‘Far Bright Star: A Novel’ by Robert Olmstead, ‘Inventing American History’ by William Hogeland, ‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘Plants Don’t Drink Coffee’ by Unai Elorriaga, ‘A Final Arc of Sky’ by Jennifer Culkin
Far Bright Star
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 208 pp., $23.95
“Thus far the summer of 1916 had been a siege of wrathy wind and heated air. Dust and light. Sand and light. Wind and light.” So begins the story of Napoleon Childs, hard-hearted U.S. cavalryman on a manhunt. Napoleon and his bedraggled men scour the mountains of Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. Robert Olmstead is a gorgeous writer, a master of regret. And it’s far too late for Napoleon Childs to ask himself why. “The world’s full of no-good people, he thought, and he included himself.”
Boston Review/MIT Press: 132 pp., $14.95
There’s too much propaganda in American history, writes William Hogeland, too much whitewashing, too much self-congratulatory rhetoric. If we don’t tell the truth about people and events, ambiguities, warts, moral dilemmas, we make it impossible to learn from the past. Hogeland sets the record straight with four examples: Alexander Hamilton (overzealous supporter of government intervention in the free market); Pete Seeger (his early support for Stalin); William F. Buckley (misunderstood conservative ideologue) and the cacophonous, multimedia hagiography at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia: “Celebrating a democratic national consensus, ‘We’ get together and give ourselves goosebumps.”
Summer Will Show
Sylvia Townsend Warner
New York Review Books: 330 pp.,
Sophia Willoughby leaves her disloyal husband. Both of her young children die of smallpox. Sophia flees to Paris, where she enters a relationship with her husband’s mistress, a woman raised in czarist Russia. It is 1848, and Sophia finds herself caught in the revolutionary crossfire. It is a long, hard fall from the landed gentry of her native England to the bloody streets across the Channel. Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was an ardent feminist and member of the Communist Party. Her first novel, “Lolly Willowes,” is about a woman accused of witchcraft and caught in a different sort of crossfire. Anxiety, harsh, impossible choices and the fugitive life -- these are Warner’s stations of the cross.
Plants Don’t Drink Coffee
Unai Elorriaga, translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo
Archipelago Books: 200 pp., $24 paper
Here is a marvelous DNA -- three generations of carpenters, anarchists and entomologists in the Basque region of France and Spain. Rare blue dragonflies, moonlit rugby fields, magical armoires. Young Tomas, heir to all this creativity, searches for the rare blue dragonfly in his own backyard. His earnest little voice: “When I catch the blue dragonfly I will show it to Dad, because they’re going to bring him home again from the hospital. Aunt Martina told me. I don’t know if they have lions or panthers or cheetahs in Madagascar. Maybe I’ll ask Iñes. Because Dad asked me, When are we going to Madagascar, Tomas? And I told him Tomorrow.”
A Final Arc of Sky
A Memoir of Critical Care
Beacon Press: 248 pp., $24.95
Jennifer Culkin, critical care and former emergency-flight nurse, is exhausted. She anticipates a mother’s despair as she holds the teenager killed in the car crash; she cares for babies in intensive care units; she loses friends to helicopter crashes. In the midst of this breathtaking life -- Culkin, mother of two, is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She writes with jarring precision and agonizing clarity of the split-second decisions she has made in her life. She writes about her instincts, “blind, nonnegotiable foreknowledge,” about the agonizing disappointment of losing a patient and the sometimes successful effort to will a human being back to life.
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