Book Digest: March 31, 2008

Robert Birnbaum on: Why We’re Liberals; Wolf Totem; Our Daily Meds; Daydream Believers; Pravda; The Painter From Shanghai; Tastes Like Cuba; Against the Machine; The Hamburger: A History; Light Years; Jackalope Dreams.

From the pen of Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck:
A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.
Read on.

Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America by Eric Alterman
Book Digest Progressive journalist Alterman (When Presidents Lie and What Liberal Media?) takes on a restoration of corrupted and degraded American liberalism (corrupted and degraded by its right-wing adversaries), arguing that a majority of Americans hold liberal views. Accusations such as “liberals hate God” and “liberals are soft on terrorism”—manufactured by right-wing comedians like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly—have effectively contributed to the vilification of political liberalism. Alterman doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting to dispose of that humbuggery and to clarify its tenets.

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, translated by Howard Goldblatt
Book Digest For what it’s worth, this novel was a bestseller in China, rivaling Mao’s Little Red Book in sales. On the eve of China’s infamous Cultural Revolution, an urban-dwelling intellectual sets out to live in Inner Mongolia with nomadic tribesmen whose religious beliefs include a kind of worship cult of the wolf. When modernity enters the scene in the form of a campaign to rid the area of wolves, the social order is destroyed. First a rat plague, then wild sheep graze unfettered, turning the land into a dust bowl. Rong seems to have seen the future and feels it doesn’t work—who can blame him?

» Read an excerpt from Wolf Totem

Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves Into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs by Melody Peterson
Book Digest The steady drumbeat of litigation against big pharmaceutical companies certainly has drilled into us the idea that these corporations are not beneficent organizations working for the common good and the health of all. Former New York Times reporter Peterson continues the Big Pharma defrocking, claiming, among other things, that 65 percent of Americans take medication every day and that “prescription pills taken as directed by physicians are estimated to kill one American every five minutes.” Much of the havoc wrought by the drug hucksters is a result of their relentless marketing and lobbying in pursuit of corporate enrichment—drugs promoted with the ceaseless persistence of beer and automobile advertisements. One wonders if Americans don’t already know this ugly story, but denial and fearmongering keeps us sucking at the teat of these ruthless enterprises. Peterson’s book clearly spells it out if you need it.

» Read an excerpt from Our Daily Meds

Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power by Fred Kaplan
Book Digest M.I.T.-educated Fred Kaplan (The Wizards of Armageddon) writes the “War Stories” column at Slate. This tome reviews the errors and misconceptions underlying the Bush regime’s disastrous foreign policy, pointing out their origins in past Republican administrations and the modifications contrived by the latest claque of happy warriors. No new revelations here, but a clear exposition of the disturbingly distorted lens they employ.

» Read an excerpt from Daydream Believers

Pravda by Edward Docx
Book Digest Brit novelist Docx (The Calligrapher) constructs a resonant story set in St. Petersburg where thirtysomething Gabriel Glover finds his mother dead. Gabriel and his twin Isabella arrange her funeral, unaware of their mother’s long-abandoned son, a bitter and poor jazz pianist, Arkady, who intends to gain what he believes he is entitled. Toss in a heroin-addicted ex-priest and you have more than enough ingredients for an engrossing narrative—and perhaps a meditation on family.

» Read an excerpt from Pravda

The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Book Digest The life of Chinese artist Pan Yuliang, who was a child prostitute and managed to escape that disastrous trap to become a celebrated Impressionist painter in the tumultuous years of the first Chinese Revolution, is the basis for this first novel by Epstein. Novelist David Plante opines on her debut, seven years in the writing: “Epstein has created a world of extraordinary imagination out of a world of extraordinary historical fact and in the process has demonstrated with verve, that art can redeem misery.” By the way, this book has the kind of eye-catching cover that drew me to it. Which does happen, doesn’t it?

Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home by Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich
Book Digest Expatriate actor, director, professor, and well-regarded playwright Machado, like many Cubans, has had to deal with issues of personal identity against the roiling backdrop of the diaspora created by the Cuban Revolution. His experience has taught him that Cubanos of all political stripes can harmonize and rhapsodize on Cuban food. And in so doing perhaps reclaim a Cuba that, if it ever existed, no longer does:
When I taste something I haven’t tasted in twenty years, I can’t resist that connection to the past, to the conflict, to the identity that is mine. I know the feeling as I taste the flavor. There are no arguments, no political controversies, just the real sensation. If it’s that complex, it must be Cuban.
» Read an excerpt from Tastes Like Cuba

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel
Book Digest One has to put aside critic Siegal’s truculent persona (dubbed “drive-by brilliance”) and self-promoting mania, and acknowledge that this slender manifesto rehearses and addresses some of the critical claims and critiques regarding the role of the internet. It is Siegel’s contention that beyond its superficial effects on everyday life, the internet also shapes how we think. The unanswered question is whether, for all the ballyhoo about the web’s great boon to democracy, it may be an agent for repression and control. Maybe that’s unanswerable, but thinkers like Siegal force us to gaze at such uncomfortable concerns—for which we ought commend him.

» Read an excerpt from Against the Machine

The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky
Book Digest Foodie Ozersky (Meat Me in Manhattan) adroitly and economically reveals the history of this hallowed American icon to the commodity that it has become—think White Castle and McDonald’s. Ozersky, who is by inclination and training a cultural historian, keeps his eye on the bigger picture, arguing, as the book’s publisher claims: “America’s favorite sandwich is nothing short of an irrepressible economic and cultural force.”

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The Hamburger

Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i by Susanna Moore
Book Digest After reading In the Cut I was sufficiently convinced that Moore was yet another underappreciated writer who warranted more attention. All of which means I count the publication of a book by Moore as a pleasing day in the book universe. This latest, slight volume is a memoir of her childhood in Hawaii and her reminiscences of her childhood’s favorite pieces of literature—Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, Kon-Tiki, To the Lighthouse, and more. Moore is undoubtedly an original, thus this from the Los Angeles Times:
After two decades as a book critic, there are only two things I can absolutely smell: a writer who is in it for the money and one who has spent the best years of his or her life in water. Susanna Moore isn’t in it for money. She is too odd, and she floats.
Jackalope Dreams by Mary Clearman Blew
Book Digest Blew’s debut novel (she has previously published three story collections) is set in present-day Montana and evidences the disjunction of the myths of the Old West and its intractable modernity. Recently fired schoolteacher Corey Henry deals with her father’s suicide as she revisits her past interest in becoming a painter. Paul Wilner anoints Blew’s opus: “Jackalope Dreams is a small masterpiece; it deserves the attention it makes a point of not seeking.” No faint praise there.

» Read an excerpt from Jackalope Dreams

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