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Book Digest: July 10, 2006

Radical Innocent; How This Night Is Different; Blow the House Down; Tales From the Cuban Empire; The Attack; Black Maestro; The World of Yesterday; The Slow Moon; Sound and Fury; Fear

The fetishism for full disclosure is variously amusing and vexing, especially when it comes from this, the journalistic quadrant. Of course, it’s a practice that I engage in, albeit subtly, as when for instance I announce (as I do frequently) that I am partial to books on Cuba, New Orleans, Jews, fin de siecle Vienna, and Chicago. These are not the limit of my biases—but a longish list defenestrates my claim for subtlety, right?

The vexing aspect of this disclosure impulse by people who are facile with half-truths, omissions, and other variants of dishonesty posing as something else, is that they don’t fully disclose their distortions, do they? Personally, I would like to see some full disclosure from someone—anyone—on the reasons why they think Walter Kirn is a useful book whatever he is? Reading, at the behest of my dear friend Howard (more disclosure: I intend to make my friends important figures in the American literary landscape by merely using the Woody-Allenesque formulae of their ubiquity), the Kirn scribble on Cynthia Ozicks’s A Din in the Head, it seemed to me a fine exemplar of the notion that cleverness (Kirn is, if nothing—strike the “if,” clever) is a feeble fulcrum upon which to rest a critique. But that is what obtains with regularity at the sandpile that Sam runs. Oy vey.

Anyway, another of my fascinations is the great Viennese (and Jewish) satirist Karl Kraus. Thus here is your occasional dose of his medicine:

“The mission of the press is to spread culture while destroying the attention span.”

Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair by Anthony Arthur
Anthony Arthur’s CV includes Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe. Also Deliverance at Los Baños and The Bushmasters, both narrative histories of World War II, and The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. He has taught American literature at California State University at Northridge for over 30 years. Arthur observes: “Upton Sinclair once complained that too many biographies give us ‘canonized images to worship. They so seldom give us a friend that we can live in a house with.’ In my biography… I try to get beyond the canonized social activist that this fascinating, difficult man became… [he] remains a vital part of the American scene, nearly four decades after his death.”

How This Night Is Different by Elisa Albert
I wonder if it is still suggestive of a (large) commitment by the publisher when up-and-coming authors are photographically embalmed by Marianne Ettlinger, as in this case with comely Southern Californian turned Brooklynite and recent Columbia MFA Elisa Albert?

Last year’s literary warm and fuzzy success story Sam Lypsyte takes up the flag for Elisa Albert’s debut story collection: “…a funny and gutsy writer with a knack for locating the absurd poignancy in familiar situations. This is an accomplished, moving and often risky debut.” These 10 stories are reminiscent of Nathan Englander’s purview of disaffected, disconnected, and dislocated Jews.

» Hear an audio excerpt from How This Night Is Different

Blow the House Down by Robert Baer
Robert Baer’s bestselling memoir See No Evil was the Ur text for the film Syriana. He ran agents from inside the CIA’s Directorate of Operations for 20 years, operating against major terrorist organizations, and according to The New Yorker’s Sy Hersh, “was considered perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East.”

Baer’s new opus goes like this:
Veteran CIA officer Max Waller has long been obsessed with the abduction and murder of his Agency mentor. Though years of digging yield the name of a suspect—an Iranian math genius turned terrorist—the trail seems too cold to justify further effort. Then Max turns up a photograph of the man standing alongside Osama bin Laden and a mysterious westerner whose face has been cut out, feeding Max’s suspicion. When the first official to whom Max shows the photo winds up dead, the out-of-favor agent suddenly finds himself the target of dark forces within the intelligence community who are desperate to muzzle him. Eluding a global surveillance net, Max—in the summer of 2001—begins tracking the spore of a complex conspiracy, meeting clandestinely with suicide bombers and Arab royalty and ultimately realizing the Iranian he’d sought for a decades-old crime is actually at the nexus of a terrifying plot.
» Read an excerpt from Blow the House Down

Tales From the Cuban Empire by Antonio José Ponte
I came upon this slender volume of short pieces by Cuban writer Antonio José Ponte accidentally and thus late—though happily not never. From a three-way conversation including Ponte and his translator Cole Franzen:
Becoming a dancer or a painter or filmmaker or actor involves going to some kind of school. In my country there are excellent academies for many of these arts. But that’s not the way it is if you want to write, to be a writer. The university programs that come closest to this goal are philology and linguistics, which didn’t particularly attract me. In the end I understood that whatever university program I chose would keep me busy for ten years, after which I’d look for some way to devote myself purely to writing. That’s why I majored in engineering, worked as an engineer for five years, and then gave it up to write screenplays.

So I’m not an engineer who, bored or stimulated by the profession, belatedly decides to try his luck with literature. I studied and worked in that field with the consciousness of a spy. I believe I did it as well as I could while knowing that my real life (to paraphrase Rimbaud) was somewhere else.
The Attack by Yasmina Khadra
Yasmina Khadra, who lives in France, is the nom de plume of the former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul. Moulessehoul has authored five other books published in English, among them The Swallows of Kabul, In the Name of God, and Wolf Dreams.

The Attack provides a realistic account the reality of terrorism and its various costs and it insightfully portrays the Muslim world giving infidel readers a pathway to understanding what is perhaps impossible to understand. From the publisher:
Dr. Amin Jaafari, an Arab-Israeli citizen, is a surgeon at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Dedicated to his work, respected and admired by his colleagues and community, he represents integration at its most successful. He has learned to live with the violence and chaos that plague his city, and on the night of a deadly bombing in a local restaurant, he works tirelessly to help the shocked and shattered patients brought to the emergency room. But this night of turmoil and death takes a horrifyingly personal turn. His wife’s body is found among the dead, with massive injuries, the police coldly announce, typical of those found on the bodies of fundamentalist suicide bombers. As evidence mounts that his wife, Sihem, was responsible for the catastrophic bombing, Dr. Jaafari is torn between cherished memories of their years together and the inescapable realization that the beautiful, intelligent, thoroughly modern woman he loved had a life far removed from the comfortable, assimilated existence they shared.
» Read an excerpt from The Attack

Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape
Veteran sports scribe Joe Drape, a reporter for The New York Times, has won numerous national awards for news and sports writing and authored The Race for the Triple Crown. His new opus, Black Maestro, “brings to life the drama, adventures, romances, and heartbreaks of an unlikely participant in the greatest historical events of the twentieth century.” It’s a story that ranges from pastoral Kentucky to mobbed-up Chicago, from Poland to the Red Square, and from Paris to the American South.

» Read an excerpt from Black Maestro

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
The New York Review of Books continues to do battle with the regnant ethos of literary greatest hits by publishing the great Austrian biographer, cosmopolitan, essayist, short-story writer, poet, and dramatist Stefan Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity, with a compelling introduction by New Yorker dance writer Joan Acocella. Which should inevitably lead one back to the Zweig’s autobiography, Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday), written after he was exiled from Austria in 1934—but not published until 1942 and first published in the U.S. in 1964. In the 1930s the prolific Zweig was one of the most widely translated authors in the world. His extensive travels led him to India, Africa, North and Central America, and Russia, and among his friends he counted Freud, Yeats, Borges, Joyce, Toscanini, Rilke, and Rodin—to name a few. Zweig writes, “When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security.”

How shall we name our time?

The Slow Moon by Elizabeth Cox
I am jumping the gun here but what the fuck? As a great fan of Elizabeth Cox’s writing I can’t contain myself. Betsy Cox is the author of Night Talk, The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love, Familiar Ground, and the story collection Bargains in the Real World. She is an instructor at the Bennington Graduate Writing Seminars and recently left Boston and MIT to teach at Wofford College in South Carolina, where she shares the John Cobb Chair of the Humanities with her husband, Atlantic Monthly fiction patriarch C. Michael Curtis.

Rosellen Brown is also enthusiastic: “Beautifully written and sympathetically imagined, The Slow Moon tells its all-too-timely story without a shred of the sensational or strident. Elizabeth Cox has a sensitive touch, and she brings to rich life a deeply tangled web of characters. This is the kind of book you will read in one long, rewarding sitting.”

» Read an excerpt from The Slow Moon

Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship by Dave Kindred
A book about two of the late 20th century’s most riveting sports figures—Muhammad Ali, the people’s champion and Howard “The Mouth” Cosell—gets my attention. Dave Kindred, who covered sports for The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as early on in Ali’s career in his hometown of Louisville, has crafted an engaging book.

David Maraniss, whose recent Clemente is a must-read for all self-respecting baseball fans, opines: “This book has it all: a great idea, the perfect writer, and two extraordinary characters—Ali and Cosell—whose interconnected lives changed the way we think about sports and society.”

Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Aushwitz, An Essay in Historical Interpretation by Jan T. Gross
Princeton Professor Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland was a 2001 National Book Award nominee, which is a big billboard for his expertise—not to mention his engagement in this subject. His new tome has the kind of subtitle that obviates a review.

Gross argues that “the anti-Semitism displayed in Poland in the war’s aftermath cannot be understood simply as a continuation of prewar attitudes. Rather, it developed in the context of the Holocaust and the Communist takeover: Anti-Semitism eventually became a common currency between the Communist regime and a society in which many had joined in the Nazi campaign of plunder and murder – and for whom the Jewish survivors were a standing reproach.”

Thane Rosenblum weighs in: “Bone-chilling… [Fear] is illuminating and searing, a moral indictment delivered with cool, lawyerly efficiency that pounds away at the conscience with the sledgehammer of a verdict… Fear takes on an entire nation, forever depriving Poland of any false claims to the smug, easy virtue of an innocent bystander to Nazi atrocities… Gross’s Fear should inspire a national reflection on why there are scarcely any Jews left in Poland. It’s never too late to mourn. The soul of the country depends on it.”

Fat chance?

» Read an excerpt from Fear

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