Book Digest: April 7, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: Silver; Three Shadows; The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine; The Runner; The Philosopher's Apprentice; Animal's People; The Post-War Dream; Dictation; Weegee and Naked City; All the Sad Young Literary Men; If I Die in Juárez.

As a literary journalist, I hang on to the notion that the universe of literature encompasses more than words and stories—think of the business of publishing, the cranks and attenuated characters and other odd life forms that populate it—and contains less of the refuse of life. Or at the least, that refuse is well neutralized by magical good(s).

As a working man, I spend part of my life on the early morning shift at a national grocery chain store, as I like to joke, feeding America. In reality, I unload trucks, stock shelves of semi-fresh produce, work as a “reg. monkey” (can you guess what that is?) skillfully bagging (an underrated skill) purchases and most importantly, amusing customers. What I am getting at here is that this is what I perceive the real world to encompass—at least for most people. (In this economic wonderland, I am tempted to add, “If they are lucky.”)

Basically, pushing a pebble up a hill, every day.

Anyway, I occasionally attend gatherings of the publishing industry. Mostly these are benign events with pleasant attendees—writers and admirers, publishing apparatchiks, small but tolerable doses of ambitious predators. As I have basically forsworn being in crowds not much larger than those that attend my son’s Little League games, I am limited somewhat.

So last week, as my now annual rite of spring, I [broke my own rule and] attended the New England PEN/Hemingway awards. Normally I stop by, pay my respects to the vivacious Helene Atwan and spunky Amy McDonald, who have the challenge of organizing the event, and a few others. This year caused a slight ripple of adrenaline—as I was checking in at the media table I spied the nametag of Mary Cleister Blew, author of Jackalope Dreams, who apparently was part of a cadre of University of Idaho mentors who had flown in from Moscow, Idaho. As I had just that morning written a notice of Ms. Blew’s new opus, I found this to be a pleasant and wonderful coincidence. Such are the small remunerations of the literary life.

Kind of like taking a picture of Alice Munro’s well cared-for toes.

Silver: My Own Tale as Written by Me With a Goodly Amount of Murder by Edward Chupack
Book Digest Being an appreciator of Jon Clinch’s Finn (Huck Finn’s father is the protagonist) and Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (a tale of Dickensian characters, including Charles Dickens), though not necessarily of Robert Louis Stevenson, I admire the ambition and effort that entails taking on a well-known and previously well-told tale. Chupack’s literary maiden voyage takes on Treasure Island’s villainous pirate Long John Silver and extends this riveting story by weaving into it yet one more mystery.

Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa, translated by Edward Gauvin
Book Digest Pedrosa, who began his career as an animator at Disney, has created what in the current language of literary confabulation is called a graphic novel. Let’s not argue about that high concept, but let me simply say this delicious tome has the narrative intentions of a book like Art Speigelman’s Maus. The drawing is vivid and works successfully to draw the audience into the eye of the story. And the story is equally magnetic, representing the extraordinary efforts of a father to forestall the death of his son. A heartbreaking and resonant piece of fiction from a neat publishing house called First Second.

» Read an excerpt from Three Shadows

The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine by Mark Yakich
Book Digest Poet Yakich (Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross) apparently has a thing for teasing titles, as his second collection of poems exhibits. He also has a sense of humor—otherwise poems about genocide and other grim and dark subjects might sink of oppressive, unbearable weight. His illustrations are funny, also.

» Read excerpts from The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine

The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue by David Samuels
Book Digest Talk about a Dickensian tale set in the 21st century: New Yorker and Harper’s contributor Samuels recounts one that makes Pope Brock’s recent book on John R. Brinkley (Charlatan) seem like a fairy tale. Hogue, aka Alexi Santana, an itinerant Nevada roustabout, applies to a number of top-flight universities, is accepted at Princeton, gets straight A’s, and runs close to a four-minute mile. And amazingly there is more—shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Unlike the spate of shabby literary hoaxes of recent times, this scheme is full-bodied and full-blooded. By the way, published concurrently with The Runner is a collection of Samuels’s journalism, Only Love Can Break Your Heart.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice by James Morrow
Book Digest Morrow assembles an interesting setting and dilemma for troubled and self-destructive philosopher Martin Ambrose, who has been hired to tutor the daughter of a billionaire geneticist on an Eden-ish island off the coast of Florida. Weave in the Frankensteinish Dr. Vincent Charnock and young Londa—whose recent history includes a memory- and value-erasing injury—and you get this suspenseful, ethical rumination. This novel reminds me faintly of Phillip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation—this is a good thing.

» Read an excerpt from The Philosopher’s Apprentice

Animal’s People by Indra Sinha
Book Digest Booker Prize listee Sinha fabricates a dark world out of a post-Bhopal-like disaster—an afflicted village and the profoundly injured Animal, whose twisted back renders him unable to walk upright. Enter young American medic Elli Barber, who gets more than she bargained for as she tries to open and maintain a free clinic. There is, of course, political intrigue with local insurgents injecting a radical polarity to the narrative. Animal’s voice is sufficient to carry this vivid story, but Sinha gives us much more than a memorable character.

» Read an excerpt from Animal’s People

The Post-War Dream by Mitch Cullin
Book Digest How a talented writer can publish eight books that manage to barely register on my radar is a matter of fascination and even a kind of pleasure to me: discovery and surprise being a necessary condiment for life. In Cullin’s (A Slight Trick of the Mind) latest opus we are presented with retired couple Hollis and Debra. Hollis is compelled (by newly cancer-diagnosed Debra, among other things) to revisit his Korean War past and the memory of fellow soldier Bill McCreedy. Donna Seaman’s review concludes: “In this exacting, suspenseful, elegiac yet life-embracing novel, Cullin reminds us that no boundaries separate the personal and communal, the past and present, the false and true.”

» Read an excerpt from The Post-War Dream

Dictation: A Quartet by Cynthia Ozick
Book Digest The publication of Ozick’s writing should be viewed as a celebrated event in the literary world—so I, at least, will treat it as such. These four stories, of which the title novella is previously unpublished, present Ozick in her usual humorous, insightful self. For example, “Dictation” imagines a meeting of the secretaries of Joseph Conrad and Henry James, in which they conspire to insinuate themselves in their master’s works. Michael Gorra comments:
If Ozick is a specialized taste, that’s because her very strengths present a challenge to our conventions of taste itself. Probably she was right to describe the pieces in her 1982 Levitation as fictions rather than stories. The term allows her the space for parable, for pages that masquerade as essays or sermons; it allows for fantasy.
» Read an excerpt from Dictation

Weegee and Naked City by Anthony W. Lee and Richard Meyer
Book Digest This little monograph is a timely reminder of the importance of mid-20th-century photographer Weegee’s (born Arthur Fellig) iconic tome of 1945, Naked City. Including 35 of the original duotones, art historians Lee and Meyer are especially apt at understanding the various venues that were receptive to Weegee’s work: the left-leaning Photo League, newspapers, galleries, and books. It is a matter of fascination that the lurid images made a journey from the tabloid front pages to the museum walls. This book makes that transmogrification understandable.

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
Book Digest Russian-born, Harvard- and Syracuse-educated Gessen is a founder of the magazine n+1, and his first published novel weaves the stories of three smart, young, fumbling males working hard at making lives for themselves. Gessen, no doubt, would eschew his novel as compendium of values for American post-graduate men, but that is one of the unintended consequences of this darkly comedic work of fiction.

If I Die in Juárez by Stella Pope Duarte
Book Digest The longstanding story of disappeared and murdered women in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, makes occasional grist for television magazines—it is a story that verges on the unbelievable. With a little research and some interviews Duarte fashions a novel featuring three young women—Evita, a street child; Petra, a maquiladora worker; and Mayela, a Tarahumara Indian girl—who walk the mean and deadly streets of Juárez, and tells the harrowing story of las desaparecidas in ways no journalist could imagine. Factual or fictional, these senseless murders require that attention be paid. Duarte does it well.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
Book Digest I must confess that I mostly find books on reading and celebrations of libraries too precious and cloying. One of the few writers who breathes life into this masturbatory theme is the wonderful Argentine, Manguel (A History of Reading). “Libraries,” he says, “have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been seduced by their labyrinthine logic.” This he reveals as he embarks on the construction of a library in his 500-year-old habitat near Loire, France. Manguel has the sensibility of a classicist; he is a lover of fragments and elision and discontinuity. His rumination attaches to the libraries of his mentor, Borges, and Dickens and of antiquity, as well as a library of books never written. In the hands of an original thinker such as Manguel, thinking about this subject is a merely an excuse to roam the endless terrain of human knowledge and history—making it a peregrination of discovery and delight.

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