Book Digest: July 2, 2007

Closed for Repairs; Littlefoot; Taxi!; Pools; Contested Waters; Send; Alligator; E.O. Hoppé's Amerika; Ravel; All Things, All At Once; The Cult of the Amateur

From a Paris Review interview published in 1977, here’s Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. on patriotism:
Interviewer: You are a veteran of the Second World War?

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Yes. I want a military funeral when I die—the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.

Interviewer: Why?

Vonnegut: It will be a way of achieving what I’ve always wanted more than anything—something I could have had, if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war.

Interviewer: Which is—?

Vonnegut: The unqualified approval of my community.
Far more recently, I noted Rebecca Steffoff’s A Young People’s History of the United States; last week, know-it-all New York Times reviewer Walter Kirn bludgeoned it and its worthy ur-text, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; this week, Howard Zinn—who is my kind of patriot—responds.

Finally, I again would like to point out an observation by a South African journalist that I find especially resonant this coming week: “A patriot is someone who saves his country from its government.”

Happy holiday, and good reading.

Closed for Repairs by Nancy Alonso, translated by Anne Fountain
Book Digest Cuba’s status within the American imperium is an odd confluence of mythology, wishful thinking, misinformation, and greed. The once-triumphant revolution that overthrew U.S.-sponsored thug Fulgencio Batista has fallen on hard times stemming from a 40-plus-year embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reactionaries everywhere rejoice at Cuba’s travails, but the 11 vignettes in Closed for Repairs exhibit Cubano spirit and cleverness in the face of depravation, shortage, and dysfunction—making for compelling narratives and survival tales.

Littlefoot by Charles Wright
Book Digest Poet and teacher Charles Wright, who has won almost every major award and then some, presents his 18th book of poetry, chronicling the 70th year in his life, which inevitably and perhaps inescapably devolves to the poet’s preoccupation: “Will you miss me when I’m gone?” Thomas Curwen concludes: “If Nature is a haunted house, as Emily Dickinson told us, and Art a house that tries to be haunted, then Wright has created in Littlefoot one of the most satisfyingly possessed landscapes of his career.”

» Read an excerpt from Littlefoot

Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver by Graham Russell and Gao Hodges
This book’s title tells you what it contains, and as the first book on this subject, it fills a remarkable gap in American social history. Want more? Read Pete Hamill’s indispensable remarks on this tome.

Pools by Kelly Klein, notes by Esther Williams
Book Digest The former Mrs. Calvin Klein published the first edition of this book in 1992, and it is now often listed on eBay for upwards of $1,500. Its republication has occasioned a number of celebrity gatherings and numerous paragraphs in Manhattan media echo chambers—all of which may obscure the quality of this monograph of almost 200 photos of pools worldwide, including works from Lartigue, Stieglitz, Munkácsi, Weston, and then-newcomers Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber.

Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse
Book Digest As the above-mentioned Taxi! and this study make clear, social historians are making imaginative investigations of seemingly obvious social institutions and industries. In Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, set in Baltimore in the late ‘50s, three young Jewish friends wander by the local municipal swimming pool, which has a sign warning off “coloreds, Jews and dogs.” And that’s just one of the ways swimming pools have been both a reflection of the status quo and an engine of social change.

Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
Book Digest I am not big on self-help and how-to, but in the case of this book I consider it a public service. It is no doubt a modern affliction that a mode of communication developed with so little forethought and practiced with so little thought has assumed primacy. As in most cases of useful self-help, common sense and a sense of deliberation are key—of course, it would seem both are in short supply.

» Read an excerpt from Send

Alligator by Lisa Moore
Book Digest If such things mean anything to you, Richard Ford and Michael Ondaatje are very high on Newfoundlander Lisa Moore. (In fact, in a recent chat with Ondaatje he suggested Newfoundland was a hotbed of young writing talent.) This first novel is set in today’s St. John’s, Newfoundland, with an ensemble of whacked-out types—a 17-year-old would-be eco-terrorist, an aging filmmaker, a hot-dog stand proprietor, and a Russian sociopath—all of whom make for bizarre entertainment and a vivid story. Lisa Moore is a writer to watch.

» Read an excerpt from Alligator

E.O. Hoppé’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs From the 1920s by Phillip Prodger
Book Digest German-born photographer E.O. Hoppé, who died in 1972, was a contemporary of Americans Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Walker Evans. These 120 recently unearthed photographs are vital observations of an America informed by Hoppé’s outsider point of view and sharp, brooding intelligence.

Ravel: A Novel by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale
Book Digest No doubt various strains of xenophobia, Francophobia, and indifference contribute to the American public’s ignorance of Jean Echenoz’s bestselling (in France) novel, Ravel. Echenoz portrays the last 10 years of the great French composer’s life, beginning in 1927 as the colorful Ravel commences a tour of the United States. It’s a bittersweet tale of Ravel’s swan song and his coming to grips with various of his illustrious life’s odd problems.

All Things, All At Once: New and Selected Stories by Lee Abbott
Book Digest The short fiction of Lee K. Abbott, who lives in rural New Mexico and teaches at Ohio State University, has frequently been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Awards collections. This book—his seventh collection—reprises some previously published stories as well as some new. Stories of bust-outs and no-lucks, many set in his beloved Southwest, with pitch-perfect prose, unrepentant sentiment, and unflagging humor make clear why Abbott is esteemed as a master of American short fiction.

The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen
Book Digest Last week I noted a book—Scott Gant’s We’re All Journalists Now—that extols the web and its democratizing effect on journalism. This week, Andrew Keen’s opus retaliates: “Amateur hour has arrived, and the audience is running the show.” The current web, he argues, is a train wreck of narcissistic blogging, unsubstantiated information dispersal, and all stripes of amateur enterprises—all of which smacks of the same elitist arguments forwarded by the same paranoid professionals who fear the barbarians at the gates. Keen is no dummy, however, and he does confront the real and unaddressed concerns about rampant infringements on intellectual property that many callow web democrats sidestep or totally ignore. For a response, I’ll turn the floor over to web heavyweight Lawrence Lessig, who weighs in with some trenchant commentary:
But what is puzzling about this book is that it purports to be a book attacking the sloppiness, error and ignorance of the Internet, yet it itself is shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance. It tells us that without institutions, and standards, to signal what we can trust (like the institution (Doubleday) that decided to print his book), we won’t know what’s true and what’s false. But the book itself is riddled with falsity—from simple errors of fact, to gross misreadings of arguments, to the most basic errors of economics…”
How about that, huh?

» Read an excerpt from The Cult of the Amateur

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