Book Digest: July 30, 2007

On Royalty; Sin in the Second City; Spook Country; Inside the Red Mansion; Girls of Riyadh; Unchecked and Unbalanced; More Sex Is Safer Sex; The Last Summer of the World; Christopher's Ghosts; The Complete Stories; Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design

The coming months are filled with promise of great literary pleasure: books on the horizon include those by some of my favorite writers—Andrea Barrett, Percival Everett, Richard Russo, Joseph O’Connor, Ana Castillo, Ha Jin, and Graham Swift.

And on a very sad personal note, I learned the other day that Francisco Goldman’s wife suffered a terminal surfing injury in Mexico. The couple had only been married a short time. A terrible thing…

On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry Into Some Strangely Related Families by Jeremy Paxman
Book Digest I once saw the BBC’s renowned Paxman interview Tony Blair and was so impressed with his tenacity and diligence that he became the benchmark by which I judge the toothless wonders of American journalism. So if anyone is to investigate this dubious subject and lend it some value, it would be the savvy and relentless Paxman—as Public Affairs points out: “What Desmond Morris did for apes, Paxman has done for these primus inter primates: the royal families.”

» Read an excerpt from On Royalty

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott
Book Digest Truth and fiction are first cousins, as shown by this tale of turn-of-the century Chicago’s Everleigh Club—its resplendent and world-famous cathouse, efficiently and decorously operated by the sisters Everleigh. Included here are cameos by an odd cast of characters including Prince Henry of Prussia, Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Al Capone—as well as all the compelling elements of a pot-boiling thriller.

» Read an excerpt from Sin in the Second City

Spook Country by William Gibson
Book Digest Wherever novelist William Gibson, author of some indispensable primers on the future, lands in time, dystopian vision is the prescription of his glasses. In this case, he sets his gaze on an America not distant from Sept. 11 and its aftershocks. A predictable set of misfits and outcasts people this bleak novel. One review nails it:
Although he is a very different sort of writer, Gibson, like DeLillo, writes fiction that is powerfully attuned to the currents of dread, dismay, and baffled fury that permeate our culture. Spook Country—which is a beautifully multi-leveled title—takes an unflinching look at that culture. With a clear eye and a minimum of editorial comment, Gibson shows us a country that has drifted dangerously from its governing principles, evoking a kind of ironic nostalgia for a time when, as one character puts it, “grown-ups still ran things.”
Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China’s Most Wanted Man by Oliver August
Book Digest Reporter August finds himself chasing Lai Changxing, an illiterate and self-made Chinese billionaire now on the lam from corruption charges, and uses that as the fulcrum for a revealing narrative on the complexities and eccentricities of this Asian behemoth. The accelerated development of the Chinese economy—a hybrid of command and free market—has, of course, resulted in widespread corruption and a volatile culture. Odd characters appear, which August uses to good and compelling advantage. Considering how little we know (or are allowed to know) about China, other than the scrutiny of The New Yorker’s Peter Hessler and a few others, these are invaluable snapshots of the Heavenly Kingdom.

» Read an excerpt from Inside the Red Mansion

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea
Book Digest It’s almost needless to say, but this novel about four female university students in Riyadh, written by Saudi Alsanea, was banned in Saudi Arabia in 2005. In it an anonymous narrator sends a weekly email to subscribers—including the above-mentioned Qamra, Michelle, Sadim, and Lamis, who are conversant with the modern world even as their insular society and its traditions constrain them. This is a distinctive and rare peek into a rarely revealed culture.

Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in the Time of Terror by Fredrick A.O. Schwartz and Aziz Z. Huq
Book Digest In case you needed documented, well-argued evidence that the current administration has overstepped its constitutional limits and engaged in actions detrimental to the welfare of this country, Schwartz (who was chief counsel for the post-Watergate Church Committee) and Huq provide a convincing brief that adds to a growing body of literature (e.g., United States v. George W. Bush et al. by Elizabeth De La Vega) on the impeachability of the current president. Realistically, this will probably never happen—what one (that would be me) hopes for is that this body of information will somehow come into play in the next elections and form some constructive reaction from an awakened and vigilant citizenry. To paraphrase Hemingway: Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?

More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg
Book Digest Recently a spate of books have been published that seem to put an end to the tired cliché that economics is “the dismal science.” I too would argue that economists are the most original and perceptive of all the social scientists. Robert Frank, Tyler Cowen, Steven Levitt, as well as Slate’s Landsburg have not only injected some much-needed levity into a field viewed as the domain of statistician wonks—but have also enlivened public conversation.

» Read an excerpt from More Sex Is Safer Sex

The Last Summer of the World by Emily Mitchell
Book Digest Emily Mitchell’s debut novel is set in war-torn, 1918 France with photographer Edward Steichen on assignment for the United States Army. While there he learns that his wife has sued her best friend, the painter Marion Beckett, claiming an adulterous liaison—an interesting starting point for a novel.

Christopher’s Ghosts by Charles McCarry
Book Digest Who doesn’t encounter the kind of trepidations of which Otto Penzler speaks in his recent encomium on Charles McCarry—”America’s greatest espionage writer”—and his latest opus? While I am not particularly a fan of book series and repeating characters, McCarry’s Paul Christopher, his family, and spooky cronies are an exception whose qualities affirm the standard. Overlook has made a (noble) mission of reprinting McCarry’s novels, and this one ranges from 1930s Germany to the already forgotten 1950s world of the Cold War.

The Complete Stories by David Malouf
Book Digest Australian writer Malouf, who has 10 novels and six poetry collections to his credit, has apparently been overshadowed by various of his countrymen, which if there be any karmic balancing should be corrected by this compendium of his short fiction. Of the 30 stories in this collection, seven are new—under the rubric “Every Move You Make.” Of these Malouf has said, “What I find myself committed to more than anything else is the way all of what I’ve done forms a body of work and what that body of work says with it’s various correspondences and echoes. The stories speak to each other in a way, sometimes across quite a period but I also hope the stories speak to the novels.”

» Read an excerpt from The Complete Stories

Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design by Christopher Long
Book Digest Long brings back from obscurity—and with apparently unprecedented accuracy—facts about Frankl, a Viennese transplant and trained architect who concentrated on interior design and later, furniture design. This monograph features 170 illustrations as well as an excellent and comprehensive bibliography, and firmly establishes Frankl, who died in 1958, as a vital modernist influence on American design.

» Read an excerpt from Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design

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