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Book Digest: February 4, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: Salt River; The Seventh Well; In Search of the Blues; Into the Tunnel; My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead; Walt and Skeezix: Book Three; The Mighty Wurlizter; Sympathy for the Devil; Rostoprovich; Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy; A Treatise on Civil Order; Her Last Death; The Soul Thief; Land Grant College Review.

James Wood, Harvard mentor, literary critic (late of The New Republic, now of The New Yorker), and once and future novelist (The Book of God), has a new book, How Fiction Works, coming out this spring. In a 2006 article he stated: “The realist writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.”

Actually, I take exception to almost everything this is about. But I do appreciate the boldness of Wood’s vision and the passion of his commitment to literature.

Salt River by James Sallis
Book Digest This new novel from thriller writer Sallis takes place two years after the shooting of Deputy Sheriff John Turner’s girlfriend. The narrative spins around the sudden reappearance of the sheriff’s long-lost son and a friend claiming to be wanted for murder and unable to remember the circumstances. Promising material—certainly in the hands of a craftsman like Sallis.

The Seventh Well by Fred Wander
Book Digest In 1938 Fred Wander left his family in Vienna and made his way to France on foot. After the war reached France, he was shipped to Auschwitz, and then a number of other camps, finally being liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. Apparently haunted by the stories of his fellow inmates, he was moved to write this novel after the sudden death of his young daughter years later. It was originally published in 1970 in East Germany and is now presented in English by master translator Michael Hofmann. The title is a Dante-esque reference to the well of truth.

In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton
Book Digest British Historian Hamilton presents a revisionist account of the Delta Blues. She argues that the story as previously presented is a mythical mid-20th-century artifice. American historian and music lover Sean Wilentz opines:
Marybeth Hamilton’s gripping new book tells of seekers, ranters, scholars, oddballs, propagandists, and down-and-out loners, united in a search for the Mississippi Delta blues. More than anybody, she says, this quirky and dedicated band not simply recovered the blues but turned Delta music into one of the fundamentals of modern musical culture.”
Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 by Götz Aly
Book Digest I didn’t mean to get caught up in a Holocaust literary boomlet, but here’s another story rooted in that time. Aly researches the history, previously unknown, of Marion Samuel, an 11-year-old Jewish girl killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Along the way he recovered seemingly unrecoverable documents and even ferrets out a comment Samuel made to a school friend: “People disappear…into the tunnel.”

My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories From Chekhov to Munro edited by Jeffrey Eugenides
Book Digest The title tells it all, doesn’t it? Except that all the proceeds from this collection fund the free youth writing programs offered by 826 Chicago. And that the feel and look of this tome have a definite McSweeney’s feel. From Eugenides’s introduction:
The book you’re holding in your hands, which takes its title from Catullus, is an anthology of love stories…. Despite the multiplicity of subjects and situations treated here, one Catullan requirement remains in force throughout. In each of these twenty-six love stories, either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.
» Read an excerpt from My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead

Walt and Skeezix: Book Three by Frank King
Book Digest This is the third volume of the Walt and Skeezix (Gasoline Alley) series of reprints offered by Drawn and Quarterly, designed by cartoonist Chris Ware. It includes an 80-page introduction with photos of cartoonist King and his family and tchotchkes from Ware’s personal collection. This is a cartoon admirer’s dream, well-printed and well-designed.

» See a preview [pdf] of Walt and Skeezix: Book Three

The Mighty Wurlizter by Hugh Wilford
Book Digest Obviously it’s bad news for a spy agency when the news media and scholastic spotlight continue to shine brightly on its activities and blunders, past and present. Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes didn’t show the Central Intelligence Agency in a flattering light and in this tome Hugh Wilford recounts CIA official Frank Wisner’s reference to an operation that was secretly funding and managing a wide range of citizen front groups as his “mighty Wurlitzer”—meaning he could play any kind of propaganda tune. This is the first book on that operation, first exposed in 1967 by the muckraking (that’s a good thing) magazine Ramparts. It is about time.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Mighty Wurlizter

Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967 by Dominic Molon, Diedrich Diederichsen, Anthony Elms, Dan Graham, Matthew Higgs, Richard Hell, Mike Kelley, Jutta Koether, Bob Nickas, Simon Reynolds, and Jan Tumlir
Book Digest Music and art—pretty obvious huh? The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago recently ended an exhibition displaying the intimate relationship between the visual arts and rock ‘n’ roll culture, most obviously via album covers and concert posters and various forms of collateral material and ultimately, video. Featuring artists such as Slater Bradley, Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, and yes, Andy Warhol, and art-school-spawned musicians like Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Pete Townsend, and David Byrne. Dominic Molon curated the show and edited this book that serves as the exhibition catalogue.

Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend by Elizabeth Wilson
Book Digest Cellist and Rostoprovich student Wilson (Shostakovich: A Life Remembered) writes: “It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of the cello in the twentieth century would be unthinkable without the name of Mstislav Rostropovich. He has seemed to me like a personification of the cello itself.” Rostropovich, who died recently at the age of 80, was certainly a great musician and by this and other accounts a great mentor. Ms. Wilson also paints him as “an outsize personality, and a courageous human being.” So if there is any truth to that you can be assured that there will be more books on the universally admired “Slava.”

Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy by Eric D. Weitz
Book Digest I wonder if people who lived in Germany during the post-Great War debacle now known as Weimar thought of it as a transformative time—and not all callow hedonism and cabaret. Historian Weitz revels in Weimar achievements and frees it of the burden of prelude to the Nazi tragedy. He manages to convey the vitality and creativity displayed everywhere in Berlin as it assumed a role as a world center. Interesting pictures also included.

» Read an excerpt from Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

A Treatise of Civil Power by Geoffrey Hill
Book Digest If you are familiar with the history of poetry you will note that Hill takes the title for his new collection of poems from John Milton’s pamphlet of 1659—where he attacked church corruption and the notion of a state church. Hill also alludes to other poets—Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, William Blake, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman—as we are once again invited to partake of what the publisher calls Hill’s “obsessions—language, governance, war, politics, the contemporary and classical worlds, and the nature of poetry itself.” Harold Bloom, whom you are free to regard as you wish, considers Hill the greatest living British poet:
If I could cite only one stanza by Hill as being wholly representative of him, it would be this, for here is his power, his despair, and (in spite of himself) his Word…. When Hill says, “Our God scatters corruption,” he means that the God of lovers (and of poets) is antithetical to Himself, that this God is the ambivalent deity of all Gnostics…
Her Last Death: A Memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg
Book Digest The subtly sexually suggestive dust jacket is, I suppose, meant to invite us to speculate on the personality and character of Sonnenberg’s reputedly wild and seductive mother, the subject of this work, and the manner of struggle the author endured to right her own world. James Salter asserts: “An irresistible book that is shimmering with life and the portrait of a glorious, frenzied, seductive woman who of necessity has been left, along with Susanna Sonnenberg’s young womanhood, behind. Her mother.”

» Read an excerpt from Her Last Death

The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter
Book Digest Much joy abounds in my little world at the arrival of a new opus by Charles Baxter (Saul and Patsy). Having discovered the congenial Baxter in the mid-’90s, I have been pleased to continue reading both his fiction (of which there are nine volumes) and his nonfiction, most notably Burning Down the House, an illuminating collection of essays on fiction. As you might surmise from the title, the new novel weaves itself around the protagonist’s identity and his grasp thereof and relationship with a mysterious and opaque acquaintance. I expect to sit down with Charles Baxter for the third time next week. Stay tuned.

» Read an excerpt from The Soul Thief

Land Grant College Review No. 4
Book Digest It’s been a while in between issues—as the peeps at LGCR explain, the delay was caused by weather, bike problems, a positive pregnancy test, Vermont, and frogs. Dave Koch and Josh Melrod have lassoed Nicholas Montemarano, Rachel Haley Himmelheber, Kevin Wilson, Sheena McAuliffe, Kevin Moffet, Christine Schutt, and Daniel Wallace, and adorned their writings with Steve Keene’s artwork.

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