Book review for June 12, 2014


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

“Hard Choices” by Hillary Rodham Clinton; Simon & Schuster (635 pages, $35)

She hasn’t decided yet.

Or if she has, she’s not telling.

But if Hillary Rodham Clinton does run for president in 2016, her new book “Hard Choices,” a chronicle of her four years as secretary of State, leaves no room for doubt about how she might conduct foreign policy (pragmatically), how she will defend herself against charges that she mishandled the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya (robustly) and about how much she regrets giving President George W. Bush carte blanche to wage war against Iraq (deeply and eternally).

Other regrets: Her inability to persuade President Barack Obama to arm the Syrian rebels early on in that country’s devastating civil war, failing to act more forcefully to support Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators during the Green Revolution in 2009, and wrongly believing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned after weeks of convulsive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was “stable.”

“Hard Choices” is a richly detailed and compelling chronicle of Clinton’s role in the foreign initiatives and crises that defined the first term of the Obama administration _ the pivot to Asia, the Afghanistan surge of 2009, the “reset” with Russia, the Arab Spring, the “wicked problem” of Syria _ told from the point of view of a policy wonk.

“My Struggle: Book Three: Boyhood” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett; Archipelago (428 pages, $27)

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is the buzz book of the moment _ or more accurately a certain kind of buzz book, for a certain kind of audience. It is also a provocation, sharing its title with one of the most notorious works of the 20th century (Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”) while seeking to break down everything we thought we knew about personal narrative.

And yet, deep in the second book of this six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical project, Knausgaard offers us an unexpected key.

“A life is simple to understand,” he explains, “the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere.” There you have it, “My Struggle” in a nutshell … although how to get at this simplicity is something else again.

Self-absorbed, expansive, constantly doubling back on itself, “My Struggle” is an attempt to make an epic of the banal facts of the author’s existence, from the distant reaches of childhood to his more recent experience as the father of three (now four) small children, for whom he bears an intense, if ambivalent, love.

What we are getting, in other words, is not an epic life but one that, like every other life, is utterly ordinary _ and yet, that is where its epic stature resides.

This is prologue for Book 3 of “My Struggle,” which comes with the subtitle “Boyhood” (a nod to J.M. Coetzee, perhaps, or before him, Tolstoy) and has just been published in English. Knausgaard returns to childhood, offering what is in some ways a traditional bildungsroman about his grammar school years on the Norwegian island of Tromoya _ transliterated, with unintended irony, as “Trauma” on his club soccer team’s uniform.

“The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War” by Steven Pressfield; Sentinel (430 pages, $29.95)

“The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War” is not a comprehensive look at the 1967 war. Those books have been written, lots of them, as Pressfield notes in his introduction. Instead, “Lion’s Gate” is the war seen by Israeli pilots who destroyed the Egyptian air force in a preemptive strike, soldiers (like Amitai) who fought in the Sinai, and paratroopers (including Ariel Sharon) who reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem from the Jordanians.

“Lion’s Gate” is part reported history, part novel, what a generation ago was called the “new journalism.” Pressfield spent weeks interviewing Israelis about the war, and he presents their recollections in bursts of short chapters, with certain voices reappearing as the tension increases.

Pressfield presents the Israelis’ stories as if each of them were speaking in the first person. Taking the novelist’s privilege, the prose belongs to Pressfield, but the fear and exhilaration of the known and the unknown belongs to the individual warrior. Each short chapter presents the view of a specific soldier or aviator, from a general to a foot soldier.

To be sure, “Lion’s Gate,” is not, in conventional journalistic terms, a balanced account. The voices are Israeli. There are no Arabs.

Pressfield notes that as a secular American Jew, he felt the 1967 war was “his” war even though he had never visited Israel. For “Lion’s Gate” he spent nine weeks in Israel, interviewing 70-plus Israeli military personnel.

The result of Pressfield’s unique approach is an account that builds in intensity from the anxious days before the airstrikes to the triumphant entry into the older part of the sacred city through the Lion’s Gate that leads to the Western Wall.

FICTION:

“I’ll Be Right There” by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Sora Kim-Russell; Other Press (336 pages, $15.95 paper)

In the Seoul of Kyung-sook Shin’s new novel, “I’ll Be Right There,” university students wander the hilly city on foot. They take in its vistas, its hidden histories, writing in journals and reading literature. And every now and then, they’re struck by a faint, acrid scent that always seems to drift over them _ the scent of tear gas.

“I’ll Be Right There” is Shin’s 17th book but just the second to be translated into English. The first, “Please Look After Mom,” won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. As with “Please Look After Mom,” an international bestseller, Shin uses a spare, deeply emotional literary style in “I’ll Be Right There” to take up themes of loss and memory. Her novel gives a sense of what it’s like to have a poet’s soul in a country that always seems to be on a war footing, in a perpetual conflict with enemies both foreign and domestic.

Shin writes about longing and loneliness with the kind of controlled passion one finds in classic Russian literature. Her characters rarely raise their voices. Instead, they tell stories, they walk and eat together. Above all, they remember.

There’s a melodramatic underpinning to the story of the main characters in “I’ll Be Right There.” But until the novel’s final chapters _ when the stories of loss all come to a violent climax _ Shin builds her narrative on the solid foundations of everyday, ordinary Korean life.

Shin writes wonderfully about intimacy and the longing of lonely people. At its best, “I’ll Be Right There” is a hopeful work about the power of art, friendship and empathy to provide meaning to people’s lives.

“The Abduction” by Jonathan Holt; HarperCollins, NY (457 pages, $26.99)

In Jonathan Holt’s first book, he introduced readers to Capt. Kat Tapo of the Venice Carabinieri (police). She and 2nd Lieutenant Holly Boland make two interesting sleuths, along with the reclusive Daniele Barbo, creator of Carnivia, an elaborate online world that reflects Venice itself.

His newest novel, “The Abduction” deals with the kidnapping of an American girl, interrogation techniques used by the United States in the War on Terror, drugs and, in a side plot, the aftermath of World War II in Italy.

This book is not for the weak-stomached. While the plotting is not as strong as the previous “The Abomination,” the visual imagery of torture and sadism are unsettling.

Most of the novel deals with the kidnapping of 16-year-old Mia Elston, daughter of a U.S. officer, and her torture (or “enhanced interrogation,” a la Guantanamo).

Like in the earlier novel, Holt does a good job of winding the personal lives and stories of all his characters with the major story. Tapo is living through the aftermath of having an affair with her male superior and dealing with the sexist consequences. Boland has to deal with the military culture, and her own personal history. Barbo is slowly coming out of his computer-nerd shell but is still fragile. He is a less fully-realized character this time around.

“The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” by Joel Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor; Penguin Books (640 pages, $18 paper)

I just finished “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair,” by 28-year-old Swiss writer Joel Dicker, and all I can say is, God save Europe.

According to the jacket copy, this book sold a million copies in France, won three literary prizes there and was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt, while knocking Dan Brown from No. 1 spots in Italy and Spain. I am not a Brown fan, but this book makes him look like Marcel Proust.

Let’s assume that part of what makes the novel seem so awkward and high-schoolish _ there is not one fresh image, non-stereotypical character or interesting sentence in this lumbering contrivance _ is that it is set in the United States, a country the author knows only from summer vacations in his youth. Perhaps it also lost something in translation from the French.

One hopes so, for the sake of the Prix Goncourt.

 

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