Twelve Stars
Here are a dozen or so books
that we've reviewed over
the last twelve months.
All received the much-cherished,
editors' star in our
General Index.
Washington Sculpture:
A Cultural History of
Outdoor Sculpture in
The Nation's Capital

Hames M. Goode
(Johns Hopkins)
Editor Goode tells us there are over 500 outdoor sculptures in Washington, D. C. although at times it may seem like there are many more. He is generous, though, for he not only includes the equestrian statues and those national heroes with swords and busts, he brings in cemeteries, inner courtyards, hidden nooks ... and parts of Virginia and Maryland, too.

They are gathered in this definitive volume, all are given at least one picture (sometimes several angled shots) and the whole weighs in at a ton or so (the book, not the busts). Washington Sculpture runs almost 800 pages.

It's a heroic effort and it is hard to stop leafing through it to see what other silly figures are to be commemorated in the traffic circles, parks, courtyards, sidewalks, cemeteries ... and sometimes right out on the city streets. One is tempted to try to make sense of all these colonnades and fountains and memorials and the only way I could figure out to do it was to list them by official scientific category.

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Primeval and
Other Times

Olga Tokarczuk
Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Translator

(Twisted Spoon)
Primeval and Other Times is small but epic, in the same way that, say, that a short story by Faulkner or Nabokov is epic. We follow a few families from beginning to end. Izydor, the wise fool; kindly Misia; grouchy Pawel; Squire Popielski who goes mad playing a game about life; Ukleja who beats Ruta; quick-tempered Boski; Cornspike who lives in the woods and sleeps with the men from the tavern. Ivan Muka telling Izydor,

    "Either God exists and has always existed, or" --- here he added the second finger --- "God doesn't exist and never has. Or else" --- the third appeared --- "God used to exist, but no longer does. And finally," --- here he poked all four fingers at Izydor --- "God doesn't yet exist and has yet to appear."

Into the bucolic lives of the people of Primeval comes The Great War, the Depression, World War II, the Nazi occupation, then the Russians. Life is less than bucolic, but even amidst the sounds and alarums of war and invasion, the author leavens all with a touch of softness and mysticism.

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The Bird of Dawning
Or, The Fortune of the Sea
John Masefield
(National Maritime Museum)
I guarantee you, The Bird of Dawning won't leave you alone ... and you won't want it to. It's like that black shark that hounds the clinker-built, and soon enough you know, along with the sixteen sailors, that after a few days, the lack of water will get to you. The old salt, Kemble, says of his previous time adrift on the sea,

"We were four days before we got ashore somewhere on the East of Cape Horn, and eleven days living there on shell-fish and sea-weeds and trash. But the thirst before we got ashore was the thing that killed us. We chewed buttons, and the eyelets from a sail we had. But we used to look at each other and think, 'My God, that fellow is full of blood and I could drink it.' The third day, the day before we got ashore, a young fellow said he'd as soon die one way as another: he drank the sea; and he did die: it made him mad first."

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The Long Song
Andrea Levy
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Long Song is a rich and funny tale of a woman named July who grows up in Jamaica during the time of the uprising in the 1830s.

July is unfortunate in being young and beautiful ... and a slave ... thus subject to the advances of white men, including Robert Goodwin, the overseer of the sugar plantation "Amity." He woos her, seduces her in the basement of the mansion, gets her with child, then dumps her for the plantation owner, Caroline Mortimer.

July is the star of The Long Song (and she is a star) ... but I believe my inability to convert this outlandishly funny book into an appropriate paean has something to do with the fine line that plagues any of us who grew up in the Americas fifty years ago. It has to do with race, and the vocabulary of race.

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Prisons of Poverty
Loïc Wacquant
Wacquant offers the novel thesis that the War on Poverty has morphed into a war on the poverty-stricken. The ghetto was once a "ethnoracial prison," warehousing the poor, the black and other minorities. Now, prisons have become the de facto ghettos. One in three black men between eighteen and twenty-nine "are either incarcerated, under the authority of a judge or parole officer ... or waiting to appear before a criminal court."

The author sees a new "structural and functional symbiosis" between ghetto and prison. While the men are shipped off to jail, the women, (many of whom are public-aid recipients), become more and more subject to close supervision, with "a strict monitoring of their behaviors ... in matters of education, employment, drug consumption, and sexuality." In Michigan, "welfare recipients must submit to periodic drug testing, as do convicts on parole or probation."

Testing is done on both prisoners and ADFC recipients "by the state's department of corrections in offices where they mingle with parolees."

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A Woman's Journal of
Struggle and Defiance in
Occupied France

Agnès Humbert
Barbara Mellor, Translator

We grow quickly to care about Humbert. Fear and curiosity are her constant companions, and they become ours too. She's such a spark that we fear that she's going to get whacked just for being so defiant. We are curious to see just exactly how she survives.

Every book of survival comes with a Moment of Truth. It is the moment one learns what it will entail to survive. In this case, it's that moment when Humbert realizes that despite her good-humor and wit, she is faced with something truly grotesque: jailers that are capable of great and appalling cruelty. It's the moment when she realizes that she is without recourse, that she's in a place of no escape, and those running the show are dyed-in-the-wool, no-kidding, without-a-doubt beasts --- capable of any and all violence, to the body; to the soul.

She (and the reader) get transported to a nightmare world, a world manned by brutes --- the women jailers are equally brutish --- who will deprive you of food and water; who will beat you and kick you if you do not follow their exact (and often stupid) orders; who will work you hard for eight or ten or twelve or twenty-four hours. Worst of all, no matter how sweet intelligent or gentle their charges, the enforcers don't give a toot if they live or die.

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I Am Not Sidney Poitier
Percival Everett
The hero, Not Sidney, is a kind of funny, dispassionate Candide. When he decides to go off to Morehouse College, he signs up for a course titled "the Philosophy of Nonsense," taught by Percival Everett, who shares the same name as the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier. When Not Sidney goes to visit the professor, Everett says, "Anybody ever tell you that you look like Harry Belafonte?"

The word games are great, the characters almost perfect ... although the rednecks do seem to be a little mid-1950s. Ted Turner turns up as Not Sidney's step-father, and babbles cheerfully on about whatever pops into his head. It's all great fun.

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Scenes from
La Cuenca de
Los Angeles

Y Otros Natural Disasters
Susana Chávez-Silverman
(University of Wisconsin)
For those of us who are crazy about all things good and bad on both sides de La Frontera, that tortured land de agón, el centro de ambición y suffering, that fence-crossed, migra-pegada, sol- and soul-blistering desierto: for pochos like us, La Cuenca will be the ticket. Susana Chávez-Silverman's writing is designed for those of us with this star-crossed affection for the two languages, the two cultures, the two sides of the same coin. Chancing onto La Cuenca for me turned into a far-out, no ... a güey-out treat.
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Inside the Largest
Diamond Heist
in History

Scott Andrew Selby,
Greg Campbell

(Union Square)
I picked it up, expecting another yawn story of another yawn great train robbery --- but six hours later, I found myself half-way through the book, rooting (get this!) for Leonardo Notarbartolo and his buddies. After all their preparations --- two years worth --- I wanted them to get the hell in and the hell out of the Diamond Center there in Antwerp, which had been the subject of so many meetings, planning trips, studies, clandestine videos and mock-ups.

I was with them when they were scheming to defeat the double magnets in the vault door, working on how to vitiate the motion and heat sensors, planning on how to unplug the locks into and out of the garage, and wanting to be sure that the two security guards were somewhere else on that fateful night of February 15-16, 2003.

What is it that attracts us to these unlikely rogues from Turin? Perhaps it was their very homeliness: how they liked to spend time in the cafés over their coffee; how attached they were to their families; how they plotted and schemed like the professionals they were; how they protected and gave ultimate trust to each other. Most of all, perhaps it was their vow. "Any thug could stick a gun in someone's face and make off with his money and diamonds, but crooks like that were at the bottom of the food chain... Sans armes, sans haine, et sans violence. (Without guns, without hatred, and without violence.)"

Now that's my kind of thug.

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Travels in the Reich,
1933 - 1945

Foreign Authors in Germany
Oliver Lubrich, Editor
(University of Chicago)
In 1935, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard drove through Unkel, Germany, and people waved and cheered, mistaking their car for that of Goering (who was to visit later that afternoon). As she ponders the all-too-casual anti-Semitic signs everywhere, even in the smallest towns, she writes, "my pen is weeping ink."

Jean Genet, at the time an unemployed vagabond, walks "from Breslau to Berlin" and writes most piquantly, "Even on Unter der Linden I had the feeling that I was strolling about in a camp organized by bandits." Germany became, for this soon-to-be-famous masochist, "the symbol of cruelty."

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Bad Nature
Or, With Elvis in Mexico
Javier Marías
Esther Allen, Translator

(New Directions)
Marías worked for years as a translator. He weaves the perils and pleasures of translation into all his works. In one book, he shows us how a translator for a head of state can come to have immense responsibilities, possibly can change the world (in a meeting of heads-of-state, would the president know if his words are being changed faithfully into French or Russian or Japanese or N'khosa?)

The portrayal of Elvis and his buddies is believable, but becomes, finally, for the narrator, even for the reader, too good to be true: "He spent the whole day singing or crooning, even when he was under no professional obligation to do so, you could see he had a passion for it, he was a singing machine ... if conversation hadn't set in, it wouldn't be long before he started humming and the rest of us would join him ... it was an honor to sing with Presley."

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Pete Dexter
(Grand Central)
It's Calmer's and Spooner's book, and I guess you could call it a coming-of-age novel for the two of them. We follow Spooner --- fumbling, a bit of a loser (his arm disintegrates just as he gets signed to the Red Sox) --- here and there around America; finally Calmer and Spooner end up together on Whidbey Island in Washington. Certainly there is no more loving picture of a good man's mind disintegrating with age. Calmer's dementia is one with purpose, and by the end of Spooner we cheer him on for what he does, so fatally, to a neighborhood bully.

Dexter is daffier than Tom Robbins, and twice as much fun. This on Spooner's gay neighbors there on Whidbey: "The fact of the matter, as Spooner had already gleaned from the Sunday Styles section in the New York Times, was that same-tool love wasn't very much different or more preposterous than love by the prong-and-socket style nature designed ... and after the boys next door finished with the part of it that was different --- and Spooner counted on the Times to leave this last bit of uncharted territory uncharted --- the grandson and the bodybuilder most likely cuddled and promised each other never to fight again, just like any other couple making up."

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The Fall of
the Soviet Empire

Victor Sebestyen
He knows his stuff. His facts --- many obtained by personal interview --- are impeccable. The pacing is compelling, jumping, as he must, from Moscow to Warsaw to Gdansk to the Kremlin ... going as far as Pripyat in the Ukraine, to Washington D. C., and back again.

He can be devilishly funny. The awful Nicolae Ceausescu, Party leader of Romania, decided that the women of the country weren't having enough babies, so women "were forced to undergo compulsory medical examinations every three months to be sure they were not having abortions."

    They were rounded up from their work places and taken to clinics by armed squads of officials --- dubbed the menstrual police.

The Czech Communist Milos Jakes was known as "Dumpling Face" because of "his heavy build." In the early eighties, Ronald Reagan said that he wanted to talk to the Russian leaders, but, "They kept dying on me." (They did: three of them died in quick succession). The Russian Ambassador to Portugal had a phrase for Gorbachev's policy regarding the satellite states. "The Brezhnev Doctrine, he said, was dead. Now the Soviets proceeded on the Sinatra Doctrine."

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Go to yet another

Erotic Poems
e. e. cummings
George J. Firmage,

I once saw him read, back in 1955. There must have been 200 of us in the audience and I presume we were all in love with him; I certainly was.

It was at Bryn Mawr College, just outside Philadelphia. It was early evening. He looked like he just got off the tennis court. His way of speaking was elegant; his style impeccable. He was wearing an open soft white cotton shirt, long sleeves, just open enough to hint we just wanted a hint of such poetic force. His was a tanned Ivy League sort of ease and I most remember the freckles and his husky voice, the way he leaned easily into the words ... and my heart thrashing about.

He read simply and didn't comment on what he wrote and said. He didn't have to. I wanted him all for me to live with and have his babies so I would have followed him about that night (or any other night) all night if he so wished but I was terribly outnumbered.

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