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Book Digest: August 21, 2006

The Prince of the Marshes; Richard Hofstadter; Picasso & Lump; Jeans; Siddhartha; An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter; Mission Rejected; Smonk; The Dissident

No tawdry headlines, scandals, feuds, vicious reviews, or dumb awards—what a pleasant week! I took pause to contemplate the late Susan Sontag’s view that, “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies, and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom. Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.”

Looking to my own reading this past week, I am delighted to have been comfortably ensconced within an array of books that provided a healthy antidote to my normal somnambular end-of-summer state of mind. From Myra MacPherson’s singular biography of the inimitable I.F. Stone, All Governments Lie, and John Le Carre’s new opus The Mission Song (where he continues to keep his sights on Africa’s suffering, contrary to the indifference of the world’s white people) to newcomer Joan Frank’s smart and well-formed prose in Miss Kansas City and Frank Rich’s superlative indictment of guess who (for guess what) in The Greatest Story Ever Sold to E.L. Doctorow’s literary essays, The Creationists—it’s been a reader’s feast of delights.

The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq by Rory Stewart
Not exactly a household name, Rory Stewart has a legitimate claim to the recognition that so many of this generation bleat and clamber for, mostly on the basis of having actually done something noteworthy, such as his amazing walk from Turkey to Bangladesh. Part of that peripatetic journey was chronicled in The Places in Between, his walk across Afghanistan.

Stewart had promised his mother that that would be his last journey and he’d come home if he didn’t get killed, so The Prince of the Marshes shows he obviously postponed that vow. In August 2003, he took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and was soon appointed deputy governor of Amara, and then Nasiriyah, in the remote regions of southern Iraq. Stewart warns, “I have recorded the politics, the individuals, and the histories of the provinces as I understood them as a foreigner. Iraqi friends have already pointed out many errors and omissions. There must be many more. With the caveats above, to paraphrase Rousseau, ‘While I may not always have recorded what is true, I have tried not to record what I know to be false.’” After his year of living dangerously, Rory Stewart moved to Kabul, where he now lives and has established the Turquoise Mountain Foundation.

» Read an excerpt from The Prince of the Marshes

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography by David Brown
When considering the names that fall under the questionable rubric “public intellectual,” some of whom are still tilting and jousting with those crazy French and faux-French deconstructionists, it is both rewarding and instructive to see a book about Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, and whose biographer makes the case that he was America’s most distinguished 20th-century historian. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and author of important, insightful books, including The American Political Tradition, The Age of Reform, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Progressive Movement, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Hofstadter was also a committed activist, which many historians eschew, as at the least unseemly (thank the gods for the likes of Howard Zinn). The right-wing shift in the Vietnam era and beyond of course brought Hofstadter’s work under attack. In the face of such conservative reactions, historian John Higham, among others, insists that Hofstadter was “the finest and also the most humane intelligence of our generation.”

Picasso & Lump: A Dachshund’s Story by David Duncan Douglas
Here’s an odd dog story and dare I say an unusual look at one of the world’s most famous artists. In 1957, photojournalist David Douglas Duncan gave his pet dachshund, Lump, to his friend Picasso. Picasso first immortalized Lump by painting his portrait on a plate. Then he conceived and created a suite of 54 paintings reinterpreting Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas, replacing the hound in the foreground with a likeness of Lump. Fifteen of those paintings are reproduced in this book, but more interesting are the charming behind-the-scenes photographs of Picasso’s day-to-day life.

Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon by James Sullivan
Frankly, I think “icon” has been misappropriated in this context—but why nitpick if the idea at play is reasonably interesting? Denims, which originated in the California minefields of the late 19th century and were derided as “fornication pants” by Brigham Young, have transmogrified into a totem of conspicuous consumption in the late 20th century, selling at prices upward of $300 and collectible in places like Japan for eye-popping sums. Jeans is a history of American culture as told through its pants, which is a good a vantage point as any.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, translated by Susan Bernofsky
My instinct as an individualist and artist has always warned me most urgently against this capacity of men for becoming drunk on collective suffering, collective pride, collective hatred, and collective honour. When this morbid exaltation becomes perceptible in a room, a hall, a village, a city, or a country, I grow cold and distrustful; a shudder comes over me, for already, while most of my fellow men are still weeping with rapture and enthusiasm, still cheering and venting protestations of brotherhood, I see blood flowing and cities going up in flames—Hermann Hesse
It seems so long ago that I devoured every new edition of Nobel Prize author Hesse’s writings and the above epigram reminds me of what I found so compelling about Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, and Siddhartha. Siddhartha is wealthy Brahmin who goes on a journey seeking spiritual fulfillment. He meets all manner and type of fellow pilgrims, including the courtesan Kamala. And finally, he comes across someone who has achieved the enlightenment he, Siddhartha seeks. Through this journey and his encounters he comes to understand that the elusive knowledge he has sought is found within oneself. This original Modern Library edition includes a new introduction by Tom Robbins and a glossary of Indian terms.

» Read an excerpt from Siddhartha

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews
German artist Johan Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), a master landscape painter, was advised by Alexander von Humboldt to travel west from Europe to record the spectacular landscapes of Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. While Rugendas did in fact become one of the best of the 19th-century European painters to venture into Latin America, this is not a biography of Rugendas.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a work of fiction, is the first novel of Cesar Aira to be published in English and reveals a surreal history around the secret objective behind Rugendas’s trips to America:
…to visit Argentina in order to achieve in art the “physiognomic totality” of von Humboldt’s scientific vision of the whole. Rugendas is convinced that only in the mysterious vastness of the immense plains will he find true inspiration. He visits Mendosa for an opportunity to fulfill his dream and travels onto the pampas, praying for that impossible moment, which would come only at an immense price—an almost monstrously exorbitant price—that would ultimately challenge his drawing and force him to create a new way of making art. A strange episode that he could not avoid absorbing savagely into his own body interrupts the trip and irreversibly and explosively marks him for life.
The formidable Roberto Bolano writes in his foreword, “His novels seem to put the theories of [Witold] Gombrowicz into practice except, and the difference is fundamental, that Gombrowicz was the abbot of a luxurious imaginary monastery while Aira is a nun or novice among the Discalced Carmelites of the word …once you start reading Aira you don’t want to stop.”

» Read an excerpt from An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq by Peter Laufer
“Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to…my conscience.”—Sergeant Camilo Mejía, U.S. Army

“I was told in basic training that if I’m given an illegal or immoral order, it is my duty to disobey it. I feel that invading and occupying Iraq is an illegal and immoral thing to do.”—Specialist Jeremy Hinzman, U.S. Army
Peter Laufer’s mission is a simple, albeit a hidden one—to bring forth the refusenik U.S. military that have rejected serving in the Iraq calamity. Hidden, because this is obviously not a well (if at all) reported story. Mejía and Specialist Hinzman are two of a growing number of U.S. servicemen and women who are following their conscience and refusing to fight in Iraq. Laufer opines, “These are horrific stories that illustrate the bankruptcy of U.S. policy in Iraq.”

Additionally, Laufer argues two points—that the men and women refusing service are heroes and that what he believes really validates the project is that “the almost universal response I get is, ‘There are soldiers opposed to the war? I didn’t know that.’”

» Read an excerpt from Mission Rejected

Smonk by Tom Franklin
Tom Franklin, author of the story collection Poachers and the novel Hell at the Breech, most certainly channeled Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in this homage to literary violence. And the people at William Morrow suggest that Franklin has created his own category, a “southern,” not a “western.” Smonk is set in Alabama in the early 20th century, with the disease-infested and deadly E.O. Smonk as the centerpiece of this tale. On a weekly basis Smonk runs amok in Old Texas, Ala., wreaking manifold varieties of havoc. The city fathers, such as they are, get fed up and decide, no doubt precipitously, to take legal measures to end Smonk’s weekly sieges. No surprise, mayhem and worse ensues. Smonk also includes a 15-year-old prostitute pursued by a posse of misfits who stumbles upon the sceneand becomes enmeshed in an inventive narrative only a novelist as talented as Franklin could invent.

The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger
A few years ago Nell Freudenberger’s collection of stories, Lucky Girls, caused a big splash in the small pond of literary circles for the princely sum of her advance (and for a story collection to boot), and the wagging tongues were a flutter (probably mine was part of that chorus) at the book industry’s lavish treatment of young unprovens. It was, however, a New York Times Notable Book, winning the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Freudenberger also was the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. Her first novel is about an enigmatic stranger who disrupts the life of one American family. Ecco, her publisher, summarizes:
Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident, has accepted a one year’s artist’s residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm’s School for Girls, teaching advanced art, and hosted by one of the school’s most devoted families: the wealthy if dysfunctional Traverses. But when their guest arrives, the Traverses are preoccupied with their own problems. Cece—devoted mother and contemporary art enthusiast—worries about the recent arrest of her son, Max. Unable to communicate with her husband, Gordon, a psychiatrist distracted by his passion for genealogical research, she turns to Gordon’s wayward brother, Phil. Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Olivia Travers is just relieved that her classmates seem to be ignoring the weird Chinese art teacher living in her pool house—at least until a brilliant but troublesome new student appears in his class. The dissident, for his part, is delighted to be left alone. His relationship to the 1989 Democracy Movement and his past in a Beijing underground artists’ community together give him reason for not wanting to be scrutinized too carefully. The trouble starts when he and his American hosts begin to see one another with clearer eyes.
Apropos of nothing and for reasons that escape me Freudenberger is still using author photos by Marion Ettlinger—I’ll get back to you on that.

» Read an excerpt from The Dissident

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