Book Digest: October 1, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: Chicago’s Nelson Algren; De Niro’s Game; The Plenitude; A Secular Age; Other Colors; Ovenman; Shortcomings; Silent Theater; The Best American Essays 2007; They Called Me Mayer July; Grub; Ploughshares Fall 2007

I was completing David Plante’s riveting novel, ABC, in which the protagonist has what I would call a transcendental episode with a 1923 edition of Webster’s Dictionary, when I received a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Which got me to thinking about the universe unto themselves that are dictionaries. More on this soon. Or later.

Fellow Chicagoan and Northwestern University mentor Stuart Dybek has won a MacArthur fellowship. That’s good news, indeed.

Chicago’s Nelson Algren by Art Shay
Book Digest In the late ‘40s, respected photojournalist Shay followed Algren (The Man With the Golden Arm) around his Chicago neighborhood for a story idea he was pitching to Life magazine—which they turned down. Shay and Algren became friends, and the pictures in this book, many of which are being published for the first time, are a byproduct of that friendship. As the publisher asserts, this tome is “a deeply moving homage to the writer and his city. Read Algren and you’ll see Shay’s pictures; look at Shay’s photos and you’ll hear Nelson’s words.”

De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage
Book Digest Lebanese-born Canadian Hage fabricates a thriller in the setting of war-ravaged Beirut, in which two childhood friends, now adults and career criminals, face the dilemma of continuing their criminality in a war zone—or moving on to a new and unknown future. Says one review:
With time on their hands, mayhem on their minds, a motorcycle for transport and a willingness to kill, they roar around the ravaged city, “aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath and long American jeans.”
The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff by Rich Gold
Book Digest It stands to reason that a hybrid intellect like the late Rich Gold—part of the legendary Xerox PARC group, and who assumed in his shortened life the mantle of artist, composer, designer, inventor, lecturer, and writer—would write a hybrid tome. Gold hypothesizes a condition of modernity called “Plenitude” in which all the material of our lives—the stuff—creates the need for even more stuff. Gold’s nimble mind unpacks the contradictions and consequences of our stuff-clotted world, quoting a friend’s warning: “We should be careful to make the world we actually want to live in.”

This is not the traditional anti-materialist rant—and that helps make it a valuable rumination on a prevailing 21st-century condition.

» Read an excerpt from The Plenitude

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Book Digest “Secular” is not quite the dirty word that “liberal” has become in the U.S., but attached to “humanism” it is as nasty a designation as the holy-rolling Right has come up with. In any case, scholar Taylor traces the shifting position of religion in the West in the past couple hundred years. The centrality of religious belief and observance has declined, and yet clearly there are still strong and significant religious elements and constituencies in the modern West. Taylor’s historical analysis examines the manifold transformations in societies, many of which have resulted in a wide range of religious and irreligious options.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from A Secular Age

Other Colors: Essays and a Story by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Book Digest Turkish Nobel Laureate Pamuk, perhaps most well known for the ill-advised and failed attempts by his country’s government to censor him, offers this 30-year span of essays on his life, his city (Istanbul), his work, and other writers.

» Read an excerpt from Other Colors

Ovenman by Jeff Parker
Book Digest Former Syracuse MFA Parker, (who came to our attention for his report on George Saunders’s appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, has a novel out that has as its protagonist skateboarding, restaurant-working, punk-rock-wannabe When Thinfinger. Apparently this is Parker’s take on the coming-of-age novel, and as Padgett Powell blurbs, “Mr. Parker has written a weirdly attractive life of people one thought had no life, the pierced and tattooed Xtremes. Creepy, convincing, hooty, and fun, the movie will be scary.”

» Read an excerpt from Ovenman

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Book Digest After a successful and well-received career of short-form works, Tomine (who has been compared to Alice Munro and Raymond Carver), offers his first long work, and it ought to rank with other recent highly regarded graphic novels such as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, or David B.’s Epileptic. Yup, that’s what I think.

» Read an excerpt from Shortcomings

Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper by Walter Wells
Book Digest American painter Hopper has had a banner year. First, Gail Levin updated her comprehensive biography. Then a major retrospective exhibition traveled from Boston to Washington to Chicago, accompanied by a detailed exhibition catalogue (acknowledged in this space). Wells’s monograph adds to the Hopper scholarship with this handsome volume, which includes more than 200 images, some of which are from Hopper’s personal notebooks.
The Best American Essays 2007 edited by David Foster Wallace
Book Digest This is the time of year that signals the publication of Houghton Mifflin’s Best of series, the oldest of which is the Best American Stories. Best Essays is the second addition to the brand (“First, best, and best-selling”), and this year marks its 20th edition. Wallace selects 22 essays from the likes of Cynthia Ozick, Peter Singer, Edward O. Wilson, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Rodriguez, and Louis Menand.

» Read an excerpt from The Best American Essays 2007

They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust by Mayer Kirshenblatt & Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
Book Digest Mayer Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 and left Poland for Canada in 1934. At the age of 73 he began painting, and has since recorded his childhood in Poland, “lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived.” This unusual book includes pieces of the 40-year conversation Mayer has with his daughter Barbara, which wonderfully illuminates the paintings of the elder Kirshenblatt’s hometown of Apt, and are vivid, humane, and unsentimental witness to a bygone time.

» Read an excerpt from They Called Me Mayer July

Grub by Elise Blackwell
Book Digest Blackwell, whose wonderful novel The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish was noted here, modernizes George Gissing’s New Grub Street, the classic lampooning of the literary marketplace. In her retelling, Blackwell sets the story in contemporary New York City with a variegated ensemble of writers and publishing-industry types all pursuing a chimerical success whilst stepping on and over each other—shedding light and laughs on the odd pursuit known as novel-writing.

» Read an excerpt from Grub

Ploughshares Fall 2007 edited by Andrea Barrett
Book Digest Barrett, who guest-edits this issue of Ploughshares explains:
…reading so many complex and resonant stories, I chose those in which precise language restores what we otherwise, out of habit, fail to notice. Those that capture the mystery of metamorphosis; those in which characters are transformed by love, rage, grief, exile, politics, religion, art. In the stories gathered here, characters change, often despite their own resistance. Their understanding of their earlier lives changes, as the world—constantly, obdurately present—changes around them.
The 12 stories she has selected include names both familiar and unfamiliar. Familiarity is, of course, relative—which is the great benefit of these “small” literary magazines. And as readers of this space know, I think Ploughshares is one of the grandly useful ones. By the way, longtime editor/novelist Don Lee has left Ploughshares and taken a teaching position at Macalester College in Minnesota.

» Read an excerpt from Ploughshares Fall 2007

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