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Reading

Book Digest: March 30, 2006

New and Collected Poems 1931-2001; 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die; The Brothers Bulger; Night of the Jaguar; The Ministry of Pain; Just War; Americans in Paris; Kabul in Winter; Duchess of Nothing; White Apples and the Taste of Stone

&My editors here regularly hector to me about my inclination for citation—as opposed to the expression of my own thoughts. Now I must say, I love my editors. [Hey, thanks. —eds] And no doubt my humility (I often feel what I have cited is far better than anything that I could say) goes hand in hand with a certain level of sloth, but actually I think that in my recent chat with Alberto Manguel he articulates a fundamental point—essentially, he says he came to writing as a reader—it’s reading that is the regnant activity in his life. It is for me, too.

Harper’s essays:
The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. (T.H. White, The Once and Future King)
And, of course, I think it is true.

New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 by Czeslaw Milosz
Nobel Prize laureate. New poem collection. Here’s one—“And Yet The Books”:
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
Need I say more? I think not.

1001 Books You Must Read before You Die edited by Peter Boxall
Lists and the addiction to making them is a disease I blame on the relentless shitstream of information engulfing modern sentient beings. How else to cope with organizing all this stuff? Even so, the desert island game is a common pastime among aficionados of various pastimes (10 records, 10 books, etc.) But it seems that sometime in the late 20th century—is it possible that Clay Felker’s New York magazine introduced this malignancy?—mainstream media discovered the “10 Best This” or in the case of women’s magazines, “821 Looks for That.” Now comes this brick of a book, which I wanted to dismiss, but of course I had to see how many of the chosen I had notched. As it turns out, a quick thumbing-through brings my personal count to about 200. Anyway, no surprise that most of the list is firmly in the 20th century. But I am shocked, I say, shocked that no Cormac McCarthy books are included—while, for instance, there are five or six Ian McEwan novels. Disagreements are, I suppose, the point, or at least, the byproduct of this exercise. And with a thousand choices I expect there is sufficient reason for controversy. Call this one a guilty pleasure.

The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century by Howie Carr
Talk-show host Howie Carr represents, for good or ill, one of the last examples of iconoclastic journalism in Boston. (Alex Beam is the other—though it is a shame to couple the brainy and witty Beam’s name with blowhard Carr’s.) And the Whitey Bulger saga (Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Black Mass well tells that amazing story) is endlessly compelling not the least because so many people (read: public officials) were corrupted. Carr’s take includes Bulger’s brother William, who went from the presidency of the Massachusetts Senate to an appointment to the presidency of the University of Massachusetts. Carr convincingly opines that Billy should have been indicted for extortion and taking bribes. Currently, Whitey sightings seem to be a local sport and Billy feasts at the trough of an ample state pension. This is quite a story, of which we have not heard the last.

Night of the Jaguar by Michael Gruber
Here’s another exception that proves my rule that series novels eventually peter out, relying on predictable tics and tricks. This, the third Jimmy Paz novel, involves indigenous people from Amazonian Colombia, a Colombian drug lord and his lethal killer henchman, a group of hapless environmental activists (including a British commando-turned-biologist), and Paz’s former partner at the Miami P.D. It’s been seven years since Jimmy retired from the job, and he has turned his life over to his therapist wife, his seven-year-old daughter, and cooking at his mother’s restaurant. Add to the mix Moie, a Ryunami Indian whose knowledge of the modern world stems from his unlikely friendship with a failed Catholic priest—a priest who is murdered protesting the ruthless capitalist incursions into the rainforest. The Indian (almost miraculously) manages to travel from the deep interior of Colombia to Miami, where he believes his guiding spirit will aid him in stopping the three greedy old Cubans whose company intends to despoil his homeland. Havoc ensues and the department calls upon Jimmy to “consult” on the case. In all of this we get ample cross-cultural education and a page-turner, too. My guess is that this is it for Paz as a main character. But check in next March.

The Ministry of Pain by Dubrava Ugresic, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Author of Thanks For Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic left her home in the former Yugoslavia in 1993, then taught at various American universities, and now makes her home in Amsterdam. The Ministry of Pain tells the story of Tanja Lucic, an exile from Yugoslavia and a lecturer in Serbo-Croatian literature at the University of Amsterdam. Instead of teaching literature, she has her students write about their memories of their Yugoslav past—and in so doing, Ugresic expertly and compassionately unpacks the bittersweet notion of shared human homelessness.

Just War by Howard Zinn
If I were a believer or a worshiper, I would be making offerings to whatever deities allow Howard Zinn (and Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel) to lead long, fruitful lives. Now in his 80s, Zinn seems to be as active and productive as ever. Can you spell k-a-r-m-a? Anyway, this slender booklet contributes any proceeds to Dr. Gino Strada’s victims of war relief organization, Emergency. If you are familiar with Zinn, this anti-war peroration that reprises his WWII experiences as an Air Force bombardier and his agreement with Plutarch’s judgment, “The poor go to war to fight and die for the delights, riches, and superfluities of others,” will not surprise. As if we needed reminders of the ugly face of war, this pamphlet also features the battle-zone photos of Moises Saman.

Americans in Paris (1860-1900) by Kathleen Adler, Erica E. Hirshler, and H. Barbara Weinberg; With contributions from David Park Curry, Rodolphe Rapetti, and Christopher Riopelle
Significant American artists John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, and Winslow Homer are amply represented in this beautifully designed monograph (240 color illustrations and 20 black-and-whites), as well many other artists who were famous in the late 19th century. Starting with the culturally roiling period that Ross King’s recent and compelling book, The Judgment of Paris, encompasses, the images in this book track American artistic activity in Paris from the Salon des Refusés, in 1863, to what art historians argue came to be a uniquely American style of painting. This book acts as a catalog for the exhibition that is on view at the National Gallery, London (through May 21, 2006) and then at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (June 25-Sept. 24, 2006) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Oct. 17, 2006-Jan. 28, 2007).

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan by Ann Jones
Before I read Saira Shah’s unforgettable The Storyteller’s Daughter, my awareness of Afghanistan was slight. But it did leave me with a taste for more, which award-winning journalist and women’s rights activist Ann Jones does well in satisfying with an incisive, on-the-ground account of real life in Afghanistan after the Taliban. Jones worked among the war widows, retraining Kabul’s English teachers, and investigated the city’s prison for women, and she encountered the outcast victims of a terribly repressive regime: cast-off wives, victims of rape, runaway child brides and pariah prostitutes. I understate to say that this is a tragically compelling story as April Dembosky’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle points out:
So what is the United States, whose invasion of Afghanistan was backed by promises of a happy, democratic, post-Taliban society, doing to improve women’s lives? In March 2005, Laura Bush made a highly publicized visit to Afghanistan to “promise long-term commitment from the United States to education for women and children,” as the New York Times put it. Students living in the women’s dormitory of Kabul University at the time of her visit were locked in the dining hall for six hours and denied food, water, books or bathroom breaks, for security reasons. The first lady arrived for her speech and photo op, then left. At the end of her trip, the wife of “Bush the Lesser,” as Jones likes to call the president, announced new U.S. grants of $17.7 million and $3.5 million for education in Afghanistan. But Jones gets behind the headlines: “The $17.7 million had been announced before. And worse, it was not for Afghan education but for a new private, for-profit American University of Afghanistan that would compete with public universities and attract Afghanistan’s elite by charging tuition—rumored to be at least five thousand dollars a year. (It is likely to be a men’s university since the chances that Afghan families will send girls at those prices are exceedingly slim.)”
Duchess of Nothing by Heather McGowan
Heather McGowan’s debut novel, Schooling, was well received and highly regarded not the least for her vivid prose style, which Rick Moody reiterates in blurbing this second novel, “Heather McGowan is the most elegant, arresting, and lucid prose stylist I have encountered in years.” The narrative brings us a woman who leaves a stultifying marriage for a lover, Edmund, in Rome and ends up amusing herself with her lover’s seven-year-old brother—an amusement that becomes something else when Edmund abandons them both. Interesting premise for a story, no?

White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006 by Donald Hall
This essential anthology of 226 poems is culled from the 16 volumes of poetry that Donald Hall has published over 60 years—and includes new poems recently published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review. The breadth of this collection qualifies him for membership in the pantheon of master American poets alongside W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, James Merrill and Philip Levine. Hall is also facile in fiction, essay writing, and children’s literature as his lengthy bibliography shows. Included is a hour-long CD of recently recorded readings by Hall.

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