Book reviews for April 3, 2014

Here are condensed versions of this week’s book reviews:

“The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” by Matt Taibbi; Spiegel & Grau ($27)

Matt Taibbi begins his sixth book, “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap,” with a simple formulation: “Poverty goes up; Crime goes down; Prison population doubles.” It’s a snapshot, a way to represent what Taibbi sees as the through-the-looking-glass reality of contemporary America, where rule of law has been subverted by, on the one hand, corporate greed and, on the other, a kind of institutionalized abuse of the poor.

Such a landscape, he suggests, brings to mind the last days of the Soviet Union, which operated out of a similar sort of mass hypocrisy until, in 1990 and ‘91, “people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, (and) it was like the whole country woke up from a dream, and the system fell apart in a matter of months.”

Not that Taibbi is particularly optimistic about such a revolution (of either justice or perception) happening here. Rather, he feels “like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one.”

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

“Frog Music” by Emma Donoghue; Little, Brown ($27)

Colorful French slang and period songs _ both of which have their own glossaries in the book _ flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot. Donoghue is as acrobatic with her storytelling and language as Arthur and Ernest were flying high above the heads of their audience, and she paints the stinking city vividly as “a roulette wheel that spins its human chips at random. Blanche has been driven around by cabbies who claim to be gentlemen temporarily down on their luck, and spent high-paid nights with michetons who boast that they began as coal miners.”

Gradually, a second question emerges. The mystery isn’t merely about who shot Jenny; there’s also the question of the person Blanche will become. Will she stay a prostitute? Or will she break free from the men controlling her? “She is different these days, one way or another; she knows that,” Donoghue writes. “(H)as this older, harder Blanche been hidden inside her all along?”

Early on, Jenny had told her, “If you meet an obstacle you can jump free.” She’s talking about riding the bicycle on crowded city streets, but by the novel’s end, Blanche sees another, more important lesson. “(N)ot always,” Blanche thinks. “You have to allow for some damage.” Damaged or not, she has a choice, one that will keep you riveted as you make your way through this vibrant and remarkable novel.

By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

“Sleep Donation” by Karen Russell; Atavist Books ($3.99, digital)

Imagine a world without sleep. Or perhaps you don’t have to: Perhaps you are already in the throes of what, in her new novella, “Sleep Donation,” Karen Russell describes as “a universal American condition.”

“Who,” Russell asks, “was sleeping enough? Nobody! The ‘crisis’ seemed like more TV hyperbole designed to keep us glued to our screens, watching mattress commercials. America, in the childhood of our understanding of the insomnia crisis, called the first victims liars, hypochondriacs, wackos, crank addicts, insurance defrauders, anxious plagiarists of ‘real,’ biological disorders.”

The crisis to which Russell refers is an epidemic of insomnia, a kind of collective hyper-vigilance brought on by … what? The cause is never clear, although it may have something to do with our intense immersion in the present, our sense, in a society that is over-networked, information saturated, that to sleep is to miss out, resulting in a “kind of extreme sleep-anorexia.”

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

“Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security” by Todd Miller; City Lights ($16.95)

In his scathing and deeply reported examination of the U.S. Border Patrol, Todd Miller argues that the agency has gone rogue since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, trampling on the dignity and rights of the undocumented with military-style tactics.

“The U.S. Border Patrol is not just the ‘men in green,’ it is a much larger complex and industrial world that spans from robotics, engineers, salespeople and detention centers to the incoming generation of children in its Explorer programs,” Miller writes in “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security.”

Miller is not an armchair theorist. He has reported on border issues for a decade, including for the New York Times, Mother Jones and al-Jazeera English. He writes of the people he sees as the victims of the Border Patrol’s abrasiveness and also of the cruel deportation policy of the Obama administration that breaks up families. The chapter on that policy is called “Feeding the Monster.”

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

“Roosevelt’s Beast” by Louis Bayard; Henry Holt ($27)

As even the most casual student of American history knows, Theodore Roosevelt was a larger-than-life figure. Besides being our 26th president, he was an outdoorsman, an explorer, a historian and a war hero.

T.R.’s adventures on the campaign trail, the battlefield and on African safaris have served as material for many works of fiction and nonfiction. In “Roosevelt’s Beast,” novelist Louis Bayard takes on one of his lesser-known exploits _ his 1914 expedition to map a Brazilian rain forest waterway with an appropriately harrowing and mythical name, “the River of Doubt.”

Roosevelt had recently lost, badly, in his final political campaign, running as the Progressive Party presidential nominee and finishing a distant second to Woodrow Wilson. Never one to stay inactive, Roosevelt departed for South America on a speaking tour and found himself accepting an invitation from the legendary Brazilian explorer Cndido Rondon.

“Roosevelt’s Beast” tells this story from the point of view of the former president’s son, Kermit, an intelligent and sensitive man who can’t escape the shadow of his charismatic father.

By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times


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