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 Sep 21 - 27, 2006 
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Book Reviews

From D.C. to Biafra

By John Freeman

All Aunt Hagar's Children

Edward P. Jones
Amistad, hardcover, $25.95

For a long time, Washington, D.C. was without a fictional chronicler—someone to tell the stories of its people, not just its politicians. Edward P. Jones made a bid at the role in his 1993 debut collection, Lost in the City, but he claims it outright in his latest book, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, a powerful group of stories about African-Americans adrift in the District of Columbia in the 20th century.

Many of Jones' characters come from families just one generation removed from slavery. They are new to Washington, D.C., buffeted by their new urbanity. The removal of family can be devastating. In "A Rich Man," a recent widower blows his savings on large living and fast women, only to be shocked how quickly the sum of his life was eaten up, as if by locusts.

The men in this book are trying to be good, but they are not to be depended upon. "Resurrecting Methuselah" depicts a woman's attempt to raise her daughter alone in the city, while her husband continues a life of whoring in the army overseas. When cancer comes for him, the woman has to choose whether to make amends or let him die alone.

Like William Trevor and Alice Munro, Jones compresses whole novels into these stories. There is no present tense, for each sentence reaches back into the past, across family lines and deep into generational lineage. Each new paragraph requires a family tree. This almost biblical layering might slow momentum, but it is the real story here: how a generation passes its fears and wisdom and beliefs on to the next, how a chink in that transfer is likened to death.

The Creationists: Selected Essays: 1993-2006

E.L. Doctorow
Random House, hardcover, $24.95

E.L. Doctorow has been teaching for as long as he has been a writer. Not surprisingly, when he picks up a pen to write a critical essay he becomes an emissary between the magical and the mundane, a great explainer about the metaphysics of the creation. Nowhere is this more visible than in his latest collection of 16 literary essays, The Creationists.

“Stories,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “are revelatory structures of fact. They connect the visible with the invisible, the present with the past … To the skeptic who would not consider the story a reputable means of knowledge, the writer would point out that there was a time when there would have been nothing but stories.”

Addressing the Bible, Poe, Melville and scientists such as Albert Einstein, Doctorow hovers above the works and lives of the greats, making stabs at explaining why their stories matter today. Melville found a way to subvert time, he says, in Moby Dick, while Einstein envisioned its pliability in his greatest equations.

Many of these essays originally appeared as talks or lectures, and their language reflects these origins. The prose is direct and simple. Information pushes the ideas along. “War demands novels,” begins one piece. “Sinclair Lewis, out of Sauk Centre, Minnesota (pop 2500), and Yale University, knocked around the world and wrote four irresolute novels before becoming the born again satirist of Main Street and Babbit,” begins another. 

To many of the creationists Doctorow lauds here, the laws of physics are made to be broken, God’s omniscience a thing to be challenged. They—their books and discoveries proclaim—are the great explainers, not religion. There is hubris in this act, Doctorow admits, but homage, too, which might explain why the reader finishes the book feeling like he is leaving not a classroom, but a temple of texts.

All Governments Lie!: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone

Myra MacPherson
Scribner, hardcover, $25

Journalists used to get their start at the age kids these days start delivering papers. Born in Philadelphia in 1907, left-wing reporter I.F. Stone came from this era, and in this overstuffed biography, Myra MacPherson tells his story. From his early days reporting at the Philadelphia Record, to the many years he spent as a correspondent at The Nation, Stone was a fabulous gumshoe who knew to always distrust politicians and governments. Impatient with mainstream publications, and having survived the demise of two start-ups, he began publishing his I.F. Stone’s Weekly in the ’50s, during the worst of the Red Scare. Stone eventually grew his publication to an impressive 70,000 copy circulation and used it like a bully pulpit—only facts, not rhetoric, were his strongest weapons. “His fans often said that they would read The New York Times on an issue, then read Stone, and recognize that Stone was providing more insights,” writes MacPherson. This book elegantly reminds us we could use him today, too.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, hardcover, $24.95

Set in the secessionist republic of Biafra in the ’60s, this powerful novel captures a nation's swift plummet from great expectations to the privations of war. The narrator for this plunge is a 13-year-old houseboy, Ugwu, through whom Adichie conjures a diverse cast of characters. There's Odenigbo, a well-to-do math professor, and Olanna, his London-educated mistress, and Kaienne, Olanna's twin sister, who dates Richard, a British man who has come to Nigeria to write about Igbo art.

When war breaks out, their intertwined fates briefly collapse into one before taking varying turns for the worse. Olanna descends into poverty and near starvation while Ugwu is conscripted to war. Richard gives up on the book he intended to write. As the civil war rages, the world looks on, refusing to acknowledge either the new nation's sovereignty or its privations.

Adichie, who was born in 1977, is too young to have lived through this tumultuous period, but she recreates it movingly here in language that is beautiful and precise, ever-watchful of overstating a loss of innocence that speaks for itself.

 
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