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Spring 2008 Table of Contents

Book Reviews

Book Reviews for Spring 2008

The House of Widows
By Askold Melnyczuk (GRS’78) Fiction and Poetry (Graywolf Press)

“The most common grammatical error is the lie.” Such a highly crafted, portentous opening, appropriate only to the best books, is an apt start for this one, described by the publisher as “a novel of intrigue that is played across decades, continents, and generations.” Well, yes, and that’s a good line to sell books at the airport (this first edition is in paper), but Melnyczuk’s third novel is much more. 

The narrator, a petty bureaucrat in the U.S. Consul in Vienna, gave up a tenure-track professorship at Georgetown in the vain hope of reaching “the Olympus of Cultural Attaché.” Sixteen years before, on his way to study at Oxford, he set out to discover why his father had committed suicide. In cities he had known little of, surrounded by languages he didn’t understand, he met relatives he had not heard of and learned secrets his father may never have known. Although he concludes, “I didn’t know my father any better than when I set out to find him,” he felt “the past tightening into a fist, getting ready to strike,” as it so often does in families and nations.

Melnyczuk ’s prose is as always elegant, his observations sharp and sometimes wry (of Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden he muses, “How would Europeans feel about . . . the Sony Coliseum, the Mitsubishi Sistine Chapel, Toyota Big Ben?”). Intrigue and criminals abound in this highly literary novel, but the true villains are respected leaders in positions international and trifling (the mantra of at least the latter group: “One cannot be sentimental”). Take Winston Churchill, who at Yalta was too concerned about his cigars and cognac and protecting his own country to care about protecting Eastern Europe from the Soviets. ~Natalie Jacobson McCracken

Judas Horse
By April Smith (CAS’71) Fiction and Poetry (Alfred A. Knopf)

A Judas horse is one trained to lead a wild herd into captivity. Having been taught “about developing relationships and then betraying them” in FBI undercover school, agent Ana Gray assumes an identity that gives her entree to an appealingly ragtag little cell of Free Animals Now, led by a psychotic David Koresh wannabe, which is progressing from glue in locks to paint bombs to military-grade explosives. Ana is alone in a dangerous world where neither members of FAN nor her FBI backup can be assumed to be whom they seem, and good intent is indistinguishable from evil intent, making loyalties agonizing. Wounded physically and emotionally, she escapes to what we can hope is a fourth Ana Gray mystery. ~NJM

New Botany on Mars
By C. E. B. Beliveau (ENG’89) Fiction and Poetry (Vantage Press)

Although set in a Mars research colony, Beliveau’s debut novel touches on the down-to-earth emotions of her heroine, American botanist Veronica von Radau: love, friendship, and even the occasional boredom of life on a strange planet. The plot, too, forsakes fantastical science fiction for human drama, as Veronica becomes more involved in scientific discovery, dangerous missions, and heated political campaigning. Maybe life on Mars isn’t so different after all. ~Katie Koch

Christian Theology for a Secular Society: Singing The Lord's Song In A Strange Land
By Mark G. McKim Nonfiction (Wipf & Stock)

Most people in the western world believe in God, but few are guided daily by faith or any “other, vaguely Christian tenets,” says Baptist minister McKim. To live a Christian life in this secular world, to [use Christianity] as the basis for both ethics and spirituality, he says, requires “doing theology”: accepting the authority of a Christ-centered belief system discovered through general revelation in nature and innate human conscience and through scripture, a record of special — that is, individual — revelation. ~NJM

Disclosures: Ten Famous Men Revealed
By Marian Christy (COM’56) Nonfiction (New River Press)

Before he would begin a scheduled interview, Lord Snowdon insisted she play a “game” to test her powers of observation. Sylvester Stallone ditched her in his limo. Instead of talking directly to her, Truman Capote, drunk and still drinking, played to an entranced bar crowd. In ten vignettes, Christy recalls how her relentless good manners — well, most of the time — helped get her difficult men and some nice ones (Norman Vincent Peale, Stephen Hawking . . .) over twenty-six years of celebrity interviews for the Boston Globe and syndication. ~NJM

Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid
By John Rosengren (GRS’94) Nonfiction (Sourcebooks)

Rosengren is no stranger to sports controversy. In 2003, he published Blades of Glory, a critical look at the hypercompetitive Minnesota high school hockey culture; three years later, he co-wrote Alone in the Trenches, football player Esera Tuaolo’s memoir about his struggle as a closeted gay man in the NFL. Now Rosengren turns his keen journalistic eye toward race, money, and baseball politics, giving us a comprehensive account of the most tumultuous season in Major League Baseball history. He documents the triumphs of Reggie Jackson and Hank Aaron over racism and prejudice, the rise of billionaire Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and the rule changes that occurred between the American League and the National League, concluding, “There will never [again] be baseball like it was played in 1973.” ~KK

Jump Point: How Network Culture Is Revolutionizing Business
By Tom Hayes (CAS’82) Nonfiction (McGraw Hill)

Sometime in early 2011 an ordinary person will become the three billionth to connect to the World Wide Web, says Hayes, signaling completion of a new economy in which consumers and sellers are linked in a global network unmediated by middlemen, trendsetters, and advertising, as we know them. Consumers of that future are personified by the present Bubble Generation, those age thirteen through twenty-five, who believe information and art should be open and free and shopping unfettered by geography, time of day, inventory, or expense. For iTuners, many of whom have never bought recordings in a store, ordering online from a vast catalog at any hour for overnight delivery is still too slow, restrictive, and costly. Living in the Permanent Now, they find e-mail cumbersome, last month’s cell phone outdated, and slick advertising boring and suspect when they can instead consult consumers worldwide. Already businesses are enabling individuals to modify products, from computers to M&Ms to postage stamps. Citing Wikipedia and YouTube, Time named You the 2006 Person of the Year. Traditional businesses, beware. ~NJM

Kids Are Americans Too
By Bill O’Reilly (COM’75) and Charles Flowers Nonfiction (William Morrow)

In his book, O’Reilly (the text is written in the first person singular) has a lot to say about the Constitution and judges, including “the Supremes” (hey, he’s a cool guy writing for teen-agers). The kid issues he discusses are significant, but seldom represented here in life-changing ways — the right to privacy (can my mother listen in on my phone calls?) and to free speech in class and the school newspaper, on stage, and on T-shirts — along with rights that didn’t occur to our founding fathers, such as holding loud cell-phone conversations in public places. The law and common sense both assert parents’ right to protect their children over their children’s rights to, for example, choose their own friends, he says. He advises conversation and compromise; of his test cases, the most serious is a young woman who had an abortion without her parents’ knowledge and consequently suffered. ~NJM

Let’s Put On A Show! Theatre Production For Novices
By Stewart Lane (CFA’73) Nonfiction (Heinemann)

Got a barn? Broadway producer Lane (he’s won Tonys for Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Will Rogers Follies, and La Cage aux Folles) offers detailed advice for the entire process, enlivened by stories from his own shows. From selecting a script through casting, rehearsals, costumes, props, and publicity, he makes it sound like hard, painstaking work, fraught with possible failure (Lane also produced Frankenstein, which he labels “the most expensive Broadway nonmusical ever to close on opening night”), and worth every moment. ~NJM

Self-Advocacy: The Ultimate Teen Guide
By Cheryl Gerson Tuttle (SED’65) and Joann Augeri Silva Nonfiction (Scarecrow Press)

For Tuttle and Silva, self-advocacy also begins with making a case to the immediate authority: parents, teachers, the principal, the school board. But when problems of sexual harassment, equal access to education, physical safety, and the like cannot be solved simply, they recommend, and provide extensive information on, intelligent use of advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the courts, and the press. ~NJM

Selling War To America: From The Spanish-American War To The Global War On Terror
By Eugene Secunda (COM’62) And Terence P. Moran Nonfiction (Praeger Security)

“Everything here is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war,” popular artist Frederic Remington is said to have wired his boss from Cuba in 1897 and been told in reply, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” No documentation confirms that oft-repeated exchange, as the authors point out, but it embodies at least the spirit of truth: William Randolph Hearst, like his chief business rival, Joseph Pulitzer, was selling war in order to sell newspapers. In the three years following the 1895 Cuban rebellion, New York newspapers carried stories about Spanish suppression on all but twenty days; finally President McKinley bowed to pressure (including that from Undersecretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt), exacerbated by the unexplained explosion that sunk the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, and declared war on Spain — the Spanish-American War.

Secunda and Moran continue their chronological study of the media’s role in selling the U.S. public on wars, often at the explicit behest of a president. Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information to convince Americans that by entering World War I, the United States would make the world safe for democracy. The CPI campaign combined old-fashioned public speaking writ large (a team of 75,000 volunteers equipped with ostensibly impromptu four-minute prowar talks), the latest media technology (films, including news footage), and power (it forbade export of commercial films that failed to support the war effort and the sale of American films to houses showing German films). Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, and their fellow movie stars urged Americans to Buy Liberty Bonds while Tin Pan Alley sang, “Send the word, send the word over there/That the Yanks are coming . . .” 

When that war failed to end all wars, Eric Sevareid and Edward R. Murrow were among newscasters bringing German attacks on London into American living rooms, orchestrated by a covert propaganda campaign by the British Secret Intelligence Service. Once the United States entered World War II, newspapers and magazines were “cheerleaders for the administration,” Hollywood complied with guidelines issued by Franklin Roosevelt’s Office of War Information, and comic books and popular music in effect followed suit.

Less wise in the ways of marketing, or perhaps believing it beneath him, Harry Truman didn’t solicit the media in gaining public support of what he labeled merely a “police action” in Korea, despite a formal offer of help from senior Hollywood executives. That, the authors say, helps explain public disinterest. Presidents from Johnson through Ford failed at marketing U.S. involvement in Vietnam partly because of the drama and immediacy of television coverage. Citing the need for military security, Ronald Reagan controlled news of fighting in Grenada, and it was perhaps the resulting good (or at least lack of much bad) press that led both Bushes to limit press access and coverage in subsequent battle zones. The Persian Gulf and Iraq wars never captured public imagination (as evidenced by the almost total absence of supportive comic books, movies, and popular music.)

In the last century, the marketing of war was escalated by developing technologies: radio, movies, dry film, photo engraving and then offset printing of photographs, and television. In this century, the authors contend, the rise of the Internet and related technologies will make it increasingly difficult to sell war to America. ~NJM

You’re A Good Mom (And Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either): 14 Secrets To Finding Happiness Between Super Mom And Slacker Mom
By Jen Singer (Com’89) Nonfiction (Sourcebooks)

Actually, this jolly little handbook gives dozens of secrets, summed up by a throwaway line somewhere in the middle: “Demote Yourself from The Great Nurturer to The Perfectly Fine Mom.” ~NJM

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