Thomas Mallon extends his sharp-eyed fictional exegesis of real-life American politics into George W. Bush’s second term in "Landfall."
His imaginary protagonists are Ross Weatherall, director of a branch of the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities (Mallon’s make-believe mashup of the NEA and NEH), and Allie O’Connor, a National Security Council staffer hired by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to give the president her skeptical view of what Rumsfeld now considers the failing occupation of Iraq. Carefully controlled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gamely supports staying the course, and several highly charged meetings show her and Rumsfeld maneuvering for position around their president’s abruptly shifting moods. Bush is gently but unsparingly portrayed — “In his way,” comments Henry Kissinger, “the sincerest man I’ve ever met. … Which is to say … he’s a disaster.” As Allie grapples with the slow-moving disaster of Iraq, Ross is plunged into the immediate nightmare of Hurricane Katrina while working in New Orleans on an updated version of the old Works Progress Administration guidebook. His eyewitness view of the government’s wholly inadequate response (limned in restrained but still appalling detail by Mallon) turns this once-ardent Bushie against the administration; at the same time, Allie has come to the reluctant conclusion that however ill-advised the invasion was, it would be morally wrong to abandon the Iraqis. Their conflicted relationship is not quite as interesting as Mallon’s knowledgeable and diamond-hard portraits of actual Washington insiders across the political spectrum, from showboating John Edwards (Mallon’s most acid character sketch) to tough-as-nails Barbara Bush (no sweet little old lady in pearls here). Nonetheless, the fact that Ross and Allie change their views based on experiences on the ground makes a refreshing — and one suspects deliberate — contrast with the dug-in positions of today’s political partisans. A rueful 2013 epilogue reunites Ross with Bush, who has discovered through painting “a whole world of in-between.”
Marvelously detailed, often darkly funny, as informative as it is entertaining. Mallon may well be the 21st century’s Anthony Trollope.
(Mallon will speak and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com)
Weaving motherhood, feminism and art
A feminist nonfiction writer’s memoir, Sophia Shalmiyev's "Mother Winter" is about growing up between two cultures and her search for the mother from whom she was separated as a child.
When she was young, Shalmiyev’s Azerbaijani father took her alcoholic Russian mother to court. A judge declared Elena — who was so addicted she drank cologne when she didn’t have vodka — an unfit mother, estranging her from the family. Her father spirited his daughter away from Leningrad “without a goodbye” to Elena just before the fall of communism and immigrated to the United States. Settling in New York, he married a Ukrainian woman who followed him from Leningrad. The teenage Shalmiyev developed an interest in feminism and female artists such as Sappho, Doris Lessing and Kathy Acker, among others. Throughout, the author interweaves references to these figures among the impressionistic vignettes that comprise the primary narrative. She also recounts the days in her early 20s when she worked as a peep show stripper among women “caustic with mocking sarcasm, not having any of IT.” With Elena never far from her thoughts, she also secretly wrote letters to her mother in English as a “process of mourning my mother (and) … what she did and did not provide me in life.” Shalmiyev then returned to Russia to look for Elena only to find that she could not locate her mother anywhere. She continued living aimlessly after that, indulging her penchant for parties and “loud and raucous night(s) that ignore(d) the nuzzling rays of daylight.” When she finally married, it was with trepidation — not just for the end of her “party-girl” days, but also for a life of settled domesticity. Shalmiyev knew it was in her just as it was in her mother “to leave (her) children … (and) make them unhappy.” Ultimately, though, she chose a path that tested her ability to nurture and forgive. A rich tapestry of autobiography and meditations on feminism, motherhood, art and culture, this book is as intellectually satisfying as it is artistically profound.
A sharply intelligent, lyrically provocative memoir.