Book Digest: May 14, 2007

Edward Hopper; Dreaming Baseball; Zig Zag; Polish Writers on Writing; Irish Writers on Writing; Mexican Writers on Writing; Ploughshares; The Ministry of Special Cases; Generation Loss; The Perfect Summer; Flower Children; Up in Honey's Room; All That Glittered

Last week I noted Christopher Hitchens’s new book, God Is Not Great, and my own disinterest in the book’s subject, but certainly not its author. This week Michael Kinsley discusses the book and fully one-half of that essay is about Hitchens—which makes it a valuable (and entertaining) piece of work, including flourishes such as this:
Hitchens has established himself as a character. This character draws on such familiar sources as the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene; the leftist politics of the 1960s (British variant); and—of course—the person of George Orwell. (Others might throw in the flower-clutching Bunthorne from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience,” but that is probably not an intentional influence.) Hitchens is the bohemian and the swell, the dashing foreign correspondent, the painstaking literary critic, and the intellectual engagé. He charms Washington hostesses but will set off a stink bomb in the salon if the opportunity arises.
In other news, Jon Lee Anderson, a seemingly fearless foreign correspondent, author, and father, writes:
For those of you who are, like myself, in the media, and who care about such things, I’d just like to direct you to the Frontline Club’s web site where a new fund has been established, called the Fixer’s Fund. There is a link on the web site.

The idea is to create a permanent fund to help the freelance local fixers, translators, and drivers who pull all of us through in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where most of us know someone who fall into these categories who has been kidnapped, arrested, wounded, or killed over the past few years. Most of us have some back-up when things go badly for us, [such as] insurance policies from our media organizations. But for the most part, our fixers—those unsung heroes of so many reporters’ accomplishments—do not. The event which inspired this fund were the recent horrific beheadings of the young Afghan fixer, Ajmal Nakshbandi, and the driver, Sayed Agha, by the Taliban. The families of both men were, understandably, devastated by their deaths. In addition to the grief they are experiencing, both families have lost their only breadwinners.

Let’s do whatever we can to help them—please—and let’s be ready to help the next time such a tragedy occurs, too.
And a final note: Bud Parr, who is responsible for a blog about book bloggers,Metaxu Café, wrote to tell me some good news or other about his splendid endeavor, and that he is participating in a panel with the inestimable Lizzy Skulnick and James Marcus at the forthcoming industry trade gathering known as BookExpo America. For the thousandth (or so it feels) time, I beg off, mumbling about my animus against Ambition Central. Subsequently I have given the matter more thought—including some things that Mr. Ed Champion mentioned as he makes his move to New York City. The notion of bookish literary journalists getting caught up in the maw of the great publicity engines of American commerce was part of those deliberations. Thus my newest genius idea (if I do say so) is that those of my literary confreres that share my interest in avoiding the industrial aspects of the book world, rather than placing themselves in the belly of the beast, might consider repairing to Fairhope, Ala., and Sonny Brewer’s annual literary fest, held the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Edward Hopper by Carole Troyen, Judith Barter, and Elliot Davis
Book Digest With the exception of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, no other American painting has so infiltrated the mainstream culture as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. A handful of his other paintings have achieved an instant recognition, making Hopper enduringly popular and to some degree influential. So argue Carole Troyen, et al., in this comprehensive monograph, which includes more than 200 Hopper images and accompanies a major traveling exhibition currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

And if you like to do more than look at the pictures, there is significant evidence of reading material here, as well. Additionally, Hopper expert Gail Levin weighed in recently with an update of her seminal biography, Edward Hopper, noted in this space recently.

Dreaming Baseball by James T. Farrell, edited by Ron Briley, Margaret Davidson, and James Barbour
Book Digest Farrell, known for his gritty, groundbreaking urban narrative, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, no doubt sublimated his dreams of a life as a baseball player by writing this novel, which was assembled posthumously based on his manuscripts.

Like many Chicagoans, Farrell was dramatically affected by the Chicago Black Sox Scandal of 1919. As synchronicity would dictate, Eliot Asinof, who wrote Eight Men Out, pens the foreword to this book:
The heart of Farrell’s baseball novel is the story of a young boy who dreams of playing one day for his hometown team and lives that dream, only to see it ruined by the social realities and personal failure that often shadow the dreamer. For Farrell, baseball is where youthful dreams begin, but it’s also a test of character when the dream-come-true becomes a nightmare. In Dreaming Baseball, we learn if a love of baseball is strong enough to survive the game’s darkest betrayal.
Which is a lesson that despite steroids, Bud Selig, and big money of the corporate kind, we keep learning.

Zig Zag by Jose Carlos Somoza
Book Digest Cuban-born psychiatrist Somoza, who lives in Spain, presents a high-concept thriller that centers on the rarified world of theoretical physics and the hypothesis of the moment, string theory, which, in its most oversimplified form, posits the existence of nine to 11 dimensions.

With a Michael Crichton-like deliberation, the plot unfolds with members of an elite research group being horribly murdered some 10 years after their initial gathering by something they have unleashed. A young, brilliant—and attractive!—physics professor, Elisa Robledo, who was part of that group as a graduate student, is also threatened by the evil homicidal menace that is murdering her colleagues. And so Robledo must resolve the mystery or also be gruesomely victimized.

» Read an excerpt from Zig Zag

Polish Writers on Writing edited by Adam Zagajewski, Irish Writers on Writing edited by Eavan Boland, Mexican Writers on Writing edited by Margaret Sayers Peden
In these three anthologies, which so far comprise “The Writer’s World” series, editors Zagajewski (who Susan Sontag called “the preeminent Polish poet of his generation”), Boland (who has published numerous books of poetry and teaches at Stanford University), and Peden (who is a prolific, well-regarded translator of Neruda, Allende, and others) assemble a broad array of writers to unpack their national features—including Nobel Prize-winner Wislawa Szymborska, poet Zbigniew Herbert, William Butler Yeats, Kate O’Brien, Carlos Fuentes, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Ploughshares guest-edited by Edward Hirsch
My favorite thing about each issue of Ploughshares is the guest editor introduction. Recently Amy Bloom and Ron Carlson have—along with wonderful editorial roundups—illuminated the world of serious literature with witty and humane insights and anecdotes. This issue by poet Edward Hirsch is no exception—except that his own remarks are impressive in their concision. He concludes by quoting “Song” by Spanish poet Rafael Albert:
Passion is what one craves in art—and life. Precision matters. Down at the water, the queenly ship was beginning to move away from the pier. Banners fluttered. One said: “Only mystery enables us to live. Only mystery.” The passengers clustered at the rails on deck. I stood with a group onshore and waved goodbye to the travelers. People were laughing and crying. Some were jubilant; others were brokenhearted. I have always been both. Suddenly, a great cry went up and the ship set sail for the horizon. The ship rumbled into the future, but the cry persisted. I had no idea where that ship was going, but I felt lucky to see it off and bereft when it disappeared.
» Read an excerpt from Ploughshares

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander
Book Digest Nathan Englander, whose For the Relief of Unbearable Urges earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, returns to the fray with his first novel. The book is set in the ‘70s in Argentina, during a nightmare in that nation’s history, now known as the Dirty War. Englander focuses on Kaddish Poznan and his family as they try to survive the cruel and harrowing excesses of a hyper-paranoid regime prone to “disappearing” something like 30,000 people. Poznan has an odd—perhaps the oddest in recent literature—occupation, in which he is commissioned by fellow Jews to remove surnames from their relatives’ tombstones in an effort to conceal their identities and find protection from the regime. Ultimately Poznan and his wife and son are drawn, with appropriate foreboding, to the Ministry of Special Cases and into the clutches of an unscrupulous priest. Englander skillfully renders this national tragedy on the scrim of one family’s trials and tribulations and gives a fully dimensional narrative of unspeakable sorrow and hope.

» Read an excerpt from The Ministry of Special Cases

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Book Digest Having recently taken note of another of Small Beer Press’s offerings (Endless Things by John Crowley), it should not go unsaid that Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, alumni of Vince McCaffrey’s Avenue Victor Hugo bookshop, are overseeing the kind of publishing house that glows with integrity and deliberation and all the kinds of things one wants (“expects” would be too much) from book publishers.

Maine resident Hand’s novel is one of those cross-genre, niche-challenging fictions that Small Beer’s brewers seem to favor. In this instance we have Cass Neary—a middle-aged burnout, once a photojournalist chronicling the punk music scene, now a cauldron of despair—who gets an assignment to interview a photographer, one of those reclusive artist-types like Salinger, Pynchon, or Roth. Cass arrives on scene (out-of-season Maine) and is embroiled in a long-standing mystery (missing teenagers)—occasion for either her swan song or her redemption. Cass is an unsympathetic character but a keen observer, which is how she keeps us interested and the narrative advancing. Thriller? Meditation of damaged souls? Primer on artistic career arcs? The taxonomy matters not a farthing, methinks. A good read is a good read.

» Listen to an excerpt from Generation Loss

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson
Book Digest About this book, know-it-all and media punching bag Tina Brown crows, “A wonderfully evocative portrait of English society on the brink of a changing world. Juliet Nicolson has invented a new kind of social history.” Crediting Nicholson’s inventiveness is not exactly correct (Barbara Tuchman, anyone?), but who am I to argue? Taking the summer of 1911 in Britain, highlighted by the coronation of a new king and Nijinsky and Ballets Russes creating overflow crowds at Covent Gardens, Nicholson takes a look at a society perched on the lip of a transformational shift, not the least of which is the wrenching Great War that looms a few years in the future. In America, Nicholson’s research lens—sourcing workers and unionists, as well as politicians and royalty—is old hat, but it is a telling and fascinating picture of a fading Edwardian society.

Jonathan Yardley opines:
Somehow one doubts that the summer of 1911 was “perfect”… and somehow one suspects that this same doubt is shared by Nicholson herself. She seems to have set out to write a nostalgic book about England at the 10th or 11th hour before calamity, and to have encountered a great many inconvenient facts. It is to her credit that she does not shy away from recording them, but it’s a pity that she didn’t adjust her narrative’s tone in order to accommodate them.
» Read an excerpt from The Perfect Summer

Flower Children by Maxine Swann
Book Digest For readers of a certain age and past pharmacological predilections, the phrase “flower children” may kick into effect a few flashbacks, as may the story of four hippie kids growing up in the dull aftermath of the exciting ‘60s.

The first chapter of Swann’s novel originally appeared in 1997 as a short story in Ploughshares; another chapter was included in Best American Short Stories 2006. This story is based on Swann’s own adolescence in rural Pennsylvania—four siblings gamboling and prancing through joyful childhood until realities come knocking, which is, of course, when the real story begins. And children narrating in first and third person do give one pause—but merely a pause, not a full stop.

Up in Honey’s Room by Elmore Leonard
Book Digest What need one say about Elmore Leonard that his more than three dozen critically acclaimed and much-loved books—The Hot Kid, Mr. Paradise, Tishomingo Blues, Be Cool, Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Out of Sight, Cuba Libre, Freaky Deaky, and Fifty-Two Pickup and on and on—do not? In a just and ordered universe, this corpus of work should speak for itself, yes? Anyway, it is one of the joys of each new year that one can expect a new opus by Dutch Leonard; his newest takes us back to the WWII years, where Honey Deal, from Harlan County, Ky., is married to Walter Schoen, a Detroit butcher-shop owner, who is a double for the Gestapo’s Himmler. Walter is also a Nazi spy. Carl Webster (whom we met in The Hot Kid) is looking for Jurgen Schrenk, a former Afrika Korps officer who escaped from a POW camp in Oklahoma. And there is Vera Mezwa, a Ukrainian Mata Hari, head of the spy ring, and her lover, the deadly killer Bohdan. Havoc and tumult ensue, along with the pitch-perfect dialogue that is Leonard’s signature.

» Read an excerpt from Up in Honey’s Room

All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway 1919-1959 by Ethan Mordden
Book Digest Before television: What a world that was! And for nearly 40 of those years, Broadway was America’s cultural motherlode—with Olivier, Lunt, and Fontaine bringing to life the works of Williams, O’Neill, and Barry. It was one the 20th century’s manifold golden ages, and Ethan Mordden, a well-known and conscientious historian of American theater, recounts that time not-so-long past. He notes, not without irony:
…even after the technology to record and produce sound liberated the movies to compete with theater on an intellectual instead of merely sensual level, it was not till Hollywood made faithful renderings of important plays in the early 1930s that the stage began to lose its prestige superiority and devolve over the following decades into a kind of powerless older brother to the true inheritor. MGM made Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight with people like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, and two Barrymores. Can anyone today name who played the original shows on Broadway?
A good question that a cursory search engine search failed to answer. Anyone know?

Update: Liz and Meave, editors non-pariel, rose to the challenge: Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight.

» Read an excerpt from All That Glittered

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