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Book Digest: April 16, 2007

Ghettonation; The Lisbon Crossing; The Custodian of Paradise; Lies; Savage Kingdom; So Many Ways to Begin; The Big Girls; Dry Manhattan; A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both; The Language of Elk; Endless Things

The chattering and clattering classes are preparing for PEN’s World Voices fest coming soon to Manhattan. Me, I was in Cambridge, Mass., stumbling around the Bryn Mawr Bookstore, and found two gems by Moroccan author (and 2004 IMPAC prize winner) Tahar ben Jelloun: The Sand Child and With Downcast Eyes. (I am not even going to tell you what I paid for these two hardbacks.) Who says life is unfair?

This week’s big story about Don Imus—which for the life of me I can’t quite see as big since it involves someone saying something ugly and stupid—is not exactly newsworthy in a country where that happens with alarming but unsurprising frequency. In this particular episode it seems no one comes off untarnished, other than the Rutgers basketball team. The pundits and hypocrites and hypocritical pundits, and the media executives and corporate types attaching themselves to this chucklehead ought to be concerning themselves with the economic stratification that has the good old U.S.A. resembling Guatemala. Or our ramshackle health-care system and profiteering drug companies. The only thing all this noise proves is the U.S.A. has become a nation of scolds and Torquemadas. Feh!

Which places the death of Kurt Vonnegut as a more dire loss—as we have a dwindling population of voices casting an appropriately skeptical eye on the conventional wisdom and mores of a hyper-noisy culture, and one that is predominantly fueled by the profit motive. Commenting on posterity may be a fool’s gambit—so is love—but I feel comfortable opining that Kurt Vonnegut, our era’s Mark Twain, will be well thought of a hundred years from now. From his Paris Review interview:

…Our last question. If you were Commissar of Publishing in the United States, what would you do to alleviate the present deplorable situation?

VONNEGUT: There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.


VONNEGUT: I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare check.

And here is one of the fine homages to Kurt Vonnegut that have been pouring into all manner of media, which concludes:
Faced with his sudden mortality, the literary world began searching through its files to put together a suitable Vonnegut obituary. No matter how long people looked, though, there wasn’t going to be a much better epitaph for Vonnegut than novelist Jay McInerney’s description of the man as “a cynic who wants to believe… a moralist with a whoopee cushion.’’
Had I edited any of the last two Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, you can be certain there would have been ample Vonnegut citations. Like:
Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Ghettonation: A Journey Into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless by Cora Daniels
Book Digest Given the steady stream of books instructing non-black America about the folkways and sociology of African-American citizens, one might hope that such available knowledge would bridge our intractable racial divide. Apparently, this is an instance of the powerlessness of knowledge. Well-regarded journalist Cora Daniels (Black Power Inc.) limns the word and concept of the black ghetto, doing some historical investigation to spotlight its current infiltration into American pop culture and society. If you recall your Merchant of Venice, the ghetto was the Jewish quarter of 16th-century Venice (Jews were required to wear red hats when outside the ghetto—hence my personal affectation/attraction to red baseball caps), and the idea took on more harrowing baggage in Nazi Europe. Daniels argues: “America’s embrace of a ghetto persona demeans women, devalues education, celebrates the worst African-American stereotypes, and contributes to the destruction of civil peace.” And, no surprise here, she shows corporate collaboration in making ghetto persona hip. There is a fair amount of sly humor in this study—Paris Hilton’s ghetto affectations are examined as well as the author-created “Ghetto Hall of Fame,” as well as a section written in ghetto slang (reminiscent of Percival Everett’s acid-humored satire Erasure): “Fo’ shu, I feel it.”

» Read an excerpt from Ghettonation

The Lisbon Crossing by Tom Gabbay
Book Digest Tom Gabbay, a former television comedy writer and producer at NBC, has created spy/sleuth Jack Teller (The Berlin Conspiracy). Here Teller ends up in Lisbon accompanying a Marlene Dietrich-like Hollywood star on her quest to extricate her childhood friend from pre-Blitz Europe. Weaving between European history and Hollywood trivia, Nazis, Brit Mi-6 types, psycho Hollywood studio moguls, and double-dealing opportunists of every strata make for a readable intrigue with some amusing conceits (royal mistress Wallis Simpson as a dominatrix?). Teller is no Phillip Marlowe and Gabbay is no Alan Furst, but this story has enough vitality to carry itself off well. Let’s see if future Teller tales fare as well.

The Custodian of Paradise by Wayne Johnston
Book Digest Sheilagh Fielding, a six-foot-tall, gimp-legged, Swiftian alcoholic journalist reposes on a deserted island proximal to Newfoundland during WW II and reviews her amazing life. Deserted by her mother at the age of six, leaving her with her deeply traumatized physician father, and then impregnated at 15, birthing twins which her father has her give to her mother who raises the children as her own, makes for an intense personal story. Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, also set in Newfoundland) creates an unforgettable character and his prose elegantly pictures the desolate beauty of the Sheilagh’s self-imposed exile and her wonderfully conceived world.

» Read an excerpt from The Custodian of Paradise

Lies by Enrique de Hériz
Book Digest Young(-ish) Enrique de Hériz who has worked as an editor and translator of Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Peter Carey, John Fowles, and others presents anthropologist Isabel Azuera, who, while researching in northern Guatamalan jungles, is misidentified as a mutilated body—a happenstance she does not correct. She takes her situation as an opportunity to study and weed out her curious family history, while at the same time her daughter, thousands of miles away, embarks on a similar task. It’s from the platform of two-headed family archaeology that de Hériz weaves a complex multileveled narrative exhibiting a rich array of factual plumage, not the least reference to eight century Chinese poet Li Po. The recent coverage of Juan Goytisolo, Roberto Bolaño (which will snowball), and now this impressive novel are some good reasons to place Spain on the contemporary literary map. Not that they were ever off.

» Read an excerpt from Lies

Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America by Benjamin Wooley
Book Digest Was it Andre Gide who said: “The closest we get to the truth is fiction?” I’m sure someone will correct me—I mention this observation in light of my recent notice of Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, which is heavily referential to the facts of the first English settlement of what became the U.S.A. Of course we wouldn’t know those facts that also enable works like Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor or Terence Malik’s The New World without the labor of scholars and writers. Using many and various new sources, English journalist Benjamin Wooley chronicles the three-ship fleet and its oddballs and reprobates that made their way to Virginia and a small island in the James River—along with their encounters with an amazing indigenous culture. The settlers referred to their new home as “the savage kingdom,” and despite their hardships and countless obstacles, aspired to form “one of the most glorious nations under the sun”—for which, naturally, another had to be destroyed. I should point out if histories like this were presented in American education, I find it hard to believe Americans would be as bovinely ahistorical.

» Read an excerpt from Savage Kingdom

So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor
Book Digest Scotsman Jon McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, won the prestigious British literary award, the 2003 Betty Trask Prize, and found the then-26-year-old long-listed for the Booker Prize. His sophomore effort is an exploration of failed expectations with a museum curator as its protagonist. McGregor tells about how he began his second novel:
People often seem to expect a logical and coherent narrative of how a book comes to be written; the spark of inspiration, the character development, the research, the plotting. I don’t know about other writers, but it doesn’t work like that for me. Instead there are vague ideas, a mess of influences and inspirations and an ambition which only defines itself as the writing slowly accumulates. So instead of a neat chronology I’ve sketched out a series of incidents and thoughts and processes which might illustrate some of the background to this novel.
The Guardian review effectively points out:
Everyone, it seems, is a curator—yet only the professionals and true enthusiasts, such as David, understand the principles of balance and selection required to make disparate items coalesce into a story: “the correlation of displays and texts, the skill needed to draw a visitor through a collection of objects and bring them out with a lived sense of one particular moment in time.” You could say that these are the same skills a novelist requires. McGregor is a hoarder, an omnivorous collector of perception and experience; the trick is only to have so many exhibits on show at any one time. If Nobody Speaks… was a frustratingly overcrowded display. So Many Ways to Begin suggests he has learned the value of keeping certain things in storage.
» Read an excerpt from So Many Ways to Begin

The Big Girls by Susanna Moore
Book Digest Susanna Moore (Sleeping Beauties, In The Cut) may be one of the more underrated/underappreciated writers in America—which Big Girls should go some way to correcting. At its core is Helen, one of those child-killing mothers (like Susan Smith in South Carolina and Andrea Yates in Texas), who is serving a life sentence. Helen’s harrowing but fascinating story is well reflected and told as it passes through a tight nexus of interested parties.

Susan Salter Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times crisply summarizes Moore’s writing career and astutely observes:
Moore has a beautiful way of not gripping her characters too tightly, despite the fact that her novels are carefully constructed. In “The Big Girls,” this quality manifests itself in the way she weaves the voices without clunky authorial intervention. There is a noticeable absence of physical description. This is a novel about why people do things, the fears and motivations and desires that crowd, pervert and reroute the best-laid plotlines of our lives. It is also a book about judgment and morality and how very careful we must be with those weapons of mass destruction.
In case you haven’t seen it, there was a fair version of In the Cut with Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. Not that it has much to do with this book.

Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City by Michael A. Lerner
Book Digest The 18th Amendment stands as one of the silliest legislative attempts at social reform in American history, and the 1919 law had in part the intention of rehabilitating the depraved metropolis of New York, which had 32,000 speakeasies. Seen as the nation’s first major culture war, Prohibition set up confrontations in a variety of arenas within New York’s social hierarchy. Dry Manhattan is an interesting sideways glance at the Jazz Age in urban America. As Peter Hamill concludes: “…Lerner’s book is a serious work, suggesting that there are still lessons to be learned from the 13 years, 10 months, and 18 days of a utopian American delusion. There remain a number of Americans today who are filled with similar angry visions, longing to make them into law.”

» Read an excerpt [PDF] from Dry Manhattan

A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love by Ben Greenman
Book Digest Sometime contributor to The Morning News and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman (Superbad and Superworse) enters the fray with a new collection of stories about—what else?—love. With the specter of Franz Kafka looming in the background, let me claim for Mr. Greenman’s fiction both a vivid originality (sometimes taken as weirdness) and an abundance of humor.

The Language of Elk by Benjamin Percy
Book Digest In The Language of Elk, his debut collection of eight stories, Benjamin Percy seems to write about what he knows and casts around his home state of Oregon for frontier settings and the hidden-from-view contemporary West. Mike Magnuson calls Percy “the new master of the American grotesque,” and my colleague here at TMN, Anthony Doerr, extols Percy: “In The Language of Elk, men and creatures stagger in a no-man’s land between wildness and domesticity, jealous, cracked, burning to be acknowledged. Like the flaming projectiles his protagonists often launch into the sky, these stories crackle with energy and violence and a furious beauty. Benjamin Percy is a force.” Additionally, Benjamin Percy will be presented with the Plimpton Prize for Fiction by The Paris Review for Refresh, Refresh, also the title of his new story collection forthcoming from Graywolf this October.

Endless Things by John Crowley
Book Digest Reader Jerry Cullum passed along a tip about the forthcoming fourth novel—and much-anticipated conclusion—of John Crowley’s Ægypt quartet. The four novels span three centuries and weave the stories of Renaissance magician John Dee, philosopher Giordano Bruno, and present-day itinerant historian and writer Pierce Moffett, and parallels Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet or Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. If this faint description doesn’t grab you, let me know.

» Read an excerpt [PDF] from Endless Things

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