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Book Digest: November 20, 2006

I Was Vermeer; Natural Selection; The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved; Skin; Abandon the Old in Tokyo; The Yellow House; The Book of Dave; Truck

The issue of how we come to choose the books (and music, art, movies, television, etc.) we attend to is one that I wrestle with continuously, in large part based on my suspicions of and unease with the literary (critical) press. Ideally, one could sample everything of interest before settling down with a more or less definite choice—certainly, there are many (actually, a daunting supply of) opportunities to preview things. Herein is another rub.

I have just had the great pleasure of reading Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, which was captivating from its opening passages to the lyrical final paragraph on the 485th page. And 2006 National Book Award winner The Echo Maker by Richard Powers started off interestingly—describing the migration habits of cranes, segueing into a highway accident in rural Nebraska, and picking up a head of steam as the medical condition of one of the protagonists gets complicated—and it maintains a charged narrative through to the end. Which brings me to Thomas Pynchon’s new opus, Against the Day, a 1,000-plus-page romp through late 19th century/early 20th century America starring a menagerie of hot-air balloonists named the Chums of Chance and a—at this point—confusing cast of supporting characters.

My problem, not uncommon, is that at nearly the hundred-page mark, I am wavering in my commitment to completing this book. As I have admired others of Pynchon’s stories—in fact V was an important book for my introduction into contemporary American literature—I want to make sure that I do not give up prematurely. I am aware that on a number of occasions sticking with a book even as doubts roil my pleasure has yielded a good outcome—as at some point I manage to crack the author’s code. (Or at least that’s my metaphoric explanation for the rewards of tenacity.)What to do? Of course I’ll let you know.

By the way, The Lay of the Land begins a day or two before Thanksgiving, allowing for some choice Ford acuity:
As everyone knows, Thanksgiving the concept was strong-armed onto a poor war-worn President Lincoln by an early prototype “strong woman” editor of a nineteenth century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal with a view to upping sales. And while you can argue that the holiday celebrates ancient rites of fecundity and the Great Mother who-is-in-the-earth, etc., it has in fact always honors store wide clearances… unless you’re an Wampanoag Indian, in which case it celebrates deceit, genocide and man’s indifference to who owns what… Thanksgiving won’t be ignored. Americans are hardwired for something to be thankful for. Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude…
So for what it’s worth, have a happy holiday, if you can.

I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger by Frank Wynne
You have to love a good art scandal, and this one, the story of Han van Meegeren, referred to as a “mediocre artist” and the “world’s greatest forger,” is a full-bodied one—especially when you try to hold onto the contradiction of those seemingly mutually exclusive labels. Described as a “paranoid, drug-addicted, alcoholic, hypochondriac painter.” he earned upwards of $50 million while swindling the Nazis and leaving a legacy of confusion in which there are still a number of Vermeers that cannot be authenticated. Apparently, had van Meegeren not confessed, this wildly odd story would never have been known. Frank Wynne, a writer and well-regarded translator, puts this tale together with an irreverent eye to the follies of the contemporary art business. Novelist Michael Faber’s take on this book captures its flavor: “…story is fascinating and deserves to remain in the public consciousness. And the fact that I Was Vermeer is by someone who wasn’t Vermeer (nor even van Meegeren, nor even someone who knew him, nor even someone who knew someone who knew him) adds a deliciously apt brushstroke to a picture that’s already impasto-thick with ironies.”

Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books by Gary Giddins
There are a few critical voices whose work deserves to be anthologized and that indeed hold up under rereading. National Book Critics Circle Award-winning jazz writer Gary Giddins, author of a classic biography of Bing Crosby, happens to be one of them. In this collection we are given his perspective on an impressively wide range of subjects—Doris Day, Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Marlon Brando and Groucho Marx, Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan, horror and noir, the cartoon version of Animal Farm and the comic-book series Classics Illustrated—you get the picture. Interestingly, some of his most favorable blurbs and reviews are from fellow critics (not a bunch known for generosity), such as this reverie from Richard Schickel: “We see our culture more clearly because of the force, intelligence, and alertness to overlooked detail that Giddins brings to his readings of a past that remains stubbornly, if sometimes only subliminally, present in our own less acute remembrances.” Giddins’s description of his approach is telling: “The essays are divided into four sections… some arranged by theme, others capriciously, and many would fit as neatly in any of four groupings: there are reviews of books about film, music, and comedy, of films about music, of music for films and so forth. The four sections, however, do impose an arbitrary order, and I prefer a foolish consistency to none at all.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz
More than 30 years ago the great Gil Scott-Heron wrote an anthem called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“ (not, as it is frequently attributed, Public Enemy), and it is apt that Sandor Ellix Katz, who is a self-taught fermentation experimentalist (whatever that is), paraphrases that title as he investigates the rising tide of activism that opposes what is called Big Food (as in Big Business). This book is an obvious appendix to the work that was begun with reportage like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, bringing a greater informed awareness of our disconnection from food sources and, more importantly, what is being done to supplant the industrial food system in which food is simply a commodity.

» Read an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved

Skin: A Natural History by Nina G. Jablonski
Not only are we not used to regarding skin as an organ, but we seemingly take little notice of all manner of attributes that flow from it. As Jablonski aptly observes, “More than any other part of the body, our skin imbues us with humanity and individuality and forms the centerpiece of the vocabulary of personhood.” In fleshing out (so to speak) this subject, this tome is divided by what the author sees as skin’s unique attributes: It is naked (mostly hairless) and sweaty, it comes in a wide array of colors, and as provides a surface for decoration. Skin is assuredly one of those books that changes the way we see something that we often take for granted.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Referring to Yoshihiro Tatsumi as a Japanese cartooning legend probably will carry small weight with most readers, but it should be sufficient to recognize that he is regarded as having laid the foundations for what is now called the American graphic novel movement—the most famous example of which is Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. Handsomely printed and designed, Abandon the Old in Tokyo is the second in a projected three-volume series (The Push Man and Other Stories was the first) that spotlights Tokyo’s urban underbelly in the 1960s. Writer Koji Suzuki (The Ring trilogy, Dark Water, and Birthday) introduces this volume:
Tatsumi fans are growing in rank here and abroad now. This is because no one does minor villains and petty villainies of everyday life like him. His characters may be bad or even evil, but they are never “Evil” with a capital “E.” Tatsumi has a knack for presenting offbeat sexual impulses in such a way that they seem utterly—and depressingly—normal. They probably are, too. The sickly veneer on Japanese modernism finally reminds us that these very human accidents of the ego are a ceaseless reality…
The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford
Recently there have been a number of books that put a small incident or tiny historical period under the microscope: Wittgenstein’s Poker, Rousseau’s Dog, and Proust at the Majestic. This volume adds to that burgeoning sub-genre. Robert Altman took a passing notice of Gauguin and Van Gogh’s connection in Theo and Vincent, and Martin Gayford amplifies it in his study of the two months at the end of 1888, when the two artists shared a residence in Provence. Their cohabitation is ended by the psychotic episodes that led to Van Gogh’s institutionalization and infamous ear amputation.

The Book of Dave by Will Self
Will Self’s reputation as a bad boy of literature seems to have abated—which has more to do with the time than any character changes in Self—but his talent has not diminished. Author of some 10 books of fiction, Self always manages to put a new sheen and twist on a dystopian view of modern life. In The Book of Dave, London cabdriver Dave Rudman is deserted by his wife and son, leaving Dave with the almost unbearable despair that his child will never know him. Thus, he fashions an odd memoir; 500 years after he buries it in his ex-wife’s backyard, it is discovered and hailed as a holy book by the surviving dwellers of Ham—what remains of a post-apocalypse London. From there Self exhibits his deftly mordant and Swiftian sensibility on all aspects of contemporary life—religion being a particular favorite target.

Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry
The memoir shelves in bookstores are jam-packed with all sorts of oddball stories and variations on the theme of the obsolete Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. What recommends journalist Michael Perry’s story—in which he restores a 1950s International Harvester truck—is his finely tuned sense of humor and a certain élan and steadfastness in his rambles between high and low culture and urban and rural peregrinations. This, Perry’s second entry into the memoir fray, is ample evidence that this is a vein he can mine indefinitely.

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