Reviewing the Review: July 29 2007

Politics
I'm back from vacation, having not looked at a New York Times for exactly one week, and I find the New York Mets still ahead of the Atlanta Braves (good), Dick Cheney still alive (no comment), and the rest of the world generally in the same lousy shape it was when I left it. I had a chance to contemplate life's big issues out on the beaches of Long Island, though, and I got into a few enlightening political discussions with family members of widely-ranging viewpoints as well, so Samantha Power's cover article "Our War on Terror" in this week's New York Times Book Review is a welcome starting point for my return.

Power is discussing a number of books about the USA's current situation in Iraq, such as the U. S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which I am very glad to learn about. I had no idea that a trade version of this military manual existed, or that:

The leading architect of the manual was the David Patraeus, then a lieutenant general, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, immediately thereafter. He is now the overall American commander in Iraq.

Which makes this a hell of a relevant book, much more relevant than the glut of journalistic or opinion-based books currently cluttering store shelves, and so I think the Book Review editors do a good thing by putting this unusual volume on the publication's cover. Patraeus and his collaborators on this manual seem much more enlightened than, say, the Bush/Cheney administration, according to Power:

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: "An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents."

Amen, but if Patraeus understands this, how is he going to communicate with the White House? I'm going to hope for the best, and I'm going to read this book.

All of the books Powers reviews -- Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror by Ian Shapiro, On Suicide Bombing by Talal Asad, The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation by Stephen Flynn -- seem to be groping for political and military sanity in our unhinged age, Shapiro by laying out the case that we must understand and respect foreign cultures to have a credible foreign policy (amen, again), Asad by "showing the hypocrisy of rules that permit murderous conduct by states but deny it to nonstate actors", and Flynn by focusing on keeping the home front ready to handle emergencies. A related article by Jonathan Mahler on Tara McKelvey's Monstering: Inside America's policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, largely a study of the Abu Ghraib exposure, presents another sane voice. We seem to have a lot of book writers who've figured out how to fix the world. The only problem is, I don't know if anybody is reading these books except Samantha Power.

I hope they are. And let's also read The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, ably reviewed by Julia Reed. I'm not sure about Aoibheann Sweeney's Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking, confusingly reviewed by Maria Flook, but I sure like looking at the author's first name.

David Orr's analysis of a recent volume of Zbigniew Herbert's collected poems translated by Alissa Valles with a similar earlier volume edited by John and Bogdana Carpenter offers worthwhile insights into the odd ways a translator's frame of reference or approach can change everything about a work.

Today's Book Review is capped off by a look at Austin Grossman's super-hero pastiche Soon I Will Be Invincible by Dave Itzkoff. When Itzkoff concludes "we come to dread the chapters that focus on the Champions and wish we were reading more about Doctor Impossible" I can only feel grateful that I don't have to read either. I have a feeling this book will turn out to be popular, but I haven't even seen it and I already don't like it.

Then, finally, there's a revolting display of name-dropping by the always shallow Rachel Donadio, who in twelve mediocre paragraphs manages to celebrity-spot Antonio Monda, Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Ethan Coen, Michael Cunningham, Colum McCann, Claire Messud, Chuck Palahniuk, Davide Azzolini, Nathan Englander, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Elie Wiesel, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Jane Fonda, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Bill Murray, G. K. Chesterton, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Bernando Bertolucci, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Riccardo Misasi, Susan Sontag, Isabel Fonseca, Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro. Did somebody lose Salman Rushdie's cell number? This article belongs in Vanity Fair at best.

This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: August 5 2007. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: July 22 2007.
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