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Book Digest: January 21, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: The Geography of Bliss; Dominion; In Defense of Food; Blasphemy; What Happens Next; The Invention of Everything Else; Torpedo Quarterly Vol. 1; An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin; Wrack and Ruin; The Expeditions; The Reserve; Open City No. 24; Love Letters From a Fat Man.

The presidential campaign is not anywhere close to full throttle and already it appears to be another dreary, droning TV miniseries, characterized by bad writing and even worse acting—it’s a close call whose performances deserve the hook more, the candidates, their campaign consigliores, or the braying and bleating herd who are covering this quadrennial comic opera. Murdoch’s flying monkeys (to quote Keith Olbermann) don’t even rise to the level of so-called mainstream media blather. But don’t think for a moment that my disaffection has resulted in indifference. As Christopher Hitchens says here, he pointed out in his indictment of un-indicted war criminal Kissinger that in Athens’s golden age, the term “idiot” was assigned to those in the community who did not participate in and were ignorant of civic affairs. So for the moment I am relying on Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Bob Hebert, Gail Collins, and whatever of the so-called candidate debates I can tolerate for some sense of what we are experiencing in America.

Probably it is due to my shrinking recall, but other than The Manchurian Candidate, Wag the Dog, and Charles McCarry’s excellent and riveting Shelley’s Heart, no worthy novels about presidential elections come to mind. Probably Gore Vidal’s Empire series must have mimicked the Hayes-Rutherford election of 1876, but that’s another category entirely. There is the recently published A Magnificent Catastrophe, skillfully recounting the Jefferson-Adams election of 1800, but otherwise it seems that recent literature is not more helpful and entertaining than the grim political reality. So much for a new day in America.

(And thank you to the folks who wrote me recently as I experienced my own Tinkerbell moment…)

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
Book Digest You can read what Weiner has to say about his book and/or allow me my two cents; either way it should be clear that this is not your normal product of the self-help industrial complex. A former NPR foreign correspondent, Weiner sets out to determine what makes people happy. Bhutan, Switzerland, Iceland, Great Britain, Qatar, Moldova, India, Thailand, and the Netherlands (home of the World Database of Happiness) were his testing grounds, and his findings and ruminations are contained in what his publisher describes as “the next great category of literary nonfiction: the philosophical self-help humorous travel memoir.”

» Listen to excerpts from The Geography of Bliss

Dominion by Calvin Baker
Book Digest Well, here’s one I missed, but fortunately for me (and I think for you) some inexplicable impulse impelled me to pick Baker’s third novel off the shelf and as I read, I was transported into the life of Jasper Merian, a recently freed slave in 17th-century America who hacks his Utopia out of the North Carolina wilderness. Comparisons to Edward P. Jones’s The Known World are perhaps inevitable—certainly the prose of each is splendidly rendered in the service of enthralling narrative.

» Read an excerpt from Dominion

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
Book Digest Pollan’s (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals) answer to the question of what we should eat is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In a well-argued and articulate shot across the bow of nutritionism, Pollan maintains, “Our personal health cannot be separated from the health of the food chains of which we are a part.” And he does this without any scolding, know-it-all preachiness.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from In Defense of Food

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston
Book Digest Scientists and evangelical Christians find themselves on a collision course when a $40 billion atom-smasher located on Native American land in Arizona attracts the attention of a salad of wackos. There’s an ex-monk, recovering CIA agent Wyman Ford; the Native American tribe; Nobel Laureate Gregory North Hazelius and his 12 scientists/acolytes; and the Torus, the super-collider, the most expensive machine ever created by humankind. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Certainly in the hands of Preston, it is.

» Read an excerpt from Blasphemy

What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting by Marc Norman
Book Digest In this tome, richly seasoned with anecdotal bits, Norman—who happens to own a couple of Oscars for Shakespeare in Love—recounts the role of screenwriters in Hollywood. Considering show business is a whacked-out enterprise from the outset, this history does for screenwriters what David Thomson’s The Whole Equation did for producers—which is to apportion appropriate credit for that beleaguered craft in the movie-making process. I suspect the next person who takes on this fertile subject will dial down the indulgence of well-worn anecdotes and try to shed a clear light on the script-creation process.

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
Book Digest Hunt (The Seas), who is not lacking for admirers among the new literary centurions (Heidi Julavits, Dave Eggers), spent four years researching the great inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. In this, her second novel, she creates a compellingly original universe, coupling the eccentric scientist with Louisa, a chambermaid at the New Yorker Hotel, where Tesla spent the last years of his life. Louisa’s father is off to join his late wife via a time machine and a mystery man enters her life from an undetermined time, providing a contrapuntal emotional valence to the brilliant but quirky Tesla.

» Read an excerpt from The Invention of Everything Else

Torpedo Quarterly Vol. 1
Book Digest This is Australia’s entry into the small literary magazine fray. Volume 1 features fiction from Jim Shepard, Aniruddha Bahal, Clancy Martin, Josephine Rowe, Jon Bauer, Amelia Walker, Ronnie Scott, Chris Flynn, Ruby Murray, Luke May, Neil Boyack, and Bryce Wolfgang Joiner. Illustrations are by Eirian Chapman, Pat Dalton, and Tim Molloy.

» Look inside Torpedo Quarterly Vol. 1

An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin by Rohan Kriwaczek
Book Digest I was unaware of this un-categorizable book (though parallels to Jim Crace and Peter Carey come to mind), but for my recent conversation with Arthur Phillips who called Kriwaczek a genius. Who is Kriwaczek? From his web site:
Over the last 30 years [Kriwaczek] has dedicated his academic life entirely to the fervent study and recreation of the lost history of Funerary Violin, presenting lectures and workshops all around Europe, and writing a number of books on the subject, recognized today as the standard works for all students of Funerary Violin.
There is also a back story to this book that is as compelling as the book itself.

» Read an excerpt from An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin

Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee
Book Digest Former Ploughshares editor Lee, whose well-regarded story collection Yellow was set in the fictional small California coastal town of Rosarita Bay, locates his second novel there as well, to play out the internecine squabbles of Lyndon Song and his ethically challenged film-producer brother, Woody. A finely cast ensemble of characters provides Lee with plenty of opportunity to lampoon much of contemporary society with ample resultant hilarity.

The Expeditions by Karl Iagnemma
Book Digest Four years after the publication of his terrific story collection On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction Iagnemma brings us this novel, set in 1844, that follows teenage runaway Elisha Stone on an expedition to explore and chart Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—as well as to prove its leader’s unorthodox theories. Elisha’s estranged father is moved to search for his son on the heels of the untimely death of his wife, Elisha’s mother.

» Read an excerpt from The Expeditions

The Reserve by Russell Banks
Book Digest I place novelist Banks (The Darling) in the class of authors like Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Elmore Leonard, Richard Russo, Andrea Barrett, Amy Bloom, Jim Harrison, and Thomas McGuane—I’d say Joyce Carol Oates, except I can’t keep up with her—whose books I will read almost automatically, and who never fail to deliver a worthwhile read. Banks’s latest opus takes place on the eve of World War II, and weaves a love story with a murder mystery, embroiling a wealthy heiress with a radical artist.

Open City No. 24
Book Digest The goal of Open City editors Thomas Beller and Joanna Yas is, as they say:
… to add a voice to the culture that values wit, depth, and ingenuity, and, in particular, the exposing and elucidating of the human predicament which is often devalued by commercial publishers. Many writers featured in Open City’s pages are being published for the very first time.
Of those published in this newest edition I recognized only two names—Beller and Yas are dead on.

Love Letters From a Fat Man by Naomi Benaron
Book Digest Benaron came across Stuart Dybek’s radar, and he comments:
As a collection, Love Letters From a Fat Man can seem romantic, tragic, comic, lyrical, whimsical, and moody by turns. The freshness of surprise comes from Naomi Benaron’s powers of invention. I was especially impressed by how her stories are deeply imagined enough so that the invention always seems credible. Each voice rings intimate and true. Each new world created in the compressed length and time of the short story form is vivid and real. This is a book that is rich in character, detail, and unified by a vibrant prose style and an empathy for its subjects. What’s more, it is fun to read.
Which should encourage enterprising editors to pursue Naomi Benaron’s forthcoming first novel. I certainly will.

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