Book Digest: August 14, 2006

Get a Life; Oath Betrayed; The Medici Giraffe; The Poet Slave of Cuba; War Made Easy; Magic for Beginners; Another Green World; Mockingbird; To Kill a Mockingbird

I didn’t previously have a particular picture of a perfect or at least prototypical New England day—yesterday in Peterborough, N.H., at the MacDowell Colony will ever onward be that picture. Bright sun, but not too—colors vivid and true. Breezy, almost cloudless sky, and a congenial gathering—perfect.

The nearly 100-year-old (1907) MacDowell Colony is a camp for artists, and August 13 is Medal Day, the one day in the year that the camp is open to visitors and that the MacDowell Medal is awarded—an individual is feted who “has made an outstanding contribution to the arts.” This year the recipient was Canadian writer Alice Munro, who follows past literature Medalists Marianne Moore, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mary McCarthy, and Joan Didion. There was speechifying by Robert Lehrer, who sits on the colony’s board, and being Canadian reminded everyone, with great pride, of Canada’s civility, what with their gun control and national universal health care and being the home of Ms Munro. And a number of MacDowell Colony functionaries extolled its virtues and commended its service to artists and stroked the no-doubt underpaid staff and volunteers.

Munro’s friend and longtime agent, Virginia Barber, presented an informative hagiography, including a number of amusing anecdotes. Ms. Munro accepted her award, made a few, but all too brief remarks, and that was it. If gods and goddesses ever walked this earth, one or another no doubt resembled Alice Munro, who by the way has a story new collection, The View From Castle Rock coming in November. Also, contrary to any published reports, Munro (though it is a kind of ritual for her to say every book is her last book) has not stopped writing. Good news, yes?

Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, who lives in Johannesburg, is the author of 13 novels, nine volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. You’d think with such a significant oeuvre, not to mention the highest literary award she could have sloughed off the mantle of invisibility—it’s not as if she is an obscure Slavic poet writing in a rarely translated language. Consider this from Ward Just, another invisible master: “[Gordimer] is a most worldly writer, engaged for many years in South Africa’s sulfurous politics, and those politics often find their way into her fiction. Yet her stories manage to avoid the narrative death rattle of the political novelist; they live on their own, free of propaganda.”

The novel centers around South African ecologist Paul Bannerman, who’s been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and following surgery has been prescribed treatment that will leave him radioactive, and thus a danger to others. He decamps for his childhood home, where his businessman father and prominent civil rights lawyer mother take him in to protect his wife and child from radiation. While recuperating he ponders the contradictory values of his work and those of his wife, an advertising agency executive. Paul’s meditation has a ripple effect, and his mother confronts her own past. By the time he is cured, both families have been changed—he returns to his home and career, leaving his parents to go to Mexico to on an archaeological expedition—a vocation his father gave up to support his family. What flows from this trip marks the final surprise in Gordimer’s investigation of individual existences.

» Read an excerpt from Get a Life

Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror by Steven Miles, MD
When Steven H. Miles, an expert in medical ethics and an advocate for human rights, learned of the neglect, mistreatment, and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, his first thoughts were (appropriately): “Where were the prison doctors while the abuses were taking place?” Oath Betrayed is Miles’s answer. The tragic reality is that not only were medical personnel mute while prisoners were abused, they provided information that facilitated the mistreatment. And shockingly, this mistreatment (shall we call it “torture,” official denials notwithstanding?) was monitored by health professionals.

Miles, a practicing physician who has served as the chief medical officer for a Cambodian refugee camp, worked on AIDS prevention in Sudan and on tsunami relief in Indonesia with the American Refugee Committee, has also worked with the research committee of the Center for Victims of Torture. The exhaustive research for this book includes eyewitness accounts from actual victims of prison abuse, and more than 35,000 pages of documentation rescued via provisions of the Freedom of Information Act: army criminal investigations, FBI notes on debriefings of prisoners, autopsy reports, and prisoners’ medical records. These documents tell a harrowing story, one which is very different from the official version, revealing involvement at every level of government, from Donald Rumsfeld to the Pentagon’s senior health officials to prison health care personnel.

In what seems a placating gesture, Random House asserts (for whose benefit?): “Oath Betrayed is not a denunciation of American military policy or of war in general, but of a profound betrayal of traditions that have shaped the medical corps of the United States armed forces and of America’s abdication of its leadership role in international human rights.” And audaciously continues: “This book is a vital document that will both open minds and reinvigorate Americans’ understanding of why human rights matter, so that we can reaffirm and fortify the rules for international civil society.” Do you think so? Seymour M. Hersh, no stranger to government flim-flam and dissembling, poignantly concludes: “This, quite simply, is the most devastating and detailed investigation into a question that has remained a no-no in the current debate on American torture in George Bush’s war on terror: the role of military physicians, nurses, and other medical personnel. Dr. Miles writes in a white rage, with great justification—but he lets the facts tell the story.”

» Read an excerpt from Oath Betrayed

The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power by Marina Belozerskaya
One hopes that the fact that such charming and whimsical books continue to be written and published and hopefully read, shows something, uh, hopeful about the unquenchable hunger and fascination for exploration of the physical world and its exotic zoology. Its author, Russian-born Marina Belozerskaya, explains her obsessions: “Growing up in Moscow, in the Brezhnev era, I dove into books to transport myself from the drabness and oppression of Soviet life to more fascinating places. I’ve always read books to travel to other worlds.”

Belozerskaya claims that throughout many eras and cultures, exotic animals have entranced and inspired us. The Medici Giraffe is a gripping piece of literary nonfiction, a chain of stories, from ancient Alexandria and republican Rome, through Renaissance Florence, Aztec Mexico, baroque Prague, Napoleon’s France, the robber barons’ America, and up to the present day, when two sets of giant pandas helped warm frosty relations between China and the United States.

» Read an excerpt from The Medici Giraffe

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls
The joy of owning/residing in a little corner (even if just for a little while) of the vast nexus we indiscriminately call media is, of course, the opportunity to celebrate one’s obsessions and even indulge peccadilloes. Even occasional attendance in this little house will make clear to you my fondness and fascination with all things Cuban. Thus, this clever little book in verse about Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano. Margarita Engle, a Cuban-American woman of letters, has long been haunted by Manzano’s story and thus finally thought to render it in a lyrical poem.

Born in 1797, Manzano spent his early years by the side of a woman who pressured him to call her Mama, even though he had a mother of his own. Young Juan was denied an education, though he showed an exceptional talent for poetry—he reflects the beauty of his world as it also exposes its crushing cruelty in his verse. Eventually, Manzano was granted his freedom, although he had also to purchase it, and lived through the turbulent era in Cuban history known as the Escalera Conspiracy. In Manzano’s lifetime and beyond, Cubans gathered in homes to hear poetry being read, much in the way television functions as an entertainment today. This made poets well-regarded and indispensable—can you imagine?

» Read an excerpt from The Poet Slave of Cuba

War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death by Norman Solomon
Newspaper columnist Norman Solomon is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a national consortium of policy researchers and analysts. He contributes to a variety of publications, including the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and USA Today. He regularly has appeared on TV and has been a guest on various National Public Radio programs. His last book, Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You, has been widely translated. These bona fides do suggest his competence in the area of judging media manipulation.

War Made Easy scrutinizes the key “perception management” techniques that are a large part of the promotion of American wars in the late 20th century and onward. Call this a primer to “disinformation,” War Made Easy analyzes a number of American military adventures and reveals the similarities in the efforts of various administrations to garner public support for war. And as such, documents a long series of deliberate misdeeds at the highest levels of power. It also lays out helpful guidelines for readers to distinguish propaganda from actual news reporting. This is a real public service—one wonders if public schools do any instruction in critical thinking?

» Read an excerpt from War Made Easy

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Kelly Link was once, with Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press, employed at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore, a wonderful outpost of an anti-diluvian world and a literary sanctuary on Boston’s Newbury Street—the boulevard that I for years snidely termed the “street of dreams,” which now is a garish, high-end strip mall. Oh well, those were the days. Anyway, both Kelly and Gavin have decamped for western Mass, and Kelly has become the darling of literates far and wide with her first story collection Stranger Things Happen. Occasioning much critical acclaim for what has been called her “cross-genre gems” and “kitchen sink realism,” her sophomore effort, Magic for Beginners covers zombies, marriage, witches, superheroes, haunted convenience stores, and weekly apocalyptic poker parties, to name but a few.

» Read an excerpt from Magic for Beginners

Another Green World by Richard Grant
Maine man Richard Grant, who lives in Rockport and whose day job is journalism, has previously penned Saraband of Lost Time, Rumors of Spring, Views From the Oldest House, Through the Heart, Tex and Molly in the After Life, In the Land of Winter, and Kaspian Lost. His new opus suggests that his anonymity outside Maine should soon be a thing of the past. So says Steve Yarborough: “Another Green World is unlike any other World War II novel I’ve ever read. At times it made me think of Thomas Mann, at other times Graham Greene. In the end, though, the voice and the vision are all Richard Grant’s, and it’s important to remember that name, because you will be hearing it a lot in the months ahead. This book is an original work of art.”

Random House provides this synopsis:
In 1929, at an international youth summit in the Weimar Republic, four young Americans meet various German counterparts on a lovely, remote mountaintop; here they talk earnestly late into the night, quarrel, fall in love and find themselves drawn into political ideals and intrigues that will soon engulf Europe and plunge the world into mayhem. And the fates forged then envelop them again in 1944, when Ingo Miller is running a failing German restaurant in Washington, D.C., and Marty Panich is pushing pencils for the Roosevelt administration. Childhood friends now estranged, they are suddenly reunited when their old friend Isaac Tadziewski—a runaway from Brooklyn back then, and now caught up in the bloody Polish resistance—obtains incendiary information about the Final Solution. The fourth, Sammy Butler, a left-wing journalist riding into the Reich with the Red Army, also learns of Issac’s discovery and embarks on a shadowy quest of his own.
Another of my favorites, Richard Russo, chimes in: “I read Another Green World with both wonder and awe. Its scope and sweep are breathtaking, its understanding of human nature both mysterious and profound, its heart and empathy exhilarating.”

» Read an excerpt from Another Green World

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields
Such are the vagaries of American civilization that Harper Lee, author of the 20th century’s most widely read American novel, which has sold 30 million copies and still sells a million yearly, the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, might be better known as a result of the recent Truman Capote biopic (in which she was admirably portrayed by Catherine Keener) than for her novel or because of Charles Shields’s able and well-researched literary biography—which is the first on Lee. The author of many books for youths, Shields spent four years interviewing over 600 people, doing research, (meticulously, as they say) far and wide, and in the case of the Capote archives, deep. Central to Shields’s vivid account is, of course, the story of Ms. Lee’s struggle to create To Kill a Mockingbird. Additionally, we are treated to scenes from her tomboy girlhood in tiny Monroeville, Ala., the murder trial that made her father’s reputation and inspired her and her journey to Kansas as Capote’s ally and research assistant and nursemaid to help report the story of the Clutter murders that ultimately became In Cold Blood—and much more.

» Read an excerpt from Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird performed by Sissy Spacek
Sissy Spacek reads Harper Lee’s classic novel, one of the best-loved American stories of all time—of a lawyer in the deep South defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. By the way, recently librarians across the country gave To Kill a Mockingbird the high honor of voting it the best novel of the 20th century. You should probably rent the Horton Foote scripted movie with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, which includes stellar performances by Brock Peters, as well as an early career role by Robert Duvall, as Boo Radley.

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