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Book Digest: November 6, 2006

The Paris Review Interviews; Dreams of Peace and Freedom; So What; Moving the Chains; The Uses of Enchantment; Theories of Everything; The Blue Taxi; Hubris

You should know that Nonrequired Reading, Wislawa Szymborska’s small volume of prose pieces published a few years ago, altered my notion of book notices:
I got the idea of writing Nonrequired Reading from the sections called “Books Received” you find in many literary journals. It was easy to see that only a tiny percentage of the books listed later made their way to the reviewer’s desk… but things look different in the 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. I felt the need to give them a little attention. At first I thought I’d be writing real reviews… But I soon realized that I couldn’t write reviews and didn’t even want to. That basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation…
For Nonrequired Reading, Szymborska collected about a hundred of these sketches—one of my favorites is The Button in Literature by Zbignew Kostrzewa. After considering the origin of the button and ruminating on ancient Egyptian clothing she concludes, “At this point, those prone to eye rolling will want to ask me a question: Don’t I have bigger problems than the troubles of the tailors on the Nile? Of course I have bigger problems. But that’s no reason not to have small ones.”

And here’s where I fell in love with Szymborska:
One more comment from the heart. I’m old fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that mankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels, and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these distractions—without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and possibly dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And finally, he’s free—and no other hobby can promise this—to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or a take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.
The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1
The Paris Review has had a joyous history since its founding in 1953 by jolly raconteur George Plimpton and assorted friends, becoming one of the fountainheads of contemporary literature in America. Upon Plimpton’s death in 2003 there was a graceless editorial succession (leading to the exit of the well-regarded Brigid Hughes and her founding of A Public Space) and an apparent non-Plimptonian marketing initiative—especially the trumpeting of the Madison Avenueish slogan “The DNA of Literature.” There have been a number of worthy anthologies published from the rich annals of the Review, and this latest draws on 16 key interviews with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Stone, Richard Price, Billy Wilder, Joan Didion, and Ernest Hemingway. Current editor Philip Gourevitch introduces this collection with a seemingly obvious but important reminder:
What makes writers different from everyone else is that they write day after day, year after year, decade after decade, story after story, book after book. The writers whose voices are collected in these pages could hardly make up a more various and eclectic company, and their interviews reflect all their differences—but what binds them together is that they all do it, they write and keep writing whatever it takes.
Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century by Jay Winter
Historian, scholar, and teacher Jay Winter, who recently published the strikingly original Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century, recounts the 20th century using what he identifies as minor utopian movements (in what may be a novel use of “utopian,” he specifies the major movements as those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao): the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Paris exhibition of 1937, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the European (and American) student revolts of 1968, and the emergence of visions of global citizenship in 1992. And in so doing he attempts to rehabilitate the notion of utopia.

So What: New & Selected Poems, 1973-2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali
If you can name any Palestinian writers, poets, or playwrights, then you are more cosmopolitan than I am. Muhammad Ali, the author of four collections of poetry, is regarded as one of the most important contemporary Palestinian poets. This volume contains 34 poems and one short story by this self-taught poet, who began publishing at the age of 52 and has made a living selling souvenirs near the Church of the Annunciation while at night studying classical Arabic texts and world literature. Here’s a small sample, “There Was No Farewell”:
We did not weep
when we were leaving—
for we had neither
time nor tears,
and there was no farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting
that it was a parting,
so where would our weeping
have come from?
Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything by Charles P. Pierce
By now I have already doubled the number of sports books I have read this year (The Blind Side by Michael Lewis is purportedly about football), and it is very much a function of my respect for these writers that I will drift from daily sports pages into a book on sports. Thus, I am happy to report that Charles Pierce deftly avoids turning this book on the New England Patriots’ three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady into a hagiography, and instead offers some telling insights into the special person Brady is and the realities of life in the major college football programs and the NFL.

» Read an excerpt from Moving the Chains

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits
It would be a shame if novelist and Believer editor Heidi Julavits were mostly remembered or known for the manifesto with which The Believer was launched—which occasioned some vituperative exchanges from various youthful precincts of the American literary culture. Her two previous efforts aside, Julavits’s new novel, the opening scenes of which reminded me of Amy Bloom’s wonderful short story “Love is Not A Pie,” delivers a riveting read.

Sixteen-year-old Mary Veal appears to have been abducted after field hockey practice at her all-girls’ New England prep school. Mary reappears, a few weeks later, unharmed, with little memory of what happened to her. Her mother, fearing Mary was sexually abused, sends her to therapy with a psychologist named Dr. Hammer, who suspects Mary made up the alleged kidnapping when he discovers her parroting the story of a 17th-century girl abducted by Indians—The Abduction and Captivity of Dorcas Hobbs by the Malygnant Savages of the Kenebek, Compendium of Helish Tortores and Dreadful Tentations and How An Innocent Young Girl Tasted Sine and Danced with the Devill, Yet was Still Savd by God and Returned to the People of York by the Corageous Mircy of Pastor Moses Vibber, Who Was Then Burned Under Suspicion for Committing Diabolical Acts of Wickedness and Witchcraft—the title of which would make reading that book superfluous. When the story shifts to a point 15 years later, the unresolved issues of the past play out, alternating between the present and the past as we finally learn what happened to Mary.

By the way, stay tuned to TMN for my upcoming chat with Heidi Julavits.

» Read an excerpt from The Uses of Enchantment

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006 by Roz Chast
Called “the wryest pen since Dorothy Parker’s” (O magazine), cartoonist Roz Chast began her skein of over 600 published cartoons in the New Yorker in 1978. Chast has also published several collections of her own cartoons, the last in 2004, and illustrated four children’s books. This new anthology, which also includes some images never before published, spans her entire career and reifies her vision as one as eccentric and distinctive as that of the other great New Yorker inkers, whose company includes Thurber, Addams, Gahan Wilson, and Glenn Baxter. The miracles of modern science allow a brief peek into the life and mind of this charming original, via a video chat with interviewer Steve Martin.

The Blue Taxi by N.S. Köenings
Like many people, I suppose, I am no stranger to bingeing, my latest craze being an appetite for all manner of books on Africa—spurred it would seem by my conversations with Nigerian writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Uzodinma Iweala, though I can trace its seeds back to my contact with the inestimable (and Booker Prize-winning) Ben Okri. I should also mention that as a matter of course I rummage through daunting piles of incoming books to find ones of which I have no prior knowledge (meaning I am not aware of any publicity initiative); N.S. Köening’s novel is such a one. And what makes The Blue Taxi additionally interesting to me is that Köening is a white European who takes on the writerly challenge of rendering Africa with apparently true gaze.

Set in an unnamed African city, the story brings Belgian-born Sarie Turner into contact with a young African boy after he is almost fatally injured in a bus accident. When trying to follow up on her initial aid and concern, she is threatened by a reputedly dangerous man named Mad Majid—who turns out to be something other than his reputation. All of which leads Sarie into a friendship and later an affair that becomes the engine driving this narrative.

» Read an excerpt from The Blue Taxi

Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn
The plethora of well-written and revealing books by solid, reputable journalists on the Iraq debacle continues unabated. The larger question for me is how these accounts affect the public conversation and governance. As we are poised on the edge of a critical mid-term election, hopefully reviews of these books (more read than the books themselves, one might guess) might yield a critical mass of rejection and be established as a referendum on the failures of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. Isikoff (an investigative correspondent for Newsweek and the author of Uncovering Clinton) and Corn (an editor at the Nation and the author of The Lies of George W. Bush) weave the by-now oft-told story, shedding new light on the White House, State Department, and CIA intrigues that inexorably led to warring on Iraq. The not-surprising conclusion is that the Bushists used fraudulent intelligence to start a war; this does not make this book redundant, as Martin Kettle in the Washington Post astutely opines:
Many critics of the Iraq War have highlighted the ideological drive behind the invasion. Fewer have grappled with the more complex question of why it was impossible for skeptics, doubters and more scrupulous analysts to stop it. Isikoff and Corn enable us to understand better how this devastating policy tragedy played out. But as Coleridge once observed, the light of experience is but a lantern on the stern, illuminating only the waters through which we have passed. Sadly, Isikoff and Corn can’t tell the next generation how to avoid such tragedies.
» Read an excerpt from Hubris

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