God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, by Randall Balmer. I am surely the sort of reader the author had in mind: a left-leaning believer tired of the assumption that those two words don't go together. Yet the book didn't work for me because it seemed so biased against believers on the right. And if Balmer lost me, I'm not sure what choir he is preaching to.
He begins promisingly, with a sprightly refresher course on the anti-Catholic bigotry JFK faced as a presidential candidate. ("I think it's so unfair of people to be against Jack because he's Catholic," Jacqueline Kennedy said of her husband during the 1960 campaign. "He's such a poor Catholic.") Yet Balmer's assumption that the religious right is not motivated by faith at all but only by politics is exactly the sort of bullying claim on the moral high ground that I'm so weary of. And his narrative is highly selective. For instance, he argues that Roe v. Wade "was not the precipitating cause for the rise of Religious Right" and instead traces it to another court case, Green v. Connally, which found that church (and other) schools with discriminatory policies are not entitled to tax-exempt status. Interesting, but why cite as supporting evidence the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention initially shrugged over Roe—only to leave out the fact that abortion was one of the major reasons for a subsequent revolution within that church? After a while, all the gratuitous little digs begin to grate: "Beverly LaHaye started a new organization, Concerned Women For America, in 1979,'' he writes, "claiming that she resented the assumption on the part of feminist leaders that they spoke for all women." Claiming? Here's my claim: Balmer's credibility seems compromised, even to a true believer like me. — Melinda Henneberger
A Pocket Full of History: Four Hundred Years of America—One State Quarter at a Time, by Jim Noles. It was nearly a decade ago that Caesar Rodney first galloped across a Delaware quarter; later this year, when King Kamehameha takes his rightful place on Hawaii's, the U.S. Mint's State Quarters program will be complete. By all accounts, it's been a great success. A Mint survey cited recently by the Times claims that nearly half of Americans collect the coins "in casual accumulations or as a serious numismatic pursuit." As a not-entirely-casual accumulator—I got a little worked up when I finally found the strangely elusive Indiana —I figured I'd be an easy mark for Jim Noles' new study of the series.
Noles divides the book into 50 chapters, decoding each coin's iconography in a short historical essay. For some states, this approach makes good sense. I've always admired the understated beauty of the Connecticut quarter, but it wasn't until Noles filled me in on the rollicking tale of the state's Charter Oak that I fully appreciated its pluck as well. More often, however, Noles' essays do little to illuminate the coin at hand. Nebraska's quarter, which depicts Chimney Rock, inspires a detailed account of that geological formation, complete with a meditation on its Native-American name—Elk Penis.
Noles only hints at the far more interesting stories of how the states arrived at their varied designs. In Michigan, a 25-member gubernatorial commission reviewed more than 4,300 proposals … then chose a map of Michigan. Other states, though forced to fight through just as much red tape, came up with elegant, often surprising symbols: Iowa selected a Grant Wood schoolhouse; Alabama chose Helen Keller. Noles tantalizingly mentions, in passing, that before deciding on a bridge as its emblem, West Virginia entertained the idea of honoring Anna Jarvis, the woman who invented Mother's Day. There's a fascinating case study in federalism in these quarters—and a window into the dreams and insecurities of the 50 states—but Noles, sadly, is too distracted by arboreal and geological history to notice. — John Swansburg
The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria. Despite the somewhat alarming title, this is a book, as Zakaria states at the outset, "not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else." With that caveat, Zakaria launches into a far-reaching analysis of how globalization has resulted in a fundamental shift of power—political and economic but not military—away from American dominance and toward the rising powers of China and India, the first- and second-fastest growing economies in the world. And while much of the data in the book has been cataloged and discussed at length in a number of recent publications (I prefer Parag Khanna's The Second World), Zakaria's strength lies not in striking new ground but in offering a lens through which to understand America's role in a globalized world.
It is time for America to abandon its hyperpower ambitions and instead learn to act as an "honest broker"—a referee of sorts—between the powers that may one day overtake it (much as Britain has done). In the future, Zakaria argues, America's most vital export will be the universal ideals upon which the country is founded—ideals that can form a kind of hub around which the rest of the world can gather—but only if we ourselves are committed to live by those very same ideals, regardless of whatever threats we may face. So far, we've had a pretty lousy start on the future Zakaria imagines. — Reza Aslan
Last Last Chance, by Fiona Maazel. This debut novel is several books at once: a wacked-out farce about families, a critique of contemporary culture, and a welcome addition to a heretofore male-dominated streak of apocalypse narratives (Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Jim Crace's Pesthouse, Matthew Sharpe's Jamestowne, and so on). The story is told by Lucy Clark, the eldest daughter of a Centers for Disease Control doctor who kills himself after a batch of so-called "superplague" disappears from a lab on his watch. Suddenly the focus of national scrutiny, the Clark women—Lucy; her mother, Isifrid; her 12-year-old half-sister, Hannah; and her grandma, Agneth—must learn to cope with negative attention while preparing for the (possibly) impending pandemic. Each woman seeks comfort where she can: Hannah chooses Christian Identity (read "white power") summer camp, Grandma gets into reincarnation theory, and Lucy and her mother both choose drugs.