Half a Life 

Book briefs for the month of December

Political Fictions By Joan Didion
Knopf (2001), $25

Joan Didion's writing is elegantly barbed. A political reporter, she knows why reporters like covering political conventions: "It gets them out on the road. It has balloons." And why politicos insist on describing focus-group participants as "the American people": It's "the preferred way of describing the selected dozens of narrowly targeted registered voters who turn out for the cold cuts and $35."

A professed outsider, Didion nonetheless offers insight into the way American political discourse is created and marketed. Consider this: Of the slice of the population that made it out to vote in the 2000 presidential election, 53 percent had incomes above $50,000, 42 percent had college degrees, and 72 percent have invested in the stock market. In Political Fictions, Didion argues that Americans with less posh lifestyles are not apathetic, they're simply ignored by the "permanent political class" -- the Beltway insiders who are, with increasing precision, crafting campaigns targeted at those who look, act, and think much like they do.

Political Fictions may seem familiar. The first one and a half chapters are adapted from Didion's previous nonfiction collection After Henry, and most of the other pieces appeared throughout the '90s in The New York Review of Books. There are equally scathing takes on Dinesh D'Souza's Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, Bob Woodward's The Choice -- Inside the Clinton and Dole Campaigns, Michael Isikoff's Uncovering Clinton, and a good portion of the Newt Gingrich oeuvre. What emerges is an indictment of the political scribes who collaborate with the insiders by either pushing (or failing to question) the issue of the moment, even if that issue is dramatically out of step with the concerns of the voting majority. Did most Americans support a post-Monica impeachment? Do most Americans desire a return to "family values?" Not really, but because that's what concerns insiders and their target voters, that's what makes the TV news and the bestseller lists, and that's how the terms of electoral debate are framed. As Didion quotes a Republican strategist telling the Washington Post, "Who cares what every adult thinks? It's totally not germane to this election."

Didion goes to great lengths to show that, even at the apex of her career as a political reporter, she exists on the fringes of political insiderdom. (The Jesse Jackson campaign doesn't know whether to let her on the plane. She isn't invited to big convention parties, and takes off in the middle of the hoopla to go visit more historically compelling sites.) But the real outsider she's writing about is you.
--Kara Platoni

In Harms Way By Doug Stanton
Henry Holt (2001), $25

Anyone who has seen the movie Jaws has learned about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis; actor Robert Shaw, playing the crusty sea captain/shark hunter Quint, goes into graphic detail about the nine hundred sailors thrown into the sea for days during which exposure and sharks caused the deaths of six hundred seamen. Doug Stanton's book In Harm's Way does a masterful job weaving together the events leading up to the worst tragedy in US Naval history.

Setting out from Mare Island, Vallejo, the ship's mission was to deliver the atomic bomb to Guam (ultimately dropped on Hiroshima) and then sail on to Leyte in the South Pacific. With the bomb unloaded, the ship started to its next destination only to be torpedoed and sunk. Held responsible and court-martialed, the captain has only recently been totally exonerated by the Navy.

Unfortunately, it came too late for Charles Butler McVay, as he committed suicide in 1968. The author also exposes some of the mistakes that left men in the water for such a long time at such a huge cost in lives. Fascinating reading, especially in light of the recent controversy over the Japanese fishing boat sunk off Hawaii last year by the USS Greeneville and the subsequent findings by the Navy.
--David Bennett

Body of secrets By James Bamford
Doubleday (2001), $29.95

Body of Secrets is subtitled "Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency," and it takes its subject literally. The book is organized into anatomic chapters -- "Nerves," "Blood," "Spine" -- addressing different aspects of the agency. ("Brains," for example, covers the agency's development of advanced supercomputers for its immense tasks of cryptographic analysis and information storage and retrieval.) If not "ultra" secret, the NSA has, unlike the CIA and the FBI, successfully avoided publicity over its seventy-year history.

Begun in 1930 as a small group of cryptographers (code breakers) called "The Black Chamber" operating out of the Munitions Building in Washington, DC, the NSA has grown into a sprawling government metropolis in Maryland -- Crypto-City -- with 32,000 employees and a seven-billion-dollar annual budget. This is a large role for an agency whose principal task is signals intelligence, or electronic eavesdropping on communication signals around the globe. Bamford chronicles the history of the NSA, from the capture of a key Soviet coding machine at the close of World War II, through Vietnam (where an NSA officer was the first American casualty of the war), to the current monitoring of Osama bin Laden's telephone calls to his mother.

It's an illuminating survey of how America listens in on the world. Bamford's gee-whiz approach, however, prevents a thoughtful examination of the agency's contributions to national security. Much of the book celebrates the NSA's unsung heroes and technical successes. But what about the actual usefulness of the information the agency gathers? For all of its sophisticated high-tech monitoring, the NSA can point to few, if any, foreign policy victories won on the basis of signals intelligence. And even when its intelligence is accurate and timely, as was the USS Liberty's recording of Israel's covert aggression in the Six Day War, it is often ignored by Washington decision-makers. Bamford does, at least, uncover a great deal of inside information about the workings of American national security. The book has one surreal account of an actual plan by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to secretly hijack American commercial aircraft, blame the hijackings on Fidel Castro, and use domestic outrage to support a war against Cuba. The implications are chilling today.
--Nora Ostrofe

Dripping Dry: Literature, Politics, and Water in the Desert Southwest By David Cassuto
University of Michigan Press (2001), $49.50 hardcover, $19.95 paperback

Dripping Dry: Literature, Politics, and Water in the Desert Southwest is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the hydrology of the arid West. East Bay writer David Cassuto eloquently examines the history and literature of the Reclamation movement, the growth of the Restoration movement, and the need to develop an alternative: sustainability.

Drawing links between the literature and politics of water, he discusses four books concerned with the history of water in the West: Mary Austin's The Ford, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams. He does this against the background of the Reclamation movement, from John Wesley Powell through the present. The evolution of Western water law, the early belief that "rain would follow the plow," the vision of the West as an Edenic garden awaiting the arrival of homesteaders, the "go, go period" of Reclamation, and the emergence of the Restoration movement fuel the story.

Austin, an early environmentalist and author of the nature classic The Land of Little Rain, wrote a fictional account of the water wars of the Owens Valley, The Ford (1917), which depicts the struggle between Los Angeles and the yeomen of the Owens Valley, but substitutes a happy ending. The yeomen get to keep the water of the Owens River, but nevertheless the river is dammed and used for irrigation. The book, Cassuto points out, illustrates Austin's struggle to accommodate restoration (even at a very local level) with environmentalism.

The Grapes of Wrath, he writes, represents an indictment of the myth of the garden and its accompanying myth of the frontier. Through his fiction Steinbeck critiques the agricultural practices that created the Dust Bowl and the water politics that continued to victimize both the land and its inhabitants. Following publication in 1939, the book stirred up vigorous condemnation, a condemnation that continued for years.

In The Monkey Wrench Gang (1976) Abbey rages against reclamation and advocates its forcible destruction. Cassuto makes the claim that Abbey created a new myth of the ecowarrior that spawned real-life progeny.

In Animal Dreams (1991), Kingsolver attempts to put forth a vision of a post-Reclamation West. It fails, Cassuto believes, because her lack of a coherent vocabulary to describe the new thinking renders the strategy reactive and unsatisfactory. But, he says, the cause is not hopeless and the struggle has just begun: "Envisioning a sustainable post-Reclamation reality in the West necessitates a radical reformulation of humanity's relationship with nature."
--Elizabeth Rush

Half a Life By V. S. Naipaul
Alfred A. Knopf (2001), $24

V. S. Naipaul's latest novel would be something of an embarrassment even if its release hadn't coincided with his winning the Nobel Prize. The best of his previous novels are enough to put this effort to shame.

Half a Life grapples with unresolved religious, racial, cultural, and sexual issues in the life of a Westernized Indian man, and the title neatly assesses the crippling effects of his generalized identity crisis. Willie Somerset Chandra is the victim of what one might call cultural schizophrenia. His mother is a dark woman of no caste brought up in a Christian school. His father, an anticolonial Hindu priest with confused loyalties, burdens Willie with a peculiar English name on the basis of a bizarre meeting with W. Somerset Maugham. Willie escapes to London, where he eventually achieves modest success as a writer, and significantly less success with women. Uncannily, this extended episode rather effectively recalls the tawdry scenes in Maugham's Of Human Bondage.

A gentle, similarly traumatized African woman named Ana becomes Willie's lover, and they eventually move back to her bush estate in an unnamed African-Portuguese country. Here their lives peter out, despite a morbidly fascinating socio-political backdrop. What deadens the story, however, is not Willie's half-lived life, but rather Naipaul's halfhearted and often sloppy attempt at chronicling his anti-hero's depressive malaise.
--Alexandra Yurkovsky

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