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Book Digest: January 14, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: Jihad and Jew-Hatred; My Colombian War; Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey; Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side; Swimming in a Sea of Death; Love Falls; The Early Years: The Lyrics of Tom Waits; The Immigration Solution; Oil!; The Adventures of Amir Hamza; Sixty Poems.

Anthony Burgess once described his ideal reader as “a lapsed Catholic and a failed musician, short-sighted, color blind, auditorially biased, who has read the books that I have read. He also should be about my age.” You can’t blame me for wondering who is reading these snippets (besides hopeful writers looking to send me their books). Don’t be a stranger. Drop me a line. Tell me something I don’t know. Or want to.

Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism, and the Roots of 9/11 by Matthias Küntzel, translated by Colin Meade
Book Digest I don’t suppose Jews will be surprised at Küntzel’s detailed but compact expose of the relationship between Nazi leaders and Muslim extremists and how hatred of Jews became the fulcrum of so called Islamo-fascism. Or of the shift of virulent anti-Semitism from Europe to the Middle East after Germany’s defeat. But gentiles might argue Küntzel’s stance that anti-Semitism is not a supplementary feature of modern Jihadism, but its defining ideological core, and that this hatred also goes far beyond question of the existence of Israel. Whether any of that is surprising or not, as Jeffrey Goldberg points out: “It is perilous to ignore idiotic ideas if these idiotic ideas are broadly, and fervently, believed.”

» Read an excerpt from Jihad and Jew-Hatred

My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind by Silvana Paternostro
Book Digest Scanning the headlines I am, of course, thankful I don’t live in Pakistan, Kenya, or Myanmar. Add to that list Colombia, as journalist Paternostro’s poignant memoir brings to life the country’s history of violent internal strife amidst narcotics trafficking, leftist unrest, and the now-typical disparity between the haves and have-nots—it’s an almost unremitting nightmare. Boston University’s David Fromkin comments: “This [is an] indispensable guide to the drama currently being played out in the Latin south: a drug-haunted, tangled drama of feuds, rival warlords, criminal mafias, kidnappings, and endless civil wars.”

Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey
Book Digest This amazing book includes 190 of Guerrero’s photographs from his 60-year career as an architectural photographer, and includes the houses of Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, Marcel Breuer, John Huston, Philip Johnson, Julia Child, Edward Stone, Alexi Brodovitch, and others. Art in America’s Jean Lipman opines: “Guerrero has a very warm and living relationship with the artists he photographs. He is magnificent. He doesn’t just go and take official-looking photographs. He’s with the artists, he understands them, and he’s right at the heart of what their work is all about.”

» See images from Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey

Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay by Clive Stafford Smith
Book Digest Director of the human rights nonprofit Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith is one of the few individuals who has had independent access to the Guantánamo hellhole. Besides documenting the deceits of all the parties running this part of the war on terror, he provides a brief on the high cost of circumventing the U.S. Constitution and the defrocking of excuses or “justifications” for torture. Not surprisingly, John le Carré assesses Smith’s tome as: “A measured and uniquely informed account of systemic brutality and blind folly on an epic scale, of the tragic perversion of America’s judicial system, and of the licensing of torture throughout the world by those who imagine themselves opposed to it.”

» Read an excerpt from Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir by David Rieff
Book Digest I have always wondered about the fact that in my conversations with David Rieff (A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis), his mother’s name—Susan Sontag—never came up. On the other hand, given the limited amount of time we had and the matter of his new book at hand, I guess it makes sense that we never got around to it. In any case, this opus is an homage to his mother as she battled cancer in the final nine months of her life. But of more relevance to the rest of us, Rieff reflects on trying to help a profoundly ill person finally to die, as they say, “with dignity.” Not surprisingly, Rieff wanders off to the larger question of how we deal with dying and death on a cultural level. If you are prepared for some unvarnished intelligence, this tome will more than fill you up.

» Read an excerpt from Swimming in a Sea of Death

Love Falls by Esther Freud
Book Digest Ms. Freud, with the illustrious name—father Lucien, grandfather Sigmund—has penned half a dozen well-received novels in a decade and a half. As she puts it:
Writing fiction, which is what I love to do, is like losing yourself in a secret world. I write every morning and if for some reason I am not able to get to my desk, I feel restless and uneasy. I used to be more impatient, always dreaming of the day when I’d finish a book, but as my life has become busier I value the slow unfolding of a novel that might take several years to write.
Her literary focus seems to be the inner life, the psychology of children, for which she has been lauded. In her new novel she gives us Lara, a 17-year-old who spends a summer at her father’s Tuscan villa and is caught up in a seasonal frolic with a gaggle of rich Brits, eventually succumbing to the allure of one.

» Read an excerpt from Love Falls

The Early Years: The Lyrics of Tom Waits
Book Digest Waits’s song “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” caught my attention 30 years ago, and “The Piano Has Been Drinking” is the kind of delightful ditty I have come to expect from this singer, songwriter, and actor. I’ve been a fan ever since and I expect anyone who is will find this book, which collects lyrics from his first 10 albums, indispensable.

» Read an excerpt from The Early Years

The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s by Heather Mac Donald, Victor Davis Hanson, and Steve Malanga
Book Digest Considering the people who blurbed this anti-immigration screed (Michelle Malkin, Tom Tancredo), I thought of handling it with tongs. The publisher’s note reasonably suggests: “Undoubtedly the United States needs a liberal and welcoming immigration policy, geared to the needs and interests of the nation.” This quickly devolves into a demonization of poor Mexican workers and offers a policy “that admits skilled and educated people on the basis of what they can do for the country, not what the country can do for them.” That’s what the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of, right?

Oil! by Upton Sinclair
Book Digest Who hasn’t read The Jungle, Sinclair’s riveting and unforgettable expose of the meatpacking industry? For those looking for what The New Yorker’s David Denby called “probably [Sinclair’s] second-best book and certainly his most readable,” there is Oil!, the author’s take on the early days of the oil business. A movie adaptation is in the theaters currently—Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood—which is why this 1927 novel is being reprinted.

» Read an excerpt from Oil!

The Adventures of Amir Hamza by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, translated by Musharraf Farrooqi
Book Digest This 19th century Indo-Persian classic is an epic story in the mold of One Thousand and One Nights. Adventurer Amir Hamza loves the Persian emperor’s daughter, and of course travels to exotic places, has countless adventures serving his emperor, and importantly converts hundreds of infidels to Islam before finding his way back to his first love. Fans of Homer will find sustenance here, no doubt.

» Read an excerpt from The Adventures of Amir Hamza

Sixty Poems by Charles Simic
Book Digest In case you are not familiar with the office of Poet Laureate you may want to see my chat with Donald Hall, a recent honoree. Simic, the 15th and current PLOTUS, has published 20 collections of poetry and won numerous awards. This anthology collects 60 of his best-known poems. Here’s one, “The White Room”:
The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.

They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me—
And then didn’t.

Summer came. Each tree
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild

Storytelling. We were
Entering dark houses,
Always more dark houses,
Hushed and abandoned.

There was someone with eyes closed
On the upper floors.
The fear of it, and the wonder,
Kept me sleepless.

The truth is bald and cold,
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn’t leave her room.

The sun pointed to one or two
Things that had survived
The long night intact.
The simplest things,

Difficult in their obviousness.
They made no noise.
It was the kind of day
People described as “perfect.”

Gods disguising themselves
As black hairpins, a hand-mirror,
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn’t it.

Just things as they are,
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light—
And the trees waiting for the night.
» Read an excerpt from Sixty Poems

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