Our Critic's Tip Sheet On Current Reading: The Next Secretary of State; A Valentine From Eugenides; Love Lessons From Larkin

Samantha Power has a new book out this week: Chasing the Flame is a posthumous valentine to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the charismatic United Nations envoy who was killed four and a half years ago by the massive truck bomb that destroyed the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. A handsome Brazilian who worked for the U.N. for 34 years, posted to hot spots like Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Congo, Kosovo and East Timor—an atlas of humanitarian disaster—Vieira de Mello was described to Ms. Power before they met as “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.” According to Ms. Power, “He brought a gritty pragmatism to negotiations, yet no amount of exposure to brutality seemed to dislodge his ideals.”

He’s not her only hero. Having been propelled into the limelight by her prizewinning first book, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America in the Age of Genocide (2003), Ms. Power has been serving as foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama—“the person,” she writes in the acknowledgments in her new book, “whose rigor and compassion bear the closest resemblance to Sergio’s that I have ever seen.”

I’m thinking she’d make a fine secretary of state in the Obama administration.

 

HOW WOULD ONE feel about a valentine from Jeffrey Eugenides, the writer whose first novel was about the self-immolation of a quintet of teenage sisters (The Virgin Suicides) and whose second (Middlesex) was narrated by a hermaphrodite? He’s put together an anthology that almost sounds like it should have had a Feb. 14 publication date: My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro (Harper, $24.95). Almost, but not quite: The book came out last month. And besides, his selection includes stories by writers guaranteed to curdle romantic sentiment: George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Robert Musil, Mary Robison, Denis Johnson. Picture that crew buying red roses for their sweethearts. …

Just to make sure that you’re not in a Hallmark frame of mind, here’s a passage from Mr. Eugenides’ introduction:

“The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities, but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.”

 

MY FAVORITE ANTI-VALENTINE comes from poet Philip Larkin, whose “Love Again” gives love such a bad name that the first two stanzas can’t be printed in a family newspaper—though you can of course find it on the Web (plagiarist.com). After the nasty patch comes the heartbreaking end, where Larkin—who never experienced happy marriage or any of the other “lucky eventualities”—wonders what’s missing from the sordid farce of his romantic entanglements:

…but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element
That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

For a guy who couldn’t enjoy it, Larkin had a pretty clear idea of what love is.

Our Critic's Tip Sheet On Current Reading: The Next Secretary of State; A Valentine From Eugenides; Love Lessons From Larkin