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Reading

Book Digest: February 18, 2008

Robert Birnbaum asks Richard Russo for book picks. Also: Unrecounted; My Unwritten Books; Torture and Democracy; The Learners; Gone to Ground; The Poem of a Life; Girl Meets Boy; The Forger; Artists in Exile; The Lodger Shakespeare; Nazi Literature in the Americas; The Point; Glimmer Train No. 66.

Recently I sent a note to Richard Russo:
In an obviously crass attempt to piggyback on the name recognition and star power of others, I am going to introduce a (I was tempted to say “new” but this hardly an original idea) featurette to my weekly Book Digest at The Morning News. I will be asking various of my literary acquaintances for their current reading list or whatever has been impressive in a literary way. A list, a short paragraph (or more). Whatever.
Of course, all my literary acquaintances are not famous and award-winning authors. No doubt some are occupying musty garrets on obscure Midwestern campuses and perhaps would revel (maybe that’s too strong a sentiment) in the thought that someone out there cares a fig about anything they think.

Richard responded:
Robert—

I’ve read several terrific books of late. They come in waves, don’t they? First, the new biography of Raymond Chandler’s marriage, Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace. Absolutely riveting to me. Next, Then We Came to the End, which I wasn’t sure I’d like because of the gimmicky 3rd-person-plural point of view…but what a great book, rich and smart and, in the end, unexpectedly and very powerfully moving. Then Out Stealing Horses, not a single gimmick in sight, and richly rewarding. And finally, just started, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, with its own gimmick, and the great promise of substance to back it up. All this in the same month. Wow. On the horizon, Cathy Day’s memoir of football and love, one of which I’m still fond of.

Rick
And so folks, more to come.

Unrecounted by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hamburger; with lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp
Book Digest At the millennial turn, Sebald (Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants) was enjoying an ever-increasing popularity—at least by the literary journalistic establishment—which his 2001 death in a car crash hasn’t diminished. This unusual collaboration commingles Sebald’s “micro-poems” with 33 lithographs by close friend and artist Tripp. Poet and critic Adam Kirsch comments: “The images…set up a mysterious dialogue with the text, rather like the photos Sebald inserted into his novels.”

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner
Book Digest Harvard mentor, literary scholar, and writer Steiner (On Difficulty and Other Essays, Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966, The Death of Tragedy) makes the audacious gambit of writing about books he hasn’t written yet—it’s a matter of these discussions whether he could have ever written them. Steiner’s originality yields elucidation on some of the expectations and disappointments he encounters in thinking about and writing a book. A neat trick indeed—writing about not writing.

Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali
Book Digest I hesitate to even offer this book for consideration as I have a feeling that the audience for books on torture—especially ones that are more than 900 pages long—is, shall we say, an exclusive one. I do recommend Nicholas Kristof’s recent column in The New York Times. At 741 words, it’s an approachable and incendiary warm-up for Reed College political scientist Rejali’s tome, which considers the question: “Is torture compatible with modern democracies, and if so, how? I focus on new techniques designed to leave little evidence of brutality, techniques that have an affinity for democracies, rather than dictatorships.”

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from Torture and Democracy

The Learners by Chip Kidd
Book Digest The perky and effervescent Kidd bubbles up into the literary wellspring with a chipper (did I really write that?) and engaging sequel to 2002’s The Cheese Monkeys. The five-ton white elephant in this story’s room is the infamous 1961 Yale University Milgram obedience experiments. So there is that, and then the mildly nostalgic tour of pre-computer graphic design (X-Acto knives, mechanicals, registration lines, blue pencils, and stat cameras)—all in all, a fun time. And as one would expect from Kidd, a number of book-design flourishes, not the least of which are the cover illustrations by the inimitable Charles Burns.

» Read an excerpt from The Learners

Gone to Ground by John Harvey
Book Digest British crime novelist Harvey (Lonely Hearts, Cold Light, Flesh and Blood, Ash & Bone) returns to familiar terrain with this page-turner about the investigation of the violent death of an academic who was writing about ‘50s film star Stella Leonard, who died under mysterious circumstances.

» Read an excerpt from Gone to Ground

The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky by Mark Scroggins
Book Digest What is to be said about a poet who spends 50 years writing an 800-page poem called “A”, the complete version of which was not even published until after his death? One thing is the very smart Zukowsky’s intellectual connection to two American cultural titans: Henry James and Henry Adams. The second is that you need not be a devotee of Zukofsky to appreciate the biographical narrative that Scroggins presents, though it must be clear that he does focus on explicating Zukofsky’s poetic masterwork. It’s all right, you could stand a little poet tasting.

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith
Book Digest Canongate has a series of literary reinterpretations called “Myths,” featuring authors like Chinua Achebe, Margaret Atwood (Penelopiad), Karen Armstrong, A.S. Byatt, David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Natsuo Kirino, Alexander McCall Smith, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Victor Pelevin, Donna Tartt, Su Tong, Dubravka Ugresic, Salley Vickers, and Jeanette Winterson (Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles). Ali Smith’s latest is her take on Ovid. Need I say more?

The Forger by Cioma Schönhaus, translated by Alan Bance
Book Digest It’s highly unlikely that the great stories yet to emerge from the annals of World War II will be exhausted anytime soon, if ever. In this true story, Schönhaus, a 20-year-old graphic artist living in Germany, forges exit documents for people at risk of deportation to death camps—and thus he is credited with helping to save hundreds of lives. In spite of being on the Gestapo’s wanted list, Schönhaus leads a flamboyant life, ultimately eluding his black-shirted hunters by bicycling to Switzerland.

Artists in Exile by Joseph Horowitz
Book Digest To attribute benefits to the nexus of horrors we refer to as a “world war” is uncomfortable and unfortunate, but that such artists as Kurt Weill and Greta Garbo transplanted themselves to America to escape the war was this country’s (and the world’s) great gain. The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella waxes enthusiastic:
This is a staggeringly comprehensive book that manages to be deep, as well, and poignant. Most of these artists had been better off at home, but between Hitler and Stalin, they had no home left. The profit was ours. Horowitz’s writing is beautiful, his tone relaxed, his judgments both measured and bold. The book is a page-turner.
» Read an excerpt from Artists in Exile

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl
Book Digest The only occasion on which Shakespeare’s actual spoken words were recorded was in a court case in 1612. Nicholl uses this case as a window into the Bard’s life and reportedly has unearthed new and original information about William Shakespeare during the period in which he wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, and King Lear.

» Read an excerpt from The Lodger Shakespeare

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Robert Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews
Book Digest The posthumous re-publication of Chilean novelist Bolaños’s oeuvre has been greeted with unfettered enthusiasm and delight by countless reviewers (e.g., Francisco Goldman)—especially last year’s The Savage Detectives. Now comes this literary oddity—Bolaño fashions 13 biographies of imaginary writers, albeit in real settings. It was the book, published in 1996, to grab the literary establishment in Europe.

» Read an excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas

The Point by Charles D’Ambrosio
Book Digest In 2006 D’Ambrosio published his second story collection, The Dead Fish Museum—most of which had appeared in The New Yorker—fully 10 years after his wonderful published debut, The Point, the title story of which also was first published in The New Yorker. And extra-literarily, any book of such antiquity that still lives in close proximity to me is one in which I take great pleasure.

Glimmer Train No. 66
Book Digest Glimmer Train is one of the few literary publications that have avoided the bondage of university affiliation. The two Oregonian lasses who put this magazine together manage to imbue it with a wholesome enthusiasm and a handmade, artisanal authenticity. This issue features the usual short-form gems by the usual wordcrafters and interviews with Ruth Ozeki and Jay McInerny. This issue is dedicated to Siobhan Dowd and Deborah Tarnoff, who both died of breast cancer in 2007, and to Virginia Howland Rozycki Keegan, who died of breast cancer 30 years ago—all of whom the editors credit with living and dying courageously.

» Read excerpts from Glimmer Train No. 66

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