Book Digest: March 9, 2006

Main Currents of Marxism; The Bell Jar; Oh What A Slaughter; Harry Callahan; Salvation Blues; Rousseau’s Dog; Mother’s Milk; Pike’s Folly; Legends of Modernity; Paradise Travel; The People’s Act of Love

Perhaps you are thinking, Who is this guy and why should I listen to him about books? (That is, for those who are not thinking, Who cares? or He’s cool; he went to high school with my second cousin.) A perfectly legitimate question, which if we are going to become fast (literary) friends, I am obliged to answer. (Of course, it behooves you to tell me about yourself.) If you rely on the various biographical droppings that, in the Great Age of Google, are easily accessed (some such being available at this very site), you will learn a thing or two including some of my enthusiasms, if not my obsessions. Let me share some more intimate details. Browsing my bookshelves ala Montesquieu (or was it Montaigne?) I notice with chest swelling pride I have nearly the complete Gretel Erlich oeuvre. And awaiting me when there is a break in the my life’s action (which may require a sabbatical), are both volumes of Edward Timms’s biography of the incredible (and incredibly overlooked Karl Kraus. And my so-called “to be read” pile is an architectural wonder. And a piquant literary gumbo. Hope that helps.

Also, despite the arguable contention that the world of literature is becoming increasingly marginal in our rabid technoculture, it is terrain that I find not only daunting and challenging in its immensity but energizing and thrilling and pleasurably sustaining. To encounter books and writers and fellow readers may be to inhabit a miniscule plot of land in a huge, huge universe (again, that’s arguable), but as literature’s horizon extends further than I can see, it’s an ecosystem in which I can thrive. Maybe you think that too?

Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, The Breakdown by Leszek Kolakowski
I am a member of the school (if I may posit one) that believes that while Karl Marx apparently got socialism wrong, he was spot-on with his assessment of capitalism. And one who believes this may reasonably argue there is no small value in a reading Marx and his coterie with the same gusto that others seem to attach to Milton Friedman or Leo Strauss. This grand opus, first published in three volumes in 1976-78, has been combined with a new preface and epilogue by Kolakowski. Kolakowski was an orthodox Marxist until he became a revisionist after touring Moscow in 1950. His work was banned in Poland and he was expelled from that country’s Communist Party and went into exile in 1968. He continued a brilliant academic career at a number of English and American universities, retiring from Oxford a few years hence.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
Sylvia Plath’s opus seems to have an iconic/totemic stature, at least with undergraduates who smoke Gauloises, and, I sense, has served as fodder for those academic cottage industries founded on the backs of suicidal poets. I am not suggesting this audio as a substitute for the text (really, I wouldn’t do that), but as a kind of illuminating alternative. Like watching Moby Dick (the John Huston-Gregory Peck version, not that more recent stink bomb).

Oh What A Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846-1890 by Larry McMurtry
This is a surprisingly slender tome given the subject matter. McMurtry accounts for six of the West’s most terrible massacres—Sacramento River, Mountain Meadows, Sand Creek, Marias River, Camp Grant, and Wounded Knee—among others. These massacres involved Americans killing Indians, but also Indians killing Americans, and, in the case of the hugely controversial Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, Mormons slaughtering a party of settlers, including women and children. The book begins with the virtually unknown Sacramento River Massacre of 1846, perpetrated by “Pathfinder” John Charles Fremont’s troops, and runs through the Wounded Knee in 1890. In addition to the facts themselves, McMurtry opines, “This deep constant apprehension, which neither the pioneers or the Indians escaped, has it seems to me been too seldom factored in by historians of the settlement era, though certainly it saturates the diary literature… in my opinion this grinding, long-sustained apprehension played its part in the ultimate resort to massacre. President Bush has recently revived the doctrine of preemptive strike. A doctrine far from new in military or quasi military practice. Most of the massacres I want to consider were thought by their perpetrators to be preemptive strikes justified by the claim that the attacks were punishment for past harassments by the native tribes.” He does seem to stop short of claiming that the tradition of human slaughter is perpetual—but not by much.

Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work by Britt Salveson, with an introduction by John Szarkowski
Harry Callahan, whose life spanned almost all of the 20th century, was one of the great artists in photographic history. This well-executed monograph includes 225 images (12 full color, 213 duotones), some of which have never been published before—contact sheets, variants and final images chosen to provide a glimpse into how Callahan worked on a daily basis. Britt Salveson, director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, which houses the Callahan Archive, vividly presents a window on Callahan’s modernist experimentation via an exploration of a range of subjects. Here’s John Szarkowski: “Callahan has photographed his wife and child, the streets of the cities in which he has lived, and details of the pastoral landscapes into which he has periodically escaped—materials so close at hand, so universally and obviously accessible, that one might have supposed that a dedicated photographer could exhaust their potential in a fraction of that time. Yet Callahan has repeatedly made these simple experiences new again by virtue of the precision of his feeling.”

Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2000 by Rodney Jones
Alabama-born Rodney Jones is the author of eight books of poetry. He has won numerous awards, including the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award, and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He was a finalist for poet laureate of Illinois, where he teaches at Southern Illinois University. For this anthology Jones selected what he thought was his best work and included 25 new poems that share a common theme. Here’s a stanza from “The Boomers Take the Field”:

It takes a long time to forgive
heroism or beauty.
And then the young girl
in the old song owns a plot
in the memorial gardens,
a brow full of Botox,
and a lover with Viagra.
Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
I’ve become a big fan of this kind of book—I am now thinking there is an emerging subgenre of cultural intellectual history, in which I include Edmond and Eidinow’s first book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Rachel Cohen’s marvelous A Chance Meeting, and Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, kind of a mad-dog polymath of the 18th century—philosopher, novelist, composer, and political provocateur—was given, with his dog Sultan, refuge from his many enemies in England by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. In a short time, Rousseau accused his protector of plotting to dishonor him. Hume, with an uncharacteristically violent response, sparked a brouhaha that drew in the leading lights of England and France and was soon the big story in European cultural circles.

Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
Ren Weschler recently told me of a book that the Los Angeles Times wouldn’t review because the Chicago Tribune, their parent company, pooh-poohed the Chagall nudes within. Unbelievable, huh? One wonders how St. Aubyn’s newest novel fared, with its well-reproduced cover using Jacopo Tintoretto’s painting, The Origin of the Milky Way. This, the Englishman’s sixth novel, published by the literary journal Open City, is as Francine Prose opines, “First-rate fiction. No contemporary writer writes more knowingly or eloquently from the point of view of the child who is smarter and more observant than the adults around him might wish to imagine . . . [St. Aubyn is] the kind of writer who makes you notice the terrifying family at the next table, and who makes you want to write.”

Pike’s Folly by Mike Heppner
I must say I admire the restraint of authors who write this kind of thing on their dust jacket: “Mike Heppner lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.” Nothing about growing up in Michigan, receiving an M.F.A. from Columbia University, or having written a previous novel (The Egg Code). OK, then. The reticent Heppner has fashioned a social satire that reminds me, in scope ambition and zaniness of characters of Rick Moody’s The Diviners. (Only because that’s the last satire I read.) Heppner reportedly “turns a merciless eye on cultural malfeasances from the digital avant-garde to disingenuous tax reform,” which you would anticipate when you have two extraordinarily wealthy characters, one being Nathaniel Pike—a self-proclaimed Emersonian—who is buying a parcel of federal wilderness in New Hampshire with the intention of paving it over. Much humorous mayhem ensues.

Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland 1942-1943 by Czeslaw Milosz
Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who died in 2004, was the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of numerous works, many of which have been translated into English, including Beginning With My Streets, The Year of the Hunter, A Roadside Dog, Milosz’s ABC’s, and his last book, To Begin Where I Am. Newly available in English, Legends of Modernity brings together for the first time some of Milosz’s early essays and letters, composed in German-occupied Warsaw during the winter of 1943. Half a century later, when Legends of Modernity saw its first publication in Poland, Milosz said: “If everything inside you is agitation, hatred, and despair, write measured, perfectly calm sentences… .”

Erstwhile singer and literary guy James Marcus has referred to this quote from a Milosz letter to be found in the book:

This is what I would like my future reader to see and comprehend: my first memories of childhood, those long rows of refugees’ wagons on the crowded roads, the bellowing of cattle being prodded along, the red glow of the fires of 1914, revolutionary October in Russia and again the year 1920 on the battlefields, and then growing up in the blind, unconscious lucidum intervallum between the wars, the university in which blind, unconscious people lectured about some by-products of knowledge acquired in the junkyard of the nineteenth century.
Strong stuff, eh?

Paradise Travel by Jorge Franco, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez has said Colombian novelist Jorge Franco is “one of those to whom I should like to pass the torch” of Colombian fiction. As a member of the gritty-realist literary movement known as McOndo (a play on the village in One Hundred Years of Solitude and McDonald’s), Franco is more inclined to use as his literary guideposts Raymond Chandler and Paul Auster than any reliance on the well-traveled terrain marked out by García Márquez. This, Franco’s fourth novel, moves from Medellin, Colombia, to Queens, where two recent illegal immigrants, Marlon Cruz and his girlfriend Reina, lose each other on their first night in their new land. Guileless Marlon now has to learn to survive in a place where he doesn’t know the language and has no money or human connections. And in the hands of a skillful and fierce storyteller like Jorge Franco, that’s sufficient to drive this narrative.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
Not exactly the sweep of Dr. Zhivago, this intricate and well-researched novel by journalist-turned-author James Meek (who reported from Russia for most of the ‘90s) is set in Siberia at the end of the Russian Revolution and contains the interplay of a maniacal Czech officer, the leader of a mystical Christian sect, a prison-camp escapee, a single mother, a beautiful photographer and her son, and a troop of Czech soldiers who despair of ever returning to their homes. When the village shaman is murdered, this sets in motion an overwhelming terror.

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