Book Digest: June 12, 2006

The Nasty Bits; Uncommon Carriers; Now You See It; Moonlight Hotel; Great Ideas; Revolutionary Characters; There Will Never Be Another You; Learning to Kill; Cellophane; A Woman of Uncertain Character; A Farewell to Arms

The faux short-fingered vulgarians (a little inside joke) at Coudal Partners have come up with a swell idea, not the least of which because they have shown dubious judgement in including me—they asked an assortment of writers/readers to recount (in a few hundred words) a reading experience in which a place, a locale affected the way a book was read, was processed, understood. It’s a sweet-natured collection infected by great goodwill—the Chicago homeboy in me especially liked George Saunders’s piece on Stuart Dybek’s story “Hot Ice”:
I kept putting the book down, going: This can’t be this good this can’t be this good. But it was, and to my credit, I saw it, and didn’t deny it. I felt I’d come to the edge of an unknown, superior continent, after lingering too long on the boat. And that afternoon changed my life.
Books can do that. For sure.

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones by Anthony Bourdain
In filmmaking the “bits” that comprise this book would be referred to as “outtakes,” in cooking they would be “fodder for the stock pot?” At any rate, Bourdain, who jumped to celebrity status with his Kitchen Confidential, allegedly an expose of the goings-on in restaurant kitchens, due in large part to the culinary frenzy of the spending classes, followed with a half-dozen more literary entries—including, amazingly, three novels. One thing in Bourdain’s favor is that he is not favoring himself when it comes to dishing the dish. Of course, Carolyn See doesn’t quite, uh, see it that way:
But how many celebrity chefs can America accommodate? Wolfgang Puck has become a bit of a joke by now, with his awful canned soups and airport greasy spoons, but what about Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and even Rachael Ray? They all manage to convey the fairly revolutionary idea that you can cook and not seethe with rage—that combining ingredients over a fire is not like channeling Jesse James or John Dillinger or even Jack Palance; that food preparation may be closer to art and craft than a shootout. But still Bourdain is out there, disclosing the dark secrets—the “nasty bits”—of the restaurant kitchen, or so the subtitle would suggest: “Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones.”

But these bits aren’t nasty at all. They’re stray collected pieces, taken from various newspapers and magazines. What they really are is repetitive, and what Bourdain really needs most is an editor…
So caveat emptor, as they say.

» Read an excerpt from The Nasty Bits

Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee
Pulitzer prize-winning New Yorker magazine standard bearer John McPhee has published his 28th book, this one focusing on a variety of conveyances. By now McPhee’s M.O. is well established—humor, clear prose, and an eye for the necessary detail. Here’s the FSG synopsis of his new opus:
…he rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the “tight-assed” Illinois River on a “towboat” pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being “a good deal longer than the Titanic.” And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.
Apropos of nothing I have always admired the quote attributed to him: “He liked to go from A to B without inventing letters between.”

» Read an excerpt from Uncommon Carriers

Now You See It… Stories From Cokesville, Pa by Bathsheba Monk
This is the best appellation I have come across this year. Anyone making up those dumb lists that we come across hourly should be sure to include her—along with Coco Crisp and…and now that she has our attention—Ms. Monk (no relation to Meredith, or Thelonious), who was born to a family of Pennsylvania coal miners. After being discharged from the Army, she lived in Europe and now in Allentown, Pa., where she writes stories of small-town, working-class Pennsylvania—17 linked stories, spanning 45 years, reminiscent of the kind of small towns found in Richard Russo country. Tim O’Brien enthuses, “Bathsheba Monk is a writer I’ll be talking about when I talk about brilliant new writers. Now You See It… is the work of an imaginative, funny, and electrically gifted storyteller.”

Moonlight Hotel by Scott Anderson
Unlike his inestimable brother Jon Lee, war correspondent Scott Anderson works both sides of the literary divide, writing nonfiction, as in The Man Who Tried to Save the World and The Four O’Clock Murders and War Zone (with Jon Lee), and his first novel, Triage. In his day job he contributes to Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper’s, Outside, and others, being a regular visitor to such hellholes as Beirut, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Israel, Sudan, Sarajevo, and El Salvador, among others.

Here’s a synopsis of Moonlight Hotel:
David Richards is a mid-level diplomat assigned to the sleepy Middle Eastern kingdom of Kutar. Richards spends his days monitoring small development projects and his nights attending embassy cocktail parties and bedding various visiting American women and diplomats’ wives.

The time is the early 1980s, when the American Empire has begun to tentatively flex its muscles once again. Kutar is a diplomatic backwater, a former British colony, barely a blip on the State Department’s radar back in Washington. For centuries desultory tribal conflict has flared sporadically in the arid hills hundreds of miles from the coastal capital of Laradan, and as the book opens rumors of a new skirmish there reach the city’s inhabitants. As always, the residents of Laradan ignore the stories, but this time something is different: The Americans decide to do something about it.

As any casual student of geopolitics might guess, this is bad news for the people of Kutar. Urged on by a Kurtzian American military advisor named Colonel Munn, the little-used Kutaran army marches into the hills. In quick order they are decimated, and with stunning rapidity the heights above Laradan are occupied by a rebel force possessed of the government’s abandoned artillery. Soon the Americans, and all other foreigners, are ordered from the country and leave the people of Laradan to their fate.

For his own deeply personal reasons, David chooses to stay on in the besieged city, and moves into the Moonlight Hotel, a crumbling colonial dinosaur. There he is joined by an eclectic assortment of other foreigners, including a senior British diplomat, an acid-tongued Romanian countess, and Amira, an aristocratic young woman who previously spurned David’s romantic advances. Together, this small community tries to maneuver over the radically-changed landscape of the beleaguered city, while holding out hope that the outside world might yet come to its rescue. Then the shooting begins in earnest.
» Read an excerpt from Moonlight Hotel

Great Ideas, Series Two from Penguin Books
If this is not a great idea I don’t know what a great idea is… Nicely designed (“a unique type-driven design that highlights the bookmaker’s art”), nicely printed series monographs by (arguably) some of the world’s great thinkers, This, the second in a series, includes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies, Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Castiglione’s How to Achieve True Greatness, Francis Bacon’s Of Empire, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Plato’s The Symposium, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Thoreau’s Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon Wood
His 1992 Pulitzer prize-winning Radicalism of the American Revolution, and most recently The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, suggest that Gordon Wood, who teaches at Brown University, can be counted on to spare readers and students the hagiographic myth-fostering present in the recent wave of Founding Father biographies—David McCullough’s John Adams, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers, and Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. From George Washington to Aaron Burr, Wood devotes each of his eight chapters to a different revolutionary leader. Edward Renehan (Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons) writes:
Wood has never failed to produce vibrant and interesting commentary on the Founders. He remains true to form here, selecting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr for particular attention. To each of these gentlemen, Wood applies a key rubric: studying their individual moral characters and their view of moral character as a concept… Whether the “Age of Paine,” the “Age of Reason” or both, the fact remains that the diverse Founders (with all their varied agendas and foibles) populated and defined the era for good or ill. Wood paints these fascinating characters in all their contrasting and conflicting colors, and does so quite brilliantly.
There Will Never Be Another You by Carolyn See
Accomplished writer Carolyn See (The Handyman, Making History, and Golden Days), who is firmly ensconced in the literary planet as a reviewer, as a teacher (U.C.L.A.), an a functionary at the NBCC and Pen West International, has not published a novel in seven years—a skein snapped with this tome. Joan Didion, not known as a gusher, gushes, “Carolyn See has written a novel alive with wit and love and energy—a book about things falling apart that turns out to be a day at the beach.” Random House summarizes:
There Will Never Be Another You captures the paranoia and propaganda of a volatile time and place in which humanity’s divisions run deep and society sits on edge – and one Southern California family faces profound crises from within and without.

It is a moment in the near future when the global threat of terror has cultivated rage, apathy, and panic across the country. People fear that “anybody could be armed, or have a bomb. Or a disease. Or all three.” For Phil, a dermatologist at the U.C.L.A. hospital, it is a time of unease and uncertainty, in stark contrast to the days when he coasted through life on his good looks, a modicum of charm, and only haphazard effort. Now Phil must deal with his mother, Edith, who’s been grieving over the death of her husband for several years and only recently has thought to reconnect with a family that seems to have other priorities. Phil’s energies are already divvied up among his belligerent children, his wayward wife, and his unreliable mistress. Then Phil’s life takes a dramatic turn: He is recruited for a top-secret team whose task is to act quickly in the event of a biological or chemical attack. The assignment just may provide him with a renewed sense of purpose. Yet dire circumstances force Phil to make profound decisions that will affect not just himself and his loved ones but the entire country. It is a chance for an ordinary man to rise from mediocrity to heroism – and at which failure would prove to be catastrophic.
» Read an excerpt from There Will Never Be Another You

Learning to Kill: Stories by Ed McBain
These 25 stories by mystery-story grandmaster Ed McBain (author of about a hundred books, among them the 87th precinct novels), who died last year, come from his early career. All but five of them were first published in the detective magazine Manhunt, where they appeared under the bylines of Evan Hunter (McBain’s legal name as of 1952), Richard Marsten, or Hunt Collins. For about half of a century, Ed McBain published frequently and well. This posthumous tome attests to that.

» Read an excerpt from Learning to Kill

Cellophane by Marie Arana
I can’t help but wonder what happens in the small world of American literary journalism when an editor at a significant book section like the Washington Post’s Book World, as is the case here with Marie Arana and her first novel (though her memoir American Chica was nominated for a National Book Award) publishes a book. Given the petty and envy-laden personalities populating the literary world, there is an obvious opportunity for both knife-sharpening and log-rolling—or just plain dumbness, as in The New York Times referring to American Chica as “John Cheever meeting Isabel Allende.” Publisher’s Weekly (which I scan so you don’t have to) summarizes:
Arana revisits her native Peru with a tale as bawdy, raucous and dense as the jungle whose presence encroaches on every page. Arana’s first novel depicts a family—and a country—on the fulcrum between the old ways and the new, between feudalism and revolution. At the height of the Great Depression, paper engineer Don Victor Sobrevilla pitches his small empire where the trees are—in the heart of the rain forest—constructing a highly successful paper factory and a vast hacienda, Floralinda, far from the political centers of Trujillo and Lima, linked only to the outside world by the dangerous and unpredictable Amazon. When, in 1952, Don Victor discovers the formula for cellophane, his household is afflicted with a “plague of truth,” a compulsion to confess their most shameful histories and most hidden yearnings, to make their stories as transparent as the paper itself. When desires are laid bare, so are the conflicts that the family has kept hidden for so long, resulting in interlocking quests for power…”
A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who Always Wanted to be a Respectable Jewish Mom) by Her Bastard Son by Clancy Sigal
In local sports journalism, I am referred to as a “homer,” someone who favors his hometown team—well, who isn’t? Being a Jew from Chicago who is a lefty (as in politically progressive), this memoir (the subtitle is a pretty good summary) by literary polymath Clancy Sigal sings to me as it takes place in Chicago and is about his “fast-talking, redhaired, sexy, unwed mother Jennie, a firebrand union organizer, and his roaring Oedipal rivalry with his mostly absent father Leo who carries a gun to social occasions.” Jonah Raskin observes,
Sigal grew up to become a celebrated writer, and A Woman of Uncertain Character offers a portrait of the artist as a young man. Oddly enough, however, he glosses over his literary life, and his love affair with British novelist Doris Lessing…Sigal carries on the tough-guy literary tradition of Chicago writers James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, and Nelson Algren, author of The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side. Like Farrell and Algren, he makes no apology for his own wildness, his defiant sexuality or his street language. Something volatile and combative happens on almost every page, whether it’s a domestic quarrel, a street brawl or the famous 1938 boxing match between Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling, when Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round, and all the Sigals—and every anti-fascist in America—cheered wildly.
» Read an excerpt from A Woman of Uncertain Character

A Farewell to Arms (Unabridged) by Ernest Hemingway, read by John Slattery
No doubt you have heard of Ernest Hemingway. (OK, OK—allow me my small barbs aimed the Paris Hilton/Tom Cruise-crazed culture.) There is a new series of Hemingway audio texts, including this, his classic of classics, A Farewell to Arms. And to reiterate my feelings on audio books, they are not to be seen as substitutes—simply an additional iteration like the movie.

» Read an excerpt from A Farewell to Arms

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