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Book Digest: June 26, 2006

High Lonesome; Mexican Days; The End of California; Kensington Gardens; Blowin' Hot and Cool; 54; Gallatin Canyon; Friendship; Double Lives; Booked; Kings in Disguise

Watching the United States Millionaire’s Club latest so-called debate about the American military adventure in Iraq inevitably lead me back to Karl Kraus, who observed in April of 1917: “War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.”

These days, Mark Twain’s War Prayer is never far from my mind.

High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories, 1966-2006 by Joyce Carol Oates
This impressive tome variously gathers stories from a number of the prolific Ms. Oates’s seminal collections, including The Wheel of Love, Marriages and Infidelities, and Heat, arranged by decade. To quote Arthur Miller (and Gay Telese): “Attention must be paid.”

» Read an excerpt from High Lonesome

Mexican Days: Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico by Tony Cohan
Journalist Tony Cohan, whose byline ought to be familiar to readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, first wrote of San Miguel de Allende in On Mexican Time. Now he broadens his exploration and consideration of his adopted home in the face of the town’s upswing in tourists and outsiders. It’s a travel narrative that ultimately comes to grips with the vivid and picturesque confluence of nordamericano hypermodernity and Mezoamerican culture.

» Read an excerpt from Mexican Days

The End of California by Steve Yarbrough
Based on his novels Prisoners of War (a PEN/Faulkner finalist) and The Oxygen Man I like to think of myself as a charter member of the Steve Yarbrough fan club—dandy Dan Wickett, however, is the CEO and stands taller in his admiration than the rest of us slackers. Knopf describes the new novel:
Loring is the sort of town children dream of leaving and most adults return to only in the absence of better options. But after twenty-five years Pete Barrington—having escaped to California on a football scholarship and then established himself as a doctor, only to be brought low by scandal—has come home. Here he finds solace with his closest old friend, opens a new practice, and daily runs into memories he’d rather forget, even as his aggravated wife and unsettled daughter contend with this wholly alien society. Meanwhile, Alan DePoyster has come to revel in his family life and his position in the church and community—the sort of idyll snatched away from him in childhood and won back only with patience and faith. Yet he now feels old grudges against the prodigal Barrington eroding his sense of accomplishment; and as their lives inevitably become intertwined, his rage against the forces chiseling away at his values and beliefs soon threatens to destroy everything he cherishes.
Did I mention Dan Wickett (as well as Gary Fisketjon) are high on this novel?

» Read an excerpt from The End of California

Kensington Gardens by Rodrigo Fresán, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Argentine Rodrigo Fresán lives in Barcelona and is the author of 10 books, of which Kensington Gardens is the first to be translated into English. Jon Lethem gushes: “Finally, a translation, so we pathetic English-only readers get to know what lies behind the excitement about Rodrigo Fresán in Latin America and Spain… He’s a kaleidoscopic, open-hearted, shamelessly polymathic storyteller, the kind who brings a blast of oxygen into the room. Kensington Gardens is a delight.” Here’s the storyline:
A children’s writer unreels a shocking confession in Rodrigo Fresán’s dazzling English-language debut. Known to millions by his pen name, Peter Hook, Fresán’s hero has survived the death of his rock-star parents, and a childhood surrounded by 1960s excess, to become the most successful children’s author of his generation, best loved as the creator of the time-traveling boy Jim Yang. Over the course of one night, Peter tells his life story—and that of J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan—to the child actor cursed with playing Jim Yang in the movies. Gradually, a fantastical and terrible tale emerges, a tale of shadow identities and suicide, lost boys and foundlings.
Move over, Roberto Bolaño.

» Read an excerpt from Kensington Gardens

Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics by John Gennari
As Will Self relates on another matter in his new book Junk Mail, “Wittgenstein memorably remarked on the impossibility of a meaningful musical criticism—on the basis that it was otiose to describe one language in terms of another, completely, alien language.” This is, of course, not a notion that Blowin’ Hot and Cool (with a recommended soundtrack) entertains—as it is an attempt to provide a definitive history of jazz criticism from the 1920s to the present, focusing on its key critics (Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, and Stanley Crouch, among others). Gennari claims to be the first to show the many ways these critics have mediated the relationship between the musicians and the audience—not just as writers, but as producers, broadcasters, concert organizers, and public intellectuals. Gennari asserts the jazz tradition is more than a collection of recordings and performances—it is a rancorous debate—”the dissonant noise clamoring in response to the sounds of jazz against the backdrop of racial strife, class and gender issues, war, and protest that has defined the past seventy-five years in America.”

» Read an excerpt from Blowin’ Hot and Cool

54: A Novel by Wu Ming, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Wu Ming (meaning “no name”) is another one of those extra-literary stories, a transmogrification of the Italian writing collective Luther Bisset (Q), responsible for the novel 54, which sounds like a methamphetamined James Elroy novel, which would be hard to imagine and harder to grasp. The publisher’s synopsis:
In Hollywood, Cary Grant has grown weary of cinema’s constant glamour, but Her Majesty’s Secret Service will break his malaise with a bizarre diplomatic mission. In Naples, Lucky Luciano fixes horse races and launches the global heroin trade. And in Bologna, a bartender searches for true love and his missing communist father. Set during the height of the Cold War—with the world divided into East and West—54 features Italian partisans, KGB agents, Parisian lowlifes, and cameos by David Niven, Marshal Tito, and Grace Kelly. This is a cinematic romp that is by turns edgy social satire and modern comic send up.
Whooee! It does sound like fun, don’t it?

» Read an excerpt from 54

Gallatin Canyon: Stories by Thomas McGuane
Personally, I think it remarkable Thomas McGuane’s writing career has extended into the 21st century. Nine novels and a number of best-selling non-fiction books (including one on fishing) and now Gallatin Canyon, his second short-story collection in 20 years. Happily, McGuane is still at it and has offered up one of the best story collections in a surprisingly and increasingly crowded field. In my memory the last collection that had this kind of heft was Robert Stone’s Bear and his Daughter. That’s pretty fair company, right? Tom McGuane made good copy for the pretentious glossies in the late 20th century, with his movable feast (Peter Fonda, Jimmy Buffet, Margot Kidder, and Elizabeth Ashley, among others) gravitating between Montana and Key West. He also had a serious flirtation with Hollywood (92 in the Shade, and a script for Rancho Deluxe and the forgettable epic stinker Missouri Breaks), with McGuane retiring to his Montana ranch reportedly boasting that he made more money raising horses than from his writing—which has not stopped him from writing. The title story appeared in the New Yorker, for which as the kids say, we should give a shout out to Deb Treisman for having the good sense to publish. And “Cowboy” also.

» Read an excerpt from Gallatin Canyon

Friendship: An Exposé by Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is the author of Snobbery: The American Version and Fabulous Small Jews, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. He has contributed to The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. My [Chicago] homie’s Snobbery argued that contemporary American snobbery isn’t what it used to be, and not surprisingly Friendship: An Exposé begins with the sense that notions of friendship are different today.

Here’s his publisher’s synopsis:
Epstein charts the unexpected and surprising forces that have squeezed and shaped friendship. In the process, he sketches a witty and incisive anatomy of the modern version: its duties and requirements (“Reciprocity, or Is It Obligation?”), the various kinds of friendships (“A Little Taxonomy of Friends”), the differences between male and female friendships, the complications marriage creates (“Friendship’s New Rival”), even what happens when sex enters the equation. Moving easily from Aristotle to Seinfeld, and drawing on his own experiences with people great (Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison) and unknown (an army bunkmate), Epstein uncovers the surprising and hidden truths of friendships…”
Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships by Richard Lingeman
In an effort reminiscent of Rachel Cohen’s nonpareil A Random Meeting, Nation editor Richard Lingeman, who has written authoritatively on Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, looks at the friendships of some odd literary couples—Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, the Beat threesome of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, Henry James and Edith Wharton, and a real pair that beats a full house, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Booked: The Last 150 Years in 366 Mug Shots by Giacamo Papi
Here’s a book whose honorable precursors are Michael Lesey’s groundbreaking Wisconsin Death Trip and Luc Santes’ Low Life. Italian journalist Giacamo Papi, who has a byline with Italian weekly Diario, has previously authored Era una notte buia e tempestosa (“It was a dark and stormy night”), an anthology of the best opening lines in world literature, with a preface by Umberto Eco, and Papa, a best-selling humorous guide for expecting fathers. His take on mug shots:
In no place does the mug shot make history and become a story like in the United States. Rendered almost unusable for police purposes (given their unusual diffusion), today’s American “rogue’s galleries” reveal how much the social function of police photography has changed over the course of the twentieth century, and has distanced itself more and more from its every preventative aim, limited to the capture and display in effigy of the accused… The mug shot has become an opportunity to carve out one’s identity before the public eye… Steve McQueen raises his hand in a peace sign. Jane Fonda holds up a fist. Michael Jackson’s expression resembles a Peter Pan mask. Frank Sinatra poses like a model. Elvis Presley asked for a souvenir mug shot when he visited FBI headquarters in 1970. The sanction of guilt has become, in short, exhibition of the self.
Gee, there’s a thought, huh?

Kings in Disguise by James Vance and Dan Burr
Art Spiegelman describes Kings in Disguise (first published in 1990) by author, playwright, and director James Vance and artist Dan Burr as “Wonderful, earnest story telling, made by intelligent, caring human hands.” This award-winning graphic novel, set in the height of the Great Depression, received stunning reviews before graphic novels became well regarded, and has been hailed as one of the great comics of all time by Will Eisner, Gil Kane, and Harvey Kurtzman. Kings in Disguise is a coming-of-age story set against the Great Depression. It is January 1932, and 12-year-old, movie-loving Freddie Bloch sets across America to find the alcoholic father who abandoned his family. Along the way Freddie discovers another America, perhaps the real one, populated by hobo jungles, violent strikes, and Hoovervilles. He learns about himself, and even finds a surrogate father while hopping freight trains: “Dreams were only a dime, but empty bottles [only] brought a penny apiece.” When his father disappears and his brother gets arrested, Freddie finds himself homeless and adrift, trying to survive during the Detroit labor riots and amid the furor of violent, anti-Communist mobs.”

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