Book Digest: August 6, 2007

Inner Workings; Hotel Theory; The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt; Chef's Story; Every Past Thing; The Shadow Catcher; The Fragile Edge; Interventions; Dead Boys; Love Without; F5; Essential Langston Hughes

In his novel Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee has his protagonist give a speech when she accepts an award for her literary achievement—Coetzee’s acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy for his Nobel Prize was a wonderfully digressive incantation based on Robinson Crusoe—in which she says:
Despite this splendid award, for which I am deeply grateful, despite the promise it makes that, gathered into the illustrious company of those who have won it before me, I am beyond time’s envious grasp, we all know, if we are being realistic, that it is only a matter of time before the books which you honor, and with whose genesis I have had something to do, will cease to be read and eventually cease to be remembered. And properly so. There must be some limit to the burden of remembering that we impose on our children and grandchildren.
Do ya think so?

Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J.M. Coetzee
Book Digest This collection of 20 of Coetzee’s literary critiques includes his ruminations on, among others, Sebald, Beckett, Whitman, Grass, García Márquez, and Roth. Derek Attridge introduces this compendium by saying there are two incentives for reading a writer’s critical prose: in the hope it will shed light on his fiction, and “how an author at the forefront of his profession engages with his peers, not as a critic from the outside, but as one who works with the same raw materials.” I find satisfaction in reading criticism by writers—the prose is better than most critics’ and the pieces are, for the most part, entertaining and engaging (except for Walter Kirn’s infantile squalls).

Hotel Theory by Wayne Koestenbaum
Book Digest Koestenbaum, a playful rule breaker and experimentalist, is the author of such diverse works of cultural criticism as The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, the Penguin Lives biography of Andy Warhol, and five collections of poetry. His new opus is composed of two books that run concurrently in twin columns. The first is a discourse/manifesto on hotels and “an aesthetic of indifference, of stupor, of hyperaesthesia, of yearning”; the second is a “dime” novel—Hotel Women—featuring Lana Turner and Liberace.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from Hotel Theory

The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt by John Ray
Book Digest Discovered in Egypt by Napoleon’s troops, now the most visited object in the British Museum, the Rosetta stone has an interesting history as the codex for the language of ancient Egypt—and John Ray tells its story well and succinctly. Additionally, I found the design of this book—using the Rosetta stone’s text as its end papers—charming.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt

Chef’s Story: 27 Chefs Talk About What Got Them Into the Kitchen edited by Dorothy Hamilton and Patric Kuh
Book Digest The publisher of this book, which is the companion to the PBS series in which chefs yak about themselves, hyperbolically asserts that its subjects “reveal how their early years, their beliefs, and their passion for quality have helped them become modern culinary legends.” Interestingly, of the anointed chefs only two are women—which strikes me as a glaring disproportion, though that imbalance may only be a reflection of the actual distribution of sexes in the profession. Other than that, you have the usual array of star chefs—if that’s your pleasure, this book should satisfy it.

Every Past Thing by Pamela Thompson
Book Digest Art historian Thompson’s debut novel, set during one week in November 1899, has as its protagonist Mary Jane Elmer, who is unsatisfied in her marriage to an artist and traumatized by the death of their daughter a decade before. Against this disconnection and disaffection, Mary tries to form a livable life. Thompson writes this joyless tale beautifully and with lucid assurance.

» Read an excerpt from Every Past Thing

The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins
Book Digest Even had Wiggins chosen to tell famed photographer/ethnographer Edward Curtis’s story straightforwardly, there would be much to recommend it. In this, her 10th novel, she manages to intermingle a contemporary mystery involving a character named Marianne Wiggins and a brief flirtation Hollywood has with her novel The Shadow Catcher, with a narrative of Curtis’s life as told by his wife, Clara.

» Read an excerpt from The Shadow Catcher

The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific by Julia Whitty
Book Digest Add coral atolls to the list of endangered nature—apparently there are only 330 of them left. Author, filmmaker, journalist, and adventuress Whitty has spent considerable energy documenting these fascinating ecosystems by plunging into the South Pacific and acquainting herself with the denizens of the depths—and those of the surface as well. Activist environmental writer Bill McKibben crows that Whitty “is emerging as one of the must-read voices about the wet three-quarters of the planet, what we’re doing to it, and why it should matter to us. This book has some foreboding, but basically it’s a marvelous love story of an affair with salt water and all its mysteries.”

Interventions by Noam Chomsky
Book Digest This anthology of Chomsky op-eds owes its existence to the fact that, although Chomsky’s New York Times writings are syndicated around the world, they have rarely been printed in major U.S. media. Among other concerns, these revised and updated essays take on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush presidency, Israel and Palestine, and the escalating threat of nuclear warfare. It continues to amaze me that, for all the demonizing of Chomsky by certain regressive elements, his analyses are sensible and fact-based. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this would be a good introduction.

» Read an excerpt from Interventions

Dead Boys by Richard Lange
Book Digest L.A. writer Richard Lange announces himself with this collection of a dozen stories, all set in Los Angeles. Dead Boys has been lauded by an impressive choir including my TMN colleague Anthony Doerr, T.C. Boyle, Chris Offutt, Alice Sebold, and George Pelecanos—and here’s Book Forum’s take:
To paraphrase the compliment Joan Didion paid Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic 1969 novel set in Stockton, California, Richard Lange has got it right about Los Angeles. Dead Boys, his debut story collection, depicts average Southland life with unfaltering exactitude—the doughnut shop-cum-hangout, the sun’s merciless routine, Spanglish, and the disconsolateness of the carless. Such meticulously drawn commonplace scenery is remarkable in itself. But what’s most impressive about Lange’s tales is how his L.A. bypasses the usual accounts of nihilism and dystopia to signify instead the hard-luck optimism of the losers who are drawn to it.
» Read an excerpt from Dead Boys

Love Without by Jerry Stahl
Book Digest Author of the harrowing memoir Permanent Midnight and writer for television’s ALF and CSI, Stahl’s new collection anthologizes 11 stories from various points in his career. Reyhan Harmanci points out:

While lacking any thematic unity (which makes sense, given that the pieces were first published over a period of time), Love Without gives a good sampling of Stahl’s voice. It’s not surprising that his first literary heroes were William S. Burroughs and Jim Carroll. Drugs are frequently involved in his stories, as are prostitutes. But unlike many of the jaded characters in the pantheon of outsider literature, his narrators have a certain innocence (or ignorance) in the face of ugliness.

F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century by Mark Levine
Book Digest Over 16 hours in April 1974, an unprecendented 148 tornadoes occurred from Michigan to Mississippi, covering more than 2,500 miles and unleashing much devastation to property and human life. Six of the twisters belonged to the rarest—and deadliest—category: F5, which generate winds of 260 to 320 mph. Journalist Levine, also on the faculty of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, weaves a narrative out of these natural disasters with the social turbulence of the early ‘70s, including George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Hank Aaron, who received death threats along his way toward breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.

Essential Langston Hughes narrated by Langston Hughes
Book Digest
“The Weary Blues”

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway…
He did a lazy sway…
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
As I would prefer to see Shakespeare’s plays performed rather than read, I like poetry spoken out loud, and this invaluable collection of Hughes reading his work is a wonderful entrée to this great American artist.

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