O: A Presidential Novel
By far the most compelling aspect of O, a fictional foretelling of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, is trying to figure out who wrote it. Publisher Simon & Schuster teases that the anonymous author “has been in the room with Barack Obama,” a fact that narrows the list to thousands, including the gatecrashing Salahis of Real Housewives of D.C.
Given O’s tepid multi-pronged plot—a campaign manager-journalist flirtation, a potential conflict of interest scandal, an abandoned protege—populated by a lumberyard of stock characters, it’s impossible to believe Anonymous’s livelihood depends on writing. More likely, he or she is a political operative wanting to deliver a sanitized, idealistic portrayal of the political process—one in which trading favours and palm-greasing are pro forma, but intentions are ultimately noble.
A Sarah Palin clone “flaunting that lusty librarian thing” has been marginalized, as has the Tea Party. O’s Mitt Romney-esque Republican opponent is an upstanding fellow. Other characters, like Arianna Huffington clone Bianca Steffani, are as thinly veiled.
Likewise O, the prez whose sins include being thin-skinned, harbouring a secret three-cigarette-a-day habit and leaving old allies behind. His political strategy is lifted straight from the basketball court: “Take the shot your defence gives you. Shoot when they sag; cut when they overplay.”
As for his psyche, he “feared nothing more than losing control of his own destiny.” Observations about O’s marriage are equally trite: “theirs was a strong marriage,” Anonymous writes, though Mrs. O can telegraph “silent disinterest” when displeased.
The takeaway? America’s darn lucky to have O: he takes “a longer view than most politicians” and represents “the best hope for change.” It’s all so banal one wants to pretend that O is an explosive exposé written in a strategic code detectable only to those deep inside the Beltway. Or that Anonymous is actually O himself, sublimating his frustrations on the reading public. As guesses go, it’s as good as any. ANNE KINGSTON
In 1765, France sent an expedition around the world, hoping to claim new imperial prizes. Among the 300-plus men aboard the two ships was one woman—disguised as the male assistant of her botanist lover. Jeanne Baret left no written record of her experiences, but at least eight other passengers did. Mining their diaries for a glimpse of what went through Baret’s mind during her two years at sea, Ridley has assembled a portrait of a woman whose fortitude was matched only by her curiosity.
Baret was born in 1740, a peasant who became an “herb woman,” schooled in the curative powers of plants. When she chanced to cross paths with Philibert Commerson, a plant-obsessed scientist, a lifelong connection was struck. She soon became his housekeeper, mistress and indispensable colleague, offering invaluable practical knowledge of the herbs he knew mostly from books.
When Commerson was commissioned as the official botanist for France’s momentous circumnavigation, there was only one person he trusted to help him collect specimens of foreign flora and fauna. But women were expressly forbidden on such journeys. So Baret bound her breasts, changed her name to “Jean” and set sail as his servant. When confronted by the ship’s captain, she claimed to be a eunuch. Her true identity remained a well-known secret until a brutal attack on Baret left no more room for charades.
Ridley is a golden writer, weaving colour into every turn of the narrative, from the fitting of barrels into a ship’s hull to the sexual charge that rippled through the expedition in Tahiti. She takes a few unnecessary liberties in her imaginings of Baret’s emotional life, but these are minor nuisances in this gripping real-life fable about possibility and perseverance. DAFNA IZENBERG
Days after 9/11, president George W. Bush summed up America’s looming battle against al-Qaeda: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Nearly 10 years later, the war still rages.
U.S. terrorism expert Peter Bergen pulls no punches in his compelling analysis of the War on Terror’s first decade. Far from cheerleading, he sizes up both sides’ successes and failures, from Iraq to Afghanistan, leaving no doubt that unconventional warfare has truly gone mainstream.
The still-at-large Osama bin Laden epitomizes this David vs. Goliath approach to warfare. But Bergen explains that despite al-Qaeda’s unconventional fighting style, its strict command structure made it “the most bureaucratic terrorist organization in history,” complete with application forms and volumes of paperwork typical of a movement run from an office, not a cave.
Yet despite the U.S. military’s sustained campaign against al-Qaeda’s “offices” in Afghanistan, Bergen argues that the cancer of violent jihad has already spread. “Leaderless jihad,” or compartmentalized terror cells acting independently, has created chaos on multiple continents. London’s 7/7 bombings, the Mumbai massacre and the Fort Hood killings are prime examples. Smaller, nimbler and less predictable terror cells may prove even more difficult to stop. Bin Laden may be hemmed in, but his message is not.
That bin Laden has eluded the Americans for so long is astounding. Although his luck is not guaranteed to hold, with U.S. forces slowly dialling down in Afghanistan, he may still have a chance.
Bergen argues that moderate Muslims have the ultimate power to end this war. From the West to Pakistan, Muslims will ultimately choose whether to heed al-Qaeda’s call or push its violent ideology toward irrelevance. America and the world will be watching and waiting. And, Bergen warns, we’re in this one for the long haul. JASON TUSHINSKI
Carlos Fuentes (translated by Edith Grossman)
A novel as visceral as its title suggests, Destiny and Desire—the latest from celebrated Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes—is told from the point of view of a decapitated head washed up on a beach along the Pacific coast. It’s a horribly familiar image to those who follow Mexico’s drug war. But protagonist Josué Nadal’s story, which he tells as his life seeps away, is intensely personal: one defined by his relationships, especially the bond with lifelong friend and rival, Jericó.
Two orphans who become as close as brothers, idealistic Josué and street-smart Jericó share everything, from the closet in their crumbling apartment to their taste in women. As they grow older, their destinies take them down different paths. Josué eventually goes to work for Max Monroy, a high-tech entrepreneur who aims to get a mobile device into the hands of every citizen of Mexico. And Jericó joins the president’s entourage, helping a leader who wants to win the citizenry over with parades (what Monroy calls “the eternal Mexican hat dance”).
Drawing on ancient mythology, religion and contemporary history, the author creates a narrative that’s vivid and strange, one that can seem hallucinatory at times—even the prophet Ezekiel makes an appearance—but the words and images don’t seem out of place, since they come from a dying man. Fuentes populates the novel with a set of larger-than-life characters, from a jailed murderer and an ambitious prostitute to a beautiful drug addict with an Amelia Earhart fixation. Through Josué’s story, he issues a critique of post-revolutionary Mexico, and raises questions about the meaning of brotherhood.
In the offices of Max Monroy, Josué meets Asunta Jordán, the businessman’s gorgeous assistant and, to the narrator, the very personification of “desire.” Asunta will ultimately drive a wedge into his relationship with Jericó, widening pressure cracks that had been forming for years. Even so, destiny and ambition, Josué says, are “not the same thing.” KATE LUNAU
HARMONY: A NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT OUR WORLD
The Prince of Wales
For years, Prince Charles was called everything from a kook to a loon for his outspoken passion for sustainable development, organic farming and education, as well as his abhorrence of ugly modern architecture and industrial agriculture. Now his beliefs, which have halted sprawling developments and altered government policies, are becoming more and more mainstream.
So, perhaps conscious that his forceful advocacy will come to an abrupt end the day he assumes the politically neutral throne from his mother, Elizabeth II, 84, he’s written down his thoughts in a beautifully illustrated and designed book that explores a Brazilian “permaculture institute” promoting tropical farm techniques that don’t degrade the rainforest, as well as the benefits of traditional high-density mixed-use communities. “My entire reason for writing this book,” he explains, “is that I feel I would be failing in my duty to future generations and to the Earth itself if I did not attempt to point this out and indicate possible ways we can heal the world.”
Co-authored by Tony Juniper of Cambridge University’s program for sustainability leadership, the tone is blunt—“This is a call to revolution”—and earnest. Prince Charles believes that humanity’s “goal is to re-establish our rightful relationship with nature and pull back from the brink of catastrophe. It is a goal I truly believe is achievable, if we remind ourselves of the essential grammar of harmony—a grammar of which humanity should always be the measure.”
He tries to wrap up his diverse areas of interest into a single coherent philosophy, but unfortunately, they don’t all hang together. Harmony is best read as a deeply personal meander through topics ranging from Indian farming techniques to the design of the Chartres Cathedral to how the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13) can improve river defences. The book ends with a gentle but clearly heartfelt plea: to “tread more lightly upon this Earth.” PATRICIA TREBLE
Country music autobiographies tend to follow a wearying pattern. First comes the hardscrabble upbringing, with parents who are alcoholic or abusive or both. Next comes a youth forged amid the countervailing forces of faith and vice, followed by an adulthood haunted by past traumas that—though debilitating—give texture to the performer’s work. Family stability must be sacrificed at the altar of artistic integrity. Hank Williams said so.
That Rodney Crowell fills these required elements without boring us may surprise those who lumped him in with the mullet-heads who populated CMT in the ’80s. But it won’t come as a shock to fans who know Crowell for what he is: a quiet master whose bittersweet lyrics have graced American music for the better part of four decades (anyone who pens the words, “You see me better than I can” has promise as a memoirist).
Chinaberry Sidewalks recounts his early life in the industrial penumbra of Houston, long before Crowell became famous performing, writing and producing for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger and Johnny Cash. As the only child of parents for whom “white trash” is an insufficient label, Crowell poses an age-old artistic conundrum: did he succeed in spite of, or because of, the misery into which he was born?
The author himself seems unsure, assuming the persona of the amused sophisticate at certain times, the scarred innocent at others. Drunken scraps between his epileptic, Bible-thumping mother and his philandering dad quickly give way to idyllic afternoons spent fishing with his pop on the Brazos. An appalling portrait of a perverted grandfather is offset by later meditations on familial love, while descriptions of his Pentecostal minister—“his face turned to the heavens like a satellite dish awaiting God’s direct signal”—show Crowell’s keen sense of the absurd.
He lays on the metaphors with a trowel, but usually in the service of colour, and often with comic effect. If you can stomach its lurches and excesses, a trip down Chinaberry Sidewalks is well worth the time. CHARLIE GILLIS