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Book Digest: August 7, 2006

Mexico; Feeding the Monster; The Iliad; 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World; The Somme; The Republic of Poetry; The Obstacles; High Definition; The Night Gardener; A Strong West Wind

A South African journalist—I wish I could recall his name—once poignantly quipped “a patriot is someone who saves his country from its government.” Looking around the world (actually one need not exercise much agency, as the bad, bad news wafts through the seemingly impermeable iPod-istic barriers we construct), we are in short supply of good news and in even shorter supply of patriots. Thus, moving into the fall (which need I remind you is not only a new television season but, this year, time for mid-term elections) one would hope that the big question our fellow citizens address honestly is: “Who (besides the oil companies) is better off than they were two or even four years ago?”

A number of past, current, and future books commend themselves (they have or will no doubt get the kind of play that relieves me from performing my own public service in noting them) in this plague season: The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson, The Assassin’s Gate by George Packer, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End by Peter W. Galbraith, Frank Rich’s forthcoming The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina, All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone by Myra MacPherson, and American Fascism: The Rise of the Christian Right by Chris Hedges. One could cynically argue that were the U.S. citizenry of a mindset to read such patriotic books, we would not be in the harrowing straits we are in. It’s a thought, yes?

From the inimitable I.F. Stone: “All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion edited by C.M. Mayo
A few years ago I chanced on Ann Louise Bardach’s Cuba: A Traveler’s Literary Companion anthology and was enchanted by this quite clever and serviceable idea. Now C.M. Mayo—a champion of works in translation—has compiled her own extremely useful anthology of Mexican literature. As Isabel Allende indisputably suggests, “We can hear a country speak and better learn its secrets through the voices of its great writers. An engaging series—a compelling idea, thoughtfully executed…”

In the introduction Mayo explains: “I aimed to achieve a diversity not only of places, but also of styles and sensibilities—no small task, for ‘literary’ writing in Mexico is dominated by a Mexico City elite. Culturally, demographically, economically, intellectually, and politically, Mexico City has no equivalent in the United States. You might think of it as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City rolled into one. Most anthologies of Mexican literary writing tend toward a Mexico City-dominated ‘who’s who’—as does this one, if to a much lesser degree, for, indisputably, much of the best writing is being produced in the capital.”

» Read an excerpt from Mexico

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top by Seth Mnookin
I suppose if you grow up in New England and have writing aspirations, you dream of one day writing a book on the Boston Red Sox. Seth Mnookin grew up in the suburbs of Boston, graduated from Harvard, and went on to a senior editorship at Newsweek and eventually at the queen of landfill magazines, Vanity Fair. Apparently, after finally winning all the marbles in 2004, the Red Sox, who are, if nothing else, canny marketers, gave Mnookin almost unlimited access to the team, its players, facilities, and officers. Sadly, none of them are as charismatic, unorthodox, or savvy as Oakland’s Billy Beane (see Michael Lewis’s Moneyball). OK, there’s David “Big Papi” Ortiz, but his charisma comes from the end of a bat and his high-voltage smile. Also, Bostonians have a love affair with young Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and last winter’s endless story was Epstein’s unexpected, but ultimately temporary, rejection of a new contract.

The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles
The Iliad is the first and arguably the greatest literary achievement of Greek civilization—thus many of us have been forced to read it in school. The story centers on the final year of the Trojan War (see Ridley Scott’s Troy), which led to Achilles’s murder of Hector and determined the fate of the city-state Troy. On this audio book Derek Jacobi declaims Princeton University professor Robert Fagles’s well-regarded, award-winning 1990 translation.

Coincidentally, Nick Tosches, who is known for his definitive bios of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis as well as an odd little book on Sonny Liston, and not known, unfortunately, for his last novel, In the Hands of Dante, recently commented on the Iliad. From that, this gem:
That this fountainhead of Western literature begins, exquisitely, with the word “wrath,” just as the poem itself is one of “dismal death” and “corpse-fire,” of “men killing and men killed,” of “vile things” and “vile destiny,” shows that, like other epic wellsprings, such as the Old Testament, most of which postdates Homer, it is more knowing in its awareness of humanity’s most distinguishing trait—inhumanity—than literature of later ages. What came to be called “psychology” more than 2,000 years after Homer has been largely a degeneration from, rather than an advancement of, that awareness.
100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World by John Tirman
John Tirman is a serious scholar, which makes one wonder why he allowed this serious book to be given such a silly title. Nonetheless 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World is a quick, amusing snapshot into where the U.S. has gone wrong—from the environmental havoc to the promotion of self-destructive lifestyles and deadly eating habits to the “wussification”of the free press—Tirman has written what is alternately, an admonishment and a funny call to arms for patriotic Blue America. The bonus here is, of course, a brief forward by Howard Zinn, though there’s nothing here Howard hasn’t said before.

The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War by Sir Martin Gilbert
Barely 90 years ago at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, Allied soldiers launched themselves out of their trenches along the Somme River in France and charged out into no-man’s-land toward the German front lines. At the end of this first day of the Allied attack, the British army alone lost nearly 20,000 men. The Battle of the Somme marks a turning point in both the war and military history—soldiers saw the first appearance of tanks, there was an emergent air war that was a decisive factor in battle, and there were more than a million casualties, including 310,000 dead, in a little over four months.

Respected historian Sir Martin Gilbert can be counted on to have done exhaustive research, and he tracks his narrative through the eyewitness accounts across the ranks of both Allies and Germans. And he has interwoven this account with photographs, journal entries, original maps, and documents from every stage and level of planning. The Somme is a most authoritative and affecting rendering of this bloody turning point in the Great War.

» Read an excerpt from The Somme

The Republic of Poetry by Martin Espada
Sandra Cisneros says “Martín Espada is the Pablo Neruda of North American authors.” He was born in Brooklyn in 1957 and has published a dozen books in all as a poet, essayist, editor, and translator. Of The Republic of Poetry, Samuel Hazo observes, “Espada unites in these poems the fierce allegiances of Latin American poetry to freedom and glory with the democratic tradition of Whitman, and the result is a poetry of fire and passionate intelligence.”

Much of his poetry arises from his Puerto Rican roots and his work experiences, ranging from bouncer to tenant lawyer. Espada is a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he teaches creative writing and the work of Neruda, whom he has called “my most important poetic influence.” When asked about the essence of a great poem, Espada opined: “Walt Whitman wrote that it was the duty of the poet to ‘cheer up slaves and horrify despots.’ A great poem should do that. It should raise the hair on my arm. It should wake me up at 3 a.m., and not let me sleep till I call someone else and say: ‘You have to hear this.’”

The Obstacles by Eloy Urroz, translated by Ezra Fitz
Mexican Eloy Urroz, a professor at James Madison University, has written more than a dozen books of poetry, literary criticism, and prose. The Obstacles is his first novel to be translated into English. Urroz was one of the authors of the “Crack Manifesto,” a statement with four other Mexican writers—Pedro Ángel Palou, Ignacio Padilla, Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, and Jorge Volp—that announced a break with the pervading Latin American literary tradition. In the words of the publisher, The Obstacles is “the story of young writers coming of age in a world dominated entirely by their own fictions. It tells, in alternating chapters, the stories of two teenagers, Ricardo and Elías, who are characters in each other’s novels. Ricardo lives in Mexico City with his mother, who is mourning the recent death of her husband. Elías, an orphan, lives in Las Rémoras, a town on the Baja Peninsula that has been invented and meticulously imagined by Ricardo.”

From an interview with Urroz:
I grew up reading—when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen—those big, sprawling, nineteenth-century novels, novels by people like Thackeray, Dickens, Galdós, Balzac, Stendhal, Sue, Hugo, Verga, Clarín, and Pardo Bazán. But, from that point on—once I turned nineteen or twenty—I started reading Latin American literature. First the Boom writers like Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Fuentes, Donoso, and Cabrera Infante, then the pre-Boom writers like Borges, Carpentier, Arguedas, and Onetti. Finally, after that, Elizondo, Pitol, and Arredondo of the so-called Generación de Medio Siglo.
While my championing of the Dalkey Archive/Center for Book Culture might in the past have been too subtle, in the fullness of time you will come to appreciate the great service that literature in translation is rendered by this wonderful outpost of uncommonly good taste. Occasionally DA offers readers an opportunity to partake of its backlist at favorable prices. Look into it, why don’t you?

» Read an excerpt from The Obstacles

High Definition: An A to Z Guide to Personal Technology by the Editors of The American Heritage Dictionaries
Never let it be said I am not of a utilitarian bent. Given the expertise of the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries as trained lexicographers and the dizzying complexity of what is not ironically referred to as “personal technology,” the utility of this guide is probably obvious. This handy-dandy tome includes about 3,000 terms from the lexicons of home computers, cell phones, modems, the Internet, CD and DVD players, monitors and screens, gaming systems, ad nauseum. This “dictionary” usefully decodes in accessible language the jargon associated with current technology and in a very user-friendly way explains various technical specifications of electronic products and why they matter. High Definition also includes over 500 abbreviations and acronyms, a necessary feature in a world gone abbreviation crazy.

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
George Pelacanos is one of those writers I was thinking of when recently I opined that each of us has writers whose new books we automatically (and possibly uncritically) devour. In this latest, Pelacanos’s 12th novel, we have Gus Ramone as “good police,” a former Internal Affairs investigator now working homicide for the city’s Violent Crime branch. His new case involves the death of a local teenager whose body has been found in a local community garden. Circumstances tie back to a case 20 years earlier and involve Romano’s ex-partner and a legendary homicide detective from that era. Pelacanos’s grasp of the crime story has never been in question—which is also clearly evidenced in his writing for the non-pareil HBO series, The Wire. In The Night Gardener he powerfully extends his scope in a fashion that tempts me to call him the Tolstoy of Washington, D.C.

» Read an excerpt from The Night Gardener

A Strong West Wind: A Memoir by Gail Caldwell
I can count on one hand (if that qualifies as counting) the number of book critics in this country whom I find reliable in their respect for the task at hand, which I take to be to render some sensible commentary about a particular book on a particular day, keeping that book uppermost in mind while so doing. Agendas and personal peccadilloes are understandably at play in this by-now-degraded enterprise of American newspaper book reviewing, but that we all depend so heavily on the words of a few elites makes most reviews useless to me. Cantabrigian Gail Caldwell, the chief book critic for the Boston Globe, and the 2001 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, is another story—for years she has presented her critical thinking about books and literature (and by extension life), so elegantly that I am not sure why I was so pleasantly flabbergasted by the beauty of her prose and the crystalline nature of the thinking it expressed. But I was.

A Strong West Wind (the title is from Exodus: “The Lord shifted the wind to a very strong west wind”) begins in the 1950s in the Texas Bible Belt/Panhandle—a place of oil derricks, grain elevators, and church steeples—and is a magically rendered coming-of-age tale that wonderfully answers the question she poses in the book’s opening: “How do we become who we are?” Critic Sandra Scofield explains: “Her passionate talk of politics and literature illustrates the first of her two answers. We engage ourselves in the culture that calls us with a narrative larger than our own, and then, battered but enlightened, we come away less arrogant and ready at last to learn… The second answer to her question comes from her reflections on the history of her extended family… So here is this smart writer’s answer to the question of identity: We come to ourselves through our choice of archetypes; we create our own story. We become what we have loved.” Amen to that.

» Read an excerpt from A Strong West Wind

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