Book Digest: April 14, 2008

Robert Birnbaum nabs Susanna Moore's current reading, plus: The Lives They Left Behind; Liberty of Conscience; The Open Road; Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere; Harry, Revised; Black Postcards; She Was; Memory; Scottsboro; Throes of Democracy; “Socialism Is Great!”; The Mayor’s Tongue.

Susanna Moore (In the Cut and Big Girls) shares her current reading with you and me:
I am reading Blood Meridian (by Cormac McCarthy) for the third time and as always I am horrified, thrilled, awestruck, and repulsed by it. Also, I am reading Alec Wilkinson’s nonfiction book, Mr. Apology; Stop Time by Frank Conroy, and a novel by Kathryn Walker, A Stopover in Venice.
Read on.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic by Darby Pensey and Peter Statsny; photographs by Lisa Rinzler
Book Digest By now it is not news that many state-run institutions closed down permanently and cast out their inmates, clients, or whatever the current word is for patients, most to fend for themselves. This tome focuses on the Willard Psychiatric Center, which closed in 1995 and where 400 suitcases were left abandoned. The authors examined them, and, with the records that were available to them, reconstructed a plausible picture of psychiatric care in the past century. Not as a harrowing as the groundbreaking film The Snake Pit or Richard Avedon’s institutional photographs or Fredrick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, but sufficiently haunting.

» Read excerpts from The Lives They Left Behind

Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality by Martha C. Nussbaum
Book Digest Religious tolerance in this nation is a particularly thorny issue in good times and has, of course, become exponentially prickly as certain Christian sects exhibit what they consider a God-given entitlement to lord it over the rest of us. Nussbaum, a well-regarded legal, religious, and philosophy scholar, addresses various constitutional issues and landmark cases to delineate the wellsprings of America’s tradition of tolerance, as well as to express her appreciation of this fundamental value.

» Read an excerpt from Liberty of Conscience

The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer
Book Digest Ask anyone for their short list of the world’s admirable people and I would expect many lists would include the Dalai Lama. Iyer, a wonderful and original writer, has been conversing with him for 30 years and takes this opportunity to present the complexities of the Dalai Lama’s position as both a spiritual leader and the Tibetan head of state. Iyer presents his subject in very real and practical terms, avoiding the mire of mystical and religious babble.

» Read an excerpt from The Open Road

Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere: A Memoir by John Nathan
Book Digest After graduating from Harvard in 1961, Nathan went to Tokyo. Relying on his unflappability and intelligence, he ended up at the best school in Japan, the University of Tokyo. From there he fully immersed himself in the culture, translating Yukio Mishima and Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, making films, and writing authoritatively on Japan (Japan Unbound and Sony: The Private Life). Along the way Nathan befriended a wide spectrum of Japanese society and thus gained entry into a view of Japan not seen by outsiders.

» Read an excerpt from Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere

Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas
Book Digest Those of you aware of the literary cabal infiltrating and controlling the book world will recognize the name of Harry, Revised’s author as the selfsame scamp perpetrating the well-regarded literary blog known as The Elegant Variation. Sravas has a new novel, his first set to appear in bookstores, and you will not doubt hear his fellow conspirators singing his praises. Sarvas’s whirlwind book tour brings him to my neighborhood and I fully expect to chat him up on his book, the book universe, and a multitude of subjects. Wanna know about the book? Sure you do.

» Read an excerpt from Harry, Revised

Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance by Dean Wareham
Book Digest Founder of Galaxie 500 and Luna (called by Rolling Stone “the greatest band you’ve never heard of”) Wareham pens a remarkably unromantic, incisive memoir dissection of the indie music scene. Liz Phair writes:
One of the things Black Postcards does so well is shatter the illusion that rock ‘n’ roll is all fun and games. Things pile up. The weight of the accumulated past begins to take its toll. Wareham fights to stay engaged in his creative efforts, sometimes at the expense of the stability of both his family and his band.
She Was by Janis Hallowell
Book Digest A number of authors have done well in revisiting the turbulent ‘60s (Sigrid Nunez, Neil Gordon, Christopher Sorrentino) specifically attending to characters engaged in radical anti-war activities. Holiwell (The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn) takes up this banner as her character Doreen Woods (based loosely on Sara Jane Olson), a successful dentist, turns out to be Lucy Johansson, formerly a militant radical who was forced underground after a symbolic bombing goes tragically wrong.

Memory by Philipe Grimbert
Book Digest Grimbert’s novel was a huge bestseller in Europe—in this unadorned tale, the narrator reveals (some of) the reasons his parents jumped to their deaths. It is Paris in the aftermath of the war and the narrator begins to discover family secrets as he reminisces with a family friend.

» Read an excerpt from Memory

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman
Book Digest The 1931 case of the nine black boys accused of raping two white girls in Scottsboro, Ala., is one of the landmarks of injustice in American history, and novelist Feldman does well to fictionalize it—as poignantly as did Lewis Nordan’s treatment of Emmett Till in his 1993 novel Wolfwhistle.

Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 by Walter McDougall
Book Digest McDougall follows his epic Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 with an updated view of this crucial timeframe in American history—Jackson’s inauguration, the huge 1835 Manhattan fire, the Civil War, the Manifest Destiny, and the corrupt presidential election of 1876. McDougall recounts these five decades with alacrity and keen insight and nimble prose.

» Read an excerpt from Throes of Democracy

“Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China Lijia Zhang
Book Digest Zhang was a teenage worker in a missile factory and, increasingly disenchanted with her life and its depredations, she learns English and becomes more and more alienated from her socialist worker’s paradise. Peter Hessler, The New Yorker’s China expert, calls it:
…a beautiful memoir of the important period when China began to recover from its political traumas and open to the outside world. Our current China literature is heavy with victim memoirs, but this is a true tale of aspiration: a young woman coming of age in a nation desperately trying to do the same.
» Read an excerpt [pdf] from “Socialism Is Great!”

The Mayor’s Tongue by Nathaniel Rich
Book Digest Young Rich has fashioned a complex novel that takes two complementary characters from New York City to the remote Italian Alps. There the story dovetails onto a landscape revealing an odd and compelling cast of characters, not the least of which is the mayor mentioned in the title. Rich receives and will get a lot of attention for reasons that seem apparent mostly to those vibrating to the emanations of the New York media sounding board. But that’s how it goes sometimes.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Mayor’s Tongue

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