Current Reads

America Goes Back to School

A fine salad of real books for fall--on Diaghilev, the saddest music ever composed, surfing, Seamus Heaney, and Charlie Chan.

Book Cover James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and proprietor of the delightful web journal Clusterfuck Nation, is probably—based on his views of the oil peak, suburbia, and America’s gimme-something-for-nothing ethos—viewed as a kook, mountebank, or whatever is currently the worst thing to be (Muslim? gyspsy/Roma? the godless?). Which, I feel compelled to opine, I find astonishing. Especially in light of this crystalline observation:
The bigger mystery in all this is: what happened to reasonable, rational, educated people of purpose in this country to drive them into such a burrow of cowardice that they can’t speak the truth, or act decisively, or even defend themselves against such a host of vicious morons in a time of troubles?
Kunstler has a follow-up to his novel World Made by Hand (which itself was a kind of novelization of what was happening in The Long Emergency) being published imminently. More on that in the fullness of time.

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Book Cover If you were looking through a morass of books and you came upon one such as The Saddest Music Ever Written (Pegasus Books), I would expect that you would have to stop and attend to it.

Not because the title is catchy, obviously, but due to a curiosity what music inspired the title. Author Thomas Larson believes it’s Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”.

(Of course, I was also attracted to The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin, so you know where my predilections lie.)

Larson expounds:
My passion for Barber’s extraordinary elegy encompasses more than the piece itself. I am fascinated by its emotional tension, its usefulness to our culture, its effect upon my family and me, and its evolution through our changing media. And this passion is rooted in Barber the man, a scarily gifted musician, whose youth vibrated with musical ardor and whose age darkened with alcoholic depression. I find his character as intriguing as his compositions. How did Barber, at the tender age of 26, write such a piece?
Which leads me to think of another extraordinarily melancholy song, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, which he wrote as a teenager.

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If you are old enough to remember having watched first-hand movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, or viewed them on your black-and-white TV screens in the ‘50s, the name Charlie Chan should stir nostalgic feelings for a time in America when one could, with great impunity, malign blacks, “orientals,” women, and of course Jews.

Book Cover Yuante Huang has done a wonderful thing with his Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History ( Norton) by not only writing an amusing book about the creator of Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers, but additionally the various transformations of the Chan character in the stories and movies, reflecting the currents of cultural tides.

Richard Shickel commends:
His attention is firmly fixed on the Chinese immigrant experience and, of course, on a detective whose urbane presentation ran counter to the racism of his era. Charlie Chan remains, in himself, a sly and delightful figure, worthy of nostalgia—and of Huang’s very original, good-humored and passionately researched book.
If you are pressed for time (who isn’t?), Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s reportage on the Biggers-Chan-Huang story is her usual dependable and smart account.

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Book Cover Despite the mildly misleading title, Welcome to Utopia (Speigel & Grau) by Karen Valby is a charming snapshot of a tiny town in the Texas Hill Country, an area in Central Texas that is distinguished by the second largest granite monadnock in the United States, Enchanted Rock. (Don’t ask what the largest is.)

In a hamlet with where there are no movie theaters, book or music stores for 60 miles in any direction, Valby focuses on four utopians grappling with issue of whether their town represents the Real America—limning the notion of what that may be. It’s a deft little tome, the writing of which Entertainment Weekly writer Valby relates:
I’m not ashamed to say I kinda love these people. I think they are complicated and layered and messy and dear and I don’t want them to feel reduced. I have never done this type of work before and the experience proved so valuable in a personal way. I feel bigger for it.

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Holding Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously (Princeton University Press), there is a palpable gravity to this offering, from the untitled cover art by Pascale Monnin to the dedication, “two hundred thousand and more.”

Book Cover Created for the Toni Morrison lectures (of which Danticat was the second annual presenter), the dozen chapters contained here are themselves an amalgam of stories and prefaces and introductions to an array of Haitian books that this wonderful Haitian-American writer has focused into her very specific and personal sense of the experiences that befall an immigrant artist.

Danticat’s title, Create Dangerously, is taken from Albert Camus’s lecture of the same name (his last public lecture), where he proposes:
One may long, as I do, for a gentler flame, a respite, a pause for musing. But perhaps there is no other peace for the artist than what he finds in the heat of combat. “Every wall is a door,” Emerson correctly said. Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is—in the very thick of battle. For in my opinion, and this is where I shall close, it is there. Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empire and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation, others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever-threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundations of his own sufferings and joys, builds for them all.
As for Danticat, Madison Smart Bell, who has written eloquently of things Haitian, appraises:
Edwidge Danticat’s prose has a Chekhovian simplicity—an ability to state the most urgent truths in a measured and patiently plain style that gathers a luminous energy as it moves inexorably forward. In this book she makes a strong case that art, for immigrants from countries where human rights and even survival are often in jeopardy, must be a vocation to witness if it is not to be an idle luxury.

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Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney offers up a new collection, Human Chain (FSG).

Fittingly, he focuses his considerable gifts on a near brush with death and familial connections, and wields a retrospective tone of life laden with manifold bygones. From his poem in memory of David Hammond:
I felt, for the first time there and then,
a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in late

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Book Cover Serge Diaghilev, who founded the Ballets Russes and was pals with some of the greatest figures in 20th century arts—Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Nijinsky and Karsavina, Balanchine, Picasso, and Matisse, to name few—cut a big figure and a wide swath through modern culture’s golden age. Today we would say of him he lived large.

Diaghilev triumphed over multiple and varied upheavals adversities—bankruptcy, war, revolution, and exile—and, no small thing in his time, was an uncloseted, unrepentant homosexual. For Diaghilev: A Life (Oxford University Press), Sjeng Scheijen is credited with extensive research, including some previously ignored archives. Master biographer Michael Holroyd extols:
No biography is definitive—yet I cannot imagine any book that will supersede this account of how Diaghilev ballets came into being. It is an astonishing achievement .
By the way, the text is interspersed with illuminating photographs and color illustrations.

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Book CoverIn most parts of the nation, summer is over, not necessarily meteorologically but certainly attitudinally, given the back-to-school frenzy.

Which makes two books related to surfing, the sport and lifestyle of endless summers, something to be noted (though personally I was never a Beach Boys fan or saw surfing’s allure).

Surfing expert, historian, former editor of SURFER magazine, and lifelong surfer, Matt Warshaw spent five years researching the sport to produce the 500-page History of Surfing (Chronicle books), liberally illustrated with over 250 photographs, which may stand as the definitive source on the sport and its not insubstantial sub-culture.

Every hobby, enterprise, sport—essentially all parts of human activity—has a magazine for its devotees. For the truly devoted (or obsessed), there is SURFER’s magazine’s 50 Years of Surfing Magazine (Chronicle) by Sam George and world champion surfer Shaun Tomson. Naturally, the best stories and 250 photographs have been cherry-picked for this edition.

With these two wonderfully reproduced editions (as one comes to expect from Chronicle), the surf will always remain up.
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