Book Digest: August 27, 2007

The Americano; Away; Havana Noir; The Tenderness of Wolves; Glimmer Train Issue 64; Children at Play; A French Alphabet Book of 1814; Almost a Miracle; The Septembers of Shiraz; The Art of Political Murder; Blood Passion; Why Kerouac Matters; The Politics of Heaven; Henry Kissinger and the American Century; Bearing the Body

&Consider the journalistic artifice where writers presume to know the habits and activities of their readers: “While you are stuck in a 22-mile backup on your way to—and back from—your Labor day weekend at Wellfleet, Tahoe, or Myrtle Beach, pop in one of the eight compact discs that comprise the unabridged recording of On the Road
Also, after Kurt Vonnegut’s untimely death earlier this year, I reached back to the Essential Vonnegut and listened to excerpts of his many conversations with Walter James Miller. Additionally, in an effort to get “unstuck in time,” I picked up his seminal work, Slaughterhouse Five, and the odds-and-ends collection of his writings, Welcome to the Monkey House. So it goes.

The Americano: Fighting With Castro for Cuba’s Freedom by Aran Shetterly
Book Digest Here is an odd but compelling story recently recovered from the annals of the Cuban Revolution. Young American William Morgan left Ohio and joined the rebels in Cuba in 1958. Other than Che Guevara (who was Argentinian), Morgan was the only non-Cuban to become a comandante and fight along side Castro’s 26th of July movement. In victory, Morgan strove for a noncommunist middle ground and as such, was regarded as a traitor by Castro. He was executed by firing squad in 1961. To quote Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid.”

Away by Amy Bloom
Book Digest The deluge of positive—and well-deserved—reviews from big metropolitan newspapers for Amy Bloom’s new novel reminds me that acknowledgement and accolades are not necessarily meritocratic in the publishing business. Which is to say that Bloom was a fine writer before her latest book, and there is no reason I can think of that her previous work didn’t receive the same amount of attention. Anyway, the story here tells of a young Russian immigrant girl, Lillian Leyb, whose family has been destroyed in a Russian pogrom, and who transverses America from the Lower East Side to Seattle to Alaska looking for her daughter. A big story, well told.

» Read an excerpt from Away

Havana Noir edited by Achy Obejas
Book Digest Cuba continues to be a subject of fascination, as it has been for most of its relationship with its pushy Uncle Sam. And to outsiders nothing is more Cuban than its capital, the great Caribbean port city of Havana.

A quick look at the Akashic Books web site will show that there is a series of original noir anthologies comprised of all-new stories, mostly for American cities, but also elsewhere. Havana-born Obejas (Days of Awe, Memory Mambo, and We Came all the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?) assembled this collection for her birthplace, featuring some well-known and some not-so-well-known names: Leonardo Padura, Pablo Medina, Alex Abella, Arturo Arango, Lea Aschkenas, Moises Asis, Arnaldo Correa, Mabel Cuesta, Paquito D’Rivera, Yohamna Depestre, Michel Encinosa Fu, Mylene Fernandez Pintado, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Miguel Mejides, Achy Obejas, Oscar Ortiz, Ena Lucia Portela, Mariela Varona Roque, and Yoss.

Me gusta.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
Book Digest I must admit I was attracted to this book by its unusual and resonant title. Penney’s award-winning debut takes place in 1867 in the remote and desolate Canadian Northern Territory, where a brutal murder involves an ensemble of stalwarts, including a retired Hudson Bay functionary, a bereaved mother (the discoverer of the crime), an American trader, and a half-breed Native American. The mix makes for a good, old-fashioned, 19th-century story.

» Read an excerpt from The Tenderness of Wolves

Glimmer Train Issue 64, Fall 2007
Book Digest Of the countless literary magazines that enrich the American literary culture, this West Coast publication is one that I pay attention to—its editors never fail to add a surprising touch or a fine array of yet-undiscovered talent. In this particular edition there are interviews with DBC Pierre and Mary Gaitskill and fiction by Antonya Nelson and Benjamin Percy. And, as they occasionally publish nonfiction as well, there is a report (“Silenced Voices”) on the murder of Agos editor Hrant Dink in Istanbul earlier this year.

Children at Play: An American History by Howard Chudacoff
Book Digest As I think this space has shown in the past few months, a spate of books has expanded the boundaries of American social history. In this tome, Brown University historian Chudacoff argues:
…from a child’s perspective, play serves as a means of asserting autonomy, and I examine the ways the process has ebbed and flowed over different eras in American history…generally and in a complex way children’s ability to play independently has eroded over time and that in the modern era this shrinkage has had unfortunate if not perilous consequences.
That’s something to think about, yes?

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from Children at Play

A French Alphabet Book of 1814: For Alfred Bourdier de Beauregard, Created by His Uncle Arnaud at the Chateau de Beaumont de Beauregard by Charles Plante
Book Digest Like play and games whose value and meaning one may be hard-put to explain (e.g., I don’t know why I like baseball so much), I can’t say why I enjoyed looking at this charming little book with its self-explanatory title. I guess it’s my job to try. This is an abecedaire with numerous watercolor illustrations that illuminate the alphabet.

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling
Book Digest The recent past in popular American history has mostly produced hagiographies of the American Founding Fathers—else why the uppercase rendering? (By the way, for an amusing counterpoint read Paul Lussier’s Last Refuge of Scoundrels, or more seriously the work of Howard Zinn or Gordon Wood.) In any case, Ferling has produced a comprehensive and insightful military history of the eight-year war the Americans came perilously close to losing—hence Washington’s exclamation that the victory was “little short of a standing miracle.” Some reputations suffer, some flourish, and in all, Ferling tells this story well.

» Read an excerpt from Almost a Miracle

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
Book Digest I recently spoke with Dani Shapiro about her fine novel Black and White—I will publish that conversation soon—and she recommended Sofer’s novel. As I have recently taken note of literature from or about hazardous cultures (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Nigeria, Kenya), I was drawn to this novel of the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. In this story, a Jewish gem dealer is arrested in Tehran and accused of espionage; his family, of course, is not informed of his whereabouts or circumstances. Thus begins a torturous and terrifying adventure for him and his family.

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? by Francisco Goldman
Book Digest Back in the ‘80s, when the American right-wing fear machine predicted Sandinistas marching into Laredo and characters like Eliot Abrams and Oliver North were on the government payroll, Francisco Goldman was covering Central America for Harper’s—and, for my money, doing some of that beat’s best and most readable reporting: accurate, informed, and compassionate. Since then Goldman has gone on to publish three well-regarded novels; in his new opus he investigates what Guatemalans call the “crime of the century”—the 1998 murder of human rights activist Bishop Juan Gerardi, just as he was to present a report implicating the corrupt and brutal military regime in the slaughter and disappearances of more than 200,000 people.

As expected, Goldman does this story justice—and perhaps someone will pay for this and other crimes.

» Read an excerpt from The Art of Political Murder

Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West by Scott Martelle
Book Digest The Ludlow Massacre of 1914 was a turning point in American labor history, and was hardly on the historical viewing screen before the work of revisionist historians like Howard Zinn. The initial killing of eight striking miners in Colorado, the immolation of their tent colony, and the subsequent discovery of the bodies of two women and 11 children set off a seven-month armed struggle whose body count reached 75 and was finally ended by President Wilson’s deployment of the U.S. Army. Mainstream historians have been loath to attend to examples of class warfare of which Ludlow is a prime example—thus, the welcome attention of Martelle’s definitive account.

» Read an excerpt from Blood Passion

Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) by John Leland (Viking)
Book Digest I guess exercises like Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life or Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters are useful. Especially as the cultural window of memory shrinks except for occasional anniversary bows—as in the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In his review Matt Wieland does a good job of assessing Leland’s book and additionally commenting on Kerouac’s misunderstood legacy.

The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times by Earl Shorris (W.W. Norton)
Book Digest In this book, Shorris posits a nameless political movement that he argues “has no formal structure, no acknowledged leaders, and no sworn loyalty except to God, whose will it interprets according to its fears and desires.” Additionally, he claims it is ruling the United States.

Shorris attributes the great shift in the United States from New Deal liberalism to Reagan-Bush conservatism to fear—and more to the point the fear of death: by the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and global terrorism. Shorris pulls no punches:
There are dreadful people in politics—Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Rudy Giuliani, and the president of the United States, among others—in America. Most of those we find despicable are educated fools, company men, like Paul Wolfowitz and the pompous Richard Perle; a few are mean-spirited and opinionated, like Lynne Cheney; and some are miserable, mean, mistaken, and arrogant, like Cheney’s husband Dick.
According to Shorris, the antidote to this movement is hardly clear or handy. He gloomily points out: “September 11, 2001, or August 9, 1945 [when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki], or October 25, 2001, the day the Congress passed the Patriot Act, or some combination of these, or perhaps some future date, may mark the day or the event that saw the many forces for silence coalesce and bring down the longest-lasting government on earth.”

Henry Kissinger and the American Century by Jeremi Suri (Belknap Press)
Book Digest Between Walter Isaakson’s fellating biography of Kissinger and Christopher Hitchens’s excoriating indictment of him, there is probably a middle ground for a more measured and temperate critical analysis of Kissinger’s character and policies. University of Wisconsin historian Suri certainly attempts to offer that point of view, suggesting the usual mélange of explanations for Kissinger’s American-exceptionalist global view and making it likely that the judgment on Kissinger is not about the historical facts, but more about fundamental values—a benchmark under which Kissinger fares poorly.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from Henry Kissinger and the American Century

Bearing the Body by Ehud Havazelet (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Book Digest This melancholy story of one brother’s mysterious death, a father who survived the Holocaust, and another brother’s need to find out what happened to his older sibling drew my attention—as much by the blurbs from Andrea Barrett, Richard Russo, and Mark Slouka as for its harrowing storyline. All these fine writers’ comments have to do with the depth and resonance of Havazelet’s characters, an element of any fiction I especially appreciate. I should also mention that Havazelet’s second book of short stories, Like Never Before, deals with characters named Birnbaum.

» Read an excerpt from Bearing the Body

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