Book Digest: May 29, 2006

The Power of the Dog; Glimmer Train; The Din in the Head; The First Hurt; A Spy's Fate; Let Me Finish; The Tango Singer; White Guys; The Theater of Night; Marc Chagall; Drowning in Gruel

Last week I noted that the recently concluded industrial gathering—the one that occasions much forgettable verbiage and disposable text—has in part the task of previewing the next season’s book industry’s offerings. Having spared myself the company of strangers and being subjected to other predations, I believe I am clearheaded enough to have come upon a curious anomaly or dilemma. Or some such curiosity—why is it so many of my colleagues in the book universe are in such a hurry to get all these new books? I mean, I can understand the excitement when one’s few favorite authors are announced. But this can’t be more than a handful of books—or can it?

Apropos of something I am thinking about, Brett Easton Ellis from Luna Park:
It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore—publishing a shiny book-like object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and good looking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack mouthed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t.
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Such is my great admiration for this hypervelocity thriller that having sung its praises in its initial cloth iteration I feel compelled to remind readers of its pleasures as it appears now in trade paper. Winslow’s previous novels show evidence of a polymorphous sensibility and command of story, but this, his third, fires on all cylinders. Winslow’s second novel, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, is being filmed, and reportedly Robert De Niro has signed on for a filmization of the yet-unpublished fourth book.

» Read an excerpt from The Power of the Dog

Glimmer Train #59 Summer 2006
A plethora of new literary journals are joining the fray, it seems, almost daily. Which, given prevailing cultural worship of the new, occasions a need for friendly reminders that longevity is occasionally evidence of quality—Ploughshares, Tri Quarterly, Virginia Review—it’s a wonderfully longish list, on which Glimmer Train rightfully belongs. The new issue includes a story by Lee Martin (last heard from in his bracing novel The Bright Forever), an interview with Australian David Malouf, and the usual assortment of surprises, as well as the charming featurette “My Last Pages.”

The Din in the Head: Essays by Cynthia Ozick
Ever since the movie of the same name, I have thought that “a beautiful mind” is a wonderfully apt description of the creatively ambidextrous novelist/essayist Cynthia Ozick. She follows her 2004 novel, Heir to a Glimmering World, with a collection of essays devoted to literary subjects, though she does demur—a demurral that is a wonderfully ripe piece of Ozickian thinking:
I cannot say that all the essays in this book are unified by a single theme, though I suppose (like the ass straining to keep up with the ox) I could laboriously invent one for the occasion. On the other hand, most—not all—may be connected by what they are not, what they do not do. By and large, they do not celebrate trivia or hunger after the lesser—not, I hope, out of some monomaniacal purist arrogance to which they are not entitled, but because some matters are, in truth, more urgent, and significant, than others.
She does address variously Helen Keller, young Tolstoy, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Sylvia Plath, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, and Robert Alter, and as Sven Bikerts reverently intones:
…she has made herself an indispensable presence in our embattled literary scene. Her new collection, “The Din in the Head,” catches her in full polemical stride: The critic takes on a culture muddled by its aesthetic priorities and distracted by “this hubbub, this heaving rumble of zigzag static,” the electronic chaos invoked in her title essay. Ozick is our arch defender of the independent rights and powers of literature, and of the novel in particular. She is old school; her views are clear and her tone brooks no opposition. Open the collection anywhere—I guarantee it—and you will feel the bite of her distinctive voice. If you are a reviewer, you will want to quote her.
» Read an excerpt from The Din in the Head

The First Hurt by Rachel Sherman
New York literary magazine Open City has a small imprint which provides some opportunity for writers that it believes in—such as it should be. Rachel Sherman has done the usual turn, education via an MFA at Columbia and publication in McSweeney’s, Open City, Post Road, n+1, and Story Quarterly, and in the book Full Frontal Fiction: The Best of Nerve. Last year’s literary poster boy Sam Lipsyte expiates:
Rachel Sherman’s stories are real wonders—brave, dangerous fictions full of heart and wit. She gets to the creepy, despairing, hilarious core of adolescence like few writers I’ve read. This is an amazing debut.
» Read an excerpt from The First Hurt

A Spy’s Fate by Arnaldo Correa
Who knows who comes up with this, uh, stuff but somewhere Cuban Arnaldo Correa is referred to as the “Godfather of Cuban Noir.” He was born in rural Cuba, the Escambray Mountains, Cuba, in 1935. And he has been his publishing fiction for more than 40 years—A Spy’s Fate was his first novel in English translation published in 2002, followed by Cold Havana Ground. Correa currently lives in Havana. William Hefferman, no noir slouch himself, opines: “Arnaldo Correa is the undisputed master of Cuban noir. Spy’s Fate is a courageous book that offers a true insider’s view of the new Cuba that neither the U.S. nor Fidel Castro want you to know about.” For those of you who, like me, are fascinated with the bizarre U.S.-Cuban connection and additionally are mesmerized by Cuban culture, this novel satiates those tastes.

» Read an excerpt from A Spy’s Fate

Let Me Finish by Roger Angell
Many readers know Roger Angell as the oracular presence at the New Yorker on matters pertaining to baseball—witness his not-insubstantial bibliography—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—there is also little-noted short-story collection, published in 1960. He has, however, for many years (more than 40) served as a fiction editor there, guiding and tweaking some of the best fiction writers. Here at last is octogenarian Raj’s (known also as “Rog” and referred to by David Remnick as “Herr-Docktor”) memoiristic bow: “The title of this book, I should add, isn’t about wrapping up a life or a time of life but should only evoke a garrulous gent at the end of the table holding up one hand while he tries to remember the great last line of his monologue.”

» Read an excerpt from Let Me Finish

The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez, translated by Anne McLean
On the basis of only two books translated into English, Santa Evita and The Perón Novel, Argentine Tomás Eloy Martínez has gotten well-deserved attention—he was short-listed for the 2005 International Man Booker Prize. A best-selling novelist, he fled Argentina during the dark years there known as the Dirty Little War, was editor of magazines and newspapers, and is currently a regular columnist of La Nación de Buenos Aires, El País de Madrid, and the New York Times syndicate. Here is the publisher’s synopsis of The Tango Singer:
It is 2001 and inflation is spiraling out of control in Argentina when Bruno Cadogan arrives in Buenos Aires. He is on the trail of Julio Martel, a legendary but elusive singer, who he hopes will inspire and enlighten his thesis on the origins of the tango. But the moment he meets El Tucuman in the airport taxi queue, not only does his new friend find him a cheap room in an expensive city, but a place in the very building where Borges set his celebrated story ‘The Aleph’. With El Tucuman’s unpredictable help, Bruno is increasingly drawn to the mystery of Martel and his strange and evocative performances in a series of apparently arbitrary and abandoned sites around the city. And as he untangles the story of the singer’s life, Bruno also begins to believe that Martel’s increasingly rare performances map the dark labyrinth of the city’s past.
» Read an excerpt from The Tango Singer

White Guys by Anthony Giardina
Apparently I am not the only fan of Anthony Giardina’s writing—Tom Bissell blurbs:
One might be tempted to call Anthony Giardina, America’s best kept literary secret, but there is nothing secret about this much talent. He knows so much about human beings and doings it is almost terrifying, and always thrilling. Thoughtful but never ponderous, gripping without any gimmicks, and beautifully written while never succumbing to preciousness, WHITE GUYS is the finest novel yet from one of our premiere writers of fiction.
In this, Giardina’s third novel, Timmy O’Kane—who has escaped the hard scrabble of a Boston working enclave through hard work and a good marriage—has an ill-fated reunion with the former leader of his gang, Billy Mogavero. The novel’s title refers to a nickname given the staid American Literature anthology that Timmy (a textbook salesman) peddles and as Steve Amidon points out it, “also perfectly defines the status these boys sought in Reagan’s America.”

» Read an excerpt from White Guys

The Theater of Night by Alberto Rios
Poet Alberto Alvaro Ríos’s newest collection is set in a community along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and the poems trace the lives and loves of an elderly couple, Clemente and Ventura, through their childhoods, their courtship, and into marriage, maturity, old age, and death:
A Song of the Old Days

The song on the radio was such a simple one,
A song from the old days.
Nobody else remembered it but her.

It belonged to the two of them,
But not because of what it said—
It belonged to them because of how it felt.

The song on the radio was such a simple one
Even then, even when the two of them
Hummed it into the skin of their mouths.

It belonged to the two of them
Because it lived inside the skin of their lips,
That song that even now spoke him to her.

A song from the old days
Meant something still, meant that once more
For a moment she was singing.

Nobody else remembered it but her,
Remembered the song or what it meant
So that when she sang, it made no sense—

Even she could feel it. When she sang
It made no sense, not to the world nor to her.
It made no sense to say that he was gone.
Marc Chagall: The Lost Jewish World by Benjamin Harshav
“If I were not a Jew…I wouldn’t have been an artist, or I would be a different artist altogether.”—Marc Chagall, Leaves from My Notebook.

Chagall is one of the most popular artists of the 20th century, and this book is a competent guide to the iconography of his best-loved work—which, incidentally, displays Jewish symbolism and folklore, sometimes overtly, sometimes hidden. Yale University’s Benjamin Harshav, who has published extensively on Chagall, offers insights into Chagall’s Jewish roots and provides accessible interpretations of his major paintings, which are included in this comprehensive monograph.

Drowning in Gruel by George Singleton
I am going to hold my tongue on the matter of the underrated Southern writer and just inform you that South Carolinian writer George Singleton has put together 19 stories set in his fictitious town of Gruel, S.C., following, as the publisher’s description outlines:
…the lives and schemes of its citizens, in search of glory, seclusion, money, revenge, and a meaningful existence. Young Gruelites learn lessons when confronted with neighbors who might not be as blind as they appear, dermatologists intent on eradicating birthmarks, and fathers prone to driving on half-inflated tires in order to flirt with cashiers. Meanwhile, the town’s older citizens try to make sense out of dogs that heal wounds, lawn-mowing dead men, wives who don’t appreciate gas masks for Valentine’s Day, and children who mix their mother’s ashes with housepaint.”
Singleton’s stories have been published ubiquitously in numerous magazines and anthologies. He lives in Pickens County, S.C., with the clay artist Glenda Guion. Last year he has also published his first novel, Novel.

» Read an excerpt from Drowning in Gruel

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