Book Digest: December 3, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: A Free Life; Silent Movies; Born Standing Up; The Fall of Troy; My Dearest Friend; City Lights; Different Engines; W.A. Mozart; Legends of Rock; André Kertész: The Polaroids; Glimmer Train No. 65.

Not that I expect anything for such efforts, but a trickle of perspiration did break out as I pondered the pros and cons of participating in the year-end list frenzy. Faithful readers may recall I offered a best-of-the-year-so-far list in July to alleviate this creative logjam. If you have ideas on this matter—or books to recommend—get in touch.

Jim Harrison, writing on Charles Bukowski’s newly issued collection The Pleasures of the Damned:
Poetry shouldn’t tell us what we already know, though of course it can revive what we think we know. A durable poet, the rarest of all birds, has a unique point of view and the gift of language to express it. The unique point of view can often come from a mental or physical deformity. Deep within us, but also on the surface, is the wounded ugly boy who has never caught an acceptable angle of himself in the mirror. A poet can have a deep sense of himself as a Quasimodo in a world without bells…. It is not poetry that lasts but good poems, a critical difference. An attractive idea is that the test of poetry should be the same as Henry James’s dictum for the novel, that it be interesting.
A Free Life by Ha Jin
Book Digest I happened to read Ha Jin’s internationally acclaimed novel Waiting in a hospital ER, febrile and awash in some seasonal pestilence that caused me to endure the various indignities and suffering that, as you all know, one is subjected to in such a place. Probably it was a propitious ambience in which to appreciate Jin’s tome. One of the obvious points of fascination about Ha Jin is his predilection for writing in English—a challenge he seems to have met admirably—which obviates any questions about the merits of his lucid prose. He has gone on to write a number of other well-received books of fiction and poetry (War Trash, Ocean of Words) and now, after six years of effort, offers us (as it seems all émigré authors eventually get around to) a novel set in the U.S.—the tale of the Wu family’s immigration experience in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Ruth Franklin offers this insight:
Somewhat less convincing is Jin’s other major stylistic choice. While his other works have been rigorously structured (Waiting is often cited as a touchstone of elegant concision), A Free Life is loose and baggy, with episodes that lead down dead ends and digressions that amount to little… It is a testimony to Jin’s abilities that the novel manages to be engrossing despite its total disregard for narrative tension. The charm of A Free Life comes from its cheerful subversiveness, its gentle upending of the most persistent myths about the creation of art. Though Nan, like his creator, may always “need the hyphen,” his refusal to be stereotyped is thoroughly American.
» Read an excerpt from A Free Life

Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel
Book Digest Peter Kobel mucks his way through the vast informational pool known as the Library of Congress to assemble a visual history of silent film ranging from its origins at the end of the 19th century to its obsolescence by the late 1920s. Though not particularly well-designed, this volume does offer itself as a compendium of memorabilia and collateral materials. Martin Scorsese, who is committed to restoration of silent and early sound films, contributes a foreword.

» Read an excerpt from Silent Movies

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
Book Digest In the cultural wasteland of the ‘70s Steve Martin stood at the pinnacle of standup comedy—with all due respect to Richard Pryor. By 1981, he hung up his banjo and arrowhead piece, and this autobiography serves to tell the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.” He tells it well, as anyone familiar with his frequent contributions to The New Yorker and his novels Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company would expect. In case you have questioned whether Martin’s life is worth reading about, Chip McGrath does a useful profile (complete with a photo of Martin with a subtly humorous caption)

» Read an excerpt from Born Standing Up

The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd
Book Digest This is not an updated Iliad nor a Mary Stewart romantic revision of Greek history. (By the way, the Ridley Scott-produced Troy was a surprisingly satisfying epic despite the odd choice of Brad Pitt as Achilles.) This is the able Ackroyd rendering ancient history through the lens of a gaggle of archaeologists, including the protagonist, German Heinrich Obermann, whose ambitions and fantasies provide the drive to this narrative. Is Obermann a scoundrel? A hero? How might this affect the way we see and shape history? Interesting questions all, you will discover. Tim Rutten opines:
… a sly, witty and oddly engaging novel that meditates on literature and idealism and the uses and misuses of both. It takes full and knowing advantage of the archaeological metaphor to suggest how human experience can reveal itself to the discerning, one stratum at a time.
» Read an excerpt from The Fall of Troy

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor
Book Digest A sad fact, or so I believe, of our modern times is the quelling of the epistolary impulse. And to be replaced by the vulgar and inept expressions of electronic mail is double injury. This new edition of the John and Abigail Adams letters, including some never before published, refreshes what many observers consider the paradigmatic correspondence in American history. It also showed Abigail Adams as a woman of prodigious talents and shrewd insights on matters small and large. As other people’s letters go, I am looking forward to the publication (which I hope happens in my lifetime) of the letters of Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane, two fine fellows and able writers whose almost-lifelong friendship has reportedly included a large body of correspondence. They well may have created the last great one…

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from My Dearest Friend

City Lights: Stories About New York by Dan Barry
Book Digest Quite possibly I have missed a new generation of newspaper writers whose familiarity with and sensitivity to their urban bailiwick, as well as a gift for pungent and nimble prose, has made them an essential part of their cities’ cultures—I’m thinking of Herb Cain, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, and Murray Kempton. Possibly Dan Barry is a modern-day version of those types. As a columnist for the New York Times, he has written the kinds of essays that exhibit the wealth of possibility in the tagline for the ‘60s TV crime show—there are millions of stories in the naked city.

» Read an excerpt from City Lights

Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science by Mark Brake and Neil Hook
Book Digest The relationship between speculative fiction and science—or as the publisher claims, the “symbiosis”—is a subject ripe for investigation and speculation by devotees of either or both. As the authors write:
Science fiction began with the scientific revolution. It marks the paradigm shift of the Old Universe into the new. Aristotle’s cosy geocentric cosmos was about us. The new Universe of Kepler and Galileo was decentralized, inhuman, infinite, and alien. Historically then, science fiction is a response to the cultural shock created by the discovery of humanity’s marginal position in a Universe fundamentally inhospitable to man. Science fiction is our attempt to make human sense of Copernicus’s new Universe.
If you can put up with the odd quirks of capitalization in this book, you ought to find it useful and stimulating.

W.A. Mozart by Hermann Abert; translated by Stewart Spencer; edited by Cliff Eisen
Book Digest This 80-year-old, 1,600-page behemoth is being republished and updated—no doubt because it is one of the definitive biographies of Mozart. One can only imagine what Leipzig professor Abert would have written had Mozart lived longer. In any case, if a truly exhaustive study is to your taste and endurance, this volume can serve many uses. Eisen makes a key point:
For all his discussion of biography, of social circumstance, of commerce and industry, patrons and the public, it is Abert’s firm belief that, above all, Mozart’s music expresses Mozart himself, his keen observation of, and boundless empathy for, his fellow man: “…it is impossible to separate his life from his music: in both, the same force is at work.” And it is here that I profoundly disagree with Abert: as I see it, Mozart was a keen observer of mankind, and boundlessly empathetic, but what he expressed in his music was us, not himself. Put another way, Mozart was the consummate artist, able to manipulate and cajole his listeners, to draw them in and draw them out, to create art, to construct art not for the sake of self-expression but to allow us to express ourselves.
You may not have to read the book after all.

» Read excerpts from W.A. Mozart

Legends of Rock: The Artists, Instruments, Myths and History of 50 Years of Youth Music by Ernesto Assante
Book Digest Almost 500 pages of pictures from early rock to now: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Hendrix, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, Green Day, and on and on. It’s a sumptuous cornucopia of information about pop music with lots of incidental stuff about cover art, fashion, and instruments—almost more than you need to know.

André Kertész: The Polaroids by Robert Grubo
Book Digest The story goes that while grieving after his wife’s death, master photographer Kertész took up the latest photographic innovation of the time, the Polaroid SX70. Robert Grubo, the curator/executor of the Kertész estate, has put together this slender monograph of previously unpublished photographs, which were Kertész’s last work.

Glimmer Train No. 65
Book Digest Readers of this space will by now have noted my regard for and attention to “those so-called small magazines” that feed like tributaries into the mighty surging river of modern literature. Oregon-based Glimmer Train is one of those in which you can find a steady stream of unfamiliar names who—if you are paying attention—become familiar names with some regularity. This issue includes interviews with novelists Thisbe Nissen, Carl Phillips, and Steve Almond, and calls attention to the plight of Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi.

» Read excerpts from Glimmer Train No. 65

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