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Books in brief

>NONFICTION

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt; Penguin Press, 256 pages ($25.95)

British-born Tony Judt is our preeminent historian of postwar Europe and one of the West's foremost and most outspoken public intellectuals.
Judt, head of the Remarque Institute of European Studies at New York University, was diagnosed less than a year and a half ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. He has become a quadriplegic, dependent on an apparatus to sustain his breathing. This book is an expanded version of his last public lecture, delivered in August at NYU.

The title is from Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem "The Deserted Village": "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay." This, in effect, is the moral testament of a historian who has given a lifetime of intense study to the West's failures and successes since World War II.

Judt argues that "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest. . . . Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth." This rhetoric, in Judt's view, stems from a simplified Anglo-American reading of economists Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Joseph Schumpeter, the social philosopher Karl Popper and managerial theorist Peter Drucker, whose traumatized experiences of fascism drove them to oppose any governmental intervention in economic affairs. Judt argues that the postwar expansion of social democracy and its benefits across Western Europe and in the United States and Britain weaned the middle classes from their long susceptibility to authoritarianism and ushered in the era of peace and prosperity now at risk. To abandon that now because we have lost any sense of the common good or faith in the efficacy of collective action, Judt argues, "is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come."

-- Los Angeles Times

***

>SUSPENSE

The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry; Ballantine Books, 528 pages ($27)

British novelist Anne Perry has built a successful career with Victorian mysteries. In "The Sheen on the Silk," she steps back almost 800 years to the vanished culture of Byzantium in the late 13th century, but doesn't quite find her footing.
Perry gives the reader a real feel for Constantinople in the time of the Crusades. The problem is that her heroine is never completely realized.
Anna Lascaris Zarides, a physician, comes to Constantinople to prove that her twin brother Justinian was innocent of a murder. Disguised as a eunuch, Anna has the freedom to treat men and women from the poorest to the noblest ranks and to ask endless questions about Justinian. She does it within the historic context of a period when European ambitions pressed against the old Eastern Roman Empire from the West, the rising power of Islam created tensions from the East, and Christians everywhere squabbled over theology.

A huge cast includes some historic figures and others who are fictional. Most of them are explored in far too much detail. Many of them prove forgettable as the story line stretches out over more than a decade, sagging in the process. Exploring the role of eunuchs, ubiquitous in the Byzantine Empire, is an original and worthwhile angle. Perry has fun with the gleefully wicked-yet-pious Zoe Chrysaphes, a figure reminiscent of Livia in "I, Claudius."

But the mystery and the guilty secret Anna carries lose their interest about halfway into this too-big book. It would be a better, less-Byzantine story with fewer characters -- and more character development.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

***

>CHILDREN'S

The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis; Scholastic, 370 pages ($16.99). Ages 9 to 14.

A single incident from the childhood of the great Chilean poet (a small toy sheep exchanged for a pine cone through a hole in the fence) inspired this luminous, lovely fictional account of Neruda's boyhood in a small town in the shadow of the Andes. It is a marvel of storytelling, at once deep and engaging. Neftali Reyes was a sickly, shy boy, poor at math but gifted with words, a dreamer who infuriated his tyrannical father. With swift strokes and poetic language that mirrors Neruda's poetry, Munoz Ryan paints a vivid portrait of the places (the small town, the vast rain forest, the terrifying ocean, where his father forced Neftali and his little sister to swim out into the waves as a test of endurance) and the important people in his life including his kindly stepmother and his pioneering journalist-uncle who defended the rights of native people. A life-changing early incident, in which Neftali tried to save an injured swan, is a pivotal part of the story. Lines from Neruda's "Book of Questions" appear between chapters. The book concludes with a concise and illuminating biography and 12 pages of Neruda's poetry. Peter Sis' book jacket design is lovely, but the story is so compelling that his whimsical illustrations seem strangely more like distraction than illumination.

-- Jean Westmoore

***

>MEMOIR

Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong'o; Pantheon, 256 pages ($23)

Ngugi was born in 1938 in Kenya, one of several dozen children and many mothers. His grandfather was Masai. With World War II and British colonial rule in the background, Ngugi played and studied in the courtyard of huts that formed his father's compound. Beyond the huts and the goat and sheep pens was the forest, the railway line, the town, the city of Nairobi and the world. Who owned the land? Who caused the famines? "Why does one recall some events and characters vividly and others not at all?" Ngugi's story unfolds, "a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing," comes into focus as he becomes an adult.

The book gives its readers an unforgettable sense of another time, a country and a continent in the middle of change. A small child learns to hold onto his dreams, even in a time of war.

-- Los Angeles Times

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