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Political Truth And Fiction 

Books on Billy Graham, mining and the war on terror

Books about politics, both real and fictional, have proved increasingly popular in the past few years, from Bush administration tell-alls to soldiers' accounts of Iraq and novels about terrorist conspiracies. Here are three current books that touch on politics in very different ways.

At the Billy Graham Museum's grand opening, the reverend was hailed as a brave voice for racial equality in the old South. Asheville journalist Bothwell says the claim is baloney and that, more often than not, Graham has seen fit to serve the interests of the powerful. Yes, Graham integrated his audiences in the pre-integration South, but he also criticized civil rights leaders' efforts to gain full rights for blacks, as Bothwell documents. For example, the author notes that after Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream Speech" in 1963, Graham commented that the only time white children and black children in Alabama would walk hand in hand would be "when Christ comes again." Bothwell spends most of the book documenting Graham's consistent support for U.S. military ventures, no matter when or where, in the name of fighting godless communism. Graham supported Douglas McArthur's plans to invade China in 1951; took Joe McCarthy's side in the U.S. Senator's repressive witch hunts; urged Eisenhower to attack Cuba; supported Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam, and at one point urged Tricky Dick to destroy North Vietnam's dams (a policy which Nixon, no slouch when it came to bombing, had already rejected as being too brutal since it would kill around a million people). The night Bush Sr. began bombing Baghdad, Graham was at the White House to assure the President that Saddam was "the Anti-Christ." And, of course, no book on Graham would be complete without the Nixon Oval Office tapes which revealed Graham lamenting Jews' "stranglehold" on American media, saying that Jews "don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country." Bothwell's book is a devastating collection of evidence and does truth a service. The author comes across too often, however, as Angry Man on a Mission, spitting fire while eschewing nuance. It's an easy and understandable trap for a dedicated reporter tracking the truth to fall into, but it's best avoided if one wants to have a real effect on public opinion.

This extraordinary new novel takes place in southern West Virginia, where mining companies are destroying large swathes of the Appalachians via "mountaintop removal mining" -- literally blasting the top off mountains and pushing what they don't need of it into neighboring valleys. It's home country for Lace Ricker, her husband Jimmy, and their three sons and daughter, a hard-living family struggling to survive. Lace and, eventually, her daughter fight the mining company, whose blasts are turning the mountains they've always known into an unrecognizable moonscape, destroying the environment, weakening houses' foundations, and poisoning residents' well water. Her husband and sons are more willing to make the best of the horrendous mess the companies are making of their lives, leading to vivid conflicts. Lyrical portrayals of the landscape vie stylistically with Pancake's often stream-of-consciousness narrative. Her voices are authentic and strong, coming from three-dimensional characters, rather than the too-common romanticized poor. The family and their neighbors come to life, caught up in strange, new, defiled landscapes, living an intricate and strangely creative form of poverty. This is a daring book, both in its subject matter and writing, filled with insights and poetry to go along with its hard look at the effect misguided industries can have on real, flesh-and-blood people.

Former British prime minister Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair) is encamped at Martha's Vineyard, trying to meet a deadline for his published memoirs. His aide/ghostwriter falls off a ferry and drowns, and is replaced by the book's narrator, a professional "ghost" who is to whip the manuscript into shape in four weeks. Separating the truth from the lies in Lang's accounts of his life becomes increasingly difficult for the writer, especially after the ex-PM is accused of war crimes due to his alleged approval of the kidnapping of British citizens in Pakistan, who then wound up being tortured in eastern Europe. Harris, the author, had a good opportunity to link the war on terror to personal ambitions, secret maneuverings and even murder (you didn't think his aide's drowning was an accident, did you?). Unfortunately, after producing a fine first half, he drives his book off a cliff with unlikely sexual hijinks, muddled dialogue and one clever trick too many. The Ghost, sad to say, winds up even more insubstantial than its spirit-world namesake.

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