Book Digest: March 3, 2008

Nicholson Baker updates Robert Birnbaum on his favorite books. Also: The Savage Detectives; Arkansas; The World That Made New Orleans; 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border; Fire to Fire; Desperate Passage; Major; World Made by Hand; A Step From Death; Split Estate; Green Chic; Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond.

Regular readers of this space will notice the continuation of my recent genius brainstorm of asking writers of my acquaintance to offer a tidbit about their current reading. Nicholson Baker—whose amazing new opus, Human Smoke, was noted in this very same space—is this week’s contributor.

(Being a sensitive guy and congenial writer, he offered a short version of what follows. I demurred.)
Once at a summer writing seminar a long time ago, Donald Barthelme sat in a chair in front answering questions. He never laughed—although he was funny—and he allowed himself a moment of minor despair about writing fiction. But then he said: “You can’t not read.” That’s very true and beautiful and I’ve carried it around with me since. No matter what happens, you can’t not read.

On the other hand, you don’t have to finish. I don’t think Barthelme went on to say that, but it’s true. I’m an enthusiastic dipper-inner, not a finisher. I can get great pleasure and enlightenment from something without actually making it anywhere near the end. Often in fact the last twenty-eight pages of a book will tarnish an experience which otherwise would glow greenly forever with kudzus of uncertainty.

So what I’m reading right now is John Strachey’s The End of Empire, published in 1959. Strachey was a labor member of Parliament and a former communist. He describes Lord Clive’s plunder of Bengal, and he has a chapter called “The Empire of Oil.” The British control of middle-eastern oil was, Strachey says, “probably the most financially successful piece of imperialism there ever has been.” And then he points out in a footnote that the British desire for a steady supply of petroleum began when Winston Churchill, just before the First World War, ordered the British navy to change from coal-burning to oil-burning engines.

I’m also reading a galley of Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland, about cricket in New York, which Knopf will be publishing in May. I keep excitedly scribbling down page numbers in the back. O’Neill can use a word like “barony” in a way that makes everything leap up, and he’s got an enviable way with the descriptive human glance. At one point he has some parents standing around while their children swing on a playground swing. “Fractions of smiles passed between the adults,” is how he describes it.

And I’ve been reading Updike’s new collection, Due Considerations, which has piercing things about William Shawn, William Maxwell, and the “enclosing decorum and decency” of the New Yorker he remembers. “Shawn was an ineffable eminence who held my literary fate in his hands and did not let it drop,” Updike says.

Also I’ve been reading one of my late father-in-law’s books: A.W. Kinglake’s Eothen. I took it down from the shelf because I thought it was about a medieval king—some Tolkien antecedent—but actually it’s a chatty book of travels through the plague-ridden Middle East. In it, pressed between pages describing the aged Lady Hester Stanhope, is a very flat basswood leaf that my father-in-law picked up from the ground somewhere.
Also, former Random House editor Daniel Menaker has a new book-oriented show called Titlepage. I was trying to decide whether to provide you with the link to The New York Times piece or the show’s publicist’s web page. Why need I choose? I’ll give you both.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Book Digest Without digressing into my arcane reasons for holding such, I am not a big fan of the softcover book and thus I am reluctant to pay much attention. But I noticed that Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives has a new life in this format and so I must (again) enthusiastically encourage you to have a peek at the dead Chilean’s masterwork.

Arkansas by John Brandon
Book Digest As seems the case for many of the McSweeney’s literary discoveries, Brandon’s story may be as interesting—possibly more so—than his fiction. Apparently he currently works in a Frito-Lay factory and his publishers seem to be gleefully touting his résumé of odd employments. It would be wonderful if Brandon were another Larry Brown, but in any case his first book makes use of southern Arkansas and its denizens, creating a narrative described by one McSweeney’s partisan as “half Denis Johnson, half Elmore Leonard.” Two halves that add up to more than one.

» Read an excerpt from Arkansas

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette
Book Digest Sublette is a remarkable man. A gifted and sincere musician—his last recording, Cowboy Rhumba, featured a meringue version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”—he is the founder of Qbadisc Records, an ethnomusicologist, a producer of public radio’s Afropop Worldwide, and the author of a projected two-volume history of Cuban music. It should be superfluous to say so, but if anyone can tackle the enviable task of explaining the musical history of New Orleans and its milieu to the rest of us, it is Sublette.

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 by Juan Felipe Herrera
Book Digest All this fulminating around illegal aliens and immigration suggests to me the importance of reminding America that its other cultures have made this country vivid and viable and lively. Herrera appears to be in a state of permanent gypsyhood—though whether his travels fuel his writing or the other way around is not clear. In any case, this anthology showcases 35 years of Herrera’s “undocuments.”

Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems by Mark Doty
Book Digest Getting the jump on National Poetry month (every April since 1996!), I am thinking that at some near and future date I should do a roundup exclusively of poetry. Of course, I have already exposed my lack of expertise in this area—still, I forage on. In the meantime, here’s well-loved poet Doty’s collection of new poems and some selected from his previous seven books.

Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick
Book Digest Even casual readers of American history have some awareness of the incident and events surrounding the Donner Party—an 1846 wagon train trapped with little sustenance or shelter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for one harrowing winter. Countless books have been written about it—a stack Rarick adds to by unearthing new archaeological evidence and letters and diaries of Donner Party descendents with the aim of deflating the cloud of myth that surrounds it. Rarick offers: “The Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity.”

Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Become the World’s Fastest Human Being by Todd Balf
Book Digest Based on the superlative account that Balf made of a mid-19th-century naval expedition to the Darien Gap in The Darkest Jungle, I am fully confident of his nose for a good story and his chops for making it sing. The subtitle of this tome sums up the turn-of-the-20th-century story of Major Taylor, a black superstar bicyclist—and apparently the first black American sports celebrity. Which of course made him a target and a big story. Balf climaxes this tale with a 1904 race in Australia with Taylor’s persistent rival, Floyd “Human Engine” McFarland—for the right to be named the fastest man alive.

» Read an excerpt from Major

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler
Book Digest If you missed Kunstler’s startling The Long Emergency, you missed an eye-opening explanation of the likelihood and consequences of dramatically decreased global oil reserves—which Kunstler managed to make interesting, though unsettling. In this piece of fiction, Kunstler has cast an eye to a future with vastly diminished fossil-fuel availability and a number of other catastrophes that beset the residents of his made-up Union Grove, N.Y.—life, as you will, after the long emergency.

» Read an excerpt from World Made by Hand

A Step From Death: A Memoir by Larry Woiwode
Book Digest Is there a trend brewing here? First David Shields, stirred by ruminations about his aging father, pens The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead. Now comes North Dakotan Woiwode, writing to his son he as contemplates his dwindling mortality. Considering its inevitability, contemplation of one’s own demise is inescapable. A few words and thoughts by gifted writers here and there are a useful palliative—at least, I think so.

Split Estate by Charlotte Bacon
Book Digest Former New Hampshirite Bacon, who is now ensconced in Bali with her family, has published her fourth book, the tale of a New York City family grieving over the suicide of the mother. The father takes his young brood to his mother’s ranch in his birth state, Wyoming, which naturally has some curative effects on this damaged and truncated family. Unfortunately, the mineral rights for the ranch (thus the title) have been sold off, threatening the family’s well being, such as it is. All of which makes for Bacon’s skillful rendering and use of the notion of “split estates.”

Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style by Christie Matheson
Book Digest My conscience, such as it is, compels me to offer notice of these green-proselytizing booklets (Wake Up and Smell the Planet: The Non-Pompous, Non-Preachy Grist Guide to Greening Your Day) hoping the accretion of such tomes will in some way add to our body of knowledge and, more importantly, our will to change our nasty, dumb, wasteful habits. This one apparently offers painless ways to be “hip, classic, and stylish” and still save Mother Earth.

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay
Book Digest Gay is, at the least, a very dependable historian of culture and ideas and, having imbibed in formal psychoanalytic training, practices a loose, relaxed form of psychohistory. Which means he emphasizes the individual’s impulse to counter the reigning order and conventional wisdom. According to Gay, modernism “produced a fresh way of seeing society and the artist’s role in it, a fresh way of valuing works of culture and their makers. In short, what I am calling the modernist style was a climate of thought, feeling, and opinion.” Gay offers two essential characteristics: “First, the lure of heresy that impelled [artists’] actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” Need I point out that grasping modernism is a (small?) step toward understanding that naughty phrase, “postmodern?”

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