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Reading

Book Digest: October 2, 2006

In the Studio; The Best of I.F. Stone; Why Arendt Matters; Man and Camel; Open City; The Joke’s Over; The Uncomfortable Dead

You don’t need me to make you aware of such new books as those by Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, or Margaret Atwood—the literary press (such as it is) and even the barbarians manning the decks of mass media seem to find the press releases apprising them of these authors’ works.

For The Road (“Even by McCarthy’s standards, the horrors here are extreme… But McCarthy’s prose retains its ability to seduce… and there are nods to the gentler aspects of the human spirit.” The New Yorker), Chip Kidd’s austere black cover with red lettering works too well, signaling the bleakness of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale so well that, given his mastery of the dark vision (a crown he shares with Robert Stone), I will risk reading this book only when I have replenished my supply of mood elevators. The Roth opus, Novels, 1973-1977 (The Great American Novel, My Life as a Man, The Professor of Desire)—gets the full-dress Library of America treatment, which for serious readers and committed Roth devotees is a good thing—a really good thing. And as for the mighty Mag Atwood, that her new book, Moral Disorder, is a story collection (her first in 15 years) worries me—since collections usually never garner the attention they deserve.

On the other hand, it is best not to take for granted the stature of any writer, as Arthur Miller observed:
There have been so many writers who dominated a period and then slipped off. History is like some gigantic beast—it simply wriggles its back and throws off whatever is on it.
In the Studio by Tod Hignite
If you are a fan of illustrators and cartoonists, specifically Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Jaime Hernandez, Gary Panter, Seth, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware—which I am—this compendium of far-ranging and exhaustive interviews with contemporary masters is a treasure trove. Included are well-reproduced examples of each artist’s work, some previously published, some not. The whole volume presents a deeply original history and critique of comics and comic art. This would be an almost perfect book if two more of my favorites, Glen Baxter and Ben Katchor, were included.

The Best of I.F. Stone edited by Kael Weber with an introduction by Peter Osnos
Last week I noted Myra MacPherson’s new biography of reporter, radical idealist, and scholar I.F. Stone, All Governments Lie. Peter Osnos’s PublicAffairs imprint now offers this greatest hits anthology with 65 articles from I.F. Stone’s Weekly (published from 1953 to 1971). Osnos, who worked with Stone, effuses in his introduction, “A Words About Myself”:
What makes this collection so valuable is that it seem so relevant to our times. Some aspects of language have changed: calling oneself “a newspaperman” seems quaint in today’s media-driven gender neutral world, but otherwise Stone’s wisdom informing his perceptions and framing his arguments reads with a spectacular currency. One small measure of Izzy ‘s lasting influence an be found in the quintessential 21st-century exercise. If you type in “I.F. Stone’s Weekly” on Google you come up with 27,000,000 items…that is an impressive amount for what Izzy described in 1963 as a “four page miniature journal of news and opinion.”
This just in: Paul Berman’s review of All Governments Lie makes much of Stone’s contact with a Russian press attaché who turns out to have been—oh my—a KGB spook. MacPherson, whom I contacted, seems to feel this is a deeply distorted picture presented by Berman, bordering on libelous were Stone were alive.

Funny thing, Stone’s 5,000-page FBI file does not reveal any connection with Russian intelligence activities. Stay tuned; this will no doubt be one of those (cynically contrived) dustups the New York Times Book Review editors so love to foment.

» Read an excerpt from The Best of I.F. Stone

Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
If Hannah Arendt had never published another tome, the seminal The Origins of Totalitarianism would assure her place in the pantheon of 20th-century intellectual history. Not to mention the phrase “banality of evil,” taken from her controversial New Yorker article and monograph on the Adolph Eichmann trial, which made her a pop-culture reference point. She went on to produce 10 more books that were profound influences on the analysis of World War II and its aftermath. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who was Arendt’s doctoral student and wrote a well-regarded biography on her in 1982, intends to introduce her mentor’s work and ideas—illuminating issues that continue to perplex—to a new generation. Young-Bruehl also discusses The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s unpublished work on thought.

Man and Camel: Poems by Mark Strand
Canadian-born Mark Strand was raised and educated in the U.S. and South America and was U.S. poet laureate in 1990 and 1991. This, his 11th collection and his first major one since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blizzard of One (1998), is described as a “toast to life’s transience and abiding beauty.”

Strand, who is a surrealist in the tone and manner of Borges and Calvino, writes spare, melancholy, and haunting poems. Strand was a painter before he became a poet—his poetry is compared to the paintings of Edward Hopper and Giorgio de Chirico—and Man and Camel concludes with some thoughts on the final words of Christ—an odd but effective choice for a poet not particularly given to religious rumination.

» Read an excerpt from Man and Camel

Open City No. Twenty-Two
I am always happy to report the publication of another edition of Open City, the New York City literary journal founded by Thomas Beller and Daniel Pinchbeck way back in 1990. Published thrice yearly, the double-sided no. 22 may signal a sea change of sorts, as half the edition is allotted to nonfiction (Vestal McIntyre, Priscilla Becker, Eric Pape, Jocko Weyland, and Vince Passaro), and the other half to fiction (Sam Lipsyte, Jerry Stahl, Mathew Kirby, Jonathan Baumbach, Ann Hillesland, Manuel Gonzales, Herbert Gold, and Leland Pitts-Gonzalez). Beller hints in his editor’s notes:
The distinction between memoir and fiction in Amine’s work or anyone’s, is finally an academic concern, or something for publishers and editor’s to mull over—most readers will respond to a good story and an authentic voice, though these days they seem to be comfortable with fiction when it comes explicitly labeled as the truth. But it is interesting to insist on a clear church and state separation between the two. (And which would be which? The Church of Fiction, the Nation of Fact?)
The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories by Ralph Steadman
In this book’s foreword, Kurt Vonnegut’s observes:
This good book is by a friend of mine, a Welshman who in my humble opinion has been the most gifted and effective existentialist graphic artist of my time. It includes within a modest and appealing memoir a portrait in well chosen words of an American journalist, a native of Kentucky and also a friend of mine whose exceedingly personal desperately brilliant writing Ralph Steadman illustrated for more than a third of a century. I mean the gun nut and drug abuser and heavy consumer of grain alcohol and finally gun suicide, Hunter S Thompson.
Englishman and artist Ralph Steadman met Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby in 1970 and as the cliché goes, the rest is history—producing the seminal texts of gonzo journalism. Steadman’s memoir describes that much-lauded and fruitful collaboration that documented many of the great events of the 20th Century Part II—the Vietnam Era, the Nixon presidency, and on and on. Steadman, you should remember, has illustrated countless books, including Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the 50th-anniversary edition of Animal Farm.

The Uncomfortable Dead by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo
The accolades for “the highly anticipated surreal noir collaboration between Mexico’s greatest writer and its most courageous revolutionary” verge on the hyperbolic, such as Neal Pollack’s gushing: “This isn’t your ordinary left-wing noir satire co-written by Mexico’s most famous crime novelist and the world’s best-known revolutionary leader—it’s a singular event in world literature.” Or novelist Achy Obejas: “It doesn’t get much more delicious than this: the mythic, surreal Subcomandante Marcos and the wonderfully ironic Paco Taibo playing duet on a most unexpected story—a noir! But their collaboration is not just any noir—this one’s tender, funny, sly, political, smart, and just plain fun!” Taibo and Marcos alternate chapters with intersecting storylines: Marcos with a character named Elias Contreras, and Taibo introducing Hector Belascoaran Shayne from his famous series (at least in Latin America). By the way, the situation in Oaxaca is once again dire. What’s new?

» Read an excerpt from The Uncomfortable Dead

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