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Book Digest: December 10, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: Return to Dragon Mountain; Now and Forever; Endgame 1945; On Ugliness; The Contenders; A Dangerous Woman; The Second Life Herald; The Studs Terkel Reader; Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work.

As Dec. 31 approaches, the year-end lists and other media devices for taking up space and time remind me that there is, of course, something useful to be said about the recent past. And that something useful will find itself in this space, when and if I resolve what it is. In the meantime here are some titles—in no particular order—to look forward to in the early months of 2008:
  • The Reserve by Russell Banks
  • Split Estate by Charlotte Bacon
  • Arkansas by John Brandon
  • The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
  • The Book of Dahlia by Elisa Albert
  • I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan
  • Beautiful Children by Charles Bock
  • A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
  • The Library of America’s anthology of William Maxwell’s Early Novels and Stories
A happy reading new year, no doubt.

George Bernard Shaw quoted by Studs Terkel in Coming of Age: Growing Up in the Twentieth Century:
“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle for me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man by Jonathan D. Spence
Book Digest We are familiar with the Ming dynasty because of the pottery, and here we have well-regarded China historian Spence delving into a period of particular cultural ferment through the lens of Zhang Dai. Dai is recognized as one of the Ming dynasty’s finest scholars, and his late-17th century riches-to-rags story (the Ming overthrow by the Manchus) led to the impoverishment of Dai’s family and a 40-year commentary on life in late Ming society. Spence is a useful and dependable guide to China of antiquity, as is Peter Hessler on contemporary China. And such a big and opaque subject begs for a plainspoken coterie of observers.

Now and Forever: Somewhere a Band Is Playing and Leviathan ‘99 by Ray Bradbury
Book Digest Had he never written anything else of merit, Fahrenheit 451 would be sufficient to secure Bradbury’s place in some genre pantheon or other. But as we know, a half-century career has yielded a treasure trove of stories and fecund ideation. In the case of his newest tome, we are presented with two previously unpublished novellas. Leviathan 99 is Bradbury’s version of the Moby-Dick myth (from the writer who wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s film of the Melville masterpiece). In Somewhere a Band Is Playing a journalist tries to unpack the mysteries of a remote small town in Arizona before the unavoidable bad news shows up.

» Read an excerpt from Now and Forever

Endgame 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II by David Stafford
Book Digest Somewhere, in a scenario as her counselors push war on her, Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth opines, “I despise war. Its outcome is so uncertain.” For significant evidence of this view one need not look further than the last Great War. Or to David Stafford’s oral history of the three months that followed Victory in Europe Day—we are given nine vivid and poignant voices to talk us through the dark passages. Peter Preston acknowledges:
…using ordinary men with ordinary voices… is to make such testimony still moving and urgent six decades on. The concentration camps ought to be as unforgettable now as they were to the troops who first found them. The stench of ‘rotting flesh, faeces and urine’ that hung over Belsen should never entirely fade…. Once you see that through human eyes as the dark side of continuing humanity, easy pieties and slogans fade away. You know what war was like, is like and will be like again. You see the mistakes and evasions. You look into the depths and shudder. Endgame 1945 isn’t a footnote to history. It’s the last chapter in a book from which to learn before another volume opens.
» Read an excerpt from Endgame 1945

On Ugliness by Umberto Eco, translated by Alastair McEwen
Book Digest There are manifold reasons to be impressed by and fascinated with Umberto Eco. His readable doorstop historical mysteries (In the Name of the Rose, Foucalt’s Pendulum, The Island of The Day Before, and, most recently, Baudolino). Or his essays on open text (Five Moral Pieces, Kant and the Platypus, Serendipities, Travels in Hyperreality, and How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays). Or his medievalist scholarship. Or perhaps his having amassed a 30,000-volume library in Milan or a 20,000-volume library in his country house. Or this, his latest opus, a follow-up to his annotated hyper-textual study, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea—as the New York Times assesses:
…a collection of images and written excerpts from ancient times to the present, all woven together with a provocative commentary and, he asks: Is repulsiveness, too, in the eye of the beholder? And what do we learn about that beholder when we delve into his aversions? Selecting stark visual images of gore, deformity, moral turpitude and malice, and quotations from sources ranging from Plato to radical feminists, Eco unfurls a taxonomy of ugliness. As gross-out contests go, it’s both absorbing and highbrow.
» Read an adapted essay from On Ugliness

The Contenders by Laura Flanders, Richard Goldstein, Dean Kuipers, James Ridgeway, Eli Sanders, and Dan Savage
Book Digest Progressive talk show host and journalist (Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians) Flanders and other gadflies give their take on the current gaggle of Democrats pretending to the highest office in the United States. Amusing. Bracing. No surprise.

» Read an excerpt from The Contenders

A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman by Sharon Rudahl
Book Digest Anarchist matriarch Emma Goldman gets a vivid rendering through Rudahl’s illustrations. Alice Wexler, who has written two volumes on Goldman (Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life and Emma Goldman in Exile: From the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War), offers these thoughts in her foreword to this book:

And how fitting for one who believed deeply in the power of art to transform lives that her biography now comes to us through graphic images. In the pages of this book we see her vivid and alive. These are not the haunted still photographs taken by the police or by prison or immigration officials for the purpose of identification or incarceration…compelling as these images are, they document limited moments in Goldman’s biography, usually of heightened surveillance. Rudahl goes beyond those moments to give us the full measure of Goldman as she traversed the great events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse by Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace
Book Digest Think cyberspace is a wild and crazy place? Or perhaps you are like me and you are clueless about the games and life forms that have been spawned by/in the digisphere. Here’s a story that transmogrifies from an online news tidbit to the real front page of the real New York Times—Peter Ludlow lands in the weeds for his reporting at Second Life’s Alphaville Herald. What happens to him and what he does and, most importantly, what this indicates about the internet, is fascinating.

» Read excerpts from The Second Life Herald

The Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century by Studs Terkel
Book Digest I hope I don’t have to tell you who the 95-year-old Chicagoan Studs is (you might have a look at his recent memoir Touch and Go). Suffice it to say, this anthology excerpts interviews from eight of a dozen of his classic works, including American Dreams, Coming of Age, Division Street, The Good War, The Great Divide, Hard Times, Race, and Working. Calvin Trillin nails Terkel in the preface: “Studs Terkel’s accomplishments as America’s preeminent listener are all the more remarkable when you consider the fact he happens to be a prodigious talker. He is, in other words, a monument to restraint…”

Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work by Jason Brown
Book Digest Maine man Brown, who was a Wallace Stegner and a Truman Capote Fellow at Stanford University, offers a series of linked stories set “down east.” Echoing cheery writers like Andre Dubus, Russell Banks, and Denis Johnson, Harvard’s director of creative writing Bret Anthony Johnston extols Brown’s book: “I’ve long considered Jason Brown one of the country’s best short-story writers, and this brilliant new collection confirms it. These beautifully crafted stories are muscular and illuminating, heartrending and haunting. Brown’s voice and vision are fiercely original and wickedly satisfying, like a reader’s answered prayers.”

Credit Open City Books with another fine find.

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