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Book Digest: April 9, 2007

The N Word; Buda's Wagon; Without Title; Chemistry and Other Stories; The Savage Detectives; The Testament of Gideon Mack; Writing Toward Hope; Space Walk; Family Romance; To the Break of Dawn; The First Man-Made Man; Jamestown; Cindy Sherman

I know I belabor expressing my animus to many literary and artistic awards. I must therefore point out those I find useful, such as the IMPAC/Dublin Award (an international award drawn from the recommendations of librarians), which recently announced its 2007 short list. This prize also has the distinction of being the biggest jackpot of the annuals (Nobel Prize notwithstanding).

Some readers, Carolyn Kellogg being one, have been kind enough to inform me about new stuff, such as Hot Metal Bridge, a new online literary magazine originating from the fertile regions of the University of Pittsburgh’s creative writing program, which is a neighbor to Lee Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction cadre.

Whoo-ee! Cormac McCarthy’s on the verge of becoming a household name—guess why. Or how. Here’s a passage from The Crossing, one of the books in his Border Trilogy:
He got his things from the house and saddled the horse in the road and rode out. He said goodbye to no one. He sat the horse in the road beyond the river cottonwoods and he looked off down country at the mountains and he looked to the west where thunderheads were standing sheared off from the thin dark horizon and he looked at the deep cyanic sky taut and vaulted over the whole of Mexico where the antique world clung to the stones and to the spores of living things and dwelt in the blood of men. He turned the horse and set out along the road south, shadowless in the gray day, riding with the shotgun unscabbarded across his lap. For the enmity of the world was newly plain to him that day and cold and inameliorate as it must be to all who have no longer cause except themselves to stand against it.
Get thee McCarthy’s Blood Meridian!

The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why by Jabari Asim
Book Digest Jabari Asim, who among other things is the Washington Post’s deputy book editor, weighs in with one of those occasional histories and analyses of the word “nigger,” all of which collectively suggest this is an insuperable conundrum attendant to the insoluble race issue in the U.S.A. and the rest of the caucasian world. Last year’s Michael Richards idiocy was only the latest incident to serve as a reminder of our not-so-far-from-sight racial fault lines. Asim provides some valuable history. The ubiquity of the N-word in hip-hop culture of course confuses the issue; Asim asserts there is—as suggested in the book’s title—something to be gained from studying this racial slur’s history and thus gainsaying its power in our society.

» Read an excerpt from The N Word

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis
Book Digest MacArthur fellow (by which I mean to shorthand a longer description of his originality and usefulness) Mike Davis is the author of such splendid tomes as Planet of Slums, Prisoners of the American Dream, City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Dead Cities, Magical Urbanism, Late Victorian Holocausts, and The Monster at Our Door. In this new book, he traces the history of the terrorist’s weapon of choice, the car bomb, from its 1920s origin—Italian anarchist Mario Buda filled a horse-drawn wagon with dynamite and iron scrap and exploded it in New York, killing 40 people. Davis, of course, has a more profound brief to make as he exposes the role of various state security organs in advancing urban terrorist techniques. And he opines the “incessant impact of car bombs, rather than the more apocalyptic threats of nuclear or bio-terrorism… is changing cities and urban lifestyles, as privileged centers of power increasingly surround themselves with ‘rings of steel’ against a weapon that nevertheless seems impossible to defeat.”

Without Title by Geoffrey Hill
Book Digest Let me remind you that this is National Poetry month—which no doubt has as much impact as National Liver Sausage month. In my own case I feel compelled to dig a little deeper and find a few titles to commend to you to, you know, acknowledge NPM. British-born Hill, who is a professor of literature and religion at Boston University and has been frequently awarded awards that will no doubt mean nothing to you, has Adam Kirsch pointing out:
For the last few years, one of the running scandals in the world of poetry was the failure of Geoffrey Hill to find an American publisher—or, rather, the failure of any American publisher to make its way to Mr. Hill’s doorstep. Mr. Hill… has been considered one of the leading poets of his generation ever since his first book, For the Unfallen, was published in 1959… Without Title confirms that the more of Mr. Hill’s poetry you read, the more you find to argue with and to admire—a sure sign that you are in the presence of a major poet.
Some critics make the claim that Hill is the greatest living poet; thus, it is certainly good news that Yale University Press is slated to release a new Selected Poems this summer. In case you want to find out more, Michael Ortofer, per usual, does some useful work on your behalf.

» Read an excerpt from Without Title

Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash
Book Digest South Carolinian Ron Rash caught my attention with a compelling and spare novel entitled One Foot in Eden. I also read the novels that followed—Saints in the River and The World Made Straight—with great pleasure. The 13 stories in this new collection continue Rash’s chronicles of the melding of the old and new South with the kind of good and humane storytelling that seems a birthright of writers born below the Mason-Dixon line.

» Read an excerpt from Chemistry and Other Stories

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Book Digest Chilean Roberto Bolaño, who died in Spain four years ago (at the age of 50), wrote 10 novels and three story collections. The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer, also translator of fellow Chilean Rodrigo Fresan) is his magnum opus, a kind of fictional road buddy story following the founders of a Latin American poetry movement on their 20-year quest to find obscure poet Cesarea Tinajero. The novel’s dramatis personae resembles that of V by Thomas Pynchon—to whom Bolaño is often compared. Francisco Goldman observes: “Bolaño, it seemed to me, hovers over many young Latin American writers, even those in their 40s, the way Garciá Márquez must have over his generation and the following one.” You can expect all of Bolaño’s work to be made available, including his posthumous 2666—you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

» Read an excerpt from The Savage Detectives

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Book Digest James Robertson seems to causing a stir in Scotland’s literary circles; among other things, he served as the Scottish Parliament’s first Writer in Residence. In this, his American debut, we meet Gideon Mack, a Scottish minister who doesn’t believe in God. Mack has a sporting accident and is presumed dead until he shows up claiming he has been saved by the devil—naturally his life goes downhill from there. After he disappears, his posthumous memoir surfaces and explains his life and his devilish experience. Fellow Scot Irvine Welsh extols of Robertson:
Robertson’s last two novels, The Fanatic and Joseph Knight, have established him as one of the foremost Scottish (and British) writers. The Testament of Gideon Mack easily cements this position, dealing with some of life’s big themes: mental illness, death, (im)mortality and the way history and culture can potentially deceive as well as illuminate. In an age of obsession with cheap Z-list “fame” and reality TV, this overwhelmingly compassionate and thought-provoking book, destined to be open to several interpretations, poses stark questions about the anxious way we steadfastly avoid such grandiose topics. In the meantime, it demands another read.
» Read an excerpt from The Testament of Gideon Mack

Writing Toward Hope: The Literature of Human Rights in Latin America edited by Marjorie Agosín
Book Digest The collected fiction, essays, plays, and poems in this anthology emphasize or spotlight the social struggles of 20th century Latin America. For this work, Wellesley professor Marjorie Agosín has brought together 56 contributors, a glance at which reveals a who’s who of Latin American letters: Isabel Allende, Reinaldo Arenas, Homero Aridjis, Julio Cortázar. Roque Dalton, Ariel Dorfman Carlos Eire, Rigoberta Menchú, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Heberto Padilla, Elena Poniatowska, Antonio Skármeta, Jacobo Timerman, Luisa Valenzuela.

» Read excerpts from Writing Toward Hope

Space Walk by Tom Sleigh
Book Digest I fret about my failure of journalistic imagination that I somehow haven’t done enough to weave that this is National Poetry Month into this week’s notices. On the other hand, why is it necessary to jazz up the reportage on one of America’s countless calendar commemorations—I mean, either poetry means something in your life and you would already have this information, or poetry is at best marginal, like pretty flowers, and you are back to American Idol. In any case, Texas-born Tom Sleigh, who has seven published poetry collections under his belt and teaches at mighty Hunter College (where Peter Carey, Colum McCann, and Jenny Schute also mentor), presents a sharp contrast to the poetics of the above-mentioned Geoffrey Hill. Sleigh’s themes are engaged in present-day objective realities. His poems deal with issues of empire, environmental catastrophe, and mass-media babble, juxtaposed with deeply individual emotional responses. All manner of contemporary objects manage to amplify the vast horizon of his imagery.

» Read an excerpt from Space Walk

Family Romance by John Lancaster
Book Digest It bears repeating that as the memoir has become a full-bodied genre, it has shifted significantly in varieties and range of subjects, presenters/narrators, and above all, the shear quality of writing. John Lancaster, a talented and well-regarded novelist (The Debt to Pleasure), was born in Hong Kong to an international financier father and a former nun mother, unpacks the secret and unseen deeper structures and elements of his family. To coin a phrase: “a compelling tale, well told.”

To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle of the Hip-Hop Aesthetic by William Jelani Cobb
Book Digest A good thing that Chuck D approves and observes:
At a time when academics are just beginning to recognize hip-hop as a legitimate form, William Jelani Cobb, a child of rap himself, brings an unparalleled level of understanding to the music. His historically informed yet hip-to-the-tip viewpoint roots readers in the art form rather than the hype.
A point well taken as scholarly explications of vernacular and folk art frequently desiccate the objects of their focus. Spelman College professor Cobb (The Devil & Dave Chappelle) identifies “the four pillars of hip hop”—break-dancing, graffiti art, DJing, and rapping—and narrows his approach to an aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic analysis—forgoing the frequently tedious and overblown sociological pontificating. He saves that for his review of Cora Daniels’s Ghettonation: A Journey Into the Land of the Bling and the Home of the Shameless.

» Read an excerpt [PDF] from To the Break of Dawn

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution by Pagan Kennedy
Book Digest Another confession: Pagan Kennedy, who is a fine and original writer, lives in the Boston metro area and though she has seven books to her credit, I have remained uninformed about her work. This book is the latest to recount the groundbreaking story of Laura/Michael Dillon, who became a transsexual in the 1920s. Publisher Bloomsbury synopsizes:
From upper-class orphan girl to Oxford lesbian, from post-surgery romance with Roberta Cowell (an early male-to-female) to self-imposed exile in India, Michael Dillon’s incredible story reveals the struggles of early transsexuals and challenges conventional notions of what gender really means.
If this subject intrigues you—and it does me—you might also have a look at Jenny Boylan’s She’s Not There and Amy Bloom’s Normal.

Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
Book Digest Matthew Sharpe, whose novel The Sleeping Father brought him some potent if not serious (Today Show) attention, has written a dystopian story set in a near future that reprises the actual history of the Jamestown settlement. (For those of you a little rusty in colonial American history, the Virginia colony preceded its more famous cousin Plymouth by 13 years.) Soft Skull’s Richard Nash hyperboles: “It’s a big book—a cross between the terrific maximalist novels of Barth and Safran Foer and the minimalist magical satire of George Saunders. Whatever that means.

» Read an excerpt from Jamestown

Cindy Sherman by Regis Durand, Jean-Pierre Criqui, and Laura Mulvey
Book Digest Last confession: I have not been able to “get” photographer and visual polymath Cindy Sherman’s work. My density has not affected Ms. Sherman’s reputation one iota (as it should be). She has a significant international reputation, and, as it happens, this substantial monograph includes her well-known Bus Riders, Murder Mystery and Untitled Film Stills series. The book serves as the exhibition catalogue for a Cindy Sherman show that travels to Paris, Denmark, Austria, and Germany in the next year.

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