This week the big stone in my shoe has been the ridiculous and puerile parlor game the New York Times Book Review foisted on unsuspecting readers, answering a not-exactly-burning question: What was the best book of the past 25 years? (I must in all fairness note that AO Scott’s accompanying essay covers some smart territory. The lucky ones of you missed it and the smart ones (by my reckoning) dismissed this odiferous brain flatulence. More surprisingly, as much as I tried to incite some, there was little commotion about this crass publicity stunt. That being said, it occurs to me that of the noted books that follow, it would be surprising if 20 percent of them showed up on the New York Times’s radar. For which reason I some time ago have dismissed the relevance and utility of the Times book coverage. Nyah-nah-nyah-nah-nah.
With the above in mind I thought of these insights by David Foster Wallace:
There’s a weird illogic about it, because the less important literary fiction gets to the culture, the harder those corporations who for whatever reason keep wanting to publish it, have to market it. So in order to keep it alive, you have to murder it to save it.
A book is also a product. At least the books that we’re talking about Even a book that’s about living in a culture that relentlessly turns everything into a product is a product. There are not very complicated ironies built into that situation. But you know that happens maybe four or five times a year. There are these legions of very smart, nice, usually Seven Sisters-educated young publicists for all the different publishing houses whose entire job is networking and lunching and hanging out with the book reviewers and opinion makers again and again hoping the cultural and marketing motor will catch, which one out of 200 times it does.
Wrigleyworld: A Season in Baseball’s Best Neighborhood by Kevin KadukThose who have followed the long ascendant arc of my brilliant career are doubtless cognizant of my constant reminders that 1) I am a Jew, and 2) I am from Chicago. Thus it will come as no surprise that I would take note of this book about the Chicago Tribune Cubs home fieldthough I don’t recall a book on this topic since Barry Gifford’s The Neighborhood of Baseball. Is it a good book? A bad book? Who cares?
» Read an excerpt from Wrigleyworld
Playing President: My Relationships with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clintonand How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush by Robert ScheerThis title certainly tips off what this book is about. (What else do you need to know?) Former longtime Los Angeles Times writer Robert Scheerwhom Gore Vidal, in this book’s introduction, includes in the front row of journalist historians such as Murray Kempton, Walter Lippman, Richard Rovere (and I add Richard Reeves)has assembled 30-plus years of his dispatches.
From a recent interview with Scheer:
Do you think American voters care enough about the substance of policy?» Read an excerpt from Playing President
At the end of the day they do. When their taxes are wasted and their sons and daughters are killed in a meaningless war, when fanaticism is unleashed around the world because we follow stupid policies, and when we can’t save a city like New Orleans, yeah, I think they care. And when gas prices go up even though they were supposed to have gone down with the conquest of Iraq, I think they care. But the media fails them in not making a connection between the things they care about and the positions that these politicians take.
Send in the Idiots: Stories From the Other Side of Autism by Kamran NazeerItinerant Pakistani Kamran Nazeer, who has lived in New York, Jidda, Islamabad, and Glasgow, attended an experimental school with autistic children and now, years later, he tracks down four of the students and provides vivid accounts of their embattled lives. Paul Collins, who has a son diagnosed as autistic, says of Send in the Idiots, It’s a question that everyone has asked themselves: What happened to those kids I knew in grade school? But when those kids were in an autism classroom, it’s a question you never expect to get answered until now. This is a brilliant look inside a world of outsidersa story not just of autistic children and their fate in the world, but of how all of us grow, grow apart, and sometimes even find our own way in the long journey from childhood to adulthood.
» Read an excerpt from Send in the Idiots
Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob by Kevin Weeks and Phyllis KarasNot counting the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Boston boasts two major true-crime stories: the Boston Strangler/Albert De Salvo puzzle (which has been recently dragged back into the daylight by Sebastian Junger’s Death in Belmont) and the never-ending, or at least unfinished, tale of Whitey Bulger. Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Black Mass is the definitive book, with an excellent overview of the governmental corruption and incompetence surrounding the fugitive Bulger’s story. Reputed mobster Bulger apparently operated with impunity for a good long while, abetted by the FBI. And his brother Billy was one of the most powerful politicians in the Commonwealth. Later brother Billy cashed in his chips by being appointed head of the state university system with an imperial salary and opulent cache of perks. Recently, local radio blowhard Howie Carr weighed in with his own book, The Brothers Bulger. Now Phyllis Karas, who teaches journalism at Boston University, delivers her second book on the Bulger mob, helping Kevin Weeksanother mob enforcertell his story, which has occasioned a small (for now) backlash by self-styled mob crime expert Jay Atkinson. No doubt it is a signal of the darkly compelling complexity of the Bulger mythology that squabbling has broken out.
» Read an excerpt from Brutal
Voices of Time: A Life in Stories by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Mark FriedSince I discovered Eduardo Galeano via a New Yorker profile of him by Lawrence Weschler, I have admired his writing, beginning with his unparalleled trilogy Memories of Fire:
1967US: 69 armed men, plus three CBS cameramen, arrested in Florida Keys as they complete preparations for an invasion of Haiti. It is later revealed that CBS had paid the prospective invaders for exclusive rights to film the landing.Voices of Time comprises 341 stories from Galeano’s life, with Peruvian illustrations thousands of years old, which he rightfully points out are eerily fresh, adorning many pages. He explains, When they were still loose threads and not yet part of one cloth, a few of these stories were published in newspapers and magazines. In the process of weaving, the original changed their color and shape.
In Haiti, Alejo Carpentier learns that there is no magic more prodigious & delightful than the voyage that leads through experience, through the body, to the depths of America. In Europe, magicians have become bureaucrats, & wonder, exhausted, has dwindled to a conjuring trick. But in America, surrealism is as natural as rain or madness.
1973CIA overthrows democratically elected government of Chile, ending nearly 150 years of democratic rule. Murders Beloved & Respected Comrade Leader President Salvador Allende, folk singer Victor Jara, & many others. 16 years of repressive military terror follows under Pinochet.Should you ask me where I come from, I must talkGuards singled out Jara as he continued to sing protest songs in the stadium, beat him viciously & machine-gunned his mutilated body in front of the other prisoners.
with broken things,
with fairly painful utensils,
with great beasts turned to dust as often as not
& my afflicted heart.
The U.S.-backed military dictatorship banned Jara’s music, image & name &, for a time, even outlawed the public performance of the evocative folk-guitar.
The elected government of Salvador Allende falls to a bloody U.S.-supported military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet [au-GOOS-toh PEE-no-shay]. He immediately killed or disappeared hundreds &, in coming years, thousands more. September 19th, 1974, U.S. intelligence sources reveal that striking Chilean labor unions, instrumental in destabilizing the Allende government, were secretly bankrolled by the CIA.
In these difficult times, workers are discovering the secrets of the economy. They’re learning it isn’t impossible to produce without bosses or supply themselves without merchants. But the workers march without arms, empty-handed, down this freedom road.
Over the horizon sail the U.S. warships, preparing to show themselves off the Chilean coastThe man in the river1986Haiti: After huge popular protests, Beloved & Respected Comrade Leader Playboy dictator Baby Doc Duvalier flees the country, ending 35 years of U.S.-sponsored dictatorship. He was whisked to France.
wears a white shirt, dark pants & sprawls
as if sleeping while water riffles his hair.
This is a photograph from the coup or golpe,
meaning also hit or shockjust one death
from thirty thousand.
Stephen Dobyns, Paco
1969Port-au-Prince: A Law Condemns to Death Anyone Who Says or Writes Red Words in HaitiArticle One: Communist activities are declared to be crimes against the security of the state, in whatsoever form: any profession of Communist faith, verbal or written, public or private, any propagation of Communist or anarchist doctrines through lectures, speeches, conversations, readings, public or private meetings, by way of pamphlets, posters, newspapers, magazines, books, & pictures; any oral or written correspondence with local or foreign associations, or with persons dedicated to the diffusion of Communist or anarchist ideas; & furthermore, the act of receiving, collecting, or giving funds directly or indirectly destined for the propagation of said ideas.
Article Two: The authors & accomplices of these crimes shall be sentenced to death. Their movable & immovable property shall be confiscated & sold for the benefit of the state.
Dr. Francois Duvalier
of the Republic of Haiti
» Read an excerpt from Voices of Time
The Foreign Correspondent by Alan FurstAlan Furst has (correctly, I think) been enshrined with masters of the political thriller such as Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and John LeCarre. In slightly less than two decades Furst has written Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, and now The Foreign Correspondentall riveting novels of Europe in the grips of World War II. Here’s the publisher’s description of the new book:
By 1938, hundreds of Italian intellectuals, lawyers and journalists, university professors and scientists, had escaped Mussolini’s fascist government and fled to Paris. There, amidst the struggles of émigré life, they founded an Italian resistance, with an underground press that smuggled news and encouragement back to Italy. Fighting fascism with typewriters, they produced five hundred and twelve clandestine newspapers. The Foreign Correspondent is their story.And yes, once more the Brasserie Heininger makes an appearance.
» Read an excerpt from The Foreign Correspondent
Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947 edited by Jacqueline Levi Valensi, translated by Arthur GoldhammerAlgerian born Nobel Laureate Albert Camus was a big thing when I was an undergraduate. (Once again, I launch an initiative to retire a certainyou know the onecliché.) So were berets and Jean-Luc Godard films and Jean-Paul Belmondo. This is the first English translation presenting all 165 of Camus’s World War II and early postwar writings published in Combat, the resistance newspaper where he served as editor-in-chief and editorial writer between 1944 and 1947. Here’s what the Nobel Committee said of him:
Personally Camus has moved far beyond nihilism. His serious, austere meditations on the duty of restoring without respite that which has been ravaged, and of making justice possible in an unjust world, rather make him a humanist who has not forgotten the worship of Greek proportion and beauty as they were once revealed to him in the dazzling summer light on the Mediterranean shore at Tipasa.My kind of guyindeed.
» Read an excerpt from Camus at Combat
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel, with an introduction by Rick MoodyThis tome represents the complete collected work of Amy Hempel of nearly 30 years48 stories from four previously published collections. Don’t feel like a dummy if you haven’t read any of her work. Uh, well, maybe. Rick Moody introduces Hempel:
It’s all about the sentences. It’s about the way sentences move in the paragraphs. It’s about the rhythm. It’s about ambiguity. It’s about the way emotion, in difficult circumstances, gets captured in language. It’s about the instant of consciousness. It’s about besieged consciousness. It’s about love terrible. It’s about death. It’s about suicides. It’s about the body. It’s about skepticism. It’s against sentimentality. It’s against cheap sentiment. It’s about regret. It’s about survival. It’s about the sentences used to enact and defend survival.This, of course, has something to do with Amy Hempel. Honest.
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter OrnerI recently had the pleasure of chatting with novelist Susan Straight about this and that. And she was effusive in her praise of Peter Orner’s debut novel. And apparently West Coast writers are a clubby bunch, as novelist Michelle Richmond attests by her account of attending a San Francisco reading by Orner at the soon-to-be-lamented A Clean Well-Lighted Place. Peter Orner’s novel is set in Namibia just after independence in the early 1990s, at Goas, an all-boys Catholic primary school in the remote veldt. Mavala Shikongo, a combat veteran who fought in Namibia’s long war for independence against South Africa, returns to the school, husbandlesswith a child. Emotional havoc ensues as Mavala’s modernity conflicts with the hide-bound conservatism endemic to Goas’s isolated culture. Additionally, the men in this story seem to find her irresistiblewhich almost always means trouble.
Best of Tin House: Stories foreword by Dorothy AllisonTin House, an eight-year-old literary quarterly, has consistently published some of the best short-form fiction in America, making this best-of a real bonanzaI’m going to name names here: Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, David Benioff, Amy Bloom, Deborah Eisenberg, Robert Olen Butler, Denis Johnson, Martha McPhee, Anthony Swofford, Jim Shepard, Elizabeth Tallent, and others. Here’s Francine Prose, no slouch herself, opining on Tin House’s glories:
Like many people, and most writers I know, I read every issue of Tin House, from cover to cover, for three reasons. One: Because it makes me believe that we still live in a world in which people care about writing, language, literature, and art. Two: Because there is nothing else like it. And three: Because it’s so consistently smart, surprising, and so amazingly good.» Read an excerpt from Best of Tin House