Book Digest: October 29, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: The War; Takeover; Blacklisted by History; War and Peace; Down River; The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations; The Rolling Stone Interviews; Like You'd Understand, Anyway; Poetry Speaks Expanded; Finding Iris Chang; Ghost; Shaggy Muses

From Wislawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel Lecture:
The world—whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? Still dead? We just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.
The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
Book Digest With this companion to Ward and Burns’s 15-hour PBS series, one has the advantage of digesting the accounts of 40 people from (mainly) four smallish towns at one’s own pace. Keep in mind that this history is from one American’s point of view, accounting for America’s role—which should greatly please jingoists and patriots, sunshine and otherwise.

» Read an excerpt from The War

Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American by Charles Savage
Book Digest The notion of an imperial presidency might have seemed like a left-wing shibboleth in the turbulent Nixon presidencies. But now, as we witness and experience the Bush-Cheney gang make a mockery of our constitutional tenets, the grim, ugly reality of a unrestrained monarchical government seems upon us. In Takeover, Savage details their three-decade degradation of democracy.

» Read an excerpt from Takeover

Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies by M. Stanton Evans
Book Digest No doubt the demonization of McCarthy has some excess and hyperbole attached to it. But it is difficult to take seriously Evans’s argument that the conventional wisdom on the long-dead senator from Wisconsin is all wrong. Interestingly, the revisionist pendulum has swung so that McCarthy is now faulted for handicapping legitimate state security concerns and giving anti-Communist efforts a bad rap. Nonetheless, this effort to rehabilitate McCarthy does make for an interesting review of the oft-cited and rarely investigated “plague years,” of which he was more a toxic symptom than a disease.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Book Digest That two new translations of Tolstoy’s masterpiece are published within a short time of each other is testament to its literary standing, a certain nobility of scholarship, or perhaps hubris. Thus it has been deemed that the world needs a shortened version and this, a fresh, modern translation. Well-regarded translators Pevear and Volokhonsky provide the latter, livening up this epic narrative of Napoleon’s invasion of Mother Russia and its effect on three Russian families.

» Read an excerpt from War and Peace

Down River by John Hart
Book Digest Writing seems to be engendered by the water or air or something environmental in North Carolina, as there seems to be an inordinate population of good writers in the Tar Heel State. Davidson University grad Hart has done a little of this and that before settling down to his nascent and burgeoning writing career. As in his debut (The King of Lies), Down River follows Adam Chase, who has been accused of murder, acquitted, exiled to New York City, and returns to Rowan County, NC (Hart’s birthplace). In rapid succession he is brutally beaten, and a body count starts accumulating.

» Read an excerpt from Down River

The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin
Book Digest I love, love, love, love quotation collections. Oxford University Press offers a 5,000-quote compendium assembled by British funnyman Sherrin, who cuts a wide swath from Lenny Bruce to Oscar Wilde. The least we should expect from a reference work is that it’s user-friendly—the quotations are arranged under 200 categories, and indexed both by author and keyword.

The Rolling Stone Interviews edited by Jann Wenner
Book Digest In Wenner’s introduction to this collection of 40 interviews, he makes it clear that The Paris Review was the model for the Rolling Stone approach to the Q&A: “…that strong, unfiltered voice was everything I wanted the Rolling Stone interview to be… they are visits as well as interviews and they bring you face-to-face with the person talking… the interview thrives on both drama and informality. And above all, intimacy.” He goes on to claim that, “taken together… this collection forms a cultural history of our times as narrated by the most important people of our times.” Hmm, let’s see: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Johnny Carson, Oriana Fallaci, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Bono, Eminem, Al Gore, Bishop Dsemond Tutu, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and the Dalai Lama. Most important? Maybe.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories by Jim Shepard
Book Digest Shepard, who is the author of six novels, a number of story collections, and a yet-to-be-published collection of his highly original essays on film for The Believer, may be one of the more wonderful practitioners of fiction of whom you may not have heard. Which is why I applaud his selection as National Book Award finalist for this book. These 11 stories affirm Michael Chabon’s claim that, “Reading Jim Shepard is like encountering our national literature in microcosm.”

» Read an excerpt from Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Poetry Speaks Expanded edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby
Book Digest This quasi-textbook and comprehensive anthology updates and expands the 2001 Poetry Speaks edition and includes three CDs of extraordinary readings by the major poetic voices of the last 100 years. If you are looking for an overview and primer to the variegated world of poetry, this book appears to be an accessible and useful guide.

» Listen to excerpts from Poetry Speaks Expanded

Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind by Paula Kamen
Book Digest Having spoken with Chang in 2003, it was of course a shock to read of her suicide the following year. Her work (The Rape of Nanking) touched people so deeply that I received email from around the world asking me for insights into this sad happenstance. Chang’s longtime friend Paula Kamen wondered about the disconnects and discontinuities between Chang’s life and her decision to kill herself. Part tribute, part investigation, we are shown a picture of the transformation of an introvert into a human-rights activist and speaker. All of which does not answer the unanswerable question.

Ghost by Alan Lightman
Book Digest Like many people, I deeply enjoyed Lightman’s first novel, Einstein’s Dreams, and that book has lead to my continued interest and enjoyment of his work. His new novel has one David K, a temporary mortuary worker, experiencing something scientifically inexplicable, and finding himself in the midst of a public controversy. The scientific/religious conflict over the existence of the supernatural is a natural and challenging theme for theoretical physicist Lightman to explore—which he does with his trademark light touch.

» Read an excerpt from Ghost

Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë by Maureen Adams
Book Digest As I number myself among the large population of the world’s canine lovers, I am occasionally delighted by an intelligent and well-told view of dog/human relations. One of the reasons I find Bark magazine especially appealing is that it presents a humane and useful body of information for “owners” and lovers. Psychologist Adams offers endearing accounts of Dickinson and her Newfie, Carlo; Browning and Flush, her golden cocker spaniel; Brontë’s mastiff mongrel, Keeper; Wharton and her Pekes; and Woolf and Pinka, her black cocker spaniel. One might even entertain the notion that these compact profiles offer as much about the writers as the large biographical tomes that are devoted to them.

» Read an excerpt from Shaggy Muses

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