Book Digest: October 16, 2006

The Trouble With Physics; Approaching Nowhere; Yale Book of Quotations; Ancestor Stones; Granta #95; Winter's Bone; The Beautiful Fall

Perhaps there is some truth to the old saw that literary squabbles are so vicious and virulent because they are for such small stakes. Assuming that the dispute around Myra MacPherson’s welcome biography of renegade journalist I.F. Stone, All Governments Lie, is at least in part literary, we have the case of Paul Berman’s review of the book. I would argue there is nothing trivial or banal about the issues addressed here—more so if you subscribe to Emerson’s view that “There is properly no history; only biography.” MacPherson, who is appropriately upset at Berman’s inexplicable failure to carefully read her description of Stone’s encounters with a Soviet press attaché (and KGB operative) responds, setting the record straight, at least for the moment, to Berman. Eric Alterman, who counts I.F. Stone as a mentor and Berman as friend, feels compelled to enter this fray, albeit gingerly. Not so for Joe Conason, who also has something to say in his laudation of MacPherson’s work:
A tendentious and dishonest essay by Paul Berman in the New York Times Book Review last week revived the Kalugin claim, mostly by leaving out significant facts. Eric Alterman ably dismantled Berman’s review in the American Prospect. (Berman should spend his time trying to figure out why he became the useful idiot of George W. Bush, rather than obsessively and inaccurately rehearsing the moldy debates of the Cold War.)
Berman, I am told, has been given a number of opportunities to respond—which he has not yet, publicly.

On the other hand, one may view this dispute through the lens of two seemingly contradictory notions. There is the great American revisionist historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who said: “Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.” And Hegel, the mighty Teuton, who opined, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

All of which leaves us where, exactly?

The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin
No doubt these should and can be seen as acts of hubris—that is, I occasionally wander past the boundaries and perhaps the limits of my knowledge and chat up one or another of the more visible theoreticians working in the increasingly abstract universe of study called physics—namely Brian Greene and Lisa Randall. I think I have come away with some understanding of that arcane and rarified thing called string theory. And then along comes Lee Smolin, the author of The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity who was once labeled the “new Einstein” by Discover magazine, and who in this new book debunks string theory—arguing that “no part of it has been proven and no one knows how to prove it.” Additionally, he points out that the current rush to achieve Einstein’s grand ambition of a unified scheme via string theory has been hampered by a natural tendency for groupthink. Smolin also lists a number of hotshot young theorists who are replacing string theory with testable concepts, and he hints at what these might be.

What to make of Smolin’s assertion that he hasn’t managed to do much better than string theorists, and his book is “a form of procrastination”? In fact, a number of reviewers (clearly more expert than me) assert that many statements about string theory in this book are wrong—Smolin argues that string theorists are not trying to figure out how space and time came into being, which is simply not true. And to top it all off, he ignores experiments already planned for a new European particle accelerator (something Lisa Randall mentioned to me), seeking to confirm two key elements of string theory: extra dimensions and extra families of particles. Nevertheless, it is exciting to see the dialectic played out.

» Read an excerpt from The Trouble With Physics

Approaching Nowhere: Photographs by Jeff Brouws
As a lover of still photography (and a photographer myself), I have been, for some time, concerned with its degradation at the hands of the inexorable onslaught of the so-called digital “revolution”—the visual noise level has risen demonstrably by the seeming possibility that everyone has a camera and that everything is being photographed, all the time. Yes, there are still the old masters of black and white to reference: Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange; yes, and there is the transcendental work of contemporary masters like Joel Sternfeld, Robert Polidori, Joel Meyerowitz, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin. But it seems to me much of today’s photography is taking place off on the periphery.

OK, I got that off my chest. You may not know Jeff Brouws’s work—I didn’t. He has three books, Highway, Inside the Live Reptile Tent, and Readymades, but as his latest collection exhibits, he is a huge talent. There is a luminous starkness to the landscapes Brouws photographs, taken at all the busted-out, rundown places that litter the landscape of the United States. Approaching Nowhere is a haunting road book (a particularly American product, like Zippo lighters and Harley Davidson bikes), perhaps picking up where Frank’s seminal The Americans left off.

Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro with an introduction by Joseph Epstein
I love these kind of books. (Just so you know, I own all the editions of Bartlett’s Quotations published in the 20th century.) Naturally, I am drawn to Fred Shapiro’s compilation. Shapiro, whose day job is as librarian and lecturer at Yale Law School, has assembled more than 12,000 quotations, arranged by author with a focus mainly on Americans across a broad spectrum of fields—not just the usual literary and historical. The quotations list the source, the first date of use (with extensive annotation and cross-referencing), and, best of all, a keyword index.

As one would expect, Joseph Epstein’s treat of a foreword contains a number of acute insights. Here’s one taunting observation:
Rightly or wrongly I now feel that culture has changed such that to exclude brilliant remarks on what used to be called “blue” or off color would constitute genuine prudery. And thus readers of this book are no longer sheltered from the wit of Groucho Marx when he said “I’ve been around so long I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” (Although they still won’t find herein a remark attributed to that unruly wit Oscar Levant having to do with Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judiasm, kosher food, and oral sex. That I believe I shall let readers assemble for themselves.)
Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna
This may be a very good time for African writers. I’m thinking of the positive reception afforded to writers like Chris Albani, Helen Oyeyemi, Uzodinma Iweala, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, and of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Aminatta Forna, who received some attention for her memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water, follows that up with a novel that has novelist Carolyn See alluding to the early Isabel Allende, “…at the height of her early, inspired, politically testifying powers. …Ancestor Stones is a marvelous novel, but it’s also history—at once lush, despairing, hopeful, horrifying… [Forna] has given us a full family portrait of a set of glorious, funny, tenacious, incredibly resilient souls. It’s a miracle in some ways. It seems humans can survive almost anything. That should give us all hope.”

The story line has a young West African expatriate woman return to her African home to run her family’s coffee plantation. While there, she is told the stories of her aunts, a tale that by way of Forna’s narrative skill forms a vivid picture of this fictional country’s history. Maude Newton chimes in:
Forna allows each woman to tell her own story. Aunt Asana, daughter of the senior wife, is a widow with a “magnificent hauteur” inherited from her mother. Mary, the spinster aunt, has a damaged eye that causes children to run from her in fright. Bitter Hawa has always worn the same expression, of “disappointment already foretold.” Divorcee Serah, “belly sister” to Abie’s father, speaks to her niece as “no other adult ever had—as though I might one day become her equal.” Their stories flow like water, one often tragic event giving way to another. …It’s a book that gathers power as it goes. My one criticism is that the intended universality of Forna’s women sometimes makes their voices feel insufficiently differentiated.
» Read an excerpt from Ancestor Stones

Granta #95 Fall 2006: Loved Ones edited by Ian Jack
Despite my animus toward this literary magazine for having spawned the Best Young British and Best Young American novelist beauty contests, there is so much good and great writing published in it that would be childish of me to ignore it (even if puerile activity is something I am admittedly quite capable of). In this latest edition, Ian Jack relates that a colleague had suggested an issue called Dead Parents Hit Back—which he dismissed out of hand for its obvious difficulties. Thus, we have the softened title Loved Ones. This issue features John Lanchester, James Lasdun, David Malouf, Jim Shepard, Rebecca Miller, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (with whom I’ve just spoken; stay tuned). All of which one would do badly to ignore, yes?

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
If you haven’t heard of Daniel Woodrell before laying eyes on his name here, then I am more than proving my worth by putting him in front of you. Author of well-regarded “country noir” (a term he lays claim to) novels Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, The Ones You Do, Give Us a Kiss, and The Death of Sweet Mister, and a Civil War novel, Woe to Live On, Woodrell in his latest opus tells the story of Ree Dolly, a 16-year-old (shades of Charles Portis) born and raised in Woodrell’s home turf, the Ozarks, who has to confront the rough and tumble extended Dolly clan in search of her bail-jumping, AWOL father. Failure to do so means the county forecloses on the family house, endangering Ree, her mother, and her two vulnerable younger brothers. Ree is a fierce and compelling character, a perfect vehicle for delivering Woodrell’s considerable storytelling talents. You can thank me later.

» Read an excerpt from Winter’s Bone

The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris by Alicia Drake
I am a sucker for a well-written tell-all about the fashion world. I liked Michael Gross’s book on Ralph Lauren and Holly Brubach’s fashion coverage in the New Yorker and her non-pareil A Faithful Follower of Fashion, not to mention the compelling story of the Marciano family (of Guess jeans infamy) chronicled in Christopher Byron’s Skin Tight: The Bizarre Story of Guess v. Jordache and Steven Gaines’s Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein. There is something innocuous and light about the foibles of the rag business (which has now become synonymous with the world of fashion—as much as its poobahs would have us think differently). Alicia Drake, who lives in Paris and freelances for the International Herald Tribune, British Vogue, and Travel and Leisure, is for sure no dummy or sycophantic camp follower. The Beautiful Fall describes the fashion moment that was a precursor to the excesses of the Studio 54ish American pop culture in the ‘80s; if you survived relatively intact, then it remains an amusing and interesting time. And about this book, as they say in the fashion world: “Everybody is reading it.”

» Read an excerpt from The Beautiful Fall

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