Monday, January 01, 2007
Books! First batch of 2007!
What better place to write of the future than here, at the dawn of a new year?
Not the big, wide-canvas future, mind you. Who of us can know how that will unfold? Certainly our hopes are in place - that somehow, somehow, a way out of the horrific quagmire of Iraq will be found (simply leaving - 'cutting and running,' as the rednecks say - would be base, but the only other alternative, getting Iraq's separate parties to stop killing each other and start talking to each other, seems beyond all hope of happening), that under new management this country will claw its way out of the double-digit depression it's in, claw its way out of the extreme right-wing religious extremism that has gripped it for the last six years, that humankind's new mastery of the dog genome will eventually come up with a cure for, a solution to, at least an arrangement with ... well, with the problem of basset hounds.
Our fears are also in place, naturally. Fear of reading the obituaries of good men, because the ranks are always thin and each loss hurts. Fear of the rising tide, as worldwide climate change accelerates by the day. And of course the biggest American fear of all, the one that's replaced the 'nuclear clock' of the Cold War era: the fear of a large-scale terrorist attack on American soil - a bomb on an LNG tanker in Boston Harbor, a suicide bomber in the Smithsonian, right next to the Declaration of Independence, a small twin-engine craft, loaded with explosives, headed for the Statue of Liberty, and of course worst of all ... something so bad it's entered our collective mytho-consciousness: a suitcase nuke detonated in Times Square.
No, not the wide-canvas future, but rather the much narrower future of books. We've been reading ahead, and it's mostly filled us with hope.
The wonderful thing about reading - the most wonderful thing - is that it somehow supervens fear. It's amazing, and we here at Stevereads, for all that we've taken advantage of it (indeed, taken refuge in it), can't explain it. Perhaps it's that written words contained in a printed text are in and of themselves time capsules, and we, reading them, know that while we read. Or perhaps it's that those of us who read for a living would like that to be so.
So we all hope for it. All us lifetime readers hope for something, some reading experience, that will eventually stand that same test of time .... something that will eventually wait with us in unforseen hours of trial, something that will always smile at us, alive, from our shelves.
Lacking that, short of that, we're always looking for reading experiences that will get our juices flowing for good or ill, reading experiences that aren't just ho-hum.
We here at Stevereads are always looking for such experiences, and more often than not, we're disappointed. We're always reminded of the comments scribbled by a noted physicist in the margin of a young colleague's paper: this isn't right. This isn't even wrong.
But every so often, something strikes our fancy for good or ill, and it's thereby that we arrive at our first book-posting of the new year!
War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat -
Nothing quite like beginning the year with a TOME! As some of you will know, we have a soft spot for tomes here at Stevereads, but it's not a sentimental one: they have to earn their extra-sized keep.
Azar Gat certainly does. This book is immense in far more important ways than its size. It tackles the question of why human beings war on each other from what feels, impossibly, like a fresh and magisterial conception. It's too erudite to be chasingly fast reading, but even so: it's peculiarly satisfying when the first book you read in a year is one you know you'll be re-reading for years to come.
A War for Frontier and Empire by David Silbey - This is by far the best book yet written on America's war in the Philippines; Silbey very carefully (but with a really engaging prose style) threads his way through this halting, half-hearted American attempt at empire-building. It's a complex subject - not least because so many leaders at the time (most certainly including President McKinley) had no clear idea what they were doing.
Silbey's book gives you the whole subject - he's just as good when writing the necessary background exposition as he is at describing individual people or battles. It's unlikely that the war will find a better historian any time soon.
Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas - The writing of this book tends toward the muddled and the pedestrian, but oh! The subject matter is worthy enough to compensate! Metaxas (whose last name leads one to wonder if he spends his free time fighting the Justice League) tells the story of William Wilberforce and the quest to abolish slavery, and what the author lacks in narrative ability, his subject more than makes up for in zeal and charisma. This book makes a perfect bookend to "All on Fire," Henry Mayer's great work about William Lloyd Garrison, who in the generation after Wilberforce fought for the abolitionist cause in America and lived long enough to see it victorious.
Ferocity by Stephen Laws - this is a nifty little novel! It's basically a horror story along the lines of 'Jaws' - set in the moors of Northumberland, it revolves in part around a mysterious, enormous species of big cat which has been terrorizing the countryside and marauding local livestock. Our two human protagonists quite naturally start to fall in love with each other while they're busy studying - and surviving - both these mysery cats and a cadre of vicious drug-runners. As with most examples of this type of novel ('Jurassic Park' comes to mind), it's the evil humans who are the real bad guys - the animals, however huge or mysterious, are just trying to live their lives.
But in any case, Laws knows how to spin out the proceedings without a dull patch or slow passage. And I figure if I'm recommending an 800-page heavily-annotated history of human warfare, it's only fair that I also recommend a good simple page-turner! 'Ferocity' will cost you $7 when it eventually comes out, and it'll be well worth your money.
Enemy at Home by Dinesh D'Souza - Alas, our final entry is not a pleasant one ... in fact, it's one of the most unpleasant reading experiences we've had in a good long time, certainly the first lighthouse-bright unpleasant reading experience of the new year.
D'Souza has always been a bit unhinged - it's what has always given his prose its particular zing. That zing is a pleasure, sure, but it's come every year with more and more ... well, more and more dementia.
This is, to first appearances, a demented book.
This is a fundamentally evil work, building one coarse, untenable association on the last.
The thing that burns about calling it evil is that this is so obviously what the author wants .... but we'll get to that in a bit.
D'Souza's main argument here (to hallow ranting with that old, old term) is that the American left wing, with its peace-mongering and its gay-pandering and its accountability-insisting, actually aids and abets not only the advocates of disorder but the actual members of Al-Qaeda.
You didn't read that wrong. D'Souza's position here (but not really ...) is that the American left is essentially in cahoots with Islamic extremism throughout the world - if not through actual alliance, then certainly through mutual idealogical encouragement. The forces of evil, you see, take their dark encouragement from the fact that the American left wing encourages the destruction of what D'Souza calls, free of all irony, "the traditional patriarchal family." The American left wing, by being all the things Al-Qaeda hates, FUELS that hatred and makes the world the unsafe, chaotic place it currently is.
D'Souza doesn't dwell on all the US occupation forces the Middle East has seen, nor on America's support for Israel - oh no! In his book, those things don't matter. If the American left would just COME AROUND to that 'traditional patriarchal family,' Moslem extremists would stop strapping bombs to their chests.
In other words, D'Souza has actually managed to contort himself into a position where he's basically yelling at American Democrats: 'WHY ARE YOU KILLING OUR SOLDIERS?'
The experience reading the book is that of spending an hour with someone who's seriously, dangerously insane. But a moment's reflection raises a much worse suspicion. It would be bad enough for somebody to write such a book and MEAN it; no pundit has ever gone so far into vicious demagogery. But it would be much, much worse if somebody wrote such a book and DIDN'T mean it. To write such vicious, anti-logical, divisive nonsense specifically BECAUSE nobody had ever gone so far before - not because you believe it - would be a damnable offense. It would render the writer anathema to all society.
It's for this reason that D'Souza's book really ought to be totally ignored by every form of media. He's not the drunken ranter in a bar picking a fight with another drunken ranter: he's the completely sober patron egging them both on, not caring which of them he might agree with, just snickeringly wanting to see the fight.
But I spent time reading the book, and I couldn't resist venting outrage about it (a writer in, I think, current Esquire actually invites D'Souza to a physical fight) - so I doubt the media will greet this thing with the disgusted silence it deserves.
Still, one bad apple in an otherwise pretty promising basket! True, you should all avoid the D'Souza book like the pox (seriously, ALL it will do is make you angry - there's no worth at all in reading it) - but that still leaves you with several GOOD recommendations! A fine way to start the year!