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 June 2008 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire

Horses Conformation
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Alex Abella
Harcourt, $27.00
388 pages
ISBN 978-0-15-101081-3

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

With its research and proposals shaping U.S. government policy from the late 1940s to today, RAND is arguably the most important think tank in the world. Abella was given access to all of RAND’s (unclassified) papers, and has produced an enlightening study of the institute. Founded at the end of World War II as a way to keep some of the best and the brightest working for the government, RAND got its start assisting the Air Force in developing new weapons and strategies. Their first project was a feasibility study for artificial satellites some 11 years before Sputnik. With the rise of the Soviet Union, they rapidly turned their considerable brain-power to winning the Cold War. The key to their pioneering use of modeling and systems analysis was the concept of “rational choice.” The idea that individuals act solely in their own self-interest would become the underlying concept behind most of RAND’s work. Most significantly, it produced the idea of “Counterforce:” a pre-emptive, but limited, nuclear war where only a few cities would be destroyed, giving the Soviets a chance to surrender. This untested policy later became the ill-fated “escalation” of the Vietnam war. Concerns about the need to provide communications after a Soviet nuclear attack inspired RAND to develop packet technologythe basis for the internetand their innovations in photo-taking spy balloons eventually led to spy satellites. Although, without actual people in the field, the images were frequently misidentified, leading the U.S. to think the Soviets had many more nuclear weapons than actually existed, thus launching the arms race. This abstracted, ivory tower approach continues into the 21st century:  Work by RAND suggested that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would position Iraq to lead the way to a new, peaceful Middle East.

 
         
 

Leisureville:  Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Andrew D. Blechman
Atlantic Monthly Press, $25
244 pages
ISBN:  978-0-87113-981-8

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

More and more retirees are choosing to live in gated, age-restricted communities in the sunny climes of Arizona and Florida. Surrounded by those with similar cultural experiences and interests, and with visits by under-50s typically limited to 30 days a year, they are free to pursue their own interests and don’t become, in one interviewee’s words “designated babysitters.” Blechman focuses on one Florida retirement community, The Villages. This world apart has its own newspaper and its own radio station, which blares the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and other “nice music” while DJs never stop reminding the habitants that “It’s a beautiful day.” In some ways maybe it is. Sex seems to be the preoccupation with these Baby Boomers, who perhaps still haven’t gotten over the 1960s even now that they are in their 60s. When the sun goes down The Villages’ nightclubs are even busier than the fairways are during the day. (And with golf carts the vehicle of choice, you don’t have to worry about drunk driving.) Of course there are always those who disagree with the neighborhood covenants on house color, law decoration, and the like, but they quickly move out. In some instances, age-restrictions are illegal, and there has been infiltration, but realistically very few twenty-somethings are clamoring to live in complexes with their grandparents. Blechman tries to criticize these communities in terms of their illegalities and rights given up (there is rarely any local government; the developers run things), but readers might end up sympathizing with, and even envying, the retirees.

 
 
         
 

Shakespeare’s Wife

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Germaine Greer
McClelland & Stewart, $26.95
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0771035821

reviewed by Paige Byerly

 
  Shakespeare’s Wife is literary history with an overt agenda: Greer (the controversial feminist writer of 1970’s “The Female Eunuch”) asserts from the get-go that she aims to exonerate Ann Hathaway—Shakespeare’s much maligned wife—and while her purpose is admirable, her results are mixed. Hathaway is typically portrayed by scholars as a conniving harlot, based chiefly on the evidence that she was eight years older than Shakespeare and was quite pregnant when they married. All that we know of Ann is derived from snippets of information in the staggeringly extensive historical records, and Greer’s chief argument with other historians (men!) is that they infer so much on so little concrete evidence. The chief problem, of course, is that Greer does much of the same in her overly-personal defense of Ann, so much so that the phrases “could possibly,” “may have,” and “we can guess” seem to overwhelm the facts. When ingenuity wears thin Greer turns to the text, combing contemporaneous historical works for literary “clues” which frequently tax her credibility. Her arguments are most plausible when she relies on the clearly extensive research she did for the book: Ann is usually considered to have been a withered spinster at the age of twenty-six, for example, but Greer proves by combing through the marriage records that twenty-five was actually the median age for marriage, and that it was in truth Shakespeare who, at eighteen, was the less desirable partner. Greer cannot conclusively provide us with the factual minutia of Ann Hathaway’s life, but she does provide a wealth of rich detail regarding women in Elizabethan times, including how they worked, married, and gave birth. While Greer’s purpose in vindicating Ann Hathaway is noble, her arguments never quite solidify into a cohesive whole, and Shakespeare’s Wife is at its most compelling when its author relaxes her single-minded purpose and allows the reader a rare and welcome glimpse of the daily life of the Elizabethan woman.  
         
 

The Power of the Zoot:  Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)
 

by Luis Alvarez
University of California Press, $34.95
318 pages
ISBN: 978-0-520-25301-8

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 
 

Alvarez uses the padded shoulders and pegged trousers of the zoot as a launch pad to explore all of minority youth culture in the 1940s. Changes in wartime America meant that young people had less supervision and fewer social constraints. Society was also projecting the idea that to be “American” was to be white. Among minorities, wearing the zoot quickly became a way to assert their identities; an alternate uniform proclaiming that they were Americans even if they were being shut out of jobs and military service. Beyond commonplace indignities, zooters were seen as un-American during a time of war. The Los Angeles “Zoot Suit Riots” of the summer of 1943–where white servicemen and police fought zooters–was more than just a racial clash. Some authorizes feared Chicanos as fifth-columnists, ready to assist the Axis powers should they enlist Mexico’s alliance. This is a university press book, so the prevalent “goal” of zoot suiters–just hanging out, being seen, and having a good time–is couched in terms of  “claiming” and “occupying public space.” While there is enough academic cant to satisfy social theorists, The Power of the Zoot also frequently springs to life. Along with contemporary newspaper accounts, the book draws from a wide variety of first-person narratives, ranging from Malcolm X’s Autobiography to Alvarez’s own interviews with dozens of former zooters. In the section on jazz, the book vibrates with enthusiasm.  Spiced with the lyrics to “Pachuco Boogie,” and reminiscences from the likes of bandleader Cab Calloway, Alvarez paints a portrait of a time and world where for just a moment rigid social lines blurred and all the kids could really swing.

 
 
         
 

The Man Who Loved China:
The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom


The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, $27.95
332 pages
ISBN 978-0-06-088459-8

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

Winchester delivers his usual intelligence, wit, and insight into esoterica without a hint of snobbery, transporting the reader to another time and place, with an eye—and the rest of his senses as well—for detail. No matter how erudite the subject, the tone is conversational, like the stories of a well-traveled uncle. In this case, we are transported to early-twentieth-century England to meet Joseph Needham, a Cambridge University scientist who eventually falls in love with China via his mistress (and with the blessing of his unbelievably understanding wife, Dorothy, a scientist in her own right). He travels to 1943 China—Winchester immerses the reader in this ancient civilization—on a quest to bring an understanding of the Middle Kingdom to the west. The quest becomes an epic encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China, addressing what became known as the Needham Question: why did China, with myriad early technological developments, stop its advance around 1500, to be eclipsed by the western world? (The question is still debated, and there are many and varied answers.) The encyclopedia filled the rest of his 94 years, and before his death seventeen large volumes had been produced, largely by Needham with just a few assistants. Winchester is so successful in illuminating this tale that, with no previous special interest in Chinese history, I now covet Needham’s encyclopedia, although the full set would cost several thousand dollars. I also experienced great sadness when reading of Needham’s 1995 death. Highly recommended.

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Sister

Horses Conformation
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Poppy Adams
Knopf Publishing Group, $23.95
304 pages
ISBN: 978-0-30-726816-7

reviewed by Nancy Corbett

 

 

Ginny Stone begins her narrative looking out from the arched stone window of her crumbling estate, wondering why her sister, Vivi, has chosen to return home after an absence of nearly fifty years.  Questions build instantly about this family’s dark history, but Ginny Stone is not going to provide the answers.  Ginny is mentally impaired and blissfully unaware of it.  As she tells her compelling story, the reader understands that she is an unreliable narrator.  Poppy Adams’ debut novel constructs the tale of this family through Ginny and then deconstructs it, leaving the reader with tons of questions.  Woven throughout is a rich, detailed description of lepidopterology, the study of moths. Ginny describes herself as the benefactor of her father’s profession as a celebrated entomologist.  The many references to caterpillars, pupae and moths are present to form the usual metaphor for transformation.  The father, Clive, has focused his research on the state of the pupae,  and Ginny mirrors this in her perpetual state of becoming.  This story is full of sound and fury, but one can’t say that it signifies nothing.  This book will generate many lively discussions in literary book clubs.  Careful readers will want to put the meat back on the bones after completing this book to see what fits where.  Others will tackle the obvious question the story raises:  how much fiction should be allowed in fiction?

         
 

The Aviary Gate

Pontoon
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Katie Hickman
Bloomsbury, $25.99
352 pages
ISBN: 978-1596914759

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale 

 

Celia Lamprey is a young, sixteenth-century Englishwoman who has been shipwrecked, captured, and now finds herself in the harem of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet of Constantinople. When she learns that her fiancé, Paul, has arrived as part of the British envoy to the Sultan, she tries desperately to make her presence known. But, of course, the only men who have contact with these odalisques are the eunuchs, and Hassan Aga, their chief, has just been poisoned. Set against that mystery and others, Hickman paints a vivid picture of life in a harem. Far from being just a collection of giggling, veiled girls, their closed world is complex, complete with power struggles worthy of any European court. And we see it all. While the author skips quickly through some scenes, she lingers over the elements she knows will most interest her readers:  castration (only seven pages in) and the world of the erotic. The novel jumps back and forth between 1599 and the present-day where graduate student Elizabeth Stavely is following clues that she hopes will lead her to Celia’s own version of the her story. If found, this would be the only known “captivity narrative” written by a woman before the eighteenth century; something that would not only satisfy Elizabeth’s curiosity, but launch her academic career. This structure can’t help but call to mind Possession, and, though Hickman is no A.S. Byatt, the book remains thoroughly engaging.

 
         
 

River of Heaven

The Commoner
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Lee Martin
Shaye Areheart Books, $24.00
288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307381248

reviewed by Nancy Corbett

 

 

Samuel Brady is a closeted gay man in his declining years.  His greatest ambition is to go to his grave with the secret of what happened on the night in Rat Town when he was a teenager and Dewey Finn died on the railroad tracks. So far, Sammy has done a stellar job of maintaining a life of solitude, living in the small town of St. Gilead, Illinois with his Basset Hound, Stump.  But when his next-door-neighbor, Arthur, becomes a widower, he also becomes a bit of a pest.  Before he knows it, Sammy finds that he likes Arthur’s company, and the two of them become buddies.  Once the door is opened, people begin to step into Sammy’s life at an alarming rate.  In spite of his resistance, he finds comfort and joy in the company of others, and he finds that the secret that wanted to be kept also wants to be told.  All of the characters in Lee Martin’s novel, River of Heaven, are vulnerable and likeable.  But, then, readers are introduced to all of the characters through Sammy’s narration, and Sammy is a decidedly vulnerable and likeable character himself.  When Sammy’s moody brother shows up midway through the story, bearing his own dark secrets, he also brings with him love and good intentions.  The journey to the end of the tale and the telling of the secrets takes some unexpected turns but will leave the reader feeling that sweetness and love can be found at times when it is not sought.

 
         
 

Travels in the Scriptorium

The Commoner
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Paul Auster
Picador, $12.00
160 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42629-3

 

reviewed by Terry Persun

 

 

An old man, Mr. Blank, wakes up in a room but doesn’t know where he is or how he arrived there. He doesn’t know who he is either. There is a pile of photographs sitting on a desk beside the pages of a manuscript. Also on the desk is a list of names, some he recognizes and others he does not recognize. For the next day he is visited by a number of people who help him to piece together who he is and why he is there. 

Paul Auster is the bestselling author of The Brooklyn Follies, and has written many other novels. He has a unique style in which reality and illusion often occupy the same space. His characters provide insights into our own lives, expressing common reactions even if under extraordinary circumstances. As he writes of Mr. Blank, the reader gets the feeling that information is being doled out at the exact moment that it becomes relevant, and not a moment sooner.  

As a reader, I got pulled into the novel from the first sentence, and wasn’t able to pull myself away until I was finished. This book will leave you wanting for more, but, just as life itself, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 
         
 

Doctor Who - Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership

The Guilty
(Click Cover to Buy)

Ed. by Keith R.A. DeCandido
Big Finish, $29.25
263 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84435-269-2

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

It is unlikely that anyone who is not a fan of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who will pick up this anthology, and those who have only just discovered the Doctor through his two most recent regenerations (portrayed by Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant) won’t find those incarnations in this volume. But for those who grew up on the First (William Hartnell) through Eighth (Paul McGann) Doctors, (Tom Baker, arguably the most popular Doctor, was the Fourth), this collection does those memories proud. Fans of Star Trek novels and anthologies will recognize most of the dozen authors, all of whom show that they are just as at home in this franchise as they spin encounters between the Doctor and leaders of all sorts. Peter David delivers a pun-filled, sci-fi meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail story of King Arthur in “One Fateful Knight.” Fans of Roman-era Britain will enjoy Terri Osborne’s detail-rich recreation of the first century in “Good Queen, Bad Queen, I Queen, You Queen” with the Doctor and Romana in the court of ancient Queen Boudicca (formerly “Boadicea”). Along with heads of state, “leader” was interpreted in some unexpected ways by a few of the contributors. Richard C. White’s “The Price of Conviction” finds our hero with Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation. “Clean Up on Aisle Two” by James Swallow best exemplifies the book’s title and theme as the Doctor helps a night-shift supermarket manager find his potential. “The Spindle of Necessity” by Allyn Gibson is the best story in the collection. When the Doctor meets the philosopher Plato, this (what else?) Socratic dialog encompasses philosophy, destiny, and the nature of the universe.

 

 
         
 

What Was Lost

Fiction Class
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Catherine O’Flynn
Holt,  $14 paper
256 pages
ISBN-13:  9780805088335

reviewed by Nancy Corbett

 

Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, begins in 1984 with ten-year-old Kate Meany and her partner, Mickey.  Mickey, despite being a stuffed monkey, helps Kate in the surveillance of various suspects under investigation by Falcon Investigations.  O’Flynn creates the rich imaginary world of this lonely child and contrasts it with the raw edges of her real world. Already motherless, Kate’s father dies, leaving her to a grandmother who wants to ship her off to a boarding school.  Kate’s only friends are a deviant classmate named Teresa and a 22-year old shop vendor named Adrian.  And, of course, Mickey.   

Just when the story of Kate and Mickey and Falcon Investigations settle into an interesting combination of events, the story shifts to the year 2003.  The shift is jolting and, at first, inexplicable, as none of these new characters seem to connect with what has gone before.  Slowly, we learn that these are employees of the Green Oaks Shopping Center, which was partially built back when Kate Meany’s tale was in the making.  The lives of the mall employees are banal and essentially uneventful.  In between rounds with the security guards and visits with Lisa, a music store clerk, we discover that Kate Meany disappeared back in 1984 and no one has ever uncovered what happened to her.  Clues from the past catch the light and reveal fragments of Kate’s story. As the events begin to fit together, the characters find that this missing child has served to form unbreakable bonds between them.

 

 
         
 

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Cure for Modern Life
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Garth Stein
Harper, $23.95
336 pages
ISBN:  978-0061537936

reviewed by Paige Byerly

 

The Art of Racing in the Rain opens and closes with a dying dog, and the middle concerns a terminally-ill woman and a bitter custody battle, so it should come as no big surprise that I cried several times while reading it. You will too; it’s just that kind of book. The Art of Racing in the Rain is the third novel from Seattle author Garth Stein, and is reaching heights of popularity beyond (one presumes) it’s author’s wildest dreams—it opened with a Barnes and Noble signing and is the “Starbucks book selection.” Is the novel deserving of all the hype? The Art of Racing in the Rain is quite entertaining, and features an engaging narrator. Enzo, a Labrador-terrier mix, understands human speech and adores his racecar-driving owner; his greatest regret in life is that he was denied thumbs, and he endeavors to imitate human behavior (most charmingly in his attempts to chew his food more slowly).  Enzo is a thoughtful and astute silent witness who learns about the world by watching television and listening to the people around him, and it’s his observations and captivating voice that make the novel come together. There are admittedly complications that arise from having a canine narrator (the thought of a particular scene involving a description of the human sex act from a dog’s perspective and the phrase “plow the field” still makes me shudder). On the whole, however, Enzo appeals, and his characterization far outstrips that of his human counterparts in terms of sophistication and depth.

The characters are complex, but thematically speaking The Art of Racing in the Rain is an easy book. It plays upon simple and obvious emotions, and doesn’t attempt to scratch too deeply below the surface of the rather melodramatic story it relates. Bad is bad in the novel and good is good, and uncomplicated morals are related through racing metaphors: keep your eyes on the track ahead, a driver must have faith, never, ever give up… Still, character development seems to be Stein’s main focus, and in this he succeeds. It’s a risky move to feature a dog as the voice of your novel, but it’s a conceit that works. It’s refreshing to see such an unconventional novel succeed in a time that often appears to quell literary creativity, and encouraging that the author and his publishers are being well rewarded for their gamble.

 
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         

 

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