Even more brilliant than the concept of this captivating book is its execution. A Chance Meeting's author Rachel Cohen spent a year driving across the country reading classics of American literature. She was struck with the number of friendships and acquaintances that existed among American writers and artists during the hundred years between the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. From this initial concept, and five years of researching letters, diaries, and the published and printed work of American artists, Cohen has constructed a time line that links and intertwines their lives, illuminating the impact of friendship and collaboration on art, and the timeless value of human connection.
Two artists and their connection are explored in each of the book's 36 chapters. First we see Henry James as a boy, venturing to New York City with his father on a summer afternoon, stopping at Matthew Brady's studio to have a portrait made. Cohen deciphers the young boy's thoughts and Brady's state of mind, synthesizing source materials into a seamless narrative. Soon we meet William Dean Howells and later witness his last poignant visit with lifelong friend Mark Twain, in the house that Howells' son designed.
Cohen's choice of detail drives the book steadily forward with a light, sensitive hand. In the chapter where collage artist Joseph Cornell grows to love poet Marianne Moore, we are privy to excerpts from their exquisite personal letters. A year after Moore suffers a stroke, and consequently stops writing, Cornell, at 2 o'clock in the morning, records a dream in his notebook: "dream of Marianne Moore & Coney Island and refreshment stands abutting into the water high up."
These mini-narratives are gracefully controlled. Cohen won the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for the first draft manuscript of this book. She should expect a National Book Award nomination for the finished product.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
A Chance Meeting
By Rachel Cohen
(Random House: New York) $25.95/hardcover
An American Russian in Tehran
Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir of the time the author spent teaching English literature to students in Iran during Ayatollah Khomeini's reign. While living in Iran, Nafisi invited some of her best female students to attend a private class at her home, where they were free to remove their veils and discuss books away from the prying eyes of the government.
As a woman, Nafisi faced constant harassment from Iran's morality squads, while the material she could teach in her classes at the university was subject to the approval of student political organizations. Yet even as life in Iran worsened, Nafisi stayed on to teach the works of English authors to a handful of students who were inspired by the Western tradition, and also to open the minds of those who continued to cling to the Ayatollah's dogma.
The world has changed dramatically since Nafisi left Iran in 1997, but her book resonates with a profound authority in today's political climate. In spite of the apparent triumph of Western literature in Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi's book is not staunchly pro-American. The war on terror, she reminds us, will remain synonymous with a war on Islam as long as the West remains willfully ignorant of Muslim culture.
Even as the Ayatollah's regime became increasingly restrictive and Iraq threatened to overrun the country, the citizens of Iran were just as indifferent and hostile to Ayatollah Khomeini as they were to the United States. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Nafisi leaves the reader with, more valuable than the timeless power of the Great Books, is that the values of the Untied States will not be accepted without question by the rest of the world, no matter how desperate the citizens are to throw off the yoke of tyranny.
-- Eddie Kovsky
Reading Lolita In Tehran
By Azar Nafisi
(Random House: New York) $13.95/paperback
The great Hesse
Samantha Gillison's elegant, slim novel The King of America is old-fashioned in its determination to tell a transporting and transformational story. A student of classical Greek during her years at Brown University and a child of New Guinea, Gillison infuses her work with her love of classicism and her unusual affinity for exotic natural surroundings.
The model for Stephen Hesse, the book's protagonist, is Michael Rockefeller, son of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who disappeared into the Arafura Sea off the coast of New Guinea in 1961, at age 22. Rockefeller was an intellectual and an aesthete, combing the outer islands of New Guinea for native art, specifically Bisj poles, totems with grotesque features depicting tribal cannibalism and headhunting.
Stephen is the son of divorced parents -- a governor who is also one of the world's richest men and an overbearing mother, Marguerite. He is conflicted over his estrangement from the father he honors and over his life of privilege. He's restless, adventurous and lonely, a stranger to himself -- a grandson of F. Scott Fitzgerald's lost generation.
In college, Stephen is inspired by a cultural anthropology professor who's planning an expedition to the Asmat islands of New Guinea, to study a tribe that has had no exposure to Westerners. His father agrees to fund the expedition and Stephen is invited to come along.
Gillison's prose is near perfect in its depiction of foggy Maine mornings, the monsoon in New Guinea, and the lazy seascape of Fire Island. Readers will appreciate both the brevity of the book and its deeply sensuous language. Stephen's escape from a life of smothering gentility to a primitive place is our escape as well, into the lush imagination and prose of one of our most promising young writers.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Samantha Gillison will sign The King of America
Tuesday, March 23, 7:30 p.m.
Tattered Cover Book Store, Cherry Creek
2955 E. First Ave., Denver
The King of America
By Samantha Gillison
(Random House: New York) $21.95/hardcover
A brief history of Islam and the West
In The Cross and the Crescent, Richard Fletcher manages to pack nearly 1,000 years of intertwined Muslim and Christian history, from the birth of Islam through the Reformation, into a tight 160 pages. The book is a wealth of information about the origins of the conflict between Christianity and Islam, but Fletcher presents the material in a way that is easy to understand without being overwhelming. His concise presentation is nothing short of miraculous, considering the range of history covered.
One of the reasons the book is so tightly focused is because Fletcher intentionally disregards the influence Jewish history has on Christian and Muslim culture. Even though Jewish history has an obviously key role in such a history, there is more than enough to talk about concerning the first two cultures to fill several books. A book this concise cannot help but be ripe with oversimplifications, and yet Fletcher manages to highlight key points without glossing over them. He sums up his book in the epilogue in a single sentence: "The relations between Christian and Muslim during the Middle Ages were marked by the persistent failure of each to try to understand the other."
Sadly, Fletcher's account ends with the Catholic Reformation. Those looking for a more practical history of the recent conflict between Islam and the West will have to look elsewhere. But Fletcher provides an excellent crash course for those interested in acquainting themselves with the origins of Islam and its interaction with Christianity.
-- Eddie Kovsky
The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation
By Richard Fletcher
(Viking: London) $22.95/Hardcover
The donkeys come marching one by one
The title of John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira's The Emerging Democratic Majority is neither a work of fantasy nor hopeless idealism. By tracking changes in both parties' platforms over time, the authors show how one party earns majority support and maintains its power base.
Originally published in 2002, the book is already out of date. While the authors try to predict the collapse of Republican power and the Democratic majority they expect to emerge later in this decade, they've already missed out on some important current events (which are all the more crucial in an election year). While they correctly acknowledge that Bush's high popularity rating after 9/11 would eventually come down, the question of the role Iraq will play in the upcoming general election is, with the exception of a brief mention in the final chapter, conspicuously absent. Will Bush be able to win a second term even with the increasing unpopularity of the war? And if the Democrats do win, can they maintain their majority and manage a graceful exit from Iraq?
Even if the expectation of a Democratic majority seems dubious, the one reassuring truth that can be taken from this book is that American democracy works. While shifts in power have occurred between Republicans and Democrats and back again in the last century, the transfer of power has not been so seismic as to result in the collapse of our government. The political fight for control of the executive and congressional branches has remained fierce since the founding of our nation, but it has yet to result in its dissolution.
The Emerging Democratic Majority
By John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira
(Scribner: New York) $13/paperback
Slaughtering the chicken hawks
Comedy has always placed a distant second in importance to its older, more serious sibling, drama. From Greek tragedy to the Oscars, comedy never gets its due. There's certainly little that's funny about the high drama we live in today -- the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, 24-hour news and President Bush's comical mispronunciations all remind us of this sad fact every day.
Micah Ian Wright, a former U.S. Ranger, disagrees. In his new book You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want!, Wright takes aim at the Bush administration and the war on terror by taking old war propaganda posters and updating them with more contemporary themes. The result is both hysterically funny and disturbing. The humor of the new posters is really biting, but at the same time there is something a little too truthful about Wright's invented propaganda. For example, many of the posters have deliberate Orwellian undertones, and feature the tagline "A Message From The Ministry of Homeland Security."
The book features a preface by Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five). Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of The United States, provides an introduction as well. Wright himself served in the U.S. invasion of Panama during the beginning of Bush I's term in office, which he describes as a turning point in his life in his own introduction to the book. Rounding out the list is commentary by The Center for Constitutional Rights, which provides an explanation for the specific American policy that's depicted in each poster.
There is, not surprisingly, an unapologetic anti-war theme to this book, although it is qualified. The blanket war on terror being conducted today is being led by the children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation. Instead of fighting for our freedom and our principles, Wright reminds us, our government is stripping us of our civil liberties while conducting wars of narrow self-interest. It is appropriate, if not ironic, that Wright chose to use propaganda from the two great wars as templates for his satire of the Bush administration. (The original war posters Wright used are included in the book, and there are even more of his creations available online at www.antiwar posters.com.)
-- Eddie Kovsky
You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want!
By Micah Ian Wright
(Seven Stories Press: New York) $15.95/ paperback