By Peter Trachtenberg
464 pages; Little, Brown.
Americans were not born to suffer—that's been our grand delusion, at least since the serene and prosperous postwar 1940s. Then came 9/11, apparently "from nowhere, out of nothing, like the beating of a great wing in the darkness," and suddenly we were vulnerable, desperately grasping for explanations. The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning (Little, Brown) is Peter Trachtenberg's frank and urgent investigation of "the ways in which people try to find meaning in suffering, or try not to be driven mad by the possibility that it means nothing." Suffering is chaotic, and chaos is unbearable, hurtling us toward oblivion. "Order is the nest we make for our minds," he writes. "When we cannot find it, we invent it." A former heroin addict who once attempted suicide, Trachtenberg counts himself the victim of mere garden-variety sorrows, mostly of his own making. The death from cancer of an exceptional friend raised complex questions about justice, malice, compassion, blame, self-pity, personal responsibility, faith, and doubt. He sought out survivors of the Rwandan genocide and Hurricane Katrina, as well as people with horrifying diseases and psychic infirmities. He harvested insights from the likes of Primo Levi, Siddhartha, and Simone Weil, from Aeschylus's Oresteia and the book of Job. And because this is more a book of questions than answers, he arrived at a modest suggestion for 21st-century Americans: Don't look away. "Maybe the best we can do," he writes, "is see the other's face."