A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.
As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen’s (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian (“a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI”), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen’s protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he’s a mole: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who’s airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans “with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues”; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he’s as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: “I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant,” he recalls, “and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple.”
Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.
Writing a biography of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is a study in frustration, but former Art in America senior editor Princenthal (School of the Visual Arts; Hannah Wilke, 2010, etc.) manages to piece together a story while getting beyond her subject’s well-guarded privacy.
Martin was born in rural Saskatchewan and bounced between the coasts as student and teacher, building the disciplinarian aspect of her character. Eventually, she spent 40 years on and off in Taos, New Mexico, punctuated by forays to New York. Throughout her life, she sought time to be alone, whether traveling or living on a lonely mesa outside of Santa Fe. When she began giving talks about art, she refused to speak to or meet any of the audience members. However, she wasn’t asocial; she had many artist friends when she lived in Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan. Among her influences were Zen Buddhism and Rothko, Cage and Klee. A contemporary of the abstract expressionists, Martin's work was much more minimalist. When she finally stopped destroying her work, she settled on rectilinear grids on square canvases; she sought to upset the power of the square. She suffered a lifelong battle with schizophrenic paranoia, and she hoped to bring out what she felt were the only true feelings: happiness and helplessness. The author readily acknowledges that Martin is unknowable, citing contradictory biographical material from the artist. Martin prohibited catalogs for her exhibitions and swore her friends to secrecy regarding her life. She feared the deception of words. Princenthal carefully describes the artist’s works, but there is no way to appreciate her without seeing the originals; illustrations don’t fully convey the feeling in her work.
The author’s deep research and personal correspondence with the artist will be enlightening to fans of Martin and will encourage others to seek out her work.
The history of the struggle for gay rights in the United States.
In this superbly researched book, acclaimed LGBT scholar Faderman (My Mother’s Wars, 2013, etc.) examines the roots of the sociopolitical movement that, for the last 60 years, has worked to achieve justice for LGBT people. The author begins in the 1950s, when “the government, the law, the church, [and] the psychiatric profession all colluded to tell homosexuals they were guilty just by being who they were.” Yet a brave few individuals—e.g., Harry Hay, Phyllis Lyon, and Del Martin—took action by creating organizations intended to offer safe alternatives to gay and lesbian bars. In these groups, homosexuals could offer each other support and seek the respect they desired from mainstream heterosexual society. As the organizations grew, they assimilated ideas from such political catalysts as the burgeoning civil rights movement. By 1969, the Stonewall riots revealed a far more radicalized community, contingents of which created political groups that actively agitated for civil rights rather than simple respect. Mainstream society responded with “family values” movements led by such icons as Anita Bryant. Her anti-gay zeal actually worked to unite the LGBT community and help its members push for political change at the local and then, into the 1980s and beyond, national levels. Faderman documents the tragedy of AIDS and how that epidemic also brought together gays and lesbians and created a still greater sense of solidarity among homosexuals, who, by the 1990s, had begun to press for workplace protections as well as recognition of gay and lesbian families. The author concludes with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, specifically its provision that marriage be defined in heterosexual terms only. Throughout this engaging and extremely well-documented book, Faderman clearly shows that for the LGBT community, equality is not a completed goal. Yet the ideal of fully integrated citizenship is closer to becoming reality than ever before.
Redniss (Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, 2010) delivers an arrestingly unconventional exploration of weather.
This is a terrific celebration of weather as an elemental force in not only our daily lives, but in our global stories, myths, history, and cultural identities. It is part powerful graphic novel (with impeccable color sense) and part meteorological text. The author divides the book into chapters such as Cold, Rain, Sky, Heat, Dominion, Profit, and Forecasting, and within each chapter is an array of anecdotes and factoids, vest-pocket biographies, and elegant place descriptions. After an introduction to the Arctic explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, Redniss discusses the demographics of the far-north Svalbard archipelago (“Today, Svalbard has a population of approximately 2000 people and 3000 polar bears”). Then she moves on to a lightshow in South America’s Atacama Desert: “in the shifting light, the Atacama’s sands turn gold, orange, and violet. In the shadows, the landscape is blue, green, violet. Treeless, plantless expanses of stark grandeur roll out like a Martian landscape.” Redniss details what we know about the dynamics of lightning and why lightning often gives us the shivers. “Lightning can charge out of a bright blue sky,” she writes, “traveling horizontally 10 or more miles from a nearby storm. Lightning can, and does, strike twice.” The author also looks at the meteorological effects of the death of Kim Jong II as reported by North Korea’s official news outlets (“winds were stronger, waves higher, and temperatures the coldest of the season”), the money to be made off ice at Walden Pond, and Benjamin Franklin, who “was a proponent of air baths, the practice of sitting naked by an open window.” This book is not simply a collection of oddments and odd fellows, but rather a genuine demonstration of weather as a phenomena and how it is fantastical on both the symbolic and systematized levels.
A highly atmospheric, entertainingly earnest, and intimate engrossment with the world’s most popular topic of conversation.
Crisply written, chilling account of the personalities behind the emergence of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter Warrick (The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, 2011) confidently weaves a cohesive narrative from an array of players—American officials, CIA officers, Jordanian royalty and security operatives, religious figures, and terrorists—producing an important geopolitical overview with the grisly punch of true-crime nonfiction. Initially, he focuses on Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a sullen thug who discovered Muslim fundamentalism while incarcerated in the 1990s and turned it into a framework for savagery against other Muslims. Against the backdrop of the bungled American invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi stoked a Sunni-Shiite civil war and normalized horrific tableaux like the suicide bombing of the United Nations mission. Soon, “Islamist media were awash in Zarqawi-inspired gore,” effectively increasing his support, until he overstepped with a hotel bombing in Jordan. Although the U.S. military killed al-Zarqawi in 2006, Syria’s civil war provided a second front for the remnants of al-Zarqawi's jihadis. His successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who transformed the group into ISIS, "was not a violent troublemaker like Zarqawi or an adventurer like Osama bin Laden." Indeed, Warrick notes, “had it not been for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s greatest butcher would likely have lived out his years as a college professor.” Yet, ISIS achieved rapid military success across Iraq and Syria beginning in 2013 and revived their emphasis on terrorist atrocity, with Baghdadi’s goals clear, as a U.S. official noted: “He was talking about physically restoring the Islamic caliphate in a way that nobody else did.” The author focuses on dramatic flashpoints and the roles of key players, creating an exciting tale with a rueful tone, emphasizing how the Iraq invasion’s folly birthed ISIS and created many missed opportunities to stop al-Zarqawi quickly.
Warrick stops short of offering policy solutions, but he provides a valuable, readable introduction to a pressing international security threat.
In this debut collection, Filipino students, teachers, activists, maids, and chauffeurs negotiate their lives under martial law at home and seek fortune abroad in the Middle East and New York.
Each of these nine revelatory stories delivers characters who are equal parts endearing and disturbing. In the stunning “Esmeralda,” a cleaning woman ponders her station in life as she dusts offices in the twin towers in the months preceding 9/11. “You lay there—Esmeralda, daughter of the dirt, born to toil in God’s name till your hands or heart gave out—reclining like an infant or a queen, a hundred levels aboveground.” In “A Contract Overseas,” a budding fiction writer in the Philippines reveres her older brother despite his immoral, often dangerous behavior in Saudi Arabia. “I could picture him, reading my words somewhere, chuckling at my attempts to save some version of his life. Who could say, then, that I had an altogether lousy or inadequate imagination?” In the chilling “The Miracle Worker,” a special education teacher befriends her student’s family’s maid—who, it turns out, has a dark side. “I had underestimated her: what looked like a lifetime of toil and taking orders had contained subversions that no one, until now, had seen.” Alvar deftly flips the master-servant dynamic on its head. Her electric prose probes the tension between social classes, particularly in “Shadow Families,” in which wealthy Filipina housewives in Bahrain throw parties for working-class Filipinos. “These katulong—‘helpers,’ as we called them—were often younger but always aging faster than we were, over brooms and basins, their lungs fried with bleach and petroleum vapors….Helping these helpers, who’d traveled even farther, felt like home.”
A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Stiles (The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, 2009, etc.) gives a warts-and-all portrait of Gen. George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), giving full rein to both his admirers and critics.
Custer graduated at the bottom of his West Point class in 1861 with the most demerits of any of the students. Only the demerits foreshadowed the brilliant tactician’s future. In the first half of the book, the author provides an excellent chronicle of Civil War battles and the politics of war. Custer’s undisputed prowess as a cavalry officer in the war fed his ambitions. He gained a place on George McClellan’s staff that would prove especially deleterious. His flamboyance, velvet uniform, and slouching hat might have made him a laughingstock, but his ability was real and his courage, sincere. His knowledge of tactics and ability to read his environment gained him promotions and celebrity. He led from the front, but he was incapable of management. His postwar assignments in Texas and Kansas brought out the cruel, tyrannical man who abused and humiliated his men. His published writings chronicle his fascination with natural history, but they provided little income. He dabbled in the railroads and a silver mine venture, and he gambled on stock speculation. Stiles ably points out his many defining flaws: his heroic style didn’t work in an era of tact and skill, and there is no doubt that he was self-serving, generally assuming that rules weren’t made for him and never showing remorse. In addition to examining Custer’s life, the author also introduces his cook, the fascinating Eliza Brown, an escaped slave who deserves a biography of her own.
Stiles digs deep to deliver genuine insight into a man who never adapted to modernity. The author confirms, but perhaps excuses, the worldview of the “boy general with the golden locks.”
“Freedom is only what can be conquered”: a welcome, long overdue omnibus collection of the short stories of the great Brazilian literata.
Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector, later Clarice Lispector (Soulstorm, 1989, etc.), has been called the most important Jewish writer since Franz Kafka and certainly one of the most important shapers of late-20th-century Brazilian literature. Those familiar with novels such as The Stream of Life will not need convincing, but those new to Lispector’s work would fruitfully begin with this collection, which shows both the evolution of her style and her early mastery of the story form. Often in her stories there is a vaguely discontented woman who has settled into her fate early on but nurses misgivings. In a story that begins, arrestingly, “Now that the affair is behind me, I can recollect it more serenely,” the narrator remarks on the damnable complacency of those around her, who can barely be budged into action except by such climactic events as birth and death “and their attendant conditions.” “I can recollect it more serenely,” of course, isn’t quite idiomatic, and the collection is marked by a highly literal rendering that at times verges into translatorese: no speaker of American English, in the heat of anger or some other passion, would yell, “I feel tied down. Tied down by your fussing, your caresses, your excessive zeal, by you yourself!” Excessive zeal? There are plenty of perfect moments, though, as when Lispector describes a young lady to whom things are about to happen: “She sat combing her hair languorously before the three-way vanity, her white, strong arms bristling in the slight afternoon chill.” For much of the collection, Lispector favors a kind of elegant realism, though with odd turns: contemplating chicken and egg, literally, she waxes post-Wittgensteinian: “Seeing an egg never remains in the present: as soon as I see an egg it already becomes having seen an egg three millennia ago.”
Essential and sure to turn up soon on reading lists in courses in women’s studies and Jewish diaspora literature as well as Latin American writing.
An award-winning staff writer for the New Yorker offers a probing account of his lifetime passion for surfing.
Though Finnegan (Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, 1998, etc.) was not “a beach kid,” family friends showed him how to enjoy riding the waves of the nearby Pacific Ocean. Eventually, surfing became an interest he pursued with growing avidity as his parents moved between Southern California and Hawaii. Between detailed accounts of his encounters with the waves of San Onofre and Honolua Bay, Finnegan interweaves stories of growing up a bookish boy among Hawaiian natives who hated him for being haole (white) yet also finding friendship among fellow outsiders who saw beyond race and bonded over surfing. A “sunburnt pagan,” Finnegan was gradually initiated into the deeper mysteries of the ocean that created the waves he rode with such dedicated absorption. He became like the early Hawaiian pioneers of surfing: not exactly “barbaric” (as these practitioners were considered by Christian missionaries) but still part of a group “typecast as truants and vagrants.” In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the author pushed the limits of freedom by experimenting with sex and drugs and dropping in and out of college. Yet surfing remained a constant throughout the chaos of his youth. In his mid-20s, he began an epic quest for the ultimate wave that took him to Guam, Samoa, Fiji, Australia, Java, and, eventually, Africa. Finnegan’s journals of his experiences form the backbone of his minutely detailed rendering of days spent sizing up swells and riding to glory. As brilliant and lucid as some of these descriptions are, they sometimes overwhelm the rest of the narrative, which includes, among many others, stories about the life-changing experiences in apartheid South Africa that turned him away from fiction and toward a career as a prominent journalist. The book nevertheless provides a fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession.