Book Digest: October 8, 2007

Robert Birnbaum on: Turpentine; The Terror Presidency; Blonde Faith; Coltrane: the Story of a Sound; Who Named the Knife; The Art of the American Snapshot; The Air We Breathe; McSweeney's Quarterly No. 24; Redemption Falls; Exit Ghost; The Rest Is Noise; The Toothpick; James Sturm's America

I have never thought myself better or smarter because of my love of reading—though I do tend to think that about others who read. But I am beginning to wonder what cultural litmus test we may need to gauge the intellectual acuity of our civilization. Watching the baseball postseason has made it impossible to avoid what I would call the stupidest and most disconnected idea yet: People magazine’s “Sexiest Fan Alive” contest. I don’t really know what it is, but happily—and I must say with great relief—my nine-year-old son thinks it’s “totally stupid.” On the other hand, some TV careerist is adding, no doubt with genuine pride, this concoction to their résumé. Holy smokes!

By the way, there are folks, some of them part of the American literary camp, who will continually complain that there is too much junk being published. Let me take this moment to reassure you (if that’s necessary) that there are more good books out there than either you or I could read in a lifetime. That’s good news, no?

Speaking of good news, The Believer No. 47 includes an interesting piece on Thomas McGuane—“The Late Style of Thomas McGuane” by Mark Kamine. Acknowledgement of McGuane being a rare commodity in American letters, I feel compelled to bring it to your attention.

Turpentine by Spring Warren
Book Digest Can I say I love these expansive stories of the 19th-century American West? Warren’s story gives us a Connecticut Yankee in 1871 who makes it out to Nebraska, becomes a buffalo skinner, and teams up with a female cigar roller and a 14-year-old coal miner. The oddball trio is falsely accused of an act of terrorism and havoc; a rollicking peregrination throughout the rapidly expanding nation ensues. Warren happily claims, “Stories of long-ago Wyoming and the stories that I’ve lived in the contemporary West are mirrors to the abiding questions we yet wonder over. They inform every word I write.”

» Read an excerpt from Turpentine

The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration by Jack L. Goldsmith
Book Digest Lawyer and Harvard law professor Goldsmith was appointed head of the Office of Legal Counsel in October 2003, his job being to advise the president on the legality of what he could and could not do. In so doing, he found the legal basis of various aspects of the war on terror were at best shaky—and for the most part precariously propped up. Which of course made him persona non grata at the White House. The story is not particularly news, but it does add to a growing and substantial bibliography of the administration’s depredations and high crimes.

Blonde Faith by Walter Mosley
Book Digest Mosley pumps out his 10th title in the Los Angeles-set Easy Rawlins series, which began just after World War II and has now reached the late ‘60s, Vietnam, and the Watts riots. As this series and other numerous titles exhibit, Mosley is a skillful writer and an ardent crusader. In many ways he has avoided the pitfalls of predictability that mar long-running detective characters, making the Rawlins novels eminently readable. Even so, Mosley claims this is probably the last of the series.

» Read an excerpt from Blonde Faith

Coltrane: the Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff
Book Digest I am not greatly interested in musician biographies except in the form of a non-hagiography that places the subject in a cultural context and makes his musical contribution clearly understandable, all of which New York Times jazz critic Ratliff does for Coltrane. I don’t understand why Charlie Parker, who was undoubtedly great, engendered a cult, but Coltrane, who was equally as transformative and innovative, seems known only to scholars and serious listeners. Maybe this book will change that.

» Read an excerpt from Coltrane

Who Named the Knife: A Book of Murder and Memory by Linda Spalding
Book Digest In Hawaii in 1982, Spalding served on the jury in the case of Maryann and William, a honeymooning couple who were accused of robbery and murder. Spalding, however, was dismissed from the jury on the final day of the trial, which culminates in Maryann’s conviction based on William’s testimony. Eighteen years later, Spalding reconnects with Maryann, who is still in jail, and thereupon reexamines her earlier view of the case, as well as mysteries in her own family history.

» Read an excerpt from Who Named the Knife

The Art of the American Snapshot: 1888-1978 by Sarah Greenough & Diane Waggoner With Sarah Kennel & Matthew S. Witkovsky
Book Digest Even before the discussion of art expanded to include things like snapshots, Michael Lesy’s singular Wisconsin Death Trip made a strong case for serious consideration of photos as art. Greenough, curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, assembled the museum exhibition. This catalogue—which contains more than 200 images—reproduces the exhibit’s content vividly and faithfully.

The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
Book Digest I admit to being a fan of Barrett (The Voyage of the Narwhal and Servants of the Map), otherwise I could not fully explain the fact that I found riveting reading in the glacial, daily routines of a group of indigent consumptives sequestered in an upstate New York sanitarium on the eve of World War I. There are the various real-world facts Barrett includes—theories on tuberculosis cure, early X-ray technology, paleontology—that makes scientific investigation seem if not palatable, then at least accessible.

McSweeney’s Quarterly No. 24
Book Digest I used to take pride in the fact that my best investment ever was my 1998 purchase of a lifetime subscription to McSweeney’s for $100. I am now rethinking this—and not because of any defect or lack in McSweeney’s, each issue is a delight—as the financial realities of a life in literature keep biting me in the posterior and elsewhere. This new issue is devoted to Donald Barthelme, with Ann Beattie, David Gates, and Oscar Hijuelos weighing in on his legacy. There is also an excerpt from nonogenerian screenwriter Millard Kaufman’s debut novel A Bowl of Cherries. By the way, I even have the very rare first issue of McSweeney’s signed by Eggers. Perhaps someday my son will be able to buy some groceries with that.

Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor
Book Digest Star of the Sea—which included Charles Dickens as a character—introduced O’Connor to the American reader. His latest opus, set in antebellum America, is unabashedly Dickensian in range and tone—O’Connor gives us a cast of full-blooded characters. As his countryman Colum McCann opines:
It’s a glorious book, enormous, virtuoso, and brave. Its scope is wide—love, death, war, belonging—and yet its gaze is intimate…One can’t dismiss the genius that’s involved in being able to tell such necessary stories in a time of war and still be able to beat back all the clichés.
» Read an excerpt from Redemption Falls

Exit Ghost by Phillip Roth
Book Digest I am a late convert to the potency of Roth’s writing, but I now view each instance of his prolific output to be a important publishing event. It is amusing to see writers and reviewers—whose best words will not equal Roth’s throwaways—review his work. Which is not to say Roth deserves a free pass, but certainly he is worthy of treatment void of literary politics. In his latest, Roth revisits Nathan Zuckerman, who returns to New York City some 11 years later, to its post-Sept. 11 incarnation.

By the way, the Library of America has published the second of four volumes of Roth’s collected works, including When She Was Good, Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, and The Breast.

» Read an excerpt from Exit Ghost

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross
Book Digest As I suggested above, reading about music is not one of my favorite activities; however, my TMN colleague, omnivore Rosecrans Baldwin, recently enthused over New Yorker music critic Ross’s new book on modern music. Ross’s New Yorker colleague Louis Menand offers this:
Alex Ross has produced an introduction to twentieth-century music that is also an absorbing story of personalities and events that is also a history of modern cultural forms and styles that is also a study of social, political, and technological change. The Rest Is Noise is cultural history the way cultural history should be written: a single strong narrative operating on many levels at once. What more do you want from a book? That it be intelligently, artfully, and lucidly written? It’s those things, too.
» Read an excerpt from The Rest Is Noise

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture by Henry Petroski
Book Digest Duke University mentor Petroski, who has made a career out of writing elegant books on unlikely subjects—The Book on the Bookshelf, The Pencil, Small Things Considered: Why There is No Perfect Design—uses his curiosity and refined design sense to unpack the peculiar history of this simple utensil, showcasing a collection of odd and amusing anecdotes that he frequently reminds us are lessons “in discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary.” If you ever thought reading a book on toothpicks was a highly unlikely prospect, Petroski’s writing and thinking does much to buck the odds.

James Sturm’s America: God, Gold, and Golems by James Sturm
Book Digest A religious revival in Cane Ridge, Ky. (1801); Solomon’s Gulch, Idaho, a dying mining town (1886); a barnstorming Jewish baseball team in the early 1920s—all allow Vermont artist Sturm to render American history in an evocative and impressive way. You haven’t seen America portrayed like this before, and to say it’s eye-opening and mind-blowing is faint praise.

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from James Sturm’s America

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