Book Digest: April 28, 2008

Birnbaum queries Joan Frank on her reading list; also: Hispaniola; Crime; Attachment; Counterfeit Amateurs; The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008; Betrayal; Northline; Ploughshares Winter 2007-08; The Forgery of Venus; Translucent Tree; The Speed of Dreams; Please Don't Remain Calm; The Commission.

Joan Frank, whose first novel Miss Kansas City I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle, responded to my query about what she is reading:
I’ve been reading Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, a brilliant essay collection (most ran in prior New Yorkers) by dance critic Joan Acocella. Acocella is like a no-nonsense maiden aunt who walks straight into the bedeviled hearts of the artists she studies as if those hearts were dirty closets: unfazed by the mess and anguish, embracing the works and struggles with a kind of stern exhilaration. Her writing’s a marvel; clean, trenchant, bracing. Also Stoner, by the late John Williams, an almost unbearably brave and beautiful novel about a Billy Budd-like teacher, revived by the New York Review of Books Classics series. And Olive Kitteridge, a mesmerizing novel-in-stories (it succeeds as such) by Elizabeth Strout, whose characters in a small coastal town in Maine will remind many of Thornton Wilder—though Strout’s characters endure subtler, or more modern, complexities than do Wilder’s. Also Recent History, a lovely, thoughtful novel about men’s internal lives, by the provocative Anthony Giardina. In poetry: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, a rightful awards-sweeper, and finally the late Grace Paley’s posthumous collection of poems, Fidelity—a brief, exquisite series of meditations on the life she knew she was leaving. Go out and buy a pile of these, and give them all away.
Hispaniola: A Photographic Journey Through Island Biodiversity by Eladio Fernández
Book Digest As you may know, “Hispaniola” is the infrequently used name of the island that houses the Dominican Republic and Haiti; as most people don’t know, it’s also a lush trove of flora and fauna, older than Darwin’s wonderland of the Galápagos, and home to a rich diversity of habitats and many endangered species. Fernández, a Dominican-based conservationist and photographer, exhibits this extraordinary ecosystem via 400 vivid photographs. The book includes a foreword by Edward O. Wilson, with text in both English and Spanish.

Crime by Alix Lambert
Book Digest Film producer Lambert (Deadwood and John From Cincinnati) interviews a mélange of people having some connection to the world of crime detectives—actors, murderers, film directors, prison inmates, and authors. Interviewees include the likes of Ben Affleck, Jake Arnott, much-traveled L.A.P.D. Chief William Bratton, Michael Buscemi, Dave Courtney, David Cronenberg, Mike Hodges, Ice-T, Takeshi Kitano, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, Viggo Mortensen, Samantha Morton, and more. Fuel (which also published BibliOdyssey) adds to the specialness of this tome with characteristic graphic panache.

Attachment by Isabel Fonseca
Book Digest Had she never published another book, Fonseca (sister of painter Bruno) would be justifiably regarded as the author of internationally acclaimed nonfiction, including Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. This time out (13 years later) she has chosen to write a novel involving an American writer married to an Englishman who, she learns via the arrival of a love letter, is having an affair. Upon choosing to answer the letter, psychological mayhem ensues.

Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete’s Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism by Allen Sack
Book Digest If you read Michael Lewis’s extraordinary Blind Side, you got a whiff of the hypocrisy and anomalies that flow from the N.C.A.A.’s indefensible positions maintaining the allegedly amateur status of college athletes. Sack, who played on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team, fills in the spaces of the ignominious world of college sports.

My buddy David Meggyesy, who wrote the eye-opening Out of Their League and served as the Western Regional Director of the N.F.L. Players’ Association, opines:
Allen Sack has been the athlete’s champion his entire working life. His personal story, beginning as a Notre Dame athletic scholarship football player and his focused, patient, passionate efforts to change this shameful reality of the American sports scene is a terrific story. Counterfeit Amateurs explicitly lays out who the “bad guys” are, how greed tears to shreds academic values, how the athletes are getting shafted, and what needs to be done.
The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 edited by Laura Furman
Book Digest For lovers of short stories, this annual anthology has been offering a lode of fiction goodies since 1919. This year’s jurors were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, David Leavitt, and David Means, and features work by old masters and talented novices.

» Read an excerpt from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008

Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era by Houston Baker
Book Digest I find it odd, but understandable, that the unresolved sociopolitical issues of my youth are viewed as holdovers, marginal issues from my generation—the one that thought it had solved them. Thus Baker’s broadside is a timely one, especially as we are in another one of those transformative times. Writing of Henry Gates and Cornel West, Baker accuses them of abandoning the impoverished, over-incarcerated black majority in favor of enriching themselves while claiming to speak for it:
The most published and publicized blacks on the American public scene today are well-dressed, comfortably educated, sagaciously articulate, avowedly new age, and resolutely middle class. The evolution of their relationship to the black majority during the past three decades can be summed up in a single word: good-bye!
Do you see what he’s talking about?

» Read an excerpt from Betrayal

Northline by Willy Vlautin
Book Digest A few weeks ago I had asked George Pelecanos for some words on what he had been reading; he enthusiastically included Vlautin’s new opus in his remarks. Vlautin (The Motel Life), a member of the band Richmond Fontaine, which also performs the soundtrack for Northline (CD included with the first edition), writes about a pregnant twentysomething who flees her abusive skinhead boyfriend and spends the duration of the story—which has invited invocations of Hemingway, Denis Johnson, and Steinbeck—climbing out of her lower-than-low circumstances.

Ploughshares Winter 2007-08 edited by Philip Levine
Book Digest Octogenarian poet Levine guest-edits this latest issue of the best periodical produced in Boston (this one features a cover by Michael Mazur), and true to its tradition of compelling introductions, invokes a Lightnin’ Hopkins lyric (“I just keep scrubbin’ at the same old thing”), intoning sagely:
One of the glories of writing poetry is just how badly & how often you can fail & still believe in your right & need to make poems; if you have any success at all, it is utterly thrilling.
» Read excerpts from Ploughshares Winter 2007-08

The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber
Book Digest After ghostwriting the first 15 novels in the Butch Karp/Marlene Ciampi series for Robert Tanenbaum, Gruber decided to strike out on his own. Despite my antipathy to series, I did read all three of Gruber’s Jimmy Paz novels and his children’s fable, The Witches’ Boy. Which should suffice to make clear my high regard for this writer’s storytelling skills—as well as his unpretentious erudition. This rendering of contemporary painter Chaz Wilmot falling into the mind and persona of Velázquez and his involvement in a high-level art forgery scheme is ambitious, and happily I can report doubly successful in delivering the goods in this tale-within-a-tale.

» Read an excerpt from The Forgery of Venus

Translucent Tree by Nobuko Takagi, translated by Deborah Iwabuchi
Book Digest You can fit my knowledge of Japanese literature on the head of a pin—award-winning author Takagi’s first novel to have an English translation caught my interest because of its cover featuring a pinecone and Susan Salter Reynolds’s commendation:
Who can really say when an artist sees the core of a culture—certainly not a critic living thousands of miles away. All I know is, Translucent Tree left this reader with a feeling of pure insight into Japan, not unlike the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, but not the Hello Kitty/Tokyo Ginza/manga/gonzo culture we see so often in the media. This is a romance, a love story, and nothing is lost in translation.
» Read an excerpt from Translucent Tree

The Speed of Dreams: Selected Writings 2001-2007 by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Book Digest Peasants in Chiapas, Mexico, have sustained an insurgency against the unresponsive government that allows drug traffic to flourish and the people to languish in poverty. One of the more articulate spokesmen of the Zapatista movement, Marcos (Our Word Is Our Weapon), is anthologized in this volume, which includes retellings of indigenous folktales, ruminations on Mexico’s future, critiques of the U.S. war in Iraq, and texts of radio broadcasts from the jungles of Chiapas.

» Read an excerpt from The Speed of Dreams

Please Don’t Remain Calm: Provocations and Commentaries by Michael Kinsley
Book Digest Iconoclast and sometime gadfly Kinsley, the founding editor of Slate who reportedly turned down the editor’s position at The New Yorker, collects his trenchant and pungent editorials on a variety of subjects, some expected and some not. Though no one writing today is better when slandering sacred cows and lampooning the foibles of elites and their mandarin media monkeys, I did take exception to the contretemps Kinsey fueled with his National Book Award jury service, when he claimed not to have read the nominated books. For the most part he is an original and useful critical thinker—of which we have an unfortunate paucity.

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation by Philip Shenon
Book Digest New York Times reporter Shenon, who covered the 9/11 Commission daily for the Times, revisits the proceedings and reviews its work, calling out what it discovered—and what it didn’t. Novelist Elizabeth Benedict writes in her review:
Shenon doesn’t attack government ineptitude head-on. He reveals the terrifying extent of it—from the FAA to the CIA—through a series of gripping vignettes, through the stories and relationships of dozens of people affected by 9/11, from the Jersey Girls But-For-Whom-the-Commission-Would-Never-Have-Been, to Henry Kissinger, who, in a meeting with them, spilled hot coffee and nearly fell off his seat when one of them asked if he had any clients whose last named is Bin Laden.
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