Book Digest: June 4, 2007

Divisadero; Collected Plays and Writings on Theater; 1941; The Great Far Away; Einstein, A Biography; Throws Like a Girl; The Invisible Cure; The Savage Garden; The Archivist's Story; Are We Rome?; Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell

Recently, the world of literary fiction was preoccupied with the diminishment of review space in American newspapers, with various (self-) interested parties weighing in. The New York Times stepped into this imbroglio and suggested that all was not lost—some bravehearted and industrious souls, known collectively as literary bloggers, might be stepping into this newly discovered breach. Alas, Time magazine writer Richard Schickel takes exception. If you can’t sniff out this rancid piece of exposition on your own, let me direct you to the Los Angeles Times, Schickel is apparently upset that a “former quality-control manager for a car parts maker… last year wrote 95 book reviews for his website.” Schickel gets blunt:
Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge, and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.
Not a particularly controversial assertion, right? But where, I ask, is any evidence that Dan Wickett (who runs the Emerging Writers Network and is the aforementioned quality-control manager) cannot conform to Schickle’s standard, or any evidence that Schickle even deigned to look at the reviews he was dismissing? Anyway, amidst the panegyric to Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, D.J. Waldie, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, was a reminder, like a flashing billboard, of the kind of intellectual bully Mr. Schickle is:
But a purely “democratic literary landscape” is truly a wasteland, without standards, without maps, without oases of intelligence or delight.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaajte
Book Digest This is a wonderful book by Canadian poet and The English Patient author Michael Ondaajte, whom Louis Menand opines, “…is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.” Additionally, it is the occasion for some wonderful expository writing and criticism—Gail Caldwell’s review in the Boston Globe and Louis Menand’s above-cited piece in the New Yorker.

» Read an excerpt from Divisadero

Collected Plays and Writings on Theater by Thornton Wilder
Book Digest The Library of America assembles the works of American writers into what can fairly be called definitive volumes. Here we have all of the dramatic writings by the author of the iconic Our Town and the underrated gem, The Bridge at Saint Louis Rey, as well as essays and previously unpublished material, all attentively edited by poet and scholar J.D. McClatchy (who, incidentally, wrote the libretto for Ned Rorem’s operatic version of Our Town).

1941—The Greatest Year in Sports: Two Baseball Legends, Two Boxing Champs, and the Unstoppable Thoroughbred Who Made History in the Shadow of War by Mike Vacarro
Book Digest For sports buffs of all stripes, 1941, as veteran (and award-winning) sportswriter Mike Vacarro maintains, was a banner year for sports. As the publisher maintains:
Joe DiMaggio dazzled the country by hitting in a record-setting fifty-six consecutive games; Ted Williams powered through an unprecedented .406 season; Joe Louis and Billy Conn (the heavyweight and light-heavyweight champions) battled in unheard-of fashion for boxing’s ultimate championship; and the phenomenal (some say deranged) thoroughbred, Whirlaway, raced to three heart-stopping victories that won the coveted Triple Crown of horse racing. As Phil Rizzuto perfectly expressed, “You read the sports section a lot because you were afraid of what you’d see in other parts of the paper.”
» Read an excerpt from 1941

The Great Far Away by Joan Frank
Book Digest I was so enamored of Joan Frank’s first novel, Miss Kansas City,

I took up the task of reviewing it for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thus it came to pass that her second novel came into my hands. Frank refrains from the detailed explication with which she earlier mocked the excesses of the ‘80s; here she intelligently chronicles how Ferris, a sleepy, idyllic Northern California town, and some of its transplanted hippie residents, are overtaken by creeping (and creepy) suburbanism—which means shopping malls and all their attendant glories. As was the case in her previous novel, Frank packs a lot of story into a slim volume.

Einstein, A Biography by Jürgen Neffe, translated by Shelly Frisch
Book Digest Two historic figures you can count on as apparently endless subjects for biographers are Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which was a major breakthrough in the way scientists see the world, has something to do with why he has been called the “brain of the [20th] century,” but I leave to you to understand how his iconic status has placed him in innumerable ads. Dr. Jürgen Neffe, a well-regarded historian of science in Germany, has, in compiling this probing biography, discovered new documents, including a series of previously unknown letters from Einstein to his sons, which contribute to more detailed sense of his very complicated life.

Physicist Lee Smolin, in assessing a recent slew of Einstein books, offers:
Jürgen Neffe’s Einstein: A Biography is the liveliest. It was a big success in Germany and one can see why. His prose is lively and the unconventional organization of his book, by theme rather than chronology, with asides about current science, tells an engaging version of Einstein’s story. Neffe is not afraid to speculate on the personality of the man behind the myth, even if not all his hypotheses are convincing…
» Read an excerpt from Einstein

Throw Like a Girl: Stories by Jean Thompson
Book Digest I’d bet you don’t know Illinois writer Jean Thompson, but she belongs in the company of such masters of short fiction as Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, and Tobias Wolf. This collection of 12 stories gravitates around issues of womanhood and ever-changing roles in a wacky world. One of the few reviews (shame, shame) of this collection claims, “The difficulties of contemporary life, contemporary loving relationships, are everywhere in these stories, among men and women, mothers and daughters, and circles of women who are lifelong friends. But so are possibilities, for change, for lessons learned in unexpected ways, and even, once in a while, for happiness.” For more on Ms. Thompson, I point you to the ever-useful Ms. Maud Newton.

» Read an excerpt from Throw Like a Girl

The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against Aids by Helen Epstein
Book Digest Scientist Helen Epstein has been involved with the search for an AIDS vaccine since the early ‘90s, and has spent considerable time in Uganda, witnessing that epidemic ravage a society. Her intelligent account integrates the biotechnical elements of this crisis with an examination of the political and sociological stumbling blocks (poverty and social dislocation), and concludes that there is a relatively simple remedy: Solutions to the tragedy of AIDS in Africa must come from the Africans, not from the “global archipelago of governmental and nongovernmental agencies [that] has emerged to channel money.” William Finnegan, who knows something about Africa, concludes:
Her tone is level and undogmatic, but the news that Helen Epstein brings from the African front lines about AIDS is searing. So many lives have been lost, so much time and money wasted in badly designed public and private campaigns against the disease. What actually works is both simple and subtle. There may be no magic bullet—there may never be a vaccine—but there are success stories, even in very poor countries. This is a landmark study.
» Read an excerpt from The Invisible Cure

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
Mark Mills’s debut novel, Amagansett, earned him a bestseller, if not many loyal fans. Now comes his sophomore effort, set in the Tuscan hills, focused on a famous garden built in the 14th century and purportedly the site where the wife of its builder, Signor Docci, was murdered. Young English scholar Adam Banting is assigned the project of writing a monograph of this garden and he stumbles on a more contemporary mystery and crime. Lovers of Tuscany and certain modes of literary deconstruction will no doubt find this tale appealing.

The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland
Book Digest The excesses of Stalinist purges and paranoia make for rich and fertile pasture for compelling fiction as well as harrowing and ignored history. Michigan writer Travis Holland fashions a terrific tale, weaving the great writer Isaac Babel’s incarceration in Moscow’s horrific Lubyanka prison with Soviet archivist Pavel Dubrov’s assignment to destroy Babel’s final manuscripts—a charge which he can not bring himself to execute. Fellow Michigander and author Elizabeth Kostova extols:
Travis Holland writes exquisitely. The Archivist’s Story is that very rare book, a historical novel that makes us forget “historical” and remember only “novel,” even as we take in hard historical fact—the archivist Pavel, living in the midst of Stalin’s purges, could be any of us, and Holland conveys his world in indelible images. The beauty and reality of this novel linger long after one has read—reluctantly—the last page.
» Read an excerpt from The Archivist’s Story

Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy
Book Digest Longtime senior Atlantic Monthly editor Cullen Murphy ruminates on parallels of the rise of the Roman republic and the fall of the Roman empire, and offers some thoughts on how America might avoid demise and collapse. Murphy identifies similarities with our ancient predecessors—the insular culture of the so-called Beltway and the ancient capitol; inescapable and ubiquitous venality in public life; border issues; and a weakened body politic. And, as was true of the Romans, we have increasing government corruption and an inexplicable xenophobia. Murphy is optimistic, though he concludes, “The genius of America may be that it has built ‘the fall of Rome’ into its very makeup: It is very consciously a constant work in progress.” Setting aside for a moment the formulation, “the genius of America,” it is an oddly Pollyannish sentiment to view America as “designed to accommodate and build on revolutionary change.” Murphy is good at taking the patient’s history but his prognosis is a nice bit of wishful thinking.

» Read an excerpt from Are We Rome?

Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell: A Story We All Really Need Now More Than Ever by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Book Digest Bruce Eric Kaplan draws cartoons and writes for television. His work has appeared regularly in The New Yorker for over 10 years, and he has written for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under. Much of his illustration work is collected in No One You Know and This is a Bad Time; here, Edmund and Rosemary go for a walk in Brookyn and end up in a distant jungle. Todd Goldberg explains:
Kaplan’s spare drawings, which have always taken advantage of the weight of white space and subtle line movements to convey personality, provide a welcome bit of soul here amid an uncharacteristic lack of cutting societal critique. Although Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell does not reach the hilarity of Kaplan’s single-panel efforts, it succeeds in drawing a world where being in love is heaven enough.
» Read an excerpt from Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell

blog comments powered by Disqus