Book Digest: April 11, 2006

Green Squall; Crashing the Gate; Realm of the Dead; On Seeing; The Last Friend; Little Money Street; The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space; La Perdida; Target Zero; The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy; Among the Dead Cities

I don’t get out much but I make occasional forays to events that include rooms full of strangers, and so I recently attended the latest version of the yearly PEN Hemingway awards at the JFK Library at which Joyce Carol Oates was the keynote speaker. Her talk, a loose summary of a paper she had written about the travails of the writing life, served to remind me to refresh myself on the prolific Ms. Oates. I came across this tidbit:
RB: By concerning yourself with ethical matters issues or at least including them in your thoughts about writing, does that suggest that this is one of the functions of literature? And it in fact may be the last refuge of ethical dialogue? Is there much concern with ethical issues in the public conversation?

JCO: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because the terms moral value and ethical values are used but they are used for political expediency. But as a writer and a reader of literature, I am also just concerned with stories and characters. I love drama. I love the memorializing of places. I can read Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence almost as much for the landscape and for the cityscape as for the characters, because the landscape is so vividly portrayed. So when I write I try to do the same thing.
And she does it well. Her latest book, High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006 has just been published, in case you need to either refresh or familiarize yourself with this fine author (whom, because of her prodigious oeuvre, I believe we take for granted.)

Anyway, on to the hunt.

Green Squall by Jay Hopler
Louise Glück, in her introduction to this 100th edition of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, observes that before poetry “pitched its tents in the library and museum a great many poems began in the garden.” Not that Jay Hopler is a throwback, though as Glück further observes, “poets have tended treat the natural world as a depleted or exhausted metaphor… Great Squall begins and ends in the garden. But no one would mistake Hopler for a poet of another century. He is more mad scientist than naturalist. His exploding Florida garden a formidable outpost for the seasonal garden of English lyric.”

Here’s “In the Garden”:
And the sky!
Nooned with the steadfast blue enthusiasm
Of an empty nursery.
Crooked lizards grassed in yellow shade.
The grass was lizarding,
Green and on a rampage.
Shade tenacious in the crook of a bent stem.
Noon. This noon—
Skyed, blue and full of hum, full of bloom.
The grass was lizarding.
Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics by Jerome Armstrong & Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
There is the old saw that generals are always fighting the last war, which makes me wonder if the new politics of which highly popular webloggers, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga are thickly in the midst and the ragtag coalition that was effectively formed to make Howard Dean’s candidacy viable will mean anything in the 2008. In fact, if there has been a real transformational shift, we might see more attention being paid to mid-term elections. (Novelist Stephen Elliott has gotten the message recently forming Lit PAC.) In any case, Armstrong and Zuniga do well to show how and why there has been a lack of serious opposition to the right-wing zealots who are in power. The publisher claims that this book is “a shot across the bow at the political establishment in Washington, D.C., and a call to re-democratize politics in America.” Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?

Realm of the Dead by Uchida Hyakken, translated by Rachel DiNitto
Never heard of Japanese writer Uchida Hyakken? Me neither—which is the point of the Dalkey Archive, among others. Hyakken, who died in 1971, is considered a major figure in Japanese literature. Some of the nearly 50 stories included here—published for the first time in English and taken from two collections, Realm of the Dead and Triumphant March into Port Arthur—are a few pages long. In 1934, Hyakken wrote upon the publication of the second collection, “Of the twenty-nine stories in this collection, the first seven have a realistic quality to them, while the remaining twenty-two are short pieces similar in tone to those in my previous book Realm of The Dead. The book was ready to be published but in that year Tokyo was struck by terrible misfortune. The great earthquake and accompanying fires completely destroyed the foundry plates causing the book to suffer the unfortunate fate of going out of print. For the next ten years I gnawed at my pen and ripped through paper and somehow after piecing together this mere collection I was lucky enough to receive the favor of the publisher. When the book was finally about to be printed, I reflected back on the path of writing and found it to be far too long and precipitous.” Indeed.

On Seeing: Things Seen, Unseen, and Obscene by F. González-Crussi
A pathologist by profession, González-Crussi assembles a collection of wide-ranging essays on seeing, from ancient myth to modern microscopy and photography. In one such piece he talks about the human ability to be aroused by memories of pictures of naked bodies, “that a distinguishing characteristic of human beings, one that identifies them as fundamentally different from animals, is (apart from the capacity to laugh, and to know that they must die) the ability to make love with ghosts.” Pretty entertaining, I’d say.

The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated by Kevin Michael Cape and Hazel Rowley
Expatriate Moroccan novelist, essayist, critic, and poet Tahar Ben Jelloun is a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Repubblica, El País, and Panorama. He has published, among other things, 14 novels, and in 2004 won the prestigious and lucrative IMPAC prize, and he recently has “appeared” on the Nobel Prize short list. The Last Friend is a tale of friendship and betrayal set in mid-20th-century Tangier (but covering 40 years of Moroccan history), told alternately by the novel’s protagonists.

Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France by Fernanda Eberstadt
I have always enjoyed Fernanda Eberstadt’s modern urbane novels and journalism, and here she travels far afield as the book’s subtitle suggests and tries to find out about Gypsies, whose music she describes as “veiled, hermetic…Add to the confusion that the musicians are Frenchmen singing Pentecostalist hymns in a language—Gypsy Catalan—that very few people know exists. It brings news from a place no one’s heard of, and the news is at once too close and too distant to be intelligible.” It’s possible she misses her mark, but there is so much interesting stuff here, it may not matter.

The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space by Douglas Trevor
Doug Trevor teaches medieval literature at the University of Iowa, and this slender volume won a 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. He is also included in the 2006 O Henry Prize Anthology. Kevin Brockmeier observes of these stories, “Each of the characters is a fully realized human being, a small civilization of memories and preoccupations, and the final paragraphs of Trevor’s stories are among the most knowing and beautiful you are ever likely to read.”

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Graphic novelist Jessica Able’s story of a young woman’s misadventures in Mexico City rendered in black and white images with a bilingual text.

Target Zero: A Life in Writing Eldridge: Cleaver edited by Kathleen Cleaver; foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; afterword by Cecil Brown
Former Black Panther information minister Eldridge Cleaver, who ran for president in 1968 (confession time: I voted for him in the first election I was eligible to vote in), and wrote the 1968 bestseller Soul and Ice and ended up a fugitive from justice in Algeria and Cuba, led a complicated life until he died in 1998. His wife, Kathleen Cleaver, a scholar and lawyer, assembles a collection of previously unpublished material that shines a necessary light on a period that is receding into a revisionist fog. Interest in recent black militancy seems to be building, as this book comes at a time of a recent publication of a biography of Black Panther founder Huey Newton.

The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation translated by Aliki Barnstone
Constantine Cavafy was Greek by ancestry, worked in the irrigation section of the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, Egypt, and died in 1933. Brad Leithauser writes of him, “These days, you seem everywhere to hear his measured voice—with its melding of fact and foreboding, lust and loss—among not only writers who were under his spell but also others who may have spent little time with him. He echoes through the pages of W.H. Auden, James Merrill, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Joseph Brodsky. The man in the cafe who loved to evoke small, closed rooms? He opened many doors.”

From Cavafy’s most famous poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians”:
Why don’t the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.
Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.
Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A.C. Grayling
This could be one of those really important books you never read. A great deal of Western moral superiority is based on a presumed concern about human rights and observation of rules of “civility,” even in the face of the barbarism of war. This book by British philosopher Grayling, as the Guardian review opines, “has a clear moral purpose. Only by acknowledging where mistakes were made in the past can we avoid making them in the future. Perhaps Grayling’s tone is, at times, too much of that of the detached moral philosopher, and he is bound to find reviewers asking him what he would have done at the time; but that is the purpose of his book, to provoke our leaders, and those on whose behalf they purport to act, to ask how to wage a war by methods short of barbarism.” Not that men like Rumsfield and Cheney will pay attention.

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