Book Ends

What is it about January that makes me want to curl up with a good book? Here are four to savor and one to avoid:

"The Assassin's Gate", George Packer, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005. If you read only one book on the Iraq conflict this should be the one. Winner of several international nonfiction book awards, named one of the best books of 2005 by the New York Times, this book is a tour de force. In clear and compelling prose, and with months of first-hand experience of the war in Iraq, Packer has produced a masterful description of the background leading up to the current chaos as well as some of its political and religious implications. I considered myself fairly well read on the subject. I was appalled to learn how much I didn't know. Packer spares no one, on either side. His detailed conversations with Iraquis and Americans, as well as his sweep of the broader subject, are more than impressive. On America's side the naivete and hubris are discouraging, to say the least. On the Iraqui side the disregard for their own countrymen combined with internecine hatreds are fearsome. You would think that a nation born as a rebellion some 200 years ago would have learned a lesson or two about fixed ideas versus flexibility. You would also think that a nation that failed so miserably in Vietnam would have learned something about guerrilla warfare. Neither appears to be true. The lack of planning and coordination, the intrusion of egos into the political process, the refusal to acknowledge failure time after time, the absence of logistical support, are seriously troubling. Packer's account has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats. It has everything to do with America's failure to consider the consequences of its actions.

Following are several quotes from the book: Of the administration: "These people are like serious alcoholics, unwilling to admit there even is a problem."...Wolfowitz sent a memo "to everyone in and out of uniform at the Pentagon: 'The cost of dissent was humiliation and professional suicide'".... John Bolton (Bush's choice as Ambassador to the United Nations) on serving in Vietnam, "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy"...."The atmosphere was so brutal that the news of mass murders became numbingly routine"....Describing Iraq in 2004: "kidnappings, carjackings, highway banditry, shootings by jumpy American soldiers at checkpoints, suicide bombings, urban firefights, murder for revenge, for money, for every reason and no reason."...

"The Assassin's Gate" may not be everyone's choice for bedside reading, but it is a must for anyone who wants a better handle on why we are failing. Listening to vapid discussions of whether we are facing an insurgency or a civil war is an act of futility. Grasping that something needs to be done, done now and done right, is critical.

"The Memory Keeper's Daughter", Kim Edwards, Penguin Books, propels us into a murky world of ethical choices with enormous implications. In one tense moment, a father/doctor makes a momentous decision that will affect himself and his family for decades to come, while leaving readers to examine their own reactions to the choice. As we follow the parallel families that result from that fateful night, we are led inexorably into the "butterfly syndrome", where the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Hong Kong can have dramatic consequences around the world. Once you get started on the story it is almost impossible to put it down. Note that this is Kim Edwards' debut novel, and an impressive one at that. As one Amazon reader commented, "Loved it? Yes/Hated it?Yes. Still 5 stars!"

"The Alchemist", Paolo Cohello, Harper Collins. After the heaviness of the previous two books, this one has a decidedly upbeat nature. "The Alchemist" is essentially a contemporary fable about ever new/ever ancient desires and dreams. As a fable it is not to be taken literally. As a metaphor it applies to us all. Originally published in 1988, it became an international best seller and established Coelho as a major voice in fiction. Coelho himself seems to have followed the dictates of the fable: in 1980 he walked the entire Road of Santiago de Compostela, all 500 miles of it, in an effort to learn more about himself and his sprituality. Originally trained as a lawyer in Brazil, Coelho abandoned that profession and began writing about personal quests and the fulfillment of one's destiny. The book is written in simple, direct language, a lovely contrast to a world beset with complex intricacies and unfathomable atrocities. It is a fairly quick read. It is also a gentle delight.

"Artistic Pool Manual", Rick Malm, book on CD Rom, If you are at all fascinated by the world of pool and billiards, particularly what is known as "artistic trick shots", this book on CD is for you. A former IBM engineer, Malm combines the precision of a scientist with the artistry of a skilled player. The CD includes video clips, spreadsheets, color images and diagrams for forty levels of play. Since I don't play pool I can't guarantee that you will become a pro overnight, but I do know Rick Malm to be a person of high integrity and precision in his endeavors. If billiards is your thing this is the one to own.

"Duveen: A Life in Art", Meryle Secrest, University of Chicago Press, 2005. The reviews of this book ranged from good to superlative but I'm afraid I can't agree. To her credit, Secrest has amassed an enviable amount of detailed information on the family Duveen and their significant role in the distribution and sale of art during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If you simply want to get a feel for the political and economic atmosphere of the time, she has certainly provided one. The Duveens made a career as middlemen between wealthy buyers and sellers of ego-art, the stuff that makes museums and auction houses salivate. The unsavory dealings and just plain chicanery that she describes make the authenticity of the art in some of our major collections, like the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick, open to serious question. If she is correct, refinishing and outright forgery were not uncommon and frequently went undetected. Unfortunately the negatives in her account far outweigh the historical benefits. For one she tends to get lost in the details. It is frequently difficult to tell who the players are. For another she has a sloppy habit of indulging in cliches and trite phrases, which quite interrupt the flow of her narrative. It is also not helpful for her to interject her suppositions into the historical material: "it was probably because", "it would seem that", "in all likelihood", etc. But these drawbacks are dwarfed by her blatant antisemitism, which casts doubt on the negative portraits she is presenting. Do we really need to know that someone was a "Jewish banker"? I don't see her writing about Baptist merchants, Catholic dealers or Protestant steel magnates. This kind of bias tends to discredit the authenticity of her reporting. I suggest that there are better uses for your time than slogging through five hundred pages of this.

c.Corinne Whitaker 2007