind to metaphysical speculation, in places as diverse as a bar in Tucson or an orange-scented road outside of Seville. And there is the Dunn of the past several years, a poet who rarely departs from his characteristic first-person, quietly meditative, and tonally consistent style. In his new poems, there are no significant departures from his usual aesthetic—yet in the unexpected moments of tenderness, the humor that strikes an honest and sometimes gently self-deprecatory chord, and the startling lines that manage to be both incisive and plainspoken, the poems yield a wide variety of pleasures.
—Mark Wagenaar

General Nonfiction

The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini. Norton, May 2009. $29.95
This latest biography of novelist Jean Rhys, author of Wild Sargasso Sea, skillfully details the volatile world of the Caribbean-born writer’s life and literary career. Crippled by self-loathing and constrained by financial insecurity for most of her long life, Rhys struggled to find happiness in a world she found intensely unjust, unwelcoming, and indifferent to individual experience. Pizzichini expertly traces Rhys’s lonely childhood days in Dominica, her early writing years living on a knife-edge of European respectability, and those final alcohol-suffused decades of emotional and creative breakdown. Just as Rhys infused much, if not all, of her writing with the biographical textures of her life, Pizzichini also interweaves the contents of Rhys’s books with her lived experiences. This amalgam of references, both literary and biographical, is particularly effective at cutting to the quick of Rhys’s life and career. As an outsider, especially in terms of her modernist sensibility and Caribbean nationality, Rhys harbored a thinly veiled mistrust of the world that led to explosive reactions in her personal life that were echoed in her fiction. Pizzichini’s provocative retelling of such reactions reconstructs the chaotic cadences of Rhys’s life with emotional acuity.
—Mary Beth Lineberry

A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1996–2008, by Adrienne Rich. Norton, April 2009. $24.95
Adrienne Rich has never shied away from taking on the role of poet-prophet for our age: speaking out against our country’s wars and corrupt leaders, advocating for LGBT rights at home and abroad, and forcing readers to continue to think about the relationship between art and social justice. This new collection includes a review of the anthology Iraqi Poetry Today, an essay in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and brief meditations on James Baldwin and June Jordan. Rich writes in her forward, “I’ve written here mostly about poetry, as it moves through human lives: one activity among many, the art I know best from inside.” Rich’s intimate knowledge of poetry is as evident in A Human Eye as it is in any of her books of essays, and in many ways this book feels like a continuation of the earlier dialogues she opened up, especially in What is Found There. To read A Human Eye is to be welcomed to participate in a dialogue with one of our most thought-provoking poets.
—Lilah Hegnauer

Fresh: A Perishable History, by Susanne Freidberg. Harvard, April 2009. $27.95
Most supermarkets put their fruit at the front of the store. Why? In the words of one manager, “it brings out a fresh image.” Freshness also sells; market research shows that, all things being equal, consumers choose supermarkets where the fresh produce looks the best. Rather than contenting herself with mere aesthetics, however, Dartmouth professor Freidberg examines the history of “freshness” and how the term—and our food—evolved over time. Refrigeration and modern technology allow perishable foods to travel the globe, keep our milk fresher longer, and bring a seasonless supply of fruits. But even with such changes, Freidberg reminds us that the quest for freshness continues. “The most status goes to whoever can find and afford the absolute freshest product, however freshness is defined.” Alaska’s Copper River salmon is dashed to Seattle’s well-heeled consumers, and South African fishermen airlift their live catch to Hong Kong. But given concerns about food safety, the environment, and working conditions for farmers, other consumers have soured on this global food trade. For these locavores, “few labels can top the prestige value of the locally grown.” Whether the topic is beef, eggs, milk, or fish, Freidberg tackles the subject with crisp prose and a keen eye. Her insights—unlike the foods she investigates—are rarely stale.
—Cody Corliss

Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience, by Jeremy Mynott. Princeton, March 2009. $29.95
Inspired by Marcel Proust’s challenge, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,” Mynott seeks in Birdscapes to reorient our vision toward birds, our ever-present coinhabitants in urban, suburban, and rural settings. Each of the ten chapters begins with a brief episode of bird watching drawn from Minot’s far-flung travels. These form stepping-off points from which to explore the place of birds in manifold realms of human inquiry. The book is, Mynott makes clear at the outset, as much about humans as it is about birds, being one part cultural history, one part naturalist essay, and one part philosophical inquiry. Bird songs, bird watching, myths and fables about birds, classification systems, poetry (Keats’s “Ode To a Nightingale” and “To Autumn” figure prominently in Mynott’s poetic sources), fiction, and nonfiction about birds—all are arranged within Birdscapes. Mynott persuasively argues that birds have figured as ideal symbols in myth and literature because they are so easily compared to humans. “They walk upright on two legs; they have behavior we think we can understand . . . and, above all, they have roundish heads with two eyes in front, and faces into which we think we can read expressions.” The book is illustrated with eight full-color plates and fifty-seven black-and-white figures, including a lovely photograph of naturalist Konrad Lorenz relaxing in a pond with geese. Mynott concludes that “birds are good to think with,” and so is this book.
—Kurtis R. Schaeffer

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