What Slate's reading this month.

Reading between the lines.
March 17 2008 12:11 PM

What Slate's Reading This Month

Book reviews in 300 words or less.

Fiction

Fanon: A Novel, by John Edgar Wideman

Fanon: A Novel, by John Edgar Wideman. Part wide-ranging meditation on Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born revolutionary who studied the psychological effects of racial oppression, part autobiography, and part artistic credo, Wideman's first novel in a decade is fierce, elusive, and exhilarating. It's an extended prose improvisation that blurs the boundary between fiction and history. Wideman raises the question of whether it's still possible to achieve the kind of psychic liberation—the birth of the "whole man"—that Fanon argued must be the final goal of any struggle against racism. In particular, he measures Fanon's idealism against the crippling toll that American history has inflicted on his own family—his brother incarcerated for 30 years, his wheelchair-bound mother stranded in a ravaged inner-city neighborhood—and comes away feeling that Fanon's ideals feel almost as remote today as they did four decades ago. Wideman is a fascinating and underappreciated writer, and Fanon is, if anything, overly ambitious; it feels like three books condensed into one. Readers wanting a stronger narrative thread should seek out his Philadelphia Fire or The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, but anyone with even a passing interest in Fanon, or African-American literature and culture, should seek out this extraordinary book.— Jess Row

Skim, by Mariko Tamaki (author) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator)

Skim, by Mariko Tamaki (author) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator). More a graphic short story than a graphic novel, Skim offers a glimpse over the shoulder of 16-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron, aka Skim. She has a broken arm, a best friend she doesn't really trust, a much desired yet confusing romance with a female teacher, a mother distracted by the breakup of her marriage, and, soon enough, a broken heart.

The fake diary is by now a tired cliché of teen novels, but Jillian Tamaki's artwork elevates the genre from the merely voyeuristic. We don't just read Skim's diary entries; we see what she erases, what she lies about, and what she has no words for. The black-and-white art is spare when Skim's life is under control; it's lush and packed with dense shading as she expands her horizons. Mariko Tamaki supplies brittle, Juno MacGuff-style repartee, but she also allows Skim to acknowledge the changes she is experiencing, even if she doesn't quite understand them: "I think I'm in love. Being in love is not what I expected."— June Thomas

Humor

The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes

The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes. The McSweeney's Web site functions like a Chicken Soup for the Liberal-Arts Soul. Where else can you find a few lunch-hour Kafka jokes and Faulkner parodies? Fittingly, the McSweeney's Joke Book assembles the best bookish humor the site has produced so far. It's humor born out of writing workshops, sleepy afternoon seminars, caffeine, and stilted ambition. The collection is worth buying for "Winnie-the-Pooh Is My Coworker" alone. Another highlight is "Feedback From James Joyce's Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop," from which I must quote one line: "Think you accidentally stapled in something from your playwriting workshop for Ch. 15." The ideal reader of this book is one with a secret pride over how they "totally own" the Saturday Times crossword puzzle—or your standard overeducated worker in search of diversion on a commute to a job that requires absolutely no understanding of synecdoche.— Michael Agger

Non-Fiction

A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine), by Patricia Pearson

A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine), by Patricia Pearson. A skilled mix of memoir and research, Pearson's short collection of essays investigates what it's like to be constantly choked by lurid internal drama. Despite the subject, Pearson's writing is often exhilarating ("I felt a certain kind of bra-ha-ha joy. Like a character in a Stephen King novel who suddenly laughs hysterically after all of her friends' heads have exploded"), and it's certainly lighter than her earlier nonfiction account of female criminals, When She Was Bad. Pearson makes plenty of intriguing ("parents consistently underestimate the intensity of their children's fears") and arguable (the modern era is uniquely overpopulated by twitchy and freaked-out masses) observations. Her first five essays are particularly finely crafted. The last four are a little loose. Still, they include an angry and important cautionary tale detailing the psychological and physical wreckage that ensues when someone takes, and then tries to go off, Effexor. If you're anxious all the time and you think about that anxiety a lot, this collection will provide you some companionable relief.— Christine Kenneally

The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last, by Bernard Avishai

The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last, by Bernard Avishai. Bernard Avishai has long been one of the foremost interpreters of Israeli society. His 1985 book, The Tragedy of Zionism, offered a bold new interpretation of the history of political Zionism and made Avishai both a beloved and loathed figure in Israel, where he has lived off and on for decades. His new book, The Hebrew Republic, tackles an even trickier topic: Israeli identity.

In Israel, there are two categories of personal identity: Israeli citizenship and Jewish nationality. All occupants of the state are eligible for citizenship. But because Israel was founded exclusively as a Jewish country, only a Jew can claim nationality and all the material benefits—residency rights, tax breaks, and subsidized mortgages—that come with it. It is this paradox that Avishai believes puts the lie to Israel's claim to be at once "Jewish and democratic."

The answer, for Avishai, is to transform Israel from a Jewish state into what he terms a Hebrew Republic, one in which Israeli identity is based not on a person's Jewishness but rather on a shared sense of Hebrew culture that can be adopted by Arab and Jew alike. This solution is at once pragmatic and troubling. Avishai admits how hard it may be for Palestinian Israelis to assimilate into "Hebrew culture." But he also notes, correctly, that such assimilation is already taking place. In any case, Avishai is right to conclude that Israel's only chance for a peaceful future is to re-examine its present concept of nationality.— Reza Aslan

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely. In his debut work of popular economics, Ariely—a professor at MIT—sets out to show that irrational behavior is not, well, so crazy after all. At any rate, it is predictable. We derive greater relief from a $1 aspirin than from the same drug priced at 10 cents. We also overvalue what we own, just because it is ours. And we snap up things when they are offered to us for free, even if we don't value them very much or if we have to pass up superior opportunities elsewhere. A behavioral economist at home in both psychology and economics, Ariely makes an entertaining and convincing case that a field that has long put rational actors in the foreground should pay more attention to feelings, expectations, and social conventions.— Tyler Cowen

The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes

The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. The Three Trillion Dollar War isn't intended to convince readers of the folly of the Iraq Project; after all, no price tag, no matter how high, could persuade the dwindling core of true believers—schmoes like William Kristol—that the invasion wasn't worthwhile. Instead, Stiglitz and Bilmes take the idiocy and mendacity of the Bush administration as a baseline assumption and methodically crunch numbers.

Toting up the costs of everything from long-term disability payments to injured soldiers to interest incurred on the national debt as a result of Iraq spending, they arrive at a nice round figure: $3 trillion. Like all such exercises, the book contains a combination of precision (the lifetime economic value of a soldier killed in the war is $7.2 million) and guesstimation (they conclude that the price of oil is $10 per barrel higher than it should be due to the war). And since big portions of the $3 trillion in costs are spread out over decades, the immediate macroeconomic impact probably isn't as large as advertised.

Critics can accuse Stiglitz and Bilmes of not trying seriously to quantify the benefits of the war, which, in theory, would balance out some of the costs. To which I say: Go for it. Since it's nigh on impossible to document any economic gains that have accrued to the United States as a result of the invasion, that would be a fool's errand. Alas, as this book reminds us, there are plenty of fools around.— Daniel Gross

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University and author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster . Follow him on Twitter.

Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Her writings can be found on the blog www.christinekenneally.com.

Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories. He teaches in the English department at the College of New Jersey.

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