God, greed, politics and a rash of rabies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2007, 12:00am


'The peasant revolutionary turned lifestyle guru, the former Shaolin monk working on a Shanghai building site, the once-conservative father running a gay hotline - and the teenagers who just want to dress up as their favourite Japanese cartoon characters. Welcome to the new China ...' So goes the cover blurb for Duncan Hewitt's Getting Rich First (Chatto & Windus).

The BBC's former China correspondent takes his title from Deng Xiaoping's pronouncement during the economic reforms of the 1980s that China would have to 'let some of the people get rich first'. Hewitt describes a nation in the throes of rapid transformation, as industrial, technological and sexual revolutions sweep away the past and Communist ideals are sacrificed at the altar of individual aspiration.

While China is busy getting rich, poor nations are preoccupied with buying nuclear weapons. William Langewiesche relates the frightening facts of nuclear proliferation in The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He chronicles the inexorable drift of nuclear weapons technology into the hands of the poor, tracing how stolen uranium and nuclear hardware are smuggled through Turkey, the 'grand bazaar for nuclear goods'.

Along the way, he examines the danger of nuclear arms falling into the hands of terrorist groups and looks at the role played by Abdul Qadeer Khan - the so-called father of the Muslim bomb, who helped build Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and peddled nuclear plans to North Korea and Iran - describing him as the 'greatest nuclear proliferator of all time'.

Langewiesche's account would have Ronald Reagan turning in his grave. The revisionist view of the 40th president's bullish cold war policy has him on a personal quest to rid the world of nuclear arms. Reagan is credited with paving the way for an end to the east- west standoff during a presidency marked by soaring prosperity, the Iran-Contra Affair and a survived assassination attempt.

The only daily diary kept by a US president, The Reagan Diaries (HarperCollins), contains revealing entries on relationships with Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II, Muammar Gaddafi, and Margaret Thatcher, along with thoughts about his love for his wife, Nancy, and his belief in God and the power of prayer.

The US remains a secular state, despite a propensity of Republican presidents to take direction from on high. As skirmishes between creationists and liberals continue, constitutional scholar Peter Irons' God on Trial: Dispatches from America's Religious Battlefields (Viking) examines social, political and legal conflicts about religion in society. Accounts of legal battles range from challenges to displays of the 10 Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, to the fight over a cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego - now in its 17th year.

Christopher Hitchens leaves us in no doubt where he stands with the title of his polemic, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve). Warning of the danger monotheistic religion poses in the world, he decries it as 'a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents'.

There's no separating religion and politics in Michael Chabon's noir imaginings of the Jewish settlement in Alaska that Franklin Roosevelt envisioned on the eve of the second world war. The Yiddish Policemen's Union (HarperCollins), though, is more concerned with a murder mystery wrapped in this speculative history. Meyer Landsman, a rogue cop who wakes in a flophouse to find one of his neighbours killed, investigates a strange underworld of Orthodox black-hat gangs and crime-lord rabbis.

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's anti-hero in the comically grotesque Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (Doubleday) is dead. The story unfolds with contradictory accounts, from those who knew him, of the naturopathic serial killer, who sets out on a killing spree after infecting himself with rabies.

Post September 11 ruminations by American writers have been arriving thick and fast, and Don DeLillo's Falling Man (Picador, Scribner) is among the most eagerly anticipated. Beginning in the smoke and ash of the burning towers, it tracks the aftermath through the lives of Keith, who walks out of the rubble forever changed; Lianne, his estranged wife, trying to reconcile two versions of the same shadowy man; and their son, Justin, standing at the window, scanning the sky for more planes.

Afghanistan, the crucible in which America's tormentors were forged during the months and years leading up to the attacks, is the setting for Kabul-born writer Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (Bloomsbury). The tale, by the author of The Kite Runner, is about two women, their family and friendship, told against the backdrop of the country's conflicts during the past 30 years.