Book Digest: February 28, 2006

Ralph Eugene Meatyard; The Adventure of the Missing Detective and 25 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories; Brides and Sinners in El Chuco; New Orleans, Mon Amour; Selected Writings; Something Happened; Look at the Dark; The Big Why; Rebels, Turn Out Your Dead; The Last of Her Kind

Here are some things axiomatic for me in my take on talking about books: 1) There are far too many books and writers deserving of the meager attention doled our by America’s mainstream literary press; 2) I am not at all constrained by whatever Byzantine code or principles book editors use in their choices for review coverage; 3) So-called “book notices” are preferable to an excess of mucked-up verbiage and veiled tendentious agendas (either the reviewer’s or the editor’s); and finally, 4) The ever-growing population of readers and book lovers who deserve a wide snapshot of what’s available in print without having to resort to the expensive and sometimes stultifying study of book-industry trade magazines. OK, then, to the job at hand…

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a collection of photographs introduced by Guy Davenport
This well-designed book on photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) includes about 200 photographs and an interview with Davenport, who was a close friend of the photographer. In a 1974 essay reprinted in the collection, Davenport writes, “He was rare among American artists in that he was not obsessed with his own image in the world. He could therefore live in perfect privacy in a rotting Kentucky town…This modesty amounted to there being at least two distinct Gene Meatyards in the world: the invisible Lexington businessman, and a genius who achieved one of the most beautiful styles in twentieth century art.”

Meatyard’s work is housed at the Museum of Modern Art; the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.; and the Smithsonian Institution, just to name a few.

Mario Cutajar observes:
It is a cruel but fitting irony for a photographer as profoundly distrustful of appearances as Meatyard was, that he should owe his posthumous recognition in part to being misunderstood as a precursor of art-school manufactured talents like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Their success is testimony to little besides the profitability of indulging the undiminished need of an aging population of baby boomers to distance themselves from their ostensibly simple-minded, repressed parents.
The Adventure of the Missing Detective and 25 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg
The year anthologized in this soft cover (not my iteration of choice) is 2004, and these two veteran mystery editors have assembled a good selection of stories—but even better, they have some included some good overviews of the genre by Jon Breen, Edward Hoch, Maxim Jakubowski, and Sara Weinman, who illuminates “The Newest Four-Letter Word in Mystery.” (I’ll leave you to figure out what the word is.) There are a number of worthy annual crime fiction collections (Otto Penzler’s come to mind), so it remains to be seen if this one will stick. I, for one, hope it does.

Brides and Sinners in El Chuco by Christine Granados
Dagoberto Gilb does a far better job than me of talking about his former student’s publishing debut: “Defying what is expected of a Chicana writer, Granados is helping to re-orient Latino literature, away from poignant, romanticized goody-goodyism, toward stark complex storytelling that will remind the many of us who have grown up imperfectly what it is to be living on the embattled fronteras of Mexican and American.” Granados, reminiscent of Oscar Casares’s story collection Brownsville, presents 14 stories set in El Paso—or “El Chuco,” as it’s known to Mexican-Americans.

New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City edited by Andrei Codrescu
In retrospect my reverence for the city of New Orleans is obvious when it is noted that I have commended the beleaguered burg’s coffee and rice and have a great love for the music New Orleans has bequeathed to a selectively appreciative nation. In fact, I was contemplating moving to the Big Easy before nature reduced it to a state of emergency and seat of national shame. Thus, an anthology of writings on the city by Romanian expatriate, Renaissance man, and Exquisite Corpse editor Andrei Codrescu is a welcome addition to my New Orleans bibliography.

Selected Writings: Rubén Dario edited by Ilan Stavans, translations by Andrew Hurley, Greg Simon, Steven White
Alongside Jose Marti (well, maybe a step or two behind that giant), Nicaraguan Félix Rubén García Sarmiento (aka Rubén Dario) stands as a titan of Pan-American literature and is credited with (among another things) leading the Modernista movement that raged in the Spanish-speaking parts of the Americas in the late 19th century. Penguin Classics, which had previously published a terrific selected anthology of Marti, has done another great literary service by collecting 70 of Dario’s poems and providing a useful biographical essay by the ubiquitous Ilan Stavans.

Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies by Edward D. Berkowitz
Can I say that I found the ‘70s to be my own personal Dark Ages—in large part because my most vivid recollections seem to have a Saturday Night Fever soundtrack? At any rate, Professor Berkowitz’s study is the first that I have noticed of that dumb decade—oddly, I think there have been more histories of the ‘80s published. Thus, he gets big credit for going where fools have not yet rushed in.

Look at the Dark by Nicholas Mosley
For serious literary hounds, the Dalkey Archive Press is one of the oases of important (perhaps a negatively weighted word, but we’ll get over it) fiction, both American and global. Part of the Center for Book Culture, it sprang out of founder John O’Brien’s not uncommon sense that the writers he was interested in were not being written about—as much a reason to begin a publishing imprint as any. The press’s latest offering is British novelist Nicholas Mosley’s 14th novel, Look at the Dark, which the Dalkey Press synopsizes as follows:

A retired academic and writer is becoming a media celebrity of sorts, appearing on various talk shows to voice his controversial views on human nature and war. While in New York to make such an appearance, he becomes the victim of a hit-and-run—set up by the CIA? the FBI? terrorists?—and ends up confined to a hospital bed. This forced inactivity allows him to reflect on his life—the work he has done, the women he has known—as various people from his life gather around him.

The Big Why by Michael Winter
Though The Big Why is Michael Winter’s fourth book and was published in Canada in 2004, it is the author’s American debut. Winter fictionalizes a year in the life of American artist Rockwell Kent in the remote island nation of Newfoundland around the time of the stirrings of the Great War. Consider fellow Canadian Joseph Boyden’s blurb: “Michael Winter casts a gorgeous and intricate net. He’s done something a more than a little miraculous: he’s breathed life into our concept of the novel. Rockwell Kent and his art are no longer images of the past. The man is contemporary, funny, alive. These characters and this place I will never forget.”

Rebels, Turn Out Your Dead by Michael Drinkard
While the popularity and impact of Howard Zinn’s People’s History went a long way to democratizing native historiography, American fiction has rarely taken up the gauntlet. A few years ago there was Paul Lussier’s Last Refuge of Scoundrels, a bottom-up view of the American Revolution, and now comes Rebels, Turn Out Your Dead. In this novel, Salt, a Long Island hemp farmer, finds himself imprisoned on a British prison ship in Brooklyn harbor, not long after his teenage son has shot a British army officer. From the author’s afterword: “Reading history one thread kept pulling at me: how many ordinary people were simply caught in the wrong place and the wrong time and how they were radicalized by the experience.” Drinkard claims the idea for the book came after he discovered that more people died in the Revolutionary War after being held on prison ships than in all the battles combined. And this book tells with wry humor a small piece of that enormous story.

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
Read this novel.

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