Book Digest: April 20, 2006

The Dead Fish Museum; L’America; Ettore Sottsass; Saving Daylight; The Tunnel; Toys; Ploughshares; Cape Cod Cottage; Chasing Spring; How to Cure a Fanatic; The Disposable American

It doesn’t take omniscience or prescience to know that as you read, this editors at relevant media (a category opening room for much debate) around the nation are preparing their list for the dubious seasonal thing known as Summer or Beach Reading. I know this because I have (for obvious reasons) engaged in this literary skullduggery. Personally, I am with Norman Mailer, who reportedly demurred when asked to provide his choices for so-called summer reading saying that, “he read all year ‘round.”

Considering the oft-repeated bemoaning (the fact of) the dwindling population of readers, one might view this seasonality as an innocent and perhaps graceful response to the relentless demands of a world lacking in time outs. (Will “24/7” make it into the forthcoming Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary? Stay tuned.) I think not. What’s next? Books appropriate for impressing fellow riders on public transportation? Titles that fit various decor modes? Tomes for days of the week? Anyway, here is a certain Mr. Anthony Trollope opining in a manner that—it is my fervent hope—is not destined for obsolescence:
Book love, my friends, is your pass to the greatest, the purest, and the most perfect pleasure that God has prepared for his creatures. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will support you when all other recreations are gone. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.

The Dead Fish Museum: Stories by Charles D’Ambrosio
On the basis of a his first story collection, The Point, and his wonderful booklet of essays, Orphans, Charles D’Ambrosio has, as far as I can tell, justifiably garnered a growing popularity and reputation. His new collection—a story of which, “The Bone Game,” was was recently published in the New Yorker—should solidify and expand upon that.

L’America by Martha McPhee
Out of the talented McPhee family comes Martha, who, based on the evidence of two novels, is a gorgeous writer. Moving past what seemed an extended autobiographical bow, her newest work involves an expatriate love story spanning the map—a young American woman meets an Italian boy on a sunny Greek island—and emotional havoc ensues.

Ettore Sottsass: Architect and Designer by Ronald T. Labaco
Back in the recent past known as the Age of Reagan, octogenarian Ettore Sottsass was, as a member of the Milan-based design collaborative Memphis, identified as the designer who broke the color code of austere and somber black and white interiors with his post-modern pastiche of bold and playful toy colors and shapes previously reserved for children’s rooms. Sottsass, of course, was a productive innovator for years before, as a mini-retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art amply exhibits. This is the first book on Sottsass in more than 10 years and draws from his post-Memphis years.

Saving Daylight by Jim Harrison
Like many writers, Jim Harrison wrote poetry early in his creative life. But unlike many, he continued even as he was successful as a novelist and screenwriter (and essayist and journalist). This is his 13th collection of poems. Try the Whitmanesque “Marching” on for size:
At dawn I heard among bird calls
the billions of marching feet in the churn
and squeak of gravel, even tiny feet
still wet from the mother’s amniotic fluid,
and very old halting feet, the feet
of the very light and very heavy, all marching
but not together, criss-crossing at every angle
with sincere attempts not to touch, not to bump
into each other, walking in the doors of houses
and out the back door 40 years later, finally
knowing that time collapses on a single
plateau where they were all their lives,
knowing that time stops when the heart stops
as they walk off the Earth into the night air.
The Tunnel by William Gass, read by the author
The story goes that this, Gass’s second novel, took 30 years to complete. Published in 1995, The Tunnel has been earmarked as a masterwork, and here Gass reads it in its entirety, providing a new resonance to an already powerful text. A booklet, “The Tunnel in Twelve Philippics,” is included, and describes Gass’s intentions in writing this novel.

Toys: New Designs from The Art Toy Revolution edited by StrangeCo
I hope my son doesn’t read this, as I have been purloining his SpongeBob, Buzz Lightyear, and Shrek figurines for years. Not just as reminders of him when I am not with him, but because I find them captivating in their own right. A quick scan of this is good proof that contemporary toys are light years from those of the last generation, especially as their designs are coming from all manner of sources. There are 300 images of 500 toys presented here. I vouch that it’s “for children of all ages.”

Ploughshares, Spring 2006 guest-edited by Kevin Young
“Small” literary magazines like Ploughshares are wonderful places to discover new work and to reacquaint with old friends. And there is a built-in freshness almost guaranteed by the guest editor policy. In this latest edition, poet Kevin Young skews to the poetic, and includes work by Barry Gifford, Mary Gordon, Darzy Senna, Ghita Schwarz, and many more. Here’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” by Ben Lerner:
We would walk with it into the open
Look down and read the shadows
Of the clouds passing over it

The birds sang dial tones
The infected birds
Gray sentences uncurled

As we smoked our manuscripts
The cattle went mad
Their blue lips smiling

At a sign in the distance
We slaughtered the distance
It was not given us

The magic of numbers
We who slept in swaying
Towers underground
(For those familiar with Cambridge, Young offers this sad tidbit, “For me, these past few years have been filled with elegies. Allow me one more: this, not for a loved one, but for the Plough & Stars, the Cambridge pub where this very journal was founded. Like much of the Cambridge that had welcomed (or ignored) me—a young writer who had come to town fifteen years ago—it closed down recently. Last fall, its doors were abruptly shut, a sign in the window announcing euphemistically that it was “Closed for Renovations.”)

Cape Cod Cottage by William Morgan
Though probably not only confined to the Northeast, the classic Cape Cod cottage—“a remarkable combination of necessity and tradition”—is to be found there in greater quantities. As many people will be decamping for those parts in the coming months, this slim black-and-white monograph is an interesting and useful catalogue by architectural historian William Morgan on this under-appreciated and uniquely American house type.

Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season by Bruce Stutz
The road-trip book is a quintessentially American form and this particular book reminds me of the 1956, 20,000-mile, cross-country journey in Autumn Across America by literary naturalist Edwin Way Teale to capture autumnal changes in America. Stutz spends three months in his 20-year-old Chevy, traversing the country, beginning on the Gulf Coast and ending his journey in Alaska.

How to Cure a Fanatic by Amos Oz
Two essays, an interview with Amos Oz, and an introduction by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer packs a lot of intellectual power into this tiny booklet. Suffice it to say that Israeli-born Oz has some compelling insights and observations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the death of Yasser Arafat, and the war in Iraq. And in case you haven’t read his recently published memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, you may want to take that up next.

The Disposable American: Layoffs and their Consequences by Louis Uchitelle
This book puts me in mind of John Donne—as in “ask not for whom the bell tolls…” At least 30 million full-time American employees have gotten pink slips (this does not include so-called “early retirees”) since the Labor Department belatedly started to count them in 1984. Corporate malefactors have done an inspired job, as one review notes, of creating a new Dust Bowl. Uchitelle writes, “I did not think in the early stages of the reporting for this book that I would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.” As he observes, “Layoffs in one way are worse than the unemployment of the 1930s. At least then, most of the jobless came back to better-paid, more secure jobs. Those laid off in our time almost never will.” This book is an effective rebuttal to the claim that downsizing has made the country “more productive, more competitive, more flexible.” And, in fact, some of the businesses currently thriving have refused to downsize. Something to consider before “the bell tolls for you.”

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