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Reading

Book Digest: April 2, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Why Speak; XS; Einstein; Bird of Another Heaven; American Food Writing; Facing Fascism; The Power of Art; Awake in the Dark; American Visa; All Fires the Fire and Other Stories

This is not quite the silly season—happily, I’m not referring to the start of Major League Baseball—but rather to the fact that most of the beauty pageants known as awards have already had their day and their press releases. But, along comes Granta 97 (Spring 2007), with an issue entitled “Best of Young American Novelists 2.” Can you guess which word I find, uh, difficult in that title? On the other hand, as lit smartie Gail Caldwell sagely noted in reference to an inquiry about winning the Pulitzer Prize, awards don’t mean anything until you win one. Here’s the list of the lucky scribblers. I am personally pleased to acknowledge my colleague here at The Morning News, Anthony Doerr, George’s owner Jonathan Safran Foer, Uzodinma Iweala, ZZ Packer, and Gabe Hudson.

If you care about such things (or what I really think about these kinds of lists), I have left plenty of clues out and about. Here’s what Granta’s Ian Jack has to say after his mea culpa about excluding a number of fine young writers: “No list of this kind can offer anything approaching a final judgement. That is up to posterity, if there is one. In the meantime here is our provisional and partial portrait of who was young and wrote good fiction in America in the early years of the twenty-first century…”

And hey, it’s April and that makes it National Poetry Month in these here United States—you might want to avail yourself of my chat with PLOTUS Donald Hall.

Here is part of one of my favorite poems, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven” by Paul Zimmer:
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.
Finally, I recommend you check out the web site for Hotel St. George Press.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Book Digest Award-wining children’s book author Brian Selznick is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret is his most recent opus. As a hybrid of pictures, graphic novel gestures, and filmic elements, Scholastic’s hyperbole is justified in its claim that the book is a groundbreaker and a new reading experience. Here’s Selznick on the book’s origin:
Several years ago, I read a review of a book called Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood. The review mentioned the true story of a collection of elaborate mechanical windup figures (known as automata), which had once been owned and loved by a great French film director named George Méliès. These amazing machines were eventually donated by Méliès to a museum in Paris, but the collection was neglected in a damp attic and eventually had to be thrown away. I imagined a boy finding these broken, rusted machines, and thus Hugo and his story were born.
Three hundred of this book’s pages are original drawings, so I am pleased to report that my son Cuba was not daunted by the volume’s size, and he and I are wending our way (at his pace, not mine) through it.

As they occasionally say, this one is for children of all ages. Which may explain why Martin Scorsese has optioned Hugo Cabret for film.

» See excerpts from The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Why Speak: Poems by Nathaniel Bellows
Book Digest Given that it is National Poetry Month, I searched through the mountainous protuberances on the various surfaces within my horizons to find only one recent poetry tome. Luckily, I am familiar with young Nathaniel, having spoken with him on the occasion of a fine first novel.

His mentor at Columbia, Richard Howard, weighs in:
We have an impertinent name—sense memory—for the narrative device whereby a new poet rings the changes on what has happened, not to him but to the houses, trees, landscapes, to which he once belonged. Such memory is Nathaniel Bellows’s wonderful trust in the moments (hours they must have been) when his senses alone made sense of the losses, the failures most of us disguise by abstractions.
XS: Small Structures, Green Architecture by Phyliss Richardson
Book Digest This is the follow-up to XL: Big Ideas, Small Buildings. The 40 houses exhibited represent architecture for the rest of us—the mission is to balance space conservation , environmental preservation, and affordability. It’s a fun book, and features hip young architects like Patkau, ShoP, Sean Godsel, and Klein Dytham.



Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Issacson
Book Digest To tell you the truth, I am more interested in Walter Issacson—who is the current president of the Aspen Institute, a former occupant of other cushy jobs, and author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger—than I am in Albert Einstein, who may be the most famous person in the world next to Muhammad Ali. No doubt I am jealous, as this gentleman is well regarded and seems to have floated through a dream life—if you are character-ologically propelled to life in journalism. I have seen no signs of extraordinary gifts, and the fact that he could write a biography of a war criminal (indicted in three countries) without calling for his being brought to justice may be a clue to his brilliant career—if you know what I mean. At any rate, here Isaacson tells of his interest in the Einstein story, especially having had access to newly released personal letters, and here is the Time magazine article that preceded the book, and here is John Updike’s New Yorker review.

Bird of Another Heaven by James Houston
Book Digest Richard Ford mentioned reading James Houston’s new opus when I spoke with him recently, and called him “…a novelist whose work shines with profound humanity. He vividly imagines history, our residence on earth, our racial quotient, the mystery of our fragile human character as though these concerns were fiction’s truest subjects.”

This is a story that melds the opening of the American west and the inexorable manifest destiny that plowed west into the Pacific and Asia. It has at its center a woman of Indian and Hawaiian ethnicity who meets the Hawaiian king, David Kalakaua, on his train trip across the United States in 1881, and returns with him to Honolulu. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

» Read an excerpt from Bird of Another Heaven

American Food Writing: An Anthology edited by Molly O’Neill
This is a near-perfect new anthology on food writing, gathering selections from more than 250 years of American culinary and literary history. You can see the complete table of contents here, including Walt Whitman on ice cream, Emily Dickinson on black cake, Paul Dunbar on possum, H.L. Mencken on hot dogs, Gertrude Stein on chop suey, John Steinbeck on breakfast, Nelson Algren on American eating, and Ana Menendez on Cuban Thanksgiving. I am dismayed to point out that Ms. O’Neill omitted Jim Harrison’s celebrations of gustatory delight—don’t you make the same mistake. The Old Geezer mused in a recent profile, “Why should I spend $7,000 for a stove when I could spend $7,000 on food?”

Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War by Peter Carroll and James Fernandez
Book Digest Of the few benefits I would imagine to living in New York City, the abundance of museums seems to stand out. Apparently there is a museum for almost everything, though the distinction for having the 1968 Museum does go to Nashua, N.H.

Currently the Museum of the City of New York is showing Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War, and this book provides a compelling retrospective about the war of which Papa Hemingway opined, “No men ever entered the earth more honorably than those who died in Spain.” This book and the exhibition both make use of the extensive archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain), which range from historical documents to video recordings of oral histories. Numerous sources have also been consulted which supports the claim to this being the most complete exhibition of its kind ever mounted. Attention must be paid.

The Power of Art by Simon Schama
Book Digest Columbia professor and New Yorker contributor Simon Schama seems to have become this moment’s cultural popularizer, and has enjoyed an increasingly appreciative audience since his fine and accessible book on the French Revolution, Citizen. In the past few years he has balanced his historical ruminations with attention to Art with a big A, and in this volume—which accompanies the BBC series of the same name—he focuses on eight masterpieces, from Caravaggio’s David and Goliath to Picasso’s Guernica, as well as work by Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, and Rothko. It’s difficult not to be drawn in by Schama’s enthusiasm: “Great art has dreadful manners. The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things; visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure, and then proceed in short order to re-arrange your sense of reality.”

Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert by Roger Ebert
Book Digest Sometimes you get credit for showing up (and for longevity), and this volume is testament to that. Roger Ebert has been writing about film from my native Chicago for more than four decades and was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Honestly, I think his point of view exhibits nothing special, but perhaps that’s what has engaged his audience all these many years. That, and that he has no coastal affectations. Ebert did a great deal of trailblazing with the late Gene Siskel, with whom he introduced the sound of two critics jabbering and thumbing up.

American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea, translated by Adrian Althoff
Book Digest Don’t be embarrassed that you don’t know where Bolivia is—or that American Visa was Bolivia’s number-one novel, or that Juan de Recacoechea has written seven novels. All you need to know is that George Pelecanos thinks it is “beautifully written, atmospheric, and stylish in the manner of Chandler… a smart, exotic crime fiction offering.” Oh, and that Edmundo Paz-Soldan (Turing’s Delirium) says, “In his search for an American visa, the high school teacher in this novel embodies the dreams and aspirations of many would-be immigrants south of the border. This is a thriller with a social conscience, a contemporary noir with lots of humor and flair. The streets of La Paz have never looked so alive. This is one of the best Latin American novels of the last 15 years.”

» Read an excerpt from American Visa

All Fires the Fire and Other Stories and A Change of Light and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar
Book Digest At this year’s Bryn Mawr Bookstore half-price sale I found, among 30 assorted titles that now lay within my grasp, these two story collections by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. They serve as one of those occasional and timely reminders that not everything worth reading was written in this moment. You probably don’t forget that, but I do—hence my haunting of used (the best kind of) bookstores. Pablo Neruda said this about Cortázar, who died in 1984:
Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a grave invisible disease, which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who had never tasted peaches. He would be quietly getting sadder, noticeably paler, and probably little by little, he would lose his hair. I don’t want those things to happen to me, and so I greedily devour all the fabrications, myths, contradictions, and mortal games of the great Julio Cortázar.
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