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Reviewing the Book Review

Death Squad

14 March 2010

Joshua Hammer on Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick. Mr Hammer briskly commends this account of an atrocity that, given the haphazard launch of our Iraqi misadventure, seems altogether inevitable.

Frederick, a former Tokyo bureau chief for Time magazine, became curious about the case after learning that the platoon to which the killers belonged had been traumatized by another gruesome episode around the same time: the abduction, torture and murder of three men in their ranks by Iraqi insurgents. A short time after that, he received a phone call from an Army lawyer representing one of the accused, who described near-continuous violence, chain-of-command failures and the breakdown of discipline in Bravo Company’s theater of operations: “What that company is going through, it would turn your hair white,” he said. Frederick interviewed dozens of soldiers, followed courtroom proceedings and inspected documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The result is a narrative that combines elements of “In Cold Blood” and “Black Hawk Down” with a touch of “Apocalypse Now” as it builds toward its terrible climax.

Leah Hager Cohen on So Much For That, a novel by Lionel Shriver. Ms Cohen's storytelling review stops just short of being entirely favorable.

Shriver, the author of nine previous novels and the winner of Britain’s Orange Prize in 2005 for “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” tackles her multifaceted plot with energy and grit. She can and does hold forth smartly on any number of subjects, both topical and esoteric. The book doesn’t suffer from vapidity or diffidence or dearth of event. What it lacks is a fullness of wisdom about its characters’ potential for growth. If none of the characters are particularly becoming, it may be because none become in any meaningful way over the course of the book. When at last Shep glimpses a solution to his woes, it isn’t the result of an expanded capacity to perceive worth. The trick turns out to be precisely “putting a dollar value on human life” — in other words, the fulfillment of his misguided sense of ­entitlement.

Jim Holt on Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, by Stephen Hall. This is a rare example of the kind of review that, anything but flattering, encourages an encounter with the book.

To read “Wisdom” is to grapple constantly with such issues. And that’s why, in the end, I found it oddly rewarding. Hall’s style and thematic flightiness irritated me, but my very irritability, I came to realize, was itself a species of unwisdom, falling under the category of “weakness of will.” As my short-run impatience (driven by my brain’s limbic system) gave way to long-run patience (mediated by my lateral prefrontal cortex), I took pleasure in extracting my own insights from this cheerfully inchoate mess of a book. And after reflecting on the neural research into compassion, I was almost willing to forgive the author’s concluding paean to the buzzing wisdom of bees.

Terrence Rafferty on The Surrendered, a novel by Chang-rae Lee. Mr Rafferty takes pains to place this book in the context of Mr Lee's earlier work, stressing its seriousness in a way that will strike some as inspiring and others as off-putting.

There are more of those events in “The Surrendered” than in any of Lee’s previous novels. The body count is high: Lee invents an extraordinary number of vivid characters, many of whom prove to be just passing through on their way to violent, senseless ends. The exponentially increased eventfulness of this book, compared with Lee’s others, is perhaps the result of a decision to do something here that he’s never done before — to tell a story in the traditional omniscient-narrator manner rather than the particular, self-interpreting voice of an individual. It’s a leap of faith because the first-person mode has served him so well in the past, and because omniscience does not, I suspect, come naturally to him: to his credit, Lee has never seemed comfortable playing God. Whatever destinies he dreams up for his characters are what they have to live with, and if he burdens them too heavily there’s the risk that they’ll stop trying to explain themselves to themselves, that they’ll stop persisting.

Luc Sante on Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields. Perhaps by design — call it the "manifesto effect" — Mr Sante's review is not altogether coherent.

He is serious perhaps to a fault. The decision to identify the authors of the appropriated texts was, he tells us, not his but that of his publisher’s lawyers, and he suggests that readers might want to scissor out those nine pages of citations. This is a noble and idealistic stance, of course, but it overlooks a human frailty that is undeniably real: curiosity. His asceticism seems also to govern his view of narrative. He is “a wisdom junkie” who wants “a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation,” and thinks that “Hamlet” would be a lot better if all the plot were excised, leaving the chain of little essays it really wants to be. But while it’s true that Shakespeare’s plots can sometimes seem like armatures dragged in from the prop room, they are also there to service the human need for sensation. Sometimes Shields can give the impression that he dislikes the novel for the same reasons Cotton Mather might have: its frivolity, its voyeurism, its licentiousness.

On the whole, though, he is a benevolent and broad-minded revolutionary, urging a hundred flowers to bloom, toppling only the outmoded and corrupt institutions.

Sara Wheeler on The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage, by Anthony Brandt. This enthusiastic review, although is heavy on the storytelling, is not altogether unhelpful.

The stories in these pages are methodically arranged, soundly researched and well referenced, though Brandt admits he did not consult the major manuscript sources, building instead on previous studies like Ann Savours’s excellent “Search for the North West Passage.” He brings little that is new to a crowded field (a range of new editions of diaries, narratives and histories are scheduled to appear this year, including works by Kane, Parry and McClure), but he tells his story well, notwithstanding the enfeebling effects of saccharine interventions like “It was a pity,” a phrase deployed on one occasion after the Hudson’s Bay Company agent Thomas Simpson has had his head blown off; an irritating folksy tendency (“twiddling frostbitten thumbs”); and uncomfortable anachronisms (“The Far North was his comfort zone”). But I welcomed the occasional poetic touch (“So began yet another minuet with the ice”).

Eric Ormsby on Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades, by Jonathan Phillips. This warmly favorable review would have been no less effective if it had been reduced to its final paragraph.

Phillips concentrates on the seven “official” crusades, from 1095 to the final disastrous campaigns of Louis IX (St. Louis) of France in 1248-54 and 1270, but he also describes the fiasco of the so-called Children’s Crusade as well as the horrifying Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southwest France. As he notes, “holy war” was as often as not waged against coreligionists: Catholics against Cathars, Sunnis against Shiites. In the rigid, polarized mentality of the holy warrior, any deviation can signify a dangerous otherness. This is the best recent history of the Crusades; it is also an astute depiction of a frightening cast of mind.

Max Watman on Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, by Melissa Milgrom. This book has attracted a good deal of enthusiastic response in the Blogosphere, and seems to be a lively read. But Mr Watman's final sentence underscores our doubts about its pertinence to the objectives of the Book Review.

By capturing the jizz of the taxidermic world, Milgrom has pulled back the curtain on a surprising and intense culture within which meat and animals — both dead and living — are very real.

Elizabeth Samet on The Man From Saigon, a novel by Marti Leimbach. Ms Samet opens her review with the observation that "Vietnam has at last become a safe artistic choice," and it is impossible to tell from the ensuing paragraphs whether she believes that this is a good thing or not a good thing. .

The ingredients that decades ago proved so seductively vertiginous and surreally dislocating in that film, and in the writing of Michael Herr, Philip Caputo and Tim O’Brien, flavor Leimbach’s novel: from the maze of the jungle to the stink of Saigon’s “sewage, rotting food, fires and burning fuel”; from the shelled bunker of a remote observation post to the roof of the Caravelle Hotel; from the toxic heat of the Mekong Delta to the aggressive, hallucinatory blades of a hotel room ceiling fan. It’s all there, but it’s no longer quite so fresh: the deafening ride in a lurching helicopter, the abundant supply of various drugs, the daily barrage of euphemisms for destruction from the afternoon briefing at the Joint United States Public Affairs Office.

Ms Samet declines to identify what is fresh about the novel, obscured as it is by Ms Leimbach's ambiguous name. ¶

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