September 19, 2012
Guest: Doug Saunders
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The violent protests that erupted in the Middle East over a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad were in part a reflection of conflicting values: Islamic strictures on images of the prophet versus the Western principle of respect for free speech.
But our guest, journalist Doug Saunders, says the video itself reflects a troubling current in Western political discourse - an irrational fear of Muslim communities in Europe and the United States. In his new book, "The Muslim Tide." Saunders says an increasingly influential group of writers and activists believes immigration and high birth rates will make Muslims a majority in Europe in coming decades and that their hostility to Western values makes them a threat to Western culture, democracy and security.
Saunders argues that these fears are based on inaccurate assertions of fact, and he says the fear of Muslim immigration in the U.S. is similar to past chapters in American history about other immigrant groups. Doug Saunders is an international columnist for the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail and is its former European bureau chief. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Doug Saunders, welcome to FRESH AIR. You open your book by describing a change in a neighborhood that you lived at in London, which is not an untypical experience for a lot of places in Europe. Tell us what you were seeing and kind of what reactions that you felt.
DOUG SAUNDERS: I'd lived in a part of North London that had been an immigrant neighborhood for 150 years, but starting maybe in the late '80s, early '90s, we started seeing a new group of immigrants who were visibly different because the women tended to cover their heads with hijab, and sometimes the more concealing niqab.
And they were coming from the Indian subcontinent of East Africa and Turkey and so on. As with many neighborhoods where there's immigration from Muslim countries, you start seeing changes in the shops. You start seeing some halal butchers and kebob shops. And I think this would have seemed like part of the pattern of immigration in a neighborhood like this if it hadn't coincided with some very serious things happening in London and other parts in Europe involving Islamic extremism.
And that affected us directly. I mean, one of our neighbors had both of her legs blown off in the July 7, 2005 bombings on the London transit system, which were committed by British-born children of immigrants that didn't look or seem all that different from some of our neighbors.
And I think like a lot of let's say non-Muslim, non-religious Westerners, I started to wonder, even though my headscarf-wearing neighbors were my - they were my doctor and my shopkeeper and my kids' best friends and all that sort of thing, I couldn't help thinking when I sat down on the bus with the guy in the beard and the backpack across from me not only is he going to do something, but does he share my values?
Do my neighbors really support the core values of equality and freedom and secularism that I consider vital?
DAVIES: Was this book, in effect, your effort to kind of figure that out?
SAUNDERS: Exactly. I knew it was more complicated than my fears made it seem.
DAVIES: Your book is called "The Myth of the Muslim Tide." Summarize, if you will, this argument, that there is a Muslim tide that must be feared. We see this particularly in Europe. What's the case that you're looking at?
SAUNDERS: We had seen a set of ideas simmering on the Internet and in more fringe conservative areas but really exploding into the mainstream in the years after the September 11th attacks, which holds that Muslims, when they come to the West, are not so much members of a religious faith as party to an ideology of conquest; that they are not loyal to the country around them but to their religion or to the culture that they came from; that they are reproducing at an exponential rate and will become a majority; and that they desire to impose religious law, Shariah law and other extreme values upon the civilization around them.
That's the extreme version that a lot of popular books produced. There's a more moderate version that I think a lot of reasonable people like me were more willing to buy, which holds simply that Muslims are different from previous waves of religious minority immigrants, in that they are either unable or unwilling to integrate and will form parallel societies.
DAVIES: But there is this idea that you have this group that is alien in its perspective, that is not loyal to the countries or culture that they have come to live among and that they will grow to become a majority. That's the package that you see growing...
SAUNDERS: That's the package, and sometimes you have this additional detail where authors like Christopher Caldwell or Bruce Bower will say, on top of that, we deserve it. Western societies are failing. We're becoming so secular and socialized and so on that we're not having enough babies, and we're going to be swamped by these hard-core Muslim believers who are going to overtake our society.
And in Germany, the bestselling book of the last 30 years was a book by Thilo Sarrazin, a prominent center-left politician, arguing that Germany and Europe is doing itself in by becoming weak and spineless and feminized and being taken over.
These sort of ideas have become hugely popular, and I would argue that the people who are buying them are not bigots or racists or so on, they're people looking for an answer to why these people appear to look different, at the same time as we had news in the headlines about bombings and so on. And these books provided the only answer for a long time.
DAVIES: Now, you write about the man who killed 77 people in Norway in that horrific attack on the recreational island, Anders Behring Breivik. Do I have the name right?
DAVIES: And he left a long document explaining his thoughts and motivations. What struck you about that?
SAUNDERS: I arrived in Oslo the morning after Breivik's killing spree and was immediately given a copy of this 1,500-page manifesto. And I realized after flipping through it that I recognized much of it because most of it was a cut and paste, a pastiche of books and blog postings and articles that had appeared by popular authors in the United States and Canada and Britain and the Netherlands and Germany over the previous 10 years or so.
And he had taken these arguments by authors, who I should say none of whom ever would have endorsed violence as a solution, and concluded that Europe was on the verge of being taken over by Muslims, that in the year 2083, that was the title of his manifesto, they would become a majority and would be imposing religious law and subsuming Christians and Jews under their control and so on. And that it was reasonable to kill the enablers of immigration and multiculturalism to prevent this from happening.
And it struck me then, in the summer of 2011, that this had gone too far, that this set of ideas and explanations that had filled the air for the previous several years had led one individual, one reader of these books, to conclude that mass murder was the answer.
And that was when I began this project in earnest to tell the story of Muslim immigration, to answer some of the questions, when I realized that history was in danger of repeating itself, that once again a religious minority was being seen as a material threat.
DAVIES: You write that this fear of the Muslim tide, this fear of the growth of Muslim populations in Europe and the United States, rests on certain assertions of fact, which in the book you go to examine data on and see whether they hold up. One of them is the notion that Muslims, by their nature, have far higher birth rates, and because they are immigrating at high rates are destined to become a majority of the population of Europe in just a few decades. What about that?
SAUNDERS: The bottom line is that Muslims in Europe may peak somewhere close to 10 percent of the population - if you include Russia, which has a large Muslim population - by about the middle of the 21st century. And they're really not going to get much larger than that in population. And in fact it may be much lower than that.
And they'll peak at probably somewhere under 2 percent of the U.S. population, around the same size as Jews or Episcopalians. And at that point probably will stop growing because the one thing we have to understand. There's been a revolution in our scholarly and statistical understanding of population growth rates of immigrant groups; is that first of all, the countries they come from, the Muslim-majority countries of the world, are seeing the fastest-falling population growth rates and family sizes in the world right now.
I mean, Iran has gone from seven children per family in the '80s to 1.7 now. It's not exactly a place that - where they go shouting about condoms a lot. And this is true of many of the largest Muslim-majority countries. But also that the immigrants from those countries are having population growth rates and family sizes that are converging quickly within three generations with those of the host countries and so on, which is something that happens with other immigrants, as well.
(Technical difficulties) to understand that because we look at the large families that new immigrants have after they arrive. But what we're seeing is a real integration and a real change in terms of population growth rates. They are not going to swamp us.
DAVIES: Yeah. So Muslim families don't intrinsically have higher birth rates across the world and the trends show them remaining a minority in both Europe and the United States.
SAUNDERS: And also the fact that their population growth rates are declining so quickly is a sign of some larger thing. When people start having fewer children, it's a sign of integration in a number of ways because to make that decision to have fewer children, as the children of Muslim immigrants do, that means that you are probably using birth control, that you are letting women make decisions that they may not have been able to back in the old country and so on, that you are embracing a set of values that you could call secular in the family sense.
So that is one indicator that a type of integration is going on that's important to look at.
DAVIES: All right. There's also the claim that Muslims regard Islam not as a private spiritual matter as many others do with their religion, but more as an ideology. What about this notion?
SAUNDERS: We can measure this both by looking at what they say and looking at what they do because if people - if members of a religious minority were really believing this, were believing that their religion is a guiding ideology that controlled their actions, then they would be doing things. They would be ignoring the laws. They would be going to the mosque very often, and that sort of thing.
What we find is that the level of religiosity, of religious observance among Muslims when they come to the West tends to fall fairly quickly to approximately the level of religious observance of the people around them. So when Muslims come to France from the Arab countries of North Africa, they tend to become not very religiously observant.
About a fifth of them become outright atheist, which is about similar to the rate of French Christians. And only about maybe 5 percent of them attend a mosque regularly. When they move to the United States, they become about as religious as American Christians are, which is fairly religious. So yes, so about 47 percent of American Muslims will say, I think of myself as Muslim first and American second.
But that's almost exactly the same rate that non-Muslim Americans say, that American Christians say. Just shy of half of American Christians will say, I think of myself as a Christian first and American second.
So they tend to be loyal to their faith at about the same rate the Christians do in whatever country they arrive in. And notably, they make a sharp break from the patterns in the countries from which they come. They adopt the sets of religious versus secular values in their country of arrival and they do not continue the patterns that people had in their country of origin.
So in other words, they are integrating in that sense.
DAVIES: What about the notion that Muslims as a whole are more likely than others around them to be angry and alienated and to be supportive of or at least tolerant of Islamic terrorism?
SAUNDERS: Well, that's an area where we've also had a real revolution in research and understanding, not just from scholarly and survey organizations but from intelligence organizations. CIA and MI-5 and so on have done large-scale studies of what causes people to be extremist in loyalties and so on.
In terms of the anger questions, this is very interesting, actually. It turns out that immigrants from Muslim-majority countries are among the least angry people in societies. Their satisfaction with not only the life around them in the West but with the institutions, that is the secular institutions of the state and the law and so on, is actually much higher in many cases than among non-Muslims, including - one U.S. study that found that even Muslims in neighborhoods where the mosque had been attacked or vandalized or something were still more satisfied with life around them than non-Muslims.
DAVIES: Meaning that they trust the government, respect police more than other citizens.
SAUNDERS: And feel good about their country and about its future. And interestingly, actually, those who seem poorly integrated in terms of other things, like in terms of social values and practices and so on, those who are not supporting equality of women or homosexuals and so on at the same as the population - places like Northern England, where there's a, you could argue, a failure of integration in social values - you actually get some of the highest levels of loyalty to their new country, support for it and optimism about its future and so on.
So integration means different things, and it some places it's not working well, and in some places it is working well, but generally speaking, Muslims tend to be more satisfied than the native population than many other immigrant groups and so on.
DAVIES: And what about the attitude towards terrorism because I think the suspicion might be that while they may not - Muslims in some communities certainly wouldn't be terrorists, that they wouldn't necessarily disapprove in the same way and wouldn't cooperate with investigators, wouldn't report what they saw. What does the data show about that?
SAUNDERS: There's two ways you can look at that. First of all, of course, is you could just look at how much Muslims support the ideas behind terrorism. And a lot of these books and videos and so on reproduce a figure that's appeared in many studies, which says that around 8 percent of American Muslims say that attacks on civilians are justified if the cause is right.
And I remember hearing that number and thinking that's really scary. And then you look at this - the survey that produced that number, and you realize that 24 percent of non-Muslim Americans feel that attacks on civilians are justified if the cause is right. So the question becomes not why do so many Muslims support this concept but why do so few, compared to the regular population.
And of course it's probably because Muslims are the main victims of that type of attack, whether you're talking about terrorism or military excesses.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Doug Saunders. He is an international affairs columnist for the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Doug Saunders. He is an international affairs columnist who's worked in Europe for the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail. His new book is called "The Myth of the Muslim Tide."
There's this term Eurabia, the notion that we're moving towards, you know, a Muslim-dominated Europe, and you say that I guess the person who really originated this was a woman named Gisele Littman, who writes under the Hebrew pen name of Bat Ye'or. Tell us about her.
SAUNDERS: Her books tend to be cited by all of these authors, by the, you know, Robert Spencers and Bruce Bowers in the United States and by the authors in Britain and Germany who are successful. And she had her beginning, and she was an Egyptian Jew who fled to Europe and obviously had personal experiences and so on that led her to be worried about Islam, and became very extreme, I should say. I mean, spent the 1990s defending the Serbian warlords and Radovan Karadzic and so on in the Bosnian conflict as people waging a legitimate war against a religious threat.
And then after September 11th had a successful book called "Eurabia," which in very strange ways tried to argue that there was a plot to have Islam take over that involved various European Union institutions. It's one of the more implausible books, and it probably should have slipped into obscurity, but somehow it got picked up and admired by a lot of very successful authors and so on.
DAVIES: She cites a group called the Euro-Arab Dialogue, which I guess she sees as, you know, an organization spinning and enabling this Muslim takeover of Europe. What is the Euro-Arab Dialogue actually?
SAUNDERS: It was a - what you might call a talking shop, a committee or a subcommittee created by the precursors to the European Union in the early 1970s as a way to deal with some of the political and economic tensions around the OPEC oil crisis. And it met a handful of times in the '70s and basically had died out. It failed and died out by the end of the '70s.
It was eclipsed in the '80s and '90s and 2000s by other bodies that united Israel and the Arab states and the European Union and so on. It was a bureaucratic nonentity that somehow got inflated in this literature into being this grand conspiracy, in much the same way that, you know, people will say the Freemasons or the Bilderberg Group or something like that are part of some worldwide globalization plot.
And it should have - this notion, which is very, very far-fetched, as anyone who's followed European bureaucracy and politics will tell you - should have died out in the fringe world of conspiracy, but suddenly was being cited in all these books that were filling the best-sellers charts and all these YouTube videos and so on.
DAVIES: And have they gotten any play among mainstream journalists, thinkers, political parties in Europe?
SAUNDERS: Unfortunately yes. These ideas, they're in a lot of books. They became the foundation for political leaders like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who for a while was the third-most successful political leader in the country, and a string of parties that had basically anti-Muslim-immigration agendas that became the second- or third-place parties across Scandinavia, and the Front National in France, which is often the third-place party, started citing these things, an increasingly well-funded group of authors who moved from the fringe into the mainstream in Europe, and I should say also in the United States.
DAVIES: Doug Saunders will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Saunders' new book is called "The Myth of the Muslim Tide." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Doug Saunders, author of the new book "The Myth of the Muslim Tide." His purpose is to debunk the fear that Europe and the U.S. will be overcome by a tide of Muslim immigrants who won't assimilate and will promote an agenda that will destroy Western traditions and freedom. Saunders is an international columnist for the Canadian paper the Globe and Mail, and is its former European bureau chief.
DAVIES: We've seen violent demonstrations over the past couple of weeks in response to this obscure video which depicts the Prophet Muhammad in ways that insults Muslims. First of all, the video: Do you think that that's a product of the kind of movement that you've been talking about?
SAUNDERS: Yes. It took us a while to figure out who had made that short video, or maybe taken - hijacked a video on another topic and put a voiceover over it insulting the Prophet Muhammad. And there was a man who is a Coptic Christian in the United States who is directly involved with it. But also a group of people who are part of the network of what I'm calling the Muslim Tide activists who write books and run blog sites and so on, who opposed the so-called Ground Zero mosque.
That video came out of that network, and it was backed and promoted and continues to be by members of that network. So it's coming out of a circle of what you might call anti-Muslim fundamentalists in the United States. And, of course, it set off small circles of fundamentalists and just generally angry people in various countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
DAVIES: Now, there's another side to this, and that is when people in the West see the reaction, the violent and angry reactions in some Muslim countries to this video, I'm sure a lot of people look at this and say there is a fundamental difference in perspective here between Western values and in some - a Muslim who looks at that video and doesn't see a distinction between an idea which may be reprehensible and insulting and deserving of condemnation, that, and on the one hand, an idea that is the product of the U.S. government and ought to be suppressed by the government, that, in effect, that there's a perspective among Muslims that simply doesn't get this fundamental notion of tolerance for free speech - however insulting it may be - addressed that way, folks who look at this and see these demonstrations as expressing a point of view, which is essentially alien to Western democracy.
SAUNDERS: I think you get small groups of people in countries of the Middle East and North Africa and also in Pakistan, and a few other places, who can be provoked to riot and protest against any perceived insult to their religion. I don't think you can call that a general aspect of Muslims. I know Newsweek ran a cover line about Muslim rage that became somewhat infamous.
And really what it is, is it's part of the street culture of Egypt and Libya and Yemen and Pakistan and then so on. I would not say that it's a universal thing among Muslims. And this is something that has existed for a long time in these places, right.
The riots and protests about those cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had been published in Northern Europe mainly took place in these same countries. And I should note that those riots and protests were much, much larger in scope and took place at a time when the supposedly Western-friendly dictators were leading those countries, before the democratic revolutions, and so on.
So I would say that this set of protests about this film, first of all, they weren't very large in scope. They didn't involve and they were not supported by the leadership of any of these countries, or by the mainstream population.
I mean, in Libya, where the demonstrations either caused or allowed somebody to get away with the death of the American ambassador to Libya, a guy I knew and admired, the majority of the Libyan population had just elected a secular, liberal government and twice as many secular liberals as Islamists. And I think the general national sentiment was one of condemnation of this fringe group in Benghazi that had done this, and so on.
So we don't want to get carried away, here. There are these threats and these groups in these countries, but it doesn't represent the mainstream course of thought in these countries.
DAVIES: And do we know anything about how Muslim communities in Europe reacted to the film or these demonstrations?
SAUNDERS: It hasn't been a big thing. I don't think you'll find anyone who's a Muslim believer who would express admiration for that film, much as "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Life of Brian" provoked protests among Christians when those were new movies, and so on. Religious believers don't generally like having their prophets insulted in movies.
But I don't think you had a diaspora population that could be persuaded that a film like this was a product of the U.S. government or was endorsed by the United States as a homogenous entity the way that some people would in Egypt or Libya or Pakistan.
DAVIES: Doug Saunders is an international affairs columnist for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Doug Saunders. He's an international affairs columnist for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail. He spent a lot of time as their European bureau chief. He has a new book called "The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?"
In the book, you look at the reaction in the West to past waves of immigration, such as Catholics to the United States in the 19th century and 20th century, and you see parallels in their reactions - parallels to the current fears that you write about - of the Islamic communities in the West. What strikes you as similar in these tides of immigration and the waves of fear that they incite?
SAUNDERS: We see a pattern that repeats itself in Western history, both in terms of what happens to the immigrants themselves from religious minorities in terms of their integration and the struggles they go through and the troubles they have, and in terms of our reaction to them - that is, the reaction of North Americans and Europeans to these new immigrants.
And what we saw in the first half of the 20th century when Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe became a large immigrant group, and then in the early and middle 20th century when southern European Roman Catholics became a large immigrant group was a strikingly similar repeat of what we're seeing today about Muslims.
And we forget that these were large groups who were religious conservatives who dressed differently, who had a lot of children, who tended to be illiterate, who segregated themselves into their own schools and neighborhoods, and certainly in the case of southern European Catholics, were associated with fascism and terrorism and violence.
I mean, by the middle of the 20th century, it would seem reasonable to a lot of people that Catholics were part of an ideology of extremism and takeover. They had committed the largest act of domestic terrorism in the United States in the years after the First World War: They had assassinated a president. Their countries were almost all either fascist or religious extremists.
DAVIES: That was McKinley, right? Was it? Yeah.
SAUNDERS: Yeah, exactly. And they were associated with organized crime, and so on. So, while I would optimistically say that the majority of Americans didn't buy the Catholic Tide hypothesis - if you want to call it that. There were best-selling books right into the 1950s arguing that Catholics were un-integratable and were a threat to the values of U.S. democracy, that their population growth rates were so extreme that they might someday try to - maybe by 1960, let's say - try to impose a president on the United States, and so on.
DAVIES: And this was a fear of Catholicism as distinct from a fear of Italians or Irish. They were characteristics of the faith, or perceived characteristics of the Catholic religion, that people saw as threatening.
SAUNDERS: You had a large group of people before and after the Second World War of scholars and academics and Congress people and so who argued that the thing that made immigrants from Italy or Portugal - or what have you - disloyal and part of an alien civilization was the nature of their faith, that it was not so much a religious faith as an ideology of conquest guided by Rome.
And this may have been denounced by The New York Times and by the leaders of both major parties, but once again, as in the case now, there was a significant minority of people. You had a best-selling book in 1949, 1950 that sold 240,000 copies arguing that Catholic ideology was incompatible with American democracy, and so on.
DAVIES: So you write about a lot of the ways in which these fears of the Muslim communities of Europe and the United States are misguided. You say there are some things we might want to be concerned about. What are they?
SAUNDERS: You know, integration - which is a word we used to describe a lot of processes of change in people after they arrive. It's never quick or easy, and does not always happen naturally. And, I mean, yes. I can argue, as I do, that it's not the religion or the culture that they're coming from that causes problems of integration.
And we can prove that by looking at groups that come have from the same country, or even the same village that have gone to different countries. Then why is it that Turks from the same village that moved to North London become middle-class and university educated and successful, and those that move to Germany become part of an un-integrated underclass?
Well, given that those two trajectories, it's obviously not their religion or background culture. It's something around them that does that. And we need to understand how immigrant neighborhoods work, how our schooling systems work and how our citizenship laws work to either cause people to be part of our economic and educational system or to cast them out into self-segregated ghettos and so on.
DAVIES: You do write about communities where there are - young people face a lack of opportunity, and in some cases they are going in directions which are troubling, right?
SAUNDERS: Not so much in the United States, where...
SAUNDERS: ...Muslims tend to be a very highly-educated and prosperous middle class group.
In Europe, where they are coming from very poor, rural areas, like the Rif Mountains of Morocco or the Anatolian plane of Turkey or the more remote parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh, you have a phenomenon where the parents strive in their sort of blue-collar industries that brought them in, and the daughters are often successful.
But there's a propensity for the sons to drop out of secondary school at age 16, and so on, and fall into troubled circles - not necessarily into terrorism or anything like that. That tends to be a middle-class thing that's isolated from the mainstream immigrant communities. But they become economically unsuccessful and ghetto-wise because they drop out of school, and so on.
And that's partly because nobody's paid any attention to it, partly because continental European education systems are very poor at mixtures of classes containing immigrants and non-immigrants and so on, and partly because there are citizenship laws and various other laws that make it difficult or sometimes impossible for their parents to buy a house or put their kids in university, and so on, that discourages people from becoming part of the community.
And one thing I've become very convinced of in working on this book is that culture is something that follows economic and educational integration. People become culturally integrated when they are part of the economy and part of the education system. And with every group of religious minority immigrants, this has been the case. If you can make in school and make it in work, then your culture will change to be part of that of the world around you.
DAVIES: Well, Doug Saunders, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
SAUNDERS: A real pleasure. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Doug Saunders spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Saunders' new book is called "The Myth of the Muslim Tide." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Susanna Moore's seventh novel "The Life of Objects." It takes readers into the familiar fictional territory of World War II. But Maureen says that nothing else about this novel is typical. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Susanna Moore's latest novel, "The Life of Objects," is a slim World War II saga that reads like a cautionary fairy tale. It's packed with descriptions of ornate furniture and paintings, lavish banquets, demons and diamonds.
At the center of the story is a young girl bewitched by her own desire to live a larger life, a wish that's granted with grim exactitude. Clearly, "The Life of Objects" is not your father's standard-issue World War II novel, although, Moore's narrative angle on the war does remind me of Edmund de Waal's extraordinary 2010 memoir "The Hare with Amber Eyes." In both books the capricious nature of war to obliterate or overlook is explored through the fate of an aristocratic family's collection of fine art.
Our hero and narrator in this novel is Beatrice Palmer, the only child of Protestant shopkeepers in the west of Ireland. The word Beatrice repeatedly uses to describe herself is greedy, greedy not for money but for something to happen. When the story opens in 1938, Beatrice, out of boredom, has taught herself how to make lace while she stands behind the counter of her family's shop.
Beatrice explains that she's not allowed to read there, lest it appeared that I gave myself airs. Soon enough, Beatrice's yearning for adventure is answered. A European countess who's visiting the local landed gentry sweeps into the shop, surveys the lacework, and whisks Beatrice off to Berlin to make tablecloths and the like for a wealthy couple, Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg.
There's a Jane Eyre feel to Beatrice's arrival at the fabulous Metzenburg mansion, which is eerily near-empty of staff because of the coming war. Instead of making lace, Beatrice is put to work packing up the Metzenburg's array of priceless tchotchkes - turned ivory sculptures that are to be crated in barley, old master paintings rolled up pencil tight, and the Empress Josephine's yellow diamond sewn into a coat hem.
Most of this treasure will be buried on the grounds of the Metzenburg's country estate outside Berlin, where the family retreats for the duration. Felix Metzenburg, an otherwise good enough German, is on the outs politically with the Fuehrer. Besides, as Beatrice tells us, Felix would much rather pursue his quiet connoisseur's life, satisfying his compulsion to limit the world to the exquisite.
Fat chance. Not with those tanks ready to roll into Poland. The tension of this novel arises out of that disjunction between the static, gorgeously adorned life of the Metzenburgs and the depravity of war roiling just outside their gates. Moore is rightly celebrated for her lithe style as a writer, and in so many passages here she nimbly jumps back and forth over the boundaries of the Metzenburg estate to give readers a sense of the chaos that's inevitably seeping through their charmed defenses.
Here's Beatrice skittishly recalling the year 1943, a season of losses outside the great house, and in as well as cosmic instability. The butcher in the village disappeared that winter with his wife and twin sons. An object left momentarily on a table - an inkwell or a branch of witch-hazel carried from the woods - was gone when I returned for it, and an apple or a dish of almonds disappeared, even if I hadn't left the room.
One night I thought that I could hear thunder but I decided that it was only the hundreds of military transports on their way to the Eastern Front. When the earth began to shake, I knew that it wasn't the lorries, but the hum of hundreds of planes. By war's end, Beatrice and her employers will be excavating that treasure she buried to barter for coffee made of roasted acorns while marauding Russian troops violate their enchanted zone of neutrality.
Moore doesn't exactly tell a new war story here, but through Beatrice she speaks of all too familiar atrocities in such a spellbinding way that she compels readers to once again listen. If the Brothers Grimm had tackled the rise and fall of the Third Reich, they might well have produced a tale that reads like "The Life of Objects."
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Life of Objects" by Susanna Moore. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: "3 Pears" is Dwight Yoakam's first album of new material in seven years. Rock critic Ken Tuckers says that the country music singer-songwriter persists in mixing genres. That may leave him out of the country mainstream but it puts him in a good position to make a personal album that contains some of his best music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYING")
DWIGHT YOAKAM: (Singing) I've been trying for so long and this trying just goes on because I keep trying to hold on to my heart, to my heart. I've been waiting...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Dwight Yoakam has been trying to carve out his place in the music industry for decades now, with regular side trips into the film industry as an actor. In a way, this is the key to the difficulty he's had maintaining the visibility he deserves. There persists among many the feeling that Yoakam is acting out the role of the country star and that he not-so-secretly feels he's slightly above the genre he tries to write hits for.
Yoakam's admirers - of whom I am very much one - see him slightly differently. As is abundantly clear on this new album, "3 Pears," he declines to fit into market categories for very long, jumping within each album from nasal Nirvana honky-tonk, to ringing pop-rock like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A HEART LIKE MINE")
YOAKAM: (Singing) I saw you coming. You saw me and took off running, shells in your eye. What, such a sweet disguise. I wonder why you never try to understand a heart like mine.
TUCKER: That song, which has the reverberations and hand clap percussion of a 1960s chunk of British Invasion rock, was co-produced by Beck, a singer-songwriter not known for his country music affiliations. Yoakam liked the Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison, "Living in the Material World." This album, "3 Pears," takes its title from a scene in which John Lennon plays around with three pairs of glasses. It's inspired one of the two best songs on the album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3 PAIRS OF GLASSES")
YOAKAM: (Singing) Three pairs of glasses, three pairs of shades, three pairs of other things, are all there in spades. Three pairs of shoeless feet, three mindless thoughts, three pairs of wishes for all that you want. And that means where you are is where you're at. When your head is cold you put on a hat. If you can't recall, just remember that to wear three pairs of shades and three pairs of glasses.
TUCKER: Pop music critic Don McLeese has a new book out called "Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere." It does a fine job of chronicling the wayward path Yoakam's career has taken, starting as a Kentucky-born, self-proclaimed hillbilly who found initial recognition in early '80s Los Angeles in the last throes of punk rock.
He was pushing a back-to-basics music at a time when Garth Brooks and urban cowboy pop-country was ascendant. Yoakam's period as a hit country act in the late '80s nevertheless has always left him positioned as an outsider, and he's never even enjoyed the rock critic good press that colleagues such as Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle enjoyed.
Chalk it up to orneriness, to the tired old plaint of lacking authenticity, but Dwight has traveled not merely a lonely road, but a career path he had to pave essentially by himself. One notable thing about all this is how artfully such struggle surfaces in his music. Which leads me to this album's other great song, "Long Way to Go."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LONG WAY TO GO")
YOAKAM: (Singing) I've got a long way to go before I get there. I had a lot of field to hoe. The sun is so high. I've got a lot of miles of road and the next few only show that there's still such a long way to go. Dreaming is only dreaming till dreaming is the only thing that's true. And wishing is only wishing till my only thought's a wish to be with you.
TUCKER: Dwight Yoakam's song about how there's, quote, "still such a long way to go" could be said of his career. You get the feeling that he's a little bit weary and quite a bit wary. He's a guy who essentially wants to sing about having his heart broken, whether it's by a woman or by thwarted ambition, both of which are great eternal subjects around which he's now built what sounds something like close to a great album.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album "3 Pears" by Dwight Yoakam. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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