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Book Digest: June 5, 2006

Fun Home; Birds in Fall; What I Did Wrong; Simon Bolivar; Proust at the Majestic; The Persistent Gappers of Frip; Lost Thoughts of Soldiers; Adios Muchachos; Cuba and the Tempest; A Strange Commonplace; Everyman

With regularity there is much caterwauling and ululating directed to the depredations and idiocies that emanate from the newspaper book review that people love to hate (guess who?)—this is engaging and amusing only to a point—one that in my estimation has long passed. Recently, it has occurred to me that one big reason that writers refrain from defrocking the above-referred-to arboricidal periodical is an understandable bread-buttering. So that leaves it to the fuck-up renegades to do the dirty work.

Anyway, I have frequently taken umbrage at the failure of my literary confreres to heed my persistent hectoring to move on to acknowledging the good work of newspaper book editors like Oscar Villalon, Tom Walker, Elizabeth Taylor, and especially this week, have a peek at David Ulin.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Allison Bechdel, creator and perpetuator of long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For has rendered her own life in this so-called graphic novel and as one review asserts (hopefully this won’t scare you off), “As much as she isn’t sure of what she’s seeing, Bechdel’s great care in documenting the female coming-of-age experience is radical, even groundbreaking.” Comic strip devotee and editor, Chip Kidd enthuses, “…Alison Bechdel’s mesmerizing feat of familial resurrection is a rare, prime example of why graphic novels have taken over the conversation about American literature. The details—visual and verbal, emotional and elusive—are devastatingly captured by an artist in total control of her craft.” Or as Amy Bloom attests, “If David Sedaris could draw, and if Bleak House had been a little funnier, you’d have Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.”

» Read an excerpt from Fun Home

Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler
Airline tragedies would seem to be a rich area for stories, oddly. I know of only a few—most prominently Rapheal Yglesias’s Fearless, Warren Adler’s Random Hearts, and Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife. In Brad Kessler’s story, an airplane goes down in the sea off of Nova Scotia with the families of mourners converging near the crash site and coalescing in an odd community, as they await news. Ornithologist Ann Gathreaux, the central character who has lost her husband, who had shared her interest comes to terms with her grief and reengages with life. My colleague at The Morning News, Anthony Doerr, no slouch himself, opines, “Without melodrama, without trivializing his characters, Brad Kessler transforms a story about an airline disaster—anguish, bereavement, and being held hostage by grief—into a chorus of hopeful voices, full of tenderness, gentle humor, and terrific writing. Birds in Fall is a remarkable novel.”

» Read an excerpt from Birds in Fall

What I Did Wrong by John Weir
John Weir’s debut novel, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, published in 1989, was one of the first novels to convey the horror of the AIDS epidemic. A decade and a half later, Weir returns with a moving and often funny book about loss, survival, and sexuality in the post-AIDS era. What I Did Wrong has as its protagonist Tom, a 42-year-old English professor, who watched his best friend die years earlier. He is haunted by the memory of all the young men who died in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, and as he moves into middle age he mulls over his own notions of gay identity. Weir is an associate professor in the English department at Queens College and has written nonfiction for an array of periodicals, including Details, Rolling Stone, Spin, New York, The Advocate, The Village Voice, and The New York Times.

Simon Bolivar: A Life by John Lynch
Simon Bolivar, The Great Liberator, is a big deal in Latin America, He was an intellectual, a revolutionary and a warrior who is credited with the liberation of six countries. This is the first major English-language biography of Bolivar in half a century. John Lynch concludes the key to his greatness lies in his supreme willpower and a charisma that inspired people to follow him. Here Bolivar declaims in 1819:
We are not Europeans; we are not Indians; we are but a mixed species of aborigines and Spaniards. Americans by birth and Europeans by law, we find ourselves engaged in a dual conflict: we are disputing with the natives for titles of ownership, and at the same time we are struggling to maintain ourselves in the country that gave us birth against the opposition of the invaders. Thus our position is most extraordinary and complicated. But there is more. As our role has always been strictly passive and political existence nil, we find that our quest for liberty is now even more difficult of accomplishment; for we, having been placed in a state lower than slavery, had been robbed not only of our freedom but also of the right to exercise an active domestic tyranny…We have been ruled more by deceit than by force, and we have been degraded more by vice than by superstition. Slavery is the daughter of darkness: an ignorant people is a blind instrument of its own destruction. Ambition and intrigue abuses the credulity and experience of men lacking all political, economic, and civic knowledge; they adopt pure illusion as reality; they take license for liberty, treachery for patriotism, and vengeance for justice. If a people, perverted by their training, succeed in achieving their liberty, they will soon lose it, for it would be of no avail to endeavor to explain to them that happiness consists in the practice of virtue; that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of tyrants, because, as the laws are more inflexible, every one should submit to their beneficent austerity; that proper morals, and not force, are the bases of law; and that to practice justice is to practice liberty.
Pretty powerful, yes?

Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris by Richard Davenport Hines
On May 18, 1922, following the premiere of a Stravinsky ballet, the English arts lovers Violet and Sydney Schiff held a dinner at the Majestic Hotel in Paris. In attendance were guests of honor Stravinsky and Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and—oddly, for he never went out—Marcel Proust, who at age 50 had recently published the fourth volume of his In Search of Lost Time. And thus art historian Richard Davenport-Hines accounts for the last six months of Proust’s life.

The Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders and illustrated by Lane Smith
Here’s McSweeneys’ synopsis of the republication (originally published in 2000) of Gappers of Frip:
Three families live in the seaside village of Frip—the Romos, the Ronsens, and a little girl named Capable and her widowed father. The townspeople of Frip make their living raising goats, but they must fight off a daily invasion of gappers, bright orange, many-eyed creatures that cover goats and stop them from giving milk. When the gappers target Capable’s goats, the Romos and the Ronsens turn their backs on the gapper-ridden Capable. What will Capable do about her gapper plague? An imaginative tale accented with haunting illustrations, an adult story for children, a children’s story for adults, an ocean side fable for the irremediably landlocked, a fish story for loaves, and a fable about the true meaning of community.
Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer
Australian Delia Falconer compresses this 19th century tale into the space of a single morning, as Captain Frederick Benteen, who saved portions of the 7th Calvary from certain destruction at the Little Bighorn, attempts to reconstruct and reconcile the past, namely the mythologized General Custer and his infamous Last Stand. Barry Lopez calls this novella “beautifully complex—with its echoing lacunae, its delicate touches along side brutishness, reads like a timeless work of human history.”

» Read an excerpt from Lost Thoughts of Soldiers

Adios Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría, translated by Carlos Lopez
Donald Westlake, mystery-writer grandmaster: “Out of the mystery wrapped in an enigma that, over the last 40 years, has been Cuba for the U.S., comes a Uruguayan voice so cheerful, a face so laughing, and a mind so deviously optimistic that we can only hope this is but the beginning of a flood of Latin America’s indomitable novelists, playwrights, storytellers. Welcome, Daniel Chavarría.” Adios Muchachos (which has won an Edgar) is the novel in English-translation by Uruguayan writer Daniel Chavarrí. It is a dark, erotic, humorous mambo through the sexual underworld and black-market of post-Sovietized Cuba. The story revolves around a liaison between Alicia, a beautiful jinetero and Victor King, an ambitious Canadian who looks Mel Gibson. Everything revolves around the secret ingredient to an old family recipe and a long-overdue nose job—as only one of the characters is able to make off with the loot and bid “adios” to Cuba and the past. Chavarría has worked as a translator of literature into Spanish, and has taught Latin, Greek, and Classical Literature, and now lives in Cuba.

» Read an excerpt from Adios Muchachos

Cuba and the Tempest: Literature & Cinema in the Time of Diaspora by Eduardo González
Eduardo González looks closely at the work of three important contemporary Cuban authors writing in the post-1959 diaspora: Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), who left Cuba for good in 1965 and established himself in London; Antonio Benítez-Rojo (1931-2005), who settled in the United States; and Leonardo Padura Fuentes (b. 1955), who still lives and writes in Cuba. Placing the three Cuban writers in conversation with artists and thinkers from British and American literature, anthropology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cinema, González ultimately provides a space in which Cuba and its literature, inside and outside its borders, are universalized. By the way, Cabrera wrote the screenplay to Andy Garcia’s film, The Lost City.

A Strange Commonplace by Gilbert Sorrentino
Gilbert Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and died on May 18, 2006. Over the course of his life he wrote more than 30 books, including Mulligan Stew and Aberration of Starlight. He taught creative writing at Stanford University for many years, and received, among many other awards and honors, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Lannan Literary Award, and the 2005 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Sorrentino’s passing occasioned some bittersweet conversation about his legacy.

In any case, it seems that the masterful Sorrentino joined the ranks of underappreciated artists, though the Center for the Book web site proclaims “he was a tireless re-inventor of literature, and a champion of all the pleasures—and even pitfalls—that are unique to fiction. The loss of his voice is staggering and irreparable.” His latest novel takes its title from a William Carlos William poem and it ranges over mean city streets of the ‘50s to the “culturally vacuous “ present presented with Sorrentino’s signature ribald humor. R.I.P.

» Read an excerpt from A Strange Commonplace

Everyman by Philip Roth
This may be held to be a silly idea by some of the poetasters who pollute public conversation with their disingenuous blather about this or that book, but I am perfectly happy to give some writers automatic entry to my To Be Read piles (some even receive veteran’s preference). Admittedly, it would be silliness to say that such a list would be the same for everyone. Mine includes Elmore Leonard, Amy Bloom, Charles McCarry, Alan Furst, Jim Harrison, Andrea Barrett, and yes, Phillip Roth. One thing I have noted about Roth’s critical reception is that he seems to be plagued by reviewers out to prove that they: 1) are as smart as him; and 2) can write as well. Feh! Without any qualification I am willing to wager that in every one of Roth’s novels there is a gem—such as this one from American Pastoral:
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.
In Everyman, which you should be forewarned is as dark as a book can get having DEATH as its main character, Roth’s nameless protagonist observes:
Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that lived and died before us. If he could to be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it—he’d come upon it early and intuitively and however elemental, that was the whole of it. If he should every write an autobiography, he’d call it The Life and Death of a Male Body
» Read an excerpt from Everyman

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