Staging Government; Scars of War 

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Staging Government

In her new book of essays originally written for the New York Review of Books, "Political Fictions," (Knopf $25) Joan Didion takes on the politicians, but she treats the media even more harshly. She believes that these two groups engage in a mutually understood choreographed production that bears little relationship to reality. And she is very convincing.

In her opening chapter, "Inside Baseball" about the Dukakis Bush campaign and the nominating conventions, she tells us: "During the eight summer evenings in 1988, four in Atlanta and four in new Orleans ...the entire attention of those inside the process was directed toward the invention of this story in which they themselves were the principal players, and for which they themselves were the principal audience." She plays this theme straight through to her concluding chapter, "God's Country." Here, she describes how the extreme right wing dominated the political discussion during Clinton's administration, and, for this, she faults the Washington media. She faults them especially for becoming insiders who have no apparent connection with, understanding of, or indeed sympathy for the rest of the country.

Didion has little admiration for Bill Clinton. But this, to her, is beside the point She believes there was indeed a "right wing conspiracy" determined to bring him down — regardless of the public's wishes. The voters, the talking heads and influential columnists concluded that the public must be either ignorant or immoral .

Unfortunately the writing in this small book is very uneven. The first chapter is written with clear crisp sentences. Later, however, there are long and winding sentences — one I found was 70 words long. At times it even seemed she had been reading too much Faulkner: By the end of a sentence the reader has to follow her through long parenthetical insertions. Still, as we try to follow what is happening to the country, it would be well to have this book in mind. — Rozanne Epps

Scars of War

Eerily similar to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, Dennis Bock's first novel is powerful and poignant in its depiction of the horror of Hiroshima. In "The Ash Garden," (Knopf, $23) Bock tells three interwoven tales of characters who were affected in notably different ways by the world's first atomic bomb.

First there's Emiko, a Japanese girl who, at 6 years old, has half of her face burned off from the nuclear energy that dropped from her skies on August 6, 1945. Losing all her family save for her grandfather, Emiko is handpicked to receive facial reconstruction in America. But "like a girl who convinces herself that a cut on a finger doesn't really hurt," Emiko moves on, and makes a profession of making documentaries, one of which features the survivors of Hiroshima.

It's this film that brings Emiko to Anton, the Manhattan Project scientist who is, in a futile attempt at trying to ease his own guilt, lecturing on "taking the fear out of the bomb." Trying hard to erase his scar of Hiroshima, Anton can't get over what his scientific mind had the capability of creating, can't get the taste of ash out of his mouth, can't even bring himself to seek comfort in his wife, Sophie.

Sophie, too, is scarred by the war, not only by having to flee her family and country, but also having her husband figuratively flee from her. "It was as if neither of them had been able to escape the shell of that burnt city. His version — the days he spent there, hers — the days she had been denied." Yet, Sophie, too, moves on and occupies herself with her garden, a secret world of paths, mazes and sculpture. And though Anton loves both her and her garden world, he keeps it to himself.

Bock is brilliant in his character development, his grasp of history and his overall mastery in storytelling. "The Ash Garden" is a beautiful tale based on a horrendous event and is worth reading now more than ever — in a time when we need to face our fears despite all the horrors that have scarred us. — Laura Sneade


Political pundit Larry Sabato's new book "Overtime!" (Longman, $19.95) analyzes the 2000 presidential election for readers interested in the political condition of our country. With stories and statistics, he tells us what happened in the days when Florida held the key to the

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