Book Digest: October 23, 2006

Home Ground; The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes; The Best American Poetry 2006; The Best American Comics 2006; The Sun Also Rises; Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip; Echo Park; Point to Point Navigation

You are forewarned: This is about me.

In a rare paroxysm of self-consciousness I recently spent some time going over (in my head, mind you) my contributions to American literary journalism—specifically this weekly rendition of recently or about-to-be published books. While I stand proud, if not tall, regarding my judicious purview of the landscape and its flora and fauna and even alien beings encountered—and I suppose arguably the wisdom of my commentary regarding the broader aspects of life that books inexorably lead one to—I found myself questioning the frequent use of “my favorite” or “I love these kinds of books” or some such formulations.

Not that I am afraid to show some emotion. (Before Dave Martin [disappointed Mets fan and senior Viking Press publicist] outs me, as he has threatened to do, I will confess that in my recent reading of Michael Lewis’s outstanding The Blind Side, I cried any number of times, such was the powerful effect of that story on me.) No, my concern was the possibility of devaluing my more or less valuable notices on these books—which apparently have not yet achieved the imprimatur of various of our culture’s gatekeepers (Oprah, New York Times Book Review, NPR, the Litblog Co-Op), and their fragile and tenuous existences might not be, as I hoped, aided by my efforts herein.

Thus I am offering these few (more or less) words as an excuse/explanation for what is essentially an exuberant but possibly juvenile approach to what you find in this space. The simple fact (and this is the only thing that may be simple on this matter) is that I really love so many books and marvel at the ingenuity of writers and editors and publishers producing such variegated works and in such diverse packages and configurations, so much so that I find myself setting up little mental pigeonholes to keep track of the common and the uncommon categories of piles of volumes that come my way. So yeah, I love quotation anthologies (Bartlett’s and all) and comics collections (RAW and recently The Masters of American Comic Art), anecdote compendia, interview melangeria (the Paris Review interview anthologies), quirky and obscure visual monographs, genre books, and—well, you get the idea. Perhaps I overuse certain superlatives—though in a culture ridden with hyperbole it’s hard to see that as any kind of violation.

So, as far as I can tell, my hopes for what you, my imagined reader, take away from your glances at these notices is that: 1) you are apprised of and motivated to support (however one supports artists) the books found here; 2) you come to regard me as an honest broker for the countless of those books that are kicked and strewn to the side by the harsh realities of the book business; and 3) you reverently mention—the reasons should be obvious—my name far and wide in any literary conversations you might find yourself engaged in. (Is that too much to ask?)

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape edited by Barry Lopez, series editor Debra Gwartney
In case you don’t know what a “desire path” is (hint: footpaths in Central Park worn in the grass between sidewalks) or “terrain vague” (narrow lots squeezed between two big-city buildings), Barry Lopez, who is rightly considered one of America’s best nature writers, has assembled this not-exactly-a-dictionary of landscape terms (850 to be exact, with another 600-plus given an abbreviated treatment), enlisting the help of such notable authors as Antonya Nelson, Jon Krakauer, Charles Frazier, Gretel Ehrlich, Lan Samantha Chang, Robert Hass, Bill McKibben, and Barbara Kingsolver. One reason this tome doesn’t easily fit into the “dictionary” category is that the contributors were left to their own methods to describe the terms—from William Kittredge’s 24-word take on “finger drift” to Patricia Hampl’s 366-word entry on “lake.” From an interview, here’s Lopez on the value and importance of this book:
For four hundred years or more, writers in America have been at work creating a literature distinct among the world’s literatures. I’m not a literary critic, but the sense I have is that one thing that sets our literature apart is the degree to which landscapes and seascapes loom in it. There’s a clear line from Moby-Dick through Whitman and Dickinson and on through Willa Cather and John Steinbeck, right down to current novels like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. And then, of course, there’s the impact that Emerson and Thoreau have had on the way we see ourselves as Americans. The land is very important to us, it’s central to our sense of identity, no matter where we live. In poll after poll, we’re absolutely adamant about preserving parts of this landscape, places that left the first European immigrants awestruck.
That’s what I’m talking about.

The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes edited by John Gross
Assuming you read the above introduction, you will surmise that this is my kind of book—else why would I be touting it here in this sanctified space? You are correct. John Gross, an anthologist of sparkling repute, surpasses the previous and superb Sutherland and Hall collection (1980) with more than 700 anecdotes ranging from (Geoffrey) Chaucer to (J.K.) Rowling with a broad swath cut through the literary landscape. Gross makes a noteworthy observation in his introduction:
Sooner or later anyone who works his way through a collection of anecdotes is likely to find himself asking whether a particular anecdote is true. Did the incident actually happen? Did it happen in the manner described? In most cases the answer is unlikely to be a straight yes or no. Some anecdotes are no doubt as accurate as an honest legal deposition. Some have been deliberately manufactured. But the majority are probably true stories which have been to a greater or lesser degree improved in the telling. They take their inspiration from the truth and then they build on it…Does it matter?
Not to me. And you?

The Best American Poetry 2006 guest edited by Billy Collins, series editor David Lehman
Billy Collins’s introduction to this book is called “75 Needles in the Haystack of Poetry”:
So welcome readers to a plurality of poets, a cornucopia of tropes, and a range of interests. Herein lies an apology to a bird (Gaylord Brewer), a mock grammar (Tom Christopher), an epithalamion (Laura Cronk), motherly advice (Denise Duhamel), a close encounter with a mermaid (Debora Greger), a study in comparative religions (R.S. Gwynn), a solution to a problem of beautiful women (Mark Halliday), a ferry ride (Katia Kapovich), a visit to a Civil War battlefield (Laura Kasischke), a police chase (Mark Kraushaar), a slew of insults (Mark Pawlak), a bank heist (David Wagoner), and a full-blown drag race…as with any anthology you can dip in anywhere…
If this were a more central category like “recipes” or “mysteries,” no doubt heads would have rolled at Houghton Mifflin that this title was not copyrighted into the Best American brand. (We will have moved from the sublime to the ridiculous if and when we see Best American Instruction Manuals or some such.) I can imagine someone saying, “Ah, it’s only poetry.” Crass business matters aside, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins (the Jerry Seinfield of poetry?) is at the helm of this year’s edition with 75 poems, many by poets of renown (a silly qualifier to be sure) and some by poets of which you and I have never heard.

Obviously a treat for the choir—and a pleasurable surprise awaiting the congregation.

» Read an excerpt from The Best American Poetry 2006

The Best American Comics 2006 edited by Harvey Pekar, series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore
The transmogrification of comics to graphic literature and thus serious art has taken place in less than a generation—it’s something I first noticed with the early issues of Francoise Mouly/Art Spiegeman’s by-now legendary RAW (of which there were 13 wonderful issues) and reified by Spiegelman’s special Pulitzer Prize for Maus. Most recently I have noted Todd Hignite’s In the Studio and Ivan Brunetti’s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, which confirms (at least to me) this aforementioned ascension. The Best American brand (which I mildly spoofed above) has added Best American Comics to its roster with this maiden voyage edited by comic master Harvey Pekar and with some well-known contributors, including Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Kim Deitch, Jaime Hernandez, Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Lynda Barry, and some (for lack of a better phrase) rising stars drawn from a diverse pool of resources.

Can I say this falls into one of my favorite categories of books?

» Read an excerpt from The Best American Comics 2006

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
As happens in nature, before the turn of the century three young novelists seemed poised to take up the reins of literary fiction from the old masters such as Mailer, Updike, and Irving (or at least so it seemed): David Foster Wallace (who even ventured a critical, ranky, and ungracious broadside on the matter), Jonathan Franzen, and Richard Powers. Two have gone on to notoriety and off-handed celebrity, leaving Richard Powers and his eight previous novels to dwell in the obscurity of being a “writer’s writer.” His new novel, The Echo Maker, which has already been nominated for a National Book Award and just yesterday got the so-called big review in the commercially relevant New York Times Book Review, may just be his breakthrough. That is, if we care about such things.

The story revolves around a near-fatal auto accident, after which young Mark Schluter emerges from a coma believing his sister, Karin, who has been nursing him in a small backwater Nebraska town, is an imposter. Cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber diagnoses Mark with the rare Capgras syndrome—and this, depending on your sensibility, is where the fun begins—neurological disorders and anomalies being ripe for narrative tension.

In his Los Angeles Times review, Albert Mobilio may have put his finger on a possible obstacle to Power’s mainstream acceptance:
But even though The Echo Maker contains nuances of faith, obligation and familial love, its central metaphor and main plot device is the subject of cognitive neuroscience. This might give pause to readers unwilling to brood at least a little upon the connection between the “amygdala and the inferotemporal cortex.” Like the author’s previous polysyllabic outings, this book also puts the pedal to the brain’s metal.
Meaning that it’s not easy reading? Which will not daunt you, will it?

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
I have long appreciated audio books as an opportunity to get at a text from a slightly different angle. I am, of course, assuming that every literate American has read a fair amount of Hemingway and that The Sun Also Rises has been part of those readings. The able William Hurt voices this canonical novel. What could be better?

Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, edited by Erika Wolf
I love these odd books—actually the kind of book that someone like Paul Collins might discover and republish from the virtual Collins Library. The title tells the story: In 1935, two Soviet journalists, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, the authors of the satiric novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf, came to the U.S. as correspondents for Pravda, and spent 10 weeks driving across the country. Their work was published in Ogonek, the Soviet equivalent of Time magazine and has been reassembled here in its first English translation.

Here’s a sample:
The word ‘America’ has well-developed grandiose associations for a Soviet person, for whom it refers to a country of skyscrapers, where day and night one hears the unceasing thunder of surface and underground trains, the hellish roar of automobile horns, and the continuous despairing screams of stockbrokers rushing through the skyscrapers waving their ever-falling shares. We want to change that image.
Echo Park by Michael Connelly
I’m not a fan of series—actually I really strongly dislike them. And though my favorite of Connelly’s novels is his standalone The Poet, his long-standing character Harry Bosch (L.A. homicide detective who had retired but returns to join the Open-Unsolved unit) continues to lead sufficiently compelling story lines and character turns to keep reading. Apparently his fans and critics feel the same way, as no doubt Echo Park, his 17th novel, will be a resounding commercial success.

» Read an excerpt from Echo Park

Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir by Gore Vidal
Let it be said that if Gore Vidal’s magnificent contribution to American culture has escaped you, it can only be because you are under the sway of some alien forces. As a titan among pygmies, Vidal remains unrivaled in his insights about American history past and present, noteworthy for their scope and originality—and frequently, their pungency. His oeuvre includes 20 novels, five plays, more than 200 essays (United States: Essays 1952-92 won the 1993 National Book Award), and his well-regarded memoir Palimpsest. Point to Point takes up where that book left off, and includes walk-ons by Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Tennessee Williams (the “Glorious Bird”), Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Johnny Carson, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Rudolf Nureyev, Elia Kazan, and Francis Ford Coppola. Vidal is a great raconteur, not least when talking about his own life.

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