Book Digest: June 19, 2006

The Unsettling; The Great Match Race; Going Sane; Darkness & Light; The Suitors; Endgame, Volume II; Don't I Know You?; Burning Rainbow Farm; Nürnberg; The Economics of Attention; A Strong West Wind; The Week You Weren't Here

As a fairly private citizen I should be pleased that this week has gone by without a particularly egregious depredation occurring in the literary world—but as a journalist I am, of course, without anything to jaw about, nothing about which to form nimble sentences of despair and outrage—no cynical Sam Tanenhaus marketing efforts or Leon Wieseltier rabid volcanic outpourings or Garrison Keillor faux folksiness at which to shake my verbal fists. What am to do? I have nothing to say but to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen”—“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Thinking of Wittgenstein reminds me that Alan Furst, in his latest thriller, The Foreign Correspondent, mentions and quotes one of Wittgenstein’s Viennese contemporaries, the inimitable satirist Karl Kraus, “How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.” And, by the way, should you be the curious sort, Edward Timmins recently published the second volume of his singular biography, Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist. Kraus also had this to say about the Fourth Estate: “No ideas and the ability to express them—that’s a journalist.”

Funny guy, huh?

The Unsettling by Peter Rock
Peter Rock, who grew up in Salt Lake City, is the author of four novels: The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, Carnival Wolves, and This Is the Place. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he now lives in Portland, Ore., and teaches at Reed College. The Unsettling, which contains 13 short stories, is his first collection; most already were published by the usual literary suspects—Zoetrope, Tin House, and One Story. The MacAdam Cage web site relays:
The Unsettling attends to those startling moments when what we have understood as familiar is suddenly revealed as mysterious and foreign. A lonely man saving library books from an outbreak of mold listens to a coworker’s tale about a blind woman and imbues it with his own sense of romance; a woman drives a Gold Firebird through the desert with a television playing “Rockford Files” reruns on the passenger seat; a girl returns to her childhood home to spy on its new inhabitants, not realizing they are aware of her surveillance; and a Poe-obsessed medical examiner constructs ornate scenes in an attempt to provoke hope in the forgotten lives of a dark and desperate city. …these are haunted tales about fascination, transformation, and the relationship between the two.
The collection’s title, by the way, doesn’t come from any of the stories found therein but rather from Rock’s fixation on the random interruptions of our more or less well-ordered lives by chaos and disorder.

The Great Match Race: When South Met North in America’s First Sports Spectacle by John Eisenberg
I guess Seabiscuit proved not only that horse stories can be compellingly written but also that there are oodles of readers for them. The Baltimore Sun’s John Eisenberg—horse-racing great Native Dancers biographer—chronicles what happened when the greatest horse from the North met the greatest horse from the South.

The book’s synopsis:
In May 1823 a horse race held at the Union Course on Long Island changed everything. Astonishingly, sixty thousand people attended—a number equal to roughly half the population of New York City at the time. Two horses—the best from the North and the best from the South—battled it out in three grueling heats, the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbys, in only a couple of hours. And the whole thing was based on an outrageous dare. John Eisenberg chronicles the story of the year in which two horses were seen as embodying a nation racing inevitably toward civil war. Eclipse was the majestic champion representing the North’s evolving industrial machine, and Henry was an equine arriviste embodying southern perceptions of superiority. Their thrilling match race would come to represent a watershed moment in American history, crystallizing the differences that so fundamentally divided North and South. Along the way, we come to know millionaire industrialists, broken-down jockeys, tobacco planters, politicians, and slaves—not to mention two amazing horses.
» Read an excerpt from The Great Match Race

Going Sane: Maps of Happiness by Adam Phillips
British psychobabbler par excellence Adam Phillips has written an armload of books—On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; Terrors and Experts; Monogamy; The Beast in the Nursery; Darwin’s Worms; Promises, Promises; Houdini’s Box; Equals; and, more recently, Going Sane.

OK, so I came late to this book, published late last year—so what? In any case, there are lots of books on the subject of madness and very few on sanity. Adam Phillips explains this book:
A word with few synonyms, “sanity” has always been an unfashionable term that has never quite gone out of fashion. First used by physicians in the seventeenth century to refer to health in health in body and mind,” its more familiar modern connotations as the opposite of or antidote to madness only really developed as we shall see in the nineteenth century. It was word taken up by the new mind doctors and mental hygienists but never systemically studies or defined. Even though people never collected examples of it or scientifically researched it or found it in foreign countries: even though it was rarely described unlike madness with any great gusto or commitment and as a word was (and is) rarely found in poems, titles, proverbs advertisements or jokes, even though it is a word with virtually no scientific credibility and of little literary use, it has become a necessary term. Exactly what it is necessary for and indeed what, if anything it might be necessary fore in the future—us the subject of this book.”
» Read an excerpt from Going Sane

Darkness & Light by John Harvey
John Harvey, British crime story writer, has written ten well-regarded Charlie Resnick novels, the first of which, Lonely Hearts, was named by the Times of London as one of the 100 Best Crime Novels of the Century. As much as I avoid reading series, I did think Harvey’s anti-heroic Resnick as worthy as Phillip Marlowe or Harry Bosch. Harvey has a newer series featuring (now) former cop Frank Elder and in this, the fourth installment, he is once more drawn out of retirement by a phone call from his ex-wife, this time asking him to look into the disappearance of her friend Jennie’s older, widowed sister in Nottingham. The case begins to resemble another from Elder’s and to (re)solve the riddle, Elder repartners with Detective Inspector Maureen Prior and delves into several suspects’ own fractured histories. From Briton Joseph Farrell of the Times Literary Supplement, a measured response: “[Elder’s] private life is delineated with consummate skill. It’s familiar stuff (broken marriage, resentful grown-up daughter) but the unforced nuances have real richness. Such is Harvey’s commanding skill that we forgive him anything—such as the book’s slowish start and a reliance on some unlikely plot contrivances. We simply relish the adept characterization and meticulous attention to detail.”

» Read an excerpt from Darkness & Light

The Suitors by Ben Ehrenreich
Ben Ehrenreich is one of Barbara Ehrenreich’s talented offspring. A writer for L.A. Weekly he also contributes journalism and essays to, among others, the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Believer, and the Los Angeles Times. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s and Bomb magazine.

The Suitors, Ehrenreich’s first novel, is loosely based on The Odyssey, focusing less on the Odysseus character (herein named Payne) than on the Penelope character (now Penny). The story follows the exploits of Penny’s ill-fated suitors while Payne perambulates around, waging war and otherwise procrastinating on the voyage home. Penny finds herself surrounded by an F troop of ne’er-do-wells, eager for nothing but her attention. But she can’t be bothered with anything but her memories of Payne—until the mysterious arrival of a man Penny starts takes a shine to. And the havoc begins.

Endgame, Volume II: Resistance by Derrick Jensen
Derrick Jensen’s first book, Listening to the Land, began, “We are members of the most destructive culture ever to exist. Our assault on the natural world, on indigenous and other cultures, on women, on children, on all of us through the possibility of nuclear suicide and other means—all these are unprecedented in their magnitude and ferocity.”

Sometimes called the philosopher poet of the ecological movement, in Endgame’s Volume II, Jensen completes the investigation he began in Volume I with his forecast of that industrial civilization, and the persistent and widespread violence it requires, is unsustainable. His approach has been likened to Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization in the way Jensen weaves strands of environmentalism and economics, literature and psychology, history and philosophy. In the first volume, The Problem of Civilization, Jensen laid out a series of premises, including “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable,” and “Love does not imply pacifism.” He vividly imagines an end to technologized industrialized civilization and a return to agragrian life. The second volume, Resistance, is an impassioned call for action. Jensen guides us toward concrete solutions to seemingly insuperable problems by focusing on a primal human desire: “to live on a healthy earth overflowing with uncut forests, clean rivers, and thriving oceans that are not under the constant threat of being destroyed.” Terry Tempest Williams reports, “ Derrick Jensen is a force for the common good. His books are mandatory reading in the study of culture and social change. Derrick Jensen is a contemporary philosopher with his feet firmly on the ground.” And Howard Zinn sagely opines, “A rare and original voice of sanity in a chaotic world. He has wisdom and wit, grace and style, and is a wonderful guide to a good life beautifully lived.”

Don’t I Know You? by Karen Shepard
I’m surprised that some enterprising editor hasn’t come up with some contrived anthology (well, they kind of, by definition, have to be contrived, right?) featuring married writer couples: Colin and Kathryn Harrison, Dave Eggers and Vendala Vida, Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty, Heidi Julavits and Ben Marcus, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and Jim and Karen Shepard, to name just a few. Anyway, like Jim, Karen Shepard seems bent on not repeating herself stylistically, as her third novel, Don’t I Know You? is a psychological drama told in three separate but interconnected narratives. And these narratives unfold into an absorbing mystery that authentically exams the mysteries of human heart in a quietly dazzling and understated, emotionally intelligent way. Karen Shepard, whose last novel, The Bad Boy’s Wife, I greatly admired, delves into how a murder’s effect reverberates outward.

» Read an excerpt from Don’t I Know You?

Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke by Dean Kuipers
A native of Michigan (20 miles from Rainbow Farm) who now lives in Los Angeles, Dean Kuipers is the deputy editor of Los Angeles City Beat and the author of I Am a Bullet and Ray Gun. He contributes to Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, and Playboy.

Tom Crosslin and his lover, Rollie Rohm, founded Rainbow Farm as part of their mission to build a peaceful, pot-friendly Shangri-La in rural southwest Michigan. The farm quickly became the center of marijuana and environmental activism in the state. People came from all over the country to support Tom and Rollie’s libertarian brand of patriotism.

Crosslin and Rohm’s stories are told for the first time by Kuipers. Barbara Ehrenreich, weighs in, “Burning Rainbow Farm is a gripping cautionary tale of what happens when the war on drugs turns into a shooting war. More than that, Dean Kuipers has given us a deftly reported glimpse into America’s blue-collar rural stoner subculture—and he’s worth reading for that alone. “ And New Orleans radio personality John Sinclair, White Panther Party founder and former manager of MC5—also a victim of the Michigan justice system—intones, “Read this book and weep. It reminds us that the war on drugs created the template for America’s brutal foreign policy of today and continues to tear at the very fabric of our national life.”

Nürnberg by Juergen Teller
Juergen Teller is one of the most influential fashion photographers of this moment, known for his Go Sees shoots and the book and film made about them, Teller worked for more than a year in his London studio photographing girls, just as they presented themselves as they knocked on his door,—plain or refined, beautiful or not. The “go sees” series thus offers a compendium of aspiring beauties trying their best to put on the “Teller look”: The most interesting shots are those of the girls who are least used to this kind of work, those who are not beautiful enough to become models.

Teller spent a year carrying out a study of the Nürnberg sports stadium, the site of the notorious Nazi rallies, and a place he visited in his youth. The results are a series of 60 color images of stone and flora, photographed over the four seasons of a year, in seed, bloom, demise, and, finally, dormant in the snow. It amounts to a study of mortality, the process of birth, growth, and death. The book combines these works with self-portraits and family photographs through the same period.

The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Richard Lanham
From an interview with Lanham:
The information economy is saturated with it: there’s something like 80 million websites, 500 TV channels, countless online newspapers constantly updated, a gazillion blogs, podcasts, mp3s, video downloads, etc., etc. And worldwide there are about 1 million new books published each year. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. What are the scarce resources in the information economy?

The scarce resource is the human attention needed to make sense of the enormous flow of information, to learn, as it were, how to drink out of the firehose.

So, is the goal in the attention economy is to get eyeballs first, and the money will follow? Is that how to make sense of the enormous flow of free information that is at our fingertips? If so, who can help maximize the number of those eyeballs? Software engineers? Designers? Celebrities? Artists?

You are asking three questions at once. First, yes, in an attention economy, you have to get the eyeballs first. But the money, as many found out with internet stocks, does not automatically follow the eyeballs.

Second, how to “make sense of the enormous flow of free information” is another question altogether, at least if I understand you. If you mean, “how do we explain the explosion of free information provided by the internet?,” then there are a lot of answers to that, some beyond the traditional purview of economics. People put up information on the web often for the pure pleasure of sharing what they know-the pleasure of teaching. They don’t expect money to follow. They are being paid in a different coin, the pleasure of teaching, which includes of course the attention your readers/viewers/students pay to you. One of the great surprises, at least to me, about the internet-based information explosion is the extraordinary human generosity which it has revealed. People want to share their information, their enthusiasms, their way of looking at the world and now they have a new and infinitely more effective way to do it. It may be what they know about Barbie dolls, or about digital cameras, or the specifications of sewer pipe for your house-the range is infinite. It is far more surprising, at least to me, how often people want to give this information away than how they want to be paid for it. So, how to explain the “enormous flow of free information”? Emphatically, not just in the expectation of future profit. Quite the opposite. This generosity of spirit has not been so remarked as it ought to have been.

Third, “who can help maximize the number of those eyeballs?” Ah, well, everyone is trying to figure that one out. To condense into simplicity, “all the information designers.” And these people are various, working in words, images, and sounds, and the new mixtures of these three signal sources which are continually emerging.
» Read an excerpt from The Economics of Attention

A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell
Boston Globe book critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell’s splendidly expressed memoir, A Strong West Wind, is set on the high plains of Texas, and ruminates on coming of age in a particular time and place—in her case, in the 1950s, in the wilds of the state’s panhandle. Caldwell grew up surrounded by dust storms and cattle ranches and summer lightning and took refuge from the vastness of the land by retreating into books. And that turned out to offer her a template for her own future. Richard Ford holds forth, “Gail Caldwell’s quiet, burnished memoir is a story of a life’s affections—for her Texas parents, for the sere landscape of the panhandle, and for the road paved with book upon precious book that runs in both directions: far away and home again.”

» Read an excerpt from A Strong West Wind

The Week You Weren’t Here by Charles Blackstone
Continuing on the “homer” binge/rubric that I disclosed last week, I feel compelled to advance Charles Blackstone’s career as he lives and teaches in Chicago. Kevin Elliott, a book seller at the venerable independent bookstore Barbara’s, asserts of The Week You Weren’t Here, “Charles Blackstone’s writing reminds me of the Kerouac I love and helps me forget the Kerouac I don’t. A story about a young writer smack-dab in the middle of that stage where a person moves from developing several crushes a day to developing several genuine romantic interests each day. Unlike most first novels about struggling writers as lovers, The Week You Weren’t Here is a novel about a struggling lover who writes. … Blackstone’s exploration of a questioning mind not only provides you with an understanding of what makes a creative person tick, but also with a well-crafted and enjoyable read. This book reminds me of why I read fiction in the first place.”

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