Wednesday, March 18, 2009

American Wife

by Curtis Sittenfeld

If you've ever thought about Laura Bush and wondered, "How did she end up with him?" Curtis Sittenfeld has wondered the same thing. There are critically-acclaimed biographies you could read, if you want to get the details, but Sittenfeld uses fiction to go deeper. It's not possible, of course, to really know what it's like to be Laura Bush; but "American Wife" allows us to know exactly what it's like to be Alice Blackwell (nee Lindgren), a woman whose life story is very closely modeled around Bush's. When I started reading, I imagined the book would really get interesting once Alice met Charlie Blackwell, but I was soon so caught up in the fascinating character of Alice that I felt in no hurry for her to grow up and get married. Sittenfeld's pacing is perfect, somewhere between a page-turner and a character-driven literary novel.

Though the parallels to Laura Bush are plentiful, the reader can also relax and enjoy the story as fiction. At its core, the story asks, What is it like to set your own life aside to follow someone you love? Is it possible to be yourself while also unintentionally becoming a public figure? Does loyalty to your husband or wife take away from your loyalty to yourself?

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

by Nicholson Baker

I remember the first time I heard about Hitler. My father and I were hiking along a creek in Northern Illinois as he told me the basics. I was baffled by the idea that murder, that most basic of all wrongdoing, would ever be encouraged by a world leader. This shows how naive I was at the time; it wasn't long before I would learn of the myriad exceptions to "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Later, as I continued to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about World War II, I came to accept the idea that, however I might feel about the morality of war in general, this particular war was both necessary and unavoidable. I could doubt the existence of true evil in the world, yet see it clearly in the actions of Hitler and his Nazis. If there was ever a time to step in and destroy evil to preserve goodness, this was it.

Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke asks that we look again. Baker is known for seeing the details most of us miss; this time he's turned his eye on the ephemera of the years leading up to World War II -- journals, diaries, newspaper articles, contemporary interviews, radio speeches -- and put together a chronological mosaic of people and places as they were at the time. The major players are there, as are the citizens and soldiers, but we also hear quite a bit from those who opposed the war, and those who offered alternate paths. More than anything I've read, this book took the inevitability out of the equation, left me wondering not only what would happen but what could happen. What if Roosevelt had loosened our tight quotas on Jewish immigrants, allowing thousands of refugees to escape from Europe? What if Churchill had not insisted on his blockade, which starved not only the Nazis but all those innocents we told ourselves we were saving? Why did Roosevelt find it necessary in 1934 to parade our battleships through Japanese waters? What if Hitler's ridiculous plan to send the Jews to Madagascar had succeeded, instead of his horrific "Plan B"?

By our actions, did we save as many lives as we destroyed? Is war ever truly inevitable?

Whatever conclusions you come to after reading Human Smoke, it's well worth the time. It was one of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking books I've read in a great while.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

White Teeth

by Zadie Smith
Ever since I read my first book by Charles Dickens (actually this was embarrassingly recent) I can't help but identify certain books as "Dickensian." It's a bad habit, and I'm trying to cut down, but just once more, I have to say it: Zadie Smith's White Teeth is, let's face it, Dickensian. I mean it in the best way: the book is multilayered, with a large cast of memorable characters coming from a large variety of classes, colors, creeds, and countries, all colliding in present-day London. Smith's voice is omniscient, her tone both humorous and heartbreaking. She's one of those writers who can introduce character after character without the reader becoming fatigued.

At the core, White Teeth is a tale of two families: the Iqbals, originally from Bangladesh, and the Joneses, of London and Jamaica. The two patriarchs fought (mainly with each other) in World War II, and have been inseparable ever since. Their younger wives hold the families together, and the kids - Irie Jones and Magid and Millat Iqbal - refuse to be contained. Smith is, herself, part Jamaican and part English, and seems to perfectly capture the sense of being a new hybrid in the Old World. The dialects and wildly disparate characters moving perpendicularly to each other reminded me of "The Confederacy of Dunces" at times. Though the narrative spins off in multiple directions, it does manage to come together explosively in the end. This book made me a definite Smith fan, and I can't wait to read her other works.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
During a failed attempt to climb K2, mountain bum Greg Mortenson found himself stumbling into uncharted territory, a small Pakistani village not on any map. The people there treated him with great kindness, though they were very poor even by local standards. That's when Mortenson made a promise that would change his life: he told his new friends he would build them a school for their children.

Back home in California, living out of his car while working as a temporary EMT, Mortenson started to wonder what on earth he had been thinking, making such a promise, when he himself was barely scraping by. He knew nothing about fundraising, construction, or any of the skills he would need to build a school on the other side of the world. "Three Cups of Tea" tells how he eventually fulfills his promise, and goes on to build dozens of schools, most of them for girls, where they're needed most. And, without meaning to, he helps to fight terrorism at its very source. An incredible story, all the better because it's true.