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The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Imposter, and the Business of Lifesaving
The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Imposter, and the Business of Lifesaving
George E. Buker Ph.D.
University Alabama Press, 2008
192 pp., 39.99

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John Wilson


"How do you decide what to review?"

With this issue, improbably enough, Books & Culture celebrates its thirteenth anniversary. Whether you have been with us from the start (bless you!) or have only recently subscribed, many thanks.

Thirteen years. Yes, time does fly. Never mind the increasingly byzantine explanations and counter-explanations of what really led to the subprime crisis and who the villains really are (utterly beyond my ken in any case). What I want to understand is this: How can it be that six months have passed since I sat in this very spot, telling you—in my column for the March/April issue—about the spring's flood of books? Wasn't that just a few weeks ago? But no: The calendar insists that we're in August now, and there's unmistakable evidence of the fall harvest on every hand: piles of galleys, neat stacks of newly minted books, reviews and notices from dozens of sources, publishers' catalogues taking us to the end of 2008 and into the new year. Even as anxiety rises in the publishing world, heightened by dire forecasts about the future of reading, books keep coming in unimaginable profusion: university press monographs; would-be bestsellers (the usual assortment: celebrity memoirs; White House memoirs; tales of vampires, serial killers, and diabolical conspiracies, most of them involving the U.S. government) and actual bestsellers (The Shack, by William P. Young, "the miraculous runaway bestseller that's changing people's lives"); dueling editions of classics (true, you already own three copies of Pride and Prejudice, but the packaging of this version is quite enticing); books on 1 Kings, 2 Corinthians, and 3 John; and roughly a thousand books on politics (especially of the American variety) and religion (especially of the evangelical variety) and how they do or DO NOT mix.

"To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour." So said William Blake in "Auguries of Innocence." And if we meditate on the list of new and soon-forthcoming titles from the splendid Library of America—the second volume of novels by Philip K. Dick, the first of a promised two of John Ashbery's poems, another volume of William Maxwell, a volume that adds a generous selection of miscellaneous prose to the collected stories of Katherine Anne Porter, the seventeenth volume of Philip Roth (the fourth one devoted to his juvenilia)—we will wonder how the same world (never mind the same library) can contain such incommensurables. And yet it does. One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost, a handsome volume edited by Peter K. Austin, gives us another angle on the same reality. Do you speak Ashbery?

"How do you decide what books to review?" Impossible to answer, of course, but I'm willing to take a stab at it. Some books are no-brainers: Mark Noll's God and Race in American Politics, for instance, coming in September from Princeton University Press, or Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Home—set in the same locale as Gilead—also due in September, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (I'm not a Robinson fan myself, but that has nothing to do with whether we assign the book or what the reviewer will say about it.) These are the ones—fewer than you might suppose—that would be assigned for review no matter who was sitting in this chair. A handful of books (here we are already in more subjective territory) are so deftly titled, they rise above the crowd, positively demanding to be reviewed: for instance, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, by the theoretical physicist and raconteur Leonard Susskind; or The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Impostor, and the Business of Lifesaving, by George E. Buker (which also features an irresistible illustration on its front cover); or Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, by Leonard Cassuto. Others boast a compelling subject: Peter Harrison's The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, for instance. Some come with a history—The Widows of Eastwick, due in October, John Updike's sequel to The Witches of Eastwick—or an intriguing backstory: David Rhodes' novel Driftless, coming in September, will be his first since a motorcycle accident in 1976 left him paralyzed from the waist down. (Along with this new book, Milkweed Editions will reissue Rhodes' 1975 novel Rock Island Line.) Look for a review by Phil Christman. Others could occasion a wonderful piece in the right hands. I know that somewhere out there, a perfect reviewer is waiting for Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice, by David J. Skal with Jessica Rains. Can I find that person? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes, fortunately, the ideal reviewer for a particular book is obvious: Ron Sider to review Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money, by Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell. Tim Larsen to review David Hempton's Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt. And so on.

We need to pay attention to writers whose first books have caused a stir—Rivka Galchen and her novel Atmospheric Disturbances, for instance—and to writers who continue their distinctive work out of the limelight: A. G. Mojtabai, whose latest novel, All That Road Going, is published by Northwestern University Press. To writers with the moral heft of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (not many in that class) and to anarchic spirits like Steven Millhauser (Dangerous Laughter) and Christopher Buckley (Supreme Courtship). To poets enshrined in the Library of America, and to fine poets who won't be (D. Nurske, for instance, whose latest collection, The Border Kingdom, is out this month). To books forced on us by the pressure of events (The Canons of Jihad from the Naval Institute Press), and to books that resist that pressure. To theology, and to books about cooking. To books by Nobel Prize-winners, and to children's books (like Susan Marie Swanson's The House in the Night, winsomely illustrated by Beth Krommes).

There are books that mysteriously arrive as if summoned. Yesterday in the introduction to our weekly e-newsletter, I mentioned the surge in translation of Scandinavian mystery writers, triggered in part by the international success of Henning Mankell's series featuring police detective Kurt Wallander. Lo and behold, today's mail brought a new book from the University of Washington Press (co-published with Museum Tusculanum Press, based at the University of Copenhagen), Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change, by Andrew Nestigen, who devotes one of his six chapters to "Henning Mankell's Transnational Police Procedural." I'll be reviewing this one myself. And as we have seen before, books often arrive in clusters: both Nigel Ashton's King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life, from Yale University Press, and Avi Shlaim's Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace, from Knopf, are scheduled to be published in September. Then there's Malcolm D. Magee's What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, just out from Baylor University Press, and W. Barksdale Maynard's Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency, due in September from Yale. And speaking of Baylor, it might be nice to have sociologist Rodney Stark's What Americans Really Believe, coming in September, reviewed alongside pollster John Zogby's The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, published in August by Random House.

What does it all add up to? A small good thing. Do you know this wonderful passage from Julian of Norwich?

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, "What may this be?" And it was answered generally thus, "It is all that is made." I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
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