Book Digest: May 12, 2008

Elizabeth Strout give Robert Birnbaum her latest reads; also: The Bill McKibben Reader; Kluge; I Thought I Could Fly; Nixonland; A Coney Island of the Mind; Like a Rolling Stone; Personal Days; Girls in Trucks; White Cargo; Custerology; Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House; The White King; The Outlander; Maps and Legends; Airs & Voices.

Elizabeth Strout, whose latest opus, Olive Kitteridge, is garnering well-deserved reviews, writes:
I have been reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the heartbreaking, gorgeously told story of a priest in Mexico, who—during a difficult time in the history of the country—is trying to escape the Red Shirts who have been killing all the priests. I have always loved Graham Greene, and I very much enjoyed his three-volume biography by Norman Sherry, but somehow I had failed to read The Power and the Glory, and so it is a lovely gift to have now. I have also recently read Nathan Englander’s novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, which tells of a family who loses their son in Argentina during the terrible days of “the disappeared.” He writes with humor and sharpness and is not afraid of the gritty, and I am a fan. In a different musical tone is the lovely memoir by Susan Richards Shreve, Warm Springs, about her childhood experience of having polio. And I have just read Peace, a short book and a gem, by Richard Bausch. And always I am reading poetry, any I can get my hands on, the old and the new.
The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces From an Active Life
Book Digest McKibben, whose The End of Nature is incanted with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as an environmental call to arms, is a former staff writer for The New Yorker (this book is dedicated to William Shawn, deceased and legendary former New Yorker editor) and now frequently contributes to smart magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. This collection anthologizes 44 of his essays, spanning a 25-year period and covering an oceanic expanse of subjects. In the introduction, McKibben makes clear his ambition: “I hope that some of the pieces in this book move you to reflect, or better yet to laugh. Taken as a whole, however, I hope they help move you to act.”

» Read an excerpt from The Bill McKibben Reader

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus
Book Digest Psychologist Marcus provides a new model for viewing our mind and assorted activities of cogitation and reality testing. In addition to his relaxed, accepting scheme of mental activities, Marcus argues for the power and usefulness of imperfection. I’m not sure if this is science or philosophy, but I have lately found the maxim “Perfection is the enemy of the good” very useful. (You may know that “kluge” is a Rube-Goldberg-style, cobbled-together mechanism—I didn’t.)

I Thought I Could Fly: Portraits of Anguish, Compulsion, and Despair edited and photographed by Charlee Brodsky
Book Digest Is it an extreme gesture of faith in humanity that someone makes a book of such demanding photographs and it actually gets published in this Grand Theft Auto-world. Photographer Brodsky (Street: Poems by Jim Daniels) exhibits nearly 40 photographs as complements to—not interpretations of—the powerful narratives of affliction. On their own they are quite magnetic; in this venue, they’re haunting.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
Book Digest Even if you were alive and witness to the depredations and foul chicanery of the Nixon gang and the transformational, rocking-and-roiling ‘60s, a serious history is in order to frame those years and take the public conversation out of the hand of pundits and other despoiled commentators. Historian Perlstein, who is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, takes us back to 1968—the Watts Riots, the King assassination, the Chicago Democratic Convention, and Nixon’s secret plan to end the war—to the 1972 presidential election. A wonderful complement to this tome is Charles Baxter’s incisive essay on the dysfunctional narrative from Burning Down the House.

» Read an excerpt from Nixonland

A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Book Digest Beat poet Ferlinghetti’s second poetry collection (reportedly the best-selling poetry book by a living American poet) is celebrated on the 50th anniversary of its publication with a clothbound facsimile edition, including a CD of the poet declaiming this, one of his more boisterous works:
Don’t let that horse
eat that violin
cried Chagall’s mother

But he
kept right on

And became famous

And kept on painting
The Horse With Violin In Mouth
And when he finally finished it
he jumped up upon the horse
and rode away
waving the violin

And then with a low bow gave it
to the first naked nude he ran across

And there were no strings
Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band by Steve Kurutz
Book Digest Though I was not and am not a fan of the King, I am mildly fascinated by the Presley cult that has spawned tens of thousands of impersonators, festivals, contests, and other large, silly gatherings. Likewise, cross-dressing performers like to take on the roles of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and other diva-like personas. There are also cover bands of late 20th-century pop bands, and this book-length magazine article reports on that world via Sticky Fingers, a Rolling Stones cover band, and the vicissitudes of that peculiar corner of the pop-cultural terrain. I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment but I do find the publisher’s conclusion cleverly hyperbolic: “Above all, [the book] is a testament to the timeless appeal of rock and roll, even in a culture of perpetual rewind.”

Personal Days by Ed Park
Book Digest Manhattanite literateur Park, a member of one of New York’s literary tongs (The Believer gang), has written an office-life novel. Not surprisingly, his book has been blurbed by Believer honchos Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits. So if you have been waiting for another cube-monkey epic—here ya go.

» Read an excerpt from Personal Days

Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch
Book Digest Though I think Girls in Trucks is a resonant title with many applications—not the least of which is a gaggle of leggy blonde musicians doing Allman Brothers and the Band covers from the Great American Songbook. (An online search of the title produces some imaginative uses; but I digress.) Crouch has written a story of a Charleston, S.C., debutante seeking her fortune in the belly of the Yankee beast of New York City and then returning to her homeland. This story does have the richly sweet aroma of Thomas Wolfe. Entertainment Weekly gives this tome an A-minus, whatever that means.

» Read an excerpt from Girls in Trucks

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh
Book Digest The claim in play is that over 300,000 whites were shipped to America as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t know what you make of this revelation, but one review thoughtfully observed: “The authors take care to quote African-American sources and clearly state that they have no wish to play down the horrors of the much larger black slave trade that followed.” Good for them.

Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer by Michael A. Elliott
Book Digest General George Custer, being of flamboyant temperament and exaggerated martial ambition, would probably have made a name for himself in the annals of warfare—but instead he is eternally linked to one of the more dramatic massacres in American history, and his “last stand” would become one of the big stories of the impending Gilded Age. To date, the favored text on Custer and the Little Bighorn debacle has been Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. Professor of English Michael Elliott attempts to unpack the complicated question of why the events at Little Bighorn still echo loudly through American history and into the American imagination.

» Read an excerpt from Custerology

Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House by Daniel Gregory, photographs by Joe Fletcher
Book Digest May is the architect/designer associated with the advent of the modern American ranch house, which drew on the traditional Mexican ranchos and casitas while embellishing with modern gadgetry and doodads. Satellites dishes came later. In any case, May personally designed more than 1,000 of these dwellings, which were the hot new thing during the mid-20th century. The book is well photographed and succeeds in showing why these homes were and are attractive.

» See excerpts from Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House

The White King by György Dragomán, translated by Paul Olchváry
Book Digest Hungarian novelist Dragomán sets this harrowing farce in Ceau_escu’s Romania. The father of Djata, the 11-year-old narrator, is sent to a forced labor camp for speaking out against the regime. Thus does Djata filter Eastern European totalitarian life through the clear eyes of a child—a rendering that does justice to the desiccation of Warsaw Pact life. One reviewer quotes a Romanian proverb to demonstrate the tediousness (and the worst) of life: “The Romanian peasants are like corn mush; they can be boiled forever without exploding.”

» Read an excerpt from The White King

The Outlander by Gil Adamson
Book Digest The velocity of this tale of a 19-year-old murderess on the lam in the early 20th century engaged me with the kind of thrill one occasionally experiences when picking up a first novel by an unfamiliar writer. I imagine this belies the deliberate pace (10 years) over which this well-regarded Canadian poet and short-fiction writer completed her long-form debut. The publisher intones the names of Charles Frazier and Cormac McCarthy to give a context for Adamson’s writing; one might as well cite Wayne Johnston and Michael Ondaatje. Suffice it to say, this is a skillfully, well-wrought story.

» Read excerpts from The Outlander

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
Book Digest Here Chabon publishes a collection of 16 essays devoted to, as a Harper’s review states:
…His wind-chiming on genre fiction from Poe to Nabokov; “tricksters” from Loki, Coyote, and Krishna to Borges, Calvino, and Pynchon; horror stories by M.R. James, Sherlock Holmes under Conan Doyle’s hood; Norse myths, Philip Pullman, John Milton, and epic fantasy; Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Captain Marvel; Howard Chaykin and “Citizen Kane”; Ben Katchor and Julius Knipl; Cormac McCarthy, Will Eisner, and other golems.
All of which adds up to an illustration of the ecumenical tastes that move Chabon—and along the way he reinvigorates the notions of literary storytelling.

Airs & Voices by Paula Bonnell
Good Massachusetts citizen Bonnell has paid her dues as a poet, garnering respect and awards for her work—this collection won the 2006 John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. What else do you need to know about a poet? Except perhaps for her poetry?
I could live in the next life
if only I could get to it
Driving onto the promontory
again and again, I visit the screened porch
sleep in new-washed sheets
drink the breeze
and depart across the grilled
pause in the road
that is the bridge. I look quickly
to left or right-is it high
or low tide? when will
I return to swim in it?
instead of bathing
in my sweat, laboring
to get here. I mean,
to get there for I remain
mired in the city of tasks,
always something urgent
presented unexpectedly
at the very moment of departure.
Oh, the summer of voices, the presence
of the grass, the suggestion
of wings in the moving
leaves as I leave-over
and over again-when I long
to arrive and stay.
» Read an excerpt from Airs & Voices

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