Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Abraham Obama; The Call of the Wild; A Gem from Richard Bausch; No Bun = No Burger

Garry Wills, writing in The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com), compares Barack Obama’s speech on race last month in Philadelphia with the address Abraham Lincoln delivered at the Cooper Union in New York on Feb. 27, 1860. In fact, the two speeches are very different, the glaring distinction being that Lincoln’s knotty, cerebral discourse appeals principally to reason, whereas Mr. Obama’s forthright simplicity appeals principally to the emotions. But Mr. Wills’ first few paragraphs are nonetheless astonishing for the parallels drawn between the 19th- and 21st-century candidates:

“The men, both lawyers, both from Illinois, were seeking the presidency, despite what seemed their crippling connection with extremists. Each was young by modern standards for a president. … Their political experience was mainly provincial, in the Illinois legislature for both of them, and they had received little exposure at the national level. … Yet each was seeking his party’s nomination against a New York senator of longer standing and greater prior reputation. … They were both known for having opposed an initially popular war—Lincoln against President Polk’s Mexican War, raised on the basis of a fictitious provocation; Obama against President Bush’s Iraq War. …”

Let’s make sure the paths diverge after Mr. Obama’s second inaugural address.

 

IN HONOR OF Earth Day, a selection from Bill McKibben’s handsome, generous anthology of environmental writing, American Earth (Library of America, $40). This is from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949):

“We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

 

RICHARD BAUSCH’S 11TH novel, Peace (Knopf, $19.95), is a war story, short, precise and entirely convincing. Set in Italy on a winter’s night in 1944, it focuses with single-minded intensity on an American recon squad—three soldiers and an old Italian man who’s been commandeered as their guide—trudging up and down a mountain in the freezing rain, then snow, with a sniper dogging their footsteps. The simplicity and grace of the language brings to mind the best of Hemingway, while the direct, unpretentious unspooling of extreme emotional states reminds me of Ian McEwan. Mr. Bausch’s characters are all his own, however: each soldier as vivid and distinct as an old friend. Peace is one of those strange, compelling novels that manages to be beautiful in a heartbeat and horrifying in the next.

 

DOES JOSH OZERSKY take his burgers seriously? Yes, indeed. Even a quick glance at his brief, energetic cultural history, The Hamburger (Yale, $22), reveals a passionate commitment to America’s iconic sandwich. Here for example, he heatedly denies that a beef patty on toast qualifies as the genuine item:

“No, there is no doubt: on any kind of semantic or platonic level, no bun = no burger. … To admit ground beef on toast as a hamburger is to make the idea of a ‘hamburger’ so loose, so abstract, so semiotically promiscuous as to have no meaning.”

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Abraham Obama; The Call of the Wild; A Gem from Richard Bausch; No Bun = No Burger