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Book Digest: June 18, 2007

A Young People's History of the United States Vols. I and II; Chasing the Rising Sun; The Opposite House; The Uncertain Hour; Pulp Writer; Nazi Germany and the Jews (1939-1945), Vol. II; The Interloper; The Summer Shack Cookbook; Four Novels of the 1960s; Cataloochee; God Is Dead; Her Way; 1967

May I say that I am bored—of course, I may!—with literary reviewers, some intelligent and useful (Adam Kirsch), some Paleolithic (Richard Schickel), offering undisguised special pleading as to why their self-appointed, self-selecting, self-serving guild members are superior to the barbarous rabble they identify as literary bloggers. In the deeply subjective world of literary criticism, I suppose, one can make the kinds of statements and arguments and generalizations that are bandied about by the above-mentioned pair, but in the slightly more real worlds of new and old media, such blathering comes off as, well, blather. Anyone have thoughts on when this tempest in a teapot will subside?

On a more literary note, Norwegian Per Petterson won the IMPAC Dublin Award for his Out Stealing Horses, and the galleys (Andrea Barrett, Amy Bloom, Ana Castillo) are already pouring in, indicating a fruitful autumn—but why get ahead of oneself, yes?

And then there is the late Kurt Vonnegut’s trenchant observation: “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Amen.

A Young People’s History of the United States Vol. I (Columbus to the Spanish American War), Vol. II (Class Struggle to the War on Terror) by Rebecca Steffoff
Book Digest Since its publication in the early ‘80s, A People’s History of the United States has sold 1.5 million copies, making it the most visible of the histories seen from the point of view of the losers, the oppressed, and the exploited—as opposed to the conventional histories by and about the victors, the privileged, and the oppressors. Young-adult book author Rebecca Steffoff has translated and abridged Howard Zinn’s crystalline but lengthy text for young adults of all ages. If you think you know American history, have peek at these tomes—I bet you’ll be surprised. I’m proud to disclose that Zinn is a mentor of mine: After a stint as shipyard worker during the Depression and later an Air Force bombardier, he has gone on to becomes a much-published and loved (except by the former president of Boston University) historian and professor, still crisscrossing the United States, speaking to enthusiastic and receptive audiences.

Chasing the Rising Sun by Ted Anthony
Book Digest One day we may be treated to an ethnomusicological account of the origin of the Kingsmen’s frat-boy hit Louie, Louie (allegedly about oral sex—a big thing in the ‘60s). For now we should be content with efforts like Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man and Ted Anthony’s journey through one of the more ubiquitous folk songs in the American songbook, “The House of the Rising Sun.” Sung by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and other American folk masters, the song became a pop hit in the ‘60s by the Animals, and has continued to be recorded, as well as used in various commercial applications.

It’s a compelling story for a song first catalogued by famed ethnomusicologist and field researcher Alan Lomax, as sung by a 16-year-old coalminer’s daughter named Georgia White in Middlesboro, Ky. In his research, AP reporter Anthony even ascertains whether, in fact, there once was such a house in New Orleans.

» Read an excerpt from Chasing the Rising Sun

The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi
Book Digest As an undergraduate I was entranced by the writings of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, but except for a brief encounter with Ben Okri’s dense and voluptuous novels I have not kept up with African—more specifically, Nigerian—literature. Recently I have been pleased to read the compelling and well-told fiction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Uzodinma Iweala.

And here is another young inestimable talent—23-year-old Nigerian expatriate and London resident Helen Oyeyemi follows up her 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize short-listed novel The Icarus Girl. In her new opus she limns the permeability of the line that separates myth and reality, and faith and identity issues through the alternating tales of Maja, an Afro-Cuban woman living in London and beset by personal identity concerns, and Yemaya Saramagua, a Santerian from Lagos, who resides in a “somewherehouse” in London, with a door that opens out to London and a door that opens in to Lagos. This dislocation is, of course, troubling to Yemaya and the source of much narrative energy.

» Read an excerpt from The Opposite House

The Uncertain Hour by Jesse Browner
Book Digest One of the odd twists of bibliophilia is to be in possession of unread books which you cannot recall how you came to own. Fourth-generation New Yorker Jesse Browner’s two previous novels Conglomeros and Turnaway fit into that category, and I fear I have missed something when I read the incomparable Sigrid Nunez’s enthusing:
The Uncertain Hour is as sumptuous a feast as the fabulous banquet it describes. It is also an elegant meditation on such matters as the nature of love, what makes a good life, and whether there can be such a thing as a perfect death. I don’t know which to praise more: the author’s feat of historical reconstruction, or his boundless powers of invention.
The Uncertain Hour is set in Rome, in the year 66. We find author Titus Petronius falsely implicated in an assassination plot against Nero. One of the niceties of noble Roman life was the choice of suicide as opposed to execution—thus Petronius, who has a lovely villa on the coast, throws a delectable soiree for his best friends. All he asks is that talk of his inevitable end be put aside for these last 12 hours—something he himself can hardly do as his dwindling time focuses his mind on lost loves and irremediable errors and his service to Nero. And, yes, there is his legacy to posterity, The Satyricon.

Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street by Paul Powers
Book Digest For most people, the lives of writers are rarely interesting—or rarely more interesting than any other occupation. Paul Powers’s story does seem to rise to at least a compelling cautionary tale. In a writing career that stretched from the Great Depression through the ‘50s (also called the golden age of pulps), he used at least eight pseudonyms and was also reputed to be an expert in western Americana and rare books, and published hundreds of stories and other short-form fiction in Wild West Weekly and other pulp magazines of the time. Pulp Writer is a writing memoir that puts a studied eye to the business of writing and publishing pulp fiction during its reigning years. Granddaughter Laurie Powers, who never knew her grandfather, and who discovered the Pulp Writer manuscript, elaborates on the historical context of her granddad’s work in her biographical essays.

Nazi Germany and the Jews (1939-1945), Vol. II: The Years of Extermination by Saul Friedländer
Book Digest Prague-born Saul Friedländer spent his boyhood in Nazi-occupied France, and is a 1999 MacArthur Fellow and a professor of history at U.C.L.A. The Years of Extermination completes his major historical work on Nazi Germany and the Jews that begun with Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939. Volume II chronicles the persecution and murder of the Jews throughout occupied Europe—forever known as the Holocaust (a word that seems to have lost its potency). Friedländer utilizes a dizzying and extended bibliography of sources as well as a large and variegated population of voices to frame his view of these still-incomprehensible events. Considering the crowded field of proclaimed “definitive” studies of the Nazi period, let me simply just suggest that Friedländer’s is surely a substantial candidate.

The Interloper by Antoine Wilson
Book Digest Somebody at the Los Angeles Times is doing their job. Except for serendipity, how else to explain a review of a literary fiction debut by an author (and U. of Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad and A Public Space editor) published by a small publishing house? Here’s Jess Walters from that above-mentioned review,
Oh, what thrilling dread, falling in with a character as twisted as the narrator of Antoine Wilson’s terrific first novel, The Interloper. It’s like leaving a party with a designated driver, only to discover as you swerve down the driveway that your new friend is drunker than you are. Or worse, completely insane.
Then there is Tom Boyle’s opinion: “As assured and sumptuously written as any first novel I’ve encountered—Antoine Wilson’s prose sings, and the story he tells here is both clever and compelling. This is writing at its very best.”

Wilson’s story has Owen Patterson dealing with the aftermath of his brother-in-law’s inexplicable murder and the damage done to his wife and in-laws. And so he begins a correspondence with the imprisoned murderer Henry Joseph Raven, under the pseudonym Lily Hazelton in order to, as he says, “balance the scales of justice.” How that intention is to be played out and the resultant effect on Owen is, of course, what has Walter and Boyle crowing—and hopefully, what has you curious.

The Summer Shack Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Shore Food by Jasper White
Book Digest Minimum search-engining will provide you with Jasper White’s bona-fides as one of the great American chefs and a patriarch of New England fine dining—winning numerous awards and having trained any number of successful, if not well-regarded restaurateurs. White has eschewed the so-called “fine-dining” side of the hospitality industry for more populist eateries, the Summer Shacks. In this, his most recent recipe collection, White presents around 200 seafood dishes—a food group in which he is particularly gifted.

» Read an excerpt from The Summer Shack Cookbook

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick, edited by Jonathan Lethem
Book Digest I am not particularly a Philip K. Dick fan (neither his books nor movies based on his books, except for Blade Runner), but I am an enthusiast of the Library of America. This compilation includes the Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik. Jonathan Lethem, who edited this tome, and who is an unabashed Dick fan, claims Dick “wielded a sardonic yet heartbroken acuity about the plight of being alive in the twentieth century, one that makes him a lonely hero to the readers who cherish him.” Well, OK.

Cataloochee by Wayne Caldwell
Book Digest I am a great fan of Southern writing—and by happenstance of North Carolinians Reynolds Price, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Charles Frazier, Elizabeth Cox, and so on—and Wayne Caldwell’s first effort, which fellow Carolinian Frazier terms “A brilliant portrait of a community and a way of life long gone, a lost America,” is my kind of book. Beginning with the Civil War, this book presents us with three generations of western North Carolinians living in the Appalachians and dealing with the inevitable encroachment of progress on their idyll. Like I said, this is my kind of book.

» Read an excerpt from Cataloochee

God Is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr.
Book Digest Compare what Ron Currie writes about himself—”I am not qualified, in any formal sense, to do what I do. but I don’t worry too much about that. it’s not like I’m pretending to be a doctor or pilot or anything”—with his publisher’s description: “From a mind-blowing new talent, an audacious novel that imagines the world after God takes human form and dies.” Such is the cacophonous world of book talk. In any case, Waterville, Maine’s native son Currie fashions a Swiftian tale featuring a Dinka woman as God dying in the Darfur desert—a setting as far removed from Currie’s known habitats as the far side of the Moon. What follows, of course, is the usual silliness and all-too-human foibles associated with religions. Successful satire? I leave it to you. Ambitious attempt? You bet.

Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.
Book Digest In this silly season known as the presidential campaign, one is tempted to rail against the diminution of our political class and the degradation of our republic by the monied classes and various and sundry scoundrels, mountebanks, and outright thieves. I can see that I will have plenty of time for that, so I will curb my inclination. At any rate, of the recent spate of campaign biographies, manifestos, hagiographies, and whatnots, the unauthorized portrait by the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr., offered some interesting insights. The apparent penchant of Ms. Rodham for secrecy and control is not the least of these. More and more I see strains of Nixonian paranoia and darkness, redeemed by the elder senator from New York’s being on the right side of children, health, and education issues. If there is a must-read book on current American politics, Her Way is my choice, but as an act of enlightened citizenship you should read at least one of them.

» Read an excerpt from Her Way

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East by Tom Segev
Book Digest If not one of the most important history books of recent times, then an important book about one of the important historical events in the last 40 years, the consequences of which reverberate to this day. Tom Segev, a highly regarded if not controversial (based on his book The Seventh Million) Israeli historian, pieces together a complex but cogent narrative involving world figures, soldiers, lobbyists, refugees, and settlers. Segev’s huge wellspring of sources taps unpublished letters and diaries, as well as government memos and military records and produces two startling claims: Israel’s intimacy with the White House and that the war was not inevitable.

If you don’t get around to reading this book, David Remnick’s précis of it gives a useful overview. And the picture by Magnum’s Micha Bar-Am of Moshe Dayan is haunting.

» Read an excerpt from 1967

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