Book Digest: March 10, 2008

Birnbaum scoops what Pelecanos is reading. Also: The Teapot Dome Scandal; Havana Deco; Robert Creeley: Selected Poems, 1945-2005; The Resurrectionist; The Ten Cent Plague; The Bad Wife Handbook; Knockemstiff; The Lazarus Project; Bicycle ; The Konkans; The Blue Star; I Was Told There Would Be Cake.

As has been my practice these last few weeks I have asked a writer I know—in this instance George Pelecanos—for some words about his reading:
The best novel I’ve read in a long while is Willy Vlautin’s Northline, which is to be published by Harper Perennial in April. It is the story of Allison Johnson, a young woman who moves to Reno, Nev., to escape an abusive relationship with a boyfriend who has impregnated her. Small kindnesses from strangers and an unlikely suitor eventually help Allison find her way past disturbing and harrowing incidents to the light. This is the type of small-concept book that publishers dissuade authors from writing, but it is exactly the kind of intensely human book we need right now. Vlautin, who heads the band Richmond Fontaine, also produced an accompanying soundtrack (included in the Faber and Faber edition out of the U.K.) that reminds me of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid-era Dylan, which is a high compliment. It would no doubt embarrass him to hear this, but Willy Vlautin is a true artist. I also recently finished Stoner, by John Williams, sent to me by a friend, and have been haunted by it since. Novels about academics are generally not my thing, but trust me, this will move you in unexpected ways. From the same publisher, New York Review Books, I read Blood on the Forge, by William Attaway, an impressive, honest social novel first published in 1941. It follows three African-American brothers who leave the South to work in the steel mills of Pennsylvania, with devastating consequences. This one was also published by NYRB, which is fast becoming a must-read house for me: I recently finished Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth, a meditation on mortality that is top-shelf, but then a Harrison novel is guaranteed to please, both sensually and intellectually. I am currently reading Ludlow, a verse poem by David Mason about the massacre of miners and their families at the hands of the Colorado National Guard in collusion with politicians and robber barons. The story of the principle martyr, Louis Tikas, and his role in the tragic labor revolt of 1914, has long fascinated me, as Tikas has been a hero in the Greek community since his death, but it has not been told with such descriptive power as it in this form. Thanks to Frank Wilson for sending this to me. Finally, last month I reread Joe Lansdale’s funny and shocking pulp novel, Cold in July. Like Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming, it is short and to the point, lean, and a textbook example of how to do it right.
Also, is it possible that I am the only person in the universe who doesn’t think Samantha Power should have been forced to resign from the Obama campaign for unguardedly calling Hillary a “monster?” And how does the Clinton campaign’s “Karl Rove,” Howard Wolfson, get away with slimy innuendo and obvious knee-capping? Oh well…

The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country by Laton McCartney
Book Digest Though we have had our share of corruption, thievery, and financial skullduggery in various Republican national regimes (Enron under Bush, Jr., and Lincoln Savings under Reagan), the oil companies have stayed—as far as I know—within the limits of laws and regulations while they plundered the gross national product. The Teapot Dome affair, under another inept and corrupt Republican president, Warren G. Harding, has the Secretary of Interior Albert Fall (the primogenitor of the phrase “fall guy”) giving away Naval oil fields for a half-million dollars. This story has a nifty cast of shady characters and is an instructive lens with which to view the dynamics of business and government. Include Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and/or the recent film based on it (There Will Be Blood) and you have a nightmare vision of the state of the republic. Even now.

Havana Deco by Alejandro Alonso, Pedro Contreras, and Martino Fagiuoli
Book Digest The capital of Cuba is the most compelling city in the Western Hemisphere and its examples of Deco, a style movement spawned in Paris, vividly exhibit the witty and original transformations that ideas and images go through in the Caribbean sun. Italian photographer Fagiuoli and his Cuban compatriots assemble a rich, amusing, and eye-catching collection of buildings and various architectural details (doors, iron work, cornices, steps, art objects, windows, interiors) that display Deco in the best light. This is eye-dessert of the best kind.

Robert Creeley: Selected Poems, 1945-2005 edited by Benjamen Friedlander
Book Digest Massachusetts native and Harvard-educated poet Creeley died in 2005, having published more than 60 books of poetry and a dozen or so books of prose and essays. He also taught at the famous experimental Black Mountain College and edited the Black Mountain Review. Hank Lazer incisively intones:
Selected Poems provides a great sense of the range of Creeley’s accomplishment—these poems are among the most important of our time—a way of writing with the hesitations and grace of a newfound line, thinking informed by sources from Emily Dickinson to Charlie Parker. Selected Poems is at once a tribute to Creeley, a perfect introduction for new readers, and a valuable distillation for those who have already acquired a taste for Creeley’s poetry.
No doubt.

The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell
Book Digest O’Connell’s fourth novel, a cleverly devised noir thriller and a walk on fantasy’s wild side, has a father keeping faithful watch over his comatose son at a clinic that claims to have restored two patients who suffered persistent comas. The neat twist here is how the world of Limbo—a comic book series about a group of freakishly freaky circus freaks that the son has been devoted to—becomes enmeshed in the plot. Psychotic bikers, mad neurologists, and wandering circus freaks—definitely the ingredients of an entertaining tale.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Resurrectionist

The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hadju
Book Digest Count me among the fans of Hadju and his previous two books, Lush Life, a wonderful biography of musician Billy Strayhorn, and Positively Fourth Street, about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and their cohorts. In this book Hadju chronicles the rise of pop culture via the pulp pages of the mass-market comic book, which had an assortment of social institutions, church groups, a reactionary Congress, and assorted cultural wackos up in arms to defeat the latest threat to civilization. Princeton mentor and historian Sean Wilentz extols:
Every once in a while, moral panic, innuendo, and fear bubble up from the depths of our culture to create waves of destructive indignation and accusation. David Hajdu’s fascinating new book tracks one of the stranger and most significant of these episodes, now forgotten, with exactness, clarity, and serious wit, which is the best kind.
» Read an excerpt from The Ten Cent Plague

The Bad Wife Handbook by Rachel Zucker
Book Digest Poet and professional birth assistant Zucker’s third book is obsessed with marriage and monogamy. Which is hard to see as a promising subject for anything except a desiccated monograph on some sociological offshoot. Who knows? From the poem “Sex”:
Wane, wax, wobble.
My mind is a map of hunger.

They say Abulafia could stop his heart
with one letter. Alef

lodged in his semi-lunar valve.

Small e after breath
is what I do to keep living.
» Read an excerpt from The Bad Wife Handbook

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
Book Digest Ohioan Pollock may have fashioned a latter day Winesburg, Ohio with these eight interlocking stories set in the southern Ohio town of—believe it or not—Knockemstiff. Apparently the tireless Dandy Dan Wickett tried to acquire this book for his nascent imprint Dzanc books and he says that the book was well-improved over an already impressive earlier version.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
Book Digest On the basis of a handful of novels (Nowhere Man) and a contrarian essay now and then, Bosnian expatriate Hemon has established a reputation for unpredictability and originality. No small thing, he was also awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. In The Lazarus Project, a 19-year-old Eastern European Jewish immigrant is shot to death by Chicago’s chief of police under odd, even bizarre circumstances. About 100 years later, a Serbian writer living in Chicago sets himself to track the story backwards through Eastern Europe’s treacherous, anti-Semitic history. It’s a harrowing story and Hemon effectively melds the two stories to a provocative end. If you don’t know Hemon’s writing, this would be the time to get acquainted.

Bicycle by Paul Fattaruso
Book Digest Fattaruso’s extraordinary second book, Bicycle, is a refreshingly odd collection of pages displaying 77 variations on a fascinating subject: the bicycle. His publisher describes this “poetic novella” as “a hybrid of a prose poem, sacred incantation, and inspired children’s story.” Whatever this slim, well-printed volume is, it is definitely worth a look.

The Konkans by Tony D’Souza
Book Digest Chicagoan D’Souza (Whiteman) spins this amusing, cross-cultural tale of Francisco D’Sai, the son of Peace Corps worker Denise Klein and Konkan (Indian Catholic) Lawrence D’Sai, whose uncles Les and Sam attempt to retain the family’s connection to their cultural roots in the face of Lawrence’s commitment to assimilate into the mainstream of America. All of which makes for colorful and engaging disputation among the various family members and a lively upbringing for young Francisco.

» Read an excerpt from The Konkans

The Blue Star by Tony Earley
Book Digest I must confess I was enthralled by Earley’s profoundly simple Jim the Boy, though I found his collection of essays Somehow Form a Family more compelling and provocative. This sequel to his first and well-loved novel finds Jim Glass 10 years older and a senior in high school in the early years of World War II. Jim has a huge infatuation for Chrissie Steppe, who is the girlfriend of a former schoolmate, Bucky, who has joined the U.S. Navy. For me it is a sign of Earley’s skillful storytelling that he makes the concerns and views of a teenager a heartfelt story.

» Read an excerpt from The Blue Star

I Was Told There Would Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
Book Digest Sloane Crosley’s day job is as a publicist at publishing mega-conglomerate Random House—which is no doubt a hook for many publications in the Manhattan media sounding board. Despite this, she has managed to have her personal pieces published at numerous hip outposts, based on a perceived unquenchable public hunger for humor and quippery along the lines of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. Talent also helps. The 15 essays included here exhibit a nimble, bemused mind—titles like “Lay Like Broccoli,” “The Pony Problem,” Bring Your Machete to Work Day,” and “Sign Language for Infidels” do suggest a grasshopper mind. This kind of writing is an acquired taste for some people—maybe for you.

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