Book Digest: March 20, 2006

After Fidel; Black Marks; Huey; Faulkner: Novels 1926-1929; A Public Space; Literary Lives; Manliness; The Believer; The Last Supper; American Movie Critics

Elsewhere on this site you will soon find a recently rediscovered, never before published conversation with Alberto Manguel, author of The History of Reading, and more recently A Reading Diary. Growing up in Buenos Aires, he came to know one of modern history’s most renowned librarians, Jorge Luis Borges. Much of Manguel’s work and thinking exhibit that great man’s influence. I came across something Manguel published in the Spectator in 2001:
Long ago in a faraway desert, a man of whom we know nothing decided that the words he had scratched onto clay were not conventional accounting signs numbering legal decrees or heads of cattle, but the terrible manifestations of a willful god. He concluded that therefore the very order of these words, the number of letters they contained, and even their physical appearance must have a sense and meaning, since the utterance of a god cannot hold anything superfluous or arbitrary. The Kabbalists took this faith in the literary act even further. Since (as the Book of Genesis recorded) God had said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, they argued that the very word light possessed creative powers, and that if they knew le mot juste and its true intonation, they too would be able to become as creative as their Creator. The history of literature is, in some sense, the history of this hope.
Read on.

After Fidel: The Inside story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader by Brian Latell
Even if I did not have a nearly lifelong interest in Cuba, this book would be of interest to me. Periodically, so-called experts—for who knows what reasons—feel compelled to pontificate on the imminent demise of Fidel Castro. My favorite of these writings is Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andres Oppenheimer’s 1992 Castro’s Final Hour, which the publisher had the chutzpah to update. Former National Intelligence Council officer Brian Latell [mp3] is a bit more judicious with his predictions, which earned praise for him from Mexican diplomat/scholar/politician Jorge Casteneda: “[After Fidel] combines more than thirty years of CIA expertise with rigor and lively prose. The combination is particularly suited for analyzing the CIA’s nemesis for now nearly a half a century and for making sense of what the future will bring to Cuba a country whose importance to the United States and Latin America one should never underestimate.”

Black Marks by Kirsten Dinnall Hoyte
Kirsten Hoyte, who has the usual impeccable lit cred—MIT, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and current doctoral candidacy at Harvard—uses her debut novel to explore the convoluted complexities of identity in ethnically challenged America. Iowa’s James A. McPherson suggests the novel “employs the techniques of the old-fashioned quest narrative in exploring the extremely complex circumstances of modern American life. Although there are no dragons to be confronted, Georgette Collins is forced to confront within herself, class and racial tensions, sexual and cultural choices, in her attempt to better understand herself and to learn and claim the sacred ‘true-true name’ inherited from her Jamaican ancestors.” A pretty ambitious undertaking, methinks.

Huey: Spirit of the Panther by David Hilliard
Even if you don’t know who Huey Newton is, there is at least a high probability that the iconic poster (much like the world-famous picture of Che Guevara by Korda) of the late founder and chairman of the Black Panther Party has been used by a conscientious and diligent set designer in any number of movies set in the ‘60s—which may be as close as some of our younger Americans come to familiarity with recent history. Dead at the age of 47 in 1989, Huey Newton had a story every bit as compelling as various, more heralded coming-of-age stories such as Manchild in the Promised Land or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and was well told in Hugh Pearson’s The Shadow of the Panther. David Hilliard’s account claims the benefit of his experience as the Panthers’ chief of staff—a connection that no doubt cuts both ways. Fredrika Newton, Newton’s widow, opines in her introduction to this “definitive account”: “History is the witness to the fact that Huey acted on his vision by inventing an instrument for enlightenment and freedom called the Black Panther Party…The Black Panther Party has let behind a legacy , a foundation laid, a seed sown that flowers the barren fields of today.” Amen.

William Faulkner: Novels 1926-1929 edited by Noel Polk and Joseph Blotner
May I point out that besides being the basis for a character played by John Mahoney in the Coen Brother’s Barton Fink, having had a hand in Howard Hawkes’s famously byzantine screenplay for The Big Sleep, and allegedly being responsible for the ridiculously inflated real estate prices in his sleepy birthplace of Oxford, Miss., William Faulkner happened to have won a Nobel Prize for his fiction? Next month the Library of America will issue its fifth volume of Faulkner’s long fiction, which includes A Soldier’s Pay; Flags in the Dust; a complete, unexpurgated version of the frankly erotic Mosquitoes; and Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and The Fury.

A Public Space Issue 1, Spring 2006
No doubt many who concern themselves with the inside baseball stuff of the literary publication world live in Brooklyn. (Though probably there are a few people outside who may find this of interest.) Let me briefly recap: After George Plimpton, the ebullient man of contemporary letters and a founder of the much loved Paris Review, for whom the phrase bon vivant seemed tailored, died suddenly in September 2003, the highly regarded veteran staffer Brigid Hughes became the venerable but not crusty journal’s editor. Reportedly she was ill-treated by the magazine’s board, who could not distinguish a Murakami from a Mitsubishi, and were asking for all sorts of changes in modus operandi. Hughes decamped and has now, with help from a host of talented friends, launched A Public Space. The first issue is now available and includes the again recognized Haruki Murakami, as well as Marilynne Robinson, Rick Moody, Lucy Raven, and Jeremy Glazier, among others. Living in Dark Ages? Who says?

Literary Lives by Edward Sorel
Edward Sorel is one of the two great caricaturists in America (the other being the incomparable David Levine). Since I no longer subscribe to the New Yorker, where he regularly graces covers, I am regularly reminded of Sorel’s talent by the gazing on my (inscribed) copy of his infamous and brilliant “Political Descent,” which was originally a Nation cover. Sorel previously delved into the literary landscape with his First Encounters, a kind of imaginary illustrative A Chance Meeting. In this volume the Sorel treatment is given to Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, W.B. Yeats, Lillian Hellman, Carl Jung, Jean Paul Sartre, George Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Norman Mailer, and, oh yeah, Ayn Rand. E.L. Doctorow, in his introduction, reminds us that Sorel is often compared to 19th- century newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast. “To use the word cartoonist is hardly to denigrate Sorel’s achievement: Cartooning is to painting as song is to symphony. They are both art and each operates in its own way to stunning effect.”

Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield
This is a title that begs for abuse and apparently gets its due in a review by one of the New York Times Book Review’s resident Mr. Nasties, who must have thought that being given this assignment was a gift purgative, a kind of mental colonic. As much as I am averse to this kind of critical nastiness, Walter Kirn does occasionally elevate it to near artistic heights:
…In fact, this Harvard professor of government and the author of “Manliness” (yep), a new polemic about the nature and value of masculinity, shows little awareness of much that’s happened recently—televisually and otherwise—in the allegedly feminized culture that he aims to shake up. Like Austin Powers (who, come to think of it, made even more fun of “manly” than Hans and Franz), Mansfield seems stuck in a semantic time warp in which it is still possible to write sentences like “Though it’s clear that women can be manly, it’s just as clear that they are not as manly or as often manly as men.”
I leave it to you to decide if Professor Mansfield has it coming.

The Believer Issue 32, March 2006
A few years old, the ad-free Believer has settled into a comfortable predictability that some publications never have the lifespan to achieve: one-page reviews on books that readers might like (as opposed to the wretched and mindless choices that abound in mass periodical literature), interviews with compelling and frequently obscure people, and Nick Hornby doing his most interesting writing with his monthly “Stuff I have been Reading” column. Plus essays such by wonderful writers such as Jim Shepard, Ren [Laurence] Weschler, Tom Bissell, and in this issue, Richard Powers’s “A Brief Take on Genetic Screening” and David Shields’s “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” Did I mention that this magazine has no advertisements?

The Last Supper by Charles McCarry
We don’t know each other very well but you will come to understand that I am not a fan of serials—which is at least one reason to like Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Don Winslow, Robert Ferrigno, and James Carlos Blake. Charles McCarry has managed to make himself an exception to that aversion, though I still favor his stand-alones Shelley’s Heart (of which I have given away countless copies) and Lucky Bastard over the six or seven Paul Christopher novels, the most recent and probably the last of which, Old Boys, was published in 2004. As they did with Charles Portis, Overlook Press has chosen to republish McCarry’s ouevre—having previously reprised Tears of Autumn and The Miernik Dossier.

American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate
John Simon, James Agee, Susan Sontag, H.L. Mencken, Pauline Kael, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, and A.O. Scott in one volume, and on everybody’s favorite aesthetic battleground: the movies. What could be better? One hundred and fifty essays by 79 writers spanning almost a century, edited by Phillip Lopate.

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