Book Digest: August 13, 2007

Taking Things Seriously; Playing America's Game; The Last Chicken in America; Brasyl; Mission Unaccomplished; Cion; The Art of Subtext; The Savior; Wizard of the Crow; The Human Line; Crossing the Sierra de Gredos; Petal Pusher; Strawberry Fields

I had it in mind to vituperate on some irksome aspect of American book culture but then I realized that time spent venting my spleen on well-trod terrain would be time taken from my great pleasure in reading Richard Russo’s latest opus, Bridge of Sighs—a pleasure that is already wreaking havoc on my schedule. If I had my choice I would sit somewhere comfortable and removed and read the new Russo straight through. Oh, well.

Two weeks ago I took upon myself the sad task of reporting on the untimely death of Aura Estrada, novelist Francisco Goldman’s wife. The folks at Hunter College’s writing program—Peter Carey, Colum McCann, and Jenefer Chute—which she attended, have set up a web site in Estrada’s memory. Frank Goldman writes, “we are going to establish a foundation which we hope will be able to provide an annual scholarship to a young Mexican woman who wants to be a writer…”

Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects With Unexpected Significance by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes
Book Digest Writer Glenn and designer Hayes anthologize an oddball collection of thingamajigs and their stories, exploring the “human drive and capacity to invest inanimate objects with meaning”—echoing Bruno Latour’s mandate to view objects as “an association, a network, a gathering.” Here are scraps of movie posters scavenged from the streets of New York by Luc Sante, a bagel burned by Christopher Walken (moonlighting as a short-order cook), a quarter-inch-long pinecone found by Olympian Kelly Blair during a hike through an upstate New York woods, a pile of red dirt kept by writer Marilyn Berlin Snell many years after she scooped it up outside a Navajo tepee in Arizona—you get the idea.

Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line by Adrian Burgos, Jr.
Book Digest Until fearsome Detroit Tigers slugger Gary Sheffield recently shot off his mouth on the subject of black and Latin ballplayers, I suspect most people paid little heed to the contribution and involvement of Latinos to our national pastime. This groundbreaking book charts the presence of Latinos in organized baseball from the late 19th century to the present. Burgos is especially revealing in pointing out various recruitment machinations used for Latinos that Dodgers GM Branch Rickey took note of in his signing of Jackie Robinson. For lovers of the game who also like to read, I’d bookend Burgos’s book with Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria and El Beisbol: The Pleasures and Passions of the Latin American Game by John Krich.

The Last Chicken in America by Ellen Litman
Book Digest Russian émigré Litman earned her MFA from Syracuse University, where she clearly came under the sway of irrepressible mentor George Saunders, and has fashioned a novel (of sorts) out of 12 interlinked stories about the assimilation and dissonances of Russian Jews in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. Good title—and need I add that this is funny stuff?

Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Book Digest Not to be confused with Terry Gilliam’s dystopic film Brazil, this ambitious novel has three characters—Edson is a self-made talent impresario, Marcelina is an ambitious Rio TV producer, and Father Luis is a Jesuit missionary—whose separate stories co-mingle a Brazil of past, present, and future in a narrative of speculative fiction that bends the genre’s conventions.

» Read an excerpt from Brasyl

Mission Unaccomplished: TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters by Tom Englehardt
Book Digest I have been told that the inscription on Sigmund Freud’s memorial in Vienna reads: “The voice of reason is small but persistent.” Of which could be said of Tom Englehardt’s good works (he also edits the American Empire series at Henry Holt). This volume collects his “long-form conversations” with Howard Zinn, Chalmers Johnson, Cindy Sheehan, Mike Davis, Barbara Ehrenreich, James Carroll, and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Cion by Zakes Mda
Book Digest South African novelist, playwright, and Ohio University professor Zakes Mda tells the story of Toloki, who settles in Middle America and discovers the story of two runaway slaves, the Underground Railroad, and their connection to the family he is living with. The two narratives, old and new, are well-formed ruminations on these formative chapters of America’s racial history.

» Read an excerpt from Cion

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter
Book Digest Of some authors, it is said that we would read with fascination their grocery lists. For me, Charles Baxter is one of those. In the present case, he is the series editor of The Art of, a new series on the craft of writing. So says Baxter: “A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.” If you are not familiar with Burning Down the House (also on writing), here’s an opportunity to catch up with Baxter’s illuminations and well-chosen literary citations, in which he “illustrates the hidden subtextual overtones and undertones in fictional works haunted by the unspoken, the suppressed, and the secreted.”

The Savior by Eugene Drucker
Book Digest Drucker—violinist and founding member of the Emerson Quartet—turns his nimble fingers to fiction with a novel set in the waning weeks of World War II. The protagonist is a young German violinist who plays for the wounded until the day he is assigned to play at a nearby “labor” camp, where it is explained to him he will be playing to the inmates as part of an experiment.

» Read an excerpt from The Savior

Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi waThiong’O
Book Digest Exiled Kenyan wa Thiong’O—he was imprisoned by the Kenyan government in 1977 for his novel Petals of Blood—intends in this comic novel “to sum up Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history.” Set in a fictional African nation—the Free Republic of Aburiria—we get the usual conditions for 21st-century Africa.

» Read an excerpt from Wizard of the Crow

The Human Line by Ellen Bass
Book Digest Of Ellen Bass’s new collection of poetry her esteemed publisher, Copper Canyon, informs us:
With a deft touch and a sure voice Bass takes on many of the crucial moral issues of our times, and she delights with portrayals of life’s endearing absurdities. Offering homage to each transient moment, she reminds us to treasure the small, the plain, the surprising—those instances that lash us to the human condition.
» Read an excerpt from The Human Line

Crossing the Sierra de Gredos by Peter Handke, translated by Krishna Winston
Book Digest Controversial Austrian avant-garde writer Handke gives us a story set in the near future, of an unnamed woman banker of some renown and power, who decides to commission someone to write her biography. She chooses a Spanish fiction writer who lives in La Mancha, Spain. The Sierra de Gredos of the title are the mountains the banker must cross to meet her putative biographer. And as she is traveling, there are numerous signs of war, as well as evidence of the unnamed protagonist’s disconnection from her own life.

» Read an excerpt from Crossing the Sierra de Gredos

Petal Pusher by Laurie Lindeen
Book Digest Minnesotan Laurie Lindeen (who also contributes to this magazine) chronicles the story of her all-girl band, Zuzu’s Petals, through the roiling decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s in Minneapolis, the legendary musical breeding ground of Prince, the Replacements, and Soul Asylum. Toss in her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and her romance and marriage to Paul Westerberg and you have an unlikely insightful and amusing inside look at the rock-and-roll life.

» Read an excerpt from Petal Pusher

Strawberry Fields by Marina Lewycka
Book Digest Lewycka, who hit the literary world’s radar screen with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, follows up with Strawberry Fields, which she describes as “also a tragi-comic story about immigration, falling in love, and bad behavior, but in all other respects it is completely different. I don’t want to say any more, because I don’t want to give away the surprise.” In the story, migrant workers from three continents find themselves picking strawberries in England and then, because of adulterous havoc, the workers are forced to flee their temporary idyll. What ensues is in the spirit of bawdy Chaucerian tales.

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