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 interestinglydescribing 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 complicatedand 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 aat this pointconfusing 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 storiesin fact V was an important book for my introduction into contemporary American literatureI 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 outcomeas 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 gratitudeSo 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 WynneYou 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 oneespecially 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 GiddinsThere 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 subjectsDoris 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 Illustratedyou 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 KatzMore 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. JablonskiNot 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 TatsumiReferring 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 movementthe 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 utterlyand depressinglynormal. 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