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Book Reviews
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Blind Into Baghdad

by James Fallows

(Vintage Books)

Why is this collection of essays from 2002-2005 so fascinating? Originally published in Atlantic Monthly and augmented by new footnotes from the author, they tell us little we don’t already know of the Bush administration’s disastrous illusions and continuing, chronic ineptness regarding Iraq.

But for some reason, in the summer of ‘06, with the Middle East exploding from one end to the other, Fallow’s essays read like they were written yesterday -- and it’s not just because of the footnotes.

How can that be?

My theory is that because so much has happened so fast since the original invasion of 2003 -- how many times have we “turned the corner” again? -- it’s been too easy for us to forget everything that happened and how easily it was all foretold by anyone with a basic modicum of common sense.

Here, in one volume, is a collection of real-time data -- not armchair quarterbacking, but journalism as it was happening -- chronicling every bad decision, and every bad decision in answer to the previous bad decision, etc., etc.

Written in November 2002, the first essay, “The Fifty-First State?” is eery in its prescience, given the way the Iraq conflict has led to a resurgent anti-American Shiite Islam stretching from Iran to Lebanon.

“Wars change history in ways no one can forsee,” Fallows writes. “The Egyptians who planned to attack Israel in 1967 could not imagine how profoundly what became the Six Day War would change the map and politics of the Middle East.”

With each succeeding essay, Fallows relies on interviews with various major players to chronicle America’s gradual immersion into the quagmire. Far from the heated rhetoric of more partisan writers, Fallows remains a detached journalist throughout, drawing conclusions only when the evidence leads him to them.

Indeed, at points one can find a note of optimism from Fallows that I wonder if he’d like to take back. For example, writing in January 2004, Fallows says: “

The missteps of the first half year in Iraq are as significant as other classic and carefully examined failures in foreign policy, including John Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1965. The United States withstood those previous failures, and it will withstand this one. Having taken over Iraq and captured Saddam Hussein, it has no moral or practical choice other than to see out the occupation and to help rebuild and democratize the country.

Fast forward to December 2005’s offering, “Why Iraq Has No Army,” in which Fallows states flatly, “America’s hopes today for an orderly exit from Iraq depend completely on the emergence of a viable Iraqi security force. There is no indication that such a force is about to emerge.”

This book is scheduled for a September release (we were mailed an uncorrected proof). Though that’s only a month away, given the state of things today one has to wonder: How will the world change in that single month? How much more prescient will Fallows’ essays turn out to be?

Looking at his final chapter, from December 2004, might give you a clue. It’s title? “Will Iran Be Next?”


Identifying Marks: Race, Gender, and The Marked Body in Nineteenth Century America

by Jennifer Putzi

(University of Georgia Press)

Not what I’d call a light read, this is a scholarly work that is nonetheless very interesting for its unique subject matter.

For most of us, the use of identifying marks in literature is limited to the eponymous scarlet letter on the hapless Hester Prynne. But Jennifer Putzi, a professor of women’s studies at William and Mary, expands this into an entire subgenre, drawing on examples not only from literature (the tattooing-as-sexual-metaphor of Melville’s Typee) but from history as well (the “tattooed lady” of Ringling Brothers circus fame).

A particularly fascinating example is the case of the Oatman sisters, Olive and Mary Ann, who were kidnapped by Yavapai Indians in 1851 and subsequently sold to the Mohave tribe. Mary Ann soon died, but Olive remained a captive for five years, during which she received distinctive facial tattoos to mark her as tribal property.

Putzi tells us of Olive’s odyssey back into white society when she is eventually rescued. While she escaped the tribe, she couldn’t escape the tattoos which remained on her face for the rest of her days. Oatman’s widely publicized tale became one of the premier examples of a popular genre of American frontier literature, the so-called “capture narrative.”

Another chapter deals with the presence of scars from whipping on the backs of African-Americans. Apparently the depiction and description of these scars became a key element of abolitionist literature and politics.

Like the graphic images coming out of the Middle East today and used as propaganda by both sides, the scars became symbols of larger issues at play in American society, as this quote from former slave William Grimes:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. Let the skin of an American slave, bind the charter of American liberty.


72 Hour Hold

by Bebe Moore Campbell

(Anchor Books)

This New York Times best-selling novel is now in paperback, and I do recommend the often-harrowing tale of mother-daughter tribulations and mental illness for those who missed the original release.

Campbell’s writing style is sparse yet evocative, dry yet emotionally resonant. It’s hard to explain her appeal -- you just have to read it for yourself -- but I chalk it up to pure talent and good taste (she quotes a Leonard Cohen song as a lead-in).

As a writer and storyteller Campbell is head and shoulders above the usual chick-lit hacks that show up on the best-seller lists these days. She has the heart of a novelist but the head of a journalist, which means her descriptions are crisp and her observations timely and socially relevant.

In 72 Hour Hold, which documents the struggles of a single mother and small businessperson, Keri, with her bipolar daughter, Trina, she is at her best. Here’s an example of Campbell’s trenchant style:

It was easy to hide out in L.A., so much space, so much indifference. People were used to the bizarre here, the pre-rehab antics of stars in trouble. A pretty girl with too much makeup, too much cleavage, talking fast, not making sense, would attract attention but not the kind that would result in someone coming to her aid. In Atlanta, people were always watching, at least in Southwest, where close-set houses squeezed lives together and somebody’s grandma was always sitting on the porch. There the word would have spread like the dope man’s phone number.

While ostensibly 72 Hour Hold might be considered part of that growing sub-genre of African-American chick lit, this is a wrong assessment. The author is black and most of the characters are black, but the themes addressed in the novel -- family, betrayal, frustration, addiction, pain, sexuality -- are common to us all.


One Wizard Place

by D. M. Paul

(Outskirts Press)

Since the almost unimaginably huge success of the Harry Potter franchise, more and more writers and publishers have understandably turned to humorous, youth-oriented tales of quirky wizards intermingling with the human world.

Indeed, there seems to be a nearly limitless appetite for all things Potteresque, and local author D. M. Paul has joined in the fun with One Wizard Place.

In his story of the young wizard Kase and his talking wolf-dog (!) sidekick Murdox, Paul mines many familiar Potterisms -- the most obvious nods to J.K. Rowling being the tongue-in-cheek titles of various wizardly tomes, such as The Great Big Anthology of Annoying Creatures.

However, while most Potter knockoffs seek to mimic Rowling’s dry humor and quaint evocations of musty old England, Paul keeps the adventures of Kase and Murdox strictly in the here-and-now, with a distinctly American flavor and a more matter-of-fact writing style.

For example, the two protagonists are agents for the very Homeland Security-sounding mythical group called the Incantation Enforcement Agency, Counter-Curse Division. Their job in this book is to save an elf king who finds himself slowly turning to stone after drinking the wrong kind of afternoon tea.

Fans of Harry Potter or the fantasy genre in general might want to give this local author a look. He’s no Rowling, but you might find he’ll do in a pinch.  ƒç