Book Digest: October 15, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo; Musicophilia; Our Dumb World; Life, in Pictures; The Used World; Shakespeare: The World as Stage; Esalen; Bowl of Cherries; The End of the Victory Culture; The Chopin Manuscript

The silly season has begun—awards nominations being announced and no doubt the attendant contretemps to follow. I’ll refrain from my usual jaundiced opinionating except to relay the good news that Jim Shepard has been nominated for a National Book Award for fiction. He is a writer for whom wide recognition is overdue.

The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo: A Bilingual Edition translated by Clayton Eshleman
Book Digest I remember being profoundly and viscerally affected by Peruvian Vallejo’s poems during my undergraduate years. Years later, now that I have his raging passages in my hands again, I am surprised that it has taken so long for a translation of Vallejo’s entire work (which includes The Black Heralds, Trilce, Human Poems, and Spain Take This Cup From Me)—propitiously, the translation has been done by award-winning Clayton Eshleman. This bilingual edition features a chronology and introduction to Vallejo as well as Eshleman’s “translation memoir,” illuminating his connection to this powerful poet.

» Listen to Eshleman lecture about Vallejo and his translations

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Book Digest If by some inexplicable circumstance you are not aware of Sacks’s amusing, informative, and unusual case studies (An Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) of a wide range of neurological disorders, this is an accessible opportunity (not to mention a great combination of subject and author) to sample. According to Sacks, music occupies more areas of our brain than language, and his latest opus focuses on a variety of musically related situations—a middle-aged man who was struck by lightning and who decides to pursue a career as a pianist, people afflicted with amusia, and so on.

» Listen to an excerpt from Musicophilia

Our Dumb World: The Onion’s Atlas of the Planet Earth, 73rd Edition by The Onion
Book Digest Don’t throw away your Rand McNally just yet. You may find The Onion’s take on world geography amusing, if not lethally useful (or useless?). Here’s the publisher’s description: “Our Dumb World is an invaluable tool for any reader interested in overthrowing a weakened government in East Asia, exploiting a developing nation in Africa or for directions to tonight’s party at Erica’s…”

And from the entry on Canada:
Living in the shadow of its southern neighbor, the nation of Canada will never be as great as the U.S. so long as it continues to burden citizens with universal health care, refuses to drill in federally protected wildlife reserves and neglects its duty to blindly support unilateral invasions of Middle Eastern states…
Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories by Will Eisner
Book Digest Consider this a visual memoir/autobiography of one of the American masters of graphic arts—a.k.a. comics. Eisner, who created the Spirit and Sheena of the Jungle, is credited as a patriarch of the graphic novel. In five distinct segments he illuminates, his, uh, illustrious career. Fans of visual literature will be appreciative, as will a wider audience.

The Used World by Haven Kimmel
Book Digest Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy, forms a trilogy with her previously published The Solace of Leaving Early and Something Rising (Light and Swift), all set in Jonah, Ind. In this installment, Hazel Hunnicut and her Used World Emporium are the focal point and stage for three women to play out the various life dramas that create a rich pastiche of American life—albeit in the part of the country unrecognizable to the snotty types who employ the phrase “flyover zone.”

» Read an excerpt from The Used World

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Book Digest Bryson has made a nice career of being one of America’s more articulate Brittaniaphiles; here he pens one of those short but book-length biographical essays (in this case of the Bard) that I find so much preferable to the doorstop volumes that have more information than most will ever need or want. Bryson’s Shakespeare reflects his biographer’s trademark genial nay-saying and penchant for entertaining narrative. And there is nothing wrong with that, right?

» Read an excerpt from Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal
Book Digest Located on the majestic California coastline and famed for its hot springs, the Esalen Institute became world-renowned as an extraordinary salon for assorted troublemakers and Beats like Hunter S. Thompson, Joseph Campbell, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and Aldous Huxley. Esalen was established by two Stanford graduates against the backdrop of early ‘60s social and countercultural transformations and a hunger for spiritual enlightenment not readily available in Eisenhower-era America. Kripal’s history is riveting, and mirrors mid-century American culture via Esalen’s agenda and activities.

» Read an excerpt from Esalen

Bowl of Cherries by Millard Kaufman
Book Digest As is often said and more often worn thin with hyperbole, Kaufman’s back story is its own fine narrative—he is a first-time novelist at 90, creator of Mister Magoo, and twice-nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting. There is more, but let’s not lose sight of what’s important—this novel reads well, a comic romp along the order of Pynchon’s V. Young Judd is kicked out of Yale, falls under the sway of an eccentric Egyptologist by whose daughter he is enchanted, who leads him on a Candide-worthy journey. Kauffman makes it work, which is why you are reading this.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from Bowl of Cherries

The End of the Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation by Tom Englehardt
Book Digest Englehardt, whose good work at Tom’s Dispatch you should avail yourself of, updates his insightful analysis of American truimphalism post-World War II in the wake of World Trade Center bombings and the subsequent War on Terror. Let me turn the floor over to Juan Cole:
It is in some ways an answer to Frederick Jackson Turner’s conundrum—if the Frontier had been so central to American identity, what would happen now that (in the 1890s) the frontier was closing up? Engelhardt’s work has two implications. First, the frontier has just been projected abroad, and other “native” peoples substituted for the “Injuns.” And, second, that frontier gets old fast, too. (There is a reason we don’t watch shows like Gunsmoke in prime time any more, folks). So, the American Right takes refuge in myths like “we could have won in Vietnam” and remembers its boyhood games when heroes and villains were so easy to tell apart.
» Read an excerpt from The End of the Victory Culture

The Chopin Manuscript: Chapter 10 by Jim Fusilli
Fifteen accomplished thriller writers each contribute a chapter or two to an ongoing narrative. Alfred Molina narrates. It’s an interesting idea isn’t it? Let me know.

» Listen to an excerpt from The Chopin Manuscript

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