Fightin' Words 

Bombs raining on Belgrade, up in arms with Fidel, and other scenes from the front lines.

Blood Song
By Eric Drooker
Harcourt (2002), $20
A Berkeley resident and winner of an American Book Award for Flood!: A Novel in Pictures, Drooker collaborated with Allen Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems and has contributed covers to his hometown magazine, The New Yorker. Drooker has also lent his vision to album covers for bands such as Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine. His stark and compelling images are the perfect foil for the sounds of social unrest and class division. Subtitled "A Silent Ballad," this four-color graphic novel is set in a jungle land that hints at being in Southeast Asia. When the horrors of war interrupt the idyllic existence they've always known, a girl and her loyal dog are forced to undertake a perilous journey to the big city. Here, a street musician faces police brutality, and the characters must adapt to a new world, finding common threads of hope and perseverance. The author's scratchboard-and-watercolor technique echoes that of Frans Masereel (1889-1972), the Belgian pacifist whose block-print novels have led some to call him the greatest woodcut artist of the last century. Drooker carries on that hauntingly beautiful tradition of telling stories with pictures -- a practice that predates the written word. His use of severe lines, stark contrast, and an occasional splash of color bring out the strong emotions in a saga that really doesn't need anything else.
-- Angelique Gibbons

Masters of Death
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf (2002), $27.50
Well before the Nazis created their gas chambers and death camps, they set about exterminating Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies by any means possible. They tried fire, acid, dynamite, privation -- but by far the most common method of execution was to line their intended victims up and shoot them into pits. Special SS task forces known as Einsatzgruppen were organized to perform this slaughter throughout Eastern Europe. Their work in the killing fields was so brutalizing that few could endure it. Some officers recruited local thugs and prisoners to do the work for them; others performed their jobs stone drunk. The degradation intensified markedly as the extermination orders came to include not just able-bodied men but also women, children, and the infirm. Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, brings his formidable talents to bear on this little-known episode of Nazi depravity. Often using the perpetrators' own chilling words, he shows how the Third Reich conceived, planned, carried out, and covered up the murders of some 1.5 million people -- and how that growing experience with the machinery of death led directly to the concentration camps. This grim and incisive work succeeds both as a serious exploration of the human capacity for evil and as a testament to those millions who still lie, as they fell, in vast, unconsecrated graves.
-- Susan Duncan Lee

In Search of Klingsor
By Jorge Volpi
Scribner (2002), $26
In this cerebral thriller -- an esoteric amalgam of physics, history, fiction, and sex -- the search is on in post-WWII Germany for Hitler's top-secret scientific adviser. This figure, the mysterious Klingsor (his code name taken from that of the evil sorcerer in Parsifal) is rumored to be an eminent German physicist. Wanted by the Allies for war crimes, Klingsor is also blamed by German scientists for diverting resources from their country's atom-bomb project, thus ensuring that the Reichstag would lose the war. But who is he? Finding out is the appointed task of a young graduate student who teams up with a German mathematician to finger Klingsor for the Americans. This is an engaging enough premise to carry the novel, but Volpi aspires to higher things: ménages á trois in wartime Berlin, the arms race, great 20th-century physicists portrayed as fictional characters, and digressions upon the parallels between fiction, physics, and life, along these lines: "Law I: All narratives are written by a narrator. At first glance, this statement may appear not only paradoxical but decidedly stupid, yet it is more profound than it may seem." This is heady stuff. Lost in his lofty pontifications, Volpi seems to forget the reason the reader is still there: Klingsor. There's enough narrative drive to bring the reader to the finish, but that's where Volpi finally disappoints. Unlike the Bomb, this is how the story ends: not with a bang, but a simper.
-- Nora Ostrofe

Vida Clandestina
By Enrique Oltuski
Wiley (2002), $24.95
Enrique Oltuski should probably keep his day job as Cuba's Assistant Minister of Fisheries. He'll never be asked to sex up NPR, natter with Charlie Rose, or exchange solemnities with Ted Koppel. He just doesn't have what it takes to be a sellout. He's been many other things: a Jew in Catholic Cuba, an atheist among Jews, a rum-and-rumba student in Miami inching toward radicalism, a Shell employee (in all senses) making revolution. At 28 he finally cracked the chrysalis as a member of Fidel Castro's new cabinet. Vida Clandestina tells of underground newspapers, sabotage, and strikes against enemies so venal that they loot corpses; also here are the expected disagreements about ideology and squabbles over leadership. Oltuski portrays his respectful clashes with Che Guevara credibly, but goes mute with admiration when called upon to portray Castro. Undoubtedly difficult as it must be to capture such mountainous charisma, the prose is too smitten and dissociated: Castro gives "a transcendent speech," Oltuski tells us, and then it's on to the next topic. Guess you had to be there. Of course, Castro has the same regard for free elections that Uncle Sam exhibits in Chile, Venezuela, or, come to think of it, Florida. But for now, Oltuski's respectful 60 Minutes interview is just a dream. Still, if he were to come up with some dirt in his memoir of the fisheries administration. ...
-- David Hill

The Diary of a Political Idiot
By Jasmina Tesanovic
Cleis (2002), $14.95
NATO led its 1999 bombing campaign in hopes of ending Serbian then-president Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing campaign against Muslim Kosovars -- and the West rejoiced to see the Serbs getting what it felt they deserved. The campaign, originally meant to last a few days, went on for 78, and along with economic sanctions amounted to a siege of the already ragged Serbian capital. For most Belgradians, life became a series of near-misses (and sometimes hits), terror, and dwindling nationalistic fervor. As bombs fell, feminist filmmaker and journalist Jasmina Tesanovic kept a diary. "I think of myself as a political idiot," Tesanovic wrote before the siege began. "I am unable to make judgements. I see no options I can identify with." Seeing the horror the Serbs were perpetuating in Kosovo, she also saw Serb sons afraid to go to war and Serb mothers weeping for young men who would never come home. She witnessed a population turning from nationalism to self-preservation, as the meaning of life boiled down to scrounging food. Tesanovic's diary follows her progression from despair to hope, and is an eye-opener for Westerners used to the media caricature of the Serbian aggressor. And as the reader begins to understand what it is to live through bombing, Tesanovic, too, comes to a new understanding. By the time the siege ends, she realizes that she's no longer a political idiot. "I can't hide behind that mask anymore," she writes.
-- Elise Proulx

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