Book Digest: September 11, 2006

Miss Kansas City; Creationists; New Stories From the South; William Christenberry; Red the Fiend; A Factual History of America; The Other Side of the Bridge

Publishers Weekly and The New York Times must have been too busy to note that Dandy Dan Wickett, founder of the Emerging Writers Network and the hardest working man in the book world (leading some observers to think there is more than one DD) and Steve Gillis, author and founder of 826michigan, are launching Dzanc Books, a not-for-profit literary venture. From the press release:
Dzanc Books is set up to operate exclusively for charitable, literary, and educational purposes. While Dzanc operates as a non-profit, our authors will receive full payment just as any for-profit house. More than anyone, Dan and Steve understand the needs of writers and Dzanc’s plan is to provide its authors with every means of support to make their work a success on a national scale. More about submitting can be found at
Good news, methinks.

Otherwise I have been indulging myself in watching and re-watching the fourth season of The Wire, which is pure genius and bravely takes on the seemingly insoluble problem of public schools and at-risk kids. The casting is great, the acting—especially the kids—is great. The writing continues to excel (one episode is credited to Richard Price) and the direction and sound editing is unworldly. As in the past I was sorry to come to the end of the 13 episodes—I can’t wait for season five.

Miss Kansas City by Joan Frank
How I came to this fine novel speaks of the roulette wheel that looms over many enterprises including, naturally, book publishing. While awaiting triple-A for a jumpstart for my well-worn ragtop, I reached into my backseat for reading material (having such at the ready is, of course, more important than jumper cables) and I came up with Miss Kansas City. Which as I read the first page, I was quickly excited by—so much so that I immediately contacted a large metropolitan newspaper’s book editor and offered to review this hitherto unknown author from a small academic press. To his credit he accepted immediately. My hope is that this is not the only review attention this book receives.

Northern Californian Joan Frank’s debut novel exhibits nimble and athletic prose in the story of two wounded individuals who find a way to save and redeem each other. Set in 1984’s Bay area during the time of stonewashed jeans, the hole in the ozone layer, and starving Africa also allows Frank some elbow room for her trenchant satiric streak. She describes one character’s business:
The store’s catalogue has gained notoriety, its language sonorous. Calm. To buy from Scallion was not only to make a statement but to appear—and this was crucial—to care not at all about making statements. An anti-statement statement. The cookware and dining sets would age softly like beloved leather. Their prices were stratospheric… The concept Gray explained was called “taught valuation”: You paid for a thing once, very highly, then you treasured it for life… Yet something in Alex could not imagine that at his center Gray really took all that marketing gabble seriously. Taught valuation. The phrase rang like another term she’d heard somewhere that scraped at her, made her irritable: learned helplessness. Taught valuation. If you focused on it, it poofed away like dust. Alex wondered whether a man like Gray could not at heart know that beneath all those words, he was simply selling things.
Anthony Doerr, my colleague here at this magazine, offers this: “With tender precision, Joan Frank engineers a lattice of delicate, interlacing relationships, like an armature of glass, then slowly compresses it so we can watch—and feel—it fracture. Miss Kansas City is that rare thing—a novel both compelling and beautifully made.”

Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006 by E.L. Doctorow
You don’t need me to trot out Edgar Doctorow’s credentials, but in case your memory has been ravaged by time and other elements, he has written The March, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, and The Waterworks. Oddly, despite claims that this form doesn’t sell and that form isn’t relevant to publishers, he continues to present us with these amazing, quirky little non-commercial books that go long distances in making up for their more egregious acts of crassness. In this case, Doctorow “repurposes” these previously published essays as ruminations on creativity, opining in this collection’s introduction, “We know by what we create.” The great fun here is not confined to Doctorow’s non-doctrinaire, non-academic head scratching on themes and subject literary but as much with whom he is thinking about—from pieces on Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament, not the band) and the mad poet Poe to what Melville might have been thinking as he wrote Moby Dick, to Harpo Marx and Albert Einstein and oddly (but not when you read this piece) the Atomic Bomb, these 16 pieces are joyfully inviting, not only into the worlds (for a moment or two) of great creators but into Doctorow’s vivid and merry imagination. By the way, the word “deconstruct” does not appear in this book once. And “trope” only once.

» Read an excerpt from Creationists

New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best, 2006 edited by Allan Gurganis
There remain a few annual anthologies that, year after year, deliver the goods: Best American Stories (which has a 90-year history), the O. Henry Prize anthology, and, though usually given scant attention, New Stories From the South, which was first produced two decades hence and since by Shannon Ravenel. The 2006 version is the first to employ the guest editorship device used by the other anthologies and—wonderfully—the premier edition is helmed by Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, White People, Plays Well With Others).

Needless to say, reading hundreds of stories is requisite for the necessary reduction to the 20 stories in this volume, which includes the likes of Tony Earley, Wendell Berry, Ben Fountain, George Singleton, Keith Lee Morris, Erin Brooks Worley, and J.D. Chapman. And it is a great joy to encounter Guganus’s opening remarks:
The South has for many years been whispered about as the backward Sibling of American regions. That’s gratitude for you! We know things We have seen much. But somehow, in the age of factoids and e-mail, we, overlooked, remain in possession of a choir of cross-raclal voices all dedicated to eloquent Telling at full blast.
William Christenberry with essays by Elizabeth Broun, Walter Hopps, Howard N. Fox, and Andy Grunberg
William Christenberry is a well-regarded artist in a number of media—primarily color photography—and happens to be a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington. This book of 160 images coincides with an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Christenberry is particularly fond of attending to his Southern roots and much of this book and exhibition have to do with his attention to Hale County, Ala., the region of his birth and upbringing.

» More about William Christenberry

Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino
No doubt Brooklyn-born Gilbert Sorrentino, who passed away in May 2006, will be an author who receives his due posthumously, though a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 is not to be expectorated at. The author of 30 books, he spent has writing career as an editor and later as a professor at Stanford University. Dalkey Archive continues its yeoman service to literature by publishing Red the Fiend (and 13 of his other works), a reiteration of Sorrentino’s well-received and award-nominated Aberration of Starlight. In it he explores the transmogrification of a boy into a monster—a not unfamiliar concern in this age of shattered families. As Gerald Howard asserts, “Red the Fiend is a discomfiting masterpiece, once read impossible to forget or shake off.”

A Factual History of America: With Huge Chunks Missing edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach
This odd and imaginative pastiche of fiction comprises original stories and artwork by Amy Bloom, Kate Bornstein, Neal Pollack, Darin Strauss, and Benjamin Weissman, to name but a few. In an interview at Small Spiral Notebook, T Cooper talks of the raison d’etre for the book:
The “truth” about what’s happening in these very scary times is being edited and chopped and re-mixed and spin-controlled practically before the events happen. So, we wanted to do a little re-mixing of our own of so-called American history, and we asked other fiction writers to give us original stories that tell alternate versions of history—the stuff that’s just as real as what appears in the history books. Maybe even more real.
» Read an excerpt from A Factual History of America

The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson
Canadian literature is more than Alice Munro and Michael Ondaajtee and this is a good time to redress our un-neighborly indifference about our friends to the north. Mary Lawson, known for her excellent debut novel Crow Lake, follows up with a new novel set in rural Ontario, and which spans the mid-1930’s through the ‘50s, and chronicles the intergenerational dissonance and internecine havoc in the small (and fictional) town of Struan. And: The Other Side of the Bridge is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. Amen to that.

» Read an excerpt from The Other Side of the Bridge

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