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Reading

Book Digest: November 5, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: Cheating at Canasta; Frankenstein: A Cultural History; Notes From the Air; Anselm Kiefer; Monuments: America’s History in Art and Memory; In for a Pound; Across the Tibetan Plateau; Chicago; Borat Tourist Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A; The Most Notorious Crimes in American History; Ani DiFranco: Verses

Last week I made reference to Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska—and once pointed out that her small volume Nonrequired Reading is my inspiration for this column. In that book, she notes the disparity between what was reviewed in many literary journals and what was happening in bookstores: “Most, if not all, of the rapturously reviewed books lay gathering dust on the shelves for months before being packed off to be pulped, whereas all the many others, unappreciated, undiscussed, unrecommended, were selling out on the spot.”

She goes on to explain that after trying to write real reviews of these books she gave up, that she wanted to “remain a reader, an amateur…” So you should have the idea of what my approach to Book Digest is about.

If I took Syzmbrowska’s words as a mandate, perhaps I would be paying more attention to the recent large and detailed biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz or the autobiography of golden-aged guitar wizard Eric Clapton (and also his—and George Harrison’s—ex-wife Pattie Boyd’s memoir). Thankfully the book review establishment has risen to the challenge and lavished attention on them. Thus I can spend more time with the likes of what follows…

Cheating at Canasta: Stories by William Trevor
Book Digest Much-loved short-form fiction writer Trevor (A Bit on the Side, After Rain) offers another collection of his narrative gems. Like Alice Munro, he rarely missteps or falls short with his admirably precise understanding of human beings and their foibles and relationships. If this master of prose has eluded your gaze, correct that lapse ASAP. I mean it.

Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock
Book Digest The fascination with horror, monsters, and all manner of imaginary (and other) depravity has always escaped me. So, ordinarily, a book about the preeminent monster in literature would not be of interest. However, Hitchcock’s eclectic approach to illuminating the history of Mary Shelley’s creation is a more promising subject than the original story.

» Read an excerpt from Frankenstein: A Cultural History

Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery
Book Digest This compilation was edited by the octogenarian poet, drawing from 10 of his collections, notably April Galleons, Flow Chart, and Where Shall I Wander. The prolific Ashbery—who has won numerous awards, including every major prize for poets—continues to churn out new work (four books in the last seven years), as he affirms his status as one of America’s important and powerful poetic voices:
“Some Trees”

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.
Anselm Kiefer by Germano Celant
Book Digest Celant, senior curator for contemporary art at the Guggenheim, has assembled an impressive monograph on one of contemporary art’s major figures. Well over 500 pages, this large and weighty tome contains about 300 remarkably well-reproduced images. There are also a number of interviews with Kiefer, spanning a good portion of his career. You should be forewarned that this is a pricey book—its value, otherwise, being relative.

» See images from Anselm Kiefer

Monuments: America’s History in Art and Memory by Judith Dupre
Book Digest Starting with Allison Russo’s textured cover design, this book on American commemoratives is welcome documentation to architectural history archives, including the usual monuments to long-gone and newer battles—the Alamo and Gettysburg to the Vietnam Memorial and the AIDS quilt. Architectural historian Dupre’s articulate overview and detailed analysis accompanies over 200 dutones, as well as a useful chronology of interviews with those involved in creating various of the included monuments.

» See images from Monuments

In for a Pound by Richard Marinick
Book Digest Marinick’s debut thriller Boyos garnered well-earned kudos—and readers—and this book makes good on the old saw “write what you know.” Returning to the turf he knows so well, the South Boston native and former state trooper gives us former trooper Delray McCauley, who’s scraping by as a bartender after doing time for a bum rap. A Boston police captain offers him a job recovering a safe stolen from a high-powered lawyer’s office; naturally, the job isn’t so simple, and the missing item is being sought by all manner of flora and fauna—all of which is a spicy recipe for a noir delight.

Across the Tibetan Plateau: Ecosystems, Wildlife, and Conservation by Robert L. Fleming Jr., Dorje Tsering, and Liu Wulin
Book Digest The Tibetan Plateau is an amazing expanse of geography that encompasses the majestic Himalayas and the world’s deepest gorge; from tundra to tropical jungle, it is an area the size of Western Europe and shelters an amazing diversity of life. This lovely book is one of the first to bring this little-known place into view. It also documents a conservation effort that seems to have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Chicago by Cynthia Davis
Book Digest By manipulating Polaroid prints while they’re still developing, Davis creates images that fall somewhere between photorealism and impressionism. With five previous books on Michigan and the Great Lakes, her newest opus is her take on my old and beloved Windy City. In this slender volume she includes the Magnificent Mile, the Sears Tower, and Chicago’s multitudinous neighborhoods. Ultimately you probably need to be a homer to appreciate the images—but maybe you don’t.

» See images from Chicago

Borat Tourist Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A by Borat Sagdiyev
Book Digest More fun from the wacky Kazakh Borat. Here’s the publisher’s description, which says it, um, better than I could:
Subsequents to worldwide successes of his blockbusterings moviefilm, Borat Sagdiyev—televiski journalist and 4th most famous person of Kazakhstan—have in associate with Ministry of Information produce this travel guidings journal to minor nation of U.S. and A. This book a most sensible acquisition if you are think of travel to this country and will instruct you on all you needing know—from how to get cage of your wife through airport, to how to gain entry to an American vagine without spend money. It also contain most explicit guidings to American peoples—did you know that there are over 1,000 of them with chocolate colour skin? And that it natural, not makeups!?
» See a travel slideshow from Borat Tourist Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A

The Most Notorious Crimes in American History by the Editors of Life Magazine
Book Digest The endless tape loops of the current “crime of the century” on countless cable channels suggests an unquenchable appetite for details of human havoc—and that’s what we’re given in Life’s trademark photo essay style: the whole OJ thing, the rich-kid thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, the Boston Strangler, the assassination of JFK, the Manson Family, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, and on and on. I leave it to you if Mary Kay Letourneau or the Gardner Museum Heist or Heidi Fleiss rise to the level of the “most notorious crimes.” Nonetheless, this is an oddly fun book.

Ani DiFranco: Verses by Ani DiFranco
Book Digest Fierce singer-songwriter DiFranco claims, “Art is why I get up in the morning; my definition ends there. You know it doesn’t seem fair, that I’m living for something I can’t even define. And there you are right there, in the mean time.” Her latest offering is a book of poetry and illustration to complement the roiling and volatile lyricism that has earned her such a devoted following.

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