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Atlantic Monthly

Defective: Return to Sender

Sgt. Jenkins‘s punishment is in his face — a withered, jug-eared mug that looks about two decades older than its sixty-odd years. In January 1965, Jenkins deserted his unit in the Korean DMZ and slinked into North Korean territory, where he intended to turn himself in and go home after a prisoner-swap. The scheme failed badly. Instead of going home, he ended up confined with a handful of other American deserters, beaten bloody by one, malnourished from the start, and forced every day to do nothing but read and memorize the works of Kim Il Sung. It is a measure of the unpleasantness of the ensuing four decades that one low point was the ripping of a U.S. Army tattoo off his arm without anesthetic, and a high point was watching a bootleg video of Michael Jackson’s (admittedly sublime) “Thriller,” with the volume turned to nearly inaudible levels, lest someone hear it, turn him in, and possibly have him shot.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Gordon S. Wood on his peers’ work

San Francisco Chronicle

The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

By Gordon S. Wood

The Penguin Press; 323 pages; $25.95

The past century has been thrilling for those interested in history but perhaps even more thrilling for those interested in historians. The profession in this country developed its first big fissures in 1913, when Charles Beard encouraged the Progressive School to jettison Founding Father fairy tales in favor of more disabused views of early America.

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Atlantic Monthly

Crying Wolves

In Zimbabwe, for a few months during the early stages of the collapse of civil society under Robert Mugabe, I flitted from bookshop to bookshop, happy as a hummingbird in a tropical greenhouse. Paperbacks cost as little as a penny apiece, and hardbacks rarely topped a single US dollar. The inventory consisted largely of remainders or possibly even of books reported by distributors as unsold and destroyed. And one book was everywhere: Fragments, the 1995 Holocaust fraud by Binjamin Wilkomirski.

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Atlantic Monthly

Growing (Up) at Eight

The boy at the center of this novel is a sort of Sixties royalty, a princeling of the radical left. The son of two figures sufficiently extreme to have concocted bombs and appeared on national news, his name is Che (“Jay,” insists his patrician grandmother, his legal custodian after abandonment by his mother), and he’s too young to know that the obligations of royalty are manifold, and rarely chosen.

The plot skips around, chronologically, but reveals quickly that the woman he thinks is his mother — arrived to pick him up from Grandma — is a Radcliffe bookworm and erstwhile friend and employee of the family. She finds herself, seemingly against her will and judgment, shepherding the boy through a world of radicalism, codes, and shadows, made more obscure still by the confusion of Che, whose tortured perspective we share.

The political aspects of the novel have attracted much of its reviewers’ attention, but its real grace is the bold portrayal of a timid child at the center of an adult drama. This is too rare in fiction about kids. Huck Finn, read by Che and his kidnapper on their journey, keeps good humor and self-confidence even when tormented morally. That sort of exuberance graces only some children in real life. In Che we feel his shivers of fright and self-doubt, his longing for familial love even when those closest to him have all found something they value more. Its depiction of Che and of Dial, the ‘Cliffie kidnapper, are sufficient to make this novel a beauty.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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New York Sun

Why We Fight

The New York Sun

Review of Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton University Press).

Violence is rarely what we expect it to be. “It was so new and senseless that we felt no pain, neither in body nor in spirit,” Primo Levi wrote of his first experience of Nazi brutality. “Only a profound amazement.”

Sociologist and amateur martial artist Randall Collins starts his wonderful, rambling book, “Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory” (Princeton University Press, 584 pages, $45), by pointing out that violence baffles us, and that it rarely resembles our imaginations, or what we see in films. Between individuals, combat often looks goofy and undignified, more slappy flailing than solid punches. For group violence, the saloon brawls in Westerns have taught us to expect bystanders to join in and smash chairs over each other’s backs; but in real life, bar patrons tend to back off from the melee, staring inertly.

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Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938–)

 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has led Kenyan struggles for literary and political autonomy for more than four decades. A writer and critic from the Gikuyu ethnic group, he is best known for historical novels depicting crises in Kenya’s quest for independence, from the Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950s to the semidictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi that ended in 2002. Ngugi’s insistence on writing in African languages and his ideas about the place of culture and literature in postcolonial societies have influenced writers throughout Africa and beyond.

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American

Naples Confidential

The American (online)

Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System
By Roberto Saviano (translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $25

On his Vespa outside Naples, Robert Saviano once blew a tire by riding over a splintered human thighbone. The setting of Gomorrah, his gripping new account of the city’s vast criminal business empire, is so unrelentingly brutal that this grisly inconvenience takes up just a couple sentences. And by comparison with the ends of other players in Naples’s mob drama during the last decade, the lonely roadside killing of the thighbone’s owner seems hardly grisly at all. If slow deaths by shooting, stabbing, gouging, poisoning, burning, strangling, garroting, choking, kneecapping, and slicing happen with anything like the frequency suggested in Saviano’s book, then every Neapolitan gangster should carry a suicide-pill hidden in a false tooth. There are fates worse than death, and many of their colleagues seem to have met them.

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New York Sun

Divining Patterns in the Imperial Cycle

The New York Sun

Review of Day of Empire by Amy Chua.

Finding a kind word for Genghis Khan, the Mongol warlord who built towering stacks of the heads of his enemies’ children, is the sort of comically revisionist exercise that can nevertheless make old history fresh again.

For Genghis — and for all world-class empires, from Persia to the present — the unhelpfully kind word Amy Chua finds, in her new “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — And Why They Fall” (Doubleday, 432 pages, $29.95), is “tolerant.” Received tales of Genghis’s pitiless subjugation of the known world obscure what was, she says, a willingness to tolerate the practices of many local groups within his dominion — broadmindedness remarkable at the time, even if the bloodshed and brutality are all we remember today. Accept vassal status, Genghis said, and you can keep not only your indigenous ways and leaders, but your children’s heads, too.