Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of October 29th, 2007

In the Nov. 7 issue of The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com), Mark Danner presents the transcript of a conversation between President George W. Bush and José María Aznar, who was at the time prime minister of Spain. The talks were held at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Feb. 22, 2003—exactly 25 days before Mr. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Mr. Danner’s remarks are as lucid and intelligent as ever: “The calendar [had] already been determined—not by the inspectors and what they might or might not find, nor by the diplomats and what they might or might not negotiate, but by the placement and readiness of warplanes and soldiers and tanks.” The transcript itself is required reading, a chance to hear Mr. Bush in full self-righteous flow, a misinformed zealot charging blindly forward. Here’s the heartbreaker: “[I]t would be good to be able to count on as many people as possible,” Mr. Aznar suggests. “Have a little patience.” Mr. Bush replies, “My patience has run out. I won’t go beyond mid-March.” Sure enough, the bombs began to fall on Baghdad on March 19.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth D. Samet was teaching English to cadets at West Point, where the Iraq war—“an adventure that has provoked in me deep sorrow and anger”—is “never very far from our minds even as we immerse ourselves in the work of writers as diverse as Edith Wharton and the T’ang Dynasty poet Li Po.” Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (FSG, $23) is a clear-eyed, unsentimental and utterly unpretentious account of a job that simply begs to be examined from every angle: “What does it mean for a student to spend the morning reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and the afternoon jumping out of a plane?”

If wit and oddity combine with a twist of accessible emotion (a good cry, say, or an exasperated rant), what you get is pure charm. Rudolph Delson’s debut, a delightful novel called Maynard & Jennica (Houghton Mifflin, $24), gets the formula exactly right. You know it very early on, when Mr. Delson gives voice to the romantic readiness that sometimes overpowers even the most jaded New York commuter: “You step onto the subway, the subways constituting a borough unto themselves, with different hostilities and different hopes, a whole mobile county of curiosities, and—there she is! This creature with angelic blood, and a cup of iced coffee, and the scent of some recherché shampoo, and her smile just so. Her halo quivering every time the subway rattles.”