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DISCOVERIES

October 26, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

How the Rich Are

Destroying the Earth

Herve Kempf

Chelsea Green: 124 pp., $12.95

One: The planet's ecological situation is worsening faster than we are reacting to stop it. Two: Capitalism "blindly sticks to its guns against the changes that are indispensable if we want to preserve the dignity and promise of human existence." For Herve Kempf, a French environmental reporter, these problems are "two sides of the same disaster," a rapacious, "predatory oligarchy" motivated only by greed. The French do not share our skepticism when it comes to doomsday scenarios: Kempf's predictions are full of words like "evil," "catastrophe" and "emergency." Nor does he soft pedal the role the United States has played in the degradation of the planet. With great glee, Kempf describes the squandering: the salaries of CEOs and board members and the excesses of the ultra-rich (yacht wars, expensive pornography and horrifying square-footage). The global oligarchy, he writes, will stop at nothing to preserve this culture. Kempf writes that after 9/11 the United States "was seriously considering using little nuclear bombs in potential conflicts." We are used to evil in the form of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, he writes, not in the form of democracy run amok -- the tyranny of the individual's right to pursue his or her own happiness above the community. Kempf even goes so far as to assert that terrorism is an excuse for a crackdown on the poor and disenfranchised. It's a controversial book, thought-provoking, irritating and outspoken.

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The Discovery of Dawn

Walter Veltroni

Translated from the Italian by Douglas Hofstadter

Rizzoli: 140 pp., $24.95

Walter Veltroni is the leader of Italy's opposition party. He was the mayor of Rome from 2001 to 2008 and ran for prime minister against Silvio Berlusconi. "The Discovery of Dawn" is the story of mild-mannered Giovanni Astengo, who works in the National Archives cataloging diaries written by his peers (a Kafka-esque line of work if there ever was one). Astengo's father disappeared when his son was 13, in 1977, when the Red Brigades set fire to cars and beat police officers in the streets. Astengo, with two children of his own, is in the midst of an identity crisis. "This is a difficult season for me," he thinks, "because dawn and sunset, hope and disappointment, are fused together . . . my time is dwindling. . . . " He finds himself thinking about his father's disappearance and takes a walk to the house where he grew up. When the phone rings in the house, he answers, and his 13-year-old self is on the line. Astengo is given the chance to piece together his father's disappearance and reinvent himself without the secrets that have kept him from making his mark. This is pure continental fiction, a chance to fill in the blanks that have confronted generations in Western Europe from World War I to the present -- family histories shattered by war. Veltroni's love affair with the dawn as metaphor is sweet and simple: a kind of flower-power antidote to the cynicism of prior generations.

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On Cats

Doris Lessing

Harper: 246 pp., $14.95

Doris Lessing is the ultimate cat-lady. These anecdotes, from the African farm where she grew up and the London apartments she has shared with her cats, reveal a writer who often communicated better with her animals than with the people around her. Lessing records the animosities, the hierarchies and the shifting alliances she has had with her cats. She is sensitive to their moods and needs; she depends on them for companionship and affection, in particular El Magnifico, the last cat to live with her: "He was a lithe and handsome black-and-white young cat . . . but El Magnifico had to grow into his full glory, dramatic black and white . . . this creature, this magnificence, has evolved from basic moggy, from your ordinary London cat-stuff, the product of hundreds of years of haphazard matings. . . ." It's Lessing, Nobel prize and all, dramatically unhinged.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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