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America the fierce and surreal 

New paperbacks on parade

The term "page turner" isn't one that readers often associate with books of popular history, but author Jim Swanson pulls it off in his vivid, fast-paced story of Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath.

John Wilkes Booth and other Confederate diehards conspired to wipe out the top levels of the U.S. government, but only Booth was successful, killing Lincoln at Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865, just five days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Booth, his leg broken during his jump from the theater balcony to the stage, avoided capture for 12 days. Swanson is adept at putting readers right into the middle of the action. Booth and accomplice David Herold essentially bluffed their way out of Washington and connected with Confederate sympathizers. Relying on prior plans, family members, his own keen intelligence, and women smitten by his good looks and fame as an actor, Booth led a small army of detectives, soldiers and police on a wild chase in and around the capital, through the Maryland swamps, and into the forests of Virginia.

Swanson builds the story's tension throughout the book, and charges the tale with passion and a coherence that was sorely missing at the time of the actual chase. This is first-rate, thoroughly researched narrative history, told with a lot of flair and understanding. It's no wonder Manhunt was a surprise bestseller in hardback, nor that it's being made into a film.

George Saunders is primarily known for his short stories in the collections Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. Both books portray contemporary America as a surreal, media-and-advertising-saturated dystopia with an all too familiar resemblance to the real thing. Some critics have called Saunders' prose a fun-house mirror of America, but that's only accurate if the fun-house is decrepit and haunted.

The author's new book, In Persuasion Nation is generally more of the same, but that's not to say there isn't plenty to like. "Brad Carrigan, American" is a darkly hilarious gem, related from within a reality show that gets more horrendous as time goes by and "reality" is twisted to fit viewers' demands. Saunders is at his best when he's skewering U.S. culture's uber-materialism and our need for constant entertainment, such as in the stunning "Jon," in which orphans are handed over to market research firms and eventually become big stars whose job is to determine what's trendy and what's not (including their own trading card series, of course). Saunders' bleak vision of American culture is often tempered by his characters', and their situations', sheer goofiness -- humor, to Saunders, seems to be one of our few saving graces. His characters offer other ironically hopeful notes, and their persistent humanity in the face of a dilapidated culture -- even if that humanity is an unwitting one -- becomes a strange kind of solace. In Persuasion Nation isn't quite up to Saunders' previous work, but his fans won't want to miss it. For readers new to him, I'd recommend starting with Pastoralia.

We Americans have traditionally been taught to think of our country as a force for good in the world. The world, however, generally begs to differ, notwithstanding our victories in World War II and the Cold War. Why? Take a look at Iraq, for starters. Or Vietnam. Or, believe it or not, Hawaii. Our international reputation, in terms of official foreign policy, is less that of a liberator than of a childish bully that will invade or overthrow other governments at the drop of a hat -- and convince itself it's doing something noble.

Stephen Kinzer has written a valuable book that should be on most Americans' shelves. Subtitled "America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq," Overthrow is a straightforward history of hostile regime changes by the United States in past 100 years or so, told in a fluid narrative, rife with fascinating characters, clear descriptions, and revealing anecdotes. Kinzer begins with the overthrow of the queen of Hawaii in 1893, moves through Cuba in 1898, and on to Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and on and on, up to the present. Kinzer documents how, more often than not, the United States has toppled governments for the benefit of American international businesses. Other overthrows were launched in order to combat threats from "communism" that usually turned out to be nationalist, anti-colonial movements. No matter the reason, our leaders have always sold violent regime changes as a way to "advance the cause of freedom," even when the government we were overthrowing was a popularly elected one. It's too bad that the folks who should read Kinzer's book -- the armchair warriors who've rarely seen an explosion they didn't enjoy -- aren't likely to buy it.

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