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Friday, December 31, 2010

"Franklin and Eleanor" and "Hollywood Hills"

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Friday December 31, 2010
    FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR: An Extraordinary Marriage
    Hazel Rowley
    Farrar Straus Giroux
    ISBN 978-0374158576
    345 pages

    Reviewed by Carolyn See, who reviews books every Friday for The Washington Post
    Here's some old-time Republican humor: Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt are sitting in the White House living room during World War II. "Do you notice anything different about me, dear?" Eleanor asks. "No, dear, I don't," Franklin answers. "What can it be?" "I'm wearing my gas mask," Eleanor responds. Ha, ha, ha.
    Women all over America -- if they were a certain type -- could take comfort in the fact that even if they were poor, uneducated and stupid, there was one person more homely than they were. Eleanor was the proverbial mud fence, and because she believed in good causes, social justice and the essential humanity of Negroes, she also got to be the national pill. Put another way, in their 40-year marriage, Franklin Roosevelt was the hipster, Eleanor the square.
    They were both of New York aristocracy, of Dutch heritage. They were fifth cousins, once removed. Eleanor's uncle was the beloved president Theodore Roosevelt. They were rich, and had -- theoretically -- every advantage. Franklin, in fact, did. His father was an invalid, but his mother, who was immensely wealthy, made Franklin the apple of her eye. He was handsome, sunny-tempered, perhaps a little slick. Things were different for Eleanor. Her mother, a great beauty, was disappointed in her girl's looks; her father was a classic sociopathic charmer -- extremely kind and solicitous when it occurred to him, absent the rest of the time. Once "her father asked her to wait for him in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Club, and she waited, holding his three fox-terriers on their leashes, until six hours later the doorman sent her home in a carriage." Plainly speaking, she was never loved.
    Then, when she was a young woman fresh from boarding school and Roosevelt was still an undergraduate at Harvard, the pair recognized each other on a tram. One of Franklin's relatives had just made a scandalous and sordid marriage, and perhaps it was this that convinced Franklin she would be good wife material. There was a courtship, the young couple married, and Uncle Teddy came to the wedding and stole the show: "My father," Alice Roosevelt Longworth wrote, "lived up to his reputation of being the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral and hogged the limelight unashamedly." Afterward, they went to live in New York City in a home that opened directly on Eleanor's mother-in-law's home. Sara Delano Roosevelt proved to be a classic gorgon, holding on to the purse strings, criticizing her daughter-in-law at every turn. Eleanor gave birth to six children; five survived.
    If I've spent a long time on the early stages of the Roosevelt marriage, so does Hazel Rowley, the author of this enticing new biography. Her research, both meticulous and extensive, does not bloat the book into a doorstop. "Franklin and Eleanor" is less about history than about relationships, and it reads like a wonderful novel at times, giving us a vision of what parts of American life were like then. No matter how rich you were, life was hard.
    Illness bedeviled Eleanor and Franklin. They managed to have typhoid fever at the same time. When she discovered Lucy Mercer's love letters, he was down with double pneumonia. That mother-in-law never stopped interfering. But -- the author implicitly suggests -- it was all this, along with Franklin's natural ebullience and Eleanor's implacable desire to do good, that gave them the strength to cope with Franklin's polio (described here in appalling detail), to survive election after election after election. (His mother opposed his political career with all her might.)
    Their personal lives turned radical and subversive. After his affair with Mercer, Franklin had a series of adoring females around him, and for the most part Eleanor never objected. She herself had some form of romance with her bodyguard-chauffeur; he was a handsome chap and plainly devoted. And just about the time of her husband's first presidential inauguration, she embarked on a passionate affair with Lorena Hickok, at that time the foremost female newspaper reporter in the land.
    A blend of characteristics -- Franklin's flamboyant confidence, Eleanor's passion for social justice -- generated the exceptional energy it took for the pair to change the world. Their ability, so well captured in these pages, to gather friends and followers into a coherent and powerful community and their willingness to exchange affection until the very end remain awesome. This is much more than a book about politics.

    Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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    Joseph Wambaugh
    Little, Brown
    ISBN 978-0316129503
    356 pages

    Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air." She teaches literature at Georgetown University.
    What fun it is to read Joseph Wambaugh! His Hollywood Station police procedurals -- peppered with the requisite gunshots and groin kicks, sleaze and sunshine -- are word-drunk wonders. If James Joyce had imagined "Finnegans Wake" as a crime story (hmmm, not a bad idea since plot was never Joyce's strong suit), it might have turned out something like Wambaugh's latest suspense story, "Hollywood Hills."
    Take this bit of nonsense verse lobbed between two of Wambaugh's cops, a duo nicknamed Flotsam and Jetsam, who are standing on Malibu Beach, where a photo shoot is taking place. The shoot features a thonged female model flanked by two male models ineptly posing as surfers. The hipster cops are sneering at the two faux surfers:
    "'I'm all dialed in to see what happens if the pair of rainbow donks actually hit the briny on their unwaxed legs.'
    "'Get your happy on, bro,' his partner said. 'Forget the two squids. Just wax up and enjoy the gymnosophical gyrations of that slammin' spanker.'
    "'Gymno ...?' said the tall surfer. Then, 'Dude, I hate it when you take community college classes and go all vocabu-lyrical instead of speaking everyday American English.'"
    Rest assured that this bewildering syntax does straighten out some after the opening chapter, but Wambaugh clearly revels in catchy cop talk and overblown metaphors that make Raymond Chandler's similes seem sedate by comparison. "Hollywood Hills" would make the perfect last-minute holiday gift for any aging English majors out there who like their crime fiction lite and have fond memories of reading "Jabberwocky" out loud.
    Wambaugh's plot is as loopy as his language is joyously loony. An ex-con named Raleigh Dibble has landed a comfortable job as a butler and cook to Leona Brueger, the widow of a cold-cuts tycoon whose mansion is perched in the exclusive neighborhood of the novel's title. Raleigh, like most crime noir saps, yearns for what's out of his reach. He meets his satanic tempter in Nigel Wickland, Leona's art dealer. During the ongoing Great Recession, sales have dropped off at Nigel's pricey art gallery, so Nigel, sensing Raleigh's restlessness, proposes that the men team up and substitute digitalized copies for some of Leona's more expensive paintings. As the plan progresses, Raleigh, wisely, gets cold feet:
    "His thoughts kept returning to the months he'd spent in federal prison (for writing bad checks), where he'd met several inmates who had served very hard time in state penitentiaries. One of them had told Raleigh that comparing Club Fed to state prison was like comparing hemorrhoids to colon cancer, and the inmate was a man who had suffered both."
    Meanwhile, a gang of teenage burglars known as the "Bling Ring" is breaking into the mansions of young celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. The tabloid accounts of the audacious exploits of these teen thugs fire up the imagination of a young parking attendant named Jonas and his sort-of girlfriend, Megan -- both OxyContin addicts. Jonas and Megan begin cruising the Hollywood Hills to sniff out a promising property to burgle and, you guessed it, Leona Brueger's mansion strikes them as ripe for the pillaging.
    As all plotlines converge at the mansion, the LAPD cops who call Hollywood Station home base are busy with some extraneous distractions like shutting down a goth house party and chasing pickpockets outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. As ever, Wambaugh is alert to the ugly realities of police work, but overall "Hollywood Hills" is much more screwball than sinister. Throughout the novel, for instance, a female rookie named Britney is treated to some insider "cop-style girl talk" by an older sister-in-arms:
    "'Don't go to work without shaving your legs. How'd you like it if a gossipy ER nurse told some of the Watch Five coppers about your stubble? You just know they'd all start calling you 'cactus legs.'"
    "'No cactus legs,' the rookie said, 'Got it.'
    "'And don't wear an underwire bra under your vest. I tried to take the vest off Millie Boyle after she got rear-ended in a TC at Hollywood and Vine, right before we put her into the RA. And her goddamn padded underwire bra popped off like it was spring-loaded.'
    "'No underwire bra. OK, boss,' Britney said cheerfully. 'This is real good information to have.'"
    Wambaugh's "Hollywood Hills" doesn't offer profound insights into the evil that lurks in the human heart. Instead, this series serves up something perhaps even more welcome as the drear days of winter settle in: an absurdist take on crime, as well as plotlines and sentences that perform buoyant loop-de-loops all over the page before making flawless landings.

    Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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    Thursday, December 30, 2010

    "Canti" and "Sea Change"

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    Washington Post Book Reviews
    For You
    Thursday December 30, 2010
      Giacomo Leopardi. Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi
      Farrar Straus Giroux
      ISBN 978-0374235031
      498 pages

      Reviewed by Michael Dirda, who reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post
      Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is generally regarded as Italy's greatest 19th-century poet. His "Canti" -- or songs -- range from the patriotic history poem ("To Italy") and the meditative lyric ("Broom") to verse epistles ("Recantation") and despairing cris de coeur ("Infinity"). Like any good romantic, he regularly reflects on the yearning for love, the consolations of nature, the transitoriness of all things and the deep yet moonlit loneliness of life.
      It's hardly surprising then that his poems bear such familiar-sounding titles as "The Solitary Thrush" and "To Spring." Sometimes Leopardi actually sounds a bit like Wordsworth, surveying a landscape, recalling the past -- "This lonely hill was always dear to me" -- and then sliding into an evocation of the sublime: "But sitting here and gazing, I can see/beyond, in my mind's eye, unending spaces,/and superhuman silences, and depthless calm/till what I feel/is almost fear." But for the Italian poet, there is no redemptive epiphany. For just as Baudelaire was racked by that combination of melancholy, disgruntlement and boredom that he called "Spleen," so Leopardi constantly suffers its Italian equivalent, "Noia," the void or emptiness within.
      Here, for instance, is his short poem "A Se Stesso" -- "To Himself" -- in Jonathan Galassi's moving translation:
      Now you'll rest forever,
      worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion
      that I thought was eternal died. It died.
      I know not just the hope but the desire
      for loved illusions is done for us.
      Be still forever.
      You have beaten enough.
      Nothing deserves your throbbing, nor is earth
      worth sighing over. Life is only
      bitterness and boredom, and the world is filth.
      Now be calm. Despair for the last time.
      Death is the one thing
      fate gave our kind.
      Disdain yourself now, nature, the brute
      hidden power that rules to common harm
      and the boundless vanity of all.
      Leopardi grew up in the small town of Recanati, where his charming but stern father was the local grandee, a man who dressed in dandyish black every day and rued the day he had married his cold and religiose wife. According to Leopardi, his unnaturally pious mother viewed any death as a happy occasion since another soul had flown to heaven.
      Sickly all his life, Leopardi ruined his health by spending virtually his entire adolescence squirreled away in his father's library. Learning entranced him, so much so that as an adolescent he was able to annotate the work of ancient rhetoricians and translate into Latin Porphyry's "Commentary on the Life of Plotinus." But by the time he was 18, he had acquired a permanently hunched back, impaired vision and hypersensitivity to cold: Even in the hottest weather, he would work with a heavy lap robe on his knees.
      While he yearned for love, the women Leopardi adored were all out of reach: neighboring servant girls who died young, elegant matrons who ignored him or merely toyed with his affections. Thus he speaks of "the woman who cannot be found," a creature as elusive as the blue flower of the German romantics. Although soon half in love with easeful death, Leopardi nonetheless lived on until his late 30s, until -- literally unable to breathe -- he died in Naples, beloved of a small circle of literati and cared for by a long-suffering friend.
      Leopardi was not just a poet, he was also a prose writer of distinction, regarded by Nietzsche as one of the four best of the 19th century. He composed fables ("Dialogue Between a Sprite and a Gnome"), short satires, maxims and philosophical essays, much of the material drawn from the several thousand pages of the journal he called his "Zibaldone" (hodgepodge). Here is one entry (taken from the highly recommended "Giacomo Leopardi: Selected Prose and Poetry," translated by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs):
      "What is life? The journey of a sick cripple who, with a heavy burden on his back, climbs over steep mountains and through desolate, exhausting, and arduous lands, in the snow, the frost, the rain, the wind, under the blazing sun, for many days, without ever resting by day or night, in order to reach a certain precipice or ditch, into which inevitably he must fall."
      In his endnotes to the "Canti," Galassi points out that the first complete English translation of the "Zibaldone" will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in 2012. In a world of evanescent fiction and fluff, that's the kind of publishing a great house undertakes. So too is Galassi's own rich edition of the "Canti," prefaced by a long introduction, Italian originals and his English translations on facing pages, an annotated timeline of Leopardi's life and a hundred pages of often-detailed textual commentary. The last is particularly valuable for its citations from Italian scholarship. For instance, Ugo Dotti summarizes Leopardi's poetic thought as "the inevitable unhappiness of modern man thrown into a world turned upside down yet aware of an irremediably lost 'happiness.'"
      If you know even a smattering of the language, it is always a pleasure to glance at Leopardi's Italian. "The Evening of the Holiday" opens: "Dolce e chiara e la notte e senza vento," which Galassi translates quite simply and beautifully as "The night is soft and bright and without wind." This is, I suspect, a faint echo, almost a variation of, Petrarch's famous line, "Chiare fresche e dolci acque" ("Clear, fresh and sweet waters"). In his introduction, Galassi underscores that Leopardi confronted and eventually transcended the overwhelming influence of Petrarch.
      What finally makes Leopardi so appealing a poet is his combination of a classical intelligence coupled with a hypersensitivity to his own inner self and a sometimes enraptured, sometimes acerbic style. In "Recantation," for instance, he imagines a Utopian future, one in which "human happiness will be perfected," where "silk and wool clothing/will be softer daily," and a tunnel will run under the Thames, and the smallest city be well lit at night. It will be a "manly age,/concerned with the hard facts of economics, immersed in politics," with no interest in mere affections. "What good does exploring/your heart do you?" Instead, a friend advises Leopardi to "sing our century's needs and its ripe hope." The poet answers that he doesn't think that he "can make what this age needs." "But hope, I'll surely sing of." And so he does.
      Over the past half-century American readers have embraced the translated poetry of Rilke, Cavafy, Neruda and Akhmatova. Thanks to Jonathan Galassi's edition of the "Canti," it's Leopardi's turn now.

      Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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      Jeremy Page
      ISBN 978-0670021901
      274 pages

      Reviewed by Ron Charles, The Washington Post's fiction editor
      Nicole Kidman's "Rabbit Hole" opens Friday on a tide of advance praise and mutterings about Oscar nominations. It's an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a couple whose 4-year-old son is accidentally killed. Acclaimed movies about horse-racing or India or Julia Child usually stir up interest in related books, but Jeremy Page's thoughtful novel about a father who loses his 4-year-old daughter is unlikely to get that boost from Hollywood. There is a limit, after all, to how much any of us wants to consider such tragedies, and yet the demands of this grim subject have inspired some novelists' best work. Anne Tyler portrayed grieving parents in one of her finest novels, as did Anne Hood, Stephen King, Francine Prose, Stewart O'Nan, Lorrie Moore and others.
      "Sea Change" -- the title is the only thing worn out about this novel -- begins with a death that shatters a young family. It's an arresting 15-page chapter in which Guy and his wife, Judy, are enjoying a lovely day with their daughter, Freya. Guy "knows even then, that he will want to hold on to this moment for the rest of his life," Page writes, "to be with her, in that wide sunny field in East Anglia, crouching by the horseradish plants." But then the scene of parental bliss is interrupted by an uncanny act of violence, surreal and terrifying, like a Grimm fairy tale imposed on an unsuspecting modern family.
      The rest of this relatively short novel takes place five years later in the shadow of that tragedy, as Page marks out the peculiar but wholly believable trajectory of one man's grief and possible recovery. When we see Guy again, he's in his late 30s, living alone with "the unassailable truth that life has stopped but time has not." On an old Dutch barge called the Flood in the Blackwater estuary off Essex, he gives over his existence entirely to the rhythms of nature, a concession that seems idyllic but also suspiciously resigned: "The way the tide lifts your whole life up just to put it back down in the mud twice a day," Guy says, "that's wonderful, when you're asleep and you start to float -- I really like that -- it's like you drift away in every sense, from yourself."
      What looks like a suicide attempt -- swimming dangerously far away from his barge -- may really be part of a brutal treatment regimen that he's designed for himself. "Floating this far away from the Flood, he feels disembodied," Page writes. "It gives him clarity. Clarity to view his last few years like a frayed rope, each strand of it working itself loose from the thing it had once been, each strand still with the curled shape of the life it was once part of. Now unsupported, weakened, unravelling."
      He sets himself up with several more life-threatening challenges, and a good deal of the novel's muted suspense stems from these self-imposed ordeals, which may kill him or cleanse him -- or drive him mad. Guy's plaintive calls to his daughter on the dark water of the North Sea are, frankly, almost too sad to endure, but they sound entirely true. Those of us doomed to see our young children killed or maimed endure a lifetime of nightmares, re-enactments and merciless second-guessing. For years after my first daughter was severely brain damaged, I dreamed of her running toward me, a fantasy that always made me feel both elated and devastated in just the way Page describes.
      Guy takes his only comfort from a diary in which "he's written every evening for the last five years, since his life changed irrevocably. And thinking this way, he's able to begin, knowing he can no longer imagine his days passing without doing it." But what initially sounds therapeutic is really a crippling, addictive fantasy: His diary is a minute re-creation of the life he and his wife would have led had their daughter lived, and as such it's a kind of a faux record, a painful demonstration of the layers of self-deception that grief pushes us to. His fictional experience with this now-make-believe family is "such a regular part of his routine it's been more real, at times, than the life they all had, when they were together."
      Page is a sensitive, pensive writer, and he has endowed Guy with the same skill to compose this poignant story within the story. "It's a wonderful thing to write," Guy thinks. "You can reclaim the things you lost." But in practice, Guy is too talented for his own good: In the effort to describe his wife and daughter as accurately as possible, he ends up creating a fully dynamic set of characters who quickly veer away from his control and begin to enact the tensions that were already pulling on his family before Freya died. The compensations of fantasy seem destined to be overwhelmed by his own fidelity to the truth.
      As introspective and painful as "Sea Change" is, it remains engaging and even surprising all the way to the end. Page knows enough about real grief to be aware that it follows no regular stages. Guy's drifting course across the sea takes him through troughs of despair and moments of transcendence, but it eventually leads him to something wholly undefined and evocative, perhaps the only possible destination after such a tragedy. This is a difficult book to recommend -- a voyage into dark waters all of us want to avoid -- but if something about the description resonates with you, seek it out; it won't lead you astray.

      Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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      Wednesday, December 29, 2010

      Three Books About Horses, More

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      Washington Post Book Reviews
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      Wednesday December 29, 2010
        OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Adventures of an Observer
        Garry Wills
        ISBN 978-0670022144
        195 pages

        Reviewed by James Rosen
        "I am not interesting in myself," Garry Wills declares at the outset of "Outside Looking In." American readers have steadfastly disagreed over the last five decades, during which time Wills, an ex-Jesuit seminarian turned journalist and professor, has published nearly 40 books on politics, religion and history, almost unfailingly to critical acclaim. All have been thoughtful and provocative; many became bestsellers; two won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and one -- "Lincoln at Gettysburg" (1992) -- received the Pulitzer Prize.
        Such a mind can hardly be uninteresting. Yet Wills, now 76, proceeds here as though he believes it is, allotting little space in this slender memoir to self-examination. His subtitle, "Adventures of an Observer," neatly captures the author's view of himself, Zelig at the ramparts ("I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive"), while the main title defines the volume's readers, who are at all points barred admission to Wills' complex interior.
        Instead, "Outside Looking In" functions like an erudite jukebox, summoning amusing, tragic and telling anecdotes at a rapid clip, each well told, all enriching our understanding of postwar America's politics, passions and pieties. Chapters are named, guilelessly, for the famous people ("Nixon," "Carter and others," "Clintons") and momentous events ("Dallas" for the Jack Ruby case, "Turbulent Times" for the civil rights and antiwar protests) the author has covered. This structure is ill conducive to narrative, though, and sometimes makes for disc-jockey segues like "I met another great singer" and, not too many pages later, "Another singer I got to know well ..."
        Retracing his old steps, Wills shadows the "new" Richard Nixon across New Hampshire in late 1967; jousts with Lillian Hellman over the Alger Hiss case (in which Wills, angering liberal friends, concluded that the New Dealer was an "obvious" Soviet spy); catches the pre-presidential Jimmy Carter in a lie; and elicits a brushback from Martha Stewart ("Oh, cut it out") at the Clinton White House, after Wills asked her to critique a table setting.
        Separate chapters assay William F. Buckley, Jr., an early mentor and later antagonist (after Wills's politics drifted leftward); Natalie Wills, who seems never to have minded when her husband bolted from town for the next Esquire assignment, leaving her with the kids; and Jack Wills. Only this latter chapter, which enumerates the many failings of the author's father -- a charming but pugnacious gambler and philanderer -- brings us anywhere near Garry's inner self. That Jack, in irritation, once bribed his bookworm son $5 to forgo reading for a week was one of many experiences leading Wills to acknowledge that "I was often an outsider in my family."
        From his silence on the point, Wills, we must conclude, has never suffered any qualms, like those Janet Malcolm anatomizes in "The Journalist and the Murderer," about the moral ambiguities inherent in the journalistic enterprise. Indeed, missing from these pages is any indication that Wills has ever felt fear, shame or regret in his entire adult life. Readers seeking a comprehensive autobiography must accordingly cobble it from this and previous books, like "Bare Ruined Choirs" (1972) and "Why I Am a Catholic" (2002), in which Wills recounted his boyhood and religious education; and "Confessions of a Conservative" (1979), an earlier memoir that chronicled his apprenticeship at National Review and subsequent philosophical evolution, and which featured a similar, but richer, portrait of Buckley.
        Still, "Outside Looking In" is essential for readers interested in this prolific and immensely gifted writer -- notwithstanding his protestations that they should not be. We learn, for example, how much stock Wills places in his doctoral training, at Yale, in the classics. "Greek," he writes here, "is the most economical intellectual investment one can make. On many things that might interest one -- law and politics, philosophy, oratory, history, lyric poetry, epic poetry, drama -- there will be constant reference back to the founders of those forms in our civilization. ... It helps, in all these cases, to know something about the originals."
        And there is also a clue, in a chapter about Wills' travels to opera houses, to what led him out of the seminary and into the arena of reportage and commentary that Buckley called the controversial arts -- and it had as much to do with "Rigoletto" as with the record of our times. "I loved," Wills writes, "the many uses of the human voice."
        James Rosen, a Fox News correspondent and author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate," is at work on a book about the Beatles.

        Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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        ISBN NA
        NA pages

        Reviewed by Yvonne Zipp
        As anyone who's ever read "Black Beauty" or Cormac McCarthy knows, fiction can be rough on horses. Not only must they look majestic and carry their riders faithfully through deserts, snowstorms and bullet fire, they're frequently expected to have magical healing qualities and put up with troubled teens. (Nobody puts these kinds of demands on zebras.) But for readers raised on "The Black Stallion," "Misty of Chincoteague" and "My Friend Flicka," there's also nothing like a good horse book to unlock your inner 11-year-old.
        1. Nicholas Evans, whose 1995 best-seller "The Horse Whisperer" launched a catch phrase and a thousand horseback-riding lessons, is back with his fifth book, "The Brave" (Little, Brown, $26.99). In the late 1950s, lonely 8-year-old Tom Bedford adores cowboy westerns -- but only ones featuring "real" cowboys. He has no patience for the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry or any cowboy who sang or "carried two shiny silver guns ... and had holsters with no leg-ties. How could you be a serious gunfighter without a leg-tie? "Sent away to a sadistic British boarding school, Tom hangs on by dint of his fantasy life. When his mom gets a chance to star in movies, Tom goes west -- Hollywood, that is -- where he learns to ride and shoot while his mom dates an actor on one of the TV shows he loved. Then something goes very wrong, and the aspiring actress ends up on death row. In the present, Tom, an author and documentarian, lives alone in Montana, estranged from his Marine son, who has been charged with the murder of Iraqi civilians. Evans cuts back and forth between past and present, unraveling the twin mysteries, while Tom tries to find a way to help his boy.
        2. For an entertaining novel about forgiveness and the four-footed, try "The Blessings of the Animals" (Harper Perennial; paperback, $14.99), by Katrina Kittle. After rescuing a starving horse, who responds only by biting and kicking her, veterinarian Cami Anderson hits more trouble: Her husband announces that he's leaving her and their teenage daughter for a 22-year-old. Cami has a wry likability that carries the novel over too many romantic entanglements, and, refreshingly, Kittle doesn't believe in fairy tales. Not only is the horse recognizable as an actual Equus caballus -- rather than a unicorn with an invisible horn -- but there are plenty of furballs for animal lovers of all stripes, including a three-legged ginger cat, a rescued pregnant donkey and a white goat who could teach Houdini a thing or two.
        3. How tough is Vaclav Skala? The Texas farmer hitches his four sons to the plow and saves his horses for racing in Bruce Machart's densely told novel, "The Wake of Forgiveness" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). All four boys grow up to be weathered and have crooked necks, but Karel, the youngest, also has a gift for racing that his father uses to increase his holdings. Then wealthy Spaniard Guillermo Villasenor shows up with his three girls and a proposition: One of his daughters will race Karel. If Karel loses, the families will unite. Like "The Brave," this novel jumps back and forth in time -- primarily between 1910 and 1924, when Karel is the lone brother left working what was his father's land -- but Machart is operating on another level when it comes to writing. "The Wake of Forgiveness," which hails from the Robert Olmstead school of western, is a dark tale about fathers and sons, missing mothers and the poison that lies at the heart of the question, Who's to blame?
        Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.

        Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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        LOUISA MAY ALCOTT: A Personal Biography
        Susan Cheever
        Simon & Schuster
        ISBN 978-1416569916
        298 pages

        Reviewed by Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University and the editor of the volume on Louisa May Alcott for the Library of America
        Louisa May Alcott has long been the favorite children's writer of literary women from Gertrude Stein to Nora Ephron. And almost every Alcott fan chooses Jo March, from "Little Women," as her favorite character. Jo is the rebel, the artist, the independent woman who considers whether or not to marry (Alcott herself did not).
        Novelist and memoirist Susan Cheever also identifies with Jo, and with Alcott as her creator. In her preface to this new biography, Cheever describes reading "Little Women" for the first time when she was 12and being "electrified. ... It was as if this woman from long ago was living inside my head." She persuaded her father, novelist John Cheever, to take her to the Alcott museum Orchard House in Concord, Mass., where she was "thrilled to be in the presence of the real thing." Even then, she recalls, she was drawn to Jo March: "As a naughty, rebellious girl in the throes of puberty, I needed help, and it seemed to come from the pages of Little Women. What did it mean to be a woman anyway?"
        Cheever calls her book a "personal biography" of Louisa May Alcott, and brings her own family background to the Alcott story. Accordingly, while many Alcott biographers emphasize the influence of Louisa May's mother, Abbya, the idealized Marmee of "Little Women," Cheever follows John Matteson's prize-winning "Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father" (2007) in emphasizing Louisa's father, Bronson, the improvident, eccentric and maddening Transcendentalist philosopher.
        As a progressive teacher and theorist of education, Bronson taught his own daughters as well as his pupils at Temple School, but he battled with the tomboyish and feisty Louisa, who fought him on every disciplinary test and was often spanked and punished for her resistance. Although she adored him, she grew up to be critical of his self-indulgence, oracular tones and inability to earn a living.
        Certainly, Bronson's ill-fated decision to take his young family to live in an agricultural utopian commune, at Fruitlands Farm in Massachusetts, was a turning point in Louisa's life. She was 10 when they arrived at the isolated farmhouse in June 1843 and 11 when they left in January 1844, and she never forgot the weird assortment of vegetarians, socialists, fanatics, celibates and nudists who joined them in their failed experiment, or the disasters of near-starvation, sickness and paternal breakdown that she later satirized in "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873). After Fruitlands, Louisa lost her childhood faith in her father's radical theories and became the honorary son, with responsibility for supporting her family.
        She had started publishing lurid, anonymous sensation stories by age 30, but when the Civil War began, she enlisted as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. Cheever forcefully describes these significant six weeks in Alcott's life, when she tended wounded and dying men from the battle of Fredericksburg and, until she came down with typhoid and had to go home, saw up close the tragedy, bloodshed and administrative chaos of a war her father and other New England abolitionists romanticized from a distance. During this period, Alcott developed her "wry, direct" narrative voice and the Dickensian power that led to her finest writing, but she paid the price of lifelong illness, probably from mercury poisoning.
        When she was asked by the publisher Thomas Niles, and urged by her father, to write a book for girls, Alcott resisted; she did not want to abandon her aspirations to serious adult fiction. But "Little Women," despite her misgivings, was what Cheever calls an accidental masterpiece, a great book in which Alcott, "seemed to shift from being an artist pushing toward meaning to being an artist able to relax and discover meaning." When she stopped trying to impress Emerson and the sages of Concord and wrote about what she knew, Alcott released her genuine creative powers.
        Cheever writes insightfully about Alcott's evolution as a writer and her struggles as a dutiful literary daughter. But, as she admits, there are many excellent biographies of Alcott to choose from, including Harriet Reisen's 2009 study, "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women." Cheever is a lively and likable writer, but she doesn't add anything new to what we already know about Alcott's life. Perhaps if she had followed her promise of a "personal biography" and said more about her own struggles to become a writer in the wake of a brilliant, difficult father, "Louisa May Alcott" might have been a compelling, as well as a charming, book.

        Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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        LEADING ROLES: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask
        Michael M. Kaiser
        Brandeis Univ
        ISBN 978-1584659068
        130 pages

        Reviewed by Barbara Hall, who writes about the arts and education
        "The first thing to do when it becomes clear that an organization is in crisis is to relax. Do not panic."
        So writes Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
        "He deliberately brings an outward calm into a situation where things are falling apart," The Washington Post once observed of Kaiser. Another periodical aptly dubbed him "a rescue artist." Among the beneficiaries of Kaiser's talents have been the Washington National Opera, the Royal Opera House in London and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
        His new book, "Leading Roles," is a rich yet tidy cornucopia of solutions for the challenges facing the American arts scene. His advice, presented as responses to a series of 50 questions, stems from his 2009 whirlwind tour that took him from Boston to San Francisco. All told, he made himself available to 11,000 arts leaders and concerned members of the public in almost every state.
        The book is pragmatic -- but also occasionally, abruptly mischievous. Kaiser decries, for instance, the "edifice complex," the desire of so many arts leaders to "build, build, build." He addresses pressing concerns, such as dwindling audiences, that threaten too many arts endeavors today. And he acknowledges a need for more robust fundraising, providing practical advice for planning galas and using the Internet to solicit support. Government financing, he makes clear, is no panacea, particularly given the recent sea change in Congress.
        Adroitly holding up a mirror to his own experiences, he presents wonderful counsel on best practices to run arts organizations of color, and he cites creative successes in Chicago, where cultural institutions pool resources for the benefit of all. He discusses delicate subjects, too, such as how to oust a problematic board member graciously.
        Throughout, Kaiser never loses his perspective: "So many plans for arts organizations," he notes, "detail extensive strategies for marketing, fund-raising, financial management, and board development, but omit one crucial element: the art."
        The author is compelling as he scopes the horizon, sizing up a future in which global cooperation will loom large for the arts. (Under his tutelage, the Kennedy Center has established worldwide ties in which resources are shared.)
        In addition, over the decades Kaiser has made a mark as a leader in arts education, and he's justifiably concerned about what's happening -- or not happening -- in American classrooms:
        "Since so many public schools in the United States and across the globe do not include arts education in their curricula, we now have a generation of young people who have not developed the habit of arts engagement. This is a serious issue, since we rely on this generation to be the art creators, audiences, donors, volunteers, and board members of the future."
        "No other subject is taught with such carelessness and inconsistency," he continues. "Board members must inquire about the true impact of the arts education programming of their organization. How do the programs intersect with others offered in the community? How do children get a comprehensive arts education? If we only count the number of children in our programs, if we only take heart in their smiling reactions to our student performances, we are not necessarily fulfilling our missions."
        But despite his cleareyed knowledge of the challenges, Kaiser calls for us to be optimistic: "Indeed," he writes, "a turnaround is ninety percent psychological."
        Turning to this savvy, knowing book by a maestro in his field is a practical first step.

        Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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        Tuesday, December 28, 2010

        "The Turquise Ledge" and "Bloodlands"

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        Washington Post Book Reviews
        For You
        Tuesday December 28, 2010
          Leslie Marmon Silko
          ISBN 978-0670022113
          319 pages

          Reviewed by Gregory McNamee
          Walk through a field in Maryland or along a run in Northern Virginia, and you're likely to find treasures in the grass and dark earth: perhaps an arrowhead, a bit of flint washed down from the Appalachians, a Minie ball from some long-ago skirmish.
          Walk through a dry wash in the Sonoran Desert, as Leslie Silko has been doing daily for the last 30-odd years, and you're likely to find legions of rattlesnakes guarding hidden seams of chrysocolla, gold and other precious metals -- which inspire her memoir's title, "Turquoise Ledge." Likelier you will find lesser stones, "pieces of light gray and pale orange quartzite with smooth surfaces and interesting rectangular shapes." You may spot a coyote, a javelina, a ghost or two. You may even see an extra-terrestrial -- in which case, you might be advised to head in the other direction.
          Silko, a Native American writer and artist, came to her home in the gnarled, ancient Tucson Mountains in 1978, when her now-classic novel "Ceremony" appeared. The city of Tucson was a minor mecca for writers in the '70s, populated, at least part-time, by Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Joy Williams, Scott Momaday and Richard Russo, among many other well-known authors, but it was also remote enough that a person could get away quickly, bolt from downtown to desert in 15 minutes. Silko found a place as far out on the edge of town as it was possible to get, a landscape of wild horses and towering saguaro cacti, and made herself at home in a desert that is demanding on even the best of days.
          The best parts of her memoir recount moments that many desert dwellers will instantly recognize: the near-ecstasy that comes when a cloud decides to open up and spatter a little rain on the ground, the feel of shuddering summer heat on the skin, "how luxurious it feels to move through this yellow dawn light."
          The more offbeat parts are engaging, too, if sometimes puzzling. Silko is certain that spirits inhabit her laundry room and even the clouds that pass overhead. She is just as certain that visitors from afar called Star Beings -- perhaps the ones Stephen Hawking has lately been telling us about -- have selected her to be a kind of interpreter for them: "They chose me to make their portraits because they want images that are accessible to ordinary people, to the masses, not to some rarefied audience."
          And she gives dozens of pages over to chronicling the way of the local snakes, which she catalogues in careful detail: Here is Grandfather Rattler, there a tiny relative called Evo Atrox. Suffice it to say that if you have a fear of our slithering friends, this may not be the book for you.
          Stone and ghosts are timeless things, but the desert is not, not while the busy descendants of Columbus are intent on chewing it up. In a dramatic turn, Silko writes of coming upon a piece of construction equipment down in a wash, the kind of yellow machine on which Abbey encouraged desert dwellers to practice unauthorized maintenance, and of battling it by painting warding-off symbols taught to her by those Star Beings. The signs spooked the machine's owner, who read them as gang symbols -- not a bad guess in Tucson and not far from the mark, given Silko's extraterrestrial and otherworldly allies.
          Silko writes of many things, with affectionate portraits of friends and family and sharply observed notes on history, personal and universal. She laments the poisoning of her sisters by radioactive fallout from atomic-bomb tests in the 1950s -- a fate she avoided somehow. She voices occasional regrets, such as not having learned how to speak her ancestral Laguna language.
          (She is certain, too, that 500 years from now all North Americans will speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, rather than English or Spanish, and so she has been studying that tongue.) At dazzling moments, she pulls seemingly disconnected themes together: turquoise, rain, Aztec mythology and language, the otherworld and other worlds ("It makes me happy to know that Nahuatl has a word for space ship") and, yes, snakes.
          But apart from dropping a tantalizing hint or two -- a memory, for instance, that as a child at Laguna Pueblo, she told a pair of disbelieving Anglo tourists that she intended to become a playwright, for "I knew a playwright made up stories" -- she avoids the one subject that students of her work have been wanting her to address: namely, her development as a writer, one who is now considered among the best Native American novelists.
          That awaits another book. Meanwhile, this one will do just fine, rattlesnakes, extra-terrestrials and all.
          Gregory McNamee lives in Tucson, Ariz. His latest book is "Otero Mesa: Preserving America's Wildest Grassland."

          Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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          BLOODLANDS: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
          Timothy Snyder
          ISBN 978-0465002399
          524 pages

          Reviewed by Richard Rhodes
          Ten years ago I traveled to Belarus to examine the killing sites of the early Holocaust. My host, Stanislav Shushkevich, who had been the new country's first head of state, was more than willing to show me the places where SS killers had shot Belorussian Jewish men, women and children into mass graves by the hundreds of thousands -- but first he wanted to show me where Soviet killers, just a few years earlier, had murdered hundreds of thousands of other Belorussians. My book "Masters of Death" told the story of the early "bullet" Holocaust that pushed out from Germany up through Latvia and down into Ukraine in the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Now, in a more comprehensive narrative, Yale historian Timothy Snyder enlarges the perspective to include Stalin's slaughters as well as Hitler's.
          Snyder identifies three phases of mass killing in what he chillingly calls the "Bloodlands" of Eastern Europe: deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945. Snyder estimates the death toll from all this deliberate killing at 14 million. How did Stalin and Hitler justify such slaughter? Were there parallels or commonalities between the two?
          Stalin forced famine upon Soviet Ukraine and the Caucasus to collectivize farming, appropriating it to feed the workers as the U.S.S.R. rapidly industrialized. He did so by authorizing impossible production quotas and confiscating even the seed grain. The millions who starved in their scraped fields in the early 1930s were blamed for their own deaths, their starvation evidence that they had deliberately sabotaged production to subvert the government's plans. A second round of mass killing in the late '30s targeted Stalin's former associates as well as quotas of random victims, consolidating his power while installing terror as the basic mechanism of state authority. Decapitating the Soviet military by imprisoning or executing almost all its general officers nearly cost the country its survival when Germany invaded it in a surprise attack in 1941.
          Hitler imagined the Bloodlands to be places of colonization, like India and Africa for England, Belgium and France and Native America for the United States. The Poles would be worked to death, the Russians allowed to starve to free up the Bloodlands granary to feed Germans. After the victory, retired SS warrior-farmers would establish utopian agricultural colonies to block the Asiatic hordes pressing westward over the Urals. Rather than feed Soviet prisoners of war, of which there were millions, the Wehrmacht callously confined them behind barbed wire without shelter or food; it was from this wretched mass that the SS selected laborers to dig its killing pits and, later, guard its death camps.
          Debate has long raged among historians about the timing of the Final Solution decision. Snyder, in my opinion correctly, identifies "four distinct versions of the Final Solution" that preceded the actual hecatomb: "the Lublin plan for a (Jewish) reservation in eastern Poland," Jewish emigration into the Soviet Union with Stalin's consent (which he refused), Jewish resettlement in Madagascar (which the British navy would have blocked), and forced emigration into the Soviet Union after the German invasion.
          When these alternatives failed, Hitler in the summer of 1941 ordered the Jews of Europe directly killed because he judged them to be uniquely dangerous. The SS-Einsatzgruppen -- special task forces -- that Heinrich Himmler sent into Poland and the Soviet Union in the wake of the German invasion benefited from the jails full of corpses that the Soviet NKVD forces had left behind. "The act of killing Jews as revenge for NKVD executions," Snyder writes, "confirmed the Nazi understanding of the Soviet Union as a Jewish state. ... The idea that only Jews served communists was convenient not just for the occupiers but for some of the occupied as well."
          Snyder's research is careful and thorough, his narrative powerful, if inevitably restrained. His interpretation of the events he describes is less confident, however. He is clear that the influence of "modernity," as some have theorized, is hardly an adequate explanation for the Holocaust. But in attributing the Nazi shift from shooting to gassing to the gas chamber's supposedly greater "efficiency," he overlooks the very evidence he cites. The death camps seldom managed as many as 6,000 deaths in a day, while 34,000 were shot to death in Kiev's Babi Yar ravine in two days in September 1941, more than 40,000 in Romania "in a few days" that December. Another 40,000 were shot at Maly Trastsianets, one of the sites outside Minsk that Shushkevich took me to see. "Nearly half" of the 5.4 million Jews who died "under German occupation," Snyder summarizes, died by bullets.
          Why does the distinction matter? Because the trauma of direct killing worked destructively on the killers, to Himmler's great chagrin. They turned drunken, broke down or, worse in Himmler's view, came to enjoy killing rather than only tolerating it as a grim duty. The death camps with their gas chambers and crematoria made it possible for a few SS officers to direct large-scale killing with minimal contact with the victims; local conscripts, Russian prisoners of war and the Jews themselves suffered the burden of guarding, processing and mass murder. That is, the death camps evolved not to kill human beings more efficiently but to limit the trauma of the perpetrators.
          In that regard the killings were not much different from the mass firebombings and atomic bombings from high altitude that Britain and the United States perpetrated upon enemy civilians in the course of the war. The Bloodlands of central Europe had their counterparts in the burned-out cities of Germany and Japan with their millions of dead. Almost 10 times as many died on all sides across those six terrible years as died in the Holocaust. It deserves its reputation as the horror of horrors, but there was more widespread horror as well. By including Soviet with German mass atrocities in his purview, Timothy Snyder begins the necessary but as yet still taboo examination of the full depravity of total war as it was practiced in the 20th century, before the advent of nuclear weapons foreclosed it. The next step, for someone brave enough, will be to examine and explain the mass atrocities of the victors.
          Richard Rhodes is the author most recently of "The Twilight of the Bombs."

          Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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