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Book Digest: June 25, 2007

Right Livelihoods; The Mirror and The Mask; Pilgrims Upon the Earth; Origin; We're All Journalists Now; Voices of a People's History of the United States; Killing Che; Inland; The Soul of Baseball

The New York Times Book Review—my favorite literary whipping boy—is much in my mind right now as 1) Dan Simon, publisher of the skewered-by-universal-scold Walter Kirn, The People’s History for Young Adults, ripostes with a letter to the editor; and 2) Thomas McGuane anointed Out Stealing Horses with a review as a honorable, honest, and well-honed as its subject. Nice.;br />
Right Livelihoods: Three Novellas by Rick Moody
Book Digest I think Richard Ford, who edited the Granta Book of the American Long Story, once explained what a novella was to me—not a short novel or a long short story—but now I cannot remember. As far as I know, only Jim Harrison and a very few others—and now Rick Moody—actually call some of their works “novellas.” The three (relatively) short fictions in Right Livelihoods appear to have their origins in commissioned pieces for The Paris Review and A Public Space (under the good offices of Bridget Hughes and Elizabeth Gaffney), and offers up Moody’s signature alternatingly perverse and earnest humorous vision.

» Read an excerpt from Right Livelihoods

The Mirror and The Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso by Paloma Alarco
Book Digest Paloma Alarco, curator of modern paintings at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, oversaw the exhibition for which this book is a catalogue. Acknowledging the unlikeliness of the survival of portraiture in painting after the modernist explosion that came with Picasso, this book focuses on avant-garde European painting and sculpture from the 1890s to the 1980s. It’s an ambitious and visually exciting collection, and to my tastes is more compelling than the monolithic impressionist exhibitions that American big-city museums are inclined to mount.

» Read an excerpt from The Mirror and The Mask

Pilgrims Upon the Earth by Brad Land
Book Digest Former Stuart Dybek’s student Brad Land’s memoir, Goat, put him on the literary radar; Land now delivers his fiction debut. Fifteen-year-old Terry Webber, who lives in a textile factory town in South Carolina, is an alienated teen, motherless, and unattended to by an overworked and numb father. Terry pals up with black sheep Alice Washington, and they head off to Colorado and Alice’s sister’s commune. Something awful and harrowing happens and Terry must make sense of it and search for a way to live a life worth living.

» Read an excerpt from Pilgrims Upon the Earth

Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber
Book Digest Diana Abu-Jaber, who happens to have grown up in Syracuse, N.Y., presents us with a forensic expert who becomes embroiled in the investigation of a series of crib deaths that would have been ruled as SIDS but for the hysterical pleadings of one of the mothers—who happens to be well connected. Refocused attention suggests the harrowing possibility of a serial murderer of infants, and the above-mentioned expert deals with her own past as she delves into the current mystery. As her oeuvre exhibits (Crescent, Arabian Jazz, and The Language of Baklava), Abu-Jaber is a talented wordsmith, which is certainly welcome in the burgeoning field of literary thrillers. In the case of Origin, there is something about an ape that makes suspension of disbelief difficult. Or it could just be me.

» Read an excerpt from Origin

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age by Scott Gant
Book Digest Scott Gant, a Washington, D.C., attorney who practices constitutional and media law and who is a member of Peretz’s revanchist New Republic clique, shores up the legitimization of bloggers and other barbarians by arguing—obviously—that the internet has transformed media and journalism. Gant argues that the plethora of online info venues is suggestive of the pamphleteers in the early life of the American republic. And as the criterion for journalism shifts from the self-serving definitions of corporate mass media, the rights and privileges extended to journalists and those who should be accredited as such—which can become a matter of law—need to be retooled. In fact, he forwards specific arguments about how to change existing laws and offers suggestions for new laws that acknowledge the new media reality.

» Read an excerpt from We’re All Journalists Now

Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Audio) by Howard Zinn
Book Digest In the limited argot of the Bushist lexicography, historian Howard Zinn falls into our historically challenged current president’s pool of villains: “Revisionist historians is what I like to call them.” As I referred to a recent junior rendition of the seminal People’s History last week, now comes an audio CD with 21 readings by Danny Glover, Sarah Jones, Paul Robeson, Jr., Lili Taylor, Wallace Shawn, Marisa Tomei, and Kurt Vonnegut—bringing to life the words and sentiments of dissenters such as Susan B. Anthony, Paul Robeson, Eugene Debs, Mark Twain, and Tecumseh.

Killing Che by Chuck Pfarrer
Book Digest Former and decorated Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer, who wrote the well-regarded memoir Warrior Soul, crafts a well-researched thriller based on the final days and murder of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the remote jungles of Bolivia. Our eyes on this piece of vital hemispheric history belong to Paul Hoyle, a former CIA paramilitary officer who has done time in Southeast Asia and in 1967 found himself an independent contractor in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. All the players in this betrayal of Guevara are given voice, including assorted spooks and the ubiquitous Cubans, who are inseparable from the covert enterprises of post-WW II years. Other than Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of Che, this is one of the more balanced portrayals of a man, by turns vilified or lionized, rarely taken stock of on his own terms. And it’s a vivid, well-wrought fiction. Yes, indeed.

» Read an excerpt from Killing Che

Inland by K.C. Frederick
Book Digest I would never have known about this fine novel if I had not heard K.C. Frederick, winner of the 2007 PEN-Winship Award for Best Novel, read from his book at the award event. In 1959, on a small college campus in the American Midwest, English graduate student Ted Riley wrestles with an attenuated coming of age against the backdrop of nuclear armament politics and his odd interactions with a gay Polish refugee and a California hottie. This is Frederick’s fourth novel, following Country of Memory, The Fourteenth Day, and Accomplices.

The Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski
Book Digest Kansas City Star ace reporter Joe Posnanski’s book on nonagenarian Negro league immortal Buck O’Neil is so much more than a book about baseball. Posnanski traveled around the U.S. with O’Neil to various baseball-related sites and records an encyclopedic oral history of life in the Negro leagues, as well as O’Neil’s accumulated wisdom about baseball and life. It’s a sweet, soulful narrative, reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s character Mudball, of whom he pronounced: “There are no old fools. You don’t grow old being a fool.”

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