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Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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SURVIVING PARADISE:
One Year on a Disappearing Island

By Peter Rudiak-Gould
Union Square, 256 pp., $21.95

Peter Rudiak-Gould was only 21 when he signed on to spend a year teaching English on Ujae, a tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands. So we can understand his naïve hope that it would be a Pacific paradise of “consummate peace and perpetual romance.” Instead he found himself virtually marooned on a speck of coral 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, an island that could be explored in its entirety in a matter of minutes.

Scant of acreage and bare necessities, Ujae turned out to possess wealth of unexpected kinds: 159 “coconut-related terms,” for example, as well as a lagoon teeming with tropical fish, which the author learned to spear with a rudimentary skill that amused the locals. In Ujae he found a mix-and-match Third World culture where people practiced traditional folkways while clad in T-shirts and belting the latest hip-hop lyrics.

For a teacher, it was quite a learning experience. Rudiak-Gould recounts his adventures with charm and candor. Now a graduate student of anthropology, he doesn’t scold; he simply observes. What American culture isn’t eroding on Ujae, the rising seas of global warming are eating away: This is how we protect our protectorates.

THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE GANDHI
By Elias Khoury
Translated from Arabic by Paula Haydar
Picador, 208 pp., paperback, $14

The protagonist of this fiction by novelist and Middle East scholar Elias Khoury is a Lebanese Everyman, Abd al-Karim, nicknamed Little Gandhi. So unfortunate is this sometime shoeshine man that by the time the novel opens, he is already dead, a civilian casualty of the endless warfare pulverizing Beirut. Or so we understand through the meandering narrative of Alice, a retired prostitute who weaves a convoluted and thickly populated tale as an interviewer presses her for details.

Inventively constructed, the story does not proceed in a linear fashion but rather circles back and resets itself, repeating the same passage at the beginning of each chapter. Narratives within narratives then expand outward, introducing a diverse cast of characters, from priests and sheikhs and soldiers to demimondaines and members of Little Gandhi’s fragmented family, an entire nation on the brink of destruction.

“The Journey of Little Gandhi” is sophisticated and impassioned storytelling. Yet its very foreignness, which is perhaps another way of saying our ignorance, stands like a thick pane of glass between us and its deepest effects.

GEORGE SANDERS, ZSA ZSA, AND ME
By David R. Slavitt
Northwestern University, 196 pp., paperback, $18.95

Except for “All About Eve,” in which he played a fare-thee-well acerbic theater critic, Addison DeWitt, the movies George Sanders made were largely forgettable and duly forgotten. He is remembered mainly for marrying glamour girl Zsa Zsa Gabor and for committing suicide in 1972, citing boredom. So Zsa Zsa was famous for being famous, and Sanders somewhat less famous for being her husband. In Hollywood, at least, it’s a living.

Sanders’ shtick was sardonic sophistication. But by the late 1960s, around the time a young David Slavitt left Newsweek, Hollywood didn’t do sophistication anymore, sardonic or otherwise, and it spelled the end of the line for an actor who seemed to be slumming his way through his own career.

Slavitt shares that quality of wry existential disgust. His most successful books have been potboilers written under a pseudonym and against his better instincts. “George Sanders, Zsa Zsa, and Me” is no mere movieland bio, juicy as it undeniably is, but something darker, more personal, and supremely ironic.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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