Short Takes 

Moral Disorder and Other Stories | Margaret Atwood | Doubleday | Margaret Atwood is pissed off at the state of world affairs. Or so I thought based on "The Bad News," the first of 11 intertwining stories, which dives through a wormhole from an aging couple's breakfast over the papers to life in a Roman colony besieged by barbarians who "prefer to invade on beautiful days." But it's a bait and switch: rather than political allegory, the rest of this slender volume is relentlessly domestic and carries with it much of the monotony of household chores.

Over its course the central female character resentfully becomes a second mother to her sister, a reluctant custodian of her husband's ex, a dutiful caregiver to her elderly parents. When she tries to break free it's desperation, not liberation--she's driven by a vision of her future distilled from a second-grade reader, a white house with frilly curtains where she'll bake and wear an apron while hubby brings home the bacon. What she winds up with is a menagerie: a farmhouse populated with chickens, ducklings, cows, lambs, an overrunning garden, and exploding bottles of homemade beer. But it wouldn't be complete without a baby, no sir.

She gets one, but the daughter appears in the narrative only peripherally, as a picture on a refrigerator door. In fact, most of these stories are framed obliquely: a stroke-ridden father is approached through an account of a doomed expedition, a fading mother through a book of photos she can no longer see. Perhaps that's why they seem so bloodless. | Kate Schmidt

Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar | Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain | New Press | In January 2002 Moazzam Begg--a Briton whose parents were Pakistani immigrants--was abducted by the CIA from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan. The Pentagon claims that Begg trained with Al Qaeda to fight with the Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but he was held without being charged with any crime and detained for three years at some of the U.S.'s most notorious prison camps.

In this harrowing volume Begg, assisted by UK journalist Victoria Brittain, tells his story, which is rife with revealing and unexpected details. Not only does he offer a more vivid account of what it's like to be physically and psychologically tortured than you may ever want to read, but he also focuses hard on the absurdities and rank ugliness of the situation: the ridiculous, inept attempts to force him into a confession and the maggots infesting his cell at Gitmo. Yet, most surprisingly, Begg also notes signs of empathy in some of his American and British jailers, who show at least a dim awareness that they, like he, are trapped in a sickening, ultimately meaningless charade. | Renaldo Migaldi

The Littlest Hitler | Ryan Boudinot | Counterpoint | Somewhere during "On Sex and Relationships," the second story in this debut collection by Ryan Boudinot, something weird happens. Two couples past the age where you give up on getting the band together and move to the "part of town near the lifestyle center with the Apple store, Crate and Barrel, and Anthropologie" get together for an evening of dinner and casual snark, but in the middle of it all, the jokes and ironic references to their increasingly sedate, bourgeois lives stop seeming funny. The patter falls flat, the reality behind all their posturing floods in, and by the last sentence one of the couples (and any reader with half a heart) is crushed.

Watching a mannered Rick Moody protege like Boudinot peel away the protective shell of irony to expose his characters' vulnerability is borderline shocking. It almost makes me hold out hope for all the other McSweeney's types writing fiction these days. There's some tricky prose play here, a few requisite high-concept pieces, and throughout the book an underlying sense of dread that feels way too familiar. It's too bad Boudinot has such a hard time resisting schlocky ideas like the hideous pack of drugged-up salesmen that rampage their way through "Sales Team." But if there's a lesson to be learned from their sales strategy--which doesn't rule out cold-blooded murder--it's that some people just don't get subtlety. | Miles Raymer

Farewell Summer | Ray Bradbury | William Morrow | Ray Bradbury's 1957 novel Dandelion Wine never needed a sequel, but it always had one lying in wait--Farewell Summer, the bulk of which was written at the same time. In his afterword Bradbury chalks up the long delay on it, more continuation than true sequel, to a desire to let his ideas steep, to add richness to the text.

Green Town, Illinois--a fictional version of Bradbury's hometown of Waukegan--is just as idyllic on the surface here as in the earlier book, and it's also every bit as terrifying, as its slightly preposterous tale of a war between young boys and old men unfolds in a series of tempests in teacups. But as with the first book, you don't read this for the plot, you read this for the language, as breathtaking metaphor meets jaw-dropping turn of phrase again and again, and Green Town becomes a nightmarish place because its utter unreality is so beautiful. Bradbury's perfectly capable of workmanlike pulp prose. That he chooses so unequivocally not to use it here shows the tender esteem in which he holds the seriousness of his dreamy protagonists' surreal struggles--right down to the all-too-literal conversations with the, er, Generative Principle at the book's end. | Monica Kendrick

| Steven Carter | Counterpoint | Wendell Newton, proprietor of the Famous Writers School, has "published over 70 short stories, essays, and reviews in literary magazines" per his bio, but he's such a hack one might assume most of those were published in his own literary magazine, Upward Spiral. Steven Carter hangs the framework of his hilarious second novel, Famous Writers School, told entirely through the communications between Newton and his hapless students, on the preposterous idea that he's qualified to dispense writing advice.

Dan, whose hard-boiled crime story about a farm equipment dealer run afoul of drug-dealing rednecks actually shows real talent, is mocked by the pompous Newton for his pedestrian literary aspirations, yet the teacher steals lines from the student's work in his epistolary flirtation with Rio, a saucy Pittsburgh lounge singer whose stories are more like friendly letters about her romantic entanglements. A third student, the adulterous housewife Linda, appears to be stalking Newton as her submissions get more and more familiar--and more and more unhinged. With characters like these it would be easy for an author to come off as arrogant as his own main character, but Carter, an English teacher at Georgetown College in Kentucky, shows all concerned plenty of affection. | Jerome Ludwig

Only Revolutions | Mark Z. Danielewski | Pantheon | Mark Danielewski's first novel, House of Leaves, was one of those hefty postmodern patchworks pioneered by Gravity's Rainbow that ignited a similar cultish frenzy, though as with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest I know few who've actually read it. I suspect the same will go for his latest, Only Revolutions, recently nominated (go figure) for a National Book Award, though it's half the size and its twin narratives are splashed onto the page as free verse rather than as dense, typographically demented paragraphs.

Sam and Hailey are the narrators, perpetual 16-year-olds each offering an account of the same epic road trip. Danielewski encourages an allegorical reading, using a capitalized "US" for "us," "allone" for "alone" and other literary tricks: readers are directed by the publisher to read each narrator's account in increments of eight pages, flipping the book over to get from Sam to Hailey and vice versa. But their tales don't mesh in any particularly revelatory way. In fact, Sam and Hailey often tell the exact same story with little more difference than arbitrary transposition of their names. I know figuring out what's happening here is supposed to be part of the fun, but the payoffs are few, unless you count the multitude of bombastic, Burroughs-esque sex scenes. | Todd Dills

Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake | Trevor Dann | Da Capo | At the current rate of postmortem deification, Nick Drake will have eclipsed both Kurt Cobain and John Lennon by 2012. Drake, a gifted songwriter on the British folk scene during its heyday, died at the age of 26, in 1974, of a drug overdose. In death, his scope of influence swelled greatly, as did his record sales, thanks to that VW commercial set to "Pink Moon."

Trevor Dann, formerly of BBC Radio and a producer of Live Aid, delivers here the most thorough accounting of Drake's life and times to date. Unfortunately, that's not saying much. A MOJO article gone long, the book is a trim 222 pages despite being printed in a large font appropriate to children's books and fattened with photos, footnotes, and a clinical overview of official and unofficial releases for fan-geeks. Dann's rueful references to the "missed opportunities" of Drake's career make it seem the real tragedy was not an early death but that he didn't have better A&R and marketing. But as the book exhaustively details, Drake had a wealth of chances: Elton John covered his songs, John Cale produced his work, he had the abiding sponsorship of Fairport Convention, not to mention good management and a record deal. The problem was that despite his talent, Drake was socially awkward, a horrible live performer, and a drug addict--all things Dann breezes past to craft his Ballad of Poor Saint Nick. | Jessica Hopper

Fragile Things | Neil Gaiman | William Morrow | Handsome, charismatic, and perpetually mobbed in public, Neil Gaiman is the Barack Obama of fantasy writers. He's most revered for his long-form, full-immersion tales--the Sandman comic series, his grim and evocative 2001 best seller American Gods--so the smaller bits gathered in this new collection may seem unsatisfying by comparison. But Gaiman's real subjects are stories and storytelling itself, so a wicked piece of metafiction like "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire" skewers both gothic excess and the cult of realism with affection for both. He also engages freely with the works of others. "A Study in Emerald" is a pitch-perfect pastiche of both Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft; "The Problem of Susan" movingly redeems C.S. Lewis's discarded Pevensie sibling while including a startling dream sequence that has to have set the Oxford don spinning.

Some think Gaiman is strongest at his darkest--the American Gods minisequel "The Monarch of the Glen," for example--but I think that gives short shrift to his wicked sense of humor. He knows full well that the creation of stories, like that of laws and sausages, shouldn't be seen by those who love them, but he'll gleefully pull away the curtain regardless. | Monica Kendrick

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation | David Kamp | Broadway | In his dishy overview of the last 70-odd years of American culinary history, David Kamp, a regular writer for Vanity Fair, connects the dots from James Beard to Jeremiah Tower to Charlie Trotter with gusto. His mission: to trace the evolution of American cuisine from prime rib and frozen peas to the three-ring gastronomical circus it is today.

Much of this--the improbable success story of the defiantly untelegenic Julia Child, for instance--is old news. And Kamp probably could have used a more diligent editor: his affection for pet adjectives like "mumsy" should've been kept strictly in hand. But though his biases shine through (his portrait of Alice Waters, queen of Chez Panisse, whom many food types view as an unrealistic dogmatist, is pretty harsh), the book is fantastically comprehensive. Kamp is an omnivorous researcher, and while he provides an intelligent discussion of the techniques, philosophies, and economics behind the food on our plates, he also spices the pot with plenty of after-hours kitchen carnality. For anyone who's pondered the particulars of Parma versus serrano ham, slumped slack-jawed before a cheese case, or just wondered what really goes on in the walk-in, The United States of Arugula is a briskly rewarding read. | Martha Bayne

Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea | Mark Kurlansky | Modern Library | "There is no proactive word for nonviolence," notes Mark Kurlansky (author of the nonfiction best sellers Cod and Salt) in this concise examination of humankind's fitful attempts to rise above its problematic nature. Taking care to define "nonviolence" as an active force--as opposed to "pacifism"--Kurlansky asks not only whether state violence is morally permissible, but also whether it's even all that effective.

Leaders who insist on nonviolence have been viewed as dangerous, he argues, because they threaten the basic philosophical foundations of state power. The tendency to neutralize such figures by turning them into saints is what enabled the soldiers of Christianized Rome to march into war with crosses painted on their shields, just as it now allows Gandhi's India to embrace nuclear weapons. The difficulty, according to Kurlansky, is that states can't conceive of maintaining power without at least the threat of force and thus imagine themselves impotent without a military. He argues the importance of questioning whether even in "just" wars like those against 19th-century slavery or 20th-century fascism the courageous, nonviolent assertiveness that unchained colonial India and toppled the Berlin Wall might have worked just as well. | Renaldo Migaldi

Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration | Lewis H. Lapham | New Press | Beginning with a notorious 2004 essay on the Republican propaganda mill and ending with a March 2006 piece titled "The Case for Impeachment," this collection of essays by Harper's editor emeritus Lewis Lapham is a follow-up to his Theater of War (2002) and Gag Rule (2004). Together the three volumes might well encompass the history of dissent in 21st-century America.

Many of Lapham's essays don't stand up to a second reading--too long on invective and carefully turned phrases, too short on direct hits. He's at his best when casting the swindles of the political present against the nasty and storied history of the American way. In "Chasing the Pot," a point-by-point response to the Bush administration's sales pitch for staying in Iraq becomes a history lesson, drawing clear comparisons between our current situation and the unlearned lessons of Vietnam, not to mention dawn-of-the-20th-century Cuba, World War II, and the rise of the media. There are many examples here of this sort of polemical virtuosity, but nothing a magazine subscription wouldn't afford. | Todd Dills

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game | Michael Lewis | W.W. Norton | In his first book, Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis coined the now-iconic phrase "Big Swinging Dicks" to describe Wall Street traders, and though that's a lifetime achievement right there, he hasn't rested on it. A few years after pissing off the baseball world with Moneyball, a book that's improbably both an economics textbook and a thriller, Lewis has turned his attention to football and the story of Michael Oher, a prodigiously large and poor African-American teenager from the wrong side of the wrong side of Memphis. After ending up effectively homeless, Oher is adopted by a rich, white Republican family who discover, along with the bewildered Oher himself, that he is a weirdly talented, NFL-quality left tackle. (The left tackle protects the quarterback's blind side from the pass rush; only QBs earn a higher average salary.)

Oher's bizarre story raises a number of uncomfortable questions about white America's mining of talent from the black ghetto. For better or worse, Lewis bypasses these larger questions and concentrates on the momentum of the story. The result is another masterful performance by Lewis, who may create narrative drama better than any other nonfiction writer around. | Nicholas Day

Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-soaked Journey From Grape to Glass | Natalie MacLean | Bloomsbury | Natalie MacLean has been called the "George Plimpton of wine writers," and in this wide-ranging collection there's plenty of participatory journalism--she moonlights as a sommelier, works a vineyard, goes on a bender with Jay McInerney. But it's not all stunts: a four-time winner of a James Beard award for journalism, she manages to cram a ton of practical information into a lively, often droll narrative. Along the way she tours the winery Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, home of what many consider the world's greatest wine; visits Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, the wild man of California wine; and addresses the flap between new world and old sparked by the immense influence of numerical ratings employed by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and others.

You learn about terroir, appellations, biodynamics, and negociants, but it's all done with a light hand--MacLean approvingly quotes Ralph Steadman's satirical description of an Algerian wine ("Very soft and very round, like a sheep's eyes with square pupils"). When the gloves come off and her obsessive-compulsive side reveals itself the results can be amusing: a supposedly casual wine tasting with a bunch of girlfriends involves a tutorial on expectoration and the rigorous examination of each glass against slips of white paper. But then it's hard to argue with her methods. This is a woman who, inspired by a Napoleonic legend, taught herself to slice open a bottle of champagne with a saber. | Kate Schmidt

The Road | Cormac McCarthy | Random House | Fame can be a writer's worst enemy. It's probably no coincidence that the writing in Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy" goes south, and not in a good way, midway through the second book. McCarthy was probably writing that part at just about the same time the first book in the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, made such a sensation on its release. The first is that rare thing, an uncompromising work that was also a best seller, but The Crossing wanders aimlessly and the concluding volume, Cities of the Plain, isn't any more direct.

In McCarthy's new novel, The Road, he strips everything down to the basics. A tale about a man and his son wandering a barren, postapocalyptic America, it's McCarthy's "The Old Man and the Sea," but because he's a greater artist than Hemingway (who likewise shook the shackles of fame), it's a greater work. His obsession with the permutations of evil shows up here in the form of marauders reminiscent of those in 1993's Outer Dark, but his earlier Faulknerian prose is pared away in favor of verbless sentences, withered limbs of description. The language is dressed out and smoked dry as if to be the one good thing that endures. This is a late masterpiece--bleak and utterly unsentimental--in which the only things more precious than life are the words that preserve it. | Ted Cox

After This | Alice McDermott | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | In her latest novel, After This, Alice McDermott (Charming Billy) repeats phrases and words with a careful intentionality, their reappearance in a chapter or even a paragraph forming a steady roiling rhythm. Stylistically it works--but the other ways the tale breeds familiarity aren't such a plus.

After Thish is is a long look at the making of a typical American family in the twilight of American innocence--the 50s, 60s and early 70s. Following the Keanes through their suburban-Long Island existence, cloistered in Catholicism, you might think "I know these people"--but not because they seem so real. It's because you've seen them in countless movies and other books: the stoic father who barely knows his kids, the dutiful mother given to prayer, the pussy son, the tough son, the protofeminist daughter, the dutiful daughter, the neighbor kid who comes back from Vietnam a junkie. McDermott doesn't judge her characters--she hardly lets them speak. Instead she creates scenes loaded with trimmings and hung with symbolism, the Keanes standing in for a national fantasy of a solicitous, virginal America with rosy cheeks and an easy smile. | Jessica Hopper

Big-box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses | Stacy Mitchell | Beacon | Why has the amount of retail space per person doubled since 1990, while consumer incomes have gone up less than 10 percent? Stacy Mitchell thinks she knows: local, state, and federal government subsidies for the development of malls and big-box stores.

Of course, some consumers welcome greater selection, more services, lower prices, longer hours, and the comfort of a familiar store in a strange place. But according to Mitchell, who works for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the balance sheet on big boxes is all red: the community loses control, small businesses, jobs, philanthropy, and green space. And the prices aren't always lower. At the national level, mega-retailers now wag the dog of manufacturing--Wal-Mart has the power to kill an innovative product in its cradle by decreeing that it won't sell enough units.

Insisting that there's nothing inevitable about the decline of locally owned businesses, Mitchell describes alternatives from Maine to Wyoming, including Local First campaigns, community-owned stores, online local shopping, and wholesale buying co-ops. Whether these can add up to a world where chains and locals coexist remains to be seen, but she raises issues that Chicago's big-box debate hasn't touched. | Harold Henderson

Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back | Michele Simon | New Press | With Americans paying ever more attention to what's going in their mouths, now is the ideal time for an intelligent book on Big Food and its malignant effects on our national body. But while Appetite for Profit has the title right, the book doesn't dig much deeper. Michele Simon, a nutrition advocate and public health lawyer, seems to have the capacity to be infinitely shocked, a quality that comes in handy for the author of a polemic, but Simon herself may be the only one shocked by what's in her book. She discloses a series of hypertension-inducing facts: corporations are only in it for the money, businesses fight government reforms that would cut their profits, and industry funds ostensibly independent institutes to support its positions. I know: pick yourself up off the floor. A far better book on the subject is Marion Nestle's Food Politics (2003), a much more incisive and detailed look at our corporate-constructed diet. | Nicholas Day

Gemma | Meg Tilly | Syren Book Company | Best known as an actress (Agnes of God, The Big Chill), Meg Tilly ditched that career years ago to focus on her family and try her hand at writing. Though skillfully written, her new novel, Gemma, is difficult to read: like her 1994 debut, Singing Songs, it deals with child sexual abuse of a particularly depraved sort.

Twelve-year-old Gemma is a levelheaded, good-hearted kid who since the age of eight has been raped in her own home by her feckless mother's live-in boyfriend, Buddy. After he lets his pal Hazen have his way with her for $100, Hazen becomes obsessed and kidnaps her, hauling her between crappy motels from Oakland to Chicago. Along the way he keeps her locked in the trunk, denies her food and clothing, and brutalizes her nightly. Only Gemma's vivid imagination enables her to survive.

Tilly perfectly captures the voice and mind-set of a preteen girl; your heart breaks for her. Braver still, in alternating chapters she allows Hazen to narrate from his point of view, despicable, cruel, and delusional as it is. This could easily have come off as heavy-handed, but Tilly avoids any shred of moralizing. | Jerome Ludwig

The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power | James Traub | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | How much of a masochist do you have to be to read a book on the United Nations? James Traub, a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, has written a comprehensive look at the UN during Kofi Annan's tenure, a decade that included a lot of high points (the momentary resurgence of the institution in a post-cold war world, Annan's Nobel Prize) and even more low points (Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, John Bolton). Traub trailed the bedraggled Annan for several years and had backroom access to the secretariat, but the book staggers under the weight of all the known history it describes: I can't imagine what amount of anecdotal detail would make the Iraq war negotiations worth reliving. The Best Intentions is an unnerving look at the structurally unsound UN, an institution that often seems barely more competent than Bolton himself (who's portrayed as comically inept). Traub's penultimate chapter, on UN alternatives, is a terrific, if depressing, ten pages on the biggest question his book raises: if not the UN, then what? | Nicholas Day

Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right | Mel White | Tarcher/Penguin | Mel White brings a unique perspective to his disturbing discussion of the attempts of Christian fundamentalists to impose their will in the United States--a subject that's already been closely examined this year in Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy. Despite his many political and philosophical differences with right-wing religious leaders, White, who is gay, still considers himself an evangelical--a term he takes pains to differentiate from "fundamentalist."

In the 80s, before coming out, he ghostwrote books for Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and other fundamentalist leaders--and while he's sorry about that now, his experiences did provide him with plenty of evidence for those leaders' disdain for democracy, human rights, and the Constitution. White shows how the Christian right's political operatives, who once exploited their adherents' fear of Soviet communism, were forced to shift to demonizing gays, lesbians, and other "liberal" groups to justify government enforcement of a decidedly skewed interpretation of biblical doctrine. While White confesses a lingering fondness for some of the preachers with whom he once worked (singling out Billy Graham as an admirably tolerant exception to the norm), he doesn't shrink from portraying them as misguided fascists who, if they succeed, would transform the character of American life in terrifying ways. | Renaldo Migaldi

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