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The Life of David
Dreaded king. Beloved poet. Michelangelo's icon of young male beauty. Old man led into terrible folly by his lust for a woman. "The text reads the reader," says author Robert Pinsky—the aspect of the Old Testament's King David that one finds most compelling depends on the beholder. The stage of David's life requires a look into the bloodiest politics of Judea, where even the nomenclature is fearful: "Zipf, Dagon, Ziklag ... as remote as the planets of science fiction." But there may have been something realistic even in the most seemingly fanciful details: Pinsky notes that Roman army surgeons carried tools to remove sling stones; why couldn't David have killed his Goliath with such a weapon? It all has to be true, Pinsky decides, quoting writer Duff Cooper: no primitive people would have made such a flawed leader their national hero unless it was fact. As for David's people, they have their own truth: "A logic respectful of darkness, frugal of superiority and fortune ... a brisk practical sense that in the face of God's power, one goes about the business of life ... with that all-mighty Hand hovering always over one's head." Essential reading, in this, the most religious nation in the world. (By Robert Pinsky, Nextbook/Schocken; 209 pages; $19.95 cloth)

—Richard von Busack

Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850
Reinterpreting colonial history is nasty business, as the French recently learned to their chagrin. A law mandating the teaching of France's "positive role" in its colonial possessions left Jacques Chirac backpedaling and inflamed protests in Algeria. Maya Jasanoff's intriguing study of the British and French warring over Egypt and India in the early days of colonialism acknowledges Edward Said's basic analysis, in Orientalism, of how the West suckered-punched the East. Jasanoff, however, also shows that empire-building made for strange bedfellows. A number of colorful outcasts from polite European society made their fortunes in outposts like Lucknow, Seringapatam, Mysore, Alexandria and Cairo. After collecting ethnic arts and foreign wives, some of these adventurers returned to their homelands with the titles and privileges of the landed classes. As Jasanoff points out, the barriers between conquerors and conquered were a lot more porous than we once thought. Among a battalion of fascinating minor soldiers, diplomats and schemers described in the book, Giambattista Belzoni stands out, literally and figuratively: a 6-foot-8 giant from Malta who performed circus feats of strength across Europe before ending up in Egypt in the early 1800s. Belzoni became an "antiquities hunter" who unearthed (or robbed, take your pick) some of the most stunning of ancient Egyptian sculptures from the silt of the Nile. When Belzoni, who had a serious case of Anglophilia, couldn't convince the British Museum to buy his artifacts, he opened his own Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, kicking off a spasm of Egyptomania that wasn't fully slaked until King Tut's tomb was discovered in the 1920s. Belzoni never did realize the honors, riches or respect he thought he was entitled to, and he died of dysentery on a doomed journey to be the first European to make it to Timbuktu in one piece. In a sense, he was just one more victim of Europe's insatiable political sprawl in the name of empire. (By Maya Jasanoff; Knopf; 404 pages; $27.95 cloth)

—Michael S. Gant

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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