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Book Notes

ISSUE:  Winter 2007


The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, by Rory Stewart. Harcourt, August 2006. $25
Rory Stewart, a young British diplomat and professional adventurer with considerable experience both in administration and in the Middle East, traveled to Iraq in 2003 in search of work. There he spent a year with the Coalition Provisional Authority as a deputy governor in two remote southern provinces well away from the Green Zone in Baghdad. His memoir of that time is riveting reading—exciting, funny, infuriating, and troubling. Interestingly, the book is political only by implication. Stewart, who clearly believes in the practical principle of helping the Iraqis learn to govern themselves after the overthrow of Saddam, has very little to say as to the overall wisdom of the invasion itself. He primarily addresses the overwhelmingly fractious nature of Iraqi society post-Saddam and the spectacularly difficult task of creating a democracy within that society.

Stewart, through his translators, must contend with a bewildering array of tribal and religious factions, the majority of them well armed and out for whatever money, power, and armament is available. Stewart’s predicament is exemplified when he faces a local ruling council that he has tried, with great effort, to cobble together: “I knew these people well. Most had killed others; all had lost close relatives. Some wanted a state modeled on seventh-century Arabia, some wanted something that resembled even older, pre-Islamic tribal systems. Some were funded by the Iranian secret service; others sold oil on the local black market, ran protection rackets, looted government property, and smuggled drugs. Most were linked to construction companies that made immense profits by cheating us. Two were first cousins and six were from a single tribe; some had tried to assassinate each other. This dubious gathering included and balanced, however, all the most powerful political factions in the province, and I believed that if anyone could secure the province, they could.” This last sentence, which roughly captures the overall thrust of this well-written, fascinating book, reflects either coolheaded, bare-knuckled political reality, or breathtaking naivete, but not both. One can only suppose that an appalling amount of blood must be spilled before an answer begins to emerge.
—Peter Walpole

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban, by Sarah Chayes. Penguin, August 2006. $25.95
Chayes offers an account of four years spent on the ground in Afghanistan, first as a reporter for NPR and later as the head of a nongovernmental aid organization, Afghans for Civil Society. She arrived in Afghanistan in November 2001 and forged relationships with the family of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, with tribal leaders in Kandahar, and with US military leaders in Afghanistan. Through these relationships and her desire to report with integrity, Chayes became more than a reporter; she became an activist. This book is the story she was never able to tell on the radio: “My editor wins, of course, half an hour to airtime. Fayda’s testimony and its implications are cut from my report. So I never get to tell the story I already guess is key to what kind of Afghanistan will emerge from U.S. intervention. I’m doing that now.” Chayes strives to “expose Americans to the psychological impact that this war was having. . . . Ideological movements like Usama bin Laden’s are rooted in collective psychology just as much as in matters more concrete.” Perhaps most integral to the success of this book’s ability to deal with the complexity of matters in Afghanistan is Chayes’s refusal of the binary terms used to describe “We the West versus Them, now embodied by Islam.” Chayes writes, “I don’t believe in the clash of civilizations. I believe that most human beings share some basic aspirations and some basic values. . . . The extent to which different peoples have been able to achieve these things depends a lot on what has befallen them over the course of time—not on some irrevocable cultural difference.” This beautifully written book explores those basic human values and their manifestations in postwar Afghanistan with humility, sensitivity, and even, at times, wit.
—Lilah Hegnauer


The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation, by Howard Means. Harcourt, November 2006. $25
The immediate aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was a period of anxiety and uncertainty. Several rebel armies remained in the field and the Confederate high command was still on the loose. Americans wondered what would become of the former Confederate states and the millions of newly freed slaves. Stepping into the spotlight at this moment was a former tailor from Tennessee named Andrew Johnson. Howard Means argues for the centrality of Johnson in the early postwar period. He spends a chapter narrating the frightful night when Booth and his associates attempted to eliminate the top members of the Union government. He dedicates another chapter to Johnson’s past, his upbringing, and his character. Johnson was a gifted orator who risked his reputation and his life by rejecting secession. Means notes the national outrage in the wake of Lincoln’s death, with many contemporaries viewing Johnson as the perfect avenging angel. But while Means praises the Tennessean for his courage, determination, and successful rise to power—from local politician to US senator, to military governor of eastern Tennessee, and finally to the White House—there is no mistaking his negative opinion of the seventeenth president. Means draws most of his evidence from published sources, without adequately exploring Johnson’s private correspondences. The book would have benefited from greater analysis, better organization, and more focus. References to events and individuals outside of this immediate period are distracting and interrupt rather than enhance the narrative.
—Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai

Auschwitz Report, by Primo Levi and Leonardo De Benedetti, translated by Judith Woolf. Verso, October 2006. $17.95
On January 27, 1945, Buna-Monowitz, a satellite camp of Auschwitz where Primo Levi and his friend Leonardo De Benedetti were imprisoned, was liberated by the Red Army. While living in a Russian-administered transit camp in Katowice, Poland, Levi and De Benedetti, waiting to return home, drafted this detailed report on the living conditions of Buna-Monowitz for a Soviet information-gathering exercise on Nazi war crimes. De Benedetti, a doctor, and Levi, who was trained as a chemist, originally published the report in a Turin medical journal in 1946, and it was subsequently forgotten until 1993 (after both authors had died), when a Turinese historian republished the report and presented it at a Turin conference. This is the first English translation of the work, the first published piece of writing by one of the great voices of twentieth-century literature and testimony. Readers of Levi’s novels will recognize the beginning of his “calm sobriety and rational control of style” in Auschwitz Report. Levi writes that the blocks, “which should normally have housed 150 to 170 people, were always crammed with not less than 200, and often as many as 250, so that two people had to sleep in almost every bed. In these conditions, the cubic capacity of the dormitory was certainly less than the minimum needed for respiration and oxygenation of the blood.” The book also includes two brief memorial pieces Levi wrote for De Benedetti on his death, in 1983, at the age of 85. They are a testimony to the duration and quality of the life-long friendship of the two men, who, upon returning to Turin from Auschwitz, lived only a block apart for the next forty years, until De Benedetti’s death. Auschwitz Report is an important contribution to Levi’s body of work, and an important contribution to Holocaust historiography as one of the first accounts written by an eyewitness.
—Lilah Hegnauer

John Tyler, the Accidental President, by Edward P. Crapol. North Carolina, October 2006. $37.50
Tyler, our tenth president, is usually dismissed as an ineffective leader beholden to the ideology of states’ rights and a strict interpretation of the Constitution, as well as a traitor to the Whig party and, later, the United States. Crapol, professor emeritus at the College of William and Mary, convincingly argues that beyond subscribing to a Jeffersonian notion of states’ rights, Tyler fervently believed in a Jeffersonian idea of national expansion as a means to preserve liberty and republicanism. Accordingly, Crapol focuses on Tyler’s foreign policy and spends little time on the sparring between him and the jilted Whig party. Instead of focusing solely on Tyler’s successful effort to annex Texas, the author casts a wider net, investigating Tyler’s aggressive stance towards Britain and the expansion of the Monroe Doctrine to the central Pacific. While using states’ rights as an excuse to thwart Whig legislation regarding tariffs and internal improvement, Tyler did not scruple to apply this doctrine to his foreign policy. Driven by his sincere desire to fulfill the national destiny through expansion, Tyler “betrayed and abused his most deeply held principles” through the use of executive contingency funds that fell outside congressional oversight as well as the extra-constitutional congressional joint resolution used to annex Texas. Crapol also explores Tyler’s ambivalence regarding slavery and how Tyler saw expansion as a way to avoid confrontation over the issue. Written clearly and concisely, this book provides a superb examination of Tyler’s life and the legacies of his foreign policy initiatives.
—Peter Luebke


Holy Week, by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Ohio, January 2007. $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper
In his 1945 novel Wielki tydzien, Andrzejewski takes on the heavy subject of Polish inaction during the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. This first English translation captures Andrzejewski’s unresolved struggle between the confession of national guilt and a desire to explain and even justify Polish passivity. The story begins during the days of preparation for the Easter holiday, just as the tragic ghetto uprising is beginning: the Maleckis, a Polish family, agree to take in Irena, a Jewish friend on the run. As the week goes on, the ghetto goes up in flames and is largely ignored by holiday shoppers, and the family’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances weigh in on the final fate of Irena and the Maleckis. The relentless conflicts between and within these characters transform what appears to be a simple issue of national neglect into a hauntingly real drama of agonizing personal decisions and personal failures. The existentialist narration, meanwhile, condemns all of the characters, even the Jewish woman herself, while at the same time revealing the absurd inescapability of their positions. The novel’s historically poor reception is easily explained by its harsh indictment of all nationalities involved—Pole, German, and Jew—and yet its value lies in exactly this earnestness that defies the easy excuses of victimhood and despair.
—Ania Wieckowski

Talk Talk, by T. C. Boyle. Viking, July 2006. $25.95
Identity theft is nothing new. It’s been going on since the witch appropriated Rapunzel’s braids, since the wolf donned Grandma’s nightgown, and since Jacob wrapped his arm in goatskins to pass himself off as his hairy brother Esau. But there is something especially creepy about the computer-age version of this crime. We’ve all seen the ads: it could happen to us—and T. C. Boyle exploits our unease brilliantly in his eleventh novel, Talk Talk, the story of a young, deaf schoolteacher who sets out in pursuit of the man who, using her name, has racked up enough debt and warrants to land her in jail and get her fired. As Dana Halter and her boyfriend Bridger drive across the country to track down Dana Halter a.k.a. Peck Wilson, the small-time crook who really just wants some respect (and a gourmet kitchen), Boyle is actually leading us on a modern quest. The grail, of course, is identity—and the irony is that this chase plays out across the most anonymous, synonymous, nondescript landscapes of America: the endless loops of highway dotted with sub shops, “family restaurants,” and chain motels with superchilled rooms. Along the way, Boyle has some fun, slyly probing at the whole amorphous idea of identity. What exactly does define us? Our names? Our jail time? Our kitchens? Our deafness? It’s all clever stuff and occasionally perhaps a mite too clever. But these characters do not disappoint and the suspense—leading to an episode of stunning violence—never flags. As for happily ever after, well, Boyle doesn’t let us forget that this is the computer age. This time we may just have to settle for virtually happy ever after.
—Suzanne Freeman

Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolano, translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions, May 2006. $23.95
Roberto Bolano arrives on the scene in English in time for us to regret his recent death, in 2003. New Directions has already brought out two of his novels, Distant Star and By Night in Chile, with plans to publish eight more of his works in the US. For this reader, Bolano’s stories alone are cause for astonishment: the short story is not the most flexible form; it resists seamless innovation far more resolutely than the novel, its capacious and genial cousin. There are times reading these stories when Bolano’s success seems to amount to a deception practiced on the genre itself, fooling the short story, lulling it, saying to it, These are straightforward narratives, nothing strange here—this is just a story about a rootless literary man who knows a reasonably literary dentist who may or may not be homosexual. Or in another instance, Here is an account of a very minor exiled writer who is encouraged by a minor exiled writer to cheat provincial literary prize committees. The short story sits back, shuts its eyes, relaxes, while paragraph by paragraph and line by line, Bolano busies himself with other rhythms, some indefinable pulse that he modulates through and behind the story’s more obvious plotlines.

For his stories do not seem initially auspicious. Like some easygoing humanist chess master, he seems to set himself the same problem again and again: rootless South American leaves Argentina or Chile because of political persecution, takes up residence somewhere in the Spanish-language diaspora, meets strange and interesting people. It is somewhere between back-cover copy and personal ad. These, however, are only points of departure from which to reach the wonderfully willful sleight-of-hand movements and reversals that thrill the reader deep in the throat. In “Sensini” (one of the masterpieces in the collection), the capaciousness comes about by comedic indirectness—burying a son killed by the Argentinean junta under several narrative layers —and then making this revelation no revelation, this discovery merely something else that happens, the thread of scrutiny weaving in and out of the weighted and the ephemeral.

In this way, Bolano’s emphases seem all “wrong,” and while it is through this his best stories succeed, a single misstep on his part can make a story a mere curiosity—as occasionally happens here—and there is a too ready tendency for the center not to hold, leaving the reader feeling that the scales are weighted. But in another of the collection’s standouts, “Anne Moore’s Life,” his patience and his great, almost godlike affection for event-in-life build a tale that climbs into the territory laid out by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” but toward other ends, new ends, strange new ends.
—Drew Johnson


Mi Revalueshanary Fren, by Linton Kwesi Johnson. Ausable, September 2006. $16 paper
Linton Kwesi Johnson, Britain’s most influential black poet, and the author of four previous collections of poetry and numerous record albums of reggae, finally has a US publication. Russell Banks’s introduction is generous and intelligent, drawing lines of influence not to John Clare, as others have, but to “Renaissance song-poets like Skelton, Wyatt and Herrick” because of the poems’ strong relationship to music. In Johnson’s own words, he “wanted to write . . . verse anchored by the one-drop beat of reggae with meter measured by the bass line or a drum pattern.” The book has an extensive notes section at the end, which helps to guide the reader through the various London and world-wide events and people that the poet references: victims of police violence, 1970s reggae artists, radical historians, politicians, and artists. In “If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet,” Johnson writes, “I woodah write a poem / so dyam deep / dat it bittah-sweet / like a precious / memari / whe mek yu weep / whe mek yu feel incomplete.” The poems in Mi Revalueshanary Fren make us feel many things, but never incomplete, especially given the rich full-length CD of Johnson reading that is included in the back flap of the book.
—Lilah Hegnauer

Remnants of Hannah, by Dara Wier. Wave Books, September 2006. $30 cloth, $14 paper
“To memorize comes about as easily to me as a mouse / Comes to a cat. But some things I remember,” states Dara Wier in “It Wasn’t Exactly Like Being Left Standing at the Altar.” Wier’s tenth book of poetry is full of what is remembered: memories, apologies, and misunderstanding all speak to one another in the voices of these poems, sometimes asking, “When they say one hand isn’t telling the other hand / what it’s doing, what are they saying?” And other times declaring, “Love’s sometimes a weapon of mass destruction.” The poems in Remnants of Hannah are occasionally esoteric and cryptic: “I wanted to give you nine turbines. / Both twilights, for you to keep them in. / Where your head turned I turned mine. / I’d look for shadows shadows made.” Who knows what to make of them? Other than the fact that their nature is similar to Wier’s other books, it’s hard sometimes to read the poems with any confidence. I certainly admire Weir’s quick turns of phrase and witty jumps of logic or illogic, and her experimentation with random intellectual solutions to the problem of alienation—from the self, from all others, and especially from the existential ability to recognize an objective reality: “I wouldn’t open those blinds / No one should see that passage of time / No one should have to look / Thousands of mothwhite larvae examining my mind.”
—Lilah Hegnauer

Intaglio, by Ariana-Sophia M. Kartsonis. Kent State, September 2006. $14 paper
Intaglio is one of the smartest first books of poetry I’ve read this year. Eleanor Wilner, in her generous foreword to Intaglio, writes of the poems’ “baroque lushness and sheer momentum of the lines,” and she’s absolutely right: Kartsonis can move a line in stunning ways, and knows “what it means / to be many-ed as a hotel corridor. / Each chamber of our hearts / contains a different guest.” Intaglio combines the stories of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva and her daughter Ariadna, with her own larger history—that of Greek Americans, and the mother-daughter relationships in her own life. Kartsonis also includes references to more poets and literary figures than one can shake a stick at, and yet does it all without pretension. In a poem about a student killed at nineteen, she echoes Roethke: “I with no rights in this matter either . . . no more eloquence can reach / what I meant, or match her son.” In “Caravansary” she recalls Donne, writing, “If the issue at hand is love / then batter my heart you three-faced dog. / Batter my heart, deep fry it, / serve it to the fire-eating lizard girl.” Intaglio is haunting in its propulsive rhythms and language: even the couplets ring with motion: “The sky up there, the lake’s other sky. Both / make the city brocade, then brocade in- / to a world reflected so there are two, / and not one of them habitable.” But every cadence of Intaglio is habitable, and one can’t help but move into the book and take up residence in Kartsonis’s music. It’s a perfect book for entering autumn, pulsing with the embers of loss, history, and “a grief so rich it nearly crushes you.”
—Lilah Hegnauer

Collected Poems: 1956–2001, by Thomas Kinsella. Wake Forest, August 2006. $18.95 paper
Kinsella writes in “Dura Mater,” “She came along the passage in her slippers / with a fuzz of navy hair, and her long nails / held out wet out of the washing water. // Come here to me. Come here to me, my own son.” Kinsella’s poems never fail to be that mother, slipper-footed and wet-handed, waiting for her son to embrace her. The poems move from Kinsella’s early formalist years—Another September (1958)—to the more modernist poetics of Poems from Centre City (1990); throughout his epic body of work, the poems are “eliciting order from significant experience,” leaving no doubt that Kinsella is a poet of major literary significance, both in and out of Ireland. In “An Ancient Ballet” (1956), Kinsella writes, “All about her lit as though / Blood rang, marvels toiled. / Close at heart there sailed / A stately vast plateau.” The kind of formalism Kinsella was writing early in his career was not stodgy or simplifying; it was fully engaged in the embodied reality of his world: “Domestic Autumn, like an animal / Long used to handling by those countrymen, / Rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall.” Later, in “Madonna” (1991), Kinsella writes, “the thick orange, honey-coarse. / First blood: a saturated essence / tasted between the teeth.” Kinsella’s Collected Poems is a dense and difficult book. It’s not one to be taken to bed, but one to sit with while drinking a hearty cup of coffee, one to give a finely tuned attention. That said, it’s also a book of incredible pleasure, both intellectually and aurally. Kinsella confronts death, sickness, poverty, chaos, war, and human dignity with writing that makes the page pulse: “Love bent the sinewy bow / against His knee, / saying: Husband, here is a friend / beseeming thee. // Comely Wisdom wearing / a scarf around Her throat.”
—Lilah Hegnauer

Domain of Perfect Affection, by Robin Becker. Pittsburgh, July 2006. $14 paper
Becker’s eighth book of poetry is stunning: it reveals a poet whose age and experience have mellowed her subject and tightened her craft, but never diminished her intensity of both attention to detail and affirmation of the dark compassion it takes to “accept myself / for what I am—androgynous, sublime.” In “Great Sleeps I Have Known,” Becker recounts, “At the top of the cottage in a thunderstorm / once or twice each summer covetous of my solitude // Immediately following lunch / against circadian rhythms,” and gives an account of a life attentive to everything from dogs and beach cottages, sculpture and art, memories of college and early love, the gender roles and stereotypes we fall into and fell into decades ago, and, especially, friendship and what it means to “put my faith in our natural gifts— / good humor, good friends, the nick-of-time,— / in your wild heart that inclines toward mine.” The unaffected ease with which Becker writes about good friendships, good dinners and conversations, is beautiful and sincerely kind, in an age where the sarcastic and momentarily witty seem to reign supreme. Her poems are far from simplistic, though. They broach issues such as gender identity and sexuality, death of friends, aging parents, and loss of dreams. In “On Friendship,” Becker writes, “We’ve been friends since the cradle / of civilization, a pair of foragers watching the deer at midnight / sustain themselves on the rotten, the fallen.” Becker’s poetry is always reaching toward the unsayable, demonstrating her deft abilities to write poetry that bears forth generous and “homely affection.”
—Lilah Hegnauer


The Inordinate Eye: New World Baroque and Latin American Fiction, by Lois Parkinson Zamora. Chicago, September 2006. $49
Parkinson Zamora’s sweeping study of material culture from the New World Baroque (Barroco de Indias) and the Neobaroque (Neobarroco) extends the work of Roland Greene, Monika Kaup, Mauricio Beuchot, Gustavo Pellon, Ralph Bauer, and Carlos Rincon, and raises the bar for future scholarship on the topic. Parkinson Zamora seems as comfortable analyzing seventeenth-century paintings as she is probing the similarities and differences between the Old World and New World Baroques, and the New Baroque’s debts and departures from both. One minute she is quoting Carlos Fuentes; the next, she is offering an original and bold reading of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. This is a challenging book that compels us to go back to it again and again. It is also a gorgeous book: packed with over 100 illustrations, The Inordinate Eye overwhelms our senses, recreating the multiplicity, the exuberance, and the virtuosity that the words “baroque” and “neobaroque” invoke on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout, “the inordinate eye” is truly Parkinson Zamora’s own, which has made possible this tour de force that will delight both scholars of art and literature and readers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alejo Carpentier.
—Ruth Hill

The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World, by Ira Bashkow. Chicago, July 2006. $25
The rise of “whiteness studies” in the academy has led to increased, sometimes reductive, inquisitions into the power and privilege of whiteness. Anthropology professor Ira Bashkow presents an unconventional picture of whiteness: how white people are viewed by the postcolonial Pacific island peoples of Papua New Guinea (PNG). In so doing, we are given a picture of how PNG peoples’ stories about race (“whitemen” in specific) are stories about their own culture, which has to be understood in their particular ethnographic and historical context. Bashkow shows how PNG understandings of black and white skin shape a diverse array of cultural phenomenon, such as feelings toward time, diet, morality, architecture, and education. A startling finding is that the PNG peoples understand both the concepts of modernity and race in terms of one another. What is “modern” is personified in the character and ontology of “whitemen”—to them, modernity is white.

One is immediately struck by the reversal of the anthropological gaze in Bashkow’s work—that we come to understand not how white scholars view nonwhite “others,” but rather the converse. Bashkow also destabilizes the simplistic and popular “native = good, colonizer = bad” dichotomy to show the mechanics of a complex moral, social, and political order. The reader is often tempted to judge the PNG understanding of “modernity = whiteness” as a consequence of imposed (and hegemonic) racial categories. Bashkow affirms this stance, but not in simplistic fashion. He asks: “Why . . . should [PNG peoples] continue to accept such a disempowering and descriptively inadequate artifact of an outmoded colonial racial hegemony”? In response, he demonstrates how the PNG people make sense of whiteness on their own terms, in their own localized setting in a postcolonial era. Bashkow’s point is that concepts, objects, and highly racialized frameworks are powerful, but also malleable, and can be appropriated and become meaningful within the life experience of those who appropriate it.

The benefit to readers is not only a lesson about the PNG but also insight as to how they understand modernity, the West, and whiteness as a cultural “other.” The PNG people both criticize themselves for their failings of lawlessness and superstition, but also employ various self-determined cultural processes whereby indigenous values labor assert the legitimacy of their own local categories and moral concerns. Such a view illumines the PNG peoples not as passive subjects, but as active meaning-makers who articulate their critiques of post-“golden-age” capitalism, social alienation, and racism from a decisively non-Eurocentric value system.
—Matthew W. Hughey

Rethinking France: Les Lieux de memoire, Volume 2: Space, edited by Pierre Nora. Chicago, July 2006. $55
While the dust jacket to Rethinking France: Les Lieux de memoire advertises that the book will “be appreciated by any critical thinker with an interest in French history, politics, culture, or philosophy,” the appeal of this essay collection will certainly be much broader. Pierre Nora, the scholar who assembled the articles, is internationally renowned for his work on historical memory. In Nora’s previous memory studies, he explored how memories of historical events shape people’s understanding of the present. “Sites of memory” or lieux de memoire are the spaces that store or keep memories over long periods of time, thus ensuring that they continue to influence society. In Rethinking France, Nora and a group of impressive French scholars identify these memory sites throughout France. Forests, for instance, serve as a lieux de memoire because trees remind French people of their peasant past, where the forest was a source of economic security. Similarly, as urbanization took hold, landscape paintings displaying an idyllic countryside became increasingly popular, evoking the memory of a predominantly rural France. A number of the essays also deal with the tension French people have felt between ties to their region and to the nation as a whole. On the one hand, memories of the French Revolution and its efforts to unify the country foster bonds connecting the diverse localities in France. On the other hand, memories of provincial traditions, customs, and heroes encourage greater diversity. While the writing in Rethinking France is often convoluted and filled with jargon, scholars who study how memories influence history must read this book.
—Adam Wesley Dean

Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, by Annalee Newitz. Duke, June 2006. $21.95 paper
“Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour.” With these words Karl Marx suggested that behind the movement of capital is a monster story waiting to be told. Annalee Newitz, a freelance writer and contributing editor at Wired magazine, turns Marx’s suspicion around, searching monster stories for lurking capitalism. Newitz dedicates a chapter each to five types of “capitalist monster” characters in film and fiction—mad scientists, media systems of mind control, zombies, serial killers, and cyborgs—retelling their stories with an eye for economic themes. The mad scientist, funded and pressured by large corporations, dramatizes the risks of big money and big science. The idea of an all-encompassing media system, as in The Matrix or The Truman Show, speaks to the oppressive unreality of the postmodern symbol economy. Zombies, who return from the grave to cause mischief, represent victims of colonial violence, terrorizing colonial powers fearful that their evil deeds may some day be repaid. In short, monster stories express the “uncensored fears of capitalism.” The monsters display a surprising range of economic commentary and Newitz does a fine job of finding and distinguishing between the different anxieties that monster stories register. The book is plagued, however, by her tendency to trust the monsters’ economic insights too readily, moving throughout from fascinating textual analysis of fiction to unsupported assertions that they represent horrors of factual economic life.
—David A. Franz


Heart Island, by Stephen Cushman. David Robert Books, September 2006. $17 paper
Stephen Cushman understands that a poem takes place the way time takes place: as a kinetic site—both embodied and mysterious—of inscription, experimentation, longing, fulfillment, loss. His tonal range is masterful, and few poets write as deftly, substantially, and joyously, even about the darkest subjects. In this, his third book of poems, Cushman deepens and extends his obsession with all manner of time-marking—historical, religious, somatic, familial, calendrical, linguistic, seasonal—around the central trope of a Book of Hours, to which he explicitly refers in “January” (“If I could illuminate / a new Book of Hours”). Borrowing this figure of medieval devotional collections for the laity which included psalms, canonical prayers, and often richly illustrated calendars of the months, Cushman travels and maps his aesthetic, imaginative turf, which has always involved a heady mix of secular and holy territory. Heart Island takes us through the course of a year, weaving poems named for the twelve months among poems that press and enlighten, anticipate and talk back to, interrogate and reveal one another, so that we explore while reading not only a physical location bound by love, transgression, fallibility, death, and kinship, but also a nonchronological, figurative place of healing transformation in which the human endeavor of our solitary, island hearts “isn’t lessened by not lasting.”
—Lisa Russ Spaar


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