Book review of 'How They See Us: Meditations on America,' edited by James Atlas

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Meditations on America

Edited by James Atlas

Atlas. 274 pp. Paperback, $14

If the examined life is still of any consequence in this country, now is a good time to look abroad for insight. Editor James Atlas puts the means to do so in our hands with this probing collection of essays.

The contributing writers are an international assembly of voices who bring into sharp focus the post-9/11 United States and its damaged relations with other countries. Although held together by no common ideology, these writers share the virtue of deep reflection. By turns, they are enraged, betrayed, awed and hopeful that America, which has been humbled by 9/11 and brought to the antithesis of its optimism in Iraq, can re-envision its ideals. For Leilah Nadir, an Iraqi Canadian, the war in Iraq has shattered her image of the United States as a beacon of human rights; she unleashes her disillusionment by calling the United States "a note threatening to kidnap my children."

To Luís Fernando Veríssimo of Brazil, O.J. Simpson's fall from grace was much like that of Jay Gatsby, who thought he could cross the boundaries of American class and culture, but failed. Veríssimo links that reminder of the loss of New World innocence to an awkward conversation between himself and a fellow airplane passenger, an American woman unaware that the World Cup is taking place in her own country. Ultimately, the woman apologizes for knowing so little about Brazil, and Veríssimo ends the essay with a touch of humility: "After all, I, too, could be completely wrong about her country."

-- Jean Hwang

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