Reader?s Diary

What were we thinking? Five years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a hung-over America surveys the damage and wonders just how it got into this mess, while the very same politicians, journalists, and “experts” who sold us the war are now busy disclaiming all responsibility. In their marvelously (if grimly) amusing new book, Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks), Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky have collected a chapbook of priceless quotations from the warmongers — including “the highest government officials, diplomats, Cabinet officers, four-star generals, big-foot pundits, prize-winning Middle East scholars, top think-tank strategists, the leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency, and such” — that predicted instant victory, a new world order, and liberty and oil for all.

This book has now superseded that old standby The World?s Stupidest Criminals as my favorite bathroom reading. Here, for example, is Laura Ingraham on UN arms inspector Hans Blix: “He couldn?t find a stretch-mark on Rosie O?Donnell.” And Alan Foley of the CIA: “If the president wants to go to war, our job is to find the intelligence to allow him to do so.” Charles Krauthammer?s 2003 claim that “the only people who think this wasn?t a victory are Upper West Side liberals, and a few people here in Washington” was echoed by General Tommy Franks — who of all people should have known better — a year later, when he said that “history will record” Operation Iraqi Freedom as “unequalled in excellence by anything in the annals of war.” John Yoo, Condi Rice, Christopher Hitchens, Alberto Gonzales, and of course Dubya himself (“No president has done more for human rights than I have”): all the biggies are here, trapped now in their own sticky web.

For another wonderful trip into the through-the-looking-glass world that is modern America, try Andrew D. Blechman?s Leisureville: Adventures in America?s Retirement Utopias (Atlantic Monthly Press). Intrigued when his recently retired neighbors pull up roots from their New England town and relocate to “The Villages,” a monstro gated retirement community in central Florida, Blechman pays them a visit and is astounded by what he finds: this utopia spans “three counties, two zip codes, and more than 20,000 acres,” with 100 miles of golf cart trails and a golf course for every day of the month, plus two “historic” downtowns (created by a design firm allied with Universal Studios) and its own newspaper and television and radio stations that keep the real world at bay by delivering only good news.

Blechman finds himself both bemused and disturbed by this Disneyesque fantasyland of “GLC” (golf, leisure, and convenience) and wonders what effect the fast-growing trend will have on society in general. Segregated from other age groups and having given up many of their civil liberties to live in a corporate-run town, these seniors — defined as people 55 and over, often still in the prime of life — have effectively abdicated from the larger social compact. “What happens to American society in general, and our municipalities in particular, when a critical mass of mature Americans form self-contained private cities and disengage from the general population?” Blechman asks. His tale is simultaneously entertaining and appalling, a mesmerizing read.

To go from the end of life to its beginning, let?s look at Leonard S. Marcus?s Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children?s Literature (Houghton Mifflin). Marcus, a well-regarded scholar of children?s literature, reminds us that the defining feature of children?s publishing, “as contrasted with other kinds, that the people who buy the books have not been the people for whom the books were intended.” As a result, it has bred a plethora of gatekeepers or “minders”: publishers, editors, librarians, educators, literary critics, and other interested — sometimes overbearingly interested — parties. The great illustrator Robert Lawson attacked many such minders in his 1943 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech when he railed against “those natural uplifters and arrangers, who feel the call to plan and regulate everything in sight.” His rant (mostly directed at librarians) is understandable, but many of the minders featured in this history have enriched American childhood immeasurably, most of all the groundbreaking editors such as May Massee, Ursula Nordstrom, and Margaret Wise Brown.

The world of children?s books, despite a certain measure of rivalry and backstabbing, appears a relatively benign one. Literary publishing is rather different, a fact the Mexican intellectual Gabriel Zaid comments upon bitingly in his collection of linked essays, The Secret of Fame: The Literary Encounter in an Age of Distraction (translated by Natasha Wimmer; Paul Dry Books). Modern authors, Zaid says, write not so much in hope of producing a masterpiece but to achieve fame at any price. “The author attracts attention even as the work is lost from sight. People would rather talk about writers than read what they?ve written. The spotlight is on TV interviews, celebrities, photographs?”

True enough, although the hunger for renown over quality is not, I think, as recent a phenomenon as Zaid implies, but has gone on since authors? names were first appended to published works: who can forget the naked avidity for fame in Benvenuto Cellini?s autobiography? But Zaid provides some rich examples, including trenchant reflections on the self-serving vanity of authors reflected in such apparently innocent guises as the use of footnotes and citations. Zaid?s tone is supercilious, but he has earned the right to it: in a long and prolific career, he himself has never appeared in public or even sat for an author?s photograph.

“Great works focus our minds, speak to the best in us, and spark our imagination,” Zaid writes. I have recently rediscovered one such great work: Emile Zola?s Nana (1880). Too many American readers are introduced to Zola only in college literature courses, as a prime representative of the depressing school of 19th-century “naturalism.” But Zola was one of the world?s great story tellers, and Nana is his most outrageous, flamboyant, and irresistible piece of work.

Nana is a Paris streetwalker who goes on the stage (in an era when actresses were by definition demi-mondaines) and subsequently becomes the most famous cocotte (high-end prostitute) of her era; her rise and fall provide a superb whore?s-eye view of French society under Napoeon III. Zola was an especially visual writer, and some of his set pieces — Nana onstage at the Vari?t?s, for instance, or the cocottes? vulgar dinner party for their patrons — linger in the mind?s eye as vividly as any painting by the author?s great contemporary, Manet. All of Zola?s books are enjoyable, but this one is a feast, containing every bit of the richness and glorious excess that the word implies.