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Book Digest: November 13, 2006

A Year in Sports; Alexis de Tocqueville; The Children’s Hospital; Big-Box Swindle; Exile on Main St.; The Lay of the Land; The Photobook

In Richard Powers’s excellent newest novel, The Echo Maker, a brain scientist contemplates the bad reviews attendant to his freshly published book—a novel experience for him. And he concludes that, for those involved in the review business, there is no gain to positively reviewing books by well-established writers. Whether or not that observation is true, there is a fishy smell emanating from the book reviewing community and it occurred to me (or rather I was reminded) as I was reading Powers’s riveting story that more people read the reviews of a book than read the book. And since a book cannot be done justice in only 700 words, its reputation rests on incomplete and possibly ill-informed commentary by so-called literary experts.

Methinks not a good state of affairs but it does put me in mind of this passage from John le Carré in Russia House:
I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth… They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured, we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…

When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.
A Year in Sports: From the Rose Bowl to Figure Skating by Neil Leifer
This is the time of year that the bookstores are filling up with what were formerly known as “coffee table books”—namely, oversized behemoths weighing in around two kilos with oodles of pictures and drawings. Sports Illustrated assigned Neil Leifer, an acknowledged and much-lauded master sports photographer for Time and other of its sister magazines who has practiced his craft for more than 40 years, to photograph 32 events in a year. The photos include the kinds of events he had been covering for most of his career: Super Bowls, Wimbledon, Tour de France, Kentucky Derby, et al. Mixed in with the included 230 images are also some archival Leifer photos. There is something exponentially powerful about sports pictures that essentially freeze the action—isolating and perhaps rescuing what was a fleeting moment.

» Read an excerpt from A Year in Sports

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide by Joseph Epstein
As the years add to the growing library of books on America’s most scrutinized—if not most celebrated—Frenchman, I often wonder if many Americans have read his classic two-volume Democracy in America, which exhibits a prescience about America unrivaled by any native sons. And every so often someone (Richard Reeves in 1982 and recently Bernard Henri Levi) retraces de Tocqueville’s footsteps—which seems a useful enterprise. Joe Epstein (Snobbery: The American Version, Fabulous Small Jews, Envy, and Friendship: An Exposé) who, among other things, has a penchant for words like “dubiety,” is a good fit to sketch out Tocqueville’s intellectual contributions. This book is part of the “Eminent Lives” series (which follows the same format James Atlas established with “Short Lives” at another publisher), comprising 200-page biographical essays that are sufficient for all but the most ardent followers of the subjects at hand.

» Read an excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
Sometime in the future, a hospital remains afloat after the planet is immersed in water seven miles deep; thus is the microcosm in which Chris Adrian’s epic is played out. Staff and patients hang in an odd kind of limbo as a young medical student exhibits strange powers. Adrian’s CV, by the way, is its own interesting story: He is both a practicing pediatrician and enrolled at the Harvard Divinity School. As a student of the jacket blurb, I should note that the respectable writers assembled to testify on this book’s behalf have reached some original heights in their laudations, certainly the kinds of remarks that might move me (and did) to take heed of a book. Here’s Marilynne Robinson:
Chris Adrian’s life is a dedicated exploration of the things that matter most, and his writing is his companion and interlocutor, his guide and interpreter, as he travels a landscape not before seen by other eyes. And every report he makes of that world enriches and enlarges our own sense of the world we thought we knew.
And Nathan Englander (whose novel we are expecting to see soon):
Chris Adrian is truly brilliant. I’m not saying this because he’s a writer, and a pediatrician, and now in divinity school. I simply believe him to be a person with a unique way of processing the world around him and the ability to communicate that vision back to us in what is often a startlingly beautiful manner.
Chris Adrian talks about his novel:
Q: You finished a medical residency a couple years ago, and now you’re in divinity school—and this book is about a holy apocalypse devastating everything except for a hospital. When did that scenario present itself to you, and how much of it comes out of your background? Would we be reading a different book if you’d gone to forestry school instead?

CHRIS ADRIAN: I had kind of a lousy call night one night during my third-year pediatric clerkship in medical school. For some reason the night seemed to be going on forever—I felt like I’d been stuck in the hospital forever and I was going to be stuck there forever. I spent the call wandering around feeling exhausted and useless, and imagining that everybody else, like me, was never going to go home. It was a rainy night, and when I happened to go outside, the hospital, which was sort of castle-shaped, seemed to be floating in a sea of mist and fog and rain.

If I had gone to forestry school, you would be reading about really hot killer dryads.
Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses by Stacy Mitchell
By now it is not surprising that so-called big-box enterprises—large retail operations like America’s favorite business punching bag, Wal-Mart—are not an unqualified beneficence to the American economy and the American consumer. Stacy Mitchell, who is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project, a program of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, not only concretely summarizes the various ways these omnivorous corporations are transforming the economic landscape, but also provides a strong brief that communities composed of many small businesses are healthier and more prosperous. Most importantly, Mitchell shows ways these mega-retailers are being thwarted—since 2000 some 200 big-box development projects have been stopped by the little people—to the greater good of rebuilding local economies.

Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield
Apparently the hunger (or is it mania?) for the corporation known as the Rolling Stones continues undiminished some 40 years after their debut. Far be it for me to attempt to explain how 60-year-old geezers hopping amidst dazzling pyrotechnics can attract a large audience. In any case, music writer Robert Greenfield’s monograph, which focuses on what is arguably their masterpiece recording, 1971’s Exile on Main Street, makes for a compelling drama. According to Greenfield’s account, the recording sessions at Keith Richard’s seaside villa in southern France were a mélange of hangers-on, celebrity appearances, and prodigious, unabated drug consumption.

Big surprise? Nah. But it’s still a fascinating read.

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
As major American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford garners more than his fair share of what is already limited book review attention, I would not normally devote this valuable space to such. But Ford, with whom I have spoken four or five times since Independence Day (and with whom I will speak again), here continues the saga of sportswriter-turned-real-estate-player Frank Bascombe (who is now 56) with such acuity and droll humor, among other attributes, and I can’t help jumping on the bandwagon. Here’s an example of the many gems that are sprinkled throughout:
“—a gaggle of local kids stands out in the pissy weather, wearing baggy jeans cut off at the calves, slouching in long white athletic shirts and combat boots. This is the Haddam gang element, children of single moms back in the dating scene and dads working late who arrive home too tired to wonder where young Thad or Chad or Eli might be and instead run straight to the Blue Sapphire in the freezer. These kids merely long for attention, possibly even a little tough love discipline, and so are willing to provide it for each other, their mode of communication being bad posture, bad complexion, piercings, self mortification, smirky graffiti from Sartre, Kierkegaard, and martyred Russian poets.”
The Photobook: A History, Volume 2 by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
You have already figured out there is a Photobook: A History, Volume 1, whose success spawned this updating of a genre that we—or at least I—take for granted, the photobook. Which is to say the bound collections of photographic work that is to be distinguished from gallery work or periodical images—or in other words, the single perfect photographic print. This edition’s 750 images includes the work of Sophie Calle, Lewis Baltz, Man Ray, Ed Ruscha, Christian Boltanski, Stephen Shore, Andreas Gursky, and even (if you consider him a photographer) Andy Warhol. The material was selected by photographer Martin Parr, who is considered an authority on the photobook, and curator Gerry Badger has gracefully annotated this tome with well-informed critiques. Needless to say—but I will anyway—this is a valuable resource, as well as an aesthetic treasure.

» Look inside The Photobook

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