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Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

There's a special selection of recent books on the subject of our misadventure in Iraq. James Traub reviews a pair of compilations, one of essays by writers on the right, The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited Gary Rosen, the other, from the left, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman. Neither of these books is on my list, because the question of just war simply doesn't arise in connection with the mess that we've made. The war that was beginning when the Mission was proclaimed to be Accomplished was not supposed to take place, because no war was foreseen. We would "cakewalk" to Baghdad and establish a democracy. Just like that. The question that did arise in connection with Iraq was this: how did a suit like Rummy overrule Pentagon experience by throwing out its exhaustive logistic procedures, the TPFDL. (If you will take the time to read Seymour M Hersh's reporting on the "tip fiddle" in The New Yorker, you'll be excused from reading the rest of this entry.) Reporter Michael Goldfarb has written a book that reviewer Dexter Filkins finds very moving: Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq, a biography of sorts of his late translator, a lecturer in anatomy who struggled for democracy only to be cut down by reactionary insurgents. According to Mr Filkins, Ahmad Shawkat's tragedy is anything but isolated.

And now, today, many of these Iraqis, if not most of them, are dead. They have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown in ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq's political class explains the difficulties of the country's rebirth. The good guys are dead.

Nice work, Rummy. George Packer has collected his reportage in The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer. Fareed Zakaria joins Mr Packer in bemoaning the consequences of going to war on the cheap. In Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadows of America's War, Anthony Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent, writes of the impact of the war on ordinary Iraqis. In the words of reviewer Ben Macintyre, "Night Draws Near is a tormented human collage, a portrait of the grinding, quotidian conflict endured by ordinary Iraqis, struggled to make sense of the senseless. Finally, in the Essay at the back of the review, "The Reporter's Library," reporter Robert F Worth tells us what the pros are reading for background material. He gives pride of place to Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (1959), but he notes the preeminent importance of David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace.  

In other non-fiction, Jessica Hendra gets back at her funny-man father, Tony Hendra - who gave us an earnest testimonial to the spiritual guidance of "Father Joe," a Benedictine monk who helped him through a rough patch - in How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir (with Blake Morrison). If there is one thing that I don't want to read about, it's children's claims of parental abuse, but it would seem that Mr Hendra has all but asked for his daughter's. Reviewer Jeanne Safer finds that How to Cook Your Daughter "barely rises above pedestrian reportage." In Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, Nate Blakeslee recounts the horrific outburst of racism that led to the arrest of almost fifty black Texans in a small Panhandle town. The charges of drug-running were completely spurious, and it took teams of lawyers and activists to free the innocents. Sara Mosle gives the book an A. (Readers of Bob Herbert's column will remember Tulia well.) Reviewer Jim Windolf likes Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. This may prove to be a must-read, and I'm marking for future acquisition. "Brill Building" is a useful collective name for the folks who wrote the songs between the peak of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles. 

Until this book, the story of these interrelated songwriters had been told in piecemeal fashion, via memoirs, magazine articles and four separate documentaries for the A&E network's "Biography" series. Here we get the whole tale in a single entertaining passage

In Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, filmmaker Karin Muller writes about her search for harmony while shooting a documentary. Lesley Downes finds the book charming, but she does not persuade me to override my disinclination to go culture-hopping, which is what Ms Muller seems to do. The most interesting thing about Toni Bentley's review of Women's Letters: America From the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J Adler, is Ms Bentley's opening report:

"Unless a man is taking out my garbage or making love to me," I recently overheard a wife and mother remark, "I'm not really interested in his company. Women are simply more interesting."

I'm not sure how to take this. Is it a restatement of traditional views shared by both sexes since the dawn of time? Or does it mean that women are now interesting ways that men are, only more so? I would read American Letters if someone were to give it to me. I would not read Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, under any circumstances. What a tribe of louts the Kennedys turned out to be! From the other side of the last century's most fascinating union, we have What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill, the widow of Ms Onassis' nephew, Anthony. Jodi Kantor has good things to say about the latter book, but I remain untempted. Nor am I tempted by two books reviewed by Buzz Bissinger, The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant, by Allen Burra, and The Lion in Autumn: A Season with Joe Paterno and Penn State Football, by Frank Fitzpatrick. I might have been tempted by Dylan Jones's iPod, Therefore I Am: Thinking Inside the White Box, but Dave Itzkoff's impatient review took care of that. 

As for fiction, three novels get full- or half-page treatment while five are rewarded with capsules. Only one is on my list: Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. This book has garnered interesting reviews all round, and Alice Truax's is no exception. I wish I could read it right now, but it will have to take its place in the flight queue, which already stretches from here to Boston. Katharine Weber and Bruce Bawer make negative cases for the books under their review, respectively Pigtopia, by Kitty Fitzgerald, and Fallen, by David Maine. Pigtopia? Are you kidding? As for Fallen, it's a novelization of that old Cain-and-Abel story, that in Mr Bawer's view, fails by taking for granted emotions and concepts that were, er, new at the time and presumably nameless. Show, don't tell - isn't that how it goes?

According to Douglas Wolk's capsule review, Wolf Point, by Edward Falco, might make an interesting read - after Truth and Consequences - bien sûr! "Falco's prose is cold and brisk, with occasional flashes of hard-boiled eloquence, and the story hurtles like brakeless truck toward its bloody denouement." Diary of a Married Call Girl, by Tracy Quan, sounds as objectionable as Mr Lawford's memoir. In The Monsters of Gramercy Park, Danny Leigh "sometimes promises  depth he can't deliver." Sniper, by Pavel Hak, appears to have been translated by the author too directly from its French original, while still managing to sound flat and affectless. Finally, there's Faith For Beginniners, by Aaron Hamburger, which according Mr Wolk is marred by a sour tone.

According to a note, opening chapters of The Assassins' Gate and What Remains are available at nytimes.com/books.


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