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Book Digest: July 17, 2006

Triangle; Turing's Delirium; America's Report Card; Breach of Faith; The Storm; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; Dylan Interviews; Book of Longing; The Places Between; A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

It looked as if this was a week when none of the folks I have identified as Enemies of Literature were wreaking havoc such as creating the Best Book about Whatever in the past 25 years lists or identifying “scummy little books” or beating up on Frenchmen. I was wrong.

From a discussion between The New Republic’s art critic and author of New Art City, Jed Perl, and the magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, conducted earlier this year at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. An edited transcript appeared in Columbia magazine.

LW: I’ve always found that the really valuable attacks by critics only look like attacks. In fact, they’re defenses of things the critic believes have been attacked. They are responses to attacks.

JP: One of the things people forget or simply don’t understand is that the hardest thing a critic can do is write an extended attack on something you really and truly don’t like. It is awful to do. It’s hard. Very, very difficult. You have to think about the people you don’t agree with and what they think. You have to get into their minds. You have to develop arguments that are compelling. It’s much more fun to celebrate.

LW: I think that’s true, but there’s a lot of very empty praise out there—to the point where there are very few critics of any art form that I would trust about buying a book or going to see a ballet. Too many people are nice to too many people.

I will let the above pass in Wittgensteinian silence. But as I am being deluged with the Fall catalogues I wanted to sound the cowbells to alert interested parties to a wonderful harvest ahead. And one more thing—here, the good Tom Jefferson’s observation:
Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.
Triangle by Katherine Weber
The infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire looms large in American history as the great exemplar of oppressive working conditions in the American factory—close to 150 workers were horrifically killed in that tragic inferno. As Cynthia Ozick exclaims, “Katharine Weber’s Triangle is a marvel of ingenuity, bridging history and imagination, astonishing musical inventiveness and genuine social tragedy. It is a wide-awake novel as powerful as it is persuasive, probing, and capturing human verities.”

» Read an excerpt from Triangle

Turing’s Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldán, translated by Lisa Carter
Bolivian Edmundo Paz Soldán received a B.A. in Political Science (University of Alabama at Huntsville), an M.A. in Hispanic Languages and Literatures (Berkeley), and a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literatures (Berkeley also), and has won a number of Bolivia’s highest literary awards. He has published Alcides Arguedas y la narrativa de la nación enferma and is the coeditor, with Debra Castillo, of a volume of critical essays on Latin American literature and mass media. No doubt your acquaintance with the McOndo literary movement is a bit sketchy, but he has also assembled with fellow McOndoist Alberto Fuguet an anthology of short stories, Se habla español: Voces latinas en U.S.A. One of the few McOndo writers who lives in the United States, he is frequently called upon as the movement’s spokesperson by the American media. He is an assistant professor at Cornell University and the author of six novels (including Río fugitivo and El delirio de Turing) and three books of short stories.

Here’s a synopsis of Turing’s Dilemma:
Set against the backdrop of the globalization crisis, Edmundo Paz Soldán’s latest novel is a modern chapter in the age-old fight between oppressed and oppressor. The town of Río Fugitivo is on the verge of a social revolution—not a revolution of strikes and street riots but a war waged electronically, where computer viruses are the weapons and hackers the revolutionaries. In this war of information, the lives of a variety of characters become entangled: Kandinsky, the mythic leader of a group of hackers fighting the government and transnational companies; Albert, the founder of Black Chamber, a state security firm charged with deciphering the secret codes used in the information war; and Miguel Sáenz, Black Chamber’s most famous codebreaker, who begins to suspect that his work is not as innocent as he once supposed. All converge to create an edgy, fast-paced story about personal responsibility and complicity in a world defined by the ever-increasing gulfs between the global and the local, government and society, the virtual and the real.
» Read an excerpt from Turing’s Delirium

America’s Report Card by John McNally
The Free Press says America’s Report Card, “offers a brilliant vision of contemporary American life that is frightening, darkly hilarious, and tinged with satire.” How do you offer a brilliant vision without being frightening and darkly hilarious and so on—who writes this stuff? Hey, I could write that without having read the book. So could you, right? Let’s not hold that against McNally’s second novel, which as the publisher continues:
…tells the story of two unlucky people who forge an improbable yet possibly life-saving connection in a world overshadowed by the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind—a world in which hulking government bureaucracies and vast corporations join forces to numb the populace into apathy with various standardization and surveillance programs. But McNally sees hope in the daily experiences of his characters: sometimes, haphazardly, by going about their own very particular lives, people circumvent the official program and begin to actively claim lives of freedom and dignity.
Scotsman Irvine Welsh, who by the way has a new novel being published shortly, remarks, “At last—a post-9/11 novel with imagination, guts, and integrity, and one that actually shows real people being sucked into the American nightmare… This is Don DeLillo’s White Noise for the overeducated, underemployed generation of Americans who, for the first time ever, will be poorer than their parents.”

» Read an excerpt from America’s Report Card

Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne
In the best of all possible worlds there is one book each that serves well its subject matter (the god called the free market seems to have other plans) and we don’t know if Jed Horne’s book is the one Katrina book, but as we are greatly respectful of New Orleanian Andrei Codrescu’s opinion, “Writing from the eye of Katrina, Jed Horne follows the unfolding disaster through swiftly drawn characters whose lives have been forever changed by the storm. At the same time he renders in brilliant detail the tragedy of a nation that has forgotten its poor and neglected its civic defenses. Breach of faith bears remarkable witness to the event that changed our city and impacted every life within its range.” (By the way I was concerned about rumors that The Exquisite Corpse, which Andrei publishes, has ceased publication and so contacted him, not true says he, “The Corpse is just resting—big Katrina ish coming up (if K2 doesn’t make mice and men scurry).” Anyway, Jed Horne, a metro editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his part in the paper’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. His previous book, Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans, was nominated for the 2006 Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing.

» Read an excerpt from Breach of Faith

The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—the Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist by Ivor van Heerden
Not to contradict what I just wrote above, but judging from The Storm’s subtitle this may be the ultimate inside story of the latest Storm of the Millennium. Ivor van Heerden, an LSU disaster specialist and hurricane researcher who for the last decade has relentlessly warned of this catastrophe waiting to happen—he is known as the outspoken scientist who knew why the levees failed to protect New Orleans and why the abused wetlands surrounding the city could not protect the levees. And he claims he knew how many people would be unwilling—or unable—to evacuate the city and how many homes were likely to be destroyed. The Storm is his culminating synthesis of his extraordinary understanding and firsthand reportage—which includes his leadership of Louisiana’s official investigation into the levee failures. Van Heerden has become perhaps the most prominent independent voice pressing at all levels of government—the administration, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers. Can you say “Don’t hold your breath?”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. (Samuel Johnson, 1755)
As I fondled the new American Heritage Dictionary, to be referred to as AHD 4, my deflowering of the book was looking up “wonk”:

n. Slang
A student who studies excessively; a grind.
One who studies an issue or a topic thoroughly or excessively.
Despite my fondness for large reference works (which includes Bartlett’s Quotations, of which I own the last last edition), I would contest any suggestion that I or anybody who appreciates a good dictionary is less than a healthy red-blooded American. Got that, buster? This newly updated edition features predictably revised biographical and geographical entries as well as up-to-date charts and tables for topics such as world currencies and chemical elements. Of mainstream interest are the new words (500) that have been sanctified in this update, including “Amber Alert,” “blogosphere,” “google,” “gravitino,” “halo effect,” “hawala,” “lycopene,” “malware,” “micropolis,” “proteome,” “Qi Gong,” “SARS,” “shout-out,” “speed dating,” “sudoku,” “Texas hold’em,” “text message,” and “wiki.”

I expect to come back in these pages to AHD 4 over the coming months as I road test both the hard cover and the CD-ROM version. And I would welcome any reports from out where you are, wherever that is.

Dylan Interviews edited by Jonathan Cott
Having grown up with Dylan as the soundtrack to my young rebellious adulthood and watched him as he has grown up, he continues to be a fascinating sphinx-like figure standing in sharp relief against the garish super troopers of celebrity culture. Of course, I also remember Straight Arrow Books, Jann Wenner’s first publishing venture, from the years when one received a roach clip with a subscription to Rolling Stone. Now it’s Wenner Books and allegedly Wenner Media employees are drug-tested. Anyway, this volume contains 31 interviews conducted with Dylan by Studs Terkel, Mikhail Gilmore, Robert Hilburn, Ron Rosenbaum, Kurt Loder, Robert Shelton, Nora Ephron, Nat Hentoff, and Jann Wenner, among others. Janet Maslin hyperboles: “In an irresistible new anthology edited by Jonathan Cott, one of the original editors of Rolling Stone and arguably the most simpatico writer ever to converse with Mr. Dylan, the interview format remains eminently readable through more than 400 pages. And it yields far more than an extended conversation. The mosaic of discussions found here is many things: biography, oral history, culture time capsule, music lesson, and psychodrama.” Yeah, right.

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen
Born in Montreal in 1934, Leonard Cohen published his first poetry in 1956 with his first book Let Us Compare Mythologies (which will be reissued in a 50th-anniversary edition). Cohen is the author of 12 books, including two novels—The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers. Book of Longing is Cohen’s first book since the 1993 collection Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, and his first book of new material since 1984’s Book of Mercy. It includes 167 new poems and 43 drawings and color art by Cohen himself, interspersed with dozens of sketches, emblems, and drawings. Many of these have been presented in The Blackening Pages of The Leonard Cohen Files.

Though Cohen’s creative life, like Dylan’s, has run parallel to my own life, I have come very late to this party—not really listening until his Ten Songs album of a few years ago. (Hopefully I will one day unearth the unpublished conversation I had with him in the mid-’90s.) Book of Longing is 20 years in the making—written on southern California’s Mount Baldy and in Los Angeles, Montreal, and Mumbai.

» Read an excerpt from Book of Longing

The Places Between by Rory Stewart
In January 2002, as he continued his peripatetic march across Asia, Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan; my favorite sidebar to this story is how he was also adopted by an unexpected companion—a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.

Normally I am disinclined to attend to books that have been bathed in the commercially favorable light of The New York Times Book Review, but as in life, some flexibility is in order here—Tom Bissell’s most excellent piece on The Places Between is fine writing in its own right:
The book is replete with fascinating, if fearfully context-dependent, travel tips. If you are forced to lie about being a Muslim, claim you’re from Indonesia, a Muslim nation few non-Indonesian Muslims know much about. Open land undefiled by sheep droppings has most likely been mined. If you’re taking your donkey to high altitudes, slice open its nostrils to allow greater oxygen flow. Don’t carry detailed maps, since they tend to suggest 007 affinities. If, finally, you’re determined to do something as recklessly stupid as walk across a war zone, your surest bet to quash all the inevitable criticism is to write a flat-out masterpiece. Stewart did. Stewart has. The Places in Between is, in very nearly every sense, too good to be true.
See what I mean?

» Read an excerpt from The Places Between

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus is one of those wonderful writers who every so often show up with a fine book and then return to whatever they return to. He is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and two short-story collections, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, all of which are highly regarded.

Called a “black comedy about terrorism, war, and conjugal strife,” in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country Kalfus revisits some peculiar episodes in current American history:
Joyce and Marshall Harriman are struggling to divorce each other while sharing a cramped, hateful Brooklyn apartment with their two small children. One late-summer morning, Joyce departs for Newark Airport to catch a flight to San Francisco, and Marshall goes to his office in the World Trade Center. She misses her flight, and he’s late for work, but on that grim day, in a devastated city, among millions seized by fear and grief, each thinks the other’s dead and each is secretly, shamefully, gloriously happy.

Opening with a swift kick to our national piety, following Joyce and Marshall as they swallow their mutual disappointment, their divorce conflict intensifies, and they suffer, in unexpectedly personal ways, the many strange ravages that beset America in the first years of the Bush administration. Joyce suspects Marshall has sent an anthrax-laced envelope to her office. Marshall taps her phone and studies plans for constructing a suicide bomb. The stock market crash and the war in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and the clash of civilizations: all become marital battlefields.

Concluding with the liberation of Iraq…
Which is why this is called a black comedy, huh?

» Read an excerpt from A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

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