Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday book review round-up

"A strong ideological fixation is not a promising basis for a responsible foreign policy," is the opening line of "One Angry Man," Brian Urquart's review of a Bush Administration memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad by John Bolton (Threshold), in the New York Review of Books. Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on a recess appointment, resigning when it became clear that he would not be confirmed, seems angry at just about everything. But his time as a diplomat was not without its satisfactions. His "happiest moment at State,...was personally 'unsigning' the Rome Statute," which set up the International Criminal Court. For Urquart, however, "These and other of Bolton's achievements as undersecretary did much to undermine America's leadership and position in the world."

Truth and reconciliation commissions are explored in a fictional account by David Park, THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER (Bloomsbury), reviewed by David Horspool for the London Times. Horspool writes:
Park occupies the interiors of all [commission participants] with a sympathy that does not shy away from the squalor of what they have perpetrated and witnessed. The refusal to draw facile lessons is reinforced by the fact that the least likable character is the one with ostensibly the highest moral standing: truth commissioner Henry Stanfield. Unfaithful, venal and irresolute, he is a reminder that whatever the motives behind an institution, it is administered by flawed individuals.
He praises the novel for its "combination of the hardest of realities with a measure of poetry and of humanity."

History, story-telling, and the limits of evidence are touched on in David Waldstreicher's New York Times review of MR. AND MRS. PRINCE: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (researched with Anthony Gerzina) (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers). For this book,

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina went looking for an African-American Yankee with a royal name, locally famous for performing ballads and arguing for her rights in court. In the case of Lucy Terry Prince, the recoverable truth is limited, but it still has more drama than the sketchy legend....Years of strenuous digging in the account books and personal papers of whites who knew the Princes have enabled Gerzina to present a moving, if less than rounded, portrait of a striving family....But “Mr. and Mrs. Prince” isn’t — it can’t be — the inner life of a vernacular poet and her enterprising husband. Instead of lamenting the limits of the evidence, the author spins a parallel story out of the dig for evidence. For the most part, the search is artfully woven into the story of the Princes’ hard work.

Read more about it here.

Drew Gilpin Faust's acclaimed new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf) is reviewed in the Washington Post by Stephen Budiansky. He writes:

The American Civil War was the first "war of peoples," and as Drew Gilpin Faust vividly demonstrates, the unprecedented carnage of this first modern war overwhelmed society's traditional ways of dealing with death. The customs, religion, rhetoric, logistics -- even statistical methods -- of mid-19th century America were unequal to slaughter on such a scale. How American society attempted to come to terms with death that broke all the rules about dying, and how the nation ultimately did -- and did not -- face up to this new reality of war are Faust's haunting and powerful themes. If nothing else, this finely written book is a powerful corrective to all the romantic claptrap that still envelops a war that took as many American lives, 620,000, as all other wars from the Revolution to Korea combined.

In Budiansky's view, "Faust convincingly demonstrates that the trauma of the Civil War revolutionized the American military's approach to caring for the dead and notifying families," but "is less convincing in making a case that the war's confrontation with death produced a permanent transformation in American belief, politics, character, habits of mind and modes of expression." Read the rest here. Also reviewed is HOW THE SOUTH COULD HAVE WON THE CIVIL WAR: The Fatal Errors That Led To Confederate Defeat by Bevin Alexander (Crown).