Book Digest: May 19, 2008

Darin Strauss gives Birnbaum his reading list; also: Notebooks 1951-1959 (Camus); Planet Shanghai; The Dark Room of Damocles; Farther Along; Exiles; City of Thieves; The Foreigner; Pure Goldwater; The Spies of Warsaw; Twilight; The Taste of Place; A History of Iran; El Greco to Velázquez; Everything They Had.

Darin Strauss, whose third opus, More Than It Hurts You, will enter the literary fray soon, weighs in on his latest reading:
I’m reading The Journals of John Cheever. I’m amazed at the fineness of prose here; Cheever began writing them without having the faintest idea that they’d ever be published—but these jottings all glitter like the most burnished, third-draft prose. And the honesty of his self-examination! I think most of us, even in our journals, pull clothes off only some parts of our psyches, while by necessity we hold kerchiefs and veils over others, with fluttering eyelashes. The secrets we keep from even ourselves are what make us sane. Not Cheever; he shows it all. And this book has the arc of a novel: It begins with Cheever as this struggling, alcoholic, straight writer; by the end he’s fully out of the closet, off drink, and a household name. Another thing I read this week was the story “The Assistant Producer,” by Nabokov. Written in Boston well before he’d made a name for himself in America, I think this is the first English-language story where we get the fullness of the Nabokov American voice, in all its allusive play and quick brilliance. That’s what I find so interesting about his prose style: It’s so fast-moving. People think his writing is dense and complex, but it’s actually made up of simple words, very easy-to-see images, and totally compacted metaphors. It races along the page, tires humming, engine never showing the strain of its 200 m.p.h. dash and verve.
In case you missed my notice of Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, The New York Times published Manguel on the same topic. For me, Manguel is one of the few writers who can discourse on the joys of reading and the world of books without making it sound effete and overly precious.

RIP: Roz Zinn

Notebooks 1951-1959 by Albert Camus, translated by Ryan Bloom
Book Digest The third volume of Camus’s journals, not published until 1989, are now available in English. The last nine years of his life is when he wrote The Fall, The Rebel, Exile and the Kingdom, and the unfinished The First Man, and his journals amplify those works as well as offering a wide range of musings on travel, philosophy, and politics. Translator Bloom writes:
At the point where he may have been at the top of his craft, Camus was removed from this world and we were thus forced to accept, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his Tribute to Albert Camus, “every life that is cut off—even the life of so young a man—is at one and the same time a phonograph record that is broken and a complete life.”
Planet Shanghai by Justin Guariglia
Book Digest Young, well-regarded photographer Guariglia, who lived in Asia for over a decade, collects 60 full-page, color photos to demonstrate the lush and vivid street life of this Chinese megalopolis of over 16 million. John Krich, who contributes an introduction for this monograph, asks:
Is Shanghai the epitome of urbane sophistication or urban degradation? World city or world wretch? Least Chinese of China’s fabled places or most irrefutably so? Here tenements, not temples, set the tone and quick mah jongg games replace the long strokes of the calligrapher’s pen. No other agglomeration, by Sino standards, is so short on history and so long on myth.
» View images from Planet Shanghai

The Dark Room of Damocles by Willem Fredrik Hermans, translated by Ina Rilke
Book Digest If you can name three Dutch writers, you should be writing for some important journal and probably not needing to read my notices. If you know of Cees Nooteboom and Harry Mulisch, I salute you. As for Hermans, published in Holland in 1958, Peter Mayer’s Overlook Press salvages his remarkable thriller from the dustbin of history. Two men are caught up in intrigues, resistance, and assassinations in Nazi-occupied Holland. After the war, one is taken for a traitor and cannot prove his assignments or even the existence of the other.

Farther Along by Donald Harington
Book Digest In addition to being Arkansas’s best export, Harington was named “America’s Greatest Unknown Novelist” by Entertainment Weekly. In this, his 14th novel, a former museum curator gives it all up and moves to the Ozark wilderness. A local moonshiner keeps him supplied with corn liquor and he spends six years writing an anti-civilization screed. Two women intervene to save the protagonist from his self-destruction. That’s all you need to know.

» Read an excerpt from Farther Along

Exiles by Ron Hansen
Book Digest Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus) fictionalizes the life of British poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, focusing on Hopkins’s poetic response to the shipwreck of the steamer Deutschland, which ran aground in the Thames in 1875, killing 60 passengers. The death toll included five nuns fleeing Bismarck’s anti-Catholicism for America and so moved Hopkins that he broke a vow of silence and wrote “The Wreck of the Deutschland” to commemorate the tragedy.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
Book Digest Benioff, better known as the screenwriter of Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour (taken from Benioff’s novel), Troy, and The Kite Runner, sets his new fiction in wartime Stalingrad and has the protagonist’s grandfather recount the harrowing and ghastly story of his survival in that avalanche of death. One reviewer frames it this way:
“What’s wrong with drama?” Kolya asks, posing the book’s artistic manifesto. “All these contemporary writers are such timid little fish—”

Melodrama,” Lev explains. “f the subject demands intensity, it should get intensity,” Kolya finishes. In imagining Lev’s war, Benioff has paid him the enormous compliment of presenting the savagery he endured in full force without losing his humanity or his fragile goodness.
The Foreigner by Francie Lin
Book Digest Though clothbound books are my preferred iteration of texts, sometimes the soft cover is unavoidable, as when a paperback publisher publishes an original, like this debut by former Threepenny Review editor Lin. Middle-aged Emerson Chang is adrift when his mother suddenly dies and he must go to Taiwan to dispose of her ashes and part of her estate to his younger brother, Little P, who is in the embrace of the Tapei underworld. Editor and novelist Colin Harrison blurbs: “The Foreigner announces the arrival of the talented Francie Lin. Brilliantly observed and written with a scalpel, this violent plunge into the abyss of identity runs on the hot rails of the ambitious thriller…”

Pure Goldwater by John Dean and Barry Goldwater Jr.
Book Digest Arizona conservative icon Barry Goldwater (“Extremism in defense of liberty is no crime”, you will remember, was roundly trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, in no small part because he was inextricably linked by Democratic Party hucksters with the ominous mushroom-cloud image of nuclear war) was a long-standing diarist. John Dean, who seems to have survived Watergate relatively unscathed, couples a (hopefully) judicious edit with (hopefully) thoughtful analysis. Goldwater was not only an icon but an iconoclast, and his legacy is a good way to measure “straight talk.” Especially telling are his feelings about the rising extreme right.

» Read an excerpt from Pure Goldwater

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst
Book Digest Furst’s 10th meisterstuck is set in 1937 Warsaw as the coming war gathers, and French and German operatives are locked in battle in this European crossroads. Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a French intelligence officer, must shepherd one of his more valuable assets though a gauntlet of high risk, battling villains worthy of his designation. He also falls in love with a Parisian lawyer of Polish heritage who works for the League of Nations. This is destined to be vintage Furst—but you can consume it now.

» Read an excerpt from The Spies of Warsaw

Twilight by William Gay
Book Digest Here’s one I missed when it came out a year and a half ago. Gay, an unapologetic Southern writer from Mississippi, offers a true Southern gothic tale centering on a peculiar undertaker. Two teenagers discover their father doesn’t occupy the casket designated for him and are determined to hold Fenton Breece, the above-mentioned undertaker, accountable. Of course, they must outrun Granville Sutter, an ex-con and local thug, hired by Breece. Then there is the Harrikan, a feral backwoods territory that the teens must cross. Quite a story.

» Read an excerpt from Twilight

The Taste of Place: a Cultural Journey into Terroir by Amy Trubek
Book Digest Trubek (Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession) teaches food science and nutrition at University of Vermont (a hotbed of sensible environmentalism). Here she expands the (French) concept of terroir beyond its normal application to wine—and argues for its importance in cuisine and culture—especially ambitious in this nation, where foodstuffs average 1,500 miles of travel from point of origin to point of consumption. Fellow Vermonter Bill McKibben gushes:
This volume introduces a new and powerful idea into the quickly expanding American literature of food. Amy Trubek is better qualified than anyone I know to offer an American take on terroir—her background as an anthropologist, a chef, an orchardist, and an activist in the local-food movement let her understand the idea of taste in all its diverse and wonderful dimensions, and her skill as a writer lets her communicate with great grace what she’s figured out.
A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy
Book Digest Considering the demonization of Iran that has taken place in the American babblesphere, I would consider it obvious that a respectable historical survey of the former Persia, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is in order. The 1979 revolution, which overthrew United States puppet, the Shah, and ushered in the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs (which, by the way, led to our support of Saddam Hussein) has profoundly changed Iran. Since various past and present political candidates feel compelled to rattle sabers at the Iranians, good citizens will want to know what’s what. Yes?

El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III edited by Ronni Baer and Sarah Schroth, text by Laura Bass, Antonio Feros, Rosemarie Mulcahy
Book Digest Having recently read Michael Gruber’s The Forgery of Venus, in which Velázquez and his painting are central, it is fortuitous that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is home to this sumptuous exhibition. Phillip III, whose 40-year reign and “Pax Hispanica” was a culturally grandiose epoch, saw the productivity of El Greco and the emerging talent of Velázquez. The 170 images in this monograph also include works by lesser-known talents.

Everything They Had: Sports Writing From David Halberstam by David Halberstam, edited by Glen Stout
Book Digest Halberstam (The Breaks of the Game, The Amateurs, Summer of ‘49, The Education of a Coach) was killed last year in an auto accident. Though best known for his political reportage (The Best and the Brightest), he was very much interested in and well-versed in a wide range of sports—as this anthology assembled by Stout (who edits the Best American Sports Writing annuals) exhibits. There are articles on football, baseball, and basketball, and also fishing and soccer and sculling. Included is Halbertstam’s well-known “My Dinner with Theodore,” about his time with Ted Williams.

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