Book Digest: May 2, 2006

The Promise of Happiness; The Man Who Invented Fidel; Remembering War; The O Henry Prize Stories; Broken Screen; Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative; Standing Eight; Mohr; Written Lives; The View From the Dugout; Waiting for Gautreaux

As someone who reads a fair amount and is surrounded by books and never travels without a few books, and whose inner monologue is frequently preoccupied with things literary, I must confess to a certain amount of navel-gazing about this activity that has become the engine of my life. Thus, I am frequently purposefully stumbling over the observations of others about books and reading and stories—such as this keen remark by Walt Whitman:
Books are to be called for and supplied on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep; but in the highest sense an exercise, a gymnastic struggle, that the reader is to do something for himself.
I am also bemused by the frequent claim by untold numbers of my friends and acquaintances that “I just don’t have the time to read.” It’s a claim that I view with wonder if not outright astonishment now that civilization has expanded the clock, via the phrase “24/7,” to an inescapable relentlessness. (I have even read somewhere the use of “36/7”—yikes!) Jim Harrison, who is always good for a laugh weighs in, in his delightful memoir, Off to the Side, on this matter:
One of the most frequent comments I hear everywhere, right up there with “what’s for dinner” and “I want to be somebody” is “I don’t have time to read,” which is essentially telling you, a lifelong writer, that your profession is below that of communal spritzers and flossing, and frequent social ass scratching. Everyone has to learn over and over that at best time is seized and then you flee.
Anyway, perhaps you may find some time away from shopping or dining or whatever essential activities deluge your day to day and pick up a, uh, book. In which case, here are some suggestions.

The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright
It’s possible that every well-known author has another (unheralded) writer that he or she feels compelled to champion. In the mid-’90s, I asked William Boyd who he thought was unjustly ignored and he promptly replied, “Justin Cartwright.” Cartwright, a South African living in London, has published eight novels, three of which have run the gauntlet into print in U.S. In the years since I spoke to Boyd, Cartwright has been short-listed for the Booker and the Whitbread Prize (prestigious British book awards, if you didn’t know). His new opus is a multi-voiced story of the Judds, a family in upheaval, roiled by middle-class travails and the felony conviction of daughter Juliet for an art theft. Here’s Michael Ortofer’s take: “…The Promise of Happiness is a very fine book, and close to being an exceptional book. Perhaps a bit too neatly wrapped up (especially the truth about Ju-Ju’s criminal act), and with a few too many too neat plot twists (or bits, rather—there are few real twists), it nevertheless is a truly wonderful meditation on morality and family.”

The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times by Anthony De Palma
By now, given 47 years of history and the inordinate interest in Cuba and its (Jonathan Alter refers to it as “curdled”) revolution, one might have thought all the good stories had been raked over and over again. Not so, as in this account of New York Times reporter Matthews, who is credited with significant if not critical influence in the triumph of the Cuban revolution. It was Matthews who on his own initiative went to the mountains of Oriente province of Cuba to see what he could see about the bearded rebels. Here’s the opening paragraph from the 1961 Times review of Matthews’s 1961 book, The Cuba Story: “The story of Cuba and Fidel Castro, the most disturbing chapter in Latin America’s history since the days of Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin, is now told by the man who knows more about it that any other American—or for that matter, any Cuban. When Herbert Matthews writes that ‘Fidel has had a greater effect on the Western Hemisphere than any single figure in Latin American history,’ he is writing from intimate friendship with that exasperating Messiah.” So did Matthews’s lionizing of the Cuban guerillas prop up a faltering insurrection as right-wing detractors of Matthews and the Times have asserted? Though the answers to those charges may no longer really matter, that’s what Times reporter De Palma deals with. And much more.

Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century by Jay Winter
I looked over the index of this book expecting to see references to W.G. Sebald and Eva Hoffman, among others; strangely, Winter has taken a different path. Nonetheless, this is a subject that fascinates me, and apparently, I am not alone. And Professor Winter focuses on this “memory boom” by locating its origin in World War I, and then describes practices of remembrance that have linked history and memory, scrutinizing what he calls “theaters of memory”—film, television, museums, and war-crimes trials in which the past is seen through public representations of memories. By the way, Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge is a must read.

The O Henry Prize Stories: 2006 edited by Laura Furman
Anthologies such as Best American Short Stories (founded in 1915) along with the O Henry Prize Stories (founded in 1919), provide a useful and entertaining window on the goings-on in short-form American fiction. This year’s selections were juried by Kevin Brockmeier, Francine Prose, and Colm Tóibín, and are written by Edward P. Jones, Jackie Kay, Lydia Peelle, Paula Fox, Neela Vaswani, David Lawrence Morse, William Trevor, Stephanie Reents, David Means, Karen Brown, Terese Svoboda, Alice Munro, George Makana Clark, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Douglas Trevor, Louise Erdrich, Xu Xi, Lara Vapnyar, Melanie Rae Thon, and Deborah Eisenberg. Interestingly, Epoch, which is published out of Cornell University, has more stories (four) selected than The New Yorker (three). Who knew?

Broken Screen: 26 Conversations With Doug Aitken; Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative
Doug Aitken is a Los Angeles-based artist who has exhibited complex, multi-screen video environments—his signature installation, 1999’s “Electric Earth,” was a prizewinner at Venice Biennale. Aitken’s friends taking part in the discussions in this book include filmmakers Robert Altman and Werner Herzog, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mike Figgis, Kenneth Anger; architects Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn; and such artists as painter Ed Ruscha, Swiss video maker Pipilotti Rist and “Cremaster” auteur Matthew Barney. This is an amazing cornucopia of art dialogues including my favorite, Chilean director Jodorowsky, whose El Topo profoundly moved me in 1970 and haunts still.

Standing Eight: The Inspiring Story of Jesus “El Matador” Chavez, Who Became Lightweight Champion of the World by Adam Pitluk
Mexican Gabriel Sandoval, who changed his name to Jesus “El Matador” Chavez grew up on the mean streets of Chicago’s barrio, did very hard time at Statesville prison, and went on to win the lightweight championship and no doubt tougher bouts, including deportation proceedings with the INS. Reporter Adam Pitluk frames Chavez’s battles inside the ring and out in this inspirational tale.

Mohr by Frederick Reuss
Literary renegade John Berger’s endorsement of this writer should mean a lot to more to serious readers than any newspaper reviews (of which I have noticed none exist). It’s an unusual presentation, interweaving 50 photographs from the 1920s and ‘30s of the exiled Jewish playwright and novelist Max Mohr into a novel about a man and his wife during that almost unimaginably trying era in Europe. Berger observes, “…his aerialist’s sense of history, his slight of hand, his animal knowledge of political practice, his silver tact, and cool tenderness make his performance nothing less than Orphic. Listen to it.” Here’s an excerpt from the book:
In early morning when the house is silent and the sun has not yet risen above the eastern ridges of the Tegernsee valley, it is tempting to think that the heartache that once filled these rooms is gone, vanished with another era. Open the front door, step outside into the morning air—crisp and frosty in winter, moist with dew and the smell of cows at pasture in summertime; walk the gravel path around to the side of the house, sit down on the bench, and watch the shifting hues of dawn on the steep slopes of the Wallberg. The cross on top of the mountain, like the one on the peak of the old farmhouse, has been there for so long that nobody notices it. This morning, you want to take in every detail: The crow calling from a tree at the forest edge, the vapor rising from the sun-warmed tree tops, leaning fence posts, peeling paint on the shutters and condensation on the window panes, the distant ringing of a bell. The morning gradually brightens and with it a sense that each of these details is crucial; and none is more crucial than the simple fact of your presence here. You grip the edge of the wooden bench with your hands, breathe in and out. Your breath condenses and the billowing steam makes you want to go inside and get your cigarettes; but, no, you also want to savor the first tobacco-free moment of the day, so you remain.
Written Lives by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Spanish novelist Javier Marías , who is mostly unknown to American readers despite a number of his well-regarded novels having made it into English, has been for some period providing a monthly column to The Believer magazine. That may be changing with a profile in the New Yorker (not that the New Yorker does more than preach to the choir), “Every week for more than a decade, he has addressed a readership of millions, on politics or art or whatever else might have caught his eye.” And his new book, a collection of essays on novelists, summarizing the lives of 26 well-known authors—Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rilke, Nabokov, Kipling, Rimbaud, Wilde, etc. He explains in the prologue that he is trying to “treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters.” The last piece, “Perfect Lives,” talks about our need to have a picture, an image of the author we read. Marías ruminates on his own collection of 150 or so portraits and the information, impressions and conclusions he draws from them. It’s a playful and original take—from the aforementioned profile: “To an unusual degree, Marías manages to inhabit not only the popular but also the literary sphere, counting J.M. Coetzee, Salman Rushdie, and the late W.G. Sebald among his admirers”—which may explain his popularity in his native country and around the world.

The View From the Dugout: The Journals of Red Rolfe edited by William Anderson
I try to read one baseball book every year (not counting whatever Roger Angell publishes); this year, in addition to the David Maraniss’s Clemente, I spotted the 1949-1952 daily diary of Red Rolfe—the former Detroit Tigers manager, an all-star Yankee third baseman and teammate of immortals Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. In the journal, he documented his game experiences and observations. Baseball historian Donald Honig opines, “Red Rolfe was one of baseball’s most astute observers. This is ‘inside’ baseball from the inside.”

Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing and the Black Ghetto by Alexander Polikoff
Having grown up in Chicago, I can say I that my hometown might not have been the most segregated in the U.S., but it would be hard to imagine what would have surpassed it in that dubious distinction. (In 1966, when Martin Luther King led a march on Gage Park, a white section of Chicago, he was confronted by a white mob and knocked to the ground by a rock as people shouted, “Kill him, kill him!” Of the incident, King commented, “The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”) Waiting for Gautreaux charts the story of Gautreaux v. CHA and HUD, the pro bono lawsuit filed by ACLU attorney Alexander Polikoff in 1966 and that ended up in the Supreme Court. Former jurist Abner J. Mikva enthuses, “With the same thoroughness and tenacity he demonstrated in the lawsuit, Alex Polikoff traces the ups and downs of the Gautreaux litigation. If you want to understand the past, present, and future of public housing in this country, you need to read Waiting for Gautreaux.” Wow!

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