The ToB, presented by Field Notes, is here!

It's the 2023 Tournament of Books, presented by Field Notes! And it's finals week! Dig in!


Book Digest: May 15, 2006

A Bee Stung, So I Killed All the Fish; June 1941; Becoming Abigail; The Way We Eat; To Die in Cuba; The Secret Way to War; Icelander; Brassai; Kingdom Coming; District and Circle

A Bee Stung, So I Killed All the Fish (Notes From the Homeland 2003-2006) by George Saunders
The seven tidbits in this limited-edition booklet (cover art by Sean McDonald) are vintage George Saunders of the reigning (ironic?) aesthetic that has culminated in his latest collection, In Persuasion Nation, which as Saunders mentioned to me recently was the last in his story collection trilogy. A Bee Stung is kind of a bonus feature if you are lucky enough to be one of its 500 designated recipients; and if you are a Saunders devotee, try to find a copy. Really.
“Bohemians” and “CommComm” from this collection

June 1941: Hitler and Stalin by John Lukacs
No historian I have read on modern history is more lucid and accessible than John Lukacs. He dealt with this crucial interlude in European history in his definitive The Last European War, September 1939-December 1941. In this work—which he calls a narrative summary—Lukacs investigates the two dictators’ strange, calculating, and miscalculating relationship before Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Soviet Russia, and its far-reaching consequences. He also debunks a number of long-held views of the Soviet-Nazi pact. Lukacs makes reading history resonant with all the excitement and thrills of an Alan Furst thriller. Dare I say he makes reading history fun?

» Look inside June 1941: Hitler and Stalin

Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani
Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani, now living and teaching in California, garnered much attention and accolades for his debut novel GraceLand. In his new novella he portrays a teenager brought from Nigeria to London by relatives who attempt to turn her to prostitution. Nice, huh? Peter Ormer observes, “Abani’s empathy for Abigail’s torn life is matched only by his honesty in portraying it. Nothing at all is held back. A harrowing piece of work.” Ben Ehrenreich’s smart review adds, “It’s not all bleak. Becoming Abigail has its Proustian moments. Abigail luxuriates in thoughts of rain, the ‘way it would threaten the world gently, dropping dark clouds over the brightness of an afternoon, wind whipping trees in dark play. Then the smell; carried from afar, the lushness of wet, moisture-heavy earth…’ She remembers her one lover, ‘[c]upping his big face between her small hands, a pair of rare, black butterflies sitting on an outcrop of chalk.’” But he ultimately concludes, “Becoming Abigail is a hard, unsparing book, cruel in its beauty, shocking in its compassion.” Not that that should stop you from reading, right?

» Read an excerpt from Becoming Abigail

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
In addition to fuel prices, global warming, and war drums, the issue of nutrition is a raging concern. Philosopher Peter Singer and journalist Jim Mason pursue a story reminiscent of Silent Spring and Fast Food Nation as they profile three American families whose food choices exemplify a range of ethical standards. The book concludes with five simple principles that consumers can use to make better food choices: Should we eat meat? If so, what kinds of meat are most humane to eat? What kinds of produce and dairy products? Wild fish, or farmed? Veal—ever? Recognizing that not all of us will become vegetarians, the authors at least offer compelling reasons for eating more conscientiously.

» » Look inside To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society

The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History by Mark Danner
My recollection is that the one and only high point of Tina Brown’s regime at the New Yorker was when she made Mark Danner’s book on the infamous El Mozote massacre in El Salvador a cover story. Danner has continued his good work in this latest instance, a study of the secret British memorandum that indicates—contrary to Bush administration claims—the decision for war in Iraq was made well in advance of public claims. Includes an introduction by Frank Rich.

» Read an excerpt from The Secret Way to War

Icelander by Dustin Long
Here’s the description of Dustin Long’s debut novel at McSweeney’s:
A Nabokovian goof on Agatha Christie; a madcap mystery in the deceptive tradition of The Crying of Lot 49 ;The Third Policeman meets The Da Vinci Code. Icelander is the debut novel from a brilliant new mind, an intricate, giddy romp steeped equally in Nordic lore and pulpy intrigue. When Shirley MacGuffin is found murdered one day prior to the annual town celebration in remembrance of Our Heroine’s mother—the legendary crime-stopper and evil-thwarter Emily Bean—everyone expects Our Heroine to follow in her mother’s footsteps and solve the case. She, however, has no interest in inheriting the family business, or being chased through steam-tunnels, or listening to skaldic karaoke, or fleeing the inhuman Refurserkir, or—But evil has no interest in her lack of interest, and thus; adventure ensues.
What can we add? This book was no doubt also printed in Iceland, which means nothing—and we really like the cover art. Other than that we know nothing about Dustin Long. Isn’t that cool? Yes, indeed.

Brassai: An Illustrated Biography by Diane Elisabeth Poirier
Being of a generation that preceded the digitization of photography (and of everything else), I do remember not only the grandeur of fine precious metal prints but the compelling content of those photographs. As in the audio world, where I would not argue that vinyl is superior to compact discs, I would not bother to make that brief for contemporary still imagery. But I must say that the publication of books by acknowledged 20th-century masters such as Gyula Halasz, aka Brassai is pause for acknowledging the passing of a wonderful sensibility. This monograph’s 180 images—some of which have never been published before—illuminate the life of one of the last century’s most expansive creative minds.

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg
Savvy journalist Michelle Goldberg, a keen observer and commentator on America’s Kulturkrieg, ventures forth from Brooklyn to assess the threat that Christian nationalism poses to our democratic way of life. In case this ominous “cultural revolution” has escaped you, Goldberg gets the goods. Sam Harris of The End of Faith fame elaborates: “Kingdom Coming reveals just how thoroughly our national discourse has been corrupted by the mad work of religious literalists. Goldberg demonstrates clearly and persuasively—that tens of millions of our neighbors are working each day to obliterate the separation between church and state. To supplant scientific rationality with Iron Age fantasies and to achieve a Christian theocracy in the 21st century. This is a terrifying and necessary book.” Be afraid, be very afraid.

» Read an excerpt from Kingdom Coming

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney
Again the growl
Of shutting doors, the jolt and one-off treble
Of iron on iron, then a long centrifugal
Haulage of speed through every dragging socket.
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has a new collection. Robert McCrum opines, “This new poetic vision is by no means entirely pessimistic. Heaney seems to relish the lyric boost he’s had from recent events. Ireland is no longer the country he knew as a young man, and he obviously derives a welcome stimulus to his continuing creativity from the transformation of the world. When I ask him about ageing, he concedes: ‘The problem as you get older is that you become more self-aware. So you have to be alert to your own ploys. At the same time you have to surprise yourself, if possible. There’s no way of arranging the surprise, so it is tricky.’ He adds that he continues to find himself ‘either obsessed, or surprised. There’s no halfway house.’”

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