An April shower of new books 

From the war in Iraq to classic obits to Marie Curie for young readers.


You won’t be able to think of the Iraq War the same way –- well, not for a few days anyway -– after perusing “This Is Our War: A Soldiers’ Portfolio,” a hardcover album of photos taken by American soldiers themselves and published by Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing of New York ($29.95).

There are 256 photos here, with only an occasional small island of text, including an introductory essay by Gen. Wesley Clark of Little Rock that begins:

“Look at their faces. At their eyes. In them we see the intensity of battle, the pain of separation, the exhilaration of success, the pride of comradeship. It’s all reflected in these photos. These are images that will etch themselves into your soul.”

If that is familiar-sounding blurbspeak, it also happens in this rare instance to be a true fact.

Some of the pictures in “This Is Our War” are coffee-table artistic and some are dramatic enough to cause you to flinch, but most of them are plain unstudied pictures of people (on both sides, Iraqis too) trying to get through the war the best way they know how, and the pictures are taken by people doing the same thing. Just about every shot is haunted by the notion that in the very next instant either the photographer or the subject might be blown up or blown away. Some of them were, too. A gallery at the end shows simple last-known snapshots of people who were killed soon after.

Even the back page listing the names of the people who took the pictures has the same sobering effect that the stark wall with the names of the Vietnam soldiers does. As if to say, That was their war; this is ours. And also, Kilroy was here.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, then war pictures must be worth at least two thousand. Words just aren’t very good at conveying war, which is one of the speculative topics in an offbeat little book titled “most succinctly bred,” written by Alex Vernon, an English teacher at Hendrix College who is a West Point graduate and a Gulf War combat veteran, and published by the Kent State University Press in Kent, Ohio.

The title is from a passage in an e.e. cummings poem (thus the lower case m, s and b), and it’s hard to say exactly what “most succinctly bred” is –- a memoir, a fractured essay, a kind of lyrical and confessional meditation. Tim O’Brien, who wrote the best Vietnam War novel, calls it a memoir in a promotional puff, and a word from Tim O’Brien on a war book is sufficient.

It’s a memoir about war, and about how hardly anybody’s war is anybody else’s war. It’s also about his unique resume –- about how an egghead professor teaching liberal-arts literature can share the same hide and carcass with a rather standard-issue military man who went through the military-school cookie cutter and found many things to like and admire in his own war’s effort. Is this ironical or paradoxical or just a curiosity or something that probably happens more often than we might think?

Vernon does some incisive and cliche-free thinking about the Iraq War here too, and some of his passages thereabout are worth rereading if not memorizing. An Iraq-sounding paragraph from the final chapter:

“The year after the 1898 war against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, President Theodore Roosevelt’s speck ‘The Strenuous Life’ acclaimed the manly legacy of his generations’ Civil War forefathers, and associated the individual man’s virile life of ‘toil and effort’ … with the nation’s manly duty to continue intervening overseas. ‘We cannot avoid the responsibilities that confront us in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us echoes of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty. If we drove out a medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy, we had better not have begun the task at all.’”

Daniel Black, the author of “They Tell Me of a Home” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, $24.95), is a teacher at Clark College in Atlanta but grew up in rural Conway County in Arkansas, which is the setting for this novel. He will be in the Arkansas Literary Festival at Little Rock this month.

Marilyn Johnson, author of “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of the Obituaries,” and whose mom lives in Little Rock, will be making several appearances in Arkansas this month promoting her book. It’s a study of obituaries and the writing of obituaries by a journalist (Esquire, Life magazine) who has written those of Princess Diana, Johnny Cash, Jackie Onassis and Bob Hope. Everybody’s favorite secret vice — reading the obits with your coffee and toast as a way of verifying that you’re still alive.

Two new poetry collections are out from the University of Arkansas Press. One is “The First Inhabitants of Arcadia” by Christopher Bursk, an English professor at Bucks County Community College near Philadelphia. The other, “Walking Through the Horizon,” by Margaret Holley, a writer at the Weizmann Institute of Science at Scottsdale, Ariz. They are both paperbacks ($16).

The university news service describes the Bursk book as “a fascinating collection that investigates the magic of the alphabet and language. Herman Melville, Dusty Rhodes, and Hoyt Welhelm skinny-dip and pick up gondoliers and cut figure eights into the ice in this collection.”

A question. Don’t you suppose this was just about exactly what the governor had in mind when he declared April as official Poetry Month in Arkansas and urged Arkansans to dig out their favorite Natural State verses and go about singing them proudly and lustily?

Or not.

“The Relationship Between Blacks and Whites: Love and Betrayal” is a novel written by Latisha Payne, published by Dorrance Publishing Co., Pittsburgh (trade paper, $14). The author is described on the jacket as “a native of Memphis, Tennessee, attending college while caring for her two sons, Malcolm and Malik,” and that being the case one looks for words of gentle encouragement. Alas, such words are hens’ teeth. Here is a fairly typical paragraph, taken from page 1, a slavedriver talking to his slave:

“Johnny laughed and said, ‘Willie, if you don’t finish this cotton bail today, I am going to strap your ass across the barrel tonight, take my cattle whip, and put dirty bloody whelps on your damn niggorish-ass back.’”

Here’s another, a little farther on over:

“... The beautiful valley was surrounded with charming evergreen trees, along with the cry of many owls that she had loved seeing and hearing, while they would make love in the dark. The complete town rang out in rhythm, crying, ‘Gertrude! Gertrude! Gertrude!’ The moment Robert reached the top of the hill, he discovered her swinging in that huge rope swing that was there since her childhood. Robert began crying, with snot emerging out of his nose.”

The novel ends with a “to be continued,” so you might want to just wait for the sequel. You do, you do want to wait for the sequel.

“Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium” is a biography of the famous scientist, written for young readers by Carla Killough McClafferty of North Little Rock. The author wrote an earlier book for youngsters about X-rays and X-ray technology, and it was published by the same firm, Farra, Straus, and Giroux of New York. The beautiful hardcover edition of the Madame Curie book is $18. It’s meaty enough to challenge teen readers but precocious 10-year-olds — a certain granddaughter comes to mind — should be able to handle it just fine.


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