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Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Snakewoman of Little Egypt," "The Saddest Music Ever Written"

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Thursday September 30, 2010
    Emma Donoghue
    Little, Brown
    ISBN 978 0 316 09833 5
    321 pages

    Reviewed by Ron Charles, the fiction editor at The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at His e-mail address is charlesr(at symbol)
    Everything about Emma Donoghue's "Room" sounds mawkish and sadistic, as though she's arriving late to the popular genre of child-abuse thrillers that Maureen Corrigan recently lamented in our pages. But don't bother if those lurid books are your thing, and please keep reading if you'd enjoy one of the most affecting and subtly profound novels of the year.
    You'll recognize the premise of "Room" from several sensational news stories, including the horrific experience of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman who was imprisoned by her incestuous father in a makeshift dungeon for 24 years. Using these reports as grim inspiration, Donoghue has invented the abduction of a 19-year-old college student, who's been kept in a soundproof garden shed for seven years. The room has a hot plate and a sink, a toilet and a television. Her captor brings her enough food to survive, disciplines her by cutting off electricity and heat, and rapes her several times a week. This is, as I said, a story I cannot imagine having any interest in reading.
    Except that it's told by the woman's 5-year-old son.
    Jack has lived his entire life in the 11-foot-square room, and his mother has devoted every moment to creating a realm for him that's safe and enchanting. Although he's preternaturally observant, he rarely sees the scary man -- Old Nick -- who makes his mother's bed creak at night while he's "switched off in Wardrobe." Restricted to Jack's vision, we don't see much of Old Nick either, although we overhear him tell Ma, "I don't think you appreciate how good you've got it here. ... Plenty girls would thank their lucky stars for a setup like this." While the story is sometimes terrifying, Donoghue consistently de-emphasizes Old Nick, a strategy that reflects Jack's limited perspective but also demonstrates that she has no intention of trafficking in the sexual charge of abduction thrillers.
    Instead, the novel stays focused on Jack's elemental pleasures and unsettling questions. With the few items at her disposal, Ma has developed the pleasant routines of their day: Phys Ed and Simon Says, Orchestra and Labyrinth, Bath and Hum. "We have thousands of things to do every morning," Jack says, "like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser. ... I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that's nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus." Determined not to rely too much on the TV, Ma makes sure that Jack is fluent in stories from the Bible, Shakespeare and Mother Goose, whose tropes and characters mingle comically in his imagination.
    He's pale and small, with an undeveloped immune system and the strange muted voice of someone who's spoken only to his mother in the dead silence of their cell. But like some child-version of Henry David Thoreau, Jack lives in a state of open-faced delight with the simple objects of Room. And it takes nothing away from the injustice and horror of their circumstances to appreciate the sustaining philosophy these two survivors have developed.
    For such a peculiar, stripped-down tale, it's fantastically evocative. Moving beyond those lurid news stories, one thinks of the thousands of prisoners around the world condemned to solitary confinement, those desperate Chilean miners half-a-mile underground, or Kaspar Hauser, the 19th-century German boy who grew up in total isolation. Perseus, remember, was born to an imprisoned mother, too, and others will catch the parallels to Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," about a father's efforts to entertain his son in a Nazi camp. But Ma isn't trying to deceive Jack or distract him so much as help him make a practical, hopeful life in an extraordinarily constricted situation.
    We meet Jack on his fifth birthday, just before Easter, when his mother begins revealing to him the outlandish idea that there's a world beyond their tiny cell. "My head's going to burst from all the new things I have to believe," he says. It's like trying to explain that most of life actually takes place in the fourth dimension. Imagine describing "skies or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos" to someone who conceives of the universe as a sparsely furnished, 11-foot cube. Jack experiences a little Copernican revolution before our eyes, and it's alternately frightening and inspiring to witness, a reminder of just how much we overlook. "When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid," he says in an echo of fellow prisoner Saint Paul, "but now I'm five I know everything."
    We see Ma only in Jack's adoration, but clearly she's an extraordinary woman, setting aside her own anguish to nurture the joy that Jack takes in their little world. As unspeakable and bizarre as their plight is, how many new mothers have felt the anguish of Ma, trapped in a room with a small child they love but desperately need time away from? How can she broach the subject of escape without shattering Jack's perfect harmony? And how will Ma ever establish the separation that must take place for Jack to develop into his own person, to comprehend the startling fact that he's not the only other person who exists?
    The Irish-born Donoghue has written eccentric, otherworldly stories before ("Slammerkin" is probably her best known), but "Room" -- short-listed for the Booker Prize last week -- should appeal to an even larger audience. Not too cute, not too weirdly precocious, not a fey mouthpiece for the author's profundities, Jack expresses a poignant mixture of wisdom, love and naivete that will make you ache to save him -- whatever that would mean: Delivering him to the outside world? Keeping him preserved here forever? I haven't been ripped up like this by a novel since Kiara Brinkman's "Up High in the Trees," about a little boy with Asperger's trying to grasp his mother's death. But until you finish it, beware talking about "Room" with anyone who might clumsily strip away the suspense that's woven through its raw wonder. You need to enter this small, harrowing place prepared only to have your own world expanded.

    Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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    Robert Hellenga
    ISBN 978-1608192625
    342 pages

    Reviewed by Carolyn See, who reviews books regularly for The Washington Post
    Don't start reading this book if you've got a dinner party coming up in the next few days, or a committee meeting or a golf game. You'll be calling people up with fake excuses and feeling bad about yourself -- at least that's what happened to me. I'd never heard of Robert Hellenga; I didn't think a book with the name "Snakewoman of Little Egypt" would hold any appeal for me at all. I was deep in another long, portentous novel that had been extravagantly praised by another major American newspaper, and feeling that I was locked in an endless civics lesson that was bound to do me good, if only I could get through the book. Then I opened "Snakewoman," which makes no claim at all to being a great American novel, only a wonderful one.
    Jackson Jones, a 40-year-old professor of anthropology, teaches at a university in west central Illinois. He's enduring a mild midlife crisis: Should he stay here in sheltered academia for the rest of his life, or return to where he's done most of his fieldwork -- a place deep in the Congolese forest, close to the Ugandan border? He went native when he was there, acquired a cute girlfriend only three feet tall, with her teeth filed to sharp points, and had a daughter by her. But he's been sick, and he loves the comforts of his "real" home, this inviting campus in the heart of a cozily attractive Midwestern town.
    The place where he lives now is extremely nice -- an appealing old house willed to him by his French anthropologist mentor, a giant in his field who believed that he had found the actual site of the Garden of Eden, again, deep in the forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. That anthropologist left his notes to Jackson, who hesitates to publish them. It's a little outre, isn't it, to claim to have found Paradise?
    In fact, Paradise might be right here in Illinois. After returning from his years of fieldwork, Jackson is bowled over simply by going to the grocery store. As he takes in the balsamic vinegar and fresh mussels, the author muses, "You could count on radicchio and fennel and arugula in the produce section. He ate well." Of course, over there in Congo Paradise, they feasted on termites and boiled monkey meat and sometimes elephant. All very good.
    The late caretaker of the house Jackson inherited has willed him another sort of bequest. The caretaker's niece, Willa Fern, who will soon change her name to Sunny, has been serving five years in prison for shooting her husband (but not killing him). The sentence is light because her husband gave her every reason to shoot him. Earl is a zealous, snake-handling preacher of a very small church, who forced his wife to put her arm in a box full of snakes to test whether she was cheating on him. She took this very badly and shot Earl the first chance she got. She has just been released from prison, and before he died, the caretaker asked Jackson to keep an eye on her -- whatever that means.
    Sunny, meantime, has decided to make some changes in her own life. While in prison she lost her faith: "God was a lot like Earl," she says. "A kind of a bully. The kind of guy who will lie and steal and cheat, slap you around. Look at the Garden. Look what happened to Adam and Eve. 'Disobey me, will you? I'll whup your tails until they won't hold shucks.'" Sunny is content to be merely hardworking and happy. She dropped out of high school to marry Earl; she knows nothing of the world except snake-handling and prison. Now that she's out, everything is new to her; she's drunk with possibilities. She's moved into a garage apartment on Jackson's property; she got her GED behind bars and is about to enroll in college.
    Of course, she and Jackson start an affair, but he already has something going with a lady professor who teaches creative writing and is married to a very nice minister. And Sunny has to worry about Earl, who has long since recovered from his wife's gunshots and is prowling about. But life is nice. Sunny learns to cook -- veal Marengo with crayfish and poached eggs. She's dazzled by the idea of writing fiction and speaking French and learning about the big-bang theory.
    When Earl does come around, we see he's not such a bad fellow, just nuts. His church advocates handling snakes to push the edge of the cosmic envelope, to blur the line where the self meets the larger world. The oldest woman in his congregation has been prayed back from the dead a couple of times, and she's seen her version of the Garden of Eden, too.
    All these characters have the sense to know that they're already there -- in the Garden. They practice their French, cook wonderful dishes, take long car rides, write novels, play timpani. It's not that they don't have their torments; they just don't value them very much. Sunny gets a chance to use her snake-handling skills by signing up for a biology experiment that involves moving a bunch of snakes from one place to another. Jackson -- an anthropologist, after all -- gets involved with Earl's little church. What a strange version of civilization they've got going down there in Illinois! There's no question of Jackson and Earl fighting over Sunny; they all like each other too well for that.
    But this is a novel, so someone gets snakebitten, and someone gets shot, and someone dies. People who seem to be in love with one person may well end up with somebody else. Meanwhile, they all learn about each other's lives -- the importance of style as well as ethics, the importance of the vision of the Garden of Eden.
    Sunny isn't called "Snakewoman" for nothing. Her nature is to be mysterious and implacable. She's harmless enough if you don't threaten her, but deadly if you do. And there's a wonderful two-headed snake here that's important to the plot. You wish -- well, you almost wish -- that you knew how to handle snakes. Or at least play the drums, or speak fluent French, or cook.
    I contented myself with the last and created, under this novel's influence, a pasta dish with Gorgonzola and plums. A masterpiece. Thank you, Mr. Hellenga! For, among other things, inspiring your readers, instead of trying to edify them.

    Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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    THE SADDEST MUSIC EVER WRITTEN: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings
    Thomas Larson
    ISBN 978-1-60598-115-4
    262 pages

    Reviewed by Michael Dirda. Visit Dirda's online book discussion at
    Writing about music can't be easy. An art historian can direct the reader's attention to that little patch of yellow in Vermeer's "View of Delft," conveniently reproduced on an adjoining page of his scholarly tome, while a book reviewer can quote whatever illustrative passages he favors from that new novel.
    But music critics must either attempt to describe the evanescent and ineffable, which can lead to gushy impressionism, or they must transcribe bars of music notation and start talking about subdominants, rallentando and other arcane compositional matters. In the first case, the reader must already know the music to appreciate the floundering description of its particular clang-tint; in the second, he or she must grasp elementary music theory.
    Thomas Larson adopts the subjective approach in "The Saddest Music Ever Written," his rather too personal account of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, an achingly beautiful nine-minute piece written in 1936, deeply revered by music lovers and recognizable to moviegoers from its use in the soundtracks of "Platoon" and "Lorenzo's Oil."
    Larson's title is, of course, a debatable one, and some readers might argue that a greater sense of the forlorn can be found in various pieces by Bach, or in the traditional Irish song "Danny Boy," or even in Patsy Cline's "Faded Love," not to overlook any number of jazz saxophone ballads. In the competition for most doleful, Larson himself mentions the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 and several funeral marches and dirge-like hymns such as "Nearer My God to Thee." Still, Barber's Adagio is the clear go-to favorite for funerals, memorials and other solemn occasions, such as tributes to the victims of 9/11 or relief benefits for Haiti. Its sustained mournfulness -- lyrical, anguished and full of yearning -- builds to an eventual, but only partial release. As Larson writes:
    "Barber composed the sorrow of the Adagio by first concentrating on familiar musical elements: a chant-like melody, rising and falling patterns, restful pauses, growing intensity, string consonance. But then variation, where the composer's genius lies, interrupts the familiarity. Barber's melody, one of many contrasts, is consistently inconsistent, snaking and looping, ascending and falling, traversing longer and shorter lengths. Walter Simmons argues that the Adagio's 'sense of pathos' arises from its many soft dissonances, the suspension, or appoggiaturas, that delay resolution and heighten unease. These suspensions help disrupt the expected harmony, so the piece, exploring the uncharted, sounds new. Or, better put, sounds old and new simultaneously."
    Barber was born in 1910 to a well-to-do family in West Chester, Pa., and never had to work at anything but his art. As a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, he met fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, with whom he shared most of his subsequent life. Today Menotti is best known for his short operas, especially that Christmas favorite, "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Both men won Pulitzer Prizes for their music.
    When Barber was 26, he and Menotti rented a chalet in Austria and there he worked on a string quartet, ultimately re-scoring its slow movement to create the Adagio for Strings. As Larson admits, almost nothing is known about the genesis of this orchestral masterpiece. By inclination, Barber seems to have gravitated to writing for the voice, as in his second most famous work, the haunting "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," based on a prose-poem by James Agee, and a signature piece for the soprano Leontyne Price. In later years, the composer would mount two operas, the Pulitzer-winning "Vanessa" and the resounding flop "Antony and Cleopatra." Barber never wholly recovered from the latter's failure and gradually sank into bitterness, depression and drink. He died of cancer is 1981.
    The summary account of Barber's career is arguably the best part of "The Saddest Music Ever Written." Look out, though, whenever Larson grows personal and essayistic. As early as page 19, sentences such as "The brooding photo of Barber reminded me of my father" hint at what is to come. Several chapters eventually recreate the early life of Larson's parents and chart their later afflictions. What's more, Larson tends to ramble on about melancholia and family sorrows and musical expressiveness, while also repeating over and over the same legitimate points about the Adagio's universality and beauty. All this is meant to underscore the deep humanity of Barber's music but generally seems either misguided or self-indulgent.
    Neither is the book helped by the author's sometimes disconcerting diction: "Every claw and nail of the characters' travails erupts from their nuanced voices." On two successive pages Larson employs the bizarre word "self-serious" three times. And then there's his tendency to pop psychologizing or bathetic imaginings:
    "No doubt, when Menotti heard the B-flat held above the E-flat minor seventh and the F major chords, then resolve to A, followed by the chant-like melody, he got excited and appreciative, grabbed his handsome young composer from America and held him close, later made love, saying yes we are blessed to have each other yes we wake and walk and live together and yes this is the garden from which our musical selves will grow."
    Someone at Pegasus should have alerted Larson to such excesses and urged him to stick with facts and avoid most if not all his egregious personalia. Maybe these economies would have allowed for an index. As it is, much of the most entertaining material in this scattershot book lies in the endnotes, where we learn about various performances and recordings of the Adagio -- those by Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Schippers and Leonard Slatkin are the most admired -- and find amusing anecdotes and bits of trivia. You might or might not be interested to know that the Adagio was played at the funeral of Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, or that some scholars have speculated that Barber was inspired by reading Virgil's "Georgics," or that the composer and Andy Warhol "liked each other a lot and once got thrown out of a Manhattan restaurant for telling bawdy jokes too loudly for the other patrons' comfort."
    If you're a serious Barber fan, you'll probably want to read "The Saddest Music Ever Written" no matter what critics say about its quirks. Anyone else, though, would be better off buying a couple of Barber CDs -- probably the 1991 Slatkin, which emphasizes the orchestral music, and the Schippers-Price compilation highlighting the vocal works, including the ethereal "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."

    Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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    Tom McCarthy
    ISBN 978 0 307 59333 7
    310 pages

    Reviewed by Samantha Hunt, the author of "The Invention of Everything Else," a novel about the life of Nikola Tesla
    The end of Tom McCarthy's extraordinary novel "C" takes readers back to its very beginning. Englishman Serge Carrefax arrives in Egypt as British rule is dissolving. He's an architect studying destruction among the sediment of the earliest civilization. The Rosetta stone mingles with the 1919 revolt. Cleopatra with the Ministry of Communications.
    Rather than complicate the novel, this mash of cultures serves as a decoder ring. Meaning, quite suddenly, is doubled, tripled. Scenes that were, on first take, merely finely crafted historical fictions are revealed to be the work of a mind entranced by refrains. Only the dullest of readers will be able to resist diving back into the text for a second look. Thoth, god of secret writing, is grafted on top of Serge's own boyhood preoccupation with codes and communication; Alexander the Great stands in for Alexander Graham Bell; and the Rue des Soeurs in Cairo harks back to a name for heroin, "sister," reminding us of Sophie, Serge's beloved and doomed sibling. Culture gets recycled in this novel, but rather than bore us with each reappearance, it provides the dizzying thrill of familiarity.
    What happens in "C"? Serge grows up in the early half of the 20th century. He leaves the silkworm farm of his childhood. He goes to war. He goes to Egypt. He does a lot of drugs, meets a lot of women. And "Ulysses" is the story of a man taking a walk ...
    Shortlisted last week for the Booker Prize, "C" moves in circuits, forever closing in on its topics: radio, World War I, drugs, Egyptology, seances, sisters, spas and silkworms, to name a few. McCarthy's genius comes in convincing his reader of the connections between these distant planets.
    "C" traipses through such lush locales as a deaf school in the British countryside, a vaguely Eastern European spa, the air space above France during the Great War, and the spiritualist communities of London. McCarthy dwells in the historical, but he is hardly bound by the constraints of time. He selects events that, having once happened, reverberate infinitely. There is the sinking Titanic. There is Marconi sending his first "S" across the sea. And there are the hordes of tourists shuffling past the pyramids.
    This narrative method is reflected in one of Serge's Egyptian discoveries. Deep inside a tangle of tombs and burial chambers, he points to three ebony statuettes.
    "What are those?"
    His companion answers, "They're figures for the ka -- the soul -- to dwell in."
    "They look like the same person done in different sizes."
    "They are: if one gets broken, the ka moves on to another; plus, they show the dead man in three periods of life -- childhood, youth, age -- so that he himself can relive all three, enjoying them simultaneously."
    These circuits speed up and repeat. Patterns and people reappear. Scars are reopened. While recovering from a loved one's suicide, Serge studies a tapestry in a German spa that depicts a scene of torture. In it he sees the face of both his physician and his childhood pediatrician: "Maybe Dr. Filip's just the latest incarnation of a character as old as this town itself, Serge thinks to himself -- a figure who reappears in era after era, like Dr. Learmont's face repeating through the sickbed afternoons of his childhood, but on a larger scale, one to be measured not in the memories of a single life but over centuries."
    Indeed, after brief costume changes, McCarthy's characters, images and symbols all play multiple roles. The dead return in slightly altered forms. Even Serge himself works a double shift. It's hard to deny the similarities between him and Sergei Pankejeff, the Russian aristocrat whom Sigmund Freud referred to as "Wolf Man."
    Representing "a semi-fictitious avant-garde network" called the International Necronautical Society, or INS, McCarthy published a manifesto in 1999 that announced: "Death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit. ... We shall attempt to tap into its frequencies. ... Our ultimate aim shall be the construction of a craft that will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist. With famine, war, disease and asteroid impact threatening to greatly speed up the universal passage toward oblivion, mankind's sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways."
    Colonizing death? Dying anew? No wonder it's hard to say where this book starts and ends.
    Language and letters are not left out of McCarthy's cycling. The C of the title certainly stands for Carrefax, but also for cyanide, Sophie's poison of choice; cysteine, the amino acid that darkens the spa waters; his father's coils of copper wire; the caul Serge was born under; the air corps where he first snorts cocaine; Morse code; and even the cc of Serge's carbon-copied reports. Like these reports, everything here is ink-stained, including the author. McCarthy reignites the literary pyrotechnics of Perec, Calvino, Joyce and Sebald. Words are celebrated in vocabularic feats -- page 117 alone delights a word-lover with "syzygy," "invigilator" and "fusee." Poetry is fired in gunshot blasts that, at times, hit actual human targets: "The words fly from his gun into the sea, hammering and splintering its surface."
    As the novel closes, Serge, in a fever, becomes the thing he so often held in his hands: a radio receiver, open to every channel, jammed with all that's come before. In creating a work that recycles itself and our culture, McCarthy has produced something truly original.

    Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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    Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    "Nashville Chrome," more

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    Washington Post Book Reviews
    For You
    Wednesday September 29, 2010
      The chemistry of a good story
      ISBN NA

      Reviewed by Harold Varmus
      When high school students ask to spend their afternoons and weekends in my laboratory, I am amazed: I didn't develop that kind of enthusiasm for science until I was 28 years old. In the 1950s, in my Long Island public high school, science courses were at best uninspiring; it would never have occurred to me to sacrifice after-school hours to a laboratory. But as the son of a family physician and a psychiatric social worker, I assumed I was destined for a medical career, so I was diligent in those classes, even though I preferred novels to chemistry and tennis to science fairs.
      Later, at Amherst College, my exposure to science was dutiful, pre-ordained by an inflexible curriculum and pre-med requirements. My pleasures came instead from Chaucer, Milton, Dickens and college journalism. After college, finally acknowledging what I enjoyed, I entered graduate school in English literature, heading toward a scholarly career that would emphasize the 17th century.
      Then disenchantment with Harvard graduate school and anxiety that I was irreversibly detaching myself from the modern world sent me to medical school at Columbia. I had learned of Gertrude Stein's bon mot that medicine opened all doors. This prompted me, in different moods, to view my future life as literary psychiatrist, globe-trotting tropical disease specialist or academic internist.
      Anyone graduating from medical school in 1966 had first to fulfill military service before launching a career. Fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War, I sought to avoid it through an assignment to the Public Health Service. Despite my lack of scientific credentials, I was able to secure a training position in the laboratory of Ira Pastan, a young physician-scientist at the National Institutes of Health. There, for the first time in a lengthy education, I learned the joys of science. I was asked to attack an important unsolved problem (how cyclic AMP, a chemical mediator of cell action, controls gene activity). I devised an accurate test that convincingly answered the question. Then I told other scientists about my pretty findings, wrote papers for publication, received praise and contemplated the next experiments.
      I had learned that science is a rewarding, active process of discovery, not the passive absorption of what others had discovered. It was so exhilarating that I decided to abandon medicine and pursue a scientific career, studying viruses that cause cancer in animals. This precipitated a move to San Francisco, a long-term alliance with a like-minded young scientist (J. Michael Bishop), and the gradual mobilization of a team to figure out how those viruses multiply, how they cause tumors in animals, and what they can teach us about human cancer.
      I have pursued these questions (and other questions that the answers prompted) -- working initially at a laboratory bench with my own hands and, increasingly over time, overseeing experiments done by others -- for almost 40 years. But until a few years ago, I could not have imagined myself writing a book for a general audience about my life as a scientist. I thought that the routines of a medical scientist in a laboratory -- unlike the peripatetic, glamorous and even dangerous exploits of, say, an Amazonian ornithologist -- would seem physically dull and intellectually impenetrable. I didn't realize that we had stories about discovery -- about the logic and excitement of science and about the people who did it -- that could be told and were worth telling. Moreover, I was wary of being personal on paper, of getting away from the secure data and cautious interpretations that are the reliable tools of those writing for scientific journals.
      But suddenly, in 2004, I found myself obliged to write that book anyway. I had been asked to deliver a series of three weekly lectures at the New York Public Library. The offer was seductive: a familiar and limited format (50-minute lectures, with slides), an interested but nontechnical audience, a prestigious venue and an impressive title: the Norton Lectures. Sponsorship by a publisher meant that the lectures would eventually be turned into a book.
      The imperative to connect with a lay audience on three fall evenings seemed daunting, but I settled on three narrative lines that seemed interesting, one for each lecture. In the first, I would recount my meanderings as an adolescent and a young adult through literature and medicine toward science. In the second, I would outline our experiments with cancer viruses that unveiled genes now implicated in human cancer and describe how those genes are used as targets for novel therapies. In the third, I would describe my unexpected foray into public policy after President Bill Clinton chose me, despite my lack of administrative experience, to become the director of the National Institutes of Health in 1993. This final lecture would allow me to speak, albeit briefly, about several matters of interest to both scientists and the general public: how the government funds science, how a large federal agency works with Congress, how the NIH oversees controversial research (for instance, on stem cells or embryos), how scientific work is published, and how science and health can be promoted globally.
      Turning these lectures into a book was a more complicated business than conceiving and delivering them. The task of becoming a different kind of writer took almost four years. Once the constraints of a 50-minute lecture were removed, I became aware of a new and intimidating freedom -- in principle, I could go on as long as I wanted! Moreover, I needed to learn to write in a new way, a way that established relationships with readers, encouraged humor, commanded a reader's sustained attention, and exposed an author's feelings and personality.
      It was not enough to summarize our major findings about cancer viruses and cancer genes or their recent applications to patient care. I wanted to describe how and when ideas popped into my head (for instance, while wheeling our infant son around an English churchyard). I tried to see a pattern to my experimental failures (such as when I committed the sin of Thinking Too Much and advised my trainees to take what proved to be the harder and slower routes to answers). Because I have benefited enormously from scientific collaborations, I also sought to show how our students and colleagues at other institutions helped to make discoveries and how I entered -- and many years later left -- an unusually long and productive partnership. None of this could have been done in 50 minutes at a podium or without a newly liberated attitude toward my role as a writer.
      If I could describe my writing experience as a kind of science, the lectures were the pilot experiments, and the book was the full analysis. But I can also see a story emerge: As an author, I discovered things about myself and was changed in the process. Perhaps, after all, I still prefer novels to chemistry.

      Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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      Rick Bass
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
      ISBN 978 0 547 31726 7
      253 pages

      Reviewed by Dave Shiflett, a writer and musician who posts his original music at
      Fame is something you wish only for those at the very top of your enemies list, at least according to "Nashville Chrome," a darkly engaging "reality-based" novel that might make you think twice before trying out for "American Idol."
      Rick Bass, an O. Henry Award winner, based the novel on the lives of siblings Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed Brown, whose peerless vocal harmonies, at least according to him, were much imitated but never matched, not even by the Beatles, who were mesmerized by the rustic trio. So why don't we remember the Browns? Their flame flickered and died in the early 1960s, which turned out to be a blessing to Bonnie and Jim Ed, though it was Maxine's undoing.
      Bass, who spent five years working with the Browns on the project, launches the tale in Poplar Creek, Ark., where the family, though humble, lived a life of sometimes extravagant misfortune. Father Floyd guzzled moonshine, caroused a bit and ran a sawmill that provided hard wages while relieving him of a few fingers. He also lost a leg in the timber trade, which he occasionally abandoned for the restaurant business. His wife, Birdie, was renowned for her pies and hard work, though their buildings were somewhat prone to burning to the ground.
      Yet the sawmill was a conservatory of sorts for Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie, who early on revealed their musical precociousness by identifying exactly when a spinning saw blade had been properly tempered. Their precise ears informed their precise harmonies, which first caught the attention of parents and neighbors, then of a predatory manager named Fabor Robinson, whose credo, Bass writes, was that while "a star might be born, a star would most assuredly not get paid."
      There's no downside these days to whipping music-industry weasels, and Bass lashes Fabor as a parasite's parasite, living large off the sweat of the Browns' brows while showing them all the warmth of a wolverine. They were paid next to nothing, and when they went broke touring, he refused to send gas money, leaving them to wash dishes to make enough to get back home. The eventual falling-out, however, was in response to Fabor's monstrously lecherous move on Bonnie, who had also caught the eye of the young and not-yet-jaded Elvis Presley.
      The Browns rubbed shoulders with many greats -- Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly and eventually the Beatles, with whom they played a series of U.K. gigs. They also worked closely with Chet Atkins, the guitar god who Bass says eventually discovered that "what he really loved doing was helping other musicians bring out the best in themselves." While there will be readers who consider Atkins' "Nashville sound" sappy enough to make Mantovani blush, he's pretty much the only guy wearing a white hat in this tale. Elvis, meantime, is Exhibit A of how greatness and fame can corrode an otherwise charming mama's boy.
      The Browns knew him early on, and for several years, at least according to this story, Elvis was a gentle soul who walked in their shadow. Yet he was a marked man who was eventually transformed into what Brown calls "the bloated extrapolation of insatiable American appetite and surface showmanship." Even after becoming famous beyond earlier imagining, he told the Browns, "he was pretty sad most of the time."
      Poor Maxine led a train wreck of a life. She married a philandering lawyer who flew the coop, leaving her with a couple of kids. She retired to the deeper recesses of the bottle, spicing her morning coffee with rum, though she eventually shook that demon.
      The fame devil, however, did not go so easily. Maxine spent half a century desperately hoping to somehow launch a comeback. How desperate? She posted an ad on a Piggly Wiggly grocery store bulletin board seeking someone -- anyone -- who would make a movie about her life. Her ad was answered, albeit not by Tom Hanks, though the film project and its unlikely director gave something of a happy ending to her tale of woe.
      The novel is fairly short but richly written. There are times, to be sure, when a reader hears a loud Faulknerian echo -- but there are far greater sins. Bass can certainly leave you with an arresting mental image, including this one from Elvis' funeral: The King, he writes, lay "in an open casket on ice, his insides baking, they said, decomposing faster than most normal people, falling apart, riven by violent internal chemistries, the simmerings of errant prescriptions and unsustainable excess."
      Bass has clear sympathy for those whose fate is to haunt some A-list or another. "There is no right or wrong to greatness," he writes, "there is only the forward movement of it, and those who possess the most of it are the least in control of it." Yet you're left with the impression that the desire for fame might well be considered a form of mental illness. The next time you feel the urge to hire a publicist, you might be better off hiring an exorcist instead.

      Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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      Tuesday, September 28, 2010

      "The Balfour Declaration" and "Big Girls Don't Cry"

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      Washington Post Book Reviews
      For You
      Tuesday September 28, 2010
        THE BALFOUR DECLARATION: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
        Jonathan Schneer
        Random House
        ISBN 978-1400065325
        432 pages

        Reviewed by Eugene Rogan
        On Nov. 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour transformed the future of the Middle East in 18 words: "His rat Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."
        Before that date, Zionism was a marginal movement that divided Jews and was dismissed by gentiles. After the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish national project enjoyed the support of the leading imperial power of the age. Though he was not to know it at the time, the British foreign secretary had laid the foundations for the state of Israel and a conflict between Arabs and Zionists that, nearly a century later, remains unresolved.
        British historian Jonathan Schneer has produced a remarkable book on this complex and divisive subject. His "Balfour Declaration" is engagingly written, adding to our knowledge of this frequently told story without ever taking sides.
        The novelty of the book lies in the way he tells the story. Schneer sets the Zionist struggle for recognition in the context of Britain's conflicting promises to Arabs, Jews and its European allies as part of its desperate bid to defeat Germany in World War I. Britain supported these movements more for their utility to its own war effort than out of conviction.
        The Arab movement was first to secure British support. When the Ottomans entered the war on Germany's side in November 1914, the Germans pressed the Ottoman Sultan to declare a jihad -- a religious war against the British and French. Germany hoped by this means to provoke internal uprisings in India and North Africa that would weaken Britain and France and hasten their defeat in the war. The Ottoman call for jihad raised genuine concern in British government circles, and they sought an influential Muslim ally to counter this threat.
        Sharif Hussein of Mecca enjoyed wide respect as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and as the leading religious figure in Islam's holiest city. Shortly after the Ottoman call for jihad, the British government entered into correspondence with the Sharif to encourage him to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. The Arab statesman drove a hard bargain and secured from Britain promises of arms, grain and gold to sustain a revolt, and recognition of a vast Arab kingdom under his rule in the event his movement succeeded. In June 1916, the Sharif declared his own jihad, this one against the Ottomans, and activated a strategic alliance with the British.
        The Zionists had a much harder time engaging the interest of British officials at first. As late as 1913, the chief diplomat of the World Zionist Organization, Nahum Sokolow, could get a hearing at no higher a level than the private secretaries of foreign office officials -- and with little effect. As one foreign office mandarin advised his aide after a meeting with Sokolow, "We had better not intervene to support the Zionist movement."
        In addition, Zionism divided British Jews. The Jewish elite of wealthy businessmen and politicians known as the "Cousinhood" advocated assimilation to mainstream society as the solution to anti-Semitism. They rejected the Zionist assertion of a distinct Jewish national identity, as they believed it encouraged the view that Jews were always strangers in their land of birth. "No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists," mused Claude Montefiore, a leading member of the Cousinhood.
        Chaim Weizmann proved essential to securing support for Zionism among powerful members of the Cousinhood and leading British politicians. Born in Russia in 1874, he fled czarist anti-Semitism to study chemistry in Germany and Switzerland, and moved to England to take up a post in the University of Manchester in 1904. He became a British subject only in 1910.
        Schneer brilliantly captures Weizmann's rise, in which he used social contacts with the influential Rothschild family and discussions with liberal newspaper editor C.P. Scott to secure meetings with Balfour in December 1914 and Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George in January 1915.
        Lloyd George and Balfour believed their support for Zionism would advance British war aims. They thought American Jews would encourage their government to enter the war, and Russian Jews would throw their weight behind the czar's efforts to ensure Germany's defeat and the creation of a Jewish national home under British sponsorship. Moreover, they believed that support for Jewish nationalism might advance Britain's territorial ambitions in Palestine. Having secretly agreed with France in 1916 to place Palestine under an international administration, Balfour saw an opportunity to use Zionism to gain international support to place the Holy Lands under British rule instead.
        Yet even as they obtained British support for their cause, the Zionists sought accommodation with the Arabs. Given the care with which Schneer develops the parallel tracks of Zionist and Arabist politics, it is surprising that he fails to mention the direct negotiations conducted between the two sides towards the end of the war. The tireless Weizmann traveled from Europe to meet Amir Faisal, commander of the Arab revolt, in Transjordan in June 1918, and they later signed a formal agreement of mutual support between a future "Arab State" and a Jewish "Palestine." Yet as both Arabs and Jews were to learn, Britain's support was not to be trusted. With the British army caught in a murderous stalemate on the Western Front, Lloyd George (now the prime minister) actively pursued a separate peace with the Turks that would have left the Arab world under nominal Ottoman rule. Indeed, Schneer documents no fewer than five different initiatives to secure an Anglo-Ottoman peace, any one of which would have denied both the Arabists and the Zionists their objectives.
        Previous authors have argued that, in pursuit of its wartime interest, Britain had promised Palestine to three parties -- Arabs, Jews and international overseers. Schneer has convincingly demonstrated that, had the British managed to detach the Ottomans from Germany, the British would have been just as happy leaving the country to the Turks. Clear and balanced, this is the most original exposition of the Balfour Declaration to date.
        Eugene Rogan teaches the modern history of the Middle East at the University of Oxford and is author of "The Arabs: A History."

        Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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        BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women
        Rebecca Traister
        Free Press
        ISBN 978-1-4391-5028-3
        336 pages

        Reviewed by Connie Schultz
        In the early pages of "Big Girls Don't Cry," Salon's Rebecca Traister seems determined to alienate every female reader over 40. Had I fallen for her false start, I would have missed her considerable contributions to the ongoing feminist narrative described by Gloria Steinem as the "revolution from within."
        At first, Traister gleefully harpoons the warriors of old to explain why her younger generation is done with antiquated notions of feminism. Consider, for example, her description of the women at a nonpartisan, pro-abortion-rights gathering: "It was a crowd of monied, Botoxed, electorally enthralled dames who, in the popular imagination of the time, should have had 'Hillary '08' mown into their Hamptons house topiary, if not their bikini lines." That comes a mere four pages after she argues that, if young women are to care about feminism, the "conversation had to be drained of some of its earnest piety. Talking about gender in the new millennium required us, I thought, to get over ourselves a little bit, to dispense with the sacred cows, to question power and cultivate new ideas and leaders."
        Hillary Clinton had allowed her husband "to play her for a fool," Traister writes, before embarking on her quest to become "the most powerful girl on the Senate floor." A few pages later, Traister offers Princeton University associate professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell's parsing of Elizabeth Edwards' popularity: "A fat woman married to a good-looking man is always a good story, particularly if she is a breast cancer survivor who has lost a child."
        By the middle of Chapter 2, Traister's book felt increasingly like the minutes of the Mean Girls Club -- and a waste of this 53-year-old woman's time. But with age comes patience. Good thing, too. I ended up admiring Traister and loving her book. In its best parts, it is a raw and brave memoir of a journalist who discovered that all is not well for women in America, and a description of how she and other young women are laying claim to their rightful place in the fight.
        Traister offers a first glimpse into her reluctant but hopeful heart when she describes following Michelle Obama on the campaign trail in late 2007: "It was November in rural Iowa, and between the Hopperesque towns in which we were stopping we drove through farmland, and brittle leaves blew across the road. I had thrown some CDs into my bag, and at some point on the drive to Michelle's next stump stomp, on a crisp bright day following this crisp, bright woman, Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A Changing' began to play. I was thirty-three years old; I had no memories of the 1960s, in which the modern civil rights movement took hold, or of the 1970s, in which second-wave feminism bloomed. But I felt for a few minutes as though, on some small highway east of everything urban in Iowa, I was living in the most powerful historic moment of my lifetime, as if the country I'd grown up in, with its rules and limitations and assumptions about who can do what and who can be what, was finally beginning to fulfill Dylan's decades-old promise."
        Traister started out supporting John Edwards and opposed even the notion of President Hillary Clinton, but ended up sobbing when Clinton conceded. The author is at her best when she explores the confusion and contradictions swirling within -- and without. Boldly, she takes on the "frat boys" at MSNBC, as well as the many young, white males on Daily Kos and in the Obama campaign who trafficked in sexist and misogynist attacks on Clinton.
        "A pattern was emerging in the liberal, privileged, predominantly white climes in which I worked and lived: young men were starry-eyed about Obama and puffed with outsized antipathy toward Clinton. ... I was made uncomfortable by the persistent note of aggression that marked their reactions to Clinton, and puzzled by the increasingly cult-like devotion to Obama, a man whose policy positions were not so different, after all, from those of his opponent. Hating Hillary had for decades been the provenance of Republican blowhards, but now men on the left were spewing vitriol about her voice, her looks, her presumption -- and without realizing it were radicalizing me in my support for Clinton more than the candidate herself ever could have."
        Despite the setbacks and disappointments, Traister believes the 2008 presidential race breathed new life into the women's movement, in part because she felt a new generation came to own it. Such a youthful embrace of the women's work yet to be done is exhilarating -- for her generation and for mine.
        And therein lies my only caveat, which Traister may see as a matronly reprimand: Do resist tagging all of us over-50 feminists as dour discards. Your youthful vision is better than our crinkled eyes for navigating the future, but we hold your history in our hearts. We are still in the fight, increasingly with men foolish enough to mistake a woman's sags for surrender. We were once you, and one day you will be us.
        Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and an essayist for Parade magazine.

        Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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        Monday, September 27, 2010

        "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" and "The Grace of Silence"

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        Washington Post Book Reviews
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        Monday September 27, 2010
          THE JUNIOR OFFICERS' READING CLUB: Killing Time and Fighting Wars
          Patrick Hennessey
          ISBN 978-1-59448-479-7
          310 pages

          Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
          In 2007, toward the end of his seven months' service in Afghanistan, Patrick Hennessey of the British Grenadier Guards celebrated his 25th birthday and his promotion from lieutenant to captain. From home he received "the sheer twelve-year-old joy of birthday parcels and cards and goodies galore," and from his platoon "the gentle ribbing of the boys that I might be the youngest captain in the army, but I'm no longer 'young.'"
          That, if anything is understatement. Early in his Afghanistan posting he had recalled "the vivid imagery of the First World war poets," in particular Siegfried Sassoon's powerful "Suicide in the Trenches" and its "vituperative lines" to which his fellow soldiers "nodded approvingly when I managed to drag them up from memory -- 'You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by / Sneak home and pray you'll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.'"
          In significant measure "The Junior Officers' Reading Club," first published last year in England when Hennessey was 27 years old, is intended to bring down "the wall that's been quietly built between those of us who are here (in Afghanistan) and have lived these things and everybody else, no matter how close to us they previously were." That reflection comes after a satellite-phone conversation with Jenny Dean, "my amazing girlfriend," leaving him "not sure how a phone conversation can go so quickly from sexy whisperings and longing for clean sheets and sturdy double beds to tearful recriminations and complete lack of understanding," but deepening his awareness of the unbridgeable gulf between soldiers at war and civilians back home.
          "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" isn't going to eliminate that misunderstanding, even for those who read it closely and take its lessons to heart, because nothing except the experience itself can bring home the true nature of warfare, but it certainly conveys "the way the further you got into the war, into the jungle, into the heart of darkness, the more the scales of normality fell away." It takes the readers into a place where "normal parameters were meaningless, rules didn't exist, time bent, and only the heat and exhaustion were real enough to remind you that this wasn't a dream sequence." The two books from which it most directly draws inspiration are Michael Herr's "Dispatches" (1977), the classic account (by a noncombatant!) of the Vietnam War, and Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" (2003), about the second Iraq campaign, and it deserves to be ranked with both of them.
          It takes a bit of getting used to, at least for this much older reader who suffers from exceedingly limited familiarity with heavy metal and rap, British youth slang and military acronyms (fortunately a glossary is supplied). Almost all readers will need some time to adjust to Hennessey's prose, which is quirky, unconventional, at times stream of consciousness, at others obscure. But be patient and make the effort. It's worth it.
          Hennessey was 18 years old, wrapping things up at Oxford in 2001, when he applied for officer training school. He was part of a wave of post-9/11 enlistments, but his motives had less to do with patriotism or a desire to serve than with "boredom with everything else." Indeed, boredom is a theme that runs throughout "The Junior Officers' Reading Club," as summarized when Hennessey and his unit arrive in Afghanistan in March 2007: "I was bored. As bored as I'd been when I decided to join the Army, as bored as I'd been on public duties, guarding royal palaces while friends were guarding convoys in Iraq, as bored as I'd been once we got to Iraq and found ourselves fighting the Senior Major more than Saddam. Stone-throwing, chain-smoking, soldier-purging bored."
          Boredom is of course a salient if not dominant fact of military life, evidence of which can be found in everything from "Goodbye to All That" to "Mister Roberts" to "From Here to Eternity" to "Catch-22," but Hennessey puts an especially vivid spin on it, if anything about boredom can be said to be vivid. The reading club referred to had been formed "in the heat of the southern Iraqi desert" by junior officers seeking "quick half-hour escapes from the oppressive heat and boredom routine," members of "a newly busy Army, a post-9/11 Army of graduates and wise-arse Thatcherite kids up to their elbows in the Middle East." It wasn't a reading club in the received sense of the term -- white wine and cucumber sandwiches most definitely were not served -- but a way to keep boredom under control and to discover, in novels of wildly varying quality, "a sense of the surreal, an acute sense of the slightly mad," or, in a phrase, the world of war.
          It wasn't until Hennessey got to Afghanistan that he found that world, which in truth is what he had been seeking all the time, "the contact battle that ramps the heartbeat up so high and pumps adrenalin and euphoria through the veins in such a heady rapid mix ... the ultimate affirmation of being alive." That's strong stuff, and readers of a pacifist inclination aren't going to like it, but it gets to a truth about the human mind and heart. John Hersey called a now-forgotten novel of his "The War Lover" (1959), and its portrait of a man who lived for and reveled in combat touches the same themes as Hennessey does.
          "I suddenly know that I hate this and love it at the same time because I can already feel both how glad I will be when it is over and how much I will miss it," he writes. "How difficult to convey to anyone that matters something which they will never understand, and how little anything else will ever matter." And, a few pages later: "I would probably rather be anywhere in the world right now other than here, but if I was anywhere else in the world I would just want to be back here."
          Some may be tempted to take this as posturing, but the temptation must be resisted. It's an honest acknowledgment of the darkness within us, of the unwelcome emotions that combat can bring about. "Eight dead Taliban today so we celebrate with a precious tin of hot dog sausages," Hennessey reports at one point, then adds: "I'm more amused than worried that this seems now to be a perfectly natural reaction to things." To admit that takes not merely honesty but courage. It doesn't mean that Hennessey is intrinsically more bloodthirsty than any of the rest of us, only that when put in a violent and deadly situation, he responded as circumstances required. War does that.
          Before this wraps up, though, we need to shift gears. "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" is a dark book at times, but it's also smart and funny. Hennessey's account of his training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is absolutely delicious, self-mocking and irreverent. His portrayal of a drill sergeant is a classic:
          "The CSgt was best, his stream-of-consciousness rants by now the stuff of legend among thirty of us who had as clear a case of Stockholm Syndrome as ever you're likely to see. Hanging on every word of this man whom we had feared and hated in equal measure but now worshipped and envied, his professionalism, his experience, his implied hardness and the fact that he would come grinning in to work after a leave weekend with impressive bar-brawl scars, growling at us that we'd better not piss him off that day because he loved his wife and if we annoyed him he'd have to beat her because he wasn't allowed to beat us."
          Et cetera. "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" is a humdinger.
          Jonathan Yardley can be reached at yardleyj(at symbol)

          Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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          THE GRACE OF SILENCE: A Memoir
          Michele Norris
          ISBN 978-0307378767
          185 pages

          Reviewed by Lisa Bonos
          Michele Norris, co-host of NPR's "All Things Considered," grew up being told to "rise above" racial discrimination and keep her "eye on the prize." She didn't realize then that her African-American parents were trying to do the same. In her memoir, "The Grace of Silence," Norris chases after a family secret revealed too late -- that her father had been shot by a police officer in Birmingham shortly after being discharged from the Navy after World War II. Learning of the incident years after her father's death and long after other family members' memories of the event had faded, Norris can only guess at how it must have haunted him for the rest of his life.
          She blends the story of her childhood -- and her quest to fill in its gaps -- with a wider view of Southern race relations immediately following World War II, a period often overshadowed by history's focus on the Martin Luther King era of the 1960s. "What's been more corrosive to the dialogue on race in America over the last half century or so," Norris asks, "things said or unsaid?" Her struggle to answer that question becomes a powerful plea to readers to doggedly pursue their families' storylines. She reminds us that speaking candidly about race in America starts not at the president's teleprompter but at our own dinner tables.
          Lisa Bonos can be reached at bonosl(at symbol)

          Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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