Book Digest: March 12, 2007

Lonely Avenue; Marc Chagall; Thomas Hardy; Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life; A Fighter's Heart; American Spy; The Father of All Things; Mitz; Man Gone Down; The Winter of Frankie Machine; Leni Riefenstahl

I’m no fan of the beauty contests that are known as awards, even the literary variety; nonetheless, I accept that they normally improve the lot of the awardee/awarded. Thus I am pleased to note that Daniel Mendelsohn has received a National Book Critics Circle nod for his wonderfully original The Lost (as did Lawrence Weschler). One thing that I came away with from reading Mendelsohn and some other recent memoirs is that the whole enterprise of biography/autobiography and memoir has, perhaps imperceptibly, shifted to a more flexible understanding of the nature of personal/private truth. Something to chew on as I inventory some recent biographies and such.

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt
Book Digest Doc Pomus (born Jerome Felder) wrote some of the finest songs in the American songbook (see Till the Night is Gone, a nonpareil tribute album featuring music grandees like Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, Lou Reed, and BB King), turning out hits for Elvis Presley and the Drifters, among others. Afflicted with polio at age nine, Pomus, who died in 1991, was wheelchair-bound most of his life, but it did not stop him from hanging around Manhattan jazz clubs and churning out hits in rock and roll’s heyday. Pomus’s life was one of great extremes and journalist Alex Halberstadt tracks the story down, producing a graceful and compelling narrative. American music historian Peter Guralnick recalls:
The thing about Doc was that he unfailingly put himself on the line. Not just in his songs but in every aspect of his life. I think that was what I learned most from Doc: the notion that you must put yourself on the line, whether for friends or politics or art or merely in expressing your opinion honestly. He used to talk about when he was a kid after he was stricken by polio: He had dreams of becoming the first heavyweight champion of the world on crutches, what his father called “a man among men.” It was a perfectly understandable fantasy for a lost, lonely child, but that is in fact what he did become: If he was not the heavyweight champion in boxing, he became a champion of another sort. He maintained perspective. He maintained his humanity. He maintained his sense of compassion, his omnivorous interest in everything and everyone…
Lou Reed sums it up, “Doc was more than a man among men. He was the sun.”

» Read an excerpt from Lonely Avenue

Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson
Book Digest Son of a poor Orthodox Russian Jew, Moishe Shagal became, arguably, one of the most famous Jewish artists, whose works adorned churches and synagogues alike. This biographical essay succeeds in synthesizing more detailed and pedantic works (Aleksandr Kamensky, Marc Chagall, An Artist From Russia and Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall on Art and Culture) into a readable and engaging story that follows Marc Chagall through his life in St. Petersburg as an art student, his early life in Paris, the art school he founded in post-revolutionary Belarus, his return to Paris, and his exile (during the Holocaust) in New York. Chagall observed, “We all know that a good person can be a bad artist. But no one will ever be a genuine artist unless he is a great human being and thus also a good one.” Which makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

» Read an excerpt from Marc Chagall

Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin
Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life by Ralph Pite (Yale University Press, 544 pages) Book Digest The 1,000-plus pages of the two new biographies of literary titan Thomas Hardy are testimony to both the notion of an unfinished story and the vanity of biographers. Hardy, author of the canonical Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Far from the Madding Crowd, was a progressive thinker who apparently led a conventional life ensconced comfortably in the embrace of the upper classes that his writing reviled. Apparently, the enigmatic Hardy was diligent in maintaining his privacy, torching his private papers and ghostwriting a biography that he wanted published posthumously. Thus, these two biographies, one by award-winning Claire Tomalin and the other by scholar Ralph Pite, are the first new Hardy biographies in decades. Both probe the opacity that Hardy who died in 1928, created to shield his life from public view. Here is Tomalin on Hardy:
…In Hardy I have tried to explain how it came about that he decided to write the sort of books publishers and editors wanted rather than what he wanted to write—he understood that he had to get published in the first place if he was to earn his living as a writer. He did not have the instant success of Dickens, but a struggle. The result is that it is easy to find fault with the novels, overloaded with plot, often hastily and sometimes carelessly written—Hardy did not polish his prose, he got the work to the publisher or editor as fast as he could. What is surprising is how much there is in them in spite of this that is good and vivid and odd and memorable. All the people I have written about remain with me—perhaps they are my closest friends.
For perspective one may attend to one reviewer’s claim: “The biographer, then, has a choice between caution—Ms. Tomalin’s response—and Mr. Pite’s educated, if sometimes wild, guesswork.” Which is just the kind of dilemma that recommends the short biographical essays that I have come to prefer. If you are subscriber to the London Review of Books you can inspect the erudite and thoughtful opining of the usually dependable James Wood.

» Read an excerpt from Thomas Hardy
» Read an excerpt from Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life

A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting by Sam Sheridan
Book Digest Harvard graduate Sam Sheridan finds himself in Australia with lots of cash and time on his hands, and takes up the sport of fighting, something he had long wanted to do. He travels to Thailand and proceeds to train with the greatest fighter in Thai kickboxing history. It’s an odyssey on why and how we fight, somewhat in a hybrid of Hunter Thompson and George Plimpton, complete with a rearranged nose and a chronic rib cage injury. Needless to say—but I will—this is quite a story.

» Read an excerpt from A Fighter’s Heart

American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond by E. Howard Hunt, Greg Aunapu, Foreword by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Book Digest If you weren’t sentient around the time of Watergate, Howard Hunt’s name will ring no bells. That grimy little episode was a minor action in CIA spook and nascent novelist Hunt’s clandestine career—which began with that agency’s noble predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hunt happily spills the beans about the CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954, the Bay of Pigs invasion, CIA media manipulation, Operation Gemstone (which secretly targeted Nixon’s political enemies), the break-in at Pentagon Papers-writer Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, White House “plumbers,” and the Watergate break-in. For what it’s worth, Hunt is the proverbial “horse’s mouth.”

» Read an excerpt from American Spy

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Tom Bissell
Book Digest Vietnam, for too many Americans, is a buzzword for a failed foreign policy and, of course, an all-too vivid nightmare image of the future of our Iraq intervention. Tom Bissell, who is an adroit and perceptive thinker and a skilled narrator, takes us to Vietnam with his father, a former Marine officer, as he relives some of his wartime experiences, not the least of which is John Bissell’s almost-lethal wounding. This book examines the impact of Vietnam on American foreign policy and on a generation. And, as importantly, it takes on the subject of fathers and sons, and how we come to grasp who our parents are. Paul McLeary nails it when he cogently observes:
It’s important to remember that for the most part, textbooks and teachers rarely mention Vietnam. (Those of us who were in elementary and high school in the 1980s can attest to this.) The book, therefore, serves as an excellent thumbnail sketch of the major players and significant dates that define the conflict but have been ignored in popular retellings of the war. In this way, John Bissell’s role in the great, impersonal sweep of history is placed in context.
» Read an excerpt from The Father of All Things

Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez
Book Digest Well-regarded novelist Sigrid Nunez, who wrote one of my favorite books of last year, The Last of her Kind, has just had this wonderful award-winning little fiction reprinted, and as she exclaimed in our yet-to-be-published conversation, “I knew I wanted to write about Leonard and Virginia Wolff’s marmoset. But the marmoset, Mitz, was an excuse to write about the ‘Wolves,’ as their friends called them.” Leonard Woolf comes into possession of “a sickly, pathetic marmoset” and nurses the monkey back to health, and it becomes a ubiquitous presence in the social set of which the Woolfs were a part. Apparently Mitz was also instrumental in helping the Woolfs escape the Nazis in Germany. No small feat for a little monkey, eh?

» Read an excerpt from Mitz

Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas
Book Digest Michael Thomas’s literary debut, which was greeted with front page New York Times Book Review attention is wonderfully written, poignantly expressive, haunting, and riveting epic prose poem which surprised me with its ability to hold my attention for its more than 400 pages. References to Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man abound both in and about Thomas’s story. Me, I see shades of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. In any case, do pick up this book.

» Read an excerpt from Man Gone Down

The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow
Book Digest Having discovered Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, which I would recommend to anyone as a primer on the nexus of governments, churches, drug dealers, and revolutionary militias, I have gone on to read his two preceding novels. With this story of a semi-retired Mob hit man, Frank Machianno, Winslow joins the company of Elmore Leonard, George Pelacanos, Alan Furst, and Thomas Perry as writers I automatically read. Word from Winslow is that this one has been optioned by Robert De Niro, and guess who plays Frankie Machine?

» Read an excerpt from The Winter of Frankie Machine

Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Jürgen Trimborn, translated by Edna McCown
Book Digest Frau Leni Riefenstahl, who was an accomplished woman, a director, and who lived to the ripe age of 101, has been the subject of controversy to many and, no doubt, also the object of scorn to many. Though she long claimed she was apolitical, the films she made for her patron Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, are propaganda monuments, and were seen as effective idealizations of the National Socialist regime and worldview. Though she was a cinematic innovator, her innovations continue to be obscured by the masters she served. Clearly fascinated by this complicated woman and artist, Professor Trimborn admirably reviews her impact and life—one worth noting.

» Read an excerpt from Leni Riefenstahl

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