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Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Under Heaven," "Everything is Broken," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Monday June 28, 2010
COLOSSUS: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century
Michael Hiltzik
Free Press
ISBN 978 1 4165 3216 3
496 pages

Reviewed by Kevin Starr
Ambitious public works are by definition iconic. They do what they were made to do -- dams, bridges, roads, multiple other examples of civil engineering -- but they also, as icons, make compelling statements regarding the society that built them and the time and the place in which they were built.
From this perspective few public works in North America are as iconic as Hoover Dam. In this detailed and vividly written study -- destined to be the standard history for decades to come -- Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, struggles with considerable success to bring it all together: the dam itself, its engineering and design, the mighty and mercurial Colorado River it sought to control, its remote and punishing desert site, the larger-than-life personalities involved in its development and completion, the previously untold story of its troubled labor history, the tragic consequences to human life brought about by its rushed and relentless construction.
With equal ambition, Hiltzik also wants to tell us what Hoover Dam meant to those who envisioned it, what it meant once it became a symbol of the New Deal, what it meant as an initiator of the American Century, and the challenge it poses to 2010 America. Could we do this today? And would we choose to do it again, even if we could, given the dam's deficiencies and our newfound humility before the power and fragility of the planet?
Hiltzik approaches Hoover Dam as historian, investigative reporter and social critic. He begins his narrative with the Colorado River itself: the Mississippi of the Far West, true, but a river animated not so much by mythic force as attitude, a river given to intermittent rages and changes of course, forever tempted to rediscover and re-establish the ancient inland sea it had created in eons past. This is the river, after all, that gouged the Grand Canyon from stone. A river like this has got to be respected, even by engineers.
Early visionaries dreamt of subduing the Colorado for purposes of irrigation and flood control. A private entity called the California Development Corporation thought it could sneak some of the waters of the river into Southern California via a hastily scraped channel, and when the river rose and turned in the direction of its long-lost inland sea, a significant portion of the Southern California desert was left underwater. Sen. Hiram Johnson, a former governor of California, and Phil Swing, congressman for much of sparsely settled Southern California beyond Los Angeles, wanted the river captured in a more orderly and engineered manner and sponsored a bill in Congress to authorize the dam, which passed in 1928 after long delay.
In 1912, Johnson had run alongside Theodore Roosevelt in the breakaway Bull Moose campaign and still nurtured presidential ambitions, as did his fellow progressive Republican Herbert Hoover, who chaired the commission that, after much acrimony, hammered out the Colorado River Compact to determine how the seven states along the river should allocate the impounded waters among themselves. Suspicious of water-hungry Southern California, Arizona would not sign the agreement until 1944.
Herbert Hoover gets on Hiltzik's nerves, to put it mildly, and provokes his investigative instincts. Hoover, Hiltzik believes, claimed and was eventually accorded more credit than he deserved as the compact-meister while serving as secretary of commerce for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge and then as president. This animus is perhaps a weakness in Hiltzik's approach, allowing Hoover's faults to mask his compelling presence to his generation as a progressive advocate of public works. But no matter: Hiltzik is an equal-opportunity debunker when it comes to digging into sources and finding the true story behind the dam's construction.
Boulder Dam -- as FDR pointedly called it upon dedication (to which Hoover was not invited and during which his name was not once mentioned) -- was compellingly appropriated by FDR as the premier icon of the New Deal, despite Roosevelt's earlier opposition to the project. In building the dam, FDR claimed, Americans had come together under the sponsorship of the federal government to combat the Depression, redeem the arid West and make a better America. (The dam's name was changed from Boulder to Hoover by legislation in 1947.)
In Hiltzik's telling, however, six construction firms came together and made not only the dam but also an impressive profit, by hiring Frank Crowe, the premier dam builder of his era, to drive workers relentlessly from 1931 to 1935 and finish the project two years ahead of schedule. Wages were frozen; two sets of books for overtime payments were kept, one public, one secret; unions were busted; minorities were virtually banned from the work force (although a token construction crew of African-Americans performed admirably); and safety measures were haphazard by modern standards, resulting in a still undocumented number of deaths from falls, dynamite blasts, blunt-force trauma, heat exhaustion and carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Hiltzik's subtitle sees the completion of Hoover Dam as a key dynamic in the creation of the American Century. Unfortunately, he does not pursue this notion as far as he might have: into World War II. Hydroelectricity from Hoover Dam empowered the aircraft and shipbuilding industries of Southern California, transforming the region into the Gibraltar of the Pacific; through the ships and planes built with Hoover Dam hydroelectricity, the project made its power felt as far away as Asia.
But to say this is to ask more of an already rich book, which, incidentally, gives due credit to the Los Angeles-based architect Gordon Kaufmann for the design of the dam and to Norwegian-born artist Oskar Hansen for those mysterious winged creatures standing guard over it and for the equally mysterious pavement map that positions Hoover Dam as a planetary marvel. Hiltzik concludes on a cautionary note: "The task facing the people of the Colorado basin today is to learn how to live in harmony with the river, as did the Indians of the plains and desert in millennia past."
Kevin Starr is professor of history at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is "Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge."

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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CHILDREN'S PICTURE BOOKS. Schools out! Summer's here! But now's not the time to forget your ABCs. Who knew the alphabet could have so many different personalities or be so much fun?
NA pages

Reviewed by Kristi Jemtegaard
In "LMNO Peas" (Beach Lane, $16.99; ages 3-6, ISBN 978-1416991410), Keith Baker unleashes those round green symbols of similarity from their pods and reveals their impish individuality. "We're gardeners, gigglers, givers and takers. / We're hikers, inventors, and investigators." The rollicking rhyme continues apace as the little spheroids, in all kinds of get-ups, cavort atop, inside and underneath oversized capital letters. One intrepid green sleuth, for example, dons a deerstalker cap and trench coat as he treks, magnifying glass in hand, around and around the base of a giant H, circles the I and wanders off the page in search of clues. After one reading of this jolly romp, expect to hear choruses of "Pass the peas, please!"
Planning a trip to the country? Take along a copy of Arthur Geisert's latest offering, "Country Road ABC" (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 5-8. ISBN 978-0547194691). The subtitle is "An Illustrated Journey Through America's Farmland," and that's exactly what it is, in alphabetical order naturally. Bucolic describes Geisert's serene panoramas, each of which features a road passing by fields, farmhouses and barns. However, no gentlemanly gloss or nostalgic glow covers the muck and the mud, the rusted-out cars, the low-flying crop dusters, and the quicksand that sometimes lies beneath the corn field. These are all working farms. Careful eyes will sometimes spot a vehicle moving from one page to the next: A blue pickup with an oversized object in the bed turns down a side road and, on the following page, reappears beside a big red tractor with a flat rear tire. Expect some standard words -- M is for milking, P is for pigs -- as well as surprises -- I is for inoculate, V is for volunteer fire department. Like a leisurely drive down a tree-lined lane, this homage to a still vibrant part of our country invites repeated visits.
Maybe crowds, junk food and heart-stopping rides are more your style. Dip into "A Fabulous Fair Alphabet," by Debra Frasier (Beach Lane, $16.99; ages 4-7. ISBN 978-1416998174), for a sneak peek: no tickets necessary. The author is something of a side-show aficionado, as well as a photo junkie. Having taken thousands of pictures of midway signs, she chose a few hundred to assemble into this alphabet-photo collage, a tribute to that most American of institutions: the country fair. The letters depict not only the hurly burly -- F is for Ferris wheel, R is for roller coaster -- but also the food -- L is for large lemonade, C is for cotton candy -- and the exhibits -- Q is for quilts, J is for judging. In addition to the single word, every page is also arrayed with extra letters (A has over 80, X over 100) to study and enjoy. And what is Z for? Why Zucchini, of course, and also for zzzzzzz ... at the end of a very busy day.
Kristi Jemtegaard is a library manager for Arlington County, Va.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Guy Gavriel Kay
ISBN 978-0451463302
573 pages

Reviewed by Michael Dirda
Guy Gavriel Kay's "Under Heaven" isn't quite historical fiction, nor is it quite fantasy. It's set in a slightly reimagined Tang dynasty China, sometimes seems reminiscent of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and depicts the unimaginable consequences of a single generous gift. Most important of all, it is the novel you'll want for your summer vacation.
The young Shen Tai -- lapsed scholar, discharged army officer, onetime acolyte of the Kanlin warrior priesthood -- has spent two years burying the bones of the soldiers who fell at a great battle between Kitai (China) and the empire of Tagur (apparently Mongolia). His father commanded the Kitai forces at Kuala Nor and died, broken in spirit by the immense loss of life, some 40,000 men. As an act of expiation and mourning, Tai lives among the howling ghosts and properly inters their bleached bones, making no distinction between those of his people and the Tagurans.
As a result, Cheng-wan -- the White Jade Princess and wife of the Tagur ruler -- decides to honor this pious work by bestowing on Tai a gift of 250 Sardian horses, the so-called Heavenly Horses, animals of unparalleled beauty, swiftness and rarity.
As they say, every blessing is also a curse.
Not even the Kitai Emperor -- may he live forever -- possesses such a herd of Sardians. To acquire them, men would kill, prostitute their daughters, betray their masters. Such horses, after all, could determine the fate of battles, or even empires. On the very evening Tai receives notice of the White Jade Princess' unexpected largesse, he is the object of an assassination attempt.
Almost immediately, Tai's world, along with many of its established verities, begins to collapse, as the young man gradually realizes that he is now at the center of subtle political machinations at the Kitai Imperial Court. There his calculating older brother serves the new and insecure prime minister, who is also the man who stole Tai's beloved, the courtesan Spring Rain. There the hugely fat barbarian general, known as Roshan, lays his plans. There Wen Jian -- the greatest beauty of the age -- diverts the aged emperor, while playing dangerous games of her own.
To insure his life, Tai makes it widely known that he has left the horses with a friend in Tagur and they will be released to no one but himself. In the meantime, he slowly makes his way back to Xinan, the silken capital city of Kitai. As in any epic fantasy, Tai makes friends along the way. Spring Rain sends a black-clad Kanlin warrior to protect him. Her name is Wei Song, and at one point she fights six men, whirling silently in a courtyard, a sword in each hand. Tai meets The Banished Immortal, the poet Sima Zian (based on Li Bai, aka Li Po), always drunk, always wise in the ways of the world. These two and Spring Rain he can count on. Nobody else.
The milieu presented in "Under Heaven" is, on the surface, one of the most exquisite beauty and courtesy. Honor, right-thinking, decorum count. "Let fall your weapon. Doing so offers you a small chance of living. Otherwise there is none." But consummate graciousness may cloak the most immense cruelty. After would-be assassins are interrogated by a provincial general, Tai is told that the "two men, when encouraged to discuss their adventurism tonight, suggested only one name of possible significance before they each succumbed, sadly, to the exacting nature of the conversation." We later learn that one of these men "had been castrated, his organ stuffed in his mouth. His eyes had been carved out and they had cut off his hands."
Yet the world of "Under Heaven" is not only polite, Machiavellian and ruthless; it is also spooky. Ghosts can kill, female were-foxes seduce, shamans take control of a man's soul or employ swans to search for enemies. The Kanlin can speak the language of the wolves. Pledged to be married to a barbarian prince, Tai's sister Li-Mei finds herself taken to a cave by a zombie-like creature -- half-man, half-wolf. There she undergoes a mystical experience among what are clearly the ancient bronze statues now commonly known as the "Tang horses." Her destiny will be as strange as that of her two older brothers.
Indeed, Li-Mei and the other women of "Under Heaven" are its most memorable characters. Wei Song obviously feels more for Tai than is proper to a disciplined Kanlin warrior. The resolute Spring Rain risks everything for her former lover: "Why, and how, does one voice, one person, come to conjure vibrations in the soul, like an instrument tuned? Why a given man, and not another, or a third?" Why, indeed? "She hasn't nearly enough wisdom to answer that. She isn't sure if anyone does." And then there's Wen Jian.
She dominates the page as she does any room she enters. Kay makes you feel the power and breathtaking seductiveness of this 21-year-old beauty, who can treat the brutal Roshan like a giant baby, who views the world as her plaything, who is convincingly the kind of woman for whom an ordinary man might sacrifice his life or for whom an emperor might throw away his kingdom. At one point, Wen Jian makes a surprise visit to Tai at an inn. An altercation ensues. Wen Jian is not amused.
"'It was uncivilized. There was violence in my presence, which is never permitted.' She lifted her hand from his leg. 'I have instructed my under-steward to kill himself when we reach Ma-wai.'
"Tai blinked, wasn't sure he had heard correctly.
"'You ... he ... ?'
"'This morning,' said the Beloved Companion, 'did not proceed as I wished it to. It made me unhappy.' Her mouth turned downward.
"You could drown in this woman, Tai thought, and never be found again. The emperor was pursuing immortality in the palace, men said, using alchemists and the School of Unrestricted Night, where they studied the stars and asterisms in the sky for secrets of the world. Tai suddenly had a better understanding of that desire."
Guy Gavriel Kay is a much honored Canadian writer of historical fantasy, perhaps best known for the three-part "Fionavar Tapestry" and for "Tigana" and "A Song for Arbonne." As a young man, he assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing J.R.R. Tolkien's epic "The Silmarillion." For "Under Heaven" Kay has chosen a spare, slightly courtly style, but nonetheless moves his plot along at a rapid clip. At the same time, he continually thickens his novel with appealing minor characters, thus adding to the story's overall richness as well as suggesting that much else is going on just outside our narrative field of vision. As Kay's historian-like narrator observes:
"Every single tale carries within it many others, noted in passing, hinted at, entirely overlooked. Every life has moments when it branches, importantly (even if only for one person), and every one of those branches will have offered a different story."
"Under Heaven" ends where it began, among ghosts. Everything quietly, ineluctably fades into history, as into those mists one sees on Chinese scroll paintings. Besides, all these myriad wonders and struggles and heartbreaks occurred a long time ago, in a world that never actually existed -- until now.
Visit Michael Dirda's online book discussion at

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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EVERYTHING IS BROKEN: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma
EVERYTHING IS BROKEN: A Tale of Catastrophe in BurmaEmma Larkin
ISBN 978-1594202575
271 pages

BURMESE LESSONS: A True Love StoryKaren Connelly
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
ISBN 978-0385528009
382 pages

FOR US SURRENDER IS OUT OF THE QUESTION: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending WarMac McClelland
Soft Skull
ISBN 978-1593762650
388 pages

UNDAUNTED: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in BurmaZoya Phan with Damien Lewis
Free Press
ISBN 978-1439102862
284 pages

Reviewed by Wendy Law-yone
For most of the past half-century, ever since Burma fell under military rule, news from that closed-off country has been relatively scarce and almost always bad. But in recent years a series of shocking events -- the murder and torture of Buddhist monks who dared stage a peaceful protest; the government's denial of help to victims of Cyclone Nargis; the ongoing mistreatment of the last elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest -- has turned Burma into an international cause celebre. Heads of state weigh in regularly with denouncements of the military dictatorship, Hollywood celebrities champion the Burmese cause, and debates on the country's fate proliferate in international conferences, on the air, in print, on the Internet. As I write, eight books on Burma are stacked on my desk -- two memoirs, two journalistic accounts, one graphic novel and four histories -- all published, or to be published, by mainstream houses within the year. With elections pending in Burma -- blatantly rigged and guaranteed to raise hackles far and wide -- many more works are undoubtedly in the pipeline.
Although it may be nothing more than coincidence, it seems remarkable that four out of the current bumper crop of books are by women: two Americans, a Canadian and a Burmese.
In "Everything is Broken," Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) returns to some of the territory of her first book, "Finding George Orwell in Burma." The catastrophe that draws Larkin back in 2008 is Cyclone Nargis, which struck the delta region with apocalyptic force, leaving more than 100,000 people dead and wreckage on an incalculable scale. Compounding the disaster was the stubborn refusal of the military government to allow international aid to reach the victims.
"Everything is Broken" is Larkin's eyewitness account of the cyclone's chaotic aftermath, both in Rangoon and throughout the devastated delta. Larkin's writing is graceful, and the final third of the book describing her work with the survivors is all the more powerful for her unobtrusive style. But due perhaps in part to her low-key interviews and subdued investigations and in part to the anonymity of her sources (a necessity under repressive regimes), other sections have an offstage quality that make for less compelling reading.
Another author returning to Burma for a second book is Karen Connolly, whose first was "The Lizard's Cage," an award-winning novel set in a Burmese prison. This time, Connolly's nonfiction subject is love. Although this is principally a memoir of her affair with the leader of a Burmese dissident group, the subtitle of "Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story" clearly refers as well to this Canadian writer's fondness for the country and its people.
Connolly is a poet with many volumes to her credit and a narrative flair to her prose. But those who pick up "Burmese Lessons" more out of a special interest in Burma than out of curiosity about how a Western woman copes with seduction, passion, rejection and constipation while carrying on an affair with a Burmese revolutionary may feel shortchanged. About Maung, the revolutionary, we learn very little, apart from a few breathless details about his healthy libido. What exactly Maung does in the daily service of revolution, however, remains unclear. One is left with the impression that he does very little -- rather poor PR for the dissident movement.
Much of the action in "Burmese Lessons" takes place in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, home to an ever-shifting population of Burmese refugees, illegal migrant workers, dissidents and the NGOs and Thai Police overseeing them. Mae Sot is also the setting for Mac McClelland's "For Us Surrender is Out of the Question," an account of her six-week stint as a volunteer in a houseful of Karen refugees. (The Karen are one of Burma's embattled ethnic minorities living in the delta and eastern hills bordering Thailand.) Subtitled "A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War," the book is shot through with so many accounts of mind-numbing ordeals and atrocities that after awhile the repetition seems never-ending, too. But here at least, between the horror stories, we learn what young Burmese dissidents do when they're not out in the field: They sleep in late, get hooked on Facebook, talk to their girlfriends on their cell phones, do squats while watching Eminem, drink a lot of beer -- the usual frat-house routine.
McClelland, a young editor at Mother Jones, writes like a seasoned 20-something blogger. A footnote explaining why the Burmese junta changed the country's name to Myanmar concludes, "The junta sucks." She resists the temptation to put her name on her food in the shared refrigerator of the group house because that would be "way too douchey." Still, she has done her homework where Burma is concerned -- and anyone who doubts it can be roundly reassured by a separate chapter on her sourcing.
As McClelland's reporting shows, stories of Karen villagers in ceaseless flight from rabid Burmese soldiers dominate the literature of human-rights violations in Burma. But it takes a book like Zoya Phan's "Undaunted" to bring home the gut-wrenching particularities of such stories -- of what it means to experience terror, hunger, dispossession and debasement as a way of life. The daughter of a senior Karen leader who was recently assassinated, Zoya had an idyllic childhood -- until her tranquil, verdant Burmese village went up in smoke when she was 14. For the next 10 years, she and her family, along with thousands of others, were constantly on the run -- from the savagery of the Burmese army to the cruelty of the jungle, and on to the inhumanity of refugee camps.
Zoya's simple but affecting coming-of-age tale, told with the help of British journalist Damien Lewis, is one of both survival and triumph. Today Zoya, a University of East Anglia graduate based in London, is a prominent campaigner and eloquent speaker whose counsel on Burma-related issues has been sought by British members of parliament and former prime minister Gordon Brown.
Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, the above books are at least evidence that news about Burma is no longer as scarce as it once was -- just implacably, resolutely disheartening.
Wendy Law-Yone is a Burmese-American writer living in London. Her novel "The Road to Wanting" has just been published in the U.K.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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With the new school year starting, parents can use a good laugh to start the day. The New Yorker Parenting Cartoons ezine has just what you need! Subscribers to this free ezine will receive a New Yorker cartoon every morning by e-mail -- a service available only from ArcaMax! New subscribers will also receive a New Yorker-style cartoon with their name in the caption, perfect for sharing with family and friends! For more cartoons every morning, sign up for the Dogs and Cats, Food Humor, Love & Relationships, and Office Humor ezines. Subscribe to New Yorker Parenting Humor. -- From the ArcaMax editors

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