Book Digest: January 22, 2007

New and Selected Poems 2006; The Wicked Son; Paula Spencer; House of Meetings; Eero Saarinen; American Fascists; The Gospel of Food; Lost City Radio; Overture; Dancing to "Almendra"; American Bloomsbury

This past holiday I bought my son—whose favorite song is Warren Zevon’s “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado”—a 1GB iPod Shuffle. Its approximately 240 songs should be sufficient for his nine-year-old musical literacy. This started me contemplating the notion of collection and storage—for the record, I have 6,000 songs in my iTunes library and I have 2,700 songs on my iPod, 400 of which (“favorites”) I have on a 2GB iPod Nano. Having an embarrassingly large collection of books that long ago outstripped an even generous estimate of what I might be able to read within my life expectancy, I wonder about this compulsion to be relentlessly on the hunt for new reading material (not the least because I have come to this point in my life for the most part having ignored the literature preceding the mid-twentieth century) and the irrational impulse to own books (and CDs and DVDs) when I began my intellectual consumption via my mother’s weekly trips to the public library. “How is it,” I ask myself, “having such a regard, even reverence, for the idea of the library, I have not for most of my life usefully employed those that have been available to me?” I am tempted to offer some conceptual concoction based on Thorsten Veblen and other critics of capitalism but frankly I am not feeling intellectually nimble enough at this moment to pull off such gymnastics. Stay tuned.

By the way, look forward to new books by Daniel Mason (The Piano Tuner), Jonathan Raban (Badlands), Jim Crace (Being Dead), Amy Bloom (Even a Blind Man Can See I Love You), Richard Flanagan (Gould’s Book of Fish), and Bruce Olds (Bucking the Tiger). And to complete this mixed bag of non-sequiturs, my friend Howard—more about him anon—sent me this quote:
I happen to be a kind of word whore. I will read anything from Racine to a nurse romance, if it’s a good nurse romance. Many people just aren’t like that. Some of my closest friends cannot read anything that isn’t substantial—they don’t see the point. I don’t, however, like a certain kind of very rich, ornate, literary writing. I feel as if I’m being choked, as if gravel is being poured down my throat. Books like Under the Volcano, for instance, are not for me.—Robert Gottlieb, The Paris Review Interviews
New and Selected Poems 2006 by Stanley Moss
Book Digest I really like the names of Stanley Moss’s previous collections; there is something resonant about them: The History of Color, Asleep in the Garden, The Intelligence of Clouds, The Skull of Adam, and The Wrong Angel. Here’s “Creed,” from the newest one:
I salute a word, I stand up and give it my chair,
because this one Zulu word, ubuntu,
holds what English takes seven to say:
“the essential dignity of every human being.”
I give my hand to ubuntu
the simple, everyday South African word
for the English mouthful.
I do not know the black Jerusalems of Africa,
or how to dance its sacred dances,
I cannot play Christ’s two commandments on the drums:
“Love God” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
I do not believe the spirits of the dead
are closer to God than the living,
nor do I take to my heart
the Christlike word ubuntu
that teaches reconciliation
of murderers, torturers, accomplices,
with victims still living.
It is not blood but ubuntu
that is the manure of freedom.
Fellow poet Yusuf Komunyakaa offers, “This is a book made ‘of experience and high intellect.’ From the first measured trope to the last haunting moment, in which God equals a question, these poems curse and sing about the blessings and tragedies of personal life. Embracing the larger world, they’re also hardy psalms that make me say, ‘Thanks for this important, gutsy collection.’”

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews by David Mamet
Book Digest Admittedly, I have never had much admiration for fellow Chicagoan Mamet’s drama, including his screen work, both directorial and screenwriting (though The Heist was not bad). And in fact some magazine and newspaper stuff I have read in passing I read in the last few years haven’t raised my sense of David Mamet. Having said that I do think that this book is a useful instrument in the never-ending (for Jews) discussion about anti-Semitism and self-hate. The title of the book is taken from the Wicked Son at the Passover Seder who asks, “What does this story mean to you?” (Wicked because he says “to you” rather than “to us,” thereby excluding himself from the community.) In an interview with the Jerusalem Post Mamet pontificates:
It’s not my intention to criticize the level of observance a Jew has,” Mamet said. “Rather, my intention is to say ‘get in or get out.’ ‘You’re a Jew or you’re not.’ There’s a vast number of people in Israel who don’t go to shul who identify as Jews. Those people do not have the problems of the Jews in the Diaspora. You guys are involved in the fairly exigent existence of day to day. The Jews of Israel don’t go around saying ‘I’m Jewish but I’m not that Jewish.’ In my country it’s not so clear. And what I’m saying in the book is that it’s a cause of great unhappiness—to the individual and to the group: loneliness being suppressed. And suppressed often through the application of what wants to call itself reason, which under close examination is superstition.”
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
Book Digest Booker Prize winner (known for his Barrytown trilogy: The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van) Roddy Doyle’s 1996 The Woman Who Walked into Doors introduced 39-year-old Dublin housewife Paula Spencer, who, as some might say, had a fondness for drink. In Doyle’s new opus, Spencer, who is almost 48, widowed, and on the wagon for four months and five days, has met a new man and is caring for the remaining two young children who live with her. Doyle does forsake the first-person narrative of the earlier novel to present this tale in the third person—which I take to be a sign he is not just going through the motions (there is that temptation with sequels). Here’s the estimable Gail Caldwell on Paula Spencer:
The sequel in literature has garnered a reputation, often undeserved, of being cursed: a tired or inferior secondhand effort that lacks the requisite momentum of the “new.” But Paula Spencer didn’t have to suffer such indictments: Its protagonist is a phoenix still half-covered in ash, and that itself suggests a story of both flight and atonement. Doyle’s dialogue can be masterfully swift and precise: “The good things kind of glide past you,” Paula’s sister tells her. “You can take them for granted. But the bad things, the regrets. They [expletive deleted] sting.” That they do, which makes flickers of grace all the more haunting… “She couldn’t remember the last time she’d learnt something.” This moment is a marvel to Paula, so humbled by her life and so set on getting through. If Doyle had cared as much about her now as he did a decade ago—well, as Paula would say, that might have been grand.
House of Meetings by Martin Amis
Book Digest I rank Martin Amis as one of those authors to whom attention must be paid—which I have done since the publication of his brilliant novel Time’s Arrow in the early ‘90s, through the next novel, The Information, his memoir Experience, his collection of essays The War Against Cliché, and monograph on Stalinist terror, Korba the Dread, and his previous novel, Yellow Dog.

His latest fiction continues to limn the areas of his recent preoccupations, namely male violence and the failed Soviet, uh, experiment. James Marcus, an able literary guy, provides a useful take on both House of Meetings and its place in the Amis oeuvre. And while I haven’t ever experienced the joy of reading that I get from my favorite American craftsmen (Russo, McGuane, Harrison, Barrett, Nuñez, Ford, and lately Lethem), there is a buzz coming when coming across such morsels as “cloacal frenzies” and a host of words and phrases foreign to my computer’s spell-checking. In any case, Marcus concludes:
The author has done his homework, quarrying the devilish details from such scholarly productions as Anne Applebaum’s Gulag and Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance… Amis really does carve out his own little piece of the northern Eurasian plain, “the land of compromised clerics and scowling boyars, of narks and xenophobes and sweat-soaked secret policemen”—then he parachutes the reader into its midst as if the book were some kind of survivalist exercise. There’s no escape. A kind of dread coats the entire landscape, like a layer of aerosolized blood…Amis has called literature one long “war against cliché”—a war against slack language and calcified thoughts—and on a sentence-by-sentence basis, this stylistic warrior can hardly be bettered. For this, much can be forgiven. So, let’s ignore the pulpy romance, whose emotional clout is in any case outweighed by the fraternal relationship. Let’s forget the Nabokovian teasing and feinting. I don’t believe I’m carping. After all, there are no resurrections in House of Meetings. No absolution. And certainly no closure, which the narrator defines as “a greasy little word which, moreover, describes a nonexistent condition. The truth, Venus, is that nobody ever gets over anything.” Truer words were never spoken. And for a novelist, they might as well be the First Commandment.
Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Donald Albrecht, Reinhold Martin, Will Miller, Vincent Scully
Book Digest In spite of growing up in the architectural wonderland of Chicago, other than owning a Michael Graves teakettle and having read that gaseous adolescent standby, The Fountainhead, I know virtually zilch about architecture—which seems to be a cultural norm. Unless they are designing for Target or some opulently funded museum, architects are not exactly household names in America. But we do know their works—in Yale-educated Eero Saarinen’s case, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, the TWA terminal at JFK, the Kresge Chapel and Kresge Auditorium at MIT, the Berkshire Music Shed, at Tanglewood, and the Tulip and Womb chairs, among others. This well-researched Saarinen monograph by architecture professor Pelkonen, illustrated with nearly 400 photographs, makes use of newly available archives and presents a chronological survey of more than 100 built and unbuilt works that are strong evidence of the import to and influence of Eero Saarinen on modern architecture. If memory serves me, there is another Saarinen book due out this spring, which might represent something of a revival. Or something.

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges
Book Digest Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges’s books, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, and What Every Person Should Know About War, reflect in equal parts his 20 years of experience as a foreign correspondent and his initial intention of becoming a seminarian (Hedges is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School) He is deeply concerned with moral issues and brings those concerns to bear on his newest subject (one I fear many people are only now waking up to, there is also Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism) Back in 2003, as the Iraq debacle was being launched, Hedges was asked to deliver the commencement address at Rockford College—which occasioned disturbing and non-collegial responses from the audience.

Here’s Hedges from a 2004 essay:
Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, told us that when we were his age, he was then close to 80, we would all be fighting the “Christian fascists.”

The warning, given to me 25 years ago, came at the moment Pat Robertson and other radio and televangelists began speaking about a new political religion that would direct its efforts at taking control of all institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government. Its stated goal was to use the United States to create a global, Christian empire. It was hard, at the time, to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously, especially given the buffoonish quality of those who expounded it. But Adams warned us against the blindness caused by intellectual snobbery. The Nazis, he said, were not going to return with swastikas and brown shirts. Their ideological inheritors had found a mask for fascism in the pages of the Bible.
Be afraid, friends, be very afraid.

» Read an excerpt from American Fascists

The Gospel of Food: Everything You Know About Food Is Wrong by Barry Glassner
Book Digest Sociologist Barry Glassner (The Culture of Fear) goes to some efforts to debunk a number of fads and myths that have accreted to America’s culinary culture by talking to chefs, food chemists, nutritionists, and restaurant critics about the way we eat. Among other things, Glassner opines American’s joyless view of eating is unhealthy, no food is inherently good or bad, restaurant reviews can’t be trusted, America’s obesity epidemic was not caused by fast food, fresh food is not always best, you are not what you eat, and there is no evidence that fat people eat more than lean people. Fellow sociologist Barry Schwartz offers, “The Gospel of Food is a remarkable book… I learned something surprising on every page. And what I learned is that even though we eat (at least) three times a day, we know a lot less about what’s good, and what’s good for us, than we think we do. People who are tired of being bludgeoned by the ‘nutrition police’ or the elite food critics should read this book.”

» Read an excerpt from The Gospel of Food

Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón
Book Digest Daniel Alarcón’s debut story collection, War by Candlelight, earned him sufficient attention and accolades to make the press materials for his next effort respectable. Consider Ed Jones’s assessment “Alarcón’s stories are one of the reasons we go to storytellers—they present worlds we have only imagined or heard about in less truthful and poetic ways. And Mr. Alarcón, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own. Long before you come to the poignant words, ‘I come see you, but instead meet your absence,’ you will know what I mean.” And Frank Goldman, no literary slouch, declares, “American literature, whether in English or Spanish, comprises one rowdy, glorious family (as Borges always knew). Daniel Alarcón writes in English, but he reminds me of the young Vargas Llosa. ‘Beautiful, disgraced Lima,’ Peru, has a new enamorado [“in love”] for this young century, edgy, vibrant, crackling smart, emotionally devastating and soaring.” Lost City Radio takes place in an unnamed Latin American country in an unspecified time, with a 10-year war ending. Norma hosts the most popular radio program—weekly she reads the names of the missing and those who are found. A young boy from the jungle enters, somehow giving her a clue to her missing husband’s fate. Now, of course, everything changes.

Overture by Yael Goldstein
Book Digest That Yael Goldstein’s well-regarded first novel rests in part on shining a super-trooper spotlight on that most complicated of relationships—the mother/daughter one—would make me a wee bit anxious if I were Yael’s mother and was, as she is, a public person (Rebecca Goldstein is a teacher, novelist, and philosopher whose most recent book is Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity). There is however more to this fiction about Natasha Darsky, who is “the most famous violinist since Paganini.” Natasha subjugates her own creative ambitions to a love affair, and then watches her daughter Alex take up the composer’s pen, which Natasha has relinquished. Emotional havoc and friction follow. Goldstein also seems to have an assured and steady grasp of the world of serious music—a world that is rarely encountered in fiction, which is another aspect that recommends this novel.

» Read an excerpt from Overture

Dancing to “Almendra” by Mayra Montero, translated by Edith Grossman
Book Digest Anyone even slightly familiar with my interests and tastes knows this novel, set in Havana in 1957, is my kind of book. Additionally, there is my admiration for Cuban-born Mayra Montero, who lives in Puerto Rico (that’s part of the United States, folks), and whose work is splendidly translated by the non pareil Edith Grossman, who has yet (despite six or seven novels) to have that so-called “crossover hit” that will deliver the larger audience her own talent deserves. In any case, this narrative links the mob hit of Mafia boss Umberto Anastasia in New York with the escape of a hippopotamus from the Havana Zoo. Joaquin Porrata, a Cuban reporter, is made aware of the mobster-hippo nexus by a zookeeper who fills him in on the connection when Joaquin makes good in his promise to introduce his informant to his idol, B-movie star and mob-owned Capri Casino host George Raft. Mayhem, mobsters and romance play out in a vivid evocation of Havana’s fantastic secret world: its infamous criminal underbelly, long departed with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

» Read an excerpt from Dancing to “Almendra”

American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever
Book Digest The confluence of this claque of super-influential American literati in idyllic Concord, Ma., (referred to by Henry James as the “biggest little place in America”) and Cheever’s scrutiny of their sexual and subversive non-literary activities restores a vivacity to these figures whose intellectual standing has effectively neutered them. It is a good thing, I think, to be reminded that these titans were living and breathing and susceptible to passions and foibles, as are the rest of us mere mortals. That is, if you like that sort of thing.

» Read an excerpt from American Bloomsbury

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