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Book Digest: December 17, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: The Fall of the House of Bush; Hold Everything Dear; The Long Embrace; The Art of Small Things; Terminal; The Great Funk; The Case for Greatness; Night Train to Lisbon; The Wind From the East; Body Politic; Brooklyn Was Mine.

From The Once and Future King by T.H. White:
The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.
Happy Holidays—such as they are.

The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America’s Future by Craig Unger
Book Digest Unger, whose first exposé of the House of Bush was notable, encores with this tome whose subtitle is its own synopsis. One of my favorite parts of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was Moore chatting up Unger across the street from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. Within moments of the film rolling, Secret Service agents show up inquiring into the nature of the activities. (In case you don’t know, the Secret Service is not charged with the responsibility of overseeing foreign embassy security.) Unger rejoins the growing chorus of voices lifting the locks from the shameful—and dare I say, illegal—activities of a band of zealots. As if you needed more evidence.

» Read an excerpt from The Fall of the House of Bush

Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance by John Berger
Book Digest In a cultural landscape peopled by many originals, Berger continues to stand out—as a filmmaker, poet, philosopher, novelist, and essayist, among other preoccupations. In this book he collects 17 essays, all written since the watershed year of 2001, and pondering the nature of terrorism with various offered explanations for its rise. Berger opines:
Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analysed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.
This is one of Berger’s more straightforward locutions. More elliptical pronouncements abound as he weaves the July 7 bombings in London, the plight of the Palestinians, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the paintings of Bacon, the films of Pasolini, Hurricane Katrina, the invasion of Iraq, the stories of Platonov, the poetry of Hikmet, Sept. 11, the music of Dvorak, and the philosophies of Spinoza and Heidegger into a splendid prose textile.

» Read an excerpt from Hold Everything Dear

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman
Book Digest Most authors, including the scribblers of hardboiled crime fiction, live ordinary, milquetoast lives—not so the creator of Philip Marlowe and classics such as The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, and unforgettable bon mots like “He has more chins than the San Francisco phonebook.” Novelist Freeman turns her narrative gaze to Chandler’s life and loves, focusing on his marriage to Cissy Pascal, and tracing a map across Los Angeles with the 24 or so residences the Chandlers occupied. Jonathan Lethem knows something about the weight of place in fiction, and extols:
This elegant, stirring book plumbs a great mystery, one hidden, from even Chandler’s many devoted readers, in plain sight. Freeman’s book is a meditation on marriage, a persuasive biographical and literary study, and, best of all, one of those rare books, like Nicholson Baker’s U and I [Updike] or Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage [DH Lawrence], where one writer’s study of another takes the form of a confessional fugue on the writing act itself.
» Read an excerpt from The Long Embrace

The Art of Small Things by John Mack
Book Digest English art historian Mack offers up a wide range of objects—from Mughal miniature paintings, ancient Egyptian amulets, Ashanti gold weights, and Aztec jade figures to Hindu temple carts, English prints and drawings, classical Greek jewelry, maps, mosaics, models, and magical gems—in this well-illustrated book analysis of the miniature form. And, equally fascinating, Mack takes on the issue of scale and size in defining the notion of miniature: How small or large can a miniature be? Even if the conceptual matters at hand don’t delight you, the pictures will light the way.

Terminal by Andrew Vachss
Book Digest I was a big fan of the Burke novels by Vacchs until I found myself losing interest in crime series. But having skipped a number of the past few, I thought I would check in with Vachss’s latest. The prose is crisp and snappy (and wryly funny) and the writer knows the street and the jailhouse and puts together a good storyline. The dark renegade Burke has aged and been forced to change some of his M.O., making him not quite predictable. I’m glad I checked in.

» Read an excerpt from Terminal

The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies by Thomas Hine
Book Digest An authority no greater than House & Garden has deigned to call Hine (Populuxe) “America’s sharpest design critic.” In his earlier catalogue Hine examined and commented on the design features of everyday life in the 1950s and ‘60s. In his latest opus he dares to reexamine what I find to be the lost decade in American culture—the ‘70s, a time that conventional wisdom frequently calls the “Me” decade. Hine is at least interesting and imaginative when establishing links between the popularity of some color or shape in a moment’s design order and what it means for the zeitgeist. Another way of saying this is that he may not be right, but what he suggests is fun to consider.

» Read an excerpt from The Great Funk

The Case for Greatness by Robert Faulkner
Book Digest How silly was it that the Clinton campaign attempted to malign Barack Obama by quoting a kindergarten essay on his interest in becoming president? This incident calls attention to an underlying discomfort that seems to exist regarding ambition—which makes Boston College political scientist Faulkner’s well-considered discussion timely. Citing such worthies from Alcibiades and Cyrus the Great to Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, Faulkner invites us to view the notion of leadership and greatness with an eye to “honorable ambition.” He also considers modern critiques of political greatness—of Hobbes, Kant, Nietzsche, Rawls, and Arendt. Ultimately the argument is to secure “a reasonable understanding of excellence.” Also a noble ambition.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav
Book Digest I suppose I should mention that this novel is a huge international bestseller, though I don’t know if American antipathy to fiction in translation has subsided. In any case, this novel has the coloration and feel of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams or Peter Handke’s Crossing the Sierra de Gredos. In Mercier’s story, Raimund Gregorius is a Latin teacher at a Bern gymnasium who abruptly abandons his humdrum, routine life after encountering a Portuguese woman on a bridge in the rain. He is obsessed with a book by Portuguese essayist Amadeu de Prado, and takes the night train to Lisbon to learn more about the object of his fascination. A more complete picture begins to emerge and thus, of course, the stuff of fine fiction.

» Read an excerpt from Night Train to Lisbon

The Wind From the East by Almudena Grandes, translated by Sonia Soto
Book Digest As long as I am straying from home shores, Spanish novelist Almudena Grandes’s latest embodies parallel narratives, in Madrid and in an Andalusian coastal town. In her story, Sara Gómes Morales suffers travails one recalls from children’s fairytales: abandonment and poverty. And then there are brothers Juan and Damien, in love with the same woman. One night they argue and Damian falls down a flight of stairs and dies. Fearing he might be blamed, Juan flees to a small coastal town. Guess who lives there? Guess what happens next? I’m not telling.

Body Politic by David Shields
Book Digest Though I am not a fan of the soft-cover iteration (I cannot even get myself to call them books) I admit they, in an imperfect world have their uses. In this case, Shields (Remote Control, Dead Languages, Enough About You), a writer I admire, offers original insights into sports in America. Bill Littlefield of NPR’s Only a Game offers:
The essays in this book are all driven by the curiosity of their author…and by his ability to build large and enlightening conclusions from thoughtful (if sometimes risky) observations…. He writes like a man who is convinced that he has discovered an inexhaustible subject…. He is especially intriguing when he explores those circumstances where the worst thing an athlete can do is think. Unlike a lot of writers who have tried too hard to draw life conclusions from the games they watch, Shields suggests connections and then steps away to see if they’ll stand.
» Read an excerpt from Body Politic

Brooklyn Was Mine edited by Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker
Book Digest Given the literary mystique that imbues Brooklyn, it was inevitable that someone would assemble a paean to the borough. Here, 20 essays by talented writers such as Emily Barton, Susan Choi, Rachel Cline, Philip Dray, Jennifer Egan, Colin Harrison, Joanna Hershon, Jonathan Lethem, Dinaw Mengestu, Elizabeth Gaffney, Lara Vapnyar, Lawrence Osborne, Katie Roiphe, John Burnham Schwartz, Vijay Seshadri, Darcey Steinke, Darin Strauss, Alexandra Styron, Robert Sullivan, and Michael Thomas make for some inspired prose. Phillip Lopate’s introduction takes a measured and somber view:
Who is to say what will become of the place or whether Brooklyn will retain its soul? I like to think it will. In any event we can take heart from the eloquent writing in these pages which proves that whatever happens to Brooklyn as built environment in the near future, its literary soul is sound and robust, and its writers fiercely loyal.
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