Sunday, March 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Books in brief

"Coal: A Human History"

by Barbara Freese
Perseus, $25
"Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War"

by Ishmael Reed
Basic, $24
"The Interpreter"

by Suki Kim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24

Fire has long been central to our species. We need it to keep warm, to cook food, to melt metals. For most of our history, wood was our only source of fire. But this changed roughly 2,300 years ago when the Chinese discovered they could obtain heat from a material that they had long used for carving: coal.

Another millennium would pass before they figured out how to fully exploit coal, but when they did, coal helped foment an industrial revolution in China of epic scale. The same process occurred in England in the 18th century and in America in the 19th century (although we imported the technology and did not discover it).

Until the advent of the use of oil and gas, Barbara Freese explains in "Coal: A Human History," coal was perhaps the world's most important substance. It not only led to industrial revolution, it affected the outcome of war, changed environmental policies, and influenced the rise of labor. Had it not been for coal, Freese writes, "none of the defining and epic struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have played out as they did." It is a story that still affects us today.

Freese, a former Minnesota assistant attorney general, has written a book that is part history and part environmental tract. Two themes stand out: The first is that countries that have coal and have successfully exploited it have become powerful, such as England, the United States and China.

In contrast, this exploitation, through mining and burning coal, has taken a drastic toll on humanity and upon the planet, a toll that has cost and still costs lives.

Like many books that cover a mundane, everyday object or subject, "Coal" is neither scintillating nor boring. It is an easy-to-read, generally fascinating tale about a substance that has had a far greater impact on humanity that most of us realize.

— David B. Williams

African-American author Ishmael Reed's 1988 book of essays was called "Writin' Is Fightin'," which, if true, makes Reed one of our great literary flailers. What he lacks in strength and aim he makes up for in sheer volume of punches thrown — generally, in his latest book of essays, "Another Day at the Front," at the head of one of the following: Susan Brownmiller, Alice Walker, feminists in general, the right-wing in general, the new black elite in general, Stanley Crouch, National Public Radio, Scott Simon, Terry Gross, Philip Roth, W.E.B. DuBois, President Bush, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Don Imus. And that's just the beginning. The size of Reed's enemies list — and the paranoia it represents — is starting to rival Nixon's.

About a quarter of what Reed writes is intriguing, but is quickly buried beneath an avalanche of muddled logic and unsubstantiated statistics. In one paragraph, for example, he states that "Whites often justify their actions against blacks by pointing to the fear that whites have of blacks." Interesting point. Let's see where this goes. ... He then writes that as Asian-American and Hispanic populations grow, white fear of these groups will increase as well. Not necessarily, but. ... As evidence, he cites that one minute "many whites" were loving "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the next minute they were demanding that Chinese Americans be interned after an American spy plane was detained in China. What!? "Shortly afterward," Reed adds, "a movie entitled 'Pearl Harbor' was released. This time Japanese-Americans received threats from those whites who were inflamed by the movie."

This tactic — using a fraction (the few nut jobs who may have demanded Chinese internment, or who threatened Japanese Americans after watching "Pearl Harbor") to represent the whole — is a tactic he accuses his enemies of using. He also dismisses his enemies' anecdotal evidence, when much of his own evidence is anecdotal. His charge that Arab-American store owners were "exchanging credit for sexual favors with black women customers" came from playwright Marvin X and was corroborated — ahem — by Reed's daughter.

There's stuff like this on every other page. He cites statistics but provides no footnotes. His racial reactions are knee-jerk and thoughtless. And he's a lousy, clunky writer. Pass.

— Erik Lundegaard

Passivity can be a compelling quality in literature. Think of Hamlet or Beckett's hapless tramps, or Humbert Humbert mooning over Lolita — these guys keep us reading because we're curious to find out what they won't do next.

Inertia isn't nearly so interesting in whodunits. In fact, it can sink a story — which is what happens in Suki Kim's debut novel "The Interpreter."

Kim's lead character, Susy Park, is a Korean American in her late 20s. Susy works as a court translator, traveling to different locations around New York City when legal depositions are needed from Korean-speaking witnesses. Suzy is in major emotional limbo. Five years previously, her parents were murdered in their Bronx grocery store. The crime has remained unsolved.

Even before their shocking deaths, Suzy had severed family ties by jumping into an affair with a married man, a habit she perpetuates with her new boyfriend. Pile on a convoluted relationship with her older sister Grace (who won't take her phone calls) and you have one guilt-ridden, numbed-out woman who can barely get up in the morning.

You can't fault a first-time novelist for ambition. And Kim has plenty. She is trying to blend the mystery genre with a darker look at the immigrant experience, and her heroine's scenes as an interpreter are taut and knowing: "He has asked that before. The answer could only be just as tedious. Through word of mouth, Mr. Lee will say, through acquaintances I find them, and I let the worker go when he's not good. How predictable, such a question, such an answer. So, instead, Suzy makes up her own question, surprised even as the words escape her lips."

What stalls "The Interpreter" is Kim's decision to give us way too much back story. After a while, Suzy's uneasy family recollections and her tiresome, boring lovers become a dreary parade of angst.

— Richard Wallace


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