Utne Reader Book Reviews: July-August 2008

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WaxingHistoric
Dreaming Up America
by Russell Banks (Seven Stories)
Russell Banks is not a historian but a novelist, the author of 16 works of fiction including The Sweet Here­after. While he’s obviously well read, Dreaming Up America is still something of a bold curiosity: a history of the United States–no, of America (Banks explains the difference), from colonial times to the present–that concerns itself less with dates and places than with how we think and why we act.

Dreaming Up America began as an 11-hour interview Banks did for French filmmaker Jean-Michel Meurice, who was making a documentary about U.S history as portrayed in film, from The Birth of a Nation to Blackhawk Down. Meurice proposed that Banks (as well as writer Jim Harrison) was ideally poised to present a counternarrative to that cinematic history.

The result, edited into eight “reels” arranged more or less chronologically, is a fluid, provocative rumination on American identity. Banks traces the origin and impact of the American Dream. He explains why we think God is an American and how nationalism flavors our foreign and domestic policy. He bounces across decades and flies through centuries, and, while it seems odd, at first, to drink up history from the hands of a non-historian, it’s all right. Banks doesn’t purport to tell the officially sanctioned story. Read Dreaming Up America because Banks simply excels, as a novelist would, at grabbing hold of tenuous threads of cultural identity, spotting the exact moments when we began thinking of ourselves in a certain way, and then picking apart the consequences of those shifts in consciousness. –Julie Hanus

Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts
by Gary Nabhan (University of Arizona)
Author Gary Nabhan investigates his Lebanese family roots and finds surprising connections between the desert cultures of the Middle East and southern Arizona, where he’s lived and worked for years. Among the most startling are lexicographical links–words used by O’odham (Pima) American Indians that come, via Spanish, from Arabic–but Nabhan also researches and reports the hidden history of camels in the Sonoran Desert (who knew?), compares the aggression of hummingbirds and humans, celebrates the Lebanese food of Mexico, and points out cross-cultural success stories in crop selection and water conservation. Elucidating cultural connections, Nabhan maps a route toward sustainability and moves us toward deeper understanding of our kinship with people far away. –Chris Dodge

War Nerd
by Gary Brecher (Soft Skull)
Gary Brecher isn’t after readers who revere Gandhi. “If you think that,” he writes in his introduction to War Nerd, “stop smudging up my book. You’re in the wrong shelf.” Treat his admonition as fair warning, not a “No Trespassing” sign, for even the peaceniks Brecher loathes can learn something from this raucous, offensive, and sometimes amusing CliffsNotes compilation of wars both well-known and ignored. Brecher, a popular and possibly pseudonymous columnist for the English-language biweekly Russian newspaper the eXile, is a self-described “war nerd” who decodes news dispatches, Pentagon press releases, and weapons catalogs to tease out surprising analysis, identify actual threats (he puts North Korea in this camp) and straw men (Saddam Hussein), and dissect the neocons’ warmongering motives and missteps. Most importantly, though, he reminds us of the war-plagued world beyond Iraq. –Hannah Lobel

Asylum Denied: A Refugee’s Struggle for Safety in America
by David Ngaruri Kenney and Philip G. Schrag (University of California)
We all ought to have a better sense of the tangled, barbarous process to which our government subjects refugees and asylum applicants, and Asylum Denied is a rare page-turner on the subject. David Ngaruri Kenney writes with elegance and composure about his attempts to gain asylum in the United States after being imprisoned, tortured, and harassed for his political actions in Kenya. The legal twists and turns he and Philip G. Schrag, his immigration lawyer, relate are absolutely maddening–John Ashcroft’s post-9/11 “reforms” required the Board of Immigration Appeals to zip through its 55,000-case backlog in six months, the equivalent of each board member deciding one case every 15 minutes–and Kenney is candid about the rest of his life as well, offering plenty of funny, bright moments in this rousing call to action. –Danielle Maestretti

Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan
by Terese Svoboda (Graywolf)
How do we not repeat history, if it’s a mass grave of secrets? In 2004, when Abu Ghraib entered the national shamescape, Don Svoboda stumbled into depression, later killing himself. The bad news from Baghdad may have triggered memories of his service after World War II at a prison for American GIs in Japan. Using stories Don committed to tape, his niece, author Terese Svoboda, resolved to unearth her uncle’s war. Connecting the dots cut a twisting route from ambiguous memory to incomplete records, all circling the never-definitively-answered question: Were African American GIs executed in Japan? Read Black Glasses Like Clark Kent quickly to ease your irritation with some of Svoboda’s literary touches (for example, solemn etymologies), but try shrugging off the history she dredges up. It isn’t easy. –Michael Rowe

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