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Book Digest: January 28, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories; Food: The History of Taste; 560 Broadway; American Photobooth; The Flowers; Kyra; The Opposite of Love; Melville: The Making of the Poet; Ezra Pound: Poet Vol. I; The Collected Poems of Phillip Whalen; Rethinking Thin; Winged Creatures; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead; Do Me; New York Echoes; Go With Me.

Marshall McCluhan said: “When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious.”

Can someone explain to me what “the fixed point of view of print culture” is?

The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories by Max Apple
Book Digest Years ago I was an avid reader of a quarterly called The New American Review and I recall stumbling across some wonderfully funny and smart stories by Max Apple (The Oranging of America)—so this collection of 13 stories, his first to appear in two decades, is a welcome re-acquaintance. Apple did write a memoir, Roommates, that was made into a film, but apparently he is content to teach at the University of Pennsylvania and occasionally have a piece of fiction published in the usual (small) literary magazines. As might be obvious from the title story, Apple is well known for his acute fictions of Jewish tribal customs and foibles.

Food: The History of Taste edited by Paul Freedman
Book Digest I like a good burrito and/or black bean soup as much as the next guy, but honestly I don’t find reading about food particularly satisfying—though the exponential burgeoning of the foodie nation certainly has seen a commensurate growth in books on food. Happily—at least for me—some of them, like Barbara Haber’s From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, tell interesting stories. Yale University historian Freedman (Spices in the Middle Ages) collects essays from an array of Western historians that form a chronological history of taste throughout human history.

560 Broadway edited by Amy Eshoo
Book Digest For about 15 years beginning in the early ‘90s, Wynn Kramarsky’s exhibition space housed what can safely be described as an astounding private collection of modern and contemporary American drawings—works by Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Jasper Johns, and Agnes Martin, to name a few. Additionally, the gallery/exhibition space/salon was a hangout for the denizens of New York’s art world. Eshoo, who was registrar of the Kramarsky collection from 1998 to 2003, chronicles the collection’s history as well as a list of artworks donated by Kramarsky to various cultural institutions. The additional essays weigh his contributions to contemporary drawing.

American Photobooth by Näkki Goranin
Book Digest The allure of the photobooth (four photos in a strip for a dollar) is irresistible, and Vermonter Näkki Goranin, photographer, historical photograph collector, and owner of three vintage photobooths herself, culls a wonderful assemblage of images from her 25 years of collecting. Wrapped around these charming self-portraits is a history of the photobooth. Goranin explains: “These are one-of-a-kind, singular images that record people in an intimate manner… We step into their lives for one moment in time. I never get tired of looking at them, and they’ve changed how I see the world with my camera.”

The Flowers by Dagoberto Gilb
Book Digest From two conversations and familiarity with his body of work, I do not hesitate to offer the notion that Gilb (The Magic of Blood) is a born storyteller. His latest centers around precocious teenager Sonny Bravo and recounts his enlarged horizon by virtue of moving into Los Flores, his new stepfather’s small apartment building. It’s a modern urban story with an interesting ensemble of characters. Although he is often mentioned with authors Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz, I think Gilb’s writing represents a more fearless and potent voice. Larry McMurtry agrees: “Dagoberto Gilb is one of the most powerful writers of his generation, and The Flowers is perhaps his best book. It’s not to be missed.”

» Read an excerpt from The Flowers

Kyra by Carol Gilligan
Book Digest Gilligan, who for many years held the first chair in gender studies at Harvard, made some waves in 1982 with the publication of In a Different Voice, a feminist challenge to conventional psychoanalytical wisdom. Kyra is her first foray into fiction and couples a widowed architect with Andreas, a theater director in a grown-up, passionate (are there any other kinds?) love story. Add to this narrative Greta, a fiercely committed therapist whose intense analysis Kyra submits to, and you have a compelling layer of propulsive complexity. Gilligan’s prose shows promise, but most assuredly her ideas are radiant and resonant.

» Read an excerpt from Kyra

The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum
Book Digest Another first novel, this one by Harvard Law School graduate and former litigator Buxbaum, whose intelligence is obvious and insight keen—there are, however, a bit too many flashy rhetorical turns and too much self-conscious internal dialogue. In this tale, lawyer Emily breaks up with her perfect boyfriend, and gets assigned to a big case by one of her firm’s more detestable partners: defending a polluting Fortune 500 corporation. An ambitious menu of life problems handled admirably, but a little shy of a stellar first. Buxbaum may learn something from this outing—we’ll see, right?

» Read an excerpt from The Opposite of Love

Melville: The Making of the Poet by Hershel Parker
Book Digest Melville scholar Parker argues the simple point that Melville was essentially a poet and argues against the accepted thinking represented by Alfred Kazin’s assertion, “You have to remember that poetry was just a sideline with Melville; it was never important to him and he was never good at it.” Apparently even Andrew Delbanco, the latest Melville biographer, follows this line, and, having read it, I don’t see that the argument suffers from Kazin’s interpretation. Parker also corrects the claims that Melville repudiated fiction writing after Pierre, and that he hadn’t begun writing poetry as early as 1860. This kind of academic disputation is normally not interesting to me, but in this case the focus is on a little-attended-to aspect of Melville. A good thing, I think.

Ezra Pound: Poet Vol. I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 by A. David Moody
Book Digest As long as I am acknowledging literary scholarship I might as well mention A. David Moody’s projected two-volume biography of meshugganer poet Ezra Pound. This first volume takes you up to 1921, when Pound finally settled in Paris. Pound’s poetic brilliance has been lost on me and I have always thought that his reputation in part came from his hanging out with some of the true literary heavyweights of the early 20th century: Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. In the proposed second volume you will also learn that Pound was an Axis propagandist during World War II and indicted for treason in 1943—another reason I have not paid much attention to Pound’s poetry.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from Ezra Pound: Poet Vol. I

The Collected Poems of Phillip Whalen edited by Michael Rothenberg
Book Digest Phillip Whalen, who died in 2002, was an influential San Francisco poet tied to the mid-century American Beat movement and the so-called “San Francisco Renaissance” with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac. Rothenberg, who is one of the literary executors of Whalen’s estate, edited this comprehensive collection presenting Whalen’s poetry in the order it was published.

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata
Book Digest Kolata, a science writer at The New York Times, argues that America’s obsession with weight loss is not about health but more about the power and influence of the weight-loss industrial complex. Kolata also provides a revealing account of a study comparing dieters on the Atkins diet and a normal low-calorie regime. Given her sensible and realistic approach—and clear and persuasive prose—this book is a must-read for anyone prey to overbearing concerns about diet, weight loss, and obesity.

» Read an excerpt from Rethinking Thin

Winged Creatures by Roy Frierich
Book Digest Chances are you will see the film derived from screenwriter Frierich’s first novel—or at least hear about it—before the book ever crosses your path. This narrative follows five people in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a fast-food place, and their dwelling on what the meaning of survival is under such circumstances. Screenwriter Rex Pickett (Sideways) comments: “The author achieves the amazing feat of following an utterly disparate cast of dramatis personae through the vicissitudes of their lives as they are irrevocably scarred and changed forever,” and compares it to Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter (the film version directed by Atom Egoyan). That’s high praise, if you didn’t know.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields
Book Digest I would expect nothing less from Shields (Enough About You) than this odd, uncategorizable tome. He does explain its origin at his website, but I will tell you it’s a rumination on mortality and aging spurred by his thoughts about his 96-year-old father. Jonathan Lethem calls it “a textbook for the acceptance of our fate on earth.” That works for me.

» Read an excerpt from The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House
Book Digest Gertrude Stein’s epigram, “Literature—creative literature—unconcerned with sex is inconceivable,” at the front of this book does make a good point. Thus, the fine literary journal Tin House seems to be part of a mini-trend to anthologize stories of sex and romance (see Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, and Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence From the Edge of Modern Romance). This anthology includes: Carol Anshaw, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Bill Gaston, Alison Grillo, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Dylan Landis, Victor D. LaValle, Jim Lewis, Michel Lowenthal, Martha McPhee, Steven Millhauser, Nicholas Montemarano, Mary Otis, Lucia Perillo, Mark Jude Poirier, Pete Rock, Robin Romm, Elissa Schappell, Elizabeth Tallent, Robert Travieso, Matthew Vollmer. Names which should mean something to you.

» Read an excerpt from Do Me

New York Echoes by Warren Adler
Book Digest Prolific Adler (War of the Roses) anthologizes 22 stories that make New York City the focal point and constantly present character. Apparently he has recently returned to Manhattan after a 40-year hiatus (his publisher calls it “exile”) and penned these short fictions as a celebration of his return.

» Read an excerpt from New York Echoes

Go With Me by Castle Freeman
Book Digest Vermont’s density of fine writers per square mile may rival North Carolina’s. In this case fellow Vermont author Craig Nova, who is chronically underappreciated, extols Freeman’s new opus:
Go With Me is something entirely new, a New England gothic tale with a profound emotional and philosophical depth. A great story, a lot of fun, a tale that could have been written by a collaboration of David Mamet and Samuel Beckett, that is if they had had a case of beer in Vermont and were interested in telling some tall tales and having a hell of a good time.
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